Backdate: Picking Grapes

I wrote this in October 2010. That summer I’d been in South Carolina, helping migrant workers on farms get to a health clinic. After that, I “settled” in Asheville. I tried to find a job, but the only one I found was a job picking grapes for the Biltmore Estate. This was originally a Facebook note to other interns.

Usually it’s supposed to work the other way around.

I went from doing the SAF internship to picking grapes.

It’s $8 per hour, irregular days (based on which grapes are in season). I can’t say I’m in exactly the position of the people I saw this summer. I’m in my own country, if not my own city. But I do know things now that I’d just heard about.

Cold mornings, hot days, dusty roads in the back of the truck, wet gloves, avoiding hitting anyone with the shears, tired time after work (until I got used to it). Having to wash clothes with pesticides separately. Occasional grape juice or dust  in the eyes when you’re not careful. And yes, there is labor lore, even if most of us, being in North Carolina have no experience with grapes, we’ve developed a few things (and, yes, I did hear the joke about “grape-vine stretchers”).

Yet still there’s something strangely satisfying about physical work. Something that’s hard to phrase at times. I’ll answer any questions you have now.


On Helping: a Movie and Life Review

I saw The Help and liked it. It’s about a woman (called “Skeeter”) who collects the stories of black maids in her town. Movies like it should be made, and more movies need to deal with the working class. Also, I hate criticism that we white people shouldn’t write about people from other backgrounds. If we can’t then I think we’re leaving out a lot of stories. Still, the movie got me thinking. My thoughts had less to do with the movie and more with movies in general and the idea of helping.

There’s a whole genre of “helper” movies from Hollywood. Movies in which a white person goes in to a non-white community to help them and succeeds. The Help doesn’t really fit in this category, as we don’t see Skeeter victoriously ending discrimination. Instead it ends with her damaging the relations between people around her, even if she does bring out the non-racist side of her mother. Also, her goal is not to help so much as sell her book, so she’s a little more complex than your average Hollywood helper.

Helper movies split into two types: Helper dramas (The Blind Side,Music of the Heart) and warrior helpers (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia).

Ironically, given the focus on action, the warrior helper movies seem to have  more dynamic helper characters (they often switch sides). Helper Dramas are usually about characters who start out right and end just as right. Again, The Help just barely fits here, but there’s one side it doesn’t show, and that’s struggling at first. To be fair, she does struggle at first, but none of it is her fault, more to do with the risks of the time period.

I worked with migrant farm workers in South Carolina, signing people up for a health program and then recording an interview with one worker about his life. You can read more about my memories of that time at this blog. When I started out I was asking people what they ate for breakfast, who cooked for them and other weird awkward questions as icebreakers. I took notes even when I was just making light conversation, making me look like a census taker. People had to point these things out to me for me to change them. Usually these people were Latino. Why are there are no stories about people who try to help but start out doing it all wrong? Or even more importantly, a story of a helper failing?

In SC doing healthoutreach work.
Ben doing health outreach Work

I may, in the future, write the story I’m describing, although I have other projects at the moment. Right now I just thought I’d throw the questions out there and see what people thought.