Chapter 13 – Karim of the Crop
On the north side of Chicago is a neighborhood my dad and his fireman buddies refer to as “The League of All Nations.” The League of All Nations can be found along a major east-west thoroughfare known as Devon Avenue between intersections with Kedzie and Western and had been a place that my parents, if they could help it, would avoid driving through. As you head eastbound along sixty-four-hundred north on this mile-long stretch in which “everybody and their mother will not hesitate before walking out in front of your vehicle even when you have the right of way,” the ethnicity of the people that you’re almost running over quickly changes from all Orthodox Jews to a South Asian/Arab fusion that eventually gives way to the ethnic hodgepodge that is the Roger’s Park neighborhood.
Back in grade school, I always viewed this area as something strange, foreign and possibly even dangerous. And if you would’ve told that obsolete version of myself that in college I was gonna be living with “some weird Muslim guy” whose dad owned a restaurant in “The League of all Nations,” I would’ve pegged you for a lunatic and, more likely than not, kicked you in the balls before unleashing a vicious Stone Cold Stunner to set you straight on the subject. But things change and people grow.
My college roommate Zaid is a first generation United States citizen born of Middle Eastern descent. Being the unique individual he is, Zaid has the ability to give people he meets a different and rather skewed perception of the Islamic world. Could it have been the four years he spent at Gordon Technical Catholic high school that caused Zaid to veer away from his Muslim roots and take a more Americanized path? Maybe it had been the four years of higher education he’d spent living with privileged white dickheads in a black Milwaukee neighborhood that led him astray. Then again, perhaps it’s an ongoing process in which every single life decision he makes takes him farther and farther away from the conservative customs that dictate the lifestyle of his parents and closer to who and where he wants to be. I can’t be sure. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Z is ultra-liberal by Sharia standards.
In college, Zaid liked to booze and Zaid liked the bitches. While gettin’ his drink on, Z’s level of intoxication could easily be gauged at any given time by how far his crisp pair of designer jeans sagged below his waistline – the drunker he was, the lower they hung. At times when Shady Zaidy had been so bombed that his pants had slunk below his knees, you could usually find this handsome-ass “Hot Muzz” slumped over at one of the on-campus bars, viewing the world through half-open bloodshot eyes. Every now and then, in far too often unsuccessful attempts at “getting some goo,” Zaid’d approach an unlucky female at whom he’d shout odd combinations of slurred words over the far-too-loud music of Murphy’s Irish Pub. Messages intended to heat up the oven usually served as a major turn-off rendering Zaid goo-less for the evening and “lookin’ like a fool with his pants on the ground.”
On some evenings, however, Zaid’s pants didn’t end up at his ankles just because he’d been intoxicated – although it might’ve had a lot to do with it – but instead had ended up there because he’d actually managed to get himself some of that sweet, sweet goo. The most heroic – not to mention romantic – of Big Z’s exploits had taken place in the men’s bathroom of Miller Park during a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. Had it been the two sets of legs visible below the stall door and the thumping crotch thrusts against the walls that’d gotten them caught? Or was it the pleasurable moaning and drunken dirty talk that echoed off the tiles and filled the ears of a toilet-awaiting father and his kindergarten-age son who subsequently wanted to know the meaning of “cock” that did them in? It’s unknown exactly how Muzz-Nasty had gotten caught doin’ the “sixth-inning sausage race” at Miller Park but quite clear that both the pitcher and the catcher had been ejected from the game.
Instances in which Zaid managed to stick his Delhi-meat into some Cal‘cut-up’ had been the exception and not the rule. Most of these blacked-out nights on the town yielded nothing but fruitless attempts and moronic displays by not just Z, but all of our roommates. One example that stands out had been the time that the Muzzerbator picked a fight with the Marquette University basketball team.
It had been near closing time at Murphy’s and, as per usual, we’d been drinking for well over twelve hours. I don’t know how it all started, maybe Zaid’s pants had been at his ankles again and he’d accidentally brushed up against one of the hoopers who misconstrued it as a homosexual advance, but I clearly remember the warning we were given.
“Hey, you betta keep ya boy in line,” said Lawrence Blackledge, a six-foot-nine-inch forward for the Golden Eagles. “Keep ya boy in line or there’s gonna be some shit.”
Despite the admonition, Zaid’s mindless antics continued and it didn’t take long for a spark to ignite the powder keg. No real punches were thrown – thank god – but the situation escalated into a large-scale, bar-consuming shove fest that absorbed every patron in the place as it swayed from one end of the establishment to the other. Reminding me of a cartoon brawl, random arms and legs had flown out the angry cluster-cloud of violence until the situation had been defused by Murphy’s bouncers.
Although Zaid chose to defy the Quran with his consumption of alcoholic beverages, he firmly maintained that “eating pork is the one thing unforgivable in this lifetime.” Whether Z got the girl or not, or almost got his ass beat, or both, or neither, it was a sure thing that each and every drunken night would end with fourthmeal. When seeking fourthmeal, Zaid always had to be on guard because of our “playful” threats to diabolically trick the “Muzz-bastard” into eating a Wendy’s Baconator after he’d slurped down one too many Crown-on-the-rocks. So, as a preemptive measure to avoid eternal damnation, Z preferred to cook his own late night snacks.
The shitfaced sheik’s midnight meal plan often consisted of a cheese pizza being thrown in the oven and forgotten about as he laid down and passed out on the couch. Without fail, the pizza would turn into a black Frisbee and, once awoken by the fire alarm, Z would have to seek other options. His Plan B had usually been eating a bowl of microwaved eggs drowned in hot sauce before retreating up to his white-walled, under-decorated bedroom to finish himself off. In his quarters, beneath his bed, had been an infinite arsenal of sugary snacks. He’d made good use not only of the Fruit Roll-Ups, Gushers and gummy bears but also of the wrappers in which they came. More than once, Zaid had broken the windows in his room fucking around while drunk and decided to patch the cracks and the gaps in the panes using Scotch-tape and Fruit by the Foot packaging. Although I have nothing but respect for Z’s MacGyver-like resourcefulness, this type of insulation didn’t do much to help us save on our energy bills during freezing-ass Milwaukee winters.
On occasions when Zaid didn’t cook his own late night, chances are he’d ended up getting a big fat bowl of diarrhea-inducing deliciousness from an on-campus staple called Real Chili. Zaid loved the RC and would go there more often than anyone else I knew, but would rarely eat an entire serving. What I mean by this is that once he’d appeased his appetite for greasy bullshit, he’d follow up by satisfying his drunken appetite for destruction.
Inside Real Chili had been a rectangular counter. Three of the external sides offered seating and the fourth side had been made up of a wall housing a door that lead into the kitchen. In the center of this rectangle had been maybe two, but usually one overwhelmed employee who – on any typical Friday or Saturday night – would have to serve about fifteen drunken assholes at a time as they’d simultaneously shout their orders from three of the four cardinal directions. All things considered, the late night shift at Real Chili has to be one of the worst jobs I can think of and people like Zaid are the exact reason why.
By the end of senior year, Z had been a seasoned veteran in the late-night chili game. No after-hour snackers on campus would dare fuck with him because they all knew he ran shit at the RC. Very similar to the way in which everything would stop when a stogie-mouthed, poncho-wearing Eastwood rolled into town and parted the swinging saloon doors of some shitty hole-in-the-wall, the one and only Sultan of Twat would step into the RC around two-thirty in the morning for an after-bar bite and the whole place would freeze up. I wish Real Chili had been situated in the old Wild West because Z would be right up there with John Wayne and Robert Redford as the quickest and most feared guns on the frontier. I mean, the guy pulled some legendary shit in his day whether he was too drunk to remember it or not. The way I dream it, I picture Zaid and the rest of the 931 N. 14th Street posse hoppin’ off our horses and busting into Real Chili with both guns drawn…
The door slammed behind a gritty pack of out-of-towners who stood just inside the entrance of the RC. The man in the front, a brown skinned man, pulled a six-gun from his black leather belt strap and fired a shot into the ceiling. The overweight man whose gut hadn’t a chance of fitting into his button-down suit coat removed his hands from the piano, putting an end to the ragtime jams. Poker-playing cowboys lent grubby-faced glares from circular wooden tables housing bottles of whiskey and bowls of chili. A pair of powder-white skinned whores in bustier waved peacock fans at their amplified breasts in the corner of the smoke-filled room.
“Who’s that?” one of them whispered as Zaid began to approach the bar. “He looks dangerous.”
“That’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Rough Ridin’ Z,” the other responded, “the meanest son-bitch in all the West.”
The booming footsteps of Z’s casual gait led him to a stool at the bar occupied by a man who had yet to take a bite of his piping hot chili. Trembling, the man put his head down and cowered over his bowl of eats. Z stood behind him with cigar in mouth and tapped the back of his skull with the barrel of his revolver. The slinky old-timer peeked up through his index and middle fingers and made eye-contact with Zaid in the yellowy-brown, dust-covered mirror behind the bar. Z, using a nod of the head, indicated he wanted the old gentleman to find another place to sit. Paralyzed by fear, the man put his head back down and began muttering.
“Oh Lord! Oh Jesus! Why me? Oh Lord!”
“Ahem!” Zaid turned back to the Nine-Thirty-One Gang who, without a word, had understood the message.
Two of Z’s henchmen stepped forward and each grabbed the guy by the shoulder of the shirt and the back of the pants.
“Put me down!” he yelled as they carried him to the front of the saloon. “Put me down this instant!”
Z’s cronies lifted the old man up over their heads and tossed him through the window.
Gasps filled the room but Zaid was unfazed. After removing the cigar from his mouth and sticking it in a nearby patron’s half-eaten bowl of chili, Z assumed the old man’s seat and summoned the balding bartender with the white walrus mustache using the simple motion of a single finger.
“Go ‘n’ git me a chili,” he said and then spit on the floor.
“Now Z,” the chili keeper set aside a glass and the dry rag he’d been using to polish it then placed both hands on the counter, “ye’ stir up a ruckus every time ye’ show yer face in here and I’ve had just about enough of it.”
Zaid once again looked back at the gang and chuckled at what he was hearing. As if on cue, the gang chuckled as well.
“You listen and you listen good, there ain’t no chili here for ye’ and I want ye’ ta-…”
Z snapped upwards, grabbed the guy by the mustache and pulled his head to the counter. Several crushed red pepper shakers and a bottle of olive oil tumbled to the ground and shattered to pieces on the old wooden planks. Doubled-over with his head pinned to the bar and face being grinded into a smashed-ass pile of cracker crumbs, the man blinked and grimaced in pain.
“Hmm. So, what was that ye’ were saying ye’ wanted me ta do? I wasn’t able ta catch the second half of that sentence because ye’ trailed off fer some reason. Can ye’ repeat that fer me?”
“Yeah, you, you, you, you, you…” he pointed in the guy’s face, “you what? Ye’ wanted me ta pour some chili in yer ears? Is that it?”
“N-n-no, please don’t!”
“I don’t usually do requests,” he said while reaching behind the counter for a ladle of lava, fresh out the pot, “but since yer an old friend o’ mine…”
“Oh God no, please don’t do it. Oh God…” the man begged as Zaid held the bubbling hot beef just above the side of his face.
“Then what, hmm?” the chili-bandit leaned down and got right in the distributor’s face. “What is it that you want from me?”
“I..I…” he searched for the right response, “…I don’t, I don’t want ye’ ta leave here with an empty stomach…I want ye’ ta leave this place all nice ‘n’ well-fed.”
“Oh, that right? That’s what ye’ wanted ta tell me this whole time? That ye’ wanted me ta have a seat right here and eat some o’ yer homemade chili?”
“Yes, Mr. Z, sir, that’s correct. I want ye’ ta have some chili.”
The Wily Muz slowly took pressure off the guy’s head and let him stand upright.
“Ye’ know,” Z said as he reached over the counter and began dusting all the salt and cracker crumbs off the guy’s shoulders, “that’s very considerate of ye’.”
Zaid turned to back to his posse.
“Ye’ hear that, fellas? This fine gentleman here wants ta make sure that I get fed.”
The guy nervously backed out of Zaid’s reach and into the shelf holding all the whiskey glasses, nearly sending the whole lot of ‘em crashing to the ground.
“Well, let’s have it,” he said, turning back around, “show me the chili.”
Terrified to turn his back to Z and the Nine-Thirty-One gang, the man moved like molasses. With hands as shaky as those of a drink-deprived alcoholic, he fumbled around with a stack of bowls.
“And I mean right the fuck now!” Zaid shouted while pounding his fist on the counter.
This, of course, caused the jittery man to drop the porcelain bowls, adding even more wreckage to the building disaster on the floor behind the bar. Zaid laughed his ass off while the people around the room shifted in discomfort.
Visibly shaken up and humiliated that an out-of-towner would treat him like that in his own saloon, the order-taker stood there with his shoulders slumped.
“C’mere,” said Zaid the Kid. “Lemme ask ye’ somethin’.”
The man did as he was told.
“Are ye’ fuckin’ stupid?”
“Didn’t I ask ye’ ta git me a bowl o’ chili?”
“Yes sir, ye’ did.”
“Well, if I asked ye’ ta git me a bowl o’ chili and yer not stupid, then why in the hell aincha gittin’ my goddam bowl o’ chili?”
The disheveled barkeep took a deep breath and got back to the task at hand.
“That’s more like it,” Zaid said before winking at one of the female patrons.
After he’d assembled one chili with everything on it just the way Z likes, he slid the bowl down the length of the bar to the Prince of 931 who caught it with a cool hand. On the brink of digging in, The Muz-Nasty Bastard picked up his spoon, opened his mouth and then noticed that all eyes remained fixed on his every move.
“Well, go on, nothin’ ta see here,” he shouted, raising his spoon-clenching right arm in the air. “Everybody git atchur chili while it’s still hot!”
Once permission had been given from the Head Muz in Charge, the big fat guy behind the piano resumed kickin’ out the honky-tonk jams. Eventually, conversations picked up where they’d left off and chili was enjoyed by all – minus the poor bastard who’d gotten thrown out the window, of course.
That’s about as far as I care to take the Wild Western daydream, but at this point – immediately following Zaid’s reception of the chili – is when the situation often got ugly.
Under normal circumstances, a chili with everything could get pretty pricy to the point where it’s not really worth it – especially if you go there as often as a certain somebody had – but Zaid found a loophole. Albeit messy, childish and disrespectful, he found a way to have his cake and eat it too. When reading the following example of what it was like to be with Zaid in Real Chili after hours, keep in mind that he used this non-paying technique time after time during his four year tenure at Marquette University. Why they’d continued to serve him is something I’ll never understand.
As Zaid sat slouched on one of the stools along the counter eating his meal, he jerked his head up and glanced around the room. Every seat had been occupied. Bouncing like a pinball between the three counters, the lone college-age kid on duty took orders, schlepped chili and collected cash while removing and placing dirty dishes into the machine. It had already been one in the morning and judging by the ever-increasing crowd of impatient drunkards standing on the outer edges of the dining room, there was no end to the late-night rush in sight.
“Yo, hey,” Zaid called out as the waiter rushed past with someone else’s chili, “I need more cheddar cheese.”
He wasn’t heard.
The kid began taking an order from one of the people standing by the door.
“That’s the third time this asshole walked past me,” Zaid said to Dave, another one of the usual suspects.
“Yeah, I’ve been askin’ for sour cream for like five minutes now. I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”
Still in need of cheddar cheese yet too hungry to wait, Zaid reluctantly shoveled another spoonful into his gullet.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! Sour cream! Sour cream!” Dave called out as the guy zoomed past them yet again. “Aw shit! They always give this mountain full of oyster crackers and never enough sour cream.”
“Yeah, or cheese.”
The waiter filled up two bowls of chili and walked them to a pair of awaiting customers. He then picked up the spoon, bowl and water glass of a patron who’d just vacated a seat near the front door. As the kid made his way over to the dish machine, Zaid and Dave chucked handfuls of oyster crackers.
“How ‘bout some fuckin’ cheese over here?”
“Yeah, where’s my sour cream?”
“Naw, ya know what,” the kid said, “we’re not doin’ this again. How ‘bout you guys pay up and get the hell out.”
“How ‘bout you shut up?” one of the drunks yelled back while tossing another handful.
“Hey! Cut that shit out!”
A couple more of their buddies jumped on the bandwagon and started throwin’ shit around. All out of crackers, Zaid reached into his bowl and picked up a handful of chili.
“If ya do it again,” the waiter looked Z right in the face, “I’m callin’ the cops.”
The threat of police intervention did nothing to stop Zaid from cocking back and firing the wad of chili which’d only partially hit the intended target. The rest of it flew to the other side of the room and sprayed the people sitting at the counter facing him. Needless to say, these people weren’t very happy but had been so drunk themselves that they had no problem retaliating. As such, Zaid set off a violent chain reaction that, in less than a minute, turned the atmosphere of Real Chili from a relatively chill late-night destination to an early-90s, Bosnian-style war zone.
After the shot heard ‘round the world, heavy fire erupted from all directions. The waiter dropped to his knees and used a lunch tray to protect his head from the chili balls whizzing past his face. Following a moment of vacillation, he decided to make a break for it. The traumatized chili worker climbed to his feet and lunged for the safety of the kitchen. Before he could even take a full step, however, he was mowed down in the crossfire. Riddled with chili from all the same angles in which orders had been fired at his tired, over-worked ass all evening long, the pants and shirt of the young man became blotted and bloody red as the backside of his limp body slid down the door of the dish machine, leaving behind a long red skid mark on its stainless steel exterior, signifying his culinary demise. Meanwhile, disappearing into the night just before the police arrived while his drunken minions finished “taking care of the bill,” Zaid strolled out the door with both his stomach and his wallet still full and vacated the RC until the next time he got shitfaced on campus and had hisself a hankerin’ for a late-night bowl o’ chili.
I understand that not all Muslims in America are nearly as assimilated as Zaid to the wild tendencies of our Jackass and South Park-watching, “I-think-it’s-funny-to-pull-out-my-dick-and-put-it-on-another-dude’s-forehead-while-he-sleeps” generation. And I expect exponentially less understanding of this lifestyle from those raised and living in hardline Islamic countries. Nevertheless, if any Muslims I meet along the way are half as cool as The Bronze Fonz had been in college, I’ll be proud to call them my friend.
That said, none of the Muzzies Tim and I encountered during our time in Malaysia seemed nearly as unconventional as the Karim of the Crop, especially when it came to getting shitface-hammered, starting fights with basketball players and chucking chili at sober dweebs stuck working the Real Chili graveyard shift. As I’d find out and you’ll see in the next chapter, however, just like Z’s Brewer-game-bone-down, porking in public restrooms was not something considered off-limits by a certain Kuala Lumpur native whose path I was unfortunate enough to end up crossing.