*In light of the recent controversy over assistance for asylum seekers, and Governor LePage’s continued slandering of Maine’s immigrant population- This is the first installment in a series highlighting my time spent working at Barber Foods, a meat processing plant in Portland, during the frantic early stages of the Great Recession. Hopefully this series can help open some eyes to the real life struggles of people coming from other parts of the world to try and create a better life in the Pine Tree State.*
I’ll never forget my first day working at Barber Foods.
I showed up outside the massive, intimidating factory at 5:15 on a cold March morning in 2008. I had finished studying at the University of Southern Maine the previous fall and in the wake of our economy’s colossal implosion had found it nearly impossible to find work.
Working at a meat processing plant certainly wasn’t my first choice for employment, but at the time it felt like it was my only choice. When the temp agency called and asked if I wanted the job I said “yes” before I even asked what the pay would be or what the job description entailed.
As it turned out, the pay was only about $300 a week for forty hours of grueling, back breaking work in a department of the factory known as “the meat room” where the meat was processed.
Not what I had in mind when I took out all those student loans, but I had been desperately looking for work for about three months. I was just happy to have a job at a time when unemployment and homelessness were skyrocketing.
I pulled off from St. Johns Street, in the shadow of million dollar mansions glistening from above on the Western Promenade, onto the grounds of the plant.
Thick, gray filth spewed from the smokestacks as the American flag, flying high above the imposing “BARBER FOODS” sign on the rooftop, blustered in the biting winds whipping up from the Fore River.
I found a place to park and worked my way into the line of people shuffling quietly through the double doors at the rear of the complex as they arrived for the morning shift, tired eyes blinking through the condensation of their breath.
I was getting weird looks from some of the people- becoming increasingly aware of the fact that almost all of them had a different ethnic background than me- but I chalked it up to being a new face.
While everyone else made their way to the coffee machines in the massive break room or the locker rooms to shed their jackets, I was greeted by a man in a dark blue lab coat and dark blue hard hat. On the front of the hard hat was a yellow sticker with black writing displaying the name “Jay”. The man was white and looked to be in his forties. He had a goatee of black fading to gray, and thick stubble filling in on his chiseled face. He looked like a no nonsense man, the type of guy that takes his coffee black and his steak rare.
“You the new guy?” he asked gruffly, his eyes rising up from the clipboard in his hands to meet me with a steely gaze. “Yea, my name’s Chris. I’m not sure where to go.” I felt like the new kid at school, I could see people in the break room pointing at me and craning their necks to scope me out.
Jay looked back at his clipboard, “come with me, I’m gonna show you around.” The place seemed like a maze to me, we turned down a hallway leading away from the break room. At the end of the hallway there was a room full of lab coats, hard hats, ear plugs, hairnets, safety glasses, and rubber gloves. Jay got me set up with everything and explained that I would need to stop there each morning to get geared up. I noticed that there were different colored coats, hard hats, and hair nets, “does it matter what color I use?” Jay told me that which colors you wore depended on your ranking and job title, he handed me a white hard hat, white coat, and yellow hairnet, “make sure you take the same colors every day, these colors mean you’re a temp.”
Then he handed me some knee high, steel toed rubber boots and a piece of paper with some numbers on it, “this is your locker number and lock combination. Go down to the men’s locker room and find your locker, the lock’s on it. At the end of the day leave the boots, hard hat and safety glasses in there, you’ll re-use them every day and we’ll get a name tag printed out for your hat. For now just lock your sneakers up then go back down to the supervisor’s office near the break room. Joe’s gonna be waiting there for you to take you on a tour of the whole place before you get started.”
By the time I got back to the office all of the workers were gone from the break room and the hallway was quiet. The supervisor’s office has a big window looking in from the hallway. I saw an Irish looking guy in there typing on a computer, when he noticed me he got up and came out to greet me.
He had on a white coat and a light blue hard hat. He was a stout guy, not very tall, with messy reddish brown hair and an easy smile. He had on a Red Sox sweater and a Patriots sticker on the back of his hard hat. He looked like a regular dude that would be easy to get along with.
“You must be Chris?”
“Yea hi, are you Joe?”
“That’s me, I’ll be your crew assistant manager. You’ll meet John later, he’s the crew manager, and you already met Jay, he’s the meat room supervisor. Follow me, I’m gonna take you up to the manufacturing floor and show you around.”
He brought me back down another hallway and up a flight of stairs. He stopped at the top and told me to put my ear plugs in, I could see heavy machinery and busy workers through the window in the door.
“There’s a lot of dangerous equipment in there,” he nodded through the door, “it’s loud, freezing cold, and everyone’s speaking different languages. Be careful.”
He opened the door and I followed him through, instantly I could feel all eyes on me. He brought me around the whole massive place. He showed me all the departments and each new area we entered more people looked up to stare and whisper.
Joe grinned, “you know they’re all talking about you right?”
I was confused, “huh?”
“Oh yea, everyone wants to know who the new ‘whiteboy’ is” he chuckled, “they all think you’re a new supervisor or someone from corporate.”
“Really? Why would they think that?” I asked surprised.
Joe paused for a minute, carefully choosing his words, “we don’t really get a lot of white guys coming in here as temps. Usually when a white guy gets hired it’s to fill a vacancy in management.”
“Man, that’s crazy,” I looked around, embarrassed, “so I’m a ‘whiteboy’ now?”
“Yea, you’re gonna learn all kinds of new words around here. This place is like another world. White people are the minority in here, but it’s cool. We all do a pretty good job of getting along, but guys like us have to leave our egos at the door. It can be a real culture shock for some people. Now let’s head over to the meat room and introduce you to the guys. There’s eighteen of them and only three were born in America. Just wait till they realize you’re a temp, you’re gonna get it bad.”
To be continued, stay tuned…