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Brazil or Chill


Published January 9, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Could you come pick up Natalie at the restaurant?” a familiar voice spoke to me on the cellular. I’m still not sure who makes this regular call — the kitchen manager, I suppose.

“Sure,” I replied. “I should be there in about 10. Little early tonight, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s a slow weeknight, so we finished up early.”

I’ve been driving Natalie from her dishwasher job to her apartment at South Meadow for the better part of the past year. She works a second job cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn, but that’s early in the day, before I go on duty. Anyway, I’m pretty sure she takes the bus to and from the day job. At working-class wages, you don’t take unnecessary taxis.

Natalie is an immigrant from Brazil with a still-sketchy command of English. Her first language is Portuguese. Lately her English has improved by leaps and bounds, so our small chats require less exaggerated pantomime than previously.

I pulled up to the restaurant and watched Natalie as she approached the taxi. She has a round, pleasing face, soft features and warm eyes. Everything about her is short — her legs, arms and fingers. Short, but strong: The muscles in her hands and forearms are noticeable.

“Hello, hello, hello,” Natalie greeted me as she got in the front seat. As always, she was smiling like it was Christmas morning. I don’t think I’ve met another person who seems more delighted with life. I think of the triple hello as her trademark sign-on. Given her limited English vocabulary, my guess is she compensates by repeating the words she does know two or three times.

“Hey, there, Natalie,” I replied. “How ya doing tonight? Working hard, huh?”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” she said with a laugh. “Always working hard. Always.”

I noticed for the first time that she sort of sung when she spoke. Conversing with her was like entering into that ’60s French flick, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where all the dialogue is set to melody.

“It’s tough to get ahead, isn’t it?” I remarked. “Working two jobs can’t be easy for you.”

“No, no!” she reacted with a vehemence that surprised me. “I don’t mind working hard. This country is great! I have good apartment — nice and clean — and even after bills, I send money back to my family in Brazil.”

Man, I thought to myself, anyone taking life in America for granted should get out and talk to a recent immigrant. Even those of us hanging on to the lower rungs of the economic ladder have ready access to the basic necessities of life. Speak to some of our new Southeast Asian, East European or Tibetan neighbors if you think that’s a small thing. I guess we can add Brazilian neighbors to that list as well.

I took the left onto Pine Street — the cabdriver’s “friend.” What other Burlington street runs for a couple of miles with rarely a traffic jam and only two stoplights? The road was clear tonight, with but a smidgen of slush and ice dotting the center line. I’m thankful for any winter day I don’t have to negotiate snowy streets.

“Are you working straight through the whole winter, Natalie,” I asked, “or are you gonna take some time off?”

“No, no,” she sang. “I have ticket to go Saõ Paulo next week. I will get one month there. It too cold here, too cold!”

We turned into the South Meadow development and slowed to a crawl as we jounced through a series of speed dips. A small army of kids lives in these housing units, and the canyon-like dips were designed to keep them alive. Natalie, as far as I knew, lived alone and had no children.

“What will you do in Brazil?” I asked as we approached her apartment. “Did you say you have family down there?”

“Oh yes, oh yes!” she replied, her eyes sparkling at the thought. “I have many, many — how you say? — nephews and also the girls.”

“Nieces, you mean?”

“Yes, yes, nieces. Many little raparigas.”

Natalie’s eyes were misty as we pulled to a stop. What a soul-shaking decision it must be, I thought, to pick up and move to a new country. All the loved ones left behind. I don’t know if I’d have it in me.

“The first thing when I get to Saõ Paulo,” Natalie said as she paid the fare, “do you know what is for me?” The smile on her face was irresistible.

“Tell me, Natalie.”

“I go to the beach with my friends, and on that beach, in the night, we dance the samba.”

Every time I feel that cold air coming off the lake, I think of her on a balmy Brazilian shore, the water gently lapping onto the beach. It’s dusk, the music is playing, and she’s laughing and dancing the samba. This mental picture is the secret layer that will keep me warm all winter.


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