"To my friend, Martin Booe...I want to thank you for rescuing me and helping me turn the impossible into the possible... this book would not have been possible without you and for that and so many things, I love you!"
--Dyan Cannon's afterword to her book, Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant
2011 New York Times Bestseller
Excerpt from Crave: the Feast of the Five Senses
By Ludo Lefebvre with Martin Booe
The Education of a French Chef
When I was thirteen, I told my dad that I wanted to be a chef. I might as well have told him I wanted to be an elephant trainer; cooking was a profession nobody in my family had followed, and he had more conventional jobs in mind for me. But he also figured that being a chef was better than being a juvenile delinquent, which had been my previous career choice, and one for which I showed a lot of promise. I had already been kicked out of two schools for locking one teacher in a storage closet and throwing another’s handbag out a second story window. I was angry, rebellious and always getting into trouble.
So he called his friend, Jean-Pierre, who had a small restaurant called Maxime in our village of Auxerre, in the region of Burgundy, where the men of the village gathered daily at noon and whiled away the lunch hours drinking copious quantities of wine and neglecting their wives. It was a pleasant place where everyone knew everyone, and its comfortable terrace overlooking the river certainly encouraged leisure -- as if Burgundians needed any encouragement in that direction. Anyway, Jean-Pierre agreed to take me on in the kitchen, which dished up simple, classic Burgundy dishes like coq a vin, steak béarnaise and wonderful potato gratins.
My father figured that two weeks of sweating my buns around hot stoves in cramped conditions, washing mountains of pots and pans, chopping bushel baskets of vegetables, and generally being treated like a slave, would cure me of my ridiculous ambition. And hopefully point me toward a more sensible profession. So for two weeks, I chopped, scraped, washed, and did all of the grunt work of the kitchen. The hours were long. I would return home at the end of the day looking like some gothic warrior, my hair matted in animal fat and my face caked with flour. But I liked the energy in the kitchen, and within a few days, I made up my mind: one day, I would be the one giving the orders. To me, being a chef seemed like being the conductor of an orchestra. All of that shouting, barking and clanging translated into a beautiful, musical feast and I wanted to be the one waving the baton.
At the end of the two weeks, Jean-Pierre gave me 200 francs and I felt rich and proud. I went straight to the village store and bought my own knife. When I got home, Dad called me into the living room. “So, Ludovic, after all that grunt work, I’d imagine you’re ready to think about a real job.” I told him no, I’d decided to become a chef. It was the first time I ever saw my father speechless. Still, he took me at my word.
Ludo barely spoke English at the time. I speak no French. Somehow we understood each other. The lad's done well for himself.
My grandfather, it turned out, was an old friend of Marc Meneau, whose Restaurant L’Esperance in St. Pere Sous Vezelay had won three Michelin stars. Meneau agreed to give me a one-month tryout, and off I went to the village of St. Pere Sous Vezelay, 40 miles from Auxerre, to work for free. Though located in a village of 200 in the middle of a forest, L’Esperance was a rare opportunity. It was decided that I’d finish college (the equivalent of high school in America) and go to work for Meneau. This brought about an almost magical change in my attitude. I studied hard and my grades improved dramatically. I stopped causing trouble. I now had something to work toward. Six months later I was accepted to the Castle culinary school in Dijon. I would spend one week a month studying there and three working for Meneau. I was fourteen.
Any chef of Meneau’s stature would be papered with requests from experienced chefs to learn at his elbow, and I was lucky to get a tryout. Dad gave me enough of an allowance support me in fine style in a flophouse eight miles outside the village. Mornings I hitchhiked to the restaurant while my fellow residents passed the days drinking and watching porno movies, which was a good way for them to spend their time because they had to save their energy for the fist fights they would have later in the evening. It was a good thing I’d discovered cooking because compared to my neighbors, I would have been a failure as a juvenile delinquent.
I was scared to death of the flophouse denizens (I was even afraid to take breakfast with them in the communal dining room), but I was more scared of Meneau. True, the flophouse guys might slit my throat to steal five francs for a cheap bottle of wine, but Meneau had a real way of wielding psychological terror. My grandfather had not told me that my tenure with Meneau was an audition, and that after 30 days I might well get canned. It was better not to know, or I would have been even more nervous.
My first day of work, I showed up wearing jeans and a t-shirt. “Why are you dressed like that?” Meneau snarled. “You look like a bum!” He grumbled some more and found me a chef’s jacket that was 6 sizes too big, that I flopped around in until I got my own. Meneau was a large man with a booming voice, and a hush came over the kitchen whenever he passed through.
The kitchen itself was tiny, and with 25 chefs at work, about to burst from overcrowding, so I was exiled to the corner where the garbage cans were. I spent my first shift sitting on top of the garbage cans, cleaning game, learning as I went along. As it happened, I was still exhausted from running a 40-mile marathon the day before, and after an hour I passed out cold in the kitchen. I came to find the kitchen crew encircled around me, looking at me like I was a hopeless case.
I can’t explain the kind of magical transformation I went through when I was in the kitchen. Through most of school I was contrary, rebellious and sullen. But here in the restaurant, ordered around like a private in boot camp, I was a fountain of “yessirrs!” and “right away sirs!” “Never stand there with your arms folded like that!” Meneau screamed at me at the top of his lungs (this was his normal speaking voice.) “There’s always something to be done!” He only had to tell me once.
I was in awe of Meneau’s chefs and their neurotic obsession with perfection, and even at my young age, I realized that to work in a three star restaurant, food soldier that I was, was a rare opportunity. At first, I was always on the verge of disaster. I was always afraid of being shouted at for chopping the carrots too large, or failing to master the myriad of prep work fast enough. Once I was asked to fetch a crate of lobsters from the storage room. It was bad enough that I was terrified of lobsters; their claws weren’t bound and I was sure they would snap off my fingers. But when I tried to open the door, the key broke. With no idea what to do, and certain that as punishment Meneau would fling me into a lobster pot full of boiling water, I went to Fernand, the old pastry chef, who had become kind of an uncle to me, and begged for advice. Together, we quietly broke into the storage room and got the lobsters.
I worked six days a week, never taking off a single holiday, including Christmas. For four years, I returned at night to the dismal flophouse and listened to my radio in my room while the young criminals watched their pornos in the TV room. In some ways, the work was grueling, but sensing my shared obsession with food, Meneau’s chefs gradually took me under their wing and began to teach me.
One night as I was leaving, Meneau took me aside. “Your hands are like gold,” he said. “I’m glad to have you in my kitchen.” I didn’t expect this kind of praise and I could barely respond. As time went on, I told him I wanted to go to the United States. “You’re too young,” he admonished me (not the first time I would be told this.) “But I think it’s time for you to move on.” He arranged a meeting with Chef Pierre Gagnaire, another three-star chef, whose Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire was in Saint-Etienne. In France, it’s normal for chefs eventually to kick their best apprentices out of the nest to gain experience with others. I guess you could say there is a kind of communal commitment to enriching the culinary gene pool. Meneau had not only taught me much; he had taken an interest in my future...
Meet Shiva Amis, med student, Muslim, extreme outdoorsman, and resident of skid row.
By Shiva Amis with Martin Booe
I stand on top of Wooly Back Peak at dawn watching the colors change as the sun poked up from a faraway valley in the east, lighting the peaks up in uneven rows: on Mt. Langley, Copperwood Basin, [another name] all winked into view on one by one. I turned to the west and the whole ocean of darkness suddenly buzzed alive like an old electric heater, its hot orange coils chasing off the nocturnal gloom. Dusty Indio Valley and Death Valley beyond that, seven hundred miles of punishing desert that I’d traversed to get to this place.
Now, finally, it was just me and the sound of the wind. I asked the wind to carve me into something like these mountain peaks, knowing that is happening every minute, and the question is, what’s left when everything you see has been carved away? Around here, you can still find ancient arrowheads on the flat planks of sandstone they used to chip them out on. I’d gotten to the place where I let the wind do the thinking.
High above the tree-line, I spotted a herd of Bighorn sheep trudging around the faintest shadow of a trail as they curl around an outcropping of rock from a nearly vertical slope. I hear an invitation to catch up to them, and I go gliding down the mountainside on sand that’s as fine as ski powder, sailing along five feet at a time. Before I know it, I’m foot-surfing it through a forest of foxtail pines, their wind-gnarled forms rising up at me as I descend the mountainside caught in a dreamlike sensation of being once and for all free of gravity…
Then I trip over a root. And not really even in slow motion fall through the ceilings of several ever darkening social realms until—plop!—I hit bottom. And I suddenly find myself being welcomed to Skid Row.
“They think they’re free,” Artemis declared, pointing to the skyscrapers. I directed my blurry gaze to the shimmering monoliths of downtown Los Angeles. I blinked. Something about the towers didn’t look right. The skyline looked inverted somehow.
“But they’re not free where it counts.!” Artemis stabbed at his graying temple with his fleshy forefinger as if he were indicating some vast and infinite open space where his mind—where everyone’s mind—could soar like a wild bird with its wings spread to the ends of the universe. He spoke like he carried this ball of clear light in head, in his care-worn cranium protecting it from the corrosive pressures of a corrupt society.
And at that moment what I wanted more than anything was to squeeze myself into that space and get completely away from society. After what I’d just been through, I was totally open to Artemis’ line of thought in a way I wouldn’t have been twenty-four hours earlier.
I looked around. Nearby, a man was screaming, “It’s not like that anymore, Mother of God Harriet, and you know it never was!” He had a dirty tartan blanket wrapped around him like a cloak and wore a chewed-up black beret pinned with Obama campaign buttons. He punched a street light and went loping down the block, shaking his banged-up hand and sobbing. He wasn’t the only one. It seemed like a whole nation of people talking out loud to themselves in anguish. A police car raced by almost silently, its red-blue lights providing a fairly ghoulish illumination of the street, and the blue light flashed on Artemis’ face.
“You buy into that whole deal, get the house, the condo, the big fancy car, whatever… well, you’ve already sold the most important piece of real estate—your mind!” Artemis went on. He reminded me of a storefront evangelist testifying to an invisible congregation. “You give them what’s inside here”—he touched his heart with his fist—“and you’re the worst off motherfucker anybody’s ever going to be.”
Then Artemis jammed his hands into his pockets and looked straight at me and nodded. He hadn’t been speaking to an invisible congregation after all. He was actually talking to me. And Me was actually listening. At first I thought he was a just another crazy person ranting down on the row, but then I started catching the flow of his words. When I started paying attention to what he was saying, I seriously wondered if he’d been reading my mind.
“I tell you this: my people were sold into slavery. Chased through the African savannah, caught up in nets, bound up in chains, thrown into the belly of a leaky slave galleon and brought forcibly to this place they called the New Fucking World, motherfuckers. My people didn’t come into slavery voluntarily. But you can see it for yourself, can’t you? This society we live in is so fucked up they got people takin’ numbers to get on the slave boats! Oh yeah, gotta have me a mortgage and owe my soul to the bank. Gottta have me a new car and owe another piece of my soul to the fucking bank. Gotta have me a social security number because my fucking name ain’t good enough and nobody’s ever gonna call me by it anyway. Gotta have a wallet full of credit cards because The Man don’t trust nobody who ain’t in debt.”
Artemis spun around on the pair of blown out running shoes that covered his feet and put his hands on his hips for effect, and went on thundering.
“A man who ain’t in debt is a threat,” he continued. “And they gotta slave themselves all year in some big air-conditioned skyscraper prison so they can buy an eensy-teensy little two-week vacation and take their time on the beach. And the only reason the Man give’em that is maybe the slaves put off committing fucking suicide for one more year, so it saves him and the life insurance company money. So let me ask you something: my people know fucking slavery, got sold into it. What kind of world do we live in where people are so goddamn crazy they’re lining up for the slave galleon like it was a motherfuckin free trip to Disneyland?”
I looked him over. African-American male, must have been about 60, but it’s hard to tell with people who live out in the open. He wore a faded Dodgers sweatshirt with a hole in the right elbow, and dark polyester pants that might once have been maroon. He kept himself reasonably well, or at least he certainly met my Great Outdoors standards of personal hygiene.
This had been the weirdest day of my life. At the airport, I’d had a run-in with authority earlier that day—Major fucking Authority, Six-hour Interrogation Authority, We’re Sending Your Muslim-American Ass to Guantanomo Bay Authority. There are many place I could start this story, and I’ll get to that, but I have to start with the night I wound up in the middle of Skid Row one night by accident, and particularly meeting Artemis. All the other weird shit that happened was just leading up to it.
Running hard from Union Station after skipping out on a shuttle fare, I detoured right into this tent city aglow with tiny campfires in trash cans and people sitting around, settling in for the night. And here I was sitting on the curb with my face buried in my hands, trying to figure out where to go. I looked up at Artemis. All of this probably makes me sound like some kind of criminal. What I was at the time was a college graduate on his way to USC Keck Medical School because I wanted to save people’s lives. I’d never so much as gotten a speeding ticket.
Finished with his sermon, Artemis shuffled over to me, cocking his head and screwing up his face in semi-mock amazement. “You look like shit!” he exclaimed with a great deal of conviction.
I tugged at my t-shirt, crusted with brown, dried blood. Yep. I looked as bad as anybody down here. It might have had something to do with having spent the last two months in the wilderness without a single bath. Or it might have to do with the strain the relentless questioning had taken on me. I’d never been treated like that in my life.
A police car cruised by. Artemis leapt out into the street and dissed it angrily, somehow turning his whole body into a giant middle finger with legs. Then he disappeared into the dark. I figured he’d lost interest in me, which at this point seemed just as well, though that was about to change.
I tried to think. I’d have to get to Melissa’s dorm and talk my way in. Part of me couldn’t wait to tell her all that had happened—in her honor, mind you—and part of me was afraid of her reaction. If you were going to go through all this for a girl, it seemed like she ought to know about it.
About five minutes later, I sensed a presence behind me and suddenly I became aware of Artemis’ malt liquor breath puffing above my head. He held out a cold, 40 ounce beer with his right hand, and said “Welcome to the row.” He said it in a voice that had a semi-official, Chamber of Commerce like tone, but combined with the sonority of a preacher.
His hand quivered slightly as he held out the big, sweaty beer bottle. I stared at it for a second before I realized it was for me.
I shook his left hand, took the beer from him and peered into his face. In it, I saw the Sierras, a majestic mountain face furrowed by wind and rain. Life and loss. Hope and disappointment. What I saw in his face more than anything, though, was the kindness that only comes from a certain depth of suffering. He just sat there and felt you. Accepted the situation for you. That’s how it all seemed to me then, anyway. It startled me. Really startled me. Here I was in the absolute corner pocket of the city, the place people wound up when they’d fallen through every slot there was to fall through, and I’d been welcomed graciously by an outcast. After my run-in with Homeland Security, this slapped me in the face like a wet dishrag. Or like a Homeland Security agent, for that matter.
I opened the beer and almost wept with gratitude. Not for the beer itself but for the kindness of the gesture. Without realizing it, I waited for my host’s permission. He gave me a nod and I twisted off the top and took a couple of big gulps, partially because I was thirsty as hell and partly to demonstrate my appreciation. It tasted like bad beer fortified with worse vodka, pissed in by a goat. I looked at Artemis, standing back with his arms folded. The alcohol charged through my empty stomach and into my blood stream almost immediately, and I felt a surge of relief. And I started to like the taste of the beer. I think that might have been the moment that spiritually speaking, I joined the ranks of the homeless on Skid Row.
He sat down next to me on the curb and put his arm around my shoulder. “You want to tell me how you got here?”
I looked at the tent city popping up in the night. Same moon rose over Skid Row as was shining above the Sierras. In a way, the Row had its own kind of beauty, I thought.
Artemis stretched his legs out, ready to listen. So I unspooled the whole strange turn of events, starting with the Sierras and through the episode at the airport, running away from the shuttle because I didn’t have money to pay, right to sitting there with him.
“That’s what happens when you go inside the gates of that city,” he said. “Everybody’s born into it, one way or another. But there are certain among us who can’t live there. And what you have to take into account is, how are you going to free yourself? Because you’re one of us, young man. Nobody’s going to tell you how to live your life and what thoughts to let into your head. Look to Houdini.”
“Look to Houdini!”
“Houdini?” What did Houdini have to do with anything?
“The greatest escape artist of all time. The greatest magician of all. Look to Houdini! Couldn’t keep him in a straightjacket. Couldn’t keep him underwater in a tank all chained up in leg irons. Well, one day he got the greatest prison builder in the world to build him a prison that the most desperate man could never get out of. And they left him there for ten years. And when they came back, there was no sign of him except a New York Times dated from the day before.”
Artemis studied me carefully, assessing how well I’d tuned into his channel. “Houdini knew how to escape with his mind. Like they used to say in the sixties, ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow!’”
His talking voice was musical, coming out in deep, rasping tones that resonated with my own emotions. Soothing, like an old blues guy. It was the content of the story about Houdini that mattered. More than anything, it was a certain kind of music. At that moment, I felt like I was hearing the voice of the only other person in the world who knew what it was like to be inside my skin, because somehow he’d been in everyone’s skin at some time. What if it left him broken and sleeping outdoors? That night, I saw nobility in it. He was living true to his own code.
The day’s events had me coughing up my desire to live completely outside society, as far out in nature as possible. And here was somebody who was echoing every thought I’d ever had about it and who was really living it. I was really into the idea of living it, and I still am because mostly people talk a lot without really living what they say they’re about. So I admired Artemis on several levels. He was a fellow outdoorsman, living out in the open—but in the city. That blew me away. This was authenticity. This is who I had to hear it from: the prophet with malt liquor on his breath. Sharing the cup with his fellow man.
By the time I was halfway through the 40 ounces of fortified beer Artemis and I were extolling the virtues of freedom, yelling at the police cars as they rolled by, a spotlight occasionally scouring the industrial area’s sidewalks. There weren’t a lot of sirens, just the cruisers going by with their lights flashing. People staggering around, yelling in each other’s directions, and sometimes seeming to have a conversation. Artemis leapt up on his feet and flipped off every cruiser that went by, which took a lot of energy. Artemis was committed.
My head was swimming a little, but not sunpleasantly. The boulevard was fairly wide, bearing a lot of truck traffic during the day. Sidewalks extended in slabs from a lot of chain link fence. During the day, the area buzzes with commerce. By night, it seemed that every particle of industrious human energy gathered up into a cloud and disappeared into another realm. And in come people who huddle outdoors like refugees, which they are. Tarps, tents, bedding, sleeping bags that have been bungee-corded into a gray mound above a shopping cart were being dismantled into home for the night.
I stretched my arms out and inhaled deeply. It was as though I’d fallen through a trap door and into the gutter. I had no I.D., no money, no haircut, a long beard, and my clothes were just as filthy and torn as anyone else’s. I could’ve been one of them. For the moment, I was one of them. The only difference between us was that I had the ability to leave.
I guess I’d skirted the edges of Skid Row on my way to one place or another, but I’d never really gotten a look at it. Like most people, I was aware of it, but thought of it as something that existed apart from me. Most people could steer around it very easily, and thus it went mostly ignored. Here I was, from a solid middle class family that had the anomaly of being Muslims from India. I had a good education, I was healthy as a horse, and I was on my way to medical school. I was here temporarily, and purely by accident. But anybody looking at Artemis and me through a car window wouldn’t have made much of a distinction between the two of us.
And they’d be right.
We were both veteran outdoorsmen, just different kinds.
He went on about how the body could withstand almost anything if the mind was strong and free. And that the people who sold their mind to the system confused shelter and imprisonment. “You take shelter voluntarily!” he cried, breaking up the syllables on the last word. “But you call something a shelter, and you invite me into it, and you start expecting me to obey your rules… fuck that shit. Don’t offer me prison and tell me it’s ‘shelter!’ Don’t offer me poison and tell me it’s a mother-fucking Oscar Meyer Weiner! Don’t tell me you got a penthouse suite and shove my ass in a bamboo cage!” Artemis was building up to a bombastic crescendo, old preacher style. I clapped along.
At one point, Artemis put his hand gently on my shoulder and peered at me. His left eye wandered off to the side. It was blotted with cataracts, but I almost felt like I saw a light glowing through the iris. He looked at me very intensely, trying to read whatever blows, psychic and otherwise, I’d taken of late. Where I’d been, not just in terms of physical roughing up, but the journey of the mind. It just goes to show that you can find philosophers anywhere, and I badly needed a dose of wisdom.
“I just want to be free,” I said, starting to give in to fatigue.
“I know what freedom is. But after what happened to you, you need to know it ain’t no different from prison on the other side of Broadway. At the end of the day, the people in those buildings just build their own portable jails they travel around in. Own portable little space ships.” Artemis imitated a sleepwalker who thought he was flying. “Drive to work: in jail ‘cause he gotta make his car payment. Gotta pay that insurance. Get to work. Can’t smoke no weed, can’t offer any lip, got to get permission to go pee… all the time, they got you on this hook. You rely on the freedom of your own mind, you can live anywhere. And I live in the great outdoors!”
He rattled the chain link fence protecting the empty lot behind us and proclaimed, “I… live… under the stars!” I looked up above. Artemis rattled the fence some more and sang to it: “Jangle, jangle, jangle.” He clutched the links of the fence with both fingers and said it again, in an emphatic whisper, as if he were sharing a closely guarded secret: “I live under the stars!”
I looked up. The skyscrapers dumped so many photons into the atmosphere that you’d need a Hubble Telescope to see stars through it. I kept that to myself, but Artemis was a step ahead of me.
“I know you don’t see any stars up there,” he said as if he were talking to a blind person. He ran his fingers over his eyelids, laying them gently down over his eyes, as if he were the Sand Man, soothing his own eyes into the most blissful slumber. “But they’re there, all right. Twinkling their pure, precious light on all of God’s creatures whose vision is clouded.” I nodded, but Artemis could see that I was merely humoring him and he wasn’t having any of it.
“These stars you can’t see with your regular old eyeballs,” he said. “These stars you can only see with your heart. Only stars really worth seeing. And I see those stars every time I close my eyes to sleep!” His face beamed and I believed he really could feel himself sailing through that vast expanse of time and space as he tumbled through the Milky Way.
There was something childlike about Artemis, and when he talked about these inner stars, I wondered what series of relentless fuck-ups might have propelled him to Skid Row peeled away like the skin of an onion. There was a moment, when through my bleary half-drunk eyes I thought I saw the child he once was beam through the face of the amiable derelict. In my raw state, this touched me so deeply I almost cried. I made a wish I could go back and find the child Artemis and do something, anything, to divert the course of his life to something comfortable, sheltered, and loved. But what did he need with my help? He had the answers I had been looking for, and I suddenly felt all the giddy excitement of being on my first camping trip and sharing a tent with my new best friend.
I wouldn’t say that Artemis was sober—it probably didn’t take much to keep his weakened constitution buzzed—but I couldn’t say he was drunk, either. He was a different species of alcoholic than the frat boys and weekend guzzlers I was acquainted with. I wrapped my hand around the bottle of malt liquor. Hardcore stuff, a rank industrial product made specifically for hard core alcoholics or teenagers who get it because it’s a lot of bang for your buck. But at this moment, I savored it like a fine and rare old wine.
“Life, it’s all what you make of it,” he said, coming out of his put-on trance. He gave his shopping cart a nudge and plunged his hand into the basket, pulling out several sheaths of cardboard. “This here’s my queen-sized bed! Posture-a-pedic!”
I had my pack with me and I grabbed my bedroll. “This is my queen-sized bed!” I declared, jumping into the game and unfurling my thermal bedroll. “And here’s our gourmet meal.” I tore open a package of beef jerky and offered Artemis some. He declined. It occurs to me now that he might have had trouble chewing it.
I’d been roughed-up, hard-done, and on the run, owing to very large misunderstanding. And at this moment, I’d never felt so at home in my life. That day, I’d gotten a real taste of what it felt like to be an outcast, and now, having wound up amidst the ultimate outcasts, the people living on Skid Row, my shredded faith in humanity was being restored by a man who lived totally outside the bounds of polite society. If this were India, where my family is from, they would be untouchables. And here was Artemis, practically stepping out of my subconscious to reassure me that things would be all right.
It was getting late and I needed to say goodbye to Artemis if I were going to catch Melissa before she went to sleep for the night. My beer buzz was starting to wear off, and my ardor for Melissa seemed to be going along with it. I imagined telling her about Artemis and I knew that she wouldn’t understand. It wouldn’t make any sense to her, no matter how I tried to explain it.
Finally, I stood up, rolled up my bedroll and put the various belongings I’d gotten out to compare with Artemis’ worldly possession back in my back.
“I’ll see you again,” I said. “I’ll come back and we’ll talk more.”
I meant it. I felt like I’d made a true friend.
“You know where to find me,” he said.
I gave Artemis a hug and headed east on Fifth Street.
I left him without learning much of his own story. I wanted to know how he’d acquired the fiery wisdom that sustained him through the rough living in an urban jungle. Had I known I’d never seen him again, I would have stayed a lot longer.
Wanda Jackson was the first female to cut a rock and roll single. She dated Elvis. And she did as much to shatter mid-century female archetypes as any woman on the planet.
By Wanda Jackson with Martin Booe
On a muggy June day in 1955, Daddy let me out in front of the Oklahoma City’s municipal auditorium. It was graduation day, the day I’d been waiting for since I was a child. All through school, I’d been like a jailbird scratching marks on the cell wall, counting the days until my sentence was up.
Typically, I was late and missed the ceremony. I had a gig in Chicago, left at midnight, and Daddy floored it most of the way, but we still got back an hour late for the noon ceremony. I flung on my cap and gown in the car and ran inside, hoping I hadn’t missed the class picture, but the mob of seniors were already streaming down from the bleachers.
But something was wrong. I could almost see the sadness pressing down on the room, heavy and black as prairie funnel cloud. Among the females, I seemed to have the only pair of dry eyes in the house. Across the auditorium, three of my girlfriends threw their arms around each other and sobbed. I thought something terrible might have happened, maybe a car accident. Graduation was a time when the boys were prone to load up on beer and go wild as a pack of dogs. I went and asked what had happened.
“The best days of our lives are over,” my best girlfriend, Beverly, said between sniffles. I probably looked at her like she’d told me she’d just taken a ride in a flying saucer. “You know what you’re going to do with your life,” she said, blinking her tear-streaked eyes. “High school was the best time we’ll ever have! Our lives are over!”
What had I missed that they’d found so wonderful? Well, they went on dates and had boyfriends. I wrote songs about going on dates and having boyfriends, which to me was a lot more fun than actually doing those things. They were cheerleaders and homecoming queens, and stood in front of the bleachers, waved pom poms and tried to stir up the crowd. I went on stage and sang songs to audiences and made records, one of them an actual radio hit. I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything. I felt like I’d experienced something a lot stronger.
And Beverly was right; I did know what I was going to do with my life. I’d known it since I was five years old, and the thought never crossed my mind that I would wind up doing anything but singing.
But this was 1955, and the female mind was still in a corset, even if our bodies weren’t (though girdles were the next worst thing). If you were “lucky,” you got married right out of high school, and maybe got an Avon route. If you didn’t, you worked at the five and dime, or waitressed and waited for the right guy to come along and save you from the disfiguring disease of being single. If you went to college at all, you became a nurse or a teacher. Girl Singer? Why not brain surgeon? To my friends, one seemed about as far-fetched as the other.
Yes, I was lucky and at that moment I really felt it. Of course, I wanted a husband and family in good time, but now the road beckoned, and with it the chance to spread my wings beyond central Oklahoma.
A couple of days later, I found a Billboard magazine opened to the classifieds. Circled in blue ball point was an ad that said, “Bob Neal, Booking Agent, Memphis.” Daddy had mentioned getting a professional to take on the booking. So Daddy called Bob and gave him my bonafides, told I’m been singing with Hank Thompson, and also Merl Lindsey and the Oklahoma Night Riders, and then Daddy, for whom talking on the phone was about as painful as having his eye teeth pulled out, handed it over to me.
Bob—“Mr. Neal” to me—said it was perfect timing. He put together “package shows,” where you’d have three or maybe four acts in one evening, and a pickup band to back up most of them; that saved on expenses. “I’m booking a bunch of scruffy young fellows and I’ve been looking high and low for a gal to put on the bill,” he told me. “If Hank Thompson picked you out of a crowd, that’s all I need to hear.”
Having Hank in my camp was a real feather in my cap, but there wasn’t a lot of competition because women didn’t strike out on the road. Rosemary Clooney might go from New York to Boston, but down south, where our audience was, women didn’t do that. People (well, men) were too inclined to assume a female rambling around her own was a stray cat, well acquainted with fleshly pleasures and two and a half cocktails away from proving it. Anyway, that’s the kind of wanton endangerment everybody assumed a gal would be in for traveling alone. Looking back, I have trouble believing that there could be so many lascivious wolves in sheep’s clothing lurking around middle America in those days, but that was the assumption.
Fortunately, I came equipped with a driver, chaperone and bodyguard, otherwise known as “Daddy.” That made all the difference in getting my career going.
When I said to Mr. Neal that I guessed having a gal on the bill made the girls feel more comfortable, he let out a belly laugh. “I’m not worried about the girls—they get to look at Elvis. I need a gal who’s as pretty as he is so the boys won’t get jealous and take a swing at him!” I thought he was joking. Later, I’d come to learn that indeed, on occasion, some of the guys resented the frenzy Elvis whipped their dates into, and to prove their manhood, would try to pick a fight with him. I’m fairly sure that a few gallons of Milwaulkee’s finest would have been a contributing factor.
That’s how it was: the girls got the boys to buy the tickets and the boys went along with it. If I got to be on the bill as their consolation prize, that didn’t bother me a bit.
“Who’s this Ellis?” I asked.
“Elvis. Elvis Presley. He’s a real up and comer.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”
“You’ll be hearing about him soon enough,” Mr. Neal said.
* * *
We just can’t believe that you’re gonna be on the bill with ELVIS PRESLEY!!! He’s only the cutest, most ADORABLE fellow on earth. HANDSUMMM! When Naomi and I saw your letter we both SCREAMED! You are the Luckiest girl in The World. He was here about three months ago and the girls all went crazy for him. If you could get us backstage to meet him, we’ll give you a MILLION DOLLARS. (Just kidding, we don’t have quite that much – ha ha!) You have to tell us every single thing about him, if he’s as nice as he seems, does he have a good sense of humor, etc. See you in Odessa!
I’d written my cousins in Odessa, Texas telling them I was going to be working with this guy named Elvis, whose name still didn’t mean a thing to me. Oklahoma City radio wasn’t playing him, so how much of a splash could he be making? My cousins were a little bit silly and a lot boy crazy, so I didn’t pay much mind to the fact that this Elvis set their hearts aflutter so.
Bob Neal was as good as his word, and about ten days later, Daddy and I hit the road for Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I’d be on the bill with this Elvis Presley.
It was a considerable road trip. Cape Girardeau is about 600 miles from Oklahoma City, and for the sake of any of my younger friends who’ve grown up with the internet, we didn’t even have interstates in 1955. We did have cars, though, as you may have gathered, and we’d gotten a 1954 Plymouth Savoy, two-tone, green with a white top. It wasn’t considered all that big then, but by today’s standards, it was the size of a battleship. Plymouth advertised it as “Hy-Style,” and we thought it was quite flashy.
So we were in for an expedition of a few hundreds of miles over two-lane state roads, cutting across county roads, some of them gravel, and although our destination was a small port town on the lower Mississippi—at least it had a college—I was as excited as if we were going to Paris. I’d performed out of state before, but mostly in enclaves where people where already familiar with me. Now I had a real sense of conquering new territory, testing my mettle with audiences who hadn’t heard me before.
We hit the road about 8 p.m. the night before the show. Daddy figured we’d take about sixteen hours getting there. He loved to drive and he was a night owl, both of which were good things because we were on our way to becoming seasoned road warriors. He’d drive through the night, partly to save on a hotel room, but more than anything, he just liked it. “It’s peaceful,” he’d say. It was, too. When I got sleepy, I’d curl up in the back seat, and since I was just five-two and petite at that, it was as good as a queen-sized bed.
I spent the first few hours on the road with my nose in a magazine until it got dark, humming along to the radio with Daddy until I got sleepy and climbed into the back seat. Now when I listened to the radio, it was like being sung to by chorus of family members. So many of the hits were by people I’d gotten to know well from working on Ozark Jubilee. Red Foley had a big hit with Hearts of Stone. My beloved mentor Hank Thompson was doing well with Don’t Take It Out On Me, and Faron Young, another Jubilee acquaintance, had scored his first hit with Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young. Eddie Arnold, with his silky vocal style and a yodel as smooth as fresh cream, was still a huge star, seemed like he’d been one since the time I first tumbled out of my crib. I remember hearing Sixteen Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, who stayed roosted at the top of the charts all that year.
Overall, country music hadn’t changed all that much since I was a child tagging along with my parents to those dances. Honky Tonk and Western Swing were still the jewels in the crown, and you could still draw pretty much of a straight line from Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, then from Hank to just about anything else that was happening. Dual fiddles humming in the background, steel guitars dripping with reverb, an acoustic guitar or two strumming, alternating bass line… that was the sound. About this time, there was one noteworthy new ingredient slipping into the mix, and that was the unmistakable slip note piano style of Floyd Cramer, who’d arrived in Nashville that year.
It was a comfortable sound that I didn’t expect to change much any time soon, and I was happy to have a place in it. We were rolling east on US 60, and leaning back on a pillow propped up against the car door, I drifted to sleep gazing out the window at the endless patchwork of cornfields illuminated by a silvery summer moon.
Hours later, about ten miles outside of Cape Girardeau, we began to see rose bushes at both sides of the road, and as we drove along they grew ever more abundant until the highway was flanked by bright blots of scarlet and pink flowers, enchanting the southern summer air with their fragrance. Daddy said he’d heard people call Cape Girardeau the “City of Roses,” and now we knew why. I heaved a contented sigh. I felt like all those roses had rolled out their cheerful welcome mat just for me.
We got into town mid-afternoon and checked into the hotel Bob Neal had recommended. As always, when we were going to be staying in a place overnight, I went inside to sign for our room. Daddy was a funny one, in that respect. He’d performed publicly, playing the fiddle and guitar, and singing at small-town dances and the occasional bar. Her could play for an audience, but was shy as a possum with strangers.
We went to our room and I changed into a tight black pencil skirt and a yellow cotton sweater with a black velvet rose pinned onto the shoulder. I was expected at the local radio station in a couple of hours to do a promotional spot for the show that evening. That would become a familiar routine on the road. In those days, we’d pop unannounced into every little radio station within 50 miles of the show we were doing. Usually, they’d welcome us in, play one of our records, and sit us down at the microphone to talk a little bit. It was all so informal then, and while I’d get tired of answering the same questions over and over, it was a lot of fun, and very necessary. Radio play was the lifeline to our audiences.
We had a little time to kill and there was a diner just a block from the radio station. I ordered a hamburger and Daddy had a cup of coffee and a cigarette. “Congratulations, Wanda,” he said with a sleepy smile. “You’re a full-time, professional singer now. But if you’d rather go back home and look for a steady job, I’m sure your mother could find you something¾”
“No!” I cried, drowsy and not alert to the fact that he was teasing me. “I like this just fine!”
* * *
“He’s here!” the young receptionist said in a loud whisper. Who’s here? I wondered. It must have been somebody important. It was a few minutes before 3 p.m. and Daddy and I were sitting in the waiting area outside the radio station control room.
A purple elephant walking into that station couldn’t have startled people any more than Elvis did when he appeared in a canary yellow sport coat, a black shirt, and black pants. He had long sideburns and his hair was… curly. I looked closer and saw that his hair was permed. Men in 1955 did not wear canary yellow blazers. They did not have long sideburns. They did not have their hair permed.
Startling. That was the only word for him. I think we’d all have been only somewhat less amazed if he’d walked in buck naked.
But Elvis had a way about him and he wore those clothes like he was born in them. I could tell right off by the way he carried himself that he was bashful, but at the same time he seemed completely comfortable in his own skin. He was chewing gum, and he had a way of slouching and letting his head loll off to the side like he was a little sleepy and bored with it all. What I sensed about him then, and what became clearer as I got to know him, was that he was extremely aware of the impression he made on people. What made Elvis such a powerful presence was that he could was be completely himself, but at the same time, playing the part of Elvis being completely himself. He was genuinely shy, but he was completely aware that his shyness disarmed people, calmed them down, so he played it up. And that stirred everyone up all the more.
And, of course, he was handsome as a million dollars, which sure didn’t escape my notice, though I made a determination not to let that distract me from the bigger issue of his bizarre fashion sense. He reminded me of Rudolph Valentino wearing a rodeo clown outfit. I was agitated before he even said hello.
“Miss Wanda Jackson,” he said with a forward slouch that seemed halfway intended as a bow. I looked at him in his yellow blazer and black shirt. He looked at me in my yellow sweater, black skirt and black velvet rose. Together, we looked like an all too cutesy couple who’d been going steady for a year and had taken to coordinating their wardrobes—the kind of couple who’d be publicly praised for their cuteness and privately despised for their preciousness.
I wondered if the same thought had come over him. I remembered to smile.
“Been hearing a lot about you, Elvin—”
“Elvis,” he corrected me. “But you can call me Elvin if it’s easier for you.” He flashed a little smile and cast his eyes downward. “…if it’s easier for you.” I couldn’t decide whether he was being good-natured or just a garden variety smart aleck, so for the moment I graciously suspended judgment.
I introduced Elvis to Daddy.
“Pleased to meet you sir,” Elvis said, straightening his posture. “It’s awful nice of you to bring Wanda down all this way so she could join the show.” He was suddenly respectful, and I could already see that Daddy was taking a liking to him, which irked me.
A few minutes later, we were in the control room, plugging the show.
The deejay, whose name I can’t recall, was an amiable, portly fellow with thick glasses and thicker chins that cascaded down his neck. He asked us a few questions about ourselves. “Wanda, I understand Hank Thompson helped you get your start. What’s he like?” “What’s your favorite song? What songs are you going to sing tonight?” Then he played my record, my first hit, “You Can’t Have My Love,” pure country.
Now it was Elvis’ turn. He muttered and mumbled his answers and kept on chewing his gum. A couple of times, he had to ask the deejay to repeat the question because he obviously hadn’t been paying attention. I was a little put out by that, and was starting to think, “Well, he’s good looking all right, but I don’t see what the big deal is about this Elvis Presley.” I didn’t know what kind of impression he thought he was making, but I figured one day somebody would probably slap that curl right out of his lip. Something about that boy put my nose out of joint.
Then the deejay spun Elvis’ new single, Baby Let’s Play House. I don’t think anybody much had heard it yet. It would be his first big hit. It started with Elvis hiccupping “Whoa bay-bee, bay-bee, bay-bee” to a syncopated slap bass line that was underpinned by drumsticks pattering against the rim of the snare. It had a country twang, an itchy beat, a bluesy swing, and it seemed driven by a pulse that could only come from the very heart of rhythm itself.
At the moment, I wasn’t analyzing it, just listening to it. I guess I liked it, but I had no frame of reference for it. I squinted at the turntable, as if I expected that vinyl disk spinning at 45 rpms to jump up and explain itself to me. I looked at Elvis whose gaze was adrift as the song played.
Now listen and I’ll tell you baby
What I’m talking about
Come on back to me, little girl
So we can play some house
Now, my darlings, it is most likely quite obvious to you that these lyrics are fairly dripping with sexual innuendo, and while it may be hard for my younger fans to believe it possible, the real meaning of the lyrics went clear over my head. Yes, back in the fifties, we were really that naïve. “Baby, Let’s Play House”—to me that meant maybe a boy comes over one afternoon when your parents aren’t around and you get out the tea service and talk about your preferences in wall paper. Maybe you even bake him some cookies. Elvis, however, had grown up among blacks in Memphis, bought their records, listened to their radio stations, so in retrospect I’m pretty sure he knew what those lyrics were getting at. He definitely got it on a subconscious level, because he’d completely internalized black rhythm and blues, both in his singing and his body language. But it’s also possible that it was all coming from instinct, that on a conscious level, the words “let’s play house” didn’t suggest anything more to him than it did to me. So there was this kind of innocence underlying his delivery that kept it from being too shocking.
After the spot, we said our goodbyes to the folks at the station, and Elvis walked me outside. Daddy was in the car, where he’d been listening to the interview.
Then another astonishing sight caught my eye.
A pink Cadillac.
“Mercy!” I exclaimed.
Elvis grinned sheepishly.
“Is that yours?” I asked, though the answer was obvious.
At that moment, it was probably only pink Cadillac on earth.
“That’s my second one,” he said, laughing. “The first burned up last month.”
“It’s pink!” I exclaimed in about the same tone I’d have used for a two-headed puppy.
“Oh, it’s a gimmick. Probably paid for itself ten times over in publicity.” Elvis gave me a pat on the shoulder. “We’re in show business, Wanda. We’ve got to do whatever gets us attention.”
“I don’t know if I want that kind of attention! People must stop in their tracks when you drive by.”
“That’s the point,” Elvis said, grinning.
“See you at the show, Miss Wanda Jackson,” Elvis said, slipping in behind the wheel and scratching off out of his parking space.
Elvis was 20 and I was 18 and the summer was very hot.
I still have a copy of the original show bill from that night.
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Scotty and Bill
Daddy kept the poster from that night, and I was always curious why. I mean, neither of us knew what was coming, and we had no premonition that Elvis would be anything more than another hard-working entertainer. He must have been tuned into something.
“Scotty and Bill,” of course, referred to Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitar player, and Bill Black, his bassist. (Combos rarely brought drummers along in those days because they usually travelled together in one car, instruments on their laps, the double bass strapped to the roof, and they’re sitting on their sandwiches; nobody could afford a tour bus yet, even if there was such a thing.
I’d liked what I’d heard of Bud Deckelman. He had a good string of honky tonk hits, including Day Dreaming, which I later recorded; talented man, but I heard he walked away from the music life not after that and went into upholstery, something like that. A lot of people did that, and you couldn’t blame them. It can wear you out. I guess it was always in the back of my mind that I’d probably wind up doing something “normal” one day (though as you’ll see, I gave “normal” a shot, and it shot back). There were a whole lot of really talented people who made a couple of records and then got a steady job, people who made great music but that nobody much remembers. Bud, for instance: you can’t even find any of his music on iTunes, even though he’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
The whole thing about who’s remembered and who’s not brings up some strange feelings for me. The only time I really worried about it was when I needed to go back to work after a 15-year hiatus from the mainstream. I didn’t think about being remembered, least of all as somebody who’d really planted a flag on the musical landscape. Didn’t think about it because it didn’t seem possible. But my point is, music lives on, and that’s true whether or not it stays connected to the name of the person who made it.
In the meantime, it was “the pirate’s life for me.”
Except for Elvis, we were all country acts, which says a lot about the ground Elvis sprang from. Although the term “rock ’n’ roll” had supposedly been coined by then, I don’t think any of us had heard it yet. For that matter, the rest of us weren’t yet dignified with anything so genteel as “country singer.” We were still being called “hillbilly singers.” Elvis was given the special distinction of being called “the hillbilly cat.” The word “cat” was a neutral way of acknowledging that Elvis was conjuring up some jungle sounds to go along with his country music. And that made him cool—or threatening, depending on your personal nervous disposition. Anyway, at that point we weren’t rock ’n’ roll, or country acts. We were all “hillbillies” of one designation or another. What a relief it was when the term rockabilly came along and thumped the word hillbilly out of usage.
This being my first performance on a real-life tour, you’d think I’d remember it clear as day. I remember it going well, feeling warmly received by the audience… pretty relaxed, really. They always put the girl in the middle of the show, so first it was Bud, then me, then Elvis. After I’d done my set, I went back to my dressing room to freshen up. Daddy came in a couple of minutes later, spread out his arms, and gave me a hug. “They really liked you,” he told me, clasping my shoulders. “You were great.” That I do remember vividly, because Daddy was not one to lavish praise. He held me to a high standard, so if he demonstrated his approval, it really meant something.
Now that I think about it, Daddy’s spare use of praise said a lot about our relationship and my formation as a singer. It wasn’t because he was cold; he was anything but that. No, he made a real separation between Wanda, his daughter, and Wanda, the entertainer. He respected me enough to be completely honest. He really took me seriously, groomed me to be a pro. “Don’t rear back from the mike so much when you go for that high note.” “Don’t say a word about government or religion.” That was mostly the kind of advice he gave me, little things that make a lot of difference. The big thing he taught me was to always be myself.
About ten seconds after Daddy came into the dressing room, the building literally started shaking, and there were screams. Pandemonium. We both froze and listened.
“There must be a fire,” Daddy said calmly. He told me to stay put until he got back. I looked out the second story window and wondered if I’d survive jumping.
Daddy came back laughing. “Come on out here,” he said. “You have got to see this!”
I followed him down to the side of the stage, behind the security ropes, looked out up to the stage where Elvis was singing That’s All Right Mama to a churning sea of girls in saddle shoes, bobby socks, poodle skirts and pony tails. The auditorium was on fire all right, but this wasn’t one you could put out with a hose. They’d shed so many tears they looked like they’d been standing in the rain. I’ll never forget their faces, lit from within—their eyes literally had stars in them as they beheld Elvis, haloed in the spotlight, his “perm” a bit withered from the southern humidity, his face dripping sweat in the stifling auditorium.
He sang with his whole body, hips-a-swiveling, leg shaking, guitar whipping up and down, around his back. He’d brought the fervor of a Holy Roller to popular music, and mixed it in with something that seemed like a tribal fertility dance. Bill Black whooped it up along with him, twirling his bass, rolling around on the floor with it, dancing with it like it was a girl, while the much more serious Scotty Moore stood fixed in one place, playing understated but brilliant fills on his gold hollow-bodied Gibson electric. (His solo I Forgot to Remember to Forget still gives me chills).
Daddy looked on appreciatively, tapping his toe to the music and grinning less at Elvis than at the frenzy he’d created. Show business was religion to him and he was very much in favor of what worked.
That I shared with him, but while Daddy seem to enjoy Elvis, I observed him clinically. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, that was for sure, but I kind of told myself he was a novelty act.
“That young man is going places,” Daddy said after the show. “What’d you think?”
“So that’s what the girls in Odessa like,” I said, and I’m sure I flared my nostrils.
It turned out that Elvis, Scotty and Bill were staying in the same hotel as Daddy and me. The next stop for all of us was Newport, Arkansas, for the second date of the same bill. We got up around ten, coinciding with Elvis, Scotty and Bill—and a there was a photographer from the local paper who’d been awaiting an opportunity to shoot Elvis. So they photographed him leaning jauntily against his pink Cadillac, and then they me called in for a shot of us together. Well, no entertainer minds free publicity, and fortunately Elvis and I weren’t wearing matching outfits. I think he was wearing a pair of khakis instead of jeans. That was unusual because everbody was wearing blue jeans now. Not Elvis, though. Seems like he had on a shirt with a loud print.
I felt myself smiling. This was just the kind of fun, relaxed attention I liked. I never minded having my picture taken. Standing next to Elvis made me feel pretty, which made me a little put out with myself, but not enough to spoil the moment. They took a picture with his arm draped around me, and another with the two of us holding the poster for last night’s show. He smelled of fresh witch hazel.
When the photographer finished, Elvis, Scotty and Bill, started tying the bass onto the roof of Elvis’ Pink Cadillac. “I like your hat!” Elvis called out to Daddy.
Daddy grinned and yelled back at him, “Well, why don’t you try it on!”
He did, the photographer turned around, and Elvis gave the camera a completely convincing but very funny movie gangster glower. Elvis and Daddy were laughing together. Elvis got a Captain’s Hat he wore sometimes and put it on Daddy’s head and some more pictures were taken of the two of them.
Elvis was a country boy, not that different from Daddy in a lot of ways. Both were country people, and when country people got around each other, they let loose. I think Daddy had that natural bond with Elvis, that I didn’t appreciate at that moment. I still couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I was asleep when we got to Newport, and Daddy whispered me awake. He’d pulled into a motel. It was my job to go inside and book a room for us. That was one of those citified activities he wasn’t comfortable with. Daddy was brave as a lion and shy as a possum.
I heaved the door open and stepped out into the syrupy Arkansas [Newport] air and looked up at the hazy, chalk white sky. It made me think of a blank sheet of paper, and I could write anything I wanted on it. And for some reason, I found myself wondering how long it would be before Elvis got into town.
Fleeing the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the son of one of the richest men in Afghanistan learned what it's like to work your way up from the bottom.
By Tony Abrahim with Martin Booe
Chicken Street, the site of the ancient and international bazaar located in Kabul, Afghanistan, came into existence around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great marched his army through it, Marco Polo traded spices and fabrics, and Genghis Khan poached its artisans and lured them to Manchuria. The English invaded it in the 1800s, and the Russians overran it in the 1900s. Despite the iron grip the Taliban maintains on the country, Chicken Street remains a mecca of trading. It was here, amid the rug and spice dealers, the camel traders and the gold merchants, that Miswah Said Abrahim’s character was forged. Growing up, he spent most of his days in Chicken Street, playing, working for his father, and learning how to trade in the ancient way, as his ancestors had always done.
Said Abrahim —who later changed his name to “Tony”— and his twin, Sam, were born in February, 1960 as scions of the richest family in Kabul. Growing up in the peaceful opulence of Afghanistan of the 1960s and 1970s, they were pampered twin princes, with servants to press their suits, cooks to squeeze their pomegranates, concubines to satisfy their adolescent desires, and most important, chauffeurs to steal them away from the lush rose gardens and marble floors of their family estate to the hot, felonious squall of Chicken Street. They couldn’t foresee that Chicken Street was preparing them for a future of violence, betrayal and resurrection in the greatest and cruelest marketplace on earth: New York City.
When the Afghani communists took over, to be followed shortly by the Russian invasion, Tony escaped to New York. He expected to fall comfortably into the safety net to be provided by his older brother, Ozzie, who’d been in the states since 1964. But things didn’t work out that way. Ozzie had become a compulsive gambler and had, with both hands, thrown away the nest egg he was charged to guard for the family’s escape from their native land. Living in utter squalor with his derelict brother, Tony, the formerly spoiled rich kid, was forced to make a go of it on his own.
Much of the action of the book takes places during the coke-fueled, “Greed is Good” frenzy of the eighties, during which Tony ascended from dishwasher at an Italian restaurant to manager for one of New York’s hottest discos. He mixed with mobsters and misfits. His boss was a former hit man for Mossad who was associated with the Gambino family. While trying to bring other members of the family to America, one by one, he and Sam opened their own nightclub on the Upper East Side, populated by Wall Street’s highest rollers. All was well. The brothers rented a penthouse, charging exorbitant fees to big spenders who wanted to keep the party going after the club closed. But trouble loomed: an odd character named Michel, an Egyptian and self-proclaimed “Muslim Brother,” reported to the DEA their fictitious boasts of millions in cash, kilos of cocaine, and large stashes of machine guns. In short, the brothers were framed (there is documentation of this), and forced to work as Narcs for the DEA. Subsequently, their fortunes are hilariously lost and gained in New York, San Francisco, the Arizona desert, Istanbul and Hawaii.
But underpinning all of the action is the real story of the twins trying to reunify their family and hold onto their culture, amid betrayals and theft by other brothers. And their perplexity as to why this ancient family, so close and mutually protective in their homeland, fell prey to avarice and self-interest once relocated in America. It is, in many respects, “Kiterunner” in reverse.
“Chicken Street” is much more than a “Riches to Rags to Riches” story. It illuminates Afghani culture in the way that the brothers fell back on their family’s ancient tradition of hospitality, repackaging it for the frenzy of 1980s Wall Street. Stripped of that, they take to the road, following the tradition of their ancestors on the Silk Route, trading watches, rugs and jewelry and turning it into profit until they regain their footing. They opened stores, lost them, made a killing as day traders, went belly up—but always bounced back. The story is also a lense through which to view the changes that have taken place, culturally and economically, in America, through the late 1970s, through the calamities of the Twin Towers, and up until today, when Tony Abrahim finds himself embarking for China: the new Chicken Street.
I'd laid down for a nap around 3 p.m., and fallen into a deep sleep. My mind was somewhere at the crossroads between memories and dreams. Images of Kabul, of my parents, of Chicken Street, of the life I'd left behind, all flashed in my head, clear as a movie. I'd been overdoing it and was close to nervous exhaustion: too much work, too much partying, the endless demands of running the hottest nightclub on the upper Eastside. I was starting to fray. The carpenter, Jim, had been doing some touch-up work on the penthouse. I told him to take a rest too. My twin brother Sam was out shopping with his girlfriend and would be back soon. Finally, some time to myself…
About an hour later, something stirred me awake. I pried my eyes open to find five hulking DEA agents surrounding the bed. A fist crashed into my nose, and it gushed blood like an open hydrant. They hoisted me up and tied me to a chair.
“Where’s the coke, Towel Head?” they demanded. “What about the guns? We know you’ve got a big stash of machine guns!”
I had no idea what they were talking about.
Now there were twenty or so agents, all bruisers weighing between 200 and 250 pounds. They swarmed through the penthouse, ripping up the furniture, ransacking drawers and closets.
The beating continued, the interrogation persisted. I couldn’t see through the veil of blood clouding my eyes. And then things went black.
Water splashed into Tony’s face. I must have been in shock. There was no pain, I felt nothing, I was totally numb. I looked across the expansive living room and saw my brother Sam lying on the floor. He was beat to a pulp too and his hands were tied behind his head. Same with Jim. The front door bore a gaping whole from forced entry. It looked like they’d shot a cannon through it
“We got the shit on you, mother fucker!” one of the agents bellowed. “How much cash you got stashed? A half million? A million? Where is the goddamn cash?”
“You’re crazy! You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I ain’t got no goddamn drugs. I ain’t got no gun. I ain’t got no cash.”
And then, another crack to the head, another punch to the gut. I figured out from some of their remarks to each other that most of them were Vietnam vets. Trained killers. What I couldn’t figure out was what the hell they were talking about, why they were even here, much less why they were beating the goddamn daylights out of me.
And then I looked over toward the kitchen, where Michel, the Egyptian, my “Muslim brother,” stood, coolly drinking a glass of water. Muslim brother, my ass. Michel flashed a self-satisfied grin, or maybe it was more of a sneer. Then it started coming back to me. The stupid, crazy boasts Sam and I had made to keep Michel at heel, whatever the hell Michel was up to. The ridiculous stories we'd made up just to fuck with his head. Michel, his pockets bulging with bags of cocaine. Always wanting to party with Sam and me. Always making like he was our best friend.
I could never pinpoint what it was about Michel that gave me the creeps. Now it all made sense. Fucking Michel: a filthy dog whose only mission was to save his own hide.
The beating went on and on. It was like ‘The Deer Hunter” movie, I thought. I had to come up with something to stop it, or I'd be one dead Afghani. Finally, I remembered the words my father had said before the communists had forced me to flee Kabul. Squinting through the blood, I looked at the head guy said:
“So why don’t you take a bullet and shoot me? Just get over with it man. If you don’t shoot me, you don’t have any goddamn balls.”
I said whatever I could think of to get this guy to shoot me. “You don’t have the balls to shoot me! Go to hell, you coward. You got no guts to put a bullet in my head. Just give me the gun and I’ll shoot myself. Hey, why don’t you put one bullet in the gun and let me play Russian roulette and we bet on it.”
He popped me in the cheekbone again, knuckles like they were made out of ball bearings.
And then I said: “Shoot me, you goddamn pansy. I’d be proud to die by an American bullet instead of a Russian bullet.”
The interrogator gasped, like all the air had been knocked out of him. The room went quiet. They all looked toward me like they’d been slapped silly.
Then the head guy yelled, “STOP!”
I’d pushed the right button. The head agent said it again: ‘Okay, stop beating the kid. Stop beating the kid NOW.’”
I’d wrapped myself in the flag. I loved America, and that was the only thing I had in common with these guys, who’d been through hell in Vietnam and were now opportunistic dirtbags fighting Nancy Reagan’s War on Drugs. And it was just instinct. It just came out of my mouth. I’d be proud to die by an American bullet.
I hit them in the sweet spot and if I hadn’t, I’d be dead. It saved my life.”
KABUL, SEPTEMBER 1978
“Brother, there’s just one thing I have to say to you,” Sharif Abdi told me on the way to the Kabul airport in his 1959 Chevy. “When you get to America, don’t look back. It’s over here. Done. You have a new country. A new life in a land where you can start over and thrive. But remember what I say: Don’t look back.”
I bit my lip. It was all I could do to keep from crying.
“He’s right,” All agreed solemnly. “You’ve got your brother Ozzie waiting for you in New York. He will be your father now, and you know he will take good care of you.” This really didn’t need to be said. In Afghan culture, when you lose your father, your older brother takes the role. That’s how it was and nobody questioned it. My father was still alive, but in America, Ozzie—16 years older than me—would be there to guide me, house me, and help me adjust to my new country.
The night before, there had been a tense shish kabob party at our home in Kabul. My relatives hung about glumly; no one could decide whether to act like they were going to a wedding or a funeral. The fact that I was getting out was cause for both celebration and mourning. It signaled my salvation, and it foretold of a family —as well as national—Diaspora. That morning I said goodbye to all of my relatives, and now two of my favorite people were driving me to the airport: my second cousin Sharif and my brother-in-law, All Balki. I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again. “America will give you the opportunity to become a lawyer—or even a doctor!” my mother had said optimistically. “There, you’ll be able to make something out of yourself.”
“I’ve decided I want to be a lawyer,” I told her. “I think I’d like that.”
“Then reach for the sky, son! Reach for the sky! Your brother, Ozzie, will be waiting for you.”
Ozzie was the star of our family, the brilliant one, a genius in mathematics. First he’d studied in London, and then he became one of the youngest students at Columbia and the only Afghani who’d ever won a scholarship there. He’d gotten his doctorate in mathematics and published books, papers, and his thesis. He shocked the family when he married a Jewish teacher, but together they bought a beautiful house in New Jersey. He’d already been in America for 15 years, since 1964, and he was a great success. So our father had entrusted him with a big chunk of the family fortune, had even helped him open three import stores, just in case things went wrong in Afghanistan, which they certainly had. I hadn’t seen him since I was five years old, but like everyone else in the family, I was in awe of him from a distance: I’d seen pictures of his big beautiful house in the suburbs, his pretty wife and two kids. In fact, I really only knew him from photographs. In one, he was wearing a slim pinstriped suit and was standing in front of two Ford Mustang convertibles parked in front of his Jersey home.
It looked like he was living the American Dream.
Nothing wrong with that, but the truth was, nobody in my family had ever cared much about the idea of going to America. We listened to Elvis and the Beatles. My older brothers’ favorite was Tom Jones. They had stashes of Playboys and drank the best imported liquor. My sister wore mini-skirts. The west had come streaming into our lives, but we were happy to let it come to us. The American Dream didn’t hold that much appeal for us because we were living our own dream. We were very fortunate in this. Afghanistan has always been a poor country, but our father was a big shot.
I really never wanted to live anywhere but Kabul.
I looked out the window. The streets like always were clotted with the usual assortment of rickshaws, camels, mopeds pulling carts piled high with vegetables or trinkets, peddlers trudging on the side of the road, on their backs—like ants carrying crumbs three greater than their own body weight. And then we pulled onto the road to the airport, 16 kilometers outside Kabul, and I gazed back at the Hindu Kush Mountains. Hulking, jagged peaks, khaki-colored at the bottom, dry as a giant heap of fresh coffee grounds, with out-croppings sharp as arrowheads, and peaks that were snow-gilded and haloed with brooding, iridescent clouds. Those mountains were where we skied in the winter and in the summer sought refuge from the heat of Kabul.
Sharif could feel my mood sinking and he tried to lighten things up.
“Think about all that American pussy, Brother!” he said. “You’ll get some blonde stuff for a change! I envy you. You know what they say about those American girls, don’t you?”
“No, what?” I asked.
“They’ll fuck you swinging upside down by their feet from a chandelier.”
That made me chuckle a little bit. I was 18. Sharif was a lot older than me, but he’d always treated me like his friend, his equal. What I remember most is how he couldn’t bear to hurt any living creature, human or animal. He was such an incredibly sweet, gentle man. I loved him dearly, and All too.
I was already homesick and I hadn’t even left town yet. I thought of my mother, Zahara Ibrahimi, so generous and compassionate. If she heard about an employee’s particular hardship, she’d make arrangements to put it right, always anonymously. If someone complimented her jewelry or an item of clothing, she’d give it to away on the spot and tell them to enjoy it. My dad was the same, donating money to the mosques to feed thousands of hungry people through Ramadan.
And my God, how was I going to get by without my twin, Sam, who was like my second self? We dreamed the same dreams, got the same illnesses, everything one of us experienced would come back on the other sooner or later. We fought like bastards, played like best friends, hit each other until we bled, backed each other up so that no one, no one would fuck with us. We were a team. I’d miss the family picnics, the beautiful mosques, but in terms of the town, what I’d miss most was Chicken Street.
It was typical of my dad to have the kind of foresight to stash money away in another country, in this case with my brother, Ozzie. We led an idyllic life in Afghanistan, but Father was a fatalist. He never trusted things to remain the same.
The crisis had started brewing in 1974 when the king, Zahir Shah, went to Rome for eye surgery. His cousin, Sardar Daoud Khan, launched a bloodless coup, unraveling 45 years of benign monarchy. Khan announced himself as a progressive and a reformer (like hell he was), and both Sharif and All decided to make the best of it, going to work for the government in the sincere belief that they could make things better through trade, economic development, and education.
Sharif had become head of the Chamber of Commerce after the King was deposed and the government turned into a republic. All was an economist who’d been educated in Germany. They were both good men, working for the good of the country, progressives who were really committed to modernizing Afghanistan and bringing it out of poverty. None of us had wanted to see the King deposed; life under him had been beautiful for us and we respected the monarchy and its traditions. But when the regime changed, they were called upon to help, and they decided to pitch in and do what they could.
Then came the communists.
The KGB had been agitating undercover, helping to spark a class war and a communist uprising. The communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan now seized the reigns, and they took a lot of pages from Stalin’s playbook.
They called it the Great Saur Revolution. Sardar Daoud Khan and his family were slaughtered that year in 1978. It was the year before the Russian invasion. I was getting out one step ahead of the real violence, but already they were turning the society upside down. If you had money or property, they confiscated it and redistributed it to the poor. The educated, the wealthy, and the upper class—for them, the executions had already begun. The new Marxist government was drafting young boys into the Independent Afghan Army, and if you were from a well-off family, you were sure to be canon fodder in the front lines in the fight against the U.S.-backed mujahideen.
If I stayed, I’d be dead.
There was nothing to do but run away, and in the coming months, we’d all scatter to the four winds, to India, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran...and for me, the United States, where Ozzie and my oldest brother, Abdul, had already settled.
That year, in 1978, I went to Germany for a month to visit my sister, Lila; Afghanis didn’t need a Visa to travel there, and the Germans had done a lot for our country by building schools, roads and hospitals. As a nation, they were Afghanistan’s best friend. When I got back, things had taken a disastrous turn. Father was under house arrest. The communists had stripped away his assets like a masher tearing off a woman’s clothes. Father had only one goal at that moment: to get as many of the family out of the country as he could. So he pulled some strings with a friend at the American Embassy, hoping to get us all out, but at the end of the day he only got one Visa—for me. Not long after, his friend at the embassy packed up and left the country, as did most foreigners and any Afghanis who could find a way.
By that time, the communists had cleaned out his bank accounts, and he could only scrounge up $250 to send me on my way. Even with all this calamity, his pillar of inner strength betrayed no sign of crumbling. He pressed the money into my hands. “Do not even think of coming back here,” he said. “The country will be destroyed. America is a great country and there is enormous opportunity for you there. Your brother will feed you, house you, and pay for your education. It would be better for you to die in America than here at the hands of the Russian army.”
I listened to him closely and kissed his hand. Then he gave me my Visa and the one-way ticket to New York.
On the highway, we passed hoards of refugees in the making, entire families slogging along the road with their last belongings in bundles and bags. Before us lay the checkpoint, two makeshift wooden guard towers where sullen soldiers leaned wearily on mounted machine guns, eyeing the mass of people on foot. A barbed wire fence surrounded the airport and callow sentries patrolled its perimeter in pairs.
We pulled up to a gate reinforced by sandbags and guarded by seven dangerously bored soldiers with assault rifles. (I had started coming to the conclusion that there was nothing more dangerous than a bored man with a gun.) One gunner, his face stubbled with two day’s worth of beard, flashed a menacing smile, revealing a set of rotted teeth the color of cigarette filters. That made him seem all the more sinister. He stomped his boot up onto the bumper of the Chevy and amused himself by bouncing the car up and down on its shocks, then cackled self-consciously. These guys finally had the power of intimidation, and it was the only toy they had to play with. Then another soldier approached and Sharif rolled down the driver’s side window.
“Passports!” the soldier barked. “All of you!”
Hands trembling, I handed over the counterfeit Sharif had copped for me. After checking our passports against a long list of names, the soldier gave us a surly nod and waved us through.
The airport was a glass-fronted building with a single set of heavily guarded double glass doors. The line ran outside onto the sidewalk. Women wept and wailed as their departing husbands tried in vain to calm them.
“Well, here we are,” Sharif said in a hushed voice. He forced a smile and kissed my cheek, saying, ‘Good luck to you and I will miss you.’ He hugged me tight and kissed me again. I’ll never forget that moment. It was like he knew what was coming.
I grabbed my small suitcase, that contained only a few basic necessities, took a breath and joined the back of the line.
Now my mood shifted from melancholy to borderline panic. Making my way through the airport felt like walking barefoot over broken glass. The place was crawling with soldiers. Kids mostly— radicalized, uneducated, illiterate, drunk on power, high on revenge, and prone to go off half-cocked. I tried to keep cool. I couldn’t keep cool so I tried to at least look cool, act like nothing unusual was going on. But my nerves were crackling. The communist watchdogs had their eyes peeled for anyone trying to escape the country, and Kabul was a small city at that time. If you came from a well-known family like I did, well… that’s why Sharif Abdi had gone to the trouble of getting me a fake passport. But would it pass muster? If they looked at it too closely, or if anybody recognized me, which was really possible, I’d be history. They’d take me to the back and stand me up against a wall and execute me for trying to get out of there.
I skulked toward the departure gate, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I showed my ticket and my passport. I held my breath. There were a lot of bullets in Kabul then with the name Abrahim on them, and in fact, 14 members of my family would be executed in the coming months. But I guess they lost the bullet with my name on it that day. I naively tucked my real passport and the American visa into my underpants, and with my Ariana Afghan Airlines ticket in one hand and Sharif’s counterfeit passport in the other, I huddled anonymously into the long line waiting to pass through one final security check. I watched the inspector rifle through another traveler’s bags and scrutinize his departure papers. Sweat trickled down my neck. I imagined being jailed, or drafted into the Communist army. When the communists stopped a young man only a few feet in front of me, more machine gun toting officers came out and peppered him with questions. I nearly soiled my pants when they jerked him out of line and led him away.
I kept my head down.
I reached the front of the line and set my bag on the counter for one guard to paw through while another checked my passport. The second one looked about my age. I was sure his eyes were burning a hole through my passport, but it was my imagination. Our eyes locked but he didn’t say anything. The slightest trace of a smile crossed his lips. He calmly closed the booklet and waved me through. Only after I stepped past him, zipping my bag closed, could I remember to breath again.
And then I was on the plane.
Sharif Abdi was kidnapped and killed six months later. All Balki was taken away from his job at gunpoint, and most certainly lined up against a wall with some other targets, and shot in the head. We never found his body. To this day, his wife, Semin—my sister—still believes he’s alive somewhere and hopes someday to find him. There is really nothing you can say to her.
I didn’t hear about this for a year. When I got the news, I cried for a week, the worst week of my life. Sharif Abdi had given me my last hug and kiss in Kabul, and they took him behind a wall and shot him. After 30 years, I haven’t forgotten that kiss or his beautiful, kind heart. I still have nightmares about it.
I still don’t know how I got out of that airport.
One of my earliest memories: I’m six years old and walking with my father and the people are running up to kiss his hand. Black-bearded middle-aged men in their primes, old men with snow-white beards, poor people, beggars, even the well to do, all running up to kiss his hand. And I was walking behind my father and they kissed my hand too. I was so insulted, so embarrassed. Why were they kissing my hand? It was humiliating, I didn’t feel worthy of it. I walked in my father’s footsteps after all.
This was my father: a man of the people. And these expressions of affection were always happening to him on Chicken Street.
Chicken Street. Old as Kabul, which is 3000 years, and running four miles through the city. The last stop for Marco Polo. It was where traders flocked to from north, east, south, and west, from Iran, Egypt, and of course from every corner of Afghanistan. You saw people of every nationality — Afghani, Chinese, Mongolian, Indian, Persian — everybody!
Everybody looked different and they all stuck with their own tribes. Three blocks of Persians, three blocks of Indians, and so on. People selling every kind of ware you could think of: rugs, pipes, silk, textiles. The air was an unearthly mingling of scents: hashish from the hippies escaping Viet Nam, tea brewing from samovars, pomegranate, lemons, saffron, incense, lamb kabobs sizzling on grills. And wafting from the coral off to one side, the smell of camel and sheep dung, the smell of animals.
Chicken Street: canopied with fruit trees, populated with storytellers who still talked of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, the ancient heroes of the middle east, and the people would gather around and listen for three hours at a time. There were children playing tog and the teashops were always full. The whole bazaar was a warren of clay huts, though some hawked their wares from beneath canopies. It was where you heard what was going on, the gossip, the news from Iran and Pakistan. It was where you played chess and cards and backgammon,
Here a man shopped for jewelry for his wife, the bridegroom shopped for his bride’s dowry, the rule being 5 camels, 6 sheep, clothes, shoes… It opened at 7 a.m., closed at 6 p.m. It was a beautiful feeling being in that marketplace bazaar. Haggling, but no crime, no police, just peace and love. Chicken Street: it was all about trade, and trade was a grand celebration, a magnificent party, a feast of abundance.
Chicken Street was where the people kissed my father’s hand.
Chicken Street was where our family’s fortune was made.
There were two kings in Afghanistan then. One was the royal king and the other was the king of money, and that was my father. He had shoe factories, candle factories, movie theaters… He was in charge of 46,000 employees, and was basically the Rockefeller of Afghanistan. Kabul was a small place then, with a population of a half million. You couldn’t miss a guy as powerful as him. He supported all the country, all the poor people.
But I still don’t know why they kissed my hand and I don’t know why this still bothers me.
I was six years old. My father was the leader, the king, the man, the richest man in Kabul.
He was like Mohammed. Everybody respected him. He put food on people’s tables and supported their families.
They called us the Paper Family because paper meant money.
He is 6-2 in height and tall and strong, and nobody can miss him when he walks in Chicken Street. He dresses like a western businessman, though a bit more rakishly: always in a fine Italian double-breasted suit with a Homburg cocked over his fine head. He had style and dignity.
And because of our family’s wealth, my brothers and I grew up like little princes.
Having our way with the housemaids. Smashing Cadilliacs and Mercedes. Playing the Beatles. Three drivers. A 40-room palace of Italian marble. An American style toilet that actually flushed.
And all thanks to Chicken Street.
Our family didn’t come from royalty. In fact, my father’s side of the family came from Mongolia; family lore has it that my great-great-great-grandfather was the khan. But we started from scratch. My great-grandfather traveled the Silk Road on camelback, trading carpets made in his village, Mazar e Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan. He traded them for anything he could bring back and sell at a profit. He would take 40 camels, and the caravan would lumber through Persia, Baghdad, and even as far as Egypt. He passed the business down to my grandfather, who passed it down to my father, who used to tell the story of a journey my grandfather made in 1904 or 1905. Grandfather traveled to Egypt through dozens of villages over three months, moving only through the night in caravan with some other merchants because in the daytime the Berbers would rob them. This time, he pushed all the way to Russia, selling textiles and gold, then back to northern Afghanistan where the best artisans were. He was known as a man of honor, and the artisans entrusted only him to ferry their goods to Kabul, to Chicken Street, where he would sell them for them and return with their money. There was no road in those days, all travel was on camelback, and he made a fortune that way. My father started going along with him at the age of fourteen.
My father, Abrahim Ibrahimi, was born in 1889. He, too, came to Chicken Street as a merchant from the north of Afghanistan, following the family tradition of bringing camels and donkeys from the north to trade in Kabul. But his marriage had been arranged and he now needed to upscale his business, so he sought out previously undiscovered trade routes. He soon found a new path that enabled him to bring high quality rugs from Mazar e Sharif to Kabul. In 1908, my father moved the family business to Kabul, where all the trade was, and eventually began exporting rugs from Mazar e Sharif to London and the United States.
His first marriage—the first of four—was in 1906 when he was 17. The couple had four children, but they all died of disease, very common in those days when there were no doctors or modern medicine in Afghanistan. After five years of marriage, his wife died too. He married again and was again widowed, though his second wife gave him two girls and a boy, my half sisters and half brother. He spent a number of years focusing on business, but by 1937, he was ready again for marriage. So he hired two women to scour Kabul for the most beautiful girl in town. These fine ladies combed the public marketplaces like they were looking for a needle in a haystack, and after weeks of searching, they finally found one: an 18-year-old beauty with the physique of a ballerina, deep, liquid brown eyes, and curly, raven hair. Her great-grandfather had been accountant to Russian King Nicholas II, and the family had come to Kabul in escape of Stalin.
My father used business as an excuse to meet her and her family; he bought the family’s property and the marriage was arranged in 1938. He’d wanted more sons, and he hit the jackpot; she gave him seven in all, including my twin brother, Sam, and me, who were the youngest; and three daughters. For every son born, he would organize a 40-day celebration. For every daughter born, he’d leave on business for 40 days.
While continuing to specialize in carpets, Father had expanded his trading empire to chinchilla farms, sheep and karakul skins, which he sold in Russia and India. By 1915, he’d become Trade Commissioner for Northern Afghanistan. His first shipments of carpet and tails were sent to London and the USA in 1935. In 1940, he opened a Manhattan showroom on West 23rd Street and sent his younger brother Habibual to the United States to run the operation. Over time, he grew richer and richer, and forged a close relationship with King Zahir Shah. They acted as silent partners in everything from sheepskins to real estate. In the 1950s, he expanded into shoe factories and opened a second movie theater in Kabul. He had a big setback in 1958, lost several million dollars in the commodities market and had to close his New York and London offices. But he bounced back.
I think this was the most important thing I learned from my dad: how to bounce back. As my life went on, I would sure get a lot of practice at it.
And my brothers and I grew up like little princes.
Walking down Chicken Street as a kid was a rush. Being followed by my bodyguard or servant. People knowing I’m the son of Abrahim and people respecting me… it was just strange and exciting.
Except when they kissed my hand.
God, I hated it when they kissed my hand.
But I remember it as a place of love and peace. Of respect. People came to trade. It was festive, sensual and kind. There was no cheating or stealing, it was all about respect. I see my life as a walk down Chicken Street, because I too would become a trader. I learned how people did business with handshakes that were more inviolable than any 50 page legal contract. Your word was your honor, and I learned that from the real traders who came from the ancient tradition. Later, when I had my nightclub in New York, it was the same: Don’t pay now, sign this… it’s all about how you negotiate the business the deals the old fashioned way. That’s why my club was successful. I operated in a very ancient way. It was the same when I sold my rugs in trucks across the country, and when I opened furniture stores throughout California.
Your word is your honor.
I came to the United States with nothing and what I saw was a strange bazaar that I would somehow have to figure out. But I knew if I could bring something different to the market, I could sell it. It’s always been about connections. It’s all been about chance. It’s always been about how you present yourself.
But we are all chickens. We peck around like blind chickens, not ever knowing what we’re going to find.
My life, my character, my attitude—they were all forged on Chicken Street.
By the time I got on the Pan Am 747 to New York, I was starting to feel kind of jaunty and optimistic. I’d spent two days in Frankfurt, and blown most of $200 of my $250 on blowjobs. Yeah, blowjobs. These were unheard of in Kabul; for Afghan women of any caste, the act was regarded as unspeakable, perverse, a poisonous taboo. For a horny young Afghan guy like me, experiencing it for the first time, it was mind-blowing. I thought my eyes were going to explode in my head. I’d walked through the red light district of Frankfurt, practically hypnotized by the lovely painted ladies behind panes of glass. I had money in my pocket. So what? My ass was covered. Once I got off the plane, Ozzie would be there waiting for me.
As the plane shifted down in altitude, I looked out the window and got my first glimpse of New York. It was thrilling and frightening at a same time. At first I saw a jungle… a terrifying concrete jungle. Then my perspective shifted, and I saw something different. Now it reminded me of stone canyons, the buildings jutting up like stalagmites, and I flashed back on the Hindu Kush mountains, majestic and inscrutable. I started to get excited. During the flight, I had plenty of time to fantasize about what I’d do with my new life. Education, of course. In Kabul we used to watch “Perry Mason” and other lawyer shows, and I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I liked that idea. Wheeling and dealing. Make a deal with the prosecutor, the judge, the client. Defend people. Win over the jury with my words and appeals. I’d had this idea for awhile and I’d set my sights on becoming a lawyer.
Finally, the plane touched down on the runway of JFK International, and soon was standing in a short line at customs. I had already dumped my phony Afghan passport in a men’s room trashcan back in Germany. Now I handed the visa and my genuine passport to the American customs officer standing behind a podium. In the distance, a blonde model wearing a lime green body suit seemed to say, “Hey, baby!” You didn’t see billboards like that in Kabul.
“Welcome to New York,” I imagined the portals read, though I couldn’t know for sure.
It was November 1979; a new decade was just around the corner.
I didn’t understand a word the agent said to me. He took my passport and visa, picked up his phone and mumbled into the receiver. I thought about the man who was led away in Kabul and I nervously fussed with my small travel bag, my only possessions in this new land. The other passengers were all dressed up; polyester suits on the men, dresses, double knit shifts and colorful silk designer scarves on the women. I felt out of place in my pair of knockoff American blue jeans, navy pea coat, white shirt, and fifty bucks left in my pocket.
The agent thrust his hand forward, signaling me to wait. The people behind me were already grumbling. The customs agent handed my passport and visa to yet another uniform. I swallowed hard. He was with the INS.
“Mirwais Ibrahimi,” the office said, speaking Farsi. “What brings you to New York? Are you traveling alone?”
“Student,” I said in Farsi, instructed by my brother-in-law what to say. “Here to live with my brother Osman. To go to school.”
“And you came from Frankfurt?”
“Student,” I answered back, pretending to be ense.
The questions, more like small talk, continued for another minute while the agent studied my face until he was satisfied I was neither dangerous nor diseased. He passed me through like he was happy to be rid of me.
Coming through the gate at JFK, I scanned the crowd for my erudite, professorly brother… until my eyes fell on someone who bore a vague resemblance to the sibling I’d last seen ten years ago.
He was a man in a grimy windbreaker, moldering tennis shoes, greasy hair and an unwashed face. Tall, thin, haggard.
“Ozzie?” I inquired tentatively.
“Welcome to New York, kid,” Ozzie replied, giving me a hug and a kiss. For the moment, I forgot all about his derelict appearance and began telling him about all of the havoc the communists had caused in Afghanistan, how the family was splitting up, how they’d taken everything away from our father.
“Hmmmm,” Ozzie said remotely. He seemed both disinterested, uninformed, and seriously preoccupied with something else.
“What the hell’s happened to you?” I finally asked.
“We’ll talk about it later,” my brother replied, his face ashen and his mouth turned down.
Outside the terminal, Ozzie flagged a taxi we and we trundled into Manhattan. Where was his Mustang convertible? I wondered. In an attempt at a welcoming gesture, Ozzie directed the driver through Manhattan to show me around. It was about three in the afternoon when we got out at 42nd Street, then the smell of urine and vinegar punched me in the face like a heavyweight boxer. The streets were crowded with people of all races and classes. Street kids blasted music from boom boxes as strange bursts of noise ricocheted off the impossibly tall, tall buildings. Yellow cabs honked like gigantic geese. Trucks idled where they pleased, fouling the air and indifferent to the fact they were blocking traffic. I gasped for breath. Just one street had more cars on it than I’d seen in my whole life. I stood awestruck, trying to count the number of floors the skyscrapers had. It was unthinkable. The tallest buildings in Afghanistan were five stories and made of brick or clay. We didn’t have such shiny, glass edifices. And what I found as exotic as I did intimidating was the presence of black people. There were people of every race, but I had never seen a black person before. I wondered what they were like.
I’d never felt like more of a stranger in strange land.
Only in the street merchants did I finally see something familiar: a glimmer of Chicken Street. In New York, they hawked their wares with the same guttural calls of desperation and greed. They sold kabobs and sausages, plastic replicas of the Empire State Building, sausages, umbrellas, hot nuts, watches, sunglasses, white tube socks, paperback books. I had to snap my head around to take it all in. This was Chicken Street times a thousand, times a million.
We’d walked about ten blocks when Ozzie asked in English, “Hungry, Kid?” He gestured to his mouth.
“You bet,” I said in Farsi. “What’s good?”
“Okay, surprise me,” I said.
We entered a Burger king, where Ozzie ordered us Whoppers and fries. “Here we go,” Ozzie said. “Your first American hamburger.” I was looking forward to my first meal in my new country, but I’d never tasted meat like this before. I wondered if it really was even meat. It sure wasn’t anything like the freshly grilled kabobs and lulus I was used to in Kabul. And the potatoes—they tasted like they’d been fried in some sort of oil created for racing cars.
I was getting more and more confused. Here was Ozzie, who on top of being a university professor, was supposed to have owned three import stores in the east village, funded and stocked by our dad—another facet of the family nest egg.
We made our way to Penn Station and took the train to Jersey City. It was my first and fastest train ride, but I was too tired to enjoy it. We transferred to a bus, then walked for what seemed like forever. My heart sank as I surveyed the blighted cityscape, the garbage-strewn streets, the graffiti scarred buildings, the hookers milling on most corners, the jaundiced men making furtive exchanges with dealers. Surely, it was just a bad neighborhood we were passing through on their way to some brighter suburban oasis.
Arriving at a six-story building that sagged with age and neglect, its paint peeling like excematic skin, we climbed the stairs to the second floor, where Ozzie was renting a squalid, one-bedroom apartment for $350 a month. It was filled with the stench of negligence and poverty.
Ozzie unlocked the door then had to slam it twice to get it to close. Once inside, he locked two different bolts and threw a chain latch across the door. I scanned the room. We were in prison. Two rooms and a bath. A small table and two mismatched chairs, very little furniture. Old black and white TV that probably didn’t work and had bugs—roaches, I would find out later—popping out of its vents. In front of the TV was an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and an empty pizza box. There wasn’t even a couch. Sink loaded with filthy dishes. Broken toilet, rusted shower. I made the mistake of opening the refrigerator, hoping for a cold drink: instead what I saw was a science fiction movie. Bugs writhed in the moldy, green cavern and I slammed the door in disgust.
Worst of all, in the center of the bedroom lay two dirty mattresses, greasy and spotted with bloodstains. The whole scene was hideous.
Ozzie said, “Welcome home, kid. Welcome to America.”
My stomach started to rumble. The Whopper was turning on my digestive system like a rabid dog. I was sick to my stomach for days.
So much for American hamburgers.
I was stunned and shocked by what was unfolding in front of me! I finally asked him, “Where is your wife? Where is your home? What happened to your life?” It turned out he’d pissed all the money away gambling. He drove a filthy taxi by night, then spent the day at the track, and he’d already pissed all of the family money—a couple of million dollars— on horses! His wife finally had enough and kicked him out. He admitted he’d been lying for years, lying to the family about everything. I mean, this was Ozzie we were talking about, the smart one. He was my last hope to be educated in this country. Now he could barely even unzip his own pants to pee, so how was he going to help me? And the whole time he’s bullying me to learn English when there wasn’t a single white person in the neighborhood. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I used my shoes as a pillow to keep my head off that filthy mattress.
My dreams of becoming a lawyer went up in smoke.
At night during those first weeks, I dreamed I was back home in Kabul. I could see my family so clearly in my mind. Most of all, I missed my twin brother, Sam. I heard my mother calling out for me, but in my dreams I would wander through the whole house looking for her, trying to trace the source of her voice.
I missed my country, its beauty, and the wonderful, privileged life we’d had before the communists had come. The fresh food, the servants, the comfort, the fun.
I missed Chicken Street.
Then I’d wake up in this disgusting apartment with no air conditioning, stinking of human grease and piss.
I wanted to go home.
I called my father and told him everything. And he repeated what he’d told me the day I left Kabul: “You have no country anymore. You have no home. If you are even thinking about coming back here, you will be sent to the front lines and take a bullet in the first five minutes. America is your home now, so be a man and make the best of it.”
I was incredibly depressed after that conversation. I took a walk in the park and cried. Cried for three hours. Cried all day and all night. My old life was gone for good.
So I told myself I had to make it here. I was just starving for a chance. I thought of Chicken Street. When you bring something from Egypt or Iran or Russia, you bring something new and you might sell it and make a few dollars. It’s all about new product, it’s all about what’s going on right now.
The fact was, I was back on Chicken Street. But this time around was different. No servants. No bodyguards. And I could sure be certain of one fucking thing: This time around, nobody was going to run up and kiss my goddamn hand.