Friday, August 13, 2004

Fingers 1: The Kid

You can probably guess that landscape maintenance in Oklahoma isn't a year round deal. We keep employees year round, yes, but in the winter we have about half of the people we do in peak season. This works out great for guys from Mexico or other countries down south--they essentially take turns visiting their families for Thanksgiving/Christmas, then start trickling back across the border in February or March.

Thus, early spring is a busy time of the year, HR-wise. I like to get the same guys I had last year, but since we're talking about 25 people, that just doesn't happen. It's not like the coyote drives up big buses full of workers and lets me sort through them like bell peppers--you need people in spring, you hire the ones who come up that have all their fingers and can show you papers. If, two days later, one of your old hands comes in, you hire him too--turnover is high, and I can make it even higher if I have a reason.

But aside from the old guard, you get a crop of rather scummy white guys who mostly got laid off from their old company the year before, and didn't get picked back up again this year. Usually the reasons are obvious--but sometimes I either screw up, or just need people badly enough to forgive what I shouldn't, because mowers and shovels don't run themselves. And then you've got the guys who don't look like trouble, but are. I've figured out that if you ask the right questions, you can tell the blowhards from the guys who actually want to work--but who's got time to do that in the spring?

So I hired a guy who talked a good game. We'll call him Rojo, as the guys called him, because he had bright red hair. Rojo, it turns out, was straight outta Asplundh, which is the tree company that does all the power line work around here, and I was impressed at how much technical knowledge he had about both tree pruning and first aid. He was right about the first aid--I never did find out about the tree pruning, because we put him on a mow crew.

Rojo was a blowhard, it turns out. You know how a lot of short guys feel compelled to talk themselves up, so they feel taller (I guess)? Rojo was about 5' 4", and I had mistaken this braggadocio for actual knowledge, because I hadn't really been paying attention. Rojo knew more than anyone, about everything. And I'm not just talking about trees. I'm talking about emergency brakes on trucks. I'm talking about turfgrass. I'm talking about labor laws, marijuana cultivation, and Mexican culture. And he would expound on all of this, endlessly.

The good news about people like this is that you can ignore them pretty readily, once they're identified. This I did, but since he was a fellow longhair, and since he lived fairly close to me, I wound up giving him a ride home a few times. His wife was a great big fat harridan, who plainly ran the show when no one was around, and they had three or four young'uns running around the porch and front yard whenever I dropped him off.

So, this guy shows up at the beginning of crunch time, and I have to hire him because I need the fucking people. Three or four weeks later, he brings up a friend of his, The Kid, who was also looking for work.

The Kid was barely 18 years of age, which means he was barely able to work for us, according to the DOL. I was leery of him, but he seemed a) like he needed a job, and b) not quite as obnoxious as Rojo.

So I hired him--and when things like this happen, an interesting situation arises.

I'm too nice. I'm too concerned with people's well being for my own good (my current attitude notwithstanding), and this causes me no end of trouble. See, I've been where The Kid would have been. I didn't mind it so much, but I'm a weird motherfucker, and there's not much that really gets to me.

Working with a crew of people that don't speak your language is a daunting task, even if they're technically your inferiors. I'll probably go into the unique problems that come up when you're responsible for someone who doesn't speak English a bit later, but for now, imagine you're an 18 year old kid (and if you're younger than 18, you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway), MAYBE a high school graduate, probably still living at home. Imagine all of a sudden that you're thrown into what can only be called The Real World, because the toil and noise and sheer pace demands your full attention. It, and the people you work with, don't cut you any slack because you're a fucking kid (and if you don't think 18's a kid, you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway). The machines don't give a shit if you're tired. Your co workers only care about your blisters because your blisters slow them down--same thing with your confusion. Every misstep you make costs them time, and every misstep you make lowers you in their estimation. These guys don't fuck around, ladies and gents; when it's a hundred and five degrees out there, every mistake, every deviation from the pattern accepted as most efficient, is noted and resented. From past posts, you can probably guess that this is how guys get names like "La Gallina" and "Tortuga" and "Culero."

But before these guys begin to sound like a bunch of dour assholes, think about it from their perspective. You, at least, can get off work and watch TV that's broadcast in your own language. You, at least, can order something off the menu at McDonalds (the H2B guys we had, yet another story, had never seen an ice machine before) without having to second guess yourself. You're constantly bathed in a cocoon of familiar words and language. Even if you wanted to turn it off, you couldn't.

Now, imagine that not only are you functionally illiterate and basically deaf and dumb in this country, you're also here ILLEGALLY. Everything you do that elicits a laugh from someone might blow your cover. Cops? Fageddaboutit. Racial profiling? Yup. There's a whole criminal element that preys on the apartment complexes illegal aliens tend to inhabit, because hey, what are they gonna do?

So yeah, even if they're treated the same here as the white trash kids (with regards to pay), I can't really think badly of them for being envious of their status here--how easy it all is for Rojo, or The Kid.

The point of all this (because I know it isn't very clear) is that I knew The Kid wouldn't last a week without someone around to talk to. Spending the day alternating between the roar of power equipment and the maddening din of mariachi music (and don't even get me started on World Cup Soccer) is difficult for someone whose brain hits on all cylinders--imagine...well, imagine being The Kid.

So I put him with Rojo, because I needed someone over there. I put him over there with specific instructions as to what he could and could not do. I put him on that crew, ladies and gentlemen, and told that little red headed bastard to keep him off the big mowers. And for a couple of weeks, everything was fine. Then we got behind.


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