In a Little Old Shack

Daniel Corrigan

It is a cold, moonlit Saturday night in Minneapolis. Legions of crows stream into Loring Park and gather in the treetops. On the ground, carloads of revelers mimic the process, circling the congested neighborhood for places to park. Many will opt for the self-service lot just off Hennepin Avenue. At its entrance stands the hallmark of the industry: a tiny wooden hut. This one is a triumph of function over form, rough-hewn and perhaps 20 feet square. Inside, Tony Hornes is perched on a battered office chair, looking every inch a Minnesotan in his parka and snow boots. But his voice tells another story: raspy and gruff, it still bears the stamp of his native Louisiana. An electric space heater wheezes heroically. Jazz music and cigarette smoke swirl about, as if competing for space.

Hornes is sturdy and compact; his bearing suggests a lifetime of hard work. As motorists pull in, he slowly lurches out of the booth and bellows his standard greeting: "Evening! Evening! Four dollars!" The lot has 54 spaces arranged in a herringbone pattern. Hornes issues each patron a ticket and a brief instruction: "Make a left here, anywhere you wanna park." SUVs and European sedans are well represented. Common sense is not. Many customers seem baffled by the transaction. "Four dollars?" Finally, the idea registers and the hunt for money begins. During busy periods, the "Full" sign draws puzzled inquiries. Hornes bears it all graciously, though he'd rather be sitting in the relative warmth of his booth.

Between customers, Hornes relates stories of bygone days. They pour out in one broad ellipse, spanning huge swaths of time and physical space. "Back in Louisiana, I drove 78 miles each way to work. That was for Standard Oil, at the refinery. Pollutin' the Mississippi River," he laughs. "I wasn't like these guys today. They say, 'I can't find no work.' Ain't no jobs? Get further. Go till you find 'em." Around 1950, the refinery job played out and Hornes headed for Dallas. "Oh, no, I didn't like that. I couldn't get the kind of job I wanted. I washed dishes for a week, got the wrinkles outta my stomach, and hit the road again. I'm a roadrunner, man!"

A late model Camaro enters the lot. "This here is my buddy, I believe," says Hornes. "I don't even know what he is [ethnically]. He come outta the salad bowl!" he laughs. The young man behind the wheel carries a trace of an accent, Latino perhaps. "What's up, man?" he offers. "Ain't nothin' shakin' but the bacon!" Hornes replies. "Four dollars." Buddy or not, the young man will have to pay to park. He feigns indignation: "Damn, George Bush!" Hornes takes the bait. "Don't call me Bush!" he hollers, "'cause I'll sue you for this car!"

Back at the booth, Hornes picks up the thread where he left off--his escape from Texas. "Got mad and hit the road again. When I let up then, I was in Los Angeles. A wino, a harvest tramp, he told me where work was. Pickin' peas," he spits derisively. "I couldn't pick no peas; I went to weighin' them sons of bitches. A guy gave me a break an' taught me how to do it. [As a harvest supervisor] I worked one place to the 'nother: California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. There's money in it if you learn it. You got to pass the state and the cannery. You get the farmer a good grade," he confides, "he'll give you a bonus. See, I used to work 80 Mexicans in pear season. And they was coyotes, doggone it! That's what you call cheaters: coyotes. They'll have them boxes stacked up. They say 'bout 30, 40 boxes? Unh uh," he laughs. "They got empty boxes in the middle. I had to learn how to count in Mexican, then I had to learn how to cuss in Mexican. Then I was on my way. You don't get nowhere by cheatin'. But some people got to cheat."

At the far end of the parking lot, four young men are easing a huge pickup out of its berth. Three of them serve as dock hands, coaching its driver to stop, turn, pull forward, back up. They finally succeed and pile in. The truck is immaculate from stem to stern, obviously more an accessory than a vehicle of any real utility. "I'll betcha he ain't got no work for that truck," Hornes scoffs. "Them young guys? No, they ain't got no work for that truck."

The night draws to a close and Hornes takes final account. "Yeah, man, I been around. I've done everything. Anything money in it, I'll do it. My friends tell me, 'Man, you oughta retire.' What I wanna retire for? Set in a bar and drink, spend all my money? I ain't doin' that heavy work no more. I know when to back off." He pauses for a long moment, as if to hear his own words resonate. "Yeah, man. Tony done made it."

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