Journalism

Lost in America Pt. 2: From an Orphanage in Moldova

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Michael doesn’t know if Moldovans are pro-Russia or not. He guesses that the older men are Russians and the younger men are Moldovans. You don’t learn much politics in Moldovan orphanages.

Michael, now 24, doesn’t speak without being spoken to. Instead of looking for training partners, he spends most of every day silently playing pool in the driver’s lounge. He was the last person in his orientation class to find a trainer.

Life has taught him the dangers of open confidence.

It’s only after many questions shared over dinner does he finally open up. And he opens up like a floodgate, speaking in swelling strings of broken English.

In Moldova a boy is a man at 16. Michael was 15, a virtually unadoptable age, when his little brother was picked out by an American family. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere without my brother,” the young boy told them. And so, without knowing a word of English, Michael was plucked from the orphanage and flown to Richmond, VA.

Nine years later, his English still isn’t very good. He watches Harry Pohter on TV and asks about books. He doesn’t know what “fantasy” means.

Michael wants to quit. It would be so easy. He asked nine people about quitting, and all of them have told him, “Do it.”

That’s the culture here. When in doubt, quit.

Back home in Virginia Michael and his brother settled in with a crowd of misfits and orphans. People with no family. He clung to them. They clung to him. The 6 of them bought a house together. They are still family.

Until recently he was a construction worker making $15.50 an hour. But his friends smoked too much weed, and when his turn was up for drug testing he was fired. The next day he took his entire paycheck and enrolled in truck driving school, leaving him broke enough to quit weed and even cigarettes. “Eventually we grow up from those childish things. But it’s our choice, you know? I want to do good things.”

Michael has smoked since he was 9. In Moldova there are no drinking or smoking laws — parents enforce those. “At orphanages, people do what they want.”

Michael pleaded to his friends in Virginia. “I told everyone we gotta stop, otherwise we gonna drop straight to the bottom.” He shakes his head. “I’m out here trying to help them out.”

“We didn’t have nobody to teach us. We had to learn from our own mistakes. I had a job, but I got fired, because I was smoking weed! I tell you, I gotta stop doing that bullshit!”

Michael’s been clean for a month now. He’s the only one of his friends who is. The only one who has a job. Yesterday he walked an hour to Walmart to pay rent on the Richmond house, which has been hanging by a thread.

Michael doesn’t know what fantasy means, but there is one book he does read voraciously: the bible. There’s one story he loves. It’s in 2 Chronicles 18, the story of Micaiah and King Ahab. In it, the king of Israel summons 400 prophets to ask if he should invade neighboring Ramoth-gilead. Every prophet says yes, except the final prophet, Micaiah, who tells the king of a vision, of a spirit sent into all of Ahab’s prophets to make them lie. King Ahab chooses not to believe Micaiah and is slain in battle.

Michael doesn’t have many options left — he’s been in an out of jail, shelters, etc. — but he considers himself lucky. “I don’t got no education. No high school or GED or anything. I fail my CDL test and they give me a CDL. I fail the road test at PTL and they let me through. I guess I’m blessed.” He remembers how he used to drive an hour a day to work in Richmond on expired plates, because it was the only place that would give him work. He doesn’t want to be here, here in the trucking industry, but it’s all he’s got. If he leaves, he’s going back to nothing.

“I wanted to fail the test today. I wanted to fail it today so I’d go home, but God didn’t let me do it. So I guess I gotta stay here.”

Michael asked 9 people about quitting. Each of them said yes. As I pulled into Murray, KY with my trainer, Michael asked him — one final prophet. “Fuck no,” my trainer told him. “Don’t you quit. You stay here.”

Michael will listen.

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