In the Studio
Yesterday afternoon I was at the WHMP studios in the heart of downtown Northampton to record some readings from my blog for a new segment they're going to be airing called Radio Blogging. The idea is to have local bloggers read aloud from their better posts. Among the others scheduled so far are Jim Neill and Mary Carey. I'm honored to have been the one chosen to kick off the series.
The main office at WHMP, which is also the headquarters for a number of affiliated stations, is decorated by old music posters such as this one by the copying machines of Bob Dylan.
Actually WHMP is more about news and talk radio than music. The person working with me in the studio to record the two segments I read aloud was Jaz Tupelo, a radio jack of all trades and a rising star of the Valley airwaves.
I read two pieces regarding my short and long ago meat cutting career at Big Y. Here's a transcript of the first one:
I was in Springfield recently, and heading down Breckwood Boulevard I stopped by the woods where the dam is that created Breckwood Pond. My father used to swim there as a boy.
A little ways down the Mill River, I was amazed to see a supermarket carriage stuck by a fallen tree. That carriage must date back to when the Big Y supermarket was located on Wilbraham Road. Kids from Duggan Junior High used to steal them and throw them off the dam.
I used to work at that Big Y in the meat department. Today most meat arrives at the store pre-cut by largely automated processes, but when I was cutting meat we got in whole sides of beef, missing only their heads and skin, and had to break them down into steaks.
The worst was cutting chickens, hundreds and hundreds of chickens for a typical Saturday sale, done on a slippery spinning saw, and if you made a mistake that whirring blade could take four fingers off your hand before the first pain signal had a chance to reach your brain. I still know the routine by heart - two long cuts to remove the backbone, one across the middle to separate the breast, slit the breast in half and for some packages, slice the thighs from the drumsticks. Repeat ad nauseum until there were enough chickens for all the people of Pine Point, a lower middle-class community where every family ate more chicken than steak.
A lot of the guys who worked there cutting meat were immigrants from Poland. At lunch they would go next door to Mory's Pub for a chili-dog and as many shots and beers as they could down in a half-hour. No one in Big Y management openly frowned on this practice, since it was too hard to find good cutters like the Poles. They relished hard work, but they would've quit if told they couldn't drink.
I don't recall a single accident occurring that could be blamed on alcohol. It was actually better to be a little loose while cutting meat, because it was when you were uptight that the blade would slip. Besides, it wasn't the knives and saws that ruined their hands, it was the constant exposure to frigid flesh; that icy coldness would seep into your bones, leaving your hands gnarled claws of arthritis by the time you were fifty. That's one of the reasons I quit meat cutting, I figured I could still become an alcoholic without ruining my hands in the bargain.
Once the novelty of being in a totally refrigerated environment with parts of dead animals all around you wore off, the work was pretty repetitious. To escape the boredom, the guys used to tell stories. Not all of us, I was too lowly in the pecking order as a novice cutter to hold the floor and the girls who did the meat wrapping were also excluded. We were the designated audience, and glad for it, because some of those guys had some compelling stories to tell.
The most interesting ones were about their life in Poland under the communists, you couldn't listen to them without concluding, whatever your political background, that communism was the most stupidly evil thing on earth. Most of the stories though were just about normal stuff, marriages under strain, trouble with kids, funny things that happened. I believe I learned a lot from those guys about how to tell a story, skills like how to hold people's interest over a long narrative by withholding information and then doling it out when it packs the most punch. It was better than a graduate seminar in literature, those slow afternoons in the Big Y meat room, although I'm not sure how many of those guys could read or write, at least not in English. But they could tell better stories than a lot of English professors.
The other one I read was about the death of Bodie Chesbro:
I was nearly speechless with dismay when I heard the news of the death of Dave Chesbro, whom everyone knew as "Bodie," a notorious figure in the 16 Acres/Pine Point section of Springfield and one of my fellow meatcutters at the Pine Point Big Y back in the day. We worked with mostly older Polish guys and as the kids in the outfit we bonded.
In those days Bodie looked and acted like a motorcycle outlaw, and I'll always remember as we arrived at work at dawn to begin preparing the day's meats how he used to come roaring across the empty parking lot on his beloved Kawasaki, doing wheelies and other dangerous tricks for us that in retrospect make me wonder how he lived as long as he did, actually reaching the age of 50, a birthday not seen by many of the boys of Pine Point from that generation.
Sometimes, despite the angry protests of the store manager, Bodie would pull some of his motorcycle stunts coming back from lunch when the store was open and there were customers in the parking lot. I don't know what disturbed the customers more, seeing this character with a wild blond afro squealing and hurtling across the parking lot while letting out a blood-curdling banshee scream; or when they realized a few minutes later while shopping for their meat that the very same maniac from the parking lot was behind the meat counter waving a eight-inch razor sharp blade that could cut through your jugular like butter! He was smooth with a knife and could probably have become as good a meatcutter as the old Poles had he not decided he liked the looser schedule of the construction trade.
I know he wouldn't mind if I reveal what all his closest friends knew, which was that his tough-guy persona was largely an act, although a convincing one. Walking down the street with him I was often amused to see old ladies actually cringe as we went past them. But there were nights after work, and these are the times with him that I remember best, when I would jump on the back of the bike with some beer and buds and head out to some field in the country, places in Monson or Hampden or other cowtowns that only he knew and which I could never relocate in the daylight. He knew how to ride only two ways, reckless and insane, but I never felt afraid to ride with him. He had an uncanny ability to judge inter-spatial relationships and the geometrics of other moving objects. As they say in the motocross world, "He knew time."
Once we reached our destination at the end of those nighttime rides, and if he got high enough to open up, he was really sensitive and smart in a way that I don't think most people realized. He had the sharpest mind for doing mathematics in his head of anyone I've known, and he once shocked everyone by briefly attending STCC to study accounting. Everyone laughed at the very notion of such a thing, but I believe that had his life path been different he could indeed have been a fine accountant.
In some ways I think he saw the world too clearly, and that was part of what made him so wild. I mostly lost track of him after he left the meatcutting world, although occasionally word would reach me of him through mutual friends, and it was not always happy news. He was a great fun-hog, and everybody loved him for the energy and the excitement he could stir up, but he wasn't always a good judge of when the fun crossed the line into self-destruction.
The energy level of the world dropped a few ampage points when he died in a motorcycle crash in 2005. I know I speak for everyone who knew Bodie Chesbro when I say that he was one of life's wonderfully unique and unrepeatable experiences.
When will these be airing? I'm not sure, I think they are supposed to run sort of randomly, like when the host needs a bathroom break or something. Each one may air several times before I record any new ones, assuming the whole project doesn't turn out to be a bust. Perhaps they will also be made available on the WHMP website; in any case I'll let you know when I have more details. In the meantime, these are the radio stations you need to tune into (based on where you live in the Valley) in order to hear my radio blogging.
It's interesting how eight years later you can still say "nine-eleven" and everybody knows what you're talking about. This morning at UMass a military honor guard stood silent vigil outside Memorial Hall.
Paul Walker on the woodland way into downtown Northampton.
Luke outside the Haymarket.
Let's go to Boston and get all ethnic.