Friday, July 30, 2010

Scrutable Americans

The Americans are a mighty people, indefatigable, persistent, unflagging, sleepless and dreamless. If they hate someone, they kill him with indifference; if they love someone, they smother him with kindness. He who wishes to live in New York should keep a sharp sword by him, but in a sheath full of honey; a sword to punish those who like to kill time, and honey to gratify those who are hungry.
--Kahlil Gibran, Blue Flame ix

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"What you wish were true"

So there I was jabbering at her about my new job as a serious newsman - about anything at all - but all I could think was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful and yet again, wonderful.

Watch this. Because I just did, after years and years.

I don't talk about it much on this blog, but here's a truth: if you are in love-- and it doesn't matter if it's legal or not. And it doesn't matter if it's practical. And it doesn't matter if it drives you insane, or drives silence between you and your spouse and your mother and your well-organized life. If you are in love, this is what it should feel like when you find each other that first time.

Your brain empty, and all you can think is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful and yet again, wonderful.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Notes from DC, take 3.

Rumba Café

I fell in love with this city because of D-, because it was he who showed me how to navigate it, who showed me his favourite places and people. Him and his bag filled with books and his papers filled with poetry, him and his quiet slow rising cigar smoke. He was the one who introduced me to the Café. The Argentinians who worked the bar when I visited that year weren't here anymore and I missed Gabriela. I missed how on just my second visit she knew what beer I wanted to follow the mojito. How angry she had been with that misplaced group of FOB Indians, the four guys all in horizontal stripes who walked into her Café and ordered Johnny Walker on one of the hottest days in May, in the Afternoon. Who grumbled amongst themselves when the bill came, who left small change as her tip. I remember how she jumped over the counter, yelling Hey! You forgot your change! and the look on their faces. How I wanted to apologize without knowing what to say, how she was still flushed mad as she laughed at my despairing face and said it's okay, jerks come by all the time.

I remember dancing all night here, along walls filled with fetishes, madonnas, orishas, votive candles and effigies, all stuffed with folded dollar bills as offerings. The autographed instruments gifted to the Café by respected musicians. That smell of fresh-muddled lime and lemon and mint. I pledged allegiance to the death a long time ago, which is why we came here next.

There’s a live band playing tonight. The big round bouncer smiles us through the door. He can tell that I know the code. I buy the first round, noticing all at once that we’re the only people in that night not of South American or Hispanic origin. Maybe we would see our server from the last place here too, maybe later in the night. Our guys are stuck behind a big group of people outside the Café, with everyone inside yelling at them while laughing, no space, man, no space! I go out and get them through the door because the bouncer remembers me. And at that exact instant I remember why I love this place, this street. I am remembered here, God only knows why, or maybe they fake it and pull this with everyone, but I don’t care. The band playing is the same one playing from the last time I was here, the mojito is muddled perfectly.

A big crowd of Argentinean kids move by our table, crowding right around where the men are playing. A few of us follow and dance. The one guy who never dances has the biggest grin in the world on his face, everything in his body saying Let’s Go! Let’s Go! Let’s GO! He asks us if it’s okay to stand this close to the band and we laugh and drink from his glass and give him ours, and then we dance with all the children. They know the words to every song, screaming along with the singer and we mouth with them, we don't know the words but we can’t help it, we aren’t faking knowledge but we must participate, as if we don’t have a choice. The guy who doesn’t dance goes, fuck man it’s like a reaction is expected, even necessary from us, like they want us to participate! And the guy I’m dancing with raises his arms in a benediction , I think. It couldn't have been ironic. Nothing was ironic that night.

And the children don’t mind us, they sing sad songs while hugging everyone and air-guitaring, one guy kneels down in front of the singer in a faux duet. We don’t understand a word they are singing but it sounds like regret and anger and pain and the sweetness of lost expectations, like that fucking nightingale with a thorn in its heart bleeding a white rose into red, like Icarus was a shadow against the sun, throwing everything they had left that night into singing the song. We stayed with them. We stayed out far later than any of us had in recent times. And all the time we were there, we sang, we danced, we spilled our drinks, we took photos with strangers, we stood guard over each other at the loo. We stayed till they turned on the lights, then rode in a single taxi, all six of us, back through empty streets, tucked into each others arms, over each others’ knees, some of us already asleep with the deep dreamless silence of children.

Notes from DC, take 2.


We sat around as a group, fucked up from the heat, from the watching Argentina lose, from all the bad pop music that was playing downstairs. There had been a barbecue that had gone the way most barbecues go in July on the East Coast, too much to clean up after, even with all the disposables, too many bugs. At least four of us had wanted Argentina to win. I didn’t watch football. I respected it, sensing how much it meant to so many. But I had wanted Argentina to win. I had first wanted Mexico to win. Then Paraguay to win. Still some hope for Uruguay. But they were all chopped down and Argentina remained that day, the beautiful long-haired boys with the most European heritage out of all of South America. One of the girls says it’s the heat that makes me this racist. I want to talk about love for the underdog, but I don't. Instead I say it’s not fair that countries that control the means of production get to stay in the World Cup finals. Then we had an argument about Equal Opportunity Employment. Then we found some rum, while I tried to imagine what watching football in Argentina that day must have felt like.

We need to get out. I know this, but I need to sell the idea to the group. This is the most amount of time we’ve all spent together in a long while, and it’s beginning to tell. I can see it on their faces—a few want sleep, another wants a smoke, another misses her boyfriend, another is worried about not finding a job. Fuck that shit. We’re still young (I don't say this out loud) and it’s only 10PM on a Saturday night (this I say out loud). Don’t ask me how I did it, but I got everyone out the door; it helped that I knew this one neighborhood better than anyone else in the apartment, and there were two good places to get drinks, no dress code, no cover, nice atmosphere.

We get there. We walk into the coffeeshop first. It’s still filled with mismatched furniture and low light, coming mainly from purposefully dowdy lampshades placed around the room: numerous chairs and sofas, from yard sales, from dorm rooms, from someone’s grandmother’s living room. We corner a school desk, a couple of hard straight-back chairs and a chaise. Without anyone saying it, I know, I just know that I’m in charge of making this night work, since I dragged everyone out. The trick is to not look anxious. This place is notorious for bad service, mostly because they are used to serving kids who are high or drunk or backpackers and interns who are too tired to want their food and drink pronto. Eye contact, eye contact.
One of the guys suggests a round of shots. I want to bear hug his languid body, but I resist, concur and finally get the attention of one of the servers. Contact.

He looks messed up, man. Dark curls falling into his eyes, stained apron, this gone look as he smiles at us wanly, and tells us in heavily accented English that he’s had a real rough day, and what would we like?

I talk him down from suggesting Patron. I laugh, I lean in and say all the right things to let him know we’ve been here before, and we aren’t tourists. We get a cheap tequila, order drinks from the menu card and I know he’ll get them wrong. Remembering to not look anxious.
The tequila and lime wedges come, no salt. We spill some on the cracked wood, we grin, we mutter toasts no one hears and down our shots.

The music gets louder immediately, immediately more likeable. Wasn’t the heat of the liquor, I swear to you that they turn the music up at 11:00PM to convince people to stay longer, just one drink more. We all respond. The music takes the silence away and we are grateful. We make jokes at each other’s expense, recalling good times from the past. Our eyes are all lit up, our skins shine, we smile at each other, any outsider would say we love each other. Our drinks arrive, three of them wrong, we try them anyway but the bar tender comes this time with the right ones, shaking his Viking hair, tells us to keep the old drinks. Our server comes back, apologizing. His team lost today, please don’t say anything guys.

Shit man, we all wanted Argentina to win. Our hearts, filled with love, pour towards this server. Far from his home country, like us. One of us asks what the national drink of Argentina is. If I could’ve sucked up all his words and poured them down his throat I would have. Don’t know any Argentinians but I had a feeling symbols and standards of the country would be hard to discuss, especially at night, especially on a night like this. I know what it is like to come from a city and country with many fathers. There is some pride but also some shame in it, like how all mongrels and half-casts feel. Our server reeled but stood his ground. Said people drink a lot of wine, beer… like how all Europeans drink. Yerba Mate. And something made with gin. Or maybe ginger. The one who asked exchanged the words with the server like a chorus—
And they gave up laughing, and one who was trained in dance said something about the Argentinean tango, and the one who watched football passionately said fuck Germany, and he thanked us and asked us if we needed anything else, and of course we said no.

Then we passed around our drinks, giggling like teenagers, and took bad pictures of each other and the glasses on the table, which with all the water glasses and shot glasses and wrong drink glasses now looked like a glass harmonica. And everyone lets go. The girls squeeze my hands gratefully, and I must have blushed. Never look anxious or overwhelmed. Which is why I suggested moving on to the next door place, the best mojitos and caipirinhas in the city, probably on the East Coast, this far north anyway. I don’t give them time to falter: I leave the boys in charge of the bill, head off arm in arm with the girls to the Café.

Notes from DC, take 1.

the 4th of July

Like every capital city everywhere in the world, this one was mapped out for the day. A lawn here, a parking lot there, this monument’s special open hours: all for the purpose of free and equal access to the evening’s fireworks display.

Lost interest the night before, even. Fireworks reminded me of November 25th in Oman, where all that oil money went into exquisite, complicated sulphur and light formations in the sky. Who the fuck knew it was oil money then anyway? Not us expat kids, all we saw were the lights. We’d go to the houses of family friends who lived in the hills, and watch the national flag and the kanjar picked out in bursts of light in the sky. The fireworks in DC? Drugstore Americana, big umbrellas of blue, gold, white and red sparks opening and closing in turns.

We went out to eat a late lunch, then shopped discounted sales, landed at the pool finally. Went up the road from the apartment complex about half an hour before everything started. None of us seemed particularly eager to go, but there wasn’t anything else to do. The roads would be jammed, restaurant service would be bad, bars nearby would be dead. For some reason, everyone with babies had come out. Everyone! On some level, nationalist propaganda must tie into state-approved levels of procreation. Come celebrate the country’s birth with your new born!

Ungeneralizable unintentionally racist observation: in this part of the city, the white parents are getting older and older, all with SPF45 and wet-wipes and organic baby food. The Hispanic and Black parents are getting younger, as are their babies. Saw one that hadn’t even opened its eyes yet. The mother was tending to it on the grass by the sidewalk, kneeling as if to pick up a spilt handbag and this bigger guy—let’s call him Jorge, he looked like a Jorge—Jorge looks over to this skinny younger Hispanic couple. Thin and tough and young, so young, and Jorge says, don’t you want one of them? The girl tightens her lip, and the guy says, her? She calls them “it”. All the Asians who are here without a car are sitting down dutifully, no babies in tow at all. Eyes with that work visa look: they know it’s a pledge of allegiance, just showing up. Their kids eager eyed and waiting. I’m not sure if they’ve seen American fireworks before, because there’s an expectation on their face that makes me think they’re dreaming diwali. Or dussehra. Or Pongal.

Another kid with her baby harnessed across her chest. Maybe 15, 16? They’re doing all the right things though, at least this baby’s eyes are open. Teenagers are tough these days, there’s nothing you can tell them except that whatever they believe right now, they will be disappointed soon enough. We’re getting old, one of the girls I’m with laughs. Yeah we are. Shit. Look at us. The youngest 25, the oldest 31. But we could be our parents, the orderly way we’re behaving. I could be my grandfather.

What we see everywhere: folding chairs, picnic baskets, bug spray, torches, parched grass. One white family tries to keep everyone from sitting in front of them with a good-natured warning about a low hanging branch. “Ya don’t want to be wearin’ that thing on the 4th, now do ya?” Most move away, some laugh and thank them for the warning, all the ethnic folk laughing overloud and in a higher pitch than they intended, as if to wipe away that niggling doubt whether the family was just using the branch a slim excuse to get the better view. Three tough South Asian kids, all younger than 10 take a long look at the branch and sit underneath it. I want to applaud. I want to bang a fuckin’ drum and sing Dixie, because it’s a victory. You can’t teach kids to fear death. Mortality means nothing. Just start the damn fireworks. Let’s go. One kid gets up and starts swinging from a leaning lamppost in half circles. Let’s go. Let’s Go.

This far away from the Capitol we can’t hear any fanfare—there’s no voices or trumpets riding on the wind, but all the cars have stopped on road next to us, and people have gotten out with their cameras and phones on the bridge to take pictures. No one angry. You have to be stupid to think you can drive in any country during an independence day fireworks display.

I take stock. About five small groups of white Americans. The rest, all migrants, like us. Standing in a heat we wouldn’t be standing in if this was back home. Staring at heavy, hot twilight sky.And when it starts, it starts quiet, only one holler to welcome it. We stare at it like it’s a Keno machine, or the lady at the airline counter reading out stand-by seat numbers. Occasionally there’s a nice big bright one: a venn diagram of pink and blue pin pricks in the night sky. A plane flies right against one big BOOM! and that gets the crowd going.

The girl who spoke before, she and I start talking. About job prospects, about books, about that baby down on the grass, goddamn that baby is way too young to be outside like this. What are these people doing, having kids this young we say, and we shift uncomfortably, each of our shining eggs rattling around inside our purses. We are the right type of young. We go places without people asking us who we’re with. But we’re tormented by all the turgid, surging family presence all around us. I look around. The only other single people are also gathered tight together, facing outwards, wary and not knowing why. This much Americana and the heat is getting to us all. Another plane flies by. More whoops.

One of the five small groups starts a “USA! USA!” chant. Silence all around, a Ghanaian family next to us laughs quietly and one guy pleasant-voiced, yells out, but not too loud, “Go Ghana! Go Ghana!”. One of the parked car Asian families yells “Go Pakistan!” Score 2 for Dixie. Everyone within earshot grins or laughs. We’re in a new immigrant part of the city, it’s clean, upmarket and well-kept, the immigrants keep it this way and work hard to fit in with the larger crowds in the malls, on the subway. When the last wave of lights start, a black woman who had been offering free face painting to everyone turns to her young daughter and tells her it’s time to go home. The girl goes, why do we have to start leaving now? The woman goes, Baby girl, I know your mind is not developed enough to remember events from last year, but these fireworks always last only 20 minutes, and after that there’s a mad rush. We gotta leave now, girl.

I’m wondering whether we’ll remember anything at all, wondering what the past half hour meant to any of us. At this exact moment the crowd starts to rush away, pull away, suddenly stir-crazy, like that standing around was too much. There’s no music, no singing, and we all need a drink, even the ones standing there still staring at the sky, as if unsatisfied, as if there had to be more to this thing.

Next year we’ll try getting closer, one of the girls say.

I’m sad because I can’t remember the music or words of the Omani national anthem. All I remember is, you sing it as a group in Arabic, and it has that rising wave on wave feeling, till at the end of it you feel like your chest is being shot out of a cannon.

I throw the cigarette in the gutter. A shower of tiny sparks and then oblivion.