There’s an old trick in Ethiopia they pull on unsuspecting foreigners. They call it the Ole Jack Spittle. You are walking down a quiet street with few other pedestrians, presumably minding your own business, when a young man coming towards you hawks a loogie and lets it fly. Interestingly, it lands on you. No doubt a humanitarian, our culprit’s terribly troubled at having inconvenienced an upstanding citizen of the world. He immediately produces a scraggly old handkerchief and begins rubbing about at your pant leg, abdomen – even groinal region if need be – wherever that lingering trace of mucus might lie. In the process, he pockets your wallet and whatever else can be had in this awkwardly drawn-out but fiendishly insightful five-second exchange.
A tactician’s wet-dream, the victim is caught unawares on several fronts: a) he is not used to being spat upon; b) rarely do complete strangers touch you in those parts; c) seldom does anyone have the decency to admit when they’ve wronged you, however unwittingly. (Your correspondent once spat into the Chicago River on a windy day. The loogie shot down and hooked a hard right before flying back up and over by 50 meters, spattering against the shiny pink pate of an elegant old moneybags. Rather than introduce himself and apologize, your correspondent ducked into Union Station and bought a donut).
Off the cuff, the rapid-fire chain of soul-searching questions raised by Ole Jack Spittle is difficult to absorb: first, in assessing the element of surprise. Did that motherfucker just spit on me? Second are difficult questions of ethics and honor: do I spit back or merely scold him? Kick him in the knee or the shin? Smile and turn the other pant-leg, or act as though nothing happened? Presumably most victims plop for the latter because, however noncommittal one’s mood, at least three of the above involve direct socio-physical contact with the “other.” Having landed on a new continent and only left the airport ten minutes ago, one can be forgiven if not up for immediately throwing down.
Yet before you’ve settled upon a reasonable course of action (creepy smile followed by furious bout of coughing), the cunning of history strikes again. Before you can say, mahogany Muppet-faced Melungeon! Your man is wiping you down with a dirty rag, profusely apologizing for that remarkably accurate ten-foot slobber-pop he landed right on the little green alligator of your fanny-pack. Thus the second string of tumultuous questions: have we met before? And must we move so quickly? This time the bastard’s really upped the ante, and there’s progressively less room for our previous deranged brand of passivism.
But what is to be done? Am allowed I bop him if he’s less than five feet tall? Will his boys jump in? Anyhow, what do I use? A fist? A book? My bag? (We don’t want to break that old camera). Maybe I’ll just be a good Franciscan sport and let him get on with it. After all, he’s only trying to do the right thing. And thus, like a Bunga Bunga courtesan on loan to Brussels, you close your eyes, clench your teeth and wait for it all to end.
Ole Jack Spittle works because he strands his victims in the bloodlands between cowardice and indecision. It’s the ace of trickery, the extra-Old World’s sweetest siren. The Spittle betrays us for who we really are: waffling yellow perverts with no idea what’s going on. It’s wonderful. On a random sidewalk in a strange new land, out of sync and starved of context, privileged 21st century man is revealed for the vast depository of muddled instincts and misguided intentions that he is, or has the potential to become. A perfect storm, Ole Jack Spittle only succeeds when an immoveable object (careless, dirt-poor, rambunctious and creative Ethiopian youth) meets an unstoppable force (rapaciously “open-minded” middle-class Western traveler).
(Spit on a Chinese, Turk or Serb and you mightn’t get the same results).
But what of our champion’s inner workings? Does he not suffer from the same tyranny of choice? Sure as eggs is eggs and Camel is king, each morning he awakes to a new and provocative pickle: to spit or not to spit? If so, where and upon whom? We mustn’t forget that even if unsuccessful in fuddling about your pockets, Ole Jack Spittle has already achieved the impossible. À la “too big too fail” and “stand your ground,” it’s one of the world’s craftiest win-win criminal procedures: either un-punishable when gone awry (“Hey man! I was only wiping my snot off your trousers!”) or un-prosecutable when successful. Just like a pantless breakfast-in-bed with Lloyd Blankfein, the victim is far too preoccupied with being spat upon and fondled than being robbed. Even in the Nine Circles of Neoliberal Traumzustand, physical sanctity and dignity still take the cake.
Still an overwhelmingly win-win situation from our protagonist’s point of view. Even if Papa Urchin VIII doesn’t acquire your money, he gets the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slobber his will-to-power toward the top on every foppish foreigner he passes on the street. (A godsend in a starving slumtropolis that’s festering with thousands of hyper-remunerated UN bureaucrats).
Thus is Ethiopia, all and sundry will say, by far the ‘most peaceful country in Africa’. Which your correspondent will not deny. There’s virtually no violent crime, armed robbery, aggravated assault or anything more inappropriate than a good occasional groping (no offense, women and skinheads of Cologne). Its people are prudent, pacific, almost placatory. All day long, for years on end, they do things like perch under trees, fiddle with prayer beads and sit in fields. Perch under trees. Fiddle with prayer beads. Sit in fields. Perch under trees. Fiddle with prayer beads. Sit in motherfucking fields. It bludgeons the coked-up-I-is-the-angriest-birded mind, much less he who simply desires a maté and a good book to pass the time in this vale of tears.
Drive seventeen miles in any direction. A lifetime of bumpy gravel roads with neither vehicle nor pedestrian to speak of. A horizon as barren as Fiorina’s soul and Scott Walker’s scalp (if only the Chippewa had been responsible for that glabrous work of art, and not “banging his head on the cabinet”). Nothing but parched hills and fallow fields, sterile sweeps of crusted yellow earth. In a clearing is a flat and sun-stained plateau. Right in the middle, hundreds of feet from anything – the road, the nearest tree, the closest donkey – a middle aged mudasooka is simply posted up. What mean you, demand the eager masses: doing what? Just sitting there, since the dawn of time, in the middle of the hotdamn field. Not Indian-style, not contemplative, not i-motherfucking-ronic. Casually seated, as though a bus stop, a clucker’s park bench, the lower Manhattan arraignment room. For hours and hours and hours and hours and hours on end. Not quite sure what’s more riveting or relevant: the why or the how?
Many put the Ethiopian’s remarkably peaceful composure and awe-inspiring ability to sit in a field for fifteen hours down their ancient Orthodox piety; the mysticism that thwarted a thousand years of Muslim invasions; the rock-hard stoicism they’ve inherited from Sheba herself; or simply the fatalism that numbs a country perennially plagued by famine. It’s undoubtedly a combination of them all. Yet among the would-be criminal (which lurks in the breast of every man), there’s a far more plausible explanation. Why resort to violence and pillage, fall prey to misery and despair, when you can spit on foreigners with impunity and take their money?
That’s why Ole Jack is so much more than a measly career, a paltry pastime, a gimmicky way to fund one’s khat-and-cold-beer routine. Nor, we must adamantly stress, is it merely a way of life. Ole Jack Spittle’s an ethos, a justice system, a Weltanschauung for the weak-pocketed-and-heavy-hearted. It soothes the grievances of the soul; it rights historic wrongs. Grandfather perish under Fascist reprisals? “I just spat on that Italian and he didn’t do shit.” Fresh to the capital from the drought-ravaged sticks? “I loogied all over that hooker-hounding, caviar-eating Kraut and he didn’t do shit.” And though ideal, your winnings needn’t come in monetary form. Also up for the grabs is any number of titillating wonders: whitey’s peanuts, lighter, passport or Piccadilly keychain will also do.
And let us remember: behind every catch, however meager, is a heroic tale of bravery, knavery, conquest and cunning, victory snapped from the jaws of defeat. The audacity of dope. “Christ may or may not have risen, but you see that Norwegian in the suit and tie? I just spat on that bitch and took his chapstick.”
Such is the brilliance of Ole Jack Spittle. A tactical maneuver combining the element of surprise and the speed of confusion, sprinkled with a divine spark of the absurd. It salivates with stealth, it vitiates with vigor, slobbering sublimity from the crooked timber of its rotting teeth. Good thing we’d read about it in the guidebook and jumped out the way as he hawked and took aim.