workzine

Bruce Greene, 6/27/2010

Current Occupation: University Field Supervisor, Dept. of Education, Marylhurst University, writer, poet, flyfisher, thoroughbred horse lover.

Former Occupation: teacher, correspondent, Blood-Horse Magazine, VISTA Volunteer.

Contact Information:  Bruce Greene lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. He taught English, history, and psychology for 33 years in a large urban high school in the Bay Area. His eclectic writing career includes everything from essays on using blues music in the classroom to a recent memoir about his VISTA experience in Texas. He is a founding member of Portland based writing group The Guttery.  Feel free to contact him at bruceg4747@gmail.com

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I Think I Can

Everybody wears earplugs. Thousands of empty tin cans rattling on a miniature freeway over your head will eventually erode anyone’s sanity. Those who don’t wear standard plugs have small wires connecting their ears to their shirt pockets.  It’s 1972; only very small radios have earphones.  Some who work at this cannery take drugs. Lots of speed in my co-worker’s systems because after this shift ends at 10, they barely have enough time to grab a bite, or another dose of something and head south to the Hunt’s cannery in Hayward. Tomatoes just came in and the ketchup brigade is in full swing.  One of my co-workers, Luis, carries automotive catalogues in his back pocket and in the locker room sneaks a peak at the chrome rims he covets for his car.  The $500.00 accessories are possible only by the opportunity to work back-to-back shifts in harvest time.  Out on the floor, he looms like a disabled cannery clown, with slurred speech, dark circles around his fully dilated eyes, and wild stringy hair.

“Ima get me some choice rims in a coupla weeks if I can keep dis up.”

“Yeah Luis,” says Jessie, a middle-aged cannery veteran who knows how quickly the lure of double shifts can take a toll or even a life.

“Better get caught up on your child support bro’ or you won’t have nothin’ to put those rims on.”

But right now we are in Emeryville, the little industrial town between west Berkeley and west Oakland, and this cannery belongs to Del-Monte.  I’m in pears. Literally.  From 1 p.m. till 10 p.m. I empty big steel wheelbarrows full of rotten pears, into large dumpsters on a loading dock that rivals any for activity.  Noise, muck, and large trucks loaded with fruit moving in and out all day and night keep this area hopping.  I have just completed my graduate work in education at the big U in Berkeley and need to support myself while I wait for my first teaching job. Until then I belong to the cannery worker’s union. I’m paid a fair wage for this shift that seemingly requires more of my physical strength than anything else.  It’s the mental part, I soon learn, that will challenge my ability survive here.

But I have a job. I can stay in Berkeley all summer and hope for the call that cinches my ultimate goal. I await my first teaching contract in the dark, dank, shattering sounds of Cannery #35.

When my shift starts I change into a classic bright yellow rain suit complete with headgear. Before the top jacket goes on, I slip into the locker room and rub special lanolin cream on my arms and hands. It’s more like warm taffy; sticky, buckskin colored, and protective. The lye bath that unwashed fruit takes upon entering the cannery can splash up from time to time and injure the skin.  This miracle salve feels like I’m up to my elbows in honey.  But it works.  I get no holes in my skin.

At the mid-point of my shift I have a special task to do. My daily caravan to the dumpsters gets placed on hold.  The women who work the stainless steel tray like conveyer belts, with peeled, cored pears streamlining by, take their dinner break. All in white, they look more like midwives than pear sorters. The belts stop and the pears temporarily disappear.   I am to wash off the equipment. It is no ordinary hose I use. It’s the size of a fire hose and there are two large valves to turn on first. One valve is for hot water; the other is for hot steam.  They do not turn easily.  They tremble.  I need to be careful.

Not once do I burn myself.  But the scalding steam and water occasionally splash up and around my face. Fortunately my spaceman outfit, complete with gloves, keeps me dry. I have visions, on slow days, of the boiler erupting as I twist the big valves. Keeps me on my toes. With the women on the line on their dinner break, I hose down the equipment and the floor. No mushy pear detritus anywhere.  When the floor and pear line are spotless, I roll the hose onto it’s bracket, empty the wheelbarrow one more time, (the third time since my shift began) and rest on my feet, watching the women on the level above me finish the first half of their shift and prepare for their break.

They have a most peculiar job. There are only a half dozen of them, on a rise off to the side. They watch cubed pieces of pear pour out of a slot and onto a small belt. They look for brown. These fruit cocktail bound chunks are slightly cooked for softness and occasionally a piece gets burned. With a small hose about the size of a hand-held vacuum, they suck up the overcooked or burnt fruit. They do this for 9 hours. I think their pay must be better, or maybe they drop acid first, or meditate, or listen to music amid the non-stop roar of empty tin cans that rises and falls like cicadas.  At least I get to move around. They stand on their feet in the same spot and vacuum up small bits of overcooked pear. Maybe they get a misshapen piece that needs to be removed once in a while. But I think, as I watch them silently descend from their pear vacuuming perch, how do they do this?  They must have full fantasy lives I conclude.  I make a mental note to see if they smile from time to time.

On this day, disaster strikes. Alarm bells ring and red lights flash. Fruit cocktail spill on Aisle D!  One of the big belts that carry a mix of peaches, pears, pineapple and grapes has suddenly stopped, heaping its contents in great mounds on the cement floor. Fortunately the cherries have not been added yet. They arrive separately from another plant packaged in large plastic lined crates having been cooked to perfection for that special faded, rose –colored, unnatural look.   When I arrive at the accident scene, I find four feet of piled up fruit cocktail, minus cherries, growing rapidly at the head of Aisle D. The alarm is for all the wheelbarrow boys, in peaches, pears, grapes, and pineapple, to get over there ASAP and shovel up the spilled cocktail. We grab large shovels made for the occasion. Only shovels.  We do not need our wheelbarrows.  Big as snow shovels, they are more like oversized scoops. We reduce the fruit cocktail dune in about 15 min. We shovel the spill onto another belt where it will be re-washed and readied for a second chance to enter American pantries when the broken belt gets fixed.  Disaster averted, the rest of the shift goes smoothly. Even the women that suck up the burnt pear pieces enjoy a chuckle watching the fruit cocktail emergency.  Are their smiles from this external distraction or something else, something internal?

A shriek from one of the women on my level shatters even the routine hum of the pear department, now and then.    Yesterday, while emptying my third batch of pear slush I heard just such a cry.  I turned my head in time to see the large woman near the front of the line raise her arm like the Statue of Liberty.  Her torch was a pear half impaled on a steel cutting blade that had broken off the coring machine.  The supervisor will reward this “catch”.  With yellow hard-hat clearly visible, he descends the stairway from the overhead catwalk he normally patrols and retrieves the glinting blade.  Her reward will come from his personal collection.  The supervisor, Hank, keeps a stash of huge, oversized pears.  Pears the size of pineapples, pears that could never go through the normal core, cut, cook, and can process.  He doles them out like prizes.  Anyone seen leaving carrying an enormous pear must be someone special.  Funny thing is that half the work force smuggles fruit out.  Large bunches of grapes concealed under rain suits, a lunchbox full of peaches, or a hat full of pears leave the cannery at all hours.  Being caught means getting fired.  No matter.  Many take the risk.

When my shift ends at 10 p.m. I drive home, eat something and usually succumb to exhaustion.  I leave my damp sticky suit outside on these summer nights and hose it off in time to dry before my next shift.  One night, as I traipse to the employee parking lot, I notice something different about my car.  The little Dodge Dart I bought for $300 with the last of my savings is up on blocks.  The two front wheels are missing.  Not the tires, the wheels, meaning tires, rims, lug nuts.  This car will not be taking me home tonight.  My co-workers console me, but are quick to point out that whoever took my wheels did right by me.  They explain that someone must have really needed that size tire right away.  That they put the car up on blocks to avert damage was very kind of them.  I see it differently but get a housemate to come down and pick me up.  The next day I get my car towed and find replacement rims and a couple of good used tires and I’m rolling again just in time for my shift.

On August 20th I get the call.  On August 21st I quit my job at the cannery.  I need to leave at once I explain to the supervisor.  I’ll be teaching three different classes and I have two weeks to prepare.  I know I can be easily replaced, but still I feel like I’m bailing on the pear department.  The supervisor understands, he asks for my rain suit and gloves.  He inspects them for damage, throws them in a bin and checks me out.  No more lanolin tar on my arms, no more hot steam, no more clanging chorus of tin.

“Greene,” the supervisor yells as I turn to leave.  “Wait here a minute.”

What did I forget?  I know my last check won’t come for two weeks.  All my gear is checked in; do I have to surrender my union card?

Five minutes later he returns.

“Good luck with your teaching career,” he says.  Then reaching behind himself, he hands me the largest pear I have ever seen.

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back to WORK

  1. [...] contest winner taught us a key workplace survival skill. This week our Memoir Category winner, Bruce Greene, brings us a day in the life of a cannery worker. Pear, anyone? « Before [...]

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