Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sidewalk Breakdown

We rolled the old air conditioning compressor out to the curb and left it there. Heavy trash pick-up was still a few weeks away, but we figured one of the scavengers who cruise the neighborhood with an eye for any marginally profitable discard would happen by and take it away. There had to be $30 or $40 worth of copper and aluminum in there …

But a week went by and nobody came. Going into the second week we thought we’d better get the hand cart and roll the rusted hulk back to the side of house, before one of the neighbors phoned Neighborhood Protection and we wound up on the short end of the city of Houston’s revenue-enhancement program. But late on Monday afternoon we were informed that a man and woman were out front trying to pry the unit apart. We moseyed out a while later and noticed they hadn’t made much progress. There was lots of banging and grunting and animated conversation in Spanish. The couple had three kids---twin girls who looked to be 18 months or so, strapped into car seats that had been placed on the sidewalk, and a boy of maybe 3, also in a restraining seat but still in the back seat. He looked hot and miserable and was pulling hard on one of those sippee cups.

The man, who wore paint-speckled pants and looked to be in his late 20s, had a small screwdriver, a pair of pliers and rubber mallet. The screws on the casing were rusty, and he was struggling. The wife took a turn, also for naught. We went into the garage and returned with a big screwdriver and, after everybody went at it for a round, the three of us had the covering off. But there was no way the enmeshed copper coiling was going to fit in the suitcase-sized trunk of the guy’s Sentra (which bore, near the gas cap, one of those decals of a rat in baseball cap taking a piss). We retreated to the garage and this time came back with a sledgehammer, a large ax, two hammers, some wire cutters and a buck knife (why we don’t know).

For the next 45 minutes or so the three of us went at it, chopping and whacking and hammering and jumping up and down on the cold metal. The work was sweaty and the guy soon asked us for “Waaa …,” which we correctly took to mean agua, and as we headed off to the house we heard the wife instructing him: “War-ter. War-ter.”

The bebés wailed the entire time, and at one point our next-door neighbor ambled over to observe, “The copper cockroaches are here,” but the couple did not take offense, as they appeared to understand no English (we did elicit the fact that the family was Salvadoran). Finally, we had the apparatus chopped and folded into three jagged-edged slabs that the couple stuffed into the trunk. We snipped the wiring and broke off the rest of the copper and tossed it in.

Cuántos dólares” were in it for the family? we asked. “Quince,” the man replied, after apparently first thinking that we were charging him for the privilege of busting his ass in our front yard. The couple washed up with the garden hose, strapped the bebés back in the car and were off. “Thank you my friend,” the man said. “De nada, mi amigo,” we said.

Ordinarily, the conclusion of such an episode would be occasion for us to pat our white-liberal self on the back for another public display of virtue: we had worked up a good sweat (nothing like swinging an ax on a concrete sidewalk to tone up the pecs), we had recycled, and, as our daddy used to often sing, we had helped someone along life’s way.

For some reason, though, that feeling of smug satisfaction escaped us.

There's lots of things we wouldn't do for $15, and that was one of them.

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