Growing up in motels

by Gautam Raja

“Gentle giant” is the best way to describe my new friend. Let’s call him Jim. He is brutally strong, but quiet and shy. He has a distracted, slightly dazed manner, that makes it a surprise when he is usually a step ahead of what you’re asking.

Jim has two children. His son, 15, is autistic. His daughter, 12, is in special education, but is expected to move to regular high school. His wife cares for the children, and Jim is a day labourer. He gets lifting and loading work wherever and whenever he can find it. He can’t save enough money for a downpayment on an apartment, so he and his family go from motel to motel around Los Angeles.

A motel is $320 a week, and the rule is that occupants have to leave every two weeks for two days. That’s when a motel is $85 a night, so most months, Jim pays $1,450 for housing. He says he can find an apartment for $900 a month, but could never save enough for required first and last month up front.

Jim and his daughter were one of the first houseguests in our new home. A couple of months earlier, Jim had been distraught at work, though he tried hard not to show it. I’d given him a ride to the train station near my house, from where he was going to his father’s house to borrow money. I didn’t ask, but I think it was either that, or sleep outdoors. I wanted to help him, but I knew he was proud.

“We’re moving soon, come over one Sunday and help us out at our new house. Consider this an advance,” I told him. I was glad he accepted the cash without taking offence.

This exchange made me think later about how much charity is built into Indian society. Most people employ house help, picking some combination of cleaners, cooks, gardeners, watchmen, and drivers (or, often, all). In addition to a monthly salary, employers pay for employees’ children’s school fees, books, and uniforms. Extra food and hand-me-down clothing are given and accepted with ease. There are regular holiday bonuses in the form of cash and clothes. None of this is notable. To proudly announce that you paid your cook’s son’s school fees would elicit, at best, a “so what, we all do” shrug.

Jim’s story disturbs my wife and I, and a part of us feels guilty for that. After all, Jim’s life would look cushy to many, many people who have crossed our paths. Meat (albeit fast food) for dinner, clothes and shoes, running water, and school! And yet, here we were one recent Sunday, watching Jim eat a giant beef burrito like a man who starves slightly so he can feed his children. We’d just spent untold money on a new house, and sitting at our patio table was a little girl who is growing up in cheap motels around the San Gabriel Valley.

To a day labourer, money in advance is money that won’t buy dinner tonight. As I dropped Jim and his daughter off at their motel not far from my home, he asked me if I could spare a couple of bucks. “I’m so sorry, you gave me money earlier…”

I reached into my wallet and handed Jim an inadequacy that made me feel sick. He thanked me, and said, “Bye Gautam” as he and his daughter got out of the car.

“Bye Gautam,” she called through the rear passenger window in exactly the same way, then followed her father into the bleak Monte Carlo Inn.

First published in Gulf News, February 28, 2017