The Absurdity Factor: An Interview with Lisa Cummings About Working on an Alaskan Fishing Boat
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Q: What was the processing like?
Lisa: The crab came to us on boats, and we would send six or eight guys over to off-load. The boat would open their tank and there’s a basket, and they’d throw it in the basket and send it to us. There was a crane to lift the basket, a big hopper, and there’s a guy working the hopper who puts it on a conveyor belt to go to the butcher line.
There are maybe 12 butchers along the butcher line, half on each side, and a fixed blade in front of each person. There are two conveyor belts, one on the top where you take the crab off. And you sort of shove its face into the blade and go like this [demonstrates] and twist it down like that so the shell pops off. And there’s a trough where the guts and stuff go, and two rotating brushes where you clean the gills off the shoulders each side of the legs. And then you drop it on the conveyor belt underneath, and that goes down below where people…what are they called, packers? They pack them in baskets.
My job was scaling. The baskets were three feet by two feet, metal wire. They were packed and would come to me and sometimes another person, each of us with a scale on either side, and each basket had to weigh a certain amount. I had a little basket of extra crab, and I had to add some or take some off each basket to make it weigh the right amount. I got pretty good at it, so when a packed basket came to my scale I could pick up exactly the right amount just by feel, or remove some to make it what it needed to be.
Q: How precise did you have to be?
Lisa: Pretty precise, I think. Within ounces.
Q: This is a multi-pound basket, and you had to get within ounces of a target weight.
Lisa: Right. And then it was stacked four high by two, and a crane lifted it into the cooker.
Q: So they cooked them right there on the boat?
Lisa: They did. They had to. It wasn’t very long, a matter of five minutes.
Q: The crabs are swimming around, they get caught and sit on the icy boat a while, and then they’re dumped onto your processing boat, and within a matter of fifteen minutes they’re gutted and cooked.
Lisa: They have to be. Because from the time a crab dies until the time you cook or freeze it, it can’t be long, or else it will turn blue.
Q: Even if it’s really cold.
Lisa: Right, because the boat is heated. It was pretty cold still, with some portals open sometimes, but they tried to keep it comfortable. So the crab went either into the cooker, or into the brine treatment. We changed what we did according to who we were selling it to. Some wanted the crab in brine. But anyway, then after that they went to long freezing tunnels and by the time they came out they were frozen. Or maybe they weren’t frozen—I might be confusing the two processes together, crab and cod. The crab might’ve just been boxed after that. I forget, because I didn’t work that part. Anyway, they went into cold storage. I worked cold storage a couple of days.
One thing was that the legs would come in broken off. We’d have to salvage as many as we could.
Q: Little legs or claws?
Lisa: Either. Didn’t matter. Because these weren’t the big crabs, we weren’t doing King Crab; we were doing Opilio or something like that. I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this—you won’t be able to use any of this, I might be totally wrong.
Q: We’ll just gloss right over this, don’t worry. So anyway, the legs broke off.
Lisa: So, as long as the legs weren’t blue they didn’t want to throw them away, so we would get them into baskets and through the cooker right away.
Q: You were picking up spare legs all the time and throwing them in.
Lisa: Right, right. This one time I was working and it was a little out of control. They really didn’t want you going from one deck to another because the butchers got stuff all over themselves, and you couldn’t have raw guts getting on the finished product, but sometimes the packers got backed up. I was one they would send back and forth because…well, they would say, “We need someone down here,” and no one would volunteer. And I’d be like, “Fine, I’ll go, whatever.” And every time you left the butcher deck you had to completely scrub and hose down your rain gear, which was why no one wanted to do it.
But this one time, I don’t know how it happened, whether it was the guys on the catcher boat or someone in the hopper, but we got this mass of broken legs. And the guys on the butcher deck—I could see it—they were just pushing them all down, and they couldn’t pack them like that. And it built up like three feet, all these legs! At the end of the packing line. No one was doing anything with it. And Adam, one of the foremen, called me down because he knew I wouldn’t gripe too much about it. So I hosed off and went down, knowing exactly what he wanted me to do, and when I really saw how many there were I started laughing.
Q: But what did he want you to do?
Lisa: He wanted me to sort through them, throw away the blue ones, and take the good legs and put them in other people’s baskets, because no one wanted to pack them. They wanted their nice, evenly distributed crabs with the shoulders on, because you could pack them like one, two, three, four, five. And nobody wanted to deal with the loose legs. So I just started plowing through them [demonstrates throwing legs], and I would have a whole basket of loose legs, and they didn’t really want to sell that, because it would look…well, awful. I would have to go distribute handfuls. But there were so many that I would have to catch people who had their first, bottom layer of shoulders, and then I would fill the basket with legs and they would put one layer of shoulders on top. And that went through. So we got through them.
Q: [laughing] The day of legs.
Lisa: Yeah. That was part of the absurdity factor; that was what made me say, “OK, I can’t keep doing this. This is not a career option.”
Q: Were there other people on the boat who were there for a career?
Q: How many years did they have in it?
Lisa: Ten, twenty. Some people would really get sucked into it. They’d say, “One more year, then I’ll have enough money and I’ll do something.” But then the next year would come around and they’d say, “One more year....”
Q: Did you make a lot of money?
Lisa: You don’t make as much as you think you will or they say you can, the first season that you’re there. Because they have the A team, the B team, the C team, and whichever team you were on determined how much you made per hour and what responsibilities you had. The cooks made more, and the girls who did the laundry, because they had been there, and those were the cushy jobs. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to do everyone’s laundry. Not a whole lot of other people stay. But the ones who do, they stay for a while, I guess. They asked me to stay.
Q: Because you were so good.
Lisa: [laughing] Well, yeah. I don’t know what it is. It’s just that, from growing up, the way I was raised, Mom, wherever my work ethic comes from, I always…if I have a job to do, I do it well. I’m there on time, I do what I’m supposed to do. So, everybody else would be grumbling and dragging and not on the floor when we were supposed to start and I would…
Q: You’d show up on time and do your job.
Lisa: Right. It was funny—I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting, but I take pride in doing a good job and in being able to do as much as any guy can do. So I got to the point where I could butcher pretty fast, as fast as anyone, and clean and all, and Adam would come around and check people, make sure they weren’t cleaning too hard, because you had to be careful not to dig into the shoulder. You had to get to the point where you did just enough. You had to get all the gills off. So he came up and was working beside me, and I don’t know whether he was watching me work but he was butchering too, and I ended up being able to do it faster, and after a while he just walked away, half-grinning and shaking his head.
Q: You showed him up.
Lisa: I don’t know. And there were other times when it was really slow.
Q: Because the boats weren’t coming very quickly?
Lisa: Right, there was the time in between when they weren’t sure how long the next boat would be, and they couldn’t say, “OK, un-gear and take a break,” so we waited all sloppy, decked out in our orange plastic with sleeve guards and big gloves, just messing around in the crab guts trough, and I put some on the splash-guard there, made this big nasty mess, and I wrote in it, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” The other guys thought that was really gross, but you had to do something just to have something to do.
Q: And after a while you weren’t doing crab anymore. You switched over.
Lisa: To codfish. With machinery they’d bought from some other boat.
Q: What did they do with the crab machinery?
Lisa: That went into the warehouses. We went on shore in King Cove, where they showed us how to do it. I was an inspector, and you had to put the fillets on a table with a light under it and you had to make sure there weren’t any bones or worms. Kind of gross. There would be these little round, coiled-up worms that you could see with the light, and you had tweezers to pull them out. I forget how many were too many. You were supposed to take them out if there were three or four, but more than that I think you just tossed the whole fish.
Q: The light came through or shone down?
Lisa: It was a clear Plexiglas tabletop that the light shone up through. I think there was a machine that filleted them. They did show us how to fillet them in case the machine broke down. And then the people with the knives were trimmers, who trimmed off the belly. That became absurd too, because we would have this whole mountain of fish come through, and there were only three inspectors, and there was no way we could inspect each one and then throw it back over. All we could do was keep up, because the fillets would fall on the floor, and you couldn’t have that. You’d just have to throw them back over, onto the line, and not inspect them at all. So we’d do that, and the quality control girls would come by and say, “You guys are doing a great job. We’re not finding any worms.” And I’d be, like, “Great.” But then there were times when things were going well and the timing would be great, you’d inspect them, pull out the bones or whatever, and the quality control people would come over and say, “You really need to look for bones, because we’re finding some….” It was like it didn’t really matter.
That was part of why, or actually the main reason why when they asked if I’d come back, I had to say no. I tried to explain that the absurdity factor was too high. I don’t think Tom really knew what I was talking about.
Q: Did you eat fish afterwards?
Lisa: I didn’t eat codfish for a couple years after that. The key thing I tell people is, don’t eat any brown spots. Not that they’re all worms, but they’re not good.
Q: You ate crab right away?
Lisa: Not right away, just because I didn’t have money; we weren’t going to restaurants and we didn’t cook it ourselves.
Q: When you got back to Bozeman, were you thinking you’d go back to school or had you already written that off?
Lisa: I did sort of write that off. I was thinking…or I wasn’t thinking...I was young and proud and arrogant, and I was of the mindset that I didn’t need an institutionalized education. I could read and learn just as much, as quickly, as well, on my own. Which I could and did, and doing that was fun, but I realized eventually that I wasn’t talking to anybody about what I was reading. So now I’m back in school and talking.
Q: Are you glad you worked on the fishing boat?
Lisa: Yeah. I think I came away with almost $5000. When I was in Bozeman I bought a plane ticket—the second week in April I bought a ticket one-way to Paris. But I didn’t plan ahead far enough to know that I needed a visa to stay there and work when my money ran out. So, I discovered that when I was there, and also that you can’t get a visa while you’re there—you have to be in the States. So I had to come back home. And I paid off my school loans, and then I traveled for a while.
Q: At the beginning you talked about how you just went on this trip for the fun of it.
Lisa: Right, because...well, because I was in love, or I thought I was anyway. And also to see if I could. And then once I finished I was glad that I finished something. It didn’t matter what it was.
Q: You lasted the three months, did a good job…
Lisa: Did a good job and was asked to stay on...
Q: And you turned them down.
Lisa: I did. [laughs] I didn’t burn any bridges. I said I just couldn’t handle the absurdity of some of it. I think that any mass production situation has that absurdity factor to it. Because when you see such an enormous quantity of any one thing—fish, crab, whatever it is—you start to get an overwhelmingly uneasy feeling of how easily any-every-thing can be stripped of its meaning, simply by multiplying it ridiculously. All that matters then is its mass. Ugh.
Q: So, you succeeded and…
Lisa: And I was free. [laughs] I didn’t have to finish anything if I didn’t want to for a while.
Q: How long did that last? Because that sort of runs counter to the work ethic you talked about that you have.
Lisa: Well, it doesn’t necessarily run counter to it, because whatever I do, I still do a good job. I just don’t have to deal with feeling the weight of having to finish it.
Q: So is it still going on then? Not finishing things?
Lisa: It wasn’t so much the finishing as the feeling of having to. I think maybe I was trying out a little reverse psychology on myself. I am back in school, and I do plan to finish this time, but it’s not because of that. I had read an interview of Robert Bly in The Paris Review in which he talked about the need for a community. And it hit me, “He’s right, you idiot, you’re not talking to anyone; you’ve become this sort-of reclusive university of one.” And that’s just as absurd as anything else.
Copyright © 2002 Cynthia Closkey & Lisa Cummings