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.
“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?”
“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.