Always in the Bad Part of Town

Posted by len on November 8th, 2006

If you live in Los Angeles, or any large city for that matter, perhaps you’ve had this experience: You’re traveling somewhere in town, a ways from home, not sure exactly where you’re at, and the need arises to stop at a post office, or KFC for a bite, or perhaps Del Taco. No Problem. You can find one by sight as you pass the countless strip malls. Even though you don’t know this area, familiar signs and brands soothe the slight discomfort you feel being in a new part of town. You park the car and walk up to order your Gordita Meal Deal and see 2-inch-thick bullet-proof plexi-glass separating the workers from you, and everyone else standing next to you. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” you think to yourself. Over the next few seconds the experience begins to congeal with other semi-conscious observations you made shortly before: Pawn shops and bail bond signs that caught your eye as you passed in the car, a pile of garbage accumulating in a nearby gutter, a bizarre, unearthly absence of Starbucks. Some kind of calculation is happening in your brain which leads inevitably to the next thought: “Oh. I think I’m in the bad part of town.”
Luckily, this understanding tends to creep up relatively slowly. This is important since I’ve decided it’s absolutely crucial, once one has this realization, to play it cool. Otherwise you might find yourself sweating and gaping at the steel bars separating you from your KFC family bucket mumbling “Holy shit!” over and over.
If this experience is at all familiar to you then you have already experienced an aspect of what it has been like to live in Morocco these past three weeks. The cities are places from which there is no escape from the bad part of town.
However, this is only partially true, for some interesting reasons. Most importantly has to do with the feeling of threat. The bulletproof glass in a Del Taco in LA doesn’t create unease because of anything to do with your relationship with those behind the barrier but rather by its suggestion that the guy in line behind you could have a gun in his belt. In Fez, as well as other big cities in Morocco, though I’ve never seen either bulletproof glass or security bars in restaurants, there is a persistent, inescapable feeling of neglect: street renovation projects in a state of serious upheaval, sidewalks that are mostly broken concrete, buildings that look dilapidated and abandoned but aren’t. In LA and elsewhere I’ve lived in the U.S. these are the alert signs that heighten my personal surveillance and transform everyone around me, especially if I’m on foot at night, into a potential threat. I’ve found that in Morocco this rule needs to be softened or even abandoned. Most significantly, the people that surround us are difficult to realistically perceive as a threat. Just the other night, in a city called Meknes, Sue and I were walking home to our hotel in the old part of town. We took a shortcut that took us through a dark, seedy, enclosed alley. The dark sillouettes of some men loitering near the far end made me afraid, if just a bit. When we came to them, they were a familiar Moroccan sight: some mostly goofy-looking old men in tarbouches (similar to Fez hats) chit-chatting. And of course, everyone loiters in Morocco! That’s pretty much the national pastime once the sun goes down (which is shockingly early these days). Another aspect of our relationship with Moroccans is that everyone likes to look at us, especially Sue. Face after face passes us and quickly studies us with inscrutable expressions. I don’t know what they’re thinking but so far the few that we’ve started conversations with are very friendly and excited about our American-ness (There are so many French here, I think we’re a refreshing change for them). Ironically, it feels more comforting to have people overtly look at us than spying on us from around a corner, potentially planning something sinister. And of course, it allows me freedom to imagine what’s going through their minds; something like, “Wow! Americans. My god what a beautiful people.”

3 Responses to “Always in the Bad Part of Town”

  1. jim Says:

    It reminds me in a lot of ways of walking around places in NJ. No, I’m actually serious. Not to the same degree, but just that there’s a whole town that’s, say, crappy. Not well kept up, but not necessarily criminally dangerous. And it can be disconcerting for me when I’ve been away from it for a while to walk around; but it’s just how it is. Working class poor areas, ramshackle but not really threatening….

    But coming from a nation with prosperous cities, we get used to all the Bad Things being concentrated into that Bad Part of Town you mention…where they may have guns too. Which (I think; am I right?) is much less of a problem in Morocco.

    It’s still not like caution isn’t called for, but I think you have it pretty right. As the area becomes more familiar to you, i expect you can see more details in a new framework…

  2. Chris Says:

    It’s the same here Len. Whenever I stopped at your desk before lunch I always thought “My god what a beautiful man.”

  3. gordon Says:

    < a href = “ baylor@markel.pierce“>.< / a >…


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