Un Walker en Nuyol

“Exaggerate to exist.”
―W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety (1948)

[1] From El Gueto

Friday, January 4th, 1985. It is 7:50 am. The temperature outside is below freezing.

“The city” isn’t altogether alien to me. I have seen it featured in a thousand movies. As a boy I came with my father, a theater actor, to buy Broadway plays. I am familiar with its grammar. Indeed, I make my way through conversations, although, in all honesty, my English is still precarious.

This time around, though, I am alone and I am learning to cope with it. I barely have any money. The $67-a-week I make shelving books at a local library are barely enough. Collect calls are expensive. I used to write long letters while I lived in the Middle East, but I have lost practice. Plus, for now I don’t feel like sharing my thoughts with others.

I have landed in a small apartment on Broadway and 121st Street, next to The Jewish Theological Seminary. They have given me a scholarship to study philosophy. I share the apartment with three other young men, one called Francesco from Italy with a heavy accent, Arno from Canada, and Ritchie from the United States. It has taken us time to get acquainted with one another. I understand what they all tell me, though I am at a loss every third or fourth word, especially with Arno’s lingo. He speaks fast and uses strange words. He says I talk English like a “primitive.” Franco’s syntax isn’t good either. His accent is heavy. He helps me when I fumble.

Even though the closest subway station is on 125th Street, I am told it is safer to walk a few extra blocks on 116th Street. Spanish Harlem is dangerous. But to me it doesn’t feel like it. I hear lots of Spanish on the streets. A different kind of Spanish from what I am used to in Mexico. The last syllable in every sentence tends to vanish.

I am fresh out ofAmerica’s backyard. In my native Mexico, I was raised far from the Jewish enclave yet I am a judío through and through. My parents are Yiddish-speaking descendants of Ashkenazi immigrants and refugees. The majority of Jews in Mexico lived first in middle-class colonias like Roma, Del Valle, and Condesa; later their off-spring moved to higher-end neighborhoods, Polanco, Tecamachalco, and Herradura. My house was across town, though, as far away as possible, in Colonia Copilco, because my parents, artists and hell rousers, didn’t want anything to do withEl gueto, as they often described the Jewish areas.

I always dreamt of making it out. And out meant New York.

In my room I have found a bunch of books. A previous renter left them behind on a shelf. I disposed of most of them but kept a copy of Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. It was published in 1951. I never heard of Kazin before. As I browse through it, I think to myself: this isn’t a travel guide, nor is it a full-fledge memoir. Vos is dos? I can’t figure it out.

Even so, I am enjoying it. One night I open it in the middle. I have a dictionary next to me, just like when I tried reading Moby-Dick in English. The back-and-forth between book and dictionary means that I spend a long time plowing through each page.

Kazin reflects about leaving his neighborhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in order to discover “the city” block by block. It is before the Depression and he, also a Yiddish-speaking Jew, is eager to seize the day. Carpe diem.

[2] To the Subway

I haven’t peaked outside. It must be around 28 degrees Fahrenheit, I hear Franco say. I am still used to counting in Celsius and I don’t know how to get the conversion right.

Francesco is up early too. He is in the kitchen, frying eggs, reading L’Unità. I open the refrigerator and sit next to him while spooning a yogurt.

“Eh, Stavans, da ya want to taik a wolk wit mi?” he asks. I immediately say yes. “But d’ju knou, it is veeery cold. Don’t maind, eh?” I tell him I am game. I show him the Kazin book. He smiles, saying he knows about it. “I write a tesis in Naples about Bernard Malamud,” he tells me. I ask him who Malamud is. Francesco talks about a group of New York intellectuals. “Malamud is no part of it, but Kazin yes. Do yu want mee to call yu Ilancho? I don’t like Francesco. Ma, its the name of a gigolo.”

Franco asks me to bring along my copy of A Walker in the City. “Maibi if we rest yu rid a paragraf, yes?”

Each of us returns to his room to get ready. I am wearing the heavy winter jacket my father bought for me at a discount store before he said goodbye on Lexington Avenue. In the jacket’s left pocket, I have my wallet and a pair of leather gloves, and in the left I put the book. I also have a wool scarf and, though I dislike hats, I take a beret that, with my longish hair, makes me look bohemian. Plus, I am using my construction worker’s boots. Not comfortable but warm.

Soon Franco and I are out the door, talking our heads off. Our journey starts as we walk up Broadway to 125th, at a good speed. There is an employee-owned bakery not too far away. We stop-by to get a sour-dough loaf. A pair of Dominicans attend us. I marvel at their speech. They are from el barrio, en Washington Heights. La perla de Nuyol, one says. I smile. Franco wants to know if perla means she-dog. No, they talk of El Barrio. They say it is a jewel.

I look around. Big paper bags of bread are ready to be picked up. A truck is double-parking outside. I look at the door Franco and I came through a few minutes ago. On top of it someone has written: Por cada hombre en prisión, el resto de nosotros pierde la libertad.

I marvel at how one of the Dominicans inflates their mouth when they talk, as if they were about to play the saxophone.

We leave the bakery for the train. At the station newsstand, I look at the headlines. Tip O’Neill is elected House Speaker. A big snowstorm in Memphis. Then I look at the Spanish newspaper: a police officer was gunned down in the Bronx. I notice a typo inEl Diario/La Prensa.

Endlessly moving his arms, Franco tells me about being a Communist in his youth. I respond that I participated also in protests in Mexico, though I was never a rank and file member of the party. He talks of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Italian photographer Tina Modotti. Then he switches to another topic: his awkwardness with women. “I never know wat tei want from mi!” he looks at me. I exhale vapor. “Come stai, Ilancho? Bene?”

We have almost reached the 72nd station. He is now talking about being a non-Jew in the Upper West Side. In fact, as a goy affiliated at The Jewish Theological Seminary, he says it is just like being a fish out of water.

We exit on Canal Street and walk to the Lower East Side. Franco tells me of a synagogue we entered in this neighborhood last time he visited. Around us I see orthodox Jewish women pushing baby strollers. I notice two of them talking in English with occasional Yiddish word thrown into the mix. “Tei in the Warsaw ghetto, no?” Franco says.

We pass by a pickle store with huge barrels displaying pickles of all kinds. A merchant is discussing the price with a customer. A homeless black man is pushing a carrel nearby full of stuff: bottles, plastic bags, a broom, a read-view mirror stolen from some car, a kids’ lunch bag with Sesame Street characters. There is a sign next door that reads Kosher. Not too far there is a staircase going down into a basement where a scribe is carefully writing Hebrew letters on a parchment.

We walk through Delancy Street, looking at garment stores. It is around 11:15 am. I am hungry. This isn’t a day to be outside, not for a Mexican boychik. I tell Franco my nose is an ice cube. He describes a scene in an Italian World War II movie in which the protagonist loses three fingers to frostbite.

In Little Italy, the festive decoration is still on for Christmas a New Years. It doesn’t feel outmoded, as if one had arrived to a party after everyone was gone already. But on stores prices are being cut to make way for new merchandise.

We enter an espresso bar. He talks in Italian with a waitress, then in Russian with the owner. “You think he is also Communist like me?”

Two cappuccinos arrive at our table. The buz boy es un mexicano. He is short, with dark, greasy hair. I speak to him in Spanish. He’s from Puebla. He left his wife and children behind. Every month he sends them remittances. He says he feels lonely but there is no much time for regret. He lives with seven other poblanos, all men, in a small apartment in the Bronx. Most of them came seventeen months ago. He asks me which Mexican soccer team I root for. “America,” I tell him.

“¡Uff, qué mala onda!” he replies.

[3] The Big Wong

Past 1 o’clock. Blocks are short but they multiply. We have made it to Chinatown. Everything looks strange. Fruit and vegetable vendors are selling their produce to customers. Their bargaining is done in Chinese.

I find it strange, I tell Franco. Why do these neighborhoods exist? Why haven’t all Chinese assimilated? Have some rejected the American Dream?

That becomes our next topic. Is there such a thing as el sueño americano? Franco believes it is sheer propaganda. But it works, I reply, because people are still ready to sacrifice everything to make it here.

We enter a restaurant called The Big Wong. Neither I nor Franco know what the names means. (I will learn it later, from my future wife.) It is a popular down-and-out joint with glazed ducks hanging on the window and a cook boiling noodles at heavy temperatures. Locals love it.

It is sweaty inside. We are seated in a large table with other clients. Taking my beret and jacket off, I look meticulously at what they’re eating: dumplings, steamed broccoli, sliced duck, congee soup, and fried bread. The menu is in Chinese with undecipherable English translations. Prices is lower than anywhere I have been in the last months. I try ordering. The waiter is impatient with me. I point at what the folks near me are eating, then ask where the item is in the menu. The waiter leaves without writing anything down.

Finally, Franco explains what he wants. A few minutes later, the plates arrive. We eat slowly. The food is delicious.

Everyone around me is Asian. I like being a stranger in this place.

I take A Walker in the City out. Franco smiles. “Wai ar gui alwais bicomin storis?” he asks. At first I don’t understand what he implies. But then I realize it: Kazin’s journey from and to Brownsville wasn’t only about wonderment. It was about enlightenment. In traveling the distance from the place he was raised in to “the city” itself, he went from being a Jew to becoming an American.

I try explaining this to Franco, but words fail me.

Soon I ask myself: in what language should I describe este walk in Nuyok? There is a mare magnum of slangs coexisting all around me. It is a Russian roulette: everything is lost and won in translation. Yet New Yorkers don’t translate. They just erupt into the world in whatever tongue they feel most comfortable in. And I? Is my stream of consciousness still in Spanish? I imagine myself talking to a mirror. Should it be in my newly-acquired English, even if it isn’t mine todavía?

The bill comes. Franco and I each puts half the amount, counting each dollar we have as if it were our last. Then we dressed up again and leave the restaurant.

It is crowded outside. An African man is selling fake watched on the corner. In a nearby stand another one is displaying scarfs, gloves, and sun glasses. Across the street there is a telephone booth with Chinese characters on top. Nearby, I see a bank in the form of a pagoda. Further down, a somber-looking woman is preaching in a corner. “I am the resurrection and the life,” she says, as she browses through a Bible.

Two policemen patrolling the area, one probably Irish, another Puerto Rican, stand at her side. She falls silent. “Mira, mujel. Ya te dije que no puedes ‘star aquí,” the Puerto Rican office advises her. “Understand?”

Now an Argentina family is passing by. I immediately recognize the porteño accent. The young daughter is trying to formulate a sentence in English. “Where is movie teatro with Chinese?” she asks. Do I sound the same? I empathize.

There are lots of tourists nearby. Several look German. One of them points to the west, expanding to the Argentinean family where a certain location is.

Chinatown looks like a relic of another era, a living museum. Its nostalgia is clearly a source of revenue for the locals. Is that why they don’t assimilate?

A piece of chewing gum sticks to the soul of my shoe. ¡Qué joda!

 

[4] Is This Queens?

The temperature is a bit warmer. We are walking across a large bridge. I tell Franco the first visit I ever made to New York was when I was thirteen. I stayed for a month. I want to explain where but my memory is fuzzy. I know it was Queens but I say Brooklyn. Truth is, beyond Manhattan the landscape looks exactly the same to me.

I am eager to show Franco where the house I stayed in was, although I have no idea. I pretend to walk with a clear goal ahead of me. I tell him there was an Alexander’s just three or four blocks away. From afar I see an Alexander’s, which in turn allows me to concoct a whole story about going to a baseball game in the summer of 1974, with my cousins Brent, Allen, and Richie.

Why am I redrawing the parameters of this story? Why am I telling Franco about a past I know isn’t quite as I am pretending it was? I am a story machine.

“Yo, you promis’ me, didnja? Didnja promis’, pa?” A little boy is crying. His father has told him to go back to his room. No more playing outside. He is grounded. They were supposed to go that night to the Mets game, the boy says. “Whay y’achangin’ now?”

Richie was an all-American boy. His room was always a mess. He liked playing chess with his father. In the ball park, he tried explaining to me how baseball works: a man stands at home plate, bat in hand. The pitcher is not too far away. He throws a ball. His task is for the batter to miss it. If the batter does connect, his objective is to hit the ball as far as possible, hoping no one catches it.

I pretend to be interested but, truth be told, I am bored to death. Baseball is slow, individualistic. I prefer fúbol, a team sport if there ever was one.

An Ecuadorian young man is talking to what I believe is a Puerto Rican woman. They are outside a pizza parlor. They switch back and forth from Spanish to English. I can’t sort out what the topic is. Are they romantically involved? Or are they siblings?

“It’s espanglish,” Franco announces. “Tei espik espanglish…”

I might be wrong but this might be the first time I hear the term. Espanglish: it sounds atrocious. Why can’t they make up their mind? The constant back-and-forth contaminates everything. I like the cadence but en México rompería los tímpanos.

 

In evri crai of evri man,

In evri infant’s cai of fir,

In evri vois, in evri ban,

De main-aforg’ manac ai jir.

 

Franco is reciting a William Blake poem. Out of the blue, he is pretending to have a British accent. It sounds strange in his mouth. Yet the words came out far clear, less bumpy than I have ever heard from him.

I think of all the stories coalescing around me. Do they exist in order to be told? Otherwise they would vanish into thin air. Stories, stories, more stories. Which among them ought to matter? And, to compete with real life, should they be embellished?

Franco and I talk about our common passion: literature. It is in literature where the soul of the people might be found. I tell him I am in graduate school because I wanted to leave my Mexican colonia. Now that I am in “the city,” I am ready to write about it.

“About what?” Franco asks.

“About my people.”

“Ar tei funy, like yu?”

“No. And I am not funny.”

“No wan wil beliv yu, Stavans,” he affirms. Mexican-Jews: the concoction is absurd. You can’t be both: either you’re this or you’re that.

I want to write, I tell Franco. About them, yes, but also about all this: about the noises I hear.

 

[5] Carpe Diem

“And you thot you will improv yur English en Nu York? Com’on, amigo. English is now extinct…”

“I have heard a lot of English,” I reply.

“Yea, but it is no correct.”

As we walk to a subway train on Flatbush Avenue, I tell Franco about Yiddish always being a fardreyte tongue, with a twisted history, full of malapropisms, absorbing whatever is available in the environment. It was created by ignorant people—the ignoramus—mixing German and Hebrew and some Slavic languages, making a mishmash.

We sit on a bench. The train is slow. People are congregating in the platform.  Work is over. Everyone is getting ready for the weekend. I pretend to relax by closing my eyes a few minutes, then I take out Kazin’s book, and open it on its first page. “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away.”

I marvel at Kazin’s capacity to deliver his message in what looks like flawless English. He learned it in “the city,” didn’t he?

I imagine the day when I myself will also communicate in a syntactically-correct way. Right now it looks like an impossible goal. Nevertheless, I don’t have any option but to pursue it. I didn’t become an immigrant, like my grandparents were before me, in order to be a pariah. They spoke Yiddish and Polish and Russian and Hungarian but they also learned Spanish, the language of their host country, Mexico. Whenever they used español with me, it was always clear. If they were able to achieve such a feat, I will surely be able to do the same.

To be a pariah, in my eyes, is to live in a place without understanding its secrets.

We jump on the train. It is packed. No way to talk: commuters are next to each but not with each other. I just look.

Franco and I change to the express. A sardine can. Ay, es hot: a steam room. I make it through one door, he through another. The train suddenly comes to a full stop.

After much delay, we reach 96th Street. There’s no service in the numbers 2 and 3. We exit and walk up Broadway. At this point, I feel dizzy. I am really running low on energy. “Maibe we taik un taxi, Ilancho?”

Our funds are limited, though. Franco has a five dollar bill. I have two twenties but these must last me until the end of next week, when I’ll get my next check.

Somehow Franco and I are talking now about the difference between the words homeand house. They denote radically different concepts: one is a state of mind, the other is as physical place. In Spanish there is a similar different, hogar and casa. “Che figata,” Franco says.

It is 4:21 pm. The sun is setting. In my mind, I see my apartment on 121st Street. It feels cozy, inviting. It is my home, I tell myself.

Now it is almost half past five when we make it back. Franco goes to the kitchen and starts preparing pasta. I collapse in my bed, thinking of all we have gone through. As I retrace every step of the walk we took through various boroughs, it is difficult for me to think of each person, and each scene as something apart.

I don’t know why but I am overwhelmed with anxiety. Did I make the right choice in leaving Mexico, where I have my family, plenty of friends, a future, and moving to New York? Everything in “the city” feels alien to me.

I ventured far away today. Am I back where I began?

Shabbat is almost here…

 

 

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. 

Un Walker en Nuyol

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