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By Leah Mueller
The sun beat down upon my head and shoulders as I pushed relentlessly forward through a row of sweet corn, pulling tassels and dropping them on the earth like vanquished enemies. I had started my tenth row, and the day wasn't even half over. Our all-girl crew didn't carry water bottles or snacks. Neither did the boys, who labored in adjacent fields. All of us moved like furious ants for eight hours. Any pause in the action would result in swift punishment-a stern warning, and finally termination.
The only time I was allowed to rest was when I was fortunate enough to complete my row ahead of the others. Then I could lie down underneath a tree and catch a brief rest while I waited for my co-workers. At that point, one of the other girls always jostled me awake rudely, and the ritual of tassel extraction began anew.
My friend Cindy carried a transistor radio. This was fortunate, because our crew would have gone nuts otherwise. The airwaves pulsated with the sounds of “Why Can't We Be Friends?” and “I'm Not in Love.” None of the songs got us moving quite as fast as “The Hustle.” Its motivational benefits had long since worn thin, as far as I was concerned. A new version seemed to emanate from Cindy's radio every few minutes, and I was beyond sick of hearing it.
A break appeared in my right-hand row. Obviously, some farmer had spaced out while scattering seeds with his tractor a few months earlier, and had inadvertently created a blank space in which I could enjoy a moment of solitude. Instead, Cindy appeared, radio strapped to her hip. She raised one of her eyebrows suggestively and smiled. “Do it,” she whispered. “Do the Hustle...”
God, how I hated her. I lurched forward and resumed my ritual of tassel-plucking, moving through my row like an overheated tank. Seconds later, Cindy's freckled face appeared between two cornstalks. She laughed maniacally at my discomfort. “Do it...” she hissed. Enraged, I hurled a tassel at her head, and she withdrew from me, cackling.
At lunchtime, our crew leader Sharon treated us to a lecture about our lackluster work ethic. Sharon was blonde, buck-toothed, and perpetually angry. “Too many of you girls have been leaving tassels in the stalks,” she snarled. She scooped a fistful of tassels from the ground and shook them in the air. “I went down one of the rows after the crew had finished, and found THESE. It's unacceptable, and won't be tolerated. I'll fire all of you if necessary.”
I stared at the ground, deeply embarrassed. I felt convinced that Sharon was secretly speaking to me, even though she made no attempt to catch my eye. I silently vowed to become a detasseler whose dedication others would strive to emulate. When the break ended, I rose to my feet and rushed into the field, filled with new resolve. There wouldn't be a tassel left standing when my shift was done. No one could accuse me of being lazy and inattentive.
The following morning at the bus stop, Sharon announced to the crew that we needed to work in a different field. This would only last a couple of hours. After we were done, we could return to our usual site. A few people grumbled, but most of us were secretly grateful for any variation from our normal routine.
The new site was further afield, which gave us a few extra minutes to doze in our dusty seats. Finally, the vehicle lurched to a halt, and we piled onto the unfamiliar plot of ground. As I began my row, I instantly became confused. The stalks had already been stripped of their tassels. Why had Sharon brought us to this field? Was it some sort of punishment? It was best not to ask too many questions. Deeply troubled, I plowed ahead. A minute later, I noticed a lone tassel, swaying gently in the breeze. Reflexively, I reached out and plucked it from the stalk. As soon it hit the ground, I noticed another tassel, and yet another, and finally three more. I hurled the errant tufts to the dirt with disgust, and continued my mission of destruction.
To my bewilderment, new cornstalks appeared in front of me, all of them shorn of their tassels. Someone had labored in the row before, but had done a shitty job. Hopefully the detasseling company had fired the offending individual. It served her right.
Sharon suddenly appeared beside me. Feeling alarmed, I increased my tempo. “Those goddamn boys,” she muttered. “They get $2.25 an hour, and their work is terrible. It's not fair that we should have to clean up after them.”
I stopped in my tracks and stared at her, dumbfounded. “This is one of the boys' fields?” I demanded.
Sharon nodded. “That's right,” she said. “They're always screwing around when they should be working.” She smiled with satisfaction, as though she had imparted an important truth, one that would help me in my quest for understanding. “Don't just stand there,” she chided, “get back to your job.”
I pulled another tassel from its stalk. Bitterly, I hurled it to the ground, then kicked it as hard as I could. The boys made forty cents an hour more than we did, but were held to an entirely different standard. The little assholes didn't have to live with the terror of termination. I was a girl, so I had to be constantly afraid.
I knew I should quit. I also knew I wouldn't do any such thing, because I needed the money. Life was a hustle, and would be for as long as I remained alive, and female. I stared at the horizon, continued my trek across the field. Anger was a useless emotion. Payday was a week away, and there was a purse I wanted to buy at the mall. I hoped it would still be there when I arrived.
#Real #SummerNostalgia #WorstJob #Corn #Sexism #Farm
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