At the bakalah, I part the heavy plastic that covers the doorway, and aiming a Salamalakum in the direction of the guy behind the counter, who is busy listening to something through earphones, while looking down into a much-used copy of the Quran that sits atop the chewing gum and assorted chocolates, hold out my money to pay for the newspaper. Meanwhile, others hurry in behind me, thrusting their money in his face for cigarettes, a bottle of water, candy. He takes their money first while I wait, until finally, feeling ignored for not being rude enough, I too thrust my money into his face, saying, “Here.” And when I do he looks up surprised, even hurt, and quietly closes the Quran. I walk away not even waiting for my change.
The newspapers will simply report his death, giving him, perhaps, one or two lines, listing his name and age, next of kin. As a rule, they might even mention where and when the funeral will be held. Of course the newspapers will not tell the entire story, how could they?
Jobless for six months, one week, two days, Ahmed, having no money to buy what he calls his medicine, dies quietly at the table next to the big window in the coffee shop. The coffee shop workers never knew him as Ahmed, just the guy who always sits next to the window, who is always pushing aside the potted plant so he can get a better look at people walking by. The police are called to the coffee shop, raising their voices to wake Ahmed because he looks more asleep than dead, with his head neatly atop folded arms, but when that doesn’t work they prod his shoulder. Finally, after much serious police talk, police officer number two will go to the police car and bring back a blanket to cover Ahmed. When the ambulance comes—no need for a siren or flashing green lights–, a small coffee shop crowd has gathered; in the end the ambulance people will stretcher Ahmed with police blanket away. Within moments the small crowd loses interest and everything returns to coffee shop normal. When he died, those who knew him best—two large, sisterly women–would cry meaningful tears, one being heard to say, “Ahmed, Ahmed, this is terrible, so very terrible.” Only Ahmed will ever know that he died at 37 years because he didn’t have the money to buy what he called his medicine.
In the meantime, the manager of the coffee shop, after thoughtful consideration, has the table and chairs by the window where Ahmed died, cleaned extra-long and hard. He even decides the potted plant needs to be thrown away, just in case.
The 24-hour pharmacy is closed.
Ali drives what almost everybody calls the money truck, as every day he and Uncle Carl go from shop to shop to shop in the Salwa district, along Salem Mubarak Street collecting money for Mr. Hatem, who owns, they say, all the buildings from here to the Gulf Road. Driving the money truck is an important but dull job that is all about trust and reliability, and Ali is good for all of that. But after eight years, three months of driving the same square gray truck from shop to shop (making sure the engine never stops running), day after day, Ali is convinced that he is meant for bigger and better things. Once he even asked Uncle Carl to trade places with him—just for the day—but Uncle Carl, who is really nothing like an uncle, who was still angry about his daughter staying out too late the night before, said, “Absolutely not. We both have a job to do; yours is to drive, mine is to collect: drive, collect, drive, collect. . . . Mr. Hatem is very clear on this point, . . . this, what does he call it: this division of labor?” Uncle Carl went on like that until Ali had to hold up a hand, saying, “Yes, Yes, I get the idea.” And so, as he pulls the truck up to the kerb, Uncle Carl eases himself out of the front seat, walks into the flower shop, is handed a paperbag full of money by Sara, who, they say, knows all there is to know about flowers, returns to the truck, says, ‘Let’s go,’ and Ali drives away.
Meanwhile, the children who play football in the empty corner lot think nothing of yelling out to him as he waits for Uncle Carl, “Hey, money truck man, how about some of that money, just a little, money truck man. Only a little will do.” And Ali will roll down his window—which is strictly against Mr. Hatem’s rules—and frown at them, yelling something like “Go away, you good-for-nothings. Show some respect.” Yet secretly, he doesn’t mind, not really. Better to be called money truck man than ‘Old man’ or ‘Hey you, Grandpa with the yellow monster teeth.’ In the world of kid thinking, since he drives the money truck they believe he has money. How could he not? But of course he doesn’t, not really.
So, driving the money truck is nothing like having real money in his pocket, not for Ali, but of course children don’t know this. They see one thing and the rest is all big thinking and silly guesswork. The day Ali quits his job, the kids will never understand why he walked away from all that money for something else, anything else.
The lovers in booth seven, under the Coca Cola sign, have spent all morning giggling about their food (scrambled eggs with brown toast), their fingernails, her lipstick, his moustache, . . . Everything is very funny. And when one of their forks clatters to the floor that too is funny. In fact, their giggling has become something organic, animal, like a tiny pet that has gotten away from them. If that were not enough, the wind is blowing extra hard and when people come in, the door refuses to close and tiny whirlwinds rush across the tables and countertop so the cook has to stop cooking to come out from behind the grill to give the door a good tug shut. They giggle. I’ve never been big on adults giggling. It is unhealthy. Course if you are in love that’s something else and has nothing to do with health.
The woman in booth 10 is frowning into her newspaper. Her scowl is serious and lawyer-like and when I look closer, yes, she has a briefcase at her side. Her newspaper is the same as mine but we are on different pages; she on the Business section, me the Sports. Glancing toward the kitchen, I see the cook, who has just returned from closing the door, is wearing a hairnet; sometimes I see him slip the hairnet off to scratch his head only to quickly snap it back on, as if he is being watched. Wearing a hairnet is not a bad idea, especially if you are cooking other peoples’ food, but then again if I were to swallow a strand of the cook’s blackbrown hair, I’d never know it, or probably even care. The lawyer woman in booth ten is angrily turning the pages of her newspaper until she stops at a large half-page photo. I can easily see from here that there has been yet another bank drawing contest, along with a long list of people who have won money. There is a photo of the winner standing next to what can only be the bank manager and together they cradle a large cardboard check for 5,000KD. The winner is looking straight into the camera and for some reason she does not look pleased, with a glare that says, ‘Can we hurry this up, I’ve got to get to work.’ On the other hand the bank manager is springtime smiling, as if giving away 5000KD is a good idea. On that same page there is mention of marathons to be run, blood drives to be driven. Two new coffee shops have opened their doors and will be giving away free coffee to the first 100 customers.
It is then that a mother with young boy come in, leaving the door windy wide open, and caring nothing for giggling lovers or frowning lawyers, she steps quickly to booth five–below the red no smoking sign–having not once stopped talking on her cellphone, laughing, “Wallah, wallah,” while her son, who not once pretends to know her, to sit next to her, decides to take a jaunt around the tabletops. Lowering the Sports section, I watch as he marches from one tabletop to the next, to the next, to the…. When the mother finally stops talking long enough to look up and see him, yelling, “Mohammed, get down,” he yells back, “No.” She shrugs a shrug that says ‘what’s a mother to do’, before going back to her cellphone, more laughter, more “Wallah.” By now, little Mohammed has reached table number twelve and is happily toeing the napkins holder, reaching down with pudgy fingers to see how much salt will fit across the tabletop. Meanwhile, the cook looks up from his cooking, tugs at his hairnet and seeing boy on tabletop, says something in Tagalog to Eve. Eve hurries over to the boy to help him off the table, and he happily surrenders to her outstretched arms.
That is the waitress’s name, Eve, her nametag says so. Eve always greets me with a “Welcome, it’s a great day.” She has been trained to say this, they all have, as if customers need reminding that such days do exist. But never mind, because she is simply doing her job, doing what she has been told; it is not her fault that her boss insist she recite such an awful greeting.
There is one fly in the Diner and it has found me, refusing to leave me alone. It crawls across my forehead, tiptoeing along my ear. It thinks nothing of stepping on my eyebrows. I shoo it away once, twice and even a third time. Secretly, I wish it would fly over to the lawyer woman; I’d like to see if she has a bigger, more ferocious frown.
By now the lovers have become strangely silent, the lawyer woman looking tired, as if all her frowning has finally caught up with her; meanwhile, little Mohammed with Mom are back together, she relentlessly chatting, he busily brushing salt from his fingertips.
If I hesitate any longer I will be late for work, and like a kind of magic Eve brings me my bill before I even ask for it. I pay and she reminds me one last time to have a great day, and I reply Okay. That’s when I look up and see the Diner’s light fixtures; there are twelve of them hanging from the ceiling like ancient salad bowls, a milky porcelain, one over each booth. After all this time and I had never noticed them before but now that I do and I stop to get a good look, I can see how they are a perfect fit.
A worker, an Egyptian they think, has fallen down the elevator shaft of a building under-construction, a 16-storey fall. They say it took the police, firemen and assorted onlookers two hours to reach him, to pull his broken body out from the rubble, to pronounce him dead. The police captain on duty says, “Dismal job. He should have been wearing some sort of safety gear, harness, something. Can’t work on these buildings without the proper safety equipment. Everybody knows this,” shaking his head like he can’t believe it. Meanwhile, a man who says he is a reporter steps forward and asks the police captain if he has any additional comments to make, aiming a news-like microphone in his direction. “Sad story,” continues the captain, looking at the microphone. “And when I go home tonight and my kids ask me what happened today at work, I will say nothing happened. Not really a lie, you know, it’s just that some things they don’t need to know about, not at seven and nine years old. All of that, sad to say, will come later, in good time, sah.”
“That’s it?” asks the reporter with microphone. “Anything else?”
“Yes, we think the worker was Egyptian, maybe Jordanian. Can’t be sure, hard to tell after a sixteen-storey fall, if you know what I mean.”
The reporter said that he did.
And with that, the police captain gets into his patrol car and goes one direction, the reporter, with microphone, another, and the ambulance with Egyptian or maybe Jordanian body yet another.
After a short lunch, the workers will get back to building the building. But before that their supervisor, an Indian, will tell them it’s a damn shame what happened, ‘Damn shame,’ and that it should be a lesson for all of them to be more careful and wear the safety equipment that is in the shed over there, behind them, in the boxes marked safety equipment. Nobody will say anything, heads down, thinking of the worker who, if asked, was most certainly from Cairo. The Indian supervisor will let the silence sit a little longer before finishing by telling them they will have to work half-day Friday, after prayers–after all they are now short one man.
At the end of Salem Mubarak Street is the harbor. And there you will find two fishermen sitting on the big rocks talking to each other, and when they turn and see the security guard standing there, the letters SECURITY in a bold red across his shirt, they say Good morning and he nods back. The sign next to where they are fishing reads No Fishing. The security guard stands behind them with arms folded, watching them watch their fishing poles that are neatly wedged into the big rocks. Nearby, two of the big brownandwhite Corniche cats are sunning themselves, watching all in their secretive non-watching catty way. Come to think of it, it is nothing like real fishing, just two men lounging on the big harbor rocks, watching their fishing poles. Finally, when the security man’s cellphone rings, he answers and walks away, the letters SECURITY bigger and brighter across his back. The fishermen, now smoking cigarettes, watch him go, say something to one another, and when the one shrugs so does the other. Meanwhile, the cats are pretending to watch the harbor, the boats, the fishing poles, when, if truth be told, they, too, see him walk away.