The Mussel Chronicles

Week 1: Ahhh, a factory job at last. Our 12-passenger van leaves every day from Blenheim at 5:00am on the dot, drives about 40 minutes to the quaint little town of Havelock, and we start work on the line at 6:00am. The hours are consistent and the breaks are reliable. There is even a Nescafe machine in the 'canteen' for all of us employees, always ready to dispense cappuccinos and lattes just slightly superior to the instant coffee you get everywhere else. We have to don these ice-cream-man outfits, but it means that you can literally wear anything you want underneath. Welp, looks like yoga pants and one of Dennis' shirts is gonna make a frequent appearance in my wardrobe. We also have to wear hair nets, plastic sleeve covers, latex gloves, steel-toe gum boots, and the all important ear protecting headphones. We all look a little like oompa-loompas. When people ask me what I did before this, I generously pad my resume by telling them "fashion", they simply laugh. (So do I.)

This work is not hard, just repetitive, and very, very boring. These green shell mussels that come from my factory, Sanford, come in a half shell, and crawl slowly by on a conveyor belt all day. By the third hour of this three-month contract, I never want to eat another mussel again. My job as a grader is to eliminate as many of the defects as I can. This can range from broken shells, to mussels that haven't been opened, to these retched smelling 'sand blisters', to removing beards and pea crabs from inside of the mussel meat. The beards are simply a little piece of algae or some kind of vegetation, that has started growing on the inside of the mussel, that we must pinch with our thumb and forefinger and yank out.

With the thick Kiwi accent, the word "beard" is almost impossible to understand. I think it was a week before I understood that they were saying "beard" and not "bib" or "bid" or "bird". They are beards, and they are plentiful.

Mussel with a beard

We hunch over one of two conveyor belts the whole day, not too bad though. It seems as though this job won't be so bad. The three months will probably just breeze by.

Week 2: Nope. The months will not breeze by. It has been two weeks and I think I've come down with acute arthritis in my fingers from all that beard yanking. Also, leaning over the conveyor belts for two weeks has already given me a Quasimodo hunchback. It takes conscious effort to stand up straight at the end of the day. Also, I have managed to squirt mussel juice (don't ask) in my eye. It is now swollen and puffy and I am forced to wear my glasses as my contacts seem to have declared war on the mussel pool that was once my eye. On the bright side, my glasses are definitely pulling together the "given up hope" look I have going for me.

Week 3: Okay. Not so bad. My contacts have surrendered and the swelling has gone down. I hardly smell the shellfish in the middle of the night anymore. I have found exactly three positions that are comfortable anywhere from 10-13 minutes. So, if I can rotate through those for all nine hours....
Oh, and there's also this good news bad news thing that I've encountered this week. You might want to sit down to read this part.
So which one is usually requested first? The good news or the bad news? Hmmm... Well, I'll just tell you the good news first.
Ahem. This week, I have been PROMOTED. What? What does this mean, you ask? Well now, up to ten times a day, I have to weigh out some mussels, do a little counting, do a little math...use my college degree a little?...and essentially figure out the ratio of mussel meat to shell. Very thrilling stuff. Also, every time I do this, I make a phone call upstairs to where the meat is all feels very important. Sometimes I pretend I'm making a call to the Pentagon with vital information. I also never say 'goodbye' before hanging up, just like in the movies. You should all be duly impressed.

Okay. So the bad news. Well...the good news part of this bad news is that I have now started driving our gigantic 12-passenger van to work. A slight pay increase, and all that jazz. of the responsibilities that comes with this position is to make sure the van is fueled up and ready to be driven. My boss, Geoff, is very kind, and took the time to explain everything to me. How the gas stations work here and where the gas door was, and all that vital information. And, well, long story short, despite his detailed explanation, I managed to fill this diesel van up with regular gas. BEFORE you can't see from the laughter tears streaming from your eyes, just recognize that in the States, the diesel handles are always, ALWAYS green. Right? Here, it just seems to be the opposite. Please ignore that in this picture, it does clearly state the word "diesel" on the handle. Let's just pretend that this wasn't there when I was at the station.

Week 4: I have been told that at our factory, we go through 700,000 mussels every day. Who even likes mussels? When you are ordering a seafood plate at a restaurant, and the menu lists everything that comes in it, does anyone actually get excited when the word 'mussels' appears? I think it's just something that we grudgingly accept because we are so excited for the calamari or cedar planked salmon or tiger prawns that we really ordered the dish for, we just kind of ignore the weirdly shaped shellfish on the plate.

Female = orange, male = white

Week 5: Pro of this job: you know what to expect, every single day. Nothing ever changes! Con of this job: you know what to expect. Every. Single. Day. Nothing EVER changes. But the turnover rate of employees here is quite fast. This is my sixth week here. And out of twelve, there are exactly two other graders who have been here longer than me. It's always at least slightly entertaining to watch the new people try and figure out the best positions to keep their backs from aging seventy years in one afternoon. Oh also, there was one French employee who quit so dramatically, it blew all my daydreams of quitting out of the water. There was plenty of yelling, cursing, threatening, and throwing mussels in all directions. I secretly aspire to be him one day.

Week 6: 700,00 mussels. Every day. 700,000. Can you imagine seeing 700,000 of one thing every day? I do, and I still can't imagine it. Okay, but there are twelve other graders working on the line with me. How many mussels can I possibly touch in one day?
Well. I can tell you that in just 30 minutes, I yanked off 600 beards. SIX HUNDRED BEARDS. With my math skills that have been recently honed by this very job, I can deduce that in 9 hours of work, that is over 10,000 beards every day.
From this, I have deduced that my fingers are most definitely never going to be the same. My grandchildren are going to ask, "Oh geez Grandmama, why don't your fingers bend normally? And is that a faint scent of shellfish?"

There are only three more weeks left of this mussel grading. Will I make it? Will I explode like the French employee? ONLY TIME WILL TELL. But I do know that no matter the circumstance, I will forever claim a severe allergy to shellfish of all forms.

Rebecca WalkerComment