On Main Street in Riverhead, on any given corner, there are dozens of unemployed, illegal immigrants. They stand and wait, hoping someone will come along and pick them up for a construction job. They have to be both seen and unseen. Visible, so that they are first in line to be hired by some general contractor who is passing by in his truck, looking for a helper for the day. Invisible, so that they attract no attention from any of the residents of the town.
Yesterday, I crossed Main Street in Riverhead, and walked over to a couple of middle aged, hispanic men. I asked them if anybody was looking for work. They did not reply, so I asked them in Spanish. They still didn’t reply. I was a bit confused, but then I realized that I was wearing a button down shirt, a nice pair of jeans, and leather shoes- I didn’t fit the profile for a carpenter looking for help, and they were suspicious. Maybe they thought I was a police officer. Realizing this, and realizing that neither spoke a word of English, I then told them that I was an artist from across the street, and that I was looking for a portrait model for the day. I pay models ten dollars per hour to sit still, and simply pose for drawings and paintings. They asked in disbelief whether I payed them to simply sit still. Yes, I said. They couldn’t believe it. The two men then looked at eachother, wondering who would let the other go. One fellow pushed the other in the shoulder, and with a smile said “Puedes, Juan Carlos.” Juan Carlos smiled a grateful smile to his friend, and headed off with me.
We walked quickly to the studio, because it was freezing cold- just twenty something degrees. We made our way up the stairs, into the warm, heated space.
He was very quiet, his eyes darted about quickly- he was clearly uncomfortable. He stared at the paintings which were littered about the studio, the plaster casts of Greek statues. I knew that the only way to dispel this awkwardness was to make him at home. And so, I made him a cup of coffee, and I began to draw.
Juan Carlos is a landscaper who lives in Riverhead and works on the east end of Long Island. He is from Ecuador, has a wife and two children, all of whom he left years ago to come and work in the States. He said that he loves the United States, but he did not want to stay here. I asked him why, and he searched for words. Loco, rapido, dificil… finally, he shook his head and took out his cell phone. It’s too this- and he pointed to his phone and laughed. It was really funny. Juan Carlos said that he is going to return home to Ecuador, in about a year. His eyes lit up in describing his return to his family. He happily described how he is going to raise cows- a very good business, he said.
We talked for a couple of hours, and as we went along, I really came to admire his optimism and determination. He never once complained, he never talked negatively, he never had anything bad to say about anybody. He just talked about life, music, memories, but most of all the future.
Years ago, my dad went on a spackling estimate and gave a bottom line price. The estimate was so low, in fact, that my dad didn’t stand to make a profit. But if my dad got the job, it would keep his crew of workers busy. The homeowner never called back, and so, my dad knew that he didn’t get the job.
A couple of months later, the homeowner did call back. He said to my dad that he had, indeed, hired another company, but they had botched the job. He asked my father “Could you come and repair their job?” My dad said “Just tell me, how much money did you get the other guys to do the job for?” The homeowner had gotten the job for less than half the price that my father had offered. It turns out, the homeowner had gone to Farmingville, where many of the hispanic, illegal immigrants live, crammed thirty to forty in a single house. The homeowner hired a few “illegals” as they are called. He payed them pennies. He got a shoddy job. Then he called my dad to fix the job. My dad said no.
In that same period of time, several years ago, my dad and I were driving along in his Ford truck, making our way down some of the back roads on the east end of Long Island. We were on our way to a huge spackle job. It was freezing cold, and as we sipped our coffees in his truck, we saw a man walking on the side of the road. The man was squinting, fighting against the cold, winter wind. We were in a stretch of road that was empty for miles and miles. He was obviously an illegal immigrant, going from one job site to another. My dad slowed down, rolled down his window, and said to me “Talk to that guy in Spanish. Tell him to hop inside. Tell him that we’ll take him to wherever he’s going.” I spoke to him. The guy paused, thought, smiled, then hopped inside the truck. My dad asked me to speak to him, and asked him if he was hungry. He wasn’t. My dad stopped at a deli anyway, and bought him a sandwich. Then we dropped him off at the construction site he had been headed towards.
I am going to start a painting of Juan Carlos in mid January. I can’t wait.