“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.