Tag Archives: bitterness

“Not Bad, Huh? For Some Immigrants?”

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” —

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

A girl with an unused-up face was working at the counter of Rite-Aid.  She seemed to be in training, still; wearing that horrid polyester polo shirt made in China.  It was too large on her, too loose; un-pretty, untucked — and without a name tag.

“You’re fine for today,” her manager must’ve told her in the morning, when he completed her “uniform check”.  “But after the training is over, you must remember to wear it, everyday.”

The fucking name tag!  That’s the rule.  There are always rules, in jobs like this.

I often squint at those tiny plaques that sadly dangle by their pins on chests of any customer service personnel.  I try to decipher them, figuring out the pronunciation; and I try to guess the origin.  Sometimes, the names are easy:  Maria, Sally, Mark, AJ.  The names longer than three syllables are always harder — but they make for a perfect conversation piece.  But in cases like that, the name bearer — the name tag wearer — is often sick of being asked about it.

There was this one time, though, a Nigerian man began to tell me his.  All I could hear were endless consonants and glottal stops.  He assumed I was an American. He was getting a kick out of it, making a scene.  Immediately, I felt ignorant and humiliated.  Because I thought I had at least some clue — more clue than most — about what it had to take for him to get here.

So often I stand at a counter — or behind a plastic window — and I desperately calculate the timing of thanking these people by their names; as if that would make the insignificant exchange of ours more meaningful.  No.  I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.

And I am sure they still go home in the evenings, complaining about their managers, who nag them about silly things like schedules, lunch breaks “by law” — and those fucking name tags.

“Why can’t he just leave me alone?!” they ask the rhetorical question of their equally exhausted spouses, at dinner, their words belonging to forsaken prayers.  They get drowned out by the hyped-up realities happening on the television screen.  And in the morning, they’ve gotta do the whole thing all over again.  And if they aren’t running late, they’ve gotta remember:  to grab the fucking name tag.

Still, I prefer to say these names out loud.  No, I don’t expect to please.  And I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.  I just want a little bit more humanity, in places like this.  In jobs like this.

There was already plenty of sadness in the fluorescent lights buzzing above the unused-up face of the girl working at the counter of Rite-Aid.

“Why must they be running these things right now?” I thought, noticing that despite the blazing sun outside, the rows of lights remained lit.  Lit and buzzing.

And yet underneath their cold rays whose pulse can send an epileptic into an episode, this girl appeared very pretty.  She had long spiral curls on each side of her brown face.  And because she wore not a hint of make-up, I quickly imagined her on some simple, yet still exotic shore, drinking milk out of a coconut cracked open with a machete.

I wondered if she was a student of some sort, at a community college, working this job “just until…”  Or if she was a daughter of an immigrant, meant to be grateful by that very definition — for the privilege of her minimum wage and health benefits.  And if she goes home, exhausted and confused:

What exactly is the meaning of this daily drudgery?  And when, exactly, does it end? 

And then, there was her face.  It was unused-up.  It had no traces of bitterness, no histories of lovers’ betrayal or disappointment.  Other humans hadn’t gotten to her yet.  And she smiled a little while holding a pack of cigarettes, immediately humiliated, waiting for her trainer to find the time to explain the exact procedure of selling those things.  She waited, while her customer — a strange, muttering woman — scoffed and squinted her eyes at the name tag of the manager standing nearby.  Watching.  Why must we get off — on other people’s humiliation?

It would take a few beats for the girl to settle down.  The scoffing customer would storm out, muttering about her own miseries.  The trainer would return to his routine, indifferently.  The manager could be traced by the jingle of his keys, as he walked away into his hideout, behind the swinging door.  (At least, he had a space of his own.)  But the girl would have to regroup, in front of us, and wait for the awkwardness of the moment to pass.

“I think she’s open,” an old man behind me was breathing down my neck.

Yet, I insisted on holding my spot until I was called over.  The girl with an unused-up face deserved her dignity.

And dignity — takes time. And space.

“I can help the next customer in line,” she said.  Her voice was light, resonant.  It better belonged in a choir of St. Patrick Cathedral.

I walked over:

“Hello, love.”

She wasn’t wearing a name tag, you see:  that fucking name tag I used to have to wear myself, at my very first jobs as an immigrant in America.  But I refused to treat her good, yet unused-up face as nameless.

So, she would be Love — the bearer of my motha’s name — at least for a few seconds that day, at Rite-Aid.  She deserved a name; and if not love — she deserved some dignity.

And dignity — takes compassion.

And space.

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.

“Inhale, Exhale… Hold Up, Wait a Minute!”

“All you have to do to be a miracle — is breathe.”  

Who said that?

Here is the thing with me this morning, my comrades; here is the thing:

Defeatists make me lose my hard-on, for life!

Because no matter my own chaotic, insane; perpetually hysterical or complicated; difficult or impossible to decipher mindset, I tend to march around this kinky town while daring to have a stubborn enthusiasm for some good livin’. 

“What?!” you might snap.  “You call yourself a Russian?!”

Well, here is the thing, here is the thing:  Yes, there is an inherited quality to my former nation’s character to be dark (and perhaps, to be simultaneously or accidentally poignant, thank goodness).  And yes, Motha Russia is a continent full of old souls nostalgic for their lost innocence.  And finally, yes:  No other nationality seems to beat us at our love for death.  Because in death, we no longer suffer, da?

But the other national quality of my former motha’land — is an ingrained desire for some stubborn livin’ (not necessarily good livin’ — but livin’ nonetheless).  Be it an incredible vastness or beauty of my Motha Russia; but the variety of its scenery makes our old souls want to howl at the moon, with desire.  Or is it love?  Or wanting to take in one more breath — because in it, there still may be some hope?  (One of my favorite thinkers o’er there once identified this quality as “godliness”.)  Da:  Motha Russia — is one gorgeous motha’fucker; and she makes you want to live.

“You are an artist:  You CANNOT be a defeatist!” 

Who said that?

On this 175th day of my rant blogging, my thoughts on the meaning of art appear to be better formulated.  (They better be, da?)  This year, I’ve had a slew of mouth-foaming arguments on the definition of art and who exactly identifies it as such; and what makes it last; and whether or not art makes any difference at all.

And here is the thing, there is the thing:  I believe that art — is in the eye of the beholder.  And yes, it does indeed have the power to change a mind, a mood, and maybe even, to change a heart.  But making a difference — cannot be an artists’ objective.  Or at least, it cannot be this artist’s objective.  Because I live — in the very doing of it.  It is the process of creation that turns me on.  Kinda like breathing.

Because in it, there still may be some hope, da?

Which must be why the mandatory discipline of it comes to me with such ease.  As for its sacrifices — they merely add inches to my writerly dick.  ‘Cause here is the thing, here is the thing:  I could take an easier route; perhaps, get myself one of those nine-to-five gigs, excel at it and settle for a more mundane survival.  Maybe, I could play it up a bit on weekends or live vicariously through my affairs with men.  And eventually, I could start raping other dreamers with my skepticism, hating them for reminding me of my own unhappening ambitions.  And I could wait for my death.  Because in death, we no longer suffer, da?

“And that is exactly where defeatism must dwell:  Wherever the soul surrenders its dreams.”

Who said that?

“Man, I hate this fucking town!” a comrade I hadn’t heard from for months was venting to me last night.

I got his spiel.  Really, I did.  I was’t even judging.  Because I too have faced some challenges in this city and allowed my inability or fear to expand beyond the difficulty of the moment; then, blame the entire city for it.  Because here is the thing, here is the thing:  LA-LA is one of the most common scapegoats for personal failures.  Here, the defeated equal the dreamers.  (But oh, how I have always wished for the defeated to move on; to return home or to leave for better suitable cities!  But for whatever geographical reasons, they stay, making this — the capital of defeat.  So:  Thank goodness for its dreamers. Because in them, there still may be some hope, da?)

Last night, I tried to work with the brother, trying to convince him out of his hatred:

“Yeah, but look at all these things you have accomplished!”  I strained my memories of our rare encounters for any recollections of his pursuits.  Sadly, there were none.  None that I could remember.  Yet, still, somehow, in this man’s occasional sweetness and simplicity — in his mere breathing — I saw some hope.

But he was on the roll by then:  “I mean:  There are no jobs here!  And the women are shit, and…”  He wasn’t even listening.

I studied his face and wondered what had brought him here in the first place, to this city shared by dreamers and the defeated alike.  Surely, there had to be a plan, a vision; or perhaps, a former love.  And what made him stay here, long enough to immerse into the pool of such bitterness and self-pity?

“So?  What are you up to?” he had exhausted himself with his monologue and politely remembered that I was still there.  He wasn’t a complete goner, I suppose.  Not yet.

But no way!  No way was I going to tell him of my dreams, still in the making; of my art — still in the happening.

Because here is the thing, here is the thing:  I believe that art — is a celebration of life.  It’s a celebration of livin’, not necessarily good livin’ but still:  Livin’!  Stubborn livin’ in pursuit of love, in pursuit of hope — all of which must live in the very next breath; in the very doing of it.  And it is this very pursuit that makes my livin’ — a good one.  And good livin’ — is a celebration of the miracle that is self.

Who said that?