Monday, January 18, 2010

Aldolfo's grief

Aldolfo’s cellphone rang and he began an animated conversation in Spanish.

His mother died last week. I can’t be sure but I think he was trying to explain to a sibling why he wouldn’t be attending her memorial.

The day his mother died, Aldolfo asked if there was any work. I’d told him to take it easy. Nothing to do until mañana.

He left, appearing content, even though money and food were low and his mother was sick in a hospital in Mexico. He returned less than an hour later.

“Mi Madre,” he began, and let loose the saddest string of Spanish words I’d ever heard, even though technically I didn’t understand them.

The message, however, was clear: His mother was dead.

He’d received the message on his cellphone minutes earlier. He began to sob, I put my arm around his neck and he embraced me. Tears fell for a moment. Then he told me he still wanted to work the next day, and sadly turned away to walk home.

Unable to travel, he is the only child who can’t attend her memorial in Mexico. He’s stuck with me working on the farm.

“Maybe Decembré,” he said when I asked him the next day if he planned to go home for his mother’s memorial service.

“December!” That’s almost a year from now, I told him.

“No denaro.” He can’t go anywhere, with no money, or car. Like me, he’s stuck, living in a trailer across from the packinghouse. His sister lives a few strides up the dirt road in a home with a family of her own. They haven’t been around.

I’m guessing she’s with others—in L.A. or Mexico, I’m not sure. Her husband, who was already in Mexico and about to return home, is staying on a few days to assist the in-laws, according to Aldolfo.

I don't speak Spanish, but I'm beginning to understand him more as we both use signs, signals and Spanglish to converse. 

The lack of money was starting to get to Aldolfo. He’d asked me several times when he was going to get paid. He seemed worried, agitated.

“No denaro, no comida!” he exclaimed.

“You’ve got no food, Aldolfo?”


I’ll do what I can, I responded. I don’t make the payments. I’ll let the boss know right away, I told him, which I did.

I brought him some comida, tamales and pintos the next day. I bought them with the last bit of denaro, about $10 in cash, which I had until my own payday. I understood his frustration, but I also wondered if he wasn’t playing me, if he wasn’t making a fool of me. How could he not have any food?

I’m a sucker for hard cases. I figured it was better to err on the side of foolishness than see a grown man go hungry. So I brought him food.

When his phone rang, we were moving about 500 heavy, water-laden, soil-filled, 5-gallon grow bags into place, a task that wouldn’t have been necessary had Aldolfo set them up the way I had shown him from the start.

This has happened before, where I’ve demonstrated how to perform a task, explaining verbally and showing physically how to do it, and he continues to do it another way.

He watches me as I explain how to move the bags so we don’t trip over the spaghetti tubing that feeds the plants.

I know he doesn’t understand me. “Aldolfo,” I say, “move the bags closer to where the tubes come out of the line so people and dogs won’t trip over them and break them. OK?”

I demonstrate tripping by pretending to catch my foot on the loop. "OK?" I ask.

I move the heavy bag so that it protects the connectors, prevents the loops from catching people’s legs and feet. He nods OK, indicating he understands. He goes after it, slowly moving the bags into place.

He misses a bag. I don’t get on him about it. I can move it later. But I’m amazed at how quickly he lets one go. Maybe it’s sloppiness, a failure to notice, a failure to care—or grief. I can’t be sure.

I had broken two connections the day before. Working alone, I tripped over the tubing and broke the connectors, which snapped right off.

I held a can of spray paint under my arm; I was marking the broken connections. When I bent over to pick up the loose spaghetti tubing I’d just broken, I managed to blast the paint into my face and eye.

My head already hurt and my eyes felt sore in the light, like a hangover, from the moment I’d awakened that morning. A friend told me it was a reaction to the radical pressure changes in advance of several storm systems about to slam onto California's southern coastline.

Each time I bent over, my head would ache and pound. I’d already adjusted 200 plants and felt terrible. The paint blast to the face put me over the top and I threw the can as far as I could in a fit of anger.

I was mad at Aldolfo for not doing what I’d asked him to do in the first place, and mad at myself for not watching him more closely. I was mad for not paying attention to how I was holding the spray can, and mad for doing work that wasn’t necessary, for picking up after Aldolfo with a splitting headache.

“It’s like watching a child,” the boss said once.

My newest neighbor, recently relocated from Arizona where he managed his father’s vineyard, said: “I hate to sound prejudiced or anything but sometimes I think they do it because it’s job security.”

You mean the workers purposely do things the wrong way so they’ll have work?

“Yeah,” he said, without hesitating, “I think they’re a lot smarter than we give them credit. They pretend not to understand and that way they can keep working.”

If that’s true, I said, they should be laughing at us stupid gringos.

“They are,” he said.

Aldolfo wasn’t laughing. When he hung up the phone, I heard a loud snapping sound, as though one of the bags had been suddenly pulled apart.

I turned and saw the top half of the heavy bag torn in two places where his hands had just tried to pick it up. He stood over the bag, back hunched over, arms hanging at his sides. He seemed frustrated, angry, defeated.

Until that point there hadn’t been any mishaps moving the bags, even though Aldolfo had continued to try lifting them instead of sliding them over the way I had shown him.

I stood up and walked over to him. “Are you OK, Aldolfo?”

He nodded his head, “Yes.” His eyes were red with grief and fury.

I watched as he continued to move the bags, he was listless and unhappy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him to go home. He needed the work as much—maybe more—than I did.§

1 comment:

  1. My daughter rides a pony at a barn. Her barn help are two individuals whom barely speak english, but understand well, as they care for over 40 horses. One day the barn closed and all forty horses had to be moved 5 miles down the road on a last minute notification. The two barn hands went with the move and were given positions at the new barn. One of the two of the hands was from Guatemala. When his Mother died this past fall, he traveled home without a green card, and for a while was unable to return. He snuck over the border going and snuck back coming back, but for several months he was not heard from. He is irreplaceable and much loved by the Barn. Its assumed their pay is meager, with No Money, a tip of twenty dollars on occasion, brings much respect and I think some added pride in their work. No health benefits, the golf courses I work for where I'm sure there are Green Card Less employ living on the property for clients who are JP Morgan Bankers, the workers work with no benefits, this is the same course where I caddied for a man who sold his company, that he is on the Board of Directors with Google, for 500 Billion this past year. They created banner advertising. You think the golf course might brighten the lives of those that tend to their greens, beach club and banquet halls.

    I feel for Adolfo,. I'm trying to get a job with a major Network and met an employee who has worked for two years every Friday and Saturday to keep his job, they won't give him forty hours so he will qualify for Benefits, like health or a vacation day. He speaks perfect English and graduated from an American College.

    I don't think Adolfo was taking advantage, and neither do you, when someone says they don't have food.

    I think they mean they don't have comfort, especially from their mother. I can go days without eating, but when I'm sick to my stomach over remorse, I need a meal. Then I probably don't feel like eating, but it feels nice to have some food to share with, when a grieving friend comes to share their grief.