In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Today is the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. I am watching it on television in Brooklyn while the Puerto Ricans are parading up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Before I switched over to the parade, I was watching Rafael Nadal of Mallorca, Spain, win the French Open in tennis for the twelfth time in his distinguished career. Nadal is a supernatural force on clay, a slower surface that suits his unrelenting style, where he retrieves ball after ball and puts them back into his opponent’s court with incredible power and spin — until he decides he’s had enough of such foolishness and flattens out a screaming down-the-line shot to win the point, the game, the set, the match, the championship.
Yesterday I played tennis with Jorge, Çan, and Sunil. We had to play in Highland Park because we couldn’t get a court at Fort Greene Park. One has to wake very early on the weekends — 6:30 or so — and stand in a long line with other tennis crazies to secure a court at Fort Greene Park. The process is entirely objectionable and uncivilized. None of us was willing to do this yesterday. I am never willing, but the others freely volunteer on a rotating basis, and I take full advantage of their insanity.
Next we tried to get a court at the Cage in Bed-Stuy, but there was some sort of event there for kids wearing green T-shirts and holding miniature tennis rackets. So I drove us to Highland Park in my girlfriend’s car, a small red Fiat you can lift off the ground with minimal effort. Jorge called the Fiat a clown car as he got into the front passenger seat, legs folded up under his chin.
Jorge is Guatemalan; Çan, Turkish; Sunil, British by way of India. A rainbow coalition in an Italian clown car. Where’s Fellini when you need him?
We saw dozens of Puerto Rican flags on cars and poles and in storefronts on the drive through Bushwick to get to Highland. No one mentioned the flags — not the Turk, nor the Brit, nor the Guatemalan. So though I say we saw them, I’m not sure that’s true. I saw them.
This is the sixty-second National Puerto Rican Day Parade, but it’s the first one I’ve watched, even on television.
I’ve never attended a Puerto Rican Day parade. I’m pretty sure my father didn’t, either. Like me, he was never much of a Puerto Rican, didn’t claim or display any pride whatsoever in being one.
I’ve never felt any compulsion to parade around as a flag-waving member of the PR tribe — although I’ve never been ashamed of being Puerto Rican, either.
I was never told I should be proud or ashamed. I was never told anything about my heritage at all.
I’ve never attended any kind of parade in my life, not even when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. I have no plans to change this record of conscientious absence.
My dad raised me to be a hockey fan, but as the Rangers paraded down the Canyon of Heroes on that day in June 1994, I watched from the safety of my living room. It was like being there without actually having to be there, which is almost always preferable — and in this case saved me from being subjected to the company of a million drunk and rowdy ruffians.
On that same day in 1994, O.J. Simpson led a parade of police cars along the freeways of Los Angeles in the slowest car chase in history. I watched part of that parade from a strip club in Farmingdale, Long Island, with one of my best friends growing up, Ron Chin. The strippers stopped stripping, and the patrons stopped ogling, so that everyone could watch the circus unfolding on national television. Where was O.J. going in his white Ford Bronco, and what would he do when he got there? His longtime friend, and chauffeur that day, A.C. Cowlings, said O.J. had a gun to his own head. Everyone wanted to see what would happen next. Would O.J. blow his brains out in front of the world, or would the circus slink out of town without a grand finale?
We all love a spectacle.
Meanwhile Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was presenting Rangers captain Mark Messier with a key to New York City.
How many Puerto Ricans’ favorite sport is ice hockey — particularly those born in Brooklyn in 1940 and only one generation removed from the island? How many of those Puerto Ricans pass on their love of Canada’s national game to their son (me), born thirty-one years later?
I’m sure the parade-goers, both for the Rangers celebration and for National Puerto Rican Day, had to line up early to attend the spectacle. All of it is beyond me.
I remember seeing people beside the freeways and on overpasses rooting O.J. along on his tour of Los Angeles. Some held makeshift signs imploring O.J. to keep running.
I wish I could speak Spanish to Jorge, whom I sometimes call Jorgito — little Jorge — and whom others call El Capitan, due to his penchant for telling people what to do. I like cutting him down to size, though I’m not sure he or anyone else is aware that’s what I’m doing. Regardless, he and I have a good rapport and joke easily and often, both on and off the tennis court.
I hear him speaking Spanish to his friends Mario and Noe and Carlos and Avril, and sometimes even to Pierre, who’s French but has worked in restaurants his whole life.
I’m not in that club, the Spanish-speaking club, the multilingual club.
When I heard the kitchen staff speaking Spanish in the restaurants where I worked as a younger man, I never felt like an outsider, though I was. Probably I was impervious to such feelings because I was naive and had lived a sheltered life. Or perhaps I wasn’t at all impervious but can’t recall how any of it felt.
I was a waiter at a slew of restaurants, including an Italian eatery for a dozen or so years. Every kitchen was populated with Latinos speaking mile-a-minute Spanish. They might as well have been speaking Turkish or French or Chinese. Their conversations were none of my business.
But it’s different for me now, approaching fifty as a rootless, ersatz Puerto Rican. I feel as though I’ve lost something tangible, a primal part of myself I was unaware of and will never be able to retrieve.
People say I should learn Spanish, and maybe I should. Maybe it wouldn’t take long. Or maybe I’m too old to learn a new language. Maybe I’m tired of learning. I learned guitar in college. I taught myself to write fiction and poetry after graduation and decided this was what I should do with my life. Around the age of forty I threw myself into tennis and learned the game forwards, backwards, and sideways until it became an obsession.
Maybe it would be good for me to learn Spanish, but then I couldn’t go on and on like this about how I’m a Latino who doesn’t speak the language, and I’d have to stop this scribbling and figure out something else to do.
Learning Spanish is kind of like getting a vasectomy: I know I should get one, because I don’t want to father any children, but I’m not getting one — not now, not ever.
Or maybe it’s not at all like getting a vasectomy. Maybe it’s just another thing I’ll never do, and the reasons don’t matter.
Inevitably the kitchen staff in every restaurant where I worked would find out my name is Lopez and deride me in a good-natured way for not speaking the language. They would ask me where I was from, and when I’d tell them my grandfather was born in Puerto Rico, they’d laugh. It felt like an inside joke I wasn’t privy to, like somehow Puerto Ricans were lower on the Latino pecking order. Most of them were from Honduras or El Salvador and spoke Spanish as if the words were in a rush to get someplace, as if they were bored with each sentence and in a big hurry to get to the next, which sounded exactly like the one before it. Actually I couldn’t discern when one sentence ended and another began.
They all had dark complexions and dark hair and eyes and were clearly descendants of the natives of Latin America, the Aztecs and Mayans, among others — the ones the Spaniards raped and pillaged into submission. I felt no more connection to them, on a blood level, than I did to American Indians like the Navajo, Apache, or Sioux.
When people hate Mexicans, it’s the Indians they hate, not Salma Hayek or Carlos Fuentes — though maybe they hate them, too.
I come from a time — and maybe this is still that time — when all Latinos were “Mexicans,” the way all Asians were once “Chinese.”
God Bless American ignorance. It knows no bounds.
I was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island surrounded by white people. I played baseball with white people against teams comprised mostly of other white people, with only an occasional black or brown person occupying the dugout on the other side of the field.
I’ve always had a much harder time understanding Spanish spoken by people from Central America than by, say, Spaniards or even Cubans.
As I got to know the kitchen staff better, they became my friends, in a manner of speaking — which is to say, not really. I was cordial with them and joked around with them, but we never did anything outside of work or talked about what was going on in our lives. I’d bring them a beer, ask them to make dinner for me, or offer to cook something for them. We were civil, collegial, like countless other coworkers whose relationships don’t go beyond the workplace.
Perhaps, though, there was some resentment on their part, because I was in the front of house, making better money with the gringos, while they were sweating it out in the back, slaving over deep fryers and hot ovens for lighter paychecks.
I doubt my learning Spanish now would fix any of this, would fix anything at all.
But I am happy to be a part of the tennis-players cohort, though I only punched my membership ticket eight years ago. Most of the people I play with have been playing their whole lives. I’m one of only two regulars at Fort Greene Park who picked up the game in their forties.
So that keeps me at a certain distance — not having a lifelong love for the game. I doubt others view me as a rookie who deserves hazing, but I feel the distance when they talk about playing in high school and college, and when they discuss rackets and strings and various other equipment-related nuances and specifications, all of which are lost on me.
I sometimes wonder how much better I’d be at tennis if I’d started playing when I was a kid; if, instead of a baseball bat, I’d wielded a racket. Everyone comments on my occasional unorthodox forehand, which is tough for my opponents to deal with, as it is essentially a squash shot. When I hit this particular forehand, the ball crosses the net very low, due to the underspin on it, and my opponents have to move in and bend down to hit it back.
This forehand comes from my background as a baseball player. Years ago players were encouraged to have a level swing, even to swing down at the ball to hit hard line drives. This is the antithesis of how tennis players are trained to hit the ball: always moving the arm from low to high, turning the wrist at the point of contact to apply topspin.
That I get to play with former college players is something I’m proud of as a relative newcomer to the game. In fact, I sometimes hit with a guy who once beat a guy who played in the US Open. He also once beat a guy who beat a guy who beat Nadal. So when I aced him twice during a tiebreak, it was tantamount to acing Nadal.
Tennis is the only arena in which I accept this sort of six-degrees-of idiocy.
Granted, this guy I hit with, a friend named Jackson, is two levels better than I am, at least. I sometimes start laughing when he opens up on a forehand and I can hear the ball as it sizzles by me, rotating violently through the air. But I can hang with Jackson a little, give him something of a workout.
Nadal reminds one of the marauding Spaniards who traversed the ocean blue in search of gold and slaves and land and women. He treats his opponents mercilessly, like a colonist.
I don’t like parades, regardless of the occasion. I said before that I have no memory of ever attending one or marching in one, but, now that I think about it, perhaps I did when I was very young; maybe it had to do with Little League or something. But I’m not sure that counts. It wouldn’t have involved floats. No grand marshal, no pomp and circumstance.
Apparently cavemen would walk back into the village after a hunt with their kill on full display. One imagines them walking slowly, playing to the crowd of adoring onlookers.
We know this happened because such scenes are depicted in cave art, which was a primitive form of Instagram.
I do like being part of a team and have missed it since I quit playing baseball. I like being in cahoots. One of the great draws of belonging to the tennis community is that I can go to the park pretty much anytime and run into at least a few people I count as friends. It’s the only place in my life where this is the case.
I don’t care for large gatherings under any circumstances, particularly those where nothing is actually happening: no event is taking place; no one is singing or dancing or playing to an audience that can actually enjoy the performance without the performers marching completely out of sight.
I don’t like the idea of marching.
I also don’t like watching Nadal play tennis. It’s not that I don’t like his game, which is a combination of extraordinary strength, will, and talent. He is muscular and thick and plays like an onrushing bull, which I admire. More than any other player currently on tour, he seems entirely indefatigable and almost superhuman. He has had more than his share of injuries and has missed months of each season for years now, but this seems inevitable given the reckless abandon he exhibits in every single match and with every single ball.
The reason I don’t like watching Nadal is that the man is obsessive-compulsive to the nth degree and displays a series of undignified quirks, rituals, and idiosyncrasies. I don’t care how he drinks from what bottle or where he places the bottle every time he takes a slug, but when he fiddles with his hair and shirt and nose in a sequential progression, so that he looks like he’s crossing himself before each serve, which then culminates with his reaching into the chasm of his posterior to pick at his shorts — that’s when I want to hit him over the head with a racket.
He does this hundreds of times per match.
Jorge also doesn’t like Nadal, for the same reasons. I once heard him say Nadal “picks his butt.”
While we were waiting for a court at the Cage, the four of us watched the semifinal on our phones: Thiem of Austria versus Djokovic of Serbia. We all thought neither player had a chance against Nadal the next day, and we were correct.
At one point Jorge stopped watching the match to take a call from his wife. They spoke Spanish to each other: something about dinner that evening.
Though Jorge is from Guatemala, he has lighter skin than I do. I’m almost certain that his people came to Guatemala from Spain; that, if they weren’t the first colonists, they at least hitched a ride to the colonies later. When Jorge speaks Spanish, I can understand him better than I can Noe, who is from Mexico and has darker skin and hair. Spaniards take their time speaking Spanish.
That Nadal is the greatest tennis player from Spain is indisputable, and I am somewhat descended from Spain, though not enough to make me a Nadal fan or a colonist. One of my great-grandparents was from Spain: my grandmother’s mother, or maybe her father, immigrated from Spain to New York City, where my grandmother was born somewhere in the mid-1910s.
Spaniards pronounce every syllable of every word slowly and clearly. There is an elegance to their speech that I appreciate. Nadal is indeed elegant when he speaks Spanish, though I still can’t get past the quirks.
It’s the same way with English, depending on the speaker. Have you ever listened to the actor Donald Sutherland pronounce words? It’s a master class in diction.
I once had a conversation in a bar with a beautiful woman who enunciated her way through the word bottle, tonguing both t’s individually, which hardly anyone ever does.
Under ideal circumstances, I can recognize every third or fourth word of what someone says in Spanish. I have an ex-girlfriend from Spain, and I would listen to her talk on the phone to her Spanish friends in Barcelona and feel proud of myself for understanding much of it.
I am attracted to elegance and dignity, and in 2019 we are in short supply of both.
My failure to connect with most people stems, I believe, from their fundamental lack of grace and manners. I’m turned off when someone holds their fork like a weapon while cutting meat, or invokes bathroom humor of any sort, particularly during mealtime. I’m not prudish, but I’ve always been offended by locker-room talk. I can hardly stand going to a baseball or hockey game because of what the fans say out loud in front of everyone; how they behave in public.
The list of perpetrators is endless, and most everyone is guilty.
I know this means there’s something wrong with me, that I’m some mixture of uptight and old-fashioned, but I’ll cop to this only to a degree.
Sure, the Puerto Rican Day Parade is great. People are having a good time, singing and dancing and celebrating who they are and where they come from. But it’s also loud and garish, part of the look-at-me disease exemplified by social media.
Almost everything is garish these days, every single part of our degrading American culture.
My friend Çan pronounces his name “John” and is an excellent tennis player. He can flatten out his serve and blast it by you for an ace, or spin it in and have it kangaroo well over your head. He also chases down balls he has no right getting a racket on. I haven’t asked him about his name, but I’m hoping to the next time I see him. He’s young, in his twenties, and I have to marvel at his boundless energy. I also pity him, because I know he’ll be like me in twenty years. The young guys think they’re never going to get old.
I’ve been told I move well for my age, and I’m fast out there, but everything hurts, and as often as not my legs feel heavy on the court. I play too much and weigh too much, and I don’t see any of that changing.
Yesterday, as we found a place to park and climbed out of the car, I suppose we resembled a parade. I felt like we were a gang about to knock over a fruit stand, to show these Highland Park clowns how we do it in Fort Greene.
It was my first time at Highland Park. Whenever I walk into a new environment, I always imagine that all eyes are on me, though that’s rarely the case.
I’m sure those participating in the parade today, banging on a drum or twirling a baton or marching in rhythm, feel like they are the center of attention.
Actually I haven’t seen anyone twirling a baton thus far.
The TV hosts of the parade, three men and one woman, are an attractive rainbow of Puerto Ricans, their skin all different shades, from fair to dark. They have to talk loud to be heard over sirens as they introduce the official band of the parade, led by conductor Papo Vazquez.
Sunil speaks with a British accent and is a talented player but wildly inconsistent. His good-shot-to-bad-shot ratio is probably 1:5.
Jorge is a wisecracking, bilingual architect and also a fine player, but, like me, he’s in his late forties and hampered by injuries — most recently a partially torn MCL. I was there when it happened; in fact, I hit the ball he was trying to get a racket on when his leg gave way underneath him and he crumpled to the ground.
Jorge always makes mistakes trying to show off: look-away half volleys, ridiculous drop shots. He plays to the cameras even though there are no cameras.
I sometimes play to the cameras, too. Maybe it’s a Latino thing. Maybe that’s my connection.
© Robert Graham
There is something wrong with all of this video documentation, this need to capture everything that goes on everywhere at all times.
Every time the TV camera closes in on a Puerto Rican in the crowd or someone on a float, the person feels obliged to wave and smile and shimmy. Some of the women wear revealing clothes: plunging necklines, short-shorts.
My good-shot-to-bad ratio varies depending on the day. I’m more consistent than Sunil, but only because I play more than he does. I play more than almost everyone else — though I suppose that’s not entirely true. There are a bunch of us out there nearly every day, hitting, drilling, playing ground-stroke games, sets, and ladder matches, singles and doubles.
I always look around the court to see who might be watching. Maybe it’s a future opponent, maybe one of the better players, maybe a pretty woman. I always imagine myself on display.
I make far too many mistakes for my liking, and it holds me back. A layperson who watched me out there would likely be impressed. I can smoke a serve upwards of 105, maybe 110 miles per hour; can drill a fall-away, cross-court forehand for a clean winner from behind the baseline; can hit a down-the-line, on-the-run, two-fisted backhand that is pure poetry.
Those great shots sustain me, but they are fleeting. There is always the next ball, the next shot. There are countless mis-hits and framed volleys and abject laziness, even though one reason I’m out there is to get exercise. On the courts you often hear players admonishing themselves to move their feet. I am probably the person most guilty of this in the whole western hemisphere. I say out loud to myself about twenty times a session, “Move your feet,” along with another common self-rebuke, “Watch the ball.”
I imagine it would be the same if I were to learn Spanish: I would sound great with this or that sentence, then like an imposter with the next. Anyone would be able to tell that I was faking it, that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I like to think that, had I stayed with the ex-girlfriend who spoke Spanish, I would’ve picked up enough to be conversant, perhaps even pass as a “real Latino.” She talked of taking me to Spain. So that was another missed opportunity, another loss. Total immersion is the only way for someone as old as me to learn. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I like making excuses.
I remember reading Pablo Neruda in Spanish to that ex-girlfriend, and I’d pronounce maybe 70 percent of the words correctly. I probably understood less than half.
When you watch the tennis pros, the really good players, what separates them from everyone else is footwork: the little steps they take to move into the right position to hit the ball perfectly. I find this nearly impossible to do when I’m tired, which is almost all the time. I can’t possibly move my feet like that when my legs feel as though they weigh two hundred pounds each. I might chase after a drop shot or a ball headed for the far corner, but I can’t make myself take three small steps to hit the ball properly. Instead I’ll be caught off balance but somehow manage to pull my hands in close to my body to make decent contact and hit some stupid-looking shot that works about half the time.
This happened during a key moment of our doubles match yesterday. Çan hit a deep, cross-court approach shot that tied me up, but I somehow hit a backhand up the line, even though I should’ve taken two or three tiny steps and hit a forehand. It looked stupid, but it worked, and we wound up winning the game.
One of the most beautiful and elegant sights in tennis is Roger Federer hitting any shot. He watches the ball make contact with the strings every time. His eyes are still on the contact point for a solid second after the ball has been sent on its way. He’s not looking where it’s going; he knows where it’s going. He’s making sure he keeps his head down and his eyes on the ball. It seems so fundamental, yet I fail to do this all the time, on volleys especially. I pick my head up to see where I’m trying to direct the ball, too concerned with what’s about to happen, rather than with what I need to do to make it happen — a stark reminder that I’ll never be as good as I want to be.
The parade hosts are now praising Senator Chuck Schumer’s salsa moves as he passes by the main staging area. They say something about his rhythm, his style, but no one says he’s any good.
One of the hosts, who is not quite as dark as the boys who worked in the kitchen, says he is Taíno. When the Europeans showed up in the Caribbean in the late fifteenth century, the Taíno were the principal inhabitants of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico.
I have to confess that, until the host spoke of his heritage, I’d never heard of the Taíno. I’m pretty good with history and trivia and knowing things most people don’t, but not this, apparently.
The grand marshal of the parade is pop star Ricky Martin, who first became famous as part of a boy group from Puerto Rico called Menudo, which can mean both “often” and “small.” His big hit as a solo artist was the insipid “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”
This is what everyone on television and on social media is trying to do: live a crazy life. And they want you to know everything about it.
This is the very definition of a parade, from the cavemen right through to these Puerto Ricans today.
Puerto Rican tennis player Monica Puig won the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her win was totally unexpected, as she’d never been a top-ranked player. I like to watch her play because she’s ferocious and hits the ball hard and is pretty. I also like that she’s Puerto Rican.
Some of the parade marchers are wearing flamboyant, colorful costumes replete with elaborate headdresses. There is an aerial shot of a giant Puerto Rican flag that appears to stretch for a full city block as it is carried along Fifth Avenue.
The female host, Sunny Hostin, is telling a story about the flag: how, whenever her family moved into a new apartment, the first thing they would do was hang the flag from a fire escape or a window.
I never saw a Puerto Rican flag at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn.
The parade coverage runs for three and a half hours. I don’t know how anyone can watch a parade for that long, either on television or in person. Like almost everything else, it’s the same thing over and over: people dancing, waving flags, smiling, laughing, playing drums, hitting the ball over the net so that the other player can do likewise, again and again, ad infinitauseam.
I change the channel to watch the New York Mets play the Colorado Rockies. The Mets are thoroughly mediocre, like me as a tennis player, but their middling third baseman, Todd Frazier, manages to get enough of a slow-breaking curveball to hit it over the wall for a three-run homer in the first inning, and that’s all the Mets need on this day. Their putrid bullpen doesn’t blow the lead, as they have in so many games this season.
Frazier rarely looks good in the batter’s box. He’s often off balance, his top hand flying off the bat as a result. And there he was, out front on a pitch yet again, weight on his front foot, in a bad position. But he flicked the bat at the ball as it approached the plate, and somehow it worked; somehow the ball left the yard. Frazier looked surprised and the pitcher cursed himself and the laws of physics and the announcers were stupefied as the ball sailed through the air in a lazy arc, landing three rows deep in the bleachers.