Every Friday we’d gather around the counter at Pitcher and Butch and trade war stories. There was Jamo, a mechanic, ex Baraton University, Bachelor of Technology in Automotive. Boisterous, loud, carefree. He worked in a garage in Westlands as a garage manager. Loved cars, knew everything about cars. He would hear a car pass and tell you what car it was by just listening to its engine. He was my childhood friend, grew up five houses away from ours. So we go along way back, we know where all the bodies are buried. He would show up at the bar in his work boots, the ones with the steel-toes. He would be in faded jeans, smelling of oil and grease, the insides of his nails darkened by hard labour, his hands hard, his soul calcified, the paws of a bear. He could snuff out his cigarette with his thumb and index finger.
Then there was Solomon, ex-UoN. He was jobless then. He studied Law but he hated it like most people who seem to study law. He was in transition of sorts, trying to find his true north. What he knew for a fact was that he didn’t want to spend another day practicing law. Unlike us, he grew up in a rich family. They owned lots of residentials and he was the only other son. He had walked out of his last job one day after lunch, a law firm owned by one of his father’s cronies from the country club. Naturally, whilst his father was disappointed in him his mother stood by him and convinced him to get involved in the family business, which he hated because he felt like he was living his father’s dream. He refused and his father cut off his allowance. So he was broke but rich, you know what I mean? But it didn’t seem to perturb him.
Then there was Sammy, a small-bodied gentleman, a compressed ball of energy. An IT specialist, ex-India graduate, some university in Kerala or something like that. Sharp. Loved gadgets. I knew him through Jamo, they were old friends. He was a hawker, or rather, that’s what we called him because he had a briefcase IT company and he went around selling IT solutions at a time when people were learning “packages”. He was married young. We were only 26-years old and he had already been married two years prior, which meant he was more mature than us, more inwardly looking. He knew what lay ahead, we were only stumbling towards it. We didn’t care what lay ahead, because what lay before us in those Friday evening meet-ups at Pitcher and Butch was whisky, Johnnie Walker Red label, to be precise.
We would buy a bottle and split the bill. We would gather around this bottle like it was fire warming our bones and drink it until 10pm after which Sammy would be the first to leave because you know how married guys are. Always running home not to upset the apple cart. There was always someone else joining us, a friend of one of us. We were never too keen on girls joining us because that would upset our budget. A girl meant that she would order something fancy, like a cocktail going for 500 a pop and if she knocked back four we would be in funk. It’s worse if she dragged along a friend like they would mostly. It would force us to converge in the loo for a little hearing at the end of the evening and decide how we would handle this situation of the bill.
Nonetheless, those evenings were filled with mostly inane conversations, basically blowing smoke up each other’s skirt. We dreamt a lot and whenever that happened we didn’t go for the small dreams, we dreamts as big as we could. We were thick as thieves, at least on Fridays. Not only did we share the little we made on that table but we also shared the little we knew about life. And we didn’t know a hell lot. It was an odd camaraderie; at one end egged on by the bravado of youth and at the other, silently dogged by anxiety of impending “adulthood” because we really didn’t see ourselves as adults. We saw ourselves as children of the world, as men who would never age, we made excuses for our actions and we were brave and hopeful, daring to want much more than we could chew at that time.
In September 2009, I went to work one morning and received a group email summoning us in the boardroom. I was working for a snazzy men’s magazine. I should have known the South African suits filling in with their grim faces were bearing lousy news. They gave us a snappy speech as they cut the rope. They said that the recession was kicking their asses and the magazine could not be sustained. We looked at each other like, “OK, we are definitely not getting a raise, but what are these folks sayin’?” In short we were told they were pulling the plug. This gig was up. Pack your stuff and vacate the building, we shall send you your severance package. We were shocked. Nobody cried, just numbness. We groped our way to our desks, like men and women in a blizzard. Some of us went out and smoked furiously. My daughter was only a few months old. What was I going to do? My life was over!
I hurled myself against the wall hoping that it would break my neck because what good was life if you were jobless and broke? When the wall didn’t break my neck, I opened the window and looked outside at the one floor fall. That wouldn’t kill me, I thought to myself, I’d only end up breaking my ribs and now that I didn’t have insurance how could I even afford treatment? So I jumped.
OK…none of these happened. I didn’t jump or hurl myself against the wall. I was a man about it. I wasn’t going to break down but I felt like someone had pulled the rug from under my feet and taken my identity with them. Suddenly I didn’t know who I was anymore. We define ourselves with our jobs and titles and where we work so much that when it’s taken away you ask yourself, “then who the hell am I if I’m not the senior features writer?” You question your worth and contribution as a human being. You question yourself as a man, as a husband and as a father. Your self esteem shrinks. And when no answer was forthcoming I sat in my car in the office parking, a small paper bag with all my office belongings; desk photos (never keep photos of your family on your desk at work, they are not worth it!), mementos, a small cartoon clock (funny, how now I would have all the time in the world), and old magazines and I wonder what the hell I was going to do with my time now that it was only 10:03 a.m. in the morning. Maybe I would turn into those chaps who sit on benches in town or those who nap in Jivanjee gardens. You feel lost and confused and so bitter you want to go upstairs and scream in the faces of the suits, “you bloody capitalists, what am I supposed to do with these 2,000 business cards!?” then kick one in the shin and run downstairs.
So I called Jamo. He was sweating under a VW Passat, staring at its underbelly. “Can I come over and just chill?” I asked him. There was a small kibanda in their garage. “I’m sort of busy now, but you can come though I will be up and about”. So I drove to Westlands and he let me sit in his office that overlooked the whole yard (great to see who is stealing spark plugs). I didn’t want to sit with computers and printers and ringing phones, it was only reminding of a life that the office had rejected me. So I went to the kibanda downstairs and ordered tea and chapatis and people watched. I had so much time my pockets were bulging from it. I didn’t want to think about what next. I just wanted to watch mechanics unscrew nuts and spray paint and flirt with the hawker ladies selling boiled eggs.
At lunch we sat with other mechanics on the bench and I told Jamo that my job had ended. He asked what happened and I told him. He said, “Easy, man”, and that was it. No pity party. No hugs. He knocked off work early (who’s boss?) and we went to Pitcher and Butch and we ordered our usual, another bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and we drunk it the two of us. It was a silent statement that night; he was being the supportive friend without reading me quotes by Rupert Murdoch I was trying to forget this nightmare by postponing what lay in the road ahead. I was trying to stop time. Confusing night, that.
The next few months were filled with confusion. I didn’t know what unemployed people did when they woke up. I didn’t want to stay in the house with the Help because she was Kisii and she sang terrible Kisii songs and that was going to drive me insane. So I left and went to Amref library because it had internet and it was quiet and there everybody seemed too serious, head to opened books, looking like they were studying molecular science. I didn’t have a computer of my own and so I would just read newspapers or a book I’d carried looking. Most times I looked like a stalker.
Months passed and I still went to our drink-ups on Fridays. Somehow the boys were kinder to me, which meant the bill would not be split three-ways but I would be asked to give whatever I had. By this time, Solomon had succumbed to the pressure and was now working for daddy. Sammy was no longer selling from his briefcase but had now joined hands with another fellow and were sharing office premises. And wearing better suits. In time the meetups got less frequent and the conversations around our table was changing; there was less bravado and more introspection. The nights were getting shorter and shorter because we were now all married and were fathers, so we had some sort of subtle curfew imposed but one that we didn’t acknowledge to each other. We were still men. African men. We went home when we were ready to go home. Lions. Well, until we arrived home.
Gradually our choice of drink had also changed because the networth of the table had changed. We were now drinking Johnnie Walker Black label because we wanted to be seen in a certain light. We wanted the chaps on the next table to see our status and to respect it, damn it.
I admired Sammy. Secretly of course. God, I would die if he knew I admired him. I admired how he handled his business, how he would not know how his bills would be paid end month but somehow they got paid. He was a businessman, and he always seemed to stay afloat even during the hardest of times. He was the first person I knew who didn’t have a formal job and was staying afloat somehow. It seemed so grown up. So bad-ass. This meant that I didn’t burst a vein trying to get a job, I did it half heartedly. I was enticed by the freedom of it, but I didn’t fancy the uncertainty that it came with. I started writing my blog. I went and worked for one terrible couple in an underground art magazine for three months and then wrote a resignation letter in a plane to Mombasa.
Life started happening to us and we all started drifting towards different directions; Jamo kept making some bad decisions and he kept losing his jobs. He was that lucky bugger who always got a job a month after losing one. He briefly moved to Nakuru to work for an automobile company. His wife left him. Then came back. Solomon had now turned into those chaps who go for country music and pick nyama from the butchery to be roasted. He had ceded the cries and pleas to join the family business. I felt a little sorry for him.
Sammy separated from his wife and lived like a hermit in a studio apartment in Parklands eating take-outs from a box and sleeping on a mattress from the floor. I was trying to stay afloat in the freelance space and it was hard comprehending even what that meant on a daily. Our lives were being stirred up in a pot. We weren’t as close as we were and once in a while when Jamo was in town he would gather everybody together at Pitcher and Butch on a Thursday this time, Reggae Night and we would buy a bottle of Oban (now this is good whisky) and try and catch up. If you have been to Reggae night on Thursdays you will know that no sensible conversations can happen in that bedlam. So at the end of the end of the night we realised that we hadn’t really known what was happening in each other’s lives in details. But the idea of meeting up and laughing and knocking glasses seemed sufficient under the circumstances.
Life has been relatively kind to most of us. Our children are healthy. We are healthy and are pursuing fulfilling careers. Some of us are happily married, some not. Sammy got married again. A big garden wedding. I’m the only one who didn’t attend because I was out of town for an assignment. But I saw pictures on Whatsapp. He wore a one button suit and it stretched around his midsection because he stopped working out and now looked like someone’s father. Jamo looking like he borrowed a suit and Solomon stood legs apart like a sentry, squinting in the sun. I looked at them and thought; boys do grow into men. They all had beards. They all looked fat. And happy.
It’s been half a year since I saw Jamo. Last time I heard from him was well, yesterday. We all talk on Whatsapp frequently, sending silly forwards mostly. We all keep planning to meet up but life intrudes with its own plans. Next time we meet it will be over something very deserving because life is precious and we are still here. It will be the Green Label or our usual Oban. A drink that says “we are here now, and life is kind now and we don’t know when we will see each other again so let’s sink into this moment”. Because life flies over our heads and it flies by fast. You blink and you are a father, you blink again and you are 50-years old, talking about how expensive university fees are.
Hopefully then we will converge at Pitcher and Butch again, where it all started, and we will be able and brave enough to order Johnnie Walker Blue Label without feeling dizzy, without asking for the price and thinking how much that translates in bags of cement. And Jamo will knock it’s underside with his flat palm and crack it open because he has always been the guy who opened the bottles. “You can’t open a bottle of Johnnie Blue like that, boss”, someone will say, “the spirit of Johnnie Blue demands a little more culture than that”. He pours himself a drink. Then we will pour ourselves a drink. Then someone will raise their glass for a toast and we will touch glasses and drink to life. The we will split the bill three-way.
We are not the same men we were. Nobody is. But even though we drifted apart, we somehow remain rooted loosely to each other through more children, more responsibilities, more challenges in life. We always found a way to find ourselves and gather over a bottle of something. Curiously, we never did anything else, never lunches or outdoor activities, it was always over a bottle of whisky, that we shared, like blood brothers. There is something profound about drinking together as men, and specifically drinking from one bottle. It’s a kinship and the bottle is never really a bottle but a symbolism of a commitment at friendship, a pact of sorts. And we always split the bill, three way.
Happy Whisky Day, a toast to anyone sharing a bottle of anything today.