Every safari begins before dawn. One has to prepare for the unknown. So I begin before dawn, a rough beginning:
In the week leading up to my visit to Westbeth, I lost my job (again), a block away from where my wife and I raise our two year old son a young man was murdered (again), and we were robbed (again). This time, the thief took my bicycle. I made it out of bamboo, built it by hand. One would think that such a start to a safari might be a bad omen. Maybe it would have stopped some from going. But since losing my job, I spend my days with my son and I’ve got to live the maxim I teach. I take losses as events not obstacles in my chance to live and love.
So off with a kiss for my wife and son I went, taking the train instead of riding my bicycle into the city, my heart a little broken that I wouldn’t see the sun setting as I pedaled across the Brooklyn Bridge.
At 14th street, I ascended the subway stairs and proceeded westward. My stride was not fluid. The hitch was because my legs were moving as if pedaling. On the corner of Bethune and Greenwich, I saw a wounded man, his arm in a sling. He was very tall, a graceful giraffe walking with a woman and three children. I approached from behind. It was Amare Stoudemire, the star of the New York Knicks who injured his hand punching a fire extinguisher.
Inside Westbeth, I told the security guard that I saw Amare Stoudemire. He told me that he lived in the neighborhood. I asked him to tell Amare that I challenge him to a game of one on one. With his injured hand, I imagine I have chance of winning. A slim chance, perhaps a very slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Either way, it would be a great story to tell my son.
I have a terrible sense of direction, almost as bad as my employment history. The only remedy I’ve come across is imagining I’m somewhere else. So instead of feeling lost in Westbeth, I imagined that I was in Havana, Cuba, the Monserrate Hotel as described by Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls.
“Though by now it was nothing but a fifth-rate building, the Monserrate Hotel had once been a pretty good place, inhabited exclusively by prostitutes. Prostitutes had been using the hotel for their business, and with Castro’s Revolution, they became owners of the rooms in which they lived…”
Before I knew it, I was on the third floor, walking a long corridor. I came across a crowd, and I followed them into an apartment. There, sitting in a chair, was the great writer Elias Khoury. I was thrilled. It was like seeing a rhinoceros in Brooklyn. These things just don’t happen to me. There was a bottle of wine and a bottle of water. I was parched. It was a Safari after all. I offered some people in the room a drink. The respectable folks drank wine. A few heathens asked for water.
Khoury read from his newest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping, a battle cry for the feminization of literature. “It is the story of a woman, a special woman,” he explained. “She remembers all of her dreams.”
A few minutes into Khoury’s reading. My phone went off. It was a nightmare. I don’t have a subtle ring. Fela’s Egbe Mi O (Carry Me), interrupted Khoury. I scrambled to turn it off. Every eye in the apartment was on me. I could have been killed. Maybe I should have been. Luckily, Khoury is a man of compassion and patience, one who, “remembers all of his dreams.” He continued reading, his voice soothing the savage lions in the room. When he was done, Khoury took questions.
“Has writing in a woman’s voice changed anything about the way you write?” a woman asked.
“It has changed everything,” Khoury said. “My relationship with my wife and children. Everything.”
When the reading was done, I wandered again. I stumbled across a small crowd on the ninth floor and struck up a conversation with a playwright and an Israeli veterinarian who worked part-time as a tour guide in Kenya. I also spoke with two women who attended Khoury’s reading. One told me that within each person exists both man and woman. Before I had a chance to reply, her friend, a Jewish mother like my mother did what my mother does, telling me I should meet her son despite the fact that I hadn’t told her anything about myself. I agreed. Maybe he can help me find a job.
We entered the apartment. The Israeli writer Etger Keret sat in a wicker chair beneath a lamp. He is an interesting looking man, a mischievous koala. I find his writing astounding, how he accomplishes so much in such a small space. I started to sweat. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the rag I used to wipe my son’s nose all day. I put the rag in my pocket, and I thought of Terrence Hayes’ poem The Blue Terrance.
“Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag?”
Am I righteous? I can be. Perhaps it’s the woman in me. Keret read his short story, What Do We Have In Our Pockets?
“A cigarette lighter, a cough drop, a postage stamp, a slightly bent cigarette, a toothpick, a handkerchief, a pen, two five-shekel coins. That’s only a fraction of what I have in my pockets…” he began.
I thought about my pockets, literally and figuratively. What did I have? A pen, a cigarette lighter, a dirty rag, thirty dollars that must be stretched until the fifteenth when my wife gets paid again. I thought about my bicycle, how the thievery of something you make with your hands is an attack on the heart. And I thought about my son. But I always think of my son. So it didn’t surprise me. And because it didn’t surprise me and I always think about my son, I also was able to listen to Keret.
“So now you know, that’s what I have in my pockets. A chance not to screw up, a slight chance. Not big, not even probable. I know that. I’m not stupid. A tiny chance, let’s say, that when happiness comes along I can say yes to it. That’s what I have there, full and bulging…”