Tag Archives: drinking

Cabaret Embassy (Casablanca, Morocco)

The Things They Never Knew

By Bobby Rich

Photos by Sarrah Danziger

It was late for the hotel and everyone was asleep except the American couple who sat sharing shots of whiskey and anisee on their bed. The paint on their walls was chipping off and the florescent light-bulb overhead had no shade and was suspended from the ceiling only by the electric wires that powered it. The room had a small window at the far side of it that looked onto the terrace, which had no street view because rooms were built around it. To have any type of natural light in their room, one would have to open the door, and even then it was not direct. The American couple kept taking shot after shot from their small glass cups that were normally used by Moroccans for tea and coffee. Sam kept on the bottle of anisee, holding up her cup to the electric light as she poured in the water. And Richard held the bottle of whiskey in one hand and his cup in the other since he didn’t take much time between shots, unless he was ready for a cigarette. They were quiet for the most part, looking at the floor or the ugly wall ahead, and then Richard said:

“Do you want to go out tonight? It is your last night in Morocco and Casablanca is supposed to be a party town.”

“Is it supposed to be?” she said mockingly.

“Well, that’s what I hear. Plus you saw the gay couple romantically kissing and walking hand in hand at the Hassan Two Mosque today. That was a first in Morocco! The people must be less repressed here.”

“I mean, where exactly would you want to go?”

“You know as much as I do about this town. I don’t know, we’ll take out the motorcycle and see what we find.”

“The patron is going to hate us. She already told us the curfew is midnight.”

“That’s nothing ten dirham can’t fix.”

The motorcycle was silver and reflected the night sky wonderfully. Richard had bought it from a friend of his in Marrakech, and he planned to sell it before he left the country. It had fifteen hundred original miles on it which Sam and him had put on together, but after tomorrow how ever many more miles the bike would accumulate would be put on only by Richard. He pushed the bike to the middle of the plaza away from the entrance of the Hotel des Amis, kick-started it, and then said: “I love these women here! I told you that curfew was nothing a small bribe couldn’t change. To think, we’re only paying an equivalent of three-fifty each to stay here. The Western world has it all wrong, Sam. Whoever started charging eighty bucks for a hotel room a night in America was a fucking crook!”

Sam didn’t say anything.

As they drove through the winding alleys of the medina, Sam held on tight to Richard. It is possible that she did this because she was cold, but it was the look on her face which made one think she was doing this to savor her last feelings of love for this man. Her eyes were closed, her lips were slightly parted with the faint hint of a smile, and she pressed her cheek warmly against his back. Sometimes Richard could have sworn that he heard her sigh, and at other times it seemed that she was rubbing herself against him. If she was he didn’t want to know, not because he wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening but because he knew if he talked about it he would ruin the moment for her. So he continued to drive looking straight ahead, driving faster and faster as he felt her wriggling behind him. They were now outside of the medina going down the Atlantic Coast, and he tried not to pay attention to anything but the road. And when he finally heard her let out a subtle moan and loosen her grip, he slowed down the bike for the first time, turned around, and started toward Boulevard Mohammed el Hansali and Boulevard Mohammed V, which was outside the medina. He didn’t know of any clubs there, but he had seen many flashing lights when they drove past ten minutes previous and thought it would be a good place to look.

They drove down Mohammed V and decided they would go to the first club they saw. Richard seemed to not only be physically drunk but mentally drunk as well. Any time he stopped at a red light, which only was when certain death seemed inevitable, he would rev his engine until the light turned green. And when it did he would kick his bike into first and speed away even faster than the crazy Moroccan drivers. Sam told him to slow down, but he couldn’t get a hold of himself. And when he saw the first club with flashing lights he swerved into oncoming traffic, squeezed between the moving cars and the parked ones, rode up onto the sidewalk, somehow managed to stop the bike smoothly, and then jumped off it with his keys in hand before Sam could even scream from fright. Sam did not seem impressed.

The club had a cover charge of fifty dirham, which is an equivalent to five Euros, and this seemed a bit pricey to the couple. “Do you mind if I go take a look?” asked Richard. The door man let him in and Sam stood outside looking at the sign above the doorman which read: CABARET EMBASSY. She thought this club was located in a strange place. It was right next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken. She was also surprised by the fact that she hadn’t noticed it before, because it was right behind the Cafe de France, which is the most noticeable cafe outside the medina. But, of course, this club was always closed during the day and looked like a little hole-in-the-wall joint even now when it was open. The couple had walked by it many times and had never taken a second glance at it.

Richard came back and said, “This place is wild. We should go in.”

“I don’t really have fifty dirham to spend. I only have thirty now, and I’ll need it for food before I go to the airport tomorrow. I’ll walk home and see you when you get back.”

“No, you can’t do that. You’ll disturb the patron! Since it’s your last night I’ll pay for it. And really, the cover isn’t bad and plus it comes with a drink.”

They walked to the doorman and Richard handed him the hundred, and then the couple walked down the stairs into the basement, split apart a black, velvet curtain and heard a blast of electric sound. “Isn’t this great!” Sam looked over the crowd. Everybody had their arms up in the air dancing in a way she hadn’t seen before. There were women everywhere wearing short little dresses and smoking hookah with the men at their tables, and they were drinking beer too. This was the first time Sam had seen this kind of female behavior in Morocco, and she figured Richard must have been correct when he said people were less repressed in Casa. “What do you want to drink?”

Sam said, “A whiskey.”

“You go get a table and I’ll be right back.”

Richard found Sam over in the corner and laid a whiskey in front of her. She took a sip and said thank you. She looked over the scene again with a crooked kind of smile. Richard had taken note of what the other men were doing and started to dance the way they were. It seemed to be natural with the kind of music he was hearing. Sam started watching him and then snapped out of the trance she was in. “Those guys over there…” She pointed to the next table, “are New Yorkers. They introduced themselves to me when I sat down.”

Richard looked at the stage. Everybody seemed incredibly drunk to him. The men were getting on stage and dancing with the fat women singers with their arms in the air and shaking their bodies like worms. Richard thought they looked possessed. He didn’t know what was going on or what he was hearing, so he leaned over on the banquet toward the next table and started conversation.

Salam alaikum.”

“Alaikum salam,” Said one man from the group of five who sat closest to Richard.

“Hey, my girlfriend over here says you are from New York.”

“Yeah, we’ve all been living in New York for twenty years. Where’re you two from?”

“We’re from New York too. Bushwick area. Where you from?”

“Astoria.”

“Nice. Yeah, me and my friends like to go there. Play some backgammon, smoke some hookah. We actually almost lived in Astoria once.”

Sam chimed in: “We didn’t almost live there. Honestly this place was uninhabitable,” Sam said to the other man. “It was a basement in someone’s laundry room. It was a railroad apartment in a dungeon. We could see this beautiful backyard but the door was sealed with cement; and only the people upstairs could use it. It wasn’t fit for human beings! You’d have to pay me to live there.”

“Well, it was nine hundred a month for a two bedroom,” Richard said to the man. “I would have lived there.”

“Two bedroom?” said Sam scornfully. “One room was a hallway, and the other was a closet you couldn’t even stand up in.”

“Anyway, I would have lived there,” Richard reiterated. “How long are you in town for?”

“We’re going to stay for a couple months, visit the family, you know?”

“Cool, live it up for a bit, eh? Is this a club you come to often?”

“Naw, it’s our friend’s birthday.” He pointed to one in his group. He blew out some smoke from a hookah and then said, “you want some?”.

“Yeah,” said Richard.

“We like to come here for a couple months every year. Come back to the homeland. How long are you two staying for?”

“We’ve been in Morocco for a month. Sam is leaving tomorrow, but I’m here for a while longer. Say, what’s the name of this music?”

“It’s called Chaabi. It means popular, but It’s country and  mountain music.”

Sam hadn’t been listening to them. She was surveying the crowd again, and then some kind of greater understanding occurred and she pulled at Richard’s sleeve.

“What is it?”

“Ask him if these women are prostitutes. I keep seeing them go from table to table.”

“You think all of these women are prostitutes?” Richard looked around the room with a new pair of eyes. Why were they all wearing these trashy looking, sequin sparkling mini-dresses? Why had they all applied such heavy make-up? And yes, why were they jumping from table to table, talking to almost every man in the bar?

Richard leaned over toward the man. “Wait, are all these women prostitutes?”

The man didn’t even look around. “Yes, every woman who is in this club is a prostitute.”

“Really?”

Sam pulled Richard’s sleeve again. “Ask him how much they are.”

“Hey, man.” Richard handed him back the hookah. “How much are one of these girls?”

“Why, you want one?” He laughed.

“She wants to know.” And Richard looked over at Sam.

“Damn, you get down like that?”

“Naw, she’s just curious.”

“Well, for me they are about three hundred. For you, probably about six hundred, all night. They have different prices for foreigners.”

“All night, eh?” said Richard curiously. “Wait.” He leaned over to Sam. “He says they cost three hundred for him; six hundred for us.” Richard leaned back over to the man. “Wait, so this is a normal practice?”

“Yeah, all over the place.”

“Would you say all women who go to bars are prostitutes?”

“I wouldn’t say one hundred percent, but probably about eighty percent are.”

“Crazy! I never knew that.” He went back over to Sam. “He says all of these women are definitely prostitutes, and about eighty percent of all women in bars are prostitutes.”

The couple polished off their whiskeys. “Wow,” said Sam. She looked all around. “This is amazing.” On stage nothing had changed. The blue Christmas lights were still flashing , drunken men were still dancing, but the women singers seemed to have forgotten they were singing and were now just drinking beers on the side. Sam pulled out her camera and started filming.

The man saw what Sam was doing and leaned toward Richard. “What is she doing?”

“We’re journalists. We write for a website that covers cultural music. We want to get some footage for an article.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” he said. “These people have families and, you know, different identities in the day.”

“Don’t worry,” said Richard. “Our audience is predominantly American. Everybody’s identity will be protected.”

The man seemed not to like this response, but he sat back in his seat and continued to smoke his hookah. Some prostitute had the demon running through her and went on a rampage, hopping from man to man, swinging her head in circles like a rocker. Sam quickly started to film her when she attacked one drunken soul who sat near them. The man from Queens looked over at the couple with little respect as Sam filmed the woman.

Sam said, “I’m having such a great time, and now I have to leave Morocco. I’m sad. I wish I could stay.”

Richard looked at the scene around him, the prostitute hopping onto another man, the crowd drunk and falling on the floor, the man next to them giving the evil eye, and then Richard said, “Trust me, I think it’s better this way.”

Locations In Casablanca

Hôtel des Amis
12 Rue Markazia
Casablanca, Morocco

Google Maps

Cabaret Embassy
2 Boulevard Mohammed V
Casablanca, Morocco

Google Maps

Cafe de France
Boulevard Mohammed V
Casablanca, Morocco

Google Maps



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Chicago, Illinois

These Are the Things We Have Always Been Doing

By John Thurgood

So, ten minutes into the bike ride, it starts raining. But really raining. And out of nowhere. Me and Julio, we’re in front of a psychiatric ward when it starts coming down, so we ride over to their metal awning for shelter, but the wind is really thrashing. The awning doesn’t do much to keep us dry, and the over-washed, button-up t-shirt I’m wearing isn’t doing much to cut the wind either.

Standing there, not sure how long this storm is going to last, we try to figure out what to do, when the door to the psych ward opens and a squirrely eyed janitor invites us in. He’s not wearing a uniform, and the only reason I assume he’s the janitor is because he’s holding a walkie-talkie. He leans his whole body into the weight of the door to hold it open. It’s a little weird that he doesn’t just step outside, like he can’t break the threshold or something.

“What about our bikes?” Julio asks.

“Sure, bring ’em in.”

He waves us in, and we follow, struggling to get our bikes through the heavy metal door.

The lobby is bright, and everything—the linoleum, the painted cinder walls, and the cheap ceiling panels—are a sterile white that makes the whole place look stiff and uncomfortable.

“You boys sure did pick a bad time to ride your bikes. You don’t check the weather reports?” The janitor stands with his arms crossed over his chest, a little righteous.

We mumble that we don’t, and I look around at the posters lining the lobby walls. They’re all white poster board with magic maker and glitter. The writing is squiggly and riddled with spelling errors.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“It’s a psychiatric ward for autistic children.” Then he goes into a long argument defending the need for long-term care for autistic children. I had heard about it on This American Life, so I understand where the guy is coming from, and resist the temptation to bring up the TAL episode—I don’t want to sound insensitive. And from the look on the guys face, it doesn’t seem like he gets this opportunity very often. So, I listen while he talks his job up, and glance around the lobby, somewhat disappointed that this scenario hadn’t turned into an H. P. Lovecraft novel but a learning experience, instead. I usually welcome both, equally.

Julio is the first to notice the rain letting up. The janitor is a little disappointed that we have to go. I’m not sure what he had planned, but I guess standing around shooting the shit is better than cleaning up vomit or whatever duties he was avoiding by standing down here talking with us.

Outside, the streets are glistening from the streetlights reflecting off the freshly wet asphalt and shallow puddles. There is still a slight drizzle, but we start riding anyway. We were headed to a show at the Empty Bottle when the rain started, and we are going to miss the first band for sure now—we were already a little late before we got caught up in the storm.

The Strange Boys are playing, a band that I don’t care too much about, but Julio is really into. They add a southern mojo hand to SF’s garage sound that, I guess, really does it for a few people. They’re pretty popular anyway, and I always see their records at Reckless but seem to pass them up for something else every time.

The cool thing about it raining is that when we get to the Bottle, we find a spot to lock-up right in front.

There’s a nice little restaurant next door to the Bottle called Bite Café. I guess it’s ran by the guys at Empty Bottle. But while we’re locking up, the singer from the Ponys comes out, looks around, then goes back inside.

“Hey, that was the dude from the Ponys,” Julio kind of laughs.

“Why didn’t you ask him about CB2?”

Julio works at Crate & Barrel’s sister company, CB2, which is basically a cheaper version of the former. They make dorm room furniture and weird knick-knacks. But, for the past few months, Julio has been trying to get bands to come into their warehouse to play a show. It’s kind of a great idea, but he’s had little luck with it so far.

“Yeah,” Julio says, shrugging, “I haven’t sent them an email about it, but I probably should.”

When we get inside, the first band is already off stage, and the crowd is well into its shift to the bar. Julio offers to buy first drinks, and ten minutes later, he comes back with Old Milwaukee.

The Empty Bottle has been around for a little less than ten years, and before that it was another venue with a different name and owner. But at one point it must have been a store front or someone’s apartment, because the layout of the place is somewhat unconventional. The entrance opens to what I assume was once a living room, where a pool table now sits and a table for merch. Two arcade games are in the corner. That room leads to a hall of disheveled brick with a Mrs. Pacman game and a few doorways to the main room with the stage and bar. It’s an interesting set-up, and they always have some type of whiskey and beer special for five bucks. So, music aside, I would go there anyway.

The next band to get on stage is White Fence, which is basically Tim Presley wiggling around with a guitar strapped to his chest. I kind of love it, and so does most everyone in the crowd. He looks like an unkempt businessman that at one point lost his way, and now croons about it.

At one point in the show someone yells out, “What kind of pants are those?”

Presley replies, “They’re Docker’s,” and somehow makes it sound sexy, which pretty much sums-up their whole performance.

White Fence plays their set, and two Old Milwaukees later, the Strange Boys take to the stage.

Julio makes his way up to the front before it gets too crowded, and I follow. While the band is getting ready we position ourselves in front of one of the microphones. I don’t normally like to stand right up front, but Julio is really into the band, so what the hell, I do it anyway.

Ryan Sambol steps up to the mic in front of us, and thanks White Fence and the band before them, then talks a little about his day while tuning his guitar. The crowd starts to fill-in. And then the band opens with “Poem Party.”

The Strange Boys are a little younger than Julio and I, and they’re all strapping young men. When Sambol sings, he takes on a sort of heavy, bedroom glare that I’m sure is meant for the teenage girls swarming the stage and not me and Julio. So, it’s a little weird that we’re standing directly in front of him.

Awkwardness aside, they play a great set, and afterward Julio and I step outside to enjoy an after-show cigarette. On the way out, Julio buys a White Fence cassette tape. It’s of a live show they did in LA. There are only 200 copies, a collectable, but I suspect he bought it only because it was recorded onto a cassette.

He’s holding the tape, looking it over as we walk to our bikes. He says something about the tape being cool, and I agree and take out a cigarette and light it.

He asks me for a cigarette, I give him one, plus my lighter, and we stand there for a while taking in the sweet, humid smell of a summer night in Chicago.

After a few drags, Sambol dashes out of the venue, chasing down the hot tamale guy.  When he walks back, he’s carrying a plastic sack of tamales in one hand and munching on one in the other. We wave him over.

Introductions all around. He no doubt recognizes us as the dudes swarming the stage and pins us as a pair of fanatics.

Sambol takes a bit of tamale, looks at a sliver of pepper dangling from the end and with a full mouth asks, “What do you think that is?”

“Pshh,” Julio says, “that’s not the real tamale guy. Those things are tiny.” He laughs.

“Hey, it’s food, though.” Sambol raises the bag of tamales. “And right now they taste just like I want them to.”

We compliment him on the show and his mild success, and he tells us a little about the tour so far, then Julio breeches the CB2 topic. Julio had emailed someone in the band about it, but judging by the look on Sambol’s face, it was not him.

“Yeah, they said there just wasn’t enough time this time,” Julio says. “But next time you should; for sure, you should definitely stop in.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. We’re playing a show in Milwaukee tomorrow night.” Sambol takes out another tamale. “It sounds fun, though. What is it again? A radio station?”

Julio laughs. “No man, it’s a studio, an artist’s studio for CB2.”

Julio walks around a clear explanation of what CB2 actually is, and Sambol munches on his tamale, obviously confused but willing to listen, probably still thinking we’re fanatics.

Finally, I cut Julio off, and plainly state that CB2 is the sister company of Crate & Barrel. They make dorm room furniture and knick knacks.

Sambol smiles. “So wait a minute. You want us to play at the store?”

“No,” Julio says, “at the studio.”

“You’d be playing for the office, kind of,” I add.

There is an awkward pause.

“Whoa, I thought you guys were a radio station. Whoa, that’s kind of weird.”

“But it’s an interesting space,” Julio adds.

Sambol takes another bit of tamale. “And you guys will be recording this?”

“Sure. We can record it. Maybe arrange something with the corporate office. You guys could be sponsors or something. I’ve been talking to other bands about it. Thee Oh Sees and Sandwiches. I think Sandwiches might do it.”

Sambol thinks it over.

A girl runs over with an album. I see her at shows all the time. When King Khan played she jumped up on stage and made out with him, then did it again, like seven more times. It got weird. Her album has signatures all over it from the rest of the band, and she asks Sambol to sign it.

After he signs, he turns back to us, and after a second says, “Man, that’s a hard sell.”

Apparently it is, so Julio drops the subject, and we talk about Austin for a while, because The Strange Boys are living there right now. Then Sambol heads back into the Bottle, and we unlock our bikes and head over to Estelle’s for burgers and a beer.

Estelle’s is right on the corner of North and Damen, where the two streets cross Milwaukee, The Six Corners. It’s the busiest intersection in Wicker Park, and one of the busiest in the whole city.

I’ve been told by a few people that ten years ago Wicker Park was a rough part of town. There’s a scene from an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Red Heat that shows The Six Corners before all the condos and martini bars went in. It was pretty bleak. I interviewed Ron Seymour of Ron Seymour Photography for a project once. His studio has been on that corner since ’88, and he said when he first moved in, he couldn’t walk outside after six. You just didn’t do it. Two friends of his were mugged and killed. One was stabbed and the other was beaten to death. Now, there’s an American Appearal just down from his studio, the first one to open in the Midwest. It stays open until nine. There’s also a Levi’s store, an Urban Outfitters, and a slew of music venues and bars. It basically Chicago’s version of an outdoor mall, and normally I would never go over to that part of town, but Estelle’s is the only place to get a decent burger and a beer past one a.m., so Julio and I lock our bikes up on some scaffolding across the street and go inside and sit at the bar.

My friend Chiara texted me while we were at the show, so I text her back. She’s at Pancho’s in Logan Square. Some friends of hers are in town from Baltimore, and they’re playing a show. She texts back that the show is over, and she’ll meet us at Estelle’s.

The burgers here are probably shipped frozen, but the buns they use are pretty good and the veggies are fresh, and they usually have a good IPA in a can for three or four bucks.

Me and Julio order. Harold and Maude is playing on the TV behind the bar, so we watch that for a while. Julio has never seen it, so I try to explain why the kid is running around with an old lady, but I realize I don’t know what I’m talking about so I just say it’s a good movie and that he should check it out.

It’s a weekday so Estelle’s isn’t all that crowded. There is a group of accountants standing at the bar just down from us, and behind us in a booth is a middle-aged guy with what is most likely a hooker. The rest of the bar is modestly filled with similar folks, bottle-necking as it gets closer to the door.

Chiara shows up while we’re halfway through our burgers, and joins us at the bar. We work together at Nightwood in Pilsen, so we talk about that for a while. Julio is clearly uninterested, and watches the movie.

Chiara moved to Chicago to do a post-back in visual art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her work uses a lot of fabric and three-dimensional shapes. She’s really into embroidery. She also has a bunch of funny tattoos that she refuses to fill-in, like a bandaid and a polar bear among others. They’re all outlines, so it basically looks like she screenprinted her arm with cookie cutters.

We finish eating and decide to head over to the lakefront. Outside, the streets are crowded with lingerers, even though the two a.m. bars let out a half hour ago. Most of them are clutching phones to the sides of their heads, trying to get a hold of something better than just going home, I guess. Taxis are swarming The Six Corners, too. This is their golden hour.  And above everyone’s head, the L clatters up to the Damen stop.

We take North Avenue over to the lake, which we quickly realize is a mistake. North lacks bike lanes, and hasn’t been re-tarred since the fires, or so it seems. The traffic sucks, too, and I almost get hit by a taxis that pulls out in front of me.

We take the North Avenue tunnel under Lake Shore Drive, and ride over to the cement docks. A few kids are swimming off the dock down by the Chess Pavilion, and the water looks really inviting, especially after that bike ride down North. Chiara is clearly thinking about it. Julio is starring off at the John Hancock Building and the wave of skyscrapers looming just a few blocks south. This is a weird part of Chicago, where the lake meets the city. There are two beaches on either side of the docks and up north past the pavilion, Lincoln Park sprawls outward into a grassy preserve.

Swimming off the dock is something I would have done regularly if I had grown up in Chicago—in my underwear, naked, whatever. But now it just seems cheesy. To jump in now would only be forcing a sense of adventure, and I see the same lackluster resignation on the faces of Chiara and Julio.

I ask if they want to jump in anyway. Chiara smiles and nods, and Julio picks up his bike.

“I think I’m gonna head back and drink a few beers,” Julio says.

I try to get him to stay, but he won’t have it, so he takes off and me and Chiara strip down to our skivvies and jump into the frigid depths of Lake Michigan.

The water is dark, and I can’t tell how deep it is. Looking outward, it seems endless, like the ocean, and I start to wonder if there are any Buick-sized catfish or equally large crawdads lurking down by my feet, waiting to pull under an early morning swimmer.

The cold water feels great, and me and Chiara make-out a little as we tread around.

There’s a yellow ladder up the side of the dock, and we use it to climb out. We jump in a few more times, then get dressed. As we gather some sort of plan, a K-9 unit drives by on the bike path. Five minutes earlier, they would have given us tickets or told us to leave. Good timing, I guess.

We head down the bike path and take the tunnel over to Michigan Avenue. There is something strange about swimming in one of great North America lakes, then, right after, riding down the six lane thoroughfare of Chicago’s busiest shopping district. Like I said, it’s a weird part of Chicago.

We ride down to Chiara’s. She lives in Bridgeport, and once we get through downtown we cross over to State Street, take Archer through Chinatown and then end up in her neighborhood. It’s a nice ride, and the streets are empty.

We stash our bikes in Chiara’s basement, and head up to her roof. Some friends of hers gave her a few home brews, so we take a bottle each up with us. The beers turn out to be terrible, but we drink them anyway, and spend the rest of the night up there looking out over the pitched roofs of residential south Chicago, talking and doing whatever until the sun pops up in the east.

Locations in Chicago

Empty Bottle
1035 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
(773) 276-3600
emptybottle.com

Bite Cafe
1039 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
(773) 395-2483
bitecafechicago.com

Reckless Records
26 N. Broadway
Chicago, Illinois 60657
(773) 404-5080
reckless.com

Estelle’s
2013 W. North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 782-0450
estelleschicago.com

Ronald Seymour Inc.
1625 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 235-0161
ronseymour.com

Pancho’s
2202 N. California Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 384-1865
Google Maps

Nightwood
2119 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60608
(312) 526-3385
nightwoodrestaurant.com



Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Saturday Nights in Sinza

By Richard Prins

The Mwenge Bus Stand: April, 2010

It’s Saturday night, and like the rest of Dar es Salaam, I’m in pursuit of starehe. Good times. Cold lager. Loud laughter. Callipygian women. And the most delicious music I can find. Nine o’clock is approaching and I’m still alone in the room I rent from my friend’s mother, sipping brandy and listening to “The Heart of Saturday Night” to remind myself what melancholy tastes like. I’m sending text messages, receiving urgent beeps. Every time I come here to my second favorite city the Saturday night circuit has changed. Last year’s top club got arrogant and started charging entrance fees, so all the penny pinching thrill-seekers fled to freer pastures. This year Milton Nyerere, grandson of Tanzania’s first president and patron socialist saint, has remodeled the dying Paris Club and christened it The Calabash. With its own house band that covers soukous, Bongo Flava, taarab, Afro and Euro and American pop, it’s the place to sell your face in 2010. People come all the way from Msasani, where the ministers and diplomats live, to dance and drink here in Mlalakua, the slummiest neighborhood in Sinza.

When I get home to New York and resume my studies, there are many things I’ll miss. Swahili and its fluid angularity; my friends’ antic-some sagas and grandiose hustles; all the strangers (there is no Swahili word for stranger), our spontaneous conversations, and being called Jesus for my hirsute benevolence in the bars, in the streets, in my home, even in bed. But I won’t pine for anything more than the starehe of Sinza, where joy is never more than 1,500 shillings away (500 ml beers generally run you slightly more than a dollar). I’ll even be plagued by dreams where I hop a Thursday night plane to Dar, only to realize I have to cut my Saturday night short to make it to Monday class on time. Most visitors to Tanzania find Dar es Salaam, the third-fastest-growing city in the world, ugly, unplanned, dirty, nothing more than a place to sleep and board a plane, just a stop on their way to animal-voyeuring or rural do-gooding. But if you find yourself in Tanzania, I highly recommend you ride a daladala to the Mwenge bus stand; all of the locales I profile here are within walking distance.

The Mwenge bus stand, Dar es Salaam


AMBIANCE: July, 2007

My first night out in Dar es Salaam. With my new mzungu friend, whom I hated for speaking better Swahili than me, and his mshikaji Ambrose. I also hated that when they first greeted each other as “mshikaji,” I thought they were calling each other “mshikaki,” which means “shish kebab” instead of “homeboy.” And they laughed at my expense, which is all part of being a mzungu. A neon turquoise sign glittered, AMBIANCE. Ambrose spoke to a thick brick of a man and handed him a 5,000 shilling note. We breezed past with halted glances as the bouncer pocketed our discounted entry fee. A deep, buoyant bass line rumbled in my ears and under my feet, lights strobed past the surprisingly sparse dance floor, illuminating the bar’s swarm of scanty-dressers. Through a barred window, Ambrose got all of us Safaris. Mike and Ambrose bounced into the limelight, which had more mirrors on its walls than people on its floor, and scores of drink-nurses on its outskirts. Mike threw up his hands like a frat boy and revolved a few times stiffly.

My beer twirled my hips into motion; I hadn’t felt so visible since I was the only person not dancing at the bar mitzvahs of seventh grade. I caught an eye that had set upon me, sparkling like her can of hard cider, which clinked a man’s Tusker. She wore a button-laden shirt with a price tag, in dollars, still dangling from the sleeve. She laughed at a joke that couldn’t possibly be audible over the pidgin grunts of “Banjuka Tu” (the latest track out of Kenya), let alone funny. Mike and Ambrose still had their hands up like frat boys. A splash of beer sloshed out of the bottle in Mike’s hand as he executed a few more flat footed semi-turns.

There was a howl in my ear; the sparkly-eyed lady nearly tripped over her heels (two sizes too big) to seize my shoulders and sway her hips in a smoother replication of my own. Bejeweled pink tendrils emanated from her thighs. She clapped with all her wingspan and whooped like a Maenad at the disco ball suspended from the ceiling. Again she gave my shoulders a whack. “Enjoy!” she ordered me, and spun around to rollick her buttocks. So I palmed the small of her back and traced her undulations, as she performed acrobatic squat-thrusts before me, her eyes transfixed by the narrow mirror, lapping up the sight of us amidst the coruscating postures. Dozens flocked to the dance floor. Young men banded together to hail each other’s moves. Mike had picked up a girl of his own, though she was already swinging her head to the disinterested left and right on every beat. I cupped my hands to my partner’s ear, so she might know I spoke Swahili.

“I’m the only one who doesn’t know the words!”

She cackled, “You will know!” She flattened herself against the mirror, one leg off the ground like a micturating dog, her hips vibrating hummingbirds flailing against the glass. Ambrose’s hand landed heavily on my shoulder, “Remember Jesus, if you fuck a prostitute, just use a condom.”

And the world made a numbing sort of sense again. The song ended, and something American began to play, presumably to appease us wazungu who had lured everybody to the dance floor. She scampered towards the bar in a manner that assumed I would follow. But I only broke away from the dance floor to lose myself in a crowd of hungry eyes, their word-breathing lips like mosquitoes scanning for veins on each other’s faces.

And I recognized the English song:

Now that it’s raining more than ever

Know that we’ll still have each other

You can stand under my umbrella

Ella, ella, eh eh eh

Under my umbrella

Ella, ella, eh eh eh

The dancers tossed up their arms with added vigor on the chorus of “Ella!” Hela. Swahili for cash. The entire room supplicant at the very mention of it.

Ambrose bellowed an earthquake into my ear, “Jesus! Let me take you a beer! Look at all the vicheche!” He’d already taught me the slang word for loose women; Vicheche refers to a type of savannah weasel that emits foul fumes from its anal glands.

Me with friends at local liquor bar, Dar es Salaam


I sought an empty bar stool among the diamond of miniature counters hung from the ceiling by strip-club-style poles. And there were thick arms around my waist. Grappled from behind, as if the barstool had been resurrected as an anthropomorphic tree. “I laaav you!” wailed my assailant, a chunky woman with glittery makeup and braids like chutes, eyes shuttered in blind drunk bliss. “Take me home!”

“Home? Where’s home?”

“Where you come from!”

“But you’re too drunk to walk!”

“No! I laaav you your body!!”

The middle-aged man she was sitting with frowned resentfully, cursing himself for buying her a last drink before getting down to business. Mike and Ambrose came pursuing new beers, Mike’s brow slick with sweat, cheekbones languid with intoxication. They saw the gridlock I walked into, and laughed to my rescue.

“She wants Jesus to save her,” Ambrose snorted.

“Save me! Take me!”

“I bless you!” I repeated for the dozenth time that day. Then the motion of dramatically, Jesusly placing my hands on somebody’s head. “Now go in peace!”

“No!” she stumbled to her feet, taller than me, huger than me, still gripping me.

Ambrose jabbered angrily. She screamed something back, crudely caressing my Jesus tangles. Ambrose stuck two fingers in his mouth for a shrill whistle, “Bouncer!” He gave a strong yank on one of her arms but she didn’t come loose. He tore at the other arm and my scalp burned at the pull of hair. He cocked his arm to strike; she cleared the counter of empty beers, flung one bar stool at Ambrose, the other at me. The hulk bouncer then dragged her away with much shrieking and little effort.

“Crazy bitch, huh!” Mike was impressed by how the night had developed. “Too bad she wasn’t good looking.”

“I hate that shit!” Ambrose fumed, finally releasing his pent-up punch in a thwarted fist pump.

“Man, I could tell you just wanted to fucking smack her,” Mike commiserated.

“We fuck her!” Ambrose Englished back. “Three dicks, one pussy!”

And not even misogyny could dispel a sumptuous alliteration assembling in my brain. “Kicheche kichaa!”

“Jesus! I take you another beer! She broke yours!”

“She must have been a Pentecostal!”

“Hope she’s not too hungover for church tomorrow.”

We colonized a countertop and sipped our last drinks. The blue label on the Safari Lager read:

As the red sun sets, like a growing tribute to our work, our pride, our tomorrows, one reward is in order. Full bodied, full flavoured, a beer for a people of purpose. Safari Lager, more than just a beer.

Meeda Club: October, 2007

She was rotund, bouncy and loud. Chilu liked that; on Meeda’s dance floor, he dove to her and hung from her thick neckline. She whooped and held up his puny frame for a few gyrations.

After stumbling off his feet one too many times, he pushed me into her and growled like a chainsaw, “Try it, Jesus!”

I traced her enormous butt’s rapid pumping with his hips. That’s right, my mind echoed with boozy laughter, I’m that white boy who knows how to shake his ass.

A dreadlocked someone slapped at my pocket and skittered away. I thumped my wallet into my thigh – still there, the fool didn’t know what to do with the baggy African pants I wore, their pockets six inches deep.

“That one tried to rob me!” I pointed, marveling to my partner.

She tossed her loose braids and a glance across her shoulder, then backed up into me like a pickup truck with hydraulics. “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! We have fun!”

Chilu returned to drag us out past the club’s patio; he led the way, but we balanced his dipsomaniacal gait. As they bargained, a familiar voice spoke to me from the darkness.

“How have you been, Jesus?”

“Cool, cool,” I bobbed my head, not recognizing the speaker. (I swear, I can usually tell one black person from another, but without streetlights, I can’t tell a black face from black night.)

“You didn’t get my email?”

Now I saw the corvine visage was Teacher’s. “Email? What email?” Last week he pawned his phone to the bartender for beer money; he promised he’d be sending me an email.

“About the school for street kids I’m starting?”

“Ah, didn’t see it. You know how the internet is mad slow around here,” I dropped my voice as though we shared some cosmopolitan understanding.

“My birthday is next Tuesday, you know?”

“Cool, cool, we’ll have to get some beers.”

Now I heard Chilu snap, “No, my dorm! Me and Jesus, we fuck you, 25,000 shillings.”

“Hell no!” she stomped a conniption in the road. “Rent a guest house. Then we all tombatomba!”

A lesson in Swahili grammar: Tomba means to fuck. Tombatomba means to fuck a lot.

Bwaga!” I tried coaxing Chilu out of his fixation. Drop it.

“Jesus, you have money for a taxi?”

“Your dorm’s a block away!” Half a block; we were already walking. “You’re drunk, let’s sleep!”

“No! Guest house!” she hollered, still adamant.

“Chilu, I don’t want it, you know I have a girlfriend.”

“You have two girlfriends!” Chilu snickered, flashing a pronged peace sign. “What’s a third!”

Hard to argue with that logic. But I already knew that Chilu would shortly throw a fit. Either right now. Or at the gate in front of dozing guards. Or in Chilu’s room and wake up our friends.

And then a firm, muscular wrist seized me by the Adam’s apple and whisked me off my feet. I hung from the arm like pants from a clothesline; another shadow barked in my ear, “White phone! White phone!”

The prostitute scattered as a fist exploded in Chilu’s face.

“If you’re gonna mug me, mug me in Swahili,” I gurgled my lifeline, and was placed back on my feet.

Simu iko wapi?” he demanded, less gruffly.

“In my pocket. The other pocket.”

He tore at the pants, and out popped a phone. He picked it off the ground, and unsnapped Tevas from my feet as expertly as one might a brassiere.

Kuma mamao!” I roared to the sky and Chilu, who was shirtless with a mustache of blood. Their mothers’ pussies.

“The bastards take my phone! My Professor Jay shirt!”

In the morning, I am that whiteboy walking barefoot to the daladala stand, preparing to beg for a free ride back to the university.

Did I pass her on the road? It was so dark last night – but what other heavyset, curly-braided woman would be slapping cahoots with a thick-wristed thug, his tall dreadlocks still glowering?

Maasai locals at local liquor bar, Dar es Salaam


Gaspar’s Place & Pluto: December, 2007

Teacher was surprised next Tuesday when I showed up at the squathouse he hoped to convert into a makeshift English school. The structure resembled Stonehenge, but instead of tourists, the neighborhood riff raff sat on cinder blocks, dragging on a joint and freestyling in Swahili. I didn’t partake in the joint, as I had reason to believe Teacher’s drinking was interfering with the efficacy of his TB medication. I was, however, pressured into reciting the one Swahili poem I’d written, which propagates an afrocentric theory of Jesus’s ethnicity. I had brought ten thousand shillings; Teacher ditched his customers and students so we could enjoy four rounds on two stools at a short wooden table. Gaspar’s Place was the name of the kiosk that had a large cooler, and an excellent collection of old-school hip-hop records donated by the regulars.

“Jesus, this means a lot to me, man,” Teacher’s baritone began to wobble on his fourth Safari. “Those years in the Lower East Side, I froze my ass every birthday! Nobody ever did this for me!”

“You ain’t freezing now,” I clapped his knobby shoulder, referring less to my beneficence than to the blanket of sweat that had followed me around the past five months.

“Who has paper!” Teacher shouted. “What’s your birthday, Jesus? Everybody here, tell me your birthday so I can write it down!”

I ripped a page out of my palm-sized notebook so Teacher wouldn’t see what I had already written about him. “February 6. But I’ll be back home by Christmas.”

“Then we’ll have a going away party instead! Pablo Escobar, what’s yours?”

The characters of Gaspar’s Place stopped reiterating their stances on the latest beef between Kanye and 50-Cent, and began shouting out their birthdays. Most of them are former members of the faux-gang Sewaside, some of them having made cameos in Swahili hip-hop music videos, others having made late-night promises to me that we’d record a single together at Bongo Records, any day now. “I never knew,” Scarface, the elder statesman of the local drunks and veteran bar-brawler, shrugged. “But I think I’m almost sixty.” I couldn’t stop staring at his face; he had a new gash in his left cheek, an inch long and almost as deep, his skin cratered with infected, desiccated pus the color of strawberry shortcake. I couldn’t imagine how much that hurt.

“Another round, Jesus?”

Niko mbovu,” I unidiomatically stated that I was “broke,” unwittingly using a phrase that essentially referred to myself as a “broken person,” i.e. a prostitute. It’s quite fortunate that East Africans have an uncanny ability to understand any and all manglings of their language.

“A moneyless mzungu!” Scarface snapped his fingers, his craggy face suddenly pneumatic with awe. “But a sociable one! Teacher, compare Jesus to the others. There is a reason the Tanzanians go around with him – he mixes himself! None of the others will sleep in Kijitonyama Hostel! Or come drink with us at Gaspar’s Place! But when you see Jesus, you see he is a man of the people!”

Buying people beers always pays off in excessive praise. “That’s right!” Teacher pounded the table. “It’s because he knows the Lower East Side! When I was a squatter there, we drank Midnight Dragon every night, and smashed the bottles when they were empty! Jesus, I’ll show you how the other half lives! We drank Safari tonight, but most of my people can’t afford Safari. They drink gongo, you know what that is?”

“I know it ain’t legal!” I arched an eyebrow, and followed him across the highway to the paths, where I couldn’t see the mud puddles and continually step in them.

“Everybody welcome Jesus to Pluto!” Teacher debuted me to a room with mudded floors, dim kerosene lamps and dimmer eyelids. “They call it Pluto because when you come here, you’ll never get back! Tell me, sister, have you ever seen a white man here before?”

The waitress nodded, unimpressed, “One time.”

“Damn,” Teacher pumped his fist in dismay. I too was dismayed that I could not claim, like Columbus, to have discovered this foreign land. “But I bet he wasn’t drinking no gongo!”

“He came from World Bank.”

“The bastards! I translated for them once and took them to Meeda. As soon as they saw how much beer we drink, I saw their eyes clicking, calculating how much money they could make if they just got us drinking Heinekens! Kuma mamao, bring us some gongo!”

For two coins, she brought us a jam jar filled with foggy liquid. Teacher had a deep sip and passed it along with an involuntary grimace. I lifted it to my lips and saw suspended debris, smelled corn husk, crucifixion and rubber cement.

“You quoted Jacob Riis earlier!” I realized. “You do know the Lower East Side!”

Every swig gagged me, hammered my head bluntly. I got so drunk on poverty that I fell in mud on my way back to the hostel and ruined my favorite dashiki.


Locations in Dar es Salaam

Mwenge Bus Stand
Google Maps

The Calabash
Sam Nujoma Road between Mlimani City and the Mwenge bus stand
(The intersection of Sam Nujoma Road and Bagamoyo Road)


Ambiance
Shekilango Road

Gaspar’s Place
Mlalakua (If it’s street is on the map it’s one of those forking out
behind the Calabash on the Mlimani City side of Sam Nujoma Road)

NOTE: People in Dar es Salaan don’t usually use street names, due to the fact that they don’t have signs. All of the listings above are educated guesses. The best way for anybody to get to get to these locations is to go to the Mwenge bus stand and just ask an autoriksha driver.