Thursday, December 10, 2009


The little vestibule is dark, chocolate colored, the wood paneling hinting of a grander time. “PIZZA!” “WINGS’!” “DIM SUM!” shout from the papers scattered on the check-tiled floor. It smells of my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn – a mix of polish and roasting chicken. When the door closes behind me I am caught in a small capsule full of dull echo. Three white marble steps are discolored with age, and the dark mail-slots in the six small brass doors line up like some ominous I-Ching hexagram. The names taped on the little doors could qualify as a six-word short-story:

Ngyen – Morales – Johnson – Gnecco – Mohammed – Murphy

I press the button under Mohammed as I am thinking distractedly of the strings on my tennis racket, the gunshot wound, the stain on my pants… then the buzz makes me jump, rattling the lock in the heavy oak door in front of me. Never having been here before, I am not sure if this is the type of person who buzzes for what seems to be an eternity, or one who seems bent on testing reaction times. I lunge, open, climb, and knock on the raised panel door at Apartment 6. I hear the soft shuffle of feet within, then the door cracks open and I see a bearded man with a fine nose, high forehead, thin lips. He smiles.

“Come in. Come in,” he says.

Shoes are lined up neatly beside the door. I slip mine off, and the man protests.

“No. No. You don’t have to do that.”

My shoes are off, and he shrugs as if to say, “If you wish.”

“In here,” he says, and walks down a hallway.

The apartment is huge, a grand expanse of yesteryear. I pass four closed doors as we walk down the dark hall. The fifth is not quite closed, and I can see the glow of a dim lamp sitting on the floor. I slow and peer within. Women wrapped in multicolored cloth are sitting on the floor around the lamp. I see no furniture, only dark faces in a circle, and an impression of orange and red.

The hall opens into a living room with a defunct but elaborate gas fireplace, and an impressive array of finely crafted built-in drawers and glass cabinets. The paint is chipped, the doors askew. It all has the same feeling as in the hall below, the feeling of a place abandoned and now reoccupied.

Couches and threadbare chairs line the living room walls. A dozen men, old and young, occupy every seat, and some sit on the floor. Children hide behind a half-wall that separates us from what was perhaps an adjoining dining room, when apartment dwellers indeed had dining rooms. A man lies stretched out on the long couch, his right leg raised on pillows.

I’ve read of the war in Somalia. The killings, torture, rapes. Somalia has come to me. An entire family fleeing the madness.

The gunshot wound is through the knee. Ugly. But what’s memorable here is not the wound. The wonder here is that these displaced people have recreated northern African in a place as foreign to them as a tent in Somalia would be to me.

The patriarch sits white haired in the largest chair. All the men have watched me change the dressing, surrounding me as if I were performing surgery in an amphitheater. There is one translator and I am curious and inquisitive.

I learn that the patriarch owns a store in Somalia, and it is his son who has been shot. The entire family fled and now they are making their way here in the United States.

“There are only men here in this room?” I ask.

They all laugh, but offer no explanation, as if laughter is enough to dismiss the question as an American wonder in itself.

The old white haired man in the big chair addresses me in Somali. His eyes are gray-green and I see now that his beard and hair are dyed a shade of red.

“He wants to know if you would like some tea,” the translator tells me.

When I say, “Thank you, that would be nice,” all the men stir, and the old man calls down the dark hallway in Somali.

Soon the door of the darkened room opens and seven women and several young girls, all beautifully swathed head to toe in colored and patterned cloth, cross the edge of the living room and cram into a small kitchen. There is at once laughter and chatter and the sound of gas hissing. The men interrogate me through the single translator. Where do I live? Am I married? How many children do I have? How much money do I make? The children, like puppets, poke their heads above the wall and retreat giggling.

Soon two of the women, both swathed in orange, serve the tea. It is sweet and flavored with cardamom and clove. Just the patriarch and me drink. We continue to talk as the women busy themselves in the kitchen. I can easily see that they have gathered at the doorway and are listening intently.

I feel wildly transported, as if I am in some tent, the crazy dry heat within the apartment mimicking an African afternoon.

We talk on, but soon I must go.

I am reminded of a story within Kazantzaki’s “Zorba the Greek.” An old man is chided for never leaving the confines of his remote village. Yet it was this man who always threw his doors open to travelers.

“Talk, talk,” he would command them.

He would not let them leave until they had told him everything about their journey – where they had been, what they had eaten, where they had slept, what languages they had heard – and on and on until the travelers were exhausted.

“Why should I leave my home,” the old man would ask, “when all the world comes to me?”

That’s the way I feel as I descend the stairs, the taste of cardamom and clove still in my mouth.

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