Little Paper Masks
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All last week, the Urban Man was having his hardwood floors refinished; so today, my listeners have every right to expect some amusing tales. You know: The dust. The fumes. The language barrier with the workers. And yes, I've already milked the topic in social settings. For example, I have some great shtick about the arguments with my wife.
I was most looking forward to telling these woes to my friend John, who remodels houses here in L.A., world capitol of remodeling. I knew he would enjoy my urbane befuddlement and the chaos these floors introduced into my busy schedule.
So New Year's Day, I lured John out on a hike, where standing with a full view of the city, I began to describe the droll hassles. I imitated the wily Floor Guy purposefully using his bad English to misunderstand me and tack on a $500 surcharge. "In the end," I said with some drama, "Those floors are going to cost me four grand."
"Well, that's what it costs," said John…and I heard a slight edge to his voice. "You have to balance that price against the years of life these guys are sacrificing to breathe poison in your house. There's nothing worse than refinishing floors. Think of the toxins in that sawdust. In the stains and sealers. What's that worth, those years off their lives? Most of these guys are undocumented campesinos, right? Picked up on a street corner? Did this Floor Guy at least give them good masks with filters?"
"Just those little paper masks," I said, trying to recall the five or six fearful men who had appeared in my home.
"Paper masks," snorted John. "You know, campesinos are a better deal than slaves ever were. Slaves you had to house and feed. These guys make the ideal workforce—totally expendable. You pick them up outside the Home Depot, you take them into a deathly environment, then you drop them back on the street. You never even know their names, and tomorrow they're off picking lettuce."
Don't worry…as we stood looking out over the glorious economic sweep of L.A., I countered with many well-considered arguments: Freedom includes risk. Choice is its own reward. I examined the dignity of the American ladder: I mean, the Floor Guy himself probably started out holding a sander, and he drives a nice car.
Of course, I knew better than to make such arguments aloud. In fact, an uneasy silence had fallen between myself and John. After all, my friend enters toxic environments every day in order to make beautiful the giddy dwellings of his fellow urban men and women.
Next morning, I again assume the role of patròn as I enter the noisy storm of sawdust in my dining room. I figure it's my job to warn the workers not to nick the walls, to point out spots they've missed, and make sure I don't get cheated on my four grand. I wrap a towel around my face, but my lungs and eyes begin to burn right away—and I try not to meet the gaze of the young campesinos, you know, directly.
Still, as an act of camaraderie, I've brought along a case of water bottles, and when I drop it in the doorway, I call out, "Agua."
The campesinos immediately shut down their machines and become absurdly grateful. One says gracias, señor with eager sincerity—but as he pulls aside his little paper mask, our eyes actually do meet for a moment, and I see with a shock that he's not young at all.
Wait…hang on. I promised you some shtick. Did I mention how we had all our worldly goods piled in the backyard and had to rush around comically to get them in before the rain? Did I mention the hassles? The arguments? The cost?
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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