The following story is an excerpt from a "fictional autobiography" written from the perspective of a mixed race American woman who has had to chop herself into pieces in order to get a grip on the story of the multiple lifetimes that have comprised the "American nightmare" her life on three continents and in three languages has been. The book has been described by one reviewer on Amazon.com as "hard-hitting and gut wrenching, a must read for those who understand the importance exposing truth and never giving up".
The following excerpt from the newly released title This is for Kinda-Colored Girls Who Have Committed Suicide Cause the Wundabread Was Nevah Enough: The Salia Malaikum Story describes the protagonist's harrowing (and hilarious) 72-hour stint in a county jail after having had the audacity to verbally challenge the Iraq War (among other things).
"It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest.”
—Harold Pinter,"Art, Truth and Politics", Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech, 2005
There are words in the English language some people believe ought be banned. But after several decades of dictionary scouring and vocabulary accumulation in German, English, and French, Salia Malachai still could not conclude the same. The best you could do was to place self-imposed limits on usage. In her opinion, the F-word was not one of those words, nor was the B-word, but the N-word was. In her classes on urban black culture, it was next to impossible to avoid any one of these three.
Salia had inherited the class as a course on hip-hop from another professor. The first semester she taught it, she handed out 100 pages of profanity—in the form of hip hop lyrics—as part of the course packet. Even after she’d transformed the class into a horse of an entirely different color—with a “post-hip-hop” curriculum that explored the question, “how did we go from ‘fight the power’ to ‘get rich or die tryin’,’ and if get rich or die tryin’ is the only option, what do you think is more likely to occur?”--Salia still could not avoid these words altogether.
The way she explained her position to students was, “Look, I’m no fan of the N-word, and I choose not to use it myself, but, all things considered, my opinion on that word and its use doesn’t matter. It’s not my call to make.” At the same time, she was careful to explain the world of difference she saw separating profanity from obscenity.
“I don’t have a problem with profanity,” she would say, “I cuss like a sailor, and so does Theresa Heinz Kerry; as do many of your professors, behind closed doors. But I do have big problems with obscenity.”
She would pause to let words sink in, then she’d continue, “In my life, I’ve seen more than my share of obscenity—I remember, for example, one time in Africa, watching this kid who was hit by a car on the road. I didn’t actually see him get hit, I came upon the scene just after the fact. His leg was broken in two—literally, bent back on itself, with bone protruding from each end, and dripping with blood. I offered to help the people milling around him—offered to pay for the taxi ride to the hospital, and the hospital bill, too. They turned me down, packed the kid on the back of a moped between two adults, one in front and one in back, then drove off, with the last of his blood trailing behind, mingling with exhaust and stirring up the red sand of the pista. It wasn’t until years later that I understood—it wasn’t even a matter of money: the hospital ‘care’ the child would have received would have done more harm than good—locals knew the city’s hospital care was worse than no medical treatment at all. The kid was already as good as dead. The only good deed to be done was to take him home to die in his mother’s arms. To me, that was obscene.
As a kid growing up, I once witnessed a similar scene from my second-story tenement window as the driver of a fourth-generation Chevy Impala Super Sport with tinted windows hit my childhood friend, Julio, sent him sailing across the street, then drove off in a huff. Julio landed in the gravel and grit of his mother’s front yard. By the time the ambulance arrived, Julio was dead. Fatality hit and run? No charges filed, and that was the end. To me, that, too, was obscene.”
“But even these degrees of obscenity,” she assured her students, “pale in comparison to the most obscene thing I have ever in my life seen: the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina. If that is not the epitome of obscenity, then I do not know what is.” This wasn’t hyperbole, Salia was merely telling her truth.
Still, this was but an introductory salvo. It was a set-up, like so much of what Salia did. Sometimes you do have to fight fire with flames if you are serious about keeping things real.
She continued, “Sometimes, though, there is truly only one word in the English language that does the trick—and sometimes that word is the F-word. Now. I don’t know how many of you caught this, but one of the most memorable moments of the Katrina fiasco for me was Dick Cheney’s press conference in New Orleans on September 8, 2005—about ten days after the storm. Dr. Ben Marble, a young ER physician whose Gulfport home was destroyed by the Cat-5 surge, rode by on his bike and blurted out—on national television—‘Go FUCK yourself, Mr. Cheney!’. This, in my opinion, was an altogether appropriate use of the F-word, especially in consideration of the fact that then-Vice President Cheney had used these very words himself in his role as President of the US Senate. He did not shout them out on the streets of a devastated city whose claim to fame was not exactly its ‘Queen’s English’: VP Cheney used precisely these words to disparage Senator Patrick Leahy by telling him to ‘Fuck himself’ on the Senate floor. Yes, on the Senate floor, addressing a senior US-senator who dared to question Cheney about his ties to the Halliburton Corporation that has been embroiled in controversy over no-bid contracts in Iraq, bribery in Nigeria, and a litany of other multi-million/billion dollar criminal offenses. Dr. Ben Marble’s use of this term to express his dissatisfaction with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only justified by a precedent set by Cheney himself on the Senate floor, it was quite possibly the only response that made any sense at all.”
The propriety of the F-word in political discourse and in American public life has since been further confirmed by John Boehner’s use of the phrase “Go fuck yourself!” addressed to Senator Harry Reid on December 28, 2012 outside the Oval Office. As language professors and writers know, the F-word is a versatile animal that may be deployed as an insult in this way—but an F-bomb need not be an insult because Fuck can also be used as an adjective to modify a noun—as Vice President Joe Biden was caught muttering to President Barack Obama at the signing of the 2010 health care reform bill into law: “This is a big fucking deal.”
Salia thought the way she’d turned her own life around was a big fucking deal, too, and most people who knew the story agreed. But there weren’t a lot of people who knew. On rare occasions, someone would ask: “So, how did you do it?” And she would say, “While doing time as a juvenile, I realized that prison was not where I wanted to be, and I promised myself ‘whatever I may or may not do with my life, I will never do anything to let ‘them’ lock me up again.”
Only once had she failed to follow through on that vow, and that was under the most unlikely circumstances. Salia had been invited to offer a lecture at a prestigious private university in the Deep South. She had recently completed translations from the German of a Nobel Prize-winning literary figure—a radical, pinko-commie feminist author whose propensity for impropriety, foul language, salacious imagery, and political provocation caused a member of the Swedish Academy to step down, saying that this particular author’s work was a bunch of shit shoveled together. By the time Salia had translated that Nobel Prize-winning author’s work into English, she was inclined to agree, but that didn’t change the fact that—even after having slogged through said mass of shit in German, and shoveled it back together in English—she remained on the same page with the author politically.
Salia had been contracted to complete one of the Nobel Laureate’s most anti-American works: a scathing, brutally forthright critique of the Iraq War, and the media’s representation of the same. The literary work included references to such political figureheads as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and others, by name: this author did not beat around the bush—she beat the living literary shit out of Bush, literally. Part of what made the work so sensationalistic was that it was written, published and performed as the Iraq War was ongoing: it involved live literary coverage of the shit as it went down, much in the same way Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy “The Persians” covered Xerxes’ defeat at Salamis.
Salia had prepared a lecture which included a detailed account of her work on the translation not only of the Bush-bit, but several other works from the Nobel Laureate’s batshit-loony oeuvre. One section of Salia’s lecture was titled “Professional Bush Bashing at the Nobel-Prize Level.” The lecture itself went off without a hitch, and by any measure of judgment, could have been declared a spectacular success. In another lifetime, it might have landed her a job at the Ivy League school—had it not been for what came next. The organizers at the college had arranged for a number of other readings and events, paid for her plane ticket, her hotel stay and meals—all adeptly booked in advance by the department secretary. There had been luncheons, and dinners—good food, good wine, good company and pleasant conversation in ample supply.
In preparation for her trip to the Deep South, Salia had to select from her wardrobe an overcoat—one that was neither too light nor too heavy, and one she could comfortably fit over a suit jacket with padded shoulders. The only coat in Salia’s closet that fit the bill was a tailor-made, knee-length, broad-cut mudcloth coat she had acquired on one of several trips to West Africa, where the hand-made cotton fabric dyed with fermented mud was known as bogolanfini and was rich with cultural significance. Traditionally, in Malian culture, the fabric is worn by hunters—often as a form of camouflage, ritual protective gear, or as a badge of honor. Standing before the full-length mirror in her home office, sizing up the Dana Buchman brown linen suit she planned to wear for the presentation, she pulled the mudcloth coat over her professorially padded shoulders—“This will do nicely,” she thought, and checked “pick and pack lightweight coat” off her trip-preparation to-do list. In retrospect, she would recall hesitating briefly, questioning the wisdom of traveling to the Deep South garbed in her fair skin and that Afrocentric gear. She had dismissed the concern as trifling, paranoid even—a decision she would soon come to regret.
Upon completing the exhilarating, albeit exhausting three-day whirlwind tour, Salia arrived at the airport for the return trip. At the taxi stand, she stood on the curb to smoke one last cigarette before entering the terminal, and witnessed the way a sharply-attired African American woman—obviously a professional of some sort, whether doctor, lawyer, professor, or corporate executive, nobody knew—was berated for some minor offense by a slight white male cop with a crew cut. Salia stood just out of earshot, so was not privy to the details, but from the gestures and tone of the brief exchange, it was apparent that the altercation probably had as much to do with the color of the woman’s skin as it did with the trappings of privilege she so deftly displayed.
Salia shook the chagrin from her head, deposited her snuffed-out cigarette in the smokers’ outpost ashtray, and proceeded toward the revolving glass doors. As she approached them, she found herself shoulder to shoulder with the well-dressed woman, and it didn’t take much to read the more-things-change-sigh on the woman’s face. After giving the woman right of way to pass through the doors ahead of her, Salia said, in a pathetically inadequate way, ”I am so sorry you had to go through that.” Salia did not fault the woman for brushing her off with a brusque, “Whatever.”
Salia was wiped out from the weekend. She wheeled a basic black 26-inch American Tourister soft-side bag behind her which she checked at the ticket counter without incident, but had stowed her valuables in an overstuffed black leather carry-on bag—the vintage Rolex she’d inherited from a millionaire friend who had discarded it as junk (Salia would discover a decade later that the thing appraised at nearly $6,000 and was in perfect working order); hand-crafted, authentic, one-of-a-kind American Indian sterling silver earrings (inlaid with the blood of her ancestors known as Pipestone) and electronic devices—a digital camera, a hand-held video camera, orange Nokia phone (top of the line at the time). The bag was bulging with pens, reading materials, and all manner of stuff: the chicken-dumpling soup for her soul. Salia had never been one to travel light—she carried her cultural baggage with her wherever she went in the same way the turtle carries her home in a shell on her back.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Salia had found it increasingly difficult to fly. The noise level alone was insufferable, especially at US Airports: Blaring, in an endless loop, over and over and over again, from 10 separate monitors in a monotone, mechanical, brutally white male voice: ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS: DUE TO INCREASED SECURITY, REGULATIONS CONCERNING CARRY-ON ITEMS HAVE CHANGED. PLEASE REMAIN BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE UNTIL THE PASSENGER BEFORE YOU HAS PASSED THROUGH THE SECURITY CHECKPOINT IN FRONT OF YOU. PLEASE REMOVE YOUR OVERCOAT, ALL METAL ITEMS, CELL PHONES AND ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND PLACE THEM IN THE RECEPTICLE PROVIDED. PLEASE PLACE ALL HAND LUGGAGE ON THE CONVEYER BELT. LAPTOP COMPUTERS MUST BE REMOVED FROM THEIR CASES AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYOR BELT. ANY LIQUIDS, AEROSOLS, AND GELS MUST BE IN THREE-OUNCE CONTAINERS. THESE MUST BE SAFELY KEPT INSIDE A ONE-QUART PLASTIC ZIP-TOP BAG AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYER BELT. THIS INCLUDES COMMON ITEMS SUCH AS TOOTHPASTE, SHAMPOO, LOTIONS, LIPSTICKS AND MOUTHWASH. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT.
The racket itself was enough to drive Salia near to the edge. Above and beyond the relentless bark from the monitors: the banter of 100 people—most of them Americans, notorious for their loud speaking-in-public voices--all talking at once, each engaged in a personal conversation on a cell phone with spouse, sister, uncle Sam, auntie Sue, some cousin twice-removed or in tenuated brabble with the automated voice messaging system of their credit card companies. Salia developed what she called her “listen-lady-I-really-don’t-want-to-hear-about-the-color-of-your-baby’s-shit-today”-look, but it rarely produced the desired result because it just looked like the same old run-of-the-mill ugly American glare most passengers wore on their faces as a matter of course. She was trying to look mean; instead, she merely came off seeming like she was having a bad hair day!
Salia made it through security, arrived at the gate, plunked herself and her bulging bag down on the floor because all the seats had been taken and there was no room for her to sit. Then it happened: Flight 302 to Chicago O’Hare was cancelled. Due to the weather. Weather? What weather? Heavy snow in Chicago. Great. She approached the American Airlines personnel at the gate, was able to secure a standby ticket on a later—much later—flight. She left the gate area in search of a restaurant or some sort of retail therapy to pass the time until she could finally board the plane and extract herself from the querulous push and shove of the terminal. On the way, she discovered that this particular airport was perhaps the last in the country to possess a smoking lounge. That was at least something. In the smoking lounge, she lit up, and got on the phone with a friend to bitch, piss and moan about the situation, but could barely hear herself think, much less speak, above a din rising across the room behind her. She turned to see what the commotion was. A group of young US-soldiers was standing around, handing out Marlboro cigarettes, explaining to the crowd that they had just returned from Iraq, where these American cigarettes were available at bottom dollar on the black market in Baghdad.
That’s when Salia lost it. She raised her voice, raised it far above the decibel-level most Americans considered normal in the first place. Salia shouted into the phone, “Oh wow. Hey, guess what? I finally figured it out. Why we are at war in Iraq? It’s not even about the oil, or the no-bid contracts for Halliburton. No. IT’S ABOUT THE CIGARETTES! Yeah, girlfriend, there you have it—we went into Iraq, bombed the fuck out of them, put the lives of our troops, our country’s reputation, and a whole lot more on the line so we could bring back these cheap cigarettes from the black market in Baghdad. All hail the Marlboro Man!”
The smoking lounge fell silent, but just for a moment. In the faces of the returning soldiers, most in their early twenties, Salia saw but one thing: young people, like the young people in her classes, young people with few options in life—and even fewer in death. Salia was too much a born teacher to resist the teaching moment. She turned off her phone, heaved a heavy sigh, marched over to the group of young soldiers gathered there, still sucking on their Marlboros, glaring at her, staring—not least of all at the knee-length, broad cut mudcloth coat camouflaging the soft brown linen and the puffy padded shoulders of the professor suit beneath it. With as much composure as she could muster, she tried to explain her objections to the US invasion of Iraq and how, if nothing else, these young men, casually kickin’ it and passing out cheap Marlboro cigarettes to passengers in a smoking lounge at an American airport were engaging in conduct unbecoming of any American citizen, much less any Private First Class or Officer of the US Army.
Their response: “We’re Marines, you fucking Bitch! What kind of fucked-up Nazi asshole you think you are?”
Salia shot back: “I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a PhD’d fucking professor and I’ve got kids in my classes whom I’m passing when by all rights and means I should be flunking them, but I know serving in the military may be their only other option because the educational system in the country has failed them--miserably. I’d almost rather see them get rich or die tryin’ than risk death by IED in some security convoy in Iraq or by PTSD on some battlefield closer to home.” She punctuated her statement with the sweeping gesture of an emphatically balled fist drawn dramatically from her right shoulder to her left side. Her students were familiar with this theatrical clenched-fist conviction, and, while it may have frightened them at first, they’d since learned—from her—to distinguish between anger and outrage, between commitment and apathy, indifference and love. If students completed her courses learning little else, it was this much they knew: Dr. Salia Malachai was passionately committed not only to her students, but to her country, and was possessed by the courage of her convictions. This pack of puppy-dogs in uniform who dared call themselves Marines were just doing duty for Philip Morris and Leo Burnett, and they had no idea who they were dealing with.
A law enforcement officer arrived promptly on the scene to break up the quarrel. He pulled Dr. Malachai off to the side, escorted her back to the waiting area designated for the flight to Chicago, whereupon she learned that she had not only thus forfeited her standby spot on the flight to Chicago, but that—furthermore—all subsequent air traffic to Chicago had been cancelled, due to the weather. Salia would not be sleeping in her own bed tonight.
Salia sat herself down in one of the last available plastic-backed, poorly contoured chairs in the waiting area, pausing to contemplate whether it was worth venturing out to book a room for the night, or better to simply suck it up and crash there on the floor, when she was approached by two uniformed officers who began questioning her in earnest. She recognized one of them as the cop who had harassed the African American female professional at the taxi stand just hours before.
They grilled her, menacingly: whether she was currently taking any medication? Whether she had now, or ever, received medical treatment for any sort of mental health condition? Salia had never learned to lie, and saw no harm in telling the truth. Besides, if they decided to search and/or seize, they would find the prescription meds buried somewhere at the bottom of her bulky black bag. Yes, she had been prescribed by her physician a mild sedative to treat the anxiety associated with the fear of flying brought on by the stress of modern-day travel. And yes, she had, in the past, received treatment for a mental health condition—PTSD—resulting from years of early childhood trauma, rape, domestic abuse, incest, poverty and neglect, compounded now by culture shock, anxiety and an overall inability to cope with disaster capitalism.
It wasn’t until they placed her in handcuffs that she realized honesty may not have been the best policy today. Handcuffs. White guy in a crew cut with a handgun, oh boy! For the first time in her adult life. For the first time in over forty years, Dr. Salia Malachai was being hauled off in handcuffs. Escorted by the same racist white cop she’d seen harassing the African American woman outside the terminal just footsteps from this scene.
That’s when it dawned on her. The coat. The conversation with the woman as they passed through the revolving door. The concerns she had dismissed as paranoid delusions while standing before the floor-length mirror in her office now cascaded down her cheeks in humiliation, and fear. She had no idea what was about to come next.
There is only one thing that Southern white racists hate more than an N-word: their disdain for ”them N-words” was surpassed only by their hatred of “them N-wordlovers”. The N-words had no choice but to be as lacking in color as the six-foot long raw silk scarf dangling delicately from Salia’s shoulders. These N-wordLovers, on the other hand, they had made a choice. Salia had revealed her decision by daring to wear that damn coat and by the laying on of hands in the brief quip exchanged with the woman as they passed through the revolving door, witnessed by the racist white cop, from behind. She’d made her choice, now she was staring down the consequences as the sum of all colors drained into her face.
As they exited through a drab gray steel-plated door in some remote, unpeopled corner of the airport, she pleaded with the officer, “Please, can we just let this go? I’ll catch a cab and get a room for the night.”
“No, ma’am, we can’t—you are coming with me.”
From the back seat of the squad car, in the sweetest, most unfeigned helpless-female voice ever issued from her own gullet--Salia sobbed one final appeal through the steel mesh cage confining her now: “Please, Sir, would you at least do me the favor of calling my husband?” For whatever inexplicable, god-blessed reason, the officer honored this one request. She gave him the number. He dialed. Salia could not hear her husband’s voice on the other end of the line, and struggled to repress her own as the officer explained to Salia’s husband that there had been an incident at the airport and his wife was now being transported to the hospital for examination. To the hospital. Yeah right.
Salia’s husband was a man who had never in his life had any contact with the law. He’d been raised in a strict Baptist household, with a mother who held Bible-study classes in the basement while his father preached from the pulpit with all the same driving passion and courage of convictions that Salia’s husband found so attractive in his own wife. There was no way her husband could so much as imagine his wife’s hard-handcuffed plight, there in the back seat of a squad car on her way to the piss-and-puke stained cement floor of a 10-by-10 foot-holding cell in a county jail. In his mind, she was lying somewhere on the crisp white sheet of a hospital emergency room, being tended to by doting physicians and nurses, waiting for him to come take her hand in his, and bring her back home. She had probably passed out from exhaustion at the airport, or fainted from the stress of an overbooked and cancelled flight. He had no idea. This much she knew, and there was nothing she could do but finally, finally shut.the.fuck.UP. So she did.
The cop had no way of knowing that the other thing she’d just learned was the value of little white lies. The man at the other end of the line wasn’t really Salia’s husband. Not yet. In intimate circles, she sometimes referred to him as ”Mr. M., aka, my husband, if he would ever marry me.” They’d been together for over a decade, but had not yet jumped the broom.
Based on the statements Salia had made concerning her medical history, the cop knew that Salia could be detained for 72-hours, subjected to involuntary psychiatric examination by the department of corrections. Recounting the incident now, ten years hence, the precise chain of events has blurred into a muddled stream of bleepity-bleep-bleep-bleepity-bleebs. It mattered little what happened first—whether she was stripped of her belongings before or after the mug shot was taken, how she had managed to hang on to the pearls (a Valentine’s gift from her husband), whether she’d given her share of water to the homeless woman on the floor beside her or to the 16-year old hooker who came in later, whether she’d been able to chuckle about being the best-dressed bitch in the county jail at the time, whether she’d managed to laugh about always having been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room before or after her Rosary-like fingering of the pearls began,—as a 72-hour stream of salt, sweat and tears spattered the black raw-silk scarf she’d also been allowed to keep, along with the coat, for which her gratitude grew with each passing hour. Lightest and loudest thing in the room: this much was true. All of the other inmates in this particular county jail were very dark Brown. All of them. She did remember this much: the subdued decibel level, first in the holding cell, then later, after she’d been transferred by paddy wagon for processing and entered the general prison population of several hundred others, most of them men. It was a welcome relief from the glaring white noise of that heavens-to-Betsy-forsaken airport.
Only later, much later, did Salia learn what was happening on the other end of the phone line, back home where her husband scrambled to keep his wits about him, gathering information, thoughts, and whatever else he would need to head south and get his baby outta jail. She knew only that he would be pissed. She could not even be sure he would come. He would have been entirely justified in leaving her sorry-ass self to find her own way home from that county jail. She knew that. At some point in the ordeal, somewhere between those godforsaken hours spent lying on the concrete floor of the holding cell and the wee hours of the morning spent in quiet isolation teetering horizontal on an eight-by-two-and-a-half-foot hardwood bench of some other room just hours away from her appointment with the shrink, her imagination ran wild with nightmarish visions of suddenly being released into the dawning day, standing on some street corner hoping to hail a cab with nothing on her but a US-passport, a brown linen suit, that mudcloth coat with its raw silk scarf, and those white pearls—no credit card, no phone, not a dime to her name—not even a map to tell her where the hell she was.
Salia’s husband did not know a thing about county jails, and even Salia was confused as to where this one was—but she knew enough to know that wherever it was, it could not be located in a good part of town. All she could do was hope and pray that her husband would not abandon her. That this would not be the start of an unprecedented pre-nuptial divorce. She beseeched every God she knew by name—called upon her husband’s mother and father in heaven to reach down to shower him with all the brimstone of unconditional love he was going to need to do whatever he had to do to bring Salia home. A mad chorus of Migwitch-Gitcheemanidoos, Nam-Yo-HoYahwehAllahBuddahRenGeKyos, JesusMaryJosephs, AsalaamalaikumAndThenSomes sprinkled with a few refrains of GodBlessTheChiles, MotherMaryComfortMes and Don’tFenceMeIns helped pull her through this darkest night. She sent silent thank you notes to a string of Kris Kristoffersons, Dusty Springfields, Bobby Dylans, Arlo Guthries, Soundiata Keitas and not least of all to that one and only tenor sax-man named Trane.
One thing Salia knew about prisons, and the people who staff them, was that someone was always watching. Every move, however slight; every word, however softly spoken, was caught, not only on tape, but by the careful eyes and ears of any officer worth his or her salt. She knew that. So she spent her time sending out smoke signals to the prison staff, 90% of whom were as dark sable brown as the 100% African American prison population they were charged with keeping in check and in chains. She had seen the look on their faces when the racist white cop first brought her in. They knew this guy. They may have even been thinking to themselves, “Shit, ‘bout time you bring some white bitch up in here!” And she could not fault them for that. But she knew, too, that it soon became apparent to them: this was not the first time Salia had been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room, nor was it the first time Salia had been hauled off in cuffs to spend a night in the county jail. This was a place where information was passed from eye-to-eye and you didn’t need ears to hear what someone was saying. Here, on the inside, Salia didn’t need a mudcloth coat as a signifier to identify her as the N-wordlover she was. No, she did not. Especially in prison, actions speak louder than words.
She was grateful, then, to the prison staff for tidbits of comfort served surreptitiously up to keep her from losing her mind. Eternally grateful to the female corrections officer who raised her voice just enough to notify the driver of the transport, as Salia came within earshot, “That one won’t be processed, her husband’s on his way to get her.” The officer who kindly offered her an apple while escorting her in the elevator to that isolated holding room with its hardwood bench, four stark walls and the slit of a window to help her tell time. Toward ordeal’s end, after she’d spent 15 minutes with an East Indian teak-faced shrink who apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry, Dr. Malachai, that you had to go through this, we’ll try getting you out as soon as we can,” the uniformed cops making jokes about Chicago’s south side, loudly enough to be overheard, talking about Daley’s on 63rd, and Joe’s jerk chicken joint further south on Cottage, thereby letting Salia know that, even here, in this heart of darkness of the Deep South, she remained among friends. Family even. Kith, perhaps even kin.
In retrospect, it was hard to re-construct any sort of chronological account of the events that followed. One failed attempt to place a collect call to her husband’s cell. Had he decided not to accept it? Maybe he’d run out of bars, or was he on a plane en route, just out of reach? Oh God, please let the latter be true. What was taking so long? He would later explain that he’d tried to book a flight the very same day, but all flights in and out of O’Hare had been cancelled. Where the hell was all of her stuff? Would she get any or all of it back? The watch. The camera. The sacred silver. Everything else she had in her bag. And what about the suitcase she had checked to Chicago?
As was his habit, her husband had been sure to cover all bases, asking once, then asking again. The racist white cop had placed that first call from his own private cell phone, and Salia’s husband had captured the number on his caller ID. They had been calling back and forth the whole time, playing out the lie that Salia was receiving treatment in some department of corrections hospital bed. Salia’s husband spoke an impeccably proper English without a hint of Ebonic ring in it, so the cop had assumed all the while he would be delivering this N-wordlover-bitch into the hands of some smug little white dude with his twisted head stuck so far up his ass he could see the backs of his teeth without looking in the mirror. Each time he put the receiver down, her husband had gone back to check on the details, to verify, filtering fact from fiction, extracting the truth from the lies: the cop had given him any number of bits of false information, and that’s what had tipped Sarah’s husband-if-he-would-ever-marry-her off. His wife was in deep shit, and he had to keep his wits about him, contain his own outrage—mostly toward her and her inability to keep herself together, especially at the airport. But he would buck up and wrack up the debt on his credit cards. He knew better than anyone how much Salia hated to fly, how she could not stand the airport routine—the push and the shove of it, the people who did not know what it meant to take their own turn in line. The barking, yes, above all the barking and the blaring. He knew she would not be able to fly coach. Not this time. The tickets had to be in first-class. The Bose headphones to block out the blather. She would probably need her contacts—addresses of allies, perhaps even of foes, if nothing else to call in sick if she needed. So he grabbed the laptop she’d left lying asleep on her desk. He thought of everything. Absolutely everything. He always did.
Those interminable last five minutes, standing in line against the wall with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release, singing softly to herself songs of blacksmiths, of brave men, living and dead, a whole sable army of African descent. The memory of a hot African sun warming her from within, taking her back to the day she had picked up that coat from the tailor’s stand in Conakry. The chestnut-brown cop who called her to the counter at the last station she had to pass before hitting the outside, how she had asked, “Is my husband out there?”, and was so terrified of the answer that she slipped on her tongue one last time.
“White guy or Black?” he wondered. She flapped back: “Pardon me, Sir, but do I look like the kind of woman who would voluntarily come within ten feet of marryin’ a white guy?” Her relief at the sight of him swallowing a laugh. Thank you, Sir, thank you for that.
The dinner in the hotel restaurant, clad in the one blouse she had left on her back, which still stunk of piss, but with nails, skin and hair freshly showered, underwear turned inside out and the soft pastel polish of those pearls shining back at her man. He could not guarantee that this would not spell The End. No, he could not. He had come to bring her home. That was all. She seriously did not know whether he would stick around to see what came next.
She let him do most of the talking, restricting herself to a series of apologies: “I’m sorry baby. I’m so sorry.” He hadn’t known the first thing about bail bonds, or the blueprints of a county jail before this. First stop upon landing: airport security, where he’d asked for Officer R.F. Krupptkey. She suppressed a grin as she imagined the look on the faces of the guy’s African American co-workers as they summoned Officer K. to the front desk, even more when she imagined the surprise besetting Officer K. the moment he first laid eyes on the man he’d been on the line with over the past 72-hours or so, a man whose deep chocolate brown face was set squarely on Chicago-broad shoulders that just about met Krupptkey’s hairline.
“Oh. You are that woman’s husband? The guy I been talking to all this time?”
“Yes, Sir, I am. Now, can we get a few things sorted out here? You told me this was the address and these the hours of operation for property pick up,” Salia’s husband tapped his left pointer finger on the address printed on his list, “but the State Department of Corrections website says something else. Can you confirm for me which one of these is correct? And what time did you say they open on Monday?”
Her husband had stood there, interrogating Officer K., methodically checking each question off his hand-written list. “What about this recovered property receipt? Isn’t she supposed to have that on her person, or where is that? We are going to need it.” Krupptkey thumbed clumsily through the papers on his clipboard, pulled out the crumpled pink page and handed it to Mr. M.
Listening to her husband relate this series of events, Salia had to force back the smile that threatened to shimmy in above her chin. She knew that one false word uttered from those loose little lips might prompt him to unceremoniously hand her a big fat pink slip. She sniveled instead, raising a Kleenex to her nose. The man sitting across the table from her was in no frame of mind to translate even the slightest trace of a grin into an expression of a love this supreme.
“Do you have any idea what this is costing me? $1,500 bail. First class tickets on American Air. Car rental. Hotel. We are going to have to find—on a Sunday afternoon—an attorney to get your ass out of this hot ghetto mess!”
Her meekly muttered “I’m sorry, baby, I promise, I’ll pay it all back,” plopped into the mashed potatoes growing cold on her plate, “If I have to sell the watch to do it, I swear, I’ll pay it all back.”
“Both of us are going to have a hell of time making it back in time for work on Monday.” She couldn’t remember when he confessed that, as he was approaching the county jail, he had looked up, scanned the black, bullet-proof rectangles dotting the towering concrete above, on the slight chance she might see him coming, and waved. He had no way of knowing that, once you make it that far to the top of any county jail in the country, there was no way in hell you’d so much as come near one of those windows—not unless you were some doctor, lawyer or cop! But that was the first shred of hope he gave that he was indeed in this for the long haul.
He hadn’t reckoned with the court date. His wife had been charged with two counts of disorderly conduct: Charge one, fighting. Charge two: violent act with another. Both of them misdemeanor charges, criminal violations of the same section of a city ordinance. Back in the hotel room, she perused the arrest citation. She could barely make it out:
Subject was inside secure area on I-Concourse in the smoking room. Subject attempted to verbally assault four army soilders, then continued to yell and act out towards passengers. Subject stated she is PTSD and on 5 mg Valium, three times a day. Subject acted out inappropriately when telling me about serving men, getting extremely angry, clinching her fists. Witness stated subject got up—went across room—at the soilders. Salia stated: I’m a fucking PhD to soilders.Not a word about the “fucking Bitch” and “Nazi asshole” barked at her from the soilders’ mouths. Not a word about the Marlboro cigarettes that had triggered the attack. Salia was struck, too, by the absence of any reference to the subject’s height, weight, or gender: 5’1”, 100 lb female attempting to assault four helpless army soilders, and that with clinched fists, how about that?
She lay on the bed in the hotel room, reminded of the previous morning’s wee hours on the hardwood bench, how she had hoped and prayed her husband would be smart enough to grab the laptop. Without it they were fucked. All Salia’s belongings had been confiscated. She had nothing. But he had grabbed it. She’d hooked up the laptop, shot off an email to a good friend who was an attorney out east. The friend in turn placed a call to a local attorney on the ground—the best criminal defense attorney in town, who happened to be available to take on the case. By late Sunday afternoon, her husband was busy hammering out the details of what had to happen next.
The first thing he learned. Those first-class return tickets for two that evening? Fuggedaboutdat. These would have to be re-booked. Before they could appear in court Monday morning, they would have to go shopping because Professor Doctor Salia Malachai would have to look sharp as the professorial tack that had been called a fucking Nazi asshole bitch in the airport smoking lounge: if she ever hoped to defend her own reply, she had best look the part. No one knew whether she would have to look the judge in the eye and admit that she had indeed said, “I’m a fucking PhD’d professor!” Salia and her husband would have to be the very first folks in line when the property dispensary opened promptly at 8 (not at 9, as Krupptkey had claimed) because even the slightest delay could cause them to get caught in traffic, or otherwise manage to lose their place in the docket and miss the court appearance scheduled for 10 AM. Oh, and the lawyer’s fee? About double the $1,500 bail, but that would include subsequent expungement of the arrest from her record.
As it turns out, both charges were dismissed because the victims of the crime—that is, the Marlboro Man-PFC’s--never showed up in court. Of course they didn’t. Everything that had transpired had been caught on tape. The Marlboros. The fucking bitch, the fucking Nazi asshole. All of it, conduct unbecoming. Salia took some measure of satisfaction in the look on Officer R.F. Krupptkey’s face when he entered the courtroom to see her sitting there in full professorial garb. She was smartly sandwiched between the best criminal defense attorney in town—a tall, slim white guy known for getting bogus cases like this thrown out of court, especially where young African American males were involved—and her husband, the big Starbucks-Dark-Roast-Coffee-Colored guy who’d come through to rescue the dizzy damsel in all her fine dress.
She knew what the racist white cop thought he was doing when he came after her with the cuffs and a legal technicality that allowed him to haul her off to the county jail: “OK, N-wordlover, let’s see how much you really love them N-words.” When she finally met him face to face in court the following Monday, she bit her tongue, but thought to herself: “You know what, you stupid racist fuck, I stand with Sharon Olds, and just about every poet and writer I know on this one: I’d rather spend a night-and-a-half on the floor of the county jail with all these N-words than sit down at the table with you for a liter of Weizenbier in some Munich beer hall, and if I had the money, baby, if I had the time, if I had me a million dollars--yes, I would send your sorry ass right back where you came from!” As she and her husband finally boarded the plane for the first-class flight home, she made this solemn vow: If I ever hit the jackpot, yeah, I will send that motherfucker a one-way ticket home. To Nuremberg, non-stop. A place she was convinced he could not find on a map—a place she never had to visit to know exactly where it was and what it meant.
Even if Salia’s victims had appeared in court—the case would have gone nowhere: In his zeal to put that fucking N-wordloving PhD’d Nazi professor bitch in her place, Officer Krupptkey had fucked up. He had forgotten to secure her signature on the recovered property list. That was the clincher: this had been the attorney’s ace in the hole. The card they never had to play because these Marines certainly could not admit that they’d been driven to the edge by a five-foot-one female armed with a bag full of chicken-dumpling-soup for the soul and the courage of her convictions all balled together in one emphatically clenched fist.
Salia had never flown first class before. Nor had she ever tried to tackle the constant stream of TMI’s by placing Bose headphones on her pretty little head. She reclined in her seat, and pulled the property list from her bag. By sheer force of habit, she dug around in her bag for a fine-line red pen, but could only procure a thick-pointed Sharpie, black as the circles and arrows fermented in the tapestry of her rusty-brown mudcloth coat. With this pen in hand, she went over the list one more time:
Nokia cell phoneThere it was: the Jewery, present and accounted for; batters, all charged up and ready to go; the cannon, loaded and locked. The necklesses, the dimonds: all crystal clear, but “pins”? What the fuck were these pins? Pins? I don’t carry pins around in my bag. She flipped through the individual 5X7 envelopes that had contained the items. There it was again, “pins”. Her left nostril curled in confusion.
3 books + address book
Cannon S-40 digital camera w/case and three batters
Rolex watch w/ brown band
Kenneth Cole watch w/black band
Jewery – 2 necklesses (costume set)
Silver earrings/red earrings
Jewery– silver neckless
2 dimond earrings/dimond neckless w/ 3 dimonds
misc college ids – library card
Cannon Z R60 camcorder w/microphone
Black purse—larger w/nine pins
Then it dawned on her. She turned to her husband and said, “Honey, I think I’m gonna need another glass of this fine first-class American Airlines wine.” She sat back with a sip, and let it sink in: the Pinteresque truth of this thing that had never happened. She had just been arrested, thrown in jail, gone to court, and had a criminal arrest expunged—in the course of one $7,000 three-day weekend fling—hauled off in cuffs to the county jail by a racist white cop with a handgun who could not even spell this simple four-letter word: P. E. N. S.
“You can’t make this shit up,” she thought, as she sat there writing it all down with the broad brush of her big fat black Sharpie pen, “We are handing out handguns and handcuffs to people who cannot handle the four-letter word P.E.N.S., then giving them license to cuff and haul off fucking PhD’d professors suffering from PTSD?”
By the time they landed in Chicago, a poem had written itself in her head, and this is what it said:
White noise at daybreak we hear it in mourning
We hear it on this day and that day we hear it at night
We shut up and listen
We shovel their shit in the air where it stinks like their crap
A man with a handgun, with a handcuff armed with a pen
A man with a handgun, a handcuff, it’s off to the pen
He bashes a white bitch, bankrupts a black man
And takes it all down, yes, he takes it all down
The diamonds, the necklace, the earrings, the pins
In the purse, in the purse on the conveyer belt
conveyer belt, the belt on the conveyer belt
the belt and the bray of it, the blare and the bark
the push and the shove, can you say wtf?
white noise at daybreak white noise at night
white noise oh white noise will you shut the fuck up?
The jewery the jewery can we call dr freud?
The jewery the jewery did you get back your droid?
White noise at daybreak on Indian land
White noise in water on Indian land
Poverty, poverty, Indian land?
Poverty, yes, poverty, on Indian land.
White noise and war on Indian land,
Dig your debt deeper, pile your shit higher
Higher and higher and higher you go
Postscript: Salia’s husband eventually got over his anger. They were later married, in a ceremony performed by a pastor in their own home. She officially changed her name to Salia Malaikum. He placed his mother’s ring on her finger, and she knew they were both in it for the long haul.
But that didn’t happen until he made a thing or two perfectly clear. Storming round the house, staring dispassionately at the breakfast table, huffing off to work in the morning without a kiss goodbye. He repeated it over and over until it finally sunk in.
“You have got to understand that, in the current climate of the United States, as soon as you set foot on airport property, you are already in the hands of the federal government: you are already in the pen, already in the hands of law enforcement, the TSA. These people do not fuck around, and you must conduct yourself accordingly. I hope you get that now.”
She did. And that is why Salia Malaikum cannot fly. It goes all the way back to that adolescent pact made with herself. No matter what. Never. Do anything. Nothing that will allow them to lock you up again. She knew now that the airport was not far removed from that cold tile wall she’d leaned up against, waiting in line with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release.