I met Oba at high school. When I had to go through eleventh grade a second time, I found myself among teenagers that were roughly one and a half year younger than me and Oba was one of them. For no explicable reason we immediately stuck together. Although he was younger than I, I thought when we first began to roam around the school that he had a certain maturity about him that literally fascinated me. Everything about him fascinated me. He was a few inches smaller than me, around five foot seven, and I remember quite well that even though I was not into boys I could not help but find him handsome. Had I had the chance or the possibility to look like someone else, he would have been that person: the athletic build, the short black hair which, he sometimes shaved to expose his perfectly shaped skull, the ravishing deep voice with just the right pitch to be instantly charming to everyone around, the stunning eyes with great lashes, the perfect full lips, the shiny white teeth and the killer smile. While many teenagers at school pretend to be something they are not, he was always himself.
He did not mind what others thought of him, was smart enough to follow even in the courses he was not great at and made sense with every word he said. I felt that teachers could not help but feel the same as I did; regardless of the fact that he was a stoner and suspected small time hustler, they were under his spell. I could not imagine anyone who could resist him. He was too smart and always a sight for sore eyes. So was his gorgeous, blonde Romanian girlfriend who was almost two years older than him. More than once I thought that he must have been a great lover, too, one more reason why she stuck with the equivalent of a Nubian god, although he was younger than her and despite his colourful track record. The few times I saw them together I thought that I would love to have a girlfriend just like her. But there was no way that I could be jealous of Oba. And I have never been. After years of holding hands, kissing in theatres and some heavy petting, at eighteen, I was still stuck at second base, while that guy with qualities mostly similar to mine – as far as I could assess – was hitting that eye-wetting model from the Carpathian Mountains and I was too fond of him to be jealous of anything he had that I did not.
During the next three years we spent considerable amounts of time together skipping classes and either smoking, or looking to find something to smoke. Oba was many things and apart from being a regional welter weight kickbox champion, a great speaker and great listener, he was also, without a doubt, a little gangster. Provided he had been notified one or two days in advance, he often carried small quantities to sell at school which, to me, was convenient. He easily gave me credit and favourable cuts. But even when we did not get high, skipping classes or roaming with Oba was always great. Then again, when that happened, Oba usually knew someone who could sort him out. The fact that he knew a lot of people who knew him in return made him take it to heart to be kind and respectful without ever demeaning himself.
Many times I accompanied Oba on the quest to our next high which led me to meet a lot of people I would probably not have met otherwise. It is thanks to him that I can, still today, point out in a crowd the dealers and junkies; the users and the providers; the henchmen and sometimes the bosses. After crossing half the city, once again, I found myself a couple of times in places I would have avoided, had I known beforehand. One of the worst being the time when we were, again, looking for a bit to smoke and came to one of his acquaintances’ place. It was almost as bad as one imagines Shanghai’s opium dens in the 1930s. Although it was mid-afternoon, thick curtains had been drawn in front of the windows, endowing the place with a sad red-purple gloom. A group of about a dozen young men and women were lying around on the floor or on the furniture, most of them in the living room, where I was asked to wait on a vacant couch. Apart from the occasional moan or sigh it was silent. I did not know whether they were asleep or just too high, stoned or chilled to do anything else. From another room, further into the flat, I could barely hear Oba speaking with someone whose name was not mentioned and I cannot remember having seen the person’s face. Later I thought that it was a way for him to protect me – being seen, I did not know back then, could be dangerous.
The twenty minutes or so I spent there waiting among real junkies – not recreational stoners like us – were more than enough for me to realize that this was a place where big deals were made. The sleepers were all addicts, come to get their pills, coke, heroin, meth or whatever dope they were on as soon as the nameless owner of the place was in with the cargo. I did not move or talk, barely breathed and tried not to look around too much. On the way back, I told Oba that the place had scared the shit out of me. We got our high but I did not wish to be taken again to another place like this one. I think that that was the time I realized what kind of people Oba knew and that, as much as I liked him, I wanted to preserve myself from those acquaintances.
But Oba was not a crook like the people he sometimes did business with; not a dramatic caricature as in the movies. He was neither wicked nor deceitful. Actually, he was not a crook at all. He was a good guy who just happened to know a lot of real crooks. Neither did he deal with those acquaintances because he needed to. He did it because he wanted to.
Two or three days a week he worked in a party supplies shop after school hours which brought him a small, legal/regular salary. Business was a way to make pocket money; a plus to live more easily and put some on the side for tough times and to help his mother make ends meet. I met her only once: a forty-something-year-old white woman on welfare with thin blond hair, morbidly obese, and with kind, sorrowful eyes. Without him saying anything of the sort, I decided that there was a silent agreement between the two and that she knew her boy took care of her without her having to ask for anything; and that he would be careful. Since Oba’s father was mostly absent from both their lives, they were all the family they each had. The day we stopped by his place, Oba told me that his father was from a West African country, Sierra Leone or Ivory Coast or something, and that he worked between Switzerland, France, Germany and Africa. He saw him only on rare, short-notice occasions. Sometimes his father also sent money. I remember wondering whether he was some sort of gangster working for an international cartel but felt immediately ashamed about it, because I felt that I had no right to draw any conclusions regarding his parents’ backgrounds.
And, then, one day, Oba arrived at school on a scooter. When I asked him how come, he told me right away that it had been nicked – although not by him – pointing to the screw driver sticking out of the ignition. 50cc MBK scooters were hugely popular in all of Europe in the early 2000s. People stole them in one city in Germany, for instance, drove them over the border to neighbouring countries where they were dismantled, their serial numbers erased and were reassembled to be sold again on the black market. Sometimes the scooters were just sold abroad without the serial numbers being erased which was more of a risk if one was found by the police. In a television news show I once heard that between 1997 and 2003 there were so many scooter thefts in central Europe that the police could follow only about ten per cent of open cases. And many thefts were never even declared. Oba did not steal the motorcycles but he was a driver who for payment picked up the hot merchandise at a designated address and then drove it to another place or person for further processing.
I could not help but grin as he told me about the MBK he was sitting on, a stolen helmet casually poised on his skull, offering no protection at all. Fucking hell, I thought, it was dangerous, probably stupid beyond reason because he had to deal with other teenagers who had a far more limited comprehension of things and were more reckless than him, some even from our school. The scope of the whole enterprise, the level of trust and confidence it implied, was mindboggling to me. And I was, of course, once again fascinated by the nonchalance with which he spoke about it, both cool and serious at the same time.
When, a couple of days ago, I was out grocery shopping with my baby son in his pushchair, I saw two young men rushing by on one of those small 125cc motorcycle, like the ones used in motocross racing. Fleeting as that scene was to me, it triggered one memory where Oba and I rode to one of Oba’s friends. We had one and a half hours for lunch between the morning and afternoon classes and Oba and I were off to find something to smoke. To avoid standard traffic, he drove on the sidewalk to an intersection not far from our school. People were waiting in the June sun at a tram stop just across the street. I do not know if it happened because I did not correctly lean forward, as I was behind Oba on the seat, while he rode onto the opposite sidewalk, but I felt the front wheel lift off but not touch the ground again There was barely enough time for me to realize that the back of his helmet was bouncing towards my visor before my head experienced the sudden knock of shallow plastic against plastic.
The next moment, I lay sideways on the sidewalk at once thinking about my left leg that was under the scooter and wondering whether it was alright, whereas Oba was already up and lifting the scooter back on its wheels. Realizing that we had just crashed like two morons playing hard – at least that is what I thought the people watching us at the tram stop might have thought – with a nicked scooter, in broad daylight, with at least twenty people witnessing the scene and how Oba jerked the screw driver back into the ignition, we hopped back onto the seat again and hurried off – a little shaken but determined to take off on the double.
The entire scene had lasted only about thirty seconds. We were actually both shaken enough to reconsider our initial plans and made for the school again. Although we were not badly injured, we both had the left leg of our pants in shreds from where the scooter fell over and slid a couple of yards on the concrete with the momentum from the engine’s thrust. We were both bleeding from scrap wounds on our legs. Other than that we were fine. I was pretty glad for wearing my Denim Illmatic jeans that day. Not that the colour or the brand made any difference but it was the thickest baggy jeans I have ever had and I felt lucky that I had been wearing them that day, although they were ruined in the accident. We did not bother to wash our bloody calves in the school restroom and decided to cancel the day’s remaining classes. Thereafter we both went home; he on his now scratched scooter with a screw driver sticking absurdly out of the ignition whereas I took the tram from the same stop to the station and then the next train back home.
It was one of those incidents that, as a memory, are neither good nor bad, from a little distance that time often all too willingly provides. Still I like to recall the time and circumstances surrounding the accident, regardless – or perhaps because – of the fact that we were both injured and that the situation was peculiar for its potential danger, both physical and legal. It could have been so much worse. Yet, despite some of the things that happened to us and the places and people I discovered in Oba’s company, I was almost never really worried. Thinking back, I think it had to do with his confidence in himself and in what he did. It had a radiating quality, as though it could touch the people in his close vicinity and thereby let them experience a part of it.
At a time in my life when I was beginning to experiment with the notion of self-confidence and discovering what it meant to be true to myself, as far as I could tell, Oba’s confidence never failed him. Not even in one of the saddest situations I remember.
Towards the end of twelfth grade, in May or June, Oba had noticed a brand new fancy metallic blue 50cc MBK scooter that was parked almost every day of the week at the same spot, near our school. It was in a small, covered parking lot surrounded by chestnuts and elms, set along a tiny little stream that grew towards the city’s centre. From the parking lot one had a great 360 degree view of the surroundings but, due to the trees, there was as good as no visibility from the flats on the other side of the stream. When I first heard of his plan, he had already been eyeing the motorcycle for a couple of weeks.
Until then, I thought that Oba did not nick scooters himself and that he only drove them from one point to the other. But whether it was his first or not, he nicked that one, taking it straight to someone who could spirit it away, thus eliminating any possible connection with him. There was only one problem: the owner had seen him do it.
It turned out that the guy, Benedict, was one of my former classmates until tenth grade. At our high school, students were funnelled into literary, scientific or economic branches for the last three years until their A-levels. I fail to remember which branch Benedict went to but I went literary, having no inclination whatsoever toward so called “hard sciences”. He must have been in one of the other two. What I do remember is that years earlier he had already struck me as being a peevish little prick – a mummy’s boy who was into football, with wealthy parents, an elder sister with huge tits and a general bourgeois attitude towards things. It was obvious to me that I noticed those traits only because none of them applied to me – and because they applied to most of my other classmates, too.
Finding out Oba’s name was easy, given the fact that Benedict was only one class above ours and that generally, towards the end of high school, inter-generational communication tended to be more common and more frequent than it was in the beginning when everybody basically just stuck to their classmates and friends their age. But in the final three age sections in high school everybody knows everybody, either directly, by sight or by reputation. So, there was really nothing to it if one asked around a little to find out some else’s name – it only took the combined social knowledge of about two persons. Benedict told us that much when he eventually came to confront Oba.
Oba and I were probably skipping classes or just roaming around, when Benedict showed up and told Oba that he had seen him nick his scooter. The conversation did not include me but I felt bloody sorry for Oba. He was caught in a really messy situation with not much more to do about it than listen to what Benedict had to say. Since there was no way for Oba to get the scooter back, Benedict basically blackmailed Oba to give him money whenever he asked him to, threatening that otherwise he would denounce him to the police, which would have brought along a shitload of problems for Oba; and being expelled from school so close to the finish line was only the least of them. It was obvious to me that by the evening of that day Oba could have had one or two of his mates beat Benedict so badly he would be begging for his life and drop the blackmail. But it was just as obvious to me that that was not who he was. Oba was a good guy who did bad things and knew bad people. He knew that something like this could have happened before. He also knew that under different circumstances the person could have simply denounced him directly to the police. And that would be it. Being blackmailed by the little prick was not the worst thing that could happen to him.
Over the next few months he had to pay Benedict something about double the scooter’s worth to avoid denunciation. The only thought that somehow comforted me was that if he did not stick to taking the money and went on denouncing him anyway, Oba knew his name, too, and among his acquaintances someone would have put things right again, somehow. But that was a worst case scenario. In the end, Oba and I managed to get our A-levels and left the city to study at universities abroad. As far as I know, neither of us saw Benedict again.
I speculated for some time after whether Oba had taken some sort of revenge, later, for the blackmail, which was a real possibility, given the people he knew. But from how I knew him that was very unlikely. What happened to him was the least evil he could have expected, even though Benedict was a peevish little prick, and I think Oba knew that better than anyone else. But I also wondered whether he got out of dealing and riding nicked scooters for what, in my mind, took the shape of a crime syndicate, over the years. As far as I could tell, he could get out any time he wanted, unless he owed someone money or had other debts I could only speculate about. Still, I don’t think that was the case with Oba. He had a sort of protective aura about him – and he was too bloody damn smart to owe anyone anything. I also wondered what had become of his gorgeous girlfriend, whether they were still together. But I never got back to him, or he to me. And that was ok.
For some time I wanted to contact him on one of the social networks because I found him there, as one can find many people, searching for the faces of past experiences. But when it came to it, I did not want to risk being disappointed by a reply that would not arrive or, worse, some randomly polite and artificially happy message asking how I have been and saying that we should meet some time soon. That would have ruined my memory of him and of one of the most enriching times in my life.
During a trip to visit some family, I bumped into another high school mate at a bus stop who told me that Oba now lived a regular life, got his driver’s licence and studied for some college degree while working at the same time. I was sad to have lost him as a friend but at the same time glad that he had sorted himself out well enough, which I always knew he would.
I never rode on a scooter or motorcycle of any kind again.
Come to think of it, he did not even have a licence to drive a scooter.