The terminal at O'Hare was choked with returnees from the Green Zone in Iraq. So many wonklords and apparatchicks flying in and out of Baghdad through O'Hare (of all places) that they had their own section of the terminal. You could pick out the KBR guys from the rest by the side arms and jock struts, like rugby players at a frat party, all wearing those extremely silly looking sunglasses on strings. It was slightly bright in the terminal but dark outside save for the winking lights of coming and going aircraft. They wear their sunglasses at night.
I bumped into Rasheed (no last name, like "Cher" or "Van Halen"), who I had met during a press junket for "The Last Samurai" in New York City. He was a worldly guy, Pakistani, mid twenties, but he'd been everywhere. Rasheed was a stringer, nominally on the dole from CNN, but he admitted to me almost immediately that he was planning to take a cake contract from the ex-CPA in Iraq.
"I consider this an investment in my future," he said with a brilliantly white smile and thumped his brand new spectra vest.
I loosened his tongue over a series of Coronas at the Bulls Bar in the main concourse. A double sized cutout of Michael Jordan loomed over us like an avenging angel.
"I just got back two weeks ago and I already miss it." Rasheed explained, leaning back in the booth and looking appraisingly at a red headed stewardess from Delta.
I asked him what "it" was.
"The money, of course." He chugged the beer. "It's retarded over there. Pretty safe if you're white and not in a uniform because you can lay low in one of the castles, but me…it's dangerous for me. At least when I'm actually on the job."
Rasheed was a native born American but he'd grown up speaking Arabic as a second language. It was a seller's market for translators over there. I asked him what he did with his free time in Iraq.
"Anything I want. I wear a disguise when I'm doing my job; a fake beard and these," he pulled a contact container out of his photographer's vest and shook it. "So during my off hours I can walk around perfectly normal, and it's crazy in Baghdad. A lot of people have this perception that because it's a predominantly Muslim country it's very conservative. I guess maybe it is in some ways, but for the right amount of money you can get anything. Girls, guns, fake credentials.
Rasheed lit a cigarette and made eye contact with the stewardess at the bar.
"I knew someone who sold babies and a woman who sold organs out of the back of an '88 BMW. Seriously, jars of fucking guts. I'm pretty sure they were human. One night I played quarters during a mortar alert lock-in at the Tahiti Club in the GZ. After the Voice of God sounded the all clear, I went out after curfew to a dive club in Sadr City. For thirty bucks I got a blowjob while I fired a machinegun at an old burned out tank. Everything's for sale over there."
Rasheed asked me why I was at the airport and I told him that I was star chasing. Rumsfeld or someone big from Defense or State was rumored to be arriving for one of their infamous unscheduled tours; high speed, heavily armed road show through the relatively safe parts of Iraq. Wave to the troops and then feed them dust out of the tail end of a convoy of identical black Excursions with armor mods.
"Fuck Rumsfeld." Rasheed declared sagely. "He's a prick anyway. He wants the press around for the photo ops but the minute you try to ask a question the tan gorillas [editor's note: press term for the plainclothes CIA security around any VIP in the sandbox] are shoving you back into a corner."
I told him that I had heard Rumsfeld was difficult.
"Bremer was good though," Rasheed drained the last of his Corona. "You wouldn't know it from the satellite feeds, but Bremer was a goddamn cowboy. Walking around in his blue blazers in 120 degree heat with his slacks bloused into desert combat boots. I asked him once where he kept his pearl handled revolvers and he showed me a .45 he had in a shoulder holster."
Rasheed mimed pouring a forty out onto the red and black carpet.
"I'll miss you Bremer." The maudlin act dissolved into his distinct high-pitched giggle.
Rasheed excused himself to make one last swipe at some action stateside with the stewardess. I paid the tab and headed back into the terminal with a Styrofoam cup full of Jack and Coke. It was even more crowded than before. A VIP flight had just arrived from Iraq and swarms of well-tanned twenty-somethings in Hawaiian shirts were offloading. These were the CPA holdovers finally returning stateside. Some upbeat, some dejected, almost all of them glad to be home. A few families were waiting to greet them, but most headed in the direction of the cabstand. Their replacements watched apprehensively, perhaps realizing that in some symbolic way the guard had just changed.
I asked around a little with some familiar faces, trying to see if anyone had heard the same rumor as me. I came up snake eyes. Fucking Internet.
One of the last people off the VIP flight was Andrea Mitchell from MSNBC. I knew Andrea fairly well, we'd met years ago when she was slumming it on Fox News and although it would be stretching it to call her a friend we were at least friendly. Her limo was late and she seemed peeved to be left dealing with her luggage solo. Her meat shields had fled the minute the plane had gone wheels down so she didn't have any manual labor. I said hello to her, reminded her who I was in case she had forgotten, and offered to help her. She thanked me graciously and I picked her Samsonites out of a luggage conveyor so dusty that it crunched whenever the interleaved plates turned.
We talked shop for a few minutes before she got in a call to her people and sorted out the limo situation. Apparently there was a VIP en route and he or she had commandeered multiple limos out of the blue. It would be half an hour before the company could get one out to O'Hare for Andrea. I offered to buy her something to eat. She wanted to go to the Bulls Bar. I shrugged and wheeled her luggage to the same booth I had shared with Rasheed. He was gone and so was the stewardess.
When the waitress arrived Andrea ordered a chef salad and I got a steak. I prefer them medium-well, but I went for rare because I didn't want to keep her waiting or potentially miss the VIP. I could tell that Andrea thought I was trying to pick her up or something, but that could not have been farther from the truth. I didn't worry about it or blame her for being narcissistic. Anyone who gets more than a minute a day on TV inevitably thinks the world revolves around them, probably because so much of the world actually does.
"Where'd you get that?" Andrea pointed to the lacquered white-gold American flag tie pin I was wearing.
I told her I just wore it is an "in". When someone doesn't recognize you they look for signs. If you've got an American flag tie pin they're that much more likely to listen to your questions with the assumption that you're from the "right" press instead of the "wrong" press. That impression won't last, but it's an "in".
Andrea chuckled when I explained this to her. She's too well known to ever get away with something like that so it probably never crossed her mind.
"They all wear those exact pins over there. Those exact goddamn pins." The drinks arrived and Andrea attacked her merlot like a diabetic scrambling for a Three Musketeers.
"Sorry." She said, slightly embarrassed. "They don't even offer those little bottles on the flight. [CNN's Walt] Rogers had a flask of something, but he wasn't sharing."
I asked Andrea what it was like for her over there.
"Was it what I expected? In a way. I'm not sure why I went, field reporting isn't really my thing. I expected the danger, the chaos, but I wasn't expecting the security. I'd heard about it, but it's worse than I'd heard. Do you know what I felt like?"
I shook my head.
"A duck. A damn baby duck. You're not going to find a security team willing to go out on the prowl so you have to rely on these little pre-planned tour groups. Like a mama duck is leading you everywhere." She drained her glass. "Or the tour bus at Universal Studios. I'm surprised Jaws didn't jump out of the Tigris at us."
The food arrived and the conversation ebbed slightly. When we began to slow down a little I asked Andrea what she thought of the Iraqi people.
"They look nice through windows." She leaned forward and I could smell the wine on her breath. "Like a brown-skinned display in Macy's. That's all you'll ever see, because they tell you if you try to meet them more personally you're going to end up minus a head."
She laughed suddenly and abrasively.
"I talked to some soldiers who said they're okay. There was one guy...he'd been grazed in the head two days earlier in an ambush - just a flesh wound - but he still said they seemed okay. There were plenty of Iraqi workers in the Green Zone too, some of them were nice but most of them acted like and were treated like they were space aliens. Sort of bewildered, afraid, and even a little bit angry. I guess that might not be a bad metaphor. Maybe I'll use that."
I told her it was a good one.
I was halfway through asking her a new question when Andrea spotted her limo driver. She offered to pay for the meal but I refused, throwing the last of the day's stipend away on a shitty cut of beef that was too raw for my tastes and dinner for a woman who had nothing really useful to offer. I followed her out of the Bulls Bar - I hoped for the last time that night - with her luggage in tow. The chauffeur took things from there and I bid Andrea good night with a slightly awkward hug.
Back to the terminal again. "Third time's a charm", I told myself. A mid-east bound aircraft was boarding and little clumps of men and women in suits and mercenaries in their nondescript but ironically very recognizable gear exited the terminal. I cooled my heels, reading an abandoned issue of the Tribune and pretending to belong with the still-waiting stragglers of Team Democracy hopefuls. Close to an hour passed before the demographic changed. When it did I knew I had been wise to pop a NoDoz and stick around. Swarms of blue gorillas arrived with their looping earpieces and bulging suit jackets. They didn't wear their sunglasses at night.
The anticipation grew. I handed over my ID to a blonde guy with a chiseled chin and a suspicious look. He murmured something into an unseen mouthpiece and nodded, then handed it back and went on his way. Everyone in this section of the terminal had already passed through at least two extra security checkpoints, but the Secret Service has never been in a habit of taking chances. Except with Carter. They practically stuck him on a hook for that fucking swamp rabbit.
I felt a lump in my throat when I saw Condoleeza Rice, our VIP of the hour, making her way with a flock of security towards the terminal. Everyone was on their feet by this point, jockeying for a chance to shake her hand on or tell her how grateful they were for the chance to swim in a resort pool in the midst of a war zone for Democracy.
She was no more than fifty meters away when I felt it. A tightening within my gut. A clenched fist squeezing my intestines. I recognized the unpleasant sensation immediately from a business and pleasure trip to Thailand I took in '98. Back then it was bad shrimp. This time it was surely that rare fucking steak. I imagined it, chewed and bloody, wielding scimitars and daggers along the inside of my stomach.
I looked at Condoleeza Rice's face and knew that I was about to shit blood. That may sound bad to you; a fecal accident in front of the National Security Advisor may sound appallingly bad, but try thinking about the Secret Service. If you crap red down your pant leg in front of the blue gorillas they are as likely as not to put a fusillade of 9mm bullets into your chest. I didn't feel like testing this theory so I half walked, half jogged, half waddled to the bathroom, my sphincter clenched prison-shower tight.
With a groan of relief I dropped trou, slamming my ass against the rim of the toilet. I was going to miss my chance to ask Rice a question, the whole reason I had killed most of a night at O'Hare, but by God I had not shit my pants.
"They've changed your name on the maps, But you'll always be the Saddam International of my heart."
Fucking airport humor. I gazed with wonder, blood and shit squirting out of my clenching bowels, my eyes watering with that very specific exhaustion and pain you only get during particularly violent bowel movements. I read it again and thought to myself, "fuck the food, what are they putting in the air here that gets someone to write that on a bathroom stall?" My guts clenched again and then released another stinging spurt of red shit splash into the toilet loudly.
I felt bewildered, afraid, and even a little bit angry.
Are you concerned that you may be a character trapped in a Tom Waits song? Be smart and learn the warning signs before it's too late. Also, it's too late. It has always been too late.
I'm haunted by a recurring vision of a skeleton flipping me off. To avoid seeing this terrifying image in bumper sticker form, I pay someone with a blank bumper to drive in front of me at all times.
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