Four years ago, Jesus Cabrera was struggling to support his family as a Mexico City academic. Now he's working at a fast-food joint in New York and trying to make the most of his "American vacation."
Jesus Cabrera's shift started with a loud shout.
It came from Arnold, the executive chef at BLT Burger. "Oye, Profe, esta orden es para ti," he hollered at Jesus, using a shortened version of the Spanish word for professor, just as nearly every BLT staff member did.
Jesus no longer teaches at top Mexico City universities or weeds out unfit police cadets for the national force. Instead, he finds himself traveling an hour each way, Thursday through Sunday, from his home in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx to his job at BLT Burger in the West Village. For seven hours a day (14 on Sunday), he mounts his trusty green bike and delivers burgers -- dodging vehicles, maverick cyclists, and complaints about lukewarm red meat.
On this particular day, Jesus studied the order receipts to figure out whether the deliveries would be down the street or 20 blocks away. "12th Street and 11th Street. Very close. I'll walk," he reported cheerfully, his smile wrinkling his pockmarked cheeks and revealing three missing front teeth. His grin was boyish, but his weathered visage seemed fitting for a 52-year-old man who had left behind his mother, wife, and two children in Mexico.
Jesus is guarded, BLT manager Josh Fosset told me. He's great at what he does and never misses a shift. But he keeps private his personal life private. He's wary of being photographed for fear of revealing his missing teeth, which Josh said he lost while biting down on a hidden chicken bone. As a result, Jesus now rarely allows his picture to be taken.
He's not a shy man, though. Almost every word out of his mouth is carefree and ebullient. On this day, he was especially excited that he'd be able to make his deliveries on foot. "On a bike you can't see anything," said Jesus. "You watch for the cars and the trucks, but walking you get to look at the architecture and the buildings."
As he turned the corner of 6th Avenue onto 12th Street, Jesus's head swiveled back and forth as he ogled the symmetrical rows of beige, stuccoed town houses that flanked him on either side. He paused beside one with wrought iron moldings and lifted his hand, bag included, to point intently at its windows.
"The, the -- the arches!" he exclaimed, finding the right word and grabbing my arm for emphasis. "They're great. Look at the curves!"
Jesus seemed professorial as he entered the lobby of the building on 12th Street. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back, thinning slightly and receding at the sides, and his black, demi-tortoise shell thin-rimmed glasses reflected the lobby's dark marble interior. If it weren't for the delivery bags in his hands, an onlooker might have mistaken Jesus for a tourist.
He didn't go upstairs but handed his delivery bag over to a middle-aged, dreary-looking doorman who gave Jesus a $3 tip. After four years of working this beat, Jesus is acquainted with many of the neighborhood doormen, not in the chummiest of ways, but with the tacit understanding that Jesus may take a few photographs of the art and architecture while he's there. The doormen, Jesus said, never seem to mind.
The next building, on 11th Street, was one Jesus's favorites. Unlike the lobby on 12th, with its dim lighting and murky atmosphere, this one was resplendent, with beams of light bouncing off of the moldings and marble floor. There were gold adornments everywhere -- on the doors, aligning every chandelier, and on the arches in the ceiling. It was The Breakers meets Greenwich Village, and Jesus gawked with his head tilted upwards. After a few more seconds, he exchanged a few pleasantries in Spanish with the doorman, who told him to head upstairs.
Once there, Jesus was meticulous with his knock -- a strong tap, loud enough to be heard, but not so boisterous as to disturb. After a few seconds, a young, petite blonde cracked open the door to greet Jesus. She smiled, handed Jesus $2, and thanked him for the food. With that, Jesus's run was over -- two deliveries in a little under 20 minutes.
Outside, when I asked Jesus whether stingy tips ever bothered him, he gazed back into the lobby's gold and marble interior. ""This is my com-pen-sation," he said.
His actual income isn't plentiful, but Jesus can support himself and his family in Mexico on the $100 he makes on a normal night. Thirty of that comes from tips, which he guesses are usually around $3 per order, and a little higher if the customer is "conscious." On a busy weekend evening, Jesus says he can sometimes take in $50 in tips alone.
To Jesus, those earnings don't seem all that bad. In Mexico City, where he worked as a police psychologist, and before that as a professor at private universities, he only made $600 a month, which he says is a common salary for professionals in Mexico. But as the universities continued to lower his salary year after year, he was faced with the decision to leave his children behind so he could provide for them from abroad, or stay with them and risk impoverishment. "I couldn't work in a factory. I didn't have a choice," says Jesus.
Giving up a professional career to deliver hamburgers would seem demoralizing, but Jesus doesn't let his personal plight get in the way of his job performance. According to manager Josh Fosset, "Professor thinks that if you're going to be doing something, you should be doing it the best it possibly can be done."
Jesus also works hard to improve his English. On most of his days off, he takes language classes at St. John's University where his goal is to reach the most advanced level. He often arrives at BLT with underlined newspaper clippings or lists of words that he doesn't understand. He pores over television shows and recently asked a few BLT servers if they could help him understand sayings he'd heard on British TV. As of late, Jesus has started asking Josh if certain words he hears are "colloquialisms."
His efforts have paid off. A voracious reader, Jesus now reads about half of the time in English. His favorite books are texts about psychology. When I met him one day at a Barnes and Noble, he pointed out The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud and Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl as two favorite books he'd read as a psychology student. They were nearly $20 apiece; Jesus usually buys his books used at The Strand. Still, before we left, he considered buying a biography of Jackie Kennedy.
Jesus's life in New York City isn't all joie de vivre. Headaches bother him, and dental problems continue to unnerve him. Austerity has become his guiding principle. In Mexico, he says he would never imagine wearing used clothing. Now, he says, he has no problem with it. "Here, nobody cares if you're wearing hand-me-downs. Look at this shirt," he said, pointing to his black waffle t-shirt. "It looks great!"
On a recent evening on Concourse Avenue, near where Jesus lives in the Bronx, middle-aged Latino men drearily passed by on the sidewalks, returning from work with messenger bags slung over their shoulders. Darkness enveloped the sky above them as the high-pitched shouts of playing children faded in the streets. Next to Jesus's split-level building, an older Cuban man sat on a stoop with his arms crossed and his legs at perfect 90-degree angles. He nodded his head to greet Jesus, who was returning from the local bodega with a wrapped bundle of cilantro for his queso fundido. Jesus planned to make the dish from scratch -- the cheese melted with butter and a modicum of salt, the tortillas heated on his stovetop, and the pico de gallo mixed with fresh tomatoes, onions, and peppers.
Inside Jesus's building, the walls were ivory with not a speck of dirt in sight. So were the doors, the staircase, and the hallway that led into Jesus's suite. Earlier, when I'd asked him if he had any roommates, Jesus had proudly responded that he lived alone. Now, as we entered his apartment, I saw four bicycles in the hallway and four other closed doors. I later found out that Jesus's idea of roommateship involved physically sharing a bedroom.
But Jesus was quite proud of the fact that he had his own room. Other than his clothing and a wooden bed frame, his room had a nightstand, a lamp, and -- the main attraction -- a three-tier book stand. He admitted that he had let himself go a little. "There's no wife around," he said mischievously. "I don't fold the clothes like I used to. To the laundry, and then under the bed."
Although Jesus is relishing what he calls his American "vacation," his family is never far from his mind. Every week, he sends home hundreds of dollars to his 8-year-old daughter and his 7-year-old son. The money, 60 percent of his salary, helps cover the cost of their food, their school supplies, and their medical care. The other 40 percent is his to keep, but it's not so simple. When he sent his wife a picture of the book collection he's amassed in New York, she sent him back a biting retort insisting that he should either be sending money to his children or getting his teeth fixed, not buying books.
As he spoke about his family, Jesus's cheerful demeanor fell away, and for a moment he looked every one of his 52 years. "My little girl said that she feels like she's growing up without a father," Jesus reflected, and then added wistfully, "I might have to return home soon."