Recent Work By Joshua Michtom

When I was fifteen, I spent my junior year of high school in Argentina on a foreign exchange program sponsored by Rotary International. As part of the program, all of the potential exchange students from northwestern Oregon and southwestern Washington (I lived in Portland at the time) were made to gather periodically in the year preceding our departure. Usually, we were packed off to a campground for a few days at a time, in the company of a bunch of foreign exchange students and a few Rotarians, and lectured on cultural sensitivity and the importance of being good ambassadors for our nation and such. In between lectures, we mostly got drunk and made out.

As you might expect, I had a lot of fun on these excursions, and it was cool to get to go to Argentina afterward. But more than the various make-out sessions, one of my fondest memories from my pre-exchange training was a story told to me by another outbound exchange student. A story about Macho Man Randy Savage.

D.K. was bound for South Africa and she was very, very hot. She was a classic haughty, popular girl, and much too hot for me to have a chance with, but I was too naive to realize. Through the grace of God and Rotary International, we found ourselves sitting alone one afternoon at a picnic table at a campground on the Oregon coast, and when she asked me what I was doing that evening – meaning, which of the condoned after-dinner activities would I choose – I said my plan was to sneak off somewhere and make out with her. I had already had quite a bit of rum. To my surprise, she said OK, and after kissing briefly, we joined hands and marched into the woods with the determination unique to fifteen-year-olds on that sort of mission.

But the ensuing odyssey of awkward outdoor nakedness, exciting though it was at the time, is not the point of my story. The point is this: Later in the evening, D.K. and I found our way to a large bonfire (Rotary approved) where kids not otherwise occupied were roasting marshmallows, singing songs, and surreptitiously drinking contraband liquor. We met up with some friends and sat around shooting the shit, and after a while, D.K., snuggled beside me in a blanket, told the following tale, which I believed then and believe now, about Macho Man Randy Savage:

At D.K.’s high school (in Beaverton, Oregon, maybe? I can’t remember), there was a kid called Dumptruck. Dumptruck was not, of course, his real name. He was a nerd and an outcast and D.K., being attractive and popular (and hot – did I mention that?) never knew his real name, or how he came to be called Dumptruck, or really anything about him. He was a heavyset loser who wore black clothes, and that’s about all she could say. Well, one Friday, Dumptruck pulled out a gun in class and told everyone to get the hell out, which they did, apparently without incident. The school was evacuated, except for Dumptruck and his gun, the police came, and they settled in to talk to him on a phone in the classroom and try to get him to come out without killing himself. I guess somewhere along the way, Dumptruck told the police that he would come out if they could get Macho Man Randy Savage to come talk to him. Now, I remember this seeming preposterous to me, even at the time, because, well, why would a professional wrestler be anywhere near Beaverton, Oregon, on a given Friday? But maybe Wrestlemania was in town or something and that’s why Dumptruck was asking? I don’t know, but according to D.K., THEY GOT THE MACHO MAN. After maybe an hour, he showed up and went bounding into the school alone to talk to Dumptruck. They talked for a long time – “I guess they had, like, a heart-to-heart?” D.K. said, suburbanly. And then, miraculously, it was over. Macho Man came out with one of his famous pythons slung over Dumptruck’s shoulder, and that was that. Randy Savage had saved the day.

Is this story true? I don’t know. Google is not helping me, especially now that news of Savage’s death is all over the internet. I’m disinclined to vouch for D.K., especially since I learned later that she had told a mutual acquaintance that I French-kissed “like a dog.” (This didn’t so much hurt my feelings as it made me bridle at her indiscretion. Frankly, I had found her kissing style to be weird and not-that-sexy, but I at least had the good graces to keep that opinion to myself!) But for all her shallow, popular-girl hotness, she didn’t seem like a fabulist. She also didn’t seem like the sort of person who would ever invent a story involving Macho Man Randy Savage. I am that sort of person, but she was not.

So for now, let us imagine that Macho Man Randy Savage, nee Randall Mario Poffo, really took time out of his schedule to help a depressed high school outcast in suburban Oregon. Let us hope that in addition to being a splendid physical specimen, a vibrant showman, and a memorable pitchman for snack products, he was, at heart, a kind and patient man, concerned most of all with the well-being of his fans.

My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.

I should say that I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the running custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic, Jewish clan on Long Island to establish firmly my identity as a New York Jew. Now, married to a Jew and raising my kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, saying no to Christmas trees and telling my boys unequivocally that Santa does not come to our house. I don’t tell them, but Christmas exists for me, in a way.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart, sending her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a sort of void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was Fall when my mom disappeared to there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City. I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a shlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hitman. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. (Also, I was seven.) So the story settled into a nebulous region of half-truth – true insofar as an injustice had been visited upon my mom, but inaccurate as to my dad’s involvement.

One way or another, I needed my missing mom desperately. She had turned rather suddenly from a six-foot-tall, combat-boot-wearing Brooklyn superhero to a frail voice from out of the snowy void, describing old-time country Christmas traditions and bizarre criminal conspiracies, alluding cryptically to her illness and her recovery. So I grabbed onto Christmas as a lifeline. I picked out a delicate glass ornament to send her as a gift, off into the snowy nothingness of Iowa, a life preserver tossed to a castaway unseen amid the waves. I imagined that ornament sitting on my mom’s bedside table, giving her strength to get better and come back to Brooklyn, to me. Since then, I have always associated Christmas with hopeful struggle, with a distinctly Iowan chin-up optimism in the face of cold weather and poverty and December’s crowding darkness.

The next year my mom came back and found an apartment on Ocean Avenue, and my dad grudgingly let me spend most of December with her. She was jobless and weird and government cheese-poor, and I spent most of my school vacation with the other kids in the building, tearing up and down the fire escapes and across the roof and through the basement, or in my mom’s little apartment doing arts and crafts, baking bread in old cofee tins, and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread to decorate the Christmas tree my mom had gotten free from Our Lady of Refuge.

Our trips out of the house could generally be divided into three categories: going to church, going to local charities for food and other handouts, and walking Jackie, a runty terrier mix my mom had adopted and imbued with a dubious back story of neglect and survival. I didn’t really understand the import of the food pantries and the free gift grab bags at the church, but I could sense the desperation of my mom’s situation. At one point, a gap-toothed Jamaican in painter’s coveralls came to the apartment and gave my mom a bag of weed, then argued with her about money while I pretended to draw in the bedroom. Later, a jittery crackhead friend came over and my mom sent him away with a loaf of bread. My mom explained to me that the only “fancy” presents we would have would come from the church, but that we should spend our time in the week before Christmas making gifts. She would sit in the window with a cup of tea, holding a big magnifying glass to the winter sun to burn patterns into blocks of wood she’d found in the trash.

On December 23, it was cold with flurries, and we stayed in for most of the day baking bread and cookies and painting Christmas cards for each other with watercolors. We had corned beef hash on toast for dinner (“In the army,” my mom said cheerfully, “they call it ‘shit on a shingle’”), lime Jell-O for dessert, then a joint for my mom while I sipped sweet, milky tea. Before bed we took Jackie out for a walk, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue and into the quiet blocks of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood that abutted the busy thoroughfare. As we headed out, my mom reminded me to keep my eyes open as we passed garbage cans, as people were likely to dispose of old but still useful items when new things came as Hannukah gifts.

My mom and I took turns surveying the trash by the kerb and holding Jackie, who strained energetically at the leash and barked at the distant rumble of trucks. I found a pair of running shoes, used but in decent condition. They were much too big for me, and too small for my mom, but she tucked them under her arm anyway. Later, she found a box full of decorative tin medallions, which would ultimately join the popcorn and cranberries on our old-time, unelectrified Christmas tree. Finally, as we were nearing Avenue K and the end of the block of single-family houses, my mom veered from the sidewalk onto a snow-dusted lawn, toward nothing in particular that I could see. Without breaking stride, she swept her hand low like an infielder charging a slow grounder and snatched something there, a leaf or a crumpled piece of paper, I couldn’t tell. While Jackie pulled obliviously against my grip on the leash, my mom turned to me with a triumphant grin, her left arm still clutching our bundles of found items. In her right hand she held a twenty-dollar bill.

The next day, with that twenty snuggled safely in the pocket of her old army jacket, my mom and I began our one lasting Christmas tradition. We took a long walk to the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue, a mighty, multi-story repository of the cast-off things of Brooklyn. My mom had the cashier give us two tens, and we split up, each of us with our found fortune and half an hour to buy the perfect gift for the other. We agreed that I would go to the upstairs checkout and she would go downstairs, and we would make sure to have our purchases well swaddled in shopping bags before we met at the front door.

I remember that I got her a set of lemonade glasses and a tray, etched with a 1950s space-age pattern that matched the linoleum top of her little kitchen table. We took turns wrapping the presents in the back room of her apartment, and because my present to her was five pieces (four glasses and a tray), the patch of white fabric that my mom had fringed around our little tree seemed bountifully laden with presents. We ate chicken soup and fresh bread in round, coffee-can sized slices, and my mom let me have a cup of coffee so I could stay up for midnight mass. The church was on Foster Avenue, over a mile away, and I ended up falling asleep slung over her big bony shoulder on the walk back, waking up in the lurching, foul-smelling elevator of our building, groggy and cold and eager to open presents. My mom had bought me a Swiss Army knife and an old army canteen, which seemed like the coolest presents in the world, and we fell asleep together on the couch in the living room with Christmas music playing on the radio.

As I got older, I gained some perspective on what had happened when my mom went away. In my teenage years when I saw people high on coke, I realized how strangely familiar their behavior seemed, how it reminded me of the time when my mom had grabbed me and run away from parked electric company vans, explaining that they were there to spy on us. By then my mom had moved to Philadelphia and I had moved with my dad to Oregon, and I was pretty content never to see her and barely to talk to her. When I went back to New York for college, I saw her once a year out of obligation, and she bailed on my graduation at the last minute, claiming a potential Philly mob hit had forced her once again to flee to Iowa.

By the time my wife and mother met, on our wedding day, I had pretty much edited my mom out of my identity. I had defined myself as a New York Jew, the sort to scoff at Christmas trees and go to the movies on Christmas day. It didn’t matter that my mom was Catholic, that I had probably been to as many Christian religious services as Jewish ones. As our sons got older, I didn’t hesitate to tell them that Christmas, while perfectly lovely, was not for us.

This year, December brings difficult times for our family. A hoped-for raise at my job has been held up by budget concerns, I forgot to submit and invoice for freelance work, and now we find ourselves shuffling money from savings to checking, transferring balances, thinking about moving to a smaller house. And suddenly, on Christmas morning, I realize the holiday is inspiring in me the slightly silly, middle-American optimism that it did when I was about the age that my older son is now. Somehow, I say to myself, this will work out. We will drink sweet tea and eat chicken soup and find twenty bucks on the street. We will do arts and crafts and listen to the radio. We will be OK.

When people talk about what super power they’d like to have, pay attention to what they say: Most people don’t want a particular power because it would be more fun or because they could use it to vanquish evil or right wrongs. They want it because it would be practical in more situations. More than anything, the powers people covet are invisibility and flight – because most people are both insecure and frequently late. Super strength would be more useful for fighting crime and saving lives, but who wants super strength? No one, because most people don’t get in fights or stumble into situations where they have to lift cars off of accident victims. People want the power of flight because it would let them sleep an extra twenty minutes on weekdays. They want invisibility because it would let them find out what their friends say about them when they aren’t there.
It’s safe to assume that superheroes get into the crime-fighting business – and supervillains into the crime-doing business – because of their powers. It’s not that Superman is incredibly strong and
extraordinarily virtuous. He’s just a basically decent guy who would be bored doing regular jobs. He could probably be a very productive construction worker, but he could only speed up a few projects, while thousands of others would proceed at a regular pace and continue to rely on backhoes and cranes and the like. And frankly, nothing I’ve read suggests that Superman would be a great architect, or an especially good general contractor. He doesn’t have super bidding powers, and no amount of physical strength can speed up the municipal licensing process. Fighting evil on a global scale is the only job where Superman’s talents are perfectly matched to the challenges he faces every day.
And that is, fundamentally, the thing we find appealing about superheroes – and about most heroes in popular entertainment: they have skill sets that are well-matched to interesting work, so it’s fun to watch them do their jobs. James Bond isn’t so appealing just because he’s a good spy – a lot of good spies, after all, are good because they excel at being boring and blending in. We like Bond because on top of stealing secrets and impersonating dignitaries, he’s handsome, clever, athletic, and seductive. He has a skill set that’s well-suited to every situation.
For most people, finding the match between skills and situation is the essence of defining happiness. We hope to marry and live with a person we like, someone we desire who desires us. We want to spend free time with friends whose company we enjoy and work in a trade at which we excel. Many of us do this fairly well, and we call that success, but it doesn’t make us heroes or superheroes or James Bond. The difference is that ordinary people, in finding what they do well, minimize the likelihood they’ll be forced to do something they’re bad at. Even those who take on challenges routinely tend to do so in a context where they’re more or less prepared to succeed. James Bond simply can’t find a challenge that he can’t overcome with panache. And for one night, when I was 22 years old, I couldn’t either.
Like most boys, I started out wanting to be a superhero. Not a flying, costumed crime-fighter, mind you – that was plainly unrealistic. Instead, I aimed for something more along the lines of a jedi – unexceptional to outward appearances, but under the right circumstances and with the proper training, able to discover and exploit latent talents. When we were about eight, my best friend and I sought to bring out our hidden powers through games that involved trying to intuit the movements of unpredictable things: usually, this took place in a darkened bathroom, where one of us would try to dodge the beam of a flashlight wielded randomly by the other. We also tried catching a glow-in-the-dark super-bouncy ball that we had thrown really hard against the inside of the bathtub. As you can probably imagine, neither of these activities was very successful.
By high school, I accepted the fact that I was unlikely to develop super powers. I also moved from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, in eighth grade, so the void left by my hope for supernatural traits was flooded with the certainty that I was cooler than everyone around me. (Try to imagine – teenagers everywhere assume they know more than everyone else; and there I was, a thirteen-year-old citizen of the greatest, most cosmopolitan city in the world, displaced unwillingly to some backwater where everyone waited for the walk sign to change before crossing the street – even if there were no cars coming. I was pretty much intolerably superior.)
On top of that, people in Portland made fun of me for having a New York accent and for gesticulating a lot – which is weird because I don’t, really – and that spurred me to embrace this conception of myself as tough and New Yorky and street smart – which I definitely hadn’t been up to that point. So instead of being a superhero, I started to dream of becoming some sort of suave, underworld fixer – somewhere between James Bond and Easy Rawlins from the Walter Mosley novels. I didn’t want to be a criminal, exactly, but I wanted the connections to criminals that would allow me to move stolen merchandise or obtain some unusual item on short notice, and the detached cool of a movie bad guy. I also desperately wanted – and completely lacked – a vague hint of menace. The only concrete steps I took toward any of this during my high school years were to steal a lot of street signs and drink my coffee black.
My problem, fundamentally, was that I wanted to be good at stuff, but I didn’t have the patience to get good. Everything that briefly held some allure required practice, and many things required getting hurt: kung fu would have been great, or even just the sort of street-fighting skills one develops from regular brawling. But in martial arts training and in fistfights there’s a big getting-punched-by-people component, and I never had the stomach for it. It’s also hard to find the seedy underbelly of a place like Portland – and if you do, you realize it consists mostly of drunk people riding public buses. Also, I hated Portland and wanted desperately to go back to New York.
When I did return to New York, I couldn’t pick locks, fence hot stereos, or immobilize a man by pinching his neck just so. But I arrived with the zeal for personal invention that frequently suffuses college freshmen, and a renewed love for my hometown. I was determined to embrace New York more than I had when I was growing up, to discover its secrets and to make it thoroughly my own. This proved to be something I was willing to practice, and before long my knowledge of Brooklyn streets and Manhattan alleys was rather impressive. By sophomore year, I didn’t just know the nameless curry joint where the cabbies went for late night meals – I knew the cook. I could head out on my bicycle at one in the morning and reliably return in a few hours with something surprising and delightful: a dozen roses made of silk ribbon, a life-sized plaster cat, high-end salon products sold to me at bargain basement prices by the junkie who stole them. I had an office job that gave me access to free Tommy Hilfiger samples six months before they hit the street, and I knew a guy who worked at a printing shop in midtown who would buy those samples at a 200% markup.
Naturally, I mostly put all of this knowledge to the service of dating. Having long ago recognized that I was neither the best looking nor the most charming, I cultivated a particular sort of date and image, equal parts romantic comedy and street theater. This would involve piping hot loaves of bread purchased from the unmarked back door of a commercial bakery, wine purchased from a store that did not appear to sell wine, and, depending on the girl to be wooed, weed purchased over the counter from what, to the untrained eye, looked like an ordinary bodega. With provisions thus acquired we would picnic on the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, or on the Staten Island Ferry at any time, or watch the sun rise on the beach at Coney Island. I was pretty good.
Once, my friend told me that her sister, who would be in town from Chicago for the weekend, was getting over a bad breakup and it would be really helpful if I could seduce her. I had never even seen her sister, but I figured my friend was fairly good-looking, so how bad could her sister be? I promised to do it, and I did, with a night of live jazz in a hole-in-the-wall club, front-row seats to a freestyle rap battle in a subway station, and of course, fresh bread and red wine on the Brooklyn Bridge under a full moon.
By the time I graduated college, I had pretty much let go of the idea that I would parlay street smarts and moxie into some sort of career. I had worked as a bike messenger for a while, which seemed pretty close to the ideal cover job for a modern-day, urban superhero, but it ended up involving a lot of injuries and didn’t pay terribly well. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely fun, and it was perfect for expanding my network of low-grade black market connections (the office I hung out in between runs was in the same building as a strip club and a firing range). But for all the cachet that such a job had with certain girls, it cramped my style with others: I once had to cancel a much anticipated date because I got hit by a bus, and the blood inside the welt on my forehead was draining down into my eye socket and making me look too weird.
I also met my future wife shortly after college, and while my shtick proved useful in wooing her, it wasn’t so essential for keeping her. Pretty soon, we moved in together, I got a job that allowed me to keep ordinary hours, and life was good. We still drank wine under the moon on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I still had my little connections around town – free curried goat from the roti stand by the World Trade Center, the car service driver in Sunset Park who called me “Capitán” and would take me anywhere in the city for a flat eight bucks – but my childhood dream was doing what childhood dreams do in the best of circumstances: Slipping away without being missed.
And then, an early autumn night: Anna and I were at a bar in Manhattan for our friend’s birthday and it was a madhouse – too many people, the music oppressively loud, smoke everywhere mixing with the smell of sweat and beery breath and maybe even the night’s first hint of vomit. We went to the bar, but the crowd was swelling and pitching like the ocean, and try as we might, we could just not get back to our friend. In the midst of this, we found ourselves beside another friend of his, a woman we had met only once.
We all pantomimed our hellos over the din of the place, and then this woman, whose name I can’t recall, sort of swam closer to me in the crowd, and I leaned down to hear her: “This is a disaster!” she said. “I have another party to go to in Brooklyn. Do you guys want to come?” So I grabbed Anna and we waded out of the place, promising ourselves we would make it up to the birthday boy later. And from that moment forward, all my New York powers came together perfectly, and for one night, I was a superhero.
(First, two other important pieces of background:
(1) When I was a kid, my mom lived in a six-story brick building in the middle of a block full of similar buildings, on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Each building had two fire escapes in the front and one in the back, and a long series of trash-strewn concrete yards ran the length of the block behind the buildings. Some of these yards were connected to one another; some were blocked by fences, and one was patrolled by a belligerent pit bull. The kids who lived on the block – me, Jose, Anthony, and Jared from my building, Eddie and Rashad from one building up, and a few others from here and there – played a complicated game of tag that covered the entire block. The rules were that we could go on the sidewalks in front of the buildings and in the yards behind the buildings, but not in the building lobbies or hallways. That meant that the only ways to get from sidewalk to yard were (a) through the basements, which were frighteningly dark and sometimes inhabited by the super of my building, Jose and Anthony’s alcoholic grandfather, who was always too drunk to tell which kids were in his family and which weren’t and consequently assumed we were all kin and he could beat any child he could catch; and (b) via the roof, which required going up a street-facing fire escape, across the roof, and down a yard-facing fire escape. This was the preferred option, and we did it frighteningly fast, partly because the faster we moved, the less likely we were to be seen by one of our moms, and partly because we were nine years old and too foolish to realize how dangerous it was.
(2) When I was a junior in high school, I spent a year in Argentina on a student exchange program. As a result, I can speak Spanish with a convincing Argentinian accent. Subsequent years in New York have trained me to speak with a passable Puerto Rican accent as well.)
So we came out of the bar and decided we should take a cab to the party in Brooklyn, because it was in Greenpoint, which is a pain to get to. But for whatever reason, all the cabs were full at that particular place and time. So while Anna and our new companion were feeling flummoxed, I did something that was really not that exceptional, unless you didn’t grow up in New York: I flagged down a car service car.

(Until I moved away, I didn’t realize this, but there are actually places that don’t have the car service/taxi distinction, so let me explain: In New York, yellow cabs must have a special medallion – an actual metal oval about six inches wide with a license number on it, bolted to the hood. These medallions are exceedingly rare and worth many thousands of dollars, and they cause the number of yellow taxis to be limited. Since cab fares are regulated, the margins are tight and there is a strong incentive for taxis to stay in Manhattan, where the concentration of wealthy people is greatest and the trips are generally short. To serve the rest of the city, there are car services: private cars licensed to carry passengers, but not permitted to pick people up without an appointment. You are supposed to call them and they come to you, and the fares are unregulated and subject to negotiation. Every refrigerator in Brooklyn and Queens has at least one magnet with a car service number on it, and most people in those boroughs have a strong opinion about which of the two or three competing services in their neighborhood is better.

What locals know that recent arrivals (and Manhattanites) don’t know, is that you actually can hail a car service car and they will pick you up. You see, there is an unwritten rule that car service cars have to be black, late-model American sedans with huge antennas and tinted windows. So if you see such a car, you can stick your hand out and flag it down. Of course, that’s what I did on my superhero night.)

So the girls settled into the back seat ahead of me and our new friend told the driver that we were going to Greenpoint, to which he said, “Twenty-five,” except that it was more like “twenny-fie,” because he had a thick Spanish accent. So I kept the door open and one foot on the pavement and I said, “Oye –¿qué te pasa, brother? Vamos a Brooklyn nomás. Si vas a ser así, podemos buscar un taxi.” What’s up with that, man? We’re only going to Brooklyn. If you’re going to be like that, we’ll just find a cab. It was sort of a gamble, because saying “brother” in Spanish is very Puerto Rican and this guy could have turned out to be Dominican and just told me to go fuck myself, but I had a hunch and I went with it. He paused for a second, looked over his shoulder at me, and said, “Fourteen.” I said, “Gracias, pa,” and closed the door.
As we headed to Greenpoint, our friend told us that the party was being thrown by a group of artists from Spain whom she met earlier in the week. They were visiting New York because one of them had a gallery show, and they were all staying in the loft of a local artist who was out of town, and had invited all of their Spanish friends for a big party before they flew back to Madrid the following afternoon. They told her that there was no doorbell for the loft, so she must call one of their cell phones so someone would come down and let her in. We called as we were getting out of the car, but no one answered, and we figured maybe we’d shout from the sidewalk or go in when some other tenant was leaving.

The loft was in an old factory building, a long four-story brick number with a boarded up loading dock next to the front door. We looked up at the dark facade, then peered into the dingy lobby to see if anyone was around. There was no one. There weren’t even any buzzers at all by the door. We called again, and again no one answered.

The building was next to an empty lot, blocked from the sidewalk by a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. There was an old fire escape covering the side of the building facing the lot and extending over the sidewalk, past the razor wire, with the bottom rung of its iron ladder about fifteen feet above the ground. Walking over by the lot, we could see the side of the building, and there in the back, on the second floor, we saw the party. They had the door open onto the fire escape and music was blaring, and we could see people milling around inside with drinks in their hands – they looked Spanish, and artsy. We shouted to them and shook the fence, but they were too far from the street and their music was too loud. We called again, and again there was no answer – probably because the music was too loud for anyone to hear the phone.

Anna and our new friend slumped against the fence and cursed quietly, pondering how to salvage the evening now that we had bailed on the birthday party to stand on a sidewalk in Greenpoint. And then, without a word, I sprung into action: I leapt onto the fence and climbed to just below the razor wire, so my back was to the sidewalk and the bottom of the fire escape ladder was behind me, about three feet back and two feet up. And just as Anna said, “You’re going to get arrested,” I launched myself backward off the fence and up, and caught the fire escape with one hand, my feet swinging out toward the street. It was probably the most graceful and athletic thing I’ve done in my life, and I can’t even really describe it except to say that it was fucking incredible.

I grabbed on with my other hand and muscled my way up, one rung at a time. The muscles in my arms were burning and the rusty rungs of the ladder were pressing uncomfortably into my palms in a way I could recall from when I was a kid. For a second, I though I wouldn’t make it, but I held on, and pulled until I could get one foot on the ladder, and then the other foot, and then I was up! I swung around from one side of the ladder to the other the way I had done a hundred times high above Ocean Avenue, brushed myself off, and sauntered into the party as if I owned the place. I knew these Spaniards would be amused and surprised by an Argentinian accent, so I turned mine on full bore: “Look, boludos” I said in the sing-song, quasi-Italian, lilt, using the best known Argentinian insult, “We’ve been out there hollering for fifteen minutes and calling on the phone, and you guys are too busy to let us in!” Then, after a pause, “And could somebody get me a drink?”

The reaction was just as I’d hoped. Someone looked out onto the fire escape, looked at the razor wire and the weedy lot, and said, “Where did you come from?” and then, “Who are you?” Someone else handed me a beer. I looked at the next person I saw and said, “Come on, let’s go downstairs and let everyone in,” and fortuitously, I started walking in the right direction to get to the front door of the loft, reinforcing the impression that I knew everything there was to know about the place and all the people in it. 

And that was it, the childhood dream come true: Just as I stood on the precipice of adulthood, a year from marriage, four years from parenthood, seven years from buying a house; just as I was beginning the time-honored process of narrowing my circumstances to fit my strengths, I got one evening to be effortlessly good at everything, and stylishly so. When I opened the building’s front door, a drink in my hand and a Spaniard by my side, I was a suave, unflappable, Brooklyn James Bond. I looked at Anna and our new friend and said, “Are you two coming in, or what?”

16 August, 2007

Today is the penultimate day of our vacation with Anna’s family. Tomorrow evening, we will pile our two boys and our belongings into the trusty Corolla and head back home to West Hartford, Connecticut. Except of course, that we are not really heading back, or home. We are heading out, going forward, doing something new and quite unlike what we’ve done before. We are leaving our crowded little apartment in the crowded little city of Somerville, Mass. (preceded by like abodes in Cambridge and Brooklyn), for a proper house, three bedrooms and a living room and a dining room (fully separate from the kitchen, mind you) AND a finished basement, all sitting upon a quarter acre of gracious, green, unapologetically boring, suburban land.

The funny thing is that the move to me seems worthy of excitement. We have purchased a perfectly sensible, utterly unexceptional Dutch colonial (that is a kind of house, I have learned) in a bland, agreeable suburb in central Connecticut (very fine schools, of course). Anna has a tenure-track position at a highly respected university and I have what promises to be an engaging non-profit lawyering job. In short order, we will buy a second car – a minivan perhaps, or a station wagon – to park in the second spot in our two-car garage and tote around our two children, presumably to soccer practice, PTA meetings, Klan rallies, and the like. We are standing on the precipice of no precipice at all, just the long slide toward middle-class, average, American comfort.

And yet, I feel I’m entering uncharted territory. I’ve never lived outside a city, never lived in anything but an apartment. As a teenager and even in my early twenties, I assumed without much thought that I’d never own a car, let alone a house. I described West Hartford to my best friend, who grew up with me in Brooklyn: the endless, quiet, tree-lined streets, the sidewalks empty of people after dark, the well-kept houses uniformly filled with the flickering blue glow of television. He said, “You’re kind of like a spaceman there.” He’s right, but instead of feeling like I’m taking an appalling cultural step backward, selling out, failing it to keep it street, etc., I’m excited. It’s like I’m embarking on a sociological adventure, an exchange program far more exotic than the year I spent in Argentina when I was fifteen. Also, it will be nice to have enough space, which we have not had since Max was born, and less still since Reuben came on the scene. Did I mention that we might buy a new car?

Maybe I am selling out and loving it. Anyway, the great unknown begins now . . .

17 March, 2010

The first half mile of an early morning bicycle ride in the cold is never good. The air is always sharper than I expected, finding its way between layers to chill my back and toes and make me think I should have bundled up more. No matter how hard I pedal, I can’t seem to move as fast as I’d like to, a point made manifest by the little speed meters the town police have installed here and there, one of of them a block from home, informing me that I am topping out at 17 miles an hour. Actually, that’s not bad for an old three-speed loaded with lunch, computer, and a 200-pound man in khakis and loafers, but the first half mile is about perception, and it feels slow. And cold.

It’s mostly dark at a quarter of six, and my end of town is shielded from the east by a pair of hills, so the dawn looks like someone shining a dim flashlight up from behind Hartford. As always in my godforsaken suburb, the only people on the street are dog-walkers and joggers, who are marginally more scarce at this hour. Cars, though, are mostly absent, so it is quiet. Just behind me, I hear the soft, regular clicking of the antique bicycle hub, parts forged and assembled forty-odd years ago in a northern English factory town, where hundreds of people likely plodded to work on three-speeds in pre-dawn hours; just ahead of me, I hear the zizzing whisper of an equally aged tire negotiating the asphalt. This is the part of the ride where I think about life.

And so? I suppose if I could have chosen an existence for myself in a central Connecticut suburb, had I even been able to name a central Connecticut suburb three years ago, I might have liked this: the misfit doing a 60-mile commute by bicycle and train in a place where people won’t even walk three blocks to the grocery store. That is an encouraging thought for a chilly March morning: I have not sold out. I still ride my bike whenever I can. I still work in the ghetto, still meet my clients at night in project hallways, still fight the good fight for a lot less money than most of my law school classmates are earning these days.


Oh, the “but” is a serious thing in this internal conversation: I spend a lot of hours in the car every week. I have gained fifteen pounds. I live in West Hartford, an uppity, mostly white suburb that seems to pride itself, above all, on being different than the desperately poor city it adjoins – the kind of suburb I hate, not just because it is boring, but because it represents the abandonment by those with means of those without, the unapologetic self-interest underneath our vaunted American individualism. Oh, and in order to engage in this pleasurable bicycle commute, I have left my house before dawn and foregone the pleasure of breakfast with my wife and children, and Jesus H. Christ, commuting 60 miles by any method short of a helicopter is fucking absurd, and on top of that my job is too crazy, and I can never get enough done, and we can never make a dent in our credit card debt, and I really need to go to the dentist, and . . .

Luckily there’s not too much time for quiet reflection. I am past the hills now and moving through Hartford at a good clip. It’s warmer, and the air feels less like raw late winter and more like the muddy, optimistic ferment of early spring. Every now and then, the lovely, gold-domed Capitol peaks up ahead of me with glorious dawn behind it, and I get to thinking that phrase that has become my mantra since moving here: Maybe life isn’t so bad.

Where Farmington and Asylum Avenues converge, an empty lot slants downhill to a tangle of highway ramps. Above sits a huge patch of sky-blue openness, fringed with Hartford’s chrome skyline and punctuated on the southwestern edge by the Capitol, tall and unapologetically overwrought. I hesitate, caught between wanting to take a picture and worrying I will miss my train, but then I am buoyed by the pleasing thought that I will get to see this breathtaking panorama many many times again. I keep moving down Farmington, under the highway overpass and to the train station. Of course, I should have checked the time: I arrive at with fifteen minutes to spare.

I have a friend at a non-profit in Hartford that does what is called international capacity-building work. This means that they help create systems meant to strengthen democracy – anti-corruption campaigns, electoral transparency, things like that. Last summer, they were putting the finishing touches on a book that outlines all the changes needed in current Cuban law to permit free, fair, multi-party elections (there are a lot of changes). The final step in the project was to send a Spanish-speaking lawyer to Cuba to meet with dissidents there and get their feedback on the book. Lucky for me, I am a Spanish-speaking lawyer and I had some vacation time, so I took a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to Havana – with the blessing of the State Department, no less. What follows are some observations from that trip, and a pair of letters that I wrote to my wife but never got to send.

25 May, 2009


I am in the air, somewhere. I don’t know how much longer until we land in Toronto because my cell phone is turned off. I usually scoff at the notion that cell phones interfere with planes’ navigational equipment, but this plane seems insignificant enough to make that a concern: twin propellers, seats for 36, one bathroom. When the flight attendant did his string of announcements over the P.A., he tucked himself into a little curtained booth as though he were on a much larger plane. I wanted to say, “Hey! We’re right here – all 16 of us! Just come out and talk to us directly!”

I was about to write that the geography below us is indistinct – the usual patchwork of towns, lakes, farms, and roads – but I just looked up and we are now flying parallel to the shore of some vast body of water – a Great Lake, I’d imagine. I am a little embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of Canadian geography is terrible, at least by my usual standards. Montreal and Toronto are east-ish, Vancouver is west, Windsor is across from Detroit, and Regina and Edmonton are out there in the middle somewhere. Basically, I don’t even know which Great Lake I’m beside, nor where I am at all. Far enough to miss you already, that’s for sure.

27 May, 2009

My contact here, an American from Nashville, is young, wealthy (by some lucky turn of events in the realm of software design), and impossibly serious. He finds the state of things in Cuba impressive for its intolerability, and speaks with a constant sense of urgency that doesn’t comport with the way people are actually living their lives all around him, which is to say, normally. It’s like he had his mind made up about what oppression was going to look like before he got here, and he’s not about to let firsthand observation change his assessment. It’s not that the oppression isn’t real – it is. But I somehow supposed that someone like him, well traveled in Latin America and born of very modest means, would be less urgently bothered by questions of privation, whether of resources or fundamental liberty. Then again, he may just be highly sensitive to injustice. He told me this story while we were walking in Habana Vieja:

“The other night when I was walking this way, probably around midnight, I found a tiny kitten right here. It couldn’t have been more than 24 hours old. So I was like, what do I do? [Me, internally: Um, nothing?] So I picked it up and brought it with me, but they wouldn’t let me bring it in the hotel, so I must have spent an hour walking around, trying to find some milk. Funny thing, when I finally found somewhere to buy milk at that hour,  I ended up near where I had found the kitten. So I took off my shirt, wrapped the kitten in it, and sat it down on the sidewalk with a little cup of milk, and started knocking on doors to get someone to take it.”

His story did not reveal, and I, diplomatically, did not inquire, whether he managed to find a Cuban family willing to shelter a kitten at one in the morning.

He is also very handsome. Yesterday, we were at a cafeteria on Avenida Italia, and there seemed to be some sort of commotion among the female waitstaff – they kept coming together in a busy, buzzing knot, some on each side of the window through which orders were delivered from the kitchen. His back was to them, but I noticed them watching us, and they noticed me noticing them. As is always the case when two parties are watching one another, there comes a point when any further attempt at nonchalance is absurd, so I finally smiled. The girl behind the kitchen window made a come-here gesture. “¿Yo?” I asked with an exaggerated thumb to the chest, moving my lips without speaking. “El,” she silently replied, pointing at my companion. I sent him over, and what ensued was something I would see several times during my trip: him, earnest, perplexed, struggling with Spanish. He returned shortly, unable to explain what was happening and utterly unmoved by their obvious romantic interest. I went over, stepping into the role I seem to have been born to: affable, in-the-know friend of swooned-over man. “Es que tu amigo,” our waitress said to me seriously, “es muy bello,” and when she said this, she imbued the word “muy” with such feeling, such carnal longing, that I was left somewhere between scandalized and deeply jealous.

28 May, 2009

Walking in Habana Centro, a shirtless kid, maybe eight, comes our way, flipping a ball off the wall of the building next to him and catching it in a lefty’s glove that he is using on the wrong hand. Just as he passes me, he catches the ball, sweeps the glove across his body, and lays a light tag on my knee, then grabs the ball in his right hand and cocks his arm, as if to throw on to first to complete the double play.

28 May, 2009


I am drunk. My contact here has gone back to the States, so I met with two dissidents on my own today. Since I am stubborn / stingy / a firm believer in getting to know places by walking them, I walked about five miles from the first meeting to the second, then about seven to get to a fancy hotel with pay-by-the-hour internet access. Then I went back to my modest hotel, ate chocolate and leftover fish, and lay on my bed for a while, listening to street sounds and thinking about nothing. Then I came down to the hotel bar.

For the first three drinks, I sat alone, recording recollections from my meetings in my journal. For the next two drinks, I sat with a guitar player who would be playing for tips if there were any foreigners here (other than me), the bartender, and an old santero bus driver, dressed smartly in all white, who treated me to a coffee and much good conversation. (The usual things, mostly: women, baseball, philosophy.)

The meetings I am having are giving me a new perspective on this place. Like most of the left-leaning young Latinos in the Latin-American Studies department with me in college, I was always sort of a booster of the revolution. After all, a study of Latin American history and politics is largely an unflattering examination of two centuries of U.S. foreign policy, so to see a little nation to stand up for itself was heartening, and the concrete societal improvements (literacy, public health, racial equality) seemed to bolster the case. And of course, the Cubans are a beguiling people – welcoming, well-educated, gregarious.

But for all the openness here, the easy camaraderie, there is tremendous, pervasive repression too, so well executed and for so long that its victims have become its most reliable propagators. It is a strange thing to see a people that is, at once, carefree and ruled by fear. The genius of the system here is that there is just enough freedom for most people to be content: People with a little hustle can, it seems, scrounge the money to outfit their Ladas and aged Chevys with gaudy knick-knacks, customized horns that make video game sounds, and stereos that boom reggaeton (if you closed your eyes in my hotel room and listened to the street, you could think you were in Brooklyn or San Juan). Young people can gather on the sidewalks after work, sip cheap rum, play dominoes, flirt, couple, break up, and generally carry on as young people do. Arguments can be carried on with equal openness whether the topic is baseball or international politics, provided a modicum of self-censoring restraint that seems to come frighteningly naturally to people who otherwise don’t hesitate to speak their minds.

But the people who test the limits of that freedom are punished: I spent the afternoon chatting with one of this country’s best-known dissident lawyers – a constitutional scholar. He received me in a modest second-floor apartment in Vedado, a shady neighborhood of mid-rise buildings in the mid-century Miami bourgeois style. From what I could tell, he shares this apartment with his brother’s extended family. He had the gruff, knowledgable manner of a law professor – accustomed to being listened to, and we sat in a pair of rocking chairs in the living room and talked about the law, the regime, the sorts of things a pair of lawyers might discuss on a lazy afternoon. But then we talked about him: disbarred without a hearing after he supported a referendum to change the constitution – a process that is allowed by current Cuban law. He has lost his faculty position and can’t take a case without the permission of the Minister of the Interior. He has been denied permission to leave the country and lives, as he put it, “off miracles.”

The sad thing is that there is a strange sort of liberty within the protective bubble of repression: where enterprise, avarice, and any other transgression are so thoroughly prohibited, humanity finds its only outlet in conviviality, generosity, and easy, earnest friendship. When economic and political control are gone, some of this uniquely Cuban kindness will surely perish.

I have made a friend, a guy our age named Frank who works at a printing press specializing in art prints. He is due to meet me here any minute, and we will go to a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Havana School of Design (several of the employees at the press are also adjunct faculty there). Tonight will be my night out, then tomorrow a meeting with another lawyer, and then home the next day. I think I will put down this letter and have another beer before Frank arrives. I miss you.

29 May, 2009

Sitting at a bar, watching a pair of prostitutes try to decide whether to make a pitch to me or not. They are standing in the middle of the street, pointing and gesturing toward me without even an attempt at subtlety, and anyway, I am the only foreigner in a sidewalk bar full of Cubans, so I’m the only potential business around. They argue back and forth with some animation but sadly just out of earshot. I make eye contact, partly because it is fun to watch them vacillate, and partly because they are a spectacle that is hard not to watch. Finally, somehow, they decide I’m not worth it and totter off into the night. Don’t know whether to feel rejected or relieved.

The regular religion teacher at Santa Magdalena Sofía Barat high school was one of those middle-aged, middle-class, chain-smoking Italian men who thoroughly dominate the lower echelons of everyday life in Argentina. Father Cavallo, as everyone called him, was stout and ordinary looking, with sleeves perennially rolled up and a clerical collar that spent more time on his desk or coat hook than about his thick neck. In addition to teaching the religion and philosophy classes at Barat, he was some sort of administrator, so when he announced one morning midway through the first term that he would stop teaching religion, no one much wondered about it. Although he was nominally second in command to the perpetually tipsy Spanish headmaster, everyone understood that Father Cavallo ran the show. If he didn’t feel like teaching religion, who could tell him otherwise?

In any event, religion was low on the list of concerns for the second-year students at Barat. They were, almost without exception, a mediocre bunch, as befitted the mediocre surroundings. Barat was a squat cell block of a building, four inartfully constructed levels of plain, square classrooms huddled around a central courtyard of cracked cement and creeping weeds. It sat just outside the shabby commercial center of Castelar, which was not so much a suburb of Buenos Aires as a suburb of another suburb, the unfortunately named Morón. (Until I arrived from the United States on a year-long exchange program, no one at Barat had apparently met anyone with enough knowledge of English to tell them what “moron” means. It was probably not by accident that this bit of vocabulary never found its way into the English classes.)

It didn’t take me long to take up the nihilistic rituals of the place. For the first couple of months I was in Castelar, I was an exciting novelty: my tongue wrestled comically with the new language as my gangly, fifteen-year-old body struggled with a growth spurt that had taken me from 5’9″ to 6’4″ in less than a year, and I was full of surprising malapropisms and athletic feats. The boys brought me to parties and showed off the colorful swears they’d taught me to say, while the girls preened and flirted, my foreignness seeming to outshine my acne, my faint lisp lost under bad but charming Spanish. But after three months, I talked pretty much like everybody else, peppering my speech with the same curses my peers did and affecting without effort the Italianate gesticulations that make Argentinians an easy target for parody among Latin Americans. And so I regressed from a shining moment of exceptionalism to my own mediocre mean, and fell in easily with the boys in my class.

We passed our weekdays with desultory school attendance in the mornings, desultory work in the afternoons, and aimless wandering, drinking, and fighting in the evenings. On weekends, the boys in my group, all 15 or 16, would gather downtown near the train station, ponder making the 45-minute trip to Buenos Aires for some real action, then determine that at least one of us didn’t have train fare, or that all of us had train fare but not enough money to do anything once we got into the city. With luck, someone would know of a party nearby, or we’d retreat to one of the dingy local bodegas and pool our funds for a few bottles of cheap wine or Quilmes. When we’d drunk enough, we’d go sit outside on the benches near Castelar’s main nightclub and watch the parade of dolled up local girls and too-cool local toughs. Mart ín had developed the custom of standing and applauding in a serious way when an especially good-looking girl walked by, which never ceased to amuse us. Sometimes, as the night wore on, there would be races on the main strip involving unlikely cars like Fiats or Citroens, or wheelie contests pitting mopeds against bicycles. We cheered lustily for these events.

Some Fridays, one or another of the regulars wouldn’t appear by the station, and we’d wait around a while, angrily cursing him for keeping us from whatever fun we hoped to have that evening. Eventually we’d abandon the straggler and do the same routine as always, all of us knowing without saying anything that when we saw him on Monday, we’d craft a fantastic tale of the nocturnal exploits he missed – running from cops, scaling balconies to crash all-girl parties, and other activities at the very edge of plausibility.

The most creative teller of these tales, and the only one of our group who would create his own tall tales when he was the one who didn’t show up, was Marcelo. At Monday recess, he would take the lead, painting a picture of the western suburbs that bore little resemblance to our prosaic reality. He would start off our imagined evenings with trips to neighboring towns, usually by unlikely means like stolen scooters or in the back of a milk truck, then take us through strip joints, private social clubs, and back alleys such as none of us had ever encountered in Castelar. He was fluid with details, utterly convincing, and had a flawless sense of comic timing. In different circumstances he might have made a brilliant novelist or stand-up comic, but I think he ended up taking over his dad’s bicycle repair stand. Still, he was a genius and quick with words, so it was not surprising that he struck the blow that brought about the ruination of our new religion teacher.

The new religion teacher was, like Father Cavallo, a priest, but different in all other respects. Father Moretti was young, probably in his late twenties, and had the large, vulnerable eyes of a frightened animal. In contrast to Father Cavallo, who treated the priesthood as simply a job he’d stumbled into and kept, no different than working in a canning factory or driving a bus, Moretti clearly felt that he had found a calling. While the pedagogy at Barat was strictly old-school, with rote memorization reigning supreme, Moretti was always trying to engage with us as equals, pushing us to ask questions, to reason and explore. He was the sort of teacher I’d want my sons to have now, but back then, we saw him as nothing more than prey: He was too young, too eager, and too inexperienced to pose a real disciplinary threat, and worst of all (for him), he plainly wanted us to like him. Behind his back, we called him “el curita” – the little priest.

Religion class had been light on metaphysical questions and heavy on a lecture plan only the Pope could love. Under the guise of scholarly inquiry into the religions of the world, each unit would give a few, basic facts about a different faith, then gently remind us how backward it was compared to Catholicism. Father Cavallo had never brought any zeal to this business, but he seemed to believe it without need for reflection. “These Hindus,” he would say, pity and disinterest mixing in his voice, “believe in multiple gods,” and he would place just enough emphasis on the word “multiple” to let us know that only a fool would think such a thing.

The little priest could scarcely hide his contempt for this approach. It was evident that he thought questions of personal faith too weighty for the same soulless approach that helped us learn (and promptly forget) the names of the bones in the body or the provinces and their capitals. Where every other teacher at Barat presented facts in long, indigestible monologues, speaking at a pace that made it clear we were meant to copy down every word, the little priest was frenetic, scattershot. He roamed erratically around the classroom, musing wildly with his back turned to us, then wheeled suddenly to meet the eyes of one or another unlucky student and demand, “Why?”

After our initial surprise, we began to warm to his approach. We had not been in the custom of answering unexpected queries from teachers, and at first we were struck dumb. When Florencia, the class overachiever, was presented with the little priest’s first urgent “why?”, she waited a long moment before asking, “Do you want me to answer you, sir?”

“If you want to,” said the little priest, trying to soften his tone.

Florencia pondered a minute more, then finally decided: “No. I don’t want to.”

He turned quickly to Diego, the class clown, who just a day earlier had roused us from our usual torpor with a tremendous trifecta of insouciance: He had addressed our English teacher in Spanish, by her first name, and in the informal tense. “What do you think, Diego?” asked the little priest earnestly.

Diego’s answer, “How the hell should I know?”, was not just his usual aimless rebellion. It was a test, because that’s what Diego did. He projected a facade of unhinged craziness – sometimes, he would turn back to me in the middle of class and say one of the few phrases he knew in English, something learned from a heavy metal song, I think: “Hey, motherfucker! Get the fuck out!” But he was not stupid, and had a knack for sizing people up. So we all looked to see how the little priest would respond. He seemed to understand he was being tested, and paused a moment, drawing out our uncertainty for Diego’s fate and what it would mean about our teacher and the class.

“Good answer,” he said softly. “There’s no reason you should know – no reason any of us should know anything.” He went on about knowledge and the mystery of faith, but it was clear he had passed the test. Diego looked back at me and grinned, but I couldn’t tell if he was congratulating himself for carrying off the day’s impertinence without incident or whether he was actually admitting that he was coming to like this new teacher.

The boys in my class warmed to the little priest, but slowly. There was a long while where each of us knew we liked him, but none would admit it aloud. But he became a less and less frequent object of our casual, after-hours derision, unable to supplant villains of longstanding like the acerbic, booze-soaked headmaster, the accounting teacher with her dinner-plate face, the reed thin police lieutenant with his reputation for cruelty and the rumors that he had been a torturer under the military regime just ten years gone.

Once, on a Saturday afternoon, when a few of us had managed to raise the money to head into Buenos Aires, planning to visit a guitar shop and then get some drinks, we ran into the little priest on the train. He was sitting upright and patient like a well-mannered child, eyes bright, priestly collar and neat slacks under a dark blue workman’s jacket. There was an old camera hanging from his neck.

“What’s with the camera, Moretti?” we asked him jovially.

“I like to take pictures,” he said simply, “Pictures of people.” This was the sort of earnest statement that we would usually subject to a fair bit of mockery, but coming from the little priest it was disarming. We paused, looking at each other.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, cool,” said Santiago. “You should bring some of your pictures to class.”

We all agreed, offering improvised suggestions for how pictures of people might fit into the materials we were studying, although none of us had more than a passing acquaintance with those materials. He said he would see if he had any decent prints around the house, then asked us where we were headed, who of us played guitar, whether we would make other stops in Buenos Aires. He got off at Talleres and I remember watching him through the train window, hoping I’d see him take a picture of someone, but he just walked purposefully toward the end of the platform, one hand in his pocket, one hand resting lightly on the camera around his neck.

That Monday he brought an envelope of black and white prints to class and passed them around, explaining the request a few of us had made on the train. There were a lot of prints, enough for the class to spend some time on, and the deliberation and study we gave each one was unusual for us. They were all simple portraits – children, old people, bus drivers, the vendedores ambulantes who worked their way along sidewalks and trains, hawking newspapers, candy, matchbox cars with sing song sales pitches. The subjects looked straight into the camera, sometimes smiling or laughing, but mostly serious. Some of them looked like the sort of rough characters I might not want to photograph without asking, and some were attractive young women, whom I would have felt equally uncomfortable approaching on the street. It was not hard to imagine Father Moretti doing it though.

Moretti didn’t speak for a long while, but he looked at us in a particular way – not quite plaintively, but with a mixture of forced confidence and creeping vulnerability, the look you give someone when you think she might want to kiss you, but you’re not quite certain enough to move in close and let your eyes go out of focus. Diego was the first to speak, and he said just one word: “Alucinantes.” Literally, it means “hallucinatory,” but we used it to describe something so great as to be eye-opening.

“Really?” asked Moretti. His guard was completely down. It would not surprise me if no student in the history of Barat had ever seen a teacher so emotionally unguarded – even the senior girls of years past who were rumored to have slept with our math teacher.

And we didn’t let him down. “Really!” said mousy Rosi, emerging from her perennial doodling in the back corner of the room. “These are photos are very -” she paused for a moment, “very truthful.” Others chimed in, all honest praise, and then the bell rang and we shuffled off, leaving Moretti glowing.

From then on, Moretti’s class was a little refuge for us, wedged between Señora Pennovi’s brutalist approach to English and Fabián’s amusing but slightly unsettling, pretty-girl-centered take on Algebra. We talked a little about religion but a lot more about morality, crime, and sin. Florencia admitted stealing money from her dad’s wallet, to everyone’s shock. Luciano actually asked the whole class to stop calling him “Pomelo” (Grapefruit), committing one of the greatest sins against adolescent Argentinian pride by revealing that the nickname hurt his feelings. Such was the hold that Moretti had on our thinking that we actually respected Luciano’s request for nearly a week (but his head did look like a grapefruit – it was undeniable).

Toward the end of the school year, the boys started to wonder and discuss whether Moretti was a virgin, virginity being the affliction foremost on our minds those days. This was something we couldn’t ask directly, of course, but one day maybe a week or two before the end of the term, Diego made a good opening salvo: “¿Y vos, Moretti?” – “And you?” he started, using the informal tense as always. “Have you always been a priest? How’d you get into this business?”

“You really want to know?” Moretti asked, eyes shining, and we nodded and leaned forward eagerly. It was hard to tell whether he was just reveling selfishly in our attention, or excited at the possibility of imparting some valuable lesson.  Either way, he took advantage of the spell he had cast, speaking deliberately:

“When I was nineteen, I was living a very different life. I had a job at the airport, money to spend, and no responsibility. I was going out every night, you know, drinking, using cocaine, always with different women -“

“I told you so!” cried Diego. “I knew he wasn’t a virgin!”

Everyone turned, jolted by the interruption, and Diego actually looked embarrassed for the first time in his life. Moretti said nothing, and waited. We turned back to him, and he went on:

“I won’t lie to you. It was a fun life at first.” The story was predictable but well told. His cocaine use started to get out of hand. He got a girl pregnant and she left Buenos Aires to live with family in a distant province. He started doing heroin, then lost his job. We all knew he was heading toward a road-to-Damascus moment – he was a religion teacher at a Catholic school, after all – but we were still dying to know the details (the salacious particulars of decadence are what make redemption stories so engaging, after all). He worked the build-up pretty hard, and I don’t remember all the details, but I can’t forget what it boiled down to: Moretti was coming down from a high, waiting on a train platform alone on a cold night. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him, but before he could turn around, he felt something hard poking into his back. A man said, “Don’t move or I’ll burn you.”

Of course, we all knew what “burn” meant in that context – even I, the foreigner, was by then well enough acquainted with street slang – and like all adolescents, we prided ourselves on being conversant with the trappings of criminality. Nevertheless, Moretti wanted us to feel the mortal desperation of that moment, like Saul on his back with his maddened horse rearing above him. He said, “So right then, I knew he had a gun.”

And just then, while the rest of the class tried to imagine confronting death alone, shuddering with cold and withdrawal, Marcelo said, “Or a match.”

Diego snorted. Florencia stifled a giggle. And suddenly, we were all laughing. A lot. It wasn’t the funniest thing I ever heard in my life, but something about the way Marcelo said it, sort of earnest as though he weren’t making a joke so much as suggesting the real possibility that this faceless bandit might have been threatening Moretti with matches, seemed absolutely uproarious at the time.

Moretti tried to pick up the thread, and he went on for another minute about how he’d asked God for help or something, but the mood was broken. Someone else posited that the bandit planned to rub two sticks together to make a fire, we started to riff on that (“maybe he had a stove!”). Soon the bell rang and we went on our way, leaving Moretti crestfallen in his chair.

And then he was gone. Cavallo came back and finished off religion class for the year, marveling at how little progress we seemed to have made. There was never any explanation, and there was no one at the school we would have felt comfortable asking, except Moretti himself. No one saw him in the building or around town.

We didn’t talk about it at the time, of course – vacation was close at hand, and the vigorous indolence of summer was too alluring to leave room for charitable thoughts. But when I recall his face as we bounced out of the room that day, I know we broke him: eyes fixed somewhere between his desk and the first row of chairs, out of focus and absolutely still; shoulders slack, like he’d just put down a heavy box. He was shocked, and his faith was shaken. He threw himself under the hooves of our adolescent cruelty, expecting passion and piety to turn us back. Instead, we trampled him.

When I was about eleven, I was a good but not great baseball player. I was an exceptional fielder – graceful, even – but only passable at the plate. In hindsight, I imagine much of my problem with hitting was not technique or skill, but confidence. At eleven, I did not believe in most any ability I had in life, hitting emphatically included. I think the only strengths I would have been willing to admit then were scooping up grounders and turning double plays.

All of this said, I was probably about a .280 hitter, which isn’t terrible, especially for an eleven-year-old in a Brooklyn league where foreign-born, over-aged ringers pretty much had the lock on pitching (we had one on our team – a Dominican kid named Pedro who didn’t speak a lick of English and threw so hard that nobody wanted to catch him). But I always felt nervous at the plate, uncertain. I liked running the bases but dreaded actually swinging the bat, and became pretty good at working out walks. That would have been a more important skill if I were fast, but I was not fast. A good, prudent baserunner, but not fast.

I remember a game in May, reaching the final inning around twilight, in which I was 0 for 2, having struck out and grounded out in my first at-bats. I came up with one out and a man on second, and we were down by a few runs. The light was not good for hitting, with shadows sprawling haphazardly across the field, and I took the first pitch on principle. I was hoping for a walk as always, but it was a letters-high strike that seemed to shimmer through the gathering darkness, not just unhittable, but practically unseeable. The next pitch was in the dirt and easy to take – I could see from when it left the kid’s hand it would be low, so I cocked my whole body like I was ready to pounce on it, then made a show of letting it go with disgust, leaning on my front foot and flexing my forearms. After that I fouled one off without thinking – I probably should have let it go, but I didn’t want to look like I was afraid to swing.

All the while, the catcher had maintained that classic patter that catchers do – half intelligible, repeated, meaningless mantras to soothe the pitcher: “Lay it in there lay it there, there ya go, nice and smooth, here we go, here we go,” gentle and regular like the way you rub a crying child’s back to calm him down. I didn’t pay it any mind, not because I was so cool at the plate, but because I was too wound up even to notice. But once they had two strikes on me, the kid started saying, “Easy out, easy out, you got this guy, easy out,” and I knew that he knew that I had made out my first two times to the plate. We were baseball kids and we cared about that stuff and kept track, and tried to remember players not just from inning to inning but from game to game – or that’s what I thought, anyway; I thought the kid had made me for a light-hitting shortstop who was not a threat, and for some reason, in that instant it drove me absolutely crazy. I was not one to look for fights, but I wanted to turn around, drop my bat, and belt the kid.

But just then the pitcher came over his shoulder with the pitch, and right when it was at the top of its arc, still in his fingers and being forced downward and to my right, the last ray of the sun picked out that grass-stained thing like a spotlight in a darkened theater and after that I never lost it. I watched it go from there, hovering in front of left center field, down and across my left shoulder, heading toward the outside part of the plate with a haphazard sort of spin and just glowing. And suddenly, everything was firing on all cylinders: my chest and my shoulders and my legs all got together and brought the bat around like a perfect reflection of the ball, like two dancers running toward each other at breakneck speed from either end of the stage, but you know you’re watching something choreographed, so they’re not going to crash into each other like two dumb kids on a playground, they’re going to spring perfectly into some kind of embrace or harmony. And I met that pitch perfectly, knee-high and an inch in front of the plate, and sent it right back where it came from, up over the pitcher’s right shoulder and four feet above the shortstop, strong and beautiful and unmistakably destined for the gap in left center field, the platonic ideal of a double.

The ball bounced confidently and fast the first time, then lower, and had slowed enough by the time the center fielder reached it that he picked it up barehanded and walked it halfway to second base. A faster runner might have stretched it into a triple, but it didn’t really matter – the run scored, the next batter walked, and then someone grounded into a double play to end the inning and the game. But when that ball jumped off my bat into the darkness, like a scripted answer to what the catcher had said, better than a punch or a sneer or a spitwad or a “fuck you,” I was in baseball heaven.