Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
When Man Sleeps…
Moazzam Sheikh (B.A., U of Punjab, Lahore), a resident of San Francisco, has just completed his first novel, Sahab. His work has appeared in The Adobe Anthology, The Milvia Street Journal, Mobius, Toronto South Asian Review, and others.
Sitting under the gaze of soft white lights, at a small round table, in the company of strangers, it suddenly occurs to me that I a mute witness am traveling through a unique time-zone of ineptness; the alleys of Biblical ghosts, it seems, have been frozen inside an indescribable void of history, a world I feel slipping through the cracks in words, like in a dream. Everything appears alarmingly normal I must confess, and people frighteningly at peace, undisturbed, unruffled, as if asleep. This calm, however, frightens me, and I feel an urge to shout, something, anything. But of course I don't; perhaps I can't. Have I become a prey to civility? Calm as the turquoise wind over the Pacific waters, I sit in a trendy, a trifle high-priced, yuppie cafe named The Clean Well-Whited Place. I venture in here to mainly relax, and sip my espresso; come here to ponder, cogitate, and forget. A small place of illusions—it is for me—to gather the rust of my stagnant dharma. Nothing more, nothing less.
A very friendly, and hard working Mexican couple of European descent owns the cafe. Their lineage can also be traced in the kind of food they serve: Greek salad; Mediterranean platter; Sicily plate. Next to Zapata hangs the photograph of a white man and a woman; a little distance, above the grinder, is the Pope, and to its right Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian. All the actors, I mean the workers here are young, beautiful, and white women. Except for the dishwasher. I think he's Cuban, or El Salvadoran. Or Costa Rican; even Nicaraguan. In any case, I howl, silently, Viva Castro. Women who work here, though it's strictly a matter of taste, are very attractive; their curvaceous yet slender shapes please the eye. That, I believe, is good for the business. This place is always packed, especially in the evening. I can't decide whether this place adds to my nostalgia or kills it.
I like the music they've put on. I liked their Third World music selection: Shahram Nazeri to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Los Van Van to Hamza ud Din of Nubia. When a worker puts on some Qawwali music, I tense up, sensing people might just acknowledge me a tad more, as if I am the Qawwali that's being played. I observe people carefully, turning it into a fun game because—I assume—they don't know it. But, then, I suspect, some of them must be observing me too. It's like Hide-n-Seek. It's mostly pleasant here except when a street person imposes himself on us—uninvited—and asks for alms. The owner—thank God—neither likes, nor tolerates it. That's when the dishwasher is dispatched to the scene and he tells the pan-handler to leave. Normally, I must concede, Mr. Pan-handler complies. Cafes are very popular in San Francisco. They form a life style here: The Cafe Culture. Like the boats in the veins of Venice; or the brothels in Amsterdam. People cafe-hop here, never forgetting to carry a book with them. I've been carrying One Hundred Years of Solitude for the last four months. It seems every fifth person I encounter is reading this book, like we're all in one enormous Solitude Book Club without knowing it. In San Francisco, people speak of writers with reverence, describing them often with metaphors, allegories and allusions, or twisting clichés into a labyrinth of de-meaning simply to get to the point. One gets to hear the poesy of this kind:
"Oh, then Henry Miller came into my life." Or, "Ah, Kafka crawls in my veins." Or "Rush" and "Die," deconstructing Rushdie.
People stop and chat with you if they recognize a book: "Hey, it's a great book, man!" And if you like the person you ask: "Ah, you've read it." And if the person hasn't walked away yet he or she admits: "Yup, long time ago, when I was in 9th grade." Then, as if obeying an instinct, you look at the size of the person's head. Mongoloid is the word that comes to mind.
Someone at the counter has put on Flamenco music, and I think it's Paco de Lucia. I love those minor chords, melancholy dripping from the strings like honey. Suddenly—I don't know why—Pakistan comes to mind, yet I'm not able to recollect anything concrete. Instead, I decide to nibble on my cheesecake. It's delicious and it's expensive, but I like it. And I can afford it. Tomorrow I think I'll try the carrot cake. The red-haired waitress yells out a name: "Pablo!" meaning Pablo's food is ready. This overwhelms me; I am impressed. I like the entire system, and the concept behind it. It's not like Pakistan where nowadays you can't trust others even with your own meal. It's not like Ethiopia where there's no food. Or Bangla Desh where people are too weak to eat, metaphorically speaking.
I'm happy here; make good money; save some too. And I love to travel as well. Not like Ibn e Batuta, making an ass of himself in Hindustan, or Marco Polo, who never got to see the Great Wall. But for fun's sake. Or more for the sake of the idea of fun. I pay four hundred and fifty bucks for my room in a nice Victorian flat with bay windows. One of my house mates is French, the other a Swedess. Albert the French and I try our best to impose our cultural superiority on each other: he his revolution, I my eternity. He his impressionism, I my Sufism. He shakes his Proust in my face, I wave Ghalib, and so on. Not too long after I moved in here the golden Swedess, Rosina, and I found ourselves intricately tangled in bed. Monogamy, she confided one night, isn't for me. I responded, it isn't my forte either. Though I don't like to admit it, she has brought fragile whiteness to my life. A milestone on the road to assimilation. It has been depressing for her to learn of her country's role in the Iran-Iraq war. But for all those Nobels and free sex, I say, give the Swedes two thumbs up. My soul-searching Rumis mistook me for an Indian during the roommate interview, but by the time they realized their miscalculation that I wasn't related to Gandhi and had never bathed in the Ganges, the landlord had already cashed the check. Bingo! But, I must admit, both of my whirling Rumis have complimented me, on occasion, on the finest Pakistani hashish; it's the best we've got, they say. Every time I pay my rent, I can't help thinking that a family of ten can survive for ten months in Somalia. The equation has a very Chaplinesque feel to it.
Hello hello, one two three! Tra rara rara! Back to the cafe. Yes, sir! Sunday nights. Free live music. Right here. Yes, sir! I see a musician getting ready to play his trumpet. People are excited, but they act sedately. The trumpeter, round-cheeked, is around fifty. He's fat with a flat nose; is black, but not black black. Women love to love musicians, and men musicians love to be loved. Now the fattie-pattie places the music sheet on the stand and dusts and shines his trumpet. People nod to him and he nods back to some, selectively. Howdy howdy howdy, nice tits! Howdy! Almost all the customers are white except for a handful like me. But we behave like them. I spot two handsome black men with white women, the model-type, one to my right and one to my left. No black women here. The fat man caresses the first note, and I am reminded of the angel Israfeel, in the Koran, the ear-deafening announcer of the doomsday. I can picture him saying, with a wink, O yes Godji, I get it, I get it. The time has indeed come, ho ho ho I now will ha ha ha end the world in D—for destruction—major, sir! totally flat like a chappati.
The Solitude in hand, I squint my eyes, when I think someone's staring at me, as if I know the piece. I am familiar with the titles of some of the music pieces and the names of their composers; it comes handy when one gets into a discussion about music. Oh shit, another street person has just walked in; he'll spoil the music. Suddenly I don't feel safe anymore. I'm alert and I'm cautious. The beggar, the damn fool, heads towards me ta dhin ta dhin ta dhin as a matter of principle I don't ever give out change tut tut tutta thaee he smells my thought and stops two tables short tri kiti dhun tri kiti dhun the young blonde man at the table turns to the painting of a fish on the wall taka dhin ta taka dhin dhin it's not Picasso's na dhin na dhin dha dhaee the blonde man has no change surprise surprise na dhir dhin na na dhir dhin na empty pocket he conveys sorry buddy dha dha dhin dhin nanana the beggar whispers something tut tut thaee tut the man hands him a cigarette tut tut thaee tut he asks for more thaee thaee tut thaee the blonde man is generous he hands him another cigarette ta dhin ta dhin tri kiti dhun tri kiti dhun dhun dhun.
The musician is spitting a mixture of air and saliva inside the trumpet, harder and harder, like he'll never get another chance. His glistening cheeks have ballooned beyond decency. I want to slide a pin through them. With that thought, I want to laugh, but, alas, I know, once again, it's improper. I'm being watched, oh yes, I know I know. Just when we, the customers, are beginning to feel antsy and annoyed at the pan-handler's prolonged presence, the dishwasher's dispatched. To our relief.
"I telled ju, didn't I, not to bug the customer?"
"Hey, bro! I ain't buggin', only beggin', man."
Our little Cuban pushes him a little; in return, the beggar smiles, while baring stained teeth of resistance. The worker applies the wisdom of repetition.
"Hey, man, don't push me, man," he protests. The pusher dismisses the protest and pushes again. "I said don't push me, you deaf or what?" But that's precisely what he gets.
"Fuckin' wetback, go back to your fuckin' Mexico," the pushed uses his last card.
"Ju fucking monkey, ju go back to Aafrica. I was burn here."
Burn, born, burnt. I feel nervous on hearing his thick accent. Although, people in San Francisco are fascinated with foreign accents, not every accent makes the New York Times best seller list. Yet it's always interesting to see two minorities clash. Out in the open. Once the street person has been pushed out, now harassing an orange-jacketed, back packed tourist, the atmosphere inside grows relaxed, calm as the ocean. Peaceful as the sand at the bottom.of the bottom.
I glance at a young couple by the window; they're looking out, up. The night is tender and the moon, like in Neruda's ode or in Faiz's couplet, full. In fact, it's not the full moon night, but it helps a bit if one thinks it is. It's romantic that way. I'm half way done with my cake, my delicious little cheesecake. I want to get a refill, but there's a long line. Paintings hang on the walls of this cafe. The style I can't describe; perhaps it's cafeism. People ogle at these paintings discernibly. Some laugh too—as though catching the humor beneath the colors—but always with admiration. Everybody in this city, in one way or another, is an artist. Then, by the grace of God, every third person is a writer, too. Most are reincarnations of Bukowski or Carver. Most have an unpublished manuscript or two thousand pages of daily journal soaked in ego. Many, too, are poets. Various cafes hold poetry readings, where the atmosphere is always very friendly; anyone can pass for a poet, anything for poetry. It's good for the art, it's good for the business.
I hear a siren. It's not of war but a police car. It's a small matter; it's important to maintain peace; it's the true duty of the system to protect one's wealth from someone who doesn't have it. Everyone looks to the window, as a police car bullets by, its lights spinning. In a few seconds the sound disintegrates like smoke in the polluted air. It seems the trumpeter is mimicking, oh yes mimicking the sound of the siren. Suddenly he decides to rest his cheeks, and smiles; we all clap, and guess what, he seems touched, somewhere, because now he gets up to accept alms, his rightful tip, turning his straw hat upside down. I donate two quarters.
He reclaims his seat. Holding her glass of burgundy, a fortyish woman struts up to him and chats with him. This touches him profoundly, because, I notice, he's scratching his crotch. As she sits down she knocks over his trumpet with the touch of her toes. We all hear the clatter, as the trumpet skates away; their hands reach out, at the same time, and their heads collide.
The man finally clutches the instrument by its neck and sits it on the stand, disdainfully, holding the trumpet at fault, gesturing to the woman, hit's awh right, dear, naw big deal, only an hinstrument. Please 'cept hits 'pology.
The musician pretends to laugh at something, but he wants it to be more convincing, so he laughs even harder this time, like a fit, jerking his head, as if trying to shake off something from his memory. Just then I remember my dream from last night. Or the night before, as it unwraps itself fold by fold. In a bright deserted alley, I see myself attacking a man, hitting a faceless person with a baseball bat, striking his head, killing. The person shrieks, yelps, howls, cries, his skull cracks. The blood appears, as he falls on his knees in slow motion, hitting his head on the street. Hands joined, he begs me to stop, but his voice doesn't reach me. His blood gushes on to the ground, turning into a red mirror. I stare at him stolidly as he dies, going limp like a sack of sand. And I realize that I'm dreaming a dream within a dream of another dream. I witness death as calmly as possible. Without guilt, remorse, or anger. Or pity. In short, I feel nothing. When I sleep, I believe, my conscience sleeps too. Another scary looking street person walks in. I immediately recognize her from the side-walks of my neighborhood. She's among the most impressionable fixtures here; she's weak and pale, but her deathly paleness doesn't show on her nightly skin. She's somewhere between thirty and fifty; her body'll die sooner than she. She's glued to one spot, frozen, as though she's a painted protest on a movie billboard. It seems she's hounding for an easy target. Her eyes, I notice, glow red as if she sleeps in a furnace. We look at her, a little nervous, a tad annoyed, a bit scared. I stop breathing too in a comradely way. She's fit her fists inside her pockets. The image of a small 'gun' inside one of the two pockets emerges in our heads. The sound of people twittering comes to a comic halt. I hate such situations. Dying in a place like this in a senseless shooting is not why I left Pakistan. I hate being caught between the black and white world. I stop corroding my cake, not willing to take any chances, for the sight of the cake might attract her, like a fly. I think of God, Allah, Ishwar, and beg for mercy, protection, please please please!
She's the center of attraction and, hell, she knows it, damn! she knows it for she represses a mean smile. Bitch! You mea. She charges in the musician's direction finally. Oh, he's not gonna like it. But thank God, it ain't me. The musician and his friend show their concern by staying too calm. She halts and quickly holds her hand out, her open palm a begging bowl. The two at the table jerk back, looking at her dark, empty hand. Quickly, their eyes, full of fear, shift to the mysterious bulge in her other pocket.
"Spare me some change for food, sir, miss?"
The fat man carefully examines the lump in the pocket once again. Helpless, the seated woman turns to the musician like Israelites to Moses.
"Could you, please, sir, ma'am, spare a quarter—a dime—a nickel—a pen?" She's distracted by the tip-hat.
The blood shoots to the dark man's eyes; we know he's had it. "Run along, girl; ain't got nothin' here for you; and don't you be lookin' at ma hat, okay? It's mine and I worked ma ass off for hit."
She stands stiff, like a stiff twig, unmoved by his passionate speech, as though she's heard better. I notice the dark man's adam apple move, glistening in the dark.
"you're botherin' customers, kid; one don't need to be a rocket scientist to see that." In a different situation this would have earned him a laughter, a clap, even a standing ovation, but now he might be playing with fire, with his life. The lump is still there. The short-necked owner of the cafe rushes to the scene. I expect her to pull the gun out and bang! bang! with a you fucking foreigner! He grabs her by the arm and pulls her away. I guess she's decided to not kill him. Plus, she's weak and cooperative. Perhaps time has taught her to not resist either. She's learned to like peace too.
"Come on, please, spare me a penny, will you?" She delivers her last lines as she's carried off the stage.
The musician writes her off with the wave of his fat hand as if composing All Blues.
Air begins to travel into our lungs again. The owner escorts her out to the world and scolds her. "You're the sinful Eve; don't enter my Paradise again." I think of the missing dishwasher. Will he get fired now? We all feel relaxed. The scary, red-eyed woman presses her nose against the big window glass and stares at me. Like a ghost. Of the dead man in my dream? I squint my eyes to see her better. I realize my stupidity. I notice her trembling lips, a flutter in the darkness; even her teeth don't produce a glint. She seems to be saying, "It ain't fair," or "can I have a tiny piece of your cake, sir?" Before I can take my eyes off, I catch myself mumbling: "No, you cannot, never, ever, have a bite of my cake. And now will you please fuck off. I didn't come to America to feed the likes of you."
People feel relieved, they revert to normalcy. An extremely sexy looking woman exclaims "Jesus Christ!" to the man who's started pressing his lips onto her neck. Rolling his eyes behind thick, greasy lenses, Mr. Dracula moans "A fucking loser!" in solidarity. I stare at the woman's long, white, almost bare thigh and feel a royal erection. Then I go back to my cake, my precious little cheesecake A woman at the counter puts on a nice piece of music: Brazilian Jazz; Black Orpheus? It cheers people up; makes them happy. Life suddenly seems a never-ending carnival of the mind, in the mind, for the mind. It is once more like a dream. Once again I say thank you God, thank you Allah, thank you Ishwar, thank you thank you thank you. I feel like Yasser Arafat, frothing with gratitude. Nobody likes disruptions, troubles, tragedies, calamities, wars. We like peace, love, sex, business, trade, prosperity; we like cafes, music, art, poetry, with or without rhyme. Or meter. Or reason. We like sleep, any time of day; we like dreams, any length.