I directed the man to the store, he calmed down and thanked me and went on his way muttering about no Americans speaking English any more - and I understood what he meant.
At the end of my street is Union Square, with its 19th-century statues of Lincoln and Lafayette and its Art Deco flagpole always flying the Stars and Stripes. Four days a week the square is taken over by a farmer's market, with fresh produce from New Jersey and upstate New York, and in these times the square resorts to an earlier period of city commerce with merchants setting up their street stalls, hawking their vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. A cow even appeared recently, advertising a dairy selling milk in glass bottles.
If there is a place to celebrate the great 'melting pot', Union Square is as good as any. Stop for a moment in the middle of the market and you can hear many languages - Spanish, French (from Haitians), Russian and any number of East European and Asian tongues.
When the phrase 'melting pot' was first written at the turn of the century by Israel Zangwill, the poet, novelist and dramatist, he envisioned the races of Europe 'melting and re-forming', and of 'God making the American'. But God apparently decided in favour of the City of Babel.
In the midst of the new great wave of immigration - a fair portion of it illegal - Americans across the nation feel that the new arrivals are overburdening their cities, depleting local budgets, flooding welfare rolls, depressing wage levels, lowering the quality of life, and diluting traditional Anglo-American culture.
In California, where the effect of new immigration is the most obvious, most speaking only Spanish, the governor, Pete Wilson, complains that it costs dollars 3bn or 10 per cent of the state's budget to provide the federally mandated public services to illegal immigrants. The state pays dollars 330m just to imprison the 15,000 illegal aliens who have been convicted of crimes. In Los Angeles alone illegal immigrants and their children are estimated at nearly a million. Two-thirds of all babies born in Los Angeles public hospitals are born to illegal immigrants, says Wilson.
In actions reminiscent of the immigration shutdown of the late Twenties, Mr Wilson and the governors of two other states - Florida and Texas - where illegal immigration is an increasing problem, are suing the federal government for reimbursement of welfare costs. They also propose to deny all public services, including elementary schools, to illegal aliens. 'If Congress and the Clinton administration won't act, maybe the courts will,' wrote Mr Wilson recently, warning that the suits are only the first signal of a bipartisan rebellion calling for immigration reform.
The politics of the issue are cloudy. On the governor's side can be counted conservative bigots as well as the liberal California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Opposing them are the pro-immigration forces who believe new blood brings new energy and skills, creates jobs, raises tax revenues, revives inner cities and keeps America true to its original intent of being a crucible for all comers.
It is also bipartisan, bringing together New York's Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, its Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani, the arch-conservative Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and the Republican presidential hopeful Jack Kemp.
The debate is riddled with fears, myths and not many facts. No one knows how many illegal immigrants enter the country each year, how much they earn or how much they pay in taxes. While new immigrants appear as hard-working as those in the wave at the turn of the century, they are bringing fewer skills. One estimate is that since 1970 about 19 million people have entered the US illegally; they have used about dollars 50bn worth of services and contributed dollars 20bn in taxes, leaving a imbalance for native-born Americans of about dollars 30bn.
An 'immigration event' such as last year's bombing of the World Trade Centre - carried out by immigrant Arabs - or the running aground off the coast of New York of the Golden Venture, a smuggling ship stuffed with nearly 300 Chinese, intensifies the debate and strengthens the hand of those who would like to close the borders.
New York remains the city where the immigrant still has the best welcome. The state refuses to co-operate with federal authorities trying to track illegal aliens, and Mayor Giuliani encourages immigrants, with or without papers. 'If you come here and you work hard and you're in the undocumented status, you are one of the people we want in this city,' he said recently.
Most who answer his call almost certainly won't be speaking English. In God's Crucible, as Zangwill called America, you must learn to speak many languages.Reuse content