The Dominican Fingerprint Doctor

Back in the Bronx I had this Korean neighbor that liked smoking in the back of a taxi as it cruised around town in random loops. I had just finished my fall semester of junior year at Yale and thus needed some adventure to overcome the stress. I knocked on Pyeong-taek's door and told him that we needed to get on the grind, that this whole watching the ball drop on TV thing wasn't gonna fly. So, we started making phone calls and visiting people we knew who could help us find cigars.

Everyone was either closed or out of stock, so we decided that we needed to drive to the Dominican Republic Washington Heights. We took a taxi and got off at 181st and Amsterdam and started looking for the nearest available entrepreneur on that cold NY night, just 1 hour before New Year's. It's hard to describe NY to someone who hasn't been there, to describe that feeling of walking down a wide and impossibly straight street by yourself; it's like the whole world has abandoned you.

You don't get that feeling in a city with small streets and low buildings. Somehow, Washington Heights feels small. There's music blasting from everywhere and you can feel the people, especially when you pass by the space between a twin, 5 story brick-stone building – the kind that most litters the Bronx and Washington Heights. It is exactly in those spaces between buildings that most of the interesting transactions in New York tend to take place.

We passed by about 10 twins before we encountered one where there was a guy listening to some reggaeton from a ghettoblaster all by himself. I couldn't let Korean boy go and buy the cigars because they could turn out to be overpriced for him. A few dimelos and que lo que laters and Pyeong-taek and I were back on the street trying to hail a taxi.

We walked down Juan Pablo Duarte boulevard, hailing cab after cab and being turned down once we asked if we could smoke in the back seat. The 6th cab was our lucky one, and after negotiating to pay 130 dollars to get sped around Manhattan with the back windows slightly down and while blazing, the cab driver soon became our new best friend.
“Can you please lower the window a bit more, the cab isn't mine, and I don't want the owner to smell it,” he asked politely as he flew down and drove around around Central Park. 1/3 of the way down wasn't enough, but fortunately the black Lincoln town car had good heating and the cold wind hitting my face made the cigar feel even better.

I hadn't smoked in months, so my head was spinning faster than the taxi. The buildings all just came together, my body was warm inside the Lincoln, my face was getting a cold rush, and I had no sense of time or direction; I was in heaven.

“So, you see a lot of crazy shit?” I asked the driver. His first words were, “mire, primo...” which meant that he already trusted me; I think because Pyeong-taek and I were welcoming the new year by celebrating Bob Marley's habit. The deep breath he took and the way he said primo – cousin – meant that he was about to tell me every detail of his life. That's the thing about Dominicans, they tell everything to strangers; it's one of our cultural quirks.

“Primo, I came to the US when I was 1 and did everything by the book, never got into trouble until I got into a barfight at 21, just before graduating college. I could swear that the dude just came at me out of nowhere, but he was an off-duty cop, so all the shit just piled on me. I heard that he got discharged off the force some years ago for excessive use of force, but by then it was too late and the story I am about to tell you had already taken place. You see, I got deported after getting into that fight. But the Dominican Republic to me was a strange land. I always went down on vacation, but I'd never lived there; Manhattan is the only place I know. I needed to get back, so I convinced my mom to pawn all her gold rings and chains. She sent me 12,000 dollars in total, and told me to get back however I could. I went to a doctor, he grew up with a cousin [everone is related in the Dominican], and he charged me 5,000 dollars to cut each and every one of my fingers.” He turned the lights on above the compartment and showed me the small, almost imperceptible cuts across the top part of each finger. He continued: “So I got a new identity, but since I came back, my whole life feels fake, and I sometimes want to end it.”

We drove quietly into a corner of 2nd avenue, and I said: “Holy shit, dude, you need this hit more than me. And, oh yea, happy new year!”