The Day Laborer
By Debbonnaire Kovacs
Based on Matthew 20:1-16
The trucks know where the hopeful day laborers gather. And the hopeful day laborers know where the trucks will come by. Word passes quickly down the streets of a big city when some new construction company arrives that pays well and treats you as if you might be almost human.
Jake saw the pickup slow near his corner. He had been out of work for months, and trudging the streets asking for the kind of low-skill work he could do didn’t seem to help. Sometimes he couldn’t even land a day or a week of grunt work on a construction site, but it looked like today he might get lucky. And it wasn’t even seven o’clock yet. He hoped it was a big job. He straightened his shoulders and tried to look professional as the guy got out of the truck. Joe reflected you’d have known him for a boss anywhere, but his eyes looked right at you. That was something.
“Can you hammer a nail straight?” the man asked.
“Yes, sir.” (Try not to sound too eager, he reminded himself.)
“Ten hours, $150,” said the boss.
Joe felt his breath catch. “Yes, sir!” Twice minimum, that was rare!
The man gathered up several other guys and they all piled into the pickup bed. Joe worked hard, ignoring heat, sweat, and humidity. He pulled off his shirt before noon and tucked it into his back pocket. The boss gave them breaks, and provided drinks and sandwiches, even! Joe wondered if this company might be hiring for real jobs. Several times over the course of the day, he saw the truck come back with more men.
When quitting time came, he stood in the shade, wiping his grimy face with his grimier shirt. The boss pulled out a roll of bills, and Joe cast a look around. This guy ought to be more careful—no telling what kind of losers were around! But somehow, nobody seemed to want to mess with him. There was something about him that commanded respect. Maybe it was because he respected them.
Joe’s eyes widened when he saw the boss count out $150 to some guys who had only been on the job an hour or so. Man, what kind of a bonus would he get for his ten hours of breaking his back? The boss came down the line, and Joe tried not to watch. People’s money was a private thing. At last his own turn came.
“Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred, twenty, forty, and fifty,” said the boss, piling the bills on Joe’s palm.
Joe waited a beat, then looked up. “That’s all?”
“It was our bargain, wasn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but…you gave those guys the same amount, and they’d only been here an hour! We’ve been here sweating all day!”
The boss looked at him, his brows wrinkling slightly. “I gave you good pay for good work. And you did good work, too. But it’s my money. If I want to be generous with these men who haven’t been hired all day, isn’t that my business?”
Joe’s eyes dropped before the other man’s. “Yeah, I guess.” It still didn’t seem fair, but he knew one of those men who had come in last had five kids and an alcoholic wife. Maybe…maybe he shouldn’t complain. He took his money and turned away. Then he turned back. “Do you have any regular work?”
The boss smiled.