Sunday, April 07, 2013

Blogging at the Dollar Plus in Ghetto Heights

Olga García Echeverría

It’s Sunday, crack of dawn, and I have a crisis. I can’t post the blog I wrote the night before. My finicky Internet at home isn’t working again.  I pack my writing gear and venture out in search of free Wi-Fi. I visit one, then two downtown cafes. I drink strong coffee and eat buttery croissants, but when I try the Web, all I get is Unable to Connect. Unable to Connect. Unable to Connect. Later, Office Depot confirms my worst fear—computer virus.

Finding a computer work station on a Sunday morning proves challenging. Libraries are closed. Friends are sleeping. Kinko’s doesn’t open till noon. I text my brother, my computer guru and guardian angel, but he’s out of town. Bummer.

Moreno’s Dollar Plus in Boyle Heights is my girlfriend Maritza’s idea. She’s been there before and recalls several computers for public use. Blogging at the Dollar Plus? Vamonos, why not?

Mario Moreno, the owner of the Dollar Plus, is standing at the counter when we enter. On several shelves behind him are Band-Aids, bottles of body lotion, deodorant, Colgate.  A plush brown teddy bear dangles from a red ribbon. On the wall between the shelves: computer cables, headphones, batteries, razor blades, an array of electronic gadgets. This is the good stuff at the Dollar Plus.

Mario is dark-skinned with a mustache, broad shouldered, wearing a baby-blue dress shirt and black slacks. He’s a 40-something-year-old reformed homeboy who used to do drugs and steal purses from vulnerable viejitas, he confesses later, but thanks to Jehovah, now he’s here.

The Dollar Plus in Boyle Heights smells just like it sounds. Like dollar plus items. Like something new and something old. Like plastic doused in labor exploitation. Like musty moth balls and lead elixir. The white linoleum is clean, but it’s full of thin zigzagging cracks that look like fault lines and borders on a huge map. The fluorescent lights fall harsh against the room and everything looks brighter than it should be. I regret not bringing my sunglasses.

Near the entrance of The Dollar Plus are a few small, fold-out tables with three computers, the old-school, bulky dinosaurs that I remember from the 90’s. But who cares, they have Word and Internet access. $2 la hora, Mario says proudly. I’m sold.

When I pull up one of the nearby aluminum folding chair, Mario rushes over, rolling out a torn pleather chair on wheels. Use this one, he insists. Luxury in Boyle Heights, my girlfriend jokes. Ghetto Heights, corrects Mario, and we all laugh. Good times at The Dollar Plus.

I get to work. My blog is already written. I just have to transfer data and pictures. It should be a breeze. But the dinosaurs are sluggish. The mouse has a mind of its own. My flashdrive won’t open. I switch computers several times. The screens freeze.

Mario fidgets with the plugs and restarts the computers several times. Maritza paces the aisles, yawning. I rub my sleepy eyes and scan the signage on the windows in front of me. Between the neon-yellow ATM sign and the red Digicel ad is Jehovah. Jehovah, I am Lord. Jehovah, Dios Todopoderosos. He looks dreamy in the posters. Light-skinned, long-haired and bearded, like a White hippy from the 70’s. In one picture, he’s wearing a silky white robe, sitting in lush-green nature by a stream, stretching out an arm as if welcoming us all to paradise. Only I hear that this Jehovah sneers at queers. I sneer back, thinking, How could any God not love a queer? Shame on you, Jehovah.

A customer waltzes in and greets Mario as hermano. To which Mario responds, Buenos dias, hermano. Another customer follows. Buenos dias, hermana. Everyone who comes into the store appears to be a Witness. Surrounded by Jehovah images and Witnesses, I can’t help but think of Doug, my friend Liz’s husband, who calls Jehovah Witnesses Testículos de Jehovah instead of Testigos de Jehovah. Spanish is his second language. Los Testículos de Jehovah came knocking on my door.

I think also of Joy Castro and her two works I recently read, Island of Bones, a collection of poetic essays on identity, and her memoir The Truth Book, where she exposes the hypocrisy and the abuses she experienced at the hands of her Jehovah Witness family. Aside from being great reads, Castro’s books taught me two Jehovah Witnesses words I’ll never forget:

1. Defellowshipped. He was defellowshipped for smoking cigarettes. He  was defellowshipped for adultery.

2. Apostate. I’m an apostate. She’s an apostate.

An apostate, explains Castro, is a person who has been exposed to the Jehovah Witness truth and has consciously rejected it. Both those who have been defellowshipped and those who are apostates are shunned by Jehovah Witnesses, the latter being the more terrible of the two. If Mario or any of these JWs starts preaching, I think defensively, I’ll stop them in their tracks. Thank you, but I’m an apostate. I’ve been defellowshipped. They’ll have no choice but to shun me.

Finally, the Google bar appears. Yay! I clap. Mario smiles triumphantly and hands over the keyboard, returning to his checkout counter, where a few hermanos y hermanas are lining up. I insert my flashdrive and copy my blog, ready to bust out my post in 10 minutes. That’s all I have needed for the past 10 hours. 10 minutes!

But it’s no use. The Blogging Universe seems to be conspiring against me today. Every time I try to paste the blog into Blogspot, I get thrown off the Net and I have to start all over again. I look up to see Jehovah staring at me. Is he punishing me for the Testículo or apostate thing? Sorry Jehovah, I think. I was just kidding. And then out of desperation, Andale, no seas gacho, help out a queer here. Pretty please. He shuns me. After what seems like 100 failed attempts to post my blog, I give up.

An aborted blog is a terrible, terrible thing. One feels like a complete failure. All seems empty and bleak. At the counter, as I’m fishing out my quarters, Mario says, No, no, motioning with his hands that I don’t need to pay. He seems just as disappointed as me that his computers have failed. Ay, disculpa, he says. Dejected, I shrug. I believe in nothing.

What were you trying to finish? He asks. I sigh, telling him about La Bloga and what we bloggers do on a regular basis. Yes, for free. I tell him about the current blog I cannot post, the one on Weaving Words, Creating Worlds, the writing workshop series that celebrated Women’s History Month by way of offering mujeres the opportunity to write and create poetry chapbooks. He nods sympathetically as I speak. I want to tell him about the poem Big Fat Pussy Girl that we read in one of our sessions and how it inspired several women to write about their panochas, but the Jehovahs on the walls stop me. 

 Here, he says, you can use this computer. It’s a modern flat screen docked at eye level. He flips it towards me. He has to awkwardly place the keyboard like a seesaw on the two inch divider that separates us. He grabs a pack of colorful sponges and shoves them under the keyboard for support. The mouse is on his desk on the other side of the divider, so I have to reach my arm over and let it dangle to use it. This is my personal computer, he says. It has excellent connection. Termina tu trabajo aquí.

It’s an offer I can’t resist. I balance the keyboard, reach my arm over to grab the mouse, drag, click, and boom! I’m on the Internet. Wow, how simple the online world is when it’s functioning. I quickly cut and paste. I upload pictures. It’s moving, it’s moving, but it isn’t perfect. The inserted pictures go berserk and make a jumbled soup of the surrounding text. The links I’ve copied onto the story are, for some unknown reason, dead. Click y nada. 10 minutes quickly turns into 20, then 30.

As I work, I hear Mario dishing out the JW gospel to Maritza. The moment I’ve been fearing has arrived. I have to speed it up. Maritza’s not one to shy away from a discussion or debate. She’ll listen to what someone has to say and then dissect and argue with precision, rarely holding back her tongue. It’s one of her strengths, for sure, but right here, right now, I dread her getting into a religious match with Mario. She’s a queer pagan with an attitude and he’s a straight Witness with a cause. This could get ugly.

But it doesn’t turn out like that at all. Maritza listens but does not debate. That’s how much I love you, she says later. In the absence of debate, Mario opens up and bears testimony to what he's lived. He was born poor in Juarez, Chihuahua. His father was an abusive alcoholic who spent all his earnings on booze. Feeling lost and loveless, Mario started sniffing glue at the age of 9. An ex-crack and cocaine addict for twenty years, Jehovah saved him one day, gave him a second chance. If it weren’t for Jehovah he’d be dead from drugs or a bullet hole, he's sure. He was born again through Jehovah, Mario says. I'm not religious, but his story touches me. I think of my nephew Sergio in a state penitentiary, how his addiction got him there, and my heart cracks like a huevo in my chest. I want to blog about him, my lost nephew and the Prison Industrial Complex that houses so many of our Black and Brown hermanos. It’s a world shut away from the public eye, where the shunned go. We have tried to reach my nephew through the years, at times the pull of drugs and the streets seemingly stronger than our love. If Jehovah or any god could reach him, I would say thank you. I momentarily feel bad about making fun of Mario’s religion.

And that’s when I see them--two baby roaches on Mario’s computer. They’re crawling slowly on the screen, all over my blog, their little antennas swaying back and forth. Are they waving? Maybe I should be grossed out, but I find their presence fitting. I grew up battling roaches. We go way back, las cucas and me. Despite my repulsion for them, I fell in love with Kafka the first time I read the Metamorphosis. In El Paso, Texas, while getting my MFA in Creative Writing, flying roaches followed me around, tortured me. They were my trauma and my muse, always finding ways to crawl into my poems and stories.

The tiny roaches seem to be applauding their antennas when I hit “Publish” on the blog. And then I realize here’s the story I really need and want to write. The one about how blogging is an adventure, each blog a journey of its own. How don’t judge a book by its cover is a lesson I’m still learning. Jehovah Witnesses in Ghetto Heights can be cool, esa. The Dollar Plus can save the day. Tiny roaches on the screen can be metaphors. Blogging isn’t glamorous, after all. There’s no glory here. Sometimes the words we blog strike a cord and we get a pulse--someone leaves a comment--that’s gold. But in the end, the blogger blogs to simply blog. To share a story. To review a book. To discuss an issue. To explore a question. To rant. To promote. To protest. For love of words. Always for the love of words. Sometimes it is a joy. Other times, though, it can be a pain. Imagine La Llorona as a blogger. Ay, mi bloga, mi bloga. Tengo que escribir mi bloga. It can be like that sometimes too. Yet, a blogger blogs along. Because blogging is a force that forces creation and release, creation and release, creation and release. Like a ritual. Like a discipline. Be it beautiful or mediocre or full of flaws, we hit “Publish” and set the blogas free. ¡Adios bloga, ojalá que te vaya bonito!


Colleen Dunham said...

I laughed and laughed.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale Olga! Your blog is a wonderful philosophical meditation on interminable "waiting," el Jehovah, Joy Castro, nosotras queers, las cucas, and the supreme razón en el "porque" we write blogs. And you impart these words so beautifully. Gracias hermana.

Anonymous said...

I laughed and my heart beat like the rattatating of a keyboard. Engrossed, entertained and uplifted. Luv it! Adriana

Anonymous said...

Nice! Thanks Olga! A great read! :)

On the B65 said...

Ay Olga! I loved it.


Wonderful, Olga!

Ana Chacon said...

Loved your Blog!

Jacki Rodriguez said...

Love your words, your insight, your heart. Muchisimas gracias on this anniversary morning of mine. A gift like no others. Amor.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Loved it! I just tweeted your blog post.

Cosmic Chica said...

thanks for the laughs Olga! i needed that. great blog. where else but ghetto heights do jw's, cucas, y la bloga come together?

Anonymous said...

An example of clear passionate dedication. Your words, your words. Thank you for taking us on your Sunday mission for the love of words with patience and consideration.
Finally, who doesn't love a good Dollar Plus or even Tree story. They fill all my Composition Book needs.
Thank you for your Blog adventure and tender insights.

Anonymous said...

Olga, You make me want to blog again! I love your adventures and love you even more for taking us with you. You pack so much depth, and insight in to your column. My heart also cracked like a huevo. You are brilliant. always.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your words and your adventure!

Anonymous said...

This was excelente, Olga.
May the flying cucarachas force always be with you.

Olga said...

Gold! Gold! Gold! Thank you for reading and for all your wonderful comments.

Alejandra Sanchez said...

Olga, you are so funny!!! Thank you for your uplifting humor, inspiring social commentary, and awesome writing!!!

Anonymous said...

i'm waiting for the blog book you're writing, eh? what a funny and telling piece about the life of a enjoyed this!