The morning crowd
KINGS BEACH, Calif. and#8212; They move with an inaudible sway that comes from footsteps unnoticed and repeating. The repetitions pace against dawn, into a thaw of dirty streets and the flicker of lamplight.
Like birds in sudden migration, or ships starting in a dim tide, their departure is of no report. Just distant shadows marching before light, making quiet passage through tired streets, paint-chipped homes and the neighborhood’s labyrinth of warped fencing.
The morning works itself into the roil of engines and scraping of tires. A cold sun emerges and the shadows reveal themselves, abruptly, in an image of torn jeans, a congregation of beaten tennis shoes and faded jackets. They are men with sweat-stained sweaters and callused palms, palms leading to finger nails, nails still wedged with yesterday’s work.
This is the morning crowd. They are illegals, day workers, immigrants.
They are the unlicensed, the undocumented, the unnaturalized, a procession of many names strolling sleepily through.
The day fills with a dry cold and they go bundled down Coon Street, down Fox Street and along the downtown bordering Lake Tahoe. It is a divided march through Kings Beach with the men moving in small bunches toward a 7-Eleven that squats among trailer homes, old motels converted into apartments and, of course, the lake.
Within the group is a man with a black sweater. His face is shadowed and unshaven. His eyes colored gray like ash, and yet they are bright. Deep wrinkles score the cheeks, cut away from his eyes, traverse across the plateau of his forehead.
He is joined by the others as they near the convenience store. The men take positions: some huddling under the eaves of the storefront, some standing near a bus stop tattooed in graffiti that emits the distinct smell of urine.
Most opt to stand along the wood fencing, and the man with the shadowed face moves away to the edge of the roadway, between the 7-Eleven and the bus stop, where work trucks come with güeros and#8212; white men offering work and#8212; and so he waits.
To the sound of engines, to the smell of exhaust, to the rise of dust, they stand waiting, rocking on the balls of their feet and talking. I move in among them, tucked into the hood of my green jacket, while the man with the ash-colored eyes stares by the curb.
and#8220;¿Que onda, hermano?and#8221; and#8212; How are you, brother? and#8212; one says to another, and he holds out his fist while the other raps it lightly with the knuckles, then again with the bottom and top of his fist. The second pounds the handshake back in turn. It is done to each, to me, one by one, a solidarity in knuckles and the clashing of hands.
and#8220;Maldita chiiiing—and#8221; one of them cusses. and#8220;Such cold! Such damn cold!and#8221;
The man who swears is small, about four-foot something, dressed in a blue jacket with a hood pulled so taut his face appears to swell. His jeans have holes and his boots are torn.
He begins to swear again, but instead ignites into a hacking succession of coughs. He starts his swear again, but again it is futile, and his obscenities couple with hacks that detonate into his bloody Kleenex.
and#8220;What happened to your shoes, hermano, are they f—ed? Did you f— them up?and#8221; asks another man in a brown jacket.
and#8220;Yes, they’re f—ed!and#8221; says the small one. He says his boots had been tearing for weeks, but then, only last week, they’d ripped away at the seams.
and#8220;jEstan jodido, ciento por ciento chiiing–!and#8221; he shouts.
He begins to swear again, but another attack seizes him and sends him into a stomping spin near the store’s Redbox video machine. It’s a gyration of hacking and obscenities that leaves his tiny figure bent and grappling for his tissues.
I introduce myself, and when I say and#8220;Soy un periodistaand#8221; and#8212; that I’m a journalist and#8212; it sends their eyes wide and stretches out a silence, and that is to say a time where my claim is weighed and judged, first individually and then collectively.
I explain again: I’m a reporter here to ask questions, that I do not need names, that I’m here to speak anonymously, no reason for alarm, no hidden secrets. Another short silence follows, another short judgment, and it’s a judgment which holds until the small one says and#8220;You mean to say from the newspaper?and#8221;
and#8220;Of course, stupid; do see him holding a video camera?and#8221; The man in brown says this, and they laugh while the small man throws a few hopeless jabs at his stomach.
When the laughing quiets, they begin in questions. What newspaper do you work for? What’s your name? How long have you worked here? What type of article will you write? You live nearby? Can you put my small friend here in the paper? He’s very popular, ha, ha, ha, a serious ladies man, a real papi chulo, ha, ha, ha!
But the laughter and questions fade, and again there is silence, and this time it sticks. The mood turns and I know I’ve broken a type of confidence, instilled a type of suspicion. The mood spills into the parking lot. Signs are felt or given and one by one each moves away. They regroup along the low row of fence posts or at the edge of the roadway or collect by the bus stop.
Across the parking lot, the man with the ash-colored eyes stands watching, observing it all. This is it, I think, nothing more to do now, it’s over.
But it was not over. And in fact, it was only beginning.
The scene could be ritual, a type of stage play, a season populated in a climate of interactions that are condensed into a daily happening. Viewed from the car dashboard or across the street, it’s a scene marked like a man-made sacrament, a tradition that comes out of necessity but without any church or doctrine. For there is a benediction sounding in car horns, in rumbling engines. And there is a choir that blasts cumbia, reggaeton and the trill of strumming mariachis crackling out of rusty truck radios.
There is even a reverence by the jean-suited clergy: conversations turning to votive whisper, whispers turning to silence as a truck cab opens and work is called out: and#8220;I need two to paint, I need one to dig.and#8221; And for the chosen, the lucky, the Eucharist of labor comes with a bread made of worn muscle and a wine of spilt sweat.
It’s a process all routine and natural, and in this way, I watched the morning go.
The others made clear there would be no answering of questions, and eventually I moved toward the man who had watched by the curb. He was the only one left now. I was revealed. The boundaries had formed.
He stood by a tree at the very edge of the road in front of a puddle that had half frozen over. I made my way across the 7-Eleven parking lot with its dark cracks, its veined creases, until I stood next to him in a dirt mixed with dead cigarettes, old Slurpy straws and discarded receipts.
I introduced myself as before. He did not speak, but he did not walk away, either. A twist of the neck, a quick glance and nod was what I got. It was a kind of middle ground.
I told him my name and he shook my hand without turning.
I saw him close now. and#8220;Los Angelesand#8221; was stitched into his sweater, but the and#8220;Land#8221; was torn out. Paint had crusted into the cloth and#8212; beiges, teals, auburns, off-whites. The colors dotted and slivered out, from sweater, to jeans, to sneakers. A hood and beanie covered his head and the tips of his hair and mustache were whited.
and#8220;It is not to offend you, but they feel strange with this, they don’t feel right,and#8221; were his first words.
and#8220;Even though you’re not lying, they don’t believe you. And you know, we’re not playing. We are not playing because if we are found, they’ll take us from here. They don’t wish to offend you, but it is because they are afraid of traps and used to traps, you understand? For this, they have left.and#8221;
When he spoke, the others watched and whispered among themselves. They huddled and peered from the fences and curbs, until, at a distance, a voice and jeers came out, and#8220;Carlos, Carlos, Carlos, you’re so good for talking today, brother!and#8221;
But Carlos ignored them and continued.
and#8220;I am not playing around here, you know, I don’t play around for myself and for my family’s sake,and#8221; he said. And with this, it was clear a decision to speak had been made.
Eight years ago, Carlos said he’d been a mechanic in Mexico. He’d inspected and done maintenance on Coca-Cola delivery trucks in a city he did not name but said was filled with shoe companies and companies of export. But there was violence in the city and the pay was bad and#8212; 800 pesos, or $60, a week for himself, his wife and three kids.
Need forced him to the border, San Diego, Los Angeles, until he settled picking grapes in the vineyards of Paso Robles. There, he said, he could not stay; for while the land owners paid well, supermarkets and necessities were far away. Money went to either transportation or back to the land owners, who offered basic goods in return for their wages.
In this way, Carlos said they were given enough to survive and#8212; but not enough to live.
Carlos said he worked a season in the vineyards until his wife’s brother called him to Lake Tahoe. It was a promise of work and he went and#8212; anything to escape the heat of the grapes. And this time, he said, he came with luck.
Opportunity came with restaurant work in Kings Beach. He cooked at the restaurant for five years, earned enough to bring his family over the border. And though the work was hard and the hours long, things went well. Yet, not all things are meant to last, and when the Great Recession hit, his job went with it, and before long, his family, too.
and#8220;Everything I have left behind me; I have lived here seven years. My family was here for two. They had to return and now I work to support them,and#8221; he said. and#8220;And if I must move tables, I move tables, if I must paint, I paint. Here, I pull weeds, chop wood, clear snow, move rock, haul trash, and if they want me to dig a hole, I dig a hole.and#8221;
After he spoke, he paused, as if to let the words take root, then continued, his face still to the traffic.
and#8220;I know that the economy here is poor, I know how the community was before, how it is now, but in the country of mine, it’s worse. You have heard in the radio, through the television, how it is in Mexico. Certainly you have heard there are people turning up dead, people killing people, crime, so much crime,and#8221; he said. and#8220;I worry greatly for my family and it is a weight on me to be here, but I do what I can.and#8221;
The wind picked up and the day rolled on. Our conversation grew into many topics. Carlos told me how there were many undocumented who lived in apartments with three or four men to a room, how the foolish ones waste money on lottery tickets, alcohol or drugs, but the good ones, the best ones, work with a purpose, and most for their families. He said he could survive a week on a carton of eggs, and said he once worked on four hours of sleep a night for three days.
Carlos spoke while the others glared and whispered.
He didn’t care, and as the cars passed and the dark clouds began to thicken, suddenly his posture changed, his voice grew quiet and his tone pitched low and serious.
and#8220;My daughter…and#8221; he said and stopped himself with his fists balled tightly into his pockets.
and#8220;I could notand#8230;and#8221; he began and stopped again.
I waited for him to finish, but Carlos only inhaled deeply and did not speak. Whatever he’d hoped to say had halted in his throat. The moment went.
He took another breath, focused the darks of his pupils, then released a long sigh. It was gone. Time went by. And when he had collected himself, his face was deep and solemn.
and#8220;This is a good thing,and#8221; he said finally. and#8220;It is good that you listen because the peopleand#8221; and#8212; and he pointed in gesture as if to signify the world and#8212; and#8220;they always keep talking.and#8221;
Who knows how long they’d been coming here, or the stories that had driven and left them here. All of it might never be known. But it doesn’t matter. What can be known are the times spent and gathered and lost here. Ask any of them. And if they speak truly, you will hear about the summers when the work becomes ripe and the wages are fed out sometimes $10, $11 or even $12 an hour. These are the good times. But there are bad times also.
There are people who hire and don’t pay, people who leave them stranded on the South Shore or farther. And, of course, you will hear about the horrors of winters and the hell they can bring, when the work freezes over and men are left desperate for months at a time.
As the morning ebbs, Carlos talks easily about it. Everything, he says, starts at about 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., and if no job comes, the waiting goes until 12. In winter or summer, it is the same.
The owners at the 7-Eleven have allowed them a place, he said, and for this, most are grateful and respectful. The advantage to the spot is traffic visibility and#8212; this is magnified with only one road circling the lake.
and#8220;In these times we move a lot of snow from the roofs, in the driveways, in the yards,and#8221; Carlos said. and#8220;Some mornings it’s hard to wake and everyone has their reasons. But I wake up, I think of my family and leave trusting in God. Everyone asks things of God, and I also ask.and#8221;
Movement among the workers is somewhat regulated, he said, if not by finance then by their own loyalties. Pick-up spots have informal group leaders, and those entering a work spot and#8212; whether at the Kings Beach 7-Eleven, at Truckee’s downtown Beacon lot or elsewhere and#8212; can expect difficulties, not in violence, but in questions and maneuverings.
and#8220;I have been to Truckee, and what happens is I arrive and they ask me and#8216;Who are you? What are you doing? Where do you come from?’ In Truckee they ask many questions,and#8221; said Carlos.
and#8220;If you come from Nevada, they ask and#8216;Why did you come from Nevada?’ And if you come from Kings Beach, they ask and#8216;Why did you come from Kings Beach?’ And you know what it is? It’s jealousy. There is so much jealousy and#8212; there and here, too,and#8221; said Carlos, rubbing his foot into the gravel.
and#8220;We all want work. If I earn $70 in a day, I can send perhaps $50 home, and this will be something like 700 pesos. My family can live on that, and they’ll be able to eat for a week,and#8221; he said.
Yet, lack of work is nothing compared to the danger of summers. Immigration operations usually occur twice in the season, Carlos said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers come up in white vans to the 7-Eleven. Officers jump out and everyone scatters, with men running and hiding wherever they can, he said. A phone tree alerts illegals in the neighborhood. But the unlucky are grabbed. Usually they’ll be offered a chance to collect belongings, but since most live four or five men to a room, this is impossible.
and#8220;How can we lead them to our friends?and#8221; Carlos asks.
The only advantage they have is the lake and the snow, he points out. The lake creates distance between Sacramento, and the snow halts traffic. Together, they form a persuasive deterrent, he said.
Carlos’ explanation is interrupted by the sun. The topography of the sky has changed.
For a slight moment above, the clouds begin to part. They float dark and gray, go outward until they lather thin. The sun burns through and light hits the parking lot, glaring from car hoods, to windows, to hubcaps, to the polished metal of buildings. The reflected constellations shine from spot to spot, and for a brief instant, it looks as if the light will stay.
Carlos squinted and gazed out across the street where a truck had pulled to the curb.
Against the fence, the small man in the blue jacket was still coughing into his Kleenex. His hacks could be heard faintly from a distance, but the morning had dislodged something from him, and his cough had lost all intensity. He talked to the man in the brown jacket, and I watched as the man gave him a small glass bottle colored amber, like olive oil.
and#8220;Para la gargantaand#8221; and#8212; For the throat and#8212; the man in brown grunted, loud enough to be audible from the curb.
Carlos talked while cars, trucks, SUVs and mini vans entered and exited the parking lot. The 7-Eleven doors swung open and closed. Business was quick. Occasionally, two or three of the day workers would vanish inside with paper cups, emerge cradling 99 cent coffee refills and chatting.
Customers avoided the day workers. But there were flashes when the constraints of time and space made this physically impossible. When this occurred, facial expressions fluctuated between awkward reluctance and indifference.
The customers pretended not to notice them and in turn the day workers pretended not to notice their pretending. It was a trade.
Carlos paid little attention to all of it and kept his focus doggedly to the street. It wasn’t until a silver Volvo sedan drove up that his attention turned. The car parked and a man exited, talking on his Blackberry. He wore thin glasses, khaki pants, an argyle sweater with a collared shirt sticking out. His brown hair was combed over and his voice was high and pitched.
The man shut his door and walked around to open the passenger door a crack.
His head tilted into his phone, and his nasal voice undulated without pause. Pointing his nose to the pavement he did not wait for the car door to open, but immediately swiveled and made a line for the entrance.
However, he was cut short. Two day workers were strolling out, coffee in hand. He was oblivious and startled when his downward gaze hit their tennis shoes. Immediately his conversation stopped.
He arched himself backward like a pendulum and his face looked as if he was tripping yet forced to smile simultaneously.
The result was comical.
and#8220;Excuse me! Uh, pardon, pardon me, pardon me,and#8221; he said, attempting to get around. The day workers parted, smiled at each other, continued sipping their coffees and walked on.
Carlos did not distract himself for all this. His attention was drawn only when a small girl opened the Volvo’s passenger door. She couldn’t have been more than 10. She wore jeans and a thick, tan coat with a fur trim around the hood. Her small hands pushed the car door open and she hopped out squinting.
Carlos watched as she took small steps toward the convenience store, watched as she felt the weight of the glass door on her palms, watched as she pushed and entered.
Carlos stared with what seemed to be awe and a kind of distance. He hid his hands into the hollows of his pockets and looked down at the dirt, gazing at nothing.
Traffic swirled in all directions, horns blasted and brakes squealed. Conversations rose and fell in muffled vibrations and the wind passed shrill through the pines. The din roared, but Carlos appeared to hear nothing.
Something was washing ashore, a submerged mass suddenly rising up. And yet from Carlos there was only silence. I waited, and still silence. Some emotion, some thought was welling in him, something turning visible, stark and#8212; clear.
and#8220;My daughter…and#8221; he said at last, and his voice trembled deeply.
and#8220;I could not see her first communion. I could not see soccer games with my son. Or spend time with my wife. I know I am all they have, and must provide for them. Butand#8230;and#8221; he said, and his voice grew thick and his eyes, once tired and dark, shined glassy and translucent.
and#8220;It is so difficult. Just yesterday I talked with my daughter and#8212; she will be 8 soon and#8212; and it was hard to hear her cry. She cried and cried and cried because she missed me, because she wished that I could be there with her and, and, I cannot,and#8221; Carlos said.
and#8220;I don’t have money. I know that if I leave I will not come back, and what will happen to my family then?and#8221; he said.
Carlos inhaled and sighed and then inhaled once more.
and#8220;No! I’m not playing around,and#8221; he said firmly. and#8220;I am not fighting here for myself, and this is the truth.and#8221;
He did not say anything more for a long time. The man with the argyle sweater left the store followed by the girl, and we watched them together as the Volvo backed up slowly, stopped and drove out of the parking lot down North Lake Boulevard. Above, the clouds returned to gray and the sun vanished.
The morning had dissipated into afternoon, and I could feel a cold entering from the lake.
I remembered the weather report said it might snow.
and#8220;Carlos! Carlos! Carlos! jQue Hablador-r-r-r!and#8221; shouted the man with the brown jacket. and#8220;Oh! How you talk!and#8221; he said from the curb. The whispers had erupted into questions now. And the questions had ignited into a nervous agitation. The group was unsteady.
and#8220;Do you want to be famous, compadre?and#8221; The man in brown went on with the others. and#8220;Do you want us to be famous? I hope you know what you speak, hermano!and#8221;
Carlos looked tired and annoyed. He silenced them with a loud hissing sigh.
and#8220;Calm yourselves, be calm and#8212; he is not here for that. You’re overly worried. Does he look like one of them?and#8221; he said, then stared back with his brow lowered.
Silence. The group hesitated and returned to their whispers; meanwhile, the sky had blackened, and the first drops of rain began to fall.
We stood together for a time more. He talked about his family and about his hope to get back to a restaurant and steady pay. For a handful of minutes, our talk went on. But the weather had turned and the morning was gone.
I thanked Carlos for his time. We shook hands and he thanked me again.
and#8220;Even though you might not believe it, this is a good thing,and#8221; he said in parting.
I nodded and crossed the street. The texture of life went on. Traffic fired from the intersection. The rain mixed itself into snow, locomotion sifted and spilled.
I looked back and saw Carlos still waiting at the curb. A crack of exhaust struck the air. A horn blared. A shout of wheels screeched. But Carlos did not move, and it was there I left him with his hands slung into his pockets, sliding his feet in the dirt imperceptibly, unremarkably, and yet, in a way, so very human.