The day laborers who stand down the street from my apartment are unlike any you've seen before. I guarantee it. For starters, they work at night. They also take drugs and fight and climb into slow-moving cars with killed headlights, presumably to go dig pools or build decks in dark backyards while neighbors are too busy sleeping to cast judgment. For reasons I don't understand, these men are relegated to the graveyard shift in the complex hierarchy of black market landscaping. They don't make much money at it either and their clothes reflect that. In fact, their clothes reflect a lot of things because they are mostly stitched from vinyl.
At least it's waterproof.
I watch them sometimes in the evenings as they huddle around cigarettes while laughing at the jokes of the destitute and miserable, jokes we wouldn't get. And I feel for them. I know that while I am sleeping they will be perched on some roof in the suburbs, quietly shingling in the night wearing nothing but hot pants. It's sad. Confusing and sad.
But I am also inspired. They are more than just wood-cutter-uppers and whatever people who paint houses are called, they are manifestations of the American Dream. Through determination, elbow grease, and what appears to be glitter, they are struggling to carve out an existence in this great land of opportunity. They are building sheds and barbecue pits, yes, but they are also building futures. I want to shake the callused hands of these quiet heroes, to commend their hard work as the backbone of our economy, I want to bring them lemonade. Most of all, however, I want us to be friends. That's why I hired four of them a week ago, to stain my patio.
"Staining? You sure? I'm much better at nailing."
I should probably mention here, that I don't own a patio. I panicked one night on my way home when I was idling at a red light and accidentally made eye contact. They flagged me down and motioned for me to roll down my window. Their arms sinewy from toiling, their lips glossy from ... I don't know, lip gloss I guess. An older, heavier one drifted over to my window and asked if I needed a man or two. The rest never stopped moving behind him, grinding against the fog, staring me down and humping air. It was an approach to employment I was not anticipating, or understanding.
I told him I needed no help and explained my remarkable self-sufficiency with my own strong hands. I was hoping that we might bond over our shared expertise at drilling stuff. Instead, their faces dropped in earnest disappointment and they turned away. The older one, now leaning on my hood pushed out his lower lip and looked off into the darkness, "That is too bad, for everyone."
"I wish there was a way I could just give you money," I told him.
He said there was. I could just give it to him. It was a kind offer but we both knew he was only trying to make me feel better. Money without service hurts the principle of the trade and it would devalue everything they had worked so hard to build here, on this corner. I wouldn't dare jeopardize that. There had to be another way.
"I need four of you!" I shouted, loud enough to startle everyone standing nearby as well as myself. "We're staining a patio!" They all stared but no one moved, a few of their heads cocked to the side like puppies. The language barrier was perhaps too tall, too strong to break down with enthusiasm alone. I turned to the older fat one who seemed to speak English.
"If the price is right, they'll do whatever you want" he said. "How much can you pay?"
I opened my glove compartment and grabbed a fistful of reserve hundreds. "This much?"
I have never been very good with math.
The price was apparently competitive. For nearly three full minutes they fought and yelled and kicked while crowded around my car, deciding who would be allowed to go. I'm fairly certain one man was stabbed a little. It got pretty heated. Even after the victors were piled on each others' laps in the back seat, the men outside still pounded on the windows and screamed.
"Drive!" said one of my passengers. But I refused until all their seatbelts were on and reminded them that 90% of all car accidents happen within three miles of home. They complied and we were on our way.
We drove in silence the two and half blocks to my downtown loft. Now, up close with the laborers, I could see them in shimmering urban detail. The heavy man sitting shotgun was the only one who wore a button-down and it worked hard at holding him inside. Glimpses of gut peaked out of the strained slits between buttons like tired eyes.
"There's a bathroom at your place, right?"
I adjusted the rearview mirror and smiled at the backseat.
"You know, we are not so different you and I. Our jobs. The streets are our offices. Our bosses, fortune and opportunity."
"No, baby," one of them spoke up in perfect English, "my boss named Sizz. He carries a turkey carver." The others nodded and looked to the fat man riding up front with me. He shifted his weight and produced a serrated blade with an electric trigger handle. He held it out in the light so I could see it before smiling and shrugging as if to say, "Eh, it's kind of my thing."
Back at the apartment, I let them all inside while I went to dig through the basement storage in search of brushes and varnish. I had no plan in motion yet for what to say once they noticed I was patio-less. It was stolen, maybe? Do people steal patios? Still? In 2011? That's sad. Just when it felt like we had come so far.
When I came back to my apartment, the four men were standing in my living room wearing only underwear. Sizz had beached himself on my couch and was smoking a long, skinny cigarette, dabbing at the sweat on his face with a throw pillow.
"Hey, your pictures were crooked. I fixed 'em."
He winked at me and pointed to the laborers. "Go ahead, look them over," he said.
I looked. Their tans were interrupted by dark islands of orange around the armpits, lower backs and other hard to reach places. It was either a bronzer or a very particular type of jaundice. They were also flecked with a startling number of scars on their arms and torsos but which became monotonous by the upper thigh. The mess of hair on each of their stomachs trailed into their briefs like fuses. They stared at me nervously, waiting for some answer I didn't know.
"Yeah, OK. Good," I said. "Who feels comfortable on a ladder?"
All three of them raised their hands.
There is a garden in the courtyard of my complex, and in the center of the garden is a gazebo. I decided it couldn't hurt to smear it with lacquer. Incidentally, furniture lacquer was all I could find. I gave each man a brush and they got to work. Sort of. Technically they were staining, but they were doing if funny. It was off. All of them watched me as they worked, missing huge sections of railing or letting the lacquer drip on their chests and faces and smiling about it, loving it in fact. They writhed around on the ladder or the floor of the gazebo and moaned. I turned to Sizz.
"Are they sick?"
"You bet," he said and nodded at his laborers to kick it up a notch. They obliged. Moaning louder, rolling in stain and shooting their wet smiles in every direction; the ground, the rooftops, my face. They didn't care, just a load of white teeth spitting out across the courtyard. A few lights went on in other apartments. Silhouettes appeared in windows, not just to watch, but to yell.
"Dammit. Honey, the prostitutes are playing on the gazebo again."
"Hey! Hey, don't do that!" they called from the higher floors. "Get out of here!"
I stepped from the darkness and threw screams back in their faces, "Bigots!" I said. "You are just afraid of these men. You are afraid of them stealing your jobs! But you make no effort to understand them!"
"What? I do data analysis," said a face on the third floor. He pointed toward the laborers. "I don't even know what that is."
I swiveled to see the laborers now kneeling on the floor of the gazebo, giving one another lacquer massages.
"I'm calling the police," a woman threatened from the bottom level, a receiver already up to her ear.
"Goddammit, listen!" I shouted. "You are all blinded by your fear of what you don't understand. I believe in these men! I believe in their ability to be whatever they choose! They have a right to cut a foothold in capitalism just like the rest of us." I paused and noticed that the faces had stopped shouting to listen and even the half-naked workers had given up on moaning, though whether to be inspired by my words or gauge the distance of the sirens I couldn't say. "We have to treat these men as equals, we owe them our respect regardless of their lot in life because, while some of us were not born as fortunate as others, we were still all born human!" Before I could finish, I felt something sharp poke me in between the shoulder blades. I turned to see Sizz wielding his turkey carver.
"The time is up. You have to pay now."
"I'm kind of in the middle of making a point," I told him. He pressed the trigger and the blade whirred to life.
"Alright. I think we're good then. Let's go."
I paid all four of them plus Sizz for their time. After they collected their things, I looked each man in the eye, shook his hand and saw everyone out. There was a definite change in the atmosphere, we could all feel it. We weren't quite friends yet but we had accomplished something bigger than friendship. As they walked back to their corner in the early morning light, their clothes in their arms and picking at the drying lacquer, the air was thick with dignity and self respect. At the very least, I had given them that much.
It's impossible to say how much I helped those men, but if I were forced to put a number on it, I would say seven. I gave them seven helps.