BY JAY CASPIAN KANG On one of those steel-skied Manhattan winter mornings, when it seems like the city is encased by a slow-moving ironclad, I was sitting in the back seat of a Mercedes-Benz, eating a hot dog with two new friends. Exactly 44 $100 bills lay folded up in my wallet. I’d just met these two friends, both of whom had seen me pocket the cash, but I wasn’t much nervous. If they robbed me, I would see them again soon enough. As it happened, both were nice kids from Westchester County. I knew nothing about Westchester County except for the stigma that kids from Westchester act tougher than they are. My friends acknowledged the stigma and spent half an hour arguing over which was the more important debut, Eminem’s The Slim Shady EP or Biggie Smalls’s Ready to Die. I really listened, made a case for Nas’s Illmatic, and felt happy for the first time in months. After we finished the hot dogs, the kids drove me 20 blocks uptown and dropped me off in front of my apartment. I thanked them, walked up to my studio, and fell asleep.
During my last semester in graduate school, I made a lot of unexpected friends. I’d meet them in the card room above the OTB on 72nd and Broadway, or I’d meet them over Recession Specials at the Gray’s across the street, or I’d meet them in the poker pit at the Tropicana, or I’d sit next to them on the 5 a.m. bus from Atlantic City, trying not to think about what it meant that these were the only sunrises we saw anymore—the washed-out sun peeking out over the white, industrial cylinders of north New Jersey. My friends and I never really talked about anything. Mostly, we muttered about the bad beats we’d taken, each new friend a companion in losing. Sometimes, they would talk about the tits on some female dealer and we’d all smile in recognition. Once, an old Saudi man who sat to my left in a 5-5 No Limit Hold ’em Game at the New York Players Club told me that he missed the openness of the Middle East. When I started to laugh, he said he was talking about the flatness of the earth and the architecture, not the people. Occasionally I admitted to being a graduate student. Although I must have met more than 50 of these friends, I only remember telling one of them about my dream of becoming a novelist. He was a Filipino kid about my age from Queens, and when I made my confession in the back seat of a cab driving to a game he knew about in Chelsea, he only said, “What’s the book going to be about? Hold ’em, Stud, or Omaha?” MORE