Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fiction: Illegals

I must begin by saying I'm not an American. Few people know about my background. I crossed the border from Canada as a tourist in the early sixties and never went back. I think of the border as the maple syrup curtain, taking a page from the T.C. Boyle book*. Hey, if there's a tortilla curtain along the border with Mexico, the one across Canada's gotta be maple syrup or "the fridge door." At first, I thought I'd go back within a year, and then five years and then I had a life here and that was that. But I was illegal and had that secret to keep until I got through the legal tangle. Yes, unlike illegals from many other countries, the door to Canada was always open to me. At any time, I could return there but I was addicted to being an American and wanted to stay that way. It had become overwhelmingly complicated to straighten things out.

When I met Lars in 1964, we were both living in an apartment building in Culver City. We actually met in the local Catholic church and discovered we were neighbors. I'd walked up the hill to the church and on the way passed a young man who seemed to be in a hurry. I consciously stepped to the far side of the sidewalk to let him by, but he reached out and grabbed me on the breast as he passed. I was too shocked to even yell at him. I stood helpless, stunned, rooted to the spot. After a few minutes, watching him run down the hill, I collected myself sufficiently to continue on to church. When I sat down in the pew, waiting for my turn in the confessional, the shock and fear settled in and I started to weep—a classic damsel in distress. Lars asked if he could help and one thing led to another. It was the last time I went to confession as I didn't want to own up to what Lars and I were doing. As we clicked instantly, we had soon had only one rent to pay.

He was working as an electrical engineer, designing small motors for electric toothbrushes, chain saws, conveyor belts and the like. In those days, we didn't call ourselves "consultants"—we got our under-the-table jobs by word of mouth. In the U.S. on a student visa, Lars graduated from Cal State and loathed the idea of leaving sunny Southern California to return to cold and gray Malmo, Sweden. He'd hoped to fall in love with an American, get married and have all his problems solved. Instead, he fell for me—a skinny illegal Canadian with bad judgment. The last thing he wanted to do was move back to Canuckistan with me.

I had a cash-paying job working in a food plant doing quality control for $100 a week. I wasn't unskilled and had graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in Chemistry. They gave me the lab tests to do—boring work that nobody else wanted. The company was cheap and corner-cutting, but they got caught once in a big recall and instigated a QC program to protect themselves from a repeat. All day long, I stood in the stinky lab recording the pH, total acidity and lot numbers of ingredients and shrugging off propositions from the sleazy plant manager, who was exactly the same age as my father. When I came home at night, I'd tend to the acid burns on my hands and stand in the shower scrubbing the smell of blue cheese off my skin. Just before I met Lars, I was asking myself what I was doing there and very close to throwing in the lab coat and getting a bus back to Saskatoon. 

Lars and I were saving money to buy a house. All we needed was 15% down and we could reap the benefits of a $40,000 property's appreciation. At that time S. California houses went up at least 10% a year. It didn't take a genius to figure out what a good deal it was. At $6000 down we could expect to make our investment back in a little more than a year and get the benefits of living in a house instead of the close quarters of our apartment building.

For all we wanted a house, we still enjoyed inexpensive fun in the apartment after our work was done. The building we lived in was full of international students. Our neighbors were Ghanaians, in the U.S. sponsored by the Ghanaian government, studying agriculture. Well, only one was actually studying; the other had left the Ag program and was working as an assistant to a disk jockey in Watts. He'd walk around the pool in the evenings practicing coolness and  working on his intros—the audience was largely black and he was flattening out his British accent and trying to learn "Americanisms." A dude you'd call him now, he wore large black sunglasses and a tam. 

The boys lived on peanut soup. They'd brown a whole chicken in a huge pot, add water and simmer it for a couple of hours, strain everything out and add the meat back. A gallon of water went in with a jar of peanut butter, a few jalapeno peppers, and any vegetables on hand. The pot sat simmering all day. The boys were generous and hospitable and soon we were joining them for soup suppers once or twice a week. I'd bring two chickens and the veggies, bearing most of the cost. The boys did the cooking. It was a great arrangement. Every so often, we'd drink a lot of wine and beer and dance African style. It took them quite a while to get Lars and I loose enough to do the moves, but finally we got it. Two Ghanaians, a Swede and a Canadian—a less likely foursome would be hard to find. We loved each other and I was closer to those three than I've ever been to anyone else in my life. Maybe it was because we were illegal and always expecting to be found out. I wonder if everyone with such secret lives emotionally on the edge stoked by adrenalin and fear. 

Even though we scrimped and saved, on Friday nights we went to the West side Bowl-a-Drome and splurged on the special abalone dinner. We really did "thank god it was friday"—and we'd survived another week at our crap jobs. Frieda was our regular waitress—a classic with a mop of curly bangs and bright red lipstick painted over her lip line. "Hi kids," she'd greet us..."the usual?" Frieda always had news and loved to talk. Her husband drove a truck and was gone much of the time while she worked and coped with two teenage boys who ran her ragged. We liked her and liked her stories.

We'd settle into the red leather booths, light up our cigarettes and wait for our Harvey Wallbangers. The table-top jukeboxes were still working in the place and we'd play the songs with the buttons worn down. It was 1966 and Nowhere Man was our favorite, illegals that we were.

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command
He's as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all
Nowhere man don't worry
Take your time, don't hurry
Leave it all till somebody else
Lends you a hand
Ah, la, la, la, la

And then, pure bliss. The meal would come: pan-fried lightly breaded abalone, loaded baked potato and a salad from the spinning salad bowl. I think the dinners were $6.99 each. Even now, fifty years later, my mouth waters when I hear the sound of pins crashing in a bowling alley or the Beatles singing that precious song. Little since then has tasted quite as good.

*The Tortilla Curtain (1995) by T. C. Boyle



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