A Fistful of Dollars

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Labor Line Scholars, Anytown, California

I’ve seen this man before. He’s Mexican, late middle-aged, soft spoken, and there is a shielded focus in his eyes that betrays the uncertainty of a life spent mostly standing over a trap door. His name is Armando. A couple of years ago, while sitting upstairs in my office working, I saw him ride down the road on a bicycle, carrying a rake in one hand like a lance. He was riding door to door, looking for work, but that day, for whatever reason, he did not stop in at our place.

Yesterday, he pulled into our driveway at the wheel of a used car. A Pontiac. I was, as I usually am most mornings, in my office working. He was welcomed by our dogs, who eagerly abandoned their obsession with watching the chickens for the prospect of something far more interesting. I went down to meet him.

The Spanish I have acquired came to me first on the deserts of Nevada, where I often rode and worked with Mexicans, and where I learned to string together a sentence or two and built a modest vocabulary around the things of ranch life. The second baptism came in police work, where I learned key phrases such as “Show me your hands,” and “Drop the knife,” and “Why is their a bag of meth in your center console?” I said those things often enough that I will probably be muttering them, to the consternation of my nurses, who will likely be Hispanic, in the day-room of whatever raisin farm I eventually end up in.

But Armando is a working man, and after many mucho gustos we worked through the limits of our broken languages and I found some work that I needed done—work that he wanted to do because like all men, he needs money, and unlike far too many of our fellow citizens, he’s willing to work for it. And it is, after all, almost Christmas.

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This is Not Armando, But It Could Be

What stays with me in all of this, and it’s something I’ve thought about before, is the tremendous admiration I have for Armando, and others like him, who are compelled to leave their homes by the absence of opportunity, or war, or worse, and suddenly find themselves many hundreds of miles away, deep inside an entirely foreign country, without facility in the language, and who nevertheless have the sand to get out—on a bicycle if necessary—get busy, and try to make an honest dollar.

It’s driven by necessity, of course, that kind of pluck, and no small measure of courage, but there is an overwhelming combination of humility and determination that we can all take a lesson from. It is also driven by a mindset and a vision of life that takes nothing for granted. Nothing, I daresay, in Armando’s adult life has ever been given to him. Not one single thing.

Which is exactly the place where the abundance of our culture, this leviathan of entitlements and the attendant attitudes—has become our Achilles heel. When people say that immigrants are willing to do work that Americans won’t, they aren’t making that up.  They are, and they do.  It is probably no accident that not a single American citizen—and there are plenty in this community that I live in, who need work and the money that comes with it–has ever come around to our little ranch with nothing but an old rake and a tarp, and a profound willingness to do as much or as little work as necessary in return for a day’s wage.

On one of my old beats, when I was a police officer, was the city’s labor line. Each morning a hundred or so people, mostly Mexicans but plenty of Central Americans too, would gather to sit on the rock wall and wait for contractors, or private citizens, to come by and offer work. It was also an open drug bazaar and later, when I become a narcotics detective, we would stage the occasional buy-bust operation to tamp down the brazen commerce in rock-cocaine and crystal meth. But these were basically nuisance operations—for us and for the dealers–because neither of us had any expectation that the trade would end over the quick spectacle of a few virtually meaningless busts.

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Work?  What’s In It For Me?

But there were men there who were not a part of that. These men were honestly looking for work, and worked honestly when they found it. They were very, very poor people, often living 20-30 to a house in appalling circumstances. Later, as a detective, I would go into those places with some frequency. Bedrooms were sectioned off by hanging bedsheets, the lights never worked, there was often no legitimate plumbing, and the houses were filled with rats, cockroaches, mold, and filth. Their lives as refugees and immigrants had filled them with incredible stories of hardship, desperation, and no small amount of legitimate danger. They had come to America to live better lives, and the lives they were living in America were a window into how bad things must have been in the places they came from.

It was possible, over time, to see some of these men finally disappear from the labor line, which one hoped was because they had found steady work somewhere. The alternative was to inevitably slide into that sleaziest world of street-level meth, crack, and heroin dealing. The latter led only to revolving visits to jail, and sometimes prison, a laundry list of outstanding warrants under different names, and sometimes to violent injury or death.

Much of that experience has informed my opinions about Trump’s proposed border wall and on the topic of immigration, legal or otherwise.

But here was Armando, pulling into our driveway with his new-used car, his rake and a ratty tarp, without the slightest idea what kind of reception he might receive. The dogs liked him instantly, which is something I pay attention to because they have proven to be excellent judges of character.

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“Slumlords”, like Santa Barbara’s notorious Dario Pini, prey on immigrants  

Armando made his proposal, and we bartered, and he went to work raking pine needles out of the bunch grass. His reception here was far better, I promise you, than the one I reserve for the well-dressed and well-heeled missionaries who come banging on our door—even after I tell them not to do it anymore–looking to save my soul from what looks to them like a certain eternal damnation. But I have a practical approach to all of that: I’ll take help with the chores around our modest little ranch, but the final disposition of my soul is none of their damn business—it’s a matter held strictly between me and the almighty.

At any rate, we get these gifts. In Armando’s case it is the gift of help around our place, but he also serves as a kind of keyhole we might peer through and think long about what it is that we are becoming, this nation of immigrants. We might, by looking at how hard Armando works—without the slightest hint of a grudge or an entitlement–use his example to better judge ourselves, and our mindset about how things are supposed to work.

The fact of the matter is I’d take one Armando, whatever his legal status in this country—a man of obvious substance and character and humility, of good cheer despite his circumstances—over ten of the kind of smug, lazy, weak-minded, foul-mouthed, and utterly entitled Americans who are sucking the life out of our republic. It’s no accident that, no matter how badly they might need a fistful of dollars, those folks never come knocking on my door in the humble, and utterly honest, attempt to earn it.  It has simply never happened.  Not even once.

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7 thoughts on “A Fistful of Dollars

  1. Excellent read. As a believer Jesus as my Lord and savior, I hold a special place in my heart for the missionaries, whatever their theology. Say what you will, one thing they are not is “slack”. Anyone who cares for my soul deserves a chance from me. Perhaps one way to weed out the sincere ones from the obnoxious ones is to offer one’s undivided attention for 10 minutes in exchange for a little work around the homestead? 🙂 Keep up the good work, I love reading Bunkhouse!

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    • Thanks, Chris. I tend to view proselytizing at my front door as a poor move. It is for each of us to maintenance our souls, but I would be a sour brute indeed if I did not at least appreciate their concern. Thanks for that 🙂

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  2. I was just down in Las Vegas presenting to a local group. I managed to beat the record for attendance because a group of twenty Ethiopian students came in to hear my presentation because they also wanted to be a database administrator like me. I spoke with their teacher for a long time and we talked about strategies to get his students internships and eventually jobs. It certainly helped me to bolster my motivation to work harder. I know plenty of people in IT that do not try very hard at all. What was ironic is i was talking with the group leader about attendance and he said that the state workers did not want to come out learn at the end of the day because they had “done enough”. I realize I am drawing a bit of a parallel here, but I feel it still applies.

    Great piece!

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