Originally published in INTHEFRAY magazine.
The Making of an American
A Brooklyn pool hall reveals how to pose as a native son in 2005
“Immigrant” is a four-letter word in Brooklyn schools. Much worse than “nigger.” You can call your best friend a nigger if he says something stupid, but to call someone an immigrant is to brand him a misfit, an intruder, someone who doesn’t belong.
Brooklyn is 40 percent immigrant, according to the Newest New Yorkers report, published by New York City’s Department of City Planning in January. In Midwood, the Brooklyn neighborhood south of Prospect Park, most immigrants come from Russia, Ukraine and Pakistan. Each country is well-represented in the trash-talking that goes on at the 9 Ball Pool Club on Coney Island Avenue.
At the pool hall, the teenaged sons of all those Russian, Ukrainian and Pakistani immigrants mix with boys from everywhere else: Afghanistan, Puerto Rico, Palestine and Bangladesh. Catholics, Jews and Muslims. White, brown, and black. They start to drift in from 2 p.m. when Lasha, one of the hall’s owners, opens its doors. Usually they hang around the two San Francisco Rush 2049 video machines by the door, one kid racing his virtual car, others hanging over his shoulders and backseat driving. Lasha sits behind his counter in the far corner of the hall and listens to Russian radio. When the place fills up a little, he switches on the television suspended from a corner of the ceiling that seems to only play MTV music videos.
On a blustery afternoon in January, Fat Cat and Rabbi Rooski are waiting for someone with money in his pockets to walk through the pool hall door.
Seventeen, born in the United States but with parents from Puerto Rico, Fat Cat has shoulder-length brown hair, a round face and a short, round body. His voice is like a girl’s — a soft and sibilant Hispanic whisper — but each of his eyebrows has two parallel notches shaved out of it — a well-known gang identifier. Fat Cat is an “O.G.” — an Original Gang-member — so you don’t want to try calling him a girl.
Rabbi Rooski is from Ukraine, tall with short-cropped blond hair below a backward-turned baseball cap, and a slightly pimply face. The Rabbi came to the United States nine years ago, when he was eight. His real name is Edward. “Ed-waard,” he tells me, stretching out his name in a put-on Russian accent. (He normally speaks strict New Yorker.) “My name is Ed-uaardo. I come from Uu-kraine: The mah-therland of mah-fia country.”
The two boys are looking for pool partners willing to share the cost of an hour at a table. A tall, dark-skinned boy opens the door to the hall and instantly, the Rabbi is on him. “You got any money?” he asks. The boy, startled, shakes his head and walks right out.
“I’ve got money!” 13-year-old Ahmad from Pakistan pipes up. Ahmed “talks too much shit” according to Fat Cat. He’s been playing San Francisco Rush with Geis but he’d rather shoot pool with the big boys and this afternoon, the big boys can’t afford to say no.
I chip in a couple of bucks as well and together, three cool teens and one 29-year-old reporter, the four of us have enough money — $8 — to pay Lasha for a rack of balls.
Geis who has been abandoned by Ahmed, walks over to watch our game. From Yemen, Geis arrived in the States when he was less than a year old. He’s 13, short for his age, and thin. Geis prefers Bob’s Store, a video arcade down the street on Newkirk Avenue to Lasha’s, because arcade games are a lot cheaper than pool. But Bob gets angry with kids who loiter around his place and shouts at them when they start to fool around. Lasha is a lot more relaxed about a bunch of kids hanging out at his pool hall not doing anything. He shouts at the kids to be careful with his sticks, or to stop playing when their time runs out, but they never listen.
The boys call Lasha an immigrant. It doesn’t help that he wears tight-fitting, brown corduroy pants and a beige, long-sleeved, turtleneck t-shirt with a sleeveless, brown leather jacket on top. He is a heavy-built bear of a man, who arrived in the United States from Georgia three years ago and has yet to acquire an American fashion sense or accent.
“Can you be an American if you weren’t born here?” I ask the boys, just to be sure.
“No!” Fat Cat and Ahmad reply immediately in unison. “Then you’re an immigrant.” To them it’s an either/or situation — American or Immigrant — you can’t be both. (They all see themselves as American.)
“You can try,” suggests Geis, but his undertone sounds doubtful.
“Can you tell just by looking at someone if he’s an immigrant?”
“Yeah,” the boys say confidently. “It’s the way he looks, the way he speaks, and all that. His dress is different. His voice.” They point out Shanl who’s been standing on the periphery of our conversation, quietly listening.
“He’s an immigrant! For sure!” they shout, happy to have found another one.
“How can you tell?”
“Just look at him!”
Shanl retreats inside his jacket and his eyes dart between the boys and me. He wants to be an American — he tells me afterwards that he is one — but he’s wearing the wrong kind of clothes: a white-and-blue striped, cotton polo t-shirt underneath a black jacket with a fur-trimmed hood. His jeans are the wrong shade of blue and his black-and-white sneakers are a no-brand variety. The other boys are in North Face, Nike and Sean John. They talk with a Brooklyn accent: the softened T’s, the rounded vowels. Shanl, who arrived in the United States from Pakistan a year ago, has yet to master this style of talking. He rarely speaks but when he does, his voice betrays his recent arrival.
“So what if you was born here?”
An American teenager living in Midwood, Brooklyn needs to have seen the new Usher video and the latest Will Smith blockbuster. An American teenager needs to know the rudiments of pool and basketball and football. He must know who is in which gang — whether it’s the Crips, the Latin Kings, or that Afghani gang across the street. He’s got to know how to talk — not to parents or inquisitive female reporters — but to other kids. Talk slang, talk back, talk big. An American teenager needs to have a command of the various accents of his neighborhood so he can make fun of friends’ backgrounds. In Midwood, that means being able to fake a passable Russian accent and a bad Pakistani one.
But there are immigrant children who can do all this — who look and speak like Americans — but who refuse to call themselves American.
When Kamal Uddin, a short 17-year-old, walks into the pool hall, in his bright red jacket and his slicked down fringe, he makes it a point to shake the hand of all the boys there. He tells me each of their names and the schools they go to. He grabs Fat Cat round the neck and tells me that Puerto Rican Anthony is his cousin. Wasif, from Afghanistan, is his best friend. Then he leans close and whispers that he used to have a crush on Geis’ sister from Yemen. As soon as the words come out, he straightens and says it was rather she who had a crush on him. He says there are no cliques drawn along ethnic or racial lines in the mixed pool hall crowd. “There’s just like a brotherhood thing, you know?”
But when I ask Kamal if he thinks of himself as an American, he says no. He tells me how after September 11th, the kids in his school started calling him names because of his brown skin and his Muslim faith. They started calling him an immigrant. Kamal says he never answered back. But one day, his principal heard one of the kids teasing him in the hallway. “You know what?” the principal reprimanded the girl, “You’re not a citizen either. You’re an immigrant too. We’re all immigrants except the Native Americans.”
Since that day, Kamal has worn the badge of an immigrant with pride. And that too is a peculiarly American trait. “I was born in Bangladesh. That’s my country,” he tells me. “I can’t just come to another and say, ‘This is my country.’ Nobody can come and tell me that this is my country. So what if you was born here? You still have a background, you know? Those people who are born here, those are the people who say, ‘Yeah, I’m American straight up. American, born and raised.’ But come on, so what? You still have a background. We’re all immigrants. Speak the truth, we’re all immigrants.”
This article originally appeared on May 2, 2005, in INTHEFRAY magazine.