Joe New Hire’s First Night

Into such a steam-filled room the Night Super leads the New Hire, whose safety glasses fog up immediately, more effective as blinders than anything else. He strains to see over the lenses, under them, not daring to take them off for fear that wayward chemicals might sniff out his uncovered eyes and lay siege. He follows the narrow white blur of the Night Super’s frock through the room, past bacon presses, past—“Watch out for that open drain!” A yellow-slickered figure becomes apparent through the fog.

“Got a trainee for you, Perry,” the Night Super says, having to shout above the hose, the cooling units, the rumbling of the pipes. Introductions are made; Perry salutes casually with a grease-slicked glove. “Stay with this guy,” the Night Super instructs the New Hire. “Watch him. He’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

And the Night Super is gone back into the surrounding steam, and the New Hire is back on the first day of school, where everything and everyone is big, except he is not, where everyone is old and he is a toddler, and he knows nothing. Everyone else has the answers.

“Take off your safety glasses,” Perry tells him. “You don’t need them yet.”

The New Hire obeys, and his vision is restored.

“Hang tight, I’ll be done here in a minute,” Perry says. He resumes his hosing, pushing bits and chunks of bacon across the floor with the high-pressure spray, fanning the spray with his fingers so that meat does not shoot off in every direction but goes where he wants it to: toward the drains. The ease with which he cleans the floor, leaving only bright red brick in his wake, is—to the New Hire—amazing. The New Hire watches closely, the eyes moving with the water spray, inspecting carefully to make sure each sweep of the hose has been effective, nothing has been missed. There are circles under these eyes, but the eyes are bright. There is a thick, rust-brown mustache curving gentlemanly up at the ends. Perry wears only the slicker pants, the bib covering his chest and suspendered over a once-white T-shirt. Part of the hose is pinched between ribs and a muscular arm. Perry makes furtive glances at his trainee, who is trying to memorize every movement for fear he will be asked to perform the same task before he is ready.

“I guess they had you read that whole rule book in one sitting,” Perry says, moving closer to the drains.

The New Hire nods, and the worker nods too, smiling. He reaches down and pulls out the drain basket and dumps the caught meat into the drain and pushes the other surrounding meat into the drain and begins to flush it all down with the water spray.

Drain baskets are to remain in place at all times,” he quotes, grinning. “Anyone caught hosing meat down the drains will be tarred and feathered and put on public display.

When he’s done, he kicks the basket back into place. The floor is clean.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” he asks with a look of mock innocence.

And so the training begins.

“These are the Bacon Formers,” Perry says. “Don’t stick your hands in there unless you wanna be known as Flat-Hand Stan the rest of your life. Here, put your slicker pants on over your frock. You won’t need the slicker jacket, not for the job I do. You’ll just get steam-cooked if you wear that thing. When you go on break, you can roll up all your supplies in your slicker, carry it that way. How many pairs of rubber gloves did they give you? One? Go get another pair out of my cabinet there. Put the rubber gloves over your cotton gloves. Your top pair of rubber gloves, you fold up the bottoms, like this, see? That way, water and chemicals get on your gloves, they catch there instead of running down your arm. Here, take the hose, try it out. Hold onto it, that thing’ll whack you right in the teeth. You right-handed? Okay, hold it in your fist like this, nozzle pointed down, and tuck the hose under your arm. You try to hold it like a garden hose, your wrist is gonna start singing the blues right off the bat. Use your left hand to pull it behind you for slack. The nozzle? No, you don’t get a nozzle like this. This is a homemade job. The nozzles the Company hands out are shit. You want a good nozzle, you go to Billy Kemp. You do him a favor, he’ll set you up. Okay, I can take the hose back now. Tell you what—let’s take a break.”

One by one, the valves are closed and the water sprays turn to trickles. Nozzles are unscrewed and placed in pockets or cabinets or other hiding spots, leaving a nozzle out in plain view being akin to pinning a dollar to a bulletin board. Hoses drop to the floors, slickers are wriggled out of and hung to dry, frocks or whites jackets or the warmer beat-up freezer jackets—thick blue denim coats, frayed and smoke-darkened—are donned, and the workers make their way to break. Behind them the clouds of steam begin to dissipate, and the cooling units work at pulling the room temperatures back down to a level where meat won’t go bad and ceiling fans spin with fury to blow-dry the overhead pipes. Otherwise, the rooms are still and silent as they’re ever going to get, barring a power failure or plant shutdown.