[The story is true, perhaps mildly embellished by the teller. The setting is Afghanistan, before the Russians came, 1970 or ’71. The story-teller is American, 20 or 21 years old at the time. It is an excerpt from the intermittently non-fiction novel Downtown Loop, unpublished so far. It’s possible that I’ve got the Patron Saint’s name wrong.]
“ . . . The patrol guard working the Soviet Uzbek border on horseback, the Russian major who came across the line to push himself on an Afghan woman and how the guard sent him back with his nose and ears cut off. They came over to beat him just about to death after that, his face was all scarred up and rebuilt not too well and he couldn’t operate his arms and hands completely but he still patrolled the border on his horse. Heavy people, Jed.”
“I believe it.”
“I lived in a little room upstairs from this café and used to come down for my piece of hash, go back upstairs and smoke. You know how you know you’re in the Third World? The buildings are the same color as the soil, the earth. Same color. That’s where I met the border guard. Heaviest cat I’ve ever met. The scars on his face from the beating they gave him, one eye fucked up and still on the job and when I asked him what he’d do if the Russian army came over he sat there in the saddle and showed me his revolver, this big probly nineteenth-century hogleg and said I shoot them with this . . .”
One Afghan story led to another and Salik came to one I’d heard before but I liked it so I let it roll. “That’s where I heard about Haji Dost Muhammad Qandhari, the Sufi saint of the thieves so of course I had to go.”
“Uh huh.” I knew some of Sal’s teenage history. Dylan’s grass and hash delivery boy when Bob was living on MacDougal and was throwing parties Sal didn’t go into when Bob took the package from him and said You want to? Then the second-story artist who taught him the trade. And the time the cops busted him with nothing and threatened him with hard time trying to get him to turn informer on some people and he said no and they put him in juvey. So . . .
“It was out there in wild high desert,” he told me. “No bus, no taxi, dirt road, patches of scrub, wild thyme, I got one hitch on a truck with goats in it and walked the rest.” One bag, a hundred dollar bill stitched into his Afghan vest, and that’s it, back of beyond. “When I got there what I found was a ruin, stones tumbled down, earthquake country and they don’t do repairs. It was getting to be night but I went the rest of the way anyway. Saw a campfire burning through some gaps and broken walls. Out there, man, if they don’t like the way you look they can kill you. Bandits. The Sufi saint of thieves.”
“I wouldn’t have done it.”
“You don’t have my background. When I got to the center where the tomb was . . . “ Sal used his arms and hands to indicate a rounded open space surrounded by stones, and told me the central area was floored by flat, broken-up flagstones the same color as everything. A ceremonial space apart, amid and also made of rubble.
“. . . then I saw the niches.”
“There was like a piece of circular wall around the turbe and I saw there were tall niches in it, they were arched at the top and it was so dark at first I couldn’t see the men standing in the niches. Not statues. Heavy-duty big men in robes and turbans or one of whaddayou call those round Afghani hats? How could I forget that? Jesus.”
Salik composed a frown. “They either, either they lived there at the shrine or they’d come in a bunch to honor their saint. Afghan thieves, Clampett: assassins. Toughest men I’ve ever seen, maybe six or ten of them standing in their niches and looking right down at me. They musta been sitting around and when they heard me coming got into their niches. Some of them with daggers in their belts and some with one hand inside their robes, know what I mean? Their hands on the gun they had inside.”
“Holy shit, Sal.”
“Yeah, obviously I could disappear overnight and come out as shish kebab for dogs in the morning so what do I have to do? I put my duffelbag down in the dust, walked to the tomb, the shrine, the turbe, didn’t look left, didn’t look right, stood in front of the tomb, abluted my hands and face with the dirt and, you know, assumed the position. Hands crossed in front of my nuts, lowered head and what do you think, I prayed, man. I prayed for the protection and intervention of the Sufi saint of the thieves of Afghanistan, I asked Khidr because this seemed like his kind of situation, you know? beyond the law and unexpected. And I said some Muslim prayers in Arabic, half-aloud, trying to make it sound unintentional and that I was kosher. I’m not always stupid, right? But after a while I got into it, I started rocking a little, a little campfire firing up in my heart, a little higher energy drifting down on me like a breeze and pretty soon I forgot about the thieves and assassins of Afghanistan in their niches except to sometimes, like a schmuck, watch it pass through my mind that, hey, I was showing these guys how it’s done, you know? It got to the point I started thinking I might do the Turn, not the Mevlevi turn, the Rumi turn, stillness in the heart, the body turning, perfect decorum, you know, your body revolving around you with the rest of evrything, uh-uh, no, I felt like doing the Qadiri turn, the fast one, the white tornado, bring the light down and shout if the spirit says so, and that’s when I heard a bunch of coins falling at my feet. I snapped out of it, looked around and there was one guy standing in his niche and I could see he was the one who threw the money, the look on his face said it all: If you’re going to come here and beg, take the money.
“Took me a minute to get my breathing back, pick up my bag and walk out of there slow. I don’t remember where I slept that night. I got far enough from the turbe to lay my sleeping bag out in the dirt and hope nobody’d come for me. I didn’t get much sleep, but when I woke up around dawn I wasn’t dead yet, so I got out of there. But that’s not the end of the story”
“Six months, I dunno, or a year later, I was back safe in Istanbul, working in this cheap tourist hotel near the Blue Mosque. I was the cleaning lady, man, sweeping up the rooms, changing the sheets, doing the laundry, mopping up the toilets. Irfat Bey the owner liked me. I worked for almost nothing and that was fine with me. I had my little room downstairs and food to eat, and his son, nice kid, a punk really, about twelve or fourteen years old, looked up to me. A kid named Haldun, didn’t know a fucking thing, a modern kid, loved everything superficial, listened to crap-music tapes on his Walkman all the time, I tried to tell him things, show him where to find some depth, a little of what it was to be a man, but I could see he didn’t get it, or he was tired of all that Turkish shit, he woulda liked to live in Vegas. Or even Reno, what did he know? Anyway one day this big tough man came to stay and take an upstairs room there. Wore an old suit but I could tell right away: big rough-looking Afghani, a lot of power, face dark, scar down one cheek, another one I could just see a bit of on his throat, never an expression you could read, black eyes, and once he settled in he dressed in robe and turban even though you could get busted for that in Turkey, how it was that year, but nobody was gonna mess with this guy. Few days laterI’m sweeping the stairs off the lobby and I hear a noise up top, alotta yelling, sounded like the kid, and I ran up there. Irfat Bey was standing there watching the Afghani guy beat the shit out of his son Haldun, the Afghan guy had him, a hand like iron, bunching the shirtfront, the collar, and with the other hand he’s slapping and punching the kid across the face, right, left, open hand, knuckles, hard. Irfat said something in Turkish and I got it that the man had accused the kid of stealing money from his room and knowing Haldun I figured he’d probably done it. I saw that Irfat Bey wasn’t going to get between them and I also saw that the Afghan guy wasn’t gonna stop and if he kept it up he was gonna kill the kid. Not a metaphor. Kill him. So I stepped in. Me. Five foot six, reached in, grabbed Haldun’s shoulder with my left hand, pulled him in, musta surprised the Afghani guy cause he let go, and I started hitting Haldun across the face, left, right, same way, with my right, not hard as I could but hard enough to look good, that was the only way I could save the kid’s life, and every time I hit him I yelled the name of every Sufi saint I could think of in his face. ‘In the name of Jelaluddin Rumi!’ Wham. ‘In the name of Shems-i-Tabriz!’ Wham. ‘In the name of Abdul Qadir Gilani!” Wham. ‘In the name of Hajji Bektash Wali! Hajji Bayram! Atesh Baz Wali! Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi!’ Wham! Wham! Wham! I was running out of saints, my mind was racing around for another one and I remembered the Saint of the Thieves in Afghanistan and I reared my arm back and gave the kid a big one across his face, ‘In the name of Haji Dost Muhammad Qandhari!’ and the big Afghani guy grabbed my wrist and held it, looked me in the eye, nodded once, let go of me, I let go of the kid, Irfat Bey started breathing again and the big guy walked back to his room without a word, no rush, totally calm, and after that Irfat Bey started treating me so well I had to leave that job and go back to Europe. You know what I just remembered?”
“One night last year I was walking around Chinatown after midnight. There was a freezing mist, know the kind I mean? and I was walking around in it from street to street, don’t remember what I was looking for. Coulda been a bar or some drugs or a brothel, it’s a blank. But I was cold and getting wetter and I figured I better get something hot to eat. But then I couldn’t figure out what restaurant to go to. I’d open the door of one, then think No, with the handle in my hand and let it go. Next place I’d stand in front of the window and read the menu over and over in the window. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with me. There are still a lotta places open in Chinatown after midnight, you know?”
“In other words I coulda been there figuring out which one till next Tuesday. Finally I said fuck it and went to Lin’s Garden. You know Lin’s Garden?”
“Everybody knows Lin’s Garden,” I said.
“On Bayard Street.”
“Fifty-five Bayard,” I said. “Or forty-four. One of those.”
“So you know Lin’s Garden.”
“Everybody knows Lin’s Garden.”
“So when I got in there,” Sal explained, “I looked at the menu, I looked it up and down and turned it over and I don’t know what was wrong with me that night but I couldn’t work out what the hell to order. Maybe I was strung out, I can’t remember. I was either strung out or drunk or hung over, Clampett. Shit. Why can’t I remember which? Gimme a sec.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“The waiter came over with a glass of tea. I took a sip of tea and it was hot. I’d forgotten everything about hot at that point, and it was wonderful but I still couldn’t work out what to order. I was helpless. I felt like such a schmuck. So I asked the waiter What should I have? and he said: Seafood Lulu. Seafood Lulu! That must be exactly what I was looking for—Seafood Lulu! I slapped the table and told the waiter, Seafood Lulu! And a lot of it! I said again, Seafood Lulu? Not knowing what it was and at this point not really giving a fuck. And the waiter said back Seafood Lulu! He jotted it down on his pad, walked away into the kitchen and I couldn’t get over it. I drank some more tea. This was fantastic. There was almost no one in the place, the front window was all fogged up and running drops of water. It was late and there was no one there. Just me and Seafood Lulu. It reminded me of the days when I used to go to Lin’s late after a flamenco gig and there was no one there but me and a few other musicians.”
“That’s how I got to know the place,” I said.
“Yeah, same as everyone. I saw Charlie Mingus there one time, with what was his drummer’s name?”
“Right. Him and a few other guys probly from the band. Mingus ate more than the rest of them put together, four five maybe six people. Mingus ate enough for a big band and a singer, man. Around two or three in the morning. But this time it was too early for musicians and it was cold and wet outside, so there was just me.”
“You and Seafood Lulu.”
“The woman of my dreams. The waiter comes back with a big plate of noodles with shrimp and scallops and squid and Chinese vegetables on top, and I ask him, Seafood Lulu? And he says, Seafood Lulu! I ask him again, Seafood Lulu? and that’s when I realized he was saying Seafood Noodles the whole time and I kept saying back Seafood Lulu? I mean, it must have been so insulting to him for me to be yelling Seafood Lulu in his face again and again. He must’ve thought I was making fun of him and he just stood there taking it.” I never felt like such a total asshole in my life. I was so ashamed.”
“So how were the noodles?”
“Bland, a little greasy, not bad once I put some chili sauce on it. Jed, I’m tellin’ you, I never felt like such a schmuck in all my whole life.”