The Albania of My Existence
Friday is when I'm supposed to publish stories by unknown writers, but Neal Pollack isn't exactly unknown. He's published collections of stories, and he's even made an appearance on The Daily Show. I have three reasons for breaking from the "unknown writer" rule today: (1) Neal Pollack gives the feeling that he's an unknown writer, (2) I can't find anyone else's stories since I got my new computer, and (3) Neal Pollack cracks me up in that orange-juice-out-the-nose way.
The Albania of My Existence
By Neal Pollack
I've been going to bed lately on a pile of jagged stones covered only by a thin cotton blanket half-eaten by moths. This is one of the worst possible sleeping arrangements I could imagine. Sometimes I wonder how things got this way, but I have to remember that I am a journalist, novelist, radio producer and poet, and I am here in Albania to find out what life is really like for a family in the poorest country in Europe. I have personally borne witness to much human suffering. People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunies to express themselves through fashion. I must tell you: Things are not good.
We had dirt for lunch today. All 23 of us. Jumanji, the patriarch of this family, is a short, bald, armless man who looks older than his 87 years. He tells me that dirt has been of short supply in Albania lately, and he worries about his family's diet. I have tried to make our food taste better using some of the skills that I learned at the Culinary Institute of America, but with no success. My considerable abilities seem useless here; I am a Rhodes Scholar, but no one in Albania has even heard of Cambridge, much less of England.
Although this family's house has no plumbing, consistent heat source or exterior walls, they do have satellite television. I was tired today from all my reporting, so I relaxed by watching CNN's Eastern European Entertainment Minute. I saw that a good friend of mine had won a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, which made me think about the awards and honors I've gained in my life, the trophies, the ribbons, and the cash. In the face of this Albanian poverty and hopelessness, they all seem somehow trivial now. Do you know what I mean?
I wake up early this morning and watch the village children play soccer with the bloated carcass of a cat. I've been here so long that this kind of thing doesn't bother me anymore, so I join in. I score three goals and make a game-winning save. The children gather around me and ask about my life in the more bohemian sections of Brooklyn. I show them a picture of my girlfriend.
"She is very beautiful," says one of them.
"Yes," I say, "and very wealthy. She is a human rights activist who has also written three prize-winning novels."
Later, a man is impaled on a stake in the town square, while a desperate, ravaging mob tears at his clothes to wear as their own. I want to ask: for what crime was this man sentenced to die? But I do not speak Albanian.
I am leaving tomorrow. The town has pooled its remaining money together, three dollars, to throw me a farewell party. I hug Grandma Ninotchka, my favorite family member, for a long time. She works 20 hours a day, six days a week as a plutonium miner to feed her family, and spends her precious free time, what little there is, as a volunteer grave digger.
"You have brought a beacon of hope into our dark and miserable world," she says. "And god bless you for not stealing my oatmeal like the man from The New York Times."
I am not prepared for the immense wave of emotion that I am experiencing. Nothing I went through in college, not even having dinner with two presidents, could have possibly prepared me for this. I cry silent tears, and pray for the people of this sorrow-ridden country, and for myself.
First published in McSweeney's.
Purchase this story and others in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature.