Friday, June 29, 2007

The Sammy Mystery

A personal essay:

I remember the first time I saw him. It was my freshman year at Emory in the student union cafeteria and he was rubbing his soapy hands together at the top of a stairway, a good twenty feet from any bathroom. His nose squirmed under the bridge of his glasses, like he was distracted by some invisible fly. And still he scrubbed his wrists, arms drippy with little beads of foam. He was awkward, plain and simple, a black-skinned Napoleon Dynamite with a yarmulke atop a darkly coiled tuft of hair. A cleanfreak Ethiopian Jew in a sea of Long Island Steins and Goldmans. His name was Sammy.

I won't lie. At first I saw him more as a multicultural curiosity than as a potential friend. This was a guy who reveled in his weirdness, who enjoyed the incredulous laughter that followed his cough-and-spit renditions of the Hebrew alphabet. This was a guy who lathered his hair in soap instead of shampoo, who bought Cheaper by the Dozen on DVD . He'd knock on my door some nights, wide-eyed like E.T., asking me in careful English, "Hello, I bothering you...I can leave?" On a floor filled with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, Sammy and I were the only Jews, so maybe that's why he revealed a more sober side in our dorm room conversations. He told me how at age six he lost his mother in an airport and then grew scared, so scared that he jabbed a Swiss Army Knife into a well-meaning security guard. The officer recovered and Sammy did find his mom, but then the guard offered his hand to Sammy's mother, only to have it swiftly rejected. In Ethiopian Jewry, a woman cannot shake a man's hand, Sammy explained, unless that man is her husband. And so Sammy mixed peculiar stories like these with random sociological facts of Ethiopian life, most of it delivered with matter-of-fact flippancy. A salary of $17,000 in Ethiopia? Why, that's the same as $250,000 in the United States. I nodded along, grinned. All this is true? I thought. How weird.

And then things got weirder. Sammy told me he was getting married at the end of the summer. His father would choose three women, and out of these three, Sammy would select a favorite. An arranged marriage. I didn't know Jews in any part of the world had these unions, but Sammy told me differently, and that not only would he have one wife, but that he would eventually have four. Four. He could read the skepticism in my eye brows but still he insisted. In fact, he planned on having twelve children. "Twelve?" Sammy shook his head no, his nose doing that squirm under his glasses. "Twelve children with each wife." I did the math in my head. Forty-eight kids and four wives. Sammy was talking about fifty-two people. He had to be exaggerating, right? Spinning the truth? Taking a germ of reality and exploding it with bullshit? But his expression barely changed. He shrugged his shoulders, as if he was telling me, a la Popeye, "I ya'm what I ya'm."

Sammy had no sexual history. He'd never even kissed a girl. And that was fine by him, that was God's way. He could wait till wife #1. But that's before he met Staci Weiss, a plump and fair-skinned business major, her black hair as long and ropy as a woman from the Old Testament. And so Sammy lost his mind. He fell in love.

"Oh God," he would mutter, hands draped across his eyes. "Why do I want to nestle myself into her bosom. Why, why, why?" My friends and I could only laugh; Sammy had used the words "nestle" and "bosom" in the same sentence, a rare feat. But that wasn't all. While he considered touching a girl's hand a forbidden act, there he was, hugging Staci after leaving a box of chocolates by her door. It's almost as if he had forgotten all about his arranged marriage.

One day he tagged along with me to the gym, wanting to "pump himself up," wanting to look good for Staci. He lasted two minutes on the step machine, sweating through his fleece jacket, legs heavy as boulders. He didn't really want to work out, he just wanted to drink a Slim-Fast and think about her.

And then he snapped out of it. "I'm too dweeby," he said, realizing that Staci saw him as a "cute" friend but nothing more. Sammy had changed. No longer was he raving about the coming of four wives and forty-eight children. He stopped going to class. His kosher meals piled high and uneaten in his fridge. He barely left his room.

One Friday night we walked together to the Chabad House for Shabbat dinner. "I have a strange paranoia about gutters," he said, as we passed a gurgling sewer. "Like, they will be dripping with blood." "Well, that's understandable," I replied, though it wasn't really. Then, in the same flat tone, he said what he really wanted to say: "“I think I will join the Israeli army for two years instead of getting married. I need to delay it.” I swallowed uncertainly. What would he tell his dad, I asked. “I will leave a note," he said. "He’ll be ticked off, but he’ll get over it.”

As it turns out, Sammy wasn't joking. He pawned off everything he owned. He sold his TV for twenty dollars, and he offered most everything else to me: boxes of pencils and pens, an unopened ink cartridge, an iron, an ironing board, a plastic storage bin, a leather bag, a mini-fridge, a bicycle helmet, and a VHS cassette of a Batman cartoon. "You look at me like I'm nuts," he said, as I scanned his messy room, thinking there's no way he would actually leave, no way he would drop out of school and desert an arranged marriage. No way. This was Sammy, child-like, immature, googly-eyed. "I am begging you. Please," he told me, thrusting the bike helmet into my hands. He wanted me to accept it all, free of charge. "It will be a mitzvah for Hashem," he said. "Please." So I accepted his gifts, the two of us hurling the mini-fridge through the hallway and towards my room.

He decided against the army but he was still fleeing for Israel. Sammy had already bought a plane ticket for Tel Aviv, departing that Sunday. He knew of a kibbutz, a little communal farming village, "an isolated area where nobody will find me." On the night before he left, we and a few other friends met for dinner at the all-night campus diner. Sammy still needed extra money for his journey, so he tried to claim it in his typically unusual Sammy way: he bet somebody ten dollars that he could finish eating three big hamburgers and three orders of fries in twenty-five minutes.

Was he crazy? I told him that the bet was stupid, that it'd be waste of money, money he needed. These burgers were huge, flecked with tomatoes, onions, all the trimmings. He couldn't do it. He wasn't David or Goliath. But still he tried, face sputtering, cheeks puffed and grimy, streaked in ketchup. He stomached two sandwiches and most of the fries but the soda slowed him down. He couldn't handle it, no sane man could. And so he handed over the crisp ten dollar bill, and then he washed his mouth with soap.

By the time I woke up the next morning, he was gone. The reality hit me as I walked out of my room and spotted a glossy textbook on Judaism laying against my door. Another gift from Sammy, another thing he decided to leave behind. He had given me so much "stuff" that my room was flush with it, overflowing. I didn't really need the book. To this day I don't know what happened to it.

I'd given Sammy my cell phone number and my Emory post office address. He assured me that he'd be in touch once he got settled. Maybe he'd send black-humored photographs, he joked, of him posing as a hostage, hands up, Israeli soldiers looming behind him with guns pointed at his head. I didn't think that was particularly funny but I laughed anyway.

Months passed. Then a year. Then two. I didn't get one call from Sammy, not one black-humored photograph. I tried his cell phone but it was permanently out of service. I tried Google, I tried emailing the Israeli absorption embassy. I got nothing. Nobody knew where he was, and it seemed that nobody outside of my freshman dorm even knew who he was.

For my senior-year thesis project, I drafted a feature-length screenplay about a quirky eighteen-year old Ethiopian Jew who comes of age on an American college campus. This character was sentenced to an arranged marriage, one he would flee after falling in love with a New Jersey Jewish princess. I distorted some realities, pumped up the drama, the sex, and the intrigue, but the screenplay definitely belonged to my memory of Sammy.

After reading the first draft, my advisor told me I should do a little more research on Ethiopian Jews and meet with a Jewish Studies professor on campus. I agreed; I had to get the details right. But then, like always when it came to anything Sammy-related, things got weird.

I rifled through books upon books upon books about Ethiopian Jews in the Emory library, and I struggled to find one connection between the written material to the person I remembered Sammy to be. The people in these books were impoverished and village-bound, whereas Sammy came from a rich father who could afford bodyguards and an Emory education for his son. I found very few mentions of polygamy; it was still practiced, but it didn't seem so common outside these little villages. And I couldn't find anything about marriages being arranged. The more I read about Ethiopian Jews, the less I felt I knew about Sammy.

As it turns out, the Professor of Jewish Studies, Don Seeman, had met Sammy. Sammy had told him the same story, and Professor Seeman didn't believe a word of it. The four wives, the dozens of kids? The professor said it rang false, that in decades of research, he had never found a case like Sammy's.

I didn't know what to believe anymore. Had Sammy lied to me? If he didn't really have an arranged marriage, why did he have to run away? I remembered all the times I had laughed at him: his flaunting of the Cheaper by the Dozen DVD, his awkward gait on the step machine in the gym, his "Why, why, why?" declarations. All those times, was he silently laughing at me? Was he even from Ethiopia?

For me the myth of Sammy could-be's had become larger than the actual person I remembered, the guy whose nose squirmed under his glasses, the guy who soaped his hands outside of bathrooms. I poured my wonderment into writing the screenplay, and after four drafts, I suddenly had a black guy from New Jersey posing as an Ethiopian Jew, a sexual deviant of a con man who fools everybody into thinking he's "simple folk". Of the work itself, I am proud, but in my search for the "real" Sammy I have never been more puzzled. Who is he? Where is he?

I'm still waiting for the twist ending.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Ninja Turtles Don't Wear Denim: My Shopping Disease

A column:

When I was six years old, my mom would drag me to TJ Maxx, and there, like clockwork, I would get a headache. This was not a reflection of any irrational fear of low prices, brand names, or Warhol-like paintings of women in pantsuits. My headaches were a symptom of a chronic disease: the inability to shop for new clothes-itis. Look it up in a medical journal. It’s real, it’s scary, and it will mess you up.

As a little kid, the cure for my affliction came not from Tylenol, but from a dutiful watching of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I escaped from a world of jangling coat racks and where-are-the-boys-jeans to an animated Gotham of wise-cracking, pizza-eating turtle crimefighters. Master Splinter was a wise, elderly rat; he didn’t need to try on three varieties of denim shorts to gain that wisdom. And Michaelangelo didn’t need a five-pack of Hanes whitey-tighties to make him happy. So why did I?

The mere thought of squeezing my little head into another turtleneck made me cringe, cough, and contemplate life as a nudist. So as I grew older, my mom spoiled me. While she bought me pairs of Bugle Boy jeans, I snuck into the bookstore next door and read Goosebumps. The mom-as-personal-shopper routine continued through middle school, and I didn’t mind maintaining that arrangement as long as she would remember my preference for zipper shirts over button-down ones. Fine, I wasn’t a trendsetter. I didn’t dress like a Backstreet Boy. I sported the average-guy look and I couldn’t be happier. I left the fashion experimentation to my friend Mike, who confidently wore Budweiser-inspired I love you, man! ties over short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts. I’d greet him with an “aloha” in the hallway, comfortable in my own zipper-shirted, khaki-panted greatness.

But then my mom discovered FUBU. For those who don’t know, FUBU is a clothing brand created and popularized by black Americans. LL Cool J is one of its celebrity supporters. FUBU is shorthand for “For Us By Us,” and the “Us” does not refer to Jewish kids with choir boy haircuts from the suburbs. My mom did not know this. She bought me a chunky yellow coat from FUBU. Contrary to popular belief, I was not applying for a role in Boyz N the Hood 2. Mom returned the coat, and years later, I decided, finally, to take some responsibility for the clothes on my back.

Well, at least some responsibility. During freshman year of college, I sought the shopping expertise of two girls from my dorm. “We know what will look perfect on you,” they claimed, and so I believed them, partly because I didn’t know Polo from Lacoste, and partly because I was interested in one of these girls romantically. Big mistake. With their “perfect” advice, I found myself the proud owner of jeans so long they dragged like a bride’s dress and a red Polo shirt so oversized it looked like a superhero’s cape. If only I had kept my yellow FUBU, I would have been the cover boy for Esquire’s “This Dude, Why’s He Wearing That?” issue.

As of two weeks ago, I’m a college graduate. I wish I could say that I’ve grown beyond the days of moms and girlfriends helping me pick and choose my wardrobe, but I can’t quite say that. I still need help; I still don’t like to shop. I don’t get the headaches anymore, but I do suffer from the itis.

In fact, my mother, father, sister and I were recently trolling the streets of Chicago. It was an ordinary day that somehow turned into an odyssey to buy me a new pair of jeans. Everybody in the family knows of my disease; you could almost say they revel in it. And so I found myself again in the changing room, slithering into pants by turns too loose and too testicle-hugging tight. I entertained myself in the mirrors by arching my eye brows exaggeratedly, my best Jim Carry-circa-The-Mask impression. I couldn’t help myself.

Did I really have to buy new clothes? Could I live a life where I didn’t? The life of a stay-at-home telemarketer, pyramid-schemer, or hell, writer? Maybe my only escape from new jeans is a mutant ooze. Forget the denim. I will transform myself into a not-so-teenage mutant ninja turtle.

And Master Splinter will be proud of me.


Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself...

hen I go several days without writing, I feel a dryness in my blood, an inadequacy, an emptiness, a hole. I have to write. It's how I make what's messy in my world clean, streamlined, and understandable. Is that sentiment melodramatic? Sure. But it's also true, as true as spicy mustard is underrated.

My name's Alex. Two months ago, I graduated from Emory University with a major in Creative Writing and Unemployment. I currently live in my parents' house in Germantown, TN. Nice bed. HBO On Demand. Rent-free. But far from Hollywood.

Not that I have to go to Hollywood, but like every writer who's ever closed his eyes and pictured his name on a book jacket or a movie screen, I dream of something bigger. I dream of ex-girlfriends paging through my bestseller at Borders. I dream of thanking my mom while oh-so-smoothly accepting an Oscar. I dream of making self-deprecating speeches to my high school and college Alma maters. I dream, I dream, I dream. Sometimes it's enough to temporarily forget that I have to write first. Those dreams might very well go unrealized, but I'll always have a pen, a piece of a paper, and that dryness in the blood to keep me going.

And, I hope, this blog. Twice a week, I will contribute a mix of original creative material (short stories, poems, slice-of-life personal columns) and postings of my own day-to-day experiences as an aspiring writer, whether it be please-give-me-a-chance interactions with alternative weeklies or informative conversations with Emory alums who've "made it" in Hollywood. I plan to avoid merely reacting to other peoples' stories; I want to write my own.

Hopefully this blog will succeed in entertaining readers while providing a community for other young aspiring writers. After all, I know I'm not the only one waiting to hear editorial responses from the crapshoots that define random literary magazines and screenplay competitions.

I plan to treat this blog as a real job, because, well, I don't have a full-time gig. I work part-time at a used bookstore, helping little old ladies sort through literary classics like this one:

But that's a story for another day.

Here's to some happy writing. Stay tuned.