ELIZABETH, N.J. – The fumes, reeking of gasoline, poured from the white Kia SUV as soon as an emergency medical technician broke one of the rear windows. Inside, the body of a dark-haired young woman with a beauty mark on her left cheek reclined in the driver's seat, keys dangling from the ignition.
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But who was she? How was it that her life had ended here, in the corner of a convenience store parking lot, less than a mile south of Newark Liberty International Airport's runways?
Waiting for the vapors to clear so they could search her belongings, police noted the most obvious clue: She was wearing a familiar white-and-brown uniform. By that night, co-workers and friends had identified her as Maria Leonor Fernandes, 32 years old and single, who worked minimum wage jobs at three nearby Dunkin' Donuts shops — often grabbing an hour or two of sleep in her car between shifts.
Within days, Fernandes was being mourned as a tragic heroine, a victim of our times. Far beyond the Newark neighborhood where she rented a basement room with bath for $550 a month, her death became fodder for online commentary. People speculated, mistakenly, that she had been living in the U.S. illegally, or had committed suicide. Mostly, they pointed to her as a casualty of modern economics that forced someone to work so hard for so little money.
"The death of Maria Fernandes demands a call to action," a leader of the AFSCME labor union wrote in an online editorial, days after her death.
By the time friends filed past the open casket in which Fernandes was laid out in a sequined, scarlet dress, some had had enough. There was more to her life, they said, than the way she lost it.
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The Maria Fernandes they wanted to remember was kind, perhaps too generous, and loved to talk — so much so that a family she once lived with nicknamed her "Radio." Her adoration of Michael Jackson was so intense that when the singer died in 2009, she called her boss, sobbing, to tell him she needed time off to fly to California for the funeral — even though she knew he was vacationing in Turkey and the hour was growing late. Fernandes worked hard, she died tragically, but she was no martyr.
"Maria did not lose!" a friend, Rochelle Sylvestre, said in her eulogy. "Society has a way of looking down at people who try to make ends meet, who seek above the minimum wage. Maria won that battle! She is still winning!"
Maria Fernandes' working life tracked a carefully choreographed schedule. From 2 to 9 p.m. most days she staffed the counter at a Dunkin' kiosk inside Newark's main train station. Then she headed to a second shop, open around the clock in downtown Linden, where she worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, she added an 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift at a third shop in Harrison, picking up additional hours when asked.
In Harrison, she usually worked at the sandwich preparation station, chatting with fellow employees, sometimes showing them snapshots. Alaaddin Abuawada, a co-worker who also holds a second job at a thrift shop, said Fernandes often appeared exhausted.
When business was slow, she slumped on cartons in the kitchen for 15-minute naps. She slept in her car before heading to her next shift. When co-workers called her name for help, she jokingly answered, "No."
Abuawada said he once told her that she was killing herself. "She said, 'I need the money. I have a lot of bills,'" he recalled.
Fernandes was not a complainer, but this was not the life she had expected.
More than a decade ago, she told friends she wanted to be an actress, had black-and-white publicity photos taken and took the train to New York to seek auditions. She wrote her sister in Portugal that she wanted to be a police officer. She talked about going to school to be a beautician. And, before Michael Jackson died, she spoke often about her desire to meet him.
"She would say she was going to marry him," friend Cristina Ribau Orama said. "And the way she said it, it was like it was going to happen."
Fernandes had come a long way to pursue those dreams. She was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, to Portuguese immigrant parents. Her father, Antonio, worked as a welder and his wife, 28 years his junior, worked in a factory. When Fernandes was 11 her father retired and moved the family to Gafanha da Encarnacao, his hometown of 5,000 on Portugal's Atlantic coast.
"She was kind of lost in this small town which was not hers," said Olinda Moreira, a half-sister who lives in the nearby city of Aveiro.
Fernandes' Portuguese was shaky and colored heavily by the dialect of her mother's hometown in the Azores islands. It was hard finding friends in a town where most younger residents had moved away for work. Her father was a stern disciplinarian with little patience for a daughter who spent hours watching "The X-Files" on television; he frowned upon her talk of moving back to the United States, alone, at least until she was 18.
In the summer of 1995, Fernandes was biking through the village when she spotted a Volkswagen Jetta with New Jersey license plates and introduced herself to owner Jose Ribau, visiting his hometown from Newark. That seeded friendships with Ribau's daughters, one the same age as Fernandes and the other four years younger, renewed each July when they returned to Portugal.
Six years later, Fernandes appeared without any notice at the Ribaus' gray-shingled house in north Newark, lugging a suitcase. She was 19.
"She said, 'Oh, I'm here from Portugal. I wanted to come to America," Orama recalled, with a bemused smile. "She always talked about coming to the U.S. It was just a matter of time."
Fernandes went back to Portugal once, for three months, to work at a bakery her father had opened. But then she returned to New Jersey for good.
Eventually, she found a job behind the counter at Calandra's bakery, where she made conversation with customers in Spanish and French as well as English and Portuguese and bought co-workers birthday and holiday gifts, like a Betty Boop lava lamp for her supervisor.
Fernandes was a dedicated worker, well-liked on the afternoon shift. But in 2010 managers noticed when she began talking about needing more money to help support a new boyfriend's children and took on a second job at a Dunkin' Donuts shop.
Soon, "she was coming in late. She wouldn't show up," said Billy Ulkumen, the bakery's manager. Supervisors talked to Fernandes about her lateness. Eventually, she decided to quit, he said.
She had met the boyfriend online. Posting a comment on the MySpace page of an actor, Don Henrie — who played a Vampire character on a short-lived reality TV series "Mad Mad House" — Fernandes connected with a fellow fan, Richard Culhane.
When Culhane lost his New York construction job a few months later, Fernandes urged him to move to Newark, though they'd never met. She found him an apartment and paid his first month's rent. Eventually they moved in together, with Fernandes picking up the $600 monthly expense, nearly double her previous rent, he said.
Culhane still sounds perplexed by her generosity. She bought a tent and explained that it was for a homeless man she saw near work. When Culhane's mother died, Fernandes bought him and his three sons suits for the funeral. After they broke up last year, she continued to stop by with videogames for the boys.
"Before she left, she was paying almost all of it," Culhane said of the couple's bills. "She was like, 'I'll take care of you,'" he said.
It was not always smooth. Culhane said Fernandes was fond of his boys, but was overwhelmed by the noise they caused. In 2011, the couple's landlord filed eviction papers when Fernandes fell behind, although she was able to work out a restitution plan. A neighbor says the couple fought frequently, sometimes leaving Fernandes in tears.
Culhane's three young sons are from an earlier marriage. He said a state youth protection worker told him that if he wanted custody he needed a bigger apartment. He and Fernandes found a three-bedroom for $1,100 a month and she took on a second job — supplementing pay from the bakery with earnings at a Dunkin' Donuts — to cover bills, he said.
When she quit the bakery, she picked up hours at a second Dunkin' Donuts and then a third. Co-workers said all her jobs paid at or just above the minimum wage — which New Jersey raised by $1 earlier this year to $8.25 an hour.
"I told her over and over, 'Quit one. You're working too much," Culhane said. "But she said, 'No, I'm used to it now.'"
Friends say they never got solid answers from Fernandes about why she worked so much or, given her ability with languages, why she didn't pursue a different job.
Some of Fernandes' expenses reflected choices. Friends recount a number of instances when she gave them cash or handed over a debit card to help pay for food or travel. Along with her Chihuahua and three cats — the latter all named for Greek gods — Fernandes bought food for neighborhood strays.
Last year she bought the 2001 Kia for $1,000, replacing the buses and trains she'd used to commute. Like so much else, she shared it generously.
"I probably put more miles on it than she did," said friend and co-worker Armando Gonzalez, who sometimes borrowed the car to visit his family in Connecticut.
But the Kia needed repairs. Last December, Fernandes brought it in to Newark's Go Tire for $700 in work, asking owner Richard Fernandez for time to pay the bill because she needed money to buy Christmas gifts.
"It took a little longer than expected, but I understood so I wasn't trying to push her too much," the garage owner said. Two months later, Fernandes walked in with the money to settle the bill and retrieved her car from the mechanic's lot.
And then there was the money she spent to pursue her enthusiasm for all things Michael Jackson.
She was one of eight or nine women — now in their 20s to 40s and scattered through New York and New Jersey — who met and traveled together to celebrate the singer. They dubbed themselves LOTP, after a Jackson 5 tune, "Life of the Party." On Facebook, the woman who served frozen coffee Coolatas behind the Dunkin' counter called herself "Maria Jackson Fernandes."
After Jackson died, members of LOTP traveled to California each June to visit his burial site at Forest Lawn Cemetery and his Neverland estate. Fernandes saved for months to make the trip. Friends who were not part of the group called it an infatuation. But in a video filmed outside Jackson's mausoleum this past June and posted to YouTube, Fernandes talked about how much the singer meant to her.
"You want to break down and cry but you're in public and, you know, this is as close as I'm ever going to get to him, ever," she said in the video. "To me, when you say you're not alone, it literally means Michael is always there."
Fernandes' paychecks made the trips possible. While it's not clear exactly how much she earned, she worked at least 87 hours each week, and some friends say even more. That would equate to totally yearly income of $36,000, assuming two weeks off.
But work also increasingly limited the time she had. For the last couple of years, when LOTP met for a Christmas sleepover at friend Shelly Block's house in New Jersey, Fernandes stayed an hour or two before leaving for work. This past June — the fifth anniversary of Jackson's death — she told the other women she wouldn't be able to make it to California, then surprised them by showing up at the cemetery before vanishing at day's end.
"Honestly, I can tell you this, Michael is what kept her going," said Dar 'Shay White, one of the members of LOTP. "She told me a lot how she was sad, how she was tired ... But she knew what she was working for — to get to California, to see Michael."
Early this year, Fernandes created a profile on a dating website, Gothscene.com. "Clueless," she called herself.
Her self-description as an animal lover interested in the supernatural and nostalgic for the 1980s caught the eye of Glen Carter, a 33-year-old Army veteran working at a Pennsylvania company that builds animal rescue vehicles.
"We were on the phone constantly from day one," Carter said. "I wasn't expecting, you know, to have any serious relationship with her. It's just I was talking to her and the more I talked, the more we connected."
As the summer began, they agreed to be a couple. Carter, in the process of a divorce and having trouble making alimony payments, said he encouraged Fernandes to visit and consider moving to Pennsylvania. But the idea was cemented when Fernandes took three days off from work in early August and they met for the first time, taking Carter's daughter to Hersheypark. On their last day together, a manager from one of the doughnut shops called Fernandes to ask her to come in to work, he said.
White said she encouraged Fernandes to move to Pennsylvania, pointing out that there was little keeping her in Newark. But Fernandes was uncertain. If she left, she told her friend, managers at the doughnut shops might be left short-handed.
Back home, Fernandes kept up the schedule, putting off another visit to Carter because she didn't have money for gas. She worked so much that landlady Amelia Resende sometimes went two weeks without seeing Fernandes, who rented a basement room in her house. Five or six times in the past year, Resende said, she came outside to find Fernandes asleep in the driver's seat with the car running, once at 3 a.m.
"This is no good, Maria, no good," Resende said she told Fernandes.
"I'm sorry, Amelia. I'm so tired," she said Fernandes answered as she helped her out of the car.
Inside, Resende noticed, Fernandes reserved the sofa bed for her cats, spreading blankets for herself on the floor.
Fifteen minutes before sunrise on Monday, Aug. 25, Fernandes finished her overnight shift, punctuating a round-the-clock weekend of work. "I'll see you tomorrow," she told a co-worker on the morning shift. Halfway home, she pulled in to the parking lot of a Wawa convenience store. The store's video surveillance camera recorded the time as 6:27 a.m.
"U can call if you like," she texted Carter just as he got to work. The couple talked about the day just completed and the one ahead. Fernandes said she was planning to go to the gym before going back to work.
Then Carter hung up to start his own job. Fernandes tilted back the driver's seat, leaving the engine running, the windows up and the doors locked, to catch up on much-needed sleep.
She never woke up.
The Wawa lot is popular with livery drivers, who stop to nap between airport pickups. It wasn't until 3:51 p.m. that a store employee finishing his shift noticed that a woman he'd seen sleeping in a car that morning was still there. Inside the vehicle, police found the gas can that Fernandes kept behind the back seat, tipped over and leaking. Fernandes' death was caused by inhalation of gas vapors and was accidental, the Union County Medical Examiner would determine.
Women from LOTP raised $6,000 to pay for Fernandes' funeral. At the cemetery, less than a mile from the doughnut shop where she worked her final shift, mourners stepped forward to lay roses and sunflowers on her cream-colored casket.
"Wait! Wait! Wait!" White sobbed, stabbing her heels into the ground as workers lowered the coffin.
Then, slowly, mourners drifted away — Culhane and his sons in the funeral suits Fernandes had bought for them, members of LOTP leaning on one another's shoulders.
Standing beside the grave, Fernandes' co-worker, Armando Gonzalez, glanced down at his watch. There was just enough time, he said, to run home, change from his slacks and tie into his familiar white-and-brown uniform and report for a 3 p.m. shift.
"We've got to keep living, you know?"
Adam Geller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller