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David and His 26 Roommates

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Photo Caption: David lying on his bunk, surrounded by six of his housemates. (Photo Credit: Brenda Ann Kenneally)

New York City, he started thinking in 1999, would be the perfect compromise: a fine aventura, but also a place to make money for the family. One of his brothers had immigrated to Manhattan a year earlier, and the dispatches he sent back were of the streets-lined-with-gold variety. In Mexico, David had been working in the basement of a fabrics store, earning the minimum wage of $25 a week. He imagined himself with a cool job in New York and his own apartment—or even a house! Not to mention a new car.

He sold his Mexico junker for $1,500, the price the coyote charged to smuggle him north. That fee covered a flight—the first in his life—to the Arizona border, a nine-hour trek through the desert, a van ride to Phoenix lying atop twenty other smuggled passengers, a safe house, a secret drive to California, and finally a flight from LAX to JFK. To David, it was all a lark, a prelude to excitement and riches.

Reality hit on the first day in New York. “From the airport, I went to my brother’s place in Washington Heights,” David says. “He was living with his child and pregnant wife, along with another couple and their kid. Six people. I was the seventh. In one room.”

Over the next few days, David discovered that virtually every Mexican he met was in the same insanely cramped boat. He walked around in a state of low-grade shock, compounded by his inability to understand “the language, the street signs, the money, anything.” He planned to flee as soon as he’d saved enough for a flight or a Greyhound back to Mexico, plus $1,500 to buy another car back home. Within days, he’d found a minimum-wage job as a restaurant delivery boy. He figured it would take almost a year to save what he needed to get out of this mess.

To his surprise, it took him only three months. “It was so fast that I thought, Well, why not stay a little longer and save even more?” he says. Three months stretched into six months, then a year. Then another.

“I kept postponing my departure because, to tell the truth, I was starting to like it here,” he says. He liked riding the ferry to Staten Island. He especially liked Times Square, with its amazing variety of people “that you never see in Mexico City, though it’s much bigger than New York.” He was delighted one day on 42nd Street when a tourist about his age named Julie, from Albany, spoke to him in English, asking where he was from and noting that she loved Latino music—and he was able to carry on a rudimentary flirtation in the same language. He found himself invigorated by the sheer pace of things: New York’s ritmo, he calls it.

The city was exciting, but David’s place in it was fragile. After his brother’s marriage foundered—perhaps owing to the strain of living in one room with another family—he and David moved with the children into an $800 Washington Heights studio. The two men babysat in shifts so David’s brother could keep his job as a mechanic. They were barely holding on to the pricey apartment when David lost his job. The restaurant where he worked was so popular that Zagat’s started complaining it was too small. The owner closed for three months to remodel. David, of course, got no unemployment compensation.

He had just found a new minimum-wage job—at an upscale seafood market on Broadway in the Eighties—when David’s sister-in-law returned to her family, tried to reconcile with her husband, and ended up kicking him out, along with David. After knocking from bunk to bunk for three weeks, David decided it would be easier to live on the subways.

“I slept on the No. 1 sometimes but mostly on the A, because the trip is very long,” he remembers. “I made sure to wear clean clothes, and I never lay down—never took up two seats. I always slept sitting up so the police wouldn’t bother me. Mornings I would wash my face at work, and every few days I’d buy a bar of soap and go to a public swimming pool. I would take a shower, then a swim, then another shower.”

Meanwhile, he reported to the fish market every day to cut fancy fillets and smile at his Upper West Side customers, who, as he puts it in literally translated Spanish, were “people of category.” No one noticed anything amiss.

David thought about going home. “On the train all those nights, I’d see endless strange things and have endless thoughts—thoughts like, You should go back to Mexico! Then I’d think, No, one has to face one’s problems. Just be patient and eventually you’ll find a room.

Co-workers eventually did help him find space in an apartment, a bedroom he had all to himself. But at $380, the monthly rent was steep, and the financial needs of his family on both sides of the border had left him almost broke. Then a friend told him about Gato’s place. He gave up his private room and moved into the illegal basement with the Yosemite Sam doll and the 26 other tenants.


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