Teen Voices

Part: 8

Sonia Sotomayor's Dollar-an-Hour Job Stops Boredom

Sunday, March 10, 2013

She was the first Latina appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In this excerpt from her book, "My Beloved World," Sonia Sotomayor recounts her first job and growing up in the housing projects in the Bronx.

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I didn't see that coming. Nobody was forcing me to work. Sure, a little pocket money would be nice, but that wasn't the main motivation. "Mami, I want to work," I told her. She'd worked too hard all her life to appreciate that leisure could mean boredom, but that's what I knew I'd be facing if I sat home all summer. I promised never to blame her. In that moment, I began to understand how hard my mother's life had been.

Titi Carmen reported back that Angie was willing to hire me for a dollar an hour. That was less than minimum wage, but since I wasn't old enough to work legally anyway, they would just pay me off the books. I would take the bus, meet Titi Carmen at her place and then we'd walk over to United Bargains together. That became our routine. It wasn't a neighborhood where you walked alone.

United Bargains sold women's clothing. I pitched in wherever needed: restocking, tidying up, monitoring the dressing rooms. I was supposed to watch for the telltale signs of a shoplifter trying to disappear behind the racks, rolling up merchandise to stuff in a purse.

Junkies were especially suspect. They were easy to spot by the shadow in their eyes, though the tracks on their arms were hidden under long sleeves even in summer. There was never an argument, never a scene. Once in a while I had to say, "Take it out." Most of the time I didn't need to utter a word. She would pull the garment out of her bag, put it back on the hanger, or maybe hand it to me, our eyes never meeting as she slinked out.

We always let them go. There wasn't much choice: in a precinct that had come to be known as Fort Apache, the Wild West, the cops had their hands full dealing with the gangs. Besides, the management understood that the shame and pity were punishment enough, and I naturally agreed. I abhorred feeling pitied, that degrading secondhand sadness I would always associate with my family's reaction to the news I had diabetes. To pity someone else feels no better. When someone's dignity shatters in front of you, it leaves a hole that any feeling heart naturally wants to fill, if only with its own sadness.

On Saturday nights the store was open late, and it was dark by the time we rolled down the gates. Two patrol officers would meet us at the door and escort us home. I don't know how this was arranged, whether it was true that one of the saleswomen was sleeping with one of these cops, but I was glad of it anyway. As we walked, we could see the SWAT team on the roofs all along Southern Boulevard, their silhouettes bulging with body armor, assault rifles bristling. One by one the shops would darken, and we could hear the clatter of the graffiti-covered gates being rolled down, trucks driving off, until we were the only ones walking. Even the prostitutes had vanished. You might trip on tourniquets and empty glassine packets when you got into the courtyard area at Titi Carmen's, but you wouldn't run into any neighbors. I would spend the night there, talking the night away with Miriam. I wished Nelson were there too, but he was never home anymore.

I remember falling asleep thinking again about "Lord of the Flies." It was as if the fly-crusted sow's head on a stick were planted in a crack of the sidewalk on Southern Boulevard. The junkies haunting the alley were little boys smeared with war paint, abandoned on a hostile island and the eyes of the hunters cruising slowly down the street glowed with primitive appetites. The cops in their armor were only a fiercer tribe. Where was the conch?

The next morning, in daylight, Southern Boulevard was less threatening. The street vendors were out, shop fronts were open, people were coming and going. On the way home I stopped at a makeshift fruit cart to buy a banana for a snack. I was standing there peeling my purchase when a police car rolled up to the curb. The cop got out and pointed here and there to what he wanted--there was a language barrier--and the vendor loaded two large shopping bags with fruit. The cop made as if to reach for his wallet, but it was only a gesture, and the vendor waved it off. When the cop drove away, I asked the man why he didn't take the money.

"Es el precio de hacer negocios. If I don't give the fruit, I can't sell the fruit."

My heart sank. I told him I was sorry it was like that.

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