Most folks here in Antigua know Bill McGowan as the mild-mannered co-manager of Dyslexia Bookstore. But his secret alter-ego is that of a crisp, clear, smart and damn-funny writer. Well, at least it was a secret until now. Sorry, Bill. You’re too good to keep just to ourselves.
The pieces presented here were originally written for a project being put together by his hometown community of Knoxville, Tennessee to honor a friend and artist who passed a short time back. His name was Ali Akbar, and as far as we’re concerned, Bill does him damn proud.
Story I: The Jockey
One day Ali and I were sitting around shootin’ the shit, telling stories and drinking beer. The topic drifted to the natural beauty of the hills and mountains around Knoxville. Ali said he loved getting out into the mountains — like he had done one day with me and Herbie when we’d gone hiking in the Smokies.
But he added in his drawl, “Beel, I don’t like going out to redneck areas around the South. It makes me too nervous.”
“Well sure, Ali. But it’s not as though you’re going to drift into a cement-block bar in Cocke County or anything by mistake.”
“No, Bill. But I don’t even like going out Chapman Highway! In fact, that reminds me of a story.”
Ali had many stories.
“There was this friend of mine,” says Ali. “He was a white guy I was buying my weed from. One day he asked me if I wanted to go with him on the buy. I said, ‘Sure, where to?’ When he told me it was out Chapman Highway, I changed my mind quick. I said, ‘No way, man!’
“But he convinced me it would be okay. We’d just stop into this one house a block off the highway, pick up the weed, and be on our way in a few minutes. I said, ‘Well, okay. I guess so.’ But I was still pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea.
“Anyway, he was driving this late model Lincoln with fancy hubcaps. It was a pimp-mobile if I ever saw one. I kept my profile down all the way out Chapman Highway. I don’t even like the idea of the people who live out there seeing a black guy cruising around their neck of the woods.
“We got to the house and he said I should come on in. That wasn’t part of the deal, but I figured it would be even worse if I was sitting in that honky car all by myself in a white neighborhood. So, damn it, we went in. Turns out they were real nice people. We sat around smokin’ some weed, and drinkin’ some beers for awhile.
“When it got time to go, we said our goodbyes and got in the car. It was dusk. I was happy we were heading back in the dark. My friend pulled out of the driveway and started down the street. Then he suddenly stopped the car, jumped out, and I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing?’
“I watched him run over to someone’s front yard. They had one of those black lawn-jockeys you used to see all over the South. He grabbed it out of the lawn and ran back to the car with it.”
“I yelled at him, ‘Man, you tryin’ to get me killed? You know it’s me who they’re going to kill don’t you?’
“He just laughed, hit the gas and away we went down the highway. Man, Bill, I thought it was all over. Weed in the car, and now a theft. I was pissed. But you know, the farther we got away from there and the closer we got to Knoxville, the better I felt. I looked in the backseat. He was standing back there with that jet-black face and that stupid smile, holding out those reins. And I felt like we had rescued him.
“Well, we got back to Knoxville. I asked my friend to drop me off at the Long Branch. By this time I was feeling good — like I was a Liberator. I got out of the car and took the jockey with me. I composed myself, and walked into the Long Branch with him under my arm. When I hit the door everyone looked up to see me, expecting my usual loud entry. I didn’t say a word and didn’t crack a smile. Everyone was looking at me. There wasn’t a sound. I walked over to the bar, stood the jockey on the bar and said, ‘I’ll have a PBR — and get one for my friend, too.’
That’s how it was the whole night too, Bill. No one asked me a thing. I just drank the whole night there with that full beer sittin’ in front of that damn jockey.’”
Story II: Twenty Dollars
One day Ali showed up unexpectedly at my house — which was the way he normally would. That was fine. I was always glad to see him. For me anyway; my dog Lilly always seemed to want to bite him. “Damn, Lilly,” he’d say with feigned complaint, “why don’t you ever remember me?”
After that we went into the kitchen for some coffee. And, just like usual, Ali said, “Bill, I’ve got a story for you this time. It just happened, too.”
“Hit me, Ali.”
“Well, I was coming over here on the bus. Shortly after I got on, this beautiful, young black woman got on. Man, Chicago, she was stunning. She sat a little up from me by herself. We were both sitting sideways so I could look at her. I was thinking to myself, “Now, how can I start up a conversation?”
“After awhile she pulled out her phone and made a call. After she hung up, I said to her, ‘That’s the same kind of phone I have. Do you like it?’
“Well, that got us talking and I told her I’d never seen her on the bus before. You know, I ride the bus a lot.
“She said, ‘No, I’m not from here. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky. I’m only here because my brother was in a terrible auto accident near here and he’s in the hospital. I came down with my mother. We don’t know anyone here.’
“‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ I said. I could tell she was near tears just talking about it.
“She told me that her brother had near-died twice while in the hospital, and they had no idea whether he was going to make it.
“I moved over to sit beside her. I told her that her brother was in Allah’s hands now, and that we can only pray for him to make it through.
“My stop was coming up and I got up to get off. I said goodbye and gave her my blessing. But just before I got off, I dug in my pocket, pulled out a twenty and walked back and gave it to her. She thanked me. It was just down the street, just moments ago.”
“Man, Ali, that was nice of you.”
“Thanks Bill, I felt so bad for her.”
After awhile I told Ali that I had an errand to run for an hour or two. I asked if he wanted to stay and wait for me at the house. He said, “Take me down to Barley’s Tap on your way out and then I’ll make my way back to your house later.”
I dropped him off there.
About three hours later, he showed up back at my house. “You’re not going to believe what happened to me now! Right after you dropped me off, I walked into Barley’s, sat at the bar, and ordered a Guinness. Just as the bartender was delivering the pint, I heard a guy walking in say to me, ‘I know you.’
“I looked at him. I’d never seen him before. He was white, and I thought, ‘Here we go, what’s going to happen to me now?’”
Ali was always on his guard to what next challenge or complaint was going to end him up in jail.
“Chicago, man, he walked right up to me and said, ‘I saw what you did on the bus.’
“‘Uh-oh, here it comes . . .’ I thought. But before I could respond, he pulled out a $20 dollar bill and handed it to the bartender.
“‘That will pay for his drinks today,’ he said. Then he walked out.”
Ali stood up, excitedly, for emphasis, and said, “See Bill, it only took an hour for that $20 to come back to me!”
Story III: Donald Trump
I picked up Ali one night at his crib. We were going out to hear some music. He was in a great mood when he got in the car. And he was dressed to the nines. He relayed this story to me about what had just happened to him about two hours ago.
“Hey Chicago! Wassup?”
That was one of his nicknames for me: “Chicago.”
“You’re looking good, Ali.” I said.
“Bill, you won’t believe what happened to me this afternoon. You won’t believe what I had to go through to get this outfit together for tonight.”
“Tell me about it, Ali.”
“Well, Bill, I was getting dressed about three hours ago. This is a special occasion tonight and I wanted to look my best. Hey, we’re going to see my boy, RB, at the Laurel! I want to show him some respect. I had the outfit just about together, but I discovered I was missing something. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got time to walk-on down to the Goodwill and pick up what I need.’ You know I do most of my shopping there. So, I headed out and was walking down that cutoff between Sutherlin Ave. to Kingston Pike. It was a nice summer evening. I was feeling good. Then I spotted this patrol car coming down the cutoff toward me. And I noticed it was going real slow. As it got closer I could see the officer was a female and she was eyeballing me as I walked.
“Herere we go,” I thought.
I kept on walking with my eyes straight ahead. A minute or two later and here she comes again, this time in my direction. She’s passing me and slowing down. I ignored it, and kept on walking. I watched the car pull ahead of me again and then turn into a parking lot beside me and stop. The police lady got out of the car and started walking across the lot in a beeline right towards me. I got to that point where we’d meet . . . and I just kept on walking past her.
“She said, ‘Aren’t you going to talk to me?’
“I stopped, turned to her and said, ‘Well, noooo, officer. I wasn’t planning on talking with you, but apparently, You are going to talk to me.’
“She said, ‘We have a report of a person causing a disturbance at Goodwill, and I’d like to talk to you about that.’
“Bill, without a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Officer, what exactly is it about me that makes you think I buy my clothes at Goodwill?’
“She hesitated a moment, not knowing how to reply . . . then I said, ‘I mean, if I were Donald Trump walking down this street, would you ask me if I frequented Goodwill?’
“She stammered, tripping over whatever reply she could come up with.
“And then I turned and walked away, right down the sidewalk in the direction of Goodwill. She never said another word to me. And when I got there, I picked up this great scarf. And that’s what makes this outfit.
“Hey Chicago, let’s stop and get a drink before the show. I’m feeling good tonight!”
Story IV: Suicide Watch
My phone rang one afternoon a few years back. It was a rare call from Ali. Although he always seemed to have a cell phone, it was almost always suspended.
“Hey Bill.” Before I could answer he added, “Bill, I’ve got a big favor to ask.”
“Sure, Ali. Name it.”
“Bill, I’m in the hospital over here at University of Tennessee.”
“Man, Ali, I didn’t know you were in the hospital. What for?”
“Well, Bill, I might have told you that I’ve been having trouble with my neck for a long time. I’ve been avoiding the recommended surgery, but they finally convinced me I should get it done. It involves a surgery going in the front of my neck to get to the portion of my upper spine they need to fix. I had the surgery three days ago. They released me the same day and gave me some pain pills. Everything was okay at home for a few hours until the anesthesia wore off. Then it got so painful I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t sleep at all that night.
“Finally I went back to the hospital and insisted they check me back in. I had to argue with them but they finally admitted me. They’ve got me on pain medication, but it isn’t doing much good. I’m in the worst pain of my life”
“Ali, that sounds horrible. What can I do for you?”
“It gets worse, Bill. I’ve been arguing with them about it and I was in such pain that one moment in complete exasperation I said, ‘What do I have to do to get some attention around here, kill myself?’
“That’s when they put me on suicide watch.”
“Bill, there’s a person sitting in my door now, twenty-four/seven. I can’t even go to the bathroom without the door being open. I don’t know if you know this, Bill, but I’m a private person. I can’t go to the bathroom with someone watching me.”
He sounded desperate.
“What can I do, Ali?”
“It’s simple, Bill. I need you to put on your best suit and tie and come over here to visit with me. I need a white, professional-looking guy to visit me to show them that I’m not just a dumb black guy. Believe me, once they get that idea in their head there’s nothing a black man can do to change it — except maybe show them that I have white friends. So Bill, get dressed and come over here to see me for a couple of hours.”
I was off work that day, so I started changing.
I visited him in his room for a while. Then we walked around the halls, Ali dragging his saline solution behind him. We walked the floor about three times. He said hello to all the nurses and doctors in a very friendly way, sometimes introducing me. After a couple of hours, I left him.
He called me later in the evening.
“Bill, thanks for coming over. They took me off suicide watch. I should get out of here tomorrow.”
“That’s great, Ali!”
“Goddamnit, Bill! I told you it would work!”
Story V: That Means You Love Me
Once at about one in the morning, I was sitting around the house after having just returned from some bar. I was feeling okay — not too drunk, but not sleepy either.
My cell phone rang. It was Ali.
“Hey Ali, what’s going on?”
All I could hear was a sort of groan and the voices of other people.
I tried shouting!
I do have a healthy imagination, I’ll admit. The thought crept into my mind that he was in some kind of trouble.
Maybe having a stroke. But whose voices? I wondered.
I listened closer. Was that laughter???
“Oh, shit . . .” I thought. “Did he get knocked down at some party?” That was always a possibility with Ali.
I didn’t want to hang up, so I went to Chris’ room and knocked. He was asleep.
“Uhrh?” he responded.
“Hey Chris, sorry to wake you. I got a little issue going on.”
I explained. He listened.
Back on the phone, there were still occasional groans and multiple voices in the background.
I asked Chris to call Ali on Chris’ phone hoping Ali had call-waiting. The line was busy.
We talked about it. He didn’t have any better idea what to do than me.
“You know he’s in bad health. Should we call for help?”
Chris hesitated. We both knew how much Ali hated the building management and the cops.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I called 911 on Chris’ phone while keeping mine on with Ali. I couldn’t remember his address or room number, but they knew which public housing unit it was.
I didn’t want to lose the connection, so I didn’t hang up Ali’s call.
I sat down to wait. I had worked myself into a nervous state. I couldn’t sit anymore, so I decided to drive over to Ali’s place. I kept the phone to my ear.
I got about halfway there when I heard knocking on a door.
More knocking. Much louder.
I heard the door opening and then Ali’s voice:
“WHAT THE FUCK? WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS? AND WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS DOING IN MY APARTMENT?”
“Oh, shit!!!” I thought.
I hung up the phone and turned the car around.
Once home I told Chris what had happened. He had the same reaction, “Oh, shit!!!”
I waited about half an hour. Then I called Ali.
“Hey Bill, wassup?”
He sounded chipper.
“What you doing, Ali?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing much Bill. Just standing outside enjoying the evening.”
“It was me,” I confessed. “I called them.”
I repeated, “I called them.’ I’m the one who called the ambulance.”
“YOU CALLED THE GODDAMN AMBULANCE? I ALMOST GOT ARRESTED FOR CREATING A DISTURBANCE! WHY IN THE HELL DID YOU CALL THEM???” he shouted.
Surprisingly, he managed to do it without seeming mad.
“BECAUSE YOU POCKET-CALLED ME, YOU ASSHOLE!!! I THOUGHT YOU WERE HAVING A STROKE!!!”
There was a long pause.
“Man, Bill, that’s sweet. That means you love me!”
“What was all the talking I could hear?”
“That was just the TV, Bill. I was drunk, and I guess I fell into bed with my phone in my pocket . . . You know what, Bill? I’m feeling pretty good. I think I’m gonna go find one more beer.”
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Bill has recently published a book titled, The Ali Files. You can pick up a copy here.
Below are a few more pictures of Ali Akbar and a small selection of the art he created over the years.