By Tracie McMillan
Edible San Francisco • January 2012
I am out the door at 5:15 and head east toward the dawn, careening over shoulderless two-lane roads crowded with farmworkers. Nobody is at the appointed intersection, so I drive past it to a line of trucks and realize they’re for the workers already in the field to my right: Bulging burlap sacks line up like soldiers, and white orbs litter the ground, nearly glowing in the early light. Onions. I turn around and go back to Panama and Tejon, and this time Pilar is waiting for me. She signals for me to follow her and we drive farther east, pull off the road, and wait.
A half-hour passes before another truck comes, bigger and pulling portable toilets, and leads us down dirt roads in the pre-dawn haze. We climb out of our cars and wait in the middle of a vineyard for nearly two hours, until eight o’clock, which gives everyone ample time to observe my presence. I had hoped that my bandanas would help me blend in; save for the sliver of face around my eyes, every inch of skin is covered, and my hair and eyes are both dark brown.
I’m just beginning to contemplate forming the sentences in Spanish to ask Pilar what she gets for being a forewoman– the premiums vary, usually an incrementally higher wage along with the promise of more hours–when José gets a phone call. The packing boxes will be here shortly. We can start.
José leads us down a row, rolling up his sleeves, and walks twenty yards before kneeling. We fall to our knees at the base of gnarled vines as thick as my thigh, a leafy canopy blooming over our heads. Bunches of grapes dangle down the center of the arch in a neat line. José snips off a bunch with his tijeras, or pruning shears. These are going to be table grapes, he says, so they have to look good.
Does everyone understand? Everyone does.
There is another burst of activity as everyone disperses, and Pilar tells me that I will work with her and Juán, a ponytailed guy in a Lions sweatshirt.
Here are some cotton gloves, she says, handing them to me. And your scissors.
Are you ready to start?
I think so, I say tentatively.
Oh, Tracie, she laughs. Let’s go.
Pilar hands me a plastic tray. She and I will pick the grapes, and Juán will collect our bins and pack them at a table at the end of the row, under a sun umbrella. She motions for me to get under the vines, then positions herself farther down the row. Are you ready? she asks.
Maybe, I say dubiously, fear of failure suddenly streaking through me, and she laughs again as she clips a bunch of grapes off the vine. I turn away, reach up, cradle a bunch of grapes in my palm, and with a satisfying snip sever it from the vine. I eye the bunch in my hand. I see a green grape, pilot the tijeras in, snip, and pierce the skin of the red grape next to it. Juice soaks into my glove. Now I have to get rid of the red one and the green one as well. I try again, aiming for the now-damaged red grape, and hit a third grape instead. Frustration wells up in my chest, and I try to remember that I am learning. Slowly, , I trim the bunch, lay it gently into the bin, and snip another from the vine.
I have been doing this for about a half-hour when José walks by, fingers the fruit in my bin and stops me.
Mira, look, he says, taking out a pair of tijeras. Like this. No little ones, no rotten ones. Throw them out. He picks up a bunch from my bin and snips into it efficiently. Grapes fly. Stems snap. He finishes, and holds up a finely draped, flawless bunch of grapes. It belongs on a wine label. See? These are for the table, so they have to be nice.
It doesn’t take long before I am cursing the entitled American grocery shopper: Oh, sure, you just have to have a perfect bunch of grapes. God forbid you should have to pick out a few Raisinettes. You think those nice pretty bunches grow on trees? By midday, I get more comfortable, and I admire the tight, trim bunches as I snip them off the main vine, surprised to find that their stems knot in on themselves so firmly that each bunch feels like a solid mass, so different from the loose, languorous piles of grapes in the supermarket. I find my rhythm and pick up speed, but Pilar works twice as fast. Where her bins overflow with fruit, mine contain a prim, solitary layer. I try to speed up. Through it all, Pilar and I chat , or I listen to her talk to other workers in Spanish. Some of them ask her about me, and more than once I interrupt their speculations on me– Am I a student? Just poor?–with, I can understand you. I cannot speak well, but I understand a lot, which yields laughter.
Around 3:30, we finish packing up the last of the grapes we have picked in our row, and Pilar tells me to stop. You worked very hard. Good job, she says. I’ll pay you next week. Juán barely conceals a glare. We have spent the last nine and a half hours in the field, all but the first two hunched under the green-roofed tunnels of grapevines. Pilar finally explains the specifics of our payment.
Ten plastic clamshell boxes, twopounds each, fit in a cardboard caja, a flat, and for every caja the three of us fill, we earn $2. We count our haul for the day: thirty-nine cajas. That’s $78 divided by three: $26 apiece. We’ve been at work since 6:00 a.m. There was a halfhour lunch. Nine hours for $26.
I ask how many cajas each worker usually fills in a day and Pilar tells me thirty. By working with me, then, my crew just lost a collective $42, more than half of what we earned. I try to fix it.
No, it’s not fair to you and Juán. I am learning, so I should get less. I don’t have kids. It’s not fair to you.
Juán pipes up. She’s right.
Pilar is undeterred. No, Tracie, it’s fine. You worked very hard.
We’ll see. Good work.
Juán sighs and lopes off to help another crew pack their boxes, but Pilar keeps smiling at me. Go on, I’ll see you later, she says.
Thank you very much, Pilar, I say, and climb into my car. There’s only one word to define what just happened: charity. And I know I am in no position to refuse it.
Reprinted with permission from THE AMERICAN WAY OF EATING: Undercover at WalMart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table, By Tracie McMillan, copyright © 2012. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.