Midnight in The Garden of Fruits and Vegetables
As children of the Depression, my parents were constantly seeking life experiences that would socialize his four boys to the realities of a “ life without options”. My Dad’s definition of hell, ( besides being stuck in an elevator with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and the Reverend Al Sharpton ), was a life in which you had few choices – – an existence where one was trapped in a job they hated or in a financial situation which they had neither the education nor resources to overcome. He was determined to make sure that we had a glimpse into what life might be like if we did not learn to apply ourselves. I can still hear Tennessee Ernie Ford forever playing ….“ You shovel sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St Peter don’t call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul – – to the company store”.
As each son came of age, my parents would “help” us find summer employment. The critical prerequisites were: 1) The job must be lucrative enough to finance our upcoming annual college living expenses 2) It must be some form of manual labor 3) It should be in a neighborhood far enough from home that we must take public transportation ( the bus ) to and from work every day. Now for some New Yorkers, this seems like pretty tame stuff. But for a suburban kid from LA whose closest encounter with real life was summer camp in Pasadena and trips to the Coliseum in South Central, the trauma of this first summer job was a life changing event.
Like a prisoner on death row, I counted down the days until summer vacation when I would become indentured as a produce dock worker toiling on graveyard shift ( 6PM to 6AM in a warehouse for a major grocery store chain. My “ so-you –know –what –a-life-without-options-feels-like “ job involved driving a hydraulic loading jack, stacking 6’ high pallets of produce orders and loading them on to refrigerated trucks destined for stores throughout the western US.
My first night, I rode along with “ Jeff “, a high school drop out, father of a one year old by his latest girlfriend and making $ 35,000 a year – – all before the age of 20. “It’s good money, dude. I just bought a truck and my girlfriend and I put a down payment on a condo.” He was all hair, sinew and leather gloves. While weighing no more than 160lbs wet, he could toss huge boxes of romaine lettuce, sacks of potatoes and frozen broccoli like pillows. He prided himself in filling orders quickly and aspired to catch our supervisor’s attention. “Another few years of kicking ass on the floor and I get Jerry’s job “. Jerry was the dispatcher. He sat in an air conditioned office, barked into a loud speaker as produce manifests spit off a mainframe printer. He prioritized the requests and distributed the assignments to the men on these flying carpets of steel.
My friends names that summer were not Bob, Steve or Tom, they were Armando, Eddie, Richie, “X” and Ray. The warehouse was a dangerous place. Industrial accidents were common as slippery floors and speeding fork lifts collided with the pressure to make the nightly quotas. I witnessed a compound fracture one night as a fully loaded fork lift smashed a pallet jack into a wall crushing the loader’s foot. I remember how angry some of the men got because an industrial injury hurt their spotless workers compensation record and prevented them from the possibility of a month end bonus for being injury free.
We ate lunch at midnight. The guys would go out for beers at 6am. Most were married with mortgages, kids and obligations that required them to be on-time, at work when sick and always meeting quota. I was working harder than I ever had in my life and was barely making quota. Guys would pitch in to help me at the end of the night just to be sure I did not fall behind. I felt like one of the Morlocks in HG Well’s Time Machine, toiling underneath the earth, a dull carnivore laboring out of instinct while my friends, the lotus eating Eloi, sat on the beach all day sunning and reading poetry.
My social life was reduced to the hours of 1PM to 5PM each day. I would wake up with swollen hands and a sense of dread like Prometheus knowing that in a few hours my liver would once again be devoured. I would sit like a lobotomy patient watching a string of soap operas. My best friends that summer were Luke and Laura and the gang at General Hospital ( Where is Port Charles anyway ? ).
My low point was about half way through the summer when I finally started to get my sense around the warehouse. I was called into the Dock manager’s office ( you know, the silhouetted guy on the TV show Deal or No Deal ). I was getting ready to humbly thank him for noticing how hard I was working when he warned me that if I did not “ pick it up”, I would be let go. I wanted to shout “ look, I hit .452 this year on our baseball team. I don’t need your approval!” Yet, I was deflated. As I walked out Armando took me aside and said, “you got the talk, eh amigo?“ I nodded, looking away in case the old eyes started to leak saline. “It’s alright brother. Everyone has had the talk from “Manager Bob”. It’s part of making sure you never forget that he controls what happens around here. That’s why we have a union. Keeps things balanced, you know”
The days and nights bled in to one massive twilight. I finished my tour of duty knowing well that I barely pulled my weight. I hugged each new friend knowing that we would probably never see one another again. They knew I was off to college and were depressed at the thought that if I came back in ten years many of them might still be there flying through the air on their steel machines. I did not leave thinking I was better than these men. I realized they tolerated and accepted my ignorance to the obligations of real work. I understood that there was more to hard work than I had ever imagined. Integrity meant showing up and doing your best every day in a job you may not like. I drove away.
I see their faces every day in toll booth operators, assembly line workers, municipal workers, maintenance workers and even the truck driver that roars past me on the highway late on a humid summer’s night loaded with produce. I always wonder if I knew the guy that packed that truck. I knew for certain I would never want that job but I grew to understand that people should not be valued by their net worth but by their work ethic, character and integrity. My dad smiles when I tell this story because he knows I learned my lessons well. My wife likes it for different reasons. When she sends me to the store, I actually can distinguish jicama from ginger root.