Posted on September 17th, 2012
My first day on the job, when my boss handed me a pair of oversized plastic earmuffs, I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t actually thinking much of anything at the time, mostly because it was five-thirty in the morning and I had already been up for an hour. That I had somehow managed to pilot my bike through the streets of Portland in the half-light of pre-dawn and arrived at the wharfs safely was a miracle. The asphalt was a conveyor belt, street signs and traffic lights a non-issue, and then there I was, looking down the sketchiest dock ladder ever into a waiting fiberglass skiff.
Earmuffs? They somehow made sense a half hour later at our destination, a floating tin shed housing what looked like World War II era anti-aircraft guns. These were to be the implements of my new profession, should I ever manage to achieve a level of mastery of it that might put me in rough proximity of the word “professional.” In short time, the sound of a gasoline-powered generator sputtering to life reminded me to actually put my new head gear on and I came to understand that the next ten hours of my life would be shrouded by the dull, heavy drone of small pistons firing, gears spinning and the non-stop banter of the associated exhaust.
I was out on the waters of Maine’s Casco Bay to pull mussels from the water, where they had unsuspectingly made their homes on lengths of rope provided by Bangs Island Mussels. For 18 months they basked in tranquility, eating their fill each day and getting it on like tiny bearded hedonists. Of course, what they didn’t know (because they don’t have brains) was a little secret regarding their own ever-increasing deliciousness. For the short timers we were about to harvest, I was Charon, boatman on the river Styx, middleman between the Atlantic Ocean and a Hades of simmering white wine, with sumptuous bits of shallot and garlic spiked with black pepper and chili flake.
The work itself was simple and well choreographed, requiring directions expressed with a few basic hand signals. That was good because even if either of the other two guys had tried to say anything to me, I wouldn’t have been able to hear a thing. The ear protection straddling my head was far from absolute, but did manage to reduce the entire soundscape surrounding the barge to a singular, mechanical roar. Mouths might move, a few nondescript sounds penetrating the din, but nothing of any value was going to get through those ear blinders. It was like being at a didjeridoo concert, minus the patchouli and the suicidal thoughts.
So we settled into the ritual that is good, dirty, hard work, partaking of the transcendent act that is moving 1000 pounds of mussels through three pieces of machinery, into individual two and 10 pounds bags and onto a boat. My back hurt, my lungs burned and I sweat like a lawn sprinkler in the hot summer sun, but strangely I didn’t notice, I think mostly because I couldn’t hear or talk. Gone was the natural human inclination for commiseration, a special language of grunts and sighs by which we indicate great exertion or hardship. Instead, the three of us acted out a silent movie that wasn’t quite silent, moving seamlessly from one task to another.
Relieved of the obligation for small talk, I found my world broken down into very basic terms. We harvested twelve ropes using a massive hydraulic winch and shoveled great clumps of ink black shells onto the wooden deck of the barge. When we were done, I was tasked with a feat that seemed kind of incomprehensible. Before me sat a pile of mussels five-feet high and probably six-feet in diameter, and I wasn’t going anywhere near dry land until they were clean, beardless and neatly packaged for the consideration of consumers. I progressed through the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance — and still was only a quarter of the way done shoveling the pile through the first machine. Inside the tin shed, my boss and the first mate labored away with a kind of rhythmic deliberateness, moving back and forth from machine to machine like the shuttles on a giant loom. Soon, I too settled into the pace in my own state of muffled solitude: scoop, heave, dump, breathe, scoop, heave, dump, breathe.
I’m not saying that working in relative silence is the solution to all workplace ills, but there’s definitely something to it. Aside from the complete lack of bitching and moaning, there was no deliberation over some diplomatically-agreed-upon-but-generally-totally-unacceptable-for-10-hours-straight radio station. That’s not to say that things didn’t get a little weird inside the space between the muffs from time-to-time though. Somewhere around eleven o’clock on that first day, when I tired of narrating entire passages of the book I’m working on to myself, sounds and songs started to worm their way out of the gyrations of the generator. Robert Plant? Is that you? I don’t even like Led Zeppelin that much, but somehow he was in there, going “hoo hoo aayyy!” Jimmy Page followed with “bow bow bowna nownt! Bowna nownt bowna nownt, nownt na nownt na nownt!” “The Ocean”?! Fitting for sure, but that wasn’t all that emerged. There were some heavy Indian ragas in there, too, and sometimes some really spaced out dub (and no, I don’t go to work high despite what my subconscious’ taste in music says).
It was a first for me, hearing electric guitars shred through a layer of sound that in any other situation would have been oppressive. Out there though, on the glassy waters of bay, the uniformity of the sound of the undertaking somehow made it easier — an auditory opiate that got me through that first pile of mussels and many more since.