Monday, January 24, 2011

Generation Gap Meets Cultural Divide

They live upstairs. I think they're Persian, but I haven't asked. They pile into their Ford Focus five times a day and head to the mosque up the hill, to return about 30 minutes later and complete the ritual by backing into their parking space. Under normal circumstance, the driving right falls to the youngest female, who appears to be in her late 20s. I refer to this custom as, "She with good reaction time and spacial relations shall grip the wheel."

Unfortunately--or fortunately, for her--she is forever 8.9 months pregnant and can barely fit in the front passenger seat without crushing her child to be. As her mother is of some sort of higher rank, and as her brother and husband are male and therefore must be served, grandma drives.

The security garage door opens with a groan. I'm out of my car and waiting for the elevator with bags of groceries, cat food, litter and a fidgeting dog, but when I see their vehicle round the corner I decide to hold the i-n-f-u-r-i-a-tingly slow device for them. Pregnant women and long waits don't mix.

Grandma guns it, slams on the breaks, guns it again and heads into their parking space at around 10 miles an hour and at a jaunty angle. The car that parks next to theirs is a late model, deep red, positively lickable Mercedes, gifted to a brother and sister from wealthy Indonesia by their wealthy-beyond-measure father. Tension fills the air. Grandma slams the breaks just in time, and all passengers lurch forward and back.

The passenger door opens and the daughter looks at the painted line between spaces, sees that it isn't where it should be, rolls her eyes, gestures toward her grandmother and says, "Go ahead. This is going to take a while."

In this moment, my universe shifts. The contents of that car becomes a story steeped in tradition, yet firmly seated in the modern world. Sarcasm: the great equalizer, transcending religious and political opposites. I've found a friend!

Their nomadic roots mean carrying family wealth on the highest ranked female (or so my slim research reveals). When I catch a glimpse of the middle mother, I see what appear to be rhinestones and sequins. My second glimpse tells me that her head and neck are draped in real gold and diamonds. Hundreds of diamonds. There must be two million dollars peeking out from her plain chador--the headscarf that allows a woman's face to show while still covering her neck, hair and shoulders.

She is regal, indeed. She sits up straight and strong and emotionless in the middle of the back seat. To her right is her son. I estimate his age at 20. He opens his door to proofread his sister's assessment that the car is nowhere near where it should be. He is disgusted, as is daughter's husband all the way on the left, and barks an order at his grandmother to try again.

The doors slam shut. I pick up my groceries and pull Sam into the elevator. I'm looking forward to my vertical pilgrimage through Russia (second floor), China (third floor) and Algeria (down the hall) before finally making it home.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Taking Stalk

My most persistent stalker worked the press at a small publishing house. I was a copywriter, proofreader and eventually low-end manager in a related department. Part of my job was to do press checks, which put me in daily contact with the guys who ran the massive, dangerous, noisy machine 24/7 if necessary.

After three years, the job had the best of me. Underpaid, exhausted, sick and angry, I quit in a fairly dramatic show of defiance. Anything that reminded me of that job made my stomach ache, even the arrival of my last paycheck. My doctor diagnosed an ulcer and put me on muscle relaxants and painkillers for two weeks--protocol back then. The combination didn't allow for much waking time.

Before quitting, I'd started receiving anonymous odds and ends in the mail. One package contained a mixed tape of songs by everyone from Bowie to a few local bands. Another was a post card of an image of the Space Needle, with "You Are Near Here" and an arrow drawn in red ink. The Needle, as we call it, was within walking distance. There were a couple of short letters, an envelope full of heart-shaped confetti and nothing contained a return address or signature. I was curious and vaguely flattered.

My two-week coma was interrupted by the ringing of the phone. It stopped. It rang again. Over and over and over. I'd asked my roommate to keep the ringer off, but in fairness she was missing tons of calls from her insecure boyfriend. Everything went to a physical answering machine back then but some callers, like roomy's boyfriend, weren't comfortable leaving messages.

When it rang again, I stumbled over and picked up the receiver, thinking it was going to be Jay, and wouldn't it be nice if he could leave a message with a live body while Tammy was in the shower? "Hello?"

"Hello, Wendina." The voice was thick with an accent, so it came out more as, "Hallo, Fendina." It sounded familiar, but it wasn't Jay. The drugs didn't allow me to add a face.

I listened, and waited for more clues, and finally it hit me. I'd spoken to him only once before, down by the noisy press, where we usually used hand signals to communicate. I'd asked him where his manager Mark was, a man I was dating at the time. It was a work-related request, in as much as it could be. The conversation took all of five seconds.

Part way into the call, he asked me out. I told him, "I'm still dating your boss here and there, so I really can't. When I'm feeling better I'm going to hit the town and celebrate quitting that job. Want to come along? I know some really fun people." He sounded disappointed, but agreed it might be nice to meet some potential friends.

When I hung up I saw the message light flashing frantically. That happened when there was no more room on the tiny cassette. My roommate appeared from the bathroom, swaddled in towels, to let me know I'd received dozens of calls from "Some foreign guy."

Tammy and I stood together while I listened to the first 10 minutes of the tape. It was him saying a friendly hello. Then him sounding worried. Then him pleading for me to answer.

As the tone of his voice morphed into anger, the phone rang again. Tammy and I stood together and listened as he left another message, about how he needs to see me right away. He said he would tell his boss about us so I wouldn't have to break up with Mark, myself. Awkward.

He hung up, and the phone rang again, and again it filtered through the machine. "Why won't you answer? I know you're there! You can't treat me like this!"

The next time he called I answered, and told him I'd tried to be nice but at that point I needed him to stop calling and mailing things. At first he tried to deny he was my mailbox stalker, but then admitted to it. He said, "No more. Gootbuy" and hung up, and I thought that would be the last of him.

He was from Hungary. He was short, slight and boyish. Because of these attributes, a close friend started calling him Little Hungarian Problem. My Little Hungarian Problem drove up and down my street. He called and hung up when I answered. I knew it was him, even in silence. When I found a new job he called me there, breathing, and I told him never to do that again.

Months went by, and then I noticed him following me home from work to my new apartment. I walked to and from, so to follow me he had to either slow to a walking pace or circle around. I ran up to someone's porch pretended to knock. I turned to see him drive away. When I arrived home the phone was ringing and it was him. He'd convinced the operator, via his accent, to give him my blocked number. "Hallo. Iss Fendina there?"

"No one here by that name," I replied, trying to keep my voice friendly and neutral.

"Hh'okay. Bye."

Six months later I was in a play, and he'd somehow found our rehearsal space and leaned against a doorway and stared at me. He delivered packages for a small courier company, so it was possible he'd found me by accident while doing his duty. Maybe. I acted as if I didn't know him, while carefully gesturing to my friends that there was a potential problem. Everyone started to stare back on my behalf. He grew self-conscious and my Little Hungarian Problem left the doorway.

I never saw him again physically, though I received a few postcards in his handwriting. And a few phone calls. They only stopped when I moved yet again and took on a fourth or fifth phone number. When I'd called the police, they told me that was my only recourse unless he became violent. Stalking behavior wasn't enough for protection or a restraining order, though the officer I spoke with was definitely concerned. I complied, paid another first and last month's rent and deposit and hauled my belongings across town, because I didn't know what else to do.

Stalkers are frightening. They are maddening. They are selfish and they are rude. But most of all, stalkers are a damned inconvenience.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Rolling with a Recidivist

"Yo, you got the time?"

"Who says 'yo' anymore?" I thought, but instead looked at my iPhone and said, "7:02." He stared at my phone, then my purse, then my face.

"Oh, yeah yeah game's still on, I hope. First Seahawks I seen since I out. This last time I sprung, anyways." He caught up and started walking alongside me. Sammy didn't miss a beat, and kept on sniffing the broken sidewalk like it was paved with dog treats.

To myself again, "Who says 'sprung' anymore?" And then I continued, to myself, but almost out loud, "You have my undivided attention..."

"You mean from prison?" I indelicately inquired.

"Yeah, I been in and out for eight years, going on. They put me in for hittin' a guy. I get out, I hit a guy. It's what I do."

Well, isn't this a treat? A gang escort, right through the heart of his own territory. He asked me if I lived in the area, and when I said I did his posture relaxed.

"Oh. Yeah. Well I be in fights with a CO. You know what that is? It's a corrections officer, and they muthafuckahs. They hit on you an' pick fights an' when you retaliate? After they let you out of the joint they find you the next day and they put you back in for hittin' on a cop. Fuckas set me up," he explained.

At this point I thought he might need a little encouragement, so I told him I knew how bad it could get because I'd met people who had done hard time when I was in rehab. "Rehab isn't fun, but it isn't prison," I added, and I looked to him for a response.

"Rehab suck, prison suck harder but, yo, rehab suck."

I told him I knew intake could be the worst part of jail or prison, with all the searches and being tossed in with yet another group who might not be so welcoming. Too bad he'd endured it so many times. He gently tapped my arm in a familiar gesture. I'd gained a little trust, for the time being.

"So I hit a guy again, but I ain't been caught this time. He ain't said nothin' because he know he deserve it. He know it was comin'. What time you say it was, again? Can't wait for that game!" A broad grin took over his face.

No doubt he was an enforcer for his dealer. He was the muscle. Though he looked a mess, with his prison acne and torn coat, he was fairly broad in stature. Not exactly the kind of person you'd want to pass in a dark alley, and his halting motions and rapid head movement made me think he was in mild withdrawals--a dangerous condition for both him and anyone near him.

We came to the main intersection, and here he turned to a white cohort and waved. Then he suddenly shifted his gait, and limped toward a fellow black. He waived me off with a nod. I said, "See ya."

He wouldn't be seen with me. Me. A white, soccer mom-looking woman with what appeared to be some sort of designer dog in a little ski jacket. I suppose that could taint his credibility a bit.