September 28, 2004

Only Ghosts

By Jason Boog

In Times Square, the hordes of shuffling tourists, businesspeople, and vendors beg the lazy journalist to make zombie metaphors. Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger mugged the GOP convention podium, mocking the “economic girlie-men” Democrats– the political scene begs the lazy journalist to make movie metaphors.

Therefore, there was no better place for the lazy journalist to stick his political thermometer than an afternoon showing of that overblown zombie movie, Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

The plot was relatively simple. An evil multinational corporation built a zombie factory beneath an idyllic American suburb, and then the monsters escape. The zombies terrorized a large city, inspiring heroics and computer-generated mayhem. In the end, the evil corporation dropped a nuclear bomb on the city.

Oddly enough, only ten young men sat in the 100-seat theater.

When a particularly gooey zombie crept up behind an unsuspecting hero, a 25-year-old zombie-enthusiast named David shouted, “Look out, son!” at the top of his lungs. He had seen the movie three times already, but felt too shy to give his last name. Dressed in a blue sweater and a matching cap, he liked to pound the floor with his umbrella when got excited.

“That’s what it’s like in the real world,” he said. “There’s viruses and war out there. Now everybody just looks out for themselves, they don’t help other people. It’s crazy. If Bush wins, I’m moving to Europe.”

David scoffed at anybody that might say his generation wasted away, ruined by video games and action movies. “My friends and I pay attention,” he said. “I read the Post and Financial Times. I know what’s happening.”

The movie didn’t ignore politics either; it pounded the audience with overwhelming images. Inside a school building, the camera lingered on a map of the world covered with bloody handprints. Buildings exploded, thousands of zombie-extras got blasted, and creepy soldiers occupied the city—and still, somebody decided to release this movie on Sept. 10.

“I’m a movie freak, and I loved it,” said 22-year-old Sharif Karni. Born in Bangladesh, he spent the last six years living in Brooklyn with his family. “I’m aware of the world. I know about the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, but real life and movies are different things.”

As a confirmed “Bush-basher,” Karni had wanted to attend the Republican convention protests two weeks ago. However, he’s also an olive-skinned Islamic man, and feared racist attacks or arrest.

“I used to take videos of New York City to send to Bangladesh,” Karni said. “After 9-11, everything is very different. Now I’d probably get arrested! I’m more cautious.”

Karni wears jeans and sandals now, and picking up more and more of America. “I went back to Bangladesh this summer,” he said. “You see how far you’ve strayed from your country. We are a politically-oriented country, and that part of me hasn’t changed.”
After the credits rolled, the lonely zombie-lovers disappeared into the evening crowd. Across the street, Floyd Lee played the blues on a concrete island in the middle of 7th Avenue.

He had a microphone duct-taped inside a harmonica neck-brace, and plucked a hardwood electric guitar. Lee wore a shiny blue shirt and brand-new bowler hat, stomping the beat with black Velcro shoes.

His wa-wa pedal and battered amplifiers submerged the crackling guitar sound, producing a murky wail that sailed over rush-hour traffic noise. “Don’t believe a word I say,” he sang, a sad, old bluesman begging his lover to leave. “Just go away, pretty baby…”

Claire E. shook her tambourine beside Lee, singing sweet harmonies that smoothed his raspy voice. Over their heads floated the cluttered heart of Times Square: three different network tickers spieled digital news summaries, a 50-foot MacDonald’s “M” hung in the corner, and overlapping Jumbotron screens competed for the consumer’s burned-out attention.

Lee never noticed.

He was a founding member of MTA’s “Music under New York” program, and he played crowded subway spots for years. “This program keeps a lot of people off the streets,” he said. “A lot of these musicians come from foreign countries, and they need help. It’s real big.”

Claire E. only had good things to say about the neighborhood. “They sure cleaned up this place,” she said, “made it safer to play here.”

Both musicians ducked questions about former mayor Giuliani. “He’s thinking about running for President someday,” Lee said, pointing towards the sky. “He’s got power. You need to be careful what you say.”

Lee played outside the Republican convention this year, but refused to take sides with a party. “New York belongs to everybody,” he said. “Here, they love you even though they don’t know your name.”

Before he packed up for the evening, Lee waved a cardboard picture of the World Trade Center, each tower stamped with FDNY and NYPD logos. “My heart beats for them,” he said.

In Sept. 2000, Claire E. and Lee played an afternoon show outside the Twin Towers. Somebody videotaped the performance, and Lee whispered when he described the recording:

“You can see how all these people from that building. They all came out for lunch. They were just enjoying the music—singing and dancing for an hour. And then, just one year later… Can you imagine how their families would feel if they watched that tape? All those people from that building—if you could see it, it would scare you, man!”

The lazy journalist could make smug comparisons between zombie movies and the election year, but he would be wrong. Last week, the city recovered from the convention and re-opened a three-year-old wound. There were no zombies in Times Square that gloomy afternoon, only ghosts.

September 26, 2004

Spiderman and Russia

By Jason Boog

Clusters of chattering Russian school kids moonwalked into the movie theater, back-peddling to get a better view of lonely American me outside. I’m living in Rostov, Russia, spending Fourth of July weekend a thousand miles south of Moscow or American tourists.

To celebrate, I invited my friend Alyia Medvedeva to the movies. She’s a fluttery English professor with a strange British accent; we both loved Amalie and I held my own in a Tarkovsky discussion. Hoping to simulate the strangest cultural car-crash possible this patriotic weekend, we watched Spiderman 2.

Inside the Rostov Theater, kids shuffled past a pyramid of promotional beer bottles and an ashtray outside the stadium-sized screening room. The p.r. manager, Mila Kuzmina, told us that Spiderman 2 sold out ten shows in a row since it opened—filling 630 seats each time. “80% of our films are American,” she explained, “and I can count our Russian films on one hand.” The last Spiderman broke box office records here.

So, the movie was dubbed. Each character sounded like a grumbling and bored Russian imprisoned inside a tin can. I know two Russian words: “thank you” and “Thank You!” so we hunched in our seats so Alyia could whisper dialogue-fragments in English. Luckily, Hollywood blockbusters don’t require the largest vocabulary, and she kept me informed. I followed along in dialogue bursts: “Spiderman makes a joke” and “Dr. Octopus is upset,” she said.

Partway through, Spiderman and Dr. Octopus fought inside a fancy-looking bank, slinging bags of gold like studio-prop boulders from Star Trek. Director Sam Rami sneaked this blockbuster budget metaphor right under Sony’s nose, and it only improved filtered through Alyia’s commentary and my befuddled brain. “Look at them throw money, in Russian!” I said, in awe.

By the end, Spiderman makes up with his girlfriend in a painfully slow sequence of undoubtedly pulpy dialogue. I felt like I was woozy-drunk at a party, trying to convince a stranger to marry me. “She says that she can’t live without him!” Alyia giggled. “Thank you, Mary Jane,” says Spiderman, and I poked Alyia in the arm. “I understand! I understand!” I cheered.

We had talked books before the movie. “Russian heroes are very clever intellectuals,” Alyia told me. “We have no modern heroes, where good is only good and evil is only evil like America. We have no pure things like that in Russia.” I told her how I saw the first Spiderman movie in Guatemala, July 2002.

I’d been away from home for a long time, and seeing a skinny boy with glasses turn into a superhero was just what I needed to feel better. When Spiderman perched on a flag at the end, and I almost cried. Just thinking about it makes me write dangly and huffy American sentences, writing and writing but never quite explaining that perfect moment in the movie theater.

“Wait for the American flag!” I told Alyia at the end, “Just wait!” Indeed, in that last overbaked frame, a CGI Spiderman swooped past the final American flag in a movie crammed full of flags and the sun shined in a digital sky; that goddamned sky where a videogame character gleamed with something like patriotism and joy in a sepia-tinted approximation of New York City; I sucked on those pixilized pictures my city like a pacifier; imagine a comic-book movie adaptation version of home flickering on a Russian movie screen, the kind of simulated simulation experience that only America can sell the world; it befuddled me in Guatemala, it befuddled me in Russia, I just don’t know why I get goose bumps every time Spiderman whooshes through the movie sky; I was so far away from home but I felt pure.

The Best That You Can Do

How I Lost My Star Wars Pillow
Almost two years ago, I hustled 15 sick Guatemalans down a skinny city sidewalk to the hospital. The village bus dropped us off around sunset, that awful hour when vendors dismantle their vegetable booths, villagers ride rusty trucks back up the mountain and oblivious rich kids zip past on motor scooters.

In all the commotion, I didn’t even notice when my Star Wars pillow slipped out of sleeping bag and was lost forever in gutter between the bus terminal and Nicholas Cruz Hospital.

We had come from Miramundo, one of the fifty villages clustered along the mountains outside the city of Jalapa. My neighbor, Cesar Lopez, kept pace with me. He wore a dirty cowboy hat and boots, the campesino uniform. His wife carried their sick baby under a factory-made blanket. There are no Indian-weave textiles in this Latino corner of eastern Guatemala.

A few families camped out on the sidewalk outside the lime-green building, waiting for the American doctors to open the doors in the morning. For the first time in my year as a Peace Corps volunteer, my gringo status actually helped me. Thousands of Guatemalans came to see the Advancing Medicine in Latin America (AMLA) doctors every year, but my group breezed right past security.

Inside, 42 American volunteers rushed around, unpacking a weeks’ worth of supplies. Dr. Brad Blackwell appeared, a lanky blond with sunglasses still dangling around his neck. He assigned doctors to examine all the villagers, but he stayed to look at Cesar’s baby.

They unwrapped the skinny baby underneath the blanket. He didn’t make a sound when. Blackwell touched him. There was a cyst the size of a half-cantaloupe on his back. “He was born this way, he can’t even crawl,” Cesar explained.
Different doctors looked at the baby, but they all kept quiet. I was sure they could perform a simple operation and the baby would walk, just like the movies. Dr. Blackwell finally decided: “Tell them we can’t operate, it would kill the baby. He’ll never walk, and probably die of spinal meningitis soon. We can’t do anything. Tell them that.”
I explained in bumbling Spanish how the cyst was a birth defect, how the bean and tortillas village diet didn’t give the baby enough vitamins in the womb. He kept interrupting me, asking, “But what can they do?”

I stopped short before telling Cesar everything. My ten minutes in the hospital hadn’t prepared me for this. “It’s serious, very serious,” I said, but I never told him that his baby would die.

That night I slept on my rolled up jacket, because I lost my Star Wars pillow. I had carried that thing around since grade school. Luke Skywalker perched in the middle of my pillow, waving his lightsaber toward heaven. My hero’s picture faded over the years, surviving sleepover camps, slumber parties, college, girlfriends and fifteen years of mixed up dreams. All those years, I couldn’t let it go.

The Best That You Can Do
I spent most of that week in a make-shift plywood examining room with Dr. Kelly Swanson. The brown-haired pediatrician loved to tell me jokes so I could translate them for the children. Like most of the AMLA doctors, she came from Chicago’s Advocate General Lutheran Hospital.

They brought 42 volunteers that year; all the doctors, nurses and residents paid their own way for the trip. They managed to treat 3,000 patients in one mad week. We probably saw 150 patients ourselves.

Halfway through the week, a security guard came all the way from Guatemala City to see us. He worked 12-hour shifts outside a fried-chicken franchise, guarding the restaurant with a shotgun. In Guatemala, fast food companies charge American prices, making them some of the richest businesses in the country.

He explained his symptoms in huge huffs of Spanish, like he expected me to say he once dying once he stopped talking. His stomach always hurt, and fierce headaches made him dizzy at work.

Dr. Swanson nodded, “That’s acid reflex. Does he eat a lot of greasy food?” I didn’t even bother to translate, I just giggled. What else would a security guard at a fried chicken place eat?

We told him to drink more water and eat vegetables for lunch. For the headaches, she pulled out a box of overstock neon sunglasses from the States. The guard solemnly replaced his cowboy hat, wearing a new pair of cheesy neon sunglasses.
The doctors gave me pages of medical terms in Spanish, but I never used it. The villagers didn’t know those big words either. Listening to people describe stomach aches, menstrual cramps and headaches over and over, I memorized the simplest words for mundane sufferings. We gave out 60,000 vitamins and more Tylenol then I’ve seen in my entire life.
In most cases, that was the best we could do.

How to Save a Pig
What’s it like to live in a village? That’s the classic small-talk theme when you mention Peace Corps at a party. I always want to tell those people one story in particular, but I never do.

One night Rosa Gomez sent for me because she had a problem with her pig. Her family lived down a muddy path that split off from the main dirt road. I went down past warped wood shacks with dinner-time cookfires glowing inside.

Dona Rosa had mated her pig too young. The pregnant pig went into labor that morning, but her insides were too small to push out the babies. A clump of farmers stood around the pig, offering all sorts of advice. The veterinarian was too expensive, and I was the best Rosa could manage.

Eventually somebody decided that I had the skinniest wrists and that I could save the pig. I wasn’t going to act like a tourist in front of those farmers. I put on a rubber glove, and they slicked my arm with cooking oil.

With two fingertips, I brushed top of one piglet’s bitty head inside the mother. I was so close to those squirming babies, but I couldn’t pull them out. The next day Dona Rosa butchered her pig. It was pure economics: the babies would die inside their mother and poison the meat. There was no other choice.

That story drives me crazy, because I want to tell people that I rescued those babies. I don’t usually tell people about all the times I failed. There’s a whole Kennedy-idealism mystique around Peace Corps, and those sad stories don’t fit.
When I started, I imagined myself growing a beard or getting muscles or acquiring some beatific glow. But I came back looking exactly the same. You spend most of your time in Peace Corps losing strange battles like that one, stories you won’t tell anyone.

Villages can be a lot of things, but I won’t forget the shit-smell on the straw floor while I kneeled beside a doomed animal. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to explain that.

What People Deserve
No Americans drink the water in Guatemala. Each year the rainy season washes trash, farm chemicals, fecal matter and millions of micro-bacteria into the water supply. It’s hard to avoid getting sick.

In the hospital cafeteria, the doctors keep compulsive rituals to stay healthy. You wash your hands with tap water and surgical soap first, then towel off with sanitized paper. After that, you rub in a handful of evaporating alcohol lotion. When that dries, you can eat.

But the food, Sweet Jesus, the food!

Greedy Peace Corps volunteers fight each other for translating spots with visiting doctors, just to eat the kind of food we ate back in America. Every night the doctors spread out some Midwest delicacy like Sloppy Joes or macaroni and cheese. They had a whole table of condiments, three bowls of potato chips and bigger bowl of finger-sized sweets. That cafeteria was an American cocoon, everybody inside spoke English and ate like it was Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house.

Dr. Blackwell told me this once: “This experience helps me appreciate the small things like a clean shower, brushing your teeth in the sink and flushing toilet paper down the toilet.” Sometimes I felt bitter about the doctors. They had one week and then they went home. Their stories wrapped up as neatly as a picture post card, but we stayed in Guatemala with the sick people.

After the doctors left, the people in the village treated me with a new respect. Sometimes I caught myself getting big-headed ideas about myself. I thought that I deserved all that food and attention. I thought I deserved the bowl of chocolates while my neighbors ate tortillas and beans in the next room.
One thing I learned is that nobody deserves anything.

Curious George
The doctors operated on my neighbor Theresa Gomez, and they found three-year-old cancer in her stomach. They told me she would die within the month. To make things easier for the family, the volunteers gave her flowers, balloons, storybooks and toys.

Before the surgery, she was stooped over like an old woman. I hardly recognized her when we I saw her at the end of the week. She had this big hopeful smile, full of missing teeth. Dr. Blackwell explained her pain medication to me, telling me to make sure she had enough before she died.

Her husband Vacillio wanted her to spend her last days at home. Theresa slept while we rode the chicken bus back to the village, and I argued with her husband the whole time. He refused to tell his wife that she was dying. I was stuck in the middle of an ethical mess—the doctors couldn’t tell her she was dying, it was up to the translators to do that. Now Vacillio wouldn’t let me.

“I don’t want her to be scared,” he told me. For the next few months, I never told her anything.
Around Easter-time that year, Theresa’s pain got worse and I was sure she was dying. She had lived longer than anyone expected, and her heavy-duty painkillers ran out. I begged the hospital for more medicine, but all they gave me was a baggie of Tylenols.

When I visited their wood shack with a dirt floor, I felt like a character inside a grainy Save the Children photo in a magazine back home. Theresa was sleeping, so I played catch with her four-year-old son Jose. He had perpetual snot dripping down his face, and wiped it on his muddy T-shirt.

Jose brought me a shiny yellow copy of Curious George that the doctors had given him. I spent a lot of time with Theresa’s family, but I always had trouble keeping up conversation. It was too overwhelming sometimes, and I felt better reading the storybook. Nobody in his family could read, so I was the first person to share his present.

We spent an hour reading about that mischievous monkey living in a painted world without consequences. I memorized the book when I was kid, but this time through was different. When the man in a yellow hat comes crashing through the jungle in his colonial khakis to capture Curious George, it bothered me. Was I the man in the yellow hat—a gringo voyeur stealing stories to write back home? Or was I Curious George—a boy yanked from home and playing around in places I didn’t belong?

I never decided, and Theresa didn’t die. Somehow she’s still living, two years later, with a stomach full of cancer.

Her son always loved the scene where the Curious George grabs a handful of balloon strings and floats up to the sky. Jose will probably never learn how to read, just because he happened to be born in that village. One year later, I took an airplane home to the United States, just because I happened to be born there.

I know that something very important happened to me in that village, but I can’t explain it. Writing the story down, I feel like that little monkey, clinging to a handful of fragile balloons, stuck in the sky between two different countries.


Balloons Fall From Heaven

Originally published in The Revealer
Part 5 of the "What God Gap?" Series
Pt. 507 September 2004

By Jason Boog

After reading 30-pages of pre-packaged speeches inside the press palace that the Republicans built near Madison Square Garden, I’d learned too much about the Convention's “People of Compassion” theme for the day. So I left.

I shoved my way down 34th St. in the sticky dusk. Waving my press pass like a cereal box prize, I slipped past thickets of reporters and police. I was looking for activists from the Washington D.C.-based movement, School of Americas Watch (SOAW). They planned to stage a funeral march past the convention and a mass “die-in” to block convention busses.

But the protesters never arrived.

Battalions of officers stood at parade rest at Herald Square, with their blue helmets balanced on top of black riot-gear bundles. A maze of orange mesh, sawhorses, and metal barricades broke civilians and protesters into harmless clusters.

I watched four tour buses whoosh past the security checkpoint. Behind softly tinted windows, one bearded delegate made the letter “W” with his fingers.
Christy Pardew is the communications director at SOAW, an activist group working to end U.S. military trainings and occupations in foreign countries. They had brought together many Christian anti-war groups for this August 31 protest.

Earlier that afternoon, her group held a half-hour vigil at Ground Zero. In a phone interview, Pardew explained that they followed police directions while marching up Fulton Street. The 27-year-old organizer thought she would just observe the march and talk with reporters during the demonstration.

The march moved for a couple blocks, but then the police sealed up the sidewalk with orange webbing. Pardew was arrested along with 300 protesters inside that security net. The NYPD took her to a dilapidated brown brick warehouse on Pier 57, the city’s temporary detention center for protesters. Pardew ended up in a holding cell with 90 other women from the protest.

She wasn’t released for another 48 hours. “I’ve never been in such a toxic place,” she said. “The walls were fencing with cyclone wire on top. There were diesel and oil spills all over the floor.”

Pardew grew up in a Southern Baptist church, but she shed the politically conservative values of her childhood in college. “I realized that when Jesus told us to share everything we own, he really meant it,” she said.

Today, she attends an Episcopalian church, still “compelled by selflessness” to follow that biblical mandate.“There was a 60-year-old woman in the cell with us at Pier 57. She told us stories all night about civil rights protests in the Sixties. She calmed everybody down. Mutual aid, caring for the people around you -- that’s compassion,” Pardew told me.
The Knight-Ridder newsroom took up 100 square feet inside the convention media center. Cheap curtains divided the media companies into squares, cramming every major paper in the world into the second-floor of the Farley Building Post Office. The company stocked the workspace with 48 telephones, 17 televisions, and 80 DSL Internet jacks -- each cable routed through a grid that the GOP wired for the press.

During the prime-time speeches, about 10 reporters stuck around the newsroom. We followed along with the live speeches on the pre-printed press transcripts. “What a greeting! This is like winning an Oscar!” read the Arnold Schwarzenegger script, not even allowing the actor an improvised opening.

Schwarzenegger was born to stand behind podiums, looming with his tough-guy grip on the wooden edges. “The President didn’t go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. Leadership isn’t about polls,” he said. “It’s about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions.”

His voice boomed out over every television in the media center. From the ritzy New York Times workspace all the way down to the AP booth, his voice stuttered and echoed with microseconds of digital delay.
After police arrested Pardew, Eric LeCompte kept marching with the remaining SOAW protesters -- carrying his infant son the whole time.“I saw all these nuns, Baptist ministers, parents and children keep going, even though they knew the risks were higher,” he told me.

When the unexpected arrests downtown took most of the group’s leaders, LeCompte helped lead 700 people towards the convention. Through text messages and phone calls, they managed to avoid more mass arrests at the Public Library and Union Square.

At 28th and Broadway, 50 activists lay down in the street, wearing the names of civilian casualties from conflicts in Iraq and Colombia. “We covered that intersection. It took them three hours to clear us away,” said LeCompte.

“I want my son to grow up seeing this. So many politicians use compassion as word to justify wars against the poor, at home and abroad. Compassionate people go to places where people are struggling, and they walk with them.”
Standing in a corner aisle on the convention floor, I listened while Laura Bush described her husband’s compassion in a calm, poised narrative. Inside their quiet home, she watched her husband choose war: “I was there when my husband had to decide. Once again, as in our parents' generation, America had to make the tough choices, the hard decisions, and lead the world toward greater security and freedom,” she said.

Although it’s not the most ingenious metaphor, the whole night seemed like a television show. Producers kept the protesters safely out of the cameras, and the delegate-extras celebrated like game-show contestants. The director converted party politics into heady drama.

The script masterfully linked the lead actors, and everybody made climactic tributes to brave, unwavering President Bush. Senator Elizabeth Dole reminded us of Reagan’s fight against “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union, Schwarzenegger admitted that he feared communists would seize his father in Austria, and Laura Bush remembered huddling under her school desk during nuclear attack drills.

Every speech conjured up a tangible, primal version of fear -- but they all concluded that George W. Bush was brave enough save us.These tales mirrored grisly news outside the convention: a bus bomb in Israel, subway explosions in Russia, and child hostages in North Ossetia. While other countries grappled with the consequences of military occupation, the Republicans united around wartime policies. Just like the frustrated protests outside, these events lurked like a gloomy echo that nobody acknowledged.

The final speaker that night was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, a Holocaust survivor. She recited Psalm 23, placing the president uncomfortably close to that image of a gentle shepherd-God.Jungreis read the psalm in English, and then in Hebrew. One phrase harmonized with the other speeches, swelling like a soundtrack theme: “I fear no evil.”

She asked for a moment of silent prayer for the soldiers in Iraq, but hundreds of security guards, interns and delegates still scurried around the floor -- preparing the set for the closing act. Above our heads, thousands of red, white and blue balloons hung in loose netting, poised to bury the convention after the pre-ordained nomination.
All those balloons fell from heaven on Thursday night, right on schedule. On television, it looked like a spontaneous piece of political magic. Hundreds of thousands of protesters couldn’t stop that prime-time television show.

After the convention closed that night, I helped pack up the Knight-Ridder workspace. Around 5 a.m., I switched on the television that I used to watch Governor Schwarzenegger’s speech, tuning in just as the Russian army stormed that schoolhouse in North Ossetia. While hundreds of Garden employees dismantled the temporary media capital of the world, that footage proved that no journalist could ever explain these new kinds of disaster.

I spent a month in southern Russia this summer, living a couple hundred miles away from that school. I was scared for my friends in Russia, for my draft-aged little brothers, for all the deaths in the world that week and all the madness that still hasn’t happened. The convention’s intricate illusion of safety unraveled as those children stumbled through that exploded courtyard.

I curled up under a blanket, trying to sleep. On the convention floor, workers cleaned broken balloons and snow-drifts of confetti.

Jason Boog is a writer in New York.