In the last decade, in a borough whose population is the most ethnically and internationally diverse of any locale on earth, scores of people have been killed trying to cross 12-lane Queens Boulevard. It's the sort of story that is supposed to make you feel sorry for immigrants, doleful about immigration, and mad at the relentless globalization that wrests people from their conflict- and poverty-stricken countries, like Dorothy spun from Kansas by tornadoes.
If Arthur and other interviewees told only such tales of suffering, Crossing the BLVD would be just another sad-sack plaint about the hardships newcomers to America face these days. Yet even before you open this stunningly innovative book, it's already clear that it goes beyond pathos and into the kaleidoscope of experience that defines real immigrant life, in all of its complexity.
The cover jacket gives a preview, with a riot of colors and faces--including two men wearing make-up. One is Prajwal, a Hindu sacred dancer from Nepal who lives now in Woodside. The other is young and beautiful Arthur Gulkarov, who has brought with him from Tajikistan a suite of bejeweled and contortionist folk-dance skills.
Design innovation continues in the book's pages, which are filled with snippets of the Hagstrom street grid of Queens, layered onto maps of the narrators' native countries: Afghanistan and Forest Hills, Nigeria and Far Rockaway. There are color photos of the storytellers and of their chockablock borough neighborhoods, of their favorite tchotchkes from the old country and of newer mementos from here (for one man, from India, albums of the Butthole Surfers).
The cumulative effect is that going through this book does not feel like dodging deadly traffic on mean streets. It's more akin to stepping off the Number 7 train at Roosevelt Avenue on a sunny Saturday. You encounter people from practically every ethnic group in Queens--which is to say from many of the groups on the planet--and their stories come so alive that reading is like chatting with them under the el tracks.
Sure, they complain of how cold and nasty Gotham can be. "I call my friend at his home in Astoria," mourns Prajwal, the male Nepalese dancer with the lipsticked face. "He doesn't have time to see me.... He's blaming me the whole time, he's losing a hundred dollars just to visit with me.... This is New York City: Friendship is loss." And Arthur Gulkarov's aging father critiques runaway capitalism in a pidgin English that makes poetry of Marx: "In America you musician, famous artist nobody know, you shoe repair, you sell coats, you push broom, you homeless--all one person. America is free country, is working, working, working. Is money, money, money. After saving their money, money, money, they die. No good. Money is die."
But immigrants start assimilating as soon as they get here (if not before), and it's not long before their brand of bitching melds with that of native New Yorkers. One ensemble interview in Crossing the BLVD recounts an incident in 1999 when some Mexican entrepreneurs organized a rodeo at a parking lot in Queensboro Plaza. A bull escaped from its corral, and police chased it down and shot it.
A Greek-American, Helen, starts the tale. "I was just sitting down to enjoy my cup of coffee and the Sunday paper when I heard BAM BAM BAM. I jumped up and saw a bull coming down 36th Avenue at a pretty good clip, and cops chasing behind it in their cars shooting.... His horns were polished and his coat was so neat and clean.... Clearly he was somebody's manicured pet.... The cops were sitting in their cars cross-shooting through the parking lot. They denied later, but they lied."
A long-haired, South Asian immigrant named Leo picks up the thread and launches it into the stratosphere. "In India you couldn't even hit a cow or a bull with a stick without getting into trouble.... Normally I don't go in for any of that religious bullshit, but 15 cops shooting a helpless animal, there's no reason for that." Leo says he's worried about a comet crashing into earth, but adds that he's studying computer technology because his dream is "to invent a way to change the magnetic fields so we could change the direction of the comet. We don't have to destroy it. That's the old way of thinking that comes from the part of the brain that shoots bullets at bulls. I'm talking about a totally new technology that could change the force of gravity. Once we do that, we wouldn't have to worry about comets or meteorites anymore. We would just have to worry about killing each other."
Finally, one of the Mexican entrepreneurs brings things back to weird, New York City earth. "The bull story," he notes, "came out on the first page of every newspaper comparing the bull to the guy they shot in the Bronx, because the bull was black."
But many immigrants wrest pleasure from America's hard edges, and given the background of the book's authors, it is no surprise that Crossing the BLVD deeply appreciates the fact. Co-author Judith Sloan is an actress, monologuist and oral historian, so she's used to exploring emotional and vocal nuance. Her husband, Warren Lehrer, is a writer and award-winning book designer who has filled this one with a bazaar of photos, graphics, and typefaces that are as crowded and vibrant as the main drags of Flushing's Chinatown or Jackson Heights' Little India. Lehrer and Sloan live in Queens and met many of their interviewees at story-telling workshops held in conjunction with their organization EarSay, which documents ordinary people's lives and periodically airs on public radio. Clearly, the authors are enamored of their neighbors.
Some of Crossing the BLVD's immigrants are also smitten, in ways so bound to the glitz of imperium that detailing their enthusiasm is not quite PC. Wisely, though, Lehrer and Sloan give space to people like Lana Dihn, a native of South Vietnam who now works in a topless bar in Flushing. "When I was young" in wartime Vietnam, she says, "I love American soldier.... They all big and tall and good-looking.... I first started going around with American GI's when I was 14. Every night me and my cousin used to go to the officers' club to watch Hollywood movie with them. Talk to them. We love them. See so many Elvis Presley movies with them. Oh my God, I love Elvis!...
"Soon as Americans start pulling out of our country, I cried. Oh my God. What we do without them? A few days before the Communists take over Saigon, a friend of mine who is a fixit man on a big ship come over to my house. He say, 'Come on...'
"Six months in Guam I found an American Indian Merchant Marine. He on sea all year long so we could stay in his New York City apartment. Our sponsor pick us up at airport and drive us to Manhattan. I say, Oh my God, the city's so beautiful. Then he drive us up to Harlem. I say, Oh my God, it's so scary.... I went to bartender school and started working nights at a strip bar two blocks from the World Trade Center. I love it. So many good-looking guys. To me, that was heaven. Lots of girls say, Oh my God, how can you work in a place like that? All these terrible guys? I say, 'Yeah, like your husband or your boyfriend.'"
Most narrators seem far more ambivalent about the United States than Lana; even so, many have made touching compromises with their new home.
"Even when I go outside and people yell at me, I am happy," says the Nepalese man whose friend is too busy to visit. "It's a Buddhist teaching: If everybody is liking you--egoness will be there. You are too proud. But if someone doesn't like you, it makes you more sensitive. I want to understand them. Find out what it is they don't like. Even if they're wrong about me, there's truth in their dislike too. I must learn from that.
"New York is very good for this kind of learning."
Bonds of friendship--and more--are also formed in Crossing's pages among members of different national groups, even between people who are supposed to keep to their own kind. Sixty-two-year-old Mary Goldman, from Shanghai, describes a match made in heaven, with a detour through the Latimer Senior Center near Kissena Boulevard:
"A classmate say to me, 'You always stay with Chinese people, no chance to practice English. I have neighbor, this senior man is very nice. Wife is gone and I ask him if he be your conversation teacher.' Every Saturday afternoon, three hours talking with Mr. Goldman, first basic sentences, then about my life. About his life.... Six months later, he say, 'You don't have to stay your cousin's house. You move in my house.'... After we talking about customs, I see Jewish people and Chinese people very similar. Next time I go to his house he asks if I will marry him.
"Five years now, I live with Frank. I got second spring.... It's hard to translate to English. Chinese people say, the feeling has no words--I love you. You love me.
"Highest spirit love don't need words like that."
Maybe not, but in Crossing the BLVD, the words of New York's immigrants soar, in print and in sound as well. Besides crafting a book, the authors have collaborated with composer Scott Johnson to produce a CD that jangles interviewees' speech with music often played or sung by the immigrants themselves. The result is a bricolage of foreign accents, world melodies and flinty comment. "Americans all looked the same to me," one Chinese woman chuckles ruefully. Then her remark--and uneasy laugh--shatter into spooky recombinants of consonants, vowels and rock music.
It all sounds and reads like echoing subway stations and big newsstands where you don't know all the languages but wish you did. Crossing the BLVD lets you listen and browse and understand.