nowhere

Nine years ago, the editor of the newspaper I wrote for sent me to Africa to do a story on the Somali Bantu emigrants flooding into our state from a refugee camp in Kenya. Many local residents were freaking out about this in a particularly zenophobic and tiny-minded way (“What if they catch people’s cats in traps and eat them?!”) so it was a hot topic and we had to jump fast.

“Hey, sign this,” my editor said, flipping a triplicate form onto my desk. “We upped your life insurance. Just a formality!”

I signed, then toddled off to get shots for various 19th-century diseases, all of which hurt like a bitch. The doctor gave me a package of syringes along with my anti-malaria pills.

“You don’t want to get an injection in an African hospital,” he said, “but if it’s unavoidable, make sure the nurse uses YOUR syringe. And don’t open your mouth in the shower.”

Before the trip I researched the camp, which housed 130,000 (mostly Muslim) refugees who’d fled war, genocide and famine in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo. The refugees lived crammed into small tents next to outdoor pit latrines. Each morning the women lined up to collect strict rations of water, corn mash and salt. Rape was as common as the dust storms. People waited years for good news: It’s time to fly to America or Canada and start new lives free from machete-wielding militias.

The camp’s name, in Swahili, means “nowhere.”

My first night in Africa, I stayed in the U.N. compound and as the sun rose saw my first dik-dik, a little antelope named for the alarm calls of the females. After breakfast, where I did not try any of the goat stew, we caravaned into camp under armed guard in the back of a rattly van. Also along for the ride were various NGO people and Peace Corps kids, every one of whom was redolent with tea tree oil (keeps bugs away) and patchouli (just because).

“Cover your hair,” said a girl with blonde Wellesley dreads and gold-tanned skin, tossing me a bandanna as I stared at a band of Masai warriors walking through the desert, armed to the teeth. “It’ll make your interviews easier.”

Along the bumpy road, my photographer and I hissed our way through an argument about female genital mutilation – he said it was a cultural practice and none of our business and that I shouldn’t go into camp with an “agenda”; I said it was a barbaric, life-ruining human rights violation and a person didn’t need an “agenda” to want it stopped. I asked if he’d feel the same if FGM involved little boys having their penises split open in such a way that thousands of them died and, for those who lived, urination and sex would be a lifelong agony. He said he would.

I questioned his veracity. In fact, I think I may have called him a liar. No, I’m sure I did. We didn’t speak much for the rest of the two-week trip. Later that day, he got outrageously sick (having opened his big mouth in the shower).

Dozens of children waited by the gate as we pulled into camp, some just barely able to walk. They wore cast-off American T-shirts so long they fit like nightgowns – giveaways from bars and shows, with a smattering of Britney Spears and N’Sync. They kicked a soccer ball made of twine and rubber bands behind the caravan until we parked.

I stepped out of the van and the dust attacked. It was in my eyes, my ears, between my teeth. It collected under my bandanna and melded with my sunscreen to form a chalky dirt paste. My cold bottle of water quickly turned the temperature of blood. I had never been so hot in February; hadn’t realized in my rush to prepare that February was African high summer. The kids surrounded me, peeking into the pockets of my cargo pants. My guide/fixer/Maay Maay translator, Abdu, scattered them with a swoosh of his handmade switch.

We walked a mile into camp, passing blocks of tents and latrines and the occasional goat, until we reached a long, low building.

“Cultural orientation class,” Abdu said in his formal, British-y way. Inside, a group of women and teenage girls were prepping for life in America. They practiced turning a mock light switch on and off; pushed buttons on a mock dishwasher; passed around a santitary napkin.

I thought about all the things these women could never prepare for; things that were really going to matter when they hit stateside. Like me: I’d mined the State Department website for everything I could learn about Kenya, but nothing readied me for the women’s gazes; the torch of their curiosity burning through the bandanna on the back of my head.. No story I read prepared me for what the women themselves told me through Abdu:

They came to the village with machetes.

They burned everything.

We ran but they were in a truck.

They took my daughter.

I do not know where my parents are or if they are still alive.

My husband is in another camp.

I do not know how many years ago it was.

“Americans are very conscious of time,” Abdu translated for the teacher, who stood in front of a giant map of the U.S. “They wear watches and keep clocks in their houses. Americans do not like it when people are late. You must check the time often in America.”

After class, I asked Abdu to see if anyone would give me an interview. He scouted the crowd, then returned with a woman about my age. She wore a red-and-gold head covering and held a happy squawking toddler.

“What do you most look forward to about America?” I asked, pen poised. My interviews were going to make up more than half the story, which I was already writing in my head: Refugees fleeing terrible lives make the journey to new, better ones!

“Safety and security,” she said, kissing her baby’s head. “Where were you born?”

OK, cool; I could be the interviewee for awhile. I walked over to the U.S. map and pointed to the dark line separating Arizona and Mexico. “Right here,” I said, “but now I live here.” I pointed to the middle of South Carolina.

She was confused. “Why did you leave your homeland?”

Homeland. This was several years after 9-11, so I only thought of that word in the context of Homeland Security. For an American, the word is foreign, only slightly less retro and weird than “Fatherland” or “Motherland.” I was a 31-year-old American woman who’d spent the last 10 years moving from city to city with no real roots or even loyalty. “I took a job,” I said. “I work for a newspaper.”

“But what do you make?” she asked.

“I make…” Now I was confused. What the hell did I make, really? I wrote a popular women’s column; some feature stories and film reviews. Once every two weeks I did the cops-and-courts beat and drove to a City Council meeting or a house fire. I couldn’t hem a dress, hang a straight curtain rod; or change my own oil. I bought my meals ready-made at the organic market.

“I make words,” I said.

She changed the subject. “Where is your husband?”

“I don’t have one,” I replied, but didn’t explain further. I had come out at 28 and was still struggling with the differences between the life I’d dreamed of as a kid (traditional family; acceptance in the wider world) versus the life I actually had (solo homeowner; non-monogamist; childless).

There was, as far as I knew, no word for “female homosexual” in Maay Maay. There’s a word for “male homosexual,” but it’s a pejorative; plus, homosexuality was – and still is – punishable by death in this part of the world. Best to let it lie. “I have a house and three cats.”

“Cats?” she repeated in Maay Maay, looking to Ashur for confirmation. 

Small cats,” I clarified, miming little paws and ears. “Not like lions.”

“What do the small cats do?” she asked. “Do they give milk or meat?”

“No no no,” I said. “The small cats are for companionship. So I don’t have to eat or sleep alone.” (At that time in my life I wasn’t doing a whole lot of sleeping alone, but again, I wasn’t about to get into it). I thought of the cats; their slim, tough little bodies figure-eighting around my legs when I got home at night. It pissed me off when people called them “child substitutes.” They were cuddly and comforting to hold, but I knew they weren’t the same. I loved having a bit of unpredictable wildness in my house. I loved being stalked from atop the refrigerator.

She leaned back and looked at me like, Let me get this straight. “The small cats do not give milk, neither do they give meat or labor. They eat from your plate and sleep in your bed. They are your only companions at home. When you are not at home, you make words.”

Looking at my life through a reductionist lens bummed me out a little. She was right, but also not, and I suspected this went both ways.

“Well…yeah,” I said. “But I have friends, and, uh…I read a lot. I go out to hear music…I spend my time…”

My time. I would never be able to explain to her how I spent my time; could hardly explain it to myself. I couldn’t explain “friends,” couldn’t tell her how women sluiced in and out of one another’s lives like water. No combination of words could articulate my fear that I was moving at a stately pace toward something irrevocable.

Eyes limpid with sympathy, she handed me the baby. We played with him and forgot all about the time.

All Appears Normal

Right on developmental schedule (I’ve gone and turned 40) I’m compelled to start writing memoir. It’s like studying Kabbalah – the rabbis won’t let you do it until your 40th birthday because only then, they say, do you have the depth and maturity to even make the attempt.

I will, however, resist the urge to take up acoustic guitar. 


All Appears Normal

The second I got legal permission to work in Canada, I quit my under-the-table nanny gig and applied for a job as a night security guard. I wanted to work 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to live my days backwards, to slip in and out of work in the dark and eat spaghetti for dinner at sunrise.

A broken heart is worse in the light. A broken heart mocks you in the light. A broken heart in the broad, clear light of day is like looking at your own impetigo without a bandage. I didn’t want to be wakeful in busy daytime Toronto; didn’t want to watch couples living the happy lives they planned for – the bungalow houses and Bugaboo strollers – and then, somehow! pulled off. I needed to be up all night, wearing a sexless khaki uniform and keeping things secure that wouldn’t be secure if I (a person who was afraid of everything from garden slugs to deportation) wasn’t there. I needed, as the sun came up, to be as exhausted as I was alone.

I needed an epidural for my heart: You’re still dilated and racked with pain; you just don’t care. “Pathetic,” when numbed out a bit, can dig around in the dress-ups box, find a swoopy cape and a helmet, and disguise itself as “tough.”

The security company gave me a giant flashlight and a radio, but made me buy my own needle-proof gloves and boots.

“In case you step on a needle,” said the man who hired me. “No worries, eh!”

Within a month, I’d stepped around needles in a variety of locations – mostly the alleyways, parking garages and foyers in and around high-rise poverty pockets in the Jane and Finch neighborhood of Toronto. The “good” residents were recent legal immigrants from Africa and South America, but they were nestled among a large assortment of gang-affiliated criminals and garden-variety creeps representing the dregs of a hundred nations. They all loved to chew khat, a psychoactive leaf from southern Arabia that acts like amphetamine and worsens symptoms of mental illness in people who are already batshit crazy. When they ran out of khat, a needle would do.

It was odd: I was 34, and since middle school I’ve had recurring nightmares about getting stuck with an HIV-infected syringe. The dreams ware always vivid and literal: OK, rinse the puncture with bleach water for three minutes while squeezing the tip of my finger; get to the Emergency Department and request post-exposure prophylaxis.

I blame Ronald Reagan for every one of these dreams, stemming as they do from several years of borderline-hysterical AIDS education in the late 1980s. It’s one of my two recurring dreams – in the other, I try over and over to dial the number of someone I desperately need to talk to – or just need – but my fingers are clumsy and slip, or something is wrong with my eyes and I can’t see the numbers. In this dream, I misdial over and over again, crying with frustration and fear, hearing nothing but a dead line or a dial tone.

“Stay away from the windows,” said the girl who trained me at the site. She was a delicate blonde who’d dyed her hair jet-black and arranged it carefully into pinking-shear spikes. “People throw things. One guard almost died last year. Boom box.”

The buildings themselves were crumbling Soviet-style honeycombs with slanting hallways and horror-flick stairwells (another great place to find a needle). Part of my job was to sweep through the building every hour, then write, “All appears normal” in the security ledger. I faked a squared-off, blocky penmanship to feel tougher; less like a pathetic wuss who cried alone in bed every night and averted my eyes every time the subway train approached my ex-girlfriend’s stop (Here’s where we always used to buy hot pretzels at the kiosk!)

I was FINE. I was NOT UPSET. How could a person wearing needle-proof, steel-toed boots be upset?

In the parking garages, my heart pounded like a druggy rave bass line. Were the stompy sounds of my boots giving me away? Could the rapist/murderer crouched behind the row of decrepit cars tell exactly where I was by my sound; by my light? Underground, my radio lost reception and died. It was row after row of yellow and white lines; oil stains; unidentified susurrating sounds. A person – say, a dangerous, violent person with nowhere else to go – could live unnoticed in a large Toronto parking garage for quite a long time, only surfacing at night to go through the trash or eviscerate a security guard with a homemade shank.

No one would know where I was if I needed help. They’d just find me in the morning, stuffed behind a Dumpster or splayed out in plain sight. I would be even more of a cautionary tale for women everywhere, uniformed or not.

“This is real fear,” I’d say out loud, forcing myself to stay in the parking garage as long as possible with my flashlight off. And it was. Fear for my actual life, as opposed to fears on a more luxurious level of Maslow’s hierarchy; ambiguous or fixable fears such as “not being loved enough for who I really am” or “never making more than $10 an hour.” Blind in that dirty, cemented dark, a useless radio hanging from my pocket, was the only time my terror of what my life had become quieted a bit. Because I was still alive right now. And now. And this minute, now.

Back in the high-rise, as I swaggered past each thin, chipped door – some with sad, persistent decorations for the fall and winter holidays – I’d bump into odors solid as furniture. That’s how I learned what crack cocaine smells like – a toxic, plastic, somehow threatening smell. Get a hint of it in your nostrils and you start worrying about brain damage; liver cancer; secondhand psychosis.

“Wait ‘til you smell crack mixed with buttsex!” my spiky colleague said cheerfully. “They start smoking up; they can go all night. Sometimes we have to knock on the door, tell ‘em to keep it down.”

My shifts in the gay neighborhood at Church and Wellesley streets were more fun. There may have been buttsex, but the apartment lobbies were always tasteful, or at least kitchy in a good-humored way. I’d watch the men enter and leave in different combinations, their pretty heads popping out of winter scarves like hothouse flowers.

Occasionally, my uniform and I would be invited to a dyke party, which is how I got my next gig as a weekend bouncer at a dyke club. What people don’t know about bouncers is this: Bouncers do NOT enjoy getting on anyone’s case. Mostly you just stand there with your Bouncer Face, bored yet alert, and pray that no one fights, cries, or gets so drunk that the bar is liable for any nightmare scenarios that might ensue. Also, you listen to dance hits from the 90’s. If you woke me up out of a dead sleep and asked me to recite the lyrics to “I See You Baby” by Groove Armada featuring Gram’ma Funk, I’d sit bolt upright in bed and shout, “THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT FUNK BUILT.”

One weekend in February, my assignment was the 10,000-square-foot soap factory warehouse by the river. The Famous Soap Company had recently hired dozens of new immigrants (thereby giving them a well-deserved respite from Jane and Finch). The new workers’ rock-bottom wages effectively busted a union of men who had worked at the warehouse for thirty years or more, and they were angry. Angry enough to set up camp outside the warehouse gates and picket there all night, drinking and grumbling.

I loved the picketers’ resolve; their unwillingness to take shit from anybody. Were they hiding their faces in mute hurt and impotent rage, sobbing, Why can’t the Famous Soap Company just love me again? No. No, they were not. They set up camp by the screaming snowy mouth of the river and said, Oh, you want us gone? Come here and get rid of us, then, motherfuckers. We dare you.

My job: Park the security car just inside the warehouse gates, keep an eye on the picketers and don’t fall asleep. The hardest part was not falling asleep. I was used to my vampire schedule, but sitting in a car alone for 12 hours? A person wanes. I had a short list of activities to help keep me alert:

  1. Turning the heat on and off. Unfortunately, “heat on” also meant “engine on,” which caused me to worry even more about brain damage,
  2. Playing dance music and doing rave lights on the car’s ceiling with my flashlight,
  3. Taking off my polyester uniform slacks and masturbating, and
  4. Calling my stoner friend, Jason, and emotionally manipulating him into bringing me snacks from the convenience store.

“Oh, heeyyyyyy,” Jason would breathe into the phone. “Are you still, like, out by the lake, defending the Famous Soap factory from all enemies foreign and domestic?”

“I need dark chocolate Kit-Kats,” I’d tell him, in the same tone of voice one would use to say, “I need my electric wheelchair,” or “I need you to love me.”

While Jason was on his way, I’d do my “sweep” of the warehouse itself. I could smell the inside of the building from the parking lot, because it was full – from floor to ceiling – with pallets of soap, shampoo, dish and laundry detergent. It was the cleanest smell I’ve ever smelled, before or since.

The warehouse was a vacuum of sound – the kind of quiet that lets you hear the rush of blood in your ears. Once inside, my job was to stalk the corridors between the pallets and make sure no one had sneaked in. I didn’t really know what I WAS supposed to do, exactly, if someone popped out from between moisturizing bars and powder flakes, so I just got into it and pretended to be a stealth op. I ducked behind forklifts and practiced my night vision; I climbed up and across shelves like a ninja. I practiced my singing. If you’ve never sung “Ave Maria” at three o’clock in the morning in a 10,000 square warehouse on a winter’s night – well, take the opportunity if it ever arises.

Outside, it was cold enough to need a balaclava – or, as I called it before I knew what it was, a “face hat.” It made me look like a tiny murderer. I slipped it on over my eyes, nose, and chin, then walked out designs in the hip-high snow. I’d make a heart and then stomp the shit out of it (cathartic!); write my name with flourishes (this fucking snow is mine!) or lie down and make an angel (now my butt is frozen!)

One night, I peeked around the wall to check on the picketers. They were throwing wood onto their campfire, some of which had paint on it (more brain damage) and whooping it up over cans of Molson.

“Hi,” I said. I was so lonely.

They were friendly, especially one grey-bearded sixty-something who seemed to be the leader: “You poor kid, sitting out there in the car all by yourself! Come sit by the fire! We just put more wood!”

I sat down, as upwind as I could get, and the picketers and I shot the shit. Where was everybody from? How did we get into manufacturing and security? Who was married? Who had children? Who wanted another beer? EVERYBODY!

“Do any of you guys know old labor songs?” I asked, stomping my ice-block feet and remembering an album Ani DiFranco recorded with Utah Phillips. “Does anyone know ‘Bread and Roses?’”

They didn’t. “I’ll sing it for you,” I offered. Possibly the burning paint fumes were kicking in.

“RALPH! ANDY! SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET THE LADY SING!” said my grey-bearded champion.

“OK, I said. “Ready?”

As we go marching, marching

In the beauty of the day


A million darkened kitchens


A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance

That a sudden sun discloses


For the people hear us singing


Bread and roses, bread and roses

Our lives shall not be sweetened


From birth until life closes


Hearts starve as well as bodies


Give us bread but give us roses

Thunderous applause, and then they wanted to learn it. Years later, after I became a teacher, I would remember their pure and furious commitment to learn this song (whether due to drunkenness or a passion for the labor movement) and the ferocity with which they coached each other (“Mill lofts, dumbass! MILL LOFTS!”) They had never sung in a chorus before, but by God, that wasn’t going to stop them.

“Pretend the sound is coming from a hole in the top of your head,” I coached like Mrs. Dorsey used to when I was a soprano in the Tucson Girls’ Chorus a lifetime before. I took them through the scales – octave up; octave down; major; minor; arpeggio. What they lacked in talent they made up for in beery panache.

As the first threads of light came up over the horizon, we sang “Solidarity Forever,” which I’d memorized during my History of Justice class as a high school sophomore in order to protest tunefully while my father made me pull weeds in the backyard. We sang, and we smelled like paint and smoke and soap. We sang, and the wind stabbed us from the river. We sang, and without our brain and muscle not a single wheel could turn.

The sun pushed up hard from the horizon. All appears normal, I wrote in the security ledger before I went home for my spaghetti breakfast. In my own, my real, handwriting.