The door to Don Ulises Escobar’s Virginia apartment rarely stays closed for long. It opens for the local children to run through. It opens for neighbors beckoned by the aroma of his wife’s cooking. And it opens for whoever might need the old mechanic’s help.
Few doors close completely in Culmore, a working-class immigrant community in Fairfax County where the scent of frying tortillas wafts from the apartment buildings and neighbors barge into each other’s homes to share laughs, share food and share each other’s needs.
As the winter storm bore down Saturday, residents across Culmore’s sprawling apartment complexes made this snow day a communal experience, gathering together and sharing what little they had.
Crews of men with shovels worked with assembly line-efficiency to clear sidewalks. Mothers leaned out windows, watching each other’s children start snowball fights and build giant snowmen. Neighbors pushed vehicles out of snowbanks, marveling at the unprecedented amount of snow the storm had dumped in their neighborhood.
“Necessity breeds cooperation,” said Escobar, who is quick to hand strangers and friends his business card that reads simply: “Ulises, mechanic.”
He added: “Most of us here are undocumented and have traveled the same journeys. We know what it is to suffer, so we help when we can.”
Escobar has lived in the United States on and off for more than 20 years. He left El Salvador for the last time a decade ago, bringing along his wife, Lupe Escobar, to a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Their son, Alex, was born in the United States in 2007.
In between his odd jobs, neighbors help Escobar by coming to him when they have a problem with their automobiles. He has been tinkering with cars since the Salvadoran civil war when he picked up the skills to survive, he said.
Anguish is something Escobar says he knows well. So when he heard that Noemy Enriquez, a single mother of three, needed a place to stay, he offered her his son’s old room. The 36-year-old had left El Salvador with Evelin, 12, one of her three daughters, this past summer, propelled by a desire to earn more to provide for her family.
Escobar’s family of three grew to a family of seven once Enriquez was able to pay to bring her eldest, 15-year-old Cristina, and youngest, 6-year-old Wendy, to the United States.
“Life is hard here, and sometimes you have to laugh to avoid crying,” Enriquez said. “But I feel free here because I can earn money and I have support.”
Escobar made sure to make the girls’ first experience with snow a memorable one. He teased them with silly stories about the powdery precipitation, gave Wendy a pair of snow coveralls and explained why he thought Bobby Vinton music was appropriate listening for a snow day.
Together with their son, Alex, the Escobars took the girls outside. Wendy squealed with delight almost immediately and stayed out the longest. The 12-year-old, ill-prepared for the cold in her leggings, retreated inside just as quickly as she had ventured out.
Cristina, the quietest of the three, shielded herself inside her borrowed parka and watched the neighborhood children play — without daring to touch the snow herself.
“It’s beautiful,” Wendy said as she let herself fall backward into the snow and waved her arms. Alex informed her that what she had just created was a “snow angel.” She repeated the words in her accented English. Wendy played so long that she lost her sneakers in the snow and walked inside with her socks caked.
As the day wore on, the family joined the cavalcade of neighbors who had trudged through the snow to the always-open 7-Eleven and Culmore supermarket just off Leesburg Pike. Chicken soup was on the menu for the Escobars, and they needed vegetables.
The convenience store, a popular spot for day laborers on non-snow days, was jam-packed with people warming themselves up with 50-cent coffee. Men walked in regularly for the day’s special: 2-for-1 Heineken. The supermarket’s shelves were fully-stocked with cacti and mangoes, and the butcher was happy to cut beef to order.
As the Escobar and Enriquez families headed home, the cold wind cut at their faces. “I can’t feel my fingers,” Evelin shrieked in Spanish. “I’m not sure I like snow anymore.”
The brunt of the snowstorm had arrived, and Culmore cleared out. Families that had been outside headed in for dinner. Paths that neighbors had cleared were refilled with fresh snow. Latin music continued to boom out of apartments, and everyone in the Escobar apartment sat down to eat and to watch “Titanic” — dubbed in Spanish.