For years, the Statue of Liberty has been a beacon of hope, welcoming travel-weary immigrants to the United States from New York harbor.
But today, on the side of one of Gainesville’s busiest thoroughfares, Lady Liberty reminds recession-worn passers-by that they have arrived — at tax season.
Since January, the "Lady" has been there waving, sometimes wearing big red gloves. And most times, she is a man. But the draped green gown and the radiant crown are the costume of a part-time job for Hector Ortiz, 50, who says he hasn’t been able to find full-time work for about a year.
Ortiz came to Gainesville from Florida three years ago, where, for a while, he served as a prep cook in the restaurant industry. But for the last year, as a number of restaurants have started closing their doors, Ortiz has been at the mercy of temporary work.
He worked with Labor Ready for a while.
"They kind of died out, too, pretty much," Ortiz said.
But since Ortiz found out about the job soliciting business for a local tax preparer, he has been spending about 20 hours a week waving to passers-by, weather permitting.
"As long as it doesn’t rain," Ortiz said.
But Ortiz will endure the cold and the wind, because something is better than nothing in this economy, a subject Ortiz talks a lot about.
He says some of his co-workers have come and gone, looking for more money or a job that doesn’t involve standing outside.
"At least, if you have something coming in, you know, you won’t be behind as much," Ortiz said. "I mean that’s just common sense."
On Friday, Ortiz wore long johns, two T-shirts, a hooded sweatshirt and a ski jacket under his Lady Liberty costume. Hours before inches of snow fell on Gainesville, Ortiz sipped coffee and said living in New York had prepared him for the job.
"I’m used to it," Ortiz said.
But despite the bitter conditions, Ortiz said he felt his job had a purpose. People drive by and honk as he waves — a sign, he says, that he has brought them hope.
And though he’s dressed as Lady Liberty, he calls himself a sort of "spiritual warrior," much like the Trojan warrior of the same name.
"This type of thing, you’ve got to use your imagination," Ortiz said. "I’m doing it for them — I know they’re trying to make money just like everybody else. I’m 50 years old for a good reason, because I’ve done a lot of things in life and I’ve realized one thing: you can’t be despaired."