Over the course of my working life, I've started and left a number of jobs. Usually I leave with some regrets, mostly regrets about leaving my co-workers. I've left happily, sadly, angrily -- and once I left so drunk I could hardly stand. This is about that time.
Once upon a time when I was young and in peak physical condition, I worked on the loading dock of a poultry processing plant. Now it's difficult to think of a harder, dirtier line of work than in a poultry plant. Just drive by one sometimes and you'll see why. The aroma of chicken feces, the rank smell of the rendering plant where the guts are cooked, the feathers everywhere, the dirt, the noise, and above all, the squawk of terrified chickens headed for the slaughter all combine to create an atmosphere of squalor and violence.
At the ripe old age of 19 none of this bothered me. I worked on the loading dock with 10 other guys, mostly black, mostly high school dropouts, mostly from the surrounding countryside. The loading dock was attached to the freezer where the processed chickens were kept until shipped out. Two men, L.D. and Jerome, would drive fork-lifts into the freezer and bring large pallets of chickens out where we could use automatic hand jacks to move the pallets into the trailer. Two men stood in the trailer pulling the boxes off and stacking them from the floor to the prescribed height.
Due to the hard work, long hours and low pay, we were a pretty close-knit group. Even though I was one of only two whites, I never felt ostracized by my co-workers. We ate together, drank together, worked and loafed together, and occasionally got drunk together. We were seen by the rest of the plant as a happy-go-lucky bunch of hard-working misfits and bizarre characters.
I eventually signed on for a 4 year hitch in the Army, so when my last working day came around, I decided to leave in style. I brought, along with my weenie sandwiches and thermos of hot soup, two fifths of Jim Beam for us to drink during my last shift. This was January, so the loading dock was even colder than usual as I brought out the first bottle at 8:00 am. "Let's drink up guys." I tilted the bottle and swallowed; the acrid whiskey burned it's way down into my gut and mixed uneasily with my recently consumed breakfast. I passed the bottle to L.D., one of our fork-lift operators. L.D. was a short, squat black man dressed in a shapeless green freezer suit and with a brown nylon stocking cap over his head. L.D. was the single strongest individual I'd ever seen, then or since. Tales of his legendary strength were rivaled only by the tales of his incredible appetite for food and liquor, both of which he consumed with ravenous gusto. He would frequently vanish into the freezer with a pint of Southern Comfort and a huge pork-chop sandwich, and re-appear an hour later driving like a crazed Mario Andretti and howling like a chained yard-dog.
"Here y'are, L.D. Take a shot."
L.D. turned up the bottle and I watched in fascination as it bubbled and gurgled: he gulped it down like he was drinking lemonade on a hot summer day. He brought the bottle down, sighed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and passed the whiskey to Tyrone, our other fork-lift driver. Tyrone tilted the bottle, took a slug, burped and hiccoughed. "Man, that's righteous", he said, a smile on his good-natured brown face.
We sat there in a corner of the loading dock, the three of us behind a pallet of chickens, passing the bottle and reminiscing.
"'Member that time L.D. kissed you?" Tyrone giggled. I did indeed. I had been warned all during my first week that getting kissed by L.D. was an initiation and there was no getting out of it. It was more or less a welcoming into the brotherhood, and if L.D. liked you, it happened. If he didn't, you were gone soon anyway. It was that simple. I had watched L.D. like a hawk, mindful not to get in a position where he'd get me. Then one morning he came barreling out of the freezer on his forklift with a pallet of frozen chicken parts. He came to a skidding halt in front of me, jumped nimbly off of the forklift, grabbed me and threw me on the pallet, all the while howling like a bloodhound and smelling like a Kentucky whiskey distillery. L.D. whipped out a roll of duct tape, and taped me to the pallet, easily holding me down with one arm as if restraining a baby. I did indeed get kissed, and it took me the better part on an hour to get all the tape off my head and hair, with L. D. sitting off to the side giggling like a school-kid all the while. I was accepted.
I nodded. "Yep, I remember." I poked L.D. on the shoulder. "Hey man, why do you do that crap anyway?"
L.D. turned the bottle up, emptied it and tossed it into the pallet of chicken. He looked at me, his humorous brown eyes traced with red, and threw an arm around my shoulders. "Cause I just lo-o-o-oves you, little white boy." He jumped up, laughing uproariously, climbed aboard his forklift and roared off into the freezer.
I stood up, weaving slightly. "I think it's time to get the other bottle." Tyrone threw an arm around my shoulders. "I'll go wit'cha and make sure security don't get you."
We stumbled out to my car, a rusty old Buick LaSalle, where I dug around under the front seat, pulled out the bottle and secured it in my jacket.
All of us assembled in the corner -- Hitler, Abdulla the Lazy, Chief, Deep-ass, Cookie Jarvis, Shithouse Andy -- everybody. We passed the bottle around, joking and talking. I looked at Neil, the second in command -- a tall, good-looking muscular black man and ex-professional baseball player. "Hey Neil, you think Bill would like a shot?"
Neil rubbed his bearded face. "I dunno, man. Don't know if I'd give a dried-out drunk a bottle or not. He aint had a drink in 7 year."
I stood up. "Bill is a damned good guy. I'm gonna make the offer." I walked carefully across the loading dock with the bottle hidden underneath my jacket, stumbled up the steps, past the dispatchers' office, and into Bill's office. He sat there, a husky gray-haired man with a deeply lined face and twinkling blue eyes that belied the years he'd supposedly spent on Hobo's Row somewhere in New York city years ago.
I belched wetly. "Hey Bill. We're having a little celebration." I brought the fifth out from under my coat. "Wanna little drink with me?"
He looked at the bottle for a long moment. "Aw, what the hell, why not?" He reached for the bottle and took a huge slug, coughed, wiped his eyes and sighed deeply. "That's good stuff." He took another big drink. "That's damned good."
We sat there talking and finished the fifth off -- most of which Bill drank. When we were done I held out the empty bottle and we both looked at it regretfully. "Well, that's the last of it" I said sadly. I rubbed my face, which had by this time gone completely numb. "All gone."
Bill stood up suddenly and hitched up his pants. "Let's go to Bucks place and get some more."
"OK." I stood up and wobled, suddenly dizzy, then followed Bill down the stairs and past the crew. "See ya'll in a minute, guys. We're off to get some more hooch." I waved drunkenly to the group. "Hold down the fort till we get back."
Bill drove us to Buck's Place, an illegal beer joint in the middle of the woods, where we bought two more fifths. We spent the rest of that afternoon in a drunken haze, driving around in Bills truck as I listened to his boozy monologue about life on the streets in New York and San Francisco.
"I tell ya' boy," he said, his voice raspy with booze, "I wuz drinking like a fish. Ever' day. I even sold blood for liquor." He took a slug from the bottle. "Figgered I'd die on the streets till I met Etoil." Etoil was Bills wife, a stern yet motherly little woman who had indeed reformed him. She didn't take any back-talk from anyone, and I wondered drunkenly how she'd react when she found out that Bill was having a little celebration with me.
We pulled back into the chicken plant; by this time it was late afternoon and the sun was going down. It was bone-numbing cold and I shivered as we wobbled back onto the loading dock. Everyone had gone home except L.D., Tyrone and Neil. Bill handed them a bottle. "Here y'are, boys. Let's drink up."
We stood around for a while passing the bottle back and forth as the temperature continued to drop. I finally staggered back up the stairs to Bill's office and collapsed in one of his chairs and huddled over the little space heater that heated his office. I sat there hunched over the heater trying to get warm. Bill came in, his eyes red, his face flushed. "Boy, I'm gonna be in the shithouse with Etoil now", he said. "I dread going home." He dropped heavily in the leather chair behind his desk, closed his eyes and a moment later was snoring loudly, an unlit Roi-tan cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth.
I stood up, carefully took Bills baseball cap off his head and placed it on his desk, and slowly walked down the stairs and onto the loading dock. A pallet of frozen chickens was sitting there, and Tyrone was stretched out fast asleep, arms and legs splayed wide, as if crucified on a chicken-pallet. L.D. sat on the edge of the pallet, eyes closed, chin on his chest, his broad flat hands dangling in his lap.
"L.D." I leaned over. "Hey, L.D. You awright?"
"Uhn." His eyes remained closed, his whole body moved slightly with the effort. "Uhn-huh."
"I put an arm around his shoulders. "Lissen, I'm goin home. Take care now, hear? You and Tyrone."
"Uhh." His head moved, his eyes cracked open slightly and he peered at me. "Uhmmmmmm."
"Ok dude. See you later." I clapped him on the back, stood and weaved out to my car. I ate one of my weenie sandwiches in the vain hope that it would disguise the alcohol on my breath and roared home where I did indeed face the unpleasant music. My wife went into a long tirade that led to me going out into the front yard and lying down on the grass where I promptly fell asleep. Sometime in the night she came out and led me indoors to the couch where I slept fitfully and awakened next morning with a thundering headache, a sour taste in my mouth, dried puke on my shirt, and orders to board a train headed for the Army that afternoon at 2:00.
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