Special Issue on Immigration
by Peter Byrne
Short Story and Vignettes
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(Swans - October 4, 2010) Why did he dislike the place so much? It was very far from being a top Med seaside resort. He couldn't pretend that any odor of luxury offended his egalitarian nose. Anyway, as he'd raked through the Internet at first light the whole idea of human equality seemed beside the point. It wasn't equality those flood-stranded Pakistanis wanted as they wrestled each other for the biscuits dropped from helicopters. In fact this homely little Southern Italian pleasure dome had its own survival problems. He had to step over crags in the sidewalk as he walked along the front to the center point from where the former fishing village sent out its arms of cement.
The law was no more relevant than égalité. He'd seen a woman shopper in the market collared by a plainclothes cop. Had she been given an official receipt with her purchase? No? Then she would have to sign a document incriminating the stall keeper. He'd be fined.
The harbor, a glance away, was a parking lot for pleasure craft. Though ugly, looking like anything but boats, more like plastic poured from a ladle, they were expensive. Many of their listed owners were straw men, which got around paying taxes or explaining where the money that bought the boats came from. The cop that hounded stall holders in the market kept away from the yacht harbor.
As the walker continued along the front, beach-bound bathers came out of the streets and crossed his path. They were mainly family squiggles of three or four. It was hard to think of them as anything but harmless. The zest in the morning breeze propelled them to a choice spot at one of the bathing establishments. Once in place they'd relax and concentrate on defending their territory on the sand. After some wary swimming and much lying prone they'd go back for lunch.
They wouldn't have talked much among themselves: A few murmurs about the bad beach manners of their neighbors, speculation on the caprice of the wind and, as the hours passed, curiosity about the mid-day menu. No one seemed to read newspapers on the beach. Some toyed with telephones, but it would be rash to assume they were absorbing breaking news and not simply, well, toying.
The balmy status quo got on his nerves. Was choosing cappuccino and not espresso in the morning what fraternité was all about? He wouldn't put up with TV again over lunch, of that he was determined. The blare supplanted any communication but belches of the lustier sort. What was liberté worth if you weren't free to poop a party?
So after the plates of the second course had been cleared away, each with an apologetic bone from the veal cutlet balanced on the rim, he stood up, with a mock "excuse me" and turned the TV off with a bang. The ensuing silence shocked even him. Panic showed on several faces. He winced a smile and explained that as a visitor from afar he wanted to get their views on the happenings of the day before.
Everyone had heard the news, he said, and they all nodded to the lie as if naturally as respectable people they kept abreast of events. He made it clear he was speaking of the migrants who had arrived by sea. A young man who looked like a student said he thought that had happened in Calabria. He said Calabria as if it were on the other side of the earth and not just the other side of the boot.
A typical Latin pater familias took over the talk. He might have been a lawyer. Eager for his coffee and nap he summed up. Where they were, situated, he said, not many landings ever occurred. The busy route was from North Africa to the islands off Sicily. Malta was avoided because of the severity of the Maltese to migrants, whereas Italians were merely incompetent in handling them. But said traffic had been disturbed for the moment by a deal done with Libya to stop departures. These now set out from Greece and the Turkish isles. The smugglers were improvising, but they'd soon establish order again. They'd dump their loads farther up the coast on both sides and leave the area where we were finishing our lunch in peace.
A fat woman who had been gnawing salad piped up. She felt sorry for the children and held their mothers responsible. There were grunts and sighs of approval. An old man who hadn't been asleep after all shook his head. This sort of thing had never happened in his day. The Slavs came in over the mountains above Trieste and then worked their way across to France. Nobody bothered to come down to these parts.
The lawyer type said that the same thing happened now. The migrants who landed here headed north to the factories or right out of Italy. He thought it a good joke and not a bad outcome that some would get as far as Great Britain. A young woman with glasses added that the disembarked whom the authorities actually managed to round up would also go north to various holding centers.
The enquirer, though he kept smiling, had long since been tabbed a spoilsport. The silent consensus at the table ached for TV screens and siestas. But he wanted a conclusion. He asked them if they weren't curious about the people arriving. Did they know that the trip cost them from one to five thousand dollars a head? Had they heard that last night's arrivals on a sail boat were Afghans and Iraqis? That Tripoli was teeming with Africans waiting to embark after spending a year or two ascending their continent? Chairs scraped the dining room floor.
Only the man of law and the student, who it turned out was his son and had to stay, remained in place around the table. The father, clearly worried that the foreigner was a crank, admitted barely audibly that immigration was a "problem." A problem, repeated our man with a sneer. (His unsmiling true self was returning.) Father and son now folded their napkins.
"Barca wala barsakh" he shouted. That's what they say in Senegal, "Barcelona or death." They are the people of the earth, millions of them, on all sides of our cute little hotel. Do you think you're going to keep them out with your beach umbrellas or by hiding your heads in three-hour lunches? Consequently, he said, he would advise them -- but there was no one left in the dining room now. He gave his advice anyway, to himself. He advised that when human beings washed up on the shore, dead or alive, that the locals go down and look them in the eye. Getting to know them would be the best policy, he said, because from now on they were never going to stop coming, ever.
He wouldn't lie down to rest under the same roof with the digestion-busy hotel guests. He walked around till he found a tree and lay down in its shade. Sleeping after lunch struck him as a dereliction of duty. But he nodded off all the same. Drowsing he watched a ragtag straggle of migrants walking, walking. He shook himself half-awake and tried to remember all the times he'd asked people as he had today what they thought of immigrants.
1943 Chicago. A teenager talks to his father. The man's a skilled worker, just too old to have been involved in the war that ended the depression. Thanks to the labor shortage, overtime, and a strong union, he's finally making decent money. The scarcity of young men enlivens his social life. He primps too much in his Sunday suit for someone going merely to a union meeting.
• Boy: I can see why you don't let any colored into your union. The priests won't let them into our school either. But why don't you let immigrants in?
• Father: You have to be careful with immigrants.
• Boy: But your grandfather came from Ireland.
• Father: Best silk hat maker in Dublin.
• Boy: So?
• Father: There're immigrants and immigrants.
• Boy: How's that?
• Father: Take the British. They tend to be company men, for the bosses. The Germans are all right.
• Boy: Grandma was German, wasn't she?
• Father: Yeah, and they can be bullheaded. Then there're the -sons and the -sens, Swedes like. They can join if they don't bring their uncles and cousins. But all those -ski ending guys. No dice.
• Boy: They're bad?
• Father: No. They're just Polacks.
• Boy: Italians, Greeks, Jews?
• Father: Doing my job? They wouldn't know one end of a wrench from the other. Dagos run lunchrooms. Jews have stalls in Maxwell Street.
1957 New York City. It's midsummer. Young man in his twenties has shown Greenwich Village to his uncle from Iowa. Then they walk north, above 14th Street.
• Uncle: It gives me the creeps that they just sit there on the front steps doing nothing. Why are they here?
• Nephew: They're Porto Ricans, kind of immigrants.
• Uncle: They look dangerous, just waiting to pounce.
• Nephew: Nah, they sit still for hours. They live in those brownstones. It's crowded and hot inside. So they sit on the steps.
• Uncle: Just sitting there? Something ought to be done about them. It's not natural. Think if your poor Aunt Delia had to walk down this street.
• Nephew: I think she'd be safe. They all have wives inside somewhere.
• Uncle: Women too! What's this world coming to?
1965 London. Irish pub, Kilburn High Road, early evening. The tide of clientele is still out after the mandatory 3 o'clock to 6 ebb. A thirtyish man kills time before taking the tube to his night job. He recognizes the old timer waddling over with a shaky pint to sit across from him. But because the reader knows who's coming he keeps his head in the Evening Standard.
• Old Timer: So here we are again.
• Reader: Hmm...
• Old Timer: The Irish set off another bomb.
• Reader: I heard.
• Old Timer: We should never have let them in.
• Reader: Christ, man, there'd be no one behind the bar to draw pints.
• Old Timer: Black bastard driving the bus wouldn't wait for me.
• Reader: (Giving up the reading dodge) You should have never let the Jamaicans in. Then you wouldn't have all those buses clogging up the streets.
• Old Timer: I don't drink Guinness. Wouldn't touch it.
• Reader: Wait a minute. You claim you're a pure -- so to speak -- cockney, and still fighting Brian Boru. So why do you spend all your waking hours, save obligatory closing time, in an Irish pub?
• Old Timer: At least they're not singin' yet.
• Reader: You old bugger! I saw you singing along Saturday night.
• Old Timer: Last night they started their cursed jigging. Everybody bladdered.
• Reader: Not right here in the center of Her Britannic Majesty's capital? Next they'll be playing the pipe and fiddle in the House of Lords.
1970 a village in Normandy, France. A foreigner talks to his next-door neighbor, a widow of 70.
• He: It's interesting that you spent the war right here in the village.
• She: My husband was born here and always kept up the family house. Life was hard in Paris, even with his working for the Ministère.
• He: The Germans were very active on this coast. Is it true that you worked for them?
• She: Someone had to translate. I was from Alsace and spoke their language.
• He: Is that why people in the village still call you "the German"?
• She: Normans are hateful. I hate them too
• He: You were telling me how the Algerians can't be trusted and have a penchant for violence. What about other immigrants?
• She: The Italians are all right. I've had several do jobs at my house. They're good decorators. The Balkan trash are all pimps and whores. The Belgians are stupid: they should stay home. The Germans at least like music. Africans smell bad. Who wants them? The British are only out for themselves, like the Japanese.
1990 Washington D.C. In a very rundown neighborhood not that far from the White House, a Chinese take-away food shop that consists of an empty room with a barred window at one end. Two flashily dressed Afro-American 18-year-old girls are laughing at a middle-aged Chinese woman behind the bars with her back to the kitchen. They mock the woman's rudimentary English. She looks troubled and frightened. The two customers abuse her in language she can't understand. A fifty-year-old white tourist comes in. He enquires with a smile what's going on.
• First girl: The Chink's going on.
• Her girlfriend finds this hilarious.
• Tourist: Is she doing something wrong? What have you got against her?
• First girl: She's selling pig swill.
• Girl's friend: She should take that cheap slop back to China along with her slant eyes.
• First girl: Pigs have slits for eyes over there.
• Tourist: Why don't you go somewhere else for food?
• First girl: You inviting us, Mister? We go where we like.
The Chinese woman takes their money and passes a paper container through the opening below the bars. All three are careful not to touch hands.
1993 Sofia, Bulgaria. Sojourner in the country chats with a Bulgarian engineer of forty. He worked in the Soviet Union until 1989. He couldn't bring back the salary owed him and was still waiting for it. He lives off his mother who had been a pensioned-off civil servant. Now she works as a cleaner for foreign residents.
• Visitor: Did you read the letter in the paper that the King of the Roma sent the mayor?
• Engineer: Nonsense. Those people can't write Bulgarian.
• Visitor: It was quite formal and high flown. He wanted permission to sell dog meat in the market. He said the Roma were starving.
• Engineer: Nobody eats dogs in Bulgaria.
• Visitor: Maybe not, but they'd like to.
• Engineer: He was trying to be funny. Let him lead those people back to where they came from.
• Visitor: According to the King, they are hardly recent arrivals. They've been here 500 years. He said he's not complaining about having to live in a walled-off shantytown.
• Engineer: Look, Bulgarians can't put food on their table. There's nothing left in Bulgaria for Gypsies to steal. They should leave. Foreigners like you who call them Roma should take them home with you.
2008 Park Ridge, Illinois. Comfortable upper-middle class suburban home organized with an eye for design. A short householder with a high pitched voice has just sent his sons off, using a large, paternal gesture, on a task of cultural enrichment. The enquirer, gone gray, is recognizable by his verbal tics.
• Enquirer: May I call you Rago? The rest of your name -- Brahmin, isn't it? -- defies my powers of pronunciation.
• Rago: Yes, we're an ancient family from the Punjab, a priestly clan.
• Enquirer: Interesting. My father always said that we were descended from the Kings of Ireland. As a boy I wondered why we didn't stay put in our palace over there instead of shipping out steerage to Chicago. But how do you feel about immigration?
• Rago: It was a great thing.
• Enquirer: Was? You mean when you came over?
• Rago: Until about then, yes. The gates should have closed in 1990.That would have kept out the slackers who thought that enterprise came for free. That would have kept the ragheads out and avoided 9/11.
• Enquirer: That's an interesting expression. Do they say "raghead" in the Punjab? I mean in familiar speech. Doesn't everyone wear turbans there?
• Rago: Everyone covers their heads. The ragheads are the terrorists.
• Enquirer: What do you call the others, bonnet heads?
• Rago: We don't call them anything. They're just hard-working, god-fearing, getting ahead, fanatic-smashing people.
• Enquirer: Edifying! They're worthy of a cup at the Tea Party before they even wave goodbye to the Hindu Kush.
• Rago: You could say that.
• Enquirer: You say it much better, Rago.
Jump to the next short story by Christine Spadaccini.
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