Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Ox

We saw this year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts today, and they were interesting but offered a rather bleak window on the world, one that was difficult to gaze out of at times. Probably the hardest one for me was The Reaper about a Mexican meat packer. Most of the 32 minute film is a graphic account of his job at the slaughter house.

My brother and I sat side by side, and I knew what he was thinking as we watched, because I was thinking the same thing. In the summer of 1979 we visited a high school friend of ours who lived outside of Chicago, and her dad thought it would be good for us to tour the slaughterhouse where he was a USDA inspector. The plant in the movie was a lot like the one we visited 35 years ago.

I've written about the experience before. Here is an excerpt from my piece:

Heat shimmered up from the asphalt parking lot surrounding the urban corral, and the smell of livestock and some other thick odor was suffocating. The August mid-morning sun reflected off the windshield of one of the cars, hitting me dead in the eyes. I turned my head to avoid the glare and saw a hundred head of terrified cattle standing hock-deep in piss and mud. Two men in filthy t-shirts and waders prodded the cows forward toward what appeared to be a double stall. Another man with big orange headphones under his ball cap stood in front of the cows, just outside the two-pen, holding a broomstick with a shiny metal cylinder at the end. He raised it surely, touching the end of it to a spot on the first cow’s forehead, right between its eyes. There was a small bang, and the cow fell dead in its stall. He shot the next one, and the whole pen rotated like a giant wheel with four spokes, dropping the two dead cows beneath, and opening two vacant stalls for the next in line.

“Did you see that?” our host exclaimed. “Now that’s efficiency! Your Pepsi generation could learn a thing or two there, eh?” I grimaced and nodded politely, but with a shrug. I looked over at my friend, Renata; she avoided making eye contact. “Let’s go inside,” her father continued, holding the huge silver door to the slaughterhouse open with a flourish and a bow.

Shouldering my way through the long plastic streamers that insulated the entryway, the first thing I noticed as I crossed the threshold was the visible vapor of my breath. My heart leapt as if it were the first cold day in winter, and the crispness of the refrigerated air made it seem much cleaner. I felt wide-awake and free of the fetid stockyard that we’d left behind. As Dr. P. signed us in, there was a lot of hearty laughter and backslapping, and I knew right away that we were VIPs— guests of the USDA meat inspector. As we stood waiting for our tour to begin, the death of the cows outside played over in my mind in a slow-mo loop. They were upset; their sides twitched and their necks twisted; their eyes rolled back white in their heads, and then they were dead, and more scared cows took their places.

We saw the rest of the meatpacking plant in the next couple of hours. It wasn’t long before the welcome cool of the place turned dank. We started at the bottom, near the conveyer belt where the cows dropped. A rubber-coated worker clipped their tails to a hook on a wire that lifted them so that they floated along upside-down, suspended from a winding industrial track overhead. They barely paused at the first station, pirouetting gently as a man beheaded them with power saw, letting the heads drop onto a belt that whisked them away in another direction. Zip, zip, zip, zip—four hooves and hocks removed and tossed into a plastic lined dumpster. Next stop was a quick slit down the gut, and hundreds of pounds of entrails sloshed to the belt below, where off they were carried, as well.

Chilled now, we walked along rubber mats over floors of slick concrete with lots of drains. There were hoses on each wall, sluiceways beneath the belts, and pools of bright blood everywhere. The cows, most black, but some a rusty auburn and white, swayed along beside us matching our pace before jerking to a stop and being seized at the shoulders by two robotic arms with clamps for hands; they pulled the hides off the animals like a sweater from a sleepy child. Fortunately, the clatter of the disassembly line covered whatever sound that that procedure makes. In fact, it was too noisy to talk, and that was a good thing, too.

Once gutted and skinned, the headless carcass was quickly quartered and was soon even recognizable as cuts of meat from the grocery store. Dr. P. pulled a blue stamp from the pocket of his pristine white lab coat, and a small group of employees smiled proudly as he ceremoniously thumped it down on the deconstructed rump of what had been a live animal no more than an hour ago. “USDA Prime!” he exclaimed to our applause.

In the back seat on the way home I noticed that the cuffs of my new Osh Kosh b'Gosh overalls were damp. A thin ribbon of blood soaked the sharp edge of blue and white pinstripes. It never washed out.

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