Category Archives: Travels

CAPTAIN PREDATOR

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It’s been one-thousand seven-hundred and seventy-seven days. Four years, seven months, and twenty days. 

He got to me on October 6, 2016, but when the other flight attendants began to share their experiences, his trail of offenses reached back seventeen years—at least of those who spoke up.

The allegations were shocking—after all, we worked for a highly respected private aviation company, a leader in the industry. We flew the rich and famous, the powerful players in Hollywood, professional sports, and the political and financial movers and shakers of the world.

How could a monster like this be at the controls of their airplanes?

                                                           ***

My sleep is pierced now and then with a recurring nightmare. It goes like this:

A force slams into my chest and crushes all the air in my lungs out through my mouth that stretches open in a dry scream. My eyes bounce open and freeze.

There are rolls of whiskered fat topping a white shirt collar that is under a dark navy blazer with four stripes at the end of the sleeves. A pin of yellow gold wings shimmers over where a heart should lie beneath.

My eyelids are fixed wide open like the ones on a vintage doll when brought upright from its nap and my eyes begin to feel dry and cold but refuse to blink. The hulking predator who just swung his arm around my neck clasps his fists beneath my chin. He flexes, squeezing and wrenching until the left side of my face is touching the right side of his. He pants damp beer-soaked breath through locked jaws.

He knew that I left the lobby bar to get away from him. I walked faster than my usual stride and was shocked when seconds later he stepped into the elevator when I turned to push the floor button just as the doors were closing. The other crew members still sitting at the table likely assumed he went outside to smoke. Instead, with perfect timing, he overtakes my pace and traps me.

He insists that I join him in his room for another drink and I refuse, spurning him. His fury becomes a hissing grenade. The bottle of gin in his flight bag was the pin being pulled and with my rejection, the bomb explodes. He grabs my left buttock and claws with such force that I yelp in pain, stunned as he seizes me into a side headlock. 

He’s shouting what he likes to do to “boys”—profane things that he likes to do to “boys”. I assume he is using the word as slang for consenting men, but his tone is one of desperation—even self-loathing. 

His arms tighten as he constricts my neck inside his elbow, “You’re the only one I’ve ever said that to. I’ve never told anyone else!” and I understand that if he is ever confronted with what he has just said, he’ll know who betrayed him.

He’s probably lying—it doesn’t make any sense. We’ve only met once or twice before. Why would I be the only one he confides in?

 But this is the way a criminal sociopath wields power: he convinces his victim that she will never be free from his watchful eye. That if anything gets back to him, he’ll come for her.

He spits and slobbers as restraints on foul, repressed demons break and become undeniably real, his rage breathing them to life and then. . . silence.

A swift blow strikes the base of my skull, and it cracks like an egg. The weapon feels like a jagged chunk of ice with sharp edges, and it is lodged in the wound that now burns cold.

Piercing aches radiate over the back of my head spreading fever on my ears, along my temples, and across my forehead while I hear my brain sloshing in cerebrospinal fluid until the swelling and pressure around it is so great that the rocking becomes gentler, gentler still, then nearly imperceptible, until it halts. The remaining unshattered cranial plates cradle it in a silent embrace. 

The bones at the top of my neck—the atlas and axis, cervical vertebrae one and two—sting fiery cold, like a toxic injection of menthol, and I stay still as the vision of their scaffold-like structure upon which my head rests and pivots flashes in my mind. Are they broken? Are they crushed? Or are they still intact? Are they keeping my head from–?

 Then I feel my head jerk sharply backward, hyperextending my throat, breaking the ligaments where my ears and jaw meet. A final clutching, guttural protest gurgles and groans from my larynx, until all goes silent with an abrupt unmistakable crack! The vertebrae that supported my head have collapsed. It has torn away and is now detached from my spine, rolling slow and controlled, down the back of my body, until it reaches my sacrum. There, it drops to the floor and breaks open, and all its contents of brains, blood, and mucus ooze out.

But if my broken head is on the floor, how am I looking at the scene? If my head and brains and eyes are there on the floor, the fluids and tissue beginning to congeal, then with what eyes and brain am I processing this vision?

Here, where reason overtakes the subconscious, my sleeping eyes open and I’m fully awake and able to separate from the dream. My head throbs. My stomach rolls and my intestines spasm. I lie still and wait for the room to stop spinning.

                                               ***

This is the way I relive the night that Robert Jefferson* attacked me. His upper back, shoulders, and trapezius muscles were broad and bloated with layers of fat rendering a kyphotic appearance. His deportment was one of perpetual aggression, like a cobra readying to strike, accentuated by his growling face as it lurched low and forward.

I was sleeping soundly when the nightmare brought his hair-covered, muscular arm near and thrust it under my chin. His furrowed forehead separated his hairline from disheveled eyebrows that were a chaos of wiry gray and white hairs protruding from their follicles like masses of condemned men struggling to escape. They emphasized the eyes that leered for opportunities to violate. 

He had a reputation, and it generated a pair of dubious nicknames: Captain Nekkid, and the more sinister one—and more fitting—Captain Predator. His offenses became common knowledge among crew members over the course of twenty years. Unofficial briefings were given to flight attendants new to the group—by other pilots in whom previous victims had confided.

“Have you met Robert Jefferson yet? Be careful with Robert Jefferson.”

“No, I haven’t flown with him. Why?” I replied when it was my turn for the orientation.

The captain and first officer exchanged knowing looks that held a mix of annoyance and disgust. They shook their heads as they lowered their gazes to the floor. Both seemed to be thinking, “We need to tell her.”

“Someone needs to tell her.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe he will.”

“You’re the captain. You brought it up—you tell her.”

“You’re the First Officer. You do it while I order fuel.”

But instead of elaborating, they both asked, “Got any coffee yet?”

Eventually, Robert Jefferson’s name came up again and the nuances took more shape. The side-eyed sighs found a voice. The stories had similarities and differences, but the message was consistent: Don’t go anywhere alone with him, especially if there is alcohol involved. And whatever you do, don’t go to his room alone.

“So, if everyone knows about him, how does he—I mean, why hasn’t he—” struggling to form the question, “why, if his actions have been known about for so long and by so many, how has he not been stopped?”

“Oh, he has been reported,” one captain told me. “But nothing happened. He’s got friends in the office. Or he’s got something on someone that keeps it from going too high up. No one really knows, but somehow it always went away. There are a lot of stories out there but I’m not sure how many actually reported once they saw someone else do it with no results.”

He remained free to keep preying.

As he flexed his arms around my neck, I was sure it would snap and began to envision how I would collapse in three steps, recalling how the camels I rode in Saudi Arabia lowered themselves to the ground on front legs that appeared to have two knees. First, I’d bend at the waist and my chest would come to rest on my thighs. Then my knees would give out and my entire body buckle and fall, folded in a trifold: chest to thighs, hamstrings to calves, butt teetering on ankles before I topple over

I expected this because mine is not a good neck. Severe scoliosis that formed in my teens left it leaning to the right and reversed the natural cervical curve. The disks are squished on the wrong side and cause constant pain. The surgery that was planned to stabilize it never happened, not after the excruciating one that straightened fifteen inches of the spine below it.

All the disks between my shoulders and waist were removed and replaced with cadaver bones. Titanium rods were screwed into both sides to support the fusion—my X-rays look like an erector set.

While in his grip with my arms hanging at my sides, I tapped my fingertips to my thumbs thinking, “Okay, I still feel them. That’s good. Try to keep your head square with your shoulders.

Face straight ahead. Don’t let him twist you at the neck—a snap could kill you.

Who will find me lying here? Hotel guests? Employees? How long? Would I be dead?

Alive, but paralyzed? Who will call Tim—how will they tell him?”

There was no one around. I could think of only one thing that could change the situation, and it wasn’t until months later that I realized that what kicked in was something learned in flight attendant training.

Hostage Negotiation 101: Neutralize the tension—make the hostage-taker believe that you’re on equal footing, be sympathetic to his concerns. Make him see you as a person who understands him instead of an adversary.

Calm him. You need to calm him. It’s the only way to redirect this. Say, “It’s okay. . . I have a lot of gay friends.”

No, no, not that. He’ll think that you believe he just told you he’s gay but he’s a big macho pilot—if he thinks that’s what you heard he’ll want to put that genie back in a bottle. He won’t have that. Say something more neutral. Say it calmly. You have to calm him.

With purpose and clarity, I said, “It’s okay. . . to each his own.”

I wasn’t sure how it sounded as I tried to help him release the anger that consumed him and to not feel that he had just boxed himself into a corner with a whole new identity—an identity that led him to violent exasperation.

It worked. He wasn’t expecting my tone and, in his confusion, the tension in his arms relaxed just enough for me to duck out of his hold and, as if directing passengers in an emergency, began shouting commands at him.

“Go! Go to your room, Robert! Go to your room!” I stood with my feet shoulder-width apart to gain balance in my dizziness and extended my right arm parallel to the floor holding it straight and strong, and pointed past him to an unknown destination.

He was stunned and motionless as he stood watching me, contemplating his next move.

I don’t even know if this is his floor. Keep making noise to scare him away.

 Shit! I wish someone would come out of their room! Someone has got to be in one of these rooms! Someone, look out your door!

Just keep yelling. Stay in this position and you keep shouting commands until the threat is over—just like in emergency drills.

No one will believe me. It will be his word against mine. They never believe the victim really fought.

“Go! Go! Get away! Go to your room! Go!”

You haven’t said, “No.” They’ll ask you if you actually said the word “No”. If anyone is in these rooms hearing or watching through their peephole, they must be able to say that they heard you say, “NO!”

“No! No! No! Go to your room, Robert Jefferson! Go!”

The scowl that was there as he nearly broke my neck transformed into bewilderment. He seemed to be thinking, “Is she really that mad? What the—does she really mean it?”

He took a few slow steps away before stopping to look back.

 Stay solid. Don’t move. Hold your arm straight and keep pointing. Don’t let him see you weaken. Keep yelling. Don’t stop until he’s gone.

“Go! Go! Get away from me! Go! Go!”

And he did. I didn’t move again until reached the room at the end of the hall on the right,

opened the door and it clicked loudly behind him.

My own room was nearby. If I went there, it would only take him seconds to get to me and force his way in. I ran back to the elevator and pressed the down button, listening for his door. This time, I made it inside alone and was relieved to find Ray, one of my pilots, still sitting at the bar watching a game.

“Hey! You’re back!” His face began to fall as he read mine. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know—no—something happened.”

Ray stood up, grabbed his beer, and indicated to the bartender that we were moving to a table. During those few steps, my head was scrambling with words to organize and recount the events that had occurred in the ten minutes I was gone.

 I told him everything except for what Robert yelled out—it pounded in my chest, but I could not raise the words to my lips. They simply would not form.

 I felt strangely obligated to keep that part to myself. Not to forget or hide there forever—but to not reveal it solely to destroy him. It was bizarre to know that I had the leverage to destroy him but for some obscure reason did not want to. At least not yet. Instead, there was this compulsion to keep his secret, to hide the shame that his desperation exposed.

It would be many months later before I recognized this as Stockholm Syndrome, a response to a traumatic event that involves feeling sympathy toward the offender.  Robert Jefferson divulging that he had homosexual tendencies did not offend me—it offended him—and I didn’t know what to do with that.  

“You have got to report him,” Ray said soberly. “He does this. They know he does this. You’ve got to–”

“They won’t do anything. That’s all I’ve ever heard when it comes to him—that he has been reported—that people have tried to do something, and then. . . it just. . . nothing. Nothing. Why would this be any different?”

He lowered his gaze to the table, gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again, his voice was pleading.

“This is what he does. . . but this is worse. It’s escalating. Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I can’t think. All I can think of is the company, the company— and I hit a dead end. I just want to get home tomorrow. I’ll think about it then.”

“Are you going to tell Tim?”

“No.”

“That’s wrong. You’ve got to. He’ll support you. He’ll be really upset if he finds out later—I know I would be.”

“Maybe. I’ll think about it. I probably will. You’re right.”

“What can I do? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I just need a minute.”

“Let me walk you to your room. I’ll make sure you get in okay, and I’ll stand outside your door for an hour or so until maybe you can get to sleep.”

Ray paid his tab, leaving an undrunk beer on the table. We walked in silence.  

When we reached my door I said, “Ray, it’s okay. Thanks for walking me but you don’t have to stand outside here. I’ll be okay,” I said.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“No, really. We both have flights home in the morning and I’m just going to crash. I think his crew has an early trip—he’ll be gone before I have to come downstairs.”

“Are you sure you won’t report this? I’ll help you call.”

“I will,” I said, half-sure. “I just need to think, get home, talk to Tim. But thank you. Thanks for being here, for the support. I’ll be okay,” I lied.

***

The next morning my thoughts had already begun to scramble. Getting to the airport on time and going through the process of checking my bag and navigating the TSA drill—tasks that are as routine as making a cup of morning coffee—demanded focused concentration. I had to constantly reorient myself as I walked to my gate, blanking out every few seconds and confused by my surroundings.

At home the following afternoon, I was determined to ignore it. Tim didn’t need to be hurt with it when I could just deny it, tamping it down until it didn’t matter.

While chicken baked for dinner, we settled into the sofa to watch TV, clinked glasses of red wine and as I looked at him everything changed. Fearing that harboring this kind of secret could lead to problems between us, my resolve weakened.

I took one sip of wine and turned to him and said, “Something happened.”

                                    ***

Of course, Tim was gobsmacked by what I told him and wanted me to report but understood my skepticism in getting help. We danced around it.

Foot surgery conveniently provided a few months off work. I swam in denial and avoidance. When I returned, if his name ever appeared on my crew brief, a company app was at my fingertips to call in sick.

There was another personal issue consuming me. Six weeks before the attack, I filed a guardianship and elder abuse case against my father’s much younger spouse after we were informed that he had been critically ill and in a nursing home for weeks before reluctantly allowing her daughter to inform my sister Lora and me.

The circumstances were outlandish. They sold their home as well the Kansas farm Dad inherited and bought a home sixty miles away without telling us or any friends.

An asset search revealed Cindy’s name on three recently purchased cars for her two daughters and a granddaughter. She closed the joint marital bank account that held the money from the farm sale and divided the money into multiple accounts, including one that she put her younger daughter’s name on. She began construction on an addition to the new home—after my father was incapacitated and beginning to incur nursing home costs.

The half-million-dollar proceeds from the sale of the farm were being rapidly depleted.

During one of many hearings, the judge listened as an exasperated probate court attorney warned that Dad would soon be needing to qualify for Medicaid—an uphill battle for a couple who cleared $750,000 on the farm sale less than two years before.

Twenty years earlier, shortly after she and Dad married, Cindy concocted a bizarre claim that she was being poisoned while he was away on business trips. Though they lived in rural Oklahoma and more than two hours away from the nearest relatives, she attempted to convince my father that members of his family were responsible. She resurrected this absurd tale nearly every time we saw one another at obligatory holiday get-togethers.

Lora and I were determined to get to the bottom of what was happening to Dad. When a heavy metal test returned alarming levels, my lawyers consulted with the prosecuting attorney’s office and asked me to file a police report so a detective could be assigned, and an investigation would be initiated.

This fight crossed the miles from my home in Pennsylvania to the Midwest. It would be long, expensive, and mentally and emotionally grueling. Establishing a rapport with rural Missouri law enforcement was already proving to be a Sisyphean task.

Many of my weeks off work were spent traveling to Missouri for court dates and spending time with Dad, who was under strict supervision by nursing home administration to prevent him from having unfettered access to him. As a family friend and sitting judge said to me when told about the poisoning, “She’s got to be stopped. I hate to be crass, but at this point, it would really behoove her to finish the job.”

Reeling from Robert Jefferson and my father’s abuse case, I bolted awake every morning while it was still dark. The clock glowed between 4 and 5 AM.

When I imagined entering another court case that would cause more stress, I crashed and burned. The prospect of stepping out on yet another ledge where I would hold the burden of proof was unbearable.

                        ***

A year later, Hollywood ogre Harvey Weinstein’s reign of sexual terror collapsed when multiple women came forward with credible allegations of rape, threats, and career-crashing encounters with the media powerhouse. The #MeToo movement exploded with testimonies of offenses that spawned decades.

As the Weinstein story grew more legs, the episode from a year earlier boiled just under the surface. I knew it was a terrible misstep on my part not to report it and the longer I waited, the less relevance it held. 

At least, that was my feeling until hundreds of other victims rose up and revealed not only assaults, but episodes of threats, bullying, and harassment. The validity given to reports of inappropriate touching and unwelcome advances—far less severe offenses—helped change the lens through which I viewed my experience.

One evening I was sitting on the floor of our office and Tim was at his desk. We compared the similarities between Robert Jefferson and Harvey Weinstein—how they preyed upon, threatened, intimidated—and how for years, others were complicit and accommodated them. I recalled the troubling things Robert said.

“Boys. He kept growling that he liked to fuck boys. He said it three times. I thought he was just using slang. . . diminishing that he liked to be with other men.”

I remembered our flight attendants who are gay males. Some are strong, fit men who could defend themselves. But there was one I met in training who came to mind. He was no taller than me and slightly built.

The thought of Robert stalking and trapping him brought the new realization that while everyone thinks he only does this to women—we always have our radars out—the men wouldn’t see it coming.

“Oh, God. Oh, no. It’s not just our women flight attendants who are at risk—our guys!”

“Oh, Sweetie,” Tim said, at a new loss for words in the year-long ordeal.

“I have to report. I know they’ll think I’m just jumping on the Me Too bus, but it’s not that—I never thought of it this way until now!”

Regret and frustration bored into my throat, and I felt like vomiting.

“I’m doing it. I know it’s been a year. I know I should have already. I can’t stand the thought of him getting to another one because of me. He may have already. I may be the reason someone else is dealing with this awful shit.”

“It’s the right thing to do, Sweetie. I’ll completely support you. Whatever we need to do.”

“He’s got to pay,” I said.  

                                    ***

With the help of two flight attendant union representatives, Jill and Darcey, I filed my report through a conference call. Over the following several weeks, reports trickled in from earlier victims—some no longer with the company—who learned there was a new active investigation. Darcey stated, “This thing just exploded.”

About a week after I filed the report Janet, the Human Resource Manager in charge, called to update me on the proceedings.

“We finally decided that we had to move on to the next step and bring him in for a hearing—they (multiple claims) just kept coming in.” The sound of shuffling papers covered some of the shell shock in her voice as it cracked. “There’s just . . .there’s just so many—it’s hard to keep them all straight.”

One flight attendant was on a layover in Hawaii when he swam around her and untied her bikini while she stood in the chest-deep blue waters of Waikoloa. As she sunbathed by the pool, he told her he was going to his room to look out on her while he masturbated. He returned later to share the details.

 Another brought leftover food from the flight to the hotel and offered to set up a buffet in her room.  After they both left, she went to bed. Hours later, she was awakened when he crawled under the covers, unclothed—he had helped himself to her key earlier as she served him dinner.

She screamed and ordered him out. He threatened, “If you tell anyone, it will be your word against mine, and I know people. I can make your job here great with long layovers in nice places, or I can make it miserable. You’ll work harder than anyone else.”

One couldn’t find her room key after having dinner with both pilots and had to go to reception to get another one. When she opened her door, he was in her bed, naked and waiting for her.

More than one suspected that he drugged them. They remembered sitting down for a cocktail and then nothing more until they awoke sick and unable to recall the night before, but insistent that they had not drunk enough to black out.

 One woman’s voice trembled as she told me of vomiting in the lobby of a European hotel on the morning after.

Another reported that during a stay in a particularly luxurious destination, he wanted to “show her a great view” and running ahead of her on the beach, disappeared into a cove of lava rocks. She rounded the corner to find him standing there naked.

 She marked it up to boorishness, and when her crew agreed to meet in Robert’s room for a drink before dinner, she dismissed her concerns.

 But the crew of three dissolved to a party of two when the first officer never appeared. The evening unfolded with her alone with Robert. She has no memory of those hours until, like the others, she woke up naked and nauseated.

Later as the first officer fueled the rental car, Robert turned to face her in the back seat and said, “I called scheduling and got us another three days here. And you are going to be my bitch.”

Shaking and sickened, she raged back at him, “The only bitch will be your wife when I call her!”

 Terrified, she hid in her room the entire rest of the trip.

                        ***

At his disciplinary hearing, Robert Jefferson and his union representative faced the chief pilot, administrators, and corporate attorneys as allegations from over a dozen accusers were presented.

 Three weeks after filing the report, I was in Missouri for another court date. On my way to see my father at the nursing home, Janet’s name appeared on my phone, and I pulled over to stop to answer the call.  

“Daphne, I just wanted to let you know that it is over. Robert Jefferson faxed in his resignation this morning. He will never do this to anyone here again.”

“Why wasn’t he fired? He gets to walk away with nothing on his record! A fat severance check? Was he paid to go away?” It wasn’t enough. After speaking with so many other torn and humiliated women he had tormented, I wanted revenge more than ever.

“No, he was not paid to go away. He will receive what his contract entitles him to with over twenty years here, but it’s not a large severance—certainly not compared to what he’s losing,” she said. “And contractually, we had to give him the chance to resign instead of being fired. He put it off until the last minute. The fax was here when I came in this morning.”

“Janet, one thing I learned through the last few weeks,” I said, “is that he knew he had protection. He got away with this for years because there were people who helped keep these stories from getting to your office before now.”

She was listened and let me talk.

“There were men inside those office walls who knew—and he knew—that he had protection.”

“Y—y—yes,” she affirmed with a sigh.

Her admission surprised me, and I felt validated, finally, by an administrator who would not lie to me.

“Am I under any kind of confidentiality restrictions? Am I allowed to talk about this?”

“You are absolutely not under any restriction, and I hope you do talk about it—as much as you are comfortable talking about it. The flight attendants—and all employees—need to know that this will never happen again. It will never be ignored or tolerated again. They need to know that they will be listened to and protected. So, no, you go. You tell. You are in a unique position—I hope you use it.”

                        ***

Dad died October 5, 2019—one day shy of the third anniversary. There’s been no justice and I’ve begun to write his story.

Now one thousand, eight hundred and twelve days have passed since the attack. Four years, nine months, and twenty-two days.

It’s time to write “Captain Predator”.

The Marigolds of Sintra

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Horse and carriage team at Sintra National Palace

As I open the window of my third story apartment in Sintra, a paradise on the outskirts of Lisbon, the sky has returned to blue and appears refreshed from yesterday’s announcement that summer is ending, and autumn is imminent: a steely gray torrential downpour.

The heavenly sky provides a backdrop to the National Palace of Sintra, spectacular and resplendent in alabaster stucco. Whispers of Mughal architecture are present in Moorish arches that frame half the windows on the upper story while others showcase frames of Spanish Gothic style. From this viewpoint, one of the palace kitchen’s enormous conical chimneys rises to scattered clouds of white and soft gray, perfectly obstructing the twin chimney behind it.

A pleasant, cool breeze invites herself into the flat and brings with her four flies, so I have a quick search for a flyswatter but fail to find one. Despite the absence of weaponry, they could not have chosen a less fortunate place. I haven’t cooked anything yet and have only a modest selection of produce in the minifridge.

Having realized their predicament, they hover about and circle one another indecisively in the middle of the living room and I am reminded of many layovers of the last twenty-seven years with my pilots and fellow flight attendants—a bunch of drunk, disoriented, and hungry travelers arguing over who was in charge of finding a place with a cheap buffet.

Down on the street, restaurant workers scramble to place tables and chairs on the cobbled walks as onions and peppers destined for omelets sauté in olive oil and rich black coffee percolates. Their aromas lick at the town to invite guests.

I watch three groundskeepers as they refresh a trio of small planting beds in the roundabout below my window overlooking the town’s heart center. They strike the ground with hoes and pry out small plants with caps of white flowers, and the smell of upturned dirt travels to where I watch from behind an ornamental iron rail that crosses the terrace opening. They work the soil and remove the spreading roots, but leave after planting a petite bushy plant with variegated foliage in the center of two of the beds. Grassy clumps edge the inside of the tiled-off patches of earth, and I don’t know why they are taking out the flowers but leaving the grass.

Three floors beneath me, a vast bed of orange and yellow marigolds adorns the corner on the south side of the triangular roundabout. The bed is about two and a half feet tall and is contained by round snug timbers that stand upright in a log wall. 

I was here a couple of months ago. In July, the beds were fluffy and prolific with blooms, but they would have been even more brilliant had someone regularly deadheaded the blossoms that were tired and shriveled. Spent blooms only task the plant by exerting its energy on converting the spent flowers into seeds.

Maybe it was a purposeful practice decided by the Sintra gardeners. Perhaps it is their agricultural preference to allow more seeds to form, drop and germinate, but I found it frustrating that they would choose that delayed gratification. If they were regularly deadheaded, the existing plants would flourish, growing and blooming, filling the beds much sooner.

Marigolds in July

Therefore, I asked a shopkeeper if he knew who maintains the landscaping in town. He indicated that he did not. Furthermore, the expression on his face as he shrugged his shoulders messaged that he didn’t care, or that the question had never been asked of him nor tickled his own curiosity.

I was tempted to furiously snap all the wilted, drying flowers and watch them sprout new ones over the following days, but thought better of it in case the Portuguese consider it trespassing or vandalism—in the same way that a common tourist should never touch the queen’s gardens in London. Still, I may have clandestinely snipped a few as I walked by anyway—the marigolds, not the queen’s flowers.

Now, in September, the marigolds look worse for their wear. Their volume has decreased considerably although the weather is still supportive. Much more of the dirt is visible as I look down on them because the plants have withdrawn or been thinned out. I should have saved them in July. They will soon be gone with the first frost, and never having reached their full potential.

I look back across the street to the sidewalk beneath the palace. There is a man tending to two horses hitched to a sightseeing carriage, waiting for a fare. The three of them claim the same spot where I saw them in July under a tilting tree that provides a generous patch of shade from the sun that reflects off the white tiles that line the street. The cooler temperatures are mercy for the man and his animals now that summer has passed.

The horse keeper wipes down the seats and bonnet of his carriage as he hums a tune that I hear between sporadic grumbles of tuk-tuk motors as the town is slowly coming to life after sleeping in late on a Wednesday. He then walks to the hind end of one horse and lifts his tail, examines what is revealed, then he lowers his gaze down the horse’s legs, and gives it a light playful slap on the rear before and walking around the back side of the carriage to the other horse where he repeats his steps. The tail is lifted, what is revealed is studied, and again the man looks downward, and as he slaps the horse’s rear, he shouts something that sounds like a mock-scolding, followed by lesser mumbling.

Only then do I notice the wide bucket that is suspended behind the horses’ backsides and wide enough to tail both of them. The man lifts a black plastic liner out of the bucket and carries it a few steps to one of two circular shallow waste dumpsters. He turns out its contents, shakes the bag three times to assist the evacuation, and plods back to where the horses stand.

Next to them sits a large concrete vat whose faucet juts out of the wall of the plinth where the palace sits. With a water hose that dangles from a square opening in the wall, he rinses the liner and returns it into the manure receptacle that hangs between the horses and his front seat on the carriage.

A man with his sightseeing horses and carriage.

One of the horses seems content or bored, or possibly both. It stands still and quiet. The other awkwardly nods her head and stomps her front right foot onto the cobbled sidewalk. A few seconds later, repeats her statement. She jerks her head up and down again and lifts her right back hoof in a half kick before stomping it into the sidewalk. They are clearly cared for, but still I feel a sense of melancholy, wondering what they are thinking about and what would they rather be doing.

Their keeper crosses to the roundabout’s median to chat with the gardeners who appear to be finished with their work. I hope he’s telling them to pull the weeds and tend to the marigolds.

But the gardeners do neither. The horse man returns to his team and one of the gardeners takes a bag of uprooted white flowers to the same dumpster that swallowed the horse waste. One of his partners surveys the weedy grass surrounding the leafy plant and presses a flat green disk into place at the edge of the bed. Then the three of them pick up their shovels and hoes and walk away, but not toward the marigolds. They are spared the same fate as the white flowers, for now.

If I could stay awake late into the night, I would go down to the street after the bars close and no one is around, and pinch the marigolds. If they show enough life to continue a few more weeks, they will be a brilliant accompaniment to many of the trees that blanket the hills as they assume their fall colors amid the wildly diverse flora of Sintra.

The Overstayer

Standard

Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

I remember his eyes, the rims raw and red with fatigue and stung by air that was thick with sand and acrid, burning pollution. Tired and yellow where they should have been white, they held a deep copper-tinged gold ring around the brown iris. The tears welled quickly and steadied themselves for a few seconds before spilling over his lower lid and spreading, losing their edges as they bled into the veil of sweat that covered his face. He was an empath, this chai wallah, and from his tiny tea stall tucked between rows of dilapidated shops of aluminum scrap walls and crumbling plaster, his gaze looked over and beyond my shoulder. Fear and panic, defeat and grief all stabbed at one another in his expression.

I turned away from the shade of the awning and to the blinding street scene. Mid-day in midsummer Jeddah was unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The sun, unfiltered by even a passing feather of a cloud, showered steadily over the Kingdom and sucked up particles of pollution and dust from unpaved roads. Hundreds of billions of grains of sand that were carried in by long gone windstorms salted every surface. This area of the city, the Pakistani quarter that was home to many cab drivers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, was an undefined explosion of visual and respiratory pests.

A young man stood in the street, stopped on the order of two policemen who were gleeful with authority and hubris. Humble and submissive, he held his head low and his deep Persian skin glistened with the sweat that dripped from the wavy layers of black hair resting on his forehead. His fearful eyes were fixed on the ground just beyond his toes. Bony shoulders and a lean ribcage rounded forward to hug himself or to have a shorter distance to collapse with the next predictable slap on the side of his head. The long-sleeved button-down shirt he wore untucked was soaked and stained with several days’ wear. Threadbare khakis hung from his frame. He was a splinter of a man swimming in clothes and exhaustion.

The officers were not much older than their prey and while they had been deprived the gift of impressive height, thick beards and smug smiles camouflaged their shortcomings. The dull tan uniforms they wore were typically military and emblematic of the color of the desert. The sleeve’s green patch bearing the Saudi government insignia of crossed swords and a palm tree was reminiscent of the red armband and tilted swastika of Hitler’s Nazi party. It was a license to abuse their authority.

I asked my Bangladeshi colleague, Sammy, “What’s happening? What are they doing to him?”

“They have demanded to see his papers. His visa and sponsor papers. All the foreign laborers can be stopped anytime and asked to show their papers. If they cannot, they can be arrested and deported.”

“What do you mean, deported?”

Sammy squinted and took a draw on his cigarette as he leaned on the tea stall counter. He nodded to direct my attention to our surroundings.

“You see all these men walking about, having lunch and tea, standing out here in the sun? In the evening there will be even more hanging out here in the shops and streets. They live maybe 8 or 9 guys to a small apartment and try to work different shifts so they can take turns sleeping. The apartments have no AC so they stay outside as late as they can, so they aren’t all crowded inside together.”

My naivete and lack of comprehension was clear to Sammy. I was a 26-year-old flight attendant from Nixa, Missouri, with only 2 years of aviation and a few weeks of Saudi culture and residency under her belt. He was in his mid-50’s, a Bangladeshi- born flight engineer and business owner who emigrated from Pakistan to the US with $18 when he was in his early 20’s. We were testing the fates ourselves that day, by just socializing openly in public, a man and woman unmarried and unrelated.

He could at least blend in with the locals. His thick salt and pepper hair, dark olive skin, and command of Hindi and Urdu—along with a boundless ability to bamboozle and charm—rendered him a precious asset in Saudi Arabia. I, however, foolishly challenged my host country’s edicts every time I left my villa with my long blond hair uncovered by a hijab and my dazzling, if scandalous, hot pink abaya. Soon after arriving in Saudi for the year, we found common ground in deep conversations about human rights and religion. Later, these often occurred while smoking Cuban cigars on playground equipment.

I stole a glance at the chai wallah, and he shrank. He wanted to remain in the shadows and if the police were to notice me, he would draw their scrutiny as well. I froze. If they were about to cast a broader net in their harassment of these desperate beings, I did not want to be the one who exacerbated the scene.

Then there was noise, metal clanging on metal, a jingling, and a car door slam. Back on the street, one of the cops was bringing the laborer’s arms behind his back and placing handcuffs on him.  The “papers” that he had produced had not been satisfactory and the other officer wadded them, before throwing them to the ground and spitting on them. Both tipped their heads up high and heaved laughter. They had a bounty and they had an audience and it gave them insidious joy. Their subject was trembling and as they led him toward the government vehicle, his feet were heavy with dread and his legs nearly failed him. His knees buckled and bent, and he stumbled but his tormentors kept laughing as they pulled on him.

Sammy continued, his Hindi-laced accent requiring my concentration. The nature of his language had a melodic rising and falling of intonation and I strained to register the matter of his words against the sing-song nuance of his voice.

“Most of the people you will meet here are from other countries– third world countries. Many Saudis do not work. They get a stipend from the government and, especially if their own family is well-to-do, they do little. All these men that you see here–and most of the people that you see when you’re out in town and away from the hotel—came here for work,” Sammy explained. “Generally, the cabbies, manual laborers, and shopkeepers are Indian, Paki, or Egyptian, some African. Many maids and nurses are Filipino, and a lot of the schoolteachers are Egyptian ladies.”

I found the whole concept baffling. The occupations that Sammy mentioned were not those unique to Saudi Arabia such as specialized oil industry jobs with Saudi Aramco or engineering with Lockheed Martin. Jobs he named were common sources of livelihood in any society. I could not square why so many people would come to endure these less than desirable conditions for opportunities that existed in their own home countries.

“But why, Sammy?” I asked. “Why go through all this? What is different about the jobs here that makes it worth it? How is this better?”

“There are more people trying to get fewer jobs at their homes. So, they may not be able to find work. A three-year contract here– although the conditions here are rough—it’s better than they could do at home.”

My chest burned at the inequity of it all. Thinking of the choices that some people in this world had to make and suddenly realizing my privileged ignorance at its proximity to me was crushing. I wanted to shed my whiteness, my Americanness, my need-for-nothingness.

I asked Sammy, “So how does this work for them? How does this work from here?”

He said, “When you go shopping at the Souq, you will see these guys lined up at the phone cable office to wire their money home. What they earn here and send to their families sets them up to live better when they return. They may be paying for a parent’s well-being or a sibling’s education and hopefully there is still some saved when they get back there.”

My attention returned to the street to the captured man in cuffs. The officers continued to taunt and humiliate him, seemingly, just to occupy time. I was furious at their efforts to reduce his character, but I knew that interfering would have produced unthinkable consequences for everyone present.

“What are they going to do to him?”

“His visa is probably expired. He stayed undetected until now and maybe his sponsor will not pay his way home, so he may still be working but for lower pay. The sponsors know these guys will not complain because then their expired visas will be found out. The overstay fault will fall on the migrant worker, not the Saudi business owner. He may be arrested and thrown in jail until either the employer pays a bribe to get him out or he will have to wait in jail until the government sends him home, soon if he’s lucky. It is not good conditions, living in a Saudi jail. Overcrowding, sickness, heat, food, sanitation. Some men just disappear. Their families back home never know what became of them, why the money stopped coming, why they never came home.”

The gravity of this man’s situation sunk in and I became dizzy with the awareness that I was amid modern-day slavery. The chai wallah was silent. Sammy had just described his identical circumstances and we all knew that he could be met with the same fate at any time. This scene played out repeatedly many times before I came to work in Saudi and would likely occur many times after I returned to the US and my privileged blonde, white-skinned life.

The noises and kerfuffle quieted. Other brown skinned, cardamom and sweat-soaked men joined Sammy, the chai wallah and me as we watched the conclusion of the scene.

The handcuffed man was thrown into the back of the jail wagon about the size of a mail truck. Its windowless interior was empty but for him and the wheel wells. There were no seats, no benches, no dividers in the suffocating metal box—nothing to brace himself against or use to support himself upright for the ride. The two back doors were slammed shut and the jubilant officers flashed brilliant white smiles to the spectators as they got into their seats and closed their doors, igniting the engine and revving it noisily in a final flaunt of supremacy.

Tears burned my eyes and bile rose in my gut as they sped away, weaving and dodging from one side of the street to the other and back as I envisioned the doomed and broken man tossing and crashing violently against the walls of his dark, steel box.

 

 

A Fleecing in Mumbai

Standard

The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.

I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.

The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.

“Miss! Miss!”

I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.

“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.

“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”

And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.

Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.

“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”

“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.

She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.

The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.

It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.

“May I help, Miss?”

I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”

The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.

“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.

“Two, please, “ I add.

“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.

“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.

The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.

Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.

“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.

“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.

“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”

I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.

And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.

I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.

In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?

I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.

As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.

The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.

I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.

Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.

“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.

“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.