Friday, August 24, 2018


This is the story of my friend Johnson . . . - S.L.


This story goes back eighteen years. It was another lifetime ago it seems, before the planes hit the Twin Towers and the entire world descended into madness. I was in Mauritania, working out of the embassy in Nouakchott. My work took me deep into the desert - I've written about it HERE - to some very exotic destinations with some very interesting people, journies that nowadays would get my head chopped off. But like I said, it was another lifetime. A happier, simpler time. The world had not yet gone insane.

They put me up in the Ambassador's secretary's house, a marble palace on the edge of town. The view out the back was all sand dunes - I was on the edge of the great Sahara. The road in front of my place was paved, but all around was just loose sand, like a beach. Because, of course, the Sahara is the biggest beach in the world.

The Ambassador's secretary had vacated the place, moved into an apartment on the embassy grounds, because according to her the place was haunted. There were some strange banging and booming noises at night and for awhile I wondered about her comment until I became aware of the nature of the poltergeist. The place had a flat roof, common to dwellings in that part of the world. There was a stairwell at the top of which was a sheet metal door opening to the roof. The door did not fit securely into the door frame, so it buckled and banged at bit from the night winds. A wooden wedge solved the situation.

You meet all kinds of people in Africa. A family set up their tent in the space between my place and the place next door, and every morning the lady would bring me bananas or mangoes, and I'd hand over some cash. They were trying to get by - a family of five living on a carpet with a bit of burlap overhead to keep the sun off.

Then I met Johnson.

Johnson is a charismatic African man. At that time Johnson was studying broadcast journalism at the University of Nouakchott, but he is not from Mauritania. Johnson is from Togo. He speaks very good English with a French accent, as French is the lingua franca (to coin a phrase) of West Africa. At that time I was speaking French almost all day, every day, breaking into English when I reported to the embassy.

Once I asked, "Johnson, Togo is a former French colony. Why is it that you have an English name?"

"Oh, Jean-Pierre," he replied, "it is a sad, sad story."

Intrigued, I said, "Go on . . ."

"My family were slaves, in America. When freedom came, after the slave time, they got on a boat and returned to Africa."

"Oh . . . my . . . Gawd . . ." I gasped. "Johnson, I am so, so sorry to hear this . . ." What else could I say? Life in Africa is hard; the opportunities and freedom we take for granted here in the West simply do not exist over there.

"Yes, and we have been trying to get back to America, ever since."

Man, talk about a bad move.

We got to know one another a little better, and I learned that Johnson had actually traveled the States, had lived in New York City for about six months. He'd worked there as a DJ. I told him, "Johnson, you are possibly the only true African-American I know." I meant in the sense that Johnson is an African, of American ancestry, versus the other way around.

Time went by and there wasn't much to do in Nouakchott. In a place like that, part of the challenge is finding something to keep oneself occupied, otherwise one goes crazy staring out over the desert at the endless dunes. The dunes were especially mesmerizing in the evenings, as the sun set behind my back, to the west over the Atlantic, and to the east the desert went from white to yellow to orange to blue and then gray.

Johnson was a good source of information. He told me the story of le Colonel - the ex-Legionnaire who ran le Petit Paris, a local dive. Francophone Africa is full of these ex-Legionnaires running bars. Johnson described how the African wife of le Colonel controlled him through grii-grii - West African voodoo.. "Oh Jean-Pierre! She is wicked! She is wicked!" (Possible material for a future story, perhaps even novel length.) He told me when French mercenaries arrived in town, and pointed them out to me at le Petit Paris. I wasn't too sure about this, they looked like a film crew to me, or perhaps a rock band.

Johnson was very resourceful. When I needed something not readily available, Johnson introduced me to the right person.

One of the things I used to do to occupy time was fire up the grill and roast meat on sticks. This can be a complex operation in Africa, because it involves a journey to the meat market, which is essentially a journey several hundred years back in time.

The meat market is an open air place with concrete pillars holding up swaths of canvas to keep off the sun. The butchers sit on huge slabs of concrete where they go about their trade, hacking camels, horses, donkeys, goats and even the occasional cow (I don't know where they got them from, there's no grass in Nouakchott) to unrecognizable bits and hanging the meat on overhead meathooks. It was not possible for me to specify a cut - say, a sirloin, or a T-bone. The butchers just hack away and one makes the best selection possible of what's available. The meathooks themselves look like they're covered with black fuzz, which are the flies.

It was at one of the weekend cookouts. Johnson had come over with a friend, and so I put him to work in the kitchen. "Prends cette viande," I said - 'Take this meat' - taking a steel bowl full of camel meat from the freezer - "et mettez-la au micro-ondes pour la décongeler." - and put it into the microwave to defrost it.

"Jean-Pierre," Johnson asked. "Comment fait-on ça?" - How do I do it?

"Oh, c'est assez simple . . ." I replied, and explained to place the meat into the microwave, close the door, and set it on defrost for about two or three minutes.

Then I went out front to see to getting the charcoal to ignite on the grill.

A few minutes later I returned to the kitchen to observe a remarkable spectacle. Johnson and his friend were staring open mouthed at the microwave. Their faces were inches away from the front of the machine, which was making wild booming noises like a lab scene in a science fiction movie, and emitting bursts of blue light.

"N-O-O-O-O-O-!-!-!" I hollered. "Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes!" - Never place metal objects in the microwave! - "JAMAIS!!!"

I quickly popped the microwave door open and all the commotion ceased. I removed the metal bowl and placed it on the counter. There didn't seem to be any serious damage to the microwave. I wondered, of course, if the machine would work properly after this event. So I dumped the camel meat - still quite frozen - into a glass dish, placed it back into the microwave, closed the door and turned the dial.

B-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z . . . Viola, the thing worked perfectly.

"Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes," I repeated. "Jamais." Never.

After that, whenever Johnson showed up at the house and walked into the kitchen, he'd look at the microwave like it was some kind of relic from the Twilight Zone, and he would say in a low, respectful tone, ""Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes . . ."

* * *

We stayed in touch for awhile, after I returned to the States. Then the planes hit the buildings, of course, and life became . . . complex . . . I lost touch with Johnson.

Then a couple years back, right out of the blue, Johnson emerged on social media. "Hey, Jean-Pierre, c'est moi! Johnson" He's living in New York! Johnson made it back to the States! We got in touch and laughed about the good old days, and he reminded me of the microwave; ""Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes . . ." and we laughed some more.

Johnson-medeiros Polycarpe Joel

Life is hard when you immigrate to a new country, I can tell you. You have to start all over again without any of the contacts or support structure that the native-born take for granted. I got here when I was twenty-two and it was hard enough. My wife arrived when she was thirty-two and it was harder still. Johnson's in his forties now, trying to make it like most of us do when we're in our twenties. It's hard to start again, from scratch. I know, I've been there, and I feel for any and all of the immigrants.

Johnson is my friend. Johnson is a true African-American, and he's worthy, and if I could help Johnson find his way, I would do it. I have a plan, its a big plan, but I don't have the frogskins right now to put it all together. If you ask me about it, I'll tell you - but I don't want to blab my big plan out here in the clear. When I get the wherewithall, I'll announce it here and on Twitter and one of the first things I'll do is give Johnson a call - he's the man for the plan. I've got that kind of faith in my friend Johnson.

I've actually been meaning to write this story for awhile, asked Johnson for some photos. He said his mother's in town, over from Togo, and he'd ask her for some pics.

Meanwhile, life keeps going and doesn't wait for dreams and ideas. Yesterday, Johnson gave me a call. There's a problem, and that's where this story is going:

Johnson's mother died four days ago - in his arms, at his place in Queens. Johnson needs money to pay the bills at the morgue where they kept her body, and to pay the airline that flew her body back to Africa. He had nowhere to turn to so he called me. I'm fortunate because I've got work and I've got some cash and I'm sending it to him.

I am asking for donations. There's a GoFundMe over to the right there - Funeral Bills 5000 Miles from Home - for making donations. This is for Johnson - not me - to take care of his mother's expenses. I will keep all informed via Twitter, and Facebook.

That's where it's at right now. Thank you.


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