by Dell Franklin
Sitting in your cab when the buses roll in at the Greyhound station in San Luis Obispo, Calif., you pretty much know who your prospective rides are going to be: black women visiting inmates at the state prison, little old ladies afraid to fly, parolees in new issue shuttling down to L.A. from prisons north, tattooed white trash, the occasional student, and Mexican immigrants from the poorest provinces of that country. The very rock-bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in America.
Anybody who departs from a Greyhound bus after having been on it for days exudes an identifiable odor: a distinct blend of cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, sour, dead air, armpit sweat ands crotch rot—all accumulating over years and soaking into seats and clinging to the hair, skin and clothes of a passenger and rising from them like a fetid, septic vapor, a sensory bludgeoning.
I picked up these field hands, or campesinos, always immigrants. Six of them. Since a cab is by law only allowed five passengers, I tried to explain this to them in my broken Spanish, but they pretended not to understand and piled in, five squishing up in back. They were not about to separate and take another cab for the extra $60 or 70$ to transport them to the farm or ranch where they were to cultivate and harvest vegetables and fruit and tend cattle out by Cambria, thirty-five miles away. Besides, they were diminutive people compared to fat Americans, stick-like and black-eyed, no doubt from the farthest reaches south, 3,000 miles from home.
Each of them toted a flimsy satchel with their meager belongings, which I stuffed in the trunk. The five in back were young men, and the oldest, with grey flecks in his abundant hair and bushy mustache, sat shotgun in the bucket seat. He smiled at me hopefully, a sly, wise look on his face.
I was familiar with these people. As a college kid, I had worked part-time and saved enough money to travel to the interior of Mexico with three pals in an old jalopy we eventually blew up. We hit cantinas, beaches, whore houses, and although we were poor compared to most Americans, we must have seemed to these peasants to our south, rich and privileged.
These passengers were not street-wise, big city or border town Mexicans. This was possibly their first time in America. They seemed curious yet wary, like young kittens.
The man sitting shotgun smiled at me. “You geeve me good deal, amigo?”
I shrugged, looking helpless, pointed to the meter. “No po-see-blay, amigo.”
“We have leetle dinero, señor.”
I nodded. “I understand. But it will cost you around seventy dollars.” He winced, as if stabbed. He was possibly a few years younger than me but looked older, obviously having lived a harder life, as they all did.
I remembered how, when our car stalled in little villages and big cities, everybody, even kids and women, came out of buildings or shacks to push us up hills, waving and smiling as we pulled away. I remember, deep in the interior, little dark men like those in my cab buying us beers and tequila when they could not afford it, because, evidently, they liked us, or were too proud to allow us to buy them drinks, or perhaps they were showing us the true nature of the Mexican people—warm and generous, money meaning little in the face of gratitude and goodness of spirit.
“I will try and make us a deal, amigo, but it is very difficult.” I again pointed to the meter, explaining to him that my supervisor kept close tabs on cab drivers. Then I picked up the phone, checked in with my dispatcher/supervisor, informed him I was going somewhere past Cambria and would be gone a while.
The car stunk. It was chilly outside, but I had my window open and the thin-blooded peasants huddled up and shivered in their faded denim jackets. Shotgun, who was named Alfredo, asked politely if I could roll up the window, so I cracked it a little, turned on the heat, but the stench increased and wafted to my nostrils, my gorge rising, like somebody died in my cab. They were, of course, immune from their own miserable smell and had probably been eating food they’d never eaten before, arousing their bowels, causing them to get diarrhea and even vomit. This happened to us in Mexico. These poor kids were used to nothing but beans and rice and tortillas and whatever they could kill.
They were incurious about the passing countryside, sat quietly, like mutes awaiting a sentencing. Alfredo kept an eye on me, occasionally producing his reassuring grin, his teeth white and clean.
I asked him where they were from. And he told me Oaxaca. I told him I’d been there, and it was pretty, and was about to comment on how poor it was, but knew this would humiliate him and place me at a disadvantage when we started haggling over the fare. I’d decided to give them some kind of deal. He knew this, sensed my willingness to compromise. I could tell the dispatcher I got lost from poor directions from non-English speaking Mexicans. Perhaps cut the meter at around $40 or $50. That was my limit.
So I relaxed just past Morro Bay, and Alfredo and I talked. My chopped up Spanish was as adequate as his English. He had a wife and five kids. Two of his boys were in back. They lived in a small village outside of Oaxaca. He was foreman at a ranch outside of Cambria. As we passed Cayucos and its glinting bay, my passengers did not bother to look. I studied the peasants in the rearview mirror; they looked exhausted, half asleep, like bags of ragged clothes. Urchin-like, they received little or no help from their government, I knew, forcing their survival on family alone. They possessed the high-cheek-boned, ridged faces of bantamweight boxers toiling in American arenas and on our sports channels on TV—men who could dish it out and take it and ignore blood and pain, never backing up until the final bell rang, bleeding, swollen about the eyes, yet still proud and game. They had perfect skin, were splendid looking people. Their women, in teenage years, before being burdened with multiple children, were breathtakingly beautiful. As a people they broke your heart, but you never let them know. Never.
Alfredo pointed to a side road running into the fields and inland hills near Cambria. Barns and ranch houses nestled among clusters of oaks. Cows and the occasional horses grazed. I had cut the meter at $40 and was saving them at least $25. At Alfredo’s direction, I turned onto a bumpy dirt road; rows of crops on either side. There were orchards and more cows. We arrived at a single trailer situated some fifty yards from a main house and barn and small corral.
When we pulled up, a door opened and five Mexicans who looked exactly like my passengers spilled out of the trailer. Their satchels and a few duffel bags were stacked by the steps. They looked fit and fuller than my crew. Everybody piled out of the cab and I opened the trunk and my peasants took out their satchels and everybody commenced to speak in Spanish at such a rapid pace I could not keep up with it. Alfredo talked to an older man who stepped out and could have been his brother. He glanced at me as they talked.
Occasionally, after a harvest, on a pay day, they’d go to a bar in Cambria and get drunk, shoot pool, become happy and sentimental, stare hungrily at big, healthy white girls, perhaps get angry.
I observed the crew I’d dropped off. They would be here for months, a year, probably longer, working all day, every day. Occasionally, after a harvest, on a pay day, they’d go to a bar in Cambria and get drunk, shoot pool, become happy and sentimental, stare hungrily at big, healthy white girls, perhaps get angry, maybe fight among themselves and be called “beaners” and “wetbacks” before being run out. This was to be part of their lot: Work, eat, drink, sleep, go without.
The two older men approached me. Any Mexican, be he a cab driver, pimp, or merchant involving any kind of exchange, liked to haggle. We learned to do it well in Mexico. They had no respect for you if you didn’t try and chisel them down or were a pushover when you tried.
“How much to San Luis?” asked Alfredo.
“The same, amigo—forty dollars.”
Again the pained look. “Too much, amigo.”
“Other cabbies, they charge you sixty-five, seventy on the way up, the same on the way back. They are not like me. They are not simpatico.”
Alfredo nodded, expressing his appreciation of my understanding and generosity. He turned to the man who looked like his brother and conversed rapidly while the peasants talked in the background. I heard the word “simpatico.” I’m sure they knew from previous rides that if I drove back alone I got paid nothing. Dead time. This was an excellent opportunity for all of us to come to a very pleasing compromise. Since they didn’t tip, which was fine with me, I could make some quick cash and be a true amigo at the same time.
Alfredo returned to barter. He shrugged helplessly. “We are not reech, senor. It is too much.”
Now they were all staring at me, a dozen bantamweights with calloused hands, wiry frames, sparkling teeth, deep leather tans. The departing kids would be returning home with pockets full of cash for their families, where they would be kings in their small village, almost heroes. They had no doubt already sent money home. I had seen their kind break hundred-dollar bills in the Cayucos Tavern to buy pitchers of beer. They spent their money on little else, lived free in the trailer, were fed, had few expenses. They became very generous when drunk, forgetting temporarily how poor they were as they bought local gringos and women shots and beers if they seemed halfway tolerant and interested in them as people. The drunker they became, the more foolish they became with their cash. They dropped it on the floor and left it on the bar and sometimes lost wallets. They requested their honking, tooting, oompah music on the jukebox, but no bar would hear it.
Alfredo and I haggled amicably, bluffing, shrugging, throwing up our hands, and eventually arrived at a price—$60 for a round-trip. I would make myself a $20 tip. For them, they were saving a fortune. Everybody was happy, satisfied. They paid me with a hundred-dollar bill. Alfredo and I shook hands. His brother, Eduardo, nodded at me, smiling. Everybody piled in.
On the drive back, I talked with Eduardo, who was from a family of fifteen. The kids in back were talkative and lively, behaving like jubilant school boys going away to summer camp. It was a quick, easy ride. I dropped them off at the Greyhound depot, where they hauled off their plump satchels and duffel bags. They wore new denim jackets and new leather boots and Levi’s and plaid flannel shirts and white straw hats.
They were freshly cleaned and laundered and smelled good. Such sweet people.
They would stink to high heaven when their bus pulled into Oaxaca. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his rescue dog, Wilbur.