by Victoria Van Demark and Lisa Calcasola
His name is Tony Torres. You might pass him on the streets and never know his name, his story, or where he comes from. All you see is the guy dressed in one of those velvet green Statue of Liberty suits waving flyers around and maybe, if he’s good-humored, dancing to music from his iPod.
Tony stands on East Fordham Road next to the fruit/shampoo/knit hat market, across from the gated community of Fordham University. He’s wearing sunglasses and a black sweatshirt underneath his Lady Liberty getup. “Are you cold?” We ask. “Nah, I’m good,” he says, though that’s hard to believe on this windy February day. We approach Tony with hesitation. What questions can we ask that won’t be too intrusive or awkward? Tony’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m Puerto Rican and Dominican. I’ve lived in the Bronx my whole life. What else do you want to know?”
Tony is a student, studying to be a veterinary technician. Or he was, until he injured his leg. Now he is out of school, but he has no doubt he will be back to finish. When asked what made him interested in pursuing this career, he remarked, “Animals don’t lie. People do.”
A veterinary technician assists the vet with many tasks. Tony had always loved animals since he was a child. He adopted a beagle named Max as well as an “off-the-wall” dachshund named Hero.
So why is our animal-loving friend in the biting cold in a gaudy costume? He’s doing a favor for his friend. The job consists of walking up and down the streets, passing out flyers for five to six hours. It’s boring, he says, but he keeps himself entertained.
“If you really want to work you do what you’ve got to do,” Tony says. And he’s worked a slew of different jobs before this one; he was a bouncer for ten years, working in seven different bars. He’s got three kids, aged 14, 13, and 12, two of whom live in Connecticut.
Throughout, Tony remained upbeat and seemed to have a very positive and persistent attitude on life. When asked if he’s always been this way, he surprises us by shaking his head. “I’m learning to be positive,” he says, “I used to be a bitter person when I was sober, and a happy drunk. But I’ve gone past that point in my life. I found people in church that helped me quit alcohol. But it’s all about doing, not trying.” Keep doing, Tony. Keep doing.
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Author Lisa Calcasola also used Tony Torres as a subject in an interdisciplinary academic course essay:
His name is Tony Torres. I met him while volunteering for an organization called Worker’s Write, in which volunteers approach strangers they may never interact with in ordinary circumstances and ask them to share their stories. These are the stories of a more “unseen America” that do not show up in mainstream media. The idea of the organization is to break down the social barriers that exist in cities and give voices to those peoples whose voices often go unheard.
You might pass Mr. Torres on the streets and never know his name, his story, or where he comes from. All you see is the guy dressed in one of those velvet green Statue of Liberty suits waving flyers around and maybe, if he’s good-humored, dancing to music from his iPod. To a non-city dweller, this sight might elicit a reaction of some sort: humor, joy, pity, or some other emotion. But to a local resident, the sight of this man dressed in such a gaudy costume hardly registers on his or her radar.
Perhaps the next question an individual may ask, after the initial surprise of seeing Tony, is his purpose for doing such a job. Why does Tony have to stand outside for five to six hours in the windy February streets, while other workers are safely tucked away in their high-rise offices only thirty minutes away?
If we continue looking down Tony’s street, we’ll see a small slew of tables selling different merchandise, ranging from shampoos and conditioners to knit hats and scarves to flower bouquets to strawberries and other fruits. These stalls make up a small but vibrant marketplace on East Fordham road in which young entrepreneurs try to make a steady income. Again one may ask, why do some people need to rely on these stalls to support themselves, while others in the city will never be in this position in their entire lifetime?
There are, of course, multiple answers to these questions, many of them controversial. These are difficult questions to address because they bring into discussion a lot of social and economic issues that many would rather keep quiet about, because it makes them uncomfortable, or because they do not see the relevance in discussing simply what “is” and “has always been”. These are questions that deal with class inequality, systematic racism, and the blatant spatial segregation minorities have faced in the housing market that stems from past discriminatory legislation (Greg, Service Interdisciplinary Seminar Lecture #2).
But these questions are important ones, and they cannot be ignored, because to ignore them would be to ignore the realities of millions of Americans today. These Americans live on or below the poverty line, with unstable service jobs (if in fact they have jobs at all) that pay minimum wage and that could be gone in an instant. Service jobs are often easily replaceable and so these people live with the fear of financial instability and the pressure to never step out of line at their job, even if the conditions are subpar.
To understand why the number of service jobs in the United States has increased exponentially since the 1980s, one must first look at the explosion of globalization, the shift from an industrial city to a “global” city, and the increase in producer services thereafter. Producer services here are defined as companies that conduct business with other companies. Some examples include management, advertising, public relations, and F.I.R.E businesses, which are not to be confused with consumer services such as hospitality services. Service jobs, then, include low-paying jobs like janitorial, retail, and food services (Rhomberg, Urban America lecture).
With the birth of digitization in the late twentieth century, many analysts believed cities were on their way out (Sassen, 1). However it is clear in retrospect that this was not the case. While headquarters to major companies may have left the central city, choosing instead to concentrate in a location conveniently off the highway, many companies specializing in producer services stayed or relocated to what came to be known as “global” cities. Global cities are extremely specialized in a particular field. For example, the Silicon Valley is known as the center for technological innovation, while New York City is the hub of financial and real estate business (Sassen, 6-8).
With this explosion of producer services came the equally necessary increase in more lower-class service jobs. More office buildings meant more people required to clean the offices and to feed the employees. The paradox that exists within such a society is that a service worker may work more hours than the man in the producer service field whom they serve, and yet they have a substantially lower yearly salary. These workers in fact may even be forced to work two or three extra jobs in order to simply pay their rent, feed and support themselves and, most likely, their families. The rise of producer services has also led to the gentrification and forced spatial segregation of peoples based on class (Sassen, 270-272). How can such an obvious dichotomy in socioeconomic classes work side-by-side and yet never interact with one another? And how do people turn a blind eye to those clearly struggling to get by every day?
German sociologist Georg Simmel had a theory of the effects of urban life on the human psyche. He claimed that city-dwellers are so constantly surrounded by stimuli that, as a sort of defense mechanism to protect their sanity, they develop what he called the “blasé attitude” (Gottdiener, Hutchinson, Ryan 56-57). The blasé attitude refers to a city dweller’s ability to see Tony Torres dressed as the Statue of Liberty walking down the street, and not give him a second glance, because this scene doesn’t stand out to him anymore than the blaring car horns or the police sirens do. Cities therefore create a sort of indifferent environment between strangers, in which two people may interact everyday— such as the interaction between a coffee-drinker and his Starbucks server every morning— and yet never learn anything about the other’s life. Simmel believed this atomization was a direct result of capitalism, in which people are valued solely through their economic worth (Chorney, 61). A relationship is therefore not between two humans, but between customer and employee.
So how does this relate to what I’m studying and observing? I’m still trying to connect the material I’m learning in the Interdisciplinary seminar, Worker’s Write, and Urban America course. In addition to Mr. Torres I also attempted to interview a few Sodexo workers as well as a janitor in my on-campus residential housing at Fordham University. These workers were hesitant to speak with me because they were on the job and had previously been informed by their supervisors not to speak about their jobs with students. I believe their hesitation goes back to the pressure of low-wage workers to comply with their supervisors’ requests out of fear of risking their financial security. While it may feel awkward at times to approach strangers and ask them to share details of their personal lives, I do it with the hope that readers walk away with the knowledge that, more than anything, sometimes all anyone wants is someone who will listen. Listen, and do so nonjudgmentally. And I hope readers understand that basic human compassion and respect is what will make the world a better place.