August 18, 2020: “Omeer’s Mangoes” by N. West Moss

Hey there, Story366!

Yesterday was the first day of classes and here I am, still alive! Since I’m going with a blended modality and won’t have a seated session until next week, it wasn’t all that hard to do. I’d spent a long time on my syllabi, then spent an even longer time putting everything up on Blackboard. This past summer, I finally learned the copy and move commands there, so I was able to recycle some old material, or at least get it where I wanted to and revise it without starting from scratch. My students jumped right in, already completing some introductory assignments, and the “What am I supposed to be doing now?” emails were limited to a scant few. All in all, it was a good first day back, and even better, a safe first day back, my twenty-sixth as a higher-ed teacher.

It breaks my heart, though, to see the problems—which may be inevitable for all of us—sprouting up at these other universities. The University of North Carolina situation has been the most well documented, and after just a week of classes, the Tar Heels shut it down for the semester, too many outbreak clusters amongst the students to logically go on. My friend at Notre Dame is posting about their ridiculous numbers, way higher than at UNC, for a much smaller school. They have decided to go online for two weeks, but to keep students on campus, to see how it goes. Those universities both started last week—on August 10!—but since the majority of schools started yesterday or will start this coming Monday, it will be a while before we see the holistic effect. My guess is, this trend will continue and more schools, including my own, will be forced to make a decision. Of course, they’ve been prepping for this decision for months, are probably just waiting for the chips to fall. Still, it’s during these times, I’m glad I’m not administration. I have a hard enough time picking stories for my students to read—so many stories, so few days to assign them—let alone deciding if they live or die.

For today’s post, I read from N. West Moss‘s 2017 collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, out from Leapfrog Press. I’ve not read a lot of Moss’s work before, but jumped right into this lovely book and was immediately drawn in by the characters. The entire collection takes place in New York City, in Bryant Park, which I’m pretty sure I’ve visited on my journeys into the big city. Each of the characters works or lives either in or near the park, and at times, there’s some crossover, a background character in one story become a protagonist later on in the book. All in all, it’s a wonderful collection that uses setting as well as setting can be used. Let’s talk about these stories for a bit.

The lead story is “Omeer’s Mangoes” and is a longer story, one that seems to exist in two phases, if not three. I’ll focus on it because I like it the best, but I could have written on any of the stories I read—it’s a solid book, it would seem, up and down.

Omeer in “Omeer’s Mangoes” is an Iranian immigrant who works as a doorman in an apartment building across from Bryant Park. He works there for years, takes pride in his vocations, and lives humbly, so he’s able to save money and buy an apartment of his own. The first phase of the story details Omeer’s life and routine, which includes lying to his father back in Iran for a decade about seeking out better jobs. After months of made-up interviews, Omeer tells his father he finally found a job at a bank, that he makes a good salary, has an expense account, and eats at fancy restaurants with clients, all paid for by his employer. His dad is proud of him, then dies, Omeer never telling him the truth, or having anything better to tell him about, either.

The next phase of the story sees Omeer married, then have a child, then start to grow old. His hair peppers gray, then grows in white. His wife grows dissatisfied with their meager, simple lives and his son, when he’s old enough, mimics her disappointment, whispers insults about his father’s means under his breath. Omeer spends all his savings sending his wife to design school and son to music camp, and by the end of this phase of the story, it seems as if Omeer is either going to go bankrupt or his family will leave him; something has got to give, expenses piling up and his job as a doorman on the verge of disappearing.

The final phase of the story involves a woman who Omeer sees in Bryant Park every Tuesday. The woman is large—Omeer thinks Samoan—and she wraps herself and her belongings in plastic wrap. She comes to listen to music—a pianist plays every Tuesday—and also to eat lunch. One of the things she packs is a container of mangoes, sending Omeer out to buy mangoes, for him to be near her, vicariously in a way, by eating what she eats.

And that’s really where the story lands. There’s some beautiful inner dialogue, some equally beautiful description, but this story is mainly about Omeer, this man who has found his place, only to find his place isn’t adequate, and then to discover something new in the world later in his life. It’s an interesting structure for a story; this Samoan woman and her mangoes don’t show up for fifteen pages, yet still become the central image and motivation. And really, I thought, five pages in, this story was going to be about Omeer’s dad, that he was going to show up in America and discover his son is not a banker—Moss’s sleight of hand there surprises me, and maybe that’s what I like about this story, how unpredictable it is, how silently sad and gorgeous it is at the same time.

“Sky View Haven” is about a woman who has to return to her parents’ house so she can look over her father, who’s in a nursing home, while her mother has a hysterectomy. Her father has just taken some type of medication that makes him hallucinate, thinking he’s not in a home, that his wife is a Nazi, and all the other patients are out to get him. These symptoms sounds a lot like dementia or Alzheimer’s, yet by Sunday night, the medication wears off and the protagonist and her father are able to laugh at the weekend’s transpirations by the time they part.

“Milagro” is about Benny, a quiet Bryant Park janitor—he shows up, unnamed, in “Omeer’s Mangoes”—whose wife leaves him early in the story, simply because he’s so quiet, so unassuming. Benny moves on, working hard at his job and spending his days in the courtyard of his building with his neighbors. Two such neighbors, Belinda and Remo, first regift Benny a baby chick, which Benny cares for, naming her Milagro. Milagro becomes a member of the building community, playing with the children, pecking away in the garden, and sitting on Benny’s shoulder inside his apartment. Later, they give him their dog, Mitzvah—Belinda is getting sick, and Benny, the quiet park janitor, is living with a chicken and a dog, watching his friend expire.

All in all, the stories in The Subway Stops at Bryant Park are quiet stories, sketches of people who occupy this microcosm of America’s biggest city. I liked meeting each one of these characters, and have a feeling, as I venture further into the book, I’ll find the tale of that Samoan woman with the cellophane and mangoes; maybe the woman’s father, as a young man, from “Sky View Haven;” and more people who serve as the pulse of this little neighborhood. N. West Moss has created something quite lovely here, a true testament to people, to their diversity, and to their hearts. This is a good book, time very well spent today.

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