Translation: Sandra Pach
Translation: Sandra Pach
A story about a normal 18-year-old boy from a normal high school who decided to participate in a traditional program offering a typical vacation in the USA. To see the Statue of Liberty. He only had to learn to wash disabled Americans. And change their diapers. Get 3 hours of sleep. For 3 months. Find out about all this during his stay.
It’d been always his dream to visit the United States. New York City skyscrapers, Washington government buildings, San Francisco bridges, Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Death Valley, Yellowstone. Who wouldn’t want to see it all? Mateusz had to wait, but he didn’t want to. Too young to get a visa. Too old not to have to get one.
Then he saw an ad. For PLN 2,500 the world agency Camp America would help you find a job in a camp facility in the United States. For about 3 months. After that, for the money earned in the USA, you could travel for up to 30 days. He made the decision the moment he saw the ad. The initial enthusiasm waned when he saw the requirement set by the majority of the camps: at least 21 years of age.
Coincidences, however, are like truth and can be fortunate. Anger, poverty and Trump are also real, but not in the New York State. When some time ago the last immigrant refused to work and the hourly minimum wage rate for the Americans was raised to $7, the director of the facility for the disabled people near the New York City changed the policy. All that was needed for her to invite you to work was passport, visa and 18 years of age. Two years before secondary school final examinations, Mateusz started gathering documents
-That was when I went to a job fair in Kraków. There were a lot of directors there. Around five hundred people arrived. I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t get in this time. Fortunately, with the help of my consultant, I was the first to get in and went straight to talk to the representatives. They said that the campers were people with ‘conditions’.
Directors of other camps said nothing about conditions, he was the only one. And that was the only place he could go at the age of eighteen.
The distance to his dreams was smaller than that between the Fifth and the Sixth Avenue. A curious consul constantly asking “what is that for?”. A form with forty-one questions.
14. Date and place of birth of your wife/husband.
19. Net monthly earnings.
36. Have you undergone training in arms, explosives, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons?
37. Have you ever taken part in an armed conflict or been a victim of one?
Awesome! Seven thousand kilometers and somewhat fewer miles. The Americans, following former colonizers, write kilometers differently. The first disappointment came during landing. There was nothing interesting to see from the board of the plane. No Empire State Building, no Statue of Liberty.
In Hunter the international personnel greeted him with a smile. Some Irish woman said something about dream holidays. Clapping. Even people from Liverpool couldn’t understand her accent, which the American-Mexican director placed on the second syllable. Never mind. Clapping. At the end someone from Australia said something about free days. Even kids from the city of Woody Allen couldn’t understand Australian words, Mateusz wasn’t the only one.
On the first night the forecast given by the weather woman on the plane came true. Eight degrees Celsius and rain. Mateusz was cold under a thin blanket, in a wooden cottage, with one hole near his head and one near his leg. Had he known what would happen once the campers arrived, he could at least have found some consolation in the fact that the worst was yet to come. But he didn’t even dream about it that night.
The first Friday after Sunday
It was 8 June or 6 August. To spite the colonizers, Americans use a different date format. Mateusz was waiting for a training course with other youngsters spending vacation in the USA. He could hear some familiar accents from England, Jamaica, Ireland and South Africa. By the look of it, probably from the same place in a globalized world.
They were sitting in a canteen. At one of thirty tables. With a card numbered “21/22”. Later on set for two people who avoid lactose, four omnivores and three who like only fluids, or a chewed cutlet. Those campers were not there yet. Soon-to-be-carers were sitting and waiting, and doing whatever people normally do while waiting. Talking.
For starters, British guy with a red, lion-like Afro confessed to being bisexual. It was his second time at the camp. He knew everything about it. The same campers were supposed to come this year. It made no difference. Mateusz feared them all. “Red Afro” started talking about one.
-Steve remembered the calendar of last 500 years. Given your birthday date, he could straightway tell you whether it was Saturday, or maybe Tuesday. He knew more about the 20th century than any historian. I don’t know about the 19th century… Unfortunately. Nobody thought to ask him about Lincoln, he said, his face flushed.
“You musn’t do that!”
Training was conducted by a Pole. The one from Manhattan. The real Manhattan. Not the market square at Białoruska Street in Kraków. She spent her youth in the city of kings and left soon before the June 1989 elections. It was a good decision, considering she arrived in a polished Cadillac from the 1970s. She earned it by telling people about the criminal liability for care of disabled people.
One couldn’t be alone with a camper. The law of New York favored those who called themselves rape victims. No one would ask the accused. Even the caretakers of paralyzed people should be cautious. There was always a chance some schizophreniac might look through the window and file a false report against you. If you didn’t have a witness, you would have a problem.
–And what if a camper attacks us? Can we fight back?, the Pole asked. No one answered, no one knew anything. Out of the two hundred caregivers from all over the world, only about thirty of them had had some previous experience in taking care of the disabled people. The nine out of two hundred from the last year were the nine out of two hundred that year as well.
–Can we fight back?, she repeated the question in her perfect English. What would you do if some camper started throwing punches at you? Judging by the silence, I’d say nothing. Good, because that’s exactly what you can do. You can’t even grip them by wrists. I know it’s the best way to disable someone. But it leaves bruises and parents may not be happy. Shout for help, keep your guard up.
-If my camper will be one of those who are chained to bed and can’t run away, can I leave him for a moment to help such person?, some girl from Hungary asked.
–And how would you do it? You can’t use force. Leaving a camper is a crime. The Department of Health carries out unannounced inspections from time to time. If an inspector saw such behavior, not only you, but also the director would be in trouble. That’s why the management will be watching you. When you’re in a difficult situation, you need to go to Christine the Psychologist, who is always somewhere on the camp and can always calm down the camper, the Pole replied. She didn’t know that “Christine the Psychologist” would leave right on the second day after the campers’ arrival. She would get attacked by a two-meter tall autist who would be a proof that she couldn’t calm down anyone after all. For the whole three months during which there would be around 150 campers, they wouldn’t find anyone to replace her. Unaware of all that, the Pole continued her lecture on various things they weren’t allowed to do.
They served scrambled eggs for breakfast and there could be no lunch without chicken tenders. That, and lettuce salad and GMO tomato. Nobody ate it so they added it to the dinner – pizza on a defrosted dough with crisps. The World Health Organization had struck them off the list of life-prolonging products a long time ago, but the Americans obviously hadn’t read that directive.
There was only one day left to the camper’s arrival. The first one that was free. The rest they spend on training and learning about rights they weren’t entitled to. Alex the Mexican, one of the nine that returned, approached Mateusz. He told him about a camper that he would have to take care of. He spoke English with good accent. Alas, it wasn’t an English accent.
-Amadeus has woken up at seven AM. for 80% of his 30 years of life. Then, in an era of Spotify, he brings out an old videocassette recorder. Does he start playing “pop list” or some other “golden hits”? No! Bruce Springsteen or anything that you can find on cassettes? No! For him nothing but golden 18th century and master Mozart’s symphonies. For starters, Amadeus takes a rubber exercise ball. He sits on it with a cassette recorder. He’ll be jumping like this for the next few hours. Fast forwarding and rewinding the song. Finally he would get tired of Mozart. He could do this for hours…, Alex smiled, stopped smiling and added: And that’s the worst. He has to eat! He’s already rubbed the floor with the ball, worn off buttons with his fingers and worn out the recorder with cassettes. But he jumps and listens to the same rhythms seven days a week. 168 hours per week! 168! Well, with sleep breaks. But 168! How not to let him starve himself to death? A man can survive 7 days without food and he would spend his last 168 hours on listening to the symphonies or some shit, said Alex, who, in return for some greenbacks, would be Amadeus’ best friend during his 168-hour stay on the camp.
They arrived at seven. Mateusz was waiting and smiling widely. They told him to. Parents had to be certain that the people they were entrusting their little ones to were professionals, not some amateurs. Mateusz considered himself to be one, but hid this fact well behind a smile. The little ones were about 30-40 years old. The parents should be about 50-70 years old. They didn’t look like it, so he was probably smiling at some legal institutions.
The buses left and a lot of new people started moving around the camp. Like the girl with a face as violet as denaturized alcohol and half a jaw sticking out of it. A boy that could spend 10 hours a day swinging on a swing as high as possible. A black lady laughing at the fact that a person can be white. Charles who had to be regularly covered with a blanket because a sight of a female made him want to masturbate. Interrupting is forbidden by law.
There were about 100 very special guests. John couldn’t move his legs or arms. Only his jaw and eyes. He couldn’t speak, but saw some things. Including the face of a young Pole with glassy eyes. Mateusz had known for a few days that he would have to take care of a “vegetable”. A paralyzed person of whom he heard only in ads warning people against jumping headfirst into the water. It wasn’t someone with “conditions”, as they told him during the recruitment in Warsaw. It wasn’t a funny loon like the one in the story about the autist jumping on a ball with a tape recorder. Mateusz, who not so long ago took a test on “The Deluge” and thought about which university to choose, now had to take care of almost two hundred pounds of 30-year-old limp meat.
The director would not speak of it. Why did some older and more experienced people get easier persons? Why did some other campers have three counselors, and he was alone? Why didn’t they give him some halfwit who would take care of himself and spend half a day watching cartoons? Why wasn’t he earlier afraid of the word “conditions”? Why did the management reply to his questions with “why”?
It is this country that is disabled, he concluded as many others. Being eighteen years old, without qualifications, he could legally become a round-the-clock caregiver of a disabled person. However, if he wanted to work in the kitchen in the same facility, watching dishes, not arses, lifting bags of fruit, not the legs of the “vegetable”, he should be at least twenty-one-year-old student, with a completed “kitchen experience” form.
Dollars for pounds
First, they went to a cabin. John needed to have his diaper changed. Only, as it is in America, his weigh was different. In pounds. Technically, two hundred pounds is not the same amount as two hundred kilos, but Mateusz didn’t feel the difference and didn’t lift John.
There were four pairs of them in the room. Among caregivers some Jamaican, Croatian and someone else. Half an hour was long enough for them to break the law. They left their campers and helped Mateusz. They lifted John and Mateusz started to remove the full diaper. The gloves weren’t of much help, but he learned it only after he tried to take them off. Then he tried to wipe his American butt. Toilet paper was of no use. Normally they’d found wet wipes in a cabinet, but that time the pack was empty. He’d get him a shower in the evening, now he just washed his armpits. Close to vomiting, he gave in to the fear of breaking camp hygiene regulations.
Having four paralyzed persons to take care of, they took turns. It took them over an hour. Then they had breakfast. Mateusz almost lost a fight against Newton and his gravity. The camp was situated in the mountains and the way from the cabins to the dining area was steep. Sure, all parents went through this grueling experience when walking with their little ones. But did their little ones weigh almost 200 pounds?
They were not allowed to start eating until the campers finished their meals. Breakfast lasted for half an hour and John chewed slowly. He finished a minute before time. It wasn’t a problem. Mateusz, like most of them, had no appetite. The food from the tables went straight into the bin. The director didn’t see a problem since “there was too much food in the U.S.” Bears that were prowling those foresty and upland areas were somewhat more compelling argument. Nothing lured them more than a pizza on a sidewalk. They appeared one time a week within 3 months. They didn’t harm anyone, but they sure did scare some. Trumpets that were placed all over the place provided a good protection against the bears who would get scared and run away. It was a good solution, unless you had a camper with damaged hearing and you didn’t want him to lose it completely.
Washing, feeding, walking, but mostly sitting and watching over – that was how Mateusz spent his first day. He started at seven and finished at eleven “P.M.”, which means twenty-three. The camp curfew started half an hour after midnight. He spent an hour and a half making a call to Poland and talking with the guy from Jamaica. They talked about Polish girls, thereby implementing CampAmerica’s statutory aim of intercultural integration.
And the Monday came, as usual, after Sunday. American week is exactly like ours. As he was falling asleep, Mateusz started doing some math. Two and half month is seventy-five days. He would get one thousand five hundred dollars. That meant twenty bucks per day. For nine hundred sixty hours of work. That meant one dollar twenty-five cents per hour. He would have been happy about it if he’d known that after that he’d have to work at night a few times. For the same pay.
A colorful episode
The Americans use different temperature units. On one of the colder days it was about 77 degrees Fahrenheit. It was only nine degrees colder than a day before when it was hard to keep your sweaty hands on the wheelchair while walking down the slopelike uphill, yet the difference could be felt.
Mateusz used the recommended weather. A day earlier he had his only day off, now it was time to go back to reality. He was with two Poles, who were a few years older than him. Intercultural integration was the aim of the camp, but who would understand you better than a fellow Pole?
Ania was working on a pool. It was not as simple as a drop of water. Sometimes someone got underwater, someone else had an epileptic attack. Ania learned how to save them by practice. A short training on camp was a tad helpful, too. Definition of chronic neurological disorders less so.
She happened to have day off, but had nowhere to go. The camp was in the woods, mountains, village. Three hours from New York by car. Just like they advertised. But in the States, where you pay around 2 dollars per gallon and get your driving license at the age of sixteen, no one would send a bus just for Ania alone.
That was why she went with Mateusz, Weronika and Purple.
-You know that I’m a fan of Mets?
Weronika was the caretaker of Purple.
-I love Mets and One Direction.
Weronika, too, was told about “conditions”.
–But I have a hat! Mets’ hat!
Purple was called Purple because she was purple.
–I love One Direction. You’re beautiful.
If she was white, black or yellow, just like other, she would be called ”Tiresome”.
–Mets are reeaaally good this year!
She talked about nothing but Mets, One Direction and others’ appearance.
There were some stark differences between John and Violet. Man-woman, limp-able-bodied, white-purple.
John blackmailed him physically. He schemed with gravitation even at the pool. Mateusz would put him in a special floating wheelchair and he would slide down from it. They would fight like that for half an hour, unless Ania ended it by blowing a whistle and announcing that the storm was coming and it was time for them to go back to the cabins.
Purple used more sophisticated methods, repeating the same sentences a thousand, or maybe million times. Who would have counted? Once a week Weronika would take her for a telephone call, most often with a secretary. Her mum was too busy earning the money needed to pay for her stay in the facility that cost $400 daily. Or maybe she just didn’t want to listen to her talking about Mets? She promised to take her daughter to a match once. It didn’t matter whether it was some training that came up, or a fitness session, or something else. Purple forgot about it all after several minutes.
It’d been over a month since he came to the U.S. His back hurt. The baked beans he ate for dinner made John feel sick. As if it wasn’t enough, shower got broken and toilet got clogged for tenth time.
Polish maintenance guy came to his aid. As one could expect, the student of journalism didn’t exactly make things better. The contents of the toilet were removed from the said toilet, but landed on someone’s shoes. The shower started working but would run cold water only. The student only “sorried” for his clumsiness.
-Sorry for my clumsiness. I gotta go, the pigs are waiting for the melons from the breakfast and fatter-than-pigs animators for cleaning up horse droppings. The classes start in 15 minutes.
One of the attractions prepared for campers were animals. An autist had a chance to ride a pony, which was partly financed by the parent of the paralysed, whose own kid could only go to a swimming pool or for a walk.
Mateusz had a night shift. At 10 P.M EDT and 4 PM CEST, the fellow caretakers got some free time, and the campers went to sleep.
He was slowly drifting off when one of them started to whimper. Mateusz walked over to him, but didn’t know what was going on. He went back to his place. He used his mathematical thinking, just as he did on one of the last tests. During his 75-day-long stay he got 11 days off, which meant sixty-four days with someone to take care of. He earned his pay (one thousand five hundred dollars) in less than four days (four hundred dollars per day). 60 x 400 = $24 000. The equivalent of his earning would go to CampAmerica. That would mean 22,500 dollars for the owners. Even after the deduction of the rather considerable overheads, that still seemed like a good business.
His mates came back just in time for curfew and went to sleep. Mateusz wanted to go to sleep as well, but he had to keep watch. An hour later a smell started coming from one of the beds. Then the wind blew door open and a wander alarm went off. Typical. Those kinds of situations took place in all cabins, but from some of those people run away for real. In case of the paralyzed there was no such risk, but rules are rules.
He got a few hours of sleep and woke up at 7 AM. He had to get John ready for the morning singing, performed, of course, by other campers. On the way there he checked his e-mail. CampAmerica agreed to terminate the contract earlier. He asked for it for many reasons and felt afraid for just as many, but the agency didn’t make any trouble for him. He only had to accept the fact that he’d get only half the salary and would have to cover the costs of changing the date of return flights.
He left with the feeling of satisfaction and knowledge of what not to do in life. Having his parents’ support and 30 days to leave the country, he could spend 2 weeks in New York and Washington. Dreams do come true, even if they are as extravagant as coming back to Poland.