May Day

June 9, 2017

During the year I spent living in São Paulo, I became obsessed with graffiti. With its gated communities and high-security shopping malls, the city can seem hostile, as though built on a scale too large for its own residents. But it comes alive and is filled with color by the people who find ways to remake the city into something that is their own.

This interest in how individual paulistanos relate to their city was what first drew me to 35, the young protagonist of "May Day," who sets off bright and early one International Workers' Day determined to celebrate the occasion but is disappointed at every turn. Instead of parades of workers filling the streets, he finds the city center empty except for policemen guarding the shop doorways, and a newspaper tells him that São Paulo has banned all rallies and marches that year.

"May Day" is written in winding, breathless sentences that mirror the young protagonist's rushes of feeling and circuitous path through the city, and retaining this in English—a language less sympathetic to long, comma-bound sentences than Portuguese—was a challenge. In my early drafts of the translation I experimented with shorter sentences and more conventional punctuation, but I soon realized that so much of the story's meaning is contained in its rhythms that I would have to work to recreate them as well as I could.

—Annie McDermott

Click anywhere below to read the story in the original Portuguese.

May Day had come at last, and 35 was out of bed before the clock had even struck six. He was in high spirits, positively jubilant, and had already announced to his colleagues at the station that he would be celebrating the occasion and that they all should too. The other, older porters laughed and told him not to be daft, he should turn up at work like everyone else, who ever heard of a porter taking a day off? But, head held high, 35 retorted that he wouldn't be carrying anyone's suitcase that day, thank you very much, May Day belonged to the workers and it was theirs to celebrate. And the great day was finally here, stretching out before him.

A whole day to himself … first he wanted a shower, to prepare himself properly. The water was icy, laughing, celebrating, and in the sky outside a huge cold sun had risen. Then it was time to shave. All he had in the way of a beard was a little soft blond fluff, but off he went anyway to fetch his Saturday razor, which used to belong to his father. And he began shaving slowly, carefully. He was naked, though only from the waist up because his mother was at home, and every so often he was startled by a glimpse of his muscles in the mirror, the almost incongruous muscles that had developed in his arms, chest, and neck after all those days of heavy lifting. There was something both glorious and stupid about 35, and as he shaved, he felt pleased about those precocious muscles.

He was taking his time, deep in thought. There would be a hell of a brawl later, he knew it, and he was going to punch every policeman he saw right in the face. Not that he had anything against the police, particularly, but the occasion seemed to call for it somehow. After his twenty easy years in the world, 35 had learned, more from reading the newspapers than from experience, that the proletariat were oppressed. And the papers had said there would be big May Day demonstrations—in Paris, in Cuba, in Chile, in Madrid.

A rush of love quickened his motions with the razor. It was happening in Madrid, it was happening in Chile—was Chile in South America, he couldn't quite remember—and they were his people doing it … A wave of sympathy, a warm embrace, rippled outwards from his whole body, a healthy, pure male impulse to set off for those unknown lands, unknown but with his people in them, to defend, fight, overcome … Was that communism? Maybe. But 35 wasn't quite sure, he got so muddled by the news, the papers all said such different things, some called what was happening in Russia sublime, others called it horrendous, and if young 35 had learned anything from experience, it was not to believe everything he heard. So he didn't. He'd rather have a good brawl any day, because he wasn't afraid of anyone, not even a champion boxer like Carnera, and imagine, just imagine landing a punch right smack bang on a copper's nose … The razor was moving more quickly again. But then 35 had to stop imagining, because he had reached the dashing little film-star mustache that was dearer to him that anything else in the world. He remembered the girl in the flat—and yes, true, he'd never gone back to see if she fancied another go, the little tart! He laughed.

At last 35 left the house, a handsome sight. Dressed in his best black suit, a green-and-yellow striped tie tied in a clumsy knot, and on his feet those magnificent yellow kid leather shoes he hadn't been able to resist. The green of the tie and the yellow of the shoes, the colors of the Brazilian flag, reminding him of his school days … And he took a deep breath, his heart swelling with love for that immense Brazil of his, immense, colossal, gigantic—he was walking more briskly now, whistling to himself. But then he stopped short and looked around in alarm. He was going the wrong way: this was the way to work.

His obvious uncertainty reminded him all over again that it was May Day, that he was celebrating and didn't have anything to do. Very well then, first he'd go into the city center and see what was happening there. He could still go via the station, it was a bit out of his way but it meant he'd be able to call in and wish his fellow porters a happy May Day. But when he got there, his colleagues met his festive greeting with hoots of laughter. The bastards. And there was nothing for him to do in the center either, everything was closed in honor of the glorious occasion. Hardly anyone in the streets. They must all be having a very early lunch, so as to be done in time for the great May Day football match that afternoon. In fact, all 35 could see were policemen, policemen on every corner, in the doorways of all the locked-up cafés and bars, the jewelry shops—as if anyone would be planning a robbery today!—the banks, the lottery booths. 35 felt angry at the police all over again.

And not seeing a single person he recognized, he bought a newspaper to see what was going on. He thought about going to a café, having a cup of coffee, and reading for a bit. But most of the cafés were shut, and 35 thought he'd better save his money for the time being anyway because who knew what might happen later. It was a beautiful day, the most sensible plan would be to find a park bench in a sunny spot and sit there. Not a cloud in the sky, just a few little wisps floating through the happy air. For the second time that day, 35 found himself heading automatically toward the station. That was the part of the city he knew best, the part where he worked and felt most at home. It occurred to him that the benches in the Anhangabaú gardens were closer, but he felt more comfortable in the park opposite the station. He told himself this was because the park there was prettier—and, after all, he was celebrating. He continued his festive stroll.

On his way back through the station, he saw the other porters still hard at work. He felt odd about that, but didn't know why—annoyed, perhaps, or wishing he was with them, he couldn't say. Not that he wanted to think too hard about it … Doing his best to hide his feelings, he marched straight past his colleagues as if in a terrible rush, turning back only to shake a defiant fist, "Just you wait!" But he was met with a chuckle here, a smirk there, a murmured comment—his fellow porters, supposedly such great friends, were making fun of him. 35 felt stupid, humiliated, he couldn't help it. He hated them all.

Quickening his pace, he went into the park opposite the station; the first bench he came to was his salvation, and he sat down. But what if one of his colleagues spotted him there and laughed at him even more? The very thought made him angry, and he hastened further into the park to find a more secluded bench. There were already a few black women waiting around, open to offers. And something occurred to 35, a half-formed thought, one he'd rather not think at all, namely that he wasn't so very different from them himself. But no, he wasn't just waiting around, he was celebrating, he could never believe he had anything in common with them—so he didn't. He shook the newspaper open. And straight away there was a wonderful article, very short, all about the nobility of work, about the workers who were also "the nation's workers"—yes, that was it, that was exactly it. 35's heart beat faster with pride. If they asked him, "aksed" him, to kill someone he'd do it, or rob someone, he'd work for no pay, anything at all, overcome by a sublime longing for solidarity, everyone together and every one of them good … Then the news: "huge demonstrations" were expected in Paris, and 35 felt angry all over again. Trembling, almost breathless, every muscle in his body aching for a demonstration (i.e., a brawl), and oh yes, punching someone right in the face … but who? A policeman? Yes, definitely a policeman. The bastards deserved it.

Because there it was on the front page of the paper: in São Paulo the police had banned rallies and marches, although there was vague talk of a demonstration that afternoon in the Cathedral square. But they had taken all the necessary precautions, they even had machine guns, and they were everywhere, in the newspapers, on the tops of the skyscrapers, whether you could see them or not. 35 shivered. The sun was scorching—how about finding a bench in the shade? But there weren't any benches in the shade: to clamp down on lovers' carryings-on, the council had made sure all the benches were in direct sunlight at all times. And what's more, there were all those guards and policemen, whistles at the ready in case you so much as reached for a girl's hand. The police were going to let the big proletarian rally take place, though, with a speech from the illustrious Minister for Work, in the magnificent inner courtyard of the Palace of Industries—but that was an enclosed space! What a dreadful thought. He wasn't scared exactly, but why did they have to shut them in like that? He knew why, he knew perfectly well why. It's so that afterwards we've got nowhere to run (swearword)! Well, I'm not going! I'm no fool! I mean—of course I'm going! Teach them to mess with us! (Swearword), punch after punch, a tumultuous vision, rolling in the dust, cuts and bruises but it didn't matter, the furious crowd pouring out of the Palace of Industries, setting fire to the Palace of Industries—but no!—that's us, we're industry, "the nation's workers"—setting fire to the nearest church instead then, the Church of São Bento that was so pretty inside, although did they really need to set fire to anything? (35 had got as far as his first communion as a boy … ) Better not to perhaps, we'll turn up at the Governor's Palace, demand the government give us everything we want, go and see the General of the Military Region, though all you'll get from a gaucho southerner like him is an army invading your city—well, we'll set fire to his palace then. Fine. 35 could get behind that, not because he had any kind of separatist leanings (whatever they'd tried to teach him in school), but because he'd always harboured a certain bitterness about São Paulo's defeat in the 1932 uprising. It was almost like sport, actually, like the feeling after a big Palestra vs. Corinthians match, seeing your team destroyed, why should he go killing himself in the name of some stupid so-called democratic revolution, let "them" do it … ! If it had at least happened on May Day … 35 felt his whole body welling up, overflowing with a generous spirit of sacrifice. Once again that great wave of empathy, he was prepared to die, and die smiling—but death … he recoiled in shame from the idea. To die like that, so handsome, so young. He suddenly remembered the girl in the flat …

Reading on rescued him—because look, the workers' representatives in Parliament would be arriving in the city at nine, and the paper were inviting the people of São Paulo to the North Station (the rival station—disappointing!) to welcome the great men. He sprang to his feet and glanced up at the station clock—oh no! He was cutting it fine—would he make it?

As he ran through the park, as he was celebrating, he scuffed one of his beautiful shoes on the edge of the flower bed (swearword), stopped to spit on the mark, gave it a quick polish and then boarded the tram for the city center, going a slightly longer way round to avoid seeing the other porters again. The usual hustle and bustle in there; they were all doing a great job. He boarded another tram to Brás. There was nothing in the papers about the representatives, except for one who'd been insulting the church and calling for divorce to be made legal; now, 35 believed divorce was a necessary thing (again, he remembered the girl in the flat … ), but according to the papers, everyone thought the man was making a fool of himself, rabbiting on like that about the bourgeoisie, and according to the papers, everyone was laughing at him. By the time he'd finished reading, 35 didn't think it was very funny at all. In fact, he was angry with the representative, what the man really needed was a good smack in the mouth. Now he hoped he didn't make it to the station in time.

He got there late. Not very: it was just a quarter past nine. But there was nothing to see, no sign of the crowd he'd been expecting, it might just as well have been any other day. He knew some of the porters and went to "aks" them. They said no, they hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary, though now he mentioned it there had been that group who stopped in the entrance for a bit, posing for photographs. Another porter added that they must have been the representatives because they drove off in two magnificent official-looking cars. So that was that.

35 stood on the corner to wait for a tram, but none of them stopped for him. After all, he was just another young man in a smart suit, after a job somewhere perhaps, staring into the road. Then all of a sudden he felt hungry and came to. Inside him there was a frenzied tangle of wild hopes, enthusiasms, and regrets. It was horrible, he was almost unhappy … but how could he be unhappy, when that was the very last thing he was meant to be feeling today? He decided he was hungry instead.

Thinking he might as well walk, he set off home, it was a long way to go, and he was trying desperately not to give up on the day. He was hungry, that must be it, a bite to eat would sort him out. Everywhere was deserted because of the holiday. The other porters were at work, now and then some cases to shift, good-humored banter the rest of the time, a running commentary on the ladies passing by, bawdy exchanges with the mulattas from the park, but only the ones who cost a bit more and took proper care of themselves, he earned enough for that, they all warmed to him straight away, but why was it that today of all days he was thinking so much about the girl in the flat … ? A girl living by herself, now there's a great thing. How about calling in on her at the end of the day? It was definitely an idea, but what reason could he give … ? He should have gone on the company picnic by the sea, tickets weren't cheap, but since it was May Day … He had turned down the invitation, repeating no, no, no, with sudden rage, wondering what had made him so angry. And so he convinced himself that what with that great huge picnic and the football game everyone kept going on about, there was no one left to celebrate May Day in the city, and this made him feel sad, abandoned. Best if I turn off here, he said to himself then, knowing full well that it wasn't better in the slightest and would actually make for a far longer walk. So what was going on? There was no point pretending: once again, he was avoiding the station and his colleagues' mocking laughter. And so he took the long way round, his heart tight with anguish, his whole being a powerful wind blowing him back toward the other porters, to join in with their talk, and who knows, maybe even do some work … And when his mother put that splendid celebratory plate of pasta down in front of him, 35 was all ready to grumble, "But Mum, I'm not hungry," when his voice died in his throat.

The clock had barely struck one when 35 was making his way back into the park outside the Palace of Industries. He felt anxious and sleepy at the same time, this damn sun will be the death of us all, yes, it was the sun's fault. He could no longer deny how miserable he was, or how immensely and profoundly alone. The park was humming with people. Dozens of workers had turned up, all in their Sunday best, you could tell, hovering uncertainly in little groups and looking like they wished they hadn't come. Approaching the palace they huddled closer together, whispering among themselves like melancholy conspirators. There were police everywhere.

35 ran into 486, a traffic cop acquaintance of his who was often on duty outside the station. 486 wasn't working that day because he considered himself an anarchist, though he was a coward at heart. They chatted for a bit with extravagant enthusiasm, discussing May Day, discussing "demonstrations." 486 didn't half blow his own trumpet, thought 35. They came to a halt right in front of the Palace of Industries. Its terraces were teeming with people who obviously weren't workers, most likely they were the workers' representatives, there were even some girls up there, and you could see there was something different about them as they gazed down at the park where 35 and 468 were standing.

Then 35 felt a new sensation so unbearable that he turned and began walking away, as if trying to escape, but seeing all those hundreds of policemen, he slowed to the pace of someone out for an afternoon stroll. In the roads leading to the park there were mounted policemen in groups of five or six, hiding round corners, trying and failing to look discreet. They hadn't done any harm—yet, the (swearword). The palace resembled an elaborate fort—as if he was going in there! Meanwhile 486, in a state of high excitement, was describing terrible things, horrendous massacres of "the proletariat" within the palace walls, describing it all with a coward's eye for detail; the enclosed courtyard, ten thousand proletarians trapped inside, and the policemen poised in the windows, coolly taking aim.

But only when those three smartly dressed men who looked nothing like workers began to shout, "Come on in! What are you waiting for? Come on in!" to the crowd milling around below, more like an order than an invitation … only then did 35 really feel scared. Him—go in there! But he followed the others: alone as they all were, how could they possibly disobey those smartly dressed men who so clearly weren't workers? So they did as they were told, shuffling towards the palace steps, although the ones nearer the back mostly veered off and drifted into other parts of the park, out of sight of the smartly dressed men.

That collective refusal to comply awakened the coward in 35. It wasn't fear, since he felt strong enough for anything: it was panic. Some unanimous force pulling him toward them, a sense of solidarity, a painful affection for his fellow workers, all so strong and so weak and all there with him to … to celebrate? To … 35 didn't know what they were there for any more. But the palace with its turrets and sculptures was far too imposing, but all those smartly dressed people on the steps peering down at him (he was suddenly intensely aware that his outfit was ridiculous), but being trapped in that closed-off building, no space to move freely, no open streets to walk down, no easy escape routes, no space to fight … and the police, cool as you like, looking down from the windows, dozing over their guns; he hated 486, the spineless fool! Then it occurred to 35 that he was young, he ought to sacrifice himself: if he made a great show of striding into the palace completely unafraid, the others were bound to follow suit. He thought about it but did nothing. He was too crushed, shrinking and disintegrating in that travesty of socialism, that tragic lack of organization, and he felt desolate. Filled with empathy, filled with love, filled with solidarity, but all alone. The voice from the burning bush was nothing but his own emotions. Fiery, miraculous emotions from somewhere deep inside him—but fragile, so very fragile. Just then, along came some officers on horseback, saying confidently:

"Move along now, move along! The party's in there, lads—can't have people loitering around out here!"

Bloody northerners … and the groups of workers began to shift this way and that, dragging their heels across the great expanse of grass, deliberately, nervously, muttering things you couldn't quite catch. 35 hated everything, despaired of everything, a tram passed and he ran for it, jumped on without saying goodbye to 486, hating 486, hating May Day, almost hating being alive.

The tram headed back up towards the city center. The clocks were showing two o'clock, the celebration would doubtless be starting, he wanted to turn around, there was still time, he could be down the hill again in three minutes and he wanted something to eat. Not that he was hungry exactly, but if he didn't find something to occupy his time, he was going to explode. And he stopped in the cathedral square and stood there for more than an hour, more than two hours, seemingly watching the crowd.

His misery had completely vanished. He was no longer thinking about anything, no longer feeling anything. Just an excruciating vagueness, neither felt nor lived, a fraudulent, cynical state of nonexistence, while May Day ran its course. A woman in red reminded him briefly of the girl in the flat, but that wasn't enough to make him go and see her, he had no reason to, and besides she'd probably have company. Nothingness. Peace, a dreary feeling of peace …

By five o'clock there was no doubt about it, he was definitely hungry. He realized he'd had almost no lunch, yes, he was hungry and beginning to see the world clearly again. The crowd was already thinning out, disappointed after not so much as a skirmish, not even a little scrap in the square as everyone had been expecting. Large clearings had formed around where the police were standing, making their presence all the more obvious. As for the other streets in the center, they were almost completely deserted. The cafés, as we know, had closed, on the magnanimous pretext of letting their "proletarian" staff have a holiday as well.

So 35, listless and defeated, still such a child yet so experienced in life, swallowed his pride: he turned and began trudging towards the station, toward his colleagues. That was his kingdom. The cafés in those streets were still open, he went into one of them, had two big coffees and plenty of bread and butter, with extra helpings of butter, he had a real weakness for butter, and he didn't flinch when it came to paying for it all, he spent money, wanted to spend money, wanted to feel like he was spending money, he bought a shiny red apple—eight hundred! Munching on it, savoring every mouthful, he walked over to his colleagues. They gathered around him, no longer laughing, but curious and a bit concerned, plying him with questions. He was seized by a voluptuous urge to lie, to tell grand and elaborate tales of the day's celebrations, but in the end he just waved a hand (swearword) and made a sound that showed his utter contempt for everything.

A train was pulling in and the porters sprang into action, rivals now, determinedly gathering up all the cases they could. 35 leaned against the wall by the trolleys, indifferent, nibbling carefully at the remains of his apple. He felt perfectly at home, it was all so familiar, the same drivers, the same passengers. Then a gaggle of people appeared, calling for 22. They had been about to get into the car when, after a great deal of fuss, they realized their luggage didn't fit. The mother, the two old ladies, the five children distributed across their laps, and the husband were all crying, "It's impossible! We'll never get it all in!" At which point their driver declared emphatically, "Well, I'm not taking them, then," adding that they didn't need to get rid of the smaller bags, only the big ones—of which there were four. They left these with 22, shouted the address to him, and were still shouting as they drove away. More northerners, 35 thought placidly.

22 was an old man. He stood on the pavement next to the four huge heavy suitcases, adjusted the straps, then stopped and scratched his head.

"Let me give you a hand," said 35.

And he reached for the two biggest suitcases, lifting them both in one hand with a satisfying effort of his muscles. 22 looked on fiercely, imagining that 35 was after a cut of the fee. But 35 gave the old man a playful punch, sending him staggering back a few steps. Then the two of them collapsed in fits of laughter. And they started to walk.