An American Son
A Four Part Immigrant Tale
Sun’s up and I’m still lost.
How do you write nonfiction when you don’t know what’s real anymore? When everything is stylized and catered to your own little advertisable bubble, what room is left for authentic experience? My words become ad copy. My photographs become demos for new billboards and Facebook campaigns. Screens tell me that while history and fact are open to interpretation, my place in society is fixed in place. All this by the same forces who fight tooth and nail for my attention and my dollar, but not my safety nor my future. I grew up watching dystopic 80s science fiction on VHS cassettes from the video rental place on the far end of Main Street. Now I see they weren’t just grim American fantasies.
They were warnings.
Part I: The Drive
“Son,” my father says like a fly fisherman sending out a lure, “have you submitted to the Dan’s Paper contest yet?” My father’s accent is a hybrid of whitewashed Yugoslavia and the Canada that forced it into submission. You hear it and you know there’s something foreign about the spry Tennis enthusiast who raised me, but you don’t jump on it for fear of your own xenophobia or casual deafness.
“I’m still working on it,” I reply reluctantly.
This drive to Quogue is both familiar and completely foreign to me. My summers used to be spent in rented houses with pools, wooded enclaves, beach proximity, and everything else that makes me want to abandon the New York City in which I grew up. Well, that, and the greed that pulled the rug out from all of us in 2008, firmly halting those idyllic summers for us and numerous other families. It’s become much more difficult to enjoy our aspirational drives past the finest houses in The Hamptons knowing the disparity between those on opposite sides of the hedges.
My parents, in full immigrant mode, still play make-believe house hunters as we drive to Town. We’re going to stock up on pink boxes filled with black-and-white cookies before reaching the friends’ house where we’ve been invited to barbecue. In 2017, when I can’t tell if each day will be followed by uproarious farce or nuclear destruction, there is both warming and tragic nostalgia to seeing two immigrants, now in America longer than their countries of origin, on a quest to buy cookies for a cookout.
“You keep saying you want opportunities to write,” my mother chimes in, like the wily, bad cop partner in an action film, “and now you throw one away?”
“Are you really going to guilt me about my own writing, mom? I don’t even really write prose. And when I do, it’s usually fiction.” Even I can’t stand the juvenile excuses coming out of my mouth as I defend my writer’s block like a victim of creative Stockholm Syndrome.
“Well what about all that writing you did for Times of Israel? Is there anything in there you can submit? It just seems like a waste.” I wish she were talking about a missed opportunity to show the good people of Long Island that I can, in fact, tell a decent story, but it’s the prize money the she’s unintentionally guilting me about, not my creative spirit. I need the money. My parents know it.
“I’ll figure it out,” I say, looking straight ahead as we pull into a parking space right in front of the Tennis shop. Typical, dad.
Part II: The Woman on the Side of the Road
She’s tired. Her shoulders creak as she tries loosening them in circles. For a woman of thirty-seven she looks older. Crows feet in her eyes, her skin is sprinkled with sunspots against her naturally brazen cheeks and arms.
She’s waiting for a car to pick her up. Every once in a while, like today, an employer will offer a guest room to stay in overnight. She never accepts the offer. It’s not pride nor shame. It’s simply that she doesn’t want to. She’s a woman of simple conviction. That’s why she was serving hors d’oeuvres at a home she and the other helpers call ‘un castillo’. That’s why her family will eat well next month.
But the car is late and it’s growing darker. She wants to return to her dingy condo that she shares with five carbon copies of herself. It’s not much, but she doesn’t ask for much; just the cash she’s owed and no fuss about it. She can’t afford fuss, nor much else since the cash is sent back home, but fuss could mean trouble and the end of all of this. She sits on that sidewalk, alone, wearing shabby knock-off jeans and a bedazzled shirt (it makes her look young like her niece, who works in Manhattan). In her flimsy plastic bag are a few cosmetics and half a sandwich. Whiter faces peer through windows just over the towering hedges that surround her. There’s no fuss, but it feels imminent the longer she loiters. She knows how some of the lords of these ‘castillos’ feel about women like her.
Then, in the distance, an SUV approaches. Mustering all her strength, she rises off the pavement to greet her escort back to the drab waiting room she calls home for now. She is so excited to get some sleep, but more so to rest. She’s a woman of simple conviction. Like Apollo’s chariot, the car brings with it the sunset. The bright lights are a welcoming beacon feeling warmer, and warmer.
Just then, whoosh — the lights drive right past. Unflinching she sits back down, her lower back now just as sore and her shoulders. And in the dark Long Island night, she fends off disappointment by revisualizing that hope that one day she’ll be riding carefree in a car like that with her own family, reunited and unafraid, with a moment to rest her back and enjoy the seabreeze.
Meanwhile the child of immigrants in the backseat of the SUV that just passed what appeared to be a woman sitting on the side of the road looks ahead at his parents and sees how well rested they look.
Epilogue: A Scene
“There’s this one line where I kind of accidentally end up guilt tripping the reader,” I tell a comedian friend at the poorly lit bar in Brooklyn where I host a weekly comedy show.
“To forgive you for being a shitty writer?” my friend quips back.
“For being broke. I tried to talk about my life for real, but I probably just sound whiny.”
“Such an entitled millennial!”
We laugh. Then sigh. We’ve both heard that bullshit too many times for the irony to really feel funny anymore.
“This is why I prefer writing scenes for actors — prose sucks for genuineness.”
“Why? Like, legitimately explain it to me. I don’t write. That’s your thing.”
“Yeah, well you’re the better stand up.” I stretch my shoulders. The show starts in two minutes. Turn out looks OK.
“I guess it’s because I’m a visual person and unless I have a real, flesh and bone actor saying my lines or making a story go forward, I don’t trust that an audience feels how real it is, even if it’s not their experience. I use extreme detail to try and create a visual, but I think it just bores people. I don’t know — it’s all creative neurosis, know what I mean?”
“Yep, yep, yep,” my friend says, a dead giveaway to his lack of interest. “When am I up again, by the way?”
“Third,” I tell him and I realize it’s time to start the show. I have a new joke about my parents and The Hamptons that I’m eager to try out. It’s about how despite everything they left and laboured over, despite the fact they work day after day to afford a seat at the red, white, and blue table each summer, and despite exposing me, as a kid, to investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, none of it stuck. I want to tell stories for a living — their stories, and those like them. The punchline is to more of a cosmic joke, I suppose, and that despite all of that, they still love me, their American son. I know it’s not very funny, but believe me it’s real.