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Who Nose

So, the other day I had a couchsurfer.  For the two of you who still haven’t caught wind of couchsurfing.com, it is a social networking site that enables you to find people in cities that you are traveling to, who are willing to offer up their couch for you to stay on for free.  When I moved to Charleston, one of my goals was to put it on the tourist map, and I thought that a nice way to start would be to sign up to host couchsurfers.  I thought that I would have to do some major recruiting to get anyone to actually come to Charleston, but little did I know that Charleston happens to be conveniently spaced, for road trippers, between major cities to the north and south, and it looks big on the map, as it the state’s capitol, so people not familiar with the area are often fooled into stopping here.  However, they aren’t fooled completely because they usually just use it as a stop-over for one night, coming in late and leaving early in the morning.

I’ve had about ten couchsurfers in the four months that I’ve lived here, but only one has stayed for more than one night, and that was because he was a traveling church album photographer (who knew this was anybody’s occupation) and he came to Charleston for work.

So when Andi, from Germany asked to stay on my couch, I just assumed it was for the night.  Granted, when it eventually became clear that he was staying for nearly three nights (he left at midnight on the third evening) it’s not like I couldn’t accommodate this, I was just surprised.  But having Andi stay so long meant that he was the first couchsurfer that I felt like I had a chance to get to know.

One evening Andi and I were hanging out at the house.  Andi mentioned that I looked a lot like one of his friends, and he wanted to show me.  So Andi went through a bunch of his pictures until he came across one of this girl that I kept reminding him of.  He showed me the picture, which actually had two girls in it, both with brown hair, but one’s looked like it had been died a little lighter.  This was the girl on the right.  She was a pretty girl, but not overly pretty.  She wouldn’t necessarily stand out as being pretty, but it would be hard to imagine someone thinking of her as unattractive or ugly.  The girl on the left was pale and awkward looking.  Her features were shaped in ways unpleasing to the eye.  She was not someone who I would call pretty.

“Which one?” I asked.  He pointed to the one on the left, of course.   I guess I could kind of see the resemblance.  She did have similar coloring, I suppose, and like her I guess I don’t have the most attractive facial features, but I’ve always felt that I was still at least average pretty, and this girl was definitely below average.

It was funny though, because my x-boyfriend recently started dating someone new and we all went contra dancing with a  bunch of people, and one of the girls there was from out of town and she said, “Where did that other girl go?” and I was like, “Which girl?” And she was like, “The one in the skirt, the one that kind of looks like you.” And she was talking about Susanna, my x’s new girlfriend.  And I just thought that was funny, for obvious reasons, but I also took it as a compliment because I think that Susanna is a pretty girl.  But now I’m being told that I look like this ugly girl.  So what did we all have in common?  How am I, within in a week, told that I look like a very cute girl and a very uncute girl?  Brown hair, no make-up, and petite-ness, that’s how.

“Yeah, I think there are a lot of girls who are just kind of plain looking and have similar hair and skin color and so sometimes people think we look the same,” I said to Andi.  But Andi insisted that the girl and I had some similar features.

Then, the next day, Andi and my friend Trevor and I were just sitting around the living room when Andi said that he wanted to ask me something but that he didn’t want me to get offended.  Now, that intro always leads to no good, but when it is coming from a foreigner you just have no fucking clue what they are about to dish out- you may be about to hear the most insulting thing in your life.  But curiosity got the best of me, and I told him to go ahead.

Andi asked what happened to my nose.  Now, I have this weird red dot on my nose.  I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been there, but I think maybe for a year or two.  It is right in the center of my nose, and people often mistake it for a zit, but it’s not, it is a weird, red dot.  So, I said, “Oh, the red dot?  I know it looks like a zit, but it’s not.”

But he said, “No, not that.  The bump.  What happened?”

Oh shit, how fucking awkward.

“Did you break your nose?” he asked.

How could I answer this question with out it being incredibly awkward for everyone in the room?  My nose was so ugly to Andi that he thought I must have had an accident at some point in my life, which corrupted it and made it misshapen, when in fact this was the very nose that I was born with.  I came out of my mother’s vagina with the building blocks for this nose already in place.

“Um… no, nothing has happened to my nose.  This is actually the way I was born.  It’s genetic.  My grandpa and brother have similar noses.” I could feel my face flush with red, tingling heat.  It suddently felt 150 degrees. I wondered how red I looked to Andi and Trevor.  I’m sure it was noticeable as I’d been called out for blushing before.  But no one called me out on my blushing this time.

Andi just kept staring at me.  I didn’t want him to feel bad so I just tried really hard to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but truth be told, there are few moments where I have been more embarrassed.

What also made it worse was that I never even knew my nose was that bad, so it was kind of alarming.  I mean, I knew I had a hump, but you can only really see it from the profile view, which I don’t really check out that much, since when I look in the mirror, I kind of usually just look straight in, at the whole front of my face, and you can’t really see the hump from that angle.

I don’t remember how we moved on to talking about something else, but somehow we did.

But after that, I had a bit of a complex.  People don’t realize how one little question or remark can fuck someone up for the rest of their life.  Honestly, for a second, I thought that it was time to start saving up for a nose job.  But I could never really do that because then that just perpetuates the cycle and makes other people with fucked up noses feel more like freaks.  No, I had to keep this nose to prove a point.  To keep things on a level playing field, and to prove that I could still woo people, even with my ugly-ass nose.

But then, get this.  The next day I had two other people over at my house.  One of them was a guy named Glen, who I had met twice before, but hadn’t seen in a long while.  We were all sitting down in my living room chatting, when guess what the fuck Glen asks!??  He asked me what happened to my nose!?

I couldn’t believe it.  It was like he had somehow heard about what had happened before, and was asking it as a joke.  But there was no way Glen could have heard.  I hadn’t even told anybody about it!  So why all of a sudden was everyone bringing up my nose!?

But then he said, “Oh, maybe it’s just a zit.”  He was talking about the dot, okay, that makes sense.  I gave the usual dot exclaimer but then I told him how it was funny that he asked about my nose, because my couchsurfer just asked the same thing the other day.  I told him about the story of Andi asking about my nose and Glen said, “Yeah, well, I’ve seen you before, and it looks different now.  It looks more fucked up.”

Now this was bizarre.  Why would my nose look more fucked up now?  Then, suddenly I remembered.  Just two nights ago, Andi’s first night staying with me, I actually had bumped my nose on my nightstand.  It had hurt really bad, but I just brushed if off.  Could that have actually done some damage?  Was that why everyone was suddenly asking about my nose!?  I told Glen this, and he said that that must be it.

This was a huge relief.  Which is really quite hilarious because it doesn’t mean that my nose is any less ugly, it’s just a difference in how it became so ugly.  And for some reason answering the question, “What happened to your nose?” with “I hit it on my nightstand,” is so much less embarrassing to me then saying “I was born this way.”  Yep, now my affliction is no longer something out of my control, something that I was unfortunate enough to be born with, but something that I caused, something that I made happen, damage that I did to myself in the dark night of my bedroom.

And who knows, maybe it will heal and my nose will become as good as new…

After my neighbor (who I had never met) climbed onto my balcony and let himself into my house, drunk, while I was home alone–after he did that–I started carrying a can of pepper spray and my cell phone, on me, at all times.  Even if I was just going from the kitchen to the bathroom, I brought both these items with me.  I even slept with them.

One night I woke at 5 in the morning and could hear people talking on the other side of the wall.  Perhaps it was simply my paranoia, but it sounded like they were talking about me, about how I was scared of them, and how I thought they were all drug addicts, and some of the men joked about coming over to my place and bringing me back to their apartment right then.  They thought the whole thing was hilarious.  I called up my friend who lived down the street and had him come over to pick me up right then, at 5 in the morning.  I felt like a fool, but I also felt powerless and vulnerable.

This couldn’t go on.  Even if it was all in my head and I wasn’t actually going to get raped and murdered from an unwanted visitor in the middle of the night, I would probably die from a heart attack fearing it.

And yet, at the same time I wondered if I was just completely overreacting.  But then I’d say, “Well, it’s better safe than sorry.”

I started looking at new places.  I found one to look at two streets down and one world’s longest city block away from my current place (I fucking kid you not, check it out here http://www.wvtourism.com/spec.aspx?pgID=82, and control F “block”).  Maybe if the place had just been two streets down and a normal-sized city block away, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but I tell ya, the place I checked out was in a safer-looking part of town.  People owned nice cars and there was a dentist’s office across the street (I have no clue why I found that comforting).  The apartment was one of four subdivisions in an old, historic house.  I told the landlord that I liked it and that I wanted to move in as soon as possible.  I explained my current situation to him.

“Oh, well then you should probably hear why the previous tenant decided to leave…” he told me.

“Why’s that?” I wondered.

“She got shot at, through the front door.” He showed me where the bullet hole had been covered up with a piece of wood, nailed into the door.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

But then he explained that it had been people she knew, people she got mixed up with, and that he was going to get a lock put on the front building door.  

I took it.

About a week later, I was going back to my first place one last time, to sweep and vaccum it before I handed back the keys to my old landlord.  Everything had already been moved except a couple things, some gold and glass end tables, a sofa bed that was too heavy to move, and a large, heavy fake wood panelled television–all of which had already been in the house when I moved in.  I had planned on putting them on craigslist and trying to sell them, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  

As soon as I opened the door to my now old apartment, I noticed that the TV was gone.  Someone had broken in and somehow lugged that thing out within the few days since I had moved out.  The door had been locked, and nothing was broken, but the back window, the one that was accessible from my neighbor Elvis (the one who had walked into my apartment uninvited)’s balcony, was unlocked.  I assume whoever took the TV came in through that window, and walked out with the TV through one of the doors.

At this point, I was very happy that I had decided to move.  A break in… creepy. And it proved that my neighbors could have easily gotten into my house whenever they wanted to.  I headed back to my new apartment with a sense of relief.

That night I would discover that my new apartment was infested with roaches.

The Incident

It was a Saturday night, and I was home alone, cooking some late night dinner (it was about 10:30pm).

Suddenly, it sounded like someone was knocking on my door. Now, once again, I don’t know very many people in Charleston, and of the one’s I do know, few know where I live. I figured that it was maybe the previous tenant again, or maybe just one of my neighbors, but being home alone, I thought it would be easiest to just ignore it.

However the person at the door did not seem to agree with my decision to ignore them. They kept knocking. In fact, one could say they were knocking incessantly.  At this, I came out into the hallway to “have a look”. I don’t know what I was hoping to see, my door has no windows on it, it does have a peephole, but I didn’t realize this at the time.

I stood in my dark hallway (I am pretty neurotic about keeping the lights off, since electricity is the only utility bill I pay) listening to the knocking, starting to get a little creeped out. Who the hell could be knockinf on my door? Noone. Noone I know, at least.

I grabbed my phone and dialed 911 in it, but didn’t push send. Then I thought about calling my mom, or maybe my boss because he lived nearby, but I didn’t want whoever was at the door to hear me call.

What the fuck does this person want? I didn’t know what to do, or if it was actually a threatening situation or what, so I just went back in my kitchen and waited. But then I heard a noise, and it wasn’t knocking. It was my balcony screen door opening.

See, I have a front door, which is wood and opens up to the hallway and which I keep locked and shut, and then I have a balcony door that only opens up to my isolated balcony. There are no stairs, not even a ladder, that leads to my balcony. So, since I don’t have air conditioning, when I come home I open the wooden balcony door, and just keep the screen door shut.

Well now this screen door was being opened by someone, who was entering my home.

I came out into the hallway and saw a scrawny black man entering my home. This is it, I thought. This is one of those moments, this is what I’ve always feared, it’s going to happen now. Something is going to happen to me.

I screamed, at the top of my lungs.

Then I thought the man was my crazy neighbor Billy, and I was less afraid. I don’t know why it being Billy climbing in through my balcony made anything less scary, but it did. I guess if it were Billy, I figured I could deal with it, talk to him. But it wasn’t Billy anyways. It was somebody else.

“I’m sorry to scare you,” he said with an incredibly raspy voice, as if he only had about one vocal cord left, “I’m Elvis, your neighbor, and I’m locked out.”

He was older, maybe fifty years old, skin and bones, with graying hair.

“How did you get on my balcony!?” I asked.

“You’ve met my girlfriend, Monica,” he explained, ignoring my question.

It’s true, I had met her. She was a lot younger looking than him, maybe thirty. She had sat smoking a cigarette on our front porch steps one day when I was moving in some furniture.

“I’m your neighbor, Laura. I live in number 6,” I told her.

In a tired way, she uttered, “Nice to meet you sweet heart,” between cigarette puffs.

It’s just my neighbor, I told myself. And he’s just locked out, that’s why he was knocking for so long. You didn’t answer, so he had to walk in.

“But how did you get on my balcony!?” I asked again.

He came a little closer to me, I moved towards the door and opened it. This was not dramatic, but happened very slowly, and casually on both our parts.

“If you ever need anything, you give me or my girlfriend a call, y’here?” He was very close now. I could smell the liquor on his breath. He was putting his arm around me. I wasn’t scared though. It was unwanted, but not threatening. It felt like something I could deal with.

“You need to be careful here,” he went on to tell me. “Don’t go down and do your laundry in the basement at night,” he told me. It seemed an interesting time and place for him to be lecturing me on safe living. And then he said again, “You ever need anything, you just give me or my girlfriend a call.”

“Okay, okay,” I told him. By now I was out in the hallway.

“You know they put a light out here, right?” he told me.

I didn’t know this. He showed me where it was. We turned it on.

“Okay, well nice to meet you Elvis,” I said, similar to the way you might say “nice puppy…” to a strange dog that you’re hoping won’t snap at you.

“Very nice to meet you too,” he said. He was hugging me now, and his mouth grazed my neck, and sort of kissed it. Again, it wasn’t all that creepy. It just felt like when you’re at a party and someone is drunk out of their mind and trying to cop a feel with every girl they see. That said, I certainly didn’t want it to amount to anything more.

I easily wriggled out of his grasp, said goodbye, and shut the door on him. I immediately called my boss, who I kind of think of as the closest person to a parent that I have in the region.

His wife, Marcelle, answered. I know Marcelle just as well as Michael because I stayed at their house for about two weeks before I moved into my new place.

“Marcelle, this is Laura. I need you to come to my apartment and pick me up immediately. I’ll explain in the car.”

“Okay, we’ll be right there.”

And then I was in my apartment alone, so I decided to call my mom, tell her what happened. While I was on the phone with my mom, he started knocking again.

Through the closed door, I said, “Uhhhh, sorry I’m on the phone right now,” and went out onto my balcony. The hope was that if he came for me while I was on the balcony, maybe someone would see it. Or, if worst came to worse, I could jump, it was only the second floor.

He stopped knocking, but didn’t come out to his balcony. I stayed out on the balcony talking to my mom until Michael and Marcelle pulled up. The food I had been cooking was surely done by now, and I was hungry, but I just wanted to get out. I turned off the stove, and left.

One night I was lying in bed in my new apartment, reading the David Foster Wallace book that I checked out at the library, the day I heard on NPR that he had died. Infinite Jest, his most famous piece, had been checked out (there was a little gap where it should have been on the shelf), so I had ended up with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and was really quite enjoying it.

All of a sudden, I could hear people in Billy’s apartment, on the other side of the wall just next to me, very clearly. Their voices were so clear, that they broke me from my concentration. I heard the squeak of springs as two people climbed into bed, and shortly thereafter I heard a women begin to moan, very. clearly. Like, we’re talking, the wall may as well have been a curtain.

The most unusual part was that I had never really heard Billy inside his apartment before (I heard him a lot from the balcony, but I had never heard him from inside), and now I was suddenly hearing him very clearly, inside a woman.

The most disturbing part: upon analyzing the lady’s moans, a highly sophisticated science, I concluded that the lady wasn’t very old, and that she was not crazy. Probably about every five thrusts she would let out a medium-lengthed, low moan. I imagined crazy Billy having sex with whoever this woman was. How the hell did Billy get a lady? I wondered. Was she possibly a hooker?

Suddenly, a cell phone started ringing, but they continued to screw. The moaning continued, and eventually a cell phone rang again. This time it was answered. I could not make out the nature of the call, but all of a sudden, and we’re talking less than a minute after the sex stopped and with no sound of a door opening or closing in between, I could distinctly tell that there were now two men in the room. Who was this other guy? And had he been in the room the whole time?

I could no longer make out the words, but the three of them bantered for a good while. Sometimes it sounded like they were joking and laughing, and then it would sound like they were arguing.

* * *

I later realized that I think a younger couple actually lives with Billy and so it was probably them having sex, which is a lot less creepy, but it sounds like Billy was very nearby, perhaps even in the same room, which is still a little disturbing.

The apartment I decided to move into is in an eight unit complex.  Each unit has a front balcony to itself, and shares a back balcony with the unit in the same half of the building, on the same floor level.  There is a living room in the front, a bathroom, a back “bedroom” area, that has no doors, and a kitchen.

When my landlord first showed me the place, we walked in and the carpeted floors reaked, ever so slightly.  “Will you be cleaning the carpets?” I asked.  I had asked this to another landlord while looking at a previous place, and she said that it just needed a good vacuum.

“Do y’all supply a vaccum?” I asked her.  I’ve taken to saying “y’all” since I’ve been here.  She looked at me like I was crazy.

“Honey, we’d go broke if we gave free vacuums to everybody we rented to…”

“No, I just mean like one that you let your renters borrow, or one that you use before people move in…” This clarification did not make her think I was any less crazy.

So here I was asking the same question, to a different landlord, and poised to receive that “you ridiculous little girl” look, but instead, in his South African accent, Jan (pronounced “Yan”, like in Dutch) told me:

“Oh, yes, we have a Rug Doctor that you could borrow.”

If that hadn’t been what sold me on the place, the answer to my next inquiry might have been.

“What’s with this furniture, does it come with the place?”  There were two lime green couches, two glass end tables with gold posts, and a large, box-shaped wood televsion, complete with a VCR.

Jan glanced down at one of the tables, there was a note that instructed a local charity which items to pick up.  “Would you like them?” he asked me.

“Well, I don’t have any furniture, so yeah…”

He crumpled up the note, written by the previous tenant.

****

I moved into the place on a friday night.  Some of the other tenants, mostly black, were out drinking tall boys on their balcony.  I nodded to them as I passed, and said hello.  One of them introduced himself.

“I’m PJ” he said, “I just moved in about a month ago myself.”  He looked to be about mid to late thirties, with a bald head, and some round glasses.  He was dressed in a t-shirt, basketball shorts, and flip flops.

“It’s nice to meet you PJ, I’m Laura,” I told him.

****

Later that night, someone was knocking on my door.  Who the hell could that be? I wondered.  I didn’t really want to answer it, since I wasn’t expecting anybody, but if it was one of my neighbors, I didn’t want them to think I was the freaked out, little white girl.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s Star, the old tenant.  I just wanted to see if they picked up my furniture.”

Part of me felt like I was about to get robbed, but I opened the door anyways.  She looked in over my shoulder.

“Shit, it’s still there!”  She said.  “I paid $30 for those mutha fuckers to take that shit.”

“Do you need to take it?” I asked her.

“No, it’s just that I paid $30.”

“Well shit, yeah then you deserve your money back.” I told her.  “But I don’t mind it being here, I don’t have any furniture anyways.  So don’t feel like you’ve got to get it out of here, unless you need it…”

She thought about this for a second.  “Nah, I’ll just leave it here then… and try to get my money back.”

“So why did you move anyways?” I asked, “Since you’re still in the area, it appears.”

“Oh.  Uh, family emergency,” she said.  And shortly after that she left.

****

The next morning, EARLY, the next morning, I was awakened by loud, early nineties, R&B/Soul ballads being blasted from my neighbors’ balcony.  The kind with synthetic drum beats, and a slow, grind-worthy base line.  Or as Janet Jackson might describe it, as she did her own music (I recently learned, in a Trivial Pursuit question): “Baby-making music.”

The neighbor in question, with a balcony completely covered in parts of old blinds, tarps, sheet metal, various pieces of furniture, and Christmas lights, so that it was almost completely private and hidden, appeared to be shouting things like “Yeah!” “Oh come on!” “Sing it, sister!” and so on, along to the music.

“I’m really going to like this place,” I thought to myself.

****

A few days later, I came home from work, and this same neighbor was out on his balcony, shouting things, but this time, not to music.  He was saying things like, “Take me to the liquor store!  Listen to me people!  Why isn’t anybody listening to me…?  Fucking Jerks!”

The lady on the balcony below, was calmly responding to him, saying things like, “Billy, honey, you got a bike… no one’s stoppin’ you.”

To which he would respond, something like, “Fuck you bitch!  Who asked you?”

I had to get something out on my own balcony, and Billy must have heard my screen door open and shut, because just as I was re-entering my apartment from the balcony I heard him shout, “Is that my new neighbor?  I wanna meet my new neighbor.  New neighbor, get your ASS out here!”

So I came back out.  “Hi there,” I said.

He was quiet for a second, and then I heard some rustling and, and a small, scrawny black man with grey hair, emerged between two different sets of blinds.

“Well hi there, new neighbor,” he said, in a more calm voice, but still quite raspy.  “I’m Billy, I’m your neighbor, and don’t nobody mess with me.”

“Well, hi Billy, I’m Laura, nice to meet you.”

“You got a man?” he asked, in the sly, curious way many men here do.

“Uh, yeah…” I improvised.  “But he’s in Seattle.  He’s moving out here in a month…”

“Okay, okay,” he said.  And then, “It’s trash day.  Did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t, thank you.  What do I do with my trash.”

“You put it in a bag, and put it around the corner with all the other trash… just there” he told me, pointing around the corner.

“Good to know, thank you,” I told him.  “Now I just need to find a bag…”

“You don’t have a bag!?  You don’t have a bag!?  Sister, uncle Billy’ll get you a bag.”

He slid back into the abyss of his balcony.  I heard a screen door open and close, and about thirty seconds later it opened and closed again and he reemerged in the same gap between his blinds.  “Here you go, darlin'” he said, handing me an entire roll of bags.  I broke one off, and tried to hand the roll back to him.  “No, you keep that roll, I don’t want that back,” he told me. “That’s for you.”

“Okay, well I better go take my trash out then,” I told him.

“Yeah, you betta…” He agreed.  “You betta.  Cuz it’s trash day.”

When I came out the downstairs front door with my trash, the lady on the balcony below Billy, motioned me over.

“Sorry about that,” she said.  “Don’t pay no attention to him.  He’s harmless, really.  Whenever he gets a little money, you know, he just gets this way whenever he goes and gets himself a little money.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem,” I assured her, “But thanks.  He seems sweet.  And he gave me free garbage bags,” I said, “lifting the bag in acknowledgement”.

To be continued…

A-Part-Meant for Me? Part I

Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia, holds about 50,000 people. That’s about half the size of Green Bay, Wisconsin, or, to really put things in perspective, half the size of Norman, Oklahoma; West Jordan, Utah; and good ol’ South Bend, Indiana—none of which I had ever heard of before I just googled towns of 50,000 people, but could only come up with a list that went as low as 100,000. What’s unique about Charleston is that, despite being half the size of all these metropolises, it’s West Virginia’s most populous city.

Upon being offered an AmeriCorps position here, I decided to do some research to see if it would actually be a city that I could live in. From its Official Website, I learned that they had a newly built “Cultural Center” that housed a Science and Art Museum, as well as a theatre and a symphony. I learned that an NPR show called “Mountain Stage”, featuring local Appalachian musicians and guests, was recorded in Charleston. They even boasted a book store/café/art gallery in town. How bad could this place be? I wondered.

But then, a friend and I decided to look up the housing rental situation in Charleston. On Craigslist, only about one ad was posted a day, and about a third of these were links to apartment websites. We checked out the reviews of these apartments, and I was surprised by the comments people left; things like, “Do not live here unless you want to hear gunshots and witness blatant drug deals every day.” Lots of things like that. In tiny little Charleston, I thought. How can this be?

Nonetheless, I decided to go through with relocating to Charleston for the AmeriCorps position but I did not have anywhere lined up to live when I arrived. While crashing at my boss’s house temporarily, I began a desperate search for affordable housing. All my coworkers knew that I was house-hunting, and people were eager to give me tips. Mostly what I heard was, “Absolutely do not live on the West Side—there’ve been like three shootings there just this summer. The East End is also pretty bad, but not as bad as the West Side.” Well people, I’m sorry, but with only $743 to spend a month, and no car to commute from a more affordable “suburb”, guess where the only apartments that I could afford were? You got it, the West Side and the East End.

After checking out a few places in the East End, I actually kind of liked it, though. There were a few progressive restaurants sprouting up in the area, one called “Delish” and the other, “The Blue Grass Kitchen,” both of which I had read about in a tourism magazine before I left. Also, the houses were cute, and kind of reminded me of ones you’d find in Portland or Seattle, except with more brick. It was also a good location, walking distance from downtown.

As my coworkers would make daily inquiries about my house hunt, one man in particular made the decision of whether or not I should actually live in the East End, a very difficult one to make. This man, was Ari, my 60 year old, Orthodox Jew friend, and coworker.

Before Ari moved to his current home near the Charleston airport, he used to live in the East End. This would have been around 2002.

“Verr did joo looch at an apartment today?” he would ask me.

“Oh, I just looked at a couple in the East End…” I would respond.

“Vhich vones?” he would nearly interrupt me, with. “Verr arr they?”

“Uh… one was on Elizabeth and Washington Street, near the Blue Grass Kitch…”

“Ahh, no, yoo kant leevf therr. Itees no good.”

And something I learned after discussing the war in Iraq with Ari, is that there is no use arguing with the man, unless you just really feel like repeating yourself a lot.

As much as I thought that I could handle the East End, and I wanted to have faith in man kind, I couldn’t help it, I respected Ari and his skepticism had a little bit of an affect on me. For this reason, I talked my lease down from a year, to month-to-month. If living in the East End proved to be a nightmare, at least I’d only have to endure it for a month, as long as I didn’t get raped and murdered along the way. Which brings me to my story.

To be continued…

Ari

Ari was in my group at my VISTA Pre-Service Orientation in Atlanta, and he also works for the same organization as I, in Charleston.  

Ari is an Orthodox Jew, probably around 60 years old, and looks, in every way, how you would imagine a 60-year old, Orthodox Jew to look.  His white, balding hair provides a perfect nest around his Yamaka.  He has a big, round nose, and short legs that come out from underneath his belted, slight pot belly.  He is always dressed “business casual”.  

He’s from Russia, but moved to Sarasota, Florida in the 1980’s.  He says “Sarasota” in a way that is indescribably cute, something like “Szarra-scohtta” so that each syllable is particularly annunciated.  I find it so cute that I sometimes whisper the word quietly to myself when I am alone, and it brings me great joy.

Ari, in my opinion, represents what is sometimes described as East Coast vs. West Coast; what is European to what is American… Ari will never sacrifice his true opinion at the expense of saving someone else’s feelings.  He says what he believes, and does not consider at all how this might make other people feel.

In our classroom groups at PSO we were one day having a discussion about what poverty is to us.  One girl told a moving story about how she had worked at a day camp this summer that helped kids read and provided them with a nutritious meal.  She talked about how these kids were so hungry from not being fed at home, that they would eat their lunches too quickly and vomit immediately after eating them.  She cried while telling us this story.

Immediately afterwards Ari raised his hand and said, “Are not zerr prrograhms for zeese things?  Food stamps?  Zerr is no reason why these kids should not be eating at home…”

For a second, he had me stumped.  But then the rest of my class, many of whom had experienced poverty themselves began to explain to Ari about something called “The Working Poor” who sometimes make just enough money to NOT qualify for food stamps.

On our flight from Atlanta to Charleston, I had to sit next to him.  I was incredibly hungry and mentioned this fact to him.  Without hesitation, he presented me with an entire box of those little packets of peanut butter crack sandwiches.  He explained to me that he always carried food on him because he could never guarantee that he would have Kosher food options available to him.  

Of course I knew in general what Kosher meant, but I never really knew exactly what it meant, so I asked him.  He patiently, and thoroughly explained to me about how Kosher meat had to be prepared a certain way, with the blood drained from it; how meat and dairy could never be eaten together, and how processed foods had a little symbol, an “O” with a “U” inside, that let you know that they were Kosher, which stands for something like “Orthodox Union”.  There is also another symbol, something like a “K” in a triangle, that means something like “sort of Orthodox.”

Anyways, the moment I really fell in love with Ari was when we were having a discussion in class at Pre-Service Orientation.  We were talking about cultural norms.  He explained to us that in Russia if you go out to dinner you wear nice clothes because there will always be dancing after you eat (I think this was more old-time Russia, but still).  He told us how one time, shortly after he had moved to the States, he was invited out to dinner, so we showed up wearing a suit.  He soon realized he was quite overdressed, and that there would be no dancing.  

Someone in my class asked him what kind of dancing they did at meals back in Russia, and he got on his feet and demonstrated.  Imagine here a combination of what you imagine Traditional Jewish Folk Dancing to look like, and someone “doing the twist”. Couple that with the enormous grin on Ari’s face, and complete lack of embarrassment for Jewin‘ the twist in front of a classroom of twenty, and you may begin to understand my love for Ari.

This was solidified when shortly after moving to Charleston I received an e mail from him saying, “I am concerned that you do not have all the kitchenware that you need, but I do not know what you might need.  Please let me know if there is anything that I can give you.”  Oh, Ari.  Just say, “Szarra-Sohta” and I’ll retire there with you in a heartbeat.

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