Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Year in Da Bronx

I was recently trying out for a writing position at an online magazine that reviews outrageously expensive consumer goods. My job would have been ghostwriting pieces for a fictional character who is extraordinarily wealthy, tends to name drop, and has the sexual morals of an alley cat. As I don't really have access to luxury goods right now, I decided to write a review of some of the street food in my area. Here it is:

What: Empanadas
Where: The corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue
Price: $1.00 each and up.
Why: Sustenance and a nifty hangover cure

It doesn't happen often, but last weekend a combination of fresh mojitos and a latino jazz combo conspired to make my Saturday night a complete blur. I awoke to find myself in a strange bed north of 145th Street, again. While I tried to convince my timid driver that a passport is not necessary for traversing the Triboro bridge, I noticed that the combination of dirty dancing and clean rum had left me more than a little dehydrated. After surrendering my favorite pair of boxer shorts, which the young lady was quick to place on a homemade altar composed of three candles and a velvet painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I made my goodbyes in the broken Spanish that functions as the lingua franca of the area. Walking down the street, I happened across an empanada saleswoman on the corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue. While she initially offered her wares at the bargain-basement price of one dollar each, I quickly talked her up to ten dollars for two. In return for this princely sum, I received a fresh, crispy crust with a lightly-spiced, meaty interior. The saleswoman assured me that the contents of the empanada came from a local grocery store, not the pound. A few minutes later, my driver appeared in the Hummer, sporting a taser and what appeared to be a flak jacket. A greasy smile on my face and a stomach full of empanadas soaking up last night's mojitos, I settled back in the seat and awaited my return to civilization.

Although this is tongue-in-cheek, I think it gives a pretty good impression of my neighborhood. I have discovered that the Bronx isn't, in fact, located in New York. Rather, it exists in a mythical space, somewhere between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is a bizarro world, where Spanish is the native tongue, the pizza and Chinese food are inedible, and the tacos are worthy of religious devotion. In Bronxland, every street corner features a salesman selling helado, a delicious tropical ice cream, and the English comes with a hispanic accent and a hefty dollop of four-letter words.

Whenever I take the fifteen-minute subway ride to Manhattan, I am surprised to discover that I don't have to go through customs or have my passport checked. All of a sudden, I no longer have to speak in broken Spanish, and I am shocked to find myself surrounded by white people dressed in conservative, concealing clothes. En mi barrio, people tend to be tan, clothes tend to be minimal, cellulite is worn proudly, and I look like an albino.

The people on my block are very friendly. Admittedly, some of them ask for money, but they're not too aggressive. I think they've figured out that the white guy in the hood is probably not flush with the pesos, if you get my drift. The tenants in the building tend to be somewhat protective, warning me that "there are bad people in the neighborhood" and to "watch out for panhandlers."

The general feeling tends to be that we are nice, mildly eccentric gringos who are probably a little insane. When we first moved in, the neighbors seemed worried that we were drug addicts. As the super, Ivan, explained, most of the white people who move up here are hippies, druggies, or both. This was brought home to us when my wife was harassed by the local policemen, who wanted to know why a white woman was wandering around this neighborhood at 6:00 AM. After she convinced them that she was not a prostitute, she only had to mildly hint at the possibility of a lawsuit before they let her be.

The wife describes the general reaction as "You do realize that you're white, don't you?" This attitude underlay her run-in with the police, and has characterized all of our interactions with the neighbors. Everyone feels obliged to warn us about the neighborhood, but is surprised when we point out that they live in the neighborhood, too.

It's fair to say that we like it a lot.

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  • You painted it in bright bold strokes that make me want to come visit. I'll get a spray on tan first and tell the cops I'm trying to pass. I don't know much Spanish though, but it would give me the chance to practice the curse words that turn heads in the VA burbs.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At August 8, 2007 at 1:54 PM  

  • Excellent piece of writing - you sound such a bohemien player *grin*
    yknow at least youre in a neighbourhood where they TALK to one another, if you where in a more upper class part of the city paying outrageous rents you probably would be lucky to get a hello out of someone. For both you and your wife Id say you will be inspired by the characters and the scenarios the bronx brings you..

    By Blogger Judith, At August 9, 2007 at 5:35 AM  

  • How funny. Even in the metropolis, provincialism is to be found.

    Is an empanada like a Cornish pasty then?

    (Have missed your writing - good to have you back.)

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At August 9, 2007 at 6:05 AM  

  • Hey you , Welcome back..Where have you been? Oh yeah, in da Bronx...
    Sounds like you guys are having some fun there....Hope all is well.

    By Blogger Odat, At August 9, 2007 at 9:20 AM  

  • Sounds great and exciting. As for your character with no morals, nice. (said in a very NYC way of course)

    have you learned the Bronx cheer yet? Or am I dating my familys departure from the Bronx?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 9, 2007 at 10:18 AM  

  • Spellbound-
    I thought about trying to pass; unlike my wife, I have melanin, and am therefore capable of tanning. However, I decided to just let it be and remain my usual, easily excited, terifically uncool self. So far, it's worked out fairly well!

    Don't hate the Playa; hate the game.

    As always, you kill me with your insight. You're absolutely right; living in Midtown, I'd get to pay a lot more and interact with snobby white folks who would look down on me because I'm not wearing the right labels. No, I'm pretty happy with da Bronx!

    You have no idea! The Dominicans look askance at the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese look askance at everyone. The Koreans have carved out their little two-block niche and avoid everyone else, while the Jews and Irish have retreated to the far North. Tribalism, thy name is da Bronx!

    Regarding the other, Empanadas are a lot like Cornish Pasties, but they're deep-fried, crispy, and have a lot less filling.

    We're having a lot of fun...missing you, though! If I ever get a job, how about we take you out to dinner?

    Reflecting Pool-
    I'm not sure if you're dating yourself (nice trick, if you can avoid getting jealous!), but I'm familiar with the Bronx Cheer, having learned it at my father's knee and having gotten a follow-up course from numerous whoopie cushions over the years!

    By Blogger Crankster, At August 9, 2007 at 1:52 PM  

  • Welcome back!! Your neighborhood sounds so interesting and the latin food sounds awesome! I find it hysterical that people remind you you're white! LOL!! When I visited the DR, I was told I'm white as mozzarella.

    By Blogger Claudia, At August 9, 2007 at 7:28 PM  

  • Great to see you posting again! Do you make it down to Manhattan often? I'm on the upper east side now (been here 3ish weeks), so maybe we can meet up for lunch at some point.

    By Blogger Will, At August 9, 2007 at 10:41 PM  

  • I have to say that you nailed the Bronx as I remember it. I was lucky, everyone always understood me. Make sure you get to see Yankee Stadium while you're there. I ought to get up there and go with you. You have to make the pilgrimage to the shrines in center field, before they build a new stadium.

    By Blogger The CEO, At August 10, 2007 at 6:22 PM  

  • Great fun piece! It's good to have you back.

    I think Damon Runyon was inspired by the Bronx. When I left NY, it was much more of a mixed neighborhood, but all the 'hoods in NYC change hands over the years, kind of like some of the countries that border Russia and are variously Russian, German, or whatever depending on who's in power.

    Enjoy life in the big city. It's an incredibly special place.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At August 11, 2007 at 1:24 PM  

  • Oh how fun!!! It reminds me of being the only black face in Mendoza, Argentina. I was often offered money for "services" since, naturally, I was thought a Brazilian prostitute.

    Fun times ahead! I can't wait to hear more stories.

    By Blogger Lex, At August 12, 2007 at 10:10 PM  

  • Delightful piece. I'm glad I continued to check to see if you were blogging again.

    Do give us more of this new culture of yours.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At August 13, 2007 at 5:25 PM  

  • Claudia-
    My wife, who is as white as mozzarella, really sticks out. I tan a little bit, so some people seem to think that I may be a particularly unstylish Puerto Rican.

    On the Upper East Side, eh. Jesus, touch you!

    I get down there every day. E-mail me your contact info, and we'll get together!

    My subway ride takes me past it a couple times a day, but I haven't been inside yet. I guess I have to check it out!

    I think you're right about Runyon. He buried his wife here, although he had himself cremated and his ashes scattered over Times Square.

    I think I'd be a little honored if someone thought I was cute enough to make money off my ass.

    I guess that's a typical male response!

    Mystic Wing-
    Great to see you again! I'll try to keep you informed!

    By Blogger Crankster, At August 14, 2007 at 11:31 PM  

  • oh, I miss a place where you can be in another world in a matter of blocks....

    By Blogger amusing, At September 7, 2007 at 8:06 PM  

  • Amusing-
    It's amazing. And the layers are like onions.

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 23, 2007 at 5:50 PM  

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