Tuesday, February 17, 2004
At 7 a.m. on a cold morning I meet Alfredo. We stand on the narrow road looking up at a hillside. I explain what I need: a trench, 20 feet long, 4 feet deep, 16 inches wide. The trench must follow the contour of the hillside. I need it today. Then tomorrow, I need the trench filled with drain rock.
There's no practical access for a tractor, and anyway the hill is too steep. The trench must be dug by hand.
"How much you want to pay?" Alfredo asks.
Alfredo is from Mexico. He is a legal resident of the USA. A big man with a couple of gold teeth, he speaks limited English with a Mexican accent. In my town (La Honda), he's the go-to guy for a job like this. Sometimes he does the work himself. For digging, he says he'll "get some people." We settle on a price. Then I leave.
At 5 p.m. I return. There is a perfect ditch in the hillside. I check the measurements, and it is exactly right. The sides of the ditch go straight down with no narrowing toward the bottom. Somebody - probably, several somebodies - working with shovels on a slippery hillside have lifted and moved all that water-soaked clay, leaving edges slick and precise as if cut with a knife.
Sometimes hiring Alfredo is like pushing a button. A third-world button.
The next morning I assemble drainage pipe in mucky mud. A dump truck drops 4 yards of drain rock in a pile at the side of the road. Now the pile must be carried 15 feet up the hill.
Alfredo arrives with two men in his truck. He speaks to the men in Spanish. With a wheelbarrow and two shovels they begin hauling the rock up the hill.
I don't ask if the men are legal residents. It's best not to ask. What I know is that Alfredo can round them up on a moment's notice even if they don't have telephones or permanent addresses, and he will make sure they do the work promptly and well.
A few hours later I return. The men are gone, the ditch is filled. Alfredo, alone this time, drives up in his truck, a nearly-new Ford F150. I count out $400. I probably could have negotiated a lower price but didn't try. At this price Alfredo will make a fair profit and the diggers will receive a fair wage. Families will be fed.
Alfredo has a wife who cleans houses. They have raised 3 children who have married and moved away. They are honest, friendly, hard-working people.
"Nice truck," I say.
Alfredo pats the fender. He smiles with pride. "In Mexico," he says, "all I had was a burro."
(Note: I met Alfredo Ponce, the subject of this blog post, a couple of years after creating the character named Alfredo in my novel CLEAR HEART. Yes, there are similarities. Sometimes life resembles art.)