“I believe there is a reason why we have met, why we are talking right now. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
That was a parting comment that came way after I hesitated to respond to a smalltalk.
Generally, I am not a smalltalk fan, especially with random people unless of course I am equally interested. Smalltalk can be as annoying as a mosquito buzz. Imagine you are not in the mood to talk, and someone is pestering you.
But this small-talker’s persistence had me annoyed enough and we broke ice. It all started with a comment on a subway poster.
I certainly didn’t agree with his comment, but he somehow managed to get my attention. What can you do? Sometimes you just let a person win. But the thing is I always find it hard to shut up when I hear something I can’t stomach. But then I ask myself: is it worth the trouble dealing with someone whose main interest is making a statement and not really listening to what I may have to say?
In the situation above, you are technically not invited to have a dialogue, but expected to lend your ears for a monologue that you have no interest. Why waste time and energy, unless of course you are stuck inside a train car like I was and you forgot to bring your earphones?
“I am 67 years old. And I am Puerto Rican! And you, my friend?” He said, in the middle of the conversation he pulled me into, confident that his old age meant a special privilege to lecture me and the rest of the strangers riding the sleepless train.
This was his opening remark:
“The women I work with make more money than I do but you still find posters like this one here complaining how they are making less than us…ridiculous!” he said, giving me a disgusted look.
“They want everything. They want to be the husbands, turning us into wives. They want to be the men of the house. Everyone is playing a victim these days. Blacks. Latinos. But this is a great country, you know, because every person gets a chance to realize the American Dream.”
I tried not to pay attention. We both are standing next to each other. Two women sitting in front of us. He clearly wanted to make sure that everyone heard what he had to say so he spoke louder. Others were too busy for his rant with wires plugged in their ears, listening to music or playing video games.
My main concern at the time was reaching my train stop so that I could get the hell out of the packed train, and could avoid this weird old man who really wanted to engage me in a conversation I was not interested. I was already exhausted, no energy for him.
“People should stop complaining and work hard. We should not allow our identity to limit us. I came to this country with nothing. I am 67 years old now. And I am Puerto Rican. I have worked very hard for the last 35 years, and I never went jobless,” he continued.
The more he talked, the more I wanted to walk away but no space for me to move.
“You know, my nephew, who served in the army, was jobless for six months after he came back. He was very young then. I told him to apply for work at my place and that I would recommend him. Once he did apply, I recommended him and he got the job. You see what I mean?”
He looked at me, waiting for my response or seeking some kind of validation. So I responded. Just because he was making me sick with his terrible reasoning.
I wanted to say, “wtf man, shut up!” But he has his freedom of speech, like everybody else, despite the discomfort he caused me trying to strike a conversation. Plus, that was not the best way to talk to an elderly.
“It took your recommendation for your nephew to get the job after six months of unemployment. Do you realize that? That not everyone has such kind of connection? If you hadn’t recommended him, he would probably have remained jobless for longer periods.”
I just had to say that though I should have shut up.
Now he got even more fired up.
“Well, my nephew also didn’t try enough. He was lazy, my friend. I am 67 years old and I was never jobless. The difference is he only sees himself as Puerto Rican and I see myself as a man, a capable human who could go knock on doors and fight for jobs, whatever kind. I have scrubbed toilets, you know. People like my nephew want the job to be served to them on silver plate. They also have no faith in their abilities. They reduce themselves to boxes of identities. My nephew had given up on himself because he thought he had no chance as a Puerto Rican. He didn’t believe in himself as a man. He also didn’t want to start from scratch like I did with scrubbing toilets.”
He could not stop. I felt maybe he just needed to talk. This may be the one moment he had a chance to speak with fellow human being in a city where one has time for nobody else. I am sure seniors feel the isolation that rugged individualism creates way worse than millenials.
But what’s up with his constant self praise? I almost had enough of him, but I needed to ask one question.
“Are you denying that racism or gender bias exists?”
“Of course, racism exists. I have lived it as a Puerto Rican, but I don’t allow it to limit me. I define myself. And the world today is a far better place for you, young people, than the world my peers or those before us lived in. There are challenges still but challenges make or break us. You just have to step up to the plate. You need to up your game. It is a capitalist system. Race or gender is irrelevant to capital but can be used to advance the interests of a capitalist. The key to success is hard work and self esteem.”
Though I understood him, he just sounded too patronizing and simplistic to me. I know I am being judgemental myself but what the hell!
One minority lecturing another minority about how great America is despite the endless and horrible statistics contradicting the mythical greatness.
The belief that if I worked harder, I would go past the glass ceiling without fighting against the status quo is total nonsense. Forget structural racism, sexism, or discrimination against sexual orientation, etc., but wear a uniform, or a nice suit, and simply live your life; wrongs would correct themselves, no need to make a noise. Seriously, abuelo? I first thought he was a Jehovah’s Witness, but it turned out he was Catholic.
I mean, donkeys work harder than most people, too, but I am sure that if they could, they would revolt against the cruel ways humans treat them.
Luckily, the train reached my station, which also happened to be his station. I thought he was going to leave me alone, but he was not done yet. I just excused myself and ran out. That was when he told me that our meeting was not a coincidence but pre-destined to happen, thanks to God.
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Why would God, the merciful and kind, want this poor guy to go through such an ordeal knowing that I had an exhausting day already?
Though I understood the generational gap between me and the old man, I just wished he was less selfcongratulating and more open to the idea that no social progress comes without people fighting for it. Also that it is important to challenge a system that discriminates against a person based on race, ethnicity, gender, faith or sexual orientation.