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The International Writers Magazine: Fiction Extract from 'Symphony of Fear'

The San Juan Bagels Parking Lot
Dean Borok (Who sadly passed away in 2015)

La Creta rarely left her office to inspect the plant premises other than an occasional walk around the place. Trucks were forever leaving the premises short one or more pallet of goods because she had neglected to impart clear shipping instructions to her shipping manager, a dreadlocked Rastafarian former boxer called King Bongo Rock, who had recently returned to work after recovering from a gunshot wound received under nebulous circumstances in East New York.

She herself had never been inside the huge walk-in freezer, which was the size of a movie theater and kept at a frigid twenty degrees below zero, her delicate Ecuadorian constitution precluding exposure to harsh arctic temperatures.

Likewise, she had never been on the roof where the machinist, Nestor Valenzuela, dwelt in perfect and contented obscurity among his drill presses and lathes, away from all supervision, emerging only periodically to demand a raise from Pato Gonzalez, a demand that was always coarsely rebuffed, and Nestor would retreat to his rooftop hideaway to smoke dope and plot his next campaign.

She never visited the parking lot either. If she was afraid of the freezer and roof, La Creta dwelt in perpetual fear of the parking lot, which was two doors away, separated from the factory by the Taliban shish-kebab garage where resided The Forty Thieves of the spicy halal chicken and rice wagons which were ubiquitous around Manhattan, led by their boss, ZiZu. The sidewalk was blocked by overflowing dumpsters and sundry, ripped garbage bags overflowing with a universe of greasy food waste, rice, chicken bones and wilted lettuce leaves covering the sidewalk and gutters as gangs of pigeons gorged themselves on the rancid wastes, while crazy Arabic men wielding large knives and pushing aluminum hot dog carts in and out of the building at all hours, screaming hysterically at each other, an object lesson in the futility of trying to transform a phantasmagoria of chaotic nonsense like Iraq, incomprehensible to the occidental mind, into a non-threatening, family-oriented theme park. And this was only the outside of the establishment!

A visitor brushing aside the grease-encrusted plastic slats covering the entrance penetrated the dank, sinister interior, blasting with Arab music as swarthy, Levantine men with squinty, suspicious eyes and thick, unwashed moustaches chopped up raw chicken parts, letting the guts and waste fall to the floor to be infested with vermin and insect larvae. Anyone care for a shish-kebab?

This mess was not helped much by the periodic flooding which took place when the drains from the second floor of the bakery, directly upstairs from the garage, regularly backed up and the stinking mess of sewage, filthy onion and garlic waste mixed with vegetable-based machine lubricating oil seeped through the cracks in the concrete ceiling to form unspeakably nauseating pools of raw soup with lumps of chicken guts floating in them. If the average attorney or paralegal working in the white shoe law firms that line the Avenue of the Americas, who step out to grab a fast lunch of spicy chicken and rice from one of the halal food wagons which surround his building the way the thugees surrounded Calcutta's British garrison, had any concept of the type of conditions under which that food had been prepared, would he instead opt for a container of cottage cheese? I would! (Would the cottage cheese prove to be any more sanitary?) The fact that these unspeakable sewers remain open year after year goes a long way toward denoting the true state of the hygienic oversight to which our food processing installations are subject. Upton Sinclair notwithstanding, can anybody assert that things have really changed since publication of "The Jungle?"

La Creta avoided this pestilential horror at all costs, crossing the street to avoid it. If she had any business with ZiZu, the proprietor of this mess, she sent one of the male managers to execute it.

Likewise did she avoid the adjacent parking lot where the bakery's fleet of trucks was parked, which inevitably had become a repository for every kind of junk that Pato Gonzalez could buy at an auction, like shelves, scaffolding, trailers and disused machine remnants; as well as useless garbage that he refused to throw out because it had once cost him money. Naturally, there were a few obligatory wrecked heaps of bakery trucks which had long ago been cannibalized for useful parts to keep the remaining trucks running, but Pato, in his mind's eye seeing them new and shiny as they were on the first day he had purchased them, refused to let them go, like the parent of a degenerate wreck who still sees a new baby, full of hope.

These trucks now served as provisional homeless shelters and latrines for the crackheads and other transitory elements of the quarter. Admittedly, we are most of us only a few bad breaks away from living outdoors, so it's no subject for levity. Nevertheless, the men and occasional women who frequented this terrain had few favorable aspects to recommend them. They were offensive and filthy. Even the most determined outreach workers gave that lot a wide berth. The only aspects of humanity who assigned this band of brigands any merit at all were the company truck mechanics, led by Chino and his son Orlando, Nelson, Chantay, Milton and Pascal.

Hands blackened and scarred by multiple applications of battery acid and forearms criss-crossed by knife wounds and razor cuts, Chino and Orlando were as accomplished a pair of thieves and slackers as could be found in any prison courtyard. Any pumps, wipers or circuit boards entrusted to them for repair of the truck fleet could be reliably predicted to end up as hot merchandise in any of the little hole-in-the-wall vehicle repair shops that dotted the side streets of Hell's Kitchen.

Chantay, a black lesbian as swarthy and nasty as any of the men, once emerged from working beneath a truck to find her whole box of tools had been stolen from her in plain daylight. This resulted in a marked hardening of her attitude towards the job, and a determination to recoup her loss at any price to the company.

Pascal had an expensive drug habit to maintain. Half his time was consumed fencing stolen parts and equipment and the other half chasing around to crack houses and drug dens to fill up his head.

Since Pato Gonzalez was too cheap to employ a full-time supervisor to ride herd on these idiots, they were left on the honor system. As a result, they swilled quart bottles of Colt 45 all day and spent hours at a time repairing signal lights and securing crooked bumpers to trucks with twisted bits of wire.

The only real working mechanic was Nelson, an illegal Dominican immigrant who happily broke his back for $7.00 an hour, covering everybody else's fuck-ups. The way Nelson saw it, working with this bunch of losers provided him with a measure of job security. He kept the whole fleet running single-handed and never complained that the rest of the mechanics had disappeared from sight all day. It wasn't unusual for him to turn in a time sheet for 88 or 96 hours of time worked.
In fact, he hated to see anybody else touch one of his trucks, accurately reasoning that their shabby work only meant more work for him in fixing their mistakes.

In tacit recognition of Nelson's complete supremacy of the truck maintenance function, Pato's kneejerk reaction to a mechanical problem was, "Get Nelson to work on it!" without ever working through a reasoned analysis of why none of his other mechanics ever seemed to accomplish anything. None of them were being paid more than $8.00 per hour, so Pato didn't expect anything out of them anyway. If anything, San Juan Bagels was just a way station for most of them on their journey from one jail to the next.

The parking lot had originally been a perfectly good factory building that its owner had torn down for reasons of his own. It stood for a long time as a terrain vague surrounded by a chain link fence until its new occupants, a family of Dominican parking lot operators, rented it. Pato Gonzalez and his manager, who was called Gringo Pendejo because he spoke fluent Spanish with a lame North American accent, immediately started scheming to get their hooks into it.

Acquiring the lot would mean that they would no longer have to park the Company's three tractor trailers on side streets throughout Hell's Kitchen and keep moving them around in a perpetual game of Three-Card Monty one step ahead of the cops, who were always hitting them with massive parking tickets and towing them away to the pound on West 34th Street, obliging Pato to send down a Class A driver and four hundred dollars to get them released. Also, the Company's delivery vans could be parked in the lot, to be repaired on the spot, instead of having to ferry mechanics up to the previous parking location on West 57th Street, where they would be at all hours of day and night without supervision, in all kinds of weather and doing whatever they want.

Using a combination of cold cash and unctuous charm, Pato and Gringo Pendejo finally managed to get possession of the lot, but it stretched thin the emotional capacity of Gringo Pendejo, whose job it was to deal with the crooked, low-life Dominican lessees on a minute-to-minute basis. These idiots eventually crapped out through a combination of their own greed and incompetence. Thus, Pato Gonzalez achieved his goal the same lucky way he had always gotten everything else in life, by focusing on a goal and waiting for everybody else to fuck themselves up and crap out.

But once the Company had achieved possession of the property and installed its trucks there a new set of problems arose. First of all, in order to defray some of the very expensive monthly rent, Pato Gonzalez was obliged to lease a portion of the space to ZiZu, the idiot owner of the halal chicken garage, who filled up his part with beat-up food peddler's carts.

Then came the real challenge. Most of the employees of San Juan Bagels lived in the outlying boroughs and suburbs. They all started scheming to get permission to park their cars in the lot so that they could drive to work and avoid having to take the train.

This process happened gradually and with much finesse, much the same as the anaconda snake wraps itself around a capybara; slowly, squeezing the breath out of it. Various night employees pleaded to Pato that the subways were too dangerous in the early morning hours. They reasoned to him that the lot would have free capacity since the delivery vans were out after midnight making their rounds.

Then, many of the delivery drivers volunteered to use their own vehicles to make deliveries, but with the condition that they needed to keep their cars and vans in the lot before loading them to take out. Pato acceded to this reasoning on the grounds that it would save wear and tear on his trucks, most of which were held together bits of wire and tape anyway.

Various of the Company managers insisted on their right to park in the lot as well, invoking a kind of droit de seigneur, most notably the loading dock foreman, King Bongo Rock, who insisted that as African-American royalty, he should not be obliged to ride in from East New York on the train like a common worker, but access his cheval de guerre, a shining metallic emerald-color Jaguar. For whatever reason, Pato Gonzalez indulged King Bongo Rock on almost every point, provoking horrible screaming fights with Frank Perdue, who became so wound up in his fury at this appeasement of a manager that he considered a stinking, lying scumbag of a thief that he put it about to the Spanish employees that Pato Gonzalez and King Bongo Rock had to be engaged in mutual sodomy, this being the only excuse for Pato's tolerance of the Caribbean man's laziness and substandard job performance. This imagined buggery he expressed graphically with a hip movement and a Bronx cheer, to the delight of the male workers.

Thus, the parking lot, which was to originally supposed to streamline bakery operations, became a focal point for tantrums and time wasting. Truck drivers would park their cars in the lot and then go off on their delivery runs without leaving the key, obstructing people who wanted to get in or out. Fistfights would erupt between employees, and sometimes managers, about access to the lot. Arab chicken vendors would go berserk about San Juan vehicles in the portion of the lot leased to ZiZu and his employees.

It evolved into a situation where the San Juan delivery vans had to be parked in the street, so many were the employees' cars parked in the lot, plus the fact that Pato had designated the lot as a storage for any sundry junk that would not fit in the factory or that he had picked up at auction. The police continued issuing tickets like there was no tomorrow, at huge expense to the Company.

Homeless people would break into the back of the tractor trailers and live there, using the space between parked cars for their latrine. Rats, attracted by the Chinese food take-out containers strewn about by the mechanics and homeless residents, gravitated to the area as well, and were so common that nobody paid them much mind at all, as though they were pets or mascots.

The San Juan mechanics, totally at home in this ambiance, extorted tips for acting as valets for the employees, moving the cars around so that people could get in and out.

Gringo Pendejo, who was ostensibly in charge of order in the factory and the parking lot, refused to get involved. The few times he had attempted to intervene, the car owners had gone over his head to Pato, who for reasons of his own (or to intentionally undermine his manager's authority in a destructively egotistical little mind game that Pato indulged in for his own sick gratification) had overruled his factory manager. A longtime Manhattanite who did not share the American fascination for automobiles and did not even possess a driver's license, Gringo Pendejo walked away from the parking lot and its conflicts and applied his abilities where they would be most effective, the administration of the factory.

The parking lot, which was originally procured to make business flow more efficiently, now looked like Times Square at rush hour with employees' heaps parked very which way, taking every available inch of space. Half the time the bums couldn't even squeeze through to relieve themselves. Nobody wanted to park in the back, because in order to get his car out he would have to go into the factory and get five guys to come out and move their cars. The calculations that went into getting a strategically placed parking spot came to resemble the court machinations of medieval Byzantium. Gringo Pendejo, unable to impose order because of Pato's interference, washed his hands, saying "Fuck 'em! Let 'em drive their cars up each other's ass!"

The most explosive element in this volatile compound of automotive madness was Johnny Pato, who was Pato's brother, another Puerto Rican Jew. But Johnny was more Puerto Rican than Jew. He called himself Johnny Toro, which means "bull," but that got changed to Johnny Loro, which means parrot, because when he got excited, which was all the time, his voice went up an octave and it sounded like a parrot squawking. Finally, it morphed into Johnny Pato, because of his brother and because "pato," which means "duck," is also Spanish slang for homosexual.

If Pato, with his round face and bourgeois corpulence, could be said to have been born in the Year of the Pig, Johnny had every hallmark of the Year of the Monkey. A short, thin man with slightly bowled legs, long arms that seemed to reach almost to his knees and bony hands like vice grips which ended in gnarled, disfigured fingernails that bespoke too many exposures to degreaser and battery acid, Johnny was a rough, mean character capable of spontaneous combustion at any minute. Though illiterate, he was a reasoning, intelligent being and his violent outbursts were all the more ominous for the logic and calculated reasoning that informed them.

If logic and calculation were manifestations of the Jewish side of Johnny's nature, the outrageous lunatic aspects of his personality could be attributed to the Puerto Rican blood flowing through his veins like an unstable and combustable compound of rum and salsa picante heated to the boiling point, exploding out of his head like a ferociously overheated double boiler.

Pato had fired Johnny and taken him back so many times that he got paid for the times he was absent, with that time deducted from his pay. As a consequence, he never took a vacation, all his off time being spent in court or at anger management therapy sessions which Pato, who subscribed to whatever politically correct theory of self-improvement happened to be currently circulating, fervently believed in.

Johnny was already persona non grata in the office of La Creta, whom he had tried to seduce in his own inimitable grease monkey style by telling her up front, "Why don't you quit playing hard to get and admit that you want me, bitch?"

Dean Borok Feb 6th 2008
*In memory of Dean RIP

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