In the 90s, I worked at Cargill in Springdale. Much of the work was dehumanizing. Oddly enough, the proximity and close quarters also made it possible to interact with a wide swath of people. Despite the brutality of the job, some of us managed to make use of our shared time there. We shared jokes, insulted each other with the skill of a French sailor, and learned each other’s language. The racists lurking among us didn’t. They despised the fact that Latinos willingly applied to work the line jobs. As many faults as I had with the job, I was able at times to see the job from the viewpoint of someone who would have worked any job, even with gritted teeth, for the rest of his or her life. I was lucky to get the job. During the annual layoff at the end of the year, I signed up to work on the other side of the plant instead of drawing unemployment, with the goal of seeing what other jobs were available. It turns out, a lot were. I never returned to the Jeffrey Dahmer side of the facility.
I started on the turkey evisceration line. It is nothing like you would imagine. Unless you are imagining a bloody, violent mess, in which case, bingo! you’re right after all.
On Fridays, it was common for the supervisors to walk down the interminably long line of employees as we worked with vacuum guns, scissors, knives, and bare hands. We wore high boots, smocks, plastic aprons, and a variety of other things to make us as uncomfortable as possible. As they walked, they would go through their pile of checks and find each employee’s corresponding check and put it in our pocket. Some people would have them placed in the back of one of their boots. This was usually a strategic mistake, as the work environment was filled with water, blood, and an assortment of internal organs that shouldn’t be flying around.
Based on the moisture component, I was one of those who objected to the check being put in my boot. In my case, I didn’t care if the supervisor wanted to lift my smock and find an outside pocket to jam the check into. It didn’t threaten my fragile masculinity.
At this point, I’d like to mention that it was ludicrous that checks weren’t handed out on our hour-long break. That’s an argument for another day. Many women didn’t appreciate the check system at all, for obvious reasons.
Back to the story… some supervisors would ignore your request and jam the check into your boot despite your objections. Given that you’re standing in front of a fast-moving line filled with increasingly stripped-down recently deceased turkey carcasses, it’s hard to step away from the line.
One supervisor, in particular, was named Robert Hogg, with a double ‘g’ in his surname. For whatever reason, I loved yanking his chain. Looking back, he was comparably great as a supervisor. The fact that he didn’t hang around as long as many spoke highly of his character. Robert and I engaged in a tit-for-tat game of oneupmanship about many things. One thing I liked about him was that he could issue an edict from management and simultaneously acknowledge the absurdity of it – while letting me know I needed to do it, regardless of how stupid we agreed it was. I could respect that. I still do.
After a couple of Fridays of Robert trying to jam my check into the back of my boot, I hatched a foolproof plan…
It’s worth noting that I was prone to zaniness when I was young. I would wear mismatched shoes, my shirts inside out, or draw and paint on my clothes. Anything I could do to cause a bit of commotion or eye-rolling was something I was interested in furthering. As an example, one of my fondest memories was after we had a big meeting regarding drug use and policy. There were hundreds of us working on the evis side of the plant. I entered the bathroom and opened 4 or 5 packets of sugar alternative. I wiped it all over my top lip and across my nose. As I exited, one of my conspirators literally screamed, “Hey, you have something under your nose!” Naturally, about half the heads in the breakroom turned to look at me, some managers included. I pretended to be caught off guard and wiped crazily at my nose and sniffed loudly. After an awkward pause, most of the breakroom laughed. “I picked a bad week to stop snorting cocaine,” I said. (One of the managers took the time later to seriously inform me that while he thought it was a great prank, that I should take appearances into consideration before doing anything similar in the future. “Have you seen my face? I asked him. My question didn’t help, now that I think about it.)
Before the next Friday, I went to a flea market and bought some pants and then a variety of safety pins. I cut the pockets off the pants and then sewed all the pockets closed. During our first break, I cut my boots down to ankle height with a pair of scissors.
After our first break, Robert steadily went down the line, inserting paychecks. As he neared, it was difficult for me to keep a straight face.
Robert lifted my smock and started to put my check into my boot. Which weren’t there. Rather, they were cut too low to put anything there. He then pulled my smock higher to expose my pockets.
“What the…” he started to say.
He looked around the sides and noted I didn’t have pockets at all. Finally, it dawned on him that my pants were inside out. I had used safety pins to create belt loops to hold my belt (and pants) up while I worked.
Robert laughed for several seconds.
“Okay, you got me!”
It’s still a victory I count as one of my fondest.
P.S. When this ID card was printed, I only had 1 legal name, like Cher or Madonna. People often called me other names, ones unbecoming for polite society.