L-R.: Mail Center, Canteen, Barber Shop. Admin Building in Background
I’m about eight and have ten riyals to buy Christmas presents for my family. No problem. The morning of Christmas Eve, I go to the canteen next to the mail center in the holiday spirit. The canteen is designed for bachelors who don’t have time for the commissary and stocks the basics: khaki pants and shirts, hats, gloves, socks and underwear by the six pack, razor blades, toothpaste, aspirin and nail clippers. Not the most exciting retail experience. However, near the front of the store behind a glass display case, adjacent to a huge assortments of cigars, is the most fabulous selection of gum and candy bars south of Beirut - at least to my stunted imagination.
The perfect place for present buying. An O’Henry bar for my older sister Annie, a Mars bar for my brother Mike, a roll of Life Savers for my four-year-old sister Mary and a pack of Black Jack gum for my sister Norah who is two - I had heard that she was having trouble with her gums. I give my money to the clerk and am surprised to find out that I now have only six riyals left. I was sure that Black Jack was only half a riyal. I still haven’t bought a present for my mom and dad.
There is only one solution. I drift over to the front of the Dining Hall and catch the bus. Somehow an eight-year-old kid riding by himself to Khobar is considered perfectly normal, but just in case, I drift behind two housewives as if I’m vaguely connected with them, get on the bus unnoticed and quietly slip off at our destination. I'm in heaven as I walk down Prince Khalid Avenue. There is everything in the world that you could ever want. Firecrackers, fancy diving watches, model airplanes, bicycles, switchblades, cameras, pellet guns, real stuffed-alligators, fishing rods and rat traps. There is one showroom that displays what I now know were designer Italian high heels opposite a gleaming portable cement mixer. No merchant is fussy about his product mix. Sledge hammers or counterfeit Ban-Lon shirts are all the same at the bottom line.
Khobar in those days was the most cosmopolitan city in eastern Arabia. The Saudis seemed to be perfectly relaxed about Christmas which they considered as an Eid holiday for Americans. They knew it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus; he was respected within the Koran, and it seemed like a reasonable thing for Christians to commemorate. The one thing that they couldn't really comprehend was, "How did the bearded, fat guy in a red outfit figure into this whole program?" It was an endless source of fascination.
Of course the merchants, like their counterparts in America, quickly learned just how lucrative the holidays could be, and the stores sold a variety of artificial Christmas trees in a bewildering array of colors from natural green to electric blue to shocking purple. Plastic wreaths, shiny glass ornaments, strings of bubble lights, tinsel and angel hair by the bale. One store window displayed half a dozen carved wood Nativity crèches surrounded by plastic snowmen and reindeers. Better yet, these Americans were madly buying presents for each other. This is Khobar after all, and business is good.
It was unseasonably hot day, and after wandering around for a while, I'm getting thirsty and remember that my mom and sisters would drop into the Green Flag Store and get a free Pepsi, so I walk in. The first thing about the place is that the AC is super-frosty. I don't know how they did it, but they had the best AC in Khobar. Especially in the reception room, a small madjlis, cold as a meat locker with a few chairs and a couch.
Green Flag Store - 1951
I'm met at the door by a lean middle-aged man with gray hair and, behind wire-rimmed glasses, eyes that seem to be delighted to see you. I'll call him Selim, the owner of the store. We introduce ourselves, and Selim says, "Would you like a Pepsi?" My eyes widen like shiny, silver riyals, and he guides me back to the reception room.
Now you need to understand that the Green Flag sold stuff that absolutely no one would ever want to buy. Towels, perfume, sheets, lipstick, pots and pans, nylon stockings, sets of silverware, dishes and glasses, Waring blenders and Waterford crystal. I can't figure out how they can stay in business, but I have Pepsi on my mind.
I walk into the hospitality suite room to see two bachelorettes drinking Miranda orange soda on a sofa. Oh…oh, I know the red-haired woman.
A month or so before. Milt and I are wandering around after dinner in some alley when he tells me that last week the teenagers had a Scavenger Hunt party. A what?
Apparently they would meet at someone's house, be paired into teams and sent out with a list of stuff to collect. They had two hours to scavenge and then come back. Whoever had the most stuff won. My first question is, "Won what?"
Milt replies, "A hamburger and milk shake at the Fiesta Room."
Not too shoddy, I think to myself. "And what did they have to collect?"
Milt says, "Mostly junk. A copy of The Sun and Flare, an old shoe, a sand dollar, an empty Pepsi bottle, a burnt-out light bulb, a broken fork, a matchbook from the States, a pipe cleaner - A stick of Beeman's gum."
Spontaneously we have a terrific idea. We rummage through the nearest garbage can and come up with a piece of brown paper bag and Milt has one of those short pencils that are free at the golf course. Under a streetlight, I flatten the paper over my thigh and write up our list.
- Old newspaper
- Spear Gun
- Another Pepsi
- Beeman's or any kind of gum
- Box of grape Jello
- Golf ball
Since we didn't want them anyway, we cross out newspaper, shovel and golf ball – as if we already had them. We hold out for the spear gun and head to the bachelorette portable situated on the broad median that intersected 11th street as it flowed down to the AC plant. About six single women lived there. I ring the doorbell, and a red-haired lady, she was probably in her late twenties, opens the door. It is doom; she knows me, "Hi, Tim. How's your mother doing? Beautiful Norah probably keeps her busy." I later find out her name is Molly.
"Oh, she's fine. Though she burps a lot. Ah… I mean Norah does. We're on a scavenger hunt. Milt and I are supposed to get this stuff." And I hand her the scrawled list.
She scans it with a straight face, although she is probably dying of hysterics. Looking back, I really am grateful to her and the many other adults who cut me enough slack to not break into uncontrollable laughter on the spot. "We had a spear gun, but I think Skinny picked it up yesterday. I'll look," and looking away for a second says, "I think Sylvia lit off all of her firecrackers at the big dance at the patio last Thursday night." She pauses for a bemused moment, "But let me see what we've got."
Milt and I are shuffling around in the small reception room. Wondering if she is going to call our mothers, somehow check up on us. We're about to bolt into the night when Molly appears with her hands behind her back.
"Sorry but the spear gun is gone. Aimee ate the last four cookies and chewed all the gum. But I do have these," and she brought forth a cold Pepsi and a box of Jello. Lime Jello, probably the worst flavor, but who is choosy?
We are effusive and completely obsequious as we back out of the portable and head off into the night. Except we have a problem. Three minutes later, I am back at the portable, knocking on the door. Molly answers, "Oh Hi, Tim."
"I forgot but we're supposed to get a bottle opener too."
The dear woman. I have no idea how she didn't collapse into convulsions. Anyway, she maintains a stiff upper lip about to shatter into giggling pieces and returns with a rusty church key. We thank her and flee to the ample hedge surrounding the tennis courts. We worm into a favorite burrow within the vegetation, conveniently powdered in DDT, and pull out our stash. We eat big chunks of abused, year-old Jello that has congealed into a solid piece, then wash it down with swigs of Pepsi that make the Jello fizz up in our throats, and our blood sugar count soars into the Guinness Book of Records.
But now Molly and her friend are sitting on the sofa in the Green Flag store, and I am toast. "Hi, Tim. How's your mom doing? Is she here?" I'm speechless but, for the first time, notice her pale green eyes, her high cheekbones and her slightly crooked smile. She might actually be attractive if she wasn't so old.
I don't know what to say but, fortunately, a tiny lawyer appears on my shoulder and I say, "Molly. Oh, hi. She likes Balooki's." Another store that sold useless things like draperies, pillows, bed spreads and washing machines.
"Oh, maybe I'll bump into her over there. If I miss her, please say hello for me."
"Sure, I'll tell her."
"Thanks. We still have some shopping to do. Good seeing you again." And the two women leave me sitting in a green suede easy-chair listening to the steady thrum of the dual AC window units, staring at the pale yellow wallpaper flocked with a purple spider web pattern. I am totally ignorant of interior design but wonder, Where on the planet Mars did they find this paper?
Selim comes in with a frosty Pepsi, hands it to me and says, "Here, Mr. Tim, have a soda." He pauses a moment and says, "Do you mind if I join you?" The man just gave me a Pepsi; of course he can join me. For a moment, I stop drinking what is basically a huge dose of sugar and caffeine — Red Bull before its time — and tell him that it's my pleasure.
It's a weird fact that the formula for the Pepsi that the Al Gossaibi company bottled in Khobar contained twice as much sugar as an American Pepsi. Now the stuff is imported in cans, and that's why you'll never taste a real Arabian Pepsi again.
Anyway, Selim sits down in the other over-stuffed chair. He sort of disassembles himself, like a puppet who has relaxed all his strings. He closes his eyes and drifts. I'm perfectly happy drinking my soda, but I'm starting to grip about getting those presents. Time's running short. I'm going to have to get back to the bus. If I miss it, my future movements will be severely restricted.
What I need to do is ask Selim. What should I say to him that would break the ice?
I sort of cough and then say, "Mr. Selim?"
His eyes blink open, he reconnects all of his ligaments, and says, "Yes, Mr. Tim. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. I was just wondering where did you buy this wallpaper?"
Glee sweeps his face and he grins to say, "Last year, my brother Ali went to the trade fair in Hamburg, and he got…" waving his arm, "he got carried away."
Being diplomatic, I say, "I've never seen anything like this."
He laughs and says, "And I hope I never do again. Tell me, can I be of service?"
So I tell him about my dilemma. What to get for Mom and Dad. Tonight was Christmas Eve. I only had an hour left to catch the bus. I drained the last of the Pepsi to further jangle my nerves. Watching my parents in the suq, I knew that it was a special technique to not reveal how much money you had, so I cannily didn't mention that I only had six riyals and eight quirsh.
He says, "Maybe your mother would like some perfume?"
The best of the Khobar merchants had a preternatural ability to instantly diagnose any human that walked into their store. Triage the lookers, the maybes and the sure sale; then with a sort of X-ray vision determine to the riyal how much each one of them has in pocket. I'm sure that Selim pegged me for nine riyals, so I have the bargaining advantage. But Selim is no longer in it for the sale. He is just delighted that someone else has recognized that Ali is an idiot. He still has a pallet of that wallpaper turning into mildew in the warehouse.
I follow him back into the store, and he slips behind the perfume counter strategically placed next to a selection of brooms, mops, feather dusters and toilet plungers arranged around an upright vacuum cleaner. He scans the shelves and selects a very small green bottle with a gold label. He dabs a bit on a stamp-sized square of paper and hands it to me. "This is a famous scent. I'm sure that your mother will enjoy it. It's made in Paris. It's called 4711."
It smells good. Actually it smells like Molly, and I think she has class – so it must be okay. "That smells great. How much does it cost?" Thinking it's such a small bottle it can't be more than three riyals.
What! I didn't ask to buy the store. "Ah… well, what else do you have?"
"Oh, let me see. Yes, this is very economical," as he pulls down a larger, purple bottle with a silver label. "It's called Midnight in Port Said. It's made in Cairo. It's only two riyals." He hands me the sample, and I recoil at the classic scent of all those bottles of Air-Wick at work in the bathrooms of Aramco. I don't even have to shake my head in disproval. Selim seems pleased at my discriminating nose.
"Mr. Tim, I agree with you. Here, try this," and pulls out another bottle that is surprisingly similar to the first one – in fact almost identical. "This is a fine cologne from Bulgaria. It is called 1174."
It doesn't smell anywhere as good as the first sample but maybe the price is right, "How much is this stuff?"
"Well, it's ten riyals, but for you… it's six."
My whole bank roll. But again I've seen enough bargaining to know I should counter, "Four riyals."
He gives me a doleful look and says, "Mr. Tim, I already made the price so small. If I sell it for less… I will have no food for my children when I go home tonight," and the laugh lines around his eyes betray his attempt to keep a straight face. "However, I could sell it to you for five riyals and have enough to maybe buy some bread for my family."
What do you know? Another adult trying to contain a spontaneous eruption of laughter. Though I don't notice because I really have to close this deal and scurry on, so shrewdly I make my final offer, "Four riyals and eight quirsh."
"I knew that you would see it my way. It's a deal." He shakes my hand, picks up the bottle and turns his back to me, "Here I'll wrap it up for you." After a couple minutes he gives me a small box neatly wrapped in gold foil. I pay him, and he says, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Tim," as I walk out the door unto Prince Khalid Street.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
246 pages, $14.95
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
Available at Amazon