Patiently, Celso stands and looks at crowd of well-mannered gawkers who have decided to invade his island for a brief afternoon jaunt. In front of them, several Taquileños dance traditional jigs of courtship and celebration with skill and practiced grace, their shortage of spirit failing to dampen the well-rested tourists’ optimistic curiosity. Celso’s face is serious and intelligent, though he’s capable of sideward smiles. He whisks us away as soon as the dancers finish
He takes me and my current travel partner, a Scotsman, for lunch (quinoa soup and grilled lake trout). We brought our own beers to pass the time, the bottles clinking in our bags, where they sit next to rice and sugar (typical gifts for Taquile) and some notebooks and pencils for the child of the house. His name is Wilfredo and he nearly chokes us with his hugs. They feel sincere. We hand out the meager gifts and Celso shows us to the little guesthouse attached to his well-sized house.
After our siesta we walk the island, ascending to Pachamama. Incas revered the mountains as gods, and summits are important to the Quechuas. It’s a beautiful near-sunset. Celso tells me some folktales about curses and cripples. I understand roughly a third of what he says but enough to weave together a story. Some kid forgot to bring in a stone to school. He went to an Inca ruin and took a stone from a room I and the Scotsman are now looking at, a room the locals fear entering. The story of this boy, who was paralyzed after bringing back the forbidden stone, is told to us only after we snap photos of the musty interior.
When we take a break, I look more closely at Celso. He wears a traditional knitted hat with a small pompom crown.“I have a personal question,” I say in mangled Spanish. “Why do you wear this hat if you are married?” The tour guide explained that red hats are warn by men who are spoken for, but Celso wears the red/white split pattern of the soltero.
It turns out that Celso is unmarried. He’s been living with his wife, Juana, for nine years. Together they have an irresistibly cute son, Wilfredo. “Conviviendo,” he tells me, they’ve been cohabiting but remain unmarried. Patiently, he explains that 45 sheep are required to put on a 5-day wedding feast. Celso’s up to 28. 17 sheep to go. I wonder how long that will take. But pride and tradition have clearly conspired to postpone the wedding. Or is Celso just holding out on Juana, using his sheep shortfall to postpone further commitment? Seems unlikely. But he is a man, after all.
Noticing things I never noticed before must be some function of getting older. Or maybe it’s just a way of seeing a slight erosion of egotism through a different lens. Whatever the case, when I was standing at JFK 2 weeks ago, going through all those silly screenings, such as required by our DHS, I couldn’t help but notice that the TSA workers nearest me were a bunch of assholes.
There was the Pakistani granny confused by the apathetic instructions delivered in poorly enunciated English. There was the family smiling in benign bewilderment at the government workers pushing them around, getting progressively louder and ruder with each miscomprehension.
Between the rows of x-ray conveyer belts and endless security lines there’s a poster proclaiming that TSA employees are often the first cultural ambassadors to our visitors from around the world, serving proudly to represent city and nation in a courteous and professional manner. There was little of that on display at Terminal 8.
Flight screeners, no doubt socially impaired in part by the daily stream of droning drudgery and seemingly idiotic passengers, always seem one minor aggravation away from snapping and choking a foreign salesman with the leather belt it took him five prompts to remove, or bonking someone on the head with his shoe.
Their brothers and sisters in the immigration and passport control booths, as I learned on the way back, were not much better at welcoming our international guests. They muttered, barked, and beckoned dismissively and, at times, passive-aggressively, at people, with no sense of cheer, curiosity, or assurance. They might as well have been price-scanning baby clothes at a Kmart.
“Did you make a copy of the keys yet?”
“No. And I don’t really understand why you need them.”
“I’m your father. How can you even ask that?”
“That’s just why I ask. See, none of my other friends’ fathers have keys to their apartments. So whu should I?”
“We are not your friends’ parents. I don’t know why they don’t have their children’s keys. Maybe they can’t be bothered. Maybe they’re too busy golfing and going to their summer home to make sure their children are well-fed.”
“But I Keep telling you, I don’t need any help with food. I learned how to cook in college and, believe it or not, I’ve been buying food ever since, mostly without your aid. And they don’t go golfing, I told you that, not all Americans golf.”
“Forget the food. What if you left the gas on? What if you weren’t answering your phone for 24 hours? Which isn’t that hard to imagine these days, mind you.”
“Let’s stay on topic here. OK, fine, here, make a copy. Now I can forget about 911 since I have you on speed dial. And you won’t need to break the door down causing expensive damage since you have the key. Now I get it.”
Lenny walked through the door to find his father sitting at the dining table, blankly staring at the broken clock on the wall.
“Well, that didn’t take long. I see you’re putting the key to good use.”
“Hmmph. You should get that watch fixed,” his dad replied.
“Thanks, Dad, I’ll take care of it.”
“No, you won’t.” This predictable reply was delivered with eerie calm, the kind Lenny didn’t know how to process.
He stood up and placed his arm on Lenny’s shoulder, weighing him down a bit. “Get that clock fixed,” he mumbled again. Oh, there’s food in the fridge. Your mom made meatloaf. Soup, too.”
“Well, thanks. I guess I’ll just freeze all the stuff I just bought, and throw out the rest.”
His dad let out a rare and strange chuckle. “Fix the clock, Lyonya.” When he left, Lenny rearranged his chairs and sofa, which had been moved. He washed the dishes and organized his groceries in the fridge and on the shelves. He took the clock off the wall and wrapped it in a large plastic bag, placing it in the recycling queue.
Sighing, he closed the cookbook he’d been looking at the previous night and unwrapped the meatloaf. Say what you will, but Mom makes one hell of a meatloaf, he thought.
The phone went off with the new, still unfamiliar ringtone and Lenny, groggily ensconced on the couch, fumbled around for it on the coffee table before finally picking up.
“Lyonya, you brat.” It was his mom’s voice.
“You know what. Why is your father having a diabetic attack?”
“What? Oh my god, what happened?”
“You and your small brain, that’s what happens. How did you get it into your head to feed your dad sweets? I’ve told you a million times he can’t have any, and the low-sugar stuff I buy him is perfectly fine. Still, you make me the bad one and give him what he wants, which is going to kill him. And now look what you’ve done!”
“Mom, I swear, I have no idea what you’re talking about!! He was at my house before but I didn’t feed him anything.”
“Believe it or not his brain is still working, Lyonya, despite the hyperglycemia! And he seems to think that the brownie he ate came from your house.”
“Brownie? Did you say brownie?”
“Yes, you heard me. Don’t play dumb.
Lenny’s thoughts raced as he tried to connect brownies, his dad, and his apartment. Shit. Brownies. The special ones his friend Rick’s girlfriend had baked for his birthday months ago, which he hadn’t bothered to clean out the back of his fridge. Quickly, his anxious mind pieced together the scene that preceded his arrival. His father, the annoying early diabetes, the irresponsible sneaking of sweets away from my mom.
“Mom, I don’t think this is diabetes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me ask you, is he unusually hungry?”
“Uh, how did you know? Yes, he’s been eating all the bread. I fed him dinner but he keeps asking for more food. I don’t get it. I asked our friend Kostya, who is a male nurse, but he says it doesn’t sound like a diabetic attack.”
“OK. What else?”
“I don’t know, he’s sick. He’s talking funny.”
“Is he laughing a lot?”
“Yes, he’s been giggling a little, at some very odd things.” Her voice fell to a whisper: “He turned on an animal show and keeps laughing like an imbecile. He’s making sense, though, when I ask him questions. But the idiotic laugh, I don’t know, he never laughs like this when he drinks. And, and, I don’t know, he’s talking all sorts of crazy ideas. Remember the business idea he used to have for those peddy cabs? Well, he says he wants to buy one and just drive it around town. That nothing will make him happier. What gibberish. And other things, even stupider than this.”
“Mom, I know what this is…it’s not diabetes…it’s, uh, a minor food poisoning, that comes in, umm, certain kinds of brownies.”
“How do you know all this, Dr. Knowitall?” she asked suspiciously. Then, with more sincerity and enthusiasm, “Have you given another thought to medical school? Are you secretly studying for the MCAT? Mmmm?” Despite the dire medical emergency on her couch, there was obvious delight now in her voice.
“I, well, you know, I’ve been reading up on nutrition.”
“Nutrition, OK. It’s not medicine, but it’s respectable. As long as you’re not a nurse’s aide, I’m happy.”
“Give him another meal, something hearty. Some more bread. And water. And let him sleep. He’ll be fine.”
“Well, well. OK, Dr. Sinderovich…ooh, I like how that sounds. It sounds great with our name. Doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Mom. Call me in the morning, OK?” Lenny hung up the phone and took his head in his hands. Tomorrow, when his dad was no longer stoned, he’d talk to him, explain that he can’t give him the extra key, that he was taking a principled stance in this case, and he couldn’t compromise. He’d understand. Tomorrow. Then he walked over to the fridge, removed the rest of the meatloaf from the fridge, and scarfed it down cold.
“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but are you an architect by any chance?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you speak English?”
“Ah, si. Yes, I speak English. What did you ask?”
“I was wondering if you’re an architect.”
“Umm, you’ve got a poster tubes in your hands. I’m an architecture student and I have one of those for technical drawings.”
“Oh, I see. No, sorry, I am not an architect.”
“Are you a draftsman?”
“No, this is just something a guy asked me to hold for him.”
“What do you do?”
“I work in construction, man.”
“Oh…umm, that’s cool. You guys get to do some fun stuff.”
“Not really, it’s hard work.”
“That’s true. Have you done any interesting buildings?”
“If you like apartment buildings and condos, I guess.”
“Those are the most important ones–people need somewhere to live, right?”
“So you’re not like, into Frank Gehry or anything? Or other architects?”
“No, man. I don’t pay much mind to that stuff. It’s work, you know?”
“Sure, sure, yeah, man. Well, this is my stop.” <Atlantic Ave>
“You don’t know how to write a story about anyone other than yourself. That’s your problem. It’s not the words, it’s not the pacing or the voice. You refuse to be someone else.”
“But how can I write about anyone other than myself? I don’t really know anyone else.”
“What do you think writing is? If everyone could do it, there’d be more good writers. Too many bad ones as it is.”
“You’re right. I used to think it was enough just to let people hear my voice. But that’s just writing long Tweets, that’s navel-gazing. What value am I adding to people’s lives?”
“People’s lives? Woah, slow down Just learn the mechanics, then you can start thinking high level.”
“But I don’t know how to write someone else. And the harder I try to step out of my own shoes, the farther I try to get away from myself, the closer the character resembles me.”
“Self absorption is not a yoke you break out of permanently. But you can learn to loosen the grip with practice.”
“What do I do?
“Look at that guy over there.”
“Who, the geeky one with the glasses who fell asleep reading?”
“Sure. What do you see?”
“I see a guy who has a sociology exam coming up.”
“He drinks coffee, but takes small sips.”
“I see a guy who’s restless because he can’t figure out what he wants to do tomorrow, and he’s even more confused by today.”
“No, no, no. There you go. Pull back. Flesh it out.”
“Alright, alright…I see a guy who wants to go to the Quidditch World Cup and pull some sort of stunt but he only wants to do it because of a girl. And this stupid test is tomorrow and he needs to get ready and the stove at his home is broken and the landlord is being a dick as usual and the girl he likes, he found out, just hooked up with one of his best friends.”
“Hmmm. Too much, filter, filter…”
“But I don’t have a topic. This is an exercise.”
“Alright, that’s good for day one. Let’s call it a night.”
When you grow up with immigrant parents, you often do things you don’t want to. Not because they’re hard but because you think they’re embarrassing or annoying and involve dealing with strangers, especially people whose job it is to assist you in some way. Of course, the same parents spend their days racking up moral capital by providing for you in a foreign country, which tends to force the issue.
“You can’t pick up the phone to call our telephone company to remove those charges they mistakenly added?”
“But the charges are correct.”
“They’re crooks. They steal every bit they can.”
“But it shows here that you had roaming charges and also you went over the minute limit.”
They exchange glance as if to say, Is this really our son? Maybe we picked up the wrong bundle in the hospital that day.
Then you sigh and pick up the bill in total resignation. You won’t get an A now; the best you can hope for is a C-, if all goes well. Then you call, hating every minute of it. And so on.
When my uncle, who spoke substantially less English than either of my parents, asked me to call his credit card company to clarify a few matters, it seemed an easy task compared to the irritating negotiations I’d carry on for my dad…a mere impersonation job. He gave me his credit card number. I took his Social as well, for identification purposes, proud of my own foresight.
I swallowed and picked up the phone. After some initial wait the customer service rep picked up the phone and introduced himself.
“Good afternoon, my name is Craig. Mr. T… how may I assist you today?”
“I need to make inquiries on some charges I see posted to my account,” I replied, using my best 20-year-old voice.
“Of course, Sir, I’d be happy to help you with that. Let’s just pull up your information here. What is the name on the account?”
I spelled out my uncle’s first name deliberately, having spotted the Russian spelling on one of the envelopes at his office. Check and mate.
“And what is your address?”
“Your address, Sir. We just need it for confirmation.”
“Ah, yes…err.” It was an apartment I’d been to many times for countless family parties, though it was less familiar than my granparents’ place. Getting driven to your uncle’s house by others when you’re younger, there’s little need to remember addresses and apartment numbers. Not to mention floors.
Desperate for a lifeline, I told him to hold on. I race into my dad’s room to ask him how to use the hold button. Then I raced back and got back on the line with the CSR. His voice was slightly less patient this time, though still polite.
“Can you please hold for a moment? I just need to make a quick phone call.”
“Of course, Sir, but if you could just give me your address, it shouldn’t take more than a second, I can look up your info while you’re making your call.”
“I understand, but I…just need to confirm something.”
“Sir, do you know the address where you are living.”
“Yes, of course,” I tried to put on my most indignant voice. “Please hold.”
I dialed my uncle with feverish speed. He was perplexed at the situation, while I was now pretty pissed off at sounding the fool. I switched back to Craig.
“Hello, Sir, we do need that address now.”
I read the street and numbers to Craig in a way an amnesiac might recall his home address at a hospital, clearing out one fugue cloud at a time. The CSR was clearly skeptical but the information checked out. He read off and explained the charges I was inquiring about and I thanked him. He didn’t even bother asking if there was anything else he could help me with today. He probably realized that each further question would dig him further into the quicksand of a potential stolen identity investigation, or, at best, leave him on hold while I researched my Grandmother’s maiden name.
He wears a hat. Always a hat. Usually something athletic—baseball cap, generic tuque, you get the idea. And, as I learned yesterday down in the laundry room, he sports several tattoos. Before, he would always push a stroller around. A tough guy with a soft heart.
I’m not sure how we became friendly. Usually I keep neighbors at flagpole’s length…not because I’m antisocial or anything; I generally like people in the casual sense. Nothing makes me happier than carrying a visitor’s bag down the stairs at Penn Station or exchanging knowing smiles with MTA riders when a wild-eyed man starts urinating or preaching his gospel. But neighborly amity requires sustained obligations, attention to detail, sometimes even courtship. A joke with the random fella on the street puts a smile on my face. Not so with an emotionally needy neighbor demanding daily greetings and pleasantries.
But even apartment curmudgeons can be turned on occasion. Trying to think of how we “met” is like trying to remember your first thought as a child. You recall notable moments, but there’s no starting point. There is no Big Bang. If pressed, I would point to the time last year when I was briefly unemployed and lingeringly despondent. I went outside to move my car from one cleaning zone to another. He was rolling the baby carriage back and forth, lulling his son to sleep.
“I almost didn’t recognize you with that thing,” he smirked, tracing his finger across his upper lip. Why would he? I’d just shaved off my beard leaving only an AMBER alert-triggering pornstache in place. In recent years, at times of personal crisis, I’ve begun to add or subtract facial hair in hopeful anticipation of more substantive change. The stache lasted no more than a week, having sufficiently disturbed friends, family, and total strangers.
Or maybe it was the time I’d jogged back from the gym, encountering him and his older kid in the elevator. He greeted me with a “Fitness Hello,” a jokey relic from Soviet times. “See,” he pointed in the direction of my sweat-drenched muscle shirt, “Uncle came from the gym.” High on endorphin, I smiled and nodded, winking at the boy like the Marlboro Man from his billboard ad.
So accustomed had I become to our customary half-smile and nod that this had become the most rewarding relationship I’ve had in my building. It was comfortable, it was easy, it made no demands, established no expectations. For all I knew he’d sneak out to rig back alley cockfights in between fathering and grocery shopping. For all he knew, all that sweat was earned getting chased by homeowners after burglaries. We didn’t care. We were two men with two lives and that look said everything we needed to say.
Until last night. It was laundry time for both of us–me with my decade-old green bag bearing weeks’ worth of worn clothes and he with his black garbage bag with assorted baby stuff. I’d had a couple of drinks and wasn’t really ready for a conversation. But in close quarters, finally brought together by the common mandate of a mundane task, we couldn’t just nod and salute each other as we stuffed our loads into the centrifuge. The relationship had to grow.
We spoke of faulty laundry machines, useless supers, and stupid neighbors. He offered most of the judgments as I nodded my head. Soon I learned that my building friend was one of those strong-headed Russian types used to offering expert opinions on most matters. Loading my colors to the brim, I tangoed with the card reader until it stopped displaying an error message. My sacrifice of a super-wash cycle did not go unnoticed by my buddy. “Without super-wash, it comes out dirty,” he offered. I agreed but shrugged innocently, happy just to get the cycle going. We parted ways again, our respective attire safely in the hands of laundry automatons.
Somewhat embarrassed by this extended interaction, I tried to time my return to the laundry room during the 10-minute window afforded by his super-wash add-on. But my sluggish separation of heavy and light fabrics and careful deliberation on the dryer-friendliness of never-before-dried articles forced an inevitable reunion with my nameless compatriot. I winced and turned my back, hoping he wouldn’t reengage. He had other plans.
“What do you do?” My least favorite question.
“Work in an office for someone?”
I nodded. When I explained what my non-profit does he seemed to understand, or pretended to fast-track the small talk. Out of politeness, I asked him what he does. Something about a business…and investment banking during the day at HSBC…lawyer by training, in Russia. My friend proceeded to detail various schemes by moneyed Russians and Chinese to wash their cash through his bank and how his initiatives foiled them every time. I tuned out for a bit.
“…so I told my boss, I told him, that’s the only way to deal with Russians…make them answer with their money.”
He chucked his load in the dryer without my meticulous dryer analysis and left me to my task. “Send some clients my way,” he smirked, walking out.
I sighed and thought of all our anonymous highlights: the elevator, the baby walking, the ironic mustache. We still didn’t know each other’s names but everything would be different now. Now I knew this guy. Now he knew me. The mystery was gone.