My Days of Engine Whine and Strawberries

Without wanting to make this an essay about my money woes, let me just begin by asking: Do you have a furniture store in your area that runs TV ads saying, “No payments, no interest for 12 months?” Well, the wife and I fell pretty hard for one of those ads, and now it’s month 15, which in brief is how I came to be looking for some part-time work.

My wife is from Duplin County, North Carolina: farming country in the eastern part of the state, about 70 miles from where we live in Raleigh. Her sister’s husband owns some land down there, and has a number of business interests - raising hogs is the biggest one. The last two years, Mike has planted ten acres of strawberries. The strawberry harvest lasts six to eight weeks (April and May, roughly), and during that time he sets up several roadside stands for selling berries. He has stands in some county-seat type towns, Fayetteville and Greenville and Smithfield, and he has a couple of sites on the outskirts of Raleigh. I let Mike know that I would be interested in working for him on weekends at one of the Raleigh spots, and he agreed to hire me on.

Frankly, I suspect Mike’s strawberry business is break-even at best. He enjoys it, it’s a nice break from raising hogs, and he hopes to develop it into something bigger, but a major purpose seems to be to provide part-time jobs for friends and family members. During the week my wife’s mother is often selling at this spot.

I have never been to Mike’s strawberry field, but this is how the operation has been explained to me: They pick every morning during the season, weather permitting. The pickers are migrant workers, Mexicans, who start work before 5 AM. They earn a dollar per box they pick. The boxes are loaded into a couple of work vans and delivered to the vendors. I get a phone call at home at 8:00 or so telling me what time to be at my spot to meet the van. It’s never terribly early, 9:30 or 10:00, usually.

“This area where I sell is on the seam between the old South and the new South.”

This area where I sell is on the seam between the old South and the new South. By that I don’t mean that it’s unique; on the contrary, it’s fairly typical of a lot of areas in the Sunbelt states. Fifteen years ago this would have been nothing but farmland, with a lonely house here and there near the side of the road, the way Duplin County still mostly looks. But greater Raleigh, spreading outward like kudzu vine, is in the process of overtaking and transforming this place. It’s early in its transition now. To get here I drive on Old Stage Road. I pass some tobacco fields, I pass a large and apparently prosperous dairy farm, and a couple of ramshackle trailer parks. Then, jarringly close to the trailer parks, is a new housing development built around a golf course.

I have been inside one of those golf course houses - my four-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party by one of her preschool friends who moved there recently. Nice family; the father is a pharmaceutical salesman; the party was fairly lavish as kids’ parties go, with a magician and a juggler hired to perform.

Past the golf course development, there’s another tobacco field, then a new elementary school (“A Governor’s School of Excellence 2002,” announces a big sign out front). Then we reach my intersection, Old Stage and a road called SR 1010 on the map, “Ten Ten” in local parlance. My stand is in the parking lot of a general store/gas station. It’s a locally owned store, the kind Mike has had the best luck getting permission to set up at; a chain outlet like an Exxon or something has policies and liability issues and the like that just make it too complicated. My stand consists of a tent canopy with open sides and a large table underneath-actually, a sheet of plywood nailed to two sawhorses. There’s a big sign reading “Strawberries,” red letters on white.

“It’s a locally owned store, the kind Mike has had the best luck getting permission to set up at; a chain outlet like an Exxon or something has policies and liability issues and the like that just make it too complicated.”

I have brought a canvas camp chair and a cooler of drinks. I wear a t-shirt, cargo shorts (having a lot of pockets for bills and change is helpful), jogging shoes. I have brought a book or magazine.

The van arrives, and the driver and I unload my boxes of berries. We work quickly, we hardly pause to speak, and we’re done in three or four minutes. The driver gives me my pouch of start-up cash, and he’s gone, and I’m on my own.

I spend a few minutes arranging boxes, trying to pick out the biggest, reddest, handsomest berries to put in front to catch the customer’s eye. But it hardly matters; they’re almost all perfect. These strawberries are positively voluptuous-vastly superior to the ones found in a supermarket. Sweet and, especially early in the season, juicy-firm in consistency. It doesn’t take many years of living in this area to develop an inner calendar: be on the lookout for strawberries in May. The season is short, so you’ve got to get those fresh berries while you can.

The boxes are big, 3.5 quarts of strawberries each. That’s too much for some customers, and I will break a box down into quart containers if someone asks, but mostly I sell whole boxes. I am paid a flat rate per day, cash-I pay myself out of the till. The goal is to sell all my boxes. I nearly always sell out. On my best day I sold out at about 2:00 PM. More typically I am out here till 5:00 or 6:00.

A hell of a lot of traffic comes through this intersection. Both these roads carry more traffic than they were built for, and I’ll bet both will be widened from two lanes to four one of these years. My table is perhaps 60 feet from the storefront, 40 feet from the gas pumps, and not 20 feet from the side of Old Stage Road. Of course, this makes this a great spot for a roadside vendor. A lot of people see this stand on their daily commute, and if they don’t stop at first sight, many of them will make a mental note to stop later.

“I notice people’s speech, and guess from their accents and other details whether they are native to this area.”

They pull their cars right up close to my tent, usually, and get out. Some are smartly dressed, driving new SUVs or German sedans - these are golf-course people, I figure. Some appear to be from that trailer park I see on my way here. But most of them, I wouldn’t rush to characterize with a label like those. I notice people’s speech, and guess from their accents and other details whether they are native to this area. (It’s about 50-50, I’d say.) I see a range of ages and ethnicities. My customers number a few more women than men. After a few weeks out here I am impressed with how many people are working on a Saturday or Sunday like me. Some are men in pickup trucks. The men are white or black or Latino. They might be buying a quart of berries to eat while they drive from one work site to the next. Or they might be buying a big box to take home to the family.

Of the transplants to this community, I figure some have come to Raleigh from smaller towns in the state, like my wife did-part of the shift within the South from the farms and small towns to the suburbs. A few are immigrants to the United States. Some have come from other parts of the country, maybe for retirement, maybe for a job. One afternoon a woman is looking over the berries, choosing the nicest box, when another woman walks up and asks me a question, and the first asks, “What part of New York are you from?” They’ve never laid eyes on each other before, but they grew up about ten miles apart on Long Island, and here they are, 40 years on, meeting at a roadside strawberry stand in North Carolina.

When I’ve seen my mother-in-law working out here, she has a line of sales patter she uses. I don’t do much selling, really. If someone walks up to the table, she’ll usually make a buy. Are these berries grown locally? she’ll sometimes ask. Well, fairly locally-about 70 miles away. Are they safe to eat without washing them first? They certainly are: the grower doesn’t use any chemical pesticides. (I laugh to myself a bit when I make Mike out to be an environmentalist. He wouldn’t hesitate to use pesticide if it improved his net yield.) "May I taste one?" “Help yourself” - and that means the sale is made. My standard parting line is, “Thank you. Enjoy them.” And the standard response is, “Oh, we will.”

The local types, especially the men, will sometimes pull up to me and chat through their driver’s side window, not intending to buy, not even getting out of the car. Just being neighborly. One older man tries to haggle with me over the price of strawberries, telling me what he can get them for at the Farmer’s Market. He’s pleasant enough, but I’m not too much for haggling, mostly because I don’t need to haggle. Another man asks me about my kids, and we make small talk about kids for awhile.

One man pulls up, middle-aged, with a deep North Carolina drawl, driving a crappy old Chevy, and he has a toy poodle riding in the car with him, and as he talks it dawns on me that he’s flirting with me. This is one thing I never expected to happen in the parking lot of the general store on Old Stage Road. The conversation grows a little dull and a little uncomfortable, so I nod with minimal politeness until he decides to move on.

Here in these borderlands, where a few miles in one direction people work designing network routers, while a few miles in the other direction they work processing hogs or chickens for fleshly consumption, few of us are sure of our relationship to “the South,” even some of the Southerners. We didn’t move to North Carolina, we moved to Raleigh, or to “the Triangle,” or even “to take that job” with IBM or whomever. We’re a little uneasy about the real North Carolina, the old North Carolina of tobacco and textile plants and migrant labor. Even though we pass stark reminders of the old North Carolina as we drive to and from work.

“But strawberries kind of help knit everything together. They are a true native product; you can’t buy them at a Safeway store five hundred miles from here.”

But strawberries kind of help knit everything together. They are a true native product; you can’t buy them at a Safeway store five hundred miles from here. They’re so wholesome, delicious and yet virtuous, these beautiful berries that were in the field just a few hours ago, then were picked by hand. To a city person they’re an exotic luxury item. To someone from the country, they’re a simple, familiar pleasure. They’re perishable. No chemical pesticides were used. No warning labels, no harmful side effects.

A number of the people out here I recognize as repeat customers. We smile and chat, they remark how much they enjoyed the last batch of berries they bought. They know the season won’t last forever, so they want to get another box while they can.

I’m out there one Saturday and it’s raining pretty hard, and a woman pulls up. She’s dressed in a housecoat and bedroom slippers. She’s African-American, elderly, and greatly overweight, and it takes a lot of exertion for her to walk, and especially to get in and out of her compact car, low to the ground. She has a passenger with her in the car, another elderly lady. To cross from where she’s parked over to my table, she has to walk through puddles of rain water, and her slippers are getting soaked, her feet must be soaking wet and cold. She has her mind set on some fresh strawberries, and nothing else seems to bother her. She selects a good box, and she has her cash ready.

“Enjoy them.”

“Oh, we will.”

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