Friday, April 19, 2013

San Tomé -1948

I didn't want to come to San Tomé and sit around the house all day and sleep which is what any sensible person might have done to while away the glorious summer months. I was ambitious. I wanted to work, I wanted to earn my salt and keep my parents in liquor and cigarettes for the months of June, July, and August. So with the aid of my father I went to the main office of Mene Grande Oil Company (Gulf to you) one Monday morning where I had an appointment with Mr. Henry, the Personnel Manager. I filled out a long boring application which gave the people concerned no inkling of my ignorance and was told to come back the next day so that I could talk to some unknown individual known as Mr. Swenson who was in the Industrial Relations Department which was more or less Spanish speaking. I had boldly put down in ink so that they could blackmail me, that I not only read Spanish, I understood it and spoke it with fluency, mind you. So, on Tuesday morning Mr. Swenson, a nice young serious looking young man appeared and actually seemed interested in hiring me. That is where his troubles began and my fascinating work began also. First I went to some little shanty in back of the impressing main office and met Mr. Miller who asked me simple questions like could I read, write, and swim, (I never have found out what good the last query was in a swimming-less place like this), I was told that I would be called for the next day and would start to work. I was now one of the employed. No more bread lines. No more solitaire games and naps at all hours of the day. No more shorts, shirts and bare feet. I was now Kitty Foyle in the flesh. I might mention that my excellent office ability amounts to the pitiful sum of a little sloppy typing, a small amount of filing knowledge, and an avid interest in Spanish which I speak fluently but quite ungrammatically. I wouldn't on second thought, say that I spoke it fluently either. Let's just say that I speak Spanish after a fashion. Anyhoo.

At six o'clock on Wednesday morning I arose. Not willingly. That's a helluva time to have to get up even when you are being paid for it. But the customs of the country must be adhered to and all that rot. The working hours here are from 6 am to 4 pm with an hour off for lunch, And when the whistle blows there is a stampede comparable only to the five o'clock subway rush in Times Square. But that is neither here nor there. To proceed. At seven o'clock Wednesday morning my boss Mr. Swenson drove by in his Mene Grande Plymouth (everyone has a Plymouth or a pickup or a Mack truck to drive around in). We went past the pretty main office, past the machine shop, past the yards where derrick parts and drills and other odd bits of machinery lay importantly around; we drove on and on to the South Gate which separates the North Camp where the Americans hangout from the South Camp where the Venezuelans hang out. Here was our office. It was on first impression a long low-slung shanty with open windows on one side where a lot of people loafed about ogling us in the inimitable Latin way. It looked like a bread line from depression times. I found out later that when a native wanted a job he went to one window with papers, then on to another, and so forth until he finally got inside and maybe to a job. In we went, me tagging shyly behind, to a place seething with activity and men. I want to say now that in an office of about twenty employees there are four women counting myself. I was introduced to everyone and I promptly forgot all the names except the last four as we went from room to room until we couldn't go any more. I found a cute little table waiting for me with a typewriter on it. Then I remembered I was there to work. I began by translating a letter from English into Spanish for one Sr. Aguilera, of whom I shall speak later. I had begun.

The IR Department, it was explained to me, is called the manicomio or the madhouse. It handles nothing but trouble. There are no pleasant words of business nor nice little problems. The IR or Industrial Relations Department takes care of Syndicate problems, labor disputes, strikes, hiring and firing, laws, and everything from supplying the local baseball team with uniforms, transportation and cold drinks, to getting the cows off the lawn of the main office when they wander in past the watchmen's eagle eyes. But I love it. There is never a dull moment and I wouldn't trade a minute of it for some dull typing job with an executive in the big main office even if they did offer me more money. This is life. I work in the jefe's office. That is, there are four of us crowded in a small room at the rear of the office. Mr. Swenson and Mr. de Vaca have their desks facing the wall and one of the two windows. The telephone is always on one of the two desks. My little table is right behind their desks also facing the window so that I can conveniently peer over either of their shoulders in an off-moment. In the opposite corner is Mr. Bonilla who works quietly counting to himself when the concentrating gets tough. Oh, yes, outside sits Ernie Ochoa who is always surrounded with irate workmen who have been shortchanged or who want more money for some reason or another. There are five of us in the office counting an office boy named Charlie Garcia, who speak English plus Spanish, They are Mr. de Vaca, the jefe, Mr. Swenson, Ernie Ochoa, and myself. I humbly come in last because my Spanish is by far the worst and slimmest of the office. But I'm learning.

I suppose at this point I should go into well-organized descriptive passages about all of the main characters in the office but really everyone is a main character in his own right and besides, I'm not a very organized person so as the plot, or what have you, drags along, all kinds of people will appear and reappear to confuse everyone. I started this to put myself to sleep but I see, unfortunately that I will have to continue it tomorrow or some other day because I have gotten in too deep to stop now. I might look back on this some day and remember my carefree youth.

Ah, me. Another day, another hundred dollars and here I am again writing this fearsome expose of my office. After reading this over I wonder why I continue.

The first day was spent in getting accustomed to the routine of the IR Department. That is a trite statement. There really is no routine in the IR Department. Every day brings a little variation and some new spicy event. The first day I translated letters for Sr. Aguilera. These letters consisted and still do, for that matter, of weary complaints by irate American foremen about Pedro and Juan so and so who showed up to work drunk or who don't want to leave their friends on the drilling rig to go and work elsewhere and would the IR Dept. write them a warning letter? Each native worker on the job has a personal file and the way one tells whether he has been a good worker or not is to look at his file. If it is nice and thick that means he has all kinds of complaints and warning letters to his account and has probably caused a lot of trouble. If, on the other hand, it is a thin and old-looking file he has probably caused no trouble and is just interested in earning an honest living for his wife or mistress, as the case may be, and his questionable amount of dependents.

Mr. Aguilera, to wax American, is an amusing individual with a pug nose, amber eyes, and crisp curly hair which is becomingly speckled with grey. He is short and always seems to have an amusing remark at his fingertips. He speaks no English and god help one who doesn't speak Spanish. They would never get an in to his charming personality. His invariable "Senorita?" makes me grin even when he hands me eleven warning letters to write in Spanish, plus three translations. He is full of Venezolanismos such as "donde hay tigres no hay burros con beri beri"... which roughly means in English, when the cat's away, the mice will play. Even at the most depressing business meeting at which I am sometimes an innocent bystander, all meetings taking place in our office, he comes out with one of these sayings. He has promised to write a few thousand of them down for me some day.

With Mr. Aguilera works Señorita Fajardo or Carmen as she is called around the office by those who know her well. To look at her one would think that here was a quiet, uninteresting, not very pretty individual who worked too hard. The last is true. She is never without work... she is the only one in the office who takes shorthand and she consequently is pretty busy with that. Plus this however, she also writes warning letters, dozens of them and files and does everything else imaginable. Mr. de Vaca says that he will dictate a letter to her and on the way back to the office he will stop to talk to someone and when he gets back Carmen will be right behind him with the finished letter in her hand... without mistakes... God, would that I were that kind of a typist.... think of the money I could make... She is thin and small, Carmen is, and has a shy smile which lights up her whole face. She isn't the type you would whistle at on the street or even stop and look at twice but she is a gal who has a job and does it... besides being very nice to me... she can't imagine that, for some strange reason I ever am out of work... the first few days that I was there I ran out of work frequently and I'd run in and ask her if she had anything that I could do. She'd smile and say in surprise... no work? Do you really want to do something? Then... let me think... and she'd pull out a drawer piled high with letters to write and leaf through them and finally pull out a short one and hand it to me regretfully like she was forcing me to do it...

I simply can't remember to start a new paragraph when I start on new people... it's too much trouble... but now I must get on to Mr. de Vaca or Mario as he would have me call him... I could write a book about him... he's too complex to devote only a paragraph to but then... this isn't a novel... or at least I hadn't intended it to be... quien sabe?

Mario is a naturalized citizen from Ecuador... a wolf, a man-about-town intelligentsia, and a go-getter... or at least that's what he'd have you to believe. Now I'm no good at character analysis but I shall do my darndest... first, I do like him after misgivings and he's a nice person... he'd do a lot for you if he liked you... whether there are ulterior motives, or not, I can't say but anyhow he is continually buying me cigarettes, gum, and Coca-Colas, and drinks at the club after work... he's not a handsome person to say the least but I do like his eyes and hair. This I'm afraid, after thinking it over is an awfully personal opinion, but then this whole damn thing is pretty personal, isn't it... I knew you'd agree. Mario likes to talk and the first few days were spent in an intensified briefing of Mario's travails, ideas, viewpoints and abilities... now I know them all and after first opinions I'm altogether unsure... He is a good worker in his way and seems to have gotten a lot done in the office but then we all hear about it... or maybe just me, I don't know. In the first place he complimented me too much to start out with and that unnerved me... after two years in a girl’s college it's bad to be put on a pedestal, as it were and to be made much of... I'm getting to thrive on it however and will probably be no good to live with for months after this summer... Mario is thirtyish and has been around and I might as well accept it... he isn't to be put off even after practically insulting the guy but he is nice and a rum coke after work is grand at times... I can relax and just listen....

(This is a typed, single-spaced essay I found in Sarah's college journal, probably written in late 1948 after she returned to college. The first page is missing, and I can't really tell if the story begins where it does here or if we've lost the beginning. It has a flippant and breezy style unlike her other writings and reads more like a letter than a school assignment. It is obviously unfinished, but is a great recreation of the time and place. - SFS)

1 comment:

  1. My name is Benjamin Gutierrez born in San Tome Venezuela 1959, ( I met Mr. Bonilla's family, this link it could be very interesting ..