folkie otters, ringo starr, and england before brexit

THE NEWSPAPER POSTIMEES recently asked me for Christmas movie recommendations, in light of the recent publication of my new book Jõulumees (“Santa Claus”). I sent them the following:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night. There was a time, almost two decades ago, when Kalamaja was an apocalyptic ghetto neighborhood behind the Baltic Station, when I lived in a small apartment, munched on gingerbread from Säästumarket, and watched little Estonian children sing “Jõuluingel” in a singing competition. That Christmas long ago, for some strange reason, ETV broadcast The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. Yes, really. Now, I know what you are thinking. A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. Nothing. There is no shot of John, Paul, George, and Ringo decorating the tree or singing Christmas carols. If anything, the next Beatles movie, Help! is more like Christmas. This is the Beatles movie where they hide away in the Alps and can be seen sledding and skiing. But they that snowy evening they showed A Hard Day’s Night. And forever more, I shall associate gingerbreads, glögi, and verivorst with shots of Ringo Starr wandering aimlessly around the city in his trench coat. So, to be honest, A Hard Day’s Night is a holiday favorite. 
  2. Then there is Love Actually, which I don’t mind at all, because it’s like having all my favorite Brits over for Christmas. I mean, if Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Keira Knightley, and the late Alan Rickman all turned up at your house for Christmas, wouldn’t you let them in? I think a lot of you would prefer their company to your own families. There is nostalgia in this film too. Long before COVID-19, long before Boris Johnson, long before Brexit, there was Love Actually, a fictional Britain where Hugh Grant was prime minister. Unfortunately, this never happened, but each Christmas we can imagine what could have been.
  3. There are a lot of American Christmas classics going back to It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. My father loves It’s a Wonderful Life, and one Christmas set a record when he watched it about 25 times. He knows every word. None of these classic Christmas films are my favorite though. I much prefer Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer from 1964 and A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965. These are the movies that I saw year after year as a child. A Charlie Brown Christmas has an excellent soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi Trio that one can even hear played in Estonia today in shopping centers.
  4. There are also quite a few Estonian Christmas movies out there, and the one that comes to mind is Eia Jõulud Tondikakul, which touches on all the popular domestic themes, workaholic parents, mixed families, gingerbread, the healing properties of nature, and bad guys who want to destroy the forest. It’s also nice to see a movie about Estonia with a happy ending.
  5. I actually do have one more favorite Christmas movie. It’s called Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas and originally aired as a TV special in 1977. Emmet was an otter living in a poor rural community and his mother was a wash woman, who washed people’s clothes in her washtub for money. Then Emmet borrowed her washtub to make a washtub bass, an essential part of any proper jug band. He formed a group and they took part in a music competition. I think people from this part of the world would appreciate this movie. There is something about a bunch of forest animals forming a folk band that reminds me of the groups that play at the Pärimusmuusika Ait here in Viljandi.

So, whenever I hear otters playing folk music, I know it’s time for plenty of gingerbread and to remind myself: it’s Christmas time again, and all will be well in the world, just like in the old days.

sadness

MY GRANDMOTHER DIED ON SUNDAY. She was almost 97 years old. I have some memories of her. She was my mother’s mother, and I remember once at a family party introducing her to my father’s father (who was married to my father’s mother) and saying, “Why don’t you two get together!” I was probably five years old. My grandfather and grandmother rather awkwardly dismissed this idea. My grandmother’s husband had died long before I was born. I also remember staying with her as a child a few times. She would wake up so early, at 5 am, to a radio alarm clock, and make coffee. She would read the paper. She asked me if I wanted my pancakes early in the morning or later. I remember she had loose skin, the skin of an older lady, and asking how it got so loose, and she explained how it would happen to me too when I got older. Then Mr. Snuffleupagus the gray cat would come in for food. “Snuffy.” Snuffy had been fighting with some other cats, or had eaten a bird. I can’t remember that part, only that Snuffy seemed like a very tough, self-reliant cat. I also remember Grandma’s hands deep in that stuff they call “hard sauce” at holidays. This was some mixture of sugar, butter, cream, and whiskey. An Irish family staple. Nothing like being a six year old and loading up on some minced meat pie and a few spoons of hard sauce. I was probably a little tipsy before I even understood the meaning of the word. I remember all of that religious artwork around the house. There was an angel doll in a glass case, and some very ancient looking paintings on the wall. I remember that when John Paul II at last died, and Benedict was selected, Benedict’s portrait promptly arrived on the wall in the kitchen, and then when he abdicated, Pope Francis’s portrait was just as swiftly there in Benedict’s old spot. Grandma actually knew a lot about religious history and various Catholic societies, the Josephites, Jesuits, Franciscans. I remember showing her an image of the Black Madonna that I had taken in an Italian church, and her explaining to me the significance of the artwork, and also after watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves her discussing the Crusades with me. I also remember a few stories about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s. In case you were wondering, it wasn’t some happy wonderland of glowing memories. Actually, it seemed a rather drab and somber period to be a child. “The Great Depression.” I remember her telling me about how she used to go ice skating in Queens, and how another little girl was abducted by some kind of pervert who frequented the rink. New York in the 1930s could be a downtrodden, gloomy place. She had four brothers and two older half brothers and her mother was annoyed with her when she was a teenager, because she liked to wear trousers (she called them “slacks”) and not dresses. She was actually very tight-lipped about the past though and about herself. She did like to talk about her grandfather, Dr. Michael T. Carroll, a physician in Manhattan in the 19th century, and her great grandmother, Catherine Murray, who ran a cotton brokerage on Water Street and did business as “CE Murray” to disguise her gender in a male-run world. Grandma traveled a lot later on and went to Italy and to Ireland. I remember she brought me back a piece of peat from a bog in Ireland. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given me. Imagine that, a tiny piece of Ireland in a little plastic bag. I still have it somewhere. Years later, when I was in Dublin, I was researching the family history at the archives and looking for a roll of microfiche from a parish in Laois where her great grandmother’s family, the Colliers, were from. It so happened that that roll disappeared from the library on the very day that I had arrived. They searched everywhere, and it seemed that someone had pocketed it that same morning when they had ordered it from the archive. So many times when I started researching that line of my family, microfiche would disappear, computers would shut down, notes would be lost. It was very strange and I came to accept that our Irish ancestors just didn’t want to be found. I told Grandma about that story the same day. I called her from a phone in the hotel corridor in Dublin and we had a laugh. “You’ll never guess where I am.” She told me how she had a similar experience at the library, and how she had done more or less the same thing and never told me. She had been working with a librarian to find books about her mother’s family, the Carrolls, and only found herself deeper and deeper in information she couldn’t make sense of. Grandma had a funny sense of humor, and as I got older, it seemed like that was one place where we could overlap and enjoy each other’s company. She was an extremely devout Catholic and sometimes wore a Celtic cross on her neck. For the rest of my days, whenever I see the round Celtic cross, gold and ornamented like in the Book of Kells, I will think of her.

gaudete sunday

THEN HE TOLD HIMSELF, that he was allowed to live his own life, and no longer worry about love, or achievements, or about the future, or what was right, and what was what and who was who. He allowed chaos into his life and stopped trying to control things. You can’t try to control life, no matter how hard you try to engineer it. Life can never be perfect, because a perfect life is just that: a life. From then on, he communicated freely with whomever he pleased, and did also whatever he pleased, freely and fluently, without any forms of worry, suspicion, despair, hang ups, ulterior motives, or second thoughts. When he wanted to lie with someone, then he lied with her, and when he wanted to be alone, then he was alone and he enjoyed it. It was Gaudete Sunday then, the third Sunday of Advent, also known as the Sunday of Joy. That was when he received the message.

fires

THIS IS THE SEASON, the season of heavy boots and crackling fires, of warm blankets and dark nights. It’s a relief at times to feel winter’s cold hands on your face. As hard as it is on the body, as hard as it is on the mind, and hard on the soul, there is a stunning beauty in the diamond elegant hardness of winter, in those frosted-out branches reaching to the moon in full, mirroring back light like phantom fingers. Outside, the local men march and return, ascending crooked staircases, great armfuls of birch and alder to burn, held tight in their muscles. That hard-headed determination, that clenched desire to survive and keep warm. Inside their wives and girlfriends are making them soup or tea. Sometimes their girlfriends are other men’s wives. On some cold nights, it’s all too much. On some nights, it feels good to shiver, to let the cold have its way with you. Let it all in. Let it in through the doors, and windows, through the floor. Then it’s morning and I wake up thinking about Brynhild, which is some Old Norse goddess name I have given to one woman who appears from time to time. I think of the comfort of her breast, and how weak I am for it, and how she is unrepentant for betraying her husband. “It’s complicated,” she says. I don’t like being weak, or vulnerable, or in need of comfort, but when the opportunity arises, that’s when I understand how famished I am. My life is full of hard things. Heaviness, wintryness, ice floe hardness. There is no natural softness in me, so I seek out the soft. I dream of the warmth and of the soft as I head out to the wood barn and the flakes are fluttering down in the moonlight at midnight. I crawl up and sleep in the room beside the hot flames in the furnace and awake beneath the blanket at the very first signs of light. Outside, there are already people on their way somewhere, stepping over mounds of snow to head to the cafe or to the apothecary, bundled in hats, gloves, shawls, boots, and just a little room for their wild eyes. Sometimes I ask myself, do I love Brynhild? The answer I think is no. I don’t love anymore. Sometimes I try, but it never goes anywhere. You get that big feeling and all you are left with is some words, or an idea, or the memory of being content for a while. Sometimes the women I think I love have partners, which means they are locked up tight like princesses in some castle, and there’s no getting at them anyhow, even as they blow kisses at you from the tower. Sometimes they don’t, but they are always looking for something better. Sometimes they pass you on the street with another man. Most times they don’t look back. They might wave to you. That’s when I think that love is just some word someone made up once upon a time. Like a fever dream, I wake up restless again and aching for comfort. I think again of Brynhild. Sometimes you don’t fully understand how hungry you can be for a woman until she’s lying there nude beside you. Sometimes the experience is so confusing, so euphoric, and so grotesque, that I don’t know what to think. I keep coming back for more. I have to go back because I want more. Anything to keep warm on cold nights. This is it for me then, the restlessness, the shuffling, the drifter’s life. Like some bluesman hobo of the American South, moving from town to town. You listen to the blues and fall asleep to them at night. You get up, put on your snow boots and head out. Maybe some princess in a tower might blow you a kiss. Or maybe Brynhild will at last take pity on your soul. Maybe today will be different.THIS IS THE SEASON, the season of heavy boots and crackling fires, of warm blankets and dark nights. It’s a relief at times to feel winter’s hands on your face. As hard as it is on the body, as hard as it is on the mind, and hard on the soul, there is a stunning beauty in the diamond elegant hardness of winter, in those frosted out branches reaching to the moon in full, mirroring back light like phantom fingers. Outside, the hard local men march and return, ascending up crooked stairs, great armfuls of birch and alder to burn, held in their muscles. That hard-headed determination, that clenched desire to survive and keep warm. Inside their wives and girlfriends are making them soup or tea. Sometimes their girlfriends are other men’s wives. On some cold nights, it’s all too much. On some nights, it feels good to shiver, to let the cold have its way with you. Let it all in. Let it in through the doors, and windows, through the floor. Then it’s morning and I wake up thinking about Brynhild, which is some Old Norse goddess name I have given to one woman who appears from time to time. I think of the comfort of her breast, and how weak I am for it, and how she is unrepentant for betraying her husband. “It’s complicated,” she says. I don’t like being weak, or vulnerable, or in need of comfort, but when the opportunity arises, that’s when I understand how famished I am. My life is full of hard things. Heavy, wintry, ice flow hardness. There is no natural softness in me, so I seek out the soft. I dream of the warmth and of the soft as I head out to the wood barn and the flakes are fluttering down in the moonlight at midnight. I crawl up and sleep in the room beside the hot flames in the furnace and awake beneath the blanket at the very first signs of light. Outside, there are already people on their way somewhere, stepping over mounds of snow to head to the cafe or to the apothecary, bundled in hats, gloves, shawls, boots, and just a little room for their wild eyes. Sometimes I ask myself, do I love Brynhild? The answer is no. I don’t love anymore. Sometimes I try, but it never goes anywhere. You get that big feeling and all you are left with is some words, or an idea, or the memory of being content for a while. Sometimes the women I think I love have partners, which means they are locked up tight like princesses in some castle, and there’s no getting at them anyhow, even as they blow kisses at you from the tower. Sometimes they don’t, but they are always looking for something better. Sometimes they pass you on the street with another man. Most times they don’t look back. They might wave to you. That’s when I think that love is just some word someone made up once upon a time. Like a fever dream, I wake up restless again and aching for comfort. I think again of Brynhild. Sometimes you don’t fully understand how hungry you can be for a woman until she’s lying there nude beside you. Sometimes the experience is so confusing, so euphoric, and so grotesque, that I don’t know what to think. I keep coming back for more. I have to go back because I want more. Anything to keep warm on cold nights. This is it for me then, the restlessness, the shuffling, the drifter’s life. Like some bluesman hobo of the American South, moving from town to town. You listen to the blues and fall asleep to them at night. You get up, put on your snow boots and head out. Maybe some princess in a tower might blow you a kiss. Or maybe Brynhild will at last take pity on your soul. Maybe today will be different.

west sea beach party

IT WAS ME, Mingus, and his old pal Banastre, who used to play bongos for Juliette François, the chanson singer. Mingus had on his beret, and the seaside humidity was fogging in his glasses. Banastre was at the wheel, in his “Frankie Say Relax” t-shirt and graying, shoulder-length hair. Both Mingus and Banastre are girlfriended men now, betrothed to Thursday and Wednesday’s Tinder dates, respectively, and they like to give me advice about how a real relationship should work, and how much time and energy one must invest to extract the golden nectar held within. “Every gift should be more expensive than the last,” noted Banastre, “and every vacation more luxurious than the first.” “That sounds like a lot of hassle,” I said. “I don’t need that in my life.” “But you must be in a relationship,” said Banastre, glancing into the rearview mirror at me riding solo in the back seat. “You absolutely must.” “Why?” “Because anyone who isn’t in a relationship is a loser.” “I think what dickhead is trying to say here,” jazzed Mingus, “is that it would do you good to have a steady woman.” At that, he put on “IX Love,” and we listened to the fine bass line at the beginning and that was the end of that part. We drove on through the high reeds along the inlets and bays of the West Sea until we reached the Beach House, which is where the party was. It was some gathering of horribly average people though, who were talking about Pipedrive and Bolt and there was some suspicious white dip that might or might not have herring in it. Something about it was too Nordic Silicon Valley meets Melrose Place for my liking, even though it was a cool house, multistoried, with high peaked roofs, and hammocks strung from high beams, cushions on the floor, curries simmering above tiny flames, Indonesian in style, and a sauna downstairs, of course. From the deck nearby, I could see a small island beyond the beach, with a rickety wood fence, and some colonial tombstones. Somehow I wanted to get to the cemetery island, where I thought it would be more peaceful, but to get to the stone bridge that led there, one had to squeeze through a tiny corridor, and I just didn’t fit, and most of the bridge was submerged in sea water anyway. One of the party girls came over to me and told me not to even try getting there. At the party, there was an older woman with red braids, a face full of freckles, and floaty, dreamy eyes, the eyes of a lady who dropped too much acid. She was a bit older than me and wore a black shirt that read Quicksilver Messenger Service. We went to the toilet and began to kiss, and then I pulled those spotty hefty breasts out of her shirt and began to consume them. It felt so dry though and tired and soulless, and there was no love in it all. I just wanted to go home, now, but Mingus and Banastre were having none of it. “Relax, man,” said Banastre. “Hang with us. Want some fish soup?” Then another man came in through the screen door, a ringer for an 80s yuppie, with his sweater tied around his waste, and announced, “The weather is looking grim, folks.” It was. Dark storm clouds dotted the horizon, and the air was thick with portent and pre-lightning humidity. The water level started to rise, and I realized there was no way to leave the house. There was just no way. I looked over the bay again at the cemetery island. Then I tried to call my daughter to ask if she was all right, but nobody answered. I went down the steps and saw my bag floating toward me, rising on the crest of the water. I must have left it on the beach sand when we arrived. The outside of the bag was soaked, but everything inside was still dry. I went back inside, found a hammock and just lied in it. The red-headed acid girl was there in the corner, sipping her fish soup and staring. Mingus and Banastre were somewhere off having sex with their girlfriends in the sauna. I was having none of it. The hammock was comfortable and someone played a gamelan. I dozed off after that.

stockholm ship

IN THE MORNING we had to leave Stockholm and go back to Estonia. It was me, Petra, our kids, and my mother and father. But everyone was tardy. Petra wanted some money from me, but all the coins I gave her were in some other currency. There was even that Danish 1 krone coin, the one with a hole in the middle of it. The children wouldn’t stop playing with the other kids in the courtyard. My mother started to make sandwiches. “But there’s a huge buffet on the ship!” I said. She kept cutting away there in the hotel kitchen, slicing up sandwich bread. My father meantime was upstairs lounging on the couch and watching MSNBC, his suitcase mostly unpacked. I quickly thrust some of my belongings into a bag as he just lay sprawled there, his hands behind his head. “You know, you should really get yourself some new pants. And a new jacket,” he said. “Look at me,” he gestured to his black Lacoste Polo shirt, “I still look cool, but you don’t.” “We don’t have time for this fashion shit, we’re going to be late!” Somehow I got them all into the transport van that would take us to the harbor. It was a balmy day in Stockholm, but with a slight maritime breeze that made the palm trees sway ever so slightly, or at least appear as if they were, and the Kungsholmen orange groves looked especially juicy with fruit. The van was overcrowded with travelers, and somewhere along Norr Mälarstrand a young man in a Hawaiian shirt disembarked and said he would walk the rest of the way. Somehow we made it, and with time to spare, and the white ship buoyed us in its sanctuary. Stockholm was more tropical than I remembered it being, with lush gardens and parrots singing from the verandas. It was all so different. It was fever hot.

baltic station market

BALTI JAAMA TURG, or Baltic Station Market, is a microcosm of the changes in the capital. It used to be this sprawling, post-apocalyptic, no-man’s-land of vene (Russian) putkas (booths) selling World War II leftovers (helmets, posters, pins), and big mama sellers weighing out kilos of potatoes and onions with a scale and making calculations with an abacus and a rickety giant calculator that even a blind man could figure out. “Kakzkyen krooni, palun.” And then they just razed it and built this monster thing. I call it Scandinavian, because I feel most of Estonia’s consumer culture is Scandinavian. It reminds me very much of Copenhagen, even more than Stockholm. There is that emphasis on everything being colorful, precise, well organized, and child friendly. We are Legoland people now, leading our Legoland lives. Indeed, Balti Jaama Turg is where the newly monied families of Kalamaja come to push their higher-end baby strollers and buy Italian and Middle Eastern produce. Some of the old sellers are still there, selling mounds of gooseberries, lingonberries, and chanterelles when they are in season. Some people lament that loss of the grungy post-Soviet ghetto element, but, you know, I was there, and I pushed a baby carriage through it in a whiteout snowstorm. Good riddance.

za tallinna, za rodinu

ZA TALLINNA, ZA RODINU. I saw a Soviet World War II propaganda film once, where the soldiers were singing, “Za Stalina, za rodinu,” (“for Stalin and the motherland!” in Russian) and so I think of this song when I come to Tallinn, mostly because as soon as I disembark at the train station, I am greeted by little clumps of ancient babushkas chittering away like city pigeons in Russian, the language of Tallinn’s sizeable linguistic minority. Tallinn is not essentially a Russian place though, so much of it is Scandinavian cookie cute commercial culture (the advertisement for the bakery Gustav painted on the trams, for instance, or even just the muted colors of the buildings, nothing loud anywhere, no neon orange or yellow, everything pastel this and creamy that, so mild and so restrained). There is this cartoonlike, childlike quality to the urban culture, it’s as if I am living in a life-size Christmas story of sorts, complete with the picture perfect Christmas fair in the Town Hall Square, or the indigent man mumbling to himself and sipping happily from a can of beer on the side of the road. There is also that brisk sea air chill, which you miss when you live inland, but which is unmistakable. I’m happy I have known this place and for such a long time. There are few other places I have known as long, and with such repeated interaction. Even cities I have spent a lot of time in, like San Francisco, those visits are in and out in a flash, I see some trolleys rolling by, have a look at the Golden Gate, visit the Haight maybe, get lost in the Presidio, and then it’s done. Or Reykjavik. I take the bus from Keflavik, check into the hotel, buy food from the Bonus supermarket, have a swim at Sundhöllin, interview Kári Stefánsson, buy some autographed Sjón books at Hús máls og menningar, and it’s over. It’s not like Tallinn and me. We go way back. We’ve got stories.

the north star stipend

THE NORTH STAR STIPEND, an annual allotment of state support for the arts. I badly needed the money and I badly needed help with my project. I decided to go visit Christian and Anita, who live down the street. They’re both heavily involved in the arts scene and have been awarded various state honors, medals, sashes, and accolades and have had their words chiseled into granite. Christian has been passed up too many times for a Nobel, but will surely receive his invitation to Stockholm someday. The residence is brimming with stacks of books, a lovely old fashioned-drawing room where Christian sits, thumbing a gray beard and smelling of pipe smoke. There he reads Bergman’s The Magic Lantern and contemplates existence. I knew Christian would help me win the stipend. Yet he was not at home. His wife Anita was. She beckoned me to the second floor, and then into her bathroom, complete with large windows and big white bathtub, and thus began to undress herself from a loose-fitting gown. Anita was a much older woman, with white hair and light eyes. She was once a stage actress, a contemporary of Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve and other legends, heavily courted by many of the world’s most decadent and monied men of industry, but chose this life instead, a life of letters, libraries and literature, a life with Christian. She was visibly older now, with plenty of wrinkles everywhere, lines no cream or cosmetic could conceal from the cruel illumination of the sun. There she was beside me, undoing her shirt slowly, and I felt at her breasts, which were still quite smooth, supple, and firm. It went on from there, slowly, deliberately, as a connoisseur sips a well-aged wine. We were only disturbed by good-natured whistling of Christian coming in downstairs, jingling his keys. “Honey, I’m home.” Anita dressed, and I came down the stairs alone, holding my head as if wounded, trying to look nonchalant. “Aha, Christian, it’s you.” “What are you doing in my house?” I was stricken with shame and embarrassment. “I came to ask your advice on a project. I am applying for the North Star Stipend.” “The North Star Stipend! Why, yes, of course. Of course, I myself received it many times. Even the first time, back in 1968. Or was it in 1969?” In my flustered, post-adultery mindset, I couldn’t express myself quite well. I stammered and mumbled, and couldn’t even remember what my idea was about. I left their home feeling like a true savage loser, and knew Christian would look at me differently the next time our paths crossed. I had so wanted to be a great writer, that was all I had really wanted, but I was just some actress’s part-time bathroom consort, it seemed, good for wet kisses and thespian breast fondling. At my own apartment, I could see my fellow writer Eeva out on the terrace. She was now living next door to me and seated in a chaise lounge reading a book, dressed up nicely in an old-fashioned 1940s Hollywood dress, complete with a hat, and her blonde hair was drawn about her shoulders. She had some visitors too, but when I called out to them, Eeva said that they were from Russia and didn’t speak any other tongue. “Ah,” I said then. “Harasho!” Everybody laughed, and for a while I forgot all about the North Star Stipend. Later, I returned to Christian and Anita’s house. Christian wasn’t home again, but Anita was, and again we repeated the bathroom sex scene. Again that feel of eerie sensual decay. I enjoyed it. Who wouldn’t. But it troubled me so, the whole sordid thing. After a long lingering kiss, Anita looked at me and said, “You know, I think we should stop this thing between us. I can’t really see it going anywhere.” We agreed, and I left soon after, never having consulted Christian, not having made progress. Later, my application for the North Star Stipend was denied by the review board, on which several of Christian’s colleagues sat, but I was fine with this dismissal, just fine to leave this bizarre macabre tale of secret loving behind. I still had my novel. I should concentrate all of my energies there. I went back home to the apartments, where Eeva was still lounging on the terrace, reading a paperback and eating an apple. She looked quite nice there in her old-fashioned dress and the Russians were long gone. It was nice to have such a pretty and talented neighbor, even if she always had her nose in a book. I decided to join her on the terrace with my writing machine and she never stopped reading. Then I sat down behind my clackety typewriter, rolled up my sleeves, and got back to work.

me, dale, and benito

THIS WAS BACK when I was working for Dale, who was a kind of stubby, stocky boss, heavy on the Long Island accent, of Irish descent, and a drinker therefore, naturally. We were working on an old house up Briggs Avenue, shaded by trees, last one on the left. The whole interior had been gutted, and it was me, Rocky, and sometimes Bobby and Angelo would show up to help out. Dale was a generation older than us and the radio was always tuned to Kool 96.7 broadcasting out of Norwalk, Connecticut, with the signals being carried over the water. But not always. Sometimes we listened to Oldies 98.1, maybe when Dale tired of Jay and the Americans and wanted to hear some Who’s Next. That was a New York station. This I knew because every five minutes or so, the governor would come on and warn of severe consequences for anyone caught hiring illegal workers. I barely paid attention to these announcements, busy painting and sanding and carrying buckets of debris. It was a hot summer, and I could easily drink four liters and sweat it out. I only noticed the announcements on the day that Dale asked me to pick up someone named Benito and his crew. “He’ll be waiting for you at the Farmingville 7-Eleven,” Dale said. “All you have to do is drive up there, ask for Benito, and take him back here. It’s all agreed.” It seemed like an easy enough job. I was about 21 or 22 then, and comfortable with driving the interior. I took the highway and made the turn off for Farmingville. This was a more newly developed part of the island, where suburban homes seemed to be popping up in clusters like a bad rash, dotting the roadsides where once stood pristine woody pine barrens and nature preserves. Finding the 7-Eleven was easy, but finding Benito was a challenge. This is because about 100 or so Mexicans and Central Americans stood gathered in the parking lot, waiting for a day’s work. I parked my car, an old Volvo station wagon, and started toward a man on the corner in a black LA Raiders hat who kept looking at me. “Are you Benito?” I asked. The man didn’t answer but looked at me again and shrugged his shoulders. Then several other migrant workers approached. “You looking for Benito?” one said. “I’m Benito.” “I too am Benito,” another one claimed loudly. “I’m Benito from Guadalajara,” a third said. When I turned back to look at the car, I saw that three men had already crawled in the trunk. “Let me guess what your names are,” I said to the trio. “Benito,” one said and shrugged. “He is Benito too.” There I was, besieged by a parking lot of Benitos. I pointed to the five who had claimed this name and left the one with the LA Raiders hat behind. He was clearly waiting for someone else. On the way back, I put on the radio, then tried to make conversation in Spanish. Several of the Benitos were from Mexico City. Then there was Guadalajara Benito in the back, and then there was another Benito from Guatemala. They seemed like nice guys, god knows what would bring them to mill about in parking lots on Long Island in the heat, or sleep 10 to a room in one of those Farmingville crash houses, where they all slept. That must have been godawful horrible, to wake up in a room of sweaty Benitos and hear one fart, or get up to take a leak, or to cry out his wife’s name in a moment of sex-starved agony. “Magdalena! Magdalena!” What empathy I felt for these characters with their dark features, bushy mustaches, so removed from the peach fuzz of the upwardly mobile aspiring white family. Some of them had ancient Aztec features too, the faces of Monteczuma, the warriors of Tenochtitlan, the temple priests dripping with the blood of human sacrifice. They were the originals, the first people. What a dreadful lot, to have your land stolen by greedy gringos and then be forced to work for them, all so they could gaze with pride at a well-tended patch of green lawn that could rival the neighbor’s. But it wasn’t so bad. When we arrived, Dale was there, whistling in his joyful Irish mood along to the radio. It was Jay and the Americans again. “In a little café, just the other side of the border.” Dale never seemed to tire of that song or any other. Then the broadcast was briefly interrupted by the governor’s announcement again. “Anyone caught hiring illegal workers will face severe consequences.” Dale paid it no attention, as if it was just another radio jingle. Five men got out of the car and Dale looked each one over and then back to me. “What the shit is this?” he stormed. “I gave you a simple job. I told you to drive to Farmingville and pick up Benito. Benito just called me before. He said he’s still up there waiting.” “He’s also Benito,” I said, nodding to the Guadalajaran. The one with the bushy mustache. “They’re all Benito too.” Dale looked at the five Benitos, nodding as he mulled it over. “Alright,” he said, extending his hands. “You’re hired!” He paid them $100 each for a day’s work. That was more than me or Rocky or even Angelo made. They earned it. They were they hardest working men I had ever seen.