The thin material of the door thwacks weakly as I knock on it. I’m in the middle of a long hallway – made up of prefab building blocks linked together. The place looks decent, but the lines where the sections meet are marked by little bumps in the carpet and the walls. Nothing lines up quite perfectly.
The man who constructed this place, the man behind the door, cares far more about function than form.
I push open the door and step into the office. The room is no more than 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Stuffed into it is a desk set against the back wall and two cheap swivel chairs.
The man in the room, Afsin Calari, pivots towards me and gestures with his hand. I sit in the other chair. There are bruises on Afsin’s neck. I’ve never noticed them before.
“Close the door,” he says. And I do.
I look at Afsin, waiting. I’ve known him for years and I still can’t seem to understand what kind of man he is.
“You did it,” he announces, with a broad smile.
“Did what?” I ask.
“What I hired you for.”
I look at him and tip my head, confused.
“The contract is renewed?” I ask.
“Yes.” he says.
Afsin smiles then, turns to his computer and hits play on a video. I see it then, the video feed from another man’s office. The clip is short.
The man behind the desk, a guy by the name of Mark Johnson, rises, runs across the room and wraps his hands around another man’s neck. The violence and anger are extreme.
And the man Mark Johnson is trying to kill is sitting right across from me.
The strange thing is, I can’t blame him. Afsin, a man I had admired for so long, had behaved like a monster. I had helped him behave like a monster.
I just stare, my rage just barely checked, at the man in front of me.
Afsin sees my confusion. He sees my regret. And he smiles, again.
“Do you know why I picked you?”
I shake my head, no.
“Your brother came here when you were still a kid. You started visiting then. I remember when you first came, you were scared.”
I don’t remember that, but I can imagine it. Hundreds of high-functioning developmentally disabled adults live here. I loved my brother, but entering this environment must have been overwhelming.
“I think you felt bad,” Afsin says, “That your parents sent your brother here.”
“I was sad. And I was angry.”
“So, you visited him all the time. Your brother was visited more often than anybody else in this place. But you didn’t just visit him. You began to visit everybody. I watched you change from a little boy who was scared of the people who live here to a man who was so full of love for all of them. And, you began to understand why they lived here.”
This is a lecture I’ve heard before. I decide to let Afsin speak. “They lived here because I believed that whenever possible, people should work. The vast majority of the people who live here work. Their lives are more fulfilling because of it. There are 472 adults living here who have meaning in their lives because of what we do.”
I nod again, I know all of this.
Afsin continues, “But it isn’t easy finding them jobs. Which is why the airport contract is so important. There are 472 adults here. And they all have jobs. They clean out garbage bins, they sweep floors, they mop bathrooms, they hold signs, some even do simple inventory. They all have jobs, meaningful jobs. And in a way, they are the face of our city.”
“But then their jobs were threatened. Mark Johnson controlled the contract at the airport, and he was threatening to cancel it.”
“I know all this,” I say, just barely keeping my cool.
Afsin continues as if I hadn’t spoken. “So, I hired you. I picked you because people love you. Because people open up to you. And I needed Mark to open up to you.”
“You hired me to become his friend. And then you used me to destroy him.”
“No, you saved him. We saved him.”
“How?” I demand.
“You became his friend. His real friend. You found him drinking at a bar and you talked to him. And you became his friend. He needed a friend.”
“I was no friend,” I say, “I just dug up dirt on him and then you showed up in his office, again and again, and you hurled insults at him. I’d find out his wife left him because she thought he was a nobody. And you’d go to his office and tell him no woman would want him because he was a nobody. And then I’d find out he once wanted to run his own business and you went and told him he lacked the guts to do it. I found out his parents liked his older brother more and you somehow used that to insult him. Everything, constantly, was beating him down. You used what he shared with me to destroy him.”
Afsin just smiles.
I just want to punch him. I felt horrible. I love people. “I loved Mark and you used that to destroy him.”
“So why didn’t you stop?”
“I was ashamed. Once I worked out what you were doing, I was too ashamed to admit my part.”
“Good?!?” I demand. “He told me what you said, every time. He told me how you humiliated him. I saw the man cry and steam. He was ready to burst.”
“Yes,” says Afsin, plainly.
“We tortured him for months. Don’t you normally kiss up to somebody when you want to renew a contract?”
Afsin steeples his fingers and looks at me carefully.
After a long pause, he speaks, “Do you know how I learned that he wanted to cancel our deal?”
“No,” I say.
“Our price was competitive. Our people work slowly, but there are government grants that help make up the difference. I even donate a fair amount of money myself,”
I could believe it. Despite the cheap digs, Afsin had the air of tremendous wealth.
“So, what was the problem?”
“Mark told us he’d been receiving feedback from travelers. They said they were uncomfortable around our people. Just like you were when you were a child.”
“I could believe it.” I say.
“I could too,” says Afsin, “But I wanted to understand it better. Maybe I could do something to help. Maybe one particular position was the problem. So, I had a friend recover the records. Do you know what I found?”
“No,” I say.
“The forms filled out by hand were filled out in Mark’s handwriting. He tried to conceal it by changing his script here and there. But they were all in his handwriting. And the forms filled out online all traced back to a single library IP address. The library closest to his house.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means that Mark created the passengers who complained about our people.”
“But why would he do that?”
“Mark was a weak man,” Afsin says, “He wanted to matter, desperately. He wanted recognition. He wanted to be important in the ways people measure. He wanted pride. When a more colorful service provider came to him, he was ready to listen. There was only one problem, they wanted to charge more than we did.”
“So, they wouldn’t win the contract,” I say.
“But they could win the contract. They really wanted it. They could rent out over 400 people and get $10 an hour doing it. That’s $32,000 a day and $10 million a year. So, they paid Mark Johnson a bribe.”
“What?!?” I splutter.
“A friend of mine reviewed his bank accounts. He took a bribe.”
“Are you sure?”
“So why didn’t you just report him?”
“Because I respect him,” says Afsin.
“So, you insulted him instead?”
“Mark wanted to matter. He wanted to start his own business. He wanted to be proud. He wanted a wife who wanted him. But he had to be proud for a reason, not because he had a few hundred thousand dollars extra in his bank account. That would just eat at his pride.”
“The solution was to insult him?”
“The solution was to hire you to be his friend. You learned about him. And I used what you learned to drive him crazy. Do you know what I said the last time?”
“I don’t,” I say.
“You told me his son got straight Cs on a report card. You told me the kid didn’t care. I went to Mark, in his office, and told him we’d save the child a space – in our facility.”
I want to just whistle. I love the people who live here, but I can see a man finding a deep insult in what Afsin had said.
“No wonder he attacked you.”
“I deserved it,” Afsin says with a smile, “But it worked out. He got fired and we got our contract back.”
“But you destroyed him to do it?”
“Do you really care about a man who took a bribe that could have hurt hundreds of vulnerable people?”
I think about it, but only for a moment. “I do, yes,” I say.
Afsin answers even more quickly, “Good. So think about what we did. He got fired for attacking me and I won’t press charges. Do you know what that means?”
“No…” I say.
“He didn’t get fired for taking a bribe. He didn’t go to prison. He got fired protecting his honor, not losing it.”
“What does he do next?”
“He stood up for himself. He stood up to me. And he took a risk.”
Afsin continues, “He’s taking the first step in defending his honor. So now he can earn it. He might find a woman who respects him. He might find that his son can begin to care. Perhaps he could even start a business.”
“With what money? I’m sure the ‘colorful’ folk will take back their donation.”
“Well, he has a friend. You could help him. And behind the scenes, I could lend you the money to get him started.”
I look at Afsin then. And for the first time, I see him. Once I saw what he was doing with my brother, I thought he was a saint. But when he was using me to destroy Mark I thought he a demon. Now I know he is complex, complex but wonderful.
In the end, because of him, everybody won. Everybody but the ‘colorful’ contractors.
Somehow, everybody won.
Stop for a moment and pretend the story of the Exodus ended as this week’s Torah reading does: with the plague of hail. Pretend we don’t know the conclusion.
If you stop here, you can describe Moshe in one word: ‘reluctant’. Moshe doesn’t want to carry out the mission Hashem chooses for him. He resists. Then he delays. Even when he finally comes to Egypt there are issues. When he first speaks before the people, they fail to listen because of Ketzer Ruach – shortness of spirit. Perhaps Moshe is the one who lacks conviction. Perhaps that is why they fail to listen.
And then he complains of uncircumcised lips. In ancient Egypt, a prophet would speak the words of the god they were representing, without a filter. When Moshe complains that he has uncircumcised lips, he is saying that he cannot speak with conviction. His channeling of the divine is impeded.
The people will not listen to him. And so, neither will Pharaoh.
And it continues with the plagues; Moshe begs Pharaoh not to resist. And he prays again and again for Hashem to lift the plagues themselves. Moshe sees massive destruction, he does not see liberation. He is in the dark about Hashem’s greater plan. He needs to resist it so that the thrust of the story is not the glee of destruction but the power of Pharaoh’s pride.
Moshe is just like the man in this story. He loves Egypt and the royal family he grew up with, despite their sins. And he can’t see the greater picture. If he had seen that picture, he would be unable to play his part. Left in the dark, Moshe struggles to reconcile the wonder of Hashem with the destruction that is ingrained in our world.
I believe all of us share that challenge with him.
Years ago, my mother wrote a play “Pharaoh, King of Egypt.” It explored the story of the Exodus from the Egyptian side. Pharaoh was made the most powerful of men so that he could become an object lesson in the limits of human pride. And so her play focused on Pharaoh’s pride and his need to defend it at all costs. Knowing the presence of G-d only strengths his resolve.
In the end, Pharaoh is destroyed in every practical sense. But in the end, he somehow keeps his honor. Perhaps Pharaoh shares that with Mark Johnson.
Perhaps both were redeemed by their struggles.
Image: Коля Саныч Flickr