Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ciphers and Locks

A couple of months ago, I took a break from parking at the garage where I usually leave the crapmobile during the work day. It's a block from work - the most inexpensive parking for a mile, probably. It's also the location where I was knocked on my butt by DC's Most Inattentive Driver '06. In January, I simply didn't have enough cash to pay the whole fee to park for the month.

Instead, I parked at meters, having to switch locations every two hours (which was good in a "five minute brain break" sort of way) or parked in other lots, doling out cash for a single day here and there. When I returned to my garage of choice in February, check in hand, I had lost my assigned monthly parker ID number, 044. I wasn't really concerned. Big deal - gimme a new number.

The valets at the garage are all young or middle-aged Latino men, none of them native to the United States. When they're not busting their collective hump parking and retrieving cars, they hover at the entrance to the garage, chatting and joking in rapid fire Spanish well beyond my limited Sesame Street skills. The guys are nice enough to me. A couple of them speak solid English, but most just smile at me when I wish them a pleasant evening. Good enough.

Whether the guys are legal or not, I don't know. DC is home to a lot of undocumented workers, and many people slip and slide through the cracks of the already ramshackle system. And I think some of these gents have slipped pretty far through the cracks.

That February morning as I stood at the office window with my check, one of the valets looked for my registration card, so he could assign me a new parking pass. The first thing I noticed was that the dirty card file box was in total disarray. Nothing was in alphabetical order. As he flipped through the cards, I thought, "Shoot, this is gonna take ages." And then, with a smile, the valet stopped. "Here you," he said, showing me a card with a completely different name on it.

"No, that's not me," I replied. Maybe his fingers slipped and he grabbed the next card.

But no, that wasn't the case. He slowly returned the card to the box and scratched his chin.

His brow furrowed, he studied my check, and returned to the file box for a minute. "Okay!" He announced. "This is you."

But it wasn't. It was the name of a man - a man working in my office, as a matter of fact. "No," I answered, shaking my head. "Here's my name." I pointed to the check. "Shall I look for you?" He studied my face and then shook his head no. He returned to the box.

At last, he pulled out another card. "Okay, this looks like you!"

It was not my card.

And that's the moment when I realized that he couldn't read at all. He didn't know the letters or how they sounded. He'd picked names that started with "S" and "J" rather than names that started with an "M" like mine. He really could not even comprehend the difference between them. And so he was trying to determine what card looked like I might have written it, as if divining my being from the curves and lines and unknown blocks on a square of paper.

I said to him, "Are those in numerical order? I was number zero-four-four." I wrote the number down. Again he blinked. He did not recognize the digits. "Cero cuatro cuatro?" I said haltingly, dredging up the most primitive Spanish from my childhood.

"Yeah! Green car!" He smiled at me.

He didn't comprehend the numbers written down. But the numbers said out loud, he immediately identified with my crappy old car. Cero cuatro cuatro = the green car.

I was late and needed to get to the office. I had to leave him there, still pondering my pictographic identity. When I came back that evening, the young guy who mans the window in the evening rush was there - he speaks solid English - and my car had been assigned a new number, zero-two-two. But I had to wonder about his colleague.

How does someone who cannot fathom numbers or read letters get through life in this city? How does he know what he's being paid or how to read a clock? It must be a frustrating, infuriating life to be locked away from so many basic things. The unknown must be terrifying. Once you leave the landscape you've memorized, dotted with familiar symbols and colors, is there a fairly palpable fear? I wonder how small his life is in this city. How do you determine your boundaries?

On the way home from work tonight, I heard that one-third of the District's population is functionally illiterate. One-third. A large, non-English speaking Latino and Ethiopian immigrant population has boosted the District's illiteracy rate. DC is not a large city. Still, how large and intimidating must it seem if you are lost in a sea of letters and numbers?

I genuinely don't know much about issues of illiteracy. As a grade schooler, I was a tutor for peers who had trouble reading, but they were not truly illiterate. I don't know - maybe the valet in my garage had disabilities beyond "simple" illiteracy. But after hearing that appalling statistic tonight, I have to wonder.

I went through a period, before the eyeball shots started, when I could not decipher numbers and letters at all. It was horrifying. I remember one eye exam when I gave myself something akin to a migraine trying so hard to read the chart across the room. I kept saying, "I know something is there. I know it. I just can't tell what it is." And while things aren't great now, at least I can read. The blurs became shapes became letters became words became ideas.

To be without words, without ideas, without numbers to quantify it all?

That scares me.


Heather Meadows said...

Eek. That scares me, too.

Chuck said...

Merujo...if you want to be truly scared...check out this video.