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My Great Escape

Though I’m not a career criminal, I have had occasional hair-raising encounters with the police. The strangest one happened decades ago in Monrovia, Liberia. In those days I was a casual, even careless, traveler, essentially ignorant of large swatches of this planet. I knew little about Liberia or West Africa. But that did not stop me and my lovely friend, A.J., from going there.

We picked Liberia because we knew they used American money. And we urgently needed some. Was it folly to land in a new continent with dwindling financial resources? Arthur Frommer probably wouldn’t recommend it and I have tried not to do it since. But we were young and naively confident, though African travel hardships would finally contribute to A.J. and I breaking up.

There were no Lonely Planet guide books in those days. We had to make our own lonely plans. And they were all short-term, plotting how to get from A to B, worrying about the big picture later. No money meant no flying. After a long, difficult, overland journey through half a dozen outlandish lands, filled with slapstick and beauty and horror, we arrived at an upcountry rain forest border crossing between the Ivory Coast and Liberia.

The river that supposedly marked that border had shriveled to a muddy bog. You could almost make a run and jump across it. But the price of falling short looked messy. Among the half-dozen onlookers at this non-descript jungle spot was an enterprising man on a small raft, charging passengers for the ten-foot journey. There were no guards or customs officials. We were told to report to the nearby town, which we could reach in the back of a waiting truck.

It was late afternoon when we got down in that small bush town, whose name I no longer remember. There wasn’t much to it. We wandered around asking about hotels or guest houses. The Liberians spoke and English that was harder to comprehend than the French of the Ivory Coast. We finally understood that there were no formal lodgings of any kind there. We ate a restaurant meal and wandered up and down the dirt streets with our backpacks.

In the near-total darkness, we found what look liked the ruin of a half-built house. Walls with no roof, and only bare ground for the floor. We decided to camp in there, hanging our mosquito nets from the walls, sleeping on top of our sleeping bags in the hot, muggy night. Not long after we fell asleep we were awakened by lights in our faces and people shouting.

We dressed more fully and staggered to our feet, blinded by the lights and confused by the din. Finally a man in uniform confronted us, angrily.

“This is our mosque. You are trespassing. You must come with us…”

Hurriedly we stuffed our gear in our packs as some kind of argument rose up around us in a tribal language we couldn’t understand. There seemed to be some young high school-age kids here, who were badgering the authorities.

Following orders from the men in uniforms, groggy and still unable to see who was who or what was what, we got into the back seat of the police pick-up, apparently headed for jail. How could we have guessed it was a mosque? Had we desecrated their shrine?

The teenagers were making a huge racket. Half a dozen of them stood in front of the headlights, to block our vehicle. A.J. and I had no clue what was happening. The truck moved slowly ahead. Some of the teens jumped up and down next to the driver’s window, shouting and pounding on the hood. Then the driver said something and the vibe completely changed.

Now the teenagers ran ahead and our truck followed, stopping in front of a house. The kids helped us get out and carry our stuff. The actinglikeauthorities, whoever they were, simply drove away without a word.

“This house of Peter Jay. Peace Corps. You Peter’s friends. He teach us. We tell police you come here. Not jail…”

We finally gleaned that Peter Jay was a white American about our age. He was out of town right now, down in Monrovia. So his students persuaded the authorities to let us stay at his house as his guests. They told the cops we had come to visit him. And somehow this all worked.

Inside, in the light, we saw the bright, eager faces of these laughing kids. Our saviors. I silently congratulated Peter Jay for inspiring the loyalty of his students. His house was neat and well-furnished with an inviting king-sized bed. In short order the students left and we fell into that bed. Our pulses gradually slowed as we slipped into a grateful sleep.

In the morning we left Peter a note of thanks and caught a bus to Monrovia, the capital of the country, where all Liberian roads led. The airport, the sea port, the capital and all the paved roads were there.

To get the lay of the land we paid ten cents to ride half-size city busses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the meager breeze and the spectacle of people living their lives among the rusted urban wreckage and crumbling cement as the bus driver played 45-rpm “High Life” records on a swaying turntable mounted on the dash.

“Who do you think you are, Mister Big Stuff? You’re never gonna win my love…” Lively, big-beat, some Caribbean, mostly African-American music. James Brown could have run for president here and won easily. But only William Tolbert was running. Tolbert had been vice president for nineteen years until President-for-Life William Tubman finally died.

Now Tolbert was running unopposed, but making a show of campaigning. Huge banners all around town bore his likeness and his campaign slogan: “Total Involvement for Higher Heights.” What that might mean was never explained. Tolbert won the presidency, of course, only to be hacked to death with machetes in his presidential bed nine years later during a military coup.

The Liberian flag, also prominently displayed, was similar to the U.S. flag, with thirteen red and white stripes but only a single star in the blue corner. Liberia styled itself “The Lone Star Country,” but the Texas echo made no sense. The country was run by an aristocracy of so-called Americo-Liberians, families descended from former slaves, returned from the United States.

Most Liberians were among the poorest people in Africa.  Unlike the white colonial rulers of other African countries, the black masters of Liberia were less visible and therefore able to be more despotic. Monrovia – named for the fifth American president – was rough, dirty, dangerous and always steamy hot.

Being far more ambitious and resourceful than I was, A.J. quickly found work. She somehow encountered a fairly lucrative opening, as the manager of a bowling alley, bar, restaurant and disco. But in spite of her obvious intelligence and her attractive, authoritative manner, the owners would not hire a female. A.J. quickly got another position, where her sex didn’t matter, keeping books for a Lebanese importing firm. So she recommended me for the bowling alley position.

In those days I was a skinny, dark-bearded, long-haired wanderer, fond of any and all mind-altering substances, often shabbily attired. But indisputably, anatomically male. I tried to iron the sport jacket I had carried rolled up in my backpack for months, but the wrinkles persisted and the jacket refused to flatten out. It was too hot to wear it anyway.

My job interview, with one of the five owners of the business, was brief. Al Shoucair, a gigantic, balding Lebanese-descended man, resembled Jabba the Hutt in a tent-like shirt. He had quit smoking, but could not stop chewing on unlit cigarettes, and still consumed a couple of packs a day. He liked to look at lithe young Liberian girls, so there were always plenty of them in his office, who seemed to have little to do except to be there and hand him what he wanted.

Al only asked me one question.

“Have you had any experience?”

Since he didn’t specify what kind, I could truthfully answer, “Yes.”  They should have hired A.J., of course. She had brains and ambition and competence. But they wanted a white male, so they hired me instead.

The Coconut Grove Amusement Center sat beside the sea, where salt air corroded everything from the air conditioning system to the warped lanes and chipped bowling pins, to the many pinball machines which had ground to a halt and stood where they had died, around the bowling alley, modern marvels of Western ingenuity overcome by the tropics like characters in a Somerset Maugham novel.

Fred, the Assistant Manager, had worked there ten years and knew the business inside and out. He had seen other white managers come and go. He was justifiably disgusted. He should have been promoted to the manager’s position, as he and I both knew. But because the Coconut Grove owed money all over town, they needed a white man to beg credit from the local beer distributors and cigarette brokers, who would simply let an African cool his heels in their waiting rooms, but would not let me wait. Colonial racist reality was at least dependable.

About two dozen people worked at the Coconut Grove. My salary equaled all theirs combined. It was embarrassing and wrong. But I was too broke to quibble. And the job even came with a car, a beat-up little Renault that may or may not have seen better days. Al Shoucair got my drivers’ license by sending ten dollars and my photo by messenger to the appropriate government office.

I knew my job would not last long. Between the merciless climate and the unwillingness of the owners to re-invest in a business now losing money, the Coconut Grove was not destined to amuse many more. In those days, before the internet or satellite TV, the hard-core bored of the city might bowl up to four nights a week. And drink for seven. The one television channel in the country, on four hours every night, featured films about nature or the steel mills of Cleveland.

The disco liquor supply had been raided just before my hiring, leaving the disco in a dark limbo. The funky old Brit hired to fix the dead pinball machines pronounced his work hopeless. The owners refused to order more imported parts, but none were made locally. Game over.

I assessed what the place needed and called a meeting with the partners. I did not want to be scapegoated for any deficiencies. The wealthy owners resented a stranger criticizing their operation. Who was I?

When it became clear they did not plan any improvements, I relaxed. I had been hired just to keep the leaky vessel afloat as long as possible. Not to save it. That I had no ambition or aptitude was irrelevant. My maleness counted for more than A.J.’s competence. My whiteness trumped Fred’s expertise. It was futility with a paycheck. Gentlemen, count me in.

The Coconut Grove owners, some of the most powerful men in the country, would later be among those tied to posts on the beach and executed in the coming coup. I forgave their arrogance in retrospect but it rankled at the time.

One afternoon I was driving in the city when I saw a friend of mine, a Canadian named Ray. I stopped so he could get in the car with me. The streets of Monrovia were not exactly clogged with traffic. Private cars were few and far between. But a policeman blew his whistle and gestured at me to pull over, for having stopped in the middle of the street.

I was in no mood for that kind of encounter. My car had no air con and I needed to get moving to work up a cooling breeze. The cop was on foot, heading toward us, when I just decided to pull away. Hell with it. In the rearview mirror I could see the man’s shock. Then, to my own shock, he hailed a cab, pointed in our direction and got in. He was going to chase us down!

Unfortunately we were on the one steep street in town, a long avenue that led straight up to the fancy Ducor International Hotel, perched atop the city like a giant garish gravestone. My rattling Renault was not up to the climb. The cab was coming up behind us quickly, I turned down a cross street to my left. If I caught a parallel road down the hill I could get some momentum.

Ray was appalled. “I don’t think this is a good idea, man. I really don’t…” But I was roaring now, picking up speed. Ready to make a run for it. The light at the next corner turned red but I didn’t see any cross traffic.

“No! No! You can’t run that light. They’ll have our balls for bookends!” Even in the heat of that moment I knew I’d remember that phrase. “Man, I beg you, please! Please, no! No!” He sounded frantic.

He tugged at my arm and looked terrified. But who the hell stops for a red light in the middle of a police chase? That’s insane. But…Ray’s panic overwhelmed my desire to escape in my defective vehicle.

So I stopped at the light, shaking my head, pounding the steering wheel with my hand in frustration. The cop ran up to us and jumped into the back seat. He was sweaty and breathless and angry.

“We go to headquarters,” he said. “Drive that way…”

I glanced at Ray. He looked away in silence. I started driving slowly. The one thing I knew above all others was that I did not want to go to police headquarters.

“Show me your license,” said the cop. My license? I had no idea where it might be. I made a show of looking for it in the glove compartment. But the only license in there belonged to my predecessor at the Coconut Grove, a broad-faced, blonde fellow, with Slavic features, maybe twenty years older than I was, judging by his photo. Rumor had it he got drunk one night and went on a wild rampage before being deported some months before my arrival. I could sympathize.

But when I handed his license to the police officer, the cop made no comment about our very different physical appearances. Maybe all white men looked alike to him.

“Listen,” I said. “I’m really sorry about driving away from you back there. But I’m in the middle of very busy day. I’ve got a lot of things to do. That’s why I had to get going. And I really don’t have any time to spare. Isn’t there some way we can avoid going through all the formalities at police headquarters?

The cop, calming down a bit now, seemed to ponder this possibility.

“Sometimes it’s good to harmonize in the field,” he said.

Another phrase I would not forget.

“You mean, you could collect my fine and take it to headquarters for me?” I said, trying to keep up the pretense of probity.

“I am thinking so, boss. You must give me only one hundred dollars…”

“What? A hundred dollars!? I don’t have anything like a hundred dollars. That’s a huge amount… My God…”

I glanced at Ray, who finally appeared contrite. Too damn late.

“Well, sir, you are violating traffic laws, running away from the police…”

“Yes, I’m sorry, of course. But… a hundred dollars is just way beyond anything I have or could even get…” Remember, there were no ATMs then.

I made eye contact with the policeman in the rearview mirror.

“Well…”

To make a very long story somewhat shorter, we drove around in that car for a better part of a long, hot hour, as I begged and wheedled and the cop gradually, very gradually, dropped his price.

In the end he settled for everything I had in my pocket: seventy-five cents.

It was the greatest bribe reduction I had ever negotiated. But I was too stunned to celebrate, like dropping too fast in an elevator I thought would crash. A dizzy relief outweighed my impatience and even my irritation with Ray.

As I had known from the start, my tenure as manager of the Coconut Grove did not last long. When I resigned from the job after six months, Al Shoucair only asked me one question: “What are you afraid of?”

I claim no prescience about the coming bloody coup and years of dreadful slaughter that would ravage Liberia. Along with AIDS and then Ebola. Did Al Shoucair know, in his bones, if not his brain, that a mighty shit storm lay ahead? I simply felt a deep unease in that country – from the moment we were arrested on our first night there – as I did not feel elsewhere in West Africa.

It was another great relief to stand at the rail of a freighter pulling out of Monrovia harbor en route to Ghana down the coast. My other great escape, also in slow motion. Details of the city, including the Coconut Grove, blurred and faded. My personal and professional dramas there diminished and disappeared, along with the squalor and suffering that would later overwhelm the country.

You would never know from looking at the misty green shoreline that the apparently benign landscape hid absurd and unspeakable realities. It was the kind of knowledge you had to pay to acquire. Some paid with everything they had. And some of us got off cheap.

James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

 

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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