Rafat is gone…

My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.

I knew Rafat for several years. He’d moved into a flat near me in Surrey and we often paused to chat when we crossed paths, which was often. When you live across the hall from someone and see them every day, when they’re as much a part of the scenery as everything else, you don’t think of them nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the postman who shows up every morning, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.

Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Libya, which, I learned, is nothing at all like London. Eventually he moved out of the Surrey flat, but still kept in touch, and we’d occasionally meet up in London. A few months ago, when shit had just started to really go down back home, I ran into him at a coffee shop near his workplace; he didn’t say much — just sat there, looking pale as ever. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. I said I hoped it all turned out well, then made some lame comment, intended to lighten the moment. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.

Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in the UK. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Match.com personal ad and a friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat gradually became a part of my circle of friends. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.

He came to a party one of my mates hosted once. He just lived down the street, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Elena’s camera. On three … one … two … let’s go Rafat … and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.

He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking gin and tonics. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.

He was here on a work visa, sponsored by his company. This posed a problem. If the business I worked for ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to Libya. He had been in the UK too long; he was anti-Ghaddafi and wanted him gone, but still didn’t seem very hopeful for Libya’s future under any new regime, so he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.

Bad news came in. His company was having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at his workplace knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.

A turn for the worse where he worked. A few people left their jobs. Staff dwindled. People suddenly found themselves doing the jobs of two or three, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.

Rafat stopped talking much. I would ask him how he was doing, how things were at work and back home, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.

Then his company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would go to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.

It happened one Friday – September 30 to be exact. According to one of his colleagues, a mutual friend, they were all sitting around, doing their work. Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. Then he stood up, walked into the boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the lift. Our friend received a call about an hour later from the boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? He said fine, and asked if everything was OK. His boss, hardly one of his better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”

I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, his office had already made up its own rumours. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for Libya in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.

The night before he left, I dropped by his London flat. We talked for an hour. Then I had to go home and he had lots to do before he hopped on that plane.

“Thank you, David. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”

He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day. A week later came the news of Ghaddafi’s death and Libya’s “liberation”.  I watched the news clips of London Libyans celebrating and thought of Rafat. He’s gone, and chances are I’ll never see him again, but hey, what do you do? People come, people go, supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. For his sake, I hope things turn out well in Libya. I do wish him the very best.

Man, I’ve got to find that picture!

Stupid people

I used to have a poster that paraphrased a quote from the movie The Sixth Sense. It said: “I see stupid people. They’re everywhere. Walking around like regular people.”

It’s true. They really do seem to be everywhere these days — at work, on TV, in the cinema, in Parliament… They’re even at your local bookstore. And they are our newest cultural icons — idiots.

Everywhere you turn these days you find real live adults doing inexplicably stupid things. Take shows such as Fear Factor, for example — why on earth would people want to cover themselves in 200,000 bees, dive in a tank filled with 1,001 snakes, or jump off moving trucks? MTV enjoyed such success with its Jackass stunt fest that they followed up with three Jackass movies. Its tag line: “Same crew, same cast, same level of incompetence.”

Buffoonery has always been a staple of popular culture, but stupidity was usually an unintended consequence. We watched and asked, “Don’t these people know how stupid they are?” Today, idiocy is centre stage. It is the attraction, the point. We watch and say: “Look at these stupid people.”

Thus the popularity of Sky One’s An Idiot Abroad, or the runaway success of The Darwin Awards and The Darwin Awards II, which “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” These best-selling books — and the popular Web site that spawned them, www.darwinawards.com — offer a cavalcade of dearly departed nutjobs, such as the 18-year-old man vacationing in Hawaii. He ignored the signs warning “Hazardous Conditions — Do Not Go Beyond This Point” to get a better look at Halona Blowhole, “a rock formation that shoots seawater 20 feet into the air.” If you’re familiar with Wile E. Coyote, you know how this story ends.

A visit to the bookstore throws up titles like The 176 Stupidest Things Ever Done and Stupid Sex: The Most Idiotic and Embarrassing Intimate Encounters of All Time. And don’t forget Duh! The Stupid History of the Human Race or John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always. Even academic presses are also getting into the act: Yale University Press has published a series of essays edited by Robert J. Sternberg entitled Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, and the University of Illinois Press has weighed in with Stupidity, Avita Ronell’s cultural history.

So why the fascination with morons? I think the answers involve the convergence of intricate forces that have placed intelligence at the centre of our culture.

For most of our history, “can-do” and “common sense” were the chief virtues. People engaged in farming, manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that relied on skills learned by watching their parents or on the job. Their abilities were identifiable, the quality of their work apparent. Silver-tongued personalities were admired but distrusted. Book learning was dismissed as impractical, and nerds were disparaged as denizens of the ivory tower.

We have done an about-face since the 1960s. Higher education has become the key to success in a global economy in which mastering a trade no longer guarantees steady employment. Workers must now be “retrained” so they can toil in service-oriented fields that require general smarts instead of specific skills. Intelligence has become the coin of the realm.

Problem is, as I wrote in a previous piece (Simple Smarts),  intelligence — which involves not just intellect but emotion and personality — is hard to define and even harder to measure. The brilliant mathematician might not be able to write a coherent sentence; the soaring poet may be unemployable because he’s so, well, weird. It is easy to know if you can fix a car, plant a crop or sew a shirt; but what does smart really mean — especially when we all know how stupid we can be? And if we have reason to doubt our own brilliance, how can we trust the world to bank on it?

Anxiety and democracy go hand  in hand — it’s tougher to know your place in a fluid, relatively classless society. But a democracy based on the subjective concept of intelligence is a recipe for extreme agitation.

So we seize on various mechanisms to give us some bearing. The cult of self-esteem, which holds that everyone is gifted and talented, that all opinions have equal weight, is a national religion. The worship of Mammon is an equally popular faith because pounds and pennies seem to provide an objective scorecard of success.

And the powerful trumpet the idea of “meritocracy” — the dubious notion that it offers a level playing field to all — because it justifies their exalted positions. They tell themselves, “I rose strictly through merit.”

In the new economy, merit is based on intelligence. When brain-power rules, those who disagree with us must be stupid. Thus, Michael Moore did not title his hugely popular diatribe against Republicans in America, “People With Whom I Have Honest Differences,” but Stupid White Men.

The age of the moron, then, is another coping mechanism for anxious souls in a culture of intelligence. In times when many people worry about their place in the new economy, Fear Factor, Jackass and The Darwin Awards allow us to tell the world who we are by who we are not.

We love idiots because they insulate us from our own fears. In short, stupid people make us feel smart.

Alternate realities

In an idle moment I have sometimes played at imagining alternate identities for myself. Curiously, these musings almost never involve fantasies in the conventional sense, i.e., visions of scoring the winning goal for Manchester United in a Champions League Final, or becoming a real-life secret agent James Bond, or the man who breaks Jessica Alba’s heart.

Instead I wonder what it would have been like to be someone I actually could have become, with just a wrinkle or two in my genetic and environmental past. Along such lines, I have imagined myself a best-selling novelist, an actor or movie director, a perpetual graduate student or… one of those frustrated people who send angry e-mails to newspaper columnists, expressing their outrage that they don’t have a forum to broadcast their opinions, given that someone as inept as the columnist has been granted this privilege (um… hold on… I actually HAVE done that last one!)

Having been an avid Isaac Asimov reader in my younger years, a particularly plausible alternative destiny with which I have sometimes toyed is that of a fanatical science-fiction fan. I was reminded of this recently when, out of sheer curiosity, I dipped a trembling toe into the roiling waters of science-fiction geekdom by entering Forbidden Planet, a London store that sells sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia. There, I saw an astonishing assortment of merchandise that these films, books and programmes have produced. And if I were so inclined, I could have even got myself a costume to dress up as a Klingon or Imperial Storm Trooper.

It’s easy enough to mock the people who fanatically and religiously follow this stuff, and indeed many in the mass media surrender to the temptation to do so. Recently, there have been a few snide stories about obsessive ComicCon attendees or, a couple of years ago, about Avatar fans being depressed and having suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora. I also remember a few about the Star Wars fans who lined up days in advance to attend the last instalment in George Lucas’ frighteningly popular series.

But you don’t need the depressed Avatar fans or a doctorate in sociology to figure out that a large percentage of these people are eager to escape this world for a more satisfactory reality — one in which they would not suffer the indignities heaped on social misfits on our own often-cruel planet.

One of my own favourites, Star Trek, is set 300 years in the future, in a world where, at least among the inhabitants of Planet Earth, war, poverty, nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred have been eliminated. In other words it is a world that, for all its technological wonders, does not include recognisable human beings. As its legions of critics never tire of pointing out, the universe of the Star Wars films is even less plagued by anything resembling moral complexity. The good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad, and the odds of good triumphing over evil are roughly equivalent to those of a Star Wars film turning a profit.

Nevertheless there is more to sci-fi and the like than escapism. Although I never became a science-fiction fanatic, I still remember a moment from the first time I saw the original Star Wars film. Early on, there is a panoramic shot of the landscape of an alien planet. It is sunset — and suddenly we see two suns lingering on the edge of the horizon. In the end, it is good sci-fi writers’ ability to touch the longing for the mythic, for whatever might lie beyond this world, that has Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar fans and their brethren searching for more than just another means of amusing ourselves to death.

Ultimately, it is really a search for meaning; for something greater than ourselves. Some might even call it the search for God.

Stripper scare!

I like to think my mother raised me the right way. I have the utmost respect for women, certainly more respect than I have for men. Men just have to roll out of bed, slap on that old T-shirt, brush their teeth and, if they’re feeling particularly ambitious, clean their ears.

Women have to apply makeup, deal with all that feminine hygiene stuff I dare not investigate, spend a good hour spraying various freezing substances into their hair, make sure this blouse doesn’t clash with these trousers, shave any undesirable body hair, worry if this skirt overly emphasises those hips, wonder if their eyelashes look long enough. All this so they can go into a workplace where they have to prove to idiots that they’re smart enough to be there in the first place. I’m not particularly proud I was born with a Y chromosome, but, at the risk of sounding smug, I feel quite fortunate.

This said, I have a confession: I have been to a strip club. I recognise it is difficult to be considered a respectable and distinguished man after that admission, but there it is. I’m not one of those guys who has made a habit of it, catches the noon buffet or knows the dancers by name, mind you, but I, sadly, have visited the odd establishment on one or two occasions. Most of these excursions have been suggested by friends, usually old friends I haven’t seen in a while looking to do something “crazy”. If I were the type to try to rationalise my missteps, I would say that I have been merely a follower of more pumped-up, testosterone-enhanced comrades. But the fact remains, I went, so I won’t try to talk my way out of it.

Actually, there is something inherently honest about a strip club. It is a truly logical place of business, an ode to supply and demand. There are men who want to see women’s bare breasts, and there are women who provide the service. Guns and butter, I think they taught us in A Level Economics. Run properly, it’s the rare British establishment that actually adheres to truth in advertising. It’s certainly more honest than places like Hooters in New York, where corporate types can wander in after work, have their drinks, make snide, crude remarks about the waitresses and pretend they’re not doing anything wrong.

There are two types of people who upset the delicate dynamic of strip clubs. One is the obvious hooligan, the drunken bastard with the wandering hands, the one who pounds on the tables and calls the dancers sluts and bitches because he can’t call his wife that. Usually the thick-necked bouncer guys take care of guys like that quickly.

Then there are guys like me, the ones who try to talk to the dancers, try to find out what makes them tick, why they chose this particular vocation. These guys are also the ones most likely to whine to the dancers about their rich fiancées leaving them to hike through the wilderness. These guys don’t need to go to a strip club; they need to go to a shrink. There is a reason I am one of these people.

In the summer of 2009, I was invited to a friend’s stag do. I was appropriately wary, especially considering my friend was, well… a bit rough around the edges. In addition, he would be the only person I would know at the party, meaning, since I wouldn’t want to monopolise the time of the guest of honour for the majority of the evening, I would be on my own.

Still, I was more than a little intrigued. The big night came, and I headed to my friend’s parents’ home for the festivities, which, truth be told, I found to be somewhat strange. Things were adequately casual at first, a bunch of guys sitting around, smoking and drinking, playing cards, throwing darts, lamenting the state of football, moaning about their girlfriends. For a while, it looked like my stripper apprehension was all for naught; I mean, I had just fleeced my friend’s decrepit grandfather out of 10 quid in a game of darts, and no matter how I tried to get my mind around it, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which this particular octogenarian would be able to handle a lap dance.

Around 1:30 a.m., I thought it might be time to call it a night. I strolled over — carefully sidestepping the blowup doll my friend had received that evening — to congratulate my friend and tell him I’d see him at the wedding.

Then, from behind me I heard, “She’s here!”

Time for another drink, to be certain. As I silently whispered a prayer, promising God I’d be careful to help small animals if he’d forgive me for this impending transgression, the melodic sounds of AC/DC began to surround me and I turned around as she walked in.

When I first moved to London, back in the late 90s, I worked with this temp — a sweet, quiet girl with thick fisheye glasses, braces and unruly red hair, who always seemed somewhat scared when her cocoon of sanctity was disrupted, which was often. She was painfully shy, but for whatever reason, she chose me for occasional contact with planet Earth, sheepishly asking me for help with a Word document or what control-alt-delete really meant. We’ll call her Annie, because that’s her name.

My inability as a writer to appropriately build suspense has reared its ugly head yet again, so I won’t pretend you’re not fully aware that, of course, when I turned to this new visitor to our testosterone-filled room, it was Annie. She’d changed a bit. No braces, no glasses, no bashfulness, no clothes. The men gathered in a circle around her, and she set up her stereo to the side of the room and went to work. She instinctively went for my friend’s grandfather, rubbing her uncovered groin area in, well, shit… you know what she did. Grandpa appeared enlivened by the experience, and I noticed later he slipped her a £20 note when he thought no one was looking.

She then proceeded to pour some kind of lactose product on her nipples and make her way around the circle, stopping at my friend’s chair to unbuckle his belt and pull down his trousers.

This was too much. Most of this time I’d been pathetically hiding behind the pool table, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with Annie. How exactly had sweet, little Annie, the girl who once left the office in embarrassment after noticing that a male colleague’s fly was open, made the transition to bumping and grinding and the oh-my-that-has-to-hurt Annie I saw before me?

I glanced at her again, but this time, she was looking back. She mouthed, “Hi, David! You’re next!”

That was the end of the show for me. I bolted outside, drank about half the bottle of Jack Daniels I had in my hand, and lamented my lost innocence. After about an hour later, the door opened.

“David! Gosh, how are you? I haven’t seen you in years!” the still-naked Annie said. “What have you been up to?”

I have grown accustomed to this question from long-unseen classmates or old work colleagues I run into at bars or even ex-girlfriends who now have better-looking and smarter guys. I have never grown accustomed to answering this question when the inquisitor is not wearing any clothes, and if my life turns out the way I hope, I suppose I never will. I stammered through some short-winded explanation of IT and writing and hey-I-ran-into-so-and-so-the-other-day. Then, idiotically, I tossed the same question back at her.

“Oh, I’ve been doing different things. And this, of course. Working out real well, the money’s great. Never ran into somebody I knew before, though. Kind of a weird experience, don’t you think?”

I walked her to her car — for fuck sake, couldn’t she have put on a robe or something? — and waved goodbye as she drove off, having finally covered up in her car. Thankfully, I’ve never seen her again!

Confused, sad & helpless

It’s another lovely, sunny day in London and I’m planning to go out and enjoy it. Hopefully, it will help shake the sadness I feel this morning. It is a sadness of helplessness and a definite awareness of my own futility. This sadness is always with me, I suppose, but I’m particularly aware of it today.

A little background: Since I’ve yet to join the ranks of the rest of you in the grownup world, I usually enlist others to take care of my dirty work. Specifically, I’m one of those lazy guys who pays people to clean my flat and occasionally do my laundry. I can’t really afford either of these luxuries, and often I have to scrap cash together or not eat for a week to pay for everything. But let me tell you, it’s worth it. Truth be told, I still do most of my own washing but taking stuff to the local laundry/dry cleaners often beats spending time trying to work out if this colour can go in the wash with that one and then finding out I left a pen in my favourite jeans, and having a cleaner certainly beats crawling along my bathroom floor scrubbing lord-knows-what with a ratty sponge that hasn’t been cleaned itself in months.

Other people do a better job cleaning my flat and doing my wash than I do, and that makes my life easier. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what money is for. Some of my friends often make fun of me for this, but it sure beats having wrinkled, smelly clothes.

When I lived in Surrey, there was a particular laundry where I would take my shirts every couple of weeks or so. Every other Saturday, with an obscenely overstuffed laundry bag, I went shuffling in, accidentally knocking over little kids and generally being a clumsy nuisance.

Every time, I was greeted by a smiling, extremely pleasant 50ish woman who always appeared happy to see me. I didn’t know much about her other than her name, Mary. She knew I worked with computers, and she knew I lived alone (I shudder to think what else she knows about me just by smelling my clothes). She was the one with the unfortunate job of having to actually clean my clothes, but she shouldered the responsibility with a great deal of humour, poking fun at me for my goofy boxer shorts, my inability to find matching socks and the annoying habit of not turning anything right-side out before throwing it in the hamper.

Basically, she served a purpose as a home-away-from-home mum, except she didn’t get tired of my stories and she never let me borrow money.

I love meeting people like Mary. I have no real connection with her, and I only saw her every two weeks on a purely professional basis. But for about 10 minutes every two weeks, I knew I’d get a smile of recognition and a sincere, “How are you, David?” She was not a friend, an associate or an acquaintance, even; she was just one of those people I knew. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot more people that you simply know than are your friends, so you should learn to appreciate their presence almost as much as your friends’.

I knew very little about her life, and she knew very little about mine (other than the fact that I have goofy boxer shorts, anyway). But what we did know is that we liked each other, and that was enough to last us a couple of weeks.

Mary always had what I assumed to be a grandson (if it’s her son, I hope she never reads this, or I’ll be really embarrassed) hanging around the shop, and the tyke always greeted me with a “Hi, David!” He and I often pretended to shoot at each other with our fingers while I was waiting for my clothes. He’s a funny kid, and one time, when he offered me one of his chips, I was in a good mood all day. They were two happy people, and seeing them always made an otherwise mundane task something to look forward to.

I moved out of Surrey a year ago, but whenever I happen to be visiting the area I try to drop in just to say hello. Yesterday, the kid was at the door, playing with some toy he got from a Happy Meal, and he gave me a jovial high-five as I walked in. I proceeded to the counter and blurted out a boisterous “Hiya!” to my former bi-weekly comrade.

She turned around, and my jaw dropped. The left side of her face was in shambles. Her left eye was bruised, bloodied, swollen shut and pitch black. Her cheek was beet red, puffed up and out-of-place. It looked like the brakes had gone out in her car and she had to stop it with her face. She gave me a weary smile, and I noticed one of her teeth had been chipped. The chip might not have happened in the last year, but I’d never noticed it before.

The “Hi, David” didn’t have its usual vigour. She looked tired, spent and, well, she looked beaten. I guess I had interrupted her staring-into-space-thinking-about-heaven-knows-what, because my presence served as a dream-snapper reminding her, oh yes, I work here, and this is the guy I’m always happy to see. But even then, all she could manage was a mumbling, head-down, “Good to see you, David, how are you? Everything fine?”

She responded to my queries with a weak smile. “I’m OK. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” She clearly didn’t want to talk about it – at least, not with me – and I didn’t dare pry any further. So I just gave her a sad smile, said it was good to see her and paused only to give a muted high-five to the kid on the way out.

Mary’s pretty much all I’ve thought about since. Should I do something? Could I do something? Do I go back there, storm in and demand to see who perpetuated this? Is it any of my business? Surely there has to be a friend of hers somewhere who could say something? Isn’t there?

This sweet woman is just someone I used to run into once every two weeks, and I have no idea what her home life is like or who she lives with. I can’t even imagine her face in the anguish it must have been in when whatever happened to her, happened. She’s just one of those people I know, and that’s all there is to it. I can’t make her happier, I can’t help her, I can’t do anything. I just have to live with knowing that something unspeakable, something horrible, something unknowable is occurring, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about. I just have to live with it.

I know this blog is supposed to be about my life, stories where I get egg on my face and end up humiliated. I’ve got plenty of those to go around, don’t worry. But today, knowing something terrible is happening to someone I know and knowing I cannot in any way stop it, I feel like a complete loser. I feel helpless, I feel futile, I feel impotent. There might be other people I know that are suffering, friends even, and there isn’t anything I can do about that either. But right now, I know something awful has happened. And it is horrible. Gut-wrenching. Agonizing.