Continued from Modesto, first look
We left Yosemite Park and returned to Modesto: after taking in the view from Glacier Point, mingling with very friendly écureuils, and driving through a giant sequoia it was time to get back to civilization and get ready for work. We were settling in Modesto for a few weeks to fulfill one of our business school requirements: we had to work for one month en usine, performing blue-collar tasks. Some of our friends had done seasonal work in California canneries during previous summers and we had a visa that authorized us to be employed. The procedure was straight forward: show up, sign up, and wait to be called. Hence the importance of having a domicile fixe and a phone number.
We drove to the apartment we had agreed to rent a few days before only to find out the manager no longer wanted us to be tenants: she had called the cannery and realized we would be leaving after a month. Que faire? We had to find another place. We hooked up with other students: they were renting an apartment on Paradise Road and another unit was available. We rushed over there to check it out and it was perfect: spacious and furnished, with laundry facilities and a swimming pool! Only ten minutes from the cannery with our Torino! It would truly be paradise.
A couple of days later, I was starting my first shift as a sorter: basically, I spent eight hours standing in front of a moving belt carrying loads of tomatoes. My job was to look for and remove any fruit that exhibited black mold and to discard anything that did not meet the definition of tomato: weeds, soda cans, small animals, etc. Since tomatoes were harvested by giant aspirateurs, everything that was present in the field would get sucked in. I must say it was the hardest job I ever had. Although I was assigned to the morning shift, August temperatures routinely reached 95ºF and the sorters’ lines were set outside, under a metal roof. Standing in one place for eight hours was uncomfortable and staring at tomatoes continuously moving before my eyes was making me dizzy and mildly seasick. To add insult to injury, my supervisor was not very impressed by my performance and kept urging me to “try to be a little faster with your hands.”
After a couple of days, she thankfully moved me to another position (clean up duties) and we eventually became good friends. We chatted during lunch and breaks; she had three French students working in her shift and she was curious about our native country and our travel plans after our stage. One day she asked me where we were staying; I happily shared our address on Paradise Road. She was absolutely horrified. Unbeknownst to us, our “paradisiac” apartment was located in one of the worst neighborhoods. In fact, a dead body had been found in our dumpster the week before we moved in! I’m happy to report that none of us got killed or maimed. We didn’t interact with our neighbors very much (we worked 6 days a week) but I’ll never forget that day in August 1977 when Elvis died: everybody seemed to congregate outside their apartments in disbelief and talk about what The King meant to them. Of course, all the radio stations were playing his songs. For some reason, it felt like the end of an era; we were not Americans but I felt we were all sharing a significant moment.
We spent four weeks on Paradise Road while working at the cannery. Tomato is still one of my favorite foods. I discovered turkey lunch meat, American cheese, and Mexican salsa. My coworkers looked at me with amusement at first but, eventually, took me into their fold and brought me plums, figs, and peaches from their gardens. They even threw a mini lunch party on our last day at work, bringing home-made sweets and cookies. As we were getting ready for our big road trip across the United States, I said goodbye to my supervisor. Five years later, she became my belle-mère…
En usine: in a factory
Le domicile fixe: lit. a permanent home, a residence
Que faire: what to do
L’aspirateur: vacuum cleaner
Le stage: internship
La belle-mère: mother-in-law. Also, stepmother