Thursday, June 23, 2011

Out from Under the Bridge

- Ben Galindo’s memory to share with the ones he loves. Documented by Dawn Gernhardt.

When we follow our intuition, not knowing what we’ll find, providence steers us in the right direction—sometimes navigating us through the nightmare and into the dream.  

Ben and I recently discussed his life, the risks he took, and unexpected outcomes that occurred after his life-altering leap to follow his entrepreneurial spirit.

He recalled being inspired to own a business. There was a lucrative market for the product he would sell. First, he needed to learn the craft. His brother-in-law—who was to be his business partner—wrote to him of a promised land. 

“We would be our own bosses and we wouldn’t have to work for anybody else. I thought that was a good idea. I quit the police force and came to California. But, as soon as I got to Los Angeles, everything was different than I expected.”

“My brother-in-law was no longer working at a leather factory—that factory had closed down. He was working at a mattress factory. He didn’t live in a house—he lived behind the house in a shed where they kept their lawnmower and tools. So, I didn’t have a place to live.”

“They let me sleep in a part of the shop within the mattress factory, but they locked me in at night. I didn’t even have access to a bathroom. After a few days, I had to leave. I was living on the street with no place to go. I was sleeping behind the bushes, or wherever people couldn’t see me.”

Ben remembered his friends who had also come from Mexico City. They lived in Los Angeles. It took a while, but after a few months, he found them.

“When I arrived at their place, they didn’t recognize me because of my full beard—I had nothing to shave with—and I was filthy from sleeping on the ground. In that apartment there were eight or nine people - only men. They helped me to find a job. I was making minimum wage, but I worked overtime from 6am-10pm, Monday through Saturday. I was saving every penny I earned to send back to my wife. One time I sent home three thousand dollars.”

One day, Ben received an urgent letter from his mother pleading him to come home to Mexico City, immediately. So he did. When he got back, Ben found that he had no wife, no money, no home, and no job. The money he had sent to his wife didn’t go towards paying the bills. Therefore, he lost his two homes. His wife was leaving him, and their three children. His previous position on the force was already filled. So, he asked his mother to raise his children for one year, until he could afford to bring them to America with him.

In that year, Ben returned to living on the streets of Los Angeles. But this time, he planned to work his way to Illinois where other people he knew from Mexico City had found work. After working various hourly and day jobs, Ben heard news of employment at wineries in Kenwood. His potential earnings would later fund his fare to Chicago.

Ben was able to work his way to northern California. He found a house to live alongside 25 other laborers. They all vied for the same scarce day jobs. Living in those conditions was not sustainable. Soon, the landlord asked everyone to leave.

“I found a bridge in Glen Ellen, used a tarp to make a tent, and slept under the bridge. I showered in the creek. It was hard because some times I didn’t have anything to eat. For two or three months I lived like this.”

“I was not eating, and I had no money. I just didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go back to Mexico with my empty hands. And, I promised my mom to take care of my kids. I needed to make money to rent an apartment to bring my kids with me. But at that time, I didn’t have any money.”

Ben was overcome with emotion by the memory of his hunger and homelessness. It had all seemed hopeless, until a seventy-year-old lady driving a brown Camero pulled into the parking lot looking for someone to do some yard work for her.

Several men from Mexico, including Ben, were all gathered around hoping someone would come to hire them for the day. By noon, Ben and other day laborers were calling it quits. No one had hired them. These other men wouldn’t work for less than eight hours a day, at eight dollars an hour.

“Someone called out, ‘Hey Ben, you want to work for four hours, for five dollars an hour?’ I thought, I would make twenty dollars. With twenty dollars I can eat something. I said yes.”
She drove Ben to her house. As soon as they got there, she asked him to mow the grass in the front and on one side of her house. She showed him what to do and then she went inside.

“I was working. I was running like crazy. I tried to do my best. After a while she came out of the house and looked around. She told me to turn the mower off and said, ‘No more work.’ For the moment, I thought she wanted me to quit and go away from her house.”

But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“She said to come into her kitchen. She asked me if I was hungry. I said yes, I was hungry. I saw on the table, she had a plate with two eggs, toast, and coffee.”

“She tried to tell me, ‘No more work. You already did enough.’ “But I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t understand English. She got a book that had both English and Spanish words. Whenever she wanted to say something to me, she looked for the words in the book. And, for me to answer, I looked for the words in the book.”

“Then she said that she was happy with my work. Instead of giving me twenty dollars, she gave me forty. It was good. That lady’s name was Ruth, Ruth Luzzi. She asked me, ‘Do you want to work for me one day every week?’ I said sure. Every week, she came to pick me up and then after I finished, she dropped me off again. One time she asked me where I lived. I told her I lived under the bridge. She couldn’t believe it. But, I told her, ‘Yes, I live under the bridge—but, I’m on my way to Chicago.’ She said, ‘You don’t have to go to Chicago. Why don’t you stay here?’”

After a few months, Mrs. Ruth Luzzi went on vacation and trusted Ben with her home. She told him to invite a friend—another person who also lived under the bridge—so that they would have a place to stay and Ben wouldn’t be alone. Ben worked hard so that when she returned, the house would be in excellent condition. To show gratitude for her kindness, he painted the entire exterior of her home.

“Everything was fine. She was happy. She asked me if I wanted to live in her house. But, to live there, I had to work to do whatever needed to be done in the house in exchange for the rent. And I said, ‘Yes, you give me the chance.’”

“She said that it was all under one condition – she wanted me to learn English. So, I learned English. At first, I went to a grammar school at night, taking classes after work, for two semesters. Then, the teacher said, ‘Why don’t you go and take some more advanced classes at the Junior College, so that you can learn to read and write.’ I did that for a few years.”

“Little by little she asked me if I had children. I told her yes. I told her all about my life in Mexico and what was going on with my wife. She felt sorry for me.”

“Mrs. Ruth lent me the money to help me bring my kids to the United States. After that, my two sons, one daughter, and I all lived with her in Kenwood.”

When that kind, brave woman drove up in her brown Camero, looking for someone to help her with yard work, she was also seeking to make a difference in someone’s life. Ben didn’t know that Ruth Luzzi would become a second mother to him and a North American grandmother to his children.

Ben made a permanent life for himself in the United States due to his strong work ethic and perseverance. He has been remarried for 15 years now. His adult children have grown and prospered. The memory of Ms. Ruth lives on within all that Ben and his children do and who they have become. It was his luck to find “an angel.” As providence would have it, he was her angel, too.

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