23 October 2009 The Victory in Little Lebanon
In September of 2004, I moved into a flat off Edgware Road in London’s Little Lebanon and worked behind a bar at a pool hall pub for Arab gangbangers and kingpins, swinging the occasional sterling surge promoting high-end night clubs as partner-in-crime to a Palestinian diplomat’s flamboyant primogeniture.
At the pool hall pub, Saudi engineers with PhDs from Berkley and CalPoly, fresh from the desert and building what was becoming Dubai, came in to talk in Arabic to the proprietor, my boss, a tiny Sudanese lion in a real Versace suit with a fake Versace belt & buckle. He wore that same belt & buckle every day I saw him and had a Versace (and only Versace) suit for every day of the work week, but not a sixth or seventh that he did not need. His Russian wife, Anya, bought him the fake belt & buckle from a street vendor on their honeymoon to St. Petersburg to visit her parents when they were still a young married couple starting out poor. But they were not poor by the time I met my boss. By then, he was a borough kingpin, arguably the borough kingpin, as his was the unassailable Central West London real estate trade. W1H. He went by Ernest Joseph, but I later found out that the name his father gave him back in the Sudan was not Ernest Joseph.
Ernest bought the The Victory the summer before I arrived in London to study abroad for a school year. He needed a place to talk at night with out-of-towners in Arabic. While Ernest closed the deal on the pub, I was employed as a full-time prep cook alongside battered white waitresses, illegal busboys & dishwashers, and parolee heroin pushers at a Cracker Barrel off Highway 40 in O’Fallon, Missouri. I saved every penny that summer, the summer before London, but pennies aren’t sterling and I arrived staring down the barrel at nine months on the British Pound with 1,800 US dollars hidden away in a Twain novel, and no line for cash stateside, utterly untraveled, unnetworked, dressed like a Missouri clearance rack, and desperate for an income.
The Victory was the shadiest place I’d walked into in three weeks of walking into every place it made sense to beg for a job. At the time, the pub was in the midst of a renovation that would make it a respectable-looking gastro-place with potted real plants and a Chelsea flag above the door on game day. But on that night in September of ’04, I arrived to low-lit drywall with plaster pokadots smeared over the heads of nails and screws. The Bush & Blair’s invasion of Iraq was well-underway and unpopular on the modest flat-screen BBC broadcast high on the wall. I could hear the clack! of a pool table and make out the silhouettes of at least a half-dozen of the Arab world’s Daddy Yankees through the atmospheric stew of nicotine abuse that authenticates an American bowling alley. Through the stew I spotted something shiny and golden and moving. Hair. A blond. A Polish Venus from Lublin. Aga.
“Y’all hiring at all?” I asked.
“Are you hiring…at all?”
“Oh, I see. You mast speak weeth Ernest,” said Aga, short for Agnieshka, purring the “Er” in the bossman’s name like a Bond Girl who doesn’t know or care that she’s the first Bond Girl you’ve ever met.
Ernest asked me four hours of questions over four hours of Carlsberg pints. He also changed my name to “Bob,” because he could not pronounce “Pablo.” Two months later, when I turned 21, he would buy me a birthday pint of Guinness and a birthday shot of tequila, pull my forehead firmly to his forehead, look me hard in the eye and declare with Carthaginian thunder, “I like you Bob! Because you ask me for a job!”
Something in my step the night I met my first Bond Girl reminded Ernest of the kid who wasn’t called Ernest when he first arrived in Her Majesty’s London alone, with no line for cash home, utterly untraveled, unnetworked, dressed like a refugee camp, and desperate for income. Ernest would later tell me about his father’s liquor store in the Sudan, but it might have been a bar. He was drunk as Pap Finn that night, the only time I saw him so, and squinting through chain-smoke at a terpsichorean mirage of himself…and his father…and some place that in some way exchanged booze for money to thirsty Sudanese a long time ago.
But while the mirage in his meandering eyes was vague, I could see his memory was vivid, lucid, and dire. An exile’s memory is a brilliant opaque of irreverent solitude where imagination’s nightmares thrive. While an immigrant is never again home, the exiled is never again whole. I am an immigrant. My father was exiled. Ernest Joseph was exiled by his own father who sold the place where he once sold booze to buy a one-way to Her Majesty’s Heathrow and put 20 pounds sterling in the kid who would become the kingpin Ernest Joseph’s hand, and said, “You will never see me again. Accept this and do not return. Become a success.”
Ernest never saw his father again, and sat beside me then with tears in his eyes he did not see, but felt when one dropped from his eyelash to splash on a pronounced, North African cheekbone. The tear was the mirage, and he was suddenly sober. He quickly wiped it away with his knuckle and I quickly pretended not to notice. Then he rose in faux triumph and declared “I must pees,” and stumbled to the bathroom to pees.