I finally heard from my union rep on Wednesday, after leaving a nasty message on his answering service that morning. He told me to go ahead and file for unemployment, a little bit of advice I could have used a month ago. I did so Thursday, and as I filled out all of the required paperwork on line- I have to call it paperwork although no paper was required; I realized that I’m not losing anything, whatever severance I get would be deducted from my benefits. It’s like running in place.
I also went to a job orientation on Wednesday morning; a friend has hooked me up with a possible job in another building where he knows the building agent.
I’d called the said agent the day before, and he instructed me to report for “training” and “familiarization” at the building. He gave me the guy’s name and number, and I didn’t understand the name, so I asked him to spell it.
“S-E-G-U-N-D-O.” He spelled out.
“Oh, Segundo,” I said in my perfect Spanish accent.
“Does he have a brother named Primero? I asked by way of a joke.
“Segundo means second in Spanish. Maybe he was the second born.”
I realized this guy wasn’t getting it, so I let it drop. I called Segundo and arranged to meet him at the building the next day. When I showed up Segundo was in the lobby with two of the staff. They were all Hispanic men in dark blue work pants and powder blue polo shirts with their names sewn on the breast. I told him who I was and he let me in.
“Wait here,” he said as he got on the elevator and disappeared. One of the staff came back up and came over to talk to me.
“You the new relief guy?” He said in very bad English.
“Yes I am.” I answered him in Spanish.
“Oh good, you speak Spanish. Where are you from?”
“Mexico.” I did not ask him where he was from.
I’ve never liked when people ask where I’m from, and to fuck with people I usually say, “I’m from Brooklyn,” and force them to spit it out.
“Ah, I meant where are you originally from.” What if I was born in Brooklyn? Or at Beth Israel hospital like my son for that matter? But I was born in Mexico, so I have to say Mexico.
“Oh, I thought you were from Guam.” Or Samoa, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rican, (I got that once from a redneck in North Carolina) Pakistani, Maori, or an Eskimo. Yes, someone once said he thought I was an Eskimo. And California, once. That was cool, I’m glad someone mistook me for a Californian than a New Yorker.
Segundo came back up to retrieve me and took me downstairs. We sat at a little table outside of the laundry room and he put a couple of sheets of bank paper and a pen in front of him as he sat opposite me.
“So you speak Spanish?” he began, obviously the other guy had told him so.
“Yes I do.” I replied; also in Spanish.
“Good, because some of the other guys don’t speak so good English.”
At the top of the blank paper he wrote, “Speaks Spanish.”
“How about English? You speak English well?”
“Yes I do, fluently. I grew up here.”
Speaks English. He jotted down.
“Where are you from?” There it was again, the big important question. I guess the other guy hadn’t passed on that bit of info.
“Mexico.” From Mexico, he wrote on his paper.
That gotten out of the way, he went on to less important questions, like work experience, where I live, how old, etc. He wrote some of those things down.
“OK, look, it’s good you speak English, because that’s what most of the tenants speak. If they talk to you, you smile, say hello, how are you, how’s your dog, and that’s it. Don’t talk too much to them; they don’t like us. Just tell them you’re on duty and can’t chat, OK?”
We went on a tour of the building, and in the bike room he pointed out a few dead water bugs.
“When you clean in here, make sure you sweep up the water bugs, that’s all. The tenants don’t like water bugs.”
I didn’t have a picture of a dead water bug, so the dead rat will have to do.
We went up to the roof to look at the water tank and elevator room.
The water tank at the old building.
“All we really do is keep the building clean and take out the garbage. Anybody wants anything else; tell them to talk to me. I’m the boss, not them. They think because this is a co-op they are all owners and bosses, but they’re wrong. I’m the boss.”
OK, I thought. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
We said our goodbyes and I left, and I thought about whether I belong or not again; and I know I don’t. But this would just be a part-time gig, something that will give me more time to do what I truly love, write. But it’s good to have options.
Years ago one of the tenants moved out of the building I’d been working at. They had a little boy, Lyle; and Lyle was 2 when I met him and 3 ½ when they moved out. The day they moved out, Lyle was sitting in the back seat of the SUV they were driving away in. He rolled down the window and called me over.
“Xavier, could you come here? I want to tell you something.”
I walked over to the car and stood looking at Lyle through the open window.
I bent down so my ear was closer to him.
“I love you Xavier.” He whispered. That brought tears to my eyes, and despite everything that’s happened since then, good or bad, it’s the one moment of the 17 years I was there that I would treasure forever.