Monday, April 23, 2012

A Job at Burns

"I can pour my own ketchup, grandma!"
Rhiannon asked me if she could have a hot dog for a snack.

That reminded me that I used to work at Burns Meat Packing Plant after my first year of university, packing wieners.

That is where I learned to look for the tastiest product, snap off the ends and just eat the centre.

I don’t know how I heard about this job -- it was the midnight shift of women who skinned and packaged wieners. I was paid union wages -- $1.89 an hour – an absolute fortune. I worked from 11:30 pm until 7:30 am, and came home and slept for the day – out in the backyard in the sun – so I had the added benefit of a great tan. I thought I had the job of a lifetime.
"Too hot!.  I shall cool it down."

The money and summer sun were the good parts of the job.

There were some bad parts -- a foul stench around the factory to begin with, so bad that I took a deep breath before entering the unit where I worked.

Then Itried to hold my breath as long as possible, knowing that either I had to hold that breath until I died, or take the next breath which would be so foul that I would wish I had died.

I worked there for two summers: the first summer packing wieners and the second summer stapling boxes in the packing plant.

The first bite is always the best one.
Packing wieners included the paring knife skill of skinning 12 wieners, then laying them on a cellophane wrap over which I had to run a hot iron to seal the ends and then they were ready to be packed in boxes.

I was deft, nicking the top of the cellophane once, and then pulling on that end, letting the cellophane spiral down to the bottom of the wiener with one sharp tug.

The real trick of employment that summer was staying awake for the whole Sunday night shift, for I was never smart enough to get a full eight hours of rest on Sunday before my shift began. The rest of the days were fine.

I have no idea how I got a promotion to the boxing room the next year, a day shift – where three of us stood at machines that were operated by our feet, while our hands folded a box bottom, and then held the side of the box while it glided over the stapler, making my foot and my hands work in tandem to have the staples hit the right spot.
Two pieces in the left side of her cheek.
Now to pack in 2 pieces for the right side.

Even though I was the summer help, I used to see if I could go faster than the two women who worked there full time.

One day the Scottish woman took me aside in the lunch room and bawled me out.

“Don’t you do your crate of boxes faster than Agnes does hers. She is slowing down so that you will do all of the work. I will punish you if you do her work for her because she will let you. She is just lazy. We are not paid by how fast you go. We just have to do a certain amount of work altogether, and you are doing hers.”

I was the new kid on the block.
Rhiannon: Grandma? "Do you want to cook one for you? "
Arta: "No, I had plenty of them when I was 21."

I got another lesson, I didn’t process until years later.

To back up a bit, I had done my fair share of reading when I went babysitting for the Wards. The mom in that family had her collection of True Romance, Truth Love and True Confessions -- $.15 a copy, sometimes $.35 a copy.

More than I could afford, but I had read hers and make money baby-sitting at the same time. The titles were provocative: “I Couldn’t Forgive My Brother-in-Law”, “My Father Sold me”, “Marked by Scandal” or “I was a Teen-Aged Lesbian”. I chalked that last article up to being the dumbest thing I had ever read, and wondered who had ever dreams up that stuff. But here in the meat-packing plant I got my first real-life lesson for I tried to learn everyone’s name on the midnight shift and eat lunch beside them. I was taken aside and told not to go near the two women who wore black leather jackets to work and who lived with each other. That was the commandment.

I learned another lesson in that plant. A woman I liked, only a few years older than me, wore a simple gold band. I was getting married that year. We had no money. She wore a simple gold band. I thought I could go with a band like that for a wedding ring and I asked her about hers. She was a Catholic, married, but getting a divorce, in an era where there was no other way to get one than to wait for a 7 year separation period. “Marry in haste, repent in leisure,” she said to me.

I would have worked the rest of my life at Burns, the pay was so good. The second year I was making over $2.00 an hour, enough to pay my living expenses when I was in Edmonton at university. Doral paid my tuition and my books. Fees were low in those days. The government paid 80% of the tuition – the deal was, you had to matriculate with a 65% average and you could enter university. Not many women went. I didn’t like the sexist saying that made the men my age at the Institute laugh: 90% of the women in the world are beautiful and the other 10% go to university. I wondered who had collected that kind of data – but I didn’t wonder long enough to do any research on it, for what did I care.

I thought about all of the while watching that cute little thing in hot-dog heaven, eating her snack.



  1. Arta:

    What a moving, insightful piece of feminist memoire! The last sentence allowed me to choose your pictures of Rhianon to be the link to the little girl in "Hot Dog heaven."

    I love her and I love you, but I am uncomfortable when I situate myself on the male side of the cruel modern sexist dilemna.

    The brightness of hope is captured so heartwrenchingly, sensitively in the caption to your last portrait: May the God who made woman as well as man in his own image bless you with a continued outpouring of the brilliance with which you write!