I painted houses for a decade, and on our crews, we always knew of each other's relative competence, willingness to work, sense of responsibility, substance addictions, if any, and, ultimately, character. My roommate, Jay, for example, really didn't give a f*ck, for he was often late, but somehow always rehired, for our boss, Joe LeBlanc, was a softie. Once, Jay and I left our rather pitiful, unheated apartment at exactly the same time, yet Jay somehow managed to miss the bus, thus work for that day.
Chuck was a narcoleptic who had gotten into a car accident, so was more or less one-armed, but still, he was a pretty good worker, and always cheerful. Standing on a 40-footer, Chuck exclaimed, "Hey, who farted?!" Many a poet have never come up with a more memorable instance of philosophy and wit. Pure Zen. If he hadn't wiped himself out, along with a car or busload of innocents, I hope Chuck is doing well.
Smooth was a junkie, so moved very slowly, hence his nickname. Joe paid him accordingly.
Laura could never make it up any ladder taller than herself, so only scraped or painted baseboards and first floor windows. In the kinder and gentler working environment of the 80's and early 90's, even a fat broad could join a housepainting crew.
Now that I'm a foreman at a plastic recycling plant, memories and habits from my housepainting days return, and though Ea Kly is 10,000 miles from Philly, I can readily detect, once again, similar character types, as in who move fast and efficiently, who lumber along, and who are just faking it.
My brother in law brought me in so I could, in his place, observe what was going on, and immediately, I recommended letting a loafer go, and this even before I knew Tuan had a raging drinking problem. Like Joe LeBlanc, my brother in law is a softie, so he hesitated, but Tuan promptly fired himself this week. Hung over, Tuan missed two days without saying anything to me, and not only that, he drunkenly called our bookkeeper in the middle of the night to demand that he be paid in full immediately, for he was quitting. Sobering up, he came to me to apologize, but it was too late. "I have marital problems, brother Linh, and that's why I drink." Much of the world, then, men and women, would be boozing nonstop. Even Tuan's wife, Thu, who is also employed by us, is not defending this charming dude.
One of Thu's duties is to cook for up to six people, whoever happen to live at the recycling plant at the time. We have an improvised kitchen of two hot plates. Lunch and dinner are served on the floor. The dishes are washed in a courtyard out back, with the pots hung up on a wire fence to dry. Twice a day, the neighbor's dogs drop by to eat our food scraps, and sometimes even a chicken forages around. The cow, love of my life, merely looks on.
My wife is in Saigon working for her sister. Our marriage is strengthened, or at least saved, by these spells apart. Knowing that I'm alone, a few of our workers are joking that I should look for a local mate. While women like to gossip or fantasize about other people coupling, most men only conjecture themselves in action. Lien, a woman in her early 30's, joked to me after work, "We have a few middle-aged women here. You should get yourself one, uncle."
"Oh, I'm old, sister, so I don't need an old woman. How tiresome is that?! I need someone young, even the youngest. Now, that would be a good match!"
"There's Coi [Tiny]."
I had no idea who Coi was, but I went along with it, "That sounds great!" Just as in Philly, the Vietnamese working class will joke and banter most inappropriately, for it makes their long, exhausting day goes a little faster.
One of our best employees is Vinh, a mother of four. Tough and responsible, she's the perfect supervisor. At home, she grows a few crops, keeps a few goats, chickens and two cows. Eight days ago, she limped into work after hurting her foot doing some farm work. Take a few days off, we suggested, until you feel better, and when she didn't return after a week, a couple of us dropped by with a small gift of money, as is customary, to help Vinh recover. We have some sad houses in this village, and hers is among the most dismal, I was rather surprised to see, since I have talked to her boastful husband, Binh, a a few times. I thought they were we doing OK, at least.
Vinh's two kids still living at home were dressed very shabbily, with the girl, about twelve, had on a dirty T-shirt with a smiling cartoon figure, with this bizarre English caption, "What Shall I Make for Dinner?"
We found Vinh bedridden, and about to go to the hospital. Binh whispered to me that his wife had "female problems," a situation that had persisted for years, so it's not the injured foot that had kept her home.
Within hours, however, I found out that there was a huge commotion at their miserable shack recently, that Vinh had likely beaten his wife, as he has done many times before, and, moreover, that he's a good for nothing who gambles compulsively, and that's why they're broke. Worse, they'll soon be kicked off their small plot, since it's slated for some development. Though they've been fairly compensated for it, that money is long gone, to pay off Binh's gambling debts.
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