Tuesday, March 28, 2006

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Hobo-ing America - An Excerpt

by Richard E. Noble

Topping Onions
Our first job was in Santa Rosa, California. He called it “topping” onions - he, being the man at the Farm Labor Bureau. Believe it or not, nearly every government employment office in the country has a Farm Labor Bureau or Department. He got quite a kick out of us; obviously two middle class, white Americans who were going to find out, for the first time in their lazy, privileged lives what real work was all about. He was actually laughing by the time we left his office.
“Here’s two people,” he announced to the room full of desk personnel surrounding him, “who are going to show the folks how to top onions.”
I suppose that he had good reason to be amused. I guess that we were asking a lot of non-migrant type questions. How much does one make an hour topping onions seemed like a reasonable enough question to me.
“Well, that depends on you.” He hesitated and then by way of explanation added. “The pay is according to how much you do - it’s piece work.”
“Oh, well how much on the average does a person earn doing this type of work?”
He smiled, leaned back in his swivel chair and ... laughed.
“Well, can a person make a living topping onions?” I said, regrouping.
“Lots of people do,” he said matter of factly.
“Do you know any people who perform this type of work?”
“Sure, plenty.”
“Well ... okay,” I said. He paused, still smiling, and staring at me curiously.
“Ah ... okay what?” he questioned.
“Okay - how do we get the job?”
He started laughing again. It didn’t seem that he was laughing at us. It was more like he was amused by my face, or maybe by the way I was answering his questions. In any case, we laughed with him. Then, seeing that we were quite serious, he started scrambling around his desk.
“Now let me just fill out a couple of these cards and you’ll have these ... ah ... jobs.” He said the word job, as if he had never heard it applied to this type work before. He laughed a little more as he busied himself with his clerical work.
Moments later we were off in our van with our hand drawn map to the onion field. When we arrived, we parked under an equipment shelter. We were really eager to go to work. We weren’t exactly in the position of Richard Henry Dana Jr. and his historical, “Two Years Before the Mast”. Neither Carol nor I would be returning to our studies at Harvard or Yale. We were working folk. All of the pennies that were in our saving’s account or pockets were the product of many anxious moments struggling with the minute hand of a punch clock, or boiling chicken necks and gizzards as opposed to slicing T-bones and fillet mignon. But, by our way of thinking, we had found the perfect way to make a living while on the road. Carol and I could both work - together and at the same job. We didn’t have to lie to anybody about living in our van, or how long we intended to stay in the area. We weren’t forced to get an apartment or a telephone, or pay electric bills, or shell out money for security deposits. All that we had to do was find out where and what they were harvesting and go there.
If, by chance, you don’t know what an onion field looks like, I’ll try to explain. One, there are no shade trees in an onion field; no pine trees - no weeping willows. There are no Coke machines in an onion field. In most onion fields there are millions of onions, and hundreds of Mexicans. This particular field was about twenty or thirty acres. Twenty to thirty football fields lined up in a row. No grass, though. No artificial turf either; just long, long rows of mounded up dirt; dry clumpy dirt ... dry, dusty and hot - a mini desert, if you will. Most of the football fields were devoid of people, but the first one was very busy. The majority of the people were on about the fifty yard line. They were all bent over at the waist, straddling a row of onions. They looked very busy, except for one man. He was sitting on a pail in the limited shade provided by an old tractor. I immediately presumed that he was the boss. He was wearing a large sombrero type, straw hat. It was obvious that he saw us standing there off in the distance, waving. It was also quite clear that he had no intention of rising from his comfortable position to come over to greet us into his labor force. But, why should he make a move to welcome us? He had a job. We were the ones who were unemployed.
We proceeded to march across this burning desert to confront Pancho Villa at the fifty yard line.
“Hi ... ah ... we were told that you had some positions available.” Pancho spread his knees apart; put his right thumb to his right nostril and blew heartily in an attempt to clear the left of dust, debris or whatever. He was successful, and nearly cleared my stomach in the process. He looked up at us and smiled. His upper front teeth were probably tucked away safely in his shirt pocket. He didn’t say anything, but bobbed his head interrogatively. I determined from this gesture that he didn’t comprehend my inquiry. I decided to rephrase. “We heard that you needed some onion toppers. The guy at the unemployment office sent us out.” I exhibited our little unemployment information cards.
“Oh? You wanna work?”
“Yes, we’re looking for a job. We don’t exactly know how to top onions, but ...”
“No problem,” he said, as he got up from his five gallon pail and proceeded to stroll off. Carol and I were both left there talking to ourselves, as Pancho casually wandered off into the distance.
“Should we follow him, do you suppose?” Carol asked, as we both stood there staring at Pancho’s gradually disappearing back. I wasn’t one hundred percent positive, but it did seem like the right thing to do. Momentarily, we were off, trotting eagerly behind our man. He seemed to be heading for an inactive tractor that had old sacks and plastic buckets strewn about it. Pancho’s pace was rather slow and leisurely, and Carol and I were shuffling and stumbling trying not to walk up and over his rear end. I suppose we were somewhat eager. I mean, here we were, Carol and Dick and the “Grapes of Wrath”, in the middle of an onion field, in “The Fertile Valley”.
He picked up a couple of buckets and then marched us all the way back to where we were in the first place. Then he stopped, turned and pointed across the field. The field was, of course, furrowed. Rippling mounds, of dusty, dry, clumpy dirt seemed to stretch forever into the distance.
“Okay,” Pancho said. But, he didn’t just say, okay. He said oh - then a long pause as if he were trying to remember the next syllable - kay ; oh ... kay. “Oh ... kay, you start here. You take a four row - two for you y two for su esposa.” Then he started to walk away.
“Hey, wait a minute ... wait a minute!”
“This is our first experience at onion topping. I don’t think that we will need four rows.” The rows appeared endless, and they stretched for miles. Four rows would undoubtedly take us the rest of our lives.
“You wanna dos linas, take a two.” He started to walk off again. I was rapidly getting the impression that this fellow didn’t think that we were going to be around too long. Two rows ... four rows, what did it matter? These gringos will be into their motor home before they pick one sack.
“Ah sir? Sir?”
I stepped up close to Pancho. I was a little embarrassed. Although I had eaten many onions in my lifetime, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what topping an onion entailed. Sounded like a very intricate process. I can honestly say that in my neighborhood of origin, I had never actually seen an onion in the act of growing. I observed some other workers in the distance. I could see that they were picking up the onions and doing something to them with their hands or with some kind of mechanical implement. They then tossed the finished product into a five gallon pail. What were they doing to them and what about the tools? I was rather apprehensive. Pancho didn’t seem very interested in us. We wanted this job. This job and others like it could very well be the solution to all of our problems, and the means for fulfilling our dream. We had organized our traveling to the point where forty dollars was enough capital to fund a week on the road. Forty dollars bought the groceries and paid for the gasoline for our vehicle. That was it. Gasoline and groceries were our only expenditures. We had long since learned how to avoid paying rent. We had no cable TV, telephone, electric bills, property taxes etc. Forty bucks covered the basics. Then again, if our van camper collapsed, weeks would have to be deducted from our new found freedom on the highways of America. As for health insurance, neither of us had ever had a job that provided such a benefit anyway. Minimum wage was over three dollars per hour - three dollars times eight hours equals twenty-four dollars. Now, we take the results of the above equation multiply it by two people - forty-eight bucks a day! One day’s work pays for one week’s freedom. Seven day’s work equals seven weeks of fishing off some ocean pier, or camping by some pristine lake. One month of work - that meant over one half year of playtime. Now that is more in tune with the way my God designed the world. My God liked people. He wanted them to have fun and enjoy life. This was it! Topping onions was God’s way of saying; “Okay kids, ENJOY!” So, as you can imagine, I didn’t want to offend my new boss, Pancho. I approached him cautiously, and respectfully.
“You see, sir,” I said softly, not wanting everyone within listening distance to be made aware of the fact that we were novices at topping onions, “as I tried to tell you when we first arrived, my wife and I have never done this before. In fact, we know very little about farm work at all.” Pancho stared at me with that universal, confounded look in his eyes. That look analyzed in terms of dollars and cents, registered - no sale! “The problem put simply is sir - unfortunately we don’t know how to top an onion. What does one have to do to an onion to have it in a satisfactorily topped condition?” The confused stare remained, but it was now enhanced by the addition of a gaping jaw. “In other words, if I could impose on you for just one moment. If you would take just one moment of your time and demonstrate to my wife and I the process involved, I am absolutely sure that in a matter of minutes we will have this onion topping under control. You may have to waste a minute of your time demonstrating, but I will assure you that we will definitely make it worth your while.” Obviously Pancho had never met a pair like us. It was virtually unimaginable to him that there were people alive and functioning on this planet who needed to be instructed on how to top an onion. He remained immobilized - strike two. “Listen, just show us how to top one onion, and you can go on your way, O.K.?”
“Oh... kay.”
I was never so relieved. I was beginning to think that we had to be experienced toppers, or have a job training completion card or something.
Pancho squatted down into a furrow. Coming out of the mound of dirt next to the furrow were a number of sprigs or straw-like protuberances. He dug with his hands around one of these sprigs, and low and behold - an onion. He pulled this big, fat, softball sized onion out of the ground. The onion, now in his hand, had these withered sprigs coming out of the top and a bunch of scraggly roots dangling from the bottom. Holding the onion in one hand, he pinched the sprigs with the other. Then twisted them until they were severed from the onion. Then he flipped the onion around and twisted the roots off in a similar fashion. After completing this process, he held the finished product up to Carol and me who scrutinized the result with smiles of enlightenment.
“That’s it?”
“Dat’s eeat, amigo.”
“You can be on your way my friend,” I encouraged eagerly. “This job is under control - no problem.”
“You fill two of these,” he said tossing a five gallon pail at my foot. “Put eem in da sacks.” Numerous burlap sacks were tossed about in the furrows.
“Ah. . . right - two five gallon pails makes one sack, and we get paid ... how much a sack?”
“You get paid at the end of the week at dee hotel een town.”
“No no, I mean, how much do we get paid for each sack?”
“Thirty cent a sack.”
“Thirty cents a sack! Beautiful! No problem. We just fill up the sacks, and leave them right there in the row, right?”
“In your row, man. You two leave deem in dis row here. Dis row.” He pointed to the furrow in which we had recently been squatting.
“No problem. We got it.”
Suddenly giving instructions on how to top onions seemed intriguing to Pancho. Probably never before in his life had he been required to give instructions to anyone on how to do this job. Though at first he didn’t think that he would, now he liked it. He bent down into the furrow again and scooped up another onion. “Like a dis.” He twisted the scraggly appendages off both ends of the onion again. “You see, like a dis.” He tossed the completed onion into the five gallon pail. He then dug out another onion. He kept repeating the process and displaying the completed onion to Carol and me before tossing it into the five gallon pail.
“No problem. I got it. Do you see how he did that Carol?”
“Yes, I see how he did that. I think I can ...”
“Well, okay. We understand Sir. We’ll take it over from here.”
“Like a dis, you see. Push a dirt like a dis. Get a onion. Twist a here. Twist a dare - into the bucket. You got it?”
“We got it. Thanks a bunch, I really appreciate your taking this time with us. You won’t be sorry.”
“Oh ... kay, and the bucket - dump a in the sack. You got it?”
“Right! Yes sir.”
“And da sack go over a here - in da middle of da row. You got it?”
“Si’ . . . yes sir . . . no problem.”
He got up and smiled. Then he grabbed a burlap sack up off the ground.
“No putta da sack over here.” He demonstrated by putting the sack in the next furrow. “No good over here. Like a dis here - only dis row. You got it?”
“We got it. Most definitely, we got it!”
“You putta over here; es no dinero. Over here es su dinero. Over here,” he shuffled the burlap sack into the wrong furrow, “nudder hombre gets dee money.” He laughed. “You get it?”
“Right! I’ve got to make sure that I put the sack in my row. If I put it over here, no money for me. I’ve got to put it right here in the middle of my rows.” I smiled at him and nodded my head affirmatively.
“Oh . . . kay; you got it.” He walked away, turning back every now and then to give us a semi-toothless smile. As he walked away Carol and I looked at the millions of sacks that were scattered about the rows that had already been picked. If there weren’t millions of sacks, then certainly there were thousands. Definitely a lot of full sacks - a lot of thirty cents-es.
“Carol, this could be it. I am definitely serious. There are enough onions in this field to keep us in petrol and beans for the next three years. I mean, how long does it take to pick a sack? Look here.” I grabbed the five gallon pail that Pancho had been tossing his demonstration onions into. “He nearly filled this pail already.” I could see by the look in Carol’s eyes, that she was excited. We were on the verge of breaking new ground. Maybe not as exhilarating as landing on the moon, but certainly of equal importance! A life in which two months of, admittedly, hard labor would set us up for ten months of folly and frolic; ten months of living like the big shots; ten months of touring and observing; ten months of scoffing at all of the suckers who broke their butts for fifty weeks, to get two weeks off. Can you believe it? Work fifty weeks to get two off? Here we would work eight weeks, and then take forty off. Could it be possible? Could this be eureka, the electric light of freedom! Thoreau said that man did not have to live by the sweat of his brow - simplify; simplify my friends!

This has been an excerpt from the first chapter of my book “Hobo-ing America”… e-mail me for more information about my books.

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