This week, NPR ran a story about meat packing—a story that explores the hidden costs of this industry in one of the most carnivorous countries in the world. It was essentially an update of Upton Sinclair’s classic work, The Jungle–a piece of muckraking journalism that changed the safety practices (and hygiene) of Chicago’s meatpacking industry.
Some things have changed in meatpacking. Some thing have not. The industry still uses the labor of recent labor, desparate to get a toe-hold on the sheer cliff that is the American rise. NPR’s story emphasized the strain of injury in a mechanized, assembly-line world where repetitive actions destroy bodies attached to immigrant lives: a broken world where health care, sick leave and worker’s compensation are all minimal.
It got me to thinking about mystery novels are all about exploring small microsystems in a vast network. And how the detective novel became such an American form, precisely because, in such a wide wide world, there exist pockets that are themselves as big as this country—pockets that remain enigmatic, intriguing, fascinating. The mystery novel is a piece of reporting by a liar who makes everything up and attributes none of his sources.
I once lived in Central Iowa when I was a professor of Creative Writing at a small liberal arts college. So, I’m familiar with aspects of the NPR story: since Upton Sinclair’s time, it might surprise you to learn that a lot of meat processing is no longer located in the hub that is Chicago, that place where railroad lines could ship in livestock and ship out carcasses. Almost all is now perforrmed in small towns–pockets in the Midwest–that are wholly devoted to this kind of industry.
Most of those towns are dying–subject to the forces of brain drain and rust belt decay. I used to joke that my town in Iowa suffered what I called the “Ashton Kutscher effect”: anybody who was good looking or could do math left. Or they at least try to make it in one of the bigger cities, like Des Moines. This is another way of saying that little towns are good fits for new populations. They are open to new immigrants who need them.
The great state of Iowa was the first state to host Vietnamese refugees after the Fall of Saigon. And that had much to do with their charity and Christianity. But it was also very much self-interested: Iowa has one of the fast aging populations as young folks create that vacuum to the coasts where they try to see if they can be the next Superman or Vampire or Werewolf.
Recent immigrants will revive the small towns that created the genetic admixture that fuels the billion dollar industry that is Hollywood. The new immigrant labor is a pivot point: it allows the geriatric population an extended lease on life in their small slice of Mayberry. Very often, the workers are refugees or recent immigrants. It is not uncommon to come across a whole town full of Mexicans or Vietnamese or Somalians.
Marshalltown, the town next to mine, was filled with Mexicans who were all reputed to have come from the same town in central Mexico. They all worked for Swift and Co., doing pig slaughter. “Swifts,” as the locals call it, is one of the major purveyors of pork product to America’s breakfast table. And Marshalltown was but one of six towns, scattered throughout the Midwest, that were company towns under the thumb of this mega-conglomerate. All six were raided by ICE in 2006 and the pig processing residents, deported or scattered or cowed.
I actually took my students on a field trip to Marshalltown for a senior seminar on immigrant labor. But beyond this academic familiarity, I actually had relatives in Nebraska–a family of ten–whose entire town was organized this way, around cheap Vietnamese refugee labor. They slaughtered cows, though, because Nebraska is filled with corn and livestock. And it is easier to keep the slaughterhouses close to the forms of production where cost of land is cheap and regulation is low.
Most of my life, I did not know I even had these relatives. I met them for the first time in Vietnam in 1993, right after college. We had been separated by two decades of economic embargo. This was my Roots journey—one that was technically illegal, one that would finally give me the opportunity to see my alien birthplace. I was sure I would find out if my name was Toby or Kunta Kinte.
The relatives were waiting to immigrate to the USA through the “orderly departure program”–a program for soldiers who worked with the USA, soldiers that then suffered years of punishment after the new regime came into power. When Communists punish you, they punish your family and they crush you financially. I’ve heard some of the stories and they can be vicious.
These stranger-relatives were only days away from leaving when I arrived. They didn’t know where Nebraska was (I said it was very far away from Cali and it was famous for corn). They asked me if 7 dollars an hour was much money (I said you could live on it but not save). But their plan was for all ten to show up, pool their money and work until they could pay off their parents’ house. Then, they could do what they wanted with their lives.
It didn’t sound like a great plan and I told them so. But they said it was better than living under Communism. And my parents helped them by giving them the down payment on the house.
When I first met these cousins, they were just counting the days before they were to be gone. But the upshot after a few years on the slaughterhouse floor: several passed out on the bloody concrete after a few years of repetitive work and the incentive of overtime. Many felt trapped by this rotten bargain made at a moment of total ignorance–a bargain which would mean that they would never get educated and would be stuck in this life of measuring out their days by the count of cutting carcasses.
I saw them again, shortly after the father of the clan–my father’s half brother–passed out on the cutting room floor. They flew to Los Angeles and we hosted them. It was a sad reunion and there was something hollow in the hollow of their eyess. We took them to Disneyland, which is something they had always wanted to see.