On the Corner

New York’s Undocumented Day Laborers Fight for Their Piece of the Big Apple

"Four, maybe five."

"How much you pay?"


"No, I charge eight."

"I pay seven, my regular woman is sick today."

"Bye," says Teresa, turning her back.

The Satmar woman works her way through the crowd of Polish women, but other potential employers are arriving: housewives, husbands in long black coats, even young girls—children, really—proffering scraps of paper with their grandmother's address. Demand is high today—the Sabbath begins at sundown; the local housewives have shopping to do, dinner to cook, numerous young children to care for, and a house that needs to be cleaned. Those who wait too long will have to settle for one of the brown-skinned women who stand near the light pole, speaking Spanish, or even Marie, the Haitian woman who sits by herself on a milk crate and is always the last one chosen.

The Jewish woman works her way back to Teresa, "OK. Eight," she says. "I pay eight." "No, I change my mind," says Teresa, and turns her back again, leaving the woman staring at her platinum-blond dye job, a stunned look on her face. Loud enough for the Satmar woman to hear, Teresa says, "She tell me four to five hours, that means three and a half. And she's a liar; I see it. I finish and she pays me seven, then we fight. You like the Jewish people? I hate them. When I see them on the street, I feel nauseous. She like a witch."

Teresa's attitude is not unique. Resentment is high between the Satmar Jews of Williamsburg and a hundred or so Polish day laborers who clean for them. A half-century after the war, the slaughter of their brethren burns the Jews like a live wire. Ask nearly any Satmar to define the neighborhood and he or she will tell you, "We're a community of Holocaust survivors." They're keenly aware that Poland's large Jewish population was annihilated during the war. Ask the Polish women how they like their work, and many ignore the question: "The Jews blame us for the death camps in Poland," they say. Echoing the Polish government's longtime position, they add, "It was the Nazis that killed the Jews. Not the Polish people."

"We want to be respected," the Polish women say, fairly seething as they talk about standing on the corner like prostitutes, about scrubbing someone else's floor, about the good jobs they had in Poland before the end of Communism. ("How can they say they are so religious? God doesn't want you to be so cheap about money," says one disgruntled woman.) Now the Poles are on the street corner, asking the Jews for a job, Jews with numbers tattooed on their arms, Jews for whom the names of Polish towns—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor—are etched in memory. The irony is lost on no one.

Many of the cleaning women are divorced or widowed. They come to New York on tourist visas and so do not have green cards. The corner supplies work, friendship, and referrals—where to find an apartment, a doctor, or a cheap meal—and it keeps them off the government's radar screen. Most are of a certain age; some, like Kaya, are elderly. Her hair is thin and her teeth are bad. "I wouldn't be here if the Communists were still in power—everybody worked, we had free health care," she says, speaking through a translator. She first came to New York two years ago on a tourist visa. "The work was so hard, and I missed my family. I cried every night. I lost 20 pounds. They give everyone a false view of how life is in America," she says. A nervous breakdown sent her back to Poland.

She arrived home to find her children unemployed, her grandchildren unable to afford college. She remembers thinking, "My life is over, but my family still has their life ahead of them." She returned to Williamsburg, where she lives in a single room with three other women. Her share of the rent is $130. She makes about $1200 a month, never eats out. Worn-out dresses hang off her bony frame. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2:30, she waits with the alcoholics and the infirm at the Williamsburg Christian Church for the free lunch. Every available dollar is sent home.

Her grandchildren are back in college. She pays for their education with 60 hours a week, scrubbing and dusting and wiping. She cleans the refrigerator gaskets with a matchstick, as she is asked, but won't scrub the floors on her hands and knees with a shmatte (rag), as the Jews request. She insists on using a mop. This costs her work and is a major source of tension between the Poles and the Jews. The Polish women speak almost no English. On a recent morning, a street corner argument went like this:

"No shmatte—mopo, yes," says the Polish woman.

"Yes shmatte, shmatte, no mopo," replies the Jewish woman.

"Yes, mopo, yes mopo. No shmatte," The Polish woman makes a face and points to her knees.

The Jewish woman makes a circular wiping motion. One last "Yes, shmatte," and the Polish woman folds, following her new boss sullenly down Lee Avenue.

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