The following is a work of fiction. While there’s no reason to think that Ho Chi Minh actually met Leon Trotsky in a New York hotel in 1917, the two revolutionaries were likely in the city for three overlapping months in the beginning of that year. Much has been made of Trotsky’s three-month tenure in the Bronx on the eve of the Russian Revolution, but Ho Chi Minh spent considerably more time in the U.S., living in New York and Boston, where he worked in kitchens and attended Marcus Garvey lectures. The historical record is unclear on the name that Ho Chi Minh was using at the time—most likely Nguyen Tat Thanh. Over the course of his life, he went by several names, ultimately adopting Ho Chi Minh around the year 1940. This story uses his most recognizable name for clarity.
Long before the events that we call history—before establishing the party, before Dien Bien Phu, before Tonkin, Rolling Thunder, Tet, and long before the capital city came to bear his name—Ho Chi Minh hurried down Mott Street in New York City, late for work. The year was 1917 and Ho suffered from a hangover. Pressure mounted behind his eyes. His mouth tasted as if he’d gargled wet bread. He craved all the water on earth. Ho was 29 years old, and not unaccustomed to hangovers.
In the street the city workers were repairing a sewer-line, leeching waste down the trash-choked gutter. The grocers hawked produce and an old bum pocketed an orange, using a little dog as distraction. It’d been seven months in the city and Ho felt as if he could finally see it as it was—a glimmering, stinky contradiction he couldn’t help but enjoy. The world’s best and worst tied together, entangled like the wet knot of conflict in his gut that seemed to tighten when he thought, as he tried not to, of his home.
Ho baked bread at a hotel known for lavish political fundraisers and debutante balls. Over the last few months he’d curried favor with an important maître d’, Hugo, by helping to hide Hugo’s romance with a washingwoman from his powerful wife, who was rumored to beat Hugo with a rolling pin. As Ho walked to work he toyed with the notion of skipping work, reasoning that Hugo would be able to keep him employed. But Ho decided that would not be fair, fairness being increasingly the yardstick of his life.
Ho longed to go to The Battery. It’d been months since he’d been to feed the geese and gawk at the statue across the water. Supposedly, visitors could no longer climb to the statue’s top, which made him glad because he’d been too afraid to do so. Nonetheless he loved it, enjoying the statue and the battery for their similarities. The statue had arrived as pieces, built from the pedestal up, and the battery itself was a constructed piece of land, a pillow of rock and trash fluffed up into the bay by men with ideas as large as their means. He wondered whether a man can actually make something anew, deciding nothing is made anew because there has always been time, how time was what he lacked, and how time was the true power of wealth.
When he got this way, hungover and solipsistic, he missed home. Last week he’d read of a prison rebellion and wished he could be present to hear the rumors from shopkeepers and street typists. But why go back. Home doesn’t take you back in time, Ho told himself.
It was past 9:00 when Ho arrived at the hotel, slipping in the open alley door, past the stockrooms, and slyly into the steaming cave-like kitchen where he donned an apron and began mixing dough. He learned to bake at a hotel in Boston, marooned there after losing his job on a steamer due to some missing jewelry. Boston had suited him though. The pace of the people, the contrast of snow on brick. It was in Boston that he’d read Rousseau’s quote “childhood is the sleep of reason.” Ho believed that he was just beginning to wake.
But still he wouldn’t shake his boyish need to keep moving. It was like there was a little dog in his heart and if he refused to let it run it would soil his insides. Lately it had been whining at the door, but for now Ho ignored it, kneading and mixing and kneading his days away.
“Ho!” his boss, Robert, wailed, after a while. “Ho, we need your French right this minute.” Robert was a squat man who reveled in the authority of his job. He motioned for Ho, and as they walked Robert explained that Hugo had come to work so ill that he’d shat himself and was sent home. Some suspected that his wife had poisoned him.
“And how can I help?” Ho said.
“We have this table, and their English is poor,” Robert said, holding up a waiter’s jacket as he spoke. “And supposedly they’re important. Hugo usually does the translating.”
Ho didn’t know what to think. He wasn’t the serving type. His father had been a servant, a civil servant, and it ultimately led to his ruin.
“I do not feel qualified for this position, Sir,” Ho said.
“Well qualify yourself in a hurry,” Robert said, sending Ho to the storage room to change.
The pants were too long and the jacket too broad, making Ho appear even slighter than he naturally was. He looked like a boy as he adjusted his awkward white cummerbund in his concave reflection granted by a silver ladle. “Bonjour,” he said to the loathsome image of himself. “Je serai ton serveur.”
“Bonjour yourself, you turd.”
Ho turned to find his communist friend Pepe leaning against the storage room door at such an angle so as to resemble a buttress. It was Pepe that first took Ho to the curtained backroom of a market on Mulberry Street where a sympathetic grocer sold communist magazines. Ho had bought penny pamphlets in English and French, languages now nearly as ingrained as his own. Inside he read of agrarian revolt, the general strikes in Spain, and the dethronement of Tsar Nikolas.
“This is a promotion, no?” Pepe asked. Pepe was also a waiter, one of the best in the city.
“No. Hugo shat himself. Violently, I heard.”
“Which is exactly what will happen to you, friend, when you see your table.”
Rousseau had written that the first 40 years of a man’s life supply the text while the following 30 supplies the commentary, which Ho thought of as he walked through the dining room with the restaurant patrons craning their necks at him like pompous geese. The majority of the patrons were already supplying their commentary, and supplying it with confidence, chatting and slapping their big clean hands on the tablecloths. Ho never wanted to reach an age where he just sat and told stories.
His table was near the window, usually reserved for important business or romances of note in the city. Two men were seated, each of them smoking filtered cigarettes from an engraved nickel case.
“Hello,” Ho said, and they looked at him quizzically.
“Bonjour,” he corrected.
One man was tall and slight, professorial in a pair of effeminate wire glasses and an oiled mustache. The other was round and wore a scar on his baldhead like a yam that had been nicked by a spade.
“Well look at you,” the professor said in French. “This truly is a utopia, is it not?”
“Indeed,” Ho said.
He took their orders for coffee, brandy, and soup, and then Ho bowed egregiously and was dismissed.
“What’s he like?” Pepe asked Ho as he struggled to fill the men’s drink orders in the buzzing nest of kitchens and stockrooms and preparatory rooms that thrived beyond the ballroom’s swinging doors.
“What do you mean?”
“Trotsky. What’s he like?”
And with that Ho dropped a snifter of brandy, exploding like an aerial bomb on the marble floor and splashing maroon collateral onto his pants.
Ho delivered their drinks without incident, adding sugar cubes and cream to Trotsky’s coffee upon request, and received their orders for roast squab and Waldorf salad. Additionally, the men requested a bowl of green olives and more bread and much more brandy, please.
Back in the kitchen the rumors were spreading. The hotel was no stranger to fame, but when celebrities arrived, they typically did so leading pageants of beautiful women and entourages of associates with big cigars. Once, Harry Houdini came to dinner bringing only his fox terrier, Bobby, which sat in a chair opposite the magician throughout the entire meal. But this was different in that the truth was unknown. Someone thought it was a coincidence; the man just looked like Trotsky.
Another thought it was a body double.
Another called it a ruse concocted by the U.S. government to root out communist sympathizers.
Or potentially a ruse concocted by the hotel’s owner, M.P. Shuttlecock, who feared of radicals among his staff.
Besides, someone had heard that the Tsar had Trotsky killed in 1914.
Someone had heard that Trotsky commanded a network of Red fanatical assassins.
Someone claimed to be a member.
Someone had heard that Trotsky was secretly French.
Someone had heard that Trotsky and Lenin were actually the same man.
It was Trotsky! No, it wasn’t. Yes, but not Leon Trotsky. Just his brother Aleksandr. And who was the man with him? A union leader. No, a military strategist. No, a U.S. senator. No, the heir to a Canadian timber company secretly funding Lenin’s Red Army. Even Pepe, usually too aloof for such banter, had a take. He said it was indeed Leon Trotsky and that Trotsky would likely be gunned down any minute, right there on the dining room floor, along with whoever happened to be near him at the moment.
“It was good to know you,” he said to Ho.
When Ho returned with the tray’s white plates chirping against one another, the trouble began. Ho dribbled coffee onto the olives, which clearly disappointed the associate but made Trotsky laugh and pluck one from the bowl. “Delicious,” he said to Ho. “Eat one.”
“Oh, I could not,” Ho said.
“I very much want you to eat one.”
Ho ate one, and it wasn’t an awful combination.
“What do you do in this city?” Trotsky asked.
“Usually, Sir, I bake the dinner rolls.”
The associate laughed and Trotsky took an olive from the bowl and dropped it straight into his associate’s glass of brandy.
“What else do you do?”
“I very much enjoy visiting The Battery, sir.”
“The Battery!” Trotsky roared.
“The Battery!” his associate tittered.
Ho took his leave.
Robert was waiting past the silent swinging doors. “The nerve of it,” he said, his neck reddening from collar to ears. “The absolute goddamned nerve of it! They walk into the hotel of M.P. Shuttlecock, of all places, and order an extravagant lunch!”
M.P. Shuttlecock was a hero of New York, having ridden with Roosevelt’s rough riders and now taking every chance to show his patrons his battle scars. Ho had met him once, when Shuttlecock brought his delinquent son to the kitchen, and made him knead dough for six hours as punishment for canoodling with a teenaged heiress to a Pennsylvania oil company. As a reward for overseeing the kneading, Shuttlecock stuck a one-dollar bill into Ho’s smock. Watching Shuttlecock as he folded the bill, Ho had felt every inkling of awe for the man slip out of him like flatulence.
Robert had tried unsuccessfully to find Shuttlecock and inform him about Trotsky’s presence. But, as a chronic sycophant, Robert thought he knew what Shuttlecock would like done. “Rat poison!” he whispered to Ho. “A little rat poison and we’ll be the men that take down Leon Trotsky.”
“Are you certain that’s the best idea? For the hotel’s reputation, I mean.”
“Are you certain that you’re not a communist?”
Ho stayed silent while Robert rifled through stockroom cabinets, tossing boxes of Borax and lye. He came across a bottle of rat poison and found it bone dry.
“Why not roach poison?” Ho suggested.
“Will that work?”
“It’s as deadly as a sword,” Ho said, having no clue.
Robert acquired some from a stockroom upstairs and mixed it into two chilled crystal glasses of vodka. “Tell them it’s on the house,” he said.
Ho delivered the Bolsheviks’ soups and set the two crystal glasses onto the white tablecloth. “Our manager would like to offer you these two drinks as a token of our appreciation for your presence.”
The associate clapped his fingers together and swirled the glass on the table.
“Za zdoroviye,” the associate said. He lifted his glass high. “Za zdoroviye!”
“Wait!” Ho interjected, surprising himself with the quivering in his own voice. “I am sorry to report that I believe that the vodka has gone sour.”
“Sour, is it?” Trotsky asked.
“I am afraid so, Sir. Sour.”
“Nonsense,” the associate said. “Vodka does not sour.”
“No,” Trotsky said. “It has gone sour.” He poured the vodka into the floating candle centerpiece on the table and set the empty glasses in front of Ho. “Sit, little Comrade.”
“Should we be hurrying to the physician?”
“I believe that was all,” Ho said. “It was just one man.”
Trotsky took a huge uncouth slurp of brandy. “I hope you are correct. Go tell your man that we drank it up, and then return. We need your help settling an argument.”
When Ho returned with the empty glasses, he found Robert waiting with another round. “I’m concerned one dose won’t do the deed,” Robert said.
“Good thinking,” Ho said. “You’re very crafty, Robert.”
“I will make sure that Mr. Shuttlecock knows that you were a good helper in this plot.”
“I’ll watch them closely for signs of illness.”
Ho dumped the vodka into the centerpiece. The snifters of brandy had been drunk and both men were smoking. The associate lifted his empty brandy snifter and blew smoke into it, tilting it sideways as if he could pour the smoke out.
“Sit,” Trotsky said. “Sit and listen to this story for us.”
“So there’s this pauper in St. Petersburg,” Trotsky said. “And he’s mostly blind, and sallow, and gray. And with him, everywhere he goes, is this black sheep dog with fleas that you can see jumping from him like sailors from a sinking ship.”
“Okay,” Ho said.
“Oh please,” the associate said.
“And this pauper, he uses this dog to help him navigate the streets and to beg for food, thinking a dirty old pauper with a dog is sadder than a just dirty old pauper.”
“Naturally,” Ho said.
“So one day a tycoon comes by and tells the pauper he’d like to buy his dog. And the pauper says the dog is not for sale and explains that he needs the dog to do his begging and to get around the city.”
“The tycoon tells the pauper he’ll give him 50 kopecks for the dog and the pauper tells him that he is very sorry, good sir, but his dog is beloved to him and is simply not for sale. So the tycoon says he’ll give him five rubles, to which the pauper declines. The pauper then tells the tycoon that he got the dog from a farm on the west bank of the Neva up river and the farmer’s name was Ivanov.”
“The tycoon then says, But it’s not a similar dog that I want. It’s your dog. How’s 20 rubles? But the pauper repeats that the dog is not for sale. So the tycoon offers 30 rubles.”
“Please, Sir, the pauper says. Forgive me, but my dog is not for sale.”
“The tycoon then pulls from his waistcoat his billfold and starts rifling through bank notes. 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 rubles. He waves them in front of the pauper.”
“Please, Sir, the pauper says, This is my dog. The tycoon waves more money. Please, the pauper says again, tears in his milky eyes. Please don’t. This is my dog. He’s my companion. The tycoon says, Do you know what I do, old man? I own properties. I have boarding houses, factories, flats. And I’ll put you in a fine flat until you die if you just give me that reeking dog of yours.”
“Why why why would you offer me this? the pauper asks. Why? He pats the dog on his ears and some fleas hop off onto the pauper’s hand. Then, the pauper hands the dog’s rope to the tycoon. The tycoon throws the money in his face and drags off his dog, promising to come back with keys to a new flat.”
Trotsky took a drink of coffee, and another of brandy, using different hands for each. No one spoke. He lifted his eyebrows as if to invite an interpretation. He then put a fresh cigarette in his mouth and stared at Ho until Ho lit it for him.
“He didn’t come back, did he?” Ho asked.
“He did, in fact. He returned that afternoon with the dog in tow. It had been groomed, and dewormed, and fed, and had a fine leather leash where its rope had been. He gave the pauper the keys to a new flat and, before he left, he returned the dog. I don’t even like dogs, the tycoon was overheard saying. Now, please go refill my brandy.”
He handed Ho his snifter. “And some filtered cigarettes as well.”
Ho refilled the snifter, thinking of Trotsky’s story. It seemed like the kind of story Rousseau would deconstruct, one he’d distill into a bite-sized truism. Rousseau’s second discourse came to him, memories of reading it in university. Something like “Beware the impostor of possession; you are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone’s.” Ho chided himself for this life of his, the baking and loading of luggage. The imposter was in his own mind. He understood the story at once.
“I know the moral,” Ho said proudly to Trotsky and the associate. “It’s that neither man owns the….”
“Tssk,” Trotsky snapped, silencing Ho. “Listen.” He tapped on his temple and it became clear to Ho that the two men were drunk. “It’s not a fable. There is no moral. It’s a thought experiment. The question is whether the pauper would love his dog more or less after it was returned to him?”
They were quiet a second, the three men weighing two imperfect options. Ho believed that the old pauper would well with guilt for giving away his dog, but slowly he would learn to accept it, possibly taking solace in the providence of the situation. But Ho barely got a word out before Trotsky waved away his words like smoke.
“Tssk. If you think you know then there’s no point in discussing it further. It’s more complicated than you can understand. And you all are poor company. An entire nation of poor company and bad food.”
The associate piped up. “Trotsky!” he said in English. “Afraid to lose the bet, are you?”
Trotsky stood, bumping the table with his thighs and spilling soup and brandy and coffee. He pulled from his breast pocket a sterling money clip and counted $65 bills, which he slapped onto the tablecloth in front of Ho. “You are appreciated.” He took his leave, his associate waddling after him.
The next day, after Trotsky was seen strutting about town, Ho was fired for failing to properly assassinate him. Leaving New York, he took only a trunk of clothes and the story with him, gifting his copies of Rousseau to Pepe. The story of the pauper’s dog traveled with him to France, and to Germany, and onward to China and Thailand. He took it home to Vietnam and told it to soldiers and farmers and, once, he wrote it in a letter to Chairman Mao that he ultimately never sent. Sometimes late at night, while he lay stiff with the doubt that devastation can bring, he would imagine telling the story to none other than John F. Kennedy. What a great story, he thought. The kind that opened multiple doors, many lines of thought, but each ultimately leading to the same place: how to possibly measure what we owe one another?
As a sick old man in the stilt house that he preferred to the palace, Ho told the story again and again, the details morphing in each telling. Sometimes the story was set in a village in Vietnam and the tycoon was a wealthy French anthropologist who explored the countryside testing the merits of the poor. Other times he set it in Paris or New York City and once, in a re-telling to his great-grandchildren, Ho exclaimed that he was the pauper—a scrappy young man, down and out in some never-dark city—and his grandchildren laughed at the notion that he’d ever been so young.