Friday, September 09, 2005

The American Dream Will Start in the Minds of the Deprived and in the Hearts of the Depraved (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

A week later, on a Friday night, I got a message that a woman named Mary Lindy had called. The name sounded familiar but I wasn’t quite sure where I’d heard it before. Later that night she called again.

“José,” she said in a thick Southern accent, “this is Mary Lindy from the Association of American Physicians.”

I then remembered that I’d met her at a job interview there—a job I didn’t get. It was a strange hour, I thought, to be telling me that they’d decided to hire me after all—but that wasn’t why she was called.

“I’m calling to let you know that the reason you didn’t get the job at the AAP was that you were discriminated against.”

Suddenly I felt lightheaded. Like a man who had picked the winning numbers in the weekly Powerball drawing, I was in a state of shock—but not because I was a winner. It was because now, after all these years, I finally had evidence of what was preventing me from becoming one of America’s greatest heroes.

Mary went on to explain that Kate Powers, the woman in charge of hiring for the job I applied for at the AAP, wanted a white Catholic woman for the job. When looking through the resumes they’d received, Kate Powers would immediately toss aside the resumes of people with foreign sounding names. That I got called in for an interview was only because Mary saw my resume and—thinking I’d be perfect for the job—insisted I be brought in for an interview. But as far as Kate Powers was concerned, my race and sex negated all my other qualifications for the job.

Mary suggested I meet with her so she could explain the situation in detail. Since she and her boyfriend lived in a group house in Adams-Morgan, just a fifteen minute walk from my parents’ house, we decided to meet there the following afternoon.

Mary and her boyfriend, Dan Thompson, were both from Charleston, South Carolina and met when they were in college there. Mary—a tall, slim woman who dressed like a mod Londoner from the sixties—didn’t look at all like a southerner. When I first met her I was astounded to hear the slow Southern drawl that seemed to float from her mouth when she spoke. On the other hand, her boyfriend, Dan, looked exactly like I thought a Southerner should look: tall and paunchy and dangling a thick beard from the bottom of his face. I knew as soon as I saw him that he was also one of those people who needed at least two six packs of beer to make it through the day.

We discussed our situation for about an hour. Mary had already gone to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was confident that the AAP couldn’t take any action against her without risking further damage to themselves. “If you want to pursue this, you should also go to the EEOC,” she advised, “and speak to a lawyer too.”

Dan’s advice was of a more philosophical nature. “Don’t let those assholes fuck with you,” he said calmly.

Being broke, I had nothing to lose: I was going to go ahead with a lawsuit. With that decided, Dan asked if I wanted a beer. Soon we were up on the rooftop deck of the house, finishing off the second of two six packs and opening up a fifth of bourbon. Since the bathroom was down a flight, Dan and I started pissing off the roof.

“I do this all the time,” Dan said as I listened for the sound of urine hitting the alley three floors below us. Dan had a Ph.D. in Philosophy, but at the moment he was unemployed. “Most of the people teaching in universities nowadays are assholes,” he maintained. “I wouldn’t walk across a quad to piss on their shoes. It ain’t worth it.”

It was after midnight when I finally left. On the way home as I passed all the bars in Adams-Morgan I made a resolution—a resolution that if I were to win this lawsuit I would never go home at this laughably early hour. I’d drink until last call, roam the deserted streets at four in the morning with a couple of other professional drunks or by myself even... in those perfect hours when the traffic signals show neither green or yellow, but a bright flashing red keeping time like a heartbeat.

That was my favorite time of day, because during those few hours before dawn was when I owned this town—or any town. Nothing bad had ever happened to me between the hours of three and six in the morning. I’d been out on the street hundreds of times in the those hours, in Washington and New York, wearing grungy clothes or wearing my best suit, and nothing had ever happened. The rest of the day was when the bad shit happened. I’d been mugged at eight in the evening, shot at at two in the afternoon, hit by a car at nine in the morning. But during those perfect hours nothing bad had ever crossed my path, no matter how drunk or reckless I was. If only I had the money I would stay inside, drinking heavily, heroically even, before hitting the streets at three in the morning. Stumbling down the sidewalks past the muggers, beggars and junkies, I’d struggle to hold my head up high. But even if I couldn’t, I’d still get away with it, and more.

After all, I had a dream—and drinking was going to an important part of it. Mary and Dan’s dream was to leave Washington and move up to New York where they’d work their way up to a swank apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. New York may have been part of my dream too—I wasn’t quite sure yet. All I knew was that most of my friends in DC were telling me, “You’re not going to get anything.” They’d say it scornfully, as if I didn’t deserve to win the lawsuit. As if the idea of me actually being discriminated against was absurd and that for me to pursue this was a threat to their own dreams.

If there’s one thing I’d learned over the years, it was that people didn’t like anyone fucking with their view of the world, and pretty soon I lost most of my old friends in DC. My drinking buddies now were just Mary and Dan—though later Carl would come to town, intent on just passing through. But when the girl he came here with hooked up with some guy in the Hell’s Angels everything changed.

With his version of the American Dream shattered by the prowess of a five foot two Hell’s Angel who called himself “The Drummer,” Carl lost the will to move. Soon Carl realized that, like me, he was stuck here in Washington. Stuck in this stupid little hick town that holds sway over the entire world.

From a novel in progress.

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