The Wastelander LUIS ALBERTO URREA
When nature calls, somebody’s got to clean up the mess
BUD PICKED ME UP at ten-thirty every night. We had to be at the campground by eleven, to start our
shift among the slumbering campers sweltering beside the Southern California bay
waters, hoping for some sea breezes amid
the drought-parched palms. We checked
in at the drop gate to be inspected by the
guard, a Samoan roughly the size of a pro
wrestler. He seemed to have forgotten our
faces each night, and gave us grief—he
being the last line of defense between the
paying campers and the street scum and
“illegal aliens” circling the perimeter. He
eased up when I started asking him about
his faith—hearing about Bahai was a
more pleasant way to kick o= the evening
than flashlit interrogations.
The campground was in a reclaimed
muck bed where a slough greeted the bay,
a place of old clam flats and forgotten Indian settlements (we weren’t far from the
remains of an Indian village obliterated by
the confluence of I- 5 and Highway 52). Like
many camp-lands across the country, this
one was basically a blacktop with screes of
oleander, some beach, and elevated barbecue grates. An adjacent golf course lent
a faux-nature vibe to the eastern perimeter.
All my life, I have found myself in these
borderlands, these wasted landscapes
on the edge of the world. I was a poverty
child, caught between barrio and ghetto,
and I learned about nature in dirt alleys,
abandoned gravel lots with one dead truck
in the corner, in the wars between red ants
and black ants on the cracked concrete
slabs between humanoid race wars in
the apartment blocks. The ruins comfort
me somehow. It’s the haunting, I think.
The sense of secrets hiding in plain sight.
Where weeds are visible signs of life pre-
vailing. The wasteland is eternal.
BUD WAS TO PARK his car behind the
service shed—no pleasure cruising
through the property, lest we disturb the
peace of the partying tailgaters chucking
brewskis at the sides of each other’s RVs.
We carried bag lunches for our three a.m.
break, along with our collection of brooms,
mops, buckets, rubber gloves, and squirt
bottles of acid-based cleansers. Toilet/
areas, made a racket. The rare rainstorms
that came in—monsoonal eruptions
out of Mexico—caused the city sewers
to overload and dump raw e<uent into
our bay. Then it was no-swimming, no-
boating. Campers resigned themselves to
fire rings and weenie roasts on the sand as
the “California brown trouts” popped out
of the pipe mouths and drifted o=shore.
And then there was the more interesting
shit, the linguistic shit. This came from
our crew bosses. It could be deconstructed
into piquant category clusters:
We were shit-for-brains. We didn’t even
dream of pulling no shit. We had, when
under suspicion of malfeasance, shit-eating
grins. We often did real shitty jobs working
the mirror squeegees. If we told them about
He was a Mexican bending his knees to clean up the spatter
of Americans who couldn’t bother cleaning up after themselves.
shower pods were scattered all over the
property. Bud did floors and mirrors; I
was the shower-and-shit man.
Feces, in all their variations, were a
central theme of the place. Nature, aside
from sunburning and Jet Skiing, was
mostly held in abeyance. Gulls, yes. Even a
pelican or two. So guano removal was also
of profound interest to the management.
We worked our paint scrapers around the
property so long as we spoke quietly and
never, especially in the high-fee parking
the naked mom sleeping in the shower stall
in Unit 3: no shit—bullshit—you’re shit-
ting me. Then there were the civilian camp-
ground invaders, who were up to some
shady shit. And, during yet another of our
insane silent chases in the dark, when we
were reduced to being Jr. Border Patrol
agents whirring around in electric golf carts
after stampeding undocumented entrants,
one of our crew bosses radioed: “We’re in
the shit now!” Then he hit a speed bump,
flew into the air, and broke both his axles.