Friday, December 31, 2010

Washington, DC 1989


The $50 million micro-enterprise earmark established by the US Congress came with a requirement that the agency for international development (USAID) was to report annually to Congress on their progress in expanding the availability of micro-finance.

In their first report, the agency stated that $58 million had been allocated for micro-credit development with programs in place in dozens of countries. We were skeptical. The agency had been very reluctant to accept a congressional mandate for what we believed to be a new program; that they would have overspent in the first year did not seem credible. We needed to find out exactly what was included in that fifty eight million, and so we hired a specialist, with central American experience, to go and look at the programs on the ground, and report back on what exactly the agency was calling micro-credit.

It was essential that we obtain the list of projects that the agency had included in their calculations.

Danielle was able to discover the identity of the person tasked with assembling that list. When this person was let go by the agency, he took with him a copy of the database – which had been assembled on an already obsolete Amstrad computer, presumably to hinder our access to the data in the event of a successful FOI petition. FOI can easily take two years – we had weeks, not months, to get that project list.

Danielle Y is a very skilled and dedicated individual. She has remarkable courage, and a razor sharp intelligence. In addition, she was also traffic stopping beautiful. I hired her before I met her. We did telephone interviews, and so I can honestly say I was astonished when this ravishing beauty walked into my office, ready to undertake a mission that would involve investigative reporting, writing and traveling, by herself, through some pretty dangerous country.

Well Mr. X, formerly of USAID was also very taken with Ms. Y, and knew she needed what was on that disk in his possession. He showed up in my office one morning about eleven o clock. I think he’d already had a drink.
He handed me a five and quarter inch floppy disk, and said, “It’s an Amstrad disk. If you can read it, you can have the data on Africa, as a good faith gesture.” I took the disk from him as I sat down at one of the office PC’s. I knew already that I wouldn’t be able to read the disk, so my feigned exasperation was a theater to distract, while under his nose I made a replica, an exact copy. Bit by bit by Byte the dos diskcopy command meticulously duplicates exactly the 10110 etc., ad infinitum. If the original is unreadable by that dos computer program, then the copy is equally so. But when returned to a computer that can read the program on the original disk, the replica will work just the same. Some tidbit of knowledge I had gathered one day when flicking through a text on computing. After a few minutes of recreating my high-school acting career, I handed back the disk saying I couldn't read it.

Thus an hour later, when Danielle came into my office, having escorted Mr. X to the door after their private meeting, she said, almost in tears “We had it in our hands!” I produced the copy with a little flourish. “Yes, and now we have a copy of it in our hands. Take this to Debbie P’s house. She has an Amstrad computer. Get your self a printout and start planning your trip.”

Danielle’s report was sufficient to stir the Congress into mandating an advisory committee, and our credibility was such that we were able to have a great deal of influence in who was on that committee, and thus further our goal of microfinance for the very poorest women, and not that other stuff the agency was into in central America under President Reagan.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Invasion


I have opened the front door about 10,000 times in my life. For at least half those times, the door wasn’t even locked in the first place. Thursday night I had an experience that has forever changed my relationship to the front door.

Just after dark, about 9:30 PM. Two guys in masks, the first one put a knife in my face, and pushed me backwards. He shouted “This is real!” I think, is this a swat team, but there aren’t enough of them, the uniforms are wrong. Way too many tattoos, and that knife is not what the cops usually use. Reset – This is about drugs. I remember thinking I could die in the next few minutes if I am not careful. “Lie down” I get down fast.

Knifeboy says roll over, and the second, bigger guy shows me a black baseball bat. Knifeboy ties my hands with zipties. He has done this before - the first one loose, so the second one can loop through, then he pulls the second one very tight while telling me that I am not the one they have come for. At this point I think there is a reasonable chance I am going to survive this encounter.

“Where is the money and the pot?.” My housemates have a few grams of pot, and when knifeboy discovers I am alone in the house he tells me to get up and show them where the pot is hidden. I give up the stash under the bed, and then knifeboy asks me where the money is. I tell them I don’t know (the rent is due the next morning and I have all of it in my wallet, but they aint going to get that).

“Where is the money” he says again. That knife was carbon steel. At least a six inch blade, and it was sharp, so sharp I didn’t register I was cut for a few minutes, even though later I could recall the experience very clearly. The blade went into my bicep about 11/2 inches deep. I think it could have gone a lot deeper without very much effort. I told him I didn't know where the money was -- maybe he figured I was hiding something.

The brightly painted thugs both left immediately after knifeboy drew blood, making no search, but apparently grabbing a laptop on the way out.

As soon as the door closed I got up, and went to find some scissors to cut myself loose. Fortunately I had been unpacking all day (I just moved in) so there was a sharp pair of scissors very handy. I cut myself loose (they had tied my hands in front) and then I noticed I was bleeding quite a lot so I tied a towel round my arm.

Pretty tight, I hadn’t actually seen the wound at this point and I tied it off a bit low. But that was good, cos it did stop the bleeding, and when my friends arrived a few minutes later, I got help putting some tea tree oil on the cut, and a big bandaid. I started bleeding again, so I put the towel back on.

I was up for walking to the hospital and making up a story, but my friends wanted to call the cops, so I sat down and waited. The cops were there in less than five minutes.

One of the cops talked to me until the ambulance guys showed up, and then backed right off until after the medics had finished with me. I guess that is the protocol, cops don't interfere with the medics. My brother was an ambulance guy, the medic with the authority to administer drugs -- he does dispatch now, but that’s another story. The medics were really professional, and very pleasant people. I think they respected my declining the pain killer. (The cat scan guy was pleased with the quality of the needlework these guys did – still working fine several hours after I stepped out of the ambulance.) My blood sugar was 95 – (damn good) and I forget the numbers, but the blood pressure she said was “perfect”. Gotta love that yoga.


In the hospital the senior doctor says they have to do a cat scan to make sure the vein wasn’t punctured (god knows what that’s going to cost me – I shudda said, Doc, there's no bleeding, and there hasn't been any bleeding for a couple of hours. That knife was very sharp, I think he had sharpenend it as part of his preparations for the event, so the blade was reasonably clean, and the cut was very straight. I heal very quickly due to years of practicing meditation and yoga. Why don't you just put me in the corridor for a few hours, and if there's still no bleeding, clean the wound and sew me up. I cannot afford a cat scan. But there's no paycheck for shoudda.)

I reckon knifeboy just knicked the vein. I practice vipassana meditation, and soon after I put the towel on my arm I was working on healing the cut. People who know me can attest to the fact of my rapid healing. It’s not magic – it’s applied science and technique developed over years of practice. The stuff works if you do the work. Despite my many faults, I somehow manage to do the practice. May my teachers be blessed with great happiness.

I had a nice chat with Doctor Susan, she was impressed with my pain tolerance so I told her about when I hitch hiked home from the hospital with thirty six stitches where it really hurts. She said she was half way through a four year residency – I said WOW, I bet you have seen some serious bullshit in here in that time. “Never a dull moment”.

After the scan the doctor got an expert to view the slides, I guess that means it was too close for her to call. So the cat scan turned out to be even more expensive, and even less useful than if it had conclusively ruled out (or affirmed) vein damage requiring surgery.

The Doc said I was in pretty good shape for someone with my condition. I told her I did yoga every day and rode a bicycle. I didn’t give her my usual medical cannabis talk, cos there were all these cops hanging around, and I didn’t say anything to the cops about the weed in the house (although they clearly knew).

The cops didn’t ask me about weed, in fact they didn’t ask me about much of anything, just my name and DOB over and over, and they asked me to describe knifeboy and batbuddy over and over. Could I pick ‘em out of a lineup – no chance. Interview over – name, DOB, address, phone number, I am Detective so and so, nobody left me a card. I don’t know who they all were.

The cops asked for my shirt - one of my nice yellow ones, although I don’t think my laundry detergent could have made it wearable again. So now they have my fingerprints, DNA and blood. And a bunch of photographs. The police photographer took about six full face shots and one shot of my stab wound. I mean – no attempt to be subtle – the cops now have a fat file on me. Four cops interviewed me, so that’s four reports right there. I am certain I have not heard the last of this. Maybe I need a lawyer.

Home invasion is the official name for this class of crime. And I reckon these dudes were not virgins. Lousy actors – tried to pin the blame on some other dude – kept claiming to have been sent by this dude. Thing is I know the dude, and there’s no way. Nah! somebody else put these guys up to it, or they were working for themselves, and they wanted to send the cops running after the wrong dude – payback for something else I reckon. Either that or my first reaction was right. These guys were cops and the whole point was to gather intelligence.

If knifeboy hadn’t cut me, there would have been no cops, therefore knifeboy or his employer wanted to bring the cops down on somebody. Everybody else, possibly including me, is just collateral damage.

Welcome to Baltimore.

Dr Susan, Nurse Joy Lee and Evan the nursing assistant were all busy dealing tactfully and skilfully with the very sick, the badly damaged, and some dude who smashed himself up in a car. (I think he might have been drunk.) He got loads of visitors. And his arrival caused my bed to be wheeled out to the nurses station.

I was out in the nurses station for most of the time – maybe four hours, quite a while, anyway, so I got an overview of what was happening in the emergency room all night.

Doctor Susan was very thorough with the wound cleaning. In fact she did it twice, cos the first time she had to stop and go deal with some serious stuff. By about four thirty am all the bays were full – they couldn’t send any more patients - so the Doc finally had time to sew me back together – she did internal and external stitches. I lost count, but it was double digits. I could tell she had lots of practice. My first stab wound ever.

Pain is getting less. I'll be back doing yoga on Sunday. And I am putting a serious chain on that front door.

Birthdays

A surprising number of my friends share my birth-date of April second, although I have yet to meet my time-twin.

My brother, Raymond, was born on my birthday in 1960.

Best birthday present ever.

Another birthday

Alas. I am parted from my golden wonder child.

At nine years old her tiny energetic frame was crowned by tumbling golden locks that brought elderly ladies gushing to watch and touch.

Even her stunningly beautiful smart and sensible older sister, was cast in shadow by that brilliant light.

From since she was three years old we have been together on her birthday just once.
It was 1997. We were in Tenby, on the south-western tip of Welsh Wales, and it was Tenby Day (August 17, the day before my little girl's ninth birthday). The festivities included marching bands, and choirs, and jugglers, and wing-walkers and colorful costumes and people on stilts and parades and we all told C. that this had been laid on just for her birthday.

She almost believed it.

That night there were fireworks on the pier, and right outside our fifth floor apartment there was an eleven piece soul combo that started rockin' the place about 10:00 PM.

The four kids (7, 9, 11 & 12 yrs old) watched from the window while I served gin and tonic to elderly relatives who were recovering from five fights of stairs).

Shortly before midnight elderly relatives tottered down the stairs, and I stood on the steps in front of the house, until the rear lights of the taxi disappeared up the winding lane.

In front of me was a crowd of several hundred people. Lots of them were dancing.

I bounded up the stairs. “RIGHT KIDS LET'S PARTY!!!!” I bellowed.

“Daddy, It's Midnight!” said 12, sensible and smart. 11 Looked thoughtful, going out at midnight was kind of cool. 7 remained asleep. C jumped up ready to go.

Three of us went all the way down to the steps, at which point 11, seeing the huge crowd, and the noise, decided that she had made it outside, and that was triumph enough to share with _ when she got back to London.

C dances pretty good. (And I'm a goddam legend). So we worked our way right in front of the stage.

It was like a scene out Bollywood. The three guys on saxophones were copying her dance.  
The band was gigging on my kid, and the whole crowd around us was gigging on my kid.

I was dancing and laughing and crying all at the same time.

And right at that moment, my little brother, Raymond, was sitting in his car in a desolate parking lot, with a hose pipe running from the exhaust in through to the cab. The window was sealed with duct tape.

We didn't share any more birthdays.

An event without consequence

One afternoon, when I was about fourteen years old, I left the family gathering in the kitchen and walked through the dining room, down the corridor and round the corner to the sitting room where I picked up the phone book and looked up the number for the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I knew this organization existed because five years earlier I had passed their office on my way to the swimming pool every Friday morning for a year. I had often thought that the people there would be able to tell me if the situation in my family was sufficiently out of the ordinary to qualify as cruelty. I had tried to talk about it with friends, but nobody would listen.

I dialed the number and described the scene in the kitchen. The woman at the other end of the phone asked me a series of questions. I think she was reading from a script. I answered the questions truthfully for a minute, maybe two, but I was anxious to get off the phone and she encouraged me to hang up when I said I was worried about being discovered.


The telephone company, as part of their regular billing process, provided my father with the date and time of the call, and from there he was able to deduce that the culprit was either myself, or my younger brother Colin, who was thirteen at the time, but as he was writhing on the floor, doing his best to limit the damage from the severe kicking he was getting, he wasn’t actually able to make that call himself. Raymond, another possible culprit, even though at only eleven years of age, such a calculated act of defiance would seem to be quite extreme, was trapped by furniture and unable to avoid witnessing the accustomed horror.

Had my father asked, I would have told him it was me. But I think he felt justified in hating all three of us, for, after all, it was our “bad behavior” that had brought these embarrassing and infuriating do-gooders to plague his life. I am sure he never considered the possibility that he might have been in the wrong. When they finally let go of him, after two years, during which time he had to refrain from some of the usual violence in the home as he was being “investigated”, he had a lot more pent up anger than just one of us could absorb.

He tossed all three of us out of school at the earliest possibility. In the case of my younger brothers, this was at age sixteen. I was seventeen, and half way through two years of college prep.

I was grounded for something or other, probably coming home late which I did a lot – eleven instead of ten-thirty kind of stuff, but my old man thought he could change any behavior with the right kind of punishment so I was under some kind of household arrest for an extended period, and on Sunday night I was home alone with my baby brother Geoff asleep upstairs after my parents went to the local pub for their weekly gathering with various relatives. My brother, being familiar with my parents’ schedule, arrived with his girlfriend to take advantage of the lack of adult supervision. I went out for a walk.

I came back an hour later, completely unaware that in the interim father had returned to collect a leash for the dog and discovered my disrespect for the boundaries of my prison. On Monday night, between arriving home from work, and heading out to the rugby club, father informed me that I was going to have to pay rent if I wished to continue living in his house. This would entail my leaving school and getting a job.

I was academically gifted, and, although I wasn’t enthusiastic about homework, I paid enough attention to score well on exams. I also engaged with extra curricular stuff. I was secretary of what passed for student government, for example, and my headmaster told me at my exit interview that I was short-listed to be a prefect in my senior year. This was despite a complete lack of interest or competence in any sport whatsoever. On the other hand, I was reading Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Robert Graves and Fyodor Dostoyefsky in my free time while concentrating on Math Chemistry and Physics for schoolwork. I took every opportunity for stage performance, singing, dancing whatever I could get, both at school and in more than one amateur drama group.

I had always expected to complete a baccalaureate degree before going out into the real world. I was totally unprepared mentally. I had given the matter no thought at all. And suddenly I am sitting in the unemployment office explaining that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – “something constructive” I think I said.

......


More than two decades later I was standing in a pub on Christmas eve with my older brother, David. My surprise was genuine when David told me that father was still trying to find out who it was that dubbed him in to the RSPCC so many years earlier. I had totally forgotten making that call, because, as far as I was aware at the time, nothing had happened as a result. It was an event without consequence, and so I never had cause to think of the matter again.

As David described a situation where father had been the subject of a two year investigation it came rushing back to me. If only Colin and Raymond could rush back also. But by the time of this conversation both of those boys were dead. And they had both died deliberately, efficiently and alone.

There is a painfully exquisite entanglement of coincidence that binds these and other events together with some things of consequence on a far larger scale.


I call it my life.