Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dole Girl

At first I had a hard time telling the difference between fancy and choice. My forelady, Ethel Tanaka, was always on me about letting a choice pineapple go by and not putting it into the tray. “Hey, girlie, look at this spot,” she would say, picking up a pine I had checked, her blue cap pulled down over her hairline so you couldn’t see her hairnet. The rest of us wore white caps, our long hair coiled up in the back. We looked like a gang of sweaty, knife-wielding nuns. “This pine is dull,” Ethel Tanaka would say, “only good for chunk.” After a few weeks I could see that fancy pineapple was bright yellow with an almost translucent quality, while choice was rough and colorless, an anemic cousin to the luminous fancy pines. Choice pines ended up as chunk or crushed or even juice, though most of the time juice pines were sorted out before they got to the trimmers. Fancy pineapples were sliced and then each stack of golden discs was nestled in its own can of syrup.

We didn’t eat much canned pineapple in Hawai'i because fresh was so much better, but I guessed it was different on the mainland, in Wisconsin and Iowa and all those cold states I’d read about in books with their snow storms and blizzards. We didn’t even wear sweaters, though some old aunties would shiver in February and March when it rained almost every day. This is what I thought about as we left the fancy pineapples on the line and threw the choice in plastic tubs that were picked up by a group of boys, who flirted with us and made rude comments.

The Dole Cannery was just off Dillingham Boulevard, halfway between Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. I applied everywhere else, but no one was hiring, or no one was hiring me. I was leaving Hawai'i in August for college in the Mainland, and I wanted at least $500. At Dole they paid $1.25 an hour, and more for overtime. In 1970 you could get a used VW bug for $300, and my dream was to go where I could drive for more than fifty miles. I had only applied to colleges on the East Coast, so I could get far away from my father’s weekly sermons on burning in hell. He was the minister of a small mission in Wai'anae and wanted me to go to Oral Roberts University or some other good Christian college, but I hadn’t studied so hard during high school to end up singing hymns and passing around the collection plate for missions in Africa. I had bigger plans. I had just become a vegetarian. I wanted a vegetarian boyfriend. We would live in a house with a fireplace and eat big bowls of vegetable soup by the roaring fire. I wanted to be cold for once.

Two weeks before school was out I applied for the job at Dole. They told me to come in on Monday after graduation and wear covered shoes and long pants. All my life I had passed the cannery and felt sorry for the people who worked there. During high season in the summer, the smell of pineapple permeated the air for miles around the cannery. Even the trade winds that kept the temperatures in the islands a moderate eighty-five degrees couldn’t dilute the sweet smell of hundreds of thousands of pineapples being peeled, cored, trimmed, sliced, crushed, juiced, and canned in the enormous tin-roofed factory. Above the factory loomed a giant steel and aluminum water tower in the shape of a pineapple, like the totem of some religious cult.

The first three weeks I worked at the cannery, I didn’t watch television. I couldn’t even read. I could barely eat. I would take a shower, wash out my white nylon apron and cap, hang them on the line, put out my clothes for the next day, and then go into my bedroom and cry myself to sleep. But over the weeks I made myself as hard as lava. I wasn’t one of the heroines in the novels I loved so much—going to balls, sipping tea, and taking long walks in the countryside. No, I was Jane Eyre, but worse because I was working in a factory. There were no Mr. Rochesters at Dole, no Darcys or Bingleys. No one was going to save me.

by Barbara Hamby, Boston Review | Read more:
Image: chuddlesworth