The Importance of Jimmy Breslin

New York's Columnist Tells the Story of a Death on the Job

He followed Gutiérrez's casket back to his village, San Matías Cuatchatyotla, a place of "dust, with children leaning against walls and young mothers standing aimlessly on street corners holding staring babies."

There was a mariachi singer at the funeral, he reports. Nine young women, Eduardo's friends, carried the heavy casket, swaying as they moved. "Sway forward on the left leg, sway back on the right foot, sway forward, sway back, sway, sway, sway, dance the young man to his grave."

Gutiérrez was a shy man, neighbors and family members told Breslin, so shy that it took him months to work up the nerve to address the young girl he loved. Within a year, however, both were gone from the village, headed north looking for work, part of a million-strong army that crosses the border every year in search of jobs.

Breslin: The death of a Mexican immigrant becomes the story of New York today.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Breslin: The death of a Mexican immigrant becomes the story of New York today.

Their story is part of the great migration that has brought some 275,000 Mexicans to New York. "These people who want to work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots . . . or show up every day in the grimmest of factory jobs, or wash dishes in coffee shops—or work construction for low wages on jobs on which white union members are paid five times as much," writes Breslin.

Gutiérrez's girlfriend, Silvia Tecpoyotti, waded across the Rio Grande, sneakers and suitcase held high above her head. In the desert she found herself caught between a rattlesnake "thick as a fuel hose" and the Border Patrol. Surviving these perils, she was welcomed with open arms at an Olive Garden restaurant in College Station, Texas, where she earned the astonishing salary of $420 a week making soup.

Gutiérrez called her there to say he too was doing well, working construction in Brooklyn. He was living, 10 to a room, in an apartment in Brighton Beach with other young Mexican men, sleeping on thin pads and pillows and racing each other to use the single bathroom each morning. From the subway, Gutiérrez would run to his job on Middleton Street, where he was helping put up new four-story buildings. He also told her the buildings "seemed shaky to him . . . dangerous," Breslin writes.

This wasn't surprising. Gutiérrez's employer, a Hasidic builder named Eugene Ostreicher, had been cited several times by authorities for construction problems, Breslin learned. The state attorney general accused him of selling shabbily built condos to Orthodox residents. An engineer called them "the worst constructed buildings I have seen in 10 years." A fire chief, Charles Blaich, wrote to the city's Buildings Department complaining about other shoddy construction by Ostreicher. The letters went unanswered.

Buildings Department officials told Breslin this was because anytime they delayed or blocked building permits for the Hasidic community, City Hall accused them of "obstructing commerce." The message was relayed directly from Giuliani's chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, who served as liaison to the Orthodox community, Breslin writes.

Ostreicher's son Chaim, or Richie the Rabbi, as he called himself, managed the construction site. The son was a police buff who had a gold police detective's badge someone had given him, which he flashed at least once at Fire Department officials who shut down his building for safety reasons. At his wedding banquet in 1998, he listed Teitelbaum, then-police commissioner Howard Safir, and other police bigs as guests. Chaim Ostreicher later fled to Belgium; the father eventually pled guilty to lying to a federal safety inspector. A $1 million fine was assessed, but no one went to jail.

Abuse of office, greedy builders, a growing army of easily victimized immigrants: All of these elements came to a head in the mangled construction of 50 Middleton Street and the death of Eduardo Gutiérrez. It says as much about life in the late 1990s as the many odes to "quality of life" written in praise of Giuliani by so many others. Its telling is one more debt the city owes to Breslin, who keeps track of these things for us.

« Previous Page