The economic woes our society has undergone over the last three years were crystallized for me in a single story. On March 17, a man who worked at a city office in Costa Mesa was called into work to receive a layoff notice at the city maintenance offices. Huy Pham, an employee of that department, was at home with a broken ankle and not supposed to work. Suspecting the news, he chose to skip the meeting and instead went to City Hall and jumped off the roof.
In one bold, rash move, he exhibited an impulsive behavior that has more frequently crossed my mind and, I’d bet, many others’ across the country as, if not a rational response to our failed economy, most certainly an act that is not altogether shocking.
In early 2007, I was laid off from a job I’d held for nearly nine years. It was a job I loved and a job that fit me like a clichéd, crocheted, personalized and otherwise lovely glove. I was a bookseller at an indie.
In January of 2008 I got a second job after having taken a few language classes, hacking away at writing stories and going through every last bit of money I had saved from selling books (read: not much). This new job involved writing and editing for an international engineering and project management firm. It paid as much in six months as I’d ever earned in the best full year of employment since I was in high school. It was corporate, and apart from being bearable because of a good friend who worked there, was so painfully dull that I once drew blood from my inner thigh while pinching it to keep awake during one of those two-hour, thrice-weekly corporate meetings whose riveting information would, in a small business, be disseminated perfectly in a five-minute conversation so we could get the fuck back to work.
Eight months later, in October of 2008, I was laid off for the second time in eighteen months. It was also only the second time in my life I’d lost a job not by my own choice.
Beginning in November 2008, I began collecting unemployment and diligently applying for any writing/editing jobs I could find. I scoured industry postings, Craigslist notices, searched on my own for firms or persons which were looking for people with my expertise and figured, naively, that within a reasonable amount of time, I’d be employed doing something with words.
I started applying for jobs that were even tangentially related to writing and editing, jobs which mentioned that a successful applicant must be able to communicate effectively with the written word or simply be able to speak well.
I peppered these applications with occasional ones for delivery drivers – from auto parts to paper products to legal documents. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, unemployment ran out, and I became one of the 99ers (those people who are not properly reflected in the most disseminated unemployment statistic, the Department of Labor’s U-3 number. Once you are done with unemployment benefits, you simply vanish and become a ghost to U-3. This U-3 number is just one of the six ‘Alternative measures of labor underutilization’, the most striking, and accurate, of which is the U-6, a number which stands as of April 2011 at a seasonally adjusted 15.9 percent. Even this U-6 number may not reflect the actual amount of people who are suffering un- or under- employment. It is, after all, a figure that the government publishes, even though they use the U-3 number – a number which never hit ten percent because it is a psychological barrier that no one in control of analyzing and and publishing these figures could withstand politically if they wanted to be reelected or reappointed. And because the government does take ownership of these numbers, I am going to go out on a limb and say our truer number reflecting un- or under- employment has remained perilously close to twenty percent).
Over the last two and a half years, I’ve cobbled together shards of extra money by selling books online, purchasing curiosities at thrift stores and hawking them on craigslist or ebay, generously being able to fill my gas tank with my dad’s Sam’s club membership, receiving a hundred or two from him as I spend time at his office and use his computer to search for jobs and run errands for him and act as a boy Friday. Once, even, I found a ten dollar bill in a pair of pants at the Goodwill. I felt like a scratch ticket winner.
I don’t live month-to-month, or often even week-to-week. Sometimes I live day-to-day, choosing on certain weeks to live without: phone or power or gas or water for a couple of days so I can scrape together enough cash to restart these services and then be able to: go online to search for jobs, see inside my apartment without a lantern, cook on my stove or take a shower.
Though I have so far managed to keep myself hoveled and Ramened, I have gotten to the point where I expect that sometime soon in my life I will take residence in a homeless shelter or a friend’s couch for an extended period of time.
It is, to be blunt, a mentally taxing endeavor and depression triggerer to wake up each morning with the first thing on one’s mind if the day will win or I will eke out a small victory against the day. On the good days, the day and I run neck and neck, on the bad days the day dunks me repeatedly in the deep end where I have no footing and can barely gulp a wet breath.
I have fallen deeply in love with Saturdays and Sundays not because they afford me time to enjoy myself, but only because I know on those two days that if I have any of my previously mentioned utilities in tact on a Saturday morning, I’ll have it at least until Sunday night because municipalities and cities do not schedule shut offs for weekends. Thank fucking god.
A few weeks ago, I hit a benchmark which, as I’m writing this, surprises me still. I have sent off exactly 400 resumes. Though a handful have been for regular jobs in a warehouse or for driving gigs, most have been to magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, companies, individuals, institutions and other entities which have advertised a need for writers or editors.
I have applied across the state, across the country, even, on a few occasions, overseas. I have applied for job postings as an assistant writer for people who believe their life stories are ultra-intriguing and as a ghostwriter for people who have ‘a novel in mind’ but just don’t know how to get it down on paper. I even threw my hat into the ring for a job that involved writing ‘juicy stories.’ Had someone advertised a need to write a suicide note for fear of being misinterpreted legally and their estate thrown into interminable probate, I’d have sent off samples of the dandiest last-ever words.
I have reformatted my resume a dozen times to reshape it into what I think a particular firm would find most enticing. I have, since about submission 150, even included in my cover letter a note that I am willing to take the job and work gratis for the first month if only to prove my worth, to offer them up a voluntary probationary period in which they can assess if we’re a good fit or not.
I know just how desperate that must seem to the resume screener but desperation tugs at my thoughts only during the moments of the day I’m awake.
I have received a few dozen automated replies that an entity has received my resume, thanking me and that they will contact me if I fit a need they have. Out of those 400 resumes I have received no job offers and exactly, get this, one response.
It was, needless to say, a note saying I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for and was personalized in that way credit card offers are personalized – with the salutation ‘Dear Mr. Mark Sutz.’
Apparently, the other 399 submissions I made have disappeared into the same black hole in which float millions of lonely, uncoupled socks or into the same 900 mile high virtual slushpile in which linger dozens of my stories that literary magazines conspire to not read.
None of these other 399 entities has found it within their abilities to even send out a rejection email or letter.
I know I am not the only person in this boat, but those 399 non-responses have served to both build up a thick, cynical hide and redefined demoralization for me. I feel a camaraderie with people that I never would have four or five years ago.
I took my regular employment for granted and have now been firmly, absolutely, depressingly humbled.
I suspect I share versions of these feelings with many tens of thousands of anonymous worker bees across the country and stare with a similar stunned face into the mirror at night as I brush my teeth and wonder if I am indeed an unwitting character in an unscripted, unaired, unfilmed, unending episode of The Twilight Zone being sent into the future by a maniacal, time-bending puppeteer spirit of Rod Serling whose hand has crossed time and space and multiple dimensions and lodged itself perfectly up my ass and animates me by fingering my bowels.
Remove the hand, Rod. Please.
I have, as many others also have done, reassessed every single choice I’ve made in my life that is remotely related to education and work. I have come to the conclusion that, somehow, in my acquisition of a BA and a Master’s, I utterly missed the boat. I feel, like Silent Cal said, an ‘educated derelict.’
Given the choice to go back in time just around high school, I’d place in my path a person who was a tradesman of sorts and a very persuasive one: maybe a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a taxidermist, a phlebotomist, a cryptologist, even a damn meteorologist, and I’d also give myself openmindedness enough to listen to that person and be taken on as an apprentice with him or her. I think I missed my ist somewhere along the way.
I suspect working with my hands would find me at least one more opportunity than moving bits of the alphabet around blank pages has found me.
I have thought greatly through my 400 blows about what the value of work is in our country, what the value of the worker is, what it means to negotiate a system which we have been told since we could speak is the greatest on the planet.
The only thing our country certainly owns as its unique brand is an ongoing lesson, perhaps even a type of indoctrination from early on, that rampant, unabashed capitalism is the only way out and the thing we all deserve.
There isn’t a kid in the country who doesn’t understand that if you buy a few lemons, some sugar, a stack of cups and a pitcher that you can’t double your money simply by laying out your cost per glass of lemonade on one side of a piece of paper and then doubling it on the other side then hawking it on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.
Making a profit is something that kids from Hawaii to Maine understand and are told is something uniquely, personally, rightfully American.
I do not disagree that it is a keen and necessary lesson, but it is not the only one.
A lesson they’re not told, one I wasn’t told by my father, a disciple of pure, unfettered Capitalism, is that behind this profit motive are dozens of other concerns, chiefly involving those profit-making things, human beings.
I won’t go into those dozens, but I’m pretty certain whoever is reading this might have been softened a bit to recognize a few of them by, if not personally experiencing the ride on our economic slide, at least knowing someone whom has been affected by it.
The sad thing is that even the dumbest, most selfish, fish-breathed, communicatively challenged bosses that exist (for me as recent as my penultimate superiors) understand how to eke out another point at the cost of a person. To a degree, they’re as knowledgeable about the economy as Warren Buffett. Buy low, sell high.
Some of them should take an etiquette class and learn about responding to earnest inquiries for employment.
Come to think of it, that’s a job I’m well qualified for. Hire me to write your rejection letters. At least those folks will know someone out there has heard them.
April 06, 2011
This is an unconventional love story. It all started when I sat down for coffee on the bougainvillea-ensconced patio of the perfectly restored 1906 Craftsman home of my editor and friend Estelle Serna. As usually happens, our conversation quickly turned to real estate.
“So, I’m back on the market again,” I told her.
“Again?” she said.
“I’ve been looking at a few places with a new agent. But I haven’t found anything good.”
“Are there any houses you’re even considering?”
“Not really. There was one that was okay, but it sat directly underneath the 2/210 overpass.”
“That doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, Summer,” Estelle said. “When I bought this house, the bougainvillea was ragged. How much was this house?”
“$620,000,” I said.
“That’s not bad!”
“Yeah, but I just don’t feel that spark. I’m waiting for The One.”
“Just buy it, Summer,” Estelle said with a weary sigh.
I had been having these conversations a lot since I turned 40, on landscaped patios all over Los Angeles, but somehow, they never really sunk in. Even as the market hit bottom and started to rebound again, I always thought I had more time. The perfect house was always on the next block: The One. In the meantime, I spent my weekends driving from open house to open house and my evenings sitting under the single flickering light bulb in my 200-square foot studio apartment, loading and reloading Redfin.com. Sure, I wanted to settle down, but I didn’t want to settle. Then I read a statistic that said that a 40-year-old woman with an annual salary of $75,000 and a credit score of 650 is two hundred times more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than she is to find a suitable home in Los Angeles.
“It’s time to adjust your list,” Estelle told me.
Here was my list five years ago when I began my search for The One:
Four bedroom, two bath
Within walking distance of a Bristol Farms
Solar water heater
Tenuous connection to B-list celebrity
Mature quince trees
View of the Hollywood Hills and/or Pacific Ocean (preferably both)
Was this too much to ask? Could this be the reason that 78% of Americans born between 1965 and 1980 will die of radon poisoning while lying face-down on a mildewed futon mattress in a condemned tenement apartment building with low ceilings and Formica countertops and no one to mourn them?
All I wanted to do was curl up with a copy of Dwell magazine and watch the sun set over my salt-water infinity pool – was that too much to ask?
At first, house-hunting was fun. I looked forward to spending each weekend out with my real estate agent, climbing over trash piles and peering through wire-reinforced glass windows, chatting happily about “potential.” But at a certain point, I felt burned out, tired of the drop-ceilings and the feral pigs and the tacky overhead lighting.
Finally, the statistics I had read began to hit home. Would I be one of the 1 in 3 middle-aged women who tried to buy a house for ten years, gave up, went crazy, and wound up digging a foxhole beside a freeway embankment, then carpeting it over with Flor tiles?
After a particularly harrowing day of house-hunting, I caught up with my good friend, marionette restorationist Randall Hitch, for glasses of port on the glazed terracotta terrace of his Moroccan-style villa overlooking the hedge maze and the koi pond. He told me his house had just been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places after it was discovered that deleted scenes from “Chinatown” were once stored in a utility trailer parked in the alleyway behind his home. I told him about the last house I had rejected.
“It was nice, roomy, in a good neighborhood, in my price range, but it was sort of pre-fab-looking and also it didn’t have a floor.”
“There are a lot of ways to personalize a pre-fab home, Summer,” Randall said.
“I know. But I mean, there was no floor at all. Just uncovered joists.”
“Summer, you’re too picky. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Do you think this house was in perfect condition the day I found it? Of course not! I had to tear out wall-to-wall carpet in the back hallway. Beige wall-to-wall carpet. But in the end, what matters is that I have a place to call home, a place to love, a place to store 1700-square feet of early nineteenth-century Persian art.”
I gazed out at the ocean, the radiant floor heating warming the soles of my shoes.
“I just feel like I could do better,” I said. “I feel like I deserve it. Where’s my fairy tale ending?”
“We are all brainwashed by the media,” Randall said, “by newspaper style sections and design blogs and issues of Elle Décor we find in our dermatologist’s waiting room. My mother was sending me clippings from Better Homes and Gardens, Summer. Actual paper clippings. They want to sell you on a dream of home ownership but the reality is very different. Owning your own home is work. No matter how amazing The One is, you’re still going to have to touch up the paint, clean the rain gutters, trap and release some mountain lions – that’s real life.”
Was Randall right? I thought about all the movies and television shows that had dominated my formative years: Ally McBeal’s Murano glass lamp, Mr. Big’s fabulous chandelier on “Sex and the City.”
The last person I talked to was my own real estate agent, Carmen Yu, in the dining room of her 3300-square foot Spanish-style eco-palazzo with its low-VOC paint, reclaimed wooden coat hangers, wild truffle insulation, and ultra-efficient commercial pizza oven. She ushered me towards the “green” sofa she had made herself out of three larger sofas, then went to get us drinks from the floating wet bar that bobbed up and down along her in-home brook.
“Every night I sign into Redfin and Trulia and Zillow and I see all these amazing houses but I can never seem to buy one. But their ads all seem so perfect. What’s the matter with me?”
Carmen shook her head.
“I’m going to be honest here, Summer. We put these ads up to fool you. The photos are all taken with wide-angle lenses, run through a ‘sucker’ filter on Photoshop, or just hand-drawn by our kids. ‘Cozy’ means small; ‘sunny’ means scorched; ‘airy’ means there are holes in the roof; ‘historic’ means a murder was committed there; ‘low-maintenance backyard’ means that the last owners salted the earth. You’re 40 years old, it’s time you faced facts. Do you want to know what ‘turnkey’ means, Summer? Do you?” She took my hand. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Her words hurt, but they also rang true. No wonder 63% of L.A. county residents are now living full-time in their office cubicles, subsisting on nothing but Sparkletts water and Nature Valley granola bars.
That night I went home and after hand-cranking the emergency generator in my dark apartment, I was able to go online and sign into Redfin again. I clicked through all my new matches and they all looked so promising. This one had exposed wood-beam ceilings, that one had a two-story guest house. Why, this one even had a low-maintenance backyard!
Then, as I had often done before, I visited the ones that got away. There was 1317 Maple Street, with its six-foot-tall-ceilings and tar-impregnated top soil, sold for $700,000 after being on the market just nine days. There was 415 Elm Road, which I rejected as “too boxy,” sold above asking price, probably to a happy family that was even now contentedly scrubbing toxic lichens off the three remaining walls. While I had waited for The One, plenty of good ones, and even not-so-god ones, had gone off the market or been destroyed by landslides. What would be left?
It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. The truth is, in the time it took you to read this article, you wasted $4,200 in lost equity, housing prices rose 30%, your landlord was convicted of exotic pet smuggling, and your apartment’s rat-infested carport slid four inches deeper into a sinkhole, taking your Camry with it. So take my advice: don’t hold out for your dreams – just buy it.
An hour passed. I sat in the quiet of my office and ordered a bus ticket.
Within two hours I was dragging my suitcase down a street that paralleled Interstate 15. I walked past Palace Station where OJ was caught and thrown in the slammer. I turned east on Sahara Avenue and made my way through the hundred-degree heat over the freeway. The Sahara Hotel loomed in front of me. I’d stayed there for several days when I moved back to Las Vegas. Then I was at John’s house, living in his spare room. Now here I was walking back to the Sahara, pulling my suitcase along a dirty street and looking down at piles of broken glass on industrial rooftops.
That night I sat on the edge of my bed and stared toward the window as darkness flickered with casino lights and hummed with the monorail’s monotone singing.
In the morning I packed my suitcase for the last time. I walked out of my room. No hint of remorse for having quit my job. I simply began my journey as some journeys begin—an invisible string tugged my ass along.
The elevator had a musty odor. The doors opened and I passed the Sports Book and the lobby. The casino was nearly empty. In a few corners sat sleepy drunks. They streamed money into machines. Just a little slower than usual. Rusted automatons.
Outside, an endless sidewalk stretched along a horizon of heat. I started walking and stopped at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas boulevards. The air was hot. I wore a black backpack that I’d stuffed with my laptop and clothes and dragged a black suitcase that looked like an old pregnant Labrador about to spew a giant litter of cloth puppies. It sagged, but I had a good hold of its flimsy plastic handle.
About that time the transient came.
God said his angels are all around us. They look like people. For all I know street performers are a breed of angels meant to watch us when pretending they’re desperate to be seen. They stuff their big feathery wings into jeans pockets. They tuck ripples of pink-skinned wing muscle, all feathery and silky into raincoats and cloaks, and, though they may be a little below us, carry invisible swords and magical timepieces that compress our paths into mere moments.
Those are the holy jugglers and poet rappers of the Word. The men of sleight of hand flashing jokers, and ministering minstrels with guitar cases open like bloody mouths eating dollars. They are the homeless locust eaters watching us come and go and breathing on us their angels’ breath and God light.
Before the light could change there came the transient talking up a storm. Talking fast. “You’re going somewhere special,” he said. “You’re going somewhere special with bags like those! Hot enough for you? I’m going to see destiny. She’s this way,” he said.
He stepped into the street before the light could change. He looked sun-worn and carried a bag of plastic bottles. His eyes were wild with uncertainty and the cosmic insanity that fills the universe at such moments in the desert. His clothes were urban, old; they fit him like a sloppy dishrag sliced to fit with a dirty butcher’s knife.
My destination was the bus station downtown on Main Street next to the Plaza Hotel. It was the dirtiest place I’d seen in Vegas, with its broken down restroom and shit-coated urinals corralled by strands of yellow tape.
My shoulder was already sore just dragging my life to the corner. Already forgetting about the transient, I stepped into the crosswalk just as the light changed. I crossed Sahara and gazed through car windows at empty morning faces. I looked up at a boarded casino dressed in black awnings. Just past that I saw the Stratosphere Tower. There flew a helicopter, while down on the street a motorcycle with a big moustache riding it roared past. I saw security guards wandering to work. I saw druggies hard up for the question of life to smack them in a fix of morning clarity.
Across the Sahara I made my way down the long snake of Las Vegas Boulevard. I yanked my bag along, which flipped over more than once as I dragged it. I barely missed the toes of bus riders waiting on shaded benches. Hard faces stared into the heat, past me and my bags. Some looked up at the Stratosphere Tower, at its moving amusement park machinery more than a thousand feet above them.
Further along I stopped to rest at an abandoned swimming pool. I snapped a photo and went on my way. My hand and shoulder ached as I walked up and down parking lot driveways and street curbs. Near one casino, the same transient sat on a small cement ledge. If he had angel wings I couldn’t even see a ridge of feathers beneath his shirt. He grinned at me and watched me pass into the heat. I finally took a longer rest by a wedding chapel, only to be passed again by the giggling transient. He rattled his bag of bottles and laughed as if spooking some ghost he saw inside of me.
I didn’t have any water and didn’t want to sit in the bright light. So I continued on the sun-baked sidewalk. I reached Charleston Boulevard and crossed it, heading into the old Huntridge District. I cut along streets, and passed through a transient park where bodies littered benches in multi-colored rags, and carts made their slow way, pushed by dirty hands. One group of transients sat against a wall by a fountain. Even in the heat they wore heaps of clothes. Their innermost layers, I imagined, were fused to cracked and caked lesion-covered wings, and to scabs where needles had burnt pools of coagulated blood onto drug-hot arms.
I dragged my bags slowly through, looking to see if the transient from outside the Sahara had made his way here. I looked to see if he was dancing a jig, or had miraculously transformed old plastic bottles into a puppet show of tales of the Vegas underworld: dancing demon can-can 7-Up mermaids, Coca-Cola devils of casino executives, big boss radio Fanta clowns with explosive-painted faces and forked tongues riding a carousel of Papa Johns pizza boxes and McDonalds fast-food toys—all lit on fire from the burning desert slot machine handles pulling reels of endless flames.
Several streets further, outside a Bank of America, my mouth was parched. I had nothing to drink so I just licked my lips and headed up some steps to where I pulled some of my last cash from an ATM. Heading back toward the street, I saw one of the most lonely of women and so smiled at her, the Queen of the Sin City Transients. I’d seen her many times before as she sat on a bench like it was her throne. Surrounding her were bags of food from trashcans, generous well wishers and back alley refuse piles. She was plump, rosy-cheeked and had the brittle hair of a sunburnt aged maiden of fire. She held a carton of soup and drank deeply as pigeons wandered past her feet. Piles of blankets and a cart sat nearby. I was a sweaty mess as I passed. I looked over but she ignored me, except through the farthest corners of her eyes, as little girls do.
I looked back, half expecting my transient friend to be there bowing at her feet and rattling his bag of bottles. I imagined a cloud of fire springing up at her feet, orange reflecting in her once shadowy black eyes, and her waving a wand, casting demons into the desert and demands to be carried out at midnight by fallen angels.
The bus station was close. I scooted on a sidestreet to Fitzgerald’s Casino, where years before I watched green-haired old ladies laugh and spin penny slots. Now the penny machines were even more gimmick-plagued. Their seats were filled with anxiety-ridden souls. It was a New World casino order, where penny slots tricked old ladies out of hundreds of dollars rather than the mere ten bucks they were used to losing. Those days of free martinis and enough cash left over to get a new green wig had gone.
Now I walked among a new generation of forlorn faces. With them I finally sat dehydrated and thankful. I ate at a McDonalds with a blank stare before eventually making my way to find brief refuge in the Plaza Hotel. There, I sat on a bench and changed my shoes and socks and prepared myself for the bus ride to California.
*This piece was written entirely on an iPhone
This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹
33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi
This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.
17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.
Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.
The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.
I hate to big note myself (unless I’m ill-advisedly tilting at the windmill of a luscious younger woman who I think may not see through the act quickly enough)-but, as a certified paranoiac, I do occasionally have moments where I draw some grand albeit dark and discomfiting conclusions about the impact of my psychic state, perhaps just even my physical presence, on the larger scene.
For example, I can’t help but feel some twinge of that famous sinking feeling when I think of the Chinese province of Guandong.
Things can start off innocently enough-say with a tea-buying spree in Shanghai or some casual misbehavior in Hong Kong (although I do have my friend, the San Francisco writer Leland Cheuk, to thank for bailing me out of an embarrassingly large bill once at a girlie bar in Wan Chai)-but by the time I get to Guandong, things start to openly wobble.
Each visit, some catastrophe has taken place. I lie. Multiple crises have ensued, erupted-and just plain exploded. I’m left with the nagging question-am I a DISASTER MAGNET?
Guandong is China’s most populous region and the driving wheel of their economic empire. Guangzhou (Canton) is the principal city. To say it’s possibly the world’s densest manufacturing center today is no overstatement and doesn’t really begin to capture the emotional-psychological aspect. We’re talking the intensity of a termite mound during a thunderstorm.
Guandong produces a signficant percentage of China’s entire GDP, and there’s an excellent chance that right around you now are a whole lot of things made there-from clothing to electrical goods, to things inside other things-to stuff you don’t want to know about. Anything you can think of in fact, may very well be made in Guandong.
Hong Kong and Macau were historically parts of Guandong, and Cantonese remains the main language spoken there, despite the recent flood of immigration from other parts of the country because of the employment opportunities. The bulk of the men and women who built the railroads of America and Canada originated from Guandong, and that same work ethic is very much alive today.
Which isn’t to say that all is well there. Not by a long shot. Most of the wealth produced is consolidated around the Pearl River Delta. Actual wages generally are often pitiful. Sweatshops, battery farms and bizarre factory scenes from out of the 19th century sit right alongside complexes that conjure the 22nd. Unidentified clouds of smoke hang over vast sections. I worked one summer on Neville Island in Pittsburgh, back when steel and coke were manufactured there, and it doesn’t even begin to compare.
I first went to Guandong because of this painting (ironically titled Toledo).
A gallery in Hong Kong had taken me on and had sold it to an advertising executive visiting from Guangzhou. The gallery owner’s tip was to pay a visit there. There was talk of the Chinese government turning an immense decommissioned military base into a magical arts colony, where artists from all over China and the world would be welcome to live for free, providing they fixed up their own studio quarters. I was on a plane to Guangzhou quick smart-and that’s when the pattern began to form.
I could be sitting peacefully at a Western style breakfast…and a fiberglass factory has burst into an inferno of flames flash-frying 400 workers in an instant. Phosphates are found to be leeching into a major waterway. 300 school children suddenly lose all their hair. The principal railway line suddenly gets closed for unstated reasons and men in strange uniforms appear. The next morning an “incident” has occurred at a sulfuric acid plant. (Incidents don’t occur with sulfuric acid-more like total havoc and mayhem.) And then there are the agricultural industry outbreaks.
We all know that chickens go supernova when the computers malfunction and too many hormones are administered. We all freaked out about Bird Flu. But what about suckling pigs with two heads? What about several baby pigs with two heads?
Yes, we’re willing to overlook a few oddball mutations. What would the traditions of the NBA, the freak show, and a good portion of next year’s admitted class to M.I.T. be without some wiggle room on this point? But it’s not a good look to be eating some Western style bacon in Guandong-overhearing that several hundred factory workers have been cooked like bacon, and only a few miles away, pigs are being born with two heads.
Now, I concede, it’s very possible-it may even be likely-that my coincidental presence has had nothing to do with these calamities. No one wishes that more than me. But I’ll tell you the thing that worries me the most. When this weird shit has been going down-and I count a total of thirteen “incidents” over the course of my visits that would’ve made front page/top of the TV bulletin news where I live-only one made it onto the radar of the world media that I’m aware of. One. (In a particularly worrisome instance, 4,000 people were exposed to toxic chemicals and I’m certain nary a whisper reached CNN or any outside news source.)
China has become much more media transparent than it was only a short while ago. The recent spree of attacks by lunatics on school children is a case in point. That news might well not have reached us once. The Olympics in Beijing helped. The influx of western businesses has helped. But in my view, we have the Chinese students and folks under thirty to thank for opening some windows that were previously sealed-and not always for reasons of some kind of political dissent. In fact, many Chinese young people are far more conservative than you might think.
The reason these younger people are conduits for news is that they’re often dislocated across great distances from their homes to study in the major cities, and like many of the population, they’re forced to occasionally seek employment at great distance from home. A lot of news that otherwise might not get out is carried in very personal ways by this mobile section of the populace.
It helps that these younger people are computer fluent, usually have cell phones, and have some degree of multilingual skills. But theirs isn’t for the most part any active attempt to subvert the official government spin on anything. The many students I’ve met are working hard just to cope with the challenges they face, and they have a great deal of pride in their cultures. Take my young friend Su, for instance.
She comes from an isolated rural village in the far north and lives in a shoebox, attending university in Shanghai. She’s the first person of her generation to go away to university, and in recognition of her achievement, her village named their most prized asset after her-a large earthmoving machine. When the government presented it to them, they had her name stenciled on the side. It sounds like a humble honor, but as everyone knows, 20 year olds don’t tear up all that easy-and she does when she shows the photograph-meekly but with reverence.
Her goal is to get educated and to help her family. She has no political radicalism. But she gets concerned when she hears from her brother, who works in Guandong, that several of his fellow employees have suddenly fallen gravely ill or that a few hundred at a plant nearby have been incinerated.
What did the plant manufacture? That’s another very big problem. It’s not just that industrial accidents occur far too frequently (whether I have anything to do with it or not), there’s a much bigger issue.
I have a friend who’s been a senior chemical engineer for DuPont (The Miracles of Science). Their history, like Monsanto’s and others, is pretty checkered too. I don’t pretend to understand all that he does, but here’s how he puts it. “It’s very wrong to think the problem with developing giants like China and India is a matter of quality control and safety standards. That makes it sound like there are lapses in protocol that create accidents. It’s a lot truer to say that there are practices and processes at work that aren’t safe period. You don’t need a Ph.D. and twenty years of industry experience to know certain things aren’t only dubious, but highly dangerous. You can see them from the road. There are manufacturing facilities involved in multiple kinds of production that would simply not be allowed in the U.S., Japan and in all of Western Europe.”
It doesn’t take a genius to understand why this is allowed to continue. It’s not a question of there being no photographic evidence, no chemical analyses, a tell-no-one conspiracy on the part of the government and its leverage over their media. We’re all engaged in the “conspiracy” because it’s right out in the open. We’re all stepping and fetching to the beat of China’s economic drum, with India’s juggernaut not far behind.
And yet, it’s a great mistake, too, to assign national blame in this regard, when multinational corporations are involved. Large portions of America have been similarly blighted in the past because of money and expedience (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and on and on). Think of the Midlands of England. Industrial devastation is nothing new-but it takes on a new meaning with both the scale of production in Guandong and what’s being produced.
Can any region, anywhere in the world sustain super-dense manufacturing across such a huge spectrum of industries, even if the highest quality work practices are in place? What if they’re obviously not?
It’s easy to think the problem is somehow “over there.” It’s easy to ignore what you hear only vaguely about, if at all. And sadly, it’s all too easy for whole nations to turn their backs on commercial negligence and malfeasance for financial reasons.
But sooner or later, a catastrophe occurs that inevitably does make the news-and like news-can travel. Look at BP’s tragic fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.
I confess that I knew only generally what the situation was like in China until I physically paid a visit. There are thousands of legitimate enterprises that are being well run there-coping with a multitude of complex logistical problems. But while we may worry at large about China’s carbon footprint, I had some serious tactical concerns for my own, when I stepped through a marshy area and later felt a distinctly warm sensation. By the time I made it back to my hotel, the soles of my new Shanghai shoes were partially dissolved. Those shoes were dramatically cheaper than anything I could buy in America or Australia. But I can’t help wondering if there’s another price tag involved.
March 13, 2009
This past February, at this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, many of the overheard conversations did not involve the usual topics—Where’s the best place in the city to score a discount bottle of Booker’s bourbon?Do you know anyone who brought a bag of weed?Let’s get drunk/stoned, sit in a circle in someone’s hotel room and read some poetry/fiction/creative nonfiction, then seduce our former Russian Lit/Forms/Creative Writing Pedagogy professor.
An empty cargo boat is sitting in the Puget Sound with nothing to do.
I see as many as three of them at once sometimes from the window of my apartment.
Tonight, my girlfriend is going to cut my hair, which might be the reason the Northwest is in a recession.
Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1
That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district. Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.