21 questions

Jose Vargas Is Too Modest to Describe the Pornographic Things He’s Seen on the Subway

Photo: courtesy of Gerry Salva Cruz

Name: Jose Antonio Vargas
Age: 33
Neighborhood: Union Square
Occupation: Journalist and filmmaker. His latest project, Documented, opens at the Village East on Friday, May 2, before going to L.A., Phoenix, San Francisco, D.C., etc. Theatrical dates are here.

Who’s your favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional?
Joan Didion, John Cazale, and James Baldwin. (And those are only my Js.)

What’s the best meal you’ve eaten in New York?
Palabok, which is kind of the pad Thai of the Philippines. It’s in my favorite restaurant in New York, called Jeepney. Every Filipino in New York and New Jersey knows what this place is. On Wednesday and Thursday nights there’s a thing called Kamayan night, and it’s where you eat with your hands. No plates, no silverware, you go with your friends, and it’s amazing.

In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job?
As the founder of Define American, I ask people: How do you define American?

What was your first job in New York?
Working for Arianna Huffington. I moved here in summer of 2009, I had just finished covering the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post, where I was for five years, and Arianna — who is probably one of the most charming people anybody’s ever likely to meet — said, “It’s time New York, Jose.” I launched two verticals for the Huffington Post: HuffPost Tech and HuffPost College, and I remember when I was hired, I was among one of the oldest people in the newsroom. And at that point I was 28.

What’s the last thing you saw on Broadway?
The glorious Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. I’ve seen it three times.

Do you give money to panhandlers?
Absolutely, of course.

What’s your drink?
Venti iced coffee with soy milk. I’m having one right now.

How often do you prepare your own meals?
Right now … do putting almonds in a Ziploc bag count? I can cook, but I don’t have time.

What’s your favorite medication?
Venti iced coffee with soy milk.

What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
I have this great framed photo of James Baldwin, and I pray at the altar of James Baldwin every day. He’s probably the biggest artistic influence in my life. I think James Baldwin is becoming more and more essential, especially at a time when everybody in America feels like they’re the “other.”

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen on the subway?
That is way too pornographic a question at this hour of the day.

When was the last time you stayed out past 3 a.m.?
I stay up past 3 a.m. every day! The thing I do right before I go to bed is I go to YouTube and I watch at least five minutes of a Roseanne episode. It’s calming.

Which do you prefer, the old Times Square or the new Times Square?
I’ve only been here since 2009, so I prefer the new Times Square because to me it’s like Las Vegas without the gambling. What’s good about it is when there’s a family member visiting, it’s perfect for adult-sitting. You just plop them in there and you say, “Here you go! Have fun.”

What do you think of Mayor de Blasio?
I think he gives progressivism a good name. I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Bill de Blasio. I don’t think I’ve quite met a politician of this stature with this level of inclusivity.

What do you hate most about living in New York?
People who complain about living in New York.

If you could banish one person from New York forever, who would it be?
See, that’s mean! You know what, I would banish anti-immigrant people. New York is the ultimate city of immigrants. I don’t know if you know this, but in 2011, almost 40 percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born. Which is the highest total point since 1910.

When’s the last time you drove a car?
So New York City is home to about half a million undocumented people, and undocumented people can’t get driver licenses. So I never got one. This is why I’m really happy that City Council speaker Melissa Mark announced getting municipal I.D.s for undocumented people here in New York. People don’t understand that to be undocumented means to obsess over documents.

Finish this sentence: The NYPD _____.
… Should follow other jurisdictions, like Philadelphia, for example, that are no longer detaining undocumented people. Other than that answer, I think the NYPD are very friendly people.

Times, Post, or Daily News?
I’m a news junkie, so all of them, but unfortunately all of them still refer to people like me as “Illegal.” Which is actually factually incorrect, and I think unacceptable. I am here illegally, without authorization. I, as a human being, am not illegal. I think that’s a pretty clear distinction.

Where do you go to be alone?
My apartment.

What makes someone a New Yorker?
Duke Ellington has an amazing version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” I encourage everyone to go look it up. I think what makes somebody a New Yorker is somebody who appreciates the melodic noise of the city. The city doesn’t sleep, the city doesn’t shut up, the city is melodic and harmonic and also discordant. I think anybody who’s a New Yorker appreciates all the complexity and all the noise.

Jose Vargas: 21 Questions