A Minneapolis man paid me $300 to drive a car from the Twin Cities to his father in Portland. It was considerably nicer than my usual ride which smells of cats frying on the engine. The car was an Audi and its backseat made for good sleep. I bedded down amidst a downpour outside trailers in Forsyth, Montana. The next morning I cruised on and made it to Oregon without needing to car crash a second night. I delivered my ride to the old man and was picked up by my sister Brit. She introduced me to the house I’d soon inhabit as I made the transition from Midwest life to West Coast living.
I had my fun in Portland then two weeks later drove east to work a few weeks in North Dakota. This was Brit’s idea and so she came with. It was fall and things were dying out. Still, it wasn’t the monochromatic series of dead trees and empty fields that dominate my state come November. We’d be staying with our parents and working outdoors for long hours at a sugar beet piling site.
Beets are a leafy green crop whose pulpy and bulbous roots are processed into sugar. They’re a major industry in the Red River Valley and come harvest attract workers from across the country. Our father was a farmer so we’d been raised in large part on the money this crop provided. During beets he was always gone as the harvest runs in a 24/7 cycle, only taking pause when poor weather intervenes. Though I’d spent my childhood riding in trucks and tractors, I didn’t know what to expect from working a site. Ours would be just one of many to process the ten million tons that get dumped each October.
My sis and I applied for our jobs and were assigned to Oslo, a small Minnesota town with Norwegian roots. This was good luck as its just a few miles north of where we were raised. Our first day we dressed warm and drove up the river road as dawn wrested control from the night sky. We got onto a highway and finished out the final few miles to where we’d be working. The site consisted of a trailer the size of a bedroom, a big slab of concrete, and a massive machine that spat beets to form a sugar mountain.
The trailer was colloquially known as the scalehouse. It’s where trucks weighed in and out as they hauled their loads to our depository. It’s also where we punched in and were given instructions, being forewarned that the lady who’d train us spoke little English. Many of the beet workers have ties to Mexico and deep Texas. When I was growing up it was common to see families of migratory workers out hoeing beets along country roads, with the workers ranging from teens or younger to middle-aged and older. My father’s farm hired many of these people as did the others in our township and general region. The school I went to from August ’til May belonged to the children of these workers come summer. So I already knew I’d now be working with Spanish speaking people and looked forward to that fact.
Felipeta had worked the harvest for over twenty years and was to train us in. She lived part of the year in Oslo and the rest in Mexico. She was in her 50s and wore tattooed makeup like the other Mexican ladies I saw at the piler. She knew her job well and appreciated everyone as long as they did their work. Her daughter-in-law, Yvon, ran the piler from an operating booth that overlooked everything. In time I worked her job too. As I climbed to her spot she’d have Spanish music blasting on her phone and the space heater cranked high. “Thank you, Nolan” were her only words unless she needed to point out some special instruction.
Felipeta’s English was good enough, much better than my Spanish, and it didn’t really matter as the job was easy to learn. Guide trucks. Push a button. Shovel dirt. Each truck dumped their wares to the machine which guided them up a massive conveyor belt. From there it filtered dirt from beets then sent them along a towering boom that panned from side to side. Finally it spit the clean beets into an ever-filling pile. We’d guide the empty trucks toward us, fill their boxes with the dirt that shook off their beets, then shovel away what fell to the ground. Guide the next truck. Shovel again. The basics took but a few minutes to learn and it seemed a month of this could grow to be monotonous. It did. Thankfully the piler was populated by characters.
The person who ran the scalehouse was Berta, a tad-too-chatty lady in her fifties. Her hair had seemingly crawled off someone who died in a trailer circa 1988. She wore Sesame Street shirts that hung to her knees. She sold pop to the truckers and hung homemade signs inside her command post with sayings like “You gotta be a little crazy to work here.” Another was a tad sassy: “Everyone brings joy to this scalehouse. Some when they enter, others when they leave.” On break she’d sit in her Jimmy and blare LMFAO, chain-smoking and chatting with a friend who worked the piler alongside us.
My sister and I took our breaks inside the scale where we’d eat food our mom packed. I’d sip coffee to warm and wake myself from the cold and banal conditions. Wind and dirt were constant factors whose best antidote was hot tummy stuffing. Berta pelted us with conversation as we took our respite. Within a day or two she asked our opinions of everyone, her questions merely a preamble to her own thoughts on our foreman. “Doesn’t know how to do a damn thing.” Long before this I’d learned to navigate being someone’s complaint box, merely responding with a series of short and innocuous phrases. “Ah, I see.” “Oh dang.” “Shit, that’s weird.”
My neutrality paid off as days later Berta came storming into the scale after an outdoor chat with our boss. “Well he did it. He fucking fired me.” She screamed these words in anger. All conversation ceased as Berta stormed the small room to gather her possessions of clothing and unsold Mountain Dew. “That’s what I get for trying to stick up for the fucking peons.” She stomped out, slamming the door. A moment later she reemerged, ripping her posters of platitudes off the wall. “These are MINE.” She left once again, this time for real. Our foreman came in and what just happened was never openly acknowledged. But a drama bomb had just exploded and I had my tongue out to taste the fumes. My palate appreciated that which I fed it. I never saw Berta again. Our boss had done his best work yet.
Our foreman James was the best person you could possibly work for: intelligent, diplomatic, patient, funny, and unafraid to do the dirty work alongside his underlings. He’s also the biggest redneck I’ve ever met. He whipped shitties with his truck and at home drank beer atop his trailer. James was just a year older than me but aged in more brutal ways: balding, pockmarked, and he wore the skin of a smoker. He donned colored shades and drained cig after cig as he circled the piler, ensuring everything was working as intended.
During breaks James was conversational and his stories were wild. He was married to an older woman whose every tooth needed plucking. “I told her to save the three grand and let me pull them fuckers out.” One morning he spotted a roadkill horse on the way to work and said if no one got to it by the end of the day he’d fry its heart. At home James had a pitbull he seemed to love more than his wife. But once the dog died he was going to BBQ it just like the horse. “That’s fifty pounds of good meat and I’m not letting him go to waste.” As with all things he said this in a straightforward manner, as if it were well within the norm of everyone’s existence.
Though our coworkers were all odd and interesting, the two characters I enjoyed most were ones my sis and I created. Their names were Rhonda Joan Montana and Marcy Brett Favre “Go Packers” Johnson. Rhonda and Marcy were a pair of morbidly obese Midwestern gals who lived for drama and fucked each other’s sons and spouses. They were best friends and allegedly Lutherans yet shit talked each other and sinned all the way from swearing to Satanic worship. We stayed in character for hours a day, Brit as Rhonda and me as Marcy. Their accents were thick enough to make Fargo seem subtle.
“Marcy, your son Gunner let me suck his beet before the big game.”
“Ya he told me at dinner, just before grace.”
“Oh ya, gotta say grace.”
“I told the Lord, you just keep letting Rhonda suck that beet now. Gunner ain’t no good on the ice unless he’s been sucked.”
Rhonda and Marcy spoke up each time Brit and I were left alone. Their conversations helped distract from the constant work, the never-ending roar of machines, the ways in which the job wore us down.
Despite the drudgery I felt emboldened by my first work in years and so in jest began calling myself The Working Man. The work I was doing wasn’t much and wouldn’t last but reminded me of the long hours I put in on my father’s farm. I enjoyed being productive for once. I received a reality check when the mechanics and rougher characters came ’round as they were the real working men, not just dabblers. Still, The Working Man acquired new jobs away from scraping and shoveling as James gained trust in me. Before long I was greasing the piler and oiling its chains. After that he taught me to drive a payloader. For hours I’d haul dirt, scrape the runway, and pull trucks out of mud on rainy days. In its cab I had respite from the cold and got to dink off on my phone. It was great.
I also learned to run the piler, controlling trucks and building the beet mountain. From up in my operator’s booth I had a vista of the prairie but all I could see were lines of trucks and fields of muck, black as can be. The piler is an ugly place but come sunset the sight is beautiful. The western sky fades to a pink haze. Its backlit clouds glow like little wisps of black and gold. Then it turns from deep blue to black just as the moon punches in for its graveyard shift. Each night we returned home in darkness, our souls deadened down, awaiting the dawn light that’d guide us back for another day of money and muck.
Near the end we threw a piler potluck. Everyone brought food and fried up hamburgers on a folding chair. Dew was drank and laughs were had. Everyone asked everyone if we’d be back next year. We all outlined our post-piler plans, which mostly meant leaving the state as soon as ya could. James made us promise we’d be back for next year. I was so shot I couldn’t imagine ever doing this again. I’d reached my physical limit and was happy to be done. I liked all the responsibility placed in me, the feelings of productivity and accomplishment, the money made. But despite all that I was ready to get back to my do-nothing lifestyle. I hoped I wouldn’t have to work the harvest next year, that by then I’d have life more figured out and not be in such desperate need for a few thousand bucks. It didn’t work out that way.
I returned to the piler a year later, driving east from my home base of Oregon. Brit stayed back and I can’t blame her. I was assigned to a spot across the river in Minnesota, eight miles east of where I worked the year before. I didn’t have my familial piler family but didn’t mind starting somewhere new, if only for the fact that less would be expected of me. Everyone I worked with was fine and I didn’t pick up extra jobs like I had with James. It seemed The Working Man would not stir forth from the ashes of old times.
We didn’t get days off so I worked eleven straight in a series of twelve hour clips. I shoveled dirt, passed the time, passed out in bed, and woke to do it again. I spaced out lots and made it to the other side. The end of the year came and we had another potluck a couple days before wrapping. We all brought food and feasted in the scale. The skidsteer driver was an odd man who referred to beets as taters. Out at the piler he’d stop by to complain about people he disliked. Sometimes he gifted me cans of Sam’s Club soda when I helped him load sample bags of beets into his bucket. Now it was our potluck and he chose me as his verbal target.
He cornered me into a one-sided conversation while spooning rice and beans from a styrofoam cup. A dribble of sauce coated his chin as he described in detail the servings at an all ya can suck down seafood buffet.
“We’d crack a crate of snow crab and eat the biggest ones.” He rejoiced in the recollection.
The conversation continued in this manner. It didn’t finish until he told me what to eat in six states and how everyone he knew in Florida had been shot. As he shoveled it in from the cup I couldn’t help but think of the mess to come at his next morning sit-down. Despite his ramblings the potluck was fun and full of laughter. Our little scale was imbued with a sense of relief as we bonded over good food and the near-end of another season.
By the next day there was only busywork left and so we set to picking trash and sweeping slabs. Person by person the workers quit until there were only a few of us left. We scraped dirt off the piler and wrapped its electric cord. The year was over. The leftover food was distributed, mostly donuts and chips. I took Doritos and drove out, the last things catching my eye being the piler and a porta. I drove home to Mom and Dad’s up a dirt path whipped dusty by wind. The road was bordered on either side by fields of corn ready for harvest. Farmers jump from one job to the next but I was finished for another year. Eleven days of work out of 365. I guess I couldn’t complain. I got home, took a sauna, and crashed out.
I spent a few more weeks in North Dakota to see friends and kayak the river. I paddled alone and slept ashore at night. As I stroked through muddy water I thought on how even though I’d changed my location much of life remained the same. On how I needed to get it together, a refrain that’s repeated through my head for years. Despite the echo it never takes hold. But if I didn’t get things back on track it’d mean another year of hellish labor, shoveling up muck in some industrial shithole. If not at the piler then somewhere else. And if somewhere else then it could start a chain that’d last a lifetime.
I found a bottle of brandy floating down the river and drank it as I slept on muddy shores, staring at stars through drunken eyes. Thoughts blotted by brandy drifted through my mind. Being out here was more in line with the life I was meant to be living. I didn’t want to burn out my body just to get by. I was smart. I could do things. Fuck the piler. I woke the next morning and paddled on, unaffected by anything thought the night before. Booze is just as quick a conduit to reflection as it is denial and deflection. I finished up my trip and prepared to head home to Oregon. I meant to drive by the beet pile for one last look but never did. That didn’t matter. I knew it’d be waiting for me next year.