Memoir: El Negrito y la Niña Part 2

Originally published: February 13, 2002

This is the second in a 3 part series.

Weeks went by. My Spanish was improving daily, thanks largely to a co-worker named Gertie, who not only showed endless patience with me, but who did me the honor of teaching me the current Bogotáno slang, as well as many rather off-color words and phrases. Squinting behind the smoke from her cigarettes, she would correct my use and pronunciation of these and nod in satisfaction when it all came together correctly. 

But I still stumbled in my comprehension, especially when trying to understand fast-speaking clients, and I would blush with shame each time I brought out something from the back they had not asked to see. More than once, having caught the word “watch” in a rapid-fire sentence, I had dutifully trudged back out to the sales floor with a weighty tray of new Concords, Rolexes and Diors from the safe, only to be greeted by a puzzled stare, often turning to thinly disguised amusement from the customer as I realized they’d come not to purchase, but simply to pick up their watch that was in for repair. If Gertie was on the floor, she would try to preempt such moments, but she was often smoking in the back, and so I was left to squirm. 

Saturdays were my best days, when, for a change, I worked harder than any of the others. That’s when groups from the US Embassy would make their pilgrimage to the store. They earned additional hazard pay in dangerous, war-torn Colombia, and often came on the weekend to spend their dollars in a place they trusted and where there was always good coffee, someone to listen to their gossip, and an armed guard at the door. Some of them were calm, adventurous souls who made an attempt at the language, appreciated the culture, and took good advantage of their two year stint. But there were others – the brazen ones who showed up in their casual weekend warm-up suits that they never sweated in, who gripped their dollars fiercely and wheedled extra discounts and sat in the soft leather chairs as if they owned the place. I enjoyed taking their money – all of them – but I particularly savored making a sale to the most objectionable of their kind as they shrewdly scanned the trays of jewelry. Somehow, extracting their money helped me convince myself of my separateness from them. 

But most of the time I didn’t know where I belonged, either culturally or professionally. I felt the owners of the store had little idea of what to do with me. I was foreign, I was trained and educated, I had strong opinions about what I would and would not do, which was outside the realm of their experience with their niñas – their girls, their saleswomen. When I expressed bafflement to Gertie about the use of the word “niña” to refer to all their female employees, she exhaled a long column of smoke, and shrugged at me with a non-comprehending smile – “niña” was fine with her, as long as she was paid and well treated. I had hit a cultural rift. 

I refused outright to wear the uniforms. These had been designed by the Matriarch of the family. Matriarch was a severe woman with dyed, crisply helmeted hair. When she strode into the store, the powerful wake that veed out behind the tailored suit unnerved us. Even her Sons, all of whom towered over her, would bend and scrape in her presence. She had seen to it a few years earlier that her niñas all had sensible, sexless, and identical clothing while representing her family. She had even bought extra bolts of the fabric with which to have replacement items made should the old ones wear out. Mondays it was a brown skirt and a flowered blouse. Tuesdays, an olive-drab skirt and an off-white blouse with a flaccid yet asphyxiating bow at the neck. On Wednesdays, a black skirt and a polka-dot blouse. On Thursdays, it was back to the brown skirt, this time matched with a jaundiced yellow blouse. And so on. The Sons eventually accepted my refusal of the uniform – I was different after all, a little exotic with my accent and my navy blue passport. Matriarch could never swallow my little rebellion, and would occasionally announce it was high time I got fitted. I took to wearing clothes that were similar to the daily uniform, but different– thus camouflaged, I maintained – or pretended I maintained - my obstinate singularity. 

One of the few non-niñas who worked on the sales floor – aside from the Brothers themselves when a client would show up and demand to see one them - was a tiny, shriveled almost entirely deaf old gentleman. He wore an ancient brown suit that clung to his bent spine and fell limply off his rib cage. My only memory of him – he retired soon after I began working there - was watching him hunched at his desk, coughing weakly into the cloud of insecticide he was spraying into an antique wooden clock. “To kill the worms!” he wheezed at me with a gummy smile, before his gnarled finger depressed the aerosol nozzle again, propelling more spray into the corners of the sodden clock. He didn’t seem to have any regular customers at all, and spent his days tinkering at his desk, or gazing with pale, watery eyes out the window into the deserted mall. The Brothers never spoke ill of him, and always treated him with respect.

Afternoons were endless. While sipping our third or fourth cup of afternoon coffee - brought to us at regular intervals by a careworn beauty named Laura, who also emptied our wastebaskets and ashtrays, and scrubbed the bathroom - the conversation turned one day from the problems of Colombia to the problems of the US. As I worked on some sketches a little way down the counter, I heard it to be generally agreed in that small circle, that racism was terrible in North America, and that thank God, with all Colombia’s other problems, at least that wasn’t one of them.  There were no race riots, no uprisings, no talk of bigotry and inequality. No talk at all, as far as they knew, among the non-white population.

This lead to discussion on the non-white population in general. A squat woman with a tenacious lisp and squinting, rheumy eyes muttered that she preferred the Indios to the Blacks. Blinking at the group of identical flowered blouses - it was a Monday - she confided that she did not like the way los Negros smelled, there was an odor about their skin, she said, shuddering, that she couldn’t abide. Didn’t know just what it was, she mused as she stirred her coffee demurely, her pinky cocked like a dog’s hind leg, but it was intolerable. Her heavy, jutting jaw with it’s ruined teeth allowed a delicate smile and she put her cup down, saying she must get back to her stone sorting. She stumped up the stairs on her swollen legs, clutching the rickety handrail and belching softly.

I found that her views were not exceptional. The Patriarch of the family had, I assumed by his name, his accent, and his age, grown up in pre-war Germany. At what age he had come to South America, and fleeing what demons or retributions or trials, I did not know. He had initially been very kind and welcoming to me, as I struggled to improve my Spanish, speaking to me in a booming, lightly accented English. He was the embodiment of Old World charm, I thought, and I was glad on the rare occasion he would come into the store. 

But I began to notice things about Patriarch. In one conversation, he appeared shocked and amused to discover I was a Democrat, and he had looked at me strangely, as though considering me for the first time. Several times after that, he engaged me in increasingly uncomfortable discussions, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to ferret out my opinions. I began to notice how very fat he was.

One morning, I was cornered again in conversation by him, his cerulean eyes glittering like shattered glass. A comb-full of hair clung obediently to his head, as did the six pre-cancerous moles, which, like foot prints, tiptoed up to its shiny summit. I was backed up against the wrap desk, as he spoke, all the while smiling and confiding. His wool vest puckered under the stress of trying to stay buttoned. He told me about the Blacks, about the Indios, how they were incorrigible, how there were fundamental differences between us - the whites - and them. He told me how it was with the Jews. 

I looked back at him with my blond hair, my blue eyes, and knew that my Jewish heritage was not obvious in me. 

So I decided to tell him, as his deep voice bore down upon me, as that retaining wall of a vest came nearer and nearer, that I was Jewish. 

It was a lie, really. I am only half a Jew, if that phrase has any meaning at all. My father is Jewish, and although his mother Matilda continued to attend her Synagogue until her death, she and her husband Henry had never exactly followed through on their only son’s religious studies. In fact years later, we discovered he’d been confirmed but had never had his Bar Mitzvah.  My parents are atheists – although I suspect my father harbors his own secret doubts about the non-existence of God. My upbringing was schizophrenic in that regard. Shelves lined with books on the history of the Jews, Jewish lore, Yiddish dictionaries, and jokes. As a family, we revered Jewish comedians and humor, incorporating into our very souls the wit of the Marx Brothers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Allan Sherman. Several times a week, my father would come home from the hospital, where he was a physician, with fresh jokes. These he’d learn from his contemporaries, several of them part of a dying breed who still spoke fluent Yiddish.

So yes, technically I lied to Patriarch when I said I was Jewish. Half doesn’t count, especially from the paternal side. But I was in the odd position of being able to shock this man whose father or uncle might, under different circumstances, have shoveled my grandparents into the ovens without a second thought. I felt I had the right at that moment to borrow a part of my buried identity and bring forth my inner Jew.  

I said the words. I said, “That’s interesting, you know, because I’m Jewish.” There was a moments pause – just the barest moment – then the immense vest pushed away from me, the buttons slightly askew, the material creased and frowning. His conversation seamlessly veered away elsewhere, and soon he turned to exit the store, passing the armed security guard at a very brisk pace for such a very fat man.

End of part 2. 

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