Dear Dirty America


Inside Big Bluto’s Sweatshop

March 03
17:30 2012

Los Angeles(excerpt from O’Donovan’s novel Night Train)

This morning Big Bluto announced that we have to recall 4,000 bottles of Clove Capsules infested with E. coli. Or maybe he said salmonella. As if we gave a rat’s ass. But I had to laugh. Big Bluto was squirming. He’ll push us harder now, pay us less.

The dish soap in the lunchroom is half water. I noticed that today when I went to wash my hands. That’s how cheap he is, Big Bluto. He fills the dish soap bottle with water when it gets half empty.

We get fifteen minutes for lunch. When the buzzer sounds—bzzzt—it’s back to work.

This afternoon I figured out how to jam the labeling machine. You feed them in a little bit crooked, it chews them up. This gambit paid off in a five-minute break for me. I pretended I didn’t know how to fix the machine so Ponlok helped me out. Ponlok worked in a sweatshop in Cambodia that was a hundred times worse than this one. He’s chopping in tall cotton now. Always cheerful, Ponlok. No English. The Cambodians stick together, Ponlok, Samay, Chaya, Chan and Kiri, but they’re friendly. There are about twenty-five of us here, the Cambodians, the Mexicans, Khamtai from Laos and Ana from Guatemala. I’m the only native English speaker—except Big Bluto, of course.

Ana from Guatemala is a perfect little angel. Always saying her beads. She prays to Maria del Rosario. Maria del Rosario is very big in Guatemala. Ana has taken religion as a shield and a comforter. Her prayers are protection from the ugliness of the world. She lives in a sort of chrysalis, a haven, a sanctuary manufactured from her dreams, where nothing can touch her. She probably learned that at the Starbuck’s plantation in Guatemala where her wages were $1.25 a day.

Monday. Big Bluto is launching a big promotional campaign for Dr. Sharpe’s New Improved Parasite Cleanse. He called us together in the lunchroom, waving Dr. Sharpe’s book, Human Parasites. That’s Bluto’s Bible, his Mein Kamph. Roundworms, pinworms, Demodex Folliculorum. He’s got their photos up on the wall in the lunchroom, much enlarged, mug shots of the culprits, mailed in by satisfied customers who dredged the creatures up from their intestines. A tapeworm thirty-four feet long, a hookworm with savage Dracula teeth, a giant liver fluke, a canine heartworm—easily as menacing, these public enemies, as John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd. They sift their stools through a strainer, the customers. I’m not exaggerating. It’s all outlined in Dr. Sharpe’s book, how to go about it, with the strainer and all. These people are Dr. Sharpe’s protégés. He encourages them to play in their shit.

It’s a funny world. Last week I was sleeping under a bridge, and here I am today with a job and a paycheck. I’m not the biggest rat in the shithouse, but I’m one of them now. I’m a real person, putting in my hours, scratching for a living, just like every other motherfucker in Christendom.

It’s funny too about the nostalgia. Already it’s hitting me. The bridge, I mean. I’d spend the day sitting on the cool pickleweed under the bridge reading Krishnamurti and getting jacked up on Night Train or Wild Irish Rose. It was a peaceful place. There were coyotes in the stubble fields and junkyards on the other side of the chain link fence but they kept their distance. Just the same, you could hear them howling at night and you knew they were out there, camped on the edge of civilization, ready to sink their teeth into an unwary Siamese cat, a freshly bathed poodle or a plump white child.

Then Mungy Nuncie showed up. She looked like a big lumpy beach ball with legs. No arms, just little seal flippers. Little sea turtle fins. She looked like a sea turtle, in fact. She smelled like one too. We’d have birria tacos for breakfast, and off she’d go, turning tricks. There were some illegals working in a bean field on the other side of the freeway. I don’t know how much they were able to cough up. It couldn’t have been much but at least there were a lot of them. She had some white johns too, rich guys. They’d pick her up in their Lincolns and Cadillacs. It turns out that there are a lot of men in the world who are just dying to get it on with a deformed woman. “They love my little flippers,” she told me. There was something wrong with her tits, too. They were flat as pancakes. But I guess everything worked fine down below because she usually came back with a bundle.

Before long she got hooked up with a doctor, a neurosurgeon. He’d pick her up in his BMW. He’d taken her back to his crib and let her take a bath. I was glad of that because that girl had a wicked stink to her. This doctor was a flipper fetishist. He’d get naked, she told me, and she had to caress him all over with her little flippers. He’d usually squirt in a matter of minutes and then they’d go out to Baskin Robbins for banana splits. He was a decent guy, the doctor. The gig paid a hundred bucks plus eats.

Nostalgia! It’ll eat you alive. Nostalgia lodges in your belly like a tapeworm, the bittersweet memory of a summer picnic at a lake somewhere with farting beery trombones and sunkissed children wading in the water. Most Americans, I think, and I imagine most people everywhere, regard the era in which they were children as a sort of Golden Age, a time when life was simple and good. Myself, I don’t look back to my childhood with this kind of nostalgia, to a vanished Golden Age, because by the time I was born everything was already royally fucked up.

I’m living now with Ponlok. We have a trailer in the woods that we share with four other guys, Cambodians, plus Khamtai from Laos and Dionisio from Mexico City. Ponlok’s overjoyed because he only has eight roommates. In Cambodia he had twenty‑six. California is a paradise for Ponlok, for three reasons: he has a place to sleep, he gets something to eat, and nobody’s shooting at him.

It was Dionisio who introduced us to the Birrieria, me and Mungy Nuncie. The Birrieria was a homey little place next to the bean field with goat horns mounted outside above the door. We’d get the birria tacos with onions and cilantro, and then we’d take a few tacos with us for breakfast. We were never short of money. Mungy Nuncie had her neurosurgeon and then there were the stoop laborers in the bean field. They were running trains on her. She’d give them a wholesale price. But when Dionisio learned that I was living under a bridge he got me the job at Dr. Sharpe’s Source of Health, Big Bluto’s sweatshop. He did me a favor, and I’m grateful, but sometimes I can’t help wondering if I wasn’t better off under the bridge. And I miss Mungy Nuncie.

There’s that nostalgia again. It’ll eat you up, nostalgia, if the hookworms don’t.

Dionisio informs me that Big Bluto’s looking at setting up sweatshops in Taiwan, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. He’s thinking of joining Wal-Mart and Mattel in China, where sweatshop workers make eighty cents a day.

“Those 50,000 people that was killed in that earthquake in China, they were the lucky ones,” Dionisio told me. I had to agree with him. Eighty fucking cents a day? Jesus fucking Christ, man. A mercy killing, if there ever was one. They’re better off dead, the lot of them. Damned fine gesture, too. It proves that we live in a human-hearted universe.

Big Bluto is king of the bushy eyebrows. Carmen insists they’re toupees, eyebrow toupees. I didn’t know there was such a thing. You run a couple of squirrel tails through a shit-shredder and paste them on his forehead, and there you have Big Bluto’s eyebrows. Always there’s a regular snowstorm of dandruff flakes falling down on his glasses, too. Big Bluto’s eyebrows are infested with Demodex Folliculorum, eyebrow mites. They’re eating his skin cells. He told me this himself the other day when he was watching me bottle the Coenzyme Q-10 caps. I guess he was looking for sympathy.

Carmen’s in charge of the Clean Room. She’s a very nice lady. “No te preocupes,” she told me the other day when I jammed the labeling machine. I don’t think she suspects that I did it on purpose. We had a meeting today in the lunchroom, all the drudges who work in the Clean Room. Lucky for me I understand Spanish. Kiri—cute as a button—interpreted for the Cambodians. Carmen told us that tomorrow we’re going to be bottling the Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic, Big Bluto’s biggest seller. Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic—“Calms the spirit, refreshes the senses, nourishes the heart!”—sells for a whopping forty-nine dollars a bottle. The label says it contains Ginko Biloba Leaf, Gotu Kola, Chinese Peony, Siberian Ginseng and Fleece Flower Root, but it’s mostly grain alcohol. Dionisio and I are expecting to catch a pretty good buzz when we start bottling the stuff up tomorrow.

It was Dionisio who gave Big Bluto his name. “El Bluto Grande,” he calls him.

Then there’s Dr. Sharpe. He’s our satguru, Dr. Sharpe, the Grand Tamale. Dr. Sharpe passed away in 1925. His picture hangs on the wall in the lunchroom, next to mug shots of the hookworms and the liver flukes, a man from the nineteenth century, a captain of industry, silvery hair, walrus mustache, kindly smile. Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic was one of the biggies of the Patent Medicine Era, along with Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root and Stanley’s Snake Oil. And when Prohibition came along, Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic took off like a rocket, mostly due to its hefty eighteen percent alcohol content. Today Big Bluto calls his Shakti Tonic “Instant Yoga.” Why do all those asanas when you can just hook down a good slug of Dr. Sharpe’s?

A week has passed. Nostalgia got the better of me, so I went back to the bridge to see Mungy Nuncie. Things have escalated with the doctor. They’ve got the thing streamlined now. He sends a taxi for her, she goes to the office, they get together between patients in one of the examination rooms. He takes his pecker out, she gives it a few silken strokes with her flippers, with those super-soft little turtle paws of hers, and he starts pumping sperm right away. When he’s done squirting a nurse comes in, wipes his dick off with a Kleenex, tucks it back into his fly, and he scrubs for his next operation. Mungy Nuncie gets her hundred bucks, then the taxi driver takes her to Baskin Robbins and he has to wait while she gobbles up her banana split. But, a bit of sad news, the Birrieria is closed. The owner, the waitress and two cooks were killed in a driveby.

Today I was running the NC 400 encapsulating machine. You have to wear a mask. It looks like a WWI gasmask, with a canister and all. Inside the canister are paper filters and charcoal filters. But still the dust gets through. The worst is the wormwood, the dust you get when we encapsulate the wormwood powder. The turmeric is bad too. But the wormwood is poisonous. It’s worse than mustard gas. And if you get sick? We don’t have medical, no sick days and no vacation days. That’s Big Bluto. Complain? Not unless you want to hit the bricks. There are hundreds of desperadoes camped out there in the tall weeds who’ll snap up your job in a minute. Don’t fuck with Hoppy!

But we did have a good laugh today, Dionisio and I. We learned through the grapevine that some of the monkeys in shipping boosted a whole shitload of Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic and sold it on the street at five bucks a pop.

The time is coming, however, when I may have to put some distance between myself and Dionisio. I’m going to have to cut this joker loose, that’s what I’m thinking. The other day we were over in the barrio on Sixth Street near Lafayette Park and Dionisio goes up to this ice cream vendor. I thought he was going to buy me an ice cream sandwich, but the guy opens up the top of his jingle cart and—guns. My man gave the ice cream guy some bills and pocketed a snub-nosed .38. Later on, when we were sitting in the park with a jug of Mona Lisa Tokay, he told me, “First you get the money, then you get the power, and then you get the woman.” He was serious, too. When Dionisio talks English he talks like Al Pacino. Bottom line is, he’s bought into the dream, hook, line and sinker. But it’s not for me. I’m not cut out for that sort of thing. If it’s that hard to get the woman, I’d rather live under a bridge and jack off. But he’s challenging me now, all the time. Do I want to be a callejero all my life? Where’s your cojones, man? You do what you gotta do to survive. If you want something, you take it. I don’t like being around Dionisio when he talks English. He’s becoming a dangerous man.

“Something’s rotten in Denmark,” Big Bluto announced at the company meeting today. At first I thought he was talking about the ten cases of Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic that the Colombian guys boosted, but it turned out he was talking about a rat—the four-legged kind. Big Bluto put out rat traps in all the corners and under the counters in the lunchroom, and now it appears that a rat got caught in one of the traps and dragged the trap through a hole in the wall, and he’s rotting inside the wall. The stink is fierce, but I have to laugh, because Big Bluto has to put up with it, same as the rest of us. I mean, we all breathe the same air. The difference is, we’re used to foul odors and he isn’t.

This rotten in Denmark bit was Big Bluto’s way of kissing up to us. He thought he was being cute. But most of the workers have never heard of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. They don’t have Shakespeare Festivals in the shantytowns of Phnom Penh.

Things were different in Shakespeare’s time. War, slavery, child labor: sure. That’s the world. But you could drink the water. You could breathe the air. Bluto’s world is dying. The signs are everywhere. The super bugs are with us now: Golden staph, VRE, enterococcus, lean, furious mosquitoes that eat DDT for breakfast, amoebas that eat your eyes. The big diseases are coming back: cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria. They’ve been sharpening their incisors in the dark, rehearsing their lines just offstage. And now they’re ready to pounce. It’s not only Denmark that’s rotting away like a diseased rat. The stink is everywhere. The Bluto World is dunged under, played out. Only an influx of barbarian sperm can save it now. That’s the only hope. The wombs of the Bluto women are crying for it.

Big Bluto, with his Swiss bank accounts, connected all the way up to the Texas oil families and the Saudi princes, is nervous as hell. The richer he gets, the more he worries. Because what he’s doing, with all his money and his connections, is reserving himself a stateroom on the Titanic. The ship is going down. And he knows it. He won’t admit it, even to himself, but he knows it. The Bluto World is jacked. The whole stinking edifice is crumbling, shaking off its foundations, rotting away like a termite hill. Rats are gnawing the taproots, carpet beetles are tunneling under the wallpaper. But a new world is already in the making. The barbarians appear at the gates of the city, their eyes sizzling with vitamins, their loins freighted with erotic dynamite. A silvery trumpet sounds somewhere, and conquered and conquerors gaze at each other like moist flowers opening in the light of a new and dazzling sun.

The shit has hit the fan at the sweatshop. Big Bluto found out about the ten cases of Dr. Sharpe’s Shakti Tonic. He fired the Colombians and ratted them out to La Migra. He installed security gates, cameras – the works. It’s him versus us now. The lines are drawn. The new guys in Shipping are illegals from Mogadishu, obviously dangerous men. The big one with the ring through his nose is called Tariq. What is Big Bluto thinking? Obviously, he intends to use these desperadoes as muscle, to keep the rest of us in line.

Don’t fuck with Hoppy!

He’s going to get his revenge, too. This time it’s poor little Kiri who’ll have to pay the price. She’s going to have to suck Bluto’s dick. If she refuses he’ll report her to immigration and she’ll be back in the sweatshop in Phnom Penh with the one hundred-degree heat and the razor wire, and she’ll have to suck that guy’s dick. She’s reconciled to her fate. I can see it in her face. He’ll call her into his office sometime today. The girls in the Clean Room are furious. But there’s nothing they can do. They’ve all been down the same road. It comes with the territory. Carmen has had Bluto’s cock in her mouth God knows how many times. And poor little Ana from Guatemala: so innocent, so devout! She can’t be more than seventeen. Bluto likes them young. Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher. He plucked her out of the lunchroom just the other day. One minute she was unwrapping her quesadilla and saying grace, and the next minute she was on her knees behind some boxes in the warehouse with Big Bluto’s cock halfway down her throat.

Later. Big Bluto’s feeling jolly after a good sperm-sucking. Who wouldn’t? He scoots across the room in his office chair, clicking his calculator, crunching the numbers. Carmen’s been talking about putting rat poison in his coffee. Here’s hoping she gets a chance to sprinkle the magic dust! We’d all like to see Big Bluto croak. But it’s not going to be so easy. He’s got Tariq with him now, always at his side. Tariq stands there with his arms folded, glaring at us like a big evil genie. Tariq’s out of the bottle, and he’s as nasty a piece of work as you’ll ever come across.

Monday. The Grand Dragon came out of his oval office this morning with the Dr. Sharpe parasite book under his arm and gave us another lecture. Those of us who understand English were laughing up our sleeves. We’re the parasites, aren’t we? We’re the hookworms, the tapeworms, the liver flukes and the pinworms. We’re everywhere now, there’s no escaping us. March us off to war, starve us out, banish us to the streets, a million more spring up. We’re the microbes that live deep in the bedrock, in the heart of a diamond, below the polar ice, in the center of a volcano, on Jupiter’s moons. We’re the weevils in the flour, the rats in the cheese; we’re the lice that burrow under Big Bluto’s skin. We’re the horror that’s festering in his soul. We’re renegade cells in the Body of Bluto.

Big Bluto has an ulcer in his stomach the size of a golf ball. It’s true. Our CEO can’t even eat a decent meal. He can’t order lobster or steak at a restaurant, either. Baby food: that’s what he eats. Junior Foods. I know because he eats with us, nearly every day. This is to show us his compassion, his willingness to walk the sod with the unwanted. It’s democracy in action. Carmen places Big Bluto’s specially prepared plate in front of him, colorful dollops of baby food garnished with parsley and lemon wedges. Usually it’s Junior Vegetables: carrots and green beans. Or Junior Chicken and Vegetables. Then she brings his mango lassi. For dessert he usually has the strained peaches.

It’s excruciating being a nothing, but there are advantages to it. You’re free, in a way. Take me for example. Nobody expects anything of me. They know better. But all that changed when I met Pablito. He was a crazy Catholic kid, the archetypal immigrant, passionate, hopeful, single minded, intent on making a new life in America for himself and his family. On his first try he crossed the Sonoran desert with his wife and child. He got a job shoveling guts in a slaughterhouse in Fresno, but after a month he was nabbed and deported. His wife and baby remained behind. On the second try he came through the Nogales Wash, a sewer pipe that connects Nogales Sonora with Nogales Arizona. Now he was on a mission to find his wife and child. He’d gotten word that they were living in a migrant labor camp in McGonigle Canyon, near San Diego. His one objective was to join them, but first he had to get some money. He didn’t want to show up empty handed.

I bought into Pablito’s story. I liked the guy, I admired him. I got involved. I felt a sense of civic responsibility. Me! I couldn’t believe it. But my people came here from Ireland and Germany, didn’t they? I mean when you go way back? I guess you could even say I felt patriotic. What ever happened to give me your tired, your poor? If Lady Liberty had dropped the torch, wasn’t it my job to pick it up? Pablito was a brave kid, and I had to help him. So I ended up borrowing a van and driving Pablito to McGonigle Canyon. But that came later.

Pablito was bright and enterprising, a willing worker. He and I were assigned to mixing the Coenzyme Q-10 powder, “the Q,” under Big Bluto’s watchful eye. Bluto steps on the Q with Vitamin B-2 powder. You can’t use baby laxative with the Q because it’s the wrong color. The B-2 is the right color, bright yellow, and it’s dirt-cheap. The Q goes for ten g’s a kilo, wholesale. Bluto buys ten keys at a time, and then we add the B-2 powder. You mix in the B-2 at a ratio of 1:4, and you’d never tell the difference just looking at it, but when you get done Bluto has picked up two and a half keys or twenty-five g’s.

The batch mixer, made in Germany, must have cost a fortune. It sounded like an F‑86 winding up. We’d feed both kinds of powder into the hopper, or sometimes we’d use a suction wand. It was fascinating to imagine what was going on inside. There was a big worm gear that fed the powder into an array of paddles and multiple air jets that tumbled and mixed everything up. We’d run it twice, just to make sure. This job was high tech, and it bumped up our status with the cuties in the Clean Room when they saw us sporting our bug-like respirator masks.

The end came suddenly, I mean at the sweatshop. A raid. La Migra. They came in with guns and megaphones, just like the movies. Manos arriba, motherfuckers! They got the Somalians, Tariq, everybody, thirty-five illegals all told. It was a debacle. Big Bluto and I were the only American citizens, except for a sweet fat lady named La Tanya who’d worked in billing for years. There was also an old Mexican guy with a blue Dodge pickup truck who collected pallets and sold them. He just happened to be driving by and they nailed him too. It was devastating, losing my friends and my job, but I was happy to see Bluto go down. I also knew of course that he’d buy his way out of it, pay off the cops, pay off the judge, and the rest of it. The Big Blutos of the world always come out smelling sweet.

Donald O’Donovan wrote the first draft of Night Train (Open Books, 2010) on 23 yellow legal pads while homeless in the streets of LA. His other novels include Tarantula Woman, The Sugarhouse and Highway. An optioned screenwriter and voice actor with film and audio book credits, Donald O’Donovan lives mostly in Los Angeles. He can be reached

Find a list of O’Donovan’s books here, and order Night Train from Amazon here.

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