Saturday, December 06, 2003

I am posting this on the 10th, dated the 6th. Not correct, I know, I don't think I can catch up any other way. It would have just been one long blog, with a beginning, a middle and an end. This way, it will be just snippets, little stepping stones across a whirling white-water rapid.

Larry and Carol had invited me for "Friday night movies", last night. Larry didn't say anything about my birthday. I didn't think they had remembered it, it really does not matter to me at all, I celebrate for a whole week, or more, without help from anyone. But Carol had remembered. I spent more than half an hour on the X-town bus, after waiting more than 20 minutes for it, and finally piled out at seventh avenue and took the subway. So, I was late, that is, not late, but later than usual. Carol and Lydia were watching Jeopardy, and there was a fresh baked plain cake on the table: "See, I remembered this year!" Carol said triumphantly. "Do you want any icing?"

A plain cake is just wonderful. Later on, after we had had Indian take-out (my choice), with red wine (I don't think I have had red wine in... six, seven, or is it eight, years?), and Larry had come home and we had all watched the Woody Allen movie, what is it, Love and Death, Carol explained to me how strange this cake was, because it was basically a pound cake with a substitution of cream cheese for part of the butter. And then the baking of it was weird, it was placed into a cold oven, sitting in a dish of water, baked at 200 degrees for x minutes, then at 300 for x minutes, and so on, and finally baked for a long time at another specified temperature, the general idea was hours of work, with constant setting of the timer and getting up to adjust the settings.

Just as we were sitting down to the cake, Pete came home, unexpectedly. He had gone to Princeton with this debating team, they were supposed to stay there for the weekend, but when their train got there, they were sent back, the event had been cancelled because of the snowstorm. So Pete and his team came back to New York and just went out to dinner together, and then they all went home.

It is heroic of Carol to bake a cake in that house: Pete does not like cake, Lydia only eats a very little bit, Larry never eats any cake at all, and so Carol and the guest of honor are just the two of you sitting there enjoying it. It was a very successful cake, very dense, plain and delicious, and I went home with the 3/4 of it.

Carol and Larry had a present for me: a beautiful Spanish shawl from the Metropolitan Museum, the sort of shawl I think they call "mantillas", black with beautiful white embroidery and long silky fringes. I draped it around my body in every possible way, with lots of oohs and aahs, and Carol said: "It would even look good draped on a piano..."

Yes. In my house...

Anyway, pretty soon after the cake eating, Larry went to bed. And Lydia was sent to bed because she had to get up early in the morning (the poor kid spends a lot of her spare time sitting for exams for all the various high schools she is trying out for, but I must say she is a very good sport about it). Pete went into his bedroom to get on the Net, and Carol and I eventually sat down, and started talking. I don't know how long this went on, but eventually Pete came out and asked: "Is Dad still up? I wanted to ask him something". No. He's been gone a good while.

Then Pete grins at the two of us and asks: "Whatever were you doing? You mean the two of you have just been talking all this time?"

Yup. Actually, that's how Carol and I became friends, way back in 1984. No matter how late it was, no matter how long the day had been, how hard the work, how close the next morning loomed, we still could find something to say to each other. And mysteriously, there were three places in New York that we considered "our favorite places": the lobby of the Algonquin, to sit around drinking a bottle of wine with friends, or the Wine Bar on West Broadway, where you could drink a glass of any wine you had a fancy for, and talk and talk and talk in an elegant setting, and a small Ethiopian restaurant where you could eat authentic Ethiopian food with your bare hands, accompanied by Ethiopian mead.

We had both of us discovered these three favorites on our own, and each first time we went there together, it was funny to discover we had the same taste.

I will always remember the first time we went to the Wine Bar together. At that time, Carol was a lawyer working for a large Wall Street law firm which did quite a bit of pro bono work for various organizations. Whenever the firm took on pro bono projects, a memo to All Lawyers would be circulated asking for volunteers. These assignments would usually be snapped up by associates who had just closed some major deal, and who had not yet been assigned to something else so that they saw a window of opportunity to do something a little more personally rewarding. At this time, Carol was one of the lawyers handling two political asylum cases from Zaire, one of whom was in detention at the Varick Street facility in Manhattan.

I became involved because I speak fluent French. I translated documents, and I also was put in charge of checking in on "the boys" to make sure everything was going well. Kibwe, in detention, was my prime responsibility, and I would usually visit him once a week, bringing him books to read and the regulation "seven pieces of fruit". I put it that way, because you could bring in seven apples, for instance, or seven oranges, or seven pears, but you could not bring in seven peaches, because that was not "regulation", the pit had to be removed from the peach, and then the peach counted as two pieces. Same for an avocado, once you had removed the pit, it became two avocados. Obviously, you never brought grapes, or strawberries, or blueberries, etc. In between visits, I would call him.

Those were the days when I made obscene phone calls. That is, I made the phone calls, and invariably got the obscenity. You can only call into the Varick Street detention center at certain times and it sort of has to be pre-arranged with some of the prisoners, who will give you the number of a public phone booth in one of the corridors to which the prisoners have access during a certain period each day. Normally, they make the phone calls, if they have the money, but you can call them, if you have a number. What would happen when I called is that there would be a bunch of prisoners hanging about the public phones, and when they heard the voice of a woman, they started talking dirty. You just had to be firm and say: "Get me Kibwe, please."

One evening that I had gone home fairly early, I called Kibwe, got the obscene phone, did my usual number, and suddenly the guy at the other end stopped talking dirty and said: "Kibwe can't come, he's gone."

"Whadda you mean, he's gone? Where has he gone? Please get him for me, I need to talk to him."

"He's gone. They came and took him away. He's been deported."


The guy couldn't say more. I was appalled. Of course, outside office hours there is nothing you can do to check with the INS what the hell is going on. I immediately called Carol, who was still at work, and we agreed to hop into cabs and meet at the Varick Street detention center.

I arrived ways before she did, somehow it was easier to get there from uptown than for her to come up from Wall Street. Of course, I had no authority at all to get in, and so I did my wailing banshee act, demanding to "see my client".

"Are you a lawyer?"

"Well, no, I'm the translator... The lawyer is on her way, I just want to get things started."

I was so worked up, I was in their face and all over the place. Whatever my inner fire might have been, one of the guards went in the back and started looking for Kibwe. By the time Carol arrived and we were let in, exceptionally, this was highly irregular, it was not visiting hours, but we insisted we wanted to see our client, we wanted to be sure he was not being deported against his rights, and there we were, in the usual sad little room, where they put on one gloomy light for us, and suddenly, there was Kibwe walking casually up to us in his little prison uniform, with a big grin on his face: "What's up?"

He had been in the gym, working out. The Afghan who had talked dirty to me had just said that for a joke.

Of course, as soon as everything was sorted out, the guards sent us packing. But the interesting thing was that from being aggressive towards us, they had turned to friendly and pleasant. It also became apparent to me that they all liked "our" boy, and that it was not likely anything horrible would happen to him under their care.

Carol and I were terribly relieved. We walked out into the freedom of the street, laughing at how scared we had been.

"Are you going back to the office?" I asked her.

"No. Are you going home?" She answered.

We both agreed we needed to celebrate our feeling of relief, but where to go? "How about the Wine Bar in SoHo?" I asked "We could walk over". And that's when Carol said: "That's one of my favorite places."

The day Kibwe was granted his political asylum, and we went to pick him up, he came out with a very large, very heavy suitcase, that was hard to move more than one inch at a time. "What the heck do you have in there?" I asked him, laughing.

"Ma chere, " he smiled quietly, "Those are all the books you brought me during the past two years".

That day of his release, we did not go to the Wine Bar, but our entire victorious group walked to West Broadway, to some fancy place or other that has also gone out of business since then. We were all very happy.

Kibwe and his buddy had been referred to us by Arthur Helton, who was killed in Iraq last August in the UN headquarters where he was visiting. After Mobutu, Kibwe eventually went back to Zaire, with his wife and children. I wonder how he is doing now. He was a very charismatic person.
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