I can’t pinpoint when this exactly happenend. It was one of those sitcom scenes we Europeans imagine New York City life to be like. John is another one of my roommates. Because of my arrival, he moved into his girlfriend Elisbeth’s tiny room. He drinks too much, takes long showers and spends most of his days in bed. He runs around the loft with huge stacks of money and has strange nightly appointments. Just like me, he claims to be a writer.
I am shocked. “Can you say that again?” Is this blatant racism?
“There’s no Italian-Americans. There’s no French-Americans or German-Americans. So why are there African-Americans? Why does one group need a different nomination from the rest?”
I feel anger bubbling up. John himself is Italian-Finnish, tanned with black eyes – a remainder of his runaway Indian grandfather. The resultant is a sharp look with a vile feel. Both handsome and out-of-place. So why is he of all people making these remarks? Does he feel more entitled to being called American?
“You know what it comes down to in this country?”, he continues.
He taps his forearm trice with his finger. “The colour of your skin. If you want to be doing research on multiculturalism in this country, that’s the only truth you’ll find. If you’re black: back of the line. You know what’s different from where you come from? People know their origins. They still have their own last names – our Africans don’t. They can’t trace themselves back to where they came from. And in a strange way, we have taught them to look down on their own past. Don’t be trying to teach the kids at school about Africa or slavery. They don’t wanna hear it.”
Our conversation lasted for weeks, so please excuse me for skipping the chronological order for this bit. John, despite or because of his heavy drinking, turned into my first oracle. John spent huge amounts of time at home, which made me wonder.
“I have no debt to pay back for going to college”, he explained.
“So how did you pay for school?”
“Selling drugs”, he stated with enormous calm, “the easiest thing.”
“You never got into trouble?”
“Well, here’s the thing: you can do pretty much whatever you want when you’re white. I did get arrested several times, but it wasn’t too hard outsmarting the police. They never had anything to hold against me. Also, I mostly was the only white guy in there, which might explain why they’d let me go as soon as they could. As if I was one of them. Which makes me think of it: why don’t you get arrested?”
“A-ha. It’s the easiest thing. Just act stupid, lie down on the street, say something bad to a cop. Even if you forget to pay your parking tickets you can end up in there. In this country they get payed to arrest as many people as possible.”
“What? Are you sure about that?”
“U-hu. Get arrested. You should do it. You’ll learn everything you need to know about multiculturalism. It’s called the tombs, in the middle of Manhattan. Always packed. Just don’t get arrested in summer. Officially they’re supposed to have airconditioning but I think they channel the money elsewhere. You don’t wanna spend three days there in the heat.”
“How was it inside there?”
“Better conversation than on campus.”
“Because of the wild stories?”
“Not really. Being on the run from the police for most of your entire life you develop some interesting means to provide a living. Most of those black kids weren’t in the least less intelligent than you and me. Pretty sharp individuals in there. Long and deep conversations. Most of them were just there – over and over – for possession of marihuana. Loosing precious time. Quite dumb, if you think of it. I don’t think any of them got a chance to put their life on the tracks. I kept on thinking: what if they got the chance to put their energy into something positive?”
John was a pretty sharp individual as well. Shortly after my departure, Elisabeth found him sleeping on the outside stairs embracing a bottle. Last time I heard from her, she told me he had fainted in the toilet on his first dinner out with her parents.