On The Border

"On The Border"
By George "Sonny" Hoffman

After my discharge in '77, I started a construction company on a shoestring. We laid asphalt by hand--hard, nasty, hot work in the California summer.

One day, a Mexican emerged from an orange grove, picked up a free shovel, and began working the one-ton pile of 350 degree asphalt in worn-out, low-cut shoes. No one said anything to him. We spread another pile and then another. He worked with us the remainder of that day with no agreement as to compensation. He took water, but asked for that.

I watched him work, somewhat amused by his novel approach to a job application. We all knew he was a coyote, an illegal. We were no better. I had no contractor's license and no federal tax number. I paid no workman's comp. My crew was made up of SF Vvets, all Army Reservists attending school under the GI bill.

I paid them cash, each day, five dollars for every hour worked. We were a renegade crew, scabs, and could undercut the big guys. We laid asphalt faster than a machine. We hid from the big contractors, the union thugs, and the State inspectors. The Border Patrol seemed like small potatoes.

At day's end, after the tools were cleaned and put away, I pulled out my wad and began peeling off bills to the gathered crew. Jesus (Heysoose) quietly eased toward the grove. I didn't notice, but one of my guys said, "Hey, what about him? He deserves something."

Indeed he did. I hated to admit it, but that fat little guy shoveled asphalt better than my big lean green beanies, and took fewer breaks. I called out, "Amigo! Venga aqui, por favor."

He returned sheepishly. I peeled off five hours worth of bills at the going rate and handed it to him with my thanks. He protested that it was too much. I suppose it was, since the going rate for coyote labor was one to two dollars an hour. I had to stuff the bills in his shirt pocket to end the protestations.

I had little choice in the matter. The crew adopted Jesus. We hid him like the little Japanese POW in the TV sitcom "McHale's Navy." Since we worked in old fatigues and combat boots, we provided him with GI garb and had him looking like a real Vvet, part of the crew. He lived in our equipment yard in a shack the crew pitched in for and helped build on their own time.

When the border patrol would come nosing about--and they nosed about quite often in the hills of San Diego County--we had a well-rehearsed passion play wherein Jesus assumed the role of foreman, shouting orders in good English to the white crew of step-and-fetch-its. He wore a big, black, bossman hat with sunglasses. When the agent got within earshot, he'd put his hands on his hips and shout, "Put your backs into it, god damnit! This shit's gettin' cold. I got ten men waiting to pick up your shovel if you can't hack it!" No agent thought to question his nationality. Jesus had no idea what he was saying, but the guy could act better than he could shovel.

Jesus remained a part of my life for over a year. After the crew disbanded and I sold the company at a nice profit, Jesus remained on to help me with a dream--to take an old coach bus and convert it into a motor home. I wanted to travel the country, living in the bus and striping parking lots to fill the gas tank. I lived my dream and Jesus went home to his very large extended family, who, to the best of my knowledge, received every dime I ever paid him.

In that year, I got to know Jesus. Jesus was an illegal alien, a wet, a coyote. Praise Jesus!

Copyright: 1994 By George "Sonny" Hoffman