Help Wanted

Unemployment is capitalism's way of getting you to plant a garden.

-Orson Scott Card

A blog by Rowan Moore Gerety

Jan 10

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.”

Jan 5

Lip Serviced

The low-point of Josh Whittemore’s last job search was at a chain restaurant somewhere near Fresno “at the exact moment of the economic downturn, just when America was freaking out.

"I went to this open interview at one of the nicer restaurants, and it was just this super-long-line of slutty-looking chicks and douchy-looking guys and when I saw the guys that were doing the interviewing, I just left.  When I was in Fresno I could not find a waiting job, and I never did—I just didn’t act the proper way.  You have to be a  ‘Hey Bro’ Superbuff.

"I applied to places like Red Robin and TGI shenanigans.  I had 3 years of experience at a top restaurant in LA.—Figaro. I would go and I would dress up really nice and my hair was short, and the guys in front of me would be wearing Ed Hardy tee-shirts to the interview."

In the end, he took a job doing pest inspection at a local raisin plant.  “Another nepotism job from my family,” he called it.

As of “Today,” Josh told me from his bed in the front room of our house, he is on the hunt once again.  Lying there at 2 PM, Josh looked bemused and scruffy, head held aloft by his left elbow.  He’d just returned from a six hour shift at the Yorkshire Grill, a throw-back diner downtown, and his wide set eyes drifted back to the laptop on his bed.

Josh, who is 25, has work.  Since October, he’s worked six days a week.  “I have two jobs.  One job [Groundwork] is awesome and pays decently, especially for the amount of work that you’re supposed to do, and I get to hang out with my friends and read and listen to music.”

And the other (Yorkshire Grill), “Initially i was making lots of money at it, but something kind of happened when I went to the Bahamas.  Even before that, I started to noticed that i was less well-liked than I had been.  On top of it, the business has slowed, they’re not giving me hours, it’s too hard work for how much money you make, and it just bums be out when I get out there.”
“I have made some life changes to where I’m not eating meat,” he added.  I don’t really want to support the pastrami industry.”

So here’s the plan: “I’m gonna look for waiting jobs because I have experience and because it’s good money and good hours.  I’m also going to reapply for that job in the mayor’s office.  I’m also going to call my uncle, who’s a high school baseball coach, and see if I can work with him somehow.”  Josh, who goes back to school for kinesiology in the fall, is a born coach.

"I’m gonna send him an email.  I’ve been kind of hesitant because I hate asking family members for favors, but that’s what everyone does." Josh nearly sat up, his voice rising.  "That’s how everyone gets jobs, and I hate it—I’m tired of people who have some fly-ass job because of their aunt."

Researchers in applied psychology write about “impression management” behavior at job interviews. For Josh, this built-in tendency, makes interviews just as distasteful and good old nepotism.  ”You can ask anything you want, but is a person gonna be honest?  Just for self-preservation’s sake, are you gonna say “Yeah I’m a slow-starter and i have trouble getting up early and I have trouble getting places on time.

“‘Tell us about your shortcomings!’ They don’t wanna hear your real shortcomings. It’s all lip service. They’re asking for dishonesty right off the bat.”

I asked Josh if he delivered.  “I lie.  I say trite inane bullshit like they want to hear,” and it works:  “I got the last two jobs I interviewed for.”

But he seemed contrite beneath his cynicism:  “It bums me out that there’s not a better litmus test for employers and employees.  Like with a lot of psychological studies—you go into a room and they tell you they’re doing a brain scan, but really they’re testing you for something else,” Josh said playfully.

He sighed deeply.  “So now i’m thinking about getting a haircut, shaving my face, printing out a couple new copies of my resume, and walking back up the hill to my old job at Figaro and seeing if I can get my old job back.  Because I know people there so it’s gonna automatically make it easier.”

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