Ever find a bunch of keys for which you have little idea what boxes they open and doors they unlock?
My awful memory strikes again. Last night, I was walking along 34th street on my way home from a strenuous evening helping my friend Boris move into his new apartment. I was really exhausted and sweaty from moving all the boxes, and I suppose this will partially be my excuse for what happened next. As I am making my way towards 9th ave, I see a guy standing on the corner who motions to me. As I get closer, I see that it is someone I recognize, but I can’t immediately place. Not being sure of how I even know him, I am a little distant, asking vague questions to try to jog my memory while at the same time not giving away that I have no idea who he is. I tell him (quite truthfully) that I am tired and need to head home, and I bid him a polite but distant farewell. On my way home I rack my brain for the context….is he a friend of a friend, someone I had a date with a long time ago, someone I talked to online? I have a couple of suspicions, and start to go online to try to match faces. It takes a while, but then I finally have a match. And I am really embarrassed, this is someone I should have recognized, even though I haven’t seen him in a really long time. When have talked online, but matching faces online with living, breathing ones can be a stretch sometimes. And context is everything. See the person you see in one context out and about in another, and it can be much more difficult for your brain to put it all together. At least mine, apparently.
I was a little taken aback this afternoon when I received this rather large and imposing envelope in the mail:
What could it be, I wondered? Since I am the type of person who always feels guilty of something (whether or not I have been accused), I racked my brain in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment. There were other people in the car with me, not to mention the security cameras, so I jealously guarded my envelope like an expert CIA operative, keeping cool, no false moves, walking out of the elevator with total forthrightness as I walked back to my apartment. Once opened, I was relieved to find out that it was an actual resolution to a problem I had reported to the Department of Homeland Security about 9 months ago. You heard right, DHS and NINE months.
My misery with the DHS goes back to something that happened over 20 years ago (on March 15, 1991 according to their records — beware the ides of March indeed). I was living in Paris at the time and had lost my passport and needed to get another. I dutifully went to the embassy, got my emergency passport and later on a trip home to the states had it extended (emergency passports are only valid a few months without further proof of identity), along with handing them the old passport which had by this time been found. And you know what they did with that original passport? They punched two holes in it, stamped it CANCELLED, and handed it back to me. Over the next several years I took many an oversea trip, with nary a problem or peep from any customs or immigration official anywhere on US soil. Then something called September 11, 2001 happened.
In the frenzy that followed, to “protect” our country from threats real and imagined, the Bush/Cheney axis (of evil) steamrolled over most of the civil liberties we used to take for granted in this country. In their zeal to protect (and let’s face it, control) the population, they enacted a bunch of laws aimed at consolidating their power into one amazing police state. Among their many bright ideas was the creation of an office of “Homeland Security”, tasked with setting up security lines at airports, among other things. And among the other various high profile potential terrorist threats swept up in their dragnet was me. Yes, me. For, since the creation of that department, I have had no end of trouble trying to get back into the country after each trip abroad. The story was always the same, and always met with the same result. I would be returning from a trip to Europe or Mexico or wherever, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, and most of the time I would be stopped and questioned for about 30 minutes, always about this mysterious “missing” passport. The first time it happened, I thought that after I had explained it to them (and that it wasn’t missing at all, I had it in a drawer at home with holes punched in it) they would enter it into some super sophisticated database and records would be updated and I would not be troubled again. But it did happen again, and again. Always the exact same story, always about a 30 minute delay waiting in some side office to get some clearance to leave. I asked on several occasions what I could do about it, and I offered to turn in the “missing” passport if they would just tell me who to give it to. I asked who I could contact about it, and got conflicting information. Last year I had finally had enough and talked to someone at the passport agency who passed me to someone else who told me to contact DHS, who pointed me, finally, to a website to lodge my complaint and submit documentation.
And so, for months and months I have been checking the site with nary a status update other than “documents received”. I did notice upon returning from Europe three weeks ago that I was not stopped in the usual way. And lo and behold, today in the mail I get the notice of resolution. (Let’s just hope my little rant here doesn’t return me to their danger list.)
Anyone out there know how much electricity they use per month and how much it costs them? My sense is that New York is quite high compared to other parts of the country. Below is a chart from my latest bill which came a few days ago. Fifty-eight bucks are my charges for the past month. About half of the cost is for “delivery charges” and half for “usage charges”, but since delivery is variable and also charged by kWh, this seems a totally academic separation.
I was pretty exhausted after my long trip back from Paris yesterday, but I had promised my friend Ruthbea that I would have dinner with her and a group of her friends since she was in town for only one night. I made my way to the restaurant, and being the first to arrive, wandered over to the bar for a drink. Ruthbea assured me that I had met at least one and perhaps as many as three of her group of friends before, so I was watching the hostess stand for any recognizable faces. And there was one guy there at the stand who looked over at me and marched directly up to me and said in a somewhat menacing voice, “What the hell are YOU doing here?”. I paused for a moment to look at his face and attire and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to recognize him, either as one of Ruthbea’s friends or from somewhere else. I paused and said, “I am waiting on Ruthbea…”, and he said “What?!” and then walked off in an odd huff. Then I saw him go behind the bar and realized he was working at the restaurant and wondered if perhaps we had met somewhere before. I sometimes have a shitty memory for these things (despite being able to remember random number sequences from years ago) and so I chalked it up to one of those chance meetings that confuse.
Later when Ruthbea and the gang arrived, we got seated at our table and as I recounted the story to Ruthbea, the guy came over and apologized. He told me I looked exactly (but exactly!) like a jerk ex boss of his who had fired him two years earlier, and that he had been shocked that the guy had the nerve to come into this place. He was going to have him (me) thrown out when he realized his mistake, and he brought us all a round of drinks to apologize.
We all had a good laugh about it, but it did get me wondering just a little about my doppelgänger who is out there, somewhere, in the food services industry. I wonder if anyone has ever approached him out of the blue thinking he was me. Perhaps some random stranger asked him to fix something computer related or translate something into French?
Before heading off to the airport in an hour or so, I thought I would commit to blog something interesting that happened to me a few days ago. You may remember that I will soon be getting surgery on my rapidly deteriorating shoulder, and that I have been in a great deal of discomfort. That being the case, I asked my doctor for some pain medication to help me get through the next few weeks. He prescribed me a couple of things (an anti inflammatory and some vicodin) and I got the prescription filled about a week and a half ago. Since I had so much work to do and the vicodin tends to make me a little loopy and therefore not the most productive, I had held off taking it. But a few days ago the pain was enough that I felt I needed one. I popped open the bottle and looked inside to grab a pill, and then thought to myself, “That doesn’t look like 30 pills in this bottle”.
I looked at the prescription again, and sure enough it said 30. Then I looked at the bottle again, and it didn’t look right. So I poured out the contents and counted them. Sure enough, there weren’t 30 there, there were only 20. So I called up the pharmacy and explained to them that the prescription I had filled several days past was missing pills. I should stop here and note that it is in my nature to feel guilty for pretty much anything whether I am to blame or not (thanks mom), and I have to admit to feeling a little like a drug addict for calling them on this. Then again, something had gone wrong and I had after all paid for the medication and wanted to make sure I had it with me while traveling.
The woman on the other end icily told me that this was a controlled substance, and that I would need a new prescription from my doctor if I wanted to get 10 more pills. I explained to her that these weren’t 10 more pills, these were 10 missing pills. She got a little huffy and said there was nothing she could do. Then I got a little indignant myself and told her that it wasn’t my fault that someone in their pharmacy had sticky fingers with certain medications, and that it wasn’t my habit to count pills every time I filled a prescription. I then told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted my 10 pills and was not going to call my doctor to get them. I asked to speak to her manager about this, and then all of a sudden her voice got quiet and she said, “Ok, come in anytime today and I will give you the 10 vicodin”. That was all I wanted, and I didn’t really care what had happened to the pills, whether she was selling them or using them or what-have-you. It turned out I didn’t have time to make it that day, so I swung by the next. When I got to the counter and gave my name, the woman started over to the main area where all the prescriptions are kept, and then paused, looked around and asked me in a low voice if I was the one who was here to pick up the vicodin. I nodded, and she went over to a drawer to the side, pulls out the bottle and handed it to me. I said thanks, and walked out.
I woke up early this morning (around 6am) and decided to go to the grocery store to do my week’s shopping. On my way out of the building I noticed that in the vestibule was a person sleeping, with his head completely covered by his jacket and his shoes and keys neatly placed at his side. He didn’t look particularly homeless (neither from his attire nor lack of any other bags or storage nearby) and I stared at this sleeping figure for a brief moment before heading out to the 20 degree weather and the store. On my way back in some 40 minutes later, there he still was, sleeping. I tried not to make too much noise entering the building so as not to disturb his slumber. I wondered on the way up to my apartment how he came to be sleeping there. The keychain next to him made me assume that the keys were for opening doors, so I assumed he normally had a place to go. Perhaps he had been in a fight with his partner or roommate and was kicked out of the house with no other place to go? Perhaps he had arrived too early to start some work shift and decided to grab a little sleep? Perhaps he had come in very drunk from the previous night and simply passed out in the vestibule? I assumed (mostly from the presence of the keys) that he was not homeless, but perhaps I am mistaken and he was trying to find a place out of the punishing, sub freezing and windy streets, having locked up his belongings somewhere else.
It was one of those common moments of downtime when you search for yourself on the internet to see what a prospective client or employer or date might while doing their research on you. As I was perusing the various links displayed in front of me, I noticed that there were three facebook profiles with my exact name, which in and of itself is no big deal, there are a few other people out there that share my name. What was odd is that two of them had a profile picture that was me, and one of them was a profile picture which, although it was posted at one time to my blog, was never used on facebook. A click on that link led me to a profile with my name and my picture, but of someone based in the UK. No other info was available on this other Stephen Suess, but I found it mildly disturbing that someone was using both my picture and name and thus representing himself as me. I reported the violation to facebook and they fortunately disabled the account immediately. I did find out a little later that this is doppelganger week on facebook, but the likelihood that someone I share a name with also looks like me is statistically miniscule, and it would have been nice at least to have been asked before taking my photo and using it that way, no? And besides, I am not famous. Interestingly, a couple hours after reporting the incident on facebook, I can no longer find ANY other “Stephen Suess” on facebook’s search, not even my own (although I can log into it), even though there used to be four. Another mystery…
Like many previous hygiene mysteries in my past, the correct answer probably has to do with training and control. Yet still I wonder: Looking at the picture below of the bathtub with shower handle that is in the apartment I am staying in here in Paris, however does one prevent the water from going all over the place and still clean oneself? I have tried several things. Using the shower head to wet my body, then lathering, then rinsing. Using one hand to shower and the other to clean, then switching hands. Sitting down the entire time. But I feel clumsy and/or not fully clean with each of these. Is a shower curtain so visually unappealing? Any ideas?
With all the places I have been in the past two years, I can’t help but compare and contrast things about the cultures in which I find myself. Each has their own pluses and minuses, and each has an amazing way of revealing something about the human condition and its many adaptations. And I often find a small mystery in one culture that can only be answered by beginning to understand another. Case in point: Mexicans vs. Argentines.
I noted with some frequency when I was living in Mexico the distaste Mexicans have for the Argentines. They would use many words to describe them, but it boiled down to the fact that in Mexico, Argentines are seen to be rather snobbish and arrogant, and it was quite often I would hear Mexicans complaining about how demanding and rude the Argentines were in their eyes. I never really knew exactly what they were going on about, but my Argentine friends in Mexico seemed every bit as down on Mexicans as Mexicans were on them. There was clearly a clash of cultures going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Now that I have been in Buenos Aires for a month, I think I am beginning to see where the clash is. And it is interesting to note that here in Buenos Aires, I have yet to hear a single negative word spoken about Mexicans or Mexican culture for that matter. In fact, the few Argentines who have spoken of Mexico speak in often glowing terms. This is most likely due to the very small (non-existant?) number of Mexicans that are living here compared with the much larger number of Argentines living in Mexico. (Then again, there does seem to be some real cultural animus towards Peruvians and Bolivians here, but that is a separate matter. Every culture has their own xenophobia.)
One of the things that I have noticed here without a doubt is how direct the people are when speaking. It is not uncommon to hear a grandmother swear like a drunken sailor, have people tell you directly that they are or are not interested in seeing you today, hear strong opinions of all types on delicate matters, etc. In short and in general, they don’t pussyfoot around. Your feelings might be hurt, but you know where you stand with the Argentines.
Things could not be more different in Mexican culture. In Mexico, one almost never says directly what one thinks, it is considered to be rude. I remember many times pulling my hair out trying to understand what Mexicans were really thinking. I actually moved out of my first apartment there because my roommate was so non communicative and afraid of conflict. My friend George, who lived several years in Mexico gave me the following advice that sort of sums it up. He told me that when leaving a party early, for whatever reason, you just have to lie and say “I’ll be right back”, even if you have no intention of coming back. It would be rude to just say “goodbye” or “I have another party to get to” or “I am tired”. George told me that Mexicans much prefer a nice lie to the harsh truth. And I have to admit to experiencing many frustrating planning misadventures just because people thought it rude to say “I can’t make it next Wednesday”. They would much rather agree to something and then just let it drop. Argentines, on the other hand are precisely the opposite. And I have to admit to preferring it that way. My feelings don’t get hurt very easily, and I like to know where I stand with people.
They really remind me a lot of my own family. Maybe because there are so many Germans and East European Jews here, and they have had a rather large impact on the culture, or maybe it is because of something else. In my family, we just say what we are thinking to each other, and nothing is very hidden. I like the fact that we can say what is on our minds and at the end of the day still know that we love each other. This isn’t the same thing as being rude. It is obviously important to take care with people’s feelings. But I can totally see now why there is such friction in Mexico between these two cultures. At the heart of it is a very different sense of propriety and expression.
In sum, and to put it in a kind way for each, one culture places a much higher value on directness, the other a much higher value on politeness.