Saturday, September 05, 2009


"Do you speak Spanish?" asked the waitress.

They've seen me studying languages for years, writing out vocabulary lists, making flash cards, drilling myself in a dozen different languages. This behavior strikes them as bizarre, but endearing. I seem like a nice enough guy in spite of it. I'm sort of a mascot, at Tosi's.

"Well, I read it," I said cautiously.

"I can't figure out what this guy wants. I think it's Spanish he's speaking," she said, dubiously. I hesitated. "Go on, talk to him!" said Martha.

It was Spanish. He was a diffident young man, standing by the hat rack, smiling anxiously, ducking his head apologetically. My decades-old schoolroom Spanish took a few minutes to warm up, but we finally got going.

"He's wondering if he could work a couple hours for a meal," I reported. "He's traveling, on his way to visit his brother up in Washington. He doesn't have any money."

"I'll ask Tosi," said the waitress, dubiously.

It was the Sunday morning rush. Eventually he vanished into the back, probably to wait for another hour till someone had time for him. When we left Martha gave the waitress an extra five. "This is to buy that guy breakfast," she said. We both had a hunch that Tosi would feed him, at least.

Of course, we didn't know if there was really a brother in Washington state, though I thought there probably was: he was definite that he was headed for Aberdeen, which is not a place that someone from down-country Mexico would ever have heard of. Whether he was here legally was extremely doubtful, but that wasn't our lookout. He was a stranger and hungry.

The fact that he had no English predisposed me in his favor. Not from the border country then, which is hard and dangerous country, fertile in criminals: large disparities in wealth always brings out the worst in human beings, and I inherited a certain amount of my father's El Paso knee-jerk distrust of border Mexicans. But everyone in the border country knows enough English to ask to work for a meal. This was a Mexican from deep in the country, obviously. I never did entirely understand where it was he was telling me he was from: he agreed with my suggestion that it was near Guadalajara, but I had a feeling he probably would have agreed if I'd suggested it was near Moscow.

Must have been ten years ago. Nowadays there's always somebody in the kitchen who speaks Spanish. Tosi's son has learned a bit now, because if you're dealing with cheap labor, in the West, a bit of Spanish is indispensable. But in those days the migrants were mostly in the valley or over the mountains, working the fields. There were lots of them here in Oregon, but they were pretty invisible to a Portlander. Now there are whole Portland suburbs, and not small ones, that are predominantly Spanish-speaking.

Immigration is a difficult issue for me, one that cuts many ways. For one thing, I just don't want any more people in Oregon, period. Every new person makes the preservation of the things I love most about this state -- its wilderness, its slowness, its courtesy, and its tolerance -- more unlikely. Immigration accounts for about half the population growth in America generally, I understand: I'm sure it's far more in Oregon. People keep coming here. They keep coming here in spite of an unemployment rate rivaling that of Michigan. And although they're mostly people that, individually, I'm happy to have here, there comes a point when sheer numbers mean more about how people behave than any qualities of the people. People litter in their public parks back east, not because they're despicable people, but because people have already littered in them. One more soda can is neither here nor there: why get het up about it? And people drive fast and aggressively because everyone else drives fast and aggressively. Hell, I drove fast and aggressively, when I lived in Connecticut. It's self-defense. As people crowd together, more and more strangers, the various predators accumulate, the thieves and scammers and muggers. Strangers are both more numerous and scarier, and so you become suspicious and hostile towards them, which makes them all the readier to prey on you. And so it goes on.

So. All that. But. Hospitality is the point. Hospitality is one of those things I'm anxious to preserve. What do you do with a hungry stranger? You feed him, of course. You give him a bed and send him on his way with a full belly. When I was a freshman in college, reading the Odyssey, our professor was at pains to explain to us that what was really horrifying about the Cyclops to the Greeks was not his gigantic stature, nor his single eye. It wasn't even the fact that he ate people. It was the fact that he violated the laws of hospitality. That was a bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but an instructive one. Hospitality is, in most cultures, a cardinal virtue. It's one that's decayed sharply among Americans, during my lifetime -- possibly one of the most striking cultural changes I've seen, during my life, though I haven't heard it much remarked upon.

And of course, it's the most elementary kind of fairness. My people came here, hungry strangers, just a few generations ago. People were kind to us, gave us a meal and a job, even though we were just dumb Norskers, grinning by the hat rack without a word of English in our mouths. Now we're going to slam the door on people who come in the same way? Who can feel comfortable with that?

So I wind up -- without a position, agreeing with everyone and no one. Surprise!

In the Lord of the Rings the young hobbits ask Treebeard which side he is on, and he's a little puzzled to answer. He finally answers, cautiously, "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them."

No comments: