Part of the reason David and José and the other men eat out rather than cook at home is that they feel awkward using the apartment’s kitchen. Even in this workable living arrangement, there’s tension. It stems from the fact that 33-year-old Leo, the Citarella employee, is carrying on a May-December romance with 50-year-old Francisca, the can collector. Leo helped Francisca bring her grown kids—Arianna, 20, Giovanny, 21, and Paco, 26—to New York last fall from Oaxaca. Suddenly, the apartment had a whole family living in it. The family came to dominate the common space, intimidating the seven men up from Mexico by themselves. “You can tell they’re uncomfortable,” says Leo, lounging on the couch while Francisca slices papaya in the kitchen.
If things were more relaxed, David and the others would probably flirt with Arianna, who’s cute, gracious, and good with her eyeliner (even though the bathroom is so drippy and dirty that she’s loath to use it for putting on makeup). But instead of wooing her, “they rush by and say ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Have a nice day,’ ” she says. The men’s standoffishness reassures Arianna; it’s hard enough sharing a bedroom with her two brothers—at least she’s not imposed upon by men who are no relation. But the formality “makes us uncomfortable,” says Leo, “and we don’t know what to do about it.” A house meeting hardly seems possible, since the men and the family barely know each other after months of living together. “Last names?” says Arianna. “We don’t even know their first names.”
Single women like Arianna are a rarity in David’s world, and it’s his biggest complaint about life in New York. Among recent Mexican immigrants, men outnumber women by about four to one. Combine the gender imbalance with matchbox rooms, he says, and “it’s like being in jail.”
The closest thing to furlough are bars like Los Compadres, near the last stop on the northbound A train. Years ago, it would have been called a dime-a-dance hall. Today, the going rate is $2; for that, lonely Mexican guys can spend three minutes twirling Latina women who call themselves bailarinas. But this isn’t ballet. It’s herky-jerk Mexican polka, rolling cumbia, and slithering bachata, with women in low-cut jeans and even lower shirts. Every few weekends, David says to hell with thrift and visits places like this.
On a recent Saturday night at Los Compadres, the year-round Christmas lights were glaring and a cheesy band was belting out Mexican favorites. No matter that their voices sometimes cracked, and that stage smoke puffed wholly out of sync with the music. The important thing was the bailarinas, and there were plenty to go around—demure Mexicans wearing little makeup, and slinky Caribbeans with lots of lipstick. David grabbed a Dominican for his first dance. She was a big girl, with light, frizzy hair and studious eyeglasses. “Some bailarinas are also prostitutes,” David had mused earlier, but this one seemed uncomfortable with even a dance. David did a half-dip when the song was over and guzzled her right shoulder. She winced, then pocketed his two ones. He would go on to pay for dozens more dances. He often drops $150 in an evening.
But “I can’t meet any good women,” he complains, and by good he means practically anyone but bailarinas. Back home, women who earn a living with their bodies are considered the scum of the earth. But that’s Mexico. In New York, David is having a change of heart. “I talk to the bailarinas. They’ve left their families behind and risked their lives with coyotes. I used to despise them, but now I see they’re human beings just trying to get through hard times like I am. I could see marrying one.” In fact, he’d like to marry one in particular.
Diana is drop-dead beautiful, with fair skin, long honey-colored hair, and big dark eyes. A Colombian, she came to New York five years ago on a tourist visa but stayed on after it expired, hoping to earn a living as a hairdresser in Queens. She turned to taxi-dancing after finding it impossible to support herself with salon work. David says he knew she was special from the moment he saw her. “Not once did I ever touch her improperly or try to kiss her,” he says. “At first I paid her for dances, especially after I noticed she would ignore other men to seek me out. Then I paid her just to sit at the table and talk. After a while, I asked her out.”
For their first date, David took Diana to a family birthday party. He keeps a framed picture that was taken there. In it, he looks radiant and she looks grave. It’s a complicated relationship. “She told me from the beginning that the priority in her life was the baby,” he says. She’d gotten involved with a Mexican who’d abandoned her after getting her pregnant. She sent the baby to live with her parents in Colombia, and she was torn by the fact that when she called long distance, her son no longer knew who she was. “I liked her frankness,” says David. “She seemed like she wouldn’t play games.”
The two became a couple, and though David had always been skittish about getting serious with a woman, he sometimes told Diana he loved her. “Once when I said that, she just said ‘Yo también’ ”—me too. Other times, she laughed, and he laughed back to stay close to her. “Still, I believe she has real feelings for me,” David says. “And even though people warn not to get involved with a bailarina, I think that for me, it’s love. Why? These things are hard to explain, but I can put one thing into words: Women aren’t supposed to earn more than men. But it never bothered me that she was making $700 a week dancing—more than twice my wages.”
David and Diana went out for a year before she returned to Colombia to be with her child. Feeling like there was nothing left for him here, David also decided to go home. After five years, the great aventura was over. He left in early 2004.