Thursday, December 31, 2009

Whoever's On First

Dad: Dr. Klein diagnosed my high blood pressure and referred me to doctor whoever.

Mom: If it weren't for Dr. Klein he never would have seen doctor whoever.

Me: Doctor whoever? Who's that?

Mom: A cardiologist.

Me: I know, but don't you know his name?

Dad: Dr. whoever.

Mom: Fooever.

Me: His name is Dr. Fooever?

Dad: Fuuulweber.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fun With The Camera Phone

This place used to be a Chinatown "erotic" massage parlour. It has been converted into a Lower East Side-style trashy bar and dance club with an equally classy name, Happy Ending. I walked past it one evening and noticed this sign on an otherwise unremarkable-looking side door to the place. The handwritten Chinese says, "No massage, just a bar." (Mei you ah mo, zhi you jiu ba.) Apparently they have problems with some of the old parlour's long-time patrons not getting the memo about the change in their business model.

You and me both, bud.

Still, not the ugliest or most terrifying rat in Manhattan. And what IS that? An udder?

Hahahaha! New York humor.

A bug I found in my stir fry at XO Kitchen in Chinatown. When we pointed it out to the waitress, she replied, "Are you sure it didn't just drop in there after we served it to you?" Then the manager rushed over and told us he'd give us the dish for free, and apologized. Finally, someone in New York who gives a crap about customer service.

My neighborhood grocery store is Associated. Among New York grocery chains, it's better than C-Town, Gristedes and Key Foods in terms of quality and selection, but prices can be inconsistent - and mostly too high. But I forgave everything when I discovered that they have this plastic bag recycling bin! Also, just outside the store is a large metal bin for used clothes that you want to donate. It works like a mailbox or book drop where you pull a handle and a door rolls open so you can put stuff inside. When I tried to open it, though, it was either frozen shut, or someone had welded it shut to prevent people from dumping garbage inside or just taking a dump...inside.

Oh yeah, Bellevue Hospital says Merry Christmas! And right this way to the emergency room.

Now, Bellevue happens to be the oldest public hospital in the U.S. (founded before Independence) and is actually referred to as a "Hospital Center" because it's easier than saying Labyrinthine Fire Hazard And Easy Place To Make Someone Mysteriously Disappear And Never Heard From Again. I work in what they call "New Bellevue." This implies that there is an "Old Bellevue." But let me ask you this. How new is a place where there are bathtubs with non-working fixtures in the patient restrooms? I say bathtubs plural because...

In case you need to bathe two patients at the same time who both happen not to mind being naked and taking a bath next to someone else.

And why is it called a camera phone? Shouldn't it be called a phone camera?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Jollies

So every year in December I pull out my big, fuzzy Santa hat and wear it around for a few days leading up to Christmas. Instead of bringing good cheer, Justina Claus seems to compel people in my life - the ones whom I know by first name or better - to make fun of my Normal Rockwell spirit, or to assume there's a more rational explanation.

"Are you going caroling after work?" one of my office mates asked.

"Is today your company Christmas party?" my roommate asked.

What's wrong with wearing a Santa hat to keep your head warm?

"That reminds me, I need to get a winter hat," my roommate said.

"You can borrow my Santa hat tomorrow."

"Uh, yeah. No thanks."

On the other hand, strangers tend to give me more credit. It seems that if you're wearing a Santa hat, people assume you're jolly and treat you with jolliness.

"Merry Christmas, happy holidays," said some dude coming out of a liquor store.

"Heya Santa," said another dude standing on the street doing nothing.

These people always catch me off guard. On the outside I walk and talk like a normal, well-adjusted person. No one can tell that recently I was viciously and profoundly betrayed by the person I trusted most.

Sometimes I almost feel a physical separation between my body and my soul. Soul Justina sits in a tall swiveling office chair inside my head and looks out at the world through my eyeballs, as if she's the captain of the world's greatest spaceship. Well, let's face it. She IS the captain of the world's greatest spaceship, and we're star-trekking across the universe. But these days Soul Justina isn't paying much attention the world outside because she's preoccupied by the narratives of unbearable anger and disbelief, as well as the vivid revenge fantasies, spiraling out of control inside Brain Justina.

It takes a stranger's jolly greetings to jolt me back to my unified self and to remind me that on the outside I'm wearing a ridiculously fluffy red Santa hat and looking jolly. But on the inside, my heart has no choice but to spend the holidays waging war with bitterness and hatred, and to wonder whether she will ever find a way to open up, make room, and learn to trust again.

Messin' With Bush Country

The last few times I've visited Houston, I've come across these bumper stickers in traffic:

This Is Bush Country

Bush '04

[In the colors and logo of Obama's HOPE campaign]
HYPE - Vote Republican

I Voted For Sarah Palin

I'm not sure why I was surprised. Houston may have just elected its first openly gay mayor, but it's still Texas.

I think what surprised me was realizing why I was surprised. It takes me almost half a minute to think of two people I know who might have voted for Bush or Palin, and I'm not sure either of them would drive around with a bumper sticker announcing it.

I always assume that not only everyone I know, but everyone I will ever meet, shares my political values and beliefs. That's one of the perils of the various worlds - New York, San Francisco, Peace Corps, public health - I've occupied for nearly all of my adult life: You acquire this 99 percent accurate assumption that everyone around you is a liberal, and experience mild disbelief when you discover that everyone isn't.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Promoted To Glory

My friend Kumiko called me in distress one night. She had lived less than two hours away from me in Kenya, and now lives two subway stops away from me in Brooklyn.

"I was on Facebook and just saw that Dave posted a new profile picture that has a Kenyan flag and under it says, 'In Loving Memory of Jack Opiyo,'" she said. "Do you know anything about it?"

I didn't, but the news had traveled quickly through the Kenya RPCV community. I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and saw three or four other status messages about Jack. Everyone was stunned.

I called another friend who lives in DC. I thought she might have heard more through the extensive Peace Corps Kenya grapevine down there.

"Yeah," she said. "He died in a matatu accident in Nairobi."

I felt ill as I imagined the gruesome circumstances of Jack's death. I just felt so sorry. What is that called? Sorrow?

Over the next few days, I heard more details. He was hit by a matatu while walking on Thika Road in Nairobi.

Jack Opiyo died on October 19. The three years and half the earth's circumference that had already separated my world from his made the news a strangely muted shock, but still horrifying.

Poverty and injustice are homicidal lunatics, and they prey far too frequently in Kenya. There were times when my co-workers would attend two or three funerals a week.

But epidemiologists and demographers know that the educated middle class are less likely to die. Jack was from a modest rural village near Lake Victoria, but had earned a masters degree. A slight man with the trademark chiseled jawline and high cheekbones of the Luo tribe, he had made his way eastward across Kenya to work for international NGOs in Nairobi. He was not the low-hanging fruit that death prefers.

Jack was one of our technical trainers during pre-service training in Kitui. He taught us what AIDS looked like in Kenya, and deciphered Kenyan culture for us, and shimmied barefoot down a rope to the bottom of a half-finished well to show us how much work it was to dig for clean water. And sometimes he let his Luo accent get away from him.

"There's a lot of feces in Lake Victoria," he would say.


"Yes," he'd say. "You know we Luos like to eat feces. We are feecermen and we catch feces in Lake Victoria."

My friend Steve explained, "All the guys in Peace Corps are in love with Dr. Patti, and all the girls are in love with Jack Opiyo."

In my opinion, all the guys were also in love with Jack Opiyo. I certainly had my own crush on him. I relished his goofy sense of humor as well as his passionate calls for us to do something. We all had stories about Jack. He was a mini-celebrity among adoring Peace Corps volunteers.

We adored him because he was one of the only trainers who seemed to want to change things in Kenya for the better. I can't fault anyone for taking a job for the money rather than for idealism - unemployment in Kenya was over 60 percent at the time - but Jack always seemed grounded in a vision of an improved Kenya.

"If you get to your community and you see corruption, say something," he said to us in class. "Don't keep quiet. Everyone keeps quiet and that's why corruption keeps happening."

I didn't know what corruption looked like yet, and I wouldn't realize for a long time how immensely courageous it was for him to say that when most people looked the other way or felt powerless to change anything.

Jack had a deep passion and drive to help the vulnerable in Kenya, especially girls. I heard one story of how he was in a vehicle and saw a young girl walking home from school. He asked his driver to stop and give her a ride. As he chatted with her, he said, "Study hard, Kenya needs you to be its president one day." Then he went on one of his rants about how the country would be much better off if women ran it. The girl looked at him in confusion and surprise, then broke into a comprehending grin.

Jack believed in possibilities that everyone else dismissed as foolish or unrealistic. He had a faith in his fellow Kenyans that sometimes seemed naive. Most of us, Americans and Kenyans alike, thought that we knew better. But that didn't stop him from planting seeds. His idealism and hope inspired people.


Of course, we also liked him because he was cool. He had a curiosity about Americans and American culture that was free of judgment or even surprise. One day during training, after the sexy Dr. Patti had given a female condom demonstration, we gathered outside for a tea break. One volunteer told us that female condoms were also popular among gay men for anal sex.

"Really," Jack said, not batting an eye. He'd been around Americans long enough not to be surprised by frank talk about homosexuality and graphic descriptions of sex. And a graphic conversation had indeed ensued, which included sharing personal experiences with anal sex between men and women as well as between men. Jack just listened and nodded. I'm sure he was more than slightly amused. After all these years, he was still learning something new.

It was rare for Kenyans to engage with us about sex and homosexuality. Anyone who didn't become uncomfortable, or accuse us spreading immorality to the rural masses, would at least explain patiently that there are no gay people in Kenya.

Jack knew that a surefire way to win someone's affection was to know about popular culture in their country. He loved to imitate characters from American TV and movies. One of his favorites was the comedic supporting character on Will and Grace.

"Guess what?" he'd say, framing his face with his palms turned out. "It's 'Just Jack!'" Everyone agreed that whether or not our Jack knew the character was gay, he didn't care.

"You know," he said another time with a very serious look on his face. "There's more to life than being really really really ridiculously good looking."

Why are we so attracted to people who understand our own brand of humor? Is it because humor is so culture-specific, and someone who gets why something is funny must inherently get something deeper about us? Because I had a crush on him, I wanted to make him laugh as much as he made me laugh. It was as intimate as I dared to be with him.

"Jack, I have something important to tell you," I said to him one day.

He got a concerned look on his face. "Yes," he said.

"Ninakunywa pombe kama samaki," I said. I drink beer like a fish.

Jack stared at me. He was apparently unfamiliar with the American saying. More apparently, it didn't translate well. "Kwa nini??" he said finally, throwing his hands in the air in a colossal shrug. Why??

Clearly my attempts to lure him with my American humor didn't always work. He was far more adept at wielding the humor baton on an audience than I was. That same day we were on a bus going to a field-based training site. He had been bantering loudly with another volunteer about American music.

"Tevin Campbell?" Shinita said. "But he's so cheesy."

"I like his music," Jack said. "He's good."

"You have cheesy taste in music, Jack," Shinita repeated. "You're just so cheesy."

When we stopped for a bathroom break, Jack pulled me aside.

"Justina," he said. "Can I ask you something?"

This time I got a concerned look. "Sure, what is it?"

"What does cheesy mean?" he said.

"Oh!" I said. "It's like, well, you know, like corny."

Explaining an American colloquialism using another American colloquialism didn't seem to help, so I said, "You know Yanni?"

Jack shook his head. No.

"Oh," I said. "Well, he's this cheesy easy listening singer. If someone said they like Yanni, you could tell them they're cheesy."

As we piled back into the bus and took our seats, Shinita was still harping on Jack's taste in music.

"Totally cheesy," she said.

"Shinita," Jack said, raising his voice so everyone could hear. "YOU. RESEMBLE. YANNI."


Not long after we finished our pre-service training in Kitui, Jack took a position in the Nairobi office as a project assistant for the small business development volunteers. It was an administrative job, not a teaching post where he could do what he did best - inspire, motivate, and make us laugh. But it put him three hours closer to his wife and young child whom he traveled to Kisumu to see on weekends.

We attended periodic training meetings throughout our two years of service, but he no longer had an active role in them. We would see him in the evenings after our sessions, and he would sit at the table with us, watching us fish.

That night he explained the subtleties of gender relations that exist in Luo culture, which were otherwise invisible to us as foreigners. "It's a man's mother who tells her husband to tell their son what to do, so the men save face but the mother ends up getting her way."

I remember doubting whether it was really true, since I had been in Kenya for a year and a half and nearly everything else I'd seen in my village indicated that women never had a say in anything. Instead I had seen every injustice perpetuated against females for no better reason than not being male. But I decided that since Jack said so, it must be true. Few people's words, especially a Kenyan man's, held that kind of power for me.


I just discovered a Facebook group created for Jack called The Legacy of Jack Opiyo. I devoured everything posted on that page, and then I clicked through all the photos. I wanted more details about how Jack died, but even more I wanted to know about how he lived.

I started to see hints of hardship and suffering in his life. He was 34, long enough to suffer plenty in Kenya. Friends and colleagues posting on the group's page had alluded to a difficult past two years for Jack. He had been badly injured in another road accident about a year or two ago. Afterwards he had sent out an earnest email brimming with gratitude for God's grace during his recovery, which had made the Peace Corps email rounds. Tragically, it seemed that he and moving vehicles were not meant to live harmoniously in this life.

In a way, this post is an attempt to compile the scattered tidbits that I know of Jack into a single cohesive portrait. But I didn't know Jack in a single cohesive way. He was a teacher, an inspiration and a friend, but also a mystery. Not because he was a private or mysterious person, but because his job required him to enter and exit our lives only a limited number of times.

It wasn't enough times. We miss you, Jack Opiyo.

Photo by PhoenixInKenya

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Roomie

Today I got home from work and there was, inexplicably, a small cockroach racing across the floor.

"Ew, there's a cockroach," I said. "Where did that come from?"

"Oh! Get it! Get it!" my roommate said.

"I can't, it went into the crack," I said. I had picked up my shoe and was waving it uselessly above the cockroach, which had crawled into a crevice in the floor molding. "My shoe's too big."

It was like that puzzle about the tiny ball that rolls itself into a corner of a square room to escape being flattened by a giant ball.

"Use your hand," she said.

My hand? I was using my hand - to hold my shoe.

She crouched down and jammed her finger into the crevice, smearing cockroach juice all over the place.

"Oh, you meant for me to use my bare hand?" I said, as she came back with toilet paper and wiped up the roach pus.

"I know, it's kind of gross," she said. "But I just want that thing dead."

My roommate, ladies and gentlemen. Way more awesome than I.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Slow For the Speed Bump

It seems that this has never happened to anyone else. The specifics of my particular breakup have seemingly never happened to anyone else. Usually when you tell people about something, they have a similar experience to share. That's how I learned that everyone has had poison oak on some uncomfortable part of their body. But so far few if any of my friends have even heard of my kind of breakup.

That's why it just doesn't make any sense. Every other breakup has warning signs. Every other breakup I've ever had has had warning signs. I have a finely-tuned intuition, and there's no reason why it would have failed me this time.

No reason except that I was lied to. For far too long I was lied to. It's that simple.

He's struggling with what to do with his life, and what career direction to take. How about acting? I couldn't tell him apart from an actual honest person.

Healing isn't a linear process. I'll be making a beeline for strength and peace, then I'll fall into a deep, dry well, and weave among angry thorn trees, and lose a tennis match to hatred and spite, and chant a soul-crushing mantra.

Bob Dylan, that master articulator of bitterness and loss, resonates well today:

I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I was telling a co-worker about a place I had come across during my apartment search last month. It was in a beautiful high-rise in Long Island City, just over the East River in Queens, with gorgeous sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. Referred to as LIC by hip Bridge-And-Tunnelers in the know, it's an ideal location for midtown worker bees who want cheaper rent but a manageable commute.

"Ohhh, Long Island City," my co-worker said knowingly. "There are lots of amigos there."

I played dumb and said, "Amigos? Do you have a lot of friends who live there?"

She laughed uncomfortably. "Oh, well, amigos is what we call people who come from the south of America."

So there you go. Your daily geography lesson.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Nonprofit

So, you know. I'm getting a little better each day. Mornings are still the worst because my body is still in a suppressed energy state, so no endorphins. I no longer lie in bed for 45 minutes wondering if I should barf though. Now it's just 10 or 15 minutes.

But I can barely control the spiral of anger and disbelief and hurt that still takes over whenever my brain has nothing else to occupy it. On the other hand, mind control in itself is also exhausting.

Most of the time I have enough clarity to focus on important things like not getting hit by a car or food delivery guy while crossing the street. But other times, like this morning, I will do something like putting on the same pair of underwear after a shower and going to work. So now you know. And I don't care if you are picturing it and unsubscribing from my blog.

Today was further confirmation that I should actually be writing a TV series called The Nonprofit. For starters, I share a (tiny) office with four other people and if I walk in at 9:10, I will most likely be the first person there. It's not like people work 10-6 or 11-7. At 4:45 everyone is pulling their coat down from the hook and waving goodnight. Fine. I'm no workaholic. It's a 35-hour work week after all, and I won't tell if people shave off another 45 minutes of their day to go home and live their real life.

But the bureaucracy. We arrived this morning to find out that they had turned off the power for half of the outlets in our office. It was a planned power outage for many offices throughout Bellevue, inexplicably during business hours. They had notified all Bellevue employees who would be affected, but because we are NYU employees, they neglected to tell us.

And you'd think that if you cut off half the power in our office that half the computers would be affected. Instead, one computer went down completely while I only lost my internet. Why?

Bellevue'sandyoucan'tpluganNYUethernetcableintoaBellevueinternetportandviceversa so we re-rerouted my cable to a third internet outlet blahblahblah.

We spent hours doing this, while a couple of Facilities guys wearing plaid flannel shirts and tool belts periodically stopped in to ask if everything was working again. Sure, thanks for the help. I'm glad I went to grad school to thread ethernet cables through office furniture.

I'm also glad I went to grad school to get barked at by the mailroom guy. He's this Asian dude with a ponytail who delivers packages that need to be signed for. Since I sit closest to the door, he dumps packages on my desk and shoves a handheld electronic delivery tracking thing for me to sign.


Okay, so this thing has a full keypad with letters for entering whatever information you're supposed to enter, plus a little plastic pencil thingy like on credit card swipe machines. If someone was screaming PRINT PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT at you, would you think he meant to type in your name, or to use the pencil thing to write your name? The confusion is this: typing causes print, and the plastic pencil thing is usually used to sign your name.

So I didn't know what to do. And the longer I stared at the stupid thing in my hand, the louder he screamed, "PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT PRINT YOUR NAME PRINT PRINT."

I forgot about him because he didn't come by for another few weeks. Like the first time, he handed me the whatever tracking machine and started screaming, "PRINT PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT YOUR NAME PRINT JUST PRINT."

"Okay, we went through this last time and I still don't know what you're talking about," I said irritably.


"Yeah, I heard you fine. You don't have to yell at me," I said. "You want me to print with the pencil or what?"

"Print please," he said quietly. "Yes pencil. Print."

And ever since then, he tells me to print print just print your name print print in a quiet voice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


So you may or may not know that I finally got a job in October. I'm working at NYU School of Medicine as a research coordinator. Drop me an email if you really want to know what that means. Though I'm an NYU employee, I work at Bellevue Hospital, the nation's oldest public hospital (founded in 1737, even before the US was a country), not at the beautiful, modern, well-lit, spacious NYU Medical Center building a few blocks up the street. I share a tiny office space with four other people, 50 years of medical records, zero windows, seven computers of varying speeds (of which none are called "fast enough"), six chairs with their seat upholstery faded into round patterns by numerous and diversely-shaped pelvises throughout the years, three years of hair sheddings, and an AC vent in the ceiling that we routinely force our Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp to cover and uncover with a page from a 2008 wall calendar for climate control.

I think of movies and TV shows that spoof corporate life, and then I think of my own work environment and am convinced that the nonprofit world makes for much more absurd theater. And so...what do I need this job for if I already have a brilliant screenwriting career ahead of me?

Anyway, today we heard that there were leftovers from a lunch event in our conference room. All five of us who share my office space stood up and shuffled down the hall as fast as we could to survey the fresh prey. The Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp even told me to bring a tupperware. We were the first people on the floor to descend upon the leftovers, and we obliterated them. Judging from the way the buffet table had been abandoned, it must have been a small event attended by people who only eat mashed potatoes. The mystery meatloaf, pasta, chicken, sandwiches and salad were virtually untouched. Such a jackpot. I made off with enough food for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's lunch. A penny saved...isn't worth crap in New York. But those freebie-sniffing skills I picked up in grad school--priceless.