Saturday, September 14, 2019

Quotidian Sweat

As published at Smirking Chimp, OpEd News, Unz Review and TruthSeeker, 9/14/19:

There is a dearth of writing about work, its variety, tedium and grind. This is understandable, since most writers have devoted much of their time to writing and reading, and not painting houses, cleaning toilets, washing dishes, planting crops or performing mind numbingly monotonous tasks on an assembly line, etc. This blind spot or ignorance has become worse in contemporary America, where your typical writer spends nearly his entire adulthood inside academia. There is no more surreal theme park than a college campus.

During my few cameo appearances as a university professor, I’d encourage students to write about their work experiences, especially if they appear pointless, for this in itself is meaningful, as hard as it is to believe as you’re flipping endless beef patties, with burnt marks on your fingers, grease in your hair and sweat on your face, dreaming of sleep.

I’m typing this during stolen moments while working at a plastic recycling plant. Our grinding machine is chopping sorted yellow plastic into bits. Its loud, constant roar is a muscular, minimalist music that’s punctuated by the sure hacking of our steadfast women, who must remove metal from plastic, separate all the colors. Heliophobic and stench adverse, most have their faces well-covered, lest they darken or sniff something too foul or even toxic. Among the plastic garbage are not quite empty bottles of insecticides or weed killers, with one advertised as having the “Strength of a German tank”!

The worst funk, though, comes from jars or bottles of fermented shrimp paste. Even when fresh and delicious, this purplish delicacy already smells like garbage. It can hearten, complicate and anchor a broth, or be mixed with lime juice and chili pepper to serve as a dip for boiled meat. Our puppy, though, likes it fine raw, as fished from our many tons of plastic trash, and it’s useless to chastise Lou for her bad taste or derelict table manners.

With its iron stomach, a dog will lap up dish water or even eat shit. Last time I checked, I wasn’t a dog. While sorting through some plastic garbage yesterday, I touched something that looked, smelled and felt exactly like shit, but maybe it wasn’t, I optimistically hoped. At least I didn’t have to eat it.

As a house and office cleaner for several years, I’m not unfamiliar with that malodorous purview. I’ve written in a poem, “Belonging to the lower class, you’re expected / To cater to the upper class’ lower bodily functions, / Not to engage their minds but to wipe their asses, / Kiss their cunts on demand, suck cocks for tips.”

The lower you’re on the ladder, the more buttocks you have to stare up at, the more shit you must deal with, the more unpleasantness you’re forced to swallow, and this goes for entire societies, and that’s why plastic recycling is only feasible in a poorer country like Vietnam.

Our sorters work at their own pace and, to leaven their days, chatter and joke, so you’ll hear laughter episodically, for felicitous language is the cheapest entertainment. Visiting large factories, I’ve witnessed assembly lines and isolated workstations where humans functioned like machines, but that’s the whole point. Their mind is supposed to be blank, and their spirit snuffed out, so there is nothing left but the task. They can’t slow down or even speed up. Just do it! I’m glad we’re more primitive.

Repeatedly overburdened by loads beyond their stature and calling, some men quit, sometimes after mere days, though most are way tougher than their size suggests. This place stinks. A young man throws up, a woman must lie down and well tucked metal shards will cut through rubber sandals and draw blood, but days will go by uneventfully, tediously, as folks soldier on, waiting for pay day.

We bring in nearly three tons of plastic garbage a day, so we swim and wade through the stuff. Trash, we live garbage, with a smile.

Though the oldest at our plant at 55, I’m the foreman, so don’t have to bust my ass like the others. Still, it’s a half marathon. A constant sweater, I rehydrate myself with Zero Degree iced tea, hot matcha tea or an ungodly concoction of hot water, spicy instant noodle seasoning and soy sauce. Though obviously nutrition-free, this broth yields a jolt of energy, or at least quickens my senses, thus lessening fatigue.

One of our strongest workers likes to reward himself with plenty of beer or rice wine after work, but Diep has missed two days already this week, so should be fired tomorrow. It’s unfortunate, since I’ve drank and eaten with this guy, and find his conversations alert and funny.

Many among us get together to feast, get drunk, joke, share stories and sing songs of love and loss going back half a century. With a shared heritage, our lives have meanings, and that’s why we work, not just to eat. A poet may leave us with just one memorable phrase, but that’s enough, and he should do at least that. Often, there’s a woman who takes pride in outdrinking any man.

Diep reminds me of a Philly friend, Jay, for not only would they drink themselves out of a job, but they’re both good looking enough to expect someone to accommodate them always, so if a door should close, another must soon open. They imagine life to be an endless series of open legs. It is rare to be blessed with such a curse. For such a man, even pussies can get tiresome.

Jay was my housemate for a year, and we were on the same housepainting crew. In the morning, we’d leave the house together, but once, Jay lagged behind on the walk to the bus stop, so missed the bus, and was fired.

We actually occupied an unheated loft, over a printing shop that steadily exhaled noxious fume through our floorboards. Like us, Jay’s two cats often froze. When Betty became gravely ill, Jay had to deliver her from this earth with a soiled pillow. We were trying to become artists.

It’s apt for American bars to pitch afterwork boozing “happy hour,” for it is the happiest, though many drink sullenly, alone, like Johnny the Hat at my old neighborhood haunt, Friendly Lounge. Enough Jamesons downed, the 55-ish car mechanic would cordially say goodbye to each before weaving home, but sometimes, he’d turn nasty, as when he growled at Aurelia, “When did they let you out of the zoo?”

At 19, I heard some old guy wheeze, “I like to work because it makes my food taste better, and I sleep better,” and I do agree that physical exhaustion makes just about anything delicious, and sleep become heavenly, but what I had for lunch today may challenge this thesis.

I wiped the dirt off my hair, face and neck, then sat down in my grimy tank top to enjoy Cung Dinh [Royal Palace] brand’s Kool Spaghetti, and on the label, there’s a convincing image of some firm and long pasta covered with a crimson meat sauce, with even fresh basil on top. Opening the plastic lid, your kingship discovered that it’s just ordinary instant noodles, with two seasoning packets. Combined, they yielded a measly, greasy paste that’s slightly sweet and almost tomato free. Paying only 60 cents for this mess, I had no right to kvetch, and I did in fact wolf it down, like a poofed, famished dog.

The poetry quoted above was published in Harper’s, my one appearance in that magazine, and I was surprised they had wanted such a naked depiction of working class life. I’ve never been a Harper’s reader and didn’t submit. In my early 20’s, I did subscribe to the New Yorker and New York Times, but the social milieus they depicted, especially in the ads, seemed super exotic to me. What fanciful travels, restaurants and nightclubs, and what preposterous prices, even those touted as bargains! It’s a different world.

Occupying the top half, many will vehemently defend the bottom, in theory, without any intimacy with it, with some openly despising it, but these ignorant trash must be spoken for, so exclaim the righteous snobs.

Illegal immigration is a classic example of this. Although this stream of cheap labor benefits the ownership class while hurting the poorest, it is presented, often earnestly, as an act of solidarity with the downtrodden. Blacks, brown citizens and legal immigrants are among illegal immigration’s worst victims, and of course, poor whites, but if these dare to demand their lowly jobs back, they must be racists! No wonder so many are killing themselves.

I’m across the globe from all that. Here, 9/11 came and went without anyone remembering anything. It’s someone else’s fairy tale.

It’s past five, so I’m done. I can’t wait to eat, then lie down.

Tomorrow, I’ll get up before four to read some, then be at Mrs. Ha’s cafe as dawn pales over our negligible village. Each morning, a hen leads her chicks across our empty gas station, with each bird perusing the ground, when not pecking. Penned cocks crow. Since it’s rice harvesting time, tractor trucks bring Rade farmhands to paddies. Black peppers wait their turn. Durians drop. So much land and work to fill just one scrawny belly.

Slumped in a corner where my head can rest, I’ll have two cups of slow drip Perfect coffee with condensed milk, plus unlimited green tea, free of charge. The tin tea pot is labeled Phoenix. I am indeed royalty. Once, I showed up with my shirt inside out and my fly unzipped, but no one said shit. I've discovered my true calling as the village idiot. When not serving customers, Mrs. Ha lies on a hammock or laughs as she watches dating shows on television.

Her cafe is also a tiny store and parking garage, and she charges just 22 cents a day for commuters to park a motorbike.

“This is just the country, uncle.”

“And they can keep it here until what time?”

“Seven or eight.”

“And if they don’t pick it up by then?”

“I’ll just lock up, then go to sleep. Sometimes, though, a man would get drunk, show up in the dark to bang on my gate.”

“And you’d let him have his bike?”

“Of course, but that’d be the last time he parks here!”

Sharing my plastic table will be a motorbike taxi man. Once a cop, he was fired for marrying a tribal woman, a security risk. Seeing me, he rarely fails to gleefully shout, “How many cups already? Two? Four?” Whenever I tried to introduce a new topic, he’d just grin, this worn man of few words. Practically mindless, perhaps he’s a Zen master? Last week, I spotted a T-shirt, “THINK LESS LIVE MORE.” Deep, man.

Luridly dressed as if going to a party, with a large, blood red rose on the back of her black jacket, a middle-aged lady will totter on the cheapest high heels across the road, to wait for a bus to deliver her to her daily toiling. She’ll bend until she’s bent.

At 6:40, I’ll stroll to mine.


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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, but have returned to Vietnam. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), and six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems apparently cancelled by Chax Press from external pressure. I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.