The Hard Road

Daniel Rodriguez, center, waiting for a job near the 7-Eleven.
Daniel Rodriguez, center, waiting for a job near the 7-Eleven. (Pilar Vergara)
By Karin Brulliard
Sunday, March 12, 2006

On a cold and brilliant fall morning, Daniel Rodriguez is standing beside a 7-Eleven in Woodbridge, the brim of his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap pulled down low over his wide-set eyes. His ears had turned numb during the predawn hike from his brother-in-law's house to the U.S. Route 1 gas station, where he had hitched a ride to the convenience store. But he has since warmed himself with black coffee; a vivid sun now cuts the chill; and the long wait for work has yet to dampen his naturally buoyant disposition.

At 8:45 a.m., a minivan pulls off Route 1 and rolls slowly through the L-shaped parking lot of the 7-Eleven, which anchors one corner of a bustling intersection flanked by boxy stores. A few men wave and point to Daniel, a stocky Nicaraguan with a five o'clock shadow, because they know he has worked for the driver before. But Daniel's smile fades, and he shakes his head.

"Too much work, too little money," Daniel, 33, says of the employer, as the minivan moves on.

Daniel has staked out a spot with about 15 other day laborers on the south side of the brick 7-Eleven, a slight violation of store rules, which require the workers to stand in the lot's southwest corner by the dumpster. But the armed security guard -- hired last summer to keep the day laborers from interfering with customer traffic -- is off today, so the men have spread out to maximize their chances of catching a driver's eye. A good job could come from any direction, although today the jobs seem to be coming from no direction.

It is Sunday, the worst day of the week to be a day laborer. Homeowners, who might seek help for landscaping or moving, are worshiping, sleeping or brunching. Most contractors are off until Monday. It is also the end of the month, a particularly anxious time in a wildly unpredictable line of work: Rent is due.

Over the next 15 minutes, a handful of cars enter the lot, but the drivers are coming for coffee, not workers. One laborer finds a slightly deflated basketball by the dumpster, and a soccer scrimmage is soon under-way. Daniel joins in, snagging the ball between his battered work boots. He has taken a break from the game when he spots a white truck in the street ahead of him waiting in a turn lane. It is the length of a mid-size moving van but sports black rails instead of sides. Daniel's eyes widen.

"A truck like that is good for work allá," he says, lifting his chin toward the truck, or maybe toward allá, which means "there," but a faraway there. In Daniel's case, allá is Sebaco, a dusty town at the foot of the mountains in Nicaragua, where his wife and five children wait for him. "Ooh! With a truck like that, you live well."

"Yes," murmurs a worker next to him, also admiring the truck.

"Fill it up with carrots, beets, onions -- just like that," Daniel says.

Daniel had just such a truck in mind when he left home 15 months before. Recently, he arranged with a Sebaco car dealer to have a 1993 Mitsubishi shipped from Miami to Sebaco to await Daniel's return. He plans to use it to deliver farm vegetables to street market vendors in Sebaco and nearby towns. All he needs is to wire $2,500 one week from today and $3,500 more in December.

He has a little less than $2,000 to his name. Of that, $250 is in his pocket, to be wired home this afternoon: $150 will go to his wife of 14 years and their three children. The rest will be sent to the two young children he fathered with another Nicaraguan woman. Next week, he will pay $320 in rent. That will leave him with about $1,430, plus whatever he earns in coming days. Daniel refuses to consider that he might fail to save enough for the first truck payment. With patience and hard work, all things in life are attainable, he likes to say.

The coveted truck from the turn lane, a white GMC, pulls up in front of the 7-Eleven. The driver steps down, leaving the engine idling. Daniel scurries over and asks, in Spanish: "Hey, friend, do you need help?"

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