Wednesday, January 16, 2008

We Human Beings

Yesterday, as I was having my morning coffee and getting ready to head to work, I heard a whole lotta cacophony at the neighbor's house next door. Someone had jumped their fence and was banging on their walls, calling out our neighbor's name. The guy looked a little seedy, so I rolled my eyes and added my cream.

I'm not sure what let me know "something's not right," what compelled me to look out the front window, but when I did, I saw this:
Folks were frantically banging on the house next door--the one where Miss Diane and her family lived before the storm, but I assured them that no one lived there. I was glad of it. I would have been tearing my hair out had my house been the one next to this raging fire. Our charming wooden houses, it seems, go up in mere minutes. The time stamp on my pictures tells me the first one was taken at 8:44 . I took this one at 8:46:
Mike, the guy who owns the forever-under-renovation house next door, told me that he'd just driven up when he saw the smoke seeping out of the roof's seams. He said he'd banged on the door and woke up "these Mexican guys" who he said he had to "fight to get 'em out" because they wanted to retrieve their passports. "F**k your passports, I tol' 'em. You gonna die."
As I took these pictures, I was just in awe. It happened so, so fast. These are from 8:54 and 8:55:

Here's the back of the house, where it started, once it was "over" at 9:05:
I don't know what I would have done had the fire been at our house.
Yes, I do. I would've been frantic, and I would've been crying, because I would've lost everything, just as the guys who were renting the space did.

When I went back in to get professional for work, I discovered that my coffee was still warm. It was that fast.

Evidently, the fire was electrical. And the Mexican workers who lived in the house were, in fact, Brazilian.

Before I left, I wrote my number and the number of the Hispanic Apostolate on a post-it, which I gave to one of the men. They all seemed pretty shocked. One of the firemen was following their instructions, searching for their passports. A guitar and two suitcases rested on the sidewalk. A Red Cross volunteer was filling out a case-study form, which I recognized from my own volunteer work as a case-worker for the Red Cross after Katrina.

When the hoses had again been stowed, I was able to leave, and on my way out, I saw two black women standing with the men. They looked like they were about my age. "You all right?" I asked. They were co-workers of some of the men--employees of the Best Western hotel. They'd come down as soon as they'd heard and were waiting for the Red Cross to finish so they could take the men to the hotel.
I explained that I'd given the men my number and the number of an aid agency for Hispanics and Latinos. That's when I learned they were from Brazil. (In retrospect, I should have known. I'd often hear them playing guitar and singing, and I remember saying to Simon once, "I think that's Portuguese.")
I asked if there was anything else I could do. I nodded to our little shoebox and said ruefully that I didn't think we had room to spare, but that I could ask around. Something told me that we were all these men had in the way of help: a neighbor who never spoke to them and a coworker whose position as a hotel employee virtually guaranteed that she wasn't in a position to help, either.
"Are any of them fluent in English?" I asked.

"He is," she said, nodding to the man I'd given my number. "I mean, he speaks pretty good English. They all understand, but he the only one who can really speak it."

We were both quiet.
"That'll make it hard for them," I said. "I mean, harder."

"People don't seem to care much about the immigrants in town."
"I do," she said, smacking her lips against her gold teeth, disapprovingly. "They human beings."
"Yes, they are."
At work, I had that giddy electrical feeling that you get when something big has happened. It was dulled--or maybe "made achey" is a better way of putting it--by the knowledge that no one would much care if I told them about it. When I ran into a colleague who also lives down the street, he said, "That's too bad. I mean, the house wasn't a real historical gem or anything, but it'll be blighted." I found myself saying something I'd thought earlier but pushed down, deep down, 'cause I hated myself for it. "Yeah, it was as if everyone's home values on the block went up in flames, too." I hated myself again.
(In defense of my colleague, he did ask if the people who lived there were okay. And in defense of the vapid content of our conversation: I think it reflects both our cynicism when it comes to folks giving a shit about Hispanic workers, and about the concerns of our now super-gentrified neighborhood.)
When I got home yesterday, I got a message from the general manager of the hotel where three of the men worked. He'd been given my number and was trying to do something for them. He wanted to know if I knew of any resources.
I talked to Simon about his message before I called back. I didn't know of any resources. If the Red Cross couldn't help, what could I do? I worried that no one would care about a bunch of immigrant workers--that they'd blame them for the fire (as my deepest darkest bad-self had when I first learned of the nature of the fire.) I admitted to Simon that I'd given them the number for the Hispanic Apostolate only because I knew someone there would speak their language. But really, I knew that they'd likely NOT be able to help. After all, when I had served as a volunteer ESL teacher for the Apostolate, they'd been bemoaning the lack of resources and affordable housing available for Hispanic workers. And this was more than a year ago. Things had gotten worse, not better, for the expanding worker-population. What on earth could I do?

When I called Brian back, I felt helpless, and I said as much. He said the Red Cross had paid for three nights in the hotel, but that after that, the guys would be out in the cold. Did I know anywhere they could stay?
I thought about all the homeless who've been protesting on the local TV because their tent-city had been closed so that City Hall could repair its parking situation. I thought about UNITY (an aid organization for homeless,) who'd admitted it had begun to borrow money in order to pay for apartments it couldn't afford--about how they'd pleaded with landlords on TV, that they give people a break, a second chance.) I thought, "No."

What I said, thought, was that maybe we could contact the neighborhood association. Maybe I could ask around.

But I knew (again, deep down) that I couldn't do anything for them that the general manager of a hotel couldn't do. If a major corporation wasn't willing to forgo profits in order to house its employees until they could find homes, why would a landlord, who was but one person--whose insurance had doubled, who'd probably lost a lot, himself?

I suggested that it'd be helpful for him to 1) call the Red Cross and ask them to extend the vouchers, and 2) ask the men to make a list of their immediate needs. In the meantime, I would do the only thing I knew to do: I would email people; I would try to tell their story as convincingly as I could.

So, I posted on our neighborhood forum at, and lo and behold, I got a response. One man emailed and said he had a temporary place that he could provide temporarily if the guys could find nothing else. Another suggested I establish a fund through a bank. Another emailed me and said he'd was collecting clothing and toiletries and would have something together by Friday. Another said he could donate clothing, too.
I'm waiting now to hear from the GM of the hotel. I feel hopeful, in the tiniest of senses--not because I think we really will be able to place these guys in a home, but because I learned that there are people out there who do, in fact, give two turds about a bunch of immigrant workers.
I feel good (ish) because I know that we're out there, and we're here: people who believe that, yes, They Human Beings!

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