The Immigrant Experience

This is maybe my secret favorite of the stories I’ve told at the Moth. The written version–not quite the same, but reasonably close to–is below.

It was crazy hot, like ludicrous hot, and we’d been to about  nine bars because I had only had two days to visit people in, like, seven different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We’d walked miles and drunk the fluid equivalent. We being me, my best friend Anna, her pretentious boyfriend and this soft-spoken Irish guy who’d been “mauled by the Celtic Tiger and was making a go of it” in the New World. The boyfriend brought him along, I thought, as a nod toward a double date, or perhaps a way to occupy me while he made eyes with my best friend, but informed me, at the last bar, while Irish was up buying a round, He’s really not into you, right? He’s never going to be into someone like you.  So you can stop embarrassing yourself.

This sounds kind of brutal and it was, but he was an asshole and I had always been a fat woman, so nothing new and remember nine bars so the sting was diminished. Irish came back with beers and no water, which was a mistake, and a mistake we’d been making pretty consistently since bar three or four. Did I mention it was hot out? Because it was, at 3am outside temperature still hovered somewhere between Dantean and surface of the sun. The bar wasn’t air-conditioned. Neither was Anna’s apartment, but it was close by. She had half a bottle of flat Prosecco, some whiskey and rooftop access which sounded like a fantastic idea because nine bars, no water, sidewalks like griddles.

Anna lived in a questionably residential post-industrial building on a mostly uncharming block. We clattered up the five flights of urine-scented stairs to the roof. A few miles to the west, the fantasy of Manhattan twinkled in the distance. Great view, said the Irish guy and then complimented my sweat crusted, booze drenched dress. I smiled and stood beside him on the ledge. The air was so thick and hot; I swear it would have caught me if I’d stepped off. I would have just hung there suspended like some sort of alcoholic Spiderman.  But I was pretty well tethered to my infatuated delusion that I was going to get busy with this hot immigrant on this New York rooftop on this sultry night and even drunk I recognized d my fantasy life was such a dumb cliché. I thought I have this lipstick that kind of reminds me of “West Side Story.”. I ran downstairs to apartment. I shut the door.

And then somehow, it was 6:30 am. I’m drooling into a sofa cushion, fully dressed, still clinging to a tube of lipstick. Hot bright terrible sunlight shone in through the high windows and I was in transcendent misery.  It was a hangover at once completely pedestrian and yet utterly sublime, the very quintessence of hangover, the torrid love affair of exquisite pain and poor decision-making. I staggered to the bathroom, where I took the first few violent steps toward redemption. Afterwards I sat fully dressed in a cold shower for about half an hour. After a time, I collected my soggy effects and the throbbing shreds of my dignity and return to sofa, where I closed my eyes and prayed for death.

This was not to be, for I woke to the sound of a cleared throat and found Anna perched on a desk across the room, looking as wraithlike as I felt.

“Why are we awake?” I asked.

Because at about four in the morning, I had bought tickets to tour a 19th century tenement at 9:30 this morning. “We used my credit card,” she said.

She announced that we were going, ordered me to get dressed and promised to alleviate any concerns about Irishman once we got on the subway (Spoiler alert: nothing).

It was as it had been the day before –miserably hot. And today, each step hurt, every rattle, every loud noise, every shaking second of the train ride threatened my fragile equilibrium. We joined a well-dressed mob of middle aged tourists led by an enthusiastic young guide on the Lower East Side and slogged across Orchard Street to see how the immigrants lived.

The first stop was a replica of a 1840s apartment. Our fellow tourists gawped in horror at the conditions. , Anna and I viewed the surprisingly-roomy-for a one bedroom with real envy. “This is just lovely,” I said. “The light. The minimalist antiques. I would love to live here.” My best friend sighed. “This neighborhood? We could never afford it.” I shook my head; felt my stomach lurch and decided to cease any sudden movement until I was sure I wouldn’t barf. “Lucky immigrants,” I said.

“That’s right,” said our tour guide. “They were lucky. Many died trying to get to America. So many never made it. Many struggled for years upon arrival.  How many of you had ancestors who came through Ellis Island? Who may have lived here in the Lower East Side?”

Everyone else in the tour group raised their hands except for me and my friend We listened to bits of family history, as the guide went person to person, through Irish and Ukrainians, Chinese and Puerto Ricans, Italians and Lebanese.

Of course, Anna and I were both southerners, from similar mongrel, mostly Scotch-Irish redneck stock that came over long enough ago that no one cares why, but has been on the wrong side of history ever since. We don’t have immigrant stories, but we have crazy preacher stories, of crazy old racist uncle Marvin stories with his metal detector on the family farm still looking from the apocryphal silver someone hid from the Yankees under the tobacco barn. And yet here were, sick with overindulging on city, sweating profusely in a shabby 19th century slum that was definitely out of our price range. Perhaps to share in the collective misery of this iconic experience that’s supposed defines us as Americans. It was at least as cliché as making out with a depressed Irishman on a Brooklyn rooftop, but at I guess it had some historical value.

I wonder if Anna will say she’s emigrated from Appalachia when they get to her, but before I can ask, I sway, suddenly woozy.

Anna caught my arm and pointed to the pool of my own sweat I was standing in. And it occurs to me that the melting pot may very well be a literal term.

“You want to ditch the tour before we pass out?” she asked.

“But we haven’t even gotten to typhoid,” I say. “Wouldn’t that be disrespectful?”

She shakes her head. “I think we already know what that feels like.”

And so we edge to the back of the crowd and flee the building, we tired, we poor, we huddle masses, yearning to breathe free . . . ideally somewhere with air conditioning.

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