Oscar Mayer (OM), as in I Wish I Were

No joke. I owe Oscar Mayer a lot. For what it’s worth, the company paid for a good part of my college education, cause I was a Hot Dog Scholar. Well, not really, but my Dad did work for them, and I did compete for and win one of their scholarships. Don’t think I wasn’t grateful, because I was. It made life a lot easier on all of us, and it gave me a certain incentive to be serious. Not that I really needed much, but I always knew I literally couldn’t afford to fool around. Cause Uncle Oscar wouldn’t pay.

My Dad, Lou Larkins, worked for them from the early 1950s until his retirement at 62. At that point, General Foods had acquired OM and even then, corporate America, in search of shareholder value, figured that dispensing with long-standing employees was a great idea. So he got out. I wouldn’t say he loved industrial accounting, but having your intelligence insulted by some conglomerate was not his idea of a good time. And he had a defined benefit pension and very good health insurance. Remember them? You never will because you probably have neither. That’s called a flexible labor force. Economists–especially those with tenure, who by definition can’t be let go–worship the idea. Go figure. It’s why we need to make America Great Again. Except everybody got pissed off at being Made Great By Corporate America. So they voted for He Who Will Not Be Mentioned. Who Will Make Us Great Again. Said Greatness, I thought, was the problem. Got that? You win an MA in Econ from a member institution of the Southern Economics Association. And in Logic.

Anyway, the Summer I graduated from Villanova, I was, as usual, in need of money. I was going to graduate school and getting married. Both of which cost money, whatever psychic income they might bring (Princeton=Psychic Income? With Lawrence Stone trying to turn the History Department into a branch of Oxford? Guess again. No punting please. We’re American.) Anyway, after a false start waiting tables, I got a good job at OM. On the Sanitation Crew. Don’t laugh. It paid, man. We went from 6AM to 2 PM, with half an hour for lunch. So I drove down to Front and Packer in South Philly where the plant was, leaving home about 5:15 AM. Previously, I though 7AM Mass was agony. Little did I know.

Now, let’s be clear about something. This wasn’t a life sentence. I knew that from the outset. At 22, you figure you can do anything for four months, and, really, you can. You’re just too immature to know that and you still have the time horizons of a child. So four months seems like a long time. Especially when you’re actually working in a factory. It is.

I started out doing floors, by which I mean scrubbing floors and mopping and drying them. With industrial strength cleaners because this was a meat packing plant, and the Department of Agriculture Inspectors didn’t screw around–in those days. Tell me about regulatory capture, right. Uh Uh. They’d shut a line down if they spotted anything, or any indicator came up slightly wrong. So, and let me be perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say: that was the cleanest place I ever worked in. I’d have eaten off the floor. I continued to eat OM hotdogs, which we made there. I ate all kinds of stuff that was produced there, including that Philly delight, scrapple (don’t ask). People didn’t believe it. You work there and eat that stuff? Yup. Never a second thought. Anybody who tells me that that inspectors were in the bag, which is why we needed “light touch” (i.e., toothless) regulation, is blowing smoke. I know what I saw. And ate. If a line shut down, whatever was lost was lost for good, because the stuff was fresh and it was not there, it was gone for good. Opportunity cost, dude. Money. And losing money is a great incentive if you don’t operate under a loused up Tax Code that encourages wealthy people to lose money (sometimes purely notional) to offset real tax liabilities. But for this, you have to ask my DP classmate, James Maule, who understands this stuff. I just started out washing floors, walls, and eventually, some production lines. On my hands and knees, if need be. Yup, people do this stuff for a living. You can’t telecommute to a sanitation job.

The entire operational part of the plant was cold. I mean about 40-45 degrees. You know, it’s a meat packing plant, so it’s not like Club Med. Fresh meat spoils. The only hot place was the hot dog tunnel, so there you got it coming and going. The dogs were getting cooked in the tunnel while the ambient area was cold. You didn’t know whether to wear earmuffs or swim trunks. I really felt for those people, because that was no fun. It’s one thing to be cold. It’s another to be warm. Be neither hot nor cold, Jesus said (more or less), and you’ll want to vomit. So the entire plant was cold (other than the hot dog tunnel), and where they stored product was even colder (I’m getting to that).

Did you ever see like pallets of raw beef, frozen, from Argentina or New Zealand. I did. And rigs from, IBP delivering frozen meat on the loading docks, everyday. It’s a meat packing plant, and yes, they do (or did) use very good beef, frozen. And it had to stay frozen. For that there was an area of the plant that was Antarctica. Like 30 below. And there were blowers (God knows why), so there was actually a wind chill. Man, you want to talk about cold. You went in dressed in a freezer coat, gloves, and whatever the Hell else you could find to keep warm. If I knew I was going in the freezer on a given day, I’d wear thermal underwear, even if it was 90 degrees outside. You were good for maybe 30 minutes before you really started to feel it–and then you could go out and take a cigarette break (but only for about 10 minutes). And then it was back to the South Pole. Now the union guys had this written into their contract, and the steward made sure they got breaks and were not in there too long. Since I was “casual” and not union, technically the foreman could do what he wanted. But he was a nice guy, a friend of my Dad’s, and had no interest in seeing me freeze to death. So there was generally no problem. Until the Iceberg Day.

I never quite figured out how it happened, but I guess a pipe must have burst or something. In the deep freeze. And, of course, the water cascaded to the floor and pretty much flash froze before they could cut it off. So there was this, er, iceberg sitting in the middle of the freezer, blocking traffic. The sanitation guys must have decided that Joe College got this one, so in I went. With a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and as much warm stuff as I could find. And thereupon preceded to start breaking the damn thing up and carting it off. At some point, I guess I decided that I wasn’t stopping until I got the damn thing done and carted away. And I did. But by the time I finished, I swear I must have had frostbite on my nose. I remember my boss looking at me and asking if I was ok. I guess I said yeah, so he told me to go outside and warm up. It was around noon, and out I went into the Summer’s heat, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the patch of lawn in front of the plant with a bunch of other plant workers. They seemed to regard this with great amusement, and assured me that I would have no need of contraception after that day because certain organs would have undoubtedly been frozen into dysfunction. I was so damn sore that night that I could barely move, and I’m not sure how I made it in the next day. I got a taste of what it was like to be 70 well ahead of time.

You know, there were a lot of guys in the plant on pain killers who had creaky, arthritic hands and knees–and they couldn’t have been more than 40. Some guys came into work stinking of booze at 6AM and they stayed that way. It was a Hell of a way to make a living, and they weren’t there for just a couple of months. This was, barring illness, getting fired, or something else, basically life. I have no idea how they stood it. Boy, if you ever wondered about the odd behavior–brawling, gambling, porn addiction, domestic violence–among the “plant types,” well, a few days like that straightened you out. And you wonder why they were union–even if the Amalgamated Meat Cutters weren’t exactly militants like the roofers. If anything, I’m surprised at how impassive most of the guys (and women) were. I think most of them were too worn out, too tired, or too drugged up to care much. They were basically glad they had a job. If they had any dreams, they involved a six pack and a weekend in Wildwood, maybe with a wife or a girlfriend. Hell, both, for all I know. That was it.

After about a month, I got moved to the shipping cooler. I had to move because any longer in sanitation and union membership would have been obligatory. It was fine by me, but OM was like, oh no. We can’t have that. And it was a promotion of sorts. I got to stack boxes of product waiting to be picked and loaded on trucks for distribution in about a five state area. I learned how to drive a fork lift, which was pretty cool. Except for the day that I somehow got the damn thing stuck in an up position and nearly took out a pallet of beef bologna in the process. Man, you never seen guys moving so fast to get away from impending disaster. It was raining the stuff from 20 feet up. They didn’t fire “the college kid” because I guess I was sort of family, and I had entertainment value. Besides, the shipping cooler was another world entirely.

There was a packing line that looked something like out of the Lucille Ball Vita-a-Meeta-Vegimin episode. You missed a beat on assembling a box and next thing you you, you were up to your ears in some stuff, depending on what was getting loaded. The guys working that line were mostly alcoholics, and you could see why. Cold. Repetition. Repetitive Strain injuries. Various and sundry cuts and bruises. The odd chance to sneak off to the Men’s Room to smoke, only to have the damn foreman come in and roust you–even if you were in the middle of a bowel movement. This guy I worked for, Matt P, was a piece of work. One day he came in to clear the place and I was doing my business and smoking–a twofer. He started telling me to get out of the stall, only for me to reply that I was relieving myself (in much less polite terms). No matter. He wanted me out. Soooooo. Use your imagination. Matt started screaming at me “What the Hell are you doing?” as I exited with my pants around my ankles. “I told you. I was taking a crap. You said come out. So here I am.” The look on his face was priceless. “Get the Hell back in there!” “Ok, but you said come out.” “I don’t care what I said, dumb f***.” This scene was so entertaining to the other guys in the cooler that they were grinning at me all day. “College kid!” One of them took me to a secret hiding place in the stacks of product where guys would duck in for a few to make coffee with an immersion heater. That was the day I knew I had arrived. It was like Bar Mitzvah for the kid. They had the Daily News back there, everything. Even a flashlight rigged up. This is how you survived. No one abused, and there was complete racial harmony. We had a common enemy, and we knew it.

The shipping cooler was so big it had a PA system that the foreman was supposed to use to summon people. Heh heh. Except it had no security, or the security was trivial, so everyone knew the codes, even when they got changed. There was this guy, I called him Chicken Man. He’d get on one of the more remote locations, dial in, and cackle like a rooster, which boomed all over the place. Or even better, he’d call in some one “Ron Stingey, call 214. Ron Stingey, call 214.” So Ron, or whoever, called 214, whatever 214 was. So this broke up the monotony 2 or 3 times a day. I even joined in the fun. “Werner Paulus, to Dock 6. Werner Paulus.” So Werner would walk about half a mile to Dock 6 only to find no one knew why he was there or what he wanted. And Werner was, well, not too gracious about it. Every once in a while there’d be an altercation, you know, as if these guys on the Dock were jerking someone like Werner around. You had to be there, believe me. It was funny.

Lest you think it was all screwing around, I learned plenty on that job. I’m not about to say that being a tourist among the working class was the same as being working class, although I came from it, but hadn’t really that much experience of it as a kid. Dad, Joe Villari, others did, but I was “spared” that experience. Now that I think of it, I’m glad I got a least a glimpse of it. When I had some student going on how unfair I, or life, or something else was, I often thought back to some of those people at OM. I never once heard one of them complain about life being unfair. Right. They would’ve laughed. They knew that: they were examples of it. You think an accident of birth is fair? You remember Rocky’s pal in the meatpacking plant, played brilliantly by Burt Young. Paulie didn’t think life was fair, did he? And he was right.

Whenever I was tempted to quit grad school (at least twice I week), I thought back to my experience at OM. Yeah, Lawrence Stone was an sob, but my foreman in the shipping cooler was worse. Much worse. I don’t care how bad academics ever got. There’s always meat packing, man. So thank God. I think about those poor souls from Mexico who populate Tyson’s Chicken. You really want their job? No you don’t, believe me.

The other thing I learned from working at OM was economics. Yeah, old style, Chicago school, traditional price theory. It was all around, man. Production functions? Like the hot dog tunnel was a working f(x,y). Marginal product=0? The guy who tries to look busy when the foreman is around, but otherwise goofs off. Economies of scale: yeah, you can watch both those lines at once for stuff falling off. Two for the price of one. Short and long run cost curves. Sure. Fixed and variable costs? How could you miss it: it was like chords on a piano keyboard. Even if you were tone deaf (or dense) you could see it for Heaven’s sake. The equations, the derivatives and integrals, the maximizing tricks–forget it. Or finally see what they meant. It was the best education in applied price theory I ever got. It’s why I don’t have too much patience with my historian colleagues who keep bitching about unrealistic models in economics. You think? Some are, but not all of them, man. Try learning something. Just because something is logical doesn’t mean it exists, true enough, but if something exists, there is probably a logical reason for its existence. Big difference.

I got to ride on the Wienermobile once too . Big deal. We tooled around South Philly to get gas while gawking locals gave us the finger and yelled obscenities. Like being at an Eagles’ Game. And, yes, I did meet the ORIGINAL Little Oscar. He was still around then, although a bit worse for wear. He had been a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz. He was, I’m afraid, something of a pain in the ass. I mean, I guess he had his reasons, but you learned never to ask him if his weiner was in gear. He could swear like a longshoreman, and he hit too. Never piss off a dwarf dressed like a chef. I learned that too in my summer gig at OM. And a lot more.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

4 thoughts on “Oscar Mayer (OM), as in I Wish I Were

  1. Very fun. Never new you worked for Oscar Meyer. I am sure you learned nearly as much in four months about life than you did the previous 4 years.


  2. I worked union in supermarkets in junior and senior year at DP, and then night crew all through collage and grad school at Temple. Retail Clerk and (after 1979) UFCW the whole way. I think I learned some of the same economics lessons, by osmosis. I was on union staff when they closed that plant. It was a real sad moment. Gee, no wonder why I ended up having a union career!


  3. How fine and how splendidly realized. Every aspiring white-collar worker and especially every academic should have a stint at a blue-collar job. Mine can’t match yours: I was a doorman in a suburban mall movie theatre, but I met memorable people, heard retorts that I can repeat verbatim (and will, at the slightest provocation) forty-five-plus years later. Oh, and about people in groups and those dynamics, the alliances that form and unform for power . . . very edifying, although I didn’t see it all that deeply at the time.


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