I, Wabenzi

A Souvenir

Rafi Zabor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I, Wabenzi
I see that I shall have to speak about myself. The only possible justification is for me to be honest about the animal.
It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of '49, possibly well at the spring of '50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which makes me to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time.
--MARK TWAIN, "The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras"
Surely we created Man with the most beautiful of constitutions; then We brought him down to the lowest of the low.
--ALLAH, The Quran
I CAN'T REMEMBER who first told me about the Wabenzi. For a long time I thought it might have been Yale Evelev, over the phone from the New Music Distribution Service, where he worked press relations for a few years before producing a series of world music albums for Nonesuch. Yale's family came to the States from Russia some decades back. To take on a more American coloration, Yale's father changed the family name from Evelov to Evelev and named his firstborn son after a great American university. (It takes a while to develop an ear in any language. My father for one never made his way completely into English.) In any case it wasn't Yale: when I asked him recently, he said he'd never heard of the Wabenzi. Maybe it was Kip Hanrahan--he'd had the New Music gig just before Yale. But was he the source of the Wabenzi? I'll have to ask him sometime. Let's for the sake of argument say it was Kip.
I forget how the subject came up, but there I was on the phone with ol' Kip, probably trying, in my capacity as jazz critic to the nation, to finagle a few dozen free records out of him, and I suppose he must have mentioned the Wabenzi; or maybe I went into the story of how, in my battered parental grey Chevy Malibu, I had only that week contested a Lower East Side parking place with some space-usurping yuppie kids from Connecticut in a new-looking royal blue two-seater 380SL, and how I won the point--each of our cars partway into the space, mine backed halfway in, theirs nosing in from behind to ace me out of thespot--by revving my engine and shouting at them in a voice so full of a barbarian and pure Brooklyn savagery that it shocked even me, "HOW'D YA LIKE A BIG DENT IN YOUR NICE NEW FUCKING MERCEDES!" Heavens, where had I found such an unexpected reserve of class consciousness in the generally nondiscriminatory precincts of myself? or was it only because I was late for a meet with a notoriously impatient friend? Those kids backed out of that space in such a hurry I wondered how I must have looked to them, some ragged-ass embodiment of urban yawp and slumland fury thrust out a car window all beard and teeth and garbage cans around me as if I had built and ruined the neighborhood by myself (when in fact for all my boho credentials I'd never once lived in it). Little twerps--there were five or six of them in there, a regulation two in front and at least three more crammed into the semifictional backseat fit only for a suitcase or two--they were probably in the nabe to swallow goldfish, scope the beggars and score some coke: I probly saved them some trouble they were such marks. Anyhow, I parked and went off to see Hakki Bey.
"In Africa, they have a word for them," Kip, or whoever, told me.
I recradled the phone on my shoulder. "They have a name for who exactly?"
"For the people who drive Mercedes. The way they form tribal names ... well, take the Watusi for example. The i on the end signifies the plural, wa means People or the People of, and tus the place they're from or the characteristic they'd like to be known by Watusi therefore means the People of Tus. Africans call the people who drive Mercedes the Wabenzi."
The Wabenzi. I felt illuminated by the concision, the aptness, the implied perspective on character and culture, the kind of fools we make of ourselves, given world enough and time. I hoped to be capable of equivalent wit some day I was certain that I would never, ever be a member of that particular tribe.
For one thing, I have never, at least not since junior high, when the exactly right cut of tight black wee-jeans seemed crucial to all I possessed of personhood, been that keen on the symbols of worldly status. I am one of the least worldly individuals you will meet this side of the monastery or Notville, and in general, I have been so out of touch with the iconographyof loot that when Hakki Bey told me some years back how he and Shareen used to pull up to the one-buck movies at St. Mark's Place in this black Mercedes--I think this was when he was hooked up with those spoonbenders from outer space up in Ossining and they used to let him borrow the car--it was such a goof that heads would turn--"Hey man, imagine me and this skinny little black girl carrying our baby getting out of this big Mercedes to catch a couple of East Village movies for a dollah!"--well, I didn't even get the joke, or pick up on the polarities that made it tick. I thought Mercs were these sober-looking European cars, essentially modest, some kind of better-executed Volvos. Although I remember too, some years after Hakki's remark, tooling south down the Thruway between Woodstock and the City in an old '67 sky-blue Volvo 122S--in my early thirties, my first car--whose exhaust, toward the end of that vehicle's natural life, poured grey-blue through the firewall and the dashboard, then over me and out the windows. In winter I'd wear my Turkish white sheepskin coat and hat and crank the windows wide open so as not to croak of asphyxia before my time, tearing down the highway something like a literal house on fire, two plumes of blue jetstreaming out behind me carrying the souls of dead brain cells and fabulous with poison. I had some king-hell headaches halfway down and provoked commentary from the tollbooth attendants at Harriman. "You bet," and "Yes I will," I told them, "just as soon as I can." I remember thinking, amid my monoxides of delirium while peering through the streaming blue and grey at larger, more majestic chassis steaming south--they gave me plenty of leeway in the process, mind you--that Mercedes in some unnoticed interim had changed, the older, more modest ones having been replaced by elongated distortions of themselves whose most wretched excess was their stacked taillights and the strange, raised and slanted moldings along the interior undersides of their windows: functionless leatherette swoops which moreover would make it difficult to rest one's arm upon the sill in summer. Little did I then know that these "new" Mercs I so disliked were merely the S series then current, the larger items Daimler-Benz had always put out, the lux models, Hitlersize, always a tad pompous but much to be desired, top of the line.
Anyhow, years passed and I learned a number of things.
IT WAS AFTER my parents' deaths, and I was worn out.
I had gone back up to Woodstock in the hopes of starting my life up again after two or three years of unrelenting misery, and my friend Daniel--note the accent on the second syllable; I'm going to leave it out of the typography from here on because it looks like a false moustache--Furman was living in my Brooklyn apartment, where the furniture would not creak beneath the weight of memory for him, or the air clot with images of my mother raving while my father struggled for breath, and death looming but taking its time, making sure that every hope of mercy was crushed in its turn before mortality itself broke the door in and collected what was left. Where I had parked myself upstate, the winter's cold seeped through the dark log walls no matter where I sat in the room and the overhead light in its outsize Japanese paper globe swung so wildly in the periodic blow from the forced-air heater that one seemed also to be at sea, on the wrong day, pitching on some bitter North Atlantic of the soul. I practiced drums, visited friends, gazed wistfully at green mountains, paid hapless, too-mournful court to a local saucer-eyed Irish beauty, tried fitfully and without success to write fiction, watched interminable television, clicking discontentedly on the zapper from zilch to shining zilch in the hope of spending a minute or two without pain, and when I woke up in the sleeping balcony and looked out the small casement window beside the bed at the bare branches nodding outside in the grey morning tapping on the walls in an indecipherable but all too obviously minatory code, blindman to blindman and dead to the dead, I found it impossible to imagine how in a month or so they'd be green again, covered in the lushness of leaves and lifted by warmer breezes: the world was a cold barren empty place to which life no longer had the strength to return.
IN EARLY SPRING, my friend Nick Prestigiacomo called to ask a favor.
The spiritual healer he was favoring that year needed a place to workout of on his forthcoming trip to New York. Could I make my parents' place available?
I asked Daniel, and it seemed I could. He wouldn't mind spending five days in another friend's apartment.
So I came down to town, the world in leaf again, straightened the joint up a bit and prepared to receive visitors. Ken Lawton was a large-size genial limping Englishman about sixty with snuff all over the front of his immemorial grey tweed jacket--he kept a stash loose in the right front pocket and carelessly helped himself from it every couple of minutes. His wife, Alice, seemed, despite an elaborate, nearly court-Chinese arrangement of jet black hair piled atop her head, uneccentrically middle-class, the very soul of English teatime. I put them up in what had been my parents' bedroom and I slept, as I had during my parents' calamitous decline, on a thin, stowable foam mattress on the living room floor. Nick and a number of people to whom he had advertised Ken's powers started coming from the City to be healed the next morning, praising the pastoral calm of fair Brooklinium--the people say hello to you on the street! there are so many trees! it's so quiet and friendly and you pay what for rent?
"Brooklyn is the Borough of Homes and Churches," I informed them.
Alice had gone off to the City or for a walk in nearby Prospect Park, and I found myself in the living room, trying to read or write but actually answering the doorbell, greeting the pilgrims and making coffee to keep them busy while they waited. Ken kept them in the bedroom about half an hour each, accepted only a modest fee and sent them home ecstatic. "I was suspended above an abyss on a golden cord attached to my navel," one of them told me. "I was lifted. I revolved." Later, Ken gave me a freebie in exchange for the use of the flat, and when he laid his hands on, or rather over me, I had the pleasant but unspectacular sensation, not vision, of invisible barriers gently crumbling, like sandstone walls powdered by the rains of some other, subtler spring. Ken confessed his puzzlement at the wealth of internal cinema people managed to conjure up when he worked on them. He also told me that he felt sure, and he had talked it over with Alice and she did too, that I had quite literally been through hell but that good things were going to happen for me quite quite soon.
I had already pretty much decided to go to Turkey again by way of Europe, and probably on from there to Israel. It was my habitual route of self-renewal, and it might work again.
I found myself saying as much over coffee to Max Rosenblatt while he awaited his turn with Ken, me on the sofa, Max in the armchair and our white china cups of coffee--the good dishes, the ones my parents never used--on the large triangular glass Noguchi coffee table that went with nothing else in the room, all false late forties antiques heavy with needless ornamentation and ancestral karma. There were leaves and branches nodding yes outside the window, five storeys up, and a bit of a breeze wafting into the room. I must have gone on to describe the physical problems I was having--the paralyzing pain in my right knee that kept me limping, something like Ken, and unable to walk more than a block without stopping, staggered by the penetration of the ache; and the at least equal agony in my right elbow that stopped me cold every time I tried to pick up anything the weight, say, of a hardcover book--and that consequently I would be unable to travel in the manner to which I had become accustomed, heaving a suitcase on and off trains and buses, through the bare or busy streets of exotic or forbidding cities into cheap hotels and off the edge of civilization into caves in the desert, holy tombs, Anatolian steppes, wilderness, undiscovered country, annihilation, adventure, sometimes even love. "I'm gonna have to buy a car," I told him.
I probably failed to notice Max's face brighten. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah, and the thing is, since I'm going to Turkey I've got to buy something I can get parts for there, which comes down to a couple of old model Fiats and Renaults the Turks manufacture under license, not great cars, but if you need a part for anything else you could be stuck for months. And, oh yeah, you can get parts for Mercedes, but that's kind of out of my league."
"Not necessarily," Max said, brightening still further, something a trifle manic widening his eyes behind their heavy specs. His large, bullet-shaped head, with its time-heightened brow and close-cropped black hair along its sides, seemed momentarily to expand. "A couple of years ago, when the dollar was really up there, you could pick up a used Mercedes for like three thousand bucks--"
"Whaat?" (Somewhere in there I must have learned what Mercedes meant, and cost.)
"--and now that the dollar's sliding a little you might have to pay four or five."
"No shit?"
"No shit. You could pick one up, drive it around a few months, then sell it for about what you paid."
"Five'd be about my limit," I figured, "and if I could sell it after ..."
"No problem," he assured me, a broad gesture of arm and hand calming whatever waves of doubt might have risen in the room.
"A Mercedes," I speculated. "It's a good car."
"It's a GREAT car."
"Safe in a crash," I said, letting the siren sing to me in a voice for all the world like that of reason, "no small virtue with all those loonies on the road in Turkey ..."
"Safer than a Volvo," Max told me.
"Oh yeah. In crash tests ..."
And Max went on awhile, excited now, a car nut on the loose, and I joined in, about how I'd do best to buy one in Belgium, no import duties and it'd spare me a trip to Germany, I spoke French of a sort and there was no point trotting out, among Germans, a version of their language composed mostly of scraps of the familial Yiddish. And I remembered Belgium, walking the cobbled streets of Ostend one night with a British actress on my arm, stopping for a cold beer here or a brass band playing in a gazebo there, the unevenness of the stones sending the side of her breast against my left arm shoulder high (she was tall, Megan, and wore boots with heels, hence her need, on those treacherous continental stones, of my invincible arm): outward bound eleven years back in 1975 on my first trip to Turkey, where I had my best mystical experiences, lived at Mahmoud's, bless his departed soul, came down with pneumonia and wrote all those terrific unintelligible visionary poems. I wrote the first poem of the journey sitting next to the actress aboard the ferry just before docking beneath chalk cliffs in the dark before dawn, and saw herfor the last time on the passport line, except for once in a spy-thing on television. Twenty-nine years old back then! Could those bones still walk at almost forty? A Belgian Mercedes sounded reasonable. I had some money, most of it inherited, it is true, rather than earned, felt more dead than alive and could not for the life of me put together a credible impersonation of a functioning human being. A trip to Turkey seemed in order, a car seemed necessary, and as Max painted the picture a Merc did not appear all that extravagant. I did not remember that Max was a former mental patient who had flipped out while tending the chicken house down at the Gurdjieff plantation in West Virginia and that it had taken the statutory ten strong men to subdue him. Worse, later on he would be damn fool enough to buy a lean and low-slung used red Alfa that put a look of crazed adoration on his face but hardly ever ventured out of the repair shop.
AFTER KEN AND ALICE LEFT, Daniel came back and I took the subject up with him. "As your attorney," he said in his crisp Eastern European accent, fluttering the r of "attorney" like a morsel of lark's wing off the tip of his tongue, "I advise you to steal a bicycle." He settled himself further into the armchair Max had sat in and made his grinding chuckling sound. "Although if you intend to quicken the pace at which you are squandering your patrimony, a Mercedes will almost certainly serve you better than the collection of former girlfriends and impecunious male friends you currently support."
I should probably explain about Daniel. Ah yes, but how? See him anyway, settled into the faux-Victorian armchair with the aqua, cross-hatched-but-less-than-tweed slipcover, a tank of a man about five foot six, a natural heavyweight now considerably heavier, fat on his powerful limbs and a preposterous beachball of girth crammed between chest and plumbing fixtures, nothing drooping about all this weight, though; nearing the age of fifty now, his wiry, kinked, reddish brown hair cropped close and, like his aggressively well-trimmed beard, salted here and there with grey; something military in his bearing still, and in the precision ofhis speech, and one tooth missing, a small one in the lower deck, right. He might be wearing a suit, or more likely a shirt that would go with one, and perhaps a tie, loosened; cuffs on his trousers, no unemphatic endings on this man anywhere; and as usual an amused expression on his face. His eyes, there is no other word for it, twinkle. Although only recently accredited as a member of the New York bar, he has degrees in Renaissance and medieval history, was one of the principal contributors to the Encyclopedia Judaica, is a seemingly unassailable authority on a host of subjects if not initially obscure then quickly made so by his mazy command of dizzying detail, and he is still broke. That is why he is camping in my apartment. One of these days he is supposed to come up with some rent. At the moment, he is supplying me with a few legal services, gratis.
I first ran into him in Paris, summer of '66, when I was a nineteen-year-old stringbean on his first summer abroad and Daniel was someone sitting in an armchair and biting on a meerschaum or a briar at the back of Shakespeare & Company. He was beardless then, and only medium heavy, still only ten years my senior though I took him for a man of forty. His hair was a bit thicker then, though still on the short side. He wore a white shortsleeved shirt with brown and black tattersall squares, khaki slacks, sensible brown shoes, and had no need of glasses. His eyes still twinkled, with perhaps 35 percent fewer ironic complications, he had about the same grin, similarly discounted, and his conversational laugh, a short, wooden bark, was less explosive than it would be twenty years later. He was posing, effectively, as a man of experience.
I forget now the text of his first monologue, whether it was the one on how to take over Europe with twelve well-trained men or Switzerland with five, only in Switzerland life was so boring and regular it would be months before anyone took notice, or the one about how, when he was a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, he would punish his platoon by waking the men at three in the morning, compel them to stand at attention in the yard while he lectured them on the dolce stile nuovo of Guido Cavalcanti and, toward dawn and weakening knees, Dante. He would make them memorize a number of sonnets in the original antique Italian and order them recited in chorus. Or I might have heard the series oftalks on his experiences during the Algerian revolution, which demonstrated the falseness of all written history. On the other hand it might have been the discourse that began with the unanswerable question he posed after sufficient minutes of fashionably left-wing talk had passed in his company: "Excuse me, but hev you ever lived in a communist country? Personally I count myself very lucky to have escaped one. And I would volunteer to join the American army in Vietnam, were I not unwilling to fight in another losing war." (Daniel's penchant for shocking conversation persisted until the end of his days, but as it turned out, he did make an attempt before leaving Paris to enlist in the American army. This multilingual soldier-scholar, veteran since early childhood of several wars because born half-Jewish in Yugoslavia in 1937, was turned down as a likely spy.) Or it might have been the one that came after I had made a little speech myself and this after all rather formidable figure leaned forward to say, "Ah, I see that you still possess the visio beatifica."
"And you think that's funny," I said.
"On the contrary," he told me. "I envy you, because I no longer enjoy the privilege of that vision myself."
I spent some time with him over the six weeks I stayed in Paris, and learned that he visited Shakespeare partly to talk literature, philosophy and war but mostly to pick up tourist girls, that he roomed with a defunct Moldavian prince named Dmitri who looked like a pirate of the civilized-but-cruel typology whom Daniel had worked up into a credible if wholly ignorant international lecturer on metallurgy for a firm that wanted a prince on its payroll even if he had straw in his head: Dmitri memorized a speech Daniel had written for him and referred all questions to an aide de camp. For his own living, Daniel managed the domestic staff of the Paris Hilton on, he said, strict Legionnaire discipline.
I left Paris for Copenhagen, as did Daniel for his own complicated reasons weeks later, and I didn't see him again for eighteen years, and failed to recognize him when I did. He no longer smoked a pipe, although often enough he seemed to. With his short, bulky form and conversational capacity for life-enhancing irony he reminded me of Stendhal, a writer my high regard for whom he found inexplicable.
In Brooklyn, Daniel kept the apartment in scrupulously clean regimental order, although my father's bed had collapsed beneath him so many times he finally left the mattress and box springs on the floor, with the old mahogany posts, sides, and headboard framing them like a palisade around a compound, and he left a pungent natural smell about the place that seemed to me humanly analogous to a bear's.
"Well, D.," I told him, "I wasn't thinking of getting a fast one ..."
"They are all fast."
"Even something on the order of a 230E? Two point three liters, that's not a very big engine for a car of that weight."
"Less pickup but still able to cruise comfortably at one hundred miles an hour. I drove a number of Mercedes when I was working for the film company in Italy. They are well made, overpriced when new, and when you drive them they seem, how shall I put it, to be of a piece with your body."
"Do you think I can pick one up for less than five?"
"In Belgium? Possibly." He puffed on the invisible, extinct pipe. "A diesel will cost you less to run and maintain."
"I don't know anything about diesels--"
He started to say something more general but thought better of it.
"--and they're such poisoners. That pall of black smoke. Unthinkable." I remembered breathing in pounds of the stuff in Turkey. Inanoz bus lines. That's where I'm gonna punch you. Ina noz. Do unto others. Not to mention the atmosphere. Even if it costs you. Global warming. Here comes the flood. Though anything that puts New York City under water can't be all bad. Argal: no diesel. Preserve, protect, defend.
Daniel shrugged. His chosen weapon was a Mini. He no longer had the one his aged mother had smuggled into the States for him, but he had thought for a while of opening an informal Mini concession in New York; with each tiny car sold he would provide a booklet he proposed to write listing parking places around Manhattan legal for Minis but denied other cars: between crosswalks and the nearest parking meter, say, on such a corner, or an ambiguous spotlet near a hydrant on another--Daniel maintained you could park one virtually anywhere in town.
He had other cause to distrust me on the subject of cars. In its last days I had done him the favor of giving him the sky-blue Volvo, which by then had a virtually smokeless rebuilt engine under its hood. (By then it was known as the Raccoon: I had met a couple of Gypsies in a supermarket parking lot, and they had done some cut-rate fiberglass bodywork for me, much of it around the rusted headlights and grille, then sprayed their handiwork matte black, leaving the car with the likeness of a masked face on its front.) The car which had initially cost me $750 and eventually four or five thousand cost him between two and three grand as a gift, and on the day he finally called the junkman to collect it he was kept waiting overlong and was so late for his flight to Brussels that he boarded, at last, by walking out onto the tarmac suitcase in hand: they wheeled some steps into place for him and instructed him to knock on the locked door of the plane, whose name was Sabena, until a stewardess opened it up to let him in. He had to knock for quite a while. Picture it: in this age of terrorism, a heavyset, trim-bearded man in a trenchcoat, carrying a large leather suitcase, knocking on the gleaming, curvilinear door of a plane. What could they have been thinking in the left-side window seats of first class?
"When do you think you will leave Turkey for Israel?"
"Autumn?" I guessed. "Some time in autumn."
"Good. I should be there by then. I will show you my Jerusalem. I do not recommend travelling overland from Turkey through Syria and Jordan. Not for a person of your physiognomy."
"It's a temptation I will avoid. I will follow my nose."
"Then you will go far. And catch many fish. You will sail from what port on the Mediterranean?"
"Marmaris. Unless I can sail direct to Cyprus from Adana."
"If you sail to Cyprus from Adana it will be to Turkish Cyprus, and you will be unable to cross to Greek Cyprus and thence to Israel. So: you will sail from Marmaris to Rhodes, and from there board a ferry to Haifa."
"Insh'Allah," I told him.
"Deo volente," he said.
Copyright © 2005 by Rafi Zabor All rights reserved