“Name?"-;-Federico Malero. “Check Number?”—“Can you read?” “A little.” The barest suggestion of amusement in his voice caused me to look up quickly. “My library,” he said, with the ghost of a weird smile, nodding his head slightly toward an unpainted shelf made of pieces of dynamite boxes, “Mine and my room-mates.” The shelf was filled with four—real Barcelona paper editions of Hegel, Fichte, Spencer, Huxley, and a half-dozen others accustomed to sit in the same company, all dog-eared with much reading.
“Some ambitious foreman,” I mused, and went on with my queries:
“Pico y pala,” he answered.
“Pick and shovel!” I exclaimed—“and read those?”
“No importa,” he answered, again with that elusive shadow of a smile, “It doesn’t matter,” and as I rose to leave, “Buenos dias, senor,” and he turned again to his reading.
I plunged into the jumble of negroes next door, putting my questions and setting down the answers without even hearing them, my thoughts still back in the clean, bare room behind, wondering whether I should not have been wiser after all to have ignored the sharp-drawn lines and the prejudices of my fellow-countrymen and joined the pick and shovel Zone world. There might have been pay dirt there. A few months before, I remembered, a Spanish laborer killed in a dynamite explosion in the “cut” had turned out to be one of Spain’s most celebrated lawyers. I recalled that El UNICO, the anarchist Spanish weekly published in Miraflores contains some crystal-clear thinking set forth in a sharp-cut manner that shows a real inside knowledge of the “job” and the canal workers, however little one may agree with its philosophy and methods.
Then it was due to the law of contrasts, I suppose, that the thought of “Tom,” my room-mate, suddenly flashed upon me; and I discovered myself chuckling at the picture, “Tom, the Rough-neck,” to whom all such as Federico Malero with his pick and shovel were mere “silver men,” on whom “Tom” looked down from his high perch on his steam-shovel as far less worthy of notice than the rock he was clawing out of the hillside. How many a silent chuckle and how many a covert sneer must the Maleros on the Zone indulge in at the pompous airs of some American ostensibly far above them.
Meanwhile my fellow enumerators were reporting troubles “in the bush.” I heard particularly those of two of the Marines, “Mac” and Renson, merry, good-natured, earnest-by-spurts, even modest fellows quite different from what I had hitherto pictured as an enlisted man.
“Mac” was a half and half of Scotch and Italian. Naturally he was constantly effervescing, both verbally and temperamentally, his snapping black eyes were never still, life played across his excitable, sunny boyish face like cloud shadows on a mountain landscape, whoever would speak to him at any length must catch him in a vice-like grip and hold his attention by main force. He spoke with a funny little almost-foreign accent, was touching on forty, and was the youngest man at that age in the length and breadth of the Canal Zone.