Union Square resident, Wilson.

By JT Thompson

Wilson: Kenyan, mid 50s, transplanted to New York City in 1978, in 9th grade, when his father was posted to the Kenyan mission at the UN. Wilson now works as a server on the banquet staff at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge; he bought a condo in Union Square in 2004, and became a US citizen in 2008.

Wilson is a large, jolly presence – he has a round, boyish face, a big round belly, a frequent, hearty laugh, and gestures animatedly with his hands while speaking. We are sitting by the window in a Union Square café; he is wearing jeans, a well worn, brown leather jacket, a blue hoodie and a grey t-shirt. Articulate, good humored and thoughtful, Wilson is “an avid watcher of US politics” and likes living in Blue, liberal leaning Somerville.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “Conservatives have a place in the national fabric. But being around like-minded people in Somerville is fun for me.”

Wilson was born in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and grew up speaking Kikuyu with his mother; a mixture of Kikuyu and English with his father; Swahili with his friends; and English at school or at offices. Kikuyu is his tribal language, Swahili is Kenya’s national language, and English, a holdover from colonial days, is the country’s official language.

From his childhood in Nairobi, Wilson’s most beloved memories are of the East African Safari Rally.

“I think it’s known as the hardest car rally in the world. It would come through once a year, and we would all line up along the road to see the cars go by. It was incredible.

“We kids would make our own toy cars. I was in a middle class neighborhood, and the poor kids near us were much more creative than us. They would make really good, big toy cars out of all kinds of stuff. We mostly just used cigarette boxes, with bottle tops for wheels.”

When Wilson was 12, his father was appointed Press Attaché at the Kenyan embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia was strange in that we mostly stayed in the embassy compound, playing soccer and hanging out. It was a tough time in Ethiopia. The military junta, the Derg, had just taken power, after deposing Emperor Selassie, and we only left the embassy to go to school. They would pile all of us embassy kids in a jeep to drive us there. It was always a lot of fun to get out of the compound.

“When we moved to New York City, it was a real culture shock.” Wilson raises his arms and spreads them wide for emphasis. “Right there in the Upper East Side, the UN International School. The kids were so sophisticated.

“Ethiopia was very simple.

“A kid took me to Chinatown. I mean, wow, how do you find your way home? It seemed so complicated.

“And the sirens – oh, my God, what’s happening? The buildings, the tightness of space, the elevators. It was all on a different scale, a different intensity.

“Kids who knew the city inside and out amazed me, getting around everywhere without their parents.

“I could hardly say a word in class, I was too shy to speak. I was really intimidated.” Wilson laughs at the memory. “Then you figure it out – street signs, the way the city is organized.”

Wilson went on from New York to get an undergraduate degree at Rutgers in political science, and then a master’s at Yale in international relations. He moved to Boston in 1987 for a job at Abt Associates, an international development research organization, then was laid off after two years. He stayed in Boston and started working as a freelance journalist, supporting himself with day jobs in restaurants.

“I wanted to only work in the high end restaurants, but you have to have a lot of experience to be a waiter there. So I was working as a busboy at the Charles Hotel, and writing on the side.”

Between 1989 and 2005 Wilson wrote about 80-90 articles, mostly features and some book reviews, for, among others, The Boston Globe, Boston Review, the London Guardian and Harvard Magazine.

Then financial pressure from relatives in Kenya gradually pushed him away from writing, and he eventually made the move from being a busboy to doing banquet work.

“Banquet work is considered THE thing,” Wilson laughs. “At the fancy hotels, the pay is quite good. It’s a little unpredictable, it can be feast or famine, but it’s good work.”

In 2004, Wilson had saved enough that he was able to buy his condo.

I ask him if things that he loves about America are coming to mind.

Wilson laughs. “When I first came – milkshakes from McDonald’s. I really loved them.”

Then, more seriously, “There’s so much security here. You can work, earn a decent wage.

“I don’t know how to begin to explain.”

Wilson goes silent and thoughtful, taps his fingers against his closed mouth for a moment, and then continues.

“I’ve been reading the New York Times constantly lately. The guests at the hotel leave the paper behind, I have stacks of them at home. I’ve been watching Trump in the White House, watching the pressroom. I’ve been glued to the TV.

“The back and forth between Trump and the journalists, Trump’s hostility, reminds me of Africa. The presidents there, their attitude is – I state what I want to say, you record it.

“Not the give and take like with other, let’s call them more conventional, presidents.

“I really admired Jim Acosta’s bravery in trying to get his questions across, while Trump shouted him down. Fascinating to watch,” he says, with his eyebrows raised.

I ask him what he does with his free time now that he’s not writing.

“Oh boy.

“I don’t spend much time in Somerville anymore. The young people pretty much crowd you out. Aged out, I think they call it,” he says with a big laugh.

“I’m in my 50s now. I’ve been going to East Boston and Everett for the Colombian and Brazilian bars. I love the Latino music. And the immigrant crowd has work hours like mine. There’s a fascinating range of jobs – restaurants, construction. Night is their release time. I sit down with a beer and just watch.

“I don’t feel like I stick out in the way I do now in Somerville. Those bars are very welcoming. I chat with whoever I meet by accident.

“I’m shy, and those places are conducive to my personality.”

– “What do you love most about your life now?”

Wilson chuckles. “This is gonna sound weird, but that I bought my condo in 2004. The struggle was worth it, that investment. Property values in Somerville are going up and up.

“Being in my 50s, it’s a funny time in my life. My father passed away in 2010. I try to keep tabs on my mother. But she’s in Kenya.

“At this stage, I should be getting back to writing.” Wilson makes rapid typing gestures on the table with his fingers. “I do have the luxury now to do that. I need to discipline myself. When the banquet work is slow, I have free days. It’s a luxury I wouldn’t have in Kenya. There, you’re always hustling, unless you’re really wealthy.”

I ask Wilson if there are things about America that he thinks are great.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, rubbing his hands against his thighs. “Where can I start.

“There’s lots of freedom. That’s a cliché, I know.

“But I could go to California. To Brazil. Which is great.

“If I really wanted to go back to school, I could do it.”

Wilson pauses quietly for a moment, and taps his fingers against his mouth again.

“With all that’s going on right now, Somerville is still a friendly place, there’s lots of tolerant people. I went to the rally to support Somerville as a Sanctuary City. It drew a nice big crowd, all liberal leaning.

“People I have a natural kinship with, in the way that I look at the world. There was a strong sense that we’re in this together.

“The country has taken a jolt to the conservative side, but we’re still Blue in Somerville.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with a Red state. But it is fun to be in a state with a lot of people with a similar political outlook.”

Another pause.

“I’ve learned a lot in this country.

“Something that impresses me is that, when something goes wrong in America, there’s a push to not let someone else go through the same thing. People try to raise awareness. A tragedy gets converted into a solution, into a positive.

“I would like to give back to America out of my own experience.

“I think a lot about how to bring together immigrants with, for lack of a better word, regular Americans. Is there anything between a Brazilian house painter and a doctor studying cancer?

“I think the two of them can learn something from each other. I would like to help bring the two worlds together, maybe a website that could be a venue for people to discuss things.

“It’s all very vague right now. But I feel there’s something missing out there to connect the two worlds, the immigrant world and the established American world.

“I’ve gotten so much from America. A project like that, if I can figure out how to do it in a meaningful way, would be a way to give back.”

Wilson’s childhood admiration for the creativity of the poor kids in his neighborhood, his education at Rutgers and Yale, his work on the banquet staff at the Charles Hotel, and his immigrant community in the Colombian and Brazilian bars, all make clear that Wilson has a deep appreciation for both worlds.

 

1 Response » to “Union Square Portraits: Conversations about America – with Wilson”

  1. It’s been too many yrs since I heard from Wilson. He uses words in such a way–as does the writer–that I feel I’m sitting across the table from him, enjoying a long, refreshing conversation about Wilson, life, Kenya and the US. Thank you both for sharing it with us all. And Wilson: you must get back to writing!

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