Afghanistan Part Two: Midnite at the Copacabana
Later that night I met Dante Brown. He was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans and a heavy silver crucifix. His hair was cut short into a tight fade. He had a toothpick in his mouth and a pencil thin mustache.
We were sitting at the bar of the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul, drinking Heineken.
“Waz’ up dude,” he said to me when I sat next to him. He held out a hand. His black hands had beige palms.
“Ain’t shit,” I told him.
We both laughed.
“Hmmm..” he leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and rubbed his nose.
I finished my beer and crushed the can. The Mustafa Hotel had bright lights and polished black marble floors. On the other side of the room the workers watched television; MTV on satellite.
“Whatchu drinkin?” I said to Dante. He opened his eyes and looked at me, blinking. “Ima have uhh..Lemmie get a Heineken.”
I ordered him a bottle of Heineken.
‘You from the south?’ I asked him.
He shook his head. “Um-mm. Dee Cee. Chocolate City. But…I spent two years in down in Fort Polk. Thas’ where I get this twaaaaang from.”
“How long you been here?”
“A year next month,” he said, leaning back and closing his eyes again.
“What’s it like?”
The bar-keep put the dark green bottle in front of us, not sure of who to give it to.
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Shoooot.”
He laughed. Kind of a high pitched and infectious giggly laugh. I passed him the beer.
“Is hail. Hail. Can’t wait ta get back. Aw shit. Three more months. Can’t wait. Hm.” He shook his head meaningfully and drank some beer.
“To my little slice a heaven. Got me lady waitin’ on me down in Houstontown. Gots ta,” he began to slowly dance in the bar stool, “gots ta get back, back into my.. baby’s arms.” He had a good voice, deep and smooth.
A fly landed on my arm and crawled around for a minute before I brushed it off.
A man walked up to the bar. He was holding a tin-foil wrapped plate of food. He was a black leg holster with a pistol and rainbow coloured wrap around sunglasses. A bright yellow strap held the glasses in place.
He and Dante Brown were friends. They started a conversation and I went to piss.
“Call us,” the man in sunglasses was saying. “Oh, we got guns. We got beers. We got girls.” He was grinning broadly.
“Well, say that then…” replied Dante Brown, wide-eyed with amazment.
On the counter was a copy of PC World Magazine.
The man looked at me. “Sweet ink,” he said. “Check this out.” He held out his arm. A knight in amour holding an ax. A biohazard sign. A skull. Flames.
He held out his other arm. A Scottish flag and another knight. “BURNS,” the tattoo said in shoddy Old-English writing. “Family crest,” he said proudly, “Scottish.”
He turned to Dante. “You got my number?”
“Hold up. I think I had the shit,” he said, fiddling with his phone. “Wait, wait. Hold up.”
BURNS took out his mobile phone and called Dante.
“Its got!” said Dante as his little Nokia buzzed urgently. They shook hands lazily.
“Aight den. Okay. I’m finta call you. We gonna have ourselves a realnice time,” Dante said slowly, the words dripping from his mouth like honey. BURNS walked away.
“A nice time indeed,” Dante Brown said quietly to himself.
He moved the toothpick onto the other side of his mouth. The small tape player on the bar was playing Make it Funky by James Brown.
“Ah-one-two-three…make it funky!” the godfather of soul begged the empty bar.
“What do guys..do out here” I asked.
“Drink,” Dante said chuckling. “Shit. Ain’t shit to do but drink!”
“Either here or…well, some guys to goâ€¦Copacabanas. That just opened up las’ month. On Tuesdays,” he said this like Toos-dees, “they got hip-hop.”
It was Tuesday.
“Yeah, they got ol’ boy spinnin’ on the 1’s and 2’s,” he laughed and shook his head. “Drinks.”
“Shit. You down?” I asked him.
Dante Brown opened his arms wide and grinned.
We took a taxi. “Could be dead,” Dante said, looking out the window. I was in the front seat and he was sitting in the back. “Most guys be goin’ out on Fridays.” Fri-dees.
“Could be nothin,” he shrugged and slowly held out an upturned right palm. “Could be somethin,” left palm up.
Several minutes later, he fell asleep. We got to Copacabana’s and he woke up.
“Shit. Ima..Ima head on. I’m just…tired ,you know? You go on in and have a good time. Ima head back to the crib.”
“Try to catch some Z’s.”
I shook his hand and gave him a one armed macho hug. He was wearing gold rings and smelled like cheap cologne.
“Peace,” he said, making a peace sign with his long fingers.
“Stay safe G,” I told him. It was Afghanistan. Maybe Dante Brown would die.
“I’m already knowin!” he said as I walked into toward the doors. He was laughing in that explosive, black-guy way.
All around Copacabana’s were barricades, check points and barbed wire and blinding bright lights. It was in the Wazir Akhbar Kahn district, where all the embassies are. At the entrance was an olive green armored jeep with a Bulgarian flag stenciled onto the doors. Two sullen soldier girls stood looking bored next to the vehicle, smoking cigarettes.
Copacabana’s was owned by an Afghan-American with meticulous facial hair. He was wearing light blue jeans with splotches of bleach in the thighs. His eyebrows were waxed into geometric shapes and his hair was gelled into a spiky barb. His whole head looked sharp and precise.
“Was’ up man?” he said quickly. He was standing in a tight knot of other spiky haired 20 somethings. Some real cool cats.
“I wanna beer?”
He opened the door and I went inside.
The interior of Copacabana’s looked like a Starbucks; large red couches, solid colours, long, angular lines. It was air conditioned and cool inside.
The DJ was playing an up-tempo, breakbeat version of Tom’s Diner.
I ordered a jack and coke and sat down.
There were three girls dancing on the dance floor. In a seat near them a fat old man in a white suit patted his leg and flopped his bald head around lamely to the beat. A smoke machine noisily hissed out clouds of white steam, which wrapped around the legs of the girls and dissipated near their heads.
“I am sitting
in the morning
at the diner
on the corner”
I pictured Suzanne Vega sitting cross legged at a desk, wearing an oversized sweater and writing lyrics in a notebook next to a big cup of tea. It reminded me of writing a story.
I went up to the old man and bummed a cigarette.
“Where you from?” I asked.
“Turkey,” he said smiling broadly. “Working in Embassy.”
I thanked him in Turkish for the cigarettes and sat down on the other side of the room.
Some off-duty soldiers came through the double doors, scanning the room. One saw me, and in a fluid, peppy motion clapped once and pointed at me, nodding and smiling.
The DJ turned on Eye of the Tiger.
The soldiers went and stood at the bar. Upright and southern; I could see them at a bar in Texas. I could see overweight white women thinking they were “hott.”
They all wore tight blue jeans with large belt buckles. They all stood in a tight circle, talking and laughing, telling dirty jokes and drinking their Budweiser’s. They reminded me of bull riders.
One of them recognized me from town and sat down across from me, on an oversized maroon chair.
We talked and he bought me a beer. I told him that I was a writer and he put his cigarette in his mouth and took out his wallet, squinting from the smoke.
He pulled out a card and handed it me; his name, his rank and an Afghan flag crossed with an American flag.
He was wearing tight blue jeans, flannel shirt, a Budweiser hat and black Vans skateboard shoes.
Before handing me the card he took and scribbled something out; “I am very cautious of writers,” he said.
“You should be. They will screw you, you’re not careful.”
“What do you do here? In Afghanistanâ€¦what’s your job? When you get up and go to work, tell me what you do.”
He looked away from me. “Now…well…” He laughed. “I am gonna be real honest with you.”
“Go ahead man. I don’t give a fuck what you do.”
“I do…radio stuff.” He winced and waited for my reaction. “Ya know…for the army radio.”
“I teach Afghans how to broadcast from the radio stations and do news. I’m like a journalist kind of. But for the army.”
“What the hell is so wrong with that?” I said. “Sounds a fuckin’ lot better then gettin’ a bullet in your ass.”
“Well,” he looked around and leaned into me. “Just once, I mean…it sounds crazy but just once I would like to get into a firefight. To prove to myself that I am worth it. I know it’s not cool to kill anyone and that’s not really what I am talkin’ bout. I don’ wanna kill no one…I’ve known guys who have killed and they are fucked…really fucked…they go home, discharged and are never the same. But still…I want to know if I have it. That edge they teach you about in training. You have it or you don’t. I wanna know if I got any ah that.”
The soldiers were all dancing with a fat girl. She had blond hair and worked at the Swiss embassy. Everyone was gyrating and making pained faces.
“Look, you have guys here,” he continued, framing his hands to make me understand, “it’s like a game. They wear all the shit,” he puffed his arms out, “you know…full armor, M-16’s, but that’s all…photo ops. To show the grandkids. Because it’s safe here…you know. Kabul is safe. You can do your time and feel like a real hero. Afghanistan is easy. I know guys who got bronze medals for sitting in an office. Out in Kandahar or Nuristan, that is where the action is. I want to go there to prove it to myself. That I can do it and survive.”
“There is a culture in the army. To get respect you have to sort of, to take risks. Radio journalists get no respect. It’s a macho culture, know what I mean?”
“Where you from?” I asked him
“The sticks man. Outside Corpus-Christi.”
“Lots of southern people out here.” I said.
“Yep. They say that most of the army is southern,” he said. “White trash,” he said, laughing.
“I never had any idea about places like this,” he said. “I grew up, like I said, small town, Texas. Then I came here…whole different shit. I mean, you can think about it. Think about what places like this are like but then you see it. You feel it. You know what I mean? To feel it?”
He was getting drunk.
“You mind?” I asked, taking out my notebook.
“Hell no I don’t mind,” he said. “But whatever I say to you, I didn’t say, you unnerstand? The things I talk about, they don’t happen, right?”
“Gotcha,” I said. “I’ll call you X.” We shook hands.
He leaned back, confortable now. “You can phrase this however you want. The US military is a political moving force. A Political…Moving…Force. The thing with other armies…my friends in other armies all tell me this…is that other armies do things only essential to their immediate survival. What we do in the US armed forces is move societies politically so we…you know…the United States are safer and more secure. It’s a different kind of warfare. The problem is that…”
His friend comes and sits down next to us. His name was Ben and he was ugly and Jewish.
“The problem is there are no ladies here,” he shouted over the music. He was drunk.
“It’s weird, you know. In Afghanistan there are different kinds of women. Check it, there are the ones with the full veil, then there are the ones with like…this half shit like this,” Ben put his hand halfway over his nose, “and then there are the ones with just the hair covered. Those are the hottest. I don’t know why but statically, they are the hottest ones.”
“Yeah, girls here are good,” I said. “I fucked a few back home. Middle East chicks. Iran, Arabs, Afghans. They are good. They take care a you if you take care of them. They are good like that.”
“Well..I am married so fuck it,” he said throwing his hands into the air.
“I’m the only guy who is married and I dance with all the bitches. Before I got married I was a pussy. Now look. This guy,” he points at X. he don’t dance with noooobody.”
“Joining the army, man,” Ben continued, “shit. Worst thing I ever did. Live in shit.”
X. elbowed him, shaking his head, looking at him.
“Shitty food,” Ben continued, “no women. Idiot people, all the army does is fuck peoples lives up.”
X. elbowed him again, hard this time.
“Stop elbowing me dude I’ll punch you right in the face,” Ben said. “You joined the army because you quit school.”
“I didn’t quit school,” X made scare quotes with his fingers. “I finished high school and went to the army instead of college.”
“You quit school you pieceah shit,” Ben slurred.
“I didn’t quit school…I didn’t. I fuckin’…I quit my dad,” X. shouted. “I didn’t wanna work with him. I could have been living in the lap of luxury. But no. I joined the army.”
“You quit school. Quit bitchin,” Ben said. “I joined the army to help people. Listen,” he turned and looked right at me. “I work in the Embassy tracking expenses. That means I gotta be ‘bad guy,’ right? I look in records and see they spent $500,000 on building a clinic in Paghman. I go to Paghman. No clinic. No nuthin’. So then I gotta go to these people with fuckin…Ph. D’s and shit and say look, ‘you are screwing the Afghan people…you are screwing the Afghan people you cock-sucker.’ Then everyone hates me and I have to go work in my basement where water sprays me in the face every morning.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Where do you guys fucking live anyway? In barracks or what?”
X. laughed. “Here I live in the nicest house I have ever been in. Gold toilet seats, marble floors, hot water all the time, immaculate.”
“You serious?” I asked. “How?”
“It’s the former house of an warlord. The United States captures them and puts the troops there. Best place I ever lived. We live like kings.”