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Brooklyn, New York
Last week in Houston I was talking with a plant manager who possessed the distinct accent of a man whose first language is Spanish. I nicknamed him El Capitan. I asked where he was from, expecting some city in Mexico, and he told me, "Houston." He asked where I was from, and I told him, "Vermont." His eyes conveyed that he had no idea where that was.
"New England," I explained.
"New England," El Capitan responded, eyes furrowed, "across the ocean? You're not American?"
"Vermont, New England," I said. "Of course I'm American."
"Isn't that where the Beatles are from, England?"
Here in Brooklyn, I am working at Sing Tao newspapers. The daily is printed entirely in Chinese. Most of the workers are Chinese from China, many of whom speak no English. Tito, the head pressman, is from Santurce, Puerto Rico. My hotel is manned by Indians. Not, as my niece recently put it, Mohegan Sun Indians, but India Indians. There's a guy outside in the parking lot on a bicycle who wants to speak Spanish with me, from Ecuador. The Brooklyn police officer gunned down last night was from Jamaica. The women who serve me breakfast are blonde, white, and speak languages I don't recognize. Eastern European. My electrician is from Italy, but a long-time New Yorker.
"What the fuck is your problem?" were his first words to me. I was standing with a print in my hands as he walked by. This greeting, its general disposition, I am used to. I know how to work in New York.
"You're my fucking problem," I answered. There was an audience, as there usually is when greeted in this fashion. I put my arm around his shoulders, and leaned close. "In fact, you've been my problem all my life. You're gonna be my fucking problem all week, I can see." I soon had the man massaging my back, to "calm me down." Telling me bad jokes. From harassment to massagment in two minutes. I know how to work in New York.
Everyone's got a story. Patrick Seto, the plant manager at Sing Tao, is as Chinese as Chinese come, so I ask him how he came by the name 'Patrick.'
"I come this country twenty year ago, my name (incomprehensible Chinese to me). Nobody knows (incomprehensible Chinese). I work Sing Tao, I never have other job. Only Sing Tao. They have no uniform for me, only used uniform. So I take, and name 'Patrick' on it. So I call Patrick. Even wife call me Patrick. I change name legally many year ago."
Last night I went for a beer. Finding parking spots in Brooklyn is like finding bones in your coffee - they just ain't there. After driving the neighborhoods for several months, I finally pull under a bridge, neither knowing nor particularly caring if it was legal, park and enter the Towne Café. It has a large handwritten sign taped to the window, RUSSIAN MEETING HOUSE.
Inside is a horseshoe bar, a small dance floor, expensive beer, and a horrible juke box. Connie Francis, you know, mostly dead folk. What few are good I play, Billy Joel, the Beatles. When I return to my seat, the bartender says she likes More Than A Woman by the Bee Gees. As Back in the U.S.S.R. plays - I played it in honor of my surroundings - she commented, "I like Billy Joel."
"That's the Beatles," I said.
"That's the Beatles? I thought it was Billy Joel. I like Billy Joel."
"Are you Russian?"
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from (incomprehensible Russian to me)," she answered.
"I don't know, not in Ukraine, I don't think. I came here very young." She delivered my Budweiser.
"How do you say 'thank you' in Russian?"
"Voseeva," I nodded. She slapped down an upside-down shot glass, the sign of a free drink.
"Next is on me," she said.
You sense the displacement in the clientele. The men are lean-faced, working class, dressed shabbily. They look Russian, and speak it here. The women who enter are dressed to dance to '80's music. They respond to disco best, jumping up. They dance alone, gyrating in what would be considered obscene anywhere else, staring at themselves in the mirrors. They show no restraint in watching themselves, where in other places the women would take just a quick peak in a mirror, for fear of appearing vain. These stare at themselves, and perform, it seems, for the men. They all smoke, constantly removing themselves to the door step outside. Some of the women look like Russian men.
"Voseeva," I say, and the new bartender, dressed in a gaudy spiderman-style outfit, smiles and immediately places an upsidedown shot glass before me. They appreciate the attempt, acknowledge the simple act of trying to show some respect by learning a word. Cia-cia in Chinese, ginquio in Polish, merci in French, gracias in Spanish, and voseeva in Russian, all probably spelt wrong, I know, but all said correctly in the right spots.
In the morning, I drive the Belt Parkway from Coney Island to work. The road winds along the southern end of land, under the Verrazano Bridge, past the long cast look of Manhattan and the green Statue of Liberty, and under the very eastern end of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a sweeping, moving ride for one who appreciates the significance of each and all, but it is the Statue that captivates, that green thing standing tall, in the middle of the water, alone, her right hand held aloft, beckoning, welcoming what is it, the poor the oppressed the whatevah...here in New York, it is the world as the future, it is the world as it is; it is the world.
Back at work, I stand once again with a print in my hands. I casually mention to one of my erectors that I have a problem.
"Am I supposed to give a fuck?" he says.
Ahhhhhh, New York...and this is the future?