It’s 38 degrees and 3:45 in the morning. I am feeding suitcases and bags into a Boeing 737 via a belt loader — a conveyor belt on wheels. The loader slowly carries them up to my colleague who sits just inside the forward cargo hold.
|I toss an odd-sized piece of luggage onto the belt. The move tightens my 50-something year-old back, shock-signaling a warning.
My first week on the job and my body is already pleading me back to an office, a nice warm cubicle somewhere with coffee down the hall.
I throw another bag. Above me passengers seem to glow as they settle inside the warm well-lit cabin, oblivious to my pain.
|The sup yells “let’s go.” to us. He screams it again, trying to be heard above the mighty spooling engines and through our ear protection. Things are often repeatedly incessantly on the ramp until the listener signals understanding. Here we are all a little deaf.
Finally, the choreography begins. The tow-bar guy connects the tow bar to the aircraft’s front landing gear and the sup gets into the tug. We fan out to wing walk. Inertia is overcome and the tons of steel begin to push back away from the terminal.
|The tow bar is released, and the tug moves back and away from the aircraft. Its sentient cargo stir.
Like war drums, the engines scream louder and louder as we scurry back to the terminal’s safety.
The engines are now too dangerous for us to be near. They scream their warning, blasting cold morning air more and more forcefully until the 5:45 begins to roll down the empty runway.
Soon, nearby low-rent neighborhoods will get their wake up call. The mighty Phoenix has risen, and it will continue to do so eight more times today.
You might think Brain drain is a medical term. And there may be such a thing as brain drainage (of course, the medical community probably uses a more technical term), but when Americans say “brain drain”, they are usually referring to a country’s best and brightest leaving home for a country where they can have a better life. Of course, Americans think that place for a better life is always America.
India is a prime example of brain drain. Almost all of my doctors have been Indian. Also, visit Silicon Valley or any other center of high-tech and you might find yourself a minority — that is if you are not Indian. Gifted Indians seem to be endless boarding aircraft for the West. Makes me wonder whose left to turn out the light.
Brain drain into America is one of the things that makes our country great. Despite the angry words of chuckle-headed politicians, the influx of the world’s best brightest should always be welcome here, and most hope they always will.
But brains aren’t the only thing that drain. Other examples include “down the drain,” which means lost forever.
“You just ran a red light!” No limo driver wants to hear that. It’s done. There’s no going back, If there ever was going to be a tip, it’s gone now. And now my passenger is fearing for her life, I look back. I’m so sorry, I say, She’s actually sweating, silent and in shock. I see her contemplating the door handle. I step on the gas to get us going fast enough so she’ll have second thoughts about jumping out. Burbank Airport is just a few minutes away, maybe three more signals. I want her out as much as she wants out. We both share that common goal. But not until we get to the airport.
I hear her on the phone. She’s calling a friend and asking if we are going in the right direction. Her friend is reassuring her over the phone and I can tell my customer has somewhat relaxed. She wipes away the thin patina of sweat from her face. ” I think if you go up this street, it’ll take you to the airport” she says, trying to be supportive. I can tell she’s cooling. I drive extra carefully, ignoring the GPS that is contradicting her. “Whatever she wants,” I say to myself. Having a sense of control calms her even more. She recognizes the area and knows she will make her flight. She is a mixture of emotions. I know she could call my boss and complain and that would be that. What do they do to drivers who run red lights and get lost? Probably nothing at the company I work at. But my pride would be shattered.
We turn into the small airport and drive slowly towards the terminal. How much do I owe you? she asks in a tone of tempered rage. I stop the car at the curb. If there is one thing that working with humans has taught is that no one accepts an apology, they only accept cash “I can’t charge you for this,” I tell her. The woman’s voice changes. She’s taken aback. The story she would tell about the horrible ride now has an unexpected ending. She is off balance.”Really?” Getting something for nothing wrestles down her anger. She melts.
I pick up her bag from the trunk and place it on the ground. She grabs the handle and begins to roll it away. Watch the red lights, she tells me in a strangely warm tone. I tell her to call on us again if she’s brave enough and she smiles. We have an odd moment and then she vanishes into the airport, her mind preoccupied with the day ahead. I hope she never calls again.
There are only three of us in my immediate family, but I shop at Costco. if we need a castle of paper towels or a bottle of shampoo, I go to Costco. it’s not because I am a savvy shopper, a careful consumer or even a half-healed hoarder. I go there because i’m both lonely and hate most human interaction. Costco is my buffer, my go-between, my beard, my chaperone. It protects me from the human race while allowing me limited contact. It gives me the opportunity to be a male Jane Goodall (but without all that messy compassion).
I especially like spying on the many amoebic tribes that spread out and across Costco’s bald, cement floors in a constant search for free samples. Finding their prey, they pounce on the tiny, white-smocked serving women’s little paper cups. Modern gluttony exposed beneath the bright, slaughterhouse lighting.
But the samplers are only one of the huge warped pieces to my Costco fetish. I am weak in the knees for the Somali-style refugee like check outs. Who can deny the excited agitation and excitement that comes from waiting in one of those convoluted lines. It’s addictive–like sky-diving or cheating on your taxes.
I can always rely on a long, drawn out check-out experience at Costco. It’s part of the oversized package. And I love the ever-present puzzled woman who ,while under pressure, forgets how to separate herself from her cart — does she go left and the cart goes right? Or is it the other way around? The rest of us look on, miming our incredulity in a plethora of somatic gestures and eye rolls. Emotions are prickly, but the flabby middle aged cashier in clothes so tight they might be considered explosive, points to the two red signs and calmly explains, as she has for the past five years to countless others, just how customer and cart should be disentangled. The lesson we learn: Costco is patient, like geological erosion.
No matter how dehumanizing Costco tries to be with its stark steel and it’s survivalist-friendly, 12-month portions, it’s mountains of pants and it’s walls of underwear, humanity breaks through. You may have to buy a package of toilet paper as big as your couch, but it’s cheap, and the human circus performs daily.
The smell of Mexico City hits me as soon as my redeye flight from L.A. touches down. I imagine a putrefying grease, nauseatingly sweet and tangy to my nostrils. My mind doesn’t want to admit to a culinary attraction. The thick odor triggers both pangs of hunger and guttural convulsions of disgust.
We exit the Aeromexico 737 in fits of starts and stops. Walking through endless corridors, we all look waxy, paled by developing-world florescent lighting. It’s pre-dawn. As we move along, a cadre of airline and security personnel welcome us while suspiciously looking us up and down at the same time.
A few questions, a little bit of paperwork and I’m through customs and in a taxi heading for the Double Tree by Hilton. I look out the window into darkness. The driver speaks to me in Spanish. I understand nothing but agree to everything. Neither of us seems certain we’re going in the right direction but somehow we arrive. I check in. It’s nearly six a.m. but still no sun. I fall asleep, something I couldn’t do on the plane.
Two hours later, a beam of light floods my room from a small gap between two thick curtains. I walk over and pull them apart. The light is blinding. Outside, the architecture ranges from poor to “someone actually lives in that?”. Rusted and torn corrugated roofs are kept in place by large stones. City block after block of jumbled boxes spread out as far as the eye can see, and then vanish in an all engulfing thick, grey smog. Welcome to one of the most populated cities on earth. And the only one that’s actually sinking into the polluted water and mucky remains of an ancient civilization.
Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325. But thanks to Cortez, and some unruly neighbors, the city was almost completely destroyed in 1521. And then rebuilt in accordance with Spanish urban standards. The Spanish renamed it Mexico because Tenochtitlan was too hard to pronounce.
Missionaries took to saving souls, which included leveling Aztec shrines and then using them as foundations for catholic churches. The Aztecs’ tradition of cutting the hearts out of living humans and then barbecuing them, was no longer allowed. Of course the hearts weren’t the only things getting sacrificed. Spanish conquerors witnessed decapitations, dismemberment, disemboweling and even skinning. But the Aztecs had a good reason — keeping the cosmos in balance by bathing the earth in human blood.
I get dressed and head out to the lobby where I get the address for the National Anthropology Museum. I hand it to the taxi driver who is confused and tries to confirm the address with me. He speaks no English and simply looks at me and repeats something in Spanish. He does this repeatedly until he feels I have given some tacit approval, and then we’re off into Saturday traffic, hopefully heading for the museum.
We reach a busy, nicer area of the city with trees and space. There are people everywhere. The driver stops and motions to the large building across the street. I see a sign that says museum in English. We made it. I pay and get out.
The museum is huge: two large halls of artifacts. Nearly everything is in Spanish. Inside are entire Aztec temple walls and crypts. There is death and art in every corner. There are baby skeletons and rich grown up skeletons. And then there are countless clay figurines. Everything goes back thousands of years.
The Mexicans seem more at home with death then we are. It pervades their culture, as it should, I suppose. after all, it’s the flip side of life and just as apparent. The Mexicans have no problem with corpses, fresh or fetid. The poor who must rent cemetery space if they can’t afford to buy it, risk having their dearly departed kicked out of their eternal resting places. In fact, one cemetery puts the evicted into a museum where they are depicted in amusing scenes. It’s a popular tourist attraction. The national museum is a little classier.
I read a museum brochure. It explains Mexican history, and includes civilizations in Arizona, New Mexico and California. I am taken aback at first. Those belong to the United States, I think for a moment. But then remember the United States is a late comer, taking those lands in the 1800s. But to be fair, the Mexicans took them from the Spanish earlier. And the Spanish took them from the original inhabitants before that. My head swims. Even Los Angeles, the city where I live, belonged to three different national governments since its inception in 1781. And some people were alive for all three. I leave the museum with its details, dust and death for the airport.
The flight home is aboard Alaska Airlines. The attendants are playful and full of glee. The plane is only about half full so they are taking it easy. It’s a three-hour flight back and soon I am walking through another long hallway to get to U.S. customs and immigration. I make my way through, head out of the airport and hear a taxi driver talking to someone in Spanish. I realize that a line on a map can only change things so much.
“Is that…?” I slow my car as I motor down Sawtelle, one of L.A.’s insanely long streets. My view of the guy is suddenly cleared as a car passes. “It is him, it is.” I am so excited that I am mouthing the words. The guy who played “My name is Earl”‘s brother is slowly and heavily stepping from a brand-new Range Rover that has been cartoonishly accessorized. It’s like a big, metallic cheeseburger. He is oafish and wide, lumbering on the sidewalk, seeming to purposefully ignore me as I stare, no gawk at him through my passenger-side window. He glares straight ahead and I watch him like I’m on safari. Not a morning person, I surmise and then look back out the front window. I am a TV celebrity gawker. Others might follow sports stars like Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, but I am awed by TV stars, fresh and stale.
I was already happy about it being a beautiful Friday morning, but this has put me over the top. I continue down Sawtelle, excited to relay my experience with my co-workers.
Eva is at the elevator. I call out to her as I enter the lobby. “Eva, I saw “My Name is Earl”‘s brother.” She gets excited, too. “Wow. That’s great. Where was he?”
“He was going into Starbucks ( I now assume this). He doesn’t look like a morning person.”
My story reminds Eva of her celebrity encounter with Dolly Parton. “I saw her in the Vons Parking lot,” Eva recounts. “She looks just the same as she does on TV. She’s shorter than me.”
“I didn’t know that,” I reply. “Interesting.”
We are both excited to tell and hear our stories.
I enter an empty office. It’s still early and Lindsay, the sales assistant isn’t in yet. I craft an email to her:
I saw My Name is Earl’s brother going into Starbucks. You have to get up earlier if you want to catch the morning stars.
I reread the email and then press send.
I begin checking emails, and the workday begins.
Time passes and there is no reaction outside. I walk out of my office to see if Lindsay has come in yet. She is in her chair talking with Maria, a project manager.
“Did you see my email?” I ask with excited pride.
“Yeah, I don’t know who that is.”
“You’ve never heard of the TV show “My name is Earl”?
The two girls look at each other.
“Richard, we were born in the 90s. I did see Angelina Jolie’s dad at a Starbucks on Santa Monica last month, though. He smiled at me. I was like, whatever.”
I am dazed. Hit hard not only by her referring to movie legend Jon Voight as “Angelina Jolie’s dad,” but also by the reality of my advanced age. It’s like she has just given me a terminal diagnosis. The office blurs around me as I stare dumbly at the two girls who now ignore me as they talk with each other.
I find my way back to my desk, lost in a funk that comes with the sudden awareness of nearing personal mortality so early in the morning.
I sit and stare at the glowing icons on my computer screen. My thoughts turn back to the young girls just outside my door.
“Life goes by so fast,” I think. “And they don’t even know it.”
It’s Thanksgiving Eve, 1982 and I am looking at myself in a dirty bathroom mirror at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. I am in the grimy bathroom, probably the least hygienic place in the whole aging, moldy club. And that’s not good. Blood is gushing from my now oddly shaped nose. Its flow is so strong that I can feel the warm blood as it seeps through my black canvas Converse high tops. I am giddy.
The club’s manager Dirk Dirksen walks into the small room. He is shorter than me but 20 years older. He looks at me in the mirror. He is a legend. The promoter of punk in San Francisco. He is also nervous. I am seventeen, a child under the law. And he knows how fast his venue could get shut down because of a little thing like this. It’s happened before. He is a nervous man on the best of days, but seeing me smile through the wide red ribbon jetting from my nostrils makes him even more antsy. He has two rules for the club. Pay to get in and don’t get hurt. I face him. He curses under his breath and hands me a clean bar towel. “Here, hold your head up. Are you okay, Rick?” “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” I say, true to my punk rock ways. He quiets. “You know, you can fix that right now. Beat a trip to the doctors. If your parents see you like that, they’ll never let you in here again.” Dirk lets what he said sink in.
Hours earlier. The pit was filling up as Black Flag took the stage. This was an event. In fact, Black Flag was only a handful of decent bands that managed to find their way to the Mabuhay. And when they came, the house was actually packed, and not just with scenesters playing see-and-be-seen. These were actually fans who had come to see the band. It had been a good night for Dirk until he saw me dazed and bloody crumpled up in a ball on the dance floor while spastic fans continued to bump and trip over my body as they circled tribe-like. They beat each other with their white, bony arms. All the while, ear-splitting music blared so loud that it was disorienting.
My deepest secret was that I didn’t really like punk music. I was more into new wave. I never listened to punk, didn’t really enjoy what I heard, and knew most of the bands only by name. Still, I was attracted to the foreignness, the rage and the youthful angst. Punk was a British transplant. A culture from across the sea. And that’s what interested me.
In my mind, true punks suffered for their art. They skewered themselves with long needles and squatted in the abandoned and ignored areas of big cities. They were runaway artists with a death wish. I, on the other hand, had to ask my parents’ permission to take the 40-minute ride to the city,
I looked in the mirror. Two puffy and purple eyes looked back. They were my medals, My tickets into punk’s inner circle. I, too had now suffered for my art. No one could deny it. And it had been done in the pit during a Black Flag performance. It would be my story, my myth. It would make me.
“What I mean is, I can fix it if you want,” Dirk continued. “Can you?” I asked. He left the room and came back with some ice and a new towel.
“Here” he said, handing me the towel. “Blow hard into this.” I put the towel up to my nose and blew hard. I forced out a bubbly, chunky discharge.
Dirk put a hand on each side of my nose. He pressed gently on each side, his two hands forming a triangle. “Oh, one last thing,” he said. This will probably be the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced.” With all his force, he then squeezed both sides hard and then yanked down hard.
I heard the cartilage in my nose crunch like someone walking on snow as a bloom of pain expanded from the middle of my face and radiate outwards. The initial shock faded enough for my brain to translate the sensation into a loud scream. I began to feel woozy and Dirk sat me down on the toilet seat. He handed me the bag of ice and some aspirin. “Take these and put the ice on your face.”
Now instead of blood, there were tears streaming down my face. Tears of pain, anger and confusion. My home seemed so far away. I just wanted to be in my bed. Where’s the artistic purity in this? I thought to myself. Suffering and pain was just that, nothing more. A chapter had turned and I again faced the unknown. Punk was now dead, at least to me, anyways.