Coming to America

by

02/04/2002

W 23rd St & 8th Ave, New York, NY 10011

Neighborhood: Chelsea

Mario is a white African of Portuguese descent. In New York some people tell him, “I didn’t know white people could be from Africa.” When they say this, he shakes his head.

“Americans are so ignorant!” he says. “They don’t know about anything outside their own country.”

Mario has come to New York from Mozambique, where I live now. We switched places; I moved to his country two years ago and he moved to mine last January.

We meet up on a Sunday at around midnight, on West 23rd Street, in front of his apartment. He’s been busy arguing with his restaurant manager and his eyes focus around me but not on me. His lips press together in his wide, round face; his balding head sweats in the night heat.

“Where should we go?” he asks.

We start walking down 8th Avenue, looking for a place to have a drink, and he spouts off about his manager. “That little shit, that twenty-three-year-old piece of trash. What does he know?”

In Mozambique, Mario was an important guy, a local celebrity with a weekly radio show, his own modeling agency and a managerial position at a petrol company. He had a house and drove an SUV. But he believed that his talents had not yet been put to the test. He wanted to study acting, the “Method,” and New York was the place to do it. At 31, he decided he wasn’t going to put off his dream any longer. He bought his plane tickets, enrolled in acting school, got a job waiting tables, and rented a studio apartment the size of a closet for $780 a month.

“I want to see your apartment first,” I tell him, “so I can picture your life better.” “

We climb the gray rubber stairs to the third floor and he opens the door to his “apartment” – four walls closing in on a single bed, a mini-fridge, a mini-sink, and clear Tupperware boxes of his clothes stacked to the ceiling. Mario is a large man. He fills up all the space between the bed and the sink, the foot-wide landing strip that is his floor.

“The bathroom’s out here, ” he says, opening a door in the hall. When I step in, I see the toilet is filled with decomposing shit that has turned the water a murky yellow.

“When I go to the bathroom, I bring Clorox wipes and a seat protector,” he says, “but it ‘s not that bad. I mean, in the beginning I was always forgetting, but now its just part of my routine.”

“What was the manager upset about?” ” I ask, trying to change the subject.

He rants some more, evading the actual issue, and I push him again, until he gets to it: he was under-tipping the busboys, and the manager wanted him to pay them their full wage.

For a few minutes I don’t say anything. I was a waitress myself once, and I know how it works in restaurants: the people who are working the hardest often get paid the least. I also know how jobs can be sorted by race, with the illegal immigrants in the kitchen, and the white faces in the front of the house – even more reason to tip the bus boys well.

But there is something else, something worse. Paying low wages is a way of life in Mozambique, where workers do not complain or even dare to ask for more. Mario has taken that part of his culture and tried to transfer it to New York. By asking Mario to give the busboys their fair wages, the “twenty-three-year-old piece of shit” manager was saying, “You all get an equal slice of the pie. But Mario wasn’t having that.

“But how are the bus boys supposed to pay their rent, if you don’t pay them the full amount?” I say, my voice rising with anxiety. He has all sorts of justifications for this – how he isn’t making his full 15%, how its only a few dollars here and there, and I wonder if he is saying this for my benefit or his own.

Mario does not seem like someone who likes to admit he’s wrong. Later, as we sit sharing a creme brule, he continues to rant about the inexplicable hostility of New York, how alone he feels, how depressing his apartment is. He’s suffering, to be sure, and making sure he spreads it around.

I can understand his shock, going from prominent citizen to lonely waiter in so short a time, at this stage in his life. But I’m also somehow glad he’s in New York. I imagine it schooling him in all the things he didn’t come here to learn.

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