Digging Out

Reaching for the American Dream—one shovel-full at a time

In the midst of a recent December snowstorm, a small group of men originally from Mexico and Latin America showed up at the landscaping company where I work to help shovel. Our list included a daunting 250 accounts: homeowners, apartments, businesses, large-scale factories. Despite the fact that it was 3 a.m. and there was snowy slop all over the streets, these hardy fellows arrived on bicycles, on foot, and piled into small cars, ready to perform the thankless, backbreaking work of snow removal.

We huddled together, sleepy and shivering, under the harsh glow of the garage lights. Some of the men were without gloves, boots, and hats. After some spare gear was distributed, we assembled into 10 work crews, each one with a different snow-removal route. My crew was known simply as “Ranger,” named after both the style of our truck and the legendary Army division known for its quick-strike ability, which was appropriate because I had over 35 jobs on my route. Assigned to our crew that morning was Bennie, a stout and gregarious man from Guatemala, and Victor, a scrawny kid from Mexico who spoke no English and wore thin, unlaced construction boots.

To start, we buzzed through a cluster of homes near the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the violent screeching of our snow-blower engines tearing through the silent, snow-globe world around us. Bennie, who rents a house with his wife and baby and four relatives, looked longingly at each immaculate residence. Staring at the American Dream from its trenches, Bennie wanted to know the real-estate value of every property.

“How much is it?” he asked me in choppy English. “I need a big one for mi familia.”

Between destinations, our communication was a linguistic gumbo, spicy bits of English and Spanish slang all thrown into the dialog. Well-intentioned, but still laboring to communicate, we tried to explain to each other our jobs and our lives. I told them that I worked two jobs, one at the landscaping company and one as a writer. Then Bennie pointedly asked me, “Why do you need to work two jobs? You are from here. What happened to you?”

As veins of sunlight etched their way across the dawn sky the color of a fresh bruise, I reflected on my own American Dream, which, in this recessionary economy, was now a quagmire of hope, fear, and bare-knuckled fortitude. For working-class folks like me, one job won’t cut it. My wife works, too, and at times we are still only treading water, moving forward slightly only to be pulled back into the trough by, say, a big medical bill or car repair. And since there is no vacation in sight, we just keep grinding it out. I thought about all of this, but was too tired to convey any of it. So, I just shrugged.

As day bled into night and back into day, we worked three 12-hour shifts in a row. We were by turns overheated and freezing cold, and delirium turned into a hallucinogenic reality: packs of fitness fanatics in outdoor scuba suits jogged by us as we shoveled; at churches, angelic statues stared down on us as we cleaned sidewalks; and out in the suburbs, the silhouettes of strangers in apartment windows watched our every move.

Back at the garage early Sunday morning, all the crews were hollowed out by sleep deprivation, hunger, and exhaustion. Because there was still more work to do, I joked with the crew that we wouldn’t make it to church, but that God would understand. My coworker José, a man who came to this country from Mexico when he was 14 for a chance at a better life, summed it all up—for us both—saying, “The Lord knows we have to work.”

Todd Smith is a Minneapolis writer.