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from the December 2021 issue

The Common Good

In this short story by Sara Cordón, a new graduate from an elite institution and a new migrant starting his first job in the United States have a lot more in common than they think. 
 

Let’s keep three things in mind:

First, The Warriors, a 1979 action film about New York street gangs that a young Mercedes used to check out from the video rental store every couple of weeks, minimum. Training her non-lazy eye on the screen as precisely as she could muster, she would channel all her pubescent psychic energy into the TV set until she could mumble the dialogues a beat before they started. “Now, Cyrus don't want anybody packed and he don't want anybody flexing any muscle. So, I gave him my word that the Warriors would uphold the truce,” a thug would say, and Mercedes would congratulate herself for having anticipated the phrase as she prepared her delivery of the next one, which she also liked: “Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours . . . if you can count!”

Okay, good. That’s one thing. For another, there’s the New York City subway that Mercedes—now a thirty-something immigrant from small-town Spain—associates with the Gusano Loco, the “crazy worm” ride from her local childhood fair: discomfort, strange people, harsh noises, getting harangued by the latest drunk, clatter and clacking, slinky hip-swishing, the occasional puker, and, with few exceptions, the unease of visual isolation from the outside world.

Finally, and because we wouldn’t want her to feel left out, let’s keep Mercedes in mind as well.

Mercedes, who has finally secured a seat on the subway, looks at herself from the belly down, scrutinizing what’s visible, and regrets her outfit. Then she inspects herself chest-up in the window across from her, ignoring the kid who’s just amped up his music and is employing a handrail to do acrobatics and breakdance in the middle of the car. She’s engrossed in her own thoughts, her own troubles. She tugs at her hangnails, crosses her legs one way and then the other, nudges her glasses slightly higher on her nose. She could have stuffed her cap and gown into a bag and kept them hidden until she arrived. That way, she could have walked far more discreetly from her apartment in Brooklyn to the nearest subway stop, thus preventing not only strangers from shouting “Congrats” to her on the street but also an asshole tourist on the platform from trying to dislodge her cap with furtive jabs of his selfie stick. No, Mercedes has no idea why she so glibly donned this purple gown, much less this prismatic hat that her university has rented her for the daily sum of seventy dollars.

She looks—she really does look now, just for a moment—at the breakdancer, suspended upside down from the handrail as he contorts his body, working wonders with his hat as the world refracts topsy-turvy all around him. She looks at him, yes, but Mercedes has seen this show many times before and no longer finds it particularly impressive. Or maybe she’s so distracted that she looks without seeing. All she can think about is why it ever occurred to her to dress like this in public. Actually, she does know why. The chronotope “graduation” is to blame. Mercedes has used this word quite a lot—“chronotope,” that is—since she entered the American academy, though she sometimes misses the mark, register-wise. She also occasionally says “teleological,” “phallocentric,” and “incommensurable.” Mercedes blames her presence here—seated in a subway car as it conveys her in the direction of Uptown/The Bronx, both nervous and suffocated, both pride-swollen and ridiculous—on her film-heavy emotional education and the diploma-awarding ceremony organized by her university. Of course, The Warriors is very much present in the rushes of triumphant culmination she’s experiencing, with its visibly ominous gangs making their way across New York, taking it by storm, growing stronger as groups, as bands, as community. But so are Flash Dance, Rocky, The Neverending Story, and all the other eighties-style American films aimed at impressionable minors the world over. Movies that extolled the toils and the struggle of stereotypically downtrodden young people, “subaltern” being another addition to her academic vocabulary. Young people who, following an excess of cathartic perspiration, invariably attained poetic and much-deserved personal glory.

Speaking of glory, the breakdancer extends his hat to collect the bills with which the audience has applauded his pirouettes. Mercedes doesn’t clap because she’s focused on herself: at the end of her forty-minute ride, she’s going to join her classmates at Yankee Stadium, melt into the purple masses, and take her seat in the bleacher section reserved for PhD candidates in hispanic studies. She’ll listen to the speech delivered by some prominent intellectual, wave the pennant bearing the name of her university, unclasp the pins fixing her cap in place, and toss it into the air, despite the fact that it’s now prohibited to do so, because last year a guy in Cleveland lost an eye to the edge of a flying mortarboard. Glory. Pure and simple. Deserved—or so she feels—because she, too, has olive skin and frizzy hair, like Alex, the steelworker who dreamed of becoming a dancer in Flashdance. She, too, is an immigrant, like Rocky Balboa, Italian stallion. Like Bastian, moreover, she was bullied for being a little hick with a habit of seeking sanctuary in some classroom to read at her school in Alcázar de San Juan, province of Ciudad Real. Mercedes can’t help but feel that she comes from the dark side, from a certain state of social disadvantage, from all the pain implicit in the years she had to wear a patch over her non-lazy eye. Not to mention that she, too, comes from a country in crisis. In the narrative of triumph over adversity that she has concocted for herself, her gratification is justified because the honors she’s about to receive are universal honors. She knows—because movies have taught her so—that when the downtrodden prevail, so does the common good.

 

*  *  *

But let’s keep looking. We can't look away:

Next—next to her, actually, in the seat right beside Mercedes—there’s him, Leobardo. Slumped and sprawled, his stocky, hairy-knuckled fingers enthusiastically roam the screen of his cell phone: he’s playing Crazy Taxi and has zero qualms about cutting off other cars, screeching onto the sidewalk, or mowing down the occasional pedestrian. He lifts his head periodically to make sure he’s still where he needs to be, on his real-life form of transport, the Uptown/Bronx-bound subway. Today is his first day of work and he feels pretty crazy himself, as a matter of fact, pretty loco indeed.

Then there’s the subway ad placed right in front of both Leobardo and Mercedes, a few handspans above their heads. An ad that must be for ice cream, since Häagen Dazs paid a fortune to display it before the many thousands of daily commuters on the 4 train. The poster proclaims the tagline “äah,” an exhalation of rapture at the creaminess of Häagen Dazs ice cream, followed by the slogan, “satisfaction that can’t be undone.” But what the passengers see is something very different: a spoon smeared with a glistening brown substance and the phrase “äah Keano Prof.undo.” The ice cream company’s attempt at word play has been papered over with a shoddy flyer proclaiming the services of Keano, professor and fortune teller, in a slyly crude bilingual double entendre that any Spanish speaker would instantly detect (Keano Prof.undo becomes qué ano profundo, which means, yes, “what a deep anus”). The brown-slathered spoon leers at both Leobardo and Mercedes, glaring out from the publicity mash-up that means nothing to non-Hispanic readers.

Finally, let’s take a good look at Mercedes’s asinine snort of laughter. We must remember that Mercedes is all about anti-hegemonic resistance, and also, sometimes, due to the authority long invested in her as a victim of social derision, cruelty. The unfortunate pun makes her—at last!—completely forget the chronotope “graduation,” her purple gown, and the influence still exerted by 1980s Hollywood films on her personal expectations. Her hilarity manages to distract Leobardo, who lifts his eyes to the “äah Keano Prof.undo,” abandons his phone, and loses control of his taxi, which promptly crashes into a wall. Game over.

“¿Les quedó chistoso, no?” he ventures. Pretty funny, right?

“Sí.” Mercedes, who isn’t particularly adept at small talk, puts on her glasses and conceals her mangled hangnails under the vast sleeves of her gown.

“Even a little crude, actually,” he adds, still in Spanish.

Leobardo resumes fiddling with his phone in an attempt to recover the taxi. In his zeal, he stops thinking about how today is the day he’ll finally get to do what brought him to New York in the first place: take over his uncle’s job, and, following his example, start earning money in dollars. Mercedes, who assumes the conversation is over, relaxes and unsheathes her thumbs.

Leobardo, too, has certain dialogues from The Warriors committed to memory—“Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours… if you can count!”—although he knew the movie as Los Guerreros and the dubbing was in Mexican Spanish, not Spanish-Spanish: “suckers” was “torpes,” for instance, not “estúpidos,” as it had been for Mercedes. Leobardo and his neighbor El Machuca, in whose basement they often gathered as teenagers to drink cans of Tecate and watch videos, were fascinated by the part of the film when the New York gangsters—the “gringo cholos”—discover that they’ve become enormously powerful on plainly numerical grounds: they’re the toughest, and the gang is growing, so it’s only a matter of time before they take over not only the subway but also New York itself. “One gang could run this city. One gang!”

In hopes of looking a little like los guerreros themselves, Leobardo and El Machuca bought two identical vests they never dared to wear without a shirt underneath, let alone together. It gave them an exorbitant thrill to imagine ruling over a whole metropolis, or just over a handful of train cars. Growing up in the sleepy Baja Californian city of Ensenada, however, they didn’t even have a subway.

Leobardo thinks there might be something for him in New York after all. He associates the subway here with the little sports quad at the school he attended: body odor, freshly showered girls accessorizing and applying their makeup, guys shoving each other, universally disregarded signs that prohibit eating and drinking. Most of all, he associates it with the chance to share space alongside people with whom he would otherwise share nothing. Which is to say, a gathering place made interesting by randomness. But if Leobardo barely socialized on the sports quad at school, he’s doing even less of it on the New York subway. He looks up to make sure he’s on the right line. All’s well; the Upper East Side. Now the train will cut across Spanish Harlem and head into the Bronx until it reaches the place where he’ll meet with his uncle’s gringo business partner. “Él le sabe bien al show.” The other guy knows the ins and outs. His uncle has also assured him that he won’t need much English for the job; after all, practically the whole neighborhood is Latino. “Let the gringo speak English. Besides, speaking Spanish on the job can help you honor tu gente, mijo. There’s almost two and a half million Latinos in New York. Working class in the Bronx, like you and me. They’ll be on your side.” This is what Leobardo’s uncle had told him. A city he can make his own, he thinks, and his taxi flips over again. Game over. Putamadre.

 

*  *  *

At this especially tedious point of the route, we must focus our attention on three events:

The first is that, as the doors slide open at the 86th Street stop, a hot mouthful of air seeps into the car; unfortunately for the users of the New York subway system, the platforms aren’t air-conditioned. The torrid gust is accompanied by a pair of elegant parents who are in turn accompanying, with all the poise they can summon, their twenty-something daughter. She, too, is bound for Yankee Stadium, and like Mercedes, she has been imprudent enough to leave home already dressed in her purple gown, her cap, and most probably her insecurities, as well.

The second event is that the subway screeches to a halt in the dark tunnel before the next station and the conductor makes an announcement over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen: we are experiencing delays due to train traffic ahead of us.” A general lament ripples forth, a motley chorus of exclamations: “Fuuuuuck.” “Mielda.” “Really?” “Jehovah, have mercy.” “Jeez!” “Oh shit.” Leobardo sighs and slips his phone into his pocket. Mercedes, who had been tugging her hangnails with jubilant anxiety at the appearance of her garment twin—the communal reassurance that her ludicrous singularity so desperately needed!—abandons the activity and is consumed by the same sense of dread she always felt as a child when she was buckled into the Gusano Loco against her will.

A man in a wheelchair with very white skin and red hair emerges from the adjacent car: his appearance is the third event. In the absence of free hands, he grips a plastic cup between his teeth for donations. “Help the homeless,” he says, though the cup makes it hard to hear him. The passengers step aside to make room for him and he decides to stop, remove the cup from his mouth, and berate Mercedes’s gown twin into a handout. “Can you spare a dollar? Huh? A dollar? Help the homeless, sis. Give me a few bucks.” And he raises the plastic cup to her nose. Intimidated, the girl takes a step back. Her father reaches for her hand. “C’mon, sis, I can’t be a criminal, I don’t even have a leg. Give me a fucking dollar, you fucking whore.” The man grumbles and lurches forward in his chair, rolling right over the feet of those, like Mercedes and Leobardo, who don’t move them out of the way in time.

“Help the homeless. I live in a fucking shelter. Give me a few dollars.”

Several passengers bridle at his hostility, wondering whether a person with reduced mobility has the right to demand money this way. A rattled Leobardo looks like he’s going to hold back, but he doesn’t.

“Me pisaste, ¿no ves? Y a la señorita le arruinaste la bata.”

“What?”

“Digo que debería aprender modales y disculparse. Say I’m sorry. Easy. Say I’m sorry. To her, and also to her,” he says, looking first to Mercedes and then to her gown twin, both of whom, despite their attire, couldn’t presently care less about the chronotope “graduation.”

“What the fuck are you saying, you fucking beaner?” The man wrenches the wheelchair backward, once again rolling over Leobardo’s foot and Mercedes’s gown. “I have no fucking leg, I have no fucking home, so fuck you and fuck her.”

Mercedes, startled by his tone and by the cut across his forehead that continues to redden his hair, tries to express to Leobardo that everything’s fine. Several passengers gesture indignantly at the attitude of this man who has not only disrespected them, but also dared to discriminate against the young Latino in their midst.

Leobardo is emboldened, maybe because it’s his first day of work in New York City. He doesn’t recognize himself. Today, he’s the toughest guy in town. He gets up. “Va a pedirles perdón a las señoritas,” he says. “You say I’m sorry or I keep the cup.” Gathering more courage than he’s ever had in his life, he reaches out and takes it.

“What the fuuuuck?”

“I just want you be gentle, guëy.” Leobardo instantly drips with sweat. “And that word you call me, beaner, qué es eso, like wetback? Eso es bien feo. I just want you be gentle, guëy. Better for you, better for everybody, va a ver.”

He approaches the elegant father of the future graduate. “You give him one dollar, ¿verdad, señor? Si él say I’m sorry, you give him one dollar.”

The father takes a dollar bill from his wallet and puts it into the plastic cup that Leobardo holds out to him.

“Now smile and say it. ‘I’m sorry,’” Leobardo instructs the man in the wheelchair.

“I don’t give a shit! Give me back my fucking cup.”

“I just trying to help, okay, and for you to be more polite. This lady can also give you one dollar, ¿verdad que sí, señorita?” And since he directs the question to Mercedes, she rummages hastily in the bag she’s clutching across her gown and hands Leobardo not one but five dollars. “Look, amigo. Just say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“Sorry, motherfucker.”

“Bueno, that is a start. Come with me. Sea amable y yo le ayudo. I help you. Some help for el señor, please,” he asks, and the train revs back into motion as the passengers dig into their pockets to support the causes of decorum, tolerance, and respect.

Reaching the 138th St.–Grand Concourse Station, the man wheels out of the car, his cup full of change. Leobardo returns to his seat, surprised at himself. Mercedes readjusts her glasses, pushing them further up her nose, and although she doesn’t look at him, because she can feel herself blushing a bit, she’s proud of her fellow subway passenger, of how civilly he has resisted the tyranny so often exerted in New York—sometimes even by members of subaltern groups. After graduation, she thinks, she and her classmates will found a sort of intellectual squad. A kind of warrior crew that, like her fellow subway passenger, will become the scourge of everyone who perceives Spanish-speakers as “beaners,” job-stealers, naturally sultry dancers (“hot Latin chick,” Mercedes has herself been called, though heat is not among her primary characteristics), and, most of all, rude. Never again. She and her classmates are about to earn a diploma that will forever commit them to the symbolic value of Hispanism and Latinidad as a global cause. Glory. A glory that can only grow. “Can you count, suckers?”

 

*  *  *

Her stop, finally: Yankee Stadium. Mercedes walks with joy—and elegance, too—alongside the family of her cap and gown twin, united not only by their imminent graduation but also and even more powerfully by the experience they’ve shared en route. Leobardo, for his part, says goodbye to Mercedes by lowering his eyes and taking out his phone. He doesn’t feel like playing Crazy Taxi anymore. He thinks about how the 1980s movies of his childhood still influence his life and remembers Los Guerreros—and, by association, his friend El Machuca. “Remember the truce: nobody packed and nobody will flex any muscle,” one of the gangsters said. He smiles with an amusement much like what he felt at the sight of the “äah Keano Prof.undo” poster. As the subway shoots across the Bronx, and as he registers the satisfaction of a job well done, he composes a text to his uncle: “Ey, tío, done deal. The gringo’s a boss. Red hair, a bloody cut on his forehead. Impressive. Todo un profesional. Where should I meet him next?” Although Leobardo is part of a minority, as his uncle has explained to him, his new life doesn’t seem to displease him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Reaching the last stations on the line, he learns to enjoy the excess of cathartic perspiration, his well-earned personal glory. Pure and simple. With this job, he’ll finally get to make a city his own. For, of course, the common good.
 

© Sara Cordón. Translation © 2021 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.

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