Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Her fortune cookie said she'd go far

Published Feb. 26, 2007

Something wasn't right.
Guang was working the counter at my favorite Chinese restaurant, the Hunan Wok.
He never works the counter. He is usually cooking while his wife, Mengxiao (pronounced Michelle), rings up my order.
Many times, their daughters, Milly, 15, and Xing, 11, are up front helping Mengxiao.
But the girls and their mom were nowhere around. It was only Guang and he was trying to tell me something. He was really animated, really excited.
But, I couldn't quite understand him.
I caught a word here and there. College. No work. Here too much.
I was trying to figure out what he was saying when, suddenly, he pointed behind me.
A van had pulled up out front and Mengxiao was driving.
So, I took my General Tso chicken and seafood and garlic sauce and went outside. Mengxiao will tell me what Guang is so excited about, I thought.
I walked over to the driver side window. Mengxiao looked different. She was all dressed up. I have spoken to her many times so I can understand her better than her husband.
"I don't work here much any more," she told me. "I got another job. I'm working in Human Services.
"And I'm going to college," she said.
She was so happy.
By this time, Guang had come outside and was peering through the passenger window at us.
He was beaming and nodding his head vigorously as Mengxiao told me about going to school. The pride he had in her and her excitement about going to school put a lump in my throat. I was as excited for her as they were.
"It's real hard - especially English composition - because I speak English as a second language," Mengxiao told me.
"But, I got an A on my first paper - and that is good because it gives me confidence," she said.
Guang and Mengxiao have worked very hard to make their restaurant a success. Guang came to the United States in 1992 from China. Mengxiao joined him here in 1993. Until recently, the restaurant was open seven days a week. Now they are closed on Mondays but they still work 60-hour weeks.
Until Mengxiao got another job.
She has been working for Human Services since October.
"I did it for two reasons. We needed medical insurance and I also wanted to broaden my experience," she said.
And that is the reason she went back to school, too.
She took English-as-a-second-language courses in 1995 but had to quit because she had to work in the restaurant.
"I went back there now because I want to be a social worker. My major is human services. It is my personality to want to help people," the 36-year-old Mengxiao said.
About an hour after I talked to Mengxiao, my cell phone rang.
"Patti, I just have to tell you one more thing. Mary Miller is my tutor. She has been coming to my house every Tuesday since 1997. I have to tell you about her, about how much she helped me."
Mengxiao said the real estate agent who sold them their house in 1997 recommended Miller to her.
"She taught me English. She taught me how to read a newspaper. She doesn't have to teach me English so much anymore but we still get together every week for lunch or something," Mengxiao said.
It was one of those times in life when I realize how much I take for granted. I sent my sons to college as if it was their God-given right and they went as if it was no big deal.
But it is a big deal.
I could see it in the eyes of this woman and her husband who was so proud of her he could have burst.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My heart's in New Orleans

Published Feb. 19, 2007

Happy Lundi Gras!
It's the day before Mardi Gras and if you were in New Orleans today you would be dragging from your wild weekend on Bourbon Street.
But, you would have to get your act together because your hotel room is probably about $400 a night and that's way too much money for sleeping.
The parade tonight is Orpheus. It starts at 5:45 at the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon, up in the Garden District, and ends at the New Orleans Convention Center, just a few blocks from the French Quarter.
(Yes, that is the same Convention Center that housed all those people driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina but let's not think about that. Today is a day to celebrate. The people of New Orleans would want it that way.)
A perfect Lundi Gras Day begins at Cafe du Monde, where you order beignets - square, hot, powdered sugar-covered donuts - and cafe au lait, coffee with cream.
Then you would wander around the French Quarter people-watching and shopping. You would have to stop periodically to get a hurricane, the official drink of Mardi Gras, a fruity rum concoction.
Mid-afternoon, you would make your way up toward the parade route and find a good spot behind one of the waist-high metal barriers that line the route.
And then you wait, drinking hurricanes and eating po' boys - submarine sandwiches overfilled with breaded shrimp - that you buy from street vendors.
By the time the parade comes, people are packed like sardines on both sides of the street. Everyone waves their hands in the air to beg for the beads the riders on the floats are throwing.
The parade won't actually stop when it gets to the end. It will drive right into the Convention Center, where hundreds of people with tickets to the Orpheus Ball will be gathered.
And that's where the real bead-throwing begins.
I know that because I have been to an Orpheus Ball.
We were there seven years ago when the big doors opened and the gigantic floats came in. It was different than being along a parade route. People weren't packed in and there was no reason to beg for beads. More beads and trinkets than I had ever seen rained down fast and furious from every float.
Big fat fancy beads hit me in the head when I bent down to pick up ones I had dropped. Riders threw entire bags of beads and stuffed animals and doubloons in the colors of Mardi Gras - yellow, purple and green.
And the crowd in tuxedos and ball gowns scrambled for all of it.
After the floats, the ball resumed with live music and dancing and a buffet.
When we were there, we danced while Irma Thomas sang.
Tonight, you would be dancing to the music of the Top Cats.
And when the ball is over, you would make your way back to the hotel to rest up for Mardi Gras.
The Zulu parade is in the morning and you really must have to have a good spot for that one because the black-faced riders on the Zulu floats have the most prized "throws" of Mardi Gras - Zulu coconuts. They are real coconuts painted gold and adorned with beads and feathers. Riders aren't allowed to throw them - it's dangerous to get conked on the head with a coconut - but if you can get close enough to a float, you might be able to get a rider to hand you one.
And somehow, having a Zulu coconut on your lap on the plane ride home makes the trip back to snowy Ohio not quite so bad.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lost: One brother and lots of common sense

Published Feb. 12, 2007

We lost my husband’s brother.
Now, there are a lot of ways to lose someone.
You can lose someone at a crowded mall.
“Now, where is he? He was just behind us.”
You can lose someone on the highway.
“Speed up; I think I see his car way up there.”
You can lose someone – who has the tickets – at a Browns game.
“Now what do I do? Gimme a beer please.”
Or you can “lose” someone in the most final way. To the great beyond.
Well, we didn’t lose my brother-in-law to the great beyond, unless you consider New Jersey the great beyond. If you have ever been there, you know how it would be easy to mix up the two.
This man, my husband’s younger brother, who was a fire inspector and a volunteer firefighter in central New Jersey, has vanished off the face of the earth.
His phone has been disconnected. He has moved out of his apartment. He has no driver’s license or vehicle registered with the state of New Jersey.
We started looking for him about a month ago. His mother -- whose letters and phone calls he stopped answering nearly 10 years ago – is gravely ill. We thought he should know.
I called the police. I called his workplace. I called his firefighter “family.” No one knows where he is. And, I was starting to get the feeling that even if they knew, they couldn’t tell me.
I tried the state’s Social Security office and was told that they would send him a letter – that is, if the address they have for him is a good one -- telling him we were trying to reach him but that is all they would do.
We have been stymied over and over by privacy laws or people’s fear of what would happen to them if they violated privacy laws.
Yes, I know the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees our right to be left alone.
But, come on. I don’t want to search or seize anything. I just want to talk to my brother-in-law about his sick mother.
I was in a department store this week when I overheard one clerk tell another, “Did I tell you we finally found my father’s sister?”
My ears perked up. “You found someone who was lost?” I asked him.
“We’ve been looking and looking for my husband’s brother,” I told him. “How did you do it?”
He told me about how he used the Internet to find out where she was living and then it was just a matter of looking up her phone number – which was listed.
My dilemma isn’t quite that easy to resolve.
I walked across the store with the clerk who was helping me, the clerk who had been addressed by the successful private-eye clerk.
I told her my story.
And then she told me hers.
Her husband died in December after years of suffering from asbestos poisoning. She needed to tell her 37-year-old son but she didn’t know where he was.
He moved away three years ago and she has not heard from him since.
Wow. How many people can’t find members of their family? In this one department store on this one afternoon, there were three of us.
Is it that easy to disappear? If so, why don’t people with $100,000 in credit card debt just take off and not leave a forwarding address?
Oh, now I get it. The government can always find you. Your mother or your brother have no right to know where you are, but commit a crime and have an arrest warrant out on you and you better believe you’ll be found.
Somehow, I can’t believe that’s exactly what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote that Bill of Rights all those years ago.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Last one to the register is a rotten egg

Appeared in The Chronicle Feb. 5, 2007

The true battle of Super Bowl weekend takes place nowhere near a football field.
Its players aren't protected by helmets and shoulder pads.
They are protected by winter coats and shopping carts.
Their tunnel onto the playing field is a parking lot and the portal from which they enter the game is opened by stepping on a black rubber mat.
They are shoppers in a pre-game frenzy and they have come to do battle in Marc's.
* * *
Marc's is always crowded. That's a given. But, Saturday afternoon, it was packed.
It was not only the day before Super Bowl Sunday, it was also the day before the Great Arctic Freeze was predicted to hit our area.
Partiers and survivalists. No wonder the place was packed.
Anyway, the battle began in the parking lot where the wind had already picked up and was whirling the snow around in gusts. Every legitimate spot was filled as was every nook and cranny a car could be stowed in.
Whenever a spot opened up, there were always two cars in a face-off for it.
I finally found a place to park and trudged - bent forward at a 45-degree angle - toward the store in a wind that was much colder and stronger than it had been 20 minutes earlier.
I went inside to get a cart but there already was a shopper at each row, tugging on the end buggy, trying to free it from the others it had firmly latched onto.
Finally, one of the tuggers managed to free not one shopping buggy but a block of buggies. I calmly walked around her and pulled one from the row she had left behind.
And onto the playing field I went.
In a grocery store, everyone is an equal. Every shopper with a buggy is like every other shopper with a buggy. Talent, strength - and stature - account for nothing. There is no rich and poor, no privileged and underprivileged.
No respect for others.
In the produce section, there was a buggy backup behind a shopper having a conversation with the man who was restocking the produce.
In the cheese section, there was a buggy backup between two shoppers having a conversation about someone's divorce.
The main aisle was like a highway during rush-hour with a lot of braking and near-misses.
I turned into the dairy aisle and parked my shopping cart as I studied the prices of half-and-half. I was engrossed in my comparison shopping when a woman in a parka and a ponytail craned her neck around to the front of me and said, "Hey, move your cart. Everyone is tripping over it."
I snapped out of my concentration and started apologizing and reaching for my cart to get it out of the way when all of a sudden I realized I had nothing to apologize for.
My cart was fully off to the side, right in front of me, in no one's way.
Then I got angry.
"Hey, who are you?" I called to the ponytail. "The traffic cop?"
My sarcasm was lost on her. She turned around, put her hand on her hip and said, "Yeah, I am."
I looked at the carton of half-and-half in my hand and suddenly wondered what I was doing in the dairy aisle.
That's not where you go Super Bowl shopping. I was a partier, not a survivalist.
I turned the cart around and headed to the back of the store where I belonged.
At the beer cooler - where people are friendly and there are never too many buggies.