UNITED STATES—It amazes me how much time’s vortex can pack into a single afternoon. At that first meeting of the Spanish cultural club, where we brought our songs, poems, paintings and stories, I found the job I’d been groping for for months, as I scraped by on free room and no board.
At the very end a black-haired woman, dressed in a trim purple business suit, scurried up the stairs, bringing a storm of poster boards and fliers. Frazzled as a sitcom heroine after lugging the materials, then calmly competent, she told us she was looking for Spanish speakers to work in the census. Patsy Milan spoke the Spanish of somebody who’d grown up in L.A. and you could tell it wasn’t her number one language.
Instantly, people I’d met that very day, like Martha Esther Marin and Mr. Zacarias, were giving me nudges that said, “this is the thing for you.”
Watts and South Central had changed by the mid-eighties, with immigration from Mexico and El Salvador. In the 60s it had been 70 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic, but by 1990 the percentages had considerably flipped. It made sense to have Spanish speakers canvassing the area. The hood I saw going to and from work still had its old pre-Watts-riots character intact. My impression of the area around Manchester and Vermont was of a lot of wig stores, windows surreally filled with rows on mannekin heads donning blond wigs, platinum wigs, kinky afro wigs, metallic purple wigs. On three corners were wig stores, and the forth a liquor store. Scattered along the blocks were stores with old stoves outside and, now and then, a Spanish storefront church. I came to appreciate it all.
My first morning, though, I didn’t feel so hot as I walked toward the bus stop. The census job was nothing short of a miracle, but I viewed it as a kind of gallows. My polyester-blend jacket a size too big and a dumpy unlaundered shirt didn’t help, either. My fashion bar had relaxed during my tenure at 1980 Estrella.
I’d walked as far as 23rd and Vermont—a car horn honked; there at the stoplight was a big black Mercury Marquis—a veritable Continental—and inside it was Tony Ayala, the owner of the book store.
He gave me a lift to Manchester. What I remember most was this feeling of having got caught picking my nose when I thought no one was looking. I was slouching and glum, facing the day job gallows; this whole thing was taking time from my art. Seeing Tony, I snapped from shame to gladness.
“How are you?” Tony asked me.
“So-so,” I replied.
“Hombre, what do you mean?” he said. “You were born naked and now you wear clothes.”
Hearing this made me feel ashamed of feeling ashamed about my ill-fitting and laundered attire.
The first day at newly furbished census office I took an oath to the United States, administered in a dark, file-filled sideroom by Patsy Milan. Both she and those taking the oath were intimidated. It had a both a solemn beauty and a quaint vestige of the McCarran Security Act—the law that kept Garcia Marquez barred from traveling in the U.S. for years—along the lines of ‘I do solemnly swear I am not now, nor have I ever been a vegan.’
I made it through the first day, and then the second. Even as I stewed over to balance writing, house management and the census, I enjoyed the personalities of a motley band of bilinguals—like the African-American woman who absorbed “ay Chihuahua” into her vocabulary. She made us giggle. In came a mad Englishman from the Burbank office who had portrayed Patton in a one-man stage show and advised me to eat “tuna or sardines.” I’ve always wondered what deficiency his emphatic eye detected in me.
I don’t know why, but Patsy trusted me. One day she turned to me and asked, “Do you think I did the wrong thing with this guy.” She’d asked him for help carrying boxes of census form. The job of the bilingual team was to answer phones and get people to take exams for the job, not carry boxes.
This guy told her, “It’s not my job.”
“Do you think I should have been harder on him?” Patsy asked me.
I told her he’d been right because it was outside our duties. I said so with all my authority and conviction, proud that I hadn’t wavered. Maybe part of me wanted to be easy on the guy, even though I can see now he was a slider.
Ever since then my answer has nagged at me. Patsy I am sorry. My answer was a crime, and I hadn’t yet learned how to say ‘I was wrong.’ That would take years, and many jobs, and parenthood to do that and to realize we’re all in this together. I was wrong. And that slider worker was robbed of the chance to grumble and do the job and to improve.
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of the humor collection “Late Bloomer,” available on Amazon. Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.