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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lou The Butcher – November 1983-December 1984

One topic, which several of my stories will address is that of mentorship. I have been fortunate to have worked for, or studied under many fine men and women who were instrumental in helping me develop my values and work ethic. While I did not fully appreciate the efforts of some at the time, I have come to regard several of these people with fondness over the past several years. Some I have managed to maintain relationships with, while others have faded into obscurity, and I often find myself wondering what has become of them, and indeed whether some of them are still alive. This story is about one such man, Lou, who ran a gourmet butcher shop in my local shopping mall in Subiaco, which was a suburb of Perth, Australia, where I lived from January 1983 until we moved to City Beach, another suburb of Perth in December 1984.

The school year in Australia runs from January to December, rather than September to June, as it does in North America. Summer holidays down there coincide with Christmas and with school almost out, I was hungry for a way to make more money to supplement my $5 weekly allowance, which was enough to go see a movie and eat a meal at McDonalds, or Hungry Jacks, which was the Australian name for Burger King (the exact same food and logos as Burger King). But it was not quite enough to do this and have money left over for stamps or anything else I might want. One lucrative source of money came from birthdays and Christmas gifts, with my relatives giving me $25 each usually, so that I could usually save $100 or so per year, which was a lot of money back in 1983.

I’d had a job before, back in 1981-1982, when my family lived in Kelowna, BC. Located there was a prominent 1930’s resort called the Eldorado Arms. It was a beautiful Tudor style beige and dark brown stucco building on several acres of waterfront by Okanagan Lake, and surrounded by a number of smaller Tudor style cottages. I worked for the manager there, Kirk who was a tall man who looked a lot like Tom Selleck in the early 80’s with his dark brown mustache, 70’s 3-piece suit and gold rimmed dark sunglasses. I did odd jobs like rake the leaves that accumulated on the 3-acre lawn. I made $2 per hour, plus I was allowed to go into the bar and order a free Shirley Temple and come for the Sunday brunch. It doesn’t sound like much now, but I would earn two or three weeks allowance in one day. So from my perspective at 11, I was “rolling in it”.

I hadn’t really started looking seriously, but one hot Friday afternoon, just about a week or so before the end of the school year, I was wandering through my local shopping mall, which was called Crossways. It was an open air mall, at the corner of Rokeby Rd. and Bagot Rd,  in which all the shops were located around the perimeter of the centre, which was a large white stucco building, and they all looked out into a central common area with benches and garbage cans. There was no roof covering this area, and only a partial roof covering the walkways on the inside perimeter, just outside the store entrances. It was a small mall with about a dozen shops including the large grocery store, a newsagent/tobacconist, a few clothing stores, a record store and a butcher shop. As I approached the butcher shop, I saw a large sign taped to the front sliding door that read “Help Wanted”. So I figured, “Hey, what have I got to lose?”.

I walked in and a tall, olive skinned man with black hair and a black goatee beard appeared behind the counter. “Yes?” he asked, as he surveyed my adolescent frame with his dark brown eyes. I immediately noticed his olive forearms, covered in wispy black hair. He was just a dark, but well groomed man. “I saw your sign on the window.” I said. “Do you still need someone?” I asked. “Yes, we need someone to sweep the floors, clean the counters and keep the saws and mincers clean. Does that sound like something you’d be able to give a go?” he asked. “I think so” I said. “I’ve had cleaning jobs back in Canada when I lived there.”. “Ah, yes, I thought you sounded like a Yank.” He said. “Have you ever worked in a butcher shop before?” he asked, in a somewhat stern voice. “No, never. But I’m sure I can learn.” I said. “Fair enough” he said. “When can you start?”. “Now, if you like.” I said eagerly. “Why don’t you start tomorrow after school? I will pay you $2.50 per hour.” He said. “I’ll be here.” I replied, barely able to contain my excitement. “I’m Chris” I said. “Hi Chris, I’m Lou.” said the man. Ah, if only all my job interviews as an adult were this easy!

And so I showed up the next day, and every week day after school except Thursday, I went to the shop and worked for 1 hour, as well on Saturday from 8 o’clock in the morning until they closed at noon. Most stores in Australia closed at noon on Saturday. On Thursdays stores would stay open until 9 o’clock at night, so I would work 2 hours on Thursdays. On a good week, I would make $25-$30, which as alluded to before was a shit-ton of money back then. My job was generally to clean the meat cutting equipment, which included a large bandsaw, the mincers, the meat trays and dividers, and the sausage filler. As Australia is a very warm country, large blowflies are a major problem and it was especially critical for food safety to keep every nook and cranny of these machines clean and free from rotting meat.

I was a fairly typical 12-year-old though. I was very defensive, and while I was open to criticism, I took it all to heart and got very upset when criticized.  I was always on time though, and I worked very hard. It wasn’t long before Lou began to get annoyed with my “sass” and my “lip”. A typical scenario would go something like this: I’d be scrubbing the inside of the bandsaw with a large scrub brush and a 5-gallon bucket of very hot, soapy water. Lou would say “Chris! Get over here!”, beckoning me over to the mincer, the tenderizer, or the sausage filler. I would immediately drop the scrub brush into the bucket and think to myself “What is it this time?”, as I headed over to where I was being called. “What is this?” Lou would ask sternly as he plucked a bit of meat out of some recess of the machine. He would shove his hand up towards my face. “See this? Do you want to eat that? Look at that! I don’t want to see this again!”. “But Lou, I checked it carefully and thought I got it all” I would say. “Don’t answer back!” he would usually bellow.

This one time, a similar situation was unfolding. By now, Lou had gotten frustrated with me enough times, that he really did not have a whole lot of patience with me, so it really did not take much to make him frustrated with me. On this particular day, I was sweeping the floors. Now in that environment, where you have blood, entrails and bits of meat ending up on the floor that can stick, you didn’t just grab a broom and start sweeping. You would take scoops of coarse sawdust, spread them on the floor and then sweep that up. This would prevent meat from sticking to the floor and drying in place. At the end of the evening, you would then spray the concrete floor with water, spread caustic soda all over and scrub the whole thing with a stiff broom and hose it all down afterwards. I knew that even if I missed something on the sweep, I would likely catch it on the final scrub at the end of the evening, so occasionally I got sloppy with the sweeping. This was one of those times.

“Chris! Get over here!” shouted Lou pointing at a spot on the floor near the main butchering table. “What’s this? How many times do I have to tell you to be more thorough in your sweeping? I had had enough, so I said “Look! Even if I miss it, I’m still going to get it when I scrub, so what is your problem?”. He looked at me for a second like I had just shot his pet dog. “Right!” he said as he came towards me. He grabbed my ear and pulled on it – hard. “March!” he said as he led me toward the meat locker. He marched me inside and stopped at the large plastic tub that held the brine in which the brisket and corned beef was kept. This tub was about 40 or 50 gallons at least – probably the size of a small hot tub. Brine is highly salted water, and the ambient temperature of a meat locker is between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius. So the brine was well below zero degrees. “Put both hands in there until I tell you to take them out!” Lou ordered. Not knowing what to expect, I complied. Within seconds, both my hands felt like they were going to snap off at my wrists. “This hurts!” I cried. “Please!”. “Are you going to give me any more lip again?” he asked. “No! No! I promise!” I pleaded. “Take your hands out and when the feeling returns, go back and do a proper job. I’m sorry about this, but you will learn that can’t talk to your elders this way.” He said as he walked away. I just stood there for few minutes with my hands throbbing with pain, before I got back to work.

Naturally, after this I really didn’t want to get into trouble. I started being really, really careful and fastidious with my sweeping and scrubbing. Things started to get better and I was going for several days at a time with my work passing inspection, without a single problem. However, all good things must always come to an end eventually.

One of the things that Lou sold was liver pate. It came on these large plastic plates and would be a large circular wheel about 8 inches wide and 6 inches tall, and would be topped with a layer of gelatine. Lou would sell a whole wheel for $30 or a small wedge slice from the wheel for $2. Most people bought the slices of course, because a whole wheel would probably not keep for the amount of time it would take to consume it. He would display it on the metal trays that he kept in his refrigerated display cabinet at the main counter. At closing time, I would cover the pate with plastic and carry it into the meat locker, placing it carefully on the shelf.

This one Saturday, I was clearing away the pate and walking towards the meat locker. I got in there and started looking for a shelf on which to place the pate. It was a brand new wheel. Just as I spotted an empty slot on which to place the tray, the plate on which the pate was sitting slid forward, off the tray an onto the floor, landing with the gelatin side on the floor and a resounding “Plop!”. “Oh no!” I thought. I can’t afford to pay my whole week’s wages to replace this. So I carefully picked it up, cleaned off the gelatin and tried to smooth it out, so it wouldn’t look like I dropped it, and placed it back on the shelf. I collected my $26 pay that day and through nothing further of it. However, on Monday, when I came back to the shop after school. Lou took me into the meat locker and pointed to the pate on the shelf. “I found this today. You dropped this on the floor didn’t you? Please don’t lie to me.” He said. I thought for a moment and my heart sank. Defeated, I said “Yes sir. I didn’t want to tell you because I was doing so well lately and I really didn’t want to lose a whole week’s pay.”. He looked at me for a second leaned down to my level and put his arm across my shoulder. “Chris, accidents happen. I would never make you pay for dropping this. But I need you to tell me because I cannot sell this to people once it has fallen on the floor because it is not safe. Do you understand?”. He said this in an uncharacteristically soft tone – not the usual harsh tone. I remember being completely stunned with surprise. “Yes.” I said, “I do”.

Lou and I continued to work together for a few more months and we had a very good understanding and working relationship. I got used to his working style and I was on time, honest and very careful. However, after a few months, he went into partnership with three other butchers: Adrian, Reg and Warwick. This completely changed the dynamics, and would eventually make the job intolerable for me for a while; so much so that I would quit once, before returning for the last few months of 1984. Adrian, was a tall, lanky dark haired guy, who often had a cigarette dangling from his lips as he worked in the back. He was much harder on me than Lou was, even though he was just an apprentice butcher. Reg and Warwick were both very lecherous men, often rushing to the painted window that hid the carving room from the public and peering through small car-key-etched spots in the paint looking at the women passing by if Adrian gave the signal that an attractive woman was passing by. It was only a matter of a few weeks before the entire back wall of the carving room was plastered with Playboy centrefold pictures. Both men must have been in their late 40’s at the time, and were both married, which makes their behavior all the more surprising. But this is how it was back then.

Both men were also hard on me – in many ways much harder than Lou and much less sensitive to my feelings. Warwick was a silver haired balding guy that would say things like “If you don’t clean this better, it retains meat bits and it stinks. Clean it again”.  Reg was this reddish brown haired buy with a mustache. He’d come up to my back sink where I was washing the trays, put his hand in, pull it out and say “That water won’t wash my dick. Fill the sink with hotter water and start again.” Working for four bosses was very hard, and it wasn’t long before my defensiveness returned. Again, it didn’t go over well at all, though I must say that I never got my hands shoved into the brine tub again.

Despite the difficulties, I had fun most of the time and made good money for the better part of a year. I learned a lot of very important lessons in that year and came to regard Lou as an important figure in my development. So important was he to me, that I visited him when I came back to Perth from Hong Kong in 1988 for a holiday, just before I was due to head to Vancouver for my studies. Even though it had been over three years since I had worked with him, he remembered me vividly and invited me in the back to hang out. By then Warwick and Reg were long gone, but Adrian was now Lou’s full business partner. We just hung out and chatted until closing time, for a few hours before I shook their hands and bid them both farewell. I see that as I write this today, the store is still there in the same little shopping centre, though it is now called “The Meat Safe” rather than “The Gourmet Butcher” as I knew it. Lou must be long retired now, but I wonder what happened to him. 

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