Featured Image: “Weekdays” by William O’Brien
I arrive at the meatpacking plant on a Monday morning. Cattle carcasses hang from overhead conveyor belts like giant teardrops, crimson flesh glistening in the scorching July sun, muggy in that distinct New York City way, dirt and grit and glazed heat seeping its way into your pores. Workers in chalk-white overcoats and shin-high rubber boots yell and sing as they push the skinned animals through olive green metal doors.
The year is 1972, and I’ve come to visit my father’s workplace: Stars Meatpackers, located on Ganesvoort Street in lower Manhattan, adjacent to the West Side Highway.
Over the years, Pops had regaled me with horror stories about what was done to the carne as it was processed and packaged: the chemical additives; the “USDA-approved shit.” Yet we ate meat all the time, including choice cuts from the very factory he worked in. When I asked, “How come you still buy the stuff?” he proudly and without a trace of irony replied, “Because I get it cheap!”
Now, here I am at the scene of the crime, absorbing the pungent aroma of raw beef lacing the already polluted air. A Department of Sanitation dumpsite on the opposite side of the highway adds another layer of noted scent.
In the two decades that my father labored at the factory, I’d never shown an interest in his place of work. Yet if you subtracted sleep, it was where he spent most of his life. The reason he woke up at five o’clock in the morning Monday through Friday. The place he rode to on the downtown No. 6 train, starting at Brook Avenue in the South Bronx and ending at Union Square in downtown Manhattan. And not once had I ever seen it, not even a photo. Funny how that goes, the things you think about and never do.
A side door opens and my father’s 5’6” frame peeks out. “Hey, hijo come on in,” he says. Pops is dressed in his usual work clothes: flannel plaid shirt, blue chinos, and cheap leather shoes. A few months ago he began wearing glasses, a decision he had put off for years. The lens magnifies his dark gray eyes. He looks me over as we shake hands.
“Your sneakers will get wet,” he says.
I’m wearing white Converse low-top sneakers, pressed Wrangler jeans, and a grey short sleeve “stitched” shirt, the 70’s fashion trend in my South Bronx neighborhood.
I’ll be careful,” I say entering Pops’ domain. The first thing I notice is the noise, a cacophony of clanks, pulleys, hydraulic pumps, and water hoses set on stun. But after dancing in discos with speakers the size of redwoods, I’m used to loud. My father seems used to it also.
“So, no school today, right?”
“Right,” I lie. I had told Pops that my high school, Aviation Vocational, was closed for a special teachers’ meeting. He shrugged and accepted it. Actually, I was playing hooky, which I did at least once a week. Long story.
My father guides me to the locker room, where he hands me a white lab jacket smeared with dried blood. I laugh and put it on.
“I feel like a doctor,” I say.
“Meat packer, doctor, same thing,” Pops says. “But doctors don’t have to wear these.” He passes me a pair of rubber boots that weigh a solid five pounds, the type worn by firemen. I slip them over my sneakers. Pops puts on his well-worn boots, and we trudge our way into a small room occupied by a solitary stainless steel table. On top of it is a basketball-sized side of beef.
“Ah, this is where you pump,” I say. That’s my father’s official job title: meat pumper. As a kid, I mentioned it to a couple of friends and they goofed on it big time. Pumper? What does he do, fuck the meat?
“No, I work inside the floor,” Pops says. “But I have to show what I do in this room.” He explains that both the bosses and the union can’t allow unauthorized people to be inside the main factory; if an accident happened, there would be hell to pay. And accidents did happen, all the time. Broken limbs, sprained backs, people knocking themselves out on the wet floor, fingers sliced…you get the picture.
With hands covered in tiny scars, Pops demonstrates his pumping technique. He holds the lump of meat and pulls out a vein with a special type of scissors. Wrapping the vein around his fingers, he uses his other hand to inject the vein with a fearsome needle filled with water. Then he does it again with a couple of other veins. Rinse and repeat. The meat squishes as if it’s burping.
“How many times do you this a day?” I ask.
“I don’t count. Maybe a hundred?”
“Don’t you get tired or bored?”
“It’s my job.”
Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, Pops and I munch on grilled cheese sandwiches and drink café con leche. We talk about the different jobs the workers do, how everyone is dependent on everyone else. One breakdown in the production line and everyone suffers. Pops loves having a union. Without it, he says, the workers would be treated just like the meat, sliced, diced, and shoved out the door.
“Have you ever gone on strike?” I ask.
“No. One time we walked out when the boss fired someone for a stupid reason. Oh boy, the guy was hired back real quick!”
Like my mom, Pops is forty-six years old. His black hair has thinned, but his body is as sturdy as a fire hydrant. Both my parents were born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and were part of the first wave of Puerto Ricans to settle in the United States in the 40s and 50s as the result of Operation Bootstrap, a U.S.-led rapid industrialization campaign that resulted in close to a million Puerto Ricans leaving the island, the majority landing in New York and other East Coast states.
“How old are you now, hijo?” Pops asks me.
“Time goes fast.”
Pops sips his coffee, lost in thought. Outside delivery trucks and taxicabs compete to see who could honk the most. The Meatpacking District, as the area is called, bubbles with factory work by day and prostitution by night. Its name is well-earned.
I decided to ask my question. My mother told me once that Pops had been offered the foreman position. He refused, claiming it was too much work, too many headaches. But Mom and I knew the truth. Becoming foreman meant my father would have to write and file reports. He couldn’t do that. Pops was functionally illiterate.
“You know, Pops, I know you don’t like to talk about reading and writing and all that. But, you know, how did it happen that you never learned?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“To know you more, I guess.”
Pops polishes off his sandwich. I do the same. The waitress brings the check, which my father pays. Minutes go by in silence.
“A lot you don’t know, hijo,” he finally says. “In Puerto Rico, I walked five miles to school, bare feet sometimes, me and my brothers. In the third grade, my teacher lied and said I stole a book. He made me tell my father. Oh boy, my father was mad. Not at me, at the teacher! My father knows I wouldn’t do that. The next day, he took me to school, went up to the teacher, who he knew, and yelled at him. The teacher looked at him and said, ‘Like father like son.’ My father said, ‘You calling me a crook? I’ll punch you in the neck!’ Oh boy, the teacher got scared. My father took my hand, we left, and I never went back. I cried. I loved school. I begged my father to let me go back, but he was a proud man. My mother said no too. She was tougher than my father, like a bull. “Why you no punch the teacher?” she said. “Maybe I’ll go do!” After that, I work my whole life. Eight years old, nine years old, twelve years old, I come to this country with my brother Ricardo: picking peppers, spinach; a dollar-fifty a day. The boss’s wife liked me.”
I tear up. This is the most that my father has ever said to me in one sitting. After sliding down a hard road of drinking and gambling, he’d only recently gotten his act together after one day driving home in his 1958 Impala and not remembering how he’d done it. “I could’ve killed myself and not known it,” I overheard him tell my mother, who replied, “That wouldn’t be a bad idea.” She then called both him and me sinvergüenzas—impudent brats. Mami knew I was messing up in school and had grown weary of having to constantly deal with my constant state of woe.
I think about this as Pops gets up to leave. How he’s trying, really trying to mend his ways; working to be responsible and not waste all his paychecks on poker, Bacardi rum, and slow horses. What about me? Am I also trying?
“I hardly ask you, David. How’s school?”
“I’m doing okay. I don’t really want to become an airplane mechanic, though.”
Pops pays the check and we get up to leave. As we put on our spring jackets, he looks at me and says, “Remember: As long as you go the right way, you never go the wrong way.”
I laugh. “That’s pretty smart, Pops.”
“If you stay in school, maybe you’ll be smart too, hijo.”
He winks at me and goes back to work. Did he know all this time that I was cutting school?
I walk back to the subway and decide to stop by Aviation and catch my last class of the day. Maybe that’s a start to the right way, I tell myself.