Colin Harrison: The Finder

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Colin Harrison The Finder
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    The Finder
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Colin Harrison

The Finder


Three girls in a car at night, on their way to the beach in Brooklyn. Two are Mexican, about nineteen or twenty, young and pretty-like a lot of Mexican girls you see in New York City. Straight black hair, soft faces, a sweet-eyed optimism not yet destroyed by labor. Dressed in identical blue service uniforms with CORPSERVE patches on the breast, they are nestled in a Toyota two-door subcompact as it flies along the Belt Parkway. The rattling, uninsured car is fifteen years old, carries expired Georgia plates, and has a market value of $125. In New York City you can always buy a car like this and you can always sell one. Who cares about the paperwork? That's for people who have big money to lose. These Mexican girls have no money. They work cleaning offices in Manhattan. Their day begins at seven p.m., so the hour now might be five in the morning, just before dawn. They go out afterward almost every night, a way of saying this work is not yet destroying us. A few minutes sitting in the car at the beach, then they'll swing back to the house on Avenue U, where they live with nine other people. Why drive? The subway, it don't go where we live. And the bus, it takes like forever. So the girls drive. Often they will smoke a little pot some boys gave them and giggle. Open the car's cracked sunroof, let the smoke drift upward. They are enjoying their freedom, their few hard-won dollars, their provisional American identities. They smoke, maybe drink some too, listen to the radio. Giggling and sweet, but tough-tougher than American girls. In the country illegally. Each carrying some kind of fake green card that she bought for $150. They've made the journey and are not yet beaten down, not yet burdened with children and husbands. They have cookouts and volleyball in one of the Mexican sections of Marine Park. And they have guys, when they feel like it, know what to do to make their men feel bien. Sex yet another kind of labor. Their mothers back home don't know-don't know a lot. Be careful! they beg, Nueva York is dangerous for girls like you. But that's wrong. Mexico is where girls get found in the desert, legs wide open, hair dragged with dirt, dead eyes already eaten out by bugs. New York City is big and safe and filled with rich, fat norteamericanos. Maybe the girls won't even marry Mexican men. Why should they? They talk about the office guys. The tall ones who look so good in a suit. You want to do him, girl, I know you do. No, no, es muy gordo, too fat. They laugh. They see a lot of powerful people leaving their offices at the end of the day. Men and women in business clothes. Nice haircuts, good watches. White ladies who think they's better than us. A corporate world so close they could reach out and touch it with their cherry-colored fingernails. Yet given the stratifications of American society, it is a world they are unlikely ever to know from within. They are like Nigerians in London, Turks in Paris, Koreans in Tokyo, Filipinos in Riyadh-outsiders in their new homelands. Their only advantages are their youth and willingness to suffer, but they will lose these advantages, as eventually they will lose everything, including their lives. Come to think of it, they will lose everything a lot sooner rather than later.

Tonight, in fact. Before the sun is up. Minutes from now.

The third girl in the car, sitting in the back, is older, and not really a girl anymore. She's cute, slim, and Chinese. Yet fluent in English. She's learned to speak a little Spanish, with a Mexican accent. She is the Mexican girls' boss. They were afraid of her at first but now they like her, although they can barely speak English to one another, because of the accents. You speak Chenglish to us, they laugh. Her name is Jin Li, and they call her Miss Jin, which comes out MeezaJin. She's very pretty, in that Chinese way. Slender, with a beautiful face. But so nerviosa! Always checking on everything. Telling people where to put the full trash bags for the service elevators. What's she so worried about? They work hard, they do a good job. You need to relax, they finally told her. You ever go out? She shook her head and they could see she wanted to. So now, every week or so, she'll go out with them. Keeps things friendly. MeezaJin is studying them, they know. She's quiet, she watches everybody. They are outsiders in America but more at home than MeezaJin is, though she makes a lot of money and reads English. She even has a white boyfriend-or used to, they are not sure. MeezaJin doesn't say much about herself-like she might be hiding something, like she might be some kind of criminal, girl, you know what I'm saying?

The work shift has come and gone, as it does each night. The offices need tidying and vacuuming. The trash cans need emptying. There's precious little conversation between the girls and the office people-a few patronizing thank-yous, sometimes a perfunctory nodding of the head on the way out. Nobody pays much attention to the cleaning people in a corporation. Why should they? They're cleaning people. Occasionally the girls encounter office workers eating pizza and pulling all-nighters. But for the most part all they see is just big-time corporate calm, the hushed rush of money moving through the wires and across the screens. And there is plenty of money, millions and billions, by the look of it. The marble lobby floor gets buffed at night. The elevators get wiped clean, even the steel-walled service elevators that the girls are required to use. The carpeting is washed. The vending company guy refills the free coffee machine with twenty-four kinds of coffee and tea. The Indian computer guys go through like mice, fixing firewalls, loading spam blockers, cleaning out viruses. Every activity is about money. A way to make more money. The windows are washed, the computers are new. Money. Being made in every office. You can almost smell it. The girls like being near the money. Doesn't everyone?

To what degree do they realize that the trash they empty out of the offices each day is in fact the paper trail of deals, trends, ideas, conflicts, sensitive issues, and legal wars-some of which, set before other eyes, may have enormous value? The answer is that they have no actual awareness of this. They are only barely literate in Spanish and more or less illiterate in English. This is expectable. Indeed, it has been purposefully expected: they have been hired by MeezaJin for their distinct inability to read English, their unknowingness about the ornate structures of capital and power through which they lightly pass each night. Industrious as they are, their naivete also has value. Much of New York City depends upon such people. The ones who know nothing. The city needs their labor, compliance, and fear. You could question these girls in a court of law. Exactly which proprietary documents were you removing, Miss Chavez? They could never answer.

Jin Li likes these Mexican girls, though. They work hard, they do not complain. She knows that they do not suspect her of anything other than an eagerness to exploit their labor. She knows too that the building services managers who contract with CorpServe, tough guys with keys and beepers and walkie-talkies, see in her a pretty Chinese girl whose English is not so good-she purposefully makes it worse when she speaks to them-and they think she will be a little cheaper. They are right, too. The Chinese are always a little cheaper, when they want to be. They figure out how to do it, how to undercut everyone else, and then they become indispensable. Jin Li's customers are eager to exploit her eagerness to exploit others. People expect the Chinese to be brutal to their workers when they need to be, even in America, and most of the time they are not disappointed.

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