Animal House

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// WEEKEND

The afternoon I got locked in the fridge, I shared it with five dead pigs and one dead deer. The pigs came from a local farm, the deer came from a local forest and I came from Yale, where we never see deer and where we only see pigs after they’ve been converted into pulled pork, sauced and served on artisan ciabatta.

I was visiting Southington Beef & Pork, an independent meatcutter in a southern Connecticut town of 39,000. The fridge — a 7-by-12-foot metal box with a concrete floor — was tucked away under the poorly shingled awning of a white house that was, itself, tucked under the looming shadow of Ragged Mountain. It was installed on a former back porch, now a loading dock where a truck can back in and a hoist can lift the goods. Incidentally, this fridge is not used to store bag lunches or coffee creamer.

I was trying to act like one of the guys. Adam had been talking about a family vacation to Provincetown, Mass., during which he’d seen a man in a dress who, surprisingly, looked exactly like a woman. I replied, “I’ve been to the cape, too!” Everything was going swimmingly. But Jimmy then suggested that we “check out the tits” on a young blonde pedestrian on the other side of the road. I knew I should speak of their greatness, but given her distance, I found myself expressing caution about our ability to make a truly valid assessment, lest we find ourselves up close someday and the breasts fail to meet our aggrandized expectations.

This is when they showed me to the fridge.

***

The fridge at Southington Beef & Pork, as it turns out, is kept at 44 degrees Fahrenheit and smells something like cheese and excrement. However, the temperature (quite cold) and the scent (truly heinous) were the least of my concerns.

Now is a good time for me to let you know that I am a vegetarian. I am a very strict vegetarian. I have not eaten meat or fish or meat stocks since I was 13 and likely never will in the future — no, I definitely never will. It is repulsive and horrible. The tendril-stringy-flesh texture of it, the way it effuses its own inner oils all over everything and onto my clothes, its horrible gamey, body-odor smell — all of these things are disgusting. (They are not disgusting “to me.” They are disgusting.) Once, a few months ago, I accidentally ate a French fry that had been defiled by a friend’s gravy. When I sensed the horrible meaty darkness on that fry, I ejected it from my mouth with immense force and with immeasurable fervor onto the center of my plate. I did this without an inkling of shame.

Per this strict vegetarianism, the thing that I find most troubling about being locked in the fridge is the extraordinarily large number of dead animals in my presence.

Adam and Jimmy, though, have no idea about any of this. With their beefy man arms, fairly closed minds and deep-seated love for the meats, they would harm me — or at least hate me — if they knew. My Ivy League education and my lanky lady body were sufficient to lend them some misgivings about my character. And I really would like them to like me — they’re cool and gritty and have probably garnered more female attention than I will during my entire lifetime. I would like to be welcomed into their fraternal, insular world here, so I must stay strong. I must not tell them I am a “veggie.” I must not show fear. I must not come out of the fridge. I must be courageous on the stage of masculine friendship. It is remarkably like middle school soccer practice, and I hate it. I desire to be back at Yale, where it is okay to be sensitive, complicated and terrified of sharp knives in the hands of strangers. Again, I will not freak out. I will not melt down. I will be brave in the arena.

But the pig penises are still attached and are almost exactly at my eye level, and they are very big, casting shadows on the pigs’ bodies in the faint light. Additionally, I noticed earlier that there is a steady drip of blood coming from the dead deer’s nose. It has collected in a little puddle on the floor — a casual pool of deer blood. But, here in the dark, that little puddle has become exaggerated, and now I believe the whole floor is probably covered in deer blood. My choices are to look up at pig penises or to look down at deer blood — and so I decide that I’ll just gently nudge the door, just a tad, to see if they’ve moved. They’ve definitely moved, right?

“Guys!”

No reply.

“Guys!” If I just pound on the door a little, there’s no shame in that, right? “Guys! Open the door! Open the door, guys!”

Finally, the little crack of light grows bigger. I have only a second to compose myself. I must be brave in the arena. I step out and bellow a bold, “You fuckers!”

I said it with confidence and in an extra-deep voice. This was a success.

However, no one was there to observe my glorious exit from the fridge, my initiation into the Southington Beef & Pork fraternity. (I am also told that if I had known about the handle, rather than waiting for my spindly arm to accidentally flail into it, I wouldn’t have been “locked in” at all. This salts the wound.)

***

Rod is the patriarch here. He is a broad-chested, veiny-nosed, 48-year-old ex-football star with a ruddy complexion and a barreling voice made hoarse by hundreds of Marlboro Reds and many years of screaming at his employees.

“What’s goin’ on, boys?”

Just now, he pours in from the front door, where a few brass bells were set jingling and where a smiling wooden cow, which looks out onto the quiet street, was set swaying. He lumbered through the entire clean, white length of Southington Beef & Pork’s interior, past the stainless steel cutting table that’s now used as a coffee stand and behind the customer counter, where he most prefers to sit, until he arrives at a Christmas-tree-shaped rack of stamps. There are two of these at Southington Beef & Pork, and they house, in total, 68 beautiful wooden stamps that have the name of meat cuts etched on their underbellies. “London Broil,” “Veal Cutlets,” “Deer Sausage.” They are soaked in thick, black ink and then pressed against the clean, white parchment paper that’s used for wrapping meat. It’s the final send-off of Southington Beef & Pork’s transactions — a signature.

Rod’s hand is about the size of a good hanger steak (part of a cow’s diaphragm that’s valued for its strong flavor). His hand spins the rack of stamps with the flick of a sausage-y pointer finger. He’s searching for a smaller stamp: “Deer Steaks.” Rather than grasping the handle of the stamp, his hand swallows the entire thing. He barrels toward the side door, where he will go to the fridge and collect some deer steaks to then bring back to the customer counter. Here, he will press the stamp into the thick, black ink and then finally against the clean, white parchment paper.

It is transfixing, the whole thing. Jimmy, Adam and I watch, mesmerized.

“What are you faggots looking at?” Rod yells.

Above the stamps, there hangs a Wrangler smock that Eugene, the shop’s late owner, used to cut in. It’s red and held together with four comically oversized buttons. It’s still on his metal hanger, which the guys have taped to the wall. Two Palm Sunday crosses are tucked safely in the left chest pocket, where the man’s symbolic cholesterol heart still beats. Over the smock, there is a very hairy stuffed ox that is jestingly wearing a crooked baseball cap. (Rod, looking at the ox, tells me that he believes firmly that you shouldn’t “take yourself too seriously,” that “you ain’t worth it.”)

When Eugene died in 2009, Rod became the figurehead here. His career as a meatcutter began at age 12 with a spark of selfish ingenuity. As a child with eight siblings living on a family farm in Berlin, Conn., a young Rod Cooper saw a career in livestock as a way to no longer shovel horseshit. After saving some money, Rod says, his 12-year-old self bought a few pigs that he raised and then slaughtered. He also tells me, with a rare flavor of humility, that this was less of an accomplishment back then, because pigs were “way cheaper 30 years ago.” His modesty ends there. When he speaks of Southington Beef & Pork, it’s with the respect that befits any great fraternity.

“Have you heard of ‘The Jungle’? Is that what you’re trying to write? Do you see any fucking rats here? Do you see any rats? No? That’s because this isn’t that type of business.”

He’s defensive, in part, because he’s always seen Southington Beef & Pork as a kind of family — Eugene, whose own father purchased the building and opened the shop in the ’20s, treated Rod much like an “adopted son.” Rod is also defensive because ever since he got those first pigs at 12, he felt that meat cutting was his “way out.” By this, Rod might mean that meat cutting was a good way out of Catholic school, which he had “really fucked up.” He also might mean that it was a pretty good way out of that family farm in Berlin, which seems to have left him with a sour taste in his mouth — the thought causes him to break eye contact whenever mentioned in conversation.

In fact, all three employees share this feeling about Southington Beef & Pork being a pretty good “way out.” Both Adam and Jimmy tell me they had a hard time graduating from high school — they feel grateful to have a place to be. Once, Rod asserted that he himself is like a “father to these two guys.” They nodded in genuine unison, agreeing. Adam, in particular, seems to have found some real refuge here at SB&P. On a couple of occasions, I’ve called the shop late in the night, trying to leave a voicemail, and been surprised by the sound of his unique voice — chipper and gruff — saying “Southington Beef.” He answers the phone this way out of habit, even at 11 p.m., even long after the shop has closed down. He stays late alone, drinking and reading, waiting for rides. He says it’s “like a home away from home.”

***

Like any respectable and cohesive brotherhood, Southington Beef & Pork has to maintain some air of exclusivity. I had to get stuck in the fridge before being inducted. Adam and Jimmy had to serve as apprentices before they could reap the full benefits of the SB&P brotherhood. There’s a unique frontier attitude here that identifies everyone who’s not on the inside of it as distinctly on the outside — there’s a special familiarity with the house that you either have or you lack.

The only clients that SB&P ever cuts for are small-time farmers and local sport hunters, both of who consume their meat themselves and all of who know Rod & Co. personally. They’re insiders — a part of the business. In fact, the first day I spent time at Southington Beef & Pork, I had difficulty sorting out who worked there and who was just loitering — everyone wearing flannel and old Carhartts, swearing and standing for hours in the small room of the shop, sometimes cutting, but always swearing. For the insiders, this is more of a home than a business. The price list is sitting on the floor behind the counter. No one ever pays it any attention.

And then — as the great blight over SB&P — there are the outsiders.

“The government’s just really fucked up.” This is Rod Cooper’s predominant political belief. It’s the only thing he says when I ask him to summarize SB&P’s touchy relationship with the IRS, a relationship that has caused the business to occasionally use the name of its sister establishment, A&R Livestock. It’s a political stance that makes a lot of sense given the shop’s business model, its self-sufficient clientele; the libertarian, meat-loving, Ron Swansons of the world just don’t jive too fast with bureaucratic giants like the USDA. This rift, however, only adds to the power of the fraternity: it’s us against them.

A typical Cooper line of critique goes like this: “I gotta pay some motherfucker to come pick up my gut pile that would turn to dirt, but if I put nuclear waste in a 55-gallon drum, I’m fucking great? That’s fucked up.” While I am not sure that had he put nuclear waste in a 55-gallon drum he would be “fucking great” in the government’s eyes, I am certain that the feeling in this statement is real. The idea that someone might be trying to take what’s his, to ruin what he’s created, is terrifying to Rod.

He has explained to me, at length, the issues he takes with the leniency granted in preparing meat to religious standards — exceptions that he can’t be granted by the rigid meat production laws. A cow to be made into Halal meat is laid, alive, with its feet to the east and bled out through a slit in its throat. This usually causes the beast to release some type of guttural noise, some primal deep growl type sound, he tells me. The USDA, however, will not let Rod hit a “goddamn pig with a stick” if it’s being hard to manage in the corral before being slaughtered. “What’s with that? Isn’t that fucked up?”

He’s spent so long creating this thing — 26 years in total at SB&P. So, he’s a little confused as to how these outsiders, who were never initiated, who don’t know its story, who have spent no time in that fridge, are allowed to fuck with it so hugely. And, honestly, despite my love of government regulation and my hatred of meat, I feel a part of this place, I believe in its small business mission and I think the USDA should probably back the fuck off.

***

The iconic British soap opera “Coronation Street,” which celebrated its 52nd anniversary in December and has aired 7,908 episodes to date, provides an ideal image of what SB&P could have been, if it hadn’t been meddled with so goddamn much. Elliott & Sons Butchers, which employs four improbably and intensely close male characters, acts as the show’s manly safe haven. It’s a place where the woes of outside, women-filled life disappear and real talk — let’s call it “man therapy” — takes place. There is a deep trust between the shop’s employees, something uncommon in the world of the soap. Fred Eliot, the shop’s owner, is an unremitting source of unbounded man wisdom.

Rod, still perched on that stool under Eugene, is telling me about how hard he fought to keep SB&P alive after his hero’s death, about how the shop has been consistently degraded by the evil forces of government regulation. (There’s a photo of a defecating cow over his left shoulder that seems to capture his fear about the government’s control over SB&P. It’s captioned, “Vegetarians: My food shits on your food.”)

Rod starts to get fired up.

“Chinatown? ‘Swamp People’? Butchers get a bad rap for all of that. The government hates us for all of that.” This gets him up. He’s up on his feet now — pacing, clomping.

By now, it’s the end of the day, so he naturally moves toward the smaller slicer, used for making cold cuts, and he reaches behind it. He grabs a bottle of Tropicana cranberry juice and some Svedka. A couple of big swigs. No cup.

Rod could have been a pro ball player, he says. He got a full scholarship to Rutgers and all the pro teams were scouting him during high school, he tells me, but, anyway, he hurt his knees. He chose to be a meatcutter, he chose to spend his life at Southington Beef & Pork out of passion — and because you shouldn’t ever take yourself too seriously. And so he felt like playing ball or writing poetry, another interest, could have been a bit “much, you know?” He says there’s little that makes him happier than getting a whole animal in here and watching peoples’ faces as he “cuts it up in front of ’em.”

***

As the evening progresses, Rod gets drunker. When he remembers that dead deer, though, with the blood still dripping from its nose, he does seem happy, proud.

“I’m good. So tomorrow, for example, you’ll see. I’ll be hungover. I’ll probably go out for real tonight, but when you see me tomorrow, I’ll be here at 5, straight from the titty bar, or something, and you’ll want to stay out of my way, but I’ll cut that thing up, no problem.”

At this, Adam and Jimmy chuckle, but only a little. They meekly smile. They make a bit of uncomfortable eye contact and Adam looks down, slowly, to his feet. Jimmy catches my gaze. Then, his ears flush red.

This is where Adam and Jimmy and I have found ourselves. These were the cards we were dealt — I actually fought to stake out my place at SB&P after finding it. And so any misgivings get quickly glossed over. Even at Southington Beef & Pork, the fraternity tucked safely in a clean, white house that is tucked safely under the looming shadow of Ragged Mountain, the fact of the matter is you may not fit in, but you can try to, and you can try to understand.

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