The year was 1988. I had spent most of the autumn hoping that the job came through. Interviews, physical, pee-test... all to pick mushrooms. It was a union job at the world's largest underground mushroom farm--employed over 1000 people.
I got the job.
October 26th, I donned a hard hat with a miner's lamp on it-- powered by the battery hanging off of my miner's belt. I carried my picking knife and my gloves on the belt too. Thirteen of us started that day. All seemed like nice enough people.
I had made the jump from service industry jobs to the real deal. I was big time. And I was enthusiastic!
We boarded the "buggy" --electric and big enough to haul 17 pickers plus the driver and the crew leader. We started out in the training crew, and that was pretty good. It was dark. Dang. It was really dark. And it was damp and sort of musty smelling. All day we picked, picked, picked. Hardly talking--we knew we had to pick a minimum pounds per hour to make the union.
Within a couple of weeks, the ranks had been thinned by three--and a new training crew of thirteen had started to work. That pushed all 10 of us newbies out onto the regular crews. There were 20 of them, with up to 16 pickers each on any given day.
To say I was shocked is a grave understatement. I wanted to run back to the training crew crying for sane people, crying for nice people. But I shut my mouth and picked.
I lucked into being on my oldest sister's crew a couple of days. She told me, "Don't run your mouth until you can run your knife."
The days stretched on, and my picking speed increased...but my inner conflict between needing the job for the money, and feeling I wasn't where I belonged, grew daily. It was grueling--six days on, one day off--trial by fire meant to make or break. We needed 60 working days to make the union.. The balls of my feet swelled up and met the swollen pads of my toes. But, I didn't tell a soul, because I knew I'd never make the union.
It was my 29th birthday. Two weeks to go to get my 60 days in. The inner conflict was raging...and the need to work was losing momentum. This can't be worth it. I was on a crew that had silent women and vulgar men on it. By the end of the day, I was in the back of my row, picking a bottom tray with my back turned to the rest of the crew. Several of the men on the crew were talking about raping women, cutting them up and putting the parts in garbage bags then tossing them over the hill.
I had done it. I had stepped into a vast void...not just voluntarily, but enthusiastically. It was an empty place. No joy dwelt there, no humanity, no goodness...
I was crying. Quietly. Oh my god--I couldn't let anyone see that they had completely devastated my sensibilities. Because , then it would have really begun. And even in a work force of a thousand, news spreads fast; I would have been a target no matter where I went. There was no one to tell and no way to stop it without making it worse.
Christmas week, I was on THE worst crew of all of the crews. After being told by the buggy driver that he liked my braids and that they probably came in handy for my husband--saved wear and tear on my ears, I stayed as far away from any of them as I could. I could hear them laughing and snickering.
A week later, I made the union. And as the months rolled forward, I began to let go of whatever it was that made me feel shock at the way people behaved...and worst of all, the way they treated each other. It made it easier.
Before I knew it, a year had gone by. I was earning a good living, talking like a truck driver, and I knew I was as tough as any of them. I could stand tall...I was a bonafide hard-ass with a mill-hunky attitude. I was a survivor. I never thought about at what cost, though.
Another year rolled by.
One day, I was walking into a restroom at work, and an older woman, one of the sweetest ladies I have ever met, was walking out. Several of us struck up a conversation and it turned to someone being particularly mean at work. I can't recall what I said, but I know that when everyone else walked away--except for that sweet woman and me, she said, "I never thought that you would change. You were the nicest girl when you started here."
Her words cut me to the bone.
There was no malice, just honesty in her words. And the way she looked at me...it wasn't pity. It wasn't accusation. I sensed it was more like she was trying to tell me, "You have changed, but you don't have to be like this."
I could blame the behavior of 99% of the people there on a lot of things. Darkness, lack of inhibition created by darkness, a monotonous job--coupled with sensory deprivation that left absolutely nothing for entertainment but to pick on each other. I could make excuses and blame it on a lot of things. For them, I will. But not for me. I knew better. I had gone from a kind, caring person--to someone who just went with the flow.
There is a void waiting in everyone's life. Some are big; some are small. They are places that are pretty empty of all that is beautiful and precious to us human beings. And they all present a choice. We may not be able to control the situation around us, but we are able to control the way we react to it.
I made a choice. I was going to be better than the situation. I was going to be better than the person who had gone down a slippery slope while hiding behind excuses. I saw a dark side of me while I was in that void. And thank goodness for Carol P, who did the nearly unthinkable---and held a mirror up before my eyes, forcing me to see something ugly...something less than it could be.