By Lynn Arditi
Published July 31, 2005
PROVIDENCE – An internal alarm clock jolts her from sleep.
It’s 2:45 a.m. Her shift at Wal-Mart doesn’t begin for more than two hours, but the store is nearly five miles from her house in South Providence. At this hour, there are no buses. And she has no car.
She will walk.
She showers and dresses, pulling on tan jeans, a T-shirt and her blue Wal-Mart vest.She smooths her damp hair into a tight pony tail, grabs a zippered sweatshirt and steps into a pair of Dr. Scholl’s knock-offs, which she bought with her employee discount for $3.
Outside, the late June air is cool and moist. The trash-blown streets of the city’s South Side are mostly empty.
Diana Ubiles (U-bi-les) Agosta. Forty-two years old. Nine children. A job that pays $9.23 an hour. And a mortgage she cannot pay.
The foreclosure is scheduled for September. She has packed toys into cardboard boxes. Stuffed clothes into garbage bags. Covered furniture in plastic. She and her family live like squatters.
Diana prays and tells herself that she can get through this. She has always taken care of other people: her parents, in Puerto Rico; her own six children; her three nieces.
* * *
Now, she is the one who needs a little help, as she sets out, arms swinging, past the bodegas and check-cashing stores.
She walks along Broad Street, glancing back to see what’s coming from behind her. Traffic or not, she says, the street is safer at this hour than the sidewalk, where “anybody can pull you toward the dark areas.”
Diana has delicate features, toffee skin and perfect teeth. She lines her eyes with dark pencil and colors her lips pink, to match her nails.
She stands 5 feet 3 inches tall and carries protection: a retractable razor blade. Wal-Mart gives its employees the blades to slice open cardboard boxes. Now, Diana holds hers in the palm of her hand. The green plastic handle. The release button. She calls it her “Little Diana.”
The blade disappears underneath the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She keeps her thumb on the release button.
When Diana’s co-workers found out that she walked to work, they couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t know how you walk!” Belkis Richardson told her. “Try to take a bus!”
But the first bus that travels to Post Road, in Warwick, leaves Providence at 6:15 a.m., and Diana’s shift starts at 5 a.m.
On the rare occasion when she feels too weak to walk, she calls a taxi cab. The ride costs about $15.
Her parents raised their children – 21 in all — while working low-wage jobs. By age 8, Diana was earning money mopping hallways in her apartment building on the Lower East Side of New York City, and washing the neighbors’ clothes in her family’s bathtub.
She wore blue jeans and played with boys. They built a trampoline out of a No Crossing sign, plastic milk cartons and old mattresses. They’d take turns doing flips. Those were good times, she says.
Adulthood hit early. She was a teenager when her parents moved the family back to Puerto Rico. She was pregnant at 16. She lived in her parents’ house and worked as a waitress.
Men came into her life, and left. She gave birth to a second son, then a third. She moved with her three boys to live with her younger sister in upstate New York. Diana got a job in the next town, washing dishes.
She walked to work there, too.
* * *
Clouds cover the moon, and the sky spits.
A black sports car pulls up beside her. A man pokes his head out of the driver’s window. He is young and light-skinned, and wears a white do-rag.
“You have a ten?” he asks, looking for drugs.
“No,” Diana says, eyes on the road. “We’re straight.”
The car peels off.
She walks passed a laundry. A Family Dollar Store. A hair salon.
On the corner, a man talks to himself. Across the street, three guys in white T-shirts and oversized jeans stare.
“The only street I don’t like,” she says, “is the one with the cemetery. It’s very heavy. It pulls me back; gets me like kind of weak.”
“Just accompany me . . . ” she often prays.
She flicks open her cell phone to check the time. Three forty-seven. She’ll be early.
To work a later shift would be easy enough. Her supervisor would understand. But Diana doesn’t ask.
She likes to get off work early, and be with her kids. And working the early shift leaves her time for a second job.
Temp worker, school-bus monitor, waitress, shift manager at Taco Bell. On and off for years, she’s zigzagged from one low-wage job to another.
Three years ago, she landed the job at the Wal-Mart on Post Road. She was already working nights at the Taco Bell. One job paid $7.50 an hour; the other, $8.68 an hour.
It was more money than she’d ever made.
* * *
The road curves. Her sandles make a thwak-thwak-thwaking noise against the pavement.
Some nights, a police car pulls up beside her.
“Is everything OK?” the officer will ask.
“Yes,” she’ll say, “I’m OK”
She passes a gas station. A car wash. An apartment complex.
She’d lived in so many apartments. Noisy neighbors. People who complain about her children.
Then, in September of 2003, she borrowed $145,713 from a California mortgage company. A house! Finally, she could have a place of her own.
The three-story house in South Providence needed work. But it had seven bedrooms, and she needed the space.
The mortgage was $1,056 a month.
Diana and her expanded family were still settling in when a fire left a relative and four children homeless. So they moved in, too.
Weeks passed; then months. She can’t recall how long the relatives stayed. Was it three months? Four?
They were living in the house rent-free. She was taking food to them in the bedrooms. It was as if they were all rich people, she says, and she was their maid.
As Diana thinks about that period of her life, her pace quickens. It was too much, she says. She hurt her back. The migraines she’d had since she was a girl became unbearable. Her vision blurred. Her speech became slurred.
She was admitted to Rhode Island Hospital. She lay in a hospital bed with an IV steroid drip. She stayed two weeks.
By the spring of last year, her disability payments had run out and she was having trouble paying her mortgage. She turned to her family for help.
“They turned their backs.”
When her relatives finally moved out she’d been out of work for nine months.
Diana returned to her job at Wal-Mart a year ago.
Later that summer, she missed a mortgage payment.
* * *
The blacktop smooths and the road widens. Picket fences appear. Newspapers wrapped in plastic dot the driveways.
A sign up ahead reads “Welcome to Warwick.”
It’s 4:09 a.m.
Diana covers five miles in an hour and 20 minutes, arriving a half-hour before the start of her 5 a.m. shift.
Supervisors noted her punctuality on her latest employee evaluation. They also noted her attention to detail. And her good customer relations. “Exceeds expectations,” they wrote on her evaluation.
Diana crests a hill overlooking the Wal-Mart parking lot, dotted with cars from the overnight shift. She’s got time to stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Small, right?” the woman behind the counter says. “Cream, no sugar.”
Diana smiles shyly and nods.
She carries the coffee outside and waits, alone, behind the building, until it’s time to punch in.
* * *
Inside, the store’s fluorescent glare hurts Diana’s eyes and she blinks. Then she spots her co-worker, Laila, and her face brightens.
Laila “Lee lee” Aziz sifts through racks of new merchandise and sighs.
“Your Joe, he was the one who close last night?” says Laila, in a tone of exaggerated annoyance.
Joe is Joe Mauro, 58, an assistant store manager.
“Why you always picking on him?” replies Diana.
Mauro tries to keep tabs on his employees’ — deaths, divorces, illnesses. When Diana was out of work with a back injury one Thanksgiving, Joe Mauro made sure a turkey was delivered to her house.
Diana and Laila wheel refrigerator-sized racks of new merchandise from the back of the store to the men’s department. They load hangers of T-shirts and shorts onto display racks. They pick clothes up off the floor.
The Post Road store employs 268 people, about 200 of them full-time.
Diana shoves a heavy rack into the aisle and breaths hard.
“There’s one that’s a real killer over here!” she says.
Customers arrive. The numbers above the cash registers light up.
At 10 a.m., a voice blares over the intercom.
“All available associates to the Railroad Grill for the morning meeting!”
* * *
Diana never wanted anyone at work to know about her money problems — least of all, her supervisors.
“Once you express something,” she says, “everybody be look’n at you like you’re no good. So I just keep to myself.”
She didn’t ask for help. “That’s the way she’s always been,” Mauro says.
Wal-Mart’s corporate office has a program — Wal-Mart’s Associate Needs Fund — to provide money for emergencies. Employees fill out a form and a manager sends it to Arkansas. The size of the donation varies. Employees say they hear donations can run up to $1,000.
At Wal-Mart’s Post Road store, an employee whose husband died and another whose house burned received financial help.
But by the time Diana’s supervisors found out about her problems, it was almost too late. The mortgage company was already moving to foreclose.
Last fall, Belkis gave Diana the name of someone at the Housing Network of Rhode Island. Diana called. The Housing Network put her in touch with a legal-services lawyer.
Diana’s list of debts was short: mortgage, gas and electric bills. She had a Sears card with $457, and one credit card with a little over $400. She was eligible for more food stamps than she’d been receiving.
In February, with the lawyer’s help, Diana filed a Chapter 13 plan in bankruptcy court that would allow her to gradually repay her debts, and keep her house. Each month, a bankruptcy trustee would deduct $25 from her paycheck to make the back payments. Diana also would have to make her regular mortgage payments.
But she couldn’t do it. She’d get one of her headaches, call in sick, and she wouldn’t get paid.
Her lawyer kept calling and leaving messages. She felt desperate.
One morning, while she was working in the lingerie fitting room, Diana called a local hospital. She’d heard that hospitals needed organs for transplants.
Can I sell a kidney?
“Are you crazy?” she recalls her co-worker, Belkis, saying.
Eventually, the lawyer persuaded Diana to give up her house. She’d missed seven mortgage payments, and she owed money to the gas company. If she moved and hadn’t cleared her bills, the gas company could refuse to turn on her heat.
So in June, the lawyer helped Diana file a request to be released from all her debts, under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. She would lose her house. But she could start over.
* * *
Diana was working in the men’s department this summer when she was summoned over the intercom to the personnel office.
“Oh my god,” she recalls thinking. “Am I in trouble?”
Inside the office were two managers. They told her she had been accepted into the management-training program. Diana had applied, thinking she’d never get it.
She burst into tears.
* * *
Diana and her co-workers — Belkis, Laila and Bernadette — squeeze into a booth in the snack area for the morning meeting, sipping coffee and sharing a box of crackers.
Mac Cone, a manager, reads the weekend sales numbers from a computer printout.
“Dairy, up 1,059 percent.. Shoes, up 38 percent.. Menswear, up 47 percent..”
“Please, keep your departments full,” he says. “Get the seasonal stuff out.
“We need to get back to basics. Cleaning and dusting!”
Diana’s co-workers in the booth chat quietly.
“Anybody do anything exciting over the weekend?”
The women in Diana’s booth break out in giggles.
The meeting wraps with up Joe Mauro, the assistant store manager, leading the Wal-Mart cheer.
“I can’t hear you?”
Some of the employees roll their eyes.
* * *
Aisles are crammed with shoppers at 2 p.m., when workers on the first shift begin topunch out.
Belkis is folding clothes in the women’s department.
“Belk-us!” calls Bernadette Farnsworth, manager of the women’s clothing department.
“I’m heee-ya!” Belkis says. “What?”
Bernadette leans over and kisses Belkis goodbye.
“Call me!” Bernadette says, and walks off.
Belkis’ shift ends at 2:30 p.m.
Diana stops by. If you wait a half hour, Belkis tells her, I’ll give you a ride home.
Diana slips off to a back room to get her things and punch out.
These days, when she is not working or taking care of her children, she is on the phone trying to find a place to live. A social worker gave her a list of Section 8 houses in Rhode Island. Most of them are in Cranston or Lincoln, even farther from her job.
She also filled out an application for emergency housing in New York. She may have to relocate.
Customers line up at store’s registers, stretching into the aisles.
Diana makes her way to the front exit. She shoves open the heavy glass doors. Hot air hits like a wall.
Not a good day for a five-mile walk.
In the parking lot, Belkis’ maroon Dodge Caravan bakes in the sun. Diana unlocks the front passenger door with Belkis’ keys. She flicks on the A/C. Then she settles into the front passenger seat and waits.
Tucked next to her feet is a container of homemade Moroccan soup. A gift from Laila.
In a few minutes, Belkis will slip behind the wheel of the minivan. And Diana will lean her head back, cool air blowing on her face and, for a few moments, close her eyes.
* * *
* A little after 3 a.m., Diana Ubiles Agosta walks through South Providence. Shestays off the sidewalk, where ”anybody can pull you toward the dark areas.”
JOURNAL PHOTO / GRETCHEN ERTL
* ‘I don’t know how you walk!” her friend at Wal-Mart Belkis Richardson tells her. ”Tryto take a bus!” But Diana leaves too early for the bus. Sometimes she does get a ride home from Belkis.
* Diana Ubiles Agosta likes working at Wal-Mart. And the managers of the Wal-Marton Post Road in Warwick like her. ”Exceeds expectations,” they wrote on herevaluation.
JOURNAL PHOTOS / GRETCHEN ERTL
* Diana had her first child when she was 16. Now she’s 42 and has six children. That’s Sasha, 5, eating a snack. Natasha, 7, is in her arms. Three nieces also live with her.
* Diana’s son, Jushua, 13, watches TV. Diana makes $9.23 an hour at Wal-Mart. That doesn’t leave much money for furniture or draperies. She covers the downstairs windows with black garbage bags.
* Diana cleans the kitchen with Sasha. She’s also been packing. The mortgage company foreclosed after she missed several payments.
* Her lawyer at legal services helped her to erase her debts in bankruptcy court. A social worker gave her a list of Section 8 houses in Rhode Island. Most of them are inCranston or Lincoln, even farther from her job.