What It’s Like

We went to visit a factory a few weeks back.  One of those “get to know the neighborhood” things. Juarez’s factories, or “maquilas,” are the economic engine of the city.  We walked down to the production floor.  Long assembly lines, mostly women, put together computer monitors and plasma TVs which groups of men then wrap, pack, and stack in infinite rows. We walked along the line, stopping at each step in the assembly process.  One woman in particular caught my attention.  As the assembled monitors came to her she would twist each on its stand: left, right, up, down, left, right. Then she would send it along the line and turn her attention to the next.  Left, right, up, down, left, right.  Next.  I wondered if at night she dreamed of a never-ending line of monitors to be swiveled. I wondered if, in her idle moments, her hands still made those motions involuntarily. Left, right. Up, down.

She works forty hours a week.  She makes $250 a month.  The monitor retails for $300.

On the visa line I see 100 to 150 faces a day.  They pass in front of my window every two to three minutes. I take their fingerprints.  I ask them a few questions.  I make a decision.

I remember a few details: a toddler’s pigtails; an old man’s hand on his wife’s shoulder; a woman’s pink t-shirt that read “Las Vegas Does it Better!”

I forget almost everything.

I make people cry, smile, glare in disgust, and wander away puzzled.  On my best days I am quick, painless, easily forgotten.  On my worst I am the devil behind two panes of glass handing you a piece of paper, telling you I’m sorry, calling the next number. It’s 8am, it’s 12pm, it’s 4pm.  The woman takes the paper, tears pool below the cataracts in her eyes, and the guard points her towards the exit.

I shuffle paper, tap on the keyboard, wiggle the mouse up, down, left, right. I dream of computer screens and waiting rooms. I dream of adjudicating visas for my dog. My grandmother.  Vampires.

Every day I sit behind bulletproof glass and talk in to a microphone.  Maybe I’m a diplomat, maybe I’m making change on the Jersey Turnpike. My drive home is Autobahn meets Thunderdome — beat-up cars, shiny trucks just waiting to be carjacked, convoys of federal police, their faces covered, their guns at the ready.

At night: a walk with the dog down nearly empty streets, a cocktail with friends as the sinking sun bleeds orange across the clouds. It gets late and a sixteen-piece mariachi band wanders in, their jackets sparkling and their pants clanking with metallic embellishment.  They play song after song. The lights come up on the border fence and bleach the night sky.

There’s a grim, carnival-esque feel to everything. At stoplights people come up to my car to sell me cigarettes, guavas, a SpongeBob SquarePants sleeping bag, and the daily paper.  Sheet-covered corpses are sprawled across the whole front page.

The dry heat is broken by sudden thunderstorms that come from nowhere to pull a black cloak across the sky. Wind bends the trees backward.  Rain spits onto sizzling pavement and creates lakes in the uneven, oft-patched streets.  Violent thunder and brisk snaps of lightning bring a halt to the rain and then suddenly the storm is over. The clouds part, a rainbow streaks down to meet the horizon.

My neighbors party late into the night.  A barbecue, a bouncy castle for the kids, empty bottles of Tanqueray lay abandoned on the grass and at 3am: karaoke.  First Julio Iglesias, then Gloria Estefan, then Lady Gaga. In the morning pink vomit covers the sidewalk.

People have dinner parties. You buy a bonsai tree at the gas station on your way home. A teenager in white face paint and stained overalls juggles flaming torches beside the highway.

I sit in my chair, I switch the microphone on, I call the next person to my window.

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