by Sujatha Fernandes
Manuel relayed buckets of moist earth to the concrete stairwell. It was Héctor’s job to hoist the buckets up and ferry them over to the dumpster. They had to work quickly to keep the buckets moving or the Bangladeshi contractor, a slight man with a beard, would start yelling at them, “Taratari koro.”
The workers down below had broken up the existing basement floor of the six-story building with jackhammers and then used pickaxes to pry out the concrete. Now they were excavating eight to ten feet of earth to increase the height of the basement.
Héctor was grateful to work in the open air instead of underground like a mole with the thick damp air and the artificial light from lamps. It was also safer up here. The men in the basement would dig themselves into three-foot-square holes up to eight-feet deep and there weren’t even any planks of wood to brace the sides. Suddenly someone would look up to see the sides crumbling in on him. He suspected that the contractors didn’t know what they were doing. It was only a matter of time before a worker was buried alive.
Still, it was regular work, something Héctor hadn’t had in a while. He had spent several months going to the parada on Roosevelt Avenue, getting picked up occasionally for one- or two-day stints in demolition or renovation. He found this job through Jesús, a slim Oaxaqueño, always clean shaven with dimples and a broad smile. Jesús used to talk big on the corner about his influence in the construction world. The men would rib him. “So why are you here at the parada, dumbass?” It didn’t bother Jesús.