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The Ghetto Grocer #6
What Retailers Do With The Meat You Eat, Part 1
© 2013 James LaFond
NOV/10/13
I’m proofing a novel and six novelettes this week, and trying to finish ghostwriting a book for another author before Christmas. So, when the clock strikes 10 A.M. I need to wrap this up.
That said there is a reason I’m writing this now, to out myself concerning a deception.
No, I’m not gay. Got you!
I have said often and written loudly that I resigned from my retail food manager gig in 2009 to go into ‘reverse retirement’ and devote the rest of my fading life to writing. I made this declaration in a partially seduced state, reflecting a particular bridge I did not burn, which would permit me to journey back across the river of damnation and take my place again among the management class.
I was only able to pursue my writing goal with a clear conscience because I had left my youngest son with enough money to finish college. Recently I was reunited with a friend who I last saw soon after my resignation. She began asking me if I had stopped dating also. I told her, ‘yes’. She then said, “You love kids so much I thought for sure you would have shipped a little brown girl over here and married her by now.”
She knew me better than I thought she did. I had secretly harbored a possible return to the economy and the starting of a new family, if the writing thing went badly. I decided on this in the winter of 2011, six months after my resignation, after turning down the last of nine management offers. I had simply sought part-time work as a grunt.
While preparing my resume for a part-time job with a high end company, and knowing that I would be suspected of resigning under pressure, I prepared a paper called ‘The Case Of The Hatfield Hams’, this being one of the two reasons I resigned. The other reason—the tripwire—was the mistreatment of employees by my employer, which I dared not raise as law suits were pending. Six months ago I destroyed that document, lest I be tempted to post it in this space and forever cut myself off from my bread-winning capacity to support another disastrous mating decision. I now dredge it up from the bowels of my mind, forever insuring that I will never manage a retail food outlet again. The dates are graven into my mind and accurate down to the hour and minute.
Smoked Meats
Most abuses of meat products in retail food occur on ‘the side wall’ which is the highly profitable row of cases where a $10 an hour woman pushes as much money out the front door as the three male meat-cutters making $20 an hour do from the fresh meat case. I will relate one such story below. First you need to know about the government oversight, such as it is.
Municipal Health Inspectors
These are municipal employees who have their training geared toward policing restaurant kitchens. They know nothing about retail food. I managed a store with rampant abuses in the meat department, which I was not allowed to address, as Andy, the owner [a petite gay man who many customers thought was my ‘domestic partner’—yuck!], insisted that he have direct control over the meat room. Thus, when various disgruntled employees and customers wanted to hit Andy where it hurt by getting the store shut down for health department violations, they called the local health department and made complaints about the meat department.
It fell to me to mislead these ladies without actually lying to them. When they showed up at the desk Andy would hide in the back office, call the meat manager and tell him to get off the property, and detail me or my co-manager, to ‘run interference.’ I would stop by the executive restroom, fix my tie, do my best Bill Clinton imitation in the mirror, “I did not have sex with that cashier, Miss Laypinchski’, and “Well, it depends on what you definition of ‘is’ is.”
Now, having paid homage to my patron saint of obfuscation I would approach the suspicious Harm City health inspector and play, as my clerk Ty used to say, “dumb-as-shit Jimmy! Boy, you lucky they don’t know how diabolic smart your evil ass is!”
The inspector would then take me to the section of the case where the complaint had arisen, a section of the case I had most likely policed the previous evening, removing the offending recycled meat. I will get into more details about this process in Part 3 when I deal with fresh meat. Suffice it to say that health inspectors have no idea how to tell if packaging and labels have been altered or tampered with. What they are good at is taking temperatures. So I would direct them to the thermostats, show them the case cleaning schedule signed my overnight janitor, and—if it was the Jamaican chick who wore the summer dresses—I would offer to walk her into the cooler. Islanders hate the cold. However, there is a government figure out there that you need to fear.
Department of Agriculture Inspectors
If you have a complaint about your grocer’s meat case, call the Department of Agriculture. This is the best run agency of the U.S. Government: the only one that banks money for a rainy day, and operates WIC, which is the only sensible nutrition-based food subsidy program. These guys actually inspect this stuff at the plant, and know damn well if it has been tampered with when they see it at store level. When the Department of Agriculture Inspector came through that door I jettisoned my ‘Slick Willy’ template for my I-want-to-learn-at-your-knee-coach aspiring boxer mode. I never tried to bullshit one of these guys. Fortunately, of the hundreds of complaints we fielded, only 2 were handled by them. Mostly it was the health department fools.
The Case Of The Hatfield Hams
On March 18, 2010 I was paged to the sidewall. A tall, blonde, angry, yuppie homesteader chick was fuming. As I approached with my Bill Clinton, I-love-the-world-and-you-too-baby-what-are-you-doing-tonight-sweetheart smile she pointed at the boneless ‘football’ hams and snarled, “I looked at these hams three days ago. They were dated for March Sixteenth. Now they’re dated for April Twentieth!”
I bent to inspect the hams and she indicated a half-covered label dated for March 16, crudely covered with the new Aril 20 label. Her voice was shrill, “Is this what you do to oppress these poor uneducated people that don’t know any better?”
I stood as tall as I could as she towered over me, “Miss, I do not do this. I can also tell you that my scumbag meat manager did not do this. You see, he would have used fingernail polish remover to remove any trace of the old sticker, just like he did with the Department of Agriculture seal which he removed using a cotton ball soaked in that noxious solution. Clearly, by the sloppy workmanship, this was Ricky’s doing. I won’t fire him, though I could, because I know the meat manager made him do it. I can’t fire the meat manager because he is tight with the owner. I will remove these hams from the case—directly to the dumpster—otherwise they will end up back out here.”
She was beside herself with frustration, and began to whine as women do when they have the ear of a man who they suspect understands and cares, “You mean to tell me this is going to continue? I can shop anywhere. But the local people, the elderly, the people that had to go to those terrible schools and can’t read, and who don’t drive, what about them?”
I was looking to get fired for good ethical reasons at this point so began to torch an old dry bridge in my life—the loyalty bridge. “Miss, the locals will call the health inspectors. I’ll deflect their uneducated inquires and they will move on to the deli and write me up because I can’t keep a hairnet on that platinum blonde back there. If I were you, I would call the Department of Agriculture. But, since my man Uncle Fester so thoughtfully removed the Department of Agriculture seal, it’s not his business. Your only recourse will be the news: TV news.”
She then became somewhat like a guilty post-orgasmic lover and sighed, “I don’t want to put these people out of a job. I just want it fixed. Is there nothing you can do?”
I sighed to achieve empathy with my new partner in the battling of injustice, “Miss, I will write these men up—stack-up paper in their files. I’ll detail one of my dry grocery guys—they can be trusted because I control their schedule and can reward them with overtime or time off—to sort this out every evening, as soon as Uncle Fester walks out the door.”
She smiled, and then grinned, “Uncle Fester, seriously?”
“Absolutely Miss. I don’t even know his real name anymore. He’s seen managers come and go. I’ll at least make his life hell until I go.”
She smiled and shook my hand, “I’m so glad you’re a good man. Thank you Sir.”
“Thank you Miss.”
I then stood and watched her walk away, me being in charge of safety and all. In case she took a misstep in those high heels I wanted to be right there to catch her.
Cracking the Hatfield Ham Code
I had Alex heave those hams in the dumpster as I filled out a write up, specifying each individual ham as a violation, as each had been weighed and priced separately. I would only issue a single write-up for a case of hot dogs packages for instance.
One copy for me.
One copy for Andy.
One copy for Uncle Fester or Ricky.
I then toured the entire case, and found other violations, amounting to 48, 48 each for the old-meat chief and his single sloppy Indian. Talk about writer’s cramp. Andy was on vacation. I slid the stacked copies under his office door, which he always kept locked at all times to avoid suspicion, as that is where he had sex with his tall handsome boyfriend, who by-the-way, hated me.
I had an office clerk pull the meat orders from an Upstate New York wholesaler. My hunch was right. I discovered that the Hatfield hams in question, that had been dated for March 16, 2010, and then re-dated April 20, 2010, were just the tip of an unsavory meatberg. Those twenty or so hams were among the last of 420 hams that had gone out-of-date on September 24, 2009. They had had their seals removed in October, after being purchased from the packer, who had killed a few too many pigs for the pervious Easter it seemed. The hams had then been purchased by Andy and Uncle Fester on December 4 2009, to be sold for Christmas and New Years. These hams were now a year old, probably 14 months.
Uncle Fester’s Ire
The next day I came into the meat room, armored in my ill-knotted tie, where Ricky was wrapping the chops that Uncle Fester was chopping. I handed Ricky his 48 write-ups and his eyes bugged out, “Jesus Jimmy!”
I went and stood next to Uncle Fester, who glared at me out of the side of his eye while he continued chopping fresh pork, the meat—I reminded myself—that was most like human flesh. I said to Ricky, “Just listen to my reading to your boss, so I don’t have to go hoarse reading this twice. You are both receiving the same notices.”
I cleared my throat and Uncle Fester chunked a chop off with his 14 inch butcher knife against the stainless steel cutting table. Ricky took a step away. I preceded, “One Hatfield ham, Department of Agriculture seal removed—”
Ricky cut in, “But they came with the seals removed! They was already out-of-date!”
Uncle Fester looked at him with murder in his eyes and ‘cachunked’ a chop. Ricky flinched and stepped back. I decided to spice it with some feigned ignorance and sow disharmony among my rebellious underlings, “Thank you Ricky, I did not know that they were already out-of-date, until now.”
Uncle Fester, reading my game, blocked my divide-and-conquer gambit, “I take full responsibility. I told him to date every ham.”
“Of course, back to that. Falsely dated March Sixteen, re-dated April Twenty.”
After reading each of the 48 write-ups I would place it down next to the bone saw by his side, and he would ‘cachunk’ a chop, with more vigor it seemed with every reading, even as Ricky shuffled a half step closer to the door. By the time I was done my reading there were far too many chops to sell that day, the edge of Uncle Fester’s blade was dull, his face was purple, and Ricky was just about out the door.
I stepped out into the stockroom, put my back to the wall and began laughing my ass off. Ty was watching me with amusement and Ricky came out wringing his hands, “Jesus Jimmy! You almost ended up in the bone and fat can, and I would have had to clean up the goddamn mess!”
Ty, a goliath black man, walked away with a wide smile and howled to the ceiling, “Festerrrrrrrr!”
Epilogue
A month later I pulled Fester’s file and saw that the write-ups had been destroyed. I was also unable to find the ham bill. Finally, on Sunday, July 4, 2010, at 5:57 P.M. my janitor, Alex, who looked like the mad scientist from the movie Back to the Future, and turned out to be the most conscientious perishable clerk in the building, came over to me with his dustpan in his hand, “Jimmy, Fester alert, Hatfield hams!”
I looked at him in disbelief, “Are you kidding me? We scoured the freezer for frozen hams months ago. Where the hell has he been keeping them?”
“Beats me Jimmy. Hell, the Nazis hid their V2s from Curtis Lemay. You never count out a tenacious foe. [Anyone who knows Alex knows I didn’t make that dialogue up.] You better come here.”
I followed Alex over to the smoked meat case and he pointed to a grayish football-shaped object. The ham had begun a full-on rot. Gases were escaping from the 18-month old re-formed pig flesh and causing the plastic wrapper to expand. Other, less fetid examples, resided in the bin beneath it, in less advanced stages of decay. Penning those seven write-ups for Uncle Fester was completed within the hour. At closing time at 7:05 P.M., I talked a violent drunk off the lot. He had been threatening customers who would not give him a three-pound bag of onions, as the store was already closed and he needed a three-pound bag of onions! I waited for the responding cop until 8:17, spoke with him, and never came back to work again, resigning 34 hours later in my street clothes.
To be continued in Part 2: Running Over Hotdogs
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