Confession by the Stream

Kids in Kenya

We used to find the dry chicken shit on the ground, not the fresh stuff, and use it for toothpaste, rub it on the teeth. If you ask Amina, Amina will tell you. I have so many Aminas, but this one had a big heart, even if she was a thief. She and I were how old? Smaller than Kamau is now. Who is that age that you know? I can’t think of anyone, but I was young. I don’t know where we learned to do that. We didn’t eat it, just use it for toothpaste. I was born with very white teeth, but it was those days of using chicken shit that made my teeth what they are today. Amina could steal your dress or a blouse and wear it in front of you. She could rob anyone, a Japanese or European or an African. There is still a Japanese looking for her. She is a drunkard today in Nairobi West, twenty four seven.

Amina’s house had one of the first TV’s in the neighborhood then. When her mother went out one day the brothers decided like doctors to do an operation on the TV to find out how the people got inside from the back of the TV. They took it apart to find the people in there. How did those little people get into the TV from behind and how could they be so small. Everyone was watching to see where the people were, how they could fit in and live there and be so real. The TV was in parts all over the place. We never found the people and the operation never finished. Those boys were beaten like nobody’s business when Amina’s mother came home. They also broke the radio with an operation looking for the voices inside.

I had to clean the house and compound every day even before I started primary school and we had a cat that used to shit in the house and it was my job to clean up after the cat. I was the only child with the same father and my Mother hated me sometimes, not because of what I did, but because I made life difficult for her, like I was extra baggage. Maybe she knew I would be like her when I was older and she hated herself or her life, so she had to hate me in advance. But I love her now in her grave. I love her so much. I think of her every time we pass the roundabout below the cemetery and I know she is looking over me. She used to beat me like it was my fault that my Father took another wife.

I called my cousin over to take care of the cat problem, we were living in Kiambu, and even if it looks like a paradise, it was for me terrible at times, I used to go to my special hiding place down by the river where I could just sit away from everyone and think. My cousin came and I told him to get rid of the cat and he did. He is now in maximum security in Naivasha, I can’t remember what for. I used to know someone to get him out, but now I don’t know anyone anymore. You know his father. What do you call the father of your cousin? He came up to us on the street yesterday and said hello to us.

Children. That’s why they call them children.My Grandfather's Place

Bookstores I Have Known

Jim Shanor Kibera Grad DayJim Shanor Kibera Grad Day

It is always a good day when you come out of a bookstore with a new load, cargo for the mind. It’s a fix. Can’t say I’ve read any of the ones you chose from Barnes and Noble and mention in your letter,  but they all would have caught my eye, too. I have read an incredible number of titles of books in my life.  Not the books, but the titles. I have read thousands of English and Spanish and Swahili “titles” in a day, sometimes captured by a color scheme or a subconscious font on the spine, sometimes by the clever wordsmithing. Most of the titles I’ve read with my left ear pointing to the ground, the right ear to the sky. English System. That’s the way upscale bookstores organize them. But as you know, the Spanish Title requires the head to tilt the other way. One realizes this when his library contains books from both cultures. My chess book collection taught me this quirk. I sort my chess books by concept, not language. Hence, the rocking heads when people look at my library for the first time. The best bookstores in my memory for reading titles (and author names) are two: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book Store on the corner of Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco and Peace of Mind Bookstore on 15th street, near Peoria Avenue, in Tulsa. They have similarities. Both shops and their proprietors are intending to expand the customers’ minds, not just in fortifying existing opinion or giving a nice campground to the “already convinced.” That would be a Contemporary Christian Bookstore.

I must have told you before of my first experience at City Lights. I was broke, 18 or 19, but interested in browsing both books and back streets, and walking out of Chinatown one night I popped into City Lights for the first time, just a block from the Chinese alleys. I went to one of those book rotisseries, located in the open area not far from the cash register, it spun around with books, not postcards. Many thin publications. I learned later that thin-ness was a clue the book would contain “poems.” I fixed on one called “Coney Island of the Mind.” I liked the title right off. I read it standing on my feet, shifting my weight in time to the phrasing, a Stanford freshmen or Sophomore, wasting time in San Fran, probably going to get back to campus late that night, sleep in the next day, and cut that Accounting One class. Anyway, I read the book, read some more stuff by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac that night. I felt sheepish when I walked empty-handed toward the door to wander back into the fog of SF and I told the cashier I was “…a little short. Sorry, but I just got lost in the poem. Couldn’t afford to buy anything.” He said, “Thanks, Man, that’s alright. Glad you liked it. I wrote it.” That was Ferlinghetti? Hmmmm. Yep, the cashier and the owner and the author. I didn’t really know how big a name he was in “his world,” which was to become a part of “my world” much later. At least the Clashing Cultures, the pushing the edges, the lead-in to contemporary literature as we knew it. I just liked the poem, that’s all. Coney Island of the Mind.

Now, Peace of Mind, the other book store to note: Aromatherapy and massage for women in the basement. Organic herbs and oriental philosophy, exotic literature upstairs. Jainism. Judaism. Occult. Islam. Buddhist art trends. Talking with dead relatives. Sexual Encyclopedias. Yep, right there in Tulsa. The proprietor once told me proudly he thought it was the best book store between the coasts. It’s another place alright, Living on Tulsa Time, half way between New York to SF on the “pool hustler’s southern circuit.” It should be on everyone’s to-do list. The atmosphere and selection are exquisite, the carpeting soft on the eyes, the eucalyptus coming up from the basement… And the owner is open to anyone, come in and browse, have a look around. The world needs more people like that…

So, if you feel outraged by the election and the splits in our US culture and feel you can only function with those who wear the same uniforms we do, then go read Ferlinghetti. He was outraged and split out in the 50’s, more severely than we are. “Coney Island” is a rage, a statement from inside the confusion. But Ferlinghetti also had a kind heart and maybe he saw something in me that told him I might some day open up to his world view. Maybe he didn’t even care about my mindframe that much, or in finding converts or teammates, but he just liked people who came into his shop, no matter what they thought, no matter who their parents were or how they got there, no matter if they came from “corn country,” wore snappy expensive shirts from Renbergs Department Store, thought they were special because they could turn down scholarships at Harvard and Duke, but they just wanted to see another side of life, looking for a “teaching.” He just accepted me as I was, not a Beatnik yet, not radicalized yet, not anti-anything, just inquisitive. I loved his shop. You can find it on the web, virtually. Barnes and Nobles probably has enough meat and potatoes to last another few years in case you don’t pass Columbus and Broadway soon. I, too, enjoyed the Barnes and Nobles shop in Spartanburg. The main reason was the service I got from the bookish clerk, a long-hair, an egg-head, a reader who reminded me of me.

Ahhhhhhhh… Book stores… Steve’s Sundry is another great second hand book store and milkshake stop in Tulsa. And then there is the one in De Soto, Missouri, in a strip mall run by a guy who…

You get the idea.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor