“The Cultural Ambassador of North Beach” by Ezra Carlsen

cultural cleanThe Calliope, a clipper ship said to be a hundred and sixteen feet long and twenty-four feet abeam, is buried beneath my father’s bar, The Ann McKim. Little is known about the ship, but the historians I’ve spoken with believe the Calliope shared the same fate as the Euphemia or the William Gray: the crews, upon arriving to Yerba Buena Cove in the 1850s with “the color” on their minds abandoned their ships and took to the hills to find their fortunes. Over the following hundred and fifty years the city filled in, the Calliope hidden below. The ship remains underneath the basement of the building, just ten blocks from where I was born and raised, and where my mother was born and raised, and her father before her.

The Calliope’s mahogany bowsprit is still featured prominently on the wall, excavated during a brief historical fervor—the preserved figurehead of the muse, half clothed, flowing hair partially exposing her breasts, looming over the bar where patrons sucked down pints of ale or shots of whiskey or maybe a Campari when the weather was nice. My dad bought The Ann McKim and the resident hotel above it in 1988. I was five years old, and by the time I was a teenager it’d become a second home to me; the weary old drunks, the madcap schemers, the drifters and fugees a second family.

Izet Ibrahimovic appeared at The Ann McKim in the summer of 1998. I was just a teenager then. I see Izet silhouetted in the doorway of the basement as I’m hauling beer up the stairs. He’s got a CD boombox by the handle. A bottle of Coca-Cola hangs loosely in his other hand. He swirls it lightly at the neck and doesn’t say a word, light pouring in behind him. And because of the shadows I can’t see his face, but I can tell he’s smiling.

*         *       *

My father, Roy Mullen, was born in 1948 just east of the shipyards in Richmond, California, where his father worked on propeller shafts for Navy vessels sojourning there before embarking for the Pacific theater during the War. Roy Boy (Dad’s nickname since he was a kid) crossed the Bay to attend San Francisco State on a track and field scholarship in ‘66. His shot put records held until ‘98, when they where overtaken by the Hungarian putter Lajos Halasz.

I remember the day Lajos beat Roy Boy’s record not because I followed Division II track and field. I didn’t. And as far as I could tell Roy Boy cared little for his own college record, the only evidence of his time there being a clipping out of the college paper (from which Roy Boy was fired as the politics editor for publishing an op-ed decrying American adventurism in Vietnam). The clipping shows Roy Boy mid-throw, his mouth wide in exclamation, his muscles bulging.

No, I remember when Roy Boy’s record fell because Lajos came into The Ann McKim that night with the iron “shot” under his ham-hock arm. Before he even introduced himself, he said in his thick Hungarian accent, “I am looking for Roy Boy Mullen.”

Lajos’s booming voice carried with it strains of old Russian-bloc authoritarianism that caused the patrons in The Ann McKim, whoever sagged over the bar that day, to perk up and clear a path for the hulking Hungarian.

Roy Boy lazily finished the pour on a pint, and announced himself in a sturdy voice.

“I have here for you a gift,” Lajos said, raising the shot in his palms and offering it to Roy Boy. Lajos went on to explain his pilgrimage to North Beach from his humble dorm near the university to pay homage to the man whose record he’d squashed.

Roy Boy accepted the shot, holding it above his head in both hands. He offered Lajos a drink, and the Hungarian didn’t hesitate to call for a Sambuca, which Roy Boy poured along with a whiskey for himself and a short one for me. The three of us drank together, wishing each other the good fortune of a hundred kings. I was fifteen then, drinking with the men of The Ann McKim.

*         *       *

It was through Lajos Halasz that we were introduced to Izet.

At Lajos’ recommendation, Roy Boy hired Izet as a doorman, checking IDs and keeping his watchful eye over the bar. He was twenty-four at the time he was hired, nine years my senior, and over the next few years he and I became friends. I’d come to the bar straight from high school to give Roy Boy a chance to lie down in The Ann McKim’s bunker-like basement prior to the start of the evening rush. Izet had moved into a studio room on the fourth floor of the resident hotel, and started hanging around the bar after I’d arrive in the afternoon. Because he’d been raised Muslim, Izet didn’t drink alcohol. He did, however, enjoy more Coca-Cola than anyone I’d ever seen, before or since.

“America,” he’d say, sitting at the bar drinking one Coke after the next while I restocked the booze and replenished the ice in the wells. “Coca-Cola and hip-hop. This is America.”

Izet loved hip-hop, mostly from the early to mid-nineties, the genre’s late golden age. As you might expect, Roy Boy didn’t stock the jukebox with any hip-hop, so Izet would bring into the bar a football-sized Sony boombox and some CDs—A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and his favorite, De La Soul.

Izet would always turn it up, to the groans of the afternoon customers, most who had just gotten off work and wanted to drink a pint and listen to Miles Davis and read the paper. But Izet and I didn’t care. We’d rap along with Q-Tip and Posdnuos and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Izet would ask me what certain phrases meant from the songs.

“In the cuts?” I said, “It’s like when you’re way out in the boonies.” He nodded, though his face was blank, his mind searching to make connections. “Like far away from anything going on,” I continued. “Away from the city.”

“In the town,” he said.

“Sort of,” I said. “It’s like: man, I’m not going all the way out to Marin. That’s in the cuts. Or you can say, I gotta hit cuts.”

“Hit cuts?” he asked, smiling. “What does it mean this?”

“It means you got to get the fuck out of there.”

My explanations were rarely articulate, and never expert, but Izet seemed to enjoy the makeshift lessons, listening intently with searching intelligence, and I think he understood more than I knew at the time. Of course, it seems absurd now, over a dozen years later, that I, a Californian teenager of Irish and German-Jewish descent, would play the professor in the nuances of American black slang to an olive skinned, Muslim Bosniak. That, I suppose, is as American as Coca-Cola and hip-hop.

Izet was a good choice for a doorman. Like I said, he didn’t drink, and was always alert. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world. Roy Boy stood at least five inches over him and had maybe fifty pounds on him. But Izet moved with the assurance of his own strength and it often seemed that within his tightly coiled frame lurked a dark promise of violence. This though, perhaps, is an overly poetic way of saying that Izet was strong and often seemed as if he were on edge, always tipped forward on his toes, not just ready for hell to break loose, but expecting it.

Starting around 1999 and continuing into the oughts, the make-up of North Beach changed, and we began seeing more bridge-and-tunnel crowds and more runoff from the neighboring Marina district. On the weekends The Ann McKim would fill with these types—a proliferation of button-up shirts and backward baseball caps. As Roy Boy can attest, this boom was great for business, but it came with it’s own set of problems, chief among them was that the testosterone in the place often clipped in the red.

It was in this environment that Izet, Roy Boy, and I found ourselves one busy Saturday nearing midnight. I was struggling to press myself through the crowd with handfuls of dirty glassware stacked against my chest, and found myself staring into a scapula the size of a vulture’s wing. The owner of that shoulder wouldn’t budge, despite my entreaties to let me by. I employed one of Roy Boy’s tricks, spearing my knee into the back of the guy’s leg, buckling his knee and allowing me to push past. But no sooner had I made it ten feet did I feel a giant mitt land on my shoulder, spinning me around and shattering the pint glasses on the floor. A ring cleared, leaving the oaf and me in a stare-down, right against each other, my chin to his chest. He reached out with that big paw of his and I grabbed his collar and we were in a tussle that I could tell right away I would get the worse of. As I struggled to maintain my footing against the guy’s strength, Izet stepped between us.

What happened next did so at such a velocity that it’s difficult to convey using the stalactite-slow medium of an alphabet.

“A nigger at an Irish bar?” said the big guy, eying Izet. But before he could finish that thought (we’ll be generous and call it a thought), Izet popped him twice in the mouth. The motion seemed to defy kinesthetic logic, the two punches from Izet’s right hand landing so quickly that the eye could barely discern the blinking interval of non-punch between the two brief periods of punch. The big guy’s head snapped back, and a single tooth arched from his mouth and landed on the bar. His legs went wobbly, and he dropped to the floor.

Without so much as a beat, as if he’d seen the outcome before the event had occurred, Izet turned toward Roy Boy and said, “I must take the rest of the night off.” Roy Boy shrugged and nodded, as stupefied a look on his face as I’d ever seen. Izet stepped over the big man and walked out the door into the San Francisco drizzle.

But that wasn’t the moment he disappeared for good. When he returned to work the next day, he was in good spirits but apologetic for creating a scene.

“Better him than me,” I said. I cracked him a Coke.

“I think so, yes,” Izet said, smiling warmly.

After that Izet and I started hanging around together on our days off. I’d show him around North Beach, or we’d sit and drink Cokes at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Bar, watching the tourists in Washington Square Park. I explained to him that the statue in the middle of the park was featured in Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, and down Stockton Street was where Lawrence Ferlinghetti sketched my portrait on a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind when I was a kid. I don’t think Izet knew who those people were at the time, and I felt like the cultural ambassador of North Beach, like I was the natural heir and self-appointed conduit to the poetry and beauty that was created here. I thought myself an adult then, with a keen and generous understanding of the world. Izet would sip his Coke and listen, asking questions in that quiet way of his.

Once, while walking up Columbus, Izet said, “It is lucky for you to have so much comfort. This is what permits art to always happen, I think.”

He’d meant it as an innocuous nicety. Surely ease and prosperity were conditions to be proud of. We were, after all, smoking cigarettes and enjoying a walk along a sycamore-lined corridor in San Francisco on a brilliant summer day. But I grew fiercely defensive in that moment. What teenager wouldn’t bristle at the idea that comfort was the muse that allowed for his passions?

“It’s not comfort,” I said. I explained to him that all this art grew out of years of social and personal struggle, struggle against bigotry and ignorance, against everyone who thought you had to be only one way. That’s the legacy of the poets and artists in America during that time, I told him, men and women who fought the status quo, who sacrificed their livelihoods in order to speak out against a sickness of conformity, in order to really connect with one another in a genuine way. Izet listened intently as we walked, and if he saw the ridiculousness of my little tirade he didn’t let on.

Of course, I knew nothing about struggle.

That was August, 2001, the summer I turned eighteen, just a few weeks before the idea of American comfort would be redefined for both of us.

What did I know about Izet in those years just before he’d arrived in San Francisco? I knew he’d fled from Sarajevo during the siege, though what that translated to was just a five second newsreel in my head—buildings burning on a gray day, refugees in headscarves fleeing through the rubble. In the many years that followed, I’d learn the context of the siege from late night Internet searches with a few glasses of wine, or from voluminous history texts pulled from the university library shelves when I was supposed to be reading of John Donne or George Herbert or some other metaphysical work that I loved so well. But it wasn’t until a few months ago, after Izet’s sister, Katje, found me through the university where I teach, that I’d learn what the siege of Sarajevo had really meant for the Ibrahimovic family.

Part of the fractious and complicated Bosnian War, the siege lasted from 1992 to 1996, and is to this day the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare—longer than the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad combined. During those four years of fighting, artillery shells decimated the city, destroying thirty-five thousand buildings. Snipers and strongmen controlled the streets. Serbian paramilitary squads—jingoists with guns—patrolled ethnically Bosniak neighborhoods, looting building after building, raping women, and either executing the men or sending them off to prison camps. The Bosnian forces far outnumbered their attackers, but they were blocked off, out-supplied and outgunned. By the end, over thirteen thousand people were killed during the siege, nearly half of whom were civilians.

What I knew then, as a teenager, was that somehow twenty-four year-old Izet had escaped that hell and come to The Ann McKim. He sat at the bar and drank Coca-Colas while I told him about the Calliope, about poetry, and while I went on about struggle.

I was hungover on the Tuesday in September when the planes hit the towers. Three thousand people dead and I was secretly relieved I didn’t have to sit through high school Physics class. You could say I was in shock, and I’d want to believe you. But shame is a great ball of lead that can’t be lifted or thrown off. The truth is, I don’t remember attaching any special feelings to the news of the attack. I walked from school, wending my way down to Chinatown for some steamed pork buns, stopping at Sam’s Tobacco for a Swisher Sweet blunt wrap. I recall the streets feeling undisrupted, eerily normal. Was all the traffic on Powell St. in front of the Hunan House the normal, day-to-day Chinatown rush? Or was anxiety and fear bottlenecking the streets? Were people meeting each other’s eyes with compassion for the first time? Or were we merely eying each other with fear, with dread, and with hatred? When I got back to the Ann McKim, Izet was sitting on the steps, his face contorted and distressed.

“Here everything will change,” he said. “There will be much more killing.”

“You don’t know that,” I said. “We don’t know what’s happening yet.”

“Much more killing,” he said, his upturned hands receiving his forehead. “I’m telling you.”

Of course, he was right.

*         *       *

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Bar still anchors the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. I was on my way there to meet with Katje Ibrahimovich, Izet’s sister, who was spending a day or two in San Francisco before heading back to Lebanon as a correspondent for The Guardian out of London, where she’d lived for the past thirteen years. The newspapers in the racks on Columbus Avenue reported the United States Military had just that day, thirteen years after 9/11, declared an end to combat operations in Afghanistan, leaving the national army to face an emboldened Taliban force on their own. In 2001, the US entering a war in the Central Asia meant little to the boy-poet in the bohemian enclave of North Beach. Into my senior year of high school, even as a few guys I knew were enlisting, I continued to work the bar, and allowed girls and marijuana and novels and poetry to keep me from any unpleasant thoughts of a world in fear and chaos.

In the months that followed the attacks, Izet stopped joining me at the bar in the afternoons. We no longer ran around North Beach on the weekends tagging alleyways or rapping playful De La Soul lyrics. Instead, he spent most of his time removed in his little room above The Ann McKim, reading and smoking cigarettes on the fire escape.

Once, on his night off from working the door, I ran into him in the stairwell and it seemed he could barely speak to me. His hands fidgeted and his eyes had taken on a sickly yellow. Out of some version of pity, I invited him to come along with my girlfriend, Marguerite, and me to a music performance that night.

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t want to be problem.”

“What do you mean a problem?” I said. When he didn’t answer, I simply put my hand on his shoulder. “Izet,” I said. “Look at me. You’re coming with.” I thought I was doing him charity, to lift his spirits.

We went to a sound-sculpture performance that’s been running in San Francisco since Roy Boy was in college. Izet, Marguerite, and I sat in the pitch-black room, unable to see even our hands in front of our faces, surrounded by two hundred speakers, from which ambient field recordings and strange synthesizer music danced and boomed and darted—over our heads, at our feet, spinning in cyclones. The three of us had smoked a joint before arriving, and there in the dark I found myself gripping Marguerite’s hand, unable to relax. Without any visual markers, the sound takes on a physical presence in the room, firing from all sides, vibrating your body like mortars, altering your equilibrium, becoming corporeal, visceral, almost hallucinatory.

When the lights rose after almost an hour and a half, I was finally able to breath again. Marguerite touched my shoulder.

“Izet,” she said. “He’s gone.”

I looked over to find Izet had abandoned his seat. Panic sunk into me. I felt something distinctly horrible had happened to Izet, and that I was responsible. I jumped up and rushed to the lobby without waiting for Marguerite to follow. Izet was not there, nor out on the street. He was nowhere. Nowhere to be found.

“He ain’t a child,” Marguerite said. She was holding my coat. “He don’t need you to take care of him.”

Marguerite and I were not serious, but we enjoyed each other without asking too much (many of my relationships since, it seems, have adopted this dynamic). Looking back, it’s clear that she sometimes saw more of me than I saw myself.

“That’s not it,” I said. “I try to get the guy out of his little cell, and what’s he do? He just takes off without a word.”

“Whatever,” she said. “It ain’t on you.”

And it wasn’t. It had nothing to do with me.

“And besides, this is our night out. You ain’t going to go chasing after some crazy dude you work with.”

“You’re right,” I told her, reaching out to touch her big hoop earrings. It returned to me that I was out with a beautiful girl, and I pushed thoughts of Izet and the problems of Izet’s world out of my mind. On the top of Lombard, Marguerite and I smoked a joint and shared a pint of Alizé, huddling together against the December cold, the lighted city far below. We laughed about friends from school, and not one unfrivolous word was exchanged between us. I kissed her, and the dark sea in my head lightened and cleared.

When I descended the hill, though, I couldn’t keep my thoughts from turning back to Izet. It was two in the morning by the time I stumbled up the stairs of The Ann McKim and pounded on Izet’s door.

“What the fuck?” I said through the door. “You just leave without a word?” Anger rose up and choked me, pushing tears into my eyes, and I didn’t understand it. The door opened and Izet stood shirtless, sleep still hanging on his face. He blinked.

“Well?” I said. “What the fuck happened? I was worried about you.” As soon as I said this, my eyes focused through the tears on the scars across his skin—scars of all gauges and geometries, a long crescent like a comet’s tail down his ribs, smooth circles that bubbled from his skin as if someone had pressed hot nickels to his chest.

“Come in,” he said, opening the door for me. As I entered, he pulled on a t-shirt and removed a cigarette from his pack. I hadn’t been in that room for many months. Two ashtrays overflowed on the sill. Behind the door stood a waist-high stack of hip hop CDs and a tower of The Source magazines. Books were strewn on either side of the bed amidst at least twenty crumpled Coke cans—I saw William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, names I recognized, but also names I’d never heard and cannot for the life of me remember: Arabic names, Japanese names, Eastern and Central European names.

Izet exhaled a plume of smoke, and sat on the windowsill, looking at me wearily.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It did something to me I didn’t like.”

“So you just disappear? What was I supposed to think?”

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “In that room, I become nervous. I see things in the dark.”

“Things? What kind of things?”

“Many things,” he said. “I don’t know.”

I went for his pack and lit a cigarette, sitting next to him on the sill.

“Those scars,” I said. “What are they from?”

He dragged on his smoke, allowing a moment for him to consider his answer. “Many things,” he said. When his cigarette had almost reached the filter, he raised it close to my arm and mimicked the sound of a burning object on a man’s skin, “Tststststststs.”

*         *       *

A few months later, March of 2002, Izet and I listened to music at the bar, bobbing our heads and rapping along. After he finished his Coke, Izet took the restock list scribbled on a napkin, and went downstairs to the basement to pull the liquor for the night shift. I watched him open the basement door and step down the stairs, closing the door behind him. It did not open again. I sat at the bar, and cracked Rimbaud’s Illuminations (I remember this very clearly, down to the page number of that slim volume— I am the scholar of the dark armchair. Branches and rain hurl themselves at the windows of my library). I had just begun to read when several police officers entered, followed by a half dozen men in suits. Now, I was of course too young to be in the bar legally, but Roy Boy and the commissioner of Alcohol Beverage Control were old friends so we never worried about problems with the city when it came to my involvement there. These men, though, the dark suits, the gloomy expressions souring their faces, had all the demeanor of a more powerful institutional apparatus. A man held a badge to my face like you see in the movies and slapped a paper in front of me on the bar. Somewhere in those motions I heard him say the words, “special warrant.”

“What’s going on?” I said. “What is this?” I turned and yelled, “Dad!” forgetting that Roy Boy had gone out.

The man who’d showed me the badge, Special Agent Oliver Choe, looked around the bar and asked me coolly, “Where’s Izet?” I was petrified. As Agent Choe asked this question the other men fanned out, several heading up the stairs.

“Perry,” Choe said, (he knew my name, and this frightened me beyond measure). “I’m going to tell you this, and I want you to listen carefully. You have no idea the gravity of what’s going on here. You and your dad, Roy, are not in trouble. But you have to tell us where Izet Ibrahimovic is. Do you understand?”

I stared at this man in front of me, and that sinking feeling came of dark desperation, and if I could’ve just reached into the darkness I could preserve the moment just before disaster struck—before planes and bombs and long crescent scars and hatred. Before my eyes darted toward the basement door for just a fraction of a second, enough time for a flame to ignite, enough time for Agent Choe to pick up on what I’d just given away. He turned toward the basement, and as if communicating without words the other men knew too. They opened the door. “Izet Ibrahimovic!” they yelled. “Federal agents coming down the steps! Keep your hands visible. Keep your hands up!” Guns drawn, they descended the stairs.

But Izet wasn’t there. They scoured the room floor to ceiling, searched for any compartments, tunnels, or passageways. They found none. There were none. In fact, these agents couldn’t find Izet anywhere in the building. They ransacked his room, collected everything—his books, his magazines, CDs, even his Coke cans and ashtrays. No Izet on the roof. No Izet on the fire escape, or in any of the other rooms. He was nowhere. He’d vanished.

Special Agent Choe took me aside and he literally scratched his head. He asked what you’d expect him to ask. But the truth was, I had no answers for him. Izet had been in the bar with me, he went into the basement. There was no time for him to have secreted himself up the stairs and out of the building before those men showed. And I simply couldn’t fathom a scenario in which he could have done it without my noticing.

My memory gets hazy around the time that Roy Boy returned to find a cadre of federal agents in The Ann McKim. He and Special Agent Choe went at it quite a bit, arguing over legalities, moralities, and ending with Roy Boy ripping up the “special warrant” and calling his lawyer, in that order. All these men were swarming The Ann McKim. I heard my dad screaming about habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment and private property and about a government ambush. What was it that Special Agent Choe said to me that day? You have no idea the gravity of what is going on here. In that moment, an inexorable sadness passed into the texture of my life, and though I would move away, continue my studies in poetry, would love and lose love, would be happy with my pursuits in life, the image was always present in my mind of my friend Izet sinking into the darkness of that basement.

*         *       *

I arrived at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Bar early for my meeting with Katje Ibrahimovic and ordered an espresso. The rain had stopped for the time being, so I sat outside with a nice Costa Rican cigarillo, reading the Chronicle and luxuriating in the fragrant smoke. As I’ve mentioned, several months ago Katje contacted me through my university email. I discovered online that Katje graduated some years ago from the London School of Economics, and had worked as a features reporter for several top London papers. When she’d contacted me, she said she was planning to visit a few cities on the West Coast, and, because it’d been a good while since last I’d visited, we agreed to meet in San Francisco during her trip. I had, of course, been back to North Beach every few years, visiting with Roy Boy and my mother, both of whom are healthy and strong in their seventies.

Overhead, a plane soared noiselessly above wispy clouds, and the cars on Union seemed to have an easy movement to them. I nodded to Augostino, the owner of El Greco, a café across Columbus Avenue. The afternoon was warm with a lazy charm. I watched the ember of the cigarillo glow with each inhale. Just as I was stomping it into the sidewalk, Katje approached my table and introduced herself.

Her speech was articulate and precise, clearly signaling her British education, and her smile was familiar, as if I’d known it intimately. It was Izet’s smile, soft and warm, barely able to contain a row of large teeth. On Izet, that smile had always lent him the appearance of quiet bemusement. I saw that for Katje the smile beamed brightly and her whole face was pleasantly employed in the making of it. I wanted to reach over and grab her hand, but I knew this was inappropriate. Still, quite surprised at myself, I found I was shaking with excitement, perhaps even a joy I hadn’t felt in some time.

“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me.” But I didn’t know how to finish. She’d already told me over email that she didn’t know where Izet was, that she hadn’t heard from him in as much time as I had.

“Tell you? Tell you?” she said, playfully mocking me. “What should I tell you?”

I admitted I didn’t know, feeling myself blush. “In your email, you said you hadn’t heard from Izet in eleven years,” I said. “But that’s still after he disappeared from us.”

“I received letters, yes. But I didn’t know he’d disappeared, as you say, until later. And whether they were mailed before he left, well…”

“What did the letters say?”

“They were normal. He wrote of life in San Francisco’s North Beach.” She raised her hands, palms up, as if to say, and here we are. “He wrote about your father, and of you. Books he was reading. Poetry.”

I sat back in my chair and took a long breath. In Washington Square, a woman helped a large dog drink from a water fountain. A man held his young daughter upside down and she laughed hysterically.

“Did you hear me, Perry?” she said. “He talked about you. Your family meant so much to him.”

At the time, I didn’t know Izet had a sister. Beyond a few casual references, Izet had never spoken of his family.

“Will you tell me about yourself,” I said. “Tell me about your brother. Tell me about life in Sarajevo, about what happened.”

When the siege began, Izet was nineteen years old, and Katje just fifteen. The Serbian blockade stopped all goods from entering the city. It wasn’t long before rationing began.

“We had to wait in line for hours just for bread and water,” she said. One morning, Izet left early to secure a spot in line. He didn’t return for eight months. Katje would learn from him later that the Serbians had come and forced everyone to their knees. They shot the old men and women, and took Izet and some of the other young men into custody.

“They tortured him,” Katje told me. “They said, ‘You are fighting age, so you’re a fighter. Tell us the Bosnian positions and we’ll go easy.’ But Izet was not a fighter. He had no knowledge of positions. He knew nothing of the resistance. We all knew of small things, sometimes. And sometimes a messenger would go from apartment to apartment and warn of sniper alleys on Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, the main road in Sarajevo. It was these kinds of things that we would hear, but these weren’t enough for the Serbs.”

They held him in a prison fashioned from an old mannequin factory.

“He escaped,” she said. That’s what he told her. He didn’t say how, even when people in the neighborhood started saying he gave up information. One day he heard the neighbor, an old drunkard, call him a traitor. He came to Katje and told her, “The Serbs are right about one thing, I am fighting age.” So he joined the Bosnian Army and over the next two years worked to build the Sarajevo Tunnel, now known as the Tunnel of Hope, an eight hundred meter long underground passageway that allowed for the Bosnians to smuggle much needed aid and weapons into the city, and get people out.

In August 1995, five Serbian shells struck a marketplace in the core of Sarajevo, killing thirty-seven people, one of whom was Anida Ibrahimovic, Izet and Katje’s mother. A month later, Izet made a deal with members of the army to get his father, Katje and himself through the Tunnel of Hope and out of Sarajevo.

“My father and I were granted asylum in Britain,” Katje said. She reached for my pack of cigarillos. “May I?” She held one under her nose. “I haven’t smoked one of these in years.”

I leaned over and lit it for her, asking why Izet didn’t go with her to Britain.

“He’d made promises. I don’t know much. I was young. But he had to continue with some cargo.”


“Maybe weapons. Maybe medicine. I don’t know what it was.” She looked around and seemed to notice the park and the tree-lined street for the first time. The clouds had broken and the sun roved across North Beach like an enormous spotlight. “It’s beautiful out today,” she said.

How could I blame her for not wanting to talk more? Katje had gotten in touch with me for this meeting, but in my pursuit to understand the events that brought Izet into my life, and out of it again, I’d asked her to open up all manners of old wounds.

“Can I ask just one more thing?”

She smiled, but didn’t respond.

“Did Izet do something terrible? Why were they after him?”

Katje’s smile wavered slightly. She pulled on the cigarillo, and in a slow, languid manner, tilted her head, closed her eyes and said, “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.”

I waited for her to say more. But she was waiting for me to speak.

“I was hoping you would recognize this,” she said, finally. It would make it so much more dramatic if that meant something to you.”

She explained that she’d filed Freedom of Information Act requests with Homeland Security and the FBI for the last several years, to no avail. This year, however, a large box came in the mail to her house in London, all the way from Washington D.C. It was full of hip-hop CDs, magazines and poetry books—the contents of Izet’s room above The Ann McKim. “I’ve looked through it all for clues. What in bloody hell happened to my brother? But the only note he ever made in any of those books is in the margin next to those lines I just told you.”

She retrieved a slim volume from her purse and handed it to me. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s manifesto, “I am signaling you through the flames.”

“What did he write?”

“Just two words,” she said. “On page 206.”

I opened to the page and scanned my finger down the margin to the words, “For Perry.”

I read the passage.

What are poets for, in such an age? What is the use of poetry? The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it. If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

Katje put out the cigarillo.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what he did, if he did anything. And if the US government believes something about him, they won’t say. They may never say. That’s all there is,” she gestured to the book. “Not much.”

“It’s something,” I said.

After our lunch, I walked back toward The Ann McKim. I wouldn’t leave until I’d been down to the basement once more. The bartender knew my face even if she didn’t really know me. She gave me a nod. The stairs descended into the basement, the clammy cement walls held that stale and familiar smell. I’d done this hundreds of times, searched that room for some kind of clue, and found nothing. There was no reason to be doing it again.

I looked up the stairs to the light from the door. I ran my hands along every inch of that room, along the floor, along every possible crack in the wall, behind every shelf. Somewhere beneath me lay the Calliope like a sarcophagus. Could Izet be entombed within it? Or had he escaped through some tunnel that closed up behind him?

All my life I’ve devoted to poetry, to beauty. Soon I would get on a plane back east to the liberal arts college where I was fast becoming something of an academic star, and would begin a career telling all my young students that poetry can save us. And yet, all the bright lyric flights, all those burning missives from the muse, and still, jingoists and zealots with guns can control whole cities, old women in marketplaces are bombed to pieces in the middle of the afternoon. The world outside is dark and roiling. Inside, in that cement cell, I felt the shadows enclose and preserve me, and I felt myself sink deeper into the darkness and disappear.

Ezra Carlsen’s writing has appeared in Southern Humanities Review and Fogged Clarity, among other journals, both online and in print. He received his MFA from the University of Oregon. Check out his writing and photography at ezracarlsen.com.


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