How I contracted an incurable musical condition in Zimbabwe

My first flare-up of musical pox happened in Zimbabwe, just after college. I don’t blame Zimbabwe for my condition, but I can say definitively that it first manifested during my trip there.

I was on a backpacking trip with a couple friends at the time, and Zimbabwe was the starting point for a four month journey that took us on to Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya, and finally up to Egypt.

This was before the days of cell phones, bank cards, and electronic plane tickets. That meant I carried my ID, cash and ticket home in a valuables pouch, a lightweight, zippered fabric case strapped around my waist, beneath my pants. I took that thing almost everywhere. Hell, I even wore it to sleep. Because if I lost it, I was – as they say in the old country – totally screwed. The only time I didn’t wear it was in the shower, and even then I kept it close at hand.

About two weeks into our Zimbabwe junket, we’d made it to Victoria Falls – or rather, to a grubby gaggle of huts in a dried up forest near the falls. We were traveling on just a few dollars a day, so fancy hotels weren’t on the itinerary. We’d traveled from Harare on a 3rd class train ticket, which meant twelve hours packed into a sweltering steel box with dozens of people and their luggage, goats and chickens.

So by the time we dropped our packs in the grim little Victoria Falls hut with its rickety beds and half-hearted kitchenette, I was overheated and cranky, and felt like I’d been marinated in the body odor of fifty strangers, which didn’t mix well with my own foul and oniony stink.

Michael and Steve seemed just as weary and puffy-eyed as I was, though unlike me they weren’t dicks about it.

The bathrooms and showers were in a separate hut, so I rifled through my pack to grab my (musty, cheesy-smelling) towel and my dopp kit. While Michael and Steve flopped on their rickety beds, I stripped down and put on a pair of shorts and flip-flops.

“I’m gonna take a shower,” I said, “I stink.”

Michael said, “You smell like chicken soup.”

“But bitter,” Steve said, “Like a rat’s nest.”

Ignoring them, I put my valuables pouch neatly on the center of my bed. “I’m leaving my valuables pouch right here.”

Steve nodded, his eyes closed. “Right. Perfect.”

“Dude. Look.”

He rolled his head toward me, eyes half open. “Ah. Just like you said. There it is.”

Steve didn’t seem very funny to me that day. “If you go anywhere,” I said, “let me know.”

Michael said, “We live to serve.”

He wasn’t funny either.

I trudged across the grounds, the sun baking my skin, my feet kicking up dust. I kept a wary eye out for snakes and wild boars, but saw no other signs of life. The silence of the place made me feel very small, extremely far from home, and terribly homesick.

The showers were filthy, the walls slimy with black mold and mildew. The water was cold and weirdly greasy. I’d brought a bar of Ivory soap from home, and the cloying cologne smell of it eased my homesickness somewhat. By the time I got out of the shower – holding my breath against the Muenster aroma of my towel – I was in much better spirits.

Walking back into our hut, I said, “Who’s up for a sunset walk to the falls?”

I stopped in the doorway.

The room was empty.

My valuables pouch was gone.

And that’s when I contracted musical pox.

The song was Daybreak, by Barry Manilow. It’s a bouncy, bubbly tune with a catchy beat and brassy horns. It’s joyful, triumphant and downright corny. I hadn’t heard it in probably twelve years.

But the second I realized my valuables pouch was gone, Daybreak clicked on in my head at high decibels.

Imagine my panic. I was as far from home as I could get without starting to get closer again. I had no money, no way home, and no ability to prove my identity.

Trumpets and trombones blared happily – crazily – in my head.

I tore that hut apart.

I ripped the sheets off the bed while Barry sang, We’ve been runnin’ around, year after year. I flipped the mattresses onto the floor. Barry crooned Blinded by pride, blinded with fear.

I dumped out our packs, scrabbling around on the floor, moaning “Oh no oh no oh no oh no.”

Barry launched into the swinging chorus:

But it’s day break! If you wanna believe

            It can be daybreak! Ain’t no time to grieve!

“Shut up, Barry!” I said, clutching my hair. I couldn’t think through the deafening music.

Keening and gibbering, the whole orchestra rollicking in my mind, I threw the cupboards open. I found a dead rat and a giant spider, but no valuables pouch.

Barry said,

It’s daybreak! If you’ll only believe!

            And let it shine! Shine! Shine!

            All around the world!

I sprinted out of the hovel, dogged by Barry and his band, thinking I’d report the theft to the lethargic old dude at the so-called reception desk. On my way the front office, I crossed the lightless, nearly-empty bar.

And there, sipping on Stony ginger beer, sat Michael and Steve.

I stumbled toward them, bug-eyed and sweaty, beset by my schmaltzy music.

“What’s wrong with your face?” Steve asked.

Michael said, “Have you been crying?”

The horn section razzed at full volume in my head. Barry launched into the triumphant chorus again.

“My valuables pouch!” I said, raising my voice over the phantom music. It came out like a wail of pure despair.

Steve pulled my lost money/tickets/identity from the back of his chair. “Right here.”

Barry Manilow and his band fell silent.

“Fuck!” I said. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I snatched my documents from Steve, and stomped back toward the hut.

Steve called after me, “You’re welcome.”

I flipped him off over my shoulder.

That’s how musical pox hit me – in a moment of weakness and fear. Since then, whenever I’m tired, stressed, or ill, I’m plagued by outbreaks of bad music so loud that they make rational thought nearly impossible. Sometimes it’s Muskrat Love; other times it’s Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart. On the really bad days, it can be the Oscar Meyer jingle (“My bologna has a first name, that’s O-S-C-A-R!) or Afternoon Delight. The unifying trait is that the music has to be ridiculously bad. It’s usually from the 70s or 80s.

I can’t cure musical pox, but I try to control the outbreaks. Musical pox is a burden, but I won’t let my condition define me. Because, after all, it is daybreak, if you wanna believe.