Sunday, July 20, 2014

Strawberry Fields

My garden isn't bad this year.  In fact, it's one of my favorites ever.  Half of it is a manageable size, cute, lush, thriving, orderly, and fenced, like a garden should be, technically speaking.  The other half is a little "Berries Gone Wild", or maybe "Weeds of the Wild West co-starring Berries!"  I've been able to do things in the morning just recently (it's been a long time ... when I get up in the morning it seems like it takes me forever to understand where I am, what the rules are of this planet, and how to work this brain.  It's not normal morning fog, but more like every morning is a killer hangover. Some times I Have to get going first thing, but those days I crash and nap by 10am.  And I can't even have coffee; no one with head injuries can. We're all so susceptible to over-stimulation and coffee gets us there instantly), so I can go out and weed for a little bit before it gets to be 100 degrees.  I think it's worth it for my berries.  Actually, when I think about it, I don't think it's worth it.  Just like I didn't think I'd have a garden at all this year. The religion I grew up in had a saying: "Count the Cost."  And ever since I could remember, not one damn thing has seemed worth any kind of cost.  When I was 15, I would calculate how many hours I had to work at the Cookie Cafe, being sexually harassed by my boss, to afford something, a movie, or socks, or whatever and it never looked good, nothing could be worth THAT. But after I got my first paycheck, I bought my first pair of Birkenstocks and a nice camera and an expensive gift for my mother. For me, "Counting the Cost" is paralyzing. But then I get out into the garden, I go out to maybe move the sprinkler, or nosh some gooseberries, and suddenly I'm pulling weeds, babying the poor blueberries who are allergic to our alkaline soil, organizing the tangle of raspberries.
the mostly tame half

I don't know quite why I persist with the berries although I do love them.  They're perennials, and consequently well worth the effort.  I love things that come back: memories, friends, berries, purpose, summer, stillness.  You'd think I would hate berries, as the berry business sucked down half my youth. Okay. Maybe that's exaggerating.  Berry business took half my summers.  Summers aren't very long, but they do constitute almost the whole of our "youth," psychically. For the first few weeks of every summer, for as far back as I can remember, I picked strawberries professionally (raspberries too, but that's a story for another day).  I don't remember when I first saw a strawberry field, but it must have been when I was about six months old, when I first moved from Saskatchewan to Whatcom County.

Whatcom County is the unheralded berry capitol of the world, or at least my part of it.  Living in Whatcom County determined a large part of one's summer-time destiny because ALL of the youths of Whatcom County, all, universally picked strawberries.  At 5 AM or so, they would board school buses, school buses they had just, not a week before, stopped boarding for school.  But now they were being hauled out to the fields.  Some came for the school clothes money. Some came because it was free babysitting and their parents made them. It could be a rough crowd.

CHERRIES: NOT a Whatcom County fruit
But we didn't ride the bus.  We went by car because my mother picked with us and later, she would punch the cards. She made our enormous lunches the night before.  It was the only time we got the goodies: little bags of chips, granola bars, and soda, generic cans, frozen so that the ends poofed out.  The next day, if you were unlucky they'd explode, but if you were lucky, there would still be shards of ice in your soda by the time you drank it.  And if you were me, you would be attempting to guzzle a chunk of ice around 9 am.  I would sneak at least half of my lunch out before 10.  And when it was time to eat, and we'd all find our spot in some shade, from a tree or more likely just the bus, sitting on our little coolers, I might have some crust left of my sandwich by then. I'm still like that. If there's a lunch packed, I will eat it by 9 am.

There were hot days, with the stench of rotting berries wafting out of the rows. There were wet days when the whole world was covered in mud, from strawberries to jeans to faces and hair.  I remember the teens, the real teens, a few years older, with their boom boxes and their Killing an Arab Cure (which sparked my love affair with Camus).  I remember being harassed by a boy in that field and telling him my brother knew Judo and would beat him up.  I got in trouble for that because I'd apparently put my brother in danger as he'd only taken three Judo lessons and those were for SELF-defense, my parents explained. He didn't need me picking fights for him. Nevermind, that I felt I was in danger, enough to pull that obviously empty threat out of my ass.  My brother was naturally very gentle and even I knew that no matter what I hoped, sic-ing my brother on the boy was like pointing a brightly colored water gun at a robber. He's just not that kind of person.  I guess I wanted to imagine that he, or somebody, would stand up for me, if I needed it. I mean, what WAS the point of having an older brother? Later, he'd help me out plenty, driving me home from school when I was crying too hard for the bus, driving off a shitty boyfriend, helping me move, letting me take refuge in any home he's had. But that wasn't the day.

We'd scooch down the rows, kneeling in front of our buckets, almost like you might barf in it.  We'd pick this side, then that, pinching each berry off its stem and skirt with one beautiful, efficient motion. It still chills my spine when I see people just yanking at them, taking the stem with it... it just makes more work for yourself later when you have to de-stem them! And it's so unattractive. We'd each have an assigned row.  Maybe someone was on the other end, working to meet you, like strawberry soul mates scooching through life on a gradual, predetermined course to meet your shared destiny.  Maybe someone had already picked your row and it was empty, reassigned to you by mistake.  Or it hadn't been picked soon enough and was full of rotten berries.  And sometimes you'd hit what we called the "Mother Load" and you'd excitedly yell it out to your jealous co-scoochers.

When you thought you had a "flat", you'd take your buckets to the scale and "the puncher" (my mother).  You'd gingerly tumble your buckets into the flat and then she'd weigh it.  And with her little hole puncher, she'd punch your card.  Your card was like a coffee card, manilla, with little rows of 10's and 5's and 1's on it. It would be safety pinned to your father's old flannel shirt you were wearing, or to your hat, if you were cool. These punch cards would indicate how many pounds you picked.  And you'd fill it up, and give it to your berry boss.  And fill up the next one.  All the way to your new clothes.  But when shopping, I'd try hard to not think about how many pounds I had to pick and how many days it took me to pick those pounds to buy this or that. If I had allowed myself to think that, I would still have all of that money in savings.

Pennywhistle Press 1985, me n' my hat, and Cocoa
I bought jeans with ruched pockets.  They weren't an ordinary pant, so I called them "designer," a term I think I heard on "Dif'rent Strokes," (Was that real?  Was there really a sitcom called Dif'rent Strokes? What?  What ch-you talkin' 'bout, Willis?).  I also bought an enormous men's, size L cowboy hat, which was a little too tight for my gargantuan 9 year old head.  Later, I bought grey suede cowboy boots.  (I told my mother, when I was little, that I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up.  She said I couldn't be a cowboy; I had to be a cowGIRL. Oh Fuck that! I thought, I am not riding side saddle with pink sparkly reigns! I don't want to be a girl anymore, if that's what it means!  And what I said was, "NO! I'm going to be a cowBOY!" And I ran off to pout about having a vagina, but not quite in those terms. I think that if you've never pouted about having a vagina, you're not paying attention.  I mean, I'm done pouting about it and I realize that the problem is not with my vagina but with patriarchy. But it's an appropriate response when you first realize everything that comes with a penis.)

Summer Office of Choice
Sometimes, the best pickers and the most connected ones would be picked-up for the elites: picking for the roadside berry stands.  You had to learn a whole new style of picking that left the little green skirts on the tops of the berries.  So you'd need to show you were a quick learner and a careful picker, with no bruised berries and eventually someone would notice, someone HAD to. Occasionally I'd be inspired to strive for this honor. Striving might be overstating it... what I really did was fantasize about it, staring in to space, eating handfuls of strawberries from my bucket.  Imagine: twenty cents per pound!  What would that be like?  What could you buy?  How much ruching on what jeans? How many cowboy hats? What about a trapper keeper with a horse on it? Or unicorns maybe?  Oh man, everyone would be so jealous. It would go like this: a man in a good suit would bee-line for you in the field, not even looking at the others.  He'd kneel down, hold your hand, the King Sugar Daddy of the Strawberry Fields. You don't need to work here any more, Roxanne, you don't need to put on the strawberry red light. The others would gape and gasp as you were escorted to the waiting white limo, to the roadside stand, whisked away to join the Green Berets of the strawberry fields. And that boy, well, he would be so mad at himself for making fun of you.  And your brother would wish he'd known Judo better and he'd regret wasting his one opportunity to stand up for you. Count the Cost, kids, Count the Cost of dissing me!

In Seattle, showing off our perfect Jennifer Forland necklaces
But then change came to Whatcom County. Short, narrow tracts of buildings were erected along the edges of our strawberry fields, OUR strawberry fields.  They were a mystery to us and we marveled at their possible purpose.  We were shocked to eventually learn, through rumor, that they were housing. For What?! Ants? For migrant laborers, actually. They'd travel all the way from South of the Border to pluck berries, here in Whatcom County, on the edge of the Northern Border of the Homeland!  Some adults I overheard were upset because they didn't want those kind of people shipped to our county, the kind willing to live in outhouse-sized rooms, the kind that moved a lot, and didn't speak English and were... let's say, tan year round.  Other adults were horrified that these foreigners would come as guests to our community, to do our dirty work, and then be housed so shabbily.  It wasn't ethical.  And it would reflect poorly on our community, on us.  It seems shocking that people once felt that way, felt like hosts to migrant laborers, or that foreigners were to be treated well, like the Bible says, because we are all foreigners, strangers, L’√Čtranger.  Do Christians even remember those verses anymore?  There's so many of them, it seems like it would be difficult to accidentally skip all of them.

But I was 13 and I took it personally.  How could they drop us like hot potatoes?  I'd given up the first half of every damn summer vacation FOR THEM, for the Mayberry and Enfield berry billionaires of Whatcom County. They'd gotten rich and built ostentatious mansions out of the summer days of my childhood. And this is how they repayed me? With a lay off notice is the form of cinder block strip houses?  Where was my due notice, my severance package?

Happy 10! Minecraft Style. 
Then came the awkward summer when we shared our fields with the migrant workers.  And I was appalled by their work "ethic."  I was white, presumed to have THE Protestant Work Ethic, and I did sometimes.  But these people were some thing else altogether.  They picked fast and clean and thorough and so fast, like, really really fast, like their lives depended on it.  It was both admirable and unattractive.  And what did we do? We tipped over outhouses full of berry squirts, for fun.  We developed ingenious slingshots from berry leaves and launched rotten berries at the backs of our berry bosses (usually school teachers). We peed in our flats to make them weigh more (never been a fan of Smuckers since!).  Big Rachel and I would laugh so hard, we'd collapse and roll in the dust or mud, as if we'd burst into flames from hilarity and had to stop, drop, and roll across the rows, as if our lives depended on it. I have physical scars from how hard we goofed off. Yes, we'd made some money and we'd been paid pennies on the pound, but in between bouts of serious and silent efforts, we'd goofed off.  I can't say I hated the migrant workers.  I would've hired them over us kids, any day.  And I can't say I missed the dirty, stinky long days in the fields. But I felt jilted somehow, cheated. Whatever. The next summer, I'd babysit anyway.  Full time.  I'd watch MTV and my boyfriend would come over when the kids went to play at the neighbors.  And we'd make out on the couch. Take THAT, berry bosses!


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