They looked like rejects from a Li’l Wayne video, four women ranging in age from sixteen to early thirties, gold teeth, pierced eyebrows, tattoos and fake blonde and purple hair . When I came up to their table, they hardly even acknowledged me. I only got to the “W” in “Welcome” when the youngest told me, or rather barked at me, “I already know what I want!”KEEP READING!
One of the first things I did when I moved to the States was register to vote. You may think it’s a small thing, but it was one of those things I wanted to do to truly feel American. I would make my voting debut just a little less than a year later, on the Florida primaries (I registered as a Democrat) for the midterm elections on November 6. And then, last week, out of sheer coincidence, I voted early.
I don’t need to tell you this is a major election. The 2016 Presidentials started changing the political scene in this country at a breathtaking speed, and a way all too familiar for someone who comes from a place where democracy is dying a slow death (I never believe it dies, but more on that later). I see, concerned, things happening in my new country and all around the world that I have seen before. And I see young people react with indifference, making up hundreds of excuses. Or express disappointment, believing that there’s no point.
I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what most people in power want you to think, guys. Although it is certainly telling that, considering how everything is going on in the world, people continue going to the less democratic of leaders (oh hello, Brazil). But please, if you really think that you still will get nowhere voting, the only way to overcome that is, precisely, voting.
I get to a stoplight driving D. to a karate friend’s birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and see the Facebook notification I’ve expected to receive every Saturday: the weekly schedule for the restaurant’s shifts, posted on the private group. I didn’t look at it right away, of course, being in a moving car at all, but also, I had the proverbial bad feeling. I decided to wait till I got home.
I was sitting watching some website or another when D. walks in from outside. Her mom is working tonight so I’m staying with her before I go pick her up after 11 o’clock. She’s been outside playing with a couple of the neighboring girls, and now she comes in and just like that says, in Spanish:
“Daddy, I can’t take my bike out, right?”
My next-to-last table for the day was a big one: nine people. Two men, three women, and four ladies between twelve and I’m guessing twenty. As I approached I heard them talking not in English. My first reaction was to assume they were of the same nationality as I’d say roughly seventy per cent of my customers. Not to mention, they were of no ethnicity I could assume.
One of the men, a burly specimen in his mid-fifties but with a kind smile, flashed said smile and said in broken Spanish:
–No, Brazil no. Egipcios.
–Oh!–, I said, a little taken aback but not losing own my smile–. Then we continue in English.
They were a lively although demanding group. The girls were very easy to laugh, and the youngest one was what you could call an old soul. Near the end of the meal one of the ladies called me over.
–Are you Indian by any chance?
–No, ma’am. Venezuelan–. I smiled again, and assumed a Punjabi accent–. Though I am greatly respectful of the wonderful people of India.
I got the expected laugh out of the table, but then one of the ladies grew a bit serious.
–How long have you been here, sir?
–Since November, ma’am.
–Things are not good back home, yes?
–Not quite ma’am. I guess back yours they are better, right?
–No, no–. She pointed to the burly man. –He’s Egyptian, he’s my brother in law. We’re Syrian.
My heart sank, as you can imagine. –I am so sorry, ma’am, for everything that is happening in your country. Where are you living now?
–We’re in Canada. They live in New York.
I looked over at the girls again, this time with new eyes. Do either of them remember their country? What had they seen? What have they told them?
–You have all my sympathies. My country is also causing an immigration problem in the region.
–Why is that?
First, a reminder. Syria has been in the midst of airst civil war since March, 2011, briefly after the events of the Arab Spring toppled regimes in Tunisia and yes, Egypt. Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad refused to back down or even make decent reforms, so a full-on war exploded. This was also the beginning of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, but it also caused one of the worst refugee crisis in history. More than five million Syrians have fled their country, mostly toward Europe, by land and by sea. Many have drowned, and many others are caught in diplomatic limbo in refugee camps all over, especially in Greece, where they are not exactly welcome with open arms.
With that in mind, I explain to the lady that Venezuela itself is starting to cause an immigration crisis. Estimates of how many of us have left the country vary a bit, but most say that the number is between two and three million, mostly middle-class.But as the Council on Foreign Affairs of the United Nations noted recently, it’s starting to get worse. Colombia, which is right next door, has seen some 250,000 Venezuelans come in between August 2017 and March 2018, with some estimates of as many as 3,000 coming in a day. And the rest of Latin America is not far behind: according to The Washington Post, Chile has seen a 1,388% increase of Venezuelan immigrants since 2015; Panama, who saw an overwhelming influx of my countrypeople between 2010 and 2016, imposed new visa requirements that make it that much harder to come in the coun try; and, well, there’s this guy, who doesn’t exactly make it easy.
After I explain this, the woman looks at me with a sad smile. “So we come from the same place”, she sighs.
They were obviously a well-to-do family, perhaps even educated. They all spoke very good English, if with an accent. They still had family in the capital (Damascus), but they had survived the worst part. I was amazed to agree with her, because although my country is not at war, I too left a life that would not have let me reach my full potential. It doesn’t help that Assad and the late Hugo Chavez were quite chummy.
After they left, I moved up to Ian, one of my fellow servers, and sighed.
–That family that’s leaving is Syrian, man. I can’t even imagine.
–Oh for real?– he asked.
–They live in New York and Toronto now. Talk about a change.
–I’ve always wondered, how people just leave their countries, start trying to find a job and what not.
–Well, look at me. I was a reporter back home, now I’m a waiter.
And so many people like that. Omar, one of our bussers, is an oil engineer. My GF is a graphic designer who used to run her own cake-designing businesses and now is a hostess. And how many doctors, lawyers, dentists, economists and the such are working as cabbies, salespeople, construction workers. Not all of us truly wanted to leave the country that saw us grow, but many had no choice. Which makes what Venezuelan turd-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, said this week — “I wouldn’t go to clean toilets in Miami”– particularly irritating. And of course many answered back.
It’s a sad fact of life that to better support your family, or at least help them, the best thing many of us could do was leave, doing things we’ve never thought we’d do. And any job dignifies, no matter if it is cleaning toilets. All we want is the chance to get ahead in life, be wherever we may be. And that applies to all immigrants or refugees, be they Syrian or Venezuelan.
As I picked up their table, two of the girls lingered behind. I asked their mother permission to say one last thing. They told me they were twelkve and fifteen.
–No matter where you are, girls, always remember and care for your country. Because your country made you who you are. Learn everything about it, as much as you can, because it’s going to be up to you to fix the mess that your elders have left behind. We’re counting on you.
They listened carefully, and smiled what I operceived as honest, interested smiles. I wonder what would come later, how they would grow up. Only time can tell, of course. Meanwhile, here we are, and here we go on.
I’m approaching my third month as an immigrant. I write those words, think those thoughts, and can still hardly believe it. I start wondering when I will. Maybe confronting a few things will help.
I’ve frequently heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. There was quite a bit about it that bothered me, to be honest. It was generally said to me with this sneer of cynicism, like God is this huge bastard that looks down on poor li’l us, thinking we have a say in our lives. I refused to accept it.
Now? Not so much.
I still believe in a benevolent God that is there to protect us from evil and harm, that would never throw us a challenge we couldn’t face, because He knows what we’re made of. But now I have no problem thinking of Our Lord as this funny guy with a mischievous twinkle in His eye that lets out a kindly chuckle when we tell Him our plans, because He knows we better wrote them in pencil.
Guys… I’m a waiter!
I had heard the stories. I had seen the parodies. I had received a tweet called “the worst place in America”. So when the day finally came to meet the place where souls go to die that is the Department of Motor Vehicles of the state of Florida, let’s just say I was a bit wary. But would it be worse than in Caracas?
Like I said in my last post (by the way, thanks for the nice feedback), coming to the States has been a humbling experience, since I am basically resetting my life. Everything is new, everything is for the first time, everything is necessary to have a new life. And that means going back to that moment… ahem… wait… nearly thirty years ago when I drove with my cousin Gilberto to get my first driver’s license.
I am here to tell you that if you think that the DMV is a barren wasteland where hope goes to die, let me tell the story of a place where hope hardly is known called the Department of Terrestrial Traffic in the eastern part of Caracas called El Llanito, where a scrawny nineteen-year-old kid went with his older cousin to get his license. It was an overcast day, which already was a bad sign for me. You park your car and do a line that may have a poor soul that got there the former night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case today; I only had a few dozen souls ahead of me, mostly kids my age. After about half an hour –a miracle!– someone ushered us in a room with a few desks. The written test was ready to be taken.
I hadn’t precisely studied for said test, so I was even more nervous than usual. The test sheets were already on the desks, so all three of us sat at enough distance of each other and started scribbling at the multi-option questions. I soon learned that the nerves were unnecessary –not in the most ethical way. About ten minutes later, the guy who ushered us in walked inside and stood next to me. Uncomfortably next to me, I might add. Just when I was starting to look up at him with my best WTF face, he started pointing at my sheet and saying, “This one’s A. This is C. This is B”.
In my sleepy haze, it took me a few seconds to realize: he was telling me the answers! I was still a few years away from professional ethics and morals, so I pushed my conscience to the side and starting crossing off letters. After about five minutes –I am shaking my head in disbelief at this– he had given me the entire list of answers. He told me where to take the results and take the road test, then without so much as a nod in my direction, he shuffled off to another guy and started giving him the answers. (And this guy complained! I hope he made it in life.)
If you’re judging me right now for my actions, you’re absolutely right. But such is the way in Venezuela, my friends. Public officials are famous for cutting corners, doing whatever is necessary to make their job (a) easier, (b) more profitable, (c) faster or (d) all the above. That guy probably had a day ahead of him that looked like hell, so all he wanted was to herd these asshole kids away so he could go home or whatever.
The guy with whom I took the road test, though…
He was one of those guys that is all smiles but you’re pretty sure he has a thing for school girls. He greeted me warmly, and got in the car. I was half a foot taller, he was fifteen pounds heavier. Asks my name, writes it on the sheet on his clipboard. First thing he tells me when he gets in? “Hmmm, a ti como que te voy a raspar”. “I think I’ll flunk you”. I laughed, poor naive me. “Ni de vaina”, I replied. And we were off.
I took the curves. I braked. I parked on a hill. I did everything perfect. Except…
“Get in this spot with parallel parking, son”.
I hated parallel parking back then. I had a mix of bad coordination, general laziness and a whole lotta fear. And this asshole didn’t help. Why would he? He was a sadistic creep who was probably two burgers away from a heart attack and took joy messing up kids like me who JUST WANT THEIR LICENSE.
I line myself up, start to slide in the spot, and have just enough time to convince myself I made it when I feel I bump into the car behind me (oh yeah, no, no cones here. This was an actual spot). I touched it with a little force, but his glasses flew off like I had rammed into it as if I were a rabid buffalo.
“You broke my glasses, kid!”, he said, showing me the broken pair. And he said it with the biggest grin on his face, the bastard. He sort of put them together while I stared, mouth agape, and when he was finished, still grinning, he crossed out the form and said, “Let’s flunk you, shall we?”
I was livid. I got out of the car –my dad’s– and fumed off. My cousin, six years older than me, took one look and burst out laughing. “You flunked, didn’t you?”, he guffawed, incensing me more. “Of course I fucking flunked”, I growled. “Oh lighten up, everyone flunks the first time”, he said. “Give me a second”. He went to find a friend who was a sergeant in the traffic police (yes, there is such a thing) to try and fix things. (Yes, this is why Venezuela is among the most corrupt nations on Earth. No, I’m not proud of it.) And if you believe in karma, you know that she is a stone cold bitch. “Aw, kid, why didn’t you tell me you were friends with her?”, the instructor asked. “I already filed my paperwork! Nothing to be done, I’m sorry”.
It took three months of waiting before I finally got the damn thing. I renewed it ten years later at another location, after waiting –I kid you not– six hours. It was hell, it was tiresome, it was inefficient and it made me mad as hell.
Fast forward twenty years. I’ve now moved from Caracas to sunny Orlando, Florida. I can tell y’all this: In comparison, your DMV was a walk in the park, ‘Murica. A slow, lumbering walk in the park, to be sure. But it was ten times more pleasant than what I endured.
The GF and I got to the first DMV one very bright Tuesday morning at 9 am. We didn’t make an appointment (already a novelty) because there’s no wi-fi where we’re staying, so it was easier to just show up. We were required to take the damn test, for which we did study (sort of), and get those licenses pronto. We got in line to the kiosk, which has a new system in which you put in your phone number and it sends you an SMS when it’s your turn. I put in my number, and seconds later I get the SMS:
“Your waiting time is between 180-210 minutes”.
My soul didn’t even have time to say goodbye.
While we’re waiting, I of course take in the people around me. About 90% of the people here are African-American, a few white people, at least one Brazilian. The youngest might be in his early twenties, the oldest might be around It’s 9 o’clock and every one looks like they’ve just dragged themselves out of bed. We just sit and fiddle with our phones thanking the Orange County tax collector’s office for the free wi-fi. If there were a coffee cart it wouldn’t be so bad. But there is none, and I’m starting to get antsy. I suggest we walk out and find the beverage of our salvation, and she obliges. We walk two blocks to a quickie mart, come right back. It’s only been an hour. I’m ready to lie down and sleep.
Actually, did I doze off? Because suddenly, it’s her turn! She goes, shows her documents, and before I know it, it’s my turn! Hooo boy… This is happening, folks! The clerk, a small, bulldog-faced woman whom I somehow manage to make smile, takes my papers, asks me a few questions, and instructs me to go take the test. No desk and right there in the open to all to see. I go to these huge computers on one side, and I’m a little offended that I have the only seat. What, do I look too old??? Anyhoo… The GF is there already. We’re taking it side by side, though she doesn’t notice till I swear a little under my breath. As you may know, you get a maximum of ten wrong answers; eleven, and you do not pass the written test. I won’t give you details, but let me share a bit of my mind.
Ok… let’s see… a double line, broken on the right, even on the other, means what now? Dammit I need another coffee… Ok, let’s skip this one. If a deer… A deer? You’re in Florida, you can’t… Oh wait, no, there are deer here, Hopefully I’ll get to see one when NO! FOCUS! Must not think Venezuelan, this place obeys the law, focus, you asshole, focus. The minimum distance for high beams is… 500 feet? Shit, it’s 100. How many is that? I CANNOT fail this shit, I…
And suddenly it says “Your time is up. You have passed with only five mistakes.”
Score!!! And she passed as well! (Also five!) The clerk that takes my case looks down at my results and says, “Wow… Very few pass at the first try. Congratulations.” She even gave me a full smile.
Two days later, it’s the road test time. Her appointment is at 10, mine’s at 10:15 (and yes, this time they suggest we make an appointment). So again, we plop on our chairs, make small talk, chit chat, watch the Avengers: Infinity War trailer. And then she’s off. While she’s out, my number gets called. I give my information, swear I’m not a danger to the United States, and walk out to wait for the GF to give back the car. While I’m waiting, a short but stocky African American woman with long dreads comes out, and looks around. Sees me, says good morning, keeps waiting. She has a clipboard, so I assume she’s the instructor, perhaps assigned to me. After about two minutes she looks at me, looks at her clipboard, and says, “Juan Rodriguez?”
–I thought that face looked familiar! I saw it here (points at my Venezuelan license), saw it there…
Yeah, I liked her already.
Her name was Charlene, told me she had been there for quite some time. When she saw my license, she told me she had had experiences with Venezuelans before. I feel a slight cringe.
–I used to work as a driver and chaperone for those teenage cruises, y’know. Those birthday cruises? Man, it is amazing how drunk those girls can get! I told them, ‘You do not have to get that drunk! You’re young! You’re beautiful! There are men waiting outside the night clubs for girls like that!’ One night there was one who got out and there was this dude who just looked wrong, y’know? I told him to back off.
I knew the deal. It’s part of the reason why there are so many teen pregnancies in my country. Many times, these girls go to strict Catholic schools and stricter parents. One taste of freedom and they’re gone. I think of my GF’s eight-year-old, the one who calls me Bird Daddy. How will I handle the teenage years? I immediately change the subject.
–Speaking of which, bet you get a lot of nervous kids.
–I get a few, yeah.
–Must come nervous as hell.
She grins. I don’t know whether to feel relaxed or nervous. –A few. Most pass, though.
–That’s good to hear. Feels so weird, having to take my driver’s test again, thirty years after the last time. I feel eighteen.
–Well, you gotta obey the law.
–Yup. You come here, you hit the reset button.
I see the GF is still taking the test with a tall lanky guy, just like Larry, who’s scribbling on another board. He seems cool, but I can’t see her face. All I can do is wait and pray. When she passes us, she didn’t look up, so I tell Charlene if it’s ok if I go pick the car up. “I’m just waiting for you, man”, she said with a smile.
I go, and my GF’s face tells it all. “The guy is an asshole; I didn’t pass!”, she tells me.
My heart sank.
I pick up Charlene and she asks me if the GF passed. I said I didn’t ask but didn’t like the face. I didn’t want to jinx myself. She said something like “Oh dang it”, and proceeded to explain that her name was Charlene, that she will be my instructor, that she will not do anything to willfully make me fail. She asks me if I’m ready, I say yes, and off we go.
–You feel eighteen again?
–To be honest, I feel ten!
She laughs, and off we go.
She instructs me to make a three-point turn, which I now confess (in the first of two confessions I shall make today) I had only learned the name four days before. I did it correctly, but I forgot to put the blinkers. Then she asks me to back up, tells me I did ok, except:
–Are you on the double line?– she asked looking at me sideways.
I look over, see that yes, I am on the double line, know that’s a no-no, and answer: “I’m very, very close to it. Sorry”. And yes, sorry Charlene. A little fib.
Then it’s sudden stop, parking, backing up, parking on a slope, and…
–I hope your GF passed, ‘cause you did. Congratulations!
Oh YEAH baby! But I temper my enthusiasm. I drive back to the building to drop Charlene off.
–Well, welcome to the States. We do not like our President.
–Oh don’t worry, neither do I. Nor my own.
We let off some steam on the subject, and off she goes. My GF reschedules for the next day, proceeds to tell me her instructor was too strict. “He failed me because I was two inches away from the cones when I parked! I asked him if he spoke Spanish, and what did he answer? ‘I speak a little Arabic, if you want’!”
Yeah and if my dad had tits he’d be my mom, you asshole.
Next day comes, my spirits are high. Hers, not so much. She’s really nervous, so I’m trying to soothe her as best as I can. When it’s her turn, I’m torn between waiting inside and waiting out. I sit for like five minutes inside before going out.
She’s parked outside behind a van, driven by an Asian woman of about fifty and what I assume is her husband waiting for her. And Mr. I-speak-Arabic is tearing her a new one. Now it’s my GF’s heart who sank. “Oh God, it’s him again, I know it”, she said.
And I hear a rooster crow.
We both turn to see a very large rooster walking around, completely ignoring the humans who are staring bemusedly at him. He flaps his wings and crows again, then flies to land on the railing, crows again. He’s big, over a foot tall, with a fallen crest and a deep red plumage. I try to get near him to take a picture, but he’s having none of it, and a security guard comes out and tells me “No pictures”.
–I’m sorry! But… it’s a rooster!
The guard cracks a grin. –Yeah, that’s our mascot.
The mood has definitely relaxed. And to top it all off, Charlene comes out. I mouth her name to my GF with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl seeing Harry Styles. She’ll be ok!
–Hello miss Charlene– I say.
She looks at me, doesn’t recognize me. –Oh, did I… Did I test you?
–Yes, yesterday. Venezuela, remember?
–Oh right, right. You’re taking it again?
–Nope–. I point. –My GF.
–I did you yesterday and now I’m doing her?
She turned away and smiled in wonder. My GF brought over the car, and just when Charlene was getting ready to start her inspection, a cardinal, my stepdaughter’s favorite bird, landed in the bush beside her. The nine-year-old in me pointed excitedly, in such a way that even stone-faced Charlene turned and smiled. Now I knew she would be ok!
You can guess what happened: she passed! –I don’t understand that guy, you didn’t make a single mistake– Charlene told my GF.
–I don’t understand either–, she told her in her broken English.
When we were driving away, satisfied with our DMV experience, I was touched by one last thing Charlene told my GF.
–Your man’s something… I’m not used to people remembering me.
Magic Kingdom, guest parking space. Next right.
The last time I saw that sign, it drew a feeling of elation from me, even as a supposedly mature thirtysomething. It meant fun, laughter, an escape from reality.
That was then. Today when I saw it, it meant entering a new reality.
We got to the service entrance in the middle of a fog worthy of Victorian age London and cold unworthy of Florida. I was wearing a hard hat and security vest and goggles for the first time in my forty-six years of life. The “sissy” hands many people pointed out with varying degrees of bad intentions would start a perhaps short trip into callousness. To say it was humbling was to say the least.
This is what happens when you move to a new country, even though in my case it remained my country. You start from scratch unless you’re incredibly lucky and manage to find work in your own field. But most of the time, you’re a blank face, a clean slate, but you still need to make a living. So you take what you can.
I tell this to Larry, my new coworker. He’s a tall, lanky kid, with a goatee and short, thick mane, the typical gringo catire ojos azules we Venezuelans usually make fun of. He looks like a surfer dude. Turns out I’m close: he’s a skater dude. Loves the Florida weather because of that. Been working for the Dutchman that owns the company that makes the greenhouses for six months. And as you might expect, he’s laid back and pretty darn friendly.
–How did you get here?– he asks. He’s 22, from Michigan. Or is it Minnesota? I only now remember that many Americans confuse “Venezuela” with “Minnesota”. Or so Joanna Hausmann says.
–He hooked me up–, I say, pointing at my GF’s friend’s husband, where we’re staying.
–That’s so weird… Do you plan on quitting journalism for good, doing this full time?
I look down at the wire I’ve been setting up for the past hour and contemplate the pain on my knees. –Oh hell no–, I answer with a smile. He chuckles back.
One thing I have been trying to do since I got here is keep talking to strangers, just to keep my interviewing skills sharp. Got Austin Kleon to thank for that little piece of advice. So I start talking to Larry while we pull the tarp over a few topiary figures in progress. Kermit the Frog listens intently.
He’s the oldest of four children, with a brother and two sisters, who both gave him five nephews. The company he –well, now, we– work for sends them all over the States to set up the greenhouses. He travels with his girlfriend of four years, although they’ve known each other their whole life; her mother is Larry’s mother’s best friend.
–We used to drink together growing up while our moms sat and drank as well– he tells me.
He’s the one in the family who earns the most, something he’s both proud and mortified of. –My dad had his own construction company for over ten years, till it went down. Now he works in fucking Taco Bell. Can you believe that? He’s 54, 480 pounds and working in Taco Bell. I earn so much more than he does. Unbelievable.
I involuntarily do the math –454 grams to a pound, so that means dad weights 217 kilograms. In a stressful job, as does mom, who works in a factory, I think. They both drink, so I wonder how long till Larry gets another scare.
–I just smoke weed, helps with my PTSD.
–Oh did you serve?– I ask before knowing how stupid the question was; he’s just 22, he doesn’t need to serve in the Army. Case in point:
–No, (a family member) died in my arms. Downed a whole bottle of (liquor whose name I didn’t hear nor ask to repeat) and I walked in to find him all blue. He had a smile on his face. That shit messed me up. So I smoke a joint right before bed, so I don’t dream. Those nightmares fuck me up.
His girl travels with him and has a pretty easy life, in comparison. –She went to nursing school, and worked at Target, but I make more money. So she just comes along where we go. Stays at the paid hotel, gives me my back rub when I get there. It’s cool.
At break time, I look at this odd little crew. Two Venezuelans and a Minnesota boy under a Honduran boss. In this little group, Larry’s the minority, but it’s just on this table. He’s got it easier. Darwin, our supervisor, has been here three years, and he’s trying to get his own company going. He sorta speaks English but with a heavy accent. Joel has also been here three years, with his wife and her four-year-old son, and they’ve both managed to find a house and two cars, working their proverbial asses off. And then there’s me, brand new, with less than two hundred bucks to my name. It pains me how much I still depend on what my GF has saved to make a start, so I am doing the opposite of complaining.
In the meantime, I’m glad I get to meet people like Larry, who make life a little more interesting. All I have to do is ask.