[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class) 15 Years on the Bottom Rung
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Thu May 26 18:55:09 UTC 2005
15 Years on the Bottom Rung
Class Matters - Social Class and Immigration in the United States of America
[Sixth in a series.]
By ANTHONY DePALMA
In the dark before dawn, when Madison Avenue was all but deserted and
its pricey boutiques were still locked up tight, several Mexicans
slipped quietly into 3 Guys, a restaurant that the Zagat guide once
called "the most expensive coffee shop in New York."
For the next 10 hours they would fry eggs, grill burgers, pour coffee
and wash dishes for a stream of customers from the Upper East Side of
Manhattan. By 7:35 a.m., Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York,
was holding a power breakfast back near the polished granite counter.
In the same burgundy booth a few hours later, Michael A. Wiener,
co-founder of the multibillion-dollar Infinity Broadcasting, grabbed a
bite with his wife, Zena. Just the day before, Uma Thurman slipped
in for a quiet lunch with her children, but the paparazzi found her
and she left.
More Mexicans filed in to begin their shifts throughout the morning,
and by the time John Zannikos, one of the restaurant's three Greek
owners, drove in from the North Jersey suburbs to work the lunch
crowd, Madison Avenue was buzzing. So was 3 Guys.
"You got to wait a little bit," Mr. Zannikos said to a pride of
elegant women who had spent the morning at the Whitney Museum of
American Art, across Madison Avenue at 75th Street. For an illiterate
immigrant who came to New York years ago with nothing but $100 in his
pocket and a willingness to work etched on his heart, could any words
have been sweeter to say?
With its wealthy clientele, middle-class owners and low-income work
force, 3 Guys is a template of the class divisions in America. But it
is also the setting for two starkly different tales about breaching
The familiar story is Mr. Zannikos's. For him, the restaurant - don't
dare call it a diner - with its $20 salads and elegant décor
represents the American promise of upward mobility, one that has been
fulfilled countless times for generations of hard-working immigrants.
But for Juan Manuel Peralta, a 34-year-old illegal immigrant who
worked there for five years until he was fired last May, and for many
of the other illegal Mexican immigrants in the back, restaurant work
today is more like a dead end. They are finding the American dream of
moving up far more elusive than it was for Mr. Zannikos. Despite his
efforts to help them, they risk becoming stuck in a permanent
underclass of the poor, the unskilled and the uneducated.
That is not to suggest that the nearly five million Mexicans who, like
Mr. Peralta, are living in the United States illegally will never
emerge from the shadows. Many have, and undoubtedly many more will.
But the sheer size of the influx - over 400,000 a year, with no end in
sight - creates a problem all its own. It means there is an
ever-growing pool of interchangeable workers, many of them shunting
from one low-paying job to another. If one moves on, another one - or
maybe two or three - is there to take his place.
Although Mr. Peralta arrived in New York almost 40 years after Mr.
Zannikos, the two share a remarkably similar beginning. They came at
the same age to the same section of New York City, without legal
papers or more than a few words of English. Each dreamed of a better
life. But monumental changes in the economy and in attitudes toward
immigrants have made it far less likely that Mr. Peralta and his
children will experience the same upward mobility as Mr. Zannikos and
Of course, there is a chance that Mr. Peralta may yet take his place
among the Mexican-Americans who have succeeded here. He realizes that
he will probably not do as well as the few who have risen to high
office or who were able to buy the vineyards where their grandfathers
once picked grapes. But he still dreams that his children will someday
join the millions who have lost their accents, gotten good educations
and firmly achieved the American dream.
Political scientists are divided over whether the 25 million people of
Mexican ancestry in the United States represent an exception to the
classic immigrant success story. Some, like John H. Mollenkopf at
the City University of New York, are convinced that Mexicans will
eventually do as well as the Greeks, Italians and other Europeans of
the last century who were usually well assimilated after two or three
generations. Others, including Mexican-Americans like Rodolfo O. de
la Garza, a professor at Columbia, have done studies showing that
Mexican-Americans face so many obstacles that even the fourth
generation trails other Americans in education, home ownership and
The situation is even worse for the millions more who have illegally
entered the United States since 1990. Spread out in scores of cities
far beyond the Southwest, they find jobs plentiful but advancement
difficult. President Vicente Fox of Mexico was forced to apologize
this month for declaring publicly what many Mexicans say they feel,
that the illegal immigrants "are doing the work that not even
blacks want to do in the United States." Resentment and race subtly
stand in their way, as does a lingering attachment to Mexico, which is
so close that many immigrants do not put down deep roots here. They
say they plan to stay only long enough to make some money and then go
back home. Few ever do.
But the biggest obstacle is their illegal status. With few routes open
to become legal, they remain, like Mr. Peralta, without rights,
without security and without a clear path to a better future.
"It's worrisome," said Richard Alba, a sociologist at the
State University of New York, Albany, who studies the assimilation
and class mobility of contemporary immigrants, "and I don't see much
reason to believe this will change."
Little has changed for Mr. Peralta, a cook who has worked at menial
jobs in the United States for the last 15 years. Though he makes more
than he ever dreamed of in Mexico, his life is anything but middle
class and setbacks are routine. Still, he has not given up hope.
Querer es poder, he sometimes says: Want something badly enough and
you will get it.
But desire may not be enough anymore. That is what concerns Arturo
Sarukhan, Mexico's consul general in New York. Mr. Sarukhan recently
took an urgent call from New York's police commissioner about an
increase in gang activity among young Mexican men, a sign that they
were moving into the underside of American life. Of all immigrants in
New York City, officials say, Mexicans are the poorest, least educated
and least likely to speak English.
The failure or success of this generation of Mexicans in the United
States will determine the place that Mexicans will hold here in years
to come, Mr. Sarukhan said, and the outlook is not encouraging.
"They will be better off than they could ever have been in Mexico," he
said, "but I don't think that's going to be enough to prevent them
from becoming an underclass in New York."
There is a break in the middle of the day at 3 Guys, after the
lunchtime limousines leave and before the private schools let out.
That was when Mr. Zannikos asked the Mexican cook who replaced Mr.
Peralta to prepare some lunch for him. Then Mr. Zannikos carried the
chicken breast on pita to the last table in the restaurant.
"My life story is a good story, a lot of success," he said, his accent
still heavy. He was just a teenager when he left the Greek island of
Chios, a few miles off the coast of Turkey. World War II had just
ended, and Greece was in ruins. "There was only rich and poor, that's
it," Mr. Zannikos said. "There was no middle class like you have
here." He is 70 now, with short gray hair and soft eyes that can water
at a mention of the past.
Because of the war, he said, he never got past the second grade, never
learned to read or write. He signed on as a merchant seaman, and in
1953, when he was 19, his ship docked at Norfolk, Va. He went ashore
one Saturday with no intention of ever returning to Greece. He left
behind everything, including his travel documents. All he had in his
pockets was $100 and the address of his mother's cousin in the Jackson
Heights-Corona section of Queens.
Almost four decades later, Mr. Peralta underwent a similar rite of
passage out of Mexico. He had finished the eighth grade in the poor
southern state of Guerrero and saw nothing in his future there but
fixing flat tires. His father, Inocencio, had once dreamed of going to
the United States, but never had the money. In 1990, he borrowed
enough to give his first-born son a chance.
Mr. Peralta was 19 when he boarded a smoky bus that carried him
through the deserted hills of Guerrero and kept going until it reached
the edge of Mexico. With eight other Mexicans he did not know, he
crawled through a sewer tunnel that started in Tijuana and ended on
the other side of the border, in what Mexicans call el Norte.
He had carried no documents, no photographs and no money, except what
his father gave him to pay his shifty guide and to buy an airline
ticket to New York. Deep in a pocket was the address of an uncle in
the same section of Queens where Mr. Zannikos had gotten his start. By
1990, the area had gone from largely Greek to mostly Latino.
Starting over in the same working-class neighborhood, Mr. Peralta and
Mr. Zannikos quickly learned that New York was full of opportunities
and obstacles, often in equal measure.
On his first day there, Mr. Zannikos, scared and feeling lost, found
the building he was looking for, but his mother's cousin had moved. He
had no idea what to do until a Greek man passed by. Walk five blocks
to the Deluxe Diner, the man said. He did.
The diner was full of Greek housepainters, including one who knew Mr.
Zannikos's father. On the spot, they offered him a job painting
closets, where his mistakes would be hidden. He painted until the
weather turned cold. Another Greek hired him as a dishwasher at his
coffee shop in the Bronx.
It was not easy, but Mr. Zannikos worked his way up to short-order
cook, learning English as he went along. In 1956, immigration
officials raided the coffee shop. He was deported, but after a short
while he managed to sneak back into the country. Three years later he
married a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. The marriage lasted only a
year, but it put him on the road to becoming a citizen. Now he could
buy his own restaurant, a greasy spoon in the South Bronx that catered
to a late-night clientele of prostitutes and undercover police
Since then, he has bought and sold more than a dozen New York diners,
but none have been more successful than the original 3 Guys, which
opened in 1978. He and his partners own two other restaurants with the
same name farther up Madison Avenue, but they have never replicated
the high-end appeal of the original.
"When employees come in I teach them, 'Hey, this is a different
neighborhood,' " Mr. Zannikos said. What may be standard in some other
diners is not tolerated here. There are no Greek flags or tourism
posters. There is no television or twirling tower of cakes with cream
pompadours. Waiters are forbidden to chew gum. No customer is ever
"They know their place and I know my place," Mr. Zannikos said of his
customers. "It's as simple as that."
His place in society now is a far cry from his days in the Bronx. He
and his second wife, June, live in Wyckoff, a New Jersey suburb where
he pampers fig trees and dutifully looks after a bird feeder shaped
like the Parthenon. They own a condominium in Florida. His three
children all went far beyond his second-grade education, finishing
high school or attending college.
They have all done well, as has Mr. Zannikos, who says he makes about
$130,000 a year. He says he is not sensitive to class distinctions,
but he admits he was bothered when some people mistook him for the
caterer at fund-raising dinners for the local Greek church he helped
All in all, he thinks immigrants today have a better chance of moving
up the class ladder than he did 50 years ago.
"At that time, no bank would give us any money, but today they give
you credit cards in the mail," he said. "New York still gives you more
opportunity that any other place. If you want to do things, you will."
He says he has done well, and he is content with his station in life.
"I'm in the middle and I'm happy."
A Divisive Issue
Mr. Peralta cannot guess what class Mr. Zannikos belongs to. But he is
certain that it is much tougher for an immigrant to get ahead today
than 50 years ago. And he has no doubt about his own class.
"La pobreza," he says. "Poverty."
It was not what he expected when he boarded the bus to the border, but
it did not take long for him to realize that success in the United
States required more than hard work. "A lot of it has to do with
luck," he said during a lunch break on a stoop around the corner from
the Queens diner where he went to work after 3 Guys.
"People come here, and in no more than a year or two they can buy
their own house and have a car," Mr. Peralta said. "Me, I've been here
15 years, and if I die tomorrow, there wouldn't even be enough money
to bury me."
In 1990, Mr. Peralta was in the vanguard of Mexican immigrants who
bypassed the traditional barrios in border states to work in far-flung
cities like Denver and New York. The 2000 census counted 186,872
Mexicans in New York, triple the 1990 figure, and there are
undoubtedly many more today. The Mexican consulate, which serves the
metropolitan region, has issued more than 500,000 ID cards just since
Fifty years ago, illegal immigration was a minor problem. Now it is a
divisive national issue, pitting those who welcome cheap labor against
those with concerns about border security and the cost of providing
social services. Though newly arrived Mexicans often work in
industries that rely on cheap labor, like restaurants and
construction, they rarely organize. Most are desperate to stay out of
Mr. Peralta hooked up with his uncle the morning he arrived in New
York. He did not work for weeks until the bakery where the uncle
worked had an opening, a part-time job making muffins. He took it,
though he didn't know muffins from crumb cake. When he saw that he
would not make enough to repay his father, he took a second job making
night deliveries for a Manhattan diner. By the end of his first day he
was so lost he had to spend all his tip money on a cab ride home.
He quit the diner, but working there even briefly opened his eyes to
how easy it could be to make money in New York. Diners were
everywhere, and so were jobs making deliveries, washing dishes or
busing tables. In six months, Mr. Peralta had paid back the money his
father gave him. He bounced from job to job and in 1995, eager to show
off his newfound success, he went back to Mexico with his pockets full
of money, and he married. He was 25 then, the same age at which Mr.
Zannikos married. But the similarities end there.
When Mr. Zannikos jumped ship, he left Greece behind for good. Though
he himself had no documents, the compatriots he encountered on his
first days were here legally, like most other Greek immigrants, and
could help him. Greeks had never come to the United States in large
numbers - the 2000 census counted only 29,805 New Yorkers born in
Greece - but they tended to settle in just a few areas, like the
Astoria section of Queens, which became cohesive communities ready to
help new arrivals.
Mr. Peralta, like many other Mexicans, is trying to make it on his own
and has never severed his emotional or financial ties to home. After
five years in New York's Latino community, he spoke little English and
owned little more than the clothes on his back. He decided to return
to Huamuxtitlán (pronounced wa-moosh-teet-LAHN), the dusty village
beneath a flat-topped mountain where he was born.
"People thought that since I was coming back from el Norte, I would be
so rich that I could spread money around," he said. Still, he felt
privileged: his New York wages dwarfed the $1,000 a year he might have
made in Mexico.
He met a shy, pretty girl named Matilde in Huamuxtitlán, married her
and returned with her to New York, again illegally, all in a matter of
weeks. Their first child was born in 1996. Mr. Peralta soon found that
supporting a family made it harder to save money. Then, in 1999, he
got the job at 3 Guys.
"Barba Yanni helped me learn how to prepare things the way customers
like them," Mr. Peralta said, referring to Mr. Zannikos with a Greek
title of respect that means Uncle John.
The restaurant became his school. He learned how to sauté a fish so
that it looked like a work of art. The three partners lent him money
and said they would help him get immigration documents. The pay was
But there were tensions with the other workers. Instead of hanging
their orders on a rack, the waiters shouted them out, in Greek,
Spanish and a kind of fractured English. Sometimes Mr. Peralta did not
understand, and they argued. Soon he was known as a hothead.
Still, he worked hard, and every night he returned to his growing
family. Matilde, now 27, cleaned houses until the second child, Heidi,
was born three years ago. Now she tries to sell Mary Kay products to
other mothers at Public School 12, which their son, Antony, 8,
Most weeks, Mr. Peralta could make as much as $600. Over the course of
a year that could come to over $30,000, enough to approach the lower
middle class. But the life he leads is far from that and uncertainty
hovers over everything about his life, starting with his paycheck.
To earn $600, he has to work at least 10 hours a day, six days a week,
and that does not happen every week. Sometimes he is paid overtime for
the extra hours, sometimes not. And, as he found out in May, he can be
fired at any time and bring in nothing, not even unemployment, until
he lands another job. In 2004, he made about $24,000.
Because he is here illegally, Mr. Peralta can easily be exploited. He
cannot file a complaint against his landlord for charging him $500 a
month for a 9-foot-by-9-foot room in a Queens apartment that he shares
with nine other Mexicans in three families who pay the remainder of
the $2,000-a-month rent. All 13 share one bathroom, and the
established pecking order means the Peraltas rarely get to use the
kitchen. Eating out can be expensive.
Because they were born in New York, Mr. Peralta's children are United
States citizens, and their health care is generally covered by
Medicaid. But he has to pay out of his pocket whenever he or his wife
sees a doctor. And forget about going to the dentist.
As many other Mexicans do, he wires money home, and it costs him $7
for every $100 he sends. When his uncle, his nephew and his sister
asked him for money, he was expected to lend it. No one has paid him
back. He has middle-class ornaments, like a cellphone and a DVD
player, but no driver's license or Social Security card.
He is the first to admit that he has vices that have held him back;
nothing criminal, but he tends to lose his temper and there are nights
when he likes to have a drink or two. His greatest weakness is instant
lottery tickets, what he calls "los scratch," and he sheepishly
confesses that he can squander as much as $75 a week on them. It is a
way of preserving hope, he said. Once he won $100. He bought a
Years ago, he and Matilde were so confident they would make it in
America that when their son was born they used the American spelling
of his name, Anthony, figuring it would help pave his passage into the
mainstream. But even that effort failed.
"Look at this," his wife said one afternoon as she sat on the floor of
their room near a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mr. Peralta sat
on a small plastic stool in the doorway, listening. His mattress was
stacked against the wall. A roll of toilet paper was stashed nearby
because they dared not leave it in the shared bathroom for someone
else to use.
She took her pocketbook and pulled out a clear plastic case holding
her son's baptismal certificate, on which his name is spelled with an
"H." But then she unfolded his birth certificate, where the "H" is
"The teachers won't teach him to spell his name the right way until
the certificate is legally changed," she said. "But how can we do that
if we're not legal?"
Progress, but Not Success
An elevated subway train thundered overhead, making the afternoon
light along Roosevelt Avenue blink like a failing fluorescent bulb.
Mr. Peralta's daughter and son grabbed his fat hands as they ran some
errands. He had just finished a 10-hour shift, eggs over easy and
cheeseburgers since 5 a.m. It had been especially hard to stand the
monotony that day. He kept thinking about what was going on in Mexico,
where it was the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary. And, oh, what a
feast there was - sweets and handmade tamales, a parade, even a
bullfight. At night, fireworks, bursting loud and bright against the
green folds of the mountains. Paid for, in part, by the money he sends
But instead of partying, he was walking his children to the Arab
supermarket on Roosevelt Avenue to buy packages of chicken and spare
ribs, and hoping to get to use the kitchen. And though he knew better,
he grabbed a package of pink and white marshmallows for the children.
He needed to buy tortillas, too, but not there. A Korean convenience
store a few blocks away sells La Maizteca tortillas, made in New York.
The swirl of immigrants in Mr. Peralta's neighborhood is part of the
fabric of New York, just as it was in 1953, when Mr. Zannikos arrived.
But most immigrants then were Europeans, and though they spoke
different languages, their Caucasian features helped them blend into
New York's middle class.
Experts remain divided over whether Mexicans can follow the same
route. Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor of government, takes
the extreme view that Mexicans will not assimilate and that the
separate culture they are developing threatens the United States.
Most others believe that recent Mexican immigrants will eventually
take their place in society, and perhaps someday muster political
clout commensurate with their numbers, though significant impediments
are slowing their progress. Francisco Rivera-Batiz, a Columbia
University economics professor, says that prejudice remains a problem,
that factory jobs have all but disappeared, and that there is a
growing gap between the educational demands of the economy and the
limited schooling that the newest Mexicans have when they arrive.
But the biggest obstacle by far, and the one that separates newly
arrived Mexicans from Greeks, Italians and most other immigrants -
including earlier generations of Mexicans - is their illegal status.
Professor Rivera-Batiz studied what happened to illegal Mexican
immigrants who became legal after the last national amnesty in 1986.
Within a few years, their incomes rose 20 percent and their English
"Legalization," he said, "helped them tremendously."
Although the Bush administration is again talking about legalizing
some Mexicans with a guest worker program, there is opposition to
another amnesty, and the number of Mexicans illegally living in the
United States continues to soar. Desperate to get their papers any way
they can, many turn to shady storefront legal offices. Like Mr.
Peralta, they sign on to illusory schemes that cost hundreds of
dollars but almost never produce the promised green cards.
Until the 1980's, Mexican immigration was largely seasonal and mostly
limited to agricultural workers. But then economic chaos in Mexico
sent a flood of immigrants northward, many of them poorly educated
farmers from the impoverished countryside. Tighter security on the
border made it harder for Mexicans to move back and forth in the
traditional way, so they tended to stay here, searching for low-paying
unskilled jobs and concentrating in barrios where Spanish, constantly
replenished, never loses its immediacy.
"Cuidado!" Mr. Peralta shouted when Antony carelessly stepped into
Roosevelt Avenue without looking. Although the boy is taught in
English at school, he rarely uses anything but Spanish at home.
Even now, after 15 years in New York, Mr. Peralta speaks little
English. He tried English classes once, but could not get his mind to
accept the new sounds. So he dropped it, and has stuck with only
Spanish, which he concedes is "the language of busboys" in New York.
But as long as he stays in his neighborhood, it is all he needs.
It was late afternoon by the time Mr. Peralta and his children headed
home. The run-down house, the overheated room, the stacked mattress
and the hoarded toilet paper - all remind him how far he would have to
go to achieve a success like Mr. Zannikos's.
Still, he says, he has done far better than he could ever have done in
Mexico. He realizes that the money he sends to his family there is not
enough to satisfy his father, who built stairs for a second floor of
his house made of concrete blocks in Huamuxtitlán, even though there
is no second floor. He believes Manuel has made it big in New York and
he is waiting for money from America to complete the upstairs.
Manuel has never told him the truth about his life up north. He said
his father's images of America came from another era. The older man
does not know how tough it is to be a Mexican immigrant in the United
States now, tougher than any young man who ever left Huamuxtitlán
would admit. Everything built up over 15 years here can come apart as
easily as an adobe house in an earthquake. And then it is time to
start over, again.
A Conflict Erupts
It was the end of another busy lunch at 3 Guys in late spring 2003.
Mr. Peralta made himself a turkey sandwich and took a seat at a rear
table. The Mexican countermen, dishwashers and busboys also started
their breaks, while the Greek waiters took care of the last few
It is not clear how the argument started. But a cross word passed
between a Greek waiter and a Mexican busboy. Voices were raised. The
waiter swung at the busboy, catching him behind the ear. Mr. Peralta
froze. So did the other Mexicans.
Even from the front of the restaurant, where he was watching the cash
register, Mr. Zannikos realized something was wrong and rushed back to
break it up. "I stood between them, held one and pushed the other
away," he said. "I told them: 'You don't do that here. Never do that
Mr. Zannikos said he did not care who started it. He ordered both the
busboy and the waiter, a partner's nephew, to get out.
But several Mexicans, including Mr. Peralta, said that they saw Mr.
Zannikos grab the busboy by the head and that they believed he would
have hit him if another Mexican had not stepped between them. That
infuriated them because they felt he had sided with the Greek without
knowing who was at fault.
Mr. Zannikos said that was not true, but in the end it did not matter.
The easygoing atmosphere at the restaurant changed. "Everybody was a
little cool," Mr. Zannikos recalled.
What he did not know then was that the Mexicans had reached out to the
Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers' rights group. Eventually
six of them, including Mr. Peralta, cooperated with the group. He did
so reluctantly, he said, because he was afraid that if the owners
found out, they would no longer help him get his immigration papers.
The labor group promised that the owners would never know.
The owners saw it as an effort to shake them down, but for the
Mexicans it became a class struggle pitting powerless workers against
Their grievances went beyond the scuffle. They complained that with
just one exception, only Greeks became waiters at 3 Guys. They
challenged the sole Mexican waiter, Salomon Paniagua, a former Mexican
army officer who, everyone agreed, looked Greek, to stand with them.
But on the day the labor group picketed the restaurant, Mr. Paniagua
refused to put down his order pad. A handful of demonstrators carried
signs on Madison Avenue for a short while before Mr. Zannikos and his
partners reluctantly agreed to settle.
Mr. Zannikos said he felt betrayed. "When I see these guys, I see
myself when I started, and I always try to help them," he said. "I
didn't do anything wrong."
The busboy and the Mexican who intervened were paid several thousand
dollars and the owners promised to promote a current Mexican employee
to waiter within a month. But that did not end the turmoil.
Fearing that the other Mexicans might try to get back at him, Mr.
Paniagua decided to strike out on his own. After asking Mr. Zannikos
for advice, he bought a one-third share of a Greek diner in Jamaica,
Queens. He said he put it in his father's name because the older man
had become a legal resident after the 1986 amnesty.
After Mr. Paniagua left, 3 Guys went without a single Mexican waiter
for 10 months, despite the terms of the settlement. In March, an eager
Mexican busboy with a heavy accent who had worked there for four years
got a chance to wear a waiter's tie.
Mr. Peralta ended up having to leave 3 Guys around the same time as
Mr. Paniagua. Mr. Zannikos's partners suspected he had sided with the
labor group, he said, and started to criticize his work unfairly. Then
they cut back his schedule to five days a week. After he hurt his
ankle playing soccer, they told him to go home until he was better.
When Mr. Peralta came back to work about two weeks later, he was
Mr. Zannikos confirms part of the account but says the firing had
nothing to do with the scuffle or the ensuing dispute. "If he was
good, believe me, he wouldn't get fired," he said of Mr. Peralta.
Mr. Peralta shrugged when told what Mr. Zannikos said. "I know my own
work and I know what I can do," he said. "There are a lot of
restaurants in New York, and a lot of workers."
When 3 Guys fired Mr. Peralta, another Mexican replaced him, just as
Mr. Peralta replaced a Mexican at the Greek diner in Queens where he
went to work next.
This time, though, there was no Madison Avenue address, no elaborate
menu of New Zealand mussels or designer mushrooms. In the Queens diner
a bowl of soup with a buttered roll cost $2, all day. If he fried
burgers and scraped fat off the big grill for 10 hours a day, six days
a week, he might earn about as much as he did on Madison Avenue, at
least for a week.
His schedule kept changing. Sometimes he worked the lunch and dinner
shift, and by the end of the night he was worn out, especially since
he often found himself arguing with the Greek owner. But he did not
look forward to going home. So after the night manager lowered the
security gate, Mr. Peralta would wander the streets.
One of those nights he stopped at a phone center off Roosevelt Avenue
to call his mother. "Everything's O.K.," he told her. He asked how she
had spent the last $100 he sent, and whether she needed anything else.
There is always need in Huamuxtitlán.
Still restless, he went to the Scorpion, a shot-and-beer joint open
till 4 a.m. He sat at the long bar nursing vodkas with cranberry
juice, glancing at the soccer match on TV and the busty Brazilian
bartender who spoke only a little Spanish. When it was nearly 11 p.m.,
he called it a night.
Back home, he quietly opened the door to his room. The lights were
off, the television murmuring. His family was asleep in the bunk bed
that the store had now threatened to repossess. Antony was curled up
on the top, Matilde and Heidi cuddled in the bottom. Mr. Peralta moved
the plastic stool out of the way and dropped his mattress to the
The children did not stir. His wife's eyes fluttered, but she said
nothing. Mr. Peralta looked over his family, his home.
"This," he said, "is my life in New York."
Not the life he imagined, but his life. In early March, just after
Heidi's third birthday, he quit his job at the Queens diner after yet
another heated argument with the owner. In his mind, preserving his
dignity is one of the few liberties he has left.
"I'll get another job," he said while baby-sitting Heidi at home a few
days later. The rent is already paid till the end of the month and he
has friends, he said. People know him. To him, jobs are
interchangeable - just as he is to the jobs. If he cannot find work as
a grillman, he will bus tables. Or wash dishes. If not at one diner,
then at another.
"It's all the same," he said.
It took about three weeks, but Mr. Peralta did find a new job as a
grillman at another Greek diner in a different part of New York. His
salary is roughly the same, the menu is roughly the same (one new
item, Greek burritos, was a natural), and he sees his chance for a
better future as being roughly the same as it has been since he got to
A Long Day Closes
It was now dark again outside 3 Guys. About 9 p.m. Mr. Zannikos asked
his Mexican cook for a small salmon steak, a little rare. It had been
another busy 10-hour day for him, but a good one. Receipts from the
morning alone exceeded what he needed to take in every day just to
cover the $23,000 a month rent.
He finished the salmon quickly, left final instructions with the lone
Greek waiter still on duty and said good night to everyone else. He
put on his light tan corduroy jacket and the baseball cap he picked up
"Night," he said to the lone table of diners.
Outside, as Mr. Zannikos walked slowly down Madison Avenue, a
self-made man comfortable with his own hard-won success, the bulkhead
doors in front of 3 Guys clanked open. Faint voices speaking Spanish
came from below. A young Mexican who started his shift 10 hours
earlier climbed out with a bag of garbage and heaved it onto the
sidewalk. New Zealand mussel shells. Uneaten bits of portobello
mushrooms. The fine grounds of decaf cappuccino.
One black plastic bag after another came out until Madison Avenue in
front of 3 Guys was piled high with trash.
"Hurry up!" the young man shouted to the other Mexicans. "I want to go
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