Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien) #13

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.

(13th installment)

CHAPTER 12

For the weeks I stayed unpaid in Bullhead. When Desmond came back, I bitterly told him that I would rather die in LA. than in Bullhead.

As I poured out my sentiments, a dam in me exploded and I found myself teary eyed. As I have no where to go for I have given up the room that I rent at York Boulevard, Desmond, without any show of emotion, said I could stay in his house while I look for a job. It is now obvious that he has no intention to hire me in his hotel.

* * *

Upon reaching LA., I called my buddy Nick and told him what happened. He automatically offered his house for which I am so grateful and I took his offer.

The following day, Nick picked me up at Albertsons. I only had a knapsack full of clothing with me.

Nick lived in Gardena with his family. He said I could stay with them for as long as it would take me to find a job.

There would be no problem with food as I would eat with them. He gave me a futon bed to sleep on but I chose to slumber on the couch, so as not to mess up the living room, especially during the early morning when everybody is awake.

There were two bedrooms in the apartment, one used by his youngest son while the other is used by Nick and his wife.

To keep me away from brooding, Nick encouraged me to work on a semi-antique study desk in the garage so I could have some money to send to my family. He said he would pay me like how he paid anyone else for restoring an antique furniture. Having no experience in restoration, he promised to guide me every step of the way to do the job. His gesture of generosity is unbelievable. It deeply touched me.

Nick showed me how to remove the varnish from the study desk with an F-33 paint and varnish remover. With a paint-brush, I removed the varnish from all the compartments. It took me three days to take off the varnish.

On the fourth day, I applied thinner lacquer paint to stop the varnish remover from penetrating the wood. The area that I brushed with lacquer, I repeatedly wiped with a piece of cloth. It would take three more days before all the compartments and surfaces are stained with a walnut color.

* * *

The mass transit strike was on its 72nd day, greatly limiting my mobility and with it, my ability to look for a job.

Except for restoring antiques, I had been idle most of the time praying that the strike would be over soon. News reports said negotiations had been nonstop during the three week-long strike.

On October 18, exactly after 32 days when the negotiations began, the bus and rail operators accepted a new contract with higher wages and benefits. It took a southern preacher, Rev. Jesse Jackson, to convince another Southern Baptist leader, Chairman James Williams, to end the strike.

As the days go by, I continuously worked on the antique desk. I painted the stained surface with a semi-gloss wood finish, sanded it with no. 320-sandpaper, and painted it again with a semi-gloss wood finish.

I will repeat the whole procedures several times until the veins on the wood surface couldn’t be felt anymore. With a clean cloth and a wax, I rubbed the semi-antique desk over and over again.

After 15 days of labor, the work is done. I’d never done restoration or carpentry in my life and the sense of accomplishment I felt is a welcome change.

* * *

There was this time when Nick and his wife went on a shopping spree. Between them, my buddy is more exuberant buying whatever he fancied, especially if it is for his tennis and biking hobbies.

Nick bought items with known expensive brand named like Adidas, Nike, Fred Perry, Wilson, etc… as if money is not a problem at all.

Whenever I am with them, I do a lot of window shopping since I don’t have any money to spend. However, I told myself that even if I could afford to buy something, I won’t buy the branded items. I never dreamed of buying them for my needs are simple.

I have no problem buying a knockoff polo shirt or an unbranded jacket. They are fine as long as it fit and look good on me. I have no cravings for luxurious goods.

However, I always thought of buying something for my family but being broke and jobless, I couldn’t do so. My Adam’s apple would go up and down every time in frustration as I cannot buy the goods that I want for them.

It is ironic that here in America, the land of plenty, I couldn’t even pamper myself with what I need or want much more buy something for my love ones.

* * *

The Sagmits are the kindest people I’ve known. Their generosity is unquestionable. To return their kindness, I helped in the household chores like washing the dishes, emptying the garbage cans, cleaning the toilet, mopping the kitchen floor and helping his wife bring in to the house the groceries and laundry.

Being a freeloader is the last thing in my mind.

* * *

Nick lived up to his promise to provide the necessary support while I look for a job. Interestingly, Nick and I are not close when we are still the in Philippines. We just happened to know each other since we were in the same profession. It was America that brought us together, like we had been friends for a long time.

Offering his house and help was something I had never expected. He taught me how to restore antique furniture, so I could earn money. He gave me my share as soon as he got paid for a job done…gave me a ride when there was an appointment to meet, and even let me drive his Toyota Tacoma pickup so I could practice driving.

There is nothing more I could have asked from him.

* * *

I told Chito, another buddy of mine, about my job hunting predicament and he suggested that apply with Rhony Laigo’s Diaryo Pilipino as an account executive, a job that entails soliciting advertisements for the newspaper.

Rhony had a short stint in Saipan before he moved to Southern California. Luck fell on his lap when friends turned over to him the ownership of Diaryo Pilipino for a token amount.

Diaryo Pilipino could sponsor me, but that does not interest me. Not being able to drive, the same problem I had with Omar Dostoyevsky, will surely hamper my efforts to solicit advertisements for Rhony’s newspaper.

Account executives who take the bus have less time looking for advertisers.

Nick also did his share in looking a job for me by talking with his Persian-Jewish boss at Fine Arts Gallery, thinking he might hire me as as assistant restorer but he was turned down.

He was told that the business is not doing good. In fact, the gallery is planning to let go some employees in a couple of months.

Nick also asked another friend, Charlie, if I could have a job with the Page Computer. Again, he was turned down as Page Computer is already “overstaffed.” I have a feeling though that the real reason for the rejection is my lack of computer knowledge.

Despite the number of people trying to help me, my prognosis is on the downside.

* * *

With the little knowledge I learned in restoring antique furniture, I thought of turning to an acquaintance in Toronto, Canada who is in the furniture business. He previously offered me a job when I was in Canada but wanted me to wait until he returned from the Philippines.

However, I left for the US. before he could arrive. With the experience I gained in antique restoration, I thought I might be ready to work for him. I wrote him a letter asking if the offer is still good. I sounded desperate because I was.

As I lay in bed, close to breaking down, I wonder why life is so tough on me. I don’t understand why I have to suffer so much. Worse, the trials never seem to stop. Why is it that some guys have all the luck and breaks while there is none for me? It’s unfair. I don’t mind being poor, but why am I so marginalized?

My physical disability seems to have limited my ability to be productive. It makes me feel alienated, inferior and I don’t like it. There are times I am taunted because of my disability and it hurts.

Thus it is not surprising that in gatherings like a church service or party, I would often stay in the back and play everything low-key. If I notice people prying on me with their curious look, I feel like melting. I resent being stared.

I also feel that I don’t have the same opportunity compared to other job seekers.

* * *

However, in a way, my “disability” made me stronger and broad minded. It taught me how to stand my ground and ignore the ridicule.

Yes, I was able to fight my way up later. But it’s a hard struggle. Really hard! Along the way, there have been a lot of disappointments and rejections. Even the very idea of trying to overcome my infirmity has been a tall order. Sometimes, I wished I’d never existed at all.

I was five years old when I broke my back from a fall in a flight of stairs. For some time, I wasn’t able to stand up or walk. I had to crawl to move.

Had my parents not brought me to a hospital where I was confined for two years, I wouldn’t have walked again. In fact, many thought I will never walk again or even stand up without being aided.

The accident broke my spine, distorted my body, in a way that I had to bear of it forever. I hated it so much. Some people thought my physical infirmity was inborn. Thanks to my desire to live and survive, I braved it all – the ridicule, scrutiny and the unpleasant impressions.

Through sheer determination, I gained some level of achievement in school and the work place, where I also earned a degree of respect from my peers and colleagues.

My job as a journalist took me to countries I never imagined I could visit. I hobnobbed with ambassadors, dignitaries and even chatted with some world leaders. At the same time, I met interesting underworld characters.

In love, I won a few and lost some, just like anybody else. Life is a continuing struggle and I’m still struggling today. Had I been a physically able, I wouldn’t mind the struggle. I know I could have done a lot better. But as it is, life is tough and survival is difficult.

* * *

In an overseas call, my younger sister told me that my house in Kawit, Cavite came underwater because of tropical storm Reming. This is the first time that flood waters reached the subdivision, Villa Canacao, where my house is located. The subdivision was built on a high ground.

Before I bought the place, I was told that layers of gravel and sand were piled on the rice paddies where the subdivision was built. Many residents believed that if Villa Canacao was flooded, then more so the main road. It would surely be like the sea out there we all thought.

The floodwater, I was told, went into the house and soaked the carpet, and everything on the floor. They even have to replace the door to my library room as the flood damaged it and termites finished it off.

I only had USD$230 with me when I got the news. I had been saving that money and trying to stretch it so it could tide me over while I am looking for a job. But now, I’ll just have to send it to my mother.

I had the money sent and converted to Philippine peso. From that small amount, I told my sister to give our mother PhP1,300.00, my birthday gift to her, and use the rest to pay for the door’s repair.

With the destruction brought about by typhoon Reming and the news of another impending storm, I doubt whether mother would still hold her usual get-together on All Saints’ Day.

* * *

Days went by and I was still jobless. I was getting edgy again. I picked up a tennis racket in the house, headed to a tennis court that was within walking distance from Nick’s apartment and I played against the wall.

I hit the ball as hard as I could to release the tension in me. I easily got tired running after the ball and now I know for certain that age is catching up with me.

* * *

Chito got his green card.

As expected, he will go home to see his mother. It is customary for Filipinos who get the “green card” to immediately go home. The waiting period for the card is a long time and that is a long time to be out of the Philippines.

You come with me, I might get you a job,” he said as we boarded his silver metallic Nissan Pathfinder Sports Utility Vehicle.

I had my resume’ sandwiched between the pages of a Watchtower pamphlet, the first time I had kept a religious reading material.

Apple, who belonged to the Jehovah’s Witness, gave me the pamphlet the cover article of which reads “Does Praying Do Any Good?”

Along the way, Chito picked up a young lady whom he would bring to Mary Ann Pagsibugan of the Adult Health Care where she will work as a certified nursing attendant while she try to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)-RN for nurses.

The NCLEX-RN examination is taken by nurses who wish to practice their profession in the State of California. The young lady is a Philippine nursing school graduate.

Later, we decided to go to Fountain View—a convalescent for the elderly—to see if there was a job for me there. I took the front seat with my friend while our nurse companion settled in the backseat.

Chito positioned his SUV in the center lane of the road upon reaching the Melrose and Normandie intersections in Los Angeles. Traffic was moving slow on both sides of the road.

As the traffic light turned yellow, Chito tried to beat the light but the slowly moving traffic got him stuck in the intersection. As soon as an opening appeared, he quickly swerved to the left just as the light turned red and bang!

An old black Chevy car hit the passenger side of our SUV. The SUV’s right side door slammed into the exterior side of my right knee and elbow as the black car slammed into us and I felt like I have absorbed most of the impact.

Motionless for a while, it seemed that I have lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes, I saw people looking down at me. From where I was, I saw the left side portion of the black car’s hood became a crumpled steel.

Chito, meanwhile, was not moving as he was in a state of shock. Our woman companion in the backseat was also speechless. She too appears to have been shaken.

The driver of the Chevy car, a black guy, went right away to Chito’s side yelling:

It was red! Don’t you know it was red? Why did you go?” Still dazed, Chito didn’t respond. He whispered to me to get Larry from Page Computer, a block away.

I cannot open the door on my side as it was stuck so I went over to Chito’s side and got out from his door while he remained on his seat. I staggered to the Page Computer and Larry came back with me to the car.

The Chevy car is gone. The driver left in a hurry to supposedly renew his expired insurance but before he went away, he gave his name and address to Chito.

A man speaking Spanish and English at the same time came up, in effect telling me to pretend I was in pain. He gave a business card, assuring I could have money.

Within 15 minutes, a fire truck came but finding nobody seriously hurt, the firemen left as quickly as they came. Next a police patrol car pulled over. The officer talked with us, one at a time.

What happened?” the officer asked.

As we were making a left turn, a black car hit us hard,” I told him.

What was the light?”

Yellow,” I said.

Chito and our lady passenger also gave the same answer.

While the SUV was being towed, I saw that its suspension spring was cut in two. There was also a large and deep dent on the lower portion of the right door.

The SUV was a total wreck. Had we been driving a car instead of an SUV, God only knows what could have happened. Now I suddenly wonder if God saved us because of the religious pamphlet I had with me.

When Charlie heard about the accident, he said, “You journalists are lucky!”

I couldn’t tell whether Charlie’s remark is a compliment or not.

* * *

It’s Thanksgiving Day and I am thankful for all the blessings that came my way. As a non-paying guest of the Sagmit family, I tried my best to repay their kindness in whatever way I could.

On this particular early morning, I scrubbed the toilet bowl with a scrubbing tissue and a 409 detergent. With gloves on, I dipped my hands into the toilet bowl cleaning the crevices underneath. I scrubbed the lavatory, the bathtub, and the floor. I also did the kitchen sink and floor, then emptied the garbage cans.

Afterwards, while having lunch with them, Nick spoke.

I want to tell you this but I don’t know how to begin. I hope you won’t hold it against me. I wanted to tell you this, two or three days ago, but I didn’t have the heart. You know my brother-in-law had resigned from his job. He is going to stay with us while we are negotiating with another restaurant. I guess you know what I mean. He needs a room in this house. I’m not trying to get rid of you. I just want you to know he’ll have to stay here. He used to sleep on the couch you’re using now as your bed.”

Ouch, it was as if somebody hit me on the head. The food I was eating seemed to have been stuck down my throat. I covered my mouth with my hands and took a deep breath without showing them.

Slowly I said, “I understand…can you give me a little time to look for a place?”

The eating suddenly stopped, punctuated by an unusual momentary silence rarely found when people are having lunch or dinner together and then as if on cue life came back on that table when eating resumed.

Right after lunch, I wasted no time. I took the Metro bus to downtown LA. From there, I transferred to bus 84 to Eagle Rock Boulevard where Atty. Jonathan Crisologo’s law firm was.

I told the lawyer about my problem. Surprisingly, he was accommodating. He offered to take me for $500 a month to organize his work, write letters and make errands for him. The pay was too damn low but he said it was what he could afford. I had no paper, I was begging for a job and like beggars, I cannot be choosy.

The salary would sustain me for a while.

Jonathan, stressing that he just want me to keep going, also said that he wouldn’t mind me leaving if ever I got a good offer from another employer. What a consolation!!!

That evening, Roger called. He said the only available slot in the Asian Journal was on sales. He would keep my resume on file. That was a diplomatic no.

Two days later, late in the afternoon, I bade good-bye to Nick and his wife. His brother-in-law was there.

Thank you for everything,” my voice cracking.

My timing surprised my friend. He didn’t expect me to leave so soon, barely two days after telling me they needed the space I was using.

Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Why only now? It’s already late!”

No problem,” I said. “I can manage.”

No, I’ll drive you. You have so many things to carry. Wait for me. I’ll just change to something.”

On the road, Nick tried his best to appease me.

I hope there is no problem. We’re still friends?”

Of course. I came as a friend and I’ll leave as a friend.”

He apologized for not having been able to get me a job. I knew he tried. He talked to his son-in-law to get me into their company but he said “there’s no place for you there, except in the warehouse where you will have to lift things.”

Nick continued, trying his best to make me understand what he did.

It’s not that I’m belittling you, but that’s hard work, man. Hard work!”

The same reason his boss at Fine Gallery had rejected me, as most of the job in the warehouse involved lifting antique furniture.

I felt bad,” he said.

Just forget it,” I quipped.

As I got down from his pick-up truck, he extended his hand and said “we should still be friends despite everything.”

We should be,” I replied.

I walked away from him towards Apple’s apartment, who took me reluctantly.

Apple wanted to help but didn’t want me to stay in his apartment for long. He is so concerned with his family’s privacy.

They were all early risers. His children went to school while he and his wife worked. He oversee the household’s bathroom schedule and with me in the house, that schedule will surely be disrupted.

Apple is a friendly guy, approachable and helpful. He had always been a friend, extending a helping hand whenever he could. If he could only find a place for me, he would foot the bill himself, he said.

He made me stay for two nights though. I slept on the couch.

On the third day, he sent me down to Bob’s flat, who was on the first floor. He was willing enough to take me in. I felt so embarrassed. I had nowhere to go. It is a dead end. The situation is pushing me against the wall.

* * *

I fished out two quarters from my pocket and dropped them in a newspaper box on the street.

The Los Angeles Times’ Richard Boudreaux and Robyn Dixon reported that after a week of ineptitude by the Russian government to save the crew of Kurst, the Norwegian and British divers pried open the rear escape hatch of the submarine14 lying 350 feet below the sea and found no survivors. The tragedy exposed the inability of the Russian navy to cope with the disaster.

Konstantin Argelade, a civilian deep-sea diving expert said: “The rescue was doomed because there were no divers in the navy or in Russia capable of descending to the 354-foot depth of the sunken submarine. (Robyn Dixon and Alexei V. Kuznetsov, 2000) The navy command knew it and should have called in foreign divers immediately.”

Argelade said that the Russian navy having no professional deep-sea divers to carry out rescues is unacceptable.

It is like sending people to fly planes without parachutes.”

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