It is to my family, though-my mother, my grandparents, my siblings, stretched across oceans and
continents-that I owe the deepest gratitude and to whom I dedicate this book. Without their constant love
and support, without their willingness to let me sing their song and their toleration of the occasional wrong
note, I could never have hoped to finish. If nothing else, I hope that the love and respect I feel for them
shines through on every page.
A FEW MONTHS AFTER MY twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living
in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border
between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with
soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting
floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a
pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in
vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.
None of this concerned me much, for I didn’t get many visitors. I was impatient in those days, busy with
work and unrealized plans, and prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions. It wasn’t that I didn’t
appreciate company exactly. I enjoyed exchanging Spanish pleasantries with my mostly Puerto Rican
neighbors, and on my way back from classes I’d usually stop to talk to the boys who hung out on the stoop
all summer long about the Knicks or the gunshots they’d heard the night before. When the weather was
good, my roommate and I might sit out on the fire escape to smoke cigarettes and study the dusk washing
blue over the city, or watch white people from the better neighborhoods nearby walk their dogs down our
block to let the animals shit on our curbs-“Scoop the poop, you bastards!” my roommate would shout with
impressive rage, and we’d laugh at the faces of both master and beast, grim and unapologetic as they
hunkered down to do the deed.
I enjoyed such moments-but only in brief. If the talk began to wander, or cross the border into
familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest
place I knew.
I remember there was an old man living next door who seemed to share my disposition. He lived alone,
a gaunt, stooped figure who wore a heavy black overcoat and a misshapen fedora on those rare occasions
when he left his apartment. Once in a while I’d run into him on his way back from the store, and I would offer
to carry his groceries up the long flight of stairs. He would look at me and shrug, and we would begin our
ascent, stopping at each landing so that he could catch his breath. When we finally arrived at his apartment,
I’d carefully set the bags down on the floor and he would offer a courtly nod of acknowledgment before
shuffling inside and closing the latch. Not a single word would pass between us, and not once did he ever
thank me for my efforts.
The old man’s silence impressed me; I thought him a kindred spirit. Later, my roommate would find him
crumpled up on the third-floor landing, his eyes wide open, his limbs stiff and curled up like a baby’s. A
crowd gathered; a few of the women crossed themselves, and the smaller children whispered with
excitement. Eventually the paramedics arrived to take away the body and the police let themselves into the
old man’s apartment. It was neat, almost empty-a chair, a desk, the faded portrait of a woman with heavy
eyebrows and a gentle smile set atop the mantelpiece. Somebody opened the refrigerator and found close
to a thousand dollars in small bills rolled up inside wads of old newspaper and carefully arranged behind
mayonnaise and pickle jars.
The loneliness of the scene affected me, and for the briefest moment I wished that I had learned the
old man’s name. Then, almost immediately, I regretted my desire, along with its companion grief. I felt as if
an understanding had been broken between us-as if, in that barren room, the old man was whispering an
untold history, telling me things I preferred not to hear.
It must have been a month or so later, on a cold, dreary November morning, the sun faint behind a
gauze of clouds, that the other call came. I was in the middle of making myself breakfast, with coffee on the
stove and two eggs in the skillet, when my roommate handed me the phone. The line was thick with static.