I needed an estimate of the cost of moving my stuff to California. Ken at Meyer’s Moving checked the schedule and said “Okay, so you’ll be seeing Igor.” He gave a little laugh; not unkind. His own parents had given him a name so plain-vanilla American that he could only be Chinese. But Igor bore his amusing name with sad dignity.
He was tall and good-looking, and wore the flashy black clothes of a mid-eighties English pop band. There was a suit jacket with some complicated zipped neckline, and long, swishing black coat. He wore those too-long, gelled sideburns that are a usually a giveaway of Irish guys abroad. He seemed as young as a cop.
When he came to the door he looked dour, but he flowered under careful applications of his name and cups of coffee. He asked shyly for a piece of toilet paper to blow his nose, which dripped in the cold. Then he stalked my bedroom with his clipboard. There wasn’t much to see. “This is it?” he said, “This is everything? There is nothing in storage, in a basement? A bicycle, maybe?” He asked if I were paying for this myself. I was cagey, not wanting a padded estimate. “Because, if you’re paying for this, you should pack yourself. Really. You don’t have too much breakable stuff, and it will save you three hundred dollars. That’s what I would do myself. Save the money.”
He asked if I’m driving out there, told me that my iPod works great as an FM receiver in the car. I told him I couldn’t drive. He said that he had driven three times in his life before he took his test, and the next day he was driving trucks. It’s super-easy, he said.
Now his card says “Relocation Consultant” and his English is as groomed and careful as his hair. He’s going to make it.
When you live in a great city, intriguing people cut your hair, move your boxes, or drive your taxi. Last month my beautiful Polish dentist and her Chinese-Filipina assistant talked about what it meant for us to be thirtyish immigrant woman in this city that saw us as we wanted to be seen, where we hung on against the tidal pull of home and family. “Don’t you think, Dervala?” demanded Agnes, née Agniewska, as she rootled around in my mouth. She had come here at 17 on a gifted student program. In return for her Barney’s shopping bags, her litigator boyfriend, and her New York lacquer, she had lost the way back to Poland. I mumbled my own story through her fingers, dribbling.
There was the Afghan taxi driver who sat for twenty minutes outside my apartment after he’d driven me home from a drunken staff party. He had fought against the Russians for two years, but by training he was an architect. He could have been the father of the National Geographic girl. His family was related to Hamid Karzai. “We’re royalty,” he said, “as if that matters.”
There was the sad-eyed, handsome Staten Island Czech who helped me move in here in May, borrowing a van from his weekday delivery job. He sucked down Pall Malls and seemed too fragile to manage my third-floor walk-up, so I helped. Eventually he smiled to show his missing back teeth, and talked about Prague. Three hundred bucks a month was all you could make there, he said. What was the point? He grew animated as we drove down Atlantic Avenue, with me navigating from the rumble seat. Then we stopped to pick up a bed for my new apartment (found, like him, and like the apartment, on Craigslist). The American who was selling the bed was confident and loud. I liked him, but it was uncomfortable to be caught between their worlds as he directed Ivan. “Hey, man, you’re not going to get it down the stairs that way. Habla espanol? No? Turn it around. Like this, see? No, no, no–watch it! Okay?” Ivan went quiet, then. We sat on my new stoop with a couple of Pilsners before his dignity returned.
There was Olu, the taxi-driver from Lagos, who railed about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. “Why did I come here? Well, it’s the greatest country in the world! I wanted to test myself! You are an American girl. You do not need to make these choices.”
He liked to read at stoplights. He showed me the books on his front seat; on Shambhala Buddhism and American history. I asked him what his dream was, and he was coy. “I can’t tell you that. I am afraid if I talk about the dream too much, the talking will become enough and I won’t do anything to make it come true. That is always a temptation. My brother dreamed of being an engineer and now he is and so he can talk about it. But I am still driving a taxi so I can’t say yet.” Five minutes later, as we drove through the tunnel, he blurted. “I would like to be a writer! That is my dream!”
There’s someone every day. Usually, though not always, a fellow immigrant. I listen to them for as long as they let me, or until the subway doors open, storing up their stories to occupy me in the nursing home or on the desert island. Lately I’ve taken to scribbling sketches in my morning notebook, for fear I will forget them. I don’t want to forget them. When it comes to people, I’m a pack-rat.