So one of the great things about being an expat in Phnom Penh is all the extra time I have. It’s kind of unreal. Despite the fact I now have two jobs, a volunteer gig, a possible contract position in the works and try to freelance my ass off, I’ve still got buttloads of free time. Why did I never have any in the States? I dunno, but here I fill it with all sorts of productive activities, from sweeping my apartment every morning to kick boxing to spending entirely too much time on Facebook.
Then there’s the bootleg DVDs.
They’re everywhere, and they’re mad cheap. Usually $1.50 a pop.
It’s a dangerous combo.
Add to this the fact that I’ve got a friend who has a killer collection and is about to leave town. I’m urgently trying to convince him that customs agents will freak out if he tries to enter any Western country with a 300+ stash of plastic cases with fuzzy, Xeroxed liners, and that the best solution to this is to leave his collection in my safekeeping. Don’t know if it’ll work, but in the meantime, I’ve been sampling his goods.
And I’ve gotten into The Wire.
I was afraid of The Wire. I was afraid for the same reason I’m afraid of Words With Friends—do I really need another addictive timesuck?
Why, yes, yes I do.
So I’m working my way through Season One, curled up on my less-than-comfortable wooden bench in my kimono each night, eyes glued to the laptop screen adjusted juuuust so.
The world doesn’t need another commentary on the series, so I’ll just keep it to what’s relevant, which isn’t really relevant at all, just feels relevant tonight: my favorite character is Omar. For obvious reasons. But for less obvious reasons, it got me thinking tonight. As I had my nightly cigarette on the terrace (sorry Mom) and watched the stray motorbikes whiz by three stories below, listened to the neighbor’s dog barking, felt one of those rare cool breezes dancing around the edges of my kimono—it got to thinking about the only Omar I’ve ever known.
Omar James. I’ll use his real name, cause why the fuck not?—weird things happen online and I might even find him. We went to grade school together. He was in my class, all the way through, but I remember him most from sixth grade.
Omar was American, which sounds obvious, but half of my grade school was immigrant kids, so it actually kinda narrows it down. He wasn’t a Bad Kid, but he wasn’t a good kid either—that strange kind of inbetween place people float in as kids, before puberty, when all hell breaks loose—that time when everyone’s lives hangs before them, unformed and waiting, like one of those planetary birth charts I’ve never understood or been able to read.
I remember the DARE counselor, a dude named Officer Lee, saying on the first day: “There’s three kinds of kids. There’s the kids that’ll for sure get into drugs and the kids that for sure won’t. Then there’s the kids in the middle.” He’d paused here, for effect. “Those are the ones we’re trying to reach.”
I knew positively I was one of the kids who wouldn’t.
So I’ve been known to be wrong in my life.
But I remember thinking Omar was one of the kids in the middle. He had a real raspy, low voice, so the teachers always caught him when he was talking (“Your voice is like a red race car,” one teacher had told him. “People are always gonna notice it.”) I remember one term we were seated in the same group, warped old wooden desks facing each other, and I’d tried to whisper something to him out of turn—my version of taking a risk—and he’d gotten frustrated, making a pssshhh noise and said, “Man, I can’t hear you.”
I probably turned real red.
Irish blood makes you do that.
No one else in that class had Irish blood.
Omar had real dark skin and a burn from a flat-iron on his forearm. Lots of the black kids had them, and I remember wondering why—in the same way other kids asked if all little white girls were born with parts in their hair.
He had rough hands too; I remember that. They had little scars on them, callouses and patches of grayed skin, and they’d seemed to me like grown-up hands, man hands. I remember watching them, holding a pencil during tests. I remember watching that shiny burn too, the way the light seemed to gleam off it someway special.
He also had these little gray hairs all over his head. They curled around the rest of his hair, in a way that made them seem curlier, though probably they weren’t. He said he’d always had them, and I’d remember that, since second grade, he had. He said his grandpa had them too, and that that was who he’d gotten it from.
Omar also had a Starter jacket. That was a big deal back in the day. Cause they were expensive and fly. Kids in Oakland fought over Starter jackets, the way kids also fought over Air Jordans, and the kids who had them had a reputation for, you know, the kinds of things kids with fancy shit in poor cities have a reputation for. The Oakland School Board got frustrated and decided to ban the jackets at all schools. This was before the days of semi-mandatory uniforms in public schools, so the ban was also big deal. The school board meeting where it was discussed made the nightly news, and I remember thinking, “Not all kids with Starter jackets are thugs—Omar’s got one.”
No one, I should say, ever tried to fight Omar for his.
Which is maybe why The Wire Omar made me think of him.
But I really don’t know why the fuck I should remember any of this. Maybe it was the hair, the little gray hairs, and how they made me have a picture of his grandpa—some old dude as a little boy once, somewhere, hella long ago, with the same little gray hairs. And picturing that had made me picture Omar as an old man, the same way his rough hands did.
Neither one of us would be old now.
Then I left that school—we all left, graduated—and I went to a nicer public school up in the hills, followed by a string of other schools—the typical hustle for a decent education in Oakland—and I lost touch with most of those kids. I’ve found some through Facebook—Alekist, who went to Brown and works for a biotech company; Dartanyan, who used to do backflips off the stairs and has a record label now. (Okay, so, I found two kids.) But even before The Wire, even before Phnom Penh and expathood and this weird ass new life of mine that has made me nostalgic for random shit I can’t explain, I’d looked for Omar a few times—plugged his name into the search bar and got nothing.
Cause some people stick like that. Some images stick like that.
Like a race car in the red.