Edited from a journal entry dated evening, Tuesday, 3 Jan. 1995.
Over my junior-year winter break from college, I worked a temporary job at a cold-storage food warehouse in my hometown. Among the several tasks I was assigned to do was restacking hams:
Another temp worker a year younger than me, Phil, and I were told to go to the “U.S.D.A.” room , where we worked with Jim and later Dave in restacking hams from the loose-pack, barrel-like round reinforced cardboard totes (like the containers holding dozens of watermelons one might see at a grocery store) onto flat, cardboard-separated layers on skids (pallets). I was fearing that it would be like the Bukowski ham-tossing story I had recently read, and it was.
We got into white coats, hairnets, and rubber gloves, and we then used sharp steel meat-hooks to haul these 30-pound pig quarters, skin and all, cut on two sides to raw meat. Swiping with hook in meat side, through meat, and stuck into skin was best method. I would tug to break each ham from its neighbors, frozen and molded into place. We hauled the hams over the 4-foot or 4-and-a-half-foot- high walls of cardboard, and onto the 12-count layers, five layers high, which was then entirely closed in a plastic bag. We did 20 or 22 totes from 10:30 a.m. til 4:30 p.m., half-hour clean-up til 5.
When the hook hits bone, the sound is solid sunk, like an axe hitting and sticking into a green log. It was kinda gross at first, the first tote, to look at the meat, but it was no big deal after a while. (But we humans look like that too beneath skin.) I had seen all those skinned animal carcasses that my uncle had hunted and trapped, and it is OK as long as you don’t connect the pigs to humans. Keep distanced. The grease and bits on the gloves, the two leg bones movable in the shank, the blood soup in bottom of totes, the bacon smell. I sweated, and my shoulder tired of hauling the hams up to shoulder level. I tried to switch off striking and lifting arms but I’m just not as quick or agile with left arm.
After we finished, we were told not to come back tomorrow; we were no longer needed.