Dedication for this work goes to Frumentarious
It was 0-dark early in Fez at the canal where I squatted to rinse a couple things out; it was delicates day. The water in this crack (no, I didn’t misspell creek) in the road didn’t look or smell that great, but I had seen a couple of homegirls washing in it the night before. So, mainly it was my towel that really needed a scrub. It had been thrashed by showers in dirty water, perspiration and blood. It was just time to wash that towel as it was beginning to finish my sentences.
I have to say I did cut a fine figure of a man by that time: Jilaba that was a bit high-water for me, sleeves I had just ripped off out of frustration from being too hot, sandals, dirty white dome hat capping my crown, beard, sunglasses, camel poo cigarette bouncing up and down in my beard when I talked—and he’s single too, ladies!
While I do admit that this was one of the most fascinating countries I had ever been to, I will say out of the other side of my mouth that it is likely the most wretched as well. I mean, I had seen the poorest, the second poorest, and the third poorest people of my life here in this place.
One was a man fast asleep in a wheelbarrow in the mid of day. He had fashioned an awning of sorts above him to block the sun, the bustle of the souk all around him as he snoozed. The poorest was a man with no legs. He transported himself in a low-rider wooden wagon using a pair of 20-lb weights in the shape of a clothes iron, just like in the movies.
He looked up at my outstretched hand with a single Dirham bill in it and scowled at it and at me, adjusting his path around me and my Goddamned single Dirham bill. Well, that there was something all the Dirham in Casa Blanca couldn’t buy, pride. Giving myself a once-over assessment, I decided rightly that pride certainly wasn’t the big thing in my boat at that moment.
I moved on.
I gave the last of my cashola for the bus ticket that would get me to Casa Blanca on this my sixth day into the greatest adventure on Earth. I didn’t even have enough to get a room for the night, let alone eat. It was time to pull a loan from my Security First Trust and Mutual Reserve shoes where they lay on my feet.
I reckoned the bus would be as good a place as any to pull the stitches out of the tongue, depending on how crowded it was aboard. But jam-packed crowded was the bus so I would have to wait. As I waited in strained silence I came to the realization that I smelled. But I showered just the night before. Oh yeah, maybe that’s the reason I smelled.
At some point in transit, the bus stopped to allow folks to get off and break from the drudgery of the ride. I skipped the steps at the bus exit and jumped all the way to the dirt road below. I pinched a camel poo cigarette from the pack with my lips and snapped a match alight with my thumbnail as I paused in the doorway, blocking the other passengers’ exit: “Fuck them, they can wait.”
Were it not for my unfathomably absurd appearance you might could say this was one of the coolest moments of my life. The only way it could be cooler was if I were Clint Eastwood, in Italy, in a long coat, squinting toward the sun and the cigarette in my mouth wasn’t made of camel shit. I fought the urge to throw up my arms and holler: “Haskel, bring me my scarlet tunic!”
That moment flew by rather quickly as I jonesed after the mint tea everybody but me had. “This is just … Stupid!” I lamented, “I don’t even have the stinking money right now for a stinking cup of stinking mint stinking tea!” I had hit my boiling point, and the camel poop cigarette was giving me heartburn. I stole away behind a waist-high wall and picked at the stitches in the tongue of my shoe with my hog sticker.
Soon I had extracted a bill of 200 Dirham. The mint tea didn’t even cost a whole Dirham—I was filthy rich! “Now get hold of yourself, Ice-G; don’t let all this wealth go to your head!” I threaded my way through the tea crowd and slapped my 200 Dirham down on the vender’s table as hard as I could. It made no sound. I gestured to the immediate row of men at the table that they should be given a cup of tea as well—on me!
Gestures were required because the poor folks of the country didn’t speak French being they were too poor to go to school where French was taught. Like I knew better than to try to speak French with a soldier because soldiers are very poor. Officers, however, were schooled therefore spoke French. The extent of my Arabic consisted of many memorized set phrases, so unless I purposely maneuvered myself into specific situations to impress people with Arabic, it was all but worthless.
“Come to my house on Sunday for a game of chess!” I blurted out to perfect strangers just to entertain myself. “Do you have spare parts for this American car?” was one that always got guffaws.
The boys and I stood around swilling our mint tea and huffing camel dropping cigarettes. We were kings, if only just for seven minutes! I was breaking one of my own cardinal rules: don’t make friends in your own backyard, because then you are stuck with them when/where you don’t want them. Yeah, now all these guys will want to be my friends and I’m stuck on a bus with them but don’t want to be their friend. That had been a simple no-shitter, and I screwed it up!
What’s more, I had flaunted 200 Dirham in front of them. Not good. I could get robbed, and there’s not enough room on the bus to perform katas to demonstrate my lethality. Frankly, nothing about my comical appearance hinted in the least of any lethality at all. I would have to scream loudly and piss myself if I were to thwart off a dire pinch.
The rest of the ride was jus’ a’ight. I taught my new band of buddies how to play Rock-Paper-Scissors, and they loved it; just couldn’t get enough of it, even after three freakin’ hours they couldn’t. That is definitely the most Rock-Paper-Scissors I’ve played since I was about five years old. “Don’t make friends in your backyard, Ice-G!” How many times did I have to tell myself? A saving grace was that there was a Veterinarian on the bus—at last, someone to speak French with.
“Mon Dieu, mais de quel part de la France vous venez?” Yeah, I knew that was coming: “My God, what part of France are you from?” Yeah, I know, my hideous Creole accent from the south of Louisiana. That is typically followed by, words to the effect, “Ah yes, I have heard of you people.” Reduced to “you people” I was.
The sun had long since passed below the horizon but ignited the moon to remind us that it would be back come morning. I hustled from the bus stop at a brisk pace to discourage any would-be followers. I stepped into a five-Dirham-a-night motel and got a room. I immediately left that motel and booked a room in a second motel that was far nicer than any I had yet seen in this country. Ah, the splendor of Casa Blanca: there were towels in the room that didn’t talk back to me, and, from the lobby, murmurs of a rumored continental breakfast at daybreak.
Casa Blanca, just like in the movies. “Play it again, Sam!” I joked to nobody who was there. Perhaps tonight I’ll find a nice “gin joint” and wait for Humphry Bogart. Yeah well, that wasn’t going to happen. On missions like these, I made it a point to stay away from the three deadly Bs: booze, broads, and bucks. Those were the three things that everyone I knew who got das boot from the Unit, got das boot for.
Instead, I would hang out in my magnificent room and pine the eve away thinking about that Kurdish woman who invited me out on the town in Marrakesh. Had I really turned her down? Goddamned right I did. That was an ass whipping that never happened but wanted to in the worst way. I kicked back in the chair in my room, that’s right I said “chair in my room” and imagined the first room I faux-checked into getting firebombed by the toads who I tricked into thinking I was staying there. Money doesn’t always have to make you lose your mind. I fancied myself a man somewhat slick of nature for having done that.
Whether or not I actually was … Well, I probably wasn’t, but on this night I did fancy myself as such.
By God and with honor,