N.Y. bars peddle affection, one drink at a time

Lonely laborers from Central America relieved of their pay

May 03, 2001|By Chris Hedges | Chris Hedges,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - A cluster of women in tight jeans and halter tops waited for a turn at the phone at the Crystal Night Club. They cooed and whispered into the receiver. They talked of longing and of dreams, of being lonely and desiring company. They spoke of love.

And to the men listening, seated in small apartment rooms with two or three companions, far from wives and children, yearning for the soft touch that comes with affection, the bait doled out over the line was irresistible. Central American laborers, with little education and no English, and lacking valid immigration documents, they soon arrived at this club, or some 20 others grouped in downtown Hempstead, to be relieved of their weekly pay.

The calls were not made by chance. The bar, like most of the others, kept a list of who received checks on Friday.

"We have clients who are in love with us," Selsa Ortiz said in Spanish. Ortiz, 33, wore a floor-length black dress that had slits up to her hips and a boxy rhinestone pin on the collar. "They have no women except us. They come night after night until they cannot afford to come anymore."

The women disappear

The men, their hands callused by rough work, buy rounds of $10 drinks for the women, nearly all from the Dominican Republic. The outings always end with the same frustration. The women disappear shortly before dawn in vans to New York City, or leave their dates bereft and often drunk at tables when the money is gone.

There are many ways to prey on the weak and the lonely. But one of the most profitable is to peddle love. Many of the estimated 100,000 Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan pot washers, construction workers and landscapers on Long Island frequent these seedy hostess bars just as legions of male immigrants, from the Chinese to Eastern Europeans, did elsewhere in earlier eras. The deafening blasts of music, gyrating women and booze-soaked conversations have been repeated long before in other tongues.

The clubs, with hallways stinking of urine and with men collapsed on steps in an alcoholic stupor, offer a brief and finally bitter respite from a dreary and marginal life.

Ivan Escalante, 24, from El Salvador, has worked for five years as a pot washer on Long Island. He lacks proper documents and so cannot open a bank account. He shares a $400-a-month room with two other men and sends $150 weekly to his family.

Payday, for him and many others, is the hardest day of the week.

"We live a life for others, for those at home," he said in Spanish. "We have no lives here. As soon as we are paid we become vulnerable. We cannot keep money in our room; someone will steal it. None of us have cars, so we must walk. And on the streets of Hempstead there are a lot of assaults from the Salvadoran street gangs. The only distractions we have are the bars, but once you get there it is hard to stop. The cash is in your pocket. It is so nice to talk and dance with a woman."

The morning after

The cost is paid not just by the workers but also by their families.

"When you wake up and realize your money is gone, that it has been wasted on girls and drinks, you are depressed," said Juan Antonio Hernandez, 37, a Salvadoran dishwasher who works in Bayville. "You know your children in El Salvador will not get enough to eat this week. It is horrible."

Law-enforcement officials say that Salvadoran gang members, from groups like Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gather on street corners near the clubs. Some sit sullenly in the backs of clubs nursing beers, avoiding the women and looking for easy targets.

"The gang members watch who gets drunk," said detective Joseph Wing of the Hempstead Police Department. "They follow them outside and take them off."

About 3 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a brawl including about 10 members of the MS-13 gang outside La Plaza Bar left Jose Hernandez, 23, from El Salvador dead and another man with a knife wound to the chest. There have been no arrests.

The Hempstead police, with the surge in gang activity over the last few years, have created anti-gang units and bar patrols to curb violence and monitor activities in the clubs. The police said the special units had contributed to a reduction of almost 30 percent in the crime rate.

Crystal - the largest bar in Hempstead, with 30 hostesses - and places like Macarena and El Pacifico operate in the same manner. Vans deliver women from the city about 9 p.m. and return to pick them up about 4 a.m. The women make money on each drink they get a client to buy for them. A plastic, fluted glass filled with ice and an ounce of cheap wine earns about $4 for the hostess and $6 for the house. Some women can drink 50 glasses a night.

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