The Story of Carmen and Sal
Piled high in Carmen's double closet is a treasure chest of lamps, dishes, cooking pots, silverware, curtains, sheets, towels, and home decorations -- all neatly packed in their original boxes, awaiting the day when Carmen and Salvador move into their first house. The microwave oven in her apartment kitchen broke down two months ago, but Carmen steadfastly refuses to open the brand new one that is stuffed onto a high shelf in the treasure closet. Its debut must also await the day they head for the suburbs and wave good-bye to the teeming city streets and Spanglish cacophony that mark her Washington Heights enclave.
"This neighborhood is nauseating," Carmen snorts. "I hate it!" It's not like Carmen to be so irritated, but she is particularly upset because that day her neighbor had torn down the clothesline the building super had strung between their two fourth-floor apartments. Carmen had paid good money for that line, but her neighbor was hogging the space and, with two little kids, Carmen has a lot of laundry. After several heated arguments, Carmen declared that she was the proper owner of the clothesline and de¬manded that Rosita stop using it. An hour later, Rosita bellowed out the window and when Carmen appeared to see what the ruckus was all about, Rosita waved a knife in the air and cut the line down before Carmen's eyes. Until the line can be restrung -- to a different neighbor's window -- laundry is stretched out over every surface in Carmen's tiny kitchen, which doubles as the family's only eating space. "It's gonna cost me seventy dollars to fix the damn laundry line," she groused.
Jorge, the Dominican super, drops by to fix Carmen's bathtub, which has been backed up and spewing hair balls for the past week. She barely has time to remind him about the leaking radiator in the living room be¬cause she is elbow-deep in habiculelas (beans), which must be sifted and cleaned by hand, rinsed in water over and over, and finally cooked in a large pot, a ritual familiar to any Dominican housewife. Carmen calls the corner grocery store to order a fresh chicken from the live poultry market. "Miguel [the store owner] buys from the live market once or twice a week," she explains over her shoulder, "and I only buy from him on those days." Salvador will be home by 5:00 and he expects to see dinner on the table, so Carmen is in a hurry to make everything right.
Karina, Carmen's seven-year-old daughter, has the week off from school and finally struggles out of bed at 11:00 AM and wakens her little sister, Gina, a three-year-old whose dark, curly hair frames a pair of cherubic cheeks. Ordinarily they would both be shaken out of their slumbers at 5:30 AM so that Carmen could brush their hair, feed them breakfast, and bundle them up for the daily walk to school and the day care center. The morning ritual leaves Carmen just enough time to hop the subway to Midtown Manhattan, where she works the early shift at Lord and Taylor. But today they can rest up and try to distract their mother from her chores.
Karina wanders into the living room, the largest of the four rooms in the family's one-bedroom apartment, and snuggles into the plastic-covered sofa, her favorite blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She likes to fiddle with the decorative birdcage that hangs over the couch, though Carmen shoos her away from it. Karina extracts permission to watch TV, bundles the blanket around her waist and waddles back into the bedroom she shares with Gina. Their twin beds are covered in bright quilts and puffy pillows, which they use to prop themselves up before the large TV and VCR in the corner. Dolls and stuffed animals cram every corner, spill¬ing out onto the floor. Looking out into the airshaft at the offending clotheslines snapping in the wind, Karina figures she can probably go out¬side after her favorite cartoons.
Now that the beans are cooking and the chicken is on the way, Carmen sets about straightening up the room that she and Salvador share, a din¬ing room converted into their own little palace. Proud of her decorative touch, she dusts the scented candles and artificial flowers that grace their dresser. A queen-size bed, an entertainment center, and a desk with a com¬puter fill up the modest room, giving it that overstuffed feeling: too many things jammed into too small a space. It's the story of their lives.
What Carmen really longs for on a day like this is a green lawn and a quiet street where Karina and Gina can ride their bikes. She wouldn't say no to a clean park with smooth wooden benches (rather than the splint¬ered ones in the run-down park at the end of the block, with its broken swings and glass-strewn pavement.) Carmen would like to be able to send the kids outside on their own, rather than feeling obliged to hover over them so that they don't get hurt. She knows that Karina wants to enjoy the kinds of things that suburban kids can do so easily. "Karina wants to have a yard," Carmen sighs. "She wants to play outside, ride her bike, have a dog, rabbits, and birds."
Perhaps even more than these amenities, Carmen longs for the kind of community she grew up with in the Dominican Republic, even if it was poorer than Washington Heights. Everyone in her neighborhood knew her and her extended family; no one was ever alone. "In my country," she explains, "people help you if you fail. They want to know if you are OK." Not so in the big city, where everyone is in a rush and no one knows your name or your history. "Here, if you fall, people will walk over you. Here life is quick," she says rapping her knuckles on the counter. "I don't like that about the city. If you don't know your next-door neighbor, he may pass you by and won't even say good day."
This lament has grown stronger since Carmen and Salvador visited Grand Rapids, Michigan, where most of Carmen's extended family has now moved. Drawn to New York along with thousands of other Domini¬can immigrants in the 1970s, Carmen's aunts and uncles later joined a sec¬ondary stream that has begun to change the face of the Midwest and the American South, now the destination of choice for many first-time immi¬grants as well as seasoned veterans like Carmen. In the 1980s, when the auto factories and the steel mills were shedding jobs at a record pace, im¬migrants stayed put in the gateway cities of Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. But the prosperity of the 1990s revived the auto plants in the Mid¬west and the prospect of good wages in the packing houses of Kansas. Carmen's relations found good fortune in Michigan:
My aunt Bella was the first. Her husband wanted to live there because all of his family lives there. He works in a food processing plant and Bella works at a hospital. My grandmother followed Bella there be¬cause Bella is her favorite daughter. Grandma takes care of all of her grandchildren. After that, Uncle Leonis left. He's an accountant. Then Imelda left; she has a beauty salon. Then Belinda [followed], and she works in the hospital too. Belinda's husband has a beauty salon too. After Belinda, Anastasia went; she also works in the hospi¬tal. When my grandmother left, she took my father and Nardo, his brother. Gimela was the last to leave, in 1999.
The chain migration pulled nearly twenty of Carmen's family members to Grand Rapids, leaving only Carmen and her sister behind, a little rem¬nant of the nuclear family. Some of these Michigan newcomers are working-class hospital employees who do maintenance (Bella and Belinda); others are entrepreneurs; and still others are skilled workers: Gimela is a nurse. Collectively, they help one another find jobs, housing, and child care, and just as they did in New York, they patch together a safety net that prevents anyone from falling on hard times. Since wages are high in Grand Rapids and housing is cheap, some relatives have been able to buy houses and build up some equity. In the space of two generations, they have found a degree of security that would have been impossible to grasp in the Dominican Republic. Carmen is tempted to move, and every phone call from the Midwest ends with the plea, "Come, join us!" Much as their lives (and especially their houses) appeal to her, Carmen looks on from the distance of the big city and places the idea on the back burner.
In part, her reluctance to move stems from the upward mobility that she and Salvador have experienced in New York. Much as she may complain, the fact is that New York City has been good to them both. When we met in 1993, Carmen was making change at Burger Barn, and Salvador, then her novio rather than her husband, had only recently left the Barn for a slightly better job stocking shelves on the night shift for a pharmacy chain. Eight years later, Sal was pulling in nearly $46,000 a year as the manager of a video shop. When Carmen works, they have a combined income of more than $60,000 a year, which is respectably middle class, although it doesn't stretch as far in New York as it might elsewhere.
The pathway from Burger Barn to their current jobs was far from straightforward. It was full of blind alleys and exploitative bosses, as well as opportunities that boosted their prospects higher than they had ever thought possible. Hard work and drive have paid off for them, but net¬works and contacts were essential to making those virtues matter. Family supports were critical, particularly once Carmen and Sal had kids of their own. It is a saga of zigs and zags rather than a straight line to success, and even though they have done well relative to their starting point, they can¬not afford anything larger than a one-bedroom apartment, especially if they want to save.
After their wedding celebration in 1994, Carmen and Salvador moved into a tiny apartment in the heart of New York's Dominican community. Back then, Carmen's grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins were still living in the same building; their homes had adjoining doors. The little ones in this entourage whizzed through the apartments, while Grand¬mother held court. Spanish-language cable TV hummed all day in the background, but silence ruled when the soap operas beloved back home were on the air.
Living cheek by jowl had its downside, of course. The newlyweds had no privacy. Yet since they also had no money, the upside was clear: Carmen could eat with her relatives and Salvador could go visit his when the food budget got too tight. And tight it was. Even with two minimum-wage pay¬checks, the rent took up nearly 80 percent of their earnings. Carmen was in charge of the household accounts, and she began to hide the bad news from her twenty-two-year-old husband. In September she would pay the phone bill and stiff Con Edison; in October she switched her loyalties and sent a check to the utilities company and let Verizon wait for a month.
Financial pressures grew to almost unbearable levels when Carmen's pregnancy (little Karina on the way) turned out to be problematic. With¬out health insurance or the cash to pay a doctor, she went without prenatal care for as long as she could. But in the middle of our fieldwork period Carmen developed a high fever, could not hold food down, and began a downward spiral of weight loss -- not a good sign. Carmen's aunt took her aside and lectured her until she relented and signed up for public assis¬tance, hoping to lay claim to a Medicaid card. A sympathetic caseworker rushed the paperwork through, and Carmen was able to see a physician regularly after that. He assured her that the virus had not hurt the baby. Karina was born without incident several months later.
The family needed more money to make ends meet, so Sal took a sec¬ond job in a food pantry. He worked all night in the pharmacy, came home to catch a few hours' rest, and then headed to his church to hand out hot meals to the homeless for a modest salary. It wasn't enough to keep the family afloat, though, and his absence only made Carmen more anxious to find a way to get out of the house. After all, with her grandmother on deck to help take care of Karina, she reasoned she could manage part-time hours at the very least.
In 1996, when the baby had grown into a toddler, Salvador finally re¬lented, grudgingly, and Carmen went back to Burger Barn to recapture her job as a hostess, handling organized birthday parties for hyper¬excited children. The fast-food restaurant is in the heart of her Dominican neighborhood, and so everyone who frequents the place speaks Spanish. Carmen is still more comfortable in her native tongue, and in her corner of Manhattan nothing else is really required. A hard-working, efficient, organized, and bright woman, Carmen was always a valued asset at Burger Barn. The daughter of a teacher in the Dominican Republic, Carmen has completed several years of college, and she easily mastered the managerial tasks thrust in her direction. Had she wanted to stay with Burger Barn, it seems clear she could have been a general manager in a short period of time. Indeed, rival Burger Barns in the area bid for her and she moved back and forth between them, increasing her salary a marginal amount each time.
By January 1998, Carmen had had enough of the Barn. "I was pregnant [with Gina], but I didn't quit only because I was pregnant. I had worked for six days in a row; the last day I worked [at the Barn] was supposed to be my day off. They called [New Year's Day]. They were going to open at 10:00 AM and nobody else wanted to work. I was the only crazy one who picked up the phone that day, the unlucky one." The general manager told Carmen she had no choice. She protested, "It's my day off!" He cajoled her into coming into work, promising her that she would be able to leave at noon when the other swing manager arrived. "It was 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 pm, and no one else was there. At about 5:20, the owner arrived. He said that no one else was coming and that I had to stay and work until 7:00. I told him, ‘You know what? I don't think so.' I got my things and left. He called me the following day and wanted to know if I was going back. I said, ‘No I'm not! I'm tired of you.'" Carmen has her pride, and af¬ter nearly five years of hard work on behalf of Burger Barn, she deter¬mined that it was the end of the road for fast-food jobs.
Carmen returned to school to continue working toward a degree in psy¬chology and promptly landed a work-study job at Bronx Community Col¬lege, courtesy of Karina's godmother, Marisela. She worked the help desk in the computer center, assisting students who had no experience with the technology so that they could spell-check their papers, print their work, or do research on the Web. Marisela had put in a word with the Puerto Rican manager of the operation. Carmen, an Ecuadorian immigrant they called Dona Elvira, the "great-grandmother" of the help desk, and three African American students collectively comprised the viejitas, the "little old ladies" of the computer center. "It was always fun because you would do your homework there. I didn't have to worry about getting home to watch Karina and do my homework because I got it done there. When someone needed help [on the computers], they would raise their hand and then I'd help them. And when you didn't have homework, you hung out, talked about our husbands, married life, and all that."
Apart from providing Carmen with a lot of free marital counseling, the job opened her eyes to the possibility that teaching might be just the ticket. It seemed she had a gift for it, and since her mother is a teacher, she was familiar with the profession and eager to try it. Carmen and three co¬workers trooped down to the New York City Board of Education together to apply for jobs as teachers' aides. Mountains of paperwork and civil ser¬vice exams awaited them, which they duly completed. "They told us we qualified for the jobs," Carmen recalled, "but that there were many ahead of us. Nothing [happened]." They waited and then waited some more, in vain, as it happened, for none of the viejitas was called in for a job. When work-study ran out at the end of the spring semester, Carmen opted for temporary retirement and waited for baby Gina to arrive in the middle of a steamy August.
Carmen took a semester off from school to take care of her infant, something the family could almost afford because, by now, Salvador was making more money. After two years of working as a stock boy on the night shift, he had moved up to the assistant manager slot. As good as that sounded, it netted Sal a modest raise of only fifty dollars a week. When he caught the next brass ring, the more coveted general manager slot, he stepped up to $300 a week in salary, or slightly under the poverty line for a family of four. Sal figured he could do better, especially with more experi¬ence under his belt, so he jumped ship to a rival drugstore chain and boosted his take-home pay by almost $200 a week. The extra money was more than welcome, but it came at a price: Salvador was working seventy¬ hour weeks and Carmen was starved for his company, once again. "Look, if you continue there, you gonna die," she lectured him. "He left home at
8:00 AM and got back at 10:00 at night. I would tell him, ‘You only want to be in retail? Do you think you can do something else?' And he would say, ‘That's my life, retail.'"
Salvador's father, a chef, emigrated to the United States when he was twelve, and his mother works in a food factory. Sal grew up in a working ¬class household that needed his income. Education was something other people could afford; Sal was sent to work as soon as he could legally leave school. In a society where the mantra of advanced education has grown louder every year, Sal's trajectory led him to question his own intelligence. He tried the GED exam several times and failed. Even though he missed a passing score by only two points, he has given up on the goal of a high school diploma.
Yet there are niches in the retail world where formal education does not matter much, and fortunately for Carmen and her family, Sal finally stum¬bled on one of them: a managerial job in a video store. With a salary of $46,000 a year, Sal has come a long way from where we found him only eight years before, flipping burgers for the minimum wage.
They could move closer to their dream of a real house if Salvador were more accommodating of Carmen's desire to work full-time. He encour¬ages her to go to school and is proud of her educational accomplishments. Sal thinks Carmen should go to the Fashion Institute of Technology be¬cause she likes clothes and stores. Never mind the tuition, which they can¬not afford; if he was denied an education, she should have hers. But when Carmen wants to get a real job that pays decent money, so she won't have to ask Sal for a domestic allowance, he balks. Carmen responds with a tan¬trum. She threatens to walk out on their marriage if he doesn't capitulate, berating him for the undeserved jealousies he hints at when she works alongside other men. Waving her hands in the air, she blows these com¬plaints off and tells him that she doesn't want to beg him for every dime. In the end, Carmen sneaks out and lands a job before Sal knows what has hit him, and he adapts fairly quickly to the increased household income, as well as to her happier state of mind.
That is more or less how Carmen ended up running a Laundromat for her uncle Jorge, who had observed that his industrious niece was going crazy with nothing to do all day but tending to kids and looking at maga¬zines. "Since you like to work so much," he said with a slight challenge in his voice, "I have an offer for you." Jorge had hired a contractor to set up Laundromats in several Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and he needed people he could trust to run them during the day. The shop he had in mind for Carmen was in Brooklyn, an hour's subway commute from her home, but she jumped at the chance to get out of the house. On the days she worked, she would have to leave Karina, then age four, and Gina, only three months, in her aunt's care, having carefully prepared their food and clothes the night before. Even in the dead of winter, Carmen struggled out of bed at 5:30 AM and made her way to Brooklyn, where she spent the day bending her back: "I earned forty dollars a day. That place was huge. It had nineteen machines in the back and fifteen in front. They were huge machines, twenty-pound loads in each. There were twenty-something dryers. When I arrived, I said, ‘Good morning.' I didn't ask what my job was; I picked up a rag and began to clean. I cleaned the outside of the ma¬chines. I cleaned the tables. I bought paper towels. I swept and mopped."
By the end of the first day, she thought to herself, "I'm gonna be dead by the end of the week." But she wasn't. In fact, Carmen did such a fine job that her uncle asked if she could move to a different Laundromat and help get it off the ground. "Look," he told her, "I really like that, on your first day, you took the initiative. I didn't have to tell you what to do, and I like that." Initially skeptical of his motives, Carmen relented after she saw the second store. It was much smaller -- only ten washers and ten dryers -- and she thought she could take her kids there with her. What's more, she rea¬soned, if she kept the kids with her for the morning, in the afternoon she could leave them with her aunt and go to school.
From then on, she woke up at 5:30, bathed and dressed her daughters, and boarded the subway with them by 7:00. "I'd brush my babies' hair on the train; the youngest would fall asleep. When we go to the Laundromat -- we had a large window with a cement block below it -- I would blow up an inflatable bed and let the girls sleep there, with a sheet over them. They slept there until noon. My husband went to the McDonald's that was two blocks away to get breakfast."
When her workday was over, Carmen took the subway back to Wash¬ington Heights, dropped the kids off, and scurried off to Bronx Commu¬nity College and the degree program she had left behind when Gina was born. She stuck with the schedule for sixth months, quitting the job only when she found that she was failing in school as a consequence: "No one would come to relieve me at work. One week, the manager had me work the afternoon shift all week. I started at noon and left at midnight. That week I didn't go to school at all...If you miss class three times, it's terri¬ble. Imagine, I was absent eleven times!"
The last straw was the day Anthony, the store manager, promised to re¬lieve her in time to make a final exam. "No problem," he assured her. Carmen was uneasy. "I know how you are," she lectured him. "You get caught in traffic and don't make it." No, no, Anthony promised, "I'll be there early." She called at 2:00 to remind him, "It's my final!" Ner¬vous, Carmen took the girls outside to catch a breath of fresh air and let Gina try her new trick: walking a few steps and plopping on the side¬walk. Carmen chatted with the woman next door, owner of the beauty parlor on the corner. "I hope he gets here on time," the neighbor com¬mented, shaking her head. "I don't think it's fair for you to be losing classes." The lady across the street who ran a dry cleaning business con¬curred. "Why are you working here? You should be dedicating yourself to your schoolwork."
Carmen listened to them and fidgeted with her cell phone. Anthony wasn't answering. As 4:00 PM rolled around, she called again and caught him. "I'm stuck in traffic, but I'll be there in twenty minutes." Stomping with frustration, Carmen gave up, flipped the "Be Back in Five Minutes" sign on the door, and ran off to drop her daughters at her aunt's house. "My aunt said she needed to go out and couldn't watch the girls. She told me to leave them with her daughter, but my cousin hates kids and treats them bad. So I called my sister. She says, ‘Sure, bring them here.' It was al¬ready 5:50. I dropped them off, walked six blocks and got into a cab. When I got to the university it was 6:40. The teacher refused to let me in."
If Carmen hadn't missed so many classes, the professor explained pa¬tiently, she could have taken a make-up exam. But with eleven absences, she would have to repeat the whole course. To make matters worse, An¬thony left twenty-five messages on her home phone complaining that Carmen had left the store locked and unattended. "You told me you would be there in ten minutes, so the store wasn't closed that long, right?" Wrong. Anthony hadn't arrived until 10:00 PM. She hung up on him and never went back.
When the fall semester rolled around and Carmen was back in school, Salvador's hours at the pharmacy were still running late into the evening. She would get out of school at 4:00, pick up her daughters, and then sit at home without any adult company. Three months passed, and once again Carmen was restless. When a friend landed a job at a Lord and Taylor de¬partment store, the two women decided to see if they could secure a sec¬ond position for Carmen. This time she did ask Sal if he had any objec¬tion. He did. "They filled your head with ideas!" Sal argued. "Stay home! Take care of your daughters. As long as your daddy [Sal] gives you money, you don't have to go anywhere."
"No, Sal," she explained. "It's not the same for me to earn my own money. When I earn my own, I feel important. And I can help with our household expenses."
Exasperated by her stubbornness, Sal relented. Carmen skipped down to Lord and Taylor and took the requisite drug tests, and after two weeks of training, she started the best job she has had to date: as a member of the "flying squad."
Today's department stores are run like collections of specialized boutiques. Each designer -- from Tommy Hilfiger to Polo -- has its own space and its own crew. At Lord and Taylor, few of the stock people who straighten up the clothes racks and place new items on the floor work for the store; instead, they are employees of the fashion design firms. Carmen was assigned to work with the clothing line DKNY, and she took to the job with gusto. Always a clothes maniac, she loves to arrange outfits with strik¬ing colors and jazzy styles. From 7:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the af¬ternoon, Carmen creates order out of chaos:
I organize the front racks first because that's the first thing the cus¬tomers see. Then I fix the center and finally the back. I figure out what's needed on the floor, what merchandise was sold. Then I go to the stockroom, grab the clothes I need,... scan the clothes to see what has been marked down....Now if I have new merchandise, I have to make room for it. I move the old stock back and put the new stuff up front. I change the fixtures so that everything looks different. Colorful -- you have to make the colors work. You can't have solid with solid. And you have to mix and match when you change the mannequins.
Though she was new to retail, Carmen took to it with alacrity and quickly absorbed the importance of her role in the marketing process. "It's up to us to make the customer feel good and buy our clothes....We want to see the sales go up, that way the vendors... will know that the person who is working for them is doing a good job." She sees her work as a cre¬ative contribution to the sales mission. "Every time I create my wall and front desk and change my floor and see that the clothes sell, I say [to my¬self], ‘Man, I made it work.' I made the colors match. The clothes don't come the way you see it displayed. No, it all comes separated. I dress the mannequins. You try to mix and match so that people can see how they can use a pair of pants."
Among the many jobs Carmen has held in the time I have known her, this one gave her the greatest license to use her head, to make decisions on her own. And because she is responsible for replenishing the inventory, she can monitor the impact of her work. She can measure in a rough way whether her artful designs are producing results, and that is a satisfying feeling. In this respect, the job is like the work-study position she held in the computer center, where the gratitude of her student customers sig¬naled that she had made a difference. For while Carmen likes the income, she also wants to feel she has achieved something for her trouble.
Most of her working life had been devoted to jobs that were less reward¬ing, largely because they were scripted and left only modest room for her to exercise her own judgment. Were those years at Burger Barn helpful in any respect in preparing her for Lord and Taylor? "Yes," she explained, "because [in fast food] you deal with customers every day. As a cashier, you're challenged, 'cause if you don't take care of your customer, they'll yell at you [or] complain to the manager." Carmen noted that she had started as a cashier and moved up to a hostess, where she had to master more people skills, learn to figure out their needs, and control her temper in the face of a hot-headed customer. "If I had gotten the job at Lord and Taylor before [Burger Barn]," she explained, "I don't think I could have put up with it." The Barn helped her come out of her own immigrant shell: "I used to be very timid. I think that working at Burger Barn helped me evolve into a sociable person. I'm not afraid to approach people or to be approached. Now I talk to the tourists. I ask them about their countries and even recommend clothes for them to buy, you see."
Her years of work experience and general tendency to assume responsi¬bility lead Carmen to go beyond the call of duty. Like the other vendors with boutiques inside Lord and Taylor, DKNY shares its employees with the store. For the first two hours of their shift, they are supposed to straighten up clothes that do not belong to the specialty vendors and mark down sales items in areas other than their own. "In other words," Carmen explains, "Lord and Taylor gets free workers." They are paid by the ven¬dors to do the work that is properly the responsibility of the store itself. If the night shift gets bogged down responding to the demands of the store, the day shift -- Carmen and her co-workers -- ends up with an overload. "When Marisa and William don't have time to organize their shops at night, we have to fix them in the morning. That's not right, [but] if their shops are disorganized, I have to organize them. I always organize William's shop because it's right next to mine -- he's got the men's clothes. If I don't fix his area, it makes my area look bad. If Marisa's area is unorganized -- she does infants -- it makes William's area look bad, so I have to fix her area too, after I do my floor first."
These problems do not escape the attention of the vendors, who resent having to pay for work that is not properly theirs. Their representatives quiz Carmen about what the night-shift workers left behind, about whose work they actually accomplished on the payroll of Polo or Hilfiger. "If they can't do their job," the reps warn, "they'll be taken off the payroll." Carmen is valued for going the extra mile, and she is loyal to her fellow stock clerks and covers for them when they are press-ganged into doing something they shouldn't have to do.
Her job at the department store placed Carmen in the thick of the multicultural arena that is the New York City labor market. Carmen's floor managers are from Trinidad, while the night manager is Italian American. Her co-workers seem to hail from just about everywhere. "We're Dominicans, Boriquas [Puerto Ricans], from Trinidad, Jamaica, Saint Martin," Carmen explains. "What else? Americans, Polish, Russian, Hindi." The diversity of Carmen's work world takes her out of the monocultural neighborhood that is her daily experience in Washington Heights. On her block, in the local park, in the poultry market and the corner store, everyone hails from the Dominican Republic. On the job, it's a different story. This is one of the many reasons why engagement in the labor market matters. It moves people who live under conditions of ethnic or racial segregation into an environment where their common identity as workers comes to the fore. And while they do not forget their own heri¬tage, on the shop floor they tend not to dwell on the social divisions that often flare on the street.
While these friendships rarely transcend the barrier between home and work, they matter to Carmen in an emotional way. September 11 brought that truth home to her. The Midtown area was brought to its knees by the attack on the World Trade Center, in part because it is a stone's throw from the Empire State Building, which was rumored to be the target of bombs in the days that followed the attack. Penn Station, the main artery of the subway system on the West Side of Manhattan, was evacuated and closed for a period of time because of its proximity to the Empire State Building. Jittery workers in the tall towers in the surrounding blocks were afraid of being trapped in elevators. On September 13, Carmen was sched¬uled to go to work for her regular morning shift. Reporting for duty with her heart pounding unusually hard, Carmen did her best to calm down. She was riding up the escalator when the fire alarms sounded. Carmen scrambled to find Annie, her manager, terrified that another attack was in progress, and asked, "What happened?"
"Don't ask," Annie yelled over her shoulder, "Just go! Let's go! Go to the ground floor!" Hundreds of shop assistants cascaded down the escala¬tors, but Carmen ran in the other direction, up to the floor where her fel¬low "flyers" were working: "No one told the flyers what had happened. The store was empty [that early in the morning] but no one told the peo¬ple in that office what was happening. So I went to the ninth floor -- I work on the seventh -- and told the people there we had a bomb threat and they had to evacuate. Well, you know those Chinese women, and Gloria -- she's American -- they ran out of there yelling, ‘Oh my God!'"
In an emergency, workers know, they are supposed to avoid the eleva¬tors, but the department store's escalators are so narrow that they could not bear the traffic of employees stampeding out of the ten-story building. Carmen broke the rules and led her party to the elevators. "Close the door, close the door!" they hollered, but Carmen prevented the elevator from moving.
"No," she insisted, "we're missing Jill." Jill, the Irish American manager on the ninth floor, walks with a cane and was hobbling as fast as she could in their direction. With her safely inside, the elevator finally started its de¬scent at what seemed to the panicky workers too fast a speed. Ultimately, though, they made it, just in time to see the whole elevator system shut down, forcing the remaining staff onto the stairs. Once outside on the sidewalk, Carmen's crew could take inventory of who was missing:
We all started to cry because we didn't see Annie anywhere....The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth floors all panicked. That's where the white people work, the ones in the executive offices. We call them losblanquitos [the little white ones]. I couldn't find Yanella -- she lives next door -- I couldn't find her. I saw Susan and said, "Where is Yanita?" She tells me, "I don't know, she was last with me in the cel¬lar." So I began to cry, "Oh Yanita, she's gonna die."
We finally moved when the police and bomb squad arrived. They moved us two blocks down. The Gap store was already closed; the people from the Empire State Building were running toward us. And we were yelling, "Annie, Annie!" It turned out she had stayed inside to make sure all of her people were out of the store. Yanella had exited out on the Sixth Avenue side of the store.
Carmen was entirely undone by the terror and stayed home from work the next day, trying to get a grip on her nerves. She paced the floor of her apartment, held onto Karina and Gina, baked up a storm, and periodically flopped onto the living room couch, staring into space.
Sunday was her day off, but she went into work anyway. By then, she just wanted to see her work friends face to face, to congregate with the fel¬low traumatized. "That day," she remembered a year later, "we told Annie that she shouldn't scare us again like that; that she shouldn't have waited for us to come out. You know what she told us? She said, ‘I don't have anyone. I don't have dogs, cats, or anyone to care for.' She has no kids. She's forty years old. She says, ‘If I die, don't cry for me.'" But what Annie really meant, Carmen realized, was that Yanita, Gloria, Jill, and the rest are Annie's family. Even if Carmen never sees Annie on her block, there is a bond there, and both of them feel it.
Carmen appreciates her work most of all because it makes her feel like a real adult who moves around in the world, rather than a housewife with no options. She understands that her need to mix with other workers disturbs her husband, and her own upbringing in the Dominican Republic has led her to share some of his values. It is not as though she thinks Sal is wrong on this count; Carmen is not happy about having to jerk her kids out of bed so early, and she has her misgivings about their child care. Yet the American experience has taught her another set of values, about what an adult woman should expect, about the importance of autonomy and her obligation to contribute to her household and her own development. The two perspectives are not easily reconciled, and her flip-flop pattern of stay¬ing home, then going to work, then retreating to the house, then stepping out into the labor market once more reflects the complexities of her think¬ing. Still, the struggle is worth it. "I like to feel the excitement of being in a hurry in the morning," Carmen insists. "It's a responsibility; you have to have motivation to [go to work]....If it's your job, you have to go, you can't stay home, otherwise you'll get fired....I don't like being locked up within four walls. If I'm [confined] I'll get fat, ugly, bored. When a woman is out in the street, working, going to school, she has to get dressed, look nice. That makes a man feel good because they say, ‘Oh look at my wife! She looks so good when she goes out.'"
If all that mattered in retail was the motivation of workers like Carmen, she would have a future of upward mobility to look forward to. Yet because it is a bureaucratic environment loaded with rules -- about punching in, the length of bathroom breaks, the half-hour lunch period -- it is a system that even the most diligent can cross. Carmen discovered this unhappy fact one day when she was called on the carpet by Lord and Taylor's internal secu¬rity department. It seems that Carmen had opened a Lord and Taylor Ex¬press Credit account in Sal's name. The employee handbook, she was lec¬tured severely, prohibits "doing any transactions for co-workers, family members or friends." "I know that about transactions," Carmen told secu¬rity, "but it didn't say anything about Express Credit." Carmen had taken an application home to Sal, who completed the form and gave it to her to bring it back to work, thus avoiding the long wait a mail-in application would require. Carmen had checked with various co-workers at the time she clocked the credit application in and was told that it wouldn't be a problem. Even the office manager had shrugged it off. "If anything was wrong," he explained, "you would get a slip that says ‘Denied.'" Nothing of that description had ever come their way, so Carmen had assumed all was well and used the credit card to buy things in the store.
Carmen's employee ID was whisked away and she was suspended for two weeks for this violation of company policy. She was humiliated and embarrassed. "I felt awful," she said sadly. "If I had been fired for stealing something, then I would accept it....But I couldn't do anything about Sal's card after the account was opened. The only thing I could do was tell my manager, and I did. So I felt bad because I did something with¬out being aware of it. And if what I did was so bad, why didn't they say something?"
Ten months had elapsed between the issuance of Sal's card and Carmen's suspension. Annie was distraught on Carmen's behalf and upset about los¬ing a dedicated, hard-working employee whose services she depended on. "She was crying," Carmen recalled. "She said, ‘This is some bullshit, I can't believe this.'" Then Carmen said Annie lowered her voice and said, "I'm not supposed to tell you, but you need to get help from the union."
Carmen thought about it but then just gave up. She was embarrassed and humiliated, afraid to tell Sal (who would say he told her so, since he hadn't wanted her to take the job in the first place). "What hurts me most is my hard work, my daughters. My daughters have suffered because of my stubbornness to want to work....I was getting my daughters up at 4:30 AM to dress them, comb them, make breakfast, make lunch, and make breakfast for my husband. I had to take the girls downstairs to the babysitter's apartment, and on many occasions they had to stay with my babysitter's boarder. Too many times, my daughters have been sick, and still I have gone to work because I didn't want to be absent."
Carmen had gone to work even when Gina was hospitalized for an in¬testinal blockage. The little one had to wear an oxygen mask; Carmen slept by her side in the hospital, then ran home in the morning to take Karina to the babysitter. She got so frantic she asked for a brief of leave of absence, but it was denied because too many other people were on vaca¬tion. Carmen had shouldered this burden and clocked in at Lord and Tay¬lor. She had put in so many hours -- without clocking in so that she would not rack up unauthorized overtime -- that her manager had complained she would get fired for letting Carmen work when she wasn't supposed to. To work with that level of dedication and have it end in a cloud of suspi¬cion put Carmen into a psychological tailspin.
"I can't stop thinking about [the suspension]," she says. "I lie in bed thinking about it until I fall asleep. I think about when they called me. I felt so humiliated; I felt stomped on....Sal is happy. He's happy to see me at home. He likes to call home and find me there. But...I don't know. I'm not a housewife. I feel like an imprisoned bird at home."
Her co-workers call her to say that her station on the floor looks terrible without her. Her manager tried to intervene and get her reinstated, but Carmen was too crushed to pursue it any further. "I feel so angry," she la¬ments, more in frustration than fury, "I wanted to set [that store] on fire." But nothing has changed her mind.
Carmen was unsure if she would ever find another job like the one she lost. Just as our fieldwork ended, she heard of an opportunity from Karina's godfather, Sal's best friend, who had once worked alongside both of them at Burger Barn. Their two families attended a baptism together, and Carmen told him of the debacle at work. "Don't let [those people] get to you," he said. "Come work for me." He runs the shoe section at an Old Navy store. Sal was livid, but as usual Carmen was ready to get back to work.
Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market by Katherine S. Newman, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2006.