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Melting Pot

by Anna Quindlen

My children are upstairs in the house next door, having dinner with the Ecuadorean family that lives on the top floor. The father speaks some English, the mother less than that. The two daughters are fluent in both their native and adopted languages, but the youngest child, a son, a close friend of my two boys, speaks almost no Spanish. His parents thought it would be better that way. This doesn`t surprise me; it was the way my mother was raised, American among the Italians.

I always suspected, hearing my grandfather talk about the ``No Irish Need Apply`` signs outside factories, hearing my mother talk about the neighborhood kids who called her greaseball, that the American fable of the melting pot was a myth. Here in our neighborhood it exists, but like so many other things, it exists only person to person.

The letters in the local weekly tabloid suggest that everybody hates everybody else here, and on a macro level, they do. The old-timers are angry because they think the new moneyed professionals are taking over their town. The professionals are tired of being blamed for the neighborhood`s rising rents, particularly since they are the ones paying them. The old immigrants are suspicious of the new ones. The new ones think the old ones are bigots.

Nevertheless, on a micro level most of us get along. We are friendly with the Ecuadorean family, with the Yugoslavs across the street and with the Italians next door, mainly by virtue of our children`s sidewalk friendships. It took a while. Eight years ago we were the new people on the block, filling dumpsters with old plaster and lath, drinking beer on the stoop with our demolition masks hanging around our necks like goiters. We thought we could feel people staring at us from behind the sheer curtains on their windows. We were right.

My first apartment in New York was in a gritty warehouse district, the kind of place that makes your parents wince. A lot of old Italians lived around me, which suited me just fine because I was the granddaughter of old Italians. Their own children and grandchildren had moved to Long Island and New Jersey. All they had was me. All I had was them.

I remember sitting on a corner with a group of elderly men, men who had known one another since they were boys sitting together on this same corner, watching a glazier install a great spread of tiny glass panes to make one wall of a restaurant in the ground floor of an old building across the street. The men laid bets on how long the panes, and the restaurant, would last.

Two years later two of the men were dead, one had moved in with his married daughter in the suburbs and the three remaining sat and watched dolefully as people waited each night for a table in the restaurant. ``Twenty-two dollars for a piece of veal!`` one of them would say, apropos of nothing. But when I ate in the restaurant they never blamed me. ``You`re not one of them,`` one of the men explained. ``You`re one of me.`` It`s an argument familiar to members of almost any embattled race or class: I like you, therefore you aren`t like the rest of your kind, whom I hate.

Yet somehow we seem to have reached a nice mix. About a third of the people in the neighborhood think of squid as calamari, about a third think of it as sushi and about a third think of it as bait. Lots of the single people who have moved in during the last year or two are easygoing and good-tempered about all the kids. The old Italians have become philosophical about the new Hispanics, although they still think more of them should know English.

Drawn in broad strokes, we live in a pressure cooker, oil and water, us and them. But sometimes you`ll find members of all these groups gathered around complaining about the condition of the streets, on which everyone can agree. We melt together, then draw apart. I am the granddaughter of immigrants, a young professional, either an interloper or a true resident, depending on your concept of time. I am one of them, and one of us.