Herding People

When undocumented workers gather to wait for jobs at the city's first day-labor center, complaints about them should subside. But don't count on it.

Hector urges everyone to bring their ideas to a meeting on December 14. "We'll work all this out then, but you have to come to the meeting and participate. Apathy is one of our biggest problems."

But there are other problems. There are those who resist change, and even sabotage it, flouting their disregard for laws and decency in public. There are the fringe characters like Roberto who lies in a parking lot drinking 40-ouncers and listening to a Walkman, ignoring the debate in the street. He's the guy Fendler sees when he looks at the laborers -- another drunken, lazy Mexican.

When the workers move behind the fence, Hector says, Roberto won't be welcome because he will scare away potential employers.

Joe Fendler grouses that he's tired of picking up after illegal aliens.
Steve Granitz/Rogers & Cowan
Joe Fendler grouses that he's tired of picking up after illegal aliens.

There is a difference between day laborers and street people, Hector stresses. Those who are there at 6 a.m. to work have a mission. "It won't be good for [street people] if we succeed, so they tend to provoke situations."

A tall man in an emerald turtleneck, dark slacks and shined loafers walks up the street with surprising grace, dragging elegantly on a GPC as the group parts to let him in. "Kino, que tal?" they greet him, as they touch fists. He's known as the poet of the Jornaleros Macehualli for his "pensamientos," eloquent, issue-oriented poems he will recite from memory on special occasions.

"Kino is a good man," says Hector. "An excellent man. This center is his dream. He's been there from the beginning. I wish he'd stay and help organize, but he refuses." Hector shakes his head. "He says he's here to make it better for us. Once it opens, he says his work will be done and he's going back to Mexico."

Kino attracts a lot of attention. His brown curls frosted with gray are neatly swept back in a pompadour. His eyes are large, all pupils that swirl with slate, copper and jade.

Kino talks slowly with the other workers, as he surveys the hazy sky. They have to strain to catch his words, and whenever he opens his mouth, a shush ripples through the buzz of chatter. Kino keeps one ear on the conversation as he glances over at Roberto, who has moved from 40-ouncers in the parking lot to sipping stolen tequila across the street.

"Those of us who are older and have been here the longest have to set an example, " Hector says. "Those of us who are here to work know we have to keep this area clean." A young man nods in agreement adding, "one or two guys can ruin this for all of us because that is what the güeros expect to see."

They're quiet for a while, passing the time counting the minivans that wait vainly in the drive-through lane of the closed McDonald's, then honk impatiently and squeal off.

"Hector," Kino says, breaking the trance as he stamps out his cigarette. "Why don't you tell [the workers] about the crabs?"

"Ah, sí, los cangrejos," Hector says with a smile.

The story is this: A man walking on a beach comes across another guy selling crabs. He has two full buckets. One is uncovered and filled with Mexican crabs, the other contains crabs from another country, and is tightly covered with a cloth. "Why is one bucket covered?" the first man asks. "So they won't climb out," the crab seller responds. "I don't have to do that with the Mexican crabs. Every time one of them gets close to the top, the other crabs pull him back down with them."

They look at their feet and laugh, their shadows grow long on the asphalt in front of them. It's nearly noon.

A disheveled woman with bright blue eyes and a full goatee walks into their midst trolling for a cigarette before pinballing back across the parking lot.

A pickup truck pulls up. "Here's the turkey," says Hector with a wry smile. A woman climbs out, and some of the men scuttle toward her. Hector and the crowd around him don't even blink. But it's not turkey she's handing out. It's Ziploc bags of water bottles and condoms. "It's charity; she's trying to help," says Hector, "but we don't want help, we want work."

While they watch the condom lady, Kino slips away and walks to a nearby Dumpster. He kneels beside it and wraps something in a clean, white towel. He walks slowly back toward them, a gray pigeon cradled in his hands.

"She's dying," he says, stroking the bird's breast. Canitas struts over and asks to hold the shaking pigeon. Kino hands it over and lights another cigarette.

Canitas examines the bird's clenched claws. "She's got cramps in her legs," he says as he straightens them.

It must be the poison, the men agree. "When I first started coming here, the building behind us was full of baby birds," Hector tells them. "They decided they didn't want pigeons anymore and put poison seeds out."

Canitas sets the bird on the ground, and watches as it struggles to remain upright, wings trembling, scared and flightless.

Eyeing a police cruiser nearby, Kino says, "I don't think they want us here, either."

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