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Opinion | Feb 23, 2019

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 10

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 10

I ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts, after the robbery incident.

A friend of mine, a university hallmate and neighborhood friend from Ghana extended an invitation to me to visit Massachusetts, where he was living at the time. He spoke so passionately about Massachusetts that he succeeded in selling his seemingly flawless impressions about the State to me. The invitation was in direct response to some favors I’d done for his girlfriend in New York while he was living in Ghana. I took him at his word and traveled to Massachusetts.

The State of Massachusetts was, true to his word, unimpeachably beautiful, with parts of the State seemingly reeking of the quaintly rococo of antiquity. I’d seen enough of the physical beauty of America that I simply refused to focus my attempts to understand America exclusively on how physically beautiful it was.

It was rather the soul, of all things, of America that I wanted to understand and not how I viewed its physical attributes. I believe every country on the planet is beautiful in its way, but it’s intimately knowing about and understanding a country’s soul in its fullest capacity for moral and equitable expression, how it treats its citizens and non-citizen others in the international community, and the contributions it makes to global peace and security are what really matter, for, as I’ve come to realize, the quiddity of a country’s characterological fullness lies in the contours of its soul.

A country is an idea after all. And ideas exist in the hearts and minds of human beings. It takes a reifying of these ideas in the form of codification of law at the juncture of the national and the international―which ultimately binds a group of people sharing a common political geography delineated by a physical space, loose or fixed―to beget a country. Ideas, therefore, become flesh and blood only in the enforceable language of the codification of law. How a people sharing this delineated political space enforce these laws through a particular culture, economic and political system, and moral norms they subscribe to constitute the epigenetic soul of that country.

America is one such country whose epigenetic soul I want to know more about, in its raw nakedness.

So when the day came for me to leave New York, which I eventually did following the Cartesian linearity of my thoughts, I left without looking back. I carried my library of hundreds of books, my soul and heart, my mind and body, and my coffin of buried shadows to this wondrous State, the immaculate virgin of my friend’s passing dreaminess, with the unknown me.

Unknown me?
Possibly.
I was running from the cold, long reach of death which had missed me by a hair’s breadth. I’d seen many deaths growing up but this missed death seemed so different, different as in black and white with nothing in between. I’d cheated death by the skin of my teeth in New York and Albert Memmi’s The Myth of Sisyphus appeared on my horizon saying exactly so. I was reading Memmi on a strange bus, the bus of my scattered self bound for another psycho-emotional planet some called Massachusetts.

Memmi spoke this byzantine Martian language of nihilism, of hopelessness, of suicide.

“Nihilism isn’t for you,” said he.

“Suicide isn’t for you,” said he.

“For it’s nihilists who own and control the phenomenology of suicide,” said I.

“About Hopelessness?” asked he.
“I don’t know!” said I.
Albert Memmi? Albert Camus, the philosopher who died in a car accident? At times I thought I was reading Camus instead of Memmi. It was as if I was reading New York instead of Massachusetts. Misreading either Massachusetts or New York wasn’t unlike that strange false hypothesis, of cheating death. I'd been living with death the whole time.

You can’t cheat death.
Death only cheats itself.
You only make death part of your normal existence so that you can live forever.

You die when you have to die.
You live when you have to live.
You die so that you can live.
You live so that you can die.
Thus life and death operate interchangeably in a circular continuum of ontological overlap. Man indeed is a transient process, a process of birth, of transmogrification, of recrudescence, of death, of self-recovery.

Even of nothingness.
I saw myself as a prototypical instantiation of that process, a rational cosmogony in the making.

A Kafkaesque daydream I became on the strange bus. I saw myself in the cosmic histories of Camus and Memmi being slowly transformed into the radical denouement of The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s radical reinterpretation of my multilayered selves, histories and experiences.

The moral elephant of The Metamorphosis stumped on my brain and because of that I ended up with a mental involution, a contracted horizon. I was contemplating my metamorphosis when the bus driver screeched to a stop, one of my many destinations in life. I alighted from the bus completely weighed down by the philosophical mooring anchors of Kafka, Memmi and Camus.

The strange bus which was alive just a moment ago was now dead, screeched to engine death. The Metamorphosis which was just alive with leafy beaminess a while ago was now dead, closed.

“Life,” said Memmi.
“Death,” said Cadmus.
“Life and death,” said Kafka.
It didn’t occur to me that my physical exhaustion was visible to the headstone of my universe, my face. I wasn’t crying, though. I hadn’t been dead yet to the extent that I should mourn for myself. “You look tired Yaw,” my guest remarked. He and I answered to the name Yaw, our middle name.

“Of course I am.”
Yaw didn’t come alone to the bus station. He came with three others, all of whom were my university and neighborhood friends. We shook hands. And hugged. Memories and nostalgia blended our warm handshakes and hugs into a sapid smoothie of laughter, comradeship, and tears of joy. Yaw and one other friend hauled my world of personal possessions and shoved them into the trunk of Yaw’s car.

What!
For the first time in my life I realized how small my world indeed was. How could the blazing enormity of my world fit into the trunk of a car, a car smaller than my world?

How could all the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan put together fit snugly into the absorbing genius of Imhotep’s head?

“America is a strange place indeed!” I thought. “America exemplifies the strangest spectacle of physics, of vacuism.”

Off we went.
Accra. Ghana. Africa. America.
We discussed Accra, the capital of Ghana; the black star of Africa, the home of Marcus Garvey’s Africans and the African diaspora; and America, George Clinton’s “Paint the White House Black.”

No one mentioned New York, not even me. I’d left New York behind in the buried coffin of my deepest thoughts.

“What do you think?” I’m asking you, the reader.

“It’s high time I dropped my unfriendly ghosts and haunting shadows off the white pages and chapters of the book of my difficult, complicated life,” I answered for the sleeping reader.

You, the reader. And me, this conscious writer. I wasn’t sleeping though, unlike the reader. We got home finally, Yaw’s Massachusetts, a beautiful house nonetheless, but then I thought I’d forgotten that physical beauty didn’t always translate into inner beauty, of the soul. I’d forgotten also that physical beauty merely connoted a materialistic understanding of seemingness, in other words of mortality, of imperfection, of unreality―contrary to my core idea of inner beauty, which was that inner beauty defined a fundamental question of immortality and perfection and invigoration.

True, physical beauty articulated material evidence of the human eye while inner beauty embalmed the vitalism of the soul.

“That inner beauty is the tree of life is true!” said the reader.

“That physical beauty is a meretricious truth,” I added. “That is not a malicious falsehood!”

“Lotus Sutra is inner beauty,” someone whispered into the soul of my mind.

The reader was Harder, a secondary school cognomen for one of my friends. Harder read Civil Engineering, Yaw Agriculture, Ricky Sociology, and Fish Business with a concentration in Accounting. High school graduate Hello, Fish’s youngest brother, didn’t join the rest when they picked me up from the bus station. Hello was at work at the time and couldn’t make it. All five including Yaw’s girlfriend, Akua, crammed into an atom of a space in the car, a space far smaller than my mammoth world of personal possessions. I bantered and joked with them on the trip to Yaw’s apartment.

We eventually arrived at Yaw’s apartment complex twenty or twenty-five minutes. I settled into Yaw’s apartment housed in a two-story structure, his darling Massachusetts in the days, weeks, and months following my relocation. The part of Massachusetts where I lived with my can of sardine friends, Worcester, didn’t live under a cloud of noise pollution like the Bronx. The seven of us colonized a claustrophobic planet of one bed room and a living room. Yaw and his girlfriend shared the bedroom, the rest the living room. I joined the majority on that packed claustrophobic planet, the other five then occupying the living room. A can of contiguous sardines we were in smithereens of human flesh. Some slept on the carpeted floor, others on couches.

Drugs and drug-related violence were minimal in that part of our Worcester as well. Rodents and cockroaches and drug dealers didn’t routinely invade our private spaces as was the case in the Bronx, the Bronx where an unwelcome fecal matter silently invaded my shirt sleeve and forced me to walk home shirtless. The rodents and cockroaches I found in Worcester were friendlier, less intimidating than their Bronx cousins. “Our Bronx- or New York-based muroid cousins are more aggressive and wiser than some human beings,” a friend of mine used to say in jest.

And then it happened.
Yaw’s Massachusetts shielded me from the scourge of New York’s September 11, a tactical upshot of Osama bin Laden’s deadly obsession with the double-standard spinal cord of American foreign policy. Was September 11 a dream? Was Osama bin Laden real or a figment of the American imagination? This dream-like cataclysmic event marked a turning point in my understanding of how the base instincts of human nature can turn mortals into pernicious hominids. Some said American foreign policy and the geopolitical kinetics of the so-called Middle East triggered September 11. Others said September 11 was engineered by hawkish elements within America’s intelligence agencies to create an alibi for the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The third school of thought advanced the theory that America wanted to take over Iraqi’s oil and to rearrange the politics of the Middle East to suit its strategic geopolitical interests.

Whether or not these schools of thought were merely dabbling in conspiratorial jingoism, their conspiratorial theories didn’t explain the many personal September 11s I’d experienced as an American citizen.

At the end of the day Osama bin Laden lived on in the ideas and behaviors and politics of white supremacists, racists, imperialists, and ethnic chauvinists. I was happy he didn’t tail after me during my relocation. And because he didn’t trail me to Massachusetts, I’d all the time in the world to plan and execute my goals. I was almost within reach of doing something better and positive for myself. Life was full of possibilities and I wanted to snatch some of these possibilities so badly.

I became a certified nursing assistant and worked in a nursing home in Yaw’s Massachusetts some thirty to forty-five minutes from home, away from the epicenter of the consuming rage of Osama bin Laden’s deadly obsession with Americans. Yaw’s girlfriend was a certified nursing assistant too and the two of us worked in the same facility on the same shift. The two of us attended the same class for our certification. The class was organized and taught in the same facility where we’d later work as nurse aides.

Because I didn’t own a car at the time, Yaw’s girlfriend drove us to and from work in hers.

Yaw’s Massachusetts thus gave me another opportunity to rethink my priorities. I wanted to do things differently in Yaw’s Massachusetts, such as avoiding low-paying jobs if I could, but my new planet proved unwelcoming of what I’d to offer with the little education I had. I got to know a number of well-educated Africans in Worcester who were doing low-paying jobs despite their American-acquired advanced degrees. Yaw was, however, fortunate to secure a job with a financial institution regardless of the fact that his agriculture degree had no bearing on what he did for his employer.

I, on the other hand, became a certified nursing assistant because Yaw’s Massachusetts couldn’t get me any deal better than the Bronx got me in New York. In a last-ditch effort to bury my haunting shadows of New York once and for all, I reached deep into my melancholy and bruised soul and pulled out the decision to become a certified nursing assistant, for a start. “Don’t jump into the water if you can’t swim,” Bob Marley sings on “Misty Morning.” I jumped right into the water anyway, ready to survive a drowning. Though my job as a certified nursing assistant exposed me to some remarkable horrors of human frailty and suffering, as well as to aspects of the human condition I’d never personally experienced before, I underestimated the potential of this new job to suppress some of my natural inhibitions in violent and life-changing ways.

The work of a nurse aide became an unnecessary drain on my emotional, mental, and physical resources. It almost destroyed my sleep hygiene and appetite as well. I came into contact with too much feces that I threw up whenever I sighted or ate groundnut soup. Nurses administered laxatives to bedridden patients and this caused pools of feces to form in patients’ beds. Nurse aides usually assigned to these patients were mostly Africans and immigrants, and to make matters worse, the facility didn’t have enough patient lifts to transfer patients between chairs and beds. For this reason, some of us worked through our breaks physically lifting patients between chairs and beds as waiting for a patient lift to become available for staff use took forever.

The suffering, the pain, the tears, the loneliness, and the malodorous waters of rejection I saw patients in bruised my soul, causing pain in the depths of my heart as well as sleepless nights. Those who glory in their steel-of-pride humanity and see themselves as immortal should visit nursing homes to see for themselves what it is to be truly human. I’ve since learned that sickness is no respecter of persons, of race and ethnicity, of class and education. The same diseases ravaged the bodies of blacks and whites alike―which I think constitutes the greatest irony of life.

Even some white patients who initially didn’t want black nurses and black nurse aides around them eventually caved in―and allowed these former outcasts of nurses and nurse aides into their private spaces when their final moments on earth approached. Yet these staff didn’t harbor anger or hatred toward these patients and gave them the best care possible. At a point in our lives the philosophical and existential experience of death moves from the realm of stochastic vainglory to one of unambiguous certainty. The proverbial sickbed and deathbed belong to both the racist and non-racist. Being a nurse aide forced me to acknowledge humility, emotional intelligence, philanthropy, love, humanism, collaboration and teamwork, education, hard work, victorious consciousness, and cultural cosmopolitanism as indispensable extensions of the human condition.

I resigned one year into my new job because I could no longer take its drain on my emotional, psychological and physical eudaimonia. I’d enrolled in a graduate program at the Boston-based Northeastern University and the additional toll schoolwork exerted on my eudaimonia was more than I could take. I factored in the approximate ninety miles I drove from my apartment complex to school and then back to my apartment complex each time I’d a class. To minimize or extirpate the excruciating burden of stress from the physical demands of driving, I looked at some affordable apartments in the Boston area but those Boston neighborhoods starkly reminded me of my harrowing New York experiences. I didn’t want to be in another dangerous environment where I’d to go about my normal duties constantly looking over my shoulders.

Running away from a worm because one had been bitten by a snake in the past was a wise decision worth pursuing.

The sheer amount of backbreaking work I did toward my degree during each quarter―rather than a semester―system was enough to break my resolve. The quarter system practically reduced the entire course of study to a fast-paced academic exercise. I fell behind in my readings and completing homework assignments on time because the physical demands of work exaggerated the exhaustion I’d been accumulating from studying, driving to and from school and work, cooking, waking up in the dead of night to get ready for work, and so on. I tried to catch up with my reading assignments in my car during shift breaks but I always ended up dozing off, or napping. I dozed off before barely reading past a paragraph or two of many assigned chapters.

I approached my academic advisor about the challenges I was facing. I was happy I did this because he shared with me his own challenges as an immigrant in America from Greece. He immigrated to America with a diploma in electrical and mechanical engineering and went on to acquire an MBA and a doctorate in engineering. His education spanned from management science, industrial and mechanical and electrical engineering, operations research, finance, and operations management.

Our conversation was both candid and relatively intimate in that he didn’t shy away from discussing specific problems he encountered while studying for his degrees in America. One of these problems of his still lingered in his academic life and he drew my attention to it as we chatted. Ironically, it was a problem I was also grappling with at the time although it’s no longer a problem for me as of this writing. I worked through sleepless nights to overcome it. I spiced up our conversation with a short discourse on the antiquity of Greece. This caused him some excitement. “If I have been able to make it in America as an immigrant in spite of challenges,” he concluded, “then I have no doubt in my mind that you can do it too. I hope to see you in class next week?”

“Yes sir.”
“Never think about dropping out of the program.”

“I won’t sir.”
“Good.”
My resignation from the nursing home came at three or four months into my graduate work. In all, I worked as a nurse aide for a year. Eight or nine months out of this one year I lived with Yaw and his girlfriend. The rest of our friends no longer lived with us. Harder and Ricky moved to Georgia. Hello and Fish relocated to Ohio. Financial reasons, conflicts with Yaw’s girlfriend, disagreements with Yaw over how he handled his girlfriend’s spendthrift and shopaholic proclivities, lack of opportunities in Yaw’s Massachusetts, and personality clashes drove us apart forcing the four to leave Yaw’s Massachusetts. Harder, Fish, and Hello had to go to Ghana first before settling into Georgia and Ohio respectively.

My presence was, however, a boon to Yaw and his girlfriend in many ways. I paid half of the rent and utilities although all three of us worked fulltime, and I slept on the carpeted floor in the living room. Despite the fact that the other four no longer lived with us, the arrangement still helped me to save a little. I needed to prepare sufficiently for graduate school. Likewise, the arrangement helped them to save as well as take care of their mounting debts. Collective interest seemed to trump individual interest.

Yaw and I had an unwritten agreement where I did some of his homework assignments and contributed to the rent and utility bills in exchange for assurances from him and his girlfriend to assist me when I went to graduate school. He was pursuing an MBA online then―though he’d initially wanted to pursue pharmacy at Northeastern University. Northeastern University denied his pharmacy application and he settled on an MBA. Rejection of his pharmacy application crushed him―so much so that he gave up on that institution for good. Nonetheless a number of reasons including financial hardship, stress from his uncontrollable girlfriend’s unpredictable behavior and work, and his inability to study in the midst of these problems forced him out of the program.

The time came for me to go back to school eventually arrived and I informed him about it a week or two before my first classes. I came back from work one day only to find him and his girlfriend gone. They never alerted me to this big surprise and I never suspected it either. Part of the big surprise was that they left with everything so I called him and asked him whether I could take the place while I pursued my degree, to which he responded in the affirmative. “You’ve been good to me Yaw, but we need our privacy and you need your privacy too,” he said on the phone. “Sure, you can have the place.”

And he hung up the phone.
Privacy? Since when did the issue of privacy enter the equation of our unwritten agreement? Everything was just fine when I did his homework and helped with the bills. All of a sudden privacy was an issue for him. It’s rather unfortunate how we allow the frigid individualism of the West to erode our sense of communitarian ethos once we move to the West. We don’t look out for each other partly because of this. Even the extended family system of traditional Africa has been under threat of extinction for many decades now. Why did they move out without prior notice? Was it because I got into a school he couldn’t get into? Was it because he was out of school when I was getting into one? Could I have wronged them without knowing it? Their unannounced departure didn’t demoralize me one bit, for, if anything at all, it rather strengthened my resolve to work hard toward my degree without them. I vowed then never to rely on friends for anything.

Fact is, Yaw and his girlfriend didn’t take a dime from my in exchange for the apartment. And I was grateful for this. I was lying on the floor in the living room the day following their departure when I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door and there stood this man claiming ownership of the place. Yaw had taken money from him and then given the apartment to him. He never told me about this when we spoke on the phone. I was therefore forced to vacate the place when I didn’t have a place to live and to keep my belongings―my little world of personal possessions. Because I slept in my car for a few days, and because I didn’t have a place to keep my personal belongings, the new occupant of the apartment sent those of my belongings I couldn’t keep in my car to a storage facility. I got to know that some of my most important belongings had been stolen when I finally retrieved them from the storage facility for my new apartment.

It was this same Yaw who’d cheat me out of two thousand five hundred dollars for a car whose asking price was five thousand dollars. Anyway, I donated this car to the Salvation Army when I moved back to New York. Meanwhile, I did successfully graduate in one and a half years. I met with my academic advisor again immediately following my last quarter, during which he’d wanted to know if I would be attending the graduation ceremony as a symbolic closure of my intra-curricular struggles, to which I responded in the negative. My major reason for not attending was physical and mental exhaustion. He took my address to which my diploma was mailed.

I didn’t attend the ceremony and slept the entire day.

Francis Kwarteng
Francis Kwarteng, © 2019

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

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