Commentary Magazine


"In New York You Get Swallowed by a Horse"

We had been talking of this and that when I asked him, “Have you ever been in New York, Hector?”

“Yes, yes, I've been to New York.”

“And what did you think of life there?”

“New York! I want no part of it! Man, do you know what it's like? You get up in a rush, have breakfast in a rush, get to work in a rush, go home in a rush, even shit in a rush. That's life in New York! Not for me! Never again! Not unless I was crazy.

“Look, I'll explain. The way things are in New York, you'll get nothing there. But nothing! It's different in Puerto Rico. Here, if you're hungry, you come to me and say, ‘Man, I'm broke, I've had nothing to eat.’ And I'd say, ‘Ay, Bendito! Poor thing!’ And I'd give you some food. No matter what, you wouldn't have to go to bed hungry. Here in Puerto Rico you can make out. But in New York, if you don't have a nickel, or twenty cents, you're worthless, and that's for sure. You don't count. You get swallowed by a horse!

“Don't mention New York to me, man! I suffered too much there. I had to sleep in the street, in alleys and doorways. When that happened, I went two or three days without a bite of food. If I approached anyone and told him I hadn't eaten, he'd just say, ‘Get out of here!’ If you ask for food in New York that's all the answer you get; you won't find a soul who'll give you a nickel or a bit of bread or a plate of rice. No ‘Ay, Bendito’ there, muchacho. There you have to look out for yourself. If you're one of those teenager bums, the kind who goes around asking for hand-outs, New York will make a man out of you. Because if you don't work, you starve.

“What made me decide to go to New York? Nothing special, really. I had problems with my family, so I left home and went to work for a couple of weeks until I saved enough to pay my fare. When I got there, I went to my uncle's on 138th Street, in the Bronx. And you know? I was broke because I had to pay ten dollars' taxi fare from the airport. Ten dollars! All I had left was seventy-five cents.

“So you know what happens? Your uncle, being a relative, gives you room and board for a week while you look for a job. You're still jobless by the end of the week? Well, muchacho, you haven't got a chance. Because, right off, your uncle kicks you out. Now, suppose you did find a job. Your uncle may decide to let you stay on with him. That'll be twelve dollars at least. Twelve dollars for three meals a day and a room to keep your clothes in. And don't think he'll allow his wife to do your washing. Oh, no! You'll have to take it to the laundry. You'll have to pay all your other expenses too . . . beer, everything! Your life isn't worth a plugged nickel there. Just like the songs says, ‘La vida no vale na’.

“That's not the worst of it, either. Let me tell you, boy, New York's a madhouse. You can live twenty years in the same building without ever getting acquainted with your next-door neighbor. Twenty years! My friends here say, ‘Oh, New York! It's so pretty, so wonderful, the best!’ But if you stop to look at the city, what is it? Nothing but big, big buildings. Just walls and windows.

“Then I explain to my friends about New York in winter. Closed doors, closed windows, no people. If you do see people, you just see them walking. Walking, walking, all the time. You can't stop to talk to them because you are rushing off to work. Besides, you'll freeze. When I wanted to go out I had to put on a coat and an overcoat, woolen underwear, wool pants, three pairs of woolen socks. I'd go out bundled up in all those clothes and, man, my legs would shake with cold. Comes winter, people in New York put their milk bottles on the window sills and don't need a refrigerator at all. Spit outdoors and it turns to ice before it hits the ground!

“In New York, you freeze in the winter and bake in summer. My little girl had one cold after another, fevers, all kinds of illnesses there. Here, blessed be God, she hasn't had so much as a running nose since we returned. How can anyone compare New York with Puerto Rico, with the sun and the pretty flowers and things we have here?

“Sure, some guys have good luck in New York and like it there. Some even make a lot of money. Suppose you want to get rich. First thing you do is begin to sell narcotics or get into the numbers racket. Gambling in New York can make you a profit of ninety cents to the dollar. If you manage to sell drugs for a whole year without getting caught by the police, you'll make eight, twelve thousand dollars for sure. On the other hand, if the cops catch you, you get ten years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. So, tell me, which would you rather have?

“We honest people, who don't know how to get mixed up in a racket, just have to work. But it takes some doing to get a job. To find a job in New York you have to really take yourself in hand. To get from where you live to the street, you have to go down a lot of steps because the houses are four or five stories high. You go down those stairs and if you don't want to get lost—like I did that first time—you stop in front of the door and take a good look at your building and at the one across the way. So you will remember, see? It's easy to get lost there. I've cried like a baby in those New York streets where you can get lost worse than in a jungle. There'll be a lot of people around you, but what do the sons of bitches do when you ask for help? They'll realize you're a rookie and they'll say, ‘Go that way,’ and it'll be the wrong way so you'll get more lost and the hell with you.

“Here in San Juan you can go up to anybody and say, ‘Pardon me, where is Cristo Street?’ or Tanca Street or any street you want to find and whoever you ask stops and listens. If you happen to ask someone in a car that's going your way he'll say, ‘Hop in, I'll take you there.’ But not in New York!

_____________

“Well, so you're looking for a job and you start walking. Man, how long, how long are the streets of New York! You can walk and walk and never get to the end of them. While you walk you keep your eyes peeled for places where they might hire someone. You go into a shop. ‘Do you need a man to work here?’ In some places they tell you ‘No.’ In other places they say, ‘I don't speak Spanish.’ You just walk on and on and on. One time, you know what happened to me? I went to this place and they had a latino there, the son of a bitch. I knew he was a latino, so I went and talked to him in Spanish. I said, ‘Muchacho, you know, I'm down and out. I'm broke, see, and I'm looking for a job.’

“This son of a great whore answered in English, ‘Wat you min? I no spik Spanish.’ I'm telling you, it's the Puerto Ricans themselves who'll be your worst enemies in New York.

“So you keep on walking until you finally land a job. At least that's the way I got mine, at a brassiere factory. I was hired as shipping clerk for forty dollars a week. I had ambition, you know, that thing that makes a man want to earn more, and I paid attention and learned my job and was promoted to another department and another and another. Five years I worked there. The most I ever earned was seventy-five dollars a week and I had to work hard for it. Because in New York you have to work, really work, see?

“Here in Puerto Rico you have more freedom. You can stand on a street corner, in a park—you can even stand in front of the Governor's Palace all day long and nobody asks you to move on or interferes with you in any way. Not in New York. That's not allowed there.

“When you land a job they give you a form to fill out. You look at it and think, ‘What's this all about?’ You have to fill it out, see? So you read it, if you can read English. If you can't you're out of luck. They ask you your name, where were you born, are you single or do you have a couple of children and a wife to support. Two children plus a wife makes three, right? That's four people to support counting you, because you support yourself, too. You start with a salary of forty-two dollars. If you have four people to support, they won't deduct a cent, not one single cent, from your pay check. But if you mark that bit of paper with a circle around the word ‘Single,’ then you're done for.

“Out of forty-two dollars, all you'll get your hands on is thirty-two. Out of those thirty-two, you'll pay ten dollars for a room, if you're lucky. And you won't have it to yourself . . . you'll be sharing it with the rats. You can't expect a nice room for ten dollars a week. Then there's the laundry, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner. How much will be left after you pay all that? Just figure it out.

“By that time, you'll be wanting to get back to Puerto Rico, but you haven't been able to save a cent to pay your fare. So you write, ‘Mami, things are bad here and I want to go back. Send me money for my fare.’

“Suppose when you filled in that little paper you said you had a family to support. The police come around to investigate, to see if you told the truth. If it turns out you're single, man! you have to return every cent they were supposed to deduct. All the tax money. If not, you'll land in jail. So, which would you choose? No, manl Deja eso. Leave New York alone. You can't live there. You just can't live. You get swallowed by a horse!

_____________

“I got sick shortly after I had started working. Ave Maria! I was in the hospital two months and felt so bad that every night I thought I wouldn't live to see the next morning. My girl friend rushed over to see me the minute she heard I was in the hospital. She came every day for a whole month in every kind of weather: rain, thunder, lightning, freezing cold. If it rained fire she would still have come. We were not really sweethearts or engaged at that time, but we went out together and liked each other and all.

“When I went back to work I kept thinking, ‘They'll fire me, they'll fire me, for sure. I'm new here, just arrived from Puerto Rico and I was out so long . . .’ At the factory, I didn't speak to anybody. I just sort of sneaked in and looked at the time cards. When I saw mine was still there, oh, man! hope stirred in me. Hope, that beautiful thing. You know what I mean? After seeing my card, I went to work.

“The man from the office came in and I tried to explain, ‘Oh, sir, I'm sorry . . . you know . . . I was . . .’

“‘Never mind, man! We had a call from the hospital letting us know you were sick. Social Security called, too, to tell us you were hospitalized. So never mind. Just get to work.’

“When it was time to go home, what happened? They asked me to go to the office. Oh, my God! My heart leaped into my throat. I thought, ‘Now they're going to fire me.’

“I go to the office and they tell me, ‘You've worked here for such and such a length of time and, let's see . . .’ Then they start bringing out papers and more papers . . . man! I was sweating. Then that man grabs a paper and gives me an envelope. I didn't open it. I swear, I didn't dare open it. I just thought, ‘I'm fired.’ I put it in my pocket and walked out. I got home and was taking off my shirt and shoes when my sweetheart walks in. ‘Oh, baby, look here. I'm afraid they've fired me. Get that envelope in my shirt pocket and open it. I'd rather you saw it first.’

“She opened the envelope. ‘Look here, Hector. It's a check!’

“‘A check? You must be going blind, girl.’ Then I looked, and what do I see? Man! I couldn't believe my eyes! A check for two-hundred-forty-five dollars! Payment for three or four weeks of illness plus per diem or something, I don't know. Two-hundred-forty-five dollars! That's when I really started sweating and my legs began to tremble all over.

“Next day, when I got to work, one of my friends calls me, ‘Hector, come here.’ Then he gives me another envelope with forty-five dollars that had been collected among the other workers. There were nine-hundred workers in that company. After that I really threw myself into my work. What with the two hundred and forty-five and the money my friends collected and the work I did that week, I was able to tell my sweetheart, ‘Look, baby, you know what? I don't want a fancy wedding. This money is enough for us to get married on.’ So we did. We got married. And that woman has turned out to be straight as a shot. What a woman! She still looks at me like on the first day. She's with me all the way. She adores me, you know. She loves me completely.

“My wife and I both had to work. I was paid on Friday and she on Saturday and by the time Friday came around again we didn't have any money. Not one cent. I had to pay ninety-six dollars rent for a tiny apartment. The bedroom barely had room for a bed and a crib. The front room was even smaller. For ninety-six dollars!

“In New York if you owe a month's rent, the landlady sends you a bit of paper. Suppose you're two months behind in your rent, you haven't been able to land a job and you spend your time walking like crazy looking for work because you have your wife and child to take care of, and all sorts of debts. You know what'll happen to you? One evening after walking the streets like a madman, you get home and you find your furniture piled up on the sidewalk in the rain, the snow, the heat, in no matter what weather, because the sheriff came with a court order. It won't make any difference that your wife or child is sick, or that you've tried hard to look for a job and it isn't your fault you haven't found one. That's New York for you.

“You have to watch out how you go at things, see? And you need luck in New York, especially to choose a woman and to get married, because there a woman can get away with anything. Suppose you get married. Then one day you come home from work. You've had a hard day. You got out of bed in a hurry, had breakfast in a hurry, went to work in a hurry, and hurried home, tired, worn out. And what do you find? There's your wife in bed with another man. You rush out to get the cops so they can see what's going on. Then, what happens? She wins! Even if you screw your soul working all day long to provide for her needs, she'll win all the same. If you slap her, she'll go and call the cops. Slap a woman! Don't dream of it! You get six months in jail, see? Not just a fine—jail! If you kill the man, you'll fry for it. That kind of thing isn't allowed there. No, sir!

“New York is a crazy place. Suppose you have children. You take off your belt and whack them a couple of times. If you do it in front of a cop, you get six months. And if you should leave a bruise, muchacho! you're really out of luck. That's why things are so screwed up in New York. That's why there's so much evil, so many criminals, so many gangs. How could it be otherwise? A place where you can't even beat your own wife and children!

“In New York a dog is worth more than a man. Yes, sir, only three things are valued there, dogs, women, and children! As long as you're a minor, you can kill, belong to a gang, steal, or raise hell. No matter what you do, you won't fry, see? Of course, if you're a woman you can get away with anything as long as you live. But if you're a man and over twenty-one and you so much as pick up a stone and aim it at a dog, it means six months in jail. If you hit the dog, it's worse. You can't even defend yourself. Women and dogs can attack you any time and you lose the case, no matter what. Know why? It's the law. That's the way it's written, man. And if you never heard of that law, you're sunk. After you're twenty-one you're an adult and know what you are doing, see? A dog can't talk, so he wins, but you get eaten by a horse.

“It was because of a woman that I left New York and returned to Puerto Rico. One day I went to work. It was a Monday and when I got there I found about twelve badly made brassieres at my place. The girl claimed I was the one who had sewn them. I told her, ‘Damn it to hell, you're a liar! You might have noticed that I work a two-needle machine and these were made with a single needle. You were the one who made them!’ But women can get away with anything there. They can call a man an imbecile, a fool and anything else they please. She called me all those names. Man! She'd better have kept her mouth shut because I just grabbed that bundle and was going to crack her skull with it when the foreman came up and said, ‘Hector, what are you doing? She's a woman. Stop that! Don't go looking for trouble.’

“I said, ‘Give me my money because I'm leaving. Quick, right now.’

“So he takes me to the office. The boss says, ‘Think it over, Hector. You've worked with us several years. You've made a lot of friends who are very fond of you. Yet you want to leave over a little thing like this?’

“Then I said, ‘This isn't all. How about that raise you promised me? I've never seen it. And on top of everything else that idiot calls me a fool in front of everyone. I'm quitting. If I stay I'll be in trouble for sure, because next time I'll really break her head. I don't want to argue any more. Make arrangements so I can get my money and leave.’

“I worked the rest of that day and on Tuesday I took a plane to Puerto Rico. Now I'm thankful to that woman. I am infinitely thankful to her. If it hadn't been for her, I'd still be stuck there.”

All this time, Hector and I had been talking in the restaurant where he worked. The bartender had been listening to our conversation while he washed the glasses and cleaned up. It was late and the place was completely deserted except for us and another man who worked in the kitchen. When Hector stopped speaking, the bartender leaned over the bar and, looking straight at Hector, said in a booming voice, “New York, the best in the world!”

Hector and I turned around in surprise.

“Yes, sir. The best in the world. Whoever hasn't lived in New York, hasn't lived. In New York, there's money to burn. When I arrived I bought a bakery for a thousand dollars and after nine months, I sold it for seven thousand. New York is good, son, if you can't be happy in New York, you can't be happy anywhere. It's the best in the world.”

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