Sunday, April 03, 2016

BUS STORY # 491 (Language Lesson)

Photo by Busboy.

There’s a guy at the other end of the bench where I sit down to wait for the 5. I open my book and start looking for where I left off when I hear him say something I don’t understand.

“I’m sorry?”

“Good afternoon.” This is said so deliberately that I understand immediately English is not his native tongue.

He’s short, compact. Dark face, straight black hair, neatly cut. Button-down plaid shirt, jeans, heavy black shoes in good shape. Mid-40s.

“Good afternoon,” I reply.

“I speak Spanish,” he says, again in carefully articulated English. “Do you speak Spanish?”

Poco,” I answer, laughing, then add the Anglo invention, “Nada mucho” -- “nothing much” in literal English. He processes this quickly, laughs, and then amends my response to “no mucho.”

He asks if he can practice his English with me.

Claro que si,” I reply. Of course.

He then explains he has been studying English at CNM for five months. His enunciates carefully, and his accent does not obscure his pronunciation. His command of grammar is remarkably good.

I tell him in Spanish his English is better than my Spanish. That about brings me to the limits of my Spanish. He looks pleased by my comment.

I ask him where he’s from.

Peru. He arrived here -- he gives me the exact date while counting off the months on his fingers -- eight months ago.

I ask him why he came to America. He answers he has a son training to be an electrician with Job Corps -- he pronounces the “ps” ending of the word.

He goes on to tell me he has a sister here who’s been an American citizen for forty years. He stayed with her for three months and then, “I go independent.” He’s got an apartment. He also has a wife and daughter back in Peru.

I ask what his wife does. She’s a secretary.

And what does he do?

He was a lawyer back in Peru, but that degree is worthless here. He wants to get into law here, but he knows it will take time and schooling, and right now, he needs to work. He reaches into a bag and pulls out a manilla folder. Inside is a resume listing work he has already done since arriving here in the States: cleared brush; dug trenches; trimmed trees. He explains someone at Goodwill helped him with the resume. The page is crisp and clean.

He has applied for several jobs, filled out the forms, but no one calls him back. His latest application was yesterday, at a car wash. He shows me the form. I look at the form, but I’m thinking I don’t really understand why he came to the States, and that is the real story here. What I do know is he’s truly starting from scratch.

I tell him it must be hard being so far from his wife and daughter. It takes me two more attempts to get that across. He smiles and says, “Sometimes not so much.” He doesn’t elaborate and I don’t press. I figure that might be a big part of the real story.

The bus comes and we sit together on the back bench seats. He asks me if I went to college. Yes. Do I have a degree? Yes. A doctorate? No, a bachelor’s. He pauses, then asks me why, if I have a bachelor’s degree, am I riding the bus instead of driving a car. “You are rich enough, yes?”

I laugh. There is no way to explain here; my Spanish is utterly inadequate, and his English comprehension is not nearly as well developed as his speaking abilities. So I say simply, “Soy rico porque no tengo un automobile!” -- I’m rich because I don’t have a car.

Which is not true. What is true is that I would be mas rico -- have a lot more disposable income than I do now -- if I didn’t have my car. But I think he understands my point. I’m just not sure he believes it.


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