Saturday, March 04, 2006

Somali, East Africa

Fall 1987. I return to campus at the start of my junior year, to share a lovely on-campus apartment with three friends of mine. By junior year, most people have moved into off-campus apartments, but I figure this place not only has good location, it's a great place. It's a penthouse, on what's essentially the 9th floor, with two bedrooms, one large and one small -- veritable luxury compared to other dorms, and as the only holdover from the previous year, I'm able to select my roommates. Given the layout of the apartment, and that I'm the only holdover, I decide to make the small room a single, and leave the large room a triple for the others.

When Ken arrives, he lets me know that one of our roommates has decided to take a leave of absence for the year. Cornell assigns the replacement a few days later, a Somalian named Abdi. I can't be sure that either Ken or I had ever heard of this country, east of and adjacent to Ethiopia, but that changes in a hurry. Abdi isn't awful, but he's no one we would have chosen as a roommate, and we have very little in common. Worse (and there's no way to say this politely), he stinks -- his body odor is simply unpleasant. Ken bears the greater brunt of Abdi's presence, as he's actually sharing a room with him. At some point, someone must have mentioned Abdi's odor to him. One day we come home and are talking in the living room while Abdi is in the bedroom. An aerosal can starts up and keeps going for well over a minute. When Abdi emerges to go out, Ken, my friend Heather and I all have our heads out the window.

As Abdi is situating himself, we learn that our fourth roommate also would not be joining us. When I come home from class one day a couple of weeks later, I discover who our new roommate is. I know Ken will be miserable, and when he comes in with groceries, I shoo him outside so I can tell him the news without it staring him in the face. After I get outside to explain to him the news that the new roommate is Abdi's brother Sa'id, Ken walks away to contemplate suicide.

Perhaps we're xenophobic (even though one of the roommates who bailed is Pakistani), but we're miserable with our Somalian roommates. Abdi was tolerable, but Sa'id is downright obnoxious. The phone bill is in my name, and because they're calling Somalia every day, we switch it so that the phone bill is in Abdi's name. Ken and I would come home and invariably find one of them on the phone with the operator (even now I can hear Abdi saying these words verbatim) --
Somali East Africa.


No I don't know that.

No I don't know that e-der.

No I don't know that.

Sometimes this strange exchange would result in a connection, oftentimes it would not. One day I come home to find a message that "Moji" called, and so a nickname is created.

In mid-October, Moj, who is not in school that semester, is up visiting. When the place she was going to crash at falls through, I offer up my place. We move the sofa into my little bedroom, never sure what Abdi and Sa'id might do. When I get up the next morning, I hear Sa'id telling Ken a fabricated account of what he witnessed with Moj last night. Ultimately Sa'id tells me that next time Moj visits she can stay in his bed. Thinking he was merely being chivalrous, I say thanks, but the arrangement would be just as it was last night. "No," Sa'id explains, "Girls like black penis better." Oh my.

Somehow we make it through most of the semester, and then in mid-November, I get the phone bill. Or rather, three months of phone bills. September bill is $1000, October bill is $1500, and after I cut off the long distance that day, November bill is "only" $500. When I go to Cornell phone services to tell them that we had switched the phone bill to Abdi's name, they now say that they couldn't do that, that Cornell doesn't have enough safeguards over an international student. As if I did -- Cornell was who had put them in there with me! Never mind the fact that they hadn't told me that these bills were being racked up in my name for nearly three months. Just the sort of additional anxiety I need as final exams approach.

Ultimately much of the phone bill is dropped -- the bulk of the charges stemmed from calls that were not completed. The Somalians pay a large chunk. That leaves me out ~$100, which I need to pay before I can register for the next semester. It's a bundle for me back in those days, but I pay it -- the university is implacable.

Abdi and Sa'id move out over the winter, and Ken and I get a couple more roommates, Jeremy and another Ken. Later, the other Ken moves out and Antonio moves in. All of them have their quirks, especially the other Ken, but mercifully none of them come close to the Somalians.