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A Hard-Earned Life

A father’s paycheck reads $676. It has to last two weeks. Start the clock.

On duty at his new post at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.  

Robert Gonzalez woke at 4 A.M. and left for work by 4:25, making his way through the dark toward the 6 train on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx. The money rattling around in his pocket was all he had left from his last paycheck—two dollar bills, four quarters, ten dimes, eight nickels, a penny—a total of $4.41. Fortunately, today was payday, but then again, payday never lifted his spirits all that much; it just reminded him of how little he earned. He worked five days a week, 6 A.M. to 2 P.M., as a security guard at the Municipal Building near City Hall, and though he had nine years of experience, he made $10 an hour.

On this morning, Robert wore sneakers from Payless, a pair of $10 jeans, and his favorite shirt—short-sleeved, with a quirky blue-and-black design—that looked like it cost more than it did. He used to buy brand-name clothes, but that was when he was much younger, when he worried about only himself. Now, at 30, with two kids to support, he didn’t even have enough money to get his own place.

For the past four years, Robert had been sleeping on his parents’ couch in Soundview. The streets around their apartment are rarely quiet, even at 4:30 A.M., so Robert could never be certain he’d get to the subway without a hassle. Some mornings he encountered drug dealers or prostitutes. Once he saw two men attack a third guy with a baseball bat. Today he walked by a group of people screaming at each other while a tiny girl, maybe 4 years old, pushed an empty stroller up and down the sidewalk.

By 4:38 A.M., Robert stood on the elevated platform at the Elder Avenue stop, searching for the girl with the butterfly tattoo. She was usually here, chatting on her cell phone, dressed in business-casual clothes. He didn’t know her name or where she worked. All he knew was that she always sat in the front car, she often wore pink, and she got off at Union Square. Though they rode the 6 train together almost every day, he never dared talk to her; he figured she was out of his league.

Robert’s stop was the last one, City Hall. When he arrived at 5:25 A.M., the sky was still dark. He walked through the small park just south of the Municipal Building, past five men stretched out on wooden benches. There was a time not long ago when Robert, too, had slept on these same benches—not because he was homeless but because he had two full-time jobs.

Last fall, he had taken on a second job as a security guard at the Empire State Building, working 4 P.M. to midnight. The job doubled his income, but it didn’t leave much time for anything else, like sleeping. He rarely got back to the Bronx before 2 A.M. Since he had to leave by 4:30 A.M. to get to the Municipal Building, it usually made more sense to spend the night here, sleeping outside.

Robert kept up this grueling schedule for two months, until muscle spasms in his back and legs became so severe that he found himself writhing on the bathroom floor one morning, unable to stand. He missed four days’ work, lost eight shifts’ pay, and wound up with a hospital bill he could not afford. He tried to keep doing both jobs, a bottle of codeine in his pocket, but he didn’t last long and soon was back to one job—and one paycheck.

On this morning, the sidewalks around the Municipal Building were empty save for a couple of newspaper vendors and a guy setting up his doughnut cart. “Hey, bro, how’s it going?” Robert asked as he walked past. Some days he bought coffee and a doughnut, but this morning the box of mint-green Tic Tacs in his pocket would have to suffice. He was saving his $4.41 for lunch.

At 5:45 A.M., he reappeared, this time wearing his uniform: midnight-blue pants and shirt, boots, a name tag and silver badge on his chest, a U.S. flag sewn on his right shoulder. Robert works for Tristar Patrol Service, a private security company that provides guards to city buildings. The company shuffles its guards around—soon Robert would be transferred to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal—but for the past year, he had been assigned downtown. His job was to patrol twelve city buildings: to make sure doors were locked, look for suspicious packages, notice anything out of the ordinary. By now, light streaked the sky and the sound of horns and engines had grown louder. He strode across Centre Street to start his rounds.