Nourishing the human spirit with breakfast
Visiting the makeshift camp of day laborers in De Vargas Park can be depressing or uplifting. Sometimes the atmosphere swings from one extreme to the other within a minute.
First to arrive on Thursday was a man who called himself Rafael. He’s had a tough stretch. A truck wreck left him with an injured right knee that still hasn’t healed. He’s limping.
“I just got off crutches. I didn’t work for three months,” he said.
It was a little before 7 a.m. when Rafael and three other men took seats on a curb. They were 30 yards but a world away from the state Workforce Connection office at 301 W. De Vargas St.
The agency to help people find jobs had not yet opened its doors, but the men wouldn’t be going inside anyway.
They were looking for work that could be obtained without an application form. Landscaping is a possibility as days grow warmer. Anything else that requires a strong back would be suitable.
Some took the bus and others walked to this common ground. Rafael was one of the few who drove. His aged black-and-white sedan, once a state police vehicle, was leaking fluid.
“My friend let me have the money to buy it,” Rafael said. “It’s not running smoothly.”
The three men sitting with him didn’t say much. What they did was in hushed Spanish. Still, they looked like Rafael’s teammates. All wore weathered baseball caps.
Rafael’s cap carries the word “Hawaii” on the front panel. Two of the other caps say “Chihuahua” and “New York.” The last one is right out of the ’60s, emblazoned with the words “Far out,” “Funky,” “Groovy” and “Get down.”
In 40 minutes, two people in need of workers drove to this enclave. They hired a total of three men. Rafael and 30 others continued to hope as they waited.
The languid pace lasted until 7:57 a.m. Then the tempo changed. A woman in a red Honda hatchback steered to a stop near a sidewalk.
“It’s Mara,” one man said. A chorus followed as several others called out to her.
Her full name is Mara Taub. At age 79, she brings breakfast for anyone who needs or wants it.
Taub started delivering food to day laborers almost 18 years ago, in June 2001.
She had seen them gathered when she passed the park. Her recollection of what she thought at that time remains fresh.
“It’s like a slave market. We don’t have jobs. But we can bring food,” Taub said.
A site filled with male construction workers was foreign territory for her. She ventured in anyway.
On that first day all those years ago, Taub brought a box of oranges for the laborers. They accepted them with thanks.
Now breakfast is heartier and more sophisticated. Taub arrived on Thursday with hard-boiled eggs, croissants, bananas, citrus fruit, and pots of rice and what she called cowboy beans. Early though it was, Taub also offered tres leches cake with red-and-green frosting.
Other volunteers help supply food for the men, and The Food Depot assists in this effort. They make sure those fortunate enough to land a job and those left to worry about finding one will start the day with a full stomach.
Taub’s volunteerism extends far beyond the park. She is involved in efforts to improve the lives of prisoners through literacy programs.
Still, she says, there’s no feeling like getting up early to see that the laborers get a meal.
“It’s always a pleasure to go the park,” she said.
Joining Taub on Thursday was Linda Burchfiel, a volunteer on her first day. Burchfiel said she decided to help with the breakfast program after a stab at volunteering to teach English didn’t work out.
Taub would school her on the routine.
Afterward, Taub spoke of the laborers embodying the best of the human spirit.
“They have lives we can only imagine, and they’re survivors,” she said.
Surroundings aside, what they face is no day in the park. Taub makes it better.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.