Saturday, July 12, 2008

At a Pennsylvania Picnic Table

My cousin was married just before Independence Day this year. There was some liquor; there were some yarmulkas; there were blessings; there was dancing; and there was a healthy, pervading sense that history simultaneously repeats and rejuvenates itself. The wedding was in Cleveland, and I drove there with my grandparents. We drove across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to get there. The ride's scenery was dominated by views of farmland--fertile land that rolled into the bluish-gray horizon. We had some Appalachian bluegrass on the radio. When the signal went too fuzzy, we searched for another bluegrass station. We always found replacement bluegrass. About halfway across Pennsylvania on the drive back, we stopped at a rest area to eat tuna-salad sandwiches and gigantic pickles. I got a drink of water inside the rest area building. When I came back outside, I found my grandparents sitting at a shaded picnic bench, but sharing the bench with a stranger. I noticed everyone was laughing, so they were already acquainted. I sat down and said hello to the stranger, a man who looked to be in his forties.
"You want your tuna sandwich?" my grandmother asked.
I told her I was still full from our large brunch at a Cleveland diner.
"What? You don't want your tuna sandwich? Have just the half. And a pickle, too."
I couldn't fight it. I started eating the tuna sandwich. The pickles were perfect dill pickles.
My grandfather asked the stranger how long he'd been driving. Before he could answer, I asked where he'd come from (my grandparents had already learned this while I was away).
"Oh, you know, been driving about eight days now. I'm coming from San Diego to visit my mom in Queens."
I could tell from his accent, from his inflection, that he was a native Spanish speaker (as well as native English speaker--truly bilingual).
"Oh, Queens. Where in Queens?" my grandmother asked. She was excited to have a chance to talk about New York. My grandparents grew up in Brooklyn, and have always lived in the City.
The stranger said he was traveling to Cypress Hills.
"Cypress Hills!" my grandfather yelled pretty loud. "I grew up in East New York."
"Well that's where I'm going: Cypress Hills--East New York. My mom still lives there."
From my grandparents' questions, we all learned that this man had grown up in East New York.
"I used to go to Thomas Jefferson High School," my grandfather told him.
The man laughed: "That's where I went. Graduated in '76."
My grandfather talked about where he used to play baseball on a field near the high school.
"That's where I played ball," the man said.
My grandfather said, "Now I was at Thomas Jefferson in 1946, '47. But do you remember a Mr. Greene, an art teacher?"
"Yeah," the man said. "He was an old guy. Mr. Greene."
Soon we said goodbye and wished the man an easy last day of his trip.
It was my turn to drive. Once we were all seated in the car, I turned to my grandfather and told him that the conversation with the man from San Diego had deeply impressed me as a classic story of the immigrant experience in New York City. My grandfather's poor, awestruck, energetic immigrant parents had come to New York from Hungary. They settled where many of their own ethnic population were settling: East New York. A generation or so later in East New York, the same pattern occurred, but this time with immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries.
"Well, that hadn't even occurred to me," my grandfather said. "But I suppose you're right. Can you believe he went to Thomas Jefferson?"

No comments: