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A summer of fish: The worst job I ever had

(This piece was originally published in Now Magazine, August 2000)


I was standing in a pizza place on my lunch break. "God, something reeks in here," said the girl behind the counter, talking through her nose. I raised my hand. "Uh, that would be me."

"No, it smells like rotting garbage or something."

"I know," I said. "It’s me. I work at the fish market around the corner."

"Christ," she muttered, and walked into the back. As I waited for my slice, the manager came out and asked me if I would please wait outside.

I walked out, sat on the step and decided that it was time to apply to graduate school.

It was July, and I had been working at the fish market in Montreal for three months, ever since graduating from McGill with a BA in philosophy and a sense that, if the world didn’t quite owe me a living, I deserved at least a substantial line of credit.

 Slick slime

But there I was, earning $6.15 an hour, working 10-hour days knee-deep in chipped ice and fish guts, my hands infected and burning from countless cuts and puncture wounds, and every pore of my body impregnated with the odour of rotting seafood.

It’s hard to say which part of the job was the worst. I really hated the first couple of hours in the morning, before the store opened. A half-dozen of us had to haul up from the basement a few thousand pounds of fresh fish -- salmon and snapper, mackerel and monkfish packed in insulated boxes.

The 70-pound boxes, slick with fish slime and melting ice, often wouldn’t stay on the conveyor belt, so we’d have to drag them up the stairs one at a time.

Once the fish was up, we would fill huge tubs with ice chips that we shovelled out of the walk-in ice-maker, and then start rotating the fresh fish onto the long steel display counters. Overnight, blood and guts would leach out of the displayed fish into the bed of melting ice underneath. We would drain off a few gallons of this seafood slurpee, shovel fresh ice into the counters and replace the fish.

This part wasn’t too bad -- making the fish look presentable was mildly creative -- but it wreaked havoc on my hands. Red snapper were the worst: needle-sharp dorsal-fin rays poked through my gloves and gave me so many puncture wounds, I looked like a junkie who’d lost any hope of finding a decent vein.

 Daily restocking

Working in the frozen fish section wasn’t any fun either. The store had an immense industrial deep-freeze with wooden pallets piled with frozen fish reaching precariously toward the 30-foot ceiling.

In the summer, Montrealers apparently consume more frozen fish than they do jazz, and every day someone had to restock the display freezers with hundreds of packages of frozen calamari, sardines and prawns.

The deep-freeze was kept at a steady -35°C., and walking into it from the store’s humid summer air was an experiment in sudden, involuntary cryogenics. To borrow a line from Thomas Pynchon, it was like being hit over the head with a Swiss Alp. Freezing to death is supposed to be a fairly pleasant way to die. Not so pleasant, I would expect, would be freezing to death while pinned under a 500-pound solid block of frozen sardines that has toppled over onto you because your brain was too busy trying to avoid being flash-frozen to devote adequate resources to basic motor control.

But for sheer unpleasantness, nothing approached working at the customer service counter, where the corpses of just-purchased fish were subject to all manner of indignities.

"Cleaning fish" is a ridiculously Orwellian term for the most consistently disgusting activity I have ever been paid to perform.

The head fishmonger was a middle-aged Portuguese man named Manuel who clearly had it in for fish. Tiny Vietnamese women would approach the counter waving plastic bags filled with flailing, gasping carp recently plucked from the live fish tank. Manuel would take a carp, pin it down with one hand and bash its brains in with a heavy wooden mallet.

Then he’d toss it into the automatic scaling machine, basically a cross between a band saw and a car wash. The carp would slide down a groove into one end of the machine, there would be a loud metallic shriek, and it would shoot out the other end, sans scales. Occasionally, the carp weren’t entirely dead when they went through the scaler, and they would emerge in what appeared to be a considerable amount of pain.

My job at the counter was pretty straightforward. I would scale the fish, then take a heavy pair of scissored pliers and snip off all their fins. I would cut open their bellies from throat to anus, grip their gill rakers with the pliers and rip out their insides. Then I’d wash the fish out with a hose and pass them on to Manuel to be turned into filets.

All the fish parts that weren’t returned to customers as food went into a long trough that led to a hole in the floor. We would hose the blood and entrails down the hole to the basement, where it would sluice into more big plastic tubs. At the end of the day we had to stack these tubs in a walk-in fridge, where they would sit in primary fermentation.

 Allied soldiers

Once a week, the tubs were emptied into the hindquarters of a modified garbage truck with "Non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles" stencilled on the side.

The truck also made regular stops at local butcher shops and the humane society, and it generated an olfactory Doppler effect: you smelled it before you saw it. When it came crawling up St. Laurent, the cafe patios would clear, the streets would empty, windows would slam shut. The non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles guys would hang off the back of the truck, grinning and waving in their dark jumpsuits like Allied soldiers liberating Berlin.

Normally, the truck would pull up behind the store, we’d throw the tubs onto a conveyor belt, and the n-em/vn-c guys would empty them into the truck and toss them back down. But on this particular day, the conveyor had broken, and an employee named Marc and I had to carry the tubs, one at a time, to the truck.

Imagine the conveyor belt as the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, with a base (the floor of the basement) of 30 feet, and a height (the outer wall) of 8. We had to duck-walk the heavy tubs along the floor to the wall, from where it was 8 feet straight up to the street and the waiting arms of the n-em/vn-c guys.

Marc climbed halfway up the ladder built into the wall, leaving me to pick up a tub and lift it up so that he could grab one end. We then tried to muscle it up to the landing, but the geometry was all wrong. It was impossible to keep the tub level -- to get it to the lip of the landing, it would have to tip at about a 30-degree angle.

As we lifted, a steaming stew of rotting fish guts sloshed out of the lower end and onto my hand and face and oozed down my arms and neck.

Twelve or so tubs of that later, it was time for lunch.

Seven years later, I have just graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto, and I’m not sure if I’m any better off. I took that line of credit I thought the world owed me in the form of student loans, and I’m about to enter a flooded job market that sometimes seems to have it in for young scholars the way Manuel had it in for carp.

I wonder if it’s too late to apply to law school....

NOW | August 10-17, 2000 | VOL 19 NO 50