Amina Susi Ali
Amina is a poet and short fiction writer. Her work has been published in Nuyorican Poetry; Cuentos: Stories by Latinas; Hispanic, Female and Young: An Anthology; the New Voices Anthology; LatineLit and Random Sample Review. She was the 2019 First Prize winner in the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival Short Story Contest. She holds a certificate in Fiction Writing from the NYU School of Professional Studies. Follow her on Instagram at @aminasusi
How I’m Living.
So, this is how it is. Sergio’s Liquor Store is on the corner. That’s where Grandma sends me to buy the Lottery and Powerball tickets. It’s right before you get to the C-Town, which is where we buy everything else. Big-ass bags of rice. But back to the liquor store. That is the center of a lot of activity. You cannot miss Sergio's, with the big red electronic letters telling you how much the Lotto and Powerball can get you, and what the sales are this week. Most of the year, when the temperature is above freezing, there’sa group of guys, most of them old-timers from the neighborhood, hanging out on the 48th Street side. I call them the AA, which to me stands for Always Alcoholics. Most of them are missing a lot of teeth and they talk real loud. Sometimes I have trouble understanding them because they don't pronounce all the word- parts. I figure that missing those teethleads to missing letters in words. They are always hanging out near Sergio’s, next to a tree where people have hung a Puerto Rican flag, a bouquet of plastic flowers, and a teddy bear as a memorial to a kid who lived on the block and got hit by a car and died.
Across the street, in front of the 99-cent store, is a group of younger guys who gather after dark. They seem to be a more recent group of immigrants. I can understand their Spanish better even though I am Puerto Rican, and they are not. These guys look as if they have missed a bath or two, but they still have their teeth. If they wanted to leave it all behind them, they could get cleaned up and return to regular life. I think some of them do have regular lives but just need to get drunk for whatever reason. Do they miss their home? Their families? Why can't they just cry, then? Why the drinking? The Bible says, “Wine is a mocker.”
The other guys, the ones in front of Sergio's, seem permanently damaged. Which is why I am not even curious about taking a drink. My cousin says their brains are pickled. But they never seem drunk, just loud, because I guess over the years, they’ve probably had more drunk days than non-drunk days.
Grandma is watching her novelas tonight as usual--something that does not interest me. The same story, over and over. You could have a Spanish vocabulary of three words and be able to act in one of those. Sí pero no, no pero sí. Ay sí. Ay no. Ay… shut up already. I live with my grandmother because my mother is dead. And my father? What’s a father?
I was not feeling so well so I was taking a soup and malta walk to 44th Street. The Dominican dude who gets me my sancocho para llevar smiles all cheesy when he sees me and starts talking about the weather blah, blah, blah. I just see his mouth moving and the gold ring on his finger. Punto, y ya se acabó.. That’s the end of that. The Arab guy in the bodega who sells me my bottles of malta is also happy to see me, at least he is a little more reserved. He told me he has seven kids to support and has been working in that store for twelve years. The front of the store is like a candy factory. No joke. They must have like a hundred kinds of candy in this place for all the kids that come in during the day, and the weedheads, bluntheads, and que sé yo ni que carajo high-ass people that be coming in all night long. They are open until 1:00 AM and they sell the usual fine selection of Heinekens, Coronas and 40s. Stuff I don’t mess with. The Bodega guy is always telling me how he gets tired of the junkies and alcoholics who go in there. I guess I’m a welcome change. Here I am, never drunk, never high, just trying to make a living and get that G.E.D. Here I am, seventeen years old with brown eyes and long black hair.
One Saturday when I was at Mass at St. Michael’s, Father Brian talked about his brother who was an alcoholic and ruined their sister’s wedding by getting so drunk the police had to come. I like to go to the five o’clock Mass in English on Saturday because it is a smaller congregation of regulars. We are like a family. The one lady that always brings that little shopping cart. Whatever. They know how she is. They let her. Anyway, I am not a Sunday morning kind of girl. There are two priests, Father Steve, the younger one, and Father Brian, who is about 60. They are both Irish and speak Spanish. A few times during the year, like for Christmas and Easter, they merge the Spanish and English congregations into one service and then give the homily switching back and forth. They make it look so easy.
It was starting to snow a little bit. I passed the younger AA group on the corner. They never say anything to me. Sometimes I think this neighborhood will be the end of me but where else would I go?
She is the Spanish lady who stands outside Sergio’s and tries to get people to buy the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine. La Atalaya in Spanish and Watchtower in English. Her hair is dyed such a dark shade of black that it looks like shoe polish. Her red lipstick is always smeared. Her clothes usually don’t match. I think it’s because she’s poor, like most of us. She mostly talks to people in Spanish, but with the young people, she tries to say a few words in English, which she doesn’t speak so well. Whenever I pass by, she puts the magazine in front of me and says, “Berry good, berry good.” At least she cares about something.
Four Ninety-Eight Forty Eighth Street in Brooklyn, New York, is an old, dark-red building, almost brown. I’ve heard that the street that it’s on was once the home to the Norwegians, then the Irish, then the Puerto Ricans, then los dominicanos, mexicanos, guatemaltecos, ecuatorianos--all travelers, all refugees, all looking for work and maybe something else, too. I don’t know who built it or what for, but I know that for as long as I have lived there, which is all of my life, it has been owned by Miguel Remedios and his wife, Providencia Remedios. Miguel used to work for the MTA, but now he is retired and just does whatever his wife tells him to do. Providencia is called Dona Provi by her friends and Mrs. Remedios by everyone else when they are talking to her but really, most of the time, they call her La Loca because she is. She was born in a place in Ecuador that she never talks about, so I guess it is not the capital.
She always wears red lipstick and has a gap between her front teeth which is the first thing that you notice about her because she is ALWAYS TALKING.
Mrs. Remedios no longer lives in the building, but she comes by almost practically every day because she survives on a steady diet of minding everyone’s business. She tries to get the tenants to pay her in cash every month. Some of them have been living here twenty years and she still doesn’t trust a check or money order from them. I think she is a secret gangsta who just likes the look on the bank teller’s face when she rolls up with a grip of cash bigger than a head of lettuce. Every time an apartment goes vacant, she talks about how she is looking for “the professional people with jobs in Manhattan” to live in her building. I doubt very seriously that doctors and lawyers want to live in a little old red stoop next to a 99-cent store and a liquor store that is like the Las Vegas of scratch-off games.
If I were God, I would not have made this world. Not the world that I see, where people do the same things every day just to stay alive and scrape by. What’s the point? People making pizza, people eating pizza. People cutting hair, giving manicures, selling floor carpets, giving tattoos, and selling bottles of liquor and scratch off games. It’s a stupid, stupid world to me.
My Beautiful Things.
I guess we all have a routine in our day-to-day life. Like, you do things without thinking about them. I always have to buy my magazines. When I was thirteen, I started noticing them. My beautiful magazines. I used to go to a news stand at Grand Central to buy them and sometimes I still do, but I can find most of at the library, so I don’t buy them so much anymore. English Vogue, Italian Vogue. Mexican Vogue! I slowly turn the pages, looking at the photos. Who knows what kinds of people wear these clothes and look like this? The models don’t seem to have a care or a worry in the world. They are not thinking about paying bills or rent or making up a grocery list. Someday I would like to be like that.
On Saturday, while I was on my way to do the laundry, I was thinking about how Christmas was coming and then New Year’s Eve. I was wondering what we were going to do and whose house it was going to be in this year. Every year we have a party in the building, and everyone takes turns hosting. We all put our money together and buy drinks and snacks to share. In past years, some of the neighbors outdid themselves and cooked pots of food.
When I got to the laundromat a tenant I’d seen a couple of times recently came in with her clothes. I had only seen her once or twice in the hall, but this was the first time she ever spoke to me. She lives in the big apartment on the second floor, the one Mr. and Mrs. Remedios were keeping vacant for a long time, I guess because they wanted to charge a lot of rent for it. She is always dressed nicely, usually with a tan coat and expensive- looking red leather shoes. She’s always looking like she’s going to a job. As soon as she sees me, she smiles and goes, like, “I know you, you live in my building.” Then she starts to complain about the landlord. Ha, ha, ha. As the first thing out her mouth in a conversation with me, she says they had taped eviction papers to her door because she was two days late with the rent. She talks with an accent that I can’t figure out. Saying, “I vas two days late.”.
She goes, “Vhere I used to live, it vas a big apartment complex. They did not give us this kind of grieve. They didn’t even cash the checks until the 20th of the month. But I guess that is the vay a professional does business, as opposed to these peasants!”
At the sound of the word peasants, several heads turned in her direction. Crazy ho don’t know that is what people call us, to insult us. And where the hell she from anyway? Anyway, by now I am starting to like her crazy ass and her whacked -out speech.
“By de vay, my name is Elina.”
“Hi, my name is Maya.”
“Very nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. So, um how do you like the neighborhood so far?”
“Vell, I vork in Park Slope, so am able to get vhat I need before I come home. Like, fresh fish, European cheese, and so forth. Otherwise, it is not so bad.”
This lady talking about fish and cheese the way we talk about pernil and coquito. As long as I can get a malta and a 99-cent bag of rippled Utz chips, me, no complaints.
“Well, maybe there will be a fish store opening up here again soon. There used to be one on Fifth Avenue, run by Koreans. The sign is still up but the fish and the Koreans are gone. I think they raised the rent too high. I think they reopened in Queens somewhere.”
“It vould be really great if there vas a store with really fresh produce….mmmm…..you know with maybe a vheel of cheese.”
There she goes with the cheese again, I’m thinking, now she getting greedy.
And she goes on.
“Yes, a vheel of cheese, and some fresh caviar, and some pate, and European bread.”
Damn, I guess everyone must have their thing in life, but I don’t know half of what she is talking about. Does she realize she is talking to a 17-year-old who has hardly even left Brooklyn? Damn. …. European bread…does Italian bread count? Plenty of that around. Why she ain’t see it? And what kind of wheels does cheese come on?
As she put her clean clothes in her cart and walked out the door, I looked up at the sky. Outside it looked as if a storm was waiting like a wolf to attack. Like a hungry wolf in a cartoon, licking his lips. I wonder what a real wolf looks like. Maybe I should be glad I don’t know.
Nikki is the Chinese lady who works in the laundry. She is always smiling. I don’t want to know anything about where she comes from. If she is happy to be living here. Julio teases her all the time. Says they’re going to China together for a Dim Sum- McDonald’s vacation. She just laughs and says, “Julio loco.” From what I can tell, Julio does nothing or sells drugs. He is either talking to people in the laundry or talking to people in the barbershop next door to the laundry. I think he sells drugs.
I heard knocking outside and looked through the peephole. It was Mrs. Remedios knocking on Maria’s door across the hall. She rang the bell.
“Quién?” I could hear Maria ask.
“This is me; Mrs. Remedios is speaking. Por favor, Maria, open the door”
The door opened and Maria stood there, holding baby Carlitos, her long black hair hanging down around her shoulders.
“Are you using that heater again? It confuses the boiler! The boiler is all confused! I told you, don’t turn on that heater! The thing that measures the heat is in your apartment!” “Pero, I put the heater because you give no heat, Senora! My baby is sick!’
“Ay, ay, why do I rent to you people? Gente ignorante! Sin educación! Malditostenants always ruining my property! Ay Dios mio, why can’t I have the good tenants?”
This is the speech she makes 365 days a year, which I am so tired of hearing. By now when I hear it, I make the sign of the cross and pray to God to end it. She goes on about why it is not fair that she can’t have “decent people” renting her apartments, instead of us bums from the World Cup countries. She starts slowly walking down the stairs.
“You’ll see, tú verás, this is not the end!”
Whatever the hell that means. Sounded like kind of a threat. When I heard her leave the building, I opened my door, went to Maria’s door, and rang her bell.
“Hola senora…. It’s cold in my house too. We have to use a heater too.”
Raul’s door opened. Then the other tenant’s door opened, the girl who has red dreadlocks and wears a lot of black.
Raul spoke. “I don’t like the way she was talking to you just now Maria. She sounds like she’s up to something. Don’t like that at all.”
The girl in black spoke. “Hi, my name is Angel. I just moved in here a couple of months ago”.
Raul and I introduce ourselves.
“Listen, she tries to blame Maria using the space heater because she is too cheap to rely on the building system n” Raul said. “But we all have to use heaters. I think everyone in this building goes to the same store on 5th Avenue,” he laughed. “She’s just playing games, always blaming somebody because she doesn’t want to spend the money. And she picks on Maria because Maria’s…Mexican. She tries to scare her.”
“Sheloca. I use my heater, not scared!”, Maria said. “My baby está enfermo!”
“Last year,” Raul continued, “I complained to her, and she said that I was the only one complaining. Then I found out that everyone else was complaining and she was telling them all the same thing. She thinks she’s real slick that one.”
I have heard that this is a Bad Neighborhood. Why? Are these people bad? Am I bad?
These people work.
These people make your sandwiches and salads. They are allowed to touch your food with disposable plastic gloves, separated by a counter.
I have heard that this is a bad neighborhood. People who know avocados live here. They know that avocados do not come in little cubes like cheese at a salad bar.
They work more hours than you. They make less money than you. I don’t understand why it should bother anyone but them.
The warmest part of this morning was the sun when it crept into my eyes earlier than I wanted it to. I woke up coughing with my throat all scratchy and dry, my nose running and my feet like two blocks of ice. Dang. It’s Christmas and there’s no heat? What tha hell? I jumped out of my bed because hugging the blankets closer did not make me feel any better. I had to get up and look for a couple of extra layers of warm clothes, my single layer of sweats that felt ok the night before suddenly feeling like nada. Last night they said on the news that today was going to be the coldest day of the year, which made me thankful that Grandma is in the hospital. I would hate to have her suffering in this cold, along with everything else that is wrong with her. When I got on a couple of more layers, I went to the couch in the living room, pressed on the remote, and channel-surfed until I found a news show. Eighteen degrees--the actual temperature. I went and got my coat and keys and decided to stroll around the building to see how everyone was doing and if anyone had any idea of what to do. This building always looks older in the cold, and today was no different. The peeling paint in the hallway just looked uglier. I could smell the early food smells coming from Dona Mercedes’ apartment. Dona Mercedes is the serious cook in the building and though it was early, I could tell from the smells of pasteles and pernil that she was already hard at work. Since we had a standing invitation to her house every Christmas, as did most of the building, I decided to not disturb her genius and look to see if anyone else was awake. Though we don’t tend to have money to buy each other presents and things of that nature, we always share what we have, which usually comes down to food or our company. Her stove was keeping her warm, at least in the kitchen, her favorite room.
When I got downstairs, Neda and Johnny were standing in their doorways having an excited conversation. Neda is a medical student. She was standing there with a navy-bluebathrobe over some jeans and a sweater. Johnny is just…. Johnny. All six feet of his half-Haitian, half-Dominican self were decked out in red and white pajamas, fuzzy red slippers, and a red Santa hat. Just another Christmas around here.
“I mean, what the fuck is this shit? Fucking Christmas and no fucking heat? No aguanto mas of this shit! Coño! Hey, Maya sweetie. Merry Christmas baby! How’s your grandmother?”
“She should be coming home soon, Johnny. I’m going to see her later today.”
Neda spoke up. “What is going on here? Why don’t we have heat? This is in violation of the law. We are entitled to have decent living conditions!”
Today I ran into Neda in the hall. She was talking with Angel.
“Guess what?” she said. “Angel wants to host the party for New Year’s Eve this year.”
I always admire Neda’s ability to persuade. I think she should run for something someday.
Angel invited us up to her apartment and we started to make shopping lists. Angel said she wanted to get to know her neighbors. Neda gives her little talk about how we have to do something about this building and asked what Angel thought. Angel didn’t say anything for a while.
“I….I haven’t really thought about it all the way through. You see, the last place I lived had no heat at all, so I am…. kind of used to this? Like, roughing it a little.”
“Oh dear, that must have been awful!” Neda said. “Where was that?”
“It was up in the Bronx, and it was kind of a situation where…it wasn’t really….legal, you know?”
“OK” Neda took a deep breath.
“It was the police who got us out of there. Something to do with a vacate order because of imminent collapse, but the more experienced squat…I mean, homesteaders, said the police always say that, just to keep people from creating their own housing. So, anyway, I am used to not having very much given to me. But here, we are paying rent, so I guess there’s more to be taken into consideration.”
Here in Sunset Park, I don’t see police that much. I see them here or there, and if I do, it’s only two. The only time we see a lot of them and have to worry is on the night of the Puerto Rican Day parade, which happens in Manhattan, but people come back here to celebrate. And you know, you can’t have too many Puerto Ricans in one place not running sewing machines or doing some form of menial labor. If they see too many of us in one place, they think a crime wave is about to break out.
On any ordinary day, they leave the drunks to fall down, and the cars to get stolen. The drug dealers have their buildings and their territory, and I stay out of their business, and I think the police do too.
I said not a word. I tried to keep my eyes from bugging out. Wow, you can live without paying rent? Show me that place, I want to see it. Here she is. Today, she has pink in her red braids, and I’m noticing her tattoos. She does not look much older than me, already having had a run-in with the police, something I always try to avoid, and living in an “illegal” situation, whatever that means. People creating their own housing? All I’ve known is this landlord. Either you have a landlord, or you have to have money to buy a house. And we don’t have that. Neda said she was going to get all the tenants together soon and find out what people are thinking. And I am thinking of a New Year’s Eve party in Angel’s house tomorrow when I will be able to find out all about these places like the Bronx and the illegal situations.
December 31 New Year’s Eve.
When I got to Angel’s house, Elina was already there. Angel handed her a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Elina looked like she was trying to smile. She just sat there with the can in her hand; she didn’t open it and put it down after about a minute.
“Hello Maya,” Angel said to me. “I think we have everything all set up.”
She was holding a box of Ritz crackers and a package of store-brand cheddar cheese.
“We have plenty of beer, water, chips, and snacks now. We should be good.”
Hearing the menu, Elina started looking scared.
Though I knew this was a party, I didn’t want to look out of place, since the only color Angel wore was in her hair. She still had her red braids tonight. So even though it was New Year’s Eve, I just put on some jeans, my black boots, and a red Puerto Rico t -shirt. Angel was pretty much wearing the same, with a black t-shirt that said: Normal People Scare Me. She opened the giant bags of potato chips and put them in plastic bowls and I helped her cut up the two cheeses, cheddar and Monterrey Jack, into cubes to be served on plates.
“Well, it’s still early so tell me something, Maya. What kind of music should I put on? What kind of music do you think people will like? All I listen to is hard core punk, but I don’t want to scare anyone.”
“Oh,” I say, “Latin music, merengue, reggaeton, the usual.” I helped her find a Spanish station on the computer. Daddy Yankee, that would do. I made sure it was not too loud so we could hear each other talking. Because somehow it dawned on me that we must start talking to each other around here. Enough with the closed doors. Enough with keeping our sadness inside. We go to the same stores, buy our clothes and food outside on Fifth Avenue—well, most of us anyway—we can’t keep secrets anymore.
There was knocking at the door. Neda and Johnny arrived from downstairs, then Raul and Magda, his mom, from across the hall. Neda was looking beautiful in a long Indian dress and heels and Johnny was wearing a white suit looking all retro 70s disco.
Angel offered me something to drink so I picked a can of Goya juice.
“This is a very comfortable couch,” Elina said. “Vhere did you get it, Angel?”
“Someone was giving it away on craigslist and a friend with a van helped bring it here.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Yeah, I went through a lot for that couch. Usually, friends just find stuff in the street for me. They know where to go to find good stuff, and which nights they leave out furniture. Like, you know, Upper East Side on Manhattan, or Park Slope”
Elina’s eyes kind of bug out, and she changes the subject.
“So, Maya, how have you been since ve talk in laundry?”
I tell her that things are the same as always. Most days we aren’t getting enough heat, or none at all, Then, I go to the library and read or sign up for a computer, or I go to the computer room in the recreation center at the park, but sometimes it gets so noisy in there with those rowdy kids. I try to be out of there before 3 PM when it gets really bad. And then, the laundromat is always OK which is where I am at least once a week, if I don’t pick up a little gig here or there, helping at the bodega or babysitting for someone.
“My grandmother and I have been calling and complaining every time there is no heat,” I tell her. “That’s what we all have to do.”
“Yes, vell I nefer have this problem anyvhere I live, since I come to this country.”
“Well, welcome to Brooklyn. Where were you before?” asked Angel, carrying a plate of nachos.
“I vas in Omaha. In grad school”
“Oh?” me and Angel say.
She said she got a scholarship as a refugee from someplace called Kerge-I-stan, or something like that. OK, I didn’t want to ask where that is but I need to look it up when I figure out how to spell it.
Angel asks what she studied in grad school.
“I study first, in undergrad Gender Studies, then in grad school, I study computer science and accounting. So I can get job. All in Omaha, vhere I get scholarship.”
“Wow, that’s great”, I said.
I would love to go to a college, but somewhere in this city. But not too close to here. I like it around Columbia University, up by 116th Street. Just reading books and going to classes and studying. Up there, they have beautiful old buildings and lots of grass you can sit on while you read--and trees. There are all kinds of bookstores and coffee shops and restaurants. Everyone is carrying books and reading them or writing in notebooks or laptops. I want to live like that one day. Because I have ideas, but I have trouble getting them out. Nobody really looks at a 5-foot-Puerto Rican girl like me and asks, what do you think about the state of the world? What do you think could make things better? What do you think? That is why I write in this book, for now.
I need to find out how you get a scholarship. Another thing to look up.
Elina wakes me up from my fantasy.
“OK, scholarship is good, but not pay for everything. I have student loans, so I must verk, and make sacrifice. When I vas in high school in my country, ve learn computer science too, so so boring. But everyone needs to get job…”
“I know what you mean,” Angel says. “Everything that I like does not pay and is risky, like music and art and theater.”
“Yes, you must vork hard and maybe never get famous, you must make sacrifice.”’
Angel goes on, “I have a degree in Latino Studies and Women’s Studies, but I can’t do anything with it except go to grad school and maybe teach it. Maybe I’ll go back to school someday and get a master’s degree. In what, I don’t know. Someday, I might decide. But in the meantime, I waitress.”
The music was still going, and voices were in conversation. There was a knock on the door. Angel went to answer, and it was Dona Mercedes with her daughter, Zoe. She was carrying a big bottle of coquito and Zoe was carrying a big pan of pastelon, filling the room with the smell of plantains and ground meat. My favorite food!
Dona Mercedes spoke up. “What is this, a funeral? Quién se murio? Who died?
Turn up that music! Isn’t this a party?”
Angel goes, “About time someone comes to turn things up.” And she goes to her computer and pumps up the volume on the merengue music that is playing.
Johnny takes Neda to the floor. She starts dancing in a weird way, moving her arms. Raul is dancing with his mom and some of the single ladies get on the floor too. Some more people come, people who work at Angel’s restaurant, and things are going like this is a real party.
Suddenly, I remember Maria. Where is Maria? We invited her.
I mention this to Angel.
Angel goes to Maria’s door.
“Señora, está bien? Are you OK? Why don’t you come over with Carlitos? We won’t make too much noise.”
Maria doesn’t want to disturb Carlitos who is sleeping through all of this, so Zoe goes over to watch him while Maria comes over for some food and a drink.
We start dancing again, this time to cumbias On a different station. It is getting close to midnight and we have some of those corny toy horns.
“Put on the TV! someone says. So, Angel turns on this tiny little craigslist TV she must watch once a year, and we watch the countdown. Angel is holding a pot and a wooden spoon and Raul is holding a cowbell and somebody else is holding an empty beer bottle and is tapping it with a knife and we start making a guaguanco beat.
Someone says, “Que queremos? Calefacción!” And then in English, “What do we want?” We want heat!!” Soon everyone joins in.
We take our homemade orchestra out into the hall, then down the stairs, then out to the street where the neighbors are already making noise. But when we get there, our little band sounds the best, and others join us. It seemed as if our music and shouts were challenging the dark and cold itself as if we were a force of nature.
WE WANT THE HEAT!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!