It was funny on the TV sitcom “I Love Lucy” when Lucy shoved chocolates in her mouth and under her hat because she couldn’t keep up with the assembly line. It’s not so funny when it happens to you and your assembly line is carrying something pretty nasty. I did not want to shove raw, bloody liver in my mouth or anywhere on my person, so I let pieces fall to the floor after they flew past me. By the end of my shift, the workroom looked like a scene out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Leatherface would have had a field day.
It took me a while in that ‘90s summer to get the hang of packing meat before my senior year at Penn State, but I will never forget my experience and the feeling of good fortune I had to be able to return to college life in August and hope to never see so many pieces of raw and frozen meat again in my life.
Times have changed. It’s easier now to do freelance work of your choice and have a boss across the globe, but if you want a local summer job to earn money for college, to pay bills, etc., try not to view odd jobs with dread but rather with curiosity and an open mind. There’s always an opportunity to learn life lessons, as well as business lessons, and… material if you are a writer or comedian. I haven’t finished it yet – because I’m a chronic procrastinator – but my summer at the meat packing plant has inspired much of the material I’ve written for my one-woman show, “Plaid to Pork Chops and Everything in Between.”
It may be easy for me to say now that every job has opportunity because the jobs of my high school and college years are far in my rearview mirror, but it is possible to have fun. During the summer that I worked at Maid-Rite Steak Company in Dunmore, I was part of a ragtag group of college students who joined forces to share laughs where and when we could – like at the end of each shift when we would compete to see whose coat smelled the worst from blood and meat remnants (feel free to say, “Eww!” as it is/was gross!) or how silly we thought we looked wearing our paper hats on top of our white shower cap-like head coverings.
Women with names like Madge and Zena were far from happy to see us join them on their lines. For the first 10 days or so, Madge was almost hoarse from yelling, “Pick up! Pick up! Pick UP!” as frozen chicken patties flew by me. I may have been studying journalism at Penn State, but I missed the lead when it came to quickly assembling a box, lining it with a bag and wax paper, and then skillfully picking up four patties at once with hands covered in two sets of gloves.
Some of the women at the meat plant made me fear walking to the parking lot alone at first; I feared they might try to take me out with the pointed edge of a lamb chop. (They are quite sharp you know. I found that out firsthand later that summer when the bone ripped through my plastic and cloth glove and cut my finger. At least it gave me a good story to tell at a family party that month.) But these were also some of the most colorful people I had ever met who had some really interesting stories to share. And for the most part, they had hearts of gold. I admired how hard they worked, some just being able to afford the cost of daycare for their children and have enough to pay bills… late. I’m not going to tell you that at the end of August these ladies shed tears when I and my fellow poindexters left – come to think of it, they were smiling with more teeth than I had seen all summer – but they had become used to us like a big brother puts up with his younger sister trailing after him wherever he goes. Let’s just say we parted ways and were both equally glad.
While I’ll never touch veal after my experience there, or liver for that matter – for many reasons – I do have a better appreciation for how the T-bone gets to my plate. This summer, when you’re grilling burgers, dogs, and steaks, raise a cold one to all of those hardworking folks who “pick up” on the line!
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