The New Americans

I have a grave admission to make. One that will probably surprise a lot people who know me. And it’s one that may have something to do with my languishing funk. I’ve been watching a lot of prime time television lately. It starts innocently enough, with The News Hour, so I can recap all the suffering in the world that I’ve already listened to all day via WNYC. But then I’ve been moving on to reality shows, inane sitcoms, and relentless reruns of Law and Order SVU on USA network. Let it be noted I don’t have cable except for sporadic appearances by USA, VH1, and The Superstation). I’ve been particularly riveted by The Apprentice. In a comic twist, at the end of every episode my dad, without fail, telephones from LA, and I, without fail have to say, “Dad I have to call you back – someone’s getting fired.”

But last night I stumbled on two of the most moving hours of television in memory, The New Americans. It followed several newly immigrated families as they navigated the strangeness and difficulty of American life. I particularly loved the Palestinian Grandmother (who bears an uncanny likeness to Rudy Guiliani). She was visiting Chicago for a year for her daughter’s wedding. As she watched TV she opined how old people sit inside and do nothing all day here. And then there was the hilarious part when she was criticizing all her daughter’s wedding dresses, and her older daughter pleaded with her mother in embarrassed whispers, “Mom, why are you doing this to us?” Granny said something like, “God spit on me for opening my mouth ever.” (Has someone ever thought of just getting the Palestinian and Jewish grandmothers togther to draw up a peace plan?)

The show also follows 2 families of Nigerian refugees, a Mexican family whose father works in a slaughterhouse in Kansas, two Dominican teenagers playing baseball in Montana, and next week an Indian technology worker in Silicon Valley.

I felt myself relating to some of the alienation inherent in being in a place you are not from. And the constant fear that someone will find out you’ll get exposed for the infiltrator you are. Though I assimilated and Americanized at lightening speed, there stayed with me for a very long time the fear that I was always donning an identity that wasn’t mine. I remember as a child in Southern California hearing right-wing politicians opine on the evils of immigration (since it was southern California they were either directly or indirectly attacking Mexican immigrants). I remember the scared feeling at the pit of my stomach, that I was the one (at age 8) stealing jobs and money and sunshine from the more deserving Jennifers and Brians of my classroom. And that somebody would find out and throw me into a damp and dirty jail where I belonged. I have another memory of hearing a similar speech in the lounge of my college dorm. I remember thinking the white-haired head onscreen was an asshole, but I no longer took it personally. There was no fear in the pit of my stomach. My papers were legit. I no longer had to wake up at 4am to stand in lines with my mother that wrapped around a dingy immigration building, praying that none of my friends would drive by on their way to soccer practice and see me with the huddling masses.

But what was most striking about the show was how all the stories are simply stories about family. Though I related to some of it by way of being an immigrant myself, most of it was far from my experience. We weren’t poor, we weren’t refugees, and I was too young to feel much attachment to my native culture. They are just good stories about people trying to get by. I’d like to say I laughed, I cried, I learned. I did do all three – but it sounds so lame and unironic. It’s hard to believe that television like this gets made. Try to check it out – you won’t be sorry.

A Small Crack in the Writing Block

Cripes. It’s been three plus weeks since I’ve written anything. Anything at all, save for several weepy tracts on why New York City is driving me to total despair. At the very bottom of this despair pit I decided to myself, “Fuck it. I’m leaving New York.” And just with saying that, it was like a black cloud lifted and I felt better. I told a few of my friends, and they were supportive, if somewhat hesitant. I had only a vague idea of going out to the desert in the southwest, and no idea of how might get a job or secure myself some friends. But still I felt better. I felt like I was making progress.

Then, as quick as the decision came, I woke up at 3am on a Tuesday night and had an anxiety attack/revelation. See, I felt this same way before, about two years back while living in Paris. I hated it. I was lonely, out of place, and developing a troubling relationship to $2 bottles of white wine (red left tell-tale stains on my tongue). Sometime in the early spring, about 9 months into my stay, my mom was there for work and a visit. The weather was just beginning its turn into spring, so all the tables were set up outside the cafés, and I would sit shivering in patches of chilly sunlight. I was crying constantly. My mother finally said, and I remember it well – we were at a corner café outside the Pompidou and I wanted to see a show there but she was tired and irritable huddled in her too-thin coat (and I think I was crying inexplicably) – she said, “Why don’t you just go back to New York? You don’t have to stay here. Just go back.”

I had had this idea in my mind that I wanted to stay a year. I had a date, July 1st 2002, fixed in my mind as the day I was to leave, as if it was my release date from prison. And in early March that date seemed like two lifetimes away. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could cut out early, that I could jump the wall and disappear back into my old life before spring hit New York. It took a few minutes of digestion, but I got it. I would leave, and suddenly the air felt warmer, the sun brighter, and everything better.

My last month in Paris was the second best of my time there. The best being the second month I was there, August-ish. The hopelessness lifted. I had a limited number of days to take advantage of. I reclaimed my status as a visitor to the city, instead of a prisoner of it. I visted the South. I saw Berlin. I went shopping. I ate at my favorite restaurants with renewed relish. Then I came home to Brooklyn, and after a few months of happiness, the old malaise set in.

And what I realized last week is what I realized about my escape from New York to Paris, my subsequent escape back to New York, and my current dreams of escape to New Mexico – none other than the old cliché that you can’t run away from yourself. Which is at this point (and was then), what I’m trying to do.

As devastating as that is to my desert plans and the temporary happiness they provided, I am a little comforted at having stripped away at least one thin layer of The Problem That is Me. Stay tuned for breaking updates.

Drunk Hasidim Rolling Around on the Sidewalk, or Why NYC Kicks Ass Sometimes

I felt personally blessed this Purim. Let me tell you why. Last night I was on the B44 bus, the second leg of my bus-ride to my friend’s loft in South Williamsburg. I was on my way to see the season premier of The Sopranos. Also we ended up watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, the Dave Chapelle Show, Arrested Development (from West Coast time), and South Park. I don’t have cable, so when it’s right there in front of I feel like one of those kids who’s parents’ won’t let them eat sugar, and then they go to the fair alone and can’t stop shoving cotton candy down their throat until they puke.

But I digress. So I was on the B44 bus, when the driver mysteriously said it was the last stop and dropped us all off on Bedford and Wallabout. It was a little past 8 PM on a Sunday so there weren’t very many bus riders. Besides for me there were 3 older black ladies. We stepped off the bus trudgingly to wait for one that would complete its route. We were smack in the center of Hasidic territory. It’s far enough south that the plague of the artists has yet to infect this particular area. It’s just cheap pre-fab apartment buidings and housing projects.

Across from us we all noticed a beige Toyota Corolla with 4 hasidic men, sound blaring, their hands waving out the windows. The lady standing next top me said, “Woah – I never seen them happy before.” I explained it’s the Jewish holiday Purim. The only non-depressing one as far as I know, I think to myself. And these cats were seriously letting loose. I was sort of stunned that a religious holiday can make anyone so damn happy. Generally I need pills.

“Well everyone has to have a little fun,” the lady next to me said between giggles.

Then they drove by us, and waved. They actually waved. This is unusual. Not that I have spent a lot of time in the company of Hasids, but walking down the street, on the train, or in the Payless Shoes on Broadway, not once has one ever acknowledged me with so much as eye contact. God forbid, a wave. I was so stunned I couldn’t even wave back. And I’m the kind of person who waves back at a wave no matter what.

Before I could ruminate on this, three more young men stumbled across the street from us. On the corner one of them leaned against the building and sat down, and then the other two sat down too. One of them then layed down entirely on the sidewalk, his legs spread open under his shiny black robe. How does his round fur hat stay on I wondered…

We are all confused. The lady next to me said, “Umm, what’re they doin’ now?’

A forth man came over and dragged one of the guys up to his feet and they start dancing around together.

“Oh my God. They’re drunk!” I gasped.

Our little bus stop crew erupted in laughter. And none of us could stop laughing for what seemed like a long time. The more we laughed, the goofier the four guys got. At one point, they were all on their feet again and in a rockette-like line kicking their legs out. They were about as obnoxious as drunk college freshman, but in their robes and fur hats their drunkenness was supremely ridiculous.

After several more minutes of this, the four, arm in arm, crossed the street and teetered off. As if on cue a B44 bus pulled up and we all piled in. At the next stop, another seemingly drunk Hasidic man climbed in, and asked how much the fare is. See, they have their own busses – they don’t need the MTA. It’s two dollars and the man had only one dollar in change. It was one of those days when I had ten pounds of change in my coin purse, so I offered to change the guy’s dollar. He came over and as I was fishing out quarters thrusts the dollar bill closer and closer into my face, as if I think he’s not gonna pay. I was slightly unnerved by that, but then again, it’s like home-schooling, these cats just haven’t learned how to interact with the Other People in the world.

Anyway, as the bus rolled through the celebration, I thought for a minute how neat New York City is, something I don’t think very often these days. It was a mild night, and out on the street were lots of kids in costumes, and generally happy religious folks. It was almost heartwarming. And then I got a chocolate milkshake and fries at the McDonalds near the bus depot – Yum. Happy Happy Purim.

Secret Search Notes

It’s so 1999, but I admit it. I still look at my site statistics and my search strings. Today I came upon the very best search string ever. Better than, “6th grade essay with ironic conclusion“. It’s better than “I hate group work“, “being the only white outsider“, or “dirty simpons pics” [sic].

It was, “neille I love you“.

It was so sweet, like a secret note passed during class. Or anonymous flowers on my doorstep. No one has ever left anonymous flowers on my doorstep or anywhere. I’ve received flowers on exactly two occasions (besides as party gifts). Both were apology-flowers. Apology-flowers, while they might work for their specific purpose, are not memorable. A girl doesn’t look back upon them and think, “What a dream that guy was.” It’s more like, “Man, that prick thought stopping off at the deli would make it okay that he [cheated on me/is married/took me for granted for the last 2 months/forgot my birthday/passed out in my lap on the subway on our third date].”

In fact I’ve taken to buying myself flowers every Saturday morning because I’ve given up on any man ever doing it for me (for credit or as a secret hero). In any case, I like buying flowers for myself. The deli guys always get all soft and mushy when they sell flowers. I don’t know why, but the usual scowl is replaced by only a short grunt. It’s fun to take them home (the flowers, not the deli guys!). One must resist the urge to cradle the bouquet under one’s left arm and do the Miss-America wave with her right. Arranging them is also fun, once you get into the spirit. I like to collect old branches and twigs from the park as garnish. Trimming off dead leaves or petals throughout the week is also nice. Can you tell I need a pet?

Anyway, thank you to my secret searcher. It made my day. It’s been a long time since I heard the big three. I love you too!

A Vote for Something Else

There’s something really great about voting. And I mean the actual physical voting-ness of it. I love walking to, in the case of my district (New York State 10), the high school gym. The lady always has a hard time finding my last name. This time I thought it would be easier for her to place “I” in the alphabet because her last name on her sticker tag read Isreal. But go figure, it took awhile. I am always amazed how little identification it takes (e.g. none) to cast a vote. Since I lost my wallet, and my driver’s license with it, I can’t seem to buy myself anything without a whole lot of sweet talk and charm. But casting a vote, no sweat.

I love the old lever booths. To me these seem foolproof. Only one knob can be turned at a time. And there’s that satisfying crank at the end. The one thing I miss is a sticker I remember we used to get when I voted with my mom. It said, “I voted!” or something like that. No sticker in Brooklyn. I like the rush walking out best, the nods and waves to the old alphabetically-challenged ladies with the rolls and to the other voters in the gym.

New York City was warm today. Warm. A word none of us can hardly whisper these days. I could smell winter coming up from the subway grates. It’s funny how seasons have smells. And winter gets trapped in the subway stations weeks after spring. I’m not green enough to think spring has sprung. I know we have at least half a dozen more numbing spells before it’s safe to send the down coat to the back of the closet, but sit on the stoop and smile anyway.

It’s good to feel a part of democracy on a day like today. Even if it’s a tiny part, and an inconsequential part since my candidate just announced he was dropping out. The scenes of bombings in Iraq and Pakistan flickered on TV as I made a curry on my brand new bottom-of-the-line stove.

Later on NOVA there was an hour about military hospital units in Iraq. It was hard to take. Not so much from the blood and gore (of which there was lots), but from the army policies about treating injured Iraqis. In order to be treated Iraqis (children as well) have to be in danger of losing life, limb, or eyesight. Or they must be a civilian hit by US forces. It was frustrating for the doctors and nurses, and for me also watching the show. Later they showed a mobile unit in Kuwait waiting for orders, unused. Those doctors and nurses were practically begging to be deployed. Meanwhile sick Iraqi’s were getting worse at poorly equipped hospitals and were turned away at the perimeter of the mobile unit.

Another missed opportunity to win the much talked-of hearts and minds. Here are the rich Americans with their smart doctors and their refrigerated blood unable to help people in need. These same people are supposed to be overjoyed at their recent liberation.

More bombs, more grisly statistics from the east today. One can smile into the spring weather, and feel good about voting, but there’s not a lot that can make anything else better.

Today’s stops: