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Hackie: An American Story


Published September 20, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 20, 2017 at 11:07 a.m.

"Joseph?" I called through the open passenger window to the young black man standing in front of the hospital. He was a good-looking kid, on the thin side but nicely proportioned, with close-cropped hair and friendly, intelligent eyes. It was affinity at first sight for me, a welcome feeling since I would be spending the next three hours with him.

When I called him, I would have used Joseph's last name, too, if I'd had the slightest notion how to pronounce it. But "Nsoh" was beyond my ken.

As he climbed into the shotgun seat, I said, "From your name, I guess I was expecting an Asian person."

Joseph chuckled and said, "Yeah, I get that now and then. My family is from Ghana — you know, West Africa."

"Of course, that makes sense," I said. "It's just my cultural ignorance. You seem to have, like, zero accent. Did you arrive here real young?"

"Oh, I was born here — Bushwick, Brooklyn. My parents were the immigrants. They moved here with my two oldest siblings."

We negotiated our way off the hospital property and hooked a left onto Williston Road. "So, I'm taking you to SUNY Potsdam," I said. "Do I got that right?"

"You got that right," he replied. "I ended up at UVM Medical Center in an ambulance from some small hospital in Plattsburgh. I had a bleeding ulcer that they couldn't handle, I guess."

"They fix ya up here?"

"Oh, yeah — I'm good to go now."

We merged onto the highway north to Swanton and the Rouses Point Bridge. From there it would be a straight shot across New York's North Country via Route 11.

"So, what year are you in, Joseph?"

"I'm a sophomore. I'm majoring in biology with the goal of becoming a pharmacist."

"Oh, that's a great career. You can work anywhere in the country. You said you have some siblings?"

"Yeah, there's six of us. I'm the second from the youngest."

"They all doing good?"

"Pretty much. One of my older brothers has autism, but he's an amazing guy. He stopped talking when he reached his teen years, but he's a crazy-talented artist. You can show him any type of picture or painting and he can copy it, like, precisely."

"So, I guess he still lives at home?"

"Yeah, he does. One of the many reasons I need to have a good-paying career is that I want to take care of him when my parents are out of the picture. I couldn't bear to see him go into some kind of institution."

This young man, I thought, puts the lie to the popular meme of the self-absorbed millennial. My respect and admiration for him were growing by the minute.

"Do you have the time for any kind of social life at school? Are you, like, dating anyone? I don't even know if college kids date anymore, to tell you the truth."

Joseph smiled and said, "Well, I'm dating a great girl. She's been texting me like crazy during my two-day ordeal. I had to talk her out of driving to Burlington to see me at the hospital."

"Is she a North Country girl?"

"Well, she's from Kingston, which is below Albany. Is that the North Country? I mean, I'm from Brooklyn — what do I know? Anything above, like, the Bronx is just 'upstate.'"

I chuckled, saying, "I'm a city boy, too, but I'm pretty sure that Kingston is considered the Catskills region. I believe the North Country starts above Albany at the Adirondack Park."

For the next hour, we discussed President Trump and politics. Joseph was strikingly articulate on the subject. The overwhelming, depressing, nauseating subject. Sigh.

Coming into Malone, we passed the Dreamland Motel. It was precisely as you'd imagine: a vision of Adirondack styling circa 50 years ago. The North Country, alas, appears to be stuck in a time loop.

"That's where my folks stayed last year when they dropped me off when I started college," Joseph pointed out. "Every place in Potsdam was booked solid."

"What do your folks do for work, Joseph?"

"My mom's an LPN, and my dad works for a big hotel in Manhattan, moving furniture around, I guess. It's not a bad job. Like my mom's job, it's steady work and comes with good benefits. I'm actually the first person in my extended family to attend college. Whenever I'm home, I hear my father telling that to, like, everyone he talks to on the phone." He paused to shake his head and smile, adding, "That's everyone including, like, the pizza delivery guy."

"Joseph, you carry the child-of-immigrants burden, my man. The whole family's depending on you. I got to say, you wear it well. What was it like when they dropped you at your dorm that first year?"

"My mom couldn't stop tearing up. She kept trying to do 'just one more thing' for me. It took my father a half hour to ease her out of the room."

We reached SUNY Potsdam, and I drove onto the campus. As Joseph directed me toward his dorm, we passed a well-tended green space with a bunch of students playing Frisbee.

"You know," I said, "Frisbee playing is required for every college student. In America, anyway."

"Yes, that and foosball," Joseph replied with a laugh. "I'm all over it."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.