Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Pay-offs lament

As I stepped from the plane and took toward the city I had always dreamed of seeing, I laughed to myself when I noticed the skyline wasn’t all that different than L.A. or even San Francisco. Continuing to giggle I made my way out of the runway and into the wide open range of the terminal, where I was greeted by a small gathering of people standing around waiting for other passengers. A few stepped aside as I made my way through them. Even with the wall of voices that surrounded and struck my ears, although I didn’t understand a word being spoken, it didn’t feel different than any airport in California. When I stepped up to security and they waved me over with a black fat wand, I nodded when they were through and stepped over toward the luggage carousel. Taking note how many people were around it, real relief filled me knowing that my belongings had been sent to my new apartment still more than 3 hours away from where I stood. In some unknown new hometown out there in an unfamiliar country I worked so hard to get to. Different people, a new place, not one sign I could read, but still my mind fought that it didn’t feel like home.

Once outside and the night greeted me, I checked a little map that was mailed to me by my new boss of the area so I could find my hotel for the night so he could pick me up in the morning. Stapled to the map was a note written in very careful but still barely legible letters read, “If you show this to taxi man, he drop you at hotel”. Stepping to the sidewalk I realized I never once ever had to flag down a taxi. “Do I put my thumb out?” I thought. “Just do what you see those people do in all those movies that are based in New York.”
“Yo, taxi!” I shouted causing several people to turn and stare at me. “Sorry.” I smiled. None of them smiled back and hurried away. So I stood away from the sidewalk a little and waved at every taxi that went by. “Damn it,” I said under my breath.

“When they have a yellow light in the window like that it means they are unavailable,” a gruff male voice said from my left shoulder. A middle aged man with a gentle expression underneath his bald head that held a gleam on it, smiled up at me; his accent was nearly none existent. “Wave at the ones that have red lights, it means they are in service. But even if they have red lights doesn’t mean they will pick you up. But don’t feel too bad. Most of them don’t speak English and that’s why they won’t take you. You’ll get one that’s willing. But I wouldn’t shout it tends to make them nervous. Just put your hand out.”

“I see. Thank you so much,” I said.

“You are welcome. Take care now,” he said and went on his way.

“You too,” I said and followed his instructions. After the fifth taxi had past me with red lights, one finally rolled over and stopped. As I reached for the handle the door swung open and smashed into my knuckles, I grimaced and did my best not to shout. Sitting down with a thud cradling my hand to my chest I heard the driver apologize in the native tongue. With my hand still stinging all I could muster was a nod and a smile to let him know I was okay. He spoke again, but not having no idea what he said I guessed he was asking, “Where to?” Fishing out the map with the directions to the hotel I gave it to him. He nodded and drove away from the airport. With no music playing I settled back into the seat, my hand had stopped hurting and as I held it up to the light coming in from outside to see if it would bruise I noticed just how clean everything in the car was. The seats looked newly vacuumed; the window that separated me from the driver was completely free of finger prints. If this was anywhere else the window would be scratched with gang signs and filth. A picture of the driver was in front of me on the back side of the window; even in the low light it was easy to see he was young and pleasant looking. As I looked over I saw he was wearing white gloves and a sharp hat with a dark tie around his neck. I smiled and went back to the world outside.

The plane ride left a long, empty thirst in my throat, and a heavy craving for water flashed in my stomach. Pulling out my flash cards with sentences and tips on how to speak, I combed through looking for the one that could help. But none, really said anything like, “Pull over I’m thirsty.” However one said, “How much longer?” In smaller lettering and written in red next to the main sentence said, “Try to elongate the second vowel sound in the last word, it’ll make it sound more polite.” I spoke the sentence and did my best to do as instructed.

The driver spoke, but the only thing I understood was the number two.

Saying the sentence out loud to myself I combed the other flash cards, having heard me, the driver said the sentence again. I pulled a cluster of cards that said two minutes, twenty minutes and two hours. I repeated it again this time in my head and found what I was looking for: 20 minutes. At the sight of the time frame, I became even thirstier. With nothing to do but wait, I looked outside and watched the world go by. This place was lovely if not packed with people, even for the middle of the night. With little provocation a though sprang: “Even with all these people, will I manage to make friends at my new job?” I giggled, feeling like a childish at the thought.

As we closed in on the twenty minute mark, I noticed that the sidewalks were thinning with people. Now it seemed only couples were out and about. But my thirst was near ravenous; happiness filled my chest when I saw the sign of my hotel down the street a little more than a hundred yards away. I asked the driver to pull over with the help of the cards. I spotted the meter and the amount and gave him some money, he thanked me. When I reached for the door it opened again by itself. I thanked him again and stepped outside; when I tried to close the door it swung close hitting my hand again. Ignoring my pain and stupidity, I looked around and even with the signs being a jumbled mess of letters that I didn’t understand, it didn’t matter, in any civilized country anyone can spot a convenient store from the outside a mile away. Once I spotted a familiar bright sign and looked in through the window and noted a wall of drinks and foods you know that aren’t good for you, I headed for the clean and overly lighted entrance. When the automatic doors opened and a whoosh of cool air blasted me in the face I smiled that I was glad that no matter where you are places like this all smell the same; plastic, disinfectant and overly sugared candy. The clerk at the register gave me an absentminded greeting; I nodded back and made my way toward the drinks in the back. Another clerk was sweeping under some fully stocked shelves with some vigor, as soon as he noticed me walking toward him he greeted me with a nervous smile and I nodded and walked past him.

Once at the clear doors that held the rows after rows of drinks, my lack of being able to read was not helping with finding water. My eyes fell upon the unmistakable American drink trademark of a circle with red, white and blue stripes, I considered it, but my body wanted water. A little lost I turned toward the sweeping clerk who now was no longer doing any resemblance of work and all his attention was on me.
A memory came to mind, once I had graduated with my degree and I had gotten the job I applied for through an agency, which handled exchange workers, they said it would be best to talk to someone that had already been through the program to give helpful tips and the best way to communicate. The only person I knew was a girl in my English class in college. After calling her letting her know my situation she said she’d be more than happy to talk to me. She told me to drive to a town whose name I wanted to forget, and I met her at a barely lit bar. By the time I got there she was drunk and mad with her life. “One thing you’re going to remember,” She said throwing a small but heavy arm around my neck, “if you want to be reminded or not is this: you are white, tall, and blue-eyed.” She smoothly took a shot of a mysterious brown liquid and without so much of a grimace sipped her beer right after and stared me in the face close enough to kiss, “Well in your case they’re more light green than blue. But yeah, you’ll be reminded of those facts. It’s not so bad for girls, but for guys it’s different. Where’s your drink?” Not really following I shook my head, but held up my warm beer, and before I could speak, “Meaning, you’re different, so you’ll be treated different.” I shook my head again. With a scoff and a sigh, she gulped her beer, “When you walk into places you might be followed and looked after. To make sure you ain’t stealing nuthin’.” All I could do was stare in my white ignorance. “No joke,” she said and raised her bottle of beer to have me click the necks together.

“Anything else?” I said wiggling her hot arm off of me.

She pushed her sunshine colored hair away from her face and looked to the ceiling as if searching for an answer there. “Have fun, and don’t let what little negativity you experience get you down, you’re not the first it happened to and you won’t be the last. Water off of a duck’s butt and all that,” she said and waved the bartender down and yelled, “One more, please!”

As the memory sat there big and annoying in the middle of my head, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so I smiled and said the word water in his language; comically an expression of surprise rushed to his face. I said the word and picked up a random bottle from the shelf and then said water again but with an upward inflection trying to turn it into a question. He stared and then pointed at the bottle and said water. I nodded and said, “Yes, water,” in his language. He shook his head. So I grabbed another bottle and started the processes again. He shook his head. The Register clerk shouted something and we both looked, he spoke some more and pointed toward the doors I was standing near. It was clear to see that he was gesturing to Sweeper that he should just grab a bottle for me. I thanked Register and waved, he returned a wave just as empty as his greeting when I walked in. With the broom still in his hand Sweeper came over and opened a door next to me and handed me an aluminum can, with a nod he said, “Water.”
In a can? I thought. But I nodded and thanked him and smiled, he did the same.

Can o’ water in hand I thought I might as well try a snack, it might be awhile before I get to my new hometown and I didn’t know when the next time I was going to eat, and randomly picked a bag of chips I didn’t recognize. Stepping toward Register I saw that he looked tired and ready to get off work, if this were my home I probably would’ve said something along the lines that he needed to leave and get some sleep as a joke. Clicking on the computer in front of him he said the numbers of the cost to my purchase; not having any idea what he said I looked to the electronic readout that always faces the customer, and pulled out the rest of the money which was a gift from my drunken guide from my shirt pocket. After Register bagged my items we locked eyes for a moment and I felt a ridiculous notion that he was going to say something like “Go back where you came from” and even in my head, I still heard that moronic southern drawl on those words. But if he did say that it wasn’t like I was going to understand him. Instead, he said in English in a sheepish voice, “Sank yu for your perchess.”

I smiled, a little too broadly, maybe; nodded, and then thanked him in his language.

Leaving with my swag I heard Sweeper shout to me also in English, “Hava goo din night.” I waved as I exited, once again the doors pulled open the AC blasted cold air on my back. But it faded as soon as the door closed and the heat of this place sank in deep. It was a humid heat, which I was not accustomed too, it was then I realized I wasn’t home. Finally it had hit me, and for a small moment there was panic. Snapping back the tab on the can and inhaling half of the liquid inside, which was water, I calmed a bit. Walking across the street I sat on a bench that faced the store, but I thought hanging around outside at nearly the middle of the night was a bad idea, I moved down the street where I knew my hotel room was waiting for me.

I wasn’t home anymore. And even though it took me two years of work to get here and I thought I would never be standing where I was, I truly was here. I had put my life on hold so I could save money in order to be here. In those two years I lost a few friends, and I ruined chances to date some good women, but I was here.

And now the hard part begins.

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