Men at work
A day at the casual labor office is anything but
My head is zinging. I was up until 3:30 a.m. cooking a turkey, of all things. You start one of these 20-pounders after work, and you’re going to lose some sleep. But I’ve got it easy. In campsites, weekly motels, fleabag apartments and middle class homes, other men are waking up, and they’re not going to go downstairs to eat some succulent white meat.
No, they’re already walking or bicycling over to Galletti Way, and many will leave home without a morsel. I’m on my way there, too. You see, people who want to join the ranks of those casual laborers who stand on the street between Glendale Avenue and Kietzke Lane have to arrive at 6 a.m., or they’re out in the cold—meaning they won’t work, but since it’s 8 degrees outside, it’s going to be cold. Period.
It’s my intention to join those ranks, if only for a day. I’m not afraid of hard work; when I was younger, I worked outside in the coldest weather Nebraska had to offer. I worked pipeyards in Houston, standing on cold steel for hours at a time when it wasn’t just freezing, but pissing sleet. I want to examine the tread where the rubber meets the road in these … trying economic times. And if there’s anyone under the wheels in Northern Nevada, it’s the working poor.
I pull jeans and a sweatshirt over my sweatpants and T-shirt, put two socks on each foot, pull on my insulated steel-toes, and head downstairs in my comfortably warm, split-level house to nuke some turkey and yesterday’s coffee before climbing into an SUV that’s frozen so solid the rear window’s wiper is stuck to the rime.
The Casual Labor Office, 420 Galletti Way, hides behind a 6-foot chain link fence at the Kietzke end of Galletti. It’s more than a stone’s throw from the mental hospital, but that’s cold comfort in the predawn hours. I park in the wrong place and march in like I know something. There’s a clue: “Sign-in line forms here.”
The security guard, Sonny Velez, proffers me a blue former Folger’s can that’s got a yellow rubber bladder stretched across the top with a hole sliced in it. It’s plain I’m supposed to reach in, so I do, hoping it’s not used syringes or rusty razor blades or something. I pull out what looks like an old casino token, with the numeral 52 inked on it. The can is magic markered with the large letters D.E.T.E.R., which stands for Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation. The second E is extraneous but makes a good acronym. The 52 is my lottery number. At the beginning and the end of the day, there are 90 chips in the can.
My name goes on the sign-in sheet in the appropriate slot, and I’m handed an employment history form and a copy of the office rules. I’m honest on the form—put my current employment—and then I’m pulled into the office for the standard interview with Rick Healy, Casual Labor office manager. He shares the office with Rich Thomas, who’s in charge of veteran’s affairs. I’m indoctrinated into the system, entered into the computer—a casual laborer.
I explain my purpose to Healy: I will take my chances with the rest of them, accept any job that’s offered to me, and write about it.
He has no problem with that. He can’t speak on the record until he talks to the department’s public information officer, May Worthy, down in Las Vegas, but he gives me the usual spiel that he’d offer anyone: park in back, open door policy, both the registered laborers and the non-documented workers standing on the street can use the restroom, chairs or drinking fountain.
“What the employer has to do to take advantage of our services is we have to get basic information—name, address, telephone number,” Healy says after being authorized to speak. “We need to know the nature of the work that they are offering. We want to know how long it lasts and how much they intend to pay. It has to be at least the minimum wage of $6.85 an hour. Most employers will offer $8-10 an hour. They can call. They don’t have to be here in person.”
He says there’s a wide variance in the number of laborers. Mid to low 40s right now, but approaching 90 in the height of summer.
He also tells me the odds of earning enough bread to buy my family dinner: Out of the possible 90 men on the sign-in sheet, probably eight will go at most.
And by the way, are you a veteran?
Are we not men?
The room is your typical state of Nevada bureaucratic waiting room: blue walls, gray linoleum floor, drop ceiling. Scattered around the walls are those posters you’ll see at unemployment offices: “Equal Opportunity is the law,” “Learn about free building trade apprenticeships,” “It’s against the law to threaten or intimidate a public employee,” “Seven ways to get a job interview.” There’s even a flier for a hiring event with Reno JobConnect on Dec. 9. Today’s the 17th.
Black plastic chairs are aligned in rows toward the television, which is playing Channel 4’s morning news show. Near the back of the room are several tables. By the back wall are two drinking fountains and a men’s room that contains yellow walls, two toilets, three sinks, three urinals and the odor of a field-dressed deer. Administration is a glass-faced office behind the sign-in counter.
At 6:50 a.m., the chairs are populated by 38 men. There are maybe a dozen more outside. The men—there are no women here—are dressed in gear that ranges from out-of-a-job construction worker to flannel-covered grunge fan to schizophrenic homeless with holey sneakers and tattered jacket. There are a variety of beards, hair styles and tints of sclera. I can smell an odor of old liquor, and for a change it doesn’t emanate from me. Nobody appears intoxicated, although some are dozing. Nobody looks like they’re looking for a friend.
My cell phone rings. I step outside to where the smokers gather around aluminum picnic tables. One is warming his stockinged feet with a blow dryer. Others casually chat.
It’s our photographer, charming and elfin Lauren Randolph, on the horn. She’s not allowed on property with her camera and is standing in the snow outside the chain link. In her cloth sneakers. I offer my sagest advice and send her to shoot the most precarious people on the street: the undocumented freelancers. They work for anyone who shows up. Since hers is the only whiff of estrogen within a city block, all the smokers are interested in what we’re up to.
Square-jawed Allen Tidball wears a green stocking cap, blue jacket, thin black workboots and a backpack. He’s dressed in the out-of-a-job-construction-worker style and carries an air of calm competence. He actually meets my eye, and I light up. He’s two months out of work—"Construction, all phases"—but he seems affable enough, having saleable skills.
“I pick up a lot of clients, repeat clients, out of here,” he says, taking a long drag off his smoke. He’s been in Reno about a year. “I could draw a high number and still get work out of here.” He’s got a place to live and already has work scheduled for the weekend and two days next week.
He might be the most highly skilled guy I’ll meet all day.
“About a third of the guys here live outside,” he says. “They don’t pull in enough for a hotel or whatever. … And then some city or county worker will take their camp. They’ll take their stuff and burn it. It don’t matter to them.”
Tidball offers me the lowdown on the groups that bring food to the office, mostly Christian groups. Some of the guys will go over to St. Vincent’s for free lunch. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
“The main thing is to try to save your money and work into a full-time job.”
From a conversation knot nearby float snippets of conversation: Voice 1: “Put another log on the fire.” Voice 2: “Fuck you, man. … I love ya.” Voice 3: “I couldn’t get out of bed to save my soul. This guy couldn’t kick me out of bed.”
Back inside, Karen Reuter reports that the Salvation Army is still asking for help, including food and toys. The Reno Guardian Angels need help, as well. Who doesn’t?
Behind me, two men play chess on a borrowed, cloth chessboard. They argue because one claims the knight can move in an L-shaped manner, but only forward. One walks off in disgust. There’s a big blond guy in a blue flannel jacket and gray hat sitting right in front of me who hits up everyone he talks to for a dollar—a no-no in this place.
“A dollar? That’s enough for a bottle of whiskey, and I’d rather have the whiskey,” replies a scruffy looking one.
From overhead come the crackly electronic tones of an announcement from management: “It’s not news, but we have a bunch of black ice in the parking lot. Be careful out there.”
“A bunch of black guys in the parking lot?” The room cracks up.
“Tell them to come in.”
Working man’s blues
Boredom settles in. Not a single person has gone out to work. The photographer calls again. She can’t talk to the freelancers on the street, no entiende español. I cross the parking lot. No black guys here. Only one inside. Across the street there are a bunch of Hispanic ones though, so I head over and begin to ask questions in my rusty Spanish. Pretty soon their patience wears out, and they direct me to the guy who speaks English. Rolando of Mexico City has been in the United States for 12 years, and by virtue of his language skills, he’s the sighted one in a blind community, the de facto leader of this bunch.
“No, I don’t have a preference what color they are, all I care about is the color of the salary.” I found it odd he immediately went to race—I hadn’t mentioned it—but it seems worth noting. He says that he works irregularly, especially this time of year. “Sometimes it’s one day or two days. It’s OK. Everybody has the family to take care of.”
He says the paychecks are just as irregular, sometimes making $40 or $60 for a long day, sometimes making “$10, 12, 14” an hour. His pals, Fernando in the yellow jacket and Cesar in the black jacket with the Panthers logo, begin cutting up, mugging for photographer Randolph’s lens. It’s cold enough for frostbite, and these guys laugh.
Back in the Orwellian office, I make a friend. He says his name’s Bill, but I can tell he’s lying. I don’t care. I think he’s telling the truth when he says he’s originally from Massachusetts. None of these guys prefer this kind of work to a punch-in, punch-out job. I’m more concerned with what they have to say than violating their privacy.
He laughs when he hears my plan. “If your number is higher than 1-5, you can hang it up. There might be three people who go out today—might be none.” His friend Brian, who at first said he didn’t want to talk to a reporter, says, “If nothing happens by 9 or 10 o’clock, I’ll go out and fill out some apps. It’s too cold to go out there now.”
My notes get a little jumbled, as both men are talking.
“I’ve got food—in the refrigerator back home. You can always get some money—donate some plasma. … Usually this time of year I work at Amazon, but they don’t have transportation this year; they cut it off. … Everybody’s feeling the pinch. It’s an employer’s market right now. This right here is just a temporary thing; it’s not a permanent thing. … If you’re broke—you don’t have any cash—it’s very hard to get on your feet. Sometimes it’s two weeks before you get a paycheck. … I think we’re up to 6.7 percent unemployed. And that’s just for people who apply [for benefits]. Most of these people don’t file.
Just then, a roach coach arrives, so I take my leave. $1.25 for a cup of diluted coffee and a cinnamon bun. It’s not protein, but …
A bunch of us stand outside smoking as the taco truck cleans up in preparation for leaving. It’s just short of 8 a.m. The drippings from the coffee urn have frozen on the truck’s counter, and the money man is attempting to scrape it off.
“Hey, you going to put that back in there?” Everybody laughs.
“You don’t laugh around here, you got nothing,” I’m told.
At 8:15, another stentorian announcement: “Can I have your attention, please? We have some free coffee being offered outside in the parking lot.” It’s Pastor David Velazquez of the Reno-Sparks Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist Church. ("Pray for us,” he says to me, “so we can continue to minister to others.") He and his two high school age assistants ladle out Styrofoam cups of Mexican spiced coffee and pastries. A gingerbread cookie for me. While I’m outside in line, a guy in a white Jeep takes one of the casual laborers off to work. He’s got a bumper sticker that says, “I don’t care how they drive in California.”
Ten minutes later, I’m inside when they announce a job: Two hours tops, loading a car. $20. A dozen of us rush to the counter, raising our hands and shouting our qualifications. He takes a clean-cut one.
“Good job,” Bill tells me, congratulating my speed figuring out how things work. “But do you know how pissed they’d be if you took that job?”
Ron with the blue eyes, the yellow coat and the black tennis shoes draws a picture for his two children, Ronald and Angelica. It’s ink on paper, tattoo-styled with hearts, a rose, a ribbon and their names. It’s quite well-done.
“Last week, I was third in line, and I didn’t go out. Wish I could make a living doing this,” nodding toward the drawing.
It’s just 8:37, and hope for a big score has fled this room.
Bill’s still talkative. “We’re powerless people. We ain’t got money, we ain’t got nothing. It’s the distribution of wealth. You know what [Milton] Friedman said, ‘You give 10 people the same amount of money and in a year, the same people who had it before would have it again.'”
The clock ticks. Martha Stewart yammers on about Christmas ornaments on the tube: “Everybody’s got a glue gun.” “No, they don’t,” says someone sarcastically. Nobody laughs.
Prayer for an asshole
I wander back outside. “Hey, it’s not too bad now,” I say in Bill’s general direction.
“We’ll see how bad it is,” says someone I haven’t met. “Let me borrow the keys to your little truck out there, and we’ll see how bad it is.”
“Yeah, it’s OK, for a lark,” says Bill. He says it like “lawk,” but I get what he means. Next to survival, a navel-gazing experiential story is insulting. I’m going to go home to my split-level home and my warmed over turkey. And my job. This is not real for me. It’s Kick the Can.
Jaime Botello, 53, makes rosaries and crosses for a hobby. He lives in the car parked next to mine. He catches me on the way back from my Jeep, shows me a prayer he wrote in the waiting room. He’s got a sad story that begins with the death of his father and ends with a cheating wife. He has five kids back in Mexico and was born on the same day as my sister, the first day of spring.
“The only thing I’m not going to lose is my faith in God. When I pray at night, I only ask that God keep me healthy.”
The prayer translates (loosely): “Oh immaculate queen of the heavens and the earth, refuge of the sinners and our most loving mother, to whom God confides the economy of our misery, I, Jaime, prostrate myself before you. I ask that you accept me as yours. To you, oh mother, I offer my soul and spirit until death and through eternity. I ask that you help me against your enemies and to be a better and more loyal son to you for all of life and eternity. [In the margin] In you, oh Father, I see the light of the true way, but I’m an asshole.”
He hits me up for two bucks to put fuel in his home.
A man arrives with pastries across the street. Roger Jahr is from Truckee and a one-man ministry. “I just like to help these guys out.”
I continue down to the Glendale end of Galletti and talk to the Hispanic guys about the dangers of freelancing. One relates a story about a white guy who’d picked up two men on Monday, worked them all day and then only paid them $15 each. When one complained, the white guy choked him and chased him across the street. “Just like anything, you got good people, you got bad people,” says Danny with an impeccable norteamericano accent.
According to one man, a freelancer on Galletti was killed by a drunk and angry man who stole a car a few years ago. A small memorial lingers next to one of the large trees that line the street.
At 11:45 p.m. the big score comes in. Eight guys to hand out bundles of fliers at houses, mailboxes, cars in parking lots for $20 dollars a bundle—300 to the bundle. I’m the last chosen, but Ron comes up behind.
I pat the security guard on the shoulder. Fuck the story. “You know what; I’m not going to take one of these guys’ jobs.”
Velez acknowledges my … “sacrifice” with a nod and a glance and ushers Ron into the fold of the working man.