Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

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Sandy Solomon

Diary from a Tomato Cannery, 1912

At the cannery a sign reads
“6 o’clock a.m. darn sharp.”
It’s hard to rise at five, harder still
to be at work twelve or more hours
with just a half hour off for lunch.

Tomatoes come in wagons or sail boats.
They’re stacked in the yard or on the wharf.
Then they’re trundled in on trucks.
Then they’re scalded.
Then they’re peeled.
Then they’re packed.
Then they’re weighed.
The factory is large and low,
and has no windows,
no seats of any kind for anyone.

Sixty-four skinners stand
at long tables. They stand over
the scalded tomatoes. They work in slop
and slush all day. Their feet are soaked,
and, despite their aprons, their clothes are wet through.
They earn four cents a bucket.
Today they struck for five.
Tomatoes covered the table
as the boss considered their demand.
It took him twenty minutes to agree.

The twenty-five children in our factory
are mostly under twelve years old.
Some are no more than six or seven.
Many women bring their young ones
to work beside them. A mother helped
by two children can sometimes make
as much as five dollars in a day.

I walked part way home with a girl of ten
who’d peeled tomatoes from 6 a.m.
to 6:30 in the evening.
“Things to eat is so high,” she said,
“We can’t go to school. We gotter work.”

The young ones strain
to carry buckets
brimming with tomatoes.
Such effort in their little faces!
Each bucket weighs
as much as forty pounds.

One girl of ten, so small we call her Tiny,
carried all day and skinned between times.
She ran a nail in her foot and limped about
with one shoe, one stocking off.
The wages are too low to stop work
for less than the most serious reason.

I was moved to another table today
where the sides are shallower,
and I got so wet through!
I’m dead tired, and my shoulder aches
like a bad tooth. I am dead tired,
and these are the conditions in which we work.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 2009), p. 136

Sandy Solomon’s book, Pears, Lake, Sun (U of Pittsburgh P), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her poems have been published in such magazines as The New Yorker, The New Republic, Gettysburg Review, and Antioch Review.

When she was a student, Solomon worked as a waitress, bartender, bookstore clerk, and Planned Parenthood counselor. After graduate school, she held a series of jobs in Washington, DC. She was an advocate for cities and their minority residents as director of government affairs at the National Urban Coalition, and she was later executive director of two nonprofit groups, the National Neighborhood Coalition and the Coalition for Human Needs. Later, to support writing poetry, she refashioned herself as a freelance writer in Washington, London, and Princeton.