America, Then

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I’ve been slacking on my blog again.  So much so that it’s been a year to the day since my last post.  The main reason for the long break was our move from Hong Kong to the U.S. last summer and the time it took us to adapt to our new home.  With so many things that had to be taken care of immediately, writing fell way down on my priority list.  This is actually our second international move in less than a year.  My blog suffered a similar blow in 2014, when we relocated from Abu Dhabi with our two month-old baby, when I took a job offer in Hong Kong.  Just eight months and some change later, when we thought we had finally settled in, fate or whatever you want to call it intervened again and catapulted us to the United States.  I hope fate is done now, because we are really tired and don’t want to move to any other country, at least not anytime soon.

It’s my wife’s first time in the U.S. (and my toddler daughter’s too, not that she can tell the difference), but I had lived here in the late nineties and early 2000’s, so a lot of this is familiar territory for me.  Still, it’s interesting to see the many little changes that have taken place over the last twelve-plus years.  I started jotting down some of my observations for my blog, then memories of my first time in America came flooding back and I ended up with ten pages of text, which I split into two parts because I didn’t want to end up with the longest blog post ever.  The end result is two still very long posts, but I hope you won’t mind.  I’d like to think of this two-part jumbo series as my grand return to the world of blogging.

Up until last year, the only time I had been back in the States was for a short business trip to New York, during the summer of 2006.  I had spent a week in Manhattan, mostly in an office tower downtown, but had had an extra day to myself to meet up with some old friends.  I remember squeezing a lot of activities into that day: Hanging out at Central Park, having lunch at Tom’s Restaurant (“Seinfeld diner”), going to Saks Fifth Avenue (and not buying anything) and watching the Canadian prog-rock band Saga live at the B.B. King Blues Club, near Times Square.  I didn’t know then that I was going to move back to this country again in less than ten years.  But let’s go back ten years in the opposite direction now; to 1996, when I first set foot in the U.S.A.

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Seven-Mile Bridge, Florida Keys

I first arrived here to study at Penn State, when it hadn’t yet become the worst thing since the Catholic Church and coach Joe Paterno was nothing less than a living legend.  A tiny plane with two propellers and maybe ten seats brought me, minus my luggage (which thankfully arrived the next day) to University Park Airport in central Pennsylvania.  For those of you who haven’t been to that area, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth: Rolling green hills and forests, a vast campus dotted with historic buildings, and a lively downtown filled with shops, bars and restaurants – what else does one need?  Penn State’s a school well known for its academic excellence in fields like engineering and logistics, but football (the American kind, obviously) and partying are perhaps its even bigger defining characteristics, as I found out for myself in the weeks and months that followed.  Not sure how it is now, but in those years State College had so many bars per capita that one couldn’t be opened without another one closing down first, due to some quota always being maxed out – or so I was told.  We spent all our weekends, and a lot of weekdays, barhopping across town, hanging out at G-Man, Players, the Brewery, the Rathskeller (“Skeller”), Cafe 210 West and the many other fine establishments our town had to offer.  I still fondly remember the happy hours with $1 beer pitchers, watching Velveeta (State College’s own cheesy 80’s band) live and the tailgates where we would have burgers and beers in the middle of the morning on the grass lot next to the awesomely named Beaver Stadium before home games.

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A glorious day at Beaver Stadium. I think this was a non-conference game against Kentucky.

I lived on campus during my first year in an apartment that felt like a “mini UN” of sorts, with roommates from Australia, China and Nigeria.  I could generally tell even before entering if the Chinese or the Nigerian guy were cooking.  The exotic aromas of Asian and African cuisines were a bit too much to handle for my then-inexperienced Turkish nose.  On the other hand, I considered the Australian guy’s cooking (if you can call it that) “safe”:  Cold sandwiches (always with raw onion slices) and boring-looking meat and potato stews, which he ate in the living room while watching TV, straight out of the still-hot cooking pot.  I stayed away from the kitchen altogether, partly because I found it slightly disgusting, and partly because I didn’t know how to cook anything to save my life.  Another section of the apartment I wish I could stay away from was the shared bathroom, i.e. the United Nations of pubic hair.  We took turns cleaning it every week and needless to say I didn’t look forward to that task.  Sooner or later someone would bail with some lame excuse and others would follow suit, reducing the frequency of the cleanings and making the next person’s job all the more difficult and stomach-churning.  As soon as the first year ended I got the hell out of there and moved to a tiny studio on Foster Avenue.  The only filth I had to deal with from then on was mine.  As far as school was concerned, after a very difficult first year, coursework finally got easier with the electives kicking in.  Thanks to my genius planning, I had classes only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, essentially giving me a four-day weekend (yes, I was a bit of a slacker back then, too).  A good buddy of mine from the program lived across the hall from my apartment and we hung out sometimes.  I had a steady girlfriend, beer in the fridge (Molson and Sierra Nevada being faves), Hot Pockets in the freezer, VCR tapes rented from Allen Street Video, and lots of free time.  Life couldn’t be better.

But all good things must come to an end, and as the second year drew to a close I knew I had to focus my energies on finding a job.  My alternative would have been to serve in the Turkish military, so let’s just say I had enough motivation.  After about a hundred “thank you, you are great but we have decided to go with another candidate at this time” cards from various employers (I had this idea of covering one of my walls with them because they were so nice and colorful, like my beer coaster collection), I ended up getting recruited as a management trainee by a Baltimore-based insurance company.  Judging by my success rate up to that point, I thought they must be really desperate to want to sponsor an H1-B visa for a wannabe immigrant, but I was also desperate to find a job, so it was pretty much a match made in heaven.

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The kitchen looks cleaner in the picture somehow.

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My attempt at recreating the first Black Sabbath album cover. An abandoned church in Person County, North Carolina.

Thanks to a couple of promotions at work, I moved deeper and deeper into the South over the next several years.  My first stop after Maryland was Durham, North Carolina, and two and a half years after that I was living in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Between the moves and the driving around in the countryside to visit clients, I was able to see pretty much all of the East Coast and the South within the course of less than five years.  Initially I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t found the kind of “glamorous” (whatever that means) job an MBA from a top-40 program should have been able to land, but I was a foreigner with limited employment opportunities after all (I wasn’t in IT) and I found consolation in the fact that I was getting to know “real America.”  I spent a lot of time visiting clients and prospects from all walks of life, and with time, felt in my element in high-end suburbs, working-class neighborhoods and trailer parks alike.  I sold insurance in inner city housing projects and lived to tell the tale.  How I didn’t get robbed, let alone killed, wearing a suit and tie in the middle of the hood as the only person of a different skin color for a mile and being seen going in and out of apartments (a clear sign the “’surance man” was out collecting money), still beats me.  If I had told my parents about the places I was hanging out at to make a living, I’m sure they would have ordered me to leave the U.S. and return to Turkey at once.  Even though I supposedly spent four out of five of those years in management, there was always an agent who got sick, who quit or who got fired due to underperformance, for stealing clients’ money, or both, so I spent a good deal of time “running their books” (insurance lingo for “servicing their clients”) as a substitute.

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CNN Studios, Atlanta.

Our business was hardcore, door-to-door sales.  Along with vacuum cleaner salesmen and Jehova’s Witnesses, we were probably some of the most unwanted people in the country.  We drove around servicing clients, with the ulterior motive of selling them another insurance policy.  When times got bad and we couldn’t secure enough appointments, we were expected to cold call, either from the yellow pages or by getting off our butts and walking around (“canvassing”) a neighborhood, knocking on strangers’ doors.  My “mentor agent” who broke me in to the business was a very nice, divorced and obese white guy in his late forties or early fifties with grown kids, who had served as a VP at some insurance company before eventually getting laid off.  He had this amazing green Nissan 300ZX, which we drove around in to visit clients and prospects.  Normally it’s the protégé, not the mentor who drives, but we both preferred the green beast to my Honda Civic.  After about a month of driving and making ZERO sales (I still don’t understand how that happened), our staff manager, who was an aggressive, salesy type, took over my training.  He was a middle aged black dude who owned two Lexuses (Lexi?), one for him and one for “the wife.”  He liked to flash a lot of jewelry, played smooth jazz in his car and gave me tips on where to buy brand suits without breaking the bank (the answer: Men’s Wearhouse).  He was the one who introduced me to the housing projects, where, as I found out, a sale can be made easily because anyone who’s lived there knew someone from their family or the neighbors who had recently gotten shot and killed.  The problem was, the business also lapsed very quickly because when you went back the next month to collect the second premium, chances were the person would have already cashed and spent their entire social security check.  We therefore had to time our visits perfectly, so that we would be there on day they got paid, hopefully before they’d had the chance to spend the money on other things.

When we approached someone to talk about insurance, we were expected to use canned sales pitches like “I have no way of knowing whether you are in need of any life insurance today, but I do have some ideas that have proven valuable to others whose situations might be similar to yours,….” and “those people didn’t plan to fail, they failed to plan.” Cell phones hadn’t yet become commonplace and most salespeople carried pagers with them in order to be reached.  Agents were required to write their appointments and their prospects’ contact information in a big yellow notebook called the “Form 62” and the manager was supposed to regularly check to see if the agents were using it.  It was kind of like an elementary school for grown-ups.

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The famed intersection of Haight & Ashbury in San Francisco.

I hated the sales pressure with all my being, but living in a different country (the U.S. of A., no less) by myself for the first time was so exciting that it was all worth it.  And every now and then something remarkable did happen, like that one time I went to the home of a client in rural North Carolina to collect her monthly premium and ended up playing guitar with her husband, an elderly African-American gentleman.

In the absence of Google Maps and GPS, I used to carry around a small library of well-worn maps in my car to help me navigate through such exotic locales as Roxboro, North Carolina and Bogalusa, Louisiana (apparently a KKK hotbed, as I only recently found out), as well as the urban wilderness of neighborhoods like Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, or the infamous North Avenue.  My older and wiser self would have probably avoided some of those areas, especially after seeing shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad, but the young and stupid me didn’t care.

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Sun Studios, Memphis, where Elvis Presley used to record.

The nineties were the booming Clinton years.  The country was at near-full employment and we were struggling to find good candidates to hire for our office.  It was probably the best times America had experienced in terms of the economy since the post-WW2 boom.  Then came the Y2K panic, the dot-com bust, 9/11, Afghanistan war and the “nuke-elar weapons of mass destruction in I-raq” mania of the W administration.  That whole period between 1996 and 2003 felt like a party that started out great but then quickly got out of hand and busted by the police.

Culturally, it was the era of Napster, nu-metal (undoubtedly one of the lowest points in rock history), alternative “rock” (not much better), The Jerry Springer Show, Daria, Blockbuster Video, gas-guzzling SUVs, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Enron scandal, hanging chads and “Yo Quiero Taco Bell.”  Have I missed anything?  I still have my talking Chihuahua by the way and it still works after all these years.  Those high quality Taco Bell products!

Zooming in on the music scene a bit closer, it was a time when many formerly great heavy metal bands were pathetically trying to keep up with the times by making alternative-ish sounding albums (e.g. Megadeth – Risk, Metallica – Load), “simplifying” or doing away with their logos (see the same two albums), and/or cutting their hair (again, Metallica), which resulted in an age of metal that many fans and arguably the bands themselves want to forget about.  Like most heavy music fans I also went through an alternative phase during those years, and to be fair, with such a sea change in the music world, metal bands’ desperation to stay relevant was totally understandable.  Still (I do realize it’s easy for me to say this as a non-professional musician, and in hindsight), but I wish they had just waited it out until heavy metal became popular again – which it has done so today – rather than trying to become something they were not.  As for alternative music itself, the initially exciting genre morphed into some bland pop-rock by the end of the nineties, with the likes of Matchbox 20, Train and Goo Goo Dolls taking center stage (excuse the pun) at the expense of bands like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, which had already had their heyday in the early nineties and had arguably made much more inspiring music than their heirs.  There were still a few bright spots like New Radicals (a guilty pleasure) or Placebo, but most of the scene was “meh” at best.  Pop music, on the other hand, went in different directions in Europe and the U.S., trading the not-necessarily-for-dancing-but-danceable, new wave/post punk-inspired mid-tempo songs for a 130-bpm, bass-drum-on-every-beat, commercialized brand of techno in Europe, and a groovy, slower hip-hop/R&B in the States.  While youth in European dance clubs were jumping up and down frenetically to the beats of “Barbie Girl,” in America they were sleazily grinding against each other as “’Mo Money, ‘Mo Problems” blasted through the speakers.  Most genres became a bit lackluster during those years and still haven’t recovered IMO, and nor will they.  Like classical music before it, I believe rock music has already produced its finest examples by this point and it would probably take another major innovation (like the electrification of instruments, without which rock wouldn’t exist) to create the next generation of genuinely new and exciting music.  The biggest “innovations” the nineties could come up with were a dirty guitar sound and the elimination of the guitar solo.  My biggest issue with that era from a music point of view is that mediocrity became the norm and anyone who learned to play a few power chords became a professional guitarist overnight.  To be fair, the nineties came on the heels of the greatest decade ever in music, and topping that would have probably been a near-impossible task anyway.

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Los Angeles through the car window.

In those years, the word “organic” didn’t mean what it means today and healthy eating only meant eating as close to zero fat as possible.  I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter was thought to be healthier than plain old butter.  At the supermarket I painstakingly read nutrition labels to buy low-fat foods because that was the right thing to do.  But when I ate outside, I let go of my inhibitions: This was America, there was fast food as far as the eye could see, and I wasn’t going to let all that greasy goodness get away from me.  My favorite chains (besides Taco Bell, which has already received honorable mention earlier) included Hardee’s, Sonic, Bojangles, Blimpie, Chick-Fil-A, the Waffle House, Krispy Kreme and Golden Corral.  I had never noticed it before, but looking at this list I realize that almost all of my past favorites are Southern chains!  Definitely a reason to go back.  The pinnacle of comfort food for me has to be oyster po’ boys though (originally “poor boy’s” – streetcar railroad workers on strike were served these free of charge by a couple of restaurant owners who were ex-streetcar conductors themselves).  Other popular varieties include shrimp and soft-shell crab, but they’ve got nothing on oyster if you ask me.  A po’ boy is basically a sandwich.  You take a fresh, soft-on-the-inside but crispy-on-the-outside French bread loaf, cut it in half, spread mayo (or remoulade sauce) and stuff it with delicately fried Mississippi oysters, lettuce and tomato.  Don’t forget to add a dash (or ten) of Tabasco sauce, another Louisiana specialty.  Voila!  I salivate every time I think about it.

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New Orleans, with the Mississippi River in the foreground.

Being single in the U.S. was fun.  I managed to have a small circle of friends and the occasional girlfriend in all the cities I lived in.  On the weekends, barhopping was our favorite pastime.  While I can hardly remember any venue names (and most of them may not be around anymore), Federal Hill and Fells Point in Baltimore, Warehouse District in downtown Raleigh, the dive bars and live venues of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and the Uptown district of New Orleans near Tulane University were my favorite places to hangout.

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French Quarter, New Orleans. Cafe du Monde is on the right.

I went on a lot of road trips back then, the most memorable being my solo “Blues pilgrimage” that started out in the Big Easy and took me along Route 61 (“the Blues highway”) through cotton fields, alongside the barbecue pits and juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.  The final destination of my trip was Beale Street, Memphis, where B.B. King’s Blues Club sits across from Handy Park, named after the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy.  Maybe I’ll do a separate entry on that trip one day.

After my U.S. years ended, I lived in Turkey for a few years and then found myself as an expat in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong.  I have now came back full circle, living in Maryland, only 45 minutes away from the very first job I had back in 1998.

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