by Martha Ruiz-Perilla | December 1, 2012
His name was Jameson and I kept calling him Jason. His aunt had brought him to work that day, and I met him in one of my multiple trips to the kitchen to get coffee. He was playing with a Gameboy on the floor, while his aunt hustled between her desk phone and her computer. I asked his name and he quietly responded. I guess that is why I ended up calling him by the wrong name.
I thought I would help out his aunt by taking him with me for a walk around the office. I didn’t have much to do that day and could use a break from that nonsense “adult” world. Jason’s aunt agreed and thanked me as we left. He brought along his Avengers comic book. The movie was about to be released that week, and he seemed excited about it. He walked a few steps behind me with the book open to some random page, pretending to read and hiding his wariness.
We got to my desk and I pulled out my colored markers. I asked Jason to show me a character in his book of whom he’d like to take a picture. He picked Shocker. We walked to the copy machine and the world changed for Jason: I asked if he knew how to make a copy. “A coffee?” he asked. I smiled and pointing at the little monitor, asked him to click on the copy icon and press the green button. When the light flashed under the copy machine’s lid, Jason screamed in excitement, “It’s magic!” I agreed. It was the first time he had smiled at me since we met.
We spent the next half hour cutting Shocker around the edges, gluing him to a larger piece of paper, and talking about our lives. Jason told me his mom was at the hospital. “She is busy,” he said. I knew from Jason’s aunt that she was at a chemotherapy session but I pretended not to know. While cutting around Shocker’s legs, he asked me if I had a daddy. I said “Yes. His name is Nicolás.” I returned the question and he answered, “Yes, but I don’t remember his name right now.” We left it at that.
Once Shocker was glued to his white background, we put him aside to dry. Jason asked me if I wanted to take a walk with him. We went around the office and met Albert, the office photographer. Jason introduced himself, shaking his hand, and told him, “At school, my best friend’s name is Albert, too.” The photographer smiled and said, “There was also a famous inventor named Albert Einstein. Did you know that?” Jason nodded timidly, and then replied, “Yeah, the guy with the funny hair.” Then he added, “My name is Jameson.” The photographer bowed respectfully and said, “You don’t say! There was once a very famous Irishman by that name.” Albert winked at me and we said goodbye. Jameson and I went on to return the glue bottle we had borrowed to paste down Shocker.
As we walked away, I asked, “So your name is Jameson, not Jason, why didn’t you correct me?” Jameson, or, well, Jason, looked at me and padding me on my elbow said, “I dunno. I thought there was something wrong with you.” Then, following a very brief silence, he held my hand and said in a forgiving tone, “Don’t worry about it.”
When we came back to my desk, Shocker was dry, and Jameson (as I began to call him) started to draw a blue city around him. The windows in the buildings began to look sloppier as he drew them. I asked him if he was tired and he said “No, I’m fine. I just don’t like putting windows on somebody else’s building. Maybe they don’t want to look out, you know?” I looked at the city Jameson had drawn and thought he might be right. So it occurred to me we could change gears and make an origami hot air balloon with a secret message inside. I had learned how to fold them in fifth grade and loved to teach people how to make them. Jason agreed, curious and excited. We wrote a secret message for each other, and folded and pressed the paper of our own balloons, until we were ready to blow air into them. Once we were done, we exchanged them. Then, curious, I looked inside of mine and felt my heart shrink when I read a message in Jameson’s big disjointed letters that said, “Could you come to my house one day? We have windows.”
I walked home from Chelsea that night. It was Monday and I needed the air. Jameson’s memory kept revolving in my mind, and his invitation to his house took my imagination back to the small tenement apartment we had visited the day before on the Lower East Side. I didn’t know where Jameson lived. His aunt told me he had been born in Miami, where his parents had met. His mom had moved to Miami from Peru in search of a better life, and later, pregnant, she had followed Jameson’s father to New York. He was an African-American man who lived with Jameson and his mom for a little while, but had soon left them to go back to his wife and children. Jameson would rarely see him. His mom was all he had.
The tenement apartment I had seen on Orchard Street the day before was part of the Tenement Museum’s tour entitled Hard Times. The tour guide had taken us through a musty building of tiny apartments, some restored, some still in ruins. One of them had remained in my mind, and was now resonating in Jameson’s words. A family of six had been part of the long list of tenants that occupied this and other apartments at 97 Orchard Street back in the nineteenth century. There were records of this family’s arrival at Ellis Island and their settlement on the Lower East Side.
As the tour guide led us through the tiny dwelling, he pointed out that the woman who had lived in the apartment seemed to have been deserted by her husband soon after moving in and was left to her luck on Orchard Street with four children to feed. She survived by working as a seamstress—a fact suggested by the small sewing machine, now standing by one of the windows, an old client notebook, fabric, and a pair of iron scissors.
Two small windows faced Orchard Street. I looked out and tried to imagine what this woman’s thoughts might have been, watching the snowfall from an apartment without heat, or fanning herself in the middle of a hot summer. I wondered how long she must have waited by that window for a husband who would never return—sewing, cooking, and sleeping with four children in that small room. Sometimes, it would be best if we didn’t have windows, just as Jameson said, as looking out of them into our real worlds is just too painful. Maybe that was another good reason why this apartment had an interior window between the tiny living area and the kitchen, a custom that conformed to an old city building code. My head argued that windows that face our inner worlds are sometimes less painful to look through.
Jameson’s words about windows brought me back to the Orchard Street apartment. I imagine his Peruvian mom looking out of a window like the one that faces Orchard Street, thinking about her illness, hoping for her son’s father’s return, wondering about Jameson’s future. For Jameson, his inner window faced a world of superheroes, magic machines, and a Gameboy. How timeless was the story of Orchard Street! Weren’t we all immigrants to this world? Hadn’t we all felt at some point cold or overwhelmed while looking out of a window into our reality? How many times had we all run inside where our interior window promised a more benevolent view and kept us, at least temporarily, from falling into hopeless despair?
The Tenement Museum is located at 103 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002.