Friday, July 22, 2022


repeat from 2003

Earlier tonight my neighbor told me he's gotten a break; he's not going to do any time. He was arrested a few months ago for pistol-whipping someone on the subway in a drunken rage, and he's going to be able to keep his job. I told him I was happy for him, which I am. He showed me the head of Jesus that he's having tattooed on the left side of his chest and stomach. He said the one his mother won't be so happy about, also of Jesus, will be on the other side; the face will have horns and will be screaming in pain. I said Jesus had had a hard life. He said it was probably closer to the expression Jesus had on his face before he died. We talked for a few minutes. He said it doesn't matter what side you worship, you'll will be taken care of, but that now he's worshiping "the better angel." I said life is complex. He said no, it's simple. It's just hard.

I just wasted an hour at a bar listening to a couple of slackers doing an open mike tribute to Johnny Cash. At one point I watched a shaggy ex-suburbanite, who could probably pass as Matthew Yglesias' kid brother, singing along—"I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die"—pointing a cocked finger at the head of a friend next to him, laughing with an expression that betrayed no knowledge of violence. The 12 years olds on my block have a better understanding of the world.

He was my landlady's son. He was a court officer. A year earlier he'd talked to me about a judge he'd been assigned to who he thought didn't like him. "A little Jewish lady." Later he said he'd changed his mind, that maybe she'd changed hers, because of the way he handled the people who appeared before her. It was criminal court, and he saw himself as someone who could easily be in their situation, so he told them simply that they had to get through this, and that the fastest way was the best. He respected them, and he told me he thought she'd understood how he was helping her. He kept his job and his assignment, but without the gun.  

Around the same time, the same few years, a couple of Latino kids kids walking down the street, 12 or 13, a boy and a girl, the girl angry that someone had brought coke to a party—"I don't want to see that shit!"—passing two white suburban 20-somethings, dressed like children at a church picnic, sitting outside a laundromat, now wearing expressions of near panic. 


Born in Greenpoint.
Father, born Austria-Hungary.
Father worked in the mines in Homestead PA before moving to New York. She says he never wanted to talk about it. I told her my grandfather was a Pinkerton.
—My grandfather was born in the Bronx. My grandmother was born on South 6th Street
in Williamsburg—
25 years on the floor at Leviton.
11 years as the manager of a small store on Manhattan Ave.
Wanted to be a doctor.
Languages: English, Polish, Slovak, Russian, French.
Maintains a correspondence since 1947, in French, with a woman who knew and now tends the grave of her brother, killed and buried just before the end of the war, in 1945.


A few nights ago I sat in cafe owned by a half-German Cypriot from London, listening to a discussion of Arabic diacriticals between a Bulgarian raised in Morocco and an Iranian-Bangladeshi fashion stylist who's just broken up, again, with her Afro-Scottish boyfriend. The Bulgarian studied kickboxing in Thailand and has an MBA from France. Between them they speak 12 languages. 
The next night I sat in a Bosnian wine bar drinking with an Israeli fascist and a Croatian ex-Nazi. Next to them were an Indian pharmacologist, a former dancer for Dolly Parton, his Moroccan roommate, and a gay ex-priest.  The bartender was from Macedonia; the Afro-Swedish waitress has the number one blues album in France, and the uncle of another led Serbian battalions in Kosovo. She's studying international law. The father of a Serbian waitress at the Cypriot cafe was indicted at the Hague. She does stand up. She started a gig at an AIDS benefit by wishing her ex-boyfriend was HIV positive and dying. About the new one she says "My boyfriend is black, and I'm from Serbia.  Once you go black, you can't go back." The Croatian Nazi has great stories about the war. "Cover me! I'm going for a beer."

Monica opened her cafe in 1995. She's been back in Cyprus since 2016 and closed the place in 2020.  The wine bar's been gone for years. In 2005 a Bulgarian/Irish bartender from the Bronx, working at a small lounge on Broadway asked me if I thought the Manhattanites would take over, adding: "I hope not. I like the diversity." The same year a European gallery owner in Manhattan told me she'd stopped coming out to Astoria. "The Americans are moving in". Astoria had been a place to go for Europeans in Manhattan. But it was the Mediterranean from Spain to Beirut, and north and south, and then the Caribbean and South America. The French were among the first to move out, not forced by gentrification but by choice. I have more stories than I can count. At 2 AM one night an Egyptian restaurant owner ran into to a Croatian bar yelling "Bourdain came in!" A few months later he did a show there.  A trio of Mexican kids, early 20s, young and loud walk in and look at the bar menu—it was the wine list—and say something to the German owner. She comes back with a bottle of wine and three glasses, pours a little in the glass in front of the kid who placed the order, who while still talking to his friends, puts two fingers on the base of the glass and moves it on a tight circle. He took a sip and nodded. She poured wine in the three glasses. He wasn't being an asshole; he was a restaurant worker in a good restaurant and someone had taken the time to teach him. And the owner wasn't annoyed. It was all polite, professional, but it took place on grounds most of the Americans moving into the neighborhood can't recognize. I dated a Croatian women I met at that bar—opened by a Croatian and a woman born in East Berlin—she was  artist and lived in Paris, and made extra money every year as a translator at Cannes. Her father had built large projects in Yugoslavia. At the Cypriot bar I met a Bosnian from Sarajevo whose grandfather had been recruited into Tito's partisans, by Tito. She was reading his autobiography, which is unpublishable now. There's too much dirt on too many people.

I used to see Maseratis on 30th Avenue on Saturday nights. One of my neighbors owns a BMW i8. In winter of 2003 or 4 a Greek tile man on a job told everyone his summer plan: home to get his motorcycle then ride from Athens to the Spanish Riviera. He talked about riding in the US, in the south, the midwest, going to small towns. "In any country you go somewhere, you ask, what do you drink here? What do you eat? I want to know!" He had an audience of 10, carpenters, plasterers, laborers, people from 5 countries, all nodding."And here they don't want you! What a stupid country!" 

The German moved back to Berlin with her Dominican husband. His mother was Dominican Japanese and he could never speak to his grandmother growing up because she didn't speak Spanish. At 20 he got on a freighter and went to Japan. He spent a year working in a restaurant working for a man who treated him like shit. At the end his boss told him he'd done it because you have to be tough to survive. It was never personal. And he learned what he needed to learn. After seven years he owned a diving company and he could go back to the Dominican Republic and talk to his grandmother. In NY he worked for a Japanese software company. He didn't speak German when they moved to Berlin, but I'm sure it took less that a year; I know a Bulgarian woman who learned English after six months in Rancho Cucamonga. 

I walked into another bar, underdressed in an old hoodie, and the man walking in behind me, grey-haired, in jeans, a crisp white shirt and suit jacket looked at me with annoyed contempt. The only empty seat was next to mine. I frowned and tugged at my cuffs, and he laughed. Five minutes later he launched into a speech: "They killed babies!! Both of them! Murderers!" Milosevic and Tudjman. He wanted to unburden himself to an outsider. "Tito put my father in jail... My father loved Tito!" Some dogs need a leash.

I got drunk with a former finance minister of Bangladesh, at at Irish bar owned by a cop. He had the hots for the Polish bartender, the daughter of former high ranking officers in the secret police in communist Poland, who had the hots for me. He was introduced by a neighbor who remembers the famine in 1974, looking out the window of father's Mercedes. My neighbor has land on three continents, but the crash in Florida hurt him. His five children, all top of their classes, will be going to the Ivy League or Trinity Dublin. His wife's sister is still a bit confused, "She was the conservative one". His parents were relieved. Hard drinking Muslim men and Irish Catholic wives. I've seen it more than once. It seems to work. 

I have plenty of stories where I don't come off well. But these are different from the stories where I'm the butt of jokes. "You think you're any better than any of those other gringo motherfuckers!" The grill man at a Mexican coffee shop is yelling at me." I yell back: You're saying that to my face!" He tilts his head to one side and laughs. His nephew went to Russia for the World Cup, and then to Germany and the Netherlands. "You said Europe was different! But they all want to be America!" The crowd went wild at Octoberfest singing along with Four Non Blondes. Later his descriptions became more specific and softer. He'd been to Canada years before he went to Europe and felt the difference. He's going to Spain in November. About the changes here he says, "We make Taco Bell tacos now." 

I've been ridiculed by people from 20 countries, many of whom are used to being treated like shit by people who look and sound like me. "You're not a real New Yorker. You're from Queens", says an NYU student with high school French, to a woman who speaks 6 languages and is married to a Frenchman. The man behind the counter at a Yemeni deli who now puts up with white suburban brats has family in Algiers, Istanbul and Milan, and went on vacation with his wife and kid to Amsterdam. He shrugs it all off. But the nice Americans behave like social workers, wanting to help the weak.

That's just a short list, a few stories stripped of details about people I've met, some of whom don't like me, and the comparison, of these descriptions and those lives, with the flatness of the American political imagination, or the serious and earnest political imagination, mocked by Tocqueville and others. Immigrants think Americans are idiots. And when I say they came here so that their children will be idiots, they agree. 

On the subway a couple of days ago after work and after the end of of Roe v Wade I passed a couple of earnest young activists, the man with a placard, "Ban Guns" and a frown. I kept walking, and sat down across from two black women, well dressed, with expensive braids. They were fuming. I was a white guy in work clothes covered in dust, and I engaged them, as I do. Fifteen minutes later they got off the train; one of them looked back and we said goodbye to each other. I'd argued class over race, but without denying it's a racist country. The second woman focused on race. She attacked the democrats and I said—not asking a question— "including Obama", and she said "Yes!" She said she didn't see a reason for voting for them anymore. I didn't ask her what her other options were, but I'll take her anger, defending her interests, over the earnest young activists defending their ideals. You can argue with anger but you can't argue with faith.

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