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Slaughterhouse One.

November 16, 2007

I was standing next to a weaving line of cows. I could look right into large soulful eyes and see my reflection; I could touch their snoots, only a chest high fence separated us. On that chilly, early morning I could see their breath, puffs of steam wafting through the shed; I could feel it too. They seemed calm, waiting; my insides roiled.

In 1980 I was co-founder along with my, then soon to be, husband, of a fine arts bronze casting foundry. After searching all summer for an appropriate place to start a foundry, we “suddenly” found ourselves at the end of that summer but had not yet found a space. We were at the eleventh hour of despair when we chanced to meet the man who was to become both our patron and “our saint,” who offered us a space in the heart of a meat packing yard. His meat packing yard.

He didn’t want a contract, he didn’t require a down payment; he seemed to trust us on sight and told us we could bring all our “stuff” in the next day. The space we moved into was a 2,000 sq ft, dark and dingy place with a rail running along the perimeter of the ceiling – meat hooks still in place – and what light there was entered through barely translucent, clerestory windows caked with grime. But, at the time the place seemed like heaven; there was a big downside though that we did not discover until after we had moved in, that a couple of times a day the clip, clippety-clop of hooves could be heard on what sounded like our rooftop. We were to learn that every day cattle crossed a bridge that went right over the top of our single storey building; after being dropped off by 18 wheeler trucks into the stockyards, the only way for the cows to reach the kill floor was on a bridge across our roof. It was their “Bridge of Sighs.”

Every day I went to work building equipment for the foundry: cutting and welding steel, putting parts together, taking them apart again if I had done it incorrectly, all this while J was teaching at the local art school. Late afternoon when he was done there, he would come to the foundry and the two of us would assemble equipment. He designed and both of us fabricated every piece that we required to operate a foundry, which proved to be quite an undertaking and taught me to be a fairly decent welder. One year later we opened for business and spent the next 12 years casting bronzes for other artists, reaching a quality in our craft that was comparable to the best foundries in the country. At one point we had 10 employees.

During this building time, G, our “patron saint,” would come into our space to hang out with the two of us; we were anathema to him. The fact that we were artists following our hearts was the mystery to G. He was fascinated that we were building the equipment ourselves, which to us was a no brainer, we didn’t have the money to buy expensive foundry equipment. He thought we were crazy, but he also thought we were great and wanted us to crank our creative skills up a notch by designing and building a 30 foot piece of sculpture for him. A piece of sculpture that would depict what went on in the valley, as he was proud of what he did. In order to do that he felt we needed take a tour of the slaughterhouse with him.

We had gotten to know G very well and liked him immensely, but the thought of going on that tour was abhorrent to us and we were somehow able to put it off for more than 3 years – until we could do that no longer. So on that cold winter morning, there we were standing in line next to droves of cows waiting to enter the slaughterhouse.

We entered the building and I felt like I’d just passed through the gates of hell. Within a couple of minutes these beautiful gentle creatures were zapped one at a time with a stun gun to their foreheads, strung up by a hind leg high in the air, had their throats slit, moved down the line – like an aerial conveyor belt – and a very short time later were body parts. Skinned body parts. Skulls here, eyeballs there. The creatures had been dismantled.

While hanging in the air by one hind leg, they moved around. There was no way they could have felt nothing after being “stunned,” there was no way they couldn’t register pain and fear. The place reeked of fear: blood running in the drains, water being sprayed by automatons disguised as men in white with boots on, endeavoring to wash away the gurgling mess; the clanging, grinding, sloshing sounds that echoed through the place.

As bad as I had thought it would be, it was a thousand times worse. While G was very proud of his enterprise, J and I were sick. We couldn’t go back to work afterward so went straight home to bed; stunned. The next day I became a vegetarian. The day after that J did too.

We never did get to make that piece of sculpture; luckily for us we got very busy at the foundry so didn’t have the time. A short while after we visited the slaughterhouse, we were relaying the story to a friend in excruciating detail; he listened carefully, commiserated with us then muttered that the place sounded like it should be called “cowschwitz.”

Copyright © 2007

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