my dad built our basement.
he hung clear plastic in front of the door to prevent dust and icky things from getting upstairs. i don’t remember when he finished, but it was after i shared a bedroom with my siblings, and before they gave me their old waterbed.
when i was older he redid the bathroom. it could be that the eighth of an inch thick carpeting and outdated counter tops didn’t help our resale value, or perhaps he was just bored. either way, he decided tile was in order, and that he could do it himself.
he rented a tile cutter from Ace Hardware, back when it was in a strip mall, before it moved opposite the Walmart nobody wanted into a bigger space with easier accessibility. this was when they let the boy scouts set up a tent and sell hot dogs for a dollar. we would go to Ace for this or that, get hot dogs, and then walk across the strip mall to Von Hansen’s Meats and gorge ourselves on beef jerky. Dad would out eat me, though not for lack of trying.
when he decided to tile the bathroom, he crouched on his knees a lot. i would sit on the couch just outside the bathroom watching TV, going in to check on him every once in a while. why are you doing that? what does that do? are you sure that’s straight? you missed a spot? over there, Dad.
i was too little to be helpful, or rather too large. in the clouds that make up that memory, all i see is a giant on his knees in faded jeans and an old shirt hunched over a floor. there was no room for my help.
it was probably somewhere in the third quarter of the Timberwolves game when it started. a deep voice belting over the screeching tennis shoes:
I AM THE FRITO BANDITO! AYE YAI YAI YAI!
he sang it like it was his Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd, only he learned it from a Fritos commercial and it had no life giving ability. over and over he belted. adding a couplet here and there just to mix it up. usually the added lines were about the problem the project presented. sometimes it would be about the tile cutter not cutting straight, or clean. mostly, though, it was just about a frito bandito. aye. yai. yai. yai.
when my wife and i moved into our first home, i immediately identified the projects. the first was an outdated banister, then the lack of doors in the basement hallway, and then perhaps the most exciting project: a deck. i grew up with decks. i – perhaps mistakenly – remember helping dad build a deck in the first home i knew. a little boy with a Donald Duck t-shirt on and yellow shorts he refused to let mom wash hammering away at a nail bigger than his hand. a deck. a place for the grill and summer eating. a place to sit and dream. to enjoy the outdoors. a place to relax and forget about life’s worries and to-do lists. a deck.
it took us two years. first i had to rip out the apparatus the previous owner built around a massive ant-infested stump. in doing so, i learned no permit was ever attained, nor was the platform up to code. then, we removed the stump and thankfully our ant problem. my wife made me hire people to do this, although i still believe i could have done it with enough elbow grease and determination.
finally came the summer where we had the budget, and the time. friends gathered and helped me with parts. digging holes, clearing dirt, laying the foundation, and finally the planks. there were days, though, when i was alone. when the task at hand required no help and just needed to get done. one of those days was installing the chicken wire around the foundation to prevent critters from burrowing under the deck, dying, and stinking up the yard and house.
as i cut and stapled chicken wire it came out of my mouth like an old hymn. the top of the deck is only 15 inches off the ground, and i am the six foot giant my dad is, hunched over a project, tedium taking over my brain. a podcast squawked in my ears and still it flowed from my lips.
I AM THE FRITO BANDITO!
i sang it three or four times before i realized i was singing it. unroll the chicken wire. i am. cut the chicken wire off. the frito. staple the wire to the boards. BANDITO! cut off the excess wire. aiy, yai, yai, yai!
the rhythm of the tune, and the teaching’s of my father all rolled up into a moment of instinct. a moment where motions superseded thought. a moment like many other moments where time spent with dad, learning from dad, just happened.
when it dawned on me what was happening, i smiled like the Joker. if my neighbors were outside instead of inside hiding from the threatening rain they may have marked me psycho. i am the Frito Bandito.
my grandpa doesn’t strike me as one to sing songs while working, but i’ve been known to be wrong. i don’t know if Dad learned it from Grandpa in the same way that i learned it from Dad, but if he did, it takes some of the crazy out of the nonsensical singing. it unites a line of Siewerts together in labor song. determination, and simple want-to overcoming the tedium. a helping hand whether the hand is in another country, or another state, it reaches out of the song to encourage us to carry on and to remind us that the reward at the end of the project is a bag of Fritos.