There is a famous saying that I’m sure you have heard many times: “Only in New York!” People always say this whenever something very unusual or shocking happens. Well, how about “Only in West New York .. New Jersey!” I know, I know. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But it applies. Trust me.
In just over two months time, come September, I will finally be leaving the town of West New York and moving back to Forest Hills, Queens; where I lived in an apartment with my best friend Sarah over 13 years ago. This time, I will be living with what I can only describe as a “Gay Angel” named Michael who was sent to me by Don – but more on that later. With everything that has happened here, and the hospital Don died in being just blocks away, and having to hear ambulances every second of the day, and having every square foot of this dusty, old, Jersey apartment bringing me pain and hurt; it is best for my sanity that I find myself a healthier living environment. So I did. And even though I am 100% certain that moving is the right thing, and will help me continue to push forward in this life I didn’t ask for, it is going to be very hard and super emotional on the day I actually leave here. Packing up the past 12 years, 7 of those years being here with my husband, and figuring out what to do with them emotionally, is exhausting. It is a long process, and a sad one. Moving sucks on a normal, ordinary day. Moving under these circumstances is incredibly tiring and stressful. It can really wear you down.
There are a lot of things I will miss about this tiny West New York town. I will miss being an incredibly convenient 8-minute busride into NYC. I will miss the hints of suburbia just minutes away on River Road – Target, Barnes and Noble, Outback Steakhouse, Houlihans, Dunkin Donuts. I will really miss the unbelievable city skyline view that lines my street for miles on Boulevard East. There really is NO better view of the city than from right here, on this road. Don and I took so many walks along the Hudson River over the years, especially at night, because there is nothing quite like the city all lit up in the evenings. I could look at that view every single day for the rest of my life, and still never get tired of it. It is gorgeous. My dreams are in that view, hidden somewhere in between all those high-rises and buildings. There is hope in that view, and a world of endless possibilities. Once you see something like that, it’s hard to ever go back.
Of all the strange little quirks in West New York, perhaps the one thing I will miss most of all are the characters. I am speaking of all the fascinating, wonderful, colorful, animated, sometimes unbelievable people who come from all over the world; who work in, operate, and own all the stores and establishments in this town. Directly behind the building I live in, on a street called Park Avenue, there are endless little family-owned stores and bodegas, take-out restaurants and delis, laundromats and liquor stores. Inside each of these places, you will find some of the most memorable and odd people you will ever meet. If I were a better person like Don was, I would be able to tell you all of their names. But I can’t do that, because I don’t know most of their names. My husband paid attention to things like that. He knew their names, and he made small talk with them, and so now, most of these people look out for me since his death. They always ask me how I’m doing, or give me a hug, or throw in something for free with a knowing nod or wink. In a really bizarre way, it is like family. They expect to see me in their stores picking up milk or bread, and when they don’t, they ask why. “You no come here in months! Where you go?”, asked the lady at the local Chinese Food place down the block the first time I went in after Don had died. “My husband died”, I said. “Ohhhhh! Here. You take extra fortune cookie!” (She literally gave me one extra cookie, and then looked at me as if this act made her a smalltown hero.)
The ironic thing is that I lived in this neighborhood for 5 years alone, before Don moved here with me. But I never had the patience or care to really notice these wonderful people who all exist and live and breathe right in my own neighborhood. It took my husband and his gift for making people feel loved and special, for me to finally stop and give a real hello, or have a bit of conversation before running out of the store. His ability to pay attention to the small, everyday details was so amazing to me, and now I find myself wishing I had listened more; or cared enough to.
So who are the people in my neighborhood – as Mister Rogers would say. Well, there are many. There is the Spanish woman who runs the beauty salon down the street, who somehow blowdries my hair with one hand and holds her infant daughter with the other. There is the older, Italian man who works at Cella Luna take-out. When he found out about Don’s death, he said: “You need wine, my dear. I give you a bottle of our best wine, on the house. God Bless You.” Since then, everytime I order delivery service, he puts something extra in my order. One time he gave me an entire pizza, another time some cannoli. He is a sweetheart. There is the Indian man, Victor, who owns the bodega and used to talk to Don all the time in his store. Now his funeral card sits inside the store in the corner of the window. Breaks my heart every single time I see it sitting there, right next to the scratch-off tickets. There is the African-American man in the tiny post-office, who is always smiling and always wishing everyone a great day. He is the kind of guy who literally whistles while he works, and makes your day a little bit brighter just by running into him and having a small exchange of words. The way that he tells you to have a great day is so sincere and direct, that you can’t help but want to have a great day. “Now you go out there and have yourself a great day, okay, ma’am? You promise me you’ll try, okay?” Normally, these too-happy types drive me insane with their phony platitudes and generic glee, but he is very genuine, so I walk out smiling. There is the much older caucasian man with white hair who works in the Pharmacy, and who keeps a very loud and annoying parakeet in the store. Everytime you walk in, that thing screams it’s head off and starts yelling: “Helloooo! Helllooo! Helllloooo! Hellllo!!!” It is the most annoying goddamn thing in the world, because he never shuts up. He never stops talking. I am only in the store for maybe five minutes to pick up a prescription or birthday card here and there, and by the time I leave, I want to commit a homicide from the migraine that has developed. I cannot imagine living with that noise. There is also the sweet Cuban woman who works in the Brazilian take-out place, and always says: “You sit down here and wait for your order. You can watch whatever you like on the TV. Relax, relax. This is like your home for the next 10 minutes. You be comfortable.”
All of these people are true characters in every sense of the word, and part of me feels ashamed at not bothering to notice them before Don came along. However – in the world of interesting people of West New York – there is one woman who stands out amongst the rest. She is the Godfather of all Characters. I wish like hell I knew her name, but I do not. What I can tell you about her is that she is a refreshing dose of harshness. She says whatever she feels like saying, and thinks nothing of it. She is wonderfully chaotic and loud and outrageous and somehow sweet. She is an older woman, probably middle-aged or more, with dark, Latin skin and no makeup. She is usually in sandals, bare legs, and a sundress of some kind. She calls everybody “Mami”, and she works with and acts like one of the guys. She is the front desk receptionist at Ramirez and Sons Auto Shop. This is the shop that Don and I frequented all the time back when we had his old 1997 Pontiac that gave us so much trouble those last two years. The mechanics in this shop are great guys, and because Don used to be a car mechanic himself, he would hang out in the shop with them and just talk. He did this often. I never went into the place until after he died. I had no reason to. He always took care of everything having to do with the car, then he would make sure it was perfectly safe before I drove it anywhere. Now; I have my 2002 Bonneville, and, of course, I have to take care of this kind of stuff myself.
The other day, I was driving home from my normal, hellish commute from Long Island back to New Jersey after a day of teaching my summer Acting Course. I was on the Long Island Expressway, when all of a sudden I heard the loudest noise I had ever heard from inside my car. It sounded like someone had shot at me, or threw a giant boulder at my back window. Seconds later, the “Tire Pressure” light went on, and I was about to drive into the Midtown Tunnel. For anyone who knows this area, there is nowhere to pull over, and it was 98 degrees outside. All I could picture was having to wait in that heat for hours for AAA to come out and help me. Meantime, all of New York would loathe me for causing THEM to sit inside the tunnel for hours behind me. So instead, I continued to drive the car home, and to the mechanics. Minutes later; my brake light came on, and the brakes stopped working. Oh this is fun. Now I have no brakes and no tire, and I’m going 5 miles per hour through midtown Manhattan, through the Lincoln Tunnel, and finally to the mechanic. Miraculously, I somehow arrived at my destination without killing myself or harming others. They were able to repair the brakeline, which was leaking, and put on a new tire, since the old one was completely ruined by me driving on it like an asshole. They had to keep my car overnight in order to do all this, and so the next day was another hellish nightmare commute to Long Island as I braved the bus into the city, walked the 10 blocks down to Penn Station in another 98 degree day that felt like 250, get on the train, transfer to another, then walk to campus.
On my way back to Jersey that afternoon, the bus I took home had no air-conditioning. It was apparently broken. We sat on the bus for almost 40 minutes, waiting for it to fill up. I could feel myself being overtaken by heat and dying inside. I’ve never been so hot in my entire life sitting on that non-moving bus. Then it got worse. The man that sat next to me had the most foul body odor of any human being ever in the existence of time. He smelled like he rolled himself in hippo fesces, drank a gallon of urine, then jumped into a tank filled with rotting fish, garbage, and sour milk. It was all I could do to not projectile vomit on him right then and there. I closed my eyes and had fantasies of my air-conditioned bedroom, and never leaving it until the end of time. When I finally arrived home and walked to the mechanics to pick up my car, the sweat was pouring into my eyeballs and down inside my lips. My hair was soaked with disgusting sweat, and I just wanted my car and my air-conditioner and my life back. I entered the front Office looking like I had just returned from being prisoner in a refugee camp. And in that moment, the woman behind that counter took my horrific, awful day – and turned it around completely with this bizarre, unbelievable, real, shocking exchange of conversation:
Me: Hey – Im here to pick up my car.
Her: (looking me over) How you doin Mami? You look tired, huh? Its hot as balls out there, no?
Me: Yup. Disgusting.
Her: Your car is ready, I’ll get Jose to come over and give you the keys. (pausing – looking at my jeans) I don’t know how you wear them pants like that, Mami.
Me: Huh? What do you mean?
Her: I mean, how’s your twat! Your twat must be suffocating up in there with them jeans, no?
Me: (stunned) Um … my whole body is sweaty as hell. Its gross outside.
Her: Yeah, but I no ask about your whole body. Im talkin’ bout below the waist, Mami. I’m talkin ’bout your TWAT. If I wear jeans like that, my TWAT just dies up in there. It’s just dead. (She makes a motion with her hands to signify a dead, flattened twat. Meanwhile, I silently pray that she will stop saying the word twat.) What about your boobs? You got pretty big boobs. They must sweat a lot underneath, no?
Me: Am I on a hidden camera show?
Her: (laughing) I make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry Mami. How you doin’ though, since your husband pass? You doin’ okay? You takin care of yourself?
Me: Im trying. Thanks for asking.
Her: It’s been almost a year now without Don, no? We like him here. He hang out with the mechanics and shoot the shit. He’s a good guy. Good guy. You take care of yourself. Get in the air conditioning. He wouldn’t want you walkin’ around with sweaty under-boobs and a dead twat!”
And in that one shining moment, my day went from annoying and awful; to hilarious and epic. I do not know this woman’s name, but I will now make it a priority to find out, because I will miss her when I leave this place. Sometimes all it takes to turn your day around and make you smile and laugh, is for someone to ask you about your twat. If only more people would ask: “How’s your twat?”, maybe the world would be a better, more unexpected place.
Only in West New York, Mami.