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The Road to a Carne Asada Quesadilla

It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’m in the back of a hired car with a greasy carne asada quesadilla in my lap. I’m firing questions at my driver like I’m Charlie fucking Rose. The subject, of course, is the Egyptian American experience. My driver looks back at me through his rear view and questions my credentials. “Are you kidding me, man?” I say. “I’m legit. Look at these eyebrows! Look at this beard!”

“My sister pays to make her eyebrows look like yours, and yours look better.”

Because I can take a compliment I say, “Shukran.”

“I can say ‘thank you’ in Chinese – does that make me Chinese?”

“Maybe. But I thought you said you were Egyptian.”


“Never mind the Chinese — what about this beard?! I mean, I grow beards the way other people grow…” But I’ve lost my train of thought. I can’t think of anything that grows quickly except for weeds and people don’t intentionally grow weeds. Also, my goal is hyperbole and I’m not sure weeds grow that much faster than my beard. I should spend more time at Home Depot and learn about plants. And horticulture. And other stuff.

“We’re here,” he says.

Yes, but how did I get here?

I’m at the Tacos Arizas truck and I’m speaking Spanish, because, well, I can still taste it on my lips now – I’ve been drinking tequila. And the speed at which I’m speaking leads me to believe I’ve had quite a lot. Like enough to put a teenager in the hospital. Even though I’m speaking Spanish, the tequila is doing all the work. Of course my time in Spain, my degree in the language, and the years wasted translating sentences from a text book so I can learn how to say: “In the summer, I like to go jetskiing with my family on the lake” – those things might be helping.

In the end, the only thing I really say is, “I’ll have a steak quesadilla. For here please.” Here being a side street next to a Walgreens in Echo Park. Behind me are two brothers. Yes, they’re clearly brothers. You can tell just by looking at them. But one speaks with a thick Boston accent while the other has no detectable accent at all. Which might be confusing if I didn’t know these guys, but I do, so I’m not confused. Yes, we arrived here together. Now it’s coming back.

Before the taco truck: We bust into the Gold Room sometime after 1:30. I ask about the drink specials, but I already know the drink specials. Three tequilas. Three beers. Six, seven years ago, this place used to be scary. It was thick with cholos who had been pushed out of their homes, but still came back to drink in this bar where you can throw peanuts on the floor. People got murdered within a police baton’s throw of this place, but now they have Firestone 805 beers in the fridge. Adios, Tecate, Bohemia, Victoria, Corona. There’s a new lager in town and it’s crafted on California’s lovely Central Coast.

Fuck me. Of course I order a Firestone. Where is my moral compass? Why do I pine for the days when shit-faced cholos would give me and my friends menacing looks while we slurped our bargain-priced drinks before last call? Now this place is as mundane as the lines at Costco. Everybody just minds their own business.

But before that, there was the Thirsty Crow, the Black Cat, Bar Stella which actually didn’t happen, and then Jay’s Bar which did.

At Jay’s, Frank Sinatra is on the TV and Dinesh from Silicon Valley is next to us at the bar. I’m drinking mescal. The same mescal that I drank a week earlier on Balboa Island where one can buy frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and watch very blonde women go on uncomfortable first dates with very leathery men who promise jaunts on the yacht to Cabo and Cannes. I did not have a chocolate banana then or now. But sometimes I think I could drink mescal forever. Then I remember what happens to the Consul in Under the Volcano.

“How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” 

Goddamn, that is an exquisite sentence. But it’s just bleeding with insanity. The nectar of the Oaxacan gods is not to be overindulged.

Before all that, I’m on my couch with my feet up reading a review about a biography of Saul Bellow even though I don’t like Saul Bellow. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve even read anything by him. I often confuse him the guys who wrote The Swimmer or Rabbit, Run. Maybe that was Bellow. I don’t know. All I know is I’m quietly having a couple of tequilas. A tequila nightcap because it’s the day after Cinco de Mayo and the stuff was lying around. And, as of Sunday, I’ve quit whiskey again, so I might as well drink this stuff. I have one tequila knowing full well I’m going to have a second, and by the time my phone buzzes with an invite to a bar down the street, I’m on my third. I’ll go for one drink. Maybe two. I’ll be back before midnight.

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A Foe Worth Fearing

I’m waiting.

I’m waiting for a man named Sam to knock on my door and ask me, “Where is my fucking money?” Sam speaks clearly. He annunciates every word as if he’s talking to a non-native English speaker, which I gather he often does.

He’ll take off his hat, but have no intention of accepting an offer to come in. I have no intention of extending that offer, but considering that we’ve both dealt with each other in a relatively cordial manner up until this point, we’ll pretend that between us still linger the rules for upright citizens. We are Americans.

Sam is not a man you want to “mess” with. I should have known better. It’s not my first time in this situation. The last time he came by looking for his money I was panicked. I knew the day would come, but still I wasn’t prepared. I had spent the morning shopping for a bison skin laptop case. The nice thing about bison skins and why I value it over say cowhide, is no skin is the same. Each pebbled hide carries the scars of that prehistoric animal’s life with on the range. I like carrying the personal history, the power, the spirit of an animal that lived so long and continues to live on with me—in cafes and dog parks…

A minor detail worth noting about bison skin is that it can cost you a pretty five hundred thousand pennies. Now it’s not everyday I go shopping for bison skin products, but the night before my horoscope said something about somebody being in the house of free spending and tomorrow was going to be the day to indulge. Well, I’m no fool! When my horoscope talks—I listen. So I indulged! I bought the bag. Two months rent, three months of car payment—all for a bag that cost more than the MacBook Pro inside of it. Did I mention the interior is lined with cashmere?

My spirits had been high that morning. I set the bag in a chair across from me in my living room. I admired it. I obsessed over it. There had been a buzzing at my door. I figured it was the UPS guy downstairs. You know how they push every button until someone buzzes them in? Well, it wasn’t the UPS guy. It was Sam and I almost shit myself when I saw him at my door. He didn’t say anything. I slammed the door and ran to my kitchen where I dug my checkbook out of a flower pot. I quickly wrote a bad check and ran back to give it to him. I knew he wouldn’t cash it until the next day or maybe even the next week so I went to see my uncle Fast Eddie who loaned me enough cash to cover the check.

“Nice bag,” Uncle Eddie said smiling, his gilded front tooth glimmering.

“Thanks, Fast Eddie. It’s a bison—“

“Pay me back in fifteen days or the bag’s mine.”

I got Fast Eddie the money. It took some work. I lost a girlfriend and a three-foot boa constrictor named Clifton in the deal, but I got the cash. This time when Sam came around would be different. The lump sum I owed him was larger. The consequences of running a hustle on Sam twice were infinitely greater. Since August I’ve hardly left my apartment. I spend most mornings staring in between blinds looking for a man with a white billy goat beard who knows damn well I owe my some serious amounts of la plata, la lana, la feria—me entiendes?

When I do leave, I don’t come back for hours. I scout my block. I’ll walk around my block three or four times just to make sure he’s not hanging around. When I finally make my way to my door it’s with my head down and my key in my hand. So far so good, but I’ve been waiting for months and it’s weighing heavy on me. Paranoia is rotting my mind and this is a mind that can’t afford to rot much more. Part of me wants to believe that he’s forgotten—maybe even forgiven the debt. Although I know this to be impractical because nobody forgets the second time, nobody forgives the second time. It doesn’t work like that. If anything, one is far more willing to forgive the first offense—to take it easy on you. As for the second? That’s when lessons are taught. This is how I imagine Sam teaching me a lesson.


I sit on my couch while he leads in a team of moving men. Three twenty-something Greek brothers with bushy eye brows and shaved heads. They’re nice, but they still take everything. I even see one of them walking out with my electric toothbrush, which after the bison skin laptop case is my most expensive possession. (Full disclosure: I rent a furnished apartment and everything the moving men are hauling out in fact belongs to my landlord, which makes me chuckle a bit.) After they’ve taken everything I’m left sitting on the floor with Sam standing over me. He’s wondering what’s so funny. Nothing, I say.

He grabs me by the hair on my head and tosses me through the window and over the fire escape. I fall four stories and land nose first on the sidewalk. Tragically, I’m fit as a fucking fiddle and I survive. The damage is enormous and I am relegated to a hospital bed for the rest of my life. The only music that they play is Kings of Leon. I’m like the guy from The Diving Bell and The Butterfly except I don’t have a beautiful wife, mistress and child to come visit me. My story will make no one cry. I haven’t even done enough to be sorry for anything. I’m a marginalized member of society—a low level miscreant with noteworthy taste and a negligible income.

A few weeks after the fall they move me to a hospital in Bakersfield. There I live surrounded by former gang members and people who smell like they’ve spent a lot of time in Bakersfield. It’s utterly devastating. I live the next sixty years of my life listening to the same Kings of Leon record. My olfactory glands never adjust to the smell of Bakersfield. I wish I could cry, but my tear ducts are busted from the fall so I just sniffle a lot. It’s pathetic.

Do you now see why the prospect of a confrontation with Sam so frightens me?

The moral of the story is of course this: Nothing in this world is free. Not even if it’s coming from a seemingly well-intention man with a white beard named Sam. Sam is out for blood. It’s tax season.

The Neapolitan Mastiff

*As any longtime reader will be able to tell–this is all hypothetical. The Neapolitan Mastiff fears nothing. Fear is not even in his vocabulary. Although he does get a bit squeamish around ferrets and open cans of tuna.

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