I went back to Fernando’s stoneyard that next day and worked there for three and a half years, and I wish it had been ten. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick, said the whaleship had been his Yale College and his Harvard. I had been to college but let’s say Fernando’s ugly, noisy, and, especially, dusty stoneyard was my whaleship; and the workmen there, the poor canteros, were my teachers.
Scene from the movie “Heart of the Sea”
I skipped out of the last subway exit every morning and ran the old road there like a horse going home. There was a surprise every day and wonderful things to learn, and not just about stone. Never again do I expect to see such varied and colorful people of an old society, visitors to the yard: artists, both sculptors and painters; their customers, their wives, and their mistresses. I wanted to learn stone-carving so badly I never had much time for old Luis’s gossip; but in my next life I want to sit all day with him, hear out the full stories in his old, rural Spanish, and get the people in that world straight.
After a few weeks I began to feel at home in Fernando’s stoneyard. I made friends with the workmen. What were they like?
They were all poor, more or less miserably according to each man’s character. Stone cutting is the lowest work imaginable in a country where all work was despised. It is hard, filthy work that ends, after not many years, in broken health, often silicosis, but always early aging from exposure.
Many of them were frail to start with. Their inheritance from a poor family was congenital infirmity and a vision of life that made it impossible for them to help themselves. It is hard to see them as free beings. “Algunos nacen con estrella y otros estrellados”: some are born under the aegis of a star, and others, under its curse.
In a rigidly unjust world, where you are at the bottom, you may try to lift yourself up by actively doing wrong. Or you may do as they did: go on a perpetual huelga de celo or zeal strike, which is to give grudging obedience to the forms of duty only, like patriots in a country occupied by the enemy. A prisoner, yes, but not a slave!
They came to work in simple, clean clothes, the best they had. They walked into the workshop with straight backs and impassive faces.
Then they changed into the worst rags, the filthiest pieces of clothing anyone ever wore freely. That was their opinion of their job. They didn’t mind looking ridiculous. They were resigned to giving over their bodies like prostitutes.
They put on one shredded shirt and sweater over another. They got into any other man’s discarded trousers and shoes. They put on gloves with fingers missing and sweaters with only part of a sleeve left. They covered their heads with paper, with a handkerchief, with a plastic bag. They looked like a troupe of clowns.
Once on the job, they looked for a way off again. Never were there more pretexts for putting down a hammer. There was regular nose-cleaning, rearranging of gloves, and, in winter, of sweaters and trousers; trips to the brandy bottle (never near at hand); trips to the grinding wheel with a whole fist of chisels; visits to the other workmen (I wonder how Pepe is coming); long sessions with the boss (the most licit of things), getting instructions clear; toilet trips (number two, out in the field under cover of high grass, number one, somewhere around the compressor—later someone had the idea to hammer a hole in the wall).
The boss himself was negligent when it came to decking out the shop with comforts. In view of the attitude workmen displayed on the job he considered it foolish to spend good money on accommodating them.
The whole lot were alcoholics. Each man made a dozen or more trips a day to the brandy bottle, which was a present from one of them to the others. You could say they did this by turns but it was not so strictly organized. No man wanted the others to believe he was stingy, so pride made each man regularly bring along a bottle.
Yet some days there were two bottles on the flat stone shelf, and other days there were…none. One of their most remarkable traits—why not call it a virtue?—was their ability to go without. I know an alcoholic must have his daily ration. But there were days when there was no bottle on that stone shelf, and no one got a drink. There was no complaining and no suffering you could see. I wondered whether I had been wrong about their dependency.
The same happened with cigarettes. You had to be generous. No one simply pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit up. You had to first pass the pack around to everyone; and when it came back to you it felt very loose. Nearly half the cigarettes any man smoked were gifts.
Just as with the brandy there were days when only one man or none took the trouble to pick up cigarettes on his way to work. They were days without smoking, and the men got through them without a whimper. Well, maybe a joke. There was deep instant resignation and disdain even for themselves in these men, not just long familiarity with want. They never complained. They either protested (a bark and a growl) or kept their mouths very tightly closed.
Next: My best teachers: Luis, Jacinto, and Pepe