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Wages: The Maggot Breeders

Chapter 1: Learning to work with rabbits.

John Armstrong 21 Aug

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[Editor's note: In which young John's first job teaches him everything he needs to know about work: get up too early to go somewhere you don't want to be, in service of a borderline insane employer, under nightmare-inducing conditions, for criminally low pay. One of 14 excerpts, to run Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Tyee, from John Armstrong's new Vancouver memoir of the working life: Wages.]

My family were Irish/English immigrants and took a perverse country pride in being treated badly; how hard you worked and how little you got for it were a point of honour. They had left the old country in something of a hurry, for reasons never spoken of plainly -- it was a topic of conversation that died as soon as I entered the room. There they'd be around the kitchen table, my aunts and uncles, my mother and stepfather, drinking endless cups of tea and sooner or later getting to how it was my grandparents came to this country.

It generated a fair bit of heat when it came up, then I'd come around the corner and the lid went on. Their voices died away and the only sounds were spoons rattling against cup-edges and the ticking of the clock on the wall. The only thing I ever picked up was that Granddad had been offered a choice between a term at Her Majesty's pleasure and emigration, and we ended up in Canada. The parents and aunts and uncles are all gone now, and so are the particulars.

Our history, once landed here, was a little more fleshed out. Farmers back home, they made their way to the Prairies and farmed again, as poorly as they had before, failing their way across the country until they reached Vancouver Island, where my Uncle John raised dairy cattle, until he was forced out of business by a dairy corporation, and then mushrooms, until he was forced out by a mushroom conglomerate.

That was the end of farming, having gone bust steadily westward until they were at the shores of the Pacific Ocean with nowhere to go short of Japan. If they wanted to continue the experiment any further west, they'd need to set out with the barn door for a raft and Grandma's best linen tablecloth for a sail. So they came back to the mainland and settled in the far southern Fraser Valley within a few miles of each other, where they could at least still hear the cows and chickens.

This litany of bankruptcy and abandoned homesteads had given them a strange attitude towards life. Despite their track record, they always found a bank willing to write a mortgage and then steadily fell behind. There was no chance they would ever own the place -- the down payment on the property was more of an entry fee into some wild game of chance where the object wasn't to win but to see how long you could stave off losing. There was never any money, just enough to scrape by, and the minute a tractor broke down or a cow keeled over, they were done. They were digging a hole and borrowing money to buy a bigger shovel. They hung on as long as they could and then packed up, leaving the keys on the draining board.

Uncle John did carpentry and handyman work, his sister Roberta was in the laundry room at the hospital, Uncle Mac was on disability and my stepfather cleaned fluorescent light fixtures for minimum wage, driving 60 miles into the city and back every day for the privilege. But if my relatives couldn't farm, I was elected to carry on the tradition. After only a few hours at it, I was certain that I, too, could fail at it. I couldn't wait.

Rabbits for the killing

Coast Meridian Farms was run by a man named Dave, and it comprised a series of four or five corrugated-tin sheds dropped in random fashion on his property. He was a specialist and raised only rabbits, there being, he said, an unlikely number of uses a dead rabbit could be put to -- aside from stew and key chains, I couldn't guess what they were but that was none of my concern. I had only two chores on the farm: feeding them and cleaning up their shit. It was a full-time job.

The sheds were lined with cages, top to bottom and six feet high, along either side of the building and situated over sluices built into the concrete floor. They were fed in troughs that ran along each row of cages, and that was fine -- shovel the food into the trough and work it down the line so everybody had some. Fill the water jars with the hose. But after a hearty meal -- Christ, during it -- they needed to relieve themselves, and that's when it got ugly.

My ignorance of rabbits being almost complete, I had no conception of how evil they are. For every pound of food they ate, they shat out five; it seemed contrary to natural law, but I was shovelling the evidence. They shat by the barrowload and pissed by the gallon. The sun beat the tin roof and cooked the reek inside the sheds to a higher level of foulness, and the sweat poured. It was a hot summer day outside, but when you went out into it from the shed, it felt like the shade of a tree by the river and the air was suddenly clean as laundry off the line. It was all very nice, but it made going back into the sheds that much worse, and the first intake of breath left you gagging.

Because of the architectural design, the rabbits on top had the best of the arrangement. They let fly whenever they wanted and the shit and piss fell through onto their brothers and sisters in the cages below. It ran off them and onto those underneath, along with whatever else they could add to it. The ones on the bottom lived in the equivalent of a rabbit Blitz, if the Luftwaffe had flown over London with their asses out the window. And it wasn't only rabbit droppings; although they had nice little straw boxes to have their babies in, the mother rabbits were just as happy to give birth on the bare wire, crushing the hairless little bodies and letting them fall through as well.

Between the shit and the corpses it was a paradise for flies, and maggots in their millions writhed in the slop. This was the reason for the sluice channels below the cages. Everything fell into them, and I was the boy with a shovel and wheelbarrow. The barrow went out the door and over a wooden ramp either side of the concrete sill, to be dumped in a pool at the back of the property. There was no way to avoid slopping the shit; if the ramp didn't get you, a rock on the path would and the vile stew would cascade, splashing like waves hitting a breakwater and showering me in it. I kept the neck of my T-shirt pulled up over my mouth and nose and got used to it. There was no getting around it; you were going to wear a coat of rabbit shit. The best you could do was try not to eat any.

The king of septic

If I went at it full-tilt, I could get one gutter emptied to where bare concrete was visible, and then take the hose to it. It was the high point of the day, a triumph, and for a moment or two it was actually clean. But then it was on to the next one, and the next. I made $25 a week and have never been so glad to see September.

Farmer Dave counted out the money at his back door at the end of work each Saturday, crumpled ones and twos he smoothed out with filthy hands, counting out loud, a perpetual smile on his face, like a retard who's just pissed himself and has a fine, warm feeling about the world. I don't know what Dave had to smile about. His wife had left him the previous year, showing more sense than she had when she married him, and he lived in a little, paint-peeling wooden house at the centre of what amounted to an immense septic tank. The only thing he had to feel happy about was the screwing he was giving me.

Dave had a habit of poking his head through the doors while I was working, sandwich or coffee cup in his hand. How he could eat anywhere near the stench was beyond me, but I might as well have been shovelling roses for all he cared. Maybe after a few years of it his nose finally packed in and said the hell with it.

"How you coming along?" he said with his idiot's grin. There was no real reply to that -- how the fuck could I be coming along? Just dandy? Praying for cancer? Keeping myself occupied with thoughts of braining you with the shovel, stuffing your corpse into the shit pit then setting fire to the entire filthy works?

"Fine." You bastard, you Christless fuck.

On Thursday, in the second of 14 excerpts, John Armstrong learns how to quit a job when you can't get fired. Wages is published by New Star Books.  [Tyee]

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