Revolution et literature
I spotted Professor Youssef sitting at his usual table. That lazy, pretentious, Algerian pseudo-French intellectual always dresses up in gabardine suits with the same thin tie that had its glory in the ’70s. He hides behind his ’60s-era eyeglasses and emulates French thinkers by smoking his pipe in dimly lit spots. He sits all day in that café and talks about révolution et littérature.
A few North African men surrounded the professor. He always manages to dazzle those newcomers with his stories and grand theories. For some reason that I do not understand, he always manages to impress his compatriots. But I know the charlatan is in it for the free coffee and to bum cigarettes from those nostalgic souls. He will suddenly, in the middle of a story, ask one of the men to bring him a cup of coffee, and he will take a cigarette from someone else’s supply, and then he’ll nonchalantly continue his stories about simultaneous escape from the Algerian government and the religious “fundies.” He claims that both militant groups wanted his death because he exposed the Algerian dictatorship for what it was, and also exposed the plan of the bearded ones for a theocratic state. He pulls articles from old Algerian newspapers and reads them aloud to those naïve souls, dipping his finger inside his lip as he flips through the pages.
That cocky intellect interrupts me all the time. He always dismisses what I have to say. One day, when I tried to tell him that a grand change is coming, a fatal one that is brewing from underneath the earth, he chuckled and dismissed me again. He pissed me off so much that day, I decided to follow him and find out where he lived. It turned out that his paranoiac tendencies were more developed than I had thought. Maybe that is how he’d survived the executioner’s bullet and the fanatics’ knives. How often had he said, Only the paranoid survive, my friend? As I was following him, he looked back and saw me. I pretended to stop and look at a car meter and count my change, but the eccentric professor ran and crossed against the lights, jaywalking the red, the green, the yellow, the purple sky, the blue people, the pink dogs, the squirrels, the wet pavement. He was almost run down by a taxi. He ran like he had never run for his life from dictators or prophets. I was too conspicuous to pursue him further. And really, I just wanted to know more about the suave beggar. I wanted to steal his reading glasses while he was asleep. I tried once to do it at the café, but he hung his glasses around his neck with a rope that dangled below his ever-shifting eyes.
Salaam, I said, as I pulled a chair from the next table.
The men in the café all nodded briefly and kept on flipping through the newspapers.
I waited a little, and when the waitress came and asked me if I needed anything, I told her I was leaving. And so I did, without saying a word to anyone. On my way out, I looked back and saw the glasses of the professor emerging from beneath the news like a crocodile from a swamp.
The next day, I went to the welfare office to fill out some papers—a routine procedure. The bureaucrats want to make sure that you move your ass out of bed once in a while, that you shuffle your feet in the snow to prove that you are alive and willing to lift your legs to the fourth floor of the old monastery-turned-government building. You have to sign here, here, and there before you get your money.
I picked one of the six lines of people, making sure I was behind someone who looked like he had taken a shower. Why should I smell poverty? I live it! In one of the other lines, who should I see but the professor himself. I watched him with a big smirk on my face and waited until he saw me. Of course, the coffee beggar buried his face in a newspaper and pretended not to see me. I told the woman who had lined up behind me that I would be right back and went straight over to the man. I would not have missed such an opportunity for the world.
When he couldn’t help but see me, the professor acted surprised.
Hard times, I said.
Well no, no. I am here for a business meeting, a consultation job for the government.
I nodded. I looked at him with that same big smirk. Then I pulled a dollar from my pocket and asked him if he had change.
He pulled out a bunch of coins and started to count.
I said: It is not for a phone call.
He looked up at me and stopped counting his dimes, and his hand was about to close in a fist.
I need a bus ticket, I said, and I am short a dollar and twenty cents. I will pay you right back, when I get the check in the mail. And without waiting for an answer, I picked dimes and quarters out of his palm. I wanted something from him. It angered me that the socialist did not want to be identified as poor, a marginal impoverished welfare recipient like me. At least I am not a hypocrite about it. Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist. I look society in the face and say: I am here, I exist. There is existence and there is the void; you are either a one or a zero. It is either a perpetual existence or nothingness, my friend.
The bum of a professor often talks about his stay in Paris, and how he saw so-and-so sitting dans le café, and how he told her such-and-such and she told him such-and-such. But I’ll bet he existed in one of those Parisian shitholes, washing his ass and cleaning his dishes in the same tub. I’ll bet the asshole sought out a few well-off old ladies and discussed Balzac while he stuffed himself with food and wine. I know his type. He does not fool me.
Of course, now that I have taken his change in such a direct and brilliant, cunning manner, he must declare war between us. The little change I took from him was, I am sure, all he had until the arrival of his check. I’ll bet he is like me—we watch for the mail delivery and hope for that manila envelope with recyclable paper on the outside and vanishing degradable crumbs on the inside. And he pulled out those fragments of change to show me was because he was seduced by the idea of having a bigger coin—a unified monotheistic empire is better than minuscule slivers that never cease to giggle and laugh in his hollow pockets, constantly reminding him what a destitute financial thinker he is. So I played the oldest trick in the book; I took him by surprise. He must have been disoriented. I caught him on the defensive, when he was busy convincing himself that he really had an appointment with some government official. The officials, of course, would love to consult him on the distribution of wealth, equity, and the establishment of an egalitarian society. He is in denial that he is just like me—the scum of the earth in this capitalist endeavor. I’ll bet he thought that, coming from Algeria and having lived and studied in Paris, his vocabulaire parisien would open every door for him in Montreal. Oh yes, baby! Those locals would just empty their desks and give you le plus grand bureau to smoke in, and you could gaze from the large window at the falling snow, you could arrive late to work and smile at the security guard, who would greet you with Bonjour, Monsieur, and have a small lunch at the bistro down the street where the chef, Jacques, and everyone else, would recognize you, and naturally, mon vieux, everyone would be eager to discuss world politics and women with you, and then you would come back to your mahogany desk and make a few phone calls, un apéritif between séances, and in the evening you would get your circumcised Muslim dick sucked by those ex-Catholics, and smoke a last cigarette in bed, and in the morning a croissant would hover like a holy crescent at the break of dawn, announcing another day of jubilation and bliss. Et voilà! La belle province! La belle province!
Now I was more determined than ever to find a way to that faux government consultant’s shithole of a residence and consult his drawers, his fridge, his glasses, and merge his shoes into one company, and maybe lay off a few excess operatives. The professor got to the welfare window before me, but he was arguing and pulling papers from an envelope. My transaction was straightforward. I handed the man my slips, signed here, here, and there, waited for the sound of the wooden stamp, and left. On my way out, I saw the professor still waiting, pacing back and forth, pretending to be busy, trying to be somewhere between the welfare line and his imaginary appointment. I decided to cross the street, find myself a corner and wait.
Eventually the professor stood at the door of the welfare office, looked left and right, then walked east. I crouched and put my feet and palms on the ground and let him pass. He walked by in a hurry, and his long coat and his hat made him look like an Eastern European spy. I gave him a distance of a few blocks, then followed. I crawled through and beneath car fenders and hopped above dirty patches of snow and under car tires. At one point the professor stopped and turned back, and I dug into the snow and hid behind a discarded TV on the sidewalk. Its two antennae sprang out of my head like a cat’s whiskers. One had an advantage being at a low angle like that, close to the earth and invisible, I thought; imagine living all your life close to the crust of the ground. When the professor pulled out his long chain of keys, I felt as if I could jump and fly from joy. Just as I thought! He lived in a semi-basement, with a side entrance that led to the kitchen of an old Portuguese lady; he lived in a dark ground-hole.
Basement houses are easy to break into—a stroll, really. Easy prey. The entrance to the professor’s semi-basement apartment was dark and smelly. Inside, his bulky old fridge hummed like a time machine. I did not even need to open it. I know his kind. Even a cow would have stopped and covered her tits if she knew that her most valuable secretions would be forgotten here to stink and grow into a different species. But outside the fridge, everything was perfectly in place. Even the newspapers that the professor usually steals from the café were stacked in chronological order. It was a simple place, with a tea kettle on the stove of the professor’s pseudo-kitchen, a small closet, his two pairs of summer shoes neatly placed side by side, as if two missing persons had been beamed up by a spaceship.
I started laughing, and was soon laughing hysterically. I found it funny that the professor’s place looked like a neat Oxford student’s room. His pencils on his little table were sharpened and aligned. There was no TV. I looked for a radio, and when I found it, I mischievously changed the dial. That would throw off his routine. I imagined him coming home and hanging his coat in his usual place, turning on his radio to hear the news in French, and then mumbling to himself and complaining about the world. But, hah hah! his world was going to change. A new house order, my friend! I chose a hard rock station and turned on the radio and blasted the volume. His drawers held a bunch of knickknacks, objects he must have kept from his stay in Paris—a Paris subway map, a few postcards he had received from an old acquaintance, a woman by the name of Lydia, who must have visited Provence and walked through the romantic streets with their old stores, colorful windows, and the wooden doors of French cafés. This must have been the professor’s grand amour. Then I found a wealth of correspondence. A treasure! I stole some of his letters, thinking that later I would sit on my bed and smoke a joint and read his love life and I would get even higher with the smell of ink and the faint scent of her fingers’ residue in every line. In the professor’s closet I found an old green suitcase that provoked in me images of departing trains, trench coats, and a beautiful woman in a head scarf and pointy shoes waiting on a platform. I opened it in no time. The locks, almost rusty, sprang upward like eyes opening from a bad dream. Inside, papers and envelopes were organized in bundles, bound tight with thin strings that joined in bows at the top. Under each knot there was a piece of paper with a label. I chose the one on top: IMMIGRATION said the label. I untied the bundle. The first manila envelope contained the professor’s Algerian passport, thick and green. In his photo he looked like an intellectual revolutionary, although his long sideburns also made him look like a ’60s-era Third World lady-tourist-chaser.
The second envelope had a word written on it: TORTURE. It contained a few X-rays, an official letter of amnesty addressed to the professor, and other documents in Arabic. The other bundles contained photographs and bank documents, and the very last one had newspaper clippings.
I closed the suitcase, put it back on the shelf, and walked into the bedroom. I slipped my hand under his mattress and found a couple of Playboy magazines. I opened these, and found some pagers stuck together like glue. Masturbator! I shouted and jerked my head boisterously to the music of the rock band on the radio. I put the magazines back and went to the professor’s bathroom, washed my hands, and looked in his cupboard. I beheld yellow plastic single-blade razors, aspirin, and a few prescriptions. Then I went back to the bedroom and slipped my hand under the bed again, pulled out the magazines, tore out a few of the clean pages of naked women, folded them into my pocket, and slipped back outside. I walked away, my hand seeking warmth and swirling and fumbling what had happened to fall into my pocket.
That night I slept with the photographs of naked women, photos that I drew from my pocket like a magician who draws birds from his hat to hand to his beautiful assistant, who, no matter how many times the magician tries to saw her inside his magic box, always comes up intact, in one piece, happily smiling on the stage, under the light.