What was the worst job you ever had?
The clean-up crew had their radios tuned to the local station from 6 p.m. until we heard the call to report. We listened for the familiar jingle (“From the valley of the Jolly Ho-ho-ho Green Giant”)and then a blaring horn would announce “Clean up crew report at 10 p.m. 10 p.m.!”
I put on my rubber boots, canary-yellow rubber overalls, matching overcoat and hat, and tucked my rubber gloves in a pocket. I looked like a hybrid of a firefighter and gale-worthy lobsterman.
The pea pack was unpredictable. Trucks dumped harvested peas in the early morning, and the canning crew worked until the peas were tinned. Then the clean-up crew came in, to work the overnight shift so the process could start fresh the next morning. We didn’t have fixed hours, because it depended on how long it took to cook and can the peas on any given day.
My job was to climb into a two-story vat where the peas were cooked, one of several vats in the vat room. The high-pressure hose was wound around my shoulder, and for the next hours, I would hold the hose and aim spray at the inside of the vat, chasing peas into grates and drains. The vat had a ring of scum from cooking the peas and it all smelled like a thousand cans of peas, like industrial-strength pea soup permeating the building. It was overwhelming at first, but one acclimates.
The cardinal sin was dropping the hose. The high-pressure hose would snake and dance as if alive, aiming water in all directions. You had to catch it and control it. Despite your shiny yellow garb, you were soaked to the skin. It was a nor’easter gale of water, all night long.
I had signed up for the clean-up crew because they made the most money. I was a student looking to rack up savings over the summer.
The foreman was a hated figure who walked around and barked at us. I could never understand what he was saying, above the din, but it was his job to supervise and it was our role to resent him.
The vats were shaped like timpani drums.
It was like working inside a timpani drum. There was no idle conversation with the other one or two people in your area. There was the sound of the hoses, the shouts of the foreman, the ringing of the stream of water in the vat.
I went home exhausted as the sun was coming up, arms weary from holding the hose. I slept dreaming of whirled peas, swimming in peas, smelling like peas.
The pea pack lasted through June. Not every day was a canning day, depending on harvest and deliveries. We were to listen to the radio until 11 p.m. or so. One night, after the appointed time, I headed out to a party and late-night, a rare break.
The next shift the foreman came up to me, nose-to-nose. “You didn’t report in last night!”
I claimed to have listened to the radio until 11 o’clock, or thereabouts.
“You listen until you hear the sign-off that there is no pea-pack, or when to come in!”
I’d missed a late call.
I didn’t like someone yelling in my face. Party or work was the choice I faced.
“I quit!” I shouted back. I happily walked back to the locker room, stripped off my canary yellow suit, and left for home. Suddenly, maximizing summer earnings didn’t seem worth it. I would happily scoop ice cream or some other student job for minimum wage.
I realize, now, I had the entitled luxury of quitting when piqued. The farmworkers who picked the peas did not. The many factory workers did not choose to like their shifts or their work, or choose to quit.
It was a short-lived job, but good for stories. Oh, and I haven’t eaten one canned pea since.
Writers had a recent prompt about retiring, which lead me to think about the worst job I had. From the privileged viewpoint of retirement, it’s a story from a long time ago about why I hate canned peas.
And the realization that for me, the worst job is just a story, not a life.