In the middle of the night, when the devices are dark, his antique alarm clock reminds him that his time has come. It sounds like hammering, monotonous like the melody of his days. Dursun Ince rolls out of bed and slips into blue overalls and a blue knitted sweater, then pulls a blue knitted hat over his head, giving him the look of a deckhand on the high seas. He ties his boots, caked with dust from the last construction site, and reaches for his gloves, branded “Work-On” and manufactured in China. He is available now, ready to work anywhere, perhaps including the land of his gloves.

In the night, when the days of wage begin, the center of his world shifts from Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood to Neukölln, into the room where the decision whether he is needed is made. Luck decides, and it can be cold, turning days possessing the prospect of wage into days of waiting, lost days. The hope of being needed moves men like him to travel across the city at night, not knowing what awaits them in the decision room. They want to belong when the others wake up and take their place in the working world. They are looking for gaps in this world and want to fill them, for a day, a few hours, a few bills.

Ince is a prototype of the modern day laborer in Germany, a man who defines his relationship to work on his own terms. The day laborers of this era are different from those who stood in the streets of Berlin during the Great Depression and hung signs from their necks, begging for “work of any kind.” These men aren’t hollow-eyed figures driven by fear. They don’t have to work every day and take any job. They don’t suffer from the shortage of their money but the poorness of their days.

Following Ince for a year and a half, a picture emerges of a man who has arranged himself in the frailty of now. The hole in his life is the paucity of work, the absence of a task. He breaks the cliché of the indolent recipient of unemployment benefits. He doesn’t wait for work; he follows it. But only to a certain point. It’s the day laborer’s syndrome. He struggles with commitment. He wants to belong, but doesn’t try to repair the rupture in his relationship with the working world. He targets the gap.

Ince quietly closes the door to his apartment and leaves his wife and four children behind. At 3:59, he catches the day’s first subway. He mustn’t miss it if he wants to reach the decision room in time. At 4:30, the jobs are passed out, not a minute later.

Dursun Ince reading a newspaper on the subway on his way to work.
Dursun Ince reading a newspaper on the subway on his way to work.

He has started and left many jobs, following the classic trajectory of day laborers. It’s difficult to write this life down on a sheet of paper and submit it for a job application. Ince’s name rings of an immigrant background, but it’s just a Turkish cipher for a German story. They never quite came together, Ince and the working world. He has that in common with German day laborers. They are strangers in their own country.

The room where the decisions are made lies at the end of Sonnenallee, or Sun Alley, a part of Neukölln that looks like a supersized toy land. On his way there, Ince passes a video arcade named Oasis of Luck, a pub called Coma, and Germany’s largest hotel, moored like a cruise ship on the banks of a canal. Between the Sun Curry sausage stand and the Filthy Rich garden colony, he stops in front of a large, dark cube of a building, on its façade the white shining letters of the word that attracts him: WORK.

The Job Agency Berlin-South is the day laborers’ Kaaba. They pilgrim from all corners of the city to the black cube and gather in front of the rear entrance. They don’t line up; there’s no need to position themselves. Luck decides. They assume the day laborer’s posture, standing at the ready and waiting.

Ince getting breakfast before heading to work.
Ince getting breakfast before heading to work.

The building where they are looking for work has the architecture of the agency that is supposed to find it for them: massive, labyrinthine, with endless corridors where one gets lost. During the early hours of the day, only three windows on the ground floor are illuminated. Behind one of them sits Thomas Schröder. He is the man who guides the day laborers to the gaps in the working world.

At half past three, when Ince left his apartment, Schröder was activating the systems in his office. He switched on his computer, the radio, and the coffee machine. Then he sat down at his desk, listened to the messages in his voicemail, and read e-mails. The gaps in the working world often open up outside Schröder’s working hours: When someone is needed to tear down a wall at a construction site, a moving company wants someone to carry the washing machine, or a slaughterhouse is looking for someone to wipe the blades clean.

On this morning, Schröder has an exceptional offer. A construction company is looking for two workers to tear out needle-felt carpeting in an office building. It’s paying ten euros per hour, for three days — a day laborer’s dream. The company describes the job as “work in an unfavorable posture.” Schröder has an inkling of what awaits the men. “At some point, they won’t be able to get up anymore,” he says. “They’ll have to be rolled out with the carpeting.”

The company has two special requests. It asks Schröder not only to look for men with the “ability to cope with a heavy workload” but also those who have a “tidy appearance.” Schröder highlights the requests with a yellow marker, then walks over to the door that separates him from the men waiting outside in the darkness. “Alright,” Schröder says, rattling his key chain. “Time to feed the predators!”

The men stub out their cigarettes and walk into the light. The decision room is a rectangle with seven rows of the kind of light-blue bucket seats that can be found in job centers all over Germany, the corporate design of the reformed welfare state. The men all look in the same direction — at the hatch in the wall.

Schröder is sitting on the other side. When he has news for the men, he opens the hatch and briefly shows his face. There is a small box in front of the hatch, and as the men file past, they drop cards with their names in it.

They take a seat and wait for the moment of decision.

The moment arrives every morning at half past four, when Schröder appears in the hole. He grabs the box, takes out the cards, and shuffles them. The men fall silent and stare at Schröder’s hands; some rise from their seat. Schröder shuffles the cards once more, then places them side-by-side, like a solitaire player. He will pass the jobs out in this order — if he has any.

Schröder announces the list, and the men who hear their name last take their card and leave. He hasn’t said how many jobs he can offer, but the men know that there are rarely more than two or three. There are seventeen cards laid out in front of Schröder.

He looks at the cards for a moment, then invites the men of tidy appearance who seem capable of handling a heavy workload into his office. He has to be careful now. He will overrule the luck of the draw, and the men are sensitive about that, particularly those of untidy appearance. Mr. Zimmermann, the first man Schröder approaches, refuses to tear out any needle-felt carpeting. He says he’s done it before, and that his back hurt so badly afterwards that he couldn’t walk upright for several days.

The next candidate says it’s too much money. The pay for this job would push him past the limit of 100 euros that day laborers are allowed to earn in addition to their unemployment benefits of 404 euros per month. If they earn more than that, the Labor Agency deducts a large portion of their wage from their benefits. They get to keep 20 cents of every euro they make beyond the 100-euro limit. If their wage exceeds 1,000 euros, they are allowed to keep only ten cents of every euro beyond that. That is the balancing act facing the welfare state: Not to forbid the unemployed to work, while protecting the state against exploitation. It’s difficult to convert fairness into a formula.

Schröder can’t change the system; he can only try to facilitate it. He knows that many of the day laborers are impatient, short-sighted when it comes to handling money, and he tries to utilize that. “I’m sure you’d rather have the money in cash at the end of the day than wait until the end of the month,” he says.

“But I don’t,” the man responds.

“Well,” Schröder says, “that’s the problem.”

The other man’s problem is Ince’s opportunity. He’s the third man on Schröder’s list. He listens to the offer, and the two look at each other in silence. “Well?” Schröder asks after a while. Ince doesn’t understand the question. He looks at Schröder as if he wanted to ask: “Did I get up in the middle of the night to turn down work?”

Dursun Ince, job offer 2071, now has work for three days.

In Schröder’s file is an incomplete list of Ince’s path through the working world: mechanic, packer, salesman, kitchen help, warehouse keeper, truck driver, processor at a plastics plant. Remover of needle-felt carpeting fits well into the list.

Like a personal advisor, Schröder now handles the details. He copies Ince’s income tax form and health insurance ID, then staples them to the “Certificate of Additional Earnings According to Paragraph 313, Third Book, SGB II.” He then copies a section of a Berlin city map, marks the spot where work is awaiting Ince, and explains which subway he should take. If the Third Book of SGB II demanded it, Schröder would prepare him a sandwich, too. It’s the attraction of the day laborer’s life. The men don’t have to read job listings, or write applications. They just have to show up in the decision room and get lucky.

Ince at the Job Agency Berlin-South, where he looks for unskilled labor work.
Ince at the Job Agency Berlin-South, where he looks for unskilled labor work.

The other needle-felt carpeting remover who will be working with Ince is Thomas Menzel. He’s here for the first time, and an hour later he leaves with an address and the promise of three days of work. He doesn’t look as if he considers himself lucky.

* * *

At half past six, Ince and Menzel meet at a subway station near the construction site. They walk into a former factory building with gleaming white satellite dishes on its roof that is now the home of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. Bernd Buchwalder is waiting for them in the lobby. He’s the man who wants them to tear out the carpeting. They sign in at the front desk and clip visitor IDs to their overalls. “We have to behave in a very restrained way here,” Buchwalder says, almost whispering. “Keep out of the way. Stay clean. Every little misstep will immediately be reported to management.”

Room 125 is 1,096 square feet in size and covered with the foundation of German office culture: gray needle-felt carpeting. Ince and Menzel take box cutters and get down on their knees. They slit the carpet, then take a hammer and ram a chisel between carpet and floor, trying to get a grip. They pull on the carpet, but it keeps slipping out of their hands. They use pliers, but the carpet seems to be inseparably glued to the concrete floor. “Old Swede!” Menzel shouts, using a German expression of surprise. He drops his pliers, throws his head back, and walks in a circle. “The others knew why they didn’t want this.”

On this day, Ince found work at the television station Deutsche Welle, where he and a colleague tear out carpet.
On this day, Ince found work at the television station Deutsche Welle, where he and a colleague tear out carpet.

Ince says nothing.

They get back on their knees and pull the carpet in slow motion, inch by inch, as if skinning an animal. They cling to the carpet, tug at it, their faces aglow. They get up and prop themselves against the resistance, standing lopsidedly in their boots. And then the carpet rips, and they topple over as if they were shot.

Ince is better equipped than Menzel; he has work gloves and a handkerchief that he uses to wipe sweat from his forehead. Menzel has bare hands and a flammable temper. When Ince sees Menzel’s face turn red and hears him snorting with anger, he passes him his bottle of water and says, softly, “Take a break.”

There is a constructional fault in the world of day laborers. They do the hardest, dirtiest work, but the most capable men never enter this world. Most day laborers are over 40, many over 50, some over 60. The younger ones, Schröder says, aren’t willing to get up at three in the morning. “That’s when they’re usually getting home.” It’s the luck of the older ones, but they pay a price. They enter the decision room every morning a little more tired. Schröder can see it in the way they walk. He hears it in their voices. “Some of them,” he says, “are somewhat spent.”

Ince takes a rest.
Ince takes a rest.

The carpeting in room 125 is like a stage where Ince and Menzel are performing a chamber play about the brave new working world. Long before the two men were toiling here, workers of the General Electricity Company bolted locomotives together in these halls. The strands of different eras of labor are coming together in room 125. It’s a fitting place for a story about modern day laborers. They are kneeling on the floor of the newsroom of a broadcast called “Germany Today.”

During their breakfast break, while drying, Ince and Menzel gauge each other’s background. Ince was born 45 years ago near Erzincan, in northeastern Turkey. “I’m from Anatolia,” he says. It sounds like an apology, a self-conscious allusion to his humble beginnings. Menzel was born 39 years ago in Berlin. “I’m from Neukölln,” he says. It sounds like a reproach, a resentment at being from a neighborhood with a large Turkish community. He looks at Ince for a moment. “I don’t have anything against foreigners,” he says, “but they toss their garbage out the window.” Ince sips his tea and says nothing.

On the carpet, in their struggle with German craftsmanship, they complement each other well, the quiet Turk and the angry German. It helps that Menzel saw Ince throw his sandwich bag in the garbage bin.

When Buchwalder tells them to take their lunch break, Menzel rushes out the door. Ince walks aimlessly down the street and stops between two diners, one Turkish, the other German. He peeks through the windows, hesitates, then enters the Turkish place. He orders kebab and sits down at a table in the back, surrounded by slot machines and a mural of a mosque, placing himself somewhere between Berlin and Anatolia.

There’s a distant look in Ince’s eyes when he remembers his childhood, the years when he herded sheep with his father in the mountains of Anatolia. He misses the sweeping fields, their silence. But the land of his dreams is Schleswig-Holstein, a pastoral state in the north of Germany. Ince was fourteen when his father moved the family to Germany, the country of work. They ended up in Talkau, a village outside of Hamburg where the father found work on a farm. He was the servant for all tasks.

One day, the owner of the estate dropped dead in his boots, and Ince’s family moved on. Sometimes the widow writes him letters, asking if he would like to come back. Ince would go in a heartbeat, but his wife is against it. She fears the loneliness of the countryside, and he doesn’t object. He’s not good at arguing.

* * *

When the first lights of the morning traffic move past the windows, those who remain behind in the decision room begin their rituals of keeping themselves busy. They sit in the bucket seats and debate whether to emigrate to Norway. They wonder what’s written in the Qur’an. They hear the sound of the heels of women walking down the hallway, and imagine how their hips are swaying. They call each other’s cell phones and dance to the ringtones. The jobs are gone, but they hope that more offers will come in. It rarely happens, and they know it.

One of the men never sits down. He shuffles around the room as if walking in his sleep and examines the door hinges, the light switches, the sockets, the radiator valves. He jolts everything, looking for something that might be in need of repair. In moments like this, the room seems to have a therapeutic effect.

In room 125, Ince places his hands on his stomach. The kebab is giving him trouble; sweat runs down his neck. He’s exhausted, but he doesn’t allow himself to pause. He pulls on the carpet as if fighting his own name. When asked the meaning of Dursun, he smiles and says, “Let it be.”

Ince is a man of obtuse contours; his roundish body reflects his elusive nature. He moves in an inconspicuous manner, modest in appearance and always hesitating, determined only not to commit.

* * *

The following morning, as Ince enters the lobby of Deutsche Welle and signs in at the front desk, Menzel’s name is already on the list. In the column titled “Company,” Menzel wrote “Job Center.” Ince writes down the name of Buchwalder’s company. He wants to belong.

Ince helps a colleague while working at the television station.
Ince helps a colleague while working at the television station.

They are better equipped today. Menzel is wearing work gloves, construction boots, and a clean white T-shirt. Buchwalder has organized claw grips to keep the carpet from slipping through their hands, but yesterday’s struggle has taken a toll on their bodies. Their movements are slower, stiffer. After half an hour, Menzel looks around, leans toward Ince, and asks, “Shall we take a break?”

“Go ahead,” Ince says, and continues working.

Menzel looks at him as if he’d like to spit in his face. He tears at the carpet as if in a fight he must win within seconds. Ince takes a calmer approach. His rhythm is steady, and he never complains.

Menzel becomes quiet, lurking. Sometime after breakfast, he puts on his jacket, walks toward the door, and says, “I’ll be back soon.” It takes Ince a while to realize that Menzel has deserted him. He worries about him, but keeps working as though nothing happened. Buchwalder is impressed. He watches how Ince makes the carpet disappear, quietly and without anger. At the end of the day, he kneels next to him and says, “We have to talk about your future.”

Ince looks at him as if the word frightens him: future. It sounds like something that could be too big for him, endless felt carpeting. “You’ve demonstrated your stamina,” Buchwalder says. “Could you imagine working for me permanently?”

Before going home, Ince has a beer after a hard day’s work. (His wife doesn’t let him drink alcohol at home.)
Before going home, Ince has a beer after a hard day’s work. (His wife doesn’t let him drink alcohol at home.)

Ince looks at his shoes and says nothing. Then he does what he often does when he has to make a decision. He retreats to a space between yes and no, and says, “Oh, well.”

Buchwalder tries to give him an opening, and asks what he did before his life as a day laborer. Ince tells him that he started an apprenticeship as a mechanic at Mercedes-Benz, but didn’t finish it. Buchwalder nods and waits. He still hopes to get an answer to his first question, but Ince just stands there in silence.

Buchwalder gives up and hands him a 100-euro bill, the pay for the day.

* * *

Day laborers live in a contradiction. They make themselves available, but want to be in control of their availability. They want to belong to the working population, but don’t want to give up their noncommittal lifestyle — the freedom to decide each morning whether to work or not, to accept one job and reject another. They struggle, but they don’t feel forced to break with their way of life.

Most of the day laborers disappear from the decision room when they reach the 100-euro limit. They withdraw to their apartments and wait for the end of the month, when they become recipients again. A few, however, continue to work. They need money right away, or can’t bear the loneliness at home.

Unemployment has been Schröder’s work since 1982, back when the Labor Agency was called a “federal institution.” His job title combines the stuffiness of the old times with the sound of the new: Technical Assistant for Job Allocation in the Job Center. The newspeak of the agency is more than a shell. It reflects the decoupling of work from profession — the end of a position as a permanent place. Work, which the German Duden dictionary defines as “bodily or mental activity,” has become a job, an “opportunity to earn money.”

Schröder sits in his office as if in the antechamber to the new working world. The Labor Agency is leasing him out to the local Job Center. Since the time the government stopped distinguishing between the unemployed and welfare recipients, Schröder has been helping out at the Job Center, which some of his colleagues consider the reservoir for the hopeless cases. It has changed Schröder’s perspective, his sense of what is possible. “I’m satisfied,” he says, “when I go home at noon and can say, ‘Today I made one person happy.’”

On the morning of the third day, Menzel shows up at Deutsche Welle. He wants his wage. With the meticulousness of an accountant, he lays out to Buchwalder that he worked for three and a half hours before disappearing. The fact that he took the job from another day laborer and then deserted Ince doesn’t figure into his accounting. Buchwalder doesn’t want to argue. He hands him 35 euros and asks why he left. “Because it’s a shitty job,” Menzel says. He then mimics Buchwalder’s body language, walks to the door, turns to Ince, and says, “Have a nice day.”

Ince says nothing. He has a new partner on the floor. Working next to him is Norbert Linke, 39 years old, carefully chosen by Schröder as the reliable opposite to Menzel.

The boss checks Ince and his colleague’s progress.
The boss checks Ince and his colleague’s progress.

At a quarter to ten, Buchwalder approaches, and Ince and Linke look at him knowingly. They’re kneeling on a shrinking island of carpeting. “I’ve got nothing more here,” Buchwalder says. He pays them an extra hour, and asks Ince for his phone number. He’s not interested in Linke’s.

Ince has a defeated look on his face. He saw the carpeting disappear from underneath him, but he thought the work would somehow go on, at least until the end of the day. He and Linke rip the last bit of carpet off the floor, then take the elevator down to the front desk and return their visitor’s passes — two guest workers in Germany.

Linke walks to a supermarket to claim the deposit for the empty bottles he collected in the last few minutes at the construction site. They’re worth one euro and twenty-five cents. It’s his bonus, the value of seven minutes and thirty seconds of work in an “unfavorable posture.” Ince goes straight home. There, he sits in front of a cabinet where the pictures of his life are on display and watches television with his kids. “When I take a break,” he says, “I feel like something’s missing.”

Ince believes that the German welfare state takes good care of him. The state gives him money for a life without work, for rent, the children, the electricity bill. He doesn’t understand how some families can’t make ends meet with this amount of money. “It works,” he says.

There was a time when Ince would have liked to become a German. A few years ago, he applied for citizenship, but he didn’t have the patience for the process.

He drifted through the halls of bureaucracy the way he moves through the working world. At some point, he let go.

Once, he thought about leaving Germany. He read an ad in the newspaper that a company in Canada was looking for lumberjacks. He liked the idea of working in the silence of the forest. He called, but in the end didn’t go. He’s caught in an eternal state of “Oh, well.”

* * *

In his office in Sun Alley, Schröder picks up the phone and calls a few companies that regularly request day laborers. He asks about their experiences with the men he sent them, their needs. “They want to be stroked, too,” Schröder says. After that, he calls companies he thinks might be interested in his men. Some are surprised that there’s still such a thing as day laborers. Others see it as an opportunity for exploitation. They offer to pay three euros an hour. “They think these men are the bottom of the barrel,” Schröder says. Sometimes he sounds like the day laborers’ advocate.

For Ince, work was always something to be followed, from Anatolia to Schleswig-Holstein, from Kreuzberg to Neukölln. The thought that work might be waiting for him is foreign to him.

Ince is a man for all seasons. In the summer, he works two weeks for a construction company. He tears down walls and pushes the rubble in a wheelbarrow to a container, reliably and quietly. But on the third day, he makes a mistake. One of the container’s flaps loosens and hits his thigh. He keeps working, afraid of losing the job. But soon, he can’t walk anymore. Ince excuses himself and goes to the hospital.

It takes a week until he can move his leg again, and he decides not to do construction work anymore. He’s afraid he won’t be so lucky in the next accident. He remembers the day he saw a day laborer touch a high-voltage cable, and how it almost killed him.

In the fall, Ince changes course. He commits to something. He takes a part-time job as a cleaner of traffic signs, pulling off stickers, removing graffiti. He works twelve and a half hours a week and gets paid four hundred euros a month.

In the winter, he broadens his portfolio. He starts working for the fast-response unit of Berlin’s Sanitation Department. He rakes leaves, shovels snow and scatters salt whenever bad weather opens up gaps in the work force. He hopes for a long, hard winter.

Ince feels that his body is a dwindling resource, and he starts to think like an entrepreneur. He diversifies. He wants to obtain a license to operate a forklift, and gain access to the distribution centers of a globalized world. He sees it as a way out of the world of needle-felt carpeting. “I’ll ruin my back if I keep doing this,” he says, protectively placing his hands on the lower end of it.

Ince is beginning to feel trapped in the cycle of the day laborer’s life, in the confines of the city, and one morning he breaks out. After a night when he went back to working at a construction site, he takes his pay and buys a ticket to Schleswig-Holstein. He gets on a train and travels into his past, to the farm where his father once worked. The letters from the lonely widow stirred something up in Ince. He wants to work for her, but he arrives too late. She has already found other men.

He goes missing for a day, submerged in the dream of his life. Late at night, he returns to Berlin, disillusioned, lost in the city, a farmer without land.

After that night, Ince’s life appears to be falling apart. He loses weight, eats little, and no longer drinks beer. His doctor is concerned about the state of his liver. He hasn’t seen Schröder in a long time. He’s tired of getting up in the middle of the night and counting on the luck of the draw.

Ince and his family at home.
Ince and his family at home.

Most days, Ince sits in his living room as if someone had lost him there. There isn’t much left in the room. A sofa, a table, a television, and him. The cabinet where he kept the pictures of his life is gone. “My wife threw it out,” he says, looking at the bare wall. She was tired of it, and hacked it to pieces. His wife is still with him, but he sits there as if posing for a picture of the emptiness in his life.

He’s torn the paper off the walls and ripped the carpet off the floor, becoming his own day laborer. In the hallway, he laid out a new laminated floor, but he had to rip it out again. He forgot to ask the landlord for permission. The television is his fireplace. On the coffee table in front of him is a Watchtower pamphlet from Jehovah’s Witnesses titled “Christian Rebirth: The Path to Salvation?” It’s curious reading for an Alawite.

Ince becomes harder to reach. He’s often withdrawn, but he feels like everyone else is keeping a distance. The widow has stopped writing, and the last letter he sent her was returned as undeliverable. He thinks she’s dead. Schröder’s gone, too. One morning, as Ince enters the decision room, another man is shuffling the cards. But it’s a waste of time; he has no jobs.

Everything’s changing in the room — the faces, the atmosphere, the expectations. Schröder isn’t gone; he was just on vacation. He sits behind the hatch like a tourist, tanned and relaxed, and bows over charts with numbers for the past few months. In good months, he used to be able to offer more than two hundred jobs. Now it’s barely over a hundred. The day laborers’ lottery is turning into an endless loop of disappointment.

To ease the tension, Schröder and the day laborers are negotiating a coffee agreement. The men say they can no longer afford to buy their own coffee at the gas station across the street. After some back and forth, they reach an agreement with Schröder that they will buy the coffee and he will brew it for them. It helps Schröder bridge the awkward silence after another disappointing draw. He then quickly asks, “Coffee anyone?”

The group of men waiting in front of Schröder’s door has gotten smaller. Mr. Bogen, a shipbuilder, is still there, sitting by the window and reading a book titled “Renewable Energy.” Mr. Müßig, whose name means “leisurely,” is still eager to work. Menzel, the man who abandoned Ince, still walks away from construction sites when he gets tired. Linke, the man who replaced him, and Mr. Zimmermann, who refused to tear out felt carpeting, have disappeared. So has the man who never sat down.

Three new candidates are sitting in the front row, but they seem out of place. They have the smooth faces of boys. The two Turks and the Lebanese impress Schröder because with their precision-clipped hair and low-hanging pants, they look like they’d rather be someplace else at four in the morning. But they are here. They don’t turn down any jobs, and they don’t disappear from construction sites. They keep playing a German rap song on their cell phones that echoes the soundtrack of their days.

Get up, get out

Just do it

Today’s your day

Just move your ass.

Ince doesn’t return to the room. He’s his own job broker now. Sometimes he helps the fruit vendor in the street in front of his building, sometimes he works for the neighbor’s cleaning company and picks garbage out of parks. He earns some money, but he misses the feeling of being needed, of belonging for more than a few hours.

One night, Ince is standing in a women’s bathroom and tears down a wall. He’s swinging a sledgehammer, and with every blow, he vanishes deeper into a cloud of white dust. The call came unexpectedly. Buchwalder needed him, and Ince came right away. He’s filling one wheelbarrow after another with rubble, then pushes them down a hallway lined with work schedules and union pamphlets about broken wage agreements. Ince doesn’t notice. He’s wearing safety glasses, a dust mask, and earplugs, looking like a creature from another world.

At one point during the night, Ince is standing outside in the cold, shivering in a sweat-soaked undershirt. His eyes are bloodshot. “I don’t think I’ll make it to the morning,” he says. He sips espresso from a plastic cup, the fifth of the night, then hears one of the workers call, “Where’s my Turkish sidekick?” He goes back into the women’s bathroom.

Ince prepares tea for his family.
Ince prepares tea for his family.

The next morning, he drags bags of garbage to a container in the courtyard, then sweeps around it, not leaving a trace. His head is covered with dust, making his hair look like it turned gray overnight. He takes his pay and walks down the street the same way he came. He turns around and briefly walks backwards, as if rewinding his day. Feeling hungry, he sits down in a bakery and eats a piece of cake, then walks down the stairs to the subway. Halfway down, he stops and watches the people streaming past him, heading the other way. “They’re going to work,” Ince says, “and I’m going home.” He looks as if that made him uncomfortable.

* * *

Mario Kaiser is a writer of narrative nonfiction. His work has been published by, among others, The International New York Times, Guernica, and Der Spiegel. He is a recipient of the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism and the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for Literary Journalism. You can follow him @MarioKaiserNYC.

Maurice Weiss is a Berlin-based photographer and you can see more of his work here.