Rifat asks if he can take my Sunday shift at The Coffee Shop. I have no problem giving it up. I work three jobs—barista, barback, and food delivery guy when it suits me—in order to pay The Big City rent. Then throw night school into the mix. I’m learning to be a Cobbler at one of the Labor Union’s affiliated technical institutes, The Technical Institute. My grandfather owned two shoe stores when he lived in India, ShoeLand and ShoeCorner. He passed a few months ago. I looked up to him dearly as a family man. Learning how to make and repair shoes was just another way to understand him better. The thing is I don’t think the other barista on shift, Io, really likes Rifat. I imagine sleeping in, maybe going to The Big Green Park, getting a run in, seeing my girlfriend, and checking out that new Auteur Film Director movie, so I text Kenni to ask if they want the shift instead. I text Rifat back, Hey man, I totally forgot, but Kenni already asked if they could take my Sunday shift.
POTENSH… Let me check my schedule, Kenni texts back. They are a playwright. Really the only one I know. Do individuals write plays anymore? Broadway is still a thing, sure. I just thought there were a bunch of production companies and writers’ rooms milling out the next big spectacle. A warm light, a glowing coal extinguished long ago, reanimates in me—a flicker of happiness—when I hear there are solo playwrights still at work. Kenni checks their schedule, YO. I’m in. I text Rifat, Sorry again, brotha, still feeling guilty about the lie. Rifat doesn’t text me back. In fact, I wouldn’t see Rifat until years later. He took another service-industry job in another neighborhood uptown, and as far as The Big City was concerned, it might as well have been another city. I finish closing up The Coffee Shop, and mid-jaunt on my way to night school, a street person, a homeless woman, drops her sack of plastic bottles. I’ve seen her before. On most days, I ignore her. Today, I help pick up every bottle clogging the sidewalk. She’s giving off a vinegary scent. Her shoes: a mess of straps, salvaged from refuse. Her bare toes, the chitin washed away from the elements, are fossilized nubs. Teeth absent, she gives a gummy smile. I count fifty-four plastic bottles, counting survival.
I wake up to one of the best natural-light mornings of 2018. It’s fall, so I’m confused. The light cascades in my room like a summer day. I think of the good deed of yesterday. Today, it seems self-important. Why only one good deed a day? Through The Tariqah, as a child, I was taught that attainment of knowledge was the ultimate journey, that in this way, we are capable of understanding God’s creations and therefore God. This, to us, is a version of nirvana. To be one with God. A droplet in the ocean we come from, echoes the voice of my father. I’m not a fan of the capital “G” God school of thought anymore. Though, I cannot deny that participating, cherry-picking the goodness, is still therapy. After work, I cleanse my body of impurities and coffee dust with a hot shower and put on comfortable, decent, neutral-colored clothes. Khaki joggers and a white T-shirt. I walk to The House of Worship for Friday Prayers. I invite the congregation’s chants to wash over me, no different than the water cleansing me earlier. My neck is buoyant, swaying imperceptibly. I substitute the word Allah and God and The Lord for The Universe. For all living and non-living things. It is the only way I can bear prayer. The Universe is merciful. The Universe is all-knowing. The Universe is the Most High. Glory be to The Universe. The Universe is Great. The Universe willing. Thank You, Universe. Thirty-some-odd minutes later, my shutters open. I am awake. I rise. A peaceful state. I greet people: daps, handshakes, waves. Friends, familiar faces, newcomers, out-of-towners, family. Some of us make dinner plans. Some of us go to bars. Afterward, bed. Thinking, not thinking, sleeping. I helped because I was trying to understand. I helped because I was hoping to see the world through another’s eyes. This is a form of knowledge, I assure myself.
Saturday comes to its slot in the rotation of the week as quickly as Saturdays do. The streets of The Big City roar and whisper with leisure. After my morning shift, I take the 9 train up to The Art Museum. I climb the ramp instead of taking the elevator with tourists from around the world. I stare at a Modigliani for what seems like thirty minutes. I cannot convince my eyes away. It is Nu couché. I read about it on the museum website. That it sold for $170 million at auction to a Chinese businessman is not lost on me. A relic of a time and artist we poeticize. Encased in glass and no doubt protected by an invisible imbrication of security lasers, the painting is hypnotizing. Yes, in its nudeness, its warm hues, but also in its differential quality from his other works. The set of nudes this painting comes from is regarded as pleasant and attractive, something Modigliani was not normally interested in. Where is the exaggeration? The long neck, the empty eyes, the overreaching nose, the crooked posture, the curves, the peculiarities, the idiosyncratic truths? Sir, please step away from the Modigliani. A security guard approaches me and asks to see what is inside my messenger bag. Over the years, I have developed a defense mechanism to deal with figures of authority: smartassness. Today, once again, it triggers into action. Why must I move from the Modigliani, I say, firmly taking my stance. I cannot move away, I say. Sir, if you do not step away from the Modigliani we will be forced to use force forcefully. The security guard’s fired up. Eventually he pulls me away, frogmarching me underarm. I sit in the Museum Security Office much longer than I stared at the Modigliani. They precariously go through my bag as if doubling as a bomb squad. I tell them I have books in there because I recently joined an Italo Calvino reading group, and I was a little trigger happy at The Bookstore, so I bought Invisible Cities. But if I bought Invisible Cities then I had to get Cosmicomics, and of course, I couldn’t get both of those without re-reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Then, because I had bought the well-known books, I had to get The Road to San Giovanni so I could get the proper cross-section of his oeuvre. Hey, Paki, can you shut the fuck up? I take a yogic breath, close my eyes, and exhale: The Universe.
Kenni is working at The Coffee Shop, so I have Sunday all to myself. My plan is to sleep in and work on the cobbling technique that Mr. Matarazzo taught me this past week. I get a text from my girlfriend, Scheherazade, asking to hang. I know if I tell her I’m perfecting a new cobbling technique, she’ll tell me I can do it while she’s watching TV in the living room. I know, however, this will not happen. I will be distracted by her, or she will distract me actively. Either way, two humans who love each other, sitting in side-by-side rooms when they haven’t seen each other all week is no good for productivity. Instead of telling her the truth, I will tell her a half-lie. I tell her I am feeling unwell from yesterday’s trauma of being racially profiled and imprisoned by The Museum Security Guards. She has no choice but to want to comfort me and also give me space. The rest of the day, I feel guilty while being productive.
Sunday is a transitory day. Contrary to the calendar, Monday is the real beginning of the week. When the world restarts. The week cocoons, crystallizes, and breaks out of the shell of yesterday. After work, I meet up with this kid I’m mentoring through The After-School Program. I do not think of myself as much of a mentor, but this twelve-year-old kid, she’s Uzbek, from the Central Asian city of Samarkand, a once jewel city-state during the Timurid Renaissance. She’s a fish out of water here in The Big City. A version of myself as a young Indian kid, marked as different from the white Italians and Jews I grew up with in the 90s out on The Long Island. Just the next marginalized generation of immigrants. Her parents were largely absent and her brother, a drug-dealer. Her mom had dropped her off by The Park with The Big Fountain and Arch. We sit on a bench, and she pulls out some rolling papers. Last week, she said she wanted to be an actress, so I looked into free after-school acting classes. I brought a brochure. I try to hand it to her—she’s rolling a spliff—but she doesn’t take one look at it. I thought maybe we could trade the two types of paper, but now I’m holding the brochure in one hand and a sativa-heavy hybrid strain called Platinum Diesel in the other. Should I smoke the upper? The kid’s name is Saffiya. She goes by Saff. A twelve-year-old girl is in a forest of decision trees oblivious to the idea that her life will be determined by her choices. Her mind is malleable, ready and able to be shaped into whatever putty the world contextualizes. In this moment my eyes glaze over. I go to a dark room in my head and replay the parable of “The North Wind and the Sun.” Sun and Wind challenge each other to remove the jacket from the man. Wind blows and blows. Relying on force, she does not relent. Sun smiles, waiting her turn. Finally, she shines at max brightness. She extends her rays, spotlighting them on the man. Finally, he takes his jacket off willingly. I look at Saff’s small face and tell her, We’re going to smoke this. Don’t ask me again. But we are going to smoke this weed now. And then this weekend, you are either going to this acting class or you are not. Up to you. I present the brochure. And next Tuesday, you are going to show me what you learned or did not learn and why. Next time, leave the weed at home. She takes the brochure and meets my eyes. Are you mad at me? I do not look away. Lighter in my hand, resolute, I say, No, I just want all of this to be worth it for you and me. Schk schk schk. She snatches it from my hand, Let me try. Schk schk. Schk schk.
Io, blue hair and all, looks at me after about an hour of not saying a word and pulls espresso shot after shot after shot. I haven’t seen you in a while, she says. And I finally get the nerve to look her straight in the eyes. Well, it’s been a busy week, you know. I made sure you didn’t have to work with Rifat on Sunday. I thought she would care more, but she just shrugs. Oh. Much later, when we’re closing up, sweeping, mopping, brushing, counting, locking, and shuttering The Coffee Shop, Io gives me a hug goodbye and says, You are disappearing. Soon, you will be gone.
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