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Chapter 13


I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and,

behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.

Ecclesiastes 1:14

I AM going to skip over the next three days, for there was nothing good about them. 'There was blood in the streets and dust.' Survivors, those of us who were not hurt, not prostrate with grief, not dazed or hysterical beyond action - few of us, in short - worked at the rubble here and there trying to find living creatures under the bricks and stones and plaster. But how much can you do with your naked fingers against endless tons of rock?

And how much can you do when you do dig down and discover that you were too late, that indeed it was ~too late before you started? We heard this mewling, something like a kitten, so we dug most carefully, trying not to put any pressure on whatever was underneath, trying not to let the stones we shifted dislodge anything that would cause more grief underneath - and found the source. An infant, freshly dead. Pelvis broken, one side of its head bashed. 'Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.' I turned my head away and threw up. Never will I read Psalm 137 again.

That night we spent on the lower slopes of Icebox Hill. When the sun went down, we perforce stopped trying. Not only did the darkness make it impossible to work but there was looting going on. I had a deep conviction that any looter was a potential rapist and murderer. I was prepared to die for Margrethe should it become necessary - but I had no wish to die gallantly but futilely, in a confrontation that could have been avoided.

Early the following afternoon the Mexican Army arrived. We had accomplished nothing useful in the meantime more of the same picking away at rubble. Never mind what we found. The soldiers put a stop even to that; all civilians were herded back up the peninsula, away from the ruined city, to the railroad station across the river. There we waited - new widows, husbands freshly bereaved, lost children, injured on make-do stretchers, walking wounded, some with no marks on them but with empty eyes and no speech. Margrethe and, I were of the lucky ones; we were merely hungry, thirsty, dirty, and covered with bruises from head to foot from lying on the ground during the earthquake. Correction: during two earthquakes.

Had anyone else experienced two earthquakes?

I hesitated to ask. I seemed to be the unique observer to this world-changing - save that, twice, Margrethe had come with me because I was holding her at the instant. Were there other victims around? Had there been others in Konge Knut who had kept their mouths shut about it as carefully as I had? How do you ask? Excuse me, amigo, but is this the same city it was yesterday?

When we had waited at the railroad station about two hours an army water cart came through a tin cup of water to each refugee and. a soldier with a bayonet to enforce order in the queues.

Just before sundown the cart came back with more water and with loaves of bread; Margrethe and I were rationed a quarter of a loaf between us. A train backed into the station about then and the army people started loading it even as supplies were being unloaded. Marga and I were lucky; we were pushed into a passenger car - most rode in freight cars.

The train started north. We weren't asked whether or not we wanted to go north; we weren't asked for money For fares; all of Mazatl'an was being evacuated. Until Its water system could be restored, Mazatl'an belonged to the rats and the dead.

No point in describing the journey. The train moved; we endured. The railway line leaves the coast at Guaymas and goes straight north across Sonora to Arizona - beautiful country but we were in no shape to appreciate it. We slept as much as we could and pretended to sleep the rest of the time. Every time the train stopped, some left it unless the police herded them back on. By the time we reached Nogales, Sonora, the train was less than half full; the rest seemed headed for Nogales, Arizona, and of course we were.

We reached the international gate early afternoon three days after the quake.

We were herded into a detention building just over the line, and a man in a uniform made a speech in Spanish: 'Welcome, amigos! The United States is happy to help its neighbors in their time of trial and the US Immigration Service has streamlined its procedures so that we can take care of all of you quickly. First we must ask you all to go through delousing. Then you'll be issued green cards outside of quota so that you can work at any job anywhere in the States. But you will find labor agents to help you as you leave the compound. And a soup kitchen! If you are hungry, stop and have your first meal here as guests of Uncle Sam. Welcome to los Estados Unidos!"

Several people had questions to ask but Margrethe and I headed for the door that led to the delousing setup. I resented the name assigned to this sanitary routine - a requirement that you take delousing is a way of saying that you are lousy. Dirty and mussed we certainly were, and I had a three-day beard. But lousy?

Well, perhaps we were. After a day of picking through the ruins and two days crowded in with other unwashed in a railroad car that was not too clean when we boarded it, could I honestly assert that I was completely free of vermin?

Delousing wasn't too bad. It was mostly a supervised shower bath with exhortations in Spanish to scrub the hairy places throughly with a medicated 9oft soap. In the meantime my clothes went through some sort of sterilization or fumigation -autoclave, I think - then I had to wait, bare naked, for twenty minutes to reclaim them, while I grew more and more angry with each passing minute.

But once I was dressed again, I got over my anger, realizing that no one was intentionally pushing me around; it was simply that any improvised procedure for handling crowds of people in an emergency is almost certain to be destructive of human dignity. (The Mexican refugees seemed to find it offensive; I heard mutterings.)

Then again I had to wait, for Margrethe.

She came out the exit door from the distaff side, caught my eye, and smiled, and suddenly everything was all right. How could she come out of a delousing chamber-and look as if she had just stepped out of a bandbox?

She came up to me and said, 'Did I keep you waiting, dear? I'm sorry. There was an ironing board in there and I seized the chance to touch up my dress. It looked a sorry sight when it came out of the washer.'

'I didn't mind waiting,' I fibbed. 'You're beautiful.' (No fib!) 'Shall we go to dinner? Soup kitchen dinner, I'm afraid.'

'Isn't there some paper work we have to go through?'

'Oh. I think we can hit the soup kitchen first. We don't want green cards; they are for Mexican nationals. Instead I must explain about our lost passports.' I had worked this* out in my head and had explained it to Margrethe on the train. This is what I would say had happened to us: We were tourists, staying in Hotel de las, Olas Altas on the beach. When the earthquake hit, we were on the beach. So we lost our clothes, our money, our passports, everything, as our hotel had been destroyed. We were lucky to be alive, and the clothes we were wearing. had been given to us by Mexican Red Cross.

This story had two advantages: Hotel de las Olas Altas had indeed been destroyed, and the rest of the story had no easy way to be checked.

I found that we had to go through the green-card queue in order to reach the soup kitchen. Eventually we got as far as the table. A man there shoved a file card in front of me, saying in Spanish: 'Print your name, last name first. List your address. If -it was destroyed in the quake, say so, and give some other address - cous * in, father, priest, somebody whose home was not destroyed.'

I started my spiel. The functionary looked up and said, 'Amigo, you're holding up the line.'

'But,' I said, 'I don't need a green card. I don't want a green card. I'm an American citizen returning from abroad and I'm trying to explain why I don't have my passport. And the same for my wife,'

He drummed on the table. 'Look,' he said, 'your accent says that you're native American. But I can't do anything about your lost passport and I've got three hundred and fifty refugees still to process, and another trainload just pulling in. I won't get to bed before two. Why don't you do us both a favor and accept a green card? It won't poison you and it'll get you in. Tomorrow you can fight with the State Department about your passport - but not with me. Okay?'

I'm stupid but not stubborn. 'Okay.' For my Mexican accommodation address I listed Don Jaime; I figured he owed me that much. His address had the advantage of being in another universe.

The soup kitchen was what you would expect from a charity operation. But it was gringo cooking, the first I had had in months - and we were hungry. The Stark's Delicious apple I had for dessert was indeed delicious. It was still short of sundown when _we were out on the streets of Nogales - free, bathed, fed, and inside the United States legally or almost. We were at least a thousand percent better off than those two naked survivors who had been picked up out of the ocean seventeen weeks ago.

But we were still orphans of fate, no money at all, no place to rest, no clothes but those we were wearing, and my three-day beard and the shape my clothes were in after going through an autoclave or whatever made me look like a skid row derelict.

The no-money situation was particularly annoying because we did have money, Margrethe's hoarded tips. But the paper money said 'Reino' where it should have read 'Republica' and the coins did not have the right faces. Some of the coins may have contained enough silver to have some minor intrinsic value. But, if so, there was no easy way to cash it in at once. And any attempt to spend any of this money would simply get us into major trouble.

How much had we lost? There are no interuniversal exchange rates. One might make a guess in terms of equivalent purchasing power - so many dozens of eggs, or so many kilos of sugar. But why bother? Whatever it was, we had lost lit.

This paralleled a futility I had run into in Mazatl'an. I had attempted, while lord of the scullery, to write to a) Alexander Hergensheimer's boss, the Reverend Dr Dandy Danny Dover, DD, director of Churches United for Decency, and b) Alec Graham's lawyers in Dallas.

Neither letter was answered; neither came back. Which was what I had expected, as neither Alec nor Alexander came from a world having flying machines, aeroplanos.

I would try both again - but with small hope; I already knew that this world would feel strange both to Graham and to Hergensheimer. How? Nothing that I had noticed until we reached Nogales. But here, in that detention hall, was (hold tight to your chair) television. A handsome big box with a window in one side, and in that window living pictures of people... and sounds coming out of it of those selfsame people talking.

Either you have this invention and are used to it and take it for granted, or you live in. a world that does not have it - and you don't believe me. Learn from me, as I have been forced to believe unbelievable things. There is such an invention; there is a world where it is as common as bicycles, and its name is television - or sometimes tee-vee or telly or video or even 'idiot box' - and if you were to hear some of the purposes for which this great wonder is used, you would understand the last tag.

If you ever find yourself flat broke in a strange city and no one to turn to and you do not want to turn yourself in at a police station and don't want to be mugged, there is just one best answer for emergency help. You will usually find it in the city's tenderloin, near skid row:

The Salvation Army.

Once I laid hands on a telephone book it took me no time at all to get the address of the Salvation Army mission (although it did take me a bit of time to recognize a telephone when I saw one - warning to interworld travelers: Minor changes can be even more confusing than major changes).

Twenty minutes and one wrong turn later Margrethe and I were at the mission. Outside on the sidewalk four of them - French horn, big drum, two tambourines - were gathering a crowd. They were working on 'Rock of Ages' and doing well, but they needed a baritone and I was tempted to join them.

But a couple of store fronts before we reached the mission Margrethe stopped and plucked at my sleeve. 'Alec... must we do this?'

'Eh? What's the trouble, dear? I thought we had agreed.'

'No, sir. You simply told me.'

'Mmm - Perhaps I did. You don't want to go to the Salvation Army?'

She took a deep breath and sighed it out. 'Alec... I have not been inside a church since - since I left the Lutheran Church. To go to one now - I think it would be sinful.'

(Dear Lord, what can I do with this child? She is apostate not because she is heathen... but because her rules are even more strict than Yours. Guidance, please - and do hurry it up!) 'Sweetheart, if it feels sinful to you, we won't do it. But tell me what we are to do now; I've run out of ideas.'

'Ah - Alec, are there not other institutions to which a person in distress may turn?'

'Oh, certainly. In a city this size the Roman Catholic Church is bound to have more than one refuge. And there will be other Protestant ones. Probably a Jewish one. And -'

'I meant, "Not connected with a church".'

'Ah, so. Margrethe, we both know that this is not really my home country; you probably know as much about how it works as I do. There may be refuges for the homeless here that are totally unconnected with a church. I'm not sure, as churches tend to monopolize the field - nobody else wants it. If it were early in the day instead of getting dark, I would try to find something called united charities or community chest or the equivalent, and look over the menu; there might be something. But now - Finding a policeman and asking for help is the only other thing I can think of this time of day... and I can tell you ahead of time what a cop in this part of town would do if you told him you have nowhere to sleep. He would point you toward the mission right there. Old Sal.'

'In Kobenhavrt - or Stockholm or Oslo - I would go straight to the main police station. You just ask for a place to sleep; they give it to you.'

'I have to point out that this is not Denmark or Sweden or Norway. Here they might let us stay - by locking me in the drunk tank and locking you up in the holding pen for prostitutes. Then tomorrow morning we might or might not be charged with vagrancy. I don't know.'

'Is America really so' evil?'

'I don't know, dear - this isn't my America. But. I don't want to find out the hard way. Sweetheart... if I worked for whatever they give us, could we spend a night with the Salvation Army without your feeling sinful about it?'

She considered it solemnly - Margrethe's greatest lack was a total absence of sense of humor. Good nature - loads. A child' delight in play, yes. Sense of humor? 'Life is real and life is earnest -'

'Alec, if that can be arranged, I would not feel wrong in entering. I will work, too.'

'Not necessary, dear; it will be my profession that is involved. When they finish feeding the derelicts tonight, there will be a high stack of dirty dishes I and you are looking at the heavyweight champion dishwasher in all of Mexico and los Estados Unidos.'

So I washed dishes. I also helped spread out hymnbooks and set up the evening services. And I borrowed a safety razor and a blade from Brother Eddie McCaw, the adjutant. I told him how we happened to be there - vacationing on the Mexican Riviera, sunbathing on the beach when the big one hit - all the string of lies I had prepared for the Immigration Service and hadn't been able to use. 'Lost it, all. Cash, travelers checks, passports, clothes, ticket home, the works. But just the same, we were lucky. We're alive.'

'The Lord had His arms around you. You tell me that you are born again?'

'Years back.'

'It will do our lost sheep good to rub shoulders with you. When it comes time for witnessing, will you tell them all about it? You're the first eyewitness. Oh, we felt it here but it just rattled the dishes.'

'Glad to.'

Good. Let me get you that razor.'

So I witnessed and gave them a truthful and horrendous description of the quake, but not as horrid as it really was - I never want to see another rat - or another dead baby - and I thanked the Lord publicly that Margrethe and I had not been hurt and found that it was the most sincere prayer I had said in years.

The Reverend Eddie asked that roomful of odorous outcasts to join him in a prayer of thanks that Brother and Sister Graham had been spared, and he made it a good rousing prayer that covered everything from Jonah to the hundredth sheep, and drew shouts of 'Amen!' from around the room. One old wino came forward and said that he had at last seen God's grace and God's mercy and he was now ready to give his life to Christ.

Brother Eddie prayed over him, and invited others to come forward and two more did - a natural evangelist, he saw in our story a theme for his night's sermon and used it, hanging it on Luke fifteen, ten, and Matthew six, nineteen. I don't know that he had prepared from those two verses - probably not, as any preacher worth his salt can preach endlessly from either one of them. Either way, he could think on his feet and he made good use of our unplanned presence.

He was pleased with us, and I am sure that is why he told me, as we were cleaning up for the night, after the supper that followed the service, that while of course they didn't have separate rooms for married couples - they didn't often get married couples - still, it looked like Sister Graham would be the only one in the sisters' dormitory tonight, so why didn't I doss down in there instead of in the men's ~ dormitory? No double bed, just stacked bunks - sorry! But at least we could be in the same room.

I thanked him and we happily went to bed. Two people can share a very narrow bed if they really want to sleep together.

The next morning Margrethe cooked breakfast for the derelicts. She went into the kitchen and volunteered and soon was, doing it all as the regular cook did not cook breakfast; it was the job of whoever had the duty. Breakfast did not require a graduate chef - oatmeal porridge, bread, margarine, little valencia oranges (culls?), coffee. I left her there to wash dishes and to wait until I came back.

I went out and found a job.

I knew, from listening to wireless (called 'radio' here) while washing the dishes the night before, that there was unemployment in the United States-, enough to be a political and social problem.

There is always work in the Southwest for agricultural labor but I had dodged that sort of Work yesterday. I'm not too proud for that work; I had followed the harvest for several years from the time I was big enough to handle a pitchfork. But I could not take Margrethe into the fields.

I did not expect to find a job as a clergyman; I hadn't even told Brother Eddie that I was ordained. There is always an unemployment problem for preachers. Oh, there are always empty pulpits, true - but ones in which a church mouse would starve.

But I had a second profession.

Dishwasher.

No matter how many people are out of work, there are always dishwashing jobs going begging. Yesterday, in walking from the border gate to the Salvation Army mission, I had noticed three restaurants with 'Dishwasher Wanted' signs in their windows - noticed them because I had had plenty of time on the long ride from Mazatl'an to admit to myself that I had no other salable skill.

No salable skill. I was not ordained in this world; I would not be ordained in this world as I could not show graduation from seminary or divinity school - or even the backing of a primitive sect that takes no mind of schools but depends on inspiration by the Holy Ghost.

I was certainly not an engineer.

I could not get a job teaching even those subjects I knew *Well because I no longer could show any formal preparation - I couldn't even show that I had graduated from middle school!

In general I was no salesman. True, I had shown an unexpected talent for the complex skills that make up a professional money-raiser... but here I had no record, no reputation. I might someday do this again - but we needed cash today.

What did that leave? I had looked at the help-wanted ads in a copy of the Nogales Times someone had left in the mission. I, was, not a lax accountant. I was not any sort of a mechanic. I did not know what a software designer was but I was not one, nor was I a 'computer' anything. I was not a nurse or any sort of health care professional.

I could go on indefinitely listing the things I was not, and could not learn overnight. But that is pointless. What I could do, What would feed Margrethe and me while we sized up this new world and learned the angles, was what I had been forced to do as a pe'on.

A competent and reliable dishwasher never starves. (He's more likely to die of boredom.)

The first place did not smell good and its kitchen looked dirty; I did not linger. The second place was a major-chain hotel, with several people in the scullery. The boss looked me over and said, 'This is a Chicano job; you wouldn't be happy here.' I tried to argue; he shut me off.

I But the third was okay, a restaurant only a little bigger than the Pancho Villa, with a clean kitchen and a manager no more than normally jaundiced.

He warned me, 'This job pays minimum wage and there are no raises. One meal a day on the house. I catch you sneaking anything, even a toothpick, and out you go that instant - no second chance. You work the hours I set and I change 'em to suit me. Right now I need you for noon to four, six to ten, five days a week. Or you can work six days but no overtime scale for it. Overtime scale if I require you to work more than eight hours in one day, or more than forty-eight hours in one week.'

'Okay.'

'All right, let's see your Social Security card.'

I handed him my green card.

He handed it-back. 'You expect me to pay you twelve dollars and a half an hour on the basis of a green card? You're no Chicano. You trying to get me in trouble with the government? Where did you get that card?'

So I gave him the song and dance I had prepared for the Immigration Service. 'Lost everything. I can't even phone and tell somebody to send me money; I have to get home first before I can shake any assets loose.'

'You could get public assistance.'

'Mister, I'm too stinkin' proud.' (I don't know how and I can't prove I'm me. Just don't quiz me and let me wash dishes.)

Glad to hear it. "Stinking proud", I mean. This country could use more like you. Go over to the Social Security office and get them to issue you a new one. They will, even if you can't recall the number of your old one. Then come back here and go to work. Mmm - I'll start you on payroll right now. But you must come back and put in a full day to collect.'

'More than fair. Where is the Social Security office?'

So I went to the Federal Building and told my lies over again, embroidering only as necessary. The serious young lady who issued the card insisted on giving me a lecture on Social Security and how it worked, a lecture she had apparently memorized. I'll bet- you she never had a 'client' (that's what she called me) who listened so carefully. It was all new to me.

I gave the name 'Alec L. Graham.' This was not a conscious decision. I had been using that name for weeks, answered with it by reflex - then was not in a good position to say, 'Sorry, Miss, my name is actually Hergensheimer.'

I started work. During my four-to-six break I went back to the mission - and learned that Margrethe had a job, too.

It was temporary, three weeks - but three weeks at just the right time. The mission cook had not had a vacation in over a year and wanted to go to Flagstaff to visit her daughter, who had just had a baby. So Margrethe had her job for the time being - and her bedroom, also for the time being.

So Brother and Sister Graham were in awfully good shape - for the time being.




Chapter 12 | JOB: A Comedy of Justice | Chapter 14



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