The sun hovering low on the horizon brings the day to a close. There is a murmur among the men. Shoulders are hunched and slack after eight hours supporting the bucket. There is relief and laughter. The van idles with Winston “Ricey” Smith at the wheel.
At the clothesline behind the bunkhouse, the men scrape rubber boots off their feet, hang damp socks to dry in the evening air, gather up laundry, and catch a smoke. Screen doors open and slap closed. Inside, the hissing showers add to the din of patois chatter, laughter, and the trumpeting theme music of NPR’s All Things Considered. Harvesting apples is exhausting athletic work. The men slide into bunks and cover their eyes with bent elbows for a quick nap. On their metal-framed bunk beds, sheets are hung to make a tent for a little pocket of privacy. Men occupy the same bunk year after year. Bunk mates are bunk mates for life.
Taking off work clothes and perching reading glasses onto their faces, the men transform back into their civilian selves and once again look like someone’s dad or grandfather. The younger men restore their youth by pulling on skinny jeans and fashionable tee-shirts, tucking in earbuds, and retreating into spastic video games on their cell phones.
The room empties out as the men make their way to the commissary on the far east side of the camp complex. Cooks ladle mounds of rice and meat with thick brown gravy over dumplings. Heaping plates of calories and protein to replenish energy spent filling apple bins all day. Men quietly sit at long picnic tables hunched over dinner plates while local TV news echoes in the room. A favorite evening drink is a combination of Guinness beer and eggnog, or a mixture of beer and Ensure, sometimes mixed with dried oats for extra calories and protein. There isn't much activity outside the camp buildings at night. After dinner, the men retire to their bunks, grab Bibles, murmur into cell phones, or gather around TVs for the evening news or reality shows. Reggae music plays softly from every corner. The dayroom is filled with boisterous conversation and the loud cracks of domino pieces from heavy-handed slaps on the table. Bodies relax on mattresses and faces go slack into sleep. Around 10pm, the overhead bank of fluorescent lights is switched off. Intense snoring fills the bunkhouse. It’s best to fall asleep quickly to avoid the cacophony. Neville Betty describes the noise, “Like a truck going uphill, like a chainsaw. Terrible.”
The men have been working seven days a week to finish the harvest and clean the orchard before the first bus departs later in the week. The sound of the harvest has changed. Most of the apples have been taken from the trees. Now the crews begin the season’s most arduous task: collecting drops from the ground to be processed into juice.
Neville Betty moves like a bear. Bent in half at the waist, his hands sweep across the ground grabbing every apple in reach and dropping them into a five-gallon bucket. He leans on to the bucket with two hands for an almost imperceptible moment of rest before propelling his legs and body along again, ducking under the low-hanging branches. Within seconds the bucket is full. He pops straight up, walks quickly to the bin, tosses a load of apples in like dousing a fire with water, then bends himself in half again to begin filling another bucket.
The men are paid by the piece for gathering drops. The more bins they fill, the more money they make. Exhausting and painful as it is, the men hammer down on the task like a collective broom sweeping the orchard floor clean. The wooden bins, able to hold 750 lbs of apples, fill up quickly and are just as quickly slid away by tractors. A second crew follows behind with machetes to chop out weeds and suckers from around the trees where rodents take shelter and feast on bark during the winter. After the men pass through, the orchard looks freshly scrubbed.