Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Canned


We all wear ear plugs. Thousands of empty tin cans rattling above and in front and all around will eventually wear away anyone's sanity. Those who don't wear plugs have some sort of ear phone plugged in to a radio. It's 1972, only small radios have ear plugs. Some take drugs. Lots of speed in your co-worker's systems because after this shift gets off at 10:00p.m. they barely have enough time to grab a bite, or a another dose of something and head down to the Hunt's cannery in Hayward. Tomatoes are in now and the Ketchup brigade in in full swing.
But we're in Emeryville, the little industrial town between W. Berkeley and W. Oakland, and the cannery belongs to Del-Monte. I'm in pears. Literally. From 1 p.m. till 10 I empty big steel wheelbarrows full of rotten pears, or spilled fruit into large fruit dumpsters on a loading dock that rivals any for activity, noise, muck, and large trucks moving in and out all day and all night.
I have just completed my graduate work at the big U and need to support myself while I wait for my first teaching job. Until then I belong to the cannery workers union. I'm paid a fair wage for this shift that requires much more of my physical strength than anything else.
But I have a job. I can stay in Berkeley all summer and wait for the call that completes my first step to a 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 hat. Before the top jacket goes on, I go into the locker room and rub a special lanolin creme on my arms and hands. It's more like warm taffy, sticky and buckskin colored and protective. The lye bath that dirty fruit takes upon entering the cannery can splash up from time to time and injure the skin.
At the mid-point of my shift I have a special task to do. The women who work the stainless steel tray like conveyer belts with peeled, cored pears streamlining by take their dinner break. The belts stop and the pears are temporarily in hiding. I am to hose off the equipment. It is no ordinary hose I use. It's about 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. I need to be careful.

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