Published: July 12, 2008
The sun had barely pierced the indigo morning sky when Francisco J. Perez made the call. He gripped the street pay phone and spoke of his knack for spreading concrete, his expertise in carpentry, his love for painting. He paced and fidgeted, picking at his jagged, mud-encrusted fingernails, and then slammed down the receiver in triumph.
On this day, unlike the week before or that day in March when the bosses tricked him into working without pay, he would make money.
By 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the street pageant of day laborers had begun. Dozens of burly men in dusty Timberlands joined Mr. Perez on the four corners at Ditmas and Coney Island Avenues in Brooklyn. They rolled up their sleeves and tightened their belts, hoping that a flash of brawn would bring passing construction vans to a halt. The less robust among them whipped out immigration papers, some on the verge of disintegration, praying that on this day, their legal status might give them an edge.
To watch the shape-up of day laborers at one New York City intersection is to glimpse desperation, entrepreneurship and clannishness take form and then dissolve in three hours — three turns of the clock in the corner Dunkin’ Donuts, 180 jumps of the minute hand on their scratched-up Casio wristwatches.
By 9:30 or 10, the construction vans were gone and only a dozen or so of the nearly 50 who had gathered actually got work. The unsuccessful began their tired walks back home, but they knew that the odds would still get them out of bed the next morning.
From the start, prospects on Wednesday looked dim. Traffic was light. The sun gave a hint of the afternoon’s heat. They stared as each car passed a construction supply across the street, waiting to jump at the screech of brakes.
Mr. Perez, a 22-year-old Honduran immigrant, sat alone in the shade, using his work clothes as a cushion.
That morning, at the recommendation of a friend, he had called a construction company to make his pitch and arrange for the pickup.
Within the group of day laborers that formed on this day, Mr. Perez’s success bred quiet jealousy. On his corner, men from Guatemala, Ecuador, and Mexico stood at a distance, chatting about the outrageous joke on the radio the day before, the good-looking girl in the supermarket, and how hard it was to get jobs.
Mr. Perez, electrified by the $85 in sight for 10 hours of work, was optimistic. A single man with skin darkened by his days in the sun, he said he looked forward to coming to the corner each day.
“For me, this is a good life,” he said in Spanish. “If I knew English, I would have a better job, but this isn’t bad at all.” At 6:45, the black construction van came and whisked him away.
The remaining men arranged themselves by region, Latin Americans in one spot, Pakistanis in another, Nepalese and Tibetans in their own huddle. Down the block from Mr. Perez, the group of Pakistani men began their morning ritual of smoking and snacking. They puffed cigarettes and picked berries from the mulberry trees, licking each morsel on their purple-stained hands. This was breakfast. “Eat,” they told each other. “Eat!”
Standing at a distance was the group’s reclusive, white-whiskered elder. They called him Beardman, and he tried to wave down vans with his hitchhiker’s . In the middle of the gathering stood Jacky Sing, a homeless man who seemed hopeful of getting a job, but in the meantime drank a Budweiser and showed off his overgrown toenails.
The eight Pakistani men talked about the hard life in America — how everything was fine until this year, when the construction jobs began to vanish. Mohammad Ejaz, 58, said he was getting about half the number of jobs he did last year. Zahid Shad, 41, said he had worked four days in the past two months.
Tariq Bukhari, 45, said he came to this country five years ago looking for a way to support his five children back home.
“People have a dream that America has big money,” Mr. Bukhari said. “You shake a tree and money falls. That’s a big dream. It’s not true.”
Across the street, 19-year-old Lucas Puac waited with three other Guatemalans hoping that youth and flexibility would make them stand out. Mr. Puac, an illegal immigrant, said he had built a reputation with several contractors and typically worked four or five days a week, usually painting or helping spread concrete. But he said he felt abused by the low wages, which amounted to $600 to $1,000 a month.
“The bosses know we’re illegal,” Mr. Puac said in Spanish, “but they don’t think we’re entitled to a decent living.” Around 8:15, a van pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, and Mr. Puac and his friends crowded around. It was a false alarm; they already had enough workers.
The intersection’s center of gravity lay cater-corner to Mr. Puac, outside the Three Star Food Mart. It was there that the rookies came to network and the old pros, eager to tout their expertise, flaunted paint-spattered T-shirts and saw-eaten jeans.
The food market is also a nexus of daily conflict. At least once a week, Shiraz Azam, a cashier who works the 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift, calls the police to break up the swarm gathered at the storefront. The crowds have become so rowdy, he said, that the store moved its fruit and vegetable stand inside.
“Sure, everyone needs a job,” he said. “But what do they do? They throw garbage and bother customers. Don’t interfere in someone else’s job.”
The two dozen or so laborers outside the store were primarily in their 20s and 30s, Central American, and illegal immigrants. A reporter’s notepad and camera aroused fears of an undercover immigration operation and sent some scattering to the back streets for a while.
Bryam Tax, a former schoolteacher who said he paid $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States from Guatemala last summer, was one of the few who did not get skittish. In Brooklyn, he shares a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with 12 other laborers and sleeps in a bunk bed. He dreads the morning routine, he said, but he has to support his wife and 2-year-old son.
“In Guatemala, we didn’t earn as much, but at least there was nice living space,” he said in Spanish, his metallic front teeth glistening. “It’s very hard work.”
On the same corner, Pasang N. Sherpa, 35, stood in a huddle of Tibetans and Nepalis. They helped each other with the foreign English phrases, passing them down their line, each one contributing a word or two of translation.
Mr. Sherpa, who tries to send money every three months or so to his four children and wife in Tibet, was pessimistic from the beginning. “There are no jobs,” he said. “No good.”
When Mr. Sherpa showed up at the corner at 6:40, he said he would leave no later than 9 if he did not get work. But as 9 came and went, his hopeful stare down Coney Island Avenue continued. “Just a few more minutes,” he promised. Then he would go home and sleep.
At 9:25, Mr. Sherpa decided there would be no job for him that day. He picked up his knapsack and turned his back on the intersection.
Tomorrow would be another day.