Archive for October, 2009

Kentucky Medical Dictionary

October 28, 2009

People who enjoy flee markets would like shopping for clothes in a refugee camp. Like toxins in the food chain, castoff clothing becomes more and more concentrated each time it is given away: from the department store to the consignment shop, from the consignment shop to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, and from there to Africa. It’s as though charity is a gigantic funnel, channeling all of the world’s donations to a narrow end that pours old t-shirts from the African sky. I remember seeing a giant yellow bin on the side of a suburban street in Dublin, much like a dumpster in the parking lot of a Target. Stamped on its side in large red stenciled letters were the words “Clothes for Africa.” It struck me as an efficient way to cut out the middle man, although I suspected that it’s probably the cool thing to do if you’re a delinquent teenager in Ireland to steal from the Africa bins, like dumpster diving among Americans who wish they could have been hobos riding the rails during the Depression.

My girlfriend enjoys flee markets, which was apparent the first time I visited the house where she was living when we met. Religious collectibles covered mismatched furniture, with a high concentration of Catholic virgins and Sacred Hearts. I barely knew her at the time, but I was reasonably confident, or hopeful, that what I saw was an expression of style not of religious fervor, and I liked it. For the first time in my life I felt artsy, despite my Catholic background and my devout grandmothers, both of whom collect Mary paraphernalia for more pious reasons.

On one of our first dates we went to a big, weekend, outdoor flea market with her good friend and roommate. I tend to shop like a man, which means that in my mind I have a list of items I intend to buy; I look for them; buy them; and leave. I do not browse and I do not buy impulsively. It is not a style of shopping that works well at a flea market. My girlfriend and her friend strolled, stopping at each folding table to examine every tarnished ring and every chipped pendant. I paced, near enough to the girls to claim I was participating but far enough to avoid any questions like “Do you think this makes my butt look fat?” or comments like “This would make a nice birthday gift, don’t you think?”

I first noticed that I am an impatient person when I was twelve years old and I broke into a cold sweat when the line at McDonald’s wasn’t moving fast enough. Then the kid behind the counter refused to let me use my coupon for a free ice cream, claiming I was over sixteen, the age limit for the promotion. I left the joint feeling edgy and sulky, and now I was starting to feel the same way at the flea market. I felt trapped, afraid to stay because I was quickly becoming unlikeable and afraid to go because I did not want to seem unenthusiastic about something my new girlfriend clearly enjoyed.

It was then that I noticed the baseball card section, which was really just a lone booth manned by a guy still pretending that we were living in the boom years of the eighties, before lockouts and steroids killed the game and the hobby both. Thumbing through baseball cards is always bittersweet for me, a mix of nostalgia and financial regret. Every time I investigate, the value of the tens of thousands of cards that I have has fallen to a new low, and I am now too old and uninterested in baseball to feel much attachment to a trading card for its own sake. I was contemplating alternative retirement investments when my girlfriend and her friend found me, handed me some of their bags to carry, and led me to the car.

On the way home we stopped for more shopping, though now I was more excited because one of our stops was a sex store. Giggling over sex toys is a type of browsing I’m willing to do, especially with two attractive young women, one of whom I was reasonably confident I might be having sex with soon, though I feared I would have to suffer through another weekend at the flea market first.

Much like an outdoor flea market, the shopping district of a refugee camp is a series of cramped stalls. In much of Africa they are called tukuls, poorly built semipermanent structures bursting with the cheapest goods the world has to offer. The biggest difference is the dust, in the dry season, or the mud, in the rainy season. Just like in a flea market, every kiosk is selling exactly the same inventory as every other kiosk, which means it takes a lot of hot, sweaty, sticky work to dig and sift through the available stock for that one gem hidden in the back. In a flea market you might be looking for antique furniture or a rare vinyl record, but in a refugee camp you’re looking for funny castoff t-shirts.

Misspellings are common, and so are championship t-shirts proclaiming the wrong team to have won. Immediately at the end of any major sporting event, new t-shirts are distributed to the winners. I have always wondered what happens to the t-shirts which surely were made for the possibility that the other team would win. Now I know: they go to Africa where they are given to refugees who, if they cared about such things, must believe that the Red Sox won the World Series in 1986 and that the Patriots just can’t seem to win the Super Bowl. Most common are t-shirts that are simply bad, the embarrassing one that your grandmother bought for you in Branson or the one you were awarded because you overachieved in the school Math-a-thon. Ironically, you could find that exact t-shirt in a refugee camp, the one you gave away when you reached puberty and you realized that many people actually choose their clothing instead of wearing whatever has been thrust upon them.

I was interviewing a shriveled but spunky old Somali widow recently. She was telling me about her boyfriend, and her other boyfriend, and asking me if both of them would be allowed to accompany her if she gets resettled to the United States. As often happens to me during the hours of interviewing that I do every day, my mind started to wander. I imagined the little old lady across from me as a feminist liberator, railing against traditional polygamy and fighting for a woman’s right to have two husbands, a notion which in Somali culture would be as acceptable as a farmer marrying his goat, probably less so. I was just starting to picture her burning her hijab in angry public protest, when my interpreter’s t-shirt caught my eye and snapped me back to the real world in front of me. I forced him to stick out his chest and hold his t-shirt away from his belly so that I could read it from top to bottom:

Kentucky Medical Dictionary

Artery – The Study of Fine Art
Barium – What You Do When the Patient Dies
Benign – What You Do After You Have Been Eight
Cesarean Section – A District in Rome
Colic – A Sheepdog
Congenital – Friendly
Dilate – To Live Longer
Fester – Quicker
G.I. Series – A Baseball Game between Soldiers
Hangnail – Coathook
Medical Staff – A Doctor’s Cane
Minor Operation – Coal Diggin’
Morbid – A Higher Offer
Nitrate – Lower Than Day Rate
Node – Was Aware Of
Organic – Church Musician
Outpatient – A Person Who Has Fainted
Post Operative – A Letter Carrier
Protein – In Favor of Young People
Secretion – Hiding Anything
Serology – Study of English Knighthood
Tablet – A Small Table
Tumor – An Extra Pair
Urine – Opposite of You’re Out
Varicose Veins – Veins Very Close Together

Interrupting the interview, I paraded him outside and into my colleague’s office next door, assuming that surely she would be equally nostalgic about a humorous t-shirt from my home state, but my colleague is French and believes that English is not a language capable of wordplay, clever or not.

I think my interpreter was disappointed to learn that his t-shirt is not sincere. I feared that he had been studying the terms, trying to cram for his medical school admission test. Now he had to worry not only about the quality of his preparation, but also about where he was going to find the money to buy a new textbook. The t-shirt had been such a good deal compared to the overpriced tomes pawned on Amazon for hundreds of dollars. Perhaps he thought Kentucky was the name of a publisher of quality abridged books, like the medical equivalent of Cliff’s Notes, but with the brilliant innovation to design texts which could double as apparel. He clearly did not know that Kentucky is a state, and not one known for either medicine or education.

Later the same day, I saw another refugee, a young and healthy looking man, wearing another t-shirt from Kentucky, this one from the Final Four in 1997. He looked like athletic and feisty, just the sort of guy who might have been wearing that t-shirt in Lexington as Kentucky lost to Arizona, in overtime, that first Monday in April. I wondered if the stain that dribbled down his chest was beer from that night’s keg of Miller Lite, undoubtedly spilled when the wearer tossed a full plastic cup at the television in frustration. I heard the t-shirt still echoing words which I’m sure it heard that night: “This sucks! I hate that Bibby!” Did the wearer rip it off his sweaty, hairy chest immediately after the game? And throw it down in the corner of the room where it soaked in a night of angry spills?

And then on Tuesday morning, did the cleaning staff find it there, and send it on its way to Africa?

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Under Armed Escort

October 21, 2009



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In Tigray

October 18, 2009

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