Sunday, May 06, 2007

Diversity Series

Touched By An Angel: How My New York Super Kept Me Afloat
By Julie Buntin

Angel Marquez is the mechanic for my building. Before our conversation for this story, he was just the guy who hovered around the shed outside my stoop, lugging a bright orange toolbox and wearing a dirty white t-shirt. I noticed him, smiled at him, thanked him when he fixed the leaky water pipe in my roommate’s ceiling and filled the mouse hole behind the stove—but I never asked him a single personal question or even offered him a glass of water.

On Sunday, April 12, when my apartment flooded drastically, Marquez was the only person in the building who helped me. Together we transported several bags of stuff from the flooded basement into the upstairs kitchen, and Marquez even waded into the deepest sections of the downstairs living room to help me move my books to safety.

The water continued to rise, and after an hour or so, sweaty and soaked in dirty rainwater, the two of us sat down in exhausted, amiable silence at my kitchen table. To thank him for all his help, I insisted that he stay and help me eat a pizza I ordered from Ray’s across the street. The first thing one notices about Marquez—he is a shy man.

His voice is soft, and low, and often I found myself asking him to repeat answers to various questions. He has a round, kind face, framed by white fuzzy facial hair and an almost French looking white mustache. While we devoured huge slices of cheese pizza and the water in my basement continued to rise, I found myself growing more intrigued with Marquez by the minute. His heavy Spanish accent began to make sense to me, and through it, I could detect all the hallmarks of a quick and lively sense of humor, as well as a keen, observant mind. It isn’t that I hadn’t expected Marquez to be intelligent. I’m not that backwards. It’s just that I hadn’t expected to like him so much.

After a few minutes or so, I rather awkwardly asked him if he would allow me to interview him for my journalism class. It seemed somehow the perfect time. Disaster was striking me from every angle, and downstairs the notes for my other journalism story were floating in a soggy mess. At first, Marquez seemed tense and unwilling to answer with any great detail the questions I asked him about his life. But after a few minutes, he loosened up, and by the end, I dropped my notepad and let the conversation flow freely.

Marquez was born in Spanish Harlem on August 12, 1950, into a working class family of Mexican immigrants. This information was the first surprise of our conversation. From Marquez’s accent alone, I would have guessed English was his second language. The perfect encapsulation of a culture in my own city had never occurred to me. That someone could manage to speak Spanish more often in an English speaking city hit me like an epiphany, which speaks to my own lack of observation. According to Marquez, he grew up in a small apartment on 117th street and Third Avenue, sharing a room with his younger brother Javier.

During adolescence, Marquez’s father worked as a cab driver while his mother went through a stint of jobs—waitressing, working at a Laundromat—while attending night classes at CUNY. She never completed her degree, but the necessity of a college education for success in American culture resonated with Marquez from an early age.

“Getting a degree, that is what matters here. I didn’t listen, I did other things, never cared about school—I was making plenty of money doing odd jobs for people by the time I was sixteen. School was worse than a job, it was a waste of time… but even when I was skipping I could hear my mother saying no, Angel, this is a bad idea… I told my girls every day, go to college. And now they do!” Marquez said, before taking a huge bite of pizza.

Marquez has two daughters with his wife of 25 years. When he talks about his family, he grins uncontrollably, and his eyes grow a little distant. “My oldest daughter is an accounting major at Hunter College,” he says. “And the youngest, she hasn’t picked her major yet, she doesn’t know what she wants to do. She goes to CUNY. She’ll figure it out. Be a lawyer, that’s what I say, you can take care of me when I’m old!” Marquez laughs.

Following the questions about his family, I asked Marquez a list of favorites. His favorite food is steak. Good old American steak, medium rare. His favorite place to walk is right along the East River. Color? Blue.

Growing up in Spanish Harlem wasn’t as difficult as the media or even New Yorkers would have you believe, according to Marquez. “There were punks, and gangs, and people who would jump you walking down the street at night, sure, but it was no worse than anywhere else and if you kept your eyes out, you’d be fine.” At this point in our dialogue, the fire department arrived and we were interrupted.

Now when Marquez is over refinishing the floor down stairs and helping fix the flood damage, I make sure to chat with him for a few minutes and offer him something to eat or drink. In fact, I’d say we are friends. The last question I asked him? If he could go anywhere in the world, he would go to New Zealand. “No place like it in the world I hear.”

No comments: