Once there was and there was not …
What I hope is the last bill from a 30-minute visit to a Burbank hospital a few months ago arrived in the mail this week. My cost for the emergency room visit was around $2,500, which is an average annual salary in Armenia.
The bills have been coming in multiple parts from four different departments. They’re confusing, unjust, and an example why Americans are expressing their anger during health care reform forums. A poor gent actually got his finger bit-off at one of the protests in Thousand Oaks last Thursday.
Among the reams of paperwork I received from the hospital was a $300 invoice for medical supplies. What medical supplies? Other bills came for a tetanus shot, for x-rays, and for the four stitches the physician’s assistant said I needed on the upper crease of the middle finger of my left hand.
Moments before walking into the emergency room, I was across the street at a pharmacy next door to the US-Armenia TV mid-rise. Bandages and Neosporin were what I wanted to buy to treat what I thought was a simple gash. But this was to be a historic bookend of one of my many funny but sad, dual-natured journeys as an Armenian.
The finger was bleeding profusely, gushing, after I somehow jammed it between my 2000-lbs Camry and my 100-lbs driver’s side door. Don’t ask. I had pulled the door shut and reached up to grab my seatbelt, and bam, my finger wouldn’t stop bleeding. I guess when you live in Yerevan, as I did for a while, you train yourself to be a little more uncivilized and slam car doors shut.
“You’re gonna need stitches,” said the Asian pharmacist who asked to see the cut when ringing up the Band-Aid and Neosporin. He suggested I walk across the street right then and take care of my “injury.”
This was how my fulltime employment for a Yerevan-based company was going to end. I had been summoned to US-Armenia TV by my former boss to be assigned another story two weeks after I’d been laid off. Oh, and he didn’t show up for the appointment he’d set.
The bosses wanted me to go to Naples, Florida, and do some reporting on the Neapolitan Armenian community – the local cultural society, Andre’s Steak House, Handsome Harry, the church parish council, and a fundraiser for a US senator. My flight was the next day, and I had just cut my finger open.
I guess being laid-off by an Armenian employer can be and was traumatic. How can your own people dismiss you? The idea was foreign, like suicide. Would you off one of your own, dismiss your own member, cut off your own finger? Well, I almost did.
We were amidst an economic crisis, businesses were hurting everywhere, and everything I had brought to the table – my skills, passion, mainstream media know-how, and loyalty – were less important than more lucrative crime dramas my bosses needed to fund. I was dispensable, yet I was being told to go cross-country the next day.
What had I done wrong? Why didn’t they like me? Why would they rather glorify coke-snorting, pot-smoking Armenian Mafioso on their TV screen? Why would my people like soap operas more than the costlier task of news reporting, journalism, and good story-telling? I know. I know. But why couldn’t I play one of those Mafioso? I can act, you know.
I suppose crime dramas and journalism are different sides of the same coin, and one is needed to fund the other. And I suppose these two are some of the extremes that make up our culture. The frustration and joy, our thugs and academics, our rich and poor were all us and me, and I was slowly acclimating to our reality.
But in that moment of anger, great loss, extreme anxiety and shame, I hadn’t paid attention to shutting my car door, and I was sitting in the emergency room, bleeding profusely from a finger that the r-e-d or d-e-r keys (bloody lord?) on my computers were very intimate with.
It’s funny that I can’t remember ever giving anyone the finger, and this happened to be the same finger I was giving everyone the first week I was in Armenia to work as a news anchor. That’s the bookend I was talking about earlier.
My employment for the Armenian media company had begun with me busting my finger in Yerevan in 2005 and had ended in 2009 with me busting the same finger in Burbank – where the Armenian company had plopped down to court Kim Kardashian and Robert DeNiro.
Back in Yerevan my first week, a white Lada Jiguli picked me up from near the big Black Cat at the Cascade and dropped me off at Armenia TV in Davitashen. I got out of the car and closed the back door, but the rusty Jiguli was way too old for my timid door-shutting technique. I needed to have slammed it shut. That in itself an example of the duality of being an Armenian; we’re forced to adjust our civility – even when it comes to car doors – while in the Homeland versus when in the Diaspora.
As I reached the Lada’s door again to open it and shut it properly, the driver had already beat me to it. He had pushed the door open from inside with such might that the door flew toward my hand, and my middle finger met the Jiguli’s window head on.
My finger swelled up instantly, and I was sent to the Komitas district hospital, x-rayed, bandaged, and walked around giving everyone the finger my first week on the job in the Homeland. Four years later, I was walking around Naples, Florida, finger sutured up, bandaged, and flipping off everyone including a US senator..
God only knows why my middle finger would become the bookends of my four-year employment, but what came in between were some incredible moments of success. I was able to tell our stories to worldwide audiences. I laughed. I made new friends, traveled, and had a monumental bout of diarrhea in the bathroom of a presidential jet plane.
Had anyone told me any of this was going to happen when I was in high school and dreaming of working in news, I would have flipped them off (well, not really. I don’t do that). But I wouldn’t believe that 20 years after high school, I would be sitting on the toilet of the private jet of a president of a republic and flying to Africa to file a report for CNN.
Yes, I was on the john in the bathroom of a jet plane and looking up through the skylight at the clouds. Yes, an actual window above the commode, and I was flying across the Mediterranean to Tunisia with an official delegation from Armenia.
The delegates, diplomats, and the press corps – me and a crew from H1, the public/state TV station – were on our way to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) hosted by the United Nations.
The delegation was headed by the late Andranik Margaryan, Armenian’s Prime Minister at the time, and Armenia was also to be honored with best e-content in the world accolades for Garegin Chugaszyan’s CD-ROMs titled “Aram Khachaturian: The Life and Works” and “Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.”
In high school, I would take bus 39, the Clinton Avenue cross-town to get from Fresno High School to the Fresno Cable studio near the airport a few times a week to get my hands on cameras and deck-to-deck video editors. Twenty years later I was flying on a presidential plane with a laptop computer that would upload my report from Tunis to Atlanta.
You can’t make this stuff up.
But sitting on that toilet, surrounded by the expensive hand-upholstered Tahitian red, sunshine yellow, and hunter green plaid hand towels, periwinkle liquid soaps in glass containers, and oh that skylight to the heavens
, I began to wonder when my mythical homeland of Armenia would be a true democracy, where all citizens were equal, where one man didn’t have this luxurious john with a skylight above, while others had a hole in the ground with no seat and makeshift outhouses with no running water.
Yes, our Armenia is a world of extremes. Extreme poverty. Extreme wealth. Extreme comfort in one’s skin while being subjected to the extreme paranoia of some locals. Not that a nation’s president doesn’t deserve the best, but I’ve heard some stories about butterflies flying from the shoes of brides who were wearing diamond studded gowns while airplanes drop flowers overhead. I’ve heard some rumors and have seen those black luxury cars with tinted windows running red lights and not afraid to kill pedestrians crossing the streets. And those are the extremes that haunt me when I’m at Ralph’s indulging myself with some Haagen-Dazs.
I used to feel guilty as hell taking a cab to work at my old station and taking in a Pepsi Light with me, knowing that the staff couldn’t afford cabs or expensive sodas on the $70 dollars a month they earned. Those were the extremes. The iPod in my backpack and the missing toilet paper in the bathrooms. I was told the company didn’t buy toilet paper because employees would take the rolls home.
These were the extremes that somehow couldn’t have had better bookends than holding up my middle finger, giving the experience and Armenia the bird. What else can you do but hold up a bandaged, damaged middle-finger when everything that we are is extreme. We’re hopeful and pessimistic, loving and hateful, self-respecting and self-loathing, proud of our culture yet sometimes embarrassed. And sometimes all you can do is give yourself the finger.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader