Like in the Good Old Days in Jerusalem, I'm Back to Lying About Where I'm From

I called a taxi that would get me out of a bad neighborhood, but the situation didn't get less scary inside the cab.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Illustration showing Sayed Kashua drinking a bear and sweating next to a tattooed guy at a bar.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

“You have to be careful here,” the taxi driver said. “It’s a bit dangerous in this neighborhood.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, and immediately thought about going home and skipping the party I’d been invited to.

“There’s a lot of gangster activity in this area.”

“So this bar is” I asked.

“The bar is fine,” he said. “You’ll be fine inside. Just don’t wander around outside.”

“Thanks a lot,” I said to the driver as I paid him and inwardly cursed the birthday guy. Why in the blazes would a group of academics choose to celebrate their friend’s birthday in a neighborhood like this, I wondered. I hoped they knew what they were doing and hadn’t chosen the place only because it has a karaoke machine without bothering to check the local murder rate.

Enough, I told myself aloud as I pushed open the door and went in. It was still early and the place was fairly empty. Maybe I should go home, after all? I’ll call the driver, he couldn’t have gotten far, and he’ll come back and take me home.

The bar fit the description of dives that I’d only heard about but had never been in, like one of those joints in movies where motorcycle gangs hang out. It’s amazing, sometimes, how much life resembles the movies.

The few people inside were hefty white guys, some wearing colorful bandanas, all of them terrifically tattooed. Actually, tattoos no longer scare me. Sometimes I think everyone here has them. The locals, I mean. A friendly smile from the female bartender persuaded me to sit at the bar despite everything and to order a beer while I waited for the karaoke-loving lecturers to show up.

“How are you doing this evening?” the bartender, who was tattooless, asked, and placed the menu on the counter in front of me. She added that all the draft beers were $2 tonight.

I ordered a $2 beer and nodded at a guy who was sitting two seats away from me. These folks are nice, I thought, just big and tattooed, no reason to be scared of them.

The university people would be here in less than half an hour and everything would be fine. They must know the place. I took a sip of the beer, a brand I’d never tried, and I didn’t like it. I could have asked for a different beer, but I was afraid that someone might take offense, and who knows where that could lead. I’ll drink it all and then I’ll order one I know, even if it’s from a bottle and even though I never drink bottled beer if draft is available. I have to finish this one, and anyway I needed a drink after taking part in a university panel discussion about racism on campus before getting the taxi.

The discussion was about black students, too, but mostly about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and Islamophobia. It was a highly charged, grim affair. What saddened me most was how young students from all camps often fall prey to political organizations with vested interests that stuff their heads with ideas and fears that serve the groups’ goals.

I’d never thought beer could be so revolting. What on earth had I ordered? Or maybe it was just off – but can beer go bad?

The birthday group arrived on time. They knew the place well and also knew the owner, a musician. “Live karaoke” is what they were looking for, I mean instead of using a machine. There’s a long playlist, and every song that’s chosen is performed live, with a chorus led by the proprietor, who plays a pretty mean electric guitar.

In the meantime, a bottle of Sam Adams somehow managed to save the situation. And after two songs by Madonna and one by Guns N’ Roses, I wished the birthday boy all the best and ordered a cab.

“Where are you?” the taxi driver who called me back asked.

“I’m here outside,” I told him, and gave him the name of the bar, which was also on the sign above.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be there in a second.” I already saw the car approaching.

“I was sure you were at the Golden Bullet,” the driver said.

“What’s that?”

“A strip joint,” he said and pointed to a building 10 meters away from the bar.

“Oh, no,” I replied. “I didn’t even know there’s”

“Not a bad place,” the driver said, “not bad at all. I used to go there a lot. I was a regular there until the bastard owner put my girlfriend’s daughter on the stage, you know, 17 years old. I punched him in the face and never went back. What a pathetic loser. She still works there, she was a good kid. Needed money. Everybody needs money. I work all these hours because I need more income, more money. It’s not enough for everybody, and Internal Revenue wanted money from me, too, by God, I tell you, but I’m not paying, I won’t pay them a dime.

“One time they sent their collectors to me – they told me: Sir, you owe us money. I was in the army, you know, I’m a veteran, Marines, so as soon as they said that I cocked my weapon and stuck it smack in their face. They apologized and never came back again. They understood, they understand that I’m in the right and that I won’t pay them. If you ask me, we need to go to Washington, D.C. with a rifle and stick a bullet between the eyes of everyone there, one by one. I know that sounds horrible, but that’s what I think needs doing, there’s no other choice. Am I wrong?”

“Yeah,” I said, “sure,” trying to put on the best American accent I could, praying he wouldn’t ask me where I’m from, so I wouldn’t have to lie.

I didn’t think this guy would be a great fan of the Palestinians, he probably admires Israeli soldiers, though I have the feeling that he’s not wild about Jews. Like in Jerusalem, like in the good ‘ole days – I’m back to lying about my origins. I’ll tell him I’m an Albanian if he asks, there’s no way he’ll know what an Albanian looks like, no way he’ll know what an Albanian accent sounds like. I’ll tell him I’m Jake and that I’m an Albanian and everything will be alright, everything will be A-okay.

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