HELPING A HELPER.
As is now standard operating procedure for me, after having learned the hard way, I stayed in my pick-up truck until I saw
that the powered gate had closed all the way behind me.
I had no sooner swung my feet out and onto the driveway before I heard a piping little voice say, “Senor. Puedo limpiar tu
camioncito? Mira lo. Ech! Esta muy sucio.”
I turned and saw that it had come from a bedraggled kid who was peering through the fence to one side of the gate and who
seemed to be around twelve years old. He was dressed in rags and his tangled hair looked as if it had been cut with a blunt knife and it
was dirty too, or, to put it more accurately, it was encrusted with dirt as was all the rest of him that could be seen that wasn’t covered
by his ragged clothing. I’d stopped at a car wash on my way home two nights earlier and because I’d been working out in the country
for two days you couldn’t have even guessed as to what color the truck’s paint was then because of the amount of mud and dust on it
and because I’d driven only on city streets since then it was immaculate still and clearly he had to be able see that that was true and
from that I knew that he was hoping to be given a job to do or, at least, some money to go away.
I waived him away.
“No quieres? Pues, sus zapatos entonces?”
There are a million kids like him in this city and you’d go crazy if you tried to help all the ones you come across so, self-
defensibly, I didn’t even look in his direction as I brusquely told him that the truck and my shoes were clean enough thank you and
then I walked over to the office door. I was always grumpy in those days but especially so that morning because I had drunk too much
tequila the night before and I needed coffee badly. As soon as I put my key in the door lock I remembered that our coffee machine’s
water heating element had burnt-out so I cursed and then slipped my keys back into my pocket and decided to walk down to my usual
cafeteria to buy a container of it.
When I opened up the side gate I saw that the same kid was standing there and as I appeared an expectant look came to his
face. Something about his vulnerability and defenselessness combined with his evident eagerness struck me and so I said to him,
“Oye me chavo, se puede confiar en ti?” – (“Are you trustworthy, kid?”)
“Ay, si senor, si, si. Claro que si. Seguro que si.”
“Pues, vamos a ver.” (“Let’s find out.”) I said.
I walked out onto the road with him and I pointed to the sign that was above the door of the cafeteria that I use and I gave him
a fifty peso note and told him that he was to go there and buy me a large container of coffee, with no milk or sugar in it, along with a
quesadilla and I told him how much the bill would be and what the change should be and which coin he should drop in the tip-jar.
He beamed at being given a chance to earn a tip and his feet seemed to hardly touch the ground as he ran down the street.
Of course, as I well knew, he could have simply kept running and I’d be out five bucks and would have to go and buy my own
coffee but, as I said, there had been something about him that had registered with me and I’d have been very surprised if he’d ran on
past the cafeteria and around the next corner and be gone forever.
When he came back he was carrying a paper bag that had the coffee and the quesadilla in it and he handed it to me together
with the correct amount of change. I gave him five pesos and I told him that he was indeed trustworthy and that it was refreshing to
know that at least one descamisado in the city was.
The next morning he was waiting by the gate when I drove up and we repeated the operation even though a new coffee
machine had been delivered and installed the afternoon before. The same thing happened the next day and the one after that and,
from that I saw that clearly he was both trustworthy and reliable and so I decided to give him a proper job.
My head-office, up in San Diego, had often bugged me to accept an apprentice from them but I knew that if I’d let them send
me one I’d have to talk to him and eat with him and socialize with him and that is something that I definitely didn’t need. I did, however,
need a reliable go-fer because sometimes the equipment I’m working on is on the top floor and usually the elevators aren’t yet running
and if I need something from the truck brought up, or coffee or lunch, then having a young pair of legs around is a good thing. Also it
would make my life easier if I had someone to keep an eye on the equipment, and the like, that was in my truck when I had to leave it
for some reason.
So, when Friday came and I’d taken my breakfast from him and had given him the usual tip, I asked him if he wanted a full-
time job and he jumped at the offer. I gave him another three hundred pesos and told him that it was an advance on his wages and that
he was to get cleaned up and was to buy some clothes and get a proper haircut and was to show up on Monday morning ready to
I’m a field technician/specialist in construction engineering and I make life easier for nervous financiers and the like by
representing them on-site, hands-on. I’m given, at my employers request, the lay-out drawings by the architects that spell out what I’ll
be dealing with and I have to give an initial appraisal and then I go to the construction site when the various materials are being
delivered to check that they’re complete and correct and that there is proper and secure storage space for them and that the on-site
basic specs for the equipment have been met as far as installation requirements are concerned. I then go back at regular intervals to
do progress surveys and again, for the last time, when the installation is complete to check it out and to run tests on each piece and
then put it, or them, on line. Because my job is so specialized – teams of skilled mechanics provided by the manufacturers do all the
bull work – I only need one employee, a woman who is named Maria, to handle the paper work and to man the phone in the office.
The reason that I’m working in this city in the first place is because after my divorce I found out that my only ambition was to let
the air get to the bottom of as many bourbon bottles as was possible and my boss probably saved my life when he told me – not,
‘asked me’, told me – that I was going to take a job that had opened up in Mexico City. I’ve switched to tequila down here, on principle,
and I don’t like it that much and so I only drink too much of it about twice a week when I need some Dutch courage to go seek out a
woman – that is, a woman who is not Claire – and more of it through the night to be able to stay with her until morning, also on
Cleaned up, the kid looked more fragile than ever and there was little flesh on him anywhere and, as far as I could make out,
no muscles at all in his tube-like limbs. Either by design or chance the clothes that he’d bought made him look like one of the
thousands of students who are seen every morning and afternoon around town – coming or going. He, like all of them, was wearing a
white shirt with black pants and black shoes. His hair was cut short but had no shaping to it. He told me that his name was Guillermo
Sanchez but that everyone called him Chichi, because he looked a little like the golfer, or ‘Chapo’ or ‘Chavo’ because he was so small.
I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, handle ‘Chichi’ or ‘Chapo’ or ‘Chavo’ on a long-term basis so I got his permission to call him ‘Willie’
I found out, over time, that his present home was shared with a dozen other ‘titeres’ and had become available to them when
four of those six-feet-in-diameter concrete pipes, the kind that are sunk into the ground for use as water or sewage conduits, had
been left over from a project and had, luckily, been left lined up, more or less. He told me that they had covered the gaps with tarpaper
and the ends with scrap plywood and he said that they all agreed that it was easily the best home that they’d ever had. It was nearly
waterproof and wind proof and was “easily defended, having only two entrances, and was easily fled from, having two exits.” The fact
that ‘they’ could and probably would send a truck to pick the pipes up some day was neither here nor there for them. He told me,
resignedly, that they all fully expected most things to go radically wrong in their lives at regular intervals.
Willie was not only lithe and agile he was also smart and he quickly learned what not to do and when I was sure that, because
of that, he wasn’t going to get himself hurt I started showing him what he could do. Within little more than a month he got to be a real
help to me and was eager to learn more and more but, inevitably for a kid, he soon picked up what seemed to be an arrogant air so
one day I thought that I’d both test his mettle and bring him back down to earth by telling him to go and get lunch for us a minute after
he’d successfully used one of my instruments to make a critical adjustment, for which he richly deserved to be congratulated, and I
watched his face as I told him to go down to the lunch truck which was ringing its bell continuously to announce its presence. Not a
trace of pique was evident in it as he took money from me and I was impressed. That was something that none of my own children,
back in San Diego, could have possibly handled with grace.
Soon after that day my secretary/receptionist, Maria, told me when she arrived one morning – she was always late because
she had family responsibilities that you wouldn’t believe – that if I was going to keep on employing Willie we should sort out his papers
to square him with the authorities and get him into the system so that he could qualify for some schooling and then, maybe, get some
of it too.
She was entirely correct of course and so I went out to where he was doing some make-work in the yard and I called him
over and told him that he would be on the books from then on and that he would be paid regular wages – wages that he’d have to pay
taxes on – instead of just getting hand-outs from me and that I was going to start him off with double the minimum wage and that I’d
review his status every three months. I told him to bring in any papers that he had the next morning and that he was to stay in the
office all day with Maria to give her time to set him up. He beamed with pride when he’d heard me out and then I said, “I’ll try to manage
without you for one whole day but it’s going to be difficult!”
When I got to the office the day after their bureaucratic paper-sorting status-seeking session I sent Willie on an errand and
Maria told me that he had brought a dirty, crumpled piece of paper with him the day before that had a letterhead of the Government
Department that deals with orphanages and that while Willie’s Christian name was indecipherable his paternal name was Sanchez and
his maternal name was Guillermoprieto. Hence, clearly, ‘Guillermo.’ His date of birth was given and the month and day was shown to
be ‘November 20’ – which is a Mexican national holiday and is the date that the government agency gives to all orphans who don’t
know what their actual one is – and the year, which is comparatively easy for them to arrive at more or less accurately, was 1988.
That showed him to be nearly eighteen years old and yet he looked to be about twelve and his voice hadn’t even broken. As I
was absorbing and pondering on that Maria went on to tell me that after lunch he’d asked her if he could take the rest of the day off
because he wanted to look for a room for himself seeing that he now had a real, actual, genuine job. When he got back from his errand
I asked him how his search for a room had gone and he told me that he’d found one within easy walking distance and that it had
electric light and steam pipe heating for the winter and had a door that could be locked with the key that he’d been given and that
although the bathroom and the kitchen had to be shared with everyone else on the floor the shower and the separate toilet stall had
good slide locks on their doors too. I think he was standing about a half a foot taller than usual as he boasted about the solid
manifestations of his newfound affluence. He had nothing to say about the mystery of his Christian name nor about the error
concerning his year of birth. A shrug and a sorrowful look that seemed to come from the depths of him told both Maria and me that we
weren’t going to get any other answer from him, then or ever.
One afternoon we were coming back to the city from a town that was in some foothills up north and I suddenly got an urgent, a
really urgent, call from nature. It was probably generated by the, unknown to me up to then, brand of beer that I’d had with lunch. We
were driving along a country road that was about eight feet wide and, to let vehicles from the other direction pass, a lay-by had been
carved out every half-mile or so. I pulled into one of them and hot-footed it into the bushes to make a deposit and when I got back, and
was feeling a whole lot better, I started the engine and when I looked in the rear view mirror before pulling out and I saw that a beat up
old red Ford truck was approaching. I had to wait to let it pass and when it had done so I engaged ‘drive’ and pulled out into the road
but soon after that the old truck slowed down and then came to a complete stop fifty feet or so on down. It was sitting squarely in the
middle of the road. Street smarts got Willie to sense danger way before I did. Even before anyone got out of the red truck he said,
“Uno se cuida.” – which is the equivalent of the French, “On se garde.” and, unlike with the English language, that simple phrase can
be tailored to suit present circumstances from “Careful, you’re in danger of knocking your wine glass over” to “Run! The whole
building is coming down!” by using the appropriate voice inflection. English doesn’t have a similar short phrase at the ready for all
occasions and so we have to spell it out and while, “Look out, bro. Looks like something bad’s coming our way,” works OK it can’t be
made to carry the right amount of urgency quickly – and seconds later two guys carrying old fashioned, single-shot rifles got out of the
passenger side and then the driver got out on his side holding a revolver.
My truck has constant all-wheel-drive for which I am now especially appreciative because we would both be dead, or at least
considerably impoverished, if it hadn’t had it.
I rammed the gear selector into ‘low’ for better traction and then I made the engine revs climb way above the red line as I kept
both of the near-side wheels on the tarmac and I made the two riflemen jump out of the way to save their lives as I closed and then
roared past them.
The other two wheels churned up dirt and sand and grass in a choking cloud that enveloped them, truck and all. If they had
swung their truck so that it had blocked all of the road we would have been fucked for sure – English is clearly best for pithy, bona-fide
straight forward cussing, as in this case – but they’d left a foot or so of tarmac clear on our side and I was able to use it.
When we were well clear Willie applauded my effort but – although I did my level best to hide it – my heart was racing as fast as
the engine had been and I remember wishing that he could drive because right then all that I wanted to do was to sit still and pant for a
Several odd things occurred over the next year, or so, as far as Willie’s behavior was concerned. For instance – on
construction sites the general contractor usually provides a couple of Porta-Johns, or the like, but they are, of course, at ground level
so if you’re up on the twentieth floor, or even the sixth, they’re not much use to you so the accepted way to empty your bladder is to fill
an empty soda bottle or can and then get rid of it by sending it down to an empty patch of ground by air mail. Willie, although he’d have
had to have seen me and many more construction workers use a bottle or a can that way, asked my permission two or three times
everyday to walk down to the ground ‘porque quiero usar las facilidades.’
At first I figured that he suffered from loose bowels or some such but it went on for months so I asked him about it one day and
he blushed and said that he had what I later found out to be the street phrase, in Spanish, for a ‘shy bladder’. I had to accept what he
said but I found it to be a bit odd knowing his background. It seemed to me to be a nicety that, I would have thought, he would have
had to have overcome, permanently, much earlier in his life.
Also, I found that he knew all of the street-level gross cussing expressions, and used them when he got hurt or was annoyed
or frustrated or disappointed with something, but his piping little voice didn’t carry sufficient weight to make them effective and
consequently the grossness came across but it wasn’t adequately weighted and so while his cussing maintained its
obscene and scatological cargo they did so on too high a plane and seemed, therefore, to be merely an odd and unfortunate choice of
words, as is nearly always the case when a woman, anywhere, tries to cuss.
Many countries use the English favorite four-letter word in amongst words of their own language because it has a solid impact
and is unmistakably an ugly swear word. In Spanish-speaking countries, however, borrowing foreign words, or so it seems to me, is
not very prevalent at street-level and, at all levels, they continue to use vile phrases to get their disgust and/or anger across. I don’t
like translating any of them in my mind no matter about writing them down. ‘Vile oaths,’ sums up what they are.
They use the verb ‘joder’ – it literally means ‘sexual intercourse’ – as often as their English counterparts use the verb ‘to fuck’ but it
can be, and is, also used technically and legitimately too and thus its mis-use in Spanish is not particularly strong nor totally satisfying.
To understand this try shouting at an antagonist, “Go away and have sexual intercourse with yourself!” It just doesn’t work.
In Mexico they have, perhaps, tried to get around this evident weakness by polluting the verb, ‘cojer’ which means,
innocuously enough, ‘to take’. The verb is still used in everyday conversation in most Spanish speaking countries but the Mexicans
have given it power, by massive force-feeding as an obscenity, and consequently it has now been effectively outlawed in polite
Any English/Spanish speaking person who is not Mexican, nor from one of its bordering countries in Central America, who has
seen the film, made in Mexico by Mexicans, ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien.’ that has English sub-titles must have puzzled over this because
the verb ‘joder’ is used not at all whereas variants of the verb ‘cojer’ come up around three or four times in each sentence and is duly
translated in one variation or another of ‘fuck’ in the subtitles. Similarly, but not exactly equally, ‘hijo de gran puta’, is used in every
Spanish speaking country but it, ‘son-of-a-whore’, doesn’t have the import of, ‘motherfucker,’ so the sub-titles in that same movie, and
others, use the latter to get the point across more forcibly and so how long can it be before the vagabundos follow suit? It’s a great
shame. They should think up better cuss words of their own and give us, especially foreigners like me who need all of the regular
verbs that there are, the verb ‘cojer’ back.
When I told Maria to give Willie yet another big raise, after six more months had gone by, she seemed to be troubled about it
and when I got her to tell me what was bothering her she came out with the observation that if he was as clever as I kept telling her he
was then he needed a chance to get an education more than he needed another raise which might simply get him to decide that he
didn’t needed an education. What she’d said was so obviously true, and was something that I should have realized for myself, that I
decided to do something about it right then so I called him in from the adjoining workshop.
When the three of us were sitting around the little table in the reception area I got Maria to repeat what she’d said and his
reaction on hearing it showed that he was nearly overwhelmed with pride and joy. After a while the light faded from his face and he
stuttered that he could barely write his own name so where would he have to start – in Kindergarten?
He was right of course so we worked on the problem and eventually came up with a plan in which he was to take three days a
week off from work and go to a tutor’s home to have the basic stuff hammered into him.
I decided to give him the raise too and seeing that he was then earning a decent wage he saw fit to give up his room, the one
that had seemed to be so luxurious to him just a little while before, and he found himself a studio apartment, on the fifth floor of a
building that had no elevator, that was completely self-contained.
He persuaded Maria and me to go and see it a week after he’d moved in and he served us cold beer and nuts and olives and
even some pate on crackers. He wasn’t sufficiently sure that we appreciated the wonders of his new home until he’d made us go into
his bathroom to check that the hot water tap delivered what it promised and that the toilet flushed just as well as the one in our office
He’d been eating healthily, or at least sufficiently, for some time by then so his body had filled out some but unfortunately for
him most of the weight he’d gained had gone to his hips so he took to wearing long, loose shirts to cover them up and from then on his
lower-body expansion only got to be obvious when he was bending or kneeling or was preceding someone up stairs or a ladder.
After a full year of working with me his voice still hadn’t broken and, although the workers on the various sites quickly came to
appreciate how efficient and willing he was, hearing him talk for the first time was a bit startling for them and he got lots of puzzled
glances. Because of that he became self-effacing and he hung back and always let me do the talking.
Another thing that disconcerted me was that when he’d learned to read and write fluently it meant that I could send him to jobs
on his own, when they were easy to get to by public transportation, and one morning after giving me his report on what he’d seen at
one of them he asked me if it would be possible to not send him back to that particular job again. I asked him why and what had
happened and he said, “Pues . . . porque ese hombre que esta alla me – ” and then he stopped and would say no more. I tried to see it
from his point of view and realized that he did indeed look to be a little effeminate and construction workers everywhere are renowned
for being blunt about such things so I stopped sending him anywhere on his own after that so as to protect him from being harassed. I
arranged my schedule so that I’d have him with me on the two days of the week that he wasn’t getting educated because I feared that
several unpleasant or possibly traumatic experiences might make him decide to quit and, using his new found literacy, look for a job in
an office where he wouldn’t have to meet anybody he didn’t already know and, because by then he was valuable to my company and
to me, I didn’t want to risk losing him.
As time went by his questions on technical matters gradually got to be more and more detailed and I knew that he deserved to
get some technical schooling, when he’d graduated from the local equivalent of high school, and then, around about that same time,
fortuitously, he brought me a note from his tutor saying that it was time to get him enrolled in a high school because he had absorbed
all that she could teach him.
I accepted the inevitable even though I knew that it would be back to square one for me as far as help in the field was
The following August we found him a private school that was in the vicinity and when they tested him they let him start at the
equivalent of ninth grade.
I went there with him the first day and I saw him – yes, in a white shirt and black pants and shoes – mingle with and then
disappear into a crowd of similarly clad fellow students. The only difference was that he was wearing a light, gray plastic coat and
none of the others were.
When I watched him go I felt genuinely disconcerted as I realized that it wasn’t just the inconvenience factor nor fraternal nor
paternal regret that I was experiencing but I didn’t dare let myself examine my feelings more deeply. I positively didn’t want to even
approach the fact that at my age I might have, up to then unknown, devious tendencies because all through my life, since my
adolescence, I’d often wondered how any man could waste a second of his time on the hopeless task of looking for something that
was better or that could even come close to what a good woman can provide, even when she doesn’t have her heart in it.
From then on Willie worked for me only during school breaks and on vacations and one afternoon, a few days before he had
to go back to school for what would be his second year there, he asked me if we could go back to the office together, instead of
having me drop him off outside his apartment building, because he had something to tell me.
When we were sitting down on either side of my desk he told me that he didn’t want to go back to that school again, ever! He
hurriedly went on to say that he wanted to go back to a school but not to that one. His statement surprised me because he had done
well enough there to have been moved up to the equivalent of tenth grade in the spring and would move up to the eleventh grade when
he went back and was thus in sight of catching up with students of his own age – that is his evident age – notwithstanding the fact that,
according to his orphanage papers, he was already close to being twenty years old.
I asked him what the problem was and I nearly fell off my chair when he said, straight out, “I’m tired of having to bind up my
breasts every morning!”
Maria could hardly bring herself to believe me when I told her about it the next day. When she’d recovered enough to speak,
she said – of course she did, she had to didn’t she? But I don’t know if I believe her fully – that, come to think about it, she’d had her
doubts about him/her for sometime but hadn’t wanted to say anything.
We spent several hours looking for a suitable all-girls school and when it was all arranged she asked me if she could take Tania
– that was the name that ‘Willie’s’ mother had given him/her at birth – out to buy some proper clothes and to give her the benefit of
some of her own experience of being a woman living in a man’s world. In Mexico City those facts are indisputably essential to know,
and to know well if a woman is to survive for long.
I gave her two thousand pesos and asked her to buy him/her a suitable ensemble and to please avoid hot pants and low cut
dresses and the like so as to let me down gently the first time that I got a look at Willie/Tania and could see only Tania.
I never did get to see her as a girl.
It was a woman who came into our office the next morning and a very presentable one too. She, now ‘Tania’ for evermore, was
attractive to beat all hell and she had make-up on and – uh – support garments that showed that there was no doubt about her gender
whatsoever. Her hair was still short, of course, but it had been styled or – what is it called? – coiffed?
She was blushing and I was confused and awkward and when Maria had gone away Tania sat down and we talked about her
new school and about her career but very soon our words ran out. On my part it was because I was trying to not remember all of the
lewd macho behavior and the crude language that I’d been guilty of using over the years and I guess that maybe she was working on
forgetting them too.
To have something to say, to break the awkward silence, I told her that I’d been thinking about inviting her, when she was still
Willie, to come to San Diego with me at Christmas time, which was the truth, to meet my boss and my colleagues there – I’d been
telling them how good a worker Willie was for years by then – and to get introduced to my children, but that clearly I couldn’t take her
there now. I don’t know if she realized that it was out of the question but I surely did. No one there would ever believe that this here
Willie, now Tania, wasn’t being employed as my work partner in the day and as my bed partner at night.
She answered me in English – the first time that I’d ever heard her use the language – but it was so bad and so broken that it
was far harder for me to understand than if it had been a stream of gutter Spanish, so, after getting her to repeat herself several times,
more slowly each time, I eventually got to understand what she was trying to get across: “Thank you for the invitation but I don’t want
to meet your big boss in your San Diego city until I can speak English as well as you speak Spanish.”
When it became clear that I had finally understood her she beamed with pride but then she switched back to her own language
to tell me, “Also, I don’t want to go there until I have a degree in Engineering and can ask your big boss for a job as your colleague
She looked down at the floor for a minute and then she came out with a bombshell: “Besides that, I don’t want to meet your
children until I can introduce our children to them at the same time!”
When I’d recovered enough to pay attention to her again she used a pointed finger, like a parent does to a child, to tell me that
she knew that I was a man with a man’s needs but that I was to cut my tequila drinking ‘tareas’ down to one per week starting
immediately and down to once a month in the new year and down to never as soon as she’d graduated from high school and we could
She said that last bit as if it was pre-ordained and she strengthened her position when she went on to say that she’d loved
me from the moment that I’d let her prove her trustworthiness by giving her an enormous sum of money to go and get me some
breakfast from the cafeteria. She then went on to say that she knew that I’d loved her too for more than a year and that she was sorry
for causing confusion in my life for so long but she would make it up to me ‘en cantidad’ in the future. She told me – and women
brought up under Spanish customs and mores tend to give vast import to this – that she’d saved herself for me “for all of this time” and
would continue to do so and that she found it very hard to wait but would do just that because it would, positively, be worth it in the end
and, “Come to think on it,” she said, “that also applies to you too so, come to think on that too, I’d appreciate it if, in spite of your
aforementioned male needs, you’ll try to keep yourself only for me from this moment on.”
That happened a few weeks ago and my head is still in a whirl but one thing that I’m sure of is that swilling tequila – or even
regressing to bourbon – no matter in what quantity, will be totally useless as an impetus to get me to want to go to bed with any woman
who is not Tania and – wonder upon wonders – not even with one named Claire.