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. …