Searching for my American Dream

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Camp Timberlake was an all-boys camp, which was part of a group of camps grouped under the generic name of Farm and Wilderness Camps. There were a total of seven camps including Indian Brook, an all-girls camp, Flying Clouds, a camp that specialized in trips and life in the wilderness. There was also the Barn Day camp for younger children. Timberlake, as well as all the other camps, was located in the middle of tall trees and verdant vegetation. There was no electricity except in the kitchen, which was a large wooden structure called the Upper Lodge. The Upper Lodge also included a dining hall and a shower area. Timberlake had no ultra modern bathrooms, but don’t imagine we relieved ourselves in the woods. No, we didn’t. We had latrines that on a hot day stank like some dead animal was rotting in them. Campers had baptized them KYBO’s, which meant “Keep Your Bowels Open!” The KYBO’s had their positive and negative sides. The positive was that unlike the shower areas, they were located in little huts and so you got to keep your privacy if you wanted to. The bad thing was that most huts had more than one KYBO and sometimes you had to share this sacred time with another person! Well, unless you took time to flip the green slate at the entrance to expose its red side, an indication that the KYBO was occupied by someone who didn’t want to be bothered.

            That night of June 21st 1996, when our van stopped at Camp Timberlake, I didn’t have time to put my suitcase up. We had to go straight to the dining hall because 5:30 PM was dinnertime. We washed our hands at the entrance of the Upper Lodge and joined the throng of campers and counselors for the evening meal. After the meal and before I had had time to take care of my cumbersome suitcase, Harry introduced me to the campers and staff who roared in unison, “WELCOME TO TIMBERLAKE!” I was then shown to my cabin. My co-counselor’s name was Jonathan Coughlin and the name of our cabin was “Wickiup.” From our cabin we could see the lake where campers used to take swimming lessons or go canoeing on a hot afternoon. Our duty was to take care of eight kids between the ages of eight and ten.

            The daily routine was as follows: we would wake them up in the morning at the first bell, around 6:30 A.M., and have them brush their teeth, get dressed, and get ready for breakfast. The second bell, which rang about 6:45, meant that we had to proceed to the Upper Lodge. It was usually easy to round everybody up, but sometimes some campers would drag their feet. When that happened, one counselor had to stay behind and walk with them. Once in the dining hall we sat by cabin and every day two campers were responsible for bringing the food from the kitchen and cleaning the table after each meal. By doing that we intended to instill in our campers a sense of responsibility. Another way we tried to inculcate responsibility was by holding campers accountable for cleaning up their cabin at least twice a week. We taught them to be organized, not to throw their clothes all over the place and to respect each other’s private space. They were not to touch anybody else’s belongings without that person’s consent.

            After breakfast, we would proceed to a special area for “quiet meeting.” This was a place with log benches and rocks where campers and staff would sit in total silence. Those who felt so inclined could share an experience they deemed beneficial to fellow campers or counselors. This was no forum for grievances on how the camp is run or should be run; it was rather an occasion for people to share thoughts about life and to get philosophical, so to speak.

            I found those meetings very useful and inspiring for the most part, as they usually addressed some issue that I had in mind but was too shy to talk about in public. At other times it was just interesting for someone to break the silence even though what they had to say didn’t make much sense. I remember one time an old man from Japan was invited to camp to speak on the commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember the content of his testimony, but I remember being moved to tears because I felt so close to the victims and their offspring. As the old Japanese guest spoke in broken English, I had a strong feeling that all human beings are brothers and sisters. As I began to ponder the motives behind atrocities commit against one another, tears began streaming down my cheeks. Then I thought about myself and how I sometimes lose my temper and feel a strange urge to hurt somebody and, shaking my head, I came to the conclusion that some situations were so overwhelming that our reactions were beyond our control. America decided to retaliate following the attack on Pearle Harbor. This was done in self-defense, which is legitimate, but thinking about the innocent victims, those who lost their lives, those who survived and subsequently gave birth to children with physical defects, I can’t conceive of a punishment so out of proportion.

            Apart from serving as a forum for sharing thoughts on life, the Silent Meeting area was also the place where campers, counselors and the administrative staff made announcements about the activities of the day and other important announcements pertaining to the community of camps as a whole. After the announcements, campers were divided into various groups of activity for the rest of the morning. Some busied themselves on the farm, taking care of animals or planting or harvesting while others went to the waterfront for swimming lessons; still others would be at the fair grounds, taking a lesson in archery or some other craft until lunchtime at 12:30 P.M.

            After lunch we had a one-hour break, which we usually spent in our cabins cleaning or taking a nap. This period was also considered quiet time even though most of the time I could not enjoy my well-deserved siesta for the campers’ noisy conversations. And so it happened that usually I was more tired after the break than before. The point is that because the camper spent most of the hour talking, I was able to doze off only toward the end of the break when there were just a few minutes left.

            In the afternoon counselors offered recreational activities individually or in pairs. Usually the whole camp would gather on a grassy lot by the lake, then counselors would step up and announce what they intended to do that afternoon. After all the counselors had presented their activities (soccer, ultimate Frisbee, martial arts, etc), campers would pick the activities that interested them and the group would break up until “open swimming” time, which was around 4:00 P.M. it is on one of those occasions that I discovered the meaning of “fifth freedom.”

            I had taken my campers to the waterfront and I was sitting on a bench by the lake, “spotting.” Now, at Timberlake those who wanted to could swim naked, even though most people preferred to wear their swimming trunks. I was getting ready to go on a canoe ride when one of the ladies who worked in the office walked by, throwing a “how’ ye doin’” in my direction. I answered in kind and stopped to take a last look at the campers in the water before getting in the canoe. Right then and there, the lady began to take off her clothes. Now, there I was, expecting to see a colorful swimming suit. In the twinkling of an eye the top was off, bearing her naked breast! I looked away in shock, not knowing that there was much more in store for me. When I thought she was done changing into her bathing suit, there she was, naked as a worm! Damn! She was walking toward the lake to take a dip and no one seemed to care. I just slipped on my life vest, got in my canoe and paddled away, musing over what I had just witnessed and torn with mixed feelings. I later learned that that was a way for the folks to show pride in the beauty of their body! In the Ivory Coast you would be sent to a lunatic asylum if you stripped in front of people, especially those of the opposite sex; well unless you were a nudist, in which case you got naked in a nudist club.

            When the camp closed around mid-August, I was not very sure what to do but before long my friend Jean convinced me to stay. I followed a fellow counselor to Putney, a small town in Vermont where I picked apples for about a week until the owner of the orchard, Matt, discovered that I didn’t have a work permit. He paid me in cash and explained that he didn’t want to get into trouble. I therefore packed up and headed back to New York City. I had thought that I wouldn’t have to share an apartment with three or four other grown up, at least not for an extended period, but there I was with no other option. You’re supposed to make do with what you have, aren’t you? Well, that’s what I did.

            Within a week of coming back to New York, I began to hunt for jobs. Not because I needed one immediately. The group I lived with didn’t expect me to contribute to living expenses until I got a job. In the meantime I could serve as the new chef for the household. I derived as much pleasure in my new “occupation” as my new roommates certainly did eating the food I made. Another “occupation” was to read newspapers, especially the “Help Wanted” section and to make calls. I saw a good number of teaching positions in the ads but they all flashed a sign that said “wrong way” because I didn’t have a green card. Besides, I didn’t even have a social security number; yet I yearned for a job. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t find one until around December, and when I did find it, I felt sorry that did.

            This was my first winter ever, and I was going to work in the street, doing a job that amounted to nothing but peddling. I was to pick up the merchandise (mainly toys and other gadgets) from a warehouse and hunt for customers around town. The first week, I would be with a more experienced salesperson to learn the tricks of the trade and also to become familiar with the route. There I was on a winter morning clad in a heavy bubble coat with no gloves on. It didn’t take me long to realize I need a good pair of winter gloves. I stopped at the first store on our way to buy a pair of mesh gloves. But even with those on, I still felt the pang of the bitter winter. I reported for work the next day but when the third day came, I vowed to myself that would take the next plane back to the Ivory Coast before I would return to that warehouse. I began to have second thoughts and to shilly-shally about whether I should stay here or return to my country where I had been a secondary school teacher for five years and where I still had a job. It wasn’t too late. I could go back and make up a story for not being able to return earlier. The principal was my friend and he would understand me, wouldn’t he? Eventually I decided to look for another opportunity and if the future still looked bleak, I would definitely pack up and hop on the next plane back to Abidjan.

            A few weeks after I quit that hardware/peddling job, I found another job at a pharmacy with the help of Jimmy, a friend of the group I was staying with. I was to be a sales associate and work in the stock room when the store was slow. My compensation was not much. I made around $140 a week but it was better than nothing. Besides, the $700 that I came with from the Ivory Coast was almost gone and it was high time I got an occupation that would help me contribute to the expenses of the apartment I shared with my roommates and also to send money back home for my daughter. Despite my modest income I was able to put some money aside because we shared all the expenses. Indeed, I don’t think I even spent more than $40 a week be it on food or otherwise. “In union there is strength,” they say. Well, that was a perfect illustration of that saying. I was even able to send some money home as I had planned, all with only $140 a week!

            As things began to get a little better, I began to think about my primary objective in deciding to stay in America. I began to look for information on colleges and universities and soon I chanced upon a small college in Michigan that offered exactly what I wanted: Translation Studies. I applied and within a few months I receive a letter of acceptance. Even though my acceptance was conditional, the condition would be waived once they received and evaluated my official transcripts. I was glad that things were shaping up so fast. Some of my friends had been in this country for nearly ten years but they were not in school. I would return to camp in the summer of 1997 and continue on to Detroit where I expected to get a scholarship from the Ivorian government to begin classes on my Master’s degree in Translation Studies at Marygrove College.

On June 21, 1997, I bade my roommates goodbye, thanking them for their hospitality, and told them I would be in Michigan. As for my boss at the pharmacy, I couldn’t find a better lie than tell her I was going to serve as teaching assistant at the college where I would be studying. Upon which she congratulated me and wished me the best of luck.

            After camp that year I decided to visit my Friend Tai in College Park, Maryland. We had both been Karate instructors at the University of the Ivory Coast and he had been in the US since 1992. I had anticipated a short stay in College Park since my ultimate destination was to be Detroit, Michigan as soon as the Immigration Service processed my case. The college had issued an F1 for a student visa, which I was to take to the INS with the proof that I had the financial wherewithal to not only pay my tuition, but also for living expenses. That proof would be in the form of a government letter stating that they were providing the necessary funds for my education. The letter never came. After faxing the necessary documents to the relevant authority, he didn’t bother to call me back. When I did call him back his answer was, “You’re thirty-two now and by the time you graduate you’ll be thirty-eight…well, we can’t give you a scholarship.” That was it! The stupid idea that scholarships should go to younger people as if older people could not learn! Ageism! I had been too naïve to believe that they would give me a scholarship without the interference of such a trivial consideration as my age, especially after President Bédié himself had signed a note authorizing the relevant authority to take care of the matter. Once again, I had to face the dilemma of going back home or staying. After weighing my options seriously, I opted for the latter.

            When I finally received a letter form the INS toward the end of October, it was to ask me to provide an affidavit of support. As a foreign student I needed somebody who would make the legal commitment to give me accommodation and provide for me if things went wrong and I was unable to support myself. Moreover, I had to submit a statement of income, that is, a document stating that I had enough money not only for my living expenses but also for my tuition and other fees pertaining to enrolment at a college. Without the two documents, the INS would not issue a student visa. I turned to Tai for help but he couldn’t do much. He was in the US on an H1 visa which didn’t give him the right to sponsor anybody. Not knowing what to do next, I decided to turn to Nick, the father of one of my Timberlake campers.

            I had met Nick in the summer of 1996 on Parents Day, a special day after the first month of camp season when parents were invited to visit and experience a typical day along with their children. He was a very tall man, probably about six feet two inches, with bushy hair and a thick mustache somewhat like Hitler’s but with the ends well trimmed. His tiny shorts revealed his “daddy long legs” which reminded me of some lanky cartoon figure I had seen as a kid. He was soft spoken and as our conversation proceeded, I found him very affable and trustworthy. In sum, he seemed to have all the qualities of someone I could be friends with. Before parents left on that day, Nick stunned me by inviting me to his house in Westchester, New York at the end of the camp. Unfortunately, I had not been able to honor this invitation, even though we kept in touch through phone calls. Now that I was stuck with this affidavit of support issue I could think of no better person than him for help. I decided to call him up.

            The phone rang twice before somebody picked it up,

            “Hello Nick speaking…”

            “Oh, hi Nick, it’s me, Etienne.”

            “Hi Etienne! What’s going on with you? When are you leaving?”

            “Well, I’m not leaving anytime soon, Nick. I decided to stay and go to school here… and I’ve filled an application with the University of Maryland.”

            “Good for you! What you going to study?”

            “I applied to the Ph.D. program in Government and Politics but…”

            “That’s neat! You should come for a visit before you begin your classes. Carmen, Keegan and Kyla would love to see you.”

            “Yeah, I’d love to, but I got a pressing matter to address. You know the school’s asking for an affidavit of support and I was wondering if you would be willing to help me with that.”

            “An Affidavit of Support? Ok, I’ll have to talk to Carmen about this and see what we can do. But I think if we can associate Mr. Schloss and his wife you’ll have a better chance of solving this problem.”

            “Ok, Nick. I’ll be expecting your call. Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.”

            “You’re welcome, Etienne. Carmen and I will do anything we can to help.”

            Upon this we said goodbye with me asking him to give my regards to his wife, Carmen and to the kids. A weeks after this conversation, I still hadn’t got a call from Nick. I waited two more days before deciding to call him again. I had imagined all possible options except a refusal. In fact I was convinced that it was just a matter of time and that Nick could not let me down. On hindsight I wonder why I was so confident that he would fly to my rescue. I barely knew him and what I was asking him was to commit himself as the legal guardian of someone he had spent no more than one day with. That was asking too much of him and I don’t think even I would have taken such a responsibility, unless I knew what I was getting into. Yet Nick’s response came as a total shock and I was quick to label him a hypocrite no matter how much he sugarcoated his response. He had spoken to Carmen who had called the Schlosses to ask them for their collaboration on the issue since I had had their son Daniel also as a camper. However, this family raised strong objections, citing the possible consequences of such a commitment, which, I guess, made Nick and his wife realize the legal implications of what they were getting into. For the second time in a one month span, I had failed to enroll in an educational program. If this was what it meant to be an immigrant, it was high time I decided to take charge of things. I realized that the road to success, even as I believed in the American Dream, was strewn with thorns and splinters and that sometimes I would have to confront the unexpected. Thus, as desperate and bleak as my situation was, I decided to stand up and fight back as a true Samurai. After all, wasn’t I a warrior? A Karate champion? If I could not use the teachings of Karate to get up and resume the fight every time I fell; if I adopted a defeatist attitude and let trivial and trifling failure get at me, then I was not worthy of receiving the teachings of Sensei Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, who teaches his disciples, among other things, to seek perfection of character and to endeavor. I was a Karate-ka and I was ready to fight until I won or got destroyed in the process. I decided to look for work and use the money I would make to pay for my studies. But how could I secure a job when my exchange visa had expired the previous year? First I would have to get a social security number, which was impossible with an expired visa. Obviously, the situation was even bleaker than I had thought. I resolved to return to New York where some of my friends lived and worked even without papers.

            I got back to New York on a sunny November afternoon as most people were getting back home from work and the trains were as packed as the cheeks of a baboon relishing a bunch of yellow bananas! I had been away for almost six months, hoping to begin the process that would lead me to live the American Dream. Unfortunately, my dream had been deferred. Shortly after I arrived in New York I began to actively look for work and within a week I found employment at a reputed sporting goods store in the Bronx. The job required physical strength, but I was ready to deliver even though I had never done that type of work before. My duties were to help customers make their selections by locate the items they were looking for. Since I was working in the sporting goods department (there were also the men’s apparel department and the footwear department) I had to be prepared to some heavy lifting when customers purchase weights or items like treadmills and other exercise machines. But on the whole I enjoyed my experience at the sporting goods store until my “guardian,” Bino came home one evening with a job offer from the company he was working for. I jumped on the occasion because even though I was enjoying selling sporting goods, I was very far from being satisfied with the part-time salary I was making. Besides, the prospects of becoming a full-time employee were very slim. I therefore informed the manager of the store and left to work at a transit company in New Jersey, which I would call The New Jersey Water Transport Authority or NJWTA.

            At NJWTA I spent my days on a boat in New York harbor. My job consisted of selling coffee and doughnuts in the morning and snacks in the afternoon. In the morning, at six, the boat would pick up passengers from Staten Island and bring them to New York City. That’s when I realized the incredible number of New York workers who did not reside in Manhattan. The morning shift ended around ten, at which time I was free to do what I wanted. The afternoon shift began around three but around 2:30 P.M. I was expected to load the boat with snacks and drinks, including liquor sold in little bottles like the ones served on airplanes. Our job in the afternoon consisted of transporting the morning passengers back to Staten Island and anchoring the boat in Weehawken, New Jersey around 10:00 P.M. By that time we would have made four or five trips in the morning and an equal number in the afternoon and evening. After the morning shift I usually stayed on the job to take a nap because I barely got any sleep at night. Indeed I had to be on Staten Island at 5:00 A.M. because the first trip began at 5:30. And since I lived in the Bronx, I had no better option than to get up around 3:00 to get ready for work. Can you believe this? At a time when most people are barely beginning to sleep I had to get up and get ready for work! Anyway, I used to leave home around 4:00 and ride the 4 Train to Bowling Green where I would catch the Staten Island Ferry to cross over. That was my daily ordeal but at least I was sure to get a far more decent salary than I had been making at the sporting goods store. Soon, however, the lack of sleep began to take its toll on me and began to feel more and more tired on the job. To address this issue I decided to sleep at work and there being no place for other employees but deck hands, I had no other option but sleep on the boat.

            After the boat had been tightly anchored, I would walk to the company’s café which was by the dock to buy my dinner, usually a sandwich or a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and take it to the boat. Since there was no television or radio or any mode of entertainment, I usually went to bed immediately after eating dinner. Even though taking a shower in the morning was impossible, I found my decision to be rewarding because at least I got two or three extra hours of sleep. After the morning shift I was now able to go home to take a shower and change my clothes before returning to work for the afternoon shift. As the summer approached, the manager of boats decided to put me on a tour boat. We would take tourists and other visitors around the Lower Manhattan harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the United Nations, etc. My job on this new boat was to sell hot dogs and snack and drinks, including beer, wine and liquor. The job was mostly boring because I spent most of the time on my own. The deckhands were on the upper deck while I was on the lower deck, and passengers didn’t always stop to buy my merchandise. However, the pay was good and as long as I could save some money and take care of my bill and my daughter in African, I had no reason to complain.

            After doing this job for a few months, I decided to apply for a position as a deckhand. Even though the deckhand and I worked for the same owner, we were considered to be in different departments. When I told my manager about my intention to become a deckhand, he didn’t object. He simply told me that I would have to resign in order to make things go smoothly and that he was even ready to give me a good recommendation. So I filled out the necessary papers and submitted my application. A few days later I was called to the main office of the company to complete the paperwork and to have my measurements taken for the uniform. At that point I already pictured myself as a deckhand, so I thought it was the right time to resign and I did. Unfortunately, I would never be hired as a deckhand and to this day I still do not understand what went wrong. When I went back to my manager in the other department he told me that he had already hired somebody else for my position. I concluded that I had been a victim of hypocrisy and resolved not to trust anybody who promises to help you secure a job when you’re leaving their company at a time when they probably need you the most. Here I was again, an unemployed man! I went back to the sporting goods store and was lucky to get a few morning hours. We were in 1998 and I had been in the US for two years. If this trend of uncertainty was to continue, I would have to make tough decisions, and going back home was not excluded.

            Soon after I returned to the sporting goods store, my friend Moussa who was working at a vegetarian restaurant informed me that his boss needed somebody to work as a prep-cook and dishwasher. Moussa wanted me to leave the job I had recently returned to in order to assist him as a prep-cook and dishwasher but having just experienced hypocrisy at NJWTA, I knew better than to quit my job. Instead, I would work in both places. This wouldn’t be too hard since I was only working a few hours in the morning. I gave Moussa my consent and began working at the tiny restaurant situated in the Village. After I had worked at the restaurant for a few months, something totally unexpected would happen which would change the course of my life.

 

Photo Credit: Delphine DG

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  • Ce texte est extrait de mon manuscrit intitulé "Up from the Ivory Tower." Le travail est loin d'être terminé, mais je voulais tout juste partager avec vous.

    Enjoy and feel free to leave comments.

    Best,

    Etienne


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