Excerpt from The Meatpacker’s Daughter, a memoir in progress.
Long before the willow oak in the front yard comes down, before a middle aged mother moves into the basement of her childhood home, before the sign for Berk Lombardo Packing Company gets taken off the shuttered plant on North 6th Street, the ambient hum of the refrigeration unit on my father’s meat truck signals his arrival. I bolt out the front door of our house with my little sister Marni following close behind. The truck rocks a little on its wheels as my dad pulls in. Red, white, and green, it gleams against the tar.
“Daddy!” We run to him before he even shuts off the engine.
“Hi P-P-Pookies!” he stutters, tucking the keys into the chest pocket of his white butcher coat, where “Billy” is embroidered in red cursive. Wiping his greasy brow with a hanky, he picks us both up in one sweep. We bury our faces in his scruffy neck, which has the strong smell of a day’s work in the meat locker.
Our father is a big man with a wide back. He walks to the rear of the truck, his gait and breathing labored, and unhinges the back doors. When they swing open, the scents of animal fat and Freon exhale into the summer dusk.
Maybe the neighborhood kids can smell it, too, or maybe it’s the giant calf’s head emblazoned on the side of the truck, but soon our friends come running: Kevin McGeehan, Jason Ring, Janey Shulman. Even some of the bigger boys gather: Sean and Patrick Straight from the cul-de-sac and Danny Friedman from Longfellow Terrace. We all hoist ourselves up into the back of the empty truck, smearing our shins with road soot. We nestle shoulder to shoulder on the wheel wells that line the sides like benches. “Ready!” yells one of the big boys.
“Y-y-you girls OK?” our dad stammers, looking at me.
“Right-O!” I say and Marni snuggles close to me, warm with excitement.
“Right-O,” she echoes.
My father pushes the back doors shut with a chnnnnk and a click, closing us in the cold dark, the only light cast from a spot by the metal fan housed on the ceiling.
Everyone screams. Marni clutches my hand.
“Shut up!” the big boys say.
We all want to feel the darkness, the frisson of momentary imprisonment. It swallows the truck’s mint green walls and reduces us to ghostly shadows as we wait, our summer sweat evaporating in the last remnants of refrigerated air. Someone giggles. Someone else says, “Quit it. You’re on my toe.” For a moment, I pretend we could be locked in here forever, like those kids from the book Flowers in the Attic.
Suddenly, my father thunders his fists against the metal siding and busts open the back doors, roaring like The Incredible Hulk. Marni and I, Kevin, Jason and Janey and the big boys squeal, scurrying to the far corners of the truck, slip sliding on the waxy floor. My father is home, and it’s always an exhibition, an event on Whittier Drive.
That’s part of the reason I love him so much, and always, as I get older, why he mortifies me, with his stutter and dense Brooklyn-ese, the ‘dems and ‘dose. Plus there’s the white butcher’s coat stained with blood that strains over his 320-pound bulk but can’t mask the smell of beef that emanates from his skin, nor the way his pants inevitably ride a little low, like a plumber’s, exposing his enormous belly, and, when he turns around, the crack of his backside. But I also feel ashamed of my own shame. From my earliest years, my embarrassment has pained me, but the truth is, as much as I idolize my father and his authenticity, I can’t help wishing he was a better version of himself.
What’s the difference between parsley and pussy? It’s a joke my father likes to tell at backyard barbecues in the neighborhood. He smiles and my parents’ friends lean in. Of course the kids are listening, too, though he lowers his voice to save our ears. My father knows how to hold the pause between the set up and the punch line: Nobody eats parsley. The other adults laugh with him, my father’s belly bouncing. I can see inside his big mouth as he guffaws, and while I like that he commands attention, I cringe at the impropriety, the joke itself, at the outrageous heft of him. What kid wouldn’t?
When I was born, the first of my parents’ two daughters, my father sent 300 red roses to my mother in the maternity ward, perched on top of a wagon filled with stuffed animals, pacifiers and rattles. He crowned this ensemble with a banner trumpeting PARI ELLEN’S PLAYLAND in pink script, as though he and my mother were welcoming a princess.
He composed my birth announcement himself then had it printed on chartreuse paper with a deckled edge, mailing it out to family and friends and even his buddies at the slaughterhouse. Paternal pride had stirred the butcher to poetry:
The Berk Packing Company
announces the arrival of
our little butterball.
Terry and Bill Berk have just added a
new meat wrapper to their staff.
Showed up for work at 2:37 a.m.
on September 7, 1973.
Our little butterball tipped the scales at
6 lbs., 14 ozs.
and is marked “Not for Sale.”
Meat conditions being what they are,
we’re putting this little lady on formula
and watching her grow.
The Berk Packing Company is famous for the very best
And this little baby is A #1 Prime.
From that birth announcement on, my father introduced me like I was a star. Often, I’d overhear him bragging about me to his customers when they’d call for their monthly meat orders, how I’d been able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at just two years old, or my winning an award in the school invention contest, or my medal in gymnastics, or my speed on the travel soccer team. Only when he finished would he ask about his customer’s family, how things were going. Next came the sell.
“Trust me, sweetheart, you want the stuffed capons. Lemme send you two boxes. Honey, you don’t like ‘em, send ‘em back.” Just when I worried that he was coming off smarmy and too aggressive, what with all the honeys and sweethearts, the call would require him to go off script, and he’d get locked up in his terrible stutter. “You-you-you-you got to trust me.” That tic evidently endeared him to his customers, as did his pride in me. He’d bellow my name—“Paaarrrri” with his whole body, round belly rising, walrus-neck preening. I was like a winning ticket or a brand new car. I was practically part of his sales pitch.
Saturdays at the meatpacking plant, Marni and I make snow angels in the sawdust. Lying in our winter coats from Steinbech’s department store, we study the metal track system of gliding meat hooks on the ceiling. I sit up—my wavy brown hair flecked with particles of wood—and gather the shavings from the oily floor of the warehouse, which our father calls the freezer, dragging my forearm along the ground, pushing the sawdust into wide, sandy piles. Then I bury Marni’s legs in it as if we were on a beach. “Build moats for these castles,” I direct, and she tries.
Berk Lombardo Packing Company operates in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before it was hip, on North Sixth Street between Berry and Driggs. Over the entryway, the company motto blazes, “For Those Who Demand the Very Best of Meats.” This same motto runs across the side of the truck, beneath the calf’s head. To enter the warehouse freezer, you have to pass through stiff panels of plastic that hang in vertical strips to keep in the refrigeration, like going through a car wash. Once inside, it takes a bit to acclimate to both the temperature and the smell of oily rolls of butcher paper and cold fat. But after Marni and I adjust, we play in the freezer all day. It is where the action is.
“Dodo, gimme four pounds of chuck eye and an oyster steak!” booms my father. Hunched over long metal tables topped with slabs of red meat, a battalion of butchers all slice and turn and flip and wrap. They wipe their hands on their white coats, smearing long fingerprints of pink. They are Polish and Latino, Italian and black and they move together in an industrious hum.
My father and his partner, Paul, spend most of the day upstairs, in what they call the office, one room with three metal desks and exhausted swivel chairs with the stuffing running away at the seams. But when the two bosses come downstairs to the freezer, the mood changes from relaxed focus to vigilant attention. It’s gratifying to see the power of my father and Paul in their domain.
My sister and I only venture upstairs to the office when we have to go to the bathroom. On our way, we hear Linda, the office manager, peppering Dad with accounting questions in her thick Brooklyn accent. “Billy, you want Lundy’s on the receivables?” Using the toilet at the meatpacking plant requires nose holding and a complicated squat. There is a collection of soot-encrusted cleaning products on the octagon tiled floor, a toilet seat yellowed with hardened drops of piss, and a cracked bar of soap we don’t even touch when we rinse our hands. As Marni and I walk past our Dad heatedly negotiating with the slaughterhouse from an old black rotary phone, he gives me an affectionate pat on the butt. He doesn’t lavish this kind of attention on Marni, but our mother, Terry, favors her to make up for it.
Downstairs, our mother works the register for wholesale customers who come directly to the shop. Wearing a pale blue hat hand knit by her mother, Grandma Rose, she charms Italian clients with her, “Lata di muccas!” (Milk-fed veal!) “Agnello di Pasques!” (Lamb for Easter!) When she can’t speak the language, as with most of the Polish customers, she just smiles and nods. Mom is the unsung hero of our family, quiet and pure.
When the sky begins to darken and the place empties, my dad ushers us outside, reaches up with his powerful arm to pull down the graffiti and rust-covered roll-down door until the steel hits the pavement with a clang, then sets the padlock.
“Remember when all we had was that tiny freezer in Fort Greene?” he’ll sometimes say as we head for the car, a wistful note in his voice. Those were in his earliest days in business, before he took on mustachioed Paul Lombardo as his partner. Now the two men have three locations—Fort Greene and Williamsburg, both in Brooklyn, and another on Staten Island. “Mommy and I started the business together,” he tells us. As a new bride, she had been our father’s first real business partner, wadding cash into the waistband of her long johns. After quitting time, she’d crouch on the floor in the front of their Woodie station wagon, tallying up the day’s take. I know he’s telling us this story to remind us that our mild, complacent mother, who is just a tad over five feet tall, deserves credit, too. He must realize that to us she seems like a small moon in his vast orbit.
On the way home, driving over the Williamsburg Bridge in our Caddie (the truck is only for weekdays), Mom puts in a Neil Diamond eight track, and Dad warbles along to Sweet Caroline, changing the words to “Sweet Terry Cohen,” serenading Mom. Her green eyes flash up at him. After Delancey Street and the crosstown slog, we stop for soft pretzels from the vendor outside the Holland Tunnel.
“Are we really underwater? Are we underwater right now? How deep?” My questions rapid fire as we shuttle through the bright yellow underpass.
And then Marni: “Are we in New Jersey yet?”
By the time we reach Marlboro, and our development, Whittier Oaks, with its cookie cutter houses lit by the blue glow of televisions, my sister and I are asleep on each other in the plush back seat of the Eldorado. Dad carries us in, one against each shoulder.
He plunks Marni into her bed first, then we he head into my room. It’s drafty, and I lie on my stomach, blankets pulled up over my shoulders. “Tell me a Billy Berk story,” I beg.
He chuckles, as if I’m twisting his arm, but we both know he loves telling me stories from his boyhood. “When I was nineteen,” he says, “I dropped out of college and signed up for the Marines.” He was a bad kid, he tells me, owing, presumably, to his parents’ divorce. He’d already been sent to a military boarding school by his well-to-do punishing father, and a therapist and hadn’t been much of a student. “Grandma Sooky thought the Marines might help straighten me out.” He rubs my back in circles for a few minutes over the blanket, soothing me as he reminisces about boot camp on Parris Island. “Guy could never break me,” he muses, telling me how the drill instructor made him do pushups in the rain until he puked. “They called me The Sup-ah Jew.”
“They did?” I say.
“It’s time to go to sleep,” he says, and closes my door, clumping down the hall in his Timberland boots.
I lie in my brass day bed, with a single bar of light underlining the bedroom door. It feels safe to be the daughter of such a tough, hardworking guy, but it is also a burden. I am the whole point of all he has suffered, of all of his labor. It’s like a giant funnel into which time, perspiration, cardboard boxes of frozen meat and Marine drill sergeants all tumble down just for me to emerge, a girl who will make something more out of her life, everything siphoning toward oh-so-much-potential Pari.
I am cross-eyed and tomboyish, and I wear thick, dark brown glasses. Yet I am utterly unselfconscious about my appearance, safe in my un-pretty costume. At the kitchen table, I put on my glasses and take them off. On. Off. On. Off. My father is a blur of roundness, and then he is clear, smiling in his stained white T-shirt. “How do eyes work?” I ask him.
“I’ll bring you home a pair and show you.”
The next night he climbs out of the meat truck carrying two googly gelatinous peepers sealed in airtight plastic. I am about to get my first lesson in what I will come to think of as the Billy Berk School of Animal Anatomy.
Lesson 1: Lamb eyeballs.
“The optic nerve connects back here,” he explains at the kitchen table then launches into a long spiel about rods and cones. He rotates this 3-D, real life exhibit and points to a network of zigzagging red.
“Do lambs have eyelids?”
“Probably,” he says, chuckling, as if I’ve just asked the most the most brilliant question in the universe.
Lesson Two: Calf brain, halved.
The brain has heft to it and resembles pink cottage cheese. “People eat brain as a delicacy,” my father tells me, while my mother washes the dishes from our own meal.
Lesson Three: Cow heart.
Dad unwraps it from brown paper at the kitchen table and dumps it on a plate, where it sits like dinner gone wrong, or a foreign dessert. It is the size of a decapitated human head, and I can smell it without trying, metallic, sewer-like.
“Here, touch it,” my father says, lifting it and passing it to me. Lumpy and heavy, mushy on the surface, it feels thicker and complicated beneath. Dad seems proud of it. We’d covered the heart in health class earlier that month in fifth grade, just an image on an overhead projector that blinked in the dark classroom. This is the real thing, a triangular hunk of cow. My father wraps it back up in the brown paper then puts it in an empty plastic potato salad container for me to bring to school. It’s heavier than my lunch box, lighter than my backpack.
At school, the health teacher, Mr. Pincus, suspends it in formaldehyde. “Thank you to Pari Berk and her father,” he handwrites on a sign beside the bottle.
I am the gross-out-celebrity on the bus for a few weeks, until my father brings home kidneys. I take them to school for Mr. Pincus, but can’t resist popping open the lid on the bus. The piss smell is knock-you-out putrid, and I am so embarrassed that I quickly open the window by my seat and put the container of kidneys on the floor, under my backpack. I debate leaving it there on the bus, and if I thought I could get away with it, I would have. Instead I take the kidneys off the bus and drop them in the outdoor garbage can, while kids pinch their noses. Later, I cry to my mom later, pink with embarrassment. When my dad asks the next week if Mr. Pincus’s class would have any interest in seeing a liver, she covers for me. “I was going to make liver for dinner this week, Bill, so that organ might be a little too close to home.”
Even without the show-and-tell organs, I like to perform, especially for my father. He is my motivation. He paces the sidelines at my travel soccer games, cheering me on with an actual bullhorn. “You’re a tank, kid. A sixty-seven-pound Jewish tank.” We both knew Mickey had said something like that to Rocky. For us, the Rocky movies were iconic, and we bonded over the meat-punching scene and the motif of the working-class underdog.
In my mind, my father is Rocky, the Fighter Who Overcomes: a boy with an abusive father, no college education, a terrible stutter, and an undeniable addiction to food. But on the soccer field with the bullhorn, my father plays Mickey, casting me as the fighter. I go for the soccer ball because my father believes I can get it. “Never take no for an answer,” he tells me. Just as Rocky stood for the people of Philadelphia, I seem to represent, for my dad at least, a Jersey girl who will make good.
When we’re not sitting around the kitchen table looking at calf brains and kidneys, we take our meals at the Marlboro Diner, accompanied by the grumble and hum of the industrial dishwasher in the back. The diner is where my sister and I order chocolate chip pancakes for dinner, and our parents treat the cuisine like it’s gourmet. “I’ll have the broiled scallops,” my father says, “loaded baked potato, and do me a favor, bring me a pitcher of water. I drink a lot of water. Baby, what do you want?”
“I’ll have the chicken salad sandwich, no bread, just on some lettuce, and do you have any cottage cheese?” My mother is petite, but always careful about her figure.
“You want to start with some shrimp cocktail?” my father tempts.
“No, I think I’ll be okay. A slice of lemon for my water, please.”
“Well, I’d like to start with a shrimp cocktail. And the fried clam strips. You have tartar sauce?”
“Bill,” our mother frowns.
“Oh come on, let me live a little, will ya?”
“So you want the shrimp cocktail, the clam strips, and the broiled scallops, chicken salad on lettuce for you, ma’am, and short stacks for the girls.”
“Chocolate chip!” we chime.
“You know what? I’d like an egg cream, too.”
Our mother shakes her head.
My father smacks his lips while he inhales his food, pausing only to load salt onto his baked potato. Sour cream plasters the corners of his mouth. “Hon!” he calls to the server. “My water. I drink a lot of water. I told ya.”
“I apologize, sir,” she says. “I forgot.”
“That’s okay, doll.”
She slides her pencil behind her ear and my father and the waitress smile at each other, not flirtatiously, but in that way of silent collusion between the eater and the deliverer of the food that is to be eaten.
My sister and I nibble like gerbils at the edges of our pancakes, scraping our forks along the chocolate so that it ridges there before we lick it. Our mother delicately picks at her chicken salad. The waitress comes to clear the plates that have piled up in front of our dad. “Leave it, I’m still working on that,” he tells her, when she tries to take a plate that still has a single shrimp, and the waitress apologizes for a second time. “I’m still working on that.”
I look to my mother. Shouldn’t she intervene? I am nauseated by his unmitigated consumption—the shame again—but my sister and mother seem unconcerned, Marni coloring and my mother stirring her tea while my father sops up the clam liquid with bread then releases a chorus of belches.
By the time I turn 12, the chocolate pancakes are not enough to compensate for my pre-teen horror, and our diner meals take on the flavor of my muted disgust and growing realization that when it comes to food, my father is totally out of control. When he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, I made deals with God. If you let Daddy be OK, I wrote in my diary, then I’ll score three goals for him in soccer. I filled pages with my wishes, and in the curve of each letter, the act of writing had some power. I wish I could climb into his body and eat right for him.
“How you doing, hon? I’m gonna have the scrambled eggs with lox,” Dad tells the waitress one morning.
“And for you, ma’am?”
“Whole wheat toast, dry, please and a cup of decaf, thank you. Chocolate chip pancakes for the girls.”
“I drink a lot of water, so trust me, bring a pitcher. And I’m very particular about my eggs. Tell the chef to stir ‘em constantly; I like ‘em real soft.”
The waitress brings out the eggs a second time. Still wrong. By the time the third plate of eggs comes out, still not to his satisfaction, my father loses it, sliding his chair back with a screech. He pushes his way through the swinging doors and into the kitchen. We can hear him shouting from our seats. “You don’t know how to make scrambled eggs! I’ll show you how to make scrambled eggs. This? This isn’t scrambled. This is a chopped up omelet!”
Did the manager kick us out? Or did he cover our check? The aftermath of my father’s outburst blurs in my mind, but by the time we turn onto Whittier Drive, my sister and I are giggling and whispering about Dad’s tough guy antics, reliving the moment, making it apocryphal. Mom, for her part, sits in the front seat beside him, tsk-tsking, shaking her head.
After we eat, my father makes a trip to the bathroom, where a thigh-high stack of Playboy magazines fills the corner closest to the toilet. The voluptuousness of the women in the centerfolds fascinates me but frightens me, too. When it’s my turn, I lock my parents’ bathroom door and cradle a copy of Playboy in my lap, glasses sliding down my nose. I flip right to the centerfold but am even more interested in the Playmate data sheets that accompany each month’s fold out poster. Next to “Turn Ons” (Strawberries!) and “Ambition” (“To be an actress!”) are three childhood photos, to my mind, the only authentic part of the spread. I recognize myself in the girl-Playmates’ still-crooked smiles. One factor seems to account for the difference between these children and the scary adult centerfolds: big boobs. Apparently, breasts, once they make an appearance, can recast a girl as someone else.
Hunching in my gymnastics leotard, I push my shoulders forward and press my arms into my sides. “Look Mom, cleavage,” I say, batting my eyelashes.
“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother says, a size double D herself, despite her otherwise slight frame. “Big boobs run in our family.”
My own breasts don’t appear until eighth grade, after I fracture my wrist dismounting the uneven bars and am forced to sit out the rest of the gymnastics season. As my body rests, my womanhood blossoms: out come the family heirlooms, ripening like garden plums. That summer before freshman year of high school, I trade in my glasses for contacts and buy size 32-B bras in pale purple from Victoria’s Secret. But almost before I can wear them out, my plums mature into melons. By September, I’m a 5’2” freshman with a double D cup.
“You better not mess w-w-with my daught-ah,” my father liked to warn any guy I dared bring by. His signature stutter, machismo, and the slovenly way he inhabits his own body make me wish I’d met my date in the car.
By the time I got accepted to The University of Michigan, I was also embarrassed by my father’s inability to spell, his atrocious grammar, and his political views, which didn’t jibe with mine or anyone else’s I knew. (“Someone steals? Cut off a finger. It’ll never happen again.”) To complicate matters, at times I glimpsed a more nuanced, not-so-blue-collar version of my dad. His weekends-only, somewhat well to do father had exposed him to the arts and travel, took him skiing in Vermont, where eventually he joined the ski patrol in Mad River Glen. Skiing was the one tradition my father passed on to us from his own upbringing.
“Kids ski Steamboat for free,” my father explained to anyone who would listen about the cowboy town in Colorado with an utter lack of glitz. “They even eat for free. My girls love the Pine Grove Restaurant. Great loaded baked potatoes.” The Berk Family spent fifteen Christmas vacations in Steamboat.
As soon as we landed in Denver, my father bee lined it to the carousel of pay phones, where cracked open the yellow pages and dialed Rent-A-Wreck.
While my mother and Marni waited with the luggage, Dad and I scouted the Rent-A-Wreck lot. It felt like I imagined Christmas tree shopping would feel, hopeful, getting in touch with your instincts, deciding on your baby. We came away proud with an old woody station wagon.
Mom and Marni sipped hot chocolates, wearing their seatbelts, while I helped my dad with the geometric feat of loading the car until the luggage fit. Then, the two of us bungee corded the skis to the roof. Finally, we Berks would embark on the three-hour drive to Steamboat Springs from Denver.
On windy, narrow Rabbit Ears Pass, storms predictably hit. “Help me put the chains on the tires,” Dad said, pulling over to whatever passed for a shoulder on the dark, snowy mountainside. He didn’t need to clarify that he was talking to me. We all understood that Mom was the lady, Marni was the baby and I nominated as the de facto son.
Dad bent down by the front wheels, huffing and puffing while he worked the links. I held the flashlight, watching snowflakes pile in the crack of my father’s ass.
“Hand me a lug nut,” he said.
“Pull up your pants,” I muttered, passing him one.
It would all be worth it for the knee-deep powder that we’d shush through together in the pines.
“Would you look at that vista,” my father said at the top of the black diamond, Shadows, where a landscape of sun dappled peaks spilled into valleys of cloud.
I felt a nervous thrill, looking over the lip at the steep treed run, our first of the day. Would my overweight, aging father fall and get hurt? Would I take a spill?
“Don’t worry, when you’re in college you’ll be off for Christmas, and we’ll still go skiing,” he said the Four Points Hut, as he sat down. “Help me unbuckle my boots?” He didn’t wear a hat or goggles, just sunglasses, and his hair was clumped with snow, his face browned and wet.
“I’m not worried,” I said, unclipping his Dale boots, but I was worried. I was worried about his health. I was worried about how I would change when I went to college. I was worried about the way time was pressing us in different directions.
“I got an 800 number at the plant and at home, so you can call me from payphones in Ann Arbor.”
“I’ll tell you all about my classes.”
“Make sure you take Philosophy. I want to know about that.”
It made me want to take him with me through college, like a stowaway. I knew that the more educated I became, the further I’d leave him behind.
My father was, in his way, a thinker. Despite what I saw as his failings, everyone loved Billy Berk. And I was the president of his fan club. He may have been inappropriate at times, but I always sensed that he had integrity, that he at least “kept it real,” as people said. He had the kind of sincerity that I suspected might somehow be lacking in those with more polish. He was made of love, which he bestowed freely on my mother, his daughters, and on anyone who would accept his warmth.
I loved him back, fiercely, yet I didn’t want to be a meatpacker’s daughter from New Jersey. I wanted out of the world of gritty small business owners, of strip malls and nail salons, and into the milieu of artists and intellectuals over the state line in New York City, less than an hour’s drive up the New Jersey Turnpike. I didn’t want to think about the practical concerns of making a buck, and I didn’t have to, though my dad tried to bring me back to earth when I’d pull out a novel at a barbecue. “Put the book away, Pari,” he’d scold. “This isn’t a lie-berry. Have a hot dog.”