On ‘Backing Down’ From A ‘Streetfight’

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked across a pedestrian crossing on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, I found a large SUV, turning right, barreling down at me; he braked hard, even as I yelled out “I’ve got the ‘Walk’ sign, dude!” He yelled back, “We both got the light!” I yelled back, “I’ve got right of way!” He yelled back, ‘Fuck off!’ I yelled back, “Go fuck yourself!” Clearly, this was a fruitful and productive exchange of views on how to best negotiate street crossings. As I turned on the sidewalk, I noticed he’d pulled over to the side of the street, and was waiting for me to walk by his car. The driver was not alone; he had a belligerent female companion in the passenger seat who had also been screaming obscenities at me. I continued walking on the sidewalk, past the parked car on my left, keeping my eyes straight, walking on to my gym class. As I did so, I could hear their jeering; clearly, I had not risen to the challenge. My bravado was bigger than my bite; I had ‘backed down.’

Fair enough; I did. I smarted for a while afterwards, but it was the correct decision. I was outnumbered; even if I could have engaged in the undignified business of throwing punches or grappling with a belligerent stranger–who looked to be roughly my size, but about ten years younger–on a city sidewalk, I would have left myself open to being clocked upside the head with some hard object by my opponent’s companion. I could have, for instance, taken a bottle to the head or something similar. Given my  protagonists’ visible demeanor, this sort of ‘participation’ in the fight was not unlikely at all. Street fights are always dirty; this one would have been no different. Given the emotions on display just earlier, this would have been a dirty business through and through. No one would have intervened; no one intervenes in street fights in New York City. Or anywhere else for that matter. I did not want the police involved; I did not want to suffer physical injury, a high price to pay for trying to remind a driver that he did not have right of way on a pedestrian crossing when the light turns green. Quite possibly, because the parameters of such fights are so poorly defined, I could have suffered an injury disproportionate to the original provocation. For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been haunted by the memory of the bodega store owner who tried to stop a teenager from shoplifting and was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head; the resultant injury caused permanent brain damage.

Quite simply, there was no upside to my responding to this provocation, to continuing this conflict. I swallowed hard, fuming, and walked on straight to my gym, where I worked out and flattered myself by performing a reasonably hard gymnastic move several times during my workout. Then, sweaty and satisfied, I returned home in time to say goodnight to my daughter before she went to bed. Her father hadn’t been ‘manly’ enough earlier; but this was good enough for me.

On Not Living In The ‘Real’ America

I live in Brooklyn, in New York City, but I don’t live in ‘real’ America. I’m surrounded by artifice and fantasy; specters and ghosts walk the streets. The sidewalks beneath my feet are insubstantial; it is a miracle they are able to sustain my corporeal weight. The buildings around me have been plucked straight from the pages of comic books; I walk through their walls effortlessly. There is no English spoken here; merely an incomprehensible gibberish consisting of many alien tongues.

Here, no one works for a living; no one has to get up in the morning, or evening, to go to work and earn an honest day’s, or night’s, living. Magic money is automatically deposited into our virtual bank accounts–presumably as a reward for our insubstantiality. We do not pay taxes (state or city or Federal), grocery and utility bills, rent, mortgages, road tolls, parking tickets, subway fares, alimonies, school tuition, and all of the rest. Our lives are expense-free; we do not need to balance budgets.  We do not deal with bosses and workplaces and co-workers; we do not deal with workplace conditions, good or bad. We are never fired; we merely receive the occasional raise.

This is a conflict-free land; there are no disputes, legal, political, or personal. When all is unreal, what could we possibly be quibbling about? Thus, our social and economic interactions with our fellow spirits move along smoothly on friction-free planes, with differing needs and desires effortlessly reconciled with each other.  Solomon would have been an incompetent adjudicator here; there would be no work for him; his skills would rust from disuse.

Our children are fantasies too; they do not possess substantiality beyond our dreams. We do not worry about their welfare, their schooling, their moral and material education. We care little if they go missing for a while; they are not ‘real’ after all. They do not feel pain, and neither do we. We are free from parental anxiety, the greatest blessing of all.

We have few aspirations for our lives; all has been given to us, and our lives consist merely of picking through the goodies, selecting and choosing which clothes to wear, which lunch dates to go on, which movies and which plays to see. We take vacations occasionally, venturing out into the ‘real’ America, but the hard edges of reality drive us–all too soon–back into the welcoming arms of this La La Land.  We cower under the blankets at night sometimes, offering thanks and prayers for not being subjected to reality the way so many of our fellow citizens are, unfairly and cruelly.

Our health is perfect; we do not fall ill, and die. We do not worry about that pain in the chest, that nagging sore that won’t go away. Our families do not have to pay medical bills; they do not have to sit by our bedsides,  cremate us, or lower us into the ground. Grief is besides the point; why mourn for what is not real?

We are uncertain how this zone of fantasy came about, how it managed to separate itself from the mainland of reality. But we do not question our good fate; we merely draw upon our benedictions. And plot, endlessly, to keep reality away from our lives, from this coast, far away in the hinterlands where it belongs.

On Hoping For The Miracle Of Precocity

A few days ago, I met some neighbors, out for a walk with their son (who was riding in a stroller.) As we chatted, they turned to their son and asked him a question or two. Answers were not forthcoming. They pressed on, but there was no response. These questions were innocent ones: “What number is that?” or “Where do we live?”  A few seconds later, the young lad’s parents laughed a little nervously and said ‘Well, I guess you’re being a bit shy today, aren’t you?” We all laughed and bade each other goodbye.

Plenty seemed to lurk beneath the surface of that seemingly innocent encounter. As the young lad was prompted by his parents, I tensed, hoping for his parents’ sake that he would respond, eliciting approving chuckles from me and beaming smiles from his parents; I would then be able to able to congratulate him–and his parents–on his precociousness (and their role in nurturing it), his grasp of concepts vital for his continuing maturing as a human; they could bask in his reflected glory. But it was not to be, and the resultant disappointment was almost palpable in all of us.

It is entirely possible I was projecting my own worries and insecurities on my friends. I will confess to worrying–almost incessantly, like many other parents about me–about whether my child is keeping up with the appropriate developmental landmarks in the cognitive and physical domains (and sometimes the moral too.) In this context, the slightest suggestion of precociousness is seized upon as manna from heaven and shown off proudly. The failure of the child to ‘perform on demand’ like a well-trained seal is then cause for considerable disappointment. The benign type remains internalized in the parent; the malign type is directed at the child.

Matters are considerably worse if one lives, as I do, in a place like Brooklyn, Ground Zero for The Overachieving Child and The Overly Anxious Parent. Here, prodigies abound, reared by parents of seemingly unlimited intelligence, achievement, and ambition. They’ve read all the right parenting books; they know where all the city’s best offerings for children are; they seem to know how best to place their child on the Fast Track. You can recite as many mantras about accepting your child for ‘who he or she is’ but those nostrums fight hard to make an appearance when confronted with the worry that your child has to ‘compete’ with sundry geniuses and their superbly switched-on parents. You remain well aware that ‘good schools’ are hard to get into; that the world that awaits your child is not increasing in tolerance or kindness for outliers. Try as you might to take on board the various bits of parental comfort food that are sent your way by those who’ve been lucky enough to see their children flower and blossom into something approximating their parents’ hoped-for vision, the daily reality of dealing with the irregular ‘progress’ of your child continues to provide a steady IV line of incurable anxiety.

And much like the believers of old, we continue to hope for miracles, for displays of the spark of precocity that will reassure us all is well, that we are saved.

 

‘But I Am From Brooklyn’

A few days ago, I reported–on Facebook, where else–a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:

Her: Papa, where’s India?
Me: It’s a country in Asia, sweetie, on the other side of the world.
Her: We can drive there?
Me: No, we have to fly. I was born there, you know. I’m from India.
Her: But I’m from Brooklyn.

Predictably, this evoked amused and approving reactions from my friends: my daughter’s precocity of expression stood revealed. (The slight sass in her response had something to do with it, I’m sure.) My daughter’s “but,” expressed with some incredulity, is the kicker. If I am ‘from India,’ then shouldn’t she be ‘from’ there too? But she isn’t. At least one part of the supposed parental transmission of identity from me to her that was supposed to take place hasn’t. She is brown, she looks like me, we are of the same nationality as far as travel documents go, but she is not ‘from’ where I am ‘from.’  She was born in Brooklyn, she lives here; she returns to Brooklyn when she travels; she is ‘from’ here.

This conversation reminded me of one I had with my brother regarding a pair of friends of his, the children of a philosophy professor who, after working at Michigan State University for several years, had returned to India to take up an academic position in New Delhi. One day, during dinner, my brother referred to them as ‘American.’ This caused me some bewilderment; the boys were clearly ‘Indian,’ for they looked like us. They did, however, speak English with an American accent, but that did not seem to change the fact that their names sounded very Indian, they lived in India, and their parents were Indian. Why were they American? My brother said it was because they had American passports; they were American citizens. But, I persisted, that just meant they used American passports to travel. They were still Indian, surely. My brother, with some brusqueness, terminated the conversation with a quick “No, they are American; that is their nationality.”

We were offering contesting visions of an aspect of personal identity. My brother took identity to be a matter of citizenship, and the passport you carried; I took it to be derived, through some organic, biological process, from one’s parents. You had an Indian name, you had Indian parents, you had Indian features; you were Indian.  My brother had noticed that his friends, though ‘Indian’ in those respects, spoke English differently; they spoke nostalgically of their lives in Michigan; they drank cold milk straight out of a bottle. (No one did that in India; you drank your milk heated over.)

My daughter will be seen as Indian by some, and American by yet others. She might come to see her identity as a curious amalgamation of the two; her name will remind her, often, that her father came ‘from’ elsewhere. Her negotiations between these two aspects of her identity might be tortuous or not. No matter; I hope to be able to observe, and if at possible, inform them as best as I can.

A Seinfeldian Encounter In My Barbershop

For the past few years, I’ve had my hair cut at a local barbershop, a few blocks down from where I live. It is an old-fashioned family establishment, owned and manned by a father and son pair (Italian), backed up by a Ukranian gentleman. (A classic Brooklyn institution, to be sure.) Initially, I would get my hair cut by any member of this trio, but then, eventually, I gravitated to the Ukranian barber, who seemed to have got my preferred style–a military-flavored crew cut, with a very close cut on the sides–just right. Nothing too complicated, but still. This establishment of a ‘favored’ barber brought with it, for the first time, a certain awkwardness to my visits to the barbershop.

For on occasion, when one of the father and son pair were done with their customers, they would turn to me and indicate they were unoccupied–at which point, I would say that I was going to wait for my friend to finish with his current engagement. After the first couple of times, they stopped asking me, moving on to the next waiting customer. My preference had been indicated, and matters soon found a new equilibrium. I would walk in, stake out a spot, wave on other customers while I waited for ‘my man.’ ‘P’ is a taciturn man, and my haircutting sessions with him only included a few conversational exchanges; a few pleasantries, and then, both he and I would lapse into silence while ‘P’ went about his work, competently and efficiently. (On my left, the barber’s son cut his customers’ hair in rather more conventional style: a free-wheeling conversation about sports, family, television, music–the whole nine yards.)

Then, a few weeks ago, awkwardness returned. I was due a for a haircut–badly. Unkempt and rough around the edges, I was dying to get cleaned up. My busy schedule meant that very few times in the week would allow me to visit the barbershop. One opportunity went by after another; finally, on a Friday morning, I resolved to reduce my hirsuteness before I went to work. Haircut or bust. I walked in only to find ‘P’ missing. On asking where he was, I was reassured–by the younger owner– he would be at work soon: “he shows up around this time; grab a seat.” I did so, and opened up a book to read. The minutes ticked by; my Friday could not wait for too long. As I read, I noticed that I was the only customer waiting in the shop. Once the haircut currently underway was completed, I would have the floor to myself. A previously unthinkable option had presented itself: betraying ‘P.’

And so it came to pass. As the customer ahead of me was cleaned up, I stood up and removed my jacket. I could not wait any longer. If I was lucky, my haircut would be complete before ‘P’ walked in and caught me cheating on him.

But as the white sheet went on, and as the clippers began their work, ‘P” walked in. We exchanged pleasantries; I cringed. My treachery was now a public matter. I could only hope that while my haircut proceeded another customer would engage him and distract him. But it was not to be. Bizarrely enough, for the next twenty minutes, while I received my haircut, the barbershop remained pristinely empty, even as ‘P,’ standing by his station next to me, stared moodily–and perhaps darkly and grimly–at the street outside.

That was one long haircut. It was made even more so by the fact that my barber kept up his usual stream of friendly chatter, to which I, with guilt racking every fibre of my being, reciprocated as best as I could (the Yankees, the Mets, local schools.)

Finally, the time came. I handed over my payment, included a tip, and then, as I headed out, bade everyone goodbye. Thankfully, ‘P’ squeezed out a smile–it looked like one–for me. So did the beaming young man who had just cut my hair.

I have no idea who is going to cut my hair the next time I walk through the doors of my barbershop. Stay tuned. I’m rough around the edges again.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.