Earlier this year I submitted a personal essay to Oregon Quarterly magazine’s 2014 / 15th Annual Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest. The look back at my immigration experience shortly after coming to the U.S. won first prize. You can read the original in the Summer 2014 print issue of Oregon Quarterly or online here. I reprint the essay here with permission of the magazine’s editor, Ann Wiens, and at the end I include two reader responses.
I park Sam’s old Ford pickup on the near side of the driveway leading to a 1970s single-wide mobile home with smashed windows, and put on my work gloves. On the breeze that’s scattering the remnants of dawn into a cloudless October Tuesday, I catch a whiff of wood dust from the Weyerhaeuser plywood mill off Highway 126.
Sam clambers down from the green cab of his International dump truck, marked with years of heavy duty and “Sam Wood Construction, Inc.,” in white Gothic script. “Let’s go take a gander at her. I sure hope Mike wasn’t blowing smoke up my ass and we can pack ‘er up by sundown.”
He skirts the tilt trailer hauling a faded-orange Hitachi excavator and flashes a thumbs-up at the 40-yard drop box by the curb. The knee-high grass rustles as he wades through it in his white double-XL tee, denim dungarees that could fit two of me, and giant sneakers.
The story’s the same as on the previous jobs: the last tenants abandoned the trailer after the park landlord raised the rent. Except I don’t like the looks of this one.
The carport is bulging with towers of phone books, banana boxes, and big, black trash bags, one of which is spewing bundled-up diapers. The wind turns, and a stench of decomposing shit hits me. Both of us gag; my heart sinks when I hear Sam say, “Haul these to the box after I get started.”
The stairs creak. The door has been ripped off its hinges, and Sam sends it—and the letters “UCKER” sprayed across it—crashing to the ground. He steps into the trailer, says, “Grab anything you want,” and comes to such a sudden halt I almost run into him. The den reeks of stale beer, unwashed laundry, and rotting wood beneath the floor. We step over piles of clothes and broken liquor bottles, kick aside pieces of demolished furniture and beer cans. The wall by the entrance says “MOTHERF” in red spray. On the kitchen counter, pizza boxes battle with empty cups of instant noodles, pop cans, and fast-food wrappers. A mountain of trash crowns the stove, the empty bin tossed on the floor atop the cupboard doors.
A large coffee stain on the hallway wall haloes Sam’s head. “I’ve seen quite a few bad ones, but this one’s done up pretty bad.”
We’ve demolished seven or eight trailers together, from Santa Clara down to Creswell and from Elmira to here in Springfield, and the last tenants of each made an attempt to make it a home: a flowerbed here, wallpaper there. No such frills in this one. I breathe through my mouth, following Sam down the hall. I enter the first room, where crayon monsters dance on the wall between drip stains ravaging the ceiling and broken toys littering the floor, and wish I were anywhere but here, that I never fell in love and came to the United States. In the bathroom, shards of broken mirror crunch underfoot; I shudder at the thought of seven years of this. Someone took a sledgehammer to the walls of the small bedroom, leaving the holes frayed at the edges like the craters that pockmark Oregon, whose rolling, forested hills resemble my native Slovakia and whose trailer parks remind me of nothing at all except the depths I’m plumbing.
“Hey Pete, I found you a girlfriend!”
Sam steps away from the master bedroom door to let me in. A half-deflated sex doll is sitting against the opposite wall next to a dildo, as big as my forearm, protruding from a pile of women’s underwear. Tape pulled out of videocassettes scattered around the floor forms a maze of strings snaking over discarded jeans, torn sheets, and T-shirts. On a stained queen mattress in the other corner lounges a heap of well-handled porn magazines. Sam points at a stack of vintage Playboys on the nightstand. “Find a crate or a box for those and put them on the floor of the pickup.”
Walking back out, he eyeballs every room again with an air of gloom. “We’re gonna need another box.”
Using a crowbar, I peel a section of skirting under the bathroom to find the sewer line cut and capped. Smiling, Sam points above the meter box; the cable snaps between the bolt-cutter blades as if I severed a feeding tube. I rip the rest of the skirting off and enjoy a sweep of relief when I spot no dead opossums or gas tanks below the home.
Sam heads to the rig. “Let’s double up on the hustle. We’re burning daylight and I don’t wanna come back tomorrow.”
“Lock ‘n’ load,” Sam proclaims from the excavator’s cab, and the machine revs into life. The boom raised, the cab swivels, and the steel tracks clatter toward the far end of the property. Once in position, the bucket joins the thumb like a steel hand to grasp a piece of the roof and siding, which it then rips up and deposits inside the home. When pink insulation that reminds me of cotton candy begins to fly, I put on my dust mask. The equipment grabs one morsel of the trailer after another, reducing the structure into chunks heaped around the wreckage, then crunches the rubble into smaller fragments and carries them out to the drop box. The rhythm—tear, crunch, drop, tear, crunch, drop—mesmerizes me. I watch the walls tumble and disintegrate, the aluminum roof fold into itself, beams break, glass shatter, garments hang from the bucket like seaweed.
Aside from avoiding getting hit by anything, my job now is to toss runaway debris onto piles, snag split-face cement blocks from beneath the frame and stack them on a pallet in the pickup bed, and hose down the site as needed to keep the dust down. I watch my motions, mindless, as if I, too, were a machine following commands. I start to make up a story about the people who lived in this thing that’s being crunched up into a big metal box, but find my imagination blank, wiped clean by the revulsion I felt earlier. Then I scold myself: Who am I to judge? Two master’s degrees from respectable European universities, and here I am, shoveling dirty sex toys and soiled diapers.
Sam checks his watch, lowers the boom, and makes an eating gesture. I bet on Carl’s Jr., but he suggests Wendy’s—closer on Mohawk anyhow.
Seated inside the pickup with windows rolled down, we inhale soggy burgers and fries. Teenagers and dudes in flannel shirts, sporty sunglasses, and tribal tattoos walk in and out of a trailer across the road and two doors over. From behind the wheel, Sam tells a story of a drug house he tore down a while back, of a meth lab he once saw go up in flames, of another drug house that got busted while he was excavating a foundation next door. There are times, growing in frequency the longer I’ve worked for him, when I let his free associations go right through me. Now I am thankful for the distraction. Like support beams, the stories hold up the hollow place inside me and prevent me from caving into the nothingness that is expanding with each vacant lot we create. I hope Sam suspects nothing while dipping into the warehouse of his anecdotes so he can annihilate the silence that threatens to sit between us.
Mike’s gleaming Dodge Ram pickup pulls up behind the tilt trailer. He’s the guy who gets Sam the demo jobs through his connections among the manufactured-home park owners. I gesture to Sam, who rolls his eyes.
“See if you can fill some of the holes in the box while I talk to the man.”
Inside the drop box I rearrange the detritus of other people’s existence and calculate that the crushed fragments of my life would barely fill a medicine cabinet. Anger wells up inside me with every piece of debris I break into smaller bits. I want to run away, to keep out of sight as much as possible. I want no one to see me, to know what’s happened to me in this country. No one must know this is the first time I’ve made a sacrifice for someone I love.
With the home finally stuffed inside the drop box, the rusting frame drops onto the gravel. Sam contemplates the view from the silenced excavator.
“We can prolly squeeze this in on top of the box . . .?”
“I think so, you’ll just need to push everything down well.”
Satisfied, he descends and watches me fetch the acetylene and oxygen tanks. On the second trip I carry the cutting torch and the gauges. I stumble on a piece of two-by-four and the brass casing of the gauges clinks against the driveway.
Sam looks up from the tanks with a frown. “You drop those again and you’re fired.”
My face fills up. As I hand him the gauges with an apology, his demeanor softens. “What’s going on, guy? This ain’t like you.”
“A rough patch . . .”
“I get it, pal, it’s a shitty job. Soon you’ll find a better one and I’m gonna miss you ’cause you’re a good worker. Hell, Mike just said he was jealous I had such a hardworking helper. But your schools don’t matter now, and tomorrow or the next month don’t matter now, either. This is your job today, and I need you to focus and not drop those gauges again because one, they’re expensive, and trust me, you don’t wanna hafta buy new ones, and two, I need them to give me accurate readings so I don’t blow us up into Neverland. Capisce?”
I nod. He lowers the welding mask over his face and lights the cutting torch.
I rake the gravel for her. For her I make piles of insulation, glass shards, wood splinters, and scraps of aluminum. And at the end I shovel it all into the drop box for her like a period after a sonnet.
At last only the electric-meter box, the gravel, the driveway, and the drop box remain. There was nothing here and the people who lived here no longer exist, if they ever did, and no one will live in a trailer on this lot again.
I climb in and out of the drop box to make sure nothing sticks out above the rim. I sweep the driveway, the road, and the bed of the tilt trailer around the excavator Sam’s done tying down. I toss the broom and the shovel in the back of the pickup, close the gate, and glance at the site one last time. “We did good.”
Sam gives me a thumbs-up and climbs into the dump truck. “Tickles me pink. Now let’s get outta here.”
The sun sets into the pickup’s rearview mirror when I readjust it. We crawl past old trailers and several vacant lots, the most I’ve seen in a park, and I can almost hear Sam exclaim, “This place is goin’ to hell in a hand basket.” As we pass an ancient 10-foot-wide whose front window boasts a faded sticker of the flag fluttering above the motto These Colors Don’t Bleed, I realize that someday soon this entire park will be gone and the subdivision will spill over from next door. And no one will think of the trailers or the people who lived here, of the excavators that crunched them all up into boxes, of me.
I was never here.
A letter to the editor, published in the Autumn 2014 Issue under the heading “A New Low”:
You have reached a new low as to the material you have chosen for the Quarterly magazine. The essay “A Demolition” [Summer 2014] belongs in a porn magazine, not in a college quarterly publication. Really, how could this essay possibly be considered, let alone take first place and be featured in your magazine? I guess this shows the direction that our colleges (at least the University of Oregon) are headed. Congratulations. —Larry Clack ’75, Salem, Oregon
A response to Mr. Clack’s letter emailed to the editor:
I have to say I take real issue with Mr. Larry Clack about the essay “A Demolition.”
I went back and re-read it because I had remembered no “porn.” It shocks me that he would be so upset by a sad truth.
Mr. Clack lives in Salem, not Eugene. Maybe he does not realize that the way of life depicted by an immigrant to our country (and who we would do well to listen to) is pretty common among the crack houses and dismal dumps of this town. The author has called attention to a way of life which has always been with us but has certainly grown.
Eugene, once a pristine little city (at least what I saw was) no longer is that. Yes, we have our bike trails and our trees and our businesses and our cafes…and certainly our University…but we have a pretty ugly underside of life here too. And if this essay has gotten the attention of the more comfortable among us, I say good for it. —Marjorie Harris ’55
A response to Mr. Clack’s letter published in the Winter 2014 print issue of the magazine:
In response to Larry Clack’s letter in the autumn issue, I would like to offer a different perspective. Just as Oregon Quarterly has the right and courage to publish the beautiful (nude) art photo, “Imogen and Twinka in Yosemite,” (page 23, Autumn 2014), the same is true regarding “A Demolition.”
Thankfully, Oregon Quarterly upholds a proud history at the UO that goes back maybe even further than the days of social upheaval and protest regarding the Vietnam War, a time when the student body and the community made its strong dissent known in no uncertain terms. As a middle school and junior high student, I remember following the antiwar demonstrations on TV, and eagerly reading the excellent, often strident reporting in the Daily Emerald, which was representative of the majority of UO students and voters in Eugene. I felt proud to be from Eugene and decided that I would someday attend the UO.
Apparently, Mr. Clack would rather see the approach taken by far too many comparably budgeted and produced university publications, which may as well be entitled Town & Country Lite. If something is a little edgy, but newsworthy, I am glad to see OQ err on the liberal side, as is our tradition at University of Oregon. —Phil Bevans, BS ’87, Portland, Oregon