The telephone rang, it was my brother in Boston. He had survived the operation. Only 35 years old and he’d already had his mitral valve repaired.

For Jon

The telephone rang, it was my brother in Boston. He had survived the operation. Only 35 years old and he’d already had his mitral valve repaired.

“The first person to visit me,” he wheezed, “was an Anglican priest. She was nice. Pretty. Part time, but very spiritual. She squeezed my hand.”

When your breath is short, I surmised six time zones east, you don’t waste your time on lots of adjectives.

“Today, a rabbi stopped by, figuring that with my last name, he had a client. ‘So what do you do, Jon?’ he asked. ‘Stand-up comedy,’ I told him. He looked at me kind of funny. ‘What can you get an hour for that?’ I explained an hour was a lot of material, a gold mine.”

His heavy breathing came through the line, and I smiled. He was gathering. Always collecting bits of funny stuff from the ways we live. The hospital rabbi would be a good routine.

“I gotta get out of here.” Then the voice turned serious. “Everyone’s sick. Hoping to get a second chance. I’d like to take another trip with you like the one we took last year.”

“Yeah, that was good.”

I had had an assignment to Conakry, Guinea, had been sent to train the local media how to make their newspapers more dynamic. “Come with me,” I proposed to Jon, and he finagled a week off, got himself inoculated for yellow fever and bought a cheap ticket from Newark on eBay. We met in Brussels in line for the Sabena connection to Africa. He was on time and was standing there with a big, warm smile and a Zabar’s shopping bag filled with colored pencils, balloons and a giant bag of Tootsie Rolls for the children of Guinea. Oh—and an Everything Bagel, the kind you can’t find too easily in Europe.

The Airbus sat on the tarmac taking on fuel and luggage. This was the same daily flight on which those two Guinean 15-year-old boys had been found frozen to death in the hold of the landing gear. A letter was folded in one of the boys’ pockets. “Will the people in Europe please listen. The children of Africa are dying. Please do something.” That’s all it said. Six months had passed, and the only thing that had changed was the tightening of runaway security at Conakry Airport. Nobody listened. If ever there were martyrs, here they were. Our flight was smooth, and the succession of cans of Stella Artois helped us pass the time. A big European Airbus on an African runway is an impressive sight, like a spaceship on another planet.

We were met in the crazed luggage zone by the embassy exp editor, a Guinean whose job it was to usher official guests through the mayhem so they didn’t lose their luggage or get fleeced in the confusion of officials and thieves. I’ve been through this a lot and know whom to answer to and how, and I maintain a collection of stories I like to share. I have, for example, developed a special fondness for the transit zone at Felix Houphouët-Boigny Airport in Abidjan because it was where I learned to remain cool while resisting base corruption. A customs inspector led me behind a dusty curtain and asked me to buy him a Coke. “Buy me a Coke” is loaded with irony, of course. They get a glimpse of that U.S. passport, and all they imagine is a wad of available dollars.

Take them at their word is my motto for Africa, “OK, since we’re friends, lets go. I’ll buy you a Coca at the bar. Friends can’t drink alone. I’m serious about this.”

“But I work.” He looked confused, which was precisely where I wanted him.

“Vous me vexez, Monsieur? I uttered in my accented French and looked insulted. Always look insulted. Even the crooks don’t want to insult you.

On y va, Monsieur. Let’s go. I insist.” If you play naive and refuse to let the literal fall into the figurative, you’ll end up too complicated of a creature to be shaken down. He nudged me on my way.

“Maybe next time,” I concluded.

Never say no or yes in Africa — everything happens in between, in the promise of later.

“And after the rabbi?”

“He left because he had a part-time job at a clothes store for oversized men. The pain is incredible, and I think I’m going to ruin the whole thing every time I cough. But if you don’t cough up this stringy, green liquid, you’ll drown in it.”

“Rest. I’ll call you back.”

“Thanks. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Our hotel, owned by the Belgian airline, was pretty much the only game in town. And what a town it was—a congested, dilapidated peninsula with very little colonial charm remaining. The days of the neo-Marxist dictator had left their marks, or scars. It was hard seeing what had attracted Stokely Carmichael, who became Kwame Ture, to Conakry, in the radical ‘60s, when he came to live with Miriam Makeba and write “Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism” But, after 27 arrests, the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party and author of the slogan “Black is Beautiful” chose the promise of shabby Conakry over the inflamed ghettos in urban America. He came here, wrote and finally died in 1998 in relative obscurity.

The Hotel Camayenne had six floors, and most rooms looked out to sea. The air conditioner was working only on the fifth and sixth floors, and considering the nighttime temperature of over 90 F that’s what we requested. The elevator would religiously stop midway, and guests had to walk through the dusty renovations on the third and fourth floors. Even luxury was culturally relative.

Still, the lobby of the Camayenne was as close to Europe as you could get in Conakry. Tennis doubles were forming for Friday. The pool was perched invitingly by the sea, and the terrace restaurant served excellent fish at inflated prices. They had French mustard on the tables in the restaurant and used plastic wrap on the raw fish. Two tables each night were filled with Sabena’s pale flight crew in their blue and white uniforms. One case of food poisoning, I thought, and we’d lose our way back to the recognizable world.

The work turned out to be challenging, and my presence was instrumental in structuring the first independent radio station in the country. The government would say no, but at least we had presented a good project and gone on record as supporting the development of independent media. During the day, Jon went off, with his bag of candy, to fish with some kids half his age who lived in a splotchy blue dinghy that took on water. He was so far removed from the pressures of his mundane day job in a Manhattan law firm that bliss took on a new definition: having your feet in soggy plastic shoes with the sun on your back and nothing in your pockets.

One night, we climbed into a taxi in search of an address that Jon had brought with him from New York. Two weeks before the trip, Jon had grabbed a Checker taxi on 43rd and Broadway, and started playing world geography with the driver, Edmond Diallo. He’d left Conakry seven years earlier and now lived in a tiny apartment with his Guinean wife, whom he had met at a party in Brooklyn, and their son, Cherif Diallo. {Diallo was also the family name of the Guinean whom the New York Police Department had suspected of something and into whose body—armed only with his house keys, wallet and two subway tokens—they had pumped 41 bullets. They were acquitted for self-defense, which raised eyebrows for half a day.) Edmond invited Jon for dinner and loaded him up with 11 letters, a photo album mostly of little Cherif and five $20 bills.

Diallos, Jon and I—we were family, practically.

The taxi driver, also a Diallo, headed north toward the main market. We stopped for flowers for Mrs. Diallo. In many African cities, street addresses aren’t really addresses. They’re more like clues: the cement house near old Muhammed Boulevard, across from the new pharmacy; the house behind the French cemetery with the broken steps. The only real addresses are post office boxes. When we reached the new pharmacy, word traveled like electricity in water. Diallo with the son in New York had white company. In a matter of minutes, we had the best seats in their family’s house, on the low, cushioned sofas—which we shared with 22 brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins (í counted them)—right beneath a bold photo of the ailing president. Like a gift, we unwrapped the news from our dear friend Edmond and pretended to know Cherif as if he were our own nephew.

Mr. Diallo Sr., the father, was a retired police commissioner from the old Ahmed Sekou Touré days, who had obviously been able to siphon enough off the top for the house and all these sofas. Both of his wives were there, and another cousin was sent to find Selim, the brother who hoped to follow Edmond. Within two hours, we were surrounded by massive aluminum trays of stewed vegetables and skewers of grilled fish. They all watched with pleasure as the two white brothers shoved hunks of hot pumpkin and cabbage into their mouths. They were enjoying this. White people can’t really eat with their hands. They called for spoons, but we were purists.

We distributed the letters. The photos circulated, and the cash went into an inner pocket down the front of Mr. Diallo s boubou. He was so proud; he wanted to give us something. That was the African heart opening wide. At one moment, he gazed around the room as if he wanted to pick a daughter for Jon, his greatest gesture of gratitude. Go to Conakry for a week, and come back with an 18-year-old Guinean bride and one heck of an extended family. There was something tempting about it. We finally left with a plastic bag filled with enough mangos for a month and two wild shirts dyed with natural indigo, garments for which no cycle had been invented chez Maytag.

Wow. We looked at each other. We were speechless as the taxi wove through the dark, bubbling veins of the city.

Back at the hotel, we put on our indigo shirts and sunglasses, and feigned the Blues Brothers in the bathroom mirror. Jon had been collecting beautiful spices, seeds and beans, and he had set them up on his night table as a shaman or conceptual artist would. I went off to work in the Embassy car to the sounds of the official short-wave radio, Alpha One to Base.

On the last day of the mission, I wrapped up the week’s work with a televised press conference at the American Cultural Center. The segment would run on the state television—the only television—during the 8 o’clock news. Work was over, and it felt good getting out of a necktie. There was a restaurant I’d heard of—run by a Sierra Leonean who’d snuck across the border like so many fellow war-shocked civilians from Freetown—that was supposed to be OK. Then Jon told me what he had heard about the capital’s hottest discotheque, Jimmy’s. We locked our passports and most of our money in the room safe, changed our shirts for something more collegiate and headed back into the steamy air. We were close to the equator, and the sun set quickly.

The taxis across the street were about half the price of those in the hotel parking lot. They were lined up, broken windshields facing north. Most windshields in Conakry are prominently smashed, and drivers don’t replace them—not only because of the cost, which is prohibitive, but also because a new windshield is a perfect target for thieves. A windshield commands serious bucks in Conakry. Some drivers have tongues of iron welded to the roofs, making it impossible to jimmy out the curved pieces of glass without busting them. The taxi we took hosted a pattern of glass splinters as intricate as the passageways of Venice.

“Restaurant La Mama, s’il vous plait.”

Ali, our driver, headed to the abandoned downtown, swerving around craters, broken streetlights and pieces of walls with ads for Canadian cigarettes, Western Union and Maggi bouillon cubes.

The phone rang. “Yes.”

“The rabbi came back. “No! You’re ribbing me.” “He got me a gig in Cambridge.” “You’re joking.”

“I think I’m going to get him matched up with my Anglican angel.”

“You’re too much.” He made me smile. “How are you feeling?”

“Like the Tin Man with a straw brain and no fucking courage.”

“There’s no place like home, huh?”

“I’m ticking at 160, and my card’s going to run out.”

“I got a surprise for you.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll call you when it’s ready.” I knew he’d like the story. “Love ya, bro.”


La Mama was spread out on the first floor of a shabby house on a quiet, dark street. It looked closed, but All shook his head. “I’ll wait here for you. Go,” he told us In French. There was rarely a reason to close anything. Good idea. I slipped him a 1,000-franc bill that was frailer than a tissue run through a washing machine and then trampled by army boots in the rainy season.

He could buy five dinners of rice and fish with that. Four, at least.

“Be here at 10.”

I’d not been to Freetown, but I imagined it had the same transplanted feel that La Mama portrayed. Tattered posters and a parrot with few feathers and a dubious krio vocabulary. The astounding thing about many neighorhood restaurants in African cities is that they have nothing and everything to eat all the time. Nothing is ready, but everything on or off the menu is possible. You tell them what you want; they go and find it. We ordered fish, salad, bread, beer, mangos. A boy slipped out with a straw bag. A big guy called Jason inserted a tape and brought a huge brown bottle of Conakry brew to our table. He was missing his left hand but moved around with great cheer and agility. There are few things as sobering as being in the presence of a person with a missing limb.

The beer went down easily. Beer can have a calming effect. We breathed as the searching voice of Youssou N’Dour leaked from the tiny speakers.

It had been a hell of a week, just the thing to bring two brothers together.

The lime juice on the pan-fried fish was succulent, and the point of killer hot sauce was sublime as it mixed with the carbonation of the beer. We were all alone, enjoying the moment, until two men walked in and took a table near us. Within a minute, they were asking us, in atrocious English, about the Internet, and one said he had invented a way to download the smell of his wife there in Conakry when he was traveling in Europe. “Patent it, man.” The zone between imagination and insanity is always an interesting place to visit.

We finished our plates of sweet mango and paid Jason’s right hand. Ali was outside, satisfied. The side streets of downtown were unpaved, and only a goat or two milled about with pirated videos flashing on some Korean television. We turned left at the sea and followed the bend by the old port where Jon had been one morning at 5, looking for slapping gills. The kid has always had something for fish. “Don’t get out, mon ami,” the driver told him. “They’ll eat you alive.” He meant both the guys who slept outside in the port and the mosquitoes. Jon returned to our room before I was up and climbed back into his bed, pretending the escapade had been a weird dream provoked by scallops and fresh ginger.

A large wooden house sat by the road. Lights spun inside, and the place looked like the whole thing sat on top of an emergency truck. Jimmy’s. “The foreigners love it here,” Ali told us. Especially the guys from the mining companies upcountry—white guys in Africa with lots of cash in their pockets and nothing to do. Ali backed his yellow rust-bucket, smashed glass poking out, into a parking space. This was our stretch limo; we were the privileged ones. We had a driver.

“Wait for us, Ali.”

“I’ll wait.” He had absolutely nothing else to do, and although he had no meter, it was running. We strutted in, mixing up stupid motifs: toga party, Bogart, John Wayne, Gidget Does Guinea.

Whoa!—the gazelles, as the men in these parts called them. This was where they’d been hiding. How was it possible that bodies could look so good, so cool, so well dressed—tight, satin dresses; great shoes; a carnival of shiny bracelets and dangling earrings—so gorgeous in a hut at 90 degrees in the third poorest country on Earth. I felt the heaviness of the air in the cabin sticking to the hair under my arms. My skin felt clammy. Inferior all over.

Six exquisite young women were dancing by themselves in the middle of the floor, the chinks of reflected lights taking turns bouncing off their lip gloss. Ripe fruit came to mind. Seeing them like this, who could know they were poorer than the poorest person in the poorest town in my country? In a matter of seconds, two veered toward us. A very pretty but young and shy one moved toward Jon. No one spoke English, and this one hardly spoke French, either. She was from the northeastern province of the country, from the poorest ethnic group in Guinea, a Susu. Her scars, part of a ritual I tried not thinking about, were symmetrical and curiously not unpretty. She touched Jon’s shoulder and repeated her line. Or word, I should say. Her come-on.


Jon looked at me. “I gotta get this one signed up at Stanley Kaplan. I’m sure we can improve her scores. Ratchet up that syntax.”

“You’re terrible, dude. Buy her a beer, for Chrissakes.”

Mine spoke French. A student of administrative studies at the national university. With tangerine lips and incredibly inviting perfume. What could they teach you about administrating this place? I thought. Or, worse, what could you do with that knowledge? That’s what was heartbreaking. At least she studied.

1 got up for some beers.

There was Jimmy, the sugar daddy of the joint, bald, smiling, chained to his fake Rolex. He changed me some dollars as a big favor at a mildly lousy rate and sent someone over with four Heinekens. Jon’s Susu knew what she wanted and moved fast. She put her hand on his- thigh, “Douche. Je veux,” she said. She wanted to take a shower in our hotel room. Oi. Sometimes only Yiddish is appropriate, regardless of your religion. A Heineken, OK, but the implications of this request from our monosyllabic gazelle went much further, although the Henry Miller in me kind of liked the idea of getting ripped on local palm wine and going native a la Paul Gauguin. All I could think of was the sudsing up of papayas. Was that sexist? Hell, yes, but as long as you didn’t hurt anyone, should you care? Probably. I thought of the people who defended the wages at sneaker factories in Asia.

Mine wanted a douche, as well, and I imagined how impressed they’d be with our built-in hairdryer. The next thing I noticed, Jon was up on the dance floor, and four Grace Jones clones were boogying with him, my brother the entertainer. He hit the floor, mixing motifs again—an Ashkenazi wedding in Lvov at the turn of the century, driven by John Travolta and “Disco Inferno.” They were loving it. Jimmy was loving it. But his Heineken cutie was worried. There were others that had designs on him. The douche was in jeopardy. We had full-blown drama.

At the end of the green bottle, we thanked our girls, said our adieux and motioned to the exit.” Lets bail, Jon.’’ Our girls followed us.

Ali opened the back door of our sedan for Jon. Someone tried desperately to sell me an electric fan. “No, thank you.” Then a toilet seat. A box of Kleenex. “No.” A box of flashlight batteries. Roadside commerce in Africa was a surreal ballet.

I climbed in the front. Susu tried to climb in the window, la pan-vre. She wanted her douche.

“Hit it, Ali. Time to go home.”

And it was here that the story really began.

I picked up the phone, dialed the country code and hung up before it rang. He’d be sleeping. I wanted to hear his voice. Feel that he was close.

Conakry had a curfew. Midnight. It was 20 till 1 o’clock. We had been reasonable. One beer, no group shower. “Take us back, Ali.”

“Oui, monsieur. You have your passports?’’Ali asked.

“We left them in the room, but we have our driver’s licenses.”

“No problem. No passports? No problem.”

It was good having Ali with us. He knew the ropes. He deserved a good tip.

Today, we’re still pondering why he said no problem.

“Only speak English. Don’t speak French. We’ll get by the checkpoint. I have a grand frère in the guards.” I knew the “big brother” bit but was not inclined just then to question tribal fraternity. I have guys all over West Africa who call me “little brother” and shoeshine kids who call me “Papa.” And occasionally, strangers whom I’ve met only once—my “little brothers”—ask me to pay their schooling or get them green cards. Genes are far from everything.

The car sped through the dark, forgotten city and over the last bridge heading toward the Camayenne. I saw the soldiers, the fiery torches stuck in the rubber pylons and the chain pulled across the road. The red beret caps, the automatic machine guns.

I stopped there and hadn’t touched the story in two weeks. Three. And I didn’t get any closer to that checkpoint, where the story really began. Jon was released from intensive care and then got to go home. Well, not really home, but to our parents’ house—a place where we never lived and which holds no hidden treasures nor secret bones in the closets. The carpet is new; the lawn is new. The front walk built itself to the tune of Dad’s knees as he turned 70. Mom picked every fixture and faucet, and together they communed on the shiny yellow Mexican kitchen chairs that could have been baptized by Frida Kahlo’s guardian angel. Dad likes to play Jack Walsh at the head of the table, near the phone and that ancient answering machine. He refuses to delete old messages left by his children, as if the act of erasing them acknowledges that one day we will die.

Going home as an adult is a complicated thing; I’ve thought about this. Either you return to the family house where history ruminates with each creak of the floorboard and where the decision to become a lawyer or marry a Methodist is scrutinized by the hallways and the rocker on the back porch, or … or, you return to a home that belongs only to them now, your mother and father, a place where your baggage goes no farther than the front hall, your shoes belong on the mat and you need a magnetic badge to get past the parking guard of their gated community. Then, home is like a well-staffed Holiday Inn with no guests but you. And you look at these people who’ve managed to grow up before you’ve given them permission, and you hear yourself sounding like them when they were the age you are now.

A mechanical voice owned by a Baby Bell told me to leave a message. It wasn’t Dad, and I didn’t want to comply. Jon would call me, I was sure, when he was back from rehab or up from his nap or back from his outing with Dad to the local savings bank where they call their clients by their first names and offer them store-bought cookies.

Ali took the left lane and slowed to around 20 mph. There were at least a dozen armed soldiers standing in a staggered line across the causeway. It appeared like a scene in a film starring Mel Gibson. The guard in front of us waved us to the right. Ali kept on straight. Jon was silent like the kid brother. There are times—not many—when children know not to talk.

A high-pitched yell in the local dialect rang out—followed by the unmistakable smack of a gun butt on the already-dented fender; followed by a flat, angry hand.

“I think he wants you to stop, AM.”

AM veered to the right, still hoping to slip through or sweep around the flank against all odds. A salmon for a soul, this guy. A running back. He screamed out something that had to do with the “grand frere” who certainly didn’t seem to be where we needed him.

They screamed back and nearly pushed his tin can of dirty oil and sputtering guts to the far right of the road. One soldier appeared quickly and directed intense anger at our lost spiritual leader. “Passports,” he barked at us.

“We are American tourists, regular people. Our passports are in our hotel room at the Camayenne. We have positive picture IDs though.” I never said this stuff. I was over 40, and it wasn’t Mke I was trying to get a drink in a bad bar in El Paso. Shit, I was working for the government; I was helping his country. And my French under normal circumstances is rather good. AM tried to intervene, and the soldier in the red beret motioned with his short rifle for us to gtt out of the car. He motioned twice, and although I’m neither superstitious nor obsessed by the code of baseball, I decided quickly that we didn’t need to know if three strikes meant “I shoot.”

“Stay calm,” I told Jon as I observed that the soldier had steel-enforced black boots, probably part of a Ukrainian barter deal for bauxite or women or toxic-waste dumping rights. We stepped to the edge of the strongly lit stretch of road; a sickly glow of ochre fluorescence bathed the scene in campy emergency medical decor. Then I saw the military-personnel carrier a few meters away, off to the right, benches lined up against the inner walls. Two lone women were cuffed to one bench. The night was still young. The plight of women everywhere. And the poor. And the unlucky. Hell, Jon and I had been to Ivy League schools. What were we doing there screwing around in the streets? The soldier yelled in quick syllables in half-French that sounded Mke the way Japs spoke in the politically incorrect war movies of the ‘50s. There was a curfew, and we needed our passports to get through. Trapped and in disbelief, I wanted to call an 800 number, American Express or God directly.

We had played like we didn’t understand French as Ali had advised, and now I was stuck behind a second barrier, not able to reveal that I did speak French and had deliberately been deceptive, sprinkling in enough false cognates to negotiate our liberation effectively. 1 hate puzzles. Especially ones in which only the winner gets to live.

“We have U.S. drivers licenses,” I proclaimed. He was massively unimpressed as he ran his grubby military finger over the cute hologram that the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles had so thoughtfully selected for our cards. I imagined that guy was now drinking a chilled Sam Adams on his patio in some town like Marblehead. In most countries, a driver’s license looks like the deed to your grandparents’ farm. In France, you keep the same photo your whole life. Ninety-year-old farts who can no longer see over the wheel proudly hold permission to drive with images from their youths. Little metal rivets hold the ragged photo in place. It’s serious. Here, we showed up after hours, without the right attire, and presented papers, which were plastic. Jesus, the cards wink when you move them and don’t even state your city of birth, mother’s maiden name, religion or anything. In the real world, this is not identification, and those who try to use it as such—in a dictatorship, after curfew, in the heart of post-colonial black Africa—well, they should be—no, I can’t say it—the S-word.

We weren’t getting into that truck. I was adamant here. Apparently, they filled it up, had a little fun with everybody, skirt or no skirt, and then drop-shipped the flesh at the Conakry Central Prison. Why didn’t anyone listen to those two sweet boys who froze for a cause in the landing gears of that Sabena Airbus, the same flight we hoped we would be taking the next evening? An open letter to Europe signed with the young lives of two of the bravest boys in modern history. Now nearly forgotten. Imagine freezing to death in the landing gears of a jet. I replayed this scene often. Every company in the world should have set up a scholarship in those boys’ names.

The glow of the yellow lamps reminded me of those late-night drives in the deep South when my dad and I would steer down U.S. Highway 1 through places like Savannah and Jacksonville, aiming for a Howard Johnson or Stuckey’s, in the 1960s. Driving from New York to Florida was like moving through a big, dark mansion, and we felt our way along, from the dim attic of a world that wasn’t ours at all until the sun slowly came back and they served free orange juice at the Florida Welcome Station and sold live baby alligators to undeserving and ignorant Northerners. Miami, then, was like New York’s cousin.

With a rifle pointed at him, Ali pulled our chariot farther off to the right. The soldier tried to shoo him away, but he stayed with us. We were his clients, and he was loyal, but mostly his fare was still alive and hadn’t yet paid him for his memorable chaperoning. He rubbed up against me like a horny cat and asked for 5,000 francs: With that, he’d clear this up, and we’d be off. I slipped him one of the local blue bills, which I was saving because only the blue ones wore honestly and remained attractive. And off it went into the side pocket of our soldier. It was like watching a fish steal the bait. He was short but built like a wall, and something strangely too serious held his face together as if the smile-gene had slipped a disc and there wasn’t a chiropractor available for centuries. The 5,000 bill was gone, and that was all.

Ali insisted a bit too much, and the soldiers gland flared. He took the heel of his fist and hammered Ali in the jaw—a gesture that was, in reality, what you get if you try to imitate Bruce Lee. The poor taxi driver with the great fare hit the ground, blood pouring from his cut lips and gums.

It was almost 2 a.m., and suddenly we weren’t tired. This was getting to be awful. A sick feeling ran from the top of my throat to the bottom of my heart. Money, it then seemed, might be the only answer, but if you surrender your wallet too submissively at moments like these you walk home in your underwear. You gotta be patient. One thing I’ve learned from these trips is that time is a market-sensitive commodity; like copper or orange juice futures. And, there, the market for time was soft: I’ll sell you this lovely wooden flute, which took me a month to carve, for anything you give me because I cut the wood from the forest, free, and I made it myself, free; your money is my 100 percent profit. I know more about our sophisticated business lives by observing primitive ones. My master’s in business administration comes from too many hours in dangerous airports and marketing sessions with very aggressive street vendors.

Jon was getting uneasy. This was his first time out, and although he’d walk from the Bowery to the Washington Bridge in the heat of night with reckless abandon, getting back to our sweet little hotel room, a mile away, unscathed, seemed frightfully unlikely. We might just die there. It wouldn’t be the first time innocent people rotted in jail or met a bullet.

1 tried something else.

“Go to hotel, moi. I get passport, d’accord?” I accelerated into politically disastrous Indian patois with a feather of French added for a tad of hopeful comprehension.

“Non” our captor barked. I rushed through our options. We couldn’t send Ali to clear out our room safe. His handkerchief was bloody and pressed to his mouth. We couldn’t ask him. They’d never let him in. Plus, there were limits to honesty.

“I give you,” I started in my best John Wayne, and I pulled out another 5,000. Jon, with the spontaneity of the mute clown, pulled from his jean pocket a fistful of malformed Tootsie Rolls. They’d survived the break dancing and the hora at Jimmy’s. The soldier looked interested. He grabbed one, disrobed it, threw the wrapper on the ground and shoved the brown nugget into his mouth. I eyed Jon harshly: Don’t you fucking give him a lecture on littering; it’s bad enough you risked our lives by giving a government assassin low-end candy.

I took one myself. He took two more.

‘‘Mmm, c’est bon” I added.

He grew suspicious as my French slipped back.

Alors, c’est bon, 5,000?” I added.

“Trente mille.” He wanted 30,000 each. That was a month’s salary for a professor at the university. I didn’t want to get indignant, but even thieves should have some ethics. OK, I told myself, all negotiations start somewhere. And now, being the alternative marketing guerilla that I prided myself on, I felt the playing field begin to level. We had steered into my terrain, and I had to tilt the pitch my way. Mentally, I rolled up my sleeves and dealt the deck. Plus, I didn’t have that much on me, and even if I had, it would have killed me handing it over to that criminal asshole. Go get an honest job, like driving a cab or teaching English.

Ever so slowly, I added a l,000-franc note to the little pile. “Jon, give our friend another Tootsie Roll, please.”

I thought I had him, but no, he barked again.

He wanted 15,000 each. But, at least he was playing my game. We were his big fish, his catch of the day, the special of the week. White Americans without diplomatic status and no passports didn’t exactly land in his net every hour. He motioned to that terrifying truck. It was his final weapon. My eyes were getting weary. Don’t ever let your defenses go flat, I tell people. At this very moment, when terror should have taken me by my socks and poured urine down my inner thighs, a strange sort of serenity lifted me by the shoulders. We were standing in the open air somewhere in the world, and we didn’t know what would happen next. And then it happened. It does, and it will. An answer. Wait, and the flaw will appear.

Our tough guy with the gun asked: “Vous êtes Chretien?’’

Merde, I thought, not that. Am I a Christian? A few countries over, entire villages were being massacred over this little question of massive historic proportion. It was after 2 a.m.; we were stuck behind enemy lines in a corrupt, primarily Moslem state, at gunpoint, and I was being asked if Jesus died for my sins. And, of course, I’m not a Christian. Nor a Moslem. I’m neither. None of the above. Confucius, please help. Levitate me to Nantucket or Santa Cruz orVitteaux in the heart of Burgundy.

Sometimes you don’t know where your nerve or your wit or your luck comes from, but it arrives like a well-made package. A FedEx of fate. You sign for it, and that’s that. Language saves you, a well-chosen word, a question. Existential linguistics.

“Et vous, Monsieur, vous êtes Chretien?”—”And you, Monsieur, are you Christian?” I returned.

“Moi, oui” he replied.

I took a big, invisible breath. The rest was easy; it came naturally. With enthusiasm, I cried in unabashed French, “Nous sommes freres”—”We are brothers.” My brotherly tone was so genuine that even my own brother worried about my loyalty.

The guard was mine now. No longer afraid of the gun, I doubled the ante, adding a second 5,000, pressing it into his rough branch of a hand. With brilliant spontaneity, Jon pulled out the rest of the Tootsie Rolls. This was our finale, the last pirouette of survival fireworks for the night. We were moving out. The soul of Vic Morrow overtook me.

“Ali, let’s go.”

“Bonsoir, monsieur” and we moved with slow determination for the car. We folded ourselves in, and Ali ignited the thing with a hunk of wire and a screwdriver.

“Drive, man. Jon, don’t turn around.”

“Ho-ly, ”Jon uttered under his breath, “shit.”

We drove the mile in silence. Ali was OK. He’d have a scar, but he had others. He also had a fucking installation piece for a car and a pretty lousy idea about getting foreigners through the checkpoint after curfew. A “grand frere” my ass. We pulled up in front of the beloved building that held our passports, the Sabena fortress.

“Sorry, Ali, next time it’ll be better,” 1 said.

“What did you mean by no problem?” Jon went for clarification.

it was approaching 3 a.m. This was our last night. I’d tell this to the press in the morning, invite the Minister of the interior to have an evening out in his own charming capital in a regular taxi, smashed windshield and all, to enjoy the hospitality of his personnel.

“8,000, d’accord.” That was Ali. This was Africa. It was never over. It only cost 4,000 when you booked the guy for the entire day. Now, he wanted eight. Aside from the bloody gums, this was a normal night in Conakry for Ali.

We gave him six, plus the one he had for dinner. Frankly, I didn’t have a shitty piece of legal tender left, or I probably would have given him the full eight. He looked to Jon. Off came his New York Rangers T-shirt and a last tortured bonbon that he’d forgotten in his pocket.

My brother hates hockey. But the guy has a good heart. A really good heart. I have to give him a call. I miss him.

About the Author

David Applefield

David Applefield is an American writer and media specialist living in Red Bank, New Jersey. He is the author of two novels, two guidebooks to Paris, and the Publisher of

View Essays