June 5, 2005


David and His 26 Roommates: They’ve traveled thousands of miles from Mexico, found jobs serving rich customers at Fairway and Citarella, and dealt with impossible rents by packing together in a tiny, illegal basement apartment. If only finding love were so easy. (Debbie Nathan, New York)

David has a recurring dream. “Mi sueño nuyorquino,” he calls it. His New York dream. He’s flying high above Manhattan—his arms outstretched, a cool wind in his face. Far below on the streets, people point up at him, their eyes wide. It’s his favorite dream. “I have it often when I’m sleeping,” he says. “Being up so high, a loneliness that actually feels good. And the americanos noticing me.”

David doesn’t attract much notice in his waking life. He’s short and soft-spoken, with a face the color and shape of a homemade cookie. He dresses in bargain jeans and a sensible sweatshirt and keeps his head down. He decorates dishes with artful streaks of sauce and careful radish rosettes at an upscale West Village restaurant that’s perennially praised in Zagat’s for its beautifully presented food. When, after a few margaritas and some pato en mole verde, diners ask to tour the kitchen and compliment the staff, he greets them with a courteous nod and labored English: “How are you? Have a nice day.”

His housemates work at similarly bright and airy places such as Fairway and Citarella, bustling about the frisée bins and sautéing the portobellos and packing up comfort foods for harried professionals. As a household, they do pretty well even by New York standards, pulling in six figures a year. But this household is different from most in Manhattan. For one thing, there are 27 people in it—all Mexicans, most of them undocumented. [...]

Reality hit on the first day in New York. “From the airport, I went to my brother’s place in Washington Heights,” David says. “He was living with his child and pregnant wife, along with another couple and their kid. Six people. I was the seventh. In one room.”

Over the next few days, David discovered that virtually every Mexican he met was in the same insanely cramped boat. He walked around in a state of low-grade shock, compounded by his inability to understand “the language, the street signs, the money, anything.” He planned to flee as soon as he’d saved enough for a flight or a Greyhound back to Mexico, plus $1,500 to buy another car back home. Within days, he’d found a minimum-wage job as a restaurant delivery boy. He figured it would take almost a year to save what he needed to get out of this mess.

To his surprise, it took him only three months. “It was so fast that I thought, Well, why not stay a little longer and save even more?” he says. Three months stretched into six months, then a year. Then another.

“I kept postponing my departure because, to tell the truth, I was starting to like it here,” he says. He liked riding the ferry to Staten Island. He especially liked Times Square, with its amazing variety of people “that you never see in Mexico City, though it’s much bigger than New York.” He was delighted one day on 42nd Street when a tourist about his age named Julie, from Albany, spoke to him in English, asking where he was from and noting that she loved Latino music—and he was able to carry on a rudimentary flirtation in the same language. He found himself invigorated by the sheer pace of things: New York’s ritmo, he calls it.

The city was exciting, but David’s place in it was fragile. After his brother’s marriage foundered—perhaps owing to the strain of living in one room with another family—he and David moved with the children into an $800 Washington Heights studio. The two men babysat in shifts so David’s brother could keep his job as a mechanic. They were barely holding on to the pricey apartment when David lost his job. The restaurant where he worked was so popular that Zagat’s started complaining it was too small. The owner closed for three months to remodel. David, of course, got no unemployment compensation.

He had just found a new minimum-wage job—at an upscale seafood market on Broadway in the Eighties—when David’s sister-in-law returned to her family, tried to reconcile with her husband, and ended up kicking him out, along with David. After knocking from bunk to bunk for three weeks, David decided it would be easier to live on the subways.

“I slept on the No. 1 sometimes but mostly on the A, because the trip is very long,” he remembers. “I made sure to wear clean clothes, and I never lay down—never took up two seats. I always slept sitting up so the police wouldn’t bother me. Mornings I would wash my face at work, and every few days I’d buy a bar of soap and go to a public swimming pool. I would take a shower, then a swim, then another shower.”

Meanwhile, he reported to the fish market every day to cut fancy fillets and smile at his Upper West Side customers, who, as he puts it in literally translated Spanish, were “people of category.” No one noticed anything amiss.

David thought about going home. “On the train all those nights, I’d see endless strange things and have endless thoughts—thoughts like, You should go back to Mexico! Then I’d think, No, one has to face one’s problems. Just be patient and eventually you’ll find a room.”

Co-workers eventually did help him find space in an apartment, a bedroom he had all to himself. But at $380, the monthly rent was steep, and the financial needs of his family on both sides of the border had left him almost broke. Then a friend told him about Gato’s place. He gave up his private room and moved into the illegal basement with the Yosemite Sam doll and the 26 other tenants. [...]

The manners of the tenants in the basement are much better. They listen to their music with headphones, wait patiently to use the bathroom, and no one fights. The apartment is peaceful, even conducive to study. Since free ESL classes at workingman’s hours are virtually impossible to find, David and José use their bilingual dictionaries to pore over old copies of Vogue retrieved from the trash. They also watch a Channel 13 show in which a schoolmarm explains the difference between cut and cute while the e bounces up and down. José doesn’t need too many words; he has a wife and five children back home and plans to leave in a couple of years. But David wants a larger vocabulary. “I’ve got to learn what my legal rights are, how to open a bank account, how to put away some savings,” he says. He’s thinking he might stick around for a while.

When they’re not studying, they lie in bed and listen to music. (David’s favorite songs: “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.) “Or watch telenovelas,” he adds sheepishly, to José’s guffaws. These are the Spanish-language soap operas so popular among women in Latin America and so don’t-watch-or-you’ll-be-a-maricón for men.

“Okay, there’s this one I really like,” confesses Mateo, popping over from across the hall. “Rubí. It’s about a ruthless girl who’s poor but wants to have everything that her rich friend, Maribel, does. Rubí dumps her poor boyfriend and steals Maribel’s rich boyfriend, the architect. She marries him strictly for his money, so of course she’s not happy. Meanwhile, the poor ex has all the luck and gets rich.” He pauses and then jokes about the possible repercussions of talking to a reporter about such things. “I’m not worried about Immigration, but I don’t want my family in Mexico to know about me and the telenovelas.”

There’s not much to do in New York when you’re pinching pennies. “For us, it’s mainly work, come home, work, come home. That’s all,” says David. After sending half their wages to Mexico and paying rent, they’re each left with about $80 a week in pocket money. Much of it goes for takeout and restaurant food. For Mexican, there’s the Victoria, a little place on 160th and Broadway that makes passable enchiladas but superb tamales. Overwhelmingly, the Victoria’s customers are single men from the neighborhood who keep their heads in their plates except when they’re trying—usually fruitlessly—to chat up the waitresses. The menu’s not cheap for these guys—a burrito plate runs to $8, excluding beer.

More economical are Broadway’s grungy Chinese joints. “Beef with broccoli. It’s $4.50. And when I can’t afford that, I get the chicken wings with French fries for $3,” says José. “You have to respect the chinos,” he notes. “They’re different from americanos because they learn Spanish. They say ‘Papas fritas?’ ”

A Refugee's Journey: From Sudan to America (Faiza Elmasry, 05 June 2005, VOA News)

It's taken Malic Agobi, 38, a long time to reach his destination. The truck driver fled his home in Port Sudan with his wife and children 3 years ago, and arrived in Nashville, Tenessee in March. He never expected to become a refugee.

He was born in Southern Sudan and lived most of his adult years in the north. As a truck driver, he spent endless hours on the roads between Khartoum and Port Sudan. That's where he was picked up by government security agents in 2001. "I was arrested without any cause," he says. "They just suspected me to be helping the opposition parties because where I used to move with my truck to collect some goods is where opposition parties operate."

Mr. Agobi spent 41 days in prison. When he was released, however, he says he was still not a free man. "I was released under a condition that I don't leave my town and some people should not come to visit me," he says.

Mr. Agobi quickly realized that the only way to regain his freedom and live without fear was to leave Sudan. He decided to take his family north, to Egypt.

In Cairo, friends helped him find a place to live and a job at a store, but it didn't pay enough to support his family, he began to consider other options.

He decided to approach the United Nation's refugee agency for help coming to America. The Agobis finally reached Nashville, Tennessee, in March. Malic Agobi says their adjustment has been made easier by the Catholic Charities, a non-profit organization that provides social services to people in need.

Sarwar Hawez says he understands what the Agobis need because he was once a refugee himself, arriving in Nashville in 1997 from Northern Iraq. He visits the family twice a week. "I'm just coming to visit them to see them, how they're doing, what's going on with them," he says. [...]

Malic Agobi is optimistic about finding a job and building a good life for his wife and five children. "My plan is to educate my children because I failed to educate my self," he says. "I'd like very much to educate them so they become good men in the future."

His sons have started attending school, even though they don't speak English yet. Willson, 16, says that adds to the challenges they face in adapting to their new life. "When I went to the school for the fist time, I met a lot of kids," Willson says. "I could only communicate with those who were speaking Arabic. They came from Sudan like me." But the teenager says he expects to speak fluent English in just 2 months, and be able to talk with his classmates and teachers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2005 12:00 AM

working smart beats working hard every time.

Posted by: cjm at June 5, 2005 4:48 PM


What do you mean ?

David only ever worked one job at a time; plenty of people put in more than 40 hours a week, whether at one job or more.

Also, you cherry-picked the article...
Reading the whole story reveals a more complex situation, much less underdog vs. the Machine.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 5, 2005 7:04 PM