Swimming Upstream

These two related pieces are part of 'Swimming Upstream', a collection of monologues I've written in 2004 while living in New Jersey.

[SORIN, a 14-year-old boy talks to IRINA, his mom.]
No, I didn’t steal any twenty dollar bill! They just fired me because they were cheap. They were crazy! I did all they asked me to do. Well, basically, I would just come in and see what was to be done. Usually they would have this shelf full of folders and then they would give you these papers, for insurance, when someone died; all over the world. And you would look at the name and match it with the folder. Just put it in. In alphabetical order. Simple.
Either that or just help clean up the desk, you know. Nothing really much. Once we had to address envelopes. They would send out X-mas cards saying Happy X-mas! or whatever. I’d say about a hundred or so. It was simple. The other secretary was supervising me.
Don’t remember her name. Abita. Nope. Hanifa. [Laughs.] She was crazy. She had braids, her hair was dyed red and yellow, and she’d always have on something with different colors.
But she was kind. She didn’t like the job either. She needed to finish school and get a car. Yeah.
She didn’t do much. I would ask for her help and she’d do it. Well, once I didn’t know where one folder was and she’d find it, because she had been there for a while, she personally organized it. And she would just find it. She did that a lot. Finding things around there. Yep. They were misplacing things all the time. Everyone. Because she was the one that organized it. So they didn’t really know what was going on. So they’re screwed now. She's gone. They don’t know where anything is!
Rachel was always on the computer. She was always typing something, she was fast. She wasn’t that exciting. She talked a lot, about nothing. Like Seinfeld. Seinfeld talks a lot about nothing. Well, you know, [Imitates her.] This chocolate! This is expensive chocolate! They don’t sell these chocolates everywhere! Only in California is where they sell the chocolate! Mmmmmmmm!--It was good chocolate. Bags of chocolate on the front desk. Anybody could just get one. Yeah.--She’d start singing to herself at times. Yeah. I'm just making that up. But she did talk to herself. I think she was jus reading the papers; she was typing. She was like, Mmmmmmm! And she was typing, Mmmmm! Shrapnel in the ass! Mmmmm! I made that up. She always had to write what kind of deaths were there. What they thought was suspicious.
It was weird. I read in one of the reports they thought it was a fake marriage. At the wedding ceremony the bride is supposed to do a little dance with a flower or a coconut. But she didn’t do that so it was suspicious. The groom died. So they suspected she married to kill him, to get his insurance. They don’t know. That’s why it’s suspicious.
Sheila was just loud. She was just loud for no reason. She'd always have the food channel on, like she's learning how to cook while she was organizing. And the guy was exactly the opposite. You couldn’t understand anything he said, both of them. One was too loud. Like cover your ears to hear her! The other one was just sitting there, all day long. [He sounds kind of Asian.] Hanifa, come here! Bring me my papers! Hanifa, come here! She was just loud and greedy, very much so. Can I trust you with the mail? she said one day. She was like, Okay, I don’t know if I should trust you with this mail, it needs to go to the mail box. I don’t want you to open it, because then you’re fired. She never said that, I just made that up. I found that weird. She asked me if “I could trust you with the mail.” What the hell am I supposed to do with insurance? Stupid.
In the end they fired everyone.
Because they were greedy; they were stingy. They didn’t buy office supplies. Which showed they were cheap. They wanted to keep the money. They didn’t want to keep paying us, so they fired us. Then hired more people. It really didn’t make a lot of sense. I don’t know, they were just bad people.
They’d pay me about seven dollars an hour.
I came in an extra day once. So instead of twenty bucks I made thirty. But they didn’t want to pay me. Oh, no!
The loud lady paid me. Sheila. Come here! I have your pay check! Yeah, little boy! I don’t know… Hanifa was always giving options. You know what you could do with your money? Take the bus uptown, have some fun, spend it all. Or you could go to the computers and play some games. I would like to keep my money, and, you know, save it.
So when they told me I was fired…. Well, at first I thought they said they didn’t need me for the week. Like I was supposed to come in Friday, and I thought that they didn’t need me for that day. So I just went to pick up my check, and I was like, Oh, I’m fired! Oh, well...
And then I found out I wasn't the only one.
Yeah. Well, they were cheap, what did you expect?
Rachel was like, Oh, my God I didn’t do anything! It’s not my fault if you’re a cheap bastard. No, she didn’t tell them like that. I’m sure that’s what she was thinking though. Well, it’s not my fault if your computer sucks, ass. Maybe if you updated from a 95! Like she would mess up typing, and he got mad. It wasn’t her fault, because half the stuff the guy wrote you couldn’t understand!
It was just weird. Hanifa would always give options. One talks a lot, and the other didn’t. You could tell that the woman wore the pants in the family. And he was like, Okay, just don’t hit me!
They were cheap, they wanted to save money. Yeah. That was the whole story. Yeah.
Well, there isn't much to say. Yeah.

[RACHEL talks to IRINA.]
I initially said, “I will work for 12 dollars.” Sheila said, “We can only pay you 10,” so I said, “It’s okay, if you pay me cash,” and Sheila said, “Fine.”
Hanifa sometimes would be out sick for herself or her daughter who has chronic kidney problems and they’d ask me to do extra hours and they were a little strange. The man, Israel, just stayed in his office and worked. He never went out to lunch or anything, and as a result he developed high blood pressure and diabetes and, you know, he needed a lot of medical attention. I would point out the food he was eating was not very healthy, a lot of diet soda and take out, chicken and fries. I suggested he might have some other food and Sheila started taking offence because it was her husband, okay? So, there was some tension.
He couldn’t drive ‘cause he wasn’t long enough in the country, whatever it was, [yadda, yadda, and yadda] he didn’t get a license, so it was only Sheila driving. In fact, I had offered to walk Israel to the bus and ride with him to their house, but he said “What would a man like me do on the bus? I’m a foreigner,” this and that… He was really scared! And Sheila didn’t appreciate it at all! All I’m saying is it’s a very short trip and I’d demonstrate! So!
One time they had a traffic ticket in the snow in Verona and it’s a straight line on Bloomfield Avenue to the Verona Court House, but they were terrified so they gave me ten dollars and I rode up with them, and then I just turned around and I took the bus home, so that’s the way they are.
But they are highly educated. She had written a thesis on the plays of Athol Fugard! She was terribly impressed because I had read them, or seen them, right? And then he, ‘cause he’s a lawyer,--although what they are doing is legal investigations, you don’t have to be a lawyer to do what he’s doing. They were investigating fraud all over the world! They are the American office! People collect insurance in Africa, in Haiti and, you know, funny things happen, like the body in the coffin is alive and it winks or moves in the picture, when it’s supposed to be dead! If you think about it, if you’re in Africa you could say anything about a person! So, they’re investigators who actually find out if they are alive! [Laughs.] It’s very interesting!
But I found their personalities so haughty, so important. Oh, my goodness! They all were like upper class, the Igbo People of Nigeria! You usually see it spelled I-B-O, but they forced you to pronounce it the way they do! They are the wealthy class there. They just think they ought to be in charge of everything! But they are very cheap with their pay checks and they are very dislikeable, so that’s it. She talks very loud with a peculiar accent. I actually couldn’t even understand them for the first week I worked there.
Sheila had a three-cut tribal marking over here, [Brushes lightly with her fingers over her cheeks.] which would have been very nice with her hair up, you know, to display it, but of course, she covered it up with makeup. She is at least five foot eight and pretty bulky, not fat, just solid. She didn’t look too bad. She wears heels, and Israel might have been her height, just a shave shorter, ‘cause he was usually barefoot, he never left the office. He would get up to go down the hall to the bathroom, that’s all he did! He had darker skin and glasses and he was maybe 50 years old. He was always writing at his desk and he would not type, so I’d do it for him. They were these reports from investigators, in very poor English. I had to make it into something clear that would be presentable to insurance companies. 10 bucks an hour. Period.
They wanted to hire a woman for 5 dollars an hour! It was my idea that a woman won’t work for it, but a kid would, so they hired your son. Then let him go! Hanifa liked him, and actually after they let him go they said maybe he took 20 dollars from Israel’s pocket, but Hanifa said Israel has more than one coat that’s identical and she thinks that he simply changed coats, okay? We never believed that for a second. I never said it to Sorin; it would have hurt his feelings! He was already gone from the job, anyway. It was awful.
I was sort of a fond of them, you know, and Sheila was a little shallow but, you know, you could get used to her. She couldn’t have a baby, and by now she was too old anyway. It’s all sad, but you know, you don’t have to take it out on the people that work for you!
Well, Hanifa started missing work and they would say very unkind things about her. Oh, they’d say, “All these young black girls just have babies with no man!” this and that; and, honestly, Hanifa was not only in touch with the baby’s father and the kid was already four and they were really being terrible responsible about the baby and she was in college, which was another reason she couldn’t always work. Why sometimes I’d help her write her papers, and she didn’t have a car and she lived in Newark so she was getting around by bus. She is a kid with her belly button showing, you know, like all the stuff my daughter wears!
But what ultimately happened was she was out for a couple of weeks, right after Christmas, when I came in with Christmas cards and a present for her child!--It’s amazing! I actually got these cheap Africans to give me a 50 dollar check that said Merry Christmas on it; and they were not planning that at all! [Laughs.] I embarrassed them by giving them the cards and wishes!
But meanwhile Hanifa was out. Right after New Year’s I was there for a day when she was out and the two of them, Sheila and Israel, they just started saying terrible things! They said, “How could she be out ten days for her daughter because of a kidney problem?” Because a big basketball player, Alonzo Mourning, had gotten a transplant and he was home in four days. It was in the news. And about how they hate American blacks and they were asking me to find someone else.
And here I am trying to work and getting a stomach ache. They went on and on that the blacks are all lazy and miserable and they don’t know how to work and, you know, all they do is drugs and sex, the usual, you know. If you could imagine, I’m trapped there because I’m working! And what’s even worse, I like Hanifa, you know! I couldn’t listen to this drivel! Oh, my gosh, anyway, here we are and they are asking me to find them a white person to hire. And needless to say I don’t believe in this nonsense. This is like fifty years ago! But I’m trapped here in this little room, I’m working and I have a stomach ache and a headache!
So, before I go home I call Hanifa and tell her parts of what they say. I really left out the racist stuff, ‘cause I figured Hanifa was hurt enough that they thought she was lying about her daughter, so SHE got upset and she called Sheila and cried to her and then Sheila called ME and yelled at me, “How could you talk to Hanifa? Why did you do that for? You shouldn’t have said anything!” And I was only talking about the child and sickness and being out part! So when I came in that Monday, they were waiting for me, and then Israel says to me, “You are disengaged,” right? Disengaged! It was hopeless.
So, Hanifa was there trying to work, the two of them towered over her while I’m clearing out my desk, Israel yelling at me. “You’ve betrayed us! If we see you on the street we’ll cross on the other side and never talk to you!” and Sheila said that I was trying to steal her husband ‘cause I talked to him the day before when she was out.
Israel kept his mouth shut, ‘cause she runs the show anyway. I just talked about his food and health and suggested, you know, that he take a walk, you know, not even with me! Though I think I said, “Well, let’s walk around the block together. What are you afraid of?”
He’s afraid ‘cause it’s a foreign country to them! Anyway, she yelled at me and it was too hard for me to talk, so I took my stuff and I left and they didn’t pay me for the work I did at home, for the three hours. They said they didn’t ask me to do it. So… They said they’d come after me for the taxes for the past year, but they never did!
Hanifa only worked another day or two that week and, we were talking on the phone, she told me she couldn’t stand them anymore, ‘cause of the way they talked to me. It really hurt her, ‘cause I was her big old friend, you know, in the office and otherwise there were no windows in that room, you saw that room, and she mailed the key back!
I had just never seen two people carrying on about poor Hanifa, this and that! You know, you don’t pay me enough to hear this! I knew Hanifa had a soft spot for them, but I wanted, you know… It was none of my business, but I really felt that I had a responsibility to tell Hanifa that these people had a terribly low opinion of her! And that’s what I did! And the next thing they’re firing me and then she refused to go back, so that was that!
I see the mailman sometimes in Bloomfield, he says, “Yeah, they got someone else in there.” So... [Laughs.] That was that.

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being some of them, I’d be grateful.

New York
October 24, 2013

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