Measuring the recession on an L.A. street corner

By Friday, the week had shaped up as a slow one on the corner of La Brea and Pico around Lucy's Mexican drive-in restaurant. The crowds were big in the morning - 50 men, perhaps more, of all ages - even though police had dispersed them once earlier in the week. They wore work clothes. Some even hard hats. They watched newcomers expectantly and lifted their eyebrows in inquiry.

But only a handful were getting what they came for. They come for work. They come early in the morning, and some stay on past noon.

They are waiting for a plumber's van - or a roofing contractor's truck, or a gardener, or a homeowner who wants some work done on his or her house - to come by and hire a few workers. Some jobs are for a few hours, some a few days.

John Grano has been coming here longest. ''You're talking to a very unusual man,'' he answers with a streetwise grin. ''I've been playing the corner for 32 years.''

Looking a little gristled in a corduroy winter jacket and a brown snap-brim hat, he estimates that on a good day 20 men will get hired. ''And that's not very good, because sometimes we have 200 guys here.''

Mr. Grano is here every day until noon, his newspaper tucked under his arm. His glance conveys the pluck of an inextinguishable survivor. On this morning, it had been one day short of two weeks since he had last worked.

Playing the corner is a way of life for people who have fallen between the economy's cracks - and for some who are slipping through them. There are a few other corners like this in Los Angeles. Grano has been coming to this one for work for 12 years.

''I don't go hungry,'' he says. ''Some of these guys go hungry.''

He works as a mover for $8 or $9 an hour. ''I evaluate myself as a good worker. I think it's degrading to go out for less than that.''

For roofing work, he gets $100 to $120 a day. ''I'm that good,'' he says.

Ten or 20 years ago he still had hope for a good permanent job. At 63, Grano collects social security to help pay his $200-a-month rent, and considers himself on the way out of the corner job market.

But it's this past recession that has him disillusioned. ''In the old days, you could always make a buck,'' he says. Now, the competition on the corner is fierce.

As Grano talks, a plumber's van pulls into the parking lot beside Lucy's and is surrounded by eager Latinos, some running to meet it.

''Some of those guys go out for nothing,'' Grano says - meaning $4 and $5 an hour. One middle-aged man is picked out of the pack and steps into the passenger side of the van.

Grano has no regrets and a certain pride about a lifetime of playing the corner. ''I have no wife, no family,'' he says. ''I like to be on my own. I've never asked anything from anybody. I've never been on welfare.''

Inside Lucy's, a young man from Houston, Ramon, bounds in to chat with friends for a moment. Ramon, who speaks Spanish much better than English, is more than willing to work for $4 or $5 an hour. Even so, it has been seven days since he went out on a job. He spent a couple months looking for work when he came to Los Angeles five months ago, then friends told him about the corner.

At 26, Ramon has been in and out of jail since leaving home and has never had a regular job. He is enthusiastic, aggressive, and seems generally happy in playing the corner. He is hopeful of finding permanent work - ''maybe pretty soon.''

Not everyone takes it so well, especially when hiring is as slow as it has been recently. Many of the men here are visibly frustrated, anxious, and bitter.

When one is brought up traditionally as he was, Grano explains, one is taught ''all the fundamentals. Then you grow up and all that's shattered. That's when you get disillusioned.''

Is Grano bitter?

''Naw, I'm as tough as this concrete,'' he says, nodding at the sidewalk.

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