And I processed data at the lumber company: inventory, receivables, payables, pay rates, salaries, deductions, taxes, financial statements. Day after day of sitting at my massive metal desk, staring at glowing green letters and numbers on the screen of my IBM System-38 computer terminal, my feet on the worn carpeting, my imagination wandering around the corner of my cubicle to the big second-story windows that were filled with central New Mexico’s vibrant sky. The computer programs I wrote from scratch were few and simple; this was wood, after all, not derivatives; mostly, I easily managed and tweaked existing programs.
At lunchtime, I often sprinted in Little Red to the outskirts of Old Town, where I ordered tasty and abundant Szechwan chicken from a quiet, sad-eyed, middle-aged Chinese man at Liu’s take-out (“GOOD FOOD AT FAIR PRICE” read the restaurant’s sign board along Central Avenue). From Liu’s I’d drive over to Taco Bell to purchase a Styrofoam bowl of “Nachos bel Grande” for the computer operations assistant, my first of many observations of a Latino’s curious craving for food that columnist Richard Estrada dismissed as “Mexoid.”
One morning I was startled when Carlos escorted New Mexico’s Democratic representative in the United States Senate into my cubicle, evidence I had not imagined of the lumber company’s apparently not insignificant role in New Mexico’s economy. The senator and I shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries. The man was handsome, groomed to the follicle, and wooden.
And then there was the summer day I had the pleasure of accompanying one of the company’s foresters as we negotiated in his pickup the rugged logging roads of the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Cuba, New Mexico, where the company had a sawmill. We drove among the grand and solemn ponderosa pines. We paused at active logging sites, where I jawed with independently-contracted tree-fellers, strapping young Latinos who lived in the very mountains in which they worked. They obviously enjoyed this well-paying―for rural New Mexico―physical, highly-skilled, and dangerous work, much as I once enjoyed working in the mine. After the tree-fellers, I bantered with the equally-contented loaders and logging-truck drivers.
I attended a company picnic, which was held at a private “retreat” an hour’s drive southeast of Albuquerque at the eastern base of the Manzano Mountains. The rural setting was lovely, the weather, as nearly always during summer in New Mexico, pleasant. We ate grilled meats, potato salad, and watermelon. We drank soft drinks. We played volleyball.
And the event introduced me to my first piñata: a large, hollow papier-mâché figure―for this event, a goat―stuffed with individually-wrapped candies, which was hung from a tree limb. Immediately beneath it, a blindfolded child armed with a long dowel was spun around and then, still blindfolded, invited to attempt to bludgeon the figure open for its goodies―entertainment for the adults, welcomed torment for the children. Today, the piñata is a popular metaphor in the United States for somebody or something that receives a lot of punishment in the media. In 1988, however, I―and, surely, much of non-Latino America―had never heard of this amusement, which dates back centuries to Mesoamerica, Spain, and perhaps even China.
The picnic had a warm, richly democratic, uniquely American feeling that touched me, until then rarely enthused about the corporate world. The dozens of attendees spanned the spectrums of ages, ethnicities, and job responsibilities. Every employee there, I proudly assumed, was making a living wage with decent benefits. The event convinced me that the lumber company was nurturing families and building a better New Mexico and better America. To be there simply made me proud to be an American. And a New Mexican.
I liked as well my first two annual meetings of the lumber company, which were reserved for the skirted, pant-suited, and white-collared employees, including the company’s mill managers. They occurred outside of Albuquerque. One meeting introduced me to Los Angeles, where the event was held at one of the city’s finer hotels. At another annual meeting, at a resort in Phoenix, I knew, for the first time in my life, what it felt like to play an essential role in the functioning of a large company: During a dinner, Carlos, whispering “You’re worth every penny,” slipped me an envelope containing a $100 bonus check.
Most of all, I liked the idea of being a programmer, of having what I regarded as a unique ability to harness these mysterious, remarkable machines called computers; of having a skill with nothing if not a bright future. Around Albuquerque, I proudly wore a tee-shirt that read “IBM,” a freebie from my sister who worked in administration in a New Hampshire office of the computer company; 10 years earlier, me wearing that shirt would have been unimaginable.
And I was doing all of this while living in the strangeness and beauty of this place called New Mexico.
However, within two years, my contentment at the lumber company would be threatened from a couple different directions.