San Diego on $520 a Month

Cleaned up the house in Valencia Park

Until December of last year, 51-year-old Jaime Nieto made $10 an hour working for a construction company "doing their ironwork needs. That's my trade - security. Window-guards, rails, gates, fences. But that company works on bids; they bid on projects. I guess by the end of the year, they didn't get anything. So, I'm waiting for them to call me." Meanwhile, Nieto, a graying yet hale man with a strong jaw and a musing look in his eye, is collecting $260 unemployment every two weeks.

That comes to $520 a month; not a lot when you consider that Nieto has a wife and five children to support. First, there is the payment on his two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Valencia Park near Skyline in Southeast San Diego, which he has owned for ten years. The house is worn white stucco with royal blue wood trim along the roof and white iron bars over most of the windows. A fuchsia-flowering hedge separates one side of the front yard from the one next door, and a circular rose garden, sectioned like an orange by brick edging, blooms in the yard's center. Most of the houses on this broad street are similar - pale stucco with contrasting trim, hedges at yard's edge, bushes hugging the houses, and short but voluminous trees obscuring the mass of wires overhead.

"When I moved in," recalls Nieto, "the back yard was weeds that would cover you up. So I bought the house real cheap, because I offered to clean it up." Also, because it was small, "nobody wanted to buy a house like that. One bathroom is tough with a lot of people." Not to mention two bedrooms. "The garage, we use it for another bedroom; the older ones sleep there. The little ones in one bedroom, and my wife and I in another." The Toyota wagon, which is paid for, stays in the driveway.

Nieto put $4500 down on the house, money he borrowed from Parking Company of America. "I worked there doing maintenance, cleaning all those lots by myself. They lent me the money, and I paid them back with vacations. I never took a vacation. I worked there for ten years." Now he has a $648 monthly house payment, a payment he would not be able to make without the help of his son Everardo, who is 24, recently out of the Marines and living at home while he studies engineering at City College. "He makes the house payments while I am unemployed," Nieto tells me, from the $627 a month he receives from the Marines. He gets this money "to keep him in school." Everardo also makes minimum wage, plus tips, working food prep at the Brigantine restaurant in La Mesa, five hours a day, four days a week. He does this so he can pay for his education and that of his younger brother, who is studying commercial art at the same school. It seems like a lot for a son and brother to do. It's not as if he's the family millionaire, dispensing gifts to his poorer kinfolk. But as Nieto describes his family, Everardo's generosity becomes less surprising.

"The main thing is to keep the family together. We go to a Catholic Church. We are very united. When they get married [as two of his children have done], we see that they get a good wife or a good husband. We check the person. When they turn 15, I try to keep them here as much as possible, because I know that's when they meet bad friends. I never let them hang around gang members. My wife talks to them all the time. We try to talk them into being nice to the family, to the little brothers and sisters." Part of one living room wall is covered with 8 x 10 photos. An end table is devoted to framed photos of babies and small children, another to adults and weddings.

The baby table is made of oak, with curved legs and a zigzag pattern across the top. The wedding table is identical, and both match the large coffee table and a gilt-edged sideboard. The coffee table rests on an azure oriental rug, which rests on darker blue wall-to-wall carpet. The wallpaper, peeling in one or two places, is an expanse of sprigs trimmed with vines above and flowers below.

Large windows are set in the front and back walls. The front window is covered with lace; the back looks out on a large yard, home to five dogs, several old ducks, some cockatiels, and others I can't hear the names of over their screeching. Back inside, white plaster statues of women holding baskets stand in two corners of the living room. The baskets contain pots of vines, which creep along the top of the walls. An ornate gold-rimmed mirror hangs above the sideboard, lending the room an Edwardian air. An incongruous statue of a bum and another of three urchins playing cards stand on the sideboard. Below is the shoe that housed the Old Woman. Other knickknacks include oriental dolls and a forest scene on velvet. "Whatever is here, we got it through ten years," says Nieto. "We buy them at swap meets. Sometimes I get them from neighbors, for cheap or free. My wife likes to have plants and decorations."

As we speak, Jaime's wife Irene begins moving quickly about the kitchen, starting pots of water boiling. "My wife has to stay here," he states, "cooking and taking care of everybody. When they come home from school, she has the food ready. Everybody comes real hungry."

What do they eat?

"I go grocery shopping at these Iranian stores. I look for cheap stuff, specials, like when they sell soaps for 8 or 10 for $1. I spend about $150 a week on food. Chicken, ten pounds for $4.90. That will last two or three days. My wife has different ways to prepare it. Five pounds of ground beef for 99 cents a pound, two or three days. She cooks pots of meatballs. Things you can [make a lot of], instead of buying steak. Beans every day, ramen noodles every day. We get lettuce and celery fresh from the Good Neighbor Center [a local charity organization]. Loaves of bread too."

On top of the fridge I find a rack of eggs; a local market sells them this way at 60 for $5. I also find Honey Nut Cheerios, cornflakes from Springfield and Maizoro, Betty Crocker pancake mix, and Hungry Jack instant potatoes. Finally, a two-liter bottle of Coke (a pile of empties, crushed, can be found out back). Besides the fridge, the kitchen is equipped with an Osterizer blender, a gas stove, and a microwave. The floor is wood-patterned linoleum; a chunk of blue carpet covers half. More linoleum has been used to line the walls halfway up. The rest is cream plaster. A huge wooden fork and spoon are crossed on the wall over the stove; other hangings include a Sacred Heart and a Last Supper. A china coffee set sits on the counter. Fake plants share space with real. One lower cabinet door is missing.

Other bills? "Power is around $86 a month; water, $116 every two months. Basic phone service is around $19." To help keep up with these, Nieto does "a window here or there. Sometimes [the people at the Good Neighbor Center] recommend me for cleaning yards. I disconnected the cable because I couldn't afford it." The once-cable TV, a 20" Hitachi now outfitted with rabbit ears, gleams from its perch in the corner. The sleek curves of its black casing contrast with the more rustic lines and warmer tones of the rest of the room. (Immediately in front is the oval dining room table, draped in lace.) Everardo bought the TV in Japan for $500 while he was with the Marines. Together with the piano, it provides the bulk of the Nietos' entertainment.

"I like sports, just like my kids," explains Nieto. "Soccer from Mexico, boxing. They like the wrestling. My wife and daughter, they watch soap operas. When I'm working, I go to work, come back, have dinner, and then just watch TV, or go to the store and see what we need. My kids come back from school, eat, and then do their homework and watch TV. The little ones play the piano."

The piano is a small, dark upright. Nieto thinks it's a Jansen, but the label has worn off with age. He bought it in 1980 for $600 and takes obvious pleasure in it. "I play by ear. I don't read much music. I heard these songs since I was little. Anything that I hear, I play. I can play, like, a hundred songs. 'Tea for Two,' 'I Wish You Love,' 'Charades.' I can change keys." He plays, swaying just a touch - melody, chords, a few flourishes. The sound warms the room against the gloomy afternoon. "When the little ones like a song that I play, they ask me how. I say, 'Okay, try the right hand,' and then later, I teach them the chords."

Few other luxuries are allowed. "We never go out to eat; very seldom, even for picnics," recounts Nieto. "If we do go out, we don't eat out. We go to Balboa Park, go to the swings, take the little kids. Christmas last year, I was working. I had some money saved. This year, I need to find work. If not, I'll just buy them anything. The little ones, a little toy; the older ones, a pair of pants. Little things. Birthdays, we buy a little cake; we don't give presents. We gather 'round the table with everybody. There's some Mexican bakeries, they make cakes for $15."

Clothing is purchased at thrift stores. When I meet him, Nieto is wearing grey wool slacks, boots, and a red, white, and blue zip-up sweatshirt. "The older ones, if they can afford it, buy their own clothes. But the little ones, or myself or my wife, we go to second-hand stores. It's all good clothing, three or four dollars for good pants. There's one on University near College, one at Market and 15th.

"I'm waiting for my former boss to call me," Nieto reminds me. "They promised to call me in March, but if it doesn't happen, I'll look for something else. There is a place I saw in the newspaper, they give money for small businesses to start, for machinery and equipment. I'm going to talk to them. I'm trying to make fliers and put them on poles, for security, window-guards. I can do everything: put the window-guards together, weld them, paint them, and install them on the house. I'm struggling right now because of lack of work, but otherwise, I'm getting along."

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