Adiós, El Sueño Grande

Posted: December 26, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“So this is your last day then?” Dean’s question was followed with his usual nervous laugh.

It was Friday and Dean was feeling seasick. Not from the rocking of the boat – the El Sueño Grande had been docked for months. No, Dean’s nausea came from the land: from his weekly session of chemotherapy. I didn’t learn about his cancer treatment until a couple weeks into the job. Now I was saying goodbye at a time when the boat work was getting tougher and his therapy was intensifying.

Dean looked at me from through his paint speckled glasses. He was surprisingly upset. I couldn’t imagine why – compared to the other workers on board I was useless. I didn’t know how to use half the tools and I was only good at simple tasks like sanding and painting.

“Well, keep in contact, okay? Let me know when you can make it back.” I said I would and went back to vacuuming all the sawdust below deck.

Dean insisted on cleaning below deck every morning. Some of the workers thought he was crazy. “It’s only going to get dirty again, Dean!” I thought he was crazy too at first, but then I figured out why he kept things clean. Every evening the bunk rooms were full of sawdust, so much so that even with a mask you could feel your lungs clogging up. If it was left like that for long it would become a respiratory booby trap.

Until you use a power sander in a small room with very little ventilation, you don’t realise how dangerous sawdust can be. I wore a mask each time I sanded, but I still developed a cough. Dean was constantly hacking, even though he covered his mask with a t-shirt wrapped around his head.

Breathing in sawdust can cause all kinds of respiratory problems and even cancer. You would have to be crazy not to wear a mask. It’s not a surprise that Jet chose to go without, then. I didn’t know if it was bravado or nihilism, but he sucked those dust particles into his lungs nine hours a day, six days a week. It could have been worse, I guess. At least he wasn’t committing California’s foremost faux pas: at least he didn’t smoke.

I’m going to miss this boat, I thought, as I looked around for the last time. After five weeks working on the El Sueño Grande I understood why they called hard work, ‘honest work’. There was something pure about manual labour which pushes you until your muscles are spent and your whole body feels worn.

More than the work, I was going to miss the guys: Antonio with his softly spoken profanities, Norris with his Groucho Marx cigar, Bobby with his seal impersonations and primer highs, and even Jet, with his crazy conspiracy theories and childish jokes about women’s private parts.

I was going to miss Dean, too. Dean was a good man; he paid us above minimum wage and treated us with respect. He was prone to spontaneous acts of generosity, like taking me out for dinner or buying everyone lunch. He did this several times while I was there, taking us all out for pizza and an extended lunch break.

I rode the tram north from Long Beach and wondered what would happen to them: Bobby, Norris, Jet and Antonio. Without health insurance, a single accident could bankrupt any one of them. One mistake could force them onto the streets. How much longer could they dodge fate, the way they took chances? What if work dried up? What if Dean couldn’t get the El Sueño Grande going?

I got off at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station and waited for the Green line to LAX. The Green line platform stands right in the middle of the freeway; a deafening torrent of cars passes by every few seconds. It’s always a long wait for this connection, so I sat on a bench and gazed north to Hollywood.

As I thought about my friends on the boat I felt indignation growing inside me. They were hardworking guys, poor schmucks who did six-day weeks and could barely pay the rent. The whole thing made me feel sick. I was tired of such blatant exploitation – not by Dean, he barely broke even. No, the injustice was caused by some larger, mysterious power.

I was fed up of buying into dreams that everyone has a chance when they don’t. I had had enough of walking past sleeping bums and pretending they were palm trees. I didn’t want to pretend anymore.

With one week left in Los Angeles I wanted to do so something, anything to help stop this machine and all the suffering it caused. I had to find other people. I had to join Occupy.


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