John Wooding: Respecting the Tough Jobs

Blood on the Tracks

By John Wooding

The world is hurting. Tens of thousands are sick and too many have died. We are confronting a catastrophe, and there are few causes for optimism. In all of this, however, there are some small sparks of hope, one of which is our realization of the importance of ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs. We have found a new respect for the doctors, nurses, and EMTs, and for the folks who drive the trucks that bring food to the store.  We see the clerks who work check-out and know that without the farmers and warehouse personnel, bus drivers, and maintenance workers, what is now almost unbearable would quickly be impossible.

This appreciation prompted a story about a job I once had many decades ago. Working as a meat porter, fresh out of high school, made me truly recognize what work is like for most people. Many folks do dirty and tedious jobs that threaten their health, and, in the shadow of the current pandemic, we understand that these are the people who matter. When you read this tale, it is worth remembering how tough many jobs are.

 Swift and Company, Meat Wholesalers

Mondays were the worst. I had to be at the depot by 6 a.m. Half-asleep and walking through the quiet town in the morning dark, silent enough that you could hear the clicks as the traffic lights changed from red to green and back again. It seemed like it was always raining. Others were on their way to work, too: the cleaning ladies, hospital workers, milkmen in their carts, and the first shift at the local machine shop. Some were on foot, others on the top deck of the early-run buses, morning paper shielding them from the world. At that time of day, the working class owns the streets.

Swift and Company, meat wholesalers, was in the back of one of Northampton’s major town squares, hiding behind the cinema on one side and a pub on the other. A passageway, just big enough to back a truck into, led to a yard with a big cold store on one side and the Swift’s building on the other. I’d get there first thing, sleepy, raw, and dreading the day. Dave and George would be outside. Dave had the key to the old padlock that secured the massive sliding door. I thought of it as the gate to hell. He’d open up, and we would walk through the silent hall to the back room where we kept our coveralls and the teapot that sat on top of the toilet cistern. A little electric heater kept the kettle company. It never made much difference on the winter mornings.

Dave was sort-of a salesman in training. He’d been at Swift’s for a couple of years. Slight of build and always in motion, Dave smoked his cigarettes like each one was his last, flicking his stub further than anyone I ever knew. Looking back, I realize he was probably only a couple of years older than me, but he fostered a know-it-all persona that made him seem a grown-up. After a few months working there, I realized that he was involved in some creative enterprises that probably weren’t exactly legal. The other meat porter was George, and he and I were the grunts. George, from Malta, was stocky and reliable, with vibrant olive-colored skin and tight curly black hair. He was, maybe, forty? Best described by an expression, one I learnt much later in America, he looked like a fireplug. This was especially evident when we struggled into our white coveralls (we called ‘em boiler suits.). George would get into his suit and to do up the buttons as they fought back, trying to control the remarkably vast real estate of his belly. Being from Malta, George liked to make a joke about being a “Malteser,” then a popular candy in the UK made of little balls of chocolate-covered malted something or other. He used to say, “The wife likes to suck them.” The joke got old after a few months. But he was the genial type and continually making a joke or busying himself doing something obscene with the oxtails that used to come in on the truck. One day he brought in some parmesan cheese his missus had packed for him. He gave me a piece. I never knew something could taste that good. Brought up on Kraft cheese slices, good Italian cheese was a revelation for me.

So those Mondays were tough. As the sun came up, Dave would put the kettle on in the backroom, basically the toilet, which was right across from the office. Calling it an office was stretching it as it was just a glass partition at the back of the main room. It looked out onto the place where the meat hung, a room roughly 50 x 50 whose main feature was a continuous cast iron track that snaked back and forth, in a series of loops, across the ceiling. The track was old and had probably been there since the war, the first one. The hooks that held the meat carcasses hung down from it on casters that ran the track, waiting for passengers. The rest of the room was empty, and cavernous until the quarters of beef filled it up.

After the tea was brewed, we’d spread sawdust on the floor from a bin by the wall, getting it ready to soak up the blood and the fat. That job done, George, Dave, and I would wait at the entrance for the truck from the slaughterhouse, mugs of tea in one hand, second cigarette of the day in the other. When the truck backed in, we would get to work. We opened the truck gate, pulled out the ramp, and waited for the driver to push the beef quarters to the rear door so we could carry them to the hooks hanging from the track. This is what we did. Like many unskilled workers, we basically moved things from one place to another. But these were big things: whole cows, eviscerated, with heads and feet removed and cut into quarters—fore and hind.

The forequarters weighed in at about 200 pounds, the hindquarters anywhere from 180 to 250. Heavy bastards. The forequarters I hated. You swung them up on your shoulder, balancing them by holding the leg with your arm, with most of the weight pressing against your neck, and walk them to the hooks. Having staggered to position under the track, Dave would hold the long hooks from the rail steady, and we’d swing the forequarter down and forward, to be impaled. The hooks made a sound like death as it punctured the flesh. After carrying only a couple of these, my hair, long at the time, was quickly clogged with grease and blood. The meat pressed against your face like some cold lover.

The hindquarters were a bit easier, except for walking down the ramp with them. Lose your balance, and you would be on the ground is a flash with 200 pounds of a former cow on top of you. Once we got them off the truck, we tipped the carcasses forward, lining them up under the track and pushing the rear half up in the air. As the hindquarter got towards the vertical, Dave would, with well-practiced ease, slip the hook through the expose tendon, between what remained of the ankle and the leg. Each of us would bring in maybe two dozen of these.

And then there were the pigs. These came whole with skin on, but eviscerated, with their heads in place. The pigs were slippery, and the skin felt and looked human. And they had faces. We would balance then upside down on our shoulders and march them down the ramp, and they, too, would be hooked to the overhead track. This whole task took anywhere from an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

Beef hanging in a much cleaner and modern place than Swift’s depot.

This was exhausting and filthy work. It took me months to get confident that I could carry that kind of weight, and I dropped more than my share of hindquarters in the first weeks on the job. George never dropped them, but when I did, and he would come and help. He was a good guy.

Once the truck was empty, we would make another cuppa. Then, around nine o’clock, Andy, the senior salesman, would arrive. Long-limbed and a former army guy, he was quiet and patient. I liked him, though Andy never said much. In a rare moment, he told me he had served in Cyprus with the UN Peacekeepers during the civil war and had been stationed in Germany in the 60s. He said Cyprus was a shit-show. Now all I remember of him is his silence.

A little later still, the boss, Mr. Steward, (it was always “mister”) would come in. I knew he was classier than the rest of us because he read the Financial Times and wore a tie. After a gruff “Morning” all-round, he headed for the office and started doing the books, or phoning, looking for deals on meat and arranging sales. The boss was gaunt and tall, and he wore those half-round reading glasses you don’t see much of anymore. He always had a cigarette dangling from his lip as he read the Times or went over the books. I didn’t have a lot to do with him, ‘though he was decent enough. Much later, after I had been working there for quite a while, he caught me reading Joyce’s collection of short stories The Dubliners. He decided I was perhaps not what I appeared. He was a bit chattier with me after that. I still haven’t finished the book.

After the unloading, George, Dave, and I would set to—trimming fat, removing the suet, and splitting the pigs. We worked our way around the hindquarters, cleaning them up and making sure they were spaced well and suitable for presentation. Dead meat, ready for the runway and assessment by the customers. Removing the suet was a grotesque operation. When I started work there, I didn’t have a clue what suet was. My Mum, like all mums, made suet pudding, and I had eaten it many the time. But eating suet pudding at the dinner table was a whole long way from cutting out a 40-pound, torpedo-shaped lump of fat from the carcass of a former cow.

I quickly learned that the suet was home to the kidneys (much prized, think steak and kidney pudding.). I would slice it open and extract what looked, for all the world, like a collection of big brown marbles nestled together and covered in piss. I never want to do that for a living again.

Lambs to the Slaughter

Every other Tuesday, the lamb truck would pull in. We would spend a couple of hours unloading frozen lamb carcasses, each weighing about 40 pounds. These were all New Zealand lambs, and I figured this out because they had “Product of New Zealand” stamped in purple dye on their sides. The lambs were a piece of cake compared to the beef, but dropping one on your toe still hurt like hell. George could carry six at a time on his shoulders, but I never got that good or that strong. I could manage two, and I’d walk them over to the big cold store across the yard, put them in a pile, and went back and did it again. Maybe fifty times in all. In the winter months, it was miserable being in there, frozen lambs on frozen hands, and the dark, musty smell of freezer burn everywhere.

And all of this was explicitly man’s work. I hardly ever saw a woman and certainly never at the depot, the slaughterhouse, or the butcher’s shop. As a result, there was lot swearing, scatological jokes, constant insults, obscene comments, and leg-pulling. The latter was mainly aimed at the new guy, moi. During my first few weeks, I was frequently asked to pick up a can of elbow grease or go fetch the “air-hook” from the storage room. It is the way of men working in a degrading job; it is also how you deal with the dangers and the boredom of this kind of work. Mostly, this kind of joshing was the initiation rite.

The afternoons early in the week would see butchers coming in to pick out their meat. Dave and Andy would make deals and then pin the name of the butcher on the carcass they had sold. This readied them for me to deliver butchers’ shops around Northampton, and was the best part of what was a pretty awful job. I would load the van with hindquarters, pigs, boxed kidneys, a few frozen lambs, and head out to the countryside. The trips took me to the many small villages surrounding the town and to all those quaint places now immortalized in the idyllic settings of BBC TV imports available on PBS. Driving between villages was a joy, but getting the bloody hindquarters out of the van and into the butcher’s cold store was often really hard. I usually had no help and carrying the damn things through narrow doors and up steps was a trial. I remember one time getting stuck with a hindquarter on my shoulder. It was close to twice my body weight, and I was unable to lift both of us up the two steps into the butcher’s fridge. My legs just quit. I got stuck, and the shop owner had to come and give me a hand. I still feel the humiliation. But I never complained, as my 18-year-old male ego was deeply tied up with being manly and able to lift ridiculously heavy things. I was, of course, immortal. One upside of bringing stuff to the shops was that often the butchers would give me a tip: money occasionally and, usually, sausages or a pork pie. I would give those to my sister or take them to my Mum.

The worst days other than Mondays? The visits to the slaughterhouse outside of town when I had to pick up a special order. You could smell the place from a mile away. The first time was hard, seeing the cows waiting for slaughter and trapped in the chute that led to the killing fields. One of the workers showed me how they held the cows and placed a pneumatic bolt gun to their heads, driving the bolt into the brain. It was meant to be an instantaneous death, but it sure didn’t look that way to me. I watched this a couple of times. That was enough. I doubt they do it that way now, kind of labor-intensive. Frankly, it was horrific. It was bad enough for the animals, but for the workers is was pretty grim: they were awash in blood and entrails, and there was shit and piss everywhere. These are the things you wish you had never seen. At least, back at the depot, I could sometimes forget that the stuff I carried were once living creatures. That was never possible at the slaughterhouse

Getting out and Moving Up

I had this job for close to a year. In the last couple of months of high school, I had moved into a flat with my girlfriend on the second floor of a little terraced house in an old, working-class district, barely half a mile from the depot. Being a meat porter paid the rent.

Looking back on it, being shacked-up with your girlfriend while still in school was an unusual and slightly scandalous thing to have done, especially back in 1971. The flat became a refuge for my mates and for us. We’d hang out there listening to Lennon’s Imagine, and Carole King’s Tapestry. Endlessly. My girlfriend was obsessed with the album. It was only years later I once again appreciated King’s talent. On Friday evenings, we would all gather in the Fish; on Saturdays, we moved to the Swann. Both old pubs, probably long gone.

We were a core group five who, for god knows what reason, had pledged never to go to college. Probably we wanted to be working-class heroes and relish our contempt for the ambitious middle-class kids who we hated at school. We drank pints and tried to be witty and cutting and contemptuous of everything. One of my mates worked in a newspaper warehouse, another had a job as a porter in the local hospital, another worked for the employment agency Manpower. Working there, he did pretty much everything that you didn’t need a degree for. My girlfriend worked in a shop. But the pledge to not go to college, and be true to our working-class roots, collapsed in the face of the miserable jobs and the lack of opportunity. I had the exam grades to get into university and I quit being a meat porter, moving to London with my girlfriend in the fall of 1972. First in my family to go to college.  Another mate went to art school. We all sort-of moved on. Some of us, at least, had a way out.

But not folks like George or Dave. Humping meat was a livelihood for them. Or some other job where you moved stuff around and don’t get paid much for doing it. They didn’t have the choices I had. Many millions of workers still do this work with little or no choice. It is often filthy, degrading, and dangerous. While I doubt that a modern American meat processing plant is quite as Victorian as the Swift and Company Depot, they are places of death and disease for the animals, and for the mostly immigrant workers who labor there. So, next time you buy a neatly wrapped, sanitized piece of beef think about who suffered to get that meat on your table.  We have a lot on our plates right now and you know now why it is not on mine.