The Black Dirt

Black Dirt Onion Field, Pine Island, NY







Monday I was driving through the Black Dirt, it was ninety-five degrees.

The temperature coming off that dried muck had to be near one hundred, if not more. I’ve never felt hot like that particular and peculiar hot coming off those goddamned fields.

In Orange County, in the 1970’s, to have worked out in the Black Dirt is a rite, a passage, it is something you did so that forty or fifty years later you could tell the stories with authenticity.

Out in the dirt, late summer, I was a dumper, a particularly good dumper, I was told. The honor and glory of being a good onion dumper was somehow lost on me – then and now.

Standing on an 8 foot high shaky stack of broken pallets dumping 85 pound crates of onions into a hopper -all day – for a buck and a quarter an hour. Bent over in that sun pulling weeds from the onions in rows that seemed ten miles long. Finishing a row you turned around and started the next endless row.

– glory days –

The most important thing I ever learned out there was that the worst day at just about any other job, anywhere, was better than the best day you could possibly have in those hot fields.

I’ve worked next the migrants. We sweated and swore together. We drank from the same dirty canteen of water.

Taking that canteen from an outstretched, wet hand, looking back at a smile missing a couple of teeth. My replies always in broken Spanish, always wondering if I said the wrong thing or the right thing; was I close to saying the right thing.

Beautiful young girls, with long dark hair, in cotton print dresses who seemed to pull weeds with an effortless elegance, never dirty, and old men, faces caked in black mud, inelegant and tired.

Out there in that burning dust everyone’s back was wet.

I got to go home at the end of the day and take a long shower and watch the almost oily muck form thick rings in the bathtub. I got to wash off the day and become white and middle class again. The migrants went back to trailers parked out on the edge of fields. Blue and white trailers, brown and yellow, with missing windows covered with cardboard and duct tape. Other windows filled with discarded air conditioners, towels and sheets and more duct tape keeping the hot air outside, while the machines blew some semblance of cooler, never cold air. It was more like a breeze of still hot air. I walked up to the trailers many times. I went inside and smoked and drank beer in the tiny living room, sitting on some jettisoned old lawn furniture some white guy up the road had placed out along the hi-way as junk, we’d retrieved the junk like it was gold. We’d smoke and drink and tell jokes in Spanish that I never understood and then I’d leave.

As with everything else in my life, every experience, every trip into any one of a thousand other lives, I was simply a visitor to these fields, a witness to these lives.

I suppose that’s why I never looked down on those guys, because they were me and I was them and it sucked to be us on days like this.

But I got to leave, simply a reporter.

Some days, like Monday, a part of me strangely misses some of all that, but all I need to know of gratitude is the knowledge I’ll never walk back out on those hot black fields again.


4 thoughts on “The Black Dirt”

  1. William… I loved this post…. brought back similar times when I was growing up… I was the “the white girl” but always felt the warmth and kindness from all kinds of people… never less, never superior .
    We are the lucky ones…

  2. That brought back some memories of packing peaches in Pennsylvania in 1974. I was the “white girl” also. I learned how to say ‘box top’ in Spanish, why store bought peaches aren’t fuzzy and how kind, welcoming and friendly ‘those’ people were. And how lucky I was to not have to migrate to the next orchard. I didn’t eat peaches for years unless they were fuzzy and unwaxed.

    1. Joanne, not many people got to know this life, or realize we grew peaches in the north. I loved the “white girl” comment. I heard, “hey white guy” about a billion times. Great memories. Great people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *