Commentary

America, the beautiful mess

Willets Point, across the parking lot from Citi Field, cradles just as many dreams

Updated: September 26, 2011, 1:42 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Citi FieldEduardo Gomez/ESPN.com Citi Field and Willets Point: Neighbors with shared roots and aspirations.

I

Jose Reyes is tired. So is everyone else in the Mets clubhouse. This is the morning of the 157th game of their 2011 season. They are 24 games out of first place.

Jose Reyes tips back the chair in front of his locker and closes his eyes. Between batting practice and infield warm-ups and stretching and long-tossing and hitter's meetings and snapshots with fans, glad-handing VIPs and autograph signings and television interviews in English and radio interviews in Spanish, his game-day mornings at the ballpark are a blur. Not today.

[+] EnlargeJose Reyes
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesWith the Mets out of contention, Jose Reyes is chasing the batting title and his next contract.

Today he doesn't even bother with his iPod. He is too tired even to sing along with himself.

On the way back to his office from the morning news conference, and before the clubhouse fills with reporters, Mets manager Terry Collins slips into the chair next to Reyes and asks in a low voice, "What do you think? One or two?" Collins is already in uniform.

This is Saturday. The Mets have to make up the previous night's rainout against the Phillies, so they're playing a day-night doubleheader. Jose Reyes is hitting .329 -- within two points of the National League batting title. Playing one game or both will decide in some way where he finishes for the season. And because this is a contract year, where Reyes finishes will decide in part where he plays next year, and for how much. He made $11 million this season.

"What do you need me to do?" Reyes murmurs in return.

Collins leans in and whispers. They talk another minute, low, too low to hear, then the manager pushes himself up from the chair and walks out of the clubhouse.

II


Across 126th Street in Willets Point, hundreds of garages and scrap yards and muffler joints have been open for hours. From 35th Avenue over to 39th, and all the way up to the boulevard, last night's rain is still ankle deep in the streets. Cars are backed up in every direction and the barkers -- some kids, some women, some men so old they look like eroded stone -- hustle and sing and whistle and shout for your business. Estimates and counteroffers are made and unmade without anyone ever getting out of the car or leaving the garage. It is the perfection of the free market, the landscape of the Apocalypse and an absolute laboratory of capitalism. This is where you come to fix your car when you can't afford to fix your car.

"$225, start to finish. That's new parts. Two hours."
"Too much. I got 140."
"You want it cheap, you want it right?"
"I got $160 in cash."
"OK. Used parts. Fast as I can, but now I gotta send up to Sambucci."

[+] EnlargeWillets
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIWillets Point supports repair shops and the diaspora of many countries.

So the kid runs up to the salvage yard on the corner. And while he waits for his parts, he gets a kebab from the falafel truck out front. Chicken. Extra hot. He orders in Spanish, and the Moroccan guy who runs the truck answers back in immaculate Spanish, too. There's a folding chair on the sidewalk and the kid sits and he eats and he leans back for a minute and he closes his eyes because he's tired. He's maybe 20 years old. He has a sharp profile and his expression is serious, even at rest, and the brim of his Yankees cap is like a straightedge.

Around the corner the guys at Pancho's Auto Glass sit out front at a card table and watch the Mets' game on the flat screen in the service bay. They brought lunch from home. Chicken and rice -- same as the guys down the block at Kandahar Muffler.

There is no corner of this place without music, and no corner of the world -- especially the Americas -- unrepresented in its hustling workforce: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Mexican, Colombian, and on and on and on.

The place hums with ambition.

The city of New York wants to bulldoze Willets Point so it can be redeveloped into a "dynamic regional destination."

The afternoon fades, and Jose Reyes goes 1-for-3. He does not play the night game.

III


Back in the middle of the past decade, the team and the local papers and magazines used to play up the Latin composition of "Los Mets" as a marketing angle, a sales promotion, an advertising matter. That's not much the case anymore. If you're losing, it doesn't matter where you're from. If you're winning, it matters even less. The game doesn't care who you are. The game only cares if you can play.

[+] EnlargeGabriel Garcia Marquez
Getty ImagesGabriel Garcia Marquez is a Nobel Prize winner in literature.

The theme of Hispanic Heritage Month 2011 is "Many Backgrounds, Many Stories … One American Spirit," and this is surely so. Let's set aside then please, if only briefly, hardened arguments over the academic concepts and constructs of "Latino" and "Hispanic" and "Chicano." Inevitably we'll take them up again. Same with boundaries and politics. Instead, let's honor the descendants of Spanish speakers and speakers of Portuguese, now and forever, borderless, from the North Pole to Patagonia. This is America the beautiful mess after all, in which all things are possible and all things are within reach and all things imaginable can be grasped and had. At least that's what we dream of.

And that dream is what these kids chase through the streets of Willets Point. And it's what Jose Reyes chases when he chases the batting title, too, and it's what you chase and what I chase, and that dream is our American Magic-Realism -- less fantastic in its way, but somehow more transformative than anything out of Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

On Sunday, Willets Point sizzled and bucked with work. Although it must be said that no man sprouted wings, and no woman became a rose, and no ocean liner steamed up the boulevard with hundreds of passengers at the rails throwing kisses and confetti. Still, everything was changed and no one was untouched by dreaming.

Many backgrounds, many stories. Surely this is so.

Across the street, Jose Reyes went 2-for-4.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

Artist Eduardo Gomez completed his MFA degree in spring 2010 at the California College of the Arts, where he received the Barclay Simpson Award. His work embodies the cultural and sociopolitical influences between the United States and Mexico by using baseball as a metaphor for Latino immigrants' pursuit of the "American Dream." Email him at Eduardo.gomez.1280@gmail.com.

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