When Mickey Daniels Jr. ordered his Mexican workers for the blue crab season, he expected a certain type of woman. Humble. Compliant. Focused on supporting her poor family in Mexico. Thrilled by the American dollar. He was right on one count.
The smell of money
Delia shows her sister Ceci how to use a knife to take apart a sharp crab. Their own people wont do the work, so we must do it, Delia said, explaining why the United States imports Mexican women to process crabs. [Times photo: JOSHUA DAUTOFF]
Story by ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 1999
Delia Tovar tried to warn her younger sister about the smell.
It would linger on their skin, in defiance of lemon-water baths and rags doused with bleach. It would burn into the shine of their dark hair, inhabit their sheets and seep into their dreams.
Wandering the aisles of the Food-a-Rama, they would stink of crabs. Everyone would know they'd been brought from Mexico to do the work Americans refused.
"Think of it as the smell of money," Delia told her sister.
With the desert sand of Palomas still in the cuffs of their jeans, Delia and Ceci Tovar finally reached North Carolina, exhausted from riding a bus for three days. They were dropped at a darkened gas station in Elizabeth City, and a Daniels Seafood employee drove them another 90 minutes down the wind-swept coast. They reached their trailer at midnight.
Six hours later, they were awakened for their first day of work. The moon was still out. Delia's hands trembled.
When they pushed open the door to Daniels Seafood, hundreds of cooked crabs were heaped on silver tables, waiting for them. The clock above the sink read 6:45 a.m. Delia and Ceci stood on the concrete floor, blinking against the fluorescent lights.
They were issued aprons, hairnets and knives. No gloves. The crabs were so sharp that Latex wouldn't last 10 minutes.
Only Delia had worked at Daniels Seafood the previous season. She knew speed was everything. Slow pickers could be sent back to Mexico, defeated and poor.
A Daniels Seafood employee gathered the newcomers around a table piled with crabs. She swept her arms around to draw them near.
She didn't know Spanish, and they didn't know English.
So she spoke loudly.
"This," she said, "is a crab."
Then she disappeared.
Orientation was over.
The four elderly black women who still picked crabs for Daniels Seafood pretended not to notice. They turned their backs on the Mexican women struggling behind them.
They sat at their own table, turned toward each other, as they had for the last 40 years.
"I saw some pretty hamburger yesterday."
"He had whole chickens for $2."
"I heard about Miss Mollie Fearing died."
All four of the women needed eyeglasses to see. Each used a 6-inch stainless steel knife, its tip bent or bowed to personal preference, its weight and feel unique. Bits of meat and shell flew against the walls in the fury of their butchering.
The awful work of crab picking was woven with the gossip and the tragedies of Roanoke Island. The women spoke with the peculiar dialect of all Roanoke Islanders. It was a brogue left over from the English settlers of the 1600s, seasoned with black vernacular, and formal flourishes from the King James Bible. Tourists would stop in their tracks when they heard it.
It was their own lost language, from their own lost world.
Roanoke Island was a floating emerald between North Carolina's Outer Banks and the creeping coastline. It was moist and green, with a salty breeze that jiggled the lines of the shrimp trawlers.
Dates here were remembered not by distant events -- declarations of war or moon walks -- but by hurricanes and nor'easters.
"Wasn't it the Ash Wednesday Storm that Ginny was born?"
"Yes, I believe it was 1962, surely was."
Red-mesh crab pots were stacked in yards, and fishing nets were strung across porches. Anchors were thrown down like gauntlets on lawns, in case anyone wondered.
This place drew its life from the water.
Mary Tillett began working in a crab house in 1929. She was 15, wiry and strong, with a high forehead, the daughter of Ephfraim, a fisherman. She'd set out at dawn each morning, walking through the pine and juniper woods of Roanoke Island to reach the crab house.
In 1929, Mary earned 5 cents for every pound of meat she picked. Almost 70 years later, in 1998, Daniels Seafood paid her $1.70 a pound. She was 84 years old.
White women generally did not pick crabs. When an outsider would ask why, the question hung in the air as if it were an unsolvable mystery.
"I don't know why to save my life, I surely don't," Mary Tillett said.
The racial history of coastal North Carolina was different from the rest of the South. Slavery was not as widespread as it was inland, where tobacco plantations had large slave holdings. Freed men and runaway slaves wandered to the water's edge, where all they needed to survive was a net and a boat.
But whites still ruled the local fishing economy, before and after the Civil War.
Black men crewed for white pilots, chasing shad or menhaden. Their wives and daughters took jobs in the fish, oyster and crab houses.
The women spent their days covered in brine and shell. Hemmed in by the water, cut off from major roads and commercial areas, black women at midcentury had few employment choices.
At least crab picking offered freedom from standing over an ironing board in a white woman's house.
But as time passed, hacking away at crabs for pennies seemed like serfdom to a younger generation. By the late 1980s, the chairs around the crab tables began to empty.
The owners -- in a panic over their disappearing labor force -- laid the blame in one place.
"We can't compete against the welfare programs of the United States government," said Jimmy Johnson, the president of the National Blue Crab Industry Association.
The truth was not so simple. Growth and development brought new jobs. Even unskilled women were choosing a Burger King heat lamp over a crab knife. Others pursued education. Some did draw welfare.
Even if the crab houses raised their wages, the owners said there was just some work Americans weren't willing to do anymore.
But their theory of higher wages was never tested.
The "labor shortage" allowed them to import poor women from Mexico for the annual crab season. Within three years of their arrival, crab meat production in North Carolina increased by 21 percent, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries.
Daniels Seafood was among the smallest of 31 crab processing plants in North Carolina's $38-million blue crab industry. It was also one of the last -- in 1995 -- to import Mexican women to pick crab.
The gray building with white trim sat at the edge of Roanoke Sound, just off the Nags Head Causeway. Nothing about the place looked cutthroat.
But it was here, beneath the hand-painted sign that swung in the wind and read "Daniels Crab House," that the whole global marketplace came tumbling together.
The Mexicans had created a grueling standard for themselves. If they didn't work fast enough, they could be returned to the border.
The local black women who'd given half their lives to Daniels Seafood wondered whether they'd be replaced by the newcomers.
And somewhere, someone in New York or Philadelphia was ordering an $8 crab cake, oblivious to the lives behind it.
That first morning, the Mexican women struggled just to hold their crab knives. They sliced their fingertips. The crabs pierced the soft palms of their hands. Ceci had trouble even grasping the shells. They shot off the table and clattered onto the floor. She tried again. She turned to her sister, her voice breaking. "Like this, Delia, like this?" she asked in Spanish.
Delia tried to remember. Not only was Ceci relying on her, but so were two other Mexican women who were also starting their first day at Daniels Seafood.
Using a paper towel, Delia showed the rookies how to wrap the wet knife handle so it wouldn't slip. "Look," she said, demonstrating. The paper would also cushion the steel handle.
With two strokes, Delia severed the crab's legs and pried open the body with the tip of her knife. She was rusty and unsure of herself.
In Spanish, she told the new girls, "You learn how to hold them softly so they don't hurt your hands so bad." She grimaced.
Each crab was like a sharp cage, containing barely two or three tablespoons of meat in the hidden compartments.
The first step was scooping out the yellow "mustard" or "butter," the organs and eggs that were thrown into garbage cans.
The premium lump meat was at the base of the crab's swimming legs. A picker had to remove it carefully to preserve the value. The meat in the rest of the body was less delicate and scraped out in flakes. The claws were also shucked.
The average picker went through about 1,000 crabs a day to produce 27 pounds of meat. At $1.70 a pound, her daily gross earnings were about $46.
The Mexican women were annihilating their crabs. What meat they managed to extract was littered with bits of shell.
"This is a mess," said Ruth Daniels, the meat packer and a distant relative of the Daniels Seafood family. "I don't think any of these girls ever seen a crab before."
Daniels Seafood sold half of its meat to local restaurants and distributors; the other half was loaded on overnight trucks to Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia.
The blue crabs were harvested from local waters and delivered live to Daniels Seafood six days a week. A pressure cooker in a back room could steam 1,200 pounds at once.
The crabs kept coming. As soon as the pickers finished one pile, another pile was shoveled on.
"I'm so tired and sore," Delia said to her sister, in Spanish. The floor was littered with shells, claws and orange paste. Bits of shell and meat clung to their cheeks and forearms.
Quitting time was 3:30. They had watched the clock all day. Ceci went to the sink to wash off. Her legs ached. Her back ached. Her neck felt pinched and immovable from bending over the crab table. She let the water run over her hands.
One of the black women came up behind her. It was Annie. She was 77, with gray hair and a spine that curled over like a drooping flower. She reached out for Ceci's arm, her voice tender.
"It's hard work, ain't it, honey?"
The words were foreign, but Ceci understood the tone. She smiled.
Delia tried to exude excitement. She had watched her mother do the same thing the previous season. Act thrilled by the prospect of the American dollar. Be hungry. Be unstoppable.
She held up her yellow ticket. There in blue pen: 25.3 pounds. "My first day!" she said, in Spanish. "Tomorrow, more!"
The others said nothing, piling into the van that smelled of dead fish. One fell asleep.
It was a custom of Daniels Seafood to provide transportation to the pickers. Ruth Daniels drove.
First on the route were the black women, who all lived in the same neighborhood of shaded streets on Roanoke Island. The van wheeled up to a trailer. Annie slowly stepped down, calling over her shoulder, "We'll see y'all tomorrow then."
Ceci lifted her head. "Manana, Annie."
"Manana, baby," Annie said, as she began her slow gait to her front door.
Ruth stopped at Food-a-Rama so the Mexican women could buy their groceries. Before dropping them at the trailer, she tapped her watch, pointing to the six and moving her finger to half-past. "Six-thirty, six-thirty. Comprende?"
Delia understood perfectly. Si, si, she said.
For dinner, they warmed store-bought tortillas and made frijoles in a cast-iron skillet. They slumped over their plates.
The crab knives had done their damage. Delia showed the others how to soak their hands in warm water. They wrapped their fingers with surgical tape, like defeated boxers, and then slipped on nightgowns.
The fastest picker in the history of Daniels Seafood was a woman named Juana Cedillo. On a good day, Juana could shuck 40 pounds. There was just one problem. She was stuck in Mexico.
Of all the women Daniels Seafood had "ordered" from Palomas, a small ranch in Central Mexico, only Delia and Ceci Tovar had been issued the necessary visas to cross the border.
The job recruiter had instructed the other women to report back to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey for interviews.
Juana Cedillo had staked her financial hopes on one more season of work at Daniels Seafood. The 1998 season would have been her third. The decision was wrenching. Juana was a mother of eight.
Every family in Palomas had someone who worked in the States. The coming and going was a part of life, fueling a million Mexican songs about separation and wandering.
But until the crab houses came along, the women in Palomas never left home.
The crab houses were stealing the mothers away from their children, yet the children were wearing new shoes because of the crab money.
When Juana Cedillo had not been immediately granted a visa in Monterrey, she returned to Palomas, arriving at night, suitcase in hand.
Her youngest son, Eduardo, who was 6, was asleep. Juana sat at the edge of his bed. When he woke and saw his mother, he began to cry. He thought he was dreaming.
Juana made a decision. She told her children the next morning.
"I am not going after all," she announced at breakfast. "I will be here to see you grow."
Juana's instincts were good. The other women from Palomas who made the nine-hour bus ride back to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey were not given the interviews they imagined. They answered questions through a glass window.
All but one were denied visas.
When Mickey Daniels Jr., the owner of Daniels Seafood, learned that his most experienced crab pickers had never made it across the border, a full assault was launched.
There was a reason the crab house van was slapped with a Helms '96 campaign sticker.
"Jesse will straighten this mess out," said Ruth Daniels.
But not even an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms' office in Washington could fix things.
According to an aide in Helms' office, the women from Palomas were denied visas because they didn't show enough proof of their permanent ties to Mexico.
"What do you mean, the consulate needs proof?" Ruth Daniels shouted to the Helms aide. "Ma'am, they got nine young 'uns apiece in Mexico. What are they s'posed to do, bring 'em all in and line every one of 'em up?"
Mickey Junior stared at the phone. This was a disaster. The crab season was under way.
"We're gonna have to get us some more."
"More," meaning Mexican women.
A single visa had been granted. Ana Rosa, Juana's 19-year-old daughter, was already on a bus for North Carolina.
Juana's parting words to her daughter:
"Read your Bible."
One more thing. The most important thing.
"Remember, you are not an orphan. You have a family in Mexico."
Three days later, Ana Rosa stepped off the bus in North Carolina with her Bible wrapped in plastic and what was left of the gorditas her mother had sent along. Dark circles shadowed her eyes. The next morning she took her place at the crab table next to her cousins, Delia and Ceci Tovar.
A few days later, three more women from Palomas arrived, including Delia and Ceci's 23-year-old sister.
Of the newcomers, Ana Rosa was the most valuable addition. She was an excellent cook. With her bandaged hands, she made pork chuletas.
They dubbed themselves Las Chicas Jaibas. The Crab Girls. Their legs ached. Their backs ached. While the black women were allowed to sit in chairs around the crab picking table, the Mexican women were forced to stand.
The concrete was unforgiving during an 81/2-hour shift. They devised tricks. They bought padded socks for their sneakers. They shifted their weight from one foot to the other, or leaned their hips into the table. Just squatting, bending the knees briefly, offered relief.
"What do we do, go on strike?" Delia said one night. "He'd just send us back."
Reality set in. What had they gotten themselves into?
As little girls in Palomas, they had walked to school together, carrying their madras book bags as they kicked their way along the dusty grid of streets. They had often imagined America. Everything new, fresh from the assembly line. Large houses with green grass, blonds carrying shopping bags.
A job recruiter in Mexico who sent women to work in the crab houses had even said, seductively, "Maybe you'll get to see New York City."
Here was their America:
Six mornings a week, they stumbled from their trailer at 6:30 with their Eggo waffles or their mugs full of Cocoa Puffs. Ten hours later, the van brought them home.
Their trailer was 7 miles from town, across a 3-mile bridge that separated them from Roanoke Island. The closest store was a marina that sold bait and beer. Rottweilers from the trailer next door prowled the street.
At night, the county mosquito truck released clouds of white fog to ward off the insects that swarmed the wet flats.
Nine women shared the double-wide trailer, furnished with secondhand plaid couches and single beds. A wall-unit air conditioner pumped against the summer heat. One windowless bedroom occupied by a worker named Esmerelda became known as El Horno de Esme. Esmerelda's oven.
For this, the nine women paid Mickey Daniels Jr. $1,080 in rent.
Mickey Junior had the mistaken impression that in Mexico his workers lived in wooden houses or huts with dirt floors. He figured the trailer, which he bought to house his foreign workers, along with the property, was a step up.
To him, charging nine women a total of $1,080 a month didn't seem like gouging. He looked at it this way: weekly rent for each worker was $30, which included transportation to work, the grocery store, the bank and other errands. It also covered basic phone service, utilities and cable TV, "and me havin' to run over there every time they pour hot grease down the sink and stop up the plumbing."
On weeks when the availability of crabs dipped and the women didn't work every day, he knocked their rent down. If one week they worked only three days, he didn't charge rent.
The women hated the trailer. The smell of crabs came home with them on their hair and clothes. They stuffed their dirty laundry in plastic garbage bags to contain the odor. They used gallons of sweet Pantene shampoo.
They pasted air fresheners to the walls of their bedrooms, six, seven to a room, but nothing worked.
Only one event broke their misery.
Ceci brought almost $200 home the first week. Although Daniels Seafood paid by the pound, the Fair Labor Standards Act made sure the women earned the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
The money was intoxicating. The women stashed their cash around the trailer, keeping the hiding places secret even from each other. They counted and re-counted it. Sometimes, they took it out just to look. More than anything, they wanted to spend it.
That was the trap.
One of their fathers had warned his daughter against squandering her earnings in the land of temptation.
"They will have your sweat and you will have nothing," he told his daughter.
"Guest worker" -- which is what the Department of Labor called the 3,000 or so Mexican women who came to work the blue crab season -- was a cruelly ironic term.
The guests paid their own way to the United States. They weren't allowed to switch employers once they arrived. Many lived in fenced encampments.
Unlike immigrant farmworkers, these guest workers were prohibited from seeking legal assistance from the federally funded Legal Services Corp.
One final indignity. Social Security taxes were deducted from their paychecks. They would never see a penny of it.
Complaining would only bring a one-way bus ticket back to the border, where thousands of replacements waited.
One North Carolina crab house owner was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for taking 50 percent of his workers' paychecks for rent. Another owner kept his workers' passports and visas under lock and key, holding them hostage.
Cheating the Mexican women out of overtime pay was common. Most were unfamiliar with the time-and-a-half formula used to figure overtime pay.
Despite the rip-offs and the captive nature of their employment, the Mexican women still begged and bribed their way into jobs in the crab houses.
But it meant they placed their lives at the mercy of whoever had bought the rights to their work.
The fate of the women who worked for Daniels Seafood rested with a born-again, anti-government tightwad.
Every decision Mickey Daniels Jr. made was guided by two forces:
What would Jesus do?
How can I increase my profits?
Mickey Daniels Jr. grew up in Wanchese (pronounced WAN-cheez), a 300-year-old fishing village on the south end of Roanoke Island. Since boyhood, he fished, he crabbed, he threw trotlines; anything he could do to relieve the water of its creatures, he did.
But never on Sunday.
The Daniels family were Assembly of God people. No music, no dancing, no movies, no immodesty. Before their church was built in Wanchese, prayer meetings were held in the fish houses, where preachers shouted Scripture from atop crates of frozen flounder.
Mickey Daniels Jr. rose before dawn six days a week, ventured out in his boat alone, diverted from his duties neither by hurricanes nor 102-degree fevers. His sober ways set him apart from other fishermen who celebrated the week with a suitcase of beer down at the dock.
Mickey Junior and his wife had raised their five children in a crowded two-story house with one bathroom. They had no medical insurance. When the children were older, Linda Daniels waited tables to bring in extra money. The family had no pension plan.
"Around here, you work till you drop," Mickey Junior said.
With his tousled hair and faded blue jeans, Mickey Junior looked like a 50-year-old lifeguard. He considered sunglasses an affectation, so his pale blue eyes were constantly red.
He had a slow-drip pattern of speech, and leaned in doorways, his hands jammed in pockets.
One thing that managed to rile him was government regulations. There were wage laws, worker's comp, bans on crabbing in environmentally protected areas, regulations on discarding his bait; he felt there was no limit to the government's squeeze on his business.
In the 1980s, a group of Vietnamese immigrants tried setting up fishing operations in Wanchese. "They got everything free," Mickey Junior said. "The government set them up with (crab) pots and boats. We struggled and strived all our lives and didn't get nothin' free. Some of them would fish our pots. So some of the locals cut their buoys off the ropes. I guess that's why they moved away."
Mickey Junior took less enjoyment from his work than he used to. He said he wasn't in it for the money, but who could tell? Poor-mouthing was a local hobby. Most of the fishermen drove rusted-out trucks that smelled of wet dog.
Mickey Junior said he was "too private" to discuss his income. "One year you're up, the next you're down," he'd say.
The marketplace was not highly scientific.
Daniels Seafood bought its live crabs from 17 commercial crabbers, including Mickey Daniels Jr. A pound of crab meat costs Daniels Seafood about $5. Add $1.70 to pay the pickers. Daniels Seafood wholesaled its meat for between $7 and $12 a pound, which accounted for 85 percent of its business.
Mickey Junior might be out on his boat when his son would radio him from shore. "Dad, the account's only willing to go $7." To which Mickey Daniels Jr. would mutter, "That's too low." After stewing a few minutes, he'd pick up his radio. "All right, but no more than 40 pounds at $7."
Retail sales accounted for just 15 percent of Daniels Seafood's business, but it was the most profitable. Walk-in customers paid $17.75 for a pound of lump crab meat.
Mickey Daniels Jr. said he was lucky to make 50 cents profit on each pound of meat he sold, after expenses.
His business was vulnerable to weather and the availability of crabs. But the most ferocious threat was foreign competition.
"Our government allows foreign crab meat to come in and be sold way cheaper for what we can sell ours," Mickey Junior said. "And we're supposed to compete with the foreign crab house that pays their workers 20 cents a pound, with no inspections, no Social Security, no workman's comp. That's not fair competition."
Five miles from Daniels Seafood, a supermarket sold pasteurized crab meat from South America. It cost half of what Mickey Junior sold his for.
But that same fierce new global market also allowed Daniels Seafood to hire crab pickers from Mexico.
There was no question that replacing the older women with Mexicans would have increased production. When he watched Mary Tillett, he could see how much she'd slowed down.
His father had hired Mary Tillett in 1958 when he opened Daniels Seafood. Carmichael Daniels had an unusual relationship with his pickers. When one died, he was often the lone white mourner in the brick church.
Years later, when his son took over the business, some in Wanchese would say with bemusement or irritation, "Mickey Junior caters to the blacks, same way his daddy did."
A final gesture, maybe, Mickey Junior's allowing the older women to stay on.
In the off season, he left fish or collards on their porches, wrapped in newspaper. They had an understanding, welded in history, but fading, almost gone.
"That family's been good to me, sure have," Mary Tillett said.
And yet because three of the women suffered from age-related maladies -- diabetes, arthritis -- Mickey Junior filed a permit to pay them special handicapped wages, which meant he was exempt from paying them minimum wage.
If Mary Tillett sat at the table for eight hours and picked only 14 pounds, he paid her $24.
"You will always have a place here," he told the older women.
Production at Daniels Seafood was up. Mickey Junior was thinking of expanding to accommodate more pickers.
His decision to make the Mexican women stand at the crab picking table instead of giving them chairs was purely business.
"That way, I can get more around the table," he reasoned.
When Mickey Junior "ordered" his Mexican workers for the 1998 blue crab season, he had a certain type of woman in mind: compliant, focused on earning money for her impoverished family, and ultimately, a temporary figure on the landscape of Roanoke Island.
He was about to learn how wrong he was.
The women from Palomas were young, single, curious, wanting something beyond just money.
One night on an excursion to Kmart in the crab house van, they saw a Ferris wheel twirling in the sky. There was a boardwalk, and colored lights, and calliope music.
They could not take their eyes from it.
Their revolt began in the smallest of ways.
Delia found a Spanish-speaking interpreter. She had a question she wanted to ask Mickey Junior. Why were the black women allowed to sit in chairs? "When you're their age," he answered, "then you can sit down."
To which Delia replied, in Spanish, "When we are their age, we won't be here."
In late July, Roanoke Island was a summer postcard. Crape myrtles wept their blossoms on smooth bicycle paths. Tourists descended, rubbing their wet hair with white motel towels on the dunes.
Like the black women before them, the Mexican women were separated from this world. They could see it, but they were apart from it.
One afternoon, a salesman appeared at their trailer. His tipsy truck of merchandise was heaven on wheels: chorizo, corn meal, white queso like Delia's grandmother made fresh from goat's milk in Palomas, and CDs by Mexican heartthrobs in leather pants.
The salesman made his living finding out where Hispanics lived, driving along the swampy reaches of the rural coast. He began making stops at the trailer. He mentioned the Mexican dances being held on weekends in towns like Swanquarter. They would last through tobacco season.
But the women from Palomas had no car. They couldn't drive. They were exiled in their trailer. Trapped.
Their one escape was the grocery store. Mickey Junior was driving them home from the crab house one afternoon when Delia called from the back seat of the van.
"Mickey Junior, Food-a-Rama, Food-a-Rama, five minutes."
He pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store. "All right, all right, but andale," he said, flexing his minuscule Spanish.
He couldn't see that the women had left the grocery store and ducked into Family Dollar, where they peeled through racks of blouses and shoes, leaving him to sweat in the van for 35 minutes.
The language barrier worked both ways. What could he say, when they returned to the van with shopping bags and smiles? He pointed to his watch and said, "Too long." By then they were lost in their fashion show, holding up skirts in the stinking van.
Not long after, they requested a trip to the beach. The beach!
The next Sunday, Mickey Daniels Jr. found himself ankle-deep in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
When their mothers had worked for Daniels Seafood -- Ana Rosa's mother, and Delia and Ceci's mother -- they never saw the open water, though it was less than 2 miles from the crab house. They worked all day and washed out their clothes at night. In the trailer, they hung photos of their children above their beds. One tore pages from a catalog and taped up pictures of microwaves and washing machines.
"But these new ones," Mickey Junior said, shaking his head in frustration.
"This batch seems more American."
The women from Palomas find freedom. But with it comes a question. Where is home?
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