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Opinion | Feb 21, 2019

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 9

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 9

A graduate degree in engineering from one of America’s top 100 universities couldn’t get me a job commensurate with this degree.

Therefore, as industrious and open-minded as I’d been I still continued to work in one low-paying job after another. I had to live, I had to pay bills, and I had to survive no matter the frustrating complexity of my circumstances, but I didn’t allow the nature of these jobs to distract me from my focus in life because they were jobs after all. I’d never found anything particularly wrong with these jobs except that they seemed to have rendered my education worthless.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to improve my life, to put an end to those low-paying jobs, and to prevent my mathematical and scientific knowledge from going rusty―which had fallen into desuetude. For these reasons I worked very hard as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), as a salesperson who also watched over sneakers and clothing displayed on tables outside one of the main outlets of a major fashion retailer in frigid winter, as a mental health therapist and health professional who worked with individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, as a security guard on a construction site as well as on an open yard for a car rental company, and the like. “Life was really meant to be challenging and painful for some of us,” I thought.

As a salesperson who also watched over sneakers and clothing displayed on tables outside in frigid winter, I wore multiple layers of clothes and combat boots and jogged in place while watching over these sneakers and clothing. I jogged in place to avoid the crippling cold and yet somehow the frigid winter managed to penetrate the concrete sidewalk I stood on while working, then it traveled through the lugs and rand and insole and outsole of my combat boots, all the way to the virgin soles of my feet. The cold then insidiously slithered along the dermal aqueducts of thermoreceptors in my skin to other parts of my beaten body. I occasionally produced blood-stained spittle on those occasions I spent too much time working outside in the frigid winter. On other occasions, I was allowed only thirty minutes inside the main building to warm up. I remember very well the day the owner of this major fashion retailer visited the place and said the following to me after his unannounced visit, “Make sure no one takes advantage of the cold to steal my goods.”

I was jogging in place when he said this. Before taking leave of me, he made sure the manager and I’d covered the table of sneakers and clothing with wide plastic sheeting. He didn’t even bother to inquire about why I was jogging in place. He was apparently more concerned about profit and his goods being protected from snow flurries than my exposure to the elements. I’d only an umbrella for protection that day. Capitalism arguably had no value for human life. The profit motive, capitalism’s right-hand man, was a scheming king who ruled mortal minds with despotic ruthlessness. I was merely an economic agent in the line of the scheming matrix and juggernaut of the profit motive. What was I supposed to do in that regard?

Some customers approached me on the sidewalk while on duty and showed me guns hidden in long coats and jackets and pants, threatening to shoot me if I ever raised an alarm. Those with guns usually stayed in closest propinquity of my person while their colleagues confidently approached the tables of sneakers and clothing and stole pairs of sneakers and pieces of clothes.

I was thus prevented on pain of death from alerting co-employees and manger to the overt, blatant thievery of goods. I’d my tongue in absolute abeyance, in absolute check. Ultimately, burying my tongue in a copse of quiescence and absolute secrecy probably bailed out my life. I couldn’t loll out my tongue in teasing exuberance―even. I’d no choice but to appeal to the higher powers of strategic prudence and street smarts to survive in an environment where social relationships were threatened by normative fixtures of weaponization and senseless killings over trivialities.

I completely ruled any intentions of foolhardiness out of my life in the face of circumstances where guns and other weapons of death dictated and shaped the language of social relationships and group dynamics.

Nevertheless, I managed to save tens of thousands of dollars earning as little as five dollars and fifteen cents to nine dollars an hour working in open winter, among other challenging environments. At other times too I worked overtime in other places and still was paid my basic hourly entitlements without my well-deserved differentials, captured in overtime dollar amounts. I reserved any baggage of intimidating philippic I’d for my unsparing world for my bitter myself.

I never gave up on this wicked world notwithstanding the many demoralizing challenges I encountered in my places of work, including coughing up blood for working too long in open winter.

In other instances I was forced to acknowledge the fact that no matter how hard I worked and no matter how much I contributed to the growth of my employer, in addition to the fact that I was better educated and more disciplined than my American colleagues in terms of the indices of punctuality and professionalism and commitment to a strong work ethic, I never advanced in these places of work.

Thus I didn’t have a choice in these frustrating circumstances, I’d reluctantly concede, but to upgrade and arm myself with the technical power and benefit of a graduate education, a difficult decision I’ve had to make in the thick of other competing priorities.

One particular incident drove me out of New York. I got home from work one day only to find myself at the center of a paralyzing bathos of near-death experience, a ruthless experience at that. It was the winter season that day and my apartment complex was exceptionally quiet, vacated. All the drug-dealing roving ambassadors who operated out of the apartment complex, and their sophisticated partners in crime, the police, who occasionally brought these drug-dealing ambassadors drugs to sell for them, reportedly, were nowhere to be found. Both parties seemed to have completely melted into the darkness, for I didn’t see their criminal shadows and double-dealing silhouettes that day.

No bloodshed and no bullet casings and no drug paraphernalia and no gun-inflected body in the lobby that day.

“I am in the safest of places,” I thought. The complex had become a cemetery of sleeping ghosts, a shadow of its cacophonic and criminal self, when the sun bared its teeth and blossomed in beamish fullness. I therefore stepped into the lobby and made a beeline for my apartment, the same apartment I shared with my parents and some of my siblings, with the inspiring confidence of an undisputed heavyweight champion. Then as it sometimes happens in some dreams, I chanced on two lean muscular shadows with their torsos and heads draped in hooded sweatshirts as I stealthily negotiated a bend directly leading to my apartment door. Because they wore their hooded sweatshirts better than some traditional women of Wahhabism wore their hijabs, I couldn’t make out the contours of their faces. Yet I could see their luminous cat-like eyes burning with anger.

Indecision as to my next move, and who these strangers actually were, paralyzed me. They had seen me by this time but remained unperturbed by my approaching presence. I’d resolved then not to approach the door until I thought otherwise. One of the strangers however smiled innocently at me, the other merely giggled. The infectious smile and giggle dissolved my resolve, not knowing whether the spontaneous marriage of smile and giggle was a trap. I smiled and giggled back thinking the humanoid silhouettes were there looking for my youngest brother who was very popular with his age group in the neighborhood. “Are you looking for Kofi, my brother?” I asked.

No response.
I found myself in the closest propinquity of the shorter of the two whose back was turned to me. The other, the one always advertising a cheerful disposition with his smoky smiles, directly faced my apartment door. “Excuse me,” I said. “Let me get inside the apartment and get you Kofi.”

The shorter one pulled back to allow me some leeway for passage into the apartment but, before I knew it, I was sandwiched by the two. The one with a cheerful disposition wrapped his arms around my lean legs, thus locking my legs in a tight hold and limiting my physical movement. This virtually made it impossible for me to defend myself while his partner, the giggler, forcibly pulled my hood over my face to block my vision from taking in their identities and storing them in my eidetic memory, in addition to cupping his elephantine hand over my mouth in order to prevent me from shouting for help. I became blind in the coffined hood of my deflated confidence. I suffered mental apoptosis almost instantaneously. I could hardly breathe.

I thought was going to die.
I was being robbed, the robbery taking place at a time when I’d reported my existing employer to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for discriminatory practices.

The two robbers then carried me, like experienced pallbearers do, to the vacated lobby where they turned me inside in the hope of robbing me dry. The shorter one still had my tight-lipped apprehension firmly in the cup of his hand which made shrieking from me a remote possibility.

I could no longer tell the giggler and the one with cheerful disposition from the shorter, or the taller. Immanent construction of giggling and cheerful disposition and shortness and tallness assumed a state of uniform oneness in the blinding darkness of my coffined hood.

Of course, I had money on me but I’d it locked away in the deep of the night―the impenetrable night between the sole of my right feet and the inside of my right shoe. Their inquiring tentacles could go only so far―only as far as the shallowness of my empty pant pockets.

The shorter then snapped my neck purportedly out of anger, frustration, or despair, or a combination of these, when the two finally discovered that I didn’t have what they were looking for―money. My mouth was no longer held captive in the cup of a penitential manus. They bolted at the moment I started shrieking with pain. No one in the apartment came to me aid. The apartment complex and its inhabitants were still in the throes of cemeterial stasis. The silent ghosts of these living tenants looked askance upon my innocuous world being shredded into smithereens.

My nose continued to bleed from the neck snapping.
I didn’t sleep that night. I did call the police but it took them forever to show up. I’d probably have already been dead if the robbery had put me in a life-threatening situation. “Do you have a gun?” they asked as soon as they arrived at the scene, by which the nosebleed had ceased.

"No."
They never once inquired whether I felt all right. “Will you be able to identify your attackers?” one of them asked me.

“Hardly.”
A friend later explained to me that it was possible the foot-dragging on the part of the police was tactically purposeful, a ploy to avoid getting directly involved in dangerous situations that posed a threat to their lives. I couldn’t, however, tell either if staffing shortage or logistical constrains were to blame for the delay. Whatever the reasons for the outrageous delay, I couldn’t be happier that I was alive. Then they left without telling me about the next course of action.

I rushed into the apartment, washed the blood off my shirt, and quickly jumped into my bed. In bed I could never shake off the popular idea that police corruption was such a big issue across America, not least police corruption in New York.

I remember coming home one morning after a strenuous afternoon shift when two policemen, one Hispanic, the other white, stopped me on a street leading to my apartment complex. I stood still as they frisked me. They asked me an avalanche of questions as the frisking continued, questions on what I was doing at that ungodly hour of the morning, only to get home to discover that my rent for that month had mysteriously disappeared from the privacy of one of my slit pockets. I was probably watching police corruption and the questionable behavior of Denzel Washington in Training Day unfold in real life. What had Ethan Hawke got to say about Washington’s behavior and police corruption? I thought police corruption was a big problem only in Ghana.

What actually happened to my rent money? Did it fall out of my pocket at the time I was being frisked? Was it stolen by the two cops? What exactly was I being frisked for? Was I being racially profiled? Did I commit a crime or do anything wrong by being there at a time I usually found myself in the neighborhood each day after my afternoon shift? I returned to the frisking spot to look for the rent money but found nothing. The money had mysteriously developed wings and flown away to Shangri-La.

I vowed never to keep money in my pant and shirt pockets right there and then, regardless of the fact that I had already resolved never to put money in my pant and shirt pockets years before the eventuation of this particular robbery incident. I factored in the spate of robberies in my neighborhood.

The robbery became instant news on the street and some in my apartment complex got wind of it. It later turned out that Kofi, my brother, personally knew about the robbers and the intimate details of the robbery but, and rightly so, was afraid to reveal their identities to me fearing reprisals from the two, given the robbers’ ruthless behavior and gang connections in the Bronx area.

The shorter one was shot to death years later in a gang-related shootout. According to Kofi, the one who carried a cheerful disposition left New York for North Caroline with a cache of drugs belonging to a certain drug lord. He returned to New York after his sojourn in North Carolina without the cache of drugs or the cache’s monetary equivalent. His body was later discovered in pieces on a public park. “His body parts were scattered on the public park legs here, arms there,” remarked Kofi. The public park in question occupied a space about a hundred meters from the apartment complex where they robbed me and nearly killed me. Such a sad fate!

Most important, I won’t call these sad events comeuppance today because I don’t think this is the way human beings should die. No matter the ruthlessness with which they treated me during the abortive robbery, their barbarous and violent deaths didn’t justify their ruthless treatment of me.

I strongly believe that human beings should die with dignity no matter the nature of their intrinsic shortcomings and, in spite of their street behavior, as was the specific case of those who robbed me and nearly killed me. In a nutshell, those two African Americans didn’t have to die the way they did. Kofi told me about their violent deaths when I was already in Massachusetts. He fleshed out the horrid circumstances surrounding their deaths when I moved back to New York upon graduation.

In any case, I’d forgiven them long before Kofi told me about their uneventful deaths.

I fell into a cesspit of depression following the robbery, becoming morbidly fearful of my environment. For the first time in my life I began carrying a folding pocket knife on my person for self-protection―contrary to my decision to stay away from any type of weapon. I went to work each day with this knife carefully hidden on my person until I finally relocated to Massachusetts. I hid this knife in my sneakers or combat boots. I was so scared for my life that I’d to call Kofi each day after work, once I got off the train, to surveil the lobby area and building façade for me before I made the bold decision to step into the lobby, then to my apartment door.

In my own case, however, I absconded to Worcester, Massachusetts, within weeks of the robbery―scared for my life. It was in Massachusetts that I studied for my graduate engineering degree even though I’d been contemplating a doctorate in African and African-American Studies for many years.

Life in Massachusetts wasn’t a bed of roses either.

Kingo, one of my siblings in New York who was facing hardships of his own, occasionally remitted me while I was in graduate school. I used his remittances, my savings, and the additional income I generated as a CNA in a nursing home to underwrite my living expenses while in school full-time.

For the first time in my life I bought a car―a car my roommate and a car dealer overprized by more than two thousand dollars, an amount the two subsequently split between themselves, provocative information I’d later pick up from one of the closest confidents and classmates of my roommate.

I drove this car to and from work, to and from school.

I stopped working one year into my CNA occupation because the physical, mental, and emotional demands of the job gravely undermined my graduate school work, completely destroyed my appetite due to my constant contact with feces, and grossly interfered with my sleep hygiene.

I also remember sleeping in my car on a highway while driving home from school between midnight and 1 a.m., veering off from the highway as the blaring horn of an articulated truck jolted me out of the comfort of my sleep. My car was heading towards a rampant as I slept. The car was an arm’s length from the rampant when the blare of a truck horn woke me up. Though my car windows where all shut, I still could hear the blare as if the horn were directly affixed to my ears. I pulled up the car by the rampart and took a thirty-minute nap before continuing the drive home.

Was that sleep-deprived driving I found myself in that day? Did highway hypnosis save me from death? It’s almost difficult to predict today with any degree of certainty what would’ve happened to me and my fate were it not for the fortuitous advent of this truck and its blaring signature in the line of my sleep-induced driving. The blare of the horn woke me up and I lived.

A steep incline lay beyond the rampart. Descent across this steep incline into the vacuous expanse below directly led to an inferno of death. To forestall another potential accident from materializing on my way home, I slumbered for an hour in my car immediately after classes each night prior to embarking on the 45-mile highway trip home through a thicket of pitch blackness and dense cemeterial silence. I drove circumspectly on the highway with renewed energy from then on.

Because life is an asphyxiating labyrinth of uncertainties, probabilities, or vicissitudes for some of us, I’ve aspired to clarity of mind in my vigorous pursuit of life goals and circumventing of existential challenges which my destiny and fate had cautiously placed in my path. This hasn’t been easy since detaching myself completely from a mind suffused with pain and bitterness and anger from the vicissitudes of life and an unfriendly destiny and fate that has been difficult for me to acclimate to, still remains an albatross around my neck. How should I view my life? How do I convincingly explain this existential paradox to my suffused mind? Perhaps an answer in the form of phronesis appears in Bob Marley’s classic song “Wake Up & Live.” I’ve lived by this phronesis across the years:

“Wake up and live!...
“Life is one big road with lots of signs
“So when you’re riding through the ruts

“Don't you complicate your mind
“Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy!
“Don't bury your thoughts
“Put your vision to reality…”
Isn’t life interesting?
Yet the difficult life of my bruised forehead was up against another cul-de-sac.

And I didn’t even know it.

Francis Kwarteng
Francis Kwarteng, © 2019

This author has authored 560 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: franciskwarteng

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