The thing about Santa Barbara is that the weather never seems to change. It was August, that was a fact, but I wasn’t sure if it was summer or spring or autumn. I know, I should have memorized this stuff in school but I decided to skip the class. Besides, the procrastinator inside of me had a feeling none of this shit will ever actually help me accomplish anything in life. Probably. The only important issue that needed my attention was the green, lustrous dollars I was selling my ass for while working at Staples full-time. Everything was fine and dandy for a month, but one day, as sudden as a Californian earthquake, a piece of bad news landed on my lap.
“Hours are tight, ese,” Juan told me one morning as I came into work. I felt better, a bit more optimistic, and ready to seize the day; carpe diem, as the old, Latin phrase says. I was even smiling, something I didn’t do often. It had been over a month since I worked at the gas station and my internal clock had adjusted to a certain sleep schedule.
“What do you mean by ‘tight’?” I asked. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with many slang words, and Juan seemed to have many of those under his extra-large sleeve.
He was standing next to Arturo’s office, looking at the board where the schedule was posted. “They’re cutting hours, ese,” he said.
I looked at the schedule. The smile on my face disappeared as fast as it came. It was true, I had gone back to having the meager number of hours I was having before, while the managers and higher-ups seemed to be doing just fine. The little, whiny voice inside of me was beginning to complain, saying, “Not fair! Not fair!” but I had a feeling complaining wasn’t going to take me anywhere.
“I see,” I said.
Juan was surprised with my reaction (or the lack of) and went back to doing whatever it was that he was doing before I got there.
I walked further into the break-room. There was a new, white, rectangular table in the middle, and six plastic chairs surrounded it. Arturo sat on one of those chairs, alone, eating cold pizza, and looking at a bunch of papers he had on the table. He looked at me, briefly, stopped chewing, and went right back to it after realizing it was me, the undocumented employee, standing right there.
“I supposed you already saw the schedule,” he said, and a bit of tomato sauce adorned the left side of his mouth.
“I did,” I replied while walking behind him, toward my locker. I opened it, took out my work shirt, and saw the book I was reading at the moment: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, courtesy of my highly-motivated friends at Amway.
“You did?” he asked, but the tone of his voice suggested surprise. “Is that all you have to say?”
I got it now, he was also surprised by my lack of surprise. “Yeah, what else do you expect me to say?”
He turned back, while I was putting on my red, polo shirt. “All day, I’ve been getting shit from everybody because they have fewer hours. Even the managers! And lemme tell you about the managers: they don’t even get that many hours cut from their schedule.”
I came closer to him, pulled out a chair and sat down. I leaned closer and smelled him. “Yeah, you smell like shit, boss.”
He even stopped chewing on his pizza, letting me see the rather unappealing pre-masticated food he had in his mouth. “You think you’re funny, don’t you? You little shi_”
I lifted my right hand, invited myself to a slice of pizza and said, “Listen boss: you basically said you’ve been used as a depository of human excrement based on a number of hours you have taken off people. Is that correct?”
“Therefore, why would you think I want to add some more of it upon you?”
Of course, my use of words and general equanimity was making him feel weird. “Since when did you get so smart?”
“Smart?” I smirked. “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”
“Are you quoting Aristotle now?”
“Socrates,” I corrected him.
“Nope, Aristotle said that.”
“You wanna bet?”
I smirked again. “I don’t want to take your money.”
I made him think. “Who gives a shit?”
“My point exactly. I don’t wanna give you any shit.”
“Anyway, going back to the hours, I thought you’ll be angrier because I kinda made you quit your other job to get full time here. And it looks like you’re the only one who is not worried.”
It took me a couple of seconds to answer. “But I am worried,” I said. “I just think there is no use in complaining. Life is crap, that’s a fact, I just have to keep looking for ways to make things work.”
He was still surprised. “That’s a good way put it.”
“But, let me just ask you a question: why is the company cutting hours?”
He was finally able to clean up the sauce off his mouth with a napkin. “The economy.”
I nodded, still unsure what he was talking about. I worked that day as usual and thought about maybe working a second job (again) because Amway was definitely not going to be enough. For the time being, I thought it would be a good idea when there is no way to accomplish anything, to blame it on the fucking economy.
But if you have read my memoirs for a while now, you might have noticed something about me: I always keep looking for ways to get out of my comfort zone (hell! I don’t even think I have one!) and do something that may fix my shitty and unsuccessful life. and I did something…bad. Yeah. Remember Don Jose? El cristianito I talked about in the last chapter? Well, I saw him again a couple of times at McDonald’s. He would always eat his Big Mac combo with fries and a drink, and sit in the same booth, with his big Bible right next to him. I approached him and told him I was interested in going to church with him because I felt like I really needed to have a relationship with Jesus.
Of course, that was a fucking lie. I know I’m going to hell for this one, which is all right because all of my friends are definitely going to be there.
He was excited and ate my words with the same delight he ate his ketchup-coated French fries. “God told me this moment was going to happen!” he cheered.
Sure, he did, I thought but didn’t say it. “Well, like you guys said: God works in mysterious ways.”
So I went to church with him, met both boring and interesting people, and had a chance to socialize and get to know my fellow human beings more deeply. And what was my ulterior motive, you may ask? I wanted to get people into Amway. You see, I got this idea because I noticed most of the Amway clique was, in fact, religious, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I was going to sign up a bunch of people and become this super-motherfucking-big-and-successful independent business owner!
But it didn’t work out. Turned out the Christians were positive they already had a place in heaven and didn’t need to make any treasures here because Jesus had a big house with many rooms and shit, all for them, up in His kingdom.
Meanwhile, sometimes I felt like looking for a way out of this hell they call life.
The first two weeks of August passed by like a fart, leaving only the smell of failure and despair and self-deprecation and cynicism all over my skinny and insipid being. I was about to break down and cry but thought again: complaining is not gonna take you anywhere. In fact, this voice inside my head was talking too much lately, telling me what to do, how to do it, etc, etc. I was going crazy. Hell, I am still crazy. I have conversations with The Voice all the time, always making sure nobody else is listening.
So I kept going to church (sometimes twice a week) and even spent the meager savings I had on nice clothes for the Amway meetings as well. Margarita was so proud of me, but she never knew my bank account had shrunk so much it was now the size of my penis on a cold winter night.
I decided to tell her about the size… of my bank account. “I don’t have money in the bank,” I said. “In fact, I think I owe them.”
I had this chat with her after one of our meetings, which were pretty much like the church gatherings minus Jesus and the crucifixes. “Valgame Dios!” she said, which basically means Oh my God! “You must be going through really hard times right now.”
I gave her a sarcastic look. “Umm, yeah, that’s what I’m telling you,” I said, “in fact, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to buy the monthly packet. I don’t even have money to pay rent.”
Her eyes popped up so much I felt like they were going to land on my open mouth and I was going to eat them like caviar. To her, not buying the Amway monthly packet was the equivalent of a Third World War. “Oh! Don’t say that! If you don’t buy the monthly packet Amway is not going to take you seriously!” As she said that, Juan Carlos was coming our way.
“Hey! I’m in a really tough place right now. Do you think I worry about what some CEO with a hot secretary under his desk thinks about me?”
She shook her head, perhaps trying to rid herself of the image I just provided. Juan Carlos was right next to her at that moment, saying, in a really masculine tone of voice, while embracing her, “Is everything all right here?”
Oh shit, I thought. I would’ve never imagined these two were fucking.
She told him what we were talking about. Like me, he tended to talk with his hands, so he took a hand out of this pocket and moved it around while his mouth uttered some words I could’ve ignored if I were a rich man. “I can lend you some money,” he said. “I fact, I can let you have a couple of people I just signed up. Either way, all the money will still go to Margarita, because we both are under her line.”
The look on Margarita’s face had both lust and thankfulness mixed in. “Will you really do that for him?” she asked while looking into his eyes with ardor and passion.
“Wow! it looks like everyone around you gets laid on a regular basis,” The Voice inside my head said. I even looked up, thinking maybe I was going to see someone talking over my shoulder.
“Of course,” he said, “because I’m also doing it for you.”
She looked at me, her eyes hanging out of her sockets (or that was what my imaginative eye saw) and asked. “What do you say, Gabriel?”
Like I just said, I was not a rich man. Besides, I still hadn’t signed up anyone on my own. “Sure. Thanks, man!”
But still, even if I had this stroke of good luck, I had to pay the fucking rent somehow. I was even considering leaving school for some time, just to be able to save money. The hours at Staples were getting tighter every week. Yes, I had more time to read motivational books, watch horror movies, study, and listen to Bon Jovi on the iPod my friend Lazaro had given me, but none of that was going to help me get out of this rut.
“Ask somebody for money,” The Voice said to me one time, as I was riding the bus to school. And just like that, like a fucking line written on a script by some asshole in front of his computer, the answer to my rent problems materialized, walked into the bus and strode straight toward the place where I sat.
I looked up again, thinking: “Is anybody out there, writing my every fucking move!?”
“That’s right, pal!” The Voice said. “You’re not real. You’re just the character in some unsuccessful, lost and forgotten story.”
The Answer (as I just called him) was Jose, my Bus-buddy. This is a different Jose, completely unrelated to el cristianito, by the way. He looked at me, smiling with his big and shiny lips. The guy always used an exaggerated amount of Chapstick. I told him about my life problems and he would always listen with patience and attention.
Too much patience and too much attention.
“I can help you out,” he said. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it at the time, but his voice was soft. Too soft. No, I am not a homophobic asshole (just an asshole).
“Help me out? How?” I asked while the bus made its way onto the 101.
“I can give you money, so you can pay your rent.”
That was another interesting stroke of good luck.
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, man!”
I had been saying that a lot lately.
But that wasn’t all. Later, after he left the bus, I received a phone call from Israel, that friend of mine who had been at the station three years earlier, when I was on my way to this country. He had come to America as well and was living near San Francisco. I told him what was going on, and he also offered to help me out.
I was beyond myself. Is this really happening? Are these people just fucking kidding me or what?
But still, even after these strokes of good luck, August and the economy were not on my side.
Working at Staples was beginning to stink. What angered me the most was that I thought my life would be great after I walked out of the gas station. Yes, I was stupid for having such a high expectation. You know what they say, that the only two sure things in life are death and taxes? Well, that’s not true. There is also change. Change is another thing that happens all the time, and there is nothing you can do about it.
So I had to make another drastic change, after feeling how the water was beginning to enter through my mouth, keeping me from breathing, causing me to make desperate gasps of uncertainty. One day, after having ordered a sausage biscuit and a dollar coffee with some coins I had forgotten in a drawer, I stumbled upon another stroke of good luck.
Remember Celestino? I also talked briefly about him in the last chapter. He and I became friends. I told him about my lack of hours at Staples and the Amway business I was trying out. That morning, while the merciless hands of the clock were counting down August’s last days, he offered me a job at McDonald’s.
“A job? Here?” I said, before burying my teeth into the succulent biscuit that was going to dissipate my hunger.
Of course, he didn’t appreciate the way I phrased my question. “What? Are you ashamed of working at McDonald’s?”
“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s just that this month has been really hard for me and I suddenly lost hope.”
He nodded. “Dios aprieta pero no ahorca,” he said, which loosely translates to: “When God shuts a door He always opens a window.”
And yes, even as an agnostic, I felt like this saying made a lot of sense at the moment.
“What are the hours you’re offering?” I asked.
“I can get you in full-time,” he said. “I have one girl who is on maternity leave and I need someone asap.”
“As soon as possible.”
“Oh. I didn’t know what that meant.”
“Anyway. You interested?”
It was a no-brainer. “Sure.”
“When can you start?”
That same day I gave my two-week-notice at Staples. Arturo said, “Can’t say I’m surprised. The way things are nowadays, you have to look for money even under the trees.”
I was happy to see we were ok. My last two weeks passed quickly. By then, September was already underway. But there was not a major difference between this month and the last because new and shittier misfortunes started piling up like junk mail nobody gives a fuck about.
The girl who was on maternity leave came back before she was supposed to. Why? Because of the economy! I mean, how dared she have kids in times like these? Moreover, the money I had borrowed from my friends was all gone, and they were kind enough to lend me more. I did the math and realized I was up to my neck in debt. I kept going to church just for kicks and tried to pretend everything was still fine and dandy. I even borrowed money from Jose, el cristianito.
Furthermore, out of nowhere, a member of the church I barely spoke to, talked to me about a job offer at an office. “What do you know about bookkeeping?” She asked.
Nothing, I thought but didn’t say it. “I know a couple of things. I took a class a while back.”
If I was good at something, it was telling lies.
“Great! why don’t you go to my house tomorrow? I’ll introduce you to my husband.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “But, I’m curious. How did you know I need a job?”
She smiled. “Jose told us. And we have been praying for you, Gabriel.”
The first thing I did that night was to go to the internet and read all I could about bookkeeping. Besides quitting Staples, I put my education on hold to be able to pay all the money I owed. The more I read about this bookkeeping job the more I realized it didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, I was eager to take on the challenge. I was already wearing the McD’s attire when I told Celestino I was offered another gig and that I was going to give it a try.
“What time are you going to do it.”
“Mornings. A classic 9-to-5.”
He thought about it. “Ok. Then I’m gonna put you on the schedule during the afternoon. How’s that?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
He nodded and added. “Are you also doing some other business on the side?”
“Yeah. Did I tell you about it?”
“Briefly,” he said. “When I offered you the job.”
“Are you interested?”
I took him to one of the meetings.
At the meeting, Felizardo Quiroz lent me money, too. Apparently, he was happy to see I was taking Celestino to a meeting even when my life looked like an unfixable wreck. He said, “I’ve heard you’re going through hard times. But because you don’t give up, I’m also going to lend you some cash, campeon!”
Yes, I still hated being called campeon, but this was a good time to play stupid, bend over and just take the money.
So once again, it all seemed like l was going somewhere. I tried out the bookkeeping gig in the mornings. It was so simple I couldn’t believe they paid for doing this. I would be off at five and had to take the bus to go to McD’s. I still had my computer bag, but instead of books I had the uniform. I’d sit at the back of the bus, take off the pants I was wearing at my morning job and put on the other ones.
How did I get away with that? Who knows.
However, and somehow still surprising, I got fired from the bookkeeping gig a week later.
I was having coffee, cookies and a conversation with my morning boss. One thing he had overlooked was the fact that I needed to also have a car because he wanted me to run errands related to the job.
“I don’t have a car,” I said.
The boss and the wife sat behind the desk, like a power couple, thinking how they were going to fix this issue. “We have an extra car,” the woman said. “Maybe he can use that one, honey?” She looked at the husband, waiting for an answer.
“Yes,” he said. “Why not? You’re really good at the job. I don’t want to be looking for anybody else. Besides, God has blessed us so much we have to spread the love and help you out while you save up and buy yourself your own car!”
I smiled. “Thank you.” But then it hit me. There was something I had to tell them. If I didn’t, it was going to come up sooner or later. They might never know I lied my way into getting this job, but there was this other issue that needed to be addressed, even if I had been advised not to talk about it anymore. “There is one small problem, though.”
They looked at each other briefly. “What is the problem?” The husband asked, already bracing himself for the worst.
“I don’t have a driver license.”
He smiled, thinking he had the answer to what I called ‘an issue.’ “Oh! That’s all right. You just go to the DMV and get one.”
I shook my head. “No, you don’t understand,” I said. My next words might as well have been a shotgun pointed at my mouth, ready to blow my brains out. “I don’t have papers. I am here illegally. I actually thought you knew that, based on my obvious accent.”
They looked genuinely surprised, almost as if I had told them I had AIDS and they didn’t want to look at me, regardless of how ‘Christian’ they seemed to be. All of a sudden, that God-blessing quality he bragged about a minute ago turned into shit. Diarrhea shit.
“Ahem,” he cleaned his throat, ready to say something…bad. He then looked at the wife. “Honey, you didn’t tell me that.”
The wife didn’t know where to hide. “I didn’t know, baby!”
“Gabriel, can you give us a moment, please?”
I walked out of the office and sat on a chair in front of the closed door, ready for anything and everything. And after a brief discussion, he called me back in and said, “I’m sorry, Gabriel.”
I knew what that meant, but I tried to plead, anyway. “But you just said I was doing a good job_”
“Yes, but…” he didn’t know what else to say. Then he pulled the greatest bullshit answer of that time. “We just thought about it… and because of the economy_”
I lifted my hand to make him stop before I could jump across the table and slap his fucking, Christian face. “I don’t need any further explanation, sir,” I said, stood up, and walked the hell out of there.
Because I didn’t work that afternoon at McD’s I decided to walk home. The walk was long, about four miles, and I used the time to reflect and talk to The Voice. “What good can I take out of this shitty situation?” I asked, waiting for an answer that wasn’t probably there.
“Keep walking,” The Voice said. “You’re gonna find the answer.”
I smirked at my own stupidity. Then it hit me. Unintentionally, I was paying more attention to the whiny and bitchy side of me I normally ignore. Yes, August and September of 2007 were bad (apparently, because of the economy) but I was not paying attention to the strokes of good luck I was having.
Then I thought about the words I said to Arturo: “I just think there is not use in complaining. Life is crap, that’s a fact, I just have to keep looking for ways to make things work.”
Since when did you get so smart?
I was about to cry, honestly. I even sat under a tree on my way home and looked at the sky, waiting for anything and everything to happen. What else could happen? Death? Probably. That bitch is always around the corner, but sometimes she gets so close you get to breathe in the air that comes out of her lipless mouth.
“Keep walking. You’re gonna find the answer,” The Voice said one more time.
And so I did. I kept walking. It was hot out there, I was sweating like a pig but didn’t care. Then, I looked at the other side of the street, where the McD’s was. It was Monday, and I didn’t work until Friday.
I had an idea.
I walked into the restaurant and asked Celestino if I could work some hours for free because I wanted to learn faster. The register at McDonald’s was hard to learn, and because I was working few days a week, I felt like I wasn’t getting it. Celestino said, “Ok. I like that. It shows initiative!”
Marlen was there too. And Blanca. They taught me all I had to know about the job. And Amway? Well, I was still doing that, but I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, anymore. Times were tough, and based on what I read in the papers, the economy was going to be even worse the next year. And the next. The Voice was right, I only needed to keep walking and find the answer on my own.
Like I always did.
Photo by Gam-OI.