How It Begins ~ J. Malcolm Garcia

I slipped, fell on my ass and started sliding off the rock ledge. I reached out for a sapling, roots, anything, waving my arms when finally I reached for the prosthetic leg of the man behind me and grabbed it as I passed him.  He clung to the arm of a man ahead of him, and together they pulled me up.  Shaken, I sat down beside him on the ledge fronting the entrance to his cave. 

“You don’t look too good, but your leg is strong,” an old man said to the man who helped me.

The three of us laughed. The year was 2002. I was filing a story from the Afghan city of Bamiyan, about a ten-hour drive north of Kabul and known best for the sixth century Buddha statues that had been carved into the cliffs. They were destroyed in March 2001 after the Taliban government declared that they were idols and therefore sacrilegious.

This was my second trip to Afghanistan as a reporter. I had never expected to write from overseas when I broke into journalism in 1997. I had hoped only that I could do the job and that at 40 I had not made a fatal mistake leaving a 14-year career in social work to try something new.

Five years later, there I was in Bamiyan saved from tumbling down a God-forsaken mountainside by a man’s prosthetic leg.  I was alive but it’s not as if I suddenly found myself in high cotton. I was still outside a remote cave with destitute war survivors and dying for an ice cold Budweiser. Yet, there was no place I’d rather be. My wanderlust was an affliction that delivered a high like the best heroin.

I was soaring.

***

I’ve been drawn to, and intrigued by, the exotic more than the celebrated, the world’s misfits and misbegotten. And that fascination has taken me around the globe, from one place of misery to the next.

The desire to travel comes from my mother’s side of the family. At least that was what my uncle told me. His mother, my maternal grandmother, was dubbed an “eccentric” traveler by her family. Whenever she and my grandfather quarreled, and that was often, she took off and traveled abroad for weeks at a time.

She died before I was born but she had already passed her genes on to me. 

I grew up a restless kid in suburban Chicago itching to leave home. After school, I played in our front yard but was forbidden to go beyond the driveway and onto the street. My mother watched me from the window. I waited until she was distracted. Then I’d run into the street and race around the block, past sculpted lawns and two-story brick houses separated by narrow driveways; past side streets leading to a forest preserve and beyond that an expressway thrusting toward the horizon. I would run back into our driveway and sit with my back to the kitchen window so my mother would not see me gasping for air. I longed for the day when I no longer had to sneak out of the driveway.

When I entered the fifth grade, I was finally allowed to walk to school. I don’t know why. My two older brothers had to wait until the sixth grade. Perhaps I had worn my mother down. Certainly, I was persistent.

I was ten and sauntered out of our driveway and onto the road in full view of everyone, swinging my arms as if nothing else mattered. I looked back and saw my mother watching, her face small in the kitchen window. I waved.

That afternoon, I walked home without fear or worry of reprisals, intoxicated by the experience of doing something I had longed to do. I told my mother I was going to leave home as soon as I was old enough. It would be an impossibly long wait, I knew, until I was free to absolutely do as I pleased. Once the moment arrived, however, I wouldn’t delay a second longer. She’d just have to understand.

“That’s a fine how-do-you-do,” she said. “Now finish your homework.”

When I was in high school, my friend Paul and I would catch the “El” train into Chicago, rattling along the worn tracks to the skid row of south Michigan Avenue. We hung out in dimly lit bars thick with cigarette smoke, a couple of comparatively rich kids, rebels with a curfew.

We saw old women wearing stiff wigs, and men whose sad eyes stared off into space and saw things I couldn’t imagine. Their tattoos were faded, teeth long gone. They teased the rim of their wet bar glasses with tired fingers, and spoke in hoarse tones when they hustled us for change. One man showed me his mottled real estate business cards he still kept in his wallet.

I became intrigued by lives so different from my own.

Years later, when I graduated from college and the idea of holding a full-time job seemed unreasonable, I bumped into a lot of guys like the real estate agent –ordinary people who took a wrong turn and found themselves headed for a train wreck. I ran into them in New York City, and again when I crossed the country to Idaho. They were in Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Mexico and northern California. They were construction workers, waitresses, Vietnam combat vets, river guides, stock clerks, accountants, drunks, hookers and junkies. 

About living, they’d tell me: “Have a good rest of your life,” about traveling: “All it takes is a thumb and some guts,” about a good car: “It’s as clean as it wanna be.” A tall, attractive woman was a “fine.” They said, “man,” and other times “maaan!”

The stories I heard about hitchhiking, fistfights, wars, and loss were told in ways that made my feet ache from miles I never walked, head pound from punches I never felt, stomach cramp up from the shock of bullets never fired at me, heart break from the deaths of people I never knew.

In 1983, I moved to San Francisco, because my childhood friend Gabrielle lived there. I had no plans and she needed a roommate. After I moved in with her, I called the National Council on Alcoholism and asked for names of agencies that worked with homeless alcoholics and needed volunteers. The receptionist recommended the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She said it offered homeless alcoholic men and women a day-time drop-in center, overnight shelter and a twenty-four hour alcohol detox program.

During the day, I worked at a warehouse in south San Francisco. At night, I’d make my way down Market Street, past closed stores and mountains of trash swirling on the sidewalk to Sixth Street, San Francisco’s skid row.

I stepped over passed-out drunks, barefoot and snoring along the curb. Men dressed as women whistled at me, lipstick smeared absurdly around their mouths. Shadows crawled up walls and streetlights threw a weak glaze over a group of suits ducking into an X-rated video store.

I followed Sixth Street toward Howard Street. Empty swings in a graffiti-scarred park swayed back and forth, blown by a powerful Bay breeze that also blew empty liquor bottles across a sandy playground. Two blocks ahead, the blue awning of St. Vincent’s jutted over the sidewalk. I squeezed through a long line of funky, ragged men, shrugging off pleas to let them into the shelter early. Inside, the brown tile floor was wet from a recent mopping. Tables and stacks of chairs used for a daytime drop-in center stood in a corner beside piles of exercise mats for the homeless to sleep on.

Five homeless men were picked out of the line outside to help me arrange the mats on the floor for the night shelter. We had enough room for eighty guys. The volunteers were guaranteed a mat for helping. They assumed that, like them, I was homeless, and volunteering to secure a spot to sleep. I never told them I had a place to live.

One evening, the shelter director pulled me aside, praised my volunteer work and offered me a job. All I did, I thought, was put mats on the floor, but if that impressed him, fine. The director assigned me to the morning shift as an intake worker for people requesting a detox program.

I started work at six-thirty, just as the lights were turned on and the curled bodies snoring heavily on the mats were snapped awake by the ear-splitting blast of a static-filled, cranked up radio. Guys stumbled up off their mats as if a bolt of electricity had been shot up their spines, their legs and arms jerking from alcohol withdrawal.

An intense quiet lingered after the men emptied out into the street. I sponged lice and dirt off the mats, stacked them in a corner and mopped the floor. Tables and chairs were arranged in uneven rows, converting the shelter into the daytime drop-in center. Four of us stood around two desks and looked at the clock. We used the wet floor as an excuse to delay opening the drop-in to the pandemonium of needy, desperate people a few minutes longer.

At seven a.m., I unbolted the front door and. Someone outside pulled it open.  Light spilled into the doorway until it was blotted out by a mob of men and women who had been waiting to get into St. Vincents’ since before sunrise.

Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm!

Everyone shouted at once, their voices merging into one long wail of my name…Maaaallcooom. They were there to plead for shelter referrals, detox, clothes, coffee, cigarettes, food and cards to play pinochle while they waited to see a social worker.

Later one night, I was walking past the bleak, piss-yellow housing projects of Valencia Gardens in the Mission District when a car raced down the street. A man fired a gun out of the passenger window. I froze. A wino yanked me into a doorway and we huddled against each other, swamped by the odors of piss and shit, until the car passed.

The wino knew me.

“Malcolm,” he said in a hoarse voice seeped in wine, “you think you can get me in detox?”

What? I had just been pulled out of the way of someone firing a gun from their car. I was hunkered down in a foul doorway and here was this guy who had saved me and who I sure as hell didn’t recognzie begging for God damn detox like that was the whole point of us crouching together.

We caught a bus to St. Vincent’s and I signed him in. I stored his half-finished wine bottle for him too. When he staggered out the next morning, hands shaking from withdrawal, I gave it back to him. I’m not saying that was the right thing to do. I’m saying I owed him.

***

It may seem like a long road from St. Vincent’s to Afghanistan but it really wasn’t. In fact, the bombed out neighborhoods of many of its cities reminded me of some of San Francisco’s poorer dilapidated neighborhoods. Different in many ways, of course, but the sense of ruin and despair were the same. And although the homeless Afghans wandering the streets may not have been alcoholics and dope fiends, they were lost souls too, looking for help and eager for a sympathetic ear.

I first began providing that ear when a St. Vincent colleague and I started a newsletter and interviewed some of the people who hung out in the drop-in. I enjoyed documenting their lives and came to believe that it was important to get these stories out to the public. When I left St. Vincent’s in 1987 for another social services agency, the Tenderloin Self-Help Center, I started a monthly newsletter devoted entirely to the stories of homeless people. I enjoyed asking questions and pulling information from a reluctant interview. I enjoyed their use of vernacular, the ungrammatical yet poetic turns of phrase that taught me more about how language can be used than I had learned in any English class.

The interviews also provided a break from the unrelentingly depressing day-to-day work. The bohemian call of social work, the finger-snapping, “Hey man I’m living on the edge dealing with the element” rap, lost its allure over time. Only 1 percent of the more than one hundred people who came through our doors every day found jobs or entered substance abuse programs. One percent. At best, we offered homeless people a safe place to spend their days and nights as they slowly killed themselves.

“What are you doing in my world?” a homeless man we dubbed Too Tall because of his lean six foot five frame asked me when he started drinking again. “What are you doing here?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know anymore.  I had outgrown a rich boy’s notions of the romance of poverty. The daily numbing of my heart as I dealt with the same people over and over again drained me. This was skid row, the bottom of a long downhill slide into a life on the street. People worked hard destroying themselves to get there. And there they stayed. 

But interviewing men and women for the monthly newsletter inspired me. I enjoyed writing their stories and shaping the words to truly capture the person I had come to know. Their words on the page showed the real person behind the dirt-grimed face and provided moving portraits of people few deemed worthy of consideration.

It didn’t happen overnight, but in time I realized that the newsletter was the only thing I had come to love about my work. Without it, I would be lost. Understanding that led me to become a reporter with the goal of telling the stories of poor people to a much bigger audience than an agency newsletter could provide. I resigned from the Tenderloin Self-Help Center in 1994 and enrolled in journalism classes at U.C. Berkeley. An internship landed me at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1998, The Kansas City Star hired me as its night cop reporter. Three years later, I was asked to cover social services. I had landed. I had the beat I wanted. The beat that would allow me to write about the Too Talls of the world.

Then terrorists hijacked three planes on September 11th And everything changed.

***

The man with the prosthetic leg told me that in 1994 he had stood on the mountain where we both sat and watched the Taliban battle their way into Bamiyan. He saw men and women killed by machine guns and mortar fire. He left and walked to Kabul.  He stepped on a mine and lost his leg. He had only recently returned. Before, he said, he had a home. Now he had a cave.

He was one of about 200 mostly ethnic Hazara families living in the bare, towering clay cliffs around Bamiyan in 2002. The Hazara are the dominant ethnic group in Bamiyan and date back to Genghis Khan’s warriors. In the late 1990s, reports of Hazara men, women and children being massacred by Taliban fighters in northern and central Afghanistan were common. Homes were ransacked and destroyed.

After the Taliban were routed by the American led international military coalition that invaded Afghanistan a little more than a month after the World Trade Center fell, Hazara families returned to villages had been reduced to rubble. So they resorted to caves, an uneven patchwork of openings across wind-chiseled rock that interconnect like a beehive above the ruined city.

When I first arrived in Kabul in November, 2001, I knew nothing about Bamiyan and the slaughter of the Hazara. In fact, I knew next to nothing about Afghanistan. I was sent to Afghanistan because the corporation that owned the Star at the time, Knight Ridder, needed willing bodies overseas. It alerted the editors at all 32 of its newspapers to recruit reporters for Afghanistan and I volunteered. I was single. I would not leave a widow and orphans behind if I was killed. I was given 24 hours to pack.

My first day in Kabul was like experiencing the Bible on acid. Its downtown was a giant rock pile of bomb-blasted building destroyed from decades of wars. Men with turbans and thick beards wandered the streets in frayed sandals. Donkeys pulled carts. Women drifted by in billowing body-length veils. Boys pushed wheelbarrows filled with grinning goat heads. Older boys shouldered Kalashnikovs. The broken streets teemed with commotion and dust and the shouts of vendors and the supplications of beggars. Makeshift camps without water or plumbing overflowed with refugees.

Yet, it all made a skewed kind of sense to me. The devastated city was just another poor neighborhood, another ghetto, another shithole. It was south Michigan Avenue and the ravaged neighborhoods of San Francisco all rolled into one.

When I returned to Kansas City three months later, I felt lost. I couldn’t rid myself of Afghanistan any more than I could forget the people at St. Vincent’s and the Tenderloin Self-Help Center. So I put it out of my mind by returning to Kabul again and again. I got to know reporters from Europe, Asia and South America. They spoke of story ideas they had in Pakistan, Egypt, Central and South America and the Caribbean. We hooked up and I began traveling to some of these places too and writing about the poor and forgotten. But always I returned to Afghanistan. Like a beacon it called to me. I explored its countryside, got to know its people. I would leave, come up for air and explore another country. And then once more, I’d return to Kabul. A small cell of a room with bars on the windows in a guest house off a dirt street near downtown has become my base of operations.

I am moved by the suffering I’ve seen and angered at how easily it falls beneath the radar of news coverage. I write about what wars leave behind, what corruption and ineptitude and sheer meanness leaves behind.  The man whose prosthetic leg may have saved my life is a perfect example of what wars leave behind, as is the guy attached to it.  It’s the detritus of human upheaval that draws me, not the thrill of the kill.

What little attention the people I write about get borders on the maudlin. It so fully concentrates on the tragedy of their situation that they become reduced to pitiful objects huddled together before a fire rather than actual individuals possessing feelings, ideas, skills. My work in San Francisco taught me how wrong this stereotype is. It is the job of a journalist to trump cliché. I write about the character and lives behind the flat portraits of people we frequently see and sometimes read about but are rarely compelled to consider.

The stories reflect my interest in people who face problems you might find hard to imagine: a mother seeking the release of her imprisoned son in Cairo, another mother whose son was shot to death in Haiti, families scrounging a living in Buenos Aires by recycling cardboard. These people and others live in a parallel universe to the rest of us who take for granted the roof over our heads, the meals on our tables, the noise of our children playing, the humdrum security of our lives. And yet we are not that far removed from the forgotten and overlooked. An unanticipated event can such as the recent recession can devastate our lives in a flash and turn a comfortable dinner at home into a trip to the soup kitchen and a soiled mat on a gymnasium floor. 

Reporting helps keep the world real for me, a tangible place where people live, breathe, survive and occasionally triumph in ways that may seem dwarfed by their circumstance. I thrive going to places I’ve never been and where I rely on instinct to ferret out the “people stories” lurking below the surface of the news. I pack lightly: two shirts, two pants, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and basic hygiene supplies. I carry my pack and laptop on the plane. I research and make plans but I allow plenty of room for the serendipitous chance encounter, for the curve in the road that takes me on a journey entirely different from the one I had anticipated.

Which brings me back to Bamiyan and an unexpected encounter I had that evening.

***

I stayed on the mountain until late afternoon interviewing the cave dwellers. Then I walked down the mountain followed by the man with the prosthetic leg who worried I might fall again. When I reached the city, I caught a taxi. The driver took me to a building that had once housed Taliban government officials but now provided rooms for the staff of the Belgian humanitarian aid organization Solidarites who were putting me up.

An Afghan man working for Solidarites was sweeping the hall outside my room when I came in. He saw me and pointed to what I had dismissed as meaningless graffiti-like squiggles scrawled across my door. He explained that the thick, black loops and scattered dots scrawled with a magic marker spelled the name of a Taliban leader, Mulla Mohammad Hassan, who had lived in my room.

“The Taliban arrested three hundred Hazara people in Bamiyan,” he said, speaking in rough English. “We were not fed. At night we were whipped with metal cables on our backs.”

The man held out his arms palms up to show me where Taliban soldiers had held his wrists against a boiling tub of water. He could no longer bend them. He moved down the hall to another door.

 “Mulla Gul Mohammad Akhund,” he read, “the Taliban will always be together.”

I heard someone yell something in French. In a minute, music started to play. Several Solidarites staff stepped out of a room and began dancing together in the hall. The Afghan watched them. Then he took my hands and pressed my fingers against the scarred wrist of his right arm until I felt the rough ridges of dead skin like petrified wood against my palm. He watched me. As if he expected me to say something.

As if now I should understand.

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