CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: You've mentioned your aversion toward conditions found in Africa, but, as an African-American, didn't you find affinities?


VJ: Roots, you mean? In a word, no. I'm an AMERICAN-American as far as culture goes. Let's face it; I pick a phone up, I expect it to work; ditto an appliance.  I hail a cab, it's MINE; I'm not about to share it with half a dozen yokels. When I'm thirsty, I want to turn on the tap—not parboil some disease. This myth of searching for identity on another peoples' continent is just that; a myth. I trace MY 'native' origins straight to Queens, where I can order a pizza day or night, take a shower or a bath in HOT water, rent a video if I'm bored at home or splurge on a show downtown, or just kick back and let my fingers pick and choose from trash on the boob-tube. To me, that's living. What the folks do mostly in Africa is SUBSIST; the vast majority. And subsistence cultures lose my vote hands down.


"When the Europeans landed in America, life was tribal. Native peoples lived their complex lives in very simple ways."

"Is this a lecture, Graham? Please spare me. All I said was, 'fuck these skeeters.' Now you're drawing WEIRD comparisons. What's the point? Just pass the Deet."

We'd been on hold, on shore full make-up, mind youwaiting for the tide, so they could shoot this long procession scene of extras led on board. The mosquitoes were HORRENDOUS. I mean, thicker than the flies.

"I vote we nuke 'em with insecticide," was the line that got Graham started.

"Too expedient..." was his opening comment. Then the pregnant pause. While he was gathering highbrow thoughts, I weighed the odds against malaria. We'd been popping chloroquine and mefloquine since before we'd left the states. Malarial dreams had kicked in nightly for the bulk of us.

"Think about context."


"Indigenous populations tend to care for their environments. Sure, you'll find a few exceptions. But the general rule applies. And yet the kind of folks most apt to hold Mother Earth in high regard can't match the craftiness of folks hell-bent on exploiting it."

"Meaning me?"

"You want to 'nuke' Douala's insects; why? They're making you uncomfortable. You and I were taught that nature is a beast that must be tamed. Or worse, a foe that must be conquered; we'll outgun it; we'll outsmart it. Didn't God appoint us stewards? Natural selection? Man has always made excuses for what all boils down to avarice. Whereas native people hold one munificent law in common:  give as well as take, and take no more than needed. Which generates no surplus. Which, in turn, discourages greed. "

"How could CULTURE have developed if the poor stayed drag-ass poor? You don't find art where there's no wealth, Graham. There's no art where there's no leisure. Who could buy it; who could make it? Poor folks just can't spare the time; they're much too busy scrounging around for their next meal. "

Graham was all for back-to-nature. Silver-spoon kids always are. They've never known what it's like to do without, let alone what it's like to starve. I mean, I'm hardly one to talk; we all ate good enough on Welfare—when you think about the famine that afflicts the whole Third World. But I'd seen harder times than Graham, so it would never fail to gall me when he'd rail against the status quo that fed and clothed his gripes. And yet, he wasn't hypocritical; Doubletree practiced what he preached. But he was ' in' this culture more than 'of' it; maybe that was the distinction, focusing on a cure for so-called 'cupidity'—while he himself stayed remarkably free of symptoms.

"Doesn't follow. You're a city girl, Vel. The outlet in the streets is what? Graffiti. Take the NYUs, the Julliards, Pratts, and ACTs away, and still the kids would keep on scribbling: 'This is our life; we are here.' A given culture needs the human spirit solely to surviveand what our planet needs is cultures more in sync."

"With what?"

"Life's heartbeat."

Back to Africa, always Africa; Graham was snake-bit by the notion that the SOURCE of life held the KEY to life—till something went awry. I mean, he really started talking like a madman with a mission. Not at this stage, in Douala (on the coast of Cameroon), but later on, in Masai Mara, he went bonkers, right round the bend. And to this day, I blame those goddamn anti-malarials. Potent stuff. I had a few humdinger visions of my own. No lie. OUTRAGEOUS. It was LSD revisited a la flashback. Looney-tune time. While we were sitting there, in fact—the vampire bugs still feasting wholesale—I imagined I was looking on from an OUTSIDE point of view. Except the camera crew was missing. It was me, plus all the extras. Tied by rope instead of chain. And scared to death to board that ship. I got this feeling I had never seen a boat before that moment. That the ocean was a storm, a wet extension of the sky, with surf for clouds and the roar it made was the closest thing to thunder—truly deafening. There were men with clubs and whips. And then this shock went through the line, as if the rope was one long nerve end made to twitch when we confronted God-knows-what, a kind of ghost rose up and glared from overhead. Compared to us, its face and hands were bloodless. Totally sucked of color. Like the essence of humanity had been drained off. It was sick. And then a yank made all our heads lurch. They were hauling us from shore, me half-convinced the sea would open like some trapdoor underfoot and I'd go tumbling into FATHOMS of an unknown void. My heels dug in, my arms were stretching from their sockets, and I bawled—sputtering big boo-hoos like a traumatized baby.

Smack! Graham swatted it. I was brought back to reality by the bloodstain on my forearm where the remnants of a bug explained Graham's unprovoked attack. I must confess, I nearly slugged him back; the dream had been SO vivid. Not that Graham was anything like the spook—which I think was Captain Crowe—but all Caucasians, at that moment, looked alike.

"These goddamn SKEETERS." Graham was imitating me, my voice, while taking off his shirt to smear on beach tar. "We've been waiting here for YEARS. What IS the hold up? When's our cue? I mean, come ON, we'll need transFUsions, if we stay out here much longer." He played mockingbird with amazing skill, an absolute dead-on mimic. "This so-called make-up you've got plastered on my tits has turned to mud pies. How, ON EARTH, am I supposed to do my scene in MUCK like this? I'm here to ACT, not double as a cow turd." We were laughing; Graham was into it. What began as private ribbing swelled to a full-blown public skit, as he went charging up and down the shore, lambasting all and sundry with a tantrum done in perfect character—unmistakably mine—to the delight of folks in need of a little levity. "What's the problem? We're not SLAVES, you know; we're bona fide SAG professionals who are not about to WET OUR FEET FOR FOOLS. Let's get in GEAR. The sun is setting, tempers rising, insects gorging, patience lapsed; we all are fit to be TIED—and have been. Power to the people! Rise up! Escape!" There wasn't anything anyone could do, after that, to curb our fits of giggles. Graham—as Vel Jerome—prevailed; we called it a day.



VJ: What did you ask me? Oh, yeah; "affinities." If I REALLY stretched, I suppose I felt SOME kinship with that continent. There were times, especially sunsets, when the Kenyan landscape glowed with what a poet might describe as "primal splendor." It WAS beautiful. And the game, in such huge numbers, made you stop sometimes to wonder what the planet once was like before the naked apes moved in. If there was such a place as Eden, it was no doubt set in Africa. Maybe Graham was not so moonstruck as we thought. I mean, let's face it; earth's most detrimental screw-ups are the folks who walk erect. Though maybe, way back when, we managed to wreak less havoc—we the Aborigines. How we—the Americans—descended from them defies imagination.


{It was a puzzle Graham and I discussed ad nauseam in my trailer—I was SELDOM in the mood to share the pup tent housing him; the method actor, "Corporal Crackers," as the techies dubbed him later...}

"I've been reading about this archeological dig done somewhere near here. They found evidence of a pretty curious, prehistoric tribe."

The man was always reading something. Mostly National Geographic. Graham once told me he had a "vintage stash" from years back—dates from childhood—when he'd cut out every naked girl he'd found. All 'tanned,' of course. Strap on a loincloth and a string of shells; no outcry from the censors—as long as 'dey be colo'd fo'k prancin' 'roun' buck-nekid.' Anyway, there we were, alone, inside my air-conditioned trailer, well past midnight—Graham in khaki shorts and T-shirt, me in next-to-nothing silk—and what's the topic of our tête-a-tête? Dead natives.

"Spare me. Please!"

"No, this is fascinating. Cross my heart."

He loved Midwest expressions.

"They practiced body scarification, ritual burial, human sacrifice..."

"Just plain folks, in other words?"

"That's my point; since then not much has changed. Except they seem to have lived their lives in relative peace and well-sung harmony. Musical instruments were uncovered, the oldest ever found. And here's the kicker; these folks predate Australopithecus."

"Australia who?"

"Aus-tral-opithecus. Raymond Dart? The Leakeys? Quests for early Man?"

"Okay, okay, I've heard of the Leakeys. We have schools in Queens, you know."

"Anyhow, these findings were dismissed as fake. Some glitch in the carbon datingthough the guy insisted that 'Academic envy' had played the saboteur. He lost his funding, with his credibility. Finally, he lost his life. But now they're saying that the test-results were botchedin lieu of falsified. There's this flute and jawbone fragment that are causing quite a stir. The problem is, this 'nut' who dug them upone Dwayne Ezekiel Mattinglycovered up the original site then burned his map in a fit of pique. A regular hothead. Sent the ashes to some British Royal Society, with his treatise on the tribe, and a few choice parting shots, to boot. He died up north of herein Nakurufrom the bite of a pet hyena. They've been trying to trace his footsteps ever since."

A likely story. Graham went on to quote this crackpot, chapter and verse, about these fossils. Wild conclusions drawn from bits and pieces. Mountains raised from bumps. As if such bullshit were believable. I, for one, stayed unconvinced. Despite the really way-out episodes soon to follow.



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