Joseph Farley

Midnight Meat

The advertisement was for a loft apartment in a building that had been converted from a warehouse. It was in the fashionable Fishtown section of Philadelphia, an area where prices were always rising. Nowadays Fishtown is a hip area of restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs and galleries. Young professionals want to live there. It is only a ten minute El ride from Center City. You can walk, bike or roller skate the distance if you are health conscious or want to save the environment. Forty years ago, however, Fishtown was different. It was a working class neighborhood of factories and row homes. There were warehouses, not lofts, and corner bars instead of chic eateries and fancy watering holes. I knew the history, vaguely. I was not from out of town. I had grown up in the Roxborough section on city’s northwest fringe. I guess you could say I was one of the would be hipsters who wanted to be closer to the action.

The price for the unit was reasonable. I didn’t understand why at the time, but now know why the rent was lower than most of the buildings around it. I signed the lease and moved in. All was fine for a few weeks. I had time to decorate and explore the area when not at work. Maybe I was too tired from drinking and working those first few weeks, but with time I began to notice things. At first it was strange sounds, always after midnight. It would evolve from there.

One night I was woken by what sounded like mooing. I looked around, thought it was part of a dream, and went back to sleep. A few nights later it was a persistent clucking as if I were surrounded by chickens. Again, there was nothing to be seen and a chalked it off as a dream. Then there was the oinks and shuffle of trotters. This was not every night, nor happening in any fixed pattern. I began to suspect delivery trucks for a halal butcher shop several blocks away, but, when I asked the owner, he said he didn’t take deliveries until 5 AM.

I wondered what this meant, but not too much because the nights were quiet for a while, or quiet enough for Fishtown. There was always the normal rumbling of the El and the noise of cars. Then the music started.

I was laying in bed when I heard the rumba like tune, monotonous, reminiscent of the Muzak that used to be played in elevators and shopping malls.

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

It was low at first, but grew louder. I Iooked out of my apartment window to see if a passing car was blasting its radio. There was no car outside. I banged on the ceiling thinking it was coming from my upstairs neighbor’s apartment, then remembered she had moved out the previous weekend. The unit was empty. That left the downstairs tenant. I banged on the floor, then remembered he was visiting California. After twenty minutes or so the music stopped. I could not get back to sleep. I kept thinking about the music and where it could be coming from. I managed to fall back asleep right before my alarm went off. It was a weary and bloodshot day at work.

The next night was safe from music, but the night after that it began early, around 11 PM. 

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

It lasted on and off for over an hour.

During my lunch hour at work I went to a drug store and bought a jar of foam earplugs. This should solve the noise problem, or so I thought. That night it was quiet at 11 PM and at midnight, but around three in the morning the music started.

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

I took my earplugs out and out them back in again. The sound was the same whether I had the ear plugs in or not, as if the sound was in my head and not in the room. I tossed and turned, and finally shouted, “What do you want from me?” The music stopped. I was finally able to get some sleep.

Being an optimist, I thought that was it. Whatever spell I was under had been broken by confronting it. I was wrong. The next night the real trouble began. Around one in the morning the music began, lower than before, but still audible. It was as if whoever or whatever was the source of the music was trying to be at least a little considerate. I might have been able to sleep in spite of the sound if not for the animals. They came one after another floating across the room, just below the ceiling. They came out of one wall, crossed rug and bed, and disappeared into the wall above the headboard. Cattle mostly. At least this night. Though there were other animals near the end of the parade. A few pigs. Some sheep. A stray cat. They all moved in tune with the music, as if on a conveyor belt of some kind. Start start start, Stop start Stop start, etc. I hid as best I could under the sheets. I buried my head under the pillow. But every time I looked out they were there. Once I pulled the sheets down and stared directed into the eyes of a somber steer who hazed down at me, nose so close to mine that we could have nuzzled.

I went to see a doctor and obtained a prescription for sleeping pills. I slept well for a few nights, then the noise and the visions became my dreams. The same thing every night. After a month I gave up on the pills. I might be getting more rest, but I was not getting away from the problem. I was also afraid that I was be getting addicted. It was taking more pills each night to make my body sleep through the animal show, but my mind could never rest. The animals were always there, inside my head, every night whether I was awake or asleep.

I went to a psychologist. She asked me to talk about what was bothering me. When I told her she gave me a referral to a psychiatrist. I saw the psychiatrist once. He offered me more pills. I knew that would not help any more than sleeping pills. Plus, once I saw the bill I knew I could never afford to be sick in that way.

Without sleeping pills the animals occupied my apartment most nights. The music came at midnight or just after. The animals came out of the wall and danced across the ceiling. Cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and the rare household pet. They spun and pirouetted. They slid and shuffled. They tapped and twisted. All in time to the music. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

My hair began to fall out. Maybe I had caught the mange. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep. Maybe it was the coffee and chemical assistance I had been using to stay awake and alert through the work day. I was tired and itchy. I needed rest. I needed peace. I needed my mind back. I needed my life back. I needed my apartment back.

The dancing continued. Nearly every night. Then one night all the animals crossed over my head. The room was quiet for a minute. Then the conveyor belt reversed. For the first time the animals came out of the wall over the headboard and crossed the room towards my bureau. They were no longer whole beasts. They were pieces. Chopped. Bloodied. Decapitated. Skinned. Plucked. Dismembered. They crossed the room in bloody bits and sometimes in shrink wrapped plastic and foam packages. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. The music. The music. It could not calm the savage beasts. It could not calm the docile herd. It could not calm me or my stomach. I vomited.

I did some research online about the building where I lived. I found the name of a company, but not much else. I went to the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Central Branch, the big one at 19th and Vine Streets. I asked for information in the Business and Science Department. A librarian referred me to dusty volumes of old city records and phone books. I learned the business name was for real estate holding company. That was not what I wanted. I wanted to know what was there before. A librarian referred me to the Social Science and History Department and the Map Collection. On a fifty year old map I found my apartment building, the name of a business and the term “rendering plant”. More research in old City Directories, reverse directories, and phone books showed the history of the building. For most of its history it had been a slaughterhouse or a rendering plant processing animals into meat and other products. Skins, bones, hooves and hair all had their value. 

I wanted more information. I had the names of several companies that had been housed in my building over a century. I was sent to the Newspaper Collection. I went through indexes and scanned microfilm of newspapers that no longer existed. An article on music to keep man and beast in better spirits at a local slaughterhouse leaped out at me from 1971 edition of the Philadelphia Bulletin. It was one of those peculiar stories, a mix of business and human interest. Later I read about the history of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, how they were passed, and how the laws eventually led to the closing of many factories including rendering plants in Philadelphia. The stench and runoff from slaughterhouses and animal processing plants had become unacceptable in a closely packed urban area. Health. Disease. Death. Music. After the plants closed years of vacant buildings, poverty and unemployment characterized the neighborhood. Then rebirth. Fishtown was reborn in the new century. It was a mix of quaint old buildings and new construction. It was clean, modern, hip, desirable. Underneath, the past was still there.

I thought I understood. That night I cried out to the dead. “I’m sorry for what was done to you. I am sorry for the slaughter. The torture. The maiming. The mockery.” I heard music and a noise in the kitchen. Slowly I walked towards the noise. The refrigerator was open. Both the fridge part and the freezer. All the sausages and bacon, the hamburgers and spareribs, the steaks and eggs and scrapple from both the fridge and the freezer had been cast on the floor.

“Is that what you want?” I shouted. “Is that what will bring you peace? Is that what will bring me peace? “ I listened for a response. A low moo, a baa, a squawk? Something. “I mean it.”

It was a quiet night. I burned the meat in reverence and buried the ashes. I became a vegan. Not just a vegan. A low fat vegan. I lost a lot of weight, lowered my blood pressure and lowered my cholesterol. I became more flexible. I healed faster. I felt more calm. More at peace. But the animals did not leave. They wandered around my apartment at night gazing at me with loving eyes. It was beautiful. And creepy. When it came time to renew my lease, I chose to move. 

I found another apartment in Fishtown. I tried to stay vegan for spiritual and health reasons, but it was too damn hard. Especially at barbecues and Thanksgiving. I still ate much less meat than I used to. On most days. But that was not good enough. It could never be good enough. They came for me one night while I was still awake. Not into my new apartment. They stayed outside, floating in the air next to my living room window. Three stories up, the ghosts of the slaughterhouse, the cows, the pigs, the sheep, the hens, all took their turn looking in on me with sad disappointed eyes. 

But they did not make any noise. I had won that much for the effort. 

When I realized this, I felt like celebrating. I put on some music. A familiar piece I had found online. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. And danced. I had earned it.

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