Posted 11-08-2003 at 06:15:25
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I noticed a man and a woman sitting on a bench when I arrived for the night shift at 9:45 p.m. I didn't think much about them. I was too busy thinking of myself. Facing another shift with tired feet and an aching back, dreaming of my bed. Besides there are always people sitting on the benches outside where we take our breaks during the course of the night.
I found it odd that they were still out there when our shift took first break at midnight. I glanced at them and smiled and they both smiled back. He was maybe in his late forties, she not far behind. They were both dressed in work clothing, although he had sandals on his feet. They were Mexican, and I suspected that they might be migrant workers.
At two a.m. we took our lunch. I went out to the break area in front of the store and guess who was still sitting there. Now I was concerned. I could tell by the way they nodded and smiled silently that they didn't speak English. That fact was confirmed when I asked them if they were all right. They merely nodded and smiled bigger. I mounted a search for a bilingual employee who could help me figure out what was up with these two. Finally I found Rosa.
"Rosa, ask them if they are okay. They have been sitting out here for over four hours!"
She posed a question to them in brisk Spanish and it was almost as though someone had opened a flood gate. They both began to speak at once, laughing and smiling as they conversed with Rosa. The woman pointed at a car out in the parking lot.
Rosa, smiled and nodded. More discussion, more laughing, and then the woman, who I learned was named Juana, shrugged her shoulders and laughed again good-naturedly.
Finally Rosa turned to me to translate.
"They arrived here this afternoon from Michigan to pick oranges, but no one will rent them a hotel room. They didn't say why," she whispered then, "I think they may not have enough money."
That wouldn't surprise me a bit. Hotel rooms, even in our little town, are expensive, beginning at forty five dollars a night. Roughly what they could have made together picking oranges for one day.
"Anyway, they stopped here, the kids are sleeping in the car," she pointed, "and the only way there was enough room for all three of them to be comfortable was for them to get out."
"Are you serious?" I hissed.
Rosa nodded. I was furious. Everyday that passes I see more people like them. Following the crops. Expected to work for change and left to their own devices when it came to finding decent housing, being taken advantage of at every turn, used and then dismissed. I gazed at Victor and Juana. They both sat there chuckling about this turn of events and I knew that this situation was nothing new for them.
I have seen some hard times. I have been homeless, I have done sh*t work, I have done without. I have picked oranges, and it is brutal, unforgiving work, and anyone who thinks it is easy is welcome to come to our grove and put a day in and then tell me how easy it is. My heart breaks for these people.
Juana said something else then, and laughed again.
"What did she say, Rosa?"
"She said, 'if they don't pick the oranges who will? Why can't someone provide a place to stay while they're here that they can afford?'"
"That's a dam good question." I said. "They provide a service, they should be accomodated."
I couldn't give Juana and Victor and their kids a place to stay. I couldn't even tell them how badly I felt that they had no place to stay. I couldn't tell them how much I admired them for their cheerful outlook under such adverse conditions, or what I thought of people who would spend the night sitting on a hard bench in the Walmart parking lot so that their children could sleep in the relative comfort of the car.
I did what I could, which was to buy a dozen fresh doughnuts and a half gallon of cold milk for the kids for when they woke up. It was a paltry gesture under the circumstances. A pittance. But it was what I could do. That, and to shake both their hands. No matter how bad you think you have it, or how hard things are, there is always someone out there who has to try harder, work more, and is grateful for the chance to work, and I know a lot of people who could take lessons from Juana and Victor and be better people for it.