The Astonishing X-Ray Vision of the Man from Kazakhstan
A man from Kazakhstan helps the Modern Church Lady see another truth about her privilege.
The parking lot of the Hudson County jail is an otherworldly place on the rainy night after Christmas. The giant lampposts huddle over the parking lot, their buzzing beams activating the flecks of glass embedded in the dark wet asphalt. A cop car darts over to us like an automated water bug to make sure we don’t park in the employee-only rows closest to the jail.
As a First Friends volunteer, I was there with my husband to pick up The Man from Kazakhstan who was being released from immigration detention. He needed a ride to the nearest train station to return to his Brighton Beach Brooklyn home. At his last regular immigration check-in, he was unexpectedly detained and transported across state lines to Hudson County Jail in New Jersey. It was three months before his lawyer could get him released.
In the jail house waiting room, the bright lights shock and the TV blares. Perched on the edge of a bland corporate issued chair sat The Man from Kazakhstan, a powerfully squat man resembling the Rock’em Sock’em Robots of my youth. He had a shaved head and relatively flat face with echoes of Asiatic features. He jumped up when we called his name. He was so glad to see us.
The first thing he said was “bless you, bless you.”
The second thing he said was, “I am not a criminal.”
The third thing he said was, “it being bullshit that if you kill a German or Englishman that you go to heaven, that wasn’t what the Koran meant.”
His X-ray words painfully exposed yet another layer of the scaffolding of my privilege. In a conversation, I could go straight to who I am, without having to flay off, piece by piece, the sticky tar coating of who I was not. The cop in the jail parking lot called me Ma’am.
During the 20-minute ride to Newark Penn Station, we managed to learn a little more about who he was rather than who he was not. We assured him we knew he wasn’t a criminal, just an immigrant caught up in our criminal system.
In Kazakhstan, he had been a driller on an oil rig the Caspian Sea, very cold and tough work in the winter, but beautiful in the spring, summer and fall. There was much to see in Kazakhstan and that since the movie Borat, more Americans came each year. The cuisine was amazing too, the best horse meat and the sweetest camel milk he told us excitedly.
At the train station, I accompanied him, moving from the lively ticket room to the film noir scene of Track One. The train was coming in two minutes. We said goodbye, and he said, “bless you and have a good life.” I wished him the same, glad to have been of service but melancholy, knowing that a “good life” was more assured for me than him. No X-ray vision needed.