After I graduated from high school, and after all the cap-throwing and after-grad partying was finished (about 3 days later), my parents decided that I needed a summer job. After all, I’d be heading off to university in the fall; it wasn’t unreasonable to expect me to make a financial contribution. I had a student loan and my parents were chipping in what they could, but they were right when they said I needed to earn some money of my own.
Apparently my babysitting career was not adequate to the task, and so my parents announced that they had done me the marvelous favour of finding me a job. A real job. A job in a chicken processing plant.
So much for the wonderful freedom of adulthood.
To be fair, I doubt my mother realized exactly what the job would entail when she found it for me, and I never held the awfulness of it against her. Just sayin’ so there aren’t any hurt feelings, okay? Anyway, there were to be no lazy summer days for me! No sipping tea and yakking on the phone with Sally, no taking off for the lake. Nope! The summer between high school graduation and first year university was to be spent pulling the heads off dead chickens.
Now, what does one wear to work in a chicken processing plant? And what exactly is a chicken processing plant, anyway? I had absolutely no idea, so I dressed fairly nicely in a new pair of bell-bottom jeans (it was 1979) and a peasant blouse. I think it was rust and orange, and it had little ties at the neck with bells on the ends. And embroidery. I do recall it had some embroidery on it. Because, you know, it was a job! A real, grown-up job.
When I got there, I was led into a room containing several long tables and lockers – the staff lounge, apparently. Not only did I have a real, grown up job, I had a job with a staff lounge! How bad could it be? There, I was issued a largish white apron and a hair net. Suitably outfitted, I was escorted across a muddy parking lot to the plant.
Just as we reached the plant, a large truck drove up to the far end of the building. A truck full of…chickens. Live chickens packed neck to claw in boxes, so tightly together that the truck literally bristled, like a giant chicken pincushion. I don’t know what my face looked like, but I expect I must have looked very alarmed, because the manager – a man – assured me that I would not be killing the chickens myself. Someone else did that part.
And so we went into the part of the plant where I would be working. to my horror, I was given the job of tossing the headless, featherless, dead-but-still-warm bodies into a giant dumpster of ice.
The room was set up in an assembly line. At the far right-hand side of the room, an overhead belt of dangling meat hooks emerged from a wall of hanging plastic strips, circled the room, and disappeared back into the wall again; an endless twirling loop. Chickens were unloaded from the truck, killed (I don’t know how), then gaffed (or whatever you call it – my memory is a bit selective) and sent through some sort of furnace where the feathers were burned off. When they emerged onto my side of the plastic strip wall, they were met by a small army of immigrant workers who performed a variety of indignities upon the corpses. When the poor birds finally arrived at my station, they’d been gutted, de-feathered and were sans head. All I had to do was take them down and toss them into the dumpster.
Pretty simple, right?
Anyway, I wasn’t fast enough, and chickens were whizzing past my head and returning back through the plastic curtain faster than I could snag them down. (Years later, a bellydance teacher taught us how to swoop our veils by imagining that were plucking potato chips off of an overhead line, dipping them in yummy sour cream and chive dip and then putting them back on the overhead line. She called it the chips & dip maneuver, and it was a useful metaphor for most people. When I taught it to my own students, I never mentioned the chickens.) Anyway, I probably managed two out of three, but it wasn’t good enough. After a while, one of the immigrant workers came and got me, much to my relief. Maybe I’d be sent in to do office work, instead. After all, I’d gotten an A in typing, could manage an electronic typewriter like the best of them. I could file, too – in alphabetical order and by subject.
But no such luck. She led me to the front of the line, where the chickens were emerging, fresh from the feather-burner-thingy. She handed me a knife and then demonstrated with a quick flick of her wrist how I was to slice a circle through the skin, all around the neck. Sort of a garrote, I guess. I actually don’t remember even trying, I was so horrified just by the experience of being in the room at all. This is what a chicken processing plant was? I’d had no idea. I must have proved completely inept at chicken-garroting, because she gave up and led me down the line a bit further. Here, I was shown how to grasp the skin above the cut, and then…pull the head right off. It came off inside out when she did it. She must have thought that part of the job was easier, I don’t know.
Now, she didn’t actually explain anything to me in words that I could understand. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak whatever language she spoke. She demonstrated and then expected me to repeat the action. I stood there in front of the chicken dangling on its hook and I understood exactly I was supposed to do. I did! And I couldn’t do it.
I was a good girl, and this job felt like such an awful punishment to me. It wasn’t that I thought I was better or more special than those immigrant women I was working beside, not at all. I was just a very naive 17 year-old girl who hadn’t even known where chicken in the grocery store came from. What can I say?
Being pretty much useless at everything else, I was eventually sent back to tossing the corpses into the dumpster of ice.
Back then I was a pretty militant born-again Christian. You know the girls with long flowy hair that used to raise up their hands and sing Kumbaya O Lord in public parks? The ones always pushing pamphlets into your hand when all you wanted to do was get to your bus stop? Yeah, that was me. So there I was, tears soaking my pretty blouse under my by now not-so-clean white apron, keeping it all together by sheer willpower and by reciting the Lord’s Prayer under my breath the entire time. I think I got my chicken count up to 2 per recitation. Pretty good, actually.
After what felt like forever, it was time for lunch, and I followed the women outside and across the muddy parking lot to the staff lounge break room. The women sat in groups, drinking coffee, eating food from paper sacks, having a smoke. They looked at me out of the corners of their eyes and laughed. I took off my apron and hung it on a hook. Then I went into the office, and with all the dignity I could muster, I quit.
I drove my mother’s car to the mall where I hung out until it was time to go home. I knew I was going to get into big trouble, and I did. But later on I found a babysitting job. I earned $850 that summer, which was about one semester’s tuition, so it was all okay in the end.
Those 4 hours changed me. I’m not a vegetarian, though I’ve dabbled at it. I don’t eat a lot of flesh, and I don’t eat pork at all because pigs are too freakin’ smart for me to feel comfortable eating one. I have a tremendous amount of respect for life and the lives of the animals that are raised and slaughtered to feed us. I also have a great respect for migrant workers and those who do the jobs nobody else wants to do.
I don’t know what possessed me to write this story today, but there you go. What was the worst job you ever did? And did you end up a better person because of it?