Joe New Hire’s First Night

What he calls a frock is what the New Hire thought of as a lab coat when he first saw the one the Night Super is wearing. The Night Super pulls one off a rack. No nametag; only the company patch. He hands the frock over and the New Hire puts it on, accidentally spilling all the other gear to the floor.

“Don’t worry about that,” the Night Super says, bending to help pick up slicker, gloves, glasses. “I’ve got it. Why don’t you go ahead and put on your hairnet, and you might as well wear the glasses so you don’t lose them, and put in your earplugs. I’ll take you into the plant.”

And he leads the New Hire down a staircase where stenches the Night Super has long grown used to rise up to sear through the New Hire’s senses—a bombardment of sewage, mold, rotted meat, fresh bacon, hot dogs, ham, cleaning chemicals, soldered metal, solvent. They exit the staircase and approach a large, metal pneumatic door. The Night Super pulls a string that hangs from the ceiling and, as the door hisses open, air rushes around the New Hire’s head like a sharp intake of breath from the throat of the plant which now yawns hungrily before them. The Night Super steps right in without hesitation, and so the New Hire follows, and the Night Super pulls another string, and the door hisses shut again.

Impossible to take in every detail of that endless stretching hallway that fades into darkness. The Night Super, novelty long buried beneath routine, walks briskly, and the New Hire struggles to keep up, slack-jawed with wonderment, eyes wide and trying to be everywhere at once. The floors and lower walls are of dirty red brick, the ceilings are completely hidden by an intricate network of overhead pipes all sizes and colors—steel gray, red, yellow, green, white. All down the corridor, strings hang from between branches of pipes like scraggy vines, their tips color-coded to match painted circles of corresponding doors. The Night Super leads the New Hire past stacks of wooden pallets and pallets loaded with supplies, with cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic and flattened stacks of cardboard and plastic tubs and metal barrels; past pallets of boxed and ready-to-be-shipped product; past deserted forklifts and industrial jeeps, painted yellow, faded green, rust-flecked, corrosion-ravaged, grease-stained, meat smashed on the forks; past plastic-covered vats of raw material, unprocessed meat, unformed and mud-like in consistency, or like regurgitated mashed potatoes, pink and red and cream-colored; past a vat of pig snouts, a vat of pork tongues, a vat of hearts; past air-lock doors and freight elevators and intersecting halls, each one seeming equally endless—how can this place be so vast?—past chugging vacuum pumps and buzzing, zapping bug lights and humming electrical boxes; past stainless steel storage cabinets, rolled-up rubber hoses, telephone cabinets; past tall, thin cabinets labeled: STRETCHER—DO NOT BLOCK. There is dust on the overhead pipes, there are smears of grease and faint gray coats of dirt on the yellow bricks of the upper walls, there is pinkish meat mashed into the cracks of the floor, there are pools and rivulets of blood.

And the last group of third-shifters—the Warehouse and Shipping Coolers and Freezers truckers—are hard at it now in the halls and coolers and freezers and warehouse. They mount their forklifts, they step onto their rider jeeps, they grab the handles of their walker jeeps, they plug in the batteries, and they move out. Jeeps rumble across the brick floors, horns beep, and the sounds echo, and more beeps respond, doors hiss open and shut, elevator doors slam, elevator call bells ring. This finished product goes to the Loading Dock, this raw material goes down to Bologna Stuff, these pallets go to the basement. Jeeps zip around corners, horns beeping, they coast down halls, riders in white hardhats and red jackets. The forks slide under pallets, loads are lifted at the press of a button. There is stopped-up traffic in front of the elevators, workers standing or leaning against jeeps, watching the floor numbers, “Goddammit, what’s the holdup?” Jeeps zoom past and horns beep, and startled pedestrians hop out of the way, or unrattled pedestrians walk nonchalant and make the jeeps slow down to a crawl.

“How many loads of this bacon we got left to haul?”

“Hey, Salt says there’s a busted-open load of Lunch Pack candies up on second. Thought you might be interested.”

“Somebody tell them goddamn Production assholes to quit cloggin’ up the halls with supplies they can’t even use for another week.”

“Go tell Booger to get off his lazy ass and move these pallets down to basement.”

“Here comes the elevator, and there it goes. Hurry up and wait. Where’d Salt say them busted-open candies was?”

On the other floors and in other halls, third-shifters haul dirty racks on the way to Rack Wash and clean racks headed back to service, and they haul racks of meat, unsliced ham and bologna in long pink loaves and slabs of bacon hung from hooks. The racks of meat are hauled, weighed, plastic-covered, moved, elevatored, stored in coolers for the next day’s Production run. Tugger jeeps whiz by, tugging meat racks, too fast sometimes, and the racks whiplash around corners, and loaves slide off and break open on the floor. The truckers saunter back, cursing or smiling sheepishly, and the ruined meat loaves are hefted into yellow-marked inedible carts, to be taken later to the Inedible department, where discarded meat is augured and loaded into trucks bound for pet-food factories. The jeeps move on, the horns beep, doors hiss. For awhile on third shift, the hallways and rooms hum with the bustle and flurry and roar, beep, clang, crash of work.

Throughout the plant, in their various rooms, the Sanitation workers are ready to hose. The rooms have been set up, excess meat, dust, and plastic have been blown off and out of machinery with air hoses, the floors have been swept, drain covers have been pulled and set out of the way. Now the slickers go on, now the rubber gloves. Hoses are hefted from their wall-hooks, and homemade nozzles are screwed onto the ends. The valves are opened. Screaming hot water spurts through pipes, through hoses that writhe on the ground with these initial blasts, then the sprays jet out, and the hoses jerk with the pressure, and the gloved hands grip tight. The muscles and ligaments in the wrists are again tested, dancing ever closer—and some singing outright—with the Carpal-Tunnel Phantom whose kiss leaves a deeper mark each night. With practiced precision, the workers direct spikes of water into grooves and across surfaces and into holes, obliterating meat, cutting through grease. Steam clouds begin to fill the rooms, as thick and white as mists hovering above jungle valley floors, obscuring all to the point where nothing stands out—the workers, the lines, the meat, blurred into a single entity.