Saturday, December 31, 2005

Good Riddance

In my life, it has never been more true to say that it was the best of times and the worst of times.

I started 2005 at a job that I intensely disliked, working in a dysfunctional children's publishing company doing borderline monkey-work as if I were just starting out in the editorial world. But it was easy aside from the fact that no one liked each other, plus the money showed up as scheduled. And it was necessary—the dollar's plunge against the euro meant I'd spent the last of my money on living in Barcelona at the end of 2004, a cheap Ryanair flight from H.M.

Herr Marlboro was in his last year of university in the UK. He spent his 2005 Easter break in Jersey City. We gorged ourselves on a ridiculously indulgent Holiday Inn package in Atlantic City and went to see strange off-off-Broadway productions in Manhattan, including one where we were covered in shredded paper. We cooked. We watched Netflix DVDs. I (ineptly) tried to cook him bratwurst. He rode my bicycle around the edge of Manhattan.

Bells at the nearby Catholic church signified the death of the Pope on one of H.M.'s last days with me. On the way to the airport, he was quick to remind me that he was never going to want a traditional life. As if I ever would want that. Bah. If I wanted a traditional life, why would I have ever let go of Mr. Perfect, the man in my life before H.M.? He had it all… stable job, beautiful house, quick wit, good looks, and the ability to fix things. Ah, well, there was that small matter that I was forbidden by law from staying with him for more than 90 days and he was adamantly petulant about rectifying my legal status within his country… but that's a pet peeve from 2002, not 2005.

Herr Marlboro went home and Mr. Perfect showed up. He kindly renovated my entire apartment out of the goodness of his heart. He slept on the sofa 10 feet away for six-and-a-half weeks. He charmed the neighbors and all my friends with his great personality. We had barbecues. We went camping. We had fun.

I was confused. I am still confused. I fled to H.M. once for the weekend, seeking his reassurance. H.M. told me Mr. Perfect was hanging around because he obviously wanted me back. "Then why didn't he try?" H.M. didn't have an answer for that. Like I said, confusion reigns. It is entirely possible that Mr. Perfect just thought I was swell and wanted to help me, and had no ulterior motive.

Then, it was off to Uganda. I presume that H.M.'s acquaintances there thought me a bit odd, this American girl who was chained to her laptop coloring Donald Duck comic strips. I didn't fit in at all with the German expats, but they were all so sweet and open-minded and a few of them were terribly clever. I was the odd-one-out but I felt privileged that they let me in on their l'il world.

I was stressed and closed when I first arrived in Uganda, and I wasn't sure I could deal with living in the jungle full-time with a man (my "fear-of-intimacy" may be trumped by H.M.'s but it's still formidable). So I rented a flat in Kampala. I spent the summer bouncing back and forth between Murchison Falls and Kampala. I thought I'd get tired of the lack of hot water and lack of things to do at Murchison, but this was not the case. Mostly, I scheduled in visits to Kampala because I didn't want to stress the relationship of two relationship-phobic people.

We enjoyed our time together, even when it was about swatting mosquitos and being chased by hippos. And I enjoyed the free-wheeling atmosphere of Africa. I loved it, actually. We were once caught in a storm and H.M. held the tent up while I gathered my stuff. We listened to the hippo eating grass next to our heads from our bed on the verandah. We cooked steak at night and I experimented with making baked goods for the workers by day. We read books by Mag-Lite under the mosquito net. We watched the sun rise over the Nile every morning. In the beginning, he brought me coffee in bed. By the end, I was up first and had his coffee waiting for him.

My only regret is that such a fabulous adventure was marred by the aftermath.

An incident drove us apart. H.M.'s response to the incident was... not ideal. I left. I ended up alone and sick in a Namibian hospital. H.M.—wracked with guilt—disappeared and avoided me for months. I was devastated at his disappearance.

Alone in Namibia, I was sick and numb. I realized that I was not half-as-strong as I'd imagined myself to be. I colored comics. I worked on the book. The book now rings hollow. I've really lived in Africa now, not just danced along the edge of it. I learned to let people into my life at exactly the moment H.M. removed himself from it. I've experienced fundamental change in Africa in 2005 and I'm writing a book about a merry chase across the continent in 2001.

I would probably still be sitting in Namibia today if my next-door neighbor hadn't gotten fresh with me. I got off my butt and moved to Cape Town, and again, the only reason I left Cape Town was that a nice man asked me out. I fled, prepared in no way for so much as a cup of coffee with romantic overtones.

Trains and buses took me overland through Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and finally back to Uganda. I thought myself totally recovered by the time I reached Tanzania. I was happy and my head was on straight. There's nothing like being in motion. It distracts you, keeps you from facing grief.

I'm home again and feel fragile and weak. Sitting in one place means avoidance is not an option. The thoughts and emotions roll in while I work, and I am envious that H.M. is still busy in Uganda. I want to be happy and running around Africa too, instead of sitting home on New Year's Eve, wondering if I can work up the enthusiasm to go to parties or if I might not be better served sleeping through the end of a rotten year, and hoping the next one brings me something better.

Kuwait waits. I'll be in motion. I'll have no time for self-pity.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dogs Are Good

Grief blows. I can't seem to beat it. I understand avoidance now--people avoid dealing with "the bad" because it feels sucky.

Trying to be a Buddhist about it—by renouncing past and routine—works for about a day. And I have met people with health problems. "You still have your health," they tell me.

Instead of being relieved and counting my blessings as Jared's grandmother would instruct me to do, I think: "Oh, great, I still have farther to fall."

Time healing all needs to kick in soon. I'm sick of this. You readers are probably tired of it too. Maybe moving to Kuwait will help. At least it won't be cold and gray outside.

Murphy is here to help me out.

Murphy is an 11-year-old Pit Bull mix. She is Yancey's dog, and he has gone to San Francisco on an important secret mission. So Murphy is snoring away on the cushion next to me. She's a loud snorer. Dogs are a pain to walk but Murphy puts her head on my lap when I'm sad. It's an honor because Murphy only likes eight people.

But it must be said that I've had nicer jobs than picking up steaming dog shit off the ground.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Worse and Worse

Uganda isn't doing too well on the international stage these days.

The Ugandan army, intending to shoot bad guys, killed seven non-bad guys and injured 16 others by accident.

Ugandan rebels have killed a UN peacekeeper in neighboring Congo. 35 Ugandan rebels were killed in response.

And the US has joined a lengthening list of countries withholding aid because of the fishy election/term limits stuff, where the Ugandan President imprisoned the opposition leader right after Parliament agreed to the President's request to lift term limits so that he could run for office again.

Maybe President Museveni is staying in office because there is indeed "No Hurry In Africa."

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Nesting Instinct

It looks like I want Santa to deliver me a giant sack of cash.

Sometimes when I save files and sit staring at the computer, I browse real estate websites.

I found some houses I would very much like to own and live in.

This carriage house is near where I live now.

Here is an enormous Victorian by the Danforth Light Rail stop near Bayonne. I've passed it before and thought "too bad that is not for sale." Now it is.

Here's a relatively sensible investment as it has several units in it. I think this must be on Danforth too.

Or more realistically, the $420,000 one in Bergen-Lafayette.

Only the really expensive one is in a great neighborhood. The others are "iffy," something I've done to death in the past and probably am too tired to face again.

My mother pointed out to me that energy costs are only going higher. (You're telling me—it's $240 a month to heat my natural gas heated condo, and that's with new insulation blown in the walls and plastic sealing up the windows.) And Yancey and Wooly both reminded me again of the insane property taxes we get slammed with here. Houses are way more than condos, and Jersey City is raising taxes per square foot in 2006. I clearly remember the last JC property tax debacle. It was in 1988 and half the town was for sale. The other half was foreclosed on. (But don't worry, I'm sure it's true that real estate never goes down in value. You can trust your realtor who told you that.)

It doesn't matter as it's all theoretical investing anyway. The freelance checks I'm waiting on seem to have been slowed down by the holiday mail and the negative $240 I had last week is now much lower in the negative zone.

I'm not wishing anyone any kind of holiday because my charming home country has now super-charged these sayings with subliminal meaning. If someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I panic for a second and stare at them, trying to determine if they are a lunatic with an agenda or just someone who has always said it. And actually, all those things you are supposed to say seem kind of stupid, now that I think about it.

If Santa would be so kind as to bring me that giant sack of cash, I will say whatever he instructs me to say. Swell Santamas or whatever. Santa is the meaning of Christmas. I heart the North Pole.

On the bright side, at least today is not New Year's.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

BBC Editorial

If you are interested in the political situation in Uganda, check out this interesting BBC editorial.

I agree with the writer that Museveni is no Mugabe or Mobuto. But he's also no Mandela, Kaunda, or Khama. He's done more-or-less all right over the years, and the question now is whether he will continue to do well or succumb to the corruption of power. His imprisonment of the opposition leader is worrying. Lots of countries who have now chosen to withhold aid agree with me.

Friday, December 23, 2005

More than You Want to Know About Fare Hunting

Today I worked a lot and had a frustrating Christmas shopping experience at the mall. Drank an extra cup of coffee and chased the UPS man down the block, but not at the same time.

Sound familiar? I've had to acknowledge that "No Hurry In Jersey City" is nowhere near as exotic as "No Hurry In Africa." If it were Africa, the lines at the mall would be shorter and the UPS man would wear yellow and work for DHL. And the frustration would be from power failures and diarrhea.

But here's some exciting news. I'm only 17 days away from a 3-month stay in Kuwait.

It was hit-or-miss for a while there. First, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. A day of snow-shoveling and a quick look at the bank balance changed my mind.

Second, I wasn't sure they'd let me go, what with my tricky passport issues and all. The State Department kindly solved my problem.

Third, I couldn't find affordable housing or reasonable airfare. These problems have not been solved, but I've readjusted my definition of cheap. I've had to accept that while there are plenty of fabulous places for around $750 a month in Kuwait, these are not available to someone looking for a three-month lease. I'll be paying a thousand unless I can masquerade as a Muslim Tamil bachelor in order to score a share.

The airfare was tricky, and I scored a good price only in relative terms. $960 round-trip can hardly be called a "bargain."

I tried some direct routes through the biggest, best-est NYC discounters—TFI—and they were all about $1200. Yow.

Then I played with some online discounters. Airfareplanet looked good, but it does that annoying thing where it displays all published fares—not what is actually available. And it shows the prices pre-tax. I gave up on them when I called and got a person on the phone who knew less than I do about being a travel agent.

"What booking class is that?" I asked her. She refused to tell me.

"You don't need to know that. Only I need to know that."

I calmly (but probably with apparent rage) explained to her that the booking class determined whether a fare was eligible for frequent flyer miles or not. She argued with me. I proceeded to ask if I could have a stopover in London, and she could not make heads or tails of how to build in a stopover. I finally hung up.

I bought a $400 round-trip Continental flight from Newark to London Gatwick. I leave January 9th and return April 10th.

Then I trawled the UK booking engines for the rest. seemed like a good place to start, as it lists the lowest published fares and the times they are available. But invariably, when I go to the sites in question, the fares are unavailable. In one case, Czech Airlines claimed to fly to Kuwait, but no one could figure out how when I called, and I could not find any flights to Kuwait on their website. Their Prague to Dubai flights are offered at an amazing $328 round-trip, but when I looked at flying first to Prague on EasyJet, then from Dubai to Kuwait on Air Arabia or Jazeera Airways, the UAE flight taxes seemed prohibitive.

Then I moved on to the German discount airlines. There's a ton of them and Herr Marlboro has recently worked out that it is possible to buy a hundred-dollar one-way from Cairo to Munich. The prices on airlines such as Condor and HapagFly were amazing… but I again ran into the problem of the fares from Egypt to Kuwait (via UAE) costing too much once taxes were added in.

I went back to scouring the UK booking engines. brought H.M. to JFK once for dirt-cheap on Air India—at Easter no less—but they wouldn't sell me anything without a UK-based credit card. had an amazing fare of £323 for London to Kuwait via Athens but they wanted to charge me another €30 for delivery, and no one there could figure out how to route a stopover in Athens (I've been meaning to visit my old college friend Scarfalonius there for over a decade). Ebookers fares were slightly higher than the others, and had some Gulf Air tickets for £349.

I nosed around some more. None of these airlines would be useful to me in frequent flyer miles terms. Only Emirates was useful, but their fares were all MUCH higher.

I finally decided to buy a one-way ticket on Olympic and then wing it on the way back. Maybe I'd catch Jazeera to Amman, go overland to Tel Aviv, get a discount one-way to Europe. Maybe I'd go lay on the beach in Sharm El-Sheikh and then go up to Germany for a Ryanair connection to London.

Maybe I'd just check the booking engines one last time and then buy.

Was I dreaming? Had I been staring at the iBook monitor for so long that I could no longer trust my vision? Where had that £298 British Airways all-inclusive round-trip Heathrow-to-Kuwait fare come from? An e-ticket, no less, meaning no delivery fees. And American Airlines miles, although only 25% of the normal as it's a discount economy ticket.

"Quick, do something," I told myself. I clicked "Book" and bought the ticket.

I didn't mess around with the dates. Once I saw that fare, I just bought it without trying to get the exact dates I wanted. I got the right outbound date, but I will have a week in Europe on the return. Fine. There are worse things. I'll think of something to do. Any suggestions, bearing my poverty in mind?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Detour to Japan

This has nothing to do with this blog, but Yancey sent me this link this morning.

It's a BBC story about four passengers attacking a man who groped a 20-year-old girl on a subway train in Japan. The groper died as a result. Apparently, there are women-only cars in Japan because of all the groping.

And everyone keeps warning me about Kuwait. Ha.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Pins and Needles

The truth is out there. And in this case, it's waiting for me in an Express Mail package at the Jersey City post office on Washington Street.

"We have your passport," said the postal employee who called me.

She had a sealed envelope from the Passport Agency. She couldn't tell how many passports were enclosed.

My near-future is in that envelope. I cannot go to work in Kuwait without "clean" documentation. Is my regular passport in there along with a new one, or did they poke holes in my old one and call it "expired?" Or did they reject my application and just send back my current passport with its evidence of my 2001 transit of the unmentionable Jewish state?

I want to go make comic books in Kuwait. I need to. The bank balance is the lowest it's been since I was a young, foolish New Yorker with lots of student loans. And I decided to sell my condo at exactly the wrong time, when inventory is plentiful and the market has essentially collapsed (it might pick up in the spring). If Kuwait doesn’t happen… it’s time for legal proofreading. That sounds mindlessly dull. Plus I was chatting with a few ex-X-Men writers over the weekend, and they gave me some good ideas for Kuwaiti comics. It’s starting to sound like fun.

But I cannot race off to the post office. We just added un-pickable locks to our building as well as a metal bar contraption called a "jimmy bar." I won’t be offering advice to burglars again any time soon. And I need to stay home and wait for everyone else in the building to arrive since they don’t have keys.

To complicate matters, there's a New York City transit strike on. Our beloved PATH train is unaffected (living in Jersey City produces a smugness from time to time, much as owning a Mac does). But it will be a mob scene as people who don’t usually take the PATH will be using it to go from Midtown to World Trade. So the neighbors cannot tell me when they’ll get home. They’ll get out of Manhattan when they get out of Manhattan. And my passport and the mystery of my near future will have to wait down at the post office.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Racking it up

I'd been avoiding looking at my bank balance. Contrary to what “become a travel writer and live a glamorous life and get paid for it” websites would have you believe, I don’t get paid much. At all. And so I color comic books, or do copyediting. The latter pays pretty well, but the former pays only slightly better than cleaning the birdcage did when I was 6.

Finally, I had to look. I squinted so that the horror would not blind me.

Negative $240.


It’s been one thing after another since I arrived home. $85 to fix the self-defrost in the ‘fridge (FYI, Turbo, there IS water in a ‘fridge). A few hundred for leaky power steering things in Henry the Ford Taurus. $165 to Al for moving the relief valve on my hot water heater for the inspectors while I was in Africa. Taxes on the garage. $5.75 for the opening day matinee of King Kong.

The cupboards are bare.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, last night it was sleeting out so I parked the car in front of my house. It was cold and icy and I didn’t want to walk back from the garage.

This morning I was on a frantic end-of-day Marvel Masterworks coloring deadline and was screaming along through pages. My street is a 2-hour parking zone, but usually no one checks, so I left the car.

Finally, I went to move it.

The Boot. Henry the Ford Taurus was wearing The Boot.


Yancey rushed me up to the Parking Authority, where I paid $75 to remove The Boot and $42 for the corresponding ticket. Picked up a day parking permit, rushed home and got back to coloring.

Then the locksmith came and my neighbor Helen and I spent 20 minutes talking Medeco versus Mul-T-lock with a guy named Cosmo.

Cosmo was here as a result of yesterday’s horror story. Or not-horror, because actually I was pretty lucky.

I went to the supermaket in the afternoon. Came in to surprise a young fellow who was in my apartment building and knocking on my apartment door.

“Who are you looking for?”

“The Super,” he replied. “I saw the sign outside and I’m looking for an apartment to rent.”

“It’s for sale, not rent,” I told him. “There’s no Super. It’s a condo building.”

“Oh sorry.”

He went to leave and I stopped him. I gave him explicit instructions on how to get to Del Forno Real Estate.

“Are you in a car or on foot?” I asked him.

“Foot.” He made a face.

“Ah, you’ll want to walk over to Armagno then.”

I gave him directions to the closer realtor. He repeated them and left. I went into my apartment. Wait… no one else is home. How the hell did he get in?

And the sign outside clearly says “condo for sale.”

A realization started to dawn on me. I checked the front door locks. Intact. Checked the basement. All deadbolts were in place.

The outside door usually does not shut all the way. We need a new door-closer and have been lax about getting one. The inside door was still locked and there was no evidence of a break-in.

I emailed everyone in the building. No one had been home. No one had buzzed the guy in.

He must have picked the lock.

Helen and I met with Cosmo about changing the locks. Cosmo is putting in two unpickable locks and a “jimmy-bar.” $400. He showed us how to fix the door-closer--with a little WD-40. Took Helen 20 seconds.

Cosmo also showed us a tiny mark that I had not noticed. My pal the prospective renter had jimmied our front door.

I had an entire conversation and tried to be helpful to a burglar!

I’m not a religious person. And I try not to be superstitious. But part of me can’t help but believe there is some sort of scorecard somewhere, and that I’ve had my bad luck numbers for the year and that I’m due for a change.

But then I realized… I had been lucky. Had I gone to the post office after the supermarket, the burglar may have absconded with my laptop. Or worse, I could have surprised him in my place and gotten a sore head as a result.

Can someone tell me if bad luck comes in waves? If there are odds that mean I'll get some good luck soon?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Passport to Summer

What a difference a cup of coffee makes.

I woke up at five to color comics books, and I read my email. Turns out that my friend Jessica is turning 40 tomorrow.

Any news of the big 4-0 sends me into an emotional tailspin as my own is due in April, so I was miserable for a while and then went back to bed. Without blathering on in detail about why this occurs, I'll just have to say that I'd rather not write about it where total strangers can read it, that it has to do with tragic events that occurred in Uganda, and that I had accepted the idea of being in a certain place in my life on my 40th, and now I'm not going to be anywhere near that place.

So. That's confusing and obscure and unhelpful.

Anyway, I'm back awake now and a massive cup of coffee has set me straight. I have to finish cleaning the house (I gave up a few weeks ago) so that I can host Michael Kraiger's birthday dinner tonight. It’s also my mother’s birthday. I need to rise to all these occasions and quit feeling sorry for myself until the next time I succumb to sadness, which should be in about a week.

And I've got to deal with Kuwait.

I’ve encountered some setbacks. The New York-to-Kuwait airfare is ridiculous, and while I know all the airfare tricks, I can’t get around paying at least $950 round-trip. Even strategic use of Arabian budget airlines doesn’t get me there cheaper. Why? Because of &^@# Saudi Arabia. Anyone can transit across Saudi Arabia on a bus to get to Kuwait. No big deal.

Unless you happen to be female or Israeli, that is. (I'm the former.) If I were traveling with my husband (no one’s asked), brother (don’t have one), or father (he’s never left the US), I’d be allowed. And I’d have to prove it. Can't just borrow another passenger and say “doesn’t he look like me?”

I'm stuck paying the ridiculous airfare. And because Kuwait is a country that caters to business people, I am also stuck in expensive accommodation when I get there. My choices are limited to:

-stay a year and sign a lease and get a good rent
-rent a corporate-style apartment with gym, parking, internet, pool for $1000 a month
-find a flatmate.

The latter is hopeless. A quick look at online newspapers revealed ads such as these:

"Accommodation available for a Muslim Tamil bachelor."

Er… quite. Anyway, having a gym and pool and included Internet—hey, there are worse things.

But I might not even get to go. I have a big stumbling block and it is out of my hands and in the hands of the Passport Agency.

It's my passport. It’s got the dreaded I$r@e1i visa stamp. You know, the one you’re not supposed to have when you want to go to the Gulf or to Sudan. I know the score… get it on a separate piece of paper. Transit in and out of the West Bank from Jordan and no one will know. Of course I’ve done this before. But this time it wasn’t going to work.

During, there was an incident some of you may recall in which some misguided men decided to get pilot licenses, fly planes into some buildings, and change the world in a dreadful way. This meant the ship picking me up in Egypt to take me to Europe quit going to Egypt, but was willing to pick me up in the aforementioned unmentionable country. You can’t get the Egyptians to stamp you out on a separate piece of paper at the Taba border, so there’s the evidence. Was I then transported into the sky? No, it is obvious where I went.

Plus, I left from Ashdod. Again, no way to hide that. Did I swim to Italy? Obviously not. I had much too large a backpack.

I figured it was no big deal as my 48-page passport was almost full anyway. I'd just get a new one. A clean one with no stamps from anywhere.

Wrong again. They just sewed in more pages. I have a super-sized passport.

It's a well-kept secret that in certain circumstances, a qualified individual might potentially be eligible to carry more than on American passport at a time. One circumstance is when someone needs to get visas in one passport while traveling on the other. I had two for this reason in 2001.

The other reason is the situation I now find myself in. I sent in all the paperwork and I got a letter back asking for my expired 2001 spare passport. I think that’s what they wanted anyway. To be on the safe side, I sent in any passport I could find and I am now completely passport-less.

My winter is in the hands of a bureaucrat in Philadelphia. I’m hoping to avoid shoveling the walk all winter, but we won’t find out for a week or so.

Happy birthday to everyone. I’m going back to color comics now.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Taking Kampala's Temperature

A couple of years ago I was setting off on what some would consider the trip of a lifetime.

An airport taxi driver picked me up. He was young with a Middle Eastern complexion, perhaps a recent immigrant to Jersey City or Newark. It was unseasonably warm for a late February day, and he had the car windows down. Egyptian pop flooded out onto 8th Street.

“Where are you going?” The driver was in a chatty mood.

“Antactica,” I said excitedly.

He looked at me blankly through the rear-view mirror.

“Oh. Are you from there?”

* * * *

Before you laugh too hard at him, think about how much you knew about Uganda before you started reading this blog. Or what you knew about Rwanda before the genocide. Or how about this… what do you know about Tuvalu? Where the heck is Tuvalu? I couldn’t even locate it on the map. I’d wave a hand at the South Pacific, say “it’s there,” and hope no one wanted specifics. (It’s famous for global-warming reasons).

In the interests of educating myself, I’ve taken a page from my pal Yancey’s book. Every morning I read BBC Africa. And because I have a personal interest in Uganda, I also read the Daily Monitor each morning.

What’s the latest in Uganda?

The opposition leader is still in prison. Secret police called Black Mambas patrol nearby, outraging advocates of transparency and justice. And horrifyingly, Uganda’s attorney general has recommended that the opposition leader not be allowed to run for president, because:

"Although he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, it certainly cannot be said that Besigye is on the same level of innocence as that of the other presidential candidates."

Furthermore, the attorney general stated that if the opposition leader is presumed innocent, then rebel leaders—like the Lord's Resistance Army's Joseph Kony—might demand that they should contest on the ground that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Whoa, I can barely think for all the alarm bells screaming in my head. Comparing presidential candidates to murderers? Implying that an accusation alone defines a man’s guilt and morals? This is crazy.

One good thing that has come out of the situation is freedom of the press. When I was in Uganda, commentator Andrew Mwenda was arrested for sedition because he commented that the president’s helicopter had been "junk" when that helicopter had gone down, killing Sudanese VP (and long-time rebel leader in a complex and deadly Sudanese conflict) John Garang. The government had arrested Mwenda with a public reminder of how speculative radio broadcasts in Rwanda had led to genocide. (Hmm, someone has a rather unsophisticated but unashamedly manipulative press agent in his office.)

Now, Andrew Mwenda freely criticizes the President in the Monitor.

The independent Monitor has been closed before by the government. But right now, with the world watching and the opposition candidate in jail on a seemingly trumped-up charge, the Monitor seems immune. Which must give them great confidence and bravado, as they have seized the moment and covered the President’s misdeeds with gusto.

But I wouldn’t want to be working for the Monitor when all this blows over. The world’s attention span is short, and no doubt a scorecard is being kept. Retribution will come. Let’s just hope that Museveni is becoming a benevolent dictator instead of a vindictive despot.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On the Brink

I’d ducked into the Newport Mall bookstore to scan their New Jersey shelf on my way to the PATH. Just wanted to make sure that they sold my New Jersey camping guidebook in my hometown, and maybe I rearranged the display a little as well.

“Can I help you, Miss?”

I looked gratefully at the bookstore manager. I’d been a Ma’am since June and was relieved I could still be taken for a Miss. But that’s home for you, where blushing brides and new Moms are commonly 40 years old. In Africa, I’d be considered all-used-up at 39, but in New York, I’m not even an anomaly.

I’d had a long talk with Marky in Jinja about the age thing. He’d gone on the road to drive overland trucks at 27. He’d driven for over a decade, ushering tourists around from Ethiopia to South Africa. He’d even been through Sudan and Congo in the old days, before these routes were closed for a while. The Congo one is still closed. He’d seen a lot more than most people ever see from their desks, but there had been a price.

“It was like one day I was 27, and the next I was 40.”

I knew exactly how he felt. At 34, I ditched it all, throwing away a perfectly good job for the open road. Okay, not perfectly good—the company had been bankrupt multiple times, the staff turnover rate was appalling, and the atmosphere utterly dysfunctional in a then-dying industry—but anyway, it was the kind of job that some people would give an arm to have. Maybe they’d also dreamed of having the power of flight or invisibility, but regardless, Marvel editor/colorist/jill-of-all-trades was considered a desirable position by those who did not know any better. And it came with health insurance.

But I left. And I left the East Village too. Home to… well, all kinds of famous people that I wouldn’t recognize even if they spilled a drink on me. Fine with me though. The East Village had transformed from “ghetto” (a/k/a actual neighborhood) to “hipsterville” (a/k/a get me the hell out of here) and I’d come out the other end into another actual neighborhood, albeit on the “wrong” side of the Hudson.

I went around the world, lived in Australia for six months of the next few years, traveled across the US with Turbo and a tent and a Ford Taurus for three months, lived in Barcelona for another three months with Herr Marlboro there part-time, hung my hat briefly in Bangkok, visited Antarctica and Sri Lanka, and lived in Africa for almost-six months.

But it feels like I missed something. Like I went to sleep one day at age 34 and when I opened my eyes, everyone else had moved forward by five years while to me it was January 5, 2001, the day after I got on the Amtrak to head west. Others had saved while I had spent. Advanced while I’d ignored. I’d let a lot of friendships slide and constantly have to start over. It’s like everyone else has aged gracefully but I’m still casting about trying to work out what to do next.

I expressed this to Sean, a friend in Sydney. He told me I was flat-out wrong. That I’d been living while others were chained to the desk. Maybe he’s right, but I still feel like I missed some vital personal-growth part of life, or at least realized too late that I’d been ignoring it.

And here I go again. Avoiding the hard stuff by going to Kuwait. But my Googling has not yet turned up any reasonable housing there. Shall I go on a wing and a non-denominational prayer, as usual, or am I taking foolish financial risks in one of the most expensive Gulf countries??

Friday, December 02, 2005

Jersey City

Soggy matches in the bottom of the dishwasher.
A purple stain where a drink fell on the pine floor.
A broken hair dryer.
Splattered candle wax on the wall.

I glumly surveyed my apartment. I’d just driven six hours up from Virginia and all I really wanted to do was sleep.

A cigarette burn on the bathroom windowsill.
A broken folding black chair.
“Furniture-moving” scrapes on the new paint job in the bedroom.
Missing sliders that used to be under the bed legs.
An inch-long piece of wood gouged out of the back windowsill.

I’d fixed the broken towel rack last week during a kamikaze run-through, and also changed a few light bulbs.

Dried shit splattered around the toilet bowl.
A filthy bathtub with a slow drain.
The toilet flushes slowly, almost not at all.
The $29.99 Ikea floor lamp is just propped into the base, no longer screws in.

I went to wash my hands, but there were no towels. Where were the towels? Oh, there’s one… the Spider-Man towel staff members received one Christmas at Marvel. I suppose that makes it rare, almost collectible, although it had a strange smell to it even when it was new. And there it is, wet and in the trash. I contemplated it for a minute and decided to leave it there, along with one of the bathmats and someone’s 2-foot-tall bowling pin. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

Missing plastic floor protector.
Lack of keyboard tray that used to be attached to computer desk.
Refrigerator shelf parts missing.
Gaffer's tape on the window sash.
Drink stains on the slate mantel, grease and food stains on the stove.
And coins. Coins all over the place. Mostly pennies.

On the plus side, I was now the proud owner of 7 boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, 4 cans of Spaghetti-O’s, a men’s belt, a hair clipper set, two Saturn car keys, and a fancy TV antenna.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which tenant decided the floor was better left unprotected, or that it was easier to put parts of the refrigerator in the closet than to put them back on the shelves. Three resident men and one girlfriend lived in my apartment while I was gone, and the girlfriend ran up a $750 phone bill.

You win sometimes and you lose sometimes. My first Jersey City tenants were incredible. They left it in better shape than they’d found it in. That was the year the floor refinishers sanded through the thermostat wire. I quit charging Aaron and Brito altogether after they had to live through a few months of that winter.

The father of one of the tenants had wisely said to me “how will you know which tenant broke what?” He was right. I had no way of knowing who had broken what. Maybe one tenant was an angel, the other a slob. There's no way to know.

The broken chair and broken lamp went out into the trash immediately. The plastic floor protecter had been behind a bookcase and now has ripples that reminded me of a pleasant stream. The slow-running toilet taught me a few things I did not know about plumbing—did you know that you can scratch up the toilet bowl with a snake? And I finally had an opportunity to use that plunger that Shannon Wheeler had left in my place on Avenue B in 1996.

I called a friend and asked her for her house cleaner’s phone number. She told me to include a cleaning fee next time. Good idea.

Michael Kraiger dropped by and put the refrigerator back together, changed the “tall-guy” lightbulb, and helped me drag out the refrigerator so that the microwave could go back into its custom-built hutch that Turbo installed. I felt terrible looking at the dirty fingerprints I found on the walls. Turbo had worked so hard on finishing and painting my place. He’d painted the entire place, fixed the sidewalk, caulked the window, re-finished the fireplace, restored the airshaft windows by precariously hanging outside on a fire ladder, painted the tin ceiling, restored the closets, stripped the century-old hinges, and fixed the furnace while he was here. For free. All I gave him in exchange were Mr. Softee boxer shorts and a Mr. Rooter action figure (Rooting is not something you do to the drain in Australia). And the year before? He was bored so he’d re-modeled the kitchen.

“They were very nice boys,” said neighbor Fran regarding my tenants. Casey the next-door neighbor agreed, although he was skeptical of their choices in clothing. But the doctor--! Everyone loved the doctor. He’s the one with the phone-offending girlfriend. I suppose they liked having a doctor in the neighborhood.

The neighbors in the building were less charitable. Duane had cleaned the cigarette butts up in the backyard several times. I apologized profusely, but privately I wished he'd done this again recently... a quick look out the window showed how I'd be spending a morning next week. Picking butts out of a potted plant.

I put on latex gloves and got to work. Next time, I thought… there isn’t going to be a next time. I called Jessica Del Forno to put the place on the market. I wasn’t cut out to be a landlord.