George Samuelson possessed two salient characteristics. First, he suffered from, or perhaps reveled in, OCD, indicated by the fact that every article of clothing he owned had an embroidered name tag with “George Samuelson” sewn in. The other characteristic was that he was dead. Maybe not dead, but something like dead. I say this because the second hand clothing store in Manhattan, in which I was searching for something to wear, had his pants and shirts arrayed on the proper racks, still all together, and the number of shirts and pants thusly arrayed seemed to me just right to be the complete medium-wear (not underwear, not outerwear) wardrobe of a man who lived in New York City by the name of George Samuelson.
Oh, and there was a third characteristic as well. George Samuelson had the exact same body measurement as me. I didn’t even need to try the clothes on, I could just see it. I bought the lot.
At that moment, I went from being a person who quite literally owned the clothes on my back and nothing else by way of apparel, to a man who possessed a reasonable, if entirely pre-owned, wardrobe of long sleeved shirts of fine quality, and matching slacks of a sturdy nature. The colors were a mix of light gray and khaki, which for me was perfect.
Let me tell you why this was perfect. In those days I spent less than half a year teaching or studying, as a graduate student, and the rest of the year in the field, nearly 100% of the time in the bush. My clothes were hand washed in a silt-filled stream and dried in the moist environment of a rain forest, sometimes being smoked over smoldering logs. While in the field, I kept no apartment, but some thing were in storage. I had developed the habit of buying new clothing on return from the field, and I would wear these cloths to class, to the bar with friends, and to conferences. Then, I would take these clothes to the field, keeping one shirt and one pair of pants sealed up in a plastic bag, untouched. I would then procede to wear, and to wear out, smoke up, and spill blood on (from my research activities) the other clothing, until it was all ruined. The outfit preserved in plastic would be my “going back home” clothes, but the trip would take up to two weeks, so that outfit would be pretty reeky by the time I settled in somewhere.
And on this day, I had settled, for a week at least, into an artist loft in Manhattan.
The reason George Samuelson’s clothes were perfect should be obvious: Khaki and gray cotton long sleeved shirts and matching slacks are perfect fieldwork clothing, if supplemented with one lightweight pair of shorts and a few pairs of socks. My annual cycle of raiment operated thusly: Buy new clothes, wear them out a little, wear them to the field and finish them off but for one outfit, return to the US, repeat cycle. But this year I got to do it for almost no money, because each article of clothing cost about two bucks in that second hand store.
My trip back from the field started in Zaire’s rain forest, with a harrowing ride to an airstrip a day or so away, which I may recount elsewhere. Then, tracking down someone with an appropriate aircraft, paying for a flight to Nairobi, then arranging international air travel back to somewhere in the US, ultimate destination to be Boston’s Logan Airport. The best deal I could get was to New York, from whence travel to Boston would somehow be arranged at a later time, and there was someone to visit there, so that was good.
I remember as clear as day, standing in a hotel room near Nairobi city center, on the phone with a representative from Swiss Air. Who knows how I had gotten there, exactly, but she was telling me that Swiss Air could get me from Nairobi to Frankfurt then to London, where I’d take Pan Am to New York from London.
“You have a choice,” she said. “You can leave London on Tuesday or Thursday, either way we can get you there.”
“Depends on how long I want to stay in Nairobi, then,” I said.
“Yes sir, I suppose so.”
“Thursday, then, I mean, why not, it would be like a longer vacation!” I replied with some enthusiasm.
“Certainly, sir,” she said, followed by the “clickity click” sound people in the airline business used to make when arranging flights.
As she started to arrange the flights, I thought about it further. I was actually totally out of money. If I stayed in Nairobi two more days, I’d be spending on credit. And, I’d been forced, by the nature of my travel to this remote field site, to spend several weeks in Nairobi over the previous couple of years. I had done everything there was to do here. Twice. Three times for some things.
“Um, hold on a sec,” I interrupted . The clickity-click stopped.
“Come to think of it, I’d like to go back on that Tuesday flight, not the Thursday flight.”
“Very good sir.” Clickity-click.
Very good indeed. I flew to Frankfurt. Fell asleep on a bench. Woke up and checked he status of my flight to London. “Your flight will be delayed a few minutes.” Fell asleep again. Checked the status. “A few minutes more delay, no big problem.” Went back bench and did not fall asleep, and moments later, an announcement on the airports PA drew my attention.
“Passengers leaving on Swiss Air bla-di-bla, this is your last call for boarding, please get to gate whatever-whatever immediately.”
No one in the airport had been pre-boarded, or informed that the flight was about to take off. Only the last call, no other calls. I’d never seen that before, I’ve never seen it since. But I did make it on the flight, as did all the other confused passengers.
So I flew to London, then I boarded the Yankee Clipper. “Yankee Clipper” was the quaint name of the aircraft. I remember the crew was especially nice, and not just because I was engaging with Americans for the first time in many months. I don’t have that problem, of missing American-ness when I’m away. Quite the opposite, really. But these folks were just nice. I remember seeing “Yankee Clipper,” the name of the plane, as I was boarding it, and thus noticing for the first time that individual airplanes might actually have names.
I did learn from the crew that they were regulars. They went back and forth between New York and London on this exact plane, round trip twice a week, so it was a pretty easy job.
Back in Manhattan. Not paying a lot of attention to the news, but the news comes through anyway. A US based airliner had crashed in Lockerbie Scotland. It took a while to connect. It wasn’t the sudden realization that happens in a movie script or a well paced novel. It took a couple of days. But it dawned on me, twice. First, in New York, when I realized that it was the Thursday flight, presumably crewed by the same crew that got me to New York on Tuesday, the one I was almost booked on, that had exploded and crashed that day. I realized it, but it did not really “hit me” until quite a while later, maybe two or three years, when a different plane crash took the life of someone who knew someone I sort of knew. A distant connection, but just enough of one for me to almost break out in a cold “that was too close” sweat.
I am glad a modicum more justice than may already have happened will be done. I know it wasn’t anything personal, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, when you tried to kill me. But go fuck yourself anyway.