By: Miguel Gardel
I went back to the ads. After three torturous days, I found something. But I got there too late. Many people had answered the same ad. I rode a bus all the way to West Los Angeles for nothing. I had a paperback copy of a great American novel about a man who became very rich and no one knew how…, and he was obsessively in love with a bland blond woman who… I finished it on the trip back.
The job was to work as an usher in one of the movie theaters in Westwood Village. I could not connect with the novel. For days I had tried to. It was a great novel, so I had to try. A flush of eloquent words. I could hardly catch a sentence to make it mine. I succeeded in holding on to a few here and there. What was I going to do with a few lines of a great novel? I guess it just wasn’t meant for me. In the future I would try again. And there’d be others.
My mother suggested the unemployment office. I had never been there. It wasn’t far. The man behind the desk asked me what was I? What could I do? I told him I could fire an M16. And that I had been a mortar man in the service. I don’t know why I said that. Those weren’t real jobs. I guess I didn’t want to say I knew how to use sandpaper on dressers; I knew how to roll plastic covers over lady’s coats; I knew how to deliver groceries. I didn’t want to sound unconvincing and weak. I had had a whole bunch of jobs, but they weren’t worth mentioning. The man said, The veterans are on that line over there. He pointed, and I went there. It was a long line. While I waited, I realized that maybe I wasn’t a veteran even though I had recently left the service. I didn’t complete the time I had signed up for. But I wasn’t AWOL. I had simply thrown in the towel.
I didn’t get out with a regular discharge. They wanted to give me a “medical.” But then I went to see the captain. He said, A “medical” will look bad on your records. It’ll follow you everywhere, son.
So I did some rehab and they scratched the “medical.” And the captain recommended something else. Something under honorable because I wasn’t much of an honorable guy. But at the same time I wasn’t so bad. I didn’t commit treason, or betrayed the country or any of my comrades. I was a very mediocre soldier. Just like I was as a student in high school. The captain finally decided I was just somebody he preferred not to have in his army. But they gave me a hard time anyway. I had decided that I truly and desperately had to get out before I’d go crazy in there. I wanted them to speed up the process.
The captain was not a bad guy. He said, The economic situation today is not favorable to civilians. I didn’t care about that. I knew by experience that what he had just said was not true. It sure does favor some civilians. The army just didn’t want to let me go, they’re very stingy in that way. Armies are addicted to young men, no matter how disoriented they may be.
Rehab had been a formality. I didn’t change my ways. But I was tired of drugs. And I was tired of the everyday monotony of military life. I was tired of my buddies who only spoke of drugs and the monotony of military life. I was tired of the pushy, money hungry whores waiting outside the base. The beer drinking was excessive and I got nothing for it. I knew I was momentarily lost. I knew my disorientation had begun before I joined the army. But here’s a fact, and it’s important. The army had steadied me a bit, with a paycheck, good meals, clean bed. But was that enough for me? And I still had a year to go. It seemed like forever. That was too long. I had to throw in the towel. But that wasn’t enough for the army.
It took a direct order from Sergeant Brown. In the morning formation he said, This is a direct order. Go get a goddamn haircut! March your ass to the barber shop, right now!
I marched away, but I didn’t go to the barber’s. I went to my room, jumped on my bunk and waited. Disobeying a direct order is a big deal in any army. And I guess that’s the way it should be. “A mob cannot be a fighting force,” was one of the chants the sergeants were always repeating. And they, of course, were right. If you’re going to bomb and kill and maim people, the best way to do it is in an orderly fashion. You need a complete chain of command in place. Men who know what they’re doing, and know well where to put the blame afterward for all the death and destruction. And you need men who follow orders, men who obey. I wasn’t one of those men. I wanted to give orders. I’d tell Brown, Why the fuck do you talk in that southern drawl bullshit, you fucking racist hillbilly! Don’t do it! You hear me? Don’t talk that way!
Every time he heard me and Ortiz and Macías and Cornejo talking Spanish he’d say, Stop talking that Mexican shit! We couldn’t help but to feel unappreciated while we sweated in the heat. And then sweated in the cold, scrubbing tanks and cannons in the motor pool and simultaneously waiting patiently to be sent to war. Cornejo once said, The Blacks have their way of talking, and the Whites have their way, and We have our way.
English was important. We didn’t deny it. I paid tribute to it by going to the library. And I read the good and creative stuff they had. It was Brown who received me on my first day at the base. He acted nice, and was very friendly. After his briefing he lit a cigarette and said to me, Any questions, just come on down and ask.
And I did, after I changed uniforms. Is there a library in the base? And he looked at me while he sat in his chair with his boots on the desk, and said, I reckon so. And I said, Where is it? And he said, Hell if I know. I eventually found it. And I made good use of it.
So I missed chow and laid on my bunk reading. Totally lost to the real world of immediate consequences. I also missed afternoon formation. A very big deal, could cause a commotion. I was trying to find myself in the modern poets collected in that volume I was holding when Brown came into the room roaring like a lion. He was a big man and cursed the hell out of me as he rushed in and gripped the back of the iron bunk. He lifted it high and as I went off the side I let go of the book and landed on my ass on the floor. I immediately stood and squared myself up. What the fuck!
Get your ass downstairs! You’re going to see the captain!
Drugs and insubordination finally did it.
I don’t understand it, said the captain. Do you have any idea what the unemployment situation is out there in the world? He meant the civilian world of the United States. And he threw some percentages at me. And then a little bit of statistics to go with it. But none of it meant anything to me. I simply said, Sir, I want out.
I had been without a job. I was looking for one when I volunteered. One morning I woke up and felt lonely because I was alone in a room, in a rooming house. I was disoriented. I had a big hangover. I went to the recruiting station and asked the recruiter, What do I need to join this outfit? He didn’t say, A body and not much of a brain. But I understood.
I had been dropping out of everything: school, home, and a bossy girlfriend who was trying hard to tell me what to do, what direction to take. I had had four or five different jobs in one year. I had tried being a poet. It was something I had wanted to be. I wanted to formulate my rebellion, give it shape. I was living alone far from home. You had to pay rent for the room and I didn’t have any money. A magazine in Minnesota rejected my work. It was for a poetry contest. There was money in it. But not for me. They kept the fee I sent and sent me back a rejection slip. And the landlord was rejecting me now because I had no money to give him. Millions of young men in the world had done what I was about to do.
But I had learned nothing and found nothing interesting in the army. And I dropped out of that too. I used to think I did all the dropping-outs because I was a rebel. But I did it because I had no self-confidence and no patience to get some. I was unfocused. I had dreams instead of ambition. I had no real orientation. I had a well-intentioned, but ignorant mother. No father. Slowly and imperceptibly, I had become distant from myself. I had lost my way. The way I was never given direction to. The army didn’t. My mother didn’t. I couldn’t see any possibilities. I had to bring myself back together so that I could then continue and go on. And find a way.
Now I was waiting in the unemployed veteran’s line in the California Unemployment Office. I was going to see the person who was going to interview me.
A man came up to me and unofficially said, You lookin’ for a job?
I said, Yeah.
The man wanted to hire me. Janitorial work, he said. He said it brusquely, looking straight into my eyes. A take it or leave it proposition. He had been rejected before he got to me. He didn’t like to be rejected. He may have offended a few guys on the line with his question. Or with his offer. Not me. I was the right guy.
He had a contract with the Hollywood Club. It was on Wilshire, near downtown, not Hollywood. It’s an elite place, he said. No fucking around. He turned himself suddenly into a drill sergeant.
I was meek. A man in need. I said nothing. You speak English? he said. I said, Yes. I worked with Mexicans before, he said. You got papers? It’s okay if you don’t. So you want the job? Come on. Let’s talk outside.
He needed an assistant. The work was easy. Vacuum some rooms. Sweep and mop others. And clean the toilets. And then he said, I was in the army. And he asked, Were you in the service? Is that why you were on that line? He said he knew Mexicans were allowed in the service. He had nothing against Mexicans.
I mumbled something. It was what a meek man in need would do.
His name was Robinson. He repeated what he had said back in the unemployment office. He was an army veteran. He had his own janitorial business. And he had a contract with the Club. And he hired me as his assistant.
We worked side by side. Hours into the job I asked him questions. He didn’t mind answering. He liked to talk. He was from Compton. I could see he saw himself as middle class. He talked about educating his children. Going on vacation down south where he was from. And Hawaii with the wife. He wore a uniform at work. For the trip back and forth, he wore “civilian” clothes, a shiny leather jacket and shiny leather shoes. He was surprised I was from New York. Couldn’t get over my “foreign” English. How’d you… a Mexican like you…
That I was a Latin from Manhattan seemed impossible for him to process. I was his “Mexican.” And I let it stand.
By the end of the week I had the information I wanted.
One year’s all you need, he said. That’s it. You’re a veteran.
We mopped and talked about the pros and cons of being a veteran. When he got back from Vietnam, he was able to collect unemployment benefits for a full year. For me, he said, that was the only “pro.” It gave me time to settle back into things. Never did use the GI Bill.
I checked it out on Thursday. I went to the VA. I should have done that from the beginning. I was a veteran, alright. I could draw unemployment benefits if I were to be unemployed within the year of my discharge.
He gave me a check on Friday. I told him he was going to have to get another helper. I was going to be unemployed for a while.
There are many books I have to read, I said.
What! You didn’t tell me you were a student. He got mad at me and said I had duped him.
There are no benefits for me in this job, I told him. What if I get sick? Or get into an accident? How will I pay the doctors’ bills? You’re not even paying an employee’s tax to the government for me. Which means I’m not even officially working.
I had never thought of these things before. I was young and didn’t really care. I just needed an excuse to quit. I wasn’t officially a student anywhere. But there were many books to be read. I felt bad for him. But I figured he could get another unemployed person, another “Mexican,” as easy as he got me.