Archive for September, 2008

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…


Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »