Saturday, December 4, 2010

Falling in Love Underground

Falling in Love Underground

I didn’t have any idea I was going to live in New York when I first rode the 7 train. It was the spring of 2007 and I was visiting the city with the other writers in my graduate program. We were visiting publishing houses, the New Yorker, high-powered agents, and otherwise intoxicating ourselves with dreams of literary success. For two days, we got to live like successful writers, staying at a fancy hotel in midtown, taking cabs everywhere, and had our meals paid for (thanks to a generous gift from our rich sponsor). It was great. But that’s not the reason I decided to move here. Yes, New York City is like a guy that takes you out in his limo and shows you all the big buildings he owns, but I’m not that easy. My relationship with the city is more complicated and here, in some sort of chronology, are the reasons I fell in love with it:

One: I was the only Latina/o on the trip to the city. I think I was one of two Latinos in the program at Syracuse, and one of a handful in the city of Syracuse. Syracuse isn’t really a Latino hot spot. This will become important later.

Two: Except for the two other African/African American classmates in my class, most of the brown people I saw in the city were workers. They were busy in the background, lifting luggage, moving pallets, pouring water, and driving cabs like extras in a movie. I saw them loading and unloading trucks on street after street, seemingly powering the whole city with their motion. This is sort of foreshadowing for number three.

Three: One of my classmates had his foot in a cast. He, and his girlfriend and I were looking for a cab to get to a meeting with one of the aforementioned agents. The only one that stopped for us was a black Lincoln town car, a livery cab, driven by a crusty white dude. He had some kind of New York accent and said something about being on the clock for someone else, but he could take us where we wanted to go. We got in the back seat. There was a smattering of small talk, mostly about how my classmate hurt his foot. Then a delivery guy on a bicycle veered in front of the car.

“Goddamn Mexican,” the driver said. “But even if I run ‘im over, there’s a million others to replace ‘im.”

If there had been an accident, I wasn’t sure whose fault it would have been. But I was pretty sure the guy pedaling away was skinny and was wearing a loose t-shirt and was Asian.

My classmates didn’t say anything. I didn’t either.

Four: When we were at the meeting with the literary agent, we sat around a large conference room table in a large conference room and heard the agent talk about all his famous clients and all the big books he sold, and then…he made his big point. Latino literature. It’s hot right now.

Five: I left the group to go see a Cuban playwright I had met a few months before. We were going to have dinner in Jackson Heights, Queens. I had the directions he gave me in my hand and no idea what to expect.

Six: I walked to Grand Central Station and made my way to the subway through the maze of people. I walked two floors down and I noticed the air get colder, and it was like the molecules were looser, and the volume was turned up and I could breathe.

It was rush hour and there were people of every color waiting to go home. None of them seemed to be talking about killing and replacing Mexican bicycle messengers.

I remembered the agent’s story about meeting Fidel Castro and the tragic glamor that he ascribed to the whole idea of Cuba. I knew that somehow he had become infatuated with a very limited idea of what it is to be Cuban or Latin or whatever it was he called it. I wasn’t sure what to do when my classmates looked over at me for a reaction to the agent’s pronouncements. According to him, all I had to do was produce a story about Fidel Castro, preferably peopled with mobsters smoking Cuban cigars, and throw in a little CIA to become the next big thing.

I felt relief that no one was looking at me in the crowd that was waiting for the train. I didn’t have to say my name, or where I came from, or explain that my parents were immigrants from two different countries, that I was never in a gang, that I don’t listen to Modest Mouse, that I don’t write magical realism, and yes, random prospective students to the program at Syracuse who mysteriously got my email address, I’ll answer your questions about Marquez.

Seven: Poverty is complicated, I thought, as I was pressed into an uncomfortable position between four other people holding on to the same pole on the subway car. Everybody was stacked like furniture inside, a little topsy-turvy as we rumbled forward. First, we went through a tunnel. For a second, I saw people’s faces slacken and I felt I could read their thoughts. But instead of capturing several disparate thoughts, it was one reality that was peeled back and we were all just a cart load of workers, going anywhere from freedom to more work, from this job to the next, to start the task of living the rest of the day. It was something very true that I knew only because my father had worked all his life.
Then I was surprised that we were above ground. There was uniformity in the windows of the buildings with peeling paint and the grimaces on the faces of the people on the train. They all daydreamed together, half suspended in time, half hallucinating to separate themselves from the people pressed against them.

I don’t like being on a crowded train, and I don’t like being poor, but when I was packed like a sardine on the 7 I felt hope for the first time—that I would make it as a writer, that I would be able to write about myself as something other than a cartoon, that I could make sense out of the experience of being deemed a cockroach and marketing gold in the same day. As foreign as I felt in midtown, I felt like one of the working class commuters in Queens. That’s the thing about poverty, when you come from it, it always sort of feels like home.

Eight: Okay, so here’s a little bit of magical realism for you. Only I’m not making it up. Someone’s hand hovered inches from the back of my leg. My leg stiffened involuntarily, and then there was an electric pinprick sensation. I looked behind me and a guy was muttering some Santeria spell while his hand was just two inches away from my calf. The next day I got a carbuncle right on the spot that his hand was near.

Nine: The train starts to empty out and a guy who says his name is Julio and that he’s from Ecuador calls me corazón. He said that in the second I looked at him, I’d stolen his heart from his chest. He was a cocky little guy, a hunter of a sexy, more comfortable future than the one he had as a day laborer. He stopped pretending he was falling in love when he got to his stop and leaped out through the open doors, probably heading home to his wife and kids.

Ten: I walked down the stairs at the 82nd Street exit in Jackson Heights, which was like stepping into the bustling center of Bogotá, Delhi, Quito, and Mexico City all at once. My friend the playwright was waiting for me at the book stand that was on the corner like he said it would be. We looked at the books that were all in Spanish. The playwright had known the guy selling the books for years. The guy said he had a bookstore down the street and gave me his card.

The playwright and I went across the street to a Colombian restaurant. Once there, we talked about theater, books, writing, Cuba, and living in the United States.

We also talked about our families, and he asked me what my father was like.  In some ways, the playwright is like my father—an older generation, diabetic, light-skinned Cuban. But he’s nothing like him. I remembered something my therapist said to me after I spent the whole session talking about how I’d always disappointed my father.

“What if your father had been a writer?” she asked. “What if he was incredibly proud to have a daughter who does what you do?”

It wasn’t until that day, sitting across from my friend Pedro, that I could imagine a world where that could be true. My father had been dead for two years, but I was still looking for some closure, or acceptance, or reconciliation between what he and I wanted.

Now Pedro is my mentor, father figure, and friend. Several times a year, I take the 7 train to 82nd Street, I meet him at the book stand on the corner, we eat Colombian food, and we talk about theater, books, writing, Cuba, and living in New York City.


  1. ¡Estoy exactamente de acuerdo con Jessica!
    Ahora sé un poquito de lo que ha sido de tí todos estos años. Siempre supe que estaría viviendo una vida llena de aventuras. Gracias, amiguita por compartir. ¿Cuándo tendremos la la próxima entrega? Me estoy haciendo adicta a tus relatos. =) Besitos, Bea la Fea.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Loved it, Celina! I so love the accuracy and intimacy you transmit in your writing. Keep it coming, love... It's quite a treat to enjoy the honesty in your perspective. :D

  4. patiram48 is Yolanda (Betty's sister) in case you are wondering! :)

  5. Gracias Celina por tu exquisito estilo de relatar tus vivencias, muchos de nosotros solo podemos soñar con tanto talento. Te deseo la mejor de las suertes en tu tavesia.
    Jose Lepe Ramirez (orgulloso primo de Beatriz Ramirez)

  6. Muchisimas gracias todos por sus comentarios.

    Chelsea--it's better not to know what a carbuncle is.