Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Worst Superpower

Orlando Serrell was hit by a baseball when he was 10 years old, in 1979. After he recovered, he realized that he had gained a new and relatively useless, but nonetheless impressive, skill. He can, up to today, recall the weather, where he was, and what he was doing for every day since the accident.

This got me thinking about superpowers I don't desire, and particularly about a superpower I am currently trying to tame - the power to puke. It started when L. came home from NY sickly and pathetic. The day he felt fine, I woke up nauseous and pale. On the way to work, I had to pull over to throw up. I spent a total of 20 agonizing minutes swiveling in my chair and taking frequent trips to the baby blue bathroom to see if I could purge myself any further. At that point, after interacting with only two people, I decided it was time to go home. I made it without incident, but could not make it into the house before puking in an alley. I spent the rest of the day napping.

The next morning, my dad, who I hadn't seen in two days, called me on the way to work. "I'm nauseous," he said, "and M. just called me from the office to tell me that everyone there is puking."

I found this scenario worrisome, but thought that perhaps the office staff was just having a delayed reaction to the Christmas party luncheon, two days earlier. I mean, I hadn't even seen most of them for the 20 minutes I was there.

I pacified myself with these explanations until about 8 p.m., when I received a text message from C. It read, "I puked twice."

At time of posting, there have not been any further pukings. While this is consolotary on the one hand, on the other I am sad to see a superpower come and go so quickly.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

NJ’s Hidden Population Going South, For Now.

An outreach worker at a clinic remarked that you can live in Hammonton all your life, and not know just how many farms there are. They lie flat, hospital corner tucked into the NJ Pine Barrens, with neat rows of vegetables, blueberries, cranberries, turf, even. Down dirt paths, hidden in the middle of fields, or behind, or at the borders of infringing woods, or scattered amongst trucks and tractors, lie the farm camps.

They are quiet now, at the end of the season, and rapidly emptying, if not eerily abandoned already. Hammonton’s famous blueberry harvest wound down at the end of August and its cranberry and vegetable farms shut down for the winter in mid-October.

Homestead Farm, a vegetable farm, had its last work day on a Thursday and most its workers were heading south, to Florida, the following day.

“We go without knowing,” says Jose Huerfano Mejia Perez in Spanish, who still hasn’t found a contratista to take him.

The contratistas are independent or farm-sent contractors that find workers, transport them, and are often responsible for managing them at the farm, as well. In theory, they are supposed to be registered and certified in compliance with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, but in practice they are often no more than a man with a van bearing legitimate plates. It is the contratistas, too, that are responsible for checking the legality of workers’ papers and work status, but this technicality also falls by the wayside.

The wayside is littered with unmentionables.

At Homestead, for example, bathrooms consist of two porter potties for the 28 men living in the two trailers and little kitchen house, at time of first interview. Porter potties are often used in the field, where regulations also require such facilities, but, says a lawyer who heads a legal rights project for workers but did not want to be named, using them at camps is a way to sort of provide required facilities without spending the effort or money. Sometimes, porter potties are brought in instead of fixing broken extant bathrooms, a common problem for Hammonton’s off-grid septic systems. Jessica Culley, from the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), explains that many farmers will wait to get an official incompliance notice from the County Health Department or Department of Labor inspectors before investing the effort to fix problems, even if they were already aware of them.

At Homestead, too, there is running water, but it is housed in a different building than the workers and the facilities are limited. The one washing machine is occupied non-stop and clothes always hang on the lines outside of the locked up kitchen. Pickers make about $60 per 10-hour work day, well bellow NJ’s minimum wage, which they should at least be getting, by law. Some men also complain about the food; they are served three meals per day and the kitchen kept under lock otherwise, but they say that it’s not enough to sustain them for the duration of the vigorous work day and the chef has a heavy hand when it comes to hot sauce, making meals inedible for some.

Celestino Martinez Lopez talks about his impending journey south with liminal fondness. Housing there is more decent, with only one or two people per room, and better sanitation facilities. “At this camp,” he also says of Homestead, “one works a lot. And they take out a good amount for insurance. For us, it’s not good, because they take out $50 for insurance and $50 for meals. That’s $100 taken out…We don’t know what [the insurance] does.” In Florida, he explains, about $20 is taken out a week, and if anything happens, that covers medicine, doctors, etc.

“Here, nothing, none of that. Here, if something happens, here, the boss doesn’t…doesn’t pay anything,” Lopez says.

Both the lawyer and Culley say that while familiar with the other mentioned problems, above, insurance payments is not one they’ve heard recently. More common, says Culley, is a group of workers signing up for paid insurance, like Aflac, without understanding what they are signing. I was not, however, able to reach Homestead’s owners for comment, and its workers left NJ. The constant migration makes any efforts to sort out problems that much harder.

Some New Jersey, and particularly Hammonton, farms have been recognized federally for their commendable treatment of their workers, which fact alone demonstrates that such sterling behavior is rather un-ubiquitary. Or its enforcement unassailable: while in the ‘70s investigative visitors to camps, like NJ assemblyman Byron Baer, were physically attacked and chased off camp grounds for peeping the squalor with ameliorating motives in mind, more recent problems with enforcement range from lack of funds for performing checks at the camps, to a lack of knowledge of their rights by the undocumented workers, with an adjoining fear of State authority, to the States’ conveniently unregulated discretion in cases of union organization attempts by migrant workers. But, Culley says, “unofficial data” reported to CATA by the Department of Labor states that the large majority of camps passed pre-season occupancy inspections. With such low standards (one toilet per every 20 workers, “twenty inches, extending from the floor to the ceiling or roof, between each bed or bunk or tier thereof,” etc.) it shouldn’t be too hard.

Homestead Farm, with its incredibly cramped but relatively neat trailers, its nice lawn, and its friendly, homey atmosphere is hardly the worst. There is a consensus by the men there that they’ve been treated well (suspicious to a journalist familiar with the sometimes oppressive politeness of Latin culture) and Mejia Perez remarks with a wistful tranquility that “there are no drunks here. Other camps have problems.”

Down the road, at Macrie Farm camp, the parking lot is full of vans and there is a group of men standing around out front on the Sunday evening I visit, Columbus Day weekend. They’re all in their early 20s, except Miguel Angel Ropoca Bravo, who is 42. He laughs shyly when asked if he acts as the de facto father figure of the house and admits that he serves as the designated liaison between the men at Macrie and the community clinic that serves the workers.

“This camp has good conditions,” Ropoca Bravo says from the edge of the activity. He says that he’s never been present for the State’s camp inspections, since they happen during the day while they are out in the field, but he knows that they’ve happened during this past season.

He is staying for the winter, along with some of the other men there. Macrie camp’s boarders do not work exclusively for Macrie Farm, rather, they are often recruited by other farms and nurseries in the area, especially during the slow, winter season.

“There are many people that work only for the seasons. They go to Florida, when the season ends, they come up here. They’re not stable people, so to say, that establish themselves here. The way I see it, it’s better to be stable. It’s only 8 hours [of work a day], but they’re secure. And if I go elsewhere, and don’t know anyone there, it’s hard to find work. Here, we don’t pay rent, don’t pay water, don’t pay light. And so, I feel calm,” says Ropoca Bravo.

Inside, beds stand in rows, without any attempts at even curtained partitions, in one large room. Some men are already sleeping, but the light is on and outside, they are playing music. Most of them are a little tipsy and the yard behind the house is littered with a voluminous display of beer cans, strewn around a trash can as if it had volcanically erupted, spewing aluminum cans. Around 8 pm, a white van pulls up and makes a few circles in the yard, beeping like a banshee in the quiet woods; men come out to purchase tacos, tamales, sodas.

With the end of the season looming like a precipice, most still don’t have solid plans. Excluding the few who stay, the most detailed answer given about what happens next is, simply, “Florida.” And despite Lopez’s border-line utopian description of Florida camps, all over the U.S., the biggest factor in the correctness of an agricultural work camp seems to depend on little more than the correctness of the proprietary farmer. There are so many stops along a migrant worker’s way that could lead him or her to somewhere relatively worse – an unfair contratista with unreasonable rates and meager contacts, a poorly kept camp and/or working conditions at the end of the trip, not enough work, problems with INS for undocumented workers, etc. – that staying in a bearable place, once found, almost seems preferable, even if less profitable and hardly ideal.

But Lopez, for whom this is the sixth year in the U.S., says, “Each year, if it’s not good here, you go to another place, over there.”

The grass is sometimes greener “over there.” And it needs cutting.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Philly [the adjective] Schools

Philly when used as an adjective, particularly as in Philly school, brings on a dirty, unpalatable texture, weighing down school as if with a fetid, boggy layer of inward and outward doom. When I started working for a school picture company, photographers in the office threw around “Philly school” as if it was the F-bomb, ending tails of horrific work days with, “It was a Philly school.” to knowing nods from fellow shooters.

At first, I relegated this to the fact that few seemed to be from or living in Philly proper; not only did they talk about disliking even “going into the city,” but they also didn’t seem to possess that special oomph of endearing and rude aggressiveness and poise that would make them functional in this particular town. They can’t handle a little attitude, I thought.

They started out sending me to suburban elementary and middle schools, in Lower Merion, a bit past the Main Line, in Doylestown, etc. I arrived, without fail, to sprawling buildings with polished floors, lotion in the private ladies’ bathrooms, unbarred, clean windows, and, most noticeably, young bombshell teachers and happy, well behaved children. When, weeks later, my boss started sending me to Philly schools, it was like being downgraded to the crap class, where one has to run behind the train instead of sitting inside of it.

It was familiar, because, after all, I had attended Philly public schools for a good, painful, long while. But with this new reference frame, the suburban school, these old building looked even more haggard and their children and teachers even more tragic.

The problem is this: Pennsylvania funds its schools in one of the most blatantly unbalanced and ungracious manners in the country. It’s so bad that in 1998 the Philadelphia School District and the city of Philadelphia actually sued the state in a civil rights suit, claiming that the state’s funding practices were glaringly discriminatory against districts with large numbers of non-white [read: poor] students. PA does this by making up only 36% of the districts’ budget with state funds, one of the lowest rates in the entire U.S., and relying heavily, 44% heavy, on property taxes to fill in the woeful budget. In areas where residents have money this works out fine and there is a ring of suburbs choking Philadelphia where districts are actually funded not just sufficiently, but extravagantly. Meanwhile, poorer districts are perpetually underfunded. When you consider that in PA the richest district is 84 times wealthier than the poorest district, you can start to imagine the great gradation of quality, like a slowly creeping shadow, that moves steadfastly towards poorer areas until it envelops them in its metaphorical darkness completely.

My schools weren’t terrible; I attended Anne Frank and Comly in the Northeast, Baldi for middle school and the oft-commended magnet, Masterman, for high school. Masterman, which consistently ranks as the city’s best public school and even makes national lists of top 100 schools, remains polemic to me; I was psyched to be downtown, my classmates were mostly smart and interesting and I had a few great teaches. But I also had classes without teachers, where permanent substitutes entertained us with their life stories, tales of meeting men on vegan message boards, asked roomfuls of bored teenagers for advice, or assigned silent reading as a substitute for actual teaching, while brooding over yet another failed law board exam up front. There were teachers who were intelligent and informed on their subject but absolutely incapable of leading an actual class, and the strange reverse of that, as well. The shortage of smart teachers, of teachers good at teaching, and the holy grail of the combination of the two, along with a healthy lack of decent text books and resources in the supposedly best school in the city are telling of the environment in the rest of the schools.

As a photographer, I do not enter classrooms. I interact with the kids and their teachers in the auditorium, and although this probably brings in a different element to student-teacher interactions and student behavior, I believe it is still telling.

There are consistencies in the wealthier and poorer schools, for example.

In the suburbs, teachers sing to their younger classes. With older students, teachers are cordial and trusting, often counting on them to return to class alone. While waiting, students are chatty but do not yell, polite without the city schools’ seemingly authoritarian enforced use of “Miss” and “Sir” towards any figure with power, which often happens to be their white teacher. Teachers seem eager to get the kids back to class. In some schools, teachers address students as “friends” (as in, “Ok friends, let’s all line up.”) and rarely raise their voices for extended periods. One of the most amazing things I witnessed, while packing my gear, in a suburban school, was an assembly. Each grade greeted the rest of the school in a choral hello, and then chosen students did presentations of what they were learning in their classes, both as a way to formally exhibit their progress and ostensibly to tease, constructively, kids coming into that grade in upcoming years, who will get their chance to perform such exciting exercises. At the end, the entire school, close to 500 kids and their teachers, did the chicken dance together. I, sadly, imagined the headlines if this were to ever happen in a Philly elementary school: Children Trampled in Tragic Chicken Dance.

In Philly schools, picture day is louder, more disorganized, uncomfortably chaotic. Teachers bring their students and keep them, or at least try, in strict lines. They yell at their students, not with any sort of escalation, but explosively, from the child’s first offense. Younger kids are often physically manipulated, instead of vocally instructed, shoved into the lines, pulled by sleeves to come here or there. A co-worker told me about a teacher that beat a kindergarten student for taking off his dress shirt without even talking to him about it first. With older kids, it is normal to see teachers chase them around to get them back in their seats or lines, or, alternatively, to see resigned teachers that let their charges do as they will; the kids run around, hitting each other, flirting, yelling, teasing. The return to class is often delayed for elusive, to me, reasons. Kids roll their eyes at me more often, decline my requests to smile for the camera, and boys, without fail, try to throw some Ds on the admittedly lame pose with peace signs and gangsta chin strokes. Philadelphia public school students wear uniforms. Younger kids are taught to respond to rhythmic clapping, quieting down and clapping along with the teacher, instead of instructions. Classes are larger, buildings are older, dirtier, sometimes with the music teacher tucked behind the curtains of the auditorium stage. At one school a teacher refused to let her first grade class get their pictures takes because the six year olds were supposedly misbehaving that badly (they weren’t).

I am describing here an ambiance. But performance levels between the two can be found in statistics and it’s clear that Philly’s ambiance translates to its students’ success – it’s limited. Both state and federal government, however, seem to tell us that just because funding is limited, success shouldn’t be, and Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandates testing for State-set standards blind to State-wide inequalities. Not that poorer schools should strive towards lower goals, but it seems ridiculous to even half-heartedly demand equal scores and reward the ones that do well. Jonathan Kozol writes, “There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.”

In July, the PA’s state legislature passed a budget developed on a new formula for funding the state’s schools. The budget guarantees a minimum 3% budget increase from the state, and a possible further increase that depends on factors like the district’s poverty level, size, number of English learners, and regional cost differences. And Barack Obama, upon entering office, has vowed to reform NCLB, invest in early education programs and build a new “teacher army.” That all sounds promising in a liminal, vague kind of way, but meanwhile it looks like the Obamas are going to send their daughters to a private school and the Philly school will remain in stigmatized italics.