It was a cold day to work outside, but the money was good.
This week, the city Department of Sanitation put out a call for emergency snow laborers — temporary workers paid $15 an hour to shovel the tricky places on city streets. It was only the second time this season that DSNY needed the workers. Five hundred fifty seven people jumped at the chance on Wednesday.
One team working near Canal Street included construction workers out of jobs, handymen looking for new ones and a man who once worked pushing medical supplies around the bowels of NYU, now trying to fix his resume: searching for steady work or good-paying, short-term labor like many of the shovelers. The city opportunity briefly filled that need.
There was David Martinez, who had been among other things a barback at a Queens nightclub, a door-to-door cologne salesman, a deli worker at a Western Beef supermarket and a roofer’s helper in TriBeCa.
“If I could do this all the time I would,” said Martinez, 37, “Unfortunately, spring is next week.”
There were men and women, young and old. The city’s only requirements for the laborers is that they be over 18, legally able to work in the United States and willing to shovel through slush and ice in bitter local winds for the chance to make some over-the-table money.
There were those looking to bear down and get the job done, or stand around until pushed to work, or keep their earbuds in and just move on to dig at the next spot. There were those who complained about the pedestrians walking by, getting in the way.
And then there was Pete Minott, whose massive hands, shoulders, chest seemed little troubled by even large shovelfuls of wet, heavy snow.
“It’s a nice environment,” he said. “It’s like a workout.”
He was a site laborer, but hadn’t worked on a building since getting injured on the job a few years ago. That was hard work, but maybe not as hard as what he’d once done for a living in decades past: boxing.
He’d been a successful amateur: Golden Gloves, in the Marines. A few professional fights, some wins. “Could’ve been somebody,” he jokes.
He didn’t make it. But he said he made money from some people who did: a couple thousand dollars a week sparring with Foreman, Tyson, Ali.
On Wednesday, he was cleaning the “corner caps” — the pathways for pedestrians into the crosswalk. And paths for the front and back doors of every bus at every bus stop, shoveling through thick snow packs left by plows on Tuesday. And clearing space around fire hydrants in case of an emergency.
Minott pointed to a Canal Street crosswalk cleared some 20 minutes before, saying a woman in a wheelchair had been able to make it through because of their work. Later he would put down his shovel to help up a young woman who slipped on the slush. It felt like “helping in the neighborhood,” he said, where he had lived his whole life.
There was another former Marine with the Canal Street shovel crew that morning — Curtis Jackson, 46, the DSNY employee overseeing the emergency laborers. Like Minott, Jackson had a brief moment of fame when he foiled a 7-11 robbery in progress in 2015, tackling a man pretending to be armed, earning multiple television appearances as well as plaudits from then-Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio. It got him some respect, he said, but it didn’t lift him from probationary status with DSNY — he’d just joined the department.
Jackson had come over to the shovelers to bring them back to a still-buried hydrant. The workers followed, did more digging. “If you don’t like work, this is the wrong place to be,” Minott observed.
Later, Jackson returned with a DSNY vehicle, calling the laborers over for their 10-minute break in the heated van.
Minott spent the time telling some of his fellow workers and this reporter stories about his boxing days. How Foreman would beat the hell out of you even in practice, Tyson too. But Ali? “The nicest guy in the world. Country boy.”
How growing up as a boxer in the neighborhood you “had to fight in the streets to get your chance.” How the Lower East Side was “a jungle back then.”
Now, another luxury tower rising by the Manhattan Bridge. Another former construction worker had pointed it out earlier, and said he was too afraid of heights to do that kind of work anymore.
“Alright,” said Jackson, the supervisor, looking at his phone in the driver’s seat. He said he was supposed to give them 10 minutes for break, but it had been 15. Time to go.