Night Shift

Photo: Linda Alterwitz

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 off 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 prevailing. 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/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 areas, made a racket. The rare rainstorms that came in — monsoonal eruptions out of Mexico — caused the city sewers to overload and dump raw effluent 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 offshore. 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 the naked mom sleeping in the shower stall in Unit 3: no shit — bullshit — you’re shitting me. Then there were the civilian campground 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.

The better sections of the campground were reserved for the RVs and fifth wheels. They had nice fat pullouts with room for an extra car or pickup, a little grass so they could unfurl their awnings and set up their lawn chairs. Electric and sewer hookups. It was deluxe, as far as blacktop roughing it went.

The smaller RVs, Class 1 and shorter, got tawdrier, smaller parking slots. Yellower grass in narrower strips. Fewer oleanders. Farther from the golf course. And the suckers who came with tents — who should have had the smarts to head up to the Cuyamaca Mountains and at least hear a blue jay — why, they were crammed over on the far side, near the beach, but also near the adjacent trailer park with its tweakers and nocturnal Bachman Turner Overdrive recitals. Stray cats from the trailer park cruised our property, but there wasn’t any policy about them. They kept rodents under control and might have even dissuaded the skunks, which really enjoyed the French fries and Sno Balls scattered around the trailers.

MY FATHER HAD BEEN A JANITOR. He had spent his immigrant life sweeping bowling alleys, putting those mothball cakes in urinals. Shaking foot powder into bowling shoes. He didn’t want me scrubbing toilets, but it made more sense than what I’d announced would be my career: writing stories. I never thought about what must have bugged him so much: he was a Mexican bending his knees to clean up the spatter of Americans who couldn’t bother cleaning up after themselves; I was a nature-lover who fooled myself into thinking the Boy Scout way — I’d help keep nature clean.

Nature? We don’t got no stinkin’ nature.

“We are here to provide the Outdoor experience,” our crew pontificated, a speech typed up by Management on mimeographed handouts and recited in a monotone. “We aim to make the camping adventure as comfortable as home, with amenities found at good hotels.” Bud and I ignored these pep talks since we all knew we were a cut below a KOA Kamping Kabin park. The crew boss was an asshole from a state college, and his frat bro Joey hung out all night smoking and filching beer with him while we slaved.

We hummed along in our cart, making our way downtown — that is, we started with the expensive toilets and ended up down at the brown-trout hatchery. I went from stall to stall, flushing for those who were too impaired to push the chrome buttons set into the walls. Often, there would be a fecal catastrophe so extreme that I’d call Bud and we’d gaze in awe. There didn’t seem to be any difference between men and women — sometimes, campers would enter the stalls, bend at the waist, then explode like the victims in the movie The Fury. I was great at getting these action paintings off the partitions. The acid, however, began burning into my right arm. I developed tiny red blisters, and the nail on my ring finger got bubbles in it and finally came right off.

Bud had figured out how to stick bubble gum on a wire and fish quarters out of the old pinball machine in the “arcade” where we skulked to eat our sandwiches. The coins would slip down between the loose facing and the coin-return slot, and we could get two or three free games while we ate. Which is where the frat bros caught us. They had been watching us for a few nights, so they knew Bud wasn’t stealing coins out of the actual machine. It was like finding quarters on the floor. Joey, we argued, actually stole beer. But they wrote us up for theft anyway, and Joey got our job, and we were kicked out of paradise. Just like that. It was so fast, we didn’t even get to eat our oranges.

We drove out silently just as the sky was lightening. That was the year my father went down to Mexico to retrieve his savings from the bank so I could get a jump on that writing career. His dearest gift to me, in spite of his misgivings. Our small American dream. But Mexican cops, hunting for lone travelers, caught him in the deserts of Sonora. Another wasteland, another story. My father would die there, far from home.

Back by the bay, the campers slept in peace. A raccoon was outside the fence, walking back and forth, trying to find his way in. Once Bud and I cleared the gate, we turned on the radio. Loud. We got on I-5 and Bud said, “Now what?”

Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. Born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea has published extensively in all the major genres. The author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, IL, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.


  1. This essay brought back sweet/painful memories of growing up tent camping. I love that I shared the ground with lakes and mountains that we camped near–not like the high-rent RV campers who slept on mattresses above ground. But I still have discomfiting dreams about feces-strewn bathroom walls.

    Having just finished The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Urrea, I was delighted to see this article in Orion. I find his authenticity refreshing.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of the billions of my fellow humans who are struggling to survive, unseen and unthought of by myself and most of my middle class minority. You remind me that all the bullshit about the glorious free enterprise system is just an ugly lie told to justify the unjustifiable abuses the few are inflicting upon the many in our world. Until there is a widespread awakening of conscience we will continue to see war, poverty, cancer, and madness rule our misguided world. How can we do these things to each other?!
    I look forward to your future columns.

  3. I echo the praise of authenticity. It’s what draws me to him. Urrea leaves an indelible impression with whatever he writes. I fell in love with Teresita in The Hummingbird’s Daughter and was at the front of the line to pre-order Queen of America. I’m glad you have him in here. I already subscribe but now will be purchasing extra copies to share.

  4. The lack of comments and reaction to this piece makes me a little uneasy about Orion’s readership. Is it only the slick and pretty side of things that gets our attention? Is the material here a little too uncomfortable for middle class sensibilities?

  5. He never lets us avert our eyes, does he? What he tells is always worth knowing. Thank you for adding him to your writers roster.

  6. the appeal of wastelands are that they are not eternal. rather, vacant lots and dumps and other wastelands are transitory, shaped by irregular disturbance, nature/culture hybrid landscapes that are coproductions of both humans and nonhumans. I was left wondering what the skunk and raccoon thought of the campground.

  7. The agricultural drainage ditch a few blocks from my grandmother’s house in Salinas was actually a conduit for raw sewage of every sort. On its dirt embankments we built wooden rafts from discarded pallets on which we explored the nether reaches of endless lettuce fields; knowing that if we touched the water we would probably die of a horrible disease. It was horrible, it stunk, but it was an adventure – it was, all the nature we had.

  8. I agree! It’s really quiatly not quantity. What’s important is you have true friends. I’m always thankful for having a bunch of real superfriends too. Kaya I don’t worry too much if hinde man ako magkaron ng kaibigan dito.

  9. I must say this is a very fine piece of writing… I could recall my days of around 8 years ago and could feel the same as you…

  10. Hi, can someone explain this story to me because I am confused. just a brief summary. please and thank you

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