It was the summer of 2008. Judging by the rest of the news that year, most of us had it pretty hard.
My wife and I had just moved to Portland, Oregon from Montana, where we were serving as college campus pastors.
We had been feeling “the itch” to step out of ministry, and it seemed the divine doors were opening and stars were aligning, as an acquaintance of mine, who had once owned a bar in downtown Portland, called me up with a job opportunity.
He had sold the bar and was planning on reinvesting the money in a specialty beer store, and would like me to manage it for him. Since God had granted me a special affinity and love for beer, I immediately seized the opportunity.
What followed were months of phone calls, planning, looking at Portland realty over the internet, more calls, and a few voyages over the Rockies into Cascade country.
Since this was our first house, our parents offered to help us put money down. This was their hard earned retirement and savings money, some of it even given to us as a “pre-inheritance”.
With the apparent harmonic convergence of all things good and American, we were on track to sign for a house in a North Portland neighborhood in April, whereas I would start work within a month thereafter. But what followed was nothing short of an American Horror Story….beginning with the day we signed the papers on our new house.
That day, (not kidding, NOT the day before, or the day after, but THAT day) my friend contacted me to let me know he had changed his mind about the specialty beer store and was going to go to Culinary School in Italy instead (#ClassicPortlandHipster). Needless to say, we haven’t spoken since.
CRASH!……A mortgage payment with no job.
My wife worked freelance, which meant we could string along half of our budget, but things weren’t looking good for a guy who had “pastor from the nowhere-wilds of Montana” on the last ten years of his resume.
The first night in our home, my wife and I sat out on our balcony with glasses of wine in our hand, trying to make best of a bad situation, and letting our young, youthful optimism work it’s magic, when the 8pm loading-unloading train-car loading session began. We had always lived next to train tracks before, and it never bothered us, but this was different. This was nothing short of military cannons and small scale earthquakes…and they all came precisely at 8am, 12pm, 4pm, 8pm, 12am (nope, not joking), and 4am. That night, my wife lay face down in the pillow and wept.
Eventually, I was able to land a job (with the help of a neighbor) in a small pizzeria, located just off an I-5 exit. I CAN NOT over-emphasize how humiliated and humbled I was over it. Working in the kitchen and behind the counter at minimum wage was ok when I was 22, but at 32, it was devastating. Not only did we have 2 children and a new mortgage to look after, I felt as though I had just tried to move on up in the world, only to get stomped on then pissed all over for good measure. I remember sitting out on a park bench during my lunch breaks, watching all the BMW’s, Audi’s, and Lexus’s drive by on the freeway, headed out to their homes in the West Hills, and thinking, “What did I miss? Why did I throw the best, most productive part of my life away?”. Resentment and distrust of myself and humanity began to build a wall, brick by brick, around the border of my mind and soul. But, little did I know, our troubles had only just started….the grinder wasn’t done turning me into sausage yet.
In late spring of 2008, it was announced to all us mere mortals that the housing market would be taking a complete, absolute, and world-wide dump. To us, this meant our dreams of turning-tail and running from our new, freshly
painted mortgage had become impossible. We saw the value of our home plummet and were now under water, which meant that we couldn’t sale, unless we didn’t mind losing that hard earned retirement savings money that our parents had graciously helped us with. We were trapped, like rats in a cage. (insert Smashing Pumpkins song here?).
I’m not sure if you have felt trapped, or pinned down by life, but if you have, you know that it does not favor your bright and bushy side. Everything looks and becomes toxic. It’s as if you are scratching and clawing for air….and not in a “help, I’m shipwrecked!” kind of way, but more like, “sorry, motherf*&#%r, it’s the end of the world and I’m going to eat you and your family!” kind of way. You become one of those kind of creatures that has suffered much trauma, and coming out of your coiled angry mass from the shadows is as hideous an idea as exploring the world around you. Nature would tell us, in those kind of situations to, “just stay put, with what you have, and bite deep into any hand that comes near you.”
And the cherry, the absolute cherry on top was our glaring lack of any health care (yup, did we cover all the bases? Because I’m pretty sure we fit the 2008 cliche to a tee.) Every time one of my children sneezed or jumped off our couch, my body injected itself with 300 mg of adrenaline thinking about the potential medical bills I might be faced with.
It was going to take my work 6 months to provide health care (even then, I was having a hard time getting above 30 hours, which was the qualifying ear mark for receiving benefits.). All we had to do was white-knuckle it through until then. That is, until my wife’s ovary decided to be a little bastard…
After our second child, she had developed a cyst the size of a tennis ball on her left ovary. This was nothing new, doctors had found it when it first developed while we were living in Montana. The problem was that sometimes it would “flip” over or twist in her body. When it did, it sent her into excruciating pain (fellas and gents, I’m told it’s the equivalent of twisting and kicking a testicle). That fall, I spent numerous nights with her writhing in pain on the bed while I called ER after ER trying to figure out what options we had.
There were none.
No one wanted to admit her without insurance. And I didn’t want to go in debt over medical bills, thus losing our home.
Eventually, we did find an emergency care unit that would write her a prescription for pain pills, but I knew we were only delaying the inevitable….
“What was the inevitable?”, (assuming you’re asking?)
REWIND SIX MONTHS, BEFORE WE MOVED. My father had just passed away and I began spiraling into a deep depression (wait, how am I only mentioning this just now?…yes, I wanted to trap you in a story before I ruined the rest of your week). Truth be told, the downward free-fall had already begun (I was hitting a mid-life crisis at age 28), but the death of my father hit the “expedite” button on the inward implosion I was already becoming. There were days I would get up, go play basketball for an hour, then drive home and immediately go back to sleep. Some days, I had trouble moving my limbs.
Therefore, I already knew the answer to my own question, the inevitable was my total and wholehearted destruction and demise.
What I thought began as a healthy distraction and diversion from my sinking circumstances only turned out to be the perfect cacophony of poison to “bleed out” my soul until nothing but black oozed forth. I needed a target, an object to hate. I needed a face and a name by which I could channel all my rage. I needed something generic enough to receive my scorn in a way that fit like a character in a play. I needed an arch-type, by which, I could point and say, “See!? You people ARE all the same!!! Its you vs. me and you are not playing fair! You did this to me!”
Thing was, I knew better. I had been a pastor for 7 years. There was (and is) no job I found more fulfilling than journeying with others through the outer and inner life, finding God along the path. In fact, of all the internal benefits of being a pastor, the one I cherished the most was how keenly aware I had become of the goodness of deep and loving relationship among all of humanity. Truly, I had learned how to love my neighbor.
In my departing sermon, I posed the question, “What is the purpose of life?”. I finished by pointing to every one of the students and staff I had so intricately walked with over the years and saying to them, “You. You are the purpose of life. I have found the answer as to why we were placed on this earth, and the answer is you. It’s relationship. Both relationship of man to humanity and man to God. Don’t forget this! For this is where the kingdom of heaven dwells, and it’s only a piece of what eternity will be like.” I knew, in those last moments, that as I challenged them, I was also challenging myself….and I was more than willing to stand on that divine revelation.
Enter Areli, stage left….
Every good story needs a villain, a malefactor, a miscreant, and since I was the hero in my own story, and needed to find a evil counterpart, Areli fit the role. He was the son of immigrant parents, born into citizenship, a small family with only a few siblings. He was a hard-working line cook at the pizzeria, who had a well-established reputation within the company as a loyal worker bee. As sure as the sun would rise in the West and set in the East, Areli would arrive to work on time, work his shift, and leave when his work was fully completed. While managers and those of us behind the cash register came and went, Areli stood as solid as a rock, day in and day out.
It wasn’t necessarily his character that demanded respect, as much as his work ethic. The man could power through any order or culinary request. By the time you made and fired a pizza, he would have done 3. And his aim was straight, hardly ever did he miss. Want a side of anchovies with some bell peppers, but not on the pizza, only heated and placed in foil on the side? Not only could Areli nail it, he could nail it if he was the only one in the kitchen and there was a line of customers waiting out the door. It’s almost as if the man was made for the job, and apparently he was, for, it seems, his work greatly pleased him. Perhaps this is what made me most envious. He seemed to operate, day-in day-out, with great pleasure and pride in the same work environment that I felt enslaved to.
Was he a dumb, simple creature? Simple, maybe. Dumb, definitely not. We would have numerous conversations about politics and social issues, by which he seemed to generally know his way around. Certainly, he didn’t stand out for his apologetics or charismatic leadership, but his navigational skills through current events and history seemed solid. Once in a while, he expressed a strong opinion on something, but it seemed obvious that he was perfectly capable of forming his own thoughts on any subject matter.
And there he was, day-in and day-out, operating at optimum velocity. Taking great pleasure in the very thing which brought me great pain….
But friction between us was always and only secondary…my resentment and envy of him were the perpetuating factors.
The rifting started within a couple months after I began work. Since I kept pushing the manager to give me over 30 hours (which qualified me for health care), I ended up working opening shifts with Areli. For the first few hours of the day, we were alone together amid the ongoing lunch crowd. It was my job to ready the store, the cash register, do dishes, and take out and cut the lunch slices. But most days, I had a hard time staying focused, and, while hardly ever making a fatal error, moved somewhat slow and “clunky”. In my own eyes, I was getting the job done, and there was nothing to complain about. In Ariel’s eyes, I was a burden, and he couldn’t get to the bigger jobs of daily food prep, etc. because he was picking up my slack.
Apparently, not me, which is why I became increasingly confused as to why Ariel seemed to grow more and more withdrawn over the span of a few weeks.
Then, finally, one morning, he just came out and said it. He had been hemming and hawing about it for the first hour of our shift, but, finally he just got to the point of telling me he thought the girl who I had replaced was better than me, and he wished she was back on my shift because she could get work done like I couldn’t. He said he was going to personally talk to the manager to see if he could get me replaced with someone else more capable of doing my job.
I remember him speaking, my back turned, bent over the kitchen sink, handling the dirty dishes, feeling surprised, confused, and frightened as I methodically washed them by hand. Somehow, and in some way, Ariel’s voice seemed to be the revelation of what I knew all along. His voice embodied the nagging feeling I had known deep within myself for a long time. He became the living, breathing, incarnation of the failure I knew I had become. There was no debate, for in that moment, I knew I was truly despised, both by my own self as well as those around me.
The rest of the shift I was silent. So many storm fronts collided inside me, there just didn’t seem any way to verbally express it. Ariel seemed unnerved by the silence. He became fidgety and tried to change the subject with small talk. I feigned politeness with short answers and contrived smiles. He wasn’t buying it…either was I. It’s possible that at that moment, he realized he may have put his own job in jeopardy as well, both through his unprofessional behavior and by touting his seniority. Needless to say, we were both an inward explosion waiting to happen by the time our supervisor walked in.
Out of dutiful obligation, or possibly keen strategy, he let me go first. As I opened my mouth to explain to our supervisor what happened, I lost all words. I only covered my mouth and hung my head as tears began to flow down my face and onto the floor. Would could I say? He was being mean, but he was right. I tried to explain what happened, but felt entirely devastated. Clearly, the manager realized he was about to step into a mountain of impending psycho-festering blubbering nonsense, so he quickly patted me on the shoulder and moved on to Ariel. Not sure what they talked about as they both stood in the back of the kitchen, the oven and other electrical devices drowned out the sound of their voices, but I do know that Ariel mostly nodded his head and occasionally gave a spirited reply. Eventually, the manager left, and Ariel gave me a curated, short apology. I nodded my headed and said, “no problem”, but inside me, something had broken.
Before all of this, I had never considered myself racist. It’s not that I didn’t know what racism was. My extended family was steeped in it. (I once remember sitting poolside in a lawn chair at my aunt and uncle’s house, eating a bag of Doritos, when my uncle ((other uncle, not pool-owning uncle)) walked by and snorted, “I’d never eat a bag of chips with a nigger on the front of it!”, by which, I examined the bag to see Michael Jordan, dressed in his Bulls jersey, about to slam dunk a fiery red Dorito). And so that story repeated itself over and over through my childhood. At first my cousins and I would respond with nervous laughter, but as we got older, we began to tease my racist aunts, uncles and grandparents with racial paraphernalia and innuendo. You can only imagine how they took to our thorough immersion into the then rising hip-hop culture…..it was pure, unadulterated revolt, and oh, how we relished every televised minute of it!
Concerning Ariel, it was not that I’d ever had anything against the Latino community before. Over the years, I’d worked numerous jobs with Latinos, observing how diligent, expedient, and thorough of workers they were (many would show up in button-up shirts to dirty, exhausting manual labor jobs, and leave filthy, yet seemingly happy, with a sense of pride over their work.)
I always admired their work ethic, yet felt intimidated by it. But, in the back of my mind, I knew comparing my job with theirs was an “apples to oranges” scenario. The jobs I wanted took someone with a unique sense of self, individual creativity, and the ability to pontificate upon demand….artist, pastor, counselor, these were my target professions. Did the Latino community pose a threat? Nope. Apparently, their place belonged in manual labor…..
…apparently, I suppose, in hindsight, so did mine. I was building the necessary components to being racist, I only needed Ariel to light the wick and burn down the barrier fence.
It all made sense in my mind. Like a banner going up in my thoughts, I heard my brain telling itself “You are becoming a bigot”, and, I embraced it. From Anakin to Darth Vader, it was so easy. Suddenly, I felt a great sense of power and control over my circumstances. I was learning to harness my hate in a way that I could fire it, like a well placed arrow, right into the heart of mankind. Life had dealt me a shitty hand, and now I had the power to deal it back. I finally learned how to level the playing field and make it an even match, and Ariel never knew what was coming to him.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to figure out the best way to not work with Ariel. Unfortunately, in order to keep my hours up, I had to at least take some opening shifts, and there he was, faithful, steadfast and true.
But I was no fool, nor did I have the fortitude to attack a man at the risk of losing my only job in an economic shitstorm. My only offense was defense. If I could just avoid Ariel long enough, I could avoid confronting the throbbing feeling in the back of my mind that I hated him and every one of his kind for invading our nation and stealing our jobs….
At the same time, I still had a little humanity left in me(or was it self-interest? Not sure.) and knew that I should grant Ariel some respectability while we were stuck in the back of that 40 sq foot pizzeria kitchen working together. Therefore, I continued small talk…at a moderate pace. Just enough to keep from letting the silence become awkward.
But there was an exposed Achille’s heel in all this. One soft tender underbelly I occasionally caught a glimpse of when the ugly dragon turned over inside the caverns of my mind.
Of all the things we talked about, I took most interest in hearing about his 5th grade, first born son. Maybe, as a first born son myself I could relate. But most likely, I think I enjoyed hearing how he was causing Ariel a small, yet decent amount of disappointment and grief.
It seems his son was already a young, disenchanted, junior high American male. I could tell, as he told stories of how his son seemed so unmotivated and entranced with video games, there was pain in his voice. To this day, I’m not sure why he was vulnerable with me on this topic…maybe I was just good at feigning interest, or, maybe the interest I feigned was misinterpreted as benevolent, when in reality, his demise was what gave me great pleasure. I felt the more he understood his own son, the more he would understand me…..also, it gave me great delight to know that I wasn’t the only slacker in his life, and that indeed, his own flesh and blood had betrayed him. Often, this would be the center topic of our conversations together, and oddly enough, at least for me, those conversations did nothing to bridge the gap between us, only widen it.
Seasons passed, from fall, to winter,to spring, without any further incident. I worked into a rhythm, both in work and in my relationship with Ariel. Always, I felt insecure in his presence, but as I became more accustomed to the job description, I worked my ass off and tried not to make any mistakes. Yet, ever more in my mind his voice rang out…”you are not good enough!” “you have failed!” “you are in the wrong place!” and I was haunted by his presence and the presence of something bigger pressing down on me…
But, as it turns out, it would all come crashing down one insignificant morning in March.
I unlocked the front door of the store, as usual, but was surprised to see that most of the lights had not been turned on. Many of the usual accompaniments of Ariel’s presence (unrolled carpets, un-stacked chairs, clean dishes put away, etc.) weren’t done, yet he stood in the back, almost in the dark, chopping vegetables. With one eyebrow up, I asked him if he was sick. “No” he replied.
Everything ok?. “Yup”.
But his body language gave him away. His shoulders sagged heavy and he moved at almost a snail’s pace (for him, very unusual). It was obvious his mind wasn’t present, even as he methodically brought the blade down through the produce, his eyes gazed off into nowhere. Once again, I asked him if everything was ok. He stood, silent for a minute, then turned towards me, knife still hanging by his side, his arms limp now.
In broken English and a heavy accent, he began to tell me how someone, in Guatemala, had found out that he was the son of parents who still lived there (having moved back after he was born). In what turned out to become a common trend (at least, a highly publicized event in the media at the time), they kidnapped his mother while she was out running errands in the local village. They now demanded money be paid for her ransom, a total of $5,000.
As he relayed his story, he stopped often to collect himself, but when nearing the end, and describing the ransom, and after answering “I don’t know…” when I asked him how he was going to come up with the money, he turned, sat down the knife, put his hands on the counter, dropped his head and began to shake and sob uncontrollably.
At that moment, even the darkest crevice of my psyche bent and broke under the impact of oncoming light. I walked over, put my hand on his shoulder, and said quietly, “I’m sorry…”
Ah, the moment of impact, when men stop becoming archetypes of some large, inanimate system or order, and find themselves being human again….it would be the defining moment between Ariel and I, and the moment when I could again understand who Jesus was and His call in my life.
As my hand sat softly and rested upon his shoulder, he began to heave and sob, repeating to himself, (or to me? or to both of us?) “How could anyone do this?? I don’t understand….”
After a while, he stopped, wiped off his face and went back to work. Although he still wasn’t moving at his usual tempo, he was clearly out of the fog and able to think of the present tasks at hand. I, on the other hand, was not finished. I prepped the front counter, sat up shop and flipped the open sign, but all was quite that morning, and there seemed to be an odd stillness in the air. It’s as though the universe had now put it’s hand on my shoulder and asked me in a still, small voice, “What’s wrong?”.
As I stood there, I began to slowly and quietly weep. I felt sad for Ariel. I felt sad for myself. I felt sad for all of humanity as it sat before me, shrouded in darkness. I stood there, feeling something so unbelievably and internally pressing in on me, that if I’d been in a Holy place, I would have fallen to my knees, thrown up my hands, and cried out in pure horror, shame, and grievance to the heavens.
But, as it turns out, the small pizzeria, just off the I-5 freeway, was enough of a “sanctuary” for me, and so I could only stand, back turned to Ariel, facing out towards the empty parking lot, tears streaming down my face. There I was, a company hat on my head, an apron tied around my waist and a spatula in my hand….an absurd scene, like a cross between a Rockwell and Caravaggio painting.
I stood, for quiet a while, quietly shaking. I could not scream, I could not yell, I could not violently shake and moan and wail. I could only softly tremble, and take small breadths.
All the while, the universe put it’s soft warm hand on my shoulder and gave me the safe space to see myself as I truly was. To know myself and to know my own reflection.
As I stood…my invisible self and physical self both in the throws of self-revelation… for a moment, the darkness disassembled. I found myself in a paradox all people going through metamorphosis find themselves. A place of clarity and complete confusion. As I stood alone and to myself on that morning in March, everything seemed so clear, yet far away. I had drifted from home, and yet found a new home in the very person I sought to destroy….the voice which I had pegged as my destruction had now become the voice of life.
Ariel’s and I’s relationship was never the same after that. We now saw each other in the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching truth of who we are, and for a brief moment, our masks came off….we were no longer actors up on stage. We were no longer reading from the teleprompter, but talking to each other in a tone worthy of great reverence.