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ZYZZYVA nonfiction.

Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases

1. A Press Conference

It’s January 2013, and I’m watching some political theater on C-SPAN’s website. Senator Charles Schumer leans over a podium in a Senate pressroom. His glasses sit low on his nose, and he looks more like one of my great uncles than someone reading a policy statement to assembled reporters. But he and seven other senators have hammered out an immigration reform proposal, so this is News. “We still have a long way to go,” he says, “but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough.”

I take Senator Schumer’s announcement personally. Over the years, I’ve known many people who’ve been in the United States when the law said they shouldn’t be. I’m a public interest lawyer, but I’m not talking about clients. My list includes friends, my husband, and even my father’s mother and aunt, who as teenagers landed at Ellis Island with documents that weren’t their own. Crowded in the steamer’s steerage hull, they must have wondered, “Will it work?”

My great-aunt and grandmother’s papers weren’t doctored or stolen, though—they’d switched with each other. Aunt Mary had stopped growing after falling from a tree, and her family was afraid she’d be rejected at the border as physically defective. Her parents decided she should pretend to be younger, hence the paper switch with my grandmother, her younger sister. The trick worked. My grandmother and Aunt Mary both made it into the U.S. and wound up working in the garment factories. My grandmother, who could sew anything, left the garment shops to raise her family, but Aunt Mary kept working, sealing box after box, inserting slips of paper atop the folded clothing: “Inspected by Number 9.” When finally it came time to retire, she asked my father for help with her Social Security application and handed him a clutch of documents. Each showed a different birthday. My father settled on one, and she started getting her checks.

“She was such a dear woman,” my father says. Holding his hand just above his abdomen, he adds, “She was only about this tall.”

I never met Aunt Mary, so all I know about her is that she was a tiny, unassuming woman who once did something brave and illegal, abetted by my grandmother. People leap into acts such as these when they know the rules don’t favor their survival but they want to live anyway. I have many friends who, like Aunt Mary, did whatever it took to get into the U.S. They plodded through the desert, scrambled over fences, convinced border inspectors at the airport that they were coming as tourists, not to stay. One friend spent the night in a safe house in Tijuana, where she met women who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and had traded sex for rides all the way through Mexico.

Then there was an acquaintance who told me his family’s story through choking tears. He and his brother-in-law were entering the country at El Paso, because both lived in the United States with valid papers. The rest of the family was crossing illegally, away from the border checkpoint. “Whose bag is that?” the officer asked the man and his brother-in-law, seeing a purse left on one of the seats.

“My mother left it by accident,” the brother-in-law said, as if she’d forgotten the bag while sending the young men off on their journey. “A woman never just leaves her purse,” said the officer.

But, in the rush to cross with the coyotes, she had left it in the van. His face red with panic, the brother-in-law explained, “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years.” He’d been living in central Washington, and she in a small town in Jalisco.

The officer took pity and said, “Hurry and find her before she gets caught.”

This family was lucky, and some other friends of mine have been lucky, too, falling through one trapdoor or another in our immigration law. They got their papers and eventually became U.S. citizens. But many of my friends haven’t had that chance. They’re still waiting.

So when I see Charles Schumer on my screen, I hope he understands. His proposal comes with a catch, though. The border would have to be stamped secure before anyone could get their papers. By June 2013, Senator Schumer and his colleagues have come up with a bill, which includes border enforcement metrics and timetables; an amendment adds fencing, high- tech surveillance, and electronic identity checks in workplaces—hardly a surprise as the title of the bill starts with the term “border security.”

But perhaps the tripwires and sensors are props in a border security dream, rather than a depiction of border security reality. As I write this essay, I run an online search and pull up images of the border that show corrugated metal fence cutting through the desert. That fence is the picture we put to the word “border,” helping us believe in it as something real and constant, if vulnerable. It provides a place for the border, which the border needs if it’s going to mark the line we think it marks. We want the border to be clear and provide clarity. For almost twenty years, though, I’ve been trying to figure out where the border is and what it does, and I still don’t know.

2. Seeking Asylum, Filling Out Forms 

I didn’t grow up thinking of my family as refugees, but of course they were.

“They didn’t want to be drafted into the czar’s army,” I was told, or, “pogroms,” or “Grandpa’s older brothers and sister were revolutionaries.”

My family came with the stink of oppression on them. By the 1960s, we were upper middle-class, and I assumed that all American families followed this trajectory: the arc of the moral universe bends toward the suburbs. In those suburbs, my parents retained a sense of liberal responsibility. My father, a doctor, joined the nuclear disarmament movement and gave sidewalk talks on the medical effects of thermonuclear war. My mother opposed U.S. Cold War military interventions and on a file cabinet placed a bumper sticker that read, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” It wasn’t really, but from this I understood that El Salvador was more than just a far-flung place.

In the 1980s, El Salvador was steeped in a civil war in which the Salvadoran government committed massacres, tortured and disappeared its victims, fired on demonstrators, and murdered priests, nuns, and union members. I learned from my mother that our government was sending military advisors and supporting government death squads, which she thought we shouldn’t do. People were streaming from El Salvador by the tens of thousands, but my mother didn’t tell me about these refugees, because they weren’t arriving in the Philadelphia suburbs. I wouldn’t meet any until years later, when I helped a few apply for asylum.

That happened in 1994. I’d recently graduated from college and moved to Seattle. My boyfriend—now my husband—had come to the city from northern Mexico, and he found an apartment above the restaurant where he worked. The building was shabby, with second-story front doors along the balcony, motel-style, and access to the interior hallway (and laundry machines) through doors that opened directly into the apartments’ bathrooms.

I was working as a receptionist, and one day I saw a poster for an organization called the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which provided legal services to immigrants. I called to see about volunteering. “We’ve got a training coming up,” the executive director told me. “Come by on Saturday.”

A paralegal, Julie, gathered us in the office’s dim conference room and taught us the basics of asylum law, showed us how to complete the forms, and told us what questions to ask the people we’d interview. She seemed to know everything. She explained that the circumstances of these asylum applications were unusual. Because the U.S. had backed the Salvadoran government—pressed it to continue the war, even—Salvadoran refugees had a very hard time getting asylum when they’d reached the United States. In fact, in the 1980s, immigration officials denied 97 percent of Salvadorans’ applications, even with all the murder and torture: bloody Cold War politics. Refugees and church groups sued, and the government finally agreed to give them another chance to apply.

The next weekend, I started interviewing applicants. The NWIRP headquarters was packed with men, women, children. I called the next person on the list into one of the offices and started asking all sorts of questions to make the application as strong as possible: the more terror a person had seen the better. But my interviewees didn’t easily produce stories of brutality. When I asked, “Why did you leave El Salvador?” they usually said, “Well, because of the war, like everyone else.” I didn’t know how to get them to say more, or know if there was more for them to say.

Across the hall, Julie stood in another office, tilting toward a seated client. She was saying, or I thought I heard her say, “Don’t you remember anything? You must remember something.”

She had a way of shaking out recollections. Maybe the Salvadorans’ memories lay beneath a tough rind of trauma that needed to be torn open. Or maybe they’d come to see horror as ordinary, not worthy of note. Either way, I learned that you can’t tell what people have been through by just looking at them. None of the people I interviewed came in maimed or disfigured, except for one man who was missing the top half of his middle finger. Instead of the digit, he had a smooth blossom of knuckle. He hadn’t lost the finger in the war, though. It had been lopped off when he’d reached his hand out of a moving car and caught it on a wire. I took his fingerprints for the application, and Julie told me to write in “missing finger” in the box where the print should have gone. The man and I shared a laugh over that. I was twenty-four when I did those interviews. Since then, I’ve met countless people who’ve been through hard things. I’ve met gay men raped by police in Latin America, Jamaican sugarcane cutters nickeled and dimed by rich growers in Florida, a woman who shot her stepfather, a woman who killed her own child in a drug fury. You learn to speak with people about difficult experiences.

But in 1994, all this was new for me. I began to get the hang of it, and when a Salvadoran interviewee said, “I just left because of the war,” I’d ask, “Did guerrillas or soldiers ever come to your house? Was anyone in your family ever killed?” And sometimes this helped people remember, and they’d say, “Oh, yes, there was that time …” I wrote in the answers, and in my memories I picture my interviewee and me in the dusty air of a dingy office, leaning over the application to review it together. The word “alien” appeared on the application in clear black letters, but I didn’t think of the Salvadorans as aliens. If an army bombs a person’s town with weapons provided by the United States, aided by training in the U.S., doesn’t that person have a relationship with the United States? How can we talk about that person as an alien, if there’s no border between us that really counts?

3. Making Our Map

And yet we have maps that neatly mark the boundaries and make them real.

But: there are parts of the United States that don’t appear on most maps of the United States. Pull up a map online, and you’ll get the contiguous forty-eight with Alaska and Hawaii shifted to the southwestern flank, as if pushed there by a finger of godlike proportions. You don’t see Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the other “unincorporated territories” of the United States. Although these places belong to our country—whatever the word “belong” may mean—the godlike finger has not moved them within our sight line.

RoughRider-pic

Which takes me to a photograph I’ve downloaded from the National Archives. In the photo, Teddy Roosevelt stands atop San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898, surrounded by his Rough Riders. They’ve just overrun Spanish forces, having advanced behind a line of Gatling gun fire. They moved, in Lt. John Pershing’s words, “as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees.” Now they’re posing for a photograph to portray their glory. That’s fine as far as capturing the triumph of that battle goes, but the photo also raises the question of border control. Because of the Spanish American War, the U.S. border was shifting again, and no one knew where it would make landfall.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, and the United States had taken it upon itself to liberate Cuba from Spanish tyranny. By the war’s close, we had a new set of territories, among them the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. President McKinley couldn’t locate these places on a map, but the country still had to decide what to do with them. Should they eventually join the U.S. on equal footing with the states? Should they be treated like nations-but-not-quite-nations, as with the American Indians? Or should the U.S. just cast the new colonies off right away?

These questions concerned the identity of the United States, a country founded on the idea of self-rule, and they weren’t easy to answer. Political leaders and legal scholars began developing proposals and examining the Constitution, while Congress held heated debates. The Anti-Imperialist League roused a crowd of ten thousand at its convention in Chicago, where Massachusetts Senator George Hoar warned the country against descending into “the modern swamp and cesspool of imperialism.” At that point, he thought we still had hope.

But scholar Abbott Lawrence Lowell, future president of Harvard, where he was a professor of government, believed this hope was misplaced: the anti-imperialists had misperceived the essential nature of the U.S. “(T)here has never been a time, since the adoption of the first ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory in 1784,” he reminded his readers, “when the United States has not had colonies.”

Yet Lowell still saw something different about the new possessions that meant they couldn’t just be fed into the country’s mill of expansion. “The settlers in the West carried with them the laws and customs of the East, and the precious habit of self-government,” he wrote in 1899 in the Atlantic Monthly. Puerto Rico and the Philippines: they were filled with people different from those settlers, who were us. They had no history of self-rule, and, being insufficiently civilized, couldn’t bear the burden of it. It would be “sheer cruelty” to foist it on the Filipinos, Lowell warned, and even for the Puerto Ricans, “self-government must be gradual and tentative.”

The year Lowell’s words were published, my family lived in czarist Russia. We weren’t yet part of this us. Still, in 2014, I can sit at my desk, sort through Lowell’s article, and wonder, as an American: what was it like for us to question the nature of our country in the wake of those foreign invasions? A century later, we have more experience with this sort of thing. We know that occupying Iraq for eight years doesn’t mean Iraq is part of the United States, and it doesn’t mean Iraqis become Americans. We can enact our will on people without feeling like those actions shift our borders. This wasn’t always so clear, and the debates continued. In 1901, fruit merchant Samuel Downes walked into this open question when he attempted to receive a shipment of oranges from the Port of New York. Downes was a founding officer of the city’s Wholesale Fruit and Produce Association and a donor to the Five Points Mission. Probably he was a businessman of some influence in the city.

However, when he tried to get his oranges—thirty-three boxes shipped from Puerto Rico—he learned that customs was charging him $659.35 in import duties. He protested: Puerto Rico was part of the United States. But the customs officials didn’t agree, so, instead of letting his oranges rot, Downes paid the duties and hired a lawyer, Frederic Coudert, who’d been gathering test cases to take to the Supreme Court. Coudert planned to argue that Puerto Rico belonged to the U.S., and the Constitution barred customs officials from treating it any differently.

Much was at stake in the decision—and not just national identity. Oranges and other commodities meant big money, so while almost no one knows about Downes v. Bidwellnow, the case was a national event back in 1901. When it got out that the court was about to announce its ruling, spectators swarmed into the courtroom, eager for the decision.

The justices issued a ruling that continues to confound. For one thing, the decision had no clear majority and was cobbled together from a series of concurring opinions. For another, the justices decided Puerto Rico may belong to the United States, but that doesn’t make Puerto Rico part of the United States. In the decision’s most famous phrase, Justice White called the island “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” and I don’t know how any cartographer could express that paradox on a map, godlike finger or not. At any rate, Samuel Downes wouldn’t get his $659.35 back. The duty remained on the oranges, which were foreign.

But what about the Puerto Ricans? Were they also foreign?

This takes us to the case of Isabel González, chronicled by legal historian Sam Erman. In 1902, González sailed to New York in search of her errant fiancé, who was working at a linoleum plant on Staten Island. When she landed at the Port of New York, she was pregnant—making her sexually suspect in addition to racially undesirable—so port officials wanted to block her from entering as an “indigent immigrant.” She found herself in the middle of the debate over the status of Puerto Ricans, and she took a position, arguing that she was a United States citizen. Even after she married her fiancé and became eligible to enter the U.S. through this marriage, she kept it secret so she could pursue her case.

A federal appeals court declared her an alien. Coudert, Downes’ lawyer, wrote, “(A)s the law stands to-day, we have a new and seemingly paradoxical legal category of ‘American Aliens.’” He represented Gonzalez before the Supreme Court, arguing, Erman writes, that because U.S. citizenship really didn’t guarantee much in the way of rights, there was no reason to deny it to the Puerto Ricans. The court wasn’t willing to go that far. It declared that González wasn’t an alien, but she wasn’t a citizen, either.

It took fifteen years for Congress to extend citizenship—statutory citizenship, meaning not guaranteed by the Constitution—to Puerto Ricans, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill on March 2, 1917. Later that month Puerto Rico’s appointed governor, Arthur Yager, appeared before the island’s legislators and addressed them as “fellow citizens of the United States.”

“I welcome you into our great national family with high hopes,” the New York Timesreports him as saying, and I imagine him standing grandly at the podium, arms spread wide in imperial embrace.

That November, Governor Yager gathered at San Juan’s Municipal Theater with his daughter, the president of the House of Delegates, and other political and military leaders. They were there to draw eight thousand draft numbers for World War I, making a public ceremony of conscription. Miss Yager picked the first number. The Puerto Ricans went off to war, but the island still wasn’t fully part of the United States and isn’t to this day. You may find Puerto Rico on some U.S. maps, at the tail end of a string of Caribbean islands. It will be marked as “Puerto Rico (U.S.).”

4. Origin Stories

No matter what dangers my family escaped in the early twentieth century, they couldn’t have predicted the greatest danger, which probably would have consumed them had they stayed in Europe. Just as there are still Jews despite genocide, there are still Indians. (When I was a child the idea of an Indian seemed magical to me. In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting with my family at a Phillies game in Veterans Stadium, plastic seats crummy with peanut-shell dust, when my father says, “I think that man over there is an American Indian.” I searched for the Indian in the stands, but if I saw him I don’t remember it; I recall only the feeling of fascination and surprise. There were still Indians! Now I wonder if some Nazis dreamed of the day that a few leftover Jews would fascinate rather than repel—but I shouldn’t stretch this comparison, because like unhappy families each genocide is genocidal in its own way.)

We could ask many questions about our American genocide, among them questions about borders. On state maps now, sometimes you’ll see the boundaries of reservations marked out, and sometimes you won’t. This points to the unsettled status of Native nations. They’re sovereign nations, but they’re also tangled up in jurisdictional confusion—among the tribes, states, and federal governments—that compromises self-government and, to outsiders, may make them seem like something less. One example is that tribal courts may not prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in their territory. When the victims are Indians, the federal government is supposed to handle these crimes, such as rape, but it has a history of overlooking them, so it’s as if every non-Native American on a reservation carries diplomatic immunity. In 2015, the law is changing. Native courts will be able to try non-Indians for some crimes of intimate violence against Indians, which seems like a good development, but it doesn’t make jurisdiction entirely clear—jurisdiction and territory still won’t be the same thing, as we often assume they are.

It’s impossible to separate violence from the writing and rewriting of borders. In 1831, amid machinations to expel the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the South, the Supreme Court decided it couldn’t hear a case brought by the Cherokees, who were challenging Georgia’s right to extend state law to their territory. The court’s refusal to hear the Cherokee claim rested on an interpretation of geography. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The Indian Territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” And so, the court determined, the Cherokee represented not a “foreign state” but a “domestic, dependent nation” lacking the right to sue Georgia in U.S. courts. If a border existed between the Cherokee Nation and Georgia, in this instance it couldn’t keep Georgia out.

I’m looking at another photograph from the National Archives. It depicts the delegation led by Spotted Tail, a Sicangu Lakota leader, to Washington, D.C. The official record indicates the photo was taken sometime between 1871 and 1907, but since Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog in 1881 the date range must be too broad. I don’t know who else appears in the photo or what Spotted Tail and his delegation were doing in D.C. I’ve only just learned that he ever existed, and all I see in this photograph of bygone Indians—with their moccasins, blankets, braided hair, and pipes—is a representation of inevitability, which is my fault and not theirs.

Spotted-Tail-pic

Spotted Tail was born eight years before the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision. Crow Dog, the man who killed him, was born just a couple of years after. Both came to live on the Great Sioux Reservation decades later, following years of war. Spotted Tail had been imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth after fighting in the Sioux War of 1855. Traveling to the fort under military guard, he passed by so many white farms and towns that he came to believe there was no way to defeat the United States. Crow Dog had fought against the U.S., too, and he also had to make his peace, although I can’t fathom how complicated it must be for a person to negotiate with a society that has committed genocide against him.

The peace treaty that created the Great Sioux Reservation (and set its boundaries) was a nation-to-nation agreement, but it put the U.S. government deep into territory that supposedly wasn’t within U.S. jurisdiction. There would be a U.S. Indian agent on the reservation and an agency office, along with a school, buildings for a carpenter and blacksmith, and provisions to turn the Indians into farmers.

In the end, Crow Dog and Spotted Tail both wound up living here and assuming roles of political leadership. Crow Dog became a tribal police captain. Spotted Tail, a chief, carried a rifle and threw his weight around. He removed Crow Dog from his position twice, and Crow Dog may have suspected Spotted Tail of pocketing tribal money. There were factions, differences of opinion, tactics, and maneuvering. This is what I understand from my reading, although I can’t really understand—I’d have to travel to a different time, language, culture, set of politics.

But I can get a sense of the difficulties. Spotted Tail, Crow Dog, and other leaders had the railroad expansion bearing down on them, the crushing forces of assimilation policy, the U.S. Indian agent right there in his office, boring the American state into Lakota territory. Crow Dog is perceived as being less willing to make concessions to the Americans, Spotted Tail less reluctant.

Yet it will always be a mystery why, exactly, Crow Dog killed Spotted Tail that day. Spotted Tail had attended a tribal council meeting at the Rosebud Indian agency, where the council was planning another D.C. delegation, which Spotted Tail would head. When the meeting disbanded, he mounted his horse and started home. He saw Crow Dog crouched next to a wagon, apparently tying his moccasins but really lying in wait. Crow Dog raised his rifle and shot Spotted Tail through his left breast.

That’s one version of the event. In another I’ve read, the events go like this:

Crow Dog was fixing a bar above his wagon’s axle, while his wife, Pretty Camp, waited in the wagon with their child. Spotted Tail galloped toward them, stopped, and drew his pistol. Pretty Camp yelled a warning, and Crow Dog fired.

In both versions, the tribal council met the next day and, according to legal scholar Sidney Harring, ordered a payment to Spotted Tail’s family of $600, eight horses, and one blanket, which settled everything as far as the Lakota were concerned.

But even if they thought the case was closed, the story continued. In the killing of Spotted Tail, Harring explains, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) saw a test case for pushing its policy of assimilation and establishing criminal jurisdiction in Indian country. The BIA pressed the Attorney to prosecute Crow Dog—the idea being that he’d gotten away with murder—and he was sentenced to hang. With his legal fees paid by the BIA, Crow Dog petitioned the Supreme Court, and once again the court had geographic questions on its hands. Did the treaties and federal statutes allow the federal government to cross the border and convict one Indian for the murder of another? The court said they didn’t. As “aliens and strangers” in Indian country, they lived by their own laws—a victory for tribal sovereignty.

But the victory didn’t last. For one thing, a different sense of geography had taken hold among the citizens of the United States. “The Supreme Court has rendered a decision which will startle most readers,” the New York Times announced. “The decision is that there are persons living in the United States and not subject to the jurisdiction of any State or Federal Courts.”

I can’t imagine Crow Dog believed he was living in the United States, and he wasn’t, really—he was in Indian country—but it’s striking that two sets of people can look at the same piece of land and understand it so differently. This case, maybe more than any other, shows how much the history of the border is also a history of imagination. It’s a matter of who has the power to impose their imagination on the other.

The BIA and white reformers, who wanted the Indians fed into their civilizing machine, didn’t let the Supreme Court have the last word. They worked the legislative process, using Ex Parte Crow Dog as fodder. They had the Major Crimes Act slipped into an appropriations bill and won criminal jurisdiction after all, kicking off another reworking of geography. Ten years later, Congress decided to turn the reservations into individual plots, with “surplus” land to be sold off. The Supreme Court gave its approval in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which permitted Congress to reach into Indian land to administer it as it saw fit. Ninety million acres were absorbed into the United States, reservations rendered patchwork.

Through separate legislation, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into several smaller reservations and whittled down. Crow Dog continued as a traditional leader, joined the Ghost Dance movement, and for years refused to accept his allotment.

I thought this would be the last I’d read about him, and then I came across a New YorkTimes article from 1903. That was the year my grandfather was born in czarist Russia, the Supreme Court decided Lone Wolf, and the year after the U.S. defeated the Filipinos’ war for independence—a good time for empire. Crow Dog was about seventy and had just left the Rosebud Reservation for New York City. The Times headline announced: “Indians Call on Mayor; Mr. Low Cordially Greets Crow Dog, Who Bears Honors as an Assassin.”

Crow Dog had joined a delegation of fifteen Indians in traditional dress, and they stopped in on the mayor on their way to Coney Island, where they’d perform that summer for the city’s heat-drenched masses. An interpreter handled the introductions in the mayor’s office. “This is Crow Dog,” he said, “who assassinated Spotted Tail, chief of the Arapahoes, some years ago.” The mayor shook Crow Dog’s hand and, after enjoying the company of the costumed Indians, “bid them all adieu.”

5. Borders and Bodies

My favorite constitutional amendment is the fourth, which protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights overall limits how government intervenes in our lives, but the Fourth Amendment feels most personal, most visceral, because searches and seizures involve state incursions into our homes, our belongings, and even our bodies. The Fourth Amendment also works a kind of legal alchemy on the border, changing its substance.

In 1983, Rosa Montoya boarded a plane in Bogotá, having first swallowed eighty-eight balloons filled with cocaine. She carried in her body the balloons, potentially small bombs of poison, into the airport in Los Angeles. When she landed, she was questioned by customs officials, who locked her up for about twenty-four hours, until they got a warrant and a doctor performed a rectal exam. The doctor fished out the first of the bags, and the rest she passed. Her case wound up before the Supreme Court.

For Justice William Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, Rosa Montoya was a criminal who during her detention refused food and drink, refused to use the bathroom, retracted her consent for an X-ray, then falsely claimed to be pregnant. Justice William Brennan, in his dissent, paints a different picture. He mentions the snapshots of Rosa Montoya’s children that she extracted from her purse whenever someone new entered the lockup room. He discusses the strip-searches she endured and writes that, when told she couldn’t leave until she excreted into a waste basket, she responded, “I will not submit to your degradation, and I’d rather die.”

I don’t know anything more about Rosa Montoya than this. But ultimately United States v. Montoya de Hernandez isn’t about her. It’s about what the government can subject a person to at the border, where usual Fourth Amendment protections don’t apply. That’s why the court found her detention reasonable, and why to this day people can find themselves locked up at the border, hours on end, with no idea what they’re suspected of having done wrong. I’ve become used to the idea that the government has more power at the border and people less, so stories like these don’t surprise me, and sometimes I find myself more astonished at people’s outrage when they’re put through extensive questioning than at the treatment itself. It’s the border. What did you expect?

To shake me back to reason, it takes a lawsuit like one filed by the ACLU of Texas in December, 2013. The ACLU’s client says that, after a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her at the border crossing, she was strip-searched, probed anally and vaginally, shackled to a hospital exam table and probed again, given a laxative that made her defecate, and put under X-ray and CT scans. She asked the border agents if they had a warrant. They told her they didn’t need one and asked her to sign a waiver if she didn’t want to be billed. She refused, and the hospital sent her a statement in the thousands of dollars. At every step, the men who searched her found no drugs.

Does the border mean that strange men can put their fingers in your vagina, again and again, without your consent? In his dissent in Montoya de Hernandez, Justice Brennan raised a warning about this kind of abuse—although he may not have imagined abuse of this magnitude. “Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions ‘for investigation’ are the hallmark of a police state,” he wrote, “not a free society.”

There’s another element of strangeness that isn’t acknowledged explicitly in the Montoya de Hernandez decision. The border that Rosa Montoya was trying to cross wouldn’t show up on the map as a border. It’s somewhere in the L.A. airport, not at the line between Juárez and El Paso, or at Peace Arch International Park, which links Washington and British Columbia. In legal terms, border points such as those at airports are called the “functional equivalent of the border.” They also include territorial waters, spots where roads coming from the actual border converge, UPS sorting hubs, etc.: places that aren’t exactly the border, but close enough.

In other words, to conduct a border search or detention you have to be at the border, but where is the border? On this question, one court has explained, “the border is elastic.” What’s important isn’t that the search takes place at the border but that the person or thing being searched be associated with the border. There’s a three-pronged test to see if this association exists. It asks: Can we be reasonably certain the person/object crossed the border? That the person/object didn’t materially change since crossing? That the search was carried out as soon as practical? Then there is the “extended border” doctrine, with its own approach. These are the kinds of legal tools that, after some time in law school, you begin to see as entirely reasonable. And maybe the tools do make sense, but at some point the inquiry should begin to feel a little metaphysical.

The border is elastic, like a rubber band? Such an idea should make the phrase “border security” evaporate into fantasy.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s enacted in real life. The ACLU has identified a “Constitution Free Zone” radiating one hundred miles from the border. In this zone, law enforcement sets up checkpoints and patrols bus and train terminals, asking people for papers. And legal scholar Jennifer Chacón has written about border powers washing into the interior, becoming part of everyday policing. In Arizona, with their “papers please” law, state legislators have been explicit in their belief that everyone should be prepared to show the badge of their belonging. But they don’t really mean everyone, and the Supreme Court has held that government agents may consider race when deciding who to stop near the border. So, maybe the border isn’t just a place but also a trait some people take with them wherever they go.

6. Being and Not Being

Since three of my four grandparents passed through Ellis Island, I think of it as a symbol of belonging, but it also stands for a strange idea: that a person can be in the United States without being in the United States. In the 1950s, this happened to Ignatz Mezei, whose story is documented best by law professor Charles Weisselberg.

Born in Gibraltar, Hungary, or somewhere else—it’s never entirely clear—Mezei had moved to Buffalo in the 1920s, where he lived for more than twenty years, working as a cabinetmaker, selling war bonds, serving as an air-raid warden, and so forth. In 1948, with Europe still in turmoil after the war, he traveled to Romania to see his dying mother, but Romania denied him entry. He wound up stuck in Hungary for nineteen months, unable to obtain an exit visa. When he finally got the visa, he headed back home from France on a steamer, but immigration officials stopped him at Ellis Island. The government had received a confidential tip that he was a subversive. There would be no hearing in which he could argue otherwise. The attorney general declared his entry “prejudicial to the public interest” and ordered him permanently excluded.

Detained on Ellis Island, Mezei endeared himself to the people in charge. He fixed things—the pool tables, the couches—and later the guards and officials remembered him fondly to the New York Times, calling him “a nice man.” While he tinkered and waited, the government was looking for another country for him. “During his detention,” the Times reported, “he was twice put on French Line ships for return to Europe, but was rejected by England and France.” Hungary didn’t want him, and various Latin American countries didn’t, either.

Throughout, Mezei asked to be let back into the United States, where he was but wasn’t. He filed five habeas corpus petitions to at least get a hearing, and finally he won the fifth. He left Ellis Island under a $3,000 bond, and reported to immigration officials in Buffalo every week while his case continued. During this time in Buffalo, legally speaking he remained on Ellis Island, waiting to see if he’d be able to cross the border into the United States.

The government appealed the grant of habeas and won in the Supreme Court: because Mezei hadn’t entered the United States, the decision went, he didn’t have the same rights to a hearing as if he’d been in the country. It didn’t matter that he’d been detained for so long on Ellis Island, the court said, because “harborage at Ellis Island is not entry into the United States.” The time he spent out on bond in Buffalo didn’t count, either.

After the court’s decision, Mezei headed back to the island to resume his indefinite detention. A photo in the New York Times captured him on this journey: a man in late middle age with graying hair and a neat mustache, dressed in a suit with vest and tie, framed between two bars aboard the ferry. He looked almost jaunty, but the caption called this his “journey to nowhere.” He’d brought along “a bag of upstate apples in one hand and his tools and clothing in the other.” He still struggled with English and, through his Hungarian-speaking attorney, said, “I feel as if I was walking to death.”

His case got press attention. Finally, the U.S. attorney general decided to let him go before a board of special inquiry. The hearing revealed that Mezei’s life had some complications. First, there was a criminal conviction. Back in 1935, he’d bought seven bags of stolen flour and received a ten-dollar fine. His wife attempted to explain: he’d thought she’d ordered the flour, it was a mistake, but no matter—the conviction made him excludable. Then there were the political activities, namely his participation in the Hungarian lodge of the International Workers Order, which had been placed on a list of subversive organizations. Mezei denied being a communist; the government produced witnesses—one later revealed to be a paid perjurer—who testified that he was. On April 19, 1954, the board declared him a security risk, and it seemed he’d be on Ellis Island forever.

In August, though, the Justice Department granted him parole for reasons unknown. As a parolee, Mezei left Ellis Island and boarded a train for Buffalo, all still without legally being in the United States. Even in western New York—where, banned from the Carpenters Union, he subsisted on bottom-of-the-barrel jobs—he took the border with him and never managed to cross over.

A few years ago, I saw that Mezei’s name had come up in the case of seventeen Uighurs, Muslim refugees from China who’d been scooped up in the war on terror and imprisoned at Guantánamo. There they spent year after year in grim isolation, even after the U.S. government determined it had no authority to keep them locked up, because: where to send them? They couldn’t go back to China, which they’d fled and China was pressuring other countries not to take them. So, the Uighurs proposed making their lives in the United States, and why not? The U.S. had reached into Afghanistan and taken the Uighurs. The Obama administration considered the proposal, but the politics got messy. Elected officials from both parties objected, and then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press that Americans “don’t want these men in their neighborhoods.”

The Uighurs sued and won a favorable ruling from a district court judge, who ordered them released into the U.S. The victory was short-lived: the appeals court reversed with language that chills. “An undercurrent of petitioners’ arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the United States,” wrote Judge Raymond Randolph. “But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches.” In this settled law, he included the decision that would have kept Ignatz Mezei confined to Ellis Island for the rest of his life, without so much as a hearing; many scholars had considered Mezei a legal relic.

I read Judge Randolph’s words and find them astonishing. Shouldn’t the Constitution protect these men—refugees from Chinese repression—from perpetual detention in a prison camp? No, said Judge Randolph, pushing the Uighurs beyond the edge of the Constitution. Despite recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the rights of Guantánamo prisoners, he declared that “the due process clause does not apply to aliens without property or presence in the sovereign territory of the United States.”

In this case, I don’t know how to think of the border as anything but a bald exercise of power and a heartless practical joke.

The Uighurs aren’t on Guantánamo anymore. Their lives being not entirely their own, some were sent to Albania, others to Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and the last to Slovakia. In 2012, two were shipped off to El Salvador, the country that started me wondering about the oddity of borders.

7. Arrive and Forget

It’s the spring of 1992, I’m in my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Philadelphia, and my grandmother is commenting on the Haitians: specifically, the boat people we’ve seen on television lately, bobbing in overloaded vessels as Coast Guard officers lean from sleek cutters, poised for rescue.

In his working life, my grandfather was a neighborhood pharmacist who’d vaulted himself into the lower middle class. Now my grandmother and he live in a tidy apartment filled with family china and ceramic bowls generous with Pearson’s Coffee Nips and other wrapped candies.

“They’re so ragged looking,” my grandmother says of the Haitians, who are risking their lives to reach the United States.

The Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been overthrown, and paramilitaries are beating people, killing them, taking over opposition radio, broadcasting threats on its own station. From what my family and I know of Haiti, this kind of violent repression is nothing new; we remember the days of the Duvalier dictatorship, before Aristide’s election, and in my mind I recreate an image of Michele Duvalier, slender and elegant wife of dictator Jean-Claude, smoking a long cigarette as her family flees to the airport in their Mercedes. But the boat people are not elegant, and my grandmother asks, “What can they possibly do here?”

She’s forgotten that she comes from boat people, too. She was born in the Lower East Side in 1908, months after her family landed, following a journey that must have involved trains, worrying, waiting, and bribery, all before the trip over the ocean. They traveled steerage, which reeked of vomit and shit, and they must have reeked themselves when they emerged into sunlight and squinted at their new city. They didn’t have a penny to their name. When my grandmother learned to speak, she learned Yiddish first. What did her family do here in the United States?

I suspect they did pretty much anything they could. They sewed and haggled. They were people in transition, and it’s this transition I see when I look at historical photos of the arriving Jews. I see both their dark foreignness and the Americans they will someday become, two inseparable qualities. For me, that’s the best of the United States: the constant change and renewal, not necessarily a Puritan move toward perfection as much as a fortunate inability to be a single, unchanging thing, no matter how much we may try to fix that. My family slipped past the border before it was drawn against them in 1924, when Congress said no more Jews.

Almost seventy years later, when my grandmother and I looked at the Haitians in their boats, we saw black people whom our government was trying very hard to keep from becoming Americans. I didn’t know then that it had been presidential policy since 1981 to have the Coast Guard net the Haitians before they hit our shores—in fact, before they even reached our territorial waters. Over the years, this policy took different forms. For a time, the Coast Guard was warehousing Haitians on Guantánamo, leaving them to languish in tent camps, if it thought they’d be persecuted in Haiti. The rest the Coast Guard ferried back. Then, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush decided there was no more room at Guantánamo and ordered that, from then on, all Haitians be sent back, refugees or not.

It seems to me that at the heart of Bush’s executive order lay a border control problem as—or even more—complex than the one he was trying to solve. The order announced that the United States had no legal obligations to refugees outside our territorial waters—their rights began only at the border. But what about the power that the U.S. exercised in the name of law enforcement? This didn’t stop at the border. The Coast Guard traveled into the high seas, stopped foreign boats, questioned passengers, demanded papers, and forced the Haitians back to Haiti.

Reaching Port-au-Prince, the Coast Guard had to hose some of the returning refugees off the boats—because the refugees knew what they were facing. As a writer for the Miami New Times, Steve Almond reported the stories that some repatriated Haitians had recounted to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They told stories of the military hunting returnees down, herding them onto trucks, shooting them to death. Many fled again.

Haitian community groups sued the administration. In March 1993, the Supreme Court heard the case challenging the new executive order, and the plaintiffs argued that the government was barred from repatriating any refugee, regardless of where it stopped them. The court ruled that the refugee statute and the U.N. treaty on refugees gave the Haitians no protection in international waters and also set no limit on what the U.S. government could do there. The relevant law, the court said, is “completely silent with respect to … possible application to actions taken by a country beyond its own borders.” Only Justice Harry Blackmun dissented.

I first read this decision in the 1990s and still struggle with it. The U.S. was venturing as law enforcers into a place where refugees had no rights. Was it a lawless zone or not? I know people will say this question is naïve. The government was dealing with reality, a challenging refugee crisis, etc.

But that’s not all that’s real. When the Haitians were heading toward Florida, I was a twenty-two-year-old college student and understood nothing about Haiti. I certainly didn’t know that, by 1992, Haiti and the United States had a “long, torrid relationship,” in the words of journalist Amy Wilentz. I don’t think that relationship began only in 1915, when the U.S. invaded Haiti, ostensibly to save it from chaos only to occupy the country until 1934 and establish what historian Donald Cooper called a “thinly-disguised military dictatorship.” Still, the occupation is a pretty significant element of our relationship with Haiti—the starting point for “treat[ing] Haitian governments, at best, as rubber stamps for U.S. policy and for American businesses working in Haiti,” as Wilentz argues—and yet something few Americans know anything about.

This is another thing about the border: it veils what we see and what we know, even about ourselves. It protects our sense of virtue, creates a world in which we can act as empire while believing that we don’t. So, if our law regards Haitian refugees as “strangers,” it may be telling the truth, but they’re only strangers to us; we aren’t strangers to them. And maybe my family and I carry the border, too, but not like the people who are racially marked by it. We’ve assimilated it into our Americanness, so that it changes what we see, and we don’t recognize any part of ourselves in the Haitians anymore.

8. Adorning the Fantasy

When I read the map-making judicial opinions, I fall into their funnel of logic. The justices examine statutory language and precedent, and their conclusions seem inevitable. In the Haitian repatriation decision, Justice John Paul Stevens devotes several paragraphs to discussing whether section 243(h)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act applies only to the attorney general or to the executive branch more broadly. Congress carefully drafted the statute, so the distinctions are important if we are to have a government of laws. I walk through the parsing of language and feel the weight of statutory grammar—I’ve drafted legislation, so I know the details matter.

But then I step away from the decisions, and rather than retaining their logic they become patches in a jagged whole. This is the opposite of what occurs with a pointillist painting, where distance produces clarity. Justice Henry Billings Brown seems to experience this incoherence, if for just a moment, in his opinion in Downes v. Bidwell, the Puerto Rican oranges case. He is reviewing the history of the country’s expansion, and he spends page after page examining the legal framework. He looks at the Constitution and its amendments, along with various treaties and statutes. Legally speaking, how has the country brought in new states and territories? His attention to this question is scrupulous and stultifying. Eventually, he turns to the case law and concedes, “The decisions of this court upon this subject have not been altogether harmonious.”

Although, let’s not be coy: this is about power, not just textual interpretation—power braided of words and violence. The words unleash the violence, American hoses pressing down on Haitians, washing them into the hands of military assassins. The Supreme Court said this was legitimate; the border put the Coast Guard beyond law. We used law to escape law. I want to ask how we can make sense of this, though I also don’t want to ask. There is a way to make sense, but that sense comes with its own brutality and silences.

It’s been more than a year since Charles Schumer announced the bipartisan immigration reform proposal. The Senate passed a bill, but nothing is happening in the House of Representatives; border security is a priority for Republicans, we hear. It’s important to Democrats, too, but neither party means border security for people who aren’t us.

I can’t imagine that Crow Dog, on his way to New York City to perform his Indianness, believed that the borders of the United States had provided him national security, or much security at all. And what about the Uighurs, who’d escaped persecution in China and initially had seen the American troops as liberators? “We were happy when we were handed over to the Americans,” Abu Bakker Qassim told the BBC in 2012. “They usually help Uighurs.” This time the American government didn’t help. It banished the Uighurs to a dismal detention camp on Guantánamo and then cast them out to Albania, Palau, and other places they had no reason to know anything about. The border didn’t protect them at all. It’s not “high-mindedness” to say that border security—or the meaning of the border itself—is a matter of perspective. It’s nothing so abstract.

The border isn’t a place. It’s a tool we put to use. As I write, the border is on the move, doing its work. Border Patrol agents and state troopers are roaming highways, demanding to see people’s papers, and the border is moving with them. The agents are sorting who belongs from who doesn’t. But the border doesn’t just divide us. It also connects us in ways that can be brutal, like a torturer’s line of electricity. It ties us to the Uighurs we confined in Guantánamo and the Haitians we repatriated. When I interviewed Salvadorans in Seattle, I saw the weight of the border on them: we can do what we want in your country, but you don’t belong here. The denial of a relationship is part of the relationship. So, it makes sense that we’d want to think the border is elsewhere, confined to a distant desert. We can adorn this fantasy with troops and electronic surveillance and place faith in it. But I doubt that will give us border security. Even in our most vivid imagination, we have no idea what a secure border would look like. We’ve never seen such a thing.

Julie Chinitz has worked in public policy and community organizing since 2000 and is the former policy director at Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle. 

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Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100I always wear my crappiest clothes to fly. It’s been my habit for a long time, so long I don’t remember, dating back two decades, quarter of a century. My uniform: well-worn cargoes, brown or khaki, fabric so thin it feels like a bed sheet, soft, threadbare. Old promotional T-shirts, advertising books too ancient, even, to be remaindered; my current favorite highlights an early 1990s exegesis of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Button-downs frayed at cuffs and collar, not unlike the ones I wore in high school, although the point then was a certain shabby chic. Such affectations, it should go without saying, no longer compel me, not when I fly or any other time. And yet, perhaps, I am looking for a through line, a link to my younger self, a consistency by which to neutralize my fear.

Fear? I’d be lying if I said it’s not a factor, although this is equally about comfort, since these are the clothes I wear around the house. I am happiest in loose clothes, old, baggy, shapeless, clothes in which I can forget myself. This is a key conflict with flying, as on a plane I never lose touch with my physical existence, my desperation to remain alive. Does that sound overstated? Desperation is a strong emotion, and mostly when I’m in the air, I’m lost in a book, avoiding conversation with my seatmate, trying to crawl outside time a little, to get it over with. Still, I hate to fly—or no, don’t hate it any longer, although I’ll never like it, never feel comfortable strapped into a narrow chair in a long tube full of strangers, shot across the sky like a bullet, all of us aware that we may die. “People are polite on airplanes,” observes Don DeLillo in his play The Day Room. “There’s a whole thrilling layer of politeness, especially in the last few seconds before takeoff, on a transoceanic flight, at sunset, with a crew of sixteen, twenty-four. … Going down the runway, everyone belted in, assigned letters and numbers. The landscape hurtling past, the temperature regulated …We sense the presence of death.”

Here we have the reason flying stirs us, as if we were in a church or synagogue, or any other place where we sit in rows and confront the bitter half-life of our evanescence, pray that we don’t disappear. It’s why air travel used to come attended with such solemnity, why we used to treat it as an occasion of a kind. The first flight I remember—late summer 1967, New York to Los Angeles on an American Airlines 707, movie (Twiggy in The Boy Friend, I want to tell you, although it didn’t come out until four years later) unspooling in sixteen millimeter jags and stutters as the plane traversed the clouds—I wore a tie and blue Brooks Brothers blazer; my mother dressed in pearls and heels. I was six, but even at this age, flying left me edgy: excited, certainly, imagining that we were in a rocket, marveling that the sky could be so static, as if we weren’t moving through it, yet at the same time more than a little unmoored. It was as if some fundamental connection had been severed, and now that we had managed to get up, there was no clear passage for us to come down. The ten-minute rule, I’d later come to understand, since the real danger of flying occurs in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes, ascent and descent, as we leave the planet and again as we return. There’s a message in all this somewhere, a signifier of release and control. “Be at ‘Full Alert’ During the Critical Periods,” a website called How to Survive a Plane Crash admonishes, but what interests me more is how I might move away from such alertness, how I might, in other words, be reassured.

At six, I already had a full-blown fear of death. My earliest encounter: four years old, in the living room of our small Central Park West apartment, telling my father I envied G.I. Joe because he didn’t have to die. My father was twenty-nine, and not particularly equipped for such a conversation; a decade later, in a different apartment on the other side of the park, he would tell me we were born to be part of the food chain when I asked him, in a fit of adolescent existential torment, what was the purpose of life. On Central Park West, he managed to be softer, either because I was younger or because he himself was not completely formed. Yes, he told me, but then you wouldn’t know the joy of living—a platitude, to be sure, but not untrue, and especially striking given that the joy of living has never been a pleasure he’s embraced. It was two years after that, in our Galaxie 500, driving through an alley in Long Beach, California (where my father had a one-year fellowship; hence, the cross-country flights to visit grandparents, to spend the holidays, to maintain close contact with Manhattan, the glimmering endpoint of my parents’ American Dream), when I had my first experience of (let’s call it) death dread, that pit-of-the stomach panic, like a case of vertigo, when you realize there is no way out. The moment remains as articulated as a film clip, the four of us en route to my father’s cousin’s in the Valley, me leaning over from the back seat, my brother in the corner next to me, playing with a plastic dinosaur, olive green. Even if you could get out of dying, I remember saying, you wouldn’t want to live forever … and then the bottom dropped out of my guts and I was uprooted, without gravity, as if I were in a plane falling from the sky. It wasn’t that one option was impossible and the other inevitable, it was that both were unacceptable, unimaginable, each the inverse of itself. As Philip Roth laments: “The ceaseless perishing. … What an idea! What maniac conceived it?” He’s right, of course, but the real horror is that, even if there were an alternative, it would be just as bad.

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Hacks: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100The summer after I graduated from college, I told a bartender that I wanted to be a sportswriter. The bartender claimed to know a sports editor at our local paper, one of the biggest dailies in Southern California. “The dude gets wasted in here all the time,” he said. “I’ll give him your resume.”

A young man is lucky to have these kinds of connections. At the time, I had several paying gigs which, together, nearly amounted to a job. I spent my days coaching at a basketball camp, my nights shelving paperback thrillers at a used bookstore, and on weekends I picked up shifts at the gas station where I had worked throughout high school and college. So I waited on the bartender. It’s worth mentioning that he didn’t work at a cool and seedy bar on the edge of town. He was a bartender at Islands. In any case, he came through. Two weeks after we talked, I got hired as a stringer to cover prep sports. The drunk who passed along my resume got canned just before I arrived, so I never had a chance to thank him for launching my career in journalism.

Before my first assignment—a high school football game in Anaheim between two last place teams—I was approached by one of the senior writers, Walt Brady, who had been covering local prep sports for over two decades. As I would learn, Walt fulfilled every stereotype of the sports desk hack. He was a forty-eight-year-old bachelor with a greasy comb-over. He drove a four-cylinder hatchback and his desk was littered with coffee stained legal pads and toothpicks from club sandwiches.

“Do you know how to do agate?” he asked.

“What’s agate?” I said.

Agate, I learned, simply meant the box scores. That night Walt taught me how to score a high school football game. He pulled up an extra chair to his desk and I sat down next to him. I became instantly familiar with his stench, a sour mixture of sweat and nicotine emanating from the plaid shirt that hung loose off his stooped frame. He talked quickly, in ominous tones, as if imparting some ancient and terrible wisdom, an alchemical formula that would transform my naïve understanding of the world. “In this column, you keep track of rushing yards.”

Nervous, I hung on his every word, and all his pointers would end up being extremely helpful on my first night. He was the only senior writer who bothered to explain howthings worked and what I could expect when I arrived at the game. It was obvious that over the years he had given his agate spiel to dozens, if not hundreds, of stringers. Before I left the office, he advised me to interview as many players as possible.

“They love seeing their name in the paper,” he said. “They’ll cut out your article and keep it the rest of their life.”

Throughout the fall, I spent my Friday nights doing postgame interviews with neckless seventeen-year-olds. “I don’t know what to say,” said one quarterback, pimply and nervous. “I threw it and he caught it.” I loved telling people that I was a sportswriter. It didn’t matter that I was making forty dollars per story and living in my parents’ garage.

After a few months, I became a full-time news assistant, and quit all my other gigs. This was 1998, a million years ago. The sports desk was still arranged in classic horseshoe fashion, copy editors on the rim, copy chief in the slot. All the young news assistants sat off to the side, typing agate and game summaries into an atex mainframe terminal, with its ominous black screen and baroque command functions. Editors handed me proofs and I sent them down to the basement printers via pneumatic tube. I can still hear the “whoosh.”

During the evening lull, I wandered around the sports desk, hoping to bump into the front page columnists. These were the august men I wanted to learn from and emulate, but they were rarely in the office. Instead, they got to fly around the country, covering the Dodgers and Lakers and writing long features about whatever they wanted. One columnist, Scott Gilroy, was in his late twenties. He had a full head of hair and dressed in a rugged and stylish fashion—jeans, boots, corduroy blazer. In the little headshot that appeared next to his byline every week, he exuded an air of hip nonchalance, as if he had arrived on the front page not through effort, but through the irresistible force of his charm and talent. Someday, I imagined, I would be that guy, but in the meantime I was forced to hang out with the ghouls on the copydesk.

They yelled at me to clean up my copy and write better ledes, but mainly they just wanted to get my stories on time so they could slot them and move on to more important things. “Just hit your fucking deadline,” said one guy. “That’s all we care about.” As professionals, the copy editors upheld strict grammatical standards and displayed in their headlines a seemingly inexhaustible genius for pun and alliteration. Suns Scorch Lakers. But as men, they were greedy, flatulent, and depraved. They subsisted on beef jerky and Mountain Dew and they gambled on everything. Through the night, as scores came in from across the country, they’d scream at the television, exhorting underdogs to cover the spread. One night a rim editor looked up from the newswire and pumped his fist.

“Yes!” he cried out, and everyone looked at him.

“What is it?” someone asked.

“Mel Torme just died!”

“So?”

“I had him in my dead pool,” he said. “I just made two hundred bucks!”

Order a copy of ZYZZYVA Issue No. 100 here.

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The Dead Ones

ZYZZYVA Issue 100You came to say goodbye to her because she was your mentor. Years earlier she had given you something precious, and precious things need their recognition. Instead you sit in her kitchen with its flat Californian light washing in while her husband’s energy pulses most talk out the window. He sidles from around the counter to be with the two of you. How often he has stood beside her talent, you wonder, the way each mate in a partnership does, helping to uphold the myth, her husband a mystery now uncloaked. You recall those moments in her work in which lady characters enjoy their satisfying flirtations: a Mexican shop clerk, a gas station owner. The lipstick applied before she went out. The local gas station owner, an appreciator of Portuguese wine, in vivo, has told you of his appreciation of her, whether it was for that quick intelligence or those miniskirts that managed to survive the sixties in Berkeley along with her Jackie O. hair. A legacy of beauty: by chance you realize, hearing the husband’s name, that years ago you took classes with her daughter, long ago, dancing for the first time and all of you at that pubescent cusp.

The daughter with her long flowing hair had seemed to occupy a calmer moment, a different century. One couldn’t forget such calm. While the husband, father of that flowing-haired girl, mate to that wry mentor, is unforgettable from the other end of the spectrum, small with restless eyes, standing while performing an intake of the vitals, manic at the apparition of you, the former student. He has heard much of you, he says, she passed you the baton, right? While talking, he peels and eats in quick succession three hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs matter. He needs the fuel, being a doctor heading to see clients. They will talk to him about their problems in neat forty-five minute segments. Or is it fifty? For each of those segments his ears will remain, in theory, open while his mouth closed, hiding the impatience he stuffs down with those eggs.

He’s a psychiatrist, she tells you, or maybe a psychologist? A psychoanalyst! She lands on the right profession and is triumphant. The flag plants on accuracy.

In other words, her memory is failing. It had failed, it would fail more. What had been charming ellipses and cutoffs in her prose style now are permanently imbricated in her psyche.

She has forgotten much, a wave of her hand says, but the dry humor remains intact. She takes you to a dusty backroom, she the beautiful teacher, her legs stockinged filaments leading you to a library squeezed in between other domestic needs. My study, she says, and in that spot she has something to tell you, something about horror and loss, what she keeps calling her own good-bye party. As she tells you about it, you hear how much she lives in an echo chamber of recall, and how deeply each echo pierces her anew.

 *

Call mentorship a form of death in life. Why? Because our mentors show us that we must feel the quicksilver shooting through our veins. This is the one life we have! Make use of it.

In a neat back-to-back, two dominoes facing out, you can also say death stays our ultimate mentorship. Then the question remains: must we carry the hearts of everyone until our heart, like a ship crowded with the memory of those who have left, eventually also sinks like they all did? Or could memory itself act as a buoy?

There is a black chair with the impress of his body still upon it. As he faded, he liked to sit there while a party took place. The music played louder while he became more of a phantom, inhabiting his skin and bones as if all the better to shrink from them. Occasionally, indignities overcame. With a helper, he had to excuse himself until eventually he excused himself altogether from the greatest indignity, which is living when you can no longer move. Otherwise the chair still sits there: same creased worn spot where the wrist lay, same grease on the reading-lamp’s swivel-switch, same poetry books he favored, the translations on the facing pages, helpful unlike the music of all those parties. Now all of it explains nothing, as phantom as his body, the memory alone speaking in dream-tongue, polyglot but inscrutable.

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A Cowboy Crosses the Border in Silence

Gerónimo González Garza was born unable to hear or speak, but this did not keep him from going as a young man to the United States to work and to make a life for himself. Nor did it stop him from returning to Mexico many years later, and traveling over the highways of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, in the middle of the drug war being waged in northeastern Mexico.

Mother throws in the cow stomach and this makes the boiling water jump from the blue tin pot. Now she drops in a little deformed thing that must be a cow’s foot. Then go in the tomatoes, the rosemary, the mint, the garlic and oregano. On weekends Home is fragrant with spices. Nowadays when the aroma of certain natural condiments hits me, I often remember the economic crisis that began in December 1994 in Mexico.

Father wakes up early and empties the stew in the pot onto Styrofoam plates. He carefully puts them in the car, as if they were recently dug-up treasure: so not a single drop spills over, so not a single precious jewel falls, so that the menudo arrives safely at its destination.

In Monterrey it’s typical to eat barbacoa on Sundays, but Father’s friends are true. On those Sunday mornings in 1995, instead of trying barbacoa, they eat the menudo they buy from Father.

During the week, Mother puts other things into the pot that always seems to be boiling water. In go chickens, rice, vegetables. Then Father places the contents into the thin receptacles and the destination of the plates is much, much closer. One goes to the neighbor next door, the other to the neighbor across the street, to those around the corner, to that neighbor who just moved to the other block, to the mean woman who punctures soccer balls and to Mother’s friends, who are also true friends.

The kitchen at Home is the neighborhood kitchen. In northeastern Mexico there are no fondas. The word fonda is not used to describe a cheap, homestyle restaurant like it is in other places in Mexico. But Home is a fonda. A fonda that offers food delivered right to your door.

And the topic everyday at the fonda is Home. For a moment Home has nothing to do with the walls and the ceilings between which my childhood and adolescence transpired. The word Home refers to a problem. Home means uncertainty, the bank, risk, evil, unemployment, struggle and, above all, a strange and very aggressive word: Hipoteca. Hipoteca—mortgage—is the word nobody wants to hear, or to say, at Home.

Some advanced future civilization will have to somehow erase this word from the dictionary.

But in that year, the word Hipoteca is there, in the everyday speech, though it is actually spoken little.

Mother’s boiling pot defies the word Hipoteca. Father’s Styrofoam plates do, too. Yet, in those times of crisis (said to have been all because of an “error made in December” which devalued the peso and sent interest rates sky-high), the word Hipoteca is very powerful. It can’t be defeated by the aroma of the oregano or by the friendships that are true.

For the word Hipoteca to leave us in peace something else would be needed.

One day Tio sends fifteen thousand dollars from the United States. That day the word Hipoteca lost a battle, leaving Home in peace.

Tio is a cowboy who crosses the border in silence. His name is Gerónimo González Garza.

I promised to one day tell his story.

***

They dismounted. They tied up the horses under the shade of the same tree. They walked, each one with his rifle. They were talking softly and sparely, the alert black eyes of Magdaleno and the alert light brown eyes of Gerónimo. A half hour and some miles later, they couldn’t find any game to shoot. Nothing stirred, not even a tarantula. The hot wind dried up life on the mountain.

They split up to increase their luck while they explored. A while passed and at last the first shot—the only shot—of the hunt was heard. Magdaleno ran into the thicket to look, but instead of an animal lying on the ground, he found Gerónimo’s hat. Gerónimo was kneeling, he had a bullet hole in his neck and it was bleeding. He died soon after.

Magdaleno went back to find the horse. He untied it, and later turned it over, along with his best friend’s hat and body. He described in detail what had happened and said that they could do what they wanted with him. The family banished Magdaleno from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León. He never returned. Some say that he crossed the R.o Bravo and then hanged himself from a mesquite tree on the Texas cattle ranch where he had found work as a ranch hand.

The years passed, and on May 24, 1953, in her house near the city’s bus terminal, María de Jesús Garza gave birth to a baby of little more than four pounds who came into the world with a full head of hair. The baby’s umbilical chord was cut and buried in Monterrey, his birthplace, as was the custom of the day. The father, Guadalupe González, was content that the baby was a boy. He had wanted a son to name Gerónimo, after his brother who had died tragically by a bullet from his best friend’s rifle.

***

Gerónimo crawls for a few seconds and then slumps to the floor. He seems distracted. Something weird is happening and his parents think they know what it is, but they take him to the hospital to find out for sure. They get up at dawn and are seen by a doctor at the public clinic. He looks over the baby, touches his ears, and speaks in front of him in different high and low tones. Then the doctor becomes grave and asks the parents to go to a laboratory so the baby’s hearing can be studied. Ten days later they return. The doctor receives them with the same serious tone from the time before. He gives them the news that Gerónimo does not hear, nor is he ever going to hear. When he sees things he will not be conscious of their sound: He is totally deaf. Everything for him will be like a silent movie.

They are going to have to speak to him with their hands like mimes, so he doesn’t go crazy. They are going to have to show him that he shouldn’t eat with his mouth open, or that when he needs to drink milk he has to say so with his hand. They will do this, and little Gerónimo will watch them and they will wait for him to imitate them. They have to be patient. It’s no small thing: they will create their own language to communicate with each other. In this way they will gradually show him how to live.

The parents listen to the doctor and his advice. More or less they know what they have to do. Graciela, one of their other children, also was born with hereditary deafness. They have investigated and know that deafness runs in the family on Gerónimo’s father’s side, at least two generations back. Due to the profound deafness, Gerónimo will not know sound and won’t be able to use his vocal chords to talk, even though they are not damaged in any way. No person born deaf can use his larynx, his voice.

***

Guadalupe González works from Monday through Friday at Trailers of Monterrey Corporation. The small company has a storehouse into which noisy trucks coming from the United States are jammed in together every day. As part of their cargo, they carry oily car transmissions, obsolete medical equipment, peeling multicolored wires, broken hydraulic tubing, loose furniture, and other things. Guadalupe’s job is to weigh the junk and bargain as much as possible with the junk collectors.

María de Jesús Garza makes red chorizo that she sells in their neighborhood in Monterrey. Before, they had spent a long time in Rancho Nuevo, a communal land in Los Ramones, Nuevo León, some ninety miles north of the city. It was a good-sized piece of land María de Jesús had inherited, but the soil was broken up and of the kind that doesn’t allow for easy sowing, and so they had to immigrate to the city.

On weekends, to cover the family’s expenses, Guadalupe travels to Rancho Nuevo in his cherry Ford pickup truck, driving through a remote landscape—one mesquite tree here, another over there. There he kills baby goats, which he later sells in Monterrey. If it is the birthday of one of his children or some other truly special occasion, he kills one of the cows that graze on the paltry pastureland at the ranch. Enough barbacoa and menudo comes from the animal to last for days, and it makes everyone happy.

Sometimes there is no time to kill animals at Rancho Nuevo, and the sacrifices are made at the house in the city. It is not unusual for dead goats to appear strung up in the patio of the small home, hanging as if they were recently washed clothes waiting to be dried.

Of the six children in the González Garza family—María de la Luz, Graciela, Teresa, Guadalupe, and Martha—Gerónimo is the one who collaborates most in the weekend slaughters. His siblings study instead, and their chores include helping with the sale of the chorizo and in the butchering and packing of the meat. They treat Gerónimo normally. They run away for hide-and-seek or jump around for hopscotch. Gerónimo spends the first ten years of his life in this way, without him, his parents, or siblings knowing official sign language. All of their communication comes from moving the hands, a voice that doesn’t emit any sound but that can be seen. They use a silent alphabet they created.

Gerónimo’s parents don’t impose on him the world of those who do hear, they try to understand his. It’s a normal, spirited, and happy family.

It’s not unusual to see Gerónimo in bloody jeans after he’s spent the whole day with his father in their improvised slaughterhouse at home. Killing a goat is arduous work: first you have to calm it down, later bury a knife in its jugular, let it die as it screams, hang it up so that all the blood drains from it into a pot, take out its intestines by hand and strip it of its coat. There is one Saturday when Gerónimo, alone, without his father’s help, kills all eighteen goats to be eaten at a wedding to be celebrated that same night in Monterrey. He is ten years old.

***

Someone knocked on the door on a summer night in 1965. Guadalupe went out to see. A young visitor approached him and gave him a white card on which was printed many small hands drawn in different shapes—the hieroglyphics of the sign language alphabet. On the reverse side there was a message in Spanish: “I am deaf. Please donate to my school.” Ger.nimo’s father took out some change and gave it to the boy. He kept the card and the following afternoon took his son to the address written upon it.

It was a big house on Madero Road, one of the most important avenues in old Monterrey. There they taught Mexican Sign Language. (One might assume there is only one sign language for all deaf people in the world, but that’s not the case. There are many differences even between the sign language of one country and another. Deaf gringos speak American Sign Language. The language of deaf Mexicans even includes its own regional slang, and a deaf person from Monterrey doesn’t speak the same way as a deaf Mayan.) The place had few windows, three rooms, and a large area where in 1951 the first school for the deaf in northeastern Mexico was established. In the entranceway there was a sign that gave its welcome by offering the Greek definition of man: zoon logon ejon, “the animal that has language,” as well as photos of a deaf lucha libre wrestler who, at that time, every once and a while shared the ring with the famous fighters El Santo or Blue Demon. He was called El Prisionero, the Prisoner. There were also images of “Deaf” David Rodr.guez, another lucha libre performer, who was lesser known but a native of Monterrey.

The school was affiliated with the Mexican Association of Deaf-Mutes Corporation. Its symbol was a squirrel. The incessant movement of the hands of the sympathetic nut-eating rodent seemed to the professor Abel Sauza to be similar to the deaf students during their class discussions, and so he adopted it as their logo. It was Professor Sauza who involved Gerónimo in the rest of the activities at the school. The place doubled as a recruitment agency. The young deaf children who traversed the populous neighborhoods of Monterrey asking for money for the school were attentive, so if they came across any other deaf people they would invite them to join the community they were trying to form.

The deaf students, once they learned how to communicate through Mexican Sign Language, would form soccer teams and compete in amateur tournaments, or they would go out together to get to know other cities in Mexico. They would sell key chains, pens, or toys which they offered with cards bearing signed phrases on them, like “Te amo” (right hand with two bent fingers making a type of horns to be placed at the chest, at the height of the heart) or “Que D.os te bendiga” (left hand and right hand symmetrically in the form of horns).

The professors presented these trips to parents as a way to integrate their students into the world, though they had a commercial logic to them as well, as part of the sales went to the school and another, smaller part went to the young deaf entrepreneurs.

Gerónimo made his first trip at 14 years old. It was like going to another planet; the never-ending asphalt of Mexico City contrasted with the loose topsoil of where he had grown up, as much so in Rancho Nuevo as Monterrey. He spent four months there. He made short visits to the other states of Puebla, Aguascalientes, and Guanajuato. He met deaf people from Mexico City who were infamous for being abusive to those from the countryside, but some of them became good friends of his for a long time. The Monument to the Mexican Revolution was Gerónimo’s preferred site to sell key chains. The tourists behaved generously, especially the regular evening customers of the neighboring cantinas. Whereas outside the nearby offices of the Federal Security Department (DFS), a shadowy organization that coordinated paramilitary and “counterterrorism” efforts at the time, the pickings were quite slim.

Before returning to Monterrey, the group traveled to Guadalajara for a few weeks. While he was there, Gerónimo decided he would go as a mojado, or “wetback,” to the United States.

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Out of Notebooks

Late in the P.M. I’m riding BART through its bay waters tunnel, coming home from Berkeley, where whenever I emerge from the Downtown Berkeley station I feel culturally confused and morally disoriented. I’m surrounded by scolding righteousness and a classmotley nuttiness that comports itself as if it were exquisite entitlement. The speedy angry wheelchairs, the ganja aromatics, the dopey cheer of gutterpunks (and their pits and rotts), the streetfolk indistinguishable from grad students—that Shattuck Avenue corner induces a vaguely precious congestive disgust and primes me to find even more disgraceful than usual the other Berkeley where I was headed, the tamped-down, moneyed gentility of College Avenue, where good behavior is on its best behavior. So I’m happy to be going home to San Francisco, when a young woman sits next to me. “Excuse me, sir. Sir? Can I ask you something?” Hard to guess her age. Anglo, heavy-bodied, sweaty, pimples disfiguring her nose and forehead, nicely dressed, but she stinks of piss. “Sir? Tell me, if you knew somebody was going to die tonight. I mean you knew it, and you knew when. And you know the person. What would you do?” Whose life? Anyone’s real life? Is she in her right mind? Does it matter? My existence on earth in an instant contracts to our shared seat. Any words that might pass between us, beyond what she has said, are fraught with urgent intimacy. My head feels pressured by the water around the tunnel our train is pushing through. The sea is just down the street.

***

If you live a long time with chronic pain, when the levels spike it helps to have a map. Tonight I imagine my body as a night sky, and certain stars are hot spots. They constellate to form a picture, a self-portrait. Star light, star bright.

 ***

Poetry is cellular matter, connective tissue, interstitial stuff, not skeletal. “Life,” writes a friend, “is lived in its transitions.” Thus the fatigue of writing: it comes from sustaining that awareness of a life that never quite arrives or leaves.

***

Daylight Saving Time. Saving Light in Time. Late day, sunlight breaks into the kitchen but along the way diffuses into powdered ores on my unwashed windows. Yesterday, a fat, faintly opaque moon like buff linen. In the A.M. the whiter light of morning spreads west across white buildings to the blue-gray plateau of the Pacific. A raven’s shadow wipes the rooftops.

***

How I love Schiele. His “Sunflowers” is nature as root cellar, drab greens and browns, all snotty effluvial color, the blooms sickened, failing, and in the middle sky a sun blanched of its fires, its sunfloweriness.

***

Back in Marfa and its high-desert West Texas heat. Winds today at 30+ mph. I’m accustomed to the sea wind in San Francisco—it’s frontal, it comes at you. A windstorm here comes for you. It’s a woman’s voice halooing right outside the door late tonight, trying to slither into the house and harmonize with the Figaro I’m listening to. It shimmies, it turns corners, it bullroars, in this otherwise silent place. How can you not believe that the wind carries the voices of the dead, long interred but now singing again for us to come to them and their sweet fine nothingness.

***

What if death is just another country of contingency, contingency we can’t imagine, so we have to believe it’s an empire of pure necessity. Then imagine death not as a state, not non-being, but a condition where consciousness is free in a way that it cannot be free in life.

***

Dreams are the deranged, disguised partners of our clarified waking mental life. A recent twosome:

1: A young Asian woman walking with a much older man, their arms sexily around each other, the image rich with feeling of a lasting passion undeterred.

2: A neurologist shows me three sketches he’s made of the interior of my skull; on each one, a mark indicates the same abnormality: “Priapism.”

***

Fat Tuesday then Ash Wednesday. Runny pork fat chased by dry charred atonement. An excess of ashes is as inviting as an excess of meat and beads and bacon grease. Poetry treads water in the stream of the process, wet to dry, fat to dust, superfluity to barely surfeit. In my childhood the ashy forehead smudge was more a mark of fallenness than sign or promise of rebirth. We were already—at eight years old—consigned to earth or urn. What had we children done to cause this to be required of us?

***

Riders on public transit bent to the shape of piety, ensorcelled by smart phone, iPad, BlackBerry. The prayer beads of our time. Checking, checking. How’s the universe doing today?

***

I’ve decided to sell off or give away most of my books. If I read them well in the first place, I’ll always own them. They have certainly owned me, which is a reason for letting them go. I want them out of my apartment, out of my sight, and me out of their sight, for they’ve watched me—watched over and examined and compassed me—long enough. Time to go now, old friends, old obsessors, forsakers, forget-me-nots. Give me reprieve finally from that life of mind and heart that has come to oppress me. Time for you (and me) to go.

***

Concentration is a distraction. Hiking the rim of Taos gorge I was looking down so I could get as close as possible to the verge, I wanted to see the river running below where it combed in explosive little bursts over the rocks, I wanted to feel the rush of suddenly falling, but while looking down I missed the two bald eagles my companions saw flying above the river at eye level.

***

Aspirations. I wanted to write a poetry that enacted what it felt like to live in that impossible moment when a lived instant seems to recapitulate every previous instant—I wanted to engage consciousness as it lived into its own layers or zones. Reading all those books I’ve been selling off was as aspirational as it was instructive. And as a prettily pious Roman Catholic child I muttered my way through who knows how many thousands of aspirations, though a short walk through online dictionaries doesn’t give up that meaning: a prayer or devout utterance that’s no more than a breath.

***

The country of contingency is full of rain.

***

In the Museum of Modern Art, my heart’s adrift and achy with thoughts of young sons who lose their fathers when I hear a guard—from the islands, from St. Vincent, it turned out—softly singing to himself what sounded like Gospel, and was Gospel, he said when I asked. The sound of song in public—doesn’t matter if it’s Gospel, opera, tuneless humming, or rap: it thrills the air. (Today in a streetcar, a high school kid improvised a rap he was still pattering when I got off after several stops: as riders entered he worked into his song their clothes or shoes or belongings or skin type.) After that museum song came the formless sorrow I feel before one of Rothko’s dark-smoky pictures, the nocturnal palette, always enchanting and unsettling, and I overhear a father tell his son how R’s pictures were like windows and how you can see or imagine all sorts of feelings looking out windows, right? “He wasn’t a happy man,” he tells the boy. While I’m thinking about wisdom and tradition, R’s mental agony, the hurt heart, I hear somebody call my name (sharply, like a cell phone dropped on a hard surface) but when I look around, nobody’s there.

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A Careful Reading of a Literature’s Underdogs: Larry Beckett’s ‘Beat Poetry’

Beat PoetryThe beat goes on.

Larry Beckett, the one-time songwriter (he famously collaborated with the late Tim Buckley) has long been immersed in an ongoing poetic project called “American Cycle,’’ which takes an ambitious look at the folkloric past—from Paul Bunyan and P.T. Barnum, to Chief Joseph and Amelia Earhart and other figures from the “old weird America.’’

His latest book, simply titled Beat Poetry (Beatdom Books, 150 pages), tries to put into meaningful perspective the oft heralded if frequently over-hyped revolution in American poetry that took birth from the vernacular modesty of that good obstetrician William Carlos Williams and incorporated the spare eloquence of forebears like Li Po.

Continue reading

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The Mr. Smith Syndrome

An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.
—Richard Hugo

I was a teenager, and I walked two or three miles down Clairemont Drive to my first steady job—donut cooker at Tas-T Donuts. We had left Tijuana ten years before, and we’d left the heights above Barrio Logan five years after that and homesteaded this white working-class suburb. It was an astonishment tome, because it was the first time I had seen green lawns in front of every house and every apartment. In Tijuana, it was dirt. In Shelltown, it was yellow patches with burr clover and more dirt. Man, I thought these white folks were all millionaires. I was the one infected with Story in my family, and the lawns of Clairemont told me I had entered a new narrative.

Going to work was certainly a new chapter in that tale. Just that evening walk felt epic to me, wrapped in my teen self-pity and general fear—there were no knife-swinging bastards in Clairemont, but still, the old shadows don’t die easily, and every oleander bush could have sprung a homicidal vato. It was a journey that symbolists or Joseph Campbell might have found rich. The hike, in poverty, alone, downhill as the sun set. Far below, ocean. To each side, canyons. Animals and scrub brush. Then houses nicer than my own. Rushing by me, whiplashing me with their wind, the speeding cars of those more fortunate than I. At times, on the dirt path where the sidewalk petered out, these cars rushed quite close to me, perilous and roaring like beasts. Mean dogs on one side, metal creatures on the other and a lone boy going down a dirt path in the dark.

Once there, at Tas-T Donuts, the metaphors continued. It was on a dank alley, a horrid little two-story building with a drive-through hole where cars could insert themselves and collect their donuts and coffee from the downstairs serving window. It was backed by a rundown apartment complex across the alley that gave off bad cooking smells and the cries and shouts of the working-class families and old people who lived there. Among these sad apartment dwellers was the owner of Tas-TDonuts, Mr. Smith.

The donut kitchen was upstairs, and you’d get to it up a rattling, old paint-splintered, wooden staircase. One bare bulb, possibly yellow, over the door.Mr. Smith paid $1.35 an hour, but during training it was only 65 cents. Quite literally, it paid to learn fast.

Inside, it was L-shaped. Cement floor. Wooden pallets to stand on. Down the long arm of the L were two deep-fat fryers on the right and a sink on the left. A cooler for Mr. Smith’s fancy stuff, like cream filling, milk, eggs. Around the corner, in the squat alcove of the L, he kept the mixers and the big sacks of powdered sugar and flour, and the noxious bottles of sugar glaze and horrid chemical “flavors” in psychedelic colors that we would mix into the rank sugar goo and make chocolate, maple, vanilla, orange or lemon frosting. The citrus toxic chemicals had little shaved chunks of peel in them. Sugary bathroom cleaner.

Also down there we had tubs of “coconut” and “cinnamon” and “sprinkles.”A box of stale donuts was to be crushed with sugar and cinnamon and nuts in the mixer to make crunchy coatings for cake donuts.

Brooms. Mops. A squeeze bucket. And, on a long metal pole handle, a flat blade we used to scrape up fat white kernels of dough and lard from the floor.

There was no toilet. Mr. Smith told us to piss in the sink. The same sink where we mixed the various glazes. But we were to wash the urine down only with cold water. Hot water cost money and the steam made everything smell like piss.

If the health inspectors ever knocked on the back door, always closed and locked, we were to immediately call Mr. Smith at home and wait for him to come across the alley. While we waited, we were to do some quick cleaning.

*

Beside the fryers, we had a dumb waiter accessed by a small folkloric door in the wall. Fairies could have come from it, ghosts, El Cucuy. Instead, racks of donuts went in it like fat commuters jammed in a lift. A little rope-pull elevator.

Mr. Smith would leave his order on the pad: 24 maple, 24 buttermilk, 32 old-fashioned, 12 chocolate cake, 32 glazed, et cetera.We’d fry them up, put them on trays, put the trays on the elevator.More symbolism. The real donut shop was below us. You’d have to go down the dark shaft to get there. And we would. We’d get in the dumb waiter and hand-over-hand ourselves down there. It was where the cash register was. But we didn’t care about the cash register.We just wanted to go where we were forbidden. Where it was dangerous. Cops driving by could see you through the window, if you weren’t careful.

I kept in mind the possible scenario of a San Diego PD officer catching a Tijuana boy in the dumb waiter, breaking and entering Mr. Smith’s rancid wonderland at midnight.

Also down there was the trash can full of fancy donuts. Mr. Smith alone made those, the jelly-filled and cream-filled. And the goop in them would spoil, so he had to throw them out. The layers of these fancy donuts were divided in the garbage can by sheets of newspaper. So, when we rode  the elevator into the donut mine, we knew to steal the garbage from the top two layers. If it didn’t have coffee grounds all over it, we’d pull donuts out and put them in boxes. We’d take bismarcks and long johns and boston creams home to our moms, never telling them where they came from.

*

I was training under my Boy Scout best pal, Leon. He was cool. I aspired to be as cool as Leon. He liked John Denver, and I remember first listening to “Rocky Mountain High” while in that foul kitchen. It, along with being a Boy Scout, might have sown the seeds for my later Rocky Mountain mania. There was none of the old music I knew in Tas-T. No
James Brown (called “Chaze Brrong” in our Colonia Independencia accents).

Mr. Smith, like all donut bosses, wisely allowed us to eat all the donuts we wanted. Every extra donut, every mistake, every ugly donut. It took exactly one night to get deeply and utterly sick. We were too stupid to be disgusted by the sink/urinal. We just ate ’til we barfed.

Leon was an old hand at cooking. He was making a head cook’s wage of $1.65 an hour. And he knew all the bad lore of Tas-T Donuts. Like the guy Mr. Smith fired who decided on his last night to piss into the fryer and not the sink, but the hot grease exploded, cooking him and “I swear to God, fried his dick off!”

As a concession to hygiene, Mr. Smith made us wear hairnets.

*

At the end of my shifts, dictated not by the clock, but by the cooking load, I’d walk back up the long hill. 10:00, 11:00, midnight, 1:00. I could see inside lit windows. Families. Women. Televisions. A cold California glow. A mom in a hallway in her underwear.

Between walks, it was hours of clatter. Fryer. Sink. Mixer. Steel pans on the steel counters. Scraper. The donut machine crank handle. The clash of the metal mesh donut drainer running fat back into the noisy  fryer. Radio. The slamming door of the dumb waiter. Filthy air: a haze of oil, sugar, water, smoke. Dough stench. Grease stench. Glaze stench. Sour fermenting sugar fluid. Spices. Mold. Floor detergent.

Mr. Smith never drained the fryers. The grease was old and sour. His fryer was never turned on when I was at work, so as my fryer heated and the sludge inside liquified and cleared, his stayed clouded and thick. It was an ugly tan/yellow mess that looked like a frozen pond. Big old grease bubbles caught in place.

Flies and roaches would fall into the grease, struggle and sink. This was fascinating to me. It was like a quicksand scene in a Tarzan movie. It didn’t occur to me that the crisp raisins that surfaced and sank repeatedly as I cooked were deep-fried bugs, circling endlessly like fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits.

*

To make a donut, you’d follow the recipe and mix up the dough in the big hook mixer. Then you’d concoct your vat of toxic glaze. Then you’d pour your batter into the crank, which was kind of a funnel with a handle on the side. It rested at the end of an extendable arm. You had to be smooth on the crank, plot rings of dough in neat patterns to float and fry on the grease. Ideally, you timed it so the last ring of dough plopped in as the first was golden brown on one side. Then you would take two wooden dowels and, pushing down one while lifting with the other, you’d flip the donuts in the same order you’d cranked them. When both sides fried, you’d grab the handles of the submerged mesh platform and lift it out to drip oil back into the boiling sea. Unload ’em, put the mesh back in, crank the next load. Formost donut orders, three crank runs were enough. Then you’d dunk your plain cake donut (basically a delivery vector for the indescribably yummy chemical glaze) into the pans. One twist, out onto the rack. Drip, drip and then into the elevator.

If you screwed up the mix, the donuts were a ruin. Too much water or milk and the dough was drooly and shapeless. Bad wrist action on the crank and loops would fall on each other and fuse into strange archipelagos of fried dough. Your donuts would end up looking like fried underpants.

Now, Mr. Smith himself was as filthy and fiendish as his donut shop. He seemed to be an old man, though if I met him today he might reveal himself to be a spry 55. In my teens, he seemed to be 100.

He didn’t bathe. His hair was thinning, gray and slicked back. But it looked as if it was slicked back because it was dirty, not because he had used hair oil. Dirty glasses, yellowed T-shirts. He chain-smoked and coughed into the donuts. His teeth had fallen out.When he couldn’t afford my $1.35 wage, he bucked me back down to 65 cents for “retraining.” Then, he put me on probation: 35 cents an hour. That’s when I finally quit.

*

Before I left, Mr. Smith taught me something about writing, and work, and life. Sensei Smith, roshi of the Tas-T zendo. Like many teachers, he didn’t know he was doing it. He didn’t know he was changing my life. He thought he was teaching me about Tas-T Donuts.

Mr. Smith would show up unannounced while I was cooking. He’d get up behind me as I was trying to work the crank. I was bad at it anyway, but he made me so nervous it turned catastrophic.

Cigarette smoke. Body odor. Bad breath. And I’d start to choke on the crank. And he’d start to scold me: “Jesus Christ! Jesus, kid! Do you call that a donut? That ain’t a fucken donut! What the fuck’s the matter with you!”

And, of course, I’d made worse and worse donuts. “Holy shit! You dumb bastard! You retard! What the hell is that called! Because that ain’t a goddamn donut!”

I’d be frantic at this point, and the whole batch would be ruined.

“Can’t any Mexican make a fucken goddamn donut is what I’m asken!”

There would be a huge raft of frying dough in the middle of the grease. Mr. Smith would shove me aside and snap, “Get out of my fucken way, you idiot! I’ll show you how a goddamn donut is made!”

What is the sound of one hand frying?

I learned right there at the fryer that we have three indwelling spirits in our small cage of bones. One of them is unclean. The Angel is that one who sings the pretty songs, who tells you those lovely things you spill out like sunshine and joy when you just don’t know any better. The Editor is your friend, like a good teacher—sometimes severe, but steady. The Editor helps you tighten, toughen, clarify, focus. But then there is that son of a bitch, The Critic. Your own smelly inner Mr. Smith.

He is the one who makes you fail. He scares you. You get nervous. Have you noticed that when a cop pulls up behind you in traffic it makes you start to swerve in your lane as if you were drunk? When you take a test and the teacher stands by your shoulder, you feel as if you’ve been cheating, even if you haven’t, and suddenly your eyes rove to a neighbor’s paper. People pick you last for the basketball team and you call yourself a loser forever.

The Critic is lost in his own horror. His own stench and his own poverty and shame. Like Mr. Smith, he’s going out of business. And tomorrow, for him, holds only ruin. He hates and he’s inside you.

Mr. Smith stands near every person, cursing and yelling, smoking and insulting. You call that a poem? You call that a sentence? What kind of a writer are you? What kind of a person are you? What kind of a wife/husband/child/lover are you? What kind of no-good, useless, idiotic idea is that? You beaner. You fatso. You wimp. You fool. You skinny bitch. You loser.

Your donuts, your lovely pale loops, your perfect circles, start to stick together and become deformed. Ruined. You’ll have to eat that spoiled meal, eat it and eat it until you throw up. And then Mr. Smith will make you re-cook that order all night long until you get it right. You’ll be in Tas-T Donuts for eternity. Mr. Smith will never let you climb up that hill. He will never unlock the door to the kitchen. He’ll never even let you out of the dumb waiter. If you don’t learn to silence Mr. Smith, you will never get home.

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Cuba + Kids – Water

Here was our first sight of our new landlord in Havana: on the landing behind a barricaded white door, a faked sticker on the jamb allowing him to rent, his pimp hat askew, grayed T-shirt too tight, belt buckle too big. My early life in Northern California should have taught me never to trust not Greeks bearing gifts but rather men of any nationality bearing ostentatious belt buckles. That said, there are lessons that lack guidebook, exam or even popularizing self-help book: one gets to keep on making the same mistakes over and over.

From under that pimp hat, Juan Ruiz smiled.

In contrast to everyone else in Cuba, even his Spanish vowels came out with a slow drip, as if incredible pumps of internal pressure and springs of ethical concerns, pushed against the coils of hard life lessons, made him respect the speed of words: they emerged in inverse proportion to the thoughtfulness required just to deal. Because “stoic” and “taciturn” are adjectives rarely wielded in my family about anyone, I had to respect the
guy. After all, I had come to Cuba to research boxing, and the sophrosyne of boxers—sophrosyne being perhaps one of the most beautiful of the four classical virtues, a self-discipline requiring that one hold off from the temptations of lesser wisdom—drew me.

Juan Ruiz, in his self-presentation, exemplified sophrosyne, a trait above and beyond the usual weary endurance of Cubans barely subsisting off the tickets in shrinking ration books.

“You want rent?” he said, because he had rented to other foreigners and liked to practice English.

In this venture toward understanding sophrosyne, in the interest of expanding everyone  else’s horizons, I was in Cuba with semi-willing artist mate and two curious daughters, aged eight and four. It is not that I had lacked a certain amount of propagandizing in selling everyone on the plan. “You could do pen-and-ink studies of Old Havana!” I let slip to artist mate. “Before it becomes Starbucks and McDonalds.” To the oldest daughter, I had suggested the possibility of becoming fluent in Spanish, making friends from a world as removed as possible from our tiny upstate New York hamlet, which no one would ever describe as ethnically diverse, and practicing swimming in the blue waters, a sort of Disneyland approaching embargoland, as if one could accomplish some part of the rubber-raftable ninety miles back to Florida. To the youngest, I was not sure what to say, but she liked the idea of going to Koo-ba, which probably sounded like a cute emporium in which plush teddy bears frolic.

I was talking to Juan Ruiz while standing next to a saintly woman whom I had met in one of the shared ten-peso cabs. Contemporary Cuba runs on two currencies: one is the convertible currency, meant for foreigners, in which one can buy such luxury items as, well, soap, cereal, and, it has to be added, in a proleptic maneuver, water. The other currency is the national currency, in which most Cubans are paid an average of twenty-six dollars a month. With this money, a citizen’s ration book in hand, most go to the government markets, often open-air affairs but sometimes looking like a dark tobacconist’s stall or a big meat warehouse, and for ten cents get a good amount of rice, for the odd twenty cents even some packaged foods, usually imported from China, such as crackers, and whatever vegetables Fidel’s minions have mandated onto the trucks that day: on one day, every stall will be serving up eggplant, unripe pineapple, and onions. A family can survive, almost.

Most families I encountered, living in small apartments into which they had been literally grandfathered, make do with their salaries by such mild rackets as paying off their monthly water or electricity inspectors five dollars in foreign currency, a currency you get from consorting with tourists, relatives abroad, or from sisters married into proto-prostitution with some Italian or Swiss man, a man usually as rich in avoirdupois and emotional autism as he is in gifts of cash. Back on the island, such foreign remissions, whether generated night or day, matter. Five foreign bucks and a whole building can use an infinite amount of electricity or water. The apartments, in which inhabitants conspire with well-revolutionized collectivist zeal, usually boast a reserve water tank on the roof in the event, not infrequent, that the city fails them. Viva la Revolución! scream the banners around the city, or the more oxymoronic 53 Years of Revolution!

That impossibility noted, one of the best aspects of Cuba—despite all the foreign press about its failed transportation system—remains the way you can travel within a city. Your two main choices, if you live close to the way most Cubans live, remain these: you may ride a bus or you may attempt to hail a ten-peso cab.

About the first: never before have I encountered a worldly paradise like that of a Cuban bus. To approach a bus in Cuba with a child or two is to encounter the true moral being of the revolution, the new man about whom Che opined. There the bus, provenance 1972, with its broken windows and ill-fitting tires, screeches up to the corner. Bodies stagger out from the press of others. There you approach, a humble petitioner, your coins and a stroller, perhaps, hanging off one hand, a child off another. Then comes the magic moment of comprehension. Because the mind of the crowd understands: the magi have come.

Miraculously, as if there were room to do this, a path carves through bodies. Hands hoist your child as if she were less bodysurfing punk star circa 1988 and more saintly visitation. Your child, exhilarated with a tiny dose of terror, doglegs past the driver, to be given a prime seat at the front of the bus, often on some grandmother’s lap, a woman who acts as if for this exact moment she had been born, as if holding a little sweaty child on her lap redeems all life’s sufferings. Never mind that the weight of an American child could impair the inevitable varicosity in her legs after years of sugar-and-coffee-fueled backbreaking work at a factory or at one of the dark tobacconists.

No. A child comes and joy lights the faces of all bus riders. This is more than making do; this is humanity as celebration.

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The Winning Crowd

I like football best on television, in my own house, not at a sports bar where drinkers lift their eyes, the color of salmon eggs, when the crowd roars. I appreciate the ease of going to my own refrigerator, assessing what to eat and what to drink, and returning to the television, a Samsung, to watch what’s there to watch—wow, players in the air, no, players injured on the ground!

Then again, I don’t like TV football at all. I abandoned the gladiator spectacle years ago when I discovered there were more commercials than playing time, and discovered that the audience on Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) was young and crude, with faces painted in team colors—or for the Igors of Raiders Nation, sporting silvery spikes, shrunken heads, and fake (or real?) vomit. For some, every game is Halloween.

When my buddy David calls and says, “Let’s get stupid,” what he really means is let’s uncork a bottle of wine, preferably Napa Valley red, and watch football players do their high-paid magic on television, then ask each other, “What’s the score?” We’ll eat a deep-dish Zachary’s pizza, maybe get our veggies in the form of a Caesar salad, contemplate the meaning of life, then gaze up at the TV and ask, “Who’s playing?”

While I don’t really follow football, I have noticed that the crowds have been dressing down for years—slack jerseys hanging over wobbly guts and baseball caps worn backward or sideways but never as they should be. When David got tickets to the last game of the season, one between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, I decided to turn the sartorial tide, me against 40,000 other fans. The game itself didn’t matter—both teams were out of the playoff picture—but I intended to dress to the nines.

The drive over the Bay Bridge was smooth and the parking pricy but equally smooth. A young woman wielding a lit wand waved us into our parking spot. We got out, both David and I complaining goodheartedly about the cold. The sky was gray as cement, the wind blowing off the bay, seagulls crying above. A plastic bag, white as a gull, filled frantically with wind and was puffed away by the gusts.

But I wasn’t concerned about the weather. I had planned my wardrobe carefully, going item by item through my closet—actually, a mirrored armoire with cubbyholes for shoes and a secret drawer for cufflinks. I was wearing a relatively new purchase from Adam of London, a tastefully designed wool suit that’s chocolate colored, with very faint pinstripes. In another life, I might have been one of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965, when English band members dressed in three-piece suits, totally mod, totally groovy. And my shoes? Polished black leather high-tops, mirror bright at the tips. My hat? A black felt Borsalino, with a feather in its band. It would insulate my brain and conceal my receding hairline—a nice touch.

But you wouldn’t have noticed my suit because it was hidden beneath a long, maroon overcoat made by my wife in the late 1980s, when shoulder pads were all the rage and, in this case, nearly as big as pillows. The thick wool falls to my knees and, because of its heft, wearing the coat is a workout in itself. The buttons are football-shaped, made of polished walnut. The label inside says, “For my Sweetie.” That’s me, and there I was meandering through the parking lot, thirty minutes before kickoff, receiving stares from all the tailgaters—would-be jocks, or former jocks, or just fans out for a good time.

“Dude! Dude!” a bearded chap shouted. “You look hella strange.” He was holding a beer in one hand, a flaccid hotdog in the other—the frankfurter, I noticed, was nearly slipping from its holster of a bun and had a little yellow dot of mustard at the end.

“Go, Niners,” I offered with a clenched fist, ignoring his taunt. I gave him a peace sign, and a grin as I ducked through the smoke wafting from his hibachi. I could endure any insult to my attire, by far the sharpest within miles. And, hey, I might have said, “Look! Gold cufflinks on the T.M. Lewin 100 percent pima-cotton shirt I bought in London.” And over the weenies you’re flaying on the grill, I could have touched my scented throat and added, “Only the best—Le Male cologne.”

I shared more peace signs, then double-barrel peace signs, as I passed row after row of tipsy party goers, and bore with dignity the stares, the quips, “Oh, check out Grandpa,” the sound of beer cans crushed in wrench-like hands (what had I done?), and even a shower of peanuts.

“You’re causing trouble,” David smirked.

“True,” I agreed, dusting my sleeve of a clinging peanut. “A well-dressed man will do that.”

At my age (late fifties), you seldom get a chance to cause trouble, unless you lean on your horn and yell at another driver, “Hey, butt-face, use your turn signal!” Then speed away, eyes in the rearview mirror. Or unless on a lovely Saturday you are pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, and furrow your brow and mutter as you sign the ticket: I’m a naughty old man.

We made our way through security, where I had to unbutton my coat for a quick pat-down and permit security’s peek into my paper bag—two turkey sandwiches prepared by my wife, along with two Fuji apples, two bottles of water, and a small vial of antibacterial hand sanitizer. The bottled water was confiscated—no liquids allowed.

David had bought our tickets through Goldstar, an online retailer that offers 50 to 70 percent off the list price. We like a bargain; we like our entertainment cheap. But our seats were located in a section far from the action, and at such an angle that we were guaranteed stiff necks by halftime.

“Follow me,” I told David, who was shelling a couple of the peanuts he’d caught during the last barrage. I led the way to the lower level, now and then touching the brim of my hat as some fan smiled and pointed at me, the ambassador of good taste. One of the vendors, a young guy with a bluish tattoo on his neck, stopped his sales pitch. Excited, he sang, “You a hit man! You a hit man! Like in the movies, huh!”

“Young man, you have me all wrong,” I answered, slipping my right hand into my coat pocket. “I’m nothing more than a 49er faithful.”

The vendor shaped his hand into a pistol and I played along, my own hand rising pistol-shaped from my coat pocket, the trigger of my thumb pulled back. “Put yours back, buddy,” I warned, “and just walk away slowly.” He smiled and moved along, the bags of peanuts dangling from his fist, evidently unwilling to risk an encounter with this O.G.

 

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Sight Lines

My mother has hardly any baby pictures of me, and when I once asked her why, she waved her hand vaguely and said I looked funny. Opening a shoebox, she pulled out a handful of small black-and-white photos with pinked edges. There I was, wispy-haired and dimple-kneed, your basic baby, except for the eyes. My eyes turned inward, especially the right one, as if trying to focus on a spot on the bridge of my nose. Or maybe as if they weren’t ready to see what was out there.

I had known, of course, that I was born with crossed eyes. Because of my crooked eyes, I not only look different, I see differently. And there are some things I don’t see at all. This dusty box of old photos was another reminder of what has been hidden from me.

 

About two percent of newborns have strabismus, meaning one or both eyes aren’t aligned. The muscles that control eye movement and position are imbalanced, so the eyes can’t focus straight ahead. Most strabismic children are born with inward turning eyes, also called esotropia. This is a problem.

Normal vision is “binocular” —both eyes focus on an object or scene, and each eye takes a two-dimensional picture from its perspective. Because of the spacing of your eyes, each picture is taken from a slightly different angle. The brain fuses the two images to create an image that, when interpreted by the brain, seems three dimensional. This fusion, known as stereopsis, creates depth perception.

With strabismus, both eyes take a picture, but because the pupils are off center, so are the images, and the brain can’t fuse them. This means that the brain “sees” two separate images. To avoid seeing double, my brain learned to suppress the picture from the more inward turning right eye.

When I was about a year old, the doctor had my parents put a patch over my left eye. The idea was to strengthen and straighten my right eye by forcing it to work on its own. It wasn’t a cute little pirate patch, but a big Band-aid colored one, secured to my forehead and cheek by a couple strips of white tape. (There aren’t many photos from that time either.) The patching didn’t succeed, so a year later I had surgery. My left eye straightened out pretty well, but the right one shifted from its inward gaze to a position slightly upward and to the right of center.

Without straight eyes, and despite many years of eye exercises as a child to force my right eye to cooperate, I never developed binocular vision. My brain continued to pay attention only to the image from my stronger left eye. I say stronger because it was straighter, but in fact, without glasses, my left eye was about 20/1000. My extreme nearsightedness was made worse by astigmatism—blurriness caused by an asymmetrical cornea. Even with glasses, the vision in my left eye is not very sharp.

* * *

It’s the first dance with the boys’ camp and I want to be pretty. I am twelve, with slim tanned legs and long straight hair, but all I see in the mirror are brown, thick, cat-eye glasses. So tonight I leave my glasses in the cabin and blindly follow the other girls into the dining hall decorated with crepe paper and lanterns. The boys stand awkwardly on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Now a boy is walking toward me—I think—or is he headed toward another girl? He passes her and comes right up to me and asks where I’m from. Up close I can see he’s really cute, with tousled brown hair and spirited eyes. Emboldened, his buddies cross the divide and crowd around me. I am in the center of a group of eager boys. The cute boy asks me to dance, Jim Morrison is singing “Come on baby light my fire,” the room is a blur except for the boy now looking into my eyes. I am Cinderella at the ball: when it is over, I will be able to see again, but he will ignore the girl in the cat-eye glasses.

* * *

Although my right eye sees remarkably better than the left (20/50), my left eye still does all the work. I think of my right eye as a passive participant in my vision; it registers what’s on the right side, but if I want to actually look at something on the right I turn my head so my left eye can interpret it. If I close my left eye, the right eye sees pretty well, but it moves slowly, tires quickly and reads at about the pace of a second grader. Eye doctors never bother to give me a corrective lens for my right eye, because it doesn’t matter.

What I see can perhaps be described as what others see when viewing a movie or photograph. But while my brain can’t perceive depth the way most people’s brains do, I do have some depth perception. My brain (everyone’s brain) uses many cues to judge depth, such as how fast objects move in relation to other objects or how they shift as I move my head. The scientific terms that describe monocular depth perception cues are evocative: kinetic, parallax, distance fog, converging at infinity. The words almost seduce me into thinking these tricks create for me a fully three-dimensional world. In fact, some scientists and doctors believe that people with my type of vision—monocular, one eyed—are only at a disadvantage when seeing things close up.

* * *

Mrs. Powell, my sewing teacher, frowns at me. I lick the end of the kelly green thread and try again. I hold the needle close to my face and slowly bring the thread toward the sliver of light at the needle’s eye; my eyes burn from the effort of focusing. The thread brushes past the needle like strangers passing on a narrow sidewalk. The other girls are sewing rickrack onto their aprons with tidy little stitches but I haven’t started because my needle and thread are in two dimensions and the needle is like a reflection, never exactly where I expect it to be.

* * *

I have always wondered about what normal people see. Take stereoscopes. When I look through one at, say, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, I see it with my left eye, and I think it looks just like the real Eiffel Tower. When others look through the stereoscope first with one eye, and then with their two normal eyes, they say the Eiffel Tower is suddenly three-dimensional, poised in the space around it, real in a way that a two-dimensional photograph is not. Real is also the word my husband used when we saw a 3-D movie recently. To me, it looked like any other movie. So if the three-dimensional world is real, does that make my world unreal?

A few years ago I read an article suggesting an answer to that question. It was about a woman with strabismus and monovision. She had a type of strabismus in which neither eye is dominant; instead, the brain shifts rapidly between the image from the left eye and the one from the right. She began intensive vision therapy to train her eyes to work together; within weeks she achieved stereovision. Her descriptions of what she sees now versus what she saw with monovision are like the difference between seeing the world in color instead of shades of grey. Objects stick out in space, everything is more textured, sharp, colorful, nuanced. When she goes for a walk, each flower, each leaf she sees seems to stand out by itself. When it snows, she feels as if she is among the snowflakes instead of looking at a flat plane of falling snow.

Vision therapy won’t work for me because my right eye can never be strong enough to get my brain’s full attention: I will never walk inside that snow globe. Reading that article was like reading a travelogue from someone visiting a beautiful country I know I’ll never get to see. It’s a land of stunning vistas, glorious colors, gorgeous sights — but my passport is no good there. For the first time, I understood the enormousness of what I was missing.

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You Don’t Want to Know

I did not recognize her, but then she told me her name: not her grown-up name but the name she had back then, when she ignored me at bar mitzvahs and our parents’ barbecues. Back then she was Jessica Weiss, the elder sister of Marlene Weiss, whom I was supposed to like but loathed, because although Marlene and I were the same age and looked alike and were in the same gifted class at school and our moms played mah jongg together every week, her gaze when she fixed it on me always said, Ewww.

Always. In the shul, on our parents’ patios, in class, Marlene sought me out with eyes that looked exactly like mine and as she bared her teeth that looked like mine with lips that looked like mine forming a smile that would have looked like mine had I known how to smile like that, those eyes said, Ewww.

They said, You look like me but like the gross yucky version of me, like me wearing big orthopedic shoes and sale-rack clothes repaired with staples, me hilariously unable to play dodgeball or Chinese jumprope without falling down, me but with bangs cut retard-short by parents using kitchen scissors and Scotch tape. You look like me but whereas I am sharp and lithe, you are slackjawed. You look like me but whereas other girls ask me to play, you scuff around alone, plucking ball bearings from the ground. You look like me, but my parents don’t yell at me in public; they do not scream and stomp in their rage in parking lots and airplanes and yours do. You look like me but you are always bursting into tears. You look like me but when the teacher calls on me, I answer primly. When she calls on you, you blush and mutter as if you believe everyone hates you, which they do.

Our mothers made us play together on their mah-jongg afternoons. One day I crouched in a corner of Marlene’s room and cried into her quilted bedspread. Doing pull-ups in the doorway, Marlene laughed. I pick my nose at night, she said, and smear it on that spread.

Her eyes that looked like mine right down to the tortoiseshell flecks and short straight lashes said, I know you but I do not know you, but not knowing you means knowing you because you are impossible to know because you are not you, you are not anyone.

I never would have recognized her sister all these decades later because Jessica, who used to be so angular, is soft and cushiony these days, the way you look when your kids are attending universities. But her hair still sweeps past one eye and swings beside her mandibles like pointed wings.

At fourteen she was reedy, taller than the rest of us, with pointy elbows and the kind of thighs girls wished they had back then, which when she stood with knees together did not meet, so a triangular sliver of sunshine flickered through. She ignored me at all those barbecues and Scout events, which was a relief compared to Marlene. Jessica liked to sip through straws.

Why is it that my only memory of anything specific that she ever said or did is so embarrassing that, meeting her again last weekend unexpectedly, I blurted I remember but could not go on? She was with her daughters last weekend, buying trowels. Even had we been alone, would I have intoned like a sibyl, a sleuth or the Ancient Mariner: One night in the back of your mother’s station wagon en route to a Scout event when you were fourteen and I was twelve, you discussed menstruation with Pam Silberstein. Pam said, Sometimes I run out of Tampax when I am flowing like Niagara Falls. You said, Me too, and when that happens I stuff Kleenex in my panties and I make a little mess in there.

Why of all things do I remember this and only this? Streetlights slashing her face, striping her stretchy V-neck top and skinny flares, in a car full of girls she spoke those words as loudly and plainly as you would when ordering dinner at a restaurant. I cringed when she said make a little mess. Mess was one of those words I could not say and still cannot, because I hear it roaring in my ears the way I heard it first, the way I learned it as Mom and Dad kicked toys back and forth across my bedroom floor shouting, You are a pig and this room is a mess. Mom clasped my collar as she wept into my face You’re just like me, a fucking mess. Not just a room could be a mess but so could human beings. Horrid ones, I realized. Mom slurred mess as if her mouth held every putrescent globule in the world.

When Jessica said in the station wagon make a little mess, I squirmed, throat clenching and spine flexing as if miming flight. Jessica said it in a light, proprietary way as if a mess was an achievement, like a garden or a work of art. Flicking her hair, Pam Silberstein said, Yeah. The station wagon suddenly felt hotter. I thought I smelled blood.

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