It is with a combination of alarm and mirth that I realize what I’ve become: a 29-year-old curmudgeon.

Maybe I describe myself thus for lack of a better term, but I find myself cynical, jaded and short-tempered in the face of the idiocy surrounding me. I’m pretty good at suppressing these feelings and putting on a convincing game face, or at least I think I am, since I don’t get the feeling that most people are as observant of others as I am or can match my emotional IQ, which is another way of saying that there are a lot of self-absorbed motherfuckers who don’t care about the feelings of their fellows in this land; but regardless, I’m rarely as placid on the inside as I presumably appear on the outside.

My curmudgeonliness is the result of more bad experiences than I can properly catalogue, including a rising tide of disorienting family drama and bad manners that is demoralizing in the extreme. Multiple open-ended stints of farm work for hippie relatives in Ashland over the course of five years haven’t helped, either: being a square in Ashland but not having the balls or the abrasiveness to speak my mind, I pretty much went along with whatever bullshit the locals happened to be peddling at the moment, even though much of it was extremely distasteful. Bizarrely, I channeled the Queen; my mouth may have told a different story, but the consistent party line was, “Ah, yes, Her Majesty very much enjoyed the tikka masala.” Usually, anyway. The trick is to just go with the flow. When told that a soccer player at a royal reception is from Germany, ask him, “Do you come from Germany, do you?”

One of the few recent ill experiences that I really understand is my entanglement this fall with a group of farm hands known as “the kids.” Unlike so much of the bullshit in my life, the kids never made my head swim. I knew exactly what was wrong with them from the start, and I knew exactly how to fix it. That isn’t to say that I had the latitude to fix the problem; they weren’t my employees and I was Farmer Uncle’s subordinate, so I couldn’t exactly tell him to fire them from their unpaid positions (Stuff White People Like: unpaid internships), but it was a clear-cut case of goddammit these fools should have nothing to do with a winery.

The kids wrecked their car just north of Siskiyou Pass in early October during the first major rainfall of the season. All four of them and both of their dogs came through unscathed, but it took an hour or two for the Oregon State Police to clear the accident scene. The driver, Hester, told me afterwards that she thought the trooper was an unreasonable hardass for citing her when she was so shaken up, which said a little something about her worldview. Her vehicle was unregistered, and a citation for driving an unregistered vehicle is exactly what a reasonable person would expect for spinning out on the Interstate in a manner necessitating a response by two Oregon State Troopers during a rainstorm. OSP is the few, the proud, the 300, so that’s almost one percent of the force. They’re a class act, not officious assholes like some cops, but they can’t be expected to be totally chill, man, when you spin out your unregistered car on the Interstate, man. They’ll probably harsh your mellow with unwavering professionalism, but harsh it they will. They didn’t go to Academy and dress up like that in order to give scofflaws a pass for nearly shutting down a freeway.

As Farmer Uncle told me, the kids had “a classic Ashland story.” After they spun out, they were without a car, so they had to defer their planned trip to Umpqua Hot Springs. They somehow hooked up with the Vegetable Man, Farmer Uncle’s vegetable grower and live-in farm manager and caretaker, who allowed them to crash in the tent encampment and share the frequent communal meals in exchange for doing whatever jobs he assigned them several hours a day.

A number of the assignments were with Farmer Uncle, sometimes at Farmer Uncle’s request but more often, it seemed, at the Vegetable Man’s request; on a number of occasions I got the vibe (fuck, I’m talking like an Ashlander) that the Vegetable Man had told Farmer Uncle to give the kids jobs to help them earn their keep.

A regular refrain that I started hearing from Farmer Uncle was how much he enjoyed “that nineteen-year-old energy.” I didn’t. As it happened, Farmer Uncle’s corollary refrain was, “they remind me of why I didn’t like to hire people until they were twenty-two or twenty-three.” What the kids reminded me of was why I liked to fire brat packs, or never hire them in the first place. I’ve never had the opportunity to do either one, having never been an employer, so the other thing that the kids reminded me of was how awful it is to have any supervisory authority over other people whatsoever.

I paint with a broad brush; I know full well that there are people whom it would be a pleasure to supervise, and that some of them are of a normally bratty age. The problem is that Ashlanders paint with an even broader brush. Hippies like Farmer Uncle and the Vegetable Man have trouble admitting to any sort of discernment whatsoever between acceptable and unacceptable employees. That’s why I had to put up with the kids even after they repeatedly threw a wrench into the works by being careless. After a while, Farmer Uncle started to lose his tolerance, too, which means something when dealing with unpaid employees in a loosey-goosey hippie workplace.

One of the kids, Hester, was a pretty good employee. She had grown up on an Amish-style family farm in Maine, with small plots of pretty much everything that suited to the climate, so she knew a thing or two about farming. The problem was that there was only one of her and three of the others.

Probably the worst of the kids was Kyle, a jittery dude from Clackamas County. The first few times I saw Kyle, he scared me because he had a somewhat disturbed look in his eyes and a way of walking less with a stride than with unpredictable jolts in unpredictable directions. Kyle’s understanding of agriculture was pretty well summed up by an unimaginable conversation that he started with me while we were harvesting grapes:

“”Today is a great day to work in the grape orchard!”

“Actually, it’s called a vineyard,” I replied. I was stunned.

“Oh. These are trees, right?”

“No, the grapes grow on vines.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, they don’t grow up on their own.”

At 21, Kyle was the oldest of the kids. All of the others were 19. I would have been appalled to have to tell a twelve-year-old that grapes don’t grow on trees, because at some point one can be expected to have learned these things just by being present on the planet. Or maybe not.

Kyle’s girlfriend, Kelsey, was also from Clackamas County and equally ignorant of agriculture, but she never scared me. She struck me as eccentric but basically normative. The two of them as a work crew, however, were a disaster. Farmer Uncle often had the two couples work as separate teams, each of them responsible for picking a row or two. A week and a half or so before the last harvest of the season the vineyard was frost-defoliated, lignifying the cluster stems. Formerly firmly attached to the vines, the clusters could now be snapped off with a light twist of the fingers. Kyle and Kelsey left at least two of their rows thoroughly littered with fallen clusters, forcing Farmer Uncle and me to do more work cleaning up after them than they themselves had done in the initial picking. This was in addition to the countless wings (viticultural jargon for the lobe of a cluster closest to the base of the main stem) that had been left on the vines, mainly by Kyle and Kelsey, although Hester and her boyfriend, Josiah, had also left some. Farmer Uncle attributed the terrible job that Kyle and Kelsey did to the almost violent haste with which they pulled the bird netting up from around the vines, a carelessness that can do incidental damage to unlignified clusters but causes huge waste to lignified ones.

On the whole, Hester’s boyfriend Josiah had a much better grasp of the real world pertaining to agriculture and other outdoorsy stuff than either Kyle or Kelsey had. Unfortunately, he was more versatile than either of them at using haste to make waste. The first day I worked with him, he volunteered, unbidden, to split 30″ rounds from a pine that had been felled in Farmer Uncle’s front yard up the mountain. He bust ass, and he also blistered the hell out of his hands by not wearing gloves. Josiah seemed constitutionally unable to work at less than a fever pitch. Whenever he was around the winery during the crush, he all but insisted on helping crank the stemmer-crusher. I effectively let him work in order to be polite, but I was disgusted by his performance. It was impossible to make him pay attention to what he was doing. Instead, he turned the crank like a bat out of hell, letting huge piles of must overflow on the catch trays. At least twice, and if I remember correctly three times, he dislodged the cafeteria tray from the bolt onto which it was hooked, leaving it under a pile of grapes in the main bus tray and leaving another pile of grapes all over the near end of the crush table. He always apologized sincerely when I told him to be more careful, but he didn’t really learn.

Probably the biggest problem with the kids was their compulsion to show off their work ethic. The boys were especially ostentatious about it. Josiah had been raised in the filthy rich end of Connecticut, where he stood out like a sore thumb for having gone to work as a ski lift operator instead of going to college. For him it was a point of pride not to be the sort of lazy, entitled fucker that he told me all his classmates were. Instead, he obnoxiously repeated at every opportunity the very refrain that Americans habitually debase themselves by repeating to their employers: yes, massa, I’s woykin’. (That, my fellow Americans, is the tenor of labor relations in our country. Take a brief look at Wal-Mart if you don’t believe me.) It was impossible to convince the kids that there was a difference between working hard and working smart; to be fair, Hester had a fairly good sense of this,  but she was a mere quarter of the crew, and when the others got going she had no influence to make them use some damn common sense.

Truth be told, the other three kids’ idea of common sense was to show off the fact that they weren’t the lazy kind of hippies. That, not Natty Light benders or stoned Nintendo marathons, was how they betrayed their callow youth. No, massa, I may not know what I’s doin’, but massa, I sho is woykin’! The thing that they refused to accept about winegrowing was that laziness doesn’t cause much trouble, but haste does. A lazy crew can delay projects in a vineyard or a winery, but especially in a vineyard it has a hard time fucking things up, and it’s not as if we had to worry about anyone’s payroll costs. On the other hand, the crew that runs around a vineyard or a winery like showboating contestants on Iron Chef in order to impress the world with its Stakhanovite work ethic will fuck things up. That isn’t a threat; it’s a promise. Bear in mind that Farmer Uncle uses a lot of glass containers in his winery. It’s a good thing that the kids didn’t really sic themselves on us during pressing or bottling, because if they had, holy shards all over the fucking floor.

Beautiful day in the grape orchard, indeed. Ironically, one of the problems with the wine business is that the end product is so beloved by so many people. The consumer rarely gives a shit about what went into making his stainless steel silverware or baking soda, so he doesn’t finagle tours of the factory floor or the QC lab. The metallurgists, chemists and line workers arguably have thankless jobs, but the happy corollary is that the customer doesn’t show up to express his mushy gratitude and ask asinine questions. It doesn’t matter whether the silverware or baking soda is used by David Petraeus or Oprah Winfrey; any stoicism or histrionics pertinent to its use will occur out of sight and out of mind.

Wine, on the other hand, isn’t thankless enough. Even Farmer Uncle at his private winery has to answer effusive, asinine questions from the peanut gallery whenever some well-meaning jackass shows up. The gold medal for the downstream division this year went to the mother of a twenty-something fellow whom Farmer Uncle was showing how to use the press. The kid (not one of the kids; different kid) had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but mom needed remedial ed. “Ah, I see, merlot. Interesting. What kind of grapes is that made from?”

Gee, who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? We also had a transient show up a week or two later while we were pressing at night and ask for “a gallon of that stuff. That would be just great for my stomach. This here is nectar of the gods!” It was also worth $75-100 retail on the open market, or would be if we weren’t bartering it in hippieland because we weren’t licensed and bonded.

Even so, we had worse than average luck to end up with such a hardworking crew of traveling kids. There’s an old saw from the 1970s: why did the hippies come to Ashland? Because they knew there weren’t any jobs. Some people ought to be told that, jobs or not.

Advertisements