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A Hard-Earned Life

Napping in Union Square Park between work and an appointment.  

On this Thursday, by the time he got off work, all he’d had was a grape drink. He changed out of his uniform and walked up Centre Street toward Chinatown. “I don’t want to rush home to the Bronx,” he explains. “It’s very depressing.”

Robert made his way over to the huge Buddhist temple on Canal Street, by the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. In recent months, he’d started to come here whenever he needed some quiet. He knelt before the golden Buddha at the front and remained there for a minute or two, his hands clasped, eyes closed. Visiting this temple was part of his strategy for staying sane, for preventing himself from becoming too angry or frustrated or depressed.

When he got back outside, he spotted a Fung Wah bus, which offers $15 rides to Boston. “Sometimes I just want to get on that bus and leave and start a new life,” he says. Instead, he bought a jumbo hot dog (92 cents) and headed north, walking all the way to Union Square.

Stepping into the apartment of Robert’s parents, you can see why he’s not eager to hurry back here after work. His brother died two years ago after a battle with aids, and a sense of grief seems to permeate the place. His brother’s stuff is still in his bedroom, clothes piled into trash bags. Robert’s mother told him to sleep in his brother’s bed, but Robert refuses. He’d rather spend nights on the sofa in the living room, even though he wakes up every night at 1 A.M. when his mother returns from her job as a bathroom attendant at a restaurant.

Shortly after his brother died, Robert, in a fit of rage, had called his ex-girlfriend again and again in the middle of the night, hurling insults and curses at her over the phone. She called the cops; he was arrested for harassment and spent six nights in jail. By the time he got out, he’d missed his brother’s funeral and lost his job. That was the lowest point of his life. He was grief-stricken, broke, unemployed, angry at his ex, angry at himself. Alone in the apartment one day, he sat down on the sofa with a gun in his hand. He placed a photo of his children on the floor in front of him and stared at it for a while, maybe an hour. Eventually, the picture of them smiling up at him persuaded Robert to set down the gun.

The day before payday is always the most stressful. Most, if not all, of Robert’s co-workers live paycheck to paycheck, so by now they’re counting the dollars in their wallet, trying to figure out if they have enough to make it to payday. Today, two guards asked Robert for money. He turned them down. “I’m very selective about who I loan money to,” he says, adding that only four co-workers meet his criteria. “I know I won’t have to go after them and chase them around.”

Many of his colleagues have a second job, or they have another way to make money on the side, like selling Avon products. Robert had recently begun picking up DVDs for $2 on Canal Street, then turning around and selling them to friends and acquaintances for $5. This pay period, he’d made about $25 selling DVDs. It wasn’t much, but he thought of it as subway money, since it cost him $20 a week just to commute to work.

By now, even with his side income, Robert was down to $27. The prior weekend, his ex-girlfriend had called with tickets to an amusement park in New Jersey. He leaped at the chance to spend time with his kids. At the park, he spent $60 on food and gave his ex-girlfriend $50 to play carnival games. It was the happiest day he’d had in a long time. On his key chain, he carries a photo of himself and his son zooming down a water ride.

Twenty-seven dollars was more than he usually had on the day before payday. He was no further ahead than he had been before his last paycheck—he was still sleeping on his parents’ sofa, still didn’t have any money set aside for an apartment—but he hadn’t fallen behind, either. Well, somehow he’d managed to rip his favorite shirt, but at least he hadn’t gotten sick or injured and hadn’t incurred any new debts.

Saturday would be his 31st birthday, and he was trying not to get upset thinking about it. He had plenty of dreams for the future: He talked about finishing his college degree, finding a place of his own, maybe moving back to the Catskills, perhaps even starting a business selling action figures on eBay. He wasn’t sure how many of these dreams he would be able to accomplish, so he set his sights a little lower, on maybe getting a second job. Or, better yet, getting a raise to boost his $676 paychecks. “If I could come home with at least $800 or $900,” he says, “I’d be happy.”