The Meat Diaries
HANDWRITTEN: There were a couple mentions of politics in this first diary. On one page, you wrote: “Young republicans is a fraternity for rich, ugly white guys.”
BUTLER: Oh, where’s that?
HANDWRITTEN: It was in the undated parts.
HANDWRITTEN: That’s the only text on that page.
BUTLER: Oh man, I just saw something in there also about by Che Guevara shirt, which I remember wearing that in from time to time.
HANDWRITTEN: I think you have six more pages to go.
BUTLER: Oh, so Che Guevara comes after the Young Republicans?
HANDWRITTEN: No, before.
BUTLER: Oh, ok. Now I gotta find this thing. (Laughs.) Yeah, there it is. Yeah, (laughs). I don’t know, what are you going to say? It’s funny, I mean the first thing that pops into my head is these pictures that were coming out during the election cycle, like Paul Ryan with the Congressional Aides behind him. You know what I’m talking about? And there was not a brown or black face anywhere behind him.
HANDWRITTEN: It was a total white out.
BUTLER: It was just a white out. (Laughs.) Yeah, I don’t know. It was. It was a weird political environment to work in. You were so, I was a union member. If you were working there as a meat packer, you were a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and I can’t remember what our post was, 538 I think it was.
Union Politics was always swirling around, not just because our plant could get shut down or we could laid off but because we were talking about other plants in other parts of Wisconsin, which have subsequently shut down. So there was this kind of awakening, well for some people, you experienced an awakening, like wow, this is what a union is for. Thank God I am in a union. I feel a kinship with these other union members. And there were many others who resented paying union dues who didn’t understand what a union did, and I remember many conversations about people talking about buying everything they consumed from Walmart, and some of us saying well, maybe that’s not the most pro-union way to move about your life and stuff like that, and also just feeling like well nobody has any money. How can I rightly tell somebody to go shop at the co-op and pay 50% or 75% more because it’s the so-called right thing to do?
Politics was always right there at the surface. Plus, it was the early years of the Bush Administration, and those were pretty dark days. 9-11 had only happened two years before.
HANDWRITTEN: Did it ever surface though? You had the gossip, the Green Bay Packers, but did politics ever emerge as itself? Or just as corporate politics, hierarchies, The Man, etc?
BUTLER: That’s a good question. In terms of National State Politics, I don’t remember that coming up a whole lot. I’m trying to think. Yeah, I don’t remember conversations about that.
I remember clear as day one conversation. It was in the morning. I was in the locker room and there was this guy who had gotten hired about the same time as me — his name was Mike — and he was a coupe lockers down from me. He was not a super bright guy, nice enough, but he mentioned something about how we were paying more in dues because there was a plant east of us that I think was run by Hormell, I think, and they were on strike. We were paying a little bit more to help support those workers. I think this is right. And he said something like, "I don’t understand why we’re paying these dues, I don’t like paying dues in the first place." And there was another guy who had been working in the plant much longer than us who overheard him, and basically checked him. He said, “These are our union brothers and sisters, and we’ve gotta support them through this. That could be us.”
I can remember, even in that moment, thinking that Mike didn’t get it at all, even though somebody had explained it to him, in not even a confrontational way. He just was not willing to think about it that way. That was the most politics got out there, vocally. We were always kind of making fun of corporate or watching the corporate people go in their corporate entrance to the plant, you know, dressed in nice clothes. We’d be schlepping out at the end of the day covered in lunch meat. It was kind of like walking by first class on your way to coach in an airplane, you know? All the politics happening in those days were happening in the meat plant, too.
HANDWRITTEN: Right, a microcosm. That speaks to what you were saying earlier. You all support each other and that unionship, brothership, also going through the same experiences, where maybe the personal politics didn’t matter in the day-to-day as you’re so focused on survival. Like you had to focus on the stuff that was going on in front of you.
BUTLER: Yeah. What else was I going to say about that? Shit, I forgot. Sorry.
HANDWRITTEN: It’s interesting to watch your experience unfold. You almost have a musical playlist, too, as we go through these notebooks. It gives an acoustic feel to the experience, whether it’s your mention of the Stones, Flaming Lips, or otherwise.
BUTLER: You know, that’s one thing. When I was a teen, my parents owned a small business. A warehousing business. Their biggest client was a light fixture company. So they would take shipments of light fixtures and warehouse them, and then ship them out to regional hardware stores.
I worked there throughout my teens. It was my first job. I frequently wouldn’t get paid because I just wanted to be around my parents. I liked their business, their employees treated me like a mascot. It was great. Always at that job, my dad’s employees had giant stereos and speakers set up in the warehouse. You could listen to all the music you wanted to, as loud as you wanted. My dad was a big music guy so it was great for him. I think he thought music was a good way to keep people occupied and moving, or whatever. But that used to drive me just bonkers. I remember two or three hours into my day at Oscar, I wondered, why in the hell can’t we listen to music? It was against the rules. It was probably for sanitary reasons. Or if a machine started to eat your hand, you would probably want to know that noise and not be plugged into "Wild Horses" or something like that. But that just used to drive me crazy.
So when I sat in my car in the morning, I would frequently listen to music really loud for ten or fifteen minutes to get a song in my head, and then be kind of haunted by that the rest of the day at the plant.
HANDWRITTEN: Was there any music that others told you about? Or were they your own personal discoveries?
Butler: No. No, I don’t remember that at all. We would talk about how shitty the job was, about our boss, if someone was having an affair, getting a divorce, had a surgery or something that was interesting. We talked about that, or what we brought for lunch. The biggest thing we would talk about was the Packers. We talked a lot about the Green Bay Packers. And that’s represented in the journals, too.
It’s not that different now for me in my own life, as a lonely writer, but man, if the Packers lost an important game, the mood inside the meat packing plant was just fucking terrible. Just terrible. Because people were living for their weekends. I’m not saying they weren’t living for their families or their marriages, too, but people were always really excited about their weekends, about watching the Packers, and if they lost, Monday was just a really ugly day. Yeah, but I don’t ever really having conversations about music. Part of that is because when I was a teenager, I was big into Tom Waits and cool jazz in the 1950s, so there were elements where I knew I wasn’t going to find a sympathetic ear.
HANDWRITTEN: There’s a list at the end of this first diary that has a list of "journalistic pieces." One says, "What The Packers Means at Oscar Meyer." It sounds like they controlled the morale of the plant.
BUTLER: So the Packers are the only publicly-owned team in American professional sports, or it might be worldwide professional sports, I’m not sure. They’re in the smallest market in the U.S. There are like 100,000 people, maybe a little over that. It’s a blue collar town through and through. Of course, their name harkens the meat-packing industry, so it’s easy to draw those lines. We identify with this team, we identify with their lunch-box mentally, all those sports cliches. If your team was the Dolphins, you’d be a little less excited about being a meat packer.
HANDWRITTEN: I just happened upon the page where you had your New Year’s Resolution. "Propose to Regina," among others. Did you resolve all of these items?
Butler: I think I would’ve proposed to my wife, so we can cross that one off the list. My whole life I had a fascination: could I join the military and preserve individuality? Or, I had that fascination in my late teens and early twenties. I'm glad that didn’t work out. Obviously, I was trying to find a new job, but that also didn’t work out. The only thing I ever published was not really about Oscar Mayer itself, but rather an anti-war poem (“The Progressive” January 1st, 2005).
It’s interesting to see the list. Round River was the conservation group I was studying with. And Elan our credit card company that financed all that. I was really possessed about, or preoccupied with, financials at that time. I didn’t have that much debt — around $4,000 — which was the most I ever had. I was trying to get all that paid off. I never took the LSAT or GREs. I’m not a good test taker. The first time I took the GREs, I had a terrible score and then I wouldn’t take it again until I was 29 and trying to get into grad school.
I remember running into an old high school buddy of mine during Christmas Break. A good guy. We were good friends through high school, and I hope this doesn’t sound mean, but nobody in our class would’ve said that this guy was the brightest dude in our class, or destined for greatness. He was just a great athlete, a rock-steady guy, and I remember running into him at a bar around Christmas time that year. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was going to med school, and I was like, "That’s great, I’m so happy for you." I was filled with happiness for this guy because he was somebody you want to cheer for. Then he asked me what I was doing. I told him honestly that I was working at Oscar Mayer, and you could see that he didn’t know how to respond to that.
And I would have those conversations once a month and it was heart-breaking. It was embarrassing. Not because working at the plant was a bad thing, but it just wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. So I was making lists of goals like this and always sending out job applications and trying to figure it out.
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 40-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 wasn't 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 am thankful to have the ability 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 Mayer 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 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.
HANDWRITTEN: While I was flipping pages, I came across one that said the Oscar Mayer Book Club. I was gently surprised. I see the five titles: The Jungle, East of Eden, 1984, The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Going After Cacciato. How many people were there in the book club?
BUTLER: So the Oscar Mayer Book Club was just me. About the time I started these journals, I remember thinking of this as a way to undermine corporate power. I figured if they ever found these notebooks, they’d be pissed off. Because I reported people getting hurt, I reported when we packed meat that was dangerous or unhealthy. And I just thought, man, if the Man ever finds these journals, he’s gonna be pissed off.
There were times when I didn’t want to write in the journal. I just wanted to read a book, you know. If we were broken down, I thought, well hell, I’ll go to a used book store, pay seventy-five cents for a used paperback, and I would keep it in my back pocket under my smock, because I figured if my supervisor caught me with a copy of The Jungle, they would just throw me out of the plant. So I would read during my lunch break or if I was on a bathroom break, and I just tried to come up with the most — what would you say — incendiary, anti-corporate, anti-government titles that I could come up with. And I was reading a lot of Ed Abbey at the time, too, but to answer your question, I was the only member of the book club. I don’t know if I ever invited anyone to join me.
I don’t know if I had read them all before I started this so-called book club. I don’t think I’d ever read 1984. I think I may have read Fahrenheit 451. I don’t know if it made that journal entry. I was just trying to find the most subversive novels. It was perfect. Like I said, I could buy them from a used bookstore, keep them in my back pocket. Nobody would really know.
HANDWRITTEN: Did all people have a similar living situation? One time in the journal, you mentioned getting the closest parking spot so far. Did anyone live on-site, or did people drive in like you?
BUTLER: No, the way that it works is it’s a big, old factory site. Just a huge, seven or eight story brick building with other brick buildings. It’s set in kind of a railroad yard because, once upon a time, they would’ve brought cattle in and slaughtered them there at the plant.
I think they stopped doing that in the 70s or 80s. You would still see blood, though. I couldn’t honestly say I ever saw the carcass of an animal. It was always processed, vats of meats or sticks of meat. But a blue-collar, lower-middle class neighborhood had sprung up around the plant. A lot of people did still live in that neighborhood while I was living there. The thing that always blew me away is that people would come from — there was one guy, a buddy of mine — came from Beloit, Wisconsin, which is damn near the Illinois state line. That’s an hour away. I remember thinking, we’re getting paid 12 bucks an hour, what are you spending in gas just to get here? You know? He wasn’t the only one. People were coming from all over the place.
HANDWRITTEN: You had an interesting poem toward the end of the first notebook. “You consume anonymously and I am you,” you wrote. It speaks to consumerism, but also the absent hand. That entry is undated. In fact, the last thirty of this diary are dateless.
BUTLER: What had happened was we would break down for these periods of time — for an hour, forty-five minutes, half-hour, whatever it was. You’d just be sitting on this cold assembly line. There wasn’t much to do. You’d clean up your work area and then you’d still be hanging around. And a lot of people would use that time to chit-chat, but sometimes, especially if I was running the closing machine — the press — I was isolated on the assembly line and I had a lot of time to think. The notebooks just became an outlet for that.
It’s been crazy going through these notebooks and seeing these early ideas that became something else. There was actually an idea for a poem that ended up getting published by the Progressive Magazine after I was done with this job. It’s dated November 3, 2003. The title of whatever I wrote there, I can’t even read my own handwriting.
The story was basically: I was about to walk into the plant in the morning. You’d walk through this long parking lot and then you’d get to a guard shop before you could enter the plant. You’d have to scan your badge or something like that, I can’t remember. And there were a couple newspaper stands and I walked by that morning, November 3rd, and on the Chicago Tribune headline, it said “US Copter Hit, 16 Die,” and I remember looking at that and taking it in and thinking about the people that had died in the helicopter that day and they were probably about my age. The next day, I don’t think the newspaper had changed — I don’t think the newsboy had come to take the newspaper — so the next day it was the same headline, and the day after that. So for three or four days, I’m looking at the same Chicago Tribune headline about these soldiers that had died and I ended up writing a poem about it and sending it to "The Progressive" and that was kind of my first big break in writing.
Matthew Rothschild printed it and paid me $150 and I was in an issue of "The Progressive" with Howard Zinn and Barbara Ehrenreich, and I could tell my mom, "Hey, go to Barnes and Noble and you can find my writing in this magazine." It's just been really crazy looking through this thing and seeing that my ideas haven’t really changed, for better or worse. My fascinations are still the same.
HANDWRITTEN: In some entries, you write these little notes for the future, it seems. Like a little positional anchor cue, should you want to recall a memory. For example, one in the beginning was: “So and so is watching after taking a nap in the lunch room.”
BUTLER: By the time I was taking the journal, reality was pinching. Who knows how long I was going to work there. I do remember scary moments where I think I fell asleep in a break room and one of my union representatives found me there. He wasn’t mean but he was stern. He just said, "If you get caught doing that, you’re going to be fired and there’s nothing we can do to help you." I shouldn't have been taking a nap in there. I mean, I didn’t prolong my break or anything like that, but I remember feeling like it was sad enough to be working there, but to be fired would’ve been sad and embarrassing, too.
I took pride in the fact that I was working hard. My wife and I were just dating then but we shared an apartment, so I was bringing home a paycheck and I was a part of the household, but to have been fired from Oscar Mayer for doing something stupid would have been hard to tell her and my parents. There was an uncomfortable feeling that I was better than this job, but also, I was not better than this job. That kind of dynamic was always sorting through me. And what happens if you get fired from that job? You’re clearly not better, you know? You couldn’t handle it.
It’s weird also seeing those reminders. And also, going through these notebooks and remembering that people got badly injured here and there. Recording when my body didn’t feel right. I noticed in one place when I started feeling carpal tunnel in my wrist. The scary thing is when you’re new at that job, before six months are over, you’re just on a probationary level. You couldn’t really complain if you were having health problems because they would just let you go. So there were definitely weeks, maybe months, where I was suffering bad carpal tunnel. Like, I couldn’t pick up, say a baseball bat or golf club. I couldn’t clinch my hand.
It was very cold in the meat-packing plants. Somewhere between 25 and 40 degrees, like a wet cold. So for several weeks I just felt very sick. I couldn’t get the cold out of my bones. I couldn’t warm up. You also couldn’t quit, you know? You just had to keep going until you got those six months. So writing down some of those health things, it’s been interesting going over that. I think in some ways I was recording the danger in working there, too. I was always afraid someone was going to get hurt, and I was going to be witness to something like that.
HANDWRITTEN: How ephemeral was a place like that for people? Were they working there for years or did people pass like clouds?
BUTLER: There’s no easy way to answer that question because it’s all over the place. They would be constantly hiring. When I got hired, I was part of a group of twenty people, Brett. I remember very clearly on the first day, we all got — see, you’re going through a corporate training which is happening in a corporate training room inside the plant, it doesn’t look scary or anything like that.
But then you’d go get your gear and on your first real day you’re really walking into the innards of this old meat-packing plant and it smells like meat spices and it smells like blood and sometimes there was blood on the ground. That was really, really shocking. I remember on the first day, somebody on my training group went to the assembly line with all of us and then there was a break and that person didn’t come back. They just walked out on the first day. And over the first six months, a lot of the people that I came in with just left. They didn’t come to work. That said, I knew people in my department that worked there ten, fifteen, twenty years. And there were stories of people who worked there for fifty years.
I remember one classic story about a 90-year old guy, who worked in the basement of the plant and had been there 60 years or something like that. The story was that he was illiterate, he had never had to read, he just knew how to run these machines in the basement, so there was a weird folklore about the plant. You didn’t know what was real or not, but it seemed possible that there could be this guy living in the basement and had been forever.
HANDWRITTEN: It seems like a reoccurring issue was machines breaking down. But also, interruption. Was this a regular part of life?
BUTLER: That’s something I never never anticipated. It was crazy. We would work twenty minutes and then be broken for an hour. I think honestly, if you could’ve worked four or five hours in a row without something breaking, that was pretty amazing.
It seems like that was pretty much impossible: to get through the day without something breaking. That was a big part of our community on this floor, which was called Rigid: 95% of that floor was meatpackers — people packing lunch meat — and the other 5% were mechanics, who would float around the room and were always fixing something. Those were always fun interactions for me because everyone was always kinda confused as to why I was working there. They knew that I had gone to college and they just couldn’t figure out why anyone who had gone to college could possibly end up at this meat packing plant. The mechanics were great about that. They harassed me, good-naturedly, all the time about my college degree.
HANDWRITTEN: Did people always see you as "the college kid?" And did you see yourself that way?
BUTLER: I wouldn’t want to over-blow it. It wasn’t talked about a lot. But it was known by the people I worked with that I had a college degree. A lot of people, to their credit, could’ve treated me worse with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever.
I never disparaged the work there. I consider my coworkers my friends, and as terrible as it was to work there, it was fun, too. I mean, people weren’t talking about it, but I remember people joking about it: like, why did you go to college for four years if you’re just going to end up here? Some of the people didn’t have a high school education. There was one woman named Laura I remember. She’s mentioned in the notebook. She had a college degree, too. And then our supervisor was in a Master’s Program at University of Wisconsin Madison, and I remember feeling that was so weird: that we would’ve been on the campus at the same time.
HANDWRITTEN: What're things looking like for Oscar Mayer today? And more broadly, what has the facility meant to the town?
BUTLER: If I have all my facts straight, the plant closed last month after being consistently in production for well over 100 years. Madison is one of those city’s where you have cab driver’s with PhD’s in Physics, people working at the co-op with Masters' in Public Policy and stuff like that. There doesn't seem to be a lot of jobs like production, blue-collar, lunch-pail jobs like this anymore. A lot of that has moved away. But the thing about the Oscar Mayer plant is that it had acted as kind of an economic and industrial anchor for the east side of Madison. Whole neighborhoods had risen up around it. You could clearly see that, and I had lived in that neighborhood when I was working there. It was really nice — not big — but blue-collar houses, well-taken care of, and people in the neighborhood would have at one point or another worked at Oscar Mayer or known someone who did.
The other thing that's been interesting to look through these notebooks is that people who worked there were from all walks of life. It was split fifty-fifty, men and women. There were a lot of black folks and latinos. What I worry about is how it affects the east side of Madison: how are you going to get those jobs back? The answer is you’re not gonna get the jobs back. And I don’t know what’ll happen to those folks. I worry the identity of Madison has totally changed. What is going to happen to this giant corporate complex now on the east side? I don’t know.
HANDWRITTEN: It's also such a household name. It conjures up the school cafeteria. I wonder if there is a symbolic impact as well.
BUTLER: Definitely. I mean, it’s a little thing, but the Oscar Mayer mobile — that crazy weiner-shaped car — was always parked in front of the plant when it wasn’t traveling around the country. It sounds like the jobs and plant are moving down to Illinois. It’s just sad. The Oscar Mayer company was a family-owned company until the early 1980s, I think. I have a friend who worked for corporate Oscar Mayer in that building and remembered the Mayer family used to walk around the plant, and knew all the workers' names. So you know, you’re not just seeing these jobs affecting thousands of workers, but this beloved American brand. I don’t know, it’s not going away, but it’s changing its identity.
HANDWRITTEN: How did these diaries resurface?
BUTLER: When Shotgun Lovesongs first came out, I was doing interviews. People would see my list of jobs on my website and ask me about them — any of the weird jobs I had. So I had to go back and revisit some of those memories. I was stoked when my agent, Rob McQuilkin, met you. As luck would have it, we had just moved into a new house recently, so I‘d been looking through my notes. I don’t throw anything away. I had told my agent about the notebooks. Since then, it’s been a lot of fun obviously. But yeah, I guess I looked at all those jobs as fenceposts along my journey. I don’t dwell on them necessarily.
HANDWRITTEN: Is it easy to reconcile with, though?
BUTLER: Well, it's been coming into a tighter focus for me recently. In the fall, I was teaching a class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
I don’t have a lot of experience with the millennial generation. I live out in the country. For the most part, I’m kind of a hermit. But I feel like millennials get a real bad rap. I don’t know. When I listen to older relatives talking about them, or about the result of the elections, it just sounds like everyone is blaming millennials. And as a result of teaching that class, I think I was talking about this project and thinking, if you’re in college right now, you probably don’t feel like you have the ability to take weird jobs or maybe travel. It just feels like maybe there’s all this pressure on them to always be, you know, achieving and getting internships and stuff. That was never really a concern of mine when I was that age. I just thought all these jobs are going to somehow lead you somewhere and you just sort of have to relax and ride it, you know?
HANDWRITTEN: You could sense that from the entries. There were spots where you mentioned other jobs you wanted, or maybe ways in which you hoped to leave the meat packing facility.
BUTLER: That was weird for me, too, going through the journals. Seeing, “I’m hopeful for this interview.” There were a lot of interviews throughout the notebooks. Medical studies, even. What was interesting, too, about this time is that three years before these notebooks, my dad had a massive brain aneurysm. He’s been in a nursing home ever since. About the time of his aneurysm, my blood pressure went from being a healthy, late teen-person to ridiculously dangerous. So I remember that particular medical study I applied for. I don’t think I qualified because my blood pressure was so bad. But I could have used that money, being a medical guinea pig.
That was another interesting thing: floating through these notebooks and seeing at one point, I wrote a note about pickled eggs, which is a thing that showed up in my first novel, you know? Just these little ideas that were surfacing ten years before it happened.
HANDWRITTEN: What were you doing before the Oscar Mayer job?
BUTLER: I had a pretty good job through college. I ran a bed-and-breakfast that was above a bookstore. There were all sorts of famous writers that would come in. They would read in the bookstore, Canterbury Books, and stay in the bed-and-breakfast. So I worked there throughout college and it was great. I got to meet writers. I never told them about my ambitions, but I remember meeting Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead, and just kind of thinking, "Well these are just normal people. If they can do it, I can do it."
In the summer of 2003, I quit that job to go study conservation biology and ecological knowledge in British Columbia. I took out a credit card, kinda maxed that out, and when I came back to Madison, I couldn’t find a job. That’s a lot of what this first notebook is about. I had interviews but none of them went anywhere. When I got Oscar Meyer, I thought, well, I won’t be there forever and it paid pretty well at the time and it had benefits, so we’ll just do this thing. I don’t think I kept a notebook for the first month, probably because I didn’t feel like I was going to be there that long, you know? I think I thought I would be there one, two, or three months at most, but it ended up being eight months in total.
HANDWRITTEN: Do you remember why you started writing in them?
BUTLER: I think what it comes down to is — and this is going to sound obvious, silly maybe — but it was amazing how corporate it was. There were days of corporate training, safety trainings, and corporate production meetings, and I think after a while, I just felt like sneaking in a notebook to the plant was a way of undermining this corporate environment. I kind of loved seeing, I don’t know, how broken at times the whole thing was, and how weird it all was.
HANDWRITTEN: In one entry, you wrote about the time you spent living in British Columbia. “I feel so empty," you wrote about working at Oscar Mayer. You described the notebooks you kept in British Columbia as "biological observations." If you were to boil the meat diaries down into two words, what would they be?
BUTLER: The first two words that popped into my head were “Industrial Sadness.” You know — and it’s so weird — where I was living in British Columbia, two months before taking this job, it was up close to the Alaskan border, about as wild as it gets on this planet. I caught salmon out of the river with my bare hands, we saw several grizzly bears every day. It was unbelievable. When I came back to civilization, I had a really hard time. I guess it’s called culture shock.
I would sometimes break down in grocery stores. I had a really hard time with fluorescent lighting and all the array of food choices. That was really staggering for me. I was homesick for that — and not just British Columbia — but that kind of wild, you know? Night sky, clean air, birds. When I say “sadness,” that was a big part of it. I was like, God, I graduated from college, I graduated with honors. What am I doing here? Why can’t I be back there? I would get to the plant at four in the morning and be done by one or two in the afternoon, and I would be so tired I would take a nap. It felt like my days were cooking by really fast, you know? It was a sad time.
HANDWRITTEN: What did a typical day look like? Was there even a typical day?
BUTLER: Initially when I started the job, I would get up at three in the morning, eat breakfast, and make coffee. I didn’t have a long commute to work. It was only like 10 or 15 blocks away. I would sit in the parking lot in my truck for a while and just stare at the building, which at that hour, it was wrapped in fog because it was billowing steam, and with all these lights, it was very imposing.
I would walk in, go to the locker room, put on my plastic booties to cover my boots, put on a white smock, my hairnet and helmet, and I would walk up two or three floors to get to the place where I worked. We had an office meeting with our supervisor, who would tell us what kind of meat we were working with that day — ham and cheese loaf, salami, or something like that — and then he would give you your work assignment.
“Butler, you’re running this machine," he would say.
The work pretty much never changed. It was this meat or that meat. Sometimes my daily assignment would change, or somebody would get sick or have the day off, so rather than running this huge press machine that sealed all the lunch meat, maybe I was working as a stripper, which was not stripping off your clothes, but these plastic casings off giant tubes of lunch meat. So yeah, each day was pretty much the same.
HANDWRITTEN: What were the other tasks you or others did?
BUTLER: I’m going to try and remember this now. One of the jobs was stripper. Basically, the lunch meat comes to you on a giant rack that’s sort of like a pallet. It’s stacked from your feet to your head in six rows of 40-pound tubes of frozen meat, and they’re wrapped in blue cellophane. So all day long, all you do is pull a 40-pound tube of meat, put it on a table, take a sharp knife, run it across the plastic, pull the plastic off, and then you hand this giant stick of meat to the slicer.
The slicer ran the machine that slices the meat. So his job — and I’m going to say "his" sometimes because some of these jobs were truly kind of separated by sex or gender based on danger, weight lifting, and stuff like that — but the slicer would put this giant stick of meat up into a machine and then slice it out into these stacks of meat that you would buy at the grocery store.
The next place it goes to is — and I can’t remember their title — but they were packagers. They take the stacks of meat off of conveyer belts, and put them into these plastic bubble Oscar Mayer packaging. Then, I think it came to the sealer. I had that job quite a bit. I ran this giant heated press, and I would take the packaging and put it into the press machine, which would seal it, and then I would send it down a conveyer belt where it was cut into individual packs — initially it came on a tray of eight or something — and then it went to the boxers. And sometimes I was a boxer, too, and at that point, the packaging had come in fully-trimmed and you’re putting it in boxes and setting it on a pallet.
There were weird things sometimes. You’d be taken from one department to another, shot over to another department to do some totally different job for a day or two. But that was out of the ordinary.