About my immigrant relationship to NYC. First appeared in New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 17, 2000
No surprise that in college I would become enamored with the wonders of down-home Japanese cooking. It probably would have been too much to become obsessed with Chinese cuisine, too obvious even for me. Japanese my way dealing with my yearning for the old man, for the father I never really knew.
I guess there’s a part of me, the part that can’t wait for my next trip to Japan, that yearns for him still. When you’re my age you like to believe that eventually you’ll get all that father-mother craziness behind you. But some things you see are never over. You have to make peace with them anyway you can.
My father was first; he reached Nueva York at the start of the Seventies, in the Years of the Puerto Rican Obituary. This was the decade of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage,” when New York City–specifically the poor colored neighborhoods in which my father was attempting to live–was being burned to the ground by the “cost-effective” policies of Roger Starr and his Rand Corporation cronies.
He had the “usual” Caribbean immigrant experience: he worked crap jobs, he slept in unheated buildings, he starved his ass off. All around him buildings exploded into fire. Fortunately he wasn’t in them, but it didn’t help his sleep any knowing that a family of seven had been roasted to death the week before. The stench of the smoke, of those destroyed lives, seeped into his dreams.
Who’s surprised that after five unhappy years in Nueva York my father decided that he’d had enough? Right before he brought the rest of us over from Santo Domingo my father abandoned New York City, where he had friends, where he had a life, and relocated to New Jersey, where he knew no one. He said it was for our sake–we didn’t hear about this move until after we arrived but I think it was also for his peace of mind. (His other girlfriends all lived in NYC.) He settled in a Section 8 apartment complex that was bounded on one side by Old Bridge (where Vitamin C is from) and on the other by Sayreville (BonJoviLand). This is where me and my siblings lived when we reached the States, where I spent my Ghetto-American childhood, marooned in the middle of suburbs white as a gringo’s ass.
New York went from the Oz I dreamed about in the Dominican Republic to the distant sight of the Verrazano Bridge (visible from the entrance of my development.)
Transformed from the City of Everything to the ruined boroughs we visited on weekends. A future that had been promised but never arrived.
Eventually I would move to Nueva York, at twenty-six gaining the life I always thought should have been mine to being with. I didn’t arrive in the Years of the Puerto Rican Obituary; it was, by then, the Years of the Nightstick. I had the “usual” Caribbean college-graduate New York experience. I worked temp jobs, I lived in an unwinterized apartment in Brooklyn, I smoked cheap hydro and was too broke for anything but activism. Nothing burned, thank God, not even bread. Often I found myself in Washington Heights, the Capital of the Dominican Diaspora, visiting friends, visiting relatives; sometimes I would stand on the street corners with my writer’s notebook, trying to imagine what-could-have-been.
Certain nights, when I was restless and nothing was working out, I’d take the D over the Manhattan Bridge. As the train left the tunnel and began to cross the East River I’d step between the cars. This, for some reason, made me happy. It wasn’t really dangerous and the view it afforded of New York was beyond words. A city ablaze, suspended between blacksky and river. Our first night in the States my old man wanted us to see a similar city, on our drive from JFK. I remember our silence, the cold of the windows against our faces. The city looked like science fiction. Like an incubator for stars, where suns are made. This was before we realized that we were actually bound for New Jersey, when we thought one of those lights was going to be our home.