The sting of manure is strong.
The only noise I hear is the crunching of tires against earth and the rattle of metal against metal. Soon the clanging and clattering that resounds through an open lot filled with rows of tired, mud-stained trucks surrounds me. Their carriages are vacant, but the sting of the manure tells me that cattle were here. As I step out of my car, my shoes crunch against hard dirt.
A woman in the Stockman Commission Company office tells me where to go. She tells me to follow the hallway to the end, then take a right. Go to the final door. Then exit. The stockyards are across the lot. You’ll need to take the catwalk.
“Look for the auction house,” she says, “…just follow the smell.”
She says it in that bumpy deep-in-the-middle-of-American-heartland accent. I am following a scent. I am finding the auction house.
The auction house is at the center of a maze of cattle and people and fences and horses and mooing and manure, making up an industry that marks the heart of America – livestock. Oklahoma City’s stockyards and auction houses are the places where thousands of head of cattle are bought and sold by ranchers from all around the Great Plains every day.
The smell of manure is stronger now, but not as sharp, as I pound my boots up the steps that carry me to the top of the catwalk. I reach the top. In front of me what spreads out in every direction is a labyrinth of bobbing-up-and-down cowboy hats, gates and pens and rusty steel cages, and three or four galloping mahogany-red horses circling majestically around the static of what must be thousands of mooing heads.
I walk the catwalk.
Greg Griffith, I am told, is somewhere inside the brick building, an auction house that towers above the stockyard, where a fast talking man rambles prices to an audience of straight-faced ranchers in one of Oklahoma’s largest cattle markets.
Greg Griffith, I am told, owns the show. And boy is it a show indeed.
Finally I find the auction house. Greg Griffith has explained to me that he will be the only one in the auction house, rambling away from his post at the auction stage, which sits high above the pen. He says it will be easy to spot him. He has told me it will be easy to know which one he is because he will be the only one who wears a cowboy hat.
I enter. What feels like one hundred cowboy hat brims shift their shadowy gazes lazily toward me.
“My first job was working here at The Oklahoma City Stockyards. My grandfather owned a commission company here. But back then it was a four-day sale and that was before they had automatic waters and concrete water troughs. And there were always a lot of kids who worked here. Most of them – their fathers worked here. And our job was to water the cattle all day long… I started in 1974.”
Speaking in a genial drone Greg Griffith explains how he earned a degree in Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and took a job with Oscar Mayer foods company in Sherman, Texas, right after college. But he quickly learned that factory work wasn’t for him, so he came back to Apache, Oklahoma and entered auctioneering school.
For twenty years using that hard, melodic ramble that Oklahoma owns has been the profession of Greg Griffith.
“Well, you know I always had a pretty good voice. The pay was always pretty good and it’s a pretty competitive, intense-type job, and it fit my personality.”
I enter the auction and sit down.
Almost everyone wears a cowboy hat and several fellows have kicked up their legs, put them across one another, and rest two muddy boots on the paint-chipped railings in front of them. Some younger hands wear baseball caps and sneakers. It is as if the wide brimmed hats and heavy leather boots are a mark of status and heightened respect. The distracted faces remain for only a second as the whirring din of the rambling stereo voice of the auctioneer sucks their focus back into the market.
A bell rings. And then the massive beasts come rumbling into a tight space where cowboys swat the cattle hides with a wire rod. The auctioneer begins to ramble hard. Next to me an old man with a trimmed white beard and a modest hat absorbs respectful handshakes from passers-by in his thick, meaty palms. One after the other the hands come swooping in for a hard shake. There is a distinct hierarchy among the members of the audience. Some are young and watch and listen. The young ones are quiet. Their faces look on, following the scribbling of numbers and notes on worn out notepads clutched in the hands of older, more seasoned boots and hats.
Greg Griffith is more than just an auctioneer now. He has retired his fast rambling voice and instead moved on to other, more entrepreneurial adventures.
“We operate Stockman’s commission company here in Oklahoma City. We also operate Apache auction market in Apache Oklahoma. And then we have a video company where we sell cattle over the Internet. So we have film representatives that go out and film people’s cattle at their ranch. And then they email the films to us and we write out all the parameters and all the delivery conditions, and when we deliver, what they will weigh, and then we auctioneer them live over the Internet on Wednesday.”
Mr. Griffith’s company deals business with ranchers from all over the Great Plain states.
Out on the catwalk, I meet a man clad in a bright red prairie shirt. It is pleated and clean. He wears an austere cowboy hat, but on his feet there are extravagant red cowboy boots. The man comes from a ranch 50 miles away from Oklahoma City to buy and sell at Greg Griffith’s auctions.
“We’ll see how the prices are today,” he grunts. The red prairie shirt seems tough to satisfy.
Greg agrees. Finding satisfaction in his clients is not only hard work – it is a precarious business.
“There in about 10 minutes we sold 404 head of cattle that probably averaged around $1,000 dollars a head,” he says, referring to the last ten minutes of rambling that I fail to comprehend, “… and so that’s $404,000 dollars of cattle that we probably did in under 10 minutes…. And well, you know, these people have bank loans and operating expenses and household expenses…”
“And you’re the one representing their livelihood, right?” I ask.
“Exactly,” he says serious as stone.
The way Greg thinks about his hard work is that his success depends not so much on his skills, but on how much stress he can take on.
“As you get older, the more you handle people and the more stress you can manage, the more profitable your work is to you.”
Below the auctioneer’s stage, there is a pit of dirt where the drafts of cattle that come thundering into the ring are guarded off from the cowboys by two narrow spaces separated from the ring by a worn out metal fence. One young cowboy in a mud-colored plaid shirt uses a long rod to swat the cattle as they come pounding across the dirt.
He looks scared, timid and fresh. No more than fourteen years old.
Later, on the catwalk I see the young boy. Hanging out from a straight, tight-lipped face a cigarette is burning. He breathes it in hard. The kid is staring across the maze of pens and cattle and cowboys, out toward two lone skyscrapers that poke up from the middle of downtown Oklahoma City. You can barely seem them behind the gray. The young boy has dirt on his hands and under his nails. His blue jeans are stained. He doesn’t look me in the eye. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s intimidated or tired. Whatever he is, the kid looks worn out. And this is only 14 years in.
In Oklahoma’s stockyards, it seems that just plain growing up can be hard work.
“The toughest part,” says Greg Griffith, reflecting on how he started out, “is finding out how terrible you really are. How intimidated you are by what you’re trying to do.”
I start to pity the boy a bit, watching him smoke hard, covered in dirt.
I start to pity him for the mindless swatting of manure-crusted cattle that make up the boy’s existence down there in the cattle pen. I pity him for the ramble that he does not yet comprehend.
And then I halt myself, remembering something Greg Griffith said just moments ago inside the auction house.
“Work’s not the enemy,” he said matter-of-factly.
I look the young kid up and down again.
Then again maybe he’s not worn out at all. Maybe he’s just getting hard. Maybe the sort of boring pain that comes hand in hand with the hard work that we put ourselves through is the way we appreciate our successes. Maybe this is just simply what it looks like to grow up in the heart of America. Maybe this young cowhand is just another young Greg Griffith, breathing it all in, getting used to the sting of manure, getting used to the mundane swatting of hides, and trying to understand the incomprehensible ramble that comes from underneath the shadowy brims of older hats – maybe this is just a young boy growing accustomed to the stink and the ramble and the gray and the fragile patience and determination to palate it without quitting early.
Breathing it all in.
Indeed, there might be a day when the young boy needs to breath in deep and ramble out every bit of what he possibly can.
As I stomp across the creaky wood boards of the catwalk, the sounds of cattle mooing fall in on each other and become a low moan, but there’s something about the sound that comes from the yard that still feels clear and honest and strong – it’s the sound of the auctioneer’s voice rambling on.