You get off the Lake Street el and arrive at the day labor office of the State of Illinois Job Service at Lake and Jefferson at 5:45 AM.
“Don’t open till six,” says a lone figure from the shadows of the small entrance. You nod toward the man, an African American with gray in his beard and an army cap on his head. He is wearing an old black jacket with a rip in the sleeve, and his hands are dug deep into his pockets.
“I been waitin’ on the office to open,” he tells you. “Been comin’ down for day jobs three years now….I was trippin’ out last year. Was the first one here and guys was gettin’ up, going in front of me. I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ They was veterans.” He asks you if you are a veteran.
“They probably won’t have no jobs today,” he says. “Too cold. Usually the drivers don’t come around till it’s warm. I probably won’t be stayin’ around much longer this morning. You got a transfer?”
You tell him you are going to keep your transfer just in case. Just then a woman drives up in a white Cadillac. She parks, then opens up the office. “How you been, Sam?” she says to the other man. Inside, a desk separates some cubicles and computers from the front, where four rows of plastic chairs and a table are set up as a waiting area.
“Your social security number here, your last job, and if you’re a veteran,” the government worker tells you, motioning toward a box of small pencils on the desk. She turns to Sam and calls him behind the counter. He takes a few bills from her, in what appears to be a ritual, then heads for the door. “Lots of Sweet ‘n Low,” the woman calls after him.
Around 6:20 three or four more black men arrive. They talk animatedly, yelling affectionately at each other. A white man with thinning gray hair walks in behind them and looks around with a searching gaze. His windbreaker says “Ted” and “Walter Roofing Co.” When he smiles a missing tooth is revealed.
“How many you need?” the clerk asks him.
“How many you got?” asks Ted.
Sam returns with coffee and doughnuts. Ted nods toward him, two of the others, and you. Ted catches your eye for a moment; his gaze is steady and there’s a hint of a twinkle. All of you leave the office without another word, following Ted to a white Ford Taurus. Nobody gives any explanation for what’s happening or seems to expect one. Piling into the backseat you introduce yourself to the other men, Nick and Joey. Sam gets in front and tells Ted to pull around the block to the Windy City Job Center on Halsted. A group of men are standing near the front entrance. Two men come over to the car and join Sam and Ted in the front seat. Ted pulls out into the morning rush hour traffic and heads north up the highway.
“Was waiting for my SSI check in there and the motherfuckers didn’t want to cash it for me,” one of the new guys, Tyrone, says to Sam. Everyone is listening but no one really responds. Tyrone changes subjects at will. “Out here trying to find work and…down off the liquor truck…work us like slaves anyhow.”
“Know they do,” says Sam, “but ‘least it’s work.”
It seems nearly every other word Tyrone uses is ‘fuck.’ He talks about “hoes” and AIDS and “poppin’ people off with a gun if some bitch gave me that shit.”
“It ain’t easy,” Sam says. The rest of you sit mostly in silence. You wonder if Ted is the type of man who is offended by obscenity, if he will pull the car to a halt in disgust. But Ted just laughs mechanically along, smoking one cigarette after another. No one asks you about yourself or why you are there. No one talks about your destination or what the day’s work will be.
Ted pulls off the highway and passes a forest preserve. Then you see the signs; you have arrived in Des Plaines. Ted pulls to the curb in a residential neighborhood near a lumberyard. You get out and Ted pops the trunk and reaches in to pull out several bundles of orange-and-white five-by-seven cards advertising “Walter Roofing Co., $69, free estimates. Best prices in town. 80th year.”
Ted says to stay with your partner as you make your way down the block. Swing right after two blocks when this street dead-ends, then work your way back up the next street over. “I’ll pick you up at the corner.” As he speaks, his cigarette jiggles up and down between his lips and drops ash onto his coat.
“I’ll take care of him,” Sam says. He waves you in the direction Ted indicated. “Let’s go,” he says. The other men get back in the car. Ted begins to get back in himself. You hold up the rush just for a moment. “What exactly are we doing and when will we return?” you ask. Sam jumps between the two of you.
“I’ll explain everything,” Sam says again. “Let’s go.” His voice is a mixture of impatience, when he is looking at you, and apology, when he is turned toward Ted.
“You take one of these to every door on the block, place it on the handle, then leave quickly,” Ted explains. They both tell you not to open any screen doors and not to stay on the front porches any longer than you have to. Ted explains it first and Sam repeats each sentence after him. “Do not put the hangers in people’s mailboxes,” Ted says as he gets into the car.
“It’s against federal law,” adds Sam. Your watch reads 7:15.
At the first house you mount the wooden steps and zero in on the slightly rusted doorknob of the porch door. There is a soggy red carpet laid in front of the door and a sign that looks like it was made in a high school wood shop: “Welcome to the O’Toole’s.” The small advertising hanger is perforated at the top and it slips nicely over the round handle. You bound off the porch, step around the dog shit on the lawn, and mount the next set of stairs.
This house looks nearly identical to the first, without the red carpet, the sign, and most important, the door handle. This is the push-button kind where the grip drops away without a lower connection. There is nowhere to hang your advertisement. You improvise, sliding the flier into the slit between the door and frame. Then you jump off the small landing and begin to make your way to the next house. Sam sees you from across the quiet street.
“No, no, that ain’t the way it’s done,” he yells. A man getting into his car up the block glances up for a moment. Sam runs across the street.
“You’re going to get it if Ted sees these ain’t done right. I been doing this three years,” Sam says. His eyes are nearly frantic. You say to him that you’ll take responsibility for your own actions.
Sam begins to raise his voice. “You don’t want to listen. You got an attitude.”
“Look,” you say after a few moments, leaning close. You feel his hot breath on your face. “I don’t think this is the best idea–two brothers arguing in a white neighborhood. If you know what I mean!” He looks around quickly in the morning quiet, nods in understanding, then moves away from you back to his side of the street.
Twenty more houses to the turn in the block. You see Sam’s point after all. The small cards are made of heavy coated paper stock that stays creased when you fold them. At the next handle that will not support a hanger, you fold the card and place it between the length of the handle and the door itself. The card stays firm.
In your left hand you carry the pile of several hundred cards. With your right hand, which you must keep ungloved, you pull off each card. At the intersection of the second block Sam approaches. “Hey,” he says, “I wasn’t trying to boss you or nothin’ back there.”
“You were right,” you admit, “the cards hold when you put them under the handle.” The two of you shake on it. Ted pulls up just as you finish the route. The car is filled with smoke. “OK,” says Ted, “I want you two to head down this street until you get to Wolf Road. Then take a left on Wolf and go till the first streetlight. Take another left and then make your way back up to First.”
“A left on Wolf?” Sam asks. Ted repeats the directions and you and Sam jump out of the car and begin once again.
You notice that each house has a little something to say about its occupants: dirty windows, an old water heater propped against a fence, unkempt grass, or a particular color of the drapes in the window. A song your mother used to sing when you’d drive through the suburbs comes to mind: “Little boxes, on the hillside…”
Many of the houses have a sticker on the door saying No Solicitors. You wonder if Des Plaines Auto Wreckers, with its office back in a lot full of rusting beater hulls, needs an ad from Walter Roofing. You decide that this yard, with a beat-up gray van with tinted windows and ladders on top parked in front, is potential junkyard-dog territory. You move on.
“This is better than sittin’ around the house broke,” Sam says as the two of you near the end of the route. “Though it ain’t nothing but chump change,” he adds. He tells you that Walter Roofing usually pays $25 for a day’s work, but they can’t keep you for longer than five hours.
“Usually schoolkids do this work for them in the afternoons, but Walter has been using the job service for the morning runs,” he says. Sam thinks that more work like this would keep the kids in his neighborhood from joining gangs. He tells you that selective service is also a good way for our new president to clean up America. “But as for me,” he says, “I’m just waitin’ on my SSI check come Saturday. Just got to make it till Saturday.”
As you talk on the corner an older woman approaches. “I saw you two down the street. You left one of those things on my porch. What are they?” she asks you. If she had one left on her porch why is she asking what you are doing? You do not respond to her immediately. “Roofing,” Sam says, handing her another card. “Ah yes,” she says without looking at the card. After a little conversation about the morning’s pleasant weather, she moves on.
“She was just curious,” Sam says, then he asks you the time: 8:25.
Ted arrives with new instructions. “Up to the river then horseshoe around to the railroad tracks,” he says. About halfway up this route you stop short. The same van with tinted windows and ladders on top is parked in the middle of the block. It looks vacant but then slowly pulls away.
“Are they watching us?” you yell across to Sam.
“That’s them, all right,” Sam says. “But they’re not watching us as much as making sure they know where we’re at.” Along this route the houses drop to ranch-type boxes, none of them much bigger, it seems, than your apartment in the city. Inside many of the houses dogs are alerted to your approach. In the windows where there are cats there is no noise. The cats only stare. In one house toward the river, you count seven large cats in one picture window, all of them fat and calm.
At the railroad tracks Sam says he needs to make a pit stop but there is too much visibility. Ted arrives in the nick of time and drives quickly to the local Burger King. You decline to use the bathroom and stay in the front seat while Ted starts on his second pack of the morning and turns up a Willie Nelson song.
It’s turning into a pretty day–the birds are chirping, the sky is blue, and the sun is bright over the trees–and the early hours mixed with the cold begin to catch up with you. On the next run your energy level drops out from under you in the space of several blocks. Each porch begins to blur into yet another unappealing set of stairs. By 10:45 you and Sam have covered four or five miles and hundreds of houses. But each time Ted pulls up, he hands you another stack of cards and drives you to another neighborhood.
“No rush on this one,” Sam says. “I can’t figure out why he hasn’t let us off yet. Usually Ted ain’t like the other managers. Maybe this year he’ll be different?” By 11 o’clock Sam is predicting that this route will be the last. You get out into the cold again and your head is swimming away from consciousness toward sleep. You shake yourself and wish you had something to drink. You remind Sam, and yourself, that the two of you can walk away from this job anytime. Sam admits that if Ted tries to keep him all day he’ll walk off.
Soon you and Sam are standing by a busy local highway near a river soaking up the roar of jet engines as planes descend just above the trees. Sam figures the O’Hare runways must be only a few blocks away.
“I’m 45 years old and never been in a plane,” Sam says. You laugh nervously and say something about that being an interesting choice in this day and age.
“Never had the money,” Sam says. “Thought about flying to LA once but ended up taking the bus.”
Ted finally arrives at 12:10, and Sam is sure this is the last route. Ted drives around to the next block and just as you are about to ask when this ordeal will end, he tells the two of you to canvas down this street until you meet the other men approaching from the opposite direction. Relief. The other group turns out to be Nick and Joey, who stumble toward the car and collapse in the backseat with you.
“I’m not used to this,” says Nick.
“All this walking is killing me,” says Joey.
“Where’s Tyrone and Wayne?” Sam asks. Ted says they wanted off early. “Tyrone had to go see his lawyer or something,” Sam recalls. The others conclude that a third of the total team bailing out early made things go extra long today.
Ted has the radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh, who is talking about the “liberal politicization” of the AIDS virus. Sam says Limbaugh makes some good points about politics.
“Be looking for workers tomorrow down at the job service office?” Sam asks Ted.
“Maybe,” Ted replies, “but if someone else comes along, jump on it quick. I can’t say for sure if we’ll be sending a man down.” He says there will be more canvasing done by Walter Roofing around Chicago in the coming weeks. Before long you pull up at the River Road el stop near the airport. Ted pulls out a wad of cash and hands each of you a twenty and a five, then pulls away with little ceremony.
Joey buys a pack of Kools at the el stand and Sam is talking about his SSI check. Nick says he is going to get some beer and asks the others if they want to join. The A train approaches and you say good-bye to Sam and the other men. They all need the B train to catch their transfer to the west side. Sleep overtakes you as you head back toward the Loop. At least you’re not broke today.