In the late 1960’s, I suddenly found myself with no independence and no income of my own. Overnight I became a non-person. My husband and I packed our household, sons nearly 3 and almost 5, and moved to Northern California where he would become a college professor. I had to leave my job with a brokerage firm where I was finishing studies and testing for a stock broker’s license, paid for by my employer. Having been our family’s main bread winner while my spouse finished his Masters, I not only left behind a big paycheck plus generous bonuses, I also parted with my main source of self-esteem and suddenly felt adrift. In our new community, a total stranger informed me he could tell I was a “city girl” because my skirts were “too short for this town.” And so I was—a city girl stranded in the middle of almond orchards, rice fields and a daily 10 page Republican newspaper. It would take many years for me to appreciate almonds and brown rice.
First I tried a few months of typing and secretarial work for the campus English Department, but they were housed in the same building as the Art Department my husband worked in and I soon overheard that the staff was unhappy with him because he blatantly used the “F” and the “Sh” words in public. My job did not pay as much as the cost of day care for my children, so one day I responded to an ad for part time evening work with the Blue Diamond Nut Company. It seemed like the perfect solution. My husband could watch the children while I worked the evening shift sorting nuts, which couldn’t be a far cry from what my life was like already. The pay was fairly good.
The interview was brief and I was hired on the spot. Provided with a big green hair net—the kind worn in medical facilities—I was introduced to the conveyor belts. There were three of them, each divided into six sections so that the women perched on stools on either side of the belt had a total of three “trays”. The tray closest to the employee carried almonds that had been cracked by a big machine. The other two trays were for broken almonds and the last was for the trash—bits of shell, leaves, sometimes unspeakable things. I was instructed to pick the trash and broken bits of almond out of the first tray, leaving only the perfect almonds, drop the broken nuts into tray two, and anything not edible into the third tray. Made sense. Sounded pretty easy.
I was provided with a backless stool and someone helped me adjust it to the proper height for working on the conveyor. Settling in, things went well until the belt was turned on. It moved much faster than I imagined and I immediately began to laugh out loud. Trying to pick out the trash and damaged nuts and drop them into their proper places on the conveyor was like some kind of dexterity game you might play with children at a party. And then, all of a sudden the belt seemed to stop and it felt as though I was moving. I must have looked alarmed because the woman sitting next to me (we had never been introduced) hollered over the noise of the machinery, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” The next couple of hours until break time were grueling. All the motion made me nauseous and the noise made my ears ring. Every ten minutes, my supervisor, a wiry little woman with a southern twang, stopped behind me, glared in my direction and screamed, “Hold that trash!” It was like being in the middle of a Felini movie and I no longer felt like laughing. I wanted to cry.
It only took a couple of days for me to develop a very negative attitude. Driving off to work I’d pass my neighbor, a doctor’s wife, outside chatting with the pool man, another neighbor riding her big Arabian horse back out of the park toward their stables. I imagined what they’d think of me if they knew what I was doing. I started hating my husband.
The job lasted for two weeks. One morning I couldn’t get out of bed until I’d called the Diamond office and told them I was done. They didn’t sound surprised. They were probably relieved. The supervisor had started referring to me as “I Love Lucy” and asked me several times, “Girl, what are you doing here?” Each time I looked at her—wearing a T-shirt from a local bar, missing a couple of front teeth, recalling the battered Ford pick-up she plowed into the company parking lot every afternoon—well, I just never found an explanation I thought she might appreciate.