These last days in Nairobi have taken a turn for the surreal, with Papa Ken’s mind unraveling, and an odd cast of characters popping in to bear witness to the inevitable demise of Backpackers.
Ken shows up one afternoon, having been discharged from the hospital with what passes for a clean bill of health in Kenya. Despite the damage done to his brain and liver by years of alcohol abuse, the doctors had no immediate reason to keep him around. (His brother John, meanwhile, visibly worn down by the ordeal of these past two months, couldn’t continue to justify a hospital tab that was costing him a cool €200-a-night.) A week after checking into the loony bin, Ken struts back through the front gate of Backpackers, pours himself a stiff drink, and asks why no one’s bothered to keep an eye on the fucking fire. There’s a salubrious gloss to his cheeks; the gin blossoms on his nose are in full bloom. In his eyes is the glint of a madman in that split second before he drops his pants, stuffs his dick into the Thanksgiving turkey, and asks grandma to pass the gravy.
Two days later, frail old Colin returns from his stint in Aga Khan Hospital, looking for all the world like he got up from the autopsy table before they had a chance to tell him he was dead. Dry blood is crusted to the tip of his nose, dead skin flakes from his forehead, and he’s giving off a musty, unwashed odor. In the morning his cough rattles from one of the bandas out back, and he shuffles into the yard – topless, shivering, his skin the color of candle wax – with a little nub of cigarette pinched between his fingers – a picture that probably won’t help Backpackers’ reputation as “the place to be in Africa.”
Later in the week, in perhaps the strangest twist yet, a ruddy old retiree from Portland arrives, fresh off a stint in Southeast Asia and an overland tour from Cape Town. He greets me by the bar with a booming, “Howdy!” giving the impression that this Tusker is hardly the day’s first. He asks me where I’m from.
“Brooklyn!” he says. “I took a bus across Brooklyn back in 1968. I met a chick from Levittown, so I stayed with her a few weeks. Then I went up to Bennington, because the chicks were easier and had more money. Two days later the crew from Penthouse magazine shows up. It was like a commune there, so they took pictures of us running naked across the field, and they took pictures of our teepee.
“We had a lot of sex in there,” he adds.
What David paints in the ensuing minutes is a series of portraits that would fit neatly into a gallery of Things You’d Rather Not See With Your Own Eyes, Ever, Even if You Had to Gouge Them Out With a Rusty Soupspoon. He tells us about sexcapades in Saigon and orgies in Auckland (“the ugliest, most expensive prostitutes of anyplace – except for Sydney”). He offers more grim snapshots from his hippie days. He even gives a long, rambling soliloquy about his erotic adventures in Malaysia, where the joys of retirement revealed themselves in all their Priapic glory.
“I knew I had it good when I was sitting in a bar in Kuala Lumpur. I’m eating Texas barbeque, drinking a Dutch beer, sitting in a reggae bar – in Chinatown – in Kuala Lumpur. And this Thai girlie-boy comes up to me and offers me a massage. And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’”
He grins mischievously and adds, “When in Rome.”
It would’ve taken a particularly randy Roman to top David’s exploits. What unfolded in the hours that followed was largely lost in a boozed-up haze; fortunately, he was left in his hotel room with a keepsake the next morning.
“I woke up with a picture of this Thai girlie-boy standing there – he had a really nice set of tits – and of course all his plumbing’s hanging out. I’m standing next to him with my arm around him. And on my left shoulder, there’s a fuckin’ iguana.”
At which point I start to wonder if his last acid trip ever really ended.
It’s been a strange coincidence to have this free-wheeling, free-balling former hippie roll in at the exact moment that Ken’s life has unraveled. Just a year ago, David sold his glassworks factory in Portland and took off for this round-the-world jaunt – a bold leap of faith for a guy who’d never left North America in his 59 years. At every turn in the road, he seems to be having the time of his life. He marvels at the discovery of Hellman’s mayonnaise so far from home, and cheerfully scratches himself at the breakfast table while explaining, “Yeah, I’m still getting over this – whaddyoucallit? – crotch rot I picked up in Saigon.” Seeing David – Ken’s senior by just a few months – thrilling at all the improbable twists and turns in the road of life is like seeing Ken’s luckless years distorted in a funhouse mirror. And for a few days, it feels like we’ve all piled on for the ride, as David goes shopping for whores at Annie Oakley’s and talks about his New Year’s plans for Paris.
“I’m meeting this English chick I met in Thailand,” he says. “But if you’re in Paris, you gotta see the fuckin’ Louvre.”
Almost on cue, a young Parisian arrives the next day – a dreamy-eyed kid in baggy trousers and a chocolate-colored vest who looks sort of like a cross between Baudelaire and Barnum & Bailey. He spends a few days sitting morose and handsome by the fire, scribbling in a bound notebook and staring abstractedly into the middle distance. One afternoon, wholly unprovoked, he takes a few bowling pins out of his bag and starts juggling in the yard. He explains that he’s come to Kenya to start a partnership with a Tanzanian friend – a young acrobat he met in Arusha a few months ago. He tells me they’re going to start touring the country, teaching circus skills to kids in the slums.
“Um,” I say.
He’s hoping to make his way to the coast, where he’ll juggle his way into the hearts of local hotel owners, entertaining their guests in exchange for a free bed. Once he’s made some connections in the area, he suspects he’ll be able to raise funds for his Street Kid Juggling Initiative. This all strikes him as plausible, necessary, and not at all ridiculous. The only hitch is getting to the coast, since he’s come to Kenya with all of €100 to his name. He shrugs his frail shoulders and makes a whimsical face, as if to suggest that he might just hitch a ride on a red balloon tugged by candy-colored unicorns. Then he juggles his little heart out in the yard, to the delight, amazement and astonished joy of absolutely no one.
Oscar’s been a welcome addition to Backpackers, if only because he’s given me the perfect opportunity to shake my head bitterly and say, “You know, this place is turning into a real fucking circus.” One night, watching football at Annie Oakley’s, he tells me that – through a marvelous stroke of luck – he’s managed to find a way to the coast. I tell him that’s really swell. He says he had a long heart-to-heart with Papa Ken the night before, and the old codger’s promised to fly the two of them out to Mombasa the next day. After Ken’s put the finishing touches on the latest in a long string of imaginary hotel acquisitions, he’ll introduce Oscar to his connections on the coast.
“I think that Ken knows many, many people,” he says.
“Creditors,” I agree.
I heave a mighty sigh and give poor Oscar a frank look and say, “Listen.” I explain that Ken has a teensy problem with making promises he can’t keep. I explain that many of his big, crazy ideas are – according to at least two former guests who worked in the medical industry – symptoms of dementia. I explain that he drinks too much, owes too much money, and would probably need Livingston, Stanley and a hundred-strong expedition of hearty natives to tell his ass from his elbow. Oscar scratches the stubble on his chin and nods carefully and stares off at absolutely nothing. Finally I say, “Oscar, look, I’m really sorry, but I wouldn’t believe anything at all that Papa Ken says. And I wouldn’t plan on going to Mombasa tomorrow.”
It’s at exactly this moment that the hope in his eyes flickers, diminishes, and dies. He leans forward and solemnly takes a few long pulls on his cigarette. There’s a weighty silence between us. Then he leans back, his eyes aglint with defiance, and says,
“You know, when I was in Paris, and I told my friends that I was coming to Africa, they told me I was crazy. They thought I just had these big crazy ideas. But sometimes” – eyes shining – “people need to have big ideas.”
“That’s great,” I say. “That really is. Just don’t pack your bags.”
Sure enough, when I see him juggling in the yard the next day, his one-ring circus has inched no closer to Mombasa. He sees me and makes embarrassed eye contact and does what can only be described as some really vengeful juggling. It’s a few hours before Papa Ken finally rolls out of bed. His benders have grown especially fierce this past week, and there’s a sense that even he knows – in some dim corner of his drink-addled mind – that the end is nigh.
When he gets up late in the day, there’s a pretty, groggy young Kenyan girl rubbing her eyes behind him. It’s the first time any of us have seen him with a prostitute, and it seems like a particularly dire omen. That night, by the fire, he introduces her to the staff and guests. She’s poured into a pair of jeans and tottering on pencil-thin heels; her hair is an unruly mess. Colin, coughing and wheezing into his tea, his face a pale rictus of suffering, reaches up and shakes her hand and says politely, “How do you do?” The hospital tag is still hanging from his wrist. After five months in Africa, this might be the most remarkable thing I’ve witnessed.
Things continue to degenerate throughout the week. The next morning there are three different prostitutes smoking cigarettes around the breakfast table. The staff has taken to angrily sulking around the yard, looking at Ken with undisguised scorn when he stumbles out of bed with his girls. Most of the employees haven’t been paid in close to two months, and when they confront him with this fact, he offers a baroque explanation involving funds trapped in his bank in England.
“I’ve got the bloody money to pay you,” he says, laughing nervously, “but the bloody bank is in England! How am I supposed to get the money out of a bank in England?”
A few of us suggest – in no particular order – an ATM, a wire transfer, or a goddamn carrier pigeon. Ken gets flustered and asks Morgan for a drink and stomps across the yard.
One morning the auctioneers arrive in a massive flat-bed truck. They take the computers and the TV, the DVD player and the refrigerator; they stack the lawn chairs and carry the tables, one by one, across the yard. They even go through the scrap metal out back and start dismantling one of the trucks. A big, bald, cheerless guy is scribbling in a notebook and punching figures into a calculator. Ken, sloshing a glass of cheap wine, flashes me a grin and gives a thumbs-up.
“They’re just taking the things we don’t need anymore,” he explains to the staff. “Let them take it! I’m doing them a favor!” He makes a shooing motion with the back of his hand. “ With this money, we’ll have the rent paid for another year. For two years!”
I look at the prehistoric PCs and the rusted, dented refrigerator and figure there’s just enough to cover the two months of rent he already owes. Some of the employees have walked out. The others sit around the fire, laughing bitterly and rolling their eyes when Ken mentions the new hotel he’s acquired in Zurich.
The next day he’s all smiles in the office. He’s brandishing a printout from FreeLotto.com, his name highlighted beside a $25,000 cash prize (“Status: Pending”), between Raymond Simpson of Temple Hills, MD (“PAID”) and Dorothy Morris of Oak Hills, IL (“PAID”). He has the high color of inspiration and drink as he prods us to marvel at this improbable stroke of luck. Backpackers, he exults, is back in business. The money is just waiting to be collected at the Posta. By the end of the day he has half-a-dozen printouts stacked on the corner of his desk. In just one frenzied afternoon, he explains, he’s won the lotto seven times over. Things are getting – even by Backpackers’ standards – a bit ridiculous. When someone corners Ken and offers to take him to the Posta, he mumbles something about having to get his ID from the apartment. He disappears for hours, coming back after midnight, angry and drunk. He tells a new arrival that she has to pay for the night in advance, threatening to kick her out unless she forks over Ksh550. Joost gives him 200 bob so he can buy himself a whiskey next door. At this point, neither of us expects Backpackers to make it through the week.
The crisis reaches its denouement one sunny afternoon, when Ken gathers the few remaining staff in the yard. They sit on lawn chairs and bar stools – the few pieces of furniture the auctioneers were good enough to leave behind – beside two stocky, middle-aged women in wigs and lycra pants. After a long, unconvincing monologue about the hostel’s future prospects, Ken introduces the two prostitutes – “my dear old friends” – and explains, “I want you all to meet the new managers.” The women flash embarrassed smiles and look nervously at the ground. One even stands on her clunky plastic shoes and gives a little half-bow to the crowd.
There’s a long, awkward silence as this new reality sets in. Finally, one of the mechanics pulls off his sunglasses, his eyes simmering, and says, “Ken, this is shit.”
With those four words, and with frightful force, months of pent-up rage and humiliation suddenly burst through the levees. For all their sulky acceptance throughout this improbable saga, the employees have finally had enough. Papa Ken, like a blundering Caesar, has crossed the Rubicon into a place of dire uncertainty. He stands lonesome in the yard, surrounded by a dozen angry men, pointing their fingers and demanding their money. And he has no idea what to do.
Credit the old guy’s nerve: he decides to take a principled stand, insisting that he’s the owner and they have no right to question his financial decisions. He spins on his heels and stomps indignantly into the office, but there’s a wild terror in his eyes. Before he’s even reached the stairs they’re fast behind him, hurling abuse and repeating an angry chorus: “Give us our money.”
In the office, cowering behind his desk, Ken has nowhere to turn. He holds up a few FreeLotto.com printouts and makes a half-hearted plea for more time, but no one budges. He says there’s money in the bank; then he mentions money owed by the landlord, by friends. Willie – a tall, fierce kid from Kibera in soiled overalls – slaps the desk with such force that he sends a pile of papers flying.
“Ken, we want our money,” he says. “Give us our money.”
Ken’s eyes drift around the room – they even try, fleetingly, to appeal to mine – before a clear, terrible, lucid light ignites them. For months we’ve watched his delusions stretch and grow; we’ve watched his lies contort and shift shapes; we’ve watched him spin myths of self-grandeur from thin air. But here, in all its horrible clarity, is the sight of a man finally overrun by his own sanity. Papa Ken has run out of lies – even to himself.
He regains his composure and offers to go down to the Posta to collect his FreeLotto winnings. There’s a sad stoop to his shoulders, and it’s not the first time that I feel bad for the poor old fool, in spite of it all. No one offers to go along to the Posta with him; partly, I suspect, there’s an embarrassment to see this train wreck through to the bitter end. Once the gate closes behind him, the mood lightens. The air is bright, crackling, exultant. We offer congratulatory handshakes and slap each other’s backs, reenacting Ken’s panicked flight into the office. There’s little doubt that if and when Ken returns, he’ll only have more lies to show for his absence. But for a few soaring hours, in what’s left of this tragicomic place called Backpackers, everyone has something to be proud of.