Nyama

Issue 30 by Glenn Schiffman

“Put lice on pillow,” Anan said. “Efa woman annoy you, put lice on pillow. Dat’s how you break da connection.”

Anan and I were sitting on a bench on the quay by the St. Laurence River.

“Is that an old country adage?”

“I don’t know dis word, adage. You want get rid of da old lady, put lice on pillow. Next you know, she kick you out.”

Because, even though the money was good, for someone with my artless, small-town background, being a male prostitute was not an easy gig. A twenty-three-year-old trying to have sex with Granma did not happen. Fortunately, cuddling satisfied most of the old ones, but even that was difficult. I was even challenged getting it on with a well preserved, middle-aged “Juana,” if she reminded me of my mother.

Yeah, I got a wardrobe out of the profession; was expensive arm-candy at parties in some exclusive settings. I earned more than enough money to rent my own apartment. But, ya know, being displayed in a rental tuxedo as a trophy at a seven-course, salad-last, salon-de-la-cuisine, made me so “tabernak” uncomfortable, I can’t tell you.

That’s why I was looking in a blonde wig for lice the morning after I woke up in the ornate, old-wealth Montréal boudoir of an eighty-year-old, white-haired, comtesse named Therese. True there were ten $50 pink Queen E’s in the pocket of the silk pajama top she had asked me to wear. If only there wasn’t the family crest of her dead husband on the pocket.

Wigs don’t have lice. Maybe the poodle …

By the way, speaking of adages, in 1968 when I was a student at SF State, Herbert Gold taught the novel writing class I took. His maxim was, “Every writer who begins a story thinking ‘first thought is your best thought’ is an arrogant fool.”

So why begin with lice, my first thought and one of my favorite memories of Anan? Simple, in the brain, it’s been proven, all data is freely associated. Our emotions run the hook-ups. For instance, every time I make pancakes, I am reminded of a working girl on Peach Street in Atlanta bragging about her handmade, leather dress, “under which,” she boasted “she wore neither bra nor panties.” Surreal, huh, why that emotional memory is connected to my making pancakes at breakfast?

In 2013 while researching André Breton, the inventor of automatic writing, I read that the true surrealist turns his or her mind into a receptacle and refuses to favor one group of words over another. Sorry André, but that’s bullshit. Consider your sentence: “Haitian painting will drink the blood of the Phoenix. And, with the epaulets of Dessalines, it will ventilate the world.” Sounds surreal, but it’s not. It is a marketing ploy. In 1964—the time frame of my life as an escort in Montreal—Breton was hustling the Haitian surrealist artist, Hector Hippolyta, in his art gallery in Paris.

I’ve tried automatic writing. It’s not unlike a pianist practicing scales.

For instance: Once when washing my white dinner plates I was reminded of my mother’s teeth. I sat down and wrote, “She died at age ninety-six proud that she not only still had all of them, but that she had them cleaned a mere week before her death,” and from that I recalled the name of the nursing home driver, “Geoffrey with a ‘G,’ who drove her to her dentist,” and in turn remembered a friend, a limo driver, whose gorgeous wife was offered five figures by Playboy to pose, money which my friend refused because, “I don’t want other guys jacking off to photos of my wife.” Jacking off took me to Montreal and the club where I was as an “escort” to grand dames like Therese, who played the overture to “The Ring of the Nibelungen” whenever we cuddled. Unfortunately, “Siegfried” was my drunken father’s name, and to block a memory of him I deliberately rejoined my mother in her hospice room listening to Lawrence Welk bubble music while waiting for her to die.

Bottom line—since it is damn near impossible for me, for all of us, to ignore our emotions—out of the emotional framework of waiting for someone to die emerges Anan, a coal-black Melinke tribesman and djembe drummer ex-pat from Mali, who had sickle cell anemia and had come to Montreal for a bone marrow transplant and was on a list, which meant he was waiting to die, telling me to get rid of Therese by putting lice on her pillow.

When I asked why he didn’t get medical attention in France, he only shrugged. Other sub-Saharan expats eking out their existence in the clubs of the Vielle Ville, Montreal’s Old City, told me Anan originally was from Northern Mali which had sided with the Algerian FLN against the French. Even though Mali had gained its independence from France peacefully in 1960, the Algerian War had closed France to many immigrants from all their former sub-Saharan colonies.

Anan (short for a name much longer) used heroin to alleviate the pain of the anemia. In the year that I knew him he kept the heroin under control.

Muwin, a “Restibouche,” or Micmac/Quebecois mix-blood woman, was the supplier of Anan’s heroin. She owned a nightclub in a two-story former warehouse south of downtown in the Old City off Rue Madeleine damn near in the shadow of the Provincial Ministry of Justice building where Anan tended bar and performed. Muwin was also the sponsor of Anan’s immigration and health care processes, but not just to help him get a transplant. Always ahead of a curve, Muwin saw the entertainment and audience potential of West African music and drumming. Muwin was at the vanguard of the extraordinary music scene that became synonymous with Montreal the next decade.

(Later, I learned that Anan and Muwin, in addition to their business arrangement, were companions, lovers perhaps, though I don’t know how that worked with his sickle cell. Whatever, they slept in the same bed at the same time in her apartment above the club.)

I was sleeping in my dead brother’s VW van in a parking lot on St. Patrick under the bridge of the sliver of the St. Laurence River that separated the Old City from modern downtown. I‘d been sleeping there just three days when the police rousted me, but to my amazement I didn’t get arrested and booked. I told them in my green-stick innocence that I was looking for the Beatnik scene and they sent me to Muwin’s Club.

New York Magazine headlined the expressions “Beat” and “Beatnik” in 1952. In less than a New York minute the terms etched themselves into hip Greenwich Village, as in “Man, I’m beat,” which on the street meant “at the bottom looking up.” Three years later Ginsburg’s automatically written Howl described “the best minds” of his generation walking “all night with shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium.”

I had the van, like I said, and some money, not a lot, but enough to help me pass my time while I was fixin’ to get ready to plan to do something. I chose to do that fixin’ in Montreal. Why didn’t I go to the Village? I had a degree in English, one day wanted to be a writer. I admit, the Village beckoned. But, I wasn’t at the bottom looking up, and Ginsburg did not particularly impress me, and I was a college jock, football, UMaine at Orono, not good enough for pro ball but maybe the Montreal Alouettes. But more than all that, ‘60s Montréal had come into its own as a modern city and it called me. There were thriving underground club and left-wing university scenes, the growing Quebecois movement, a liberal government that instituted universal health care, and there were a lot of immigrants, not only from France’s recently liberated African colonies, but also Middle Eastern six-day-war refugees coming via Lebanon, and a fair number of Cubans fleeing Castro, which made Montreal a melting pot fueled to a great extent by an underground cash economy. Montreal accepted everyone’s currency, especially if you could melt it down, cut glass with it, or convert it.

Anan was tending bar the day I wandered into Muwin’s Club. We looked each other direct in the eyes and felt only empathy. We hit it off like that.

I probably asked, “Is this where the beatniks hang out?

He did say to me, “You no beatnik, you too strong, you farm boy.”

An hour later he introduced me to Muwin. She hired me on the spot as a week-night shill and a weekend bouncer, gave me a room upstairs, a bed, a pot to piss in, and even a window to throw it out of.

“Muwin” (it means “Bear” in Micmac) was twice my age, near tall as me, 250 pounds easy, with hair that was bleached so fierce it looked like back-burner wheat. I was young, naïve, strong and, for her money, “bon-de-crisse-de-câlisse,” or “good-fucking-looking.”

Because of that I went from weekend bouncer to male escort in less than a month.

Muwin was my pimp.

I was warned she ate young white boys for “petit déjeuner,” but I wasn’t an average young white boy. First, I didn’t know “petit déjeuner” meant breakfast. I assumed it was connected to sex. That made her laugh. Plus, I knew some Micmac jokes, including one about a woman named “Helen Highwater.” Muwin chuckled deep when I said that. Maybe it took her to a pleasant memory a few dozen years in her past. Anyway, Muwin liked me and didn’t throw me out a window.

I knew some Micmac jokes because I spent my childhood in a very small town, population 1,200, in northern Maine on land that Micmac People used to call “Ours.” On warm days a Micmac man who made money sharpening knives and scissors pushed a two-wheel cart with a foot-pumped, knife-sharpening, grinding stone up and down the twelve streets of our town. A bell, whose ding-dong-ding was generated by the turning axle of the cart, announced his presence. When he was on our street and the sound of “ding-dong-ding” stopped for more than fifteen minutes, we all knew that he was sharpening the scissors and knives of the Catholic-school, teacher-nuns in exchange for the meal called “supper” by people where I grew up.

I never learned the knife-sharpener’s name, but I did know the postman, Carlton “Curly” Wilson. Curly always smelled of garlic. He was married to the sister of the day policeman, Tony Schiavo. They lived in an apartment in a converted livery out on St. Simone Road.

In those days there was no postal regulation against having coffee with someone on a mail route, but there was a regulation that required postmen to leave the mailbag on the porch, so people would know the folks inside weren’t snooping through their neighbors’ mail.

On the porch of the house directly across the street from mine, I frequently saw Curly’s mailbag sitting on the porch, indicating he had stepped inside for coffee with Jessica Stauffer, the war widow of Jerry Stauffer. Because he left the mailbag on the porch, and because he was married, no one automatically assumed there was hanky-panky going on, just as no one assumed the Micmac man was doing anything else but sharpening knives in the nun’s kitchen.

Needless to say, everyone in my small upstate Maine town knew within hours the day in 1952 when postman Curly and Jessica ran off to Florida together. And several months later, thanks to one of the magazines in Henri’s barbershop, we all knew they had joined a nudist colony. So, maybe there’s no coherent emotion tied to this particular memory, but no way I’ll ever forget Carlton Wilson or the Micmac man for that matter.

Our village, “Sand River,” the Micmac word is “Agoomakunuk,” so it’s good they went with the English version, was flanked on three sides by ridges whose forest floors in October were coated with scarlet, amber, and lavender leaves, the sight of which is a memory my ashes will cherish. The First Congregational Church, Main Street, the bridge over the river, a city park, and even an old-growth chestnut tree still bear plaques on which are written my family cognomens. In the Protestant cemetery I can, if I want, close my eyes and let my fingers braille read two hundred years of family history chiseled onto two dozen, nor’easter-pitted headstones.

One winter night when I was home from college, I dreamt my older (by two years) brother, Charles, was on the south ridge in the woods. I dreamt he poured gasoline on a tire and lit it. I dreamt he put his toe on the trigger and the barrel of his .22 rifle in his mouth. I dreamt Death’s shadow was all around my brother, and then I woke up. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I should have. Charles barely made it out of high school, worked at the local salmon cannery, spent most weekends drinking and watching football with our father. I knew Charles resented me and I sensed he was depressed. But, just a crazy dream, I reasoned. The following Saturday afternoon the sheriff went to investigate heavy, black smoke on the south ridge and found his body. The family called it a hunting accident.

Most dreams seem to transit sequences held together by the non-sequitur transition device, a viable transition to surrealists and automatic writers. Not the prophetic dream about my brother. That was logical in form and reality.

Anan almost immediately saw or guessed my dream and my guilt for not stopping my brother’s suicide.

“You carry shadow. I see how you got.”

Anan’s first lesson for me then unfolded. “We have story, my people. A story of a Wê, a man makes masque. Not party mask; masques sacré for talking to spiritueux. One day Wê sees ceremony he not voulait dire.”

“Supposed to see?”

“Aane, yes. Mask maker he sees a sorciere, you call witch doctor, change from man to chimpanzee—yes, and because mask maker see, he upset sorciere magie and sorciere lose his power. Very great story, this is, and I tell very small piece, but I see your shadow and I know you get by seeing spiriteux you not supposed to see, but now it goes away, OK? Because I see too, OK? Voir aussi, don’t worry, it not hurt me, OK? You, don’t worry, don’t talk, don’t feed and it go away. You feed, it get stronger.”

“Yeah, yeah, OK, OK,” I answered, dismissive, until a month later when I asked him to explain more.

Anan grinned thinking about that, grinned so broadly I saw several gold teeth. Then he winced with pain. Grinning apparently hurt.

“Sunday I play you. You listen to drum talk, you hear, understand.”

“What do you mean, play me?” I asked.

“Music, she is an ‘appening, you know, but not jus ‘appen, feel. Because of rhythm; because rhythm is le moteur, la force, la connexion. I play you, play rhythm of you.”

Twice a month Anan and the other sub-Saharan and West African expats got together on Sundays and jammed on djembes, dununs, talking drums, bugarubus, peg drums—it was incredible. I will never forget those sessions. I knew I was seeing something unique, sensual, sacred.

In Mali, a traditional ensemble consisted of one dunun and one djembe. The man who played the dunun was called a konkoni. One who played the djembe was a djembefola. Anan was both.

The Malinke people say that a skilled drummer is one who "can make the drums talk"; that is, tell an emotional story. Konkoni and djembefola create very complex rhythmic patterns, with each drum taking turns improvising solos.

“You very complicated story. Your rhythm, it change like that.” He would have snapped his fingers if he could have. “I have rapport with ‘nyama,’ I will ‘mark your feet,’ make you dance.”

“What’s ‘nyama?’”

“Nyama is all you, votre émotions, votre essence, spiriteux. But more. When we say ‘nyama’ we breathe in ‘nya.’ Breathe out ‘ma.’ Nya ma. Now you say.”

“Nya ma.”

“Nya ma. Mazuri, good.”

Our vast cultural differences notwithstanding, the Sunday night Anan drummed my story and marked my feet; I found myself on the dance floor in a circle with expats from Mali, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Voire, and Togo dancing with none of the self-consciousness that was central to my being. I didn’t touch any hash that night, but I’ve never been higher, and the old me who usually snapped my fingers and puffed smoke rings during those jams; well, emotions being what they are—not universal, varying from culture to culture, created, not triggered, a product of human agreement—the old me became an ‘appening that night.

The bar in Muwin’s Club was circular and in the middle. It effectively divided the place into four diverse sections. Pool and card tables in the northwest, large, open booths and tables in the northeast. In the southwest farthest from the door against the wall were eight curtained booths. In the middle was a decent dance floor, and in the southeast a bandstand and two raised platforms. On Fridays and Saturdays, girls in bikinis danced on the platforms to the stupid, 1-2-3-4 jukes of early Beatles, Kinks, or Manfred Mann covers played over and over by a house band. Those nights Muwin served oilcan whiskey and Mountie Piss beer to grinning, hooting boys and jitterbugging, bouffant girls. Those nights I checked I.D’s at the door.

Wednesday and Thursday were the hustle nights. Gamblers, Frog Poofs, and older, single, alcoholic “Jaunâs,” paid the cover. Muwin brought out the expensive booze, took a cut from the card tables, used the curtained booths to deal Beirut to Marseilles to Montréal chunks of Lebanese hash the size of hamburgers, and pimped young studs like me to the “Jaunâs,” a Frog slang word for an old lioness and a play on “jaunt,” which is a short trip for pleasure. Supposedly my job was to shill drinks, but pretty quickly I acquired regulars who led me into a curtained booth and/or later that night to their homes.

Anan could see that I enjoyed the money and the attention, and he also knew I felt shame.

“Thing ‘bout de lady lion, we say, she got no crinière.” His hands were expansive about his head.

“Mane?”

“Aane, yah, but de lady lion always has ‘sang sur le bouche,’ ‘blood on the mouth.’ So, no shame in you.”

Sundays were Catholic dry in Montréal in the early ‘60s, but that served the wanna-be Beatniks just right. They’d come in hung over from Saturday and order Turkish coffee at a deuce a thimble. They’d snap their fingers to poets, folk singers, and twice a month to the drum jams of Anan and the other expats up on the bandstand.

I grew up, matured, and became more compassionate over the year I watched Anan physically deteriorate. The sickle cells in his marrow slowly made his bones brittle and painful. His spine began to twist him sideways and forward. But he persisted until he had broken all his fingers on his right hand and had to give up the djembe. He could still play the dunun, but had to strap the stick to a leather cast. Yet he never complained, never unraveled a string of “sacres,” swear words. When I fretted over him, helped him climb stairs, pitched in behind the bar, he just said, “Vous me donnez vous. Merci.”

I’d translate but it makes me emotional.

As for Muwin: she taught me how to enter the underworld; taught me rudiments of how to get about in it, taught me her facts of life.

“If you don’t ask ‘what’s in it for me?’” she’d say, “you get used all the six-ways-to-Sunday. And, don’t look back. Whatever happens, don’t look back. That’s how you deal with life in Hades. My only condition is, you don’t shit where you eat. Don’t you go fucking my girls! We’re family and I call that incest. You keep your hands off the dancers.”

I obeyed, played Muwin’s game for nine months, but eventually Lynette, sociology student by day, go-go dancer on the weekends, effectively moved in with me. We played at house for three months before Muwin caught a whiff; stopped by early on a Sunday. I was home, not with a client, and Lynette was the reason why. No upside for Muwin, and true to her rules, she fired us both.

I kept some of my escort clients a short while longer, until I woke up that one morning looking for lice. I left for San Francisco soon after. All the action, beatniks, hippies, whatever—San Francisco was calling.

Lynette the student, she of the soft hands and colleen eyes, stayed enrolled in McGill University. I wished her well and promised to write.

When I went by the club to say good-bye to Anan, Muwin, ever the opportunist, offered to sell me fifty grams of hash at an outrageous price and told me to keep in touch, “that way, because in San Francisco you can double your money.” I declined. She turned her back and walked away.

To Anan I said “farewell” with a nod and a wave, thinking a handshake would hurt, but he put his left hand on his heart and his right on my heart and said, “Pitani bwino tionana.”

I’d translate, but …

In 1974 I was back in Montreal on business. While there I heard that Touré Junda, a famous Senegalese Griot musician and storyteller had recently opened “Club Creole” in the St. Laurent quarter in the same building as Muwin’s.

I walked across the bridge to the Old City. Nothing had changed but paint and signs. It was before noon, but the front door was open. Club Creole was remodeled. The bar was a half-moon shape on the right. A Carib bartender was washing glasses. I was the only customer.

He ignored me until I sat down, then he squared off, put both hands on the bar and said, “Ya, not open.”

“I’m not here to drink. I was wondering. Do you, or did you know Anan? He used to …”

The Carib pulled his arms from the bar and looked at me with a keenness that washed over me and stopped me. When he answered, it was in a heavy island accent.

“Ob corse. Ebrywone know him. Not for Anan, maybe no mbaqanga, no rhythme du monde. Diallo, he settle here because Anan. Now Anan dead, OD,” the Carib continued, “five years. Yaya Diallo play for him, his funeral. You know Anan? Wha’ he like?”

I was speechless, almost shocked, not by the word “dead,” but by “O.D.” All I could think to say was, “He was in a lot of pain.”

“Ya, da pain.”

“And Muwin? Where’s she at?”

Her name made him suspicious.

“Why you ask?”

“I worked for her ten years ago. It didn’t end well. I just as soon avoid her. What’s it to you?”

“Anan die, club change, she go home, go home her people.” The Carib said, “Some say, Anan die, her fault. He get bones help but she keep give him da dragon, keep him stay here. Jusqu'à, he O.D. That’s what.”

“Huh, sounds like her. ‘What’s in for me?’ was her motto," I said, mentally figuring “dragon,” which he pronounced “drah-gohn” must be street slang for heroin.

The Carib looked me over once again and then reached behind him, grabbed a bottle, poured two shots and set them on the bar.

“Rum … San Martinique, da best. We toast Anan.”

“To Anan,” I nodded, and downed it.

As it blessed my gut, I felt a resonance from far away and near at hand. I turned and looked at the stage. The “ngoni,” the “talking drum,” a big round signaling drum with a neck and strings, enticed me, but I resisted. Ngoni is Griot. I don’t begin to know its stories.

Instead, I lifted the empty glass toward the drum, breathed in “nya” and breathed out “ma.”

I pushed my glass towards the Carib. “Another round? I’m buying.”

“Keep your money, mon.”

He poured two more shots, lifted his glass.

“Nya ma,” he breathed.

My memories are sensual, spiritual, communal, and personal. My personal memories help me dredge up my old self. My spiritual memory is anchored to a certitude that says it’s safe to look back. My sensual memory knows with the same certitude that all that happened can never be otherwise. Because of that notion, my communal memory keeps me on faithful terms with the person I used to be, whether I find him good company to be around or not.

Footnote: In the Spring of 2013 while doing research for my essay on André Breton, I read a quote from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to wit: “The Beat Generation was just Allen Ginsberg’s friends.”

About the Author

Glenn Schiffman

Website

Glenn Schiffman is co-founder of Western Gate Roots and Wings, a non-profit counseling program for at-risk youth, uninitiated adult men, and veterans suffering with “Soldier’s Heart” which counsels using indigenous ceremonial settings in collaboration with Native Elders. His novel “The Way I Was Taught” (self-published) was a 2014 Eric Hoffer Fiction Award finalist and his short stories have appeared in “Quill and Parchment,” “The Write Launch,” and the anthology “Returning Soldiers Speak.”