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A Hard-Earned Life

After his shift, Robert Gonzales wanders around the West Village.  

There was another debt he had, too: $6,570.88 for a student loan from eight years earlier, when he’d attended college. The government had recently started taking $93.23 out of his bank account each month to reclaim this loan, which was why his last bank statement had read -$146.53. He had one other bank account: a high-yield money-market account he’d set up for his two children as a college fund. It held $61.80.

As the summer came to an end, Robert’s birthday approached, and when he talked about it his voice filled with dread. “I’m going to be 31 and still living with my parents,” he said. “That’s embarrassing.” It was a problem not easily fixed, however. He’d been scanning the apartment ads in the Daily News, but even in the Bronx, he couldn’t find a one-bedroom for less than $700 or $800 a month—which was more than he could afford.

This wasn’t the future he’d imagined for himself when he was a child. “I was rich,” he says. “It was like Camelot. Anything I wanted, I got.” The family wasn’t rich by most people’s standards, but by the standards of a young boy, they were. “No worries,” Robert says. “Those were the golden years.” Born in the Bronx to parents who had emigrated from Central America—his mother is from Guatemala, his father from Honduras—Robert is the sixth of seven children. His father, a former fisherman, found work in New York as a porter at a movie theater; his mother worked as a cleaning lady and at a post office. They both worked so many hours that Robert’s older sisters had to help raise him.

Robert dropped out of Morris High School in his senior year, determined to follow the fast-money lifestyle he saw other boys chasing. But after a friend was killed making a drug delivery, he changed his mind. He enrolled in night school, earned his high-school diploma at 20, and, with the encouragement of his oldest sister, who lived upstate, he moved north to attend Sullivan County Community College. It wasn’t easy to get around the Catskills without a car, but he managed to find a job he could get to by bus: security guard at the Concord Resort Hotel. The job covered his housing and food, and he got a loan to pay his tuition.

Near the end of his freshman year, he learned that his girlfriend in the Bronx was pregnant with his baby. Soon, she and the baby and her two daughters from a previous marriage moved upstate to be with him. Suddenly, at 22, Robert went from worrying only about himself to having four more people to feed.

They found an apartment in Monticello, and Robert paid the rent by working the deli counter at a Wal-Mart SuperCenter after his classes. In the summer, he did security work at Kutsher’s Country Club. His girlfriend got a job as a cashier at ShopRite. The stress of supporting a family of five and also going to school was enormous. The couple fought all the time. “It was always about financial things,” Robert says. “Most relationships end up this way: You’re not making enough, and it all ends up turning sour.”

After a few years, Robert’s girlfriend decided to move back to the Bronx. “I wasn’t ready to be a father,” he admits. “I was going to school, going to work. And I have these three little girls and they wanted to play. If I could take those days back … ” In 2001, Robert dropped out of college and moved in with his girlfriend’s family in the Bronx. He was the main breadwinner in the couple; she collected disability because she has sickle-cell anemia.

Over the next four years, he worked six different security jobs. The best one was at JFK airport. “A cool gig,” he says. The commute was at least two and a half hours each way, but he got paid $13 an hour. He lost the job when the Transportation Security Administration took over the airport’s security. In the summer of 2005, he joined Tristar Patrol Service. By then, Robert was 29 years old and had been working for thirteen years. Tristar was his 23rd job.

Most days, Robert doesn’t eat breakfast and sometimes doesn’t eat lunch, either. When he does eat at work, he usually gets a discount, since everyone around his job knows him. The guy at the bodega lets him buy a drink for $1—instead of the usual $1.25. And the hot-dog-cart guy shaves a quarter off the price, too, selling him hot dogs for $1.25.

Halfway through his two-week pay period, Robert had $125 left. He wanted to save it for the following weekend, when he might see his kids. By now, he had a second child, a 3-year-old son, but since his girlfriend split up with him Robert never knew exactly when he’d see them. When he did, he wanted to make sure he had money in his pocket; they always seemed to need something—new clothes or school supplies.