City Beats (Omnibus)


City Beats

It’s another night of black onyx and ivory, dirty pavements and taxi queues, stiletto pumps and heavy eyeliner. The skyscrapers above us look like the burnt-out husks of shattered giants, the sidewalk rendered dark gray by night after night of filth, the lights inside the diner on the corner are dim to the point of resembling a grinding inferno, and the waitress won’t take your order. The dark sky above seems to buckle and churn, the stars hiding their faces, lost in amber fog. This place is hell, you’re drunk, and you can’t imagine the sun ever rising again.


A Night at The Ivory

Keyshawn tapped a few keys on his laptop, fiddled with a few dials on the main console, and all of a sudden the hall was filled with the electro-screeching of that blond dreadlocked pop singer from San Diego with the symbol in her name, @isha, or something.  Her music sounded like a brain-damaged text message, somehow essential to her rebel sex kitten image.  So many contradictions had to be stirred into one celebrity to keep it interesting.  The club, however, went wild upon hearing the first few bars, and they subsequently started gyrating with new purpose.

How can you play this garbage?  I shouted over the din.

Naw, man, Keyshawn shouted back with his lopsided grin, White chicks love this shit, it’s a fucking honkydesiac.

I chuckled at his portmanteau, and went back to staring at the ceiling.


Qualifications: A Night in Adams Morgan

Lord Shiva stares from among the shelves of liquor in the color-changing bar.  Episode where Anthony Bourdain goes to Uruguay.  Twelve ounces of Kingfisher lager.  Dry Sack, Kentucky Gentleman, Drambuie.  Mango nectar, middling-quality vodka, ice.  Poison/life swirled into a chilled martini glass.  I let their nasal chatter fade away into the background, let them stare at me instead.  My eyes do not follow you, I let you instead ponder my mystery.  Or, the mystery of these plastic flowers in the sensuous, round vase beside me.  Anthony Bourdain sips red wine and Coca Cola in some forgotten concrete jungle of Montevideo.  No tengo ritmo, soybeans and puffed rice in chilis, what a Nepalese farmer eats for fortification before the day begins.  Here, my fortification is for blank conference rooms and sprinting up escalators.  I like fish and mango pickle.  Somewhere distant, they are giggling and laughing over real Nepalese food.  Here, I accept a facsimile and imagine I am somewhere else.  Ice cubes delicately tipped into a slender glass of mango nectar.  Elsewhere, death in the kitchen.


Casablanca 2010

We are seated in a tiny upstairs café in Casablanca, overlooking the five-way intersection.  It is only a few blocks from the Parc Mohammad V, but the din of the Saturday afternoon crowds is barely audible.  The waiter sets down our tiny espressos with a clatter, but I barely notice.  I am still quite distracted by the heart-shape her face takes when she gives that mystical little smile.

Quoi?  She asks me, eyebrows raised, and proceeds to mix the sugar cubes into the thick espresso.

Usually I never take sugar with my coffee, but today I stir in both cubes.  The next evening, when I kiss her in front of the cinema under glowing red neon, I faintly taste the smoke-tinged sugar on her lips.


Graves

Boys with expensive haircuts, girls in expensive dresses.  Girls talking about their summer in Germany, boys talking about a Swedish vampire film.  Medallions around their neck, skinny jeans tapering into pointed leather shoes.  Skinny, skinny everything, so skinny as to be untrustworthy.  A diner in Austin, a punk rock club in New York City, coy questions in French, conversation consumed with weary irony.  A whiskey and ginger ale, thin hands nervously caress the wrists of the tallest boy in the vintage football t-shirt.  Where to find cheap sushi, cilantro, and Tom Robbins.  Tear down these walls, wrench the mace from Satan’s fist, and confront hell with barbaric screams, eyes of fire and blood.


Bill Lang and Artichoke Ramekin

Back in the 1990s, artichoke ramekin and Bill Lang made the Loring Cafe famous.  The idea was to eat the fabulous artichoke ramekin in the outdoor alley dining area while listening to Bill Lang play be-bop up there on the roof.  Problem was, bats loved to dive at him up there in the  semi-dark, so Bill had to take up wearing a bicycle helmet.  In the winter, Bill moved inside to a small crows nest set up in the corner of the grotto-like dining room.  He had to climb up a ladder to reach it, and he’d sit up there like a scowling jazz demon in the dim light.  The Loring closed a long time ago, so all we have now are stories about Bill Lang and the artichoke ramekin.


The Blue Hour

She calls at three in the morning and dares me to come over.  It is cold outside, cold enough to carry every single noise into echoes of infinity.  All is silent except for my footsteps, which sound like the soundtrack for another movie entirely.  She told me that she is tired and cranky, but I still want to feel her ivory cheek against mine, even if only for a moment before we fall asleep.  The sidewalks and streets are so empty, there might as well be only the two of us existing in the entire universe.  I pass through amber pools of light thrown by towering streetlamps, measuring the distance and time before I arrive at the door of her apartment building.
Two long minutes.  Here is the door.  My choked voice breaks the silence of the night.


New York City Minutes

Lady GaGa is eyeing me from her perch above the permanently shuttered Virgin Megastore. The lights swirl into patterns that I swear I will remember forever, but of course I forget it all in the next dazzling second. The streets are wet and flecked with detritus, but you catch only glimpses through the humid humanity. Meg and I stop to take our picture with Lady GaGa; she is a silent sentinel over the hundreds that blink past her enormous sunglasses. Not a soul can read my face, I play with the cards close to my chest. We share a quiet moment together, Lady GaGa and myself, and then I am spliced into the mob once more. My black shirt is tight, and perspiration is gathering in an uncomfortable line on my collar. I imagine my forehead is shining in the deep crimson glow. She is standing on a bar somewhere in this city, slaking their thirst.

White linen, heavy. Everything in this miniscule Italian restaurant is heavy, from the velour chairs to the accent of the lacquered waiter. I order a glass of thick red wine to go with my prosciutto and spaghetti, the thick cream sauce playing tricks on my eyes in the hazy light. Extroverted roses sit in a vase beside the bar, while an extroverted rose of a different variety sits in the chair to my right. Neapolitan shrieks of burgundy and ivory, my mind settling into a wet stupor.

The Pakistani shopkeeper tilts his head back in laughter as I choose a sparkling, sequined piece of gauzy black material that is five sizes too small for me. I try to explain to him that is for someone else, not for me, and I nearly knock over a row of cheap plastic Statues of Liberty. I try not to let it slip that it is for a Maithali girl from Queens. Across the street the multistory monstrosity dedicated to M&M-related merchandise mocks me in its elegance inutile.

Twenty-four dollars twenty four hours a day open open open girls girls girls. There are dozens more shops with the same fluorescent lights illuminating the faces/histories of passing pedestrians. Their thoughts are on other things: the cast of “Wicked”, fish in Fulton Market, walking the dog in Central Park, 1800 in a silver bottle behind the bar, a carton of milk in the back of a narrow Bengali grocery, the sassy rhythm of a rooftop saxophone, dashikis in Harlem, sepia photos in a dusty ancestral album, Joe and Joe’s Pizza in distant Brooklyn. I am thinking about these things too…

I walk past three Mourides hawking fake Prada bags; I bark a greeting in Wolof and their dark faces crack broad smiles. Further down the street, there is a shawarma stand with a line stretching down the block, disappearing in the infinity of 6th Avenue. Just a few steps away are three more shawarma stands, empty of customers. Nobody can explain why everybody is waiting in line at this particular one. All those that sleep are high above our heads, the fires of hell burning below them. I am but a familiar spirit wading through the damp abyss. The subway rocks the joints in the asphalt, but I manage to keep in rhythm with the screeching WALK sign.

Black sport coat, black t-shirt, check to see if the mojito glass is empty, my hair stiff and bristling in the blast furnace heat. My head feels like it is two feet wide. A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck as an impish blond explains her obsession with the media, her life centered on NPR and the Daily Show. I appear interested, but the ache behind my eyes will not go away. The audience at Saturday Night Live tweets from Blackberries, too distracted by the universe inside their devices to extract any beauty from their memories. Fish tanks are stacked behind the bar, guarded by a male bartender in size zero women’s denim. I picked the wrong decade to visit New York City, or perhaps it is just the company that I keep.


Cafe Freedom/Citronelle November 2008

The lights are burning deep into my eyes.  Not that the lights are too bright; this room with the high ceiling is dim, but it feels as if all the demons of hell are burning into my eyes.  The turmoil began on Monday, the desire to start screaming at the top of my lungs.  I think I did, at least while I was alone where no one could hear me.  So, now I sit here in the frigid corner of a crumbling coffee shop.  The coffee is cold, the beer has gone flat, and the tea, well, the tea…
The tea reminds me of the taste of her mouth, a mix of sweet-sour burgundy stirrings that makes me lose my eyes.  Now my eyes just burn.  For some very odd reason, the unshaven barista of this hellishly dim coffee shop has propped open the front door, and now the cold air is pouring in like an invasion from Nunavut.  I always get angry at the irrational decisions of others, but I can never explain my own.  It is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
What should I do?  Go outside, kick at the snow and rotting leaves, curse and light a cigarette.  I quickly decide against it; better to just crease the page over and try to make something jump out of this mangled paragraph.  In a few minutes, I think, the frustration will finally take effect and the burning in my eyes will quietly subside.


Minneapolis (Alisa)

A man stands at the intersection of West 43rd St. and Upton Avenue on a warm Sunday evening.  He proceeds to howl at the sky.  The traffic lights continue to mutely cycle red-yellow-green.

She says that there will always be a place for you, if only on the couch.  Instead, you may stumble into her apartment around one in the morning and throw up on her rug.  You might be mumbling something about wanting to take a swim in Cedar Lake.  In the morning, to apologize for your crude behavior, you might make her an omelet and an extra spicy Bloody Mary, just the way she likes it.  However, when you are finished you discover that she has already left to go to work.  You touch the extra plastic nametag lying on her nightstand, mixed in with the rings, bracelets, and old movie ticket stubs.  You let yourself out, making sure the cat she is cat-sitting does not escape.  It is somewhere around 10:30, and you catch the 18 bus to wherever you are supposed to go.

She didn’t know where he had been. Out with the City, catching up, exchanging stories, reacquainting himself with her dark corners, she guessed. She didn’t ask any questions, did her best to brush the cat hair off the couch cushions, dragged the extra blanket off her bed. She woke him up, groggy, absent, very early in the morning, asked him to kill the centipede in her bathroom. He did and she forgave him for the vomit on her rug, but not before he fell back asleep on the couch, the cat sniffing his forehead, pawing at his ear. She went to the kitchen and washed a bowl, in case he wanted cereal when he woke. Late for work already, she grabbed her purse, forgetting her nametag, shooed the cat away, who was licking his bare shoulder, and ran out the door. She didn’t need to lock it, knowing he would let himself out when the somber summer sun through her dusty blinds became too much.

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Buki

Most of the time you have to sit out all night to see the hyenas.  They come under flickering starlight and waning moon, always under the pretense of illusion.  In the small hours of morning, everything that murmurs on the horizon seems to be illusion.  I always have to rub a few blades of grass between my fingers to make sure I am not dreaming.  Surely this insomnia is unhealthy, and hyenas cannot be good companions when one cannot sleep for nights unending.  In the morning I walk to the heavy paw prints in the salted mud, just to convince myself it was all real.  Here they are now, circling, their burning eyes and charred pelts reeking of hunger and shadows.  One of these mornings…

Night of the Gargoyle

Moving through the silent streets of Girona at midnight, Lochlen heard few sounds besides his own footsteps.  We remember, we will never forget, he thought to himself.  He looked up to gaze at the ribbon of stars flowing between the tops of the tall buildings.  The wind creaked against the wooden doors and shuttered windows, and Lochlen drew his cloak closer.  He pulled the black woolen hood tighter over his head, whispering a prayer to ward away the chill.

He knew the inherent danger of bringing the emerald on this road, through this city, but it was the only way he could get to Rome; there was too much threat at sea from the Ancient Ones and the forces they controlled underneath the waves.  He travelled by night, and scuttled through towns watched only by the moon.  At times he worried when clouds passed over the moon.  He knew the forces that sought him hid in shadows, and could approach in silence.  Now he was worried; someone was supposed to meet him at the steps in front of the enormous church.  He had looked up at the church, and silently communed with the gargoyles, high above him.  Minutes passed like hours, the chill and the bats flying overhead reminding him that he was awake and not dreaming.  Then, he had felt something nudge his consciousness, from below, from a deep gutter he spied in the recesses of a stairway he had not noticed before.  The stairway led somewhere dark; he could see etchings in the worn stones at the top.  He needed to find his way towards water, and he knew Girona had bridges over a river.  Thus, he has slipped away, wary as ever of the shadows and tendrils of fear that crystalized in his mind.  The intelligence he had received was that a cabal of nightwalkers dwelled here, but he was not sure that they would be concerned with the emerald he concealed.

Lochlen pushed forward cautiously down the winding staircases and through the streets, focusing his mind on the emerald nestled in his cloak.  He could feel a twinge beginning in his legs, and knew that something was near.  Finally, he came around a corner and could see a bridge ahead of him.  At that moment, a wave of freezing fear washed over him, paralyzing him.

He looked behind him and glimpsed something enormous in the shadows.  Lochlen looked to his belt for his dagger, and then felt inside his cloak for the lump inside the leather bag.  When he looked back up, however, the enormous figure was gone from the shadows.  It was standing over him now, with cobalt eyes and enormous fangs, inside an aura of despair-inducing silence.  Lochlen felt a slight shiver go down his spine before his hand darted to the hilt of his dagger.

Night of the Jaguar

He began his tale:

There is a park in Costa Rica, in the Nicoya peninsula, up in the Northwest part of the country, called Monte Alto. It is near the town of Hojancha, and is made up of a dry tropical forest, not quite like the drenched, deluged, and cloud-permeated jungles in other parts of Costa Rica. Well, back in 2005, I stayed in Monte Alto with my field study seminar class on Tropical Agriculture and Forestry. We met up with another group of students from my university, who were up there for an entire month tracking jaguars with little cameras that had infrared sensors; whenever a jaguar walked past the camera aperture, the sensor tripped the camera. They had so far had zero success in taking photos of jaguars.

The jungle in Monte Alto was green, hot, and full of life. As we walked into the remote campsite, families of howler monkeys moved along with us in the trees…carving a whole different path 20 feet above our heads, never having to come to the ground. Birds with fantastic beaks and feathers swooped, chirped, and blinked in that curious avian apathy. Earth-colored lizards darted between our feet. It was paradise, and also extremely remote.

That evening, three of us (Shane, Tristan, and Walter) decided to go on a night hike. We gathered out flashlights, laced up our boots, and set off on one of the hiking trails. We climbed to the top of a hill, stared at the white smear of the Milky Way on the sky, discovered that we were surrounded by enormous spiders with eyes that glittered like jewels in the periphery light of our flashlights. On our way back down, walking down a narrow path with a wall of jungle on each side, we suddenly found ourselves being stalked by something about 15 feet off the path, in the jungle. Our lights couldn’t penetrate far enough in the jungle to see what it was, but it cast a huge shadow and made quite a bit of noise. Jaguar, we whispered, and hurried on, but the large shadow just hurried along with us. It eventually stopped making noise, blending back into the auditory orchestra of the jungle. We arrived at the big sleeping pavilion, climbed into our mosquito-net cots, and fell asleep.

That night, I awoke, and I was a jaguar. I was standing by my bed, on four paws, my shining coat covered in amorphous black spots that kissed both sunshine and shadow. I had whiskers on my face, a huge set of teeth in my jaws, eyes like bright blue lightning. I could see in the utter dark, I could hear millipedes whispering on the floor, I could smell the trails of every single mammal that had walked through the forest in the past few weeks. It was a jolting blast of new information, like I had opened my eyes for the first time, like I had touched a woman for the first time…a whole new world to explore, to understand, to feel beneath the fingertips of my memory. In one leap, I bounded out of the camp, racing down the trails, my thick tail keeping my balance as I went up escarpments and down tree trunks. I felt the power in my neck, enough to drag a tapir up a tree, I could feel every tendon in my legs respond to the terrain, my shoulders and haunches propelling me forward into the night. I could feel the high thump-thump-thump of the jungle’s rhythm, something I never would have been able to experience as a human, not native to this soil, not able to drink in the song of the night. I smelled it, so sweet, so intoxicating, I let it grip me and carry me on. I stopped to drink at a pool, the reflection of the heavenly bodies dancing in the turbid water, the stars and satellites wobbling and giving my fur a dim sheen from the moonless sky. I could hear/smell the tayra, the monkey, the sloth, the white bat, the coatimundi, the tamandua, the harvest mouse, the margay, the red brocket, the peccary, and the tapir. I wanted to follow each trail of scent forever, I wanted to leave my human form behind, I wanted to stalk these mountain paths until one day, toothless and weak, I would follow my ancestors and become one with the forest, wisps of my spirit in every leaf and shoot. I was lithe, I was agile, I was powerful.

However, soon, I could feel the blue-black indigo dawn arriving, and I knew I had to return. I ran up the paths, and past a woman up early, taking her morning washing to the stream. As I passed by her, she looked at me, one long, black braid falling past her shoulder. Our eyes connected, and I felt fear at the serenity I saw in her eyes. I quickly turned away back into the jungle, back up the familiar path, and finally arrived at the camp. I dropped soundlessly on the wooden floor of the open building where we slept, then felt the weakness return to my limbs, my fur fell from my skin, my teeth shrank, and my eyes became clouded and sightless once again. Then, I awoke.

That morning, at breakfast, the team of tracking students announced that one of their sensors had been tripped the previous evening, and they got their coveted photos of a jaguar loping through the night. To this day, I wonder if that jaguar was me, or if it was one of my brothers or sisters in the night. I never looked at those photos; I don’t think I could ever bear to.

And, ending his tale, he stared sadly into the last glowing embers.

Three Djinn

Somewhere north of here, there is a group of men huddled by a fire, surrounded by groaning camels.  They are camped next to a tangled, twisted tree, the only landmark for miles.  Their faces are covered by tagelmusts, their bread is gritty from being baked in the sand.  The moon is only half-full, and from time to time they glance at it, if only to reassure themselves it is still there.  One of the men is certain that the tree holds three vengeful djinn, at least that is what a marabout told him in a village not far from here, albeit many many years ago.  The others mutter in disbelief, but the root of fear has already taken hold in their minds.  The fire dies down, the men all go to sleep one by one, and once the moon is covered by a black cloud, the three djinn appear, ghostly shadows swirling around the gnarled tree.  However, they are not vengeful spirits, as suggested by the toothless marabout so long ago, but are rather indifferent to vendettas and drama.  The three djinn whirl around for a few minutes, then disappear as the moon reemerges, unseen by human eyes.