Commentary Magazine


Man with a Hoe, 1964

The park on the border of the Skid Row area in this California farm town is filled with men (and one or two women) sprawled out on the grass or sitting under the few trees. Some of them are sleeping, their mouths open, their stubbled faces pressed into the ground; others are merely staring off into space. Here and there a bottle is being passed around a group, each man taking a deep swig before handing it on to the next. I count about a hundred of these near-derelicts from where I sit on a bench at the edge of the park. Later, as I walk by, they look at me incuriously. No one hails me as “Sir,” and no one tries to make a touch. In my dirty pants, torn sweatshirt, and straw workhat, an old beachbag in my hand, I look like just another farm worker living on Skid Row.

On my way through the park to find a cheap hotel or flophouse for a few nights, the eyeglass case I have in my shirt pocket begins to feel uncomfortable, so I stop to take it out and put it into the bag. As I do I am struck by the fact that very few of these people in the park seem to wear glasses; in fact, I can spot only three who are either wearing glasses or have eyeglass cases in their pockets. And yet, nearly everyone in the park is in the age group that would normally need glasses.

Just on the outskirts of the Skid Row area, I find a hotel where I can get a room for $2.00 a night. Most day-haul farm workers would spend only a dollar, or at most $1.50, but I have learned how terribly depressed I get in the dirty, gray flophouses that are the only homes so many farm workers know. Skid Row not only houses bums, outcasts, and voluntary exiles from society, but blurs at the edges to take in the old and the poor as well. For where else can a badly paid worker find a place to sleep for $2.00 or less?

I pay the $2.00 in advance—all rent in such “hotels” is paid in advance, either by the day, the week, or the month—and take the key to the room in which I will be staying for the next few days before going on to spend a couple of weeks in a migrant workers' camp in the San Joaquin Valley. The room is about what I expect: peeling walls, a window with a tattered shade overlooking a dark airshaft, a broken bureau with a plastic doily on top, one wooden chair, a closet built into a corner, and overhead, a light bulb swinging on a chain. There is no lamp by the bed—who reads in such a room at night?

My next stop is the farm labor office on the other side of the Skid Row area. Walking down a street past tong houses, Chinese shops and restaurants, Filipino barber shops and social clubs, and Mexican bars, I notice a small store with the word “Shoeshine” crudely lettered across the window. Obviously, though, it isn't shines the three gaudily dressed Mexican women inside are selling. One of them catches my eye as I go by and shouts, “Hey, sport, come on in!”—waving her arm to show me the curtained recess at the back. Such girls service the Skid Row community, including fringe groups like the Filipinos. The most skilled of all the farm workers in Skid Row—they generally harvest asparagus, brussels sprouts, and the early grape crop—many of these Filipinos have been in the area for more than twenty years without their families, and these women represent their only sexual contacts. Because they have no wives and the law once prohibited intermarriage, the Filipinos reportedly suffer from a high rate of venereal disease. Yet they tend to be neater and cleaner than their neighbors on Skid Row, and when they dress up in their big-brimmed hats, wide-seated pants, and heavily padded jackets, they remind one of sporty gangsters in a 1930's movie.

It is early afternoon by now, and the farm labor office—whose hours are from 5:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.—is very quiet. Two men are sitting behind a counter (there are no chairs or benches on my side of the counter). I announce that I want to register for farm work, and wait while one of them checks to see if I have registered before at this office. Satisfied that my name isn't listed in any of his files, he motions me behind the counter to his partner's desk. “Can I see your social security card?” the man at the desk says. I take out my wallet, now thin and flabby without the thick bundle of credit cards I've left back home in San Francisco, and show him the social security card.

“Were you in the Army, Paul?” He uses my first name as a matter of course, even though I am at least ten years older than he is and he has never seen me before. I say that I was, giving him the little photostat of my Army discharge I carry with me on these trips. Then he asks me what kind of farm work I've done, and I tell enough of the right lies to get a green card from him with my new occupational title printed on it: “Farm hand, general.”

“Is there much work?” I ask. “No,” he answers, “the asparagus is about finished, but if you'll do stoop labor, you can work until the freeze in the fall. Be here tomorrow morning at 5:00 A.M. to get on the bus.”

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, I walk around Skid Row, going from one dingy card room to another, where $2.00 will get you into a game of draw poker, lowball poker, or pan. The games are run by the house, which takes a chip from each pot in exchange for supplying the chairs and tables and a man to keep an eye on the betting. As for the players, they are a mixed group of Mexicans, Filipinos, whites, and Negroes; and there are even a few young fellows who look as though they go to college and just come down to Skid Row for the cards.

I eat my dinner in one of the many grimy restaurants in the neighborhood. The floor is littered with napkins, the counter is greasy, and sugar is spilled around the rack holding the condiments. A pleasant Mexican waitress serves me watery tomato rice soup, fatty lamb stew with potatoes and rice, diced beets, and one slice of canned pineapple. The meal costs eighty-five cents, and I buy a nickel cigar on my way out. Again I wander the streets, indistinguishable from the other men shifting a frayed toothpick around in their mouths.

It is nightfall now. Skid Row is crowded; the bars are jammed with beer and sweet-wine drinkers; the drunks stagger into the street and collapse in the alleys. For many of these men, Skid Row is the end point of some personal tragedy—perhaps a divorce, or alcoholism, or unexpected unemployment. Then the police cars make their appearance. They cruise slowly around the area, circling it like keepers in a zoo. One of them pulls up to the corner where I'm standing talking with three asparagus cutters, and the officer behind the wheel looks over at me. “Hello, there,” he says. As I return the greeting, I notice him remarking to his partner, “That's a new face around here.” He will keep my face in mind—just in case.

Back at the hotel three very old men and one middle-aged farm worker are sitting in a row in the lobby, dozing intermittently through a re-run of an “I Love Lucy” show on TV. I watch too for a while and then walk upstairs to my room. It is hot and stuffy. Undressing, I wonder what the temperature in the room gets to be during the summer when the valley becomes a furnace, made habitable for most of its residents only by air-conditioners.

_____________

The work day begins at night. At 4:00 A.M., wakened by the body noises of the man in the next room, I struggle out of my narrow, lumpy bed. As I wash, I can hear him washing; I brush my teeth, but he doesn't; and neither of us shaves. Outside it's still dark. In my dirty work clothes, I eat breakfast—a “short stack with bacon”—at the counter of a nearby all-night restaurant. After finishing the heavy pancakes soaked in thick syrup and drinking two mugs of coffee, I buy a box lunch from the Chinaman at the cash register to take with me out to the fields. For fifty-five cents I get three sandwiches of dry, thinly sliced roast beef with a piece of lettuce on soggy white bread, an orange, and a small Danish pastry.

Outside, crowds of men are heading toward the farm labor office where the contractors' buses pull in to pick up their loads of day-haul workers. In the office, under a sign that says, “Do not spit, sit, or lie on the floor,” I line up with about twenty-five other men, moving slowly toward the desk at which work is being assigned. Everybody is wearing some kind of hat or cap for protection against the hot sun, and the soiled, ragged clothes which are the day laborer's uniform and stigma. In my hand, I hold the green registration card that will get me on the bus if there is work to be had. The only jobs listed on the board today are cutting asparagus, and short-handled hoe work on tomatoes or beets. Asparagus is cut by crews and is a comparatively skilled job—much more desirable than such stoop labor as hoe work. But I've never done any asparagus cutting and so I have to take tomatoes or beets.

“Don't send anybody in who won't work short-handle hoe!” one of the three men behind the counter of the employment office shouts angrily after one of the workers has refused the job. Because short-handle hoe work is back-breaking and pays badly, there is often difficulty in finding enough men to fill the contractors' quotas.

“Beets or tomatoes, Paul?” asks the young man at the desk. I choose tomatoes, even though they pay only $1.00 an hour as against $1.10 for beets. But beets, I know, are much harder to work.

By 5:15 A.M. the big yard next door is jammed with men waiting to be assigned to a contractor's bus. Only one or two of the huge California farms do their hiring directly; most of the others deal with the labor contractors who set a flat price for supplying the workers to handle a particular job. The contractor then pays the workers out of this flat fee, naturally keeping enough for himself to make a profit. Some of the contractors are decent employers, but some are known as chiselers, to be avoided if at all possible. Even so, the difference between the best and the worst is only a matter of small degree; most farm workers are subjected to conditions long banished from modern industry.

More than half the men in the loading yard are Mexicans. Somehow, their Spanish sounds more educated than the English of the whites and Negroes greeting their friends and talking about how they made out yesterday. One slightly tipsy Negro is jumping around playing a guitar very badly; the more everyone ignores him, the harder he strives to get their attention. The asparagus crews are the first to be assigned to buses; they all have cheap plastic goggles on their hats which they will later use to keep the heavy dust out of their eyes. Finally, from the back end of the yard I see a contractor coming for my group. He is recognizable immediately by his baseball cap, his leather jacket, his boots and, most of all, his assured manner. He stops to kibitz a bit with the man from the employment office, and it becomes obvious that the relationship between them is much different from the one each of them has with us. Even though we farm workers are formally the clients of the state employment service, the real clients are the contractors, for they are permanent while we are only temporary; we are dependent upon both of them; and besides, they are social equals and we are their social inferiors. It is to the contractor, who needs it least, and not to the worker, who needs it most, that the state gives the benefit of its publicly supported employment service: the state is the instrument that provides the contractors with a good income and the growers with a pool of extremely cheap labor.

_____________

We board an old bus, painted blue, with the name of the contractor stenciled on the outside. In front of me, two Mexicans are chatting in Spanish, and across from them another Mexican sits alone. There are also eight other men in the bus—three Negroes and five whites, including myself. We sit and doze in the chill dark air, and then, at 6:00 A.M., when the buses in front of us start leaving the lot, our driver, who is Mexican, comes back with six more workers—three young white men, a Negro, and two Mexicans. Only one of the group, I notice, is wearing glasses. A few minutes later, we swing out of the lot and drive out on the highway.

By this time it is daylight and I can see the interior of the bus more clearly. On the dashboard is stenciled “Speed Limit 45 MPH,” the maximum speed the state law allows farm buses to travel. I know these buses are supposed to be inspected by the state, but this one must have had its inspection a long time ago. The rear-view mirror is broken in half and the speedometer doesn't work at all. On the floor is a fire extinguisher, but it doesn't appear to be in very good working order either. Next to the driver is a large old-fashioned milk can filled with water. Once we get on the highway, the driver starts speeding, and we go barreling along until the contractor catches up to us in his pickup truck and signals the driver to stop. The driver gets out and I hear the contractor tell him in Spanish to slow down because the police are on the highway.

The driver gets back in the bus and begins going more slowly. But soon he is accelerating again, and in a few minutes we are moving at about the same speed as before. Some thirty-five minutes later, we turn off the highway and drive another three or four miles to a huge field with tomato plants growing in long straight furrows. Leaving our lunches on the seats, we file out of the bus, and the driver hands each of us a brand new hoe, about fifteen inches long with a head that is set back at an angle toward the handle.

In the field waiting for us is the contractor, talking with a stocky Nisei in his early forties. The Nisei tells us, in perfect English, to thin out the plants which are now about three inches high and growing close together. We are to chop out the row, leaving only one or two of the plants in each cluster, nipping off the weeds growing around them, and making sure that there is a space of from four to nine inches between the remaining plants. We station ourselves at every other furrow so that when we get to the end of the field, each of us can come back along the next row.

To chop at the tomato plants with a fifteen-inch hoe requires bending over almost double, and in only a few minutes, the sweat is pouring down my face. I soon fall behind almost all of the workers in the field: the end of the furrow seems a million miles away, and it takes me a half hour to get there. The bus driver, who is now acting as straw boss, keeps an impatient eye on me. He complains that I am not thinning the plants enough, and he tries to show me how to move my feet so that I can stay bent over. But the Nisei foreman tells me to take my time and do the job properly. As I get to the end of the row, the muscles in my back, thighs, and calves ache from the strain. Working my way back on the next furrow, I am acutely conscious of the straw boss watching and checking on me. By now, I am streaming sweat and in agony from the bending over. In the next furrow, an elderly man is working almost as slowly as I am, muttering to himself, “This here work's too hard, this here work's too hard.”

“You ever done this kind of work before?” I ask him. “Sure,” he answers, “I never done nothin' but farm work all my life, but this here's too hard. I'm too old to be bending over like this.” Then, as I watch, he opens his pants and begins to urinate, never breaking the rhythm of his work, one hand hoeing, the other holding his organ with the urine dribbling through his fingers and down onto his pants.

And so the day moves on, with the sun rising in the sky and the heat rising in the field. The furrows extend into an eternity of tiny tomato plants and dirt, and the short-handled hoe is an instrument of torture. At last we take a break for lunch, after which a few of the men walk out into the field to defecate, scraps of newspaper stuck in their back pocket. Then hoeing again until shortly before four, when we quit and are driven a few miles to the labor camp, a small group of battered shacks in which crews are housed when they are working by the week. We line up at the contractor's office and are paid eight dollars for the day.

_____________

On the drive back to town the men talk more than they have all day, mostly about which bar serves the best beer for the money. In front of me, there is a discussion of how to beat the blood bank system. Selling blood is a good way to supplement your income. The only problem is that you can't give blood more than once every few months, and the date on which you sell the blood is marked on your fingers in ink that becomes visible under fluorescent light and won't wash off even with strong detergents. But one of the men has discovered that you can erase the ink by rubbing tobacco very, very hard over your fingers for a long time.

The bus stops on the street where the farm labor office is located, and we pile out. All around us, buses and trucks are pulling in to discharge their cargoes. Some of the men head for their rooms to wash off the dust and dirt; others make for a bar to get a beer or two first. Then there is the lamb-stew dinner again, and again the walk along the streets, the stopping on corners, the surveillance by the police, and maybe, if a couple of guys get together, the buying of a “jug” to knock off before bed. At 4:00 A.M., the work day will start again.

If you want to and have the strength to make it, you can go out to the fields six days a week and earn $48.00. Stoop labor is available in California for eight or nine months of the year, so you might, putting in six days a week, earn up to $1700—$600 more than the average wage of a farm worker in 1962. If you get sick, you earn nothing, and when the work season is over, you receive no unemployment insurance. Thus eventually you have to move on to another town, looking for another job which offers exactly the same conditions. And since you can never save enough to escape from Skid Row, it is easy to slip just a notch or two down to the bum level. At $1.00 an hour for back-breaking labor performed under the worst physical conditions, what possible incentive is there to work?

All this—when the government subsidizes crops and livestock, and when it has been estimated that doubling the wages of stoop labor might increase the retail price of tomatoes by a penny a can or a pound.

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