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“You can find out how to do something and do it, or do something and then find out what you did.”

Isamu Noguchi.

I’ve been meaning to write about my visit to the Noguchi Museum in Astoria/LIC last weekend.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to write on my art blog or this one, but it’s here for now.

I hadn’t heard of Isamu Noguchi before, so going to the museum was sort of on a whim, after a friend mentioned I should check it out.  It was a sunny Sunday morning.  I got coffee at Bakeway first (very good coffee, pretty good banana bread), which is on Broadway in Astoria, then walked straight to the sculpture garden.  It was really cold that day, so my fingers were freezing, but I caught a glimpse of a cat wandering around the sculpture garden (separate from the museum), and took some pictures.  Seems like it will be a good place to return in the warmer months.

Kitty

The Noguchi museum is part indoor and part outdoor, as there is a garden as well as some parts of the former warehouse-turned-museum that are open-air.  This is something the sculptor/landscape architect designed to be a sort of culmination of his major works, and which now serves to carry on his legacy, in a city where he’d previously had a studio (he worked primarily in New York and in Japan, if I remember correctly, though he travelled a lot as well).

Upon entering, and again, knowing nothing of this artist — I merely wandered through the clearly Asian-influenced sculptures and the garden filled with rocks, trees, and stone works.  Hm.  Interesting.  Peaceful.  Thoughtful… Meditative.  Buddhist?  Nature?

I sat down in a room that was showing a film about Noguchi’s life, not expecting to end up sitting there for an hour.

But I was sucked into the narrative of his life.  Not only was his work interesting, but his life — his character, his way of living, his approach, even the way he dressed and held himself — fascinated me.  Noguchi was born the son of an American woman and a Japanese man — a poet — who later left Noguchi’s mother for a Japanese woman and family.  Noguchi and his mother remained in Japan throughout his childhood, which influenced him deeply in his work.  Yet despite the extent to which he was constantly drawn to his roots – the culture, nature, and way of life in Japan – he was an international traveler, and gained inspiration from his travels in Europe, Mexico, and Asia.  This, and he was caught between being half American and half Japanese during WWII, when he didn’t feel at home in either country.  And he continued to attempt to connect with his father, to much frustration.

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But while he seemed to be the child of an identity crisis both personally and politically, the consistency in his work and the way he held himself seems to be unwavering, like he was always quite certain of himself and his talent.  While macho American artists like Jackson Pollock, hailed by Greenberg, were busy strutting their feathers in New York during the art world shift in the 40’s and 50’s (when abstract expressionism took center stage), Noguchi, whose work was more low-key and ground-level and thus not in the ring of fire, remained on the fringes of the art world doing his own thing.  He drew up plans for architectural installations, gardens, public sculptures, and even worked on set designs for Martha Graham’s performances.  His work was natural, earthy, organic, albeit borderline conservative in some ways — but I was drawn to this, to this merging of art and life that he seemed to do so well, so naturally, so artlessly.

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At a certain point, Noguchi grew tired of the “politics” of the art world and returned to Japan (he did this several times throughout his life) — where he carved a studio space for himself in the country, and with the help of an assistant continued experimenting with myriads of stones and materials.  There was an interesting quote in the film, and though I wrote down the jist of it, this isn’t verbatim: “Work is like a conversation with oneself; through trial and experimentation, you try to nail something down.”

His assistant spoke of Noguchi: “If he made a mistake and cut too much on a stone, he would be disappointed.  If he left the stone for a while, a year or two, the stone would heal like a cut in the hand. Perhaps the thought in his mind had changed, but the stone had also changed color, and the beauty began to emerge again.”

At the moment this may be my favorite picture of Noguchi.  He’s dressed so sharply yet so simply, an outfit so ordinary yet striking at the same time — artist + camera exploring the world.

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This is an independent piece I worked on my final semester at NYU.  While I was interning for Capital New York, I pursued this story and also conducted video interviews, which I turned into a 10-minute video piece.

Juan Baten’s daughter, Daisy Stephanie, was seven months old when her father was caught and crushed in a tortilla mixer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in January 2011.

Baten’s death briefly stirred media interest in the poor working conditions of the NYC food manufacturing sector.  The area stretches from East Williamsburg to Maspeth — just a stone’s throw away from the hip Williamsburg area right off the L stop.

The story surfaced again in July 2011, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Tortilleria Chinantla up to $62,000 for several violations — the most serious being a “willful” infraction in which the company did not have a guard barrier installed on the tortilla mixer into which Baten fell.  Two other tortilla factories inspected during that time were also fined for very similar violations.

But Tortilleria Chinantla owner Erasmo Ponce defiantly continued to contest the citations and fines OSHA placed on him, the case dragging on for nearly a year.  This past March, Ponce was finally arrested following a probe by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who charged the successful tortilleria owner with 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanor counts, including filing false tax documents, and not paying employees’ overtime or worker’s compensation insurance.  Ponce was released without bail but is due back in court on June 12th.

“We think that they are really using Mr. Ponce as an example or as a posterboard for other small businesses that don’t have workers compensation,” Ponce’s lawyer, Mr. Manuel Portela, told the NY Daily News.

Daniel Gross, Executive Director of Brandworkers International, believes Erasmo Ponce was able to evade responsibility for Baten’s death for a long time, and that conditions in the food manufacturing sector overall have not improved.  On the anniversary of Baten’s death, Gross wrote an article stating, “New York’s food supply chain continues to rely on the systematic exploitation of recent immigrant workers, many from Latin America and China.”

According to OSHA spokesperson Ted Fitzgerald, although Tortilleria Chinantla guarded the machine involved in Mr. Baten’s death, it “contested its citations and fines to the Occupational Safety and Health review Commission and the case is still in litigation.”

“My office is committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting New York’s workers,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a statement. “We will aggressively pursue employers who violate labor laws, including criminally when appropriate.”

——–

Rosario Ramirez, Juan Baten’s partner and now a single mother, faces an uncertain future on her own.  Ramirez sits in the old Brandworkers office building in Long Island City, Queens.  She is nervous, soft-spoken, and playing constantly with the ring on her finger.  Ramirez left a small village in Guatemala to come to New York City in 2008 to work in a garment factory.  She worked 9 hours a day, 5 days a week.  Baten, also from Guatemala, came to New York City when he was 16 to support his fatherless siblings at home, and began working at Tortilleria Chinantla.

The two had met in New York, moved in together, and hoped to begin a new life in America with their soon-to-be-born child.  Ramirez stayed home to be with Daisy Stephanie after she was born, and Baten came home exhausted every day from the long hours of work at Tortilleria Chinantla.

One night in January 2011, Baten’s friend and co-worker called Ramirez while she was sleeping to tell her that Baten was dead — that they couldn’t get him out of the machine.

“[Erasmo] Ponce told El Diaro… that he was going to help me, that he was going to provide babysitter services for my daughter and care for the mother, but he didn’t,” Ramirez said.  “His wife told me that I was very young and I could start over again and find another man to live with.”

Ramirez said Baten worked at Tortilleria Chinantla 6 days a week for 8 hours a day during winter months.  In the summer, he worked 12 hours a day.  Many times, Baten would come home with grease on his pants because the workers were required to fix the machines when they broke down.  When asked if Baten and his co-workers ever received training on how to use the machines, Ramirez said she did not believe they did.

“In reality it’s very hard, because I have to be both a mother and a father,” Ramirez said.  “It’s very hard in this country. Sometimes I leave [Daisy] with a woman to take care of her.  It breaks my heart, but I have no choice.”

The Worker’s Compensation Board will be giving Daisy Stephanie $320 a week until she is 18, unless she goes to college–in which case she will continue receiving that amount until she’s 23.  But even that is sketchy, says Gross, as he is dubious of the accuracy of Ponce’s weekly salary records.

“In sweatshops, record-keeping is fairly flawed,” he said.  “We think Ponce’s records need a lot of scrutiny.”  Rosario, meanwhile, has not received any compensation as she was not legally married to Baten; she has also received no compensation or support from Ponce, despite his promises.

“At Juan’s funeral, when Ponce’s wife spoke to me, [Ponce] was standing right next to her but didn’t say a word to me,” Ramirez said.  She has not heard anything from him since, but believes he will have to deal with his conscience on his own.

——–

Tortilleria Chinantla owner Erasmo Ponce is a fixture in the elite NYC Mexican business community.  He’s been written about in various newspapers because of his company’s success — originally from Chinantla, Mexico, he has a rags-to-riches story.  His story is strangely reminiscent of Baten’s — Ponce’s father also died while he was still in grade school, and like most Latin American immigrants, he came to the U.S. to make ends meet.

While driving tortilla trucks for a factory, Ponce realized he could start his own tortilla business.  Tortilleria Chinantla ended up being hugely successful — $75,000 tortillas sold the first year, $150,000 the next — the income increasing each year as he bought newer and better equipment.

But despite his success, and the fact that he supposedly cared for poor Latin American immigrants as he was once in their shoes — Tortilleria Chinantla, like Buena Vista Tortillas Corp and La Tortilleria Mexicana Los Tres Hermanos Corp — also located in Brooklyn — still violated basic safety and health laws.

The violations found at Tortilleria Chinantla and these other factories, Gross says, are emblematic of the food manufacturing industry as a whole.  “Food manufacturing is a resilient part of New York’s economy and has potential, but is based on exploitation,” Gross said.  “It’s a very difficult, competitive environment.”

In order to compete with other corporations, the factories may pay under minimum wage, not pay for overtime, and not give days off, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in wage theft.  It’s also cheaper to not pay for proper equipment, training, and safety measures.

Whether the Department of Labor has any efficacy in regulating the sector is another debate.  “It’s a mirage that the government will somehow make OSHA stronger or hire more inspectors,” Gross said.  “It’s not a meaningful check or inspection.  Employers are not squirming in fear.  Ponce, for example, did the worst thing — he killed someone — but only has to pay some $40,000, and that is the worst case scenario.”

According to an OSHA fact sheet, the employer has a chance to work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter and to eliminate the hazard.  It states, “OSHA’s primary goal is correcting hazards and maintaining compliance rather than issuing citations or collecting penalties.”  The fact sheet also states that, “OSHA cannot inspect all 7 million workplaces it covers each year. The agency seeks to focus its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces.”  Priority is given to imminent danger situations, fatalities and catastrophes, and allegations of hazards or violations.

——

According to a new report by Brandworkers, 40% of food manufacturing workers complain of some sort of injury, safety/health violation, or abuse at their jobs.  Maria Corona, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, experienced such working conditions when she worked at Flaum’s Appetizers in Brooklyn for 4 years.

“The first manager I had… treated us well,” Corona said.  “[He] didn’t pay us overtime, but he respected us… When they put a new manager there, he didn’t treat us well.  He called us cockroaches,… and bothered us during our only break, telling us to hurry up and get back to work.”

When Corona and some of her co-workers asked to have a day off on July 4th to celebrate, the manager told them, “No, you’re not Americans, you can’t celebrate July 4th.”

During the winter, Flaum workers were required to grill eggplant outside in the yard and get frozen fish from refrigerated rooms, but weren’t allowed to wear proper clothing because it was bulky and would slow them down.  One of Corona’s co-workers, who was elderly, would constantly be sick, sometimes with eye problems, due to working outdoors in the snow.  His medical expenses were never covered.  Another co-worker was in the hospital for four months from exhaustion and over-work.

One day, Corona and some of her co-workers were approached by union workers waiting outside on the street corner.  They began meeting together and talking about fighting the injustice of the working conditions at Flaum.

“I was approached by the manager and he said, Maria go home,” Corona said.  “I said why, and he said ‘because you’re trying to bring a union to the workers.’  He told us that the only way to return to work was to leave things the way they were, without bringing in the Labor Department or union workers.”

——

The Brennan Center for Justice spent three years documenting workplace conditions and violations in several NYC industries — including the construction, apparel, food manufacturing, and restaurant industries, gathering all the information in their 2007 “Unregulated Work in the Global City” report.

[ Unregulated Work in the Manufacturing page lists statistics and common violations in NYC food manufacturing industry].

There will always be the sudden, tragic deaths or light-shining expeditions every few years when it comes to poor working conditions — not only in the food manufacturing industry, but other jobs as well — in restaurants and garment factories.  This time, it happened to be Baten’s death that causes our short attention spans to be turned briefly to this sector, only to be dissipated in a few months’ time.

Ramirez, meanwhile, tries to stay happy and looks forward to seeing her daughter grow up.  “I have hopes that Daisy will go to college, and that’s why I plan on staying here [in the U.S.], to make sure that happens,” she said;  she’s sure Juan would have wanted the same.

The crybaby – the exploiter – the pin-up girl – the self-absorbed… these terms have been used to describe Laurel Nakadate’s positions in her performance and video art, which explores the line between fiction and reality.  She’s known for starting conversations with strangers — particularly awkward old men — and creating absurd situations in their homes.

Although she lives in New York City, Nakadate was born in Iowa and is a Midwestern girl at heart.  She travels across the country to search for chance encounters, “to find beautiful places, to meet strangers, to find a guy who will do this ‘thing’ with me,” she said at a visiting artist lecture at NYU.

Her early video work involved her meeting old men, returning to their homes with them, and asking them to dance to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” with her, or to celebrate a fake birthday party with her.  She has asked men to follow her across open spaces, truck drivers to dance with her in parking lots.  She has videotaped herself facing an old pot-bellied artist, both in their underwear, watching one another as they turned around, as a way to “explore how we navigate relationships.”

Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice in 2005 wrote about Nakadate’s orientation toward herself and her body through her art, “If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world.”

But Nakadate’s work has recently taken another turn, where the artist is no longer at the center of the visual record she’s creating.  Instead of photographing herself crying every day, she’s taken to photographing other people and casting inexperienced Midwestern teenage girls as her main characters in films.

The Wolf Knife is about Chrissy and Julie — two seemingly innocent and naive 16-year-old girls who go on a road trip together from Florida to Nashville, Tennessee.  Chrissy is a troubled teen who lives with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, and asks Julie to join her in finding her real father in Nashville.

Armed with nothing but flowery little dresses, junk food and each other, the girls embark on their quest.  The film is filled with long, empty scenes, several without the actors speaking or moving.  In one, the girls sit on the ground in a parking lot, eating fries and cheetos under a burning sun.  We watch them lying next to one another on motel beds or sitting near beaches, the wind tossing their hair.

The girls are never seen actually driving a car, mostly because Nakadate didn’t want the film to be about driving or The Road — rather, it was about their relationship.  The camera focuses on close-ups of their faces, figures, and skin as they tell one another of their sexual experiences, crushes, family problems, or ask aimless questions like “Would you rather date a black prisoner or white prisoner?”

While the camera follows their most intimate moments, Nakadate’s signature creepy old men from her video works lurk in the shadows.  The film starts out with Chrissy’s mother’s boyfriend offering Chrissy a pair of pink underwear.  As the film progresses, we discover that Chrissy wasn’t going to Nashville to find her real father; in reality she’s made plans to meet an older guy she’d been “talking” to — her former 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Dews (Dave Cloud), who is an chain-smoking 50-something man living with his geriatric father.  The way Nakadate directs the camera on the girls as they stand in bathing suits near the beach, in parking lots, and near motels — looking very vulnerable — makes the audience feel disturbed, as though they were voyeurs themselves.

The process behind the film, though very different from her video works, still involved a sense of “chance encounter” and improvisation.  Nakadate said in a Q&A session after the film’s screening at IFC that she had about 20 scenes she knew she had to do, and the rest were improvised, which she considered an advantage.  She shot the film in 10 days, many of the scenes made up on the spot.

For example, the ending scene of The Wolf Knife concerns a struggle between the two girls at the end of their road trip, in which they wrestle one another in a parking lot.  By chance, fireworks began going off behind them, in the background.

“I just had to go with it,” Nakadate said.  “The fireworks were by accident, but they’re one of the great gifts that you get when you’re making a film with nothing — which is that the world takes care of you anyway.”

The actresses, Christina Kolozsvary and Julie Potratz, were on the verge of being pure non-actors, Nakadate said.  “These young women were really pushed to a place where they really became the characters,” she said.  Chrissy’s bedroom in the film was the actress’s real bedroom; the woman who played her mother was her actual mother.

“When you work with non-actors, they’re really experiencing the scenes… while real actors are trained to experience the scene but it’s not really them,” Nakadate said.  “These young women were really pushed to a place where it really was them.”

Currently, Kolozsvary is in grad school for film and Potratz in grad school for art.

Although she’s not physically in The Wolf Knife, Nakadate’s signature voyeuristic presence is still felt.  Many of the issues Chrissy and Julie deal with — isolation, loneliness, naivete, sexual curiosity — can be found in Nakadate’s earlier work as well.  But she plans to take her feature filmmaking to the next level.

“I do have ambitions to make a film with a better budget because there’s a challenge there,” Nakadate said.  She didn’t wish to disclose any more information about her third film, other than this time, it will be be about adults rather than young girls.

20 September 2011

NEW YORK, NY — Jane Dai held up the last picture that was taken of her family together.  Her one-year-old daughter smiles in between her and her husband, who was arrested, tortured by electric shock and killed by Chinese authorities at age 34 for practicing the spiritual exercise known as falun gong.

Dozens of falun gong practitioners and persecution victims attended a press conference today in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations to urge South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to stop deporting falun gong asylum-seekers.  Since 1999, the Chinese Communist government has arrested and tortured hundreds of thousands of practitioners, and nearly 4,000 have been killed.

According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, the South Korean government has sent 10 falun gong refugees back to China, and denied asylum to the 56 who have applied.  “These people risk death by being deported,” Dai said.  “I don’t want more people to end up like my husband.”

Dai and her husband became practitioners after her father-in-law was cured from kidney failure through his falun gong exercises.  “My husband was arrested and killed in 2001 for handing a letter to the government that simply stated, ‘falun gong is good,’” she said. Two months later, Dai’s father-in-law who had been cured by the same practice, died from grief over the loss of his son.

Practitioners sat on mats in 3 long rows, cross-legged and holding their hands together, palms inward.  At times they closed their eyes while they listened to speakers, emanating a sense of peace.  Banners stretched above their bowed heads stated, “Stop genocide in China!”

Falun gong is an ancient spiritual practice that has been practiced privately in Chinese homes for a thousand years.  The exercise, which incorporates teachings of Buddhism and Taoism and helps energize the body and mind, was reborn in the 1990s when founder Li Hongzhi aimed to bring its teachings to the rest of the world.

“[B]efore the persecution, all mainstream society would take part in this exercise,” Dai said.  “Even communist officials would practice it – professional people all did it.  It was all over college campuses.”

The Chinese regime grew wary of falun gong’s growing popularity and its independence from government when, in 1999, it banned the practice.  “The Chinese government is fearful of falun gong because it upholds the principle of truth,” said practitioner Lucio Armellin.  “A regime like the Chinese government cannot exist if the truth is exposed.”

Asylum deportations fall under South Korean law, but many human-rights groups and falun gong practitioners say it is a violation of international law and basic human rights.

Dai was not the only widow present at the conference.  Muluan Luo, 60, and her husband had escaped to Thailand in 2005 after experiencing persecution.  “In 2006, the U.S. offered us refugee asylum,” Luo said.  “Very soon after, my husband was killed in a so-called ‘car accident’ that was plotted by the Chinese government, before we could move there.”

Nadia Ghattas, though not Chinese-born, has become involved with the New York falun gong community, which can be found in various parks throughout the city.  She explained that its focus is on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

“The more I hang around the Chinese, the more I feel I have a connection with them,” Ghattas said.  “If there’s harmony within yourself, there’s harmony around you, which ultimately leads to peace.”

In between speakers, the practitioners demonstrated the 8 round, slow movements that define this meditative exercise in unity.

New York Falun Dafa Association representative Dr. Wenyi Wang smiled as she recalled a time before persecution.  “In my hometown of Changchun, 5,000 people would come together in a big park to practice these movements,” she said.  “It was a beautiful sight.”

I have sat inside Bobst and outside of Bobst, but never quite on Bobst until today.  It’s a little cold, sitting on Bobst—that is, on the little enclaves that spot the exterior of Bobst, upon which one will often find the bloodshot smokers leaning their tired, lanky bodies during final time.  It is a cloudy October day, and this accounts for the coldness of the stone which sends shivers through my bones.

Sitting in this little enclave of Bobst’s exterior, I notice that up close the color of the building isn’t as bright as it seems from far away, when it’s distinguishable from the other washed-out buildings around it.  Far away, it appears more to be fresh salmon-colored. Up close, it’s a damp clay color: worn, a little dirty. At the corner of Washington Sq. South and Washington Sq. East, three girls with a guitar stand in front of a construction fence next to Bobst, singing Christian tunes in high-pitched, screeching voices. One, a petite Asian girl with a beaming smile, jumps out to intercept the path of an unsuspecting student on his way to the library.  The girl asks him if he believes in Jesus, but before allowing him to respond, hands him Jesus cards.  The student is wide-eyed and bewildered, looking for a way to escape this trap.  Clutching the straps of his brand new, awkwardly-shaped backpack, he appears to be a novice, probably a freshman.  He didn’t expect to be bombarded by Bible study advertising when he decided to attend one of the most liberal schools in the country… How does he tell her to bug off without seeming rude … They are always too nice!

He gets away at last, and makes a lunge for the library.  The Jesus girl yells, “God bless you!” after him, still beaming.

Only feet away from the Jesus girls is a male student wearing an ash-colored knit sweater and an unmatching “stoner” hat with ear-flaps. “Occupy Wall Street: join the NYU protest tomorrow at 4 o’clock!” he shouts at passersby, briefly overpowering the God chants behind him.  He passes out flyers; some determined students dart away from him, while others, like the poor freshman, get caught and tuck the flyer into the pile of books they carry in one arm, then scurry away into oblivion.

If you want a good picture of NYU demographics, this intersection may be the most telling.  Bobst, prodigious and stately, towers like an intimidating grandfather at the center of campus, across the street from the newly-renovated Washington Square Park (not quite as dirty, not quite as shady as it used to be).  Students occupy 99% of the herds of people that scuttle back and forth along the sidewalk, scampering into the street and chattering like benny addicts amongst one another.  It is 5pm, the rush hour of the fall semester school day.

They are carrying backpacks or messenger bags, they are tall or short and thin, stylish, fit.  Some make long, determined strides to their destination; others amble near the Bobst doors, smoking cigarettes and staring out with comatose complexions into the abyss of their exhausted minds.

Two apparently ravenous friends devour burritoes as they walk rapidly, spilling beans and white sauce over their pants and sidewalk.

The smell of the strategically-placed halaal cart in front of the Stern building occassionally wafts over, a constant reminder to those running in between classes of their empty stomachs.  And then, of course, the cigarettes … The front of Bobst is constantly shrouded in a cloud of smoke; just standing here could turn you into an indirect smoker.  Non-smokers generally have to hold their breaths and duck as they enter Bobst.

Amidst all this movement, all the noise, all the sights—there is but one person who stands still.  An old man is across the street from me standing at the corner, enjoying a cup of frozen yogurt.  He waits patiently for the light to change, then shuffles slowly across the street.  Students and young people swarm around him like hyperactive ants, but he takes his time, perhaps slightly confused by the commotion of the youngsters.  He eventually disappears into the crowd; the three Jesus girls continue their attempts to harmonize, never-ending.  Hipsters petulantly remove iPod earphones to briefly assess the live music they are hearing, then immediately plug them back in their ears and veer in a different direction.  “Happy, so very happy I’ve got a lot of Jesus in my life!” the girls sing.  “Jesus is in my heart!”

Then, passing to my left is a strong, clear voice, an African-American student, the Jesus girls’ first audience member: “Yep, Jesus is in my pancreas too!”

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.