Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Strangers In A Strange Land

Southern California

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Since coming back from visiting kids and grandkids I have begun to settle in a bit for fall. It's hot as hell here, so fall is only a vague designation, not even on the calendar but in people's minds. End of summer vacation and all that.

Went back to the gym for the first time in several weeks. I have to tell you about this health club I belong to. Perhaps it's not much different from where you go, but it has some distinct differences from the one I went to in Rockford, Michigan. The equipment is pretty much the same, to be sure. Weights and resistance machines and aerobic machines and big TV screens for people to watch while they're endeavoring to shed the pounds. You can see sports shows, talk shows, and also watch people cooking and eating ridiculously rich and complicated dishes. What's wrong with that last picture? I ask myself, when it hits me that many of the women who are laboring on the treadmills--the modern-day middle class equivalent of the sweatshops and shirtwaist factories of yore--will have to go home and cook meals for their families. So while they're striving to become more svelte, the cooking channel gives them yet another something to strive for (and probably fall short of)--the perfectly rendered nouvelle cuisine offerings of Bobby Flay and other noted competitive chefs. Those huge plates with the drizzled layers of glistening sauce and the little something piled up high in the middle and garnished with, well, something. "For dessert I've made a reduction of the juices from the squid tentacles and added some honey and creme fraiche and finely chopped scallions with just a bit of the bacon fat, then frozen it into a gelato." To which the querulous judge says, shaking his head, "Squid ice cream again? I was looking for something more original."

I did prefer the option I had at the place in Rockford to watch, on the little screens they had on the elliptical trainers in addition to the big ones out on the floor, old episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, shows that never even pretended to operate within the realm of reality. But that's not available here.

The principal difference between the Michigan gym and here, however, is not what's on television during the workout. It's the ethnic mix in the populace. I mind my own business for the most part when I'm working up a sweat and grunting at the weight devices, but I have more leisure to look around when I go into the watery realms of the club, on the other side of the locker rooms, where there's a lap pool, a whirlpool, a steam room, and a sauna. The Rockford crowd was pretty much white and native-born. Here, at least in Arcadia where this club is located, I'd estimate the overall ethnic breakdown to be about 50% Asian, 25% Hispanic, and the rest a mix of Anglos, European immigrants, and African Americans. Out here it's not so much a matter of what color you are as what language you speak when you're with your family. Of course by the second or third generation in this country every kid--Latin, Asian, European--despite his or her parents, has become just a plain American young person, wearing the same styles of clothing advertising brand names as everyone else and speaking the same slangy parody of English kids speak everywhere. But the elders are a different story.

Most of the Asians are Japanese, and they seem to take their leisure quite seriously. Their faces betray no sense of the relaxation that soaking in steam and hot water are intended to bring. Between themselves they occasionally talk and even laugh, but for the most part they look as if they're on a mission of some sort. In the steam room in Rockford (which, unlike here, was for men only--I assume there was one for the women, too) the guys would sit hunched forward, grunting and exhaling loudly with a combination of relief and acknowledgment of the heat, and grumbling to one another about sports, the weather, or current events. There was a sense that everyone was on the same page, as it were, even though I sometimes felt that assumption to be unfounded, especially in the realms of politics and religion. Here, in part because of language barriers and profound cultural differences and in part I think out of politeness, people tend to speak little and observe a kind of informal segregation based on ethnicity. The Japanese often stand and wave their arms and exercise their major joints in absolute silence, gazing stoically straight ahead as they gesticulate, as if responding to instructions delivered out of ether in the middle distance. The Spanish-speaking people are a bit more loquatious and jocular in general, seeming to enjoy themselves in a way that is more familiar to me. Some people are lost in the inner worlds of their iPods, allowing only vague tinny whisps of rhythm to escape from their ear buds. All of us, confined a dozen at a time within a ten foot square room full of hot vapor, know that our main job is to sweat, and we stay focused on that, but some do it with less intensity than others.

Most of this I find both amusing and relaxing in and of itself, food for thought, though as I sit and observe I often hope and yet hesitate to strike up casual conversations. But I give practically everyone the benefit of the doubt, imagining they are perhaps uncomfortable with us Anglos in this vast new country we rule. It is only certain European immigrants whose silence I take for general scorn and unfriendliness. They seem to be from the eastern end of that continent. Their faces, and on some of the men their torsos, elaborately tattooed with cryptic jailhouse runes and symbols, seem to say "Don't fuck with me, I've been fucked with enough already."

One particularly dour old couple, probably Armenian, and bearing no tattoos, are there most days I go. The man is wasted, the hair standing up several inches all over his hunched and narrow back and shoulders as he sits on the edge of the water, letting his feet get wet. His pinched features suggest a life of pain and disgruntlement. America is perhaps his last stop on a long and disappointing journey. This country is going to the dogs, he might be thinking. The old country is going to the dogs. Kids today are going to the dogs. He is dying. Who knows? A woman I assume is his wife sits in the whirlpool or wades, squatting duck-style, up and down the lap pool, eyeing each new arrival to the aquatic area with knowing suspicion and disdain. She wears a quirky combination of clothing, including a pinkish t-shirt and blue shorts under a full-skirted bathing suit and a clear plastic bathing cap over her gray hair. Once when I came out of the locker room she admonished me to take a shower before entering the whirlpool. There's a rinsing shower right next to it. It turns out I had showered already in the locker room, but I felt somehow that my explanation didn't satisfy her. She left soon after I waded in. It made me wonder how much chlorine it would take to kill the particular demons that possess her.

Since they're always present when I am, I assume these two go there every day, to while away the afternoon and perhaps soak away some of their pain. I wonder if their misery reflects a lifetime of sorrow or simply their contempt for one another. I doubt if either of them has smiled since some time during the first half of the 20th century, and I find myself, devoid of knowledge other than my observation of their mute demeanors, feeling sorry for any children or grandchildren they may have. Their faces say to all comers, "Who in the hell do you think you are, coming here, being here, looking at me?" And yet I've taken this couple on, as a project. My quest is to figure them out. My handicap in this is the same as everyone else's, though, in that I will ask no questions and say nothing unless spoken to. My own face probably betrays no more of me than do those of my fellow travelers on this weird voyage back in the hydrotherapy section of the club. I wonder if they think they know me the way I think I know them. We're probably all wrong.

What the hell, maybe I'll smile next time, just to confuse them.


Anonymous said...

Good post but "Us Anglos"? Are you referring to your better half, the Smiths? Although that was 150 years ago, one of your quarters came from the eastern part of Europe.

Anonymous said...

I used "Anglo" as a general term for English-speaking native-born Americans of European descent. The Smiths, certainly. I don't consider Germans from East Prussia to be eastern Europeans, but rather central Europeans. I think of Slavs, Hungarians, etc. as eastern Europeans. Am I mistaken? --Pete

Anonymous said...

I was kidding but the definition of Eastern Europe versus Central Europe varies depending on context. Schloss Tierschtiegel is now Zamek Trciel in Poland which is now part of the EU, was part of the Eastern Block (and east of east Germany...) or Eastern Europe beyond the Iron Curtain, is part of the CEEC. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republik are considered central by some definitions.
Time has a map of eastern Europe that includes all countries from Poland to Greece and anything east of that. My father defined himself as Euro-American...

Anonymous said...

Anglo is a designation peculiar to the American Southwest, differentiating the Latin Americans from the English-speaking occupiers of the area. First of course the Spanish were the occupiers, and they did their share of Indian slaughtering, especially when the natives refused to convert to Catholicism, but the Spanish also intermarried more freely with the natives that the English did, and left many more of them alive. (The smart move for the natives was to become Catholic, then incorporate as much of their preexisting religions as possible, the general pattern of Latin American Xianity.) Next to control the area were the independent Mexicans, a somewhat more racially diverse group (although the entrenched rich and powerful in Mexico are still pretty white), until they were driven down to the present border in the late 1840s. During WW1 and WW2 the U.S. encouraged Mexicans to come up as arbeiters to relieve the low-end labor shortage created by the wars. Since then the Anglos have regarded the increasing Mexican immigration into the former Mexican territories as a "problem," which is richly ironic in several ways (including from the perspective of the native Americans) but certainly not without analogue elsewhere in the world. --Pete