The Midnight Flight to Singapore (Sep. 3, 2003)

It’s the middle of August, and a scant 24 hours since I returned to Frisco from the JFK blackout fiasco, but the road beckons. There’s a month to go before the Giants charge into the baseball playoffs, pro football doesn’t start for real until September, and basketball is a Warriors nightmare glinting like a lump of coal in the dim furnace of the future. The three virtues of capitalism sidelined, and what’s a TV-addicted American to do? Jet to Borneo, of course, land of headhunters, the hornbill, and Hamas... okay, maybe not Hamas, but certainly Al Qaeda. And yeah, I hate it when ignorant Yankees lump all Islamic fighting clubs together beneath the “Anti-American” banner, and Hamas is a rational, if not always pleasant, organized response to the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, and yes I’ve been trying to eat more organic greens, and even enjoying a modest gloat whenever Gray Davis’s pathetic mug flashes on the screen, but where am I going with this? I’m not sure… except that the bells have chimed twelve and here I am in line at the Singapore Airlines counter. The man behind me keeps leaning uncomfortably close, so near that his bitter, gin-soaked reek attacks my nostrils in a manner recalling the Light Brigade, Omaha Beach, and the fried potato trolley at Sizzler. Then I notice that not only does he have a dark complexion, he also keeps wheeling about to stare at the front doors. He probably got hammered after being dumped by his girlfriend, who left him for a taxi squad 49er or a UOP dental student, and now he can’t bear the flight to Hong Kong alone with 300 strangers, and keeps looking at the terminal gates in the hope that his beloved will race towards him, in slow motion and soft pouting focus, weeping, laughing, proclaiming her undying love for both him and his mediocre talents. Yes, he’s undoubtedly another victim of love, a humble villager who got his heart and wallet devoured by the bright city lights and the whores who keep them burning — more, more, more, how do you break apart without apologizing? His bloodshot eyes are focused on a distant horizon visible to no one but himself. I see his only luggage is a small plastic bag that reads “The Nordstrom Rack Annual Blow-Out.” Harmless enough, but isn’t “blow-out” suspiciously close to “blow up”?

And then it happens: the sudden urge to vomit as the realization slowly sinks in that the Bush propaganda machine has crept like a thief into my boudoir while I dozed, and injected my slumbering consciousness with its dirty needle of lies and toxins. Thus despite my grade school civics, and my natural inclination to give a fellow the benefit of the doubt, I begin to suspect the intentions of this stumbling man, whose only real crime is to be drunk and tanner than Colin Powell (though probably more fit for the office of Secretary of State). And yet an uncomfortable quiver of patriotic doubt in the armory of my stomach: maybe he’s a suicide bomber who got ripped out of his tits on Chivas Regal minis at the Airport Hilton, conveniently located just seconds off Highway 101 in downtown Burlingame (which aficionados refer to as “the true northern border of Silicon Valley”), then stopped at the Nordstrom Rack for heavily discounted scarves for the 72 fetching virgins who will welcome him into heaven with grapes and sweet nectars. 

The paranoia swirls. I begin to formulate letters of commendation to Tom Ridge, Don Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft for keeping the eagle at least airborne, if not flying high. Then my number is called and I forget all about hijackings: I’ve got to dicker for an exit row seat, a must-have on the first long leg, an 11-hour test of endurance and ear plugs to China. 

Speaking of which, I’m famished for a good film. On a former friend’s advice, I went to see “Dirty Pretty Things,” starring Audrey Tatou as a Turkish girl illegally in Britain. The message is clear: illegal immigrants do the back-breaking work that keeps the so-called modern world turning on its spit. They keep the strawberries in Safeway and the iceberg lettuce on our Big Macs, yet are rewarded for their labors with slave wages, scorn and slum housing. A nice premise, but oh that execution! 

Here’s the story, roughly: Nigerian in London without proper documentation works days driving cab and nights as the desk clerk at hotel. He rarely sleeps, and stays awake with a mysterious plant (Kat?) bought from an Arab at the Sunday market. Audrey Tatou is the Turkish girl he shares a flat with. Initially her Islamic modesty prevents her from giving the Nigerian his own key, thus a series of mindless “drops” in public places to prevent the neighbors from realizing that a black man is improperly sleeping on her couch. Oh l’amour!

Then there’s the nice call girl who works in the hotel who tells the Nigerian in the early morning that one of the rooms has a problem. He investigates to find the toilet overflowing: it’s clogged with — get this! — a human heart. Can it be that an honest man finds his heart in a Soho toilet? Film at 11! More dreck and off-putting symbolism in the form of evil bosses, keystone cop-like immigration agents, Anglos in bespoke suits and carrying calfskin briefcases, and the inevitable love story between Tatou and the Nigerian, who it turns out is in England because he once was a doctor in Africa who refused to participate in medicinal chicanery (Kaiser?), only to have the corrupt police state murder his wife by house fire, thus sending him to the West End gutters to avoid death, where he now scrounges for enough money to go back home (!) to be reunited with his nine-year-old daughter. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the honest hooker and the Nigerian doctor-taxi-driver-bellhop uncover a kidney extraction ring operating in the same room that the prostitute sometimes entertains her johns. Audrey Tatou, desperate to get to New York and begin a new life as an Italian coffee shop owner (I’m not making this up) agrees to sell her kidney. The Nigerian is coerced by the kidney ring gang leader who is also a bellhop to perform the operation on the woman he obviously has flushed feelings for. 

Throw in a couple of gratuitous rape scenes, the hooker getting punched, the honest Nigerian walking past a graveyard to a church to pray for his incinerated wife, and you have a film the critics are calling “thrilling” and “hypnotic.” As Dwight Yoakum would say, “It only hurts me when I cry.” 

In the end — and I’m telling you all of this precisely to ruin any lingering urge you may have to experience this drivel — the Nigerian, in a brilliantly predictable maneuver involving a scalpel and a mickey finn, saves Audrey Tatou by removing the bad guy’s kidney: it’s a Hollywood twist on the urban legend of waking up in a bathtub full of ice and stitches on your side flesh. The Nigerian then sells the bad guy’s good kidney to the family of a desperate little girl for mucho deniro, then calls a cab for them to share to Heathrow. With enough filthy lucre to pursue their dreams, it’s adios, London! 

Once at the airport, Tatou and the Nigerian mouth “I love you” to each other before the Nigerian drops a few coins into a payphone and says, through tears, “Honey, I’m coming home.” Christ on a crutch!

For a less insulting film about the immigrant experience, check out “Moonlighting” from the early 80s, which honestly depicts a Polish man’s struggle to survive in America. Or even the “Godfather II,” as the young Michael Corleone turns to crime to feed his family. Meanwhile, I’ll shut up as they’ve begun boarding. Borneo, here I come!

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