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.

Page 3 of 3

"We all have to make a living," he said with a shrug. He looked more ashamed than aggrieved.

Why was I so upset? Without cops our neighborhood would be even more of a war zone than it was. They worked hard at a dangerous job with little thanks from the people they protected. We needed them. Was I angry because I held the police to a higher standard, the same way I did Father Dolan and the nuns? There was something more to it, beyond the betrayal of trust, beyond the corruption of someone whose uniform is a symbol of the civic order.

How do things break down? In "Lord of the Flies," the more mature of those lost boys start off with every intention of building a moral, functional society on their island, drawing on what they remember--looking after the "littluns," building the shelters, keeping the signal fire burning. Their little community gradually breaks down all the same, battered by those who are more self-indulgent, those who are driven by ego and fear.

Which side was the cop on?

The boys need rules, law, order, to keep their worst instincts in check. The conch they blow to call a meeting or hold for the right to speak stands for order, but it holds no power in itself. Its only power is what they agree to honor. It is a beautiful thing, but fragile.

When I was much younger, on summer days I would sometimes go along with Titi Aurora to the place where she worked as a seamstress. Those must have been days when Mami was working the day shift and, for some reason, I couldn't go to Abuelita's. That room with the sewing machines whirring was a vision of hell to me: steaming hot, dark, and airless with the windows painted black and the door shut tight.

I was too young to be useful, but I tried to help anyway, to pass the time. Titi Aurora would give me a box of zippers to untangle, or I'd stack up hangers, sort scraps by color or fetch things for the women sewing. All day long I'd keep an eye out for anyone heading toward the door. As soon as it opened, I'd race over and stick my head out for a breath of air, until Titi saw me and shooed me back in. I asked her why they didn't just keep the door open. "They just can't," she would say.

Behind the closed door and the blackened windows, all those women were breaking the law. But they weren't criminals. They were just women toiling long hours under miserable conditions to support their families. They were doing what they had to do to survive. It was my first inkling of what a tough life Titi Aurora had had. Titi never got the schooling that Mami got, and she'd borne the brunt of the father Mami was spared from knowing. Her married life would have many challenges and few rewards. Work was the only way she knew to keep going, and she never missed a day. And though Titi was also the most honest person I knew--if she found a dime in a pay phone, she'd dial the operator to ask where she should mail it--she broke the law every day she went to work.

One evening at United Bargains, the women were making crank calls, dialing random numbers out of the phone book. If a woman's voice answered, they acted as if they were having an affair with her husband, then howled with laughter at their poor gull's response. Titi Carmen would join in, taking her turn on the phone and laughing as long and hard as any of them. I couldn't understand how anyone could be so cruel--so arbitrarily, pointlessly cruel. What was the pleasure in it? Walking home, I asked her,

"Titi, can't you imagine the pain you're causing in that house?"

"It was just a joke, Sonia. Nobody meant any harm."

How could she not imagine? How could the cop not imagine what two large shopping bags full of fruit might measure in a poor vendor's life, maybe a whole day's earnings? Was it so hard to see himself in the other man's shoes?

I was 15 years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can't imagine someone else's point of view.

Three days before Christmas and midway through my freshman year at Cardinal Spellman High School, we moved to a new apartment in Co-op City. Once again, my mother had led us to what seemed like the edge of nowhere. Co-op City was swampland, home to nothing but a desolate amusement park called Freedomland, until the cement mixers and dump trucks arrived barely a year before we did.

We moved into one of the first of 30 buildings planned for a development designed to house 55,000. To get home from school, I had to hike a mile--down Baychester Avenue, across the freeway overpass and through the vast construction site of half-built towers and bare, bulldozed mud--before reaching human habitation. An icy wind that could lift you off your feet blew from the Hutchinson River. Flurries of snow blurred the construction cranes against an opaque sky of what seemed like Siberia in the Bronx.

At least now we lived close enough for me to walk to school, and I was glad of that. The hour-long trek by bus and train from Watson Avenue had been tedious. Poor Junior, who was only in sixth grade when we moved, would make the commute in reverse from Co-op City to Blessed Sacrament for another two and a half years. No one we knew had ever heard of Co-op City. My mother learned about it from some newspaper article on the city's plans for building affordable housing. The cost of living there was pegged to income, and at the same time you were buying inexpensive shares in a cooperative, so in theory there was a tax break.

My mother was eager to get us into a safer place because the Bronxdale projects were headed downhill fast. Gangs were carving up the territory and each other, adding the threat of gratuitous violence to the scourges of drugs and poverty. A plague of arson was spreading through the surrounding neighborhoods as landlords of crumbling buildings chased insurance. Home was starting to look like a war zone.

It was Dr. Fisher who made the move possible. When he died, he left my mother $5,000 in his will, the final and least expected of the countless kindnesses that we could never repay, although we tried. When Dr. Fisher was hospitalized after his wife died, Abuelita made Gallego stop on the way to work every morning to pick up Dr. Fisher's laundry and deliver clean pajamas to him.

Yes, Co-op City was the end of the earth, but once I saw the apartment, it made sense. It had parquet floors and a big window in the living room with a long view. All the rooms were twice the size of those cubbyholes in the projects, and the kitchen was big enough to sit and eat in. Best of all, my mother's friend Willy, a musician who did handiwork too, was able to partition the master bedroom into two little chambers, each big enough for a twin bed and a tiny bureau, so Junior and I could finally have separate rooms. Each had its own door and Willy even let us each choose our own wallpaper. Junior chose something neutral, in a restrained shade of beige. Mine had constellations, planets and signs of the zodiac in an antique style, as if a Renaissance cartographer had drawn a map for space travel.

I was reading a lot of science fiction and fantasizing about travel to other worlds or slipping through a time warp. It had been only the summer before, in July 1969, that two astronauts had walked on the moon, and I was awestruck that it had happened in my own lifetime, especially when I remembered how Papi had predicted this.

From the earth's leaders, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carried messages etched in microscopically tiny print on a silicon disk, messages that could fit on the head of a pin, to be deposited on the surface of the moon. Pope Paul's was from Psalm 8: "I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and stars you set in place. Ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him? Or the son of man that you should care for him? You have made him a little less than an angel, you have crowned him with glory and splendor, and you have made him lord over the work of your hand."

Excerpted from "My Beloved World" by . Copyright 2013 by Sonia Sotomayor. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

; she assumed this role on Aug. 8, 2009.

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