A man in the market makes drawstring backpacks from discarded rice sacks. Loving the garish prints on the cheap woven plastic and their resourcefulness I buy one. This is years before developing world trinkets of the sort started popping up in chain stores. I’m very pleased with my purchase and put a hand out to shake with the tailor, only then noticing that he has leprosy and is missing most of his fingers. Funnily enough this isn’t the first leper I’ve met though, and I don’t hesitate to grip the remains of his hand and look him in the eye.
Wild children; we filled our bellies with wild berries, clambered through shipping yards filled with toxic containers until chased away, inspected graffiti on the underside of the highway overpass attempting to decrypt the band names and sexual epithets, ran along the tar blackened beams and shining rail running through the valley, clambering up embankments of sulfurous wretched rivers still dead decades after the mills stopped dumping poison, swam in other rivers we decided were clean and developed skin conditions and rashes, broke bones, skinned knees, hornets nests. It was a pretty good time. As for adulthood; more of the same.
We eat bread, cheese from the last village, dry salami, drink red wine from the bottle, laugh and smoke, wet and stinking of sweat. By the end of our trip we will have circled nearly the entire country; no particular destination in mind and no purpose apart from an ongoing search for satisfaction. It never turns up in any particular place in this, or any number of other countries we will roam together but is always tantalizingly close. I am older and wiser now. The secret is that “where” and the “doing what” are much less important than “with whom.”
When I was a child we would go to the seashore and I would pick around the beach looking to see what sort of monsters were hiding under the rocks. After many years of wandering and looking under the rocks of governments and gangs and corporations and private individuals and seeing all the terrifying things they were hiding I find that rather than look under rocks I prefer to hide under one myself. So, now I pass most of my time in the seclusion of the red lodge. I have no doubt that I may have become a monster myself.
The pig somehow knows it will be slaughtered, meaning a chase is necessary and several of us have to restrain the creature in the gutter while the owner slits its throat with a steak knife. The screams and wild expression in the creature’s eyes are unsettling. I feel guilty about the entire affair and never end up sharing in the eventual feast. I drink too much instead and morosely ponder Ecclesiastes’ saying; more knowledge, more grief. In his place I hope to be a bit less intelligent than the pig because his fear and foresight could not stop the blade.
In France a person is permitted to get so drunk they start yelling about the president on a public bus and upright members of the community will listen carefully, sometimes nodding in agreement. If you are feeling sad you can drink two bottles of wine on an empty stomach and sit in a drunken stupor; neither fully conscious nor fully unconscious, on the steps of some upscale hotel you’ve never stayed at. Nobody will hustle you along, not even when you empty your tummy’s contents in a crimson smear across their clean marble steps. They have a very polite society.
I used to be afraid of sharks, an irrational fear that would arise even in a body of fresh water. One afternoon we are snorkeling not far from the shore and I spot a nurse shark, something that would have terrified me before despite knowing it is a relatively docile breed that feeds mostly on crabs and other bottom dwellers. It has the cold gaze of its kind and it is clearly a weapon but seeing it look disinterestedly at us I recognize that my fear is a product of my ego. I’m clearly not as tasty as I thought.
I’m in a hurry, so rather than catch a bus at the station I thumb for a ride. The first vehicle stops; an enormous truck hauling oranges north. The gargantuan rig trundles up the road at a slow but determined pace. A two hour journey stretches into five, six when we stop for a lunch with the police. The other passenger climbs out the window periodically and returns with his shirt full of oranges. We eat dozens in the local fashion, which requires careful peeling with a knife and like the trip is slower than another method, but more satisfying.
I entered the Metro as the sun set, referred to as the time between the dog and the wolf. The subway car is oddly empty, some schoolgirls and a nun at the other end of the car. At Chatelet Station a vagrant enters and sees immediately that he won’t be making anything on this ride. A smile comes over his face though and as he staggers back through the car he asks each of us in turn for assistance. In the hour of the wolf such requests are facetious; no more of the obsequiousness of the hour of the dog.
I wave to a woman out in the fields.
“You know her?”
“We met a couple weeks back on the road, she is an Mbaye, like us.”
Samba has a good laugh and explains that she is not Mbaye Mbayen, the farmer Mbaye. She is Mbaye Jamm, slave to an Mbaye clansman.
“She is not one of us.”
“She didn’t seem sad.”
An incredulous look from Samba; my sentimentality is unfamiliar and amusing to his African fatalism. “Is the donkey sad he must pull the cart? That is his place.”
“He gets beaten.”
“That is part of being a donkey.”
The kids in the village are fascinated but uncharacteristically keep their distance. They react with horror when I move to touch it. Thinking about the incident later, I realize that it has a particularly harsh sounding local name not far different from the word for a malevolent spirit. Although I know the animal is not dangerous in any way I can’t help but also feel a little distrustful. With its strangely considered movement it shows little panic and only slight aggression. Some animals cannot comprehend our actions and others react to it. This little monster understands but simply doesn’t care.
It would probably be more comfortable and certainly more civilized if he didn’t sleep on the bed. He hates a bath and consequently smells like the forest except when there are heavy rains and he gets a good soaking, but we don’t mind. We have spent years springing people from jails, prisons and detention facilities, but he is the only creature that we continued to look after once he was freed. He has a short life and most of it has already been spent in a small cage, but he is part of our pack now. Membership has its privileges.
The only way to board is to pay one of the young men on shore to lift you on their shoulders. Even then I have to stand to hoist myself over the lip of the boat and perch precariously on top. There is no deck and the ribs of the boat serve as tiered seating. The bottom is filled with sacks of rice and peanuts, noisy livestock and bundles of dyed cloth. Paying to be carried is intensely uncomfortable, but this is the way these things are done. My white guilt is irrelevant to the system that has developed here.
The power grid for most of the northeast failed that afternoon and the transit along with it. I joined the crowd headed off the island, hundreds of thousands walking down the middle of the street. Cars were pulled up onto sidewalks in front of bars so the headlights can help the drinkers with their fumblings. Grocery stores set up grills, cooking steaks before they spoil. Could all disasters be responded to in this manner, with a kind of amusement and geniality? Maybe this is only possible when the death counts are low, or when there is no enemy to blame.
December isn’t cold, but not warm either. When I announce that I am going to have a swim the response is incredulity. I insist, and walking down to the river’s edge I confess to my wife that although I am not a practicing Catholic I can’t pass up the opportunity to baptize myself in the same waters as John and Jesus. Taking my ablutions and looking up at the mountains all around I have a moment when I can understand the religious. We have a good laugh at me, the most devout of unbelievers and I dry off for dinner.
I don’t know where alienated children go anymore. Before the internet my local public library, with its sickening fluorescent lighting and cheap industrial shelving containing tattered copies of re-bound books; provided me with a brief escape from the anxieties of socialization. Some fear that the technological age will isolate children. I worry that it won’t isolate them the right way. Alone in the hush of the library, in those back aisles of the reference section with Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Golden Bough and the teachings of Lao Tzu I lost touch with the world and fell deep into my own consciousness.
I often feel out of place, but I feel most foreign in my own country. When I pass through these in-between-places people stop what they are doing and watch me go about my wholly unremarkable business; smoking a cigarette waiting for my wife to get out of the bathroom and bring us some fries. Part of me wants to just answer their questions. “American. I was born here. Not gay; thanks for asking, this is just how I like to dress. Fries, we want french fries just like you. Don’t worry yourself about me too much, I’m just passing through.”
Fashion is anything but frivolous and every living creature ought to indulge at least a little vanity. Sometimes it is very practical. I prefer a sombre palette of blacks, greys and blues, a crisp white shirt and French cuffs, the cufflinks are low denomination foreign coins. But I always indulge the most garish socks, preferring stripes and loud colors.
One morning in my rush to court I leave a security pass on the counter at home. Approaching the guards I plead for admission. From across the room a bailiff calls out;
“Yeah, he’s OK, he’s the guy with the socks!”
A seedy Lebanese bar in a West African city known for its enormous covered market and the production of salt. A peanut-belt slum in the middle of the badlands. People told her I was trouble but she thought I seemed just fine. Few can recognize a poet in an age without poetry, but in each other we saw a kind of wild and despairing spirit, a yearning for beauty and ugliness that will lead us from this place to prisons and swamps and ghettoes collecting stories to tell each other about what has been and what strangeness may happen next.
I was known to have a skill for locating strange bars. I could take you to drink zoom-zoom in a hidden courtyard behind the cloth vendors at the souk. I could show you the world’s filthiest bar by the bus station, plastic strips for a door and clouds of flies as drinking companions. I could find us palm wine in a tiny village on the outskirts of a holy city where possessing alcohol is a capital offense. One important part of this ability is embarrassingly simple. Look for pigs; where you find one forbidden item you can often find another.