Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Inevitability of the French Fry

I sat wedged between two Turkish students nibbling cheeseburgers in Woodbury Commons. I was the only person outside of the MacDonald’s restaurant without food, daydreaming about frozen desserts.

Usually I do not get paid to peruse discounted brand name merchandise with international students, but the group leader for the Turkish kids flew back to her sales office in Istanbul and left the group unsupervised for the weekend. One girl, Beren, was older than the other students and took charge of the group. There wasn’t much for me to do but make sure they all got to the outlets and back without breaking their legs.

They had already been to the outlets on the fourth of July and now they were just buying souvenirs from friends. When I ask international students why they wanted to come to New York, the word “shopping” is invariably upon their lips. Clothes, handbags, sunglasses, watches – it’s all cheaper in the US.

With little money and a lot of time, I followed Beren and her young friend, Pinar, through the Gap and Armani Exchange and gave bad fashion advice with the best intentions. I couldn’t remember the last time I went shopping with girls.

“Which of these shirts do you like better?” asked Beren, holding up two white American Eagle shirts with red logos, one of which was slightly faded. Squinting slightly, I pointed to the brighter one. I watched them try on tee-shirts over their tee-shirts.

After, Pinar and I dug through a bin of underwear labeled, “4 for $10.” In spite of my resolve to spend no money, I started picking out pairs of cheap underwear. At least I’m not spending frivolously, I thought. Underwear is a necessity of life.

“Where can I go to a Victoria’s Secret?” Pinar asked, tossing aside a pair of extra-large lace-backed panties.

“Just so you know,” I said, “Victoria’s Secret is still pretty expensive here. You can spend, like, forty dollars on one bra there.”

I lifted my breasts slightly as I said the word bra because I find that communication goes more smoothly when I talk with my hands.

“What was that word you used?” Pinar asked.

“Bra,” I repeated. “Bra. But really, they’re, like, forty dollars.”

My mind simply cannot justify forty dollar undergarments.

“Bra,” said Pinar.

“I want just one to take home,” said Beren. “I will buy.”

Among Turkish ladies, I discovered that “I will buy” can be a complete sentence.

“The Gap tee-shirts are eighty US dollars in Istanbul,” Beren explained, contemplating shelf of twelve dollar tees. “I will buy.”

After many hundreds of US dollars were dropped on watches and shoes and handbags, I followed Beren and Pinar to the food pavilion. The word “pavilion” might indicate an establishment that is just as sophisticated as the designer outlets the pavilion keeps company with. Inside, we found pizza, tacos, and Au Bon Pain. This food court fare did not interest the two girls and they went to MacDonalds. We joined the rest of the group at a table outside of the MacDonald’s joint. The Turkish language reigned supreme and I had no idea what was going on.

“Kdeiomcr erjkwjhod kdjsjoe System of a Down adfadewtn,” one girl said.

Okay, they’re talking about music, I thought to myself.

“Please, Brittany, have a fry,” said Beren, pushing her large box of fries towards me. “Please.”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“You have nothing,” she pouted. “Please. I beg you. It’s potato, Brittany.”

“No, I know what it’s made of. I’m okay. Really.”

“But it’s so much food,” she said.

No matter where you’re from, you must know what you’re getting yourself into when you order a large fry in America. You made your salty, deep-fried bed and you can sleep in it. She dipped a fry into a white sauce and I asked her what it was.

“People here usually dip fries into ketchup,” I said.

“This sauce… this is good. You must try it, Brittany,” Beren said.

I’m usually inhumanly immune to peer-pressure. Some combination of curiosity and a desire to not be offered any more fries compelled me to take the smallest one and dip it into the white sauce. And… disappointment. I tasted ranch dressing and salt.

“Thanks,” I said with lukewarm enthusiasm. I hadn’t eaten a MacDonald’s French fry since I was sixteen. I left the group for a moment to purchase a salad from the Au Bon Pain and rethink my life.

In the car that evening, Dave lectured me on the inevitability of the French fry.

“You thought you could avoid MacDonald’s for the rest of your life? You can’t. I predict that someday, before you die, you will eat another MacDonald’s French fry. Someday you will be traveling and you will be starving and after walking for miles you will come to a MacDonald’s restaurant. You will buy fries because that is the only food for miles around and you will eat those fries whether you like it or not because you need that food to live.”

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Disaster Bus

I arrived at my place of employment at precisely 8:45 pm on June 16, 2012, where a rented car was waiting for me just outside of the door.

“Are you… Brittany?” said the driver of the vehicle. He opened the door and I climbed into the backseat, which contained all of the modern conveniences. Peppermints, bottled water. I tightly hugged my tote full of folders and lanyards as we embarked upon our adventure.

The driver and I talked about pistachio ice cream, train rides through Eastern Europe, and the meat industry. I confessed my worries about getting twenty-one Vietnamese kids through the airport terminal.

“You’re selling yourself too short, Brittany,” said the driver. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Maybe I am. What’s the worst that can happen, anyways?”

The drive went quickly and I took my bag and my clipboards to the terminal. I looked for Hanoi on the board of arriving flights and only saw Paris, Istanbul, and Taipei. At that point I was absolutely certain that I was already in the wrong place. A French woman in a headscarf approached me asking me, in French, the best way to get into Manhattan. Soon I was playing the role of the translator as she discussed the least expensive mode of transportation with an airport employee. It was exhilarating.

I raced back to the gate, which was just as barren as I’d left it. Employees in suits and bellboy uniforms paced around leisurely in the proximity of some unclaimed baggage. I must have missed the group. The Vietnamese kids came and left and were probably taking scam artist taxis all the way to the school for a meager $500 per student. I bugged the employees again and they assured me the plane had been late and the kids were probably just getting to customs.

A flood of people who looked like they might be from Taiwan flooded through, dragging bags and embracing their families beyond the gate. Time passed. Suddenly everyone was Turkish and I did the only thing I could do: I whined to the airport employees again. Are there any more Vietnamese people back there? Are you sure? Am I really in the right terminal? They comforted me by saying that my group was probably still in customs and it could take a long time if they’ve never been to the US before. I called the emergency number to inform the school that my group was very late.

About an hour and a half later I was approached by a woman who appeared to be of Middle Eastern decent and two kids, all wearing tee-shirts from my school. She pointed at my clipboard from the international school and waved to me. This cannot be, I thought. They don’t look Vietnamese at all. Who do these people think they are, pretending to be Vietnamese? But then again, just because they don’t look Vietnamese doesn’t mean they don’t live in Vietnam. Perhaps they emigrated. There is nothing wrong with emigrating. People emigrate every day. I handed her a folder labeled “Group Leader” and welcomed her to New York.

“Are there twenty-two of you?” I asked urgently.

They smiled and nodded and I quickly determined that they didn’t actually speak English. Maybe they weren’t part of my group after all. Then I took back the folder and I called the emergency number.

“Hello, is part of my group Turkish? I haven’t found a large group of Vietnamese kids, but I do have three Turks and… they seem to want to go with me.”

Just then a beeline of Vietnamese kids in blue and pink tee-shirts emerged from the crowd, waving enthusiastically.

“Uh, hold on, I think I found the Vietnamese group. I’m just going to go greet them now. I’ll call you back,” I told the emergency contact and hung up. “Welcome to New York!”

The leader of the group explained that one girl was still detained in customs. A Vietnamese person with the same name had come through JFK earlier that day and airport security deemed her suspicious. They were going to hold on to her indefinitely.

From across the room, the Middle Eastern family gave me a wave and indicated that they had found their ride, a man with a black driver’s hat and a sign. I was relieved that they weren’t my responsibility after all.

I introduced myself to clusters of drowsy kids who rolled around on baggage carts and wandered off to the bathrooms without any supervision. I attempted to learn their names. Every once and a while a man would come from customs and tell us we had to keep waiting. A little before one in the morning the girl we were waiting for finally emerged from customs – not an imposter after all, it turns out. I called the emergency number again to tell them that everything was finally okay.

Once we boarded the bus, I handed out their student I.D. cards. Every time I read a name, the bus erupted with muffled giggles. Am I saying something dirty? I asked myself after each name. After four names, I passed the load of name tags off to the group leader.

I explained the rules of the school, such trivialities as why they can’t drink, why they can’t smoke in their rooms, why they can’t pull the fire alarm at their leisure. Sometime after I tackled the subject of urinating in public areas, the group leader told me that a student realized his passport was missing. We were halfway to the school and it was one in the morning. I whipped out my cell phone and dialed the emergency number. They said we would just have to turn the bus around and find it. A collective sigh rose from the bus seats, mine among them.

A half hour later we were at JFK airport once again. I paced the bus aisles while the student and group leader rummaged through the luggage compartment of the bus and the bus driver scoured the pavement in search of scattered documents. After a long search, they returned with a passport.

“It was in the back of the bus all along,” the group leader announced.

I called the emergency number.

“We found the passport. We’re on our way. For real, this time.”

When I lead the army of half-asleep students with rolling suitcases into their dormitory at 2:30 in the morning, a crowd of students smoking outside of the door greeted us with applause. I didn’t get home myself until 3:00.