Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday road trip up the King's Highway

The bills come more quickly than the money.

Never is this more obvious than during the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, I have $10.35 in my bank account and feel terrible. I have some money coming, not enough to cover bills, too late for buying gifts.

I get paid for a week's worth of farm labor and buy cookies and berries at the market, a bag of green for a friend's Christmas stocking, and a full tank of gas for the drive up to King City.

I have enough left over to pay the phone bill, and maybe buy another tank of gas. I'll need it to get to the farm, where I can earn more money in the days to come. Meanwhile, I try to enjoy the holiday.

There's nothing like having cash in my pocket to spook away the depression that comes with an empty bank account. Not enough cash to do anything with, but enough to hand over to Amber.

She deserves it, more than anyone. I owe her big time.

I'll spend a night or two with her family in King City, where she grew up, Steinbeck country. I'm glad to be on the road, alone for two hours, taking in the view of the Salinas Valley, driving north along the King's Highway.

The Salinas River flashes between sycamores and willows as my rusty 1986 Toyota truck pushes 60 mph up the highway, along the western bank of the river. Except for the occasional rattle of a broken muffler system, the truck hums smoothly.

I travel, as usual, on a wing and a prayer.

If my truck breaks down, I reason, this is the best time of the year for it to happen. Passersby full of the holiday spirit will make sure I arrive in time for dinner at the in-laws, I tell myself.

Or, as in a holiday movie, I'll re-discover life's magic and mystery, and at the very least make new friends, or even elevate myself to a new station in life.

Live free, don't worry; that's the holiday message I've created for myself. What else can I do? Fretting just makes things worse.

This reasoning lessens my anxiety about traveling long distance in a less-than-road-worthy motor vehicle. I've got a cell phone handy. I can call for help. I've even got a supply of blackberries to eat, herb to smoke-enough keep the blues away for a day or two.

Then, as if on cue, out of the darkness-this is how my mind works-comes an image of a Christmas psychopath ruining my brief vacation by putting a bullet into the back of my head as I'm hunched over the engine, trying to figure out what's wrong….

I don't dwell on the psychopath thing, which occurs whenever I get too sentimental about people's good intentions or the universe's beneficence. “The universe will supply you with all that is required for you to meet your needs,” I've been told.

Yeah, that's what Santa Claus is all about, right?

It sounds great in theory, I allow, but how do you explain random violence and acts of cruelty? What great “Secret” or law of attraction is at play in a suicide bomber's intent to kill hundreds of unsuspecting victims?

The world simply isn't what we, or Hollywood, imagine it to be.

An oversized family truck, hauling an even larger camping trailer lumbers up behind me like an enormous sea-going vessel bearing down on a life raft held together with twine and duct tape.

I observe the truck and trailer running at full steam like an ocean liner in my rearview mirror; a young couple sits high in the cab of their truck as their rig rocks gently between the lane lines. The driver peers into his side view mirror, switches on his turn signal, and moves into the next lane to pass me.

The enormous family rig overshadows my small non-descript truck and passes me on the left. The couple don't even bother to look my way, their faces set on the road before them.

The fast lane is strictly off limits for me, I've decided. The holiday traffic on this rural stretch of highway moves steadily but faster than the 70 mph speed limit. I can always tell when people are speeding; at 80 mph, I see only the flash of color of a passing car out of my peripheral vision.

I have to carefully time their passing and turn my head to see what's going by me.

Fine Lincolns and Mercedes loaded down with suitcases, gifts and holiday goodies zoom past in flashes, heading for the Bay Area. Even trucks pass without hesitation. I'm the only driver on the highway traveling 60 mph.

It's a stunning clear and bright California Christmas afternoon, the skies swept of recent grey drizzle, the air fresh with the fecund odor of oak and wet grass and decaying leaves.

I travel with my window down and breathe in the air. It's chilly in the valley, even with the sun shining bright.

Honestly, I'd rather be on the river smoking a joint, sitting by a fire and drinking something warm. It's a hobo fantasy and I have no desire to be a hobo.

I just want the cool quiet of the river, the leafy rustling of wind in the trees, and a blazing fire at my feet, where I can forget about money woes, buying gifts and road rigs large enough to house young families.§

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Root-bound and drizzly

 As soon as it started to drizzle, Lorenzo turned to go home and said: “Mañana.”

“Mañana?” I looked up into the mist. The wetness felt refreshing on my face and beard, almost tropical. The new green grass on the hillside appeared grey and yellow through the drizzle. An hour past noon, the sun felt as though it might break through the mist any minute.

I held out my hand toward the hill. “It’s hardly raining, Lorenzo. It’s just a drizzle. Really? You’re going home?”

I thought he was joking with me, trying to pull a fast one. I saw that he was serious, his face questioning. “Lorenzo, I’m staying here until it gets too muddy or cold. If you need to go, that’s OK. I don’t want you getting sick.”

I’ve worked in worse weather; sat in a foxhole soaked to the bone from rain when the sky cleared and everything froze. Nothing to do but wrap myself in a poncho, rub my hands together and try to stay warm.

Ever since, a little rain seldom bothers me. I don’t mind the rain, as long I’m warm.

Lorenzo gazed up at the sky and gave a shrug, “OK.” He returned back to work with his brother-in-law, Aldofo, who was pulling the Jewel variety of blueberries out of their bags and redressing them.

The drizzle continued falling steadily. The ground glistened among flecks of white rye grass seed that had been spread between rows a few days earlier. I looked at the sleeves of my red flannel; an outbreak of little dark specks of rain appeared.

“It’s not that bad,” I said to Lorenzo, “when it gets bad, we’ll all go.” I wanted to get as much work done as possible.

Lorenzo and his crew  incorrectly placed nearly 300 or so plants into 5-gallon grow bags in September. We had just moved the most recent transplants into the northern corner of the field. They appear anemic, yellowed, as if choked, lacking vital nutrients. They need help.

When I first discovered their sad appearance earlier this week, I began pulling them randomly from their bags to see how many of them were root-bound. Every single one was balled up tightly, like an ingrown hairball.

Leaving them that way would have meant certain demise. The only thing to do, and I’m hoping it’s not too late, is to pull every yellowed, root-bound plant out of its bag, loosen the roots, and start them over again.

Steven, who owns the crop, wasn’t happy with re-doing more than 300 plants. It was a sore spot with him for at least an hour Sunday as he removed plants from their bags, loosened their roots, added nutrients, and put them back into their containers. It took the two of us nearly two hours to finish one row out of more than 10 that needed to be re-done.

Steven had cooled after the first row and we got into a rhythm. “Our new motto,” he said, “is no more fuck-ups.”

In so many words, a more experienced farmer told me that farming is nothing more than an ongoing series of fuck-ups. Three steps forward, two steps back, if you’re lucky.

I don’t like working Sundays. I was cranky and in no mood to argue. “Yeah, good motto.”

Damage control on the blueberries could have been avoided. I might have paid better attention to Lorenzo, who had forgotten, or neglected, to loosen the roots during the last phase of transplanting, about 500 plants, which we completed in October.

We had let them stay put for about four weeks before moving them into rows, allowing, we thought, the plants a chance to get somewhat established. Days after we finished setting up all 1,500 plants into rows, we detected the yellowing, spindly growth of the newest transplants. The northern edge of the field looked almost like a weed patch.

As we trim away the spindly growth, the plants actually show more vigor than was apparent at first. The remaining leaves appear green and healthy, some with pink buds, which we’ve been pinching off.

I’m hoping our effort will pay off. The plants, newly loosed, need to re-settle and re-establish a good root system. We may not get a harvest from them next season, but at least we can try to save them and give them another chance.

The episode left me more feeling more cautious about our workers. I demonstrated how to carefully loosen the bags, pull the plants from their containers and undo the root balls, which were shaped more like the original square 1-gallon containers from which they had come.

“You pull the corners like this,” I said, digging my thumb into each corner and pulling away the tangled roots. “Then massage between the corners, like this. OK?”

Aldolfo started into the next one, pulling, tugging and tearing. “Gentle,” I said. “Be gentle.” I took the plant into my hand. “Tease the roots out. Don’t pull and tear.” Aldolfo nodded his head. I watched him do a few more until I felt satisfied.

He and Lorenzo began working on the plants together. I observed them from a distance while adding mulch to the re-bagged plants. I watered and trimmed.

I went to tend the drip system, which is nearly completed on the southern half of the field. When I returned to check on Aldolfo, he was tugging hard on one of the plants, nearly pulling the stem out of the root ball.

“No, Aldolfo. Too much! Easy!”

I got on my knees and pushed on the sides of the bag, loosening the soil around the plant. He pulled it up easily, without struggle. “If it doesn’t wanna come out, it’s probably OK, it’s probably got a good root system. Leave it alone.”

We made good progress, finishing one row in just over an hour. They broke for lunch and soon after they returned it began to drizzle.

Five minutes had passed since I convinced Lorenzo to go back to work with his brother-in-law. The drizzle fell like a hard mist, not quite rain but wet.

“OK, mañana!” Lorenzo said, as he picked himself up and headed for the gate once more to go home. “The mist is more wet than rain.”

“I’ve never heard that before, Lorenzo. But if you say so; see you tomorrow.”

Aldolfo stayed and the drizzle fell hard for another 40 minutes before he too got up and said: “Mañana!” At one point, I turned to him and said: “I like this rain. It feels tropical, don’t you think, Aldolfo?”

He looked at me as if I had lost my senses. “No,” he said, “it’s cold.”

The field was starting to get muddy.

I went to sit in my truck, eat lunch and watch the drizzle turn into rain, and then stop completely. My feet were wet. I felt a chill. I could hear the drizzle returning as it fell on the leaves of the willows next to the creek. I started up the truck and drove home. §

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jesus the Badass

Jesus the badass. Shoots Santa Claus and bags a reindeer.

The neighbors aren't happy about Ron Lake's Christmas display in the front yard of his Nipomo home. Some find it offensive. Christians have trouble imagining Jesus with a gun; parents aren't pleased with a dead Santa Claus.

But Lake argues that too much commercialism has turned the holiday into one insufferable pain in the ass. He's right. Too bad his neighbors can't find the humor in the message. Jesus with a gun? That's hilarious. Dead Santa Claus? Praise Jesus!

KSBY News San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles - Controversial Christmas display has neighbors calling law enforcement

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lorenzo's Story

At 4:30 p.m., the sun dipped below the hillside, I started to wrap things up, putting away tools, covering up supplies (in case of rain), and scanning the blueberries to make sure I hadn’t left any plants exposed after a day of replanting.

In fact, I was re-bagging plants that needed care. The root balls hadn’t been properly loosened when they were initially placed into 5-gallon grow-bags in September. We hope the plants will thrive in these bags for the next year or two and produce good harvests.

For that to happen, however, the plants need a good start.

I noticed that recently many of the plants in the north end of the field, the ones most recently transplanted, appeared anemic, with yellow-green spindly growth, and unhealthy yellow leaves.

Elsewhere, the blueberries show the stout reddish growth of new canes that will support a good harvest in the spring. The healthier plants had been transplanted in May, were given the right start and had matured nicely into what we hope will be sturdy steady producers.

The difference between the healthy plants and the less healthy ones makes an unsettling contrast. Vibrant red against sickly yellow.

The difference could best be explained by the possibility that the roots of the weaker plants, never properly loosened, were tangled and root-bound.

Earlier today, I started pulling selections of the yellowish plants from their bags and, as I suspected, the root balls had never been loosened. Each was a tight, fuzzy red, 1-gallon square knot of roots.

“Shit!” I groaned, looking out over several hundred plants on the north side of the field, realizing that nearly all of them were similarly spindly, yellow, and in need of help.

I got angry with Lorenzo, whose job it was to massage the root balls and make sure they were properly loosened before placing them into the grow bags. I had shown him how. Maybe he forgot. Then, I got angry with myself for not watching him more closely.

I brought Lorenzo over to see the sad-looking plant and explained the problem. I held the ingrown root ball in my hand. “No bueno,” I said.

Steven, the owner of the blueberries, showed up shortly after and we went on a tour of the field. He got irritated. “Wasn’t it General Patton who said he didn’t like paying for the same real estate twice? What am I supposed to do, pay these guys to do the job over again?”

I couldn’t think what to say, “Another example of how a job done with care saves time in the end.”

Steven turned away and went looking for Lorenzo. “Let’s get it done,” he said over his shoulder. “Lorenzo! Hey, Lorenzo!” He gave Lorenzo an earful about blueberries, good growth versus bad growth, and doing the job right.

“OK?” he asked after the short lecture. “Let’s do it right.”

I was certain that Lorenzo must have thought that I ratted him out. I felt bad. It was as much my fault as it was his for not keeping a better eye on him.

I had shown him how to loosen the root ball and open the roots for transplanting. But I guess he had other ideas. So, there’s close to 200 or more plants that need to be re-bagged.

I’m hoping it won’t be too late; that we’ll get them treated in time to develop more roots and new healthy growth in the spring.

I’m not thrilled about pulling all those plants; it’s job security, if nothing else. Yet, each day it gets more critical to bring life back into their system, to put good color into next season’s new growth.

I’ll need Lorenzo’s help to get it done. I’m worried that he won’t do it right. I think about enlisting the support of his son, who has an easier time understanding me.

I like Lorenzo and he seems to like me. We talk but hardly understand each other, although, as time passes, I’m beginning to understand him more.

I don’t know why I never learned to speak Spanish, which is just as bad as not learning to speak English. In California, you really need to know both.

Lorenzo and his crew had already strolled up the dirt road, between the creek and orange grove, past the packinghouse, and across the loading area to their home to rest for the evening.

I didn’t expect to see them again until morning.

As the clouds turned pink, the sun dropped quickly, and the wind took on a chill in the long shadow of the hillside. Time to go home. I started for my truck when Lorenzo returned.

“You want a coke?” he asked pulling a can from his sweatshirt?

“Sure, Lorenzo. Thanks.”

He held up a half-full plastic bottle with an apple juice label and smiled, “This is my whiskey.”

Lorenzo likes to drink. I sat on the flat surface of a heavy duty Thermos lunch container; he took a seat on an upturned 5-gallon bucket.

He never offered the whiskey. “You like to smoke?” He reached into his sweatshirt once more and pulled out a box of cigarettes.

“No, not those, Lorenzo. Thanks anyway.”

“I only smoke when I drink,” he offered. “Cerveza, tequila.”

Lorenzo isn’t supposed to drink. He’s got diabetes. He nips from his apple-labeled whisky bottle, puffs his cigarette.

I think of breaking out the mota, but decide to wait for a better time, when I don’t need to be on the road.

He tells me he started working on the farm when he was 15. Back then he carried heavy pipe used to irrigate the field, three times in the day and three times at night. Lorenzo raises his arms over his head as if holding up a huge barbell.

The going was tough, he explained, pointing to his knees, raising them as if pulling his feet out of muck. His knees are too damaged to play soccer any more.

“How old are you now, Lorenzo?”


He looks much older. When I first met Lorenzo, I thought he was in his 60s. He has four children, two who speak proficient English and are attending the local junior college, and a preschooler and a fifth grader.

When the two older children were toddlers, he says, about 20 years ago, he worked 12-hour shifts driving a produce truck during harvest, making four deliveries every day, except Saturdays, two deliveries, and Sundays, just one delivery.

The farmer ran a crew of about 30 hands, he tells me, some who worked in the field harvesting peppers and squash, and others who kept the packinghouse busy.

Now, it’s much more quiet, he mourns. Not enough work.

“What happened to the peppers and squash?” I ask.

“No price,” Lorenzo says. The farmer can’t sell them.

He can’t work the way he did when he was younger, Lorenzo says. The hard work took a lot out of him, he admits. He drank a lot. The diabetes has forced him to cut back. He shouldn’t drink at all.

Working the fields all his life, he got only as far as third grade, he says. He doesn’t seem to mind. Tomorrow, he’s setting aside a couple of hours to prep 400 pounds of meat for a Mexican coming of age celebration at the Veterans Hall where a host of young people will dance and flirt and feast.

He says he’s lucky to have the work provided by the blueberries. Otherwise, at the farm at least, it’ll be a few months before he’s busy again.

It’s hard to imagine going that long without work. I’m not much different from Lorenzo. I’m lucky to have something too. §