My uncle was convinced that I was hired because I am Muslim. Really, I don’t think so. But maybe. My boss, Jamal, who was also one of the men who interviewed me, is Muslim. An Iranian born Shia. Via Louisiana.
“Maybe he saw on your résumé that you were part of the Muslim Student Association!”
“I don’t think that has anything to do with it.”
“Well, you never know. And now you have a job offer. In Houston.”
“Oh my God!” my aunt interjected. “We lived in Houston for two years. There were cockroaches in our apartment! It was a nice complex too, but with the weather … .You know how it is?”
“I went down to the leasing office to find out about exterminators for the apartment, and the guy there said that water bugs just came with the territory,” my uncle replied inexpressively.
“Water bugs! Can you believe they call them water bugs? That’s when I knew I was in Texas! When the words all changed!” my aunt intoned. She is from Connecticut.
I felt really sullen about the job offer. It was the best one of the three I’d received, but I didn’t want to leave Dallas. Everyone there told me Houston sucked. Houston was also the city in which I had my first meal at Taco Bell. Since then, I swore I’d never eat there again. Regardless, it was between Houston and moving back home to my parents’ house in Gaborone, Botswana, going through the entire process of trying to find a job — again. And I wasn’t ready to move back, so, in spite of all the cursory affirmations against Houston from my friends, and the great proliferation of fast-food restaurants, I took the job.
I had visited Houston exactly three times prior to moving here. The first visit was with my parents and brother to visit my sister’s sister-in-law and her family for two or three days during my first trip to the States. On my sister’s recommendation, we went to Taco Bell. Since I only eat meat and chicken that’s Halaal (which means that it has been slaughtered in a manner acceptable by Islamic law), I couldn’t eat anything on the menu except what looked like blobs of brown-grey mashed up beans wrapped tightly in a soft tortilla shell. I ate it thinking I would never feel cheerful again. My relationship with my sister has been strained ever since.
The second time I came to Houston, I drove down from Dallas, merged from Highway 45 to the 610 Loop and immediately got lost. I was driving to Deer Park for my interview. The instructions said to go from 610 East to 610 South. Somehow I ended up on Interstate 10 oblivious to the mistake I had made until I saw a sign telling me I was a certain number of miles away from Beaumont! I hadn’t actually paid attention to the fact that the collection of 610 highways was in fact a loop, as I know now, and if I stayed on it, I would always be on it.
I came to Houston a third time to find an apartment. I didn’t know my way around, so I looked up an apartment finding service that got me in touch with one of their Houston agents. We arranged a meeting at the first of many apartment complexes we would look at that day. Greg, an African-American, showed up wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I had expected someone who was dressed professionally, as I assumed professionals would be in Dallas. I concluded that people in Houston do business differently. Greg did all the driving. I was dumbfounded by the sudden realization of the scale of this new city and it’s immense stock of cars all seemingly frozen on the highways like dinosaurs in a tar pit.
We looked at a number of apartments before I finally settled on one in a complex called Meyer Park in Meyerland. It was an unexceptional beige and stucco apartment. Green wood siding was added along the ground floor for a decorative touch. Next to the Meyer Park entrance, a large pond had been installed at which a group of ducks flourished. Around the pond was a lush, undulating lawn. A romantic fairy tale bridge crossed between two of the banks. My apartment, however, didn’t face this pond. It faced the back of a Wal-Mart. Did these people never hear of zoning?
I should have been used to this sort of view, having grown up in a city where zoning policies have never been enforced. My parent’s house is in a gated community in Gaborone. This new community is in a suburb, just to the west of Gaborone, inventively called Gaborone West. Outside of the main entrance to my parents’ complex, at the corner of one of the streets, on what would normally be the sidewalk or space occupied by the set back requirements, is a shipping container in which some budding entrepreneur is running a neighborhood tuck shop. Tuck shops are common in Gaborone. They sell basic goods from individual fruits and bread to chocolates and cigarettes and soft drinks with the most minimum mark-up, as far as I know. They are usually positioned on small pieces of unclaimed land in residential areas so that there’s always one within a five-minute walk from one’s house.
The Gaborone city planners have also overlooked city beautification and have no apparent interest in building roads that don’t fall apart the moment a light shower hits the ground. When this happens, swirling eddy currents gouge giant holes into roads rendering them into a dystopian vision of asphaltic Swiss cheese. A friend of mine once told me she had to drive over the potholes with her eyes closed, foot to the pedal, and hands clenching the steering wheel, ignoring any damage her car might incur if she wanted to go anywhere. Road edges are also not immune to degradation. Very few roads have curbs and as a result crumble off into the gravel and sand that is meant to be a sidewalk. However, the sidewalk, being one of sand and gravel, gives in instantly to tall, wild grasses that colonize all unpaved land. All the streets around my parents’ house that lead to the main roads are like this. They have actually become a refuge to a small herd of goats.
During the summer months when Gaborone is inundated with water courtesy of a few, but frequently powerful, thunderstorms, many animal herders bring their flocks from the countryside to the city. They do this because most of the available agricultural land in the ‘countryside’ is instantly sowed with plants for harvest with very little left over for animals. Also, the goats, and sometimes even cows, tend to all the feral grass that explodes in length the moment it rains.
My little herd has lost its shepherd. The goats roam freely around their selected area. I see them every time I go home, nervously shuffling one after the other. They’re true city goats, too. They know how to cross the street! I know, have watched them look to the right, then the left, right again and then make a quick dash to the safety of the other side. Whenever one of them gets stranded on the middle of a road, motorists simply slow down, allow them to pass or drive around them. They’re pretty much like the potholes. Inconspicuous, but present.
In Gaborone, stately homes cluster across the street from small dwellings with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roofs held down with more brick; small office buildings are nestled in predominantly residential neighborhoods; giant, ugly black-and-white cube edifices ten stories tall accommodate government offices; and parks are rarely used except as a thoroughfare. Everything in Botswana is flat. Wide roads separate buildings with the occasional pretense of providing sidewalks. However, since Gaborone is only an eighth the size of Houston, its disappointments seem easier to manage.
Tired of continuing my search for the perfect yuppie apartment, I decided Meyer Park was good enough despite the view. I signed a year-long lease, the same length as my temporary work visa. When Jamal offered me the entry-level engineering position at Flexitallic, he mentioned that they would make every effort to sponsor my work permit after the temporary one ran out. He was hopeful they would not encounter any obstacles.
The drive from my apartment to the Flexitallic office was about 25 minutes long. From my apartment, after a quick Starbucks jaunt, I would get onto 610 East and head toward Highway 225. Since I was leaving the Loop I was always driving opposite to the flow of traffic. Regardless, I was usually about ten minutes late every day due to my propensity to hit the snooze button for as long as I could tolerate the annoying alarm call.
Traffic usually wasn’t a problem, but sometimes I wasn’t so lucky. On one memorable occasion a thunderstorm flooded Deer Park. Heading home after work I was looking forward to break my fast for Ramadan. My 25-minute trek turned into a two and a half hour ordeal. One of 225’s underpasses was flooded because someone forgot to clear debris from the highway. All traffic was directed to the service road. Traffic only exaggerated my hunger as I watched the clock tick by, slowly passing the time at which I was supposed to break my fast. I didn’t even have a snack in my car for such an emergency. Furious with Houston, I called my aunt to complain, but she quickly reminded me that fasting meant sacrifice and discipline. Deciding I would never be tolerable of this traffic, I decided to dwell on happier thoughts of food. As the traffic inched by, it gave me time to think about what I wanted for dinner. I ended up going to Fadi’s where I ordered the red snapper with a side of hummus and a puffy naan. Another crisis delectably saved.
Flexitallic is located in Deer Park, a name that conjures up images of verdant, rolling fields populated with its namesake, deer, and swaths of gargantuan evergreen trees. In reality, it is scarred by highways, a deep ship channel, and writhing masses of steel topped by little yellow and blue flames that scorch the air with their soot.
Most of the refineries in Deer Park are located to the north of 225 so they have direct access to the ship channel. Most of their supporting infrastructure lies south of 225 including Flexitallic, a gasket manufacturer. My job entailed the design of specialized components for petrochemical and aeronautical use. Jamal and I worked in an office with Brian, a very rotund and jolly engineer. Our desks were all separated by rows of filing cabinets. Thankfully, my desk was closest to the only window in the office. Perched high atop the wall it provided light to the only plant we had. A guy would come in to water the plant every so often, but he wasn’t very chatty. When I would say hello, he would mumble some response back, water the plant and quickly leave.
Our office, on the second floor, was at the end of a long and narrow sunless corridor. It connected us to two sets of stairs leading to the factory and the lobby, respectively. A conference room and offices for some of the higher-ups in the company were also lined up along this corridor. If the higher-ups were in their offices, their doors were always open. I imagined they shot me looks of dismay as I strode in late every morning.
The sales and logistics offices were on the ground floor and were always well stocked with delicious home-baked treats placed on a table near the receptionists’ desks. It seemed at least once a week someone’s wife would send some brownies or the like to the office. Everyone was invited downstairs to graze on the goodies.
Unfortunately, during my first month working there, I couldn’t eat anything. Ramadan had started on the first day of my tenure at Flexitallic. I spent my lunches digesting marketing materials about the various products the company sold. Jamal also had me visit the different departments in the office and factory in order to gain firsthand experience about the production of gaskets and related products.
The factory is a lofty space with uncertain boundaries. It is divided into separate areas of production. Divisions are based on the size of the machines doing the work and the area needed to store raw materials and finished goods. It is an old factory that has been repaired and fitted as needed, but its age is showing. Near the top of the ceiling, some of the insulation was starting to come away from the wall. It resembled the stuffing of a teddy bear whose seams had started to unfasten with age, but no one seemed to care so long as the roof kept the water out and work could go on.
The factory is a grim place. The only natural light entered the space through two large roller doors near the front end. Dispatch trucks would idle there as they were being filled and prepped for delivery. The machinery and the entire floor are constantly steeped in graphite, a common staple used in the production of many gaskets.
During my rounds in other departments, I met Dee, the woman in charge of logistics. She dealt with everything from arranging transportation of all products to and from the factory as well making sure the offices were stocked with the most basic stationery supplies. During the first few days I had spent there, I hadn’t noticed any recycling bins. I decided to ask her where they were located, thinking there was probably some oversight on my part.
Dee was a petite, stern-looking woman. Her blond hair was always pulled back tightly leaving just enough in the front for a bouncy fringe that danced shadows over her eyes, making her seem more foreboding than she really was.
“We don’t recycle here.” She pursed her lips at me and for a second she looked younger as her wrinkles disappeared. Her eyes gave me a quizzical look. “Are you from California?” Dee asked.
My rounds complete, I finally settled into our engineering office, AutoCAD always at the ready on my computer screen. My work in designing components involved looking over drawings and specifications provided by the refineries. When those weren’t available I was expected to make site visits to look at and measure the pieces to which my components would fit.
About seven months into my year at Flexitallic, I got called into Jeff’s office, one of the higher-ups and director of something or the other. He wanted to talk to me about my visa.
“I’ve talked with the lawyer, and all the paperwork for the work permit has been filed and submitted. We’ve been very pleased with your performance, and would like to offer you a raise pending the approval of your permit,” he seemed to recite. I couldn’t tell if the expression he constantly wore on his face was one of sadness or kindness, but I like to think it was the latter. I was delighted by the news. Everything seemed to be going according to plan and I was expecting a long career as an engineer.
My first site visit was with Jamal. Even though he was so lean, he always wore clothes that were a size or two too large, but tightly cinched at the waist. He was also very tan, a result of the many Houston mini-marathons he ran. He would always freely dispense advice on the many benefits of running. He had a very bushy moustache that mostly obscured his top lip. He spoke with a slow, deep, crackling drawl, a combination of his Iranian accent and his time spent in Louisiana and Texas. When he first moved to the States some 30 years ago, he enrolled in an engineering Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University. However, he quickly left to pursue work at an engineering firm with the impending birth of his first child. He has been at Flexitallic ever since.
Jamal drove us both in his blue Accord to the Shell Refinery. Instead of taking the highway, he stayed on the service road, which at 11 a.m. was deliriously empty. We were driving west and 225 loomed tall above us on our left. On our right, tall chain link fences protected the petrochemical compounds and heavy concrete barricaded their entrances. The refinery towers lay farther inward for safety reasons. Between the towers and fences was open land, stripped bare by the constant movement of large vehicles and people, revealing a light coffee-colored gravel that harshly reflected the sunlight.
In certain places, the gravel lots also doubled as visitor parking. The dust left trails on my clothes as I walked from the car to the air-conditioned entrance office. It was set on top of a small concrete plinth and clad in beige corrugated metal with dark tinted windows breaking up the monotony. Inside, the walls were also a shade of beige and a portly attendant sat behind a thick piece of security glass in which a small two-way communication device was imbedded. After we announced our arrival and waited to get a ride into the compound we sat down on a pair of mismatched chairs. The cushion of mine had withered and the fabric looked to be pulling away from the backrest.
“So, you’re Sunni?” Jamal randomly asked.
“I am. And you’re Shia?” I already knew the answer.
We sat in silence for the next few minutes, I occasionally tapping the hand rest. I mulled over the question Jamal asked me. Maybe my uncle was right.
Fred shortly escorted us to the refinery tower. I thought he kept licking his lips and chewing on his lower lip, but I realized later he had a wad of chewing tobacco pressed firmly against his gum that he seemed to play with between conversation. He also toted around in his vehicle a white polystyrene cup that he would occasionally spit saliva into. At first this horrified me, but as those white polystyrene cups became part of the scenery, I became desensitized to his habit. He wore a set of blue overalls, gnarly old steel-toe boots and a sticker-emblazoned white hardhat.
As he drove us to the tower, he chatted amicably with Jamal about the parts needed and when. I struggled to take it all in as I was amazed at the sheer size of all these plants. Shimmering steel towers of every size and shape captivated my attention. Pipes coiled inexplicably from the ground appealing to the heavens, and were supported by the thinnest of structures. Thin metal gratings, connected by equally transparent staircases, hovered around the pipes and formed the different levels. An army of people dressed in red and blue overalls constantly floated between these levels tending to the pipes that deconstructed their precious cargo of ebony, glossy-slick.
When we got out of the car, Jamal went to survey the component he needed. Fred escorted me to a porta-camp where his office was temporarily being held to look over drawings that might prove useful.
“I’ve never seen you here,” Fred said.
“I just started working with Flexitallic recently, and Jamal is showing me the ropes,” I responded.
Seemingly pleased with this reply, Fred launched into a spiel about the nature of his work assembling refinery towers and its nomadic nature that made him have to go where he was needed. Unforeseen to me, the point of his story was that he was never able to maintain a steady relationship with a woman.
“However, the pay’s good and during my breaks I can head on over to Shreveport to play the slots and pick up some ladies!”
Fred did not seem afraid to plunder his soul and provide details of his caddishness for the sake of casual conversation. When he spun tales of his trips to Shreveport his red, splotchy, sunburned face seemed to get redder and the delicate varicose veins beneath his eyes flushed deeper shades of blue. Over time, I got used to the character of the stories Fred would tell and felt a little boring for not having ones of my own to recall. As the shock subsided, I began wondering if Fred ever contemplated using sunscreen to avoid the leathering of his skin under the Texan sun and the spread of those veins.
As the expiry date of my work visa drew closer, I spoke again with Jeff about it.
“Unfortunately, due to a cap on the number of permit applicants by the government, your visa application was denied.” This time I decided his expression was one of sadness, especially since that was how I felt. I didn’t have any control over the situation.
I had two months left on my temporary visa and decided I would go to Gaborone for a year, possibly work and consider applying to grad school. What is it again that I wanted to do with my life? Be an engineer? Maybe not. After learning to live in Houston for a year, I was now freed from the constraints of having to follow the traditional trajectory of having my entire career path defined by my undergraduate degree.
On my last day of work at Flexitallic, I drove back to my apartment with the evening on my tail. The sky put on a dazzling performance of various shades of oranges, reds, and purples reflected onto strings of grey clouds. The tectonic towers in the refinery fields silhouetted into black veins and seemed to frolic against the color of the sky.
“It’s actually really beautiful, the refineries at sunset,” I said to my friend, Candice, over dinner when she was visiting Houston. “Pollution is the best thing that ever happened to sunsets!”
“How charming!” she quipped.