Few things start off solid. Concrete isn’t one of them. Initially, it's a malleable mixture of elements adding up to become a fleetingly obedient compound.  Swiftness renders it strength, protraction its downfall. Once cast, it's stubbornly resistant to change, yet susceptible to cracks.
     Gotham’s gritty skin, approached without due care, leaves victims with bloody knuckles, shredded knees. A barrier of protection is required when brushed up against the city’s greatest membrane. The cement organ is easy to identify, though.  It's the invisible walls that are harder to dodge.
Copyright © 2017 by Claudia Ramos
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 “I’ve got an interview in the city with the Museum of Modern Art.  Remember, I told you about it three days ago.  They’ve got an opening for an Arts Administrator Assistant.”  The bag wasn’t in the hall closet.  “Where’s your purse?”
     “It’s on the couch. I thought the meeting was set for Friday?” asked Lupe.
     I walked over to the plastic encased red couch in the living room and picked up the handbag. I opened it up and took out a burgundy leather wallet. “Yeah, well, they called me yesterday asking if I could make it in today. The manager of the department wants me to meet with the director as well. Friday was no good because the director’s leaving on a business trip.” Everyone’s schedule was being shifted around to accommodate the department head who spent more time out of the office curating than tethered to his desk.
     “Good luck!” called out my mother.
     Sorting through the credit card sleeves, I finally found the MetroCard.  I tossed the purse back on the couch and bellowed thanks.    
     Before I reached the doorknob, the doorbell rang.  When I opened it, my neighbor Nora flinched - startled that I answered the door so quickly.  Shaking off surprise, she greeted me, “Hola Sera, necesito que me traduzcas.  Este señor no habla Español.”        

Chapter 1

     Taking the 7-train into Manhattan from Queens was quicker than driving into the city.  Nearly 3pm, images of bumper to bumper traffic on the 59th Street Bridge and the Midtown Tunnel flashed through my mind. Plus, I didn’t want to spend $30 on valet. Forget street parking. The city catered to commercial vehicles on weekdays. Sundays one had the run of the town.  Business offices were closed. An ideal day for tourists to explore, but the last place New Yorkers who lived in the outer boroughs and migrated into for work five days a week wanted to be.
     “Ma, do you have a MetroCard I could use?  Mine’s out of cash.” Adding money at the booth wasted time. Even though my interview was scheduled for 4pm, I built in an extra half hour for unexpected delays. Rush hour lent to unpredictable #7-line service. Crowding, rail malfunctions and sometimes trains would skip my 90th street stop, because they were running express. Granted going into the city in the afternoon was better, because everyone was on a mass exodus from Manhattan. Though, you could never be too sure when traveling in either direction in NYC.
     “Sure, my wallet is in my brown purse,” said Lupe. “Where are you going?”
     She pointed to a gentleman standing on the sidewalk. I explained to her that I was on my way out and didn’t have time to translate.  She insisted it would only take a few minutes. Nora waved over the tall skinny Caucasian who looked to be in his mid-twenties wearing an ill-fitted black suit. According to her, he was from the bank that was foreclosing on the three family house where she rented an apartment.
   Ascending the third step on my stoop the representative asked, “Do you speak English?” I couldn’t help it, but I rolled my hazel eyes and an exasperated sigh escaped my mouth. Did he think my neighbor was stupid enough to go look for a person who didn’t speak English so that both of us could stand there incapable of communicating with him? Not to mention, I was wearing business attire and didn’t appear as if I had just gotten off the boat. Despite my desire to offer a sarcastic response, I reined it in and simply answered “yes.”
     The strawberry-redheaded man appeared pretty nervous. “Hi I’m Dale Newhouse from Wachovia. I wanted to know from Nora,” he turned to my neighbor, “right, that’s your name?” She gave him an agreeable smile recognizing the sound of her name, but completely unaware of what he asked. He faced me again, “How many people are living in the house?”  
     I relayed what Nora told me. “A family of five lives in the basement. On the second floor a single woman and her daughter.  Nora and her two relatives live on the first floor bringing the total to ten inhabitants.”
     The previous owner defaulted on his mortgage over a year ago. Wachovia didn’t have anyone overseeing the home for the last six months, but wanted to sell quickly. Real estate agents were going to be coming in and out showing the property to prospective buyers. Nora had 90 days to find a new place to live. Dale looked like an intern sent to do someone else’s dirty work. In a non-menacing tone Wachovia’s enforcer warned, “Marshalls will eventually come and evict anyone remaining.” I didn’t know who I felt sorrier for - him or Nora.
     “I will put a new foreclosure sign on the lawn. The old one seems to have gone missing,” Newhouse said in a puzzled tone as if the wind must have somehow carried it away. Only the post remained marking where the sign previously hung. I stifled a laugh. Clearly he was a novice at the game. From the looks of it, Nora and her fellow tenants had enjoyed rent-free accommodations for the last year. It was not hard to figure out that they did not want to disembark from the gratis ride.
     “Here’s my card and a vacate notice,” which he handed to Nora. She looked at it as if he were handing her a menu from the local Chinese food restaurant. “I’m taping notices on the doors of the two other apartments. Ask Nora if she could talk to the other renters and explain that they must leave the premises within 90 days?” Nora agreed to pass on the information. Dale said he would be back in a few weeks to check on the property and left.
     I searched Nora’s face for a reaction, she seemed unfazed.  What are you going to do? I asked in Spanish. 
      Her response was swift, “Nada.” She figured the house was on its last legs and no one was going to buy the money pit.  
     “Okay then,” I muttered and reminded myself it wasn’t any of my business. It was fruitless to discuss the legal ramifications with Nora. She was informed, but refused to listen. I simply waved goodbye as I made my way down my stoop’s steps.
     It was late May.  Nature’s dry scaly veneer from winter’s kiss had been gently sloughed away by regenerative rains coupled with the sun’s commitment to reward all thirsting for its healing warmth with long drawn out days. Only the landscape’s artificial steely implants and brick edifices served as a year-round unchanging backdrop indifferent to the seasons. 
 A digital screen hanging above a store awning on a street corner alternated from 55 degrees to the current time of 3:09. A cool blast of air tousled my hair. Outside was chillier than normal for this time of year in New York City. I was grateful. Warmer, my mane would frizz up. After sitting under a domed hair dryer with my waist length locks wrapped around rollers for over an hour, it would have been a shame to have all that time go to waste. For the life of me, I never could smooth down the strands as effortlessly as seasoned Dominican stylists managed to for clients in salons. Straightening my hair from the age of seven, oftentimes, I still found myself unequipped at handling my complicated tresses. I tried learning hair blow drying techniques from the professionals. Particularly how they held the brush, but it was no use. My hairdresser Esperanza often boasted “it’s all in the wrist.” Implying it was an art that few could master, like being a top seeded tennis player. Not that I minded curly hair.  In fact, it was nice to have options.  Whenever I got tired of flattening it, I allowed it to assume its naturally curly state. These weren’t blah curls either. They twisted into beautiful spirals, each raven lock. Whenever my stylist cut it too short, it felt like I lost some of my essence.  Something akin to Samson, the biblical figure, 
whose hair, when cut, rendered the otherwise superhuman being physically weak.  With short hair I didn’t command as much attention. My cousin Cruz told me once, “Sera there is something about you that draws men to you.  You’re not gorgeous, but you’re striking.” I wanted to hit him at first for telling me I fell short of ravishing, but then I understood what he meant - or maybe I just gave it a positive spin.  I wasn’t cookie cutter pretty.     
     As I stood before the famed 53rd Street entrance, nervousness kicked in. Two months ago I mailed a resume to MOMA. A yearlong college internship as an Art Handler helped me snag an interview. My brain flooded with questions. What if they tested me on art history? Asked me about some obscure contemporary painter I’d never heard of? Quizzed me on different mediums and techniques? In that moment I felt as if everything I learned about the world of fine arts was erased. My mind went blank. 
​   The last minute date change, forced me to take a personal day off from work. I thought I’d have more time to brush up on the museum’s history. Scouring the internet that morning, I learned Glenn Lowry was the director, it underwent an enormous renovation and in 2015 the staff held a demonstration requesting higher wages. I jotted down notes on its current   
exhibitions and finances, details that were fair game questions. I stepped into the revolving doors and walked up to the reception desk requesting to see Faith Nash in human resources. 
     An hour and a half later, I was escorted out by one of the museum’s receptionists. “It’s a great place to work. I hope to see you again. Good luck,” said the friendly petite girl. 
     I spoke to three people that afternoon. The meetings went as well as could be expected. In fact, during the second interview, the department manager said I was a perfect fit for the job.
     Whilst waiting in an empty cubicle to talk with the director of exhibitions, I noticed one job candidate exiting her office. Seeing my competition was enough to make my confidence dip. 
     “The work you carried out as an intern was mainly physical, what makes you feel qualified to work in an administrative capacity?” the director of exhibitions wondered. 
     For the third time that afternoon, I dovetailed into my resume, making my current skills relatable as possible to the position they were looking to fill. 
     “… Coupling my administrative experience with my behind the scenes knowledge of how galleries operate, I can meet the obligations required to be successful in this position.”
      She never asked any tricky questions to stump me
about the historical museum. Instead, she probed to see how deep my interest in art flowed. 
     “How often do you visit art galleries?” The director knew that if art was hanging on her hallowed walls it meant the artist was fairly well established. The atypical art enthusiast wouldn’t stop there. True aficionados attended small exhibits presented in colleges, or sought out fledgling spaces presenting innovative pieces by new artists. 
     “Fairly often. Anytime I walk the streets of NY I discover a new place or revisit a familiar one. I’m always compelled to step inside and be enveloped by the energy that leaps off a canvas or behold the dignity a sculpture possesses.”  
     Beyond a few more superficial questions, she thanked me for coming in to see her and sent me on my way.