In the beginning there was chatarra.
That is what the people call it here. Things they throw away, things that they forget.
First law of chatarra: chatarra cannot be created nor destroyed. Everywhere you go, there it is. Broken microwaves, empty paintcans, tangles of extension cords. Tires and pipes, corroded lengths of rebar. All around you, raw material awaiting transformation.
One by one Subhash stomps the levers that lift the dented grey dumpster lids, releasing the rotten fish smell.
“I’m telling you,” he says. “It’s everywhere.”
His partner Sajid watches with a frown. “Hm,” he says.
They slowly fill their carts with assorted broken things.Sajid finds a rusted broom tube with red paint flaking off but it’s too long to fit in his cart. Subhash takes it from him, bends it over his knee and into the cart it goes.
Second law of the chatarra business: it’s always better to have a partner. Someone to watch over the shopping carts and help haul big finds like washer-dryers and fridges and things like that. Sajid has only been his partner for about a week. He’s young, not yet twenty, recently arrived after a six-month journey by train and by boat from Pakistan. Outwardly he’s serious, dour at times, but seems like a good kid deep down. When he does speak, it’s usually in Urdu.
They meet every day at the end of the Rambla del Raval, under the last palm tree on the right, not far from the ugly bronze statue of the cat. Normally they make their rounds at night, but today they’ve opted for an early start. Subhash’s idea.
“It’s best at night,” he explains as they move down a sidewalk littered with dog turds. “But really any time is a good time.”
Crisp morning air comes just off the sea, as yet unpolluted by the motos and the cars, and the breeze moves the laundry that hangs from narrow balconies overhead. People bustle toward the metro station while deliverymen push handtrucks stacked with tanks of butane, clanging their wrenches on the metal canisters to announce their presence in the barri, each one crying their wares with their own distinctive inflection: “Buuuutano… butaaaano…butanooooo…” Subhash misses the mornings. They remind him of the early days, at his friend’s cousin’s convenience mart. The regular hours and steady pay. Things were better then. Before the store changed hands and Subhash lost his job, before chatarra.
That morning there are some decent finds. They pick up a boxy old TV abandoned by the curb. Within minutes, a heavy-set local man in a football jersey stops Subhash to ask about it.
“The TV, how much?” the man asks in a strong Spanish accent.
Before Subhash can speak Sajid holds up the five fingers of one hand. “Five euros,” he says. “Five euros, no problem.”
Subhash turns to his partner, eyes wide with surprise. It’s the first time he’s seen Sajid speak to a stranger. In English, no less. He rubs the dark stubble on his chin with a smirk and lets the boy handle the transaction.
The man seems unimpressed with Sajid’s offer. “It works, no?” he asks.
“You can make it work,” Sajid says.
The man scratches his head. “Two euro?”
Subhash scoops the TV out of the cart and hands it over. Smiling, he claps Sajid on the shoulder.
“Nicely done,” he says in English.
They follow the narrow sidewalks of the Raval, cross Las Ramblas into the Gothic quarter with its maze of cold grey flagstones and head toward the waterfront, to the Barceloneta, pressed on all sides by flocks of sunburnt tourists in tacky sunglasses.
Subhash gestures sourly at the slow-moving crowd. “You see why it’s better at night?” he says.
They reach the Passeig Maritim, where the Mediterranean horizon hovers to their right. There, two cops intercept them, a man and a woman in blue uniforms with reflective yellow vests. The woman holds a small paper coffee cup.
Sajid looks petrified. “Subhash-ji,” he whispers.
“Don’t worry,” Subhash says. “Leave it to me.”
He speaks to the police in his halting Spanish. The woman sips her coffee and listens, then clears her throat and asks to see their papers. For the moment everything’s in order: Sajid has a few weeks left on his temporary stay while his asylum request is processed, and a stamp on his passport to prove it.
“You see, Sajid, it’s not the police you have to worry about. Not now anyway.”
Sajid nods. “Hm,” he says.
“It’s the others. Others like us. Chatarreros. Ones who do not realize there’s enough to go around for everyone. They try to steal your trolley or fight you for it. They’re the ones you have to worry about.”
Call it the third law of chatarra: watch your back.
They make a left and head to the depot in the warehouse district, where the junk is sifted through and sorted. Prices fluctuate. Steel pulls in around 9 cents a kilo. About €1.70 for copper, though they’ve been known to pay up to 4. Same with aluminum. As usual, they have mostly steel, and each cartload fetches a mere handful of euros each.
They go straight back to work. Subhash pushes the cart slowly, mind clouded by fatigue. There are bills to pay, he chides himself. Money to send home. And aren’t you supposed to be saving? The trip to Kashmir isn’t cheap; coming here cost him half a million rupees. But maybe one day soon he can afford it. Or not so soon, maybe. But one day.
As they retrace the route back, Sajid points to a lone dumpster brooding near the corner of two sidestreets in the Poblenou.
“Subhash-ji,” he says. “We missed one.”
“Let me see,” Subhash says.
Subhash walks over, steps on the lever. The lid swings open, wafting the usual fetid smell at him. Subhash gives it the cursory look. Nothing of interest, just a bunch of stinky trash in plastic shopping bags with their handles tied in little bows. He’s about to close the lid when a glimmer inside catches his eye. Something resembling a wide-screen plasma TV lies at the bottom, partly covered with bags. The brand name isn’t showing but it looks like the good kind.
Without a sound the screen flicks on. As if activated by remote control held in an unseen hand. Subhash blinks his eyes in disbelief.
“What?” Sajid asks.
Subhash shushes him with a wave of the hand and blinks again. The screen glows a deep and solid blue, but there’s no signal, no connection, no possible explanation. The image brightens from blue to green, lighting up the inside of the dumpster with its glow. The screen begins to undulate, like waves passing gently over water. All at once the image shatters in myriad varicolored splinters. The splinters kaleidoscope to form a landscape, one that Subhash recognizes: a background of velvet green mountainside, the white façade of the family house, the branches of the chinar trees swaying in the breeze. The Kashmir of his childhood, his home. All framed in a plastic rectangle.
He hears voices. Familiar, far-off voices. Women and men. Children, the elderly. Aunts and uncles, brother and sisters and cousins he left behind. All whispering his name, just his name. So soft, yet somehow so much clearer than a videochat in some squalid cybercafe. They repeat his name, beckoning from thousands of miles away. Inviting him into the dumpster, into the screen.
Subhash turns and lifts his foot from the pedal with a jerk. The lid falls closed and there is silence.
“What is it, Subhash-ji?” Sajid asks.
“Nothing,” he replies. “Let’s go.”
Subhash goes home to the flat he shares with four of his compatriates in Carrer de Sant Ramon, not far from where the prostitutes are always hanging out. He slips off his shoes and stretches out on the bed with his eyes closed. He needs rest, so he can pick up again later that evening.
But the image won’t leave his mind. All afternoon the screen hangs before him, like some portal into a dream, glowing and ephemeral. That screen, and those voices. Hallucinations, surely.
A mirage, he tells himself with something like conviction. Misleading a thirsty man through the desert.
When they meet again at half past nine, Subhash hasn’t slept at all. They head straight for the Poblenou. Not far from the salvage depot, they pick up an entire oven. Subhash squints and inspects it drowsily. It looks nearly new, he thinks. Something must be wrong with it.
They’re stopped a little later by a scrawny old man in an overcoat, walking a tiny lapdog and smoking a cigar. The dog yaps and growls as the old man asks about the oven. Subhash does the talking this time, refusing the old man’s final offer of two euros. Some things are just worth more as scrap.
As the night goes on, Subhash croons softly to himself to stay awake, an old film song whose lyrics he only partly remembers. The cartwheels make a horrible racket as they cross the flower-shaped grooves in the sidewalk tiles. The local metalshops churn out plenty of scrap at closing time, and pickings are good this evening. Hours pass and when the lights go out in the windows they move their carts onto the relatively smooth pavement of the empty street, out of respect for the sleeping neighbors. Around midnight, though, Subhash hears the sound: another set of wheels rattling harshly on the sidewalk.
Two men in baseball caps round the corner up ahead, pushing a cart that’s mostly empty. They shout something in a language Subhash doesn’t recognize. One of them pulls his cart to a stop. He has long straight hair that hangs out the back of his cap and shines in the street lights. He points a thick finger at Sajid’s cart. “The trolley,” he says in Spanish.
“Give it to him,” Subhash says.
When Sajid looks up, his eyes are wide and fearful. His knuckles flex around the handlebar of the shopping cart. With a twist of his waist, he wheels around and runs, pushing the cart down the middle of the street. Subhash shouts at him to stop, but Sajid pays no mind.
The one in the baseball cap runs after him, laughing. He catches up and smacks him round the back of the head. Sajid stumbles. His face smashes audibly on the asphalt as he falls. The shopping cart rolls free, crashes into a signpost and pitches over with a clatter of steel on pavement. The other man coasts downhill with one foot on the back axle of his cart, and stops at the spot where Sajid lies. He holds down the legs while the first man sits on Sajid’s back pinning his arms to the ground with his knees. In seconds they rummage through his pockets and begin picking up the chatarra from Sajid’s cart and tossing it into their own.
“Hey,” Subhash says.
The second man turns around and looks at Subhash with cold grey eyes. In his hand, a butterfly knife flicks back and forth, shining yellow in the street light. Subhash backs off, pulling his cart around the corner and down the cross street. A couple of blocks away he stops and waits.
When he comes back, the men are gone and Sajid has not moved from where they left him. Subhash kneels and takes him gently by the shoulder, rolls him over so that he’s face up. He pats down the boy’s pockets. They’ve taken his wallet, his mobile, his keys, even his passport. “Sajid,” he says.
Sajid’s eyes are closed, his forehead is open and covered in blood. An inch-thick flap of skin hangs loosely from his eyebrow, near the left temple. “Mamaji,” he mumbles.
“Listen to me,” Subhash says. “I’m not your mamaji. It’s me, Subhash.”
“Mamaji,” Sajid says. “I can’t see, where are you?”
Cursing, Subhash stands and looks up and down the street, his mind a blur. Estimating the distance to the nearest hospital, the time an ambulance would take to reach them. The metro? No, closed for the night. No traffic in either direction. He kneels next to Sajid once more, whispers his name. No reaction, eyes still closed. Subhash scoops him up, holds his limp body in his arms, lays him inside the shopping cart full of chatarra.
“Sajid-ji,” he says. “Forgive me.”
Subhash pushes the shopping cart like mad across the blacktop. The occasional car swerves past, honking its horn and shouting. After a few more blocks, Subhash’s shirt is soaked in sweat. He stops to catch his breath.
“Mamaji,” Sajid moans. “Where are you taking me?”
“Sajid,” Subhash says.
Sajid’s head slumps back and to the left, and he lays in the cart, motionless. Ribcage perfectly still. Subhash begins pushing the cart again, slowly this time, eyes closed, singing softly to himself. About fifteen minutes later he reaches the dumpster they’d seen on the corner that morning.
“Sajid,” he says again.
This time there is no reply.
Subhash puts his foot on the lever and presses with all of his weight. The dumpster opens. The plasma-screen is still there. It snaps on same as before: blue at first, then a vibrant moving green that fills the dumpster with light. Awkwardly, with one foot holding the pedal to keep the lid open and the other steadying the shopping cart, Subhash lifts the boy’s body out of the cart and over the rim of the dumpster, and lets it rest upon the piles of trash inside.
Subhash mumbles a little prayer. “You’re going to see Mamaji now,” he says.
Sajid doesn’t respond. Subhash wipes a tear from each eye with the palms of his hands, takes his foot off the lever to close the lid, and steps away from the dumpster. As the lid falls shut he glimpses Sajid’s eyes opening in the soft green light. A smile.
Subhash stomps on the pedal again to lift the lid. When the dumpster opens, his partner is gone. Nothing inside but trash and the screen, dark and silent. He lets the lid fall, lifts it again, and then again, vainly hoping that the door would open, that the light would shine for him. But it’s no use.
Subhash then turns and pushes his cart along the asphalt, cutting through quiet streets on his way back to the Raval. On either side of him the curb is littered with chatarra: microwaves, extension cords, empty cans of paint and lengths of rebar. But Subhash doesn’t stop. Not tonight. He is tired, he is going home.
NM Whitley teaches, writes, and translates in the city of Barcelona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Newmyths.com, Stupefying Stories, and the anthology Master Minds, from Third Flatiron Publishing. He says:
The term chatarra in Spanish refers to ‘scrap metal’. For some people, many of them immigrants, it’s also the only available means of making a living. Chatarreros can be seen all over town, at all hours of the day, searching the curbsides and dumpsters. In light of this ‘first-world’ example–and many other, more disturbing examples in other parts of the world– one can’t help but wonder about the value of human labor, of human life itself, in the present-day proto-dystopia that’s become of our global economic and financial system.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.