I was on top of the world in the Spring of 1987: hot girlfriend, sweet 280ZX, plum gig at Taco Bell (including the coveted 8:00 AM – 1:00 PM shifts on Sat/Sun), about to graduate high school (with stellar 3.4 GPA) and had full ride scholarship to State U. Then my parents let me know that they were moving 150 miles away the day after I graduated – thanks Mom and Dad! And they literally meant the morning after I graduated – they seriously couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there. This was a huge conundrum for me: having finally achieved an optimum state of happiness, was I now to throw it all away and move somewhere where I knew no one for my last summer before college and impending adulthood/responsibilityhood?
Uh, no. Retreat at the first sign of adversity? Never. I had a fucking brilliant idea – I’d get my own place! Ha-ha, that actually amplified the nirvanic situation like ten-fold! I was a genius.
Some quick math: I was making a robust $3.65/hr (min wage then was $3.35 – let’s just say I had done pretty well with my annual reviews) and logging around 40 hours/week at the Bell (40 hours was the absolute max; overtime was taboo). That’s $584 pre-tax dollars; maybe $467 take home. I had a $160 car payment and popped another $50 or so for insurance; $210 in car expenses (cars were fairly important in that era, enough to easily justify 45% of take home pay). That left about $257 for everything else. Of course that was plenty to get my own place, it wasn’t NYC or anything, and I only needed something for three months.
I found a room that was perfect for $150 month. It was perfect in the sense that it had some walls, a door and a bed. It also was home to a colony of cockroaches (which cohabitated quite nicely with the mice), featured a couple of seriously mentally imbalanced housemates, and had no air conditioning. These are all minor disappointments when you are 18 and living on your own!
After a glorious first day in the apartment, my girlfriend dumped me. This virtually destroyed me. I could barely get out of bed. This was also a likely byproduct of dehydration, as it was about 108 degrees in my room. I had to cover myself in towels soaked in cold water and then turn a fan on myself for it to be even remotely tolerable. Suddenly my dream summer looked a smidge less awesome. Cash was running low; it turns out that $100/month wasn’t ample living expenses even back in 1987 – Goober Grape and white bread can only carry you so far (those TBell meals weren’t comped – only 50% off). I needed to either buy a window unit or start a Bikram yoga class, it was a boiler room (I’ve been in actual boiler rooms in the Navy, this apartment was legitimately comparable). This was no way to spend my last free summer – I was going to have to seek additional employment.
One of the local factories was hiring. I’d never done any manual labor, but I needed to improve my cash flow generation profile. How bad could it be? It was only three months – I was off to State U to become a uh, hmmm, well I was going to college. There were a few factories in our town, and luckily the one that was hiring wasn’t the dog food factory that caused the six mile radius around it to smell like shit. This was a poultry processing plant of some kind. I was nervous for the interview, because there were like 500 people trying to land this gig. I will always remember the interviewer’s immortal words: How would you like to cut turkeys for $5 an hour? I jumped on this faster than Peter Scolari jumping on a Bosum Buddies reunion (is that dated? How about “faster than Paul Walker jumping on a return to the Fast & Furious franchise”? That actually happened? Let’s stick with the Scolari thing). This was big league – a 37% pay raise! So long, TBell, who needs you?
Here is the complete training we received on day one: “You see that conveyor belt? Plug your circular saw in over there. Be careful that the guy next to you doesn’t cut you, that’s why you’ve got armored gloves on. See what that turkey breast looks like? Cut all that gross shit off with the saw and then put back on the conveyor belt so they can package that shit up. Any questions?” At the end of the day we all had to clean up the area which included a lucky few grabbing these massive hoses and effectively sandblasting all the death and destruction into conveniently located drains. And the shift started at 7:00 AM – not good for us nocturnal sorts. My friend TC, a fellow TBell alum, quit after one day.
Crappy Jobs I’ve Had
#6. Poultry Processing Plant Worker
Attire: Anything you feel comfortable being near slaughtered turkeys in, covered by a company-provided smock. Stylish chainmesh gloves that extend to your shoulders. Electric circular saw that is both grim fashion statement and literal tool of the trade.
Score: 10 (These smocks and gloves were shared amongst all workers, which is great if you enjoy foul-smelling garb indelibly imprinted with evidence of the final struggles of 10,000 Tom Turkeys. Ha-ha “fowl-smelling”)
Prevailing Smell/Aroma: Ritual slaughter, suicidal/homicidal urges, hopelessness
Score: 10 (One benefit – free appetite suppresant!)
Humiliation Factor: Surprisingly not that bad; I come from a blue collar town and factory jobs were generally considered to be the keys to getting a solid trailer house and 7-year car lease. Plus I wore the friggin brown polyester at TBell for three years, this was a lateral move at worst on the public perception front.
Score: 7 (In hindsight, I shouldve been appalled, but this is about what I was feeling then. $5/hr!)
Co-workers/Culture: I’m pretty sure I never said one word to anyone there after TC quit. It was best not to make eye contact with that assembly of Sling Blades. Just mind your fucking business, try not to cut someone and not be cut. Prison lingo is appropriate in this case.
Score: 10 (Certainly there were some nice, simple people struggling to get by in this group, but my recollection is a congregation entirely descended from that mutant inbred family from The X-Files)
Authority Figures: I don’t recall there being any; everyone had pretty much given up on their lives and just trod in and out of there with Pavlovian regularity to earn their weekly pittance. There must have been some guy who initiated the nauseating hose-down process, but that’s probably one of my many repressed memories.
Score: 0 (This is the only job I can recall not working with at least one dick supervisor.)
Typical Hours Worked: 40. If you add in the nightmares, it was closer to 128.
Score: 7 (I’ve gotta ding this for the early wakeup – 6:30 was intolerable and I didn’t even drink then. In hindsight, that’s when I should’ve started drinking, at least I would’ve had a great excuse. If you missed 3 days or work you were fired. I skipped two days my first two weeks under the premise that I work best under pressure)
Education Required: Northwestern MBA. Wait, no, you just had to be able to not kill your coworkers. That was the only bar. I think probably a few people failed that over the years.
Score: 6 (Maybe making a diploma a requirement would’ve improved the atmosphere a bit)
Screaming Obscenities at Top of Lungs Acceptable? I guess; it was really loud in there with all the sawing and turkey screaming (just kidding, the death stuff happened somewhere else; we got only turkey breasts that just weren’t quite ready for Safeway).
Score: 7 (If you scream at the top of your lungs but no one hears you because they are deafened by their own misery, have you really screamed?)
Stress Level: Pretty low, once you got over the grossness and the potential for injury. I’m actually a big fan of factory work in general: repetitive, requires zero thought, allows for ample daydreaming. I once storyboarded an entire X-Men movie at a different factory job while brainlessly moving stuff from one pallet to another pallet.
Score: 5 (You did dread tomorrow immediately after finishing that day’s work, so that bumps up the stress score a bit)
Ridiculous Travel Required? Only metaphysical travel, to your happy place.
Score: 2 (I will need to go back to my happy place after looking for “poultry processing plant” images)
What Kind of Dough was Involved? The previously described, unheard of amount of $5/hour.
Score: 8 (This was indisputably mega-coin for an 18 year old in that day and age)
Summary: I worked at the death plant for probably nine total days (given that I skipped the instant-dismissal third day early in my third week). Getting up at 6:30 AM every day to go do this soulless task was unbearable. I went back to TBell with hat in hand (actually it was a visor), begging for 40 hours. I ultimately squeeked by with the benefit of some miraculous poker victories. I even got another girlfriend (who was unfortunately too religious to fully enjoy the comforts of my sauna) and made it all the way to college. So there was a pretty sweet resolution after all.
Verdict? It sucked as bad as you think it did.