Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Just a few weeks after the bombings I took a bus from Meknès to Beni Mellal and back one weekend. Normally it's a six-hour bus ride. This time it took over eight hours to get there because the bus had to stop at every crossroads in the country while police inspected the luggage stored underneath the bus and checked the ID of every passenger. A lot of people were asked questions about their journey, but not me. My US passport was like gold. They were interested in finding terrorists, not tourists. I noticed that they waved most of the cars through the checkpoints. I guess terrorists only use public transportation.
The ride back to Meknès took about eleven hours. Not only had more police checkpoints sprung up over the weekend, but the bus was going to Fès, which meant getting off in Azrou. I had to take another bus or a grand taxi from there. It was dark by the time I arrived in Azrou. There were no busses and not enough Meknès-bound passengers to fill a grand taxi. After waiting for an hour I bought the remaining two seats just so we could leave. After one minute on the road the driver got pulled over for running a red light. He had to talk to the cop for 15 minutes and pay a bribe before we could move again. It was a long, slow, boring night time drive. Eventually I struck up a conversation with the passengers and the driver. People got out one by one along the road in Meknès until there were two of us left at the end of the route, two blocks away from my apartment. It was 11:30 PM. We got out of the taxi and each grabbed a strap of his bag as we began walking up the street.
Immediately a police paddy wagon rolled up. Two plainclothes cops and one guy in a uniform jumped out and surrounded us closely as they demanded our IDs. They barked a bunch of questions at us, concluded we were not the droids they were looking for, and sped off into the night. As we got to the head of my street and parted ways, my companion gave me a keychain as a gift. It's an inch-thick chip of wood with an Arabic prayer for travelers inscribed on it. Four years later it's in my pocket right now.
My favorite customer was a homeless woman named Mary. She was always very polite, even when other people were rude to her. One time another homeless woman, a mean old bag lady with a wig and a manner of dress that suggested she came from old money, attacked Mary. Mary wanted to use the microwave and opened it not realizing that the other woman already had something in there. She assumed that Mary was up to no good and hit her with her umbrella and shouted all sorts of insults at her. Made a big scene. She was incensed that I would not throw Mary out of the store, so she walked out, declaring she'd never shop there again. Throughout the encounter Mary remained calm and apologetic. She didn't seem to comprehend the woman's rage but she was nevertheless a bit shaken by it. Over the next couple months I saw the madwoman show up a few times, peek in, and leave in a tizzy if she saw me behind the counter.
Sometimes I used to sit with Mary out on the sidewalk. She was always happy to hang out and shoot the breeze, always had a smile for me. She told me about her life story, about giving birth to her son two blocks away on Comm. Ave, about how her kids wanted to put her in a mental institution, about how she didn't see herself as homeless but as someone who chose to "live outside." She disappeared that winter. I got worried when spring came and I still didn't see her. Perhaps her son had her locked up after all. I was relieved when I saw her on a visit to Boston a few years later. She was sitting on a residential street in the South End. She seemed exactly the same. We sat and talked for a while. But when I asked her if I could take her picture, she said she would ask me to leave if I did so. I put my camera down and everything was cool again.
On the day I got hired my boss warned me about TEGLY, or Tobacco-Educated Gay and Lesbian Youth. They were a group of underage kids who conducted cigarette stings on convenience stores. Any clerk who sold them smokes was slapped with a $300 fine, plus another fine for the store. I was told to check everyone's age thoroughly. One night a girl who looked like she was 17 or 18 wanted to buy a pack of Camels. I asked for her ID. She said that she left it in her dorm, but that she really was 18 and a student at Emerson College. I said that I believed her but I needed to see the ID anyway. She got mad and tried to break me down through abuse. I didn't budge and she left in a huff. She returned half an hour later and threw her driver's license at me. I saw Jessica Something-or-other, age 18. As I reached up for the Camels, she grabbed her license and stormed out.
The worst aspect of the job was selling lottery tickets. First of all, the machine was some huge, primitive monstrosity from a time when computers were as big as houses. It broke down a lot. But also it was depressing and ethically questionable. I felt like a drug dealer supplying a bunch of addicts. The same poor and elderly people would come in every day and blow their government checks on tickets. They'd get aggressive if the machine was down that day. In the event that they won a couple bucks, they'd use the money to buy more tickets.
One guy who used to come in and lose every day brought in his son on his eighteenth birthday. It was a big moment for the kid, being old enough now to play the lottery just like his dear old dad. He looked over his shoulder as the kid rubbed the silver off with a coin. As they walked out the door a moment later, he put his arm around the boy and said, "Better luck tomorrow, son."
He writes poetry and has a book of poems published. He plays guitar with a band. He speaks about half a dozen languages. He's religious, but gives himself some slack for being human. He's pretty sure that God will forgive him for drinking alcohol.
His mission that night was to bring two Algerian terrorists to Spain and hand them over to the Spanish authorities. They were captured in Agadir and were wanted by Interpol for playing a role in the Madrid bombings. As we spoke they were in a holding cell down below in the belly of the ship. After delivering his human cargo he planned to go shopping in Almeria for a day and buy some gifts for his wife and kid.
He asked me to send him a postcard from my hometown so he can put it on his wall with all the other postcards travelers have sent him from all over the world. Yesterday I bought him a one of the hills of Pennsylvania in their glorious fall colors.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
My job was to be a community organizer for crime and safety issues. I was to identify problems in the neighborhood, help organize block clubs and events, and groom local residents for leadership roles. I also tried get people to attend local beat meetings as part of CAPS, Chicago's community policing program.
It would be hard to imagine anyone less qualified for the job. I grew up in a typical American small town: rural, quiet, almost 100% white. I had just moved to from . I knew nothing about American urban problems, let alone how to help people solve them. And as for my Spanish skills, I had studied in high school and visited relatives in when I was a kid, but I'd never been immersed in the language or used it practically.
In order to bone up on my Spanish, I listened to a Spanish talk radio station in my car every day. "Cinco seisenta AM: la radio que habla." One of my favorite programs was the Carlos Martinez show. Senor Martinez gave explicit and humorous sex advice to giggling housewives (Oh, Carlos!), often with loud moaning and lewd sound effects. For some reason, this show was on the air at four in the afternoon, when children were returning home from school. Someone must've complained because after a few months the show was moved to 11:00 PM. Another favorite was La Noche de Misterio, a late-night program featuring spooky stories.
At Nobel Neighbors there was Jane, the director, Linda, who worked with housing issues, and me. Linda was sort of a mentor for me and helped me orient myself to my strange new environment. In the afternoons we would drive around the neighborhood and note the addresses of abandoned buildings, crack houses, vacant lots, hot corners, and other trouble spots. She introduced me to potential leaders, brought to my attention a lot of things I would have missed, and gave me advice (like have a safe house on each block where I can retreat to when shooting starts).
There was a lot of shooting. Winter tended to be quiet because it was too cold to stand on a corner and sell drugs. But people dreaded the spring thaw because it usually brought more violence. My year there was no exception.
When the snow melted a new gang called The Insane Unknowns moved onto Karlov Avenue and displaced the previous gang, whose name escapes me. That April, the old gang came back hoping to wipe out their rivals in a drive-by shooting at the corner of Karlov and Hirsch, across the street from Nobel Elementary School. They had firepower, a car, the element of surprise, and lousy aim. All the Insane Unknowns escaped unscathed. However, one of the bullets happened to strike in the chest an eleven-year-old girl named Jeanette who at that moment was running out of her building to greet her father, whose car had just pulled up. She died at the hospital. I went to her wake a few days later with Linda and Jane. It was open-casket. There she lay, in her pretty white dress, while her mother and family stood in the doorway and cried quietly. It was awful.
Even though there were over 800 murders in that year, this killing drew a lot of attention. For a few days politicians made empty speeches and the newspapers wrote stories about the conditions of the neighborhood until they lost interest and moved on to something else. A spokesman for the 25th district of the police department told the that this was the first killing in the area in a year and a half. I was very upset when I read that because that had been the sixth killing in the neighborhood in about a month.
One of the killings that happened that month and on the same block was of a man who had quit his gang. He had a pregnant girlfriend and wanted to get his life together so he could be a good father. He was back in the neighborhood to visit his family when his former gangmates saw him and shot him in an alley after he begged for his life.
At the corner of Potomac and Pulaski was a liquor store called Stooges. Stooges was a constant headache for those unlucky enough to live near it. The parking lot was full of trash, rats, and crack dealers. One day two cops stumbled drunkenly out of Stooges and chased down a Jamaican immigrant named Jeremiah. He was a well-known gangbanger but at that moment he wasn't doing anything wrong, just walking down the street. The cops beat him up so bad they put him in the hospital. The neighborhood responded by marching on the 25th district police station in protest. The police responded by denying the area any meaningful police service for a year. At the end of that year was when I showed up, the idealistic white boy from the country who wanted to help foster cooperation between locals and the police. No wonder I couldn't get anyone to turn out for beat meetings except for a handful of elderly white people who stayed when their neighbors fled to the suburbs.
One complaint I heard over and over at the beat meetings by those who did come was that it was unsafe to call 911 when people saw trouble in the streets. The reason it was unsafe was because the police would usually stop in front of the house that made the call, shine their spotlight on the door for a moment, and then move on. The people would then face retaliation from the criminals on their block. In response to this, the city came up with a plan: anyone who wanted to remain anonymous when calling 911 had to tell the dispatcher so. The dispatcher in turn would forward the complaint to the officer on the beat without giving the officer any information about the caller. There was no talk about punishing police who deliberately endangered the lives of those who called on them for help.
One man who lived on an especially dangerous corner used to work as a community policing organizer. He had pretty much the same job as me except that he worked for the police department instead of a neighborhood organization. He quit after a few months because he was disgusted by the corruption he saw. He said that drugs that were confiscated were stored in a safe, but each night someone stole the drugs and put them back on the street. In general, he felt that the police hindered his work more than helped it.
One of the first projects I undertook was to establish a connection between Nobel Neighbors and Kedvale Park, the only safe place for kids to hang out. They had basketball, foosball, board games, and two adults in charge. Some kids had such a horrible home life that they were always at Kedvale. When the park director opened the gates at seven or eight in the morning, there was usually a line of kids waiting to get in, even if it was the middle of winter. I tried to teach a drum class there, but all we had to bang on were boxes. I got some of the local music stores to lend us some instruments. I got busy with other projects and didn't have time to do the music classes anymore, so I passed them onto a friend who taught them some Moroccan rhythms.
I tried to organize a block club on Hirsch, with little success. Linda introduced me to a few residents and I got them to come to Kedvale Park fieldhouse for some meetings since no one wanted to have the meetings at their house. There was Cliff and Dorothy, a kind old couple. There was a Mexican man who spoke English and a Mexican woman who didn't. One woman who came to all the meetings was known as The Candy Lady because she sold candy to kids in her living room. At the time I was naive enough to believe that that was all she sold. She usually came with her handyman, Cornbread. All we did was talk. No one was willing to commit to actually doing anything. The only thing we did successfully was organize a block party at Hirsch and in order to disrupt a crack market for an afternoon. We got the city to close down the street, grilled some hot dogs, had games for kids, and the crack dealers had to go somewhere else for a while.
On the northeast corner of Hirsch and was a run-down apartment building owned by a car dealer from the suburbs. The guy was a slumlord and did nothing to maintain the building or take responsibility for his tenants. Some tenants ran a pretty large drug business, much bigger than a couple guys standing on the street. Every so often someone pulled up in a shiny black car. Two guys stood on the roof with guns while the car unloaded its cargo. I went inside the building with Linda once and talked to tenants. Everything was falling apart in the building. People complained of constant plumbing and electrical problems. The landlord did nothing but collect rent. After Nobel Neighbors called the landlord a few times to bring the seriousness of the situation to his attention and he still did nothing, we got the city to send in building inspectors. He was cited for dozens of violations. After several months of dragging his heels and doing very little work, we took him to court. His lawyer cursed our organization and the entire neighborhood when the judge fined him a few thousand dollars. Some people in the community hailed this as a great victory, but it didn't feel like one. We wanted the guy to rehabilitate his building, not give his money to the city. Even though he had been a terrible landlord, I didn't want to just stick it to him, and I felt bad.
There was a man named Louis who owned a real estate business called EZ Life. EZ Life would buy beat-up old houses from the Federal Housing Authority, give them shoddy surface repairs, and sell them to poor people. Upon moving in they'd find all sorts of problems and spend all their money on maintenance. Being unable to pay for both repairs and loans, they'd be forced to foreclose and abandon their houses. Neighborhoods across the West Side acquired large numbers of abandoned buildings, most of which quickly became crack houses. EZ Life went out of business to elude investigators and then reopened as Ace Realty. The week of we got a busload of people from West and the nearby neighborhood of Lawndale to go Louis' house in the recently gentrified neighborhood of . All of these people had been screwed by EZ Life. The angry but polite mob showed up on his doorstep, much to his shock. Not surprisingly, he didn't want to talk, but he got the message. Someone presented him with a turkey leg and told him it was a turkey-of-the-year award. As dozens of elderly people and parents with children stood on the sidewalk and waited for the bus to come back, a well-dressed man in a convertible pulled up and asked the mostly black crowd, "Excuse me, are you gangbangers?"
Two months later an affiliated West Side group was organizing an action against EZ Life/Ace Realty. We saw in the paper that an EZ Life house was for sale in Lawndale. Jane sent me there with a disposable camera to take pictures of the house. The pictures were to be blown up and put on signs. It was the middle of the afternoon in January and Lawndale wasn't much worse than West , so niether of us saw any potential problems. I arrived at the house on and . There was a group of guys standing across the street. I didn't pay much attention to them. I just walked up to the house and started taking pictures. I started to get a creepy feeling and decided to go back to my car. As I walked to my car, the gang across the street started to walk towards my car too. When I got behind the wheel and turned on the ignition, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that they were now running toward the car and that the guy in front pulled an automatic out of his jacket. I stepped on the gas and realized that I had parked on ice. My tires spun in place and I didn't move. The guy with the gun reached the back of my car at just the moment that I finally started to peel out. Instead of shooting into the car, which he could have done very easily at this point, he just hit the back of the car with the butt of his gun. As my car took off, I looked in the mirror again and saw that the guys were laughing. I ran a stop sign. An old drunken wino leaning against the stop sign waved his hands to tell me to slow down. I took the next right and realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Dodging oncoming traffic, I finally made it onto Chicago Avenue and went back to Nobel Neighbors. I tried to get back to work but couldn't concentrate, so Jane let me go home.
There was a hillbilly family from that somehow came to live in this ghetto. They were dirt poor. Their children ran around in rags and bare feet.
The federal goverment launched an investigation into corrupt Chicago aldermen who took bribes for allowing people to illegally dump trash in their wards. It was called Operation Silver Shovel. Eight aldermen were indicted. Percy Giles was one of the aldermen in West Humboldt Park. He was indicted, convicted, and jailed for taking $80,000 in bribes, more than any of the other aldermen. Instead of holding an election for a new alderman, Mayor Daley appointed a woman who was loyal to him.
One night the fifteen-year-old grandson of Leon, one of our board members, was killed while walking his girlfriend home on Kamerling Avenue. He belonged to a gang that was at odds with whoever controlled Kamerling and was shot for being where he wasn't supposed to be. Some of the board members were callous enough to say that he got what he deserved for being a gang member. "He wasn't a gangbanger to me," Leon said. "He was my grandson."
Linda told me that on Potomac Avenue, on the same block as Stooges liquor store, was a group of women who picked up the trash every Saturday morning. This was the closest thing they had to a block club and we decided to encourage them to do more. At the opposite end of the block from Stooges was a vacant lot filled with garbage and occupied by drug dealers. The city was encouraging the rehabilitation of vacant lots as community gardens, so we got the city to deliver a truckload of woodchips one Saturday. A group of young suburban volunteers came from City Year, another Americorps program. They wore matching red T-shirts and started the day off with some embarrasing ra-ra cheers, much to the amusement of the locals. All day long we picked up trash and spread around the woodchips in the gentle spring rain. Someone donated hot dogs, sodas, and sandwiches. We had a lot of fun. In addition to the Potomac women, people from other streets, children, and even the gangbangers came to help out. Over the next few months, the Potomac women kept at it and turned the lot into a beautiful garden. Last year I met someone who still lives in and told me that the garden at Potomac and Karlov is still being maintained and has become a model for other community gardens around the city.
The women of Potomac didn't stop at the garden. They organized marches through the streets at night with people chanting, "No rocks! No blows!" They joined forces with people a few blocks away at and Division, where a bunch of neighbors took to the streets in protest every night for a month after two kids got shot. Police came out for these marches as escorts. Cops and residents talked and got to know each other. Some dealers didn't like the attention and poisoned the rottweiler of one of the Potomac women.
They also took on Stooges. They wanted to vote the address dry. This was made difficult by the fact that the line between two voting districts went down the middle of their street, putting them in two different areas and forcing them to organize twice as many people, including many who lived nowhere near Stooges. They persevered and I was told a few years later that they finally did it. Stooges was no more.
At the end of my VISTA year I felt like it had all been a waste. I felt like I had been totally ineffective. I had no idea what I was doing at all. I learned a lot but I didn't think I had contributed anything of value to the community that I was working for. It wasn't until years later that I heard about the successes of the women on Potomac. While they did all the important work on their block and exposed themselves to retribution from dangerous people, it felt good to know that I played a small role in at least one thing that went right. I guess we often have no way of really knowing how we affect others.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Goats are big business. It started with Goats 'R' Us in San Diego in the '80s. Brilliant idea: instead of using gasoline-powered, air- and noise-polluting machines to clear fields of weeds or paying labor costs for humans to do it by hand, use herds of goats who'd like nothing better than to graze fresh pastures all day. Since then, goat herding companies have been popping up all over California to rent their flocks to those who'd like their eco-friendly and economical services. I used to work for a friend and his mother who'd been managing goats for four years. They had just gotten a contract with the San Francisco Port Authority and so I did my training in the city on Pier 96 by Hunters Point.
Pier 96 is the last of the piers going down the bay side of the city. It's an industrial zone, hardly the bucolic setting which one might normally imagine to be appropriate to the herding of goats. The inland side of the pier is a railyard with a few dozen boxcars. On the southeast corner is a parking lot for postal trucks and police cars and a course for training emergency vehicle drivers. There's a port where ships come from somewhere on the Pacific to unload their cargo. On the northeast corner is a factory that smells like rancid cat food. I was told it's a plant where animal remains are melted down for industrial purposes. On the southwest corner, next to the main entrance, four or five men spend their days packing toxic, contaminated dirt into barrels for shipment to a storage facility in Utah. In the middle of the pier was a pile of rubble from highways and bridges. Wrapping around the dusty pile was a 22-acre field of weeds. Hidden among the weeds were a few homeless encampments. There were broad views of the skyline downtown, the Twin Peaks and fog rolling over them each afternoon, the Bay Bridge, and Oakland and Berkeley across the bay.
We brought in two herds totaling 1,020 goats. They cleared about an acre a day. My job consisted mainly of setting up and taking down rolls of electric fence. I'd clear a foot-wide path of weeds with a mower, roll out the fence in 100-foot segments, hook it up to a car battery and a solar panel, and check the voltage. Otherwise, I just had to make sure the goats had sufficient water, mineral salt licks, and tubs of molasses.
We had an Australian shepherd dog named Hemp. Hemp was severely abused and traumatized by a previous owner. He ran away with his tail between his legs from every human he saw except my friend who rescued and trained him and the shepherd who worked with him. Hemp was about as phychologically disturbed as a dog could be.
A word about goat-dog relations: the goats are afraid of the dog. The dog enjoys tormenting the goats and feels a tingling from his predator roots somewhere in the back of his brain. The shepherd puts the dog behind the goats, which makes them run away from the dog and toward wherever the shepherd wants them to go.
One day Hemp quit his job. The goats were being moved from one enclosure to another. It was a hot afternoon and Hemp just didn't feel like running around. He wanted to be back in his cage where there was water, shade, and security. So he lay down and ignored all commands to stay behind the goats. The goats escaped and started wandering all over Pier 96. Three humans couldn't contain the goats the way one dog can, and after several hours of chasing the beasts, they called in someone from another company to bring another dog. When the dog finally arrived, the goats were all herded into the pen in about 10 minutes.
One day when I wasn't working the goats cleared a patch near the rubble pile and uncovered a dead body. The guy was apparently dead for a long time. All that was left was a clothed skeleton wrapped in a blanket. The cops came and took the body but we never found out what happened. On my last day at the site all that was left was the yellow police tape.
From Pier 96 the goats were moved to their next assignment: a beautiful, idyllic winery hidden in the hills near Petaluma.
My friend Kuldeep and I took a bus from Pune to Bhimashankar, a village in the Sahyadri Mountains at the source of the Bhimashakar river. The village is perched on top of a steep cliff that drops straight down roughly a kilometer into the long, wide valley below. Looking off the cliff to the left a lower sharp, rocky ridge comes out and then rises to a spike before dropping off. At the top of the spike there used to be a small post where a guard would sit during the time of the warrior king Shivaji and watch for invaders. In addition to the path that goes from Bhimashakar into the valley, villagers also have the option of climbing down a ladder that goes all the way down the cliff. This ladder is not used during the monsoon season.
We walked into the forest to try to find the shrine at the river source. At the entrance to the forest was a sign with a painting of the various dangerous animals we'd have to watch out for. There was a tiger, a bear, some sort of spotted feline (jaguar?), and various poisonous snakes. We didn't find the shrine, so we went to the top of Nag Fani, or Snake Head, a nearby peak on top of the cliff.
Directly at the foot of the cliff was a jungle. Leaning our heads over the cliff we could clearly hear every little insect, bird, and critter down there. Leaning back just a few inches, we could hear absolutely nothing. There was an invisible wall beyond which sound did not travel.
We decided to climb down into the valley the next day. Kuldeep wanted to go to Karjat, a town reputed to make the best wada pav, a Maharashrian potato patty street snack. Since villagers in India are notorious for giving directions that are misleading, confusing, or just plain wrong, we decided to ask several people how to get there and how far a walk it would be. Most people said if we just went down the cliff we'd get there anywhere between two and six hours. One guy said that we could get there in less than an hour and that someone brings milk from there every day. One other man said we were crazy to think of walking to Karjat, that it would take a week. Since all but one person told us could do it in less than a day, we decided to give it a go.
We got up at sunrise the next morning and started walking. As soon as we hit the trail we met an old man who was walking in the same direction, so we walked together. It was hard for us to keep up with him even though we were in our early twenties, he was about seventy, and we were going down hill. The path took a gradual slope down the side of the cliff and went through some thin-treed woods. When we arrived in the jungle that we saw from the top of the cliff there were many large spider webs across the path inhabited by fist-sized yellow and black spiders. The mist gave the jungle an eerie quality.
We came to a clearing. The old man pointed to a house just off the path where he was going. He pointed to another house down in the valley and told us that his brother lived there. We should stop in when we pass it, he said, and if we went straight down the path we were on we could reach the house in about 45 minutes. We thanked the man and continued walking.
A friendly dog started following us. The dog would often walk ahead as if it was showing us the way. Somehow we got onto a different path from the dog. The path became steep and we lost elevation quickly. We could hear the dog barking to us from somewhere in the woods, but we had dropped so far that we didn't feel like backtracking. As the barking faded away, so did the path. It got smaller and smaller until it ended at a dried up creek bed of boulders under the canopy of the jungle. At this point there was nothing to do but go down the creek bed. It would lead to the valley eventually.
In the shade of the trees and the relative humidity of the creek bed the swarm of mosquitoes was horrible. We tapped each boulder with our walking sticks before stepping on it so as not to startle any snakes that might be resting underneath. Kuldeep chose this moment to point out that if a snake jumped out at us from a tree we were probably fucked. I thought about the predators we had seen painted on the sign the previous afternoon. We thought maybe the cats were nocturnal, but we weren't too sure.
After at an hour or two of this nonsense, we reached the valley floor and the jungle gave way to something like a savannah. There was no path, just thorny weeds and dead brown grass. Looking back and up we could see Nag Fani and the cliff wall dominating the valley.
Eventually we came to a wadi, the smallest type of Maharashtrian village. The wadi was a square of huts with an open area in the middle. As we walked through the entrance children stopped playing, women stopped picking stones out of rice, men sitting in front of their houses stared, and all the dogs started barking furiously. The barking dogs conveyed the surprise and alarm the villagers felt at seeing us. They barked for a very tense ten seconds or so until an old woman threw some stones at them. The way the people looked at us we might as well have stepped off a spaceship and had antennae growing out of our heads. Here we were, a Westerner and a city slicker from Pune, dressed in jeans and wearing large backpacks, arriving without warning at the back end of a remote village that had no road, nothing modern, nothing to tie it to the outside world except a foot path. When we told them that we had just come from the jungle, they thought we were mad. Didn't we know there were tigers in there? A mob of children gathered around us as we filled our water bottles at the back of someone's house. We asked for directions to Karjat. They pointed us down the path to a village with a road and said we'd be able to get a bus from there.
As we were walking down the path we came to a farm. There was an old man, a young woman, and a cow. The man gave us a couple glasses of milk from the cow and Kuldeep told him our story. I didn't understand the conversation, but as we left the farm Kuldeep told me the old man ripped into him. Said something to the effect of, "You city people have no idea what it's like out here in the villages. You could've gotten killed in the jungle and nobody would've known. You were so foolish," and on in that vein for a while. Kuldeep felt bad and took the old man's admonition to heart.
We continued on the path under the noon day sun. Kuldeep told me there was a cave nearby that had been inhabited by the Pandavas, the five brothers from the Mahabharata. We eventually arrived at the village where the road began. We were told by a shopkeeper that a bus would arrive that afternoon. We went into small shrine and rested.
The bus arrived. As we got on we learned that Karjat was about 60 km away. The one Bhimashankar resident who told us what we didn't want to hear, that there was no way we could walk there in one day, was the one who was right. A couple hours later we were in Karjat. Wada pav never tasted as good as it did that day.
I had just moved back to Chicago after a year abroad. On the morning of 9/11 I walked to my old bank to reopen my account. I didn't watch TV or talk to anyone that morning, so I didn't know about the attacks until I was waiting in line at the bank. On my way home I was accosted by three Puerto Rican guys hanging out in front of a mom-and-pop corner store. They asked me if I was a Palestinian spy, if I had anything to do with the attacks, and other insane questions. I didn't tell them my ethnicity (Puerto Rican and Irish); I just stared at them dumbfounded, hardly believing what I was hearing. Then I thought about my appearance. I had short hair and a thick beard and I was wearing some vaguely foreign-looking clothes: a colorful vest from Costa Rica and a little red had with dragons on top from China. They didn't like the beard and the hat and commented to each other about it in Spanish, thinking a Palestinian spy like me wouldn't understand. I immediately took off the hat, they laughed, and I went home. Turned on the TV and saw that all Arab neighborhoods in the city were shut down by the police. No one was allowed in these areas without ID to prove that they lived there because vigilante attacks against Arabs had started almost immediately. I hardly left the house for a couple weeks.
I decided to keep wearing the beard and the Chinese hat even if it made me a target for rude comments and death threats. If the US of A is the great land of liberty that American nationalists say it is, then I was going to exercise the freedom to be myself rather than be cowed by pseudo-patriots. However, I didn't feel like sticking around Chicago anymore. I spent the next few months traveling around the eastern US.
I was in Boston for a week in mid-October. When I boarded the Amtrak train in Erie, the conductor saw that I was holding a newspaper with a headline announcing the commencement of the invasion of Afghanistan. He said, "Did we start nuking those bastards yet?" When I got to Boston and Cambridge, I saw that some stores had signs in their windows that showed an American flag next to a green flag with a star and crescent moon. They expressed solidarity with Muslims who suddenly found themselves living in a hostile environment and said that in these shops, at least, they "need not fear guilt by association." There were peace demonstrations on the streets. Local police took photographs of the demonstrators and said that they had been told to do so by the FBI. There was a cafe under construction on Mass. Ave. near MIT. The owners put up temporary wooden construction zone walls around the cafe. People from the neighborhood painted the walls with images and messages of peace. It was a beautiful and spontaneous communal effort.
I was in a bar in Central Square on October 11. George Bush was giving a press conference. His answer to every question, no matter what it was, was some variation on the phrase "We will bring Bin Laden to justice." He used the word "justice" easily over 100 times. Not surprisingly, the headline of the Boston Globe the following day read something to the effect of, "Bush Vows Justice for Bin Laden."
I went back to Chicago briefly over Halloween. I saw a young guy on the street at Logan Square who was dressed up as the anthrax envelope that was mailed to Senator Tom Daschle. It was actually very well done. He had the handwriting, the stamp, postmark... it looked just like the real envelope, except that this version was four feet wide. He was holding white powder in his hand and asking passersby, "Ya want some anthrax?" He was really pushing the envelope.
I went to New York two months after the attacks. I stayed with a couple of friends in Brooklyn, one of whom worked on the 51st floor of Tower 2 (the south tower) and the other in a building across the street that was severely damaged by falling debris and eventually demolished. They both started work late in the morning and so saw the events unfold from the roof of their apartment rather than up close. Since the trains didn't run for the rest of the day, a lot of people had to walk home. A river of people walked past my friends' place on their way to various points on Long Island. Residents stood outside their homes and gave out snacks and drinks to the foot commuters. My friend who worked on the 51st floor was pretty shaken up. He was having nightmares and would jump at sudden noises. He declared that he'd never work in another skyscraper again.
I went into Lower Manhattan. They were still cleaning dust off the streets and buildings in the neighborhood. The wreckage was still smoking and I could see the pile of debris over the top of the fence they put around the World Trade Center site. There was a steady flow of pilgrims coming and going to see Ground Zero. I distinctly remember a small contingent of sad clowns. Some local stormed through the crowd with a mean, angry face grumbling about the "fuckin' tourists." A couple blocks away was a sticker on the side of a pay phone that read "We have the right to go after the ARAB MUSLIMS (emphasis was capitalized, boldfaced, and italicized) who murdered thousands of our countrymen." I took a photo of the sticker before peeling it off and throwing it in the garbage.
Along a fence in Battery Park was a memorial people put up to their individual loved ones. People left flowers, teddy bears, cards, pictures, letters to the dearly departed. Throughout the city were posters with pictures, descriptions, and WTC places of work of the missing. One described a four-year-old girl who put her dead father's cologne on his shirts and slept in them every night. It was heart-wrenching.
In my home town of Danville, PA I got a lot of Taliban/terrorist/Muslim comments. Some of them were just jokes, though I didn't take them that way, and some were truly threatening. On Thanksgiving I walked into a bar (Knight Trax, for those who know Danville) wearing the little red hat and some meathead had a big problem with it. I tried to explain that it was a Chinese hat and pointed out the dragons so beautifully stitched on top. He kept saying, "I don't care! It looks like a Muslim hat!"
I went to a costume party in the neighboring college town of Bloomsburg wearing an Indian turban. It was cold out and nothing warms the head like nine yards of cloth. A drunken frat boy put his arm half around my shoulder and half around my neck and yelled, "Bin Laden! I found 'im! How do you fell about all those people you killed, huh?" Then he ripped the turban off my head, saying, "You can't wear a turban in America!" I didn't feel like partying anymore and left. As I was walking out to my car, he screamed after me, "Yeah, take it personally. USA! USA! USA!"
I was at the Sheetz gas station in Elysburg. I saw some guy in a t-shirt that had an outline of Afghanistan. There was a bullseye emanating from the middle of the country and a caption that read, "WARNING: NUCLEAR TESTING ZONE."
I went to New Orleans for the winter. Some guy ran up to me on Canal Street after a Mardi Gras parade, put his hand to my head as if it was a gun, and said, "Bin Laden! I kin get a million dollers fer you! Pow!" Then he walked away laughing.
I was walking past a couple of teenage kids leaning against a wall in the Central Business District when I heard one of them say, "He look like he from Islam. Let's smoke his ass."
I started writing a song called "I Am Not Bin Laden." I was sitting on a bus when I overheard some guys glancing at me at making Bin Laden jokes. I happened to be working on the lyrics at that moment and showed my notebook to one sitting closest to me. He sounded out in a sub-literate monotone, "I... am... not... Bin... Laden." He had a good laugh at that one.
I decided I'd had enough of America for a while and went to Europe. My first week there I was walking through Brussels at sunset when a man in a sleek black car pulled up next to me, rolled down the window, yelled "Terroriste!" and drove off.
A man told his wife that he wanted to marry her daughter from a previous marriage. She was so upset that she killed him and chopped his body into lots of little pieces. Then she threw all the pieces one by one out the window of a car on the road from Zerhoun to Meknès.
Two brothers ran a kefta stand on the street (kefta is ground meat on a stick cooked over charcoal). Day after day the smoke wafted up into a lawyer's house/office. The lawyer repeatedly filed complaints with the authorities, including allegations that the men used donkey meat in their kefta. In order to prevent the possibility of their business being shut down, the brothers killed the lawyer and his wife and put their bodies through a meat grinder. They probably would have gotten away with murder if they hadn't talked about it to their friends. One of the brothers was arrested and the other one fled. Rumor has it he's hiding out in Spain.
Stumbling like a hungover wino he lurched toward the light. As the landscape became increasingly illuminated he saw that he was on a flat rocky plain with sharp, dead mountains in the distance. The only living things in his environment were scraggly, thorny weeds growing out from between stones.
The east became ever brighter. He felt like he needed to get to wherever that light was coming from. His energy started to build as the glow got brighter. He moved from a foot-dragging shuffle to an uneven trot. Within minutes he was running as fast as he could. As the sky turned from black to blue and the east became orange-red, he had the sense that reaching that mysterious light was the most important thing he would ever do. His bare feet were bloody from the rocks but he didn't notice. He was not a man with a body that could feel pain; he was a soul flying toward its destiny, his body merely a vehicle.
Suddenly, the most unexpected thing happened. From the center of the eastern glow came a piercing yellow light that was so bright it burned his eyes. He covered his face and screamed like a wounded animal. He momentarily fumbled around in circles, trying to look at the light between his fingers and finding to his surprise that it hurt more and more each time he tried to gaze at it. This setback lasted only a few seconds, for he accepted this new development unquestioningly and continued his mad dash.
Soon the big yellow light became an orb that lifted off the ground. As it continued to rise he became less sure that he was running in the right direction. After a while he could see that to reach the sphere he needed to go up, not east. He saw the distant peaks and knew what he had to do.
For the rest of the morning he ran at top speed towards and then up the steep, lifeless mountains. He jumped improbably over giant crags like a billy goat and plowed his way up through the scree. Shortly before high noon, he reached the summit. As the yellow ball moved overhead he jumped up like a child trying to get at a cookie jar placed just out of reach.
The moment passed and he failed. He was sure he'd almost gotten it, though. As the hot yellow disc started to descend, he was able to see that it would touch land again in the west. He ran down the mountain as fast as his legs would take him. Several times he fell down great heights, twisting limbs and breaking ribs. He took no notice of his injuries and kept rolling down the mountain like one of the many rocks he displaced, determined to reach the horizon before the light did.
Returning at last to the plain, he made a marathon sprint to the west. In time the light got there ahead of him. He howled in despair. As the orb dipped and fell out of sight, he became completely disoriented and bereft of energy, stumbled around aimlessly, and eventually collapsed into a stony ditch, where he twitched nervously in a restless sleep.
He was in a hurry as he crossed the busy four-lane road. As he passed the median, coming from his right were two cars and a bicycle abreast of each other. He carelessly stepped out in front of the bicycle, causing the rider to swerve in front of one of the cars. The car hit the bicyclist and sent him hurtling through the air into the windshield of a car coming from the other direction. That car lost control and veered off to the right, plowing into some pedestrians and another car coming out from a side street. These two wrecked cars suddenly blocked traffic. A speeding tractor trailer carrying a tank full of gasoline had no time to stop and rammed into the two cars, causing it to slide forward on its side across the median and into an oncoming bus full of people. The truck and bus went up in a gigantic fireball, sending flames two hundred feet into the air and blowing out the fronts of four apartment buildings.
The man stood dumbfounded for a moment and surveyed the carnage. People were wailing as their loved ones were so suddenly and violently ripped out of their lives. Others were running around on fire, screaming amidst the mangled corpses and maimed survivors. The whole scene unfolded in less than five seconds. The man looked around for another four or five seconds, looked at his watch, and then continued hurrying on to his appointment.
I stepped inside the shop. The floor was glass. Under the glass were tarantulas, scorpions, and other dangerous creepy crawlies. At waist level in the front room were several glass cases filled with poisonous snakes. In the back was a wolf in a cage. To the left of the wolf was a lioness on a chain. There was no barrier between the lion and the customers. She paced back and forth, angrily or hungrily or both, eyeing all the humans that passed by. She had a price tag for 100,000 yen, which was about 9,000 dollars at the time.
Upstairs it was a completely different vibe. There were dozens of exotic housecats lounging about. Some of them were the biggest housecats I'd ever seen. There were Persians and Egyptians and Siamese. Several cushy armchairs and sofas were placed about the room to encourage lingering and petting. The lights were low and the music was soft. It was quite a contrast to the deadly menagerie downstairs.
Leaving the shop a little while later, I saw that the same drunken salaryman was still outside tormenting those poor vampire bats.