Posts Tagged ‘San Diego’
“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
“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
“The attempt and not the deed confounds us.”
At night, downtown San Diego becomes the kingdom of the homeless. They lie, bundled in blankets, in doorways or in heaps against the walls. A graveyard of unburied bodies in a film about a city of the dead. Shadows blur into each other in the uneven lighting that gives a pallid, greenish tinge to white and black skin alike.
As I cross this underworld, the four blocks I walk to the trolley are fraught with hidden threats that bring all my senses into play. My breath becomes shorter, my steps more hurried, and my heart beats faster. I feel as if the walking dead are following me and if I’m unwary, they will spring out and devour me.
It is with some relief that I see the man come up beside me and say a friendly, “Hello.” Young, tall, close-cropped Afro hair and a black leather jacket. Smiling. A pleasant face, he might be a co-worker who got off work when I did.
“Hello,” I say, trying to place him in the dim light. I’m about to ask if we’ve sat next to each other when he lays a hand on my arm, though not roughly.
“Gimme your cash.” His tone leaves no doubt as to what he is and what he is not, but it takes a few seconds to sink in. Then, oh my God, here’s one that won’t be put off with a few bucks or a, “Get lost.” He’s not armed – or I don’t think so. I could scream, but what good would that do here?
My wallet with my driver’s license and U.S. residence card, worth a fortune on the black market, is in my tote, which also holds my earphones, thermos, eye glasses, a magazine, notebook, sweater, and scarf. Instead, I hold out a Ziploc bag that I use for cash since my change purse was stolen in a collective taxi in Tijuana. “There’s about four bucks here.”
“That all the money you got?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m broke. Really broke.” Trying to control the tremble in my voice.
He shakes his head. “That all you got?” he repeats in a disbelieving tone.
“Yes, that’s all,” I say, which is true, in a way. I have about $50 in my checking account. Oh God, he’s going to get angry that I can’t give him more.
He seems uncertain, nodding as if listening to rap music. “You keep your money,” he says and removes his hand from my arm. “You carry your cash round in that, girl, you must be needy.”
Saved by a Ziploc bag. I guess for someone like him, you can’t get more down-and-out than that.
“Have a place to sleep?” he asks.
“Yes.” I can barely hold back from laughing at his question. Nerves?
“You sure? A nice lady like you shouldn’t be wanderin’ round here at night. I can take you to St. Vincent de Paul.”
A shelter? No thanks. “I’m all right. Just have to get to the trolley.”
“Sure you have a place to go to?”
“Yes,” my voice quivering.
I don’t dare say Tijuana so I say, “Chula Vista,” but I’m not good at lying, and I must sound vague because he doesn’t seem to believe me.
“You sure ’bout that? St. Vincent, they treat you good there ‘specially someone like you. Give you a meal and everythin’.” And so the conversation goes on, as if we’re bartering with each other about where I should spend the night. He’s so intent on doing a good deed that I fear he’ll force me to go to the shelter.
“Honestly,” I repeat for what must be the third time, “I told you, I do have a place to stay. I just have to get to the trolley.”
“Then I’ll accompany you. Not right for a lady like you be walkin’ here all by yourself. Not safe.”
I’m about to say that I get off work at nine every night and then think better not. “Thanks, but you don’t have to.” This switch from would-be mugger to gallant is unnerving. He could have something else in mind.
“I insist.” There’s no saying no to that. He takes my arm. Should I wrest it away and make a run for it or go along with him and hope I don’t end up in some back alley? But I’d never be able to outrun him or fight him off so I’m at his mercy.
Instead, he handles me as if I were, indeed, his lady or a precious charge. His extreme courtesy, “Please ma’am, watch out for that garbage. Ma’am, don’t pay no attention to those homeless and they leave you alone,” is almost exaggerated. He throws dirty glances at anyone who even looks our way.
We reach the trolley station and thank God, one is pulling up. As he hands me onto it, he says, “Hey, sorry, ma’am, didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s all right,” I say as I’m about to board. “Thanks for looking after me.”
What? I’m thanking him? For not stealing my money.
Something is really upside-down about this encounter.
“The traveler with empty pockets will sing in the thief’s face.” Juvenal
Book excerpt from “Don’t Hang Up!”
Photo by dama_negra
(This is a true story, excerpted from my, as yet unpublished, motivational memoir “Don’t Hang Up!” This piece appeared in the “Baja News” newspaper, in Commonties.com, in “On the Border” newsletter, and in this blog as “Incident on the San Diego-Tijuana Border.”)
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
The border shuttle bus from the U.S. is crammed with Mexican housekeepers, schoolchildren, and construction workers exuding the odors of physical labor and exhaustion.
Three men jump on and stand in the aisle. Muscular, clean-faced, with shaven heads, easily recognizable as American service men. One, older, has the bellicose eyes and stance of a soldier who’s seen too much action. Powerfully built, though more flab and gut, he lets out a huge belch.
Their voices are so loud that everyone can hear them. They’re marines on a Friday night outing to Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. One, surprisingly, has a Scottish brogue, and he addresses the older man as Captain. From what they say, I gather the subordinates are accompanying the Captain for an obvious reason: he’s been drinking – heavily.
As the shuttle makes its way through jammed border traffic, the Captain blares, “Can’t wait to get my hands on some big Mexican titties and f… a couple of cunts.”
The Scottish marine says, “Captain, please, there are women and children here.”
“Who gives a f… for the shit suckin’ bitches? They don’t understand nothin’.”
As he continues in this vein, the Captain’s befuddled mind and clouded eyes fail to notice another Anglo passenger. Me. Or would it make a difference?
The woman beside me asks, “Señora, you speak English, try and calm him down.” The one in the seat behind says, “Please, he’s frightening my daughter,” and she covers the little girl’s ears.
Others turn, as if expecting me to tell him off. Because I’m Anglo? Or because most of them. dependent on hard-to-get U.S. work permits and bullied by authority figures on both sides of the border, have learned to turn the other cheek.
Why should I have to be the one to confront the Captain? I don’t want to enrage him more, and I doubt that anyone here would support me against what they must see as as a mad-as-a-rabid-dog gringo. How to reason with a big, drunken bully, frothing with booze and contempt? His men should handle him. I catch the eye of the Scottish marine and mouth, “Please do something.”
He tries. “Sir, you’re scaring the passengers. The women and children.”
The Captain glares at us. “These lousy sacks of shit? They can go f… themselves. All Mexicans are good for.”
My image of the military was forged by my naval commander father. A captain is someone to respect. Not a rowdy, foul-mouthed, offensive individual. His behavior would get him evicted from American public transportation, but not from a Mexican shuttle, though technically, we’re still on American soil.
Heat rises in my face as I fight the urge to stand up, tell him to mind his manners, and uphold the honor of his rank. Why bother? He’s not actually threatening anyone, and this ride will be over in ten minutes.
Then he mentions one particularly nauseating thing he intends to do to a Mexican puta. Something so unmentionable that I’ve never heard it uttered out loud before.
The words fly from my mouth before I can hold them back. “Captain, stop insulting Mexicans.”
He turns, his eyes filled with anger as he marks me as the one who spoke. The passengers huddle against each other or back into their seats. I’m on my own, facing this Goliath on a rampage.
“What did you fuckin’ tell me to do?” His bellow is a challenge.
“Stop insulting Mexicans.” Armed with bravura, I tell him, “And get off the bus before we cross the border. Who wants you in Mexico?”
“Who do you think you are, the fuckin’ high-and-mighty Queen of England bitch?”
Fueled by alcohol and marine machismo, he advances on me, arm raised to punch me. I brace myself, tightening my fist. If I have to, I’ll whack him first, right in his gut.
In a blink, the two marines grab him and shuffle him up the narrow aisle towards the front.
“C’mon, Captain, let the lady be,” Scotty says.
“What lady? That dried-up old bitch,” he yells.
His men have him corralled at the end of the shuttle so rather than Mexicans, I become his verbal target. His stream of abuse falls with the impact of invisible stones crashing against me. I sit ramrod straight, not daring to contest him again, as he continues without letup until we reach downtown Tijuana.
The marines are the first off the shuttle. Several passengers say, “Gracias,” to me as I get down. The Captain staggers away with the two service men in tow.
So I’m surprised to see Scotty come back and tell me, “Sorry about the Captain. He’s not himself today. Just suffered a big personal loss.”
“He’s out of control,” I say. “I’d like his name to report him.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am. They’d have me balls for breakfast.” He pleads like a kid barely out of school. “He’s an officer and it would mean big trouble for us for not keeping him in order.”
“Isn’t it your duty?”
“I wish I could help you, ma’am, but it’s not my place.” And he hurries after the lout, his senior officer.
Next day, I ask a co-worker, a former marine, what can I do to report the captain for unseemly conduct.
“Stay out of it.” He warns. “The marines don’t like civilians getting involved when an officer’s misbehaved.”
I’d like to believe that sooner or later, the Captain will get what he deserves – lose his men’s respect and tarnish his image – but things don’t work that way, and I rather doubt it.
I do have one weapon that I could use to get back at him. As the saying goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Let’s see if that’s true.
I’d love to hear from you. How would you react in a similar situation?
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