It’s been strange and horrifying to see my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota featured in so many news stories about the Coronavirus pandemic. The following narrative describes my experience working at the now-shuttered Smithfield meatpacking plant. The facility formally known as John Morrell’s has been in operation since 1911 and was acquired by Smithfield in 1995, just before I began my brief employment. Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia, was purchased in 2013 by a Chinese corporation for 4.72 billion dollars. History is full of ironies and life is not always better with bacon.
They called the new hires “copper-tops” owing to the color of our hardhats. The government meat inspectors wore red. They wandered around and picked through the bins of meat with a hook. Mostly though, they just sat in the office drinking coffee with the supervisors. I envied the job of the inspectors, but I didn’t want to get sucked into spending the rest of my life there. I had an English degree, but didn’t mention it on my job application because, in a place like that, what room was there for Shakespeare? The guy doing the interviews didn’t even want to hire me because I was too well dressed.
The plant was divided into two sides: hot and cold. If they had assigned me to the hot side, I would have quit right away. Without question that stench of shit, blood and steam wasn’t for me. I could never have withstood the terrified screams of those hogs as they were prodded off the semis to be electrocuted.
If you visit the city’s namesake waterfall, you can see the John Morrell Meatpacking Plant just to the right of the penitentiary on the hill–a grim block of concrete enclosed by a high fence and guard shacks. The description of it now seems so much like a concentration camp. On the building’s left side, you see an enclosed shaft that angles to the top floor. The whole plant runs on gravity–the hogs falling to the next level of slaughter, smaller and smaller until they are something neat and packaged, ready for shipment on refrigerated trailers. Upon death, the hogs are chained and ascend like bloated angels up to that eighth floor where they begin the process of resurrection.
After completing my training, I was assigned to an area called “green grade.” I was lucky to land there. It was a safe place for me and I never left even when I got sick of it. I spent the most time in a position called “belly grader.” Clutching hooks and knives in our chainmail gloves, we stood like samurai warriors awaiting battle. You pulled a passing belly onto your cutting board, trimmed off the edges and then slung it into a vat by weight. When a vat filled, a forklift driver took it away and replaced it with another. We went at it all day. My shoulders got big even though I barely ate. The pop machines in the cafeterias served only fountain drinks. No one was permitted to bring in cans or bottles because someone had flushed them down the toilet to block up the plumbing. One day I arrived to find the pop machines had been wrapped in caution tape. It turned out that cockroaches had been living inside them licking up the sugar.
I only felt human on my day off. I shared an apartment with my mother. I had returned home in failure a year after college, months behind in rent and defaulted on all my school loans. I had no idea how to live in the world, so depressed and fraught with anxiety that the simplest things proved impossible. The meatpacking plant was my purgatory. I vowed to no longer fuck up. I would work there long enough to pay things off, then I would save up enough to move to Oregon. I longed to leave the dull plains behind, cross the mountains and start over.
In my working hours, I watched an Ethiopian woman who picked up hams that fell on the floor. She was quite lovely–hair in a tight bun under her hardhat with skin the color of roasted coffee. Whenever I gazed at her I thought of that Dylan lyric, “what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” There was a heart painted onto the brick façade of the building, but it was no place for love.
We used to call each other “easy money.” It was a form of greeting, an expression of respect that somehow lessened the burden because it was, after all, a shared struggle. Sometimes it was the only common language we had between us. There truly is a brotherhood that exists whether a union is formed or not, for only a worker knows another worker’s hardship. I grew up in the Eighties and can remember the great meatpacking strike. I remember families losing their homes, pig parts strewn on the front lawns of the bosses. It seemed to my boyhood eye like a civil war. It was a war the workers lost and all anyone could say when it was over was that no one should have lost their job to a sympathy strike.
On my line, we worked it out among ourselves that if there were six belly-graders on the line, then the sixth man would pull every sixth belly, the fifth man every fifth and so on. One day I happened to be the only one to show up for work. I took my place in “the hole” where the bellies quickly overwhelmed me, piling up until they began to fall on the floor. The supervisor looked at me and we just exchanged a laugh before he ran off to get some help.
As is always true in life, there was a shirker. His name was Ivo. He was always taking too much time steeling his knife. We offered warnings, but he just waved his blade at us contemptuously. Finally, we had enough. When his turn in “the hole” came, we all stopped working until the bellies were over his head. He cursed at us as we steeled our own knives in mockery.
So much caged masculinity. Making my way through the locker room before my shift, workers would be furiously conditioning their steels with sandpaper like masturbating monkeys. “You know you love my dick,” a short, pony-tailed man named Marvin would declare every time he strutted by our line, a lascivious grin spread between his mustache and soul patch.
There was a young, African immigrant named Captain who regarded the plant as a monster with pig appendages flying from its jaws. There was something noble and beautiful about him that seemed easily destructible. He acted like he was too good for the place and a lot of us resented him for it. He became angry at Marvin for discussing cunnilingus, telling him he had a dirty mouth. This only egged everyone on of course. He left not long after that.
I got to know a homeless man who was on light-duty, laying the pig skins flat in a vat with a hook. He was about my father’s age, a quiet wisp of a man who carried his life’s possessions in a small duffel. I gave him a ride to the mission on my way home for a while. He was perpetually worried about getting jumped. He was saving to get a place and probably had a good-sized roll. I doubt he had a bank account. The tendons in his forearms had been ripped to shreds by a two-handled de-ribbing knife. When he had been interviewed, they told him the homeless guys never made it. Sure enough, he saved up enough to get an apartment downtown, and within a week, he was drunk again and stopped coming to work.
John Morrell’s was an infernal maze of low-ceiling caverns and darkened stairwells. I always entered and exited the same way so as not to get lost, forever vigilant of the forklift drivers who skidded around corners at ridiculous speeds. They were all rumored to be on meth. I was working beside this kid on the ham line one day who looked like he might pass out. He came back so refreshed from a bathroom break that I just took a step back and let him handle the line by himself. We exchanged a smile and I had little doubt as to his secret.
I remember a bathroom stall with a door covered in graffiti—giant cocks and a woman spread-eagled, a knot in the wood becoming her vagina, phrases of bravado and perversion. You couldn’t help but stare as you sat on the toilet. It really belonged in some anthropology museum.
The months went by, the paychecks cashed. The longer I worked there the more I hated it. We handled knives sharper than you can imagine, working faster than you can imagine. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the fingers of my hook hand cramped so tightly that I could only pry them straight with my other hand.
After fourteen months, I was caught up on my debts with a decent-running car and a few thousand left over in the bank. I said goodbye to my mother and headed west, feeling crazy levels of anxiety like I was plunging into some abyss. I listened to Californication by the Red-Hot Chili Peppers the whole way. I slept in the car behind a café somewhere in Wyoming, awakened by the whistle and clatter of a train thundering past. I remember the vertiginous elation of seeing the Rockies for the first time, appearing like a cloudbank in the distance. I stayed in some cramped motel room with Pepto-Bismol colored walls overlooking the Snake River gorge. Passing through Bend: a cabin I should have rented, the deer crossing the highway and disappearing into the emerald forest that came right up to the road. The Sisters Mountains loomed over me, snow still on them. I should have stopped, but I kept going. It never quit raining the whole time I was in Eugene. I decided I was making a mistake and that I should head back home. Returning through Bend, I picked up a hitchhiker who had run out of gas. He noted the stacks of books piled up on my back seat and we talked Kerouac. He was at work on some interminable historical novel. He claimed the stuff just poured out of him, dead Russians chattering in his head from the past lives he had lived. He invited me to stay with him until I got on my feet. He said he lived with a lesbian couple. I politely demurred, my mind already made up.
I went back home, but I never set foot back inside the pig palace. I progressed along on my ordinary life. It took a long time, but I found my way. Although sometimes I wonder what would have become of me if I had taken that fork in the road. I think about Bend, that cabin in the woods, those deer, that emerald forest and looming mountains. That place called oblivion.