A transplanted northerner, I lived until very recently in bucolic Upatoi, Georgia. Unlike the city-folk in nearby Columbus whose homes sit as close as two Alabama cousins, Upatoians tend to opt for two acres and a pool. My middle-class neighborhood of Ridgewood Estates--a community of mainly 1970's and 1980's eclectic-style homes--had as its centerpiece a large, beautiful, white antebellum plantation known as Ridgewood. Every Fourth of July, in honor of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Upatoians join together at what I always thought of as The Big House for an Independence Day celebration complete with fried chicken, watermelon, live blues, and a spectacular fireworks show.
This summer, not long after the Fourth, my husband and I were at home on our two acres when a Guatemalan man named Romeo knocked on our door.
We thought he was looking for work; instead he was looking for help. He explained that he was stranded in Upatoi, twenty miles from his home in South Columbus. Cruising Victory Drive in the early morning, a contractor had picked Romeo up on a corner where he'd waited along with other migrant workers seeking a day's wages. After Romeo had spent ten hours at six different homes in Upatoi, cutting lawns, mending fences, planting flowers, hauling pine straw, spreading mulch, pulling weeds and pruning bushes, he decided his work day was over. Since the soft light of dusk had not yet given way to the still darkness of night, the contractor begged to differ, and so he exercised his rights not to pay Romeo and not to drive him home.
On hearing this, my husband Dale, a genuinely good guy, decided to give Romeo a lift. Juiced up on indignation and maybe a little testosterone, Dale thought he would swing by the worksite and have a chat with the contractor. As our Mazda Minivan inched toward The Big House, Romeo pointed out a sprawling ranch home on the left. A young black man, shirt sleeves rolled and armits stained with sweat, was trimming hedges in its side yard.
My husband rolled down the window. "Hey buddy, was this guy working for you?"
The man stopped his clipping. "He was, sir."
Romeo leaned across our front seat and demanded, "You pay me!"
The young man said to Dale, "He didn't want to finish the job. He got tired of all the work we had to do. I told him I'd drive him back when he finished. Anyway, I don't have his money. My boss does."
Not quite knowing what to do next, Dale pointed our minivan toward South Columbus. Romeo asked if we had any children.
"Two," Dale replied, "a boy eight and a girl five."
Romeo had left five children and a wife in Guatemala to come with his cousin to America to find work. Prior to that, he said, he'd been in the Guatemalan army.
"Litte pay. Too much gun," he admitted.
For the rest of the ride, Dale tried to convince Romeo to call the police and report how he had been ripped off. Romeo thought he might contact a Puerto Rican officer on the force who had befriended the migrant workers and looked out for them. Dale took the Victory Drive exit in Columbus and pulled into a trailer park populated by the city's poorest blacks and migrant workers. At the site of the minivan, the cautious gawked out of the dirty windows while the brave spilled out of the rusty metal pens that served as their shelters. They watched Dale and Romeo.
"Good luck, buddy. Remember, call that police officer," my husband said.
Romeo pulled out his wallet. "I give you money for ride."
Before Dale could answer, Romeo insisted: "You give me number. I work for you."
"No, man," Dale responded. "It's on me."