Jesse Myner

Following a good five year run as a futures trader, Jesse Myner does what he wants and goes where he wants to. He has lived in Paris, Budapest, Croatia, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami, and currently splits his time between Bogotá and Alaska, where he goes for the salmon run and to hunt caribou with his Inupiat Eskimo friends. He is the author of Home Depot Profiles in Courage and America South. A memoir of his years as a futures prop trader, titled Eat Like a Bird, Shit Like an Elephant, will appear in Summer 2014.

 

The Fish House (January, 2014. Issue 42.)

There was bad news coming out of the Fish House. Salmon season had just opened and already half the workers had quit the slime lines. Of the four lines only two were running. There were only the Somalis and a few of the mental defectives left to work them. The salmon backed up and the Fish House Lead had a nervous breakdown. He began to shake violently, unable to speak, and laid down on pile of fish guts and passed out. When they got him awake he tried to quit but the foreman wouldn't let him. There was talk we were to be pulled off the dock and sent inside to help.
 
"You don't want to go in there," said One-Eyed Eddie. He had started out in the Fish House twelve years ago. "I got out and I never want to go back. You don't want to go in there."
 
The next day the Plant Manager sent us.
 
Full raingear, cotton glove liners and rubber gloves, along with hair nets, beard nets and ear plugs were required. The fish processing machines were as high as the ceiling and very loud and you could not speak to someone unless you shouted into his ear. The floor was covered in fish heads, fins, intestines and other parts and every few minutes an odor wafted through the plant and nauseated you.
 
The salmon were transported by conveyor belts and fed into the different machines for disassembly. The Header lined up the salmon and dropped a series of blades, guillotining off the head, tail and dorsal fin. The Belly Splitter slit open the decapitated fish to their anal hole and then the Gut Puller clawed out their innards and disemboweled them. Somalis stood around the machines pulling levers and adjusting knobs and spraying out the blood and guts with hoses.
 
The machines were calibrated for fish of a certain size, and fish that were larger or smaller emerged from the machines only partly disassembled. Fish needing only minor alterations were quickly trimmed up by workers with knives standing at cutting boards along the conveyor belts. The fish requiring more significant work, such as only partially removed heads and gills, dorsal fins and tails, or bellies still full and unopened, were let to continue on the belt and to drop onto a large, slowly rotating metal wheel. It was like a buffet wheel at a restaurant except piled high with torn open salmon and fish viscera.
 
I was given a knife and sent to stand trimming fish at the cutting board around the rotating wheel. The point of the knife was rounded and the blade dulled very quickly as I trimmed fins and tails, cut off heads and scraped out the wine-colored blood sacks that ran the length of the spine. You pushed the trimmings and offal onto the floor or down a hole on the cutting table, washed the fish in cold water that trickled down from an overhanging tube, and then pushed the cleaned fish down a chute which transported it to the cannery. Every half hour a Somali came by with a tray of sharpened knives for which you exchanged your dulled knife.
 
You were soon covered in fish blood and slime. Your wrists and back ached and your fingers were numbed by the cold fish and icy water. The continuous rotation of the wheel was dizzying and some of the new workers asked off it. But standing at the moving conveyor belts sorting fish was little better and put you into a kind of trance, the room seeming to move, causing a sort of sea sickness. The Somali standing next to me would frequently stop cutting and stare blankly at the rotating wheel.
 
Every two hours they gave us a fifteen minute break. Because it took five minutes to get the raingear off and hung up on the racks and another five minutes to put it back on and return to the line, you really only had five minutes to sit and rest. The Somalis had learned to take their breaks sitting down in their raingear next to the machines.
 
After dinner a Ukrainian kid stuck his hand in the Header. The guy next to him on the line watched him do it. The machine took his hand clean off above the wrist. The Ukrainian kid passed by us with the stump wrapped in a blood soaked towel held against his chest. He didn't look to be in any pain. You wouldn't have heard him anyway over the machines. He looked relieved to be getting off the line. Someone was sent to dig through the tub of fish heads at the far end of the Header and retrieve the severed hand. We never did find out if they were able to re-attach it. To avoid any risk of the Ukrainian’s blood contaminating the salmon the Fish House was shut down for cleaning.
 
The next morning there was only one slime line open. More workers had quit. The Plant Manager was there and called us to gather around him. He was a skinny, bow-legged man with a thick mustache. The Plant Manager told the foreman to turn off the machines and he climbed up onto the conveyor belt to address us.
 
“It isn't easy here in the Fish House,” he said. He stood above us with a trimming knife in his hand. “Nobody wants to work in the Fish House. But you got to have pride. Pride that you're the toughest,” he pointed at us with the knife.
 
“I'm not asking for one-hundred percent effort in here. Just give me ninety percent. Ninety percent effort is all I'm asking. Can you give me ninety percent?"
 
"Yes, Sir!" said one of the slimers in front.
 
“Can you give me ninety percent?”
 
"Yes, Sir!" said a couple of them.
 
"Too many of you are getting drunk and not showing up to work. If you get drunk and go to jail, you're going to get fired. You understand? Get drunk, go to jail, get fired. You understand?”
 
"Yes, Sir!"
 
“I love this place. I’ve been here for twenty-seven years. I love it and I don’t want to see it ever go away. But if we don’t have workers on the lines, it’s going to go away. You’ve got to have pride! You’ve got to come to work on time! You can’t walk off the lines! You’ve got to have pride!”
 
“Yes, Sir!”
 
“WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?” He shouted. He was becoming very excited.
 
“FOR YOU, SIR!”
 
“No. No. You don't work for me.”
 
“FOR THE COMPANY, SIR!” A few of them were trying to equal his enthusiasm.
 
“No, no. You don't work for the company.”
 
They didn't know what to say now.
 
“FOR THE MACHINES!” He shouted, the veins on his neck bulging.
 
“FOR THE MACHINES!”
 
“YOU WORK FOR THE MACHINES!” The skinny man with the mustache yelled, slicing at the air with the knife.
 
“FOR THE MACHINES!”
 
The Plant Manager picked up a second knife.
 
“WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?” He shouted, slashing out in front of him with both knives.
 
“FOR THE MACHINES!”
 
“You work for your families second," he pointed the knives at them. "Then you work for you. Just give me ninety percent. I know you can do that. Nobody here is a shitty worker. Nobody comes here and says, 'Hey, I'm a shitty worker'."
 
He pointed a knife at someone in front. “Are you a shitty worker?”
 
“No, Sir!”
 
He pointed the knife at another. “ARE YOU A SHITTY WORKER?”
 
“No, Sir!”
 
“ARE YOU?”
 
“NO, SIR!”
 
“WHO'S A SHITTY WORKER?”
 
“NO, SIR!”
 
“I SAID, WHO'S A SHITTY WORKER?”
 
"NO, SIR!" It was the Somalis who were yelling it back. They thought they were giving the correct response.
 
The Plant Manager kept at it, standing atop the conveyor belt swinging his knives, shouting and leering at the workers down in front. But it went on for too long. The initial response to his performance had over-excited him. The foreman came over and tapped the Plant Manager on the leg. He bent down and the foreman whispered something in his ear.
 
"It's time to get back to work," the Plant Manager announced. "Remember who you work for. Just give me ninety percent effort."
 
The crowd broke up and we started back for our positions on the line.
 
"WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?" He shouted after us.
 
But the workers had either forgotten they worked for the machines or they had lost interest, and nobody said anything.
 
A couple days later 150 workers arrived from the Dillingham plant that had been shut down by OSHA for safety violations. There were many Somalis and all of them were sent into the Fish House. With the four slime lines up and running, we were told we could go back to work on the dock. We didn't need to go to the Fish House anymore.