David and His 26 Roommates

Photo: Brenda Ann Kenneally

David has a recurring dream. “Mi sueño nuyorquino,” he calls it. His New York dream. He’s flying high above Manhattan—his arms outstretched, a cool wind in his face. Far below on the streets, people point up at him, their eyes wide. It’s his favorite dream. “I have it often when I’m sleeping,” he says. “Being up so high, a loneliness that actually feels good. And the americanos noticing me.”

David doesn’t attract much notice in his waking life. He’s short and soft-spoken, with a face the color and shape of a homemade cookie. He dresses in bargain jeans and a sensible sweatshirt and keeps his head down. He decorates dishes with artful streaks of sauce and careful radish rosettes at an upscale West Village restaurant that’s perennially praised in Zagat’s for its beautifully presented food. When, after a few margaritas and some pato en mole verde, diners ask to tour the kitchen and compliment the staff, he greets them with a courteous nod and labored English: “How are you? Have a nice day.”

His housemates work at similarly bright and airy places such as Fairway and Citarella, bustling about the frisée bins and sautéing the portobellos and packing up comfort foods for harried professionals. As a household, they do pretty well even by New York standards, pulling in six figures a year. But this household is different from most in Manhattan. For one thing, there are 27 people in it—all Mexicans, most of them undocumented.

According to a recent City Planning Department study, two-thirds of all Mexicans in New York live in overcrowded conditions, the highest percentage of any immigrant group in the city. Twenty people in a Staten Island house built for six, eight in a Queens studio apartment, five in four narrow beds on Broadway just south of Columbia University. Clothes squeezed into liquor-store boxes, the toilet always occupied, the air rank with the smell of too many bodies in one place.

To get to his home, David walks past a phalanx of grand old Washington Heights high-rises full of classic sixes with Hudson River views and turns down a stairway that’s practically hidden from the street. He crosses a reeking courtyard strewn with waterlogged cardboard boxes, rotting chicken bones, and junked toilets and comes to a greasy window guarded by a Yosemite Sam doll holding a sign that reads BACK OFF, VARMINT. Next to the warning is a locked door, and past that, the dank, dark basement bowels of a pre–World War I apartment building. He passes the ancient and rumbling boiler and proceeds down a moldy hall not much wider than the corridor of a Pullman sleeper. To the right is the bathroom, whose ceiling opens to a maw of boards, with water and roaches seeping in. Farther on are several tiny rooms whose rickety doors are bolted with padlocks. One is David’s.

“Welcome to mi casa,” he says, opening the door to an eight-by-ten-foot space jammed with a children’s bunk bed, a refrigerator salvaged from the trash, and an outsize, cast-off TV. He shares the tiny room with a construction worker named José, who rehabs bathrooms and baby nurseries on the Upper West Side. For $100 each, they get 40 square feet apiece—half the 80 square feet required by law for each person in a household. It’s hard to turn around and impossible to walk anywhere but to the leaking bathroom down the claustrophobic hall, or to the small living room with the scavenged sofa and the saint-and-candle-clotted shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Twelve of the 27 people in the basement live in this 750-square-foot section. In addition to David and José, there’s Leo, Giovanny, and Paco, who work at Citarella. Mateo, Jacobo, and their roommate work at Fairway. Another guy works in a bar on 24th Street; his roommate does odd jobs in Washington Heights. Arianna boxes crayons at a factory in New Jersey. And Francisca trucks through the neighborhood with an old shopping cart, collecting soda cans for recycling. Individually, they’re poor. Collectively, they earn over $150,000 a year and pay $1,200 a month in rent.

Their decrepit basement apartment is illegal, of course. It was converted by a rotund Mexican affectionately known to the housemates as El Gato (the Cat). First he cleared out a half-dozen tiny toolrooms and wired them for electricity. Then he jerry-rigged a toilet and shower near the coin-operated washer-dryers used by residents of the 40-plus legal units upstairs. The building’s landlord collects almost $3,000 in monthly rent from the two sides of the basement. Half he kicks back to the super, a Cuban. The super lets Gato live in the basement for free and funnels him some of the kickback in exchange for keeping up the apartments and recruiting a continuing supply of Mexicans. Gato has been here twelve years and has a rep for helping newcomer compatriots. He rounds up used clothing for them and organizes Sunday pickup basketball games so they won’t feel homesick.

But Gato’s efforts don’t help much. David and the others are “lonely boys,” men who come by themselves from Mexico to support the families they’ve left behind. Inside their crowded dwellings, they lead strangely isolated lives. “You feel like a ghost,” says David. “A ghost in a basement.”

David comes from a slum just south of Mexico City. His father used to work in construction, but he had an accident a few years ago that left him paralyzed. Now his mother sells fruit and vegetables on the street and makes the peso equivalent of $10 a day—which sounds impossible but is still twice the Mexican minimum daily wage. There are eight children in the family. Though all are now adults, the younger ones attend junior and business colleges and still have to be supported on that $10. David, 35, is the oldest and has always felt responsible for his sisters and brothers. At the same time, he harbors a certain irresponsibility, a yen for what he calls aventura.

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.

Photo Caption: Francisca at her shrine in the cluttered common room. (Photo Credit: Brenda Ann Kenneally)

One Sunday afternoon, David stumbles from his bunk and heads to the bathroom to prepare for his four-to-midnight shift at the restaurant. Most of the other housemates are savoring their day off. A new month is nearing, and people are getting their rents together for when El Gato comes by to collect.

Gato’s live-in girlfriend—a large woman who works as a cleaning lady in several midtown high-rises—drops by from across the courtyard to chat. The ultimate recipient of the basement rent, she says, is “the little old judío”—the Jew—who owns the building. She knows his religion because “he’s got the hat and big beard and the long black coat.” The judío’s son usually comes to pick up the money. His name is something like Barry, but when Mexicans pronounce it with their trilling r, it comes out like Body.

Everyone loves Body because he lets them keep animals. “I thought he’d kick us out when he saw my dog and her two puppies,” says Gato’s girlfriend. “Instead, he said, ‘Oh, they’re so cute!’ ” Nor does he seem perturbed by Francisca’s caged doves, which live by the boiler. Or her rabbit.

Once when Body, who lives in New Jersey, drove over for the rent, he brought along his family’s cocker spaniel. The dog ran out into traffic and died instantly. Body went to pieces. “He cried and cried,” remembers Gato’s girlfriend. “Just like a child. A baby!” The Mexicans chipped in and bought him a new purebred spaniel. Sure, it was expensive. Sure, they couldn’t afford it. But what can you do when your landlord “has such a big heart?”

Big heart? If the city’s Health and Housing departments knew about this place, they’d call it a firetrap, an incubator of asthma and tuberculosis. But the tenants have nothing against their landlord—or others who profit from their lives in New York. “Dominicans will tell you to get out of their restaurants,” says David with a shrug. “Blacks will call you ‘fucking this, fucking that’ for no reason. Anglos? You work for them, you wait on them, you pass them in the street. They’re not mean. But it’s because they don’t even notice you.”

Besides, this apartment is cheap and more livable than many of the spots the housemates have holed up in. David’s roommate José moved here from a room a few blocks away that he was sharing with four other adults. “Some guys worked days and had to get up early. Others came back at 3 A.M. and would turn on the lights,” he says. “The reason we had five people in two bunk beds was that one mattress was shared by a married couple, both of them 16 years old.” The newlyweds kept everyone awake, but not with teenage erotics. “They fought nonstop. They’d go on till five in the morning. It was impossible!”

“At first I paid her for dances,” David says of Diana, “especially after I noticed she would ignore other men to seek me out. Then I paid her just to talk. After a while, I asked her out.”

The manners of the tenants in the basement are much better. They listen to their music with headphones, wait patiently to use the bathroom, and no one fights. The apartment is peaceful, even conducive to study. Since free ESL classes at workingman’s hours are virtually impossible to find, David and José use their bilingual dictionaries to pore over old copies of Vogue retrieved from the trash. They also watch a Channel 13 show in which a schoolmarm explains the difference between cut and cute while the e bounces up and down. José doesn’t need too many words; he has a wife and five children back home and plans to leave in a couple of years. But David wants a larger vocabulary. “I’ve got to learn what my legal rights are, how to open a bank account, how to put away some savings,” he says. He’s thinking he might stick around for a while.

When they’re not studying, they lie in bed and listen to music. (David’s favorite songs: “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.) “Or watch telenovelas,” he adds sheepishly, to José’s guffaws. These are the Spanish-language soap operas so popular among women in Latin America and so don’t-watch-or-you’ll-be-a-maricón for men.

“Okay, there’s this one I really like,” confesses Mateo, popping over from across the hall. “Rubí. It’s about a ruthless girl who’s poor but wants to have everything that her rich friend, Maribel, does. Rubí dumps her poor boyfriend and steals Maribel’s rich boyfriend, the architect. She marries him strictly for his money, so of course she’s not happy. Meanwhile, the poor ex has all the luck and gets rich.” He pauses and then jokes about the possible repercussions of talking to a reporter about such things. “I’m not worried about Immigration, but I don’t want my family in Mexico to know about me and the telenovelas.”

There’s not much to do in New York when you’re pinching pennies. “For us, it’s mainly work, come home, work, come home. That’s all,” says David. After sending half their wages to Mexico and paying rent, they’re each left with about $80 a week in pocket money. Much of it goes for takeout and restaurant food. For Mexican, there’s the Victoria, a little place on 160th and Broadway that makes passable enchiladas but superb tamales. Overwhelmingly, the Victoria’s customers are single men from the neighborhood who keep their heads in their plates except when they’re trying—usually fruitlessly—to chat up the waitresses. The menu’s not cheap for these guys—a burrito plate runs to $8, excluding beer.

More economical are Broadway’s grungy Chinese joints. “Beef with broccoli. It’s $4.50. And when I can’t afford that, I get the chicken wings with French fries for $3,” says José. “You have to respect the chinos,” he notes. “They’re different from americanos because they learn Spanish. They say ‘Papas fritas?’ ”

José is at the mercy of chino meals because he works construction. The Fairway, Citarella, and restaurant employees get to eat their bosses’ goods. “Chocolate-chunk cookies and dried cherries!” says Giovanny, who works at Citarella. “We don’t have that stuff in Mexico.”

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.

David’s return to Mexico was more shocking than his first days in Manhattan. “The economic situation was worse than when I left. My family was hardly eating. We couldn’t afford meat. To get a meal together, my mom would go to one store, then another, looking for bargains and sales. She was using spoiled fruit and vegetables. There was nothing from one day to the next. I no longer felt that my home was in Mexico. Plus, I just missed everything about New York.”

While David watched in horror as his mother cooked rotten onions, Diana called from Colombia. She too was chilled by life back home, not just the poverty but also the monotony compared with New York. They came up with a plan: They would meet in Mexico, hire the same coyote, and sneak north together. This time, there was no used-car capital to finance the return, so David would have to borrow from a friend. The coyote’s fee had gone up from five years earlier: Now it was $2,000.

Last fall, they set their plan in motion—and immediately ran into trouble. Diana flew to Mexico City, but Immigration authorities turned her back at the airport. Thinking she’d never return to America, she had flown from New York to Colombia on her long-expired visa, which immediately alerted authorities that she’d been in the States illegally. She was forced to return to Colombia and apply for another U.S. visa.

Heartbroken, David returned to New York alone. The fish market had gone out of business in his absence, but the West Village restaurant had finished its remodeling and took him back, promoting him from delivery boy to cook’s assistant (at a wage still only slightly more than minimum). His cheap basement space was still available, too. His life is pretty much the same as when he left it—except Diana’s not here.

Since he’s been back, David has become a habitué of those little Washington Heights storefronts with lines of wooden phone booths. From there, he places calls to Diana in Colombia—at a cost of $10 to $20 each. They’ve been waiting to hear from the U.S. Consulate about a new tourist visa for Diana, but since she abused her last visa, it’s hard to imagine the consulate’s accommodating her. In a pinch, Diana thinks she could get a visa from Spain. But David is desperate to stay in New York. At work, on the subway, lying on his bunk bed, he’s been hatching complicated schemes involving flying to Colombia, marrying Diana, bringing her to Mexico, and paying the coyote $4,000 for the two of them. He figures it would cost $10,000 to cover all the flights and the smuggling fees.

A few weeks ago, Diana was due to hear about the consular decision, and David called to learn their fate.

“Diana? What’s wrong?” he said into the receiver. “Oh, no, that’s bad! ¡Ay, mujer! I’ve been thinking that this is my fault—if I’d gone straight after you in Colombia when I was in Mexico, you’d be here now. Dianita, I’d like to come for you, to do everything for you!”

He paused while she spoke. “Well, listen. I’ve been calling everyone I trust. I’ve got these friends. They could get us across the border. But the best time to avoid the authorities is a big holiday season, like between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s almost next year. Besides, it will take me that long to save the money … No, don’t worry about the expense. I’d pay.

“Spain? Yeah, I understand you’re in a hurry. But you’re always in a hurry … I’m not criticizing! It’s just something I’ve noticed … Okay, let’s change the subject.

“If I come for you, I want to make it clear up front that you wouldn’t have to feel obligated to me. I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage; this is just something I want to do for you. Remember when I told you I wanted to be with you? And you said you were thinking more about your son? That’s what I liked about you—that you talked to me honestly.”

Suddenly David looked up, puzzled. The connection had gone dead—Diana’s little boy had hung up the phone. David kept trying to call back, but a recording said there were too many calls to Colombia just then. Try again later when the line wasn’t so jammed.

He had two hours to kill before starting his shift at the restaurant and nowhere else to go. So David went back home to the basement—with the roommates watching telenovelas and the doves cooing and the family in the kitchen and someone in the bathroom and Gato trying to drum up a basketball game. It was crowded, but David felt very lonely.

David and His 26 Roommates