Days are getting shorter. I feel the morning air’s crispness and begin to feel like a mother hen making our home comfy for the winter to come. I think about the many years before at this time I busied myself with packing for yet another jaunt abroad unable to comprehend what adventures awaited me but knowing that my wit would be stretched long and wide. Both tumults and joys would all be mine. I remember one year, many moons ago, traveling to Eastern Washington before returning to India. My goal was visiting friends who recently had relocated there from Port Townsend for a more down to earth way of life. My first visit over the Cascades may have well had been to the moon. The ethnicity and stark terrain reminded me that adventures were to be had also at “home”.

“Trabajo por casa y dolares por favor?”

My Spanish saddled a heart September wind which circulated continuously through thick rows of nearly ripe Gravensteins.

“Haven’t seen people like you asking to pick in years, and a woman at that! Last one was five years ago and didn’t stay but a week. Best you check with the packing houses. Tell them that Gregorio sent you.”

Gregorio’s English was clear and so was his message. Eastern Washington’s fruit orchards depend on the Mexican’s now. Paler skins want a chicken in their pot plucked and dressed. The dark flesh welcomes manual labor. Consequently this terrain has become little Mexico. Best the job left to those who aspire to do it.

“Fifteen years ago I came up from Chihuahua, you now Chihuahua? Picked for eight years and been an overseer for seven.”

Gregorio looked me dead straight in the eye when he spoke. An admirable trait, I thought to myself.

“These days I get paid by the hour not by the bin, although I can still pick ten bins a day–ten clean bins–no stems missing and no bruises!” Proudly Gregorio reared back and stood erect. He took a deep breathe while summing me up. He explained to me that wages were eight dollars a bin and that his new “overseer” position paid a whopping five dollars per hour. Housing was always included.

Frankly, I got lost trying to understand his reasoning. I quickly calculated the numbers in my head again. Ten bins a day at eight dollars a bin was twice as much money as an eight hour day at five. Must be the title plus the power that glorifies his earnings, I presumed. Not to mention an ease of work growing older.

“What makes you want to pick, sister?”

People who spoke as directly as Gregorio always sparked a sense of retrospection within myself. Luckily, Gregorio’s industry rank caused him to constantly survey the surroundings which in turn gave me time to think. Exactly why was I here?

“It’s all in the wrists,” he explained and proceeded to demonstrate his apple picking technique.

Gregorio gently rolled his hands so that his palms faced upward. He then raised both arms slowly toward the sky. With one flick of the wrists, Gregorio plucked two plump, golden jewels effortlessly, stainless and with stems. A cleansing ritual was performed by polishing the rounds gems with a red Oshkosh handkerchief pulled out magically from a secret inside pocket of his grey windbreaker. He wiped the apples carefully until the last specks of glistening pesticide had been removed. Taking his thermos he poured hot water over the apples and wiped again with another cloth. How those apples had sparkled in the morning light!

Holding a fruit in each hand, Gregorio extended his lean arms outward offering both apples to me. My strict Catholic upbringing kicked in. Shouldn’t I be the temptress, what’s the deal?

I chose the apple in his right hand because it was slightly smaller. Guess it’s a woman thing.

“These are the perfect ones,” Gregorio said, “those apples which go abroad to Taiwan and Japan. The bins from the ground go directly into CA–controlled atmosphere. Some will be shipped now, the rest in the spring.”

Gregorio further explained that the Far East always gets the “western cream”. “America gets only the culls, you know, the seconds.”

This was news to me but seemed perfectly logical to a man in the apple business as long as Gregorio. He was not bothered in the least that this denial of goods to the local folk was justified by profit. After all, this was the UNITED STATES!

C-R-U-N-C-H-, simultaneously, CRUNCH. Like a mantra crunch permeates the air. Wholeheartedly with both mind and body the sacred fruit is eaten. Ah, equanimity.

The apple interlude conjured up my nerve. “I want to pick because I need some quick cash and adding a place to live makes apple picking quite appealing. Besides, I like being outdoors.”

My plea was brief. One preserves power by volunteering only the information necessary for the situation at hand. “Okay sister, let’s give her a try! Ladder’s over there, in fact, you can pick up where Jose left off.”

Gregorio tossed me a brown leather picker’s apron which was to be worn front side, filled and emptied into the bin. The trick was to do the picking fast but perfect. An aluminum stairway to the fruits of the gods was positioned against the butt of the tree and extended to the tree’s upper most spot. Ambitiously I climbed to the top. Holding onto the biggest branch I could find with my left hand enabled me to seriously pluck with my right. Snap, one down. Snap, snap, snap.

I emptied my first load in the bin. Up Gregorio went. Yep, he still had it-a full bin in less than half my time. Modesty was not one of Gregorio’s traits. He strutted like a male bird showing his colors and ready to mate. Again I picked, and picked and picked. After four bins I was down, my apple picking career cut short by the realization that this was not my cup of tea.

“Thank you Gregorio for letting me pick but I don’t believe my lot in life is the same as yours. What do you think?”

“Sister, I’d be a liar if I said that you were the best picker that I’d ever seen. You’re a woman with gumption and a pretty one at that!” So this is why Gregorio had taken such an interest in me. Nosily I asked, “Gregorio, do you have family here? A wife and kids?”

“Had a wife but she’s gone now. I met her in my country and we came to hers. She was a bank teller. We were married nine years, just recently divorced.” Gregorio described his love as “blonde haired, blue eyed with a bosom that compared to none”. He looked at me with wide eyes filled with hope and desire.

“Thank you, Gregorio, for teaching me that I am not qualified for a job like yours. I must be off now. I have realized apple picking must be left to the pro’s. It’s been very nice getting to know you. Which road takes me to the highway?”

Sadly Gregorio point to the East. Funny, that seemed my direction these days. I was heading back to India in two more months. I picked up my green backpack and started to leave. “Wait, sister, you forgot your pay.” Gregorio reached in his pockets and pulled out a roll of greenbacks.
“Thirty-two dollars, sister, four bins.” He added, “Send me a postcard from wherever you end up.”

“Thanks, Gregorio, you’re the best!” I ignored the postcard part. I had learned to not make promises that I knew I would never keep. Once on the road I began looking for a Mexican restaurant. I would have an authentic south of the border lunch and continue down the road, East.