“America Will Survive”

My club cancelled indoor soccer pickup at the last minute – so much for a much-needed blow-off-steam opportunity and some beers with a soccer buddy afterwards.

So, fresh from listening to keynotes at Web 2.0 in SF, I found myself settling for a nice beer and catching up on the latest 1 trillion initiative with a NYT at a bar, ordering some too-many-carbs food.

A gentleman had settled down on my left. He made some comments about the food I had ordered and that there was too much food. Well, of course there was. This is America. There’s always too much food. He asked if maybe he could have some – or at least that’s what I thought he asked. I smiled and said “no I don’t think so”, and went back to my NYT.

Shortly after there was some debacle. The man was trying to communicate with the bartender, who in turn was quietly laying down the law.

“What’s the problem,” I asked. “I think he’s on drugs or something,” the bartender answered. I looked at the man again and thought some suitable variation of “there but for the grace of God …” and told the bartender, “don’t worry, I’ll pick up his tab.”

The bartender took a second look at me and asked if I was sure, and I said Yeah, I got you covered.

The man thanked me profusely and we started talking.

He was black, and heavily accented. We started talking a bit about how tough things are in the world. I pointed to the cover of the NYT article I was reading, and made the typical whitey comment about how great it was that a black was in charge. Half Nigerian, I said.

My new friend glared at me. Half Kenyan, he said. I’m related to him. (Distant relation I would assume, but I didn’t ask.)

I was sure Obama’s dad was Nigerian so I whipped out my trusty iPhone.

Sure enough, more fool me. Obama’s Dad was a Luo, from Nyang’oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province.

“40 miles from my village,” my friend told me and pointed at himself.

Well it so happens I’ve travelled in Kenya and love the place. I told my friend about my favorite places – the markets in Nairobi, the amazing fruit stands, the beaches south of Mombassa, the Maasai – whom I was so amazed and impressed by.

My friend grinned so wide it must have hurt. “I am Maasai,” he said, and pointed to his ear, which had been partly cut off in a ritual when he was six.

“Have you killed a lion?” I asked. He turned serious, and said “yes.” “Were you scared?” He laughed – “very!”, and then laughed again.

“That is totally cool,” I said. “I’ve never had a beer in a bar in San Jose with somebody who has killed a lion with his bare hands.”

He turned serious. “I lied, I have never killed a lion.”

“I know,” I said, and smiled. “But it’s a good story.”

We talked about how he got here. He was hard on his luck. His father had been educated and he was sent to the US to go to college. As best as I could figure, things had gone reasonably well, graduating from college with degrees in both Mathematics and, as I understood it, Materials Science. Seems like it went well until about 10 years ago, and now he had been out of work for a few years, and running out of options.

“Have you thought of going back to Kenya?” I asked, but he clearly didn’t want to do that. “What will you do?” I asked him. He gestured at the floor – “I can clean.”

“What? You have college degrees. You’re a Maasai!”

He was overcome with emotion. He excused himself and walked away for a while. When he got back I told him I would stop asking so many hard questions. Let’s talk about Kenya. So we did.

Then we talked about the state of the world.

He gestured to me, himself, and others at the bar. “America is strong.” He said. “We are strong. America will survive.”

Amen, brother. Amen.

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