many rooms, 9
where I learned about curiosity
“My Father’s house has many rooms…”
Mr. Quiñónez came in first thing in the morning, carrying a small plastic bucket, a sturdy broom, and a small shovel. Slowly, he swept the concrete slab with short, sharp strokes, uniformly directed towards a specific point on the slab. He then picked the small pile of dust, sand, and other stuff he’d swept off with his shovel, dumped it in his bucket, and left.
A few minutes later, the young man they called “the Officer” came in with a few others. Using a tape measure and a steel square, they traced a series of lines on the slab, and marked them using a roll of twine (which they tensed and then plucked like the string on a bass) and red mineral powder.
Mr. Quiñónez came in at dusk, carrying his bucket, his broom, and a smaller shovel than before. Slowly, he swept the slab again, this time very carefully, barely touching the red lines. He then picked the small pile of dust, nails, wires, and butts of twine he’d swept off the slab with his shovel, dumped into his bucket, and left.
He came back again, first thing in the morning, carrying a broom and a dustpan, only. He swept the concrete slab silently, picked next to nothing, and left. A few minutes later, the Officer came in with a very young helper – a boy, really. For an hour or so they came and went, bringing a couple of 50 kilo bags of Portland cement, several loads of sieved river-sand and a few dozen bricks in a brand-new wheelbarrow. They also brought a shovel, a couple of trowels, more twine, a box of nails, a few thin boards, and a level. Finally they brought a hose, connected elsewhere, sprayed the bricks with fresh water, mixed the cement and the sand into mortar, and slowly lay down the bricks within the lines they’d drawn before.
Mr. Quiñónez came in that night, carrying a strong rubber bucket, a thick broom, a scoop shovel and his own trowel. He had to wait for the young ones to leave, and – under the thin light of an extension cord with a 40 watt light bulb – started with the shovel this time. He made sure all remains of mortar were scraped off the slab, cleaned leftover mortar next to the bricks with his trowel, and finally swept the space between with his broom. He had to make two rounds this time, since his bucket got full with empty cement bags and brick-chunks rather quickly.
He returned, first thing in the morning, swept the concrete slab silently, picked next to nothing again, and left. A few minutes later, the officer came in, this time with several vigorous helpers. They brought a rundown boom-box and played salsa music loudly all day long. Layer after layer, they built the four walls of the room, making sure they were straight, leveled, and squared. Again they soaked their bricks with the hose, mixed more mortar, tensed their twine to guide the walls, and checked often with a plumb bob, a long aluminum ruler, several steel squares, making sure they kept their lines.
Mr. Quiñónez didn’t come in that evening, since the Officer and his crew worked well into the night; but he came in almost at dawn next day, carrying his tools in a wheelbarrow. On his own, he swept towards a side of the room, filled the cart with a pile of stuff, and then came back to sweep the floor clean. Then he left.
Day in and day out the Officer came in with different crews of different sizes; different men with quite different tempers too. The men who lay the base for the floor (a thicker kind of mortar) were messy, rather aggressive, and left all sorts of garbage behind them. Those who plastered the walls were a bit gloomy, and smoked cheap cigarettes. Lots of cigarette butts, they left behind.
The guys who did electricity came in twice. First they left their tubes embedded in the walls, and put up a big fight with the bricklayers (both argued that the others ruined their job). At that time they left lots of burnt paper, since they lit small fires on the slab to bend the PVC tubes of their conduits. Then they left little shavings of plastic coating from their cables everywhere, when they came in to insert and connect those cables in the conduits.
Doors, windows, wooden skirting for the walls, appliances (switches, sockets), as well as floor (polished terrazzo, made with chunks of marble and white cement) and wall and ceiling finishing (vinyl paint on stucco, over the plaster) were all done by external contractors. All of them brought their own cleaning crews (mostly ladies). But after they’d gone, and before they arrived each day, Mr. Quiñónez would always come in, with different kinds of brooms and mops and cloths and sponges, or trowels of different shapes and sizes; and with different kinds of buckets too, now also full with soap and water (or even stronger stuff, like hydrochloric acid or a paint thinner called Varsol), to clean the surfaces of the room, which turned softer and sharper by the day.
I set my little office as site manager for the construction site in that room, once it was reasonably functional. I had a desk, a small closet for files, and a couple of chairs where I met contractors and workers. Mr. Quiñónez came in every single day, first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening. He cleaned the room, but also made himself available for errands and other simple jobs. We hardly talked, though; he hardly talked to anyone. A man of very few words, he was. Everyone respected him – that was clear – and yet they also pitied the fact that he remained a helper (the lowest level in the ranks) way into his sixties, out of sheer lack of curiosity.