[lg policy] Brooklyn: Where the Women Wait, an Unwritten Code Is Revised: Polish is giving way to Spanish
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Fri Jan 29 15:48:51 UTC 2010
January 28, 2010, 9:52 am
Where the Women Wait, an Unwritten Code Is Revised
By EWA KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA
For years, every morning, the sight has been the same at Marcy and
Division Avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: a crowd of women gathered
on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway overpass amid the din of traffic.
They are day laborers looking not for construction work, but for work
cleaning houses of Hasidic residents. There were originally maybe 40
or 50. And like many traditions that grow up out of necessity around
New York City, this cleaning woman shape-up had certain unwritten
codes, accepted patterns that all the women acknowledged, and abided
by. The young Polish students speaking fluent English were usually in
front; they tended to be employers’ favorites, and they could
translate for the others. Just behind them, spread along the overpass
fence, stood Polish women in their 40s and 50s, with some even older.
Then, at the end of the line, there would stand a few women from Latin
But as the years have gone by, and the economy has been knocked
around, change has come to this corner in Brooklyn. Gradually but
unmistakably, young immigrants from Peru, Mexico and Ecuador wearing
short black jackets and tight jeans have taken the front row. A
smaller crowd of older Polish women now stands behind them. And the
crowd has more than doubled, with women spilling onto the street on
two corners. Lost jobs in factories, tailor shops, stores and
restaurants in other parts of the city have brought the Hispanic women
to Williamsburg: a lot of them, like the Polish women, are illegal
immigrants and therefore not eligible for unemployment benefits. Being
a domestic day laborer is one of their few safe options for making a
At the same time, the economic slowdown has stopped most Polish
students from coming to the United States, especially since they can
explore other options in Europe now, after many of the European Union
countries opened their job markets to Polish citizens. So it was on a
recent morning, the women stood side by side, braced against the cold
and gusts of wind hitting the overpass. In parkas and hoods, with bags
over their shoulders, the Hispanic women were in front. The Polish
women stood in knots to the side, their hair tucked in knit caps,
smoking, sharing a free tabloid newspaper, keeping their eyes glued to
the curb for work.
No matter what country the women came from, their breath made mist in
the air just the same. But the Polish and Hispanic women didn’t talk
to each other. And the language barrier may have only been one reason.
Even though they are in front, the Hispanic women may be willing to
accept less money — $7 or $8 per hour — than the Polish women, who
generally charge $10, some members of the crowd said. This has led to
tensions; the delicate balance of this urban phenomenon has been
Cars and school buses passed, but the women noticed only those few
that stopped. When one white sedan pulled up, it was practically
mobbed. “Two, three years ago, I used to get a job every day within a
few minutes of waiting here,” said a woman named Krystyna, 45, who
lives nearby in Greenpoint. “Now I get it two, three times a week at
best. And I have to wait at least one and a half to two hours.” She
did not want her last name used. When she came to the United States
with her husband and daughter four years ago, the economy was booming
and she had no regrets about leaving a small town in Poland. The wages
of a day laborer were far more than she could get at home. And getting
the job was easy. At least it was back then.
“More people started to clean their houses themselves as they try to
save money,” Krystyna said. The size of the crowd at the overpass
makes her and her companions anxious: they worry that if the gathering
grows too large, it may attract too much attention and be shut down.
They pointed at a yellow flier in Spanish attached to the fence — to
some of the women, it looked like an official announcement. But it was
just the language barrier at work again: it was an ad for a computer
class. Some Polish workers complained that by working for less money,
the women from Latin America were undermining a market that they
worked hard to establish.
At least one potential employer said she got used to the services of
the Polish women over the years. “They’ve been coming here forever and
they clean fast,” said a Hasidic woman who introduced herself as Ms.
Katz, 30. She came to the shape-up pushing a baby carriage: “I have
six children. I need help.” Rebecca Gutierrez, 51, is one of the
relative newcomers. She has been looking for work since June, when she
was laid off from a food catering business. “I really need to work,”
she said, her voice edged with weariness.
Ms. Gutierrez moved to a friend’s apartment in Jackson Heights,
Queens, where she does not have to pay rent. She also had to stop
sending money to her son back in Peru.
Around 11 a.m., the crowd started to thin down. Most of the Polish
women were gone, including Krystyna. Some left with their employers;
others decided to call it a day. But Ms. Gutierrez was still waiting.
She was one of the oldest women on hand from Latin America. Perhaps
that is why, she speculated through a translator, that she rarely gets
hired. During a good week, she is able to make $100. Sometimes,
however, she does not make anything the entire week.
The word around is that the best days for getting a job are Thursdays
and Fridays, as the preparations for Sabbath begin. But it was
Wednesday. Ms. Gutierrez quit around noon.
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska is a reporter for Nowy Dziennik, The Polish Daily News.
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