My Stint as a Cherry Sorter

You may not know this, but I have not always led the glamorous life that I do now. My very first job, in fact, demanded early morning risings, long hours, and repetitive and sometimes back-breaking labor, all with little respect and fairly low wages (on second thought, this is sounding oh, so familiar to my current job as a mother). But at the time, I was determined to break out from under the thumb of my parents who had only to wave a dollar bill in front of my face and I would come running like Pavlov’s dogs to vacuum the van, wash all the windows in the house, mow the lawn, or spend my Friday evening corralling my 5 younger siblings. They were slave drivers and I was cheap labor.

But no more. The word on the street (a.k.a. the seventh grade hallway) was that Nielsen’s Fruit Stand was hiring cherry sorters and said cherry sorters only had to be twelve years old. The joy of it! Of course, they weren’t hiring just anybody. A Nielsen cherry sorter had to report to duty at 6 a.m. sharp, work until 2 p.m. in the large shed in the orchard, take only a 30 min lunch and two 10 min breaks, and, most of all, a Nielsen cherry sorter had to be hired by old, stone-faced Mr. Nielsen himself.

My mom drove me to Nielsen’s the next afternoon. I was sure all of the sorting jobs would be gone—given to the kids who had come the day before or to Mr. Nielsen’s many grandchildren who had an automatic “in” into the cherry world, but nonetheless, I approached him with the cool and confidence I knew I would need in those long days as a cherry sorter, especially when dealing with my more difficult coworkers—the cherry pickers. I instructed my mom to inspect the produce while I handled the situation. “Mr. Nielsen, sir,” I said, “I’m interested in summer work as a cherry sorter.” He looked up from the register, and, being the astute judge of character that he was, he hired me on the spot.

Luckily (for my parents, anyway), Krista, my friend up the street, and her coolest of cool, sixteen-year-old sister Shalese were also those who had made the cut into the cherry sorting world. Shalese agreed to drive us to and from work every day.

That first day, I woke up, eager to begin my first paid job and to reap the monetary rewards. I had dreamt of what I would do with my money—the Guess jeans that I would buy, the Esprit shirts. Thanks to cherry sorting, I would be known throughout the junior high as a fashion diva. Shalese and Krista pulled up right on time in Shalese’s beat-up Dodge hatchback. I climbed in and we did what we would do every morning for the next month. We sped down Brigham City’s main street with the windows down, singing at the top of our lungs along with Neil, “I’d much rather be . . . forever in blue jeans.”

Needless to say, cherry sorting was not anywhere near fun. In fact, I hated it like I had never hated anything before. The shed was dark and hot, the cherries were disgusting (at least the ones I had to pick out), and my legs and eyes hurt after standing and focusing for so long. But of all the many different jobs I have been privileged to work so far in my life, I remember that one the most—not just my hatred for it, but also the satisfaction of sticking it out, of knowing that I earned my check and that I could do hard things. But to this day, I will not eat cherries.

Tell me about your most memorable job or your most valuable job. What made it memorable or valuable? Could it have turned out differently?

(Photo by Matthew Hirsch.)

About Catherine

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

9 thoughts on “My Stint as a Cherry Sorter

  1. I am from Nevada and am embarrassed to admit that our state “flower” is the sagebrush. Yep, sagebrush — the weed that covers our mostly brown state. One of my MANY crappy, short-lived jobs when I was at BYU was to rototill the research farm (or whatever they called it before they turned it into a parking lot). This half-block of land was filled with sagebrush and rabbitbrush and I was to rototill AROUND them (not over them) for about 18 hours a week. Why would anyone try to preserve sagebrush???? But, I was totally independent with that job, just as long as I put in my 20 hours per week, I didn’t have to work with anyone, or have a boss, or wear a uniform, and I could go work whenever I chose. Plus, I got the added bonus of telling people that I had a job as a ho-er. Hee hee.

  2. I spent one very dusty fall picking potatoes as an eighth grade junior high student with a silo full of flirty Latinos and high school boys. That was the scariest and hardest job I remember but it was also my one of my first. It was no picnic-warding off proposals in Spanish without offending anybody, and keeping my teeth from rattling out of my head, and touching a rotten potato (UGH!!) By the end of the first week I was shampooing, nose-blowing and earcleaning and the dirt just kept coming…somehow I survived and the dirt finally all washed out.

  3. My worst job was the summer after high school. I applied for several jobs, and made the mistake of taking the first job that called me back, for a market research company. This meant that my job was to cold call people and try to talk them into taking our survey. I know it could have been worse, but I hated it. What perhaps made it worse is that I got offered a nice secretarial job a week later (if I’d been smart I would have taken it and quit the first job). In any case, the company had hired on a lot of people for a big job, but when that job was over, they didn’t have enough work for everyone so we were supposed to call in before our shift and listen for our worker number. I always prayed that they wouldn’t say my number (so much for learning about the value of money through work).

  4. My most valuable job was a one-off, being a clown at a party for a (spoilt) kid I babysat. I realised at that party that my time and self-respect was worth much more than a dollar amount. I was asked to clown at other parties, but turned them all down.

    My first ‘real’ job was at a tiny country store, with wooden floors, dusty counter and no screens on the doors or windows – in the tropics, in summer, with no air-conditioning.

    That’s where I first gained an appreciation for people who said ‘thank you’ to people serving them, the bliss of walk-in freezers, and the attractiveness of guys that got dirty as part of their work.

  5. I think one of my most memorable, and short-lived jobs, was the one summer I tried to be a telemarketer.

    I thought I could talk to people that couldn’t see me, I really tried to believe in the product, but I had a problem. I felt like I was intruding on people (which I was) and I felt like a jerk when I had to give three rebuttals to each “no”.

    The worst night was when we were selling an accident insurance policy. I got an insurance agent on the phone. He made me feel so stupid for trying to pass myself off as an insurance salesman.

    As soon as I could find an excuse to work for somebody else, I quit.

    I learned that even over-achievers have weaknesses and there is no shame in walking away from something that you just don’t have the ability to do.

  6. What memories you bring back! I was a teenager in the corn belt of Iowa, and the brutal summer labor was corn “detasseling.” The corn was grown for seed corn, and was planted with two varieties in a field. One of the varieties would need to be pollinated by the other, so the corn tassels would have to be removed from one variety. There were tractors with arms off of each side, each with several baskets that each held 2 girls. The tractor would drive down the rows and you would pull the corn tassels out of each ear of corn on your row as you drove past. It was HARD work. We were sunburned and our hands blistered no matter what we did. We stood in those baskets on those tractors for hours each day, and we were exhausted when we were done. It’s certainly the most money I ever made in two weeks as a teenager, but I wouldn’t go back and do it again the next year. And I learned (from watching other people) the physical importance of a Sabbath that summer.

  7. My first job was working to help address and stuff envelopes that mailed out The Pit Bull Terrier Gazette. It was then that I realized that there really IS an organization/association for everything.

  8. I had a number of house-cleaning jobs starting when I was about 12. I’m not sure how I got them now as I don’t remember any connection to the families I worked for. Maybe from my piano teacher that I paid for with cleaning. I was pretty good at it and made good money that went to buy clothes.

    Maybe it was all that housecleaning early on that spoiled it for me now. I am not very good at it now that it’s for my house the job needs doing.

  9. I also spent a few weeks in a potato pit, pulling rottenness off an endless conveyor belt at age 14. No Mexicans proposed to me, however, but they did to the girl next to me.

    That brought about mixed feelings–what was I, chopped liver?–and eeewwww, did I really just wish for a proposal?

    One night I just couldn’t get warm; even after the steamy shower to remove the endless dirt, so I crawled under a cocoon of covers and jacked the heat up as high as it would go.

    At 1:00 a.m. I awoke from one of the weirdest dreams EVER–I had been bouncing down the belt along with the potatoes, in an OVEN with my grimy gloves between my knees, curled up in the fetal position.

    The money was glorious! I bought contacts (surely NOW I was sexy) and donated to a family Christmas fund anonymously. $800 in less than a month! But I was never happier for “Spud Harvest Vacation” to end and school to resume.

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