They were standing in line for ice cream when they started talking, very much mindful of social distancing and both wearing masks. It was a hot summer day.
CoVid 19 and the expectation of having a vaccine came up. Just a few days before, Russia had announced that they had produced one. The news had aroused skepticism in the scientific community, in and out of Russia. Had the rush to being first sacrificed safety?
The line for ice cream was long and moving slowly.
Robert was dark skinned and spoke with a Hispanic accent. Carol looked Hispanic but had no accent. He was in his mid thirties, she in her early twenties and they had never met before.
‘You were born here?’ asked Robert.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘my parents came from Paraguay. And you?’
‘What a mixture we are,’ reflected Carol.
‘That would make you second generation American,’ said Robert.
‘First generation,’ she answered.
‘Ah, I don’t agree.’
The line moved forward a little.
‘Why’s that?’ asked Carol.
‘First generation is the one that made the trip. The one who generated. The generation that will have an accent for the rest of their lives, no matter how hard they try. First generation will always be asked “Where’d you come from?” Even though they may have been in this country half a century.’
Carol smiled. ‘I am first generation born.’
Robert shook his head. ‘I think first generation should not be qualified, it should be exclusive to those who made the trip. Those, who like me, don’t intend to go back.’
‘I think you’re being too rigid,’ said Carol.
He smiled. ‘Maybe. You speak Spanish?’
‘Chose not to?’
‘Didn’t happen. But I’m working on it.’
‘I love the English language,’ said Robert. ‘I love Spanish too. But I came here because of other reasons.’
He stood in front of her but had turned around to face her and didn’t notice the line advancing again. She reminded him of it and he moved up.
‘It is very good that you are choosing to learn Spanish,’ Robert said.
‘I tell you something. I think of myself as a New American. I don’t go around saying that but, in private, that’s how I think of myself. So when people look at me a little strange because I speak with a heavy accent, I feel okay. I just tell myself, I am a New American, the person I’m talking to just doesn’t get it.’
‘Cool,’ said Carol.
‘I tell you something… in my dreams, I speak without an accent.’ He gave a proud smile when he said it.
‘That’s funny’ replied Carol.
‘In my dreams, I’m perfectly fluent, just like you, and the language flows so nicely. I love seeing myself speak in my dreams. But sometimes, I speak in Spanish too. It depends.’
The line moved up again. There was only one attendant taking the orders for ice cream.
‘I wish I had a job where I worked mainly with language… but maybe later.’
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘I work in construction. I do everything… walls… plumbing… electrical. I like it. I keep a list of the properties I have helped build, so I can go by on my days off… get out of my truck and stand nearby… watch the people going in and out… and I say to myself… I helped build that. That building is there partly because of me. I take great pride in what I do. And sometimes I go and watch other workers do their jobs… and when they see me looking at them, I give them the thumbs up… and they wave back.’
It was now his turn to put in his order and he told the attendant what he wanted and then said to Carol, ‘I treat you today.’
‘Oh no, that’s okay, thanks.’
‘Please, let me treat you.’
‘All right,’ consented Carol, and she stepped up to order her serving.
Ice creams in hand they strolled a few paces down the sidewalk, social distancing in mind.
‘I share this with you… soon after I came to this country… I was standing on the roof of a building laying on the tile. It was very hot and I wore a wide hat and had to be careful not to lose my balance and slide off the building and break my neck. Then I noticed that a person standing on the street below was looking up at what I was doing. I looked back expecting that they would give me some sign that they approved of what I did. But the person just stared back. I just shrugged and went back to my work. But I said to myself, why couldn’t that person just wave at me?’
‘Didn’t take much,’ said Carol.
‘So that’s why I do it. I always wave at people that are doing their work. Just to say thank you.’
Then she said, ‘Thank you for the work you do.’
‘I have to go now,’ said Carol. ‘Thank you for the conversation. I enjoyed it.’
‘You are most welcome. Don’t forget, I am first generation and you are second generation… but we are both New Americans.’
And with that, they raised their ice creams to each other in a gesture of friendship and she started walking away down the sidewalk.
Robert looked after her, quietly pleased that she had acknowledged him and, quietly hoping that, one day, he’d have a daughter like her.
Oscar Valdes is the author of Psychiatrist for A Nation. Available on Amazon.