Pa’ahssysy, we were told, was a kula or kief wino. In the mornings he washed cars, preferably for tourists, for an hour or two, and he contrived to stay stoned most of the rest of the time. Around mid-day he would enter Mufis’ hole-in-the-wall café in Fes's new town and call for mint tea. Mufis would continue reading the paper, then he might bark a few orders to his assistant Ahmed and proceed to stare into space for ten minutes, only then rising to make the tea. Pa’ahssysy could sit, then, satisfied, for half the day drinking his tea and smoking tiny bowls in an unhurried and consistent pace, blowing the ash to the floor. The slow service may have reflected Mufis’ feeling that Pa’ahssysy’s custom was a liability to his establishment, though he cared to go no further than to hedge a bit about the charity required of every Muslim.
Pa’ahssysy resembled an amiable if slightly pixilated bear, very dark with a woven cap ornamented with stars and a black three-quarter length pseudo-leather coat tied about the middle with grimy raveling string. His eyes, it must be said, were somewhat weary and blood-shot. He often slept in the park.
Pa’ahssysy spoke no French, so our communication was largely through gesture and expression. He delighted in repeating his name and laughing as though it were an excellent joke, but he also made sudden, apparently unmotivated, growls. If a police officer were to pass by on the street, he would assume a scowl and declare, “Yechh – police” and then laugh harder yet. His attitude must have grown from experience. He had recently spent six months in prison for accosting a woman on the street outside his carwash and making bold advances. When she resisted, he claimed to be chief of police. Ahmed told us that while he was playing cards, Pa’ahssysy had stolen his wallet (which must have had precious few coins) and vanished for a week or two.
Once we met Pa’ahssysy in the medina and he took us on a tour of the “shnen sbil” (a garden that felt to him like home), the Oued Fes, Moulay Idriss, the Bab Boujeloud. These place names became charms of friendship that day.
Shortly before we moved on, Pa’ahssysy made another of his periodic reappearances, now sporting a new blazer with a woven crest of Fenwick High School in Oak Park on the lapel.
At breakfast on the rooftop of the Sita Guest House in Varanasi, as the waiters stood by with sticks to threaten monkeys eager to snatch a bit of food, Lester Spector told me he had been practicing meditation for thirty-six years. “But I’m a Jewish boy from the Bronx – I don’t expect to be enlightened – still it helps me to carry on.”
And the man certainly does carry on. During his career, apart from a year with a guru in Patna, he had been a lawyer in the US, later a law professor in Toronto and then in Western Australia where he had also sat for a decade as a Supreme Court judge and wrote a number of scholarly books on legal topics. Apart from these substantial professional achievements, he had studied Jungian psychology and had published a widely sold road novel about two unlikely seekers in India.
Australian tax authorities were pursuing him yet with an annoying civil suit seeking to recover a considerable sum. “I’ll win eventually, but it will take years. I occupy myself by making obstacles in my life this way.” This legal entanglement may account for his avoiding Australia in recent exploits.
He said he had spent a year doing work for a gangster-linked business in Moscow. When his intention to leave them emerged, they tried “at gunpoint” to reclaim his compensation. Though rather foggy about the details, his account had him outwitting the tough guys and making off with the money. He seemed at any rate somewhat flush.
His girlfriend was on her way back to Australia. He said his novel had been optioned by a major studio and he was scouting, among other things, locations for filming. Whatever it was he was after, his restless eyes did move in an unusually lively fashion.