Wednesday, September 9, 2015

He Who Should Be Doing the Thanking

As I have probably observed here before, if I had seen Arturo on a bus, I wouldn’t in a million years have imagined that we had anything in common, and after our first meeting, at a Starbucks on Wilshire Blvd., I wasn’t so sure I craved a second one, as I mistook his extreme shyness for impenetrability. He very haltingly confided at that first meeting, brokered by the LA Public Library’s adult literacy program, that he didn’t know what to say to his own three adult children on the rare occasions that one of them phoned. His life consisted of sleeping (or, more accurately, chronically failing to sleep) on the floor of a tiny rented bedroom in not-very-salubrious Inglewood, and then commuting three hours a day to his horrible job as a switchboard operator at a hospital where he was constantly being harassed by black fellow employees for his Salvadoran accent.

(This bears consideration. A great many people think of blacks as nothing but oppressed, but several Latino acquaintances tell me that black people can be quite avid oppressors too. Art, whom a couple of black kids beat a few years ago into a coma from which it took him months to awake for the offense of being Latino, is no less reflexively frightened to be alone on a bus with black kids than those kids would be to find themselves alone on a bus with white dudes in Aryan Nation T-shirts.)

I advised Art at that first meeting that all he really needed to say to his kids was, “I’m really happy to hear from you, and I love you.” He liked that, and it set an important precedent. We would continue at every meeting to work on his reading and writing, and especially on his accent. (We take for granted that the short i sound in bit or hit is very easy, but try telling that to a native Spanish — or Korean — speaker.) In lots of ways our meetings came to resemble psychotherapeutic sessions. He confided his loneliness, and the lingering pain of his longtime girlfriend and later wife, with whom he’d spoken pot and listened to Pink Floyd atop Mayan temples in their native “Salvy,” having betrayed him. It emerged that he saw himself as friendless. I told him that I hoped he would consider me a friend, and was enormously gratified when he did.

As I was enormously gratified too — given that his favorite television was Scooby-Doo cartoons — when I got him reading John Steinbeck and, more recently, Mark Twain. But as much as reveled in that, I got even greater pleasure this past week from talking him out of Jesus, to whom he gave full credit for transforming him from a crack-smoking gangbanger into one of very pure heart. How did it make sense, I asked that he gave himself all the blame for his past involvement in drive-by shootings, but none of the credit for having become the wonderful man I am proud to call friend? I think I have talked him to doing volunteer work — specifically, visiting the inmates of nursing homes — on Sunday mornings rather than displaying his piety for others cruelly duped. I'm proud of that.

I’ve never met a more buoyant, cheerful person. Ask him pretty much any time of day or night how’s he’s doing, regardless of how little sleep he managed or how mercilessly someone at the hospital ridiculed him, and he’ll grin a grin by whose light you could read, raise a fist in the air, and exult, “Awesome!” 

At the end of every session he shakes my hand and says, “Thanks for all you do for me, mister.” It’s kind of like the Jesus business all over again. I’m the one who should be doing the thanking.

See and hear Art tell his own story. 

1 comment:

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