The New City

photo (13)It was a cafe in a square across from the Hotel el-Muniria years ago. We were drinnking tea when I first thought of the French City. We were currently in the Medina or Souq or Arab Quarter. Every city had its own unique collection of streets and alleys, stairs and passages some of which led to other parts of the eternal city and some terminated in the living quarters of dimly lit residents with all too unwelcoming eyes and pursed thin lips. When the electrics were interrupted, which they were without notice and apparently for little reason, the lamps were quick to come on – the 18th century kept at hand since the 21st had yet to fully kick in. Then, if the lights remained out, the hum of generators would start, first softly, in some distance part of the tangled part of the city, then closer until the cafe itself started its own little tuk-tuk of a machine and some lighting system, that made the area around it glow as with phosphorous rather than bath everyone is the typical flickering blue-sick hue of the fluorescent tubes that were not installed in any fixture but plugged in to wires, few of which were more than pigtailed together and then coated with cobwebs and cooking grease.
Outside of this maze, we wandered, all the time nipped at the heals by beggars and the polluted members of society offering drugs, boys, drugged boys, and boys drugs, kept at bay by our “tour guide,” a man with a fake official ID and a clean press of clothes he wore every day as if he had an hundred of that particular outfit – blue pants, light blue collared short sleeve shirt, leather shoes he slipped off before entering this or that building depending on how close we were coming to God – the Muslim having to tippy-toe around a potentially angry sleeping father while Christians just clomp clomp into church with their running shoes tracking dog offal and super herpes puddle water considering that dad will always forgive us and clean up the place after we go. “You faggots!??!” an angry vendor we did not buy carpets from seemed to ask, exclaim, demand, or wished,” and while we were two young men with long hair, two Americans, one with long fingernails on one hand he used to play the classical guitar and perhaps the only time in my life I can use that sentence construction to mean exactly what I intend it to say and not demand any air quotes, as in, he “played the classical guitar” with his long fingernail hand… we were there for the city, not the flesh. We were on our way to see a writer. Actually. A man of the Beatnik generation who had yet to ever leave his hiddy hole home away from home. This man, we were told, was indeed, a faggot, we were told by our guide. Okay…. we were not so much interested in his sexual habits. Hell, we never even read a single of his goddamn/muhammadamn books. Not even caught any of the film adaptations. We were going to this man’s house, knocking on his door, and demanding an audience with this icon of the Beatnik age because we two college-age young men thought it was the height of travel coups to be able to have eternal and un-revokable bragging rights that we had – the two of us – bribed an Official Tour Guide #345763 to take us to the house of a private citizen and allow us to knock on this man’s door. Since, while this was done the world over, we could not afford it in our native lands.
Also, we thought Mustafaa was a liar. One of them. Those street vermin who leaped at our faces and tugged at our garments in order to break open a pocket or bag – BEWARE OF BEGGARS the entry in the Lonely Planet would have said, had we a copy of Zee Book. The carpet salesmen offering endless tea (we must have drank ten gallons in a single day of that wonderfully sweet caffeine nectar in a country that learned to tweak without alcohol) were part of his gang. Mustaffaa was a liar. A crook. We became obsessed with the idea. When he left us on the roof of a certain hotel he took us to with a view of the water, we discussed our plan. He was away to settle up the bill. He let us know when we ate, he ate, and we paid for him, too. Fair enough. We all ate well of maybe $12 split between me and the Texan kid from the Jesuit High School. “He’s working for them. This is just some con job. Some scam. Everyone here is a fucking conman, a scammer, a beggar with one fresh outfit I bet the fucker beats his wife into washing every night. We’ll be lucky to get out alive. We’re never getting back, are we?” We had paid him to deliver us to the writer in order to test him. We were sure he was going to sell us out. He could be taking us anywhere. We walked about the old city, shuffling from alley to passage or street, avoiding all manner of twisted beggars, rotting children, and sewers rank with the fermenting contents of humanity and quite a few stray dogs. It was a city of men. Like the film Laurence of Arabia, this real world was one were women made but a cameo appearance, usually as a shuffling ghost covered in sheets the locals called burqas beating some chicken to death or hammering on nopalas until they became food. No wonder, with the men all holding hands and sitting together in cafes that displayed larger-than-life portraits of the playboy prince and his even more handsome younger brother, young men and boys playing soccer in the streets with their lean athletic bodies lightly sweating as they lunged to block a serve, in the distant fading light the Mullah calling to prayer, more men gathering together to kick their shoes off and lay on cute little carpets they carried about themselves… that we were called faggots. “We are close by” Mustaffaa whispered, he always kept his voice down as if he was afraid his co-conspiritors would learn he knew English, as if they didn’t already speak it. And Spanish. And French. And German, and some Dutch, and he also spoke Portuguese, a little Japanese, and said he was learning Russian since more of them were showing up lately with the collapse of the SOVIET Union.
Up some final stairs, maybe it was down a hill, the day was hot but dry, much like Texas I was told, and I was not as hydrated as I should have been since while beer and wine did not exist I managed to swill tea until I was seeing things dance in the corner of by eye so I could have been anywhere, but we came at once out of the twisting maze of the Old City, away from the crowds to a more orderly part of the city. “This is where the French lived,” we were told. “The French City.” We were told again as if we had uncovered an ancient and strange ruin, a ruin Mustaffaa said he wished he lived in rather than the smelly dank hot walls and ahem rigged Medina.
photo (14)What was before us was a radial system of arms. Upon each arm rose a line of blocks. Upon each block was described various openings. Some of these openings were windows, places people lopped or stuck in air conditioners depending on their income, others were doors, most of which at one time had been guarded by doormen, had lobbies of some 1950s grand design but now were to a place all rubbish strewn and turned into a slum by the new army of indigent indigenous who living here may have represented a middle class of some sort. Even so, it was cleaner and more orderly than the Old City.
The sun, Mr. Sun as I called him as a child, was a cocksucker, a word I was not allowed to use until I was quite older and on my own. In the Old City Mr. Sun was somewhat cock blocked by the tall towers and irregular viaducts, screens built over the narrow market streets or those bright blocks of burning rays that made their way to the ground were sprinkled with water by the vendor whose stall had come under the attack by the open desert so that the water evaporated by the sun in the dry air made the space seem cooler, more comfortable. In the Modern City, the French City, Mr. Sun had his own day, the streets lined up to offer no shade, no vendors were in the residential district, no humped and elderly Burbers came out to sprinkle water on the thin and boiling tarmac. We opened up a proper sweat. “Not far,” Mustaffaa answered, as he had for the past hour, giving us a smile. “We’re going to be robbed. How are we going to get back to where we’re staying? I don’t even know what the goddamn place is called!” The streets went in measured blocks. Time passed differently than it had in the Souq.
We arrived to a set of buildings that resembled in my mind the old Pan Am terminal at JFK airport. Even if the details of the lobby had been effaced, and there was no distinct charm in the tower that at one pont had been white washed and the windows clean. I could still see that Modern element, that hopefulness for the future that the Ped Nior carried right to the bitter end of revolt and expulsion from their homeland back to their… supposed homeland, but after a hundred years of living away these people had changed in subtle ways and they were unwelcome there, too. The Modern was already in ruins. What I remember as the small things. Bottled water was still emerging, so the majority of the litter was the usual scraps of paper and plastic bags. The piles of sand within the vestibule where the doorman once held sway seem now in my mind the dunes of the far desert, the disputed western territories beyond the rift valley and corresponding mountains. The mail boxes, still with their French names in the little compartments, but the entire system was vandalized and it was clear mail had not been carried to this building since liberation. This way. And I will go no further, our guide whispered. I will wait outside. This is the apartment number. He passed us a scrap of paper. I have done this before. The door will be answered by a servant. Tell him you want to see him.
Later, we were back in the old city. We were celebrating. We were drinking tea. We gave Mustaffaa a few extra of our currency. We invited him for tea, but he was clearly not interested in our encounter with the writer. “I can’t believe it!” he told me after Mustaffaa had told us he was leaving for the night, to return in the morning at a certain and early time, after he was done beating his wife in order to get her to clean his one change of clothes, “He wasn’t lying! He is OK.” I was glad too. The experience with the famous guy was fun, but for some reason, perhaps because of my age, perhaps because of some complicated reason to do with my father not raising me, I also was very glad we were wrong. Mustaffaa was not one of them. While he was part of the horde of corruption about us, he rose above it. Was truly a man of his word. He was our friend. Except we still continued to believe he beat his wife in order to press his blue pants into order every night. How else was he so clean cut in a hot and sticky sweaty eww and stinky streets he plied each day taking tourists fresh off the boat on tours of the Old City, the cramped and tight spaces only a local could know.
photo (12)In my travels, I came across the French City attached to each major location I traveled to. From the banks of the water to the far reaches of the sands where Burber and Colonial feared to enter least Mr. Sun burned them to embers before torturing them with thirst and madness. The radiating smart orderly streets. The clean buildings built to the same rational code, the Age of Reason, the rational, the social planning of ordering your menses and spacing of electrical outlets in the same measure struck me, but I was still lulled by the romantic aire of the Colonial life, the malarial nets over carved beds the Arab doormen dressed as Frenchmen, the flowers delivered by hand, the lack of roadblocks manned by men who stunk of hash and posed you in front of your car with them as they held their AK47 rifle up because you were Mr. Amerrikka and you were funny for traveling in their country…. Photo? You? They often asked.
But, the French City, was order from chaos. The clean and open hot sunshine broke away from the dark and confined places of dark incense, mystery, and outbreaks of typhus. The empty streets had cars of all vintage parked here and there. No one allowed street parking by night, it was too unsafe. No one came out to water the burning pavement, there was no foot traffic in front of the kebab place hidden down the alley, the place where the elderly man lights up his hash pipe with the same fire he cooks your dog.. ahem, goat… kebabs….
I was told the pool was closed due to the health inspector saying something was growing in the pump. It didn’t matter, I was asking him only as a joke since the pool area had a strange carpeting around it and the only people milling about were the usual rape-y contractors from out of town. Clearly the man from India had not spent enough time in our country to learn our double speak. You say, “We are refreshing the pool area as part of our regular maintenance regime. I am sorry for the inconvenience, would you like our 800 number in order to fill out a brief survey?” The rest of the hotel smelled like every other humid and artificially ventilated cheep mattress and plastic wallpaper place I had ever stayed in roadside America. The city I was at for what it was worth was a strip drawn in the sand and filled in with cement and light up letters, most of which were M. I was running the line, so to speak. That is, if one does not consider that along the way each side was filled to capacity with all sort of roadside America and then suburbia-style habitations, each the same in its own way. Signs snapped at my eyes, distracted me more than any text message could ever. Specials, all-you-can-fucking-eat-man, car repair dude where is your car, nightly rates for day trippers, all manner of lit up clothing, shoes, ticky tacky it-titty bitty bitsy with larger signs, beacons calling the attention of drivers who had long ago given up looking at the road ahead of them. The signs reached to the sky only bested by the power poles and occasional Frankentree the signs pumped light out of the deep dark rich coal wrested from the asshole of some mountain or scooped up when said mountain was lobotomized and the coal poured into one of our “clean” reactors-energy-thingys.
I was in…. Omaha. Right on the edge of what was left of the city. Or perhaps I was in Sioux City, next to the construction for the new Hard Rock casino… not the part on the Iowa side but the Sioux City in Nebraska. The strip malls and fast food places all the same, save for a few regional variations. Each road I drove on, a line pointing at coordinates of the globe, the far off to sister cities and economic free zones taking me from hotel to Pancake House to Waffle World to City Transfer Station and Dog Pounding Taco Zone. Pushed away, tucked up the rivers of light and plastic, the residential districts were safely off the main road, shut off by gates or just large signs advertizing clever marketing names like Fox Run or Coonswallow Brook, Coney Island Whitefish Stream or Complex Derivative Default Swap Acres or whatever forest or field was leveled in order to build a cul-d-sac cluster of fine McHomes and populated with underwater mortgages and angry fat guys yelling at their Play Stations. Except for the places there should be a four-way stop rather than a flashing yellow light, some lanes that really needed to be 45 rather than 35 MPH, everything was rational and measured.
The spaces marked for parking were marked, the handicapped spaces placarded. The cops were there too, ensuring that speed limits, as the sign said, were strictly enforced. Everyone has their hand out in some new and rational way.
The New City is outside of Albany, NY. Outside of Smithtown. Attached to Birmingham. Sucking off of Ottumwa. Bleeding Anytown USA dry as those Pied Noirs oppressed and pushed the people into their quarters and sectors. The New City is colonial. We have been captured, our land occupied, our landscape is sold to us as part of the American dream but it is not. There is nothing American about it. The happy pigs eating hot dogs in neon, the $64 a night places with festering pools, the Doughnut Shake Hut Taco Wigglies nothing but a foreign force by an elite who are more than satisfied to create the Geography of Nowhere because their wealth has allowed them to rise above borders and nations and be international, to create their own countries that exist anywhere their money can land.
I was told the city was dirty. The people of the city were thieves. Crooks and liars. I was told that we were not to speak of the princes. Nor the elderly king. Not even in whispers. The wreckage of the colonial was now just another part of the city, the old and twisted fortress area, the unplanned and unkempt port and remaining docks. I was told to press further in, to the center of the country since there I would find the “real people” the “real country” which had not been touched by the French Cities, by the hand of greed and modern want, by the plastic bags and chairs that blew about and hung in the cacti, by the grabbing hands and slurs against foreigners. The real people loved new comers, since they had yet to be hurt by them.
Our New City is everywhere. Even in the interior. From the top of the hill I could see and endless pulse of blood, the red tail lights the white headlamps. On each side, eternally, the Steak-O-Cow, Auto Moon Unit, Gas-N-Buzz Off, and Everything for One Dollar Except The Things That Are More places were lit up, their light reflecting off the sky. I stopped the car at a traffic light. Cameras watch me. Perhaps the French are watching too.
photo (11)

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