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On `the corner' in Austin, a day's work is catch as catch can

LIKE a pebble dropped into a still pool, the tan pickup rolls into the intersection, breaking the early morning calm. Nearly a hundred sets of eyes fix on the truck, and when it stops, a dozen men sprint to its side. A hand thrust from the passenger window of the cab shows two fingers, telling the story: Two of them are needed.

After a brief discussion with the driver, the first two who reached the truck jump in back. They smile at each other, assured of a day's work, while those left in the street retreat to the sidewalks to await the next pickup.

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This is the intersection of Colorado and Second Streets in downtown Austin. For the men who gather here each morning, however, it's known as ``workers' corner,'' the ``working corner,'' or simply, ``the corner.''

Mostly black and brown, but white as well, they come here as early as 5 o'clock each morning. By 7:30, the crowd has often grown to 200.

The mushrooming of such an impromptu employment market is not unique to Austin. But according to these men -- for whom ``home'' is as far away as New York or as close as the Salvation Army shelter down the street -- Austin is known on the ``transient circuit'' as one of the best places in the country for finding work.

``They must have put it on some satellite or something, man, because they're coming down here from places like Minnesota and Pennsylvania,'' says Pablo Cortez, who came from California.

Pablo echoes the feelings of the others who wait here for work: At $4 to $5 an hour, the pay is not bad; the employers are generally fair and sometimes even generous; the police, who come by every morning, are a hassle; and most important, jobs have been plentiful, although recently there has been a serious slowdown.

This fast-growing city of 425,000, for several years one of the hottest urban economies in the nation, has had work for almost everybody. But this year things have begun to cool. Job growth has dropped from 11 percent last year to perhaps 5 percent this year. Construction permits are off by more than 40 percent compared with last year. The city's unemployment rate, the lowest in Texas, rose in June to 5.1 percent from 3.2 percent a year ago.

The men at the corner take such figures philosophically. ``Those numbers don't mean a whole lot to me,'' says one young white man, who withholds his name. ``We aren't the ones they count for that stuff anyway.''

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Often the men separate on the intersection's corners by race. This is less the result of animosity between the groups, and more because of natural affinities, and the fact that employers often hire by race.

As a truck slows at what has become the ``black corner,'' the white driver responds to inquiries with a hand motion that indicates ``nothing today.'' He then crosses the street and hires four white men. ``Just another prejudiced white dude,'' one black man says with a shrug.

Donald Jones, a tall, strong black man from Houston, tells his story: ``I was out of a job, and people had been telling me there was work in Austin, so I took a bus,'' he says, keeping one eye on approaching vehicles.

After a month in the Texas capital, Mr. Jones says he has found the corner to be ``real good, up until this week.'' In the first three weeks he did everything from digging ditches and laying sprinkler pipe to hauling rocks out of holes for swimming pools.

Jones says his pay has averaged $5 an hour, with some employers buying lunch. But there are occasional problems.

``Sometimes the man won't pay what he said he would, and sometimes they drop you off far away from where they picked you up,'' he says. Others report worse experiences: One man said he was told he would be paid after he went into a store for a soda, but when he came out, the employer and his truck were gone.

Still, the men say they prefer the corner to more-organized means of finding a quick job. The operators of one of the city's shelters also run a labor pool, but every man asked said he preferred the corner.

``They only pay the minimum, $3.35,'' at the pool, says a Hispanic nicknamed ``Chicago.'' He says that after the labor pool operators charge a dollar for a round-trip ride to the job, plus social security, ``you're only left with maybe $20, so I'd rather take my chances down here.''

As ``Chicago'' talks, the men on the other corners suddenly begin moving toward him and his companions. Why the sudden movement? ``Because here comes the man in blue,'' says one.

Austin police officer Terry Meadows is on his morning rounds, walking his horse slowly up Second Street and motioning the men to the intersection's southwest corner. The men call it the ``morning roundup,'' and they consider it pure harassment.

``It's better for us and the contractors if we're a little spread out,'' says Jones. ``They don't want all 100 of us coming down on the truck if they only want one worker.''

But officer Meadows says the city is only trying to control the corner and what results from it.

``Every morning I find them spread out five or six blocks up the street,'' he says. Businesses complain about trash and appearances, while women passers-by complain of harassment. Cars along the street have been broken into, he adds.

``These guys don't want full-time work, they just want to work a day or two at a time, live on the street, and get their meals free,'' says Meadows. ``But we can't have them taking over the parks and the streets.''

The men on the corner are candid enough to admit that many of their companions are, as one says, ``bums who only want money to buy a bottle.'' Many of them have had trouble with the law. One Hispanic who looks much younger than the 21 years he claims just got out of jail. The charge? ``Aggravated robbery,'' he says softly, ``But the guy never showed, so my case was dropped.''

Others insist they are ``no trouble'' and that they want permanent work. They say most people don't understand how hard it can be for those who are already poor, and usually poorly educated, to find work.

``I want to get put on some place full-time,'' says Tom Nickerson, ``but when you're doing this just to make it to the next day, it's hard.'' He keeps a room for $200 a month, but has no car. ``With no telephone number to leave and no way to get out to where the jobs are, just applying for work can be tough,'' he says.

``I don't like this little stuff. I want permanent work,'' says Lino Garza. Motioning toward one of the nearby building projects that dot downtown Austin, he says, ``[For] most of those jobs they want you to read, but I don't read too good.''

The fact that the boom in construction will soon require demolishing the nearby Salvation Army shelter is a hot topic on the corner.

A new shelter is proposed for a site closer to the police station. But property owners on nearby Sixth Street -- a string of restaurants, shops, and night spots -- say the street would be ruined by an influx of transients.

The men at the corner, however, make it clear that they came because, like many of the new merchants,they heard it was a good place to make money.

``We're part of the boom, too,'' says Robert Cordoba. ``We came to get some work, just like them,'' he says, referring to the protesting merchants. ``But I tell you, my friend, I'm afraid the rich people forget [that] they need poor people like us to do the kind of work we do. That's just the way things work.'' --30--{et

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