Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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3:15PM. Saturday. 57th Street and Broadway. Light rain, stepped over a sleeping homeless man, less than forty feet from the hole in the ground that’s soon to be Robert Stern’s contribution to Billionaire’s Row, a super-tall super-luxury affordable to perhaps sixty people in the world. Thirty more feet, stepped over another homeless man. Another homeless man another thirty feet later, outside the subway entrance. Two more inside before seeing a uniformed policeman, protecting two bank men in body armor emptying a Metrocard vending machine of its cash reserves.

The nation has just had a heady day, watching Obama sing Amazing Grace at a funeral and laud the Supreme Court verdict on Gay Marriage back-to-back; emotional and surprisingly emotive moments from our president to hang atop our collective consciousness while we continue on our daily toils, though not without inevitable backlash. Obama himself remarked, with little rancor but with deep candor,

“I know change for many of our LGBT brothers and sisters must have seemed so slow for so long, but compared to so many other issues, America’s shift has been so quick.”

A subtle reminder of recent events, highlighting the endlessly re-opened scar tissue of the American fabric, yet still not immune to base punditry, where some ask “what must the African Methodist Episcopal preachers behind Obama during his eulogy have thought about the confirmation of Gay Marriage?” (Quick answer: They are too busy reeling from a Good Ole’ Boy’s salvo towards the last generation’s cultural war – or is it? – to concern themselves with this one.) But such issues can’t help but feel muted in the face of what still needs to be done.

3:30PM, standing on the Uptown IND platform at Columbus Circle, coming home from work installing the equipment of some sixty peons who have been relocated from Connecticut as the vanguard of some six hundred more, holdouts moved against their will to balance some department spreadsheet. Working under a foreman whose wages were cut more than half in the past year, lost his mortgage and stands to lose his job altogether – though even at half his wages he’s still making more than I am. Working above perma-temps who know not to work too fast because these are all the hours they’re going to get, working because any of them would not hesitate to leap and grab my job, even as they remark pityingly about how tenuous and underpaid it appears to be. The corporation posted an 80% boost in profits last year. The corporation also laid off half my department. They’re going to keep waiting. Can I come in early on Monday? Of course I can.

It’s a new experience, to say the least. I’ve been under bosses who would attempt to move heaven and earth so as not to cut staff. “Oh, can you forego raises this year? Oh, can you take a 10% wage cut? Oh, can we have a Friday furlough? Please, I’m trying.” I’ve been under bosses who would rationalize and justify, if to nobody but themselves, the necessity of layoffs. “Oh, she had a bad attitude anyway. Oh, she really didn’t fit in here. Oh, she didn’t act like she really wanted the job.” I’m now under bosses for whom there is no emotive reaction to impending layoffs. They are cheerful coming in, they are cheerful coming out, they do not need excuses, they do not offer any.

In order to feel empathy for other people, first you must recognize them as people. There is a pure, raw, untempered amorality at play here, one which the armies of lowly peons find it hard to adjust to. A tall, lanky young man in a bowtie, a rare white elevator operator, asks me on Friday about my hair. He asks if I ever cut it. I don’t. He admires being able to hold that stance; toying with his bowtie uncomfortably, remarks that he’s sick of the uniform he’s made to wear, admires my freedom. That same day, a security guard remarks that he used to have a mohawk until he interviewed for this job. He can be dismissed at any moment, and many often are, but that hair doesn’t come back so quick.

These are the first overt remarks made about my hair since I started working here, but everybody on all floors recognizes me by sight – the one with the hair. It is, indeed, not de rigueur in the corporate sector, and it has been noted. I am not wearing the uniform. No matter; I’m just as disposable as the rest. Hell, my boss’s boss is the only true non-contractor in our section, and he’s as desperately trying to prove his relevancy as anybody else.

The security guard asks me what I’m doing this weekend. Drinking, I reply. That’s what he does every weekend. A chuckle. There is no future, few talk of the past. There is the grindstone and we put our noses to it; the cultural wars raging on seem so pi in the sky. A place where nobody has careers, we all just have jobs. “You’ll know when my plans come to fruition because I just won’t come in anymore,” explains the field boss, repeatedly. In the meanwhile, the holding pattern.

3:40PM, a D train rolls in, a petite young Muslim motorwoman at the helm, swaddled in a hijab in official MTA blue. The new blue collar working class, coming into a previously black jobs enclave, thanks to the EEOC, the city’s civil service exams and racism in the private sector. The next generation. Progress. Visible progress. As one issue gets addressed, another comes, and another; the admixture being what we call society.

Our illustrious mayor is reduced to applying palliative care with our ongoing job prospects and housing problems thanks to the callous indifference of the governor and the inability for the president to intervene in any meaningful way, but we all yet try to make do, and there is movement here and there, around the edges. Last month Muslim holidays got put on public calendars. Last week Chinese holidays got the same. Two days ago the Supreme Court confirmed the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, Gay Marriage. I go home to shower and change and prepare for the night’s drinking. I drink to commiserate. I drink to celebrate. I drink.

A Letter to a Fellow Street Cyclist

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To the black dude in the pink bike shorts and the lime green road bike:

Sorry I had to cut off our reverie bombing up Broadway, but the cop two blocks behind us with the flashing lights heading up the wrong way is a known entity who has likely had a hard-on for me ever since I beat four of his tickets two years ago. By splitting up I at least kept his attention away from you, and by keeping my nose clean as he followed me zig zagging through the neighborhood I frustrated his efforts. The hoods on my block found much merriment watching the squad car prowl by, and were quick to remind me that it’s approaching the end of the month.

To your question as to whether you’ve seen me before, you have. We once shared a commute up Riverside Drive where you got into some altercation with some lady in a car with Jersey plates for not giving you enough room on the shoulder – though, to be fair, on Riverside Drive, despite being an official “bike route,” there is no shoulder – and you had asked me the same question you asked me this time: How can I act so “zen” riding a bicycle on the streets of New York?

As to that question, when you find much to complain about people’s driving habits in this city, it’s not so much about taking it personally as it is about never expecting people to do right (and thus never being disappointed by their behavior), and as such reducing everything and everybody to base equations of velocity and direction. I’d liken it to video gaming, but I often find video games frustrating because the computer cheats. You can’t cheat physics.

I hope you made it to Riverdale alright, and I’m kinda surprised at the serendipity of seeing you (I think) along with a dozen other dudes bombing up Sixth Ave right as I got out of work, swarming the yellow cabs and express buses in our trek to the far north, occupying the space between the pragmatic application of the law and the reasonable acceptance of the public – that grey area where everybody actually lives. As I continue to play the corporate whore, and as gentrification threatens to swallow us whole, it’s heartening to have a little slice of the city which I can call my domain; to leave my mark.

I am Black

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A younger me

There was an argument I had with a Jamaican coworker a couple of months ago as to my self-identity. He took umbrage at my stated mixed heritage when asked by my boss – who brought up the subject primarily as a means of finding common ground. I could not be both black and white, he said. I have to choose. This sparked a debate among the largely Caribbean Black work crew, one that only got louder when I said, “if that’s the case, then by the one-drop rule, I’m Black.”

“But you can’t be Black.” Well then, let’s just strike right at the heart of it, why don’t we?

I am Tsalagi, Irish and Black; my boss was happy with the “Black” part, the field boss used such knowledge with a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek ribaldry – every time I fucked up on the job or kissed up to some high muckety-muck unnecessarily, that must be my “white half,” – but my fair skin, blonde hair and green eyes were too much for this one man to take. I’m white, he argued, because I could never truly have the Black experience.

It’s true, I could never truly have the “Black” experience: When my biological mother would take us on vacation in St Maarten, groundsworkers and clerks assumed she was my nanny. I could, at the age of five, successfully hail cabs in New York better than her. But her side of the family is Black, I am biologically Black, and common knowledge of such is and would have been enough to dictate my trajectory for much of America’s history. In fact, to describe myself would involve literally taking a page from the autobiography of former NAACP leader Walter Francis White:

“I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me. […]

“I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am. Yet I realize acutely that the only characteristic which matters to either the white or the colored race – the appearance of whiteness – is mine. There is magic in a white skin; there is tragedy, loneliness, exile, in a black skin. Why then do I insist that I am a Negro, when nothing compels me to do so but myself?”

White, a man of mixed heritage whose mixed-heritage parents were both born into slavery, could pass as white. Anita Hemmings, first Black graduate of Vassar College, did pass, and so did her husband and children; one of whom indeed had to in order to graduate from Vassar thirty years later. Passing has been a storied part of a color-struck community in a color-struck world – Blacks who could pass infiltrated whites-only vigilante groups and organizations as a means to funnel weaponry for self-defense during the race riots after WWI, were able to report on systemic discrimination more freely throughout the Jim Crow era, or simply hid in order to escape the trials of day-to-day bigotry.

It’s with this point of view, as a white Black man, as somebody who has always “passed” and exploited such at every possible turn, that I view the actions of Spokane NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal to be the height of cultural appropriation. The allegations that have come out – that she as a white woman with no Black heritage represented herself with a self-styled Black and sometimes Native American identity in order to gain scholarships or employment positions, that she lied about her own experiences and upbringing, including having suffered from discrimination, that she then used said image to become an authority on race and from said position make some truly questionable statements – paint the picture of a person whose actions are that of a sociopath and a narcissist.

To speak to just how hurtful it has been to the goals of the NAACP and of the national Black community, I am reminded of a passage by Malcolm X of “sincere white allies:”

“I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are “with us.” But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.

“Aside from that, I mean nothing against any sincere whites when I say that as members of black organizations, generally whites’ very presence subtly renders the black organization automatically less effective. Even the best white members will slow down the Negroes’ discovery of what they need to do, and particularly of what they can do—for themselves, working by themselves, among their own kind, in their own communities.

“I sure don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but in fact I’ll even go so far as to say that I never really trust the kind of white people who are always so anxious to hang around Negroes, or to hang around in Negro communities. I don’t trust the kind of whites who love having Negroes always hanging around them. I don’t know—this feeling may be a throwback to the years when I was hustling in Harlem and all of those red-faced, drunk whites in the after hours clubs were always grabbing hold of some Negroes and talking about ‘I just want you to know you’re just as good as I am—.’ And then they got back in their taxicabs and black limousines and went back downtown to the places where they lived and worked where no blacks except servants had better get caught. But, anyway, I know that every time that whites join a black organization, you watch, pretty soon the blacks will be leaning to the whites to support it, and before you know it a black may be up front with a title, but the whites, because of their money, are the real controllers.”

He’s describing, effectively, cultural tourism. Not for nothing does it feel suspect that this white woman would choose to wear a perm and make judgments about race – including some comments about the Blackness of Afro-Latinos that Latina community organizer Rosa Clemente took issue with, as well as a further allegation that she denied a Latina student the ability to participate in a discussion about race because she didn’t look Latina enough – as it does, apart from being extremely hypocritical, speak to the very issue as to how this can stall progress if not start a regression altogether. The very core of the debate about race – the inability to change who you are and how you are defined by the public – is both dismissed and subverted by her. The topic is now about her: She derailed the national discourse into one about her.

It reads like a scene out of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and a slap in the face of those whose actual heritage is often questioned. I am too white to be Black, too American to be Irish, too urban to be Indian, and yet I am all those things. I am also not what I’m not: My skin isn’t dark, my hair isn’t nappy, my accent indistinct. My experiences are what they are. They don’t match the given narrative very often, and I don’t attempt to make them (A cow don’t make ham). Why would I? I am authentic enough as to what I am as I am. It is hard enough being me without being somebody else.

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  • Published: Jun 11th, 2015
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 1

Subject Matters

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Jerry Seinfeld has come out to complain about how difficult it is to do comedy in today’s politically correct world. This is amusing, because Seinfeld hasn’t been funny in years. “I could imagine a time where people would say, ‘that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing notion, and you need to apologize,'” Seinfeld argued recently in an interview. “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.”

Comedians have always dealt in the taboo. Seinfeld in his heyday dealt in the taboo, the wanton opinions of the characters in his eponymous sitcom series the most obvious example. However, dealing in the taboo doesn’t by itself make one edgy, offensive or avant garde. How one handles the taboo determines such. A good comedian is incisive and insightful; peeling away sore spots of society like an onion and allowing us to ease up on ourselves. Seinfeld used to be the king at this with his observational humor. What a bad comedian is is dismissive and cavalier; alienating certain people in order to evoke laughs from others.

The question as to why this “gay people wave their hands like this” (itself evoking overtones of “black people walk like this”) would be offensive is as simple as figuring out what the punchline is and what it’s directed at. Louis CK, for instance, famously does bits where he comes to terms with his own inborn racism. This turns the punchline on himself, as well as finding human parallels with his audience. What would be the punchline when it comes to how gay people act? It has to be more than simply “they’re different, and that’s funny.”

This is why “oh, such and such offends everybody equally” is not an excuse: Because the type of humor, even when broaching taboo topics, need not be offensive. If the butt of your joke is an entire people, maybe you should rethink the joke. Not the subject – the butt. The subject can be any fucking thing you want, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Rape jokes aren’t inherently offensive, nor holocaust jokes or any other sensitive subject. Rape victim jokes, however… just ask Daniel Tosh, who got an immediate backlash for attempting to shut down a heckler with, “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

As example, I think South Park is shrill; a soapbox for two people who are little more than elevated internet commentators – their humor caustic, their targets simply lambasted on a larger stage, their acceptability predicated solely on the acceptability of denouncing their targets; fine when it’s Scientology in the crosshairs, not fine when it’s multiculturalism. Another elevated internet commentator, with all the implications there-in, is Dane Cook. I think Jeff Dunham is an abomination who plays to the base bigotry of his audience. I think Adam Sandler was never funny, and his entire career – along with proteges such as Seth Rogen – was based on cheap, lazy humor that paints in broad-stroke caricature.

By contrast, I think Dave Chappelle was able to toe the line of taboo because he understood the nature of that issue. His targets were stereotypes, not people. I know he quit initially because audience members started taking his punchlines to be broad-strokes caricatures – he hated when people started shouting back his Rick James skits to him, just as Chris Rock hated when people would start reading into his “two kinds of Black people” skit, turning him into an ersatz minstrel show. I think In Living Color was a fantastic example of how taboo topics could be broached, and in my opinion it launched the careers of funnier comedians than Saturday Night Live ever did, even if their seminal Chevy Chase / Richard Pryor skit was legendary.

It’s not about the topics. It’s about the punchlines, and if Seinfeld can’t figure that out, he’s about as unlovable as his television persona was.

Diversity and Gentrification

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You can’t swing a dead cat around without hitting an article about the ills of Gentrification, but they seem to lack a state of understanding as to what is desirable in its stead; once done, explaining why it is hurtful would be much easier. The real question of Gentrification is what a neighborhood should look like, for which the easy answer is that a neighborhood should be diverse. That, however, is split into “what do you mean by diversity,” and “why is diversity important?” The latter should explain the former:

I’ve sported throughout my life what would probably ungraciously be termed a jewfro. When I was a nerdy child growing up in the “hood,” far up in upper Manhattan, despite being in what was, at first glance, a hyper-macho conservative Catholic neighborhood, I was “shorty with a Jheri curl,” by older hoods who hung out on my block. I was simply a “faggot” out in semi-suburban, ostensibly multi-ethnic northern Queens, by crew-cut white kids tooling around in their mother’s sedan. In the suburbs beyond the city, I was beaten up regularly. The message was the same: “You’re different,” but the conclusion was different: “You’re different, but that’s entertaining,” “you’re different, and that makes you a target,” “you’re different, and we’re going to do something about that right now.”

I started studying City Planning because I noticed that the most tolerant and inviting places tended to be the places where different peoples were situated cheek to jowl with one another; where they were forced to interact on a daily basis. In this environment, I observed, it was difficult to broad-stroke characterize otherness because it would not only be proven verifiably false fairly regularly, but it would also incur the direct ire of those characterized. From the city to the ‘burbs, it seemed that the more people could be segregated – willingly or unwillingly – from one another, the more bigoted their purview.

The general gist of what I wanted to accomplish under City Planning was to figure out how the most accommodating of such circumstances could be writ large; turned into a stamp and stamped all across the nation and beyond. It’s no surprise that cities tend to be far more liberal than their suburban and rural surroundings, nor is it a coincidence. But what it means is fostering, through policy and economic guidelines, an environment that maximizes exposure to otherness.

That otherness may be ethnic, economic or philosophical, and generally speaking it should be all three, but the more exposure to it the more rounded each individual becomes and the more tolerant the society becomes as a whole. As all politics are local, it matters a great deal that on the street level this mixing does occur. When it doesn’t through the choices of its citizens, it becomes a gated community, which hurts everybody: Those within the community lose their purview of the world, those without the community lose insight into that community. In their stead comes resentment. One can see this with both Riverdale bluebloods and Borough Park Hasidim. When it doesn’t despite the choices of its citizens, it becomes a ghetto, which hurts everybody: Those within the community are left with a legitimate grievance to fester, and those without the community are left with a distorted view of events.

It’s in the latter of these communities that what we refer to as Gentrification is occurring, and it’s turning them into the former of these communities. But to describe the issue requires describing how Gentrification is not like other urban changes. To do so we can look at Bed-Stuy, originally a middle-class bedroom community of German, Italian and Irish small homeowners benefiting from new subway lines and cheap construction until the Great Depression, when aging housing stock and real estate steering brought in an influx of upwardly mobile southern Black families as well as those from Harlem into the neighborhood. A racially segregationist policy of redlining, a disinvestment in city services due to a fiscal crisis as well as unequal subsidies for homeowning in newly-built suburbs in Long Island contributed to a general White Flight, turning the neighborhood not only into the single largest Black community in the United States but also a massive ghetto.

It’s that neighborhood that is currently undergoing Gentrification, which is itself a confluence of economic circumstances: As the outlying suburbs of New York City have essentially been in a building freeze commensurate to the population for decades, and due to the housing crisis the city has been in since the Second World War, neighborhoods of decent housing stock and ready infrastructure access have been sought after again, despite decades of neglect. The only problem is that the people who have been living in those neighborhoods have two claims to them: One, they’re already there and have built a community in spite of everything, and two, they’re there for the same reason they’ve always been there – they have nowhere else to go. While racial segregation is de jure gone, it de facto remains due to economic segregation, which said Gentrification stands to turn into a crisis.

All of the afore-mentioned are results of proactive policy decision manifesting into economic realities: White families moved into this neighborhood because of a city investment in infrastructure and pro-development policy through multiple political consolidations. Black families moved in to this neighborhood because they were barred from most others. This neighborhood was affordable to them due to an economic downturn making it difficult for the existing families to maintain their housing stock coupled with a federal subsidy for them to move elsewhere. The ghettoification was due to a city that explicitly disinvested in the neighborhood in order to save more “desirable” neighborhoods closer to the urban core, as well as the institutionalized policies of racism. Gentrification is occurring due to the general region-wide disinvestment in infrastructure turning the remaining areas that still have such – even in a depreciated state – more economically desirable. However, the poor don’t just disappear.

The defense for Gentrification usually hinges on the fact that, for all the problems of Gentrification, the neighborhoods currently being Gentrified were already problematic. Indeed, Bed-Stuy was known for being a high-crime area on top of being a ghetto, and ghettos are pretty much the opposite of diverse neighborhoods. Having been a teacher for a few years in a public school in Brooklyn, I can see that it weighed on children when they saw zero role models that looked like them or came from their hood; stuck as they were in veritable deserts surrounded by the land of opportunity, mere blocks away from everything but worlds apart. But that Gentrification is not helping them: In this case, a rising tide does not life all boats.

The reasons are multifarious: Most working-class people in a neighborhood pay rent, and as such are quickly displaced when rents go up. Business that would cater to the needs of working-class residents would either change their stock to accommodate the new, richer clientele or die, leading to an exacerbated dearth of goods for the poor. Likewise, the new transplants, utilizing greater political power (due to more money, more free time, and a greater knowledge of bureaucratic protocol) often do not share the same desires for city services, and as such tend to defund or cut services they find “undesirable,” including social services, shelters, halfway homes, SROs, clinics or, indeed, anything else they don’t themselves use, in favor of services they use but may otherwise have an entry cost too dear for working-class residents. Instead of living side by side, one group supplants the other. The pendulum just swings between extremes.

This is distressing because in those brief moments between the extremes, we have had the greatest social vitality this city, country and world has ever seen. If this country’s claim to be a true melting pot, a grant social experiment, an exception amidst the world’s craven tribalism, is to have ever had any meaning, it is here and it is real. This city has led the nation in the purest form of civic- and public-minded pluralism yet seen and it is because we are all here together, working it out street by street. But this is a delicate balance, a sweet spot, and it cannot abide by extremes.

It all comes down to a zero-sum game: There’s only so much housing available, and so it’s going to go to those with the most means. The current policies in effect or discussed are mere patches on this reality: Rent regulation, which saves affordability for 45% of New Yorkers, is not a solution but a means to stave off mass-eviction until a solution may be found, and the current tax abatements for those who build a mere 20% of “affordable” housing among their market-rate apartments – in which “affordable” includes households making close to double the national average, leaving many working-class families out in the lurch – granting a mere trickle of housing units while losing billions in potential tax revenue, leading to laughably horrifying situations where 100,000 applicants vie for 100 units of new construction.

Gentrification is occurring because building is what we have not been doing, and as such it cannot be killed except through building or through eliminating the economic conditions that our lack of building has created. As such, the city has two basic options when it comes to policy decisions for our immediate future: Stay at the current population and impose price controls on everything, thereby preserving what diversity yet remains but killing the natural growth the city, or prompt an infrastructure and housing boom so large that the physical environment of the city is greatly transformed from its current state as to be almost unrecognizable, thereby preserving the human diversity by reinstating an economic equilibrium.

But ghettos and gated communities are the current obstacles to the latter option: The people of the gated communities cry that such building would disrupt the amenable lives they have created for themselves. The people of the ghettos cry that such would hasten their displacement for which they still have nowhere to go. The city can, through strong leadership, override these concerns for the greater good, for if it doesn’t, then the decision for the former option will be made for it by default, resulting in the eventual death of everything this city has stood for, diversity and all its benefits foremost among them.

Metropole Patois

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It’s a six-man operation, at least, behind the counter. A Cantonese venture set up like a Stanley Kubrick shot: All in one-point perspective, the wall-clock providing both focus and axis on the far side. An array of woks to the left, vat-like rice-cookers on the right, pallets and trash cans in the back, and a prematurely bejowled slight woman in her thirties in front, answering phone calls in broken English. She’s been here as long as I have. Broken English is the patois of business, and she knows it. All pleasantries minus the pleasantness; why prolong the farce?

Always they put women up front, on the phone, direct to the public. Presumably it’s because female voices are more of a soothing tone, but like the pleases and thank yous, its original purpose has long since devolved into tradition for tradition’s sake, just as the tough-guy demeanor of the head chef, barrel-chested, crew cut save for the faux-hawk, a sleeve of a dragon tattoo peeking out of his muscle tee. The Central American delivery boys (the job title never seems to rest easy on “men,” though men is what they are – everybody here is thirty if they’re a day) hop out of his way like goats before an oncoming jitney, surprisingly light-footed if outwardly unconcerned.

She stacks the orders wordlessly to the boys/men, he takes mine while she punches in some caller’s number on her computer – its stock and trade is delivery, especially on such a wet, rainy day as today; the front window facing out to naught but neon lights, harsh fluorescence from across the street, and twinkling of not-Christmas decorations refracted and rebounded across all surfaces, glaring and cold – and jokes/lectures in Cantonese to the other two cooks. He holds court with his bravado, she, perennially grim-faced, doesn’t bother to even notice. She certainly doesn’t hop out of his way when she goes back to pack delivery bags.

The other two are of a kind: An older man in his late fifties, and a younger man, both walking skeletons, couldn’t fill a shirt if it was wrapped around them twice, both donned in blank t-shirts, knock-off Levis jeans and baseball caps. The younger’s sports the camouflage pattern of the first Gulf War with some Eagle in front of a red, white and blue logo reminiscent of some minor sports league, so painfully outre as to exist in its own plane of existence: Twice through the looking glass of one’s own culture, incongruously in the epicenter of one’s own culture. They both grin and laugh at the big man’s ministrations, then sidle off and disappear at will.

The whole storefront is off a catalog of Broken English kitsch. The displays are straight off some identikit American Take-Out template; a calendar bears the logo of a restaurant supply chain proudly showing off every Chinese holiday in the known universe and some others besides, the ubiquitous Beckoning Cat figurine prominent among the tchotchkes – not originally a Chinese totem, in fact oddly Japanese, but yet an ever-presence in just about every overseas Chinese business from here to Havana. The storefront is an island, an embassy, its own sovereign property of, if not China, then overseas Chinese businesses. They’re self-supporting: Chinatown buses ferry Cantonese workers to every podunk township in the Eastern Seaboard specifically to staff joints such as this, like ships adrift in a sea of white people.

Speaking of white people, usually the only white people here are delivery customers. The bare, unadorned, tiny seating area for those with nothing else to do but sit and watch these short-order cooks cook, is usually peopled mostly by Hoods with a capital H. Those for whom Chinese-American cuisine offers fried chicken and french fries, and for whom there’s a TV that invariably shows Americana in its purest form: (Sur)reality shows. Not today, however; it’s raining too much. There’s only me and one white girl, wearing yoga pants and intermittently preening, like a particularly taciturn pigeon, in front of the full-wall mirror that’s supposed to make the 12-foot wide place look bigger than it is.

She asks for the menu – as identikit it is as any McDonald’s franchise – before hopping out of the way of one of the Central American men, despite towering over him by at least a foot. In fact, these men make even the lady behind the counter look tall, imperious though she is regardless, but each makes his presence felt nevertheless – unobtrusive but unrelenting. The man with two earrings, a facial scar, and a t-shirt advertising a boxing match, chats in Spanish to his younger companion, shoulder-length curly hair hidden under a baseball cap. The cooks chirp in Cantonese. The white girl preens. Oil and water. Cooking oil and rain.

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