Cannery Woe

A salmon butchery goes from bloody routine to living hell

BETWEEN JOBS A FEW YEARS BACK, I decided to work in a southwest Alaskan cannery in Dillingham, which is not so much a town as an open-air boat garage by a tent city near Bristol Bay. Shifts ran 16 hours, 24/7. I had not been on the slime line five minutes that day, my fifth, when I was pelted in the throat with a salmon heart. It lay near my boot—a fleshy, violet organ the size of a Concord grape. Across the conveyor belt, a man steeped in piscine vital fluids grinned. "Come on, take a shot," he said. "Have some fun or you'll lose your fucking mind."

Back then I was a great believer in easy money. One day a friend had said he'd gotten a little bit rich gutting salmon in Alaska—and it was a piece of cake. He'd told me to expect "at least five grand." I'd bought a plane ticket instantly. My new job (cake, indeed, compared with a slot at the beheading station, where a guy had just chopped his hand off) involved wielding a dildoesque wand, vacuuming blood from the spines of flayed fish at a rate of 80 tons per day. The goo bore a disquieting resemblance to blackberry preserves, and the gelatinous rattle it made as the chrome tool inhaled it kept my gorge on the rise.

To ease my horror at having cashed in my summer for a life of gore-strewn monotony, I chatted up the girl beside me, who eviscerated her salmon with a vigor I admired. Her face was luminous with scales, and she wore a skein of golden roe in her hair. I tried to curry her sympathy by showing her my hand, swollen big as a catcher's mitt from endless vacuuming. She looked at me and said, "I guess this work is tough—if you're a pussy."

The shift ended, and my colleagues and I, looking fresh off a Haitian-zombie-powder binge, dragged ourselves to our tents. But sweet sleep was impossible. Mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds roared under the rain fly. Next door, a couple, unhappy with how their Alaskan "vacation" was turning out, screamed at each other for hours before being interrupted by some bad news: The cannery had announced it was going bankrupt.

The whole place went insane. Armed fishermen stormed the offices. Someone boosted a front-end loader and tried to ransom it for lost wages. With nothing else to occupy them, the drunks and felons I'd worked alongside passed the time by rioting and assaulting one another. Fearing for my life, I skipped town.

I was never paid a cent for my labors, but the experience did no irreparable damage—except to my faith in the notion of a fast buck. My bloated hand returned to normal, and with a lot of scrubbing I banished the slaughterhouse aroma from my skin. I rarely think back on those days, but at the occasional dinner party, when somebody serves me a salmon puff or a lox crostini, I quietly push my plate away, as if there were a scorpion on it.

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