Everything in this world ultimately connects; I believe this with all my heart. No problemo! I like to say. No problemo. And neighbors who know better smile at this foolish gringo fumbling the graceful mother tongue. They are kind to me, a dignified senior citizen complete with bus pass, monthly checks from the government, and an old house that is constantly in need of repair.

All these matters are connected, you will see, as are the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the approach of Christmas. Did you know, by the way, that in Mexico the flowers we speak of as snapdragons are called “barking dogs”?

Homeless people are working the parking lot at Handy Andy’s on Elston. This is related too. “Have you got any change?” they ask, as if change isn’t really money. What kind of a country are we becoming when even beggars resort to euphemisms?

Lately I’ve been spending more time and money at Handy Andy than I really care to think about. For you apartment dwellers, Handy Andy is the K mart of home repair; people who own homes know this whether they want to or not. When the toilet refuses to flush, when the kitchen light switch emits bright blue sparks and explodes, when the porch railing gives way on a Sunday morning, Handy Andy is open and waiting for you.

Here is a partial list of things you can buy at Handy Andy:

Raw lumber cut to your specifications, nails, hammers, screwdrivers, saws, and drills with which to work it, garden supplies, storm windows and aluminum gutters, cordless telephones, steel shelving, venetian blinds, vinyl floor tile, genuine Chinese rugs, paint, plaster, putty, and artificial Christmas trees, metal folding chairs, a 36-inch fireplace unit, multipurpose fire extinguisher just in case, an electronic stud sensor (no jokes, please), extra wide suspenders, a build-it-yourself two- car garage, and a free Pink Panther watch if you buy 15 rolls of Owens Corning Pink Fiberglass insulation during the month of November.

No wonder one of these characters in the parking lot thinks he can sell me a camcorder. “How about it, pops?” Pops? How would he like it if I called him “boy”?

But today’s errand does concern recreational electronic equipment, specifically my stereo and my collection of long-playing records, which has finally exceeded its storage space. For this I thank the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose 1958 recording of Ma Vlast is, in my opinion, a must-own collector’s item.

Several years ago I ventured this opinion to my numero uno son. What a shame it is, I said, that this album is no longer available. What a shame it is that none of those grand old Mercury Hi-Fi classics are available, now that I can finally afford them. Compact disc reissues, of course, do not count. Numero Uno being the type of a son who enjoys a challenge, the following Christmas I was not only presented with a copy of Ma Vlast, but an entire orange crate full of original Living Presence albums, and the Christmas after with another. Where he got them is difficult to imagine, but he has his ways. Obviously, gifts so precious cannot be allowed to molder in a spare room, at least not for more than a year or two.

Or until Handy Andy eventually solves the problem. One of the many many items on sale this month is a three-shelf bookcase– available in natural wood or attractive black finish–that looks like it ought to do the job.

So I negotiate the parking lot, running the gauntlet of homeless people. Christmas music is playing next to the Halloween pumpkins, and the woman at the register seems blissfully unaware that she will be listening to it for the next three months.

The three-shelf bookcase turns out to be exactly what I need, measurements and all, and well within my budget. There is only one hitch. The bookcase on display is not the one you buy. The one you buy comes in pieces.

But how much trouble can it be to assemble a simple bookcase? After all, I am a man who just finished installing a new bathroom sink, faucets, and vanity. Even though the drain still leaks, I offer this as evidence that I know what I am about when it comes to home improvement projects. I lug the box up to the register (you don’t exactly get “waited on” at Handy Andy), pay for it with my Visa, and now for the fun.

Only when I reach home do I remember all the bad luck I’ve been having lately with Handy Andy merchandise. Parts missing or misformed, that drain that’s still leaking, nonexistent instructions for the bathroom faucet. No project ever gets finished, it seems, without a second, third, and sometimes fourth trip to the store. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see the instructions flutter out of the box and land at my feet.

Pare! Verifique que su caja contiene todas las partes!

This, as anyone can see, is not English.

Checking carefully I learn that my bookcase, modelo numero 2130, was manufactured by Muebles Ameriwood, P.O. Box 270, Dowagiac, MI 49047 EEUU–USA.

Clearly, this merchandise was meant for export to Mexico, probably refused at the border the last time Ross Perot shot off his mouth. To hell with it. Who needs instructions to assemble a simple bookcase?

Why, I’ve already figured out what this verifique que su caja stuff means. It means check the contents of the box.

A vertical izquierdo, a vertical derecho. Those must be the sides. Two anaqueles estacionarios, two anaqueles graduables. Perhaps shelves? But why then are some estacionarios and the others graduables, and how am I to know which is which? What, I wonder, is a viga? Or an entrepano posterior? Twenty-five clavos? In a little package of hardware, I find 25 tiny nails. Now I’m getting somewhere. Two tornillos. I find two screws and a little bracket they seem intended for. Could that be the esquadra? This leaves eight kd cerrojos, eight kd tarabillas, eight tarugos, and four soportes de los anaqueles graduables. It goes without saying that Muebles Ameriwood does not provide a diagram.

Now I know how it must feel to be an immigrant in a land where people speak an alien tongue. Every purchase, every encounter, every page of the menu, every turn of the road. Pare!

Now I remember the Polish gentleman at Dominick’s who filched a dog biscuit from the bulk food barrel and actually took a bite. He’s probably still wondering how Americans can eat those cookies.

I manage the izquierdo, the derecho, the anaqueles estacionarios, the anaqueles graduables, and even the viga. (It turns out to be a board that goes along the bottom.) There’s a picture of modelo numero 2130 on the box and that helps. But there is nothing at all to help me with the cerrojos, the tarabillas, the tarugos, and the soportes de los anaqueles graduables. I’m looking at a collection of plastic pegs, oddly shaped screws, and eight round metal objects resembling nothing I have ever seen before. Maybe these, I am hoping, are intended for those eight matching round holes someone has routed into the anaqueles graduables, but what happens next I have no idea.

Fortunately, I have a Spanish-English dictionary. I always knew it would come in handy. I turn the instruction sheet over, open up my dictionary, and try my luck. Inserte cuatro kd tarabillas en dos anaqueles estacionarios. Verifique que las flechas en las tarabillas apuntan directamente hacia las cavidades…

Must I get into my car, drive back to Handy Andy, fight my way through those homeless people, endure that Christmas music again, and find a clerk who actually waits on people? Or (and here is how the people on my block fit into this story) what about the neighbors, almost any one of them could easily read this stuff. How merrily they would laugh at my plight–and that is exactly why they will never learn of it! Mexicans are not the only people in this world who care about being macho.

It’s a slow painful process, looking up words in the dictionary, which is printed in tiny tiny type, but ultimately it becomes almost satisfying, like piecing together the answers on Wheel of Fortune before Vanna flips the cards. Flechas, I discover, means arrows, and this identifies the mysterious round objects as tarabillas, for they and they alone have flechas stamped upon them. Tarugos, my dictionary tells me, are wooden pegs, close enough to the plastic ones I have, which leaves only the eight curiously designed screws, so they must be the cerrojos. My dictionary identifies cerrojos as bolts or latches, and tarabillas as clappers or latches; could it be these things latch together?

They do! Suddenly I understand the entire scheme and like any good American impatiently plunge ahead, anxious to see my three-shelf bookcase assembled in its attractive black finish. Not only have I mastered a mechanical problem, I have done it in another language! Moments later (how easy things are now) there it stands, a bit wobbly, yes, but looking almost like the picture on the box. I have all of three seconds to admire it before, with a horrible crash, the whole thing falls apart. Bits of cheap particle board go flying in all directions as the cerrojos are torn from their moorings. The tarugos and the tornillos bounce across the floor and modelo numero 2130 lands in ruins at my feet. Why didn’t somebody tell me I was supposed to tighten the tarabillas?

An hour later, with the aid of extra screws and nails, glue, and a roll of duct tape, I have the thing back together, but it will never again look like that lovely picture on the box. It stands now in a corner of my study, waiting for me to lower my guard so it can collapse again, this time destroying my priceless collection of Living Presence records. Meanwhile, vote-hungry politicians, playing on the fears of American workers, happily work against free trade.

They may succeed. But Mexico, land of the tarabilla and the anaqueles graduables, will not go away. And the people of Mexico, who come to our country and learn how to assemble book shelves, fix cars, and install bathroom sinks, and take care of themselves in an alien culture, never mind what language instructions are written in, will still be there, and here as well, to remind us that we may not exactly be as smart and superior as we think we are. (For the record, I still haven’t learned what a viga is called in English.)

So what lesson is learned? None. We Americans do not take lessons, we give them. We are the richest and most exalted nation in all the history of this earth, and we have nothing to learn from our impoverished neighbors.

Not even how to tighten up our tarabillas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.