Day Laborers Forge Friendship in Hurricane's Wake
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
The federal government is expected to spend more than $18 billion on hurricane relief efforts according to a report in today's Washington Post. But the report says that figure could jump to $100 billion. With all the rebuilding, workers from all over the country are traveling to the city to find work. Many of them are Latino and many live in appalling conditions. So to cope, total strangers forge friendships. Reporter Michelle Garcia has this story.
Mr. RUBEN LOPEZ (Worker): It looks like the projects.
MICHELLE GARCIA reporting:
Right outside the French Quarter, so close you can still see the bright lights, is a hotel of last resort. Condemned long before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita barrelled through here, this hotel with its rabbit-sized rats and brown water is where Ruben Lopez pays $60 a day to live.
Mr. LOPEZ: It's filthy. I can't sleep like this. I can't--every night I get bitten by mosquitoes every day. And it's hard. You know, there ain't no water, no electricity, no lights.
GARCIA: This is where you end up when cleanup workers like Ruben land without a family or friends. Ruben has copper-colored skin. His nickname, Flaco, is tattooed on his neck and another, the Virgen Guadalupe, the Mexican Virgin Mother, is tattooed on his forearm. And for weeks, he smoked away the hours all alone until he found Myron.
Mr. LOPEZ: I was on Bourbon Street. I would go get something to eat, and one
of his friends asked, you know, and I told him, `Hey, I need four guys for tomorrow.' And he told me, `Well, you know what? We want to go to work with you tomorrow.' I said, `OK, fine.' And they told me where they lived. I went there the next morning and they told me, `No, I can't go.' I said, `OK.' And then they told me about him. So, OK, well--I told him, `Hey, you want to come work with me?' He said, `Yeah, sure.' Well, he came to work with me and he's been with me since then.
GARCIA: Myron Moran doesn't smoke, speaks little English and walks with a limp, an injury from his last job. Just a week earlier, Ruben, who had very little, rescued Myron, who had even less. Myron had quit the job that brought him south over a fallout with a co-worker. He faced eviction from the hotel room his boss reserved but didn't pay for the crew. And the boss wouldn't give Myron a ride to the bus station so he could return to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mr. MYRON MORAN (Worker): (Through Translator) He shows up looking for people to work. Without even knowing, I went with him and we started working. And now I'm staying with him here. Now we're helping each other out.
GARCIA: Cleanup workers like Myron and Ruben gnaw on the bitterness of the false promises that lured them to the Gulf Coast.
Mr. LOPEZ: They promised us they were going to give us food, the hotel, work, 12-hour shifts, $12 an hour and seven days a week. And we got here and they started paying us $8 an hour, you know, 10-hour shifts, you know, no food.
GARCIA: Despite this grim reality, something remarkable happened. It's here that Myron, a Guatemalan-born immigrant, just shy of a year in the United States, not even five feet tall, found Ruben, a six-foot-tall beanpole Chicano in the litter of New Orleans and they became friends. They keep an eye on each other, watch each other's backs. That's even more important now when racial tensions in New Orleans have turned against outsiders like them. `It's better not to walk the streets alone,' says Ruben.
Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, discrimination here is bad, you know. The whites, blacks, you know, it's bad, you know. They come up to you, you ask them, you know, about where's the direction, where to go get a meal or something, they say, `Don't talk to me, wetback,' you know.
GARCIA: In the haze of the early morning, Myron and Ruben pack up their few belongings--nothing's safe in a room with no locks--and they catch a ride with some co-workers to a subdivision many miles away to a street named Ebb Tide, a place where middle-class families fled and all that remains is the smell of mold and overturned cars, the mess left for Myron and Ruben to clean up. But life is just a little bit better now, less lonely.
Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, it was lonely. Pretty quiet, pretty dark. Now I've got someone to talk to now, you know.
GARCIA: Nearby, Myron hobbles around a garage emptying a bookshelf of old albums.
(Soundbite of thumping noise)
Mr. MORAN: (Through Translator) It's a hard life and there's not many of the necessities. The first thing is that we have to eat. Friends help drive us around and out of the shared necessity, our friendship thrives. We all came here for the same reason, that things will be better one day.
GARCIA: When it's all over, when Louisiana's a bit more cleaned up or when they can no longer endure life in their dingy hotel, Myron and Ruben will say goodbye and return to their homes on different coasts in different worlds. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Garcia in New Orleans.
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