I arrive at Farmer John a little after 8 a.m., and find 25 people already waiting, sitting on blue and green picnic tables that would look more at home beside a playground than in the courtyard of a slaughterhouse. As the hour draws on, more people arrive. Most are men between 20 and 40, but there are a few stout older women as well, accompanied by daughters, or nieces, or neighbors, or friends. There are a few lanky, gray-haired men in baseball caps and half a dozen teenage boys a couple, to look at them, barely above 16 skinny and restless, with spiked hair, and oversize T-shirts emblazoned with grimacing corpses and the gothic-lettered names of Mexican death-metal bands. Everyone, save myself and a single African-American man, is Latino, and the only words buzzing between the tables as the sun grows hotter are in Spanish.
We are all here for the same reason: We hope to join the ranks of the 1,300 people gainfully employed at Farmer John, the biggest pork-packing plant in the West, a fortresslike complex in the city of Vernon, its brick walls painted with colorful, kitschy murals of rural life winding country roads, red barns and rolling hills, hogs placidly feeding in wide green pastures, other hogs being chased by jolly knife-wielding farmers. Behind these walls, live pigs are transformed daily, in three shifts, into boneless pork loin, smoked ham on and off the bone, link sausage with and without skin, bacon (thick- or thin-cut), bologna, salami, Braunschweiger, Polish sausage, liverwurst, something called sliced mission loaf, and, of course, Dodger dogs.
The plant is familiar, if only by smell, to anyone who has driven within half a mile of the corner of Vernon Avenue and Soto Street. It is a deep and complex aroma, shifting with the wind, including, in varying degrees, the subtle scent of live clean pigs that can only be described as strangely and powerfully pink; the cloying, molasses-sweet scent of the smokehouse; the thick and ineffably foul reek of the rendering plant; the wildly fragrant stench of pig shit, of the contents of a pigs curling intestines, once discreetly concealed, now suddenly and irrevocably exposed.
I, a passionate meat eater, am here to become a more honest meat eater, to come to terms with the source of my shrink-wrapped pork chops and wrestle not just with the comparatively tidy moral question of killing, but with the thornier issues of being implicated with every bite in a huge industrial complex that processes humans as well as livestock. Everyone else is here because they need the work.
By 9 a.m. the crowd has doubled in size, and a young man in a white butchers jacket, his round face elongated only slightly by his goatee, introduces himself. For those of you who dont know Farmer John, Omar says, alternating between English and Spanish, this is a slaughterhouse. We kill and process live animals. If you are hired, he goes on, You might be killing, gutting, cleaning, cutting or packaging these animals. He pauses to let this sink in. Its not very nice.
Omars peculiar job pitch continues. It pleases me to see that so many of you want to work at Farmer John, but it saddens me to see so many people who need work. About 50 people fill out applications here every morning, five days a week, he says. He tells us well work in a refrigerated environment, between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and even if we are accustomed to heavy labor, well be sore for the first few weeks until our muscles grow used to the cold. The work pays only $6.50 per hour, but Farmer John pays for full medical, dental and life insurance. Theres a decent pension plan. I want you to ask yourself if you can live for a year on $6.50 an hour, Omar says. A few people nod somberly.
Twenty-one of us, who have completed applications, are asked to line up against a railing. Everyone else is told to return another morning once theyve filled out theirs. Omar hands us each a white cap, made out of a kind of papery material, something like a large, elasticized sheet of Bounce. José, also in a white coat and also from personnel, joins him, as does another man, from an outside employment firm. Hes enormously fat, with small black eyes and an upturned nose, and I cant help but think that, except for his black suit, glasses and slicked-back hair, he looks disturbingly like a pig, and should be careful here.
We are marched single file to a loading dock, where we are told to stand and wait. We are kept there just long enough to begin imagining what we will see inside: long knives, pigs shrieking, blood sloshing ankle-deep, a nightmare of gore and death wails. When the doors open, I am ready for anything. What I see when I get a peek at the production floor, as we head to a small conference room, is unnerving: no people at all, and no pigs, just a long, spotlessly clean room, its floor crowded with large metal hoppers. Every few seconds, an aluminum chute, 30 or so feet up, excretes a pink and fleshy object, an unidentifiable pig part, which falls soundlessly into a hopper below.