A text by the 2017 creative non-fiction Sozopol Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Galina Nikolova
A Hurricane of a Welcome
As my flight from Bulgaria took off, my mind was overwhelmed with thoughts, but the weather in Miami was not one of them. That's why I had no idea that a hurricane was approaching the city's coast, and the likelihood of it hitting Miami head-on was very real. I only realized it after the plane landed – half-asleep, exhausted from all the excitement and from what felt like a 97-hour-long flight from Sofia to Miami, via Frankfurt and Washington, D.C. – and I heard the pilot say something about the weather conditions. I didn't quite catch his words, as I was still focused on rousing my consciousness and figuring out where I was.
Sajjad, Humaira, and I took a cab from the airport to our hotel. Once we stepped outside, we got slapped in the face by a wave of heavy, hot, humidity-soaked air, which the hurricane wind swung at us like a whip. We were barely able to close the door of the cab – so stubbornly the wind wanted to take it.
Two letters expected us at the hotel reception. One was a welcome letter from Fulbright, and the other was from the hotel management. The second one was far more interesting. It warned us that the hurricane was expected to hit Miami within the next 12 hours and made it clear that we were to stay in the hotel at our own risk. In case the hurricane hit, the letter said, the hotel would experience power, and possibly water, outages. The elevators would be out of order, so we'd have to use the stairs. And since the hotel was located almost directly on the oceanfront – only a street and a row of palm trees stood between us and the water – the management advised us, in case the waves became too high, to step away from the windows and towards the interior of our rooms and to stay calm.
Yes, I thought to myself, and fell sound asleep.
The hurricane that eventually spared us that night was called Fay.
My New York stay began on a high note – with a public smack by a stack of newspapers, which sent my glasses flying and knocked the cup of coffee out of my hand, never to be seen again.
Julia and I had our first New York get-together on Union Square on our first post-Miami Sunday. Little did we know then that these meetings would turn into a tradition, and we would meet on that same square every Sunday, regardless of the weather, and this would be the place where our endless walks and conversations would begin. Nor did we know that Union Square would also be the spot that Julia would eventually use as the location for the short (and, as far as I was concerned, heart-breaking) farewell video, which she gave me as gift on the last day of my two-year New York adventure.
Back then, on that Sunday in August, everything was still ahead of us. We were sitting on a bench under the sun and sipping coffee from big cardboard cups, while we recounted the days and experiences we'd both had after each of us had left Miami. We were feeling good: we had each other amidst the endless New York sea of unfamiliar faces.
Between two sips of coffee, I spotted from the corner of my eye an African American guy who was going around the other benches. He was speaking loudly and incoherently, while the people on the benches pretended he didn't exit. He finally got to our bench and said something I didn't quite catch. Thinking it was the right thing to do, and more polite than pretending he wasn't there, in my mildest tone of voice I said, "Please, leave us alone." So, he went away and we carried on with our conversation. A few minutes later, a mighty blow unexpectedly smacked me from behind, accompanied by a fountain of words and curses, from which my shocked brain only managed to register these two: "White bitch!" The fear, pain, and surprise made me jump, while the people around us started shouting – my glasses had gone flying, as had the coffee cup from my hand, together with a whole flock of old newspapers, which – as I realized later – the man had used as the conduit for his anger. The people around me started fussing, calling the police, handing me tissues, glasses, and words of comfort. Only in hindsight I realized that the man whom I had so politely (as I thought) sent away had walked off, only to come up with a plan of getting back at me. And, once he'd found the old newspapers, he had returned to give me what I deserved.
Welcome to New York, I thought to myself later that evening, and fell into sobs.
This occurrence, which I experienced as a bombastic one, had several side effects. In the first place, it materialized my thus far unarticulated fears of this new, impossible-to-think-about-all-at-once city. Deep down and secretly from myself, I was feeling alone, small, vulnerable, and unprotected, amidst this sea of strangeness, where absolutely everything was new and unfamiliar. I later realized that this feeling came from the binding "I live here," which is quite different than the touristic "I'm leaving soon." Being somewhere as a tourist has to do with the joy of vacation, with enrapture, and with the tendency to experiment. But the most important of all is the certainty that, no matter what happens, you're eventually going to go home. "I live here" does not include the luxury of leaving and going somewhere else. There is nowhere else.
This sense of vulnerability eventually got old and faded, so that by the end of it all, I'd forgotten about it, but in those first days and weeks it served as the background and scene for everything else.
In the second place, I clearly realized that there was a very good reason why nobody spoke back to the people who spoke to themselves. New York has a lot of these loner hobos and everyone seems used to them – people remain unperturbed in the face of all kinds of weirdness, pretending it's nothing out of the ordinary and nothing is happening, so they just carry on doing whatever it is they're doing, as if no world exists outside of them. There is so much weirdness in New York that paying attention and showing politeness to all of it would surely put one at risk of enduring many smacks (it is a whole other story whether "Please leave us alone" is a polite thing to say, regardless of the tone with which it is said).
Besides, it was the first time in my then almost 30 years of life that I realized I had "white" skin. And that this fact separated me from a part of the world. That turned out to be an interesting discovery, especially during a trip to the Jamaica neighborhood, which I will recount a bit later.
Not least of all, being smacked with a stack of newspapers solved a purely practical difficulty I had been having over the previous few days. I had started to get little sores on my nose from my glasses, where the two nose pads touched my skin. My glasses seemed to have become somewhat dislocated during the transatlantic flight, and my numerous attempts to fix them had proven futile. I don't know if it was the fierce smack with the newspapers, or the subsequent flight into the air, or the subsequent landing into the well-maintained flowerbed that did it, but one of these momentous occurrences ended up fixing my glasses. At first I embraced the literal effect of this fact and, after the initial shock passed, its symbolic meaning as well.
"I apologize on behalf of my city"
That was what three Americans, independently of one another, told me in response to hearing my smack story. All three of them listened to it in a state of attentive shock, then said, "I apologize on behalf of my city." I am still as amazed as I was back then, both at the words and at the kind of awareness that produced them. Because in order to say these words, you have to realize that: 1. It is the people that make the place, and 2. You have a shared responsibility. I.e. it also depends on you. I still can't imagine, just like I couldn't back then, any resident of Sofia, including myself, saying these words to a stranger who got hurt on our city's territory. At most, we would say, "I'm sorry that happened to you." And that is just a tiny bit different than "I apologize on behalf of my city."
The first person who apologized to me on behalf of New York was Kenny. I'd first met him through a Bulgarian-American project that we'd both worked on in Sofia. Kenny was supposed to be my savior in case the apartment I was eventually able to rent had not been found (he would have sheltered us – me and my two suitcases – for a week).
Kenny and I were supposed to meet in the afternoon of that same day, which began with coffee and a flying pair of glasses under the sun on Union Square. But I was incapable of getting around New York – so startled and shocked was I by the incident. I just couldn't do it. All I wanted was to go back to that matchbox-sized room in Queens that I was supposed to call "home" and hide away from this hostile world full of crazy men who walked around carrying stacks of newspapers. I called Kenny to cancel our meeting. He could tell from the sound of my voice that something was wrong and simply said, "Where are you? I'll be there in fifteen minutes, don't move."
I'm endlessly grateful to Kenny for those most important words back then, for sensing something was up without my having to say it, and for coming straightaway. Besides hearing my welcome-to-New York story and astonishing me with the sentence "I apologize on behalf of my city," Kenny did two more good deeds that day. He took me to Central Park and showed me one of New York's most beautiful sights. So that I could see the other face of the city, I guess. I have to give it to him, he managed to make me turn my eyes towards its beauty. He also said that I would be lost if I didn't use the subway (which I'd suddenly become scared of riding after the incident), so I better arm myself with faith that everything was going to be all right, instead of running away to the deceptive and temporary hiding place of taking-a-cab-home. First of all, it would be very expensive, and secondly, it would be very slow. "Either way," said Kenny, "you can't afford it."
Galina Nikolova is the author of four poetry collections, co-author of four educational handbooks and two qualitative social surveys. She has a number of publications in print and online media, and her poems have been translated into Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, German and English. Galina graduated in cultural studies in Sofia, and in organizational change management in New York, as a Fulbright fellow. She is currently working on two new creative nonfiction books, inspired by her life in the US and her return to Bulgaria.
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