Steve Theme, 7/10/2011
Current Occupation: chronic writer, professional job hunter, ruling monarch over my loyal minions of two Labradors.
Former Occupation: Marketing Director for technology companies (Microsoft, Compaq, Boeing, Tektronix, blah, blah.) fisherman, carpet cleaner, bartender, ….
Contact Information: After 22 years as an itinerant marketing exec, I’ve outed myself from the corporate closet and am querying agents to represent my recently completed memoir, Asphalt Sanctuary, Every Road Needs a Beginning. This story carries the reader 6,000 miles on a solo hitchhiking trek that evolves into an unintentional spiritual awakening: voodoo, the Mafia, yodeling, NASA, a couple miracles—this road twists. Snippets are available at stevetheme.com.
Junkyard Royalty I
After flying to Honolulu on a one-way ticket—hey, it was all I could afford—I knew I wouldn’t be living in the lap of luxury, but never pictured myself kneeling here in the gray sand, looking down at my black greasy hands, knuckles gouged, pulling tires off a wrecked car in a junkyard.
For the first month of my why-bother-planning adventure, sunny days consisted of Waikiki, Kailua Beach, boogie boarding and crashing on some new friends’ couches. What more could a trim, tan, twenty-year-old want?
But now I’ve got to make a living.
Mr. Yaseen is a fat guy with a thick black mustache, and he leases this chunk of paradise: an acre of rusted cars stacked four high on a blistering patch of Sand Island, just below the approach to the international airport. He pays me in cash at the end of each day.
This tire has been roasting in the July sun, and yanking it from the brake drum feels like wrapping my arms around a giant doughnut fresh from the fryer. Now I get to crawl under the chassis and extract the rear differential. All these cars are moving. I don’t know where, but Mr. Yaseen only wants to take the valuable parts, mostly engines, transmissions, drive trains and tires with some tread left.
The work is hard, but worse with the dogs. They’re everywhere: mangy, mean—just skin draped over ribs. They live in, and under, the cars. Now I don’t just pull open a door. I peer inside first to make sure nothing is going to charge me. They don’t like surprises.
It’s Mr. Yaseen. From under the car I can see his thick black boots walking fast toward me, kicking sand with each step.
“What?” I figure we can talk without me dragging myself into the sun. He’s standing almost on top of my exposed shoes.
Wriggling through the deep sand while enveloped in sweat is like plowing through gritty peanut butter. I wish I had a concrete floor, maybe a dolly, like a real mechanic. Pulling myself from under the car, I see he’s with a short guy a few feet behind him.
“This is Thanh.” He pats the boy on the shoulder. “Fresh off the boat.” Mr. Yaseen’s accent is so thick he sounds fresh off the boat. “You work with him. Show him the tools.”
Thanh looks a year or two younger than me. “Hi.”
Standing up, I take a few swipes and brush the sand off my arms. Thanh sticks out his hand, even though he can see mine are grease covered. We shake. Mr. Yaseen turns and walks back through an aisle between dead cars.
“Today is your lucky day,” I say through my best sarcastic smile.
He shakes his head enthusiastically.
“So, where are you from?”
The war has been over for five years, and these days no one from Vietnam just strolls out of the country and comes to the states. “How’d you get here?”
“Refugee,” he says. Then, slowly, as he works to form each word, “Six years in Thailand.”
Boat people. He must be one of the boat people. There are plenty of news reports about them. Rapes, torture, pirates, the stories are pretty horrific, but some survive to make it here. He must have learned English in a refugee camp. I’ve never met a real refugee. I mean a real, real, refugee. I don’t know what to say. He’s pretty skinny; The veins on his forearms are bulging like blue rivers, and his ragged shorts blend with the color of his skin. There have been news reports of a few charities, and our government, flying some of these people to America from the camps in Thailand.
“Okay. We’ll go this way.” The yard is a maze. Cars are stacked high enough that we can’t see to get any bearings. You just have to recognize the junkers to understand where you are. The balmy ocean breezes advertised in tourist brochures are just a mean heat rolling through these corroded trenches.
The tool shed is made of sun-bleached plywood, propped up with two-by-fours, and three tires on top to keep the roof from blowing away. “We can work together on the same cars,” I say. The work is a lot easier with another set of hands, and someone to talk with.
We make our way back to the car I was stripping and dig into the engine compartment. This isn’t real mechanic’s work—no need to unscrew fuel lines or hydraulic hoses. We just snip them, cut all the cables, whatever is fastest.
“What was it like?” I ask, not looking up to make eye contact. I’m almost afraid of the answer. “I mean, in the camp?”
“Three camps,” he says.
Surprised, I look up.
He clears his throat and holds out three fingers. “Bad, dirty, not food enough.”
“Yeah, pretty bad.”
I shake my head up and down slowly, acknowledging his statement. Then look down into the black engine. Once we remove all the mounting bolts, I walk out and drive back in with a backhoe to yank out the chunk of iron. Thanh and I pass the hoist straps to each other under the engine and I loop them over a hook on the backhoe’s arm.
“Here goes nothin’,” I say, pulling on the lever to raise the arm. It dawns on me he probably can’t make heads or tails of what I just said. “Here goes nothing” makes no sense. Once the engine is high enough I back up, but the engine starts wobbling. Thanh’s eyes get big.
Ka chunk. The engine slips between the straps and drops into the sand. I figure I can teach him some good American body language, and toss my hands up saying, “Oh shit!”
He tosses his hands up. “Oh shit!”
I bring my arms back down. “Oh well.”
We start laughing. A dog bolts away.
After we scrum around in the sand for a while, digging the straps back under the engine, I lift it again and drive off.
Coming back all I can see are Thanh’s butt and legs draped over a front fender. The rest of his body remains wedged upside down into an engine compartment.
Mr. Yaseen walks up to him and yells, “Hurry up! We don’t have all day!” Mr. Yaseen walks away, but gives me a self-satisfied glance.
I lean in and start working on the other side of the car. “Yaseen couldn’t even see what you were doing,” I say, as the engine compartment contains my voice. “He’s a butthead.”
I think I just taught him a new word. “How much is he paying you?” I ask.
I figured as much. He’s paying me six dollars an hour.
We end up yanking a few more engines. By late afternoon we both wear grease up to our elbows, and blotches of grey and black smudge our faces. Thanh and I look like improbable brothers.
I face Thanh and it’s time to teach him some more American. “This ain’t no disco,” I say.
He stares at me as if I’m from Mars.
“You know. Disco.” I start dancing and throwing an arm in the air with my finger pointed skyward, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
“Yeah, disco,” he says, and we both start dancing—stars of the junkyard.
There are a couple alternators in the sand and they need some wires removed. This should be our last fun of the day. I start walking over and motion Thanh to join me.
While we’re sitting in the sun, hemmed in by rusted corpses, their torn sheet metal sticking out like arms and legs, we face each other, and I finally work up the courage to ask the one question that’s been on my mind all day. “Where’s your family?”
Thanh lowers his hand and draws an undulating line in the sand that looks like a fat hook. He’s sitting cross legged. I’m on all fours looking down over his hand. Then he flips his finger quickly forming a hard straight line through the middle. It’s Vietnam. He still sees the border dividing the north and south. He pushes his index finger deep into the southern sand. “Communists kill my father and mother.”
He’s looking down, but I can hear him inhaling sharp short breaths. Now his short breaths have turned into drips of snot coming from his nose and tears are dropping like dark bombs on his country.
Once again, I don’t know what to say. In our silence I think of my family in Seattle: the clean sidewalks, good schools, our dinner table, our sailboat—and quickly imagine the boat he must have crowded onto to escape.
I need only to open my eyes to find myself in a safe, prosperous country. To make it here I suspected Tahan worked, and hoped, for years. By simply being born, I became an American. Even Mr. Yaseen worked to immigrate. I’ve always thought of any birthright as an unearned advantage for royals, but suddenly see myself as one of them.
Thahn is still looking down, hiding his face. He lifts his finger and pounds his fist into the sand, widening the hole his finger made. Twisting his fist back and forth, he digs further. “They kill my brother and sisters.”
He raises his fist and pounds it into the sand again. “I hate the communists. I hate them!”
Thanh lifts his head. Tears push away the sand stuck to his cheeks, and he looks me in the eyes. “But I love America.”