My VW wagon stalled last Thursday night on the far left lane of St. Mary’s Street in downtown San Antonio. Five warning signs simultaneously lit up about 15 seconds before the car croaked, including ABS, Airbag, Bulb Failure, Tire Pressure, and Steering. I looked up the Steering symbol in the symbol book, because I had never seen this one before, and the catalogue read, “Stop Driving Now!” Shit. Well, I had no choice.
Of course I had only 20% of phone juice left to Google for a tow truck.
It is not easy for me to call a friend and ask for help, and I rarely do. I usually deal with life’s pendejadas on my own, sometimes relying on the kindness of strangers. There are good people out there.
Like Sam The Sanitation Guy who stopped to protect me from the bad guys. He turned up in his big city truck with flashing lights just minutes after I stalled. I watched him approach my car through my rear view mirror with a Danny Trejo swagger. He wore a crisp city uniform and Pomade hair. “Mija, need some help?” He was only about a few years older than me, maybe, but he still called me mija.
“Sure,” I said.
Sam The Sanitation Guy poked around under my hood while I waited on the tow truck. “Did you hear anything before it died?”
“Yes, I heard something like wheezing,” I replied, wishing I was on “Car Talk” instead of being interrogated by Sam the Sanitation Guy on St. Mary’s Street.
“Like what?” Sam asked while opening my hood.
“It went sort of ‘eeee-huh, eeeee-huh.’” I sounded like a burro with allergies.
“If only I had my tool-kit,” he wished.
“No te preocupes. The tow truck’s on his way.” I love San Antonio. I can code-switch from English to Spanish to almost anyone without getting funny looks.
The tow truck was actually 45 minutes away from arriving, even though the vato kept calling saying he was 10 minutes away. I can call him a vato because a) he sounded like one on the phone, using elongated vowels; b) he used Spanglish on the phone; and c) I am Chicana.
The Tow Truck Vato had a problem with his GPS: “Nombre, shuuuut up. I’m at Sooooouth Saaaaint Maaaaary’s. Hiiiijoooole.” I hoped he would not show up with a Ford truck and a rope.
Sam the Sanitation Guy was settling in. He rolled up his sleeves, and leaned his right foot up against the brick building. “I don’t want to keep you,” I said. “No worries,” he said. “This is part of our service to the City of San Antonio: helping pretty girls not get side-swiped.”
Women do not have to be sitting in a bar to be be hit on; it can happen anywhere, anytime, especially with a broken down car.
I just wanted to use the last 10% of my phone juice to Facebook about my downtown break down, but Sam was in the mood to talk. He asked the inevitable question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
I do not have my elevator speech perfected, even though I’ve sat in on at least two entrepreneurial workshops for independent artists with the sole goal of perfecting a one-minute infomercial about my life’s work.
“I’m a cultural worker,” I responded.
I usually respond “cultural worker” and leave it there. Sam didn’t leave it there. “So, you work for culture. I like culture. I like our city’s culture.”
I can be long-winded when a stranger asks me what I do for a living; it is not an easy thing to explain. Being a working-class independent theatre artist in a city just now learning how to support the arts is a challenge. San Antonio is not the greatest city in the U.S. to find work with a BFA in acting. We do not have a equity theater that pays an actor living wages. We do not have a professional theatre training program cranking out MFAs in theatre. We do not have any Chicanas in artistic leadership positions carving out an exciting contemporary performance season in a venue with central AC (I am available).
Trying to explain my occupation to a person not in this world is even tougher. Lucky for me Sam was ready to tell me about himself, and I was ready to listen. “Man, I can tell you some stories. I’ve seen some things, working downtown for 17 years,” he said.
“Oh, really, tell me more. What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen?”
“Halloween a few years back. You know those apartments over the Majestic? A girl fell. Yeah, from an open window. Probably drunk. You know those picos up there over the sign? She got stuck there, but her arm was cut off and landed on the sidewalk. There was a crowd coming out from a show, I remember. Everyone thought it was the best Halloween gag. But, no, man. That there was a real arm and the rest of her was caught up above the sign. Yeah. I saw it. Called 911. I always call it in.”
Sam had my attention. He went on. And on and on and on. I managed to squeeze in a “en paz descanse.”
“Then there was the drunk guy that got shot up,” Sam started. I egged him on, he continued. “Yeah. He came outta the bar and called some guy a fag. Yeah. The dude, not the drunk guy, came around with his buddies and just shot him up. Bang, bang, bang.” Sam used his hand like a gun, thumb up, index finger pointing. “I was right there. I had this jacket on.” Sam fluffed out his orange reflector jacket. “I was looking for blood, thought I was shot. But I wasn’t. I did a side move like this and dodged the bullet.” Sam reenacted a side move that maybe saved his life, then continued. “Man that drunk guy was shot up good. You don’t hear about this stuff on the news. All the drunks, suicides … the mess downtown.”
The mess in downtown San Antonio. Sam, part of the city’s sanitation crew, was here to help clean it up. “Anything weird when the Spurs won the title?” I asked. A conversation with a stranger in downtown San Antonio almost always circles around to Spurs talk. “Na,” said Sam. “Everyone’s just happy.”
About this time, an actual tow truck, not a Ford truck and a rope, pulled up, and for about half a minute, I had two vehicles with flashing lights helping me. As soon as Sam left, the Tow Truck Vato asked the inevitable question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Like what you read? Marisela Barrera’s new play, “Cuero, La Ruby Red y El Big Bird” explores life along the U.S. – Mexico border through three distinct, swift-moving stories and will be presented July 31-August 1 and August 6-8, 2015 at 8:30 p.m. at Jump-Start Performance Co. A special tardeada (afternoon) performance happens Sunday, August 2 at 3 p.m.
“The stories in this collection explore the mythical undercurrents inspired by my childhood growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. I have written plays and created many stage adaptations from Chicana literature, but this is the first time I have adapted my own literary short fiction for the stage. The ensemble is incredible. I am especially looking forward to Azul playing accordion with us.”
Click here for more information or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Top Image: Marisela lifts open her hood asking herself “What’s the deal?”. Photo by Scott Ball.