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Home: The Toast

After graduating from college, I took a job in the Alaskan fishing industry as a salmon processor – the person who turns whole fish into something you’d recognize in a grocery store. I’m from New Jersey, my political views are liberal, I’m barely 5’2”, and my hair hangs down past my waist. My grandfather helped wire the lights of the Holland Tunnel, but it’s the family opinion that my soft hands are mostly just good for typing. 

Working the salmon run is an exercise in deprivation: of sleep, of decent and nutritious food, of comfortable living quarters, of WiFi, of mental stimulation. Fortunately, the salmon run — when salmon return to the river where they hatched to spawn and then die, the time when the vast majority of commercial fishing of wild salmon occurs — is also short, only lasting about two months. It’s a bit of a blue-collar get-rich-quick scheme for some; you can hope to make a few thousand dollars over a few weeks, and then return to the comforts of home.

For the uninitiated, there is a kind of weathered, beardy romance about the Alaskan fishing industry, and even about the hard-drinking excesses of its works. That’s what I had signed up for, just as I had been signing up for stoic nomads on the lonely, biting-cold steppe when I visited Mongolia. In Alaska I learned that respect comes when you let those caricatures of “human strength in the face of adversity” die, and stop looking for new ones. The hardship I saw and experienced in Alaska wasn’t the mythical purifying kind you’re supposed to cultivate in life. It was just hard, something I chose and something I got through, and it would be patronizing of me to say any different.

Alaska doesn’t always mean lush forests and dramatic snow-capped mountains and friendly, gangly moose in your backyard. Sometimes it means Egegik, where my processing plant was located. I landed on the packed dirt of Egegik’s runway on the evening of June 11th.  They called the area an airport, but from where I stood it was pretty much a dirt clearing in the middle of the flat, scrubby landscape. There were no gates, no security lines, no structure, no trees, no mountains. There were bears, and it was the fifty-some locals’ job to shoot them. All there really was was a river, where the salmon run and the fishermen cast their nets.

Amidst dissatisfied workers carping about how the place looked like a concentration camp and how they didn’t have to be there, the plant’s little newsletter, The Cannery Row Gazette, took on a slightly desperate tone, hammering home that “Egegik is a very pretty place.” I might have said “stark” or “striking,” but it’s hard to swallow the idea that a place where you can’t tell occupied houses from abandoned, and where there is a clifftop cemetery falling into the river, is “pretty.” Living conditions weren’t much better. For someone just a year out of college, the close quarters and the bunk beds of the on-site dorms were no real hardship, but many found them shocking. The galley had a variety of names for the primary form of protein they served, but whether they were calling it “chicken fried steak” or “beef fritter,” it was still soggy, breaded mystery meat to me. A friend of mine, a drug dealer turned law student, once said: “I’m going to go back to prison. The food was better and the beds were softer.”

I probably shouldn’t have expected orientation to be rousing speeches made by old salts in beanies, people talking about work ethic and frontier values, but that hardship-hunting slice of your soul is incorrigible sometimes. Instead, it was all officiated by a penguin of a man named Kent, the safety officer/medic. His long anecdotes were peppered with phrases like “guaran-damn-teed,” and he asked us if we had “ever had to look someone in the eye and tell them their loved one isn’t coming home.” I hadn’t, but it wasn’t entirely clear if Kent had, either. The rest of orientation was onslaught of slogans (“And remember, fish is food!), and campy twenty-year-old instructional videos in which everything blew up and everyone died.

After orientation was over and veterans assured me that I was “almost guaran-damn-teed to live,” we waited for fish. If you’re not working, you’re not getting paid, so for a time Egegik was more or less a holding pen. Though I could feel any romance bleeding away, I was insulated from bitterness by the sense that this wasn’t really happening to me: this was an experience, not my life forever, so I had an easier time letting “the little stuff” go.

I also had a relatively cushy job, and Egegik, it really all came down to which job you got. Briefly, the jobs: Fish are either be canned in the Cannery or filleted in Cold Storage. Most people work on conveyer belts — slime lines — in one of those two locations. Being a woman apparently disqualifies you from holding a knife, so in general, men chop stuff up and women push things into cans and pluck out bones. Forklift drivers, mechanics, and management make everything hold together. Quality Assurance technicians (QAs) are distributed along the process, checking temperatures and textures and smells and seals.

I was the Cold Storage QA. My hourly pay was about a dollar higher, and while I worked as long or longer than anyone, eighteen or sometimes twenty hours per day, those hours were more varied. But even for me, there wasn’t a lot to distinguish one day from another. Every morning, I got up between 0550 and 0558 and sprinted to Cold Storage so I could clock in by 0600. Most days, I figured that if you need not one but two hairnets to restrain your hair, no one could see enough to tell if it was greasy. (It usually was.) I would do my morning inspection of the machinery and say hello to the foreman, who would say something along the lines of “welcome to groundhog day” and then start up his playlist of the same twenty songs we’d been listening to on repeat for the last month. Everyone else on the day shift would clock in at 0700, and the wave of fish would begin. The day shift and I would leave the floor at 2300 and I would file my paperwork by midnight. I would go home, take the five-minute shower allotted, and cram in twenty minutes of reading before I went to sleep.

Repeat, forty times. People quit in droves. Two people faked seizures. As sleep deprivation set in, some people got mean, some people got reckless and some just got slower and slower. One woman would step back off the slime line for a moment and scream at the ceiling. I told people my background and they didn’t even begin to give a damn: “That doesn’t matter here.” Gradually, the fish turn softer and pinker and scarcer. Eventually the machines are scrubbed down and everyone goes home.

So much of the hardship mythology I had swallowed and internalized depended on the idea that there are ways of life that is more real than others. But even though the evidence of my work was more tangible in Alaska than it had ever been, I was only able to make it through the season without becoming a ceiling screamer by separating myself from the plant’s bleak reality.

Detachment was my drug. In the middle of a shift, I sometimes found myself narrating my life like a wildlife documentary or a Food Network cooking show. I recited poetry. I made up twangy country songs about my work. I frequently envisioned myself writing this essay. When things were at their worst, when someone was being mean or sexist or I couldn’t take a step without feeling my boots rip a scabbing blister, I would internally chant in time with a squeaky machine: it’s not really me, it’s not really me.

I have very few clear memories of that time. I did hang on to extraordinary days, and told and retold them at the ill-advised boozy parties between the pillars that held up the wharf. My favorite was the day the bird got in and it was my job to make sure the fish wasn’t contaminated. I had to either catch the bird or drive it outside or at least keep it from flying over the slime lines. I chased the thing around for an hour, pushing it toward the forklift doors by flapping around with a smock and a six-foot strip of hard plastic while production leads tried to pelt it with balls of ice. I told them I could do it myself, and I cornered it in the box loft, got within feet of the rafter where it was perched only to have it fly away as I tried to scoop it into the smock.

Lots of different people offered advice, most of it with a pseudo- “spirit of the hunt” type flare: Walk soft and never look it in the eye. They always go back to where they came from, it’s written in their heads. Think like a bird and you’ll get it, no problem. After three hours, I was grimy and my head covering was more cobweb than hairnet, and a production lead reappeared. The bird was four feet away on a pipe, with an adorable fluffy face and beady black eyes. It seemed young. I asked if we could just leave it, and the production lead took my strip of plastic and held it with both hands. He lunged toward the bird and when it started to fly, he slapped it to the ground and it stayed. I started screaming that he’d killed it, but it was still alive. Its beak was wide open and its tiny chest was heaving. I gathered it up in the smock and took it outside, crying like an idiot, convinced its wings were broken and that I’d have to mercy-kill it like Old Yeller. But when I opened the smock, it fluttered over to a forklift driver and perched on his head. It stayed there for fifteen minutes, beak still open and panting, before it moved to a shrub. Every day after that, I looked toward the ceiling and hoped for another bird.

Between the sleep deprivation and my floaty, self-induced dream state, it wasn’t lost on me that I was becoming less and less “real.” I couldn’t imagine returning. It took me longer to accept that this wasn’t a personal failing, and was in fact the norm. People sometimes do come back, for the friendships and the pay. They go from season to season: salmon to haddock to crab. But once you cut through the bravado in their kvetching, it’s clear that for some, the hardship is an opiate. One coworker was fond of telling me that he didn’t know if he was thirty-seven or thirty-eight, but either way, on his birthday, he’d be trimming fillets.

It was hard for me to reflect on my life when all I really had were the fish in front of me and the thrum of machines and the promise of money when it was over. For me, an aspiring journalist who lives for opportunities to analyze and over-analyze, that life just wasn’t tenable. So even though the season was cut short when the factory ran out of cans, and I was only in Alaska for two months before being laid off with everyone else, the money at the end felt a long time coming.

In spite of what I may have wanted to believe, I know that my experiences and my new iron deficiency didn’t make me a new or better person. But it did give me some perspective on the pluralism of American life, and a deep respect for the people who work in such a difficult field. Mostly, it taught me to be considerate of the life I’ve been given. When I got back to Seattle, I gave myself a lot of leeway. Even after such a brief period in Alaska, I found the city overwhelming. I went to a restaurant, drank strong cocktails and ate baked brie and lamb tagine and a berry compote dessert topped with a crispy, butter-marinated piece of brioche, then vomited it all up into the restaurant’s very clean toilet. I had six thousand more dollars to my name and my old life was falling back into place, but when a sparrow you almost killed is the highlight of your summer, maybe you’ve earned some brie and sympathy.

It’s surprisingly easy to tumble from challenge to challenge without thinking about anything but the squares you’re filling in Life Experience Bingo. It’s considerably harder to be present and reflect on your life in the moment, and even more so to consider the whole you’re building. Stretching yourself is good, as long as you remember that eventually choosing a path you’re suited to isn’t a copout, and that no one else is going to care all that much about the way you’re branching out or defying expectations. And perhaps you don’t have to wade through fish blood in order to do it. 

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Emma Grey Ellis is a freelance writer and impulsive adventurer whose work has also appeared on Splitsider, The Billfold, Roads & Kingdoms and elsewhere.

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