restricted access As Told To
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fl fl fl As ToldTo I began with an ordinary but open-ended question: how come, at retirement age, I wind up spending most of my time with young families caught up in el flujo? They confide in me, yes, and I keep scribbling notes about them, but what is the mutual attraction? True, they value certain character traits emphasized in my childhood. With Ike, they share an edgy vulnerability, one that expects you to get through life the best way you can. But beyond their common reverence for el aguante, for plain forbearance, the trait that binds hillbillies and mexicanos is this: we’re the kind of people who answer a question with an anecdote, a moment trimmed to fit the occasion. Because the anecdote is our fundamental unit of thought, we develop an appetite for turnover, for life as a string of anecdotes. No wonder we migrate. Sam Johnson defined the anecdote as a minute passage of private life. The term began with Procopius, last of the classical historians, who entitled his last work Anecdotes. After two volumes of military history on the triumphs of Justinian, his emperor, and another book devoted to the emperor’s public buildings, he set out on a very different piece. His title indicated that his subject matter—the hot scoop on imperial misbehavior —hadn’t yet circulated in written form, however well known it was as gossip. An-ecdotai, they were, matters not yet released to the public. Does the title somehow indicate that getting written down changes gossip to history? Procopius’s subject matter was cheating wives, palace murders, great lives viewed from an angle that made them seem ordinary, if not downright kinky. Fifteen centuries later, Victoriannovelist sensibility even managed to wring another tone out of the term anecdote, when Disraeli invented the noun anecdotage, referring to that stage of life—at which I find myself, of course—when the thinking of the elderly meanders. It is in our anecdotage when apparently independent scenes connect across time, q.e.d., the anecdotal slant to my 108 the permit that never expires reporting. What better topic for the anecdote monger than im/migrant life? Reporting el flujo, you substitute the incongruous for the kinky. Anyhow, I grew up hearing tales, but until my friends moved into town, Ike’s example was all I had, my only close-up of somebody lightin’ out for the territories. Everything changed when my friends arrived. This book is about a default setting I share with them, a meta-attitude that knits together apparently different kinds of people. A matter of preference, call it. Hillbillies and mexicanos demand a story without heroes or villains, with only visionaries and klutzes, and now and then a man or woman so brave your teeth ache. People like Ike and my friends always inhabit the beginning, somewhere with room to make what you want of both yourself and what you entered the world with. In other words, Ike, that avid homesteader, was fueled by the same blend of opportunism and optimism as someone who only yesterday paid $2,000 to cross the border. Optimism and opportunism are qualities not often mixed. The effect is much praised, and it should be, though Ike and my friends also share the downside of their ambition. They become unbearably self-conscious. My friends fidget and blunder. They lose documents and show up late for appointments. They simply cannot imagine what they look like to a social worker, court-appointed attorney, or building inspector, and therefore go to great lengths to avoid mixing with Anglo officialdom. Their wariness recalls how sensitive Ike was to the figure he cut—or thought he did—in the eyes of the county health officials, that railroad bull, and the landlady who wouldn’t permit harvesting on Sunday. My friends and Ike share a strong distaste for looking foolish. Imagine some Fourth of July afternoon when the TV releases images of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus—the whole official scenario about this being a nation of immigrants, etc. Remember that my friends, whichever side of the border they were born on, could care less what some New York rich lady said about huddled masses and wretched refuse. And you know why? Because immigration telescopes into migration, because arrival dissolves into travel: one minimum-wage job to another. And was it any different for Ike? Yes, but not much. That feisty homesteader attitude barely survived the tedium...