David and His 26 Roommates

Debbie Nathan, NewYorkMetro.com, May 16

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.

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.

{snip}

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.”

{snip}

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.

{snip}

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