“SO, WHATCHA GOT THERE?”
At the end of that day, the boss man asked, “So, whatcha got there?”
“Two-hundred eighty five bundles,” was my reply since I was the oldest and self-appointed ‘chief.’
The boss man screamed, “You cheating. You don’t count good.”
A sweaty and shaky ‘back talker’ even at that early age, I protested, “We’ve counted twice. Count them yourself. There are 285 bundles.”
I might have been ten. That meant my brother Doug was only six and a half. I don’t know why Doug and I did this along with the three Smith kids across the alley from us. This incident has been stuck in my craw all these years. I tend to chew on stuff. In this case, I’ve been masticating for almost six decades about this.
Joliet, Illinois, 1949, we’re living in our brick bungalow on Vine Street. There were some truck farmers a couple miles west who wanted some help getting stuff ready for market. I wonder how it happened. Did our parents see a ‘help wanted’ notice and sign us up?
We got a penny for every 24 peeled scallions. Our job was to peel off the outer skin to make the scallion nice and clean for market. Loaded bushel baskets full of thousands of unpeeled, dirt encrusted scallions were brought to us for peeling. When we had 24 onions peeled, we tied them together with an outside covering we had removed. We should have had a chant to accompany this work, “one little, two little, three little scallions.” Even without a chant, we kept count of our production and neatly stacked the onions into custom made cardboard boxes.
We buddies bundling were driven to work by one of our dads. We took our lunches along. What precipitated this? Did our parents not have allowance money? Didn’t Vacation Bible School last long enough? Were they at their wits end as to what to do with us? I don’t think any of those reasons apply—we were a creative, resourceful bunch and never even thought about getting into trouble.
The big old greasy looking boss man scoffed, spit and repeated, to me, “You cheat.”
At the same moment, our ride showed up. Dad didn’t pick us up that day. I know he would have talked with that boss man or at least counted the bundles with him. Unpaid, we five dirty, hot little kids piled into the car and left.
I don’t think our parents thought for a minute we were cheating, but I think they didn’t want to mess with the truck farmer. They may have realized at that point that their kids shouldn’t have been working. The guy had “ethnicity,” but I can’t remember now which one it was. Oh-oh! Might have been Mafia!
So, we didn’t get paid the $2.85 which we had earned. That was our last day. The boss man said we couldn’t have peeled that many onions. I ask you, five kids? How many onions would that be per kid?
Twenty-four peeled onions for a penny; we had 285 bundles. We had peeled 6,840 onions or 1,368 per kid if we peeled at the same rate. And, we went home empty handed. We evidently had no recourse. That number 285 has stuck with me all these years.
The ‘cheat’ was hiring little kids. That was illegal even in 1949—and we were really little kids. He was paying what would have been below minimum wage if there had been a minimum wage then. And, he cheated us out of our day’s wages. We returned home stinking of onions. Mom and dad talked at dinner that night about ‘ethics.’ I believe this was the first time I had encountered a dishonest adult.
This is a small, insignificant story from the last century. You’ve got to agree—this is a really small story. We’re talking about peeling onions for a two-bit truck farmer. Although small, this incident has affected me for a very long time.
So, let’s return to the present. Think about the injustices here in our own community done by us to other ethnic groups—namely those people without documentation—those ‘illegals’ who are being cheated at every turn. There’s no recourse for them either. They’re ‘illegal’ just like we were as kid laborers in 1949. We weren’t trying to feed destitute families, however. We were just making some money for bubble gum and baseball cards.
“So, whatcha got there?” Here and now, you’ve got 37 million undocumented people. Many are working–working under the table for low wages and often being cheated by boss men who make a faster buck by paying workers less. Who’s the culprit here? Is it the employer or the employee? I believe that answer is simple. Think of all the stuff stuck in craws today.
“So, whatcha got there?” Whatcha got is a moral dilemma which needs addressing before another half century goes by. Damn, I can still smell those onions. Guess I’ll never get over it. Just goes to show that even middle class kids with white privilege get screwed once in awhile. Much bigger penalties await undocumented workers cheated here and now.
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