Let me tell you a story! You’ve probably already heard it, but I’ll tell it again, this time with interjections colorfully placed by Javier Bardem’s character in the Spanish movie Mondays in the Sun, as he read it to a small child. He was meant to be babysitting, but the kid got a crash course in social ethics before bedtime as well:
The Grasshopper and the Ant
Once upon a time, there was a grasshopper and an ant. The ant was very hardworking and the grasshopper wasn't. He liked to dance and sing, while the ant went about his tasks. Time went by. The ant worked and worked all summer long. He saved all he could and when winter came, the grasshopper was dying of hunger and cold while the ant had everything. ("That ant is a real bastard!") The grasshopper knocked on the ant's door, and the ant said to him, "Grasshopper, Grasshopper, if you had worked as hard as I did, you wouldn't be hungry and cold now." And he didn't open the door! (“Who wrote this? Because this isn't how it is! That ant is a piece of shit and a speculator. And it doesn't say why some are born grasshoppers. Because if you are, you're fucked. And it doesn't say that here.”)
The movie revolves around a group of friends who lose their jobs in a Spanish shipyard and are left to float, unmoored and seeking meaning beyond their employment (or lack thereof). They have relationship issues, they drink, they laugh sardonically at what little they have. As the “Making Of” said, it’s not based on a true story. It’s based on a million.
The scene with the kid in the bedroom, who lay wide-eyed and silent at this strange, thick-bearded man who wanted to tell him what the world was really about, struck me more than any other. Everyone has seen world-weary men drinking their pennies away in some dark bar (I will never forget the tightness I felt in my throat, senior year of college, as my friends and I drank Olympia ironically at The Knarr Bar, quite possibly the world’s dirtiest watering hole, when I saw a shriveled, bent old man come in with a wad of grimy bills in one hand. He took a seat at the bar, which appeared to fit his backside perfectly as if it had been reserved for him, and ordered the first of many brews that would get him through the rest of the night. I didn’t want to look at him anymore, so strong was my heartbreak for the way our tongue-in-cheek night out was the equivalent of his lifestyle. His sadness, and then my own, was palpable). Everyone has seen men become shells of themselves as they drown in apathy, which Oscar Wilde accurately considers the worst illness man can contract.
But to watch this character, who was fiery and alive and appropriately bitter and unwilling to shut up about it, seemed an anomaly against the grey backdrop of his tired, tired friends. And the scene in the bedroom, in which he informed an innocent that not everyone would be sleeping in a warm bed that night, that not everyone is fortunate enough to be born an Ant and not a Grasshopper, meant he hadn’t given up. He was funny and honest and smart. He was mad as hell and the kid wasn’t going to be spared any of the ugly details of Adam Smith’s world order. It was one of the most refreshing things I have scene in terms of cinematic social commentary. But it also hurt my heart because the night before, as in so many nights these past few years, I had spent an evening with a Grasshopper, hearing about the same things firsthand.
Cynthia is a mom from Mexico, and I’ve gotten to know her while working with her sweet son Emilio this year at TT Minor. I arrived at their apartment, a lovely space on a tree-lined street in the Central District. Despite being one of the best-off Latino immigrants I have met in the past two years, she struggles, now specifically because her smart and potential-laden son cannot get a break when it comes to school. She had come from the year-end carnival that the school district threw for TT, which we agreed was a pathetic consolation prize in light of the fact that they have mostly been ignored and brushed aside for so long.
(Side note—the jury is still out for me on what I think about TT closing. I want to say that the school itself isn't the real issue, in light of the fact that kids everywhere are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education. But then I remember what Paul Farmer said in Mountains Beyond Mountains: "If you focus on individual patients, you can't get sloppy." In other words, let's not generalize the bigger picture. Let's find the kid next door, see what's going on, and if it's not good, he probably isn't the only one.)
“Where is Emilio going to school next year?” I asked, then remembering that he would be bussing down to Leschi.
“But what is the closest school to you here?” I added.
“Stevens is just a few blocks away,” she said with a smirk. “But we applied for him, and he didn’t get in.”
“Why not? He’s a smart kid. I don’t understand the district’s methods at all.”
She looked at me sideways, half a laugh on her lips and a shrug lifting her shoulders slightly. “He’s a minority, so it makes it tougher. Only white kids go to Stevens.”
It’s hard for me to forget about my Emilios when I go home at night. It’s hard to watch the Grasshoppers (which is not necessarily a race thing-- although racial lines tend to blend into class lines, they aren’t an exact intersection) get a bad rap. Why did the Ant win over wintertime? Is it because he worked harder and did a better job than the Grasshopper? No! (and if someone tries to tell you that the Grasshopper danced and sang all summer, they probably have never met one in person) and why doesn’t anyone ask about what kind of parents the Grasshopper had, if he was a different color that was looked at a little suspiciously, or whether or not he had been able to access the same quality of education as the Ant had? “This book is bullshit,” Javier told the kid. He’s right. It’s not a science, this business of success. But it doesn’t have to be so uneven to get a fair shake at the beginning.
The movie comes to its emotional conclusion with a speech in a bar, after a (SPOILER ALERT!) friend of theirs dies from alcoholism. The remaining group is bickering about whether or not their dearly departed friend left anything tangible in his wake.
"He didn't say anything."
"He did, but he was hard to understand. Like... like Siamese twins. They're stuck together. If one falls, we all fall. And if one gets fucked, that's it. So do the others. Because we're the same thing. The same thing."