Wage Slavery 11: Weed Picker

When last we left the WildeRix, he ushered us in. Let’s see what happens next…

After working for the Ford Center for a few months, my wife and I started to realize that we still didn’t make enough money to make the ends meet.  Even with both of us working the full 8 shows per week and getting the overtime bonus for working both shows on Sunday.  So we set out to find second jobs.  We scoured the classifieds in the Village Voice, cursing ourselves for not having experience as a hairdresser or line cook (which seemed to offer the most opportunities.)  Then all of the sudden, I saw a new ad that seemed to scream out my name:

FLOWER HARVESTING — Energetic outdoor person Mon & Tues, to cut flowers. Long hours out of city. Trans provided. Drive lic req.

I had always considered myself a sort of amateur herbologist, wandering around forests and pastures with a field guide in hand, eating berries I find in the wild, bringing home bundles of herbs to dry for making tea.  I had felt pretty comfortable back in Arkansas, knowing where to find wild sumac or muscadine grapes. but in Manhattan, I had found it harder to feel as “rixic” as before — traipsing around the woods.

Not that Manhattan doesn’t have woods.  I used to think it didn’t, but it might surprise you how many places on that 12-mile island of skyscrapers make a habitat for wild things to grow.  I had explored the parks around where we lived, enjoying Morningside Park just to the east of our apartment and Riverside Park to the west — not to mention Central Park with over 800 acres of trees and fields and lakes.

I found lots of species in New York that I had known back in Arkansas — like the red and white mulberry trees in Morningside Park or the elderberry bushes by the tennis courts in Riverside Park — but for every wild plant I could identify, I found 50 more that I couldn’t.  So, when I saw the ad in the paper, I thought “What an awesome way to get to know some of the flora of this region, and I’ll get paid for it, too.”

I called the number in the ad and left my message, but I didn’t hear back for weeks, and I thought that the opportunity had slipped away from me.  Then on Friday, I got a call from the man who had placed the ad about harvesting flowers.  He said that he had just hired 2 new harvesters, but he didn’t expect them to work out very well, and he wondered if I still felt interested in working for him.  Needless to say, I did.

The man told me that he had friends in northern New Jersey who own land and let him come up throughout the year to cut wildflowers that he would then sell to various stores throughout Manhattan.  Apparently he did very well with this business because he offered me $130 per day and had done this kind of work for something like 30 years.  So harvesting wildflowers for this guy just 2 days a week (Monday & Tuesday, as the ad said) would almost offer me as much as I made at the Ford Center working 8 shows per week.  I felt excited over this chance to double my income working only two long days a week (and I’d only have to miss one show per week at the Ford Center since no shows played on Monday night,) and best of all I would get to do something I love and have yearned for.

I even glossed over the weird questions the guy asked me during our phone interview.  Some of them made sense like, “Do you exercise much?”  Of course, if he wants people who won’t pass out under the strain of a 14-hour work day out in some field.  But when he asked about my education history, things got weird.

“So, you’re religious?” he asked, in relation to the fact that I have a degree in Biblical Studies.

“Not like I used to be,” I explained.

“But is your family religious?  Do you have like certain traditions you have to follow?”

What the fuck? I wondered.

“Uhm, I don’t understand why that’s important for harvesting wildflowers,” I said.

Eventually, he explained that he felt worried about having someone who had to wear dark clothes working out in the hot sun all day.  And I figured out the mental picture in his head of a Hasidic Jew in traditional black attire.

“Yeah, even when I was religious, I was just a Baptist,” I explained.  “They don’t wear special clothes.  Plus I’m not even that religious anymore, so don’t worry about the religious thing.”

Once we got all that cleared up, the man said he definitely felt interested in hiring me, but he wanted to give his new hires one more chance to prove their mettle, and if they didn’t work out, the he would call me.  He even said that if things didn’t go well with Monday’s harvest, he would call me Monday night to work for him on Tuesday.

He didn’t call that Monday night, however, or during the rest of the next week.  When the new week rolled around, I slept with my cell phone by my pillow just in case he might call me at 6 AM to come in and work at 7.  But the phone never rang.  I didn’t want to give up on the chance, but I didn’t know what else I could do to land the job.  I had sold myself well over the phone, but if he decided to keep the fellows he had already hired, then I had to accept that and start looking elsewhere.

So I went back to the Village Voice and applied at 3 different restaurants, 2 car services that needed phone operators, a pedicab company, a couple of marketing firms that needed data entry personnel, and the one temp agency that had gotten me any work since I had come to the city 8 months before.  The pedicab company called me back, but after a look around Times Square at all the empty pedicabs, I thought it might mean a lot of work for not much pay-off.

Then on Friday, June 14, 2002, I got another call.  I thought that maybe one of the marketing firms wanted to hire me, but I heard the voice of the flower guy on the other end.  He fired one of the other workers and wanted to know if I still felt interested.  I had a hard time trying to tell him just how interested I felt without sounding like a complete geek.  I wanted to say, “Are you crazy?  I’ve been checking out books on New Jersey wildflowers from the library and surfing the web for all the herbological websites I can find!”  But managed to keep it down to, “I’ve been ready since last weekend.”

The cobblestones of the Meat Packing DistrictThe next Monday, I took the subway down to the Meat Packing District, a tiny little Manhattan neighborhood sandwiched between Chelsea and the West Village making its transition from industry to hip hot spot.  I walked the cobblestones of Gansevoort Street, past the tranny hookers hoping to make some pre-business-day money, and came to a bar called Hell.  The flower guy rented out the cooler under Hell to store his wildflowers in until he could deliver them to the florists in the City.  When I got to Hell, I introduced myself to the crew:  a Vietnamese fellow named Khuong, and a Caucasian from out of town named John — both around college age — and the flower guy himself named Cliff.

As I mentioned, Cliff had started this business 30 years previous at the age of 30.  His hearing had gone bad, and he wore a hearing aid, but he abhorred those hard-of-hearing folks that raised their voices in order to hear themselves, so he always spoke in a quiet manner — even when driving at highway speeds with the windows down.  Having done this work for so long, he felt like he knew better than anybody how to do it, and consequently didn’t appreciate any of us trying to correct him.

So when I showed up in the kind of clothes that I would have worn to go foraging in (a ball cap, jeans, hiking sneakers and a tee shirt), Cliff immediately took issue with me.  We had to pilfer around in his store of supplies to find some work boots, a straw hat, a long sleeve shirt, and some gloves in order for me to wear.  He showed me the crate in the back of the van we would take out to New Jersey that I had to store my things in, and I started to realize that this guy had probably spent too many summers out in the sun.  Eventually, I discovered that his peculiarity went beyond eccentricism and bordered on OCD — especially when he explained about how he only buys brands of shampoo and conditioner that match his bathroom tiles and removes the labels so they don’t distract from the look.

Khuong had worked for him before and knew the ropes.  John had come on board a few weeks previous and had started getting the hang of things.  Since I had just started, they stuck me with Cliff as we loaded up into the two vans to ride out to the fields.  I think, also, that Cliff wanted to give me his spiel and size me up on the trip.

He said that he worried about the fact that I had a college degree, that I would bail on him before the season ended, and that he would end up either short-handed or having to scrounge around for help to finish out the season.

“I can’t tell you enough,” I explained, “how much I want this job.”  I tried to convey to him how I had grown up in the country, had worked on a cattle ranch, had spent time foraging in the fields and hills of Arkansas and that I really yearned for that kind of experience again.  He didn’t believe me.

“No, you’re destined for bigger things.  You’re going to find some office job, something befitting your education and abandon me.”

“Well, I haven’t found that job yet,” I corrected him.  “I definitely plan on sticking around through the season.”

When we got out into the first field, though, I started to wonder about this guy’s sanity.  He explained to me how he wanted the phragmites cut, how to gather the reeds into a bunch in my hand and hack at the bases with the box cutter knife and stack them up into piles.  But somehow, I just didn’t get it right in his eyes.  And Khuong and John didn’t really help much either.  John, it turned out, hadn’t done enough of this to offer any advice, and Khuong just didn’t care.  So I spent the first morning, slaving away under the summer sun trying to figure out how not to lose this job.

View of the Empire State from the New Jersey TransitWhile the three of us cut phragmites, Cliff took one of the vans to go scout out the next harvest site.  I took some time to look around at my surroundings to try to scout for plants I knew.  I eventually figured out that we hadn’t come very far from the City.  You could still see the Empire State building from the field where we worked.  Also, I realized that I wouldn’t want to eat any of the plants in this field.

“Where are we, Khuong,” John asked.

“I don’t know.  Somewhere in Rutherford, I think.  Cliff just calls this the Toxic Field,” Khuong replied.

“Toxic?” I asked.

“Yeah, they’re like trying to suck chemicals out of the soil here or something, “Khuong explained as he pointed out the places in the field where PVC pipes dipped down into the ground.

I guess I won’t eat any of these plants, I thought to myself, and I went back to cutting the reeds.

Cliff eventually came back and had to sort through my bundles of reeds before we loaded them into the van in 5 gallon buckets of water laced with a capful of bleach.  Then we moved on to the next spot where we cut curly dock out of a field that would get mowed the next day.

This field of dock looked more like what I expected.  It sat on the edge of a hill, overlooking a hay meadow across the road, nestled in the New Jersey Highlands.  It reminded me a lot of the Ozarks in terrain, but with establishments dating back to the 1600’s and with a vastly different cultural mix.  You won’t find bagels and schmear at a random gas station in the Ozarks, but you can everywhere in Vernon, New Jersey.

We stopped for our lunch break while harvesting the dock, and I got a chance to get to know the other two workers some.  Khuong pointed out Cliff’s hearing disability and demonstrated its handiness by making several disparaging comments about Cliff.

“Isn’t that right, Cliff?” Khuong shouted after he had finished berating him.

“Huh?” Cliff responded.

“I said, Are we going to keep working in this field all day?” Khuong lied.

“No, we’ll get some cattails after this.”

Cattails?!  I thought.  My heart perked up at this.  I had known for a long time one could eat cattails, but I had never had the chance to try them for myself.  I kept my spirits up through the rest of the time in the dock field, anxious for a chance to see the plant that Euell Gibbons called the Supermarket of the Swamps.

Also, on that first day, I started a tradition for myself of taking a dump while out working in the fields.  I had forgotten the amazing sensation of feeling the wind on your ass while you pinch a loaf outside.  I wiped with the large, hairy leaves of burdock growing in the fence row that provided me privacy from my coworkers.  Aside from mullein, burdock and sycamore make the best wiping leaves in my opinion, for their size, sturdiness and gripping action.

Incidentally, burdock bears no relation to curly dock, despite the “dock” in their names.  The word dock, originally meaning “to cut,” simply developed the meaning of “weed” in the old country and thus has become part of the common names of various weeds.

Eventually, we loaded all our curly dock into the buckets in the back of the van and headed to the cattail swamp.  We had to walk for about half a mile along railroad tracks, carrying our supplies, to get to the marshy swamp where we would harvest.  If you have never walked a half mile of railroad track in someone else’s floppy rubber boots, then you probably can’t quite understand how much physical distraction I overcame simply at the thought of getting to know a new plant.

The little marsh Cliff took us to did not have an overabundance of cattails, so we had to harvest selectively.  But it did give me my first glimpse of what now counts as one of my favorite plants.  Some of them had already started developing their woody flower stalks which would eventually produce the male and female inflorescence.  These we avoided, as we merely wanted to harvest the long, sword-like leaves to sell to florists.

Had I known the edibility of cattails at the moment, I would have seen many plants in prime state for foraging.  The weeks surrounding the summer solstice provide the entire spectrum of edibility for these plants: the young shoots, the just-blooming male flower heads, the mature male flowers that have progressed to pollen.  But even if I had known all that at the time, I still would not have eaten plants growing along side a railroad track where the railroad companies spray to kill back the flora, where creosote from the ties seeps into the soil, where diesel exhaust drifts down to settle on the nearby leaves.

Instead, I merely observed — with my eyes and my nose and my hands.  I got to know the plants, trying to soak up as much familiarity as I could.  I had cut shoulder loads of three different species on my first day out, and I took all that knowledge home with me to pour over my field guides and try to funnel it into a wisdom about these plants.  This started a cycle for me of cutting and reading and foraging as I could.  The next day, I started taking my field guides with me out on our trips, to spend the several hours worth of driving time, developing my familiarity with the plants even more.

Khuong and John found me eccentric.  Cliff finally started to realize that I loved this kind of work and stopped worrying about me abandoning him.  And I kept growing in my knowledge of each new plant we put under our little box knife blades.

On the second day, I tasted cattail flowers and fell in love — although they left my mouth a little dry.  And on later trips I spent many days in different marshes all over the northern end of the Garden State, drinking in the smell and feel and sound of these mild, friendly plants.  We cut ox-eye daisies; various species of goldenrod and loosestrife; a type of tall, woody clover; catnip; feral oregano; and whole van loads of phragmites and cattails.  I also found for myself a few patches of spearmint and a veritable forest of staghorn sumac.

The other guys mocked my obsession with the plants, but they also showed a secret interest.  They appreciated the mint that I found, but scoffed at eating cattails.  And every day we brought our vans back to the City, with the sun setting behind us and glaring its fiery light off the spires of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State as we passed Giants Stadium and joined the throng of traffic funnelling into the Lincoln Tunnel.

Our vans bounced on the smelly cobbles of Gansevoort Street as we returned to Hell each night to unload our harvest into the cooler below.  We had to fight our way through the crowd of gay men and their hags who flocked to the Meat Packing District: their night still felt young, but our day had grown old.  We descended through the sidewalk stairs with five-gallon buckets brimming with botanical bounty, ducking our heads to avoid the plumbing that emptied Hell’s toilets and hobbling our way into the cooler that preserved our cache.

On Mondays and Tuesdays we cut in the fields of New Jersey.  On Wednesdays, Cliff would take one of us out to drive the second van and deliver the flowers all over Manhattan.  I never knew how much Cliff charged for his flowers, but I could tell that his business had lost its momentum.  For thirty years he had raked in a profit, but now he struggled to keep up with his overhead.  He lived in a rent controlled apartment in the Village where his landlord desperately wanted to get rid of him in order to have the chance to finally raise the price up to market value.  He had to garage and maintain his fleet of vans (the two we drove out most days, plus a couple of older backups.)  He had to rent his cooler below Hell and the storage space above it (where the boxes of boots and waders, gloves and shirts, rubber bands and buckets lived).  And he had to pay three workers a hefty $130 per day to cut and haul his harvest.  Also, he had to buy off land owners and various officials who caught us trespassing on their land (which explained why he really didn’t want somebody slogging through fields in obvious Hasidic attire.)

For all I know, 2002 might have marked Cliff’s last year in the fields of New Jersey.  He talked every now and again about retiring to the Hamptons and buying a refreshment cart to take advantage of the summer tourism out there.  As the season wore on, he couldn’t afford to pay all three of us each week, so he would cycle us out.  John would take days off to organize his LP collection after a weekend of DJ-ing, Khuong would take time off just to get away from Cliff, and I would try to pick up an extra shift at the theatre.

By the time September rolled around, I had more worry about Cliff bailing on me than he had about me bailing on him.  Eventually, I decided to fulfill his prophecy, and went back to the Village Voice.  I kept in touch with Khuong via email for a while.  And I stopped by John’s place in Bed-Stuy once for a dime bag.  But I never saw Cliff again.  I still have jars full of dried catnip that I harvested while working for him, though.

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