Like most Saturdays, the Home Depot store in San Fernando is terribly crowded. It takes effort and swift calculations to get past the aisles crowded with men who work in the "trades": electricians, carpenters, gardeners, house painters, plumbers, roofers--and the lowly do-it-yourselfers, like me. Everything is on sale: ceramic tile, flower seeds, light fixtures and paint. But what I most need is a weed whacker.
It's that time again. Time for those of us who live in fire areas to clear the brush--or pay a hefty fine. And although it's June, with no sign of Santa Anas, a week of bright sun has turned my backyard into a jungle; the weeds are tall.
Each year I'm faced with the same dilemma: attack the job myself or farm it out? Invest in a weed whacker that costs close to $100--and might not last past one season--or pay $250 to have it done?
One contractor guaranteed to pulverize the weeds for $300, until I asked to inspect the site of his last job. His competitor promised to cut and haul everything for $250, until I pointed out that my yard extended beyond a low fence. Yet another said he'd cut the weeds for $150, providing I dumped them. I calculated this would take six months (at two barrels a week) to accomplish.
At Home Depot, I roam the aisles, then head toward the brooms, rakes and weed poison, angry at the high price of weed whackers, once a simple device (with a nylon string) powered by electricity that has evolved into an apparatus that sells in all styles, sizes and prices.
An elderly man nearby mutters about the high price of rakes; a very pregnant woman prices soil conditioner. I pace up and down, unable to make up my mind. Suddenly, a woman in construction boots shoves me aside; she takes off with the last model of the weeder I wanted!
A tall woman inspecting yard brooms hears my lament and offers advice. "Don't buy one of those weed things. They use gasoline and they're nothing but fire hazards. Get one of those guys out front to do it." Her voice resonates throughout the aisle. A woman pricing weed killer bends low and whispers: "Thank God for them illegals."
Strangely enough, I don't feel too offended. It's not as though I've never hired day laborers (as I prefer to call them). Manuel, who painted my house, is from Mexico. Sabino--who hauled away earthquake debris--hails from Nicaragua. Last year, after the storms made my yard a river of mud, I hired two husky Guatameltecos to sandbag my house. When done, I fed them cocido (stew) y tortillas.
My female friends, most of whom have an aversion to yard work, think nothing of hiring indocumentados to do their dirty work. My friend's cleaning lady, whom she pays $5 an hour, feeds and drives home, lugs her three kids to work. My friend baby-sits while their mother scrubs. "If it weren't for them illegals, I'd have to clean house myself," she explains.
Each Saturday morning my street abounds with dusty pickups and the day workers who keep up the scraggly lawns of this working-class neighborhood. It's not that folks here are lazy or lack energy. Rather, it's baseball season: T-ball, Little League, Pony-Colt. And, as a neighbor claims: "I can't do both: coach my kids' team, and keep up the yard. So, I get me some illegals."
I exit the store exhausted--and minus a weed whacker. I drive past the throng of men who each day brave the elements to feed their families. Men who want to be trabajadores--workers-- nd not illegals. Maybe if Home Depot is able to go through with the program to start a formal day-laborer center in Van Nuys, they can breathe easier. I hope so.