I wrote this in April 2010 for a journalism class, but it ended up being more than an assignment for me.
It is 4:30am on a Sunday morning. With an oversized button-down shirt hanging to my knees underneath my winter coat, I stumble out of my dorm. It is late February and the streets of New York are barren—everyone but me is in their apartments, warm and drunk. This is the only time of the night when I can walk down the middle of 3rd Avenue with no car in sight; just the long row of buildings face me, and the wind pressed hard against my hooded face.
The train ride at such an early hour is torturous. Sitting on the dank, cold bench in the frigid and abandoned Union Square station, dampness dripping from the dirty ceiling, I wait for the N to take me to 42nd Street, where I will transfer to the 1. Time feels like a cold, slow-moving metal pressing against the inevitable.
I am an exhausted little wisp of a thing, bundled up in layers and my work jeans, my hood hanging over my eyes, next to several slumbering homeless men. I nod off to sleep as I wait; the passing trains roar above and below me. Opening my heavy eyelids just a bit, I see a man on the other side of the train station, hunched sideways over the bench and slowly letting out a little trail of puke onto the seat next to him. This is when I have a poignant moment with my dear New York City: I love ya, babe, but I’m sitting here at 5am, surrounded by men of the subterranean world, watching rats scurry by … and I’m doing it all for you, New York, baby.
Why the torture, the painfully early morning? On the weekends, I don an apron and pour coffee at a restaurant in a fancy Uptown hotel, so I can make money.
In the excruciatingly wee hours of the morning, my train ride to work features an interesting mixture of the rich and the poor. Many of the intoxicated late-nighters falling asleep on the train after a party, are the gentrified upper-class folk with designer bags and money to spend on booze and clubbing. And then there are the workers.
These are the people who commute to Manhattan from the Bronx and Queens. Some are middle-aged Hispanic immigrants on their way to their jobs frying eggs in a kitchen line; some are big, beary men, lunch pails on their laps, on their way to their construction jobs. I’ve seen the tired, lonely young nurses in their white shoes and hospital pants, their hair pulled back away from their melancholy faces. All of these people work their asses off doing menial work for a mean management, making minimum wage. And I take the train with them on weekend mornings at 5:00am, as though, fifty years earlier, I were my own Ukrainian-immigrant grandmother taking the bus to downtown Cleveland to work as a cleaning lady. Today, her hands are big and swollen from chafing and burns of years of work. But they are incredibly strong for the hands of an 88-year-old woman.
It has taken years, but I’ve gradually lost touch with the Ukrainian community in which I grew up. This happens, to those “ambitious” kids who go off to college and move away from the family. But it never hit me until I moved to the big city, where “cultural identity” became a multi-faceted idea.
I had never thought about the importance of my “cultural identity” in philosophical terms. Being Ukrainian had been a 2-dimensional background staple of my life. In the past two years since I moved to New York, however, I’ve discovered an entirely new dimension to my Ukrainian heritage. And I’ve discovered this not by taking Cultural/Social Studies courses at my intellectual school; I’ve learned this through working at restaurants.
I am the only white American girl who works the 5:30am breakfast shift. The other servers are either Bengali or Hispanic.
Bahar is the coffee maker with a round nose and caterpillar-eyebrows. His eyes are deep set and although he has a thoughtful face, the 35-year-old is one of my few fellow employees who tries to make me laugh. The Bengali love their tea, and Bahar makes me a mint tea with honey and lemon to help the early hours go by a little quicker.
I barely talked when I first began working. What did middle-aged men from Bangladesh, shouting at each other in their native tongue, have in common with an artsy 19-year-old NYU student? Well, complaining about restaurant work. This is what Bahar and I first talked about while we waited for guests to arrive.
“I hate this,” Bahar said in his Bengali accent, then started chuckling, “this restaurant stuff.”
“Me too,” I said.
“I really have to get better job.”
I shrugged. I knew once I graduated, I most certainly would. I wouldn’t be caught dead working in a restaurant at age 40. But Bahar did not have that choice. I mentioned he ought to go back to school; he agreed tiredly, but defeatedly said he didn’t know what he would do in school. “It’s harder for us, you know,” he said. “You speak English so well. For us it’s different.”
Bahar lives in Queens and has been married for about a year. He’s been struggling to pay his bills, makes barely enough money working double shifts as a barista, but he won’t leave New York to move somewhere cheaper, like “de Cleveland” as he says to me with a laugh (the Bengali tend to put “the” in front of names of people and places, such as “de Lecia”). I ask him why, and the answer is straightforward and simple: “Because I love it here.”
I realized then, that there’s a sense of determined stubbornness among lower-to-middle class New Yorkers. Many immigrants who work as food runners or bussers, polishing silverware, sweating behind the fires of the kitchen, trying to get by with their sparse English skills, have little to nothing. But they do what they have to do; they feed their families, as Bahar says, “My #1 and #2 and #3 sons.”
When managers belittle them and speak to them as though they were children, these workers just nod and say, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” If they fight back, they lose their jobs. While at times this is enraging, there is something incredibly humbling about it. It is something that contrasts starkly with my second existence, my privileged NYU lifestyle, where aggression and entitlement give us the freedom to get what we want, whenever we want it.
As the weeks went on, Bahar began talking to me about his home in Bangladesh. Again, around 7am, when the sun was about to rise, we would stand in front of the window overlooking Columbus Circle; see the buildings of this spectacular city against the grey-blue sky of morning. “This twilight time,” Bahar said, “in my country, in my village, this was the most beautiful time for me … At night twilight, especially, when the sun was leaving, I would walk by the river by my village; it was so peaceful. I would smoke a cigarette. Yes, this was the most beautiful time of day for me …”
“Would you ever go back home?” I asked him, sensing his homesickness.
“No,” he said. “It is because all my important family and friends, they have all left the village. One is here, another is there; everyone scatter. It is not the same as it was. And New York has job opportunity.”
New York has job opportunity. I watched him silently, all of a sudden feeling something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I thought about the way Bahar never said anything in front of our authoritative manager, someone who had absolutely no right to treat minimum wage workers as thought they were children, knowing they couldn’t fight back. New York has job opportunity. Bahar brewed coffee for a living, making $4 an hour with very little extra tips on the side. New York has job opportunity.
When I came back to my dorm that day, I was feeling an unexpected and intense longing for my grandmother’s homemade Ukrainian borscht, beet soup. All of a sudden, I missed my grandmother and her wise simplicity, her strong worker hands, her knowing smile. In a strange way, Bahar’s humility mixed with his very strong stubbornness to make it, and my sudden culture homesickness, were inexplicably linked.
There is a restaurant named Veselka on 2nd Ave and 9th St. It is an Americanized, overpriced operation that calls itself “genuine Ukrainian cuisine.” Directly next door to this establishment, there is a not-so-hip sign that simply reads, “Ukrainian Restaurant,” rather drab and hidden behind Veselka’s commercial glory. I had never ventured inside; but that day I went with a friend. We ordered borscht and goulash; the small room smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen; the tables were covered in vishitya, Ukrainian embroidery.
Unlike Veselka’s watery and expensive borscht in a tiny cup, this place served me an enormous bowl of creamy, real stuff for only $3.30. I scooped it clean, spoonful after spoonful, feeling an overwhelming sense of satisfaction; it filled me to my entire being’s rim. Like my co-workers who scooped the life out of this city and barreled through the seeming emptiness, the power struggle, the rat race of New York survival life, I devoured this life-giving source as though it were the only thing to save me from my own destruction.
This was the closest taste I’ve had to my grandmother’s borscht, and in a way, to the foundation she built for my chance to be in New York. This was what drew the line between the pretentions of the privileged and the quiet dignity of a man from Bangladesh; what made that deeper, hidden landscape of New York so stubborn and so real. And I’ve been dying to go back to that hidden Ukrainian Restaurant ever since.