$10 an hour in The Salinas Valley, Greenfield, California
I remember that I used to think that $10 an hour for labor was a lot. Maybe I still do. Just the other day a painter I know, just before leaving the large warehouse where we share studio space with many others, said, “I’m leaving now to go work for $10 an hour.” I believe she meant it sarcastically, but a large part of me jumped at the thought that that was a healthy sum. I remember wondering if I’d ever make $10 an hour. I worked in a restaurant directly out of high school, topping out at just under $9 after five years. I often wondered if I’d ever surpass that mark. I didn’t expect to, and didn’t really have the cultural or educational capital to figure out quite how to do so. I thought that maybe college might have something to do with breaking past the $10 an hour limit, but didn’t have the external resources available, nor was I avidly searching for them. Today, $10 an hour still seems a rightly sum; it’s a handsome number, the zero giving it fullness.
After working the restaurant job, about the time I had decided to go back to community college, I was looking for work, hoping to find something for $10 an hour. My dad had been working a non-union construction job in the Salinas Valley of California. His friend who was living in Gilroy, California doing job-site management had hooked him up. So my dad hooked me up, and I had a non-union construction job starting at $10 an hour. This was in the summer of 1995 after a particularly bad El Nino season. That was the year that a lot of the Salinas Valley's farmland flooded. The Salinas River had eaten away at banks, broke open levees, and even shut down US 101 for a brief spell. If you had driven that stretch of US 101 between King City and Salinas at that time you could see water covering all the crops of onions, garlic, celery, broccoli, cauliflower that you usually see stretching to the foothills on either side of the valley.
The job site was on a farmer's land where the Salinas River had blown out a riverbank that abutted the farmer's property. The river had washed sand, silt, mud, and grass all across his farmland, so it was our job to transport much of that in dump trucks and build up a new embankment. The operation was this: the skid steel loader loaded the dump trucks with the sand and debris, and then the dump trucks would transport their loads to designated areas. A bulldozer had pushed together sand and mud into a series of two sand bridges for the dump trucks to navigate into and out of the river bed.
We were told that we, along with three other guys my dad had been working with on another job, would each have a dump truck to drive. The job was simple: drive into the river bed, crossing the two sand bridges, set up next to the skid steel loader while it loads your truck, then get back out of the river and dump your load in the designated spot. I jumped into the truck, an A40 Volvo Articulated Dump Truck, six large wheels each the size of a VW bug. I had no experience driving the enormous truck, but neither had my dad, and he had explained some of the ins and outs of driving it to me; he had done that same job on another site. He had warned me the bouncing around in the cab was tough on internal organs, so I had brought a “kidney-belt” for my midriff from my motocross days. He told me to be sure to strap myself in real tight before setting out. I studied the owner’s manual for about 15 minutes. There were few words, just large pictures with directions, graphics reminiscent of crash landing directions on airplanes.
I started it up. It was like driving a large Uhaul in that it was bouncy, and the brakes worked quite well. The foreman, who I had been introduced to earlier, eyed me with a blank stare, giving me, to my mind, tacit understanding that I would be training on the job. I had been assured by a few of the guys there, including my dad, that I could pick it up. I started out on my first pass into the riverbed, heading toward the first sand bridge to cross over and down into the riverbed. Previous passes from from the other dump trucks had left deep grooves in the sand bridge, as well as loosened the overall structure. As I drove across, reaching about halfway, the sand bridge gave way to the right, tipping the dump truck and causing it to slide sideways down the side of the collapsing bridge. I pushed on the brake pedal, pumping it maniacally. I was in a harness, so when the dump truck came to rest on its side, I was left hanging in the harness. It all happened in a few seconds, and I don’t remember hearing anything except a roaring engine, then a kind of silence as it slumped sideways into the sand, silt and mud.
I climbed out of the dump truck, circled around its sunken edge and found everyone standing around its underbelly in silence, staring at what looked like an exploded ordnance, which I quickly realized was the enormous drive train that had exploded into shards of tangled metal. After about ten seconds, which felt like thirty minutes, the foreman, Tony, asked the job site mechanic, “How much you think that part is?” The mechanic, taking his hat off and wiping his brow, said, “ten thousand about.” After about another ten seconds of silence, the foreman asked the job site mechanic, “Where we need to get the parts from?” The mechanic thought for beat, put his hat back on, and said, “Sweden.” Another ten seconds of silence. There was a short discussion about the sand bridge, how to shore it up, and a warning to others about crossing the sand bridges. The foreman told everyone to get back in their trucks and keep going, explaining the job was probably set back another three weeks, probably costing about $250,000.
It was true that the sand bridge had been weakened, and that if I had had a few passes at trucking out mud with success, I probably would have been fine. But the humiliation of exploding the drive train of a million dollar dump truck was the push I needed to tell myself that that kind of work wasn’t for me, wasn’t my calling, and that even though it was $10 an hour, it wasn’t worth nearly killing myself or someone else.
My dad’s friend, Larry, who had hooked us up with the work, told me later that that stuff happened all the time, and that the week earlier someone had driven a scoop loader into one of the tires on one of the dump trucks, exploding the tire. It cost $3000 just to replace. That made me feel a little better. But I never really wanted to go back and try driving heavy equipment again.
Last week I was talking with the new Dean of Language Arts at the community college where I am a full-time English Instructor. I was explaining to her the image that I have of what it means to teach English Composition at a community college in California, especially in an urban area (San Jose in this case). I explained to her that after teaching composition in the Bay Area for seven years, the most apt metaphor I have is that it feels like crashing an airplane in slow motion that lasts sixteen weeks. After about teaching three years I gave up the fact that the plane would ever take off, learning that taking off is not really the point. The point is to learn how to crash the plane well. Or better, to learn how to comport oneself while it crashes, to be vulnerable, to open oneself to the students so when the plane is going down—it goes down every single time— some of them will say to themselves, “I'm following that guy out of this mess.” In short, as I learn to trust myself more, some of the students trust me more, and there begins teaching. I haven't really moved on much from that experience of crashing the dump truck, except that now I do it in slow motion in front a bunch of strangers. And I get paid more than $10 an hour to do so.