Her day starts long before daybreak. She rolls off a mattress onto a clammy cement floor, hoping to step silently towards the light peaking between the doorframe to get outside. She pulls on the door but it’s jammed a little. Finally, with a thud, it opens. In a breath she looks back to the mattress to see her kids wiggle into her warm spot and slips outside. A car honks down the road in the distance, she exhales, letting sleep go while fumbling into her jeans pocket to fish out a cigarette.
She lights her morning smoke and squats to sit on the step. In the thick air of the morning she sits and waits for her ride. This is the most beautiful moment of her 15 hour day. Fresh morning air, a bird chirping far too early, and a hushed quiet as her neighborhood sleeps.
A few moments later an old Buick pulls up, scratchy brakes announcing it’s arrival. She climbs in the back, squeezing between a few other women to find a patch of seat. In near silence they ride together for 30 minutes to the gate of her job. She pays $20 per week for this ride. She can’t afford it but can’t afford not to.
For the next 9 hours she’ll force her hands into the freezing cavity of a fish caught a million miles from here. She’ll make $200 per week, after taxes, union dues, and check cashing fees, she’ll take home $134.50 on Friday. She wonders what it means to be in a union or even if there is really a union. She knows they aren’t representing her but she’s afraid to say anything because she knows they’ll fire her. The taxes she pays aren’t for her because the number she gave the factory were just made up, anyway. But what can she do? She needed the job.
In a thoughtless motion she makes a small cut across the fish belly with one hand while pulling out the insides with the other. Next she cuts makes another cut, breaks the fish open and places it back on the belt. It takes just a few seconds and she’s off to the next. She works as fast as she can with almost no breaks, hunched over, she and her co-workers all trying to remain invisible to the people they work for. Sometimes while doing this she daydreams and thinks of her childhood, happier days, playing in warm breezes with her friends. Back then she never could have imagined her life would be like this. But mostly she thinks about nothing. She just wants to not draw attention to herself. Plus, if she thinks too much she might accidentally cut herself. So she just concentrates on doing what she has to do and getting out of there. She hates this job but knows that if anyone hears that she might want to look for a better one she’ll be fired on the spot.
When her shift ends at 2:15 she walks quickly to a place to clean up and grab something to eat out of a vending machine before another beat-up clunker comes to drive her to the Motel 6 on the other side of town. Another $20 per week she can’t afford.
She’ll spend 4 or 5 hours there, invisible, cleaning rooms for minimum wage. Even though she fights exhaustion– compared to her other job she’s exhilarated at the hotel. She changes into clean clothes at this job– a Motel 6 uniform, and before her shift starts she’s able to wash herself in the utility sink in the storage room where they keep her cart.
Sometimes, when no one else is around, she fills up the big sink with hot water and hops in, squatting into sink is closest thing she has to a tub. To us, this might seem silly and she feels like a giant baby washing in a sink. But to her, those 5 minutes of bathing are pure luxury. She uses half-empty bottles of shampoo left behind by truck drivers or vacationers to have her own spa.
At the hotel, she finds some semblance of dignity, but also cruelty. Her shifts here aren’t regular and sometimes when she shows up to work she is sent away. She works odd shifts to fill in and her boss would text her when he doesn’t need her but her phone never has enough minutes. So sometimes she shows up to work and there’s no work for her, so it cost her money to get there but she’ll make nothing. To make things worse her ride won’t come back until 9. So she can’t go home to be with her kids, anyway.
Late at night she gets back home. Her 3 year old, the baby, is already asleep. Another day goes by and she hasn’t seen her. Her sons are still awake, one watching TV and the other is next door. She goes next door to get her oldest, the three of them make small talk and play cards for a little while before they all go to bed.
She turns off the light. Barefoot, she walks silently across the clammy concrete floor to the mattress. She leans over, slides the baby closer to her brother as she lays down next to her. The toddler re-settles, makes some sweet sighs, and they both drift off to sleep to do it again tomorrow.
We are Israel, We are Russia, We are Mexico
Often, when we watch the news and we think to ourselves, “I can’t believe those countries treat their people like that. That’s disgusting.” We live our middle class lives, we drink our Starbucks, go to our movies, stare at our phones, and we start to think that everything is an over there somewhere problem.
- How can Israel justify bombing people in Gaza?
- I can’t believe people support Putin, what a monster.
- Why doesn’t Mexico clean up those drug cartels once and for all?
Let’s not be myopic. It’s easy to look over there somewhere and forget that we have over there somewhere problems right here in our own communities, too.
We’re no better than Israel. We’re no better than Russia. We’re no better than Mexico.
The woman I wrote about above lives in your neighborhood. She lives in every community in America.
She’s black. She’s white. She’s Latino. She’s African. She goes to your church.
Over there somewhere is right in front of you. She’s not invisible. She’s no better or worse than you. You just refuse to see her.
Photo by A C O R N by Flickr (Creative Commons)