A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

A Mexican writer recalls undocumented life at a restaurant in New York and as a nanny in Connecticut.

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion.

* * *

That neutral look tattooed on my face.

I went outside, walking slowly, my eyes looking like hemorrhoids because of the exposure to extreme heat and cold, and I ran into some of the cooks and kitchen help; they were drinking some beer outside a store before taking the subway. I had the impression they were waiting for me. One of the cooks invited me to take a beer that Arnulfo had bought from the store. Arnulfo: the guy as compact as a propane tank who couldn’t explain how to prep the salads and desserts. He communicated via gestures made with his stumpy hands. “Ya just toss in that thingamajob, and then that one there, and then this thingy here, okay?” He would also provide me with the names of the ingredients, chopping up words, and he would wrap up his lesson quickly, attempting to be so fast I couldn’t follow him. By my third day at work, I was fed up, and I asked the chef to finally explain things so I could be left alone. “That’s why you got Arnulfo, ask him,” he said to me, annoyed, while he finished. I learned everything else by trial and error, having to put up with the scolding from Poblano.

A twenty-four-ounce can. I started to slurp at it. The rest were making plans to end the night by dancing at a place in Queens. The head cook looked at me.

“How’s the fucking job?”

“I’m getting along.”

“Good. I can see you haven’t been doing this long. In the beginning you want to help and make a good impression. But the problem is you make everyone else look bad. Because everyone else wants their day to end. Once the boss says to turn off the ovens, you got to put things in place and clean quickly so we can scram, just like you saw. If they want to clean the kitchen, let them do it tomorrow. That’s their load. As far as we’re concerned, once it’s three, we’re out of there. Let’s go! Am I right or am I wrong?”

“You’re dead right,” I responded with that neutral look tattooed on my face twenty-four hours a day.

“Just imagine if we left everything, the pots and pans, the uniforms, all in a mess. Nobody would help you. Just imagine when you would finish. You can see that the job’s a tough one and we got to do things quickly. If we’re making more than we need to eat, then we’re doing well.”

I agreed. In my circumstance, any argument was better than one I could come up with. I lit a cigarette, and it’s almost as if I had fainted. I started to see little lights sparkle and a cold sweat gave me goose bumps. The absolute depletion of any energy had me so drugged that I didn’t even pay attention to a black man who was tugging at my jacket sleeve, asking for some change. After insulting me, he walked away in a strange zigzag, bowlegged, looking like he was a pedaling a bicycle.

I finished the beer and the cigarette. I chucked the empty can into the store’s trash bin. Then we silently walked toward the subway. On my way home, I looked at the bright signs and billboards that I had ignored previously.

Most of them lived in Queens, on Roosevelt Avenue, crammed in with Mexicans and Colombians. Once we were on the platform, everyone found a spot. While I waited for the train, one of the cooks in charge of the main stove approached me.

“So what’s up, you’re not coming with us to dance?”

“It’s real late. I’d rather sleep.”

He made a gesture with his index finger and thumb, suggesting that I had smoked some weed. I said I hadn’t. He started to laugh and he told the others, who were looking at us from a few feet away. The train arrived and I wait for them to board and leave. I wanted to gather myself together, and in case I needed help, I didn’t want to ask help from those who tried their best to stay as far away as possible from the police.

The platform was empty. While gazing into the darkness of the tunnel, my anxiety increased. The F line was filled with thick yellow lines. I soon heard voices and footsteps on some metallic surface, but no one was walking down to the platform. At that time of night, the subway was a catacomb and anyone walking around on the platform looked like a prisoner.

I located the signs for the different routes and ways to reach the trains in a type of disturbing dream. My lips were chapped, and my body itched as if with a rash. I was hot, yet exposed to a hellish chill on the platform. I was disconnecting myself from everything except for the route that would bring me to my bed. That’s how I finished my shift each night until I deserted work after two months.

* * *

She would offer me some wine like someone confessing a crime.

I ended up in Greenwich, Connecticut, following a trail blazed by Norma. Her experiences and pigheadedness in a certain way helped reap some rewards for us both. From so much flipping through newspapers, telephone calls, comparing and contrasting, getting ready for interviews where she would always haggle for fewer hours yet higher pay, Norma had reached a point where she could choose what best suited her, and she could even advise others on options. She knew the market for black-market jobs better than anyone else. She knew the habits and mentality of the patrons like any FBI agent.

Norma’s efficiency had earned the attention of people she knew, and she enjoyed showing them, without charging a fee, what they could find just by setting aside their complexes and apprehensions. She recommended me to a family in the Cos Cob area, urged on by a household supervisor who also cooked for the two boys and their father, who was named Gunter. When that individual approved hiring me, I spent most of my time with Patricia, his Irish ex-wife who put on aristocratic airs.

Gunter was the vice president of a bank in New York, and he made frequent trips to Germany, his native country. They paid me $200 per week with a check made out to his oldest son to avoid any suspicions or hassle when cashing the check, as the tellers always asked for an official ID or proof of legal, permanent residence, which of course I didn’t have; moreover, they debated with the supervisor if I should be paid an amount that seemed suspicious for someone who claimed to not be working.

The first time I went to the bank, the manager called Gunter’s office to verify that I was part of an international “exchange program” and that my “sponsor” had asked me to cash his check. The manager agreed to do it as a favor, but not before advising Gunter that the bank found it necessary to know every little detail before forking over the cash.

The most important thing for Gunter was to avoid taxes and especially any immigration agents. His son shouldn’t stir up any suspicion that they had hired undocumented workers. Patricia lived in the exclusive, woody hills of the town, and she visited us on Fridays at noon. No one exactly knew what she did for a living. Gunter would lean back in ironic laughter when addressing the matter with his boys.

“A beautiful neighborhood. A charming home. Good contacts. Shopping on Fifth Avenue. Jesus Christ! How does she do it? What she got from our divorce isn’t enough for all of that!”

For a year, Patricia gave me a weekly bonus in cash, which she stuffed in an envelope that smelled of Chanel perfume. She did this secretly, and I never wanted to know why. Patricia set up strict boundaries when it came to her intimate life, and it was in keeping with her despotic and manipulative character to do so, especially if one of the boys wished to pry more into her daily routine. The most she would ever fess up to, yet in a menacing tone softened by cordial diction she had learned in a prep school for little Irish ladies, was that she worked as the personal assistant to a millionaire. Sure you do. We would sip coffee and eat French-style pastries during the awkward interrogation. Frequently, she would invite us to eat at restaurants in town or at her home.

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Border checkpoint. Via Wikimedia.

Patricia’s fortune exceeded both the incomes and possessions combined of the majority of people I had met until then. Her clothes that she wore on a daily basis would cost half my year’s income. She was a generous hostess who made no distinctions between myself and her sons. She knew that I loved choice filets—besides, it was the only thing her sons would eat without making faces—and she would serve them bathed in gravy, accompanied by a salad and a dressing she had prepared. The desserts and Colombian coffee soon followed. She would offer me some wine like someone confessing a crime which she would pay for by way of life imprisonment.

The sparkle in her eyes reflected a composure always on the brink of spinning out of control. “Smoking in the garden is allowed,” she would say, while she opened the windows and then excused herself to prepare coffee.

* * *

Property should be used to get you out of sticky situations.

Patricia loved it when we would agree to take a splash in the pool during hot summer afternoons. She would prepare lemonade adorned with lemon peels and she would set it on the garden table, on a tray holding crystal glasses with delicate green and blue tonalities, cloth napkins, and fruit.

She once asked me to set up a small fence made from nylon along the rill that went through her property. The objective was to make it so migrant ducks wouldn’t invade her garden and pool.

While I concentrated on doing my best job, I started to feel a suffocating anxiety that I recognized as rage. My mother had grown up in an orphanage in Guadalajara. Her explosive and enraged character owed a lot to a life filled with privations, which was prolonged by having children. She died from an embolism at an age when other women like Patricia start obsessing about getting face-lifts. Fifteen years later, faithful to his own style of doing so, my father died. He worked all of his life without making any true gains from his talent as a jeweler. He was a role model and a teacher to many apprentices who, just like him, immigrated to the United States, following him to where he worked as the head of a workshop which ended up employing twenty-five top-notch artisans, all of them Mexican and, with the passing of time, all of them proudly pocho. During that bonanza period, when my father was overtaken by nostalgia, he’d dress my older brothers like funk musicians. They would sport satin shirts in shrill colors and with ballooned sleeves, the likes of which I would later see on a show that aired music videos each Sunday and in rock magazines. The younger siblings received beautiful toys. The gifts reached us by plane, whenever my father’s friends returned to visit their families. Unlike these friends of his, my father soon did away with the extreme productivity in that Texas town, and after three years he came home to Mexico City with savings, anxious about the new life he was going to start.

The bonanza didn’t last long. Bad family business ideas, and especially the devaluations, ended the harmony. My parents could name all the pawnshops. They transmitted their experiences to us as if by osmosis. “Property should be used to get you out of sticky situations” was the family motto. My mother’s children grew used to living on the installment plan.

I barely realized that I was panting, choking on the past. Because of the stifling heat, I was glazed with sweat as if I had been working outside all day. I refused to recognize what was filling me up with so much rage. My Banana Republic T-shirt was drenched with sweat smelling of Givenchy cologne. I had been turned into a servant with a luxury uniform, thanks to the presents from a wealthy family.

I finished setting up the fence, and under the guise of returning a hammer to the garage, I stayed inside there, calming myself. I felt trapped in my rage and wanted to shatter the windows of the convertible Audi. I saw in the reflection some guy with reddened eyes. Accept what you are: a bitter person. You just remembered where you came from, now give them the pretext. Come, walk back to sixteen years ago. “If you don’t take care of your kids, next time, it’s juvenile hall.” You remember? That was the warning that a social worker gave to your father who had gone to grease his palm so that you and your brother wouldn’t be sent to a boot camp for youth along with all the other young hoods.

To eat filets and earn some dollars, I had to work for some people who had no merit other than being kind in exchange for not loading them down with guilt. With an astute sense of finances, they filled their houses up as if they were halls exhibiting everything that could compose a monumental tackiness. Perhaps that’s why they kept me on a loose leash. I was their best house alarm. They didn’t seem to learn from their personal tragedies. They referred to their egoism as “each one for himself.” Fucking bullshit! I knew about that pride, only from the opposite angle. I kept myself alert by the morbid interest of Patricia in me; unsatisfied with my curt or mordant answers, she would do additional investigations with the children when I wasn’t around. It wasn’t necessary to lie or avoid questions to keep her away from my past, anguishes, or interests. She would never understand my hatred for the job, nor why I never said thanks for anything. I returned to the pool and I sat down to get some sun and sip some lemonade, making a toast to Patricia.

Her boys laughed at her pretensions, prattle, and lack of culture. I once urged Pete to ask his mother if she knew that Jonathan Swift was a travel agent in Ireland. She answered yes.

Patricia politely reminded me to not bring guests home. She was the one who had suggested to Gunter to change the gender of the nannies and housekeepers. The nannies prior to my arrival allowed themselves to be groped for money, and they robbed all sorts of junk, especially a Frenchwoman who would screw her boyfriend in the kitchen and would always leave dirty maxi pads in the bathroom.

“You’re not a fag, right?” asked Gunter when I was interviewed.

“Why, you into Mexican guys?” I answered at once, swallowing my anger. His boys laughed wildly and the old man was forced to admit he had been one-upped.

It was the best job I had for years. I lived at ease thanks to the boys; they were happy to have found an eager accomplice to their frequent saturnalias of music, drugs, beer, video games, and board games with friends who, at night, would climb up to Michael’s window to avoid Kaiser, the German shepherd being trained as a guard dog, and Gunter. These gatherings were like a déjà vu of a stage in my life that I had left behind long ago.

* * *

During four raw winters, the DJs and their emotional autism made sense to me.

Marcel and Jeff were two other brothers, but with Colombian parents. They would bring their records and equipment to Michael’s room. They had the same intense heat for music and for lighting enormous pipes filled with marijuana that would have us on the brink of madness while we watched them mix on the turntables. Supposing that I was some sort of alley cat imported from an enormous city surrounded by pyramids, plots of cannabis, and horny, curvaceous women, Marcel, the more extroverted and knowledgeable of the two, would patiently explain the finer details of a music that, to my ears, sounded as if it had been lifted from my adolescence. During four raw winters, the DJs and their emotional autism made sense to me. Snow would fall outside Michael’s bedroom window while we smoked some thick joints rolled by Jeff. The patio was covered by mud. In the black shadows, light glistened from neighboring houses. The snowstorms raised white hills more than three feet high, and the weather forecast reported at least three more weeks of blizzards, mud, and ice slicks. Classes were canceled. Winter clothes piled up by the bedroom doors. The porch thermometer indicated that it was fifteen below, and stepping outside to the street proved to be a lost battle after just a few steps.

Around that time, a block of ice destroyed the back window of Gunter’s car when it was parked beneath the train’s bridge. Jeff and Marcel had walked two and a half miles from their house. The streets and freeways were closed off or with access reserved only for emergency vehicles. The trucks that would dredge the streets of ice didn’t help. However, Jeff and Marcel arrived, carrying backpacks stuffed with equipment, early on Friday night, ready to play the best from their song list, which they continually tinkered with at a specialty discotheque fifteen miles north of Greenwich. I was stretched out on the comfortable leather sofa, and I tried to capture the change in beats and their sense. Marcel liked experimenting, and he sometimes mixed old cumbia and vallenata records, which he took from his father’s collection, a baker at the factory in Port Chester. Jeff’s strength lay in house and, according to what others said, he had a future in the scene: he was one of the local stars, regionally celebrated in the raves of Connecticut and Upstate New York. Marcel, younger and more intuitive, professed a sick love for his brother, and he took care to not overshadow him while he worked at the turntables. Marcel pretended to learn things from Jeff when he had already learned them by ear. They took turns with their pipes and made the records spin, and they invited me to follow along, my brain with hundreds of burned-out fuses, but with enough still crackling to accept the fact that that was the perfect music for cold cities, polar ones, where one had to stay inside to protect oneself from winter’s sadism. Traveling through an interior world with vibrant colors and friendly energy made us feel like we were inhabitants of Interzone: out of the reach of civilization, but with a deus-jockey making his modest omnipresence known through break beats. The world could get lodged in the ice age. We had all we needed to sample to our liking.

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Border checkpoint. Via Wikimedia.

During the day, I took advantage of the fact no one was around to take long naps, read, and use the computer. During the night, some classes awaited me, as well as time at a bar. I ate well from the enormous two-door refrigerator from which—as according to Gunter’s instructions—I had to toss still-fresh food into the trash, which no one had touched. It never took me more than four hours to do my duties, which were always the same, and I even ended up developing a soft spot for their household pets, especially Fred, an enormous parrot with a potbelly and near-human intelligence. Every morning, Fred patiently employed his beak to open the hinge to his cage, and then he would help Brad, the canary, do the same. Then, while his companion flapped about scared, Fred walked down the plank splattered with greenish shit, dodging my projectiles to reach the bowl of Kaiser’s food, which he would pick at as if it were sunflower seeds. I would wait awhile from an armchair while I ate corn on the cob, and I would then chuck them at his potbelly. In order to catch him, I would use an iron poker that I slid under his claws.

Torpid and obese, Fred would vent his frustration via shrill squawks, moving his head about as if he were recuperating from a knockout while returning defeated to his corner of the cage. Although Brad was more stupid and cowardly, he was also more agile, and it would take me a longer time to catch him, as he was still light enough to fly. Both resigned themselves to waiting for the day’s end while shrieking uuuaaakk uuuaaakk. Gunter took charge of liberating them again and spoiling them with cookies and slices of apples.

* * *

From my small room way up in the attic, I clearly heard and triangulated the telephone conversations.

Until a little before my arrival at the home, there were telephone lines in each bedroom to assign and argue about duties. Gunter slept in a bedroom on the first floor; his closet was filled to the brim with clothes, his desk was covered with bills he had to pay, expensive knickknacks, and a panoramic television that he kept on all night.

I would jump onto his king-size bed late each morning to make phone calls while I watched TV. When he returned from work, Gunter would slip on some underwear and a white T-shirt. At dawn, you could hear Gunter’s sheepskin Apache-style moccasins walking the plank from his bedroom to the kitchen for food. Suit, shoes, and shirt would remain at the foot of his bed until the following day, when I would bring them to the washing machine and the dry cleaner’s. Next to his bedroom was the “studio” with two cages that I could fit into if I knelt down. They were the lodgings of Fred and Brad.

From my small room way up in the attic, I clearly heard and triangulated the telephone conversations. I was the first to ward off Gunter in the remote case that it occurred to him to go up and see what his boys did during the night. If I couldn’t stop him, Pete would come, and he would amuse him in his bedroom facing the hallway by cracking some joke he had heard at school or showing some new riffs he had learned on his out-of-tune guitar, while Michael hid the bongs, sprayed air freshener in the room, and did his best to make the room look like a hurricane hadn’t hit it. If his friends didn’t have enough time to hide in the closet, which had a door to the garage, they would sit quietly on the soft leather sofa, staring at the television screen with eyes as red as a rabbit’s from marijuana.

“Michael,” Gunter said, while making his voice resonate as if he were addressing an audience. “What is this? A billiard hall? Open the windows and make sure your friends don’t stay too late.” Then he turned to me. “I didn’t know you liked that goddamn noise,” he said, referring to the music. I was protecting myself within the darkness of the hallway, keeping a certain distance from Gunter so he wouldn’t notice my eyes or how I reeked of whiskey. Morning, I heard him walk down the plank; his moccasins entered and exited the kitchen with plates for him and Kaiser, who slept by his side, on the floor. I embarked on an epistolary enmity with Gunter that proved to be convenient as it avoided arguments. Many memos were taped to the refrigerator, such as the following:

As I asked you a while ago, you must thoroughly clean the house each day, including the bathrooms and the boys’ bedrooms. Sweep and clean the birds’ room and don’t lock them up in their cages, as they’re very nervous and do themselves harm. Prepare the recipe that I left you here. Tell Pete to buy me some Cokes and for him to not forget to feed Kaiser and the birds.

—Gunter

Gunter: I clean the house till it’s spotless every day. You don’t notice this because your foul dog and parrot make sure to mess up what I took all morning to clean. The same with your kids. If you want to see your house clean when you get home, starting tomorrow I will keep Kaiser in the backyard and the birds inside their cages. I don’t see Pete during the day. You’d be better off calling his friends.

P.S. The meat you bought at Grand Union was very tough and I gave it to the dog. Careful with that mad cow disease.

And such was how each day transpired. My personality matched his beliefs about “Mexicans.” I trusted him, but not much.

* * *