Joel, Can I Bum a Marble-O?
Karim was a disheveled kid with a weird northern accent. His dad was a Marxist anthropology professor, who drove a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan with the back window smashed out. They'd moved to Little Rock from Michigan when I was in sixth grade. I'd seen him at the neighborhood Circle-K, and around on the streets, and maybe even talked with him a few times. I don't remember when I first met him, but I do remember when we became friends. It was during a rare Arkansas snow storm in January 1987.
As I walked up Garfield Street in the deep, wet, slushy snow, I saw Jamie B., who I'd known since first grade, and some other kids taunting Karim and throwing snowballs at him. They were all in a circle around him, pelting him at close range, his face wet, hair and eyebrows caked in snow. He was mad as hell and every time a snowball hit him, he'd yell in his weird northern accent something like, “Fauck you, asshole!”
I'd known those kids most of my life, and he was right: they were assholes. When I saw what was happening, I wished he'd just punch one of those little bastards in the face. He refused to fight. I don’t know why, but I walked up and started talking to him. I wanted him to kick some ass, but I wasn’t exactly standing up for him either. I just kind of started talking to him. When I asked him why he didn’t punch one of these punks, he told me he was a pacifist.
It was a foreign concept to me. He had to explain what a pacifist was. I could understand not fighting because you were afraid of getting your ass kicked, but I’d only heard the notion of refusing to fight on moral grounds once before. It was when I was in second grade. Jared, a kid who lived on my block was bullying me. He picked fights with me on my way home from school, and even stole some of my stuff. He particularly liked kicking my dog, and looking back, he was probably a sociopath. I went to each of my older brothers and asked what to do. My oldest brother, Jeff, who was a student of religion, told me to “turn the other cheek.” I didn’t know what in the hell that meant, and he explained how Jesus taught that it was wrong to use violence.
Then I went to my other brother Mark, who taught me how to punch someone in the nose and make them bleed. Not long after, Jared was in my backyard pushing me around. I stood there in front of the aluminum swing set, glancing back and forth between the back door of the house and the bridge of his freckled nose, wondering whether to turn the other cheek and head for the door, or make that son of a bitch bleed. I hauled off and hit him as hard as I could right in the nose. He looked surprised as a trickle of blood flowed from each nostril. He came after me, and I ran like hell around the backyard. He probably would have caught me and beat the crap out of me if Mark hadn’t come out and broken it up. But the kid never messed with me again. Until that snowy day in 1987, I’d never met anyone who made the other choice, the one Jeff told me about: turning the other cheek. Sort of, anyway. I don't think Jesus or Ghandi ever told anyone to “Fauck off.”
All this talk about pacifism somehow led the two of us into an argument over capitalism versus communism. He was the commie. His dad was the first true Marxist I met, and perhaps the only one I've ever known. I was learning why those kids were throwing snowballs at him: he was kind of an antagonistic little shit. The other kids became disinterested as our argument progressed into a disagreement over the definition of some word – I don't know, maybe it was “Marxism.” So I said to him, “Look, why don't you come over to my house. There's a huge dictionary on a stand in the dining room. I'll make hot chocolate, we'll look up this word, and talk about this some more.” I liked debating people. I loved a good argument and I’d just gotten those kids off him. Nevertheless, he thought I was a patronizing jackass. The truth is that I didn't particularly like him either. For a Marxist, he was rather elitist – sort of a political snob - and thought we were all hicks. Besides, he talked like a fucking Yankee.
He did come over and hang out for a while, and after that day when we sipped hot chocolate and debated the best socio-political systems, we saw each other periodically. He'd always show up at my house at the most awkward times, like when I was freaking out alone in my living room, hallucinating the Exxon tiger jumping through the front door after I accidentally smoked some pot laced with PCP. He grew his hair long and relished his outcast status. When you have that label, I suppose the only thing to do is embrace it. His ethics and values were different from most everyone else in Little Rock and he didn't want to fit in. He was glad that he didn't, and I admired him for that.
Gradually, over a few years we hung around together more. Eventually, it grew into a true friendship. We founded punk rock bands, discovered Buddhism, and followed each other from Little Rock to Kansas City to Boulder, working the same jobs, going to the same colleges, and fighting over the same girls along the way.
He never lost that accent, though, and I never lost my love for making fun of it. Years later, when we were punk rock teenagers and he needed a cigarette, he'd ask, “Joel, can I bum a Marble-O?” I'd always respond with something like, “What the fuck is a Marble-O, Shithead?” I'd laugh hysterically, and pass him a cigarette.
Almost fifteen years after the snowstorm, giving the toast as best man at my wedding, Karim exposed me to my new east coast family as something other than a mild-mannered law student saying, “. . . We've been through everything together . . . you gave me my first cigarette, my first beer, we sneaked out of the house and hung out on the streets at night and got drunk behind the Circle-K. . . that newspaper article about vandalism, but we didn't really do that. . . . ”
I went looking for him later and found him sipping a cocktail under a partially dismantled catering tent. I asked sarcastically, “Jesus, dude, why didn't you just fucking say that I gave you you're first line of coke and first hooker, too? How about the first homosexual experience? You left that out. What the hell, man?” He was right, though. Through the years, we pretty much experienced everything together. We were like an old married couple, but without the sex life to look fondly back on. He leaned back in the folding chair, a crushed carnation hanging from the lapel of his wrinkled tuxedo, some lipstick smeared on the collar, and laughed, happy with his bit of revenge, "Fauck you, asshole."