I ran. What else could I do? The pink-tailed cats, the creepy cars, the narrowing streets, the gun shots, the blood-curdling wails. It all climaxed into this very moment where I found myself running through the thick, pounding rain, my breath still frozen at the bodega where she told me I was no longer welcomed.
Rewind: It all started with the pink-tailed cats. And not the pretty ribbon, Gucci glass-wearing felines tucked strangely in Aventura baby carriages, but cats with pussy-pink tails, their hairy skin receding with puss and disease. They crawled through narrow streets that were almost as close as butt cheeks. And yes, this place smelled like ass, an ass that hadn’t been washed in a while.
Toothless women with lines that seemed drawn on their faces strolled by me like zombies, their sun-struck flesh the color of maple syrup that had lost its sweet. Some were crowned with limp, blonde stands that held on to worn scalps. Other women sat outside of taped-up shacks, their breasts collapsed into their laps like nine-month old children who never made it out. They smile pleasantly, welcoming conversation to pass time.
And the men ranged. Older, single-toothed men stood suspiciously at their gates, asking if I was with the FBI, but offering the occasional, coquettish Latin wink. Some young men grazed by me in shiny, new cars, their stares glaring with old poverty. Others wandered through the streets waiting for time to engage them while their pissed off girlfriends called their names in a dissonant score of boredom: “Vlad, Vlad, you want me to wait for you.”
Naw, this isn’t some seedy third world city. This is North Miami, Florida - my hometown. Yet, who knew that amid the macchiatos, jet boats and polished townhouses lurked Little Iraq meets East LA.
“It was supposed to be a mindless job, a quick way for me to make some fast cash,” I told my wine buddy Jacques as we sipped the 2004 Rubesto Affinato in Allier.
“You can’t die for $15 an hour. What is the Census Department thinking - placing an unarmed, attractive woman in…Iraq!”
Jacques is a brilliant wine dude who I met while he was working at a North Miami Beach wine store he’ll kill me for mentioning. He’s all wine - even his beautiful skin looks like it was dipped in an Australian shiraz barrel before the doctor gave him back to his mother. But, he didn’t get it. I needed the damn job. Having heard the call of the Census, the $15 an hour, knock-on-door-thing appealed to me. I like people, and people generally like me.
But, this wasn’t just a job. It was a war, and without even realizing it, I was an enemy to the territory I would be enumerating. Enumerating is a term to describe the door-to-door interviews we, the “Enumerators,” conduct in order to achieve the desired end - the head count.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why some folks are Census-sensitive. If I wasn’t legal in the country, I wouldn’t want the government to know where I lived. Also, why is the word “negro” still on the Census form. It’s 2010, and the word “negro” brings back bad memories. And why are Hispanic nationalities so meticulously compartmentalized - Cuban-American, Cuban, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican?
Anyway - here we were - the jobless giants walking in the unquenchable heat, trying to make a living. Workers ranged from booty-choker wearing college students to listless retirees, lawyers and PhD-folk.
“When I got my first assignment area, I thought I recognized the address - the Starbucks hood, near the water. It will be fun.”
“You didn’t know there was a scary trailer park back there?”
“No. It wasn’t until I got to the bodega and observed the red-eyed, slashed faced clientele that I started to wonder what I was getting into. The first day was cool. I knocked on doors. People were friendly. There was this one yard where I saw cats with these diseased, pink tails…”
“Okay, okay. Please. Not in front of the wine. What did you think of it by the way? ”
“You know I like that stewed black fruit experience older, Old World wines give you. What’s in it?”
“It’s 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 50 percent Merlot.”
“It’s definitely pizza wine. It’s true when they say the best food and wine combos are when you have the region’s wine with the region’s food.”
“Yeah. Where did you get this pizza?”
“Okay, so what else happened? On the phone, you said someone shot at you?”
“Nooooo. The next week I went back to Little Iraq to finish my assignment and I heard what I thought were gun shots, but I wasn’t sure. Then police cars were bending corners like crazy. Then I saw an ambulance. I’ll never forget the screaming and crying - the sound of death visiting one’s house.”
“This was happening on the block next to where I was working, so I left and the next day I found out that a fellow Enumerator was on that block at the time when the young man was shot and KILLED. But he’s okay, a little traumatized.”
As I was telling Jacques the story, Nas’ “It Aint Hard to Tell” started playing from my car’s CD player (Nas is an indelible, well-respected Hip Hop artist). I’m not sure where the CD came from, but the melody is so powerful and Jacques, the consummate prude, and I found ourselves swept away by the wine, the pizza and the lyrics, bobbing our heads frenzily. “I drank Moët with Medusa, give her shotguns in hell…”
Maybe, it was the heat. Maybe, it was the idea of being that close to my last breath.
So, I went back to hell to finish my Census job. Yes, I told my team leader what happened, but I sensed that if I didn’t get the job done, someone else would. I filled out a bunch of incident forms, spoke to a bunch of Census Department supervisors, but I knew I had five more forms to fill out and that in the end, despite the apologies and concerned nods, I had to go back if I wanted that check.
I took a deep breath. I prayed. I put on my suit and Census bag and I went in - head up, back straight. I got through three forms safely when the rain appeared like an army of little people pounding on my being. My vision got blurry. My bag was getting wet, so I ran for shelter at the bodega plaza.
That’s when she appeared - Medusa with the cool Mohawk, but eerie gaze. At first, her questions were simple: “Do you work for the Census? Do you have to have a college degree to work for the Census?”
I answered politely and as she drew closer to me, her eyes now widening, her tone became very Kathy-Bates-in-Misery-ish. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who the Latin Kings are? Who do you think you are coming here dressed like this? You are no longer welcomed here and neither is the Census. Let them know that!”
She was now in my face, and I was scared. So I ran to the Starbucks that was a stone’s throw away on 135th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Then, I called the powers-that-be.
Later that week, I appeared before the police chief of North Miami Beach and some other people. I had to write and repeat the incident a few times. In the end, a group of male enumerators were police-escorted back into the neighborhood, so they could finish the job. They wanted me to ID Medusa, but I didn’t.
A dame, a bottle and a story.