Saturday, December 03, 2005

Friday night on Canal Street

Last night we did a clinic on Canal Street, under the light of an abandoned business. It was Friday night and Canal Street was hopping. Our patients, mainly Latino immigrant cleanup workers, crowded around, asking us questions in Spanish about mold, and waiting for tetanus shots or a visit with the doctor. Police rode by on enormous black horses, and two men with a small bulldozer were scooping up trash from the mounds of sheetrock and old refrigerators down the block. At one point a rat the size of my forearm brazenly jumped over a pile of garbage and scampered down the block. Hardly anyone noticed.

These days at the Chinese restaurant nearby, the staff takes orders in Spanish. They dish out fried chicken along with lo mein and fried rice. Every night, the restaurant is packed. When we do outreach at the restaurant, we don’t only tell people about the clinic: usually, people invite us to sit down at their tables, and we do. They ask us about our lives and the hurricane; they tell us about their families and their work and the places they’ve come from.

Last night I spent a long time talking with Paco, a man from Monterrey who now removes debris from flooded houses seven days a week. He was eating Chinese food out of a Styrofoam container and still had on his hardhat: bright blue with “The Chosen” written on it in Sharpie marker. “The work,” he says, “It’s not hard on the body, but it’s hard on my heart. Every day I have to take people’s photographs out of their living rooms, and their books, and the things their children draw. Sometimes when I throw something onto the curb it breaks into a hundred little pieces and it makes me so sad. The other day we were working at this house and the man who lived there came by. He was a Black man, and so many of the people I was working with couldn’t even really look at him. I don’t know if it was because he was Black or because they knew he was sad and they didn’t know how to deal with that. Sometimes people are prejudiced, and that’s bad. This man, I could tell he was sad and so I was sad too. I don’t speak a lot of English and he doesn’t speak Spanish but somehow I could tell him I was so sorry that he had lost so much, and I know he told me thank you. That was all right.”

The stories we are hearing from workers are so monumental we don’t know what to do with them. Some people are working in mold-infested houses with no masks or protective gear; some contract laborers are being imprisoned in hotels by their bosses, who won’t let them leave the premises once they return from the day’s work. People are working six and seven days a week, often for ten or more hours a day. We have talked to many day laborers who don’t get paid after working for a day or even an entire week. These cold nights, many people are sleeping in tents while their bosses stay next door in heated trailers. Some people sleep under cars or bridges. Everyone is worried about flu, what it will mean to get sick in this climate where no job is guaranteed and a day’s wage helps support as many as ten people back home.

A friend who used to live near the clinic told us how one day, when he and some other people were going to work in Chalmette, they got stopped by the police at the checkpoint and the police asked them for their green cards. Our friend showed his Texas drivers’ license and explained that he didn’t have a green card since he’s a US citizen. “You need a green card,” they said. They turned back the entire truck and told everyone they couldn’t go to work that day.

A few weeks ago we began talking with folks from the People’s Hurricane Fund about starting up a multiracial workers’ center in New Orleans, which would link the struggles of poor Black workers with those of poor Latino workers. Starting up a workers’ center is a daunting task but it needs to happen. Now more than ever, people in New Orleans need to join together across racial lines and demand the respect and dignity every one of us deserves.

In the meantime, people find ways to help each other out. Last night, Paco was buying dinner for another man who he had met at his shelter, and who didn’t get paid for the work he’d done that day. When he left the clinic, he was bringing two more people to his shelter because they had been sleeping outside for the past few nights. “I think I have a good heart,” he told me. “I don’t want to become cold-hearted.”



Blogger Saimon Fitzyerald said...

good work on the clinic and good idea about the workers' center
im a medical interpreter, busy as hell, and my girlfriend is just getting back from Mexico, but if i can help out in one of these projects, especially the workers' center, let me know.

7:05 PM  

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