In the mid-1980s, Roger Phillips emigrated to the U.S. from Belize, formerly British Honduras. When he went to New York some months after his arrival in America, the bustle of Harlem reminded him of his home city, and he settled in comfortably. Phillips has done factory work, office work, and construction—and for almost two decades, held down two jobs to support his children. In 2012, one month before Hurricane Sandy, he was hired by Westbeth. He says that he likes working here and that “it’s a lot of fun.”
Terry Stoller spoke with Roger Phillips in September 2017 about his early days in Belize, his coming to New York, his various jobs in the city, his family life, his experiences at Westbeth during Hurricane Sandy, and his future plans.
Terry Stoller: I know you’re originally from Belize in Central America. When did you leave for the U.S.?
Roger Phillips: I left in 1986. I was 20 years old. I was living in Miami with my moms for six months; then I left Miami and moved to New York to be with my dad. I lived with him for two years before I branched out on my own, and I’ve been out on my own ever since.
I was going to ask why you chose the U.S., but obviously your parents were here.
They migrated, yes.
My grandmother lived in Florida for a very long time. She migrated when I was a baby. Then she fell ill, and my moms migrated to take care of her. My moms took care of her till she passed away about eight years ago. When my moms invited us to come, we came and lived in Miami. But my father had been in New York for a long time, and I wanted to see what New York was about.
Who’s we? You have siblings?
Yes, I have three sisters from my mom. When my mom came to take care of her moms, I had a big sister who was grown enough—she had finished school—and she took care of us till my moms was able to get us here. My sister worked for about two years before we came to America. I was in school and finished school, and I started working.
What kind of jobs did you do in Belize?
I used to work in a cigarette factory. It’s called Caribbean Tobacco Company.
What does one do in a cigarette factory?
We process the tobacco, and we blend it, we bake it, and we toast it before it gets rolled by machine into the small cigarettes.
Did you take up smoking?
That made me stop smoking. I didn’t want to smoke because of all the chemicals you see that they put on the tobacco to process it, to make it taste the way it does.
How old were you then?
I was a teenager. I had just graduated from high school. I was 18. I worked there for two years.
That kind of work is rough, isn’t it?
Growing up in Belize, a lot of work we did was manual. So we were used to it. We had machines here and there, but basically it was manual. It was not until I came to America where there are more machines that the labor got a little different.
When you were working in the factory, were you thinking, Oh, I will be going to America soon?
I liked my country. I was going off, having fun. But when it came to my mother, whatever she decided, we would do. It was never a big deal if I was coming to America or not. Once my mother was here, I knew eventually I would probably be here. She filed for us, and we all came, the whole family.
Did you have another job in Belize besides the tobacco factory?
Every summer when I was in school, I would get a little job—working at the distributors, the beer company. I would work there part time delivering beer. I always liked to earn my own money to have fun, buy stuff for myself, so all the pressure wouldn’t be on my mother. That’s how I grew up.
What did you think when you arrived in Miami? Did it feel very different?
Yes, it felt different. I was a little sad because I missed my country. At the same time, it was interesting. I had to make up my mind that I was in a new place. I had to learn the ways of America. It wasn’t bad after a little while. When I moved to New York and came to Harlem, it was like back home, crowded with all the people in the streets. Back home, I grew up in the city, so I know city life.
What city was that?
Belize City. It’s the main hub because it’s by the Caribbean Sea. They do a lot of export/import from the seaport. That’s what makes Belize City very populated and lively.
When you got to Harlem, were you looking for a job?
I was looking for a job. I had an older brother. I never knew that I had a big brother until I came to New York. My brother took me downtown for the first time. I got on a train going downtown to Wall Street looking for a job my first week in New York. The second week, I was back on Wall Street looking for a job, looking at all these big buildings. It was all new and fascinating. I got a job too. I was working at a blueprint factory, where they make blueprints for the buildings. They would print the different sections of the plan, and we would cut them so that they would be the same size. Then I would roll them up and deliver them.
How was it working down on Wall Street?
It was a little rough because I was from Central America, not knowing how to speak American English. I speak British English. Guys started looking at me like, Where are you from? It took me a little while before I started learning the slang. And after a little while, they realized I’m not from here, and they gave me a break.
How long were you at the blueprint factory?
I worked there maybe a year or two. Then I ran into a friend of mine, and I ended up getting a busboy job at a restaurant. It paid a little more, and I was able to go back to school—going to school in the daytime and working at the restaurant at night. I did the busboy job about three months before I got into school. It was a six-month course in data processing. After I did that, it took me a couple of months before I got a job doing data processing. I got into the field of repairing photocopy machines with a private company for about five years.
In the late eighties, I had a son, Shawn. And about ten years later, I had two daughters from a different lady. After having my daughters, Monazha and Rahkaya, I started working two jobs because I realized one job wasn’t doing it. So I worked two jobs for eighteen years. I used to do construction in the daytime and work at a law firm in the nighttime, doing photocopies and getting paperwork ready for lawyers.
Did you have any time to sleep?
I used to get the weekends to sleep. I worked from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. Got off at 3, traveled on the train from the day job to downtown for the night job at 1 Liberty Plaza. I worked there from 5 to 12. Basically, I used to get four hours of sleep every night. On the weekends, I would sleep half the day Saturday—sometimes all day—and half the day Sunday.
You were doing this to support your children. Did you get married?
I got married to my son’s mother. We were married for like five years, but I was always responsible for taking care of my son. I lived with my two daughters for like ten years. Their mother and I were married after ten years, but it didn’t work out. We’re still friends, and I still take care of my daughters. They both graduated from high school this year. They’re getting ready to go to college. Right now, my son, who’s 28, is doing landscaping, and he says he wants to go back to college.
When did you start at Westbeth?
I started in 2012, one month before Hurricane Sandy.
How did you find Westbeth?
I had just left the construction job. Construction was slow for about five years, and in the slow time I was doing part-time construction, but I still had the full-time night job. Then I ran into a friend and said, Yo, man, I’m looking for a job. (I knew he was working.) Do you have any information if your job is hiring? He said, If you could bring me your résumé—. I said, I’ll bring it to you tomorrow. I gave him my résumé one Friday night, and he brought it down here, the Monday when he came to work. A week later, I got a call for an interview. The super said he liked me, so I got hired part time, and I was part time for one year.
You were a Hurricane Sandy volunteer.
We stayed here until everything was back to normal. We slept on the premises for two weeks, and then after that we started going home. There were tenants in wheelchairs, and those were the ones we were catering for more than other tenants. We were here for them 24/7. We had to take water from the hydrant and take it up eleven flights, ten flights. Every day we took up water to make sure tenants could flush their toilets.
Where did you sleep when you were here 24/7?
We slept in an empty apartment in the A section on the tenth floor. It was like a dormitory. It put us like a family because we were all in the same room—who’s snoring, who’s clowning around. And we all laughed and joked and fell asleep. Then the next day we had to get up and go to work.
I didn’t know the building at all, but after Sandy, I knew the entire building. I ended up getting hired full time because of Sandy. I came on a part-time job and was here filling in and learning all the positions. I like working with you. Every artist that lives here has a story. They’ve got some stories from the sixties and the seventies that they tell us. It’s very interesting, if you take the time out to listen to them, which is a little hard sometimes because we’re going about doing our job. I do different jobs. I do security sometimes, and I do porter sometimes, so that helps me to interact with the tenants, and I get to know them a little better. I ended up being security because of my communication with people—the supervisor saw that and asked me if I would like to do it.
Is Westbeth your only job now?
I quit the night job last year because I got tired of working the two jobs. But I’m thinking about a part-time night job again. I like working. I don’t like to depend on nobody. I like to be able to sustain my livelihood. But I haven’t decided yet because I have a little freedom now in the nighttime. But I still end up doing overtime here.
Do you still have family in Belize?
I do. I have cousins, aunts, and uncles. I visited in 1991. That’s the last time I went. I didn’t go back because I was having kids over here, and I had to be responsible for my kids. Now my daughters want to go. Their school is first for me. Now that they’ve graduated from high school, they’re seeing things much better and where I’m coming from when I tell them school is first, and you can achieve whatever you want in life after that. Maybe in another year or two, I’m going to take them back because they’re ready.
I have relatives back home, but my moms and my sisters—I have a sister that lives in Atlanta and a sister that lives in Florida. My moms lives with my sister in Florida. And I have brothers and sisters that live in New York. And I have an older sister that lives in New Jersey. I’ve got two other sisters younger than her that live in Harlem.
What’s the total count?
The total count of brothers and sisters from my moms and my dad is fourteen. The majority migrated here because of our parents.
Do you think you’ve had more opportunity here than if you had stayed in Belize?
It goes both ways. If I had stayed I would have developed a country, but I came here and got exposed to a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. If I do decide to go back home, I have so much experience because the lifestyle here is totally different. Now, though, my friends who stayed back home have achieved more than I have because I was here enjoying this life and partying. Even though I had two jobs, I used to make time to have a little fun.
Sometimes people plan to go back home when they retire. Have you ever thought about that?
My moms and my dad are here. I was thinking about going back home, but at the same time, wherever my moms decides to go, she’s the biggest part of my life. She’s much older now, and she can’t really move around a lot. She has arthritis in her knees. One of the reasons for doing the two jobs is helping my moms too.
Any final thoughts?
I love New York. New York is good—the West Indian Day Parade, the African American Day Parade in Harlem, the Fourth of July festivities, when the ball drops at the beginning of the year. New York has festive things, and when they do it, they do it big. You can go to the function in person if you want to. Or you could stay back, relax and enjoy it at home too, and you still see it.
Photographs courtesy of Roger Phillips.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind the Scenes, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council