New York, ever since its establishment, has been a city of migrants: its character, a well-rounded one with a flush of black, brown and white on its skin. Indeed, in its truest form, New York is a concrete jungle that breathes in the toxins produced by automobiles driven by ‘underdogs.’
In its romantic form, which often overpowers the real one, it is the one hurdle you might never want to cross. There is always the sense that there is a better way of living, a better lifestyle, and a cleaner and safer neighborhood. But there is also a pleasure in the struggle in a sense that assures you that you would rather be homeless in New York than be confined in the precincts of any walled apartment, anywhere else in the world. It is the embodiment of an everlasting greed, a thirst for money and power, a pull so strong it resembles that of the seductive mistress whose plump lips have kept you from kissing your other, beautiful half for long.
No one seems to understand the invisible force that draws one to New York, yet New York becomes the one city everyone desires to breathe in. It isn’t just another Paris, just another London. For some even dare say that it isn’t even a city; it is a world in itself, crammed in 1 BHKs and rat-filled subways.A homeless man had once said to me, “You live everywhere else in the world but you survive in New York.” And that is the one common binding force that unifies all of New York- Upper East Side to the Bronx- the survival, the instinct that you can make it big today but lose it all tomorrow. Survival is key for most immigrants like me: those who have to power to make or erase the fantasy called New York.
The Undocumented New York
Although the chunks of white on his moustache and beard gave it away, Maged usually sported a baseball cap, more than anything; it gave him a chance to escape the embarrassment that comes accompanying old age.
When I first met Maged, he was working as a cashier at the Tomatina Café on 31st Street and 9th avenue (address changed for security reasons), energized and awaiting customers who were willing to have a conversation even if it was way past midnight. Learning that we were Indians, he had asked my friends and me if we planned to return to our country after graduating from college, “Why not?" I said, "maybe after a few years of working in New York.”
“You are young. You might say now that you wanna go back but by the time you come to your senior year, you gonna say no. Everyone wants to stay in New York and live the American dream. I know because I have seen so many do that. You must not fall for it; it’s a trap,” he said. What he hadn’t mentioned then, and what I had come to understand after continuously visiting him for several months, was that he was guilty of the same blissful entrapment.
Maged had come to New York on a student visa in 2003 after being accepted at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Thousands of miles away, ashes of religious wars covered his hometown Egypt. Terror attacks on tourists had deprived him of his only successful job as a tour guide. His small ears were constantly bombarded with questions about the failure of government control, of Islamic officials, of the religion itself.
The only answer an eighteen-year-old Maged had at that time conveyed the idea of escape. And so he did. Like most of the other Coptic Christians, like most of the people in the world, Maged’s idea of escape landed him in the States, in New York.
14 years after that day, Maged is an undocumented immigrant filing papers that would help him seek religious asylum. There is a chance that he could get persecuted in Egypt but there is also a risk of him being used, abducted or killed in the States, if and only if he decides to remain here undocumented.
For Maged, his New York is his East Harlem apartment, which he shares with two others, where he retires to smoke Hookah every morning after his night shift at Epice. For Maged, New York translates into escape, into safety, and into his favorite topic of conversation.
The Mexican’s New York
Undocumented immigrants have seen the darkest spaces in Manhattan: your favorite Bangladeshi Halal cart guy who serves the best lamb over rice, the Uber driver you forgot to wish goodnight, the delivery boy from the nearest Chinese restaurant whose calls you missed seven times and who waited at your door for another 15 minutes without demanding an explanation of why you didn’t tip. And then there is Jose.
I had met Jose through Maged. He swept the floor while constantly checking on us to see if he could understand any English word. Jose is 17 and uses the translator on his phone to converse with Maged. Jose was smuggled into the States through the Mexican border, all after he paid approximately $15,000.
Jose earns about $450 a week and sends most of the money to clear off his debts. He dreams of sending his younger siblings to a school in the States but does not know the process.
For Jose, New York is from where his neighbors’ kid in Mexico earned money, it is the reason the neighbors have big houses, the reason why their younger kids attend a better school. It is the place where he can buy a cell phone, a computer and a video game. For him, New York is the only place where he is welcomed without judgments, the place that took him 49 days to reach (after he crossed the border), where he is now going to purchase his first Xbox, a place where his journey just begun.
Indeed, New York is an exciting journey: a thrill. In short, New York is a mystery, of skyscrapers and the homeless shelters, of the Empire State building and the Tenement Museum. You can never have enough of it.
It is a topic every writer, ever journalist has either once covered or certainly wants to cover before she finally drops her pen. And no matter how much you read about New York, or write about it, you can never grow weary of it. No two writings on New York can ever be the same just like your New York can never be the same as mine, or as any other New Yorker’s.