me, dale, and benito

THIS WAS BACK when I was working for Dale, who was a kind of stubby, stocky boss, heavy on the Long Island accent, of Irish descent, and a drinker therefore, naturally. We were working on an old house up Briggs Avenue, shaded by trees, last one on the left. The whole interior had been gutted, and it was me, Rocky, and sometimes Bobby and Angelo would show up to help out. Dale was a generation older than us and the radio was always tuned to Kool 96.7 broadcasting out of Norwalk, Connecticut, with the signals being carried over the water. But not always. Sometimes we listened to Oldies 98.1, maybe when Dale tired of Jay and the Americans and wanted to hear some Who’s Next. That was a New York station. This I knew because every five minutes or so, the governor would come on and warn of severe consequences for anyone caught hiring illegal workers. I barely paid attention to these announcements, busy painting and sanding and carrying buckets of debris. It was a hot summer, and I could easily drink four liters and sweat it out. I only noticed the announcements on the day that Dale asked me to pick up someone named Benito and his crew. “He’ll be waiting for you at the Farmingville 7-Eleven,” Dale said. “All you have to do is drive up there, ask for Benito, and take him back here. It’s all agreed.” It seemed like an easy enough job. I was about 21 or 22 then, and comfortable with driving the interior. I took the highway and made the turn off for Farmingville. This was a more newly developed part of the island, where suburban homes seemed to be popping up in clusters like a bad rash, dotting the roadsides where once stood pristine woody pine barrens and nature preserves. Finding the 7-Eleven was easy, but finding Benito was a challenge. This is because about 100 or so Mexicans and Central Americans stood gathered in the parking lot, waiting for a day’s work. I parked my car, an old Volvo station wagon, and started toward a man on the corner in a black LA Raiders hat who kept looking at me. “Are you Benito?” I asked. The man didn’t answer but looked at me again and shrugged his shoulders. Then several other migrant workers approached. “You looking for Benito?” one said. “I’m Benito.” “I too am Benito,” another one claimed loudly. “I’m Benito from Guadalajara,” a third said. When I turned back to look at the car, I saw that three men had already crawled in the trunk. “Let me guess what your names are,” I said to the trio. “Benito,” one said and shrugged. “He is Benito too.” There I was, besieged by a parking lot of Benitos. I pointed to the five who had claimed this name and left the one with the LA Raiders hat behind. He was clearly waiting for someone else. On the way back, I put on the radio, then tried to make conversation in Spanish. Several of the Benitos were from Mexico City. Then there was Guadalajara Benito in the back, and then there was another Benito from Guatemala. They seemed like nice guys, god knows what would bring them to mill about in parking lots on Long Island in the heat, or sleep 10 to a room in one of those Farmingville crash houses, where they all slept. That must have been godawful horrible, to wake up in a room of sweaty Benitos and hear one fart, or get up to take a leak, or to cry out his wife’s name in a moment of sex-starved agony. “Magdalena! Magdalena!” What empathy I felt for these characters with their dark features, bushy mustaches, so removed from the peach fuzz of the upwardly mobile aspiring white family. Some of them had ancient Aztec features too, the faces of Monteczuma, the warriors of Tenochtitlan, the temple priests dripping with the blood of human sacrifice. They were the originals, the first people. What a dreadful lot, to have your land stolen by greedy gringos and then be forced to work for them, all so they could gaze with pride at a well-tended patch of green lawn that could rival the neighbor’s. But it wasn’t so bad. When we arrived, Dale was there, whistling in his joyful Irish mood along to the radio. It was Jay and the Americans again. “In a little café, just the other side of the border.” Dale never seemed to tire of that song or any other. Then the broadcast was briefly interrupted by the governor’s announcement again. “Anyone caught hiring illegal workers will face severe consequences.” Dale paid it no attention, as if it was just another radio jingle. Five men got out of the car and Dale looked each one over and then back to me. “What the shit is this?” he stormed. “I gave you a simple job. I told you to drive to Farmingville and pick up Benito. Benito just called me before. He said he’s still up there waiting.” “He’s also Benito,” I said, nodding to the Guadalajaran. The one with the bushy mustache. “They’re all Benito too.” Dale looked at the five Benitos, nodding as he mulled it over. “Alright,” he said, extending his hands. “You’re hired!” He paid them $100 each for a day’s work. That was more than me or Rocky or even Angelo made. They earned it. They were they hardest working men I had ever seen.

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