There they are, the world in a glance out my driver's window: figures in a half circle on an unpaved lot, dressed in oxfords or dashikis, slacks and shiny shoes that click on the gravel. It's not the look of luxury, but of the cosmopolitan concern for good presentation, no matter one's socioeconomic status. You won't find these guys wearing pajamas at the airport. I picture them as a photograph their American-born children and grandchildren will look upon, a dim memory of one weekday afternoon, your uncles and grandparents when they were young, rebuilding their lives in a strange land and trying to keep up their dignity while doing so. Taking a break in their own language, a dashed-off moment from the struggle of it all.
Abdilahi is on the other end of the spectrum. He doesn't wear slacks and oxfords. He stumbles through the American experience from one liquor store to the next, in awe. In the generally Sunni population of his native Somalia, the state religion prohibits alcohol and drugs. By comparison, this place is Spring Break. It's Las Vegas. Although Abdilahi's a sweetheart whose notably good-hearted candor I quite enjoy, I don't think it's unfair to say he lacks the discipline of many of his compatriots. They see opportunity; he sees a candy store. The war between long-term goals and short-term solutions is never ending. I see an older Somalian woman getting on the bus now, shaking her head at the two of them, companionable but currently inebriated half-conscious lumps, with the best parts of their personalities on pause.
Bashi gathers himself a bit, speaking over a snoozing Abdi, calling out to me through a garbled and distant haze.
"Do you drink? You don't drink."
"No," I answer. Not a fact I often share (because I dislike how saying so can sound judgmental), but he read my mind anyway.
"You really want to know?"
No need to go into the pathetic tragedies I've seen it cause: sometimes you don't need to explain the machinations of yourself. Just: I'm Nathan, and this is how I do it. I say, "I dunno, it's just how I am, how I've always been."
"Let me give you some advice." Uuuhhvice. "Don't do it."
"Really?" I wasn't expecting that, definitely not given his current state!
"Don't start." A wistful voice, regretful. "Truly. It's bad for you, for your body."
Abdilahi stirs. "It is," he mumbles from his half prone position. "For your brain,"
Bashi continuing– "Yeah your brain. Bad for your liver, your skin, messes up your liver. Give you heart disease."
"Okay," I reply. "If you say so!"
"I am going to quit soon!"
"I am in the process of quitting," Bashi affirms, with fervor. "Yes. It is a process."
It's a distant memory now, the times when Bashi was sober. He wasn't always like this. He once worked for the County, and is quite well schooled. His son is a treasure, a seven-or-eight year-old who has all the street names memorized, with a bright wave and precocious question every time he sees me. How did we get here, to this? He still had a seed of his former drive within him, and I wanted to encourage that.
"I respect that," I say. "I think that's one of the hardest things to do, but it's worth it."
"It's worth it!"
"For yourself, for your family,"
"For the children!"
"Yes, they are the future! The children are the future!"
"My daughter, she loves me. My son, they both…." The deep pain in his voice. There is no pretense here. "But it's so hard sometimes."
"It is. Life is."
"It's really hard. Let me ask you something. Would you forgive your wife, she ran out on you?"
"Would you forgive your wife if she cheat on you?"
Questions like that remind me how little I know of life. Any answer I gave would be a mere supposition. I haven't been there. I simply reply, "that's hard."
"It's really hard. But I am in the process."
I've been on the same route long enough to see the rise and fall of life out here. When you spend eight hours in a neighborhood for years on end, you see not only actions and decisions but their fallout. You see certain faces, and then in time you watch them prosper, or sustain, or drift. You notice their absence. I don't see Abdilahi anymore. Where is my buddy who used to joke about my friends looking like Hillary Clinton? What is Mr. Bashi doing right now, this minute? Will I see him again, or will he too drift out of of sight, away from the land of the living?
To be continued.