Friday, October 22, 2010

Sugar Mountain: Week Three

The sugar-beet harvest eases into its third week. During our four days of heat-related shutdowns, we lose one of our crew to over-partying; a notorious heavy drinker, he started puking blood and had to be hospitalized. Someone goes into his tent and finds a half-gallon of vodka and a bottle of disturbingly brown piss. It's a sad situation, but there's little time to reflect--Tuesday we're called back into work. Back out on the piler things have mellowed considerably. Tweedledee, with his endless, nonsensical blathering, has been moved to a different piler, leaving only his cousin Tweedledum. Tweedledum proves a bounteous source of comic relief. Waddling around like an overweight child, chainsmoking grape-flavored Swisher Sweets, Tweedledum radiates feeble-mindedness. "Man, I like hot dogs," he'll state, apropos of nothing, and suddenly he's off on a half-hour discourse on hot dogs, half of which I can't make out over the noise of the machine. I stand there and nod, with the feeling that I'm peering into brand new circle of Hell. He has difficulty with the communications system we've set up for cross-piler number-exchanging, which calls for counting out with one's fingers, a talent just beyond his reach.

The workload has lightened--fewer trucks are coming through. Borrowing an idea from my friend Luke, who works on the next piler over, I get a pair of headphones and some books on tape from the local library: audio from the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates and a tape of Merle Haggard reading from his autobiography, My House of Memories. It's good entertainment, makes the time pass. My hours with Merle Haggard are oddly intimate. He comes off as a bit of a smug asshole, as he recounts his numerous divorces and career highlights (with particular attention paid to his encounters with presidents Nixon and Reagan) but his reading-voice is strangely soothing. I'm almost able to fall into the rhythm of the 12-hour shift. We allow ourselves increasingly long lunch-breaks. As the harvest begins to come to a close, a certain mania seems to take hold around Minn-Dak. Our piler-operators sit up in their booth chugging bottle after bottle of 5-hour energy shots and fucking around; they remind us not to work too much, because who gives a fuck? As night falls the factory takes on a psychedelic quality, a nocturnal blurring of reality. Watching trillions of sugar-beets tumble interminably into the pile lends a special warpage to the fabric of time and space. I allot myself a strict one cigarette per hour, in a pointless attempt at time-structuring.

Word starts to come down that the harvest is wrapping up, but there are only wildly speculative rumors as to when exactly we'll be finished--some say definitely Sunday, while others swear Wednesday. Our boss, an alarmingly-upbeat workhorse named Paul, comes around to Luke's piler with a cryptic message. "No matter what, you'll get paid for Sunday," he promises, before picking up a beet and accidentally (?)lobbing it through the operator's-booth window, effectively opening up the harvest's final, hedonistic chapter. After-hours revelry is jacked up considerably back at the camp. Heavy metal blares continuously. Everybody is talking about what they're going to do with their beet money. The punks are scattering once again across the map, some to Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, some to Kansas City or Virginia. After our last, short shift at Minn-Dak we rush to the liquor store and buy up massive quantities of strong stuff. Then there's a bit of blur--some games of pool at the Sportsman's Lounge, someone stomping through the park around sunrise, blasting away on a clarinet...

The last night in camp I'm able to pin down Luke for an interview, which we conduct down by the river. I've been meaning to interview a bunch of the punks, make some sort of Human Interest story out of it, but it never quite feels right. It feels too artificial, as if my time at beets was some exercise in immersion journalism. Still, I'm curious what people have to say about the harvest. Luke has been working beets longer than just about anyone here--this is his seventh year. He's a quiet young man with a mischievous grin. He doesn't really partake in any of the camp infighting (as in any group there are meaningless divisions, and my camp under the pavilion has a punk reputation, whereas the camp inside the Chateau is dismissed as a bunch of PC artfags), preferring to lay low and practice his tuba. I'll try to get to the interview in a later post--as a seven-year veteran, Luke has some insightful things to say about the beet harvest and its unusual workforce. And then in the morning, we strike camp, rich men and rich women.

Some pictures--
Welles Memorial Park:

Wahpeton's main drag:
Our island home:

On the piler:

In the tare shack:
Tare shack graffiti:
Ian in the bobcat:
Piler abstraction:
Ian in the tare shack:
View from sugar mountain: 

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