Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Aimless Reading: The G's, Part 1 (William Gaddis)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Gaddis, William

A friend of mine sent this to me when I was living in Ecuador. I don't think I ever read it -- or if I did, I don't remember it at all.

I worked as a volunteer in 1994-5 at a center for impoverished families in Quito. I lived with ten or twelve other Americans in a big volunteer building in the northern part of town called Cotocollao and I worked in the heart of the old town, a place called La Marín. La Marín was the central bus turnaround in the city and it had just about the filthiest air I've ever experienced. If I ever get lung cancer it will be due in equal arts to having smoked for 15 years and having worked for a year near La Marín.

A typical day involved waking at seven, eating a quick breakfast of toast, butter and instant coffee, followed by a forty minute bus ride to La Marín. In the mornings, I alternated between teaching phys. ed. and what was called Programa De Chicas. On days I taught the former I'd teach three or four sixty-minute sessions in a row. We'd begin with calisthenics in a little concrete courtyard and then play some kind of game -- kickball, crab soccer, etc.

Program de chicas was a single, three-hour session with 4th and 6th grade girls. On these mornings, all the boys would work in the streets shining shoes, an occupation way too dangerous for the girls. The boys brought their earnings back to the center and were required to put a portion of them in the bank to help support their families. While the boys worked, the girls learned various arts and crafts like making greeting cards and so forth. Some of them were actually sold to help support the center. Other days, I would take the girls on field trips to some of the beautiful parks in Quito or to the many cathedrals and plazas in the old town.

They always managed to cause trouble -- at one cathedral they collected all of the melted wax from a tray beneath the votive candles and made giant white wax balls out of them. One used hers as a sort of cocoon for a gigantic beetle she had been carrying in her pocket for days. Another time, at a park at a very high altitude overlooking the city, the girls began emptying the garbage cans to find things to play with. While my back was turned they managed to find about a hundred shards of broken glass and ten syringes, which they had lined up along the top of a low stone wall. I would get angry and try to keep them from getting hurt, but it was hard to stay mad at them for long.

Which was not the case when they got mad at me -- for instance when I confiscated a make-up kit they had found because they were using it in class instead of paying attention to the lesson. After class, each one walked past me with her eyes averted and muttered, "No sé, Miguel, no me meto con usted." Loosely translated, this means "You ain't down with us no more." This went on for a week beyond the day I finally returned the make-up kit.

There was a two-hour break at lunch. Once or twice a week, we were required to attend a lunchtime mass in order to set a good example. I mostly avoided this, but had to show up once in a while. Often at lunch I'd walk over to a little cafe under the National Theater. The building and the cafe must have been a couple of hundred years old. The cafe felt a bit like a rathskeller or something -- all stone and wood and subterranean darkness. I used to order a turkish coffee and a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Sometimes I'd bring along a friend to play chess and smoke cigarettes at one of the tables.

After lunch, I usually tutored for a couple of hours -- mostly teaching younger kids how to read and write. I spent I don't know how many weeks and months repeating and repeating the Spanish vowels sounds with the different consonants AH, AY, EE, O, OO, LA, LAY, LEE, LO, LOO, PA, PAY, PEE, PO, POO and so on.

In the evening I taught two hours of adult education -- everything from reading to geography to math. My students ranged from 20-80 and their abilities ranged from completely illiterate to partially so. At 8 PM our bus would return us to Cotocollao, where we'd eat a community meal before retiring. Several nights a week I had dish duty, which usually meant doing the dishes with my friend, J., then smoking a few cigarettes and playing chess before bed.

from JR

– It’s worked so far but it can’t work forever, sooner or later somebody will show up who reads Greek. Then where are we?
– Up the creek, Miss Flesch obliged with a promptness that lost her some coffee down her chin, like the smut mail.
– There’s an issue. The smut mail rise.
– My boy sent off for a ball glove and what he got back in the mail was. . . .
– Mouthpiece puller, sleigh bells, strobotuner, choir risers, tympanies, marching bell and stand, two thousand five hundred and... what’s all that for?
– Breakage. Here, replacing glass, repairing doors, painting, refinishing and so forth, thirty-three thousand two eighty-five. Thirty-three thousand dollars for breakage, isn’t that what we’re really talking about? Plain unvarnished vandalism? And another fourteen thousand plus item down here, repairs and replacement, chairs, desks, project tables, pianos, same thing isn’t it? Breakage.

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