As a kid, Jim Pitkin was allergic to apricots. When he went to Clear Lake, Calif., to stay with an aunt, she made wonderful apricot pie that he could not eat. "It was torture," the aerospace veteran said.
As he got older, Pitkin's allergies ebbed. One day as an adult, he visited the Hick'ry Pit in Campbell, Calif., and ordered a $9.99 apricot pie. It was a revelation. He loved the fruit.
So it wasn't that odd — well, maybe it was a little odd — when a thought occurred to him as he passed the apricot trees near the library in Saratoga, Calif., in June. Seeing that the fruit was ripening quickly, he offered to help pick the apricots for Matt Novakovich, an owner of Novakovich Farms, which does the harvesting.
"I knew there was this hot weather coming, and I saw apricots on the ground," Pitkin said. "So I asked Matt, 'You guys gonna start pretty soon? You need some help?' And he says yeah."
And so Pitkin became the only white guy on a traditionally Hispanic crew. He was the only aerospace veteran willing to work for $10 an hour (later raised to $11). He jokes that it's taken him a lifetime to get to minimum wage.
Pitkin, 60, said he downed two gallons of water his first day picking. But he boasts one big advantage: At 6-foot-4, he can touch an 8-foot ceiling with 10 fingers. He doesn't have to climb a ladder to get most of the apricots.
Do his fellow pickers look at him askance? "They don't seem to mind," he said. "They think it's kind of funny that a white guy is working with them. But we get along fine. We laugh and joke."
Pitkin has a storehouse of tales that span the Santa Clara Valley's history. He can tell you about the time he cut apricots himself as a middle-schooler in the summer of 1970 at the Buck Ranch, in present-day Cupertino.
And he can explain in detail how much money he made with his lawn-mowing business as a kid: Five dollars to mow a lawn front and back was not bad money in that era.
Pitkin went into the aerospace business right out of Monta Vista High School, where he had nurtured an interest in electronics. He took classes at DeAnza College while working a swing shift for a subcontractor at NASA Ames.
When he fell victim to a round of layoffs in the aerospace industry in the late '80s, he plunged into a new field, becoming an expert at organizing signature-gathering for political campaigns.
In one of the ironies of his current position, Pitkin worked on the San Jose campaign to raise the minimum wage in 2012. San Jose's law, however, does not apply in Saratoga.
Finally, Pitkin has enjoyed a stint as a freelance photographer: After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, he headed into the Santa Cruz Mountains for shots he was convinced other photographers would miss.
That eye for detail serves him as a fruit picker. One day at the orchard, he was helping Novakovich operate a harvesting machine for French prunes. (Though this is a matter of controversy, they are called prunes.)
Pitkin's job was to rake the prunes to the back of a big box destined to be shipped to the Central Valley for drying. But he added his own innovation. Before the machine grabbed the trees and shook them into an upside-down skirt, Pitkin lifted the branches, minimizing the fruit left on the ground.