MAN ON THE STREET – Labor Pains (Day laborer)

So this is how an ugly hooker feels. I’ve been standing on Bonanza Road, just east of Rancho Drive, advertising myself to motorists for two hours without getting picked.

"You need patience," says a 50-year-old man who identifies himself only as Texas. (The day laborers, or jornaleros, on this corner go by hometown-based nicknames. Texas hails from El Paso. My nickname, Long Island, never really catches on.)

Texas promises that, if I wait long enough, a vehicle will pull up and offer me a construction, janitorial, moving, landscaping or painting job.

"Why do you think we’re standing here?" he asks, speaking with a Zen calm that belies the pocket knife on his belt loop. ("These guys, they fight because they’re in need of work," he explains later. "There’s always fighting.")

I’m lucky to have met Texas — not only because of his pocket knife, but because for the 15 minutes before we met, no other jornalero would talk to me.

"Who are you?" one asked before erupting into a Spanish dialogue with his colleagues completely devoid of the words for kitchen, library and bathroom. (So much for eighth-grade Spanish.)

"They thought you were INS," Texas explains before setting Honduras, Chihuahua, Guatemala and Sinaloa straight.

On any given day across the United States, approximately 117,600 day laborers hit the streets, according to a 2006 University of California, Los Angeles study. Three-quarters migrated illegally because of economic hardship in their native countries.

"They rent apartments here — five, six, 10 people at the same time," says Texas, who identifies himself as a U.S.-born Apache Indian. "They save their money and send it back to their families over there."

An average week’s pay is $500.

"The best is landscaping," Texas says. "For five hours, we get $100 sometimes."

Once, Texas says, he earned $1,500 for painting a storage room for three days.

"But that’s seldom," he says. "Some days, it’s nothing."

Texas digs for another cigarette in his backpack, which holds other essentials including snacks, water and a toothbrush.

"Sometimes, we work overnight and they don’t buy you food," he explains.

A black pickup approaches. I can tell before I see it, because of the noticeable lean in the body stances of my colleagues, who suddenly have become my competitors. I figure my chances are good. What I lack in body I make up for in English.

As the pickup slows, I imagine what the driver will ask me to do: clean his septic tank, consolidate his fire ant farms, walk in circles yoked to a wheel powering his grain mill.

I’ll do anything. I need a story here.

"Nope," Texas says.

Instead of veering right, toward us, the pickup turns left, and Bonanza is too busy to cross. Five jornaleros converge. There is some dialogue, presumably a negotiation. Two jump into the vehicle and it disappears.

"Another will come," Texas promises. "Don’t worry."

Texas, a former warehouse forklift operator, says he moved to Las Vegas in 1994.

"I came to visit my brother," he says. "But he ended up being in Oklahoma."

Texas stayed anyway and was offered a place to crash — an abandoned building — on his first day. The next morning, he learned about the bonanza on Bonanza.

Day laborers also stand outside most nurseries and home-improvement stores, but Texas says "there’s too many cops" in those places for him.

Standing on a sidewalk seeking work is not in itself a crime. If day laborers stray onto private property, however, they face a penalty of as much as six months in jail and $1,000 (although most fines are $50 to $100). But that’s only if the police are called, and only if the accused is trespassing when they arrive. (Ditto for public urination and defecation, although I observed day laborers all using the Church’s Chicken across Rancho Drive.)

Although some tolerate it, no business welcomes day laborers on its property.

"Every time a woman pulls in with a bundle of laundry and 15 guys run up to her car, she heads out and never comes back here," says Tom Weidler, security guard for Rancho Center, the minimall behind us. It’s his job to make sure we stay out of the parking lot and don’t block the driveway.

"These are all blacks, Asian and minority-owned businesses," Weidler says. "They’ve got families to feed. They work very hard to establish what they have."

Texas says he plans to return to El Paso in August.

"No more Las Vegas," he says. "I’m gonna be a granddad for the first time and I need to see my grandson. So I’m just saving my money."

Once back home, he says he’ll have "no problem" landing a loading job.

"There are no corners like this," he says, "but I know everybody around there."

There are other options for temporary manual labor in the valley, too, such as the Casual Labor Office. This morning, 60 hopeful employees showed up at 1001 N. A St. But only 15 jobs were available.

Texas says he checked with the temp agencies Staffmark, Premier Staffing and One Source this morning.

"But they don’t have any work right now," he says.

None of the aforementioned options is available to illegal aliens, however, since they require valid U.S. ID.

Many blame illegal immigration for driving day labor. But the UCLA study found the drivers doing most of the driving — citing companies under pressure to cut wages and benefits, and tighter-budgeted households.

"If they don’t hire us over here, they’re not gonna have their job done at their house," Texas says. "And they wouldn’t have their restaurants and casinos clean in the morning." (Texas says that day laborers are frequently hired at night, after businesses close.)

Finally, my story pulls in. A black BMW slows, then turns into the mall lot. Texas and I are in position to arrive first. Two tall men exit the sedan.

"Anybody do drywall and sheetrock?" the taller one asks.

Drywall and sheetrock are my middle names, I explain while approaching the car.

Texas pulls me aside.

"No," he whispers in my ear.

Later, he explains his reasoning: "The tone of their voice says that they’re not gonna pay, I can tell. Plus, the way they walked, real supposedly cool and all that, I know they’re not gonna pay."

According to the UCLA study, 49 percent of all day laborers report being denied payment for work they completed in the two months prior to being surveyed.

"We need two guys," the taller man continues, louder this time so more jornaleros can hear.

Nonpayment is only one fear. The other is less politically correct.

"Some of the black people, they hurt you," Honduras explains later.

In two separate incidents last September, two suspects picked up day laborers at this corner, and at Charleston and Lamb boulevards. Instead of hiring them, the suspects drove the laborers to isolated areas, robbed and stabbed them. One was killed, another seriously wounded. The suspects, never apprehended, were described by police as black males.

"It’s not even a room," the tall man continues. "We’re just building a booth."

After 20 more silent seconds, he and his friend get back in their car and drive off.

I decide I’ve had enough, too.

"But you don’t have your story yet," Texas says.

That’s what he thinks.

Watch video of Levitan as a day laborer at www.reviewjournal.com/video/fearandloafing.html. Fear and Loafing appears Mondays in the Living section. Levitan’s previous adventures are posted at fearandloafing.com.

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