Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Think I need a ginger ale

Amir is tiny, barely over four feet, with the bone structure of a child. 

He works a room like a relic of Arab vaudeville.

"Hooo boy!" he exclaims, then to a wolf whistle, a "Hot dog!" and a loud clap of his hands. He makes his bushy black eyebrows dance around his face, arching one impressively high when he's about to win at cards, or crashing both caterpillars downwards when telling you about his fear of clowns. I could see him on the cover of the Mastermind game, fingers smugly steepled because he knows he has you, completely indifferent to the sexy Filipino lady standing nearby.

"Knock knock," he says, as we wait for the city bus on a cold October morning.

No one is taking the bait. After a minute of him looking around, face all hopeful, I cave.

"Who's there?"

Amir lets out a low whistle through his teeth.

"That's a hard one," he mutters, wandering off. He genuinely doesn't know who is there.

After a minute, he comes back, his arms held up before him and his long teeth bared beneath his moustache.

"I'm a vampire. For Halloween." His arms droop. 

"No, I'm a ghost. A gorilla." He stands by me. If I bend my arm at the elbow, I can rest it comfortably on the top of his head. 

"I love Halloween," he sighs.

Many of Amir's cousins go to college here, and he is intent on marrying them off.

He'll drag a handful of head-scarved young Muslim girls over to me, not even making introductions, just parading them there while I eat my three inch high salami and cheese sandwich, the crumbs from my extra dry Ezekiel bread covering me like an apron. 

Amir swings his upturned offering hands from them to me and back again, saying only "Eh?Eh?Eh?"

One girl blushes and recedes into her hijab, more from the spectacle of me lunching then from any real embarrassment. 

When he finally lets them leave, giving hugs on tiptoe, I break the news to him.

"You know I'm already married, right?"

"Huh?" he barks, cupping a hand to his good ear. The other one looks like a flattened toadstool and has been useless from birth.

"I'm married."

He shrugs.

"You ready?" he asks, already shuffling his deck of cards. 

More Go Fish.

He and Najib play Go Fish endlessly, though they spend as much time accusing each other of cheating as they do matching cards. 

Amir's trach tube muffles his enunciation. His words sound like growls from the back of his throat, and doubled consonants tend to not make it out at all.

"Heater! Heater!" he exclaims.

"I did not cheat," Najib says, laughing. "I did not. It's you who cheat."

"Bah". Amir waves him off.

The game continues. 

While I chop cheese sticks into corpse fingers with green pepper nails, they take turns picking music on the computer. 

We are alone in the classroom, getting ready for the big Halloween party on Friday. I had forgotten how liberating it is to be at this job with no other staff around. An oppressive, Ms. Pam-shaped weight is temporarily lifted.

I can sing, shimmy, be ridiculous.

These two might shake their heads, call me "seely" or "crahy", but there's no real judgment there. Since I can reach things that they cannot, they at least see me as a useful idiot. 

They settle on Katy Perry, and Najib sings along, quietly. "Last Friday night..dipping in the dark....menage a trois.."

"What did she just say?" I ask. 

They switch to Taylor Swift and Amir lurches about, once again imitating the ghost of a gorilla or whatever it was; Najib drives around him in slow, mechanically perfect circles. It is the closest to dancing his body allows him.

Amir, too, has some godawful and rare disease that should have killed him long ago. I am stringing pumpkin lights and an inconveniently lengthy orange and black paper chain with two young men who statistically should be dead. 

I am too focused on my own dread to think about it closely.

I have been drafted to host the "Scary Classroom," one of several attractions at the upcoming party. The other ones are listed on the board as "Dance," "Food," and "Movie."


When Ms. Pam told me I was volunteering to be this entity, this host they spoke of, I felt the same shattered resignation a Union soldier endures when the sawbones tell him they have to take the leg.  Listen, it's rotting, it's gotta come off, and we're expecting two hundred people.

The woman who used to run the "Scary Classroom" was beloved by all. She put on her witch costume and made elaborate stories up about every battery operated rat and epileptic ghoul scattered around the room.

As far back as September, people have seen me on the street or passed me on the city bus and asked, "Are you guys going to do your Halloween party this year? How can you possibly be successful at it without Marsha to dress up as a witch and run the Scary Classroom? How could it possibly be any good? Do you even know what a Scary Classroom is supposed to be?!? Why would you even try?!?!" I pull the bus schedule tighter across my face so they cannot see my tears. 

The party has arrived, and I am slumped in a corner against a large metal cabinet, my long black wig strung across the bloody neon Frankenstein mask on my face. When no one is looking, I break character to adjust my empire-waisted, cheery green matron's dress.

I like it here, in the dark, my only companions are sagging decorative clings of spooky eyes and a tombstone that pops up from time to time and plays "The Monster Mash."

Everyone who comes in passes me over as just another decoration, and that is when I strike.

I've always thought I would make for a good actor; my attachment to my own self is so frail that all it would take is a toga and a paycheck and I would literally become Roman Senator #2 until someone begged me to stop. 

It's why I can't even play around with fake British or Southern accents; I lose myself in that shit.

When I strike these people who wander into the "Scary Classroom", I mean I really give it everything. Lurching, twisting, growling, shrieking; most of them don't see me coming until I am right on them. Small crowds of developmentally disabled young people are falling over themselves and trampling their accompanying staff in their frenzied attempts to get away from me. 

The only glitch in my performance comes when a teacher, wondering aloud whether or not I am real, pushes on my arm.

In my attempt to emulate the properties of an inanimate decoration, I sag to the side, forgetting that my perch was a chair of the wheeled variety.

The chair shoots away from me, my legs fly in the air, and I smack to the ground in a tangle of dress and wig. Thankfully, a good actor knows how and when to improvise; I thrash around on the floor and evil crawl my way towards their feet, one hand stretching far ahead and pulling my body along by the fingernails. 

"This is too weird," I hear a teacher say. She ushers her students out.

Amir comes in, dressed as the Scream ghost. I try my act on him but all I get in return is some maniacal giggling from beneath his mask and a hug.

Right before quitting time, Najib roles in, costumeless, a pretty young Pakistani girl with him. I wait till they are nice and close, and then I leap from my corner and give it all I have. He interrupts my Satanic whispering and The Ring-style herky jerky movements to calmly introduce his sister to me.

"What? You weren't even scared? You knew it was me??"

I lift my mask from my face and look around. The party is over.

"You're very sweaty," Najib says.

His sister takes my picture with her Iphone and they leave.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Man made by clothes

In an effort to be the change, I have worn a shirt today that is not a part of my usual dark red uniform.


It says 'DUKE' and there is a picture of Satan on it.

My wife bought it for me.

Sometimes my wife buys me shirts, and I say, "I won't wear that." 

She cries and runs out of the house. When she shows back up, sometimes days later, I see her pull in the driveway and I quick put on the shirt. She walks in the door and I tell her, "I'm wearing it but I am really unhappy."

Then we eat ice cream off of my belly. If she tries to take more than her share, I can just roll away and get all the ice cream to myself. Because I am the serving dish.

That is neither here nor there. What is, though, is that I wore the Duke shirt today and it had unexpected consequences. 

Men suddenly spoke to me.

I have written before about my problems with men; it's nothing new, or even all that interesting.

For instance, the other day I was absently picking my nose and checking my Facebook for updates.

My new co-worker, a man named Curtis, was studying me with very suspicious eyes.

"You ain't a sports guy, is ya Mike?" 

I think he already knew the answer to that.

But here I was, a no-sports guy in a sports themed T-shirt, and as I walked down the hallway:


This youth offered his hand to me. I panicked. What are the current handshakes of men??

I study men greeting each other quite carefully, but the exact protocol to employ eludes me.

Even some of the hipper Special Needs students that I work with lapse into disillusionment when I flub yet another half hug to folded fingers switch grip slide and snap on the dismount that they greet me with. 

In the middle of that crowded hallway, I was smacking and tugging at this stranger's hand, just because of my shirt.

Half of the way through the ritual, I wanted to tell him how meaningless it is to me, all of it: the world of men; their sports, their shirts and shirt-attested loyalties, their slaps of high and five; the ponderous shuffle of their saggypanted, phallic bravado.

"Duke?" he says, "Are you a Mike Shbloshkins fan?" I didn't actually catch the last name, so I am making one up. The real name sounded like Polish vomiting.

"I don't know who that is," I answered, "My wife bought me this shirt." I added, with a hopeful shrug, "She thought this shade of blue looked cute on me."

He walked away confused.

I suppose I could have pretended; a nod, a 'you know it!', maybe even a pinchy grab at the front of the shirt, complete with some light, outward tugging for emphasis. 

But I have discovered that you cannot fake sports knowledge, it is highly specialized; you could no more pretend sports then you could theoretical physics. You are outed the moment you boast of enjoying the gridiron or a good frissioning of bosons. 

In this world of civil wars and governmental shutdowns, I cannot emphasize to you enough how much having men approach me over my shirt left me reeling; there is no worse a steady stream of bad news then a line-up of humans craving to interact with you.

Though I did discover that this Mit Shablashnik is quite the polarizing figure. One man, who opened the conversation with "Duke? I don't know what I hate more: Ohio State or Duke", told me he longed to smack Shablashnik across the face. 

Another beamed at the sight of me, announcing how he "admired the hell out of Shablashba." Is this character a coach? A player? The president of the university, perhaps?

I learned of him, but not who him.

The angry anti-Duke man, after asking me in vain about several other men of sports, declared me "hopeless".

I was still thinking about my shirt and all the troubles it had brought me as I assisted one of my favorite new students in the bathroom.

"Something is not right", Najib tells me. His voice is always very soft, and his Pakistani accent gives his r's a slight sustained hum.

You have to lean in close to hear him, and I often feel sorry that my breath is so bad, so frequently.

I took up gum again recently, but the constant chewing required to distinguish gum from other products such as lozenges hurt my jaw and made me tired.

When fresh breath becomes like work, know that you will want to keep your distance when speaking with me.

Najib means something is not right with my placement of his portable urine containment system, a half gallon milk jug with a paper towel wadded into the opening.

As Ms.Pam painstakingly instructed me on how to help Najib in the bathroom, she kept talking about "placing".

"I don't know if he does his own placing."
"You might have to place for him."
"Is he placed?"

I said, "Do you mean is his wiener in the milk jug?"

Only I didn't say that, because there were five of us crammed into the handicap stall, crowded around poor Najib in his power wheelchair, and we were all crossing our arms and nodding and being professional educators.

I enjoy situations where people are being so serious that they refuse to laugh about the poopy smell that's all around them. Someone had done a hasty, unhealthy evacuation in the stall next to ours, and the after-image of their stench was still flash burned into the air. In a good-natured attempt to get the party started, I let out with a loud 'good lord' and pulled the collar of my shirt up over my nose and mouth. No one so much as winced, and in fact several people looked at me in disapproval. I let the shirt slowly sag from my face.

More nodding. After hours of watching Ms.Pam do it, I have adopted the habit of nodding a lot as well. It's fun because after awhile, it's so constant that it's meaningless. Not assent nor understanding anymore, but just a nifty demonstration of just one of many ways that the neck can manipulate the head.

Ms.Pam reached one gloved hand down the front of Najib's sweatpants, preparing to place, and he vigorously shook his head.

"I do that part myself," he told her.

"Oh," she laughed nervously. "I should have asked you."

That was weeks ago. Now, I confidently put the carton down one leg of Najib's pants; I know that I do not have to touch the penis.

"It's not right," he says again, that soft voice. 

Najib strikes me as the closest I have ever come to meeting a true innocent. He has a form of muscular dystrophy that should have killed him several years ago; he lives on time stolen from the disease, and even a common cold can send him to the hospital and on into death. But he has a crooked, gentle smile that springs up easily and tugs at the long tube always taped to the side of his face.

I have just now accidentally crushed his balls by putting the urinal in his pants upside down.

"I'm so sorry-oh my gosh I am so sorry," I stammer out, as I free his genitals. Color returns to his face and he lets out a breath.

"Shew, dat would not be good, you don't want dat to happen," he tells me.

When he finishes, I am careful to wash his slender brown hands first before cleaning my own.

During the initial training with Ms.Pam, I made the mistake of washing my hands first.

She was on me at once, claws sinking into my forearms.

"Never," she hissed, "always wash the student's hands first. Wash them like this." She proceeded to give Najib a lengthy hand massage involving scented soaps and romantic oils. 

I can't be you, Ms.Pam, you with your attention to detail and your weird whispering and your breath that smells like band-aids.

Plain soap, a splash of water, and Najib and I are done.

As we leave the bathroom, he studies my shirt.

"Duke? You like dose guys?" He smiles up at me.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Thoroughly Modern Gweenbrick

My new classroom is located in the throbbing pickled heart of a junior college. This means I have found myself immersed in the culture of Modern Youth.

How much do you know about Youths?

I've managed to make a few observations about them, none of which are new or revelatory, but they are, nonetheless, unique to me and my experience, and therefore worthy of being uploaded to the World Wide Web and disseminated across the entire digitally connected galaxy of mankind.

When submerging yourself into the culture of the young, bear in mind that not all of the language they employ in their attempts at articulating their feelings is gentle to the ear; I have tried to record here verbatim what I have heard, and in doing so, I risk offending those of you with sensitive spirits. This is not done to shock, I assure you. It is simply to give you the feel of how young people are communicating with each other; to keep it, as they say, real.

For instance, I overheard two young men discussing their feelings towards the opposite sex. They were both staring down into smartphones as they talked. 

"What, you like white girls? Mixed? Fat bitches?"
His friend grunted what may have been an affirmation at that last option. 
"You be liking fat bitches? Alright then, you be who you be and you be liking what you be liking, know'em saying? Fat bitches be all right. Mm-hmmm." I am uncertain how to spell out the last sound he made; it was like a yummy sound, but with some sex in there as well.

Now, I am guessing you think this conversation took place between two African Americans. I am here to destroy stereotypes. They were Muslim or Italian; not sure, something swarthy. I guess Mexican could be on the table as well. 

It doesn't matter what port they call home. What matters is that they were young and I was eavesdropping on them.

Speaking of race, here is one I found confusing. 

I was hiding around a corner from Ms.Pam the teacher because she is scary, when I suddenly heard:

"Bro! Bro! Bro! Buy me some motherfuckin ice cream bro motherfuck ain't got no money." Then came the sounds of vigorous kicking.

"Oh shit! Kick that fucking nigger! Beat that nigger's ass!"

My curiosity and sense of civic duty compelled me to peak from my hiding place.

A group of white kids, one of them wearing a Minecraft T-shirt, were kicking the base of the machine that dispenses ice cream. They all had bangs in their eyes and amateur beards sprouted by sheer effort of will. I think I can I think I can POP! Beard.

But here I sincerely plead ignorance: what is the modern state of "nigger"?

Has it passed into acceptable, even arbitrary use, among the young?

I studied these boys intently: they had no drawl to their speech, no coonskin caps or Confederate currency peeking from the pockets of their crotch throttling skinny jeans; none of the tells of the obvious racist.

They were only babies; hairy, hairy babies, suckling their Iphone nipples with their ravenous hairy baby thumbs.

And yet, they called the ice cream machine a nigger.

Everyday our class comes here, the Student Center, the hub of campus where all the food is eaten, all the girls ogled, all the Magic played. The noise and the spectacle still knock me back a step. 

This is a land where the men are lanky and spastic, enamored of their own spontaneity; their pronoun of choice a chimera of "Bitch Dog Bro". 

A land where the women no longer sport thick, sensible flannel shirts over their denim jumpers, but instead advertise boobs 'til Tuesday, flanks o'plenty, and anklescomegetsome.

And all these creatures always consuming; tubes of Subway funneled down gullets, cherry walnut salads dissected of anything green, paper trays of French fries, lattes slurped.

And all of them on the Internet always; the Internet constant, the Internet omniscient, the Internet eternal.

Vertigo from staring too long into the gap between generations overcomes me. I slip into my hiding places and eat my apple turnovers. 

I know I used to be a youth, I know it.

I looked at girls and bench-pressed respectable amounts of weight above my prone body. 

I worked alone, angrily, in my bedroom, while The Sounds of Silence tape played over and over again in my brick-sized Walkman. It was an illegal bootleg copy of the actual record, which was downstairs in my parent's living room, so I felt like a criminal when I listened to it.

A criminal pumping iron in his bedroom, getting strong to Feelin' Groovy.

Then I acquired one of those stretchy pully bungee things with a handle on each end. I think it was the Torso Pump or something. 

You pulled it straight across your chest and marveled at how handsome it made you. 

I used it religiously. 

First I cried with joy at how my pectorals filled out and danced with my laughter,  but then I realized they were still going. 

The Torso Pump worked too well, and worse, it had no reverse function. You could not cross your arms, do the exercise the opposite way and pop your boobies back into their sockets.

Imagine being the strongest man in the world but having to wear a bra. 

Imagine almost all of you is steel, except your front parts and your heart, which breaks each time children titter at you on particularly bouncy wagon rides, or shatters when you catch an old woman averting her eyes from your vigorous game of hop scotch.

What happened to the youth? Why do I feel not of them?

Why this violent urge to sneak up behind their vapid texting forms and strangle them with the cord of a rotary phone, whispering in their ears with my rank green tea and Lipitor breath, It's wasted on you, you somnambulic dullards, all of this youth is wasted on you....