Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Olympics

The Tour de France is over, and the World Cup won't start for a couple of years, so we're stuck with the Olympics. Athletes from the world over will be traveling to a totalitarian nation with one of the poorest human rights records in recent history. They will compete in an environment where the air and water are so polluted that some participating countries will fly their athletes in for an event, and then fly them out again lest the Beijing atmosphere do permanent damage to their lungs. The situation is particularly onerous for long-distance runners, bicyclists and swimmers, who will have to gasp and gulp air so foul one athlete likened it to eating charred chicken wings while sprinting.

So I wonder, did anyone ever ask the competitors what they thought of the site selection?

I can imagine the conversation Ethiopian marathoner Kenenisa Bekele did not have with the Olympic committee of his country. "So, Kenny, sit down, have some injera, have some teff. We want to talk to you about running some 26 miles in a little more than two hours. We know you can do that, but here's the rub: it's kind of nasty out there in old China. There are, well, particles of stuff in the air, and some of them are kind of big, like ball bearings, you know? So maybe, while you're running, you'll have to hold your breath. Think you can do that, Kenny? Oh, and it would be nice if you could break a record or two. Good for tourism and such."

I have a friend, a young trainer who hopes to become a member of the US skeleton team and compete in the future Winter Olympics. He thinks athletes in next week's opening ceremonies should all march into Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium wearing the white surgical masks favored by ancient Asian ladies out on a stroll in Los Angeles. Then, at the closing ceremonies, they could fling the masks into the air, much like Midshipmen toss their caps when they graduate from the Naval Academy. Personally, I think that's a nifty idea.

Here's installment 35 of Wasted Miracles.

Within minutes he was at Orin’s. The man in the wheelchair at first looked at him incredulously, then roared in genuine and vast amusement.
“You mean you did the daughter too? You did the mother and the daughter and didn’t even know it? Jesus, Colin, you’ll never ever cease to amaze me. That’s the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in weeks!”
Orin took two deep breaths. “Jeez. The doctor told me I shouldn’t get over-excited. Bad for the heart.” He pulled a large handkerchief from his shirt pocket, cleared his throat, moped his forehead.
“So what’re you asking me, Colin? What do you want me to do with that little bit of juicy information? Course you got to tell her. That’s a no-brainer. Is that all you wanted to know?”
He wheezed, coughed, cleared his throat again. “You know, that reminds me of when I was a kid, and I finally got this girl, Amy, I think her name was, into the sack after weeks and weeks, and then her sister, I forget her name, started to come on to me really strong. So--”
Colin could hear Marsha bustling inside the house. In a moment she was at the screen door. “What’re you tryin to do to my husband, Colin, make him laugh to death?”
Orin cleared his throat a third time. “But that’s another story.”
Not much help to be had there. Colin went home.
It took Joe the Cop less than three minutes to find the name of the owner of the limo bearing the license plate ‘Africa 1.’
“Kind of an interesting guy, Colin, into lots of stuff, apparently, in for questioning a bunch of times but never once charged. Caters to both the African diplomatic corps and some of the higher class dealers. His name is Dioh, Mamadou Dioh. Owns the Africorps Limo Service, five cars, family business. He’s from Africa, Senegal or something, naturalized a couple of years ago. If you want, I can probably get more information.”
Colin thanked him, said no, he wouldn’t need anything else, hung up the phone, the photo still dancing behind his eyes.

Chapter 9

Mamadou Dioh didn’t dislikes whites, they were an alien species even though he believed they’d done some beautiful things, though not so much recently. Offenbach, Rimbaud, Saint Exupery. All white. Balzac, Cocteau, Delacroix. White. Mamadou had a particular admiration for Charles DeGaulle, one of the ugliest man ever to walk the earth (a white giant), was fascinated by Napoleon as well (a white midget). The fact that most notable men he admired were white and French was not lost on him. He was, after all, Senegalese, and the decades his country had spent under French rule had forever skewed its people and culture.
Still and all, they were different, whites were, occasionally downright bizarre. History has a tendency to gloss over the eccentricities of the greats, and it was his considered opinion that whiteness had contributed to strangeness, which in turn had permitted the ones he so admired to become historical figures in the first place.
And Mamadou was not a fool. He knew that if he himself had been white, life would probably have been very, very different.
For one thing, many of the tragic events that had befallen him since his arrival in the United States probably would not have happened. Had he been white, he was certain, he would not have had to spend the first few years in his new country as an illegal immigrant. His first home most assuredly would not have been a damp and stinking basement shared with eight other illegals from four continents. He would not have lost his sister. Whites ran the world and that was that.
On the other hand, were he white he would not now be the owner of the Africorps Limousine Service; he would never have been a policeman in Dakar; and probably never have migrated to the West in the first place.
All in all, Mamadou Dioh thought, events had a way of evening life out.
He double-parked the limo near the corner of M Street and Wisconsin, adjusted his chauffeur’s cap, walked into Georgetown Pipe and Tobacco and bought three packs of Gauloises Disque Bleu. Back on the sidewalk he opened a pack, pulled one of the thick cigarettes out, lit it with a gold Dupont lighter and watched with interest as traffic flowed around his illegally parked automobile. No one gave the car a second glance. This was Washington, where limos were as ubiquitous as Toyotas. Drivers in the nation’s capital were used to circumnavigating the obstacles of the rich and powerful. The trappings of the wealthy gave Washingtonians a particular vanity they could revile in public and embrace in private.
He took a great deep puff, exhaled blue smoke through his nose.
He smiled at two black women waiting for a bus, was gratified to see one of them grin back. For awhile he watched the pedestrians, shoppers, tourists.
Wisconsin Avenue and M street, once the hub of Washington’s entertainment district, had changed, become seedy. The streets were dirtier and unswept, victims of the capital’s drastic budget cuts. A condom store was cater-corner to the Farmer and Mechanics’ Bank, whose gold cupola still dominated the corner but now looked in sore need of regilding. The panhandlers were out in force, squatting on their thin haunches at every street corner and impeding traffic, brandishing paper cups from McDonalds. Some, he knew, had been there years, taking home more than a hundred dollars daily in change and single dollar bills. It seemed as if there were more tourists, many Nordics and Germans, fewer Japanese, and that non-English speakers outnumbered the locals at least three to one.
He dropped the cigarette, ground it underfoot, dusted imaginary lint from the shoulders of his black suit and returned to the car.
Life was good. He was a wealthy man by most standards and eventually, when all the business he needed to take care of was finished, he’d go back to Senegal, perhaps buy a small house near the sea, and life would be even better.
He eased the car back into traffic, whistled tunelessly to himself. Tonight a party of 20 had rented his four cars. They were, like him, Africans, not Senegalese but from some impoverished nation that had recently changed its name for the third time in hope of erasing its sad past and even bleaker future. The Minister of Finance and his entourage were in Washington to celebrate the signing of a World Bank loan that would line their pockets and perhaps, with luck, build a few schools and health stations back home. Mamadou had never seen that particular minister but could describe him perfectly, probably knew by sight the expensive women rented for the night.
Mamadou shrugged, took his chauffeur’s cap off and carefully placed it on the seat next to him.
The minister would no doubt be generous. The imminent windfall provided by the World Bank would make His Excellency drink perhaps a bit too much and indulge in other vices not approved by any religion. Mamadou anticipated a good tip, somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred dollars, more if the hired girls were particularly adept. The girls would be white, he was sure of that. And blonde. One more example of how whites ruled the world.
Mamadou could even anticipate the exact proceedings for the coming night. First there would be a reception at the Embassy. The minister and his minions would show up late, dressed in flowing national garb. They would be very serious, the minister would don the glasses he’d purchased in Paris to make him look professorial, and there would be a speech followed by much talk about development, about poverty alleviation, about the necessity for macroeconomic reform and how to encourage the nation’s private sector. The hired ladies would not be present.
After the reception the group would eat at one of the better restaurants--Mamadou made a small bet with himself that it would be the Lion d’Or--and drink a few bottles of good wine. The minister would ask to be taken back to his hotel so they could all change to Western wear. After that, Mamadou would drive them up Massachusetts Avenue to an elegant apartment building near American University to pick up the ladies.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Plain English

"If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." H.L. Mencken

This is one of my favorite quotes. It's totally silly, and yet somewhere in the contiguous 48, there's a Bible-thumper who will read those words and rejoice.

English, some believe, is the second most complex language after Cantonese. I can't vouch for that, since my linguistic abilities--other than this adopted language--are limited to French, a smattering of Spanish, and about a hundred words of Japanese I learned in martial arts. Nevertheless, I am a passionate believer in learning the tongue of your adopted home. One of my most notable pet peeves is this country's willingness to bend over backwards, language-wise.
I do not understand why, in the past 20-or-so years, the US has gone out of its way to weaken its language base, to become a nation of idiots who are not capable of using an ATM unless the instructions are in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Portuguese. I do not understand why speaking English is not a requirement of citizenship. I am tired of dealing with store clerks and fast food employees who are incapable of filling the simplest order or providing the most basic of information. I don't understand why we're willing to sacrifice a brilliant, vibrant language and get nothing in return.

Europeans have long known that a nation's language is one of its primary sources of strength and unity. This is why breakaway nationalist movements, be they Basque, Tamil, Breton, Flemish, or any one of a hundred others, always rally around their own tongues.

The French, who truly love their mother tongue and consider it the most beautiful in the world, have an Academie which everyone not French finds risible. The Academie's comprises France's most notable writers, poets, playwrights and journalists. It works to protect the French language from accepting too many foreign terms at work and in the arts and entertainment. This is not an easy job, and the Academie has not always been successful. It has managed, however, to maintain French as the official language of France (fancy that!). It may be fighting a losing battle in the information age, but it will see that French does not become Franglais. Are you ready for Spanglish?

Here's installment 34 of Wasted Miracles.

“I hate doing this. Really, I do.” Colin and Catherine were in Josie’s room, the place was torn apart, Catherine’s doing. “If Josie ever saw this, she’d never talk to me again. We had a long, long argument about stuff like that, privacy, me going through her things.”
They’d moved the mattress off the box spring. Josie’s clothes were spread all around the room, Colin was on hands and knees running his hands under the bed.
“Nothing there. Jewel box,” he opened it, peered inside, closed it. “You’re sure you’ve gone through all the drawers, all the books?”
Catherine had. She nodded.
“See if the carpet’s been lifted, look in the corners. That’s the easiest place to start.”
Catherine paced around the room, bent down, tugged at the rug. “No. Shit. Shit shit shit!”
Colin turned, touched her shoulder. “OK. Let’s stop a second. Maybe there’s nothing here. Someplace else in the house? Try to think, Catherine. Maybe when she was a little kid, did she hide stuff in the garage? Someplace in the yard?”
He looked around the room, tried to find an area they hadn’t thought of. His eyes came to rest on the grill covering the heat vent. It wasn’t quite flush with the wall. He rotated the two screws holding it in, pulled. The unit came out with a small puff of dust. He reached into the duct. “Bingo.”
It was a small box no larger than three decks of card stacked on top of one another. Across the top, scribbled in childlike letters was the word “Emergency.” Four blue rubber bands held it all together. Colin handed it to Catherine, who looked at it for a moment, shook it.
“Open the damned thing, Catherine.”
She looked torn. “It just seems like such an invasion of...”
“Just open it!”
She shot him a hurt glance, rolled the rubber bands off.
Josie had lined the bottom with cheap red velveteen. The glass crack pipe glowed against the fabric. The pipe was clear, either hadn’t been used or Josie had cleaned it thoroughly. The box dropped from Catherine’s hand, the pipe rolled out.
“Oh jeez, oh, Colin, shit, how could she? After everything that’s happened, all the promises and talk and, shit. God dammit! How could the stupid little bitch do that.”
Colin bent down, retrieved the box, stepped on the pipe and felt the stem crack in two pieces beneath his foot.
“When I first got out of rehab, Catherine, I kept a bottle, just one. Johnny Walker Red. It was in a paper bag closed at the top with duct tape, in a gym bag in a bigger bag in a suitcase in the back of the closet. I never opened it, but knowing it was there made me feel safer.”
Catherine was shaking her head, tears running down her face. Her hands were balled fists, knuckles white. She brought up a foot, smashed it on the floor. The pipe’s bowl vanished beneath her heel and shattered with a small crinkling sound. She stomped it again and again, ground it into the carpet. Then she did the same to the stem.
Colin reached into the duct again. “There’s something else there.” He pulled out a folded manila envelope, opened it. “There’s some papers, letters, a picture.”
The letter was only two lines long, written in a hasty scrawl. Colin scanned it, gave it to Catherine.
Dear J:
You exhausted me. Let’s do it again. Sunday. My place.
On the floor. In the kitchen. In the tub. Can’t wait.
The poem was eight lines of undying love and promises in Josie’s handwriting. It rhymed poorly and the meter was bad. The photo showed Josie and a man, she smiling, he squinting into the sun. She was sitting on the hood of a long black car, he was standing next to her with one hand draped across her shoulder.
“Do you know the guy?”
Catherine shook her head no. Her hand holding the letter was trembling.
“Baltimore Harbor,” Colin said. “That’s where the picture was taken. I recognize it. That’s the aquarium in the background. I had to do some research there a month ago. On sharks.”
He peered at the photo, held it closer. “Oh shit.” The shot had been developed in May. Colin felt the breath hiss out of him. He looked at the photo again, muttered, “Can’t be.”
Catherine said, “Can’t be what?”
He composed his face as best he could, said, “Nothing, Catherine. Thought I saw something. My mistake.”
But Catherine caught the look of astonishment, saw bewilderment cross his eyes.
He glanced at the photo a last time, gave it back to her. “Nothing, Catherine. Really.”
She didn’t press him, said, “You can just make out a couple of letters on the license plate. See? AFR, and then Josie’s feet are in the way, and then 1. Do you think your cop friend, Joe, can do something with that license plate? Colin? You’re looking kind of weird. Are you OK?”
Colin wasn’t really listening, nodded anyway. The face of the young woman was etched in his mind. It looked nothing like the earlier photo Catherine had shown him. Now the resemblance between her and Catherine was obvious. Mother, daughter. Couldn’t be, he thought, yet knew it was.
To Catherine, he said, “I’ll check with him and call you later.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Independence Days

So it's four a.m. and I can't sleep and I have been very, very bad about maintaining this project. And, amazingly enough, some people have noticed! Who would have thunk it. I have missed the Independence Day some 18 countries, including Canada, the US, France, Mongolia, Iraq, South Korea, Argentina and Rwanda. Betcha didn't know Iraq even had an Independence Day, didja? I wonder what they use it for? Is it a holiday and do they blow up extra stuff

Let's see; what's new?

The Tour de France is brand new and scrubbed clean. No drugs, no steroids, HGH or other performance enhancing doobies of any kind. Or, at least, none that has managed to trigger positives on the tests. I am all for Taking Back The Tour. Also, Washington DC's Mall which has been treated for decades as a third-rate county fairground.; More on that at a later date.

The US economy, to put it in politically correct terms, is in the shitter. Lots of hand-wringing but the fact is we've been borrowing against the future for a long time and it's caught up with us. The dollar has fallen 40% as compared to the Euro since our current prez came in. The Saudis recently told Dubya to go screw himself when he asked for a price relief on oil. Things are breaking down--our infrastructure has reached critical mass. Bridges, roads, dams, power grids, schools, health care and law enforcement are stretched to the breaking point, and breaking. More and more people are having to choose between food and light. Homes and cars are being reposessed at record rate. About the only piece of good news is that GM will soon shut down the production of Hummers as microbe-sized SMART cars are becoming so popular there's a six-months waiting list. Cool, hunh?

And on the strictly personal side, a madman who thinks I slept with his estranged wife has threatened to kill me. That's a first.

Enough nonsense. Here's installment 33 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 8
We seem to have a small problem,” said the captain’s mistress to
the captain.
Captain Roderick Stuart looked up. As always, he was charmed by the sight of her. She was deeply tanned but the sun had not ravaged her skin . He knew from having watched her do it that she adhered to a nightly discipline of applying three different moisturizers, skin scrubs and a thick coat of mud she claimed came from the Dead Sea were the scrolls had been discovered. Her hair was thick and auburn, tied back at the nape of her neck with a bow. Captain Stuart smiled, pulled her down so she was sitting on his lap. “And what would that be?”
“A couple of hookers.”
“Again?” It seemed lately that every single cruise was beset by them and Captain Stuart remembered earlier days when this was not so.
“I already called the home office,” said his mistress. “They did some checking and just got back to me.” She waved a sheet of fax paper in front of him. “I wouldn’t have bothered you with it but you are, after all, the captain.”
It pleased him to hear this. At home, he wasn’t much of anything, as his wife liked to remind him. At sea, he was God.
He dislodged her gently from his lap, stood. “So what do we have?”
His mistress handed him the fax, took the chair he had just vacated.
“Jennifer Jamieson and Clare Drake. Two school teachers, ostensibly from the Middleburg Middle School in Virginia. According to the form, the cruise was awarded to them by grateful parents. Very hoity-toity place, attended by children of the horse country set. The problem is when the home office called the school, the school had never heard of these two. “
Captain Stuart said, “Hm.” The home office, he knew, retained the services of private investigators throughout the world and was on quite friendly terms with Interpol as well as the police forces of numerous nations. It was the price of being a successful line that catered to the wealthy. The home office had long ago learned that where the wealthy went, so did predators of all kinds. It sought to protect its clients and did not shrink from using its web of informants to avoid the slightest whiff of scandal.
“They’re in cabin 5-18,” said the mistress. “They’ve been quite discreet, actually. But they apparently aroused the suspicion of Mrs. Worthington, of the Ontario Worthingtons, who saw her husband conversing with both of them and then caught him cashing in a handful of traveler’s checks. The poor man was not up to his wife’s onslaught and confessed. It seems these ladies do not come cheap. Mr. Worthington had more than $2,000. That is apparently their fee for an afternoon’s pleasure.”
“Two thousand for both?”
The captain’s mistress gave him a sidelong glance. “Yes, for both. Do I detect a note of interest?”
Captain Stuart made a great show of denying any such thing. “No, no. I was just wondering. That’s quite a lot of money. What could they possibly have to offer for such a sum?”
The captain’s mistress ran her hands around his waist and down, cupped him gently through his trousers. “Well,” she said, “I can’t be sure. But if you offer me $2,000 for an afternoon’s work, I’m sure I could invent an interesting thing or two.”