We've all been in situations in which we've felt like outsiders, trying to determine exactly where we stand on such unfamiliar ground. To find our place, we sometimes try to impress people. And to impress people, we sometimes tell a little white lie.
This feeling of being on the outside—and how we cope with it—is one of the core themes of Gordon Haber's Uggs for Gaza, which examines how race, religion, and society impact our identities. A weighty subject, yes, but Haber injects every story with such satiric wit that it's as funny as it is thought-provoking.
The titular story of the collection is a perfect example: Mitch is an East Coast Jew living in L.A. Disgruntled with his life, but hoping for improvement, he tries to aggrandize himself to the locals without compromising his own identity. While trying to impress two environmentally-conscious acquaintances at a party, he blurts out a lie: He's donating Ugg boots to Gaza. Though the project begins as a fib, Mitch actually tries to see it through and becomes invested in the plights of the Gazan people. It's a story with a funny bone, a brain, and a heart.
There's something deeply relatable about Mitch, and all of Haber's protagonists. Like everyone, he's just a regular guy looking for his place in the world—all while trying to lead a good life and be a good person.
Read on for an excerpt from the collection's titular story, "Uggs for Gaza."
Shortly after Mitch turned thirty-four, he was struck by the pointlessness of his life in New York. He had been with the same company for six years. He would rise no higher than marketing director. He was single and profoundly bored. He called a recruiter, and eight weeks later he had a job in Santa Monica and a furnished cottage on a street of tidy, proximate houses in Culver City that reminded him, improbably, of his childhood neighborhood in Queens.
There was further cause for disappointment. Despite some ancillary show-biz glamour—his new company made websites for movies—the work was remarkably similar to what he had done in New York. Also he had no social life. Angelenos were open but impenetrable, given to effusive pronouncements that came to nothing. In Los Angeles, Mitch was frequently hugged and frequently alone.
But he was determined to avoid lapsing into the usual single male triumvirate of pot, Playstation, and porn. So when a work acquaintance, a project manager who seemed to be making friendship overtures, invited Mitch to a party, he said, “Sure, why not.”
That Saturday night, Mitch’s GPS led him to a vaguely Spanish-looking house in the Hollywood Hills. Inside maybe thirty people stood around, their posture and clothing demonstrating the studied casualness that almost everyone affects in Los Angeles, including the homeless. Mitch himself felt a twinge of self-consciousness when he couldn’t see the project manager. As he fixed himself a vodka and tonic, he wondered how, in the absence of said project manager, he might actually start a conversation with someone, like that slim brunette with uneven bangs. While he waited for inspiration he checked out the books on the mantle, all of which were about acting, auditioning, and screenwriting. Mitch had zero interest in these pursuits; nevertheless, there he was, wearing an expression of anthropological curiosity as he leafed through Yoga for Actors.
“I love that book,” said an absurdly healthy looking guy who immediately starting talking about nerves and auditions and learning how to breathe, really breathe, and “fucking nailing it.” Meanwhile Mitch nodded and pretended to be interested, but when a girl came up he actually was interested, at least in the girl, who was the one with the bangs. His name was Rafe, and her name was Joey.
After a few drinks Mitch had gleaned that Rafe and Joey were “just friends,” which he found encouraging. Less encouraging—downright puzzling, really—was when the conversation turned to environmental concerns, or their version of them. Rafe was dating a girl who studied the effects of secondhand smoke on cats. Joey’s niece just had a particular kind of bat mitzvah.
“You’ll never guess the theme,” she said.
Mitch said, mildly, “Judaism?”
“Nope. Sustainability. They got hybrid buses to take the kids from the synagogue to the reception and everything was super-organic. Even the plates and the forks were like this bamboo that’s really fair trade and environmentally friendly. Get this: the yarmulkes were made in Israel from recycled materials. Isn’t that awesome?”
In the coming weeks, Mitch would often cast his thoughts back to this moment, looking to understand his motivation for what he did next. Maybe it was the egregious cluelessness demonstrated by shipping religious headgear 7500 miles. Or maybe it was just too many vodka tonics. Either way, he said something that he would later regret: when Joey asked Mitch what he did for a living, he lied.
“I run a non-profit,” he said. His eyes caught Joey’s big beige boots, the ones with the funny name. “It’s called Uggs. For Gaza.”
Rafe said, “I’ve heard of you guys.”
“I haven’t,” Joey said. “What is it exactly?”
“It’s like this,” Mitch said, warming to the line of bullshit. “What do the Palestinian people need? Medicine, housing, jobs. Serious stuff. But what do they also need?”
Rafe said, “A homeland?”
“Well, yes, that,” Mitch said, “But think about all the tension they have to deal with. There’s like crazy unemployment and…sanctions and shit. And a place like that, you know the women have very tough lives. But what’s the one thing that makes a woman smile?”
“Oh my God,” Joey said, resting her hand on his arm. “Cute boots.”
“Exactly. So what we do is we take boots donated by Americans and we send them to Gaza.”
“That’s really beautiful,” Joey said, and she gave him her number.
Later, too drunk to sleep, Mitch lay in bed, thinking: Uggs? For Gaza? What did he know about Gaza? Occasionally he’d encounter the assumption that since he was Jewish he automatically had a deep interest in the Middle East. But in college Mitch had realized that (a) politics bored him, and (b) most people are more interested in their own opinions than politics.
Mitch had visited Israel, years ago, on a teen tour. He remembered not liking it much. The heat had been outrageous, ridiculous, insulting, and the girls hadn’t given him the time of day—they were too busy flirting with Israeli soldiers. Also he recalled that the Israeli guides had talked a lot about how bad “the Arabs” were, how shifty and dangerous, but in the cafés and hotels and kibbutzim, the people with the shittiest jobs were invariably Arabs.
That had been almost twenty years ago, and he had barely thought about Israel since.
Now Mitch started to worry. What if Joey somehow looked into his claim? He was not above a little exaggeration if it helped him get laid, but this was a joke that had turned into a lie, and it would be very embarrassing if he got caught.
He got out of bed and poured himself a glass of water. Then he sat down at the kitchen table with his laptop. He sighed, and he shook his head, and he registered uggsforgaza.org. Then he threw up a web page with a few pictures (a bombed-out building, a pair of Uggs), wrote a paragraph of largely meaningless copy and a tag line: soles for souls in need. At the bottom of the page, he added, not affiliated with the Uggs Corporation.
It was now four in the morning. He tried to shuffle back to the bedroom but made it only as far as the couch. His second to last thought before sleep was to wonder what he had gotten himself into. His last thought was to wonder where he had left his car.
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On Monday, when Mitch was heading out for lunch, he ran into the project manager in the parking lot.
“Dude,” he said. “I flaked on you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool,” Mitch said. “I had a good time.”
Mitch considered walking the twenty or so blocks to the ocean. Instead he took his brown bag to a picnic bench behind the building. He ate his sandwich with his sunglasses on, blankly staring at a line of succulents in the rectangle of soil between the patio and the parking lot. He couldn’t get over how everyone in Los Angeles reserved the right to flake at any moment. It was like the California version of Live Free or Die. At least he was learning not to take it personally.
He dug Joey’s number from his wallet.
“Hi. This is Mitch? From the party the other night?”
“Right,” she said. “I saw your website. The Uggs one.”
“Yes,” Mitch said, with blooming remorse. “What did you think?”
“I think it’s great. But there’s no address on it. I don’t know where to send my old Uggs.”
“You want to send me your old Uggs.”
“Why don’t we meet for coffee and you can just give them to me?”
“Oh. Um. I don’t know. I’m not really dating right now? But if you could just give me your address….”
Three days later, he received a pair of Uggs. A second pair arrived soon after, with a note: Joey told me about this. I think it’s awesome. Would you please send me a receipt for my taxes.
Of course all this was incredibly strange, and yet he kept forgetting about it. At least during the day, when his mental energy was focused on marketing a movie about a detective agency run by teen vampires. Then he’d get home at eight or nine p.m. and see the two largish boxes on the floor of his living room and wonder what to do with them. Then a third pair arrived with a note: Great idea! You are bringing light to Gaia and helping to heal the soul-wounds. I will sprinkle words of your doings like sparkles. Please send me a receipt for my taxes.
Mitch was suddenly very curious about something. He let the note drop to the floor and sat down with his laptop. When he got his answer he nearly spit his coffee all over the keyboard: the Uggs for Gaza website had received three hundred and twelve unique hits. Three hundred and twelve people had looked at his website and he had only told two people about it. As a marketing man, Mitch was impressed: you couldn’t buy that kind of word of mouth.
He still had to figure out what to do with the Uggs. Probably it would be best if he just chucked them in a dumpster or left them with Goodwill, but he didn’t think he could do that with a clear conscience. He could return the stupid boots to their owners, but that would be a hassle, as well as requiring him to explain himself.
Or he could, you know, send the Uggs to Gaza.
Mitch googled “gaza charity los angeles.” He combed through the links and learned that there were a number of reputable organizations dedicated to helping the people of Gaza and the West Bank. And he knew that if he called them they’d think he was insane or a moron.
Mitch then googled “mosque Los Angeles.” Before he had time to talk himself out of it, he grabbed his phone and dialed the number of the first one that had come up.
A woman answered the phone. “Quran Center,” she said.
“Hi. Okay, this is going to sound strange. But I have some…shoes. For Gaza. I have shoes to donate to the people of Gaza.”
“I see,” the woman said, as if three or four times a day she fielded questions about footwear for the Palestinian people. “I’d like to help you but we’re more of a school than a charity. You know, classes for kids, adult education, that kind of thing. And we have a mosque, of course. Have you tried Islamic Relief?”
“I did,” he said, lying. “They suggested I try someone local.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
A male voice could be heard. “Excuse me,” said the woman, and she put him on hold. Mitch waited in silence. It was disconcerting—these days you were never on hold without hearing talk radio or music. Maybe Muzak was against Islam.
“Hello,” a man said. “You have shoes for Gaza? You’re from where?”
His face burning, Mitch said, “Uggs for Gaza. Dot org.”
“Hold on,” the man said, and Mitch heard him tapping at a keyboard. “Huh. I see. You know, you really should have your snail mail address on there.”
“Sorry. I know. I’m new to this.”
“All right. Can you stop by this Thursday? At 8pm? We’ll talk. Ask for me, Dr. Hassan. I’m the imam here.”
“Got it. Dr. Hassan.”
After Mitch put the phone down he looked up the word imam. Then he put his address on the Uggs for Gaza website.
Dr. Hassan’s office was rather spare, with a wall of books, a desk, and a dying ficus in one corner, put there seemingly less for adornment than to emphasize the lack thereof. The imam himself was a man in late middle age in a white, knitted skullcap and one of those long tunics. His beard was also quite long, and he was kind of fat. His demeanor was business-like as he directed Mitch to a chair.
“So you have shoes,” said Dr. Hassan. “For Gaza.”
“Yes, Uggs.” Mitch swallowed. “They’re suede boots. A lot of girls wear them.”
“Yes, I know what they are. But I’m confused. Shoes for Gaza, that strikes me as a nice thing. Uggs for Gaza, that’s a strange thing.”
Religious people are usually relaxed around clergy: you learn not to be intimidated when the rabbi has coached your synagogue’s softball team or the pastor has been by the house for dinner. People like Mitch, on the other hand, are usually intimidated, even if they long ago decided that religion was a heap of bullshit. So maybe that was why he told Dr. Hassan the whole story—because he was afraid of him. Regardless, as Mitch spoke he felt like an idiot of Biblical proportions. The sheer lameness of the tale was staggering. Even if Dr. Hassan was poker-faced, listening without evident judgment, Mitch had never felt so stupid in his entire life. In sixth grade he had dropped a textbook and when he bent down to pick it up, resonantly farted. In seventh grade he had been beaten up by a girl. Each of these episodes had been profoundly humiliating, and yet Mitch had been able to forgive himself, because neither was his fault. But now he was in a trap of his own making. Thus he threw himself on the mercy of Dr. Hassan.
As for the imam, he was at first irritated by the story, thinking, That’ll teach you to make light of Palestinian suffering, you little shit. At the same time he was assessing Mitch, estimating his capacity for goodness. He saw a youngish man clearly uncomfortable in the presence of a cleric and possibly equally uncomfortable in the presence of a Muslim. He also saw a man with a troubled conscience.
When the story was over, the imam drummed his fingers on his desk. Finally, he said, “What are Uggs made out of?”
“I don’t know. Sheepskin?”
“Find out for certain. You can’t give them to Muslims if they’re pigskin.”
“Oh. I see. Okay. So…can you help me?”
“Can I help you?” Dr. Hassan repeated. “The better question is, ‘Will I help you?’ Frankly, I’d rather send medicine to Gaza. Or nationhood. That would be a nice thing, nationhood for the West Bank and Gaza. But Uggs, why not? As long as they aren’t made of pigskin. And as long as you stop lying. I won’t be involved if it’s a lie.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I am saying call this Joey person and tell her the truth. And set up a 501c3. If you do that, I’ll help you get your Uggs to Gaza.”
The imam suddenly let out a bray of laughter.
“Uggs for Gaza,” he said, shaking his head. “What a schmuck.”
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