On the Citrus
Richard Tillotson ’66 lives in Honolulu, where he worked for many years in advertising and now focuses on his own creative writing; his most recent novel is What You Will On Capitol Hill.
The summer of 1965 was one of those times when the powers that be decided too many immigrants were coming across the border and taking American jobs, so they closed it. They didn’t consider who was going to pick the fruit ripening in California’s citrus groves.
The growers put out a desperate call for anybody willing to live in remote barracks set in the middle of vast orchards and work 12 hours a day for pennies per basket of oranges picked. I and a few hundred other college kids on summer vacation answered the call. So did a number of recently released felons from the California prison system and a larger number of – suddenly illegal – workers from Mexico.
The illegal immigrants were the only ones who were good enough at the job to make any money at it. The growers were very particular that their fruit had to be clipped at the very base of the stem. If any stem was left protruding from an orange, it was liable to puncture the other fruit in the basket. They issued everyone powerful metal clippers to do this right. While balancing up on a ladder, you were supposed to grab an orange with one hand and carefully clip the stem at its base with the other. It took me at least an hour to pick a basket of fruit this way, and my earnings were pitiful. But some of the Mexican workers were so skilled they could operate the clippers with one hand and simultaneously twist/pluck fruit off with the other using only a work-toughened thumbnail. Like jugglers, they could deftly toss oranges from both hands into burlap sacks that hung round their necks.
We didn’t have their example for long, however. One morning at our 5 a.m. breakfast, two members of the border patrol appeared at the entrance to the dining hall. Without a word being spoken, the Mexicans seemed to rise as one and disappeared out the back door and into the orchards.
Most of the men with no other job options seemed to have come either from prison or Los Angeles’ skid row. The one I remember best was a middle-aged black man named Eddie who had the bunk bed beneath mine. Eddie was a gentle and considerate man. He used to chuckle at my canvas duffle bag, which I’d lock at the top with a padlock through the metal clasp. Eddie would say, “If I wanted, I’d just take my razor and go in there through the bottom, but that lock’ll keep an honest man honest.” One evening as we were getting ready for lights-out, I set my wallet on my bunk in preparation for putting it under my pillow and sleeping on it. Another college kid called my name, and I took a few steps away to see what he wanted. Eddie came running after me shouting, “Don’t you ever leave your wallet on your bunk like that!” I’ll never know for sure why he was so angry at me, but after thinking it over for 50 years, I’ve reached this conclusion: In my naiveté and entitlement, I had tempted him. It would have been easy for him to scoop my wallet himself. Like the vanished Mexican workers, it would have just disappeared. He had good reason to be angry.
I only lasted two weeks at that job, but my experiences were the source of an early short story, “On the Citrus,” which won the 1966 Steiner Short Story Award at Grinnell. That award confirmed my lifelong career choice as a creative writer. I remember next to nothing about the story, but I have vivid memories of my time on the citrus. It taught me a lot about the difficulty and dignity of manual labor and the camaraderie of men who have no options but to share it.