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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Eggs


I plunge my hands into another green plastic tub of nuggets and pull up with pieces of chicken  hanging from my fingers like fleshy rosary beads. I fling the product back down into the tub in disgust. No yellow dot for this one. I pull a hold tag out and scrawl “CUT THROUGH” in all capital letters. I am on a crusade against strung-together nuggets. My supervisor told us that the customers are complaining about this, so we are to tag any tub we find with more than two connected pieces. I make it my mission to save the reputation of the chicken plant and impress my supervisor with my high standards and unrestrained holds. I carefully mark another tally on the hold log, trying to save the white paper from the raw chicken goop on my glove.

“YOU’RE TAGGING EVERYTHING MAN!” yells one of the runners, angrily pulling the tub I tagged off of the line.

“IF IT LOOKS BAD, I TAG IT. I AM JUST TRYING TO DO MY JOB!” I reply. I want to say something to him about how this whole place is built on taking advantage of people and the way to subvert that is not through carelessness but obedience, but all he seems concerned about is the extra work I am creating for him by placing so many holds. One of the unanticipated effects of this is the extra work I create for myself: a steady stream of rejected tubs coming back for rechecks, keeping the line backed up at DSI 5. My co-worker, Roberto, appears suddenly beside me and begins pulling product to weigh at my station.

“HILDA TOLD ME TO TAKE OVER LINE FIVE HERE. SHE WANTS TO TALK TO YOU IN THE OFFICE.”

I take off my gloves and walk up the steps of the foot bridge over the conveyor, through the series of plastic flaps, past a giant crate of discarded chicken dyed pastel blue, and into the QA office. I am relieved to have a break from the constant work of the line, where my brain was struggling to keep up with my hands, but unnerved by my assistant supervisor’s sudden interest in talking with me. Most days she does not even reply to the “Good morning” I greet her with in the office at the start of the day. Most of my questions regarding work or the location of needed supplies are typically met with a rude response implying that I should have already known the answer to my own question. I walk into the office where she is making more hold tags.

“Roberto said you wanted to talk to me?”
Without looking up from her work she says, “Go back to the line. I will come and get you. Just stay off of line 5.”

Caught in the familiar gap between obedience and initiative, neither of which are sustainable traits in this place, I return to the line in frustration. DSI 1 is the only unoccupied station, where there is only one tub awaiting inspection. I stir the product, weigh thirty fillets, affix my yellow dot, and slide it onto the line. I lean against the counter, waiting anxiously for my assistant supervisor or another tub to inspect.
Hilda strolls out onto the floor. After five or so minutes of socializing with fellow supervisors, she calls me with her hand. She maintains her usual morbid silence as she leads me back to the office. When we arrive, she tells me to sign in my pen and thermometer and watches impatiently as I do so.

“Follow me,” she says. We cross the production floor again and exit to the front part of the building where we turn into the human resources office. Hilda escorts me to a room where my supervisor and one of the human resources personnel sit waiting for me.

“As you know, the first forty-five days are a probationary period. It seems as though you are not a good fit for the QA position, so we are going to have to let you go… I am going to need your ID card. Your supervisor will clock you out,” the man in human resources tells me in a practiced voice. I turn to my supervisor, remembering the many times I asked him for feedback to no avail.

“Can I ask why?”
“Well, speed. The line was always getting backed up. I got called out to the floor five times because of you! And you failed to fill out the weight histogram correctly.”

By this time everyone is on lunch break and so I go into the cafeteria, but cannot bring myself to sit down to lunch just yet, so I go into the bathroom, shut myself in a stall, and surprise myself as I fill the toilet bowl with tissues full of snot and tears. It hurts getting fired, even from such dismal work.

The next day was supposed to be my first mandatory Saturday overtime in my month-long career at the chicken plant. Instead, I take my usual morning stroll to the Comer Farmer’s Market where Corey tells me Baw Baw has been trying to call me because her stomach hurts. Knowing she is nearing nine months, I walk quickly over to her house, knock on the door and walk in. Baw Baw stands in the living room clutching her belly.

“My baby brother is coming!” Blay Blay says.
Ya gaw na ta blu blaw leeeh. Na ta paw phone ba ma nu leh—I called you many times already! Why didn’t you answer?” she asks.
“Did you call Sue already?”
Uhh. Ya te aw he luh a na ree ta hsee ta kaw, bah hsa ya hso ga moh Wisdom ga oh pleh hsoo nya—Yes, I told her to come at 10:30, but I think Wisdom will be born very soon.”

I quickly call Sue at Jubilee and tell her to come now to take Baw Baw to the hospital as I prepare to watch the other four kids and try to get in touch with Hei Nay Htoo at the chicken plant. Russ and Christina at Jubilee volunteer to watch the kids so that I can take Hei Nay Htoo to the hospital. I agree to take over watching the kids Sunday morning until their parents get back from the hospital.
Wisdom Yoha Htoo is born 8 pounds, 11 ounces on Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 10:58 AM at Athens Regional with no complications. Hei Nay Htoo and I arrive shortly after the birth. I am then sent on a mission to find rice and Mama noodles.
The next morning I drop scrambled eggs into hot oil and watch the yellow mixture puff up as it fries. I place the fried eggs on the table with rice, Sriracha, sliced fruit, and five plates. Wonderful, Blay Blay, Hae Tha Blay, Ga Pu, and I sit down on the floor around the table to eat breakfast as we wait for Wisdom to come home.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Secret

The bell rings continuously for a minute to ensure that absolutely everyone knows their precious fifteen-minute break is almost over. We stand up and file out into the crowded hallway leading to the production floor. I retrieve my smock from the hook and hustle between machines to my station where five seventy-pound tubs of product have already accumulated on each side of the computer terminal, awaiting my inspection. I slowly ease back into the rhythm of scooping handfuls of fillets, depositing them on the counter, weighing them piece-by-piece, and quickly tossing them back into the tub after the weight registers in the spreadsheet.

“YOU NEED TO PICK UP THE SPEED A LITTLE BIT, OK?” my supervisor surprises me from behind over the rumble of the sizers. “THIS AFTERNOON WILL BE YOUR FIRST TEST WITH ONLY THREE PEOPLE ON THE LINE. WE’LL SEE IF YOU CAN DO IT!”

I reprogram the computer for the next variety of fillets and quickly scoop a larger handful of fillets, hoping I can save some time on having to pull the sample of thirty pieces multiple times. As I lift the gloppy pile, two fillets slip from my grasp and fall on the floor. I place the rest on the table and begin recording the weights in the computer stretching the smaller pieces out to check that they fit the template. I toss the already weighed pieces into the tub with haste sending several sliding off the edge of the counter.

“EXCUSE ME!” a voice calls. It is one of the line supervisors. “DID YOU DO THAT?” she asks accusingly, pointing to the fillets on the floor.
“YES…”
“I JUST CLEANED THIS AREA! BE CAREFUL! THE CEO IS COMING HERE TOMORROW AND I KNOW HE DOES NOT WANT TO SEE THAT!”
“OK. I WILL.”

Tesfaye comes over with the ice cart and with his grabber retrieves each fillet that I dropped from the floor and places it neatly on top of the ice.

“GOOD MORNING, ZAC! HOW ARE YOU?”
“I AM FINE! HOW ARE YOU, TESFAYE?”
“GOOD!”
“HAVE YOU WORKED HERE A LONG TIME?”
“ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF. IT IS MY FIRST JOB IN AMERICA!  I LIKE IT!”

He smiles at me as he drags the cart off to the wash station. The rollers on either side of me are again full with tubs for me to inspect. The line runner arrives with two more tubs on his cart and glares at me as I grab a handful of nuggets to weigh. We are supposed to inspect thirty pieces per lot. A lot can include one to three tubs according to our discretion. The assistant line supervisor from the other side leans over to me and says,

“THE SECRET TO THIS JOB IS KEEPING YOUR OWN SECRET. YOU CAN’T DO IT HOW THEY TELL YOU.”

I laugh as he gestures to indicate that I should just place stickers on all the tubs to keep the line moving. He slides the tubs I have already marked with my yellow “Q.A. Inspected” sticker onto the conveyor for me, nodding his head towards the uninspected tubs.

“C’MON MAN. IT IS ALMOST YOUR BREAK AND THERE IS A LOT OF CHICKEN HERE!”

I do a hasty sift through each tub, affix my yellow dot to the tags, and walk away for my lunch break a minute late.

My employment at the chicken plant is padded by financial security and an unacknowledged college degree, which allow me to frame it as a short-lived sojourn. Yet for most of my Karen friends and I would speculate the vast majority of the hourly workers here, this is far from a new experience. It is the means by which their families are surviving in this twisted economy. The first forty-five workdays are a probationary period, a time wrought with anguish for someone who relies on this income to make rent. The company can let you go at any time unless your performance meets their standards, throw you away under the counter to be dyed blue and discarded.

I return to my post for a moment to re-sheath my hands and then off to check the wash stations where all product that makes contact with the floor is sent to be cleaned with water treated with some special chemical for sanitizing chicken. New tubs appear on the rollers as I walk off towards the far corner of the production floor. I pick up the washed chicken and move it to an adjacent tub as I glance at it for dirt or hairs. I count ten pieces then reach up for the clipboard to indicate that the washer properly cleaned the product for this hour.

“ZAC,” a voice calmly interrupts. I turn to see the USDA lady whom I met in the morning staring straight at me.
“YOU ONLY CHECKED ONE SIDE OF THE FIRST SEVEN PIECES! I WATCHED YOU! I AM GOING TO HAVE TO TELL YOUR SUPERVISOR ABOUT THAT.”

Before I can say anything she walks off towards the QA office. My hands shake as I pull another ten pieces and check them thoroughly. The assistant QA supervisor comes out to scold me.

“EVERYTIME YOU CHECK THE WASH STATIONS, YOU NEED TO CHECK TEN PIECES! THE USDA LADY JUST CAME BACK AND TOLD ME YOU ONLY CHECKED THREE PIECES! RANDY IS NOT GOING TO BE HAPPY WHEN HE HEARS ABOUT THIS IN THE MORNING!”

Trembling with worry, I finish the last hour of work mindlessly weighing nuggets, unsure whether tomorrow will be my last day. I surprise myself with the realness of the fear, my attachment to the position. My presence here no longer feels to be an experiment in subversion, but my actual life.

If I focus my attention on what could be, my eyes close to the beauty in present circumstances and the very way to “what could be” functionally closes. Beauty arises from charming fear and gratitude into coalescence. Fear, volatile as it may be, keeps me attuned to mystery. It is an invitation to the practice of gratitude. On this dynamic path to contentment, everything is pregnant with possibility.

I emerge into the warm afternoon through the turnstile and hop in the passenger seat of Hei Nay Htoo’s van in the parking lot. My muscles sink into the car seat, giving thanks that they are no longer required to maintain my frame standing erect. Sweat pours under my sweatshirt and long underwear as my body adjusts to the new climate of Northeast Georgia spring. I watch the giant fans outside the plant whirl above an intricate buttress of pipes as we pull away. I am now a denizen of this strange cathedral.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Quality

“NO SPITTING ON RESTROOM FLOOR,” a sign declares in all capital letters from the wall. I search awkwardly for the lever to turn on the water in the long trough sink as seasoned workers hurry about the bathroom on their break. The man next to me gestures down below and I finally see a pedal which I lean into with my knee and send scalding water cascading from the faucet and splashing onto my sweatshirt.
I yank open the bathroom door and walk out into the cafeteria. The lunch line is off to the right and vending machines line the far left wall. The long sidewalls are covered with small gray lockers. Long fold out tables with bench seats fill the center of the room in rows of two. It is as though I am walking out of the smoky bathroom of my high school back into the crowded cafeteria. I feel as though I need to have a pass to prove that I am allowed to be here. I glance nervously among the tables and breathe a sigh of relief as Eh Kaw waves me over to the Karen table where there are already many Tupperware containers of curry spread out between bowls of rice.
It is my first day as a Quality Assurance Technician at the chicken plant, which is mostly spent watching the others quickly weigh random samples of “product” and place holds on seventy pound tubs of chicken nuggets which contain too many pieces several grams too heavy or connected together by fat or cartilage. “The most important thing is speed,” my supervisor tells me as he sits me down in his office to read company and department policies to me, after which I am to initial off on several items on a list.
Quality assurance as it turns out is mostly a matter of quickly collecting data to keep “product” moving along the line. While I am required to stick my sheathed hands and arms into the tubs and stir around to look for foreign material, mostly my purpose is to ensure the homogeneity of fillets and nuggets to keep Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s from making too many complaints. I am to report any defects, or signs that the product originated in a living creature: cartilage, excess skin, fat, bloodspots, or worst of all, bone.
My first day is relatively easy and I question the suggestion made by the representative from human resources during the classroom orientation the previous week, that you take a couple of over-the-counter painkillers before work everyday for your first week. The second day, however, I am to report at the regular time and so I carpool with my Karen friends in Comer already working at the plant. A silver SUV pulls up outside the house at 6:35 am the next morning, roughly ten minutes after Eh Kaw knocks on my door to wake me up.
I sip on my thermos of tea as we cruise down 72 towards Athens in the darkness before dawn. The headlights illuminate a large tractor-trailer stacked high with cages in the lane adjacent to us. Gloomy white shapes squirm inside the squatty cages and feathers rush in the headwind. We are caravanning from Comer together with our product.

Quality can never be evaluated by adherence to a particular model, because quality exists only relative to particularity. If you eat the same identical piece of chicken every day for lunch, eventually the distinctions of “good” or “bad” lose their meaning because no experience is unique. There is only one experience: chicken. The chicken plant is the industrialization of our oblivion. Without the mindfulness with which to actually make distinctions between experiences, we become the all-white meat fillet that fills our belly. As we genetically engineer ourselves into machines, we make our world into a place where consciousness is a scary thought. What is the purpose of all of these people working in a cold and noisy factory under fluorescent lights to produce low-quality food to fatten the drive-thru patron? What are people for?
When my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Germany they were poor working class people living in Baltimore city. My great-grandfather established a bakery in his new country and this was the means by which he supported his family. After my grandmother completed the 8th grade, she went to work in her father’s bakery also. As the story told many times at her funeral in January goes, this is where she met my grandfather, who kept coming back for doughnuts. This is my most recent relative whom I have heard of employed in the work of food production.
We encounter low quality when we are unable to conceive of the existence of multiple realities: rich and poor, delicious and bland, life and death. Our memory becomes bleached by monoculture. As my psychiatrist recently reminded me, “Depression is not good for you. There have been studies showing links between depression and all kinds of health problems, especially memory loss.”  The symptoms are perhaps a sign of the disease.

My second day I begin working alongside one of the other technicians who kindly teaches me all of the different tasks and tricks associated with the job. Tub after tub of chicken comes on the rollers to be processed. My lower back begins to ache from standing and pushing the tubs as 4:15 PM approaches. The lines show no sign of stopping. The product continues to appear without notification from anyone as to what time the machines will be shut off and the birds will be finished so that we can go home for the day.
I am faced with the challenge of remembering the distinctions between the days of my toil, of countering the temptation to classify my new work as monotony and follow this to its logical conclusion of meaninglessness. I must frame my new position as an act of anamnesis for my middle class mind to accept it. If I am to pursue quality I have to counter my journalistic judgment of the chicken plant. To find joy to in my work I search for a melody for a line from the morning psalm so that I can sing it to myself as I work. I will sing of your salvation! I will sing of your salvation! The chicken plant is an absurd venue in which to sing of God’s healing, but it is precisely for this reason that there is quality to be found here amidst the roaring portion sizers, plastic tubs of raw poultry, and wet concrete floors.