Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
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 pig’s 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 butcher’s jacket, his round face elongated only slightly by his goatee, introduces himself. “For those of you who don’t 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. “It’s not very nice.”
Omar’s 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 we’ll work in a refrigerated environment, between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and even if we are accustomed to heavy labor, we’ll 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. There’s 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 they’ve 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. He’s enormously fat, with small black eyes and an upturned nose, and I can’t 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.
It’s cold in here, 50 or 60 degrees, but we’re all dressed for the L.A. sun, shivering in T-shirts. Omar, satisfied that we all understand Spanish, dispenses with his English translations. We’ll be interviewed one by one, he says. We must be over 18 and have a government-issued ID. “The ones from MacArthur Park don’t count,” he jokes. No one smiles.
As the interviews progress, we view a hygiene video. It shows a worker leaving the bathroom without washing his hands, then informs us of his crime. “Cochino,” a middle-aged woman hisses, which means, of course, “pig.” We all laugh.
When it’s over, two men are asked to stay. The rest of us, unlucky, are told that we’ll be called if we’re needed and are encouraged to apply again in a month. We remove our disposable headgear and file out, happy to be in the warm sun. On the way to my car, two trucks filled with pigs pull in through the gates. Snouts protrude ridiculously through the slats of the trailers. At first I think it’s the trucks’ brakes squealing, but as they pass me it’s clear that the noise I hear is the pigs crying, not cute barnyard oinks and squeals, but screams of panic and fear. Pigs too, it seems, can smell Farmer John.
Aspiring: Marilyn, Is That You?
The Hollywood Entertainment Museum is celebrating what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 75th birthday with an exhibit whose highlights include the Doomed One’s pink silk dress from Let’s Make Love, a snapshot of Norma Jean’s wedding at age 16, and the famous nude photos that nudged her career along more efficiently than the mostly ho-hum movies she was lumbered with. I did my part by helping to judge the Marilyn look-alike contest that kicked off the show. My genial fellow jurors: Stanley Rubin, who produced River of No Return, a 1954 Western in which Monroe appeared with Robert Mitchum; his wife, Kathleen Hughes, a leading lady of 1950s; and Greg Schreiner, of Marilyn Remembered, a group of Monroe-memorabilia collectors who helped mount the exhibition.
Twelve pinkish-white female bodies — not a hectic drag queen among them, more’s the pity — wriggled and minced in shimmering sequined sheaths, mewing cooperatively in answer to beauty-pageant questions from the event’s ebullient MC, honorary Hollywood mayor Johnny Grant, whose cheeks were quickly festooned with scarlet kisses.
Though it’s no stretch to imagine why anyone would want to mimic Monroe’s pre-feminist glamour — it’s a great escape from life — I had to wonder why these cheery, commonsensical women identified so ä
ardently with someone so clearly marked for tragedy. Aside from one very tall, gangly and endearingly nervous teenage novice in a curly platinum wig that owed more to Harpo Marx than to Hollywood’s greatest sex goddess, this was a pretty wised-up crowd, far more adept than their idol at keeping the image separate from the life. And yet one beaming young nymph in a white dress with halter top, cummerbund waist and pleated skirt assured the mayor that she wasn’t going to end up like Marilyn: “because I’m engaged.” None of the contestants wanted Monroe’s life, but what was striking was their tender sympathy for her predicament, and a uniform refusal to look down their noses at one of the most condescended-to and exploited casualties of the dream machine.
Commanded to make our decision in full view of the contestants, we jurors went into shock and plumped for the obvious winner, a young pro in a shocking-pink silk floor-length number, who preened for the cameras as if she’d been doing this sort of thing all her life. She has, more or less: Like several of the other women, she’s a regular on the Marilyn look-alike circuit, and has won a bunch already. Given more time to deliberate, we might have put our money on an older, resplendently bouffant blond with a dry wit, who gallantly observed that she was closest to the age Marilyn would be now, and owned that she was only here to scout for new recruits for the look-alike talent agency she runs. “I usually only do Dolly Parton,” she protested. Gazing from our seats below at her majestic bustline, we believed her.
Veterans’ Affairs: Torpedo Juice Tales
THE DRAWING ROOM, 2 p.m.: The TV’s tuned to a WNBA game, which the regulars at the far, dark end of the room ignore. A beefy young guy shoots darts alone, back-announcing each missed point with “Fuck.” In the corner by the front door, where a little afternoon light comes through, sits Tom, who drinks here most afternoons. Today he’s in conversation with a tall man, half courting my attention, his eyes a gleam behind thick glasses.
“May I tell you something?”
“You’re beautiful. You’re something else.” Sounds like something my dad would say.
“Your dad?” He lays a hand on his chest in mock offense. “I was born in 1925, so I’m probably older than your dad.”
Figuring he might be a veteran, I ask if he’s seen Pearl Harbor.
The movie, Pearl Harbor.
I move closer. The tall guy, who looks a good 10 years younger than Tom, vacates a stool so I can sit.
“I didn’t see it yet,” says Tom, motioning for the bartender to get me another beer.
I tell him I saw it; thought the battle looked staged.
“Well, I guess you had to be there.”
“He was there. He was at Pearl Harbor,” says the tall guy.
“I wasn’t there,” says Tom. “I was in the service. But do you know something?”
He waits for me to ask. What?
“They say FDR knew about it beforehand,” he says.
I’d heard that.
“If it is true, then that’s not right. But you have to put everything in perspective. FDR needed a reason to get into the war. Still, it’s a fucking shame. More than 2,000 men dead, to get into a war.”
I ask him where he was when he heard about it. He stares directly at me for some seconds, and starts to cry.
“I was in a munitions factory in Louisville, Kentucky, making 20-millimeter bullets. About this long.” He holds his thumb and index finger six inches apart. “I was 16 years old. I don’t think we’ll get into that sort of confrontation again.”
Why? Because technology has made that sort of confrontation obsolete? Or because we think we have a better understanding of the world?
“You said it: We think we understand. I am a lawyer — was a lawyer, I retired 30 years ago. Figuring things out is very simple. You ask questions: who, what, why, how and when. If you can answer four of the five, you can usually figure out the fifth, and then you have the right answer.”
“But knowing what’s right doesn’t change anything,” says the tall guy, who remains standing. I ask his name.
“I tell my friends my name is Richard. Not Dick, not Richie. If you’re not my friend, I tell you my name is Sam. Is that plain enough for you?” He tips his bottle toward Tom. “I sat two seats away when she came over, you notice that, partner?”
“But you’re welcome to sit with us, friend,” says Tom.
“He’s got stories,” Richard says to me. “He worked in the asshole of the ship. Ask him about torpedo juice.”
What’s torpedo juice?
“That’s when you take the fuel for the torpedoes and filter it through four, five pieces of bread. You can get drunk on that,” says Tom. “But then the Navy found out about it so they added something called pink ammonium, I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s a poison.”
So, some people died by drinking it?
Richard and Tom look at me as though I’m an imbecile.
“You got that glaze on your face like you’re a Scientologist,” says Richard.
“You know, you’re stupid, but you’re still beautiful,” says Tom.
“It’s all these idiots in Southern California — they’ll follow anything,” says Richard. “Do you know who Mary Baker Eddy was?”
“Good, you know something. But did you know that in Mary Baker Eddy’s casket, to this day, is a telephone with a live connection? If anyone wants to call her with a question, they can.” Then Richard backs off. “Talk to this man. He’s a veteran; he buried his friends. I buried my friends.”
Was Richard in the service?
“Of course I was. Wasn’t your father?”
Merchant Marines; couldn’t go to Korea because of a heart murmur.
“Yeah, that’s what he tells you. Merchant Marines, it’s another way of saying, ‘I didn’t want to serve.’”
Where did Richard serve?
“None of your business. I gotta go. You ever been to the racetrack?”
“Yeah, probably once. I work at the track. I’ve handled more money than anyone in this place. Do you know I can’t pass a drug test because the hundred-dollar bills are all impregnated?”
I get another imbecile look.
“With cocaine. People sniff so much out of them, and they’re made of linen.”
So it seeps onto your fingers, and into your system.
“Now you’re understanding. I gotta get to the track.”
Have a good day.
“Well, I woke up this morning, didn’t I?”
So . . . it’s a good day already?
“There, you’re finally understanding something. I leave her to you, partner,” he says to Tom. When I tell Tom I have to roll too, he grabs my wrist, and looks at me with undiminished hope.
“Can I call you?”
When I tell him I’ll see him around here, he loosens his grip, and gives my hand an avuncular pat.
“Well, I tried,” he says, and goes back to his scotch.