Without a Big Garden
"One time they picked me up and wanted me to go under a big elevator because the cylinder wasn’t working," Pablo told me. He is 47, squarely built, with a creased, ruddy complexion and a sharp, elfish beard that shoots out from his chin at a 45 degree angle from the floor. " [The guy] said he needed someone to go wipe off all the oil because he was going to pour new oil in…
"On the way back, he told me someone had taken a person and done the exact same thing that I did. The elevator fell down down and the guy was crushed. His face was totally disfigured. He didn’t die, but he was totally disfigured. He gave me $50 for one hour. The elevator weighs more than two tons! That’s the kind of risk you face. But if you do this type of work you get used to it. They don’t hire you for easy things—they’ll do it themselves. They come here if the work involves danger."
Along with two hundred or more of his compatriots, Pablo (“Full Name Unknown, he said, chuckling), who is from Oaxaca, uses the side streets near Home Depot’s parking lot as an employment center. They do not look for work so much as work finds them. As we talked, two men sparred, dancing on and off the sidewalk as a crowd whooped “Dale un beso! Dale un beso!”
"This is a good one. You should check this out," Pablo said, leading me towards the fray. Others gambled for one dollar bills on the pavement, passing beers back and forth discreetly.
Lately, work hasn’t been abundant. Pablo says he’s worked about 10 days in the last 10 weeks, after a dryspell in the fall that lasted months. Compared to the flush days of the building boom, when you could scarcely begin waiting before being hired, now, “luck plays a big role” in when you get a job.
A man drove by in an empty pickup, heading to Home Depot. “If he’s digging and they find it’s hard, then they’ll take you,” Pablo observed. “If it’s high, like 1 1/2 times that building, they’ll come and take you. Once, they came…and said they needed three guys who weren’t afraid of heights. The contractor was an old man. He came, and clung to the staircase.
"You don’t get straightforward contracting work. For that stuff, they have a crew who has work to keep them busy all the time. Here, you’re gambling on your situation.
“The highest risk work I’m telling you about is one category. There’s also patching work, painting work. $8 or 10 an hour. You get that for a couple of days. The lowest category is gardening, sweeping the floor, pulling weeds. If you know how to negotiate,” he added, the danger pays off. “Otherwise, you’ll end up getting the same pay for risky work. I know how to speak English, so I make sure I get paid,” he said confidently.
Pablo has been homeless since the end of 2007, when he lost an apartment he shared with several other day laborers. For a time, he lived on the hillsides that frame the 101 as it passes through Hollywood, but he recently moved to a covered alleyway by a Carl’s Jr. nearby. “It was starting to rain and stuff over by the highway,” he explained. His roommate, as it were, is “a white guy” whose name he doesn’t know. When the white guy had his mattress and all his belongings torched by some teenagers in Echo Park last year, Pablo borrowed a bicycle to bring him some blankets. Now, he’s returning Pablo’s favor. “He likes drugs. He asks me if I want some and I say no; I already drank a beer and it’s enough for me.”
I asked Pablo if he was happy, and he answered with a string of aphorisms: “Yeah. In life, there’s not real happiness, there’s not real sadness, there’s just a moment of living. The past, present, and future balances out,” he said, making a seesaw with his right forearm. “You never know what’s going to happen next: maybe someone will put me in a movie.”
We both laughed. “Look,” he continued, taking off his hat. “I’m 47. My hair is still black. Go find a homeowner. At 41, their hair is all gray. They got old from pursuing…I made the right choice for me: I control my destiny without a big garden.”