Removal

A “removal” used to mean moving a dead body from a home or hospital to a funeral home in preparation for burial or cremation. In President Trump’s America, however, the term has come to refer to deportation from the United States.  Still, when I think of “expedited removals,” the image that comes to mind is one of a black hearse screeching up to the curb and guys in dark suits with bad haircuts running up to the front door with a gurney.  Somehow, boarding passes for Guatemala and El Salvador never quite make it into that picture.  Nor do handcuffs, heavily-armed guards and midnight knocks on the door by la migra.

Perhaps substitution of the word “removal” for “deportation” is appropriate, as President Trump appears to be treating undocumented immigrants as dead tissue that must be excised to save the American body.  Like Kevin O’Leary on TV’s Shark Tank, it’s as if our president is telling our immigrants “you’re dead to me.”  He somehow wishes to purify us by eliminating from our midst those who risked their lives in a bid to escape to the land of the free.  And I venture to say that I’m not the only one who finds recent events disrespectful to those who didn’t survive the journey, who never made it to freedom.

The Bible speaks of the “uncleanness of death” (tu’med met in the Hebrew) that comes upon those who touch a corpse until such time as they sprinkle the water of purification upon themselves.  Num.  19:13. Does our president really believe that ridding ourselves of those who arrived here in desperation, “yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty, will serve as some sort of purification?  Is this particular brand of xenophobia some sort of Marseillaise under which we are fighting against an impure blood polluting our furrows?  The whole concept leaves me rather aghast.  I only hope that our president has a relationship with God and that he is reminded of the injunction of Leviticus 19:34, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (KJV)  Indeed, we were all immigrants once.

The immigration follies have been going on in one form or another for well over a century.  My grandfather, who arrived on our shores in 1923, held a passport from a nation in which he was not born, in which he never resided, and which, in fact, did not even exist.  This legal fiction allowed him to satisfy the quota for that year and that, apparently, was enough to get him through Ellis Island, where his sponsor picked him up.  Then, as now, laying it all on the line for a new life involved dancing into a gray area between what was legal and was humanly right.

Grandpa was a Polish Jew, which, in those days, essentially rendered him a stateless person.  Poland did not recognize the citizenship of Jews, although that did not stop its government from drafting Grandpa into its army.  And so, the “nationality” field on his passport reads “Israeli.”  My mother still has it, packed away in a box in the back of a closet. The fact that the modern nation of Israel did not come into existence for another quarter of a century did not seem to bother anyone at the time.

My grandfather, a tailor by trade, became a furrier in Manhattan’s garment district and began a long life as a resident of New York City.  When I was little, he lived three floors below us in our rent-controlled Bronx walk-up, and later, after my grandmother died, about a block away with his new wife.  He learned English, studied for the citizenship test, and became a naturalized American long before I was born.

Many years later, in his old age, he finally visited Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall and relaxed on the beach at Netanya.  Having died in the year that Reagan took office, I have to wonder what he would think of the shenanigans of late.  I have no idea how Grandpa felt about Reagan, but I am hard pressed to imagine him voting for a Republican.  On a windy day this past May, during my first visit to New York in more than 20 years, I visited his gravesite in Queens.  I took photos for my mother, who wanted reassurance that her parents’ graves were being cared for.  I recalled childhood days of utter boredom, at this very spot, waiting endlessly for my mother to finish her visit, knowing nothing of her grief that years failed to erase.

My mother grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where she had the pleasure of sharing a pull-out bed in the living room with her older sister.  The girls were expected to speak English at home, and English was the only language that my grandparents used with their kids.  When it came to conversations with each other, however, my grandparents lapsed into a medley of eastern European languages. Mom recalls how, through the bedroom door at night, she and her sister could hear the murmured cadences of Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German. And she remembers how, even in their English conversations, they often spoke of something mysterious called “the HIAS” (pronounced “high ass”).

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and shelter to Jews newly arrived on our shores after having escaped Russian pogroms and, later, genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.  They had a dormitory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a setup on Ellis Island, where they often lent indigent immigrants the $25 landing fee.  In looking up the history of the HIAS online, I was shocked to learn that they’re still in existence, fighting against the anti-immigration policies of our current administration.

It’s reassuring to know that there are still organizations out there speaking for those who have essentially been rendered voiceless and left for dead.  As for my grandpa, if he were alive today, I believe he’d be donating his time and money to support the HIAS and others who work to make an American life possible for those who find themselves in the same difficulties that he once faced.

 

 

 

Babel

Reno sign

SPARKS, NEVADA

Virginia Street runs through the heart of downtown Reno, but no longer through its soul.

Where once a vibrant crossroads stood, partyers spilling out of casino doors onto the sidewalk, now only a shadow remains.  Alas, poor Yorick, I knew you well.

Sure, many of the casinos are still around:  Circus Circus, with its overhead skywalk to the Silver Legacy; the Cal-Neva, where my wife and her friends used to get 99 cent breakfasts; Fitzgerald’s.  But the Virginian is long gone, its abandoned facade grotesquely greeting visitors like an insect’s cast-off exoskeleton.

Saddest of all is the lack of people.  An old man in a wheelchair waits to cross the street; a woman wanders about in a glassy-eyed stupor.

But mostly the sidewalks are empty, the revelers of yesterday having moved on to greener pastures.  We creep down this once thriving artery, hitting every stoplight and gawking at what once was.  The pickup in front of us has a half-full bottle of water sitting on its bumper; the traffic moves so slowly that it remains upright and unjostled.

Past the federal and county courthouses, a few signs of life begin to appear.  A butcher shop features a large overhanging sign:  Walk-ins welcome.  There are tattoo parlors, vintage clothing boutiques, pawn shops, tiny convenience stores, Indian and Korean restaurants, fleabag motels with names like the 777 and the Lucky Strike.  But Zephyr Books, with its thousands upon thousands of eclectic volumes filling endless shelves and heaped upon tables, is gone.

Farther south, the urban vibe vanishes, as Virginia Street takes on a decidedly suburban cast.  Smallish shopping centers line both sides of the avenue:  Burlington Coat Factory, Kohl’s, Outback Steakhouse, Foley’s Irish Pub.  Wal-Mart.  A branch of the public library.  Border’s is gone, of course, but Barnes & Noble is still there, along with BJ’s Brewery, Olive Garden and the multiplex movie theaters.

Check-in time at our motel is 3 pm; we showed up at 3:05, hoping to settle in before heading out for the evening.  When I provided our reservation information to the desk clerk, she seemed perplexed.  She wasn’t sure whether our room was ready yet.  Over a crackly walkie-talkie, she asked the housekeeper whether 127 had been cleaned yet.  An unintelligible squawk issued in reply.  The clerk looked at me sheepishly.  “She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, ” she ruefully admitted.

I realized that I would have to help her.  “Just say ‘Cien veinte-siete, ¿esta propio?'” I coached her.  Ignoring me, she tried again in English.  She took the return crackle as a “yes” and proceeded to check me in.

What is wrong with this picture?  I have always believed that the barriers we throw up between each other block the empathy that is the essence of humankindness.  But have we really descended to this?  Have we reached the nadir at which employees are unable to understand each other sufficiently to perform the jobs for which they were hired?

Like the desk clerk at our motel, I don’t speak Spanish.  With the encouragement of my mother, I studied French throughout junior high and high school.  This was back in the 1970s, when Spanish was widely pegged as the “easy” language, suitable for study only by business track students.  The college bound were expected to study French or German, the languages of academia.  Also, I grew up in New York, where the vast migrations from Latin America hadn’t yet made the kind of impact that they have today in California.

And yet, as a resident of my adopted Golden State, I have made it a point, in middle age, to pick up enough Spanish to at least be able to ask “Where’s the bathroom?” or “What’s the price?” or, I don’t know, perhaps “Is room 127 clean yet?”  What kind of world do we live in when we can no longer communicate our most basic needs or even say, “Good morning, how are you?”

At a Scrabble tournament a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine bemoaned the fact that he was unable to communicate to the Spanish-speaking housekeeper that the public rest room was out of toilet paper.  “Papel hygiénico,” I coached him.  But he was clearly uninterested in even trying.  What little Spanish vocabulary and nonexistent Spanish grammar that I can lay claim to, at least I know how to say “toilet paper,” for heaven’s sake!

I hear so much talk these days about how immigrants to the United States should learn to speak English.  Perhaps so, but shouldn’t we meet them halfway?  Wouldn’t it be a kind gesture to at least learn enough Spanish to make our neighbors feel that we are making an effort?

After watching the Olympics for the past two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that athletes from the four corners of the world speak excellent English, while their native tongues remain shrouded in mystery to Americans.

So here in Nevada, we stopped at a convenience store to fill up our gas tank a couple of nights ago.  It quickly became apparent that the clerk spoke very little English.  I’m sure that a little Hindi, Tamil or Pashto would have come in handy.  Lacking any knowledge of these languages, we were still able to get across the message that we wanted the clerk to turn on Pump #1 so we could fill up.

Or so we thought.  Although I pumped more than $30 of petrol into our vehicle, the clerk handed us a debit card receipt reflecting only ten dollars.  Despite our arguments to the contrary, he insisted that it was correct.

When we later checked our debit card statement, we found the $30 charge on there.  Along with the mysterious $10 charge from the clerk’s receipt.  When we returned to complain, we were told that no manager would be available until Monday.  In the end, I’m sure we’ll have to work it out with the bank.

Welcome to Reno, Tower of Babel.

 

Wake Up, Dear, You Were Just Having an American Dream

dream

Shout out today to new bloggers Laura and Bob of The Two Who Wander.  I am so glad I happened to run across their little corner of the blogosphere.  They are recent retirees who have invited us to share this new chapter in their lives and to tag along on their adventures across the USA.

I particularly enjoyed Bob’s post Retired! in which he takes us on a guided tour of his career working first on coin-operated games at a small firm and then for many years at Hughes Aircraft.  Bob tells us that his employer provided “a pension that will provide enough income to help Laura and I survive into old age.”  I can only sigh and gaze wistfully at such things.

In my mind, I travel back to my junior year of high school, when I was one of two students selected to compete in a national writing competition.  The other student was a girl who was a talented musician, a brilliant student and at the top of our class.  I, on the other hand, was a new student who had just moved to the area and somehow impressed the creative writing instructor with a couple of poems.  Perhaps the school thought that this outsider could be the secret weapon who brings home the big one for good old John Jay High.

When the two of us arrived in the classroom at the appointed time, the proctor informed us that we’d have an hour to write anything we wanted on this year’s topic, “the American dream.”  I asked if it was okay to write a poem.  The proctor reiterated that we could write whatever we wanted.

Peering over to the other side of the classroom, I saw the young lady immediately begin to scribble her thoughts, only occasionally looking up for inspiration before lowering her head and continuing.  I, on the other hand, had no clue what to write.  None at all.

I had no idea what the phrase “the American dream” meant.

I writhed uncomfortably like a butterfly mounted on a pin while still alive.

The jig was up.  I would now be exposed as the fraud I really was.  I ended up turning in three or four lines of nonsense and did the best I could to forget about the whole thing.  Now that forty years have elapsed, I think I can fairly state that I have been as unsuccessful in the forgetting part as I was in the writing part.

Later, I found out that “the American dream” is somehow associated with home ownership.

Oh.

Even though I was born in Manhattan, I feel as if I must really be from another country, as home ownership has never meant anything to me.  I’ve always been a renter and plan to continue so to the end of my days.  Perhaps somewhere along the line I fell asleep and had the Swedish dream or the Chinese dream.

I guess I could be like my sister, who owns homes in two different states, but has to rent them out in order to pay for them.  Meanwhile, she is unemployed and living in an extended stay hotel in Reno, where she just had her car broken into and had to have the smashed window replaced.  On her own dime, I might add, as she hasn’t yet met her deductible.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the countless multitudes of my fellow Americans who have become victims of subprime mortgages, who have seen the value of their homes plummet in decomposing neighborhoods, whose home loans have gone “under water,” who have been awarded their marital homes in divorce settlements but can neither keep up the mortgage payments nor sell out, or who have absconded after the foreclosure notice has been affixed to their front doors.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the many impoverished households in this area in which ten or twelve people are forced to live together and the roof over their heads is earned at the price of having no food in the house.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like our homeless friend who alternates sleeping in a chair at a friend’s house and rolling up in his sleeping bag outdoors.  One day last week, he came begging for a dollar because he was dying for a cigarette.  Thursday, he came by because he was hungry and we fed him dinner.  The next morning he came by again and we gave him breakfast.  Is that the American Dream?

I suppose I could quit it with the pessimism and look at the multicultural melting pot that we have become as the American dream.  The joy of living in a time and place where I can sing Hebrew songs in a church in which most of the parishioners speak Spanish.  Where I can eat latkes one day and tacos the next.  On that day back in high school, perhaps I should have written about my grandmother traveling by train from Austria to Le Havre in France and boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic in steerage, seasick for weeks, to reach a better life in the United States.  In the insular childhood I enjoyed on the East Coast, I had no idea that there were Mexicans paying their life savings to be ferried across the Arizona border, only to be abandoned and die in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.  Nor did I know about those who actually made it, finding the American Dream working as domestics, field hands and day laborers in California or meat packers in Nebraska in order to send a few dollars back home to the family in Jalisco.

Or perhaps the American dream has evolved into obtaining our fifteen minutes of fame, winning the Power Ball, wearing a chicken costume on American Idol or twerking on the world stage of the VMAs.

No, today I think we have a new American dream, and I thank Bob and Laura for reminding me of this.  The American dream for the twenty-first century is to be able to retire before the age of sixty with a pension that will support us so that we can follow our dreams, American or otherwise, for the rest of our lives.

For myself, however, as for most of us, this is a dream that will forever remain out of reach, a dream that vanishes into thin air the moment we open our eyes.