Tuesday night, I met up with two dear friends of mine, Chris and Janet. They’d gotten married earlier that afternoon at New York’s City Hall. They’d been together over twenty years, but only until last September did they decide to take the old legal plunge. You know, I’m thinkin’ they got a real chance at this. Here’s to hoping it lasts!
“It was very interesting,” Chris said. “You go into a big room with a bunch of other couples, then a very big black man stands up front, and with a boisterous voice and big hand motions announces, ‘BY THE POWER INVESTED IN ME BY THE STATE OF NEW YORK I NOW PRONOUNCE…’ It’s pretty amazing. There were young couples, old couples, gay couples, couples living in shelters carrying all their belongings, and Asian couples with the brides decked out in gold-lame dresses and crazy makeup and hair. There we all were…getting married at the same time.
On my way home that night, I decided to get out of the subway in Brooklyn and walk the rest of the way. Moving through the cold night air, I meditated on Chris and Janet and the other newlyweds – the eclectic mix of Americans tying the knot.
I meditated on it as I walked through Sunset Park, past its bodegas and restaurants with Spanish marquees in bright primary colors. On 4th Avenue the Chinese hood spills into the Latino hood. At a Chinese joint Latinos ordered in Spanish, then the clerk shouted the order in Chinese to sweaty cooks who then commenced to prepare a totally non-Chinese dish. “FRIED CHICKEN AND FRENCH FRIES WITH HOT SAUCE TO GO” sounds American whether it’s shouted in English, Spanish, Chinese or Jive Talk. There are quite a few Chinese joints on 4th Ave. in Sunset Park, their marquees also in shining bright primary colors. Similar. The Same.
I meditated clear on into Bay Ridge, where I passed my favorite Mexican food joint – operated by a Chinese guy. Then I walked passed Frank and Eddy’s deli, a great old Italian joint where an Asian dude named Daniel hooks me up. Next, I walked by the deli where I can get a damn good Philly cheesesteak sandwich prepared by a Yemeni short order cook. From there, I crossed the street toward the bodega where I get a cup of coffee most mornings, served by Tommy, a Brooklyn bred Irish/Italian fellow. He’s always on the phone, and after I thank him and he wishes me a good day, he resumes his phone call, speaking fluent Farsi with an old school Brooklyn accent. Finally, I made it to my apartment, lay my head on the pillow and contemplated the Great Ethnic Stew that is New York City.
Then next morning I got up to meet my friend, Osha. We were heading out to Give-the-Thanks with Tom, an old friend of hers out on Orient Point, Long Island – way out on the edge of the USofA. As I walked to my subway stop, I passed by a road crew. The workers were a bit pissed off, jabbering about how they have to work the day before Thanksgving. They jabbered away in English – every Irish, Latin and Asian one of them – but they seemed to be alright with their day of toil.
“Hey, least it’s mothuhfu$%in’ ovuhtime!”
At the steps descending to the subway, I passed a man pacing in a little semi-circle and speaking on the phone. He was well into middle age but had the concerned face of a little boy.
“I mean…I’m entitled to it, right? I been working all these years so I’ve been paying into it, ain’t I. I mean, that’s how unemployment works, right?”
On Thanksgiving afternoon, Tom drove us out to where the Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. As I walked about the beach I looked out as far as I could see. 3,300 miles of ocean, then Europe. Nothing in between. I imagined that if my eyes were stronger, I could see clear to the Old World. I may have even squinted and tried to see, but alas, my vision isn’t strong enough to see so far. I can’t see back into Time.
And seeing that far really would be staring into Time. Because if I could see Europe from that beach – and the rest of the world, for that matter (for those who still believe the world is round) – I would see the uncooked ingredients of America. I would see every single nationality that makes up the USofA, even past the white ingredients of Europe and Britain, to the yellow, red, black ingredients…all the colors that make up America, in their natural habitat. I would gain, instantly, a perspective that would allow me to gaze upon America with a little more clarity. I would understand that things have to mix thoroughly before we can take The American Stew off the stove. I would understand that it’s hot in the pot, and no cooler for anybody else, and I would be a little more understanding, a little more patient, a little gentler with the other ingredients. But again, I can’t see across an ocean. I can only see the ingredients up close in the great big melting pot of America. as we bump up against each other on the subway, the street, a stairway or elavator, a line at a meat truck…somewhere. But we burn like hell together and blend – sometimes violently – together.
We had turkey, clams and lobsters for thanksgiving dinner. It was my job to plop the still living lobsters into the boiling pot. It was a much more difficult task than I thought. One of the lobsters spread out its claws and tale, bracing itself against the rim of the pot and refusing its fate. I didn’t know what to do. I glanced over at Osha and Tom, both shucking clams as if it were second nature. They said nothing, but gave me a look that said, clearly, “Quit bein’ a sissy and shove ’em in the water.” So I did and I’m still rather disturbed by it. But that evening I found solace in the wonderful aroma of so many things cooking in the kitchen. So many ingredients being chemically broken down by heat, then fusing together to form something fine and tasty.
I inhaled the beautiful aroma, closed my eyes, and on the backs of my eyelids I saw all us Americanos swirling around in the great big pot of boiling water called America. I saw us breaking down chemically, ceasing to be what we were, and fusing together to become something new and delicious – never before tasted. And it was ok for us to change into something new…it wasn’t like America was dying. It was merely change. America is the pot of boiling water, and will stay America, no matter what ingredients are put into the pot.
I kept my eyes closed and witnessed a sudden history of the United States. Not of wars and God given Imperialist undertakings, but a more accurate history of the States: The History of the Immigrant. I saw an immigrant who came over here and worked from sun up to sun down at a very hard job for very little pay so that his or her children would have a better life in America. The Immigrant somehow found time to fall in love – maybe get married at the city hall – and have first, second, third generations, all the way to you and me. Others spat on our relative, cursed our relative, and shouted out to our relative that they were stealing their jobs. Our relative cleaned off the spit and abuse at the end of a very long workday of building a railroad or a brick building, toiling in a sewing shop, cleaning trash of the street, working somebody else’s cattle, farming somebody else’s fields, serving breakfast lunch and dinner all day long to somebody else, or toiled in some other version of hard labor. Our relavtive lay his or her head on a pillow at night and the next the next thing they knew it was morning. No dreams – they just got up and lived the same day again. Dreams were for their children. The Asian immigrant cooking in the Mexican food joint stands on his feet from sun up to sun down for his children to dream.
Or does he? Is he doing it for the his children’s future, or simply go through the motions and accepts a life of toil, soaked in grease, as one bill comes in after another, and he skips one payment to make another? Is he only making payments now, with never any cash left over to put away for a college tuition for his daughter who works the cash register after school? Does he lay his head on the pillow at night, after a few hours of stupid idiocy on the TV? Does he toss and turn in bed, unable to understand why he’s so unhappy? Does he spit back at the assholes who bark their food orders at him – those who also hate their own lives but also can’t quite tell you why? Does he bark at his daughter every time he sees her? Does she hate her father, perhaps embarrassed by him, even ashamed of his hideous backwardness? Is the daughter ashamed to dream? Can anybody dream anymore? Will his daughter have to get meningitis, or get hit by a car, for him to remember why he works so hard? Will the daughter have to drift into a coma just to dream?
I open my eyes and I’m back in the kitchen. Tom and Osha have shucked the clams and moved on to other things. The aroma was even richer, palpable in the kitchen’s atmosphere. I smelled so many things, but I couldn’t smell one single thing. That excited me, because that meant it was almost time to eat. My stomach growled as we set the table.
When all of the ingredients in the Great American Boiling Pot finally dissolve, we will fuse together and will make one fine tasty meal. It will be so nourishing. No one will be able to single out one nationality – it will be a new and exciting dish. The Child called Our Future will sit down at the Great Table, where the American Meal awaits to be devoured. As The Child sticks the fork in, it will say, “I am thankful for this meal, prepared by those who loved me. Amen.”
Later that evening, with a full belly, The Child will lay its head on a pillow. And The Child will dream.
Until then, it’s on us to take the heat together.
Adios, zai jian, bedrood, ciao, so long blood and take it easy, my fellow ingredients…