Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Toli Theme

My Things Fall Apart series has taken on a life of its own
Sprawling, the variations continue to surprise me, plays and even poems
This is as it should be, and I am determined to carry on the journey
To map out the tributaries no matter where they lead me

Sometimes, though, they plunge me towards dark matters
And I share personal tales of these close encounters
While I often highlight whimsy, and aim to keep things cheerful
I cannot deny those determined to make the road fearful

Strange bedfellows - observe the gremlins and parasites
Caution, take heed of their insatiable appetites
There are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving badly
The tale of the lost stories describes the human bestiary

The hope is that the bite-sized victories can overcome despair
To stay the course against these reversals is my duty of care
Good trouble, I hold fast to the strength of my conviction
That modern travelers can achieve a quiet revolution

But it was always my intent to to weave the strands and bring them home
And talk about how things come together, for no one stands alone
To cite the lyric I often quote: social living is the best
So goes the antidote: Things Fall Apart beats Heart of Darkness

Determined as I am to have a seat at the table,
I continue to write my folktales and fables
For want of a bolt, contra this season of isolation
It behooves me to enjoin in the global conversation

I turn these thoughts over with no fear of repetition
The code of the streets does confer some protection
I'm comforted there will be better days ahead if I resist nostalgia
Finding the joy in small things as I narrate these lost chapters

Even so, this scribe keeps adding to the catalog of unanswered questions
In the torrid zone, we learn humanity's curriculum of painful lessons
While I'm starting to see the outline of my soul's accommodation
For now, I can only acknowledge that my theme is dislocation

empty shell

Discerning a Theme, a playlist


The Theme punctuated the performances of Miles Davis's first great quintet, they would return to the riff time and again to relieve the tension in their playing. They never played it the same way, a testament to their inventiveness.
I nominate this note for The Things Fall Apart Series where things come together.

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Writing log: March 11, 2021

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Pandemic Garden

For want of a bolt, I now have a pandemic garden
It was quite a surprise but it survived the Texas Freeze
When ninety percent of the palm trees in Austin
Died after a week of sub-zero degrees

I must say, it's been causing quite the commotion
Dogs and their walkers appreciate the distraction
From the stultifying sameness of the urban jungle
I wonder if I could even grow a pineapple

The thing is I really don't know what I'm doing
Gee only trained me as an unpaid laborer in her garden
An able body and willing mind to be put to work digging and weeding
There was never any hope of green thumbs, call it low (or realistic) expectations

But something must have rubbed off it seems
Perhaps it was tacit knowledge or beginner's luck
For when I happened to throw down some seeds,
Things started to grow and, with water, they stuck

So now there's a profusion of flowers in the front yard
Monarch butterflies and bees flit around unconcernedly
Every day a new variant blooms, flourishing like a wild card
One never knows what today's delight will be, for nature works mysteriously

The only constant appears to be change - and delight, that is
I'm not quite reconciled to have become a naturalist
It's been quite the covidious dividend, much less than 100 dollars I've spent
The rest is my time and labor. Luck be the lady, I love this pandemic garden

pandemic garden starting to bloom 013

20210502_103049

pandemic garden starting to bloom 018

pandemic garden starting to bloom 7

See also: Pandemic Garden (The Second Wave)

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: May 6, 2021

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

What Paradise Have We Lost? (Real Talk Edition)

Think about it, would we have Dickens without child labour?
What a world when the youth of Bangladesh, or say, Ghana
Are no longer doing graveyard shifts in the textile factory
Or planting yams and pineapples in the hills of Aburi
Call me a contrarian Scrooge or a prematurely old codger
Our modern day Oliver Twists, Little Annies and Artful Dodgers
Coddled as they are with this modernity, no longer have the hard knock life
My own childhood, despite my parents' challenges, was blissfully free from strife
Kids these days have school, not farms and, get this, activities for enrichment
Moreover they now constantly demand fondleslabs of mobile entertainment
What about the old toys: stick, ball, string, dirt and box?
Is it nostalgia to ask, what paradise have we lost?

...

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Food banks can hardly be the response
To this covidious misery
Starving children don't cry
Tears waste too many calories
No, the kids are not alright
Parking lot wifi out of sight
True, man cannot live on bread alone
But surely you can find some crumbs to loan

danso wood structures boggy creek greenbelt 2

Children, a Playlist


A soundtrack for his note
See previously: What Paradise Have We Lost? and The Dishwasher Situation

This rumination on kids these days is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 15, 2021

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Dislocation

If irony is the key register of African life
The uneasy remedy is the splinter of ice
We are modern travelers who wear masks of civility
Still, we are forever accused of disturbing tranquility

Internal displacement gives rise to a fraught sense of normalcy
Heads down and at a remove, we write a new script for this modernity
Above all, we share the great longing for truth and reconciliation
The underlying condition of the exiled soul is dislocation

Aburi mask - strange days

Dislocation, a Playlist


A soundtrack for this internal displacement. I nominate this piece for The Things Fall Apart Series.

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Writing log: March 16, 2021

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Writing's on the Wall

The writing's on the wall, it's not likely to get any better
No one is coming, this is the heart of the matter
You saw the warning signs long ago, face up to the reality
Wishful thinking does not lead to any kind of certainty
Ignoring home truths might well be a pleasant distraction
But you're apt to find yourself thoroughly unprepared for decisive action
And consequently suffer intolerable losses, more than can be borne
The fault is entirely yours, and wounds cut deeper when they are self inflicted
You dithered and suffered the cost, as measured in excess mortality,
A debased reputation, legacy, and a questionable economy
Human life should be precious and not just yours
The golden rule applies to the lives of others
Your track record is an award-winning advertisement for buyer's remorse
You'll have to deal with things now, there's no delaying the decision
Be pragmatic, a wise man once told me, heed the words of the proverb:
When the snake is in the house, one need not discuss the matter at length
The writing's on the wall, it's not going to get any better
No one is coming, this is your prisoner's dilemma


nigeria stamps tb patient being x-rayed 75th anniversary of scouting baden powell 45k



The writing's on the wall, it's not likely to get any better
The meat that you stocked in the freezer
Came quite unstuck, became twice a victim
'Twas the Texas Freeze's collateral damage
Promptly thawed, and then refrozen - power outage
Was it manslaughter, that bit about poor planning?
Or the rapacious pursuit of black gold?
Witness: the bill of goods that you were sold
Out of the living wages of a failed state
Was paid out in the currency of cash grabs
Denominated in a bunch of mistakes
It's up to you now, entirely in your hands
Whether to throw it away and thereby cut your losses
Or weigh the risk to your stomach of eating dodgy pork
The writing's on the wall, it's not likely to taste any better
What paradise have we lost? And some say meat is murder


nigeria stamp 75th anniversary of scouting baden powell 1982 45k



The writing's on the wall, it's not likely to get any better
Be prepared was the motto of the Boy Scouts
First we heard some of the unguarded notions
Of Baron Baden-Powell, founding father
And the sexual, and other depredations
Of bad seeds, generations of troop leaders
Now in this overdue spring of reckoning
Legal liabilities, a barrage of bitter pills
The threats are of renaming streets and tearing down statues.
Original sin tends to end with this kind of scandal
I guess the cool kids these days might call it being canceled
Everything is written in sand, there are no certainties
Whatever you think of the man, or the organization's legacy,
Scout's honor, they're now beset with rather perilous public relations
While the rest of us are now left to ponder truth and reconciliation
About the only saving grace in this mountain of when,
Tarnished reputations make the best collector's items
If Rhodes must fall and they pull down the statues
All my prized stamps will only increase in value
The writing's on the wall, it's not likely to trend any better
The news forecast: a dire prognosis for the Boy Scouts
Be prepared, after-school enrollment rates face quite the market rout


stamp dubai 11th jamboree athens 1963

The Writing's on the Wall, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note.


baden-powell must fall

...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

This fit of buyer's remorse is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 14, 2021

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Never Never Man

Never Never Man, portrait of the naysayer
Altogether satisfied with his station, atop his perch, call it his fiefdom
He laid out the usual corruption, "How about a donation, young man?"
Frustrated, for all that was required was a signature or a stamp
How hard was it for him to do his job? It was hard to understand
Blaming bureaucracy was beside the point, the obstacle was clearly this man
Stalling, and then declaiming action, "It's out of my hands"

Never Never Man, you know, you're really a trial
When it comes to getting things done, your only response is denial
Nevermind that some of us have wider ambitions
Now we've run headlong into your mounting obstruction
Gnomic. "It can't be done", and other pronouncements with no explanation
And, when confronted, a torrent of lies, misdirection, and evasion
A bright remark, a non-sequitur, and you simply change the subject
Then you act like you don't understand things, "with all due respect"

Never Never Man, what kind of life is this?
For weeks now, I’ve been trekking early to the head office
Camping out, waiting for the appointment I’ve been promised
The labyrinth of corridors and offices that I roam
It feels as if the waiting room is now my second home
Trapped as I am, internally displaced in the torrid zone
I've learned that home truth: no one is coming, you're on your own

Never Never Man, being around you has turned into a kind of quagmire
The roadblock was this man, with his easy, expectant smile, and baleful laughter
Who had no conscience, no compunction, treating me as if my name was Kafka
I'd never given bribes before, this would be new territory
But then I'd never encountered such a brazen adversary
Finally, I gave up on my scruples because I really had to go
The moral of the story: it takes two to do the corruption tango

Never Never Man we can't pin you down, you're inscrutable
Nay, your fortress of ineptitude is impenetrable
The original Doctor No, a real life Bond villain
Messing things up for my wife and children
Try as I can (and I've tried) to make my point understood
Never Never Man, simply put, you're no good

Containers: side-by-side

This folktale is dedicated to my mother's favorite insult and, sadly, our perennial foil, Never Never Man, the patron saint of the stall and runaround.

Never Never Man, a playlist


A soundtrack to relieve my frustration.

Postcript


When I shared this note with The Wife, she read into it another Never Never Man that was the bane of our existence some years ago. I had completely excised his face, his name, and indeed the eighteen month ordeal we suffered at his expense, from my memory, which is how I deal with post-traumatic stress, I suppose. The Wife couldn't see any humour in things, she still bears him a grudge for what he put us through. I pray you have the good fortune to run away at the first chance when you encounter your own Never Never Man. As I can attest, it's much safer in the long run.

...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 16, 2021

Friday, August 20, 2021

Scramble for Africa

Remembering the collective whiff of apprehension in the Harvard administration back in 1994 at the mere prospect of Winnie Mandela speaking at our African students conference. She tended to concentrate the mind.

Preparing for the 21st Century

Approaches were made, alternatives were immediately suggested, right thinking Harvard got into gear. I was sounded out by someone in the US State Department about our invitation. Unlike her husband, there was no good reason to deny her a visa but it was certainly being considered.

Recall that the ANC, per Ronald Reagan and George Bush, was officially designated a terrorist organization. Winnie's husband would need waivers, even post Nobel Prize, to visit the US and address the UN.

Hysteria to the left of us, amnesia to the right. (De Klerk would be feted years later at the Kennedy school). In any case, the pressure was on. The College Republicans had a new target. This was the first time I heard of Jack Abramoff.

Soundtrack: The Pressure by Sounds of Blackness

Some of us had a very different reading of Ronald Reagan's Forward for Freedom speech. It is an article of faith for me. It was written in Angola

In the event, Winnie had bigger fish to fry (the mother of all elections for one) and we went with less controversial speakers.

I wanted truth and reconciliation, and an end to apartheid and all I got out of it was a lousy t-shirt.

South Africa 1994, The mother of all elections

Still, I remember some administrator wondering aloud why we needed to bring all these "mid-level" African professionals (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Djibril Diallo etc.) to the conference [to speak to African students] when an expert like Samuel Huntington was available (and local)

There was a silver lining, I applied for my first credit card in order to finance the conference, and got some whimsical toli out of it

Call it A Debt Foretold

My enduring theme is cultural memory, the legacies of men and woman, what we choose to remember and, crucially, what we choose to forget. I hew to the skeptic's credo and am determined to bear witness.

How else could they laugh
Like they do when they should weep;
Remembering the voiceless days of the past.

Kwesi Brew, African Panorama
The antidote to the scramble for Africa is Truth and Reconciliation:

Recall that well before Winnie's husband had assumed the mantle,
Long before the ink was dry on South Africa's new constitution
Their spokesmen were already calling apartheid ancient history
And, well, de Klerk would later join Kissinger in the rogues' gallery
Call it, of cold blooded murderers that have won the Nobel Peace Prize
The three musketeers of fate: irony, infamy and goddamn lies

A Temporary Inconvenience, a playlist


Let's have a minor soundtrack to celebrate my time as a temporary inconvenience to Harvard. Some South African music, sadly many of these great musicians are no longer with us. ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log: March 20, 2021

Monday, August 16, 2021

Domedo

You have to wait a while for domedo. Those who think of it as just street food know only the adulterated sort, the one that bypasses the wait. Part of the appeal of good domedo is that you have to wait a while. Even when you get a tip about a good supplier, you kind of resign yourself to a kind of food serfdom, the tsar being the domedo guy.

Case in point, I remember one Christmas back home in Ghana, I happened to mention that I hadn't had domedo in a year - a kind of idle hint that I thought might hasten things to the benefit of this exiled soul. The parental unit were enjoying having a full house and fully indulging their brood. But no, I had quite forgotten that this wasn't a routine thing. Domedo is very far from routine, you see. As it was, Mum promptly called her domedo guy and placed the order. It didn't matter that she had built up a relationship with the man over the past 16 years, that she had brought him repeat business, and had referred him many faithful customers over the years, we simply had to wait. There was no indication about when the domedo would come, no estimated timeframe etc. The order was merely acknowledged; further there was no negotiation on price, he knew that whatever he demanded would be promptly paid, no matter how usurious. If we had the good grace to get some domedo on my birthday or even before our return to Austin that would be a fringe benefit, I knew my place.

domedo

And when it did come, the fight began. These two children of ours who had been turning their nose up at the fare in the house all of a sudden were fighting with their grandfather and I - I started reconsidering this whole business about putting food on the table for the family. Said grandfather who had began waxing eloquent about the special occasions growing up when domedo was served, noticed the alarming speed with which those two were digging in and reverted to that jungle imperative - every man for himself. The golden rule was was suspended, the other cheek was stuffed not turned. There was no more small talk, we were simians who'd happened onto the prodigal son's feast - to mix my parables. We dug in and ate it all. It was worth the wait.

To say that domedo is spicy pork doesn't capture anything about its essence. It has to be experienced.

I do know this. When this pandemic is over and vaccines and all have been procured. The very first thing I will do when I land on Ghanaian soil is put in an order for domedo. I'm not sure when it will come, but it will be worth the wait.

food spread 2

For the completists or curious: domedo is pronounced something like dough-may-dough.

Note: I have no dietary restrictions albeit my palate was fixed by the time I left Ghana as a child. I am otherwise indifferent to pork - goat and guinea fowl are my favorite meats, but I always stand to attention at the prospect of some good domedo.

Pork, a playlist


A soundtrack to this tasty dish File under: , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: March 21, 2016; Playlist March 16, 2021

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

What Paradise Have We Lost?

The boy picked up a dandelion
Carefree as was his wont
But when it came to blowing it out
He was stymied by the face mask
No matter how hard that he huffed and he puffed
The fabric mesh that covered his mouth held fast

The mask against aerosols and other viral vectors
Did its duty of protection against childhood leisure
Thus whimsy was victimized by material culture
Revealing the extent of the plague's infrastructure
We were getting a truer measure of the pandemic's cost
Even as we asked, what paradise have we lost?

...

We passed our neighbor on our daily walk
But where we would usually stop and talk
We contented ourselves with a head nod and gave her a wide berth
Such are the rituals that are disappearing from this earth
Now alienation becomes common courtesy and a duty of care
The temporarary inconvenience of distancing as social welfare

That the breath of life carries tainted droplets is another irony
Anecdotal testimony abounds of the myriad covidious casualties
Biology imposes penalties and we weigh its shadow's burden
Deprived of touch and community, so many are truly hurting
This new normalcy, fraught and enforced, only exhausts
We are left pondering, what paradise have we lost?

end of the trail

Paradise Lost, a playlist


An upbeat soundtrack for this note, a tour of a world forlorn.

This internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 13, 2021

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

The Bad Seed

Suborn was his favourite verb
He'd read it in the dictionary and it stuck
Indeed it was his very favorite activity
The thrill of meeting a girl down on her luck -
Freshfaced was best - and prey on her insecurity
He lived for the moment when, under pressure, she would turn
Inside he celebrated, it was all too easy
The school of hard knocks, those lessons learned
The fruits of smooth talking with the steel of coercion
A girl newly suborned was worth the price of admission

He would never betray himself, he kept a cool countenance
His style always approached, but was just this side of flashy
You had to know how to maintain the serene balance
For this was no mere vocation, to resist the lure of easy money
The family business was of no interest for him, no, not at all
No stodgy funeral home for him, no assisted living, why think small?
Why bother? Not when other players were parading around crack dollars

Drugs were too easy, the real challenge was breaking a spirit
That other word, misogyny, was for squares and without merit
Early forties, he'd seen it all, had hardened his mind to it.
A late bloomer perhaps and much to do, even if squalid

Not for him pimp arrest and all that jargon and slickness
That the cats who read too much Iceberg Slim would throw at you.
He bet most of them hadn't even read the books
Nah, start with Donald Goines man, Whoreson Jones
Bringing a prospect into the game was the endpoint
It was hard work, nothing like that show, Hookers at the Point

In the barbershop, he was holding court,
Just about turned it into a serpent's lair
I'd recognized him from the open house
As I sat two seats down in my chair

My barber had slowed to a crawl in crafting my low fade
It turns out that we were all transfixed listening to this man's escapades

I wondered if he remembered me and would treat me as a spoiler
Who'd seen him at a relative low point liquidating his real estate
If he did, he didn't skip a beat, and continued narrating his pot boiler
Again he would repeat: "It's all in the game, it's about how you communicate"
Deliberate, this man, there was a detachment to his diction
There wasn't a torrent of words as he spun his fictions
He made sure as he rapped to enun-ci-ate ev-e-ry syl-la-ble
I couldn't figure out what manner of cut he was getting, this smooth criminal

She'd been sitting in the corner reading back issues of Vibe
I hadn't paid attention but now realized that, to every man, she lowered her eyes.

He coughed, looked over at her and nodded.

She stood up, dropped her drape and started walking.

The legs: vertiginous
The hips: tremendous
The outfit: ridiculous

She walked.
That was all.

The subtext: lascivious
His intent: pernicious

She walked.
I was appalled.

He just wanted to show off his possession
To make a point with this barbershop exhibition

He nodded again.

She slowed and just paraded back and forth
Those few steps between the full length mirror and the front door

An unholy, impromptu airing of the possibilities of the flesh
Such was the shock, there was a collective intake of breath

Meanwhile he ignored the display, he was of a different bent
The promise of sex meant nothing to him, he continued to wax eloquent
About the new girl, the one out of Walnut Creek high school
Who just got her diploma, "I'mma teach her the rules"

She walked.
It could have been a tightrope or a catwalk

"18 and over, and she couldn't wait to come be an earner"

It was uncomfortable, those five minutes of sin
The walk and its soundtrack: the sound of this man droning

Hardly normal, this marshalling of the naked appeal to lust
How would I explain this scene? It amounted to a betrayal of trust

I suppose from the outside you might say
That she was just taking a stroll and stretching
But if you were in the room you knew full well
This was nothing less than slut shaming

I looked around, everyone was silent and amazed
Needless to say, there's a real violence to the male gaze

"Real prospects, man you should see her", he smiled
Then, on second thought, he pointed, "But nothing like..."

She kept on walking.

"Bottom."

She kept walking.

"Right there, my bottom."

She walked.
Turned as she reached the mirror.

Under the cape in the barber's chair
I couldn't help but continue to stare
Still, I couldn't stand this strange ritual
Unnerving, the plain reduction of an individual
Servitude of sorts, call it by its name, exploitation
There was no denying the upshot of this transgression

Yet she wore this woman's work with a mask of normalcy
Floating above it all, she only aimed to please
The blankness in her eyes only strengthened my unease

She walked.

Preening as he was, like an obsequious merchant
Displaying his fleshy wares in the barbershop bazaar
This was premium quality content, the matter at hand
Except that the goods presented weren't rugs or steak knives
The sale of a human soul, a dubious transaction to all eyes
Ashamed, in those few minutes, at the undoubted humiliation
Troubled, to see not resignation but the vacancy of her stare
It appeared to just be work, a thorough subjugation

She walked.

I guess we were the marks, the square johns
Who would never understand the sex worker's situation
Not that the phrase ever crossed his lips
It was rather a panoply of pimps and hoes
A grim masquerade, this march at the carnival
I couldn't bear the tension of that sordid interval

The minutes passed. She kept on walking
While this gremlin kept on talking
Spinning his web of aggrandizing spite
His heart was a full quiver of ice
Arrows of deceit, cunning and sleaze
Our collective souls abased to our hands and knees

She kept on walking.

Pacing, her motion ever more languorous
The simplicity of the act, yet this felt dangerous

All of a sudden he clapped. His haircut was done.
She stopped moving promptly. We remained stunned.

She went to fetch his suit jacket for him
Exquisite silk. She helped him put it on.
Fresh. Wrapped her arm around him as he offered his elbow.
His arm moved lower and tapped her waist just like so
Took a look around as if to inspect his audience
He expertly put on his hat
Then dropped his hand further, and patted her butt

"Bottom power"

The college footballer dropped his phone.
I averted my eyes, thoroughly embarrassed.
Then, an exchange between the two of them
She had never said a word in all this, it was telling
For the first time, she looked into everyone's eyes
Goddamn. I guess this was the temptation he was selling

I felt bad, sick to the stomach at the display of power so feral
Worried, about the corruption of my soul now placed in turmoil
The disturbance continued as they walked out the door
She'd grabbed her drape. Could innocence ever be restored?

There was silence for a few minutes
We were still taking in what what we had witnessed
The clippers hummed unhurriedly on the edge of din
That was the only sound in the aftermath of sin

Eventually: "How about that game?"
My barber unmuted the TV
"The Raiders ain't doing nothing this year..."
No one mentioned anything further
The unwritten code of the streets
"What happens in the barber chair,..."

He handed me the mirror, I inspected the close fade
I added an extra five dollars to what I usually paid

I made my departure from the joint with speed
Full of worry about the woman caught up in this perverse psychology
And those others prey to the admixture of bullying and sociopathy
The mounting alarm also about the unknown graduate from Walnut Creek

After the open house, I'd done some research but now I had his street name
Not that it really mattered, the pathology of Junior Eddie was the same

At this Player's Ball there was no delicacy
To this evocation, to these fifty shades of sadness
Spectators to this cold blooded glimpse of human brutality
I steeled myself for the journey back from the heart of darkness

When I saw The Roots, The Tipping Point tour, as I remember
After the show, they were passing out these funny flyers
That was in Boston's Combat Zone: The Pimps and Hoes Party
But here in Oakland, I was getting a heavy dose of reality

Back in Cambridge, I'd shared the same barber as that Harvard professor
Who skipped around the gates of weighty subjects as he held court
Now I was on the West Coast, living in the hometown of Too Short
The topics were no less troubling, but it was a different breed of street philosopher

I tried to commit the details to memory; I headed straight home
This rough trade in sin was material enough for a poem
The bad seed had left me shaken to the core by this encounter
There was no way today that I'd enjoy the food at the Taste of Africa

greece stamp eaahnikh ahmokpatia

Like a shopkeeper displaying his lengths of cheap cotton to country housewives, Parrinieddu unwound his roll of lies. His nickname of Little Priest was due to the easy eloquence and hypocrisy he exuded.

Leonard Sciascia - The Day of the Owl

roxy flier pimps & hoes party

...

I've never seen this couple again.
When I got home, I racked my brain
For what I could do to intervene
How to protect from this menace to society?
Who could act to relieve my anxiety?
To my shame, I could only pray for healing
For there was no balm that could truly salve.
My antidote: I then wrote the above.

The Bad Seed, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note, let me know if it fits.
See previously: Open House

The statute of limitations has passed and so I can belatedly nominate this piece for The Things Fall Apart Series.

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Writing log. Concept: July 31, 2007, March 6, 2021

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A Message From Our Leader

Pandemic-related effects on staffing
Due to Brexit-induced bureaucracy
Break international law in a very specific and limited way.

As we account for both the inclement weather the area is seeing
Weapons of mass destruction program-related activities
You will experience more delays than usual today

Resource actions are ongoing as a result of the recent events
Local authorities and the voluntary sector all rose to the challenge.
Their staff went the extra mile ahead of the restructuring activities

The steps we're taking today are painful, but necessary.
We've made the difficult decision to rebalance and seek efficiencies
And sharing the difficult news of involuntary separations

Some of you might be wondering why we haven't done this before
There is one huge difference compared to last year: COVID restrictions
I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle

Make no mistake, we have a huge opportunity in front of us
This will require relentless focus on initiatives
With a fair wind in our sails and a strength of resolve

There is a material risk of being overwhelmed
That's data that's been in our possession now for a day or so
But we've always taken account of scientific advice, decisively,
Always tried to follow it. That aligns tightly with our strategic priorities.
It is a matter of deep regret and that is what we're doing today

The whole nation has been engaged in a great national effort
Getting the company ready for the next stage of growth
In light of the global coronavirus pandemic and the challenge it poses

I suppose the message is that this is the year of getting things done
This means having the discipline to pull back from those that don't, alas,
We can come together with united spirit
To lift a glass to those who aren't there.

Your Leader

After A Message from our CEO, Potential Service Delays Today, and members of Her Majesty's government lead by Mister Johnson

homeless encampment near dam

I've become an afficionado of bureaucratese and the many uses of euphemism. Although I hate to be on the receiving end, I appreciate the education we are all getting on words intended to obscure.
A man stands on a platform. He is about to address a packed audience of Swindlers, Cowards, Bounder, Painted Harridans and Trulls. He opens his mouth to address them. What does he say? He says: "Ladies and Gentlemen."

Human language should be packed with Euphemisms. It is, indeed, proof that man was meant to live with his fellows, and proof also of how difficult it is for man to carry on that task without inordinate friction.

On Euphemism by Hilaire Belloc
urban decay

See previously:

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

It seems to me that it could also fall under the banner of The Rough Beast, which asks who is writing the script? Do let me know which one fits better.


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Writing log: January 14, 2021

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Open House

The only open issue in your mind was whether the house had been a brothel or a boarding house. As you walked out and weighed the ambiguous evidence, you decided on the latter. Either way, what you had seen, what you had smelt, in those ten minutes was misery itself. Human misery. It was a house of forced labour, of lost dreams. To call it an open house was to do violence to the very term; it was the reverse, a closed house in every imaginable way, featuring those elements of coercion, those elements of powerlessness and, especially, those elements of cruelty whose vestiges still lingered inside. It was the kind of cruelty that only men do to others.

But they called it an open house, that's what the sign outside proclaimed. The Wife and you had no clue, you had simply been on your rounds, doing your Sunday house hunting and getting to know the town. It was your penultimate stop that July afternoon. "It sounds like a bargain, it just came on the market. Spacious too." Well now you knew. Real estate.

It was a quiet walk out of the house and you periodically looked at each other, as if to confirm what you both had seen. "I feel like I'm going to cry", she said finally. You simply fumbled around for the Zipcar card to open up the rental. "Me too", you muttered as you waved your piece of plastic in the air above the windshield. The click unlocked the Prius. "I feel sick". Hell you needed a cold shower or a stiff drink.

It was a hot day and there was a stir in the neighbourhood, you hadn't quite noticed it when you had entered the house earlier on. People were beginning to come onto their porches, pointing and peeping at the house. A few had stepped out and were now making their way towards the house for their viewing. Presumably there had been much talk about whatever had been going on in its confines, thus all the neighbours were expectant and interested. They had long suspected that bad things were happening there, this was their opportunity to bear witness. Reflecting on it, you had been a little disturbed at the way some of those children were running amok inside that house. Your own walkthrough had been very sober.

There had been a pungent odour to the place, it smelled of... Well... The smell lingered even as you considered the case. You turned around and looked at the house again. That smell... Yes, it was the smell of unhappiness, of people who slept in shifts... This wasn't student housing, nor indeed was this your garden variety slum housing. There was no pleasure here, this kind of forced labour has the kind of disagreable odour you tried to forget but couldn't.

As if to confirm things, you notice that woman who had grabbed her two children just a few moments earlier, also leaving the house in a hurry. She was silent and grim-faced, dressed in her Sunday best, a school teacher type. Her eyes were disturbed beacons. She knew what she had seen. She knew what this was - a bad house, and she needed to get her progeny out of there before they too became tainted by it. She held on tight to them as she passed you. It was the first viewing, it was an open house. You were all victims.

As you sat in the car the two of you began to compare notes. It's funny how it all came out in a hurry now as opposed to the steady accretion of details when you'd been walking through the house.

"It was young women, coerced into doing who knows what"

A musty smell of resignation.

"Not many laughs in the house."

"It couldn't be a brothel, right?"

Does despair have a smell?

"They must have left in a hurry."

"No. not men. Doesn't smell like men." It was the smell of cheap perfume and women's hair.

"Pommade."

I'd seen many boarding houses of immigrants - men and women. This was disconcerting.

"No, it can't be a brothel. It would be more upscale. I don't think they'd bring clients here. Well..."

"So. A prostitution ring?"

"Yeah... This is where they kept the women until they sent them out to work."

"But what about the basement? Don't you think?..."

"No. Who would come to this place?"

The basement was the tipping point, its aura of unease had unnerved you.

"Here, let me see the flyer again"

"Wonderful Enormous 7 Room Finished basement" was what the flyer had advertised.

"People had left in a hurry... Very recently..."

"There were ..."

Your guess: 10-30 "guests" were accomodated in the house, most likely.

"Prostitution ring. It must be. Young women."

"Young women."

"They didn't have much to do with the neighbours."

"The rooms, the layout... Labyrinth..."

What troubled you most was the absence. Where were the inhabitants? Where were the most recent residents? Were they still in service somewhere, or had the entire operation been shut down? The cots or bunk beds weren't there.

"Cleaned out."

"I'm creeped out."

"Where are they now? I wonder..."

Too many questions and you didn't dare get them all answered for fear of further depression. These places surely exist, houses of prostitution, houses of trafficking even - but do you really want to know?

It wasn't about drugs: this wasn't a crack house or even a crystal meth house like you might have read about in Oakland, or hypothesized must exist in South Berkeley. And it wasn't immigrant workers... It wasn't men who lived here, of that you were sure. You pondered the question, the puzzle of this open house.

so sunny

Then it struck you that the owner had been there.

"The owner!", you both exclaimed simultaneously.

"The owner. That's right, the owner..." You knew it as you'd walked past him but hadn't wanted to admit it to yourself. Black guy. He didn't look like the agent but looked to have authority, wearing what he did, and standing the way he did in the kitchen. The almost orange suit trousers and the shirt that looked a little dressy. The slightly sharp tan shoes. He was a pimp, a gentleman of leisure. The fruits of his leisure were on display for sale today.

It's funny how these details came back.

You had caught his lecherous assessment of The Wife. Well perhaps not lecherous, just a cool, calm assessment with a practiced eye. How could she be used? She later said as you exchanged notes, "Yes, he was sizing me up. It was that kind of look. There was definitely a sexual angle there".

Was that how he picked up his women, runaways or those who arrived at the Greyhound station barely ten minutes away? The easy triage of the flesh, the evaluation of weakness, a prelude to the approach.

Still, don't underestimate the man, he's been doing this for a while and this house sale is a temporary setback.

People, his people, had recently left the house. It had just been cleared of much of the incriminating evidence, the sleeping cots, but you can't disguise the smell. The house couldn't but reveal its purpose. Sweet misery, the bitter pungent odour of desperation, the heavy vibes of predation.

It was as you had mounted into the attic earlier that the smell really hit you. What was worse as you inspected it, was the realization that someone had been living there, even in that attic. Could it have been a punishment room perhaps?

When you came down from the attic, shaken, and about to get her to leave, The Wife slowly pointed to a door. By that point you didn't know what to think. "I don't want to know what's behind the door". You grabbed her hand and made to leave on. Some things are not worth knowing.

As you passed you saw that the closet held a few desultory cans of paint - funny that. You can't cover over the layers of of iniquity, and they certainly hadn't bothered trying in the house - or maybe they had, yes. You looked around and saw one wall vaguely painted. Well half a room isn't bad. They hadn't even had time to throw on a gesture before the viewing. Barely painted, the rest of the house was left raw and unadorned. They'd just listed it. Talk about an open house.

This troubling puzzle you'd tried to decipher as you walked through this house on [redacted] street.

"I'm steering clear of South Berkeley and North Oakland."

"I'm not doing any more open houses" was your rejoinder.

You returned again to the scene in the kitchen just minutes earlier. There was a certain axis of malignancy in that triangle. The real estate agent, the potential buyer looking for her entree into the society of slum lords, looking to flip the property, and, last but not least, the owner. A ruthless predatory vibe emanating from all three of them.

"It's structurally sound, a steal at that price." The real estate agent had no conscience. She was just selling it. Condescending too, to the couple who had asked for a leaflet earlier - she had dismissed them as window shoppers, not her brand of client. The Wife had observed that this was the most predatory real estate broker in town that was arranging the showing.

"What's a probate record?", asked the buyer, the prospective slum lord.

"Now we're talking", she started her spiel. The owner chuckled.

There was lots of interest in the property per the web site and the open house had gotten quite crowded by the time you were getting ready to leave. Slum housing has lots of possibilities, you suppose.

But you couldn't have been the only ones who recognized the suffocating atmosphere. You thought back to the church ladies clutching their handbags; they had their eyes wide open. The harrowing sights and the smell.

"This housing bubble is out of control. Pimps are getting into the act. We've been here a year, look, this is ridiculous. We've seen what, maybe 150 houses, all these overpriced open houses, and now we've seen this... this... what's the phrase again.. this charnel house, this den of iniquity."

At that The Wife laughed.

You continued, "I'm sure that they used some of the rooms here to have their way with the women. I just don't know. Or did they just use it to keep them and made them work in streets. Where were the women from. Black or Mexican? What do you think?"

"What was that satellite dish for in that concrete backyard?"

"Oh yeah, I saw that"

"Was it transmitting or was it receiving? A bordello?"

"It isn't worth thinking about. Let's go." You started the car.

...

Fifteen minutes later on a lark to detox, you entered the million dollar home listed on the other side of town. You saw the manicured lawns, the granite countertops, the wholesome picket fences of North Berkeley, a world away.

What is this town you live in? Where do you live? How to get a measure of a place? To think just ten minutes away from this...? Do they know what is happening just down the road?

You will never buy a house on that street. You may not believe in evil but this is a dark matter. They were, he was, trafficking in human souls, if not humans flesh and labour itself. You've lost your innocence.

There are people behaving badly... They know, he knew... And you saw it in his eyes. A little embarrassed, perhaps, but it was a way of life, it was his way of life, and he chose it, he'd live with it. Heck, he was even looking to get a bit above land resale value out of the house. The hustle continued.

True, the affair had shut down in a hurry. That they had cleared out within living memory... made things all the more worrying... perhaps just days earlier. Where were the people? Where are the people he was using? Disposable people.

You couldn't bear to do the research. But at the back of your mind, you surely knew. There's a paper trail for sure, if you searched you could put the story together. Trust your intuition, you're the son of a journalist.

...

It had been an assisted living facility ten years ago.

After some more digging on your conjecture, you determined that this was originally a family business. They did things like funeral homes on the Oakland-Berkeley border. The young one, the current scion was obviously into more grisly stuff - he had a stable of women. Probably not picky could even be those Honduras or El Salvador women so beloved in West Oakland. People steered clear of the operation but it was open knowledge what went on there. You stopped digging.

The open house.

There was a sick feeling in your stomach, you have been in the presence of malignancy. And it has been like that for a long while.

The open house.

Where are the women? Where did they go?

The open house.

The stain persists whenever you walk through an open house.

million dollar house

The listing, July 2007


[Redacted] Street, Berkeley, CA

Price: $583,000

Huge Craftsman! Grand Dame In Need Of New Mate! 2594 Sf 5Bd/ 2Bath, Formal Dining Rm.,& Great Home Office; All On Main Floor. Gracious Front Porch & Wonderful Attic. Zoned R2a For Pos.Duplex Use. 1919 Vintage Detail! Wonderful Enormous 7 Room Finished Basmt. W/2 Sep. Pvt. Entry. Open Sun 2-5.

5 Bedrooms, 2 Baths, Main Entry Room - Additional: Basement Finished, Formal Dining Room, In-Law Quarters, Office, Rec/Rumpus Room, Unfinished Room, Utility Room

Postscript


This was the penultimate open house we viewed together in our time in Berkeley. I stuck to my resolve. I called the peak of the housing bubble.

One week after our viewing, Bear Stearns liquidated two of its hedge funds worth billions of dollars due to collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages. The stage was set for the Great Recession.

Note: In 2021, the house on [Redacted] Street was listed at over $2 million dollars. It has reasonable bones and was mildly revamped. Presumably the owners are unaware of this aspect of its history

104.1 FM End imperialism

Open House, a playlist


A soundtrack to alleviate my distress. The statute of limitations has passed and so I can belatedly nominate this piece for The Things Fall Apart Series.

Next: The Bad Seed

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Writing log. Concept: July 31, 2007, March 6, 2021