“I left you a voice mail,” it said. “When you have time could you please call me? It’s for a 4 hour tour for the prince of South Arabia.”
Did she mean “Saudi Arabia?” I typed.
“No,” she wrote back. “South Arabia.”
South Arabia? Where the hell was South Arabia? Embarrassed by my American-born, raised and educated ignorance, before responding, I decided to run a quick Google search to find out; within .40 seconds, my high school World History and Geography courses came streaming back to me, sort of. In earlier times, South Arabia was home to the Ottoman Empire. Of course! How could I forget the Ottoman Empire? Until 1962, the year Yemen declared its independence, geographically, the name referred to the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, which, in addition to Yemen, included parts of what we know today as western Oman and southern Saudi Arabia. You know, the sole of the Mid-East boot, kissing the shores of the Red and Arabian seas, a stone’s throw from war-ravaged Eritrea, and the semi-presidential republic of Djibouti, aka the Land of Punt—God’s Land.
In the ensuing phone conversation, after confirming that my manager was as versed in the geography of the rest of the world as I was and had indeed meant Saudi Arabia as opposed to South, I learned that sometime in the next ten days I would lead Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal —the wealthiest Arab in the world—and twenty-five of his personal body guards on a bike tour through Manhattan.
Though not a crown prince, with a net worth estimated at 27 billion dollars, including real estate interests in two hotels: the Hotel George V in Paris and The Plaza here in New York, and a 3.6% stake in Twitter, who cares? Al-Waleed bin Talal is #31 on Forbes Magazine’s Wealthiest Billionaires list.
Holy shit! I’m taking this guy on a tour?
And twenty-five of his personal bodyguards, my manager’s voice repeated in my head.
Who walks around with twenty-five Personal bodyguards? How many bodyguards does Obama have? I performed a quick search, but for security reasons it came back top secret. One anonymous person wrote back asking What’s your interest? Great, now I was probably on some watch list.
Still, nothing could douse my high. I felt like a modern day, gender-making-it-up-as-I-go-along, black Cinderella. My prince had finally come, or at least he was on his way. I planned my outfit, cut my hair, and was already imagining the size of my tip.
“Maybe he’ll give you a gold bar,” my brother said, when I called him. “I’m serious, Marci, If he asks what’s usual and customary, tell him five gold bars: two for you, one each for mom and dad, and one for yours truly. What’s a gold bar worth these days, anyway?”
I looked it up. “Depends on the size,” I answered. “$1400 for an ounce, $44,000 a kilo.”
“That’s it? Maybe you should ask for 10.”
My girlfriend, a fierce femme’s femme, who’s family hails from South Asia by way of the Canadian prairies, was all about his wife, Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel.
“She’s a badass," she said. "You know she’s the one behind his coming out against the veil. And, hello! She’s F***ing beautiful! She’s also half his age,” she added with a shrug. “He’s almost 60. Handsome though.”
I chose two guides to come along as sweepers (one to ride in the rear and one in the middle to ensure no bodyguard was left behind): my best buddy, Sez Me co-creator and drummer extraordinaire, Lee Free,
and another guide from the shop named José. After a week of back and forths between the Prince’s people and mine, they finally wrangled out the details: I was to lead the Prince on a two hour bike ride through Central Park and lower Manhattan. We would leave at four, and return by six.
Right away, I started to worry. It was the middle of November. The leaves had turned and were nearly gone from the trees, yet the air was muggy and humid, threatening rain. My main concern was the time. Sunset was just a little after 4:30. A four o’clock start meant we would ride the last hour after dark. To cover Central Park and downtown in 2 hours was a tall order.
“Do we have lights,” I asked my manager.
She had no idea. They were furnishing their own bikes. All she knew was that I was to arrive at The Plaza hotel at 2:30 pm and ask for a concierge named James. Lee and Jose would meet me there an hour later. Just in case, on my way to The Plaza, I stopped by the shop to pick up some ponchos.
“So you’re the lucky one,” James said, when I arrived. “I had the pleasure of picking them up from the airport.” Sarcasm dripped from his tongue like melted candle wax. If James wasn’t family, somebody needed to break it to him, because he rolled his eyes with annoyance in the way only a true queen can. “I got to drive right onto the tarmac,” he added, smiling.
“Bet that was fun.”
“Oh yes, honey. Joy, joy, joy, joy.”
After storing my bike in the concierge room (which like most Manhattan apartments was the size of a closet), James led me to the Palm Court tearoom, where members of the royal party (all but the Prince) were having lunch. In the tearoom, he introduced me to a tall, chiseled brown man dressed in slacks, a button down shirt and leather jacket. Mohammed interrupted his lunch to brief me. As we walked, out of habit, I recited The Plaza’s history in my head.
Completed in 1907, this French Chateau homage was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh. Hardenbergh designed another building we will see on our tour, the Dakota Apartments, where John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman.
Above all else,” Mohammed told me as he pulled me aside. “First, my boss must know exactly where he is going. So we will need to see the route in advance.” We stopped at a credenza near the entrance to the tearoom. “You can show us here,” he said, producing a pen and a map of the city. “Second,” he said, “he has a six o’clock dinner reservation at the Mandarin Oriental. So you will not return here, but to the Mandarin instead.”
When I asked if we should plan to return a little early then, Mohammed said no. Six O’clock would be fine, but no later. Now anyone who knows me also knows that I am punctuality-challenged. No matter how hard I try, how herculean my efforts, more often than not, I arrive 10-15 minutes late, sometimes more.
“What about the bikes?” I asked, beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
Mohammed said he would handle it.
The Prince had some other requirements: The ride must be 36 kilometers (appx. 22 miles)—18 out, 18 back. There could be no hills, and no traffic lights. No traffic lights? In New York City? I could accommodate the hill request (for the record, it is a myth that New York is flat), but the traffic light thing was impossible.
“Ok,” Mohammed said, when I explained. “Exactly how many will we encounter?”
I counted in my head. “Twenty,” I answered. “Ten out and ten back.”
Mohammed pointed to the map. “Show me,” he said.
After marking off the route, making special note of the traffic lights, Mohammed took a picture of the map with his phone then emailed it to an undisclosed number of recipients. “Any questions?” he asked me.
“What do I call him?” I asked.
For the first time, Mohammed looked at me. Held my gaze for an uncomfortably long moment. “His Highness,” he said, finally. “His Highness, or Your Highness. Now,” he added. “We have some bikes that need to be repaired. Which of you is the mechanic?”
Come again? “We didn’t bring a mechanic,” I said. “We’re just the guides.” By the look on Mohammed’s face, I could tell this was not the right answer, so I amended it. “I mean, we could probably manage some light repairs, you know break adjustments and such, patch up a flat.”
We weaved our way through the hustle and bustle of tourists and important people arriving and departing the historic hotel outside to the bikes. Jose was already waiting for me, speaking with some of the bodyguards. I introduced him to Mohammed as he indicated the bikes to be serviced. Hands down, these were the worst bikes I had ever seen. Walmart wouldn’t sell these bikes. “Where did you rent these?” I asked.
"We travel with them from Riyadh. My boss takes a ride in every city he visits.”
They travel with them? The 31st wealthiest person in the world couldn’t invest in some decent bicycles?
Where was Lee? We were fifteen minutes from departure and he still hadn’t arrived.
The repairs turned out to be fairly simple: a couple of flat tires, reversing the breaks so the professional videographer they hired, who was left handed, could ride and film at the same time, and most important—and perhaps most complicated—we had to attach an umbrella holder to His Highness’s bike, which was outfitted with sissy bars, a banana seat, and fat bald tires, the kind of bike we used to ride as kids. His Highness wouldn’t prefer a poncho? I asked. No, answered Mohammed.
More and more bodyguards in leather jackets began to appear and test out the bikes. Still, no Lee. As we assembled, several concierges diverted traffic away from our position. Valet service was temporarily suspended. The only thing missing was a police escort, and Lee.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, when he finally arrived. He had taken the train up from Brooklyn; as soon as he stepped out of the subway, he dropped his helmet in a pile of horseshit and couldn’t find anyplace to wash it off. Don’t worry, I told him New York always smelled like horseshit, especially near Central Park. He would blend right in.
At exactly 4 pm, ginormous umbrella in hand, His Highness descended the steps of The Plaza, inserted the closed umbrella into the umbrella stand so that it shot up in the air like a phallus, and we were off—me in the front with His Highness, surrounded by five of his most trusted henchmen, Lee in the middle, smelling like horseshit, with José bringing up the rear.
As soon as we started riding, I knew we were in trouble. There was no way the Prince, who rode with his feet flatfooted on the pedals, sticking out to the sides like a circus clown, could ride 18 kilometers per hour. Immediately, I began editing the route in my head, hoping to get us back to the Mandarin as close to 6pm as possible. What would happen, I wondered, if we were late?
As we rode, I looked back to make sure everyone was keeping up and observed a beautiful sea of black and brown male bodies flowing behind us. To say we turned heads would be like saying Death Valley is hot. At every red light, four of the bodyguards broke away from the pack to take up positions at each corner of the intersection. When the light changed to green, in an eerily well-rehearsed dance they fell back in line.
“Do you think they were packing?” my girlfriend asked later. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe, probably.” Damn, white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy is a bitch, I thought. There is no escaping it; it’s everywhere, slithering around inside our psyches like a four-headed snake. Even as people of color, we just can’t help ourselves. Whenever a large group of black and brown men gather, we assume they are carrying guns.
By the time we reached the Hudson River Greenway, we were riding at a pretty decent clip. The prince seemed to be enjoying himself, thrusting his phallic umbrella at some of his bodyguards as a joke. I even bonded a bit with his CEO, who kept calling everybody “Habibi,” the Arabic word for “my beloved.”
“I know Habibi,” I said.
“You know Habibi?”
“It’s a term of endearment, right?”
“Yes, but how do you know Habibi?”
“My… uh, my friend,” I said, catching myself before blurting out the word girlfriend. “She calls all her friends Habibi.”
“But, surely, she does not call you Habibi.”
Shit! I forgot, nearly every language but English relegates meanings and spellings of words to masculine and feminine. What was the feminine form of habibi again?
Everyone around me quieted and waited for my response, including the Prince. If we weren’t in the middle of New York City you could hear a pin drop.
“No,” I yelled out, suddenly, as it came to me. “Habipti! She calls me Habipti!”
Everyone applauded. “She knows Habibi and Habipti,” they passed down through the ranks.
In no aspect of my life am I closeted, mind you, never have been. But discussing the intricacies and nuances of my genderqueer identity with the Prince and all of his bodyguards while attempting to lead them safely through the city on bicycles wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have just then. Instead, I informed Mohammed that in order to make it back by six, we would have to cut the ride a little short. He wasn’t happy, but seemed to be ok with it. Just when I thought we might actually pull this thing off, His Highness got a flat.
I turned around and rode back to consult with Lee. Since we didn’t have any tubes to fit His Highness’s tires, we would have to repair it—so much for finishing on time. But before we could get our tools out, a black SUV careened across the West Side Highway out of nowhere, cutting off four lanes of traffic before screeching to halt in front of us, the Empire State building looming in the background. Two brown men in black leather jackets exited the vehicle and from the back unloaded another bicycle identical the one the Prince had been riding, complete with banana seat, sissy bars two beautifully full bald fat tires. “How many of those do you think they have?” Lee asked as he swapped out the umbrella stand.
After a couple more mishaps, chain derailments from improper shifting on shitty bikes, another SUV met us in Battery Park City at the entrance to Robert Wagoner Park, bearing refreshments and snacks for His Highness. It was 5:40 and dark. Even at 18 kilometers per hour, it would take us forty minutes to reach the Mandarin. Did I inform Mohammed now that we weren’t going to make it, or did I wait until we got closer, hoping for some kind of miracle? I chose the miracle.
Fog was rolling in. The mood was tense. The construction lights on the new Freedom Tower—now the tallest building in North America—flickered, muted, above our heads. Nobody spoke as we started the journey back. On the way downtown I’d noticed that His Highness kept no more or less than a five-foot distance between us. Every time I slowed, or sped up he remained exactly five feet behind me. I decided to use this tendency to trick him into riding faster. Every half-mile or so I increased my speed. As soon as His Highness began to close the gap back to five feet, I increased it again. In this manner, we made it to West 57th street by 5:59 pm, but the Mandarin was still three blocks and a traffic circle away.
Ok, time to fess up. I looked over at the Prince, who was stopped at the light beside me, hunched over his handlebars. Sweat poured down his face like he was standing under a shower. His breath came heavy. He’s almost 60, my girlfriend’s words rang in my ears. Which was worse, I wondered, being a little late for a dinner reservation, or giving the Prince of Saudi Arabia a heart attack? I opened my mouth to speak, but His Highness beat me to it.
“Where is the restaurant?” he asked, visibly winded. They were the first words he had spoken to me the entire ride. I pointed to Columbus Circle and said, “It’s just around that circle there, Your Highness, but I fear we might be five minutes late.”
His Highness looked toward the Christopher Columbus monument in the middle of the circle, but didn’t answer. Neither did Mohammed.
As soon as the light turned green, I kicked my foot into my toe clip and sprinted for Columbus Circle. The Prince was right behind me. So was Mohammed. Either I was going to get him to Mandarin on time, or I was going to die trying. Cars honked and slammed on their breaks as we ran every light around the circle, swooping right onto Broadway, then left onto 60th Street, running that red light as well. I don’t know if time stopped for a few minutes, or if Allah was simply smiling on me, but when we pulled in front of the Mandarin, the clock on my iPhone read 6:00 o’clock on the dot, and no one had had a heart attack or gotten into an accident.
The valets at the Mandarin took one look at the entourage of 30 or so brothers on bicycles and immediately began shooing us away like unwanted vermin.
For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to wield real power. I swung my leg over my bike, walked up to the lead valet and said in as authoritative voice as I could muster, “I have the Prince of Saudi Arabia here for a six o’clock dinner reservation.”
Roaches couldn’t have moved faster. The Valets swarmed around His Highness as if he were a succulent morsel suddenly dropped to the ground. Calmly, the Prince parked his bike on the sidewalk, ran his fingers through his hair, straightened his jacket and walked into the Mandarin without saying a word. Not thanks, not have a good night, not anything. So much for the gold bars.
His Highness’s physical therapist, the only American on the ride other than the guides, shook my hand and told me my timing was impeccable. Lee and José rode up and patted me on the back.
“How the fuck did you do that?” Lee asked.
“I have no Idea,” I answered.
“What do we do now?” asked José.
I looked around. The entire entourage had vanished. We stood outside the doors as if in front of a solid stone wall, looking for the secret button or lever that would grant us entrance. In the fog, the wet street glistened almost desolate. The horn honking and sirens, sonic ghosts of a city veiled. Only the bikes remained, parked helter-skelter all over the sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the hotel. We were tired and hungry, filthy from the various breakdowns and repairs. I shrugged my shoulders. “Go home, I guess,” I said.
“Did they tip us?” José asked.
I shook my head.
As we started to leave, Mohammed emerged through the revolving door of Mandarin and called to us. “My boss wanted me to thank you,” he said. “He really enjoyed that.
I held my breath, wondering what was coming next.
If you are not busy, he would like you to join us for dinner.”
“Now?” I said. “Dressed like this?”
Mohammed looked down at my bare legs and bike pants. Grease streaked our faces, hands and clothes, and Lee’s helmet still smelled like horseshit.
“Well,” he said. “I wish you at least had on a pair of Jeans, but the Prince wants you to join him, so I think it doesn’t matter. He’s never done this before, so I think you should come.”
We followed Mohammed through the magic revolving doors and rode the elevator to the 35th floor, where, backpacks and helmets in hand, much to the curiosity of the white patrons dining in formal attire, we strolled into Asiate, the Mandarin’s five-star restaurant, with wraparound views of Central Park and the City, and joined the royal party.
The meal was buffet style. After gorging ourselves on twenty different types of antipasti, entrees of prime rib, roasted chicken, two kinds of fish, Salmon and halibut, lamb, potatoes, every kind of salad and green vegetable one can imagine, and a dessert tree that made even my mouth water in spite of the fact I don’t eat sugar, Mohammed approached our table.
“Are you enjoying your meal?” he asked. We nodded and thanked him. “You see?” he said. “We don’t do alcohol, but in every other respect, we are just like you.”
Not quite, I thought as I stared at the blurred lights of the fog-dampened city below, but point taken.
Author's Note: On November 17th, 2013, I led the Prince of Saudi Arabia on a bike tour through Manhattan. The above is a recounting of my memory of that event — mb