The New Yorker, June 2019
Door to door, it took me two hours to get to the Bronx High School of Science from my home, in Queens. I’d walk for ten minutes to the Grand Avenue subway station, flash my pass at the token clerk, wait for the G train to Queens Plaza, transfer to the E to Seventh Avenue, hop on the D to Bedford Park Boulevard, and then walk ten more minutes to school. I made this four-hour daily round trip for four years. I always carried a novel in my backpack for the commute. Junior year, my friend Andria told me about a book she’d loved: “Main Street,” by Sinclair Lewis. I read it. Then I went through “Babbitt,” “Dodsworth,” and “Arrowsmith.”
My parents, my two sisters, and I lived on the second floor of a three-family house in Maspeth. On weekends and school breaks, my mother, my sisters, and I took turns working at Sunny Variety, my father’s underheated, two-hundred-square-foot store in Manhattan’s Koreatown. In the seventies and eighties, New York was a more dangerous place. My older sister got mugged on the D train. At the store, I was held up at gunpoint, and once I was with Dad when he was robbed two blocks from the store, by a young man with a knife. The store was burgled several times.
Lewis wrote about white Midwesterners who struggled against provincial thinking, corporate greed, materialism, and fascism. It was calming to read old novels about big ideas. I wasn’t looking for suspense on my train ride. My borrowed paperbacks told me that Lewis was from Minnesota, a place I’d never been. My family never went anywhere. Dad had to keep the store open six days a week, year-round, to pay the onerous rent to a landlord whose grown sons blew his money on cocaine. But I’d read so many novels that, in my mind, I’d sort of been everywhere.
Lewis had attended Yale University. I wasn’t allowed to apply to any college that required plane travel. Yale was only a Metro-North train ride away. I applied and got in.
In high school, I’d thought I was going to major in economics. At Yale, I took macroeconomics and realized that I did not understand the graphical relationship between guns and butter. I decided to major in history instead. In my junior year, I signed up for a nonfiction-writing class, taught by Fred Strebeigh, a writer who had published widely in prestigious magazines. Professor Strebeigh assigned readings by Joan Didion, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, and Tom Wolfe. Calvin Trillin visited the class. It was my first writing workshop.
The seminar met in a resplendent Collegiate Gothic tower, with gray stone walls and stained-glass windows. To get there, you had to go through the heavy metal gates of Branford College, cross a stone-paved courtyard, duck under an archway, climb spiral stone steps, and push open a thick wooden door. It was like attending class in a castle.
I knew no one. The other students were mostly English majors, editors at the Yale Daily News and the literary quarterlies. They were white.
You were supposed to comment on your fellow-students’ work. I liked some of the writing, but some of it I didn’t. I didn’t talk much.
Once, a fellow-student wrote a long piece about evangelical Christians at a church in New Haven, who shouted “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” during services. Her tone was snide.
At Yale, I went to Battell Chapel every Sunday morning. The pews were mostly empty, but I liked to go by myself, listen to the sermon and the hymns, then leave. No one ever felt moved to praise Jesus loudly at Battell.
I tried to make sense of what my classmate wanted to say about evangelical Christians. Back home, church was many things for the people I knew—a place to meet friends or show off a new dress or preen like a big shot if you were a deacon or an elder, as well as a sanctuary in which to worship God. The talented writers in the class admired the piece, so I said nothing.
In the next class, one of the students compared something to Stonehenge. I raised my hand. “Maybe the writer should define ‘Stonehenge’?” I said. “I don’t know what it is.”
It can’t be true that the whole class had light-colored eyes, but, as I remember it, a dozen pairs of lovely blue, green, and hazel eyes looked at me with surprise and pity because I hadn’t heard of the prehistoric stone configuration. They didn’t mean to be unkind. I’m sure of that. But, in their attractive, polished faces, I saw that Stonehenge was as familiar to them as having a gun held to my face was to me.
I did not withdraw from the class. I stayed because the professor was very good. Each week, as I sat in that tower in Connecticut, I thought of my parents at the store in New York. I could hear the vibrating hum of the space heater near my mother’s cold ankles as she stood at the counter. I recalled the sober look on my father’s face as he carefully drew a stack of dirty twenties from the cash register and handed it to the gunman. When the semester ended, I decided to apply to law school.
Published in the print edition of the June 10 & 17, 2019, issue.