How could it be, Schreiber wondered? It was difficult to absorb the magnitude of what he had just heard. Waiting for the Q train at the 34th Street station, he mused over some of the technical terms the psychologist had employed, such as “cognitive inflexibility.” In light of the diagnosis, it would behoove him to cultivate “active listening” and “emotional intelligence.” To be sure, mastering these techniques would require concentration and considerable effort, but if he invested some time, then perhaps he would be able to address the underlying issue of “relatability.”
Pondering these matters, Schreiber reflected how odd it was that so few people seemed to be waiting on the platform during the midtown rush hour. In any case, that meant more room to sit on the subway without feeling cramped. As the train zipped downtown, he reflected on the psychologist’s suggestions: though he now had an actual word for his “condition,” it wasn’t as if he was totally taken by surprise by the discussion which had unfolded over the past few hours. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he ruminated on the countless times he had tried to empathize with the lot of others, only to be apparently rebuffed. Maybe, now that he clearly understood his strengths and limitations, he could devise a strategy to cope with the challenges which were unique to him.
As the train passed over the Manhattan bridge into Brooklyn, a number of youths entered the car and shouted, “SHOWTIME!” Jumping and dancing to the beat of loud music, the performers swung precipitously from a pole. Schreiber’s heart sank: he dreaded the dance routines and regarded them as a true assault on the senses. Worst of all, the other passengers hooted and cheered, even though public service announcements constantly advised the public that performing in the subway was illegal and dangerous. One of the youths gyrated and kicked in the air, swerving within inches of Schreiber’s face.
It was at times like these that he felt trapped and wished he could simply exit the train, but moving to the next car was against the rules. He put on his ear muffs, but that hardly helped. Feeling tormented, he gritted his teeth. After what seemed an eternity, the train pulled into Dekalb Avenue station and the youths got off the subway. Schreiber heaved a sigh of relief, but then a woman pulled out her cell phone on the seat next to him and started to speak loudly into the speaker.
“She gettin’ in my business about how I should be all done up for the party and have my nails done properly, and I be like, get outta my face girl!”
Growing agitated, Schreiber clasped his hands over his ear muffs and glowered. After a time, the woman turned to him and remarked, “can you please stop looking at me like that?”
Taken aback, Schreiber stammered, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I was looking at you.”
At long last, the train pulled into his station and he could finally breathe once more. Schreiber lived in a well-to-do Brooklyn neighborhood just adjacent to a large park, and he always thought the trees made the air feel crisper and cleaner. Making his way to his apartment building, he passed along old stone streets and stately nineteenth century Brownstones. Though he had lived in the area for some time, Schreiber had never come to embrace the neighborhood as his own, since all local businesses catered to families and children, from toy stores to mediocre pizza parlors to environmentally sustainable, grass-fed burgers. For him, the only redeeming feature of the area was a food cooperative, but most people shopped there merely for the low prices as opposed to buying into any idealistic notions aligned with the core mission of the market.
Turning the key to his apartment, Schreiber was greeted by the familiar and reassuring sound of paws pattering to-and-fro. Opening the door, a large Siberian husky bounded into the hallway. Concerned that his pet would disturb the neighbors, Schreiber did his best to calm the dog down while corralling him back into the apartment. Unlike people, who Schreiber found confounding and difficult to read, Zasha was earnest and sincere. Whatever his dog might be experiencing, Schreiber could instantly pick it up through the animal’s facial expressions and body language. It was as if they could communicate with one another through a kind of telepathy and he intrinsically “understood” what the dog was trying to say.
“Пойдем!” Zasha barked. “Let’s go!”
Over the years, Schreiber had picked up a smattering of Russian. Five years ago, his old girlfriend Natasha had bought the dog for him as a birthday gift. Zasha came from a Russian breeder in south Brooklyn, and over the course of their on-again, off-again relationship, Natasha had frequently insisted on speaking her native tongue. Schreiber had tried to keep up with her speech as best he could, eventually learning enough of the language through osmosis.
On his way out of the building with Zasha, Schreiber came upon Frankie, the doorman.
“Yo, let me ask you a question,” Frankie said, swaying back and forth with a note of bravado. “Do you think the liberals in this building will give doormen the time of day?” Schreiber hesitated, perplexed at the non-sequitur. There was a pause and Frankie continued, “yo, where you been? Haven’t you heard we’re going into lockdown? And we can’t even get any proper equipment from the Board.”
So, it was true: for weeks, the news media had been warning about a deadly new virus, and now it would affect all of their lives. Who knew how long it would last?
“That is very concerning,” Schreiber said, his brow furrowing. “If there is indeed a public health emergency, then you need suitable masks for protection. Perhaps I can lobby the Board and you can even get a temporary exemption from work.”
“Let me tell you somethin,’” Frankie replied, looking around the lobby and speaking in a hush. “Don’t bother. They just don’ care. And what gets me is they always pride themselves on being so compassionate in this neighborhood. They’s just a bunch a hypocrites. And the worst part is, I was just gettin’ to know that new hot doctor in 4G, and now we gotta socially isolate. Man, I woulda tapped that! Yuk, yuk!”
Feeling embarrassed and at a loss for words, Schreiber extricated himself and stepped out of the building with Zasha.
“Well, at the very least we might be spending a lot more time in the park now,” he said, as they proceeded along their walk.
“Очень хорошо!” Zasha barked. “Very good!”
There was a light snow, and the dog’s face beamed with pleasure. Excited by the cold, Zasha’s nose glistened and his tail tightened into even more of a macaroni-type shape. Throughout the neighborhood, the dog was well-liked and made a big splash: with one white eye and one blue eye, the animal’s unusual features always stood out. By walking Zasha every day, Schreiber had met a few other regulars in the park, though for some reason none of the encounters ever turned into lasting friendships. For that matter, he thought, he hadn’t made much social progress while performing his monthly work-shift at the food Co-op, let alone trying to engage with people in the local track club.
By the time the two returned to the building, the lobby was empty. Perhaps Miguel, the other doorman, was about to pick up the second half of the night shift. Years ago, when looking for a new apartment, Schreiber had singled out this pre-war building for its elegant art deco flourishes, though apparently few of the other shareholders shared his architectural appreciation, and whenever he appealed to the Board to refurbish the chipped paint, murals or light fixtures, he was told the funds simply did not exist. In a nod to tradition, Schreiber had acquired vintage deco posters which he had framed and hung on the walls of his own apartment, in addition to turquoise ceiling lamps made of an unusual period glass called jadeite.
Lying on the bed with Zasha, Schreiber glanced at his phone and saw a text message from his mother. “How did it go with the psychologist?” she wrote. Blocking out the day’s earlier events, he found himself watching an old black and white film on TV, in which the male characters all wore tuxedos while speaking in a polished and affected tone of voice. This provided a stark contrast to the present day, which was characterized by people paying scant attention to language and diction. Dozing off, he reflected how grating it was to hear Americans routinely employ such desultory expressions as, “you know,” “like,” and “sort of.”
“Please don’t dally in the aisles, and make sure to wear your mask at all times,” a worker shouted, as Schreiber waited the next day to buy groceries at the food cooperative. So, this was the new reality, he thought, marveling at the long line and new safety protocols, including wiping one’s hands with sanitizer in the entrance. From being a homey reassuring place, the Co-op now exuded a vague air of menace. After making his purchases, Schreiber headed home and was delighted to find an e-mail from his boss, the college dean, alerting all professors that class would be called off until further notice.
“What do you think about that Zasha?” he called out. “Как ты думаешь? Maybe now we can find more time for running.”
At the mention of exercise, the dog wagged happily. Schreiber too felt a great sense of relief that he would have more time to himself, away from pesky students and large meetings amongst colleagues. And perhaps now, he reflected to himself, he could try to get a handle on what his condition really meant. But after a few hours spent online, he felt more confused than ever. Even with the genetic link, if the brain imaging techniques couldn’t pin things down, then what was the actual physical basis?
Thinking that it all sounded a bit nebulous, Schreiber threw up his hands in exasperation and got up from the computer. One study hinted at difficulties with the terminology, suggesting that perhaps the best word to describe his status was simply “false planet syndrome,” which Schreiber found somewhat drole. According to other articles, people like him were prone to pursue special interests with great persistence and an intense, laser-like focus. On the other hand, trying to understand the motives of others, let alone simply get by in everyday social situations, took up enormous band-width and could lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Then something clicked, and he suddenly cried out: “it’s like Spock on the Starship Enterprise!” Schreiber was a great fan of the original TV series, and for a moment he recalled how Spock, a science officer, would always identify new areas of study. Later, the Vulcan would remark how certain topics were incredibly fascinating, from the Horta lava monster, to the special metal material making up Captain Kirk’s jail cell, to esoteric cultural developments on primitive planets to the possibility of parallel universes. Musing on such matters, Schreiber went into overdrive, and for the next forty minutes, he paced up and down the apartment while belting out “fascinating!” much to the consternation of Zasha, who placed his paws over his ears.
“Давае, давае, давае!” the dog called several days later, when the claustrophobic pressure of the apartment proved unbearable. “Come on!”
“You and your давае,” Schreiber noted. “Can’t you see I’m conducting important research on the computer?”
Zasha grabbed the leash and hurled it all over the apartment. When that didn’t work, he chewed the rug and tried ripping up the sofa. Finally bending to pressure, Schreiber put on his running shoes and an orange jumper. Realizing they were now in for an extended jaunt in the park, Zasha hooted and whoofed so loudly that his barking reverberated throughout their floor.
With people increasingly concerned about confined spaces, the park offered a respite for anyone seeking physical exercise. Usually, Schreiber tried to keep to a steady running routine, but lately he had been distracted by the computer, and as a result of sitting for hours on end, he had fallen out of shape. Heading on to the loop of the park with Zasha following close behind, he found it difficult to breathe while running with a mask, but kept it on so as to follow the rules. After only a quarter of a mile, however, Schreiber grew agitated as other, younger runners sprinted towards him while failing to observe social distancing. Feeling creaky and demoralized, he found it difficult to run for even a short time without stopping.
For the most part, Schreiber was accustomed to running just one loop, but today, feeling self-conscious about his lack of progress, he opted for two. Then, on the last leg of his run, Schreiber was overcome with emotion. Could it be the added strain of physical exertion? Suddenly, he began to wonder how things might have been different if he had been aware of his diagnosis earlier in life. Thinking back on virtually an infinity of past social interactions, encounters and exchanges which had gone nowhere or, even worse, somewhat awry, Schreiber felt overwhelmed.
“как дела?” Zasha barked, peering at him with head cocked curiously to one side. “How are you?”
Schreiber had stopped in the middle of the road, surprised to find tears streaming down his face.
Several days later, after conducting some research online, he found a support group geared towards people like himself, and zoomed in to join the discussion.
“Please introduce yourself, and tell the group how you’ve been faring during the pandemic,” the group leader asked.
Most participants hailed from across the city, and some appeared against unusual backdrops, for example a village inhabited by what looked like blue Smurfs dressed in red caps. During introductions, some people spoke painfully slowly, while others seemed the opposite and would go off on tangents or complain about how difficult it was to find a girlfriend. By and large, the members all seemed quite articulate, but once in a while Schreiber noticed jarring physical details which seemed out of place, like someone missing a front tooth.
When it came time for him to speak, the group leader exclaimed, “I’m Marvin, and without taking away from the untold suffering which this pandemic has wrought, I have not found the solitude to be all that difficult.” As he spoke, there was a murmuring of agreement within the chat room. Ironically, even though Marvin seemed opinionated, his face remained expressionless. “The majority has been deprived of creature comforts, be it wild parties, sports bars and the like, and everyone is going stir crazy at home,” he continued. “On the other hand, my life has not changed very much for the most part. At any rate, at the risk of sounding somewhat random, I would like to throw out the following question for tonight’s discussion: ‘masking’…good or bad?”
There was a pause as the other group participants looked mystified.
“What do you mean exactly,” Schreiber asked, unmuting himself. “You don’t mean to imply that we should stop wearing masks as a public health measure?”
Someone sitting against a backdrop of an old trolley-car then interjected.
“I’m Oliver, thank you very much. I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect what Marvin is suggesting is that from a social perspective, wearing a mask can be a relief sometimes. You still have to make eye contact, but facial expressions are minimized.”
Once the rest of the group understood, a lively discussion ensued until Marvin finally called on Schreiber. “At any rate, it seems that we have someone new this week,” the group leader intimated.
“Thank you for speaking with me. I was referred to this group by a psychologist. I live near the park and teach English at Brooklyn College. I was just diagnosed a week ago, and I’m curious to share experiences and learn about other people’s perspectives.”
When he heard where Schreiber lived, Marvin made a face.
“It must be a bit of a nuisance dealing with people over there, with their confining way of looking at the world. If you don’t fit into a particular narrative, you might as well not exist.”
Schreiber thought he understood. Though he had never really perceived his surroundings in exactly those terms, there seemed to be a degree of truth in what Marvin had said.
“I am enjoying my spare time, too. I’m very conscientious in class and constantly bring up out of the box questions and issues for the students, but with a few exceptions, most don’t seem to appreciate my approach.”
“Of course, they don’t,” Marvin remarked. “It must get frustrating hitting your head against a brick wall. Have you ever considered trying to encourage discussion about whatever is on your mind within other lively forums?”
Schreiber paused. The notion of trying something radically different felt somewhat threatening, and yet Marvin seemed to be on to something.
“Tell me, as a professor, where do you think we would be as a species right now if it weren’t for people like us? Still in the Paleolithic Age, chattering away over the fire and making small talk I reckon.” At the mention of small talk, other people on the Zoom call groaned in commiseration. “I’m assuming you realize that society is headed toward a scenario envisioned in the satiric movie, Idiocracy,” the support group leader added. “Look at it this way: if you have a Ferrari for a brain, then why would you dwell on matters that are commonplace to the majority?”
“But the psychologist said that it would be useful to cultivate active listening,” Schreiber said. To his own ear, his voice sounded resigned.
“Who the hell told you that?” Marvin asked in a staccato monotone.
When Schreiber mentioned the name of his psychologist, the others howled with scorn. Curious to know what was happening, Zasha jumped up on the desk and poked his nose into the computer screen.
“That huckster? He’s been riding a gravy train for years. On the lecture circuit, he argues that we suffer from mind blindness and are somehow out of touch with our emotions; that we should try to learn vital social skills; make more eye contact, and integrate into the mainstream. For what? So, we can buy into scheming social games of the majority? I believe we need to start flipping the script. Imagine a world in which we could just cut out the small talk and tedious social games, and everything was fair, as opposed to constantly having to try and figure out the confounded rules? I simply don’t believe it should be my responsibility to ‘assimilate.’ Personally, I’d rather just show up for these weekly support meetings and skip my other obligations.”
“While I agree somewhat with what has been said,” Oliver intoned, “I have been fortunate over the course of my life to have worked as an electronics engineer, and in my workplace, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to ‘conform,’ so-to- speak. However, in many other spheres of life, we don’t necessarily have that luxury, and therefore I would be quite cautious about disclosing one’s diagnosis. You never know who you are dealing with, and they may try to take advantage of you or worse.”
As Oliver spoke, Schreiber noticed how the man carefully enunciated every last syllable. For a moment, he almost sounded like the tuxedo-dressed actors Schreiber had watched earlier.
“That’s a nice trolley on your screensaver by the way,” Marvin remarked, randomly. “Where was the photo taken?”
“I’m very content you asked that question,” Oliver mused. “Today, as motorists speed across the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, few are aware that up until the mid-twentieth century, many people got around by using a vast network of streetcars. If you were to take the DeKalb line into downtown Brooklyn back in the day, you would have passed the old Paramount theater before arriving at Pratt Institute. My screensaver, however, depicts a car that brought patrons to Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play baseball.”
Oliver went on at length about the technical specification of different cables cars, in addition to the ins-and-outs of specific routes. Though Schreiber was somewhat intrigued by Oliver’s digressions, he grew weary after a certain point. When it became clear that Marvin was unwilling to cut off the discussion, Schreiber left a polite message in the group’s chat box saying that he had to excuse himself, since it was time to walk the dog.
Placing the leash over Zasha’s neck, Schreiber thought about the conversation. Though Marvin’s views seemed somewhat extreme, the group leader made him wonder whether he hadn’t sold himself short. Gradually, an idea began to form in his mind about how life might be different now, provided that he could capitalize on newfound awareness and knowledge about himself.
On his way out the front door with Zasha, Schreiber spotted Frankie’s co-worker. “How’s my número uno favorite shareholder?” Miguel gushed. “Hey, I wanted to thank you so much for reaching out to the Board on the doormen’s behalf! You’re the best!”
Since his exchange with Frankie, Schreiber had been furiously lobbying the building’s president concerning protective gear and possible exemptions for staff during the pandemic. Unfortunately, however, the response had been non-committal.
“Perhaps I can reach out to some other neighbors who might be able to get the ball rolling,” Schreiber said.
“Ay, Dios mío,” Miguel continued, his hands fluttering. “These shareholders are such prima donnas! I just had one resident call me at the desk, asking if I could call the New York Times myself to find out what’s happening with his subscription!”
At various points along the loop of the park, the lamp posts had fallen dark and Schreiber found it difficult to see.
“What’s the matter,” Zasha asked, “aren’t you a Ferrari?”
An eerie silence hung in the air, and as he ran, Schreiber nearly tripped over a frog. Marveling at the sight, he reflected that he hadn’t seen such creatures in the park for years. Nearing the edge of a lake, Schreiber then noticed a group of turtles no less.
“Isn’t this splendid, Zasha?” he commented, pausing to catch a breath. “It seems that people have emptied out, and noise pollution has been reduced as a result. Nature is making a comeback!”
“очень харашо!” Zasha barked, now giddily running in circles. “Very good!”
It was almost intoxicating to be in the park and free from hordes of other runners. With a sprint in his step, Schreiber found that his pace had quickened from their earlier outings. Then, as the two were making their way up a hill, strange shapes suddenly descended upon them. Something whizzed by his head, and then swerved in front of Zasha’s face. The dog seemed to hear something, and started to run after the creatures while pulling on the leash. Stopping in the middle of the road, Schreiber peered up at the glare of the lamp posts, realizing that a large swarm of bats had made their way into the park…but from where?
Later, as Schreiber gave Zasha a bubble bath in the tub, he remarked, “wasn’t that curious back there? With a bit of detective work, perhaps you and I can track down the creatures and find their hidden lair!”
“Кто они такие?” Zasha asked, “и они вкусные?” “What are they, and are they delicious?”
All of a sudden, he had an intriguing thought. What if he were to take advantage of his spare time and write some articles? The discussion about bats had prompted his mind to wander. Drying Zasha off with a towel, Schreiber got on the computer and conducted some online research about bats and man’s relationship to the natural world. It wasn’t long before he felt completely immersed, as he collected links and sifted through a mountain of information. It was as if the internet had been designed specifically for people like him, since everything was so methodically organized and satisfying.
“Zasha, did you know there’s a whopping 1,000 bats living around the park?”
Relaxed from his bath, the dog snoozed on the carpet and paid him no attention.
“According to my research, species range from red bats to little brown bats to big brown bats! They live in a roost somewhere in the vicinity, and fly over to the park around sunset to hunt for their evening meal.”
Thinking back on his previous Zoom discussion, Schreiber began to muse that Marvin may have been right, and it was time for him to start exploring innovative ideas while reaching a wider audience. Though bats had recently been maligned, where would we be without them, given the creatures vital role as pollinators? In addition, bats ate tons of insects, and dispersed seeds…
Now feeling in a more positive frame of mind, he finally answered his mother’s earlier text about the psychologist. Within minutes, she answered back, “this all makes much more sense now. I love and support you.” Feeling as if a weight had been lifted, Schreiber then fired off another e-mail to Natasha. If anyone would understand, he thought, it would be her, given that she was a social worker.
One of Schreiber’s fixations was New York’s many ethnic groups and neighborhoods. Before the pandemic, one of his favorite pastimes had been exploring Brooklyn while eating diverse foods, attending colorful parades and learning more about the borough’s lesser-known sub-cultures. As he set out on his outings, it often felt as if he was somehow a detached scientist, gathering impressions while acquiring a sense of his surroundings. The park was particularly intriguing, since it was balkanized into separate sections. Nearest to him, nannies could be seen pushing baby strollers while attending to children of the neighborhood’s most affluent families. Meanwhile, within another corner of the park, Mexicans and Central Americans often played sports or came together over a barbecue. Continuing onwards, Caribbean blacks gathered around the African drum circle while exchanging local news from the community.
It had been a while since Schreiber had ventured out of the neighborhood, and his movements had become more restricted, save the occasional outing to the Co-op to stock up on groceries. One day, however, Miguel invited him to attend a Quinceañera celebration to honor his niece’s fifteenth birthday.
“Can you please, pretty please come to my party?” Miguel gushed. “You’re the best! I’ve invited some of the neighbors as well, and how could you resist my captivating range of Mexican goodies, from tacos to tamales to a designer cake prepared special in Sunset Park?”
Schreiber was familiar with the bakeries dotting Miguel’s neighborhood, which catered to such celebrations with their many over-the-top creations. He always enjoyed sampling ethnic food, but he typically sauntered around different neighborhoods on his own. The idea of attending the party with new people, while stepping out of his routine, felt disquieting. “That is quite a considerate offer,” Schreiber said, “but…I don’t know anything about teenage girls, and I wouldn’t know where to start as far as purchasing a gift.”
“Now that you mention it,” Miguel cooed, “she’s crazy about female pop music stars from Mexico like Lina Downs and Julieta Venegas. But don’t you fuss about that…she can get all the songs she wants on Spotify.”
As a matter of fact, Schreiber knew quite a bit about the history of Mexican music, though he wasn’t so up to date on more current pop icons. Ultimately, however, the issue of the gift was beside the point, and suddenly Schreiber had a change of heart. “I’ll come up with something,” he said, now sounding a note of determination. Though it felt comfortable to seal himself off, Schreiber reasoned that maybe it was time to place himself in novel or more unpredictable social situations.
It was now springtime, and the party was to be held outdoors in the park. Perhaps, since everyone was masking, he wouldn’t have to be so mindful of his facial expressions. As Zasha romped around and tried to join a couple of men playing soccer, Miguel greeted Schreiber ebulliently like always.
“Bienvenido, caballero, thanks for coming! I only invited the cool shareholders including yourself.”
When Miguel mentioned the names of other specific residents who were set to show up later, Schreiber winced: they were the very same people who he had reached out to about improving the doormen’s situation. Despite their supposed penchant for fairness, however, they had failed to rally around him. While he momentarily fretted over such matters, Miguel took out his cell phone and stuck it straight in Schreiber’s face.
“I’m documenting the entire party for posterity! Meanwhile, check out my cake!”
Schreiber found himself fixated on the towering creation, which was covered in purple frosting and ornamental flourishes. Miguel’s niece, who wore a formal red evening dress covered in floral patterns, giggled at the sight of Zasha, who was running to-and-fro across the improvised soccer field and doing his best to obstruct the players. Feeling slightly self-conscious, Schreiber dropped his own contribution and personal birthday present on the table, consisting of a stylish pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Presently, the men took a break from their game and approached Schreiber and Miguel. As they stood drinking beer, Schreiber struggled with what to say. Perhaps, he thought, it would make sense to bring up the public health situation in Sunset Park? According to reports, the virus had claimed a high death toll amongst Latino residents in the area. And yet, some inebriated men weren’t wearing masks and strode dangerously close to him, which made Schreiber feel even more discombobulated. All of a sudden, however, he was distracted by a noise as the men started hooting and hollering to the sound of Mexican ranchera music.
“Me encanta,” Schreiber remarked. “I have always been interested in ranchera,” he added in Spanish. Though he was a bit rusty, Schreiber spoke the language fairly well.
The crowd was intrigued by the unusual newcomer.
“Are you familiar with Vicente Fernández, known as the king of ranchera?” he asked.
Apparently taken aback, the men seemed to welcome Schreiber’s knowledge of old-time Mexican singers.
“He hails from the city of Guadalajara,” Schreiber continued, “and starred in some famous movies in which he always played the role of the cowboy, or charro.”
Zasha looked at Schreiber with a pleading expression, as if to say that his master should keep his encyclopedic knowledge to himself, and rather ask the men about their own lives. Ignoring the dog, Schreiber continued, “though he inspired many imitators, none could match Fernández’s range and abilities as a singer.”
At this point, someone in the crowd shouted, “everyone knows him, but can you name some others?”
Not missing a beat, Schreiber responded, “of course, many occur to me, but just to name a few, Tito Guizar, who pretty much invented ranchera music in the first place, not to mention Miguel Aceves Mejía, Cuco Sánchez, Luis Pérez Meza…”
As Schreiber rattled out the names, the crowd starting hooting and hollering, which threw him into confusion.
“That gringo really knows his mariachi!” someone shouted.
The music was making it difficult for Schreiber to hear himself. Though he wasn’t entirely sure, Schreiber had the impression that the crowd was expressing approval, and not trying to mock him.
“Personally, I have always appreciated the mariachi outfit, also known as a charro suit,” he said. “Maybe I should get one of those embroidered costumes myself,” Schreiber mused, “as well as a wide-brimmed sombrero, silk tie and leather boots. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would be able to bring off that look, since I have tried to grow a moustache several times, and it always comes out looking terrible.”
As Schreiber left, Miguel, his niece and others seemed amused and genuinely touched by his irreverent remarks. But why had he been more successful at this party, Schreiber wondered, as opposed to other situations? It was as if he had been transformed by speaking Spanish, or maybe he had simply over-compensated. Perhaps he had simply seemed a little odd, though the men wouldn’t have been able to guess why, or they had simply attributed his distinctness to being a white gringo. Reflecting over the situation, Schreiber was distracted by large crowds which had gathered in the park. As they neared the African drum circle, the dog became excited at the prospect of dancing with the musicians.
“You know Zasha,” Schreiber remarked, “I cannot help wonder about people who purport to know so much about minorities and their situation. Are they even aware that there are many different groups living near the park, ranging from Grenadians to Trinidadians to Guyanese and more? How many people even know about some of the smaller islands, say St. Kitts & Nevis, or Saint Lucia? It seems to me there’s been a tremendous over-simplification and few have even heard of the thriving Afro-Panamanian community, to say nothing of the Garifuna people.”
Zasha quizzically cocked his head to one side.
“Don’t you remember when we went to Crown Heights, and we saw the Garifuna women preparing their traditional foods, including cassava pancakes? At that event, we sampled delicacies from the Garifuna folk of St. Vincent, but as you remember, many were exiled from the Caribbean islands, and had to flee to Central America and Belize following a slave revolt.” Pausing for a moment, Schreiber continued, “what I cannot understand is how anyone could fail to express interest in the West Indian Day parade. From floats to spirited costumes to vibrant foods, these are the types of events which make living in New York worthwhile, and yet when we went to observe the festivities last year, which were attended by a million spectators, we were one of only a handful of people from our neighborhood!”
“You’re right!” Zasha exclaimed, mesmerized by the memory of their earlier excursion.
A captive audience indeed. Why couldn’t others demonstrate the same level of interest when he spoke? Countless times, he had inquired about people and their well-adjusted lives, and yet there was seemingly no reciprocity. Perhaps it was all backwards, Schreiber reflected: rather than being inflexible himself, it was actually the reverse.
As they turned the bend of the loop, Schreiber looked for the drum circle, but for some reason the musicians weren’t there. In their place, a number of others had set up a booming sound system and were cranking electronic music. Schreiber found the noise painful to his ears, and yet the multitudes seemed to ignore it. A cop car was parked just nearby, but the police made no effort to control noise levels. Had someone secured a permit for the sound system? Schreiber worried that noise pollution would scare off bird and wildlife, which had slowly been recovering in the park, from bats to owls and even hawks.
Feeling distressed, Schreiber led Zasha out of the park, but no sooner had they attempted to cross the street, then an SUV pushed through a red light. Ominously, the driver sped up as he approached their intersection on Flatbush Avenue. Howling and jumping into a frenzy, the dog barely managed to get out of the way of the vehicle. Already thrown off kilter by the many events of the day, Schreiber was perturbed even more by their close shave on the street.
“As awful as this pandemic has been,” Schreiber typed on Facebook a few hours later, “perhaps we can make the most of the situation by opening up the streets to more pedestrian and bicycle traffic, which is sorely needed at this point.” Schreiber linked to a news article, discussing how many European cities had looked to the future by implementing new and visionary environmental policies. He then posted the item within his local track club’s group chat. Expecting that his fellow runners would wholeheartedly agree with his ideas, Schreiber was surprised when, just a few minutes later, a number of people responded sarcastically to his comments.
“LOL,” wrote one, “this is a very low priority. Society is confronting any number of problems right now, and, frankly, we just don’t have enough space on the road to do what you suggest.”
It was Lorraine, Schreiber noted, a fellow track member and one of his neighbors from an adjacent building.
“What can the club do as a whole to open the streets?” he typed. “At first, people seemed to be driving less during the pandemic, but now the public is purchasing more cars than ever before. With so many people crowded onto the road, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets run over.” To his amazement, many others sided with Lorraine.
The team captain then weighed in, sarcastically writing, “woohoo, Battle Royal and Lorraine vs. Schreiber! Get me some front row seats!”
Stepping away from the computer, Schreiber wondered why he was wasting time on his neighbors. Thinking back on what Marvin had said during the earlier meeting, he figured it would make sense to finally send out his article about society’s relationship to wildlife. Scanning the internet, Schreiber looked for suitable outlets, but they seemed all too predictable and merely harked on the same old talking points which were endlessly repeated on cable news. In any case, his article was probably too long to even be considered by prospective web sites.
“I just read it,” his mother wrote. “It’s brilliant…and encyclopedic. But it needs to be edited!”
Schreiber went over the piece, but was reluctant to make any changes. Hadn’t he already synthesized mountains of information and honed everything down? Maybe the problem wasn’t so much with him, but with others who were unwilling to consider his arguments or learn about issues out of the mainstream. Schreiber reviewed the submission pages for several web sites, but they only provided generic e-mail contact addresses. Sending the piece out blindly seemed bound to fail, he thought. Shrugging, he attached his article and sent it anyway. In the long-run, even if he failed, he could always start a blog of his own.
Returning to the apartment several days later with his groceries from the Co-op, Schreiber noticed that something seemed to have gotten into Zasha as the animal nervously paced this way and that. Perhaps he had gone stir crazy during the pandemic and needed a change from day-to-day routine? To be sure, the two of them had settled into a fairly predictable existence, which did not deviate from runs in the park or short walks from the apartment.
“мне нужна моя семья!” Zasha kept on barking. “I need my family!”
“Your family? Whatever are you talking about?”
“Can we say hello to Natasha too? Пожалуйста! Please!”
Aha, Schreiber thought, maybe the dog wanted to return to Sheepshead Bay, a Russian neighborhood located a few miles away. Zasha came from a special breeder in the community, and Schreiber recalled the dog had a number of siblings. Thinking to himself, he wasn’t sure if it was a great idea to try and visit Natasha, who never returned his calls. A few weeks ago, he had even contacted her about his diagnosis, though she had similarly failed to answer his text message. For a moment, Schreiber recalled how Natasha had gotten cross with him after he had immersed himself in online research about the various cultures and foods of south Brooklyn. Zasha was still a puppy at the time, and gazed up at them curiously as Natasha grew restless.
“I took the day off, and all you can do is bury yourself in the computer?”
“I want to spend time with you,” Schreiber protested, “but can’t you just give me another hour or so? I’m reading about the Belarussians.”
“Come on Zasha,” she retorted, gathering the dog in her arms and storming off into another room. “We’re going our own way!”
Turning the scene over in his mind, Schreiber unloaded the groceries and tried to ignore Zasha’s pleas. However, the dog persisted by throwing his leash around the apartment. Relenting, he grabbed his jumper and the two set out for Sheepshead Bay. It was a much longer run than he was accustomed to, though Schreiber found himself engaged with his surroundings. As they trotted along, he took in austere and Gothic spires topping the gates of Greenwood cemetery. Farther along, they came upon Sunset Park’s Chinatown, which felt slightly forbidding. In normal times, the streets would have been bustling with activity, but now the many shops selling everything from medicinal herbs to tonics to bubble tea were mostly shuttered. What would the neighborhood’s restaurants do with all of the live seafood kept in gigantic tanks, Schreiber wondered?
Continuing on, they finally arrived in Sheepshead Bay, which looked similarly deserted. An area populated by a range of peoples from the former Soviet Union, including Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Ukrainians and others, Schreiber had always enjoyed visiting local cafes, where grizzled old men sat hunched over tables playing a board game called narde, while consuming copious amounts of tea. At the very least, Schreiber noted, some bakeries must still be open, judging from the enticing smell of bread which wafted from special tandoor ovens. As they ran along, they passed Old Baku restaurant where Schreiber had first met Natasha. He recalled how they had enjoyed sampling the many varieties of vodkas which hung from gigantic decanters along the wall. There was something a bit unseemly about the male patrons, however, who Schreiber suspected may have been linked to the Ukrainian underworld.
Presently, they came to the house where Natasha had originally purchased Zasha, but the place was completely boarded up. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as Zasha looked on despondently. Wondering what had happened to the breeder, Schreiber led Zasha to Natasha’s apartment which was located just a few short blocks away. As they arrived, he took a photo of Zasha and texted it to Natasha. “Surprise! We came here to pay you a visit!” There was no response, and as they stood there, Schreiber began to feel cold, as the sweat had begun to freeze on his body.
Finally, a message appeared on his phone. “очаровательная картинка!” “adorable picture!” “Unfortunately, I cannot join you as I now live in Manhattan. I moved in with my new boyfriend who has two teenage daughters, so in a way, things finally worked out for me.”
Schreiber wasn’t particularly surprised, though he found himself grimacing nonetheless. Stepping on to the curb, he stubbed his toe rather badly and then seemed to lose his breath. Could he have gotten dehydrated from the long run? All of a sudden, Schreiber felt his knees buckle and he fell on the sidewalk. Looking alarmed, Zasha tried to revive him by licking Schreiber’s face. With the streets completely abandoned, no one heard Zasha barking for help. Now looking increasingly desperate, the dog dashed down the street to Old Baku restaurant, returning a few moments later with the owner, who had a craggy, granite-like face.
“как дела?” “How are you?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“I think I’m fine,” Schreiber answered. “I feel a bit shaken, but I think I just over-exerted myself from a long run.”
“One moment,” the man said, rushing back to the restaurant.
A few minutes later, the owner returned with a bottle of chalky Russian mineral water. Schreiber downed it immediately and felt invigorated.
“I really shouldn’t be doling this out, but here’s something else which may help,” the man remarked, taking a jar out of his pocket which was full of a brightly red-colored liquid. Schreiber immediately recognized the homemade raspberry vodka which was so popular amongst customers at the restaurant. “За здоровье!” “to your health!” he exclaimed, before setting off down the street.
After drinking the vodka, Schreiber hobbled to the train and made his way home.
“So new?” wrote his mother in an e-mail. “I’m not going to ask any more questions about the fallout with the psychologist, because I know you don’t like me to pry. What about coming to Manhattan sometime for a home-cooked meal? I’m sure it must be getting monotonous during the pandemic with the same groceries from the Co-op? Or maybe there’s something else you need?”
“What about an echolocation device?” Schreiber wrote, rather randomly. “You attach the gadget to your smartphone, and it tells you which species of bat is flying overhead by connecting to an app for Android or iOS. Zasha and I want to find the bat roost in the neighborhood, and the device will allow us to pinpoint their location.”
“Ok,” his Mom wrote, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ll look into it!”
Later, after soaking in the bubble bath, Schreiber fell asleep on the bed, his hands hanging off Zasha’s face.
“Yo, let me ask you somethin,’” Frankie exclaimed, a few days later. The doorman had taken off his headphones, breaking from listening to talk radio. “What kind of a person orders all these packages?” The lobby was full of parcels which covered the front desk and extended halfway down the hallway. “You gotta’ ask yourself, can’t some of this stuff wait? We’re on the front lines and I’m running a risk by just comin’ in here. To be honest wit’ you, the Board can go stick its bonus. I don’t want any of their dirty money.”
Schreiber was puzzled: apparently, his lobbying had paid off? He had no doubt Miguel would appreciate the extra money while praising his efforts to the skies, but if the other staff looked down on the bonus, then what was the point? An unpleasant scowl began to form on Schreiber’s face, which was fortunately concealed by his mask. He suddenly feared that if he were to make his thoughts truly known, that he would somehow lose control. Hastily exiting the building, he barely heard Frankie call after him, “and don’t forget there’s a package for you.”
Despite his toe injury, Schreiber made pretty good time with Zasha on the loop, and he decided to visit the lake to see if he could find any more frogs. As they approached, however, Schreiber spotted an unusual sight. Leaning over a number of large tanks, a man was scooping out some shapes which writhed and slithered into the water. Coming closer, Schreiber tried to make out what the creatures might be. Grabbing his cell phone, he shot a video while zooming in to capture the details.
“Excuse me, sir,” Schreiber yelled, “but you’re not supposed to release any foreign animals into the lake. It disturbs the ecosystem and other creatures living in the vicinity.”
The man, who was wearing a mask, paid little heed. Peering closer, Schreiber suspected the creatures might be eels. Finally realizing he was being filmed, the man turned and replied, “but I’m saving the lives of these creatures, I just want to save lives.”
Zasha growled menacingly, and Schreiber had to restrain his dog.
“Please don’t call the cops,” the man pleaded.
Schreiber backed off, shook his head and resumed his run.
Later in the apartment, he conducted some online research. Comparing his video with some photos, he concluded the creatures must have been Asian swamp eels, an invasive species which wreaks havoc on local wildlife. Perhaps this could make for another interesting article, he thought, reflecting how the incident seemed to reflect a kind of morality play on our times. As he wrote, however, he increasingly grew dissatisfied with the narrow focus of the piece. All of a sudden, something clicked and he decided to turn the whole affair into a wider article about the fate of the park and re-inventing public space in the city during the pandemic. It would take a long time to write, he reasoned, but he still had a few weeks left before his teaching would resume over Zoom. As Schreiber performed research into the early hours of the morning, Zasha regarded him with a note of curiosity. Barely aware of the dog or the outside world, he kept on typing.
“You’re the best!” Miguel greeted him some days later, outside the building. “Thank you so much for speaking with the Board! Did I tell you my niece was oh so pleased with your gift? She wears the headphones everywhere. Speaking of which…and I know I shouldn’t be so nosey, but it looks like there’s a package here from your mother. Also a gift perhaps?” The doorman went inside and presently came back with the package.
At last, Schreiber mused: perhaps now, he and Zasha would be able to get to the bottom of the mystery by finding out where the bat roost was located.
“Ay Dios Mío, I can’t breathe,” Miguel said, taking his mask off. “You know you can take yours off too; we’re outside at a safe distance.”
“I prefer to leave it on,” Schreiber said.
Miguel looked at him oddly, but he and Zasha were already halfway down the block, on their way to uncover more facts and material for Schreiber’s next article.