The Rules of Catchout Corner

A look at an underground job market

You may not drink on Catchout Corner. Drinking is for the Drunk Wall. Go east about a hundred yards, past the Dunkin’ Donuts, to the concrete lip by the bus stop. That is the Drunk Wall. Take your tall cans of Icehouse and your flask bottles of Barton Gin and drink them there and throw your empties behind the fence. The police will hassle you from time to time but the other men will not. They are here to work. No, not that kind of work. Not the kind where you get twenty bucks in exchange for a few minutes of friction and a fragment of your soul. That, too, is the province of the Drunk Wall. Keep walking, and God be with you.

Why they call it Catchout Corner: I don’t know. They also call it Job Corner. And Break Corner, because when a job comes up the men break into a run. Ten dollars an hour is the going rate, plus lunch, preferably at Piccadilly or equivalent, although Burger King will do. Landscapers, building contractors, people with moving vans, basically anyone who needs manual labor, they drive into the front parking lot of Midtown Place here on Ponce de Leon Avenue, across from City Hall East, and the workers run to them. Sometimes twenty or thirty will surround the vehicle. Pick me, pick me! Sometimes they crowd so hard that the drivers get scared and flee without picking anyone.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

Who gets picked: the quick, of course, but also the strong. One guy who needed someone to hoist some furniture walked up to one of the workmen and began kneading the flesh of his back and shoulders. “Yeah,” he finally said, “you’ve got some size.” And he picked him.

It is generally advantageous to be Hispanic, or Latino, or whatever you call it. There are no Asians here, and hardly any white men besides a fellow called Country, so most of the men are either Latin American or African American, and they are not all friends. Fair or not, a lot of people seem to think the Latinos will work harder, even though, on the whole, they tend to be smaller. White contractors will pick a Mexican. Mexican landscapers will pick a Mexican. Carl McGhee, one of the black men here, says this: “Even a black person will walk past me and go straight to the Mexican. They do it the most, really.”

Which is why one black guy called for an immigration raid down here, to no avail, and why another one, A. Humphreys, says, “I’m sure a lot of brothers would like to take a few amigos and bust their ass.” But they don’t. They just try to run faster, and they tell stories about Mexicans drunk on the job and Mexicans stealing and Mexicans demanding extravagant wages and Mexicans speaking English when it’s convenient and speaking no English when that’s convenient and Mexicans falling into holes on purpose to get hurt and file lawsuits. And the Mexicans say the black men take too many breaks. So it goes. And then they all stand on the sidewalk in the shade of the hardwoods and drink Powerade and Pibb Xtra and smoke Newports together in peace.

Want a job on Catchout Corner? Get here early, when the chickadees are whistling and the horizon is white. No: Stay away. Too many here already. At 10:30 on a Wednesday morning there were thirty-seven men here, and some had been waiting since 6:30, and in that whole time only one employer came by, and he needed only one man.