The first time Ronnie Lima saw snow, he marveled at how light it was. "Like soap froth," the 33-year-old Guatemalan recalled in Spanish. "I had always imagined it would be really hard and icy."
But that was last February, when Lima was still a newcomer to Maryland, taking in the sights around his brother's apartment in Langley Park with optimism and excitement.
After a year of desperate job hunting in a grim economy, snow now means one thing to Lima: the chance to finally score some work.
His idea yesterday was to roam Washington's Maryland suburbs, offering a shovel for hire, but the plan had a few flaws. Such as the fact that he doesn't own a shovel, much less a car.
Still, Lima had heard that a nearby social service center called Casa de Maryland was lending shovels to laborers and placing them with area residents who called in requesting snow removal.
So early yesterday, Lima made the trek to Casa's Takoma Park offices, arriving just after 5 a.m. to find dozens of other mostly Latino men already in line.
By 10 a.m., they numbered more than 120, and only 15 had been picked up for work.
The rest waited on metal folding chairs in the center's meeting room, speaking of the days before last year's economic downturn, when jobs were plentiful.
"I worked at a company that packaged magazines for delivery," said Benjamin Escobar, 43, a burly Salvadoran in a black wool cap. "Then four months ago the friend who was giving me a ride there got a better job at a different place and I had to quit. Now I can go a month without finding work."
Pedro Cueva, a slight, soft-spoken Salvadoran construction worker with paint spattered gloves, said he had not found a job in three weeks. "I used to be able to send my kids back home $400 a month," said the father of four. "Now it's more like $100." He can still pay his rent because his wife, also living in the area, has found regular work cleaning houses. But that he must rely on her to support the family fills him with shame, he said.
Then, at 10:30 a.m., the men got some good news: Cueva's brother in-law, Pedro Garcia, who owns a van, arrived and wanted to form a group to reach customers who couldn't pick up the workers themselves.
Five names were called, including those of Lima, Cueva and Escobar.
The men shouldered their shovels and walked out to the parking lot, squinting in the sun.
Forty-five minutes went by.
Cueva went back into the office to find out what the holdup was.
"They've only got one house for us to go to," Garcia told him. "They're saying to wait until they get more calls."
Finally, shortly before noon, Garcia walked out of the office with directions to three houses.
The six men squeezed into the van, quickly falling silent as it rolled onto the Capital Beltway toward Bethesda.
Cueva stared out the window, thinking -- he recounted later -- of his 14-year-old son back in El Salvador, who recently has begun to help the family by working on a farm in their village. When Cueva spoke to him three days ago, the boy had said he wanted to find a girlfriend. Cueva had laughed in reply and told his son to go ahead.
Lima thought of the brother he lives with, who has a steady job pouring asphalt and never complains when he has to cover Lima's portion of their rent.
At last, the van pulled up to the first house on their list, a modest brick colonial. But the men's expressions soon clouded in disappointment.
Another group of Latino laborers had beat them to the job.
"I thought those guys were from Casa," the homeowner, an elderly woman explained apologetically.
"Maybe we should do what those guys are doing and just knock on doors," suggested Garcia.
The men agreed and started a house-by-house march. But each doorbell ring was met with silence.
They piled back into the van, heading toward the next location, a townhouse in Rockville. At 2 p.m., they finally pulled up to Josephine Lofgren's door.
"Wow, I didn't realize there would be so many of them," she said.
The men plunged into their work, happy to have it after nine hours of searching. The going rate for their labors, to be divided among the six of them: forty-five dollars.