by Diego Alejandro Arias
Here they were, sitting in a car. Miguel looked over at John. He was slapping a hand on the steering wheel. The fingers long, crooked, their skin wrapped around his joints and fingers like rawhide on a drumhead. John held on to the steering wheel and pressed into the black leather. He squeezed it and tightened it against his bones. They cracked. Miguel grimaced when the bones and leather crunched against each other. There was an Elvis song on the radio. Miguel was a huge Elvis fan, often fascinated by the 1968 comeback special that revived his career. Miguel was all about revivals and reawakenings. Like his Abuela, he believed the dead could speak to us, bring us back from the nothingness, career nothingness, relationship nothingness, political nothingness, even the nothingness that people say you can never come back from while you are alive, the sort of nothingness that buries you in Black Mollies or Toe Tag Dope or massive depressive episodes. Miguel had been spending most of his days in and out of drunken stupors trying to stay awake in law school classes and legal aid seminars. He periodically experimented with prescription drugs and other controlled substances when the nothingness took over, when the world outside of his own skull emitted a low-frequency white noise assembled out of fingers on keyboards and vitriolic social dynamics. In a Race and the Law class, where he sat next to several students who argued companies had the right to fire black employees on pure racial grounds, Miguel tended to pop back two or three Percocets just to stomach the professor nodding his head at these types of arguments.
John moved his finger towards the radio. “Let it play,” Miguel said. “You like Elvis?” he asked. “Everyone likes Elvis. You’d have to be a fucking numbskull to dislike him.” John smiled nervously. “He put out three gospel albums. I mean, you gotta like a guy like that, right?” Miguel said. He smiled, revealing big white teeth underneath a black, manicured beard. Miguel enjoyed the uncomfortable silences he inspired in his classmates. They saw this big, brown Dominican with a gold chain around his neck as thick as a double braided docking line, dressed in black clothing and white Jordans, and he knew they immediately felt like something didn’t quite mesh. Most of the other Latinos in law school dressed and acted like they were preparing for a diplomatic bilateral between Henry Kissinger and the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance; and Miguel wasn’t with that nonsense. But who was he to hate them? He was nothing but a backpack rapper with a law school scholarship and a literature degree focused on Middle English symbolism. He wasn’t even a first-generation college student, so he didn’t have anyone to blame but himself for his lackluster grades from the previous semester.
“You like ‘em, right?” Miguel asked.
“Of course, of course,” he replied.
“You got a favorite song?”
“Uh, yeah, what’s the one song, ‘Hound Dog.’ I always liked that one.”
“Yeah, that’s early Elvis, back when he hadn’t made all those ridiculous soundtrack albums. I like the more mature, adult Elvis. Don’t get me wrong, bro, ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ those are some of the best songs ever recorded, ever written. But my favorite Elvis song is ‘Big Boss Man.’ He covered that one in Clambake. It’s not his. It’s an old Jimmy Reed blues song. I just like the take Elvis has on that song.”
“I never heard it.”
“Give it a shot. It’s as close to socialism as Elvis ever came. It’s a song about hating your boss, quitting your job, and questioning the employer-employee relationship.”
He wasn’t so bad, Miguel thought. John was a small guy, the type of kid that wore khaki pants with white socks and polo shirts, a sort of Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues type of pariguayo. A pariguayo is a stiff, a square, a guy with no game and no swagger. The term comes from the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans picked it up during the first U.S. military invasion of Santo Domingo. Miguel knows this because he spent an entire semester researching U.S. abuses in the Dominican Republic for a Latin America and Foreign Policy seminar hosted by a professor from Harvard with a stringy beard that always reminded his pupils that President Obama, who he had gone to school with, was not that great of a student. Miguel even had the school pay for a trip to East Santo Domingo where he researched municipal records in a dusty Caribbean basement that detailed gruesome, blood-stained accounts of his people’s persecution.
Miguel had originally known some Dominican history because his Abuela had been a scholar of constitutional law in Santo Domingo, but some of the shit he read sounded like war crimes straight from The Hague, like the shit he saw coming out of Ukraine day after day after day. He wondered if the Latin kids at his law school interning at large firms or if guys like John had a fraction of an idea that this sort of nonsense had gone down? That maybe these were the reasons why 10% of the Dominican Republic’s population currently lives in exile, mostly in New York, New Jersey, and Spain. Some of these texts were straight bananas. Bonkers bullshit like Rear Admiral William Caperton, with full support from the Secretary of State and President Woodrow Wilson and their corporate buddies at the National City Bank of New York, threatening to bomb the shit out of an entire country if the Dominican government didn’t comply with U.S. demands. Miguel read through these old archives, using his best legal Spanish and consulting with Abuela when he returned to The Jaragua Hotel in the Malecón, to review his notes and seek some guidance. “Tienes que mejorar el castellano, hijo. No quiero un gringo que se olvida de su cultura haciendo quedar mal a la patria quisqueyana. No te olvides tu sangre, la sangre nunca miente,” Abuela would say. Miguel dived headfirst into that research paper. For his effort, he was rewarded with an A-, keeping his grades close enough to the grade point average needed to maintain his meager scholarship at Newark Law School.
The war itself was a personal one for Miguel, one that forever changed his family’s history, altering their trajectory, changing las vidas de todos. That’s how his Abuela’s dad, his great-grandfather Braulio Hernandez, went from being a farmer in Dajabon, a city on the Haitian border, to a bearded guerilla taking shots at invading gringo soldiers from the Cordillera Central mountain range. This was years before Cuba, decades even. Castro was still a toddler shitting his diapers when his great-grandfather was organizing military campaigns across the Dominican Republic. As a result of Braulio’s heroism, the family carried down war stories for generations, sometimes with ghosts appearing in dreams or living rooms or pool halls filled with sweaty tígueres and de los míos to fill in parts of history that had been lost to time, death, or vows of secrecy. Abuela often visited and talked about American jazz and neo-American slavery arriving in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She once told Miguel her inspiration to become a lawyer happened when she learned from her militant father that the U.S. had created a modern slavery system to subdue Haitian resistance to the invasion. Incredible, Miguel thought. Does the law school ever teach that sort of shit to its happy recruits? According to Abuela, who observed Río Ozama and the Caribbean Sea from the window of Miguel’s hotel room, lots of words and concepts got mixed between the clash of cultures. “Eran tiempos diferentes, incluso esto hijo, el Malecón, esto era diferente. Es lindo ahora, aunque lo fue lindo en aquellos tiempos también, cuando los patriotas defendieron nuestra tierra,” she said. Abuela spoke at length about what she called the first insult, the first attack on Quisqueya’s sovereignty. White supremacism from Marines and fox trot and jazz played out in nightclubs across the country, along with marginal economic stability accompanying U.S. military elimination of free press and radio on the island. Local Black girls dated White soldiers plucked from Tennessee and Alabama and brought to Puerto Plata to shell the living daylights out of poor, Black rural communities. That’s where and how pariguayo came about, when the American soldiers would make fun of the guys who stood on the sidelines during parties and didn’t know how to talk to women. They called those guys “party watchers,” except the Dominicans mispronounced it and the mutated Dominico-American term stuck. Sounds better in Dominican, anyway. You don’t want to be called a pariguayo, trust me, it’s a high-line insult for anyone, criollo or gringo. But John was most certainly a pariguayo. He had clammy skin and freckles across his nose and cheeks like God had just dipped his big ‘ole hand in roasted cacao and opened his fist violently in this guy’s face, splashing all these marks on his big Italian head. He had a short, cropped cut and a hair line that was disappearing at twenty-three. He wore thick tube socks underneath chunky New Balance sneakers, and t-shirts big enough to make his arms look like dried semolina spaghetti.
Back in the car, Miguel looked out of the window. He observed the street’s congestion, its inhabitants, its humid breath just mushing about in the atmosphere, the thick heat rolling around in the ghetto, suffocating the construction workers holding on to jackhammers and scaffolds and public employees picking up litter and tossing black bags into big white trucks that gobble up an entire civilization’s quisquiliarum every morning. Out there, in the naked American summer, beads of water ran down the arms of Indian convenience store owners. Puerto Rican bodegamen sat outside their shops with their hair stuck to their head and damp blotches inking through their shirts, the salt forming through the edges of their sweat marks. Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe sang tracks from Asalto Navideño on stereo speakers, the music filling up the street like an East Harlem summer in 1972. “Vamos a bailar la murga, la murga de Panamá, los muchachos se alborotan cuando la ven caminar…” A large, ginger cat licked his paws and turned around on his back, and a young boy with shaggy hair outside of a Dominican colmado scratched the white tufts on his belly. On a street corner, a shirtless drifter with long hair panhandled and asked a fearful mother to surrender a wrinkled up, wet Washington. She placed a greenback in his hand and turned away. He smiled and bowed to her. She held on to a blue carriage and hurried along. Miguel watched the young mother make her way down Broad Street. She reached a bus stop and stood in line with the rest of the folks waiting for the #59 bus en route to Washington Park in Newark.
Miguel pressed his back against the passenger seat’s wrinkled leather. He sighed.
“We’re almost there,” John said.
“This is awful, dude,” he said.
“You have no air conditioner. It’s hot as shit.”
“It’s bad, but bearable. We’ll make it to Newark in about half an hour.”
“I’m suffocating, dog. I feel like I’m being cooked alive, like a Nathan’s hot dog flung onto a grill somewhere in some dude’s backyard.”
“Damn, I’m sorry, didn’t know it was that bad.”
John avoided taking the New Jersey Parkway to Newark using the excuse that tolls were costly and unnecessary. Miguel knew it was because he had had his car window smashed up during a recent break-in while he had been at a New Brunswick bar. The naked door was still threatening and jagged with little pieces of glass flying off at violent speeds. Miguel could still see small glass nuggets on the floor near his feet, a reminder that John was a hell of a law student but shit for brains when it came to getting his life together. The broken window had other uncomfortable consequences. Going too fast on a highway caused vibrations in their ears. The car had been like that for over two months. It had been broken into once more several days after the black bag was placed over the window. The thieves took a bookbag out of the car and dumped it near a river in Edison. The police tracked John down when they found his mail inside. They returned the bookbag, covered in dirt and river water, on a Saturday afternoon when he was studying for an eminent domain seminar. Inside the bookbag, ironically, there were only some books on constitutional theory and criminal law.
“Ey John, maybe we could stop and grab something to eat,” he said.
John looked at the clock in front of him. He quickly read the blue numbers in the middle of the car’s touchscreen.
“Yeah, we have some spare time. If we eat something now, we’ll have five hours to prepare for this exam.”
Miguel had varying opinions on his law school classmates, and they ranged from quiet avoidance to outright disgust at the sort of nonsense they engaged in regularly. Maybe he should have listened to his father, who had passed away while he was still in college, and pursued graduate school instead of his sorry ass attempt at being a lawyer. What he had expected from the legal field was everything he never found, and instead had forced himself to accept that many of his fellow Brown brethren had little to no interest in dismantling the system that had held them back for generations. Lots of kids were just normal students looking for a six-figure salary. None of them felt this weight on their shoulders, this painful, piercing reminder that people still suffered a couple of miles away, in housing projects in Newark, in dilapidated homes in Camden, or in public schools that were falling apart academically and structurally. There was little interest in making a difference in these people’s lives, and Miguel had come to understand that his way of looking at the world did not coincide with the socio-economic interests of his classmates or the lawyers that they admired. These kids just wanted to clerk for a judge that would hook them up with a first-year associate position at a white shoe office. Sometimes they would throw in a gala where someone gave a speech on the need for diversity at law firms and at Fortune-500s. Then they would return to overlook the waiters in the room that could barely afford to send their kids to college, or the guys who would go on to clean up the gnawed-up chicken bones and empty champagne bottles at the end of the “40 Latino Lawyers Under 40” annual awards ceremony.
In his class there were plenty of Johns, working-class or middle-class White kids who were trying their best to sort their lives out and kept their distance from people of color out of an unspoken fear that they did not belong or should not belong to ethnic social circles. Miguel didn’t mind these students so much. What are ya gonna do?, he often thought, they’re just a product of their parents’ social-mobility fears. They think they’re being left behind, and they must catch up because life is harder for them now. The modern Western economy has eliminated their union jobs, their high-paying factory gigs, so they blame others when they should be blaming the system that forced them into a grotesque grind-culture, where the American being with three full-time jobs is hoisted upon a pedestal as some sort of king rat, a hero, a modern-day Beowulf suffering from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and frequent aural migraine headaches. Miguel pitied them, but he didn’t hate them.
But there were others who just wore him down. Miguel thought of one young White woman at his law school who had run for vice-president of the Black Law School Student Association. What on earth was she thinking? Why do they do shit like that? What gave her the idea to run for that sort of student government office? “This is to assuage our conscience, darling,” Allende once wrote. But it’s no different in Chile than in Montclair or Hoboken or Portland or Santo Domingo or Bogotá or Tegucigalpa. “Así son todos,” his grandmother, who had introduced him to Gabriela Mistral’s poetry and Isabel Allende’s prose, used to frequently say whenever they discussed politics, life, and empanada recipes. “Acuérdate que el propio Cristo fue víctima del chisme, de los chivatos, los vendepatrias, y peor!, los extranjeros que solo buscaban terminar con la palabra del todopoderoso!” she once said to him. And year after year, Abuela’s words became like prophetic passages he would come to revere. They would drink Santo Domingo coffee and she would make quipes and sweet plantain mangú. Hours and hours would go by, stories weaved together from testimonials and passages and confessions. The dead once again bringing him back to reality, reviving his rebellious spirit, his guerilla heart, appearing before him with messages of revolution and legislative advocacy still undone, still waiting to reverse the decades, the centuries, of exploitation. If he could only put the whiskey down long enough to concentrate, he’d be on to something. If only the painkillers and cocaine didn't make everything feel so goddamn bearable.
He felt so lonely, spread so thin across classes on property law and trust and estates seminars, shit he had no interest in reading about for hours and hours and hours. It seemed to him that the school’s administration had placed all their eggs into a select number of students’ baskets. Deans and professors had become cheerleaders for aspiring lawyers they had designated as future success stories. Miguel, a drunk, a drug addict, a crazy liberal, was just an eyesore getting in the way of the school’s rising rankings in U.S. World and News. The only reason the school couldn’t get rid of him was because he still maintained enough concentration, as thin as Tencel paper but still enough, to pass all his exams and even score an A and B+ here and there. One of his classmates, the son of a senior U.S. senator, joined the school’s Minority Student Program for disadvantaged pupils his first week at law school. “I’m half-Irish and half-Cuban!” he said out loud, in a surfer dude accent, during an orientation meeting where the professors seemed more interested in the twenty-three-year-old aspiring congressman’s opinions than their own lesson plans or sense of self-worth. Surfer Dude was about as Cuban as a Hawaiian shirt-wearing Al Pacino in 1983 Miami. And he was as disadvantaged as, well, as a U.S. senator’s son sitting in a room full of working-class Latino and Black students trying to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Miguel thought about the way his colleagues brushed off subjects like Brown children in immigration detention centers, families permanently torn apart by men on horseback flashing a CBP badge in frightened refugees’ faces, de facto racially segregated schools, and then the juxtaposition of these issues alongside their frequent racial justice seminars, pro-bono advocacy, and other pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-being-a-good person pendejadas they usually floated around his law school. “This is to assuage our conscience, darling,” Allende once wrote.
“Got damn, dog, it’s hot. Let’s pull into this parking lot over here, and grab some McChickens or something over there on the corner,” Miguel said.
“Yeah, I got you man.”
He felt sweat drip down his neck. His shirt was stuck to his chest. He was too large for the car, way too large for this car. He felt he would grow even larger if he stayed in the Maxima, suffocating until a door opened and he floated out of the car and just flew across the city like a big, sweaty vulture, the gold chain sparkling in the sky like bursts of yellow diamonds. At 6’5, Miguel was a big Dominican. He had muscular, hairy arms, giving him a big enough wingspan to fly across Pico Duarte all the way to Labadee Beach without getting tired. Despite being a child of the Caribbean, Miguel was not designed for intense heat. According to his Santiago de Los Caballeros operating manual, he had been specifically manufactured for air conditioning. Inside the car, he felt he was sitting in an oily, leathery tarp. He looked over at John. The brown beard turned to him briefly and smiled his bright red steak grin.
“Diañe, que vaina,” Miguel said.
“What’s wrong, bro? Everything alright?”
“The heat, bro, the heat.”
The McDonald’s was on the corner of Broad and Rahway. Rinky-dinky shops and municipal buildings surrounded it. The Union County Courthouse and the Elizabeth Public Library were across the street. It was a busy section and people came in and out of the place every couple of seconds. John and Miguel walked towards the front entrance. John looked around as he made his way to the door, observing the patrons exiting and entering the building. He looked bewildered. Miguel hovered over him, making it look like he was some sort of local narc hosting a deputy regional officer investigating a new fentanyl lab in the area. This was Elizabeth, one of the oldest cities in America, but also one of its most violent. In the 1770s, George Washington himself had marched across Elizabeth, with a bear fur on his back and a racoon hat covering his white hair, looking to collect the scalps of Royalists and change the course of human history. And now, immigrant families from Central America and Cuba called this land their home. In Elizabethport, the airport community considered by U.S. media as the most lawless two-mile strip in all of America, Ecuadorean and Puerto Rican kids played basketball and baseball in the parks. People like John only came out here if they had a meeting at the Union County Courthouse or at the City Hall Municipal Building to argue in front of some petty judge or to grease the hands of the Irish-American mayor that always seemed to get reelected in a town full of Black and Brown people. New Jersey has more Irish-American politicians representing Brown and Black people than exits on the Parkway.
Inside the McDonald’s, they stood in line to order. Next to them, Miguel spotted a young woman standing across from him. She had silver loop earrings and a blue and white top. Her shirt had an exposed midriff, and her hair was long, thick, and white, down to the middle of her lower back. The hair was magnificent, ethereal, something unlike, something not here. It draped over her shoulders as if Jean de La Huerta had carved each strand himself. She turned and looked at Miguel. Her eyes, large and dark and taking up half of her face, glistened. She smiled and turned her attention back to the employee in front of her. “Wow,” John said. Miguel looked over at him. John had become a man stuck somewhere alien, somewhere unexplored. He was off in the Antarctic, 990-pound polar bears and Mirounga elephant seals gathered around him at a watering hole. “Yeah, man, she seems like a nice person,” he responded. Had John been released into the ghetto for the first time in his life? Was this his first experience right here, knee deep in the heart of Latino Jersey, where Cardi B songs play outside of restaurants and Omega’s “Tú Si Quieres, Tú No Quieres” blasts out of black BMWs on their way to Little Colombia over on Morris Avenue? Had he been thrown into the belly of the beast with no parachute? Was he just hurtling, at full speed, towards the bright colors, the Salvadorean flags, the cold horchata drinks like sweet ambrosia at 11:00 a.m. in July, the Puerto Rican salsa filling the air with the smell of pollo guisado and café con leche? Was John seeing this for the first time in his life? Did White people ever visit this part of New Jersey?
“Come on, Big Boss Man, let’s sit down over here,” Miguel said.
They took their trays and sat down in the center of the McDonald’s dining area. As they ate, a group of panhandlers entered the McDonald’s. They rolled in one by one in an organized line, a sports team on their home turf, looking around the room, sizing up the competition. One of them was an older, handsome man. He was tall, shirtless, and had on a pair of torn shorts. He had broad shoulders and a muscular chest. His hair was pushed back with curls covered in gel and running down his bronzed skin. His hairline began at the edges of his forehead, and he had a carefully trimmed handlebar moustache. He looked about forty, but the other three men accompanying him looked older, perhaps sixty or more. The older ones had a similar appearance. They wore jeans and white shirts that were long and stained with grass and red clay from construction sites. Miguel recognized the younger one as the same shirtless drifter that had been walking down Broad Street. The same man that had asked the mom with the blue stroller for a dollar bill.
“Is everything okay?” John asked.
Miguel smiled. He finished chewing on some chicken and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.
“Everything is okay, baby. Have you not been in Elizabeth before?”
“Not like this. I haven’t been in this part of the city.”
“It’s okay, just be cool, be cool. No one is going to do anything to you. This is a community, that’s all.”
Miguel took another bite of the sandwich.
“Big Boss Man, how old are you?”
“What part of Jersey are you from?”
“I grew up in Howell. Down in Monmouth County.”
“Ah you’re not too far from the beach.” He paused for a couple of seconds. “Well, welcome to Elizabeth, man.” John smiled and sipped from his fountain drink. He looked over at the young woman with the white hair and the big, almond eyes.
“You don’t mind me calling you Big Boss Man, do ya?”
“Not at all! Unless you’re calling me a fascist employer. Then we might have a problem.”
“Of course not,” Miguel said.
“How’d you get into Elvis?”
“My dad, when he was growing up in the Dominican Republic, he thought Elvis personified the American Dream. He was big into his music, his life, his whole story. Even the eagle suit he designed and danced around like a chicken in during the final days of his thunder. I never met a Dominican so much into Elvis, but that was my dad, he thought if a poor country boy from the Deep South could make it in America, then so could a poor country boy from the DR.”
“I think a lot of people feel that way about him,” John said.
Miguel had been raised in Elizabeth. He knew the way the people stood outside the front entrance of this McDonald’s and asked for change. He knew that the doors to the bathroom were now locked to keep the homeless from going inside and urinating, shitting, bathing, or paying for blowjobs from local prostitutes. He knew this because he had witnessed all four practices inside of the Broad Street McDonald’s as a teenager. One day, while eating lunch, he met a homeless man that had recently been released from prison. “I paid a lawyer and he fucked up my case. He didn’t give a shit about me. I took some plea deal and ended up in the joint for ten years, brah. So, I studied in there and filed my own appeal, and I learned the law the same way that lawyer learned the law. I read all those free books. I filed my own appeal, man.” Walking alongside Broad Street Elizabeth, Miguel encountered all sorts of characters. Doomed souls with no clear path to sanity, drug addicts looking for the next big score, young students trying to make it out of Elizabeth and join the upper ranks of the occidental middle-class, and working dads and moms who came to America because their countries were overtaken by false prophets and charlatans from the Andes and the Pampas and the Malecón.
In the McDonald’s bathroom, the urinating and shitting he saw no problem with, except that the drifters weren’t buying food and the restaurant could reasonably argue that they were loitering. This was particularly concerning to the management when the weather was either too hot or too cold and the drifters refused to leave the place. The bathing had surprised him. At 15, he saw a man enter the bathroom and begin to undress. He was startled. He then saw him enter the stall and close the door, locking it with a violent click. The man hung his clothes over the stall’s white metallic door and Miguel could see the water splashing down onto the tiles. He saw it expand towards the rest of the bathroom, mixed with suds of brownish foam. The man shook his body after each splash of cupped water from the toilet. He wet his hair, slicked it back, and walked out. “What’s good, young blood?” he asked Miguel as he made his way back out into Elizabeth.
The blowjobs were another story. That was something dark and primal and carved into his memory for many, many years. He was in his senior of high school, using a urinal, and he saw a young tattooed White man behind the metal door leaning his head back in ecstasy. The sounds of slurps and suction filled the room. The man moaned and cursed. This was an obvious violation of McDonald’s bathroom privileges. While Miguel cleaned his hands, a father opened the door and took off running with his son. Miguel heard his muffled screams after the door closed. He dried his hands and left the bathroom. The manager came running towards the lavatory and banged on the door. “Please get out! Please no do that here!” After the incident, McDonald’s locked the doors, and to use the bathroom, management had to buzz people in. And to be buzzed in, prospective bathroom users had to order from the restaurant. This limited the number of people using the restaurant for other purposes besides standing in line and ordering McSomethings. No more blowjobs at McDonald’s. The golden days at the golden arches had come to an end.
“What was it like to grow up here?” John asked.
“Interesting,” he responded, “You try your best to be a good student. But there are limits. I can’t really complain though, I made it to law school, and some of my teachers, friends, they’re all a part of that.”
“You’re a hard worker. I used to think I’d never leave the farms and the one-bedroom house I grew up in.”
“Howell feels like another country from all the way up here,” Miguel said.
The drifters walked around and asked people for money. The manager behind the counter looked over as they panhandled customers. She signaled to the other employees working the cash registers. She pointed at the drifters with two fingers and then back at her own two eyes. She did this twice. Towards the right-hand corner of the seating area, the young woman with the white hair grimaced as the men came to her table. “Hey sweetie, you got twenty-five cents?” the man in the middle asked. She clutched her tray and rose from her chair. She walked over to the back of the restaurant and sat by the windows that faced the sidewalk. John looked at the men. They came up, individually throughout the McDonald’s, and asked patrons for twenty-five cents. Separated across the room, they worked different corners and asked for the same amount. The twenty-five cents were, according to the men, necessary for them to make up for the missing train fare needed to go to Newark.
It took about five minutes before someone gave up a quarter. “Thank you, lady. God bless.” After placing the coin in his pocket, the drifter walked over to John and asked him for another quarter.
“See I’m short 25 cents. And I got to get to Newark…”
“Sure man, take a dollar.”
The man bowed and held his fist out in front of John. They bumped knuckles.
“You alright man, you alright,” the man said.
“Oye, mi pana, y tú que vas a hacer con eso?” Miguel asked.
“Vamo’ a comer un poco, ¿qué má’?” the drifter responded. He laughed and Miguel handed him a twenty-dollar bill.
“Bueno, bueno, que Dio’ lo bendiga joven.”
While all three men laughed together, they saw the manager make her way over to the table. She came up to the group and tapped the man on the shoulder. He jerked his body and turned around. He stared the uniformed woman in the eyes. She was shorter than him. She had a tight buttoned shirt and a pair of brown pants. She spoke with a heavy accent. “Sir, you cannot talk to my customers that way. I’m going to have to ask you to leaf.”
“To ‘leaf’? The hell that mean?” The man asked. His tall frame shadowed the woman.
“To leaf, to leaf. I am asking you to leaf.”
Half an hour later, Miguel placed his books and folders on the backseat of the Maxima as the car started towards the exit of the parking lot. The Jersey sky was beginning to change from blue to the color of a pale purple wine. As they stopped at a red light, Miguel looked over at the corner of the McDonald’s. A group of people had gathered and were singing. They swished their hands and snapped their fingers to a heavy, chilled beat. There was no electronic music — that was coming from the radio station that John was bouncing his fingers to on the steering wheel. It was just the singing of several pordioseros gathered around in a huddled mass of heat and sweat. Some of them were sitting down, looking at the sidewalk but attentive to the voices. Others were standing around joining the crowd as they moved their arms and held their faces out to the words. There was a joy in their song, a tender calm that kept them still.
“John, you think we’re gonna ace this test or what?”
“I think we got a good shot.”
“It’s goin’ to be a long night. Lots of outlines, lots of cases, lots of fact patterns and product liability analysis.”
“We got this, Miguel. I feel this Mickey D’s kicking in, and I think we’re gonna rock this exam.”
“I’m happy you came out here. That you saw the beauty in this neighborhood.”
John smiled. He gave him one of those I-think-we-shared-a-bonding-moment kind of smiles and looked back ahead of the road in front of him.
Miguel continued to look over at the people gathered outside of the McDonald’s. They had felt so far away for so many years, and now they were here, in front of him. He could feel hot stinging tears forming around the edges of his eyes.
“Dímelo Colombia!” a young woman with cornrows in the crowd shouted. A skinny man entered the middle of the circle and started bopping his head and upper body, initiating the sacred ceremony, entering the holy cypher’s center stage. “En mi barrio soy el hijo de la lucha, del concreto, doy todo por mi cucha, por mi texto, por la santa cruz de mi señor, no hay objeto más sagrado que la luz y el honor. Vengan, come, come on, vamos, vamos parceros!” Miguel looked over at the men and pressed a plastic button upwards, lifting the windowpane. The four homeless men from before were there. Two of the grass-stained wanderers had their backs against the building, moving their heads to the skinny songster’s raspy Spanish. His face was stretched out speaking to the violet sky, the sun falling into the Earth, the faded glow of the moon appearing over the clouds in Elizabeth.
As John drove and made his way towards the border in Newark, about twenty minutes from the Law School’s Center for Legal Justice and Constitutional Theory, Miguel grabbed a bookbag from the backseat of the car, opened it, and started looking for a black paper folder with a blank cover. He opened the folder and pulled out some documents. He took a paper out of the folder and tore it in half, then tore the halves in half, and then the halves of the halves in half until all that was left were law school resignation forms turned to black and white confetti. John looked over at him, but then turned and kept his eyes on the road. A Newark police officer mounted on a large horse strode next to them at a red light.
“Can you pull over here, real quick?” Miguel asked.
“You mean, right here, on Bleeker? There’s no parking.”
“Put your hazards on, it’ll be quick.”
John stopped the car and parked on the side of the street near a bus stop. He waited until the police officer on the horse crossed the street; and turned his hazards on. Miguel opened the door to the car and ran over to a trash can near a small Portuguese bakery. He threw the torn shreds of paper inside and watched them all fall to the bottom of the container. He took a bottle of pills and dumped them all inside. Miguel could hear it, feel it, in his skull, in his heart, buried deep in there, coming from Abuela, her voice piercing through the nothingness, inviting the dead and their thoughts and their grievances, reminding him of the many voiceless whose flames no longer burn. Before him, in the middle of Newark, he could see them all turning a corner, dead men with bullet wounds in their shirts, their faces bludgeoned by machetes and rifles, naked women with their throats sliced open by military issued knives, children holding hands, wearing charred hats. They carried their scars, their words, their memories kept long secured in graves, mouthing messages to him about bones that never saw the light of day, of all the ones that never made it out because their freedoms were extinguished by the hatred, by the fear, and by the feckless nihilism of human apathy. Miguel took a deep breath. “Abuela, aquí estoy, no me abandones.” He thought about his professors, his deans, the Cuban Surfer Dude. He thought about Braulio Hernandez perched atop a mountain with a rifle taking men out as they ran across the hills. He thought about the coming week, the coming test. He was gonna rock that shit, he fucking knew it, he fucking had to.
Diego Alejandro Arias is a Colombian-born writer from New Jersey. He is a civil rights attorney, former U.S. diplomat, and member of the Latino Coalition in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He served three tours of duty in The Dominican Republic, China, and Costa Rica. He was awarded meritorious honors by the United States government for his part in evacuating Americans from China in 2019, and for a small part in aiding negotiations with the Taliban to liberate Afghanistan families during the 2021 evacuation. His work has been published in the U.S., the U.K., and Colombia. He is a lifelong advocate for civil rights in both the United States and Latin-America, and speaks Italian, Chinese Mandarin, and Spanish.