My October contribution to the NWTC Newsletter, What’s Cooking.
The first job I ever had lasted two days. I made $36.80. I was sixteen years old and my dad asked me if I was absolutely sure that I wanted to work because once I started, he said, I’d never stop. I told him that I wanted to earn my own money; but, he was right. The night before that first day of the rest of my life Randy said, “Better dress warm.” He was the friend who recruited me for Albrecht’s Frozen Foods.
It being mid-July, leaving the house that morning in a thick cotton Tee, flannel shirt, and jeans tucked into snowmobile boots seemed, if a bit of overkill, at least consistent with the boy scout motto of always be prepared. I could already feel the sweat crawling down my back like trails of ants converging on a sweet morsel lodged in the top of my natal cleft.
I was nervous. Who wouldn’t be, on that first day? Randy was waiting for me outside and we walked in together where he introduced me to “Mabel,” and then slipped away to some cool place having to do with storage and boxes and incoming product. Mabel was in her early sixties I’d guess. She had shoulder-length, curly grey hair held down by a worn red cap that said “Built Tough” above the bill. Her face was square, ruddy, and she had a gap in her front teeth that made me think of Ernest Borgnine from The Poseidon Adventure. She just stood there looking me up and down like I was a piece of livestock she was thinking of bidding on at the county fair. “Big,” she said. I think with approval. “Follow me, son.”
It was onion-ring week. Mabel put me towards the front of the line.
It worked like this: some guy dumped fifty-pound bags of white onions into the bin of a machine that chopped the onions into slices, somehow perpendicular to the concentric rings; from the other end of the machine, sliced onions cascaded into twenty-gallon tubs filled with water; then the raw sliceswere spilled (this is where I came in) onto a grated table that was the origination of a three-foot wide black conveyer belt that carried the separated onion rings on a circuitous course through various stages around a large hot room, eventually terminating in some colder area on the other side of a wall, where they were packed into white cardboard boxes with red lettering, and stacked like bricks on metal shelves that could be rolled around on black castor-wheels.
My job was to lift the tubs up to the table, spill the onions out, toss aside the tub, and then take each of the slices and poke the rings out with my thumbs, separating each ring into however many single rings each slice was composed of and place each ring on the conveyor belt so that none touched the other. It was smok’in hot. My body felt like an extension of the onion chopping machine behind me, grinding chopping… lifting, separating…crying. I lost the flannel shirt, then the tee-shirt. I couldn’t tell if the water in my boots was from the tubs or sweat, and my eyes cried like a four-year-old sent to his room for hitting his little sister.
You might call this unskilled labor, but there is a specific aspect of the onion’s anatomy that does require, if not skill, at least a mindless persistence; and that is the fine, inner-most skin of each individual ring. That translucent, barely existent film is the reason the onion slides out of the breading when you bite into an onion ring—if that inner skin isn’t there, the onion ring bites cleanly in half. At least that’s what Mabel told me, demonstrating with a raw onion ring. She flicked the slimy remnant off her finger like a booger, “I don’t expect you to get every one,” she said before disappearing down the line.
Two hours…break…two hours…lunch…two hours…break…two hours…home. I was ready for my first break, until I got to the break room. I could barely find the clock to punch out through the thick fog of second-hand smoke, progressively thickening with each collective consecutive exhalation such that after ten minutes I couldn’t pick out faces on the other side of the table. For lunch I went outside and threw up. I skipped my second break, wanting to quit, thinking is this it?…For the rest of my life?
On the second (and last) day of onion rings Mabel asked me if I was coming back for shrimp the following week. I told her that I’d applied for a position at a grocery store, but that I appreciated the opportunity. She nodded, “You can pick up your check next Wednesday.”
I felt like I let her down. As I walked away I felt her eyes on my back and imagined her thinking…Big…and soft. Doesn’t have what it takes.
So, the next time you bite into a mass produced onion ring, and it snaps cleanly in half; know that someone, somewhere, in a hot factory far away, did a good job on that day and an angel up high, called Mabel, smiles.