by Todd Smith
In the midst of a December snow storm in the Twin Cities, a group of men from Mexico and Latin America showed up at the landscaping company where I work to help shovel the snow at our 280 accounts, a daunting list of homeowners, apartments, businesses, and large scale factories. Despite the fact that it was three in the morning and there was snowy slop all over the streets, these hardy Hispanic men arrived on bicycles, on foot, and piled into small cars, ready to perform the thankless, backbreaking work of snow removal.
We huddled together, sleepy and shivering, under the harsh glow of the garage lights. Some of the Hispanic men were without gloves, boots, and hats. After some spare gear was distributed to those without, we assembled into ten work crews, each one with a different snow removal route. My crew was known simply as “Ranger”, named after both the style of our truck and the legendary Army division known for its quick strike ability, which was appropriate because I had over 38 jobs on my route. I was assigned Bennie, a stout and gregarious man from Guatemala, and Victor, a scrawny kid from Mexico who spoke no English and wore thin, unlaced construction boots and rubber dish washing gloves.
To start, we buzzed through a cluster of homes by a prestigious college in St. Paul, the violent screeching of our snow blower engines tearing through the silent, snow globe like world that was all around us. At each home, Bennie, who rents a house with his wife and baby and four relatives, longingly looked at each immaculate residence, staring at the American Dream from its trenches, and asked me the real estate value of each property.
“How much this one?” He asked me in choppy English. “I needs one big for me familia.”
Between destinations, our communication was a linguistic gumbo, spicy bits and pieces of English and Spanish and Guatemalan all throw into the dialogue. We laboriously explained our jobs and our lives. I told them that I worked two jobs, one at the landscaping company and one as a writer. Then Bennie pointedly asked me, “Why you need work two jobs? You are from here. What happen to you?”
As veins of sunlight etched their way across the dawn sky the color of a fresh bruise, I reflected on my own American Dream, which, in this recessionary economy, was now a quagmire of hope, fear, and bare knuckled fortitude. For working class folks like me, one job won’t cut it. My wife works, too, and at times we are still only treading water, moving forward slightly only to be pulled back into the trough by, say, a big medical bill or car repair. And since there is no vacation in sight, we just keep grinding it out. I thought about all of this, but was too tired to convey any of it. So, I just shrugged.
As day bled into night and back into day, we worked three, twelve hour shifts in a row. We were at turns overheated and freezing cold, and delirium turned into a hallucinogenic reality: Packs of fitness fanatics in outdoor scuba suits jogged by us as we shoveled; At churches in the ink black night, angelic statues stared mercifully down on us as we cleaned sidewalks; and out in the suburbs, the silhouettes of strangers in apartment windows eerily watched our every move.
Back at the time clock early on Sunday morning, all the crews were hallowed out by sleep deprivation, hunger, and exhaustion. Because there was still more work to do, I joked with the crew that we wouldn’t make it to church, but that God would understand. My coworker Jose, a man who came to this country from Mexico when he was 14 for a chance at a better life, summed it all and said, “The Lord knows we have to work.”