Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien) #7

Beyond Deadlines is proud to serialize Mr. Romy Morales’ first book “Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien).” It is a personal account of a Filipino immigrant in the United States. It is a must read for those who wish to migrate to the U.S. Come let us join Romy in his journey and see what is in store for us.

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(7th Installment)

PART TWO: UNDER THE TABLE ARRANGEMENT

Chapter 6

An illegal immigrant in America is among the most neglected and desolate member of the human specie.One of the drawbacks of being an undocumented person in the United States is the inability to afford the high cost of medical insurance and the “disqualification” to avail the welfare benefits enjoyed by legitimate residents. Thus, many “illegals” would rather starve than get medical insurance, much more medical treatment. If not for some county hospitals and clinics accommodating low income families, including illegals, many poor undocumented aliens would die in bed before they could get any medical attention.

However, anti-illegal immigrant advocates says such claim is not true. They insist that on the contrary, it is the undocumented foreigners who are enjoying and draining the medical resources intended for legitimate residents.

Whatever it may be, I think the bottom line is that people, documented or not, should have the right to get the proper medical attention they need. The unfortunate situation where one set of people could avail of medical services while another could not makes me wonder why there are some who want to play God over others that they determine who is to live or die.

Thus, I consider the Queens Care Family Clinic (QCFC) on York Boulevard in Los Angeles county as a God’s blessing because it accommodates immigrants, legal or not, and gives valuable medical services. The clinic provides free consultation, checkups, treatment, and even medicine.

Concerned over my health and the stiff cost of medical services here in America, I decided to register with the QCFC so I may have a medical record on file in case I got sick. I had the laugh of my life when some friends, who had visited the clinic, coached to do the one thing I did not have to lie about, to tell the staff I was not earning enough. As early as 8 a.m., the clinic is already swamped with patients, mostly Latinos although once in a while, I will some some Filipinos milling around.

Dr. Steamy, an American citizen of an Irish descent, was the attending physician of the clinic. The doctor had a reputation in the Filipino community of being very accommodating and friendly, especially with Filipinos. So I went to the clinic expecting to see Dr. Steamy.

I was very relaxed when my chance came to see her. Coming face-to-face with the doctor, I found her to be the opposite of what I’d been told. She is strict and serious, unsmiling and detached. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I thought she is only tired from seeing so many patients. It is already past lunchtime when I got to see her. My blood pressure, she said stoically, is on the borderline and that I must reduce my salt intake.

Two days later, I felt some palpitation on the upper left side of my chest. It wasn’t actually painful but it is bothersome. Should I go to the clinic and see Dr. Steamy for a checkup? After a disappointing first encounter with her, I decided to forego and just let the palpitation subside. I didn’t go to the clinic for a check-up. Now I’ve done this many times that whenever such a strange feeling troubles me, I just slept it out in my room.

The room I had at York Boulevard cost $225 a month. However, it comes with free cable, water, electricity, a refrigerator, and an electric stove. The room — the basement of a house — was big enough for me but too small for two persons. Inside my room, one would hear all kinds of sounds, from water being flushed in a toilet bowl, dripping water from a bath, footsteps walking here and there, falling objects, voices and even the crawling of critters. Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to get used to it. All the annoying sounds later turned like music to my ears that it easily put me to sleep. I have no choice but to make a bad situation bearable especially when I am not feeling well…I need a shelter where I could rest and sleep.

I was ready with the documents for my H-1B petition. The friends I contacted in the Philippines helped me in securing the original copies (I only had photocopies with me) of my diploma and transcript of records. I was also able to obtain a certificate of experience from the publication and wire service where I used to work. I hoping to convince the company lawyer to file a petition for me as a writer/ journalist rather than as an editor, which was what he had in mind.

Once I was in the lawyer’s office, his receptionist told me to entrust the documents to her, saying there was no need for me to see the barrister. I gave her the documents and paid the filing fee of $610. On my way home, I really felt uneasy for not having talked with the lawyer and leaving my documents with his receptionist. The next morning, I decided to withdraw my petition.

Being a stranger to a new place made me seek news friends. I want to fight boredom brought about by my being alone. One day, an acquaintance gave me a name, Abigail. I called once, twice and not too long thereafter we had been “burning” the telephone lines almost every night. I would call her about eleven in the evening and we will talk for several hours. Because of our long chats, we are already quite familiar with each other by the time we met.

When Abigail celebrated her birthday, she wanted me to come to her house in the Rampart district and join her friends for a simple party. I politely declined the invitation, telling her I couldn’t come as we normally wound up late in the evening. But I had a plan. I bought her a VHS player and asked a new acquaintance to bring and personally hand it to her. When my go between came back, he told me what happened and exclaimed, “Boy, she’s beautiful!”

It was very late in the evening when I phoned her. She thanked me for the gift but expressed her disappointment that I didn’t show up. In response, I suggested we meet at the Griffith Park sometime but she was noncommittal.Three days later, she called about midnight and sounded very agitated. She said a couple renting one of her rooms had been delinquent in payments, enough to upset her. Moreover, she told me that she had to take some tranquilizers to calm her down. She wanted the couple to leave as soon as possible but if they won’t leave, she said she would be forced to abandon the apartment.

“If I move, I want you to come with me!” I was taken aback, it is so soon for a live-in relationship!

“We could just forget each other if you don’t want to live with me.” So soon an ultimatum!

“Why don’t we meet first?” I suggested. “We could meet at Denny’s at San Fernando.”

We agreed to a prearranged date one morning in April. I arrived 30 minutes early as I wanted to see her first. It was exactly 10 am. when her gold-colored Toyota Corolla drove into the parking lot. I immediately recognized her when she came inside. She was about 40 years old and wearing glasses. Her hair was curly and short.

As she appeared in the doorway, she was obviously looking for me. She seems bothered and was not smiling. I was looking at her directly but she didn’t notice me. She had no idea how I look. She had expected someone would approach her and I did.

“Abigail,” I called her name. She threw a glance at me and blankly nodded her head once. Still not talking, she made a facial gesture indicating that I should follow her which I did. Puzzled by her act, I asked as I open the car door: “Where to?”

“I’m buying a screwdriver,” she pointedly told me. “I left my keys in the house, the door got jammed. I have to dismantle it. My son may call anytime. We hadn’t seen each other since my birthday. Remember, he got in an accident? I’ve to go back to fix it.”

Oh my gosh! What a surprise. We just met for less than a minute and here she is wanting to go home. Everything went so fast. I was totally shock by her demeanor. Why would she want to go home as soon as she came? Or, I guess she came just to show up but got disappointed when she saw me, a not Brad Pitt look alike guy. Go ahead, I am thinking, leave by all means.

“Call me tonight,” she said.

“Can you drop me at K-Mart?” I asked.

She did but before I close the car door as I came out of the car, she reminded me anew to call her. She waved as she sped away. I didn’t want to call her anymore. It was my very first frustrating experience with a Filipino-American woman.

Juozapaz was a born-again Christian. He invited me to their church when we met at K-Mart mid-afternoon. I don’t mind going to a place of worship of any denomination. All religions are fine with me as long as they believe in one God and don’t attack other religions.

As we entered the church sanctuary, I saw people in the congregation crying. One or two were even wailing. There were three women on the stage, two of them kneeling and crying profusely, the other was in the lectern preaching with her eyes closed. I recognized the woman in the lectern as my schoolmate in college. She is the pastor’s wife in Carson. I also saw another man weeping on the stage. People around me were also crying unabashedly. I wondered what was going on. I didn’t think I could cry in public, without any real emotional reason.

After the service, almost everyone gave me a welcome hug and urged me to come back. One of the members explained that their group is not a religion.

“It’s a relationship with God, like a son’s relationship with his parents,” she said.

She encouraged me to attend the service again.

“I might, but I don’t know when,” I said, trying my best to be as polite as possible.When night falls, I found myself walking through the rain with just a cap on my head. It was cold, really cold, but I tried to bear it all. I was shivering when I arrived home. I lay down, covered myself with a thick blanket that bought at Santee (9) and donned a bonnet to stay warm.

I woke up the next morning with a terrible headache. My muscles are trembling and so was the rest of my body. I hadn’t had enough sleep. I went to bed again. It was 12 noon when I reported for work, still feeling weak.

One morning, while we were buried deep in our work at the editorial office of Baltic Publication, Thalia walked in and told us not to disturb Apple, who was rushing the first edition of the Sunset Times magazine. It was a new magazine that Baltic was trying to publish.

Apple had just been hired to handle the magazine alone. The magazine publication is already behind deadline and they are hoping Apple could catch up. We weren’t bothering him and we had nothing to do with the delay or any of its problem. It was the constant changes in the layout, the late submission of ads, and the firing of Apple’s predecessor that had caused the delay.

Although Thalia’s insinuation was unfair, we kept our opinions to ourselves. We didn’t react right away. How could we disturb Apple in his work when we also have our own jobs to do? When she left the room, we broke into a boisterous laughter which we had been suppressing. Her sidekick saw us laughing. He was clueless as to why we were in that state of hysterics. He quickly left too, leaving the door open so Thalia could see us in that unguarded moment.

Later, we learned from the secretary that her sidekick surreptitiously reported us to Thalia for making noise instead of working. We expected Thalia to burst in and give us a dressing down but she didn’t. We assumed she would wait another time to scold us so her sidekick wouldn’t be exposed for ratting on us.

After three months, Apple confided that he was not being properly paid. He was paid only $480 instead of the promised $600 for two weeks of work. He also complained that this wasn’t the only time he’d gotten his pay docked.

Thalia used Apple’s habitual tardiness as excuse for the underpayment. Apple had been taking his children to school every morning and thus comes to work late but to make up for the lost time, he will work late into the evening. He also reports on Saturdays and Sundays to catch up with the schedule of the Sunset Times.

9 Santee Alley is a “back alley” shopping place between Maple and Santee Streets, stretching from Olympic to Pico, notorious for large concentration of knockoff designer goods, pirated DVDs, bootleg items and illegal trade of animals. It is similar to Divisoria in Manila, home to inexpensive goods and clothing as well as counterfeits merchandise. Retrieved 9/24/2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion_

However, Thalia apparently didn’t consider the extra time he is putting in.

Apple was terribly upset while he spilled the beans on us. I tried to cheer him up with a joke, but he still appeared dejected. He then pulled out a scrap of paper with a pen and ink sketch of an alien with big wide eyes wearing a black hat.

The alien figure was intimidating indeed. Beneath the oblong face of the alien were the words “Illegal Alien,” apparently copyrighted as ATF 1999 was written underneath. He found that scary piece of paper on the windshield of his cream-colored 87 Toyota Camry, which he had parked near the side entrance of the building. He also saw a similar message stuck in the windshield wiper of Kristina and Bob’s cars.

Asking him whether he suspected anybody in the office, he immediately volunteered:“Yes, I have three suspects—Joe, Fernando, and Fred.”

One by one, I analyzed the possible culprits. Even if Joe was Thalia’s stool pigeon, he wouldn’t have done it. Joe is not the kind of guy who would frighten people about their immigration status. With regards to Fernando, he is only a loudmouth—not a terrorist. Many also suspected him of being another one of Thalia’s moles, but still I couldn’t find a good reason why he would do it. I thus narrowed it down to Fred, the most talkative guy in the office and who is always warning us to be careful with the INS.

“Fred was a little disappointed with me when I bought a car instead of getting it on lease,” Apple ventured.

I remember it was Fred who always warns us not to discuss our status with anybody, saying those people with whom we shared information might tip the immigration and get a bounty once we get arrested.

“So, it could be Fred,” Apple concluded.

Three weeks later, Bob admitted he too, noticed the piece of paper on his windshield and that he saw Fred hanging around when he removed it. He said he didn’t have any inkling Fred could have done it. We kept the matter to ourselves. We feared whoever might have been making fun of our vulnerability, might really report us to the INS if we put him on the spot.

One afternoon in June while we are having a party in the publication office, I accidentally opened Fred’s drawer and saw several pieces of papers with the drawing of the alien.

Every time I was at my lowest moment, I feel like connecting with my family. I called my sister in Cavite to have some degree of relief and regain my sense of sanity. It was Stephanie, who picked up the phone.

“Papa, they said I’m talkative. I’m not. They’re the ones talking to me,” she said.

I asked for her grades and she said “My grades are 88 and 89. It’s close to 90, Papa.”

She handed the phone to my sister, who broke the news that Stephanie had primary complex. My heart broke. I heard my daughter voice again. She thanked me for the Valentine card I sent her.

“Mama doesn’t love you anymore because you left us.” I wasn’t able to say anything. I was thinking of her health.

Chito and I left for Fresno one early morning to meet caregivers, who wanted to bolt out from the facility they were working at. He was to sign them up so the law firm he was working with could handle their immigration cases and move them to Fountain View, another facility for the elderly citizens in Los Angeles that he had connection with.

After about an hour’s drive aboard a van provided by Fountain View, we had breakfast at Carl’s Jr in Gorman. The place has an elevation of 4,000 feet and it snows here whenever it is winter.

On Interstate 5, we drove alongside a cow ranch where we had to endure its stinking smell. It reminded me of Meycauayan, a city in Bulacan province north of Manila which also stink because of the production of leather.

We hit Novato about three in the afternoon. Novato was a quiet place, very suburban. There were trees around, plenty of bushes, and plants in front of the houses along the road. It was peaceful but the stillness of the place was deceiving.In one of the several facilities for the elderly in the area, trouble was brewing. The caregivers are  distraught and want to leave the place.

As we got down from the van, eight caregivers approached us and related some sad stories they had at the Fresno Care Convalescent. Two were nurses, one was an accounting graduate, another was a certified public accountant, and the other one a lawyer. One of them even worked before with the Supreme Court of the Philippines as clerk of court. The other two were also college degree holders. All came in to the US as tourists and still have no legal documents to legitimize their stay.

They complained of long hours of work with no over- time pay. They were made to believe the management had been working on with their immigration papers only to learn that no petition had actually been filed with the federal immigration service. They said their employer is a Filipino.

While Chito talked with the caregivers individually, the driver and I loaded their baggage in the van for a trip back to L.A. right after sunset.

My working relationship with Thalia is getting worse. She would flare up easily whenever I could not produce the ads that she wanted. One time after I discovered a missing ad, she blew her top and told me me to look everywhere whenever I was looking for an advertisement.

She sent for Kristina to her office and when she came back, she said Thalia wanted us at work by nine in the morning or even earlier. She also didn’t want us to go home early even if we were done with our work for the day.

One lousy and hot afternoon, Thalia asked if Honda had an advertisement for that week’s issue. Without looking at her, I responded that I don’t know while I fingered the schedule of ads pasted on the wall in front of me. As I was going over the schedule, she went ballistic, hollering that she didn’t like the way I was answering her. She wanted me to look for the ads instead of telling her that I don’t know. I held my peace.

Two days later, I bumped into her along a dimly lit corridor. She went on a tongue-lashing attack, evidently still angry. She threatened to kick me out if I wouldn’t learn to talk to her politely. She emphasized that if she were looking for something, I should personally help her find it. She hollered that Bob and Kristina are not my assistants. At lunch break, Thalia lost her cool again when she didn’t find any of us in the work room. Coming back from lunch break, she told us to take our lunch one or two at a time so that there would always be someone left in case she need us.

I really wanted to speak up, to say something but somehow I still managed to control myself. However, by this time, I felt suffocated that I could hardly breathe. She was like confining us into a box which is what she wanted. I had this feeling that the box was getting smaller and smaller and that we are slowly being squeezed. Leaving the office in the evening, almost all of us are depressed. Our morale is very low.

Bob and I settled our disappointments over several shots of tequila in his apartment while Kristina and Apple feasted on the appetizers. We shifted to beer when there was no more Tequila. On reaching home, I easily dropped dead on my bed.

The case of Elian Gonzales had now become the talk of the town. The Immigration and Naturalization Service gave Juan Miguel Gonzales the sole custody of the boy. Four days after, Florida Family Court judge Rosa Rodriguez allowed Elian’s great-uncle temporary custody of the child. But Attorney General Janet Reno sustained the INS judgment giving Elian to his father.” (To be continued)

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