I’m in an elevator, with my 10 month old twin daughters in their obtrusively large twin stroller. We are headed to the pediatrician’s. Several other people are in the elevator with us, and most of them are staring at my daughters, which is a common response to babies in general, twin babies in particular, and Chinese twin babies with a Caucasian mother most of all. Though I have only had the girls for a few weeks at this point, I am already used to the stares. My husband says that going out with them is like going out with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who are still married; it is 2001) because of all the attention. We make jokes like this; we think we are unflappable. We think people who adopt children from other countries and then freak out because people stare or ask questions are freaky and uptight.

A woman in the elevator turns to me and says, “Oh, they’re darling!” and I smile. I am still smiling when she says loudly, “How much did they cost?”

Here is a list of some of the more insane/offensive things I have heard in reference to my daughters:

*Aren’t you worried about bad genetics?

*Are you planning to teach them English?

*(in a public restroom: one friend calling to another in a toilet stall) Oh my God, Mary! You have to get out here and look at these adorable little twins this lady got in China!

*What a wonderful/heroic/noble thing you did! You saved those girls!

*So, have they attached to you yet? (I think they were 3 at the time we were asked this. We adopted the girls at 9 months of age.)

*Oh, Madeleine and Kenza are great—but you’ll see (I was pregnant with my son at the time), there’s nothing in the world like having your own baby!

Yet through it all, nothing has ever topped “What did they cost?” Perhaps because every other asinine question or statement has simply been . . . well, asinine (um, no, I was planning to converse with them in Mandarin forever and shield them from the English language, because the moment the adoption papers went through, I immediately became fluent in Mandarin through some kind of Republic of China thought control . . . ) Whereas the question “How much did they cost?” has a concrete answer—because every parent who adopts a child, in the United States or elsewhere, has to eventually make their peace with the fact that their child was once “for sale.”

In 2001, adopting twins in China cost roughly 23K. My husband and I called it the “two for one special,” since adopting a single child was at least 20K. The vast majority of the costs go to agencies in the United States, which is why getting two babies is barely any more expensive than getting one: the paperwork is the same. In China, there is mercifully little worry that somehow your child was “bought” from her birthparents as has been the case in Vietnam and other countries, since child abandonment, especially of girls, is common and no one would need to bribe an unwilling mother to part with her child. (Incidentally, on a statistical level a greater percentage of women in the U.S. give up their babies for adoption than in China, but because of China’s staggering population, a greater number of actual babies are available in China. Still, this is worth specifying since the U.S. conception of the Chinese tends to be that they’re tossing baby girls out as a norm, but a greater percentage of Chinese keep their babies than Americans.) Yet even if babies are not being “bought” from poverty-ridden parents, economics is what drives most who abandon their girls to do so.Prohibitive taxes on second children make admitting to having one impossible for many poor, rural families, and these same families need to have a son so that there is someone to work the land and care for them in their old age. In China, girls go to live with their in-laws when they marry, so elderly couples with only a daughter would be abandoned on a farm they can no longer work. In China, more than 75% of the country still farm for a living. In China, there is no Social Security.

They told us to bring crisp, new bills. This gave us the creeps. We felt like drug dealers. To assuage our feelings of uneasiness, we took the following photograph of our daughter Kenza Ling with the spanking new money we would turn over the next day to “purchase” her and her twin as our own:

 

We made jokes about Demi Moore and Indecent Proposal. We wanted a baby more than anything, and I was (at the time) infertile.  We would have done anything, you see.  Crisp new bills were nothing.

Now I wish they could have asked for something else. A kidney, maybe. A piece of my lung. My left hand. I would have given it gladly, in exchange for my daughters. If I had given a kidney instead of crisp new bills, when someone asked how much they cost I could say “Fuck you” and show them my scar. Instead, there is a concrete answer: “They cost 23,000 U.S. dollars.” An answer I obviously would not give in a crowded elevator, with my daughters right there. An answer I carry.

In the United States, I have heard of couples desperate for a white newborn paying six or seven times the amount I paid, often with most of it going directly to the birth mother. Yet because their children look like them racially, they are not asked this question in parks, in elevators. They will not be asked it someday, ten years from now when the fact of their adoption is so old hat that we barely even think of it, while helping to buy their daughters dresses for prom.

A kidney. A lung. My right hand. Take them. You can have them all.

I just want my daughters.


August 30, 2029

GUADALAJARA, Mexico

In those days, I was finishing up a degree in the Spanish language in Guadalajara, Mexico, riding the wave of what was left of my mid-life postponement, wedged between two countries, two languages, girlfriends, professions, et al. I remember I turned 36 there, straddling the fence between youth and middle-age, having just moved from Madrid where I had lived for almost six years, and the six weeks in Mexico was an understated adjustment, preceded by the initial shock that Mexico was not even second but third world.

Thanks to a particularly media-hyped influenza virus outbreak called the H1, la gripe porcina or swine flu, it was the first time I noticed a budding prevalence of hand sanitizers located at the thresholds of buildings and doorways. These containers came in various sizes and modes of bringing you a smattering of transparent gel that -as advertised on the label- purported to kill 99.9% of all bacteria. As we now know the action of trying to kill off 99.9% of all the bacteria on our hands only resulted in some vicious mutations that, in turn, killed a healthy percentage of of our own. Even when the US government declared the official “War on Bacteria”, no one really believed it would work based on the other unending, unrealistic wars they had waged and lost at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. In fact, it’s obvious that the bacteria are winning the war because they’re so hard to see and, in comparison, we’re such big targets (which was basically the same problem we had with those pesky terrorists).

Coincidentally or not, these signs of those times occurred around the same rise in popularity as the current standard handshake alternative we now call the knuckle knock (a.k.a. fist bump). It was the obvious choice since no one bites their knuckles, picks their nose or rubs their eyes with their knuckles, allowing us to bump away at our leisure without worrying about any germ-addled palms or bacteria-infected fingernails.

That was, of course, after shaking hands became outlawed and heftily fined (except for political photo-ops), the inter-touching of citizens was largely avoided and fully a part of our national ethos. We became the paradox that we now are: self-isolated from each other, humans in need of touch, but unable to get it.

Guadalajara, the huge chunk of sprawling gaud that it was, shocked me awake every morning to the sounds outside my window: a broom sweeping long assiduous strokes starting at 6:30 am by calloused hands whose owner I never once saw; a particular bird that endlessly repeated two sounds similar to a doorbell during the day; and a train a few blocks from the house where I slept would lay on its horn as it entered the city for about 30 seconds. Every morning for six weeks I entered third world modernity with a brutal aural shock that, only near the end of my stay, became commonplace enough to be an afterthought, part of the background and, as I recall it now, something to which I yearn to return.

That, and the storms. The rainy season brought at least one storm a day that hinted Armageddon. About 30 minutes before, the wind would pick up, thunder echoed its cacophony throughout the city and finally the sky could come down in inexorable sheets of sopping anger. I sometimes found myself staring at the storms, into their chaotic spit, rooting for them.

Every morning I walked about 30 minutes to the school, which had a route of a massive L from my house to there linking two major streets. In the six weeks throughout the course  of my commute, I learned to weave through the street grids in patterns that equated to many different smaller Ls, sometimes in order to find the most efficient path to the destination, sometimes with the route serving to just avoid large puddles.

Over the course of my six weeks there, I fell in love with the plentiful and varied trees that densely dotted every street, flanked buildings and shaded parks. But what most struck me about them was their open discontent they had with the city itself: All large trees grew quietly but never complacently. Many of the upper root systems were above ground, and many of those grew rampantly through the sidewalks, cracking the cement, sometimes shooting through it, sometimes even breaking the sidewalk into shards. Occasionally large slabs of concrete were upturned on their sides. These broken shards of cement and rippled slabs of concrete sometimes caused the sidewalkers to trip. After my first near fall, I walked with vigilance toward the ground, their anchorage, their veins exposed and ripping through dense human progress. Occasionally I glanced upward at them, a little fearful.

What was the government’s response? Apathy. The Department of Parks and Recreation seemed to be nonexistent. Only when a particularly harsh storm would knock down too many branches would they eventually –several days later– come around to pick them up.

But the roots, the trunks, the discontentment, was fully ignored.

The trees were constantly in their own process of becoming, an act that I never consciously witnessed yet knew was always happening right before my eyes.

Then, I wished I had been an arborist as I would’ve known what all the species were. As it was, I could barely distinguish the Ficus from the Laurel, nor did I know then what I know now: the thousands of Guadalajaran trees included many Orange, Ash, Poplars and Jacaranda trees, to name a few.

One day while I ambled my way through a series of Ls, I stumbled upon the following image, which inspired these words.

Elephantine fountains of air.

Green soldiers with gangly, tangled

anchors

surfacing, in protest of

civilization’s progress and Mexican

indifference, manifested in their belligerent machines

spewing soot and distorted ranchero brass.

Sidewalks cracking, separating

silently

like glaciers,

in distances too minute to be measured,

in time to slow to be counted,

by us: the ones who planted them,

who falter above their discontent,

who have no time to watch them grow,

who are outgrown by their patient, massive loom

and their inconspicuous revolution.

I stand here

awed,

dwarfed,

humbled,

rooting.

***********************************************

You can view some of these militant trees and their root uprisings here.


stairs

Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.

Twenty Dollars

By Ben Loory

Memoir

When I was in fifth grade, I was in love with Shirlene DuJack. We used to draw pictures of TIE fighters together. It was the ideal relationship. The only problem was that the school bully, Wayne DeCourte, was also in love with Shirlene DuJack. A fact which I found annoying. Apparently he felt similarly, because one day he announced that the two of us were going to have to fight after school for the hand of Shirlene DuJack. This made sense to me, so I agreed, with one stipulation: I had piano lessons that day, so could it be tomorrow? Wayne said sure, and we shook on it. It was all very gentlemanly.

The barefoot summer is nearly over.

My soles are dirty, maybe permanently so; they are also thick and somewhat wiser than they were when this summer began 2,714 miles east of here.

There are certain things one learns (or doesn’t learn) when driving the highway between New York and Montana.

Not the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought, however. That particular honour belongs to a moment in San Francisco – I was walking down Castro, I glanced across the street, and I saw a burger joint called Sliders. I read the name, emblazoned on a huge, purple sign in the window, and I thought Huh. I wonder if that’s a whole place themed after that Jerry O’Connell show from the mid-90s?

Instantly, I thought There it is, Simon. Right there. The single stupidest thing you will ever think in your entire life.

No, no. The dumbest words to ever come out of my mouth came courtesy of my seventeen year old self, a teenager who, it’s true, said some fairly stupid things as a matter of course. Even then, the bar was high. With maturity, my ability to release unrepentant barrages of idiocy into the world, like flooding rivers bursting their banks and swamping unsuspecting social gatherings with shocked silence, has developed, grown more skilled, become perfect with practice. But that particular evening… well, I was just in the zone.

The girl in question was French, a foreign exchange student who was spending a few months in Australia. I’d seen her at Mario’s, a café my friends and I have been frequenting for a little over a decade now (it’s at 666 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. The coffee is excellent, both in blend and in brewing. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in and ask for Richard. Then tell him he has a stupid face, he’s been holding me back for years, and some day, after I have ridden his coat-tails to victory, I mean to put him in the ground). I was in Year 11, with a bit part in a school play¹. Rehearsals were set some time after school had finished, so the actors² would head to Mario’s after the last bell had rung, to wait until it was time to go back to school and block our positions, recite our lines, and talk about how, someday, Ben was going to make it as an actor.

I caught a glance of her one night across the café and even before I’d heard her accent and fallen just as hard as every other man who hears a woman speak French for the first time, I was wondering who she was. She looked like Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element, all easy grace and self-possession, the only real difference being that her hair was dark brown rather than bright orange. We smiled at each other as I walked past her table to the counter to order, and exchanged another look, later, as she was leaving, that held for just a second too long.

The following night, when I came in, alone and with a freshly-shaved head, she saw me and laughed. She made a loud electric sound, audible throughout the room: ‘Bzzzzz!’ and mimed shearing all of her hair off. It was instantly disarming, if only because she was foreign; I couldn’t imagine an Australian girl either being so bold as to do such a thing, or having the savoir-faire to pull it off without looking foolish.

From there, she gathered her things and stood. Smiling, she came over and seated herself at my table.

‘In France,’ she explained, ‘if we saw someone at a cafe and smiled, we’d just sit down to say hi. Australians… you’re too uptight.’

Her name was Laura, and she came from Paris. She was over in Australia on exchange, living with a local host family and studying at a school near mine. When her friends, also French, came in, she introduced me. When mine arrived, I did the same. We sat in a circle of company and conversation, of coffee and cigarette smoke, and, as it does when you are young, time drew long; expanding without notice across the borders of minutes and hours.

Simply, easily, afternoon meetings became a regular thing between the two of us. I’d walk in to find her waiting, alone. We’d talk, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. We flirted, a little – being French, she ran conversational rings around me. She was something far beyond my experience; stylish and sophisticated even in a flat school dress of white and lime green checks, while I felt clumsy in my words, and always rushing, on the verge of stumbling, to be even one step behind.

‘Do you know any French?’ she asked one night.

I’d studied French, half-heartedly, for three years, but somehow asking where I could buy a loaf of bread and enquiring about the health of the rabbit of her aunt didn’t seem to be what the moment wanted.

‘Voulez-vouz couchez avec-moi?’ I said, grinning to show that I – of course – didn’t mean it as it sounded. I – of course – would never be so crass. And yet – of course – I did, and I was. The joke was a proposition, cloaked in the deniability of humour, and my every sense was set to gauge her reaction.

‘Ha ha,’ she said, and looked me in the eye.

‘When?’

And then she laughed too, like a tense moment breaking, and deliberately took another cigarette from her pack on the table. She put it to her lips, leaned close and waited for me to light it for her, and I was left to wonder if now she was the one joking, or if my fool-proof plan had just backfired.

She told me she had a formal in a few weeks (equivalent to a prom, Americans), and she’d love to go with me, but she’d already agreed to take her host family’s brother, and she couldn’t back out. I, of course, swallowed my disappointment and lied that I understood.

We talked about sex, we talked about France. We talked about the sex she’d had in France. She quizzed me about what my favourite things to do in bed were.

To this day, I feel reasonably justified in thinking there was something going on.

And then one evening, in that quiet time between afternoon and twilight, as we waited for her Parisian friend to arrive for a rare pre-arranged coffee, she turned to me and said ‘Ey, look… what are your feelings for me?’

‘Huh?’ I asked, blinking and blindsided by the raw honesty of the question after so much time skirting the issue of how much time we were spending together.

‘Because, you know… I ‘ave a boyfriend in France. And I really love ‘im.’

‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Yeah. Of course. No, no, we’re friends. I mean, I think you’re cool, and all. But yeah. Friends.’

And in the depths of my brain, something took a deep breath and screamed ‘FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-‘

Laura’s friend turned up, annoyed at some problem with her host family. She didn’t order, just sat and smoked, tensely, ripping one cigarette after another from the pack on the table and lighting up, wrapping herself in circles of smoke like armour against further irritations.

It was obvious things had become awkward with the introduction of this third party, so Laura and I said we’d walk the other girl home and call it a night. The two of them chattered back and forth in French as we walked the ten minutes back from the cafe, and at one point the other girl stopped and took a sidelong glance at me before turning to Laura and saying something that sounded vaguely hostile, and at the same time, vaguely concerned.

We walked the friend to her door and started the short journey back to the cafe and the train station. Both of us were quiet, lost in our own thoughts. I was trying to think of a loophole to salvation – surely there was some sentence, some perfect combination of words I could put together that would make her say ‘Boyfriend? Oh, you misunderstood! I said pet turtle. Yeah, you and me should totally have sex. Wild, French sex.’

Dusk was falling, and with it, a light rain. The breeze picked up, and above us, tree branches moved gently. Streetlights were flickering on, and it was a perfect romantic moment; one of the few I feel everyone is owed throughout the course of their life. Laura stopped walking, put her hand on my arm to catch my step, and faced me.

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Tell me. ‘Ow do you feel?’

At this point, it was like God himself reached down from the sky, flipped open the back of my skull, and poured ten quarts of distilled stupid straight into my medulla oblongata.

‘I’m kinda cold, actually,’ I said.

‘Oh…’ she said. ‘And… zat is all?’

‘Uh huh,’ I said. ‘Yup.’

And I walked her to the train station, and away.


¹ and it was far, far more than I deserved

² I use this term loosely

Note to the reader: I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2005. For the last six months of this period I held a position both on the security team and as an ER intake/administrator at the Oschner hospital, the largest medical facility in Orleans Parish and one of only two to remain open in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As a member of the Disaster Relief Staff I remained within the city for the storm and the first few weeks of the aftermath. The following document is a collection of the emails I mass-sent to friends and family during that time. I have edited out some bits of personal information of no interest to the casual reader and have made some minor corrections to the spelling, but have otherwise left the text unchanged, grammatical warts and all, so as to preserve the immediacy in which these were originally written. Some of the second-hand information reported herein was later proven to be hearsay, and some of it turned out to be worse than originally thought. I was very torn as to whether I should publish this at all, and am doing so largely due to the encouragement of some friends and fellow TNBers.

The paragraph titles are taken from the subject lines of the original emails.

Hurricane 8/28/2005

There’s a Category Five hurricane barreling down on New Orleans right now, the biggest in the history of the state according to some of the news anchors. The Mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation alert, coupled with Sheriff Harry Lee announcing, “If you stay, you’re a damn fool,” at a press conference this morning. My girlfriend is evacuating to her parents’ home in Mississippi. I’m a damn fool, and am going to remain in the city. The security department has been deemed “essential emergency staff” at the hospital, although in what capacity we can be helpful I do not really know. It’s a fairly new building and up to code as far as structure is concerned, so I should be safe enough, and if anything happens I’ll be able to get treatment right away. Just hope my apartment survives all right.

Approaching the Hour 8/29/2005

Half past midnight and a glance at the sky outside of the Emergency Room makes me feel like I’m in an H.P. Lovecraft story. The night overhead is an inky expanse ribbonned with gray streaks, and it moves and undulates in a seething mass, as though heralding the rise of something ancient from the depths of a brutal and uncaring sea. The whistling of the wind is painful on the ear. Out on the street I can see stop signs bending to forty-five degree angles, and I foresee them becoming deadly projectiles before this thing is done.

We have a skeleton staff on hand here. Everyone is nervy, on edge and afraid, and drinking more caffeine than is probably healthy.

It’s going to be a long night.

The Hammer Falls 8/29/2005

I don’t know what time it is. Hurricane Katrina is beating us senseless. The wind battering against the glass is choking with water. Unidentifiable pieces of debris can be glimpsed hurtling through the air. Parts of the hospital shake like we’re in an earthquake. Staff, patients and their families are huddling down in corridors, exam rooms and waiting rooms, away from any exposed windows. No matter where you wander, you can hear the desperate sobs riding just underneath the barbaric winds.

At some point in the last hour we lost main power, and are currently on the reserve generator. Enough to keep the critical care machinery functioning, provide some lighting and power to the computer terminals, but that’s it. We are currently without television, radio, or telephones. The plumbing has stopped working entirely, and the hallways near the restrooms are thick with the odor of human waste.

I’m off shift right now, and need to find a safe spot to take a nap—I’ve been awake since this time yesterday.

Aftermath 8/29/05

It’s about 3:30 PM right now. The worst of the storm seems to have passed, and by the looks of it beat the living daylights out of the hospital front—there’s broken glass, metal debris, and stripped siding from the buildings lying everywhere. Although we didn’t flood, places throughout the facility sprung leaks in the ceiling, and we had to seal off portions of the campus. We’re still without main power and running water. Without air conditioning the hospital is growing uncomfortably warm.

A few police officers have stopped by to check in. They report that downtown took it very hard; apparently the glass windows on the Hyatt-Regent blew out. My neighborhood is said to have fared better, so there’s a chance I might actually have a home to go back to tomorrow.

My cellular network is either damaged or overloaded; I get a busy signal every time I try to call someone.

In a very surreal turn of events, as Katrina raged outside, I found myself catching a few hour’s sleep in an OB/GYN exam room.

On the exam bed.

Hot 8/30/2005

I won’t be going home anytime soon. The lake, pregnant with runoff from Katrina, has ruptured through the 17th Street levee, spilling water into the city. Levels are rising right now, and movement within the city is completely cut off. The hospital seems be staying dry, but that could change very soon.

Temperatures rose sharply, and everyone inside is miserable. The emergency generators are unable to power the AC without cutting out the support systems for the patients in the Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses and doctors are walking around in cutoff scrubs and tank tops. Those of us on the security detail have been instructed to remain in full uniform, and I am developing a heat rash in some very uncomfortable places. Bottled drinking water is in urgent demand.

The psychiatric ward on the seventh floor is having extreme problems. The doctors have been upping the patients’ levels of Thorazine since before the hurricane hit, but the rising temperatures aren’t helping. We’ve had three calls up there in the first half-hour of my shift. I’ve had four other cases of internal violence since then, largely do to a potent combination of heat and fear.

I still can’t make any calls on my cell phone, but I was able to swap text messages with my girlfriend. She and her family survived all right but the house, like my hospital, is without power or water, and they are leaving for her aunt’s house in Roanoke.

We have running water, although it’s unsafe to drink. The toilets work, at least, and we can take cold showers.

There are rumors that looting has begun downtown. Everyone on my team has been issued a sidearm.

I’m not sleeping well.

Camped Out 8/31/2005

My cellular network has completely crashed. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to safely restore AC to much of the building, and even have hot running water in a few places. My understanding is that we are the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.

The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring up all over the place, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do throughout the hospital. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, either, and on the average most people are getting four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. Last night one of my friends in the ER had to give me an IV of fluids to combat dehydration.

The Salvation Army is here, handing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a distribution warehouse across the street, and has given us permission to raid it as we need, which earlier today our Shipping and Receiving department did, accompanied by several police officers; their efforts have provided us with a stockpile of canned food and dry cereal.

People are kind of on the barter system at the moment, trading what they have for what they need: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a pair of clean underwear. I traded off my last extra razor to an ER nurse in exchange for showering privileges.

There have been several shootings in and around town. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports that medivac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. Other hospitals have been raided, or are taking on water, and we’re doing what we can to get their patients here safely. The shock of moving has been more than some of them could handle.

Last word that reached my ears is that my neighborhood stayed fairly dry, even with the resultant flood from the levee breaking. Flooding has stabilized, not really increasing, not really draining. My car was left in a different area of town before the storm, and is now most likely underwater.

We have as yet received no aid outside of local law enforcement, and they are stretched thin enough as it is. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed.

I’m doing a little better. Last night I found an abandoned conference room to camp out in, and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of my canned meals—Campbell’s Spaghetti, Del Monte Pears and SPAM—it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp.

Except without the fun.

I’m currently on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk that the hospital laundry may be functional again later today, so we might be able to get some stuff washed. The Mayor’s office is going to allow us to return to our homes on Monday, and if I can I’ll grab some more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three tee shirts and a pair of jeans, and right now the pants can walk around without me.

Gunshots 9/1/2005

Occasionally you can hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons firing in the neighborhood around the hospital. There’s no way to judge the distance; there is absolutely no vehicular traffic and no noise pollution, so the shots could be carrying for miles.

Gradually, and then in increasing numbers, people are trying to get into the hospital. The day after the storm we sealed ourselves off to everyone but incoming emergency care patients, and everyone who is allowed in must be searched for weapons. Although no one has been armed, people are getting aggressive in their attempts for access, including faking ailments as severe as heart attacks right outside our door. Although I don’t feel good about turning them away, the sad truth is if we threw our doors open we’d be flooded with uncontrollable numbers of people, placing the staff and the patients that actually need care at risk.

Still no TV or radio, although the cell phones are sporadically working again, and the Internet remains functional. The news websites claim that federal aid is coming, and we’re supposed to get some National Guardsmen here later.

The news also reports that people trapped downtown are beginning to die. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but I don’t really doubt it.

Lull 9/2/2005

A strange quiet has descended tonight. After all the chaos of the last few days the lull is surreal. I can’t help thinking it’s the stillness of the sheathed knife, of violence and danger waiting to be. Between the anarchy in the streets and the ever-growing cabin fever of the people trapped in here, it’s only a matter of time before something brutal and nasty happens. I hope desperately that it won’t, as there are enough injured and suffering people, and such behavior will only make it worse, but all of my training and experience tells me it will. Still, I’ll try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Curfew is lifted during the day. I’m going to try and make it back to my apartment when this shift is over.

The Knife in Motion 9/2/2005

A huge explosion just erupted downtown, powerful enough to be seen and heard from my post outside the ER, ten miles away. It lit up the night like a flashbulb, and the afterglow is still visible against the sky. Preliminary reports from the police stationed with us place it somewhere in the vicinity of the French Quarter, possibly at a chemical storage facility. Could be arson or just some idiot breaking into the wrong place and lighting a cigarette. I can’t tell yet if it started a fire. Although without functional water in the city, how would the fire crews fight it? Is the Fire Department still functional?

I realized a few minutes before the explosion that I can’t remember what it feels like to sleep in my own bed. Or any other.

Fun With Herpetology 9/4/2005

It’s been a long and weary twenty-four hours. I have successfully conducted a commando raid of my own home, bypassing looters, wreckage and miscreant reptiles. My will is a thing unto iron and my kung fu strong.

After the night of the explosion (Friday morning I think, it’s been getting hard to tell) one of my coworkers volunteered the use of his car so I could conduct an inspection of my apartment. What is normally a ten-minute drive took the better part of an hour. I was initially stopped at a sheriff’s checkpoint by six deputies wearing flak jackets and armed with AK-47s and riot shotguns; they kept their weapons trained on my vehicle until I identified myself as a member of the hospital stafff, at which point they let me pass.

Katrina turned my neighborhood into a Mesozoic wasteland, the uprooted and shattered oak and cypress trees forming a dense maze; in some places the rubble was so thick I couldn’t see the houses beyond. Coupled with the downed power lines, it was difficult terrain to navigate in the car. I passed a looted Rite-Aid on Oak Street. Someone had found a forklift and used it to smash open the rolldown security gate.

Worse, the earlier reports weren’t accurate. There was flooding in much of the neighborhood. From Oak south to St. Charles was dry, but north towards South Claiborne was a different story. I had to park the car and slog through five blocks of thigh-high nasty water the rest of the trip. I had a PR24 riot baton ready in case of itinerant looters (I am by law not allowed to take a firearm off hospital property). Stray cats roamed everywhere around, some of them following me at a discreet distance with expectant looks on their faces, and I had the creepy thought they were waiting for something tragic and fatal to happen to me so they’d have something to eat. The water was brown and shockingly cold, and covered in a slick oily sheen.

Here’s where the narrative gets strange. This may be the most truly surreal thing that has ever happened to me, and I wish to all hell I was making it up.

About halfway there, around the intersection of Plum and Burdette streets, I was attacked by an alligator.

Yes, that’s right. Go ahead and read it again. A fucking alligator.

I didn’t believe it either.

I was walking down the center of the street, as it was the highest point, although by no means easy going; the street underwater was littered with branches and God only knows what else, not to mention the ever-present New Orleans potholes. I kept having to go over or around fallen logs or power lines, and while doing so my foot went down in one of those unseen holes. I stumbled, reflexively reaching out for something to steady myself with, and that’s when the little bastard bit me. I guess he was lying in the water around the branches or something, and I spooked him. I didn’t even know what it was, just that something latched onto my forearm. I pulled free and finally saw him—pretty small, really, about two feet long or so, the size of a well-loved iguana. Looking at the wound, I’d guess his mouth was just big enough to fit around my arm but not bite down, which is why he didn’t do much other than scratch me.

He came at me again, and that’s when I hit him; the PR24 was caught in my belt on my left-had side, so I used my fist, landing an underhand strike that knocked him back in the direction I came. Normally the environmentalist in me would shriek at the thought of treating an endangered species that way, but it’s a different matter when said endangered species is treating you like so much beef jerky. He plopped in the water and didn’t come back up.

Several of my coworkers have chastised me for not finishing the job and bringing the carcass back so they could eat him in turn.

I made it to my apartment without further incident. The house had lost its rain gutter and there were shingles lying all over the place, but aside from one broken window where someone had tried to break in it appeared unmolested. Nothing inside was missing, but the house stank of rotten food. The basement in the building’s lower half was filled with water. I cleaned the fridge out as best I could and gathered the personal items I’d come for.

Items rescued included: all relevant computer disks containing my own writing projects; birth certificate; the entire contents of my sock-and-underwear drawer; changes of clothing, including clean uniforms; all remaining canned food in the pantry. All of this weighed about seventy pounds, strapped onto my body in a backpack and two duffle bags. Walking back took twice as long as getting there did, and by the time I finally made it back to the hospital (unmolested this time by either man or animal) I smelled like a bilge rat. I stashed my bags in my campsite and went to the ER for treatment of the bite. They cleaned it and gave me several antibiotic injections. I fell asleep with four hours to rest before my next shift started.

Since then it’s been nonstop. New Orleans is burning along the Riverfront and French Quarter, and the police are actively exchanging gunshots with looters on the street. The wounded are coming here, as well as the evacuees that are too ill to make it to Texas without treatment. We’re doing our best to keep them safe and get everything staged for their departure. Last night a medivac chopper rescued a pregnant woman who had gone into labor while trapped in a water-filled attic; she was actively giving birth as we sped her stretcher through the hospital up to Labor and Delivery.

I volunteered to spend the first part of today helping the rescue teams crate up the bodies of the deceased. In my first two months on this job I saw more dead bodies than ever before in my life; in one day I saw more than triple that number. My body right now feels like a wad of Silly Putty slapped hard up against a wall and left there.

Spirits are starting to lag all around, including mine. We now have main power back online, but stir craziness is getting bad, especially after the 11:00 PM curfew, when the dyed-in-the-wool smokers get profoundly hostile about not being allowed out for their fix. I need rest, mostly, a little time to read a book or write a bit—free time seems to be trickling away faster and faster. I miss my girlfriend terribly.

Two NOPD officers shot themselves today.

I’m going to shower and go to bed now. My brain has the shape, texture, and cognitive ability of day-old oatmeal.

I need a cold beer. Someone out there drink one for me.

Fresh 9/05/2005

Funny. As of today it’s been only a week since this whole business began, and it feels like a lifetime. Strange how acclimated I’ve gotten to this routine. Everything else in the world seems like so much distant history. The hospital is an island, floating in a stream of chaos. We have main power; the rest of the city is using candles. While our running water is by no means clean, it comes from a well instead of the contaminated reservoir, and is as good for flushing a toilet as anything else. We have bottled drinking water and have canned food, hot showers and clean clothes. Everyone still left in the city has none of those things. They have violence, despair, illness and misery.

My department had a meeting last night, voicing complaints and concerns to our immediate supervisors. It was largely a bitch session, and some tempers erupted, but the end result is that this evening my bosses rolled a big cart loaded with fresh apples, oranges and bananas into our operations center. After a week of canned  meat, powdered milk and over-boiled pasta, I can honestly say that nothing on Earth tastes so splendid as a ripe fist-sized navel orange, rivulets of juice running helter-skelter like children on a playground.

Tomorrow is the day that the city government is supposed to allow us to return to our homes. I am utterly tempted to take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge and hop a plane for California.

I’m not going to, though.

I got off easy; about half my team lost their homes and only has the clothes on their backs, and they need this time to start getting their lives back in order. My apartment might be inaccessible, but it’s still there, most of my things undamaged. Any time I take off robs them of what they need. I want to be with my girlfriend, but I’m okay and she’s okay, and so many of my crew aren’t. With luck I’ll have a week or so later on in the month to start putting my ducks in a row, but right now it’s imperative that others do so first.

Shift change, so I must go.

Sleep 9/06/2005

So after being diagnosed with Exhaustion, not to mention the head cold that’s making the rounds in here, I was prescribed sleeping pills and given a night off. At best I’ve been sleeping about five hours a night since this thing started, and that’s usually been broken, as I wake up every forty-five minutes or so. If I dream, I don’t remember, which is probably a good thing.

I took my pill, laid down in my little campsite, and proceeded to sleep for about twelve hours. The fatigue headache I’ve been carrying around seems to have disappeared, or at least taken a break, and my hands have lost the tremble that started sometime on Sunday. Still, I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed and eat something that doesn’t come out of a can.

Apparently I got lucky in my exposure to the floodwater. People who have been stuck down in the 9th Ward and other flooded areas are being treated here for lesions and massive skin rashes due to the contamination in the water. We continue to be a staging area for the dead to be shipped off elsewhere for identification and inspection. The effect being in the water has had on some of the dead I won’t try and put into words right now—suffice to say it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And there have been a lot of those in the last nine days, so it’ll be a while before I figure out what tops that list.

Spirits are dropping hard around here. People are tired, worried about their homes and loved ones. New Orleans proper is still officially sealed off for entrance, so a lot of employees haven’t even seen how their homes fared through Katrina. Even with the arrival of relief from Baton Rouge and FEMA (who showed up here last night—finally) there hasn’t been much of an upswell in mood. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that we’ve endured a massive traumatic experience, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m no psychiatrist but I guess it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; it explains why those cops swallowed bullets a few days ago. It also explains why some yahoos are refusing to leave their flooded homes even as the rescue boats come by. The last time we talked, Tristyn asked why I’m keeping it together when she’s going to pieces.

I don’t know. I’m so damned weary, even beyond what sleep and medication can cure. There are people here that have the skills and training to save lives, but in the meantime they need protection and safety, both from the looters and elements and their own collapsing morale. I can do that, or at least try. I wish I had more medical training, gotten certification as an EMT or something. I wish I’d fled, even though I know I’d stay if it happened again.

But when all is said and done, I’m going to have a nice big cathartic freak-out.

Swamp Thing 9/12/2005

So in the wake of Katrina the city of New Orleans has effectively turned into a toxic waste dump. The Garden District periodically bursts into flames that can’t be put out, as there is no functioning fire brigade. The U.S. Army controls the streets now (and I never thought I’d be happy for the day when the military forcibly seizes control of an American city) but really, what is left to control? The broken, ruined shell of a city, saturated with water carrying disease, the week-old bodies of the dead and gallon after gallon of raw sewage. The water is now so toxic that even touching it has been deemed highly hazardous. Plus, there’s so much oil coating it, and so many exposed gas mains and downed power lines that every single fire that starts could cause what’s left of the city to go up like a Roman candle.

It’s starting to go back to the animals, too. The police officers coming in for treatment over the last couple of days have been reporting some strange things. Water moccasins slither on their merry way down the streets; several of the search-and-rescue boats have had to abandon bodies because displaced alligators are snacking on them, and the teams can’t drive off the reptiles without endangering themselves. And when the levees broke, the floodwaters washed several bull sharks into the waterlogged streets. A Jefferson Parish Levee Board officer used his cell phone to snap a picture of a four-foot shark happily cruising the I-10 service road.

(Bull sharks, for those who don’t know, are one of the most dangerous breeds of shark. They attack quickly, ferociously, and indiscriminately, and there are records of them bashing through canoes. They’re all the more dangerous because they can survive in both salt and fresh water, and have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. Large numbers have lived in Lake Pontchartrain for some time.)

Several months ago at least forty manatees were spotted in the lake. They’re delicate, slow moving and slow to reproduce species, which is also highly endangered. In what you could call a tragic caveat to the misery Katrina has caused, the pumping of all this toxic sludge back into the lake is almost certainly going to endanger their lives—and there isn’t much the EPA or WWF can do about it. Like a rapist, Katrina continues to leave scars long after the deed is done.

Getting slowly ready to depart. I’d like to remain down here for another week or so, just to get one last complete pay period done, especially since FEMA is dragging its feet on actually getting financial assistance to those of us still stuck down here. I lost my car, I no longer have a home I can live in, I am displaced—where’s my $2000 debit card? I still have to get a plane ticket to Roanoke and enough gas to drive from there to my family in San Diego, not to mention food and lodging along the way.

Seriously, every single FEMA employee I’ve talked to in the last twenty-four hours gives me the dull-eyed look of a freshly milked cow when I ask them where I can obtain pocket money for travel and shelter expenses.

Does anyone else think the federal government’s handling of this mess has effectively guaranteed we’re going to have a Democratic president in the next election?

Out 9/18/2005

I sat on top of the hospital’s raised parking garage last night and watched some of the fires that continue to flare up downtown, although less severely than they did before. Sadly, this may be because there isn’t much dry material left to burn. Occasionally something ignited a patch of leaking gas, leaving a bright orange flower against the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as the opening of Blade Runner.

This morning brought the restoration of cable to the facility, so we could all turn on the TV monitors and see footage of what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks. The political sturm and drang is just going to get worse, I fear. As a final example of FEMA ineptitude, I submit the following piece of information: they have yet to get a single representative down here to deal with aid and recovery matters for the citizens who could not flee or be evacuated. All we have are FEMA medical personnel giving out free inoculations. Which means that we are forced to rely on what money we have in our pockets to get around on. There are currently no functional banks or ATMs anywhere in the area. As an added surprise, the hospital screwed up payroll, so those of us who worked will have to wait an additional two weeks for any sort of compensation.

Figures.

With the cheerful assistance of a nursing student I made it back to my apartment today. The water had receded from my neighborhood, leaving the earth, houses and concrete a dead gray color. In Jefferson Parish you can smell the sewage, rot, gas, garbage and other effluvium that make up the floodwaters. The smell turned into a stench as we got into my neighborhood, despite the lack of water, and I can only guess how awful it is downtown. I was able to put some more of Tristyn’s and my things in our only suitcase, but everything else will have to remain for the time being. A horrible mildew smell came from the basement when I opened the door, and fear of toxic mold kept me from going down there. We’ve already had a few cases of spore inhalation in the ER in the last two days. Phone and power were still out, and when I tried the tap something that looked and smelled like raw sewage came out.

The EPA has advised that the water contains high levels of lead and E.coli, which means that the city will be infectious and toxic even after the water is finally pumped out. Buildings will have to be razed or decontaminated before anyone can live in them, and it’ll be months before there is water or electricity available. Underground sewage mains have ruptured, many in places where crews will have to cut through large blocks of the street to get at them.

The hospital has brought in a large portion of its staff, and many closed areas of the facility that needed repairs are getting ready to reopen. We are crawling with the National Guard, many of them from Puerto Rico, a place that is not even granted the privilege of statehood yet we can recruit them into our armed forces—someone explain that to me. The facility is safe, secure, and nearly fully staffed.

My small part seems to be over. Tomorrow I take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge where, thanks to an old friend, I have a plane ticket waiting to take me to Tristyn in Roanoke. After a week or so to recover and plan our next steps we’ll be driving cross-country to California to start rebuilding our life, a trip that I pray will be less eventful than these last two weeks. If there’s a word to describe the marrow-deep fatigue I feel right now, I don’t know what it is.

This will be the last dispatch.

I’m getting out.

It was the night of my dear friend Clara’s birthday party. I can’t quite remember if it was a momentous year–round number, the beginning of a new decade–but I do recall having party nerves and that I’d be going solo. I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time or, if I was, it wasn’t serious. Or maybe I was seeing Mark but he was out of town. None of these details matter, really. This essay is about me and how good I looked at Clara’s party.

During this time I’d been introduced to a man my cousin Daphne referred to as “The Genius.” She called him that because of his remarkable ability to transform. “The Genius” AKA Coleman was an African American man in his, mmm, I’d say late forties at the time, who chemically straightened Jewish girls’ hair. He probably also straightened the hair of women of other persuasions but my breadth of knowledge of his doings only went as far as my cousin Daphne, me, whomever might’ve been sitting in his beauty salon swivel seat when I’d arrive for my appointment, and anyone who’d show up as my final touches were being bestowed.

Actually, our relationship was deeper than that. This picture is bringing about a flood of memories and I’m remembering that Coleman and I would have many a heady conversation. He was a teacher for special needs children and did hair on the side. Hair had been his main career for many years but then, it would seem, he needed something that felt more meaningful. I can’t think of many things more meaningful than making a girl with unmanageable hair feel beautiful, but different strokes, am I right? So we’d talk about his teaching and a little bit about his family. We also tended to talk about controversial situations involving race. I can’t recall anything verbatim but I do know we tended to be on the same page. I worked in TV at the time and I’m pretty sure things came up about the lack of roles for African American actors and, if I’m not mistaken, whether or not Eddie Murphy meant to pick up that prostitute or if he was simply being a nice guy.

Alas, Coleman is no longer. In my life, I mean. As afar as I know he’s still alive. He ended up making a permanent move to Sacramento and I made a move to try to accept my natural curl. But during the time that Coleman was around, things, and my hair, went rather smoothly. Suddenly, I had control. Straight hair made me feel like my life was together. I felt pretty.

So the night of Clara’s party while I had, like I mentioned before, party nerves, and was rocking it solo, I knew my hair looked good. I mean look at it. It’s all straight and shiny. But not too straight… there’s still some body to it.

 



I guess that’s it. I know it’s kind of vain to pick a picture just because you think you look good, but trust me, these days if you get a picture of me, most of the time one or both of my eyes is closed, my hair is suffering from frizz, and what I mean as a knowing or smartass smirk comes off as looking bothered. Here I’m clearly enjoying myself. I’ve spent some time with good company, had a glass of wine or two, and celebrated a great friend. Sometimes it’s the small moments that need to be remembered.


I can’t sleep. It’s been two, maybe three weeks now. Could be more but, thanks to the lack of sleep, I’m not thinking so clearly right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure, given my current state of mind, it would actually be illegal for me to do anything that requires any significant amount of brain power, such as operating heavy farm equipment or deciding which contestant to vote for on “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not even sure I should be writing this column. After all, given my exhaustion, I’m liable to write something totally ridiculous and nonsensical monkey poop banana head.

So why can’t I sleep? I have no idea. It’s not like I’m downing an energy drink (label reads: X-Treeeeme 8 Hour Energy Rush! No crash! Made from a proprietary blend!) before bed. On the contrary, I’m simply walking to the bedroom, climbing into bed, closing my eyes, and then, like any insomniac worth his salt, spending the next four hours finding things to worry about.

“What if world peace breaks out? Won’t all those people at the UN be out of jobs?”

“What if Jon and Kate don’t get back together? Oh God, what if they do?!?”

“What if we keep putting off that trip to the Grand Canyon and then, one day, someone comes along, fills the thing up with concrete, and builds a Starbucks?”

Eventually, I stop worrying and realize it’s 3:30 AM. That’s when I:

  1. begin to calculate how many hours of sleep I’m going to get (if I fall asleep that very second)
  2. convince myself that I’ll be perfectly fine to function at work the next day.

I’m sure this sort of thing is normal among insomniacs.

NURSE: Doctor, you’ve slept three hours in the past four days. Are you sure you’re up to performing this very difficult and complicated brain surgery?

DOCTOR: Nurse, I’m a professional. Now let’s begin cutting.

NURSE: Doctor, we’re in the cafeteria.

DOCTOR: Hmmm, that would explain the macaroni in my pocket.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about saving anyone’s life. As a writer, the worst-case scenario is that I’ll spend eight hours staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration to hit. Then, when it finally does, I’ll type something like “monkey poop banana head.”

“Yep,” I’ll say to myself with a satisfied smile. “I made some real progress today.”

My insomnia has gotten so bad that I actually consulted a sleep expert for help. She gave me some basic pointers on proper sleep hygiene, such as if you’re lying in bed for more than 10 minutes, you need to get out and do something else. I tried this for the first time last night and went into the living room to watch TV. Turns out there’s not much on the tube at 2:45 AM except infomercials. This is probably because the folks at the networks know there’s no way in hell a sane person would pay $19.99 for a Waterproof Electric Razor. A sleep-deprived person, on the other hand, will buy ANYTHING—particularly if that person is me.

Truth is, I cannot be trusted alone with an infomercial and a phone. Not only will I buy whatever they’re selling (“Yoga for Senior Citizens? I’ve GOT to get this!”), I’ll rationalize why we need to buy two or three of that item (“the shipping cost is the same! It’s actually cheaper to buy more!”). Over the years, I estimate my insomnia has cost us around $12,302 in infomercial purchases, a number that barely edges out my SkyMall impulse buys (“Wow! It’s a giant wooden propeller that leans against a bookcase! This’ll go great with our life-size Darth Vader statue and Marshmallow Shooter!”).

So clearly, watching TV is not the answer to my insomnia problem. Other suggested guidelines from the sleep expert include:

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night.
  2. The bed is to be used only for sleep or sex or, if you’re really kinky, having sex with someone who’s asleep.
  3. No water, bright lights, and, whatever you do, absolutely, positively no food after midnight.

As you can see, these are all good rules and should be taken very seriously, particularly the last one which, really, is the only way to prevent your small town from being overtaken by terrifying, violent gremlins who will not only destroy the local toy store but will also explode in your microwave, leaving you with one helluva mess to clean up.

Anyway, I’m rambling now. And, as I look at the clock, it occurs to me that I have to be at work in less than four hours where I’m expected to present an ad campaign to a client. I can only hope the presentation goes smoothly and I’m able to mask the fact that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in, what seems like, ages monkey poop banana head.

The stories start right after Sunday lunch.

We are all crammed around our tiny kitchen table – me, my brother, my parents, my fraternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather. The table only fits four, so my Dad is sitting on the office chair brought out from the living room and I am sitting on a small, red leather stool that’s usually in the hallway. I am wedged between my brother, my grandfather, and the dishwasher.

Our Sunday lunches – golden chicken soup, Wiener schnitzel with potatoes and cucumber salad, brownies – start late and end quickly. Toward the end of the meal the others know what is coming and they start to scramble towards the living room right after the last bite of dessert.

It is probably my position at first – too far from the door with no obvious escape route – that makes me the perfect audience for my grandfather’s stories. Later I feel too polite and too invested to get up and leave with the others.  

So I load the dishwasher and sit back on my little red stool and prepare myself for a long afternoon.

Most of the stories I already know by heart. There is the story about my great-grandfather who sold jewelry to patrons of a gentleman’s club and then bought back from the ladies who worked there.  Or the story about the time my grandfather hid in an attic for three months from the Nazis, living on water and beans while Budapest was being bombed. Or the time he took 25 orphan girls from Budapest to Romania on a cattle car right after the war by tricking other passengers into believing that they all had typhoid fever.

There are many, many stories about my grandmother, who walked for three days in November 1944 to the Austrian-Hungarian border on the way to Dachau Concentration Camp.  He talks about their life once the camp was liberated by the Americans. My grandfather made his way there on falsified Russian military papers to find my grandmother alive, working as a translator for the Dachau War Criminals Tribunal. There is the story about Maxi, the Peugeot 202 they bought after the war in Dachau for 60 Marks. About the BMW motorcycle they brought back to Budapest in a wooden crate and sold to buy furniture for the apartment where my little red stool is now my perch in the kitchen.

So many stories, they are hard to keep straight. Times, names, places change as he tells them the third or fourth or fifth time, but I am 14 and I don’t bother with the details or inconsistencies. After a while, it all seems like one big fairy tale – parts of it true, parts of it fantasy about a long-gone era and people, including my grandmother who died of cancer when my mom was 18. The questions I do have – like why did he prepare a hiding place for himself but not for my grandmother or how he knew that she was alive – seem too sensitive to ask.

My grandfather’s stories, his 28-page memoir and my grandmother’s brief description of the war tribunals make Dachau sound like a place where American soldiers hand out Hershey bars and nylon stockings.  My grandmother has detailed descriptions of how many cigarettes the SS officers – by then prisoners of war held by the Americans – received per week during the trials. But nothing about what she saw or went through before the liberating troops arrived.  There are no personal side notes, no observances, no reflections about the place and the time and her role in it.

For a long time I don’t really know what it all means and I am not really sure what to do with the stories. As I get older, leave home, and move to the U.S., I feel a vague sense of responsibility to remember what my grandfather told me. There are details that not even my mom knows about, as we find out after my grandfather’s death. I also have a sense that my life in some ways is turning out the way my grandmother would have liked hers to be – the American troops in Dachau did offer her and my grandfather a visa to come to America, but they returned to Budapest instead. It’s a decision that from what I know, my grandmother always regretted.  And now here I am, a U.S. citizen. I feel like this is more than coincidence; that something in my family’s history propelled me to be here.

Almost twenty years after those afternoons in the kitchen, when I first come across this photo on a website about Dachau, I am not even sure it is my grandmother sitting in front of the soldiers, wearing glasses. The pictures I’ve seen of her were taken during summer vacations with lakes and mountains in the background, not with a group of former SS soldiers. The picture was taken during the Malmedy Massacre trials in Dachau, where German soldiers were charged with the killing of 84 American prisoners of war. During the trial, my grandmother was a translator for the defense.

After I find the photo, I am taken aback by the fact that just by typing “Dachau” into Google I find something so personal, something that only existed in anecdotes told over coffee and brownies. The photo makes all of the stories and the people in them real. There she is, my grandmother, who survived Dachau, and who helped to put the bad guys away. It’s real; it’s on the Internet.

The photo also makes me ask whether I am living up to the people behind the stories; whether my story will be worthy of telling someday after a Sunday lunch. I am not really sure. And as much as it felt like a chore to be polite and to listen to my grandfather, looking at the picture I am relieved that I did, that in a way I was a witness to my family’s history – and to mine.

 

It surprised me when I first came to Korea and realized that Korean kids were given English names. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t they just keep their Korean name? Does an English name really make it easier for the kids to learn, or is it for the benefit of native teachers?

Of course, in the year and a half that has since elapsed, I’ve become more than used to the system of ‘education’ in Korea. I no longer question giving kids an English name, because I’m asked to do it at least once a week. However, a few more questions have since come to mind:

 

At the end of Via Crosia, at least a kilometer past the Macelleria, but before the vineyards, the street’s rose cobblestone is cracked with anthills. Surely these bugs are, right now even, communing under the town, perhaps under a single block, waiting to bore holes through the bathtubs of Barolo, Italy.  In one of these homes (we can only hope), someone will be washing for work—an Elena or Francesco, Valentina or Beppe—dreading the sight of silver tray, meat case, trade show badge, and tractor. By the time the ants reach the white-green tile, this person, whoever they are, will recall their breakfast if only with their throat: the buckwheat flour, egg, and water gelling inside them to spawn something entirely new.

At least a kilometer away—maybe even more—the temperature drops one degree over the grapevines and the wind brushes them into hair. The last of the colony, having just dined on a white truffle crumb, folds full and thorax-first into the anthill. Signaled from the front of the line, the last ant knows that at least a kilometer away, someone is afraid to bathe, can’t afford to fix the hole in their tile. This person, whoever they are, can not wash away breakfast’s hold, lest the ants, with the water, rise from the drain like palm fronds, slow in destroying the foundation, but surely building something—the spindle-laddered metaphysica of the flightless insect, perhaps. Yes: they rise, craving the mask of spiders, a banana tree sprouting in fast forward to bite cacti-like at the soft dough ends of Italian toes.

Breakfast will reassert itself with the fundamentals. Everything must evolve: the eggs, the hens that laid them, the naked stomach snapping back on its food, and fear. That too.


Never expect a good literary critique from a federal agent. I learned this the hard way, through a roundabout lesson via a maze of fear and loathing. These guys aren’t readers, they have other things on their mind. Seek your feedback elsewhere. They don’t hang in bookstores.

If one loves language, if one loves its power and beauty, isn’t it pretty stupid to spend all of one’s time reading writing that butchers it? That steamrolls it, shoots it a hundred times, hacks it to pieces with machetes, and then napalms it? And wouldn’t it destroy one’s spirit to repeatedly subject it to this torture?

By this torture, I mean this torture:

“Anyone who has seen or not seen a building can always enjoy looking at one.”

Or this:

“Our bodies enable us to get out of bed every morning, build ancient pyramids, or even watch our children play a game of soccer.”

Or this:

“When art was first exposed to the world, it was used to portray the significance of the Roman Catholic Church and slowly evolved to a tool to recapture events and emotions of the artist.”

After a couple years of teaching writing to first-year college students, I began to doubt my fitness for my job. It was far and away the best job I’d ever had, but at the end of every semester I had to fight the urge to quit. Sometimes it was the glacial pace of faculty meetings that got to me. One can only tolerate so much discussion of Program Learning Outcomes, Program Assessment Practices, and the results of the Assessment Committee’s Assessment of Program Assessment Practices, before one wants to start an ad-hoc committee to banish faculty meetings forever. But mostly what got to me were the papers I had to grade. By the time I handed them back, they’d be splattered with wine or whiskey and creased and torn from my throwing them across the room.

My girlfriend Karen says I dwell too much on the negative. I should try my best to help my students, and I should be proud of any little good that comes of it, even if that little good is just that I feel I’ve done my best. This is called “Success Beyond Success.” It’s about focusing on the things you can control and leaving the rest of the world to do what it will do whether you try to control it or not. She learned it at Communication College. I don’t really know what that is, but she works at Google, and they sent her there.

Karen reminds me that I like teaching. I like talking about stories and essays and trying to explain exactly why I love a piece of writing. I like hearing what other people think about it. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when you look up from the book and see people texting under their desks or nodding off, or, on some days, glaring at you like the sound of your voice is driving them slowly but inexorably insane and they’ll probably have to cut out your larynx to get that sound out of their heads.

After my fourth year of teaching, I finally quit and moved to L.A. I was just starting to worry about how to make a living when I learned about a job at a private Jewish middle school. I am Jewish, but I’m not very good at it, and I had little interest in teaching middle school. From what little I remember of seventh and eighth grade, I spent most of my time applying acne cream and masturbating. But I needed a job.

On the morning of my interview, standing nervously in my only suit in the cramped middle school office, I plastered a smile on my face and vowed to keep it there for as long as it took. Students bustled in one after another, begging the receptionist to staple their papers for them. When she finally got around to me, without returning my smile she handed me a thick folder and told me I should fill out the application.

I scanned the forms while students whirled around me and bumped me with their backpacks. Why were they all so short? How do you talk to someone that short? Why, when they have your resume, do employers still need you to copy out your entire work history on their form?

I negotiated with myself: I’d stay, but I would not fill out my damn work history. Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.

The form had a box for me to fill in my minimum salary. I had no idea how much this job paid. I wrote down “50K.” Papa’s got expenses.

The receptionist said to me, “You’re still here? You should go to your class.”

“OK,” I said. “Where is it?”

With a sigh she dropped her pen and led me down the hall and opened a door. There were banners on the walls. Paper streamers. Posters with words on them in upbeat font. About fifteen kids sat scattered along the back of the room at individual desks. I squeezed into an empty one and listened as the teacher talked about the huge increase in income disparity in the U.S. “If you use the Washington Monument as a scale,” she said, “the average CEO’s pay is at the very tip-top, and the average worker’s pay is only 14 inches off the ground.”

When she introduced me, I stood up and made my way through the desks to the front of the room. “So,” I said, “since you all have been talking about immigration, today I thought we’d talk about the ethical issues that come up in the immigration debate.” You all? Ever since I lived in Arkansas and people constantly said to me, “You’re not from around here, are ya,” when I get nervous I start talking like I’m from Arkansas.

The kids stared blankly at me for a few minutes, but once we defined “ethics,” and talked about real-life ethical questions, they seemed to perk up. In no time they were talking to each other, getting in little arguments about what was right and wrong. I was thrilled. None of my college classes ever went this well. I bounced from one group to another, smiling, interjecting, joking, answering questions while grimacing thoughtfully. I even rested an ass cheek on one of the desks, affecting casualness, until I noticed a swath of my hairy leg showing between black sock and slacks. I stood up.

Things started to go wrong. The discussion became an argument. The talk became shouting, and quickly the class descended into chaos, with kids leaning over their desks, getting up in each other’s faces. The noise was deafening. It was like a prison riot. I watched paralyzed, half-expecting someone to lob a burning roll of toilet paper at me.

Finally I shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!”

Nothing happened.

Then the teacher shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!” and everyone was quiet.

At the end of class, the principal introduced herself to me. She was younger than any principal I’d ever seen, but it was clear she was in charge. She told me I’d be having lunch with a few students, the assistant principal, and the rabbi. The rabbi was not an old guy with a beard, but a youngish woman with wet looking curls.

Lunch was in another classroom, where some desks were arranged in a circle. The kids got pizza, but I got a salad with a scoop of tuna salad on top. Tuna salad is an odd thing to just hand someone for lunch, especially when you know he’ll be spending the rest of the day talking pretty closely to people.

I opened up the napkin the rabbi handed me and found two little plastic forks tucked inside. I looked at the salad: big pieces of lettuce, thick slices of cumber and tomato. It was clearly the kind of salad that requires a knife. And I had these two plastic forks. Was this some weird interview mind fuck? Was I being videotaped? As I wondered this, the kids began firing their questions at me.

“What do you think makes for a great middle school teacher?”

“How will you adjust to teaching middle school after teaching college students?”

“What’s your position on extra credit?”

“How might you handle working with students of different abilities from various backgrounds?”

I stuffed a Texas-sized leaf of lettuce in my mouth only to have it catch in my throat as I tried to answer a question. It was stuck there, and they’d given me no water.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Are you married?”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

The assistant principal asked me if I had questions for the students. I didn’t, and I couldn’t think of anything, so I fired their questions back to them.

“What do you think makes for a good middle school teacher?”

After lunch, I was given a fifteen-minute break, which I spent on the playground, staring longingly through the chain-link fence at my car.

Then, my meeting with the principal:

“So, how did you feel the class went?”

“I thought it went pretty well,” I said. “They participated more than my college students ever did.”

Her mouth said, “Uh-huh,” but her face said, “Nuh-uh.” Then her mouth said, “Can I tell you what I thought?”

No?

“Sure?”

“I thought you had pretty good rapport with the class, you had a creative and interesting lesson plan. But –”

“I know, I sort of lost control at the end,” I said.

“Yes. And, you lost a few students. They shut down, started staring at the floor. One of them put her head on the desk.”

She elaborated further on my shortcomings in the classroom, my lack of experience with this age group, my need — if I worked there — to read up on middle school pedagogy over the summer. She asked me why I wanted to work there.

I said, “Well, I’m not sure that I do.” A true statement, but I followed it up with some serious bullshit. I told her how disheartening teaching writing to college freshmen could be, how it seemed too late to reach many students, and how I thought I could make a great difference in the lives of middle schoolers, how I could use my humor and empathy to really touch them. I stopped talking when I realized I sounded like a pedophile.

After that meeting, I waited in the upper school office for the assistant head of the school. There was a kid waiting next to me, a hipster in training with tight pants and Twilight hair checking out some record he’d pulled from his messenger bag. A guy walked out from the back. He looked like a gym teacher, with gray buzz cut, goatee, white polo shirt, and black pants. He said to the kid, “Vinyl? Sweet!” and I decided I didn’t like him, and therefore he must be the assistant head of school.

He was.

He led me back to his office, sat me down at his round table, and asked me the same questions the principal asked me. He asked me if I had any questions for him.

“Well,” I said, “nobody’s mentioned anything about pay.”

“Oh, no!” he practically leaped back in his chair. “It’s way too soon for that. Pay is based on experience and education, and that’s something we talk about much later. Much later!” He leaned over the table, conspiratorially, “It’s a good thing you asked me that, and not the Head of School. Any other questions?”

Yes. Does being the assistant head of school make you feel like a big man, or just like an assistant to a big man?

When he was done making me uncomfortable, the assistant head escorted me back to the waiting room to await my meeting with the head of school, the Emperor to the assistant’s Vader. I stewed in my seat. How uncouth of me, asking about money when applying for a job.

I waited for 45 minutes, long enough to decide that I didn’t want to teach at this school. I texted Karen, “can i just leave?” She texted back, “no.” There were negative vibrations all around me. No doubt some came from the 405 freeway, which was in spitting distance and backed up to hell on both sides. But plenty came from the school itself.

Finally, I asked the receptionist if the head of school was in his office. She left and another lady came back in her place.

“I’m sorry, but he had a family emergency and he had to leave.”

Thank God! I take back all the negative things I thought about You. You totally exist!

I raced back to the middle school office to meet with the teachers who’d be my colleagues. They asked me the same questions the others asked me. They asked me if I had any questions for them. At this point, with my mind made up and my grin a rictus from this long day, all I could do was turn all of their questions back on them:

“Why do you want to work with middle school students?” I asked.

“How do you think it’s different from high school?”

“Do you want a glass of water?”

When it was over, I didn’t stop by the office to turn in my application, which I hadn’t filled out anyway. It didn’t seem important. What was important was that I take off my coat and pull my shirttails out of my pants. The sky was blue. Dappled sunlight fell through the trees that ringed the parking lot. On my way home, I crossed a bridge over the clogged freeway and felt strangely ecstatic. Why? I still had no job, no prospects. But I’d shown up when I said I would, and I stayed until the end. It wasn’t exactly success in worldly terms. But who cares about the world? This here was success beyond success.