Friday, February 29, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
I really like take-out Chinese food. And I really like that the Chinese food places in this part of town also sell fried chicken and sub sandwiches and shrimp and cigarretes and rolling papers. I really like that the place by my house is completely enclosed in bullet proof glass. And I like that the walls have graffiti that say, '17th Street Compton' all over them.
I really like the conversations that I overhear while waiting for my food.
"Gimme one of them blue cooler drinks. No the other one. No, the OTHER one. Hmm, this bitch don't know English."
"I told you I wanted a burger with MAYONNAISE and LETTUCE. Do you see any mayonnaise or lettuce on here? Cause I sure don't. And where is my pickles? I come in here every single day and order the exact same thing. And you know what? I NEVER GET ANY GODDAMN PICKLES. Don't they got pickles in China?!"
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
At lunch when everyone gets together to talk and eat, I hide in my cubical and read a book. And I think the worst part is, nothing that I overhear from my cubicle makes me want to join the conversation.
“Wow, where did you get your scarf?”
“My aunt bought it for me in Detroit. She knows I love ducks, that's why she got me this one.”
“How was your weekend?”
“It was so good. My boyfriend and I are painting our condo.”
“That sounds so fun. I wish I had a boyfriend. And a condo.”
“God, I can't wait for my tax refund. I'm going to pay off some of my credit cards.”
“Not me, I'm going to buy more shoes.”
“Ahaha. You are so bad. You're like one of those Sex and the City girls. You know, because they always talk about shoes and clothes.”
“Ahahahah. You are so bad.”
Maybe I'm not really anti-social. Maybe I'm just snobby.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The other day the Governor called my office. He was all kinds of pissed off, shouting about how hot his office was without air con. After three months of warnings and threats, I finally turned off the power to his office. What did he expect? Just because he’s the governor he thinks he’s god and doesn’t have to pay his power bill? So I asked him, “Do you think you’re god? Because this might surprise you, you’re not god.” Oh, that pissed him off even more. He said he was going to fire me. He said he was going to have me kicked off this island. He said he was going to make my life a living hell. I just laughed and reminded him that I don’t work for him or his corrupt administration. After a few very impolite words about my deceased mother, he hung up while threatening to sue me. Sue me? All I did was shut off the power to a customer that wasn’t paying his bills. Was I happy to do it? Sure. But I would have done the same thing to anyone else who hadn’t paid their bills.
After that, I felt like I really deserved a cigarette. I used to be able to smoke in my office, but after that auditor bitch complained to the regional board about second hand smoke I’ve had to go outside. Ridiculous isn’t it? I’m the manager of the entire island’s power supply and I can’t even smoke in my own office. Just cause some stuck up white lady from Hawaii thought it might be bothering the rest of the office. I’ve never heard anyone complain about it. But that old bitch insisted. She even made me attend that stupid three-day work place safety seminar. What a waste of time. At least I got a free trip to Fiji out of it, but now I have to go stand outside in the heat to smoke.
Anyway, I went outside to have a smoke and celebrate another customer complaint. I was only half way out the door when Rin got right into my face and asked me for a cigarette. I was so startled that it took a moment for me to see the blood on his arm and shirt. Normally, I would have just told him to get out of my way and stop bothering me, but it’s sort of hard to turn down a request from a man holding a blood covered machete.
But here’s the weirdest part. Aside from his blood speckled clothes, Rin seemed perfectly normal. Even when the police came running over and tackled him to the ground, he just continued to smoke his cigarette. He didn’t struggle; he didn’t fight or even protest. I remember watching the police put Rin’s machete into the back of their pick-up and then herding him off towards the jail. Only then did he try and resist the officers. He pushed one of the guys back and came walking straight towards me. By now, everyone from the office had come out to see what was going on. But Rin didn’t even notice them. He walked right up to me and before the police grabbed him he calmly spoke directly into my ear. “Fred, thank you for the cigarette.”
An ancient drip from the ceiling has slowly stained a large section of the upper wall. Each time it rains, the moldy grey streaks work their way further down to the tiled floor. In a haphazard attempt to conceal the stain, a wall calendar from 2003 has been hung. Apparently June 2003 was the month of the blue Pontiac. Someone had a meeting, double underlined, on Wednesday morning at ten. I hope they remembered.
A stainless steel fuse box is unceremoniously bolted in one corner. An explosion of brightly colored wire erupts from the top of the box and spreads throughout the building. Orange and green and red plastic coated wires mix with unsheathed copper, silver and dull grey. Some wires disappear into the walls and ceilings, only to reappear again several feet away. Others have been added later and are simply stapled to the ceiling in an attempt to keep them from falling into our faces. When the rain is especially heavy, drips of water run along the exposed wires. The drips race each other across the room, each one hoping to be the first to land on my desk. I have become an expert at anticipating the best placement of sensitive electronics in a storm. I’m not sure where this skill should be placed on my resume.
The broken fax machine sits next to the broken printer. They are both placed on a tilted broken desk next to a metal filing cabinet so rusted that none of the drawers can be opened.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
“Good, because it has a few important things that I really need.”
I led Neil into my office and gave him a pair of scissors to open the box. He cut through the tape and pulled out the bunched up newspapers that acted as packing. Finally, he pulled out the important thing that he needed for his year in Afghanistan; a pair of blue, leather cowboy boots.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
“Oh Afghanistan, that should be interesting. Of course, the closest I ever got to there was Karachi.”
What were you doing in Karachi?
“I was stationed there for WWII.”
Really? I didn't think that there were many US troops in India in WWII. What were you doing in Karachi?
“Oh, we were definitely there. I was in Karachi for two years. We were digging up the tea plantations to make runways for the air force. That was so that we could fly supply planes to China to support Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese.”
Wow, I had no idea. That's really interesting.
Henry winked at me through his plastic lenses, “That's where I learned to drink Siam Tea.”
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
I had spent the past several hours learning more about the ‘projectile defeating capabilities’ of various types of body armor than I ever thought I would know. Having grown up with a fairly steady diet of GI Joe cartoons meant that these kinds of things fascinated me, but at some point the technical differences between 7.92 x 57 mm mild steel core ammunition vs. 7.62 x 39mm armor piercing incendiary type 56 where lost on me. I was just trying to purchase some body armor for one of our advisors in Afghanistan and it was becoming exceedingly complicated. Maybe this is why they call it procurement instead of what I used to call this process, ‘buyin’ stuff.’
Part of the complication was that our advisor in Afghanistan needed custom fitted gear. Most body armor is designed for soldiers and police officers; people who tend to be pretty big. Our man in Afghanistan was not so big. In fact, when he was younger he was a professional jockey. Only after breaking his neck in a horse race did he decide to go to veterinary school and eventually come to work for us.
I tried to relay this point to the body armor salesman after I was taken off of musical hold.
Yeah, I need to order some small body armor.
“Small? I’m gonna have to look into that. We almost never even make size medium. Hmm (shuffling paper sounds,) I guess we do have size small on the order form. Is this armor for a lady, ‘cause we have to charge extra for women’s’ armor. On account of their having breasts and all.”
Uh no, this is an order for a man. He just happens to be a smaller guy.
“Heck, if he’s that small he probably doesn’t even need a vest. I bet the bullets will just go right around him. Hehehe.”
Right, well can I just place an order?
Monday, February 11, 2008
Either way, I scared the clientele of the not-so-Safeway this weekend when I broke out into laughter in front of the margarine case. It just seemed so funny to me that there could exist a dozen different kinds of artificial butter substitutes. How could I even explain to my family on Kosrae what non-dairy butter-flavored spread with calcium was?
I could tell that laughing at plastic tubs of fake butter spread was making the other folks in the store uncomfortable, so I grabbed the closest yellow container and threw it in my cart.
By the time Ms. Nita was scanning my food in the check-out line, I was back to being just another anonymous shopper.
Charlie was the barber for the Senate for thirty years. In 2000 he was asked by Justice Scalia to be the barber for the Supreme Court. He was there until 2004 when he retired from government haircutting and opened his own shop.
Haircuts by Charlie is a simple neighborhood shop with straightback chairs and a pile of Newseeks on the table for waiting costumers. Charlie still sees many of his clients from the Senate as well as the Supreme Court. And he still treats his clients just like he did when he worked for the government.
“Everyone thinks they're more important than the next guy. People always come in and try to cut in line, saying something like, 'But I'm on senator so-and-so's staff.' Like that impresses me! Everyone is on some senator's staff. That's why they work in the Senate!
“Now of course I make exceptions for the Senators and Judges. When they come in they get priority, but for everyone else, you have to wait your turn.”
I got a chance to see Charlie's policy in action. The phone rang while he was cutting my hair. It was a lobbyist who wanted to be seen immediately.
“Well, then you need to make an appointment. I already have an important client in my chair right now. No! I will not bump him out. This man has places to go today and he is already in my chair. You can make an appointment just like everybody else.”
Charlie hung up the phone with a snort. “These jive-turkey lobbyists think they can do whatever they want. I'm the proprietor of this shop. I make the decisions.”
I told Charlie that agreed with him, and I made sure to get his card when I left. I wanted to make sure that I made an appointment the next time I came in.
Friday, February 8, 2008
But all I could think of the whole time was this: A Pakistani noir detective movie set on the hardboiled streets of Islamabad. Our hero is a private eye investigating a string of mysterious murders that might be linked to Taliban opium smugglers. At one point he brutally kills a thug sent to murder him in his own office. This upsets the sensibilities of the beautiful woman caught up in a world of crime and violence she knew nothing about.
"Oh Shadaz! Did you really have to kill him?"
While taking a deep drag on his cigarette and adjusting his cuff link, "Hey doll, this town ain't called Islama-good."
Thursday, February 7, 2008
As we passed by his family’s land he looked out the window towards the steep green mountainside and sighed. “My father was known throughout this whole island for being a fisherman. Five and sometimes six days a week you could see him walking back from the harbor; a long string of brightly colored reef fish hanging over his shoulder. Each fish would shimmer in the reflected sunlight, red and yellow and even bright blue.
“In the spring he would come home with turtles; they would still be alive but too tired to continue to struggle. Saltwater tears would slowly drip from their eyes. And on rare occasions he would bring home a shark. Nothing huge like you see in the movies, just three or four foot long white-tip reef sharks. They’re really good in a spicy soup or smoked on the fire.
“But my father was more than just a fisherman. He also knew how to hunt wild pigs. Most people nowadays hunt for pigs with at least five dogs and rifle. But not my father. He would hike back into the mountains with just his machete. When he returned hours later, it was always with freshly killed meat.
“When I got older my father would take me out fishing in his canoe. He taught me how to fish with line, and how to fish with a spear. He taught me how to wait for the turtles to swim close by, and then steer them towards the surface with their own powerful legs. He taught me all of these things, but he would never teach me to hunt wild pigs. ‘It’s much too dangerous,’ he would say. ‘This is not a game for little boys,’ he would chide me every time I asked.
“Of course, his refusal and constant reminders of the danger of the jungle only made me want to join him so much more. Each time my father would walk off into the jungle, I would beg him to let me join him. And each time he would refuse and leave me to sulk at the house until he returned late in the day as the sun fell behind the mountain.
“And so, out of my burning curiosity, I conceived a plan. The next time he went to hunt, I would follow my father and learn the secrets to killing wild pigs. I, his oldest son, his boy who had never once disobeyed him, would finally learn how to be a man and bring home meat for our family.
“Everyday for the next week I was my father’s surreptitious shadow. When he walked down to the harbor to fish, I followed 30 yards behind. Stepping only in the shadows of banana leaves or behind the cover of creeper vines, I followed his every step. When he collected coconuts near our house, I hovered just on the edge of his vision.
“I practiced following him a few hundred yards into the jungle when he went to hunt, but quickly lost him to the increasingly dense underbrush. Even in his late forties, my father walked barefoot so quickly over the loose rocks and dirt that I was soon out of breath and nearly lost. I slowly made my way back to the house, my only consolation that no one was there to see me return from my journey so obviously dejected.
“But at last, the time was right. I still don't know if my father slowed down that day because he new about my attempts to follow him or if I had finally become strong enough to keep up. In any case, I managed to stay within sight of his trek through the jungle. Farther and farther my father climbed into the mountainside. And as he climbed higher into the dense wet jungle, I was there to learn how a man killed a wild pig.
“Almost two thirds of the way to the peak of Mount Finkol my father stopped in a small muddy clearing. He quickly grabbed a handful of small green leaves from a nearby tree. Then he crouched low, holding his machete behind his back and stared across the hill toward a grove of slender reddish trees. I strained my eyes to see what my father saw, but all that was there were more trees and more leaves and more mud.
“My father stayed perfectly still. And it was then that I heard it. A guttural grunting noise followed by the sound of crashing in the underbrush. Suddenly from the grove of trees came a black, bristled pig with two sharp tusks charging straight for my father. I wanted to shout, but no voice came from my throat. I wanted to run, but my legs were weak. I stayed on that mountainside and watched not from bravery, but because I was too scared to do anything else.
“The pig covered the ground toward my father and was almost upon him in seconds. At the last moment my father was a blur of motion. With his left hand he threw the pile of leaves into the charging pig's face. While stepping slightly to the side, he brought his machete around from his back and thrust it deftly under the pig's arm and through its ribs. He let go of his machete and allowed the pig's momentum to carry forward. I watched as the pig collapsed in the mud, exhausted and heaving, the sound of air rushing from its punctured lungs with each labored breath.
“My father sat quietly and rested while the pig's breathing slowed and finally came to a rasping stop.
“He was right. This was no game for little boys.”
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
I was not invited.
But I did receive a slightly menacing email that informed me of the heightened security measures that I would be facing. Aside from the usual ID badges that must be worn at all times, I was not allowed to go near the auditorium or the hallway that the auditorium is on. I was not permitted to be on the street near the auditorium. I was not permitted to send or receive packages near the auditorium. And finally, if I had a window that faced the courtyard near the auditorium, I was to close my window shade and stay back from the window. This security policy was in effect from 6am to 12:30pm.
By sitting at my desk and working, I was able to follow all of the security protocol without incident. Presumably the President gave a rousing speech and then swore in the new Secretary. I'm hoping that high fives were exchanged, or at least some sort of akwardly long hug.
At 12:30 exactly my computer screen blanked out and a department wide notice was posted. "The earlier security protocol is over. Please resume your normal work day."
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Luo ashed his cigarette through a crack in the bamboo floor and handed me another cup of rice whiskey. I was tired and wet and cold, and on my way to being drunk too. We had spent the day walking through endless rice paddies in the alternating mist and heavy rain. I didn't even bother with a raincoat anymore; everything I owned was soaked after three days of walking. I guess this is why they call it the rainy season.
We came across a small village perched on a terraced hillside overlooking a cloudy valley. Anemic children, their bones protruding from beneath thin t-shirts, stood in flooded fields alongside their parents. Whole families busily planting rice for the springtime.
Luo had a cousin who would let us stay with them for the night. We wound our way up the hill to a bamboo house on high stilts. Beneath the house were three tethered pigs and a motor-scooter. Roosters wandered about freely and a lone water buffalo mucked around near what turned out to be a pit toilet.
We took off our shoes, rinsed our feet and climbed up the uneven stairs to the house. In one corner of the room three malnourished dogs huddled together in a tight ball. I chose a different corner and dropped my backpack. Luo went through a thin bamboo divider into the other room to greet our host and offer a pack of cigarettes. He was gone for a while so I tried to find a comfortable spot on the floor.
It must have been a few hours later when I awoke in the dark to the smell of wood smoke and steamed rice. Two of the three dogs had relocated and were asleep next to my face. I pushed the closest one away and slowly sat up. Luo's cousin, Mei, was laughing at me; he had never seen a white person so filthy or who could sleep so easily without a mattress or a pillow. Luo was reassured when I turned down his offer of a cigarette. "If you were able to sleep on the floor with dogs AND smoke cigarettes, I would have thought that you were Lao." I smiled and Luo directed me downstairs to where I could take a cold bucket shower next to the pigs.
With a clean set of damp clothes on, I walked back upstairs and settled down in my corner with the dogs. Mei's wife had finished steaming the rice and had made me a plate of vegetables. We all ate quickly and in silence, the preferred method of hungry people the world over.
Mei's wife cleared our plates and I went back to my corner to sleep with the dogs. Luo and Mei pulled a cloth off of what I thought was a box but was really a new tv with a dvd player. I was too tired to even contemplate how poor rice farmers could afford such an extravagance. I dozed off to the sounds of Kill Bill Vol.1 and occasional whimpers from the dogs.
Luo woke me up an hour or so later. A friend of Mei's was over and the guys were all drinking whiskey. I shuffled over and joined them for a drink. The rice whiskey had been distilled in the village a few weeks ago. Twenty years ago we would have been smoking opium, but the Lao government has done a pretty good job of forcefully replacing one habit with another. Mei's friend had found and boiled a bunch of freshwater snails for us to snack on with our drinks.
And so the evening passed slowly, cigarette smoke mingling with the smoke from the cook fire. The whiskey helped me feel warm for the first time in days and the dogs slept in the corner, patiently waiting for my return to bed.
On the walk to work this morning I looked up to see a full rainbow stretching over the housing project down the street from my metro stop.
It made me laugh to think about how different my life is from just a few months ago. I've gone from rainbows over green, jungled mountains to rainbows over government subsidized housing.
I was upset because they didn't have the 5 grain honey wheat bread in stock at the store, I had to settle for one of the other six dozen varieties available. Last year at this time Kosrae was completely out of flour and there were no baked goods at all. It's amazing how quickly we become spoiled again.
It's a good thing that the apartment that I'm in has two TVs. Otherwise there might have been a conflict Sunday night. I wanted to watch a film about east Germany in the eighties, while Skye really wanted to watch Masterpiece Theater. It would have been tough to choose. I mean, my movie did have subtitles but as Skye pointed out, this week's Masterpiece Theater was part of the series of Jane Austen books. Fortunately we didn't have to make any sacrifices.
But I'll admit that it was hard to hear some of the soundtrack to my film over the sound of our neighbors' shouting and cheering. I guess there was some sort of football tournament or something on Sunday night.
Monday, February 4, 2008
When I tell people at work where I live, I always get the same reaction. Their eyes get big and then they say something like, "Oh, well that neighborhood is really starting to get better. It used to be even worse." Amber asked if I lived near the 'not-so-Safeway.' Of course I do. In fact, that's where I made my very first friend in DC, Ms. Nita.
Ms. Nita has nails so long that she can barely press the buttons on the register at Safeway. They curl over at the ends so that she has to angle her wrist back to hit the keys. Her nails slow her down and her line is the longest in the store, but everyone who knows wants to have Ms. Nita as their check-out clerk.
I place my Safeway ClubCard on the scanner. "Oh honey, Ms. Nita doesn't like that. That almost dropped on the floor. And then what? Ms. Nita would have to pick it up, that's what."
I'm sorry Ms. Nita. I won't do that again.
"That's okay sweetie. How are you today? I'm fine, I love this cold weather. I'm a real cold weather person. I tell everyone, but they don't believe me. I leave my windows open all winter. But look at you. I bet you're cold today. Where's your hat? A young person like you outside without a hat? What would your mother say?"
Sunday, February 3, 2008
I'm not going to say that the National Post Office Museum was the lamest museum I've ever been to (that award goes to the miniature Israel model that we once spent half a day at,) but it really let me down. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but let's just say it was not a philatelist's dream come true.
Apparently the Museum of History used to have a post office section, but the collection was simply too large. So the Smithsonian found a new place to contain all of the important historical and cultural artifacts. And important they are. I read about the history of the mail truck and the mail train. I saw a collection of different mail-drop boxes from around the world. I watched a mother lecture her 12 year old daughter about the rarity of irregular stamp perforation patterns while her daughter typed on her SideKick.
“Do you see here Becky? At this point they actually had to use a hand rolling perforator, that's how you can tell these are special. Do you see how the line wavers a bit over here?”
“Yeah mom, that's great. Carly and Autumn are going to a movie tonight. I'm going with them.”
“Well, we'll see about that. Oh, look over here. It's the upside down 'Jenny!'”
It was obvious that the museum designers were really trying to stretch for anything interesting. There was an entire wing of the museum devoted to the Postal Inspectors. These are the police of the postal system, Kojak types who inspect things like mail fraud and identity theft. They had the actual handcuffs that the Unabomber was arrested with. There was a replica of one of the HazMat suits that inspectors had to wear during the big anthrax scare. There was even a great shot of postal inspectors boarding a helicopter. On the back of their blue windbreakers in big yellow letters it said; Police: Postal Inspector. I'm not quite sure who this would intimidate, but I bet it has something to do with the Trystero System.
“Well, I spent about 15 years working in the middle east. I needed a break after that.”
Oh, what were you doing over there?”
“Well, back then we called it logistics. But I was in The Kingdom for a long time helping set-up some of the first computer systems. And I got to put the first computer system in Iraq that later used in the Iran-Iraq war. Ha ha.”
“And let me give you some advice. If you are ever in that part of the world, make sure you know someone who can get you out of trouble.”
You mean like a fixer?
“A fixer, exactly. You need someone local who can help you out when things go bad, because when things go bad in the Middle East they go really bad. Trust me, after you’ve seen your first beheading you’ll realize how important this is. I had friends who were in the Iran hostage crisis. I had friends who were ‘guests’ of Saddam for several months. I’ve been arrested three times in my life, all of them in Saudi Arabia. And if it weren’t for my fixer, I might have stayed there for a long time.”
Ok, well that sounds like good advice.
Later in the conversation…
“Oh I love Thailand. I almost moved there permanently.”
Yeah I really liked it too. I actually thought that Laos was even more beautiful.
“Hah, last time I was in Laos they were shooting at me. I haven’t been back.”
Um, I didn’t think we had any troops in Laos.
“Oh I wasn’t soldier.”
I walked up to the counter to pay for my books. I had a book about the Russian conquest of Germany during WWII, a book about the CIA’s involvement in modern Afghanistan, a book about the history of cadavers, and a snowboard magazine. I put them on the counter and smiled at the clerk.
‘These are for my girlfriend.’
The lady didn’t even smile back at me.
My grandparents from Florida are here for the Thanksgiving week. My grandmother, Frances is 85 and has perfectly blow-dried and coiffed white hair. She is afraid to go down escalators and has to be re-directed to elevators. “Going up is fine, but I won’t go near those death traps just to get to a lower floor.”
Her German aristocratic roots show when she immediately begins to criticize whatever she deems as inferior. To my father, “It’s great to see you, your hair is really thinning.” To my mother, “My daughter actually knows how to cook?” To my sister, “Are you sure you really want to have some dessert?” But I’m the oldest and first-born male grandchild and can do no wrong. All she wants to talk about is my Peace Corps work or how skinny I am.
Grandpa Jack is 86 and still actively involved in politics. He mailed me a picture from the Tampa Tribune. He was on the cover, holding a pro-choice sign on the street near an abortion protest. He is on the internet everyday checking the national and local poll numbers. He tutors elementary school kids who need reading help. He moderates a current events discussion group. He has the same sense of humor as me and it makes me cringe to see what I must sound like to my friends.
While at a jewelry store, my mom and grandma are looking at watches. Jack immediately walks over to the cute sales girl reading a magazine. He points to the 6-foot tall iron safe standing behind the counter. “Excuse me, do you keep your roast beef sandwiches in there, or is it pastrami?” The counter girl looks over to me to check if this man is demented. I shrug my shoulders and pretend that I don’t know him at all. She looks back at Jack, “Roast beef?” Grandpa smiles over at me, “Did you hear that Adam, they must keep their pastrami in the back room.”