Ha. What can I say? We started the Humdinger Rooftop Cinema together on the roof of my shithole apartment in Beirut. Actually, the apartment wasn’t half bad, it was really decent, and it was on the roof, so I took it like the roof was part of my apartment, and the apartment across from mine was Josie’s, and hers was pretty nice too, and she had her canvases strewn about, each two meters or so, and when I’d leave my place I’d have to walk by hers. Now, you’re probably thinking apartment, but its not like that. There was basically a bedroom, a corridor and a bathroom. In the corridor was the fridge and the kitchenette. The fridge was right by the door. It was just about the first thing you’d see coming in. The bathroom was the last thing you’d see, unless you saw the mold creeping into the hall, sprawling herself along the entire wall. Once you leave my place you had a huge fall on your right, safely held together of course by a questionable balcony rail, and Josie’s apartment door on her left. Her place didn’t have the same separation of powers that mine did, her one rom was much bigger, definitely cleaner, always smelling nice, and she didn’t have a corridor, but a long open room, that led from one window, her bed, to the far end of the wall, the kitchenette, with her door right smack in the middle. We were pretty close, and if either of us got lucky we could hear the beautiful songs right through the walls.
One night we did make love. I don’t usually refer to it like that but it felt like that. It was early autumn, October, and the year would be one of our wettest, rains and rains coming down hungry and hard. The streets pile up with storm water runoff ponds and everything is wet, boots, pants, eyes and ears. Cars are so tightly bound it’s impossible not to get sprayed if you’re out walking. I remember wondering how everyone preferred siting for hours in traffic in their cars than put down their boots and hit the road clean. When a good rain comes in its as good as a morning shower, as good as a shower after deer hunting for days, cramped in a hot treehouse waiting for the sad little fucker to smell my bait.
We were both teaching at the American School in Beirut, a ten minute walk from my house. I was living right off of the famed Rue Hamra, which translates into the Red Street. In its heyday it was one of the epicenters of social and cultural life for not just Beirut but the region. Like most things in the Middle East a tide of conservatism and a few devastating wars changed the landscape a little, but the area retains a certain sense of quality that denies its cultural essence has been hijacked. Sure, in the beginning, there wouldn’t have been so many cheap, low end clothing stores and fast food joints, franchises from the deep American South that can’t even sell a pie in Europe anymore. But with the right set of eyes and some connections you get directed to the right spots, and hidden in some of the cafes, the late night bars- later than anything in America except for New York- and the small, hole in the wall food joints that have become staple neighborhood institutions, an underclass of artists, artisans, activists and journalists thrive, and surrounding them the decadent, the immoral, the criminal as well. Usually these two go hand in hand in an urban situation. And they do in Beirut. Because everyone smokes a little hash, and everyone does their share of dirty drugs. And the dirtier the need the smellier the fish. I’ve seen some of the sickest looking men sitting in a packed Café de Prague only because they had what the girls wanted at the time. That was all at night.
The beautiful walk I made every morning always gave me something fresh to consider. I never left my house angry or upset that I had to walk down Hamra, down towards AUB, down Rue de Mahatma Gandhi, aptly named, passed the rising crowd of bars and burger joints, themed clothing stores and hippie smoke shops, past the guy who everybody buys their rolling paper from, who causes a traffic jam a kilometer long, onto the famous Rue Bliss, where it looks like an American shopping mall food court exploded and implanted itself within the ruins of post-civil war Beirut. I never thought I would live off Mahatma Gandhi street in Beirut, but it happened. And every day I took my routine walk, past the falafel guy who wasn’t open yet, and past the famous DVD rental place that downloaded films before they were even out in theaters in most the United States. I would walk onto Bliss and take a left and head down the long, winding road towards the sea, and I always felt like I had come a long enough way to come close to something, every morning taking that turn, not five minutes into the walk, taking that left turn and a few steps down the long, winding road and there she sat, the great and beautiful sea, what David Abulafia calls a sea with many names. Every day I walked down that hill, a hill that leads directly to school and directly to the white expanse, met by a rousing breeze rising from the shores, thinking back on where I had just been, thinking of my parents huddled up there in the great state of Missouri, my father moving into a one room house in Joplen, my mother continuing on with her life, I would think about the first day I applied, with as ignorant a mind as can an American have, to my post in the middle school, teaching social studies to 7th and 8th graders, and I’d stumble down that long, winding road, stumble down until I could finally see it, hiding behind the shadows of a university wall, and I could feel my nostrils open up and the air seep into my lungs, feeling the weight of the week, the night before, the hours to come, feeling all of it combust into a little particle of jazz, a small, smooth, five note scale jumping up and down in her own ruins, her own party of rhyme. A lot of those days, and this came especially with my friendship to the mad raving lunatic Arbid, to Josie, to Nicola the aging homewrecker, and to Adam, salt of the earth Adam, I spent those mornings walking down that hill drunk and high, my eyes bloodshot red, I never needed glasses but I got myself a fake pair without prescription just to have an excuse to put something on. This was before I cut my chops, and so my hair went all the way down, blond like the revolving sun, all the way down to my back, and the smell of me walking into the elite private school, with hash under my nails and my overly sensitive bowels, always made a neat little scene, but I always felt home.
The walk back was different. Uphill, tired, too much coffee, just need a drink or a joint. In the morning I always felt like I had something to give, something valuable to bestow upon my students. By the time the bell rang for the end of the day I was just surprised I survived.
That day I was walking home and the rain was harder than it had been so far that year, and I noticed that I was stopped in front of a liquor store, one of those steel walls that open with girth and inside is a hundred cases of beer and every bottle imaginable to the hungry eye, and I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and a bottle of cheap wine and head off home. I was supposed to have a friend of mine come over, a talented viola player for the conservatory, Imad, who was forced to leave his hometown with his brother when the Syrian civil war reached their town in Sweida, and he ended up living with a thirty five year old Brazilian dancer, being himself only nineteen. But he canceled. I already had the booze and I wasn’t going to wait, or let the bottles sit there for another day. There’s no shortage of alcohol. I can consume what I want.
I still had a piece of hash left over from a few nights before, when some of the older guys from work came by and we smoked all night playing shitty country songs and getting drunk. An age old American tradition.
I got upstairs and rolled a joint and lay down on my bed counting the mold spots that had scattered away from the whole, like black snowflakes on a mud stained wall. I held the joint in my hand for a while, and I guess I passed out for a few minutes, but then I heard a loud scream and my eyes opened wide and I knew Josie was outside on the roof and something had happened. I got up as quick as I could and rushed outside, almost slipped myself and took a tumble over the balcony but I held myself on the rail. I had forgotten to throw on my boots so my socks were soaked right away and I found here there almost in a louder pool of tears than the flooding roof, upset that she’d fallen and broken over a new canvas, and some of her groceries lay scattered on the floor. I picked up her things and helped her up, my hair in a loud mess and my feet drenched and really to be quite honest I wasn’t even thinking when I held her hand how beautiful she looked with her hair wet and her own shoes off but she did, and I noticed it only when I had her up and her things around my shoulders and we were laughing and she was between laughing and crying and I got her to under the tarp and we stood to the side and she was leaning on me the way friends do but in the cold she was a little closer and she had her head on my chest so the top of her head was in my neck and I remember realizing that I was smelling her scent for the first time.
I didn’t know that much about Beirut. I still don’t. I had been there a year already but I felt like anytime something new came to pass it was a refreshing reminder that I wasn’t in Missouri anymore. But it never mattered. Standing there day in and day out on the roof of a six story building in the heart of the capital, seeing in the distance the mountains on one side and sea on the other, the whorehouses underneath on the street with their sixties design neon lights and their greasy bouncers smoking two, three packs of cigarettes a day. Smoking the best hash in the world among a herd of Americans and Irishman and journalists who wanted to do more than serve coffee in a Paris cell. Falling in love with a girl who speaks three languages and is learning two more, whose read the pageant poetry of France and Italy and laughs at my insistence on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as the American novel. Feasting on food, on drinks, on shit poetry and a brewing war outside. Feasting on the politics, man, the politics. The kids who got along until someone said the wrong name. The kids whose parents drove them to school in tinted BMWs and had their maids clean out their ears as they stepped out into the road. The kids whose parents did their science projects and whose moms came to parent teacher conferences looking for a foreign lay. Every day, something new flickered in my eyes and I saw for the first time where I stood.
We ended up in my room, stoned, listening to Neil Young on repeat, her telling me about her lost brother, burning away his youth, and his good teeth, in a slum somewhere in Marseille. I told her about my parents’ divorce, my excitement at being abroad, at being away from the things I know, the things I can expect. She’d been in Beirut four years longer, and she had a look in her eyes that said, Just wait, you’ll see, it’s building a temple for your heart now, but then it becomes a hole, and everywhere you look everywhere you turn there’s that same dark hole, and you’re gone, gone, gone away from the light, and you’re never going to wake up again.
After a bottle of wine and half a bottle cheap whiskey, six or seven beers and at least five joints, Neil Young on the radio over ten times, and the sudden emergence of three leaks in my apartment, she got up from her spot on the floor, huddled underneath all my blankets and pillows, her head resting against the corner wall. She got up and she looked at me and she smiled and she said, I’m going to bed, and when she walked away and she turned around in the end I wondered, I thought, Why didn’t she just stay here, why go over there, why not go to bed here? And before I knew it, before I could ask myself why, why, why, I was lifting my closed fist to knock on her door, and the door was already open and the air pushed it through, and I was standing there with my blankets on top of me and my hair over my eyes, and a joint still in my hand. Standing there, and she was there on her bed, looking over at me, naked, and for the next few hours, no matter what happened in the city of chaos and loss, all I know is we were together, in bed, making love.
My father taught me to hunt.
I wanted to be a combat pilot for the American Air Force. You know, glory of the airborne division. Silver Star. I wanted to die in combat in place of my friends, take a big hit for the team, save some buck with two kids on the way. Then, fuck it. sure, I’d have a wife, and when I’d die they’d drape an American flag over my coffin, and fold another and hand it to her, like they do in the movies, like I always saw in the movies. Hell, I coulda been a pilot, if I had a mind to do things right.
My first job I worked in a kitchen at a ribs joint off the interstate. After that, I guess I couldn’t leave the fucking sinkhole, you know? Couldn’t leave the kitchen. Cleaning, scarping, cutting. I was the guy picking roaches out of the dumpsters when the inspectors were coming in. They didn’t do surprise visits back then it was all or nothing, and they’d give you a heads up, no problem.
I did a lot of fucking drugs in my day man. I mean like, I had my shit all over the place. I put my nose in everything. Most of the time it wasn’t even coke, it was cut up with all kinds of shit. Some guys make it into the heat with their eyes open, you know, the more they get the smarter they get. The more they want the more they know. It wasn’t like that for me, the more I did the stupider I got, I had my blinders on, fucking stupid, walking right into the hole. Everything I saw in front of me told me I was being cheated, being lied to, being eaten up by the bears. Didn’t matter. That shit never matters. I’m a big guy, with a big chest and a lousy fucking attitude, so I never let myself be daunted, scared by some fo these scenes going on around me. Some of these guys got it bad, they got fetched and they had it bad. I ate my dinner with the wolves, you know what I mean? I ate so much fucking rat poison I’d be out for weeks. Weeks. At the same time doing yoga, all kinds of yoga. yOu believe that shiT? Whats that even mean? I was showing up to class in my trouser shorts and my barefeet looking like I stepped on a palte of irons, my whole face cut and dry cause I haven’t been sleeping. I never noticed but the aches man, my body was aching, and I was a groaning lonersome man int hose classes. Everyone else is quiet, breathing in, breathing out, and I’m struggling to get a breath in, I’m coughing up phlegm, coughing up a disease, my joints are aching, my back breaks, I can’t even twist my ankles to get a good one eighty degrees. Don’t know why I did it. Don’t know why I tried so hard to do so many things at once. Cleaning the shop at night, going out to St. Joe’s or Easter Martin, drinking up a bottle of SoCo or Seven Irons. Somewhere along the way I learned to make tacos, fried, boiled, stirred. Pork, beef, chicken, fish. Fuck vegetarians. There ain’t nothing in Mexico that’ll feed you if you’re vegetarian. You will go hungry. Somewhere along the way I learned to add my own spices, Cajun, Oriental, African. Ethiopian tacos, miniature Anatolian tacos. Most of the time I just went down to the record store, found a record from some international jazz duo, couple Turks, couple hoods, something like that…
I guess like everyone he was too afraid to lose everything he had. But we had a good chance to do something. You know, when you move somewhere at first, you have your eyes open. It was a healthy time fort me in the beginning. But that city man, everything sours in the end. I mean everything. I thought I had two hundred fucking friends. Kids that would vouch for me. I never looked past the drugs and the booze, never looked in their eyes long enough to notice they weren’t even looking at me, their eyes glazed with their shit, whatever the fuck they were playing that night, and everyone played. I thought I was a king at one point. You know, I mean, his boy brought me back into the program, he brought me and my woman as consultants, all the way from America, back to the land where everything was gone from the start. the first guys I worked with, they were fucked. I mean, nothing good about these guys. They had an idea. Nobody eats Mexican food in Beirut. You know why? Because there aren’t any good restaurants. Why not? People tried. There was a Trader Vics. That’s the closest they ever came. So these guys get in touch with me. They own the biggest jazz club in the city. It’s not that big in size, you know, big in character. everyone plays this joint. But that’s not saying much. Jazz ain’t so big over there. It’s how they sell it. They’re really proud do if. Bar Louie, they say. Heard of it?
Like I said, I wasn’t paying attention. I was clean, healthy, but coming off too good a year, you know, finally feeling like I dug my feet into the ground. Big time shortstop in Arizona, cooking for thirty, forty people on a quiet night. Developing my flavors, my taste. I don’t know how these guys got my contacts but they did. All the way from Beirut to Arizona, I get a call one day. Grilling outside on the deck, my wife, she was Russian, hence the was. She comes outside and tells me some strangers are on the phone. Who is it, I ask. She shrugs her shoulders, says she doesn’t know, can’t recognize the voice, or the accent, They sound French. French? I was hot, but not that hot.
I take the call. They know my name, my number. I had had a couple beers but I was still cool. What do you want? Are you John? Big John, who’s askin’? Later they told me that was when they knew I’d be their guy.
Shit went pretty well at first. We were corresponding back and forth, doing our best to keep in touch, what with the hours, I was trying to work out their method, what they really wanted. I mean, man, remember, I had never stepped foot out of America, except to go to Mexico, and when you think of it like that, an American in Mexico, that’s basically America. Coming from Arizona, I feel like we’re kin down there.
After about a month they bought me a ticket and told me I should come down, the plans were coming into motion, everything would be ready soon and we’d be kick and go right away. I told my wife I’d be back. Never crossed the Atlantic before. After we divorced she told me when I left I had a strange look in my eye, like a kid walking into a storm, wanting to get wet. I guess I knew it’d all go down from there. But hey, when you go down, down into the well, you strip yourself cold, you lose everything that ever belonged to you, and you’re burned out on the side of an unforgiving road, it’s the only time you ever feel like you know yourself, you know, like you really know yourself, and what you’re about.
I should’ve known from the start that something would go wrong. The moment I got there, waiting at the airport for an hour before somebody finally showed up to take me my hotel, a piece of shit two start with a cut mattress and roaches climbing the walls. I mean, the fucking nerve these guys had. But I guess he suspected I was furious, seeing as how I did not spend that night at the shitty hotel but instead at this fucker’s house, the guy who actually turned out had nothing to do with the arrangements, nothing to do with the restaurant, nothing to do with investments or PR or nay of that shit, he was just one of the musicians that frequented every now and then and played his harmonica once or twice a month. Nice guy. We spent the night listening to his blue records, he had loads. We played some music. Too k down a bottle of scotch. I didn’t realize, after a twenty four hour journey, I was already getting high and taking down the booze like it was casual. That first night, we ended up going down to a bar, twenty four hour spot off of Hamra, and he scored some coke in the bathroom, we got high for a few hours and by sunrise I was eating a cold sandwich on the beach with a pack of cigarettes falling out of my pocket and my boots strapped around my neck. Beautiful. Fucking beautiful. That thing right there, that big, blue, giant blob of nothing.
I came from not much. Not nothing, but not much. I could’ve ended up anything, but not much. Sometimes you need a kick in the ass to remember what the fuck you’re about. That first night, standing on the side of the road, watching the girls pass by in their evening gowns, those beautiful, well behaved girls, who I would later learn just wanted to let loose and be freaks, beautiful fucking freaks, who could go ape shit crazy and still manage to keep their hair and nails in check. Right away, I was hooked. Caught. Trap. I was a good guy at the time. Woman back home. Soon to be married. I had put on a lot of pounds over the years, cooking all that fried stuff. Lots of beer, lotta whiskey. And when I say drugs, I mean, I kept my appetite, because a man from the south needs an appetite to survive.
What I mean to say is, I was healthy, and I wasn’t downright crazy. I still had some eyes to me, but like I said, they were blind. Blind by the fucking lights man, blind by the ladies, by the heels, the coke, the shots, the rifles, the noise, the eight o’clock fucking noise, jackhammers, welding tools scattered all over the concrete. But this was still the first time I arrived in Beirut. The madness, the descent, the craze, all that came the second time around, when I came and should’ve left just as fast as I left the first time but didn’t, ended up staying and shit, it just does not work out in the end, you know?
Sometimes, when I’m out on my porch, looking out over the stretch of emptiness that surrounds my home, and all I can hear is the wetness of the earth singing below the weeds, the wind taking her hits against the windows, I remember that place like it came from a different life, like everything I had there, everyone I met, every hour I spent mauling my way into the concrete, like a dog, like a dog caught on a suicidal leash, I remember that place like it was something else, another life, another story. Faces you see in your dreams. Faces you come up against at night, in terror. People ask me when I see ‘em, friends, family, my brother in law when I go to their house to fix a shower curtain or a clogged drain, that faggot square looks at me, happy in his million dollar home, polo shirt, crew cut, he’s got to be no more than five foot two, and he looks up at me, Big John, I don’t know how you manage it, living out there all alone. How I manage it? When I think of that place, what it did to me, how I came and how I left, who I was, who I became. I could never fear nature man. that’s one thing. Even through the drugs, through the sorrow, through the divorce, through the fucking expulsion, the deportation, the humiliation. Through running wild and broke and on crack on the outskirts of Anatolia begging for a country home. Through the embarrassment of my kin, my old friends, my employers. Through it all, through the harness of that darkness that kept me on her leash, through it motherfucking all, I always had the voice of nature at my side, the taste of the purified air, the centripetal force that carries us all here, through the womb and into the wild, I can hear nature calling, I can hear nature’s song. I didn’t believe myself, that’s the problem. If you don’t put faith in yourself then nobody will. Why should they? There’s no debt we hold over anyone else. I don’t do that. But what that place did to me, what it did to my soul, what it brought out of me, and good riddance because had I not known, had I lived the rest of my life, the prime of my adult life not knowing what this fucking man is capable of, maybe I’d have done something someday, something terrible, something I can’t take back, because all of it is gone, all of it is gone and its just a memory, and apart from the shame, from the humiliation, none of it matters, none of it is there. But what that place did to my soul, what it brought out of my being, how can I be scared of fifty acres of Appalachian earth? Scared of a bear that rocks my house? I had two kids, no older than fifteen, storm into my bedroom with AKs, saying they heard I was a spy, if I didn’t give them all my shit, all my cash and all my drugs, my fucking iPhone, my laptop, but most of all these shitheads wanted the drugs, they would shoot me. And then they shot my roof. And then they left. And when I called the cops they laughed and said the neighbors already called on my behalf, and they were told the same thing I was being told now, There aren’t fifteen year old kids running around the neighborhood with AK-47s breaking into anybody’s house. If there are, they’re not fifteen years old, and it’s best we don’t know them. Scared of coming into contact with a wolf, blindsided, staring her in the eyes? I woke up to a crackhead banging on my door at sunrise on a Monday morning, he had the mutilated body of an acquaintance with whom business went sour, telling me if I didn’t lend him ten bucks, ten fucking bucks, to take the poor kid to the hospital, because he beat him up really bad and he regrets it, well he’d leave his body there and blame the whole thing on me, and who are the cops gonna believe? An American with drugs in his blood? No way.
But I don’t blame them for their shit. Animals live to survive, nothing else. Once you let your mind loose onto the field it goes crazy. Most people can’t excuse themselves and be alone. Out there, if you’re alone you’re different, and you’re a stranger, and it means trouble. Why should you want to be alone? If you were normal you wouldn’t want that. If you could be trusted you wouldn’t have to be alone.
Those weren’t the nights that hurt me. It’s the people you think you can trust, the people you think are family, who call you on a Sunday morning and ask if you wanna grill. They’re the ones who fucked me.
I remember the eyes of one of these girls. Beautiful girl, too sad a soul. Disappointed her parents at a young age and got kicked out of the house. old them she wouldn’t get married and the week after they caught her smoking dope and sucking a guy off in their garage. Stupid girl but she did it. We all make mistakes. She’d left their little town, somewhere up in the mountains, and came down to Beirut, moved in with an NGO, a safehouse for women of similar situations. We have our shit in America and Lord knows we don’t treat women right. And it takes a holy day to pass without another story of a man with too much beer, too much pride, too little dick who came home and beat his wife to death. It happens everywhere and its sad, it breaks me. This girl, she wasn’t mad, she wasn’t pissed like she had something she had to show for herself, something she had to do. She just wanted to fuck. She pounced on me like a jaguar coming out of the jungle, like a tiger leaping up from the marshes. And then, after a while, she wanted it harder, she wanted it harder and she wanted it harder bad. She got to crying, and breaking my shit, and taking my belt and begging me to strangle her, begging me to smack her in the face, smack her across the face with my belt. She begged me to break her wrist. She showed me how. She studied it. And then what? And then what, I said. And then what?
It’s pain man. Everywhere you look, pain. My last week they had a demonstration. Four women killed in the span of a couple months, all murdered by their husbands, some in front of their children, one of them with a frying pan. Beaten to death. In front of her kids.