"Would You Like Fries With That?" Adventures in People Watching
Our eyes widen at the loud blowing from the table to our left. A man in a blue business shirt blows his nose, much to our horror and glee. “Rude,” one of my Japanese housemates mutters, and I nod in agreement. A group of twenty-something year old boys jokes and laughs with each other, discussing social intricacies of who gets to bang whom.
A man walks over to the corner table, sits down and rests his feet on the rungs of the chair, sipping his coffee. He smiles to himself when he hears their banter and laughter, and looks on at my table with curiosity, perhaps considering us as I consider him. His beard makes him vaguely resemble Viggo Mortensen. He looks away and politely declines an offer for free food, a burger in the hand of a well-intentioned stranger. Why? Because for a moment of a day, he has a chance to quietly fade into the background, observe people living their lives, perhaps imagine himself in their places. An offer for free food shatters the illusion of normalcy, he once again becomes “The Barefoot Homeless Man,” dependent on the kindness of strangers.
A woman with red and slightly blackened, oozing sores all over her arm sits down at the table across from me with a .99 sundae. “Odd” I think. They’re not track marks, I don’t think, but there is something striking about the quantity of perfect, almost pencil thick holes dotting her arm. A man in disheveled clothing sits down next to her holding a pink cockatoo. Now, it becomes clear where the marks are from. The formerly rowdy post-adolescents are now stone cold speechless as we all stare at the bird in McDonald’s eating french fries with her claws. The man tries to offer her some of his burger several times, but she shirks away and raises her feathers while squawking, clearly preferring french fries to meat of dubious origin. For five minutes, everyone on our side of McDonald’s is transfixed, united in our amusement, silent in our study of our neighbors.
Y’all realize that the song is called, “Let it Go,” not “Play it Over and Over and Over Until Everyone in Shouting Distance Stabs Their Eardrums Out With a Rusty Pen-Knife (No Matter How Many Curly-Topped Tykes Belt it Out),” right?
There is a parking lot near my place that I deemed “shady” as soon as I moved in. There’s a doughnut shop, a pharmacy, a couple of ethnic bakeries, and an office supply store that repeatedly reminds customers that they are unwelcome and distrusted (“Restroom is for customers only!” “Do not bring backpacks into the store!” “Do not exit through the entrance—alarm will sound!”). In this particular parking lot, there are always groups of men, who are invariably aimlessly standing around, shooting the breeze, whistling at women passing by. Walking near them has always set off some alarm bells, or woman’s intuition, or bad juju in me, so I instantly regretted my decision to jaywalk across the street to run another errand; I would have to stand, and wait right next to them until the cars stopped coming.
Street smart women will recognize that, in general, it’s a terrible idea to walk past groups of men who are not there for an obvious reason, like waiting for the bus, or day-laborers hoping to be chosen for a job. Most of the time, these men are up to no good, and should not be trusted. In the best of circumstances, they’re drug dealers and (probably) aren’t interested in you, or you’ll be heckled and in the worst cases possibly become another unfortunate blip on the local police department’s radar for violent crime statistics in the area. I’m well aware of all of these things, and they keep running through my mind as I avoid eye contact, and stare at the oncoming cars, with my hand clutching my bag, wondering where my pepper spray was when I needed it.
"Pssst." One of the men is trying to get my attention, which I pretend I don’t hear. "Psssst!" The man becomes more urgent. "Meees!" I ignore him. "Meees! Don’t DO it!" This is different from the usually flirtatious and aggressive flair these guys have demonstrated before. Now I’m interested, and I turn my head. "Meees, you should walk at the stop light, don’t walk here." I look over at the traffic on the other side, and see that the coast is clear. I point to the cars that haven’t started coming my way, and tell him that it’s safe. He shakes his head. "Look," he says, "there’s a cop right there by the gas station. He’ll see you, and you’ll get a $200 ticket.” Sure enough, there was a member of LA’s finest, strictest police force I’d seen, the kind who interrogate people sitting outside of buildings, and who slow down when they see me walking to the metro. I’d be $200 poorer and a good deal more distraught if the man hadn’t alerted me. I thanked the man for his help, and started walking down the street to cross at the light. It turns out, at least in my corner of LA, that there are still some neighborly neighbors who will help you out for nothing in return. As I was passing him, I glanced down at what the men were excitedly fixated on this whole time. Was it drugs? Wrinkled 1970’s porn magazines? It was a chess game.
Life is hard. You get banged up, scraped up, cut up, and let down. If you have never experienced this yet, someday, perhaps sooner than you think, you will. The muscles in your face will contort into great knots. Your entire body will rock from the power of your sobs. You will know what it is like to bare your teeth in agony, rather than pleasure.
And in the midst of this, life is also good. There are little moments of intense pleasure and satisfaction to be had in between the suffering, if you let yourself. Sit and be still. Allow yourself to be amused, amazed, delighted and enthralled by the little pleasures Life has to offer. The crispness of autumn mornings, the way you can see your breath on a cold night, the yielding of a pomegranate’s seeds are all cause for small introspective savoring or giddy celebration.
In the time of suffering, these pleasures can a moment of calm in a tidal wave of sorrow, a breath before the waves crash again.
Denizens of the Bus or Immigrants to Nowhere--Part 7
It’s been a long day. After three buses, four metro trains and another bus ride still to go, I’m exhausted. All I want is to sit quietly in the dark and stare at the red blinking lights from inching cars and traffic lights against the inky night. But no. The bus’ femininely tinged robotic, nigh unintelligible stop announcements blare. We stop at the train station, five passengers disembark, and we creep forward. The grey-bearded gentleman in his fifties who was previously seated behind me, staggers and and sways to the beat only known to the highly inebriated.
He barks and slurs to the driver, “Aaaaaare we goooooing to the TRAIN staaaation?” We just past it. “Well, kin we go baaaack?” Nope, we have route and schedule to keep. Sorry. “Shiiiiiiit! Goddammitfuuukkkin’sonnofaBIIITCH! I’ll miss my AA meeting feeer SURRRRE” the drunk man yells with sour breath as he sits down behind me again. “Did I hear that right?” I wonder to myself. Yes, yes I did, and he repeats it over and over again for the next fifteen minutes. He curses his luck, the bus driver, and the admittedly miserable suburb we’re in the middle of, and I’m trying hard not to laugh out loud at the most ironic situation I’ve ever found myself in. I chide the man in my head, “Can you hear yourself right now? You’re this close to being falling-down-drunk, and you’re worried about missing your Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? You should be glad you missed your stop and just go home.” Then things get serious.
Enraged at his circumstances, the man takes off his windbreaker, and starts thrashing himself and the window we share with it. The window I’ve been leaning my head on, by the way. Occasionally, the zipper punctuates his obscenities by sharply clanging against the plexiglass and window bracing. I freeze in my seat, thankful that the backs of these seats are higher than most then try to slink further down to avoid the makeshift whip, praying that my face won’t get cut, or that he won’t suddenly start pounding the back of my seat instead. Then he starts kicking the side of the bus. My eyes widen in fear and I slow my breathing down to make my presence potentially less noticeable to the three year old who has possessed this grown man and is throwing a dangerous temper tantrum. In the midst of my cowering, I marvel at just how blind someone can be to his own faults and responsibility for his misfortune.
As we finally start to pull into the last stop, the helpful, empathetic side of me ponders telling the man that there will be no fewer than four buses he can choose from in order to make it on time to his AA meeting at 9:00. I consider doing this for a few minutes until my sense self-preservation and justice kicks in. I decide that it’s just a fool’s errand to reason with really drunk people. Especially angry and violent really drunk men. “You know what, sir,” I want to tell him, but have the sense not to, “you should be thanking your lucky stars that you missed your AA meeting. Then you won’t be as pathetic next time when you do go—hopefully then you’ve learned your lesson and don’t drink right before showing up.” I let him get off first to let him go back to where he came from, and pray that I may never be as blind to my shortcomings as he was and swear to take responsibility for myself as an adult. With another hour before my bus home and enough adrenaline for me to bolt off the bus, it’ll be a long way before I sleep.
On The Sacredness of Steam or the Tao of Tea, part 3
Unlike most college kids, I moved onto campus during my senior year. Living with mobs of shrieking girls who used “like” and vocal fry as verbal punctuation marks was in stark contrast to life in the cave at my parents house. This sudden flurry of activity, of expected intense social interaction with strangers was a slight shock for that frazzled, tense girl who was mostly fixated on obtaining her vision of perfection through good grades. Luckily for me, my three closest friends lived on the floor above and one autumn night after mid-semester break, I brought some of the tea my mom gave me to share. Tazo’s Wild Sweet Orange was a hit and Hailey in particular loved it. Soon, on nights I when needed a study break, I went upstairs to Hailey and Kara’s room, citrus and lemongrass wafting from the tea sachets and we created a sanctuary apart from the insanity of the rest of the girls in the dorm. We would sit together, fiddling with the strings of the tea bags, bemoaning the quality of boys on campus, making cultural observations, and generally solving our world’s problems over a cup of the slightly fizzy tea.
What we all knew but never really understood was that Hailey had been sick for as long as she could remember, that her body refused to absorb the nutrients she needed to function. On days that I heard that Hailey’s insides were disagreeable, I’d slide a tea packet under the door, hoping not to disturb her sleep, the one escape she had from almost constant pain. Because she had skipped so many classes and was unable to complete assignments as a result of being sick, Hailey had little choice but to drop out mid semester of our graduating year. The same time a year later, Hailey’s health rapidly worsened, and she nearly died. After this close call, two of her acquaintances and I collaborated to send her a care package to encourage her. Along with a movie, some lip-gloss to make her feel pretty, a photo collage and paper cranes, I contributed her a box of Wild Sweet Orange. I wrote a little note on each tea bag to make her smile, laugh or just feel a little less awful, to let her know that she wasn’t alone.
The girl I saw a few days after we sent the package was a shadow of Hailey. I enfolded her in my arms and felt the column of her spine, her ribs poking out of her back. Hailey’s spark that lit up her eyes, her smile, her laughter was gone, and replaced with a vacant, exhausted daze. As I made plans to visit her in a few months, I somehow knew she wouldn’t live to see Christmas. She never got the package; she would never drink the tea again. Every day for weeks I felt like I had been hit by a truck, and I’d wish I had been. I placed the Wild Sweet Orange box at the back of the drawer so I could forget about its existence, and try to erase the pain of Hailey’s absence. Months of sadness blended into each other, enveloping me like the unfurling orange tea in my cup. It would be half a year before I could encounter the memories with gladness instead of tears. Sometimes I think of how we’ll never send photos of each others’ kids to each other, how the four of us will never sit on the retirement home porch together. I think of how this year I’ll be Hailey’s age when she died—next year, I’ll always be older than her. But with each sip of our tea, I’m transported back to Hailey’s tiny dorm room, remembering its faint vanilla and lavender scent as I sit on her satiny blue bedspread. I can hear the laughter we shared and feel the tears we shed as its steam warms my face.
"All night, after the exhausting games of canasta, we would look over the immense sea, full of white-flecked and green reflections, the two of us leaning side by side on the railing, each of us far away, flying in his own aircraft to the stratospheric regions of his own dreams. There we understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only ever faintly—not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things the outer limits would suffice."
—Ernesto Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
I listen in quiet rapture to the the gentle mutterings of your heart and lungs.It’s been far too long since I’ve touched your face. Time and care have left ever so delicate footprints on it since I saw you last. Your bones and sinews shelter me as I tell my fingers to remember the feel of your hair. Our clasped motley hands are at once distinct yet blended. Our time together is brief, before we are whisked away once again. Love is a harsh mistress, and Circumstance a cruel master, permitting us happiness for the briefest of moments—-
And then we part again.
I wander around a house that’s too big in a place too empty without you to fill it. I’ve been severed from you again, and I’ve lost myself in the process. I occupy myself with menial tasks to forget the pain of separation, but folding laundry or reorganizing my spice rack fails me; you are never far from my mind. My eyes may have become reacquainted with sorrow, but my heart is thankful for the chance to have seen you, touched you, laughed with you, cried with you. We will be together again; good things take time, and I suppose we’ll just have to wait our turn once more. But for now, I’m grateful for the time we had, in which our souls were knitted more closely together than before, and will grow closer still.
If you open a bag of rice that has been sitting in water for a few days, a container of octopus you bought from the market a week ago, or a teapot containing what was once parsley tea that you forgot to empty, be forewarned; if it smells like ammonia, bleach or other household cleaning agents, it’s probably not safe to consume. An underscore mark to this should be added to this if, when throwing away said monstrosities, you duck your head into the garbage bin in order to escape the burning sensation in your eyes and to calm your gag reflex as a result of the offending whiffs.
Bathrooms frequented by men are invariably stankier than otherwise. Use caution if you need to duck into one because, say, the soap dispenser in the ladies’ room is out. Good luck out there, you’re going to need it if you don’t want to dry heave face first into the crud covered sink, while the dubiously stained walls crowd in on your misery and snicker.
Air out clothes that you want to wear again (but don’t have time, quarters or resolve to do a load of laundry) near an open window for a few days. This should help it pass “the sniff test.” If not, slap on enough deodorant and spray on enough perfume to rival the cologne department at the mall. Then let it sit for another day. It helps if you wear the garment with a certain amount of apathy.
The human body knows no bounds of weakness. Given the right opportunity, flesh and blood and bone and phlegm conspire to keep us grounded, reminded of the fragility of life. Though we are young, we are not omnipotent, indestructible demi-gods, and that sometimes, things that seem dodgy (like making out with someone with a cold, or eating an entire pack of sausages two months after its expiration date), should be avoided like the plague they’ll bring you three days later with a sinus infection to boot.
There’s nothing quite like relishing the few indulgences that are afforded with illness. A little extra honey in a cup of tea, revisiting favorite childhood books and films, especially if there is a tradition associated with enjoying these while sick tend to balance out whatever misery viruses and bacterial infections have delivered you. You ride out the fever and the hacking cough that makes your roommates think that you’re dying while being dazzled by hand-drawn animated films, or maybe a book with pictures in it.
In this tedious waiting period to feel less stuffed up, congested, nauseous, exhausted and sore, there is still some comfort. There’s something soothing in just being still, resting and being lulled to slumber by the siren song of Nyquil, your body almost floating above the germ infested sheets that feel so refreshing on your burning forehead. There’s a quiet comfort in taking care of only your most basic physical needs, in heating up soup and eating it in bed or basic hygiene that must be done more slowly for a few days.
But once you’ve recovered, and can finally breathe again, you vow never to take your senses for granted, or never forget what it’s like to not be able to go into the sunshine and walk around whenever you feel like. But you will. You’ll become accustomed to your new-found freedom like you were before. And by that time, your body will remind you to tend to yourself once more.
Who will remember us, when we have turned to ashes or dust? Who will we become in their memories?
When the traces of a life lived (not-so) well no longer are imbued with their special powers that we have given them. The little black dress that made her feel desired is now woefully out of fashion. A DVD he played until the scratches made it no longer watchable now refuses to be played by man or machine. A wallet purchased at a flea market on their first date has holes that let loose change fall out. A postcard from a country that no longer exists from a past that may never have been can no longer be read due to caresses of time and decay. These are precious to us for the memories they conjure, but are the cast off items of another life to others.You should see the vultures (myself included), picking through the culminations of the material life of someone else at an estate sale. A beloved stamp collection is for sale for $10. Four doilies crocheted to comfort herself in her loneliness on sale for $3. All of the photographs of the deceased or those whose families cannot (or refuse to) take care of them any longer have been removed from the frames that are for sale.
Even photographs of the dead are only as significant to those we leave behind as the value of the relationship. Vaguely friendly smiles from ghosts and now corpses or awkward flash-flattened lighting on a slightly staged social interaction may be treasured or glanced over without recognition or reverence. I myself have done both. Photographs of my grandparents I hold for a few moments on the edges, careful not to let my fingerprints contaminate the sacred scene of my ancestors at the seashore. However, I see notes that were saved by my grandmother from a friend of hers, or photographs of unfamiliar adults standing with my uncles and I put them aside rather quickly. Film clips of the now dead cooking an omelet, or glaring at the offending videographer, a close up of hair undone and makeup kissed off may provoke tears or no feeling whatsoever. Voicemails of reminders to get more milk may be saved to several places or deleted. Someone accidentally erased the last recording we received from my grandfather, calling to see how we were and to talk about the stock market; tears well up when I think that I’ll never hear his voice outside of my own memory again. Hours of conversation, exasperation and tears may never be brought to mind. Our essence will be distilled into an “I love you” written on the back of a take-out receipt.
The half scribbled out notebooks that I pick up and seem to abandon half way through would probably have their pages stripped of my influence and then reused for someone else’s blitherings. The icons would likely be deemed unsettling and be sold. My teas tossed, mismatched plates sold for pennies and my books donated. “Who is that one? The one with the squinty eyes and pointy chin?” a little boy will press his thumb over my face while asking his maman someday. She’ll frown and say, “I’m not sure…she must have been a friend of your aunt, I suppose,” and they’ll put aside the photograph. Little gifts I’ve made for people may be treasured and passed down through generations of my friends’ descendants, or abandoned to landfills. I hope to be remembered fondly, treasured, the memories I leave behind deemed sacred. Perhaps it’s a lot to ask for. But I’ll ask anyways.
When I was a child, my father made me a most wonderful present; a small bow and arrow out of twigs collected from the trees he planted in the front yard before I was born. He carved grooves into the wood with one of the numerous files he owned and let me play with sometimes. He made the unladylike toy to celebrate no particular occasion, not to reward good behavior, but just because. I was delighted. I imagined that I was a girl version of Robin Hood or Pocahontas as I crouched on the edge of the yard in my shorts, firing my arrow at imaginary armies attacking my base. Unfortunately, since there were no identifying markings on the arrow, it would quickly become camouflaged by the myriads of other fallen branches, smooth sticks and carpets of deciduous leaves from seasons past when I tried to look for it. Then one day, the arrow was nowhere to be found. The snapdragons were collaborators with the enemy, so it was no use looking to them for aid. The junipers were treacherous, promising that my arrow was tucked behind the cobwebs, and then stabbing me as I reached my tawny arm to search for it between the branches. Alas, the arrow was lost forever. I felt that my dad was disappointed when I told him. I may have hurt his feelings, even though he promised he would make another one.
It seems that this is something I’ve gotten unintentionally good at these days. He often seems wounded as a result of how I’ve developed and continue to grow as an adult, and even more so at a lack of consistent communication. I’d rather not see my dad’s face express mini-stress patterns when I express my dreams to travel, nor hear the sadness in his voice in my head when I read messages from him asking if everything is ok when I haven’t responded to him in a few days. There seems to be a delicate balance of dependence and independence to adult child-parent relationships, and like that arrow which likely disintegrated by now, I haven’t quite found it yet.
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains,
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case.
We are as worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation
That will overcome defeat.”—Nizar Qabbani, "Verse" s. 20
I completed reading 22 books this year, including four classics, four novels featuring characters from Istanbul, three Iranian-American memoirs, modern classics, fiction and my first graphic novel. Each book is listed in chronological order completed along with a brief review, and my favorite reads from this year are highlighted in bold. Here are parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and The People Who Love Them, Elif Batuman I would love to have a cup of kvass with Elif Batuman. Her plucky, hilarious, effortless enthusiasm and brilliance make her instantly endearing to readers, and
"Attempting to reestablish connection. Please wait."
The miles between us are shortened by man made miracles, yet underscored by the inadequacies of the virtual. A thousand, “I love you“‘s tinged by tungsten and the glow of my screen is an unequal substitute for my head on your shoulder, the squeeze of your hand, an afternoon spent laying in the grass. The curve of your face is still identifiably yours, though pixilated. The depth of your voice takes on a metallic quality when technology rebels and refuses to serve. The clock is a cruel, greedy master, and does not afford us much time together, now. The fragility of this connection is like a paper boat rushing through a stream polluted by fear and impatience, and at times threatens to dissolve altogether. I’m forgetting the way your hair smells. I can’t remember what kind of cologne you used. The roaring din of the silence of waiting for the briefest of meetings nearly drowns out tenderness, at times.
But we wait.
And we will still wait.
Until Time himself must stop and stare (like everyone else will) in that moment when the only space between us is contained in our interlocking fingers, and held captive between our lips.
Lately I seem to find myself doing housework to Arabic music from the 1950’s and ‘60’s. I imagine I’m declaring love that surpasses understanding or reason while I iron shirts, and asking God for patience with a lover’s thick headedness while wiping down the countertops, complete with emphatic hand gestures and head tosses.
Although it’s not a tea, the yerba mate is on my tea shelf, along with the metal straw used to drink it. Along with a scarf that used to smell like him, and a few photographs scattered on my computer, the bitter grindings of this South American plant are the remnants of how I spent my time with my first love. We were both students and strangers in another country, spending our free evenings drinking the highly caffeinated beverage beloved by those in his home country. As we sipped through our metal straws, we would talk, listen to Fairooz, giggle while gazing into each others’ eyes, secretly hold hands under the table and share ourselves with each other. Like all good things, our time together was to come to an end. The night before I left the country, he gave me the straw I used, as well as the rest bag of mate we consumed together. I protested, but he lamented, “Who else will I drink it with?” As we kept in touch through video calls half a world away, he would prepare a glass of mate for himself, and then one for me to recreate the experience again and again. Since he was my only exposure to the drink, he was my sole memory I formed with it, and drank it far less often. I was alone in my childhood room the next time I sipped it through my straw and tiny glass, and tears would become a familiar companion. The beverage was more bitter than I remembered, and I would never see him again. After a year of being in love, waiting and hoping, countless emails and video calls later, outside pressures ripped us apart. He would eventually find someone else to drink mate with. I haven’t drank it since. Even though we did not get to spend the rest of our lives together as we had hoped, and even though it ended with tears, anger and hurt feelings all around, I have never regretted my time spent with him. He helped me learn how to be myself again, the self that my inner child would recognize once more, and how to see beauty in life in the midst of pain. I do still keep the mate and straw he gave me as a reminder of the happy times we shared together. They remind me that even in the aftermath of the painful breakup, that the end result did not taint the value of the overall experience. It reminds me to not let a potentially painful outcome prevent me from experiencing a possibly wonderful thing, and that is a lesson that I never want to forget.
Who wouldn’t grin at the sight of an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in Jerusalem wearing a snow blasted beard? Or at grown men having a snowball fight in Jordan? Who wouldn’t have their breath taken away at the sight of a frosted Istanbul? Or at blankets of snow in Jerusalem? Both heartwarming, and saddening (a kid in Jerusalem built a snow Hamas Rocket; the snow in Syria did not deter conflict in Damascus), The Atlantic Monthly’s Wintry Weather: Middle East Edition displays a the humanity of people in the region that not many exposed to Western Media get to see very often.