The Melting Pot is a Lie

Ah, New York, that great example of the “melting pot” at work… though I’m rapidly beginning to believe that the “melting pot” theory isn’t so accurate, after all. For those of you who have forgotten what I’m talking about, it’s that idea where you throw together all sorts of ethnic peoples into pot, stew them in a white wine and garlic sauce, and get a homogeneous community–or soup, as the case may be. Supposedly the United States is one gigantic “melting pot,” though it really just strikes me as more of a “tossed salad” or maybe a “chicken pot pie.” Though that soup does sound pretty good.

Anyway, I say that because New York, as with much of the rest of the country, strikes me as fairly “compartmentalized.” It’s the rare neighborhood where you have a genuinely “random” ethnic mix. Usually people from different countries or of similar ethnic backgrounds sort of “colonize” together; that’s why we have Little Italy, Chinatown, Koreatown, New India, Micronesiaville, Small Uruguay, Luxembourgtown, The Congo II, and Lesser Finland.

This is also seen elsewhere in the country; for example, trailer park bumpkins tend to cluster together, as do, say, obscenely rich people, or maybe clowns. People just tend to stick with other people (and I do use the term loosely when referring to clowns) like themselves.

I happen to live in one of those actual, rare “melting pot” areas. Bay Ridge has a nice mixture of all sorts of people–you have white people, of course, because we’re like roaches, but there are also lots of Latin-American people, some Indian people, some African-American people, the occasional Asian-American, and some old people thrown in for good measure, plus a bag lady or two–though I think our local bag lady may be dead, as I’ve not seen her in a while…

But even with the pleasant multi-cultural mix we’ve got here, I’m curious about something else. If I’m to believe the commercials for everything from Target to Coca-Cola, apparently I’m doing a horrendous job of socializing. According to those commercials, I should have a diverse mix of friends, including a thin, sassy black girl with a nose ring and a large puffy hat of some kind, at least one white shirtless surfer guy with 0% body fat and curly blond Sideshow Bob-ish hair, a conservative smattering of Asian-Americans that tend to stay in the background and play along with whatever is happening, several mismatched white or Latino girls who also wear mismatched clothing and jewelry gleaned from their grandfathers’ closets, plus at least one black guy who can breakdance and perhaps a geek who strums on an acoustic guitar, but not so much a geek as an Abercrombie & Fitch model who’s wearing preppy clothes and thick black plastic-rimmed glasses.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my social spectrum is not quite so… um… colorful, so to speak. For one thing, I don’t think I regularly socialize with any girls now that Molly the Intern is gone, unless you count the fact that I like to pretend that I know Debra Messing from Will & Grace, but that’s just embarrassing. Or you might take into account the fact that my friend Joe somehow manages to make a comfortable living as a drag queen. But other than that, my life is entirely devoid of sassy black women or waifish girls wearing bad clothes.

What’s even sadder is the fact that, of all the people I know, I have the most “ethnic” last name. It’s not too often that you meet someone with a Portuguese last name, and even less often that you meet someone who has one and actually realizes that it is Portuguese. But as for its actual pronunciation… no, my last name does not sound like “penis” minus the “p.” I’ve also heard it pronounced like “tennis” without the “t,” which is just as bad, I think. The vulgarized, American pronunciation is (as my mom puts it) like “beans” without the “b.” But even this, apparently, is too much for many to comprehend, so I might as well throw my plans to go back to the Portuguese pronunciation: it’s “YA-nesh,” which you are saying correctly only when it sounds like you’re trying to say “Yanni” but have a stroke after the “n” sound that then makes you wheezily lisp a “sh” sound that isn’t supposed to be there.

Anyway, which one of those characters in those commercials am I supposed to be? I’m too homely to be the Abercrombie-model-cum-geek, and I don’t have the eye-hand coordination to pull off being a surfer (even though you never see any of those surfer guys actually surfing–they just kind of stand around with new-looking surfboards… hmm…). I don’t know that I could ever realistically transform myself into any sort of ethnic woman, so I guess I’ll just keep my ordinary friends. They’re much more realistic anyway.

—2004