Editor's note: Day laborers are among the most exploited and vulnerable workers in the American economic system, yet they perform some of the most necessary—and dirty—jobs.
This is an excerpt—Chapter 2—from Dick Reavis' book Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers published by Simon & Schuster.
In the book, Reavis, a veteran journalist and Raleigh resident, chronicles his experiences working as a 62-year-old day laborer. His jobs included factory worker, landscaper, road crew flagman, auto-auction driver, warehouseman and construction worker. He even spent several days sorting artifacts in a dead pack rat's apartment.
A former staff writer at Texas Monthly, Reavis has also worked for daily newspapers and alternative newsweeklies. His book Ashes of Waco investigates the events at Mt. Carmel, Texas, where David Koresh and his followers lived—and questions the government's motives and rationale for raiding the compound.
A Texas native, Reavis is an assistant professor at N.C. State University, where he teaches journalism. And as a point of disclosure, we should note that several Indy writers and editors speak to his classes each semester. —Lisa Sorg
Lester and I were facing each other on opposite sides of the hole, which was about eighteen inches deep and eighteen inches in diameter. He had a mattock, a tool that everyone today calls a pickax. I had a spade. Our job was to widen the hole to a diameter of about three feet.
Lester was a guy I'd seen various times at the labor hall from which we worked, an average-sized man, maybe five foot nine, weighing about 175 pounds.*
(* Note to the reader: to avoid embarrassing my subjects and to discourage harassment suits, I have changed the names of the people and firms mentioned in all but the final chapter. )
He had an angelic, benevolent face and was always dressed in like-new slacks and button-down shirts, not in the scruffy T-shirt-and-jeans attire of his peers.
As dark as coffee, he was in his forties and balding. Wrinkles seemed to have formed his face into a permanent grin. He kept to himself, always smiling. I don't think I'd heard him speak before that morning.
As he swung his pickax, I noticed that his aim was off the mark. The instrument's blade was falling about four inches away from the hole, and not, as it should have been, an inch or two from its border. He was making stab marks in the ground, but dirt wasn't falling into the hole.
I watched for a few seconds. His eyes were on the pickax, but he hadn't noticed that he was too far from the hole's edge.
Dolly, the dispatcher at the labor hall, had warned me, I suppose. When she offered me the job, she'd told me, "Look out for Lester, will you? He can't see too well. You may have to guide him."
Dolly—a rosy-cheeked, pudgy, unfailingly friendly white woman in her late twenties—had told me that the job was "moving trees." I didn't know what that might involve. I had asked her.
"Don't worry, I've sent you to worse," she said.
On my way out, I'd also asked Milton Johnson, a slender, fiftyish, jet-black man, one of the hall's old-timers, what "moving trees" might mean.
"Moving trees? Well, the time I did it, it was like, they have all of these branches cut up," Johnson said. "Somebody has already cut them with a chain saw. You have to pick them up and throw them in a backhoe. It ain't too bad."
But as it had turned out, "moving trees" this time meant digging, one of the tasks that day laborers abhor.
The boss man, a thirtyish white guy with blond hair, wraparound sunglasses, short pants, and a baseball hat, came to the spot where we were digging. He was dragging a water hose. He directed its stream into the hole, to soften the ground. Lester and I backed away, and when we did, I sidled over and in a whisper offered to exchange tools. He happily took my shovel, and when the boss man went off, Lester began digging—at the edge of the hole. But I noticed that to find the hole, he first placed the spade inside, then pulled it toward him until he touched its edge. He was finding it more by feel than by sight.
The excavation wasn't taxing—the ground was fairly soft—and it took less than an hour to expand the hole to size. The boss man checked our work with a tape measure and said we were done.
We had been digging at the margin of a yard in a suburban housing development that, from the looks of things, had been built about ten years earlier. In the edge of the yard adjoining us stood a crepe myrtle tree, perhaps twelve feet tall. Our next chore, the boss man said, was to unearth the tree and move it into the hole that we had dug.
The occupant of the adjacent house was planning to move, and was giving the crepe myrtle to his neighbor, the boss man's client. The boss man owned a tree-moving service, literally that: his business card carried the words "Tree moving service."
We had to pick and dig a narrow trench around the tree so that we could lift or pull it out of the ground. The ground sloped, and its downside was thick with roots that were tough to cut. About half an hour after we'd begun, having scraped out a trench, we rocked the tree. But it wouldn't budge. Though our trench had cut the visible roots, we now had to dig beneath the tree as best we could. It was slow going. Lester used his garden spade. I got the other available spade, a posthole digger. We went to our knees, shoved and hacked, cutting the roots that we struck.
The boss man brought a long length of nylon webbing, about an inch wide. We formed a file, each of us holding a length of the webbing above our heads. Then we walked around the tree, wrapping its branches inside the circle we made. The boss man had us bring a stepladder from his pickup, and standing on it, he tied a special knot in the webbing, then had us go around again, and again, lowering our arms with each circuit. We were compressing the tree's branches, folding them toward the centerline formed by its trunk. This was to make the tree easier to move to the hole, the boss man said.
From its base, we rocked the tree again, and it began to yield. About this time, the client came up. He was dressed like the boss man, in a baseball cap, polo shirt, shorts, and jogging shoes; I noticed the initials of a collegiate social fraternity tattooed on his left ankle. He joined in the back-and-forthing. The tree gave way, tumbled atop the client, and swept the cap off his head. We lifted the tree off him and he crawled out, waving his cap. He was a little scratched, but essentially unhurt.
"Whatever happened to teenagers?" I quipped.
"Huh! They don't do work like this anymore," he said.
Two weeks later, I read a newspaper report about a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It found that "while 90 percent of 9-year-olds get a couple of hours of exercise most days, fewer than 3 percent of 15-year-olds do." Old men do the lifting and the digging, the story said.
Once we had the tree on the ground, the job was easy. On one end, it was a ball of roots and clay, chest high. On the other, it was a sheaf of bound branches, waist high. I pushed the ball, as if it were a chariot wheel, to make it roll, while the boss man and Lester held on to its branches to keep them from pivoting. Within minutes we had rolled the tree into the hole we'd dug, pushed it upright, packed dirt around its edges, untied its webbing, and tied its trunk to four lines of webbing that ran to stakes we had hammered into the ground.
We finished a little past noon. The boss told us to put his tools into the bed of his pickup, gather our belongings, and get inside its cab. Then he went to talk to the client, who was waiting in his driveway, twenty yards from the pickup.
Lester's backpack was in plain view, next to mine, at a spot near the boundary between the two yards, not more than ten feet from the pickup's cab. But he wandered. He went walking even to the front porch of the client's yard. The client was writing a check. He and the boss man didn't notice.
I called to Lester. He heard me, but had to stop and scan, craning his neck to find me. I should have been visible on his left. He had a dead eye, it seemed.
"It's over here!" I called out. I was leaning on the hood of the cab, sipping a lukewarm Pepsi that I'd brought.
Lester began walking in my direction. He came within ten feet of his backpack, but still didn't see it.
"Turn around and look down at your feet," I called again.
He stopped, scanned the ground, picked up his backpack, and ambled to the cab.
When he'd finished his business, the boss man came to the pickup, followed by his client who—thoughtful fellow!—brought ten- or twelve-ounce bottles of water in his hands. He gave one to each of us. They were welcome and cold.
We were half-expecting the boss man to say that we were done for the day, and neither of us would have minded. Digging is hard work, and at Labor-4-U and most halls, workers are guaranteed that even if they complete a job in less time, they'll get four hours' pay.
But once we were in the pickup, the boss man didn't offer to drive us back to where he'd met us, nor did he even mention lunch. Instead, he started his engine and said that he had another chore, "similar to the one you just did."
He drove into the countryside, onto a dirt road that ran by a farmhouse that he said belonged to his parents. In a clearing leading into a field, I saw a dinosaur-size machine, like a tractor, with a huge, acorn-shaped four-leafed scoop on the front of it.
"What's that machine for?" I asked.
"That's what I usually use to move trees," the boss man explained. "It works pretty good in open country, but it's too big for yards like the one this morning. Besides," he added, "it takes a trailer to haul it."
I felt small. Lester and I were nothing more than substitutes for a hunk of steel. We had a job—and not a job anybody would want— maybe because of a machine's limitations, or if not, because our employer's trailer had a flat tire.
The boss man turned right, and a short distance later, he stopped. We were under the canopy of a grove of trees. Beyond the grove and a bit off to the right, the land opened. I could see waves of golden wheat, blue sky, and white clouds. It was like looking at a YouTube video of "America."
When it rained, the wheat field drained in our direction, muddying the little road on which we'd stopped, the boss man said. Tractors and pickups couldn't get into the field when that happened. It would be our job to dig a trench to divert the runoff. The boss man had purchased forty-five feet of six-inch black flexible plastic tubing; it lay on the ground a few yards in front of the pickup. The trench had to be about a foot deep, he said. We took our tools from the pickup and went toward the tubing.
The boss man said that he had an errand to attend to—probably lunch!—but that he'd be back soon.
The dirt where we were was dry, loose topsoil on the canopy's edge, nearest to the field. At its other end, under the canopy, it was covered with leaves and bits of rotting wood. I gave Lester the shovel for the softer end and took the pickax to the leafy end, which I knew would be crawling with roots.
Though most were no thicker than my thumb, the roots were stubborn and hard. Sometimes my blade bounced off them. Sometimes when I swung at them, I caught only an edge, and the root at which I was aiming merely flicked to one side, forcing me to swing again. With every three or four swings, I had to stop and catch my breath. My COPD was getting to me.
I sweated and panted and swung—it was above ninety degrees by now—and sweated and panted and swung, telling myself that if I got through the grove before the boss returned, he wouldn't notice the condition of my lungs. I kept my ears open for the rumble of his pickup.
Two or three times that morning, while digging the hole and unearthing the tree, I had heard a different sound, one that I presumed was a cell-phone ring. Soon I heard it again. But Lester didn't answer, and I didn't see any bulge in his pockets.
"Lester, what's that ringing I keep hearing?" I asked.
"Oh, oh," he said pleasantly. "That's my watch. I have a talking watch."
It was déjà vu, shades of my experience, forty years earlier, in the chemical plant.
Lester rolled up the sleeve on his blue cotton shirt, pointed to his left wrist, and showed me how his watch worked. It beeped on the hour and half-hour. He pushed a button, and a computer-style voice told him the time. The watch even had an alarm—he set it and rang it for me—that sounded like a crowing rooster.
Lester was smiling broadly. He liked his watch.
"I got it at Radio Shack for nineteen ninety-five," he told me, beaming.
We started to chat.
He explained to me that he had lost the sight in his right eye at the age of five when it had been hit—he didn't say how—by a "bunch of dirt." His vision had dimmed slowly over a couple of years, but ultimately, the eye went completely dead.
Cataracts came to his left eye when he was in his teens, leaving him with only partial sight in his "good" eye. When watching the television in the hall, he said, he saw only colors, not images. He said that the hardest thing for him at the labor hall was that "I can't see the line where I'm supposed to sign in."
He spoke in a kindly, cheery, boyish voice, frequently chuckling, all of it a bit too loud.
I asked him how long he'd been working out of the hall. About two and a half years, off and on, he said. "It's a pretty good place," he added.
That's when I began to wonder if Lester, in addition to being blind, might also be retarded. No one else would have said that the labor hall was "pretty good," even if he believed it.
In the hall that morning, Lester had been asleep in a chair. I had been sitting next to him for an hour or more. From time to time he had stirred, even opened his eyes. I had noticed that one of them was a bit bloodshot, but hadn't paid much mind. I've seen guys who were dead to the world while sitting in the hall, usually because they've been up all night, drunk or on drugs.
"Why were you asleep this morning?" I asked him.
Lester explained that he lived in a shelter for the homeless—he said it was a pretty good place too—which every afternoon, by computer, issued each of its prospective lodgers a number. Those holding numbers 1 through 200 got in for the night. Lester had drawn number 428.
"Then where did you sleep?" I asked.
"Oh, outside the shelter. They let us sleep on the grass there," he said, totally content.
But, of course, he hadn't slept well.
I asked Lester if, being blind, he wasn't eligible for a disability check of some kind. He told me that he received about eight hundred dollars a month—a little more, a little less, depending on how much he earned from working. But he had to pay fifty-three dollars a month for a storage locker where he kept some furniture for his mother, he said.
I couldn't figure out where the rest of his money might go, and that convinced me that my earlier suspicion had been right: Lester probably was a little retarded. In homeless shelters, good-hearted but slow-minded types acquire "friends" toward the end of every month— shortly before their checks arrive. On check day, and for two or three days afterward, they make loans to these friends. Of course, their friends then disappear, a feat that's especially easy when one's creditor is a blind man.
We went back to working, me picking and panting through the roots again. Before long, maybe an hour and a half after he'd left, the boss man returned in his pickup.
He stood and watched as I swung the pick—taking my time, so as not to set off panting. Lester scooped and dug. The boss man walked up and down the trench, pointing out spots for us to widen or deepen. When we had dug the distance that he had prescribed, we laid the tubing into the trench.
It was shallow by an inch or two.
The boss man looked worried. He sat down on a fallen tree trunk, trying to figure out what to do.
I told him that he should have bought four-inch tubing.
He didn't make any comment, but he did look at his watch. By then, it was nearly three o'clock. He had contracted our labor for seven hours, and had promised to meet our ride—a guy from the labor hall—at a service station at three thirty. He had us mount into the cab and drove us to the station, where he "signed," or filled out, our ticket—the half-sheet of paper that authorizes payment. He handed it to me. I glanced at the document with the usual concern in mind.
Not all employers behave alike, especially those who have bosses themselves. If, for example, a day laborer works eight hours under the supervision of someone who has a boss—an employee of a regional or national corporation, for example—the supervising employee, if he or she is empathetic or generous, will record nine or ten hours instead. It's a way to tip laborers with corporate fat. When a ticket is signed, day laborers look to see if hours have been added to the bill.
Our ticket credited each of us with only seven hours. I wasn't surprised—mom-and-pop operators are stingy sorts—but I wasn't pleased.
The afternoon shift at the labor hall was manned by two white males that day, Bruce, a red-faced and scornful middle-aged man whom the workers nicknamed Rush Limbaugh, and Jason, an officious but well-liked thirty-year-old. I gave our ticket to Jason. Scrutinizing it, he found a flaw.
"Look at this," he said, with the glee of a boy who has spotted an ugly bug. "The guy wrote down seven hours for each of you, but down here"—he moved a finger to the bottom line on the form—"where he's supposed to write in the total number of hours, he put 'seven' again."
"So what?" I said.
"He was supposed to put 'fourteen.'"
"Yeah, but look at the hours," I argued. "He listed them as eight thirty to three thirty and the ticket has both our names."
"But we bill him according to the total number of hours," Jason spat.
He said that he would telephone the boss man to get permission to change the notation on the ticket.
I was peeved: Filling out the ticket wasn't my job, I figured. If the boss man made an error, it was his problem, not mine.
Jason made the call but a recording machine answered. Lester and I waited. Jason called again. We waited again, fifteen minutes or more.
"What happens if the guy never calls back?" I blustered.
"Rush Limbaugh," seated behind the counter that divides labor-hall personnel from their charges, had been listening to our exchanges.
"If he doesn't call back, then we pay each of you for three and one-half hours," he said with finality.
That was enough for me. I walked out.
Ninety minutes later, when I came back, calmer but not having forgiven anyone, Lester was gone, the boss man had returned the call, and Jason had a check ready for me, pay for seven hours.
The check showed that the boss man had contracted us at $6.35 an hour, about 20 cents an hour above the minimum wage at the time. Our take-home pay for the tree-moving and ditch-digging was $40 and pennies, but that was before we paid $5 each for our ride.
I thought of the suburban teenagers who no longer do heavy-duty yard chores, and for the first time in my life, I envied them their leisure, their allowances, even their zits.
From Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers by Dick J. Reavis. Copyright © 2010 by Dick J. Reavis. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.