Morning at Ping Pong

Sergio is always the first to arrive. He wears a low-cut yellow tank, the v-neck down to the sternum, exposing tanned skin that has taken him through eighty-three winters. Wiry white chest hairs escape from the skimpy tank top. He has been on the table since ten, having walked from his apartment on 39th Street and Sixth Avenue. “Twenty years I been living there,” Sergio says, laughing wryly like this fact is incredible. “I seen the ping pong tables when they first come.”

“Did you come to the park before the ping pong?” I ask. I know the answer will be no, but I want to see if he is the kind of New Yorker who fetishizes or derides old midtown.

“No, no,” he says. “It was no good before. Drug dealers there,” he points at the 41st Street porch, where tourists watch an accordionist. “And there”–the back of the library, lined with restaurant patrons dining al fresco.

He plays for an hour more or so, with Rev, who has a lazy eye and a benevolent smile. Rev tells Sergio he needs a wife. Sergio laughs but his eyes are hard. “I like to be alone,” Sergio says.

“But man was made to be loved by woman,” Rev says. “There is a woman out there for every man.”

“What about the men who love men?” I ask. “And the women who love women?”

Rev shakes his head, still smiling like he knows some calming truth we don’t. “Self-serving,” he says. “It bears no fruit.”

“I am going to SPiN,” Sergio says suddenly. SPiN is the indoor ping pong club. Not free of charge, like the park, but free of proselytizing. Sergio pulls a string backpack on over his stooped shoulders and heads toward Sixth Avenue, his yellow tank top soon indistinguishable from the taxis whirring by.

Advertisements

Childhood

Childhood was Brandon Jones in the backyard at dusk, waiting to catch fireflies. We never saw each other outside of school, and really I only knew him as some girl or another’s crush. People said he lived in West Brattleboro in a small apartment with uncles and cousins instead of parents. He must have walked by and looked up at our big house–with its inviting picture window lit through gauzy curtains, hinting at something wonderful within—and ached to be part of it.

It was our weekly movie night and we were piled onto the couches and chairs on the top floor, getting ready to watch something family friendly, or moderately so, because Mom was a little lax with the movie choices. “Brandon is down there,” someone said. “Brandon Jones.” I doubt if I was even surprised, because kids seemed to show up on our back porch without warning quite often. There was the time Cody and Ryan Houston played basketball in our driveway, not knowing that a new family had moved into the empty house kitty-corner to theirs. They left when Dad went outside to find out who they were; this was before September 11, and I’m sure two pre-teen Vermonters had never heard an Arabic accent before. They might not have even known what Arab was. There was the time Sean Ferguson, (who, like Brandon, lived way across town in an area we only drove past when going to the local diner for Belgian waffles), called the home phone and said, without introduction, “I’m in a comfortable chair on a back porch with a golden dog.” That, of course, was our prized Adirondack chair, and our smiling golden retriever Annie, and our back porch. My girlfriends and I spilled down two flights of stairs, a wave of giggles, and there Sean was, all dimples and sparkling go-light green eyes. There was the time Tosh from next door came through the gap in the fence like a stray cat, looking lost and beat up. On his side of the fence there were junky cars littering the yard and young women with kids, and there was always a stepdad or something yelling at him. We didn’t like Tosh much, but we let him stay on our side until the swell on his cheek lessened or the bloody nose dried up.

It wasn’t so surprising to see Brandon, then, because backyards seemed permeable. We climbed fences and roamed into alleys and buildings and corners of town that didn’t belong to us, but only because nothing seemed to belong to anyone. That’s how Bridget and I found Strawberry Fields, a stretch of wild grass a few twists and turns from the house. We lounged on the grass until it became too itchy, and Bridget wove flowers into our hair. When we skipped back to my yard, where mom was grilling for friends (this was before everyone was vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian), all of the adults smiled at us like we were a pleasant sepia-toned memory they had just unearthed.

Down the road from Strawberry Fields was another discovery, the Hobo Trail, which seemed to have been built for our convenience. Me and the Houston boys lived atop the steep Estey Hill, and two of our gang, Katie and Ava, lived at the bottom. They scaled the hill in freezing New England winters, jeans wet to the knee with snow and air needling exposed skin, and in humid New England summers, the air viscous and fragrant and coated over everything, thick as marmalade. One day during what could have been a hide-and-seek game or just a walk in search of town secrets, one of the Houstons tripped and crashed through the thorny bushes that obscured the trail’s entrance. “Hey, come in here!” he shouted. We followed, and found that the trail led straight down to a white one-room church at the bottom of Estey Hill, just near Katie and Ava’s. The Hobo Trail became our preferred route, but no matter the direction we always met each other halfway and hiked the path as swiftly as Orpheus, since nobody would hear you scream from there—the trail was canopied by trees and cut above a converted factory complex. Even our concept of danger, though, was juvenile, driven by imagination rather than reality. An insane asylum bordered the town, and we imagined a patient might get loose and snatch us from the Hobo Trail. It never happened, of course, but it would have been a good story to pass down to younger siblings except for the fact that all of us were the babies of our households.

Who knows how much time Brandon and I spent catching fireflies? The grass, shaggy and overgrown, nipped at our skinny ankles as we roamed the yard. We were silent, as if our voices would disturb the chorus of chirps and flutters that filled each New England night. Catch and release. Catch and release. We tangled our fingers together and scooped the fireflies into our palms, holding the creatures only until they offered a performative twinkle. Immediately, we’d let go. If one held on too long, the magic was lost.

Leather Jacket

“Ms. A is torturing me,” Leah says. Her posse—Hana, her black hair streaked with purple; Jamila, always swaying unsteadily like she’s not exactly sure how to balance on sprouting limbs; Leslie, a head taller than her friends, contorted downward so as to hide from her impending beauty—turn to face me, eyes wide and unblinking, like a set of dolls.

“Why is that?” I check all of them off on the attendance sheet. Paul leans over my shoulder, having just shouted “I’M HERE! I’M HERE!” in my ear. “I see you,” I replied. He has come to fact-check. Now his blue-eyed gaze is directed away from the attendance sheet and toward the quartet of girls. For once, he is silent, probably in hopes of gaining some insight into what makes these creatures tick.

“Your jacket,” Leah whines. She has braided her sleek brown hair with a ribbon intertwined so that she looks sort of like a My Little Pony. “I want a leather jacket so bad but my mom won’t get me one.”

“Why won’t Mom get you one?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Leah says, with the same anguish that animated her when the sixth-grade talent show coordinators wouldn’t let her sing a particularly angsty Lorde song. Her wallowing is briefly interrupted when her gaze flickers toward an enthralled Paul; Leah has already turned Michael and Kevin down for pizza-and-movie dates this week.

“Here.” I slide my jacket off and offer it to her. The slack leather, pockets bulging with keys and credit cards, is heavy in my grip as it sways in the space between us. “Go ahead,” I urge.

Leah pauses and glances around as if she might get in trouble. Then she slips into the jacket and skips away, ladies-in-waiting shuffling behind her. “It doesn’t even fit her,” Paul observes as he fans a set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards out on the sticky cafeteria table. Indeed, two Leahs could slip into the leather jacket’s wide shoulders. Nevertheless, she struts from table to table, posture upright and giggles loud, donning the garment like armor.

Oh Captain, My Captain

derek-jeter

I always have trouble writing about baseball. My favorite seat at Yankee Stadium is the very middle of the very top row of the uppermost deck, directly behind home plate. From there, you can see the entire park laid out in front of you: the bursting stands, the immaculate emerald field, the glimpse of the train whirring by through the gap between the bleachers and right field. There’s something about the immensity of that scene contrasted with the specificity of baseball—the act of working the 3-2 count from an 0-2 hole, the bloop single, the centimeters that decide whether or not you beat out the throw to first—that makes the game almost beg for metaphors. Is what you find in that park, in that seat, in that moment between the third out and two outs with one on, is that somehow America in its essence? Does human nature lay in that moment? I’ve never been able to nail down what all of it means to me, or in general.

I remember, though, being in fifth grade, still new to New England and trying to figure out where I fit in. There was a Patriots flag hanging on the wall above my teacher’s desk, and a green monster in the corner near the closet. Ever the contrarian, and perhaps just looking for something to make me stand out, I impulsively stated that I was a Yankees fan when Matt Vanasse broached the baseball subject with me. “I bet you can’t name five Yankees players,” Matt sneered. I remember going home and looking the team up, reading through the roster. Every article I found related to the Yankees seemed to mention Jeter, the green-eyed captain. I vaguely recalled the signs I had seen on my first visit to Yankee Stadium, with “Marry Me Jeter” scrawled in marker. “Who is that?” I asked my mom at the time. Now, as I made myself into a Yankees fan in the heart of Red Sox nation, I had to admit that the guy was pretty worthy of matrimony, based on looks alone. That was before I understood the honor with which he led the team, the sly humor, the predilection for clutch hits. I probably loved Jeter before I loved baseball. When I listed not five but ten players for Matt V. the next day, I said “Derek Jeter” first. And he will always be the first, the best, for me. He represents how I became a fan and why I stayed a fan and what makes the Yankees, and baseball, great.

I remember that on a humid deep summer day in New England, me and my Yankee fan friends and my Red Sox fan friends, all of us thirteen years old or so, piled into my house’s third-floor attic for an afternoon game at Fenway on NESN and stayed there late into the night, when the second bout in the doubleheader finally ended. And then we got back up just a few hours later for yet another afternoon game. I don’t remember anything specific about the series, but I recall the silence when Jeter came up, the lack of heckling from the Sox fans. That silence was fear—of the ubiquitous single slapped the other way, perhaps—and respect. “I don’t hate that guy,” my friend Ryan, a Sox fan to his bones, once admitted. Jeter was a player we, the fans, could be proud of.

I remember being a teenager, hanging out at the old Stadium in my usual seat (I lived just across the bridge from the Stadium and would walk over at any opportunity), pounding the chainlink fence behind me to propel a rally against the Sox forward. A few drunk fans in the upper deck had been jawing at each other all game. Honestly, the Yanks fans were in the wrong; they’d been harassing some Bostonians since the first inning, and the jabs had only gotten worse as the innings progressed, the Sox lead grew, and the alcohol levels increased. As the Yankees fans continued to spit vitriol at the Sox fans, Bob Sheppard interrupted: “Now batting, num-ba 2, Der-ek, Jeet-a.” All eyes reached the plate. One of the Sox fans stood up and screamed, “He’s garbage! He’s trash compared to V-tek.” The entire section of the upper deck erupted in boos. “Throw. Her. Out!” we chanted. “You don’t insult our captain in OUR HOUSE!” one man shouted. Security guards took the bewildered woman by the arm and guided her away, to uproarious applause. I would normally never support the violation of this woman’s freedom of speech, but for the captain, we would do anything. That was Yankee Stadium justice. He’d probably disapprove, but that was Jeter justice.

Someday I’ll take my kids to Monument Park. I will show them the 42, then the 2. How will I be able to communicate how much that number meant to me? How much of my childhood and young adulthood were defined by that number, how it brought me to a place where I, in many ways, found a sense of self, of community, of hope? Will the game mean the same thing to my child? I guess there’s no way to know, but for now all I can say is thank you, my captain. I’ll miss you, and I’ll remember you.

Heartbreak in Homework

David is depressed. His brown eyes, usually flickering with bad ideas, have gone dead, and he cups his cheek in his palm, head lolling to the right. “What’s wrong with David?” Adam says, spinning around in his chair. Adam is David’s best friend, but they are not sitting together this homework period since Adam, within two minutes of the start of class, was moved to a table in the corner of the room where he might quiet down and focus. Lydia, too, has been moved away from her gaggle of girlfriends in the room’s far right corner and sits to my right, with Adam to my left.

“David, WHAT’S WRONG?” Adam yells. (David is less than two chairs away.) I try to quiet him down, but now the class has joined in and a chorus of pleas for David’s attention quickly becomes a class guessing game: why is David sad?

“He’s bored,” Carlos posits, inexplicably wandering from his seat across the room to my table as if he’s about to argue this point before me.

“He’s depressed!” Eric shouts with curious glee from behind his Harry Potter spectacles.

“He’s lonely,” Hanna proclaims, setting down her pencil with a finality that frightens me. She, too, stands up for no reason. “David?” She waves a tiny hand in front of him. David does not respond. I notice that Lydia is not entering the David fray, and remember that they recently began dating, in sixth-grade terms. His forlorn face, then, is obviously the expression of heartache.

Suddenly Mario, who was miraculously focused on writing a Reading Log summary a minute before, careens out of his chair toward David.

Flashback to three minutes ago: Mario, a perennial problem student, is doing his usual incoherent growling routine since I will not sign his Reading Log. He has presented it to me blank, with no summary of the text, although I saw him doing what appeared to be reading. “Write the summary and I’ll sign it,” I say.

“Fine, my mom will sign it,” he replies, pivoting away so forcefully that he almost falls over. Just seconds later, Eric—tables away but apparently eagle-eyed—yells, “Mario is forging his mom’s signature!”

I jump up from in between Adam and Lydia and grab the Reading Log as Mario concludes his forgery. “Who is his ELA teacher? I’ll let her know,” I say. Always more inclined to see a student get in trouble than help him, Mario’s classmates excitedly yell out the name of their ELA teacher.

“What? That’s illegal?” Mario takes the paper back and immediately erases the signature. “Just sign it!” he yells. I try not to stare at the raised scar on the top of his hand where he bit through the skin a few weeks ago, leaving a frightening trail of blood through the stairwell.

“Write the summary.” I point to the blank box and sit back down next to Adam, whose delicate focus is beginning to wane from his Muhammad Ali book.

Mario stands back up and approaches me gingerly. “What’s a summary? How do you write it?” he asks quietly.

I am relieved. So he isn’t just trying to cause trouble; he doesn’t understand what to do. I ask him to tell me what he read about. “Mummies during the Ice Age,” he explains. For a moment I contemplate whether or not this could be true, but then remember that Brad Pitt has a tattoo of Mario’s reading subject. Too much pop culture knowledge sometimes pays off.

brad-pitt-arm-tattoo

I tell Mario to write that down; a summary is just a description of the chapter. Mario gets to work. Adam shares the title of a Muhammad Ali movie referenced in his book. Lydia, who a second before confessed “I just like looking at the pictures” as she stared at her book, now vigorously turns a page. (She later tried to steal the book; I was partly annoyed and partly ecstatic.) The class is relatively quiet.

Fast-forward to present: Mario is flying toward David, who, apparently debilitated by thoughts of Lydia, shows no signs of movement. Mario stops short about an inch from David’s inexpressive face. “DAVID,” he spits. Almost every student in the class has turned away from his or her homework to either silently observe this interaction or offer commentary.

“Don’t touch him, you’ll catch it,” Lydia helpfully advises as I lodge myself in front of Mario. (‘It’ is a series of circles around her temple a.k.a. crazy.)

I instruct Mario to sit back down, reminding him that he is not even supposed to be in my class and that I’ll send him where he belongs without pause. (Truthfully, his rightful teacher begged me to adopt him for the period.)  Miraculously, Mario slowly backs away. He hands me his Reading Log, now with summary, for a signature. I sit next to David, relieved that a crisis has seemingly been averted. I give him a drawing challenge—draw a house with an X in the middle without lifting your pen or going back over lines.

house

It’s no love potion, but it seems to do the trick.

On Privilege

So, I went to this show last night in TriBeCa. My friend Abeline curated it. Her dad owns the space—a huge space, three floors or something—and he allowed Abeline and her friends to put on an art show there. The idea is that the show separates commerce from creativity; since the space was provided for free, artists could create just to create rather than to sell. Since the space was divorced from commerce, it also allowed people who don’t generally see themselves as artists—or maybe do, but haven’t been able to represent themselves as such to society because they don’t have the money, time or connections—to gain exposure. This resulted in a diverse representation of artists’ voices, in contrast to an increasingly homogenized TriBeCa culture of corporate consumerism that surrounds the gallery (think SoulCycle, double strollers, people saying “on the marriage track” a lot).

The show’s goals were lofty and the the output was interesting. I’m no art critic so I can’t speak to specific influences at work in the show, but there were different mediums of expression—paintings, sculpture, sketches, collage, multimedia. There was a lot to consume and consider—or not. At one point I asked one artist about the intent of his piece, and he succinctly replied, “Well, I’m the graffiti king of New York City, and they asked me to do something. And this is what I did.”

Simplistic as those artistic motives may sound (if such things exist), the friend who accompanied me, G, was also impressed by the show—as much by the conviction of these young artists than the work itself. And yet, as we walked through City Hall Park afterward on our way back to Brooklyn, she was noticeably quiet. “What’s up?” I asked. “Tell me what you’re thinking.” Continue reading

Beauty School Dropout

grease copy

“You carry your brush with you?” my friend Abeline asked me incredulously the other day. We were studying in a coffee shop and I pulled a brush out of my backpack to comb my tangled hair.

“It’s a new development,” I said.

I’m not exactly sure what drove Abeline to comment, but it made me think about the impetus of the new brush situation. I am half-Arab, one-quarter Italian; my hair is very dark, very thick, and, right now, very long. Usually I don’t bother with it much. It takes too long to style. If it’s in my way, I either put it up in a bun or in a braid. It’s kind of heavy and sometimes it looks pretty, but in general I don’t think about it that often.

Until I started working at a school. At my job as, essentially, a classroom assistant, my sixth graders are constantly commenting on my hair. A couple of the girls love to twist it into elaborate braids during lunch. When it’s down, I often flip it from side to side because it gets in my eyes, and my students always yell, “Why do you always do that?” The running hair commentary makes me pay closer attention to my appearance than I normally would. I have never put much effort into my looks because 1) I never developed the skill set and 2) I was never presented with the incentive. Around sixth grade, when one starts processing these things, I noticed that there were “pretty girls” in class that got a lot of attention. The most popular was Destiny. She had huge boobs, naturally tan skin and an easy smile. A cute boy with dimples, blonde hair and green eyes moved into our class—Sean—and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Destiny and Sean would become a couple—the couple. One day during reading period, Sean walked up to me and said matter-of-factly, “I like you and Destiny.” Then he walked away. I was sort of shocked. I was not unpopular, but I was not one of the “pretty girls.” I was one of the “smart girls.” Nevertheless, Sean was interested, so he became my first boyfriend, and also taught me a rather trite life lesson: looks aren’t everything.

I have a very clear memory of watching Grease when I was a kid and feeling like at the end, when Sandy got the perm and the tight clothes and ended up with Danny, that I was missing something. There was something I didn’t get. My mom didn’t really ever talk about looks, so at that time I didn’t have the language to frame what had happened at the end of Grease. When I got older, I understood that it was a ubiquitous cultural narrative: you get pretty so you can get a boyfriend. My sixth-grade experience, though, held true through high school and into young adulthood. No matter what the ads and movies said, I had seen no evidence that I needed to wear makeup or invest any undue effort into my appearance to attract men, and so I never learned how. I never figured out how to use a curling iron or put on eyeliner or choose my lipstick shade. I learned that as a very hairy girl thanks to my Italian-Arab jackpot, I felt more comfortable with my appearance when I got threaded, and that I liked how my nails looked with a manicure, so I began to invest in those beautification procedures. Beyond that, I didn’t really get into a beauty regimen.

Once I reached young adulthood, I realized that girls do not adopt beauty routines strictly for the benefit of the male gaze, that some young women feel empowered and excited by makeup and fashion—but I didn’t understand that until I was through my formative years, when a lot of those interests and habits form. Thus, I felt like I basically missed the window for developing a proficient beautification skill set, and I wasn’t troubled by that since it had never seemed to work against me. The last thing I thought about when I decided to become a teacher was the way it would affect my beauty routine, or lack thereof. I anticipated all sorts of challenges: having to learn to censor myself in certain situations, dealing with disruptive kids, defusing angry parents. What I didn’t think about was my hair. And yet, as soon as I was surrounded by sixth graders who were, like my sixth-grade self, becoming situated with beauty standards and social messages about looks and the dynamics of a classroom crush, my appearance became part of their conversation. My hair is no longer just my hair; my choice of shoe is no longer just my choice of shoe—these are potential classroom distractions.

I always thought there was a current of sexism running through requests for women to look “office appropriate”—which to me suggested a full face of makeup and immaculately blown-out hair. The implication seemed to be that a woman in her more natural state would somehow be a hindrance in the workplace, which fit into the larger cultural narrative that women should conform to certain models of femininity in order to be accepted. But now that I’m working with youth in a school setting, I am more aware of some of the subtleties at work when it comes to self-presentation. Luckily my current position is still fairly casual, but once I begin teaching full-time, I’ll definitely have to learn to strike a balance between being myself and looking professional—whatever that means.

Home

Home

“ID,” the soldier said in Hebrew. There were two of them. The tallest one, the one speaking to Sinan, had sunglasses on even though the sun had long since set over Jerusalem. Streetlights cast shadows over the four figures on the road—the soldiers, Sinan and Kate. Sinan could see himself reflected in the soldier’s glasses; he looked shrunken, like the wire dolls his sisters Khowla and Helema used to make. They would make a cross out of two wires for the body—the horizontal piece the arms and the vertical the chest, torso and legs. Then they would swaddle the wires in cloth embroidered with bright colors to create the thawb. A piece of stuffed fabric fastened atop the body became the head. Most of Sinan’s brothers liked to play fedayeen, freedom fighter, but the girls spent all day imagining their dolls were farmers in Ramallah, just like their father’s mother, and her mother before that, and hers before that. The dolls tirelessly lifted their little wire arms up and down, picking imaginary olives and placing them in imaginary canvas bags to be pressed for olive oil. Sometimes Sinan’s father sat beside them and smoked a cigarette, describing their grandmother’s land, the rolling hills lined with trees, their trunks as brown and gnarled as her sun-baked skin. “She was the land,” he would say with faraway eyes. The girls could only imagine—the Israelis had taken the land years ago; the trees had been demolished.

Khowla and Helema would play until mama called them to help prepare za’atar for breakfast the next day or knaffeh for dinner. Sinan and his brothers usually destroyed the wire dolls, abandoned on the floor. Arms and legs were splayed across the carpet and heads rolled underneath furniture. Khowla and Helema would run out of the kitchen to mourn the dolls, fingers sticky with lemon juice and sugar for the pastry as they gathered the delicate, disparate parts.

***

 “ID.” The soldier’s Uzi was slung across his shoulder like a purse. He nodded at Sinan, offering an expectant palm. He removed his glasses, revealing a dark scar, half an inch wide, running from his right temple to his jawbone. He had slate grey eyes. It had to be his first year in the IDF, Sinan thought. He looked like Sinan’s youngest brother, Musab. The same proud, puffed chest—the irrational pride of youth. Eighteen or nineteen. Too young to have such a hardened gaze. But then, the intifada could do that to a soldier quickly, Sinan imagined. Grey eyes like the stones pelted at him.

The soldier shifted his Uzi and told his comrade, a shorter, fidgety man, to “talk to the girl” in Hebrew. The second soldier gestured for Kate to follow him across the road. “Come on,” he said. She glanced at Sinan, her green eyes flashing a stop sign. Just a minute ago the two of them had been laughing, walking back to the Muslim Quarter after seeing a movie at the Cinematheque Theater on Hebron Road. Kate wore a long white skirt that danced in the nighttime breeze, revealing hints of skin beneath. The click of her cowboy boots on the cobblestone streets echoed through the Christian Quarter along with her laughter. American girls laughed loudly, Sinan noticed.

“What’s your name?” Sinan heard the second soldier ask her in Hebrew.

Kate opened a small leather bag resting on her hip, just where the soldiers’ guns lay. Sinan knew her reporter’s notebook was inside. Earlier that day she had scribbled notes from a refugee camp he took her to in Gaza. Gaza was boiling; all of Palestine was, but in the camps you could feel the restlessness of the brown-eyed, fatherless boys. Earlier that week a nine-year-old was arrested for throwing stones. One stone struck a soldier in the cheek. Another bounced off a soldier’s metal helmet. In response, the whole camp was put under house arrest for three days. There was no opportunity to pick fresh fruits and vegetables. Jaws ached with hunger.

Kate and Sinan watched on the fourth day as the gates to the camp were opened to welcome a bread truck. The children ran from their front doors, forming an eager circle around the truck. Three Israeli soldiers climbed out and unlocked the back doors. The smell of fresh bread invaded the air; mothers readied their tables. Suddenly, a title wave of loaves came tumbling out of the truck. One child started for them, but the soldiers stepped in, driving the fallen loaves into the mud with the heels of their combat boots. The children stood still. The soldiers got back in the truck and left.

***

Kate handed the soldier her American passport. “My name is Kate,” she said in English. “What’s yours?” The soldier said nothing. “Ma shimkha?” she repeated.

He was taken aback—by the question or her Hebrew, Sinan wasn’t sure. “Mikhail,” he said, glancing back at his cohort uncertainly.

“You’re Russian!” Kate replied, smiling.

The grey-eyed soldier clenched his jaw. Kate’s soldier gestured at her purse hurriedly, telling her to hand it over.

Sinan turned to his soldier. “Leave her alone,” he said in Hebrew.

His soldier chuckled. “Maybe. Let’s see some ID.”

“I live here.” Sinan felt heat rising in his belly and a tingle in his hands. In the background he could hear the other soldier asking Kate what was in the notebook, what their business was in Jerusalem. Her Hebrew was weak. “Movie, movie,” she kept repeating in English.

“I live here,” Sinan said again. He opened and closed his hands rapidly. They felt like they were going numb.

The soldier spoke slowly. “Give. Me. Your. Identification,” he said.

Kate had stopped saying “movie.” Now she said “journalist” over and over. A cat ambled past, its tawny hair matted, ribs poking through taut skin. It paused in front of Sinan and the soldier and let out a hoarse, pathetic wail, as if to admit to them that it had no home. It limped off to nowhere.

“We went to a movie; now we’re walking back home,” Sinan said. His Hebrew was flawless. He learned it as a boy, when he would turn lights or heat on or go buy bread for his neighbors in the Jewish Quarter on Shabbat. Sometimes they would pay him later, or direct him to a drawer where the money was waiting. David Cohen, one of his neighbors, would always teach Sinan a few words in Hebrew on those days and send him off with some challah. “You’re a good boy, Sinan,” he would say, cuffing Sinan’s neck with a friendly chuckle. “You see people as people.”

David had been there for the first suicide bomb, years ago. Sinan was passing through Zion Square after a visit to West Jerusalem when an explosion cut through downtown’s everyday rush. Sound disappeared, but for a high-pitched whine in his ear. Sinan always remembered the eerie sight of children’s mouths widened in anguish; friends’ lips moved rapidly as their heads swiveled every which way in search of missing companions—but no sound, like he was watching a muted movie.

David Cohen worked as a lawyer a few blocks away, Sinan knew. He ran to the office. David’s eyes widened when he found Sinan standing in front of the building. Wordlessly, David ripped off the checkered keffiyeh tied around Sinan’s neck. When he spoke, Sinan read his lips: “Nobody can see you here. I’ll take you home.” David placed an arm around Sinan’s trembling shoulders and shepherded him through the chaos, back toward the Old City. Later they learned that a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had stuffed a refrigerator with explosives. 15 people were killed.

Next Shabbat, David gave Sinan a Hebrew grammar book. “I think it’s important you learn as much of this as you can. For the future,” he said. His eyes were downcast, his expression wounded and searching, like something had been lost.

***

“Where’s home?” the soldier asked.

“What?”

“You said you’re going home. Where’s home?”

Sinan pulled his identification card from his back pocket. Its light blue sleeve protected him. Orange told the soldier “home” was the West Bank. Green told the soldier “home” was the Gaza Strip. Blue told the soldier “home” was Jerusalem.

The soldier examined it. “Stand still so I can make sure this is you,” he said, holding the ID to Sinan’s cheek. “Smile,” he said.

Sinan grimaced.

Kate returned with the second soldier, who shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.

“Don’t waste time,” Sinan’s soldier told him. “Just go home.” He handed the identification card over. As Sinan reached for it, the soldier let go. The card fluttered toward the ground for what seemed like minutes, finally landing between them.

“Pick it up.”

Sinan stared at the card’s blue jacket. He could see the picture of himself. Tiny, again. His hands tingled. He could feel Kate’s green eyes.

“Pick it up,” the soldier said.

“No,” Sinan said, in Arabic.

He closed his eyes for a moment and braced for the impact. He, like all his brothers, had been in Israeli prison before. He could do it again. He waited for something, for yelling, for a fight.

Nothing came.

He opened his eyes. He looked at the soldier’s scar, a twin of his own. His eyes met the soldier’s gaze. The strap that held the Uzi slipped down his shoulder, which was sagging as if suddenly sore from the weapon’s weight. A shadow came over his grey eyes. For a moment he looked at once far older and far younger than his eighteen or so years.

Silently, he turned away.

New York Story

Everyone—or everyone who is anyone, according to some New Yorkers—has a New York story. It’s recounted at dinner parties like a couple’s meet-cute; the moment they, the subject and New York, fell in love. My New York story plays like a film’s dream sequence: high-key, soft lighting; Frank Sinatra’s rich, maple-syrupy baritone wafting in the background. The tropes abound: the little girl, eyes upturned and wide at the sight of this metropolis; and the friendly prophet, the Morgan Freeman God-voice, in this case the Christmastime doorman at Saks Fifth Avenue.

As I reflect on the memory, half-myth and half-reality like the city it’s set in, I imagine that the doorman, in truth, must have been incredibly  burdened. The line for the window displays wrapped around two city blocks. Saks rang out with all manner of languages, tourists beckoning one another and black-clad sales associates. The doorman must have been tired from standing on his feet all day, ushering the crowd back onto Fifth, his cheeks reddened by gusts of freezing wind.

In my memory, though, he smiles down at me like a benevolent Santa Klaus. I’m lost in this memory; perhaps Mom parked me somewhere while she sneaked off to get a gift. I am lost but not afraid. I have never seen a sight as beautiful as the snow drifting past the skyscrapers, which seem to extend upward like there is no sky, no place beyond this. The city is wet and shimmering as if it has just been born.

“I love it here,” I tell him.

“Here.” An arm extends like a sturdy tree branch bowing toward me in the wind; a wide hand swaddled in soft-looking gloves proffers a snowglobe. Within the little glass ball, the New York City scene outside is stuck in time, made permanent. The fresh snow will not melt and become grey sludge. The skyscrapers’ lights will not blink off. Frank will not stop serenading me.

It feels like the doorman has given me a fantasy, but really, he has given me the truth. The little scene in the snowglobe, like the city, is infinite. At Yankee Stadium they play Frank over and over until the last fan leaves, and it begins again the next night. “I want to be a part of it,” he opines, even when the team wins, as if there will never be a way to penetrate the glass. Gatsby, in that great New York story, thought he could capture the city—the country, really, but what was America if not this city’s pulsating streets?

But the city will move around you, and without you—always. Wind up the snowglobe. Start the song again.

“I wish I lived here,” I tell the doorman.

“It’s up to you,” he says. Or is that Frank? It’s up to you / New York, New York. “You” is not me. “You” is Fifth Avenue, the train, the scaffolding, the team, the city. It’s up to you.

Mom appears. We are on the move, out amongst the whirring mechanisms.

Wind up the globe again. Play the song again.

The doorman has disappeared from my sight, me from his. He is buried beneath the flurry of people pushing into the store, spilling onto the street. Joyfully and mercilessly, the door keeps revolving. It will never stop.

Braids

I see you standing in the back of AG1, arraignment court, right hand jumping up to smooth your braids compulsively. A man with a tic—or a boy, maybe. I wonder what your name is. You look like so many of my friends—Noel (Dominican name Leudis), Alexis (Dominican name Aramis). You have the ageless face characteristic of boys from upper Manhattan; smooth caramel skin, naturally tanned from your father’s island sun. You could be sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine. An athletic build fed on mondongo and ghetto P.E.: dunking basketballs into a netless hoop on Edgecombe Avenue; leaping up for signpost bars affixed to the corner and doing chin-ups; whacking baseballs over chain-link fences that line an empty lot—that counts as a home run. You were the Manny Ramirez of the block.

Prison puffs some bodies up, muscles the size of watermelons bulging from all-day weight-lifting and push-ups. I can see you’ll have the other prison body, though. Your brown eyes are too soft, too skittish, jumping around the courtroom, glancing at the judge hopefully. In prison, you’ll age ten years in five. Your body will become a collection of sharp angles, melting away until you become a skinny candlewick. The hopeful flicker in your eyes will flair out, too.

None of that has happened yet, and the only damage incarceration has done is to your braids. Their neat, uniform cornrows have turned frizzy, impossible to maintain even as you try to smooth them out every couple of minutes. More stray hairs popped out with each hour of your journey here, I imagine. A few teased out by the soupy humidity when you ventured onto the summertime streets of Washington Heights last night. Maybe some more when you were sprayed by a rogue fire hydrant. A good bit of hair came loose from your braids when you started running from the cops. Even more when they caught up to you, pushed your forehead against the pavement and cuffed your wrists. Dug their fingers into your skull as they guided you into the wagon. You slept on the braids overnight in the jail cell, waiting for your arraignment. They weren’t equipped for such action.

Judge White, the master of these proceedings, wouldn’t understand. She looks like an African queen sitting atop the judge’s bench; slim, erect neck, wide-set no-bullshit eyes, a gleaming bald head. Some judges get tired of arraignment court, the constant stream of freshly incarcerated defendants still formulating excuses, flustered defense and prosecution lawyers flying through dictionary-thick stacks of paper, trying to remember who this one is, what did he do?

Not Judge White. I’ve seen her work when my co-intern Hazel and I come into AG1 during slow stretches in our trial bureau, no copies to make or 911 calls to transcribe. We like AG1 because it moves quickly, all kinds of people filing through, like the Ellis Island of the DA’s Office. The guy two places in front of you, inexplicably, waited until his ex-girlfriend left the house, broke in and threw her DVD player and TV out the window. I wonder if they used to fight over the remote.

Next, Columbia frat guys who got a little too rowdy with the cops after getting caught jumping the turnstile. No priors. A fine. Open and shut. Judge White sits by with pursed lips and an alert expression, not handing out any free passes.

I’m worried for you.

As you tug at the braids, you look around for someone. The boys from the block aren’t here, and maybe for the better. They would mock you for those messy braids. “Looking raggedy son.” They would belly-laugh. You got them done after-hours at the barbershop, everyone bumping to merengue and half-watching the Mets game. Maybe you paid twenty bucks. Maybe less, because you are someone’s cousin. Maybe you got them done on the front stoop, children circling you like tiny hurricanes and colonies of older men in lawn chairs drinking, playing dominoes. Your aunt did them, or your girlfriend or her friend, stitching each strand into tight communion. It will take a while, over an hour, but her fingers work expertly and efficiently and do not indulge your grumbles if it hurts. In the end, she is proud. They look good.

Does she know you are here?

Your odds were never good, just by virtue of the caramel skin and the Spanish. You came out of the womb at risk to become a statistic, affixed a ratio heavier than a nametag and left to your own devices: two times more likely to be in prison than your white counterparts, a projected one in six chance of being incarcerated in your lifetime. On average, inmates cost the city $167,731. That’s per year. I don’t know what you’ve done yet, if anything, but the majority of incarcerated Americans receive a sentence of 5-10 years. That means you and your twenty-dollar braids, in prison, could cost over $800,000—more than half a million dollars. Maybe one of the reasons you’re here is because nobody, least of all the state that stuck you in a class with thirty-five kids and a harried Teach For America blonde who couldn’t speak Spanish, the state that gave the OK for a stop-and-frisk every few weeks, ever suggested that you could be worth that much.

***

 Across the narrow street that separates the DA’s Office from the criminal courts where you’re awaiting arraignment, my boss, Assistant District Attorney Janine Gilbert, is rifling through file cabinets. She’s on the phone at the same time, maybe fielding a call from a reporter or a defense lawyer. I know because she’s always doing two things at once, if not more. She is a chess player. Whether in or out of the courtroom, her eyes are perpetually narrowed in calculation, trying to map out how any given moment can be maximized.

Her office is the only impediment to such productivity. Loose papers coat the floor and furniture like honeymoon roses in a hotel room. Any slight movement results in the sound of rustling papers, papers massaging the air as they float from the desk to the ground, papers being punctured by a paralegal’s office-appropriate pumps. Our first assignment from Janine was to organize the chaos, one or two hours a day spent on the task. In the end, it took months.

I formulated a foolproof system. Each of Janine’s file cabinets would be labeled with a name, each name assigned its own color. As we gathered the papers, mostly photocopies of evidence from long settled cases, we would mark them with the correct color. One man was prosecuted for serial rape. We marked the photocopies of the letters he sent to his victims blue. Another man, adept at ingratiating himself to the elderly only to steal their identities, had stacks of bank statements marked in green.

One criminal, Jamal (pink), boasted three full drawers worth of files. Impressed by the breadth of paper devoted to him, I waved a sheet from his case at Janine one day as she worked on her computer. “Janine, what did this guy Jamal do?” I asked.

“Something horrible, obviously,” Hazel said, adding another stray paper to his stack.

Janine never needed to pause to recall her cases. “A-1,” she said. “He shot someone, killed her. 85-year-old woman.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“He was aiming for another guy,” Janine said. Hazel and I stopped filing for a beat, the silence filled by the ceaseless clicks of Janine’s keyboard. “He won’t get out,” she said.

I wondered if that was supposed to be a comfort.

“That’s good that you put him away,” Hazel said.

For a millisecond, I saw Janine’s fingers freeze above her keyboard. She blinked. “He was seventeen.”

I looked at Jamal’s stack. I wondered if prison was like high school: bigger file, bigger badass. Or could Jamal even imagine that so many copy machines, so many ink cartridges, had been devoted to him?

“Do you ever worry about convicting someone innocent?” I asked.

Janine shook her head. “If I think someone is innocent, I won’t bring it to trial. It has to be black and white.”

***

 Hazel and I took the back entrance into the criminal court building on our way to AG1. We exited our office building on 1 Hogan Place and crossed over to the grand structure. The Chrysler Building’s homelier sister, the art deco behemoth stretches across Centre Street with imposing columns reaching skyward. In the front, boxy limestone towers are striped with windows, creating the optical illusion of massive vertical prison bars, as if to remind you this is not a good place to be. The back is not nearly as imposing, just a double door manned by a bored security guard. Above the door, a sentence is engraved in the limestone: Justice Is the Firm and Continuous Desire to Render To Every Man His Due.

 Someone calls your docket number. You pat your braids one last time, tuck your hands behind your back like a good schoolboy. You look at the prosecuting attorney uncomprehendingly, a stranger in a half-wrinkled suit. I wish I knew you. I wish I could have warned you of Janine’s words: it has to be black and white. It has to be neat, like your braids when they were fresh. You have to be careful not to get caught in the grey area.

I leave before they give you your due, too afraid that you’ll become hundreds of papers, outnumbering your pre-prison years many times over, highlighted pink and stuffed into a file box.