Archive for the ‘Discovering a different America’ Category
“Beware of judging [people] by their outward appearance.” Jean de La Fontaine
When I worked in the phone room, I often misjudged people, assuming they were something they were not. I found out that many were very different from what I thought them to be at first, and vice-versa, others wondered what someone like me was doing there. Below is an excerpt from “Don’t Hang Up!”
“You Never Know Who You Will Meet in the Phone Room”
“Don’t you people have anything better to do on the Sabbath?” the man on the other end of the phone asks. “Today is the Lord’s Day. To be kept holy. Not for material gains.”
He hangs up before I can give him an answer as to what “material gains” represent to people in low-paid jobs. Things like a week’s groceries.
Why should I give a damn? I’ve had a good day. Not like the young man next to me who is struggling to get surveys. Perhaps it’s the slow, hesitant way he reads the opening statement. From his appearance, he doesn’t seem to be “one of us” phone room people. More like an executive doing a weekend stint here. Too well groomed. Trimmed dark hair and beard, suede jacket. Mid-thirties. Attractive.
It sounds like he got a survey until, throwing up his arms, he stands and shouts, “That f… computer just cut me off.”
Hope he’s not freaking out. I’ve seen interviewers break down over surveys gone wrong – bursting into tears, shrieking, or wrecking a phone. Crazies smash computers and one assaulted a supervisor.
“Don’t worry, that happens to everyone.” I try to keep my voice calm.
Anger recedes from his face. He nods and sits again. “What did I do wrong? I was half way through the survey and it went blank.”
“Sometimes it cuts you off for no apparent reason,” I tell him. “Ask the supervisor.”
He returns with a dispirited expression. “She gave me some half-assed excuse about how this happens when a quota’s full. Let me see if I got it right. First, to qualify, the respondent has to be between forty-five and sixty. Second, he/she ate dinner – no lunch or takeout – at this Chinese restaurant chain at least once in the last three months. Third, only week nights, but not Fridays. Come on. Talk about looking for the proverbial needle.”
In the next two hours, I dial over a hundred times, twenty people answer, four agree to do the survey, and only one qualifies.
Would it really affect results if a respondent went to that restaurant on a Friday? Or had lunch instead of dinner? Or is sixty-one instead of sixty?
By this point, I’m sure many interviewers, desperate to get surveys, are twisting answers. It’s tempting.
Every so often I glance at my neighbor to see how he’s doing. Only two surveys vs. my ten. The supervisor is sure to send him home yet, when she checks, all she says is, “Pick up the pace.”
Another sign he’s special? Lucky man. It’s not as if his livelihood depended on this. Tomorrow, he’ll be back upstairs thanking God he doesn’t have to work down here for a living.
Great. I get another survey.
I feel his eyes on me. Probably feeling exactly what I felt not so long ago. “You really know how to get them,” he says.
Why should it matter if he’s an executive posing as an interviewer? I say, “Let me give you a tip,” and tell him what I learned from Lucky León, our Star Performer, how to tweak the opening statement. “And put a smile in your voice.”
“Hey, thanks, I really owe you.”
Talk about coincidence. On his very next call, he gets a survey.
But with the quota filling, every interviewer is struggling with the almost impossible task of finding someone who fits the profile – and agrees to do a survey. My neighbor is literally begging people, a tactic that rarely works.
I hear him slam down the receiver. “Why can’t those high-and-mighty bible thumpers understand that people like us need to work on Sundays?”
“People like us?”
“Working poor, who else?” He gestures at other interviewers.
“Is that what you consider us to be?”
“What they pay here is just one step above poverty level.”
“How would you know?”
“My paycheck, for one. I’m almost embarrassed to cash it.”
“So you are working here?”
“As far as I can tell, though who knows about tomorrow?”
“Why this job?”
“Because it’s all I could find, and it’s work, and a lot better than being homeless.”
“Yes, homeless – as in people who live on the street. I’m sure you’ve seen them around, kind of a blot on the landscape of America’s finest city.” Sarcasm shades his voice. “Last month, I was one of them. Not that a lady like you would know anything about that lifestyle.”
“I can’t imagine you sleeping in a doorway next to filthy drunks and bag ladies.”
“I couldn’t imagine it either”
“Why the streets? Why not a shelter?”
“Ever tried to get into one of those places? Let me tell you, I did and on cold nights they’re stuffed to overflowing. I was afraid to sleep – they steal your shoes right off your feet – and there’re guys crying out from booze or drug withdrawal, or honking away because their noses are clogged up with shit. You get used to the smell but it sticks to your clothes even after you go outside. So I found a couple of homeless, interesting guys – one plays chess in the park and the other reads anything he can lay his fingers on – and hung out with them a few days.”
I shiver. Being homeless seems only a couple of steps from the phone room. “Dressed like you are today?”
“Course not. Hocked my watch, left my bag in the Greyhound terminal, except for an old army jacket and sleeping bag. You’d never tell the difference between me and the real thing, though people don’t look at the homeless – not if they can help it. Finally, I got hold of some cash and rented a room in a downtown hotel. Not the swankiest in town, but it’s heaven after that.”
As the day wears on, the room becomes silent. Surveys have tapered off. It’s hard to be cooped up in here while the California sunlight beams through the front windows. Three hours before our scheduled leaving time, the supervisor tells us, “Everyone, clock out for the day.”
I step into the bright, semi-deserted downtown. After the refrigerated phone room, the March sun on our side of the street is warm and welcoming.
“Isn’t this great?” My neighbor smiles as if we were old friends. “Days like this, who cares about leaving early?”
“$24 less on my paycheck.”
“Didn’t think of that.” He shrugs. “Hey, wanna go for coffee?”
“This your regular work?” he asks. “You don’t sound like you belong in a phone room. More like you should be upstairs with the executives. Sure you’re not just posing as an interviewer?”
“Funny, I thought the same about you,” I say and we both laugh at how misleading appearances can be.
“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” Wayne Dyer
“Your friend is your needs answered.” Kahlil Gibran
There are no words to fully express how much I will miss you, but I will try.
• I’ll miss your welcome, the fact that your arms were always open to me.
• I’ll miss the fun and enjoyment I found with you.
• I’ll miss the comfortable shoulder to lean on for advice, help with difficult projects, information, and the knowledge from your 40 years of experience.
• I’ll miss your way with words.
• I’ll miss hearing about and meeting all the great and outstanding people you knew. For example, you introduced me to Barack Obama when he published his first memoir.
• I’ll miss our regular meetings, the many teas I drank in your company.
• I’ll miss the refuge I found whenever I sought you out.
• I’ll miss exploring new worlds, new ideas, new authors, and new books with you.
• I’ll miss the heady feeling of being in the presence of greatness.
• I’ll miss your smell – that comfortable mixture of warmth, age, tranquility, understanding, powdery paper, and something indefinable that always permeated your surroundings.
• I’ll miss the friend I made in 2002 and who added greatly to my personal enjoyment and development.
• I’ll plain old miss going to visit you in downtown San Diego.
Yesterday, when I read the announcement that Borders Books was closing all its stores, I felt not surprise but resignation. Ever since it started closing stores several months ago, I knew its time was limited.
The end of an era.
For me, personally, Borders became part of my downtown San Diego experience. It was too good to last – and I sensed it almost from the start. A big bookstore set in the pleasure-seeking Gaslamp District mainly populated by young people out for a good time, tourists, cruise ship sightseers, homeless, and ball game lovers seemed out-of-place. The aisles were often empty as was the large music area upstairs.
Downstairs, the comfy armchairs and tables next to the coffee shop were occupied more by students who used the bookstore as a library, people reading the books and especially the magazines for free, or taking a rest/having a snooze. How often did I get angered to see someone defacing a new book, pulling back the pages and thus rendering it unsalable? How often did I wonder at the high maintenance and overhead of such a place, and how long could Borders accept their losses?
Of course, as a budding book author, I dreamed of the day that my books would grace their shelves. Even when I realized how illusionary this dream was, I still held on to my hopes.
For me, Borders downtown (which closed several months ago thus signaling the fast approach of the Borders Books’ demise) is akin to losing one of my close San Diego friends. A gap in the tooth. My old neighborhood is changing.
This comes as a result of two dominant forces: the dramatic switch to online book purchases, mainly Amazon. And importantly, it signals the change in book publishing – the almost overnight switch to e-books and readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.) in little more than a couple of years.
People will continue to buy print books but in less quantity. I foresee the day when I will also use a Kindle, simply because it’s more convenient even though I belong to the dwindling group – mainly older – who prefers the touch, feel, enjoyment of turning real pages. It will be the same as replacing the typewriter with a computer – I balked at first – but as everything else in this rapidly changing world, I’ll get used to this new book presentation. Almost.
Is the print book, the one we have known all of our lives, on its way to be relegated to the world of typewriters and radios and CDs? The printing press has been with us over 500 years since Johannes Gutenberg invented the it circa 1439. How many more years will books, in their current form, exist? Maybe just table top books, picture books, and a few special ones. Maybe limited press runs.
Or am I predicting too dismal a future for print books? Perhaps Harry Potter fans will grow up and this industry will rebound, though never to the same level as before.
For now, Barnes & Noble reigns supreme and long may they live to carry on the baton in this world of dying print books.
And long live those bastions of immortality: the independent bookstore, and the second-hand bookstores, and even the book sections in your local supermarket.
Photo credits: Mary Osborne
“I thought San Diego must be Heaven on earth…It seemed to me the best spot for building a city I ever saw.”Alonzo Horton, builder of New Town, site of current downtown San Diego, 1877
“Of all the dilapidated, miserable-looking places I have ever seen, this was the worst…an altogether dreary, sunblasted point of departure for nowhere…” Mary Chase Walker, San Diego’s first school teacher, 1865
I open my curtains and it’s sunny outside. Another lovely day, one for the young to savor on the beach and for me to go out for a long walk and end up sitting outside some coffee shop. Instead, I have to stay in and work. Sometimes, I wish we’d have more gray days when I’d happily stay indoors. Though we do have Gray May and June Gloom when clouds cover coastal areas until noon. Then the sun breaks through.
San Diego reminds me of a relentlessly cheerful woman who gets on your nerves; small-minded, but big pretensions, and so well meaning that it’s hard not to like her. Even so, though I’ve known her for a while, I can’t consider her a close friend.
Funny how other people view San Diego.
A woman, fifties, faded fair hair in pony tail, pulling a baby carriage covered with a tarp, gets on the bus, sits at the front and talks to the bus driver. “That billboard there says ‘San Diego, America’s finest city, worth a second look.’ An oxymoron, arrogant overstatement, not true for a city that can’t even balance its checkbook, that’s broke.”
She pauses, no reaction, so goes on, “San Diego offers nothing except for rich people. I hope those buildings” (the high-rises on the billboard) “crack and crash into the sea from the weight of the lies they tell to sell the condos.”
She sounds coherent, embittered, with the rough voice that comes from too much smoking.
Her last words before she gets off are, “San Diego is a woman, a woman wearing feathers, and glitter, and a skimpy dress and nothing else. It has nothing to offer except its glittery outside.”
Again on the bus. An African-American, man about mid-thirties, pleasant face, asks a middle-aged couple, dressed formally – look like out-of-towners – where they’re from, “New Jersey” and where they’re going to dinner, “Mr. A’s.” One of San Diego’s best restaurants. From their tight-lipped replies, they don’t seem too interested in pursuing a conversation.
But he is. “How you like San Diego?”
“Yes, great weather,” the man says.
“Well. Let me tell you about people here. They’re not friendly. America’s finest city welcomes the rich that spend their dollars, but they don’t like ones that don’t have no money.”
The couple visibly stiffens and their faces set in enforced niceness.
“The difference between rich and poor here is everything,” he tells them. “The middle-class all act like they’re rich as well. And they don’t mind all the homeless here because charity is tax deductible. Just give to Father Joe and let him take care of them. It’s why state taxes are so high. We have this huge indigent population to support and half of them live on the streets downtown, defecating in them, and leaving their trash everywhere.”
The couple’s pained expressions should give him a clue how they feel but he’s relentless.
“Everyone comes here for the weather. That’s why we get all these homeless, because the good weather allows them to live outdoors and they don’t freeze to death, but they foul up the streets instead. They’re Reagan’s gift to San Diego when he let them all out of the asylums for the state and local authorities to take care of them. See that man, he’s headed for Balboa Park where a bunch of them spend the night and leave their mess for park workers to clean up. No good chasing them away. They come back every time, have their favorite spots, and leave behind all their junk.”
The bus reaches their stop, which is also mine. We get off.
“Next time, we take a cab,” I hear.
My San Diego? Where else can I walk uptown, downtown, to the Bay, or to Balboa Park with its wealth of trees, botanical gardens, theatre, concerts, gatherings, events, and museums. Where else can I watch the sunset over the sea, cruise ships and boats on the Bay, visit Old Town, have my pick of coffee houses, restaurants, theatres (movies, plays, concerts, and opera), a mall, Petco Park, Civic and Convention centers, the trolley, train station, and hotels ? Where else can I watch parades, attend special events, political rallies, or take part in them? Any or all of these within walking distance.
Where else, on my way down First Avenue, can I see late 1800 homes with widow’s walks next to modern condos. Glance across to the Bay while a plane, about to land at Lindbergh Field, booms overhead. Or see, on Sundays, a bunch of skateboarders whizzing down the hill on the almost empty Fourth Avenue.
Where else can I rub shoulders with the homeless and hear loonies rant? Or watch cruise ship tourists and well-dressed couples walk through the Gaslamp District casing out posh restaurants while homeless sleep in doorways, and a couple of great looking transvestites strut on high heels making me feel tiny and drab? Girls in skimpy garb and men in shorts stroll along, not seeming to feel the drop in temperature. After all, this is sunny San Diego.
Where else can I walk along the Bay front, see pedi-cabs take tourists for rides. Once, tired, I hired a pedi-cab to take me to Horton Plaza, the downtown mall. I pass the ship museum: a vintage Mississippi steamer, a realistic copy of a frigate circa 1805, The Surprise – built for the film Master and Commander: the Far Side of the Earth. How could seventy men sail all the way to the Galapagos on that one tiny vessel, and not go crazy? I suppose it was the daily ration of rum that kept them semi-comatose most of the time. Next is the 1863 vessel, The Star of India, and further on, ferries to Coronado and scenic Bay boat rides, and further on, the aircraft carrier, Midway.
Where else would I recognize people on the bus back? The dignified elderly gentleman wearing a black beret, the sad-eyed little Filipino, the loud-mouthed, half-sloshed cello player who’s always first on the bus to get his special spot – or bully the person in it to give it up. The homeless with all their paraphernalia because they live in the Shelter up the hill. A couple discuss where they can find the best free meal much the same way as others might discuss the food in restaurants they visit.
Where else can I get on the trolley and hop over the border to Mexico for a visit or to see my doctor, dentist, and pick up lower-priced medicines?
I’m certain the young, the outdoorsy, the wealthy, and the various ethnic groups – Latinos, Asians, Iranians, Arabs, Somalis, etc. – would offer other interesting views of San Diego.
And, despite what that woman said, for my two close friends, born and here all their lives, San Diego is truly America’s finest city.
“Normal is in the eye of the beholder.” Whoopi Goldberg
My cultural heritage has certainly influenced my life. And I think most people would agree that their own has been important to their shaping and development, enriched their lives and often, led to their life decisions. However, sometimes having a mixed or multi-cultural background can be confusing and even disrupting.
Since I know it well, I’ll use my own life as an example.
I really don’t know where I belong.
The U.S., where I live now, is full of bi-cultural and multi-cultural people. I should fit in. Right? However, I have yet to find a demographic group where I do. My problem may be that I have a foot in each of my three countries, both ancestral and from living in them.
I’m a foreigner in all of my three countries but conversely, I also feel at home in all of them.
On the surface, my English side predominates. I was born there and my father was staunch middle-class. However, I only lived in England for fifteen years, in my childhood and as a young adult. I’m fair-haired (well, these days it’s L’Oreal) and blue-eyed. I speak English with a British accent that Americans think is “posh”. It opens many doors for me would be a great asset if I decided to be a con woman.
My mother was born in New York and her father came from a long line of New England stock, some of whom came over on the Mayflower’s fourth voyage while others were Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Two of my ancestors fought in the War of Independence on the American side, which makes me a DAR (a Daughters of the American Revolution).
Actually, the country where I lived longest was in Mexico, during my adolescence, married life, and for years after I was divorced. My children were born there. My mother was half-Mexican, on her mother’s side. Two of my ancestors signed its Constitution.
I love telling people that I’m part Mexican and watching their reaction: some draw back in surprise (or horror?) and their next comment almost always is, “But, you don’t look Mexican.”
Another reason why I’m confused is because of my chronological back-and-forthing between my three countries:
• Childhood in a seaside village in Sussex, England – easygoing, quiet, Sunday afternoon tea and cake at English Granny’s.
• Switch to Mexico City at ten years old – Culture shock, different language, customs, large, noisy, dirty, Sunday afternoon lunch/meal at Mexican Granny’s.
• Fell head-over-heels for Mr. Blue Eyes and landed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Marriage and quicky divorce, college, sharing apartment with friends, summer in Maine.
• New York City – Lived it up every moment of the year I was there – Camelot, Moon River, The Fantasticks. Began career in advertising.
• London – Swinging Sixties. Settled into career as advertising exec with a stint as airline PR. Lots of travel, booze, and craziness.
• Mexico City again – Marriage to a Mexican, two kids, divorce, career flourished, forced early retirement, failed food business, broke.
• Santa Fe, New Mexico – House sitting in the mountains, writing book.
• Tijuana, Mexico – How the hell did I end up here? Couldn’t walk, stuck in son’s flat, writing book.
. Mexico City again. Operation made me ambulant. Happy to be home but decided to go to U.S.
• San Diego, California – Accidental landing. Became one of America’s working poor. Phone room researcher. “Just want to ask you a few questions. Please, don’t hang up!” New career in Hispanic research. Wrote book about making new start to be published late 2011. Economic slowdown. Currently pursuing new work paths.
I’m not Mexican though given all my years there, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
I can’t count myself as truly English anymore since I left many years ago.
Although I’ve adapted to the U.S. – more or less – I still hanker for Mexico.
So where will I spend the rest of my life?
Each of my three countries calls out to me. Maybe I’ll return to what I know. Or end up somewhere entirely different.
What about you? How has your cultural background influenced your life?
“Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Mexican proverb
Picture a room with clusters of telephone interviewers, bunched together according to some supervisor’s idea of a seating plan. I’d envisioned having a cubicle of my own, perhaps a drawer where I could keep my possessions. No such luck. Our location in the phone room changes every day according to the survey we’re doing. Not even a locker room, which means I have to carry my tote with me wherever I go. You never know with the kind of people who work here.
Interviewers rattle off a cacophony of introductions. Voices blend into a murmur that envelopes the room like a canopy.
This isn’t really me sitting here. Susan is not a person I know. Whatever happened to Penelope who once worked in solitary splendor in an elegant office? I envision it, if only to regain for a minute that lost sense of comfort and security for the days when I worked at a carved, Mexican colonial desk, or leaned back in my king-size leather chair and gazed out at the inner courtyard with its bubbling fountain and ivy-covered walls.
In the phone room, there is no view outdoors. The large windows at the front are too high up and far away so that I can’t tell if the day is sunny or cloudy.
I must not look back. But, how can I face this day-to-day proximity with between fifty to a hundred people, all of us breathing in the same air, farts, body odors, and unwashed clothing? Occasionally, there are eruptions of chest-wrenching coughs. Is the workplace infested with cold and flu germs, or maybe the air-conditioning, on so high that people wear heavy jackets and sweaters indoors, is the culprit.
Supervisors prowl the spaces behind rows and come up stealthily behind us, to catch offenders who goof off or don’t try hard enough. Some interviewers have a sixth sense warning system – a talent, I learn from Ahmed, acquired the hard way. Behind prison bars.
I punch in my number and the research questionnaire comes on the screen. I read, as told, exactly what it says. “Hello, this is Susan, calling from Kelly Research. This is not a sales call. I just want your opinions about…” and I name a fast food chain.
“Not interested.” Another ten dials. No answers. Only taped messages. On the eleventh, I get someone. I juice up my voice only to have the receiver slammed down on me. And so it goes for the next hour.
A supervisor leans over and picks up my batch sheet. “You need to get at least two surveys an hour,” she tells me and the implication is in her tone. If I don’t, I’ll be terminated.
But how, if nobody wants to do them.
Finally, someone says, “Why not? I like your voice.”
We get through the survey that, because of the asinine convoluted questions, takes fifteen instead of five minutes, and reach the last part where I ask age, educational level, ethnicity, and type of work. This can be tricky as some people balk at giving personal information.
This time, I fall down a hole into phone Wonderland.
“Professional firewalker,” he tells me. Oh no, not another joker.
“Er – Is that a profession or a hobby?”
“It’s what I do for a living.”
I hesitate. He must be kidding.
“You’ll find the Firewalkers Institute on the Internet,” he adds as if sensing my thoughts.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that …Where do you fire walk?”
“A lot of places. Some businesses use fire walking to build teamwork. It’s also considered an alternative health remedy.”
“In what way?”
“Helps cope with anxiety issues.”
My God, some people will try anything.
“What got you into that profession?”
“I was doing yoga and I wanted to prove to myself that not everything we’re told is true, including our perception of pain.” He sounds serious, credible. “Then I discovered I liked this.”
“Walking on hot coals?”
“It’s not about walking on hot coals. Not in your mind. It’s like you go through a cleansing ritual that clears it of bad sensations. Some religious orders fire walk as part of their training.”
I wish we could talk more, but I have to get on with my surveys. “I’ll definitely look up that Firewalkers Institute,” I say.
I’m getting lucky. Another man agrees to answer my questions but only if I answer his. Well, okay, I don’t suppose that’s against the rules.
“I like your accent,” he says. “My granddad came from Leicester. Ever been there?”
And, “Did you go to the Royal Academy of Art?”
“The Tate Gallery?”
“The British Museum?”
Or, farther afield, the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi in Florence?
I envision him to be a wealthy, cosmopolitan art connoisseur. At the end of the survey, I expect him to tell me he’s an academic or gallery owner or painter.
“Cross-country truck driver,” he says.
What? My image of the rough, uncouth trucker is shattered.
“Why are you so interested in art?”
“Because I’m pursuing my Masters in Art History.”
This country is full of surprises.
The next man I speak to answers my questions easily, but when I ask for his personal information, he acts as if I’m coming on to him, and starts flirting. “I’m thirty-six,” he says, “and ready and willing to meet you any time.” He teases me about my English accent, wants to know if I’m single, and where I live. I tell him I can’t give out that information.
“Your level of education,” I go on. “High school, some college, college graduate…”
“How much do they pay you for doing this? About $8.00 bucks an hour?”
How did he guess?
“Want to make $50 bucks an hour?”
His voice becomes husky, intimate. “You sound like a hot chick. That Princess Di accent really turns me on. Ever considered phone sex?”
I feel as if he suddenly stripped himself naked in front of me.
“Certainly not.” I tell him in my most hoity-toity English lady’s voice. “Shame on you. I’m old enough to be your mother.”
“Don’t get mad. Just think about it. Same kind of work, different script.”
Undeterred, he says, “You have my number. Call me if you change your mind.”
I thank him for doing the survey and hang up.
What have I come down to?
Princess Di, indeed.
I sit back in my seat, glance at the monitor, at the questionnaire that has just popped up on it. Look around the room, at my poor, drab fellow phone room employees.
$50 bucks an hour?
(Excerpt from “Don’t Hang Up!”)
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- Growing old
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- Mexico City
- Mid life motivations
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- never give up
- On the U.S.-Mexican Border
- Overcoming Setbacks or Failures
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- Power of Memories
- San Diego
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