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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    This story originally appeared in our July 2017 issue. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Everything exists in a line. Sometimes the line goes up, sometimes it goes down, sometimes it stays level. Sometimes two lines exist in parallel: the life you live, want to live. Sometimes those lines intersect. There are lines to be waited in. Lines that don’t stop moving. Lines that are drawn and lines that are crossed. Lines like borders. Lines between languages. Lines that break and need to be mended. Lines that bend and curve. Timelines with their changes and constants. Clocks with lines for hands; digital lines blinking time. Smile lines, wrinkle lines, fine lines, storylines. Lifelines and life-on-the-line lines. The line that leads to death.

    Then there’s the line of 1,200 union workers beside the 10,500 pigs wheeling down the disassembly line every day at JBS pork-processing plant, the last butcher in Butchertown. 

     

    The pigs hang upside down. Hocks hooked into a gambrel trolley, carcasses swaying as the line turns. The near-300-pounders roll in one after the other, still bleeding from the caves cut in their throats. Blood rains and pools on the floor. At JBS — better known among locals as “Swift” — the huge fabrication unit, aka “the kill floor,” is alive with dead pigs. Already, the pigs have been herded in groups through the barns and electrically stunned “senseless,” as the plant bosses put it, which really means: shocked dead. They’ve been through the scald tub with its 138-degree water loosening pores to remove hair. Now someone trims a pig’s nails from its hooves, and this could be like a day at the salon except a huge hydraulic-powered brisket saw is about to cut into its chest, split its front in half, its guts about to be removed.

    The guts — like strange, shining flowers. Purple and pink and bulbous and folded into bins that move down the line under the watch of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors who search for abscesses, abnormalities. Red recycling-like bins line the ground underneath where the dead pigs roll. They’re half-filled with the fallen scraps of insides. A full head sits in one, detached from the inch-wide flap of skin it was hanging from. Its eyes are wide and humanlike. A worker puts another pig head on a peg. A man scrapes off the cheeks; another saves ears to be cooked for your dog’s delight. Workers dislodge the eyeballs, to be used for research at the University of Louisville. A “porter” (janitor) shovels fallen, non-edible products into what looks like a dustpan. Every day, the company loses a couple thousand dollars because of fallen meat.

    The constant buzz of this grand machine. Workers wear earplugs to tune out the churning cacophony. Pieces of innards smack white smocks. Tight and elastic blue “gators” — plastic protectors for pants — skirt from the knees to prevent pig junk from flying into rubber- or steel-toed boots. There is a rainbow of hardhats: The orange hats (trainers) look after the gold hats (new hires), who might stand beside the purple hats (between 45 days and a year on the job) or the white hats (longer-tenured employees), who are all watched over by the yellow hats (quality control) and red hats (safety) and blue hats (supervisors) and green hats (managers) and light-green hats (union stewards), while the gray hats (mechanics) run around and keep everything running. Tim Miller, a mechanic, says, “It’s like any other job: Some days it’s great, some days you might have to lay in the blood.”

    The loud machine with its many conveyer belts — lines running up or down or level — prevents much conversation. The array of nationalities complicates communication further. Immigrants account for some 30 percent of the plant’s employees, the majority speaking Spanish, but also French, Russian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Creole and even a Congolese dialect called Ewe. Occasionally the plant manager walks the floor, pats backs. Supervisors “cut up” with each other. Mostly, eyes stare forward and focused. The workers have job titles like “hog opener” (a “bracket five” job, meaning greater physical intensity and higher pay — roughly $20 an hour versus the $14 baseline) and “pull leaf lard” (removing tissue from the area around the lungs) and “bung dropper” (removing the rectum). 

    Cold fog billows from the two below-freezing chambers where the pigs chill for 24 hours before wheeling to the production side. On the “cut floor,” silver steps lead to silver platforms where workers stand side by side, sawing and shaving and removing. Knives hang from chains clipped around waists. Pigs rise from the cooler and, at the main “break table,” an employee — tethered at the waist because he’s handling a saw — pulls them off the gambrel and another worker separates the major parts, then sends them down the line. Conveyer belts run sideways at the waistline or in long diagonals that stretch above the head. In some places, Whizard knives — with circular blades spinning off fat — hang from cords attached to an overhead motor. Trimmed fat and skin cram conveyer rotators, land on the droopy belts underneath. Chutes drop hams down a couple stories. Water drips to keep product moist and clean. 

    The line is in constant motion. In the administration office, a silver box with two sets of numbers on its front ticks up, up, up. One is labeled “kill,” the other “cut.” One second after another, the numbers rise, crossing the line from hundreds to thousands. Pig after pig after pig until break. Hoots and hollers. Time for a cigarette. The kill floor workers hose off their blood-splattered boots while the cut floor workers stomp through a foamy lake of sanitizing solution. For now, the line is quiet.

     

    With sky-blue hairnets still perched on their heads like thought clouds, workers flow in and out of the 300,000-square-foot building, a brick monolith since the 1960s. First it was Armour Meatpacking until it was bought by Monfort, then Swift. In 2007 it became JBS, which is the world’s largest processor of beef and pork. What was once a Brazilian dream — creator José Batista Sobrinho (JBS) was only processing five head of livestock per day in 1953 before he began buying out this and that company — is now a worldwide operation. 

    In the 1800s, this little section of Louisville east of downtown swarmed with German immigrants and their butcheries, inns, tanneries and lard-rendering facilities. Butchers owned the big brick houses up and down Story Avenue; all the bigwig pig (and cow) people had a monopoly on meat and mortar. Butchertown set up shop here for several reasons: the area got the first pick of livestock coming down what was then the Shelbyville Turnpike; the proximity to downtown buyers (butchering was outlawed in the city center to avoid the mess and scramble of market days, when farmers hauled in livestock to be sold); Beargrass Creek was a nearby dumping ground for unused parts. People called the creek water running red “Blood Creek.” Some folks waded in to collect scraped fat for candle-making. Eventually, a large section of the creek was considered an urban hazard and buried under concrete. 

    Folks have been buying up and remodeling the cheap shotgun houses and historic brownstones with their iron fences that, on market days, were a line of defense against pigs in the rosebushes. Hip businesses bloom at this end-of-the-line convergence of the Highlands, Clifton and NuLu. Butchertown Market sells chocolates made with solar power, local goodies and home decor; Butchertown Grocery feeds you a high-end meal while jazz plays in Lola, the speakeasy-style lounge upstairs; visitors taste brandy in the bright-orange distillery Copper & Kings; music thumps inside the nightclub Play. What’s more: the plan for a new Louisville City FC 10,000-seat soccer stadium and, with it, more shops and restaurants.

    It’s a chilly, gray December day and the stench isn’t bad yet. That odd odor — like a mix of dirty piggies and fleshy incineration — sometimes swallows Butchertown. All of JBS’s other U.S. slaughterhouses sit on the less-populated edges of small towns such as Beardstown, Illinois, where the population is about 5,000 people and stench is less of a problem. (JBS has dozens of U.S. plants, some of which process beef and chicken.) But a pig plant in an urban core? Amid the rise of gentrification, the war. The line draws a border around JBS’s main 3½ acres with an almost $3-million assessed value. In the past, the battleground has been court, and lawsuit after lawsuit. JBS on one side of the line, the Butchertown Neighborhood Association and some residents on the other. 

    The main fight is about keeping that stink contained, extinguished. A stinky surge prompts calls and complaints to the city’s Air Pollution Control District. APCD public information officer Thomas Nord explains that the stink is not classified as “pollution,” per se — it’s not like a chemical spill that will harm you. Rather, a nuisance. Like your neighbor blasting music too loudly.  “Odor is hard to pin down,” Nord says. “Could get a call at 10 about a smell and one of our inspectors gets out there at 10:15 and it’s gone. There’s no real device to it either. No way to measure except with the nose.” A Courier-Journal analysis of companies that paid fines to APCD from 2003 through 2014 ranked JBS 10th at $114,500. (At more than $1 million in fines, No. 1 was ECKART Effect Pigments, which makes metallic coatings for everything from plastic casings to nail polish. It’s in industrial Rubbertown.) In January, after JBS paid a $250,000 settlement for outstanding odor fines dating to 2011, the two entities agreed to move toward a more objective five-point scale (smell rated “mild” to “very strong”), measuring with a chemical called butanal.

    Another fight is about space. When JBS bought a five-acre parking lot off Cabel Street for $790,000, attorney and former neighborhood association president Jon Salomon (now part-owner of Butchertown Grocery) argued it was an illegal expansion of the plant. Nearby residents have objected to the noisy 18-wheelers’ idling and emitting diesel fumes. In 2014, the Louisville Metro Board of Zoning Adjustment cited the lot as “potentially hazardous” and a “nuisance use of the property.” In compliance with BOZA, JBS installed a wooden fence around the lot, did some landscaping around the site to conceal it. The judge in the case cited “hyper technical objections” to the board’s approval process, leading her to conclude that the neighborhood’s “problem is not with the physical modifications...but with JBS’s very presence in Butchertown.”

     

    Cars speed down Story Avenue seemingly without a clue of the crosswalk caution lights blinking yellow or the JBS workers going to Hall’s Cafeteria, the old-school eatery that has operated across from the slaughterhouse since 1977. Inside, the walls are checkered blue and beige. Christmas decorations are strung up, the holiday fast approaching. The TV jumps from the news — Donald Trump slamming a union leader on Twitter — to The Price Is Right, everybody trying to win big money. Despite their steady union rates and overtime Saturday after Saturday, a small line of JBS workers forms at the glowing Kentucky Lottery machine. The air in the place is greasy like fried steak and sweet like banana pudding, nostalgia. It’s only a few days until Hall’s is set to close for good. The owners, old and tired, say the hassle and the stress is too much.

    A JBS worker in a Dickies jumpsuit says, “I don’t know what we’re gonna do. This is Swift right here. Family. I’m gonna cry.” Then he yells out to a worker cleaning off tables. “One more day, boo!” 

    A JBS worker named Fred says he’s been to Hall’s almost every day for 25 years. He looks through the window, sees a bright-pink food truck parked out front. He says to a worker who has been here 40-plus years, “I hear it’s $8.25 for one of them burgers. Gotta have a fat bankroll for that.” (A burger meal at Hall’s costs less than five bucks.) Then: “They’re already starting. Just waiting for this place to close.”

    When this story went to press, the conversion of the Hall’s building into a pizza joint/arcade was almost complete. The property was swooped up by Andy Blieden, the real estate developer who owns neighboring Butchertown Market, the huge complex he bought 20 years ago on a feeling. “Back then, the smell was horrible. The neighborhood was rundown, kind of dead. Not a lot of action. A lot of dilapidated buildings,” the self-proclaimed capitalist-pig-with-a-heart says. “Probably why I was able to buy this building so cheap.” And the next and the next. On Main Street, Blieden developed a block that includes Vietnamese-inspired Pho Ba Luu and Hi-Five Doughnuts. An owner of one of the new stores in that brightly colored strip anonymously complains, “When are they (JBS) going to get out?” When his young son asks, “Who fizzled?” — his way of asking, “Who farted?” — he answers: “Louisville fizzled.” 

    The stink. Plant manager Eric Wallin says an “operational oops” — say, a box-making machine going down — can lead to “the burps.” The line stops, but the pigs keep coming as scheduled, the pens full. An air-treatment system called Aquacode in the hog barns smells almost chlorinated. The ionized water technologies the company uses to kill bacteria in the air are implemented on the kill floor to rinse the viscera pans and anywhere product is moving. The rendering facility has its own smell-curbing technologies. Air scrubbers stand on top of the building.

     “It’s different than a lot of other packing houses,” Wallin says. “They’re usually on the outskirts of a small town or somewhere where there isn’t even a town nearby. We’ve got neighbors all around us and we’ve got downtown a mile away. We do more than any other plant to control the odors. If we run right and do what we’re supposed to, there won’t be any smell. We had a conference call again today talking about how we will report smells. Like, every time a pig farts in the yard here, I don’t want to have to report it.”

    Blieden says he’s “pro Swift.” “Swift was here first,” he says. “I knew there was a pig slaughterhouse across the street when I bought the (Butchertown Market) building.” JBS leases the parking lot adjacent to one side of Butchertown Market to Blieden, so his shoppers can park there. For Blieden, this is like a line that meets in the middle, a bridge. “People draw lines,” he says. “Swift could come up with a cure for cancer and people’d reject it.” 

     

    A truck driver named Steve slowly rolls over the tracks that railcars once used to ship hogs, past the warehouse where two artists have been commissioned by JBS to paint a mural, a sort of peace offering to the neighborhood. (Once, a JBS forklift operator walked by, told the artists: “Yeah, you’re really making this place look like less of a shithole.”) Steve, who declined to give his last name, started hauling livestock more than 30 years ago, back when he noticed a neighbor’s big rig and work on his dad’s dairy farm getting slow. A recent trip had him driving nine hours on the long line of road from a pig farm in North Carolina to JBS. At gas stations and truck stops, Steve never lingers. Especially when it’s hot out because there’s no air-conditioning in the back. Steve spreads sawdust on the trailer bed to keep the 150-plus pigs comfortable and calm. He regularly waters the pigs down because they can’t sweat and he doesn’t want them to overheat. Expensive cargo at roughly $150 a head. JBS works with about 460 different pig producers, some large cooperatives, and most commutes — from Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee — take about four hours.

    Steve ignores the disgusted looks from passersby. “People look at these pigs like they’re exotic animals out of the zoo, especially if you’re in downtown Louisville,” he says. “To me, they’re just what they’ve always been: pigs.”

    With no space to wait in the main unloading lot, Steve parks on the side of JBS, next to the enclosed barns that border Mellwood Avenue. A hog sticks its nose through one of the hundreds of ventilation holes lining the trailer’s aluminum walls. Others bury their heads between the butts of others. (“Pigs aren’t bubble-wrapped,” another trucker says.) The pigs grunt. The beginning of the line.

    Welcome to the big pig sea. Waves of pale pink rising and falling. Ceiling spouts drizzle a soft static of water inside the unloading barn. Fans whir in summer. The sun shines through the roof slats like makeshift skylights. Eyes in the sky: cameras in the barn rafters. Hundreds of them. Protectors of the pigs. Cameras watch for humane handling — practices that cause a minimum of excitement, pain, injury or discomfort. 

    “We are easily one of the most heavily regulated industries out there,” says John Cliff, who was plant manager for almost 27 years at the Louisville location until his retirement in January. Cliff’s a tough man’s man. He wants to take you fishing or to the shooting range. His slicked-back gray hair ripples like a quiet river. Cliff can remember days on his grandparents’ farm as a boy. They’d kill a pig by hitting it in the head with a sledgehammer. He started in the industry when he was 18 years old in Nebraska, moving to the pig plant across the road when the beef factory workers went on strike. 

    “We run around two and a half million hogs per year and, to comply with animal-welfare standards, we have to do 100 percent out of 100 percent,” Cliff says. “One egregious act” — any measure that causes extreme harm to the animal — “and we can be shut down for half a day or more.” An egregious act can be as simple as making a stressed-out pig move. “Non-ambulatory” describes the pigs that can’t walk, weakened from ride or heat or an unfamiliar environment compared with the super-sterile farms where they don’t move too much. “There’s no pigs walking around on the farm anymore. They’re in a confined housing operation to control disease. They’ve been walking around in their little building. Nothing more than a 30-foot square, depending on the size of the pens,” says Wallin, who was at JBS’s corporate office in Colorado before succeeding Cliff as plant manager. How the pigs can pant. Shallow breath. They walk some 300 yards through a tunnel underneath the railroad tracks and up the other side, to slots that lead to death.

     

    The eye spies Eduardo Rodriguez looking for non-ambulatory pigs. Rodriguez once knew a similar always-watching eye while growing up in Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship. “We’re practically born in a jail,” he says, his English strong but sometimes shaky. He has worked at JBS since 2005, finding the job through Catholic Charities — an organization that helps resettle recently arrived immigrants and refugees — after winning the U.S. visa lottery out of Cuba. 

    Originally, Rodriguez was a stunner, the person who kills the regularly functioning pigs by applying a 300-volt electric charge. Now he’s a “charge shooter” and must kill an animal on the spot if it appears to be suffering. He’ll go wherever a pig is distressed — on the unloading trucks, in the barn, down into the tunnel. He’ll drive the CAT over, gently scoop the pig into the front loader. “I pick them up, so slow. And put them in the pen, so slow,” Rodriguez says of separating the struggling ones. “I am taking care of them like a baby.” 

    He has killed four pigs so far this mid-morning. One had a broken leg. Another foamed from its mouth. Rodriguez took his captive bolt gun, centered it against each hog’s head, pulled the trigger and — boom! — the .22-caliber steel pin of the barrel killed the pig. 

    In summer and winter, when the pigs are more sensitive to the extreme temperatures, he’ll kill 100 to 200 of them a day. (He estimates somewhere around 40 to 50 in the subdued spring and fall seasons.) He’ll place the dead pigs in a line outside the barns, blue dye coming from a slit in their skin, meaning not for human consumption. Then they’ll go to rendering, where bones are smashed up, hair burned, guts churned, some of it to become dog food or makeup.

    “It’s not a pretty job,” Rodriguez says. “But it’s easy for me. In a way, I am helping. I free them from suffering.”

    Rodriguez only gets one shot at this, or else the inspectors will consider it animal cruelty. He’s one of four people chosen by the company for this job. Best of the best. He has to be after a January incident and the slap of humane-slaughter violations. It took three shots of the bolt gun to render one non-ambulatory pig senseless. The hog stumbling and squealing. Rodriguez shakes his head at the thought of it. The USDA shut down the plant because of this egregious act. It was the third incident like that in two months. Since then, the plant has implemented a more effective portable electric stunning system.

    The day after the USDA shutdown, a lunchtime crowd gathered in the facility’s sparse cafeteria, pulled pork selling for $1.75. One barn worker complained, “They’re working us to the bone trying to make up for the time we missed.” An older man tried to remember the order of the letters for the ASCPS. No, ASPCA. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He scoffed. “Inhumane. Hog’s a hog. You bring it here to kill it. It’s gonna die either way. What’s it matter how you do it?”

     

    The “hog drivers” slap their orange or purple or green paddles against the divides of the pigpens, which narrow closer to death. Hundreds of pigs to 50 to ten to one. The pigs flinch or jump in response. Squeals add to the loud reel of machinery. Chains hang overhead like a windy roller-coaster track. The restrainer clicks and snaps. The paddles: bang, bang, bang.

    Now the pigs are single-file, because now they’re in the shoot. A metal gate lies horizontally over the tops of these pens, so the pigs can’t jump up or out. Two lines reduce the chance of employees accidentally electrocuting each other. The pigs are immobile, except for their alert heads. They thrust forward toward the “stick pen,” the magic killing wand, eyes open until they’re not.

    Death is a quiet thing, electric. The death wand zaps them behind the ears and on their sides, stopping their hearts: cardiac arrest. They flinch tense, eyes cinched, shocked in the first second of the five-second hold. The stunners are expressionless in the silence of the hogs. They simply put the wand where it needs to be and pull the end of it to release the charge. One Spanish-speaking stunner says, “Es un parta de la vida.” It’s a part of life. He says that if you do the job well, the pigs always die.

    Death ends as it sometimes does: with a heavy flop to the conveyer belt a half a foot below. The hanging chains snake their way along the track toward the employees who shackle each pig’s right ankles. They lift to the next platform, where they’re bled out, knife-to-throat, from the carotid artery. A bloody waterfall. Then, they rise, some of their legs still twitching involuntarily from the shock. 

    On July 4, a carbon dioxide gas chamber — or “controlled atmosphere stunning” or, more romantically, the “gondola” — will be finished. It is a $15-million project with the goal of a more humane kill. Group gassing will replace a solo stun. Five or six pigs will load into a chamber that will lower into a room where the gas will be released, 30 seconds to death. The thinking is that pigs are calmer when they die together.

    The gas chamber will be adjacent to the barns, meaning less walking for the pigs, less of a chance of getting stressed, hysterical. Stress makes bad products that can’t be used on the shelves at Costco or Kroger or Meijer, or the kitchen at Outback Steakhouse or even Burger King. Blood vessels and capillaries can burst and leave blood specks throughout the meat. Tenseness can lead to toughness. “If you over-stress the animal…the color and texture of the meat are adversely impacted,” Wallin says. “It’s like when you’re scared and ‘go white.’ The blood leaves you.”

     

    “They’re a huge global company,” says Tyler Smith, the executive vice president at PRG Commercial Property Advisors. He has been selling property in Butchertown for 10 years. “This site means nothing to them. They could move it overnight if they really wanted to,” he says.

    Smith believes the city, prominent business figures and JBS need to work together to move the plant, which he thinks is in the way of prime real estate and recreational development. “Let’s move them where they can meet code requirements for smells and environmental issues and let our neighborhood continue to flourish,” he says, though he isn’t exactly sure where in Louisville that site might be. He’s a big fan of “day-lighting” Beargrass Creek, which JBS butts up against. Day-lighting: maintaining foliage around the creek, cleaning it up and getting light into the creek to enable wildlife growth. Currently JBS shadows the flora and fauna. “The thing for me is getting the park system to go in there,” Smith says. “I’d love to see a plan where we go in, clean the creek up and use the space recreationally. Have Quest Outdoors do kayak rentals. How cool would that be to do in a downtown environment?”

    Current BNA president Nick Johnson maintains a more open attitude toward JBS than his predecessor, which means talking face-to-face versus through lawyers. He thinks it will take corporate interests, not city action, to get JBS to move. But he does hope Butchertown will continue to become more artsy and does ask, “Do any of their workers even live in this neighborhood?” The answer: not really. 

    “People think we can move the plant to the West End,” Cliff says, “but it’s not that simple.” He thinks if the company moves, it’ll probably be out of Kentucky. Twelve hundred jobs lost. “I think that some day in the future this building will become more expensive to upkeep and repair than it will be to move the whole operation,” he says, referencing how other plants operate on one level versus the Louisville plant’s three stories. “I predict the company will decide that it’s time to consolidate, then move on.”

     

    If faces were flags, the production line would look like the colorful cloths flapping outside a United Nations building.

    “The meatpacking industry, throughout history, has been the landing spot for new immigrants and refugees,” Wallin says. “Our business is hard work. It’s dangerous work. You have to have that mindset of ‘I’m escaping, improving, giving my family a chance.’ People who think ‘Oh, gee, people come here from another country to go on welfare’ have never worked beside these people.” 

    Communication can be tough, with frequent calls to a translation hotline. There’s no priority to put those who speak the same language next to each other on the line, though sometimes you’ll see similar cultures coupled up. There’s the learned “sign language” — for example, flapping your hand upward means “come up on the cut” (you’re cutting off too much fat). One ex-military employee says, “It’s kind of like charades and I’m not good at charades.” It’s common to hear names of countries yelled. “Yo, Africa!” “Hey, Russia!” An HR guy says, “We try to discourage that, but it’s like a camaraderie.”

    The world in one place, and there’s Petra Cruz, her voice sweet like the music on the plaza in Michoacán, Mexico, where she would walk after Sunday mass. Those warm nights, under the twinkle of street lamps and stars. The women would walk on one side, guys on the other. “Te acompaño?” the men would say. Can I accompany you? This is how she met her husband, who is now a supervisor at JBS. 

    When Cruz was 21, they crossed the Tijuana border together. Now 44, she is a trainer (orange hat) who watches the newbies (gold hats) to make sure they’re correctly sharpening their knives and making cuts. She’ll walk around the cut floor, ask, “How do you feel? Do you need anything? Any pain?”

    Every second something old, every second something new for Kennedy Setik, a big guy from a tiny place called Pohnpei, in the Pacific archipelago of the Federated States of Micronesia. Fresh loin coming down the cut floor line and the same old motions he’s done for four years as a rib puller. At first it was hard to keep up with the sweaty speed of the line, to correctly sharpen his hoop blade — which he glides between rib bones and back meat — between each new loin. Second nature now. “I’m going to sharp it, steel it, then get ready to pull. All within five to 10 seconds. I’m a professional,” Setik says.

    He daydreams on the line about taking his baby son to Pohnpei, though the trip home is so expensive. He’ll dream of opening a hip-hop club. Or of college, which he didn’t complete. He’ll imagine citizenship. He’ll think about his weight, his sore ankles. A diet — dropping fried foods, soda, ribs. “(Ribs) used to be my favorite, but I guess working with it every day…” he says. “It has the same smell when you buy it. Open it and it’s the same thing I’ve been smelling all week.” He remembers when he moved to America he was five-foot-five, but then he grew to five-eight, like magic. “They say when you come here, you are doing work that less strains your body. You start growing,” he says, remembering days spent bent on tobacco farms as a kid. “Your body is free.”

    Mai Lam’s life is work. In Vietnam it was ocean fishing and vegetable farming. In Louisville, she starts bagging the tenderloins or folding boxes at 6:30 a.m. and never really knows when the day will end — overtime bridging into dinnertime. Weekends? Work. Mai Lam at the nail salon, cutting and buffing and beautifying. “I told you, I don’t have no time for fun!” Lam says, her makeup prim and proper, her bangs styled deliberately across her forehead, an aura of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume surrounding her. She is in her 40s but looks younger, saying, “I came here and people say, ‘You must have started at JBS when you were 10 years old!’”

    Her life is $14.95 an hour. It’s for the children: two she’s putting through college and the youngest, who’s still in high school. “I take care of them first and don’t worry about myself,” she says. It’s for her family still in Vietnam, including a younger brother who’s sick and unable to work. She took the nail job to send him money. She spent $10,000 on plane tickets for her family of five to go to her parents’ funerals in South Saigon. She hasn’t been back in seven years. 

    Marta Boumegne trims necks on the kill floor. All of the dance she inherited from Cameroon is still inside of her; the beat that starts in her chest, her arms rising upward. She dances, remembering the first paycheck she held in her hands — the first time holding money, her money. She giggles and claps. “Nine-eighty-five an hour! Woo! That’s big money! I went to the mall to buy stuff for me!” Her floors no longer dirt. Water in the sink instead of a three-hour walk through fields.

    In Burma, when loin boner Jolly Paw was six, he ran with his fatherless family, hid in the caves when the Burmese soldiers raided his village. The soldiers killed chickens, burned rice farms, houses, the school. They shot people who didn’t get the warning of an invasion from the neighboring village in the mountains. Paw sat in his secret cave, quiet not to cry. He cried on the trip to the Korean Revolutionary Center to become a 12-year-old soldier. There, he was safe inside the borders, gates, walls. Until the Burmese government changed its strategy and invaded the military base. Paw was sent to a refugee camp in Thailand from 1984 until 2008. He’d build small bamboo houses, leaves for the roof; eat the NGO-provided rice, beans and chiles; serve as camp leader. 

    Paw came to America in 2008. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to go to the U.S., because I want to stay and take care of my mother,’ but my brother told me to leave,” Paw recalls. “So we did, because I couldn’t return to my country. It’s not easy for a refugee to return to their home.”

    On the line, the only Spanish Richard Gallo could speak to his friend Sergio Cabrera was “Gallina con pollo” (chicken with chicken). Real dramatic, different inflections. Cabrera laughed and laughed. Trump-supporting Gallo and Cabrera from Cuba. Friendship. “I’d look at someone else, then I’d look at him. And he’d know I was about to bust their chops,” Gallo says. “You talk to a guy and you can’t understand a damn thing he says, but he knew and I knew.” Gallo still doesn’t know if Cabrera’s tumor started in his brain or a lung. Cabrera returned to work with only a month left to live. “This is a guy who knew he was done. It’s adios. And he’s working every day. Helping his family,” Gallo says. “Most people would’ve given up.” 

    Lines bordered the casket and bordered a man at the end of the line.

     

    “It’s Butchertown! What do you expect!?” says 85-year-old Gloria Parker, who lives on Washington Street in the neighborhood. “I wish these new people would leave the packinghouse alone!” 

    She is pink-sweatered and comfortable in her warm home. Her husband sprawls in the recliner. A wall decoration of Jesus hangs above the TV. A young Gloria lived with her uncle and his wife, who both worked at the packinghouse. “She’d have five long, white coats for every week that she’d wash and iron on the weekends,” Parker says. (Now the company washes the smocks at the plant.) She used to live where the speakeasy Lola is now, back when that building was apartments. She and her husband never worked at the packinghouse, but it has never bothered them, not even the pigs that workers used to push down the streets. (An old underpass mural marks this history: crazed-looking butchers, knives in-hand, chasing leaping pigs.)

    Parker mentions that people come by all the time trying to buy her house, which isn’t for sale. “We got a big check waiting for you,” they’ll say. She never did ask how much they’d offer.

    Cora Hardin lives down the road. She’s 86, and in the ’50s her now-deceased husband worked at the packinghouse. “But he got arthritis, so he had to quit,” she says. Her stone address plaque features a little blue butcher with his knife, a sitting pig beside.

    On North Wenzel, Stacey Mattingly Jr., 24, says he was raised in Butchertown. “Grew up playing basketball, picking crab apples off the trees,” he says. “The smell never bothered me. Don’t remember a time of my life without the smell. Know I’m coming home when I smell it.” 

    Whitney Rhorer, living on Washington Street since September 2015, notices the smell, says, “The warm weather exacerbates it.” But that didn’t stop her and her fiancé from moving to Butchertown. She’s seen changes since they’ve moved in, like the installation of a “No Truck” sign. “I’ve been stuck behind a pig truck and it’s not my favorite thing,” the 32-year-old says. “Sometimes I can see their tails sticking out of the trailer slots. Makes me think twice about meat-eating.” 

    Kim and Sandie Torres-Griffin live in the neighborhood and share the concerns about traffic and pollution, but appreciate the historical component. “Stockyards have always been a part of Butchertown,” Kim says. “For me, we’re so separated as a culture from our food sources that I like being reminded where bacon comes from. So when people are like, ‘Ah, it smells bad in Butchertown!’ I’m like, ‘Well, your bacon...’ This is a real thing, happening all over the country. If we put it farther from our cities, that just makes it more invisible. Where (JBS) is, they’re being held to a high level of scrutiny and accountability. I don’t consider that a bad thing.”

    Kim isn’t a fan of the gentrification of Butchertown, doesn’t want to see the demographic circle derive from the legacy of the working class. Kim and Sandie started a food pantry for folks living in a homeless encampment down the road. They pop over to Freddy’s Market for drinks or dog food.

     Sandie says: “If you lived near the airport, you’ll hear planes flying overhead all the time. Or if you live near Churchill Downs, you’re going to deal with heavy traffic certain times of year. You chose your neighborhood with its good and bad.”

     

    Soft pink flecks litter Joseph Thomas’ face shield as he drags his saw across the loin, cutting the spine off the bone for baby-back ribs. The debris covers a tall Plexiglas wall divider behind him.

    A good blade prevents a shower like this, doesn’t spit so bad if it’s sharp, isn’t such a struggle to pull. Over the years, Thomas has suffered “the battle wounds”: pulled muscles, a pinched neck nerve, a torn rotator cuff. “Some days, I feel like I’m going to break in half,” the 56-year-old says. Recently, Thomas switched to the less physically demanding job of bagging loins. 

    He remembers his first weeks at JBS 14 years ago, how at night he’d have to pry his fingers from the stiff fist they’d curve into, stuck. The grip around the knife was an acquired feeling. Building strength in the hand, all these repeated motions — three or four knife swipes to trim one ham’s fat — eight hours straight, sometimes overtime. Errors in ergonomics. Now, new hires perform required stretches before a shift.

    Sometimes Thomas will go to the occupational nurse station in the plant, where he may meet Chantel Mack. She offers compression gloves, provides a 15-minute ice-therapy treatment on the affected area, followed by Biofreeze, which is like an aerosol Bengay that heats up the sore areas, whether that be hands, shoulders, knees. “They love that Biofreeze spray,” the 48-year-old says with a Southern lilt. “They’ll come down here and say, ‘Menthol! Menthol!’” On average, Mack will see 50 to 100 people a day. Mack had only seen one serious injury in her first six months. “First day I started — and I came from psych nursing, OK? Nothing like this. No blood — and a guy came in with the top of his index finger gone!” she says. Shocked into instinct, she iced the finger and the tip, to try to save it. Put an antiseptic solution on his finger. Wrapped it tight, tight, tight. She used the on-site emergency vehicle to take him to the hospital. The employee remained calm all the while, though he was a little upset he’d messed up. “Couldn’t save the tip,” Mack says. “He made it through, though. He’s still here.” 

    After something like that, most people would be out. Heck, a lot are gone after a few days, even with worker’s compensation and the United Food and Commercial Workers 227 Union health coverage. The union, though, is now threatened by right-to-work legislation, which has passed in Kentucky and dismisses the requirement for workers to join unions and pay dues. (One employee says that’s $7 per weekly paycheck.) 

    “Twenty-eight years ago, people were lined out the door to work here,” Wallin says. “Now people are in and out every other week.” (Amazon is JBS’s top competitor for employees.) Wallin knows the packinghouse isn’t the only job in town. Isn’t the most glamorous, or the highest-paying like it used to be. “In the old days, people would get a job in the packinghouse and stay their whole lives. That doesn’t happen anymore,” he says. 

    Sometimes it does. Anthony Ellis knows the day he started off the top of his head: March 3, 1984. “When I started, they were only doing 3,800 pigs in eight to 10 hours” — about 7,000 fewer than now. Sixty-five-year-old Thomas Ravencroft, aka Cat Daddy,  says, “People want me to retire because I’m old. But I ain’t gonna do it. I’ll tell you why. I’ve worked here all my life. What am I going to do if I retire? It’s hard to find a part-time job when you’re 65. I don’t care where you go. What am I going to do if I retire? Go to the mountains? What would I go to the mountains for? Click a picture?”

    Joseph Thomas has no plans of leaving either. Fourteen years ago he cut every piece of meat going by, saw sharp or not. “Wasn’t trying to look lazy,” he says. “You know, I was on paper, fresh out of the penitentiary, parole officers on my back.”

    He’d gotten caught in what he calls “the madness.” He says he was selling crack and “orange sunshine” (LSD). Crack was everywhere in the West End, in the housing projects that have since been demolished. “The madness. 1985 and everybody freebasing,” he says. “Richard Pryor caught on fire. Next thing you know — crack. New Jack City.” It was smooth rollin’ until Thomas accidentally sold crack to an undercover narcotics officer. Then it was the slammer and all that starchy food and the Bible and weights. He served three years total in three different facilities while his friends were caught, shot or still selling on the streets. Now, Thomas says, “I just stay out of the way and pray.” He takes care of his 13-year-old boy — his inspiration to stay straight — on the weekends.

    When Thomas got out, he heard JBS would hire people with a criminal record. A second-chance company. Britt Pitcock, who is no more than skin and bones and tattoos on his arms, had been clean two months when he applied to JBS. “Was the first drug test I’d passed in 13 years,” Pitcock says. “I said, ‘Give me two.’” He wears rubber gloves up to his elbows and stands on a slippery catwalk over the 138-degree scald tub, fishing the pigs out when they fall from their ankle chains. “Noose becomes loose and they just slide right off,” he says.  

    For Pitcock, it was the mess of meth. The drug grabbed him so hard it turned him blue — two overdoses. Woke up in the hospital confused as hell, seeing light. The 29-year-old lived that first summer at JBS in survival mode, knowing he needed to keep a job. He has found peace in the physicality and the solitude, nobody else coming back to the scald room because it’s so hot. Pitcock gives speeches now about his experience with drug abuse, and he’ll run through lines on the line. “I basically get to meditate all day,” he says. “Center myself through it all.”

    Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, whose district includes JBS, says, “We don’t have near enough second-chance companies — companies that employ immigrants, folks that are transitioning out of the prison system — in this community. To me, it helps reduce the violent crime rate. If people are working, have money for food, clothes and shelter for their families, they’re not going to resort to crime to meet basic human needs.” She adds that it deters people from the drug epidemic, too, which she says is “heating up.” She asks, “If they didn’t have that, where would they turn?”

     

    The line extends long, reaches far from its beginning. It grows, with its tangents and triumphs and troubles. Then, it ends. All lines must end. 

    A round of goodbyes and shaking hands and signing papers on Lynn Fields’ last day. He’s been at JBS for 19 years and it’d be longer if it wasn’t for his bad back that’s had him out since last July — disks in his spine wearing on one another, the need for physical therapy, abrasion shots like “ping pong in the body,” the possibility of surgery. Nineteen years at JBS and 17 at Fischer’s, the other long-standing butcher in the neighborhood that closed in 2003. A long history in the life of a 61-year-old.

    It started with Fields’ father asking, “Are you going to go to school or to work?” Fields, then 19 years old, thought of his Western Kentucky University football scholarship, the boredom he felt with school. Pops said, “Get up and put your clothes on at 5 a.m.” The next day, rendering. Guts up to his waist, pitching guts into bins. Fields knew it stunk — the smell his pops brought home with him, how he’d need to shower with baking soda to rid of it — but, Lord! That night, at home, Fields thought, “Do I really want to do this?” Then: “Work is work.” He once lost an index fingertip while working in sanitation. “When we used to clean up the departments, we didn’t have any masks or eye protection,” he says. “We’d be spraying bleach or acid. We’d take a wet rag and tie it around our faces.”

    Last day and Fields reflects. If he could go back and do anything different, he’d go to the day JBS was short-staffed and pulled him to work the kill floor, where he hadn’t stepped in eight or so years. Would take back picking up that fallen hog with his hook, slipping in a pool of blood, messing up his hip, which he thinks lead to his back problems. (Though worker’s compensation doesn’t.)

    Last day and Fields looks forward, down the line. If and when he gets his back fixed, he’d like to travel with his wife. She has always wanted to go to Hawaii. He’ll take care of his family. His 91-year-old mom has Alzheimer’s. 

    Fields runs into Rico, one of his best workers.

    Fields says, “Hey! Good to see you, man! God bless you! Good to see you brother. It’s my last day.”

    They hug, and Rico says, “Last day?”

    Fields says, “Yeah, they’re letting me go. But hang in there! Take care of yourself! You should be a boss by now, what are you doing? 

    “Nah, they told me to wait a couple months. Went over to rendering, man.”

    “You’re young. Learn all you can learn. Help somebody. Like I told you, bring somebody up that ladder. That’s what you young people got to work on. Always somebody to bring up with you. Reach down and pick them up. Good things will come to you. Got to wait, though.” 

    “This your last day?”

    “Yeah, this is it. Been a good journey. But don’t feel bad for me. It’s your day to shine.” 

    Fields picks up his coat. “I got to get up out of here,” he says. “Got to wake up early and try to get some unemployment. If that doesn’t work out, I might be outside of your house with an empty cup.”

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