Let me express my delight in having met Juan Carlos I (imagine being the I'st, just like Hank Williams), a mere 50 feet from my stoop in Bushwick. Juan said he didn't want his face photographed, and he just barely let us snap a shot of his dinner. He agreed to talk to me only if we kept walking. Well, guess what? We talked so much we ended up in Queens! From the safe distance of the county line, Juan, in a very gentle, didactic manner, let me know exactly how much I don't know. Here's what I learned on my field trip in my own neighborhood.
Vice: I want to talk to you about white people.
Juan Carlos I: But I'm not white!
But I am! Do you want to sit on a stoop and talk about it?
No. I know this neighborhood; you don't. I can't have people see me talking to you like this. Let's keep walking.
OK. Is it cool if I hold the voice recorder like this?
You just made the point that I don't know these people, I don't know the neighborhood.
Well, what's it all about?
These people here, they don't work. They probably sell drugs.
Whoa. What kind of drugs? Crack, heroin?
Are there a lot of gangs on this block?
Gangs? No. But these people here, they don't care about the neighborhood.
They don't care about the neighborhood?
No, the people in it. I don't know if you can tell from my Spanish accent, but I'm not from here either. I'm from another country.
Are you from Spain? You said you were Spanish.
I'm Spanish but I'm from Guatamala. I've been here for many years, so I know the neighborhood.
Do you live on the same block as me?
Yeah, I do.
How long have you lived at that address?
Has it gotten better since the white people moved in? I mean, not that we did anything.
[Laughs.] Well, it used to be worse. Wild people used to live there.
I understand Bushwick used to be really dangerous. On Wikipedia I read how Knickerbocker used to be called "The Well" because you could get all the drugs you wanted there.
Yeah, yeah, you can get anything you want around here. You just have to go down that way [points farther down our street]. After 8 o'clock.
That's where I buy drugs?
You can buy drugs at any time. I'm saying. You see that park over there?
Yeah. After 8 o'clock, it's very dangerous to go walking around that way. It's very quiet. There's people people who would [whips hand, makes whisking sound] if they saw you around there.
Really? I'm always walking around!
You're talking about wild people? A lot of wild people moved down over there [motions past Flushing Street].
So things have gotten more expensive around here.
Is that because of white people moving in?
Naw, not really. The landlords are greedy. They always want more money. You guys pay high rent, huh?
Not really. $800 for a room.
For a room! So you've been taken, then.
You mean like "ripped off?"
Yeah, ripped off. That's a lot of money you're paying for just one room. Do you now how much money some people in the neighborhood pay for a whole apartment? $800. Five rooms.
Holy shit! How much do you pay?
$600 for a whole apartment.
Good for you.
Yeah, but I've been there 20 years.
Oh, you get "rent control".
Yeah. What's that word? "Ripped off?" Yeah. You're getting ripped off because your landlord knows your apartment is rent-controlled, but you don't know he's breaking the law.
So he sees us white people and goes, "Oh, suckers!"
Why you moving here anyway? Where you come from, it's more expensive anyway, right?
No, it's way cheaper in Iowa.
Oh! So you didn't know about this.
I thought you guys moved here from The Village.
I'm from a farm. Chickens. Horses. That's funny you thought I was from The Village.
Well, most people who move here got thrown out from the City. It's too expensive there, so they gotta move here. It's been happening for the past twenty years. I don't know if you know the neighborhood.
I don't. Are you afraid you'll lose your apartment?
Naw. Because we know the law, see? I can give you some advice here, but I don't want you calling me up or anything.
I won't call you!
Do you have a lease?
Well, if you go to court, you'll see everything is fake. If you go to court and show you've been paying so much for a year, your landlord will have to give you your money back.
Really? That's funny. I'm two-weeks late on rent— not because I don't have the money; I guess I'm just lazy—but he doesn't say anything. Do you think that's because he actually doesn't have any legal right to collect that much money?
Oh, he will call you if you don't pay. But he doesn't have the legal right.
This is interesting.
Haha! You like that, huh? Our apartments are rent-controlled, so he cannot rent them for more than $700, $800–the whole apartment. So he's breaking the law, and you people move in there, and you say, oh, that's cheap for a room, right? He's making a lot of money.
Oh, shit. So if he bought your building, would he want more money from you?
He doesn't want our building, because he cannot move us out of there. He'd need half a million dollars for the whole building, and all the tenants willl need something like $50,000 each. They don't want to do that. Most people who live around you, they're migrants, like me. So they threw them out with a little money. But that's not wrong, I mean, you guys needed the room, right?
Our apartment sucks.
know that! So don't pay the rent. Stay there as long as you can. You see, the law is like this. If he wants to throw you out, take him to court, right? The court is going to give you six months to stay there while you save your money and find a place to go.
So I guess you don't mind us white people moving here, huh?
Naw. Some people don't understand you people, but I do. I like rock 'n roll, so I understand your behavior. Different ways of being. You guys like concerts, you guys like heavy metal.
Yeah! We really like heavy metal.
I know that. But these people don't like that. They like their roots.
They like Mariachi.
They like Salsa. They like music you don't like.
I like Salsa.
You like The Salsa?
I actually speak Spanish! I lived in Mexico half a year.
Oh, yeah? Talk to me in Spanish.
OK. Pues, yo creo que podíamos haber hecho esta intrevista en Español, sino lentamente, porque me falta la práctica.
That's like my English. My English is not that good. Actually, I don't speak English so much. We're all Spanish.
You keep saying everybody's Spanish, but nobody is from Spain around here.
Well, when I say "Spanish", I mean we speak Spanish. I don't mean we're from Mexico. But we speak Spanish all the same.
Oh. I get it now. Do you want to see my Spanish tattoo?
OK. I won't show it to you.
People from Spain, they've got money over there. It's a rich country. They don't want to come over here. This is like, what? What do you call this? This is a slum, a dump.
It's not the ghetto, is it?
Yes. This is the ghetto.
Yeah. Before you moved here you should have researched it. Why don't you go back?
You could go back to Guatamala.
No! I'm from here! What do you talk about going back to Guatamala. You haven't been to those countries. Those countries are worse than here. The circle of life has no value. People would shoot you dead right here, like it's nothing. You don't know those people. You're too young, anyway. You haven't been to school.
I've been to college!
You need to finish it.
What did you study?
English and Spanish.
And you got a master's degree?
That's a waste of money.
Well, look. My son came here, and he went to the university, and he makes $130,000 a year. He has a master's degree in computers. If you're living in this apartment, you're not making much money!
How are you going to earn a half a million dollars to buy an apartment?
Jeez, mister. I don't know. I'm sorry your hamburgers got cold.
That's all right. They're for later. If you see me on the street, you can say hi.