Saturday, September 5, 2015

Zaker Uncle

His room is a medical equipments heaven. He hoards commodes and urine bottles. He’s got canes, crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs all in sight, like an art exhibition. In my mind I start coming up with a possible name to this exhibit: Commodes and Crutches: Badass Bangladeshi Tenant Fights Displacement from Bed. I also remember my commodes and crutches at home, which my mother continues to keep hidden. Same with meds, like no one is supposed to know I have Lupus.

We had talked twice or thrice on the phone, him being the type that keeps you on the line. The conversations with him are normal, how I’d like my relationship to be with my father. He gets why I keep calling and inviting him to meetings. He was an organizer of sorts too in Bangladesh.

Each time he reminded me, “tomar cheshta kora uchit proti shobdo Banglai bolar jonno,” observant of my habit of inserting English words to string together sentences in Bangla. So, like, ya, right, exactly, you know… and others, saved me many times when Bangla was not enough. Each time I assured him, “ami cheshta korchi/kortesi,” depending on how proper I felt, but wondered if my shuddho Bangla will ever be as complete and crisp as his.

This was my first time visiting him. Zaker Uncle lives in the Queensbridge projects off the F train, soon to receive free wireless internet while countless residents’ homes reek of mold and peeling paint creates a mural of the life they left to be in America.

He tells me I'm his daughter. He tells me that if he had a daughter also born in NY, she too would speak Bangla like me. He tells me that I must be his daughter. “You’ll find a good husband,” he adds, perhaps suggesting that speaking Bangla is my greatest asset. I like that.

The talks of a husband, while remembering a bolder self during my academic-feminist undergrad years where this conversation would lead me to challenge his heteronormative assumptions, help me redirect the conversation to more serious matters: the 18 billion dollar debt that the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) racked up. Zaker Uncle is confused, rightfully so because this is the first time he’s hearing about this. I’m there with meeting flyers in Bangla on the Mayor’s plan to undo the mess, though I know Zaker Uncle won’t be coming.

He now only uses a wheelchair, which he’s unable to sit on by himself. A spinal injury and multiple surgeries promising cure left him bedridden. His legs are numb, sometimes tingly. He’s got a laptop, sitting on top of a cooling pad, his source to everything Bangla including the online patrika and Bengali dramas on YouTube, while printed patrikas and stacks of DVDs are mounted on his bed.

Apni ki janen je NYCHA’r property bikri kore dibe? This is how I begin the conversation about privatization as it’s written on my script, transliterated just like that. I have the Bangla script on me, which wasn’t the easiest to translate, it never is. I’ve been experimental though, sometimes choosing to prepare the script in English first, then translate in Bangla. Other times, I choose to craft it only in Bangla. I don’t know which I prefer given that the conversation will be in Bangla anyways and I have to be as colloquial, non-jargon as possible so tenants and I know what’s happening. Google translate isn’t actually a comrade in the process.

In the Mayor’s plan, NextGeneration NYCHA, there’s a consensus to preserve public housing in NYC. This is good. But to bring in revenue (that 18 billion dollar deficit ayyy), the plan proposes building new “affordable” apartments on unused/underused NYCHA property, by way of private developers. Cool, building “affordable” homes to combat the City’s housing problem. Zaker Uncle sways his arms and fingers, the only limbs mobile on his body, motioning discontent. He knows that the City’s immigrant and low-income families in public housing will not be protected by private developers.

He almost absolutely loses it as I name “affordable” numbers: private developers will build new “affordable” apartments for households with incomes up to 60% of AMI (Area Median Income), yeah I’m new to this language too, this refers to an income of $46,000 for a family of three. “I don’t know any family in Queensbridge with an income of that number… definitely not mine for sure! How is this affordable? Are private developers and land-leasing the only solutions to protect public housing in New York? How did it get so bad? Why haven’t they asked us what we think?”

He’s asking all the right questions. I have no answers.

“Well, they don’t want you to know. When have they distributed any information in Bangla or invited you to their meetings? If you knew, they know you’ll fight, which we’ll do together.” That’s me on an organizer’s high. I catch myself relying on this collective coming together to fight back realizing that it’s not enough. Maybe struggles of poverty and displacement mean a good afterlife, as Emad Uncle, one of my favorites, reminds me every visit. His wife, Nayrin Apa, is our tenant leader.

“To get to the main door, there are 6, maybe 7 steps. I counted each thump of the wheelchair that one time an Access-A-Ride driver helped me down the stairs.” Zaker Uncle is agitated and burnt, he knows he won’t survive to see what happens of NYCHA, the last of low-income housing in NYC. But while he’s around and if the Mayor’s plan goes through, he wants a more accessible Queensbridge. “You think the developers will build ramps?”

He writes my number in his phonebook, not the kind that comes in a phone. Somewhere along the talks of husbands and housing, both uncertain, he expresses his commitment to my Bangla. “Let's talk every two weeks, does that work for you?”

Obosshoi!” Of course.

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blue: Zaker Uncle
red: me