Fish-processing in Alaska

#Workplace

Mon, Feb 11th, 2002 03:00 by REVSCRJ ARTICLE

Don?t do it. It sucks. It REALLY sucks -- I mean there are better ways to get carpal tunnel than slitting open the bellies of thousands of salmon a day, believe me.

I was working on the processing line of a cannery where the "sweet shift" was when you got to sweep the blood and organs off the floor. Damn it felt good when all you had to do was shuffle around the guts on the cold cement floor. I got so numb to the presence of entrails that I used to squeeze the fish hearts to see the squirt-gun effect of the cold dead blood shooting out of them and think nothing of it.

I once saw a shrinking violet of a girl pick up a handful of intestines, throw them at a friend and laugh in a giddy-schoolgirl sort of way. I had fish scales bond to me like I had grown them myself.

Once I played hacky-sack with the decapitated head of a small salmon too young to be anything but a throw away. Don?t do it. It's not worth it -- trust me.

You work in a warehouse kept just below freezing for long hours and get soaked in icy bloody water. One time these HUGE king salmon came in -- heads bigger than a human's -- so big that they couldn't be processed by the regular line. A few of us get pulled aside to process them.

"Process them"... so I'm cutting the head off this one that is so big another kid has to hold the body while I saw and I hit the primary bloodline near the back. Suddenly, WHOOSH this fucking gout of thick black semi-coagulated gore washes out of it all over my slickers all the way down to my boots. Me and the kid react like you'd expect: "WHOA! THAT WAS FUCKIN' COOL!!"

Anyway, we get the heads off, the bellies slit and scraped when its discovered that the heads are too big to fit in the grinder. The foreman tells me, a girl and this Montana boy to reduce them to a size that will fit and hands us these huge heavy knives.

At first I try sawing into the skull, as do the other two, when I realize that it would be a lot easier if I just hack. So I lift the blade up over my head and start bringing it down with these hard aggro chops. I use all my strength, just whacking down into the bone, cartilage, and meat.

Eyes pop, bits fly all helter-skelter. I finish my portion of the heads and move on to help them finish theirs. By the end of the process I'd refined the motion into an almost wood chopping rhythm. I'm totally entranced in it. It's meditative. It's not like I am thinking about it, or really anything at all, I am simply the action of the metal passing through the head of the fish and I am perfecting the movement -- it's totally engrossing.

We finish and I look up to see this girl who had been using the "sawing" method the whole time and she's got this wide eyed, half disgusted look on her face. She looks at me, puts a contemptuous pucker on her mouth and says "You fucking psycho!"

I laugh, not understanding what brought it on, but Hell, I've been called things so dramatically worse that "psycho" is just funny.

So I head to wash up and take a break and I see myself in the mirror: bright yellow rain slickers covered head to toe in bits of meat. Patches of purplish black blood, stains bloody handprint smears across my chest. My hair is blackish red, my beard has rivers running through it. There are bits of brain half dried on my face.

Suddenly I'm out of my body looking at it almost horrified, but mostly fascinated by how grotesque and unfamiliar it looks. I mean the meat just don't look right like that! I stand there for a second shocked and then laugh like a sick dog's bark and heading out for a smoke, the taste of salt in my mouth like death.

Don't do it. Trust me. It'll change you forever.

  1515

 

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