Who Shall Rescue Amerika?
By Viktor Car
When Reginald walked into my company's conference room, I could see he was impressed by the walls of technical publications, the granite-lined table, dim lights, soft rugs. We sat down and exchanged pleasantries. I handed him my business card, and we were ready to start the job interview.
Reginald is a wide-faced, big-eyed, muscular black man in his mid-twenties. He's smart and has a disarming smile. He studied at Texas A&M, where he was a running back, and speaks softly and slowly. He's also a former Marine recently returned from Bosnia.
I am an engineer and a vice-president of a prominent mid-size engineering firm in Houston, Texas. I have been asked to interview Reginald for the position of Field Technician which pays $6.50 per hour for the testing of concrete and soil.
After the first few minutes Reginald becomes more relaxed but is still uncomfortable in the business suit he has been advised to wear. We chat about football, about academic subjects he studied and about his previous employment. We also talk about Bosnia, since we both know the place.
I am a Croatian, from Zagreb. Before Reginald and his buddies came to cement the freshly brokered peace deal in our unfortunate, blood-soaked corner of the globe, I was living there, trying simply to survive, embittered by the world's ignorance and appeasement of the genocide taking place. Our lives depended on Western political will. But while the West weighed arguments from one lobbying group or another and dallied over long lunches with some nice old port, in the Balkans the pile of cadavers was rising steadily. Like people trapped inside an hourglass, we were waiting for our own turn to seep down through the funnel. British lords and French cynics, forums, committees, advisory boards, these were the quite lethal parameters of our survival equation.
With perverse slowness the Bitch Europe had been calmly observing grisly scenes of mass murder, genocide and rape. After years of such impotence it was Reginald and his comrades who finally came to rescue a country most Americans have never even heard of.
Reginald was told not to interfere with the locals there so as to keep casualties to a minimum. As far as he and his buddies were concerned, they were in a land of savages, blood-thirsty animals who killed and tortured for pleasure. After months of strict discipline in the area around Tuzla, now he was back home in Houston, returned to normalcy and civility, to good food, good living and, as Texans are proud to insist, freedom. And here he was in a dark-blue business suit, applying for a job paying $6.50 an hour at a company owned by an Iranian going by the name of Edmund Fletcher.
A job interview is a serious matter in America. Watching Reginald's wide-open, honest eyes I sympathized with him as he searched for the right words in that better vocabulary we trot out for special occasions. Looking at him, I saw myself a few years earlier...
....entering the American Embassy in Zagreb. I have greeted the Marine on guard at the entrance in my best Oxford English. Not even a blink in response. Once inside I apologize repeatedly to everybody and, had they put a dummy there, I would have apologized to it as well. Picking up some immigration forms, I already feel guilty of conspiring to steal some American's own livelihood. Croatians employed by the embassy regard people like myself as common scum, poorly dressed, apologetic, tense. What my exiled generation can offer so ashamedly to such safe harbors as Tasmania, Ontario and Texas is decades of advanced education, fluency in half a dozen different languages and civility, in return for a chance to live out our anonymous lives in peace, to escape the humiliating cycle of some other group's good will or hate.
I am not just an engineer. I like to think I am a writer too. So I cross borders, go into unchartered waters. I observe barefoot children and alcoholics in the prime of life. I take note of overweight women and their prostitute daughters. I chat with Mexicans munching burritos and I sit silently in black bars, listening to the blues. But despite the variety of the life around me, I can't escape that same feeling from my days during the Balkan war, the dull despair of being trapped. Trapped in a war, or in ghetto, or simply in a primal mindset that there is nowhere to go and no one to help you.
I am an emotional guy and like to listen to people. They sense my compassion and tell me things that go beyond what they may have at first intended to reveal. Things they had tried to bury even from themselves. I smile and try to make them aware that I value their stories and their lives.
Lynda, who is thirty-seven like me, tells me she has a daughter who is twenty-one. Lynda works in an erotic cabaret and has not seen her daughter for several years. The girl was kidnapped from her own apartment while her mother was at work. Desperate and enraged, Lynda took out her Magnum and went out on the streets to find a black man to shoot. The girl was later found unharmed in a neighbor's apartment. An older, black child had indeed kidnapped her.
After that incident Lynda asked her ex-husband to take care of the girl. Mothers do not easily give up their children. It's just not natural. But Americans learn early to master the art of opposing what is natural. Lynda began living on her own, driving her pickup truck, working two jobs, sleeping around and drinking heavily. She got arrested twice in nine months for DWI. Eventually she remarried, got beaten up badly by her new husband and had him put in jail until the year 2006. As she tells this story, behind her clear blue eyes there is the uncomprehending sadness of a lost child.
Valery was thirty-one when she left her own three children. She took an apartment, spent a year rollerskating and lying around the pool. She knew she was depressed and realized she had to take control of her life before it was too late. Now she works long hours, still rollerskates and visits Mexico to see the Aztec ruins.
Jane is on Prozac. She needs both hands to cover her large mouth and yellow teeth as she laughingly describes how she went crazy and ended up in a mental hospital for the first time. She had been raped on her 17th birthday. She didn't report the rape to the police (all that humiliating testing in the hospital), but she did tell her mother. Her mother responded coolly. "Told'ya, gotta be careful out 'ere". She lives with Mom now, takes lots of naps and watches soaps.
Susan is from a family of drunks. She likes city living. She sips a beer as she drives around in her Miata, because in Texas it is unthinkable to drive sober. Her brother, a poet and an alcoholic, committed suicide on her birthday. Susan once broke both of her ankles while drunk in Acapulco. She sleeps with four or five guys at a time, never eats at home and must be on the move all the time. She lies to the point of absurdity, and starts every day with a shot of Bushmills. Thanks to the regimen of heavy drinking, fucking and cruising trendy bars, her hangovers have started to turn into a sullen fatigue. Yet she is incapable of slowing down, deeply fearful of being left alone by herself, isolated and abandoned. So she keeps up her killing routine, dyes her graying hair back to its original red and keeps on going.
Another friend, Renee, is a black school teacher. In her school there are no white children. She once expelled a boy from her second-grade class for stealing money from his babysitter. The boy said he was hungry and had bought food with the cash. The reason didn't work. They have corporal punishment in that school. With parental consent, they can whip a child. When the faculty organize a three-dollar trip to the zoo, eight out of the thirty children in the class bring the money. Growing up in a ghetto means no contact for the children with other races. Attempts to take these kids outside their own world are futile. Their parents don't care. They themselves were born in the ghetto and are dying there. Why shouldn't their children?
In Croatia I would see little boys, refugees who had lost their parents, buying food or aimlessly wandering the streets of Zagreb, suddenly without home, school or their familiar books and toys. I applied to emigrate, wanting to remove myself from that unbearable tragedy and choking pain.
Interviewing Reginald, I remember my boss's words about who I should hire: Don't hire whites--they think they're entitled to a free ride and don't like to work hard. Don't hire blacks--they think they shouldn't be any worse off than whites, even though they are not well-educated or quick to learn. Find Chinese, Indians or Pakistanis, Indonesians or Iranians or East Europeans, people with extended families to support who are willing to work hard and who have a good education. Hire the ones whose English is the worst because they lack self confidence and will work for peanuts. Also, hire those with questionable immigration status--we can control them. And don't be a wimp. These people are not used to politeness. You have to be strict, you have to kick their asses....
Back in Croatia the war and misery made us beggars in our own home--discriminated against, insulted, manipulated, driven crazy by West Europeans who regarded our tragedy cynically. My generation reacted by immigrating to Australia or Colorado. We left our beloved, mythically beautiful homeland to search for a little dignity, some normalcy. But in America I peer inside this mysterious, shiny armor of success and see rust, bugs, spider webs.
We Slavs cry for others while neglecting ourselves. When confronted by misery I cannot look the other way, a skill my American friends seem to have mastered so well. Sometimes I go to parties for the well-to-do, and I see nothing but vanity, shallowness, greed and materialism. And of course, everybody is divorced. They jog in solitude past empty tennis courts, eat salads, gulp vitamins, obsessed with their bodies, obsessed with sex, living sad, lonely lives, fucking the same ugly boyfriends every second Thursday. Trying desperately to make some sense of their pointless lives, they cover their wrinkled skin with Spandex and lift weights. There are no grandchildren to look after, no children who care. There are no parents to worry about. Just themselves-- taking good care of themselves, raking in big bucks, investing their earnings into staying forever young, buying everything from cosmetics to fresh blood (just in from Brazil) to devices designed to improve their waning lust. How did they manage to so successfully amputate the last little root of their souls? How many generations did it take to create these spiritual zombies?
I do not hire Reginald. He is a nice fellow and I like to think there is a better chance for him somewhere else. I am fed up. In a few days I will leave this company. I guess I just don't have the right stuff.
I see now that I react to Houston the same way that I reacted to the war in the Balkans. Weakling that I am, I want to turn my back on disaster and misfortune, to go someplace where misery is just an occasional event, not a well-established way of life. But living in physical or virtual ghettos doesn't appeal to me. Living without anything to live for is unbearable. Human beings need books, conversation, they need to think and interact. They need to laugh. I for one can not wall myself up inside a self-made prison, no matter whether it's a religious or a sexual one. the worn-out blues bars of Houston play the true tune of this tired society.
I was brought up to believe that individualism isn't everything, that you are rich if your environment is rich. Private fortunes are worthless, merely reflecting a sick, imploding society based on greed and prejudice. Materialism, in turn, stimulates subconscious guilt, making people turn to religious extremism.
But maybe it is I who am wrong. Living and dying in a ghetto may be more dignified than wandering the world as I do, nosing through its trash.
My American friends are mainly writers in their late forties and fifties. For some reason I communicate best with that generation. Maybe because they haven't abandoned the ethical and intellectual groundings they put together in the 1960s. I see them as last survivors of an onslaught of consumerism that thoroughly overwhelmed the generations that came after them.
I wander sometimes who will rescue America from itself? The Bosnian Marines?
Victor Car is 37, a native Croatian, naturalized Canadian, currently living in Houston, but soon to leave. Writing has been his hobby since his early teens. He studied civil engineering at the University of Zagreb and also edited a university magazine there. Some of his short stories have been published in Web zines, and one in the Canadian literary magazine Blood & Aphorisms. "Some people characterize my writing as 'powerful fact based on poetic fiction,' others consider it quite illiterate."