The Hard Times Café


It was pretty hot that day, that July, back in 2004.  I was pretty tired and I wasn’t feeling very well.  I had a scrap on my right arm that went from the wrist to the shoulder.  I had scrapes on both knees and on my right buttock.  The scrapes stung and there was a lot of dirt in them.  My eyes burned too.  I couldn’t keep the sweat out of them.  I’d wipe the sweat off with one of my index fingers, and flick it onto the ground, or mop it off with my shirt tail, and it would come right back.  My lungs hurt when I breathed.  The air temperature was over a hundred and it was like inhaling the exhaust from a blast furnace.  I had breathed in dust and dirt through my mouth and the grit crunched between my teeth.  I had probably swallowed some of it, too.  My mouth was dry and I couldn’t spit.

It was pretty hot that day.  I was pretty tired.

The score was 1 to 1.  There was only a minute or so left in the game.

Over the hill American accountants versus decades younger Iraqi accountants.  We never had a chance.

I was fifty-six years old and it was the last time I would play soccer in my life.  It was the first time I had played soccer in almost twenty years.  I had gained over 60 pounds in that twenty years, and I imagined that I looked like a two legged hippopotamus lumbering up and down the field, occasionally sticking one of my legs or  flopping on the ground in front of a speeding soccer ball.  The ball really stung when it hit me.  Those guys could kick. 

The field was hard pan yellow-brown dirt packed hard by generations of soccer players in a land of little rain.  There were rocks strewn about it.  Rocks with angular edges.  But, none of them were larger than an American baseball.  I guess that counts for something. There were a lot of small rocks, too.  These were about the size of half a walnut.

I was wearing old running shoes.  It had only been four years since I had last run.  Most of the Iraqis were barefoot.

I didn’t even know what my position was called.

I may have been the goalie.

The Iraqis were driving down the field to what seemed like a sure goal.  They were still fresh, were not yet sweating anywhere as bad as the Americans.  They were smiling and having a good time.  The Americans were not smiling.  Not for real, anyway.  It’s hard to smile when you’re looking death by heat exhaustion in the face.

Thank God, any God, somebody was having fun.

I lumbered across the field in front of the goal as the man with the ball kicked a long shot.  It occurred to me that if I were to leap high enough, I could head butt the ball so it would pass outside the goal.  The game would end a tie.  

A young man sprinted from the opposite direction.  It was clear that he intended to deflect the ball into the goal.

I leaped—a rising water balloon, a shapeless mass soaring to a height of four or five inches above the ground.  He launched himself, a blacked haired rocket of muscle and bone rising like a guided missile straight and true toward the airborne soccer ball that traveled like a line drive toward the goal post. 

Would it have gone wide?  Would it have hit the post?  Who knows?  Who cares?  What does it matter anyway?

His head struck the ball; his arm pit struck my nose.  The ball went into the goal, we went down in a pile--my nose locked in his arm pit.

My landing was painful, but the ammonia based odor of the lengthy strands of his armpit hair that trailed up my nose prevented me from losing consciousness.  Even for an armpit, it was a unique and unusual odor.  But, still there was something vaguely, uncomfortably familiar about it, that I couldn’t place.  I had never dated any Arab women in my life, so I was pretty sure that that wasn’t it.

Game over.  We lost—shamed our country--but the post game feast was pretty good.  We all sat around in a circle and ate squash and other veggies from a flat pan.  There were no utensils—we would tear off a piece of flat bread, caress it between the thumb and fingers of one hand, pinch a scoop of the veggies and eat them.  Some of the older Iraqi players, men in their 60’s, would pick their toes while they waited their turn to take a scoop.  I’d seen Mexicans do this with tortillas and beans, so I knew what to do.  And, I did it well.  The tea and camaraderie were good, too.

Within weeks, that smell was gone from my nose and mustache and life was back to normal. 

Almost as though the experience had never happened.

And then, suddenly and without warning, no more than a few years later, I accepted a promotion to a position in the D.C. Metro and moved to Northern Virginia.

I experienced the related epiphany on a cold and dark February night.  It was a wet night, too.  It had snowed earlier in the day, but now it was raining.  So, it was raining and cold.

I was cruising west bound on King Street, in Olde Towne Alexandria—with extra “E”s—looking for something to eat.  I hadn’t eaten lunch that day, and I was hungry but not that hungry.  I didn’t want a large meal, just a bowl of something warm, and maybe a cold beer.  Maybe, two cold beers.  Three?

And, there it was.  A bright neon light in a cold and dark night.

“CHILI”.   Big, Bold and Red.

The painted on metal sign above the door read, “World Famous Chili.”

Lord knows I am always ready for a steaming bowl of Red—red being the color that chili gets from the red chilies that are used to make it.

I entered and looked for a seat.  The speaker system played a Country Western favorite—“I Like My Women On the Trashy Side.”  The walls were old smoke stained wood; the floors were old and darkly stained too, as were the booths.  The place was almost empty and they wanted me to sit at the bar.  I didn’t want to sit at the bar.  I saw and empty table for two by the front window, beneath a big red neon sign that said, “CHILI”.  So I sat there next to the big mirror with the neon image of a sweating bottle of Cerveza Corona. 

Big, Bold and Cold.

I ordered a bowl of traditional red and a Corona—with no lime.  The waitress, a helpful young lady, advised me that if I wanted onion or cheese on the chili, I had to order it extra.  This IS Olde Towne Alexandria—with extra “E”s—temporary home to thousands of out of town consultants with paddable expense accounts and other folks with lots of money to spend and nothing better to spend it on than a steaming bowl of Red.  So they probably did find it odd to pay nine and a half bucks for a bowl of red and then fork out an extra fifty cents for a sprinkle of onion and another fifty cents for a sprinkle of cheese on top.  And, hell, I was on per diem, too, so I ordered onion AND cheese.

The waitress brought the beer, and it had a lime in it.  I asked her to take it back.  She brought another beer, and it had a piece of lime it.  I asked her to take it back.  The third beer had no lime in it, because someone had taken it out.  I told her it tasted like lime.  She took it away, brought another and opened it on my table. 

She was trying.

A few minutes later, she brought that steaming bowl of red—in a cold bowl.  I placed one hand on the table on each side of the chili, leaned my head forward and inhaled deeply.

Sonny Liston couldn’t have hit my nose any harder with his bare fist.  There it was—A Genuine Sweat Soaked Iraqi Armpit reaching up out of the cold bowl and ripping the hairs right out of my nose.  I started to gag, but got control of that reflex before it was too late.

I held my right hand on the far side of the bowl and fanned the odor back toward my nose.  Yep.  Unmistakable.

It was then that I realized what the vague memory was that had eluded me on that soccer field on that hot day in July, in 2004—it was the memory a bowl of Cincinnati Style Chili in Cincinnati, Ohio, Self-Proclaimed Chili Capital of the World way back in 1999.  That bowl had triggered my gag reflex then, too.

On top of that, both the cheese and the onion that I had paid extra for looked like they had been freeze dried and not reconstituted.

I asked the young lady who had served me the beer what the curious aroma was and she said,”Cumin. Our traditional red is almost pure cumin, just like the original Cincinnati Red.”

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I am not making fun of my Iraqi comrades nor am I finding fault with their personal hygiene practices.  At the most, these men had access to no more than a couple of quarts of water for bathing, a week.  They did their best under the circumstances.

Truth is though, that Iraqi armpit didn’t smell half as rancid as that chili.

Well, I paid my bill and left.  Because the waitress had actually brought an unopened bottle of Corona to my table and opened it in front of me to prevent anyone from stuffing a lime in it, I tipped her a dollar.   I didn’t want to over do it.  It wasn’t her fault the world famous Hard Times Café chili smelled worse than unwashed Iraqi armpit.

But now I know why they call it Hard Times.

Bottom line evaluation and recommendation:  if you are on the verge of dying of hunger and your only option for life is a bowl of this stuff—hang on to your self respect and just die.  You probably can’t find a more noxious bowl of anything outside Cincinnati, Ohio. 


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