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.


Runaway Hit

(Over the past year, I’ve participated in a few The Moth Story Slams in Asheville. This tale I told back in June of 2016 –the subject of the night was Fathers. The text version (more or less) is below. I won that night)

Please note: there is cursing

My parents divorced when I was thirteen years old. I’d seen it coming for a while. There was tension. There were arguments. There were spectacular displays of passive aggression. There were of self-help books and Outward Bound and repeat plays of Steve Winwood and  Paul Simon’s Graceland, which suggested that someone was having a midlife crisis. In the late 80s, parents splitting up felt like a rite of passage, falling somewhere between Growing Out Your Spiral Perm and Discovering The Cure on the road through puberty. They worked out a custody plan, Dad moved into an apartment in the same zipcode and I spent a lot of weekends there failing to communicate with my father. We argued a lot. We had a lot in common, which we mutually seemed to ignore. He didn’t seem to realize how unhappy I was or that my version of unhappy went deeper than “sucks to be thirteen.”

My father could be oblivious. I knew that. Sometimes it takes something big for him to notice, said my mother. Sometimes it takes a grand gesture.

It was Dad’s idea that I go to boarding school. He’d been to a place in Virginia for a when he was a kid and he sent me out to tour the school in October of my freshman year. It was beautiful. Students made eye contact, some even talked to me without making sure no one else had seen them talking to me.  They recited Shakespeare and used British names for things. I had been so lonely and so miserable for so long.  It seemed like heaven. I told Dad I was in.

Once I got accepted, I felt liberated. I could walk through the crowds of assholes unfazed because I would never have to see any of them again. I mouthed off. I cut class. I crashed a party at the most popular kid in my class’s house on the last day of school and didn’t even care that I got called out.  I burned bridges. I didn’t give a shit. It felt great.

So it came as some huge surprise to me when my father cavalierly announced in the car one night, about a month before my sophomore year started, that he’d changed his mind. He’d been thinking about it and thought it was an unnecessary expense and that I’d be returning to public high school in the fall. Dad was often wonderful, but was famously mercurial in those days. I was accustomed to spur of the minute changes and altered promises I’d known better.I sat stunned in the back seat and felt the seams of my new life sort of fall apart. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go back to being lonely and bored and miserable and friendless and directionless. I couldn’t go back to plugging my ears in a bathroom stall so I wouldn’t hear my ostensible friends talk shit about me during lunch. I could go back to wishing I were invisible.

I decided to run away. It was a stupid and desperate and counter-productive, but so is being fifteen. I coerced my father into taking me by my mother’s new house, where I rooted through drawers fetching mixtapes, band t-shirts, my cool new sneakers, the jar of cherry red hair dye I’d never been brave enough to try. I threw them all in my backpack and met my mother in the kitchen. I looked at her. I wanted to tell her what was happening, but I knew she couldn’t help. She couldn’t afford to pay tuition. She didn’t really approve of private school.  She thought my misery was at least partially self created. And maybe she was right. I told her I loved her and  gave her a hug that I hope would suffice if I never saw her again

At Dad’s house, we watched old episodes of “Saturday Night Live.” I was electric with anticipation, and I found it both galling and also vindicated that my father was so oblivious. As time passed, he and my sister drifted off to bed, leaving me plotting in the blue light of the television. It was maybe 10:30.  I called the bus station. My plan was to go to San Francisco. I’d never been there. I know anyone there, but it seemed like an iconic place to run to. The lady at Greyhound said they had a bus leaving at midnight thirty for Atlanta. I could get to California from there. I was like, perfect timing.

I dyed my hair. It didn’t seem like enough. I poured myself a half teacup of scotch and cut it all off, which felt like both a handy disguise and a statement of purpose. New fucking life. I packed a backpack with two changes of clothes, four mixtapes, a Walkman, six novels, deodorant and a toothbrush. I took Dad’s credit cards, all of the cash out of his wallet and a half-empty pack of Winston Lights. He was in the process of trying to quit and I was technically a few months away from starting. But smoking seemed like the sort of thing a tough runaway with seriously punk rock hair would do. I took his keys, thinking I would drive his car to the bus station, but I’d only had a few lessons with the stick shift and, after several frustrating, panicked attempts, realized I couldn’t even get his car out of the lot. So I ran back of stairs, replaced the key  and called a cab.

The driver was an old white man with a thick county accent with hair like late-period Elvis. He didn’t say much, as he drove me to the bus station, and I was glad for that. When we got there, I paid him and rushed in. There was only one person still there. She told me I’d missed the last bus by about ten minutes.

I don’t know how most people deal with anticlimax. As it turns out, I cry. A lot. I went into the bathroom, and upon seeing my cherry red, chewed up self  in the ugly flurorescent light. I cried more. It took about ten minutes for me to sort myself out and buck up and face options ranging from mostly unpleasant to utterly humiliating.

To my surprise, the taxi drive was still sitting outside. He rolled down the window and said, “Darlin? You need me to take you back home?”

I nodded and started crying again and let him drive me back to my Dad’s house. HI tried to pay him but he wouldn’t let me. “I got a daughters,” he said. “I wouldn’t want them out this late either.” And then he said something about the Lord making things okay, but prayer never did me any favors, so I just hid out behind the stairs until he drove away.

I couldn’t bear to go upstairs. I couldn’t stand to see my father—I was still angry. I was still hurt—and so I set off during the wee hours, to walk to my mother’s house. It felt like a weird, brave nighttime odyssey through danger but in reality, it was about a mile and a half, through the mean streets of North Asheville.

My mom is a night owl. She was awake, reading a novel, when I shuffled up to the back door and tapped on the glass. She started and sat gobsmacked as I turned the knob.

After a short, frankly unhelpful conversation about what I did to my hair, she sent me off to bed and said we’d deal with it in the morning.

We called Dad the next morning around ten am, at which point neither he nor my sister had noticed I was gone and, in fact, responded with remarkable passivity. Was I still planning to come to my sister’s birthday picnic? Would I mind stopping at the store and picking up some groceries since he didn’t have a wallet?

A couple days later he agreed to send me to boarding school and I was relieved. I had a few more grand gestures I’d thought about in the meantime, but I thought if Dad and I were going to make it through high school, I should probably keep a few in my back pocket.

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