Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pick-up in Liberia

March 18, 2010
Amos, my government driver, had just sped away with my laptop and clothing in the backseat, leaving just me and my $15 dollar supermarket-purchased basketball on the side of the road in Monrovia, Liberia. I laced up my sneakers on a rock, trying to look inconspicuous and unattached to the Amos’s SUV, which had disrupted the local pick-up basketball game.

There is a dearth of pavement in Monrovia, and as a result, basketball courts are scarce. This hoop, on Ninth Street in the relatively middle-class Sinkor neighborhood, rose out of the dirt above the road that took people from main drag on Tubman Boulevard to the residential compounds by the swamp. The road was wide enough to accommodate a good half-court, about as deep as the three point line; the catch is that the game had to stop every time a car or motorcycle comes down the road.

I approached the court with some trepidation. Rolling up to a pick-up game by yourself is always a little butterfly-inducing. People on the court could be way better than you. The teams could be set. Calling ‘next’ is always awkward when no one has your back. Here, of course, those concerns were magnified, because I was the only ‘white’ guy on the court. Liberia is the only place in the world I’ve been called “white.” It used to throw me off, but after a trip to up-country, where little kids shrieked “white man” everywhere I went, I’m getting used to the social experiment.

I stood by the court watching what appeared to be some kind of shooting contest. Various players asked to mess around with my ball, which was clearly the best one available. One dude practicing post moves with it reminded me of a young Kevin Garnett. I began to question whether I was ready to play with these guys. But judging by their appreciation for my ball, I figured I would be on the court soon enough, an assumption that proved correct.

After the shooting contest ended, though, a man came out with a broom, barked at the kids to get off the court, and started sweeping around the free throw area. I thought maybe he owned the store the court was in front of or something. Soon two teens were joining him in the sweeping process, and it became clear they were clearing enough dust from the road to create a half-court, no small task. During dry season, everything in Liberia is just caked in dust, and the pavement was slippery in areas that weren’t swept.

After about ten minutes they were done, and we were ready to play. Left open for a mid-range jumper, I knocked down the second basket of the game. It was 3 on 3. I did not know my teammates’ names, what we were playing to, or why they wouldn’t give me the ball after I made my shot. It turned out this court practiced “loser’s ball”- giving the ball to the team that is scored on, rather than the team that scores, as is the universal streetball practice in the United States.

Basketball is basketball, and for most of the afternoon I was able to contribute with my usual strengths, and was held back by my usual weaknesses. There are a couple things that make Liberian pick-up a little different than New York pick-up, however.

First, loser’s ball makes the pace of the game very frenetic. As soon one team scores, the other rushes to inbound the ball before the scoring team can set defensively. This leads to a lot of scrambling, and you often end up picking up the guy closest to you at the time of the basket, rather than guarding a specific opposing player. The play was made no less frenetic by the panoramic nature of the inbounds pass, which could come from any sideline, including right underneath the basket. When things settled down, however, like after a foul, we could make more appropriate defensive assignments.

Second, defense was very lax. There was decent one on one defense, in order to respond to the flashy, show-em-up one on one offense. Team defense was non-existent however, so you had to make sure not to let your man beat you off the dribble. I didn’t mind the lax defense, of course. It gave me plenty of open looks near the basket, and as people got tired later in the afternoon, even clear paths for driving lay-ups. I learned to drive from the right side when possible; the blackboard was tilted such that any attempt to bank a lay-up from the left side would send the ball sailing past the rim. The lack of defense also didn’t prevent me from playing defense, and given the sizeable community crowd that had gathered to watch, I wasn’t about to let everyone watch the white man get showed up.

While my defense was solid, I was called for a lot of fouls. A lot of fouls. If ever asked to define street ball, I’ve always cited its rough and tumble nature- a system in which you call your own fouls leads to more bumping and grinding, hand checks, over the backs and loose elbows than a regulated game. It’s just something everyone lives with, unless the situation gets egregious. One of the main reasons New York pick-up games get ugly is the perception that a prima donna scorer is calling too many fouls. Not an issue here. One player I was constantly matched up with was quick off the dribble with a low center of gravity. Whenever we made any kind of contact, even if there was no way I ultimately altered the shot, he’d raise his hand to signal a foul call.

This was not the first time that foul calls had befuddled me in an international pick-up game. I played several times in a small gym in the basement of my student dorm in Hungary back in 2000, and was straight-up astonished the first time I was called for an offensive foul. I am not a big guy, and back at age 17, I was rail-thin. Nevertheless, Hungarians would perfunctorily stop playing to call me for a charge, over the back or offensive hand check. At least in this Liberian game the foul calls were not personal- I was whistled no more or less than anyone else, whereas a Hungarian box score would have made me seem like some Shaq-like menace.

The games were up to five, a quick and preferable option to the New York style seven or eleven given the hot African sun. The second game in particular dragged on and on, as foul calls by both sides on nearly every play were driving me to the point of exhaustion. It wasn’t just the heat- I’m also in terrible shape, a function of my reluctance to go running when it’s too hot out, which is often. On and on the foul calls went, and I wondered how I’d play another game if we won.

Finally, we lost, and I was sitting on a stump nursing my water when Amos’s SUV rolled up. He handed me my laptop bag and was off to further errands. I announced my impending return and sauntered up to Jung’s apartment to drop off my laptop bag. The AC felt great, and I slumped to her flooor, drenched in sweat, mumbling to myself. I hope I didn’t freak her out.

I dragged myself back to the court, and soon was in another 3 on 3 game. Our heavily favored team fell behind 4-1 due to a complete lack of defensive effort, rallied to tie it at 4-4, only to have our dude have his behind the back pass in traffic intercepted for the game-clinching lay-up. I was displeased, but also ok with the prospect of more rest.

At this point I was asked to referee the following game. Referees were generally players waiting to play next, who would watch the game from below the basket. The referee’s primary function was to keep track of the score and make decisions on foul calls. Reffing was no joke. Even though I kept score quite loudly to avoid protest, my announcement of ‘3-1’ brought howls from one player, even though his team was leading. I think some of them just wanted to howl. A major shouting match over the score occurred nearly every game, actually, usually at moments so early in the game that anyone paying the slightest bit of attention would have known what the undisputed score was.

Players from both sides muttered at me all game to ‘keep my eyes open’ because the guy defending them was ‘shoving them around.’ I’m sorry, but this is still street ball, and I was not about to call away from the ball fouls. I called what I felt was an appropriate share of shooting fouls, let the boys play a bit, and kissed the sky when a deep jump shot ended my stint as referee.

I don’t like reffing at all. Over the years I served as a soccer line referee a few times, and it was most unpleasant. Some plays just happen so fast that you have to go with your gut and know you’ll be wrong a decent amount of the time. Things are particularly brutal for refs in pro sports that provide all their television views multi-angled instant replay, but don’t allow the access to refs, except in a few circumstances. Basketball and football both seem to be managing this process better than they used to, while baseball not so much. The moral of the story when it comes to refereeing mistakes is that any team that puts itself in a position where a single incorrect call from a ref can cost the game has to acknowledge their own complicity in creating the situation. A football drive that comes down to a single catch, a basketball game that comes down to a single shot, or a tennis ball grazing the line on a tiebreaker only matter because the two sides have basically played to a draw. It is a rare call that actually “cost them the game.”

During my first three games I had scored several baskets, but as the afternoon sneaked into evening, the already lax defense had pretty much conceded me any shot outside of 8-10 feet, sometimes from even closer. Sticking with straightaway shots, which minimize the rim situation, I began draining mid-range jumpers with ease. No one seemed interested in stopping me. Some players had decent skills, but low basketball IQs, refusing to use pick and rolls offered to them or box out properly. The same player who’d work himself into a frenzy to beat me off the dribble would let me coast deep into the paint without much resistance.

It was getting dark, close to the pointing of calling it a day, but we were using my ball, and I didn’t want to be the guy that shut things down. All of a sudden, midway through a game, a ruckus broke out on the court. Shouting angrily in Liberia seems like a national pastime, and given the track record of violence, it is quite unsettling to be in the middle of. My teammate, Pacy, explained that a group of players on the sidelines wanted to start gambling on the games, while one of our opponents, the original court sweeper, was yelling about a pact they had made not to gamble on the 9th street courts. Hessen, the sweeper, later explained to me that gambling on the games had led to police crackdowns before. That is not a crime I expected to get in trouble for in Liberia, so I appreciated his desire to keep things clean.

We finished the last game some time after the sun had set. I shook hands with a few of the guys, including Hessen, who I had been guarding for the last two games. Even though he called me for about a half dozen fouls, he expressed his wish to play as my teammate next time. Maybe he wants someone else to guard him. I appreciated the perhaps compliment.

I wandered to the local supply store and picked up a coca-cola. Glass bottle. It was great. I knocked on the compound door, and soon I was on my way up the stairs to air conditioning, a shower, work clothes, 30 Rock, and the memories of my first day of Liberian street ball.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Check out the Bull Moose Movement

Dear Roving Storm readers,
Please check out a new project I've been working on, the Bull Moose Movement. The group and site are both new, and "pre-launch," but we'll be doing a lot of interesting work in the months and years to come.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 4

February 14, 2010
Last night was the ragey release I’ve been looking for. Elena, an expat with USAID, was throwing a party at her place on Mamba Point, which has an awesome covered deck overlooking the ocean. We watched the sunset sipping on scotch and coke. The expat crowd was slightly different from the Lonestar party- this time there were plenty more short-termers, which made me feel more relaxed- some of these people knew fewer people and less about Liberia than I did. I also got to DJ for over an hour, mostly to acclaim, though Elena’s roommate yelled at me to change the music when a Dirty Projectors song came on. One dude observing smiled and shook his head, “You aren’t in Brooklyn anymore.”
Definitely good people all-round. One fellow named Barrie works for the Carter Center, and I’ll be meeting some of his peeps next week. Given the omnipresence of the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation, one can only imagine what the Obama Institute will look like. I hope to work for it one day- no matter how much I sour on his presidency, I’m sure his post-presidency will be an inspirational one.

As the party broke up I jumped into a car heading to De Ja Vous, one of Monrovia’s premiere nightclubs, along with 69. It was surprisingly not crowded for peak Saturday night hours, and also surprisingly sweet. I could see myself hanging out there any time with the right mix of people. It looked swank, but was fairly priced, had delineated dancing and hanging out sections, and was not so loud as to overpower conversation- my main dig against clubs.

This morning I was far too hungover for golf, and spent much of the day in various forms of recovery. The practice of cooking pasta in a water boiler is starting to go awry, as pasta stands are getting tangled in the heating rods. Alas, pasta it will be for dinner tonight, as it was for lunch. I took an extended stroll through my neighborhood, and it’s a quiet Sunday, the market was relatively empty, stores closed. I usually just walk down Old Road, the hub street in Congo Town that I live off of, but today I did some exploring through the comparatively middle class area off of Old Road. On a side street not far from my compound I found a solitary basketball hoop. No one was playing, but if I can somehow find a basketball in town, that little court could be my salvation. The most useful spot I found during my wanderings was a gas station that sells beans, cereal, and other necessities, along with beer and liquor, should I hear the calling.

Good lord, why is Jerry Springer on?! Is this program really still on the air? This is unbelievably trashy. Still, it was exciting to discover that I have another channel. So far today I’ve watched some weird soapy show about Greek gods set in the present and about ten minutes of American Idol, a show that I cannot even remotely get into, erecting another small hurdle between me and mainstream America. Jerry Springer definitely has that car crash quality; I’ve survived one commercial break. The crowd just started chanting “take out the teeth,” and the woman, who had only been on stage for three minutes, responded by taking them out and waving them around. Springer himself seems like a pretty smart dude. Between the days he gets his paychecks, he must have many moments where he is just disgusted with himself. I mean, he’s the former Mayor of Cincinnati. “Throw your teeth at her! Throw your teeth at her!” That’s enough of that.

With access to some rare downloading capabilities I’ve been getting Kings of Leon, Norah Jones and Dead Weather tunes. Did you know that the Dead Weather was Jack White’s new band? Just learned that. They will be three of the headliners at Bonnaroo that I’m less acquainted with. In case anybody out there is on the fence about going to ‘Roo, this is really a no-brainer. Plan for the vacation days now, you’ll need two or three.

Tonight is the NBA All-Star game, which I enjoy watching more than the Superbowl. In all my years as a fan, this is about as good as the NBA has been, the woes and misfortunes of the Knicks notwithstanding. As fans we are blessed to watch Kobe and Lebron, two of greatest to ever play the game, in their primes. The talent at the top of the league, on L.A, Boston, San Antonio, Cleveland and Orlando is just ridiculous. We still have Shaq around as the old man of the league, for perhaps his last one or two years. He is one of the most colorful personalities to emerge out of this drab cultural era, and I hope he stays in our lives after he retires. The league is chalk full of young stars waiting to claim to take on the incumbent generation, just in time to replace iconic stars on their way out, like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. As the motto goes, “I love this game,” though I think marketers have replaced the motto with “where amazing happens.” That works too.

I wish every news host was as knowledgeable as Fareed Zakaria. His command of history and current events seems to startle his guests. For example, an American journalist, who, along with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is pushing for a preemptive strike on Iran, citing their refusal to have uranium enriched abroad as an example of their recalcitrance. Zakaria interrupted, “In the 1990s, Pakistan rejected overtures to have its uranium enriched abroad, as did India.” I was impressed! Prior to having these warmongers on his program, Zarakia interviewed Paul Volcker, a brilliant economist crying out in the wilderness about the need for meaningful financial regulation. Volcker, who is now in his 80s, says that he has never seen Washington this dysfunctional, using as an anecdote the fact that even in the midst of this recession, two major leadership positions at the Treasury Department are still vacant because the nominees have not been approved by Congress. He said that when he joined the government in 1969, he was at his desk the day of the inauguration, and was confirmed a week later.

The power just went out in the building, plunging my world into darkness, save for the dim light of the laptop screen. Ah, it’s back, a few minutes later. Being way out here in Congo Town, it’s a little freaky to be without power. Zakaria is a rare “centrist” that I’ll begrudge, because his clarion call is a courageous one: Zakaria believes that addressing the deficit is so important that we need to raise taxes and cut spending. Governors across the country, including New York’s embattled chief, David Paterson, are well aware of this problem as they address state budgets that are not permitted to go into the red. Zakaria decries the political cowardice of Republicans (always the main deficit hawks) who refuse to concede that tax increases, or simply the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, will be part of the deficit solution. Hey, I’m down for working on this issue- but the place to start has to be military spending. When 50% of the discretionary budget gets virtually no scrutiny, it seems like the right place to trim the waistline.

February 15, 2010 What a strange morning. I was awaken by shouting and screaming, like a domestic dispute going on in my hallway. Annoyed, I rolled over and checked the time. It was 7am, almost time to get up. After some tossing and turning, I got up and flung the curtains open to reveal…darkness. That’s odd. Usually when I leave my curtains open I’m awoken by the sunlight. I made myself some cereal, but when I tried to wash the bowl, there was no water. No sink water, no shower water. Plenty of bananas though. In the market they were selling them by the branch, like $5 for fifty bananas. I only wanted a dollar’s worth, so she pointed me to a fly-ridden stack. I thought I had bought like eight, but I’ve been eating them with most meals for three days and still have five left. And guess what? Now it’s almost 8am, time for pick up, and it’s still dark outside. I heard a rumor that this might happen occasionally, dust storms from the Sahara or something. I’ll get back on it when I know what’s really going on.

Ah, yes, ladies and gents, it has begun. My first rainfall in Liberia. That explains the darkness- as George Bush would say, it’s “the dark storm clouds gathering over me.” It does rain fucking hard here, it really bits down on the earth. The downpour makes the complete lack of water in my apartment more ironic, I suppose. I’ve been told it’s an absolutely fiasco when it rains here, and a cursory look out the window gives me no reason to believe otherwise. From my balcony I can only see dirt roads, and they have all been badly flooded within fifteen minutes. I hear the gentle ‘thud’ sounds of things collapsing. Hopefully words can express the ferocity of this rain- it’s as if God is trying really hard.

Standing at my window buttoning the cuffs of my shirt I feel like one of those people getting dressed up for the day they commit suicide. Venturing into this madness is crazy. If Amos is picking up Genevieve first, he won’t be here for well over an hour. If he’s picking me up first, he would be here by now, but for the roads. Too many variables already, this early in the day. Pink Floyd is an appropriate and coincidental soundtrack, adding to the dark madness. At least the power is still on. Upside: it’s the first time the temperature has felt physically comfortable without the AC on. Downside: mosquitoes and a still partially broken screen door. Secondary upside: think I just heard a bird.

The rain is just regular now, and I’m getting the sense that Amos is picking me up second. Water still not working though, which is quite lame. I always wake up feeling especially like I need a shower after wild dreams, and last night’s included a vision of working with Hands On in Haiti. There were non-literal aspects to the dream, but it came right on the heels of a release I read from ole’ David Campbell announcing the HODR project being set up there. I would like to go for 10 days or so, possibly in late May, depending on flight costs, which have derailed my joining other Hands On since Biloxi.

The hardest rain I’ve ever driven through, not including the terrifying 2006 quasi tornado of Kansas had to be the drive home from Saratoga Springs after the bar exam. Finch and I couldn’t wait to get back to the city to celebrate, but nearly died on the way, as we were hit with rain far beyond the capabilities of our fastest wipers. We had no visibility at all, and we pulled over as soon as the shoulder allowed it. When the rain had slowed slightly, we saw that every single car on the road had done the same thing, a rare occurrence. It was a jittery ride the rest of the way. Oh, and there goes the power. Still haven’t from Amos, so just gonna kick it and read the paper. …
I am happy to finish this box of cereal. It is Golden Crunch, a Liberian cereal, and it tastes like cardboard. Just awful, though bearable with the right amount of milk. The milk, by the way, is not refrigerated until it is opened. Some weird chemical contraption. So it’s not really milk in the conventional sense, but given how expensive other dairy products are, this seems to be a fair tradeoff. As for the cereal, I bought another Liberian cereal, possibly because it seems absurd to spend $7.50 on a smallish box of Frosted Flakes.

Ran into the super downstairs as I was headed to the car. Apparently something about a rock and the pipes…he was working on the water situation. On the ride in Amos and I listened to talk radio, where they were bashing the president again. Amos told me about how popular the footballer and presidential candidate George Weah had been back in the day: “When he came to the city to play soccer, crowds would line up in the street all the way from Robertsfield (the airport) to downtown to cheer for him. Those soccer matches were the only entertainment we had, the only things to make us happy during the war. At the games you could just think about the game, and not worry about the war at all.” Weah cashed on his popularity to run a strong campaign for president in 2005, winning the first round, but losing decisively to President Sirleaff in the run-off. Amos scoffs that Weah thinks he should be president. “He did not even finish high school. And even the high school he went to is not known for its academic achievement, but for the scholarships it gives to soccer and basketball players.”

The Minister of Social Welfare is in the house, and he has the most bizarre ringtone I’ve seen in some time: a beeping sound, followed by a computer-like voice stating “Excuse me, boss, you have a text message.” Mind you, that is his ringer when he is getting an actual call, not just a text message.

I got some leads on where to find a basketball, and will explore those possibilities as soon as possible. A random conversation on how money changers actually make money led the topic back to Myles, a well-respected journalist in these parts sort of run out of town after the Vice scandal. He had been writing a series of pieces on the Liberian economy, about how characters like fishermen, charcoal producers and money changers got by day to day. Though I don’t have the journalistic talents (or time) to bring characters to life like he did, I would like to learn more about the people in the neighborhood when I get home. I’ve often engaged cart vendors and MTA employees in conversation, being as they are a captive interviewee most of the time. The old Sesame Street tune, “These are the people in your neighborhood” needs to be updated for modern times.

Wow. What a day. Our office had been called down to the police headquarters to process paperwork in the arrest of two check forgers from the Ministry of Health rank and file. We followed these young men from the custody of the police Montserado County Court was like regular court tripping on mushrooms. I sat in the spectator pews, waiting for the case of the Ministry of Health v. check forger dudes. They were only being arraigned, so I figured we wouldn’t be there that long, but I was about to be privy to a land dispute dating back to prewar times, a squatter’s rights case.
Arguing on one side, on behalf of “Princess”, was a short lawyer who I had been talking to in the hallway only minutes before he began his disastrous opening statement, in which he tripped himself up so badly his opposing counsel, a boisterous woman flush with attitude, got up from her plastic chair and yelled, “Your honor, counsel does not know the facts of this case!”
Neither lawyer lacked showmanship, the short lawyer pacing the courtroom like a pro, with a movie-like cadence. The problem was that he didn’t seem to know what he was doing half the time. The boisterous woman thundered at the crowd, this of course, not being a jury trial, while the judge tried to rub the migraine out of his head. At issue was some property that had fallen into dispute years before, though evidently they had all the paperwork right in front of them. A former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who looked like Morgan Freeman was somehow involved in the case, and he wandered in and out of the courtroom grinning at people.

Other random, unidentified people approached the bench at various moments to chat with the judge who fanned himself with a notepad, taking his glasses on and off for dramatic effect. At one point the symphony of cell phone rings, background chatter, gavel pounding, oration and typewriter banging gave you the feeling of a Chumbawumba concert, or some bizarre off-Broadway musical. Once the daze of the disbelief wore off, and the heat and smell started getting to me, I wondered when our case would be up. There was no docket, but our defendants did sit handcuffed about twenty feet from me. I stepped into the hallway to take a breather when BAP!! A loud sound thundered in the courtroom, causing dozens of people loitering in the hallway to rush for the courtroom entranceway. Turns out no one was shot, one of the lawyers had just reclined too far in his plastic chair, causing it to snap.

February 16, 2010
Oh well, turns out the basketball hoop is too small. The hoop earned a revisit after a trip to the sporting goods store, where the cheapest basketball was a staggering $45. The store owner treated the balls like pieces of art, or perhaps hookers, spreading them in a fancy layout and saying things, “this one’s lovely, you can have her for $50.” Even the cheapest option required more cash than I carry on me in Monrovia, so I pledged to return the next day. Before committing such an extravagant purchase, I decided to go back and look at the ‘court’, mostly to ensure that the rim was stable and that the pavement wasn’t being used exclusively as a parking lot. It sort of was, and while the rim was surprisingly unbent, it was also super small. Picture a double rim, but just smaller. If a regulation sized ball was dropped from directly above it, the ball would go in, but it would be frustrating and embarrassing to shoot around and miss at least 95% of my non-lay-ups.

Last night, beaten up as usual from the day, I resigned myself to two mindless tasks- exploring my new TV channel and downloading songs and coming to understand where the expression ‘surfing the internet’ came from. In places where internet reception is really spotty you have to quickly rush to take advantage of bursts of internet, using them to log-in to sites, downloads things and send emails. Then you coast on that wave of internet until it dies. Reminds me of how a surfer swims manically into a wave, and rides it down, ending up afloat in calm waters. Some American TV is unacceptable even in Liberia, but House is kindof borderline. I’ve never gotten into any medical show, even as a guilty pleasure, even though my teenage years were the peak of E.R. After last night, House will not be in the rotation. On the other hand, I hope and pray that West Wing is on every night, because that would rock my world.
A masterfully written show, it appeals to a lot of people, but irresistibly to political junkies, specifically Democrats who came of political age during the Bush years. Alternate universes are sweet, although perhaps we thought President Obama would be a bit more like Martin Sheehan and less like Hillary Clinton. The West Wing is one of my ten favorite shows ever, a list that will be potentially challenged if I get into Mad Men over the summer (not sure I will- kind of loathe marketers). In reverse order, my ten favorite shows of all time:
10. Saved By The Bell
9. West Wing
8. Aqua Teen Hunger Force
7. Family Guy
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
5. Simpsons
4. Thirty Rock
3. Seinfeld
2. Arrested Development
1.The Wire
I decided in the end to not count favorite TV shows from my childhood- that’s a whole separate category, with Saved By The Bell and The Simpsons serving as something of a bridge.

The downloads tonight went great. I’ve always liked Joni Mitchell’s voice, but I never really got into her songs. Turns out I was missing out. “Both Sides” and “Circle Game” were among the excellent tunes I picked up, but the real treat was “Angel in the Morning.” That songs got something. And to think that all these years I’ve loved the Shaggy hit “Angel”, not realizing it was sampling Joni. What really makes “Angel” is the chorus line, “closer than my peeps you are to me.” For Shaggy, or any guy, to say that to a girl, is quite meaningful. As dudes are pretty serious about our peeps- I know I always have been, and I would not say such a thing lightly.
Another download tonight was the 2003 Nas hit “I know I can (be what I wanna be)”, his gushingly uplifting anthem for inner-city children. The irony of that song for me is that I’m unable to displace it in my memory from the place where I used to hear it- the weeknight Chi Gam basement scene. If there was any place that epitomized the death of dreams and being whatever you wanted to be, it was the Chi Gam basement after midnight on a Tuesday.

I may be a complete amateur at this writing game, well short of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 genius hours, but I share something in common with one of my all-time favorites, Kurt Vonnegut, in the tremendous difficulty I’m having in writing down the pieces I care about most, the one that’s been rattling around my head the longest. In his case it was Slaughter House Five, the deeply person, largely non fictional account of his World War II experience, which he spent tens of thousands of discarded words on before settling down to publish a version that satisfied him more than two decades after the experience. Hopefully it won’t take me that long to right something compelling about Biloxi.

Had lunch at Evelyn’s, so far the best upscale restaurant that I’ve been to. When it comes to food I'm more quantity than quality anyway. The idea of spending $25 at a New York City restaurant and leaving hungry has always struck me as preposterous. The downside of Evelyn's is that it is on Broad Street, which is just a hellish place at mid-day- hot, packed, and full of the busiest traffic in Monrovia. Finally had my Bong Fries. They look and taste sort of like French Fries, but are drier, more substantive, and feel healthier. They’ll never hit the spot like McDonald’s fries, and frankly I prefer plantains as a side. Going “into town” for lunch is such a trial that I’ll probably stick with my three-meal rotation of the cafeteria, the Liberian café up the hill and falafels for a couple more weeks.

Major news on the post-Liberia front. As some of you know, few things have stirred the blood than the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. I’ve decided that upon returning, the ideal work to occupy my time from May until I return to Hogan in December is to work on litigation and organizing in response to this case. Until today my main lead was a project the NLG was doing, but I imagine that will be part-time work. Public Advocate DeBlasio’s office is allegedly doing something around the issue, but I haven’t heard back from them yet. When I have more regular phone access I will reach out to Congressman Grayson- it’s long overdue that he and I got together. Today, however, I made some true forward progress. Last night I emailed three top attorneys leading the fight against corporate influence, all of whom are now spearheading the response to Citizens United. One of them is the Legal Director of the Free Speech for People Campaign, and he got back to me this morning. I forsee myself doing a lot of work with that group, as they are into both the legal and organizing response needed for this counter-attack to have any chance. Another, an American University law professor, wrote me back an equally helpful message, and I’ll soon be in touch with him as well. If anyone has suggestions, as in, specific contacts, working in this area, would love to follow up with them too.

By the way, the air conditioning has been broken all day, again, here at the office. Everyone is asleep again. I haven’t had a truly productive day in a week, though tomorrow promises to be busier. Captain Jack will get me high tonight.

February 17, 2010
During Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, it is untrue that he remarked, “This really is a Great Wall,” but the apocryphal story is too good to die. I took my own trip to the Great Wall last night, to check out one of the main Chinese digs in town. The food was excellent, and the best bang for buck I’ve found among the upper end eateries. It was no Silk Road of course, in that the white boxed wine did not flow freely, but I’ve stayed away from the grape juice as much as possible in Liberia, because wine hangovers are no fun in 90 degree weather.
I learned a new phrase on the radio today. During a surprisingly erudite debate on the need for a full constitutional convention, one Liberian Senator tried to interrupt the other, but she pleaded, “I’m coming,” meaning that she was almost finished with her statement. Within an hour of being at work, someone used the phrase on me. Instead of being perplexed, since we weren’t going anywhere, I just waited for him to think about my question a little longer.

This morning was agonizing, as we got stuck reviewing a befuddling legal document. Every time he wanted to make a point, John would say, “but listen to this,” and then read entire passages out loud very slowly, perk up and raise his eye brows, then make the point he could have made from the beginning. The whole reason we were stuck on this project was that some Dutch doctor had dropped this project in our laps with almost no notice and no clue. John remarked, “She is paid well, and so people expect her to do things she does not know how to do.” He didn’t mean it as a maxim, but the longer I live the more I see how human and flawed everybody is. Our expectations of another person should never be much higher than what we’d expect of ourselves, especially when you factor in for everyone’s inclination for self-preservation.

I spent much of the day actually working on said project, with detours to flesh out my Bull Moose project, which everyone will be hearing heaps about quite soon. There was a bit of a fiasco this afternoon when a truck arrived at the Ministry, allegedly with a bunch of computers, photocopiers and other machinery. However, it turned out to be almost completely empty, suggesting foul play at customs (it was shipped from the U.S). Apparently Customs here is notorious for stealing shit. All-round it was not a great day for the government, which is already facing a myriad of corruption scandals, and was slammed today by a U.N report declaring that 75% of Liberians lack access to clean drinking water, and that much of rural Liberia faces a drastic shortage of teachers. Several schools cited in the report had hundreds of students being taught by two volunteer teachers who survived off donations from thankful parents. I can understand criticizing a developing government for corruption, but stuff like this is tough to slam President Sirleaff for. I find it hard to believe that she would not deploy more water piping and teachers to the rural areas if she had resources.
Money is tight around here though, especially when your computers are being stolen. John told me today that he hasn’t had a vacation in four years, since he started working for the government. He technically has a month of vacation, but he says work is too intense to take so much as a week off at a time. He’s going to love the LLM program if he decides to do that in a year. Even the hapless sidekick earned some sympathy today. The “attorney” who cannot be bothered to put down his newspaper or stare absent-mindedly into space during meetings apparently is no longer being paid by the American Bar Association. That’s not to say he’s a deserving hire in these hard times, but there is a limit to what you can expect out of an unpaid middle-aged lawyer.

The good life is picking up a little bit. I headed to Boulevard Café after work, which I’ll probably do again tomorrow. Decent internet, cheap beer, premier league soccer. It’s like going home without the commute. Hung out there for an hour before Monrovia Trivia Quiz, which is THE expat place to be. Over a dozen teams crammed into Taj’s restaurant, where an assortment of questions were shot onto a projector, booze and Indian food abounding. It was healthily competitive, and I enjoyed my team, which consisted of young lawyers from the ILO and the Carter Center. We hope to reassemble some of it tomorrow night at Boulevard Café for some Olympics watching. I’m more of a Summer Olympics guy myself, but I could use a change of place. I almost vomited when I came home to Wolf Blitzer. Better no TV at all than hearing him speculate on “the rise of the new conservative ascendency.” He does remember that the conservatives who drove the country into the ground have been out of power less than two years, right? Wait till he sees what we have in store for him. …