So. Not that I’ve lied to you before, but this one is really true. Sort of. Well, in its essentials, it’s true.
The other day, in the middle of May, during that unusually cool and wet weather, I was walking through the neighborhood getting wet, so I dove into my favorite bar—what one Fresno great calls “The Dark Loser Hole” (I’m sure it’s an endearing term). Several others were in there too, seeking shelter from the rain, though in the spirit of honesty, I must say that even if it was a normal Fresno afternoon, we’d have all been there anyway, seeking shelter from the sun.
But rain, especially rain in May, does something to a bar, besides creating a funky smell. It builds a kind of solidarity. A small sense of collective survival. And so I didn’t feel so bad when I found that the only open spot was between some young frat-boy type and “The Talker.”
Down the bar, my buddies Frank Maddox and Medford Boorman lifted their beers in greeting and gave me a knowing, sympathetic look. The Talker was exactly what his name implied. As soon as you’d sit down, he’d be leaning in close, drink in hand, rattling off 14 interconnected stories, none of which had a beginning or an end. He could shut a place down with his babble; I’m surprised they don’t hire him to run off the stragglers at last call.
I sat down, staring straight ahead. With no hellos, he just started in. “So, like I was saying, I’m telling this guy”—the Talker nodded to the frat-boy next to me—“that JoJo ain’t what people make of him most of the time. He’s a mean lookin’ guy, but actually nice, in spite of that shit he did, hitting that one dude with his own shoe that one time. But lotsa people’re like that. You never know. Books and covers. You can’t judge a book, you know. JoJo’s mean lookin’ but decent, right? Dontcha think so?”
Now, I’m normally a nice guy, but I knew exactly how not to respond to that. His question wasn’t a question at all; it was merely a demand for acknowledgment and my answer—any answer—would be permission for him to pour his stream-of-consciousness jabber into my ear for the next hour.
So I turned to the frat-boy guy next to me. “So what do you do?” This was its own violation of bar etiquette. In a bar, a question like this—from a stranger—is suspicious. And it might backfire; the guy might be a salesman, and now I’ve just offered an opening. I’d be bracketed in. Bad all round. But I needed an out, and The Talker was breathing down my neck.
Before the guy could open his mouth, The Talker answered. “He’s from Africa. He doesn’t look it though, does he? He’s not really from Africa, but he lives there most of the time. In the boondocks of Africa too. I was just telling him—his name’s Brad—about how when I want to get really far away, I’m going to go to Timbuktu; it’s a real place, you know. Then, when I come back, I can say I’ve been there, man. Tim. Buck. Two…”
This surprised me. This Brad looked like he was from north of Herndon, not Africa. He was a pretty thin guy with fairly short hair, combed back. He had on jeans, a button-up shirt with vertical stripes, cuffs rolled up, confident-looking. He was drinking a Rolling Rock. You know—frat boy. “So what do you do there?” I asked.
The Talker jumped in again: “He runs a school, man. In the boondocks of Africa. I could never handle school myself. I graduated, but it was not my thing. You know what my thing is? I’m really into…” At this moment, resisting the urge to shush him like a first grader, I realized that I did not know The Talker’s actual name. Maybe this was part of his plan. How can you tell a guy to shut up if you don’t even know his name? So I did the next best thing. I gave him a sharp, loud, “Dude!”
At this, Brad began to speak. “Yeah. I helped found a school in Tanzania, in a rural Maasai village called Lashaine.”
“In Africa,” the Talker added.
“Yeah. It’s in Africa. The same way Chicago is in the Western hemisphere.”
“What made you do that?” I asked Brad.
“Well. I kind of fell into it. I grew up here in Fresno and went to State. And I got into traveling, volunteering—went to El Salvador and Brazil. Then I got into a program to teach English in Tanzania. Some friends from the village I was at and some others who were teachers—well, we decided that it would be better if we started our own school. So we did.”
I was dumbfounded. “So, you can do that? You can just go someplace and start a school?”
“Well, it’s a bit tougher than that. It’s not a very big school—we got about a hundred students, just a few classrooms. We built it ourselves. But most folks in Tanzania can’t afford secondary school. So, we think it’s a pretty big deal for the people there.”
“Sure,” I said, still wondering how a kid from Fresno ends up in a Maasai village. “So, what brings you back to Fresno?”
“Well. You realize pretty quick that when you want to build a school and teach a hundred students and provide them with decent facilities—running water and stuff like that—well, you need money. And people in the United States, even Fresno, have money. So we got to go and get it.”
“She-it, man!” This from the Talker. “That must be tough, asking people for money all the time.” Just as I was about to put a stop to another Talker rant, he stopped talking of his own accord, waiting for Brad’s answer. Little miracles every day in the Dark Loser Hole.
“It’s not easy,” Brad replied. “It’s not natural to ask strangers to give you money. Even if 10 thousand bucks is crumbs off their table, nobody feels comfortable being asked for it. But it’s like a golf swing. That’s not natural either, but with practice, it becomes natural.”
“Plus you look the part,” said The Talker. “You’re a frat-boy type—folks with money probably love you—you’re like their son or something.”
“Let me apologize for my friend,” I began to say, but Brad cut me off.
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m a middle-class American guy. I can be a bridge. People like to help others out, and this school is doing important things for people who have nothing—I mean nothing. But for folks to give money to a school thousands of miles away, they need some connection and I’m not foreign to them. I’m not trying to manipulate anyone, but I can’t help feeling that the way I look is very useful.”
“Hey,” I said to The Talker, “books and covers, man. Books and covers.”
As The Talker quietly nodded, Brad turned to me. “So Paul—it’s Paul, right? How much can I put you down for?”
Damn. This guy was a salesman. Never ask people in bars what they do for a living!
The school really exists—in Africa. Check out the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania (www.ieftz.org).