Inadvertently, I too have joined the ranks of the working-class chic. I own a tan three-quarter-length coat, which appears as though it has been keelhauled twice and then used as a tarpaulin on a transatlantic crossing. It holds itself together by God’s good grace, and whenever I wear it, it draws disproportionate attention from females and metrosexuals alike.
I say disproportionate in proportion to my shoes, for instance. Or my personality, which I must confess is, in social settings, withdrawn. I have, however, formulated stock responses when asked where a coat such as mine can be bought. If the inquirer looks particularly vacuous, I revert to the political: “It was made in a country that no longer exists.” Even on the vacuous I use this rarely—only when I’m in a lowdown, sniping mood. My other response is gregarious, designed to open rather than close a conversation. “My old man escaped to Canada in this jacket,” I say.
Now if I were single and the inquirer were pretty and understood why sometimes people flee from bad places to good, then two bar Scotches and a chat would be in order.
So let’s say she’s the inquisitive type, and let’s say I’m the boastful type, and let’s say, just for fun, that conventional prosperity isn’t an issue. For she is an heiress, independently wealthy, or simply successful. She likes my jacket, so why not tell her something about it?
Two Scotches arrive and I start with the escape.
There’s the old man, and he’s steering through fog in Poland. My brother and I are strapped in the back. Mom navigates from the front. The trunk contains two suitcases, maybe three. Up ahead, a farmer waves frantically for us to stop. The old man, bleary-eyed, ignores him and forces the Lada through. Water rushes, hits us broadside…a bale of hay washes over the hood. Inside, it seeps through cracks, fogs the windows, rises and rises. Kristian cries and I scream while Mom bails with a blue plastic potty. Outside, a tractor, barely visible, backs towards us with a rope.
The old man is half-submerged…steering with one hand, grasping for the rope with the other. There’s little time—the Lada’s careening towards the edge of a cliff. He’s got it! He ties it somewhere and the farmer guns his tractor. We’re moving…the water’s escaping and Mom’s got Kristian in her lap. The potty floats in the back with shoes and teddy bears and the old man’s leather coat.
Two hours out of Czechoslovakia and everything’s ruined. Everything smells of soil and dung. A dam had burst, but the old man’s mind was on Gdansk—our porthole out.
At home, the government shrewdly pronounces us dead.
Yet we survive, and the old man wears the coat for years until he broadens around the waist. Life in Canada is good, and he drinks to it numerous times.
One day I find the coat on a heap destined for The Salvation Army. It now fits me, and Mom sews up the liner and tacks the pockets—pockets deep enough for a book and a pint.
And shortly thereafter life changes; life becomes unruly, directionless, explosive and full of yearnings for the bizarre and not easily attained. “Etwas mere,” I believe, is what those mustached Teutones once called it.
A spark in my inquirer’s eyes. I’ve caught her interest, and she orders the next round.
I am in the West Bank. Eyes wide open, I listen to the chopper blades. Balata Camp, Hamas stronghold, sprawled on a mat and constipated. Three days without toilet paper, but I fear insulting the hospitality of the Hamas man who lies beside me. He is proud and uses his hand, and tomorrow I will too. At the moment, I think of nothing but choppers and rockets. Coat folded beneath my head, I watch him as he sleeps so soundly.
Plenty of toilet paper now. Israeli checkpoint, Gaza Strip, and I have turned coat. Militants and soldiers, hideouts and barracks—I understand both sides, but do not sympathize. Rather, I keep quiet and listen. “Put this on if you want to sit with us.” He offers me army-issue kevlar. “There are snipers everywhere.” I decline. My coat has kept me though Ramallah, Hebron, and Jerusalem. Besides, I’m not an Israeli soldier. I do, however, sip the strong army coffee and watch as tracers paint the night.
Two years later, in Burundi, I’m drinking half-gallon beers for a quarter. Civil war continues in the hills, yet I’m safe observing soldiers walk up and down the brothel stairs. Mindful of the curfew, I order another Primus and one for the cockeyed sergeant. We cannot understand each other (my neglect of high school French) and he stares longingly at the brothel door and I stare languidly at the cuffs of my coat, flecked with spittle and beer.
Maybe she’s had enough of this brand of story. She doesn’t look like a member of the Legion and I don’t want to appear the Soldier of Fortune type. How do I convey my fascination with these places without sounding like a lunatic? Time, perhaps, to pull a lighter anecdote from the breast pocket.
A string of bus tickets the span of Lennox Lewis’s reach. From Vancouver to Atlantic City—three nights, four days, nonstop. I’m on assignment from a major paper. Editors are cutting back, and expenses will be reimbursed only if the story appeals. $900 by plane, $300 by bus—a stringer’s choice is obvious.
I’ve got to see this fight. Gatti-Ward II—a ringside seat to fistic history. From bus stop to truck stop, I’m exhilarated going down, exhausted coming up. But I see it and meet the great Gatti and shake his broken hand. Afterwards, I walk the boardwalk, doze on benches, watch as shops close and open. On fight night they triple the rate at the pay-by-the-hour motel. My bed is unmade and warm when I check back in.
It is much the same with Sturgis, except I sleep in a tent and the bus ride is half as long. Thousands upon thousands of bikers idle at stop signs, cram into bars, tear leather-clad and naked through Badlands nights. For all of their bravado and guts, I begrudge them one thing. Not one pulls over when the skies break over the Dakota plains and I, walking miles to the campsite, get the worst drenching of my life. A permanent gel stain forms on the collar of my coat.
She’s still with me and I wish I had something more to say. But my pockets are empty and I hope that my inquirer’s thirst is quenched. For if there is one thing this ragged coat could never hold, it’s money. Not for my old man, not for me.
Peter Valing is an award-winning writer currently living in Vancouver. He likes the ponies and the fights and a good bit of adventure now and then. His hope is to one day move to Mozambique to start an artists colony.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.