Ever had one of those small talk moments? You know, when you're hanging out with a group of people you don't know that well, and talk turns to worst summer jobs?
I always win those conversations. Always.
Growing up as I did in a small town in Southwestern Ontario, like most of my peers I took any summer job I could find. A young man can put up with just about anything for eight weeks - ask a treeplanter - particularly if there's a year of university debauchery at the end of it.
I admit that for several summers, I held the one plum job our town had to offer: a six-week stint at the local General Motors warehouse. "The General" paid summer students union scale, which was around $15 an hour - twice what you could make anywhere else. I drove a forklift in their receiving department, loading mufflers and transmissions onto rail cars for distribution across Canada.
Nothing wrong with that gig. It was the ones I took to fill the remaining summer weeks that sucked so hard.
Here's the short list:
- Asphalt shoveller
- Garbage man
- Line painter
- Machine shop floor sweeper
- Changer of 18-wheeler tires
Reviscerator? Yeah, that one needs some 'splaining.
To fill in the remaining weeks between school's end and starting at GM (only the employees' kids got the whole summer) I grabbed short-term jobs via the local youth employment service. Most were tolerable - landscaping, clerical, factory stuff. But one fateful day I took one that was decidedly intolerable.
It was at a poultry processing facility called Cold Springs Farms (don't be fooled by their pastoral website - it's a nasty business. But check out the "Humour" section under "Turkey Tidbits" - am I the only one alarmed by an animated turkey doing standup? "Did the pilgrims eat turkey with their fingers? No, they never ate their fingers!" Ba dum-dum.)
I and a few other students were sent to an icy room, to toss frozen turkeys into carts for shipping. They were cold and hard (and if you dropped one, they'd slide the length of the room) but not terribly unpleasant.
Then, on Friday, I was summoned.
Someone had fallen ill on "the line" (whatever that meant), and I was to fill in for the rest of the day. I was led down a series of progressively warmer hallways, winding up in a house of horrors.
The room was dark and Dickensian, with a conveyor circling overhead. From the conveyor dangled long and dangerous looking hooks. Onto each of those was affixed a (non-frozen) turkey torso. A man wheeled up to me with a giant bucket of white envelopes. These, he explained, were giblets.
Giblets are the edible offal of a fowl, typically including the heart, gizzard, liver, and other visceral organs. The term is culinary usage only; zoologists do not refer to the "giblets" of a bird. (Wiki)
My job, it was explained to me, was to take these bags of giblets and use my fist to ram them into the body cavities of the bird corpses circling overhead.
It took a while to get used to the repetitive, vaguely proctological motion involved. Care was needed to avoid skinning your knuckles on the inside of the ribcages. Occasionally, a bag of giblets would burst and the various parts would go skittering around underfoot (presumably to be cleaned up at shift's end, which thankfully I never saw.)
I don't know what that should seem so wrong (any more than beheading, de-feathering, eviscerating, or any of the other pre-me steps I can - in hindsight - thank God for sparing me) but it bothers me to this day. It's like one of those ancient burial superstitions - to be cooked and eaten along with another's innards just seems wrong.
At the end of this shift, I was cornered trying to flee the building. "Play your cards right, and you could have a full time job here," a supervisor told me. "The woman who cuts the main vein out of the turkey necks is going on maternity."
I threw that bright future away, and never looked back (though my dad used the rubber boots for years, happily mucking about in the swamp behind our house.) I still shudder when I drive through Thamesford - and every Thanksgiving.
I'll be the first to admit that there are probably worse jobs out there - I know people who have worked in animal husbandry with better stories. And there are people who process fowl for a career, not for a week.
I actually consider myself very lucky to have worked such jobs. Keeping one or two "rock bottom" experiences in your pocket can be a source of strength and perspective. No matter how bad a day I have at work, no matter what I'm asked to do or how I'm treated, it sure as hell beats processing turkeys. That which doesn't kill you....
Plus, I've made hay on that story for years. Just last Friday, I told it to two friends at lunch (well, after we had eaten) to great guffaws. On Sunday I ran into one of them at the park with our kids. He turned to another parent and said, "This is the reviscerator I was telling you about!"
Remind me to tell you about the scarecrow gig one day.