LaborArts


 
CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK / LABORARTS
MAKING WORK VISIBLE
2017–2018 CONTEST
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2017–2018 Contest Winners


These young authors and artists have once again made usually unseen work visible with their imaginative and thoughtful essays, poetry and visual art. Their efforts fulfill the goal of this CUNY/LaborArts contest—to expand student thinking about labor history, and to provide opportunities to make links between individual lived experience and larger social issues.


Now in its eighth year, the contest is open to all CUNY undergraduates. Entries are judged according to originality, content and style. Student writers and artists draw upon history, their close observation of the world around them, and a wealth of first hand experiences to link their work to the spirit of labor arts. Every year professors judging the contest reflect on the value of providing opportunities for the students to seriously interrogate their own life experiences and that of those around them.
 


A snippet from Grayson Wolf’s “Synoptic”:

It was our daylight bodies dressed in yesterday’s clothing
stepping into the bone-clean morning to reports of Orlando, Paris, Nice.

Weather reports, financial reports as him and her walked freshly to work.

It was one day falling over into the next like river dreck adrift in the newsfeed
buttered rolls and coffee - light and sweet / light and sweet.
 


An excerpt from Jasmine Toledo’s essay “Documenting the Undocumented Worker: Case Studies in the Latin@ Experience”:

The reality of the immigrant story is that most do not intend to stay. No matter what violence or destitution they faced in their home countries, they plan to acquire capital in the United States and then return home. One trend throughout my interviews is that these Latin@ immigrants all had a five-year plan. Year one would consist of making connections, finding a job, finding a place to live, and learning English. Year two and three would consist of working full-time job(s) in order to support themselves or members of their families all while saving and sending money back home. Year four and five would consist of saving more money and gathering things they have accumulated to take back home.

Read them all—each work will affect you in some way—you’ll learn something, be inspired, be surprised.

We sincerely hope that these young authors and artists continue on with their work—their voices demand to be heard.

Photographs of students and from awards ceremony ©Brooklyn College, David Rozenblyum



Jasmine Toledo

First Prize, Nonfiction
Jasmine Toledo  Education and History, Brooklyn College

Documenting the Undocumented Worker:Case Studies in the Latin@ Experience

We the People—Defend Dignity   Artist: Shepard Fairey; Photographer: Arlene Mejorado

Introduction

New York City’s workforce includes members of the hardest working people in the nation: immigrants. These people come from many different parts of the world, leaving behind families, communities, and even bits of their culture in the hope of receiving financial security and a safety net that their former countries could not provide. According to the Pew Research Center, of the many different people who arrive in the City from around the world, 775,000 of them are of Latin American descent.i Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, globalization and American military intervention in Latin America have “pushed out” Latin@s from their home countries. U.S.-led trade agreements, like NAFTA, for example, have helped to crumble Latin American economies. At the same time, employers seeking low-wage workers have “pulled” Latin@s into the United States. Although Latin@s and other immigrants form the heart and soul of the American economy, they are too often overworked and underpaid.

Based on interviews I conducted with five women and five men working in the service economy, my essay seeks to give a voice to undocumented Latin@ trabajadores (workers). To keep my subject’s identities confidential, I will refer to them as “subjects.” It also compares my experiences as a female, Puerto Rican childcare provider with those of undocumented service-sector workers from many Latin American countries. These men and women come from different socio-economic backgrounds. Their stories range from living in a middle-class enclave in a Chilean city to growing up on a Mexican farm without financial reserves enough to purchase a pair of shoes. My story shares many commonalities with the histories of the female trabajadoras I interviewed, for I know what it is like to work in a home under the watchful gaze of an employer. That said, I understand that I do not experience the same sorts of vulnerability and uncertainty that my undocumented sisters and brothers endure. By tracing the lives and experiences of my subjects, I highlight how the realities of life in United States collide with immigrant expectations and desires for home and community. I argue that, despite racist rhetoric stemming from Right-Wing organizations, undocumented immigrants do not come to the United States to take jobs from Americans. Nor are they dangerous members of our community who do not pay taxes. Instead, they form the backbone of the American economy, performing essential work for employers who seek to avoid paying the minimum wage and providing social security benefits to employees. Moreover, the oral histories reveal the mythological nature of the American Dream, one used by the powerful to exploit immigrants and profit from cheap labor.

When I embarked upon this research project, I quickly learned the difficulties inherent in finding undocumented Latin@ immigrants willing to speak about their experiences. I reached out to friends and family members, explaining my project and asking them to refer me to undocumented people they knew from Latin America. Most people knew at least one person from that population, but they also stressed that it might be difficult to get the person to trust me, to confide in me. Because undocumented workers live in the shadows of the United States and do not know who to trust, I found it challenging to find people willing to speak about their citizenship status to someone they did not know. Slowly, but surely, however, people offered to share their stories. Supplementing those whom family members and friends had found, I knew I also quickly discovered that I had to reach out to my own cohort of Latina nannies, the women I have long seen at bus stops picking up “their” children from school or at parks where they tend to infants and young children in carriages. Ultimately, I found these latter subjects easier to access, since they not only knew me but also appreciated that I could relate to their stories. After all, as a nanny myself, I know what it is like to be a woman of color working in New York City in the home of someone more affluent than myself. I also know what it is like to clean up after someone else, and to raise their children. As a result, the nannies I know from bus stops and parks wanted to talk to me, to share their stories of struggle, perhaps for the first time, in a space where I could hear their voices and learn from their struggles. After I interviewed the first nanny in this cohort, word spread quickly, creating a chain effect. Over time, more women, and then men began to contact me, and to refer others who wanted to have their voices heard. As a result, I met people working throughout the shadow economy, from construction workers, cooks and waiters to nannies, housekeepers and organizers. And together, their interviews allowed me to gain an appreciation for how much undocumented workers want and need to have their stories told.

Although I have worked as a nanny for many years, nothing in my own experiences prepared me for what I heard and learned from those I interviewed. Originally, I thought I would know their stories because I have lived them as a Latina and have read about immigrant struggles. I was wrong. I found it was heart wrenching to listen to the breaking voices of grown men as they told their stories of crossing multiple border, traveling without water or food, to acquire a better life in the United States, or to witness the eyes of women young and old fill up with tears as they described leaving their families only to find themselves working in slave-like conditions in the United States. I left every interview feeling a sense of responsibility, not only to make their stories heard but to urge those within the undocumented population as well as others to organize and fight for the rights of these vulnerable people.

Our current social climate in the United States makes this work even more significant than when I began the project just one year ago. Since Donald Trump took office as President of the United States on January 20, 2017, he has waged a campaign of violence against undocumented workers, promising to build a wall along the Mexican border (where walls have long existed as a show of American aggression against our NAFTA neighbors), encouraging a neo-fascist agenda, and promising to deport both undocumented as well as documented immigrants. Trump has also helped to breathe new life into the racist rhetoric of the “dangerous, job stealing immigrant.” On September 5, 2017, Trump announced the end of DACA, a program that, despite its flaws, helped many undocumented children brought to the United States at an early age to remain with their families, seek gainful employment, and attend school safely without fear of deportation. Almost 800,000 young Americans now in college and paying taxes have lost the protection promised by the Obama administration. Coming out of the shadows, immigrants provided to the federal government information about themselves. As a result, they feel betrayed. They also face, as do other undocumented workers, both deportation as well as the reality of having their families torn apart. Making matters worse, they know that many Americans do not understand what it is like to be an immigrant of color in the United States. Although New York City prides itself on being progressive and inclusive, the undocumented Latin@s I interviewed reveal that life is a constant struggle for the undocumented, even in a City that promises to protect them.

Section one of this paper will explore U.S. intervention in the Americas and the push-pull factors that prompted my interviewees to leave their homelands. Section two explores the five-year-plan and the stories of struggle in the U.S. Section three and four examines the stories of the undocumented workers I’ve interviewed, first men then women. Finally, I explore the trends that state immigrant experiences contain, followed by some of the policy changes I suggest the U.S. needs to implement to give security to undocumented workers.

The American Dream Revisited: U.S. Intervention and the Immigrant Push-Pull Factor

At home and abroad, many perceive the United States as an exceptional place, where dreams can come true for immigrants, provided they work hard and “play by the rules.” Cal Jillson has perpetuated this idea in his Pursuing the American Dream by arguing, that the United States, although imperfect, has become a much more inclusionary society overtime. Building on the work of others, Jillson additionally asserts that only in the United States can immigrants improve their socio-economic position. Jillson believes that the United States has moved toward being more open and diverse, in a genuinely competitive environment where everyone has opportunities to rise from rags to respectability, and even great riches. Such promises of economic mobility have pulled immigrants to the United States from countries all over the world; and when immigrants fail to reach their economic “dreams,” they tend to blame themselves rather than the structural forces and cultural limitations that make it increasingly difficult for people of certain racial, class, and gender backgrounds to achieve economic security never mind success.

In Domestic Disturbances, Irene Mata debunks many of the myths of the American dream as well as the traditional immigrant story. At the core of the immigrant story, Mata argues, one finds “the desire to be embraced by one’s adopted country and an emphasis on creating a better home for oneself within the borders of the ‘land of opportunity.”ii In reality, many immigrants face racial or cultural intolerance. Although the Dream promises that through hard work and perseverance, all people can achieve economic success, it denies the reality of structural racism, sexism and classism that many immigrants face. Moreover, Mata confirms that “the conventional immigrant narrative operates based on a dependence on an ideologically constructed history—a history that privileges a specific construction of the nation as a democratic and meritocratic state. Left out of this official history are the stories of struggle and oppression of those groups that remain in the periphery.”iii My interviewees reinforce the realities Mata highlights. By telling stories of struggle and oppression, we can begin to challenge the ideology at the center of the Dream and recognize the structural problems that lie deep within the United States.

Traditional Dream rhetoric also ignores the role that U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, and globalism play in Latin America and the immigrant story. Many Latin@ immigrants do not choose the U.S. but instead are “pushed” out of their country due to economic and social hardships, caused by the role the U.S. has played in foreign governments and “pulled” to the United States by employers who seek low-wage work. In Harvest of Empire, for example, Juan Gonzalez explores the history of Latin@s in the United States. His work highlights the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which unilaterally declared all of the Americas under the “protection” of the United States and off limits to European colonizers. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine from the 19th century forward, the United States has employed this protectionist rationale to intervene in the governance of the Caribbean, Mexico, and all of Latin-South America, whether economically or militarily.

The United States has been a driving factor in Latin America. Their dictorial regimes, military occupation and economic intervention has exploited the people of Latin America and pushed them to out of their homelands and go elsewhere. As Gonzalez argued that “U.S economic and political domination over Latin America has always been and continues to be the underlying reason for the massive Latin@ presence here.”iv Gonzales asserts:

If the United States is today the world’s richest nation, it is part because of the sweat and blood of the copper workers of Chile, the tin miners of Bolivia, the fruit pickers of Guatemala and Honduras, the cane cutters of Cuba, the oil workers of Venezuela and Mexico, the pharmaceutical workers of Puerto Rico, the ranch hands of Costa Rica and Argentina, the West Indians who died building the Panama Canal and the Panamanians who maintained it.

The 1898 Spanish-American War allowed the United States to gain control and colonize the subjects of Puerto Rico, which my own family was a part of. Puerto Ricans were a part of the first wave of Latin@s who migrated to the United States in the 1950s. With the expansion of sugar plantations during the 1930s and 1940s, Americans then exploited Puerto Rican workers until an expanding nationalist movement attempted to end colonialism in Puerto Rico. When the Platt Amendment passed Congress during 1903, the United States seized the opportunity to intervene in Cuba as well. This amendment allowed for the initial political intervention in Cuba which ultimately led to the Batista regime. Americans also participated in the construction of the Panama Canal to gain a foothold in Panama, Nicaragua, and other parts of Central America, with resulting military coups that allowed the United States to exploit indigenous people. The United States also made its presence felt through the installation of military bases and dictators. Guerilla wars destabilized the region, destroyed local economies, and pushed Latin Americans out of their homelands, with most of them seeking refuge in the United States.

In the Dominican Republic, the United States backed multiple dictators who supported U.S. military intervention and the whitewashing of the nation through the education system. One of the most infamous dictators of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo was known for kidnapping and raping Dominican women. He jailed thousands who went against him and massacred eight thousand Haitians in 1937. In Nicaragua, the United States backed Anastasio Somoza García. The occupation of United States troops in Nicaragua began in the early 1900s. By 1912 the United States controlled the New National Bank of Nicaragua and the Pacific Railroad. By the mid-1900s, the United States looked forward to exploiting workers in Nicaragua, as they did in Panama, and build a Nicaraguan canal. Although it never happened, this canal is still spoken of today. Historians debate over the reason for United States intervention in the Caribbean and central America. Some argue it was due to fear that Europe would claim the territory first. Others indicate that it was for economic prosperity. Nevertheless, after the dictators of the 30s and 40s led to the anti-communist regimes against Latin America in the 50s.

For the people of Mexico, U.S. intervention started much earlier. With the secession of Mexico in 1848, the United States has kept a very close eye on our North American counterpart. There are many examples of United States intervention in Mexico but one of the most apart was the onset of the Bracero program, that lured hundreds of thousands of workers to the United States. It was brought on by Roosevelt in 1942, Mexican workers were lured to the United States for construction jobs, many of whom of stayed illegally. This brought on decades of Mexican workers coming to the United States for work not only in construction but in farms as well. This resulted in a strike at LA Casita Farms by César Chaves’s United Farm Workers Union due to the exploitation of Mexican Farm workers. With the onset of NAFTA in 1994, now, most Mexican laborers are exploited in factories.

The hundreds of thousands of workers or trabajadores who were pushed out of their homelands and pulled to the United States did not intend to stay. Their plan was to come to the U.S. to work for a short amount of time eventually return. My interviewees reflect the realities of this plan, which due to economic hardship, most do not return.

Five-Year Plan

The reality of the immigrant story is that most do not intend to stay. No matter what violence or destitution they faced in their home countries, they plan to acquire capital in the United States and then return home. One trend throughout my interviews is that these Latin@ immigrants all had a five-year plan. Year one would consist of making connections, finding a job, finding a place to live, and learning English. Year two and three would consist of working full-time job(s) in order to support themselves or members of their families all while saving and sending money back home. Year four and five would consist of saving more money and gathering things they have accumulated to take back home. They shared the idea that they would come to the United States, work hard and then take their money they had saved back home where they could then live the comfortable life they have always dreamed they could not attain. In reality, there are many things they did not consider like, getting sick, having a family, not getting the jobs they hoped to find and not being able to save money.

Most of my subjects arrived from rural parts of Latin America. They came from places where the only jobs available were farming or construction. For example, subject one is a 20-year-old male citizen of Nicaragua, where he currently resides. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America. Most people in Nicaragua work on farms or sell hand made products in the middle of the street. While I was crossing the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border I saw this man with tattered clothes selling trinkets. I decided I would interview him. He dreams coming to the United States to make money, working in construction or anything available to him. Although he has a young daughter, he is willing to risk crossing all the borders on foot for the second time. Around 2013 he tried coming to the United States for construction work in California. On foot, he crossed all the borders of Central America very easily. Most Central Americans go from country to country daily without any problem. When he arrived in Mexico, it got a more difficult. Without any water, food or money the Mexican government deported him back to Nicaragua. He never reached the United States. He believes the United States is a land of opportunity, freedom and equity. His plans are to work for a little while and return home with enough money to live comfortably with his family in Nicaragua. This is the dream of many of my interviewees and their family members.v Many of my subject’s experience reveal the five-year plan.

Subject two is a 30-year-old Mexican nanny living in Brooklyn, New York. She was born in Guerrero, Mexico, Guerrero is a large state. Subject two is from a very small town, consisting of only three paved streets. There are few opportunities for young people, especially women. In order to go to high school, one must take a bus to the next town. Her parents brought her to Brooklyn when she was seven years old. She went to elementary school, junior high school, and high school in the United States and considers this country her home. She is also a DACA recipient. She explained to me that her family left Mexico because they heard stories about the United States and how it was easy to get a job here. When describing her family’s experience in the United States she argued, they had no long-term plan. When they arrived They wanted

A better quality of life. An easier life. They had two kids, a 3rd on the way. And just being able to survive somewhat better than they could back at home. It was just supposed to be 5 years. Just before the kids got into school so that they could go back home and start school there but 5 years turn into 6, 7, 10, 15.vi

Like the workers of the Bracero Program, subject two’s family was lured here through a work program. Her grandfather was the first person to reach the United States. An American recruit offered him a job in California. He would travel back and forth from Mexico to California every few months. He started bringing back American products that their small town has never seen before like radios, televisions and other electronics. Their family began to think the United States is very progressive, modern and a place where people can receive opportunities. Soon, more and more people in her family began coming to the United States for work.

A young man, subject three, has a similar story. He is 22 years old, born in Guatemala, and also a DACA recipient. While explaining how America was represented in Guatemala he argues, “There is this idea that the US is the land of opportunity and it has a lot to offer in terms of jobs. For my parents, it meant a better future for both their children and viives” The other trend that one can quickly see is that work is the defining factor for these immigrants. It is the underlining reason why people immigrate to the United States, it is the economic imperialism that pushes them out of their home countries. Due to the American economic intervention in Guatemala, their citizens are left destitute and in search for jobs. Like subject two, this family from Guatemala also did not intend to stay. According to subject three, his parents were building a home back in Guatemala and after the construction of the home, they would go back there to live. As time went on, the idea of going back “home” faded. They were never able to save enough money due the long work hours and inadequate pay they faced in the United States. This story represents the reality of coming to terms with the fact most immigrants can no longer return to their home country due to the new cycle of poverty they have entered in the United States. The opportunities, jobs and money they intended to acquire were non-existent. After time passes, these immigrants begin to create a life for themselves in the United States and the reality sets in that they could not save enough money to return home. This is where reality begins to collide with the American Dream.

The Realities of the Undocumented Male Worker

The men of Latin American families often travel to the United States first in hope of obtaining construction work or work in the service sector. In modern times, this has been changing, women are often becoming pioneers of immigration and coming to the United States first for search of domestic work. The plight of the undocumented male workers is hardly documented. Throughout my experience, I quickly realized male undocumented workers are more accessible. They predominantly work in the service sector and manual labor positions. They are often invisible, working in the backs of stores or blending in with other unionized workers. They do not receive the same resources as their fellow documented workers. Often, they do not receive helmets, lunch breaks or adequate pay. The men I’ve interviewed come from different parts of Latin America and have different experiences. The thing they all have in common is they were pulled to the United States to try and achieve the American dream either for themselves or their children.

Subject four is a man from Chile. He is a 62-year-old gay white Latino. Before I started turning on my recorder, he began to tell me, “you should know, my story is not the typical story of an immigrant, I am privileged.”viii I told him not to worry, everyone’s story is very different and I tried to make him feel comfortable. This subject was born in a city in Santiago, Chile. He had middle class parents, who were conservative and did not agree with his homosexuality. He had the privilege of being a tour guide in college. He used to bring students back and forth to the United States through an exchange student program. During one tour, he decided to overstay his visa and not go back to Chile. He says he was searching for freedom.

The Chilean worked many jobs but he was lucky enough to have made a lot of friends and connections on these trips. Many of his friends set him up in jobs and even provided him with a home. They helped him get a fake ID, social security number and more. He’s lived in many different states and honestly, he made it seem like he lived a fun life. He was involved in many organizations and fought for gay rights throughout his life. When I asked him if he was ever vulnerable he said no. He told me throughout his demonstrations he put himself in a position where he could have been arrested. It didn’t matter to him that he was undocumented, what mattered to him was that the government was putting through rights for the LGBTQ community.

He obtained his citizenship status through getting married to a friend and his luck persisted. His immigration interview happened to be with a Chilean man. He was granted citizenship a few days later. I asked him if he thought he would be so lucky or have a different experience if he was Afro-Latino. He told me, absolutely not, he realized that his skin color helped him as an undocumented person and his life would have played out very differently if he was an Afro-Latino. I was very glad that he recognized his privilege.

This experience is not the typical immigrant experience, although this subject suffered in various ways such as homosexual discrimination, he is financially stable. Subject five is a young man whom I’ve interviewed from Guatemala has a completely different story. He was born in Guatemala but came to the United States around five years old. He has no memory of his home country. He is a former DACA recipient. His father came here first to see what the United States is like. Although he realized he has to work harder than he expected, he believed his wife and children could make a life for themselves in the United States. They came to the U.S. with the help of coyotes. Their plan was to come for five years, save up money and buy a house. Although most people come with this plan, it doesn’t happen and it didn’t for this young man and his family.

Throughout his time in N.Y.C this young man was pushed into low paying service sector work. His typical day begins at 4 o’clock in the morning. He gets ready and leaves his house at 5. He get to work around 6. He works from 6:00–3:00 and most days, stays overtime. He argues, people basically stay until they are told to go. People do not have a choice whether if they want to stay or not. They are forced to do overtime or face being fired. His typical day is very similar to most undocumented men, most immigrant men at that. He runs on very little sleep, works very long hours and doesn’t necessarily get paid for every single hour, let alone overtime hours. He does not get paid enough and does not want to stay at his job. This young man has seen people get injured and cannot say anything because most people at this meat factory are undocumented. These workers are not in a union or don’t have health care. They are completely vulnerable. They are subjected to their employers threatening to deport them. When he first started working at this job, he didn’t even have helmets. When the first person got hurt, his boss finally gave the workers helmets because he realized these people are becoming a liability.

This young Guatemalan man soon applied for DACA. A DACA application is $480 per person. His mother and father had to scrape up money to do it for him and his two other siblings. He describes what life is like on DACA:

There is no security at all. You feel like the workforce doesn’t want you at all. You completely have to be complicit to all the rules that apply to immigrants without papers. You can’t say anything. You just have to be compliant.ix

Life on DACA is a very vulnerable life. It is an isolated life. DACA was just a band aid to a much larger issue of being undocumented.

A similar story comes from a young man interviewed from Honduras, subject six. Just like the Guatemalan, he is also 23 years old but he just came to the United States four years ago. He is still living his five year plan. He was lured to the United States by the thought of having a good, fun life. He just beginning his 20s and was looking to escape his parents household and live an independent life. His journey to the US was 2 and a half months. He came on foot, crossing border after border. He crossed with a help of a coyote whom he paid $7,000. His aunt saved up two months to help him pay for this. He was scammed by many coyotes, he wasn’t allowed to speak to his mother, he was starving and thirsty. He was so thirsty that the first time he put swallowed a piece of bread, it actually hurt. So far, his five year plan is not going as planned. He is struggling financially, just making ends meet. He is a delivery boy for a café. He doesn’t like it here, he told me he doesn’t feel free like in his country and he wouldn’t advise anyone to come here. Although he told us that his job is okay, he can’t complain. I saw it in his eyes that he is lying, he is just telling himself that. His eyes were bloodshot and glossy. This was from pure exhaustion. The heart wrenching part of his interview was that he wasn’t a 30 year old man whose been here for 10 years like the Chilean. This was a young boy who just arrived and has no idea what he got himself into. Many times it looked like he could have cried during the interview but was trying to hold it in. His story is the reality for many undocumented men.

Domestic Workforce

My own story consists of being in the domestic workforce. I started getting into babysitting when I began college. I knew I needed a flexible job because of my school schedule. Since I would mostly babysit during after school hours, it seemed like a good part time job. My grandmother and her mother were also domestic workers. I never realized that working as a nanny or babysitter would be so time consuming. One is essentially responsible for raising a child that is not your own, being in someone’s home and constantly watched by your employer. Tamara Mose Brown analyzes this in her book Raising Brooklyn. She argues that, “given this form of control that providers have over their workday, parents are reduced to certain tactics in order to combat their feelings of losing ground… they may for instance, use various means of surveillance, develop new rules, or simply speak badly about childcare providers.”x Ultimately, employers want to feel like they have the upper hand and are not losing control. Because urban work gives employees a certain degree of freedom, parents may rely on nanny cams or other people in the neighborhood to let them know what their nanny is doing. Frequently, they belittle their employees or use passive-aggression to prove that—at the end of the day, they have the upper hand.

Quickly throughout my nannying career, I began to realize the domestic workforce consists mostly of women of color or women who are immigrants. We are lured into these low-wage positions by wealthy, privileged families. We are often disrespected by the children and have nowhere to complain because the children reflect our boss. Not only are domestic workers responsible for taking care of other people but also taking care of the home. People who have never worked in domestic positions do not realize that picking up after someone is mentally degrading.

Nevertheless, no matter how degrading this type of work is domestic workers fall in love with their “children” and see themselves as part of their family. Subject seven is a woman in her early 30s from Mexico who came here as a child. She is a DACA recipient and also a nanny in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She got into nannying about six years ago. She was recommended by a friend who was nannying as well. She was introduced to a woman who she came to truly admire. She went to college, has a beautiful apartment, has a husband and children and claims to live the “typical” American dream. The woman from Mexico currently takes care of a young girl and a boy who she has known since the day he was born. She is literally raising him as if she was his mother. They have a very strong bond. She argues, being a nanny is like taking care of your own kids I guess. She explains

When I started my nanny job, the baby who is now almost 4 wasn’t even born. I got raise him as my own. I taught him Spanish. I want to say he loves me; he misses me when I am not around. Sometimes, he wants to call me mom but I tell him I am not his mom, I am his babysitter.xi

As one can see, this baby is being cared for by someone who truly loves him. But, although she feels a part of their family, once the boy goes into elementary school she will be forced to find another job because they will no longer need her full time. That is the reality of these domestic work relationships, once the family no longer needs you—you are forced to fend for yourself.

Another young domestic worker whom I’ve interviewed, subject eight, is also a young woman in her early 30s from Ecuador. She is from Quito, the capitol. She grew up in the city in a working-class household. She completed high school in Ecuador. During her time in school, she was exposed to people from America who were trying to recruit young girls to come to the United States. She would see ads posted around her neighborhood and people who would talk to her on the streets about it. They told her they would take her to America, all expenses paid. It wasn’t supposed to be for work, it was supposed to be for tourism. She would be housed in a home of someone who is American. As a young girl, she was very impressed by this offer so she agreed. It was only supposed to be for a few months. Little did she know, it ended up being years. As she went on the plan to New York, she was greeted by the person whose home she was supposed to live in. She was explained what her duties would be. They were to cook, clean and take care of their children. She would be housed in a very small room. She was extremely scared, didn’t know English or have any connections. This woman was a modern-day slave. Working over 40 hours a week and being payed thirty to fifty dollars per week.

After putting up with this for months, she ended up meeting other nannies outside in parks. She managed to escape her situation by making connections with a different woman who also needed a live-in nanny. This time, she was payed adequately but still had no way of returning home to Quito. Till this day, she still has not returned home. As one can see, there is a stark contrast between this woman’s story and the Mexican woman I have described. Although some domestic workers do find a family with their employers, many do not.

Brazilian women have also economically lured to the United States. Subject nine is a white Brazilian woman in her mid-thirties. She was born in Minas Gerais, Brazil to a middle-class family. Although her family was fortunate enough to own a home in Brazil, they lived in a dangerous rural neighborhood. Her sister was the first one in her family to come to the United States in search for work. It is much easier for white Brazilians then it is for other Latin Americans. Most of them get approved for a visa on their first try. Black Brazilians claim to never get approved after multiple attempts. After subject nine’s sister came to the United States and found domestic work in queens, she decided she wanted to make the attempt as well when she turned 16. She didn’t speak English and her only contact was her sister. Luckily for her, her sister had many contacts for work. She began working as a cleaning lady for very wealthy people in Manhattan. For the most part, she claims to have been treated decently in all her positions. The people she worked for helped her learn English and referred her to other clients so she can make more money. The different between her and the other women I’ve described is her skin color. Race can be the defining factor for how women are treated in these positions.

Subject nine ended up meeting her husband through working as a cleaning lady. He is a wealthy lawyer living in Manhattan. Meeting him changed her life. He put her through school, helped her improve her English and payed for her citizenship papers. This interview was very different than any other interview I’ve done because this woman lives a very different life than the other female subjects I’ve interviewed. I traveled to one of the richest neighborhoods in Manhattan, where she currently resides. I was greeted by a doorman in fancy clothes and walked into an apartment building lobby decorated in lavish gold furniture. The inside of her apartment was spotless and the windows reached from the ceiling to the floor. Looking out her window, you can see the borough of Queens, the same place she started out as a cleaning lady when she first arrived to this country. She is the exception. She has no plans on returning to Brazil, she even told me that when she goes there for vacation she wants to return home, to the United States.

Assimilation

All the immigrants I have interviewed have been living in the United States for at least three years. The thought of returning home is a constant hope and struggle. Many of them did not intend to assimilate to American capitalism and culture but have succumbed to the American way of living. Many of them buy name brand clothes, eat fast food or are just attracted to the modern American lifestyle. Things that Americans think are simple like having a sink with running water, were once new to many of my subjects. Subject ten is a woman in her late 50s from Guerrero, Mexico. She grew up in a very small rural town on a farm. As a child, she would work the fields for a living, tending to cows, chickens, goats and other farm animals. She came to the United States in the 1980s in her early 20s. When she first arrived, she had no intention of staying in the United States for all this time. She didn’t even want to come, but her husband convinced her with the argument that her children would have a better life in New York City. Her first job was selling Mexican tamales on different corners in Brooklyn, NY. She would even bring her children with her on their summer or winter breaks. Little by little, the same woman who raved about returning to her farm, began to learn English, eat American fast food and shopping for name brand clothes. She began to assimilate, something many immigrants say they would never do, but find that in order to survive, it may be necessary.

Assimilation is an important part of the immigrant story. It is something every immigrant struggles with. Assimilation can be seen as a marker of success for the traditional immigrant. Irene Mata argues, modern immigrants are not assimilating but acculturating. This means, they do not give up their own culture but they add certain parts of American culture to their lifestyle when it benefits them. The reason for this is because modern immigrants are often immigrants of color who cannot assimilate because of their race. Most of them do not even prefer to assimilate. Many Latin@ immigrants, and other immigrants of color have created immigrant communities for themselves. Mata points out, “the immigrant communities make up a vital part of urban spaces, the new immigrants is no longer ‘the other’ but is instead just ‘one more’. It is only when the immigrant subject leaves the community of immigrants that she is confronted with being the ‘other’ but as soon as she returns to her immigrant community, she again belongs.”xii I see these “immigrant communities” all over New York City. One of the most profound immigrant community is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Walking through the streets of Sunset Park, one feels like they are not even in Brooklyn anymore. They are suddenly in a Latin American metropolis. One can see people of all shades from tan to brown, you hear different dialects of Spanish from the Caribbean to Central America and you smell the sweet scent of tamales, tostones and arepas.

Although the assimilated or acculturated immigrant is often still marginalized in the United States, when they return home they are seen as “privileged.” The same woman I have described above does not fit in with her family members still living in Mexico. Family members of immigrants often have misconceptions of them being “rich” or living lavish lifestyles. They do not understand that they are living paycheck to paycheck. They do not understand that they are working over 40 hours just to be able to afford to send money back home. Family members of immigrants who still live in home countries often believe people who immigrate to the United States enjoy luxurious and lavish lives. They often believe that their newly “American” family members make excellent wages, live in large homes, and eat as much as they want every night. It is not their fault they believe this. The American media, and Hollywood movies, convince people from around the world that the United States is the land of opportunity, where all things are possible, where hard work leads to middle-class respectability, even riches. According to Andre Torres, “remittances of immigrant workers have replaced U.S. Foreign aid as the main external assistance for several poor countries south of our border.”xiii This is how families in home countries make ends meet. Many of my case studies reveal the realities of having to send money back “home” to a place they no longer fit in, where distant family members now see these immigrants as “privileged” When these immigrants return to their home countries, their relatives see them as wealthy. Their family members do not comprehend how much immigrants struggle in the United States and that their perceptions of the country are false.

Many family members of immigrants do not understand how much their American born family members suffer as well. Although, New York-born Latin@s do not experience the same inequities as their immigrant or undocumented parents. They do not have to “lay-low” or live life with the fear of being deported. Documented Latin@s navigate society differently. They think nothing of filling out forms, giving people their real names, or applying for a state ID. Regardless, as Torres argues, they continue to experience poverty at “double and three times the level of white New Yorkers.”xiv Indeed, members of this community, my community, are still relegated to low-wage positions, inadequate health care, and employers who profit from the vulnerability of immigrants who are often forced to divide their wages among family members in the United States and family members from whence their parents came.

New Yorkers see themselves as providing unique opportunities to immigrants in the wake of the “Latin Boom” during the 1970s. But that “Boom” took place because of US-induced turmoil in Latin America, in political crises that caused Cubans, Central Americans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans to leave the only homes they had ever known.xv Over the past 40 years, further turmoil has consistently increased Latin American immigration, with Latin Americans now constituting 30% of New York’s post-World War II immigrant population. Torres, has noted that Puerto Ricans became the largest group of Latin@s in New York City during the 20th century; however, their numbers have begun to shrink as others arrive from different parts of the Latin@s diaspora. With Dominican and Mexican immigration on the rise, they have joined Puerto Ricans in making up 70% of New York Latin@s population.xvi Although many of these Latin@s are now New York-born, they are increasingly joined by undocumented immigrants from around the world, many of whom have fanned out to other parts of the nation. Indeed, 59% of all undocumented works now call both New York as well as California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois home. And like those other states, New York’s undocumented workers from Central American and Asia have increased substantially from 2009–2014.xvii All in all, these New York Born latin@s and their undocumented family members often do not find their place in society. They are not from here, nor from there. No son de aquí, ni de allá.

After the Latin Boom in the 1970s, the US experienced peak unemployment. In her article “Openings in the Wall”, political science professor, Leah Haus argued, that the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s changed U.S immigration policy. It began to allowed for immigration. The U.S. even enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act which protected undocumented workers and granted amnesty for undocumented workers residing in the country since 1982. The U.S. government enacted the Immigration Act which included some restrictionist measures that made it harder to receive work permits but increased admissions for high-skilled workers.xviii Haus analyzed the periods of immigration legislation of the 1980s-90s through a state centric approach, “the societal groups that influence the formation of U.S. immigration policy contain a transnational component, which contributes to the maintenance of relatively open legislation.”xix Furthermore, she demonstrates that unions help protect foreign-born laborers from restrictionist measures.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In conclusion, my interviews suggest the need for policy changes. There are many things the United States and its citizens can do to help the undocumented population and the immigrant population of the United States. One of them is to help strengthen unions. Unions and labor groups help the undocumented population to organize make it easier for them to understand their rights as workers. Unions support amnesty for undocumented workers and help them to gain legal, permanent residency. They also fight against sanctions that prohibit workers from organizing against employers. Unions and organizations give workers a voice and help ensure their protection.

Unions are important for undocumented laborers across the United States because they help ensure these workers are being paid a fair wage. The fact that many of them are undocumented produces the “desirability of Latino immigrants as laborers, through what employers perceive as vulnerability leading to a willingness to work harder and without objection as compared to native-born workers.”xx These positions include not only service sector jobs but manufacturing and domestic work as well. Essentially, the American companies thrive on cheap labor in order to profit. In the article “The Growing Force of Latino Labor” Hector Figueroa expands on Haus’ idea of unions helping undocumented Latin@ laborers. He argues

The history of Latino labor is being forged by volunteer rank and-file workers in the garment industry who have rebuilt unions. Also by the thousands of farmworkers, drywallers, janitors, hotel workers and other low-wage workers who have engaged in massive strikes, militant action and civil disobedience to bring public attention to their straggle to win dignity, higher wages and decent working conditions.xxi

Figueroa also supports Haus’ argument that there was indeed a resurgence of immigrant labor in the 1980s which was because of many international factors such as a world recession, economic difficulties in Latin America, increased trade and foreign direct investment which displaced urban and rural Latin Americans and the U.S. military intervention in Central America.xxii Figueroa argues that Latin@ immigration is the effect of many components which blended Latin America with U.S. capitalistic endeavors. It is the effect of globalization.

An important thing to note is Latin@ workers undocumented or documented are not homogenous. There are many differences between Latin Americans including “national origin, gender, race, immigration status, language, economic sector, geographic region and integration into the U.S. labor market.”xxiii Geographic and immigration differences often make it difficult for Latin@s to organize and unionize. Geographic differences matter because of the jobs that are offered to the undocumented. For those who live in regions that offer immigrants informal work arrangements, unionizing is decreasing. Immigration status matters because many Latin@s initially deem their time in the U.S. as temporary. Haus argues, unions stress restrictionist measures for these groups because they have a different societal identity, unions assume they will only work for a short period. This group is difficult to organize.xxiv Therefore, the decreasing number of Latin@s in unions depresses wages for undocumented Latin@ workers.

There is also much to do to help women in the domestic workforce. In The Age of Diginity, Ai-Jen Poo argues that due to the baby boom of 1946–1964, America is about to experience an elder bloom. Because of health care technology advancing, people are living longer than ever but they need help. She finds that by 2050 about 27 million elders will need assistance that of which is consumed by women.xxv “Many of the existing eldercare workers are low-income African American and immigrant women who are faced with innumerable challenges, among them low wages, long hours, and inadequate training.”xxvi Not only do workers need to be protected in terms of workers’ rights and training but the elders also need a better healthcare program that will keep them out of the hospital and pay for medical expenses. We need a care infrastructure. “Care is something we do; it’s something we want; it’s something we can improve. But more than anything, it’s the solution to the personal and economic challenges we face in this country. It doesn’t just heal or comfort people individually; it really is going to save us all.”xxvii

The Domestic Workers Bill of rights took effect in NY in 2010 (after a long fight). This Bill mandates eight-hour work days, overtime, a consecutive twenty-four hours of rest per week, three paid days off, protection against discrimination and harassment and a worker’s compensation insurance program.xxviii Poo argues, we must take this further: we need a Care Grid. If not, poverty will result in poor healthcare for the workers and the elders whom they care for. “The Care Grid brings together public, private and nonprofit resources and creates a comprehensive coordinated system in which elders can age with dignity and their caregivers, both professional paid workers with unpaid family or friends, can thrive as well.”,xxix The Care Grid should consist of a Social Security plan that covers not only wages but income from capital, investments, stock and rental income. Also, strengthening the programs that support Social Security like Medicare and Medicaid. These programs should have a refundable tax credit for working-age people whose incomes are too high for Medicaid but too low to afford health care. For the workers, Poo believes we must improve job quality by making sure all workers receive the benefits they need in terms of $15 minimum wage and even a health care program. Workers also need training for health care aids. Lastly and undoubtedly the most important is a citizenship program where undocumented workers can receive a path to citizenship.

An overwhelming majority of these workers are women.xxx Many labor regulations have not included protection for domestic workers like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act and more. This is because many people do not consider nannies, babysitters and more “real jobs” or jobs that need protection and rights. As a nanny, I’ve experienced this. I’ve had one of my children who I work with ask me what I do for a living. I replied that “well I take care of you and your sister.” The child looked me right in the eye and said “no, I mean what is your real job.” One may argue, well he is just a child and doesn’t know better. At one visit to the dentist, the hygienist was trying to make small talk with me and ask me how my day was and what I do for work. I said, “I take care of children, I am a nanny.” She didn’t have the nerve to look at me when she responded but she continued working and said, “that is not a real job.” As I ponder on these moments, I think back to my trips to Latin America, where all jobs were honorable. No matter what a person did, sell tamales, fruit, take care of children –families thanked them for making money to pay for dinner and rent. In the United States, these jobs are looked down upon. In Gloria Steinem’s essay entitled “Revaluing Economics”, Steinem argued that “labor is valued in accordance with prevailing social constructs about race, sex, and class. Jobs in high finance are valued with comfortable compensation, for example, while the work of caring for people is often deemed unworthy of a minimum wage.”xxxi Sheila Bapat offers solutions that the government can do to help domestic workers such as fund immigrant community organizers and domestic workers’ groups, reform diplomatic immunity, increase visas for domestic workers, improve paid family leave policies and continue ensuring that labor law and policy includes domestic workers.

Sheila Bapat expands on Ai-Jen Poo’s book by talking about female workers in other realms of the domestic sphere such as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers in her book Part of the Family?. Bapat realizes that domestic workers are more vulnerable than any other workers because unlike other workers, they are unprotected by laws. Part of the Family? Focuses on the ways domestic workers have empowered themselves to be advocates for themselves. Bapat realizes the domestic worker’s roots in slavery and how the law has not addressed the failures of protecting the workers. She also advocates for immigration reform and unions.

All in all, my research has proven how the workforce of the United States includes members of the hardest working people in the nation: immigrants. They are the blood, sweat and tears of the economy. They are what makes it thrive. Through my interviews, my subjects have demonstrated how they come from different parts of Latin America. Parts that have been economically and socially destroyed due to United States intervention and yet, the current government has much to do in order to get closer to achieving quality for this marginalized population. Some of my subjects come from the cities of Chile and Ecuador while others come from rural parts of Brazil and Mexico. Regardless, they all share something in common: they were all pushed out of their countries due to destitution and pulled to the United States for jobs, education and safety. Through this experience, I’ve had the privilege of meeting undocumented immigrants from all walks of life. Some who are working in the service sector while others who are currently working in the domestic workforce. They did not intend to stay in the United States. They intended to work here for a period of time and return back to their native homeland. But, due to the impossibility of achieving the American Dream or economic security, they are forced to stay. The immigrants who want to stay, are those who had no say in coming to the United States: those who are on DACA. Now more than ever, unions, activists and organizations must come together to support vulnerable DACA recipients. We must continue the fight for citizenship for these young adults who were once DACA recipients and even their parents who brought them to the United States. The government must create a path to citizenship for them.

Organizers must also fight for an end to United States intervention in Latin America, including an end to the colonial regime of Puerto Rico. The United States has continued to use the rhetoric of “helping” these nations to justify the damage they have done to their economies and societies. Activists, organizers and unions must also bound together to fight for equal wages for undocumented workers, immigrants and especially, domestic workers. Currently, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has no protection for part time workers or a health care plan. Following Ai-Jen Poo, the United States must incorporate a Care Grid to support domestic workers.

The fight for equality does not stop here. My work focused on economic rights for the undocumented community but there is more to be done socially and politically for these vulnerable people. They depend on organizers to give them a voice when they cannot come out of the shadows. My research depicts the lives of a few case studies but these stories represent the rest of the thousands of people who are undocumented and living under the radar in the United States. Scholars need to continue helping them get their voices and needs heard. We need to give them the documentation and citizenship that they’ve long deserved and worked for. We need to continue documenting the undocumented.

    END NOTES

  1. http://www.pewhispanic.org/interactives/unauthorized-immigrants/. Last accessed November 2017.
  2. Irene Mata, Domestic Disturbances: Re-imagining Narratives of Gender, Labor, and Immigration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 2.
  3. Ibid., 9.
  4. Juan González, Harvest of empire: a history of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), XVII.
  5. Subject one, August 3rd, 2017.
  6. Subject one, August 3rd, 2017.
  7. Subject two, March 12th, 2017
  8. Subject three, March 24th, 2017.
  9. Subject four, April 13th, 2017.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Tamara Mose. Brown, Raising Brooklyn: nannies, childcare, and Caribbeans creating community (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 4.
  12. Subject seven, March 27th 2017.
  13. Andre Torres, “Latino New York: An Introduction,” NACLA, , accessed December 21, 2017, https://nacla.org/news/2014/1/23/latino-new-york-introduction.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Gustavo López and Kristen Bialik, “Key findings about U.S. immigrants,” Pew Research Center, May 03, 2017, , accessed December 21, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/03/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/.
  18. Ibid., 289.
  19. Ibid., 286.uni
  20. Ibid., 805.
  21. Hector Figueroa, “The Growing Force of Latino Labor,” NACLA Report on the Americas 30, no. 3 (1996): 1.
  22. Ibid., 4–5.
  23. Ibid., 2.
  24. Leah Haus, “Openings in the wall: transnational migrants, labor unions, and U.S. immigration policy,” International Organization 49, no. 02 (1995): 297.
  25. Ai-Jen Poo, Age of Dignity: Caring for a Changing America (New Press, The, 2015), 3.
  26. Ibid., 4.
  27. Ibid., 9.
  28. Ibid., 114.
  29. Ibid., 155.
  30. Ibid., 14
  31. Ibid., 20.

    CITED

  • Bapat, Sheila. Part of the family?: nannies, housekeepers, caregivers and the battle for domestic workers rights. Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2014.
  • Brown, Tamara Mose. Raising Brooklyn: nannies, childcare, and Caribbeans creating community. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
  • Chomsky, Aviva. “They take our jobs!”: and 20 other myths about immigration. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007.
  • Jillson, Calvin C., Pursuing the American Dream: Opportunity and Exclusion over Four Centuries. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.),
  • Figueroa, Hector. “The growing force of Latino labor.” NACLA Report on the Americas 30, no. 3 (1996): 19+. Military and Intelligence Database Collection.
  • González, Juan. Harvest of empire: a history of Latinos in America. New York: Viking, 2000.
  • Haus, Leah. “Openings in the Wall: Transnational Migrants, Labor Unions, and U.S. Immigration Policy.” International Organization 49, no. 2 (1995): 285–313. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706973.
  • López, Gustavo, and Kristen Bialik. “Key findings about U.S. immigrants.” Pew Research Center. May 03, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/03/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/.
  • Mata, Irene. Domestic disturbances: re-imagining narratives of gender, labor, and immigration. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.
  • Mitchell, Travis. “U.S. unauthorized immigration population estimates.” Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. November 03, 2016. Accessed December 22, 2017. http://www.pewhispanic.org/interactives/unauthorized-immigrants/.
  • Mize, Ronald L., and Alicia C. S. Swords. Consuming Mexican labor: from the Bracero Program to NAFTA. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  • Poo, Ai-Jen. Age of Dignity: Caring for a Changing America. New Press, The, 2015.
  • Price, Patricia L. 2012. “Race and ethnicity: Latino/a immigrants and emerging geographies of race and place in the USA.” Progress In Human Geography 36, no. 6: 800-809. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 9, 2017).
  • Torres, Andre. “Latino New York: An Introduction.” NACLA. Accessed December 21, 2017. https://nacla.org/news/2014/1/23/latino-new-york-introduction.
  • Tzintzún, Cristina, Carlos Pérez De Alejo, and Arnulfo Mauríquez. ¡Presente!: latin@ immigrant voices in the struggle for racial justice. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.

Jessica Alort

Second Prize, Nonfiction
Jessica Alort  Radiology, NYC College of Technology

Counterparts

Saint Agatha School, Erin DeGregorio, 2018

It is September of 2012, the beginning of a new school year, and my son Zuriel is going to pre-K in a Catholic school in Sunset Park, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. My husband and I have heard that public schools in this zone are bad, and because we want my son to have a good education, we have decided to send him to Saint Michael Catholic School. My husband is making a tremendous sacrifice to send him there by paying almost 500 dollars a month.

The school is located is in an old brick building painted in ivory; adjacent to the school is the rectory and the church. The church is big, and the windows are tinted in different colors. The walls are decorated with religious statues, and the altar is just a table covered with a long white fabric with a Bible on top, but underneath it is always decorated with colorful flowers like chrysanthemums, daisies, carnations, and red and white roses. The school is old and sometimes cold. The heat is not strong enough to keep such an old big building warm. Chairs and tables are very old fashioned. It seems that the school hasn’t replaced them in decades; I have the same impression about the teachers. The only young teacher in the building is Ms. Di Rosa, the pre-K teacher; I couldn’t be happier to see my son going to her class.

Catholic schools require parents to volunteer twenty hours a year or pay a service fee, so I decided to volunteer to save that money. By June of 2013 I have completed many more than twenty hours. By now, I know everybody in the school and everybody knows me. School is over, and my husband and I are still thinking that the Catholic school is the best choice for my son.

It is July 2013 and I am cooking at home when the phone rings.

Linda, one of the school’s administrators, calls to ask me if I want to work as a Kindergarten teacher’s aide the following school year in exchange for Zuriel’s tuition.

“That’s fantastic, Linda, of course I accept!”

This will give me the opportunity not only to be close to my kids but also to learn the language since I speak very little English. All the English background I have is from those two months I spent in London and a few months of English classes in the American Language Communication Center (ALCC), an English school in Manhattan.

I come from a working-class family in Peru. In March of 1998 I left the nest to go to Switzerland to learn French and make some money to pay for my college education because my parents couldn’t finance the expenses. I first planned to stay there only two years, but things didn’t go as planned and I ended up living in Switzerland for almost eight years.

Back in 2002, while I was living in Switzerland, I decided to go to London because I wanted to learn English. English is very important, and I knew that sooner or later I was going to need it to pursue my education. I saved some money, paid for my English school and housing for two months, and bought my airplane ticket to London. I had a good time in London. I got to know the city very well since I stayed there for two months doing nothing else

but studying English and being a tourist. I got to know all the museums, the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Camden Place, and many other places. After completing my language adventure in London, I went back to Switzerland because I had to return to my job in the cafeteria of a gym in the city of Lausanne.

In December of 2003 I came to the United States to visit Pedro, one of my best friends from Peru. We both come from the same neighborhood in Callao, and we were very close until I left my country. I learned he had traveled to the United States, and in those day our ways of communication were limited. Facebook wasn’t invented yet, and email was still something difficult for us since we didn’t grow up immersed in this technology. I finally got in contact with him after almost fifteen years. We stayed in touch almost every week until he invited me to visit New York–all expenses paid. This sounded good. I planned my vacation for that year and came to New York.

My visit only lasted twelve days, but those twelve days were enough to change the course of my life. We fell in love, and for two years I traveled back and forth between Switzerland and the United States. Then in March of 2005 I decided to move permanently to the United States. I was excited to start a new life in Ozone Park, Brooklyn, and I wanted to learn more English.

In September of that year, I found out I was expecting my first child. Zuriel was born in July of 2006, so I quit school and moved with my husband to a bigger apartment. Since then, I’ve been dedicated to taking care of my family.

It is September 2013, the first day of school. Today is not only my son’s first day in Kindergarten and my chance to work in his class, but my daughter starts pre-K in Ms. Di Rosa’s class. After the bell rings and all the students are escorted to their classrooms, I run to the office to receive instructions for the day. Mrs. Marino, the secretary, says. “Go to Mrs. Osario class. She is waiting for you.”

I have been in this room several times, but I have never seen the classroom in detail. Everything in the classroom is colorful–chairs, tables, even the foam mat. The walls have plenty of charts: ABC’s, numbers, upper and lower cases, animals, shapes, and colors.

There is also a little room that the teacher keeps closed during the day. The classroom is divided into two parts by several bookshelves. Mr. Osario gave the bookshelves to his wife

about a year ago when his company refurnished his office. One side of the room is designated for tables, chairs, lunch boxes, coats, book packs, and books. On the other side is Mrs. Osario’s desk, and the foam mat seating area is meant for the morning’s teaching routine where the kids learn the months of the year, days of the week, numbers, and sight words from the smartboard. My desk is in the middle of the room by the windows between the two divisions.

I know Mrs. Osario is from Trinidad and that her parents brought her to the United States when she was ten. Parents at school think she is from the Dominican Republic, maybe because people like to make assumptions depending on the color of your skin.

She has a very strong personality and wants everything to be perfect. Every year the school prepares a Christmas show. This is an opportunity for families to see their kids perform and for the school to raise some money. Mrs. Osario is responsible for producing the show. She collects all the information concerning the show. For example, she must know exactly what the kids are going to perform and insists that every teacher make sure that the lyrics are “clean” (no bad words). She also makes the rehearsal schedule and everybody needs to arrive to rehearsal at the exact time.

She then chooses a teacher to be responsible for the scenography. This year it’s Mr. Chang, but he is new and doesn’t know what the stage should look like, so he asks me for help because he knows I like to decorate. When Mrs. Osario finds out, she intervenes. “That’s not your job,” she says to me, “let him do what he needs to do.”

I sometimes don’t like the way she talks to me or the way she looks at people. The first week, she asked me, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Sure, I may not talk too much, but I listen and understand what you say.”

She then made a face. Maybe she assumed that I didn’t talk much because I didn’t understand English.

It is December and almost all my work for the year is done. I have created a morning routine for the kids, from putting their stuff away, to choosing three kids per week to give out the coloring books, to taking them in small groups to the restrooms. I have cut templates for the year and separated them by month. I have opened the useless closet and transformed it into the new lunch box and coat room organized by names, and I have even changed the layout of the classroom. We are no longer divided by the old metal bookshelves.

I have tried my best to do a good job, and Mrs. Osario seems to appreciate it. She even makes a comment about how organized, clean, and open the classroom looks. I take that as a compliment, but she is still reluctant to become my friend. I don’t expect that; I’m there to do my job.

Sometime the atmosphere is tense between Mrs. Osario and me because we disagree on certain things. One day we got a new student, a little girl from China. The school is located in the Chinese neighborhood of Sunset Park. I know that the Chinese kids who come to this school were born in the United States but are sent to China when they are around two years old to live with their grandparents. Then they return to the United States to start Kindergarten. There are two reasons for this: first, the kids are sent to China because their parents can’t take care of them and childcare in New York City is too expensive. The parents send their children to live with the grandparents while they make some money and get financially ready to support their kids when they come back to start Kindergarten. And second, the parents know that the best way to create a strong bond between their children and their language and culture is by sending them to live in China.

As a parent I cannot begin to imagine the pain of being separated from my kids.

This girl is one of several students who don’t speak English in class. The fact that some of her students don’t speak English well irritates Mrs. Osario because she can’t keep up with her teaching. She sometimes gives up on these kids because there is no way for her to communicate with them, but I know what it is to be misunderstood due to language differences. I have experienced this terrible feeling when I went to Switzerland and didn’t speech French and when I went to London and didn’t speak English. Believe me…. this is frustrating. Being myself an immigrant I can feel empathy with these kids. I can’t understand why she can’t feel some empathy with them, being herself an immigrant. This might come from the fact that she comes from another English-speaking country and didn’t have to confront those language challenges.

I propose making a group with the kids who don’t speak English and teaching them to read as I did with my daughter. Surprisingly, she accepts, but not for long. After a few weeks, she abruptly decides to stop the help I was giving to the kids. When I asked her, “Why don’t you want me to continue? The kids are doing better in school,” she again said to me in an arrogant way, “I will not argue with you.”

This is the second time she has treated me like nothing. I can’t accept this anymore, so I leave the classroom and go to the kitchen where I find Mr. Mario and Mr. Daniel, the two school custodians. When I start crying, they know that something is going on.

“Why does she have to be so mean?” I ask. “She doesn’t appreciate what I do. I don’t get well paid for what I’m doing, and I’m still doing my best.”

“Be patient my dear. She’s a good person, but she’s sometimes possessed by her bad temper.” Mr. Mario starts laughing and so do I. After I drink a coffee, I go back to the classroom.

It is February and Mrs. Osario will be out of school for a couple of weeks while she recovers from surgery. Mr. Chang will substitute for her, but Mr. Chang is the computer teacher. He is young, and he doesn’t know anything about kindergarteners.

I end up leading the class for two weeks, and Mr. Chang is my assistant. I know the routine, but for him, cutting paper, putting kids’ folders in their backpacks, and taking them to the restroom is something he has probably never done before. Not knowing the kids’ name makes all this more complicated for him.

After Mrs. Osario is back on her duties, she lets me know how grateful she is that I took care of her class. She is now treating me in a different way. She asks me how I feel, how my weekend was, and what my summer plans are. I believe this is her way to show some appreciation.

At the end of February, she asks me a question, “Have you ever had Zuriel tested for problems with attention?”

“No, never. Should I?”

I can tell from the way she asks me this question that she is in concerned about Zuriel and feels that something may not be right.

“Have you noticed he is always looking out the window?”

“I have noticed he gets distracted, but this could true of any kid of his age.”

How could she know something is wrong with my kid? I’m supposed to know better; I’m the mother! I know my son has some speech delays, but I never imagined confronting a situation like my son needing to be tested for learning issues. I must call the pediatrician; he should know better.

On the day of the appointment, Dr. Carvin asks me questions about Zuriel: “Does Zuriel take a lot of time to finish his homework?” “Does he constantly repeat the same question?” “Does he make careless mistakes or speak nonsense?” I respond “yes” to all his questions.

What does this mean?

Dr. Carvin tells me that my son could have ADHD, but he would like to refer me to a specialist, Dr. Hassan, a neurologist who specializes in kids with ADHD. All this situation is new for me. I heard about ADHD, or attention deficit disorder, a few years ago, but I believed that only excessively active kids could have ADHD. My son is completely the opposite; I would describe him as a daydreamer.

Dr. Hassan asks me the same questions Dr. Carvin asked me a few days before and a few others. After I answer all his questions, he is ready to give me the diagnosis. “Yes, Zuriel has ADHD, but the Inattentive type.” This means that Zuriel is unable to focus for a long period of time, and he is unable to stay on or easily move from one task to another. This can affect his grades, or worse, his self-esteem.

What type of diagnosis is this? In the appointment he never turns to look at my son or examine him at any moment.

He explains to me the medications that are available on the market and prescribes one of these to Zuriel. I take the prescription even though I want to keep my son away from those medications and schedule an appointment for a follow up.

The next day I tell Mrs. Osario what the doctor has confirmed. “He has ADHD,” I say. I’m so sad wondering if my son will be OK.

“He will be OK,” Mrs. Osario reassures me. How could she be so sure? “I know what you’re going through.” It turns out her son has ADHD. She has done her best to make him succeed, but it is hard work.

It is April and Zuriel is taking medication every day before going to school. I have done a lot of research, and this seems to be the only solution. Mrs. Osario doesn’t agree with me. She doesn’t like to see Zuriel so quiet. Neither do I, but I’m giving it a try. She allows me to have some one-on-one time with Zuriel during classwork. I’m doing my best, but nothing has changed. He is still inattentive, so I decide to take him off medication.

Mrs. Osario recommends that I take Zuriel to see a specialist at St John’s University in Queens, where she took her son many years ago to be diagnosed. I hesitate because I can’t handle more bad news. We’ll see next year.

By May, Mrs. Osario is friendlier. She sincerely appreciates my work in her classroom; she lets me know that I am doing a good job, and she tells me she is happy that I will work in her classroom next year. By the end of the month, we start having more personal conversations. I know more about her family and she knows more about mine.

It is June, graduation day, and the children are moving up to first grade well prepared. The kids who speak Chinese are doing better. Mrs. Osario and I have overcome our differences for the sake of the kids in kindergarten. We have made a good team. We are now planning things for next year. I truly appreciate all I have learned from her, from our conversations, and from our arguments also. We have found we have more things in common than differences. She is a dedicated mother and a disciplined person, and so am I. I learned that she is not arrogant, she is exquisite, and sometimes very intense. She has taught me a lot in these 160 days. We have had to see each other every day, Monday to Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We think it would a good idea to get together over the summer since she has free time: school is over, her husband is at work, and her kids with are with their friends. Our relationship has changed for the good; we have created a bond, and I can call this “friendship.” I can’t wait to see what next year will bring us.


Linda Henry

Third Prize, Nonfiction
Linda Henry  Human Services, NYC College of Technology

Hidden from Outsiders: Home Care

Image taken from The New York Times Business August 30, 2017

I work in the five boroughs, in private homes, apartment buildings, and on a few occasions in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Most institutionalized homes are large multistory buildings fully equipped and staffed to provide care for the residents who need long term care or help to recuperate. Private rooms on each floor accommodate one or more residents simultaneously. The rooms have adjustable cloth screens installed in the roof or ceiling. They provide privacy, especially when the residents are being taken care of by a nurse or doctor, or even during a family visit. Each resident is provided with a bed, chair, TV, closet, chest of drawers and table. Each room has a toilet and sink. Residents who have to be showered are taken to a shower room. The dining areas, recreational facilities, and medical rooms or clinics are shared by all residents on their respective floors. These buildings have security desks as soon as you enter them. Persons using the building have to sign in and out, so there is a record of the name, date and time anyone uses the building. I always work one on one with a particular resident that I am assigned to by my agency. My job is to assist the resident whenever my help is required.

Unlike the standard institutional setting, the private homes and apartment buildings vary in size, neighborhood, and safety. Just a few of these buildings have a security desk. The superintendents of the apartment buildings are only visible when there is a need that warrants their presence. These buildings house multiple families, some of whom share the same kitchen and bath. I work with patients in their homes, helping them with personal care, sometimes with assistance from them or a family member or at other times depending on the situation, alone. My presence in the home also allows family members who are restricted with bed bound parents or children to have some time for themselves. My ultimate goal is to keep the patient clean, fed, comfortable, and safe during my tour of duty. I report any unusual changes in the patient’s behavior or illness and any incidents relating to my safety and that of the patients. If required, I would also help with other daily activities, like laundry, shopping and accompanying patients to doctors’ visits when authorized by the nurse. My job proves to be both rewarding and challenging at the same time. As a human service major, I get firsthand experience to work with people of different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and am able to practice the code of ethics of the agency, which coincides with what I learn in the class room. Such valued opportunities never come without challenges, but to a large extent, give me the chance to make rational decisions.

One of the many things that I have learned from working in different homes is that many things that seem glorious from the outside are just an illusion. The truth is hidden behind the walls of those concrete or wooden structures, painted or not. The reality is what the family dynamics are and the experiences the patients and their care givers go through collectively or alone. Socio-economic status, race, culture or educational level for most part does not distinguish their pain and suffering. What may be different is the extent of certain problems that patients go through. At some point some of them come face to face with one or a combination of occasions of helplessness, abuse, and neglect at the hands of close family members, who in some cases even cause them to die before death would occur on its own. This can be painful to behold when there is not much I can do about it in my scope of practice. But sometimes I am tempted to take matters into my own hands to change the pattern of behavior when I feel family members are being unreasonable towards the patients, although of course they have a right to do the things they want to do in the privacy of their homes. Similarly, I have control over what I will accept or not accept and can remove myself from danger when it is immanent. I have had to make subtle escapes, under the pretense of going to get myself something to eat.

One particular patient was suffering from a gunshot wound, and was restricted to a wheel chair. The patient had not reached the age of majority in the state where he lived. The gun shot was gang related but at the time of my starting to work there, this fact was unknown to me. I only knew about it from eavesdropping on a conversation between the patient and some visitors, a group of young people around the same age group and perhaps a little older. Their conversation started off as normal as one would expect from young people. As the conversation became intensified, a lot of emotions were expressed. The tone was loud enough but at times sounded like whispers. One thing for sure, I heard the mention of guns and expressions of defiance of gun laws, and those who are pursuing those laws, and of retaliation against those who were responsible for the patient’s dilemma. What I heard made my jaw drop, as fear gripped me all over. Soon the visitation was over, so I thought. I felt relieved; after all I had nothing more to be afraid of; they are all gone, I mused. It was my third day working with that patient, but during the previous two days, I had observed the uneasiness the young female member of the home displayed when the phone rang or when the doorbell echoed. She would make sure she secured the door locks after someone entered or left the apartment. She was more like a house detective than a companion to the patient. The horror of the day was not over; about fifteen minutes after the group left, they returned. This time, they did not make their utterance known, but sat around in the living room, adjacent to the dining table where I was sitting. I could not see if they were gesturing to each other, because they were behind me. One thing I know for sure was that they had made use of marijuana. The silence was so obvious, so intense, that if a pin had dropped to the ground, it would have echoed in such hush. In the meantime the smell of the marijuana was intense and the effect it was having on their thinking I did not wait to find out.

I remember, it was the cold season and all the windows were shut tight. So imagine what that smell was doing to my hypersensitive nose. I was never diagnosed with hyperosmia, but I can relate to the symptoms. I gasped for breath; I thought I don’t like the silence coming from those drug users, whom I might never be able to identify later. I had heard so many similar stories before. I felt a sudden urge to remove myself from this situation and so I did. My tour of duty was not ended yet. I was just two hours into my four hours work schedule for that patient. But I did not mind losing the last two hours pay for my own safety. Without them realizing that I was scared and leaving not to return, I feigned going to the corner store to get something to eat. I presumed that my absence would have allowed them the opportunity to review their plans, whatever they were. To this day I still smile when I think of my subtle escape, but the thought of what could have happened if I had stayed, is cause for concern. Not all cases I am assigned to offer that kind of challenge, but there are other challenges that differ based on the type of patients, their family dynamics, and their social circle. The agency provides personal protective equipment against contracting transmittable diseases, but would not give any information to forewarn the workers of the type of medical conditions the patient is suffering from. It therefore behooves the workers to make full use of the equipment and to initiate any other reasonable actions for personal protection and protection of the patients.

As a young girl growing up in a small village in my country of birth, I had witnessed the care and respect that was given to the elderly. Even as they continued to advance in age and become feeble, they were treated as jewels that needed to be preserved at all cost. A person living to a ‘ripe-old-age’, as extended old age was referred to, was considered a blessing by the family members, who most of the time were the care givers. Everyone wanted to share in that blessing. People would brag about how long their parents or grandparents lived, and would make predictions that they would reach their 100th birth anniversary and beyond. So when for the first time, on my job here in the US, I encountered patients whose family members were eager for them to be gone, I was saddened. This was evident by the way some of them treated their older relatives. It was very difficult for me, thinking how children can be so cruel to their own parents. The story I am about to tell happened in an apartment building in a middleclass community overlooking a nearby park.

My patient was about 85 years old, and was diagnosed with a health condition which limited her activities. She was able to get out of bed with assistance of a walker which she also used to get around the house. Sometimes, however, she would need manual help to get around. I would take her to the verandah and we would sit there and enjoy the scenery and busy traffic passing by. While we conversed, I could hear her love for life and a desire to experience future events; one of which was to visit her brother in another state. It was late in the spring and she was anticipating visits from friends in the summer. She lived with one of her three off-springs, and a pet animal that was all over her, and she loved it. It was a two bedroom apartment, but she slept in a hospital bed in the sitting room. The bedrooms were situated beyond the kitchen, which was closer to the sitting area. She was always so eager to see me and would give me secret signals with her eyes and thumb, and was very reserved when the other occupants of the home were in close proximity. I came to the realization that my patient had been given little or no attention in my absence because when I arrived at 12:00 noon there was always an unpleasant odor coming from her. Dried feces were visible on her skin and under her finger nails. Before I get to her I would make sure to put on my gloves and apron. She would always greet me with outstretched arms wanting to give me a hand shake or a hug. Once I was in her arms she would plant a kiss on my cheek, forehead or on my head, which ever was comfortable for her. Even if I wanted to refuse her gestures under the circumstances, my heart would not allow me. But I would quickly relieve myself of her, explaining that I have to get busy before the nurse comes, that is, if the nurse was expected to visit her that day. Otherwise I would always have to find an excuse not to linger in her embrace, not until she was cleaned. When I was finished tidying her, she would express how good she felt.

Her situation would be worse during the weekends. It was much evident on Mondays, until one Friday when I was preparing to leave she asked if I could stay over the weekend. She told me I could stay in the bedroom that used to be hers. Her offspring was quick to interject that that was not possible. Even though I knew that was not possible, neither did it surprise me how quickly the response came. My patient would whisper to me, “Excuses, Excuses.” Whenever I was there, one thing was strange about how the off-spring was relating to the mother’s eating. The first two weeks I made whatever the patient wanted to eat according to her doctor’s specifications. The patient had been gaining strength since I started to take care of her. I was preparing good food, and whenever her hands felt weak or tired, I would spoon feed her. There was never a shortage of food stuff in the home, yet there was a sudden restricting of what the patient could be given, when there was no adjustment made to her diet by her physician or dietitian. The pet walk time shortened gradually, always with an excuse, like the dog did not want to walk or because his friend was not out today. By shortening the time the offspring spent walking the dog, or even going on errands in the community more time was available to her to monitor the patient’s conversations and restrict her eating. I had no idea about passive euthanasia. It all unfolded only recently when I was in the Health Care Ethics class last semester. I became very angry when I realized that my patient could have been the victim of such a barbaric act by a close family member. I left the patient on a Friday, the same Friday she requested that I stay over, and was scheduled to go back on Monday at noon as usual. About 9:00 a.m. on Monday my supervisor called to inform me that the patient’s off-spring did not need services that day. Knowing the condition I usually meet the patient in on Mondays, I was concerned as to why the request for no services, when I knew the person who cancelled the services does not show much interest in the patient’s comfort.

I made several calls to the patient, on both the house and cell phones without getting any response. After 2.00 p.m. I decided to call again. The person on the other end called me by my first name and said, “Mom just passed.” Confused at my end of the phone line, I enquired what happened. I was told that the patient was not doing well over the weekend. The off-spring further said that there was evidence that the patient soon would pass and the time was needed to be alone with her. Appalled at such a revelation, I could not even offer my sympathy before I terminated the phone conversation. So she was alive when the call was made to cancel the services of the aide. My thoughts were racing; why would anyone want to be alone in a house with a mother who is dying? Now as if conversing with another person, I was saying, oh, that is why you did not want me there to witness the state in which she died. Did you starve her all weekend so when she made it to Monday you were disappointed? Did you administer a lethal dose of morphine? What did you do? I left her sitting up on Friday. She spoke with me and was expecting me back on Monday. What did you do? I can only imagine what you did, but it is not ok, she was a fully autonomous human being, did you take that away from her too? I must say, this is not an isolated case, and these are memories I will carry for a life time.

This other patient was living alone. His apartment was cluttered, messy clutter, worse than I had ever seen in any patient’s home. I was just the substitute aide for that day. So it was my first time going to this patient’s home, in a low income neighborhood. The building was a four storied brick building, located at the corner where the main street intersects the cross street. The yard was unfenced. I was standing on the parapet just outside the patient’s window in the cross street. I was doing exactly what the supervisor told me to do, since it was usual for the patient to throw the house keys onto the ground for the aide. On my arrival I called the patient’s house phone to inform him that I was outside, and he said ok. After about ten minutes and there was no sight of the keys, I called the patient again and got the same response as before and still no keys. I became concerned for the patient and called the supervisor to report. She got back to me shortly after and told me to hold on and the patient will throw the keys. I know some patients are not keen on having different aides; they prefer to have one permanent person. It was more than thirty minutes and I was still standing out there, so I was wondering if that was the case with this patient. I thought he had looked out through the window and saw it was not his regular aide and decided not to throw me the keys. But that was not so, he was gravely ill. It was after I got into the apartment that I realized he was so weak, that he could not get off the bed to get to the keys, much less, to get to the window to throw the bunch.

A woman in the building on the third floor saw me standing outside talking on my cell phone and looking up to the building. She presumed I was seeking access to the building and she enquired if I was the aide. She said she was also an aide, and that my uniform was what drew her attention. She opened the door to the building and I made my way up the stairs to the fourth floor. I knocked on the door and a voice from inside the apartment beckoned me enter. I opened the door which was unlocked and was confronted with the most horrifying scene. I looked around hesitantly to find a clean spot to put my hand bag but there was none. I observed the patient, who appeared to be in his late fifties, displaying a tall frail body, stretched out to full length on a hospital bed, with desperate eyes staring at me. I stepped back out of the door and called the supervisor to tell her of my gruesome discovery. I further told her my first inclination was to leave, but I would not. I knew I could not, not when a lonely sick person needed my help. Supervisor thanked me for the information and for deciding to stay. She said she would communicate my finding to the nurse, immediately. The nurse arrived within half an hour, and experienced the same shock that I had gone through earlier. He too looked around for a safe place for his bag. Luckily, before he arrived I had opened a cardboard box and put my bag on it behind the door. I told him he was welcome to put his there too, and he was relieved. I remembered all I was saying was, “Oh my God” repeatedly. I could not believe what I was seeing. The patient had soda and juice bottles filled with urine on the floor near the bed, on the fridge, and feces on every piece of bedding on the bed and clothes on the floor. There was no distinction of what was clean or dirty strewn across the floor. There was a commode overflowing with feces, paper and some pieces of clothing in it. I kept saying, “Oh my God”, as I tried to clear away the clutter. I was saying Oh my God for more than one reason. There was an aide there the day before, I could not understand. In the meantime the nurse was trying to calm the patient who was cursing hopelessly, I wold say. Finally we managed to tidy and stabilize him. The nurse was frantically making phone calls to arrange for the patient to be removed from the apartment to an institution. In between intervals of his calls he was assisting me to clean the room. It took some time before everything was finalized. My three hour work schedule turned out to be six hours, because I had to wait until the paramedics came, and to close up the apartment after the patient left.

A few months later, I was at another patient’s home when the same nurse visited. As soon as he saw me he immediately remembered my name and where we first met, at the home that had so shocked us both. He again thanked me, and said he had told my supervisor what a great job I did for that patient. Then he said, “You know what, that patient died the same night, but the good thing is he died with dignity”. Before the patient had left for the institution, he requested that I go to the corner store to get him something to drink, which I did. When I returned with the item he then requested that I go back to the shop to get him a different drink. I told him it was difficult walking up the steps to the fourth floor, but I obliged. During conversations with him I noticed a family portrait on one of the four walls of the room, yes it was just a room. Kitchen and bathroom were located in another part of the building and it was shared by the other residents on that floor. If I can remember clearly, all the furniture he had in the room was the bed, a refrigerator, a center table and the commode. He was short of undies which were badly needed at the time, luckily a neighbor helped out with that. Concerning the family portrait, he told me that his wife and one son died a few years prior, and his only surviving son was deployed. At some point I heard him mention God, so I asked him if he believes in God and he said yes, I asked him if he would like me to pray with him and he answered in the affirmative. So I prayed with him. Before he was taken away from his apartment he told me thanks, and that he loved me.

Most of the supervisors are not familiar with the locations where they assign workers. One can tell by the travel directions they give, which are always the longest way rather than short cuts. They do not know the transportation difficulties and other social problems the workers are confronted with in certain areas. Being personally involved in the day to day activities of having direct contact with patients, and using different modes of commute to and from work, helps me to appreciate how much time is sacrificed in order to help patients achieve some level of normalcy in their lives in the comfort of their own homes. Sometimes the travel time is more than the scheduled hours of work. At the end of the day, however, I am privileged to have access to homes that under normal circumstances a lot of people would not. I know what goes on behind many closed doors, and lend a helping hand in the most disgusting circumstances, unnoticed or most of the time under-recognized by those who collect the greater part of the payments for the services we perform in the field. By this I mean, the pay does not match the actual responsibilities and work done for the patients. I still remain committed to what I do, and I have flexible work hours, which allows me to pursue higher education, and have the kind of experience to develop skills to work effectively with patients from different cultures. My access to homes causes me to understand the true meaning of family dynamics and the threat to patients’ autonomy by their loved ones. But the magnitude of what my work entails is still hidden from outsiders.


Quamel Watson

First Prize, Nonfiction
Quamel Watson  Liberal Arts, NYC College of Technology

You’re a Blessing

Mama, Michelle Watson, 2016.

On a summer day in the Fort Greene projects section of Brooklyn where I’m from, I was sitting with a friend in my mother’s home talking about school shopping. I already had things, but I wanted some more clothes since this was my first year of high school that fall. So I called my grandmother, who I know gives me everything, to ask her for 500 dollars to shop. She told me she’d give it to me on one condition. I had to look after my great grandmother, who had recently moved in with my grandmother. I agreed to it. I mean for me it was a win/win to get some money just for babysitting. Boy, down the line I was in for a surprise.

From the age of 15–21, I looked after my great grandmother. What started out as me trying to get some extra money for some school clothes would become a life changing experience or at least would show a young boy the true meaning of life and the bond that was formed from an unusual circumstance.

I’m going to give you a little history about where this all took place. My grandmother lives in the Van Dyke Apartments in Brownsville. As you walk up to this huge building you see reddish, brownish bricks. On the side of the building you see a parking lot and to your left you see a red sign that says, “Welcome to New York City Housing Authority Brownsville.” You then walk up to these big silver doors, and once you enter you see big red elevators that take you from the first to the thirteenth floor. Once you enter you are usually hit with the smell of urine, just like hot garbage on a summer day. When you get to the seventh floor, which is the floor that my grandma stays on, there’s a long hallway, sometimes creepy with flickering lights, and silent at times. Other times there’s a lot of noise and it’s full of drama.

Once you get to my grandmother’s door, you enter and hear the bell chimes on the door. Then you look to the right and you see paper towels, Ensures, adult diapers and juices, all stacked from the bottom of the floor to the top of the ceiling. These are things my great grandmother needed. When you would go further in you would see three couches, a fish tank, a huge flat screen TV, a kitchen table, and plants everywhere, and that was just the beginning.  You look all around the living room and see two degrees from New York City College of Technology–one for my great grandmother and one for my grandmother. (They both graduated from there, along with my mom.) You would also feel like you were in a Betty Boop convention. I mean from dolls, statues, candles, clothing and even computer covers. Besides the fact that Ms. Boop was everywhere, there was also a Disney world feel to it. There were little knick-knacks all over the place of Disney characters–Bugs Bunny, Daffy, Popeye, Porky the Pig, Pluto, Snoopy, Lola, Garfield and more childlike things that filled the room with color and life.

Even though the apartment was full of life, there also was a feeling of this kind of happy/sadness. It came from knowing that my great grandmother was by the grace of God still here but also knowing that she had been diagnosed with dementia. According to the dictionary, dementia is a “chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders.”

The day comes for me to look after my great grandmother, and I wasn’t nervous at all. I mean this is my family, so taking care of her should be no biggie. But when my grandmother started telling me about some of the things to look out for, my nerves started kicking in, and boy I can feel me sweating. She told me, “Monkey, you must pay attention. Make sure if she gets up from her bed, she doesn’t hurt herself and check on her throughout the night.”

“Monkey” is the nickname my grandmother and I have for each other after an asthma attack almost killed me as a kid and left me very skinny. At the time I was walking like a little monkey, she says. Lol.

“Monkey,” I ask, “what if she gets up and has to use the bathroom?” My grandmother replies that she shouldn’t need to since she used the bathroom before she went to bed. Then I ask the question I should’ve asked from the beginning, “Monkey what does MAMA (Great grandmother’s nick name) have?”

“Dementia,” she says. “This makes her go back into a childlike state of mind.” I just stared at her and didn’t really understand.

That first night was fine; she slept through the night and I felt good being there knowing she was OK and safe. After that my grandmother would ask me to watch her more and more, if she had an event to go to or just needed someone she trusted. No problem for me I say because for the couple of times I looked over my great grandmother there weren’t any problems. I remember on a certain night it was raining and I was watching TV. As she slept and after her home attendant left, now this is where the bonding started.

We would put newspaper on the floor, so if she got up from her bed, we could hear her through the night. This particular night she got up and I’m thinking it was just that. I remember my grandmother saying, “If she gets up, just put her back to bed. She does it all the time and will go back to sleep.”

Well I looked back there to see what was happening. OMG is all I could say. There was SHIT everywhere!!!!! I mean on the floors, walls, her bed, and all over her night gown. First thing that came to mind was—what am I going to do?

I ran to my cell phone and was about to call my grandma. Then something or some voice came over me and I heard like God himself say, “She cleaned your crap when you were a child; now it’s time for you to pay back your dues.”

So I got the gloves and told her it was going to be OK as I cleaned everything off the floor and walls and I changed her sheets and got her another gown. I took a deep breath and went to the bathroom. I had placed her on the toilet to clean up the mess. I turned on the shower and placed her in it and sat her on the handicap stool which had four steel legs and a gray set with back support, so she wouldn’t fall over. She sat down and I started washing her off; I did not look at her with anger or embarrassment. In my mind at the moment she was just like a baby that just made a mistake and you just have to smile and say it’s OK.

After I got her dried up dressed in clean clothes, I put on her baby powder and her Victoria secret (Love Spell) fragrance. “I smell good,” she said and we both chuckled. I laid her down in her bed and sat in the corner in the big green chair in her room until she fell asleep. That night this was my biggest responsibility yet, and I didn’t need any help with her.

My grandmother returned and I told her what had happened while she was gone. She got really silent and tears filled her eyes. “Monks, I thank you so much. You’re a blessing and I now know you can handle her.” A warm feeling came over me as I hugged my grandmother and smiled.

I saw my great grandmother way more after that, I would say close to every two weeks. Now I’m talking to her way more and showing her pictures. She would remember some things, but mostly she would ramble and just go back to her childhood. Great grandmother comes from Galveston, Texas, and is from a large family–eleven brothers, two of whom were stillborn, and one sister. She would say things like, “Tell Frankie I said to go get the ball.” Frankie is one of her twelve siblings, the only one who is still alive.

We would spend a whole lot of time looking at pictures that would trigger memories, like the picture of uncle Frank when he was a young boy in the army. I can see the USA flag in the background and a muscular man in a black uniform with patches over it. She just came out of nowhere and said, “Frankie’s coming home for a visit.”

“Oh he is,” I would say. “Are you happy?”

“Oh yeah,” she said and laid back in her chair. Just like that her mind went somewhere else.

It was amazing to me how her brain worked. One minute she can tell you a whole story, and then it’s like a light switch goes off, and she’s back in the past saying she must go pick up her children from school, who are in their 50s by now. (One daughter has even passed away.) But for the most part she remembers. At first it would get me a little upset, but after a while I learned dementia is not curable, so I must take my time with her and get used to it. Then I learned to follow her lead and either piggy back off what she was talking about or ask her certain questions that wouldn’t over work her mind.

I learned all about her food and medicines. One time just by paying attention to the label and color of the pills I even stopped the home attendant from giving her the wrong medicine that the pharmacy had given her by mistake. I yell, “Nooooooooooooooooo, do those look like the same pills she takes every day?” The home attendant looks at me like I had a bug on my face. “The pills she takes are all white,” I say. “Do those look all white?”

“OMG,” she replies. “I didn’t even see that.”

I shake my head and call my grandmother to tell her the situation. She reassures me she’ll get to the bottom of it. I say to myself Thank God I was here.

Our bond got so close that I would go to my grandmother’s house just to see her. I would even make up excuses to my friends to hang out with her. I was excited to learn more about her and some of her great old times in Texas. It was like I was back in the 1930s and could see their house and smell the fresh chocolate cookies her mom would make. I could also see her pain when she talked about the flood that washed away our family’s first home, which we still have because her father rebuilt it. But we lost a lot of family too.

THE GREAT GALVESTON HURRICANES. I didn’t know anything about that, so I googled it. From what I read and heard, here is what I learned: On September 8th, 1900, a category 4 hurricane tore through Galveston, killing 6,000 to 8,000 people but actually it ended up being more like 10,000 to 12,000.  With the population being 37,789 at the time. A 15-foot storm surge flooded the city, which was then situated at less than 9 feet above sea level, and numerous homes and buildings were destroyed. They tried to place the bodies in the sea but they just washed back ashore. The next best thing to do was burn the bodies, So a lot of liquor was passed out to the rest of the community so that they would be able to handle the burning of all those bodies.

I could feel the pain in her story like I was there myself and could feel a chill come over my body. But I loved her stories and time together. Our bond got stronger, and my grandmother would call me and say, “The home attendant said she is looking for you.” My great grandmother would call me “the boy” because she couldn’t remember my name. I thought that I couldn’t cure her, but as long as she remembers something about me, I did my job and I knew I made some type of connection.

Over the course of our time together, I started to notice changes in her body, her speech, her eating and just her everyday habits. I could see she wasn’t swallowing her food anymore and that her weight had gone down. She couldn’t really talk anymore, and she used to get up and walk around a lot, but now she was more wheel chair bound. It was like she was a whole other person now. I mean between the disease and her medicine she was zombie like and made me think how fast things can change in life. The power of GOD and faith made me see Time and disease wait for no one. I had to prepare myself for the worst, but in my heart, I could smile knowing that I got to know and understand her. I lived for every minute of it and would do it again.

We shared a bond till she passed in 2016. Even after her death I learned that she taught me way more than I could imagine, such as patience. I remember before I would see younger people walk through the door before an elderly person and not even hold the door. I would see them on the bus and not even get up and just curse and be flat out disrespectful. Now I hold the doors for my elders, whether they’re taking their time or just walking slow. I learned that you can live fast and die young or you can live at the pace you’re supposed to and live a full long life.

I learned to have great respect for home attendants because they take care of other people’s family members. They put up with a lot of feisty attitudes and misunderstood people. And I see that elderly and younger people have a lot in common, such as we all want to live a certain dream.

I also do see that society has a long way to go since we see more and more cases of people with dementia or mental illness. We may never know what will happen to us, but I know that the bond you build with family is priceless, a spirit like a song that touches you. I see now that life doesn’t owe you anything or doesn’t care how cute you are or smart. But what you put out you will get back. I learned that you must respect all your elders. I mean they have knowledge and can help you understand the world better.


Frances Raybaud

First Prize, Fiction
Frances Raybaud  Political Science, Queens College

Stigma

“Has it never happened to you that you did something wrong, even though you knew it was wrong? That’s a part of free will too.”—Peter Stamm, Seven Years

Untitled, Joshua Dylan Brauns for International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 1990s

When Cara is diagnosed with high-functioning depression, she is ripping up a used tissue in her hands. It’s reducing itself from soft quasi-fabric to bits of damp fluff and the therapist tells her to stop.

Look at me. Don’t put that on the table. It’s unsanitary.

The therapist works out of her apartment. The table sits outside her tiny Stuyvesant Town kitchen, and the way the apartment is structured, Cara can see into her bedroom in the back. There is no divide between her home and work life. She can’t imagine. The therapist sleeps in the same place she listens to Cara detail getting raped twice, being abandoned by her father, and every man Cara gets involved with. Who’s the latest, by the way? A gorgeous man named Kevin beset by mild anxiety who enjoys dancing, sweet pickles, and talking for hours on the phone. The therapist watches television a couple feet away from the table at which she makes Cara take quizzes about a reduced sexual appetite, reduced interest in things she used to love.

Cara works at an office. There’s a specific desk she sits at with her laptop, covered in papers. She sometimes eats there, especially if it’s cold outside. She’s fairly new at work, and the others in the office are still coworkers. When she types things on her laptop, sometimes it hurts because of the way she eats her nails. Besides that, work is fine. Work is work. When she gets home, she doesn’t check her email and she slips work Cara (a cheery worker bee) off along with her bra. She lies down and the night takes forever to end.

Cara looks at the therapist and thinks, hmm. High-functioning depression. High-functioning. That means she’s fine. That means she can go to work. So…

What’s the problem here? A thought occurs to her. Do patients ever show up while you’re getting dressed?

Don’t deflect.

The way the brain works is that it sends messages along your neural pathways and tells your body what to do. Usually you don’t get to be privy to every message. It’s not as though you actively think breathe every time you inhale. Thank goodness your brain is not a yoga master; Cara would go mad. She once tried yoga. It was a very brief affair. Cara’s brain tells her body what to do and her body can get it done most of the time. She procrastinates like hell, but she gets it done eventually.

What’s funny about high functioning depression is that you can function. It’s not like life just stops. When Cara talks to her friends that are depressed, they discuss not being able to get out of bed. Cara gets up and out of bed. Cara goes to work. Cara works. Everything is working.

What Cara can’t do, is focus. Her eyes slide across screens like water. She forgets to reply to her friends. She does the work she has to do and just that, no more. Is she productive? Oh yeah, definitely. Think a rusty bike. The wheels still turn, the chain creaks a bit and you know one day it’ll stop, one day it’ll fall apart…but not today. Today the bike squeaks along, and she puts a dollar in the vending machine, buys a bag of pretzels at lunch. It’s the best part of her day, feeling the salt bite into her tongue. The first thing that feels real.

Cara walks her hands across the pitted wood and stares down her therapist. Let me guess, you want to give me medicine.

I can’t prescribe it. Not in this state.

Big Pharma.

Cara, it’s a problem. There are three things to worry about. Work, yes, but personal life and mental health matters too. Your personal life is—

I don’t want to talk about that.

The therapist purses her lips. How’s Kevin, then?

Kevin is great.

The thing about Kevin is, it’s new. She can’t be herself around him yet. He tells her that he loves how unique she is, the things she thinks up. She gives him the fun thoughts, the quips. He doesn’t know she’s in therapy. You may have heard that there’s a bit of a stigma. She doesn’t talk to Kevin when she feels like garbage, because this is the way he sounds on the line if she mentions she’s feeling a little down:

Are you going to start taking antidepressants?
Are you okay?
Cara, listen to me.
Cara, you’re worrying me.

What right does he have to be worried? It’s been a month. They make each other laugh. Everything is working. He can worry about her if she misses a date; he doesn’t get to poke around in her brain.

Cara does not miss dates.

Refilling her water bottle is risky business. There’s a woman named Lucille, who prefers Lucy, and she likes to do the fake how-are-you. The one where you ask so you can talk about yourself. Cara can easily be robbed of a solid fifteen minutes of the work day when Lucille stalks her out at the watering hole. The diagnosis is still on her mind this morning when she is ambushed, and she sucks in air through her teeth hard, leaning back against the cooler.

Cara!

Lucille.

I told you, you can call me Lucy, Lucille says for the fortieth time and Cara narrowly avoids smirking.

My mistake.

Lucille shifts her weight, clearly waiting to be asked. Cara deliberately takes a sip of water. New York City water is delicious. It could be colder, but it’s not like she’s feeling much lately regardless.

Lucille finally gives in. How are you?

Cara contemplates the question a little longer than usual before she fires back with a Fine. How are you, Cara? No one actually wants to know…unless they’re getting paid to sit in their own apartment. Lucille keeps staring, so she follows up with and you?

I’ve had the most horrible weekend, simply terrible.

She keeps going with her external monologue while Cara has a conversation with herself.

I feel as though being told I had depression gave me depression. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s hard to get the word out of your mind. Depression. If I was depressed, I wouldn’t be able to laugh at anything. What about the sexual desire? I still get a thrill when Kevin kisses me harder than he should on the street.

What do you think of that, Cara?

Cara blinks at her dumbly. I’m not sure, I’ll have to get back to you. Also, I have to get back to work.

She manages to slip away. Everything is working.

A couple of weeks later at work, there’s an issue with the bike. Her life, she means. What is she, some kind of poet? She’s certainly not a good worker bee. She’s been up for a promotion at work, and she does not get it.

She does not get why she does not get it. Sure, she isn’t doing her best, but her mediocre is a hell of a lot better than what some other people are working with here. Come on. This is an office full of Lucilles. She sends that in a text to Kevin and he replies with something about some zombie show and she briefly considers making a zombie-depression joke, but decides she’d rather not deal with getting a personal phone call during work.

She brings this up with her supervisor when the promotion is given to Bradley. Nothing wrong with Bradley, really. The zombies wouldn’t touch him, but that’s beside the point. Plenty of people function without brains. The scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz was doing great…but he wasn’t getting promoted in the cornfield, was he?

I deserved that promotion.

I know you did, Cara. You work hard. But you need to have a life outside work.

I have a life outside work. I just don’t talk about it.

People say you’re a little…tightly wound.

How does that affect my work? It doesn’t. But Bradley needs focus.

You know I give everything I have to this job, right?

That’s not healthy.

There’s that thing again. Health. Cara looks up at wherever God is supposed to be, and asks the guy, well frankly, what the hell?

It’s a minor setback, but it’s fine. So the work isn’t perfect. She won’t let work affect her work. That makes sense. That makes sense. Everything is working.

That night she doesn’t even take off her bra, just falls into bed.

One night Cara is drinking wine and decides to just get really drunk. There’s no reason for it. She isn’t fighting with her mother for once, Kevin has finally given her some space, and work went well today. She even got to bring up the possibility of a raise. Things are looking up.

She is looking down, into the bottom of a near-empty bottle of Merlot.

The next morning, she is hungover at work and it shows. She messes up a presentation, and begs the bathroom light to dim. She almost forgets to wear a bra to work, but she remembers to take it off later at least.

Hey Kevin, she asks one night, rolling over in his bed.

Yeah?

Why don’t you leave a few marks?

Marks?

Yeah, like we’re kids. I’ll do it too. It’d be funny.

What about work?

Hey can you bite me really hard so I can feel something?

What?

Bad joke, she laughs. He can’t see the way her eyes slide past him in the dark. He does as he’s told, the precious boy, and she has to wear a scarf to work. It’s an interesting look for July, and she knows she’s hot gossip at lunch. Lucille even has the nerve to ask where she got her scarf. Her supervisor says nothing except:

Don’t let it affect your work.

The bike is skidding left and right on the pavement, but she’s holding on with an iron grip. This is her life, work is her life, and she cannot screw up. She just wants to feel. She just wants to—

Kevin ends it on a rainy Saturday in his apartment, sitting on the couch. He’s kind enough to ask if she wants anything to drink first. It is seven weeks into their relationship, three hours into this date. Swelteringly hot out, and they just got sweatier. She’s only just re-hooked her bra.

 

Can we talk?

 

There’s a weird noise starting up in the back of her head. Her shoulders tense. She knows he can tell she’s on guard. Usually, he’d offer her a back rub. Once he did that smack in the middle of things when she was starting to panic and tighten up, and he was right. They are very relaxing.

I’m sorry I just—you and I are completely different people. We’re in different places. You have your life entirely together—I feel like I’m holding you back.

It sounds like a bicycle chain is creaking in the back of her brain.

You’re so mature, I feel like...we both knew this was doomed from the start. It’s almost like—

The chain is creaking louder, the wheels are tipping. She’s riding a bike into the river.

Why did we even try?

Cara looks him calmly in the eye. The bike is crashing to the ground. She’s falling, she’s landing on her knees. There’s blood everywhere. Someone’s screaming.

That makes sense, she says calmly.

Did you try? Were you trying, Kevin? It was doomed from the start, but nobody told me. I would’ve loved to get that memo. No one put it on a post-it note in my cubicle. No one forwarded the email. No one—the bike is on fire now. The bike is actually on fire. Where’s the fire department? Where’s the police? This was a really messed up bike, lady. Why were you still using this bike?

I had nothing else, this is what they gave me, this is what I’ve been working with all my life, I had nothing—

Cara.

She looks at him. Yes?

Can we be friends?

She nods, and she makes herself stay an extra ten minutes to finish the chamomile tea he brewed for her even though an inferno is raging in the back of her head. Everything is working? She stays upright, perfect posture, riding the subway home. She turns her key in the door. She opens the door.

She falls down.

She stays on the floor for the rest of the weekend.

She does not shower. She eats raw spaghetti and peanut butter for breakfast. It’s all that’s left in the kitchen. She eats raw spaghetti for lunch. To switch things up, she skips dinner.

Monday arrives on stilts, thoroughly out of reach.

It’s time for work.

Cara cracks her knuckles before she begins to type it out. Her fingers leave sweaty prints on the keyboard. Why didn’t she buy a case?

Dear Alana,
I can’t make it into work today. I have to take a personal day.

She deletes the second line.

I’m contagious.

Depression is a non-communicable disease, you idiot.

I need a mental health day.

Delete.

I need a day to fall apart, okay? I’ll be back to normal tomorrow. I just need to fall apart and be broken for today. I just can’t do it anymore.

Delete.

I’ve eaten all my nails, and I want to drink and it’s seven in the morning. I want my brain to stop working because it’s moving so slowly and it’s just telling me to die. I’m not suicidal- I can barely get up today. Killing myself would be too much effort. Too messy.

She holds her right index finger down on the delete button with her eyes boring into the jagged nail hanging off the cuticle. Ultimately she settles on:

I’m not feeling well.

Cara calls her therapist, who makes an appointment with a general practitioner to give Big Pharma one more sucker. Cara taking a leave of absence from work garners much debate.

You never used to be like this, says her mother over the phone.

Yes I was. I just hid it, and now I can’t hide anymore. It was all working until it stopped.

How is this going to affect your job?

I can’t work like this.

Is this about Kevin?

She thinks about the way he made her feel. She thinks about getting off the phone with him, and her lungs constricting. How he was a respite, not a cure. An umbrella, not clear skies. She thinks about the times she let him go to voicemail, shaking sitting on the side of the highway with her legs drawn up like a kid.

No. It’s about me.

She hears later from Liz that she’s a popular topic for gossip. People whisper about it in the lounge during lunch.

How were we supposed to know she was depressed?

She seemed fine.

She was great at Ed’s dinner party. She told that joke about the leprechaun. How can a depressed person make jokes?

Cara can’t remember the joke, but fair point. Surely it’s all an act. She’s looking for disability, worker’s comp. God forbid she look for help. The office feels like years ago, miles away. She couldn’t stop this from affecting her work. But no one talked about this. How could she know that one day she wouldn’t be able to handle it anymore?

She did her work.

I can’t believe she’s letting this affect her work. says her supervisor wearing the face of a calm dragon in a dream that Cara wakes from, sweating bullets. She seemed fine.</p>

Yes, but did anyone actually ask?


Zeus Sumra

Second Prize, Fiction
Zeus Sumra  Psychology, Brooklyn College

The Pyramid

There are three tiers to the pyramid: bronze, silver, gold. And I’ve been working hard to move up the ranks, tier by tier. No point in being bronze. Silver isn’t good enough either. I can’t even begin to think of anything less than gold.

The trick is to always wear a carefully ironed shirt and well-fitted suit. Firm handshake. Be infectious. Avoid the sly, Mona Lisa smile. Otherwise they won’t fall for it. I mean, I won’t convince them (That’s how we say it at the Pyramid). Otherwise, I’ll end up not making it to gold. And then what? Am I going to work in office-and-print at Staples? I mean, we’re talking rude customers (because the customer is always right), and getting written up for punching in at 9:01 (never mind the MTA. Once, someone jumped in the tracks at 34th street—manager didn’t really care). And paper cuts. Dear God, paper cuts!

So here’s how I reel them in. I start off by telling them that the Pyramid is about selling coffee. That they can make a ton of money by selling coffee. And then I tell them that the money isn’t really in selling coffee. The money is in getting other people to sell coffee. And then if they really, really want to make money, then of course they get those people to get other people to get other people. You get me? So, that’s how I’m making it to gold. Many have told me that it is a Ponzi scheme. You cannot, must not, listen to them. These are the nay-sayers. They know nothing. Will amount to nothing and die that way. People like us, are different. All I think of is gold, and you should too. Because, what? Do I look like I’m going to become a barista at Starbucks with a name tag that says “Zachary”? I mean, we’re talking thirteen twenty-five per hour. Standing on my feet the whole eight-hour shift. And I can’t even afford Dr. Scholl’s. What are my legs made out of ? Steel? And then there’s over time. Can you imagine? Me, standing on my feet overtime as if they’re made out of steel. And then I feel like I want to walk bare-foot to Brooklyn; stopping at Duane Read to buy Heinz Vinegar for two forty-nine plus tax and essential oils for four eighty- nine plus tax. More than half an hour’s wage is how much it costs to soak my feet.

All it takes is focus on signing people up. And getting these people to sign up other people. Bronze. Silver. And then gold. Just sign up enough people to get to gold. And then, keep pushing and I’ll be driving a Porsche like me. What do you think I’m going to do? Drive an Uber. Is that what you think? Do you know how much insurance costs for a car rental? I can’t be curling up my spine into a macaroni all day. Making stops at Starbucks until I’m best friends with Zachary, the barista. And on the day that I miss my cup of coffee I’m falling asleep after dropping off the first person in the Uber pool. Yes, there’s another stop to make and I’m falling asleep and rear-ending some guy driving a Porsche. Dear God, do you not know how much insurance costs for a car rental?

People doubt and I reaffirm each anxiety. People worry and I address each concern. Often, I hear a lot of rubbish. The Eye of providence. Illumanti. Beyonce. Madonna. Obama. Tupac. Freemasonry conspiracy. And, “take a look at our currency.” Some say that the pyramid is a metaphor; the pyramid is slavery; the pyramid is capitalism. The pyramid is—

And then again, the pyramid was built by Pharaoh. Or better yet, Pharaoh forced the slaves to build the pyramid. And that Bernie Sanders is trying to be Moses except he can’t—at least he tried to—part the red sea.

But the pyramid is harmless. It has a square base (which is where I don’t want to be at) and four triangular sides that meet and merge to the apex (and of course slavery was triangular back in the day). Because what? Am I going to become a nurse? There’s blood. Some kid is coughing up phlegm and the mother is cussing me out for amoxicillin. Some drunk guy walks into the E.R., iPhone in the back pocket sounds like a boom box blaring tracks from Lemonade, with a knife stuck in his right eye. And there’s blood. And phlegm. And dear God, where is the eye?

I always think of gold. Dream of it. Read about it. Think and grow rich. The Greatest Salesman in the World. I think about it right before sleep and then dream of it. I pray that it comes—like a blessing or a curse, but that it comes period. This business isn’t for everyone. I stay motivated with a monomaniac focus on getting gold and silence all the nay-sayers.

Every day I think about how I got into this business. I once had a six figure salary at an accounting firm. Someone told me about the pyramid and that I can make six figures while sitting at home. All I had to do was get people to sell coffee. And get them to get others to sell coffee. Quit my job and never looked back. And now I sit home and collect my checks. Soon, I’ll be driving that Porsche.

Now all we need for you to start, is your very own fish story. Maybe you can be that guy who worked as an optometrist and left because a patient had blood in his eye and you hate blood. Because, what are you going to have a fear of ? Eyes? No one will believe that. Or you can be that guy who had a job at the bank until you saw the difference between Zachary’s direct deposits and the account balance of the man who drives a Porsche. What? You think this is immoral? How else will I convince people to join the pyramid? And how will I be at the apex instead of being at the base?

It’s not like I can work a regular nine-to-five job, trapped in a cubicle. Or running around in circles on the twenty-eighth floor of some god-forsaken vertical prison with no chance of a promotion. Or spelling every other customer’s name wrong on the coffee cup until my shitty boss, Zachary, who has a name tag—“Assistant Manager since yesterday” threatens to fire me. Chances are I’ll get paid peanuts. And what can I do with peanuts? Nothing. And then I realize, that I left one pyramid to be part of something else that is shaped like a pentagon. Shaped like a bunch of vertical prisons in Manhattan. Shaped like a cuboid with a dome and painted white (wasn’t that also built by slaves?). Or a cuboid with a dome and a cross at the very top. Any shape to disguise the pyramid that underlies. Wake up and smell the coffee!

The only way out is to probably be a starving artist writing about the pyramid. Painting, singing, dancing meringue around the pyramid. it’s not like I’m ever going to be like Beyonce? Tupac? Madonna? Don’t be funny and say Obama (not in this era). What I’m talking about is endless rejections. Sharing a room in Crown Heights with four other artists, eating ramen noodles and watching DVD’s from the local library because I can’t afford cable or AMC. Until I have to move to Brownsville because rent’s gone up. Until. And then—

Now, how about that pyramid. I’m talking fooling people, giving false hope, poison disguised as promise. You in?


Jovon Pryce

Third Prize, Fiction
Jovon Pryce  Chemistry, Hunter College

Packed Trains and Empty shelves

Human Fly, U.N. window washer, Bedrich Grunzweig, 1950.

Happiness is the manifestation of satisfying rewards, loving relationships, and fulfilling endeavors. It is no wonder, then, why you are not happy. Happiness is the root of all joyful lives. Without it, is life really worth living? Surprisingly, laborers have proven that they don’t need happiness in order to survive. They’ve become accustomed to waking up early and rushing to a meager job on a packed train—rushing to clock in. At days end, they scramble to collect their things—rushing to go home. When they finally make it home, they often find that they’re hungry for food, but money will be scarce when determination to excel has been expelled by disinterest in one’s profession. So, their cores are left devoid of food and fulfillment.

With a heavy sigh, you close the book. Staring at the bland cover, you hope that the hardback will be able to contain all the truly depressing information inked on the pages within. You can’t make out the title as it has been etched away by time, fear, and the hatred of past readers. Readers who could surely relate to the words on some personal level, as you just have.

A quick glance at your watch reminds you that you only have twenty-five minutes to get to your least favorite place in the world. You wonder if it’ll happen again today. If, on your way there, your mind will drag you to the future, where you’ll be standing over a still body lying on a flat table, and you’ll move expertly, scalpel in hand, carving to save a life. The thought fills you with dread.

If you are taken to that place, you’ll surely also think of that other place. The one where your sitting in front of a desk, pen in hand, expertly carving words along still paper. Ah, the smell of ink coats the room, and it fills you with peace.

Both thoughts will fade as the silence is broken by the ding of the trains arrival. You will stand along with tens of miserable faces, moving towards the doors. The crowd outside will part before rushing in to replace your collective gloom with their own. This is certain. The certainty of it all fills you with anxiety.

The look of the people around you makes you realize just how loudly you’re breathing. “Swallow the nerves,” you whisper to yourself. But it gets stuck in your throat and you cough. They’re staring even more aggressively now. Awkward. Ignoring it, you look over at the bookshelf, right at the empty spot at the bottom where you got the bland, miserable book. You smile at how fitting that spot so close to the bottom is for such a lowdown, terrible book. You stare at the emptiness. You think of your parents, who sacrificed everything to bring you to this country, far away from the familiarity of their own home. You think of their expectations for you; become a doctor, make money, save lives. Their hope sucks away your own. As you think of the hours you’ve spent toiling through medical books, studying, practicing, preparing, you’re filled with fatigue. But then you remember that they’re books first and foremost, despite the mundanity of their topic. A smile cracks across your hardened face. You look crazy, certainly.

“You’re very gifted at writing,” your teachers told you. They said it so much that you actually started to believe it. “Don’t think you’ll make any money doing that,” your brother and mother’s words, spoken years ago, echo in your mind. Alas, it was too late. Back then, you had already designed a makeshift journal by stacking loose-leaf and tying it together with thread. You made a practice of writing down the days occurrences in it and sharing it with your family. After three days you ripped it apart because something that now seems meaningless happened. Looking back on memories like that fills you with regret, occasionally.

They’re wrong—your parents. You are gifted, you decide. Maybe you can’t make money writing, but you’ll be a lot happier dealing with ink than blood. Probably.

Reason rushes to tear into you for daring to think of such absurdity. The safe thing to do is to finish college and pursue a career in the most lucrative, expansive field possible: medicine. Jobs are always readily available there. After all, people will always get sick. On the other hand, writers are like rats. Everywhere you turn there’s a blogger, a poet, an author, screaming to be read—to be heard. Nothing makes you any different.

Twenty minutes to go. You rush to the receptionist’s desk. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a messy bun, and her hands are working furiously, attacking some poor book with a ballpoint sword—pen, you correct yourself. She sighs and sets the pen aside, waiting for something to happen.

“Well, are you just gonna stand there looking pretty, or do you need something?”

It takes a moment before you realize she’s addressing you. The subtle beauty of a woman at work distracted you, clearly. You weren’t staring at the low hanging curve of her shirt’s collar—nope. Messy hair and sloppy clothing, the tell-tale signs of a hard-working individual, or a lazy bum; you’ll have to decide later, after you take a look in the mirror.

Somehow, you manage to croak out a weak, “how are you?”

She looks annoyed now. “I’m great, how are you?” You get ready to tell her you’re having a midlife crisis when, suddenly, she shoots her hand out to shield herself. “I was being sarcastic!..I don’t really wanna know, dude,” she admits. Quiet sets in. Awkward. Disappointedly, you let the silence sit between the two of you.

Sighing deeply, she states, matter of factly, “I was working on a piece, since you asked.”

Curious, you press on, “A piece of steak? Cause you were slashing that book to pieces…” you tease. She stares back, abhorring your presence. Her glare is matched by your grin.

“Let me read it,” you demand.

“No,” she shoots back. Her apprehension masks something. Is that fear?

“Why not? All good writing deserves to be read.” Your statement betrays you.

“You say that like you know anything about writing, kid,” she retorts.

Preferring not to give away your most closely held dreams, you ponder how old she might be. She called you a kid, because she wants to belittle you?...Or, because she’s old and miserable, instead of just miserable? But you realize that she can’t be that miserable if she can do something so passionately: hack at paper. Slender arms and a high-pitched voice tell you that she can’t be much older than you; however, the bags under her eyes and wrinkles nested in their corners challenge that idea. The corners of her mouth have wrinkles, too, the kind you get from frowning a lot. She keeps glancing back at her piece. A quick glance behind her reveals stacks of books, litters of magazines, and trash heaps of crumbled paper. It immediately registers that this poor receptionist is a writer. So, she’s miserable after all, you decide. A librarian gets to be around books all the time, but you doubt that would be enough for someone like her—or someone like you.

“I’m writing America’s next greatest novel, if you must know,” she finally says.

Oh! Intrigue races across your face. Disbelief follows. How could she be writing what you keep stashed under your bed, behind your adidas box of sneakers? “Yeah right,” you respond, hoping she’ll reveal more.

Feigning modesty, she shrugs and begins, “Well, I’ve been writing since I was four! I’m actually really into it, plus I’m a fantastic writer,” she gushes, “I’m not alone in this thought either,” she wags her finger to assure you of that. “My teachers have been urging me to commit to this path since elementary school...I was scared to at first, but I ultimately decided to, as you can see. This here,” she holds up what she’s been writing, “this is my pride and joy. I call it ‘Elephant Run.’ I can’t reveal any information right now, for security reasons, but it’s sure to change the world.” She finishes her spiel, smiling ear to ear. The smile fades when she realizes that everyone’s staring at you two—at her, really. This makes her realize how loudly she was talking and is now breathing.

Still, that doesn’t make your smile fade. You smile because when she spoke, her face lit up, her eyes shone, the little imperfections by her mouth and eyes disappeared. She was filled with happiness, certainly. Though she’s miles behind on her journey, she moves forward, cutting paper like steak, angrily responding to guests, proudly telling her life story to strangers. The thought of it fills you with hope.

Just as everyone is ready to return to their boring old lives, you laugh hysterically. All eyes shoot back at you. She winces, embarrassed for you and herself. “I think you’re a fantastic writer,” you exclaim. Her cheeks flush a rosy red and her sanguine lips part to say, “How would you know? You haven’t even read my work...” Her response speaks volumes, though she whispers it. Despite how confidently she spoke before, there’s still uncertainty underneath her facade.

Placing a hand gently over hers, the one clasping the piece, you answer, “Because you seem happy doing it.” Your answer is more for you than it is for her; it’s something that you wish someone would tell you; that it’ll all be worth it as long as you're happy. Although chasing a dream is risky, the security of your low paying, monotonous job just isn’t worth the suffering you endure. Never mind the possibility that you won’t make a lot of money—you already don’t. At least you’ll be poor AND happy. Moreover, you might just make it big and become rich. Ha-ha, who knows.

The receptionist smiles appreciatively, and nods to your other hand. “So, are you going to get that before you go?”

You manage a confused, “huh,” before looking down to see that wound tightly between your sweaty fingers is that cold, old, depressing, and now truthful book. Had you taken it without realizing? Nevertheless, you were already running late, and returning it would take too much time. You could leave it with her, though she seems like the type to get annoyed by that sort of thing, but for some reason you want to take it. “Yes.”

Rushing out of the library, you barely manage to hear her yell out, “I promise to let you get a sneak peek sometime.” You smile, hoping that, that applied to more than just her book. Boy, was she cute, in a dorky kind of way.

It takes two swipes before the turnstile registers your metro card. Twelve minutes to go. The train takes two, what luck. There are no seats available on the train, so you stand. The book in your bag weighs you down, along with the name tag around your neck and pouch around your waist; you had to get dressed early since you were running so late. The train is packed. You can smell the homeless man sleeping in front of you, taking up several seats. He’s not the only rotten thing on board, though. Laborers, returning from work, reek of sweat and misery.

Come on, come on, you urge the train forward. DING. The train comes to a halt, and a resounding voice reports that there is traffic up ahead. A collective groan fills the train. The sound of people moving wakes the homeless man up. Pulling a dirty baseball cap from behind him, he gets busy. This is his job—begging, that is—and, boy, is he unhappy about it.

“Can anyone spare a quarter?...” No one responds, probably because he grunted each word as if he were angry that they hadn’t already offered up their wallets. He begins telling the story of how his life fell to such depravity. Tired workers turn their backs, some passengers turn up their music, but some naive persons tune in. You can see them listening intently as the man weaves his story. He’s just like any of you. He had a nine to five and worked all his life, but his job let him go. One day, just like that, his life went to shit. Pointing at several passengers, he tries to connect with them, to convey the point that it could easily be them in his shoes, begging for change.

“I worked for my employers for years, passing up on my own dreams,” he explains, pausing between words to cough. “It was a decent job, nothing to brag about, but nothing to cry at night over either—cough—I was supposed to be a doctor you know! Save lives and shit, now I’m the sick one—cough. Ugh, the irony, ha-ha... I gave everything to that job, because I saw it as a way to avoid this type of life. But it just used me, wrung me dry, chewed me up and then spit me out. That’s what most of them will do to ya. Especially when your hearts not in it. I’ll tell you one thing though… I’d rather be here than there! So, don’t look at me like that. Don’t look at me with pity. I’d rather feel your contempt… I was a hardworking man, and I still am. I’m not asking for handouts… This is just so I can get back on track to my dreams, really.” He finishes and wipes the spit that accumulated and momentarily moistened his dry lips.

A few people toss some money his way, holding the bills at the very edge as to not come in contact with his hand. The man grabs the money excitedly, taking no care to avoid contaminating their clean hands with his own. You laugh at that. It doesn’t seem like anyone else will contribute to his plight at this time, so he climbs back onto his bed. He is filled with resignation.

Fortunately, the train starts moving again. Later, the ding sounds again and you’re at your stop. The crowd shifts once more, preparing to exit. You feel something tugging on your faded black jeans—work expects you to wear completely black trousers, 09 black, they call it, but you’ve been putting off buying a newer, darker pair in an effort to conserve money. You look down and find filthy brown hands holding onto you. Cracked, dry lips part to say, “Spare a quarter, kid?” You are filled with pity. You rummage through your back pocket and draw out a dollar. Handing it to the man, you smile down at him and say, “Keep the change.” You think he winks at you, but he’s really rolling his eyes.

The doors slide open, and the crowd outside parts waiting impatiently for your misery to evacuate their den; instead you step out filled with the pride that comes from helping someone out. You can’t help but feel like the kindest, most thoughtful person in the world right now. Then, you imagine that you might need that money later. You think of how that one dollar is one-fourteenth of your hourly wage. You are filled with worry.

As you get to work, you think of your job’s “three standard phrases,” the most important of which is: “Hello, how are you today?” It’s a polite way of greeting customers, even though most of them just ignore you. You think of how useless it all is. This sentiment is shared by most of your coworkers, even the managers. Nonetheless, you clock in four minutes late. Thanking God, or maybe the corporate executives, for creating the five-minute grace period policy, you rush up the stairs.

You pass the low hanging heads and sad eyes of some coworkers. Too tired to speak, they ignore you. You’ve barely started but you’re already feeling lonely. It forces you to think back to the library. You consider whether that receptionist is still working on her piece, carving elephants out of steak. It makes you smile. You nearly walk into a wall, “Ouch.”

The momentary relapse into reality lasts until you make it to the store floor, where a supervisor is waiting to give you instructions. Looking over at the stores advertisement for their new selvedge denim reminds you of the book you recently salvaged. Back into the library you go. Your mind drifts back to that empty, dark spot at the bottom of the bookshelf where you got that sad, unbearably honest book. You can hear the supervisor shouting orders, but you’re not really listening. You think of the space’s emptiness. You desperately want to fill it with something—a book! Yes, to fill that space with your own book would be marvelous. A good book, too. Something cheerful, nothing like the one you removed. Because you are certain that most books at the bottom shelf are gloomy, you want to break the rhythm of it all. Because you wished you could break the rhythm of your own life. You wish your manager would stop yelling. You wish you weren’t stuck in a low paying, mindless retail job. You wish you could give the homeless man a dollar and not regret it later. You wish you didn’t rush to places. You wish it was a pen in your hand and not your pouch. You wish you could share a sneak peek of your bottom of the shelf book with the receptionist.

You desperately want to fill that empty book space with a book. That desperation fills you with determination.

“Are you even listening!? Maybe you don’t belong here!” Your manager screams, frustrated with your negligence.

Just then a customer straddles over. Your manager is right, no doubt. You don’t belong there. He doesn’t belong there either. He just isn’t brave enough to admit it. He waits for an answer, but, instead, you turn to the customer. Taking in a deep breath, you steady your heart rate, preparing yourself, and finally you shout, “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” The customer, manager, receptionist, and you, are all filled with confusion—for now, at least, that much is certain.

The pain of your job, sadness of the homeless man, misery of the train laborers, emptiness of the bookshelf, the hope of the receptionist’s dream, as well as your own, fills you. It all fills you.


Vicky Lee

First Prize, Poetry
Vicky Lee  Film Production, Brooklyn College

I Knew Him By Night

7am, Vicky Lee, 2017

It’s 2 AM
A stream of light passes through the crack of my bedroom door.
I panic that it’s a robber,
or a UFO from Scooby Doo and the Alien Invaders
but my mind eases at the sound of the microwave buzzing.
He’s back from work.
The cool ground sends goosebumps to my arms.
I squint at the kitchen light and watch my dad’s back
as he pours a glass of Pinot Noir 2001.
A good one apparently.
He says I have 14 years to go
before I know for sure

Like usual, he tells me to go back to sleep
so that I’ll be taller,
but I know he’s sad that he’s not at home
to see me grow older.
I brush past him and sit across with a glass of water.

The calluses of his hands
soften under balancing hot dishes of
duck confit
seared in a gooseberry reduction
with a side of roasted asparagus
garnished with thyme
on his fingers, wrists, and arms all night.
Gliding from the ballroom to the kitchen
trading dishes to serve the next course

He hands me a toothpick
and I take a bite of the paper cup of leftovers
from today’s menu
He laughs when I twist my lips, at the
strong herb taste
but he doesn’t mind it, and pours the juices
right over his bowl of
cold rice.

Silence settles as he inhales the rich aroma of his glass,
soothing me with with his breath, like when he makes me
honey lemon tea
in the winter.
I keep him company
every few white slushy nights
we reunite.

He tells me to help him
dye his hair back to black.
I comb the grey goop through his salt and pepper straight locks,
and he tells me to not miss the back of his head
like last time.
So, I brush
back and forth
side to side.
Careful not to mention
the small bald spot.

My eyelids droop, and he tells me to sleep soon
but I fight the drowsiness.
His laugh lines relax
and there’s a lightness to his shoulders that I only notice
at night, when it’s just
Us.

He tells me to drink more milk,
but he doesn’t remember that I don’t like the taste.

It’s 4 AM
I stir under the duvet and push my pillow away
It’s too hot.
There’s a sound of rainfall in the distance.
No wait. It’s from the shower.
I lay quietly counting how many seconds go by.
I lose track twice, but the water stops at 24 this time.
He clears his throat, flicks the lights off, and closes the bathroom door.
I hear the sound of rain again.
No wait. It’s from the fish tank.

It’s 7 AM
The morning sun filters through the window,
catching light on a spoon left on the kitchen table.
I fix a bowl of Raisin Bran, for once
it was something I didn’t have to share with my brother.

I sit down across from the figure that I was with

just a couple of hours ago.
The sunlight takes away the red tired streaks in his eyes from last night.
His shoulders hunch forward,
barricading his hollow chest
from the cool breeze slipping through the stained window
that is still stuck from last year.
He says he’ll get to it soon

He brings his coffee to his lips,
never trembling at its boiling heat.
He says he’s going to work again.

Half a glass of red wine sits unfinished at the end of the table
wrapped in plastic,
waiting to be savored later tonight.
The deep cherry liquid seems to almost evaporate
with each passing minute.
Dust collects on the clear plastic,
and the sun leaves a raspberry colored halo on the table.
My math test lays beside his coffee ring with a post-it stuck on top.
His signature scrawled beside the 72%,
and even though it was upside down I already know
he wrote, ‘try better next time.’
He slides the paper over
and sighs into his coffee.

I avoid his gaze and focus on the purple clouds
that dot behind the gentle trees outside.
They glaze over the milky sky like the residue
of the dirty dishes of his I find most mornings.

He tells me to not eat cereal,
and to make something more filling.
It’s a waste of time making pancakes for one,
but he doesn’t know I spend my mornings alone,
how I scraped my knee falling down at recess
how I have a $2 fine at the library
how I fell asleep in Ms. Chen’s math class

The brunch shift starts at 10,
but he needs to help set up tables starting at 8:30, and he takes
a hour train ride to work at 7:30,
and it’s a ten minute walk to the train station,
and it takes him ten minutes to get dressed and ready,
so he needs to leave the house at—

7:10.

I want to remind him
to add more math problems
to the list he leaves on my desk
to practice and solve
without his help
without my brothers help
without my moms help
but on my own
when I get home from school.

But I know he’ll forget again,
like last time.
He sighs into his coffee.

I chew as quietly as I can.
The raisins is too hard, the brans is soft, and the milk is sweet.


Grayson Wolf

Second Prize, Poetry
Grayson Wolf  English, Hunter College

Synoptic

Time’s Square, Costantino Nivola, 1943

9 to 5
It was 2014 / 15 / 16
it was the M, the J, the Z
it was like this but in 3D:

Trusses clipping the windows in bold italics
the East River’s blue description as if ribboned by X’s
then the trees, brick-faced buildings, cars, streets.

It was at a distance then in transit
from the general toward the specific
the above-ground’s flickering list
of person / place / thing

     diced light, ‘Hot Mallets,’ lintels, rivets.

It was left and right
that ceremony of storefronts
by train
     then by bus
on the 38, 48 or 64
all the b’s weaving
uneasily between the double parked
and traffic.

     And shouldering
through doorways, stairwells
or along the platform’s edge
the day’s worth of commuters
become the evening’s
painted in the station’s bare florescence.

It was that impatient procession
at the narrow escalator entrance
each face climbing the opposite
direction, the broad shoulders of girls
breasts heavy and loose beneath tees
or the half-worn headphones and
all those mouths opening and closing
around the latest Drake Rihanna or Bey cadences
swaying in then out of earshot.

2.

It grew particular as it grew

The damp air still stung from last night’s regulars
idling after the doors locked to help ‘clean up’
smoke chaining into the yellow overheads.

It was Aush, Kah, Mo or Key.

It was Magda, Jon, Jules or Spencer.

It was the two cigarettes suspended in one Collins of water
when the gates go down; pre-light needling the horizontals.

And it was the same two cigarettes, swollen, in the half-full Collins
when the porter enters, morning falling across the bar-top.

It was the porter sorting the bin of drained bottles
the hand’s way the body exposes its cautious thought
pausing over the creased mouths of the shattered empties
the undamaged MGD’s, bud heavies and lights filling
the boxes for recycling then the bucket with water, the cap with bleach.

Then the mop head curled over into its knot
the heel’s weight coaxing a water turned grey
with whatever residue the previous night tracked in.

It’s meticulous work.

The print of lips on a dirty tumbler.
A baggy licked clean of coke.

It was last call then it was really last call.
5 AM and through the working one of two torn speakers
BBC’s ‘New’s Hour’ at a mutter.

Counting down the drawer as if with every other bar in the city, to 300
in 10’s 5’s and 1’s, leave the pennies.

It was Midway, Ontario, Boat.
It was Lucy’s, Irene’s or Sophie’s.

It was our daylight bodies dressed in yesterday’s clothing
stepping into the bone-clean morning to reports of Orlando, Paris, Nice.

Weather reports, financial reports as him and her walked freshly to work.

It was one day falling over into the next like river dreck adrift in the newsfeed
buttered rolls and coffee - light and sweet / light and sweet.

Zade, Sam, Suze, Greg, James or C.

It was the movie of our dream and of our nightmare, the total film
we carried inside of us.

We with our dreams bare our faces as to the camera
and smile.


Yocheved Friedman

Third Prize, Poetry
Yocheved Friedman  Neuroscience, Queens College

Music Notes on Life-sized Harp
in Metal and Ink

Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, Eugene de Salignac, 1914, LaborArts

There are people up there, marooned on the grid
of our vertical city.
Painting the fingertips of the skyline.
They look like coordinate points on a municipal timeline. Here, is the notch where they built the Brooklyn bridge. It took this many hands to stretch across the urban sea, this many knots to tow the cable out, lassoing the
pintods on Bedford avenue
to the brownstones in the Bloomingdale district.
This here, is the marker for the great panic of ’83,
starting on the Manhattan end,
rumors rippling all the way to Brooklyn along the metal grating.
And here, this here, is where the sandhogs dug
the foundation below the bridge.
Underwater, in pressurized chambers, laying trench lines
in the river like day-crossers trapped in caisson boxes.
And finally, this is the painter’s notch,
De Salignac’s notch.
From the top of the suspenders, the
swallow of water must have appeared blurry
and almost matted to the floor of the earth.
At eye level with corporate buildings,
if you dropped a pipe,
a paintbrush,
it would take full seconds before they would puncture the river.
Inside the overfilled sky,
the shape of an opened mouth,
a netting of steel wires has swallowed a handful
of bridge welders and dynamite haulers,
holding up the intermediate space between the boroughs,
crooning their necks over the cables to find
tiny squares in which to look out over the river into the patchwork of
Brooklyn and the necessary noise of Manhattan.
Careful to steady themselves over their bridge where
New Yorkers will peddle themselves to work each morning and
back across to home. Because bridges are meant to be sailed on,
to catch the dust of the river, the clatter of loose tools from the top of the main towers, which sometimes find the silhouette of mechanical shadows when the moon
is half opened.


Fatma Elgohary

First Prize, Visual Arts
Fatma Elgohary  Fine Arts, Hunter College

 

Crafting Tradition  Analog photography.

In November, I took this photograph of Lois an elder mennonite woman, a matriarch of sorts in her community, knitting and stitching a traditional bonnett known as a “kapp.” The picture was part of a broader project of photographing traditional and religious women in various faith communities. The photograph was captured on a 1972 Mamiya RB67 medium format film camera.

While taking the portraits of the mennonite women, Lois was preparing the traditional kapps. One of the young lady’s hair had outgrown her kapp, so Lois started to create a new one. I noticed something very special in the work she was doing, she was creating a very traditional headdress from the simplest materials. A practice done by thousands of women centuries before her, and slowly dissipating except in small rural communities like theirs.

There is something inspiring about this type of labor in our modern times. And as you can tell by Lois’ hands it is truly labor. Her strength and her smile as she finishes the hat demonstrate a beauty that emanates from this traditional manual practice.

Labor need not be men digging away in coal mines or building skyscrapers. Rather, labor is also the years of work Lois has given to her community knitting kapps, sewing traditional dresses, tending to the farm, and teaching children. There is a purity in this traditional work, it is emblematic of societies past that we must not forget, which is why I took this picture, and why I submit it today.


Jacqueline Gallo

Second Prize, Visual Arts
Jacqueline Gallo  Psychology, Brooklyn College

 

Hi, Welcome to Taco Bell  Mixed media, paper, marker. Click image to enlarge.

We all love technology, but what will we do when it starts taking people’s jobs? Every time I go into McDonald’s and see someone order at the kiosk instead of the register, I think about how that is one more reason for McDonald’s to add another kiosk instead of hire another person.

Working in fast food is monotonous, fast paced and extremely frustrating. Workers, largely immigrants and people of color, are pushed to the limit with long hours full of nonstop tasks. Many have multiple food service jobs to get by. The fast food restaurant is a web, even a human machine made by the cooperation of all the separate parts. In this piece, I show the monotony of fast food work, visually and verbally and the meager salary fast food workers receive with a canvas made of old pay stubs from two different employers. The order taker’s script is poetic in its predictability. The choreography of the drive thru worker is the unchanging through every shift.

I worry what will happen when fast food chains like Taco Bell, where I worked for three years, develop technology to the point where a fraction of the number of workers are needed to keep a store running; to the point where machines are taking orders and folding burritos. In 2013, there were 3.6 million fast food workers in America. How will we compensate when their jobs are obsolete?


Shuki Hasson

Third Prize, Visual Arts
Shuki Hasson   Business, Borough of Manhattan CC

 

Falafel  Graphic design for print.

As an Arab Israeli Immigrant to the US, I wanted my work to relate to as many people from as many backgrounds possible; I wanted to pay tribute to our New York culture, inspired by my own upbringing.

The work is a street sign that can be found at every corner of this city, it is simple and intuitive. The black and dark yellow stripes resemble the markers of a construction area, a place where every hard laborer has the same color regarding of their ethnicity, one that is a mixture of dust & sweat.

The word “Falafel,” written using three (3) languages (Arabic, Hebrew & English), has three (3) meanings. The first is the diversity that makes the human fabric of New York. The second is the hard labor it is associated with—the street corner vendors standing inside clouds of smoke, serving food full of flavor, originating far from New York yet has its own home here. And the third is the “A,” Larger than the rest of the letters, at the heart of this sign, connecting those who’ve been in this land before it became the US, all the way through generations to those who are setting foot in it as you are reading this, for the purpose that drives us every day beyond the basic survival—AMERICA!—A place for dreamers & a home for doers.


 

Background & Credits for 2017–2018

The CUNY/Labor Arts contest aims to expand student’s thinking about labor history, broadly defined, and is open to any undergraduate attending a CUNY college. Begun in 2010, it encourages students to write creatively and analytically about work and workers, to make art about work and workers, and to link their efforts to the spirit of LaborArts.

We would like to thank all of the students who submitted work for the 2017–18 contest, and to congratulate the authors of the prize-winning essays and poems and the creators of the visual art featured in this exhibit. All CUNY students are encouraged to begin considering possible themes for entries in next year’s contest. Guidelines for the 2018–19 contest will be available in fall 2018; the guidelines used for this contest can be found here.

The contest is funded by LaborArts, with support from The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and was made possible this year through the efforts of Brooklyn College/CUNY Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh, and Rachel Bernstein and Evelyn Jones Rich from LaborArts.

Special thanks to the judges: Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh (Non-Fiction), Professor Joseph Moore (Visual Art), Adjunct Professor Rafi Kiureghian (Poetry), and Adjunct Professor Drew Pham (Fiction). Many thanks to the Graduate Center for Worker Education’s director Lucas Rubin and his extraordinary staff, including Mohammed Sujon and Anselma Rodriguez; to the staff in Director Kavanagh’s office, particularly Arelis Berroa; and to LaborArts interns Shanika Carlies and Hassanatou Dialo.

The photographs of students and event speakers were taken by photographer David Rozenblyum at the Awards Ceremony, held at the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education in Lower Manhattan on April 18, 2018.


 

Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
2017–2018 Contest Rules

Congratulations to the 2018 winners! The exhibit featuring their work will be available in mid-May.

Bonnie Morano Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art.Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should be about work, and be in some way linked to an image of work and workers. The aim is to encourage visual literacy and serious attention to the history of workers. Keep in mind that paid work and labor unions are only part of the story—entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. The contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.


Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 6, 2018 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.

 

Fasanella - Subway Rider #2

Here’s what makes this contest unusual—
Students submitting written work must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; OR d) an image from another source. Sample images from the LaborArts.org web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7
  • Sample 8

Students submitting visual artwork ust include a paragraph (100–250 words) explaining how their work shares the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2018.

For more information, contact Brooklyn College Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at mwv@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

Entries must be submitted by March 6, 2018 at this link.