‘So, whatcha got there?’

Op-Ed by Sandra Brian Lore

The day was over, the boss man asked, “So, whatcha got there?”

“Two-hundred eighty five bundles,” I replied.

He screamed, “You’re cheatin’. Can’t count good.”

At the age of 10, I protested, “Count them yourself. There are 285 bundles.”

My brother was only six and a half. I don’t know why we did this along with three neighborhood friends. This incident has stuck in my craw all these years. I chew on stuff. I’ve been masticating for almost six decades about this.

Joliet, Ill., 1949. Some truck farmers wanted help getting stuff ready for market. Did our parents see a “help wanted” notice and sign us up?

Bushel baskets of thousands of unpeeled, dirt encrusted scallions were dumped at our feet. We peeled off the outer skin to make the scallion clean for the market. With 24 we tied them together. That was a penny’s worth. We kept good count and stacked the onions into custom-made cardboard boxes.

The big old boss man scoffed, spit and repeated, to me, “You cheat.”

At that moment, Mr. Smith, our ride home, showed up. We five dirty, hot little kids piled into the car and left, unpaid.

We didn’t get the $2.85 owed to us on our last day. We had 285 bundles of 24 scallions each or 6,840 onions or 1,368 per kid if we peeled at the same rate. We evidently had no recourse. That number 285 has stuck with me all these years.

The “cheat” was hiring little kids. That was illegal even in 1949. He paid way below the 40 cents/hour minimum wage. We returned home stinking of onions. Mom and Dad talked about ethics at dinner. This guy was the first dishonest adult I met.

This is a small, insignificant story from the last century – peeling onions for a two-bit truck farmer.

Now, move into the 21st century. Inhumanity is rampant where work ethics are concerned. Think about the injustices in our own communities done by us to other ethnic groups – namely those people without documentation – those “illegal” immigrants who are being cheated at every turn. They’re “illegal” just like we were as kid laborers in 1949. We weren’t feeding destitute families. We were making money to buy bubble gum and baseball cards.

“So, whatcha got there?” Whatcha got is 37 million undocumented people in the U.S. today – some working under the table for low wages often cheated by boss men looking to make a faster buck. Who’s the culprit? The employer? The employee? I believe that answer is simple. Think of all the stuff stuck in craws today.

“So, whatcha got there?” Whatcha got is a serious moral dilemma which needs to be addressed before another half century goes by. In 1949 we see middle-class kids with white privilege screwed. Today, much harsher penalties await “undocumented” human beings who share our planet who are here now working to alleviate dire poverty. They are being cheated here and now. So, whatcha gonna do?


Sandra Brian Lore resides in Winchester.

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