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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

And I Don’t Know What’ll Happen To Those Folks.

Brett Rawson

"on Monday morning our outlook on the world is not at all resolute but rather steadfastly defiant."

"on Monday morning our outlook on the world is not at all resolute but rather steadfastly defiant."

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.

"Our line is disabled again, this time due to the mechanics, a cadre of lazy new employees without a clue as to how to set up the line." 

"Our line is disabled again, this time due to the mechanics, a cadre of lazy new employees without a clue as to how to set up the line." 

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.  

"Terry the slicer has a sharp new haircut and his routinely busy sideburns have been neatly trimmed."

"Terry the slicer has a sharp new haircut and his routinely busy sideburns have been neatly trimmed."

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.

"during my first break today, i talked to Cheyenne, a young mother and fellow worker. she asks me how i like the work and i admit to her how i loathe the place, the monotony and drudgery of the work. she doesn't, can't comprehend my sentiment. she's been working in warehouses and factories her whole life and to her, this one is no better, no worse. the paychecks come, weekly, the overtime is plentiful, and her co-workers are amiable enough. to these points i cannot disagree."

"during my first break today, i talked to Cheyenne, a young mother and fellow worker. she asks me how i like the work and i admit to her how i loathe the place, the monotony and drudgery of the work. she doesn't, can't comprehend my sentiment. she's been working in warehouses and factories her whole life and to her, this one is no better, no worse. the paychecks come, weekly, the overtime is plentiful, and her co-workers are amiable enough. to these points i cannot disagree."

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.

"Bossman Mark assigns me to observe Harley on the salami line. Harley is all but deaf and alternately screams or whispers into what must sound to him as an unfillable abyss. He has worked as Oscar Mayer for 30 years. His mother and aunt both died last week."

"Bossman Mark assigns me to observe Harley on the salami line. Harley is all but deaf and alternately screams or whispers into what must sound to him as an unfillable abyss. He has worked as Oscar Mayer for 30 years. His mother and aunt both died last week."

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.

"Harley says to me: 'Good luck Nick. Get yourself some lubricant. You'll do fine. Any chance of your dad coming home? No. Sorry I asked. Get yourself some lubricant. You'll do fine.'"

"Harley says to me: 'Good luck Nick. Get yourself some lubricant. You'll do fine. Any chance of your dad coming home? No. Sorry I asked. Get yourself some lubricant. You'll do fine.'"