Long live Juan Epstein, sitcom land’s
archetypal Jewish Latino!
“Shut up! Shut up!” The petulant and rather camp fellow with the long hair (whose tone suggested to me that he may be an off-duty drag queen) and whose superior attitude to the stout, working class woman (Puerto Rican was my guess) with whom he was conducting a furious argument in Spanish suggested a childhood in Argentina or Chile. They had come into the packed subway car arguing, perhaps having pushed each other in the rush to board. And now, he was ratcheting up the confrontation by lapsing into English, a plane on which he imagined a verbal superiority.
“No, Jew shut up! Jew shut up!” she shouted back.
The 14-year-old boy standing alongside me in the fedora hat, black suit and white shirt of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidism looked a little perplexed. During my first year in New York, I’d encountered enough Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans to notice that the Caribbean Latinos pronounce the Y as J, so that even the Spanish first person Yo becomes Joh in the spoken form. (“A Jew having a barbeque?” a Puerto Rican kid at a supermarket checkout once asked me at a Williamsburg supermarket checkout while ringing up charcoal and salad ingredients. My first thought was, Yeah, is that so unusual? But it was the Y-as-J thing I was hearing.) I thought about telling the young man next to me, “Don’t worry, it’s not about you.” Or, “Don’t worry, it’s not about Jew…”
But I was more fascinated by what else was going on: Most of the passengers nearby seemed to be Mexican and Ecuadorian, and they rolled their eyes as the bitchy fellow, who seemed to be losing the argument in Spanish, screamed back like some frothing border state Republican, “Speak English! ‘Jew Shut Up?’ You can’t even speak English. Come clean my bathroom and I’ll teach you to speak English…’ ” Then he whipped out his cell phone and threatened to call the police immediately if she continued to talk to him. (Everybody knows you can’t make calls in the subway, so the gesture was so empty that it might as well have been a white flag.)
The class politics of the situation were clear: I was rooting for the lady, and so were most of those around her. The Lubavitcher boy shot me a smile of relief and a shrug as I caught his eye exiting. And as the verbal combatants exited, he marched away haughtily, but she was mobbed by supporters congtratulating her for her performance, at least a dozen people going out of their way to clap her on the back and offer their support with broad grins.
Riding the F Train at rush hour can be like a trip down the Pan-American highway, with the Caribbean, much of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe thrown in. I only wish I spoke better Spanish…