The gentle burning of the cheap DeWars they serve on transatlantic KLM flights reminded me of the sun I’d felt on my skin not six hours ago in the Old South of Amsterdam. I’d been sitting on a comfortable cushion in the open courtyard, sipping a typical Dutch latté while I waited for an old friend at the College Hotel near the museumplein of the old Dutch Capital.
The left mouse button on my notebook was missing, and the other one was stuck. The rest of the right side of the keyboard was overheating right where the processor sits, whiring and coughing pathetically like a sick child at three in the morning. Typing anything that involved letters on the right half of the keyboard meant first degree burns. The drive holding two weeks of already useless work was now missing, corrupt from god-knows-what-error, making the last two weeks even more useless. To boot, the food here sucks, the economy is costing a lot of people that sit around me their very secure jobs, I’m frustrated about travel schedules I can’t make because of other people’s blunders, I’ll probably miss meeting some very important people in New York next week and all because I’m here, doing nothing for nobody.
No wonder I’m pissed.
Oscar and I sat in the back of a shisha lounge called Green Light Cafe. The bar was tripped out and smoked in, a hopeless scene of smokers from all walks of life, not a one of them local, which meant no Dutch people.
Don’t get me wrong, you know — Dutch people and I have a lot of things in common and I esteem their practicality and straightforwardness. It’s just that, hell — I needed a fucking break from the freaks of blunt.
And for that I was thankful. In that pillow-covered hole of wall to wall carpeting and blue and green and yellow and red neon floating on the ceiling there were no Dutch people. Not even the barkeep, who alternates on different nights from being a beautiful and petite Thai girl and a chunky English douchebbag.
The music there is usually a mellow kind of Jazz remix that seems to have engaged in acts of coitus with punk rock and steel drums. The chilled out clientele — overeager Erasmus young’ns, dreadlocked white guys, hippie chicks and Israeli stoners — always in character. They’re all straight off the train, backpacks and all. Haven’t even found their hostels yet.
I watched Oscar blow elegant smoke rings from the shisha pipe we shared. The man’s been everywhere and when he says he learned to blow smoke rings in the Middle East, motherfucker means Mecca, man. Or, at least as close to it as non-Muslims can get.
“Jeddah is the coastal port on the Red Sea, just outside of Mecca,” he informed me after seeing the blank stare on my face. He seemed surprised by my ignorance and I snapped out of it.
“I know where it fucking IS, Oscar. I’m just contemplating what a fucking cool job you have that by the sheer will of the mind, you can, on certain weekends, decide to just hop on a plane into the port of Jeddah and smoke enough shishas alone on the edge of the Red Sea until you learn to blow smooth smoke rings that smash calmly into the ceiling.”
He dragged the pipe a bit, and still took a second deep breath, exhaling slowly, as if his soul was leaving his body through his mouth. “You know, man, this job…it’s great. But it’s not as great as you think.”
“How do you know what I think, Oscar,” I said, with a spritzy tone in my voice that I hadn’t intended. He wasn’t annoyed.
“I’m telling you that this job has its curses and isn’t for everybody. Especially if you have specific needs.” I nodded, my head in my hands, showing him how bored I was with that topic I’d heard so often, so many times before.
Still, the man has been everywhere, it seems. But I knew that there are two roads to Mecca: one that actually goes to the city and one that goes around it, for foreigners or non-Muslims that think they can see Mecca just because they’ve traveled for god-knows-how-long? Nope, they’ll put you back in your blistering car and send you off. Everyone has their own problems.
He tightened his lips and thought for a moment, eventually saying, “Yeah. That was an interesting weekend. What a fucking shit country, that is, though.”
“What do you mean,” I asked, reaching for my pint of Heineken. “You told me you went from an air-conditioned Marriott — with a pool, which you swam in quite enjoyably, to hear you tell it — to a beach-side restaurant to smoke and watch the sunset and then the next day you took a drive to the sandy penninsula to search for a boat and ended up meeting a bunch of Dutch guys on the docks…”
“First of all, exactly. I went to Saudi-fucking-Arabia and who do I meet there, as if I didn’t have enough of that around this town of lunatics? The Dutch. I don’t see what you see in these people, honestly.”
“In my defense, I’m not all that happy with them either,” I said, looking around and smiling. I’m pretty sure I let that little gem slip every now and again. You should pay more attention.” He hesitated.
“Anyway,” he said, “it was shit. The town lists TGIFriday’s, Chilli’s and Pizza Hut among their top ten restaurants. People who go there return with pictures of their standard rooms at the Hilton, of unimpressive statues, some sunsets and occasionally, sidewalks.”
“I can picture,” I said, “the kind of people that take pictures of their hotel rooms at the Hilton. Clear as day, right?”
He furrowed his brow at me and took a deep drag of the pipe. “You mean people from the midwest?” he asked, holding it in. Then he blew another elegant masterpiece that grazed my left ear.
“Never mind,” I mumbled, grinning.
He went on. “And did I tell you that when I was about to sit at the restaurant where I smoked that shisha — by the way, it wasn’t beach-side, it was water-side; they don’t have beaches in Jeddah. There are some stretches by the highway that hug the water that are lined with large rocks to muffle the waves, but definitely no beaches.”
“ANYways…” I said, suggestively.
“Right. Did I tell you that at that restaurant I had to sit on the second floor, away from the water because the section — the empty section, I should say — of seats by the water is reserved for family seating? No single men allowed.” He seemed happy to have gotten that off his chest.
“Really?” I asked. I knew that Saudis segregated their men and women, but I figured there was space to move or something.
“Single men,” he repeated, “are the lowest fucking rungs on their social ladder.” He folded his arms and leaned back into his chair, his long, curly black hair bouncing on his head. I was surprised no one in Saudi had ever suspected he was Jewish. In any case, he was very satisfied with himself for that story.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I remember when you told me of those boys on that lawn in Riyadh one time and how the police chased them down…”
“But they let me go,” he reminded me, “when the bell boy came out to explain I was a foreigner in the hotel.”
“An expensive hotel?” I asked him.
“The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever stayed in,” he said, which is saying a lot. “In the Egyptian Marble shower I could lie flat on my back and roll away from the showerhead, rolling five times before I hit the other wall. I know this for a fact. I had enough space to do cartwheels in that suite.”
“That explains why the guard didn’t give you a hard time then, right?” I offered.
“Right,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that single men, especially young ones, are scum, the lowest class.”
“Why do you think that is,” I asked, suddenly kind of seriously pondering the reason.
“Honestly? I think it’s society’s way of projecting their own self-hatred onto something. I mean, I just can’t reason with the notion that separating men and woment results in anything other than repressed sexual urges. Just look at the Catholic Church.”
“Mmmm,” I nodded, and it felt like he was on a roll, so I didn’t say anything.
“I think that somewhere deep within them where human needs can’t be touched by silly rules, religious or otherwise, there is at least the faintest whisp of a wish that those men didn’t need for marriage to be their highest priority in order to escape the social hell it puts them all in. A kind of a obtuse logic: single men cannot be in the presence of or seen with a woman to whom they are not related. Deep within people must find this repressing and wish it weren’t so. And if all single men were married, they would not have this problem. Therefore, single men are frowned on.”
I looked at him in awe. “Oscar, that was, by far, the craziest thing you’ve said tonight. And that’s following your story of rolling on the floor in the shower in your hotel room in in Riyadh.”
“I know,” he said, half-ignoring me, sort of beside himself for nailing a thought like that down. And then his face lit up. “And what about the Catch-22 of how a boys meets a girl?” he asked excitedly. “Have I told you about that?”
I shook my head no and reached for my beer.
“I had been wondering –” he explained, “after being in that country for 2 months with no alcohol, cheap gas and nothing but sand and flat land around me, how it was that people could, in the 21st century, still go along with the notion of arranged marriages.”
I nodded again, and sipped my beer. He dragged the pipe again and let the smoke pour out of his mouth slowly, like a waterfall. That fucking guy.
“So I did what I normally do when I want a straight answer,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He smiled, and blew the dense smoke off the table in front of him. “I ask a cab driver,” he said, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows. Fucking Oscar.
“And?” I demanded.
“And…” he dragged it out, “he told me that when parents won’t look away or pretend that they don’t know what’s going on, what the kids do is go down to the shopping mall with their mobile phones…”
“Mobile phones?” I interrupted.
“Yeah. He said what they do is set the Bluetooth receiver on the phone to be discoverable and when they find a phone they like they start texting and chatting with them. If the kids hit it off, they agree on a meeting place and a way to feign either marriage or relations for long enough to be seen in public before they become engaged.”
I was stunned. “Was he lying?” I asked, only half-kidding.
“No,” Oscar said. “I did this in a mall in Riyadh once and used my Bluetooth thingy to search for other discoverable devices. What came up was sort of sad.” I tried to sip my beer, realizing that I was sipping an almost totally empty glass. “A list of at least 30 or more phones came up. Their names were mostly illegible, but there were some with names like ‘Sexy, Sixteen and Single’ and ‘Ready for love, boy’.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Look, the pool was nice and all, but talk about a vast emptiness… I mean — who pays for all that gold trim?” he asked. I shrugged in agreement. He continued.
“In Jeddah, after wandering around the immediate neighborhood and finding nothing to do I finally found someone who understood enough English to be cajoled into telling me something, even if it was to give up hope. Those are the stakes.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I was partly distracted by the young Israeli kid rolling a joint of hash next to us.
“Yeah,” Oscar said. “This young Jordanian manager at the Marriott, when I badgered him enough about WHAT TO DO there he sort of lowered his voice and lowered his shoulders, leaning in to talk to me. He said, ‘listen, I’m a foreigner trapped here too. None of them will tell you but I’ve been here for two years and all there is to do is go to the mall.”
“I wonder why,” I said out loud, with a grin.
“‘Nonesense,’ I said to him, sort of startled by his honesty. ‘There must be a café where you can go read a book by the sea, right? These people are pious to a fault but they can’t be averse to a good life.’ I decided. He cast a look that told me he was not getting through to me.
‘It’s worse than you think,’ he said.
‘It can’t be,’ I countered. He smiled.
‘You’ve been to Riyadh?’ he asked me.
‘I’ve just come from there,’ I told him. ‘I’m here for the weekend’.
‘What do you think of Riyadh?’ he asked.
‘It sucks,’ I told him. ‘That’s why I came here. At least there is ocean here, right?’ I have him a smile. He smiled back but it was more wishful than it was agreement.
‘Look, the only thing the ocean adds to in Saudi Arabia is humidity.’
My heart sank for a moment. ‘That’s ridiculous. You’re telling me that there is nothing to do in Jeddah except either pay $250 for an hour for a wave runner or else drink tea in the hotel lobby all afternoon by yourself? Why are there even hotels in this place? Why are you people here?’
He adjusted in his seat and a grave feeling dripped all over his face. ‘I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you. I think I understand what you want. You won’t find it here.’”
“And that,” Oscar said, “was the greatest reaction I’d gotten there, by far. By FAR.
His circles of smoke glided over the pages I was reading in the dim light, casting strange shadows and faint shapes over HST’s words. I struggled with my crude attempts at such cool manufacturings and eventually just gave up, sucking it all down and expelling it forcefully towards the dark blue ceiling.
It tasted like apples.
A long-haired blonde down the bar continued to throw suggestive glances at Oscar while shaking her shoulders in time with the mad noise the DJ was making. He glanced up from his writing every now and again to return them. I got the unshakable feeling he was playing some kind of game but I wasn’t a part of it.
He was deep in thought and I had just taken a deep inhale of the pipe when I saw her, out of the corner of my eye, get off her barstool looking over in our direction. I panicked and looked across the street at the signed bolted to the next building. It read, fortuitously, “Obstakel“. I knew exactly what it meant.
The nighttime is still full of dark things, as always. Stirrings in the unseen blackness between walls and windows, silence among the trees — these are natives to the soil of the night. Through the leaves and a light mist I can see dim lights that don’t fully penetrate the canopy. I hear strange, elusive songs that howl in a distant direction. Time has passed, too much time. Yet these things never change. I like it. Still.
The reports of my death are greatly exagerated, I should tell you. Not to mention that I’ve always wanted to say that.
But seriously. If that’s what you’ve heard, you’ve been misinformed. I myself heard it from an IT specialist on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Which was weird.
It was unnerving to hear — to say nothing of having an argument with — a perfect stranger about your current status as a living being. He insisted I was dead, the story being that I’d perished needlessly along with the other passengers on that Air France flight from Rio.
“Why would I be in Rio?” I asked him. “I have absolutely NOthing I want to do in Rio.”
He dodged and I lunged and eventually we came to an understanding. But I had to insist, and that’s usually when things get ugly. Thankfully, he just fixed my hard drive problem and I got out of there and went back to New York.
There’s been a lot of that lately, this business of crossing the Atlantic once a week for months on end. It’s becoming routine, almost. Sure, the miles pile up and the whiskey is free, but who cares? I have plenty of whiskey at home. And anyone who’s ever flown across the Atlantic, especially anyone who has flow over the damn thing four times in a week knows that it does terrible things to the human body. There is no way around that.
Laura and I had had a good week in Iceland just before all of this got underway so it started off on the right foot with some camping, hiking, subzero temperatures and landscapes that defy any existing means of description that I’m aware of. Once I had switched into professional mode I made the best of it, taking weekends as they came, when I had them, to meet up with the right people in the right places. Paul was working in Paris at the time and did the right thing by taking a train to Rotterdam where I picked him up and we drove to Berlin. The next weekend Laura did a similarly right thing by flying to Zurich, where I met up with her and we had ourselves a proper Swiss weekend, followed the next weekend by a proper Belgian weekend. That’s how I make the best of this situation. And that’s alright.
But as you can imagine, it was somewhere between Bruges, Zurich and Berlin that I started to lose my bearings once again. Fleeing to the US had done me little good. After over four months of attempted residence in the heart of hearts I had started to feel safe, far from their grip and the beckoning of my whining clients.
When you’re this good at something, there will always be someone willing to pay you to not give it up. I learned that with a few carrots and the yank of thier chain, after which they got me right back to where I’d been when I fled.
Which is how I found myself again in the center of the old city in Amsterdam at the Haven van Texel, an old favorite thinking spot of mine. It was a typical summer night in the Dutch capital, tourists floundering about and locals ignoring them the way they do so well. Neither tourist nor local, at the edge of a large umbrella I sipped a thin beer under a heavy air. The split pea soup is pretty good too, but that’s not part of the scene.
In the late evening the whole sky had come down over Amsterdam and afterwards, the rain having passed, the atmosphere had become dense and thick. The waiters walked around with a dripping wet rag, wiping whole puddles off of tables. People need to drink, after all.
In this scene I sat, as I said, sipping my thin beer, watching the boats round the curve at the Oudezijds Achterburgwal gracht while I got back to some basics with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I’d always suspected that American history was rooted in some shady stories but I didn’t know the half of it, it seems. Will Hunting was right; that book will knock you on your fucking ass.
But the boats — they kept passing, the curves never seeming to run out of them. A small one meandered ‘round the bend and stopped at an inconspicuous doorway at the water level with no lights on. I wondered what they were doing there, in that dark corner out of sight that only only ducks and villains even notice. A place where people vanish into the night. Strange things happen in these places, right before our eyes. Sights and symbols are everywhere and it’s up to us to turn away and let them happen.
Which is exactly what I did. I don’t need the extra stress, man.
The uncertainties and pressures of the path I’ve been walking for the better part of this last year are out of sight. Politics doesn’t begin to describe it. I’m still waiting on a gaggle of statute of limitations so you’ll pardon the lack of specifics, but it’s a doozy. Suffice to say that it involves a lot of very roundabout language, 24-7 monitoring of all communications on every channel and of course, a LOT of air travel. The amazing thing is that it’s working well when I’m amazed it’s working at all.
The gist of it is this: I’ve been working in what equates to a pressurized bee-hive. Deadlines loom and crumbling deliverables are demanded as if Jesus had just walked out of the desert. Meanwhile, touchy topics like layoffs and salary reductions fly unchecked through people’s inboxes and nobody know’s what’s going to happen. Like some half-mad badger in a paper cage they keep me under the guise of effectiveness, skill and track record, but I know better. Some cheap executive type upstairs in a building far from any I occupy is covering his ass like red on a baboon. Sooner or later, when the walls of irreconsilable confusion come down and the barbarians come rushing in shouting for actual credentials I exepect to see the nail end of a finger protruding out of a very expensive suit.
That’s kind of a typical day for me, I guess. I hear I’m not alone but I sure as hell don’t see it. You people do a hell of a job hiding shit like that.
Later that night, darkness continued to fill the space as the early signs of midnight called for the sun to set sometime after 10. Amsterdam is farther north than most people realize and in late June the place sometimes feels a bit like Oslo with the canals of Venice and the heavy air of Florida. Without, you know, the Cubans.
Just kidding. There are plenty of Cubans here.
Glowing windows in the dark raise questions and stir desires. What’s in there? And who? What are they doing? And could I do it better? I’m no longer able to distinguish fear from anxiety, politics from causality. Things start to fall apart.
The banjo blues still play in my head and my eyes wander the scenes looking for a grip, a handle — something to help it all along the way. There used to be a fine line that dictated equilibrium for me, between alcohol and sleep. That balance was maintained, day in and day out. Who knows where it’s gone to now?
Jo skipped down her steep Dutch stairs in her flat in the Old South, a far-off land nearly 20 minutes away from Amsterdam’s Center. The cafés in that neighborhood of Amsterdam crawl with the affluent and those horny for the appearance of the same. Bordering Vondel Park, a Central Park-esque sort of green area, many vagrants wander outside of the perimeter after dark looking for a port-o-potty or somewhere else to defecate. Also, many artists live in the area due to its proximity to the Museumplein and the Concertgebouw. Though most of them are hard-to-swallow hipsters with ‘artist’ simply written on their H&M vests, there are some who are worth knowing, and even visiting on a warm summer afternoon.
I heard the keys jostle in the lock as the bolt was withdrawn.
“Hellooo!” She said, perky and excited as she usually is when the weather is this nice. And it was. She was in jeans and a floral-patterend blouses that isn’t really trying but always looks great when there’s sun to shine on the skin.
The sky was clear and the greens were greener than I could ever get used to. Spring in Amsterdam is usually no different from the rest of the year, overcast and grey. The cold never seems to stop blowing in from the North Sea, except when it does. Then you get days like this, with flowers and people and football out in the open and lots of beer and laughter on the narrow streets; pretty girls everywhere and no matter where you look it’s as if you were seeing it through a polarized lens.
It was good to see her and I gave her a big hug full of relief. I’m not sure why the relief, but that’s how it felt. She kissed my cheek and we went to a place in the park where you can lie in a pile of pillows and order beer and some fried Dutch food. We waxed philosophic, launching deep thoughts into the grassy fields beneath the canopy, shaded and serene with laughter and sunlight.
“You know,” she said in a Polish accent mixed with German and what I think is some kind of old Croatian, “we have very similar, uh, professional situations, I think.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling, sipping my beer, “we’re both, in a way, consultants.” She didn’t smile at my wit, but I often suspect she doesn’t get half of my jokes. I’m learning to be alright with that.
“No, but I mean…we both work from home, and it can be very difficult to do that when you don’t have people close by that are in a similar situation.”
“Oh, yeah. I know, right?” I said right back to her. “I remember when you used to live there in the center — in that flat that belonged to a friend of yours who was out of town or something? Yeah, and we would grab a coffee in the morning before we each dove into our work, and then later we’d catch up for lunch, maybe, or perhaps another afternoon coffee…”
“Yeah, that was fantastic, eh?” She said, with her eager smile. We both dwelled on the memory for a second.
“Sure. Until you moved to the Old South with all these yuppies,” I chuckled. She did too, knowing full well what I was talking about in the old south of Amsterdam, even if she didn’t know how to translate the word ‘yuppy’ in either Polish or German.
“Yeah,” I continued, “working from home is great but if you have to enjoy the freedoms it brings alone, it gets pathetic pretty fast.”
“Hmmmfff,” she agreed, “I remember when I used to go to the café in the corner, or else take the time to cook something for lunch…now I just make myself a ham sandwich or something and eat it in the kitchen, with Lord of the Rings playing in the background or something.”
“Such a nerd,” I prodded, and she stuck her tongue out at me most indifferently. “And is there anything, ” I continued, “more depressing than a ham sandwich eaten hunched over the sink? With your elbows out? And Gandalf murmuring riddles to ancient kings?” She kept smiling. “No. No, there isn’t.” Which is true. “I think the difference between you and me, though, is a factor of motivation: you’re after an objective, and it’s the means that’s bothering you. I have no objective. I just love the means that the lifestyle provides me because of where I’m going. Wherever THAT is. But I yearn for an objective.”
“Exactly!” Jo seemed to get it, but I’m never too sure. In general the phrase I most often hear after describing the superficialities of my job is, “wow, you wanna trade jobs?” But I don’t put all that much effort into describing it better and more concisely, and most people just aren’t equipped to handle the mediocrity that comes with doing purposeless tasks that cover your face with a veil of bullshit that you can only hide if you’re really in love with what you do. So I don’t bother.
Only once did I feel that I got through to someone when discussing the meat of my beef with my lifestyle. Usually, when I describe to people how despite the apparent glamour of constant travel there IS a downside that can only really be understood by those who’ve lived it, the reply comes in the form of a “well, ups and downs, right?” or “take the good with the bad,” and other, equally meaningless statements. But once when I told my brother, his response was very refreshing.
“Yeah, mate. You’re fucked,” he said.
Brilliant. Someone gets it.
I guess I’d had a bad feeling about the whole thing from the moment I’d seen the teletext on the airport flatscreen back in that September air: “Pelosi — we have a deal.” Jesus. That’s horrible to even think about in today’s climate.
Looking back on that scene is like looking at a crowd of idle jesters with a Metor careening over the skyline overhead. If you’d listened to the report CNN put out that day you would’ve thought that the vote itself was a mere glorious formality, and that our capitalism was all but fixed and saved. Then I read the thing.
Yeah, I read it. It had a dank stink to it that I couldn’t describe. There were no specifics, and there was no substance; a thing totally open to interpretation; an animal of no instinct or nature. Just cold politics with a hot breath on the public, a fine mist that hung over their eyes just long enough to let the creeps get away. An old joke on the people it was about to rape.
Fuck, I thought. The end is near.
Now, who-knows-how-many-billion dollars into the affair and so many other mad accusations thrown into this mess that I’ve had to buy two full-length books to wrap my mind around it and I’m still sorting through all the names. By the way, please note that in order to cover my expenses for these extra efforts, I will have to charge a small fee of $5, that can be payable by PayPal, even if you don’t have an account. The fee can be payed right after you finish reading the article…
What? No, sorry. That was a scam I ran into on craigslist the other day, but we won’t have any of that here. Those evil bastards could probably give the DOJ a run for their money, eh?
Anyway, the same senseless monsters that managed to get the economy from trillions in surplus to a full one-eighty in the red in just two administrations are now driving some of the efforts at opposing Obama’s massive relief efforts, spending projects, federal budget…whatever label you want to put on it. And all the crazy talk has dropped us off here, where the rubber meets the asphault, and the crazy meets the news. In a half-mad fury of head-turning craziness, Chris Matthews, of all the spinning, talking faces, refused to let that god-damned waterhead, Tom DeLay, get away with smooth talking nonsense about “fighting like a Texan”.
“You can’t se_CEED_ from the _UN_ion,” Matthews said, talking right over DeLay’s crap. “That’s the kind of talk we heard in 1861. Why are you talking like this, Tom?” He dropped his tone a bit, seemed disappointed. “Mr. DeLay, you know this isn’t a real conversation. This is not serious business.”
Which begs the question: what the hell happened to Chris Matthews that he suddenly decided to quit the machete game to become a journalist, eh? Did he just like Obama that much? Did he stop yelling long enough to discard the talking points from the White House and stand now where he belongs — between the executive and the legislative branches, shielding the people?
Well, once again, we’re back to that basic question, aren’t we? What side are you on?
Ain’t nothing rhetorical about it, kids. Get yourselves an answer.
In New York people bend to the fitful will of public transit. That evening, I knew I was already late when I got to the bus stop but I wasn’t worried; my friends could stand to have another beer while they waited. And besides, they understand that in this city people need to be lenient when it comes to punctuality. Traffic is too thick and public transportation too fickle for anything else.
But even as I tried to board the bus I knew there’d be trouble.
“Do you stop on 110th and 3rd?” The old black man in front of me asked the bus driver. His dark suit and matching hat told of humble begginings and the worn edges of his briefcase exhaled with age. The guy looked like he’d stepped off the stage of The Music Man in 1930 and had been walking ever since. At Houston, just before 1st street, the driver told him that no, he didn’t stop at 110th and 3rd. “But you take 3rd avenue all the way up, right?” The bus driver, with a heavy lower lip and and a tendancy to roll his eyes was showing all signs of being weary of the general public.
“Yeah, and I stop at 108th street and again at 111th street so you can get out at one of those.”
“Well, you can stop at 110th for me when you get there, right?” The driver sulked a bit deeper in his seat and looked at the old man with disbelief.
He shook his head and motioned with his right hand, not taking his eyes off the old man, still incredulous at the request. “Have a seat.” The old man hobbled off and grabbed a seat in the front. I waited patiently for him to move out of my way and that’s when I noticed — to my great surprise and interest — that so did the line of New Yorkers behind me.
Unexpected. I’d always thought these people to be animals, on a clock and unstable, mouths frothing with frustration at the slightest obstacle. Hmm… or maybe that’s just LA.
What is usually a 10 minute ride so easily turns into 25 though, when at every stop it seems the bus has stopped for quadriplegics and septegenarians. At one point we were stopped for a good 10 minutes for the usual herding of the senior citizens, and on top of that the bus driver had to stand to break up a fight I hadn’t seen start at the front of the bus between two meth addicts about to fall over on school kids. That’s bad mojo on your bus and New York bus drivers don’t let that kind of shit fly. But again, I seemed to be the only one visually bothered by the disturbance. Maybe I just haven’t been here long enough.
I got off at 35th street and walked into Third and Long, the pub where my friends were waiting. There was already a thick fog in the night and the tip of the Empire State building a few blocks away was completely shrouded in mist and cloud. Peter and Jeff were right at the entrance of the pub, each cradling an almost finished ale.
“I’m excited,” Peter told me after the usual pleasantries, “this seems like such a New Yorky thing to do.”
“Well, that makes for two of us,” I told him, “I’ve never been to an art show either. I have no idea what to expect. But Em told me there’d be free booze and probably food, so…”
“Yeah, so, who’s this Em chick?” Jeff asked. I looked at Peter, figuring maybe he would’ve mentioned it already. But no.
“She was in our highschool class,” I told him. “We weren’t friends or anything but, you know how facebook can be.”
“Ahh,” he said, “one of those.” Jeff finished his beer. I pondered getting one myself, but it didn’t look like this was the place to stay if we wanted another round before hitting up this supposed art show. ”Where is this place we’re supposed to go, anyway?” Jeff asked.
“It’s, uh, what’d I say earlier…529 Third?” I mumbled, pointing up the block. “Yeah, yeah…it should be this block up here. Have you guys checked it out?”
“We walked around the block but didn’t see anything obvious,” Peter said.
“Well, shit,” I said, “then, let’s finish those beers and go find this place, eh? They have free booze over there…”
“And food, I hope,” Jeff said. “They’d better, anyway. All I ate today was a gyro in the morning…”
After some ten thin slices of mozzarella, and three or four of the fancy cheeses that came around less often, the four glasses of wine we’d each had started kicking in. I’d wanted to flee as soon as I saw the place. It was a small frame shop where everything had bee pushed to the back to create mingling space in the middle. It was chock full of unattractive people that seemed overdressed in order to impress themselves.
The walls were covered in colorful childish abstractions of birds and feathers by a guy named Britto. It wasn’t bad and I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t anything I was really impressed with either. There were also three or four pictures taken in different places around the world — cheap, low-res pictures that didn’t belong on someone’s screensaver, let alone at an art gallery. And then there was one painting by The Subway Artist.
It was his show, mind you.
When we’d first arrived Em approached our band of out-of-place misfits and introduced herself to Peter and Jeff. I was surprised she hadn’t remembered either one of them from highschool, but I guess that made the conversation a little fresher to start off with. After plenty of wine and the aforementioned bits of cheese, I think they all started remembering things a bit more clearly, like who’d had which teacher for what subject, who people had dated and other contrived and trivial matters. I started getting bored.
“So after I graduated I thought, ‘why not do something different’, you know? So that’s what I did! I decided to come out here and become, you know, a New Yorker,” she said with all the rotten glee in the world. “And it was hard at first, you know, like meeting people in the city, and learning, like, what to wear and, like, where to go but things are really going well for me now and my group of girlfriends, we totally go out together all the time now and blah blah blah…”
I took a deep breath and exhaled long and loud, and Peter gave me a stern look of disapproval, but Em left to mingle somewhere else, seemingly unaware of my hostility.
“Take it easy, man.” Peter told me once she’d left. “These are people we know, and our circles are small. These things come back to bite you in the ass.” I rolled my eyes. “And I don’t want you fucking writing about this either, you dramatic bastard.” Fine, I lied.
Suddenly, and for no reason I could understand, she returned, half-drunk in an instant, dragging in her arms a thin black man. The Artist, I assumed.
“You guys, this is Enrico — he’s the artist,” she shouted, though the room was not so loud. Her voice was starting to slip from her control and I guessed that she would soon start yelling from all the cheap wine she’d had while mingling with us. I could hardly blame her. “Enrico, these guys went to highschool with me, but it’s not like we were ever friends,” she slurred, and then turned to us, “right?” and we weren’t sure what to say. It was true, and I felt the same way, but who wants to call attention to that ten years later? It was a rattling affair to have to put up with and Enrico’s graveyard breath wasn’t making things any easier. We were glad when he slid off to mingle with some other clique and Em disapeared with him.
“I like his style,” I told Peter. “It’s got a really industrial Van Gogh thing going on and I like that he uses Subway maps for his canvas.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I kinda like it too.” He sipped at his red wine and Jeff offered him a piece of cheese, which he took.
“I think it’d be cool if he did a Warhol thing and actually painted a Subway map ON a Subway map,” I said, thinking out loud.
Peter’s eyes beamed and he finished his wine. “That’s a great idea,” he said, putting his plastic cup down. “You should totally tell him that!” I dismissed him with a spurnful roll of the eyes.
“Right,” I said. “I’m sure artists love having wayward drunks come in from the streets of Murray Hill and tell them how to paint.”
“Well, he looks like he needs some ideas, wouldn’t you say?” Jeff suggested. Which was true. The man did, after all, have only one painting at his own gallery showing.
“Guys, I need to eat something soon,” Jeff continued, starting to slur his words. “I think I’ve had five glasses of wine and I haven’t eaten anything. I might fall over soon.” But Peter wasn’t having it.
“Get yourself together, man. We’ll get out of here soon enough.” Jeff consented silently, looking sullen and worn with heavy eyelids from the red wine. Peter looked at me and lowered his voice a bit. “I’m rethinking this highschool reunion thing,” he said. I knew he’d been excited for a five-year reunion that never happened but he was nervous about the ten-year one coming up. “Even if I’m in the San Francisco in October, I think there’s very little chance of me showing up. Not after what I’ve seen here tonight.”
“You bet,” I said, thinking of how tired I was of having to condense the last ten years of my fast life into thirty seconds of chit-chat every time I met someone from highschool. And then to have to listen to them go on about their uninteresting existences, what jobs they’ve had, why they’re in New York, what their cat’s name is and shit — Jesus. It was all I could do to keep the paintings up on the wall instead of taking them down and slamming them over their boring faces, maybe adding some color to their outlook.
When Em’s short blond friend — Heidi from Iowa, I think — started talking to me about her boyfriend and how she loved having someone she needed in her life, I pulled out the stops. Normally I reserve the harsher, more pointed rhetoric for those friends of mine who have proven — through continued tolerance of my presence — that they can handle it without throwing me into a ditch out of embarassment. But she was asking for it with talk like that in a crowded place, when my head was full of wine and I was bored of the crowd. Her bright blue eyes, young and shallow, had a strange, almost opiate constriction to them, and if she wasn’t so calm and bland I would’ve known instantly that I was dealing with some kind of cocaine or morphine freak.
“Nonsense,” I told her, sometime around my sixth glass of wine. “Necessity is the clearest sign of weakness.” I felt detached from the scene. This was not a person I was speaking to, it was an ideal, one I felt at odds with. I could feel a look callous indifference crawling on my face, and didn’t bother to register her reaction to it.
Then I felt Peter, who’d been standing just behind me, give me a nudge to take it easy again. I nudged him back.
“It’s better to wake up every day and choose to once again have that person in your life than to be resigned to it,” I told her, and sipped my wine. She looked slightly scared, like she’d never considered the prospect before. ”Otherwise it’s all just a cage and you’re just another sap waiting for your time to run out. I think you’ve got a serious problem on your hands, there Iowa,” I told her. “A goddamned ticking bomb.” Her face went blank with disbelief, confusion and the early signs of trauma. She put her empty glass on top of the water cooler by the entrance and muttered something about me not telling her boyfriend that, giving him ideas because she didn’t know what she’d do without him.
“Case in point,” I told her, “But you’ll be fine. I probably wouldn’t have this conversation with him anyway.” She exhaled and her shoulders sank, and then she fled to get more wine. Peter turned to me when she’d left and shot me a glare of what-the-hell-was-THAT.
“What the hell was THAT?” he asked me. “Did you have to shatter that poor girl’s sense of direction?” I caught Heidi looking at our group from the other side of the room where she was talking with Em, who was looking in our direction with nothing but contempt. Who KNOWS what kind of stories that sad girl was telling about us.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “She won’t bother us anymore with idle chatter. Besides, she’ll wake up tomorrow and forget all about it. She won’t change.”
As the evening wore on and more bland types filled the room we started feeling uneasy and out of place. Most of them seemed to be Em’s friends but I didn’t know Em all that well, nor did I know what kinds of friends she had. Jeff was becoming harder to hold up vertically and he was very hungry. Ers had finally arrived and we were in the mood to get out of there.
“You guys, I know a good bar around here where we can really chill for a while,” Ers announced.
“Please tell me they have food,” Jeff whined.
“They’ll have food,” Ers assured him. “Chips, and meat and stuff. Is that alright?”
“ohmygodthanksiloveyouers,” Jeff mumbled.
We walked down third avenue and got Jeff some pizza, to make sure he didn’t keel over before the next round. Murray Hill is too full of young girls fresh out of college and still on daddy’s credit cards for us to comfortably drag a drunk body through that place. These people have limits and you have to take it easy with that kind of ugliness when the streets are crawling with primped twenty-two-year-old children who are there to ‘experience New York’.
We kept walking and the air got colder. After six or seven blocks we ended up at Rodeo Bar, a place I’d heard Ers talk about before, and stepped in just as it started to rain outside. No one had cash so I bought Ers and Peter a good Irish beer, and asked the Texan waitress to get Jeff some water. I couldn’t hear anything through the blare they were playing before the band started but I saw her scoff. The boys all headed upstairs to get us a couch but I saw the band setting up and told them I’d catch up to them.
The country band started playing their jumpy tunes. It would’ve kept my interest if they’d been a little more genuine, but their lead singer was too big of a douchbag to ignore. Their guitarist and bassist were jamming in the back by the drums, and they were tight. The pretty belle flirting with the violin was hot, standing on stage with a wide stance and short skirt, running the bow softly across the twangy strings. But it would’ve been better if she’d actually played the thing instead of just providing backup vocals.
Oh well. When I got upstairs the three gents were having a sinister-sounding chat that involved bets, dares and potential pay-offs. Jeff looked like he was passed out on the couch but was clearly a very vocal part of the conversation.
“I’m just saying, Ers, I’m offering you $10 to ask her,” Peter said, putting his beer down on the table in front of us.
“Ask her what?” I asked them.
“I’ll give you $20, Peter, if you feel her up and let me know,” said Jeff’s body on the couch. I looked over at the group next to us. One of the girls was dressed in a tight red tank top, leather pants and black boots. Strange, since all of her friends were in jeans and sweatshirts with names like Vanderbuilt and Purdue. But the attention grabber was her chest — tits so terrifyingly perfect they could only exist in Victoria’s Secret catalogues or on the streets of LA.
“Those?” I asked them, and they all nodded proudly, unsure of what they had to be proud of, but proud nonetheless. “Listen. There is no way in this crippled, half-mad world that those things are real. Nature doesn’t work like that. You’d have to breed Gisele Bündchen with Rebecca Romijn for a thousand generations and you still wouldn’t get that kind of perfection. No way.”
“Yes!” Ers shouted, and slapped me a high-five. “Thank you! That’s what I’m saying. There’s no way.”
We all considered it for a minute.
“I think they could be real,” Jeff’s corpse said, still unmoved on the couch.
And then we took him outside and put him on a train that we hoped would get him home.
Drunk and exhausted, I rode my own train home later that night with Ers.
“You know, Ers, some of us are teachers, doctors, musicians and what not, and we roll along fulfulling these noble pursuits. But it’s weird — drunk as we all are now, next week Peter’s going to be teaching Algebra and Calculus to a minion of children, idiots and some eager young minds. You know what I’m saying?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” he said. “I could use another pizza though, or more peanuts or something.”
“That’s what I’m saying. You’re a drunken mess right now, and so am I. But tomorrow you’ll be analyzing the stock value large multi-nationals and I’ll be saving my clients millions of dollars through a well-practiced speech that I may as well not even understand. We do these things despite the fact, or alongside the fact that tonight we were in some bar in midtown getting sloshed and guessing whether this poor girl has real breasts. We travel and do weird things on the weekends, despite are outlandish professions. But all those people at the gallery tonight, and probably most people we’ve known since highschool, those bland and uninteresting hacks…what are they doing? What’s their point?”
“You’re talking too seriously, man. Have you been watching Frontline again?”
“…yeah. So?” He ran his fingers through his crumpled hair smiling and leaned over on his knees, looking at me sitting across the car from him.
“We move through the world day by day, and change things around us slowly. Including ourselves. But so does every one else, man. Some people change more than others and some people are luckier than others, but every one changes over time. You’ve gotta give ‘em more of a chance.”
I thought about it for a sec. “Wow, Ers. That’s pretty deep, calm…mature, even. Does that mean you give everyone you meet the benefit of the doubt?”
“I think most people deserve at least that much, yeah.” I smiled at him.
“What about that guy that was such a tool in high school that you agreed to be friends with on facebook just so you could be the first to know when his life tanks? What was his name? Anthony…something?”
“That’s the chap.” He didn’t even think about it.
“No. He’s just a douchbag.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
The kitten hadn’t seemed to like me from the moment I entered my new flat. It was already there and I’d assumed it belonged to the girl who was to be my new flatmate. She was in the kitchen cutting squash when I arrived but she had two guests who were in the living room rolling joints and sucking strips of acid.
Great, I thought. This should be fun.
The apartment was one of the highest I’d been on, but it had a shitty view of Queens and the the Throgs Neck Bridge out to Long Island. Nothing worth describing because it doesn’t matter in this dream. It was just a flat expanse of grey and brown, with that weird hint of blue that happens when it’s slightly overcast and the cloud cover is meek enough that it hints at the colors of the sky above. Whatever.
Anyway, that fucking cat was freaking me out, leaving the room whenever I entered, then coming close for a stroke and fleeing before I even moved to do it. I’m not a cat person anyway and mistrust everything they do from motives to actions, but this was, after all, a kitten. I couldn’t imagine that its instincts for deceit and it’s capacity for treachery were developed enough to screw with me like that.
I introduced myself to the two men in the living room. One of them, a white haired man in his forties or fifties looked up from what he was painting and smiled eagerly as he looked up at me. He had terrible teeth, yellowed and crooked and was miserably unshaven. He said hello with a liverpudlian accent and seemed basically normal, but then said almost nothing else the entire time. He seemed terribly withdrawn, almost fearful of what might happen next, but he continued painting. The other one had fallen backward off his chair and was writhing on his back, making yelping noises like a strange porpoise. His face was red and I knew I was dealing with a dope fiend. But for now he seemed harmless and I stepped over him to go into the kitchen.
“Eeeee, eeee!” he said as I did so.
She had long strawberry blond hair that was familiar and warm. Her pale face was empty and small, but she had a sweet voice when she welcomed me.
“Those things are impossible to cut,” I told her, which was true. But she paid no attention and kept hacking away at the squash with a knife that was thin and long. I put my things down and walked back out to the living room. The two guests were gone and the kitten was in the middle of the room, now bare of any furniture or decoration. I took a step towards the little cat.
It screeched and lept straight up in the air, right at eye level and hissed on it’s way down.
“Aaah!” I shouted, “what the hell is wrong with you, you evil bastard?” It ran to the wall and I followed, bent low to the ground, trying the calm the thing down. But it was freaking the fuck out, dashing from wall to corner, from wall to wall, hissing and leeping, seemingly trying to evade me.
I couldn’t understand it.
As suddenly as it had started, the kitten stopped in a corner and looked at me with careful eyes. The apartment was still. A moment passed and it licked its paw. I stood looking at it.
Then for no reason on this Earth it attacked my face and removed something from my head. I watched it land on the other side of the bare and brightly lit room with something on its face.
“My glasses!” I started, surprised because I don’t wear glasses — except, you know, when it’s both a dream or an interesting literary device. The cat darted around me and into the kitchen, where I could hear the muffled sounds of an excited conversation through the walls of the living room. I followed the cat into the kitchen, grabbing the machete I saw sitting over the refridgerator.
Shut up — it’s my dream.
When they noticed me walking in with a cold two-foot blade the width of a butcher knife and pointing it at the kitten with rage in my eyes, they fell silent. I explained that it took my glasses and I saw the kitten under the table, wearing them, the little fucker. It would’ve been hilarious if I hadn’t been disturbed by it at the time.
“Why not?” said the dope fiend. “And you must get it back from the beast. You cannot trust these animals.”
“Right,” I said, and heard a noise rustling behind me. “Aagh!” I shouted, kicking the chair folded against the wall behind me in that barest of kitchens. “Did you hear that?” I asked them. “What the hell was that?”
“Never mind that now,” the fiend said, calmer now and in control. “You have to calm down…just get your thing. And, uhh, don’t listen to what these people say.” He pointed to the girl and the silent Brit, his deep voice making me nervous and confused.
I walked slowly toward the cat, trying to keep the blade pointed at it and steady with a neutral expression on my face. Cats can sense fear and anxiety and they want no part of it, I’ve found.
With light feet and a precise thrust I managed to slide the blade underneath the feline’s paws and it froze in place. I flicked the machete and the kitten flew across the room. I looked over at the two maniacs on the table, one casting paint blotches of paint on the kitchen wall and the other smoking frantically as he covered the table with menacing words. They stopped for a second and looked at me, some more surprised than others.
“Too much?” I asked them, the machete still in my hand, but I woke up before they responded.
You know those times when mothers tell you to get enough sleep?
You should listen to them.
My mind has been slamming into itself all day, unable to retain a coherent thought pattern for more than ten minutes at a time. Very unproductive. Which is probably why I had all kinds of miserable ideas that I should be writing about AIG and the incredible mess we’re all struggling to sand-bag our way out of, not unlike the water-logged folk from around the Red River in North Dakota.
But it’s been too much on that, I fear — my loathings and suspicions can’t stay on that track too long or I’ll just end up killing something. Politics is one thing — even though I’ve lost one too many friendships over the mindless gibberish that comes out of Washington, I can at least enjoy watching the beatings the greedheads give each other at the end of the day on the Daily Show. But financial politics? Savage rantings and twisted numbers? Jackasses who fuck watermelons and then preach Jesus left running the show, paying themselves to keep driving more and more decent people straight off the cliff?
No way man. We have people for that — let Dylan deal with it. That shit has never worked for me and I have other toxins I prefer.
Jeff and Toni walked in while I was wrapping strips of bacon around chicken breasts. That’s an evil little secret my grandfather taught me when we barbequed in Brazil so that chicken breast feels soft and juicy instead of rigid and flaky. Jeff and Toni had brought a totally unnecessary bottle of champagne, which we promptly put on ice before opening the Charles Shaw, and I doused the chicken and the bacon in a thin Sam Adams lager. Then I opened another one and threw that one too because, well, every chicken deserves another beer.
That’s just how I feel.
It was 7pm on Saturday night of March 28th…90 minutes before Earth Hour, a phenomenon that I think was created almost entirely in order to produce a cool video of all kinds of major structures on the planet shutting down into almost total blackness. See, right around the time that we would be done with dinner, people from all over the country and the world were going to be turning off as many devices as possible for an hour. They would do this in the solidarity that comes with being a part of the effort to escape from the hell we’re sending outselves to. Symbolic, of course, but I’m not opposed to the idea of taking a walk in the middle of the dark night — real dark — a blackness shrouded in mist as Brooklyn was that Sunday. I knew that in ‘08 things like the Bay Bridge in San Francisco went totally dark, and many buildings in Manhattan went black as well along with stadiums in Munich and Beijing and opera houses in Sydney. I openly admit that I was anxiously looking forward to the moment when all of the old-style lamps in the park would get put out and outside my bedroom window there would be only trees and an unseeable empty vastness.
“We should play scrabble by candle-light,” Toni suggested, snapping me out of my bacon-wrapping reverie.
“I tried that at Fat Cat in the West Village a few weeks ago,” I told her, staying focused on my bacon. “It’s a terrible idea. I had to squint for 2 hours and after I got out of that dark hole and into the Manhattan night I tripped over a hooker and fell on top of three wall street analysts before my eyes adjusted.”
“Yeah, maybe we’ll just go for a walk in the park,” Jeff said.
“Yeah,” I said, and started chopping carrots.
“When’s this Save the Earth Hour thing happening?” Bryce asked while I was peeling garlic.
“8:30,” I said, still looking down at the sink to avoid clogging it with that annoying garlic skin.
“Umm,” I heard Laura say at the other end of the crowded kitchen.
“After we eat we’ll just head down to the park and enjoy the darkness for a bit,” I continued.
“Umm,” Laura said again. “Do you mean 8:30 as in two minutes from now? It’s 8:28.”
“Is that clock right?” Jeff asked, looking up at the Charlie Chaplin clock we have in the kitchen.
“Umm,” I said.
“Shit, I forgot to tell you that we forgot to set that clock forward a few weeks ago,” Bryce said. We all looked at each other.
“Shit, man,” I said to Jeff. “Looks like we’re cooking in the dark.”
“I’ll get the candles,” Laura said, jumping up from the nook table and Bryce went with her.
“Is that a good idea?” Toni said to us. I shrugged and sipped my wine.
“Worse things could happen,” said Jeff.
After dinner we sat around the table with three other friends who’d arrived in the dark hour when we’d all decided to save the Earth. Jess, the world’s smallest doctor and Mark, the world’s gayest nurse entertained each other by discussing women’s rugby. Joe, the attending at the hospital and the boss of the two novelty health care specialists across the table from me was dancing emphatically to some song by pink while singing Beyoncé lyrics. Jeff nudged me under the table.
“Are you sure these people are doctors, man?” He asked me.
“Trust me,” I explained, “I know Joe seems a little off right now, but that’s just the five Tanquerays he’s had. He usually dances to the same song he’s singing.”
“But the singing and dancing is normal?”
“Well,” I said, looking for the right words. “…normal…”
“Normal,” Toni interjected, slapping the table to the beat of his dancing and never really looking over at us, “is just what everyone else is, and you’re not.” I looked at Jeff, surprised to hear her say it.
“She’s drunk too,” he admitted.
I was hit with the strange realization that I was in a room with three doctors and we may as well have been college students. I remembered when I first met Trevor’s teacher friends when they were still a crew in the Haight. Young girls and pretty as hell, they’d all just moved out to the city, making a place for themselves as adults in that fog-ridden place. Talk about feeling like you’re not a kid anymore. You can’t be a kid if you go drinking with elementary school teachers.
…on school nights.
You can be a kid and run in to your 2nd grade teacher at the grocery store. That’s weird as hell but it happens. You can have a beer with your college professors and still not quite grasp that adult feeling. But you can’t be throwing back Tecates – in a can – with elementary school teachers and not feel like a part of you has died.
It was a weird night. It had started as a happy hour with Laura’s work friends and though a happy hour in manhattan is as expensive as anywhere on new years in San Francisco, we’d had our fun’s worth. People talked about patients and asked me what I do for a living.
But I never know the best way to answer that questions. You finish it. I’ve gotten used to telling people I’m a drug dealer but that’s getting tiring too. It’s so weird meeting people with real jobs that I get a little anxious when I think about the odd arrangement I seem to have with the world concerning how I make my dollars. Which begs the discussion about what it means to have a real job in the first place but I’m not in much of a mood for that kind of talk now. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it.
Later that night I was cleaning the kitchen with Bryce and Laura. We’d left the lights off, the candles still burning in the dark. Cleaning things always makes me pensive and puts me in a philosophical mood. My mind drifts, and in that soft darkness, it was really going places.
“When do we get to feel like we’re grownups?” I asked them without looking up.
“Grownups?” Bryce smiled at me. “I don’t think grownups use the term ‘grownups’.” Laura stopped wiping the counter and seemed deep in thought at that.
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess they don’t.”
The sound of bubbling, boiling water rose suddenly and the the white teapot anchored to the wall of the hotel clicked off with a muddled thwack of plastic on plastic. The mirror in the hotel room was placed just above the electric kettle and was all fogged up in the steaming. The clarity in my mind turned to a cloudy vapor eerily similar to my tea water.
I’ve been sitting at my laptop for four to five hours a night for the last five weeks now trying to start a new story. Nothing comes out. Two, three, four in the morning; I stare at the LCD screen, pound away, drink more coffee, more tea, more whiskey or — you know — whatever’s on ice.
Oh, sure, all the stimulus in the world comes in when you’re a professional consultant for a major software company, but you never have time to jot it down. And when you’re a pathetic void of short-term memory like I am, there are few thoughts that you hold on to for very long. Besides, there’s always something else in this life of constant movement: the phone that rings, buzzes with text messages from faraway lands; a chat request comes in. Shit.
I close my browser, press buttons, turn off connections, rip out the wireless card. Then the tea clicks, or you get hungry. Or you remember that you’re in a new city this week and start to wonder why the hell you’re still pent up in your hotel room of all places?
And the next thing you know you’ve lost that momentum you had. The words you knew would be great when you finally put them on paper.
But it’s happened before. Oh well.
I ended up putting my laptop aside and got up to get my tea. I needed something to warm up my fingers, which seem to be the only part of my body that’s reptilian in nature and can’t warm itself. I guess it comes from living for large parts of the day with my hand over a friction machine like a notebook’s keyboard, especially one as poorly designed as this one. I don’t know if it’s the battery or the hard drive or the processor they they decided to place directly beneath your palms. But whatever the hardware, it’s no wonder that my body heat regulators on my hands are completely shot to shit.
Dammit, who designed these things? And why am I writing about it?
Dammit, we got off track there. That’s ok. We’re back now and things are going to move.
Now that we’re done with that digression, where should we go?
Jesus, I’ve been doing this for a long time.
Remember that hotel room? Was it in LA? My flight had landed at one in the morning on a red-eye straight from Orlando. After an hour of traffic I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles at two in the morning. The behemoth was a concrete monstrosity of columns with no end. And when eventually I found my room there was a moaning and knocking against the wall that wouldn’t stop — and it was a bad time for that kind of noise on the brain. Too much violent sex going on in the room next door. She was clearly faking it and he could clearly care less. He went on, grunting and howling to her forced moans and screams saying filthy things and asking for more. A bad porn movie, maybe? I thought. No way this is my reality.
Another week at around the same time frame — where was I? I think it was in a Marriott but in a room further south across The Grid in Brea by the Cal State Fullerton. It was three in the morning but there was a conversation nearby — what was it,exactly? The male voice was in its late 50′s or maybe his early 60′s and had a weak quiver behind its masculine age. She couldn’t have been older than 38. If that. And dumb as a rock.
The conversation might’ve gone for hours if left to its own devices. The two talked openly of her breast implants in the hotel hallway outside of my room. I could only guess how many hair tosses she gave him, how many open shots to feel her up right there in that beige corridor of gloom. Like a withering tree he stood, firmly interested but unable to move beyond his reluctance. Maybe he had a wife at home; maybe kids he loved. Who knows? He wanted so badly to give it to her, that much was clear. He was ready and willing to just do her hard and dirty, pressed against yellowing wallpaper and ugly carpeting, but something held him back viciously. What was it…?
Who cares? IT’S THREE AM, I remember thinking. I’d poked my head out into the hallway and pointed my eyes in their direction, hissing and staring until they disapeared from view.
In Kansas city I’d had to order up a small bottle of Nordic vodka to sip as I leaned out the window of that 5th story building. Out in that flat expanse that reminded me of the stark emptiness of the bottom of the ocean I’d had my first glimpses of what life on the move was going to be like, witnessing the reality of people who accepted their own existence because they simply didn’t know any better. Then snow began to fall and didn’t stop for 3 days, mixing with the ash and sorrow that midwest hole exuded. And since then I’ve seen it again and again, in places all over the world.
How much weirdness can a man take in his short life and at what point does it become too much, this notion of chasing freedom, of chasing happiness? At what point is the courage to do it, not matter the odds, no matter the perils, no matter the heartbreak to you or others pass the point of practical and into the realm of wrecklessness, or worse, childish?
I wonder at all the faces I see in airports, restaurants, hotels and side streets. Terrifying genius in some, creepy emptiness in others. And most of them unimpressive. I wonder if I will tire of looking.