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In NYC: Roberta of Rego Park

(Photo: Some people rest their lives upon the silliest of foundations.)

[This entry is one in a series of dispatches from my recent trips to Gotham.]

You never know the characters you’ll run into in a Rego Park laundry room. Doing my mid-trip laundry with Jen of the mountainous bosoms (Babs’ girlfriend of 20 years–and I was there the day they first held hands), I had already rediscovered one of the less happy denizens of Queens Boulevard apartment building basements. Back in Chicago, I never saw any insect as big as an NYC water bug. True to form, it just wouldn’t die, no matter how many times I whacked it with an industrial dustpan. It eventually took several strikes from a broom handle to stop its four-inch, double-antennaed form from wriggling. Wriggling enough to walk, anyway.

So it was a happier surprise–or so I thought–when in walked Roberta. Actually, I think she was Susan or Mary or something more prosaic, but, trust me. From the opining she proceeded to do, she was a 100-percent mouthy, Big Apple Roberta. Her six-foot, (charitably) zaftig girth decorated in lipstick and sweatpants, I fought back a bevy of John Waters movie flashbacks and hid behind Jen.

“That’s my neighbor,” said Jen. “She has it rough.” A Special-Ed child, renting in a dreary pre-war apartment house where only the owners get parking spaces (well, OK, my heart didn’t bleed on that count), and, once again, looking for work. I didn’t know whether to welcome her to the club, or blog about her. In the end, I felt the latter would take care of the former.

“Well I lawst my jawb again. This time I figuahd it would be mawh pehmanent. Feh. What am I, stoopid? Girls like me don’t get the breaks, ya know? Yeah, you know.”

For six months, Roberta worked as an assistant for an entertainment-industry executive who now had suddenly been made less executive. It’s got to be particularly galling to lose your job because of someone else’s demotion.

“The balls she had. She says to me, ‘You wanna resign? I’ll let you resign’. But I says oh no, yawh telling me yawh letting me go, you want I resign? Whadda you take me foah? You wanna fiah me, fine. Don’t think I’m helping you keep yawh unemployment rates down. A fine thing, asking me that. So who’s yawh friend, honey?”

I explained my story (frankly I was too afraid not to): New York native; four years in Chicago; moving back home; suddenly single; and the part I really didn’t want to comiserate about with Roberta, job-hunting.

“Oh, honey. You undah fawty? Good. Me, what oppahtunities do I got? The oldah you get, the less chance you have to find a good jawb. When you hit the big fawh-oh, they know they can get kids half yawh age and pay ’em half as much. You bettah find some’in good soon. I wish you luck.”

And then the question I knew would be next. Coming from the take-no-prisoners likes of Roberta, as soon as she asked it, I’m pretty sure I peed a little.

“Where you lookin’ tah live? Me, twenty-three yeahs heah in Rego Pahk. It’s affawdable, half an howah to the city. But it’s changed, you know?”

That it has. Longtime Jewish bubbes and zaidas who used to people the sidewalks and front steps of the neighborhood have died off, and Russian and Latin American newcomers have moved in. Ethnic succession has always been the story of New York neighborhoods. But it’s always irksome to local lifers like Roberta, who look for the measure of themselves in the heritage of their neighbors.

“I think my next dawh neighbah’s on Section Eight. They’ll let anyone in heah these days.”

Urination. Full stream. Down leg.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “No matter where you live, nothing ever stays the same forever.” She sniffed that one for awhile before answering.

“You know what? Yawh right. Me and the family, when we get enough money, we’ah movin’ down to Dallas. In, like, a couple yeahs. It’s nice-ah in Dallas. Mawh space. Friendly people.”

The stitches will be out in a couple weeks from the gouge I bit in my tongue fighting the urge to point out the potential for immigrant newcomers to be her next dawh neighbahs in the nation’s largest border state. “I see your point,” I lied, as a small stream of bloody spittle dripped over my chin. She was too ensconced in packing her shopping cart with newly folded laundry to notice.

Cart rolling quickly behind her, Roberta said good-bye and good luck as she exited the laundry room. After a short pause to catch our breath and roll our eyes, Jen and I agreed the neighborhood has changed.

And I’m not sure what to make of that. Not anymore, anyway.

It’s an unexpected–and improper–lesson from Chicago. A knee-jerk reaction I’ve been trying to avoid in my hometown: being overly wary of people who don’t share your cultural background. Much as I love Chicago (and I love it muchly), it’s still unfortunately one of the most segregated cities in America. The multiculturalism evident on almost every New York street would seem out of place in most of the nation’s Second City. Anybody will talk to anybody there. Just as long as they don’t have to share the same neighborhoods.

I have hated that fact for four years. Yet, a few times since I’ve been knocking around Gotham this week, I’ve found myself cringing in crowds of multi-varied origins. That never would have happened before Chicago and it’s a silly reaction here–the social contract in NYC is much more open-minded than that. And I’m having a hard time acknowledging the Second City of my dreams has such a tense and sadly retro racial undercurrent.

I guess it’s hard when you start to see your home–either your new one or your old one–as it really is. So New York City comes up in the ranks a little more for me, and Chicago drops down in an unexpected way. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll reach parity in my mind. They better. My dream is eventually to have apartments in both cities (and only a Chicagoan would understand why). But that would take a helluva gig, and the chutzpah of a dozen Robertas to pull off.

Anyway, I’ll see where I land. Both cities still have claim over me. But when I finally make the decision about my future as a single man, now I’ll have one more, unexpected thing to take into account. The ability to live in a multi-cultural neighborhood.

Again. Thanks for the lesson, Roberta.

Categories: Labor NYC

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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