One of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever had was after my sophomore year in college. Some of my friends worked in a tomato patch, and it seemed like a good summer job. I’d always thought it would be fun to work outside during warm weather, since I loved sports and the out-of-doors, but somehow “fun” never entered my mind during my stint.
When I arrived, everyone else was already in the two-acre field covered with tall plants. They weren’t picking tomatoes yet, but weeding was the task at hand. That’s not one of my favorite activities, but I was ready to prove myself as a good worker. We were a motley crew of about four or five, consisting of a couple of guys and girls and Maggie, who owned the tomato patch. I was briefed on what should and should not be pulled up, then sent into the trenches.
Unfortunately for me, all the work gloves were being utilized, so I had to grab and pull with my bare hands. (I still have a rough place on my right index finger from those hours, even though it was years ago.) The work was difficult enough, but a wonderful discovery I made was sweat bees. Yes, those tiny creatures loved to get on the backs of our thighs and sting us when we knelt down to grasp more weeds. It was a little painful, but we kept going. When we finally finished my first day, I walked up a long path to my car with noodle-like legs. Even though I’d always been active, they’d never felt that way before.
When the tomatoes started ripening, I was instructed to select the ones which had pink bottoms or “blossoms.” Any past that stage were picked, of course, and the ones that were too far gone became ammunition for rotten tomato fights. We waited until some-one was engrossed in his or her work, then we’d launch a surprise attack. (This was especially enjoyable when my ex-boyfriend showed up to help.)
When the tomatoes started coming in faster than we could pick them, we had to be there at 7:00 a.m., which meant a 5:30 wake-up call for me. I bought my own gloves and tried to work with some heart, but I was always exhausted when I got home. Sometimes I was still tired that evening and even the next day, but the worst times were when we stayed until 8:00 p.m.
Most days at lunchtime, we’d pile into a pickup truck and drive up to Maggie’s house. She’d prepared a huge meal, which was nice, but what I really wanted was water or anything that would take away the most terrible thirst of my life. The house was cool, but that was counter-productive, since the summer air felt like an oven when we went back outside. The afternoons were difficult, with the sun beating down on our heads mercilessly. I’d always loved being in the sun, but it wasn’t my friend in this situation. My thirst soon returned as dust rose into my face, and I longed for the barrel of water which stood at the end of one row, but I always waited until everyone took a break.
The picked tomatoes were placed in large buckets, then we poured them into a crate. When we finished the day, we swung these onto a large flatbed truck. It took two people to lift each one, and we found it almost impossible at first, but we got stronger and improved our form.
I now have empathy for anyone who picks produce by hand. It’s such a draining job, and weather conditions and insects can make it even harder. We did get relief from the heat one day, but it didn’t go as I’d hoped. Rain started falling, and we kept staring at Maggie, thinking she’d tell us to go inside. But every time we glanced at her, she was bent over as if trying to avoid us. The rain became heavier, but we kept picking tomatoes. When we finally stopped and the sun came out, she said, “Don’t you have spare clothes in your cars? Your parents might get mad at me if you get sick.”
Ah, yeah. Thanks, Maggie.