Maria Conchita Alonso Alverez took one subway train, two buses, and one and half hours to reach her third floor walk-up on Flatbush Avenue.
As she turned the key in the lock, she said a silent prayer to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, that her four-year-old son, Juan, and her six-year-old daughter Christina were OK inside the apartment.
A five year veteran with Trans Air’s cleaning crew, Maria made eight dollars an hour with no benefits. She received one hundred and fifty dollars a month in food stamps to feed herself and her two children. The city of New York also granted her, as a single mother, a one hundred and twenty dollar housing allowance to assist in covering her seven hundred and fifty dollars a month rent. All of her other bills, electricity, gas, phone, toiletries, shoes and clothing for two growing children, transportation costs to and from work, and the remaining six hundred and thirty dollars of her rent, came out of her Trans Air salary.
And like so many others, who had made the journey from Mexico’s poverty to New York’s promise, she was expected to send money home. In order to cover all her expenses, she was often forced to leave her children home alone.
Today, her prayers were answered. Christina bounded across the room and greeted her mother with a broad smile and a big, “Hola MaMe.” Her little brother Juan waddled in from the bedroom dragging his teddy bear behind him after hearing that his mother was home.
Maria gathered her children in her arms and hugged and kissed each one, telling them how pleased she was to have such good little ninas.
Christina was the first to notice the bags Maria had hidden in the hallway. “What is in the bags, MaMe?”
“You will find out. Now help me carry everything into the kitchen.”
As she unpacked the heavily laden bags, the children oohed and aahed as each item sprung up from their depths. Maria, herself, wondered about the strange young woman who had given her such a wonderful gift.
Last week she had taken her usual seat in Trans Air’s employee cafeteria to eat her modest brown bag lunch when the young woman had sat down next to her. At first they exchanged the usual pleasantries and both ate their lunch in mutual silence. The next day, the young woman was back. This time, she introduced herself as Elise Rivera, a member of the airport’s terminal cleaning crew, cleaning bathrooms and pulling trash.
By Wednesday, the two were fast friends. On Thursday, Elise had confided to Maria a dream she’d held for a long time. “I have a dream of being like you, Maria, cleaning the big jets.” She went on to propose an almost unbelievable plan to Maria and she was willing to pay Maria for her part in it. “I’ll give you ten thousand dollars for a chance at getting a spot on your cleaning crew. “Where did you get so much money?” “I have saved it. I know what I want to do and cleaning bathrooms all my life is not it. If I get on your crew, I might meet a pilot and marry him and not have to worry anymore about anything. I have a plan.” “Si,” Maria, said.
“All you have to do Maria is tell your supervisor that you need to return home to Mexico on urgent family business and that you have a friend who will fill in for you while you’re gone. And give my name, That’s all you have to do, Maria!”
“If anyone finds out, I’ll lose my job.”
“I understand, Maria.” Sadden by Maria’s refusal, Elise had hung her head and remained silent for the rest of their lunch hour.
All Maria could think about was how badly she needed the money and of her two young children who were at home alone.
Maria finished cooking and sat the plates heaped with hamburgers and store bought French fries drowned in catsup in front of each child. In the middle of the table she sat a bowl of fresh fruit. She went back to the kitchen and poured tall glasses of ice cold milk for each child. Finally she set a plate and glass for herself and sat down at the table with her children.
The children sat motionlessness in front of the steeped plates afraid to touch them. Only on special occasions did they have meat. Christina asked if they were having company. Maria explained it was all for them. “Eat up ninas.” Maria smiled at her good little ninas and started eating.
She had a plan, too. And it didn’t include returning to Trans Air. Elise Rivera, she suspected was up to something illegal – perhaps drug smuggling. But that didn’t matter to her. What mattered was her ninas.
Tomorrow she would pack for the trip back home to Mexico – with all that money she could return home and buy a house for herself, her children, and her mother. Never again would she have to worry about her ninas being alone.