Afterthoughts: When It Comes to First Jobs, the Worse They are, the Better
Managing editor Michael Keany reflects upon his first job–three rough months spent picking pineapples on Maui.
Photo: Courtesy Michael Keany
It’s funny how some of your fondest memories can come from your toughest ordeals. My first job, picking pineapple, was like that.
I was 15, it was a summer gig between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and it was the worst three months of my young life to date. I mean, I’m nostalgic and proud of the experience now, but picking pineapple is back- and wrist-breaking work.
For 10 hours a day, you trudge through thick, spiny leaves behind a conveyor-belt boom, reaching down to grab every fruit you can find, snapping each one off the plant, twisting off the crown, and dumping the now-topless pineapple onto the belt. And repeat. The heat is brutal, the pace relentless, and no amount of canvas seems to protect your hands and arms from constant punctures and acid pineapple juice.
‘This is what it’s like to work for a living?’ I thought.
My parents found the job at the M. Yamamura & Sons farm for me through family friends and encouraged me to take it, which, in retrospect, was a bit unusual. For most of my childhood, they had been laissez-faire when it came to extracurricular activities for my sisters and me. No pressure to take music lessons, participate in athletics, go door-to-door selling $5 Portuguese-sausage tickets for school fundraisers. They trusted us to follow our own interests.
This job, though, they felt was important. I could have quit after that first horrible day, and my parents would have accepted it, but I felt that a subtle challenge had been set down. It was three months, I told myself, the end was in sight. I could do this.
My parents’ first jobs in Hawai‘i were in pineapple. They arrived on Maui in 1975, doing the free-spirited nomadic thing, as one did in those days, and both found work at Maui Land & Pineapple’s Kahului cannery. It was a temporary measure; my dad had a degree in chemical engineering from Rice University and had worked for several years at Procter & Gamble. But of course the job market for chemical engineers on Maui wasn’t exactly booming. And so, while the pay at the cannery wasn’t fantastic, it was at least easy to land a position, and they needed the cash.
My mom remembers being put on the crush line, where she had to pick debris out of the lower-grade pieces of pineapple sliding past her. “It was disgusting,” she says. “I was nauseated the entire time.”
But living on Maui was worth a little hazing, and a few years later, after I had been born, my dad was able to circle back around with Maui Pine. He landed a long-term consulting job, helping them research stuff like the practicality of switching pineapple juice containers from metal cans to aseptic “tetra pak”-style packaging. He was working cannery again, but this time behind the scenes.
He later jumped over to work for the other big-ag business in Maui, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., as a chemical engineer. Kids often have a fuzzy concept of what exactly their parents do at work, but I do know that, in addition to having an office at the Pā‘ia Sugar Mill, he often worked on special side projects for the company. Some of them were large-scale: He spent three years investigating the possibility of harvesting cane crops by cutting instead of burning them, and using the resulting waste materials in the field to create fiber for paper. Others were small: He was tasked with figuring out a way to keep the standing water in the roadside irrigation ditches in Pu‘unēnē from smelling like farts. Either way, my dad must have been happy to not be trimming pineapple in the cannery.
And maybe that was the point of having me pick pineapple: to give me a baseline from which to push off.
It couldn’t have been because they wanted me to follow in my dad’s footsteps. By the time I waded into the fields of Ha‘ikū in the summer of 1994, there was a sense that big agriculture on Maui was in its latter days. Sugar and pineapple were no longer the default career move, or even a standard rite of passage, in the way they used to be. By 2000, the entire Pā‘ia Mill had been shut down, leaving Pu‘unēnē as the lone sugar mill in the state. Maui Pine’s Kahului cannery closed in 2007.
I made it through those three months, and by the time I walked into my first sophomore class in the fall, sunburned and calloused, high school seemed downright appealing. Through the next few years of school, and crappy, entry-level jobs, I could always say, “At least it’s not picking pineapple.” Even today, when I’m on deadline with a story or enduring a long editorial planning meeting, I’m happy that I’m not picking pineapple. And for that I have to thank M. Yamamura & Sons, and my parents.