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."