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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brickyard Day Labor; Life on the Margins

by James Purcell Jr.

It isn't fair to judge the chill of a Nebraska night by an ordinary gauge. Even if it were 40 degrees in early March there is still a quality to the night that grabs onto bones through layered clothes and wraps itself around them, chilling the bones' owner until he or she would shake uncontrollably.

Lincoln is a bustling place by day, but it has its homeless wandering the Downtown, along O Street, here and there. They might be mistaken for mountain men come down from the high air in Colorado. Their eyes are fixed and their hair and beards are wild. They shuffle with vacant eyes, mostly not begging but just milling about among passers by with their 1,000-yard stares. Often I think these men may have crossed some unseen meridian and we walk among them unseen as they travel through some world I cannot see. Maybe it is a world where they are not cold, or hungry, and can ignore the blast of the Great Plains' nightly torrent. In the morning, most have survived and some have not.

And then there are the others, who have not taken to the streets yet or who have just left the confines of indoor living in an early foray into their homelessness. One of the last tethers of hope for these people are the day labor jobs that can be found from the town's two big employment agencies.

I signed up with one, which promised back-breaking work and little pay for long hours and outdoor conditions. The brickyard was a favorite spot for labor. Brickyards need lots of labor -- lots of day labor. One might draw pulling bricks off the assembly line after they are broken up by machine, or quality controlling the bricks to be packaged, or packaging or -- breaking up the bricks that were found wanting from the sorting process. And, those bricks were broken up the old-fashioned way, by sledge hammer. To the naked eye, the 25 or so men sent from the employment agency might just as well have been a prison road gang off to do its chores under the tight control of uniformed officers. What was lacking were the orange jumpsuits, the supervisors wearing uniforms or guns. But then again, the brickyard supervisors didn't need guns because they had something much more important to hold over these men.

Of the 25 or so day laborers they received everyday, there were at least a half-dozen already turned out and living in the small woods just behind the employment agency, where day help received their assignments for the brickyard. Others slept in the deeper woods, huddled in nothing but a good jacket, jeans and work boots. I was one of those still lucky enough to have a car before it would be repossessed in a week or so. Hence, the boss at the employment agency told me to "take two men with you and I'll give you $3 at the end of the day. But, you best be takin' those men, ya hear!?"

'Yes, sir.' I needed the money as much as anyone and was willing to endure whatever I had to in order to just get through the day and live inside.

The $70 from today would go far. I could have meat with my meal. Maybe I could get warm gloves and put a few dollars away for my trip back to New Jersey in a few days. My two charges opened their doors and got in the car. Both had been living outside overnight. The fellow in the backseat, Joey, called out in the middle of the silent ride: "That bitch threw me out for nothing. I can't live in a field. I'm going to die out there."

He might. It could happen. It wouldn't be the first time. It sure wouldn't be the last. What happened if it got legitimately cold out? Joey's Thinsulate jacket wasn't going to do much against 25 degrees with either rain, hail or snow atop it. His eyes were gaunt and wide with fear. I cannot imagine what he felt like after his night's sleep, or how he could propel himself forward to come back for a day's wage at the brickyard.

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