It’s 5 o’clock in the morning when my alarm rings. It is time to go to work. After listening to a few seconds of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” I turn off my alarm and open my eyes. The room is dark. The night-light from the hallway creeps under the shut door and provides the only visible light in my room.
I sit up. Even though I have gotten up at 5 o’clock in the morning for the entire month of August and two full weeks of September, Monday through Saturday, it’s still a pain. My eyelids weigh down. My body is sluggish. My mind still craves a couple more hours of sleep. But I resist the temptation of going back to bed. I must start my day before the sun does.
This is my last Saturday of work. Then there is only Monday and Tuesday before I am free. Free from my sentence. Free from the grueling work that makes my back and feet sore, from the sun’s rays that scorch and darken the back of my neck, from the triple-digit Fresno weather. Only three more days of working in the orchards, and I am free at last to return to school.
This Saturday is going to be different, however. Today, I am not going to be driving the quad and irrigating the vineyards. I am not going to be cleaning any filters. Nor am I going to be pruning any orange trees. Instead, I am going to be working with the people who are picking nectarines.
“You are going to be driving the trailers for the pickers tomorrow,” my dad said to me the night before. “But you are not going to be picking, just driving.”
My dad is the foreman, so I don’t protest. But I don’t want to be driving the trailers full of nectarines. I don’t care if I am not picking. I just do not want to be working with them. What would they think of me, the foreman’s son, watching them while they do all the hard work? Would they be angry with me because I am there just to drive?
I put on some faded jeans and an old button-up shirt. And with that, I go off to work.
I arrive at work ready to drive the first empty trailer.
“What do I do while they pick?” I ask my father.
“Once they begin to fill up the crates, check them and remove any fruit that looks damaged or appears to be rotting,” he replies.
With these final instructions, I drive the rusted Ford tractor with the empty white crates to the nectarine trees and the pickers who await me. I drive past the nectarine trees that have had their fruit raided. As I continue driving, I see the trees that have yet to be picked, littered with fruit. Then I feel the stares of multiple people weighing down on me. I try to avoid eye contact, but out of the corner of my eye I catch all of the brown faces giving me blank stares. I take a deep breath and turn off the tractor.
The 16 pickers ready their green laden picking bags that hang from their shoulders. Some carry smaller bags than others, decreasing the amount of fruit that can fit inside the sack. This conserves the picker’s energy.
Two pickers work on one tree. Every worker grabs a 10-foot ladder. Positioning it close to the tree, they climb the ladder until they can reach the highest point and work their way down from there. Some use two hands while others pick with one.
I stand by the trailer, watching them work. I notice the lightning pace that they pick the fruit and climb up and down the ladder. Once the laden sack is full of 40 pounds of fruit, they climb down and walk it over to the trailer. They place the sack in the crate with ease to make sure none of the nectarines slam onto the giant plastic container. They then repeat the process. They walk back to the tree, move the 30-pound ladder to another position, and once again begin to pick.
The workers’ two hands transform into eight, simultaneously reaching in all directions of the tree and positioning the ladder for optimal reach. When picking, they must choose the perfect size and color. Anything that falls short of perfect must stay on the tree. The knowledge these workers have acquired shows, as they fill their sacks in 15 minutes. If done any slower, the foremen will hassle them until it is done fast enough or they will be sent home. For eight hours, the omnipotent sun seizes whatever moisture is left in my lips and mouth. Exhaustion attacks every inch of my body as I watch the endless green bags of nectarines being carried to and fro by men whose livelihood depend on it.
It is 2 o’clock when the foreman calls it a day. Everyone empties their final sack of fruit; half empty or full, it all goes into the crates. I mount the tractor and drive off to the place where the crates of fruit are being picked up by the packing house.
I only have two more days of work. Two more days of getting up at 5 a.m., two more days of enduring the extreme heat and two more days of coming home with a sore body after eight eternal hours of work. But the pickers don’t just have two more days. Once they finish picking the nectarine trees, they will continue onto another picking job. They have no school to look forward to. No education they can rely on to better their future. They have no escape.
I realize that not much separates me from the 16 pickers with whom I spent an entire day. I could have easily been one of them. I could have easily climbed the ladder. I could have easily lugged around the 40-pound sack of fruit for eight hours. But I did not. Instead I got off easy, all because my parents immigrated to the United States and gave me American citizenship. Giving me the opportunity to attend a four-year university. Giving me the possibilities to obtain a job that would pay more than minimum wage for work that sucks the life out of the body.