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Handwritten is a place and space for pen and paper. We showcase things in handwriting, but also on handwriting. And so, you'll see dated letters and distant postcards alongside recent studies and typed stories. 

The Meat Diaries

He Was Just Spraying Every Stack of Meat with a Healthy Shot of Oil

Brett Rawson

HANDWRITTEN: Were there any entries that jumped out at you as you went through them, or memories or experiences?

BUTLER: I think there’s an entry where I describe what a pus pocket is. I was 23 or 24 when I was working there. I’m 37 years old now, so 13 years later, I still get grossed out thinking about that.

I remember seeing an entry as I was looking through this about a day where there was something broken inside the slicing machine, the blade that cut the big 50-pound stacks of meat, and it was shooting out little particles of aluminum onto the slices of meat. 

Technically, there was supposed to be a metal detector along the assembly line, but the slices of aluminum were too small and the metal detector was picking ‘em up. And there was always this awkward kind of balance. As employees, we wanted to keep the quality high. We didn’t want to be responsible for poisoning somebody or putting out bad meat. But the other part of the balance was that corporate would threaten us all the time. Like, “If you don’t pack enough meat today, you’re going to end up working Saturday and Sunday. You’re going to work 12 hour days,” whatever it was. So there were some days where we were like, “You know, fuck it. If you don’t want to fix your slicing machine, we’re just gonna pack this meat with aluminum flakes in it.”

I remember there was one day — this was in the journal, too — one of the guys who was running the machine, he was trying to lubricate the assembly line, so he had a bottle of lubrication of oil, like a spray bottle, and he was just spraying the assembly line that was carrying these stacks of meat down to be packaged, and he was not paying attention. He was just spraying every stack of meat with a healthy shot of oil. Lubricant, you know? He just didn’t give a shit. Stuff like that just blows me away.

Looking through the journals and seeing the bleak sense of humor that was inside the plant was sort of, I don’t know, hilarious and just really sad, too.

HANDWRITTEN: That reminds me of a moment in the beginning of the first journal. You wrote, "I’m just happy to be able to commiserate with other human beings." I thought that resonated throughout a lot of your observations.

BUTER: You and I have had conversations on the telephone and through email about the aftermath of this most recent election, and how we process that.

Do these notebooks have something to say about those results, even though they were written thirteen years before? What I come out of it feeling is, I’m sure that many of my friends and coworkers at Oscar Meyer at that time, I’m just confident, they would’ve voted for Trump. But I know for a fact they’re not bad or dumb people. They’re extremely hard-working folks. And they lifted me up when I felt embarrassed and sad to be working at this place. They could’ve taken that as a judgment of them, but they didn’t. They understood where I was coming from.

So when I think about what you just said, I think, you know, they were just such nice people to me. If there was a spirit of blue collar America, I think it’s just, "I’m going to go to work everyday at this job I probably don’t like, but I’m doing it for my family." And I’m still thankful people were so kind to me and had such a good sense of humor.

HANDWRITTEN: I do wonder about this. How attached to our immediate reality are we? For instance, you were experiencing a very physical, immediate experience. You have five or six others around you, and if a machine breaks down, everything stops. There is no way to intellectualize your way out of that, even with these notebooks. Your life was right there.

BUTLER: You would just be filled with this existential kind of dread. It was sort of funny when the assembly line would break down. You’d be like, “What the fuck are we doing here? This is so stupid.”

One thing that’s interesting going through these journals is that the threat of the plant moving or closing was there back in 2003. And I suspect without knowing that it was there in 1993. Who knows. But the assembly line would break down or be mostly inoperable a day — or let’s say two days at a time — and you're all getting paid standing there. And you would think, maybe this place should close down. What are we doing here? We’re just packing lunch meat, you know?

So that was strange and the just doing it over and over again, day after day, ten-or twelve-hour days, my coping mechanism was — and I don’t know anything about tai chi — but in my head, I began to make my movements along the assembly line syncopated. I would try to move my body in ways that was as smooth as possible, almost make a little dance out of it. Obviously, I couldn’t tell my coworkers I was doing that because they’d laugh their asses off at me. I don’t know if I’m answering your questions, but thinking about that existential dread or sadness, the ridiculousness kind of explains it all.