Working the factory always seemed to be more about keeping yourself from stapling your fingers than producing goods for general consumption. The first one was an immediate concern, whereas the latter was somebody else's problem.
We made seats. If you ever rode the Greyhound up in the Tri-State Area, chances are you've sat on my workmanship. We covered the whole process, from making the metal into pipes and bending them to build frames, up to upholstering the cushioned frames.
There were no gringos working Upholstery. When you can make 10 dollars an hour flipping burgers you don't care much for minimum-wage jobs that involve heavy machinery. My team leader and I were the only ones who spoke enough English to communicate with the Floor Manager. The task, however, was further impeded by his strong Missouri accent and the ever-present stink of bourbon (right around the corner stood The blue oyster -- "Best Louisville Cooler this side of the '24!"), so Gerardo would make me come over whenever he had to talk to Jake. We'd compare notes later until we worked out some common ground. This fact undeservedly improved my status among the rest of the workers.
I started work at the factory after dropping out of Engineering School. One too many F's in math made a pretty convincing argument that my path in life lay elsewhere. I promptly decided to become a journalist. As it turned out, I would be proven wrong once again. And again. Many, many times. Consistently. Back then, though, there were matters of importance to be taken care of. Like the School Loan money.
Prudence is something you develop with age and patience. I had neither, so I spent most of the day asking people personal questions. The guys eventually took a liking to it, and adopted a fatherly attitude towards me.
Lalo was from Michoacán. He had a huge family back home (no one ever spoke of "México" -- it was always "home" or "mi tierra"). Of all the people working the production line, Lalo was the only one who ever expressed the desire to come back. It was always the same: Sigh. Inhale. Eyes up. Now...close them! -- "I tell you kid, one of these days I'll just up and take all the money I've saved, tell my wife to pack her tiliches and we'll go back there and put a convenience store right around the corner of my parents' house. Now that's good business, you know? people always need the kind of stuff those stores sell. You just can't go wrong with a convenience store. Nooo sir..." -- then he'd go back to stapling cheap leather to square wooden boards (I never did find out what kind of seats those were -- my best guess would be they were those little stools drivers place at the front of the bus).
- "If La Migra ever comes knocking, you just go over to the güeros' side and pretend you're working, kid. You look like them. They should leave you alone".
- "Well, I wouldn't know about that. But you should definitely give it a try, Lalo"
- "Hahaahaaha!! yeah, I reckon I'll do that, kid". Lalo had the nopal painted on his face. He was as mexican as the tortilla and looked the part, too.
Javier was from Jalisco. When he was not being deported he was busy getting back into the country. He spoke of the border as his own personal revolving door. Javier worked the metal cutter with Leonardo, who was something of a phenomenon: the only mexican on the Floor who actually had a greencard.
Leonardo showed up badly beaten one morning. When we asked him about it he just stared at the ground and mumbled "The police. They didn't care for my documents. Just beat the shit out of me. Said if I spoke they'd send me the fuck away. Fucking cops...". No one asked again.
Back then, Bill Clinton was "not having sex" on the big chair at the White House, Desert Fox was a furry quadruped, Ally McBeal was singing to Barry White and the Teletubbies were shooting up the charts. I guess folk would call those "pre 9/11, more innocent times". Truth is, I don't know that anyone was innocent at the time. Most people seemed to me like they had a hidden agenda which usually clashed with mine. Therefore I saw everyone as something of a bunch of jackasses.
I never did know if the police really did that to Leonardo. I don't think it matters. I only know it made sense at the time. In a country that didn't want us there, every figure of authority was suspect, every social role distorted. You didn't ask questions because there was no point in getting any answers.
We just tried to go on.