WASHINGTON -- At seis in the morning of Cinco de Mayo, outside the 7-Eleven, Pedro from El Salvador was sitting on a rock. He was hardly alone. Singly and in twos and threes, walking from the Metrobus and climbing out of battered, dusty cars, men were gathering in front of the convenience store in the yawning, dawning light.
In the parking lot of the Home Depot on the other side of the six-lane avenue, I could make out 30 or 40 more labourers, waiting for whatever the day might bring.
I sat in my old Honda and rehearsed my grade-school Spanish and gathered the nerve to talk to Pedro, who was wearing cut-off jeans, brown work boots with no socks, a ball cap with the letters "VA" on it, and a green T-shirt that said "eco-friendly education devotee." He reached into his backpack and pulled out a white dress shirt -- it was tinted pink by the emergent Saturday sun -- carefully folded it, and stuffed it back in the bag.
A white panel van with the name of a construction company on the doors stopped right in front of Pedro. I couldn't hear what was being said, but when the truck started moving again towards a cluster of men who were standing along a chain-link fence and waving, I saw Pedro turn away and slump back down on his boulder.
It was a scene I had witnessed dozens of times, driving past this intersection on my way downtown: dozens of Latino men gathering outside 7-Eleven and the Home Depot; unmarked vans and pickups and bigger trucks with logos on their doors and ladders on their roofs, doing a slow merengue around the tarmac; the recruiters taking some workers, bypassing others, then driving them off to caulk my roof, prune my azaleas, haul my garbage and fix the cracks in my living-room ceiling that have been there since last summer's earthquake.
I walked over to Pedro and asked about the fate that had brought him to a slab of stone in Washington at sunrise, as if this was any of my business at all.
"No soy la migra," I began. I'm not the immigration police. And we both laughed.
"Those guys said they would pay me on Monday for the work we do today," Pedro reported of his exchange with the men in the truck. "I told them, 'Work today, cash today.' I am a professional. I want to be paid the same day."
He handed me his backpack and, having seen only the dress shirt, I hefted an unexpected weight.
"I have my own tools," he said. He pointed to the men who were sitting on the curb or slouching against the fence or coming out of the 7-Eleven with cans of AriZona Ice Tea and bags of salted nuts. "Some of these other guys, they have no tools, no skills at all."
I learned that Pedro had walked across the border from Mexico 10 years ago, that he had not seen his wife or his three children since he left El Salvador, that he had been in Washington for six years after stints in Missouri and Georgia, that he lived with three other men in an apartment with two beds, that the labourers outside the 7-Eleven had agreed among themselves that they would accept no less than $80 for an eight-hour workday, that he had no immigration status and no health or accident or life insurance of any kind and that the U.S. economy was so awful, even in recession-proof Washington, that he was lucky to find skilled or unskilled work on two or three days of any given week.
"El sue±o americano," he sighed. The American dream.
"You fill out an application for a company, they want your Social Security number and proof that you are paying child support," Pedro said. "But I got no papers."
He was going to give it one more year in the United States and then go home to his brood. Hearing this, I envisioned another professional carpenter -- my grandfather Abelowitz, disembarking in Philadelphia in 1906 at the age of 20, as alone as Pedro -- and I wondered if he ever thought about giving up and going back to his parents and the Czar.
"There are 12 million more in this country like you," I told Pedro, and I noted immigration reform could be an important issue in the fall elections, at least in the states where enough Latinos have become citizens with voting rights for the politicians to give a damn about them. Broadly speaking, the Democrats would bestow citizenship on these noble strivers and the Republicans would install a trebuchet south of San Diego and fling them all to Tijuana.
"Obama, four years, nothing," said Pedro from El Salvador. "Romney, four years, he'll do nothing, too."
I asked him if there was anything in his life in this country besides waiting and hoping for a decent day's work outside the 7-Eleven.
"Latinas, gringas, all kinds of girls," Pedro said. "You call them on the phone and they come to you. Thirty dollars for five minutes. Then they say, 'Next!' "
I would have wished Pedro a happy Cinco de Mayo, but that's a big day in Mexico, not in El Salvador. The Salvadorans do celebrate Mother's Day, but Pedro hadn't seen his mother in 10 years.
"Only pictures," he said.
I went into the store to get us each a bottle of juice. Fifteen men were ahead of me, stocking up on water and ice for the workday ahead.
It was going to be a hot one. The line moved slowly. When I came out, Pedro was gone.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.