A man ran across my roof with a pallet of asphalt shingles on his shoulder. He was a small guy, weighed no more than 150 pounds, 160 at the most. He and his co-worker went back and forth on the roof all day long, lugging the shingles. My roof is pitched, as most are, but these workers were sure-footed and didn’t slip or fall off.
It was summer. The temperature was 92 degrees, more than 120 on the roof. One can take that for a few minutes — but all day? I knew the shingles were heavy but did not realize how heavy until I asked. The foreman said each pallet weighed about 70 pounds. Try lifting that.
At lunchtime I drove up to the corner to snag a burger. A guy stood on the corner with a sign claiming he was a homeless vet and would work for food. He saved enough space on his corrugated sign to say, God bless. Yeah, right. I wondered why he didn’t apply for a job at McDonald’s, or become a roofer. Perhaps he was disabled, or the work is too hard. I retreated to the thought I’d had before: There is work that the average homeless vet simply can’t or won’t do. I’ve been told that some of them can do quite well standing on the corner with their signs. They take home more than the roofers at my house and all they must do is stand there. The lady in front of me rolled down her window and donated five bucks to him. I drove on to McDonald’s and bought a Big Mac.
A roofer doesn’t earn much, and what he does earn is sometimes paid in cash. Many roofers are Hispanic. They may not have a bank account or any other papers that could draw attention to their being undocumented. Sometimes they’re victims of robbery because it’s generally known that they may carry cash. But they rarely report the robberies. It would do no good and besides, it once again would draw attention to somebody who must live below the radar. Reputable contractors hire Hispanics with papers. But not all contractors are reputable.
There are millions of roofers. Most do what I just described, scratching out a living for minimum wage or less. Although some come from Mexico with work visas, many are here illegally. They’re routinely taken advantage of because they can’t talk back for fear of deportation. Easy prey.
These are the people our president wants to evict. In fairness, President Barack Obama quietly evicted many of them. They were in violation of our laws. But they’re human beings who don’t want much, only a chance to work like a dog so they can have food to eat. Taking American jobs? I doubt it. That claim could be filed in the Alternative Fact bin. Kellyanne Conway keeps track of such things.
So what do I know about hard labor? Well, as a young man I learned to hang Sheetrock and finish drywall. It was hard work, especially in the winter because the houses we worked in were only shells and had no heat inside. It was also difficult when summertime brought temperatures into the ’90s. We didn’t use the 4-by-8 stuff you see at Lowe’s. We worked with 4-by-12, half-inch wallboards that weigh 96 pounds each. When lifted by two men the burden is smaller, but it is still difficult.
Drywall had a lot to do with my decision to go to college. It was inspirational in that respect. Even today I have occasional dreams, more accurately nightmares, about the alarm clock going off to tell me it was time to go hang Sheetrock. It is such a relief now to wake and realize it’s only a bad memory.
Every time I drive by a house that’s being re-roofed I think of those years. For me it was temporary, a passage to something better. But for the visiting roofers it’s a constant reality. It’s a terribly difficult, low-paying job that they work like slaves to hold onto. Although I can’t condone undocumented immigrants living here illegally, it’s impossible for me to hate them. S
Gene Cox is an author and inventor, who retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.