Communication breakdown, it’s always the same

When it comes to immigrants, I’m inclined to be tolerant.

Tolerance was part of my upbringing, but experience solidified it: In adolescence, I spent several summers working for an uncle who grew strawberries in an area later known as Silicon Valley.

I’m not sure who was legal and who wasn’t, or even if that distinction was made then, but Jose and Rosa and Arturo were at work when I struggled out of bed at dawn. They outworked me all day long and were still sweating when I dragged myself to bed before full dark.

At harvest time, Joe, considered a fair man, paid them 20 cents for filling a bag that would have held an Irish setter, with room left over for a spaniel. I can’t remember what they got for wielding a short-handled hoe, but at lunchtime on my first day, the foreman made a little speech in Spanish and ceremoniously handed me 12 cents and the first burrito I’d ever seen. Over the next few weeks, without troubling my uncle, my parents or the Department of Motor Vehicles, he taught me to drive, and I joined the privileged few allowed to run Joe’s old flatbed Ford to the cannery in San Jose.

(Parenthetical thought, as you can tell by the parentheses: Is it hard to believe that just one long generation ago, a Californian could reach his teens without having seen, much less eaten, a burrito?)

None of this has much to do with our topic today. Before I get to that, though, I wanted to establish myself as a non-xenophobe. I don’t share the pervasive Nevada fear of immigrants. I admire people with the courage to come to a country where the language and customs are strange, and I stand in awe of anyone who works as hard as many immigrants must to get along.

Having said that, though: I’ve just had one of the most frustrating conversations of my life, and it took place with a foreign national.

It started with a phone call, of which I understood 5 percent: the name of a company, a rough approximation of my wife’s name ("Teddi” for “Terri” was easy; “Farley” is irreproducible) and the words “past due” and “disconnect.”

I didn’t recognize the company, so I asked what the bill was for.

The caller was sorry, but he could discuss that only with Teddi Mxyzptlk.

“She’s out of town. Can I take a message?”

Certainly, but that wouldn’t stop the disconnect. To do that, I must pay. For my convenience, I could use a credit card. (I’ve condensed a long linguistic struggle down to a few lines here.)

Am I going to give my credit card number to a stranger on the phone? Not unless I found her listed under “Massage.”

“Could you tell me what you’re billing us for?” If it was important, I planned to ask if I could pay online, on the silly theory that the website would provide security.

No, he couldn’t. He could discuss that only with Teddi.

“Terri is not available, and I’m not going to give you a credit card number. The best I can do is get a message to her in the next couple of days.”

“Sir, then I am sorry. I cannot help you,” and he hung up.

That was six hours ago. The lights haven’t gone off. The cable works. The phone’s OK. I still admire anyone with the courage to start over, but somebody wants money and is going to shut something off sometime soon, and I have no idea who or why.

I just hope they hold off until Teddi gets home.