Monday, April 16, 2007

Rain and water and steam and pigs

I was going to talk today about rain. About what we did when it rained. It rained hard in the spring and early summer in Wenonah. Thunderstorms were a regular feature of life. Sudden rushes of heavy rain and then we'd run out to the curb to float boats made of popsicle sticks or logs in the torrent by the curb. We'd run down the street following our boats and I was going to say something meaningful about that.
Then my friend Bob Thomas reminded me about Pig Farms. All around the northern boundaries of Wenonah in Deptford, really, in Jericho there were Pig Farms. Lets just un cap that. pig farms. They were owned by Italian families and worked by black families. The black families lived close by the pig farms. The garbage came from all the adjacent towns. Bob reminded me that the garbage came from Wenonah. Or Woodbury. Or Sewell. In our back yard you'll remember there was a can for garbage only. That garbage was collected by garbage trucks and it had a destination. The pig farms.
The last stretch of my rides home from my grandmother's house in Pennsylvania was always through the pig farms. The stench was ungodly. Newark had nothing on this. There were miles upon miles of pig farms. Butted up against them were the homes of the black people that worked the pig farms. Their shacks, really. Shotgun shacks in the parlance.
The garbage trucks were outfitted to process the garbage for the pigs. They were designed to collect, process, cook and deliver our garbage to the hungry pig population. The trucks could be heated with steam and then the garbage fed to the pigs.
On the one hand this was an entirely eco friendly way to process organic matter. On the other hand the workers who handled the pigs lived a hundred yards from the stench of garbage.
There were no white families so far as I know that lived by the pig farms. One family in my town owned one of the biggest farms. The Villari's. Good people with a nice home in the newer part of Wenonah.
Their children worked in the farms the same way the black people did. They learned their trade. From the pigs came sausage and offal and food. For the Italian Market in South Philly, for meat processing plants across the country. I only knew how bad it stunk.
I only knew that the shotgun shacks didn't resemble the Victorian homes in my town. We'd pass through in the night and say ooh hold your nose. It's the pig farms. The wind never wafted over Wenonah.
Maybe it did. Maybe you could think lots of things about this way of doing things. Farm workers using organic materials to make home grown pork. Local people employed in natural ways. Maybe that's just pig shit.
Maybe it's easier to pretend there aren't any pig farms outside your town. Maybe it's easier to ignore the shotgun shacks and outhouses. Maybe it's simpler to say black people are animals and they can't do anything else but this.
But then I had Michelle Smith and her brother Mike in my school and they didn't seem to have anything to do with pig farms. And when I got older I met people from Jericho and Hammond Heights and it turns out they had a real town with dreams and aspirations. There are lots of questions you can ask about where your food comes from. I know that when I was young any Italian sausage I ate came from a pig farm that stunk to high heaven in Jericho. It didn't seem very cute or nice or organic. There's a good chance it wasn't.
There's every chance that just like every farm stinks a bit these farms stunk a lot. Right now in South Jersey there is a big argument that farms make the neighborhood less attractive. The fertilizer. The machines. The dirt. Back then I'd say the dirt was the laborers. The men who had no other options.
We almost always forget what it was like in 1960 in the USA. How black men could only aspire to be railroad porters or garbage men or pig farmers. We make jokes about Mexican laborers and how they're taking work away from people but I note that the pig farms are gone. I note that black men and women can aspire to be President. That's a far cry from the cry of crows over a stench filled farm in South Jersey.
The really sad thing is that even though I have lots of nice photos of Wenonah with it's lovely homes and lawns there are no photos of the shotgun shacks. No photos of the men who worked the pig farms. I drove through when I was sick and getting better hoping to see things as they were but they were gone. That's the way it is America. We love the invisible. It makes life seem nicer somehow.

1 comment:

Jim Maddox said...

Woodbury Heights is bordered by Deptford as well. My side of town is next to New Sharon, and the pig farms were there as well. Just down Egg Harbor Rd. were the shotgun shacks you speak of. Poor whites were scattered among the black families, one of whom moonlighted as a carpenter. He helped my father build our house. Every now and then, on a really hot day, and after a heavy storm, the stench would make its way down the road. "The pigs are ripe tonight!" we would exclaim.
The Puerto Ricans who worked the farms near my Uncle Everett's in Clarksboro were treated like the soil. Just dirt. Contract labor to be treated without consideration for their humanity.