We’d become Japs, Jews, Niggers. We weren’t before. We fancied ourselves boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men, AC, Jimbo, and me. We were mostly self-invented and self-made and certain we had our fingers on the pulse of the great global dialectic. We surveyed the Times and the Post and other treatises of mainstream discourse on a daily basis, consulted the Voice weekly, and often leafed through other publications with more discriminating audiences such as Tight or Big Butt. Save Jimbo, who wasn’t a big reader, we had read the Russians, the postcolonial canon, but had been taken by the brash, boisterous voices of contemporary American fiction; we watched nature documentaries when we watched TV, and variety shows on Telemundo, and generally did not follow sports except when Pakistan played India in cricket or the Knicks made a playoff run; we listened to Nusrat and the new generation of native rockers, as well as old-school gangsta rap, so much so that we were known to spontaneously break into Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From a gang called Niggaz With Attitude but were underwhelmed by hip-hop’s hegemony (though Jimbo was known to defend Eminem’s trimetric compositions and drew comparisons be?tween hip-hop’s internal rhythms and the beat of Kurdish marching bands). And we slummed in secret cantons of Central Park, avoided the meatpacking district, often dined in Jackson Heights; weren’t rich but weren’t poor (possessing, for instance, extravagant footwear but no real estate); weren’t frum but avoided pork—me on principle and Jimbo because of habit—though AC’s vigorous atheism allowed him extensive culinary latitude; and drank everywhere, some more than others, celebrating ourselves with vodka on the rocks or Wild Turkey with water (and I’d discovered beer in June) among the company of women, black, Oriental, and denizens of the Caucasian nation alike.
Though we shared a common denominator and were told half-jokingly, Oh, all you Pakistanis are alike, we weren’t the same, AC, Jimbo, and me. AC—a cryptonym, short in part for Ali Chaudhry—was a charming rogue, an intellectual dandy, a man of theatrical presence. Striding into a room sporting his signature pencil-thin mustache, one-button ve?lour smoking jacket, and ankle-high rattlesnake-skins, he demanded attention, an audience. He’d comb his brilliantined mane back and flatten it with wide palms. He’d raise his arm, reveal a nicotine-stained grin, and roar, “Let the revelry commence!” then march up to you, meaty palm extended, de?claiming, “There you are, chum! We need to talk immediately!” Of us three, he was the only immigrant. While he lived day to day in a rent-stabilized railway apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and moonlighted as a sub at a Bronx middle school, his elder sister had emigrated in ’81—at the tail end of the first wave of Pakistani immigrants—and enjoyed spectacular success. A decade later she sponsored AC’s green card. A small, no-bullshit lady, Mini Auntie worked at the pediatric ward at Beth Israel on East 87th, lived in a brownstone around the corner, and financed AC’s on-and-off-again doctorate and studied debauchery.
Jamshed Khan, known universally as Jimbo, was a different cat altogether, a gentle, moon-faced man-mountain with kinky dreadlocks and a Semitic nose which, according to AC, affirmed anthropological speculation that Pathans are the Lost Tribe of Israel. Not that such grand themes moved or motivated Jimbo. Propped against a wall like a benign, overstuffed scarecrow, he’d keep to himself, but at a late juncture he would grab you by the arm to articulate the conversation he’d been having in his head. Jimbo was known to converse in nonmalapropisms and portmanteaus, his deliberate locutions characterized by irregular inflexion of voice, by rhyme if not rationale. On the face of it, he was a space cadet, but we knew he knew what was what. Unlike AC or me, he had a steady girlfriend and, as a DJ slash producer, a vocation with certain cachet. If his career trajectory opened doors in the city, it estranged him from his septuagenarian father, a retired foreman settled in Jersey City for a quarter of a century. In that time he’d raised a son and a daughter and several notable edifices on either side of the Hudson. Born and bred in Jersey, Jimbo was a bonafide American.
As for me, they called me Chuck and it stuck. I was growing up but thought I was grown-up, was and remain not so tall, lean, angular, like my late father, have brown hair, tin-tinted eyes, and a sharp nose, “like an eaglet,” my mother liked to say. I’d arrived in New York from Karachi four years earlier to attend college, which I completed swimmingly in three, and, though I was the only expatriate among us, liked to believe I’d since claimed the city and the city had claimed me.
The turn of the century had been epic, and we were easy then, and on every other Monday night you’d see us at Tja!, this bar-restaurant-and-lounge populated by the local Scandinavian scenesters and sundry expatriates as well as socialites, arrivistes, homosexuals, metrosexuals, and a smattering of has-been and wannabe models. Located on the periphery of Tribeca, Tja! seldom drew passersby or hoi polloi, perhaps because there were no gilded ropes circumscribing the entrance, no bouncers or surly transvestites maintaining vigil outside. It was hush-hush, invitation by wink and word of mouth. We got word that summer when my gay friend Lawrence né Larry introduced us to a pair of lesbian party promoters who called themselves Blond and Blonder, and ever since the beau monde included a Pakistani contingent comprising Jimbo, AC, and me.
Soon Jimbo a.k.a. DJ Jumbolaya was spinning there, and when I’d arrive, he’d already be in the booth, svelte in a very Kung Fu Fighting tracksuit, swaying from side to side, hand cupped around ear, pudgy fingertips smoothing vinyl like it was chapati. Starting down-tempo with, say, a track from a cooing Portuguese lounge singer, he’d then kick it with some thumping Senegalese pop, seamlessly, effortlessly, as if the latter were an organic extension of the former. DJ Jumbolaya distilled the post-disco-proto-house-neo-soul canon in his compositions. His credo was: Is All Good.
When I’d slide next to him and pay respect—high five, chest bump, that kind of thing—he’d say something like “Dude, you’ve come to sip martinis and look pretty ’cause you’re a preena, a lova, a prophet, a dreama,” and when I’d ask what he was having, he’d say whatever, so I’d order a couple of cocktails from Jon the bartender, who would have his shirt unbuttoned to his navel and make drinks for us on the house. He told me he’d served in the French Foreign Legion as a chef and, recognizing me as a man of the world, would relate news (“you hear about the latest Mai-Mai offensive?”), dispense proprietary advice (“it’s best to run hot water over a razor before shaving as the metal expands”), and discuss matters of aesthetics (“that one, yeah, the one that’s looking at me, she’s got what’s called a callipygian rump”). Leaning on the bar, drink in hand, I’d suck it all in.
Friends would show up in ones and twos, characters we knew from Tja! and here and there. There was Roger, a towering sommelier originally from Castle Hill, who’d taken classes in conversational Urdu because, he’d say, “I dig your women.” Once he asked, “You think they’d make with a brother? What do I gotta do, man? Like, recite Faiz?” And Ari, a curator at a Chelsea art gallery who cultivated a late Elvis bouffant, had this great story about his first day at P.S. 247 when he found himself in Dodgeball Alley at lunch: “So the black and white kids separated into teams, like it was 1951 or something, and there was this pencil-neck Chink and a bunch of sorry-looking Spics, and me, the Jewboy. We didn’t know which side to join, and like nobody wanted us, so we banded together like the Last of the Mo’s. And sure, we got our asses kicked pretty bad the first day, but man, after a couple of weeks, they were black and blue . . .” By and by and arm in arm, Blond and Blonder circulated, making small talk and grand gestures—“Like those shoes!” “Canapé for everyone!” Sometimes Jimbo’s girlfriend made an appearance. A natty, masculine woman with a belly and waddle, she hailed from East Coast aristocracy, sipped berry Bellinis, no cassis, and moved with a hipster crowd—what’s called an urban tribe—comprising acolytes. We all loved her and called her the Duck.
On occasion, when I’d find a girl perched on a distant barstool, legs crossed, hair wafting the scent of apple shampoo, I’d say, “Ciao ciao, baby.” It wasn’t a pickup line, just something I muttered when drunk. The last time we’d been at Tja!, a girl with mermaid eyes and a pronounced Latin lisp had actually responded to my tender advance with a staccato laugh. “Next week,” she’d said before being tugged away, “jou ’n me tan-go!” There was, I believed, great promise in the phrase, in what AC would have dubbed the proverbial tango.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Home Boy by H. M. Naqvi. Copyright © 2009 by H. M. Naqvi. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.