It’s our secret by consensus, our neighborhood pothole. From the front seat of a car, nothing betrays how deeply it falls beneath the pavement. Up close it looks like nothing more than a shallow indentation. To be fair, the cover of a water main lies in its center, flat and even with the pavement, and so disguises our pothole. The sensible driver, rather than swerve into on-coming traffic, will opt to drive through it. “And pah! El hoyo gets him,” Tito tells me each night. He works at one of three garages in sight of el hoyo.
After a rainstorm el hoyo becomes a flat puddle glistening with innocence. But it’s grown big enough now to damage the axel of a sports car. It can trap everything but a giant SUV. And with every car it catches, it just widens.
If the maxim of real estate is location, location, location, then el hoyo has a prime spot. It lies just off a major highway on the corner of a busy street that jams with traffic every morning and night. Many of its victims are first-timers to the neighborhood, impatient commuters who’ve left the highway looking for a shortcut into the city. But el hoyo gets its share of cocky regulars too, who forget its sneaky ways. It caught me once, but by luck I was driving slowly, and I escaped intact. Some days it will snare up to twenty cars and send them to the local garages.
Tito delights in the daily tally. “Three flat tires, four bent rims, and two broken hubcaps. And one person who needed an alignment,” he reports. Even the garage owners have been taking advantage of el hoyo with mark-ups on tires and rims. “We give them new everything,” Tito says. The nimble mechanic might pocket five or ten dollars from an alignment for a new client late for work. “Everybody is in a hurry,” Tito says. And then he lowers his voice. “Bigger tips.”
Tito may be the manager, but he still helps out on the floor of the garage. Because he is less experienced than the mechanics, he mostly changes oil and repairs tires. These days he’s working furiously. He sees that the owners of Acura’s and Audi’s caught in the jaws of el hoyo will always trust someone to make a tire repair. The pothole leaves them no choice in this marginal neighborhood. And it’s always rush hour. For each tire, rim, or hubcap, Tito reaps a dollar. Later, at the deli, he and his colleagues from the other garages will compare tips. Tito inevitably makes the most. It’s not just where his garage stands in relation to el hoyo. He works faster. And he’s the canniest. He’s not afraid to ask for a tip.
Tito’s civic self calls our pothole una vergüenza, a shame. In his homeland Chile, the government would never permit a pothole like ours to remain. El hoyo has lain here now for nearly three months. It can’t be that government officials don’t know about it. El hoyo receives visits daily from the local police, who make out accident reports. A firehouse full of public servants sits a block away from it. And inspectors from the city’s environmental offices stop by monthly to ticket the garages for their waste disposal practices. Yet no one thinks to report it, and no one comes to repair it.
One day Tito tells me that el hoyo, in addition to its daily net of cars, has caught a bicyclist. “I heard all this yelling out in the street. Wow oh wow! His whole bike rim was bent.”
“Was he hurt?” My glee for el hoyo ends when it injures people.
“No sé. No me importa.” I don’t know, and I don’t care. “Ese tipo, I’ve seen him before. He pedals in front of a car on purpose and falls. Then he acts like he’s hurt. And the poor drivers, they feel so guilty, they give him money. That bicyclist is a scam artist.”
Even if I don’t, el hoyo knows the difference between truth and fiction.
(the return trip)
It’s Sunday afternoon and Tito and I are driving deep into Queens. Tito has invited himself, and me by extension, to Simón the bodyman’s apartment. “He likes our company,” Tito says. But he is trying to justify the real reason for our visit, which is watching a futbol match between two Chilean teams. Simón has both a big screen and cable. We stop at the liquor store for a bottle of Chilean wine.
Simón greets us at the door with a welcome and happiness that suffuses his face. He motions for us to sit down, and we all pull up chairs at his kitchen table. Tito uncorks and pours the wine, and Simón opens a can of soda. I sip my wine and listen to them talk. They touch on their families back home in Chile, the economy in the provinces, the rains in Santiago, and the drought in the mountains. Like Tito, he’s overstayed his visa and works and lives here illegally. But Simón has been here twelve years. He is the first to admit how he enjoys the bounty it’s brought. He has a personal computer, leather sofa, and huge hi-fi system that takes tapes, CDs, and DVDs, things beyond his reach in Chile. But whether one year or twelve years, he is trapped. This theme comes up again and again in their conversation. To go home without a Green Card means never coming back. But at home there’s little work, and what work there is could not support his family.
“Además, nos cuesta quedarnos acá,” he says. And it costs us so much to stay. He starts imitating Nicolás, and how he yells at the mechanic.
“But you could work anywhere,” I say. “You’re a genius at what you do, so why do you stay?” I am really repeating what Tito tells me. Exceptional bodymen like Simón are rare. He is vital to Nicolás’ business—both for the wrecks that Nicolás buys online to expand his fleet and to maintain his accident-prone convoy(?) of cars.
Simón blushes from the praise. “I’ve worked at other talleres before. But each time Nicolás called, he offered me more money. So, each time I thought, why not? By that time I’ve forgotten how he yells.”
I sigh in sympathy.
“Yeah, but most people don’t know the other side of Nicolás either. When I was homesick, he listened. When my wife cut me off from my children he was there. When I needed extra money to help my mother in the hospital, he contributed. Nicolás does things for people that nobody knows about. Working for him isn’t perfect, but at least I know him.”
“So you made a vuelta,” I say with a flourish, proud that I can remember the word for ‘trip back.’
“Idas y vueltas,” he corrects. Roundtrips.
“Como idas y vueltas a Mexico por $350, a Guatemala por $425, a Chile por $650.” I recite prices I read weekly in el Diario, the local newspaper. I see his face cloud. A trip home is something he and Tito yearn for. But they cannot do it, despite everything else that they accomplished here. I change the subject to the goings on at the garage.
Simón tells Tito that Jorge wants a raise. Jorge is a relative newcomer, only six months at the garage, the new sweeper now that Tito is the manager. I won’t forget him because he came to work the day of the big snowstorm.
“Jorge? Ese tipo has a suitcase full of complaints. Nicolás will never give him a raise. He does el mínimo. Don’t forget—Jorge is a company man.” Jorge used to work for the state-run telephone company, and he still crows about it.
“Remember those days, Simón? When we had no telephone service for days?” They share a laugh.
“He wants the raise so he can trade in his bus,” Simón says in defense of his friend.
Tito has told me about Jorge’s bus. It was how he spent his buyout money when the telephone company privatized. Jorge had wanted to be his own boss, and he thought, why not a bus route? But he had neglected to have it checked before buying, and soon after, it broke down. He repaired it, but it kept breaking down. Then he ran out of funds. This is what has propelled him to New York.
“If he doesn’t get a raise, he’s leaving,” Simón says.
“Where will he go, huevón? He has no skills.”
Simón shrugs. “Maybe he hopes Nicolás will offer him more money to stay.” After all, this is how Simón has earned raises.
“Nicolás doesn’t need a sweeper.” Tito thinks Nicolás brought him on as a spontaneous gesture of goodwill. Jorge was a Chilean who needed work. Of course, Jorge doesn’t know that. Tito motions at his watch. It is time to watch futbol. We watch one game, part of another, and then Simón switches the channel to Chilean news. Finally it’s time to go home.
As we say goodbye, Tito offers to put in a word for Jorge with Nicolás. “But I don’t think it will help.”
They embrace each other Chilean style, with loud slaps on the back, and part.
A week later Tito announces that Jorge has quit. “Nicolás didn’t offer him anything extra to stay. What could Jorge do? Beg for his job back?”
Jorge calls Tito the next day. He has no savings and is desperate for a job. Does Tito know anyone else who needs a sweeper? Tito calls another garage and sets up an interview, and Jorge gets the job.
Then several months later Jorge telephones Tito again. The garage where he was working has closed. Does he know anyone who needs a handyman like him? “I don’t want to go back for the same money, but what about Nicolás?”
“I’ll ask, but it’s not my decision.”
Nicolás offers Jorge the same job and the same money. Jorge needs the money, so he takes the job and makes a full ida y vuelta.
A few more weeks pass, and I come home to see Tito there. “I quit,” he says.
I breathe in and out to control my panic at this impetuous decision.
“Nicolás grita y grita y grita.” He yells and yells and yells.
I nod. Tito tells me this every day.
“Today there were four cars up on lifts. We were short one mechanic. Still, the work was going. Not smooth but we were doing the best we could. I was changing oil and running back and forth to the office to keep track of the billing. Midday Nicolás pulled in and started to tell me I was doing it all wrong.
“I tried to explain the situation and he just kept on yelling. So I put down my tools and quit.”
I want to be glad for him, at least join him in a little part of his new liberty. The garage isn’t healthy for him. His daily headaches and blackened skin are just symptoms of air filled with chemicals and particulates. For this he works without health insurance, without sick days, without a pension plan. He has to work 52 hours before he qualifies for overtime, never mind federal laws. Tito’s barely gotten a raise since assuming the responsibilities of being the manager of the garage. He makes less than the mechanics but holds all the responsibility for the garage’s operations.
Yet I’m nervous that without his contribution to our expenses, without his salary, we won’t be able to manage. And who will send money home to Chile? We’ve come a long way since I covered everything but his money home.
He pulls me to him, and I breathe in his mint shampoo and musky cologne.
“Oye. I came home, showered, and took a nap. The phone rang, and I disconnected it. I lay down to close my eyes. But as soon as I did I heard a voice outside. He was shouting my name from the street.”
“It was Nicolás, can you believe?” Tito chuckles.
“He looked so desperate with his face all red. I felt bad. I called out the window and told him to come up. He liked the apartment, but he couldn’t get over all the books. I told him he couldn’t yell at me like that. I didn’t come here to be insulted. He has to speak to me with respect. Sabes qué, Rebecca? I’ve worked 20 years of my life and I’ve never been treated like that. I told him I was happier as a sweeper.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“I didn’t quit because I wanted more money. You know I don’t care about money. I just want peace. He begged me to come back as manager, and I said yes. But when he started to leave, I held up my hand. All the others had gotten raises. How would that look if he didn’t give me one too?” Tito beams at me. “A hundred dollars.”
And so Tito has made his own vuelta to the taller.
One day Jorge announces that he is leaving. He’s leaving Nicolás, he’s leaving the garage, he’s leaving New York City, he’s leaving the whole United States. He’s going back to Chile.
There’s a new energy at the garage as everyone imagines his own vuelta. Guillermo seizes every break to smoke and reminisce about Argentina. The tight society, the reverence for class, and all the other things he once disdained, these things he is now wistful for.
Simón has swapped his daily grumbles for nostalgia for home. He wonders about his children, who have grown up in his absence. He sees enough pictures of them to know what they look like, but he doesn’t know who they have become. Are they like him? Or are they like his estranged wife? He has already missed their childhoods. If he doesn’t go back, he may never know them. Maybe he doesn’t need a big television set and computer to be happy.
Tito comes home restless too, more eager than ever to be in touch with his family back in Chile. Already he has missed his daughter’s quinceñera, her fifteenth birthday, which marks a girl’s entrance into the next stage of her life. Tito reports daily on all she is doing, from the volleyball tournament to band practice to the awards she is beginning to win for academic excellence. None of this assuages his regret that he is missing her adolescence. Under cover of darkness in bed, he tries to justify why he stays. “I don’t have enough yet. I have too many responsibilities to my family to return now.”
I ask Tito if there are any plans for a farewell party for Jorge.
“We talked about it. But we are working too hard, and no one has the time. Do you realize? After all this time here, Jorge’s going home with nothing. So we are giving him our tips from the week instead.”
In the hushed tone he uses for sacred things, Tito tells me that Nicolás has contracted Argentinean Guillermo to build an asado for him. “An asado,” Tito explains, “is not a barbecue that they sell in the hardware store. An asado has to be built. It’s made from brick or stone, and it has a grill, a spit, and a chimney, big enough to grill steak, chicken, and sausages all at the same time.” Elaborate asados, Tito says, can even include an oven and a smoker. Nicolás wants the grill and the smoker.
Up until now, everything about Guillermo, including his accent, with its drawn-out consonants and vowels, has irked Tito. He has wearied of Guillermo’s hourly smoking breaks, daily complaints, and the so-so quality of his work, despite his bragging. But even if Guillermo were the best mechanic in the garage, Tito would find a way to challenge him. For Tito, it comes down to simple geography. Argentina encroached on what was rightfully Chile’s land, growing fat while leaving Chile the sliver it is today. While this series of robberies happened over 150 years ago, Tito will never forgive Argentina for this. All Argentineans, living or dead, are responsible. Tito laughs when he talks like this, but both of us know it’s not quite a joke. At the garage, Tito lies in wait for Guillermo to make mistakes. His errors give Tito the perfect opening. “See, huevón? That’s why your country’s bankrupt and Chile’s strong.”
I have heard so much about Guillermo’s misdiagnoses and careless slip-ups that I’m skeptical about Guillermo’s ability to build an asado. But Tito looks at me as if it’s as obvious as genetics. “He’s Argentinean. Of course he knows how to make one.” He concedes that while asados are intrinsic to both countries, just possibly an Argentinean could construct one better than a Chilean.
And so, despite the rivalry he feels with Guillermo, Tito is happy for him. Guillermo has always wanted to build asados for a living. Perhaps with the referrals he’ll get from building Nicolás’ asado, he’ll have enough new clients to start his own business. The garage hums with his hopes. Nicolás instructs Guillermo to start when spring arrives.
The snow melts, and the ground dries. Over the first few weekends, Guillermo shuttles his tools and supplies to Long Island. He battles the traffic on the Long Island Expressway with carloads of bricks, worth the extra labor because he got a good deal for them from someone in Queens.
It rains most of April. Even so, Guillermo digs out a long rectangle where he will lay the foundation. All month Guillermo arrives for work at the garage with sniffles and a bent back. But his joy in doing something he loves infects everyone. No one seems to mind working overtime Mondays while Guillermo recovers.
By May Guillermo finishes the base. The asado begins to rise from the ground. Nicolás is ecstatic with the progress. Guillermo tells him he’ll finish, as agreed, by early June. Nicolás goes ahead and plans a lavish graduation party for his son, centered around the asado. The mood at the garage is ebullient. Everyone can picture the asado’s completion without even seeing it.
Guillermo’s exhaustion carries over into Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tito hears about Guillermo’s aches in one ear and out(?) the other, listens to Nicolás’ elation over his asado. Nicolás tells all the Spanish- speaking drivers who come in for servicing about the asado and party to come. “See that man over there? He’s building it for me.” By the end of May he’s invited them all.
But in the back office, Tito listens to Fernanda’s worries. “He still has to finish the chimney. He has to install the grill and spit. And he hasn’t even begun to build the smoker. Will he ever finish? What was my husband thinking when he promised him two thousand dollars?” Tito mimics her nasal accent so well it’s as if she’s sitting in the room with us.
In June Guillermo builds and completes the chimney. Nicolás and la Señora try it out. “It doesn’t work,” she tells Tito when they are alone. “All it did was smoke. That man has built a giant smoker instead of an asado.”
Out on the floor of the garage Guillermo has promised Nicolás he can fix it. Back in the office Fernanda tells Tito she is certain Guillermo doesn’t have the expertise. “He can’t diagnose cars. How can he diagnose the asado? And how can he fix it if he can’t figure out what is wrong?” Tito just listens.
Only a week remains before the big fiesta. Nicolás’ voice booms throughout the garage. “We have an asado now,” he says to anyone who will listen. In an impulsive moment he invites all the mechanics to the party. “We gonna have carne, chorizo, pollo, the works.” He promises them steak, sausage, and chicken.
Meanwhile, back in the office, Fernanda frets about her husband’s folly and the man’s he’s contracted. She is so upset she can’t even say Guillermo’s name. “Why would Nicolás hire someone like that? Just because someone is from Argentina doesn’t mean he can build an asado. What was he thinking, that Nicolás? Two thousand dollars, and for what? It doesn’t even work. And so much mess, we’ll never be ready for the party.”
Later that week Tito overhears Nicolás cussing Guillermo. “Everything, huevón, I mean everything, you have to finish by Saturday night, and I don’t care how late. I don’t got time for no more excuses. There’s still no top on the chimney. And you barely begun building the smoker. Don’t expect a centavo if you don’t finish by Sunday. And huevón, I’m not waking up to see bricks lying around on Sunday morning. Me entiendes, huevón?” For extra measure Nicolás gives Guillermo both Friday and Saturday off before the party, so that he can finish.
Back on the floor of el taller, Guillermo remains as sure as ever. “It looks fabuloso, hombres. Nicolás is getting a bargain for my asado grande. Eh, so what, eh? Everyone at the party’s going to want one after this. You wait and see.”
Upstairs in his office, Nicolás carries on with the same braggadocio. “Gonna be beautiful, Tito. You and Rebecca coming, right? You gotta see it, a real asado finally.”
Downstairs in her office, la Señora shakes her head. “Nicolás, he shouldn’t pay that man a single cent.” She has few words for her husband’s locura. His folly.
Sunday arrives, bright and brisk from the thunderstorms of the night before. Tito pronounces the weather perfect for an asado. And as we pull into Nicolás’ driveway, I have to agree. The immaculate pavement, the smooth, green yard, the gleaming, pristine house—they all sparkle as if God had washed and cleaned them just for Nicolás.
We’re one of the first to arrive. The other mechanics and most of the drivers have backed out. They have obligations to their own families. But even without them, the party will be large, full of family and friends. We stop in the kitchen and say hello to Fernanda. She’s organizing the meats for the asado. Platters cover the marble island, each piled high with chicken parts, blood sausages, Italian sausages, steaks, and hamburgers. I don’t know how it will be possible to eat this much meat.
“Hola, qué tal? Qué día, para un asado, eh? El clima, todo!” What a day, what weather for a barbecue, Tito tells her.
She sniffs. “Una vergüenza.” A mortifying shame.
“I’m sure it works well enough,” I say, hoping to make her feel better.
She looks at me and switches into English, enunciating each word. “Do you know how it rained last night? The cement on the smoker is already washed away. Half the roof gone, ruined. And that escándolo? It smokes up the whole backyard. I try to tell Nicolás he should not pay that man for this. But he won’t listen. He’ll pay him. I know that husband of mine.” She sniffs again. “But go see for yourself. He’s out there, sitting by his asado.” She spits out asado as if it were a curse.
We kiss her and walk out onto the porch that overlooks the backyard. Down below stands the asado, pink and tall with a long, graceful chimney. It is a towering edifice that sits on a large, brick patio. I am amazed that Guillermo built all this.
Nicolás waves to us as we make our way down the stairs to him. We bend down to kiss him, loyally seated next to his asado. Having never seen an asado before, I inspect it. Up close it looks like an ordinary grill, only bigger. But Nicolás points out the chain on the side that can lift or lower the grill to adjust its height over the coals. “That is what makes the difference,” he tells me.
“Why do you need the chimney?”
“Eh, that’s for funneling the smoke.”
“Yeah, we’re going to have a real asado today. You know what that is, Rebecca?”
I shake my head, even though I know exactly what to expect after all of Tito’s tales.
Nicolás lights the crumpled paper he’s laid under the charcoal. “It’s a feast. A big barbecue. We gonna have steak, chorizo regular, chorizo negro, pollo, the works.”
I run my hand along the bricked edge of the gigantic structure. “So this is the grill Guillermo built?”
Nicolás turns to Tito. “Worth the work, eh?” I know he isn’t referring to Guillermo’s lost hours made up by Tito and the other mechanics in the garage.
Tito smiles. He’s the most generous person I know.
I leave the men while I walk over to the smoker. It looks like a blue pizza oven set on the brick patio. It’s short and rounded with an arched roof and door. Next to the angular asado, it looks homemade but capable. With my back to Nicolás, I test the cement with my fingernail. With a little pressure, it crumbles.
“Hey, don’t look too hard, ok? The smoker didn’t come out too good.” Then I hear him say to Tito in Spanish, “But I’ll get that huevón to fix it.”
More guests arrive. Nicolás goes up to the porch and joins them. Tito and I stay by the grill. The fire is just starting to catch, and it warms us. Tito touches my arm. He motions that he’s heading up to the house. I give his hand a squeeze and watch him go. I want to enjoy the quiet on this little patio just a bit longer. No matter how Nicolás’ asado turned out, it stirred the hopes and dreams of everyone at the garage. For three months it woke in Nicolás and the mechanics a generosity and optimism. I hear it even today in Nicolás’ proud voice as he greets and claps his guests on the back. “Yeah, how about that, eh? We’re having an asado.” And I see the pleasure on the faces of his family and friends. Their delight is palpable. With his asado Nicolás is giving them a taste of homeland.
The sun ducks under a cloud. I step closer to the little fire and blow on the embers to encourage its warmth. Tendrils of smoke circle around the grill area and back into my face. As the fire strengthens, so do the fumes. Soon I can hardly breathe. Smoke envelops me from all sides. I choke on it and step back. I can barely make out the asado for all the smoke. Only Guillermo’s chimney stands clear of it, high in the blue sky.
The next installment will be posted Tuesday, Jan 11.