America tidies. America packs. America parcels. America donates.
Charities are waiting for donations. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Planet Aid, Goodwill. They are overwhelmed by how much they are collecting. They take in what they receive from American citizens. They load it in trailers and sell it on. There are charities that sell things for a dollar. Since 2000, they have been working with my family’s small business, Bernstein Vintage Ltd.
They need money for social programmes. For alcoholics, the homeless, ex-convicts, war veterans. Funds are collected for their benefit. America strives to rehabilitate and reintegrate them. Rehabilitation and reintegration cost forty thousand dollars per person. That’s money and no joke. And not even then will anybody go out on a limb and guarantee the programme will be a success. But as far as trying goes, they try.
We keep a strict record. We have big ledgers, receipt books, tally sheets. We have files. Black on white, everything is set down. Every month we buy fifty to sixty trailers of donated goods. Forty-five Hispanic employees are up to their ears in work. They unload, sort, box. Fifty hours a week. They work, work, work. They whistle and sing the while. We let them; we’re human. Not like that anti-Semite Ford, the automobile maker. He didn’t allow his workers to whistle and sing.
We sort the goods. Clothes are put with clothes, slippers with slippers. Samsonite and non-Samsonite suitcases find their siblings. Electronics, books, vinyl disks. Armchairs, forks, paintings. Pieces of furniture. Skis, crutches, wheelchairs, bicycles. Anything.
Vintage stuff goes to a special area. Vintage stuff is the star. It gets a place in Business Class.
From here, the clothes and other things continue on their way. The sacks are loaded into containers, to make their way to the second-hand buyers. A container weighs ten tonnes. The buyers are in Central America, Africa, Asia. In Western and, above all, Eastern Europe. There are as many customs as there are folk. The Dutch want vinyl disks and everything that is very American. Starting with Levi’s. The Japanese want only vintage stuff. The Japanese are sweet people. As sweet as can be.
Countries like Romania demand that goods from the U.S.A. be fumigated. Poor but picky. Romanians are afraid of American warts. We go to a specialist fumigation company. Attention, the container doors are opening! They toss in a few gas pellets. They explode half-heartedly. Attention, the doors are closing! For twenty-four hours. Then, the doors open again, for another twenty-four hours. And then they close again. We seal them and that’s that. The goods have been treated for insects and infection. Easy as pie.
The American makes donations out of the goodness of his heart. And because he gets a five-hundred-dollar reduction in his annual taxes. The American buys, but doesn’t have any more room on his shelves. He has to throw things out to be able to buy more. He looks in his cupboard and says: “fuck”. What a boring pullover. And what’s with that dress? Is it one of his ex-wife’s? Wives leave traces. To Goodwill and the Red Cross with them.
Alcoholics, junkies, homeless, war veterans. They are standing in the road waiting to be reintegrated. Without companies like ours, they would stand in the road a long time. I tell my children: “Be good to the junkies, the veterans and the homeless. They’re our livelihood. They’re the ones who bought our limousines. The junkies and the homeless pay for our Lexus. They pay for our holidays in Europe. They’re the ones who will pay your college fees. Without them, our lives would be hard. Like theirs.”
Every now and then, we go down into the street, into their midst. We take them clothes and cigarettes. Ben has a framed photograph above his desk. A homeless man is thanking him for the clothes he’s received. He is wearing a woolly hat and has a cigarette in his mouth. Ben is smiling charmingly at the camera.
Ben is my husband. He could have been somebody else’s husband. But he’s my husband. I’m going to tell you about how it happened. I’m going to take it slowly.
America donates. If it didn’t donate, this book wouldn’t have been written.
Why did I pick Catalin Mihuleac to give literary shape to these lines? Because out of the whole list of Romanian writers that was placed at my disposal, he was the only one prepared to talk to me without his literary agent acting as a go-between. To be honest, I don’t even think he can afford to pay an agent. But that’s a different matter. I also appreciated his lack of a belly. In the pages that follow, you will see why I can’t trust an artist with a belly.
He had a dual task. First of all, he had to polish the pages I wrote. Without altering the accountant-like style that defines me. Secondly, he had to interweave my tale with another tale, in a way that would maintain the book’s suspense. The other tale I acquired already written; you’ll see when and how.
In the end, I allowed him to sign the “opus” with his own name. To satisfy his ego, natural in his profession, but also as a form of protection for myself. I don’t like to take risks in a jungle I’m not familiar with.
It may be understood that I don’t know how well my “literary chosen one” performed his duty. I don’t know how catchy my novel is. I admit that between the “author” and myself there were moments of tension, punctuated by accusations and threats to resign and threats to fire. There were even a few harsh exchanges of words, which I would rather pass over in silence. Viewing things with my businesswoman’s eye, I like to think that the tension between us was constructive and profitable for both parties.
I will conclude this introduction by sharing with you my dearest wish. I hope that after reading these pages, I will become your intimate friend.
I clearly see the morning when the first letter of my American destiny was written. I see it very clearly.
I am thirty-three years old. I have an alarm clock that rings at seven and a conjugal bed. In which I sleep alone. The bed is the only outsized thing in my cramped living space.
I get ready to go to work. I am an accountant at the Moldova Department Store. The ritual spins out the moments. A sip of coffee, two dabs of makeup. The slices of bread, the slice of cheese and the leaf of salad accompany each other in the sandwich for my lunch break.
The telephone rings. The same as yesterday, when I was twenty-five. The same as tomorrow, when I’ll be thirty-nine. Only Mother ‘phones at this hour. To give me a nice kiss. We do that only over the phone.
It’s obvious that today isn’t yesterday. Today is today and it’s not Mother on the phone. It’s the boss. Mr Finkelstein doesn’t ‘phone to give me a kiss. He’s a Jew and he doesn’t give out free kisses.
“Sinziana, you’ll not be coming into the office today. We’re going into the field.”I
“What about my salad leaf?”
“I’ll reimburse it. Today is your cultural day.”
“And who’ll reimburse a day’s work?”
“I will. You’re going to visit the ‘Mark Twain of the Romanians.’ It’s a work assignment.”
“That’s what I call a gescheft. And where will I find our national Mark Twain?”
“I’m talking about Ion Creanga. You’ll find him at home. At his museum.”
“I haven’t been to the museum since I was in school. Don’t the museums open at ten?”
“I see you’re cultured. Until then, you’ll have time to make yourself pretty. You’ll be accompanying two American Jews to the museum. A mother and son.”
“It’s nice to take your son to the museum.”
“The son is fifty.”
“Even nicer. And the mother?”
“The mother is a little older, but make like you don’t notice. They want to set up a business over here.”
“We serve the Homeland!”
“I’m counting on your English, dear, otherwise I would have asked somebody else. The mother and son don’t know a word of any other language.”
“Not even Romanian?”
“Maybe just Yiddish.”
“I had an exemption when they taught Yiddish in primary school.”
“Come to the shop car park. The watchman will give you the keys to the Volvo.”
“Only the director drives the Volvo. Don’t tell me they’re going to appoint you director.”
“I’m not telling you. The Americans you’ll pick up from the Unirea Hotel. After the museum, take them to a restaurant.”
“I hope the fifty-year-old kid won’t ask me to dance. You know I don’t dance.”
“If he asks you, you dance. Work assignment.”
“I know the national interest is at stake. Permission to sigh?”
“Not granted. You’ll also be showing them around tomorrow and the day after.”
“My Saturday, my Sunday... You’re trampling my days off underfoot.”
“I’ll pay you extra.”
“Don’t good Jews go to synagogue on Saturday?”
“If they want to go to synagogue, you take them to synagogue. What toothpaste do you use?”
“Mr Finkelstein, I don’t think such details –”
“Whatever toothpaste it might be, advertise it! Smile at them with those shiny teeth of yours. Be forward! Win over the Americans! Work assignment.”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth