Bridges burnin’ like they was lit up by Sherman

If it were a work night, I’d be in bed by now, but as it so happens, it is not a work night because I have become even less interested in my most recent job than the job is interested in me. At the risk of going all Islamic-obscurantist on a cracker’s ass, God willing I’ll have a work night again soon. These are times when perhaps one sees no alternative to placing a childlike, mystical faith in God and his providence, since his people done fucked up as business owners and made work life worth even less than the sub-minimum-wage piecerate pay.

Does one worship multiple gods instead? Well, more gods, more options. Maybe. If two people pray to Andrew Chan for intercession against drugs, on the thinking that wherever two or more or gathered in My Name, there am I also, but two other people, on the same basis, pray to Sylvester Obiekwe for intercession on behalf of drugs, whose prayers are answered? As my Arabic instructor liked to say, ask the Camel. He’d probably capitalize it. I know he’d capitalize “He” and “His” in reference to God; he’s an old-time religion protestant. Me? I’m a Catholic who plays around with all the liturgical and scriptural memes. When in Rome, or Geneva, or Canterbury, you know.

My trouble is with one of my two bosses at this job. Crew management at the blueberry farm is largely a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law operation. This detail alone could be enough for someone with an ear to the ground in Willamette Valley agriculture to dox these people and their business. I’m not looking to do this; there are much worse farming outfits around here, some of which should probably be raided by labor and workplace safety regulators. Still, the blueberry farm is a managerially troubled business under the co-direction of a tendentious, tightly-wound schoolmarm with the unfortunate habit of tongue-lashing anyone she believes to be dropping the ball on the job or spending too much time in the sun during breaks. Mother-in-Law deemed me the crew scapegoat today, and she did it on a job where my highest hourly earnings broken down by day worked out to $4.65. My hourly earnings today, in the midst of Mother-in-Law accusing me of incompetence and threatening me with termination within earshot of at least one colleague, worked out to $2.68. I cleared the $150 threshold for payroll withholding today, too, after seven days on the job (versus two at the pear orchard), and I no longer have the eyes to keep on any greater prize than that. Mother-in-Law often asks low producers whether picking blueberries is worth their time. She asked me that today, I think, although the chronology is blurring a bit already. Shit, woman, I’m 32, so if I didn’t think it worth my time, I wouldn’t show up. Come to think of it, though, fuck the subjunctive: after today’s outburst, I don’t, and I won’t.

It’s a hell of a way to treat adult employees who put up with sub-minimum-wage piecerates for heavy agricultural labor without a peep of complaint. There aren’t awfully many of us, and I don’t think it’s just because crackas be tweakin’ in Sweet Home. There’s a lot of structural and policy voodoo that goes into discouraging piecerate agricultural employment, pea-brained disincentives in the welfare rules and the like, but the bottom line is that nobody looks at forty cents per pound for hand blueberry harvest work and thinks, damn, dawg, I can pays da bills wid dat. Is it a fair piece rate? I’d say it’s quite fair, but this won’t affect anyone who has to make ends meet, or not, exclusively from earned income. Fairness is not an arithmetical value.

I don’t feel smug about Mother-in-Law having alienated me to the point of summary resignation; ideally, I’d much rather keep getting the social engagement and the payroll income, and she has a crew that is still behind on the harvest. But what she said to me was grossly unprofessional and frankly at least a touch idiotic: “You need to change if you’re going to stay here.” This was because I was “dropping way, way, way too much fruit on the ground” and working too slowly. The thing was, I was working on the heavy side of an extremely lopsided row of bushes planted in the shadow of a forest. Even in mid-summer the plants don’t get direct sunlight until about 11:00 am, so they’re all leaning hard to the west, and the trellising holding them up doesn’t fully compensate. As a result, the plants are tangled eight-ply mats of leaves, branches, and fruit at all stages of ripeness. Accidentally jostle them and fruit falls off every which way in a one-foot radius. Set up solid lines of buckets in every available space under the plants and fruit will probably still miss its target: the buckets are round, and the plants are grown on mounds with sloped sides. Oops.

Mother-in-law had me working in the most fucked-up part of the field (top two percent, probably), and she still had to give me shit for being incompetent. Bear in mind that I’m not normally one to criticize growers for cultural management nightmares, but this one affected me. I basically could not harvest the crop thoroughly because it was growing in a sloppy mess. I might have been able to do a decent job had I been fastidious about bucket coverage underneath the plants, but I was under pressure to keep moving in order to make quota. We were nominally subject to termination for not picking at least fifty pounds by lunch, but the owners were always vague about when exactly, or if, they would start enforcing the quota. For most of the day, I was rattled by Mother-in-Law’s busting my balls, giving me contradictory instructions about what size fruit to pick, and making martyrdom orations about how I had caused such crop loss. I wasn’t botching the invasion of Guadalcanal; I was botching the harvest of a mismanaged row of blueberries while listening to shrill scolding from a woman I had spent a week doing everything in my power to please precisely so that she wouldn’t become dissatisfied enough to lash out at me. The very first day this season she tried to shame the other pickers during a pep talk at break by telling them that I had picked more than three of them in half the time. I was not nearly on track to make quota that day.

These crop loss martyrdom orations are always suspicious. For small growers, they’re theoretically legitimate, but the blueberry growers weren’t really advertising for help (even though Mother-in-Law was threatening us that she might put out a call for faster pickers to replace us). Among large growers, they’re one of the classic sympathy plays to argue for MOAR MEXICANS. Large growers budget for crop loss, bill the federal government for it, and then act like they’re American Gothic yeomen whose families will go hungry, along with yours, because no one was there to pick the crops. If they really wanted to get the crops in, they wouldn’t lowball the help. My employers ran a contest the other day, mostly for the benefit of the younger teens, in which the fastest picker won a five-dollar bill and the runners-up won nothing. Daughter-in-Law was scrupulous and gracious about allowing those of us with more sense than energy to opt out. I might have resigned otherwise. But shit, Matlock gave his doofus of a nephew a ten-spot for walking-around money after acquitting him of murder or whatever, and that was in, like, 1980. This deal was more like, okay, everyone run along and pick fruit for twenty minutes, and when all the prep and weigh-in time is accounted for, whoever wins will earn not quite a dollar above minimum wage. I think I have some idea of why these people aren’t recruiting the A Team.

If you’re wondering how anyone could stand being in business with her ball-busting mother-in-law, realize that Daughter-in-Law has a one-in-a-thousand mellowness that makes it possible for her not to get drawn into what for most people in her position would be inevitable catfights every hour or two. Many people would have divorced out of that family years ago because, well, obviously. Many of the pickers would have quit if Daughter-in-Law hadn’t been there to keep things mostly calm. She may be the single most unflappable person I’ve ever known. She isn’t even a mediator or conciliator in spats involving Mother-in-Law. She’s just there. It isn’t that she’s insensate, either, or that she doesn’t give a shit or is abjectly subservient. She’s perfectly confident and comfortable. I was floored when I learned that she had married into this family from out of state; I had assumed that she was born into the business. Anyone else in her position would show outward signs of significant emotional distress: vacancy, spookiness, dejection, something. That, or belligerence. They lucked out in getting someone to marry into the family business who wasn’t either susceptible to the chronic low-level trauma of working with Mother-in-Law and all the rowdy local middle schoolers or an incorrigible battle ax.

I don’t want to burn bridges with these people, but bitch I wasn’t the one who lit the first match. I kept the stiff upper lip while Mother-in-Law provoked me to the verge of open insubordination. It takes quite a bit of self-importance to think that a seasonal piecerate job where the fastest picker has to haul ass to clear minimum wage involves some kind of sacrosanct commitment on the part of the employee not to let the employer down or alienate her by responding curtly to petulant behavior, say, by resigning without notice after being threatened with termination. Honestly, resigning or being fired from this job is like “resigning” or being “fired” from cutting the neighbor’s grass. These fuckers are Tom Sawyering teenagers into races over a five-spot. In the workplace. And then they wonder why the brats are throwing hats full of water at each other and occasionally hitting Mother-in-Law in the face, splattering her glasses. This was wildly immature, inappropriate, and disruptive behavior, of course, obviously a summary firing offense, but it didn’t exactly come out of the blue.

Homeskillet is done lecturing me. I’m sure her sage teachings about propriety in the workplace will fall on receptive ears as she continues to berate the rising generation.

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