[This essay appeared originally in the summer 1998 issue of Ararat. Some of the material is dated. Some Watertown shops have changed (and changed hands or folded) since then. Arax Market itself has moved to a bigger location which is only a few steps away from the original one. Still, despite all these changes and face lifts, the spirit of the place endures. The photographs for this post are recent.)
I am on my way to Watertown again for fruits and vegetables and a special kind of Greek cheese which arrives from New Jersey once a month and disappears almost as soon as it hits the refrigerator of the store. Here, too, I will find the special low-salt Montreal flat bread which is available in limited quantities on Saturdays only. I’ll also pick up lamb chops from the butcher on the corner of Mount Auburn and Bigelow streets. “The chops are extraordinary today, ” he said on the phone in Armenian, our common language of origins, though we speak different dialects. I can’t argue with a fiery-haired, nimble man who takes his job and knives seriously. He has told me that when he lived in Iran, he was a civil engineer. “Are you kidding? When I arrived in Boston,” he has confessed, “I knew nothing about cutting meat! But I learned and business is good. My father, God illuminate his soul, would have been proud of me, but he died too early — brain tumor.”
Along this stretch of Mount Auburn, between roughly Arlington and School streets,the smell of roasted coffee and the drone of dialects hover over some two dozen establishments — from the Greek diner to the falafel store on one side, and the hardware store to the funeral home on the other. Food stores and churches, community centers and photo shops, a beauty supply store and a pizza parlor, a television repair shop and a Middle Eastern restaurant all cohabit a cramped, noisy space. Off of Mount Auburn, down Bigelow Street, an Ethiopian Orthodox wedding has just ended. A large joyous crowd has gathered in front of the Armenian church where the ceremony has just taken place. The butcher has told me that the Ethiopians use the church because in this part of Boston, they do not have their own meeting place yet. The wedding party is now getting ready for a picture. The group freezes for a moment — white festive clothes and ribbons against dark skin glistening in the afternoon sun — and then slowly moves toward the parked cars. On other week-ends, the atmosphere around the Hellenic Community Center across the street is likewise buzzing with activity; well-dressed children come out of ribboned cars and caterers carry large boxes of pastry into the building where a christening party is in progress. Sometimes, on week days, if you walk down Bigelow away from Mount Auburn, you can also catch a glimpse of a funeral procession as mourners ascend the imposing steps of St. Stephen’s Armenian Church. Oftentimes, after the service, they gather in the church basement for the traditional hokédjash, food offered and consumed for the soul of the deceased.
This afternoon, Mount Auburn Street is animated. Housewives in slippers trade jokes with Harvard students in Birkenstocks; old men discuss the merits of a certain tobacco brand in loud voices; priests from the churches in the neighborhood rub shoulders with carefully dressed professionals; visual artists-turned-acupuncturists from Brookline offer impromptu advice to the ailing. Some people are talking among themselves; others are quietly inspecting the fruit stands and bargaining with the owner; others still are sharing what must be a bawdy jokes with hearty laughter. A few older men are hanging out at the corner, quiet and solemn, puffing on cigarettes.
Watertown is an immigrant town where wave after wave of newcomers first learned to become something other than what they were back home, while still holding on to what they had left behind. Each person who walks this street is, in some way, the first who left the old country; each person speaks that curious dialect of something lost, something anticipated, something abandoned during passage, something sheltered deep in the human heart. This stretch of Mount Auburn, and others like it in Boston and elsewhere the world over, is a locus of human restlessness and tenacity. Over the years, Watertown has welcomed Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Irish. Of late it has taken in immigrants from Eastern Europe as well. The butcher has told me that the town has recently received its first Albanian immigrant! “He works as a helping hand for Arax Market. Big guy, works hard,” he said.
As I make my way to Arax Market, I see the Albanian. Tall and lanky in a pair of blue jeans and a sweat shirt which don’t quite fit, he is busy carrying fruit boxes with his bare hands out of the truck which is double parked in front of the store. He moves mechanically — his body focused on the task at hand; his eyes look beyond the horizon at something far away. I can tell that he speaks not a single word of English because his boss, Jack (his American name), is giving directions with his hands. Across the street, at K’s Fruit, the Albanian’s counter-part, a Mexican man in his mid-30s, self-effacing in demeanor and clothing, is sweeping the front of the store with a huge broomstick, picking up fugitive vegetable pieces from the sidewalk. Several months ago, I saw the Mexican in the Harvard subway station. He was dressed impeccably and self-consciously — leather jacket and nicely fitting black pants, his hair carefully combed and gelled, as though he were the prince of the subway! He was absorbed in reading a Spanish-language newspaper, but his comportment was clearly intended to call attention to itself, perhaps to disguise his other lives on Mount Auburn Street and beyond — in some Mexican town far away.
On this hot summer day, people congregate around the fruit and vegetable stands outside, on the sidewalks. I spot people I know, or know of, people whose stories I have heard, or heard about: A handsome dark- haired woman who was once a soloist with the Tehran Opera and who now works in a bridal shop as a seamstress; a film-maker born in Aleppo who moved here from Los Angeles after the earthquake and wants to return to the Syria of his youth; an aspiring U.S.-born writer who is here hunting for the ingredients of a handful of Middle Eastern recipes which she carries in her hand; a Jerusalem Palestinian with a business degree from Boston University who set up shop here after he was forced to flee Kuwait during the Gulf War. “We were the last to leave Kuwait, on the last plane out,” he told me once. “In half an hour, we had to pack and go. If we had stayed, I wonder what would have happened to us.” For the past year, he has been selling falafel sandwiches from a small corner shop down the street. His sandwiches are particularly good because he puts large amounts of leek and parsley into the mixture. “That is how we do it in Palestine,” he tells the aspiring writer with the recipes. “The greens and the bread— which must be very thin.”
Inside, at the counter, Alice, the owner’s wife — her lipstick eternally red, her hair eternally immobile — is weighing vegetables while carrying on an loud conversation with a customer. They are talking about cruises to the Bahamas, comparing notes about the best bargains around. They kiss warmly, Alice hands her the grocery bags and moves on to attend to the next customer. She taps the cash register with one hand and inserts a new cassette into the player with the other. I nod at the Albanian as I inch my way to the center of the store. “You are lucky, the cheese is here!” I hear Alice’s words in Armenian. “I’ve saved a large portion for you,” she adds. “I have made coffee; let’s drink when you are finished.” Her voice is a gentle command, the kind I cannot refuse.
Around me is a dizzying array of the habits, dialects, gestures, and anxieties of immigrant life. Shoppers move through the narrow isles of the tiny store, tapping each other on the shoulder, waving at someone a little further away, pausing for a moment. Some people are bargaining, others are recounting stories and gossip, others still are exchanging social niceties — all this and more in languages I know and do not know, while the songs from Alice’s player speak of lost love in Arabic and French.
I place the cheese which Alice has cut in my shopping bag — a nylon, netted contraption whose fragile appearance belies its sturdiness. The garlic sauce, by far the best version of this heavenly paste that you can find on these shores, sits on top of the cheese. This is the intersection between biography and circumstance, I think. Here, we all seem to stand somewhere between the particularities of a life and the sweep of events so large that they mock our best intentions, our most secret longings. In these shops and on this street, we are surrounded by stories so mundane as to be embarrassing — about cruises and recipes and arthritis and graduation parties; stories so profound as to be the stuff of literature — about loss, always about loss of one kind or another, and about our frail and often ineffective ways of dealing with it. They unfold, these stories, with a kind of native ease which belie their turbulent import, stories of unspeakable adversity briefly illuminated by occasional joys and illusive triumphs.
The spices are at the back of the store, and I am here for some cumin powder. A woman behind me is talking gently to someone close by. Her voice — measured and controlled — seems to come out of nowhere, as though by accident. “He was 53. You must remember him. Younger than me, but looked as tall as a tree.” I hear her say. “Was standing on the veranda, when a sniper’s bullet hit his heart; he died on the spot! ” she adds. “They buried him three days ago,” she whispers. “I could not go to the funeral; you know how difficult it is for me to go to Beirut, with the green card problems. May be this summer, I can go and pray at the grave.” I move my head slightly sideways. Her back is turned toward me, her body is stationary. I imagine her face, the eyes — lakes of sorrow — and think of my own and those of others I have glimpsed, at similar moments when we are seized by a biological sorrow of unspeakable proportions.
Our moment — hers and mine, at once ours and yet skeletal and public in its resonance — reverberates over the entire store, dissipates into silence, and then rises up again in a new guise from another corner, there to join in a seamless web of indescribable radiance which seems to engulf us all. As I stand there, briefly motionless, the cumin bag in my hand, I think of that wonderful image of comfort which John Berger uses when he describes museums as places where the “visible . . . offers us company,” where “we feel less alone in the face of what we ourselves see appearing and disappearing.” And so too with her story, like those of others I have heard here and on the street outside, nested somewhere deep yet ready to take flight at some unpredictable moment, there to join in the fraternity of tales which immigrants carry in them, day in and day out, as they walk that precarious sidewalk between the prospect of brighter shores and the memory — always the memory — of what was left behind. Standing here, like this, in the physical presence of others we know and do not know, engulfed in a fragrant sea of languages and dialects, sheltered by this tapestry of stories, we feel less rudderless. We become the recipients of a kind of a coded solidarity — squeezed, brief and awkward.
Alice’s coffee is strong and bitter. We drink it slowly out of small cups with dainty designs. “Let me read your cup,” she says when I finish. I turn the cup and wait for the residues to cool. Alice holds the cup gently between her fingers and begins her reading. “Your heart has been tight the past few months,” she declares softly. “But there is light in the distance. See, I see it here,” she directs her finger into the cup. “In the next six months, you will go on a long, long journey, across oceans, to a mountainous country… ” As she weaves her narrative design of my future, her voice is hushed, as though she were disclosing a secret of great significance.
And like this — with the whiff of roasted coffee and cumin, the murmur of voices, and a woman I know only slightly reading my cup, her manicured fingers touching mine briefly, I think of the words of Michael Ignatieff. These are places where “the needs of strangers” are somehow, in some very small way, acknowledged. Ignatieff coined the phrase in the context of the welfare state and large cities like London; perhaps “the needs of others” is more appropriate here. For here, we are and are not strangers to each other. We come from different places, carrying different burdens — our lives at once sparked and darkened by different dreams. Yet we share something, in spoken and unspoken ways, in a movement of the hand and the slant of a face, in the tales we tell and re-tell.
This stretch of Watertown and others like it the world over are resting places; they are the salt of the earth. In our otherwise shrunken lives and diminished expectations of each other, places like this offer temporary solace — a commonality of skin against skin. And in the hum of Alice’s words, something about the love of the world comes back from the recesses of my memory. I think of an old, dear friend whom I have not seen in two decades but whose words are verdant in my mind : “It is fear of loving which destroys. Unfulfilled, unrequited, unexpressed, unprincipled, uninspiring, unrelenting. . . . Fear of self, fear of others, fear of life. ”
Alice’s story is near closure. “It is a good cup,” she concludes. “Very good.” Were that it were so, Alice. Were that they were true — your words. Were that our imagined stories could avenge the turbulances of life. But go on, go on — into the night and beyond. Continue the telling. Don’t stop! Go on!
Every visit to Watertown intimates a promise — that in this magical space something which has the smell and feel of life lived can come about, does come about, something not too joyous or demonstrative, but a kind of wise and profound sadness mixed with fleeting moments of joy. For what is an immigrant — all immigrants — if not a bundle of contradictions? If not a mess of transgressions and loyalties? Lost chances and radiant dreams; departures and returns. Richard Rodriguez has written that “immigrants are our civilization’s prophets. They, long before the rest of us, saw the hemisphere as whole.” What Rodriguez says about Mexican immigration to the U.S. also applies to us here, on this stretch of Mount Auburn Street. Immigrants reject borders and passports; they know that our beginnings never know our ends; they see the world as whole in the face of loss and displacement.
Immigrants are the unsung poets of civilization, the raconteurs of stories trivial and profound. They love the world generously and foolishly because they know that everything, everything, passes. They know that, as Virginia Woolf has written, “the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish , has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” There is nothing heroic or romantic in this knowledge, for the wisdom and joie de vivre of the immigrant have been extracted from geographical and psychic dislocation, the cocky self-assuredness from unspeakable turbulence and heartbreak.
My devotion to Watertown has not diminished over the years. As I grow older, I am more in need of its consolations. For when we are young, we are in the grip of wanting to live authentically, against the grain, asserting our individuality. When we grow older, when we are pounded and tried by life, we begin to think of things in larger, more complicated ways. When we are older, we are concerned with the species rather than the tribe. Here, on this stretch of Mount Auburn Street, one senses the ancient sadness of the species, even when the flags are up for this or that national holiday, when the sweets are bought for a birthday or a christening, the wedding party is joyously honking the car horns. The immigrant — all immigrants — has known turmoil, and only those who have known turmoil can console.
~~For Christopher Millis~~