Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Working

Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Jean Harper
Jean Harper
Photo by Richard Rodgers

Rose City book cover

Rose City: Remembering the Work

by Jean Harper

BORDERS

Just after six in the morning, every morning of the week, the drift of rose cutters into the greenhouse begins. There are thirty of us working in the greenhouse in Richmond, Ind., in the fall of 1992. In my crew, most weeks, there are seven. There is Lil: almost sixty, a short, conscientiously cheerful born-again Christian. There is Eddie: hair to his waist, already one joint up on the day, squinting in the dim morning light. There is Sammie Jo: seventeen, translucent and blond as a Barbie doll. There is Bo: he smokes cigars all day every day in the greenhouse, and while he smokes he sings old George Jones songs to himself, to his imaginary hunting dog, Blue, and to us. There is Joy: seventeen, wearing shiny red lipstick, a tiny blue purse swinging at her hip. There I am: thirty-three, not yet unmarried, too thin, too blond. And, last in, there is Hank, our crew leader. He has worked in the greenhouse cutting roses for thirty-eight years. He is bone thin, gawky as a teenager, and periodically seized with mute embarrassment in the presence of women. When he does talk--to me or to anyone else--he speaks in a clotted Kentucky drawl, and nods a lot, smiles a lot. His teeth are perfect, new dentures white as sugar cubes.

The ebb and flow of workers in the greenhouse is constant. On a good week, there are about thirty rose cutters in four crews of seven or eight men and women, all working the one daily shift at the forty greenhouses of E. G. Hill Inc. from six-thirty in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon. But every other week someone will quit Hill’s, and the next week someone else will begin. The work is hard, sometimes dangerous, always tropically hot and mud-dirty, and the pay is low, as low as it can legally be in 1992: $4.25 an hour. When new workers discover the truth of the work, most turn away to something else. Welfare and unemployment offer a better return than a greenhouse job. Part-time work at Wal-Mart or in an air-conditioned factory is cleaner. A temporary job at a bank or at an insurance company holds out the promise of a future. There are reasons to leave the greenhouse. But for those who don’t leave, there are reasons to stay. Here, no one cares if you smoke on the job. No one asks if you can read or write. No one requires that you have graduated from high school, or that you consistently bathe, are entirely sober, or always straight. There is no dress code. There are no expectations of manners or etiquette or personal behavior or what Midwesterners like to call “morals.” There is only the work.

Hank hasn’t finished high school, he reads and writes with agonizing slowness, but he can cut roses faster than anyone: five hundred to six hundred roses an hour. Bo pees in the greenhouse between benches of roses whenever he needs to and smokes his rank cigars, but he can heft one-hundred-pound bags of fertilizer and tote a full five-hundred-foot water hose as if it is a length of twine. Eddie, when he knows he can get away with it, lights up a joint and tokes until he is adrift in a thoughtless space, but he will spray for weeds all day and the next without complaint or question. And me? I have transgressed the pact of one marriage, wrecked another, left all that I knew in the East for a place a thousand miles away. But no one in the greenhouse cares. Soon enough I learn to cut half as fast as Hank; I labor as hard as Bo; I take on every job in the greenhouse with the fervor of a penitent; and because I work hard, I am left alone. Because that’s all that matters: the work.

RUST BELT

The men and women who worked at the greenhouse came, mostly, from eastern Kentucky; some came from Tennessee; others from Oklahoma. Hill country. Appalachia. The sticks. Home. Most had not finished high school; they had gotten through the requirements of sixth or eighth grade, maybe tenth, and then had quit school. The next step was to go north. They left behind parents, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, family in all directions. Some came to join family who had gone ahead; some were the first to come. All came north, and many came to Richmond. That’s all you had to know, they would say, just the three Rs: “Readin’, Ritin’, and the Road to Richmond.” For the workers who left behind the impoverished “hill towns” and came to the relative metropolis of Richmond, Ind., the promises the small city held were golden.

“Like what?” I’d ask. “What did you come for?”

“We come for the jobs,” they would say.

Those jobs were factory jobs. After World War II and into the 1960s and even early 1970s--the good days--a man or a woman could come north and find a good job making school buses or turning out auto parts or rolling up yellow insulation or even working in the factory that made the machines that made automation go in other factories. These jobs paid two and three times minimum wage; there was always overtime for the asking. You could, by hill country standards, make a fortune. So they came. And for a while, there were plenty of jobs in plenty of places. Richmond and the county it governs had, and still has, what industries want: the basics of a railroad and an interstate cutting through the heart of the city, slack laws governing environmental impacts, low or no taxes on inventories and buildings, and a statewide legacy of union-hostile “right to work” laws. Industries loved Indiana for a good while, and they loved the people who came to work for them: desperate men and women, uneducated and physically strong, willing to work long hours at lousy jobs for what the factory owners knew were comparatively low wages. For some decades the road to Richmond stayed busy. There were jobs to be had, places to live, kin and friends who had gone before and more who would come behind.

But then, in the long slow decline into the depths of the 1980s, the factories began to close. The insulation factory went bankrupt. The school bus factory business slowed to a trickle. The demand for auto parts took a dive. The machine-making factory closed. New industries came to town, opening a few plants here and there, but these were a new breed of factories with different needs. They wanted educated workers who could work in teams and “quality circles”; they wanted workers who could solve manufacturing and production problems. They wanted workers who could read and write.

What happened in Richmond in the 1970s and 1980s happened in innumerable small cities across the industrial Midwest. When factories closed their doors, factory workers with decades of line-work experience found themselves out of work and short on valued skills. When the factories left town, the few highly skilled workers trailed in their wake, and the unemployed, unskilled workers stayed behind. They had nowhere to go. . . .

For those who had come north with only strong backs and the will to work, the days of good jobs with good money were gone. The road to Richmond ended not in riches, but in resignation. People did what they had to do. If you got a job, any job, you took it. If you were smart enough, if you were desperate enough, you knew you were lucky to just have work and a paycheck. You showed up, shut up, and did what you were told. But if you weren’t smart or you weren’t desperate or maybe if you weren’t ready to resign yourself to minimum wage and nothing more, then you railed in anger at this life, this lousy job.

CHARACTER

By late November, I have been at the greenhouse three months. Long enough to know what I don’t know. I don’t know a great deal about roses. I know just enough to cut them, water and feed them, spray them, moderate their environment with enough competence that I don’t kill them. But I am no rosarian. The arcane science of hybridization is, to me, still a mystery. The precise technique of grafting is something I have only read about. Predicting the output of plants is still, to me, pure guesswork.

There is more I don’t know. I don’t know a great deal about what it truly means to live paycheck to paycheck. I make my five dollars an hour, but then I cash my alimony check each month and it almost exactly doubles my salary. I have health insurance. I have no dependents living under my roof. My car starts each morning. My checks don’t bounce. My savings account grows incrementally.

I know, or at least can predict, only two things about the unfamiliar life I am leading in the Midwest. The first is this: I will not stay at the greenhouse. I am destined to have a career, a life in the middle-class world in which I belong. . . . The second thing I know about my greenhouse life is: The other people cutting roses in the greenhouse cannot leave. This is their career. This is their real life. The working class.

For living this life, some call them heroes. But they aren’t. They simply do their jobs day after day, month by month, for years on end. They find a way to focus on the moment, the now of things, the simple passage of time. Some in resignation, others in resentment, some few in absolute attention. The owners of the greenhouse, of any factory, know this blue-collar, time-clock mind very well. Workers have been taught to observe their day in increments: clock in, clock out; count minutes, hours, breaks, the half hour for lunch; pray for overtime, but also for weekends off, the occasional holiday. Workers keep obsessive track of time because time is their only commodity. Anyone who works in a greenhouse, or a factory, or behind a counter flipping burgers, or in an aisle stocking shelves, or behind a cash register taking money, anyone who works hour by hour knows this: there is no getting ahead, there is no better place to go, there is no raise in their future, there is no promotion in sight.

There is only a game with time. Any second or minute a worker can filch from the company is a piece of their own life that they have reclaimed. But this filching of time can never be deliberate or planned. As I learn how to be a supervisor, I am charged with not only watering and testing dirt, regulating temperature and fertilizer; I am also charged with keeping track of time. Getting people to their work stations on time; finishing tasks in the right amount of time; making sure people don’t waste time. I am not very good at this.

• • •

Now, looking back at what I did then, I cringe. I start to think: Jesus Christ, I should have taken pity. I could have been more patient, more tolerant, more farsighted. . . . I could have been more creative. . . . Perhaps so. But now, more than a decade into the future, it is easy for me to think these things. I don’t work in a greenhouse, and I haven’t for a long time. Now, I don’t make a mere five dollars an hour. Now for eight hours a day, I don’t cut roses and spray them and weed between them and tote hoses to water them and carry baskets loaded with roses and walk up and down two-hundred-foot walks all day, every day. I don’t work with anyone like Eddie. Nor anyone like Lil or Bo or Joy or Hank or Sammie Jo. Now, I don’t punch in at six-thirty in the morning and punch out at three o’clock in the afternoon. Now, I don’t work weeks on end with no day off. Now, and especially this, I am not pretending to be a supervisor of a crew of men and women working in a greenhouse of roses.

MEMORY

A year and a few months after I left the greenhouse, E. G. Hill stopped growing roses in nearly two-thirds of its greenhouses. Men and women who had cut roses for twenty and thirty years were suddenly out of work. Management tried to help them get work, but not all found jobs. Most of my crew stayed on at E. G. Hill, which continued rose production for a year or two. Eventually, those greenhouses were used to grow product that was cheaper to produce: lilies and iris and bedding plants. But even those plants became too expensive to grow, and finally the greenhouse ceased all operation. The greenhouses of E. G. Hill stood for years but were reduced gradually to ruins by weather and time. Many of the glass roofs caved in; gravel walks glittered with shards of broken glass. Bench after bench once filled with lush green plants held nothing but straggling weeds, dusty soil, and dead rose plants. The only thing that remained the same was the presence of heat, and of silence. Then, in 2005, the greenhouses were torn down. Now, only empty fields remain.

• • •

The greenhouse saved me from an ordinary life. Even now, more than a decade later, I take nothing for granted. Whoever said these words, I do not remember, but they are meant for the greenhouse: we can, as individuals, see our work as an expense, or we can see it as a product. Marx said it perhaps, or one of his friends. And what did they mean? That we can see the hours of life we spend at a job as a kind of currency that we are trading in exchange for something else: a paycheck, a position, perhaps some kind of power. Or, we can see those hours as life itself, what we are and what we are becoming. I no longer remember how many hours in total I worked at the greenhouse, nor how many dollars in sum I brought home. Do you, of the work you have done for a week, a year, a lifetime? I don’t. I only remember the people around me who were so different than I was, yet took me in as one of their own. I still remember them, and I remember the work we did together. I remember the roses, the light and the heat, and the quality of the moist air in the vast cathedral space of the greenhouses.

These passages are taken from Rose City: A Memoir of Work by Jean Harper. Copyright © 2005 by Jean Harper. Published by Mid-List Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Used by permission.