Sunday, June 3, 2007

famous beans

The fuul stand out left of my doorway is a bewildering ritual: I round the corner, edge my way in among the shouting, money-waving men, and wait for benevolent attention which never comes. If I observe closely enough, I think, I’ll discern the pattern of pleading, demanding, and granting, and thus myself be granted a pocket of bread with beans and lime juice. But this morning it just didn’t happen. Yesterday too.

There is an old man. He is quite old. He is the engine of the operation. He has been ladling beans and dousing them with the right blend of oils and salts and juices for so many decades he is simply a master. Even I can see that. What normally would be a brown goop – something like refried beans – takes on a luster of tastiness when he flings powders and oils negligently over them. Are we just bedazzled by his air of grizzled authority? Or reduced to a calculation of numbers of consumers in finding our own appetites? For just fifty yards down the sidewalk, in the sun, is a pitiful stand with few enough people standing around it so as to be actually visible – making one wonder how bad the slop they are spooning out must be.

Which causes me to just stand there, at the exalted stand, because twenty other men are mad for the old man’s concoctions. He wears a misshapen cap, like a skullcap stretched over a giant head once, and now flopping to one side. I have noticed one pattern. Once the man has dished up all the fuul in his mixing bowl, he sets aside the bowl and pulls his whole jumble of rumpled bills out of his apron pocket and piles them on the counter. Then he gives change to all the people who last paid. Whether he remembers each one is unlikely, judging by his hesitant, slightly bumbling manner. The eaters, who have stood around wolfing the beans and tomatoes from tin plates, must all be regulars and hence honest. Maybe the cultish makeup of the patrons is what causes me to be ignored. But aside from that one pattern of beans-money-beans, I can make no sense of the scene.

There seems to be little relation between the vehemence of customer’s appeals and the server’s pace. When a dozen people are competing for change or for service they dither on details, such as cutting limes, or arbitrarily serve and keep serving one person. When the appeals die down they may turn industrious and methodical. They are in little hurry, regardless. I suppose they are famous enough they have little need to hurry. There are always plenty of customers whatever they do. Their attitude may be described as pre-capitalist for not deigning to expand the operation to soak up “surplus market capacity.”

However long I wait the number of people in front of me remains the same. But finally I gave up: I had seen no clue that would serve me in getting beans; didn’t even know what I should say, let alone shout in front of strangers. The most vocal seemed to get served hardly any sooner than the silent.

So I walked over to the pitifully unshaded cart and was served right away. I noticed the spooner was in his thirties, and actually looked at me. He performed all steps. His beans were damn good, even cooled down in my refrigerated classroom 409, and I wondered if, thirty years down the road he will not have moved to the shade and lost any need to ask customers, “What do you want?” I suppose he will deserve his tiny despotism of beans then, just for having done his time with the pell mell demands, grasping and reaching every morning. By that time too he will have a younger woman at his side to spoon the tomatoes, wrap the sandwiches to go, and be actively arbitrary. To handle the people he will just mix, douse, and spoon – a purist, a skilled specialist of taste, in a noisy sidewalk niche. Maybe he will be more of a capitalist in a more capitalist world. But the way he waits for leftover customers, fatalistically knowing he’ll have to wait for the old man’s death, tells me he is still from the old school, and the old school dies slow.

Cairo, September 20, 1998

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