The Farm Fields of 17

July 6, 2012

I was 17, and at 220 pounds quite formidable (if I do say so myself). My Spring was so full of prom’s, track and field contests, and of course, spring football that I had no time to look for a Summer job. A job I would have to have however, so my summer hopes of popping jelly beans, watching Saved By the Bell reruns, and laying out by the pool wouldn’t be happening.

By the time, I hard hoofed it down to all the usual haunts for high school summer employment, my more ambitious (and less preoccupied) brethren got the beat on me. The video tape store, the local hardware, even the hamburger joint that my family longingly referred as Texas Burger (which is odd for Californians to do); each and every job opening was filled. At the desperate point, I put out word far and wide that I needed a job and wasn’t above any work.

It was at that time I was first introduced to the career track that well to do people say white people won’t do. That summer was my first as a seasonal farm worker in the fields of America’s industrial food basket, the Central Valley of California.

As a quick tutorial, farming is still pretty big in the Central Valley of California. They used to say that 75% of the vegetables you see at the grocery store (that is, the vegetables other than corn or soy) were grown in Central California. That’s probably a dated statistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of that production has now been outsourced to China, India, or South America. Globalization effects everyone. But at that time, the massive California real estate bubble had not yet swelled to its eventual deafening roar. Many medium sized farmers still held their family farmland and would for at least another decade before they would cash it out for a lucrative retirement. That was the golden age of the golden state farm worker. Sigh…

That is the world I entered that Summer. First up, Almond’s. Bakersfield’s Almond Orchards can be incredibly beautiful when they first set their blooms but they are just about the worst things on earth for my allergies… Next up, digging holes.

Yes, that’s right. I probably only spent a few weeks among the almonds. Honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure that they were almond orchards. As a 17 year old I knew them as “trees” when I was articulate; “things” when I wasn’t. Trees that make me sneeze at that. I did not know nor did I really care what they were producing. For the amount of pesticides I put on the ground around said trees you really couldn’t blame me for not looking longingly at the food type in front of me.

From the orchards, I went into a several hundred acre track of farm fields whose exact contents never were known to me either. From pesticide sprayer, I became hole digger and waterline mover. Honestly I remember more about the type of peanut butter I ate in my lunch than the nature of the things that were grown around me. A co-worker and I were plopped off at a different site each day where our job was to make sure the infrastructure was set up for a scalding hot waterpipe to flood the bottom of a series of beds. Yes, they were flooding beds in the middle of one of California worst droughts in history in an area that gets on average 10 inches of a rain a year! My co-laborer was the better digger and most certainly had the better attitude than I. Truth be told, I was lazy and this summer helped me to see my lack with brutal clarity.

At around $10 an hour, eight hours a day, I made a tidy sum as July approached and the work wound down for me. I was paid in cash under the table like every one out there. And having a little wad of twenties in my pocket did feel good. But I still had another month till football’s double days. What was I to do?

My mom had a co-worker with a personal tie into the tomato farms outside of town and so I became a hand in the harvest of tomatoes. Don’t let my “hand” language throw you off. The vast number of immigrant laborers I was surrounded by were the true-blue “hands”. The men and women with the rags on the back of their neck and long sleeved shirts in the brutal heat walked the fields with salt and pepper shakers tucked into their belts. Apparently they had grown an palette for rock hard green tomatoes with a film still on them from the last spray. In those days you wouldn’t see me touching chunky spaghetti sauce much less those bally things. But they made a regular early lunch of it.

I can’t tell you the admiration I have for these men and women. Of course at the time, I was in full high school mode and felt like the dork at the uncool table. I was neither a spanish speaker or able to socio-economically able to relate in any way. It didn’t help, of course, that I also did not share their part in the hellish summertime heat. My job was to drive a tractor about the size of one of those eateries on South 1st Street. Pulled behind me were two semi-truck long trailers that I was responsible for equitably spacing out tomato’s that were shot out of yet another tractor that more nearly approximated a moving house. On this moving house stood abut five workers that picked vines of the tomatoes as they went by on a conveyer belt. Walking behind the conveyor belt house was the bulk of the field hands with bags in tow, gleaning the fields for the overlooked green objects. My chief enemy was Democrats as I turned Rush Limbaugh up on the radio in my air conditioned cab. The men and women walking beside me had no idea what schemes were making them mindless drones of the welfare state nor how much health care they cost the state each year). Yes, its true, that was me. A high school card carrying subscriber of the Limbaugh Letter and over-all lump.

Many things have changed since that summer and many have not. I learned that I could not dig a decent hole without at least three breaks. I learned that two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are necessary and that Frito’s make a good replacement for a dessert if the cabinets at home were scarcely stocked. I learned that “this is why you go to college” from just about everyone who spoke English well enough to know such facts. And that is what I did, I went to college and escaped the world of “jobs American’s won’t take.” I even went to graduate school only to find myself lured by some unknown but very powerful force back into the fields of agricultural production. I can name all the vegetables I grow now (I even nostalgically grow cotton just for kicks) and I never let someone work in our gardens without learning something about the plants they’re attending to. We become what we work, and the quality of the fruit becomes the spirit of the man in both low and high wage jobs. There is dignity and indignity to be found all along the income spectrum. The summer of my 17th year I learned about a world I have since grown to love but I was not given the keys to it. Agriculture is a hole you fall into and I wasn’t good at digging a deep one just yet. Some say I still dig a crappy hole, but now I love it and so I stay.Image

Advertisements

As part of a recent service project by a local church, I created a survey to be administered at the Church Under the Bridge service which primarily attracts the homeless each week.  Even though the point of the survey was to find out the dietary and cooking habits of the homeless, the one question that elicited the most interesting responses was not supposed to be much of a question at all: How would you describe your living arrangement?  I thought about including options like a) Homeless b) Apartment c) House, but in the end I just left it open thinking the question explained itself… I was wrong.  

Maybe this won’t be as interesting to you, but what follows are the answers that the church volunteers wrote down when they asked this question to the 50-something respondents of the survey.  Btw, for a bit of insight, this was the first time that some of the church volunteers had ever directly interacted with the homeless.  The question was near the end of the survey and was probably preceded by a bit of interaction about food preparation and eating preferences/habits.  With some of the answers, you can tell they are just quoting someone’s self-identification but with others you can almost feel the pierce of humanity breaking through the head of the volunteers as they self-edit the persons answer.  Caps in the original. Italics mine.

– On the street- squandered and concrete

– The Arch- 2 months

– pretty good- living in the country

– campsite in the country

– homeless

– “squalered and concrete”

– palate off in the woods- bathes in the river

– concrete

– homeless

– alright

– good

– bad

– hostile

– houseless

– tent in the woods

– sad

– by himself

– Can get better

– House

– House, apartment

– the Arch

– Street

– Street

– Out in the open

– homeless

– Adequate

– very good, new camp, right friends

– day to day

– Ok

– Not too good

– Excellent

– Catastrophic

– Dirty

– homeless, street

– good sometimes

– lives in an apt

– apartment- son, two daughters

– stays with friends

– day by day, minute by minute, second by second, on my feet, homeless.

– bad, in the streets

– poor (in the street)

– average- have a camping spot

– Fair- outdoors

– Fair- staying at the ARCH

– Fair- stay indoors

– stay at a hotel

– Shelter Arch

– Bad, Unless You Get Bed

– ITS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT, I MORE HELP WHEN KATRINA WAS HERE

– Non! Satisfactory Living a ARCH Have to Make Lottery to Eat by 6pm

– Pretty Cool

– Sleep on Mat or Ground

– Pretty Tuff w/ Drinking & Drugs

– Can use Have Pet

– Sleep were ever

– Has TB Can’t Stay in ARCH

– Very Bad/ Shouldn’t be open like Salvation [Army]          

“My name is Anthony. I was born, raised and educated in a little town in Louisiana called Natchitoches. My dad was a construction worker and a gambler. He and my mom separated when I was just a kid. My mom worked hard to make ends meet for my brothers and sisters. She even did men’s work sometimes.

After high school I enrolled in college. I attended Southern University then Louisiana State University in Shreveport. I majored in Electrical Engineering for a long time, but switched to Business Management just before my senior year.

I didn’t graduate. I found a good job, then lost it while I was still in school. About this time I found myself in a downspin. I wound up in prison after I did not finish a deferred probation that was unfairly adjudicated. I stayed for two years.

Later, while in prison for another charge, I finished my college degree–graduating from Tarleton College in Stephenville, Texas. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a program for inmates who want to take college courses. I took advantage of that.

Following prison the second time, I went to Waco, Texas. While there I learned I was not prepared to adequately cope with life. So I moved to Austin, hoping I’d do better there.

Last year I got hit by a car, injuring both legs, my right shoulder, my neck, and my back. I had some bleeding on the brain. The Medical Assistance Program (MAP) covered my medical expenses. I am still recovering, or trying to.

Being homeless is not easy. It’s a hard way to live. Things don’t get better; it’s a constant struggle just getting along from day to day, living on practically nothing except the kindness of strangers; trying to stay warm in the winter and cool in the hot summers; finding a place to sleep; just having enough to eat. So it’s understandable that homeless people are severely depressed and have just given up on life. I was one of them.

But recently, my fortunes changed. I met Steven Hebbard outside a coffee house near Riverside and Congress in Austin. Steven told me about Mobile Loaves and Fishes, explaining that I could make some money, if I wanted, by working with other volunteers—homeless and otherwise—in Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Genesis Gardens.

I’ve been working in the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Genesis Gardens Program for awhile now. I like it. The food we grow helps feed Austin’s homeless people. I get paid a small stipend for my work, more for working double shifts. That’s money for food and other essentials. There’s no shelter for me yet, but Steven said there is a future project, a village for the homeless, that might offer that. Right now I stay at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), a homeless shelter in Austin.

I am trying to get out of being a homeless person. I want to show up, and not be absent any longer. It’s hard to do. But my work with Mobile Loaves and Fishes is getting me closer to where I’d like to be. Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been the ship for me, like the ship that carried George Washington to victory in the Revolutionary War.

While the work at Mobile Loaves and Fishes helps me feed my body, it also feeds my self esteem. It’s not just the physical work. I feel free to express my ideas for bettering the gardens I work in, making them even more productive food sources for Austin’s homeless population. That feeds my creativity. And in spite of being homeless for so long, I still care about people. At Mobile Loaves and Fishes I get to work with others in my same situation, talk with them. Maybe, over time, we’ll find ways to help one another. In the meantime, it’s mutually supportive to be working side by side with them to help others like ourselves.

I believe that Mobile Loaves and Fishes provides the synergy to help not only homeless people, but also the community at large.”

Click on the leaf heart to support Anthony and other folks transitioning from a life on the streets.