Away to Home

Originally published in Mainline magazine May 3, 2017

Opening Doors Helps Refugees Land on Their Feet in a New Land

Refugee
Russul Roumani (in orange) leads a newly arrived refugee family to retrieve their luggage. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

As the clock ticked forward, moving from one day to the next, Sacramento International Airport began to slowly shut down. Starbucks had just closed for the night, and the help desk was left unattended. A maintenance person was replacing the sign on the single-use restroom to indicate that it was now available to all gender. Lights had dimmed, and security gates had been rolled down, leaving just a few employees and agents.

I was sitting right below the escalator that passengers would descend to get to the arrivals platform to be picked up. To my left was a woman with a homemade sign that read “SON” while to the right was a young man who alternated his attention between the top of the escalator and his phone screen, eyes nervously darting up and down.

Russul Roumani’s attention was also split between her phone and the escalator, watching for a newly arrived Afghan family. She had been waiting for more than an hour and a half after the family’s flight from LAX was delayed. The plane was supposed to come in at midnight, and it was now 1:30 a.m.

For just about anyone else, it was a typical late night at Sacramento International. But for Roumani and the family coming to the United States, it was a new beginning for eight people.


Earlier that day, March 6, the White House issued an executive order that limited the year’s number of incoming refugees to 50,000 at most. According to the State Department, in the 2014-15 fiscal year that number was 70,000.

There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees website. Under the new order, only about .2 percent of them will be allowed into the U.S. this year. The family from Afghanistan – whose names are being withheld for their privacy and protection – makes up eight of those 50,000 refugees.

They will be integrated into their new community by a Sacramento nonprofit agency called Opening Doors, which assists refugees with housing and other support services. As a caseworker for the agency, Roumani coordinates with local volunteers the family’s transportation from the airport to a hotel where they stay until more permanent housing is arranged.

Opening Doors CEO Deborah Ortiz, currently serves on the Los Rios Community Colleges District Board of Trustees after eight years as a state senator, two years as an assembly member and four years as a member of the Sacramento City Council.

Last year the Department of Social Services reported that the state had taken in 7,908 refugees. Of those, 1,299 settled in Sacramento, which has resulted in the city having the third largest refugee community in the state behind Los Angeles and San Diego.

According to Ortiz, Sacramento is also the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan – like the family Roumani was picking up.

“Once there’s a network and welcoming community here,” said Ortiz, “that really enhances the willingness for a person to identify Sacramento as a place they’d like to go to.”


At the airport, passengers and crew of the late flight from Los Angeles finally came down the escalator. Most of them went directly to baggage claim, while others went to the seating area to mingle with awaiting family. The nervous young man who had been studying his phone nearly stumbled over a duffle bag trying to reach and embrace a young woman. The woman holding the “SON” sign continued to wait.

Roumani was joined by Helen Killeen, a UC Davis graduate assistant who had volunteered to help pick up this Afghan family from the airport. Soon after Killeen’s arrival, Roumani smiled as the family of two parents and six children, including two sets of twins wearing badges marked IOM – International Organization of Migration – descended the escalator into their new city.

The family had arrived, and their two-day journey from Afghanistan to Dubai to Los Angeles to Sacramento had finally come to an end.

After greeting the family in their native language – Dari – with welcome and good faith, Roumani and Killeen went to baggage claim to pick up the family’s luggage. The father and his three sons soon followed. As they waited for the conveyor belt to move, one of the young daughters walked over to stand with her father and brothers. She looked up at the sculptures of unclaimed luggage piled high to the ceiling in Seussical fashion and smiled with sparkling eyes and open mouth.

When luggage began to flow down the conveyor belt, the father and sons quickly looked for their bags and began to stack them onto the carts with vigorous efficiency.

Roumani and Killeen strategized how they would transport the family to the hotel. But this was no challenge for Roumani. She once retrieved four families – 32 people – who arrived at the same time. The family Roumani was transporting that day consisted of 10 people.

“I started asking, ‘Who is your wife? OK, come with me,’ just so we could get all of the kids, laughed while leaving the airport.

Once sufficient housing is found for this group of new arrivals, they would likely settle in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood where a significant Middle Eastern community has planted roots.

“The markets are there, the restaurants are there,” said Ortiz. “That’s where the community resides.”


On a Saturday morning later in March, most of the faculty, staff and student body at Greer Elementary were taking advantage of the weekend. But on that day a few volunteers watched as a class of young refugee children played basketball.

The Saturday School Program of the San Juan Unified School District, run by counselor Heather Berkness, offers children of refugees a chance to improve their language and social skills.

“A lot of our kids speak Arabic, Farsi and Dari, and they are just starting at the foundational basis of language,” said Berkness.

In the 2016-17 academic year, San Juan Unified School District reported that of the district’s 5,233 ESL students, 1,311 – roughly 4 percent – spoke either Arabic, Pashto, Farsi or Dari.

“This is so exciting for them to be in a place where they’re surrounded by others doing just the same thing,” said Berkness.

Since most of the refugee community resides in Arden-Arcade, San Juan reported last year that the district had 832 students who were refugees, the largest number in all districts in the region.

The staff meets every challenge, large and small, at Saturday School. On this day a volunteer approached Berkness with a young girl wearing a hijab who was crying. She had fallen on her hand. While Berkness comforted her, the volunteer went to find someone who could speak Farsi.

Since the program takes place on weekends, Berkness said that it is difficult to find faculty and staff to teach classes for the children. As a result, volunteers – including Berkness’ mother – fill the gap.

To best serve the diverse age range of children, Saturday School emphasizes different skills for different age groups. Berkness said they ask the oldest students what they want to learn and what they think is important. The group of older students that week wanted to focus on applying for jobs and properly preparing resumès.

The adult refugees have their own version of Saturday School – though it takes place on Friday. Opening Doors offers refugees the chance to attend cultural classes to learn about American society and the Sacramento region.

It’s not all fun and games, Ortiz pointed out. The students require more resources due to their experiences in their home countries.

“Because these children are coming from trauma and violence, there are emotional issues that [school districts] are seeking more guidance and support for,” Ortiz said.

In a Saturday School classroom for a younger age group, the children made collages to help identify what is important in their lives.

“We’re doing some really positive character building,” said Berkness. “We want to continue to have those positive affirmations so kids know that we want them here.”

Berkness, who had to leave to attend to the girl who had fallen on her hand, walked down the hallway as children inside the multi-purpose room sang, “This Land is Your Land,” which they would perform at an open house the following week.

“They’re an asset to our system,” said Berkness of the refugee children. “We’re glad that they’re here.”


After meeting the new arrivals at the airport, on the drive to the family’s hotel, Roumani described her own experience with Opening Doors.

It wasn’t long ago that she had someone waiting for her at the bottom of the escalator. In 2008, after a co-worker in Baghdad was killed by unknown assailants, Roumani and her children fled Iraq and were resettled by Opening Doors. In 2011, the agency hired her.

“[Opening Doors] was small when I first started, but now we’re getting bigger and bigger,” said Roumani, one of five employees – including the department head – in the agency’s Refugee Resettlement Department who were also once refugees.

Ten days before picking up the new arrivals, Roumani had returned from a visit with her parents in Baghdad. The house she lived in, she said, was gone.

“The situation hasn’t changed,” said Roumani.

She became a citizen in 2013 but chose not to vote in last year’s presidential election, believing that both candidates would continue conflict in the Middle East.

“I know what war is like,” she said, “I don’t like war.”

Though the Trump administration twice tried to impose a travel ban to the U.S. by nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, SIV holders are exempt regardless of country of origin, according to Ortiz.

Ortiz said that SIV holders differ from other refugees in that they have worked for the U.S. government or military in a capacity, such as translators, that would put them and their families in danger.

“They are at greater risk because they helped our government,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz also said that SIVs are typically skilled as engineers or medical professionals in their home countries. In the case of the arrivals Roumani was picking up, the father of the family was a cook for the U.S. government in Kabul.

Opening Doors was founded in 1993 by the Interfaith Service Bureau as the Sacramento Refugee Ministry to resettle refugees from the former Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later that it changed its name to Opening Doors.

Ortiz came into her role as Opening Door’s CEO when her predecessor, Debra DeBondt, stepped down to volunteer in Africa for the Peace Corp.

“Refugees especially during this time in history are a really vulnerable population,” said Ortiz. “It’s a passion to serve, and this is the organization that fuels this passion.”

The staff at Opening Doors are not the only people in the region concerned about refugees. In late March a group of former and current state workers and lobbyists hosted a picnic for about 200 recently arrived families that was catered by local businesses. It was originally supposed to be held at Land Park, but due to rain, B’nai Israel, a nearby Jewish synagogue, volunteered its recreation area so the event could take place.

“I still feel people across the country are compassionate and feel the need to do something and be welcoming,” Ortiz added. “Real people have a sense of goodness and compassion, and we’ve seen it every day here in Sacramento.”


At the hotel, Roumani headed for the front desk to get the family checked in. While the new arrivals waited in the lobby, the father went across the room to get coffee for himself and his wife. As Roumani finished at the front desk, a man pushing a cart full of boxes of baked goods came into the lobby. After asking Roumani if the family spoke Arabic, the man welcomed the family in Dari before pushing the cart into the back.

After checking in, Roumani and I assisted the father and his sons in bringing their luggage up to the room. Roumani gave them a cell phone as well as a few take-out boxes that contained hot food from a local Afghan restaurant before saying goodbye.

I asked Roumani how to say goodbye in Dari.

“Kuda Hafez,” she said.

I repeated the phrase as best I could to the father of the family, and immediately the hotel room filled with laughter. The father patted me on the shoulder and said, “That was good.”

Then Roumani and I left the hotel and went out into the night, which was actually a new day for us all.


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A refugee mother and her child walk to the van taking them to their new home. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

Two weeks after picking up the family – by this time sleeping in their new home – Roumani was back at the airport waiting for more new arrivals. This time she was not alone.

“A lot of families are coming tonight,” she noted, observing the large number of Afghans and caseworkers below the escalator.

This time the flight was not late, and the escalator soon filled with people wearing IOM badges. Roumani smiled and walked up to greet the new Afghan family of six she was picking up. After getting their bags, the group of seven headed out the doors to Roumani’s van. Gripping their parents’ hands, the young children occasionally fell behind, lost in wonder of the new world that the wings of a dream had taken them to.

Roumani and the newcomers walked out the airport doors and headed for a friend’s house to begin their lives in what Walt Whitman called the “center of equal daughters, equal sons.”

Volunteers make a big difference to Opening Doors. For more information, click here.

The Rocket Man

Originally published in the 23rd edition of Susurrus

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The Space Shuttle and SLC 6 at night. Circa 1980s.

I took a moment to look around my bedroom, now filled with piles of boxes that were marked either “storage” or “school” in blue sharpie. I have too much stuff, I thought to myself. There were a lot of other things I could have been thinking about; the party after graduation, what happened after I left last night. I just had so much crap.

“It was his last night with everyone,” I heard Mom say from the living room. “He’s obviously going to drink.”

“You’d just think he’d make better choices,” I heard Dad say.

Dad was the only person in my sphere that was against me going to Berkeley. To him, my going there was like a personal attack as if I were running away. During our regular arguments he’d always bring up how I got into Cal Poly and how I should go there instead. He’d always talk about how close it was, how many people I’d know and the convenience of it all. In his head it was the superior school.

But those factors were also why I wanted to leave. “I don’t want to go to Cal Poly,” I told him during our most recent argument.

“Why the hell not?” Dad asked, yelling.

“I just want to try something new.”

Dad got up and walk towards the hall, but not without a short aside.

“I guess we’re just not good enough for you,” he said, quiet enough so I was sure to listen.

Mom had a different reaction. She smiled and said, “I’m gonna be a Berkeley Mom.”

###

            As I started to unfold the last box, I felt my phone vibrating. It was a text from Cam, an old friend I’ve known since before kindergarten at Miguelito.

“Aye??” it read, “we still cool???”

I tapped the text box to reply. As the line flashed I drew a blank. I didn’t know what to say and I could only imagine what he saw on his end. Those silent ellipses flashing as if I were writing a heartfelt message back – if he was still looking at the screen. I closed it and put my phone away. I’ll reply later.

I finished constructing the box and stopped to lie down on the floor. Slowly I rubbed my head as the blood – which felt like all of the blood – pulsated from my temples to somewhere in my arms with the intensity of the outlet gates at Cachuma.

Last night a few friends and I decided to sneak into La Purisima Mission which is considered by many “paranormal experts” to be one of the most haunted places in California. Since the Schwarzenegger budget cuts the security presence has been limited at best. As a result, local kids made it a rite of passage to spend a night on the grounds. Cam took it a step further and brought beer. I don’t usually drink beer, but that night I drank it.

When the pounding in my head ceased. I got onto my knees and dragged the box to my bookcase. Once I filled it with my copies of Doctorow and Hemingway I taped it closed and tried to decide whether to mark it storage or school. On one hand, I might need to grab my copy of Ragtime in the near future. But what if I never needed it?

###

            As I loaded the boxes into the car, the familiar rumbling of a rocket launch from Vandenberg broke the silence of the afternoon. I didn’t look up, the days when that was cool had passed long ago. Instead I continued loading the car while the rumble slowly faded back to silence.

When I finished, I leaned against the side door to wait for my family to see me off. My phone vibrated again. When I took it out the notification read, “Instagram: cam805 just posted a photo.”

I opened Instagram to look at the post. It was the two of us when we were kids. Cam was wearing his royal blue youth football jersey, something he would wear for most of his life, and I the yellow hoodie I used to wear all the time. “#tbt me & my day1 back in the day,” read the caption. “Good luck at Cal!”

No doubt similar pictures of Cam in a football uniform and me in civilian clothing were out there somewhere. But looking at this one was like looking at an ancient relic from days long ago, back when watching rocket launches was cool. Cam called those days at Miguelito “the good ole’ days” and maybe they were.

Back then when there was a rocket launch, the entire school would rush out of class to watch. Seeing those long lines of white steam exit the blue and enter the black was so bewitching to my 10-year-old self. It made me wonder when the blue ended and black began.

In those days after school, I’d walk with Cam to his grandfather, Mr. Ruiz’s house and wait for Mom to get off work. Mr. Ruiz had lived in Lompoc his entire life and he would always tell us stories about what the town was like before we were born. Like how back in the ‘60s all of the shops closed for the day to see Bobby Kennedy pass through for his campaign, or when the city finally had to build another high school – our crosstown rival Cabrillo. Whenever he’d tell us about these times it was always with some sort of regret that they had to pass.

How Cam and I remained friends for so long I’ll never understand. We never had anything in common and even though I went to his games, it was because my parents were on the board for the youth league – I had no choice. While he was on the field I was reading in the bleachers completely uninterested and unaware of what was going on. But I guess he returned that same sentiment by being unaware of what went on in my life. He was playing and I was going through a crisis of self.

The Saturday after the first week of school was when all the players in the league would have their height and weight taken so they could be sorted into age divisions. Once sorted, the coaches would draft them into teams. This was apparently a big deal and it took all day and it was why I spent one day every year for nine years in the equipment room while Dad and another board member – usually Mr. Ruiz – weighed over 200 kids and argued with their parents. Cam would have practice right after he was weighed, so I spent the day inside staring at the shelves of old helmets and shoulder pads that were the abyss.

Then the older boys would come in and my attention would turn from the shelves to them stripping down to their underwear. Something made me feel like this wasn’t okay. So it was a struggle for me to look without being obvious.

“It’s fine, son,” Dad once said. “We’re all men in here.” I think he thought I felt uncomfortable seeing people naked, but what was saying that supposed to achieve?

I think Mr. Ruiz saw me and knew what was going on. One year he came up to me with a Magic Treehouse book and said, “The equipment hasn’t moved.” It was easier to not look after that.

###

            I closed Instagram and went back to Cam’s text. “Aye?? we still cool??”

I tried to write a response, but I went back to look through his profile some more. I stopped to look at a post of Cam in his football uniform and his girlfriend, Stephanie, kissing from opposite sides of a low fence. The post was captioned, “HOME OF THE BRAVES BABY!” which was flanked by a blue heart emoji on both sides.

The night it was taken, Cam was still on a victory high after Lompoc beat Cabrillo. When the fourth quarter ended, he handed me his phone and told me to take the picture. It was very uncomfortable and it didn’t help that it took a few tries to get it right.

At the time Cam and Stephanie had been dating for about a year and a half. I thought she was nice, but I never thought anything more of her. As far as I was concerned, she was just another one of Cam’s pseudo-girlfriends he always seemed to have since we were 12. And by that time, Mom didn’t like that I was becoming a third wheel.

“You know the next time you guys go to the movies,” Mom would say, “you should invite someone yourself.”

“Like who?”

Mom shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, “do you like anyone in class?”

I’d never been asked that question before. What did she mean by like? I thought some girls in my class were cool or funny, but did that mean I liked them?

Luckily, Dad saved me from this confusion. “He’s obviously not interested into girls yet,” he interjected. “Wait till he’s 14, he’ll be all over them.”

With that deadline in mind, I turned 13 and realized that the reason I didn’t like girls was because I liked guys. I didn’t live in a homophobic environment, it was just something we never talked about. As self-important as it may sound, I actually thought I was the only guy in the world who liked other guys. In what seemed like a simple solution, I decided that I wasn’t going to like guys or girls – spoiler: it didn’t work.

###

            “God dammit! Son’f bitch!” yelled a familiar voice. I looked across the street and saw our neighbor, Mr. Wold, trying to push a piece of scrap metal off his foot. When it was off, he took hold of his foot and focused on the pain.

“Hey Mr. Wold,” I said with a smile, “what are you gonna do with all that?”

Mr. Wold slowly stood back up and answered in his southern drawl, “I’m buildin’ a rocket.”

“For what?”

“Gonna fly it,” he yelled back as he dragged the metal towards the side gate. Before disappearing behind the garage he added, “gittin’ out of here.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Air Force began developing their own Space Shuttle program at Vandenberg. Mr. Wold was a relic from the wave of young engineers and physicists who rushed to this little hamlet on Point Conception with their families and the hopes of becoming the new Cape Canaveral. Because of this sudden influx of people, the town experienced unprecedented growth. Mr. Ruiz called it “the space rush.”

“Where this house is right now,” Mr. Ruiz would say when he’d begin one of his space rush tales, “there used to be nothing but flower fields. When the scientists all came in, that’s when they built them.”

Of all his stories, his favorite ones came from the space rush. He’s tell us about the kids Cam’s parents played with and how the city commissioned Mrs. Ruiz to paint a mural to welcome the new residents. But whenever he’d tell us about when the Space Shuttle arrived, it was always with an air of hope.

“We knew that the shuttle was supposed to come,” he said, “but when we looked up into the sky and saw it on top of that big plane that was when it became real. They were gonna be launching shuttles every hour. Every day. We were gonna be Cape Canaveral. That was gonna be us.”

The next time there was a rocket launch at school, Cam and I started to say that they were taking supplies up to the Space Shuttle.

###

            When my parents finally came outside, the goodbye process began. Whatever feelings Dad had about my leaving were gone. He gave his “I’m proud of you” speech before checking my oil one last time and giving me a hug where – I swear – I heard a whimper. Mom cried, too. She gave her “be safe” speech and hugged me again.

Mr. Wold’s scrap metal dragging briefly interrupted us. Dad looked across the street and watched through gritted teeth. Somehow he was able to say, “You need help with that, Hank?”

Mr. Wold stopped and looked up at Dad. “I don’t need no help!” he proclaimed before loudly dragging the rusty axel through the side gate. My parents looked over and just glared at Mr. Wold’s house.

“Seventeen years,” said Dad as he shook his head, “and he still hasn’t changed.”

“What’s he going to do with it?” said Mom with more annoyance than curiosity.

“He’s buildin’ a rocket,” I added in my best Mr. Wold voice.

Dad looked back at me, rolling his eyes and said, “He’s not building a rocket.”

“He might be,” I said playfully. “He did used to be an engineer. We don’t know.”

“We do know,” said Dad. “He’s been saying the same thing since I was a kid.”

“So what’s he doing with all that metal?” I asked.

“Recycling,” Dad answered just to get me to stop. He knew I was fucking with him. Even when his son was going off to college, he still found time to hate Mr. Wold. It was petty, and it was also the funniest thing in the world.

“Wasn’t Cam supposed to come by?” asked Mom, “Where is he?”

I said, “I don’t know.” Which made me think about his text.

“That’s sad,” Mom added, “Not seeing your best friend before you leave.”

“Don’t you want to see him?” asked Dad.

“I saw him last night,” I replied. “It’s fine.”

“Probably with Stephanie,” Dad said. “He’s always with her.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s good he found someone,” said Mom. “She really makes him happy.”

Mom loved the idea of Cam and Stephanie together and to an extent I guess I did, too. Regardless of how irritated I’d get when Cam went on his “I’m in deep” rants, I cared about his happiness. Mom did too, but I had my suspicions that she liked it – at least partially – because I didn’t date girls.

By the time I was in high school, I got creative with avoiding suspicions of my sexuality by abandoning my third wheel status. Cam and I were still friends, it just got really difficult to hang out with him and Stephanie outside school and not be asked, “Are you bringing anybody?

The two of us didn’t hang out until the summer before senior year when Cam had his first serious fight with Stephanie. He picked me up to go for a drive through the Santa Rita Hills, mostly to vent his frustrations.

“Are you two communicating at all?” I said, trying my best to find the root of the problem.

“Why do we need to communicate?” asked Cam, partly screaming. “We’re together all the fuckin’ time, if she has something to say, why doesn’t she say it?”

“Maybe you two need to cut your time together,” I said. “I don’t know, you know the situation better than I do.” I continued, “Once in a while you need to be a person as opposed to being part of a couple. That’s just me, though.”

“I don’t know, bro,” said Cam, “this girl’s doing something to me.”

I rolled my eyes as I said, “I’ve heard that for like two or three years, man. What is it that she’s doing?”

Cam sighed and said, “It’s just… why would I not want to be with her? I know what you’re saying but you’d understand if you finally found a girl.” Nothing was said until we got onto the 101 near Gaviota and Cam brought up the same subject. “Like you really need to find yourself a girl,” he said, “You’re cool and shit, you could get one.”

I looked out the window across the Santa Barbara channel. The sun had settled just behind Santa Rosa Island, turning the sky into a murky shade of tangerine that sparkled off the water. The lights on the oil rigs beyond the island made them look like galleons sailing for a distant place in a distant time. The world was changing around us, and I didn’t want to have conversations like this anymore.

I looked towards Cam, but he kept his eyes on the road. “Cam,” I said with my voice trembling as if I were about to cry (but I didn’t feel it coming), “has it ever occurred to you that I may not want to find a girl?”

“Look,” Cam persisted, “maybe Lompoc girls aren’t your type. I get it, not a lot to choose from. You’ll find her though.”

“Cam, no. that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Half joking, Cam asked, “Are you gay or something?”

“Sure,” I said, but I immediately realized that wasn’t a clear enough answer. “Yeah,” I added. I looked back at him. Cam was silent for a few minutes before he started nodding.

“Okay,” he said, “cool.”

“Cool?”

“Yeah,” said Cam, “You’re one of my day ones. You liking guys or girls, isn’t gonna change that.” I was taken aback by his apathy. He treated what I just told him like he found out I cheated on a test. He looked over at me and made an assuring smirk. “We’re still cool,” he said.

###

            I hugged my parents one more time, promised to come back for the nearest holiday and then I was off. A couple blocks down, my phone started vibrating in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw that Cam was calling me before I put the phone on the center console and kept driving.

I tried not to think about why he was calling, but I did find a diversion when I saw that I was running on empty. It was the only time I felt relieved that I needed to get gas. Usually I’d go to Sunshine Market since it was the cheapest. But that was out of my way, I also didn’t want to run into Cam in case he was there. It was for the best; he’d ask why I didn’t answer his calls/texts and then it would turn into this big thing that neither of us wanted.

I went to Circle K in the strip mall near Cajun Kitchen instead. I hated going there. To call it a strip mall was being generous. After the recession, what should have had at least nine storefronts now only had three: the grocery store Albertson’s, Beauty Connection, and – oddly enough – Radio Shack. But Albertson’s was so expensive no one ever went there. The only people there were teenagers learning how to drive and what was left of the employees.

It wasn’t like the recession was the only thing that pushed Lompoc closer to the edge. When Cam and I were in middle school, Mr. Ruiz told us the Space Shuttle story. We must have heard it a thousand times by now, but it still felt fresh.

“You had to be there, man,” said Mr. Ruiz. “They should have launched the shuttle from Vandenberg right from the beginning. Come on! We have better weather than Florida.”

“What happened?” I asked one day, not knowing the consequences.

Suddenly, Mr. Ruiz lost that air of hope. “What?” he asked.

“What happened?” I said again, “You know, when they launched the shuttle.”

“Well,” Mr. Ruiz said, “Challenger happened.”

The shuttle in Vandenberg was supposed to launch in the summer of ’86. But after the Challenger disintegrated in mid-flight, the Air Force halted development of their program. It wasn’t until later when I understood what that meant. That growth from the ‘70s and ‘80s slowly turned into decline. Everyone who was part of the program – except Mr. Wold, apparently – left looking for greener pastures, maybe to Cape Canaveral.

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While I waited for my tank to fill up, I went over to grab my phone. The screen read, “(2) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz” before Cam tried to call again. I put my arm down and gripped tighter, hoping it would go to voicemail quicker. When it stopped I held it up and read, “(3) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz.” I put the phone back in the car. Maybe he wants to say goodbye, I thought to myself, or maybe he wants to continue what happened last night; though I was pretty clear that we were done.

A month before graduation I was in a bookstore in Santa Barbara. There was no reason for me to be there. I just wanted to be there. As I browsed the aisles of shelves, I saw Stephanie. Her back was to me and I thought I’d go up and say hi. But when I went up to her, I ended up freaking her out and she dropped her books. “Shit!” I said, smiling in hilarity, “I’m so sorry.” It was hard for my dumb ass to hold back laughter as we both leaned down to pick them up. Then I stopped when I saw bruises on her arms which she quickly covered with her sleeves. We looked at each other and knew there was no way out of it. She didn’t want to say it, and I didn’t want to hear it but I knew what was going on right then and there.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Stephanie said to me, her voice trembling. “Please don’t tell Cam. Promise.”

I promised her.

###

            With my tank full I drove across the parking lot to avoid the light. The faster I was out, the better. Then Cam started calling me again. In a fury, I stopped the car and picked it up. I finally had a response to his text.

“Stop calling me!!!” I typed into the box, “Not only are you mentally unable to make this right, it’s impossible after what you did. I can’t have this kind of poison in my life anymore.” Right when I was about to send it, I deleted all of it and cried.

The night – and a few nights after – I found out about the abuse I couldn’t sleep. I tried to act normal, but whenever I saw one of Cam’s posts, a knot in my stomach would twist into existence.

The monologues, the long drives, the PDA it was all a farce just like all the instances Steph played her part when she’d wear Cam’s jersey and letterman’s jacket. “I’m just getting ready to be a football wife,” she’d joke to everyone before we’d all laughed like idiots.

I’d see Cam kiss her on the cheek and I just wanted to grab him and scream, “You fucking moron!” I wanted to do something. I just hated that I was too much of a coward to actually do it.

Then at the mission, after a few beers, I hit the limit. We were all sitting in a circle and Cam and Steph were doing their thing and he slapped her ass. My first instinct was to say something right there, but I knew that would have done more harm than good. So I asked Cam to talk with me in private. I couldn’t be in a room full of a bunch of enablers.

We walked for a while on the mission grounds, mostly because I wanted to find a place that was as far from everyone else as possible. When we came to the fountain between the old pear trees, I stopped. Whether it was the shitty beer or the spirits that supposedly haunt the grounds, or the fact that it was the bare minimum of decency, I had to say something.

“Hey man,” said Cam, “I just wanted to say that… I’m really gonna miss you when you’re gone.” I looked over at to him and said nothing. “I mean…” he continued, “You’re one of my day ones, and I know you’ll be around for holidays and shit but… it won’t be the same.”

What he said was heartfelt and sentimental, but I had to stay focused. No good would have come from me returning the sentimentally “Cam,” I said. “I know.”

It wasn’t the best way to start but the mood still disintegrated. “Excuse me?” said Cam.

“I know,” I said again, “I know about the bruises. I know where they come from. I know.”

Cam smirked but I knew he was furious. “Alright,” he said as he tried to laugh it off, “So you saw some bruises. What do you think you know?”

“Don’t do that,” I said, “Don’t bullshit me like that. I know they’re from you.”

The laughs stopped. “Who told you?” Cam asked.

“Does it matter?” I said, trying to keep my promise. “It’s still not okay for you to be hitting…”

“It’s getting late,” he interjected. “I think we’re going to call it a night.” Cam turned around to walk back to the chapel.

I rushed and blocked his path. “No!” I said. “We’re gonna talk about this.”

“Fine,” said Cam, “So you know. What the fuck are you gonna do about it?”

“If you don’t end this relationship,” I started, “I’ll tell her parents.”

I’ve never seen a person so angry, scared, sad, and whatever else there is at the same time. I looked down and saw that Cam was closing his hands into fists and I braced for impact. But instead he took a step back and smiled in a panic.

“That’s what you’re gonna do?” Cam said, “You’re gonna tell her parents?” I nodded. Cam stepped back again and threw his arms up and let them drop to his side, still smiling that panicked smile. “Cool,” he said, “You know, that’s fucking weak. Why not just tell the cops?”

“Cam…” I said, but he interrupted me.

“Shut the fuck up! You piece of shit!” he yelled. There was a nanosecond where I saw tears in his eyes. “You piece of shit!” he yelled again. Cam stopped and wiped the tears from his eyes. He fell slowly and sat on the floor. “You know how happy she makes me.” he said with his head down, “She’s the only person in the world that makes me feel this way and you want to take it away.”

“Do you realize what you’re doing can ruin your life?” I said.

“So you think threatening me is going to make it any better?”

“This isn’t about you!” I said back. I wasn’t going to fall for it. “What I’m doing is correct. Do you not see what you’re doing is wrong?”

Cam stopped crying and stood up. I looked at him and saw his puffy cheeks and red eyes, and I felt sorry for him. He took a deep breath and gathered himself.

“She told you, didn’t she?” he said.

I looked down. I didn’t matter that I broke my promise to her, what good would that have done? “Yeah,” I said.

Cam rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat. “She probably told you not to tell anyone,” said Cam. “Especially me.”

“Yeah.”

Cam turned away and shook his head. The silence was deathly. “So,” he said as he turned around and looked at me, “She trusted you.” Cam walked closer to me until I felt the heat from his breath on my nose. “Kinda like how you trusted me when you told me you were gay.”

“My parents already know,” I said as calmly as I could.

I cleared my throat in order to keep up this façade of strength, turned around and walked away.

###

            “Aye??? we still cool???” Cam’s text read as I stared at it.

No, we’re not still cool. I came out to my family way before I came out to Cam. How fucking arrogant of him to think I’d tell him before my family. Did he actually think that texting me would make me forget that he kept my gayness in case he needed it for leverage? Or was he just really dumb? Cam was never my friend, just like how Mr. Wold was never building a rocket. It was all just a fantasy that fooled me into thinking I had a reason to ever come back here. Fuck this place.

I put the phone down and started the engine to finally leave. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw what looked like standing outside. I thought I was going insane even after I turned around. I got out of the car to get a better look and it was actually her. She wasn’t the cute girl Cam and I saw in Jack in the Box a year ago. She was a completely different person. Maybe that’s why I was confused.

“Hey,” Stephanie said. Even her voice sounded different.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m trying to leave,” she said. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“Where?”

Stephanie shrugged and said, “Anywhere.” She looked around for a long while and said, “You know I never got to thank you for what you did last night. You were gone so quick.”

“What happened after I left?”

“Cam pulled me aside, crying,” she said. “He said he loved me but we couldn’t be together because of how much he loved me.”

“What did you do?”

“I agreed and got a ride home,” said Stephanie. “Whatever you said worked ‘cause it scared the shit out of him.” I nodded. She looked away as a gust a wind blew by. She needed to get out of this place as much as I did – if not more. “Where you going?” she asked.

“Berkeley.”

“For school?” Stephanie said. “That’s awesome.”

“You want to come with me?”

Her eyes went wide and we just looked at each other for a long time. The wind blew across the empty parking lot and she finally said, “Let’s go then.”

With that, we were on the road. When we passed the closed-down drive-in, crossed over the dry riverbed and saw the eucalyptus in the distance, we knew were actually leaving. The light next to the bell that marked the El Camino Real turned red and Stephanie jumped out of the car.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled out the window.

She ran across to the dry grass field and raised both middle fingers up towards the town. I watched her and my phone started vibrating. As suspected it was Cam calling. But before I had a chance to put it down, the ground started to shake. Another rocket, I thought. But it kept shaking, violently and ceaselessly. I saw the people in the cars around me get out and look towards the town in disbelief as more pulled to do the same.

I looked over and my jaw dropped. It was a rocket, but it wasn’t coming from base. It was coming right from where my neighborhood was. I jumped out of the car and stood next to Stephanie, whose arms dropped in disbelief.

He did it. That crazy motherfucker across the street actually did it. It took him more than 20 years but Mr. Wold was “gittin’ out of here.”

We, along with what must have been at least 30 people, watched and craned our heads as the rocket curved into the sky and over the Santa Ynez Mountains. It gained speed and a sonic boom echoed across the valley, knocking a few of us to our knees.

But all I could think about was what everyone in town was doing. I thought about my parents, how relieved they must be now that Mr. Wold was fucking gone and how annoyed they must be about the crater in place of his house. I thought about Mr. Ruiz and how he’ll tell this story years from now.

The Lompoc wind blew into my face as the shaking slowed down. My phone started vibrating in my hand.

And the rocket kept climbing, climbing, leaving a great, clean Corinthian column of smoke and steam behind as it exited the blue and entered the black.

The space shuttle being transported to Vandenberg Air Force Base
The Space Shuttle being transported to Vandenberg Air Force Base. SLC 6 in the background.

Photos courtesty of foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com

Kamala Harris Makes Campaign Stop in Elk Grove

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California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for the United States Senate Kamala Harris stopped the campaign headquarters of Congressman Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) for the Sacramento leg of her 10-day bus tour of the state.

Due to California’s top-two primary, two Democrats will be going head-to-head in the general election Nov. 8. Harris’ challenger is Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim. However, Harris is still the national and state party’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Senator Barbara Boxer who has occupied that seat since being elected in 1992.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, Harris leads Sanchez by 22 points as of Oct. 23. More recent polls put her at 20.

Recently Harris has gained national attention after spearheading the crackdown on backpage.com. Site executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin were charged with pimping and pimping minors in Sacramento County Superior Court back in September. Prosecutors allege that all three men knowingly received millions in bonuses from the illegal prostitution ads on the site.

Harris said that it is important that her successor continue to pursue prosecution of backpage.com if she is elected.

Ten Great Movies: The California Experience

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on May 15, 2016

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California is where the world goes to make it in the movie business. The narrative of “making it” in Hollywood is ingrained into the very fibers of every wide-eyed drama student’s brain. But as native Californians, we know there is so much more than the façade that is Hollywood.

The California Experience is not one known idea. It is a collection of individual stories, that when forged together in tenacity and ingenuity, define the Golden State. The idea of California goes beyond the artificial world that Los Angeles socialites portray. Californians are as diverse as the landscape.

Though many movies have been set in California, few have been able to capture the spirit of its people. Here are 10 of them.

“Boyz n the Hood” (John Singleton, 1991): “Boyz n the Hood” quashes the stereotype that everyone in inner city Los Angeles is a thug. Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) had caring parents and good friends. The only thing that makes the police view him as a thug was that he was born in a neglected neighborhood, educated by neglected schools and born black. When Tre’s USC-bound best friend Ricky is shot down in the streets, his brother (Ice Cube) seeks vengeance and murders his killers that same night. The next morning, no reporters cover the three murders, Ice Cube’s character realizes that America “don’t know, don’t show and don’t care what happens in the hood.”

“Boyz n the Hood” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974): California could not sustain a population of almost 39 million without the complex system of canals and reservoir that make it a land of plenty. In the early 20th century, Los Angeles became too big to be sustained by the L.A. River, and the mayor realized that enough water from Owens Valley could be transported to the city via aqueduct. What ensued was the inspiration for Polanski’s “Chinatown.” It is true that agriculture is king in California, but food can’t grow without water, ergo, whoever controls water is king. Regardless of which resource is most important, what it all condenses down to is greed. If “Chinatown’s” antagonist–L.A. water department head Noah Cross (John Huston)–wasn’t so greedy, then he wouldn’t have been driven to deny water to the farmers of the North Valley, which would have created a domino effect in which most of “Chinatown” would not have happened.

“Chinatown” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“El Norte” (Gregory Nava, 1983): As xenophobia (unfortunately) takes center stage in the political conversation, I find myself thinking about how we benefit from the fruits of migrant workers. The myth that undocumented immigrants benefit from our tax dollars without contributing anything is blown out of the water in “El Notre.” When thugs kill Enrique and Rosa’s father, they decide to travel to America to seek a better life. The most chilling part of their journey is their mile-long crawl through a sewer when they are suddenly attacked by a swarm of rats. But the rats are not the only danger they faced during their epic journey, Enrique and Rosa came to America seeking a better life, but instead found a land that hated them. It is not until Rosa dies that she finally finds a home.

“El Norte” is available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

“The Endless Summer” (Bruce Brown, 1966): On the last day of every year of middle school, my classmates and I would all pile into school buses and go to Refugio Beach. In the mornings it was foggy and the water was a dark turquoise, I always remember thinking that I wanted a shirt with that color. When the sun was out, the water still cold, but I still stand by the statement that the best beaches are in Santa Barbara. It is true, that the objective of many surfers is to find the perfect wave and yes, they will literally go the ends of the earth to find it. Bruce Brown’s documentary only follows a group of surfers on their quest. But as far as audiences were concerned, they could have been searching for Shangri La and “The Endless Summer” would have been just as fun and great as it is now.

“The Endless Summer is streaming on Netflix.

“The Grapes of Wrath” (John Ford, 1940): It is a sad truth, but many who come to California seeking success will never find it. When the Dust Bowl destroyed the Midwest–known as America’s “breadbasket”–millions made the epic trek to California with the belief that work was limitless. When the Joads arrive, they quickly discover the truth that it was all a lie. Though the film adaptation ends with more hope for the future than the original John Steinbeck novel, the boundless impact the Okies had on the California landscape and economy is brought to life with the same spirit and anger.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is available to rent on iTunes.

“Milk” (Gus Van Sant, 2008): As California goes, so goes the nation. Since the 1970s, the LGBTQ+ community’s home base was the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk was known as its mayor. His efforts as a civil rights leader and the spirit of San Francisco’s liberal community started the gay liberation movement in the 1970s. Gus Van Sant photographs San Francisco with magnificent style and awe, transporting audiences back in time to when anger fueled protest. The scenes of crowds marching through the Castro seem like archive footage from the era, and the score by Danny Elfman pays tribute to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Milk believed that politics was theater – and it is – but he also believed that to be free you have to fight, which is what he did.

“Milk” is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

“Monterey Pop” (D.A. Pennebaker, 1968): During the early hours that marked the final morning of the Monterey Pop Festival, director D.A. Pennebaker used the audio from Country Joe and the Fish over images of the hippie attendants awakening and rising with the California sun. They’re drifters, slackers and most likely higher than the B-52s over Vietnam. To them, the festival was just another way to turn on, tune and drop out as Timothy Leary put it. Little did any of them know was that they were witnesses to pop culture history. To many, the Monterey Pop Festival was a beta release for Woodstock. But some – including music writer Rusty DeSoto – would argue that Monterey Pop was much more important to the development of pop music than Woodstock. Monterey Pop is where many of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential artists, like Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, would be introduced to the world.

“Monterey Pop” can be bought through Amazon or on the Criterion Collection website: https://www.criterion.com/films/720-monterey-pop.

“Orange County” (Jake Kasdan, 2002): Though Shaun (Colin Hanks) thinks that Orange County isn’t the best place for an aspiring writer to live when compared to the intellectual world of Stanford, he realizes in this film that his friends and family are his inspiration and that stupidity and shallowness are everywhere.

“Orange County” is available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

“Sideways” (Alexander Payne, 2004): One of the benefits of California’s diverse range of climates is that it has become an excellent region for producing wine. Napa is the most famous, but I – along with Alexander Payne and author Rex Pickett — would argue that the best California wines comes from the Santa Ynez Valley. “Sideways” is a tragicomedy that follows two middle-aged men’s journey through Santa Barbara’s wine country. Payne treats the Santa Ynez Mountains with the same delicacy and sexuality that Federico Fellini used for Italy in his films, creating a fantasy world. Even the natives seem too good to be true. Miles (Paul Giamatti) meets a Maya (Virginia Madsen) who shares his enthusiasm for wine but with greater passion. Maya’s speech about the life of wine is so beautifully crafted, the audience can feel Miles slowly falling in love with her. In that moment it didn’t matter what they were drinking – as long as it wasn’t Merlot.

“Sideways” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“Topaz” (Dave Tatsuno, 1945): During World War II, Japanese-Americans living on the coasts were taken out of their homes and sent into the interior. No doubt this dark chapter in American history had a great effect on the Japanese American residents living in California. One of these Americans was Dave Tatsuno, who illegally documented his time in the Topaz camp in Utah to make this film. There’s nothing extraordinary that happens in Topaz; it’s mostly daily life. But after the initial shock has worn off, it becomes clear that Americans have the ability to make the best out of the worse situation. Their country told them that they were enemies of the state, but when there are children smiling and ice skating, playing in the snow, and holding baseball games it becomes abundantly clear that they are not enemies.

“Topaz” is available to watch in black and white on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KboirnCzius.

Honorable Mentions:

“Almost Famous”

“Bottle Shock”

“The Debut”

“East of Eden”

“The Graduate”

“Harold and Maude”

“The Right Stuff”

“Stand and Deliver”

“Tortilla Soup”

“Tangerine”