Friday, March 2, 2012

My Life as a Chump

Work indeed, I did find. The day after I last wrote, I received that now familiar text message: show up to work at 5am, wait around for 30 minutes while we organized what we should have yesterday, then pay $7 for $1 worth of fuel to get a ride to the grape vines and pick as much as you can in an extremely limited time.

The message actually only says show up at 5am and let us know if you can't make it. So you show up at around 5am to the agency's office. You fight your way to a position from which you can see the massive bulletin board where you see your name posted and assigned to a team. Then you split a sea of aspiring or affirmed grape pickers and plod on up to the counter, where you check a box next to your name. You have now officially shown up for work (one day I forgot to check the box, was recorded as a no show, and lost my seniority on the list and had to do the whole show up at 5am without a job for 5 days thing all over again). Now it is time to organize your passage to the vineyard. Sometimes you see a familiar face with a car who is in your team, and you're set. Other times you have to bully or beg someone for a ride. This isn't too hard because they get $7 for every passenger that they drive 20km or so. If you don't get a ride, you don't work, and someone else with a car takes your place. If you do get a ride, you sit around and wait and listen as the supervisors and organizers at the agency make racist comments and xenophobic jokes as they reject people who have woken up at 4am to hike to the office and ask for work.

Assuming you do get a ride, you cruise over to the vineyard. These next few hours make up my favorite part of the day. You see the sun rising over the vines, and eventually illuminating the grapes. At this moment the grapes are orbs that could easily turn into something so profound as wine. But you can't look for too long.

Picking for around $2.50 a bucket, you have to go fast. You are a slave to your own lust for cash. After all, isn't that why you came to Margaret River in the first place? You have no time to appreciate the beautiful place you're in. No time to talk to your partner across from you, in fact you are fighting this person for grapes because if you waste time and don't pick the big, lucrative bunches, they will. You have no time to drink water, and certainly no time to piss it out. You pick, you pick, and you pick. You cut, you cut and you cut. You cut your fingers as you cut the grapes. You cut yourself and you're bleeding? No time to stop for a Band-Aid! Bleed on the grapes! Fill the bucket! Get paid!

But on payday you only get around $200 for your week's work. Unless you're Mad Dog Maarten Grunstra, the Frysian who makes twice as much as you because he was God's gift to grape picking, or maybe vice versa, I'm still not decided. I have the pleasure of sharing a campsite with Maarten, and to what does he attribute his skill for liberating grapes from the shackles of vinedom?

Practice. The Mad Dog worked on a cherry farm, which he says were 10x harder to pick than grape. If you wanted to make money there, you had to be fast. There he was, on the windblown, dangerous cherry orchards of Tasmania. Maartin Grunstra learned to direct his arms, focus his head, and set his feet wide for to pick cherries. If you can make money picking cherries, he says, you can make more money picking grapes. I asked the Mad Dog about how to pick faster, and he mentioned the above, but emphasized focusing your head and mind above everything. As you're picking one cluster of grapes, you should always know where you're going to pick next, and next and next. Like a chessmaster dominating, Mad Dog is at least 7 moves ahead of the vine. This is why, when everyone meets up again at lunch after work, and everyone is asking everyone else the most boring and inconsequential question of all time, "How may buckets did you get today?" Mad Dog smiles, says some absurd number that is at least 10 buckets more than you, and contentedly rolls a cigarette. I try to focus like he does, planning my moves, my cuts and the way I'll place the grapes into the bucket, but in the end I lack the enduring focus that he has. I can pick in this way for an hour maybe, but no more. I lose focus. For his speed, for he is the fastest picker in the biggest grape harvest in Australia, he gets work every day.

I too, get work every day, but I think this is because I'm from California, and therefore recognizable. If they recognize you and see you've been coming in at 5am for 2 weeks, they'll try and give you work. If you don't speak English with a native accent though, this is not the case. There is a clear distaste for the French here. One morning, a supervisor was telling the team before we set out about the importance of wearing safety glasses at this particular vineyard. At the end of his lecture, he apologized for wasting everyone's time and said he didn't want "some fucking Frenchman" to come up to him and ask him for safety glasses because they didn't understand the message. Then there's my French campmate who has been in town and an employee of this agency for weeks before most people showed up and hasn't gotten more than 1 day of guaranteed work a week. The prejudices and preferences seem clear, but for my part, I don't feel an urgency to resist or protest. Yes, it is unfair, but it is mine and everyone's choice to stay here and be exploited on piece rates and wake up at 4am to make $200 a week. I hope for fairer and more lucrative jobs in Australia in the months to come. I am thoroughly enjoying myself living in the woods with my contingent of fellow grape pickers. Well, there is one who is not a picker, and that is the other Frenchman who speaks English with a German accent and is a winemaker and earns $1500 a week but lives in the woods simply because he likes it.

It is a wonderful lifestyle. I bathe in the river but without soap because that's nasty for the fragile river. You wouldn't know it though that I haven't used shampoo or soap in weeks! Well maybe you can, the ladies haven't necessarily been gravitating towards this planet. But this isn't for the ladies, this is for the cash.