The Chicken Man Redux

Last month I had a brief essay on the Chicken Man. Marshall Lewis sent me a note about an experience he had with the Chicken Man, which I reprint (with his permission) below.

The man referred to as "the chicken man" was also known simply as "the Sandal Maker". Of course, innumerable artisans in Togo fit that basic description by virtue of their trade, so the fact that this phrase nevertheless designated him alone was an eloquent tribute to his preeminent status among the legions of practitioners of his craft. I used to visit him on trips to Lome and usually bought a pair hot off the awl whether I needed them or not, which in the rainy season was most of the time, since sodden sandals easily acquire a bouquet that cannot safely be assumed to appeal to everyone's olfactory taste.

One day I ambled into his stall only to find him distracted, his usual hearty welcome lukewarm. Since I was not sporting any of his competitor's wares, I gathered that the problem lay within. "Grand frere," quoth I, "qu'est-ce qui ne va pas?" He began tweaking his eye, rubbing his eyelid, shaking his head and then muttering in frustation. He said he thought he had an eyelash or something in his eye, but he couldn't get it out. I told him he should see a doctor, but he refused to go to the hospital or any such place, holding a dim view of the prospects of those who entrusted themselves to such institutions. So I offered to take a look, but he was naturally still reluctant. I warned him that it might be something more dangerous than an eyelash and if he continued to rub he could do serious damage to his eye. "Vous etes docteur?" he asked. "Presque," I said. "Mon pere est medecin." This appeared to allay his fears sufficiently to let me have a looksee.

Somehow he had a tiny sliver of wood in his eye, which he hadn't yet succeeded in driving into the eyeball to any depth. I asked him to let me take it out, which he did, but he was very tense, as was I. By some random drift of fortune, I had not yet fortified myself for a day at the grand marche with a nutritious dose of deha, nor had I been kidnaped the previous soiree and forced to endure a gauntlet of wicked boissons. So my hand was as steady as it ever gets, but even at my best I am no Annie Oakley. I don't know how long this delicate operation took, but it seemed an eternity, or rather it took place while time was suspended. Imagine being in this locale in the blaring din of a flourishing downtown market day, but suddenly encased in total silence, all peripheral senses disengaged, aware of no sound or motion except for a hand and an eye and some shallow breathing. At some point I closed on the end of the sliver with two long fingernails, and luckily it came straight out. "C'est fait", I exhaled. He blinked a few times, felt his eye gingerly, and smiled, while time resumed and restored us to the pageantry of the day.

The sandal maker was richly impressed with my aesculapian prowess, and sent an apprenti to fetch some celebratory potations. Himself a devout Mussulman, I knew his choice would be Youki, and much as I come from the "if you're buying, I'm having whatever you're having" school, I felt my Androclean efforts deserved a better fate. So though I mildly protested that it was obviously "important for me to maintain a keen eye and a steady arm in my metier" (true, after all--the students copy everything I write on the blackboard, so it would hardly do for my model sentences to be erroneous or illegible), at his urging I relented and accepted a BB grand modele, saying I would make an exception just this once in his honor. He told me a little about his life, as we drank, but I forgot nearly all of it. My mind wandered a little; I remember thinking it was just as well I was right-handed or my long guitar nails would have been on the left hand, and this surgery would never have been scheduled I also figured out why he'd allowed me to dig in his eye even though I had indicated I was not myself a doctor. If my father was a doctor, it followed naturally that I would become one, so when I answered "presque", he must have assumed I was soon going to complete my medical studies. As far as the Sandal Maker was concerned, I had just passed the final exam, and from that day on he invariably addressed as "Docteur" or "Dokita", depending on how much Youki he'd put away. I never corrected him, in accordance with my hypocritic oaths. We all pretended to be many things in those days, and though many efforts had no issue, much was accomplished in spite of pretending, or because of pretending, because in pretending we could sometimes become what we were pretending to be, and sometimes more.

Marshall Lewis, Badou 77-79

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