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So long, and thanks for all the fish

A summer in the Alaskan hinterlands

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Last summer, I worked at a salmon-processing factory in Alaska. After telling people that, I generally add that I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and watch their jaws drop. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I had never been to Alaska, never been to the west coast, barely even left the northeastern U.S. of A. The very thought of venturing out of the lower 48 was enough to send me into spastic visions of polar bear adventuring and high seas skullduggery. I dreamt of clear skies and hardy locals and transporting wild horses across the frontier. Real Davey Crocket fare. But, like most manifestations of the American Dream, my Alaskan summer turned out to be far murkier, messier, and more jarring than I had expected.

What really happened was my father upped my summer earnings goal to the preposterous sum of $6,000 dollars, and with no skills and no work experience, I was hard up for better ideas.
I started out in a crappy motel in Seattle – the illustrious Seattle-Tacoma Travelodge, to be exact. I was ecstatic to be alive, glorying in the ash-stained carpet and polyester blankets as symbols of my freedom, independence, and adulthood. I pranced around in my room for about an hour until I received a call from a perky-sounding girl named Ashley*. In her cheerleader’s voice, she asked if I wanted to split a cab to our employee meeting tomorrow. My heart sank – surely this goodie two-shoes had no place in my summer of adventure. But the cab was too steep to go it alone, so I begrudgingly accepted her offer.

The next morning, I was relieved to find that, far from being the pom-pom wielding type, Ashley had white-girl dreads, a tube stretched through her earlobe, a backpack the size of Mongolia, and absolutely no inhibitions. Ashley was once evicted from an apartment for making disruptively loud sex noises, won amateur night at a strip club (“I can’t dance so I just acted shy”), and rivals Timothy O’Leary for prolific drug  experimentation.

Her idea of a good time turned out to be the rule rather than the exception at the salmon processing plant. Ashley’s roommates at the cannery were all equally wild. Barbie-like Alexis (“lush” was how one fisherman described her) transferred departments three different times, got fired, and wet the bed at 1 p.m. after drinking since 9 a.m. that morning. Recently-divorced Julie flopped around the Dillingham bar scene (the only bar scene on earth that will welcome a 40 year-old with a pixie cut so enthusiastically), and was also fired. All of them somehow contracted a combination of bronchitis, pneumonia, the “cannery cough,” and hypochondria – not to mention breaking records for most Nyquil mixed with whiskey ever. That said, I loved them very, very much.

Still in Seattle, two days before flying to Alaska, Ashley and two Filipino guys (whom I came to call the New Boyz) are informed they need to retake their drug tests, to which they collectively mutter “shit.” Like any good employee, they had all taken copious amounts of drugs in the days prior to dispatch. A guy called Snick confesses to me that he had done meth the previous day – a Tuesday – at noon.

So I end up wandering through a foggy and barely-awake Seattle with Ashley and the New Boyz looking for a GNC health food store, looking frantically for an off-brand Master Cleanse-like substance. Upon finding a bottle, they guzzle it down. Only Ashley and Snick pass, but our experience bonds us enough that Snick – while sadly waving to his fallen comrade, the second of the two New Boyz who was sent home – offers to share his Four Loko with us in celebration.

The next day, we all fly up to Juneau and wait for our connecting flight to Dillingham, Alaska, population 2,400, three of whom are Palins (they’re everywhere). Unfortunately, small-town Alaska has not upgraded their airplanes since Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. In my new friends’ words, it is the “ghettoest” airline in existence. Their flight schedules don’t show up electronically because they’re done manually on a black sign behind the desk, upon which many of the “letters” are accidentally numbers, or upside down. They weigh our carry-ons and ask for our weight upon entering the plane, because the plane is so goddamn small that weight distribution is actually important. Should five passengers be on the same side of the plane, we would be looking at a continual barrel roll. The plane arrives two and a half hours after it is scheduled to depart – a wise-ass at the front desk reminds me that Alaska is timeless. While I wait for the plane, I take Tagalog lessons from Snick and get crossword help from a stringy old Filipino man with no teeth.

Without exception, the draw of the plant is the money – five grand or so over the course of four weeks, thanks to 80 hours a week in overtime, sometimes more. And the standards for employment are nice and low. Convicts, drug addicts, alcoholics: all are welcomed as long as they can stay awake to do their relatively menial tasks. A remarkable percentage of the workers at the plant are Filipino, though there is also one black man with bloodshot eyes, some Serbian boys who seem to have less than legal paperwork, lots of Mexican people, a posse of Ukrainian girls, and some crafty Turkish men with an interest in the Mormon Church.

Until the salmon season starts, the employees mostly scheme to get paid work elsewhere – otherwise there’s nothing to do but drink, read, and play cards. There is no cell phone service, and the town’s offerings consist of a supermarket, a hardware store, and one bar whose sign advertises a seal with breasts. Rebecca, a tall, slender social work student, becomes my partner in crime as we help Big Dan, a 400-pound forklift driver, weigh giant plastic crates. Dan has three teeth and three thousand opinions, and is as much of a joy as he is abrasive. He lectures us for hours about how sissy the ice truck drivers are on the Discovery Channel, and what a truly great movie Fiddler on the Roof is.

Apart from the expanse that was Big Dan, there isn’t much wilderness to explore – the tundra gets awfully boring quickly. There are no trees, few animals, and a whole lot of spongy permafrost. Mostly, we play President and Bullshit, and try to mine information from the old-timers about when exactly the season will start.

While we bided our time, we got a treat in the form of our factory tour, led by the cannery foreman, Jerry. He would make a decent drill sergeant, and has been known to carry a lit cigarette in each hand, with one behind each ear as back-ups. He implored us over and over to obey the cardinal rule of the plant: “DO NOT STICK YOUR HANDS IN THE MACHINE.” He illustrated this with countless graphic stories of gruesome deaths that were the fate of people who did not follow his dictum. “Do you know what it’s like to hold a young boy whose arm was ripped off by the machinery, watching the life drain out of him as he waits for the medivac to arrive? It put tears in my fucking eyes, and I didn’t cry at my own father’s funeral. DO NOT STICK YOUR HAND IN THE MACHINES.” He became my life hero very quickly.

Finally, the fishing boats on the rivers started to bring in salmon, and the season began. There are five varieties of salmon – king (also called Chinook, the highest-quality and largest), sockeye (a.k.a “red,” smaller but good quality), coho (or silvers; didn’t come in until later in the season), pinks (apparently called humpback, though I usually heard them called “crap”), and chum (also dog, also just absolute crap).
The best quality fish was headed and gutted by hand, most often by a group of Mexican men. They knew considerably less English than the goofs on the night crew where I worked, but also got in fewer salmon-gut fights, and were on the whole probably less drunk on the job. That said, I don’t know if they felt for the salmon as strongly as I did. One night I was inspecting and sorting the salmon, and I found one with a particularly bad case of sea-lice (an infestation of parasites near the tail fin). I immediately burst into tears at the injustice of harvesting such an unselfishly giving organism. I never stopped getting shit for that.

The assembly line was called “fresh-frozen,” where we froze and packaged either fillets or whole fish, depending on the specific orders from distributors. Kings are never filleted – they’re too valuable to be ruined by us idiots – so we generally weighed them, froze them, and shipped them off in giant boxes. Sockeye, on the other hand, were sent through a variety of machines which head, gut and fillet them, leaving the employees to clean, vacuum pack, and make them look presentable. The cliquey Ukrainian girls in tight clothes generally worked this fillet line, which didn’t discourage the college boys in packaging from spending a majority of their time trying to sneak to meet the Ukrainians and con the girls into becoming their “salmon sweethearts.”

Next to the fillet line worked the apparently lusty Serbian guys, one of whom was rumored to have worked his way through the entire woman’s bunkhouse.

The sassy older Filipino women, whom I absolutely adored, dominated the pin-bone line. They were in charge of removing small bones from fillets with a tweezer. When I was forced onto the pin-bone line against my will (I really was awful at it), it was very comforting to listen to them chatting and gossiping (about me, probably) in the gliding and popping lilt of Tagalog, while waiting for their ringleader to come over and pinch my butt and whisper, “pick harder!” I finally learned enough Tagalog to say I hated fish, this job, and my life, which really helped me to fit in – turns out my native New York-style kvetching is universal.

My section, “case-up,” worked on packing the already frozen fillets into 22-pound boxes – a job that required gloves, a high tolerance for boredom, and several sweaters to ward off the refrigerated chill. I printed and put stickers on boxes of frozen fillets most of the time, earning me the illustrious title of “tally girl.” Our section was mostly made up of young white kids, and Turks.

With the advent of the season came the long hours that everyone had simultaneously anticipated and dreaded. On the 18-hour night shifts, 15 other people and I worked from 1 p.m. to 7 a.m the next morning. As a result, we spent a majority of our time cooking up schemes to nap, ranging from getting our boss drunk, to passing out on the floor in the box loft, to simply not waking up for work, knowing our boss would send someone to unceremoniously dump us out of bed. Sickness was not an excuse to not show up to work, drunkenness was seemingly encouraged, and playing nookie had to be done on your own time (despite rumors to the contrary). We got occasional breaks – short ones to eat cookies, or longer ones if our boss was off conducting a meeting with his salmon sweetheart under the docks at low tide. The temptation of sleep took up permanent residence on all of our shoulders, in turns whispering, weeping, and demanding that you couldn’t possibly need the money this badly. Problem was, we did need the money that badly. So we learned to lean on each other.

We didn’t have the fear that bonds soldiers in war, or the common idea that bonds revolutionaries, just the stark equation that time equals money. So you do anything to give the time away, anything to take away its burden. I quizzed any person who worked within ten feet of me on every aspect of their lives. My friend who worked the box strapping machine and I played chuck, fuck, or marry – mostly using the Ukrainian girls and the Serbian boys as candidates – for hours on end. I would ask the five-foot-two Mexican forklift driver to teach me swear words in Spanish. I played basketball really terribly with Snick, and I asked the Turks about Turkey. Rebecca and I played pranks on our boss (like forging sexual harassment write-ups), messed with the label machine, and spread rumors that beluga whales were in the bay if we wanted the factory to clear out so we could take a break. We gossiped, swapped secrets, and talked about anything that would fill up the time. We talked religion, sex, drugs, politics, race, gender, class, high school castes, and lots of fish. And in those endless discussions, in that meaningless work, and in that cold fucking factory, I lost myself. The “I” that had guided my expectations for the summer, the glorious memoir-worthy individual triumph that I had expected, lost significance.

“I” became “we.” So we wired money home, or spent it all on alcohol, or on off-brand herbal medicine from the internet. We waited to see if the sun would ever fully go down (it never did). We tried unsuccessfully to look attractive in our rain gear in order to snag ourselves a forklifter, or we called our loved ones every morning without fail.

Leaving was the same hysterical, dysfunctional mess that arriving was, but my night crew came to see me off, following me as I chased around the truck that seemed determined to leave for the airport without me. I took a ferry part of the way home, from Juneau to Seattle. And somewhere between Sitka and Ketchikan, amid the endless conifers, my fractured thoughts rearranged themselves into something that, ironically, felt an awful lot like independence.

* All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the article’s subjects.