I grew up in the Skagit Valley, and upgraded from my first real job, picking strawberries (which is pretty dirty itself, with all that kneeling in the mud), to the dirtiest job I ever had: rouging spinach.
After a few years in the berry fields spinach was a plum to a 14-year-old because it paid a little more than $3 an hour. That was where the perks ended. (Though in retrospect for that amount of money, there may not have been any perks save for some Mama Nelson-approved character building).
“Rouging” spinach means you walk down a row in a spinach field that is maybe a quarter of a mile long, bent at the waist the whole time, looking for male spinach plants. When you find a male (they have small yellow seeds on top) you pull the plant, snap it in half, and throw it over your shoulder. Then you bend over and start looking again.
To get to the field you met the clunky used school bus outside the Alf Christensen Seed Co. warehouse at 7 a.m., dressed in your rain gear, and sat on a dirt-caked seat with your lunchbox in hand until you arrived at the field. Each of the 30 or 40 kids on the crew lined up behind a row. When the supervisor, usually the crankiest of school bus drivers enjoying her summer off, started yelling, you started pawing through spinach plants and waited for the tongue-lashing to come your way for missing a specimen of the male variety.
What made the job so dirty is that during early June, as we all know, summer mornings are neither dry nor terribly warm. So not only were we mucking through a field yanking spinach roots, we were usually doing it in the rain. And wet spinach reeks.
So my brother and I would get home in the afternoon and my mother wouldn’t even let us in the garage. We’d stand in the driveway and get the first blast from the hose to wash down the raingear, then strip down piece by piece, the hose aimed our way the whole time. Eventually we’d be nearly naked, clean, and without the spinach smell, though I remember closing my eyes for bed and still seeing the little yellow spinach seeds, just hanging on my eyelids and taunting that another day was coming.
Eventually I landed a summer job that wasn’t in the fields. I worked for the Mount Vernon School District, on what was called the summer crew. Our job was to go around and help the custodians deep-clean the school buildings. (This also was among the Top Five dirty jobs in my professional life.)
I scrubbed toilets, chiseled gum off desks, mopped and waxed floors, and shampooed carpets (a much dirtier job than it sounds; industrial carpet shampooers stiiiink). Eventually I talked myself into a job in the district’s warehouse, where I delivered supplies, inventoried the district’s shipping, delivered the medium-ticket items, and helped teachers move in and out of classrooms. Carrying books was much better than carrying a scum bucket.
My third year at the warehouse I convinced my boss to bring on a second helper from the summer crew. My friend Tim then rode co-pilot as we drove around picking up desks, moving refrigerators, and, once, demolishing a surplused piano that wouldn’t fit out the music room’s door.
Tim and I would arrive on the loading dock every morning at 6. By this time Alf Christensen had centralized the loading of spinach crew buses, and they happened to wait across the parking lot from our warehouse. So after the first 45 mintues of work (making coffee, checking the work order list, and reading the newspaper), Tim and I would wander back out on the dock, wave at those poor souls headed out to the fields for a morning among the wet greens and indulge in a little schnadenfreud: “Have fun at spinach today guys!”
You want to talk about dirty? Imagine the looks we got.