New York Tales from Curious Borough Dwellers

021 : Jill Widner at The Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia , Manhattan
Born 1955 in Houston, Tex.. Jill Widner currently works as a teacher of English in Yakima, Wash. Why New York? The side of her that has been sleeping wakes up. She digs the following Gotham bits: Walking alone early in the morning, looking at old buildings, watching ice skaters and dog walkers in Central Park, and the fact that people talk to each other. Jill Widner's favorite meal in New York is kombu chazuke at Hakubai. For more info on Jill Widner you should send an email.

image: Jill Widner

“The entrance at the top of the stairs is locked, but another staircase leads to the basement.”

I’m walking down 68th Street toward Wollman Lake, thinking about Joni Mitchell’s 29 skaters and anonymity and the blank face at the window that stares and stares and stares and stares.

Halfway down the block, on the second-floor balcony of a narrow gray stone building, I notice a red and white flag whipping in the wind. On the wall, a small bronze plaque engraved with a Garuda bird reads, “Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia.”

It is an elegant 19th century mansion between Madison and Fifth Avenue. The air is so cold, so bright, the glass in the windows on the upper floors seems to vibrate.

The entrance at the top of the stairs is locked, but another staircase leads to the basement. I turn the knob. This door is open. Inside, behind what must be a security window, a woman is working at a desk. I am so terrible at beginnings. I don’t know what to say.

She is suspicious. “What do you want?”

“I saw the flag outside. I grew up in Indonesia. Nearly 40 years ago. I don’t know what I want. I just know I had to come in.”

“Where did you live, Jakarta?”



“Near Palembang.”

Her face softens infinitesimally. She points across the hall toward another room, where several office workers are moving about behind another glass window. “He is from Palembang.”

I am standing on the public side of the security glass in a narrow waiting room. Except for a straight-backed wooden bench against one wall, the room is empty.[1] A row of windows near the ceiling is meant to let in the light, but this is the basement of the mansion; the glass is grimy and wrought iron bars block the view of the sidewalk outside. I see the man from Palembang through the security window. He is speaking on the phone. I wait. I look from the bench to the bars on the windows.

It is the man’s parents who are from Palembang. He was raised in Jakarta. But he is familiar with Sungai Gerong, the oil camp across the river from Palembang, where I grew up. Though a little self conscious, a little shy, he seems willing to talk. He is younger than I am. Maybe he is uncertain of his English. He remembers the name of a dish particular to Palembang, a fish from the Musi River simmered in chili sauce. He asks me if I know it. I don’t. It isn’t long before we have run out of things to say.

He walks me to the front door. Hands me his business card. The receptionist is watching us through the security glass. She asks me where I live now.



“State. Washington State.”

Suddenly she is speaking to me in Indonesian. “Tadi kita terbang ke…” I know at once what she is saying. “We flew to Seattle not too long ago.” I don’t know why sometimes it’s so easy and sometimes so hard.

I glance at the business card: Department of Consular Affairs, Consulate General of Indonesia. I turn it over. He has written something on the back. Without reading, I ask, “Does this say, Saya mau pulang?”

He doesn’t understand. “It is my email address.”

“Because I used to say that—Saya mau pulang—or think it—I want to go home. Because this never felt like home. I always thought I would return.”

The woman is skeptical. “Tidak terlalu panas—It isn’t too hot for you?”

I shrug.

Of course, she is probably right. We were expatriates. We had A.C. in every room. What would I have known of the heat.

referenced works

  1. A homesick 35-year old Indonesian man, Bambang Wielianto, died a grizzly death in a room in this same basement in early 2006; it was ultimately ruled a suicide. From the New York Times: "[Wielianto's] body, the police said, was found on the floor of his room, shirtless and face up, the long knife protruding from his chest and his nearly severed left hand dangling loose."

location information


017That's when I knew I wanted to live in New York: in the midst of those fragile bralets and bodysuits.— Ling Ma

016The guns, we tell the police later, were black like ice.— Tara Deal

015...my own talisman against the folly of my youth.— Andrea Jarrell

014Y'all in a band'r somethin'?— Abraham

013Perhaps it was the lanky teenager with the bright red book-bag that made me think I saw Adam.— Carrie Teicher

012I remember flattening myself against the streaky windows of the PATH train like an insect.— Erin Fisher

011I glanced up to see another shape hit the sand.— Ken H. Judy

010Vibrating almost imperceptibly in the breeze like a woody tuning fork.— Rob Giampietro

009Then the jazz stopped and the radio said the war had started in the Middle East. — Roland Kelts

008Shirtless Boris Yeltsin’s skin reddens as he reads a book.— Michael Maiello

007Port Authority was there with open, non-judging arms.— Khoi Vinh

006His almost-loss was my almost- nonexistence.— Matthew Rand

005On the cold hard floor of the orphanage, I sang, longing for the day that they would come and rescue me.— Jen Egan

004He was a lawyer, after all.— Kristin Gardner

003The parking lot gate was open, and we ran in with the skateboard.— Lorraine Martindale

002We arrived on completely Russian streets, with Russian signs and a familiar rudeness.— Kseniya Melnik

001...the hourly clicking of Oxfords and high heels across the parking lot.— Tam Nomgum


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