His name wasn’t Bhopal, couldn’t have been. That’s the name of the town in India where the pesticide gas leak killed all those people in the ’80s.
He told me his name when we first met, but his accent was so thick with West Africa that, whatever it was, I heard “Bhopal.” After that, for the month or two we knew each other, I would slightly mumble when I had to address him directly.
I met him on the street by Soi Ratchathewi near my apartment in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a sweat-hot night, as they all were. I’m built for bogs and ski resorts — I don’t know what I was thinking moving for four months to a city carved from jungle.
That’s a lie. I knew exactly what I was thinking.
Eight years and two months later, I was in a bar and grill in North Center, Chicago, with a group of friends. No one told the bar they were on a RedEye list of places to watch Obama’s farewell address, so the sole person on shift was running madcap pouring a packed house’s drinks, delivering their food and fielding their questions every 30 seconds about when NCIS will become POTUS on the place’s flatscreen TVs.
We were sad of course, my table of cockeyed liberals. Two were gay, scared the VP would have more power to put his god in our laws. A third has a brother in the military, unsure of where a madman’s decrees will take him. Let the conservatives hope the president-elect was lying about all the war crimes he wants to commit and civil liberties he wants to take back. We were scared — are scared — he meant what he said.
We joked and laughed until one or more of us just stopped talking and we knew that person was thinking of what’s to come.
I love these people so, so much and it didn’t occur to me until I scribbled the rough draft of this story this morning that I didn’t know a single one of them eight years ago.
Bhopal, or whatever his name was, was a naturalized American citizen from I want to say Ghana. He was handsome and muscular, a few decades older than I was at the time.
He lived in Thailand as a kept man for a French woman he cheated on constantly. Once he called me to ask if he could entertain his Thai girlfriend over at my place, promising she’d bring a friend for me. My apartment was a one-room studio in a building that catered to foreigners working on short-term contracts. I said no.
I liked him because he was charming and gregarious, a great cook who would ply me with wine and stories for hours. We’d talk about politics and about living abroad and I would smile and mumble a name that sounded like “Bhopal” when I had to address him directly.
When he spoke of Americans, he would say “we.”
After the last credit, after the last local commercial, after the harried bartender/waiter/busboy called the boss to send a few more hands on deck, the television flickered to the city of Chicago for the farewell address of President Barack Obama.
I helped make Obama president from that one-room studio by Soi Ratchathewi, spreading out my absentee ballot on the desk that came with the room. The late-night election results came as a charming mid-morning bit of news in the office.
A British woman I worked with was confused by my lack of surprise at the results. I said all my friends were voting for him. I felt confident then that my little world around me reflected America as it was.
I’m less confident now.
Some of my friends cried during the farewell speech. Others just sniffled and stared. My best friend since childhood texted me after the speech to say he still had hope.
I just sat stunned, tried to give comforting arm pats to those who needed them. And I thought about Bhopal.
On Nov. 5, 2008, I could have gone to the celebration party at the yupscale bar and grill that catered to foreigners. I did stop by for a bit, ate a grilled chicken sandwich at the bar.
I ran into the British woman from work there. She asked if I was coming upstairs to the party. I said no, but thank you, that I was on my way to visit a friend.
That night in sweat-hot streets, I bypassed parties to go a luxury apartment paid for by a cuckolded French lady. I went there to celebrate with a man from Africa who used “we” when he talked about the nation where I was born.
I wanted to spend this moment with another American.
He grabbed me and hugged me when I walked in. He had been crying.
“We did it!” he said in a thick West African accent. “We did it!”
Yes, we did.