Thursday, May 31, 2012

From Here

My dentist's father used to work in roofing, and my father was his boss. This means that my dentist used to know me as a baby. This means that my dentist has license to be familiar in a way no other dentist would probably dare. "Hold this mirror," he said, "while I pluck stuff out of your teeth and show it to you." He didn't say exactly that, but he wanted to, and he really did offer me the mirror to view his handiwork. "Thanks, no, I trust you."

What else can you do but trust the man with the 8-foot needle who knew you before you had proper bowel control? I hear his father's voice commanding me to bite down on my new filling. Which, incidentally, when did they stop stuffing lead into cavities and start stuffing them with Plaster of Paris? Anyway, it's disconcerting, because dude looks so much like the man who helped my father mop every roof in Paterson with hot tar, and I am not supposed to be 34 and in need of dental care from him.

I'm in Bergenfield, Bergen County, New Jersey, which is not New York City, and is thus cheaper to live in. This is still one of the most affluent counties in the country. Why is part of me still surprised that my dentist, nervous monkey that he is, would have a successful Spanish-dominant business on Washington Street? His clientele is predominantly Latino, he tells me, and business is good. So good, in fact, he's able to leave me to fight with the mini shop-vac in my mouth and go see what's good with the weather. Outside. While his secretary watches Univision. When I am done with the filling, she says, very nonchalantly, "Did he tell you when the next appointment is?" When I say Tuesday, same time, she writes it down in a paper planner. Appointment cards do not exist here. There's a computer. She's on Facebook.


Another she is wearing a summer dress and shades and doesn't give a rat's ass for your opinion, because you are a gentrifier, and she grew up here. Baby's dad is on the phone. He is not happy. He is never happy. I don't know if I would call her expression world-weariness or aloofness, but there is philosophy coming from her mouth, and it is coming at 200 miles an hour. I have a gift for her baby, one which I've been holding onto for a couple of months, because she has been trained to hide by the CIA. Or she's just really fucking hard to find. When I give her the gift, her face melts, because love for the baby is the same on 125th Street. No one needs to explain it.

I make my way to 104th Street and Lexington Avenue. El Barrio. All I want today is coffee. My friends have their fair share of drama, and today I've gotten an earful of it. I will drown it in Guatemalan coffee. Sister behind the counter doesn't say a lot, but I call her dear, a habit I've picked up from a different dear one, and sister cracks her first smile in what seems like weeks. Today, I will finish the essay. This is a phrase I like to say a lot.

Two friends of mine walk in. They are Puerto Rican. I cannot speculate on the ethnic makeup of the rest of the clientele, but whatever the demographics, there is a giant banner on the light post outside with Julia de Burgos' picture on it. There's a center named for her across the street. And one of my friends laments how her work has been translated over the years. From here, I can see the Valencia bakery, which has lined the pockets of many of a Barrio dentist over the years. There are Puerto Rican flags hanging over 105th Street. I see them on my walk to the car, and I see the viejitos outside the stoops yelling at each other in accents I recognize. There are three taquerias on Lexington, two of them franchised, and a Mexican dive bar up the block. There is a Latino-themed bookstore, La Casa Azul, coming to this neighborhood, and it's not just this neighborhood that knows about it. There are Latinos in DC, Texas, and California, and their hearts are with it. There's a blogger who has walked into the coffee shop who knows it.
The weather has been hot, extraordinarily so for May, so I open up the sunroof on my car. This neighborhood is pure beauty at 7pm, pure love and smiles and early summer, children's laughter, and the sound of Metro-North trains traveling to the same points north I'm traveling to. I snap the picture of the flags on the line: six Puerto Rican ones and an American one, and hell no, they are not the same. Down the block, my heritage is painted on the wall: Che Guevara and Pedro Albizu Campos, superimposed on the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags, a mural recently restored.
Piri wrote this, all of this. Is this my history? I am not from this neighborhood anymore than I am from Bergen County, or Rockland County, or Cuba, or Puerto Rico. I can tell you I was born in Edison, and I was raised in Paterson, spent some time in Florida and Bed-Stuy and Highland Park. Where I am from, ultimately, has no address. This air, this precise moment, wants to be toxic, but I will breathe it in anyway, all of its smoke and fried chicken, cuchifrito and asphalt, because every human lung must fight for its oxygen, no matter what the tinge.


You want me, brown and Spanglish-speaking in America, to believe in percentages and post-racial theory while I tell you what precise shade of blonde my grandfather's hair was, what blue his eyes, to your cognitive dissonance. This is the problem with American history, but it's not my problem to solve. It's only mine to write. You must read it, the same way I did, the same way you asked me to believe in William Carlos Williams' English grandmother. I am your baby, too, to paraphrase Patricia Smith. Born here. Bred here. Loved here. And I love you. I still long for you to understand me, to live here with me in the same house. I come with baggage, too: not all of it inflicted from without. But here's a book. And here's a book. And here's an article. And here's a television network, a zoot suit, a poet's cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a bookstore in East Harlem full of our stories. They are just as old as your stories. They are from here. I am from here. Listen.


Chuck Cuyjet said...

I drown out whatever I don't wanna deal with in Guatemalan rum, screw the coffee! (As per usual, you dropped some tight azz shit here rich!)

Marleen said...

This is amazing work! I love it!

PaPo Swiggity said...

Powerful stuff, if this is an indication of the kind of writing that will live in your new book, consider that book already part of my library.

When I grow up, I wanna write like Darth Malo.