Recently at my job a fellow server mentioned that the fall weather was making her want to go to the apple orchards. There are a couple orchards in this area that are buzzing in the fall with activities like hay rides and orchard tours. You can pick a fresh apple off a tree and buy cider in the gift shop. I remember going to these places when I was a kid. It was always a good time. But I realized while listening to her speak of her upcoming visit that after living in Washington, I now look at the orchards in a very different way.
The area of Washington that my family moved to when I was fifteen survived almost solely on apples. I could hardly believe my eyes as we drove to the town for the first time. The final three hours of the drive we were in apple country. On each side of the highway and all up the Okanogan Valley there are millions of fruit trees, most being every variety of apples you have heard of and then some. There are also cherry trees, peach trees, pear trees, etc.
Within the first few days of living in the town I begged someone to take me to an orchard so I could see one up close. And I was looked at as though I had just asked permission to shove raw spaghetti in my nasal cavities. I had not yet understood that this was not a novelty for them.
In the fall the scent of fruit is in the air all the time. I highly doubt apple scented shampoo is popular for those people. My parents owned the town grocery store at the time. We always had apples stocked in the produce section, but they usually went bad before they sold.
The orchards to the people there are seen as work. Money. Livelihood. They are not seen as forms of entertainment. It’s difficult to run into someone in these towns who has not owned or worked in an orchard or one of the apple sheds. Apple sheds are the places the trucks take the apples to be sorted boxed and shipped. For a short time I worked in one of these sheds, and I have to say, it was the hardest money I have ever earned.
During the busy time of the year the sheds like to run as many hours as possible. So there are two crews that work. Each crew works 3 ½ days a week. A full day is considered thirteen hours. I went to work at seven in the morning and took my place at a stand along the conveyor belt. I was a packer. Ahead of me in line were the sorters. Their job was to look through the apples, turning them to see all sides, and toss the fruit with bruises and the ones that looked inedible into a bin. If you don’t want to know where your apple juice comes from, don’t use your imagination. After the gross fruit is put aside the rest works it’s way down where it is separated by size. The size of apples ranges from around 140 to 50. The number being the amount of fruit that can fit into a box. So, a 70 size apple is huge compared to a 120.
I would take an apple off the belt with my right hand and move my right hand to my left. With my left hand I would grab the apple out of my right hand and finally place the fruit into a box neatly and orderly. Got that? That was just an annoying way of saying I PUT APPLES INTO BOXES FOR THIRTEEN HOURS AT A TIME.
I worked in the shed about a month. I hated every moment of it. I had plenty of time to soak in all of my surroundings. We reported to work when a whistle blew and our breaks were made known to us in the same way. I couldn’t understand the women that did this and had been doing it for twenty years or more. One lady in particular, named Hazel, had been working their since she graduated high school. Hazel was the fastest packer in the shed. This actually does mean something as you are paid per box. She made around 11 dollars an hour. I made minimum wage. I stunk. My supervisor more than once told me to pack more carefully as I was bruising the fruit and apparently one bad apple DOES ruin the whole bushel.
Every morning I arrived there greeted by my co-workers who were drinking Folgers with non-dairy creamer out of Styrofoam cups. They were tightening their wrist braces and loading their bodies up with enough Advil to numb the carpel tunnel until mid morning break. At lunch they either went home to throw in a load of laundry or they heated up a bowl of Maruchan Ramen in the break room’s microwave. Finally at 8pm after the day was finally over we went home.
My first few days I went home at night I would crash immediately. I was so tired from the boredom. In my bed I would dream about filling boxes. All night long. I felt as though I was working twenty four hours a day.
There were men that worked in the shed as well. Men drove forklifts, lifted boxes and place them elsewhere, and were in general, the bosses. There were mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives working side by side. This was the way that many people survived and it was all they had every known.
I got hired at a local diner at the time I quit working here. And I was so grateful for that new job. But now I just cannot look at apples like most do. Whenever I am in the grocery I look at the produce closely to see if any of the PLU stickers are from the shed that I worked in. And I would buy it if it were. And I would think of Hazel.