Friday, October 23, 2009

One Shot Before Dinner (Richmond, VA)

It's 3:15 p.m. I get on line in the pharmacy for a flu shot. I'm number 95. I ask the woman who hands me the pre-shot questionnaire ("Have you ever had a negative reaction to a flu shot?" "Are you allergic to eggs?" "Will anybody realize you're acting oddly if you start screeching like an angry monkey?" "Have you updated your will?")how long it will be before I get my turn. She doesn't know and wouldn't care that I have to be at a former student's apartment for dinner at 4:30.

Ahmed lives at least 20 minutes away. I wonder if I should wait or just go next door to the florist, buy a nice bouquet or plant, and arrive at dinner relaxed and on time. I opt for stress.

I am not about to stand idly in line. I'll get some work done. The time will fly by and before I know it, I'll be cradling my wounded arm and wondering if this is my last shot. ("If you notice itching, swelling, or tingling at the site of the injection, call your doctor, rush like mad to the emergency room, and dictate your epitaph to the triage nurse.")

I rifle through my Mexican shopping bag, pulling out folders crammed with papers that will, hopefully, form the basis of a presentation I'm giving to 120 new teachers in two sessions next week and which I haven't had time to think about. I shuffle through the sheets, make mental notes -- always a bad move when you're prone to forgetfulness -- and ten minutes or so later, try to put the folders back. They won't fit, so I just shove them in. They're obviously not taking this kind of treatment from me, so they fight back, flying back out and spreading their contents all along the aisle. Everyone watches me (no, I'm not being paranoid) as I hunt down and gather up my stuff.

I decide to jot down my mental notes. After fumbling through my purse to find a pen, I pull the inker out. In obvious collusion with the folders, it jumps out of my hand, shoots into the air, torpedoes down an aisle, and rolls under a display. Everyone watches me as, on hands and knees, I try to retrieve the impudent implement.

Returning to my place in the line that hasn't advanced an inch in 25 minutes, I balance my Mexican bag on a shelf. The shelf collapses. Everyone looks at me. I shrug and mumble that I'm not going to attempt to fix it, as it will probably break.

I tap my toes, then stand on them. I stretch my legs, first one, then the other. Stretched, tapped, and still standing, I decide to find out how long it will be until I reach the front of the line. "I'll be right back," I tell the people who aren't watching me.

Zig-zagging my way through aisles showcasing cosmetics, candy, and weird things straight out of late-night TV ads or science fiction movies(pastel-colored plastic balls that fluff your laundry; pink pads that remove hair from even your most delicate body parts by simply rubbing; electronic devices that shield you from shrieking monkeys), I make my way to the front of the line, in the back of the store.

"Excuse me," I say in my most ingratiatingly pleasant and polite voice. "I'm number 95. Can you please tell me how long it'll be before I get my shot?"

The nurse stops mid-jab to glare at me, pointing the needle as if it were a sword and I the sorry knight who lost the battle. "We are working as fast as we can!"

"I know you are," I say in my most groveling and ingratiating voice. "But could you please just tell me what number you've reached?"

She practically spits at me: "Sixty-nine!"

I return to my place in line. I wrestle my pen to a notepad and figure out that at this rate, I will probably get shot, if not killed, by about 4:15.

We nano-inch forward. When I am finally within sight of the needle-wielders, the kindly couple standing in front of me instructs me to go ahead of them. I thank them and realize later that they must have been watching the proceedings. When I turn again to thank them, they are nowhere in sight -- probably slunk out the front door, high-tailed it to their car, and sped out of the lot, panting in fear and relief.

I am hoping that the nurse doesn't recognize me. I try to make small talk, in my friendliest, most charming voice. Apparently, charming friendliness doesn't work with everyone. I swear that every bit of pent-up rage that this woman has ever felt in her entire, very long life, went into that one thrust into my arm. I'm surprised that the needle didn't break in two or, at the very least, fly into the air in imitative pen-movements. I almost did.

I lurch out of the pharmacy and into the florist. It takes me 15 minutes to make it back to my car, bouquet in hand (of working arm).

It's 4:30. Not too bad. Ahmed is from Saudi Arabia, and in the class before he transferred out (he had to change nights for family reasons), we had discussed when people arrive for dinner in various countries. In the US, I'd explained, you can be 10 minutes or so late. I remember that in Saudi Arabia, you can arrive something like an hour to four weeks late without a problem.

Ten minutes later, I'm driving through the apartment complex, searching for the right building. I find it, but cannot find an unreserved parking spot. I recall the discussion in my class the night before. My students were telling me that none of their friends visit them anymore, because their cars were always towed for parking in residents' spaces.

I ride around for 10 minutes. Reserved. Reserved. Every spot is reserved. There should have been a sign reading "NO VISITORS ALLOWED." After asking various residents where the guest parking is and getting "I don't know" for an answer each time, I park in front of Ahmed's building and exit my car.

Some rather unsavory looking young men are lurking near the building's entrance. "Will I have a problem if I park here?" I ask.

"You'll get towed," Unsavory #1 responds.

"Do you know where there's a space for visitors?" I ask.

"Never seen one," says Lurker #2.

They both run around the lots, searching for a space. Lurker finally finds one and plants himself there until I pull in.

I thank them and walk to the building. It's three stories high. When I step inside, I realize that Ahmed never gave me the apartment number.

I ring all four doorbells and move to the center of the hallway.

A man opens a door. That's when I realize that I don't remember Ahmed's last name.

"Do you know Ahmed?" I ask in my hopeful voice.

"No English," he says. "My daughter speak."

The daughter comes to the door. She doesn't know any Ahmed.

"He's got four or five children," I say in a more hopeful voice.

They both shake their heads no.

In my most hopeful voice, I say, "His wife covers."

They point straight up.

I climb the stairs and ring the bell. Ahmed's oldest son opens the door, smiles, and lets me in. Ahmed's wife comes over, smiles, and tells me to sit down.

She serves me weak coffee, flavored with cardomom, in a tiny porcelain cup. She places a bowl of dates in front of me and apologizes that Ahmed is not home yet; he's getting a flu shot at the hospital.

I help the oldest daughter with her science homework. I talk with Houda and Abdullah. Houda calls Ahmed to tell him that I am in the apartment.

When Ahmed arrives, about an hour later, he apologizes profusely. Later, he tells me that he thought that I was coming for dinner on the 27th. We had originally scheduled for the 20th, but I'd told him that I had to work until 8pm that night. I thought that we'd agreed on the 22nd. I am mortified. Everyone is gracious.

The family admires the flowers. I admire the dinner (biryani with chicken, almonds, and raisins) and a salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.

Ahmed is late for his class. I am late for a meeting. I thank everyone and say goodnight. They tell me I am welcome anytime.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remembering Peru

I'm talking to someone about my wonderful sojourn in Peru seven years ago. I'm going on and on, raving about the spectacular ruins and setting of Macchu Picchu, the mysteries of the rain forest, the resourcefulness of the Peruvians I met there, and the impression that the Amazon made on me. "The country has 38 of the world's 45 climate zones," I add.

I tell her that it's got to be "the longitude, the latitude, the altitude, and the attitude" that make Peru amazing. And I am absolutely certain that I'm right.

I'll tell you all about it all sometime.

What is the Sound of One Ear Partially Listening?

I am definitely going deaf. Although I'm usually frustrated and annoyed by my loss of the ability to hear what's being said, sometimes I find the results rather amusing.

For example, the other day I was driving to my night job, while listening to the radio. I tuned into a piece on NPR, featuring an interview with a few of this year's recipients of the MacArthur Genius Awards. When the speaker said that each recipient was awarded "a no-strings-attached" monetary prize, I heard: "Each will receive a nose string attached."

My imagination launched into over-drive. I pictured the brilliant mathematician, linked nostril-to-nostril, via a (red) cord, to the highly articulate poet. The fruit of this union of great minds and unseen (but, no doubt, tortured) faces would be a study of the mathematics of rhyme, the poetry of numbers -- or a battle of unforeseen proportion and consequences. Would this be the cosine qua non? What is the probability that such sets of disparate polygons of virtue might produce transformations that,at their very root, are the proof that metaphor, whether gauged by the foot or by meter, can be epic?

I'm not sure what this would mean, either. But then, I'm not good with numbers and rarely, if ever, wax poetic.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Best Weekend of the Year (Richmond, VA)

Yesterday, as I was walking towards the river to attend the third day of the Richmond International Folk Festival, I was thinking that this really is quite a wonderful place to live.

A mere half an hour before the 12:15 start-time of Jorge Negron's Master Bomba Ensemble, whose music I was planning to dance to, I had wandered down the hill to the riverfront. I found a parking spot only two blocks from the pedestrian bridge I'd have to cross to reach the festival site.

The weather was gorgeous: cool, clear, and sunny. A light jacket countered the chill.

Food vendors were already selling to the "early" risers: frozen cheesecake on a stick and fried fair-style food (blooming onions, made-on-the-spot potato chips, and other artery cloggers), Thai curries, Jamaican stews, Greek kabobs, and more. One operation hawked vegetarian global cuisine, so even animal lovers would have no beef.

When I arrive at the Dance Stage, the band is sound checking. I'd already heard them the day before and they sounded even better. I strap on my dancing shoes and start tapping my toes, heels, and thighs to the beat.

The leader of the band is a former Richmonder who'd returned to Puerto Rico. He founded the group a mere six months ago, and I believe that this festival hosted their first public performances.

Two women and two men dance (mostly individually), challenging the drummers to mimic their rhythms. Three men play the drums (sorry if I can't tell you more about the different instruments, but the musicians certainly knew how to bring out the best in percussion). I dance to the infectious rhythms by myself and with others.

Later I mosey over to another stage. While others sit on the hill overlooking this outside venue, I stand unstill watching Greek cabaret singer Sophia Bilides, whose Arabic sounding melodies make my belly and hips ache to swivel.

Tuvan throat singers follow with their own remarkable performance. Sounding like frogs, birds, and humans all at once, they warble their immense love for their horses and, maybe a little less fervidly, their passion for their women. I am less inspired to dance than I am to try to figure out how many simultaneous notes and harmonies originate with each performer or to examine their interesting garments and footwear. (I am close to the stage, so it is pretty easy to do the latter, but not the former; I guess I would have to be peering down their throats....)

Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris sing and strum the blues, Joel Rubin plays klezmer music, the Hummingbirds soar with gospel. I stagger back to my car, hearing the sounds still emanating from the other venues.

All the above takes place on Sunday. I'd already spent hours dancing nonstop on Saturaday to Colombian brass papayera, New Orleans jazz, and Swamp Dogg's rhythm and blues. I'd heard the incredible Indian slide guitarist, Debashish Bhattacharya, and attended a presentation-explanation-demonstration by masters of slide guitar from different countries and styles. I'd listened to Irish musicians and watched Korean dancers. Friday night I'd danced to a zydeco band and an East African group.

I've seen a zillion people I know, sweated in the sun, been moistened by the rain. Music reverberates in my head for days afterward. Not a terrible thing. As a matter of fact, I highly recommend it.