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.