Upton Sinclair Writes about New York's Meatpacking District

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) revealed the trials of migrants working in the unsanitary conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Lesser-known is Sinclair’s subsequent report from New York City’s own Meatpacking District, excerpts of which appear below.

THEY TOLD him stories, there in the penthouse ultra lounge on Washington Street—stories to make your flesh creep, but Kai-Sebastian would only laugh. He had arrived in the Meatpacking District a week before, an immigrant from Connecticut, and already he’d secured steady work as an unpaid intern, which the boss had promised him would soon become a job as a brand ambassador. “That is well enough for old, bent-backed 30-somethings like you,” he would say to the storytellers, “but my social network is broad.”

Kai-Sebastian, though a man, was like a boy, a boy with a degree from a fancy-pants liberal arts college. He was the sort the startups like to get hold of. When he was told to tweet a certain thing, he would tweet it the fastest and require no recompense for his time or exertions. Some called this foolish, but Kai-Sebastian could only feel sorry for the naysayers, the men who had no hope of ever becoming brand ambassadors. His internship started tomorrow.

As the boss had told him to, Kai-Sebastian arrived at eleven o’clock for his orientation at the word factory, and immediately he saw that almost all the space was occupied by interns; north and south as far as the eye could see there stretched an ocean of oversize headphones, row after row after row, so many interns no one had dreamed existed in the world. Kai-Sebastian nearly cried out with wonder that he was to become a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine.

But then he recalled the men at the penthouse ultra lounge, who had asked him, “And what will become of all you creatures, you interns?” Looking out over the sea of MacBooks, Kai-Sebastian felt a twinge of unease.

Later that week, he took his dinner at a restaurant with Emma, a woman he’d met at the word factory. After a long day making lists, Kai-Sebastian was very hungry, but when the food was brought to them by a man in black clothing there was scarcely enough of it to feed a small child. “Where is the rest?” Kai-Sebastian asked the man. “That is all,” the man had said. “We do small plates.” But when the bill was presented, it was hardly small, for in the Meatpacking District as a rule the less food you got the more money you paid. It was a rule with which Kai-Sebastian was unacquainted until that very night, when he left the restaurant with both his belly and his wallet empty.

RUMOR WAS SPREADING among the interns at the word factory that the public suspected the lists were of bad quality. The masses were right to be suspicious. Kai-Sebastian learned about the process day by day, little by little, in the gossip of those interns who were obliged to perpetrate the various parts of it, and gradually he came to learn how the lists were made.

There was never the least attention paid to what was in the lists; whether the interns were reusing lists, or using lists that had previously been inspected and rejected, or whether the lists had long passed their post-by date. An intern might find in a folder an overlooked list from years past, its content hopelessly moldered. But rancid though it was, that list would be published the same day, its staleness covered by fun fonts and gifs. Sometimes leftover bits and pieces of different lists were mixed together, and sometimes the lists were hardly edited; if the interns found a typographical error they would not even trouble to remove it and would instead package the list, mistakes and all, and send it out for consumption.

To a person who had to toil in such a thankless place all the week it was a great help to be able to look forward to some relaxation on Saturday nights. In the Meatpacking District there were many establishments where an intern could go for dancing and drinking, and Kai-Sebastian had decided he would take Emma to one of them. But at the dancehall door a heavyset man, again in black clothing, stopped them from entering; he admonished the two, and told them to stand in a line of people a block long.

So Kai-Sebastian and Emma stood in the line without knowing why, and they watched as long-limbed screeching women who had already drunk a great deal and had not stood in the line at all approached the heavyset man and were warmly greeted and permitted entry. For two hours they waited, shivering in the pre-dawn chill. Emma claimed a headache and departed, and so Kai-Sebastian trudged home alone, to a room no larger than a steamer trunk that he rented for a criminal monthly sum, which did not even include basic cable.

IT HAD BEEN two months of wrist-straining work at the word factory, and Kai-Sebastian had heard nothing more about the promised job as a brand ambassador. After spending so many dollars on rent and small plates, his resources had dwindled far faster than anticipated; Kai-Sebastian worried that, with winter approaching, he would have to call his parents and ask for more money. Emma no longer answered his text messages. He heard from Luca that she now lived with a rich man who took art photographs of ferns.

He still had not been allowed inside the dancehall.