Just another New York immigration story
At twelve-fifteen p.m. on a warm late May day, a young man stood by the side of the path leading from the 72nd Street entrance of Central Park into the children’s playground.
The air was full of children’s laughter. Nannies in uniform sat on benches in the playground, gossiping, holding toys in their hands while rocking baby carriages with their feet. Toddlers screeched as they circled the sandbox in their big plastic tricycles. A group of school kids in plaid uniforms ran down the path, soccer balls in their arms.
The young man was of average height, somewhat stocky, wearing well-pressed gray slacks, a white short-sleeved button-down dress shirt, and a narrow paisley tie. Three ballpoint pens were clipped to his shirt pocket. A clipboard with a sheaf of papers was in his left hand; a freshly sharpened pencil poised between his right thumb and forefinger. A list of questions was neatly typed on the top sheet of paper, which was headed “GRADUATE PSYCHOLOGY DEPARTMENT” in large capital letters. There was nothing extraordinary about his looks. In fact, for most of his life — he was twenty-eight years old — people had a difficult time describing him: “Kind of a quiet nerdy guy, average, studious.”
A multicolored beach ball came flying at his feet. He bent down, picked it up, and placed it into the outstretched arms of a little girl. “Here you go, sweetie.”
Then, as if on cue, he stepped in front of a young woman walking up the path.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he asked. “Can you tell me where Columbia University is?” He spoke softly, enunciating each syllable.
“Yes, the main entrance, I think, is on Broadway at 116th.” She had a faint, melodic Spanish-sounding accent. Her dark eyes focused on the clipboard.
“Very good. I was wondering, would you perhaps be able to take a few moments today to participate in my survey.”
I’m a doctoral student in psychology working on my dissertation. It would be very helpful.” He smiled. A broad, sincere smile.
“Your dissertation? What is it about?”
“I’m researching how young immigrants are adapting to urban life, life in New York City. Is that relevant for you? He studied her expression: Flattered, intrigued? Maybe. Definitely not frightened or annoyed.
She nodded, “Yes.”
“Good, good. Well, then, shall we begin?”
“I have one hour for lunch. Do you mind if I eat?”
“Not at all. Let’s sit here, okay?” He motioned to a bench facing a large play structure. A little girl in a blue shirt was hanging upside down from the yellow monkey bars. Beautiful, he thought.
The young woman studied the man’s short, sandy, freshly trimmed hair, the brown eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses, the same frames as Dr. Eisen, her boss’s, glasses. “Okay. But why did you ask if I know where is Columbia University?” Do you need to go there today?” she asked, concerned.
“I’m a teaching assistant there. Frankly, I qualify suitable subjects for my research with that question. If they don’t know the answer, they aren’t smart enough to qualify.” He smiled again.
“I see.” She followed him to the bench, sat down, smoothed her skirt, and placed a shiny white purse on the bench. She took a homemade ham and cheese sandwich from a brown paper bag, unwrapped it, took a bite, and wiped her lips on a paper napkin.
“Let me start with some introductory or background questions,” he began, even more softly. The rich aroma of the ham and pickles and mustard was making his mouth water. “I really appreciate this. It’s not easy to find suitable subjects. First of all, did you attend college?”
“Uh-huh. What is your occupation?” His pencil moved smoothly along the surface of the paper.
“Medical secretary.” She took a bite, swallowed, and licked a drip of mustard from the corner of her mouth.
“And for whom do you work?” He glanced at her feet. Pointy black shoes, pumps, he knew they were called, with small curvy heels. Hmmm.
“For two doctors on Fifth Avenue. Dermatologists. They specialize in dermabrasion and hair transplants for important patients.” She pointed to a granite apartment building, through the fence, across Fifth Avenue. “Their offices are on the ground floor.”
“Very impressive. Where were you born?”
“San Juan, Puerto Rico.”
He jotted down quick notes. “And your name, please?” He chewed the end of the pencil.
“Leen-da. Such a pretty name. I always liked that name. How old are you, Linda? ¿Quantos años tienes?”
“You know Spanish?”
“Only a few words, algunas palabras,” he smiled. “But I must do my research in English. Okay?”
She covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. “Okay!”
“And in which neighborhood do you live?”
“Excuse me? Can you repeat?”
“I realize that the playground noise is making it difficult to hear my questions. All I asked was where do you live.”
“Oh. Jackson Heights, Queens.”
One could not desire a more perfect subject, trained to be respectful, cooperative. And so lovely. Her black wavy hair, held back at the sides with combs, almost touched her waist.“Muy bueno. As I said, Linda, my research concerns attitudes of young adults, immigrants who are relatively new to the city. Now that I see you are an ideal candidate, we are going to get into the more specific questions. Okay?”
“Sure, como no?”She swallowed a last bite of sandwich, brushed crumbs from her skirt, took a large nectarine from her bag, and bit into it. A jet of juice squirted on his shirt.
“Oh! I am so sorry, forgive me.”
“Think nothing of it.” He did not look down or wipe his shirt. Then they both giggled. A bond, he thought. A bond is forming! Real communication.
Three boys, perhaps three or four years old, ran by, Batman capes billowing, mouths screaming, “Gotcha, gotcha!”
“Listen,” he went on. “This playground is too noisy at lunch hour. It will be easier for us to complete the survey if we move to a quieter spot. How about over there?” He gestured toward a bench about two hundred feet away, on a sunny spot on a hill.
“¿Como no?” she repeated. No giggles this time. She finished the nectarine, wiped her hands and chin, and put the pit and the napkin in the paper bag.
He guided her by the elbow up the grassy hill. She sat down on the bench, reached in her bag and pulled out a baggie full of cookies. “Would you like a polverón?”
“Thanks so much” He sat down next to her, not too close, and faced her. The cookie melted on his tongue. He savored its sweetness. Oh, how well this is going. How very, very, well. “Let’s go on, shall we? Let’s continue with your history. What age were you when you came to this country?”
“Twenty-two.” She took a bite of cookie.
“Uh-huh. Did you come with your family?” Scribble, scribble went his pencil.
“They stayed in San Juan.”
“I see. How did your parents feel about your coming here?”
“Aye, did they fight! Mami said, ‘My daughter can make it in America. She is an American citizen. Let her get a good education.’ Papi said, ‘Respectable young girls like Carmela must stay near their families, make someone a good wife, have children.’“
He looked down at the clipboard, the words on it, and rubbed his chin. “Excuse me, didn’t you say your name was Linda?”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure I should tell you.”
“I understand.” He smiled again, as if to say, all is forgiven; thinking, now she is really opening herself up to me.
“Anyway, “ she continued, “I had other relatives in New York, like everybody from Puerto Rico. For a few months I stayed with my tia, my aunt, in her apartment on East 135th Street. How I hated it there. Can I tell you something?” She folded up the paper bag.
“As I should have mentioned, Carmela, this survey is strictly confidential.” His pencil stopped moving. He looked into her eyes and touched the eraser end to his lip. Her flowery perfume was making him dizzy.
She shook her head and her hair moved in a glossy black wave “I could not stand to see how some of my compadres live here in New York. In such terrible places. It is sad.”
“I know what you mean. But that can be attributed to deficiencies in our governmental and economic systems. It isn’t entirely the fault of your, uh, compadres.”
“I had to get out of there.” She clenched her fist. Tiny beads of sweat glistened on the skin just above the neckline of her blouse.
Oh God. Where had he seen a blouse something like that? In his high school Spanish book, the illustration of Mexican women patting tortillas. Those puffy white blouses with low necklines. Where else, somewhere else, just last week? Yes, on the side of a bus! A St. Pauli Girl Beer ad: ‘You’ll never forget your first Girl.’ Breasts rising out of a white peasant blouse. You are doing well, very, very well, he told himself, just keep taking it slow.
“I am quite interested in exploring your point of view, Carmela. Frankly, it isn’t unusual.” Evenly, softly. “We are getting to the core of my research. But you must be so uncomfortable in this heat. I apologize, I picked a bad spot. Let’s move to somewhere cooler.”
She looked at her watch. “I have to be back at work by one-thirty.”
“No problem. No problem at all.” He led her up farther up the hill, over several flat boulders, to a shady area behind a cluster of trees. The playground noise was a low distant hum. “Much better.”
She sat down on the grass, put her purse down beside her, and wrapped her skirt around her knees. He positioned himself below her on the hill, balancing the clipboard on his lap. “Give me a minute to catch up on my notes, “ he said, flipping a page. “Now, where were we? Oh yes, your attitudes. To where did you choose to move?”
“That’s right, sorry.”
“You see,” she continued, “there are many Spanish-speaking people living there, in Jackson Heights. Bolivians, Colombians. They believe in education, in bettering themselves. They learn to speak English very well.”
“You speak beautifully.”
He had visited Puerto Rico himself. Once. As a tourist, of course. From behind the tinted bus windows on the expressway between the airport and the Condado Beach hotels he’d studied the pastel stucco houses with their small square yards with brown grass, their elaborate wrought iron grillwork barring the windows. He’d expected cardboard shacks over open sewers. Too much Oscar Lewis can do that to you. She’s probably from a nice pastel casita like that, middle class.
“With whom do you now reside?”
“I live by myself!”
“Uh-huh. And how many rooms is your apartment?” What a dumb question. Keep on track. “Never mind, I’ll give you a few moments to think about the advantages of living by oneself versus having the traditional support of the Latino extended family. Describe your feelings in as much detail as possible, please.” Oh God, almost there. There’s no one around, not a soul. My research. I’ll show them, Kinsey and Reich and Masters and Johnson and all of them. They’ll invite me on talk shows, to speak at conferences. I will write articles for the academic and popular press. I can see up her skirt right now! I have her at the perfect angle. Even though she tried to tuck that nice flowered skirt around her knees, I can see her thighs. Oh.
“Well,” she spoke directly, as if making a speech. “I don’t think you should think of Latin American people as different from any other people. Young single women have always come to New York, from Europe, from other states, from everywhere. She began to sing: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…” She giggled again, covering her mouth. And a lovely voice, too. “I mean, we get apartments, we get first jobs, we get promotions….”
He broke in: “I apologize. It was inexcusable of me to exhibit a stereotypical negative cultural bias. I’m sorry, Carmela. You see, I’m learning from you, as others will, too. You know, I was thinking,” he cleared his throat, “it would be so much better for us to continue at my place. I have a tape recorder there and some testing equipment, a more advanced phase of the survey. We could make a convenient appointment.”
She frowned. “That is not possible.”
“Okay.” Close call, careful, careful. Plenty of time. He thought about a magazine spread he’d clipped from Playboy years ago. It was still taped to the wall in his bedroom. In high school the guys liked to come over and read it and laugh. Complete This Sentence, read the headline: (Blank) said the lovely young thing as he (blanked) his (blank) (blank) into her (blankity-blank). The page was filled with lists of luscious subjects, verbs, objects, adjectives, expletives. Oh, all the combinations one could make! He had figured it out on his pocket calculator: 127,564. Which would it be this time? She had agreed to everything! Okay, okay! To the survey, to sitting next to him, to following him all the way here, she had even given him a cookie! Let’s get on with it.
“At this point in the survey I would like to address you technically, in the language of my field, behavioral psychology with an emphasis on endocrinology. I know that you work in a doctor’s office, but if you don’t understand a word or a question, please let me know? And don’t be embarrassed. After all,” he looked up at her with the same concerned expression the doctors used when they were about to stick a needle into a patient, “they talk about stuff that’s much more controversial on Oprah and Geraldo every day. Don’t they?”
It was very quiet. The children must have gone home or back to school. Carmela glanced at her watch.
The young man went on, more quickly. “It is getting late. Anyway, the male and female hormones are manufactured by the adrenal glands. During periods of arousal the glands secrete another substance, a phenomerone, which I am researching. Have you heard about phenomerones?” He pronounced it like tostones.
“No.” She frowned. But she was still flattered to be participating, still intent on answering the questions properly, trying to appear smart and interested, wasn’t she? What about that quizzical look on her face? Perhaps she doesn’t quite grasp the concept yet. The ache was almost unbearable. He shifted his weight. Just another few seconds. “Phenomerones are a type of non-steriod hormone composed of modified proteins. At certain times their molecular structure changes, and they become insoluble in the lipid cell membrane. It’s been well documented in the circadian rhythms of mating animals,” he went on. “For example, in the springtime, at this time of year. At this very moment, Carmela, Carmela, Linda, your adrenal glands are probably secreting this substance, lubricating your vaginal walls. It’s one of your natural bodily functions, ensuring that… here, let me demonstrate… I am really sure you will want to find out all about this phenomenon…”
The clipboard slipped to the grass. His left hand reached toward her. His right hand reached toward his belt buckle. His breathing came on fast and hard.
“Aieee!” She pushed herself up to her feet. She ran. She ran as fast as she could, fast, faster, faster, down the hill, panting, around the playground, sweating, past the toddlers and the nannies and the carriages, out the gate, her kitten heels clicking on the pavement, across Fifth Avenue, horns screeching, a cabbie cursing, past the doorman tipping his cap, into the dermatologists’ office, letting the heavy door slam behind her, letting out a long, long sigh, “Uuuh.”
Franny, the receptionist, was sitting at her desk in the waiting room, trying to apply red lip gloss precisely between the lip-pencil outlines she’d drawn. There was plenty of time before the doctors returned from the hospital and the patients started coming in. Carmela leaned against the wall, wrapped her arms around herself, and moaned.
“Carmela! What happened? What happened to you?”
“Aye, Franny, you’ll never believe it.” Carmela was panting, her hair hanging in sweaty tendrils, her white blouse half out of her skirt.
“Try me.” Franny put down the lipstick and pocket mirror and stood up, open-mouthed.
Carmela put her hands over her eyes and plopped down on the waiting room sofa. Franny sat down next to her, facing her. Carmela gulped out her story, not thinking about making herself seem less stupid, less naive. That would come in later tellings.
Franny shook her head. “I can’t believe you even talked to him! Why did you talk to him? Didn’t your parents teach you anything? What’s his name? We’ll call the police.”
“I don’t know his name! I didn’t ask him. He asked me all the questions.”
“He was telling you about sex hormones and you don’t know his name! You are mashugena. Crazy.”
“My purse. Where is my purse? I forgot my purse! Oh, no.” Carmela covered her face with her hands. “It must be on the grass somewhere.”
“I’ll go with you and we’ll look for it.”
“I can’t go out there! He’s probably still there.”
“I’ll go by myself. He won’t be interested in me.” Rose had an ample bust, but was sure her salt-and-pepper hair and sensible shoes would not be attractive to ‘the researcher.’
“Franny, what would I do without you?”
“Go on. I’ll be right back.”
At one-forty p.m., as the doorman tipped his cap at Franny, the young man was standing near the 60th Street entrance to the park. Carmela’s keys, cash, and photo ID were in his pants pocket. Her white patent leather purse and its other contents were in a dumpster on 68th Street. He had memorized her address and was running it over and over in his mind.
As if on cue, he stepped in front of a redhead in a blue business suit and asked, “Excuse me, Miss, can you tell me where Columbia University is?”
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