Tag Archives: “Otis”

“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.

“Proof! I Guess I Got My Swagger Back: TRUTH.”

“Hey, Ra-Ra!” — one of my brothers leaves me the same voicemail, for the nth time.  “Don’t you think it’s kinda ironic that after six years, your outgoing message hasn’t changed?”

My brothers call me Ra-Ra.  They’re both Latin:  For them, rolling their “r’s” — is half the fun.

“Rrra-Rrra!” the younger one always winds up his tongue; and he gleams while shaking the long hair out of his squinting dark eyes.  “RRA-RRA – BABY!”

I chuckle:  How I adore those hearts!  

This morning, I listen to the message, and I slide open the windows.  It’s been feeling like autumn, lately.  But how exactly — I just can’t pinpoint yet.

Perhaps, there is a vague aroma of dying leaves, much more aggressive on the other coast, where my older brother now dwells.  He is making things happen over there, moving at twice the speed than we do, in this paralyzed city.  And his energy — his hunger, his passion, his perpetual up-for-it-ness — is contagious, even if only captured on my voicemail, this morning.

All throughout the year, he is in the habit of wearing long, tattered scarves, a couple at a time.  A few — seem to be made out of his own canvases.  Others are thicker:  I imagine they’ve been crocheted by the hands of lovely girls who tend to adore him, with their open, yet calmer hearts.  And when I meet him, in the middle of autumn, on the other coast, I study the flushed tip of his nose peaking out of the bundle of those endless scarves — which he is in the habit of wearing, all throughout the year, a couple at a time.

“Ra-Ra!” he’d say, while untangling himself.

And I would chuckle:  How I adore that heart!   

 

It’s not going to rain here, not for another month.  So, my own scarves, long and tattered, can remain stored for just a bit longer.

Still, I can already smell the oncoming change.  It sits at the bottom of a clouded layer that now takes longer to burn off in the mornings.  At night, I’ve started using thicker blankets.  And when I leave my day job, these days, the sun is already on its way out.  I walk home, alone in this paralyzed city, and I bundle up in my oversized sweaters whose sleeves remind me of the long arms of my brothers.  I bury my face in the generous, knit, tattered collars, and I chuckle.

My brothers:  They stand over a foot taller than me.  My baby-talls!  My two gorgeous, loyal creatures from two foreign lands with convoluted histories of political detours, similar to my own Motha’land’s.  We each belong to the people prone to chaos, to revolutions and idealism.  So, our comfort level — is flexible.

Moving — or moving on — comes easier for us.  Neither one has settled yet (and we won’t settle for less than the entire world!); and we tend to keep our luggages readily available at the front of our closets.

My younger brother tends to get easily distracted.  On every adventure, every journey, he loses himself completely, disappearing for months at a time, on the other coast.  But every time he resurfaces, his energy, his passion — his perpetual up-for-it-ness — is absolutely contagious.

He takes weeks to return my messages.  And when he does:

“RRA-RRA – BABY!” he winds up his tongue, and I can hear his gleaming while shaking the long hair out of his squinting dark eyes.

And I chuckle, instantaneously forgiving him for disappearing on the other coast: How I adore that heart!

This morning, I slide open the windows:  It’s been feeling like autumn, lately.  I pull the luggage out of the front of my closet and I begin packing.

“How ’bout an adventure?” I think.  “Why not?”

And immediately, I am flooded with a certain feeling of lightness and peace.  But what it is exactly — I just can’t pinpoint yet. Where I am going — I do not know.  It’s always been easy to move.  But lately, it’s become easier — to move on.

Fuck it, I think, and I go digging out my long, tattered scarves.  A couple of them seem to be made out of my brother’s canvases.  I don’t remember where I got them though; and I rarely wear them.  So, I pack those away again.  The others, thicker and multicolored, crocheted by lovely girls with open, calmer hearts — those I start trying on, as if with their length, I can measure the mileage to my beloved hearts.  One at a time, I wrap them around my neck, bury my face and I chuckle:  In my life, I have adored so many hearts!  And so many hearts — adore me.

It’s not going to rain here, not for another month.  So, maybe, today, I’ll just drive up north:  Somewhere else to tangle myself up — up to my flushed nose — and to think of my brothers; to think of all the other hearts, dwelling on the other coast.

In less than an hour, my luggage is packed.  I’m ready to go; and immediately, I am flooded with a certain feeling of lightness and peace. Is it gratitude?  My adoration for other hearts?

I listen to my brother’s message again:

“Hey, Ra-Ra!” (he left it, months ago, for the nth time.)  “Don’t you think it’s kinda ironic that after six years, your outgoing message hasn’t changed?”

Because for the last six years, I’ve lived vicariously through my brothers’ energies:  their adventures, passions — their perpetual up-for-it-ness — on the other coast.  My own travels, however, have been carefully planned.

I reach for my phone and prerecord another message.  I think I may use it, in my seventh year:

“Hey.  It’s V.  I’ll tell you something new.”

I zip up my luggage.  Leave a voicemail for my brothers:

“How I adore your hearts!”

And I get a move on.