Neighborhood: Chelsea, Washington Heights

Photo by zaveqna

It had become a habit that week—reading Richard Rodriguez’s “Brown” on the A train, riding a gradient line between the ochre of Washington Heights and the powdered white walls of NYU. I reveled in holding the book upright, spine stiff, and the bent paperback cover like a sail at full mast. It was a silent rebellion. A drama I could play out in stranger’s glances. Here I was, a brown man reading a brown man, on a train full of brown people heading downtown where they would empty out and swirl into a sea of gray. On the front cover, in large bold type: “BROWN” and below, “The Last Discovery of America.” I wanted to be seen on this train in my skin, not in these clothes.

I ride this same train to work. Work is at a gallery in Chelsea. The walls in a gallery like this one, they glow. It is a white that is brought to polish every morning by the small, square hands of Elvira, an Ecuadorian woman who asks me before breakfast if I believe in God. She holds my hands in hers and assures me, He is all-powerful. Her voice is a whisper. Her hands are dark red. I wipe down the bar, and back-flush the espresso machine while she eats in secret by the window, in captivity. Her uniform is a servant’s quarters. But in my bar, she feels comfortable enough to speak Spanish and to ask for favors, for food, for coffee. She trusts me. It’s because—in a nutshell—I’m brown. That makes us family here. But, Elvira is always worried. She is always sighing and anxious. Her daughter, she tells me, is thirteen, is smoking weed and has a boyfriend, and Elvira, who can manifest a lazy purity in these walls, seems incapable of running the stain off her own ilk. All our children are so bad, she says, why God, are they so bad? Is there something impure, something wrong? She doesn’t quite believe me when I tell her that I was the same at thirteen. Her daughter and I, we‘re family too. I smoked weed in my day and I skipped school. I also learned, as Elvira’s daughter may one day learn, that in order to not be bad, I needed to put my head down and ride the gradient. Living between the bronzed and the pale, I needed to pretend to be someone else. I had to learn to see myself in positions of power.

One of those days on the train to work, surrounded by workers in work clothes, I burst into tears. I breathed deep until my eyes stopped watering. I was crying because of something I had read, there on the train, something Richard Rodriguez wrote: “Hispanicity is culture. Not Blood. Not race. It is a belief that the dead have a hold on the living.” I closed the book with one hand and tried to breathe through the knot in my throat. Something about the clothes I was wearing to work that day—everyday—made me feel very distant from all the brown people around me, the living ones and the dead ones. I was on my way downtown, I was moving away from them, I was leaving my true self behind. That is what it felt like—like I had betrayed them all.

I think about what it means to me to be Hispanic, Latino, Latin-American, American, brown. I mostly wonder this in the workplace. In the mornings, I dress up for work. I dress to fit the space. I dress to hide. I wear black. I wear neutral blues. I wear clothes that I buy brand new at stores that sound the arrival of Protestant America: Steven Alan, J. Crew, J. Press, the belly of the beast. I become a part of the nation’s well-slicked machine, a prop: relatively good-looking, just light enough and almost uncanny. I am diversity. I am multiculturalism. Do I pass? Am I passing? I smile and nod, I say good morning in the same happy tone, my dark beard trimmed, a dusting of aftershave; bay rum. I want to feel like I belong in the gallery. And I want to be brown enough to belong in my neighborhood when I come home. These are needs that I have.

My people are workers. I see them in the street. Dark, and sweat-soaked, caked in dust and paint. They see me too, and they nod. I am also a worker. I serve. I pull out coffee mugs from behind the counter and set them down in front of me. I pour coffee in the mugs. The porcelain reflects the coffee back into itself. I pour milk in the coffee. I watch the foam give way to a whirlpool of color, the white, the black, the brown, taking hold of each other in layers, ripples, embraces. I turn around, mugs in hand, and set them down before the rich women who are the fodder of my workplace. They are interested in me, my name, maybe my story—are you an artist too? They have no idea who I am. I spell my name out slowly. I am intelligent, exotic conversation. I am darker beneath the dim lights of the bar. I am complemented by light blues, as navy complements orange. I am here to lighten the mood. This gallery is a serious place.

From a young age, I was taught that death had brought us here—led my family to the shores of the United States of America. We did not come from the desert borders of Rodriguez. We came from the Caribbean border, the incomplete coastline: a messy colonialism of mulattos and pardos and zambos; a mistake where Catholicism held sway over the Protestant American dream, where chicken blood runs on the street and then Carnaval; where leather, tobacco and rum are; where I was born. It was either Miami or Cleveland, my mom tells me. And I’m glad we chose Miami. My mother escaped a civil war; my father escaped an internal conflict. I was born here, and I can never be easy, because there’s too much history there.

Last year I ordered a creamy, thick-gauged waffle-knit sweater, in extra-small from an online retailer. I was obsessed with its whiteness. It was the largest, blithest, most regatta article of outerwear I had ever owned. I didn’t just wear it, I employed it. Perhaps even, I imagined, it would one day employ me; help me to maintain an appearance, as a ticket to the silent fellowship of white youth and exuberance, the grace of bottomless pockets. I walked carefully when I had it on. I avoided sudden movements—it was a temperate zone. I ate only bland foods, I avoided the colorful, the impure. I thought perhaps, if by maintaining the purity of this sweater, I could prove to myself that I was ready for the purity of the 5th avenue men’s store. Later, some coffee happened to sprinkle onto the cuff. Unsure of what to do with white clothes, I bleached the whole sweater in a bucket. I watched the water, in its slightly sour and incandescent way, soak into the sweater, turning white to grey. I left for ten minutes and came back. The sweater was pink and splotchy, although the brown spots were gone. My roommate looked at me and said, you just shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things.

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