Diasporic Genius/Flickr
Diasporic Genius/Flickr

Immigrant City

Tablet Original Fiction: ‘On either side of the street rose apartment buildings, thrumming with life and larceny. There it was, my immigrant childhood.’

David Bezmozgis
November 15, 2017
Diasporic Genius/Flickr
Diasporic Genius/Flickr

I have three daughters. One is a baby. One is 7 and prefers to stay at home. One is 4 and wants to come with me wherever I go, even to the drugstore and the bank. If I don’t take her, she cries.

Recently, backing out of a tight parking spot, I damaged the front passenger-side door of our car. I heard the sound of metal against concrete, the sound of self-recrimination, dolor, and incalculable expense.

In the aftermath, I called my wife, who was born in America and raised in mindless California abundance. For her family, scratching cars and misplacing wallets was like a hobby. I, on the other hand, had been an immigrant child, with all the heartache and superiority that conferred. We ate spotted fruit. I told my wife what I had done; her response was less than sympathetic.

I called the car dealership; I called a local body shop; I called a number tacked to a telephone pole. Then I called my uncle Alex, whose greatest fears were identity theft and getting a bad deal. He told me of a Serbian mechanic who, if you paid in cash and didn’t ask any questions … I started dialing the Serb’s number when I remembered the year was 2015 and the incompatibility of my uncle’s fears. On a classifieds website, I keyed in the make and model of my car door. Who knew? Didn’t every kind of flotsam wash up on the blasted shores of the internet, including a black 2012 Toyota Highlander front passenger-side door? Indeed, there one was, offered for sale by Mohamed Abdi Mohamed of Rexdale. In the accompanying photo, taken on an apartment balcony, the sun glinting off its immaculate finish, it looked just like my door before I’d mangled it. I sent Mohamed a text. He texted me back. I counter-texted. Soon we had a deal, consummated in texts.

There are a number of practical questions that could be posed at this point. Presume my wife posed and I answered them. However, there are many different considerations in life, and practical is a relative term. Perhaps buying a car door from a stranger on the internet isn’t the most practical decision, but I was viewing the thing in existential terms. I was asking: Who am I? How far have I strayed from my formative self? What—ai, ai, ai—is the song of my soul?

The next morning, I prepared to go get my door. My wife needed the car for work, but that didn’t deter me.

“How do you plan to get it home?” she asked.

“Like an immigrant.”

As I put on my shoes, Nora, my 4-year-old, sidled up to me.

“Where are you going, Papa?”

“To get the door.”

We were in that aimless interval between the end of summer camp and the start of the school year. A nanny was looking after the baby, and the two older girls were either fighting or intertwined in front of the television, a lazy fan spinning overhead.

“I want to come with you,” she said.

“It’s far,” I said.

In anticipation of my answer, she made ready to cry.

I reflected: Wasn’t this precisely the sort of trip my daughters needed? What did they know of the real world? While they ate take-out sushi, Syrian refugees were being tear-gassed by Hungarian cops, and Greek grandmothers, flayed by austerity, were walking off rooftops.

My oldest daughter resisted all coercion, so Nora and I set out on the journey by ourselves—first by streetcar through our gentrifying neighborhood, then by subway to the end of the line, almost to the airport. By the last stop, the train had nearly emptied out, leaving few representatives of white privilege. Those who remained looked pallid and desiccated, as if they’d been too weak to flee with the others.

At the station, we boarded the No. 45 bus that would take us up to Dixon Road. Nora is a particularly pretty child; old women are forever touching her face. On this bus too, where most everyone might have been a relation of Mohamed Abdi Mohamed’s. Nora didn’t mind. She is very companionable. A bearded man beside us was reading a book, which she misheard as being about the five pillows of Islam.

From the bus stop, it was not far to Mohamed Abdi Mohamed’s address. On either side of the street rose apartment buildings, thrumming with life and larceny. There it was, my immigrant childhood.

“Papa, are you crying?” Nora asked.

“When Papa was a little boy,” I began.

We crossed a green lawn. We saw a modest playground. A little girl in a hijab was swinging very high. We saw a basketball court without any hoops. We saw a mound of trash composed of broken furniture and discarded strollers.

On benches in front of the building, Somali women in traditional dress turned their eyes to us. Four security guards stood by the entrance doors, wearing gray uniforms and body armor. We were in what was known as a “priority neighborhood.”

In a long list of Mohameds, I found my Mohamed. A friendly, gravelly voice bade us up. The door buzzed. Worn carpeting, dim lighting, elevator walls scored with initials.

“Smell,” I said to Nora. The acrid spice of life wafted from every door.

Mohamed was in the hall waiting for us. Somalis are commonly tall and thin. Mohamed was tall and thin. He had a handsome, sculpted face, and a high regal forehead.

“Very nice,” he said. “I also have a daughter.”

In addition to the daughter, he had a son and a wife, who greeted us wearing a long dress and a lavender hijab. The daughter, the same age as Nora, wore shorts, a T-shirt, and a sparkly pink hijab. The boy was eating his lunch, a chicken drumstick clutched in his little fist.

I confided to Mohamed that I too had been an immigrant boy. That my father had garbled the English language, and that my mother had cooked chicken drumsticks, which I had eaten, often cold. Mohamed nodded. Fraternal understanding passed between us.

“Would you like to see the door?” Mohamed asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“It is upstairs,” Mohamed said, “at my uncle’s apartment.”

I looked over at Nora. She had joined Mohamed’s daughter in combing the mane of a plastic horse.

Mohamed intuited my concern.

“Your girl can stay here. She will be happy. My wife will watch. Upstairs is just men.”

The mind descends quickly to dank depths. Mohamed had never mentioned an uncle before. I thought: If I am dismembered upstairs, what will happen to Nora? Or what if upstairs is merely a ruse? Mohamed’s wife and children seemed harmless and kind, and I hadn’t forewarned Mohamed that I was bringing my daughter, but what did I know of Somali folkways? When I was a baby in Soviet Latvia, a gypsy woman had once walked off with my unattended stroller. My father too had nearly been taken by gypsies. Such things happened. Humans trafficked other humans for vile ends. It didn’t seem wise to bring Nora upstairs, and it didn’t seem wise to leave her behind. The wise decision was to take my child and go home, but I didn’t want to offend Mohamed. What if I were mistaken? Not seconds before, he and I had shared in a moment of genuine spiritual communion. What stock could be placed in feelings if we were so quick to disregard them? And would I have been so quick to disregard them if Mohamed hadn’t been Muslim and black? Then again, what price enlightenment? Surely not a father’s love for his young daughter. Before we’d left the house, Nora had asked me to put her hair in a ponytail and I had done it. If you have done it, then you know that this is an experience of the most tender and terrifying love, for which you would readily give your life.

“Nora, I need to go upstairs for a minute,” I said. “Is that OK?”

Nora was in a pony and unicorn phase, so I had to repeat myself before she looked up and mouthed, “OK.”

Mohamed guided me out the door and into the moldering hallway. As I followed him, I reflected unhappily upon my character. It occurred to me that my problem was not indecisiveness but inconsistency. It wasn’t that I was incapable of being firm, only that I couldn’t reliably predict when I would do it. This was somehow worse.

We rode the elevator up six floors, the mechanism churning, Mohamed smiling benignly. As we ascended, marijuana fumes filtered into the chamber. When the doors opened, my first breath was coarse-edged. From one side of the corridor came the sound of young men’s voices. I turned to look, though Mohamed deliberately did not. Three Somali teenagers peered back at me with proprietary insolent swagger. One lifted his T-shirt as if to expose a gun in his waistband—only there was no gun. His friends laughed and one called to me.

“You looking to score, motherfucker?”

Mohamed seized me by the arm and pulled me after him.

“Those are not good boys,” he said. “Even if in school you are only a black face and the manager of the doughnut shop will not give you a job, it doesn’t mean you should become like this.”

We ended up at an apartment at the opposite end of the corridor from the boys. Mohamed knocked three times in quick succession, paused, and knocked twice more. After a time, a young Somali man with a sleeping bag draped about his shoulders opened the door.

Assalam Alaikum, brother,” the man said.

Alaikum Assalam,” Mohamed replied.

The man stepped aside. In the entryway, there were at least a half dozen pairs of shoes, mostly sandals, neatly arranged. Mohamed added his pair to their number, and I did the same. Before us was a room almost entirely devoid of furniture. Several overlapping rugs covered the floor. Along the walls, men appeared to be sleeping, their faces concealed under blankets or sleeping bags to shield them from the bright daylight. None of the men stirred when we entered, and even the man who’d admitted us returned to his place on the floor and drew his sleeping bag around him. There was one young man, also Somali, who wasn’t sleeping. He sat on the floor, his back to the balcony, typing rapidly on his laptop. He wore large headphones and glanced up only briefly to register my and Mohamed’s arrival. The only other person in the room was an old man seated in a brown leather armchair. He was dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, his feet bare on the rug. His face was smoothly shaven, and, under a white woven skullcap, his gray hair was carefully trimmed. From the doorway, his face was presented in profile. It took a moment for me to apprehend that he was blind, his visible eye milky and unseeing.

“Hello, Uncle,” Mohamed said and bent to kiss him on either cheek.

Mohamed motioned for me to draw near.

“This is the writer,” Mohamed said, though I’d never told him my occupation. For a moment I was unsettled by this, but I was also aware that my reaction was dishonest. In the age of the internet, I was frankly surprised and disappointed whenever I met someone who hadn’t troubled himself to acquire the basic and easily accessible information.

Mohamed bade me kneel down by his uncle’s chair. The old man faced me and put his hands atop mine, as though to divine or communicate something through his smooth, dry palms.

“In Somalia, before the civil war,” Mohamed said, “he was minister of justice. But warlords captured him. Tortured him. Took his sight.”

I thought the old man would say something, but he didn’t speak. Perhaps the warlords had also taken his speech. He continued to regard me with his sightless eyes and to gently cradle my hands in his. This lasted for what seemed like a long time, though neither he nor Mohamed behaved as though it were in any way peculiar.

Eventually, Mohamed said, “Come.”

He went to the door that opened to the balcony. He pulled it open and stood in the aperture waiting for me. As I approached, Mohamed turned to the young man with the laptop and issued an order in Somali. The young man shot Mohamed a harsh, resentful look but nevertheless removed his headphones and rose to his feet. He left the room and disappeared down the short hallway that led to what I imagined was the bedroom.

On the balcony, the car door was concealed under a white tablecloth. Mohamed lifted the tablecloth and exposed a door that looked exactly as advertised. While I inspected it, the young man whom Mohamed had sent on his errand stepped out onto the balcony and handed Mohamed a warped sheaf of pages bound with rubber bands. There followed a terse exchange in Somali between Mohamed and the young man, which concluded with the young man clicking his tongue at me disparagingly and returning inside.

“Pay no attention. It is just Abdirashid,” Mohamed said. “He is clever and loyal but he is distrustful of Jews.”

“Mohamed,” I said, “I have to ask: Who are these men, where did you get this door, what is happening here?”

“My uncle is dying,” Mohamed said. “These men are here to care for him. For Somalis, he is a national hero, the people revere him, he could have been very useful to America and Canada, offered his counsel to kings and presidents, but nobody cared to ask. They neglected and forgot him like he was trash.”

At this point, Mohamed extended the sheaf of papers to me.

“These are his memoirs. It is a great story. A million people should read it. There is war, love, family, power, land, God, magic. It needs only a writer. I took your book from the library. At the story of the old Jew dying, I wept. I thought, ‘That Jew is my uncle.’”

Mohamed pressed the pages on me.

“Mohamed, I don’t know anything about Somalis,” I said.

“Nobody knows. That is the problem,” Mohamed said. “If you just read the papers, the car door is free.”

“Is that your only copy?”

“No, Abdirashid has a file on his computer.”

I agreed to take the papers, but only on the condition that Mohamed understand that I would probably never write a single word about his uncle.

“If you read the pages,” Mohamed said, “I am confident you will write this story.”

People were always offering writers their stories, I thought. But those were rarely the stories writers wanted. Those stories were like children who always raised their hands in class. Good stories didn’t raise their hands.

I paid Mohamed the sum we had agreed upon, and he helped me carry the door into the apartment. We stopped so he could fetch a satchel for the manuscript. I stood beside his uncle with the door resting against my hip. The old man, seated as before, started to hum an ancient dirgelike tune. It resonated deep in his throat, like a prisoner in a cave.

Mohamed returned with the satchel, and I slipped my arm through the loop. We carried the door together out of the apartment. It was heavier than I’d expected, but I thought of the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Eritreans, the Sudanese, as well as my father, my grandfather, and all my persecuted forebears.

In the corridor, the same boys were still getting high. Again, Mohamed did not deign to look at them. I tried to follow his example. Still, we knew that we were the objects of their laughter and scorn.

“Yo, Mohamed,” one boy called. “ISIS, ISIS!”

Mohamed spun and barked something in Somali, but it made no impression. They continued to laugh as Mohamed glared at them with steely tightlipped ire. Our elevator arrived; the heavy metal doors enacted their grim choreography. Mohamed faced the panel and brooded upon the blue illuminated numbers, while I was conscious, as I sometimes am in elevators, of winching down a narrow shaft on dusty cables in the dark.

From the elevator, we trod wordlessly to Mohamed’s apartment. When he opened the door, I saw Nora sitting rigidly on the sofa, her face puffy and tearstained. Mohamed’s wife fussed about her, pinning a pale blue hijab around her face. Once she spotted me, Nora’s eyes darkened with hurt and anger. Fresh tears formed and ran down her cheeks.

“You left me alone,” she said.

“I’m sorry I scared you,” I said.

I opened my arms and, quick to shed her anger, Nora ran over and hugged my legs. I placed my hand atop her hijab and felt the warmth of her little head emanating through the soft fabric.

“She was very sad,” Mohamed’s wife said. “So we made for her this gift.”

I noticed Mohamed looking on approvingly, his old amiability returning, as though he’d received an antidote to the toxins from upstairs. The entire family accompanied us to the elevator, Mohamed helping once again with the door. When we parted it was with the proclamations of bosom friends or relations, not strangers who had engaged in a bizarre commercial transaction.

Alone in the elevator, Nora and I regarded each other.

“Papa,” she said.

“Yes, my love,” I replied.

“When can Samiya come over for a playdate?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Nora studied me for a moment and elected not to press the matter.

“Is it true you met a big teacher upstairs?” she asked.

“I met somebody,” I said.

“Samiya’s mom said you were meeting a big teacher.”

“I met a sick old man.”

“Oh,” she said.

I reached over to stroke her head. As I started to loosen her hijab, Nora recoiled.

“You know you don’t have to wear that anymore,” I said.

“But it’s mine,” she said in the injured tone she used whenever I tried to take anything away from her.

The elevator arrived at the lobby. I thought of how one might explain to a 4-year-old the raft of complicated, legitimate, and paranoid reasons that militated against her wearing her gift in public, but the mere prospect of opening my mouth felt hideous and exhausting. I was also aware that I was a man with a car door who feared that Nora’s hijab would make us weirdly conspicuous.

In the end, it didn’t matter. In an immigrant city, a city of innumerable struggles and ambitions, a white man with a car door and a daughter wearing a blue hijab attract less attention than you might expect. People, after all, are immersed in their devices and concerns. On a crowded bus or a packed subway car, they do not necessarily surrender their seats. It wasn’t until the streetcar that we finally got two seats together. Nora had the window, the breeze blowing in; I had the aisle, the door propped up so that I too was looking through a window. The streetcar rocked Nora to sleep in my lap. When our stop approached, I nudged her gently. Her hijab had slipped down over her brow. She opened her eyes drowsily.

“Nora, it’s our stop,” I said. “Do you want to go home or keep going?”

“Go home and keep going,” she said.

David Bezmozgis is the author of The Betrayers and the collection Natasha and Other Stories.