Recent Work By Brian Eckert

This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

History was made twice when the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 106-90 and advanced to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. In the National Basketball Association annals, of course, the game goes down as the one in which, for the first time, the young Thunder were able to get past the Lakers in a playoff series. Perhaps more broadly, the Thunder eliminating the Lakers will be remembered as a changing of the guard between the old NBA—represented by 5-time champion Kobe Bryant—and the New NBA, epitomized by Kevin Durant.

 

“The drugs!  Ditch the drugs!  He’s coming!”

When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.

“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”

Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.

Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.

“San ping sake,” I tell the server. Three bottles of sake.

When she returns a few minutes later with the fresh pitchers of warm rice wine I pour shots for myself and my friends. Sitting directly to my right is a young Californian who’s been in Beijing for just under a week. I toast to him on this evening, one that marks both his first night out in the city and his first sake experience.

At the table next to ours a group of local men wearing the green jerseys of the local soccer club are also imbibing sake. I make eye contact with one of them.

“Sake feichang hao,” I say. Sake is very good.

With this simple statement the red-faced Chinese man and his equally crimson companions acknowledge the group of foreigners with a chorus of “hellos” and offer to fill our glasses. With cups brimming, my new Chinese friend clinks his sake vessel to mine and says, “ganbei,” which translates to “empty the cup.” All of us drain our glasses and continue to “ganbei” for the better part of an hour.

By the end of the aggressive drinking session the China newbie is grinning a happy drunken grin and surveying the loud, smoky restaurant with a look of awe. We pay our bill—a ridiculously cheap 150 Yuan (around $25) per person for three hours of all you can eat and drink—and spill out into the night, chatting and laughing our way to the next spot, a Western style bar teeming with dolled up Chinese girls.

We find seats among a group of them at a back corner table. Somebody pulls out a hash joint and it makes its way around. Drunk, stoned, and cozied up to a sexy young local, the newb leans into my ear and says, “Man, is this a pretty typical night out?”

I tell him that it is. What I don’t tell him is that he is now one of the Lost Boys of China.

China is a fascinating place to live. A new world power only rises up once every three or four generations, and being in the midst of the phenomenon is a truly unique opportunity. That the latest power to emerge is China, a country that a century ago ended 2,000 years of imperial rule and had a population existing primarily on a subsistence level, makes the storyline all the more compelling.

But it’s not just historical implications that make the Middle Kingdom an exciting destination. Life here is enormously entertaining. I’ve yet to experience a place that on a daily basis intrigues, challenges, and shocks me to such an extent. I forever have the sense that just around the corner something totally whacky awaits.

In the last month alone I’ve seen columns of old women dancing in step to tinny music blaring from a boom box, an exploding construction site, a mother encouraging her child to defecate on a sidewalk in Shanghai’s swankest district, and a box of “Obama” brand erection pills for sale. I’ve been recruited by ladyboys to star in a striptease and by a restaurant owner to sing “Hotel California” in front of a packed house. To a foreigner in China, madness is the status quo.

True, living in a country with more than a billion people, where language and cultural differences can seem insurmountable, brings its fair share of frustrations. But the upside is that accomplishing basic things, especially when you first get here, can feel heroic. Just buying produce at a market can be immensely satisfying. You strut home with those fruits and vegetables.

And as this evening demonstrates, being a foreigner in China has a number of fringe benefits. Back home, I’m just another white guy. Here, I’m a White Guy. This distinction is not only conducive to getting free liquor and female companionship, but can result in job offers (from companies eager for foreign human capital), forgiveness for a wide range of outrageous behavior (owing to the fact that you may not understand Chinese customs), a general celebrity status (especially true as you get away from big cities), and other perks.

So why, then, given all the reasons why life in China is fantastic, did I recently have a Skype conversation with a friend in New York about sharing an apartment in the city? Why do I wistfully look at my family’s Facebook pictures? Why do I regularly peruse booking sites for a cheap flight home?

It’s because in many ways, I have digressed since moving to China. Before coming here I led a fairly adult life that consisted of such quotidian pastimes as driving a Subaru, birdwatching, gardening, and oenophilia.

In China, I don’t even know how to read. With the vocabulary of a toddler I gesture, grunt, and throw out the odd, poorly-pronounced word to get my point across. Half of the time in this country it’s all I can do to maintain bowel control.

While here I am Peter Pan, a perpetual child who runs around with the Lost Boys and has adventures. China, in other words, is my Neverland.

Of course, the longer I stay here, learn Mandarin, and become accustomed to Chinese culture, the less fantastical it all seems. But I’m more committed to gratification than assimilation, and given the already-tall order of deciphering this enormous, diverse, rapidly changing country, the madness could continue indefinitely.

It won’t, though, because I’m certain that at some point, I will leave. The only thing left to decide is when to officially call off the China Experiment.

This is easier said than done. Every time I think I can’t stand another moment in this overcrowded, polluted nation of spitting, smoking, and horn-blaring people I experience a breathtaking moment that could only happen here and which leaves me gasping for more. Going home would also mean a much higher cost of living and the renouncement of my privileged White Guy status. Furthermore, anytime I talk to people back home and describe my life here I’m reminded of just how rock and roll it is.

But like a rock star, there comes a point when the act becomes more pathetic than cool. I’m reminded of this as I sidle up to the bar to order a round of shots.

To my left sits a balding white guy wearing a cheap sport coat. He sloppily makes a pass at a young Chinese girl who smiles uncomfortably and retreats into the crowd. Undeterred, the man takes a swig of his beer, lights up a smoke, and tries his luck on the next girl to approach the bar, who similarly rebuffs him.

While it’s difficult say when, exactly, one goes from being a Lost Boy of China to a Dirty Old Man of China, it’s easy to tell the difference. One remains a child at heart. The other could very well support child prostitution.

Far be it for me to judge this man. It’s just not where I want to be at his age. By then, I will have resumed my days of car ownership, tending the vegetable patch, ornithology, and deriding shiraz.

After all, I didn’t come to China because I think a comfortable, bourgeois life is contemptible. I just wasn’t quite ready for it. My goal, in a nutshell, is to be able to tell some damned good stories at dinner parties when they’re once again part of my social life.

Like, for example, the time my buddies and I met a group of girls at a bar in Beijing, got into a punchup with their boyfriends, then, after being kicked out and moving to another spot, shared a drink with a Chinese businessman who invited us to a “sexy” karaoke bar and paid for everything, including…

Well, there are some things that probably shouldn’t be discussed at a dinner party.

 

I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

“You’re paying, right? Remember you promised to take me out the other weekend, but we didn’t go so this can be to, like, make up for it.”

She pulls the crust off of a piece of garlic bread and dips it into her pasta’s sauce.

I resist the urge to slap her and call her a cheap bitch.

She takes the piece of garlic bread she’s de-crusted and squeezes it. The oils run together and dribble onto her fingers.

The waitress drops the bill on the table, smiles and goes back through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

“You were totally checking her ass out.”

It doesn’t seem worth denying.

“So you know that internship I applied for in New York, at the advertising firm? Well, I got it.”

I take what is left of my potatoes and flatten them out on the rim of the plate. I want her to acknowledge how smooth I’ve gotten them.

I smirk.

My silence has no motive.

“Well, I accepted it. I’ve always wanted to live in New York, and it’s a really good agency. It’s such a good opportunity for me.”

The power in the relationship long ago shifted to her, meaning she has less to lose if it ends. To me, being in a relationship makes it feel like I somewhat have my shit together. At least I’m a capable enough male to attract a mate.

I look at the bill and try to calculate the tip in my head.

“Seriously, are you even like, listening? Do you have anything to say about what I just told you?”

I can’t be sure if I do or not. The emptiness I feel seems to be aware only of itself.

“I was also thinking it’d be best if I did this on my own. I don’t want to be tied down to anything. It wouldn’t be fair to me or you. I mean, maybe you can come visit me. It’s not like I want to stop talking. Let’s just see how we both feel when I get home.”

I carve a geometric pattern into the potatoes. It looks a bit like Sumerian runes.

“I leave for New York in two weeks. I don’t want to not see you, but it may be harder, you know? I mean, it’s not like we can pretend I’m not going away, that things are normal.”

She hasn’t used the words ‘breaking up.’

I think about what the waitress with the nice ass is doing and realize how a restaurant is all these different worlds depending on one’s role: patron, wait staff, cook, dishwasher, manager, hostess, but nobody ever really considers another’s because they’re wrapped up in their personal universe.

Nobody’s reality can be felt by anybody else, which goes a long way towards explaining human relations. I have all of these ideas in my head, but to somebody else I’m just a body. A lump of flesh. Not them.

“I don’t know what else to say right now. I should probably go. Just think about things, OK? Let’s talk in a couple of days.”

She stands up and puts on her coat. As she walks by she puts her hand on my cheek and looks at me sadly, then leans in and kisses me not quite passionately, but more than a peck. “I’m really going to miss you.”

It’s not until I get home later and lay down on my bed that I start to cry, and even then it feels like my body is doing it on its own, as if I have no say in the matter.

In the weeks preceding my arrival in Beijing I did some preliminary research into popular daytrips from the capital city. The most well known is the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the section, is easily reachable within an hour or two.

Reading anecdotes on a community traveler’s website, I came upon a report from a man who visited the Wall and found himself in a compromising situation due to a discrepancy between his gastrointestinal tract and the local fare. With no time to spare, he found relief behind a small patch of shrubbery, although apparently well within eyeshot of fellow Wall-goers.

I had no trouble believing this account because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Asia, and a considerable amount of that time has been spent wondering whether my headstone might read: “Here Lies Brian Eckert. He Died On the Shitter.”

Traveler’s diarrhea is typically caused by exposure to organisms which a non-native person has no immunity to. The clinical description of this illness is “three or more unformed stools in 24 hours, commonly accompanied by abdominal cramps, nausea, and bloating.” Practically speaking, it means you find yourself at the Great Wall of China about to shit your pants.

When living in Korea, my expat friends and I described bouts of traveler’s diarrhea as “The Korea Shits.” Adapting this title to other locations, bouts of ass-pissing in Thailand are known as “The Thai Shits,” in Vietnam “The Nam Shits” and so on. Thus, I came to China fully prepared for a bout of “The Chinese Shits.”

I didn’t have to wait long for it to strike. On my second night in Beijing, coming home from a bar, I had to squat next to a row of parked cars and let loose. Through my first 29 years of life, I’d never had to shit on a public street, something I took (a perhaps shocking amount of) pride in. After 48 hours in China, personal history had been made.

While such rogue bowel movements usually subside after a couple of months in a new country, they continue at regular intervals in China. As my Beijing buddy told me in partial jest, “Man, I haven’t had a solid shit in over two years.” Here, three consecutive days of compact feces is cause for celebration. More often than not, you find yourself gazing into the bowl at something that resembles sand and mustard. Or a ball of molasses and used band aids. Or what it would look like if a dog got into a garbage bag containing Oreos and discarded barber shop hair and vomited it up.

Enduring the China Shits in the privacy of one’s own bathroom is unpleasant enough (aside from the obvious reasons, most Chinese bathrooms smell like a reptile cage). Worse is when it strikes while you’re out and about. With a bit of luck, you end up in a bathroom with Western-style toilets. If you’re unlucky, you find yourself staring into the grill of a Kia, hoping you’re not shitting on the back of your shoes. Somewhere in-between these bipolar fates is a third: the squatter.

Anyone who didn’t grow up using a squat toilet is wholly unprepared to use these glorified holes in the ground. Unless you’ve spent several seasons as a baseball catcher, the squatting position is almost impossible to maintain with any postural integrity. Walking down a street in this part of the world you see vendors squatting on the sidewalk offering their goods for hours on end. It’s not uncommon to encounter a group of squatters immersed in deep conversation. These people can squat for days.

Not Westerners. Try it. Be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor. No rocking to and fro. Back straight, chest out. It helps to rest your elbows on the inside of your thighs. If this isn’t difficult enough, imagine now that that you are holding this position over an oval-shaped pool of water and trying to make sure your poopie ends up in it.

Of course, in an emergency, you’ll be glad that the shit is going somewhere other than down your leg. But for beginning squatters at least, any piece of loose clothing is a liability. You poorly understand your turd’s trajectory. My advice for the neophyte squatter, then, is to strip completely naked.

Also: lock the stall door. I forgot to do this when using a squat toilet for the first time. I was at a bus station in Korea, uncorking a long weekend’s worth of victuals, when the door swung open and a handful of Korean men were privileged to a money shot of my hunched, naked body. Fortunately, I have no shame. I gave them the thumbs up and asked one of the few things I knew how to say in Korean at that point: “Goguma joayo?” (Do you like sweet potatoes?)

I wish somebody had been there with a video camera to capture that scene, as it perfectly embodies the adventures of pooping in the Far East (and, come to think of it, the entire expat experience there).

As for China, I plan to visit the Great Wall this weekend. I will be packing binoculars, a camera, sunscreen, a waterproof jacket, and a wad of toilet paper. Because bowel control in China, like the assumption that the Middle Kingdom will be the world’s next superpower, remains far from certain.

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

Click to view a complete photo gallery of The Bunker

I was watching the Mets play the Phillies on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball when the broadcaster announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Immediately, I flipped to CNN for more details and watched Wolf Blitzer juggle numerous correspondents as details of the event poured in. I stayed tuned for about 20 minutes, and during that time the crowd gathering on the White House lawn grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. They waved American flags and climbed atop each others’ shoulders, chanting “USA! USA!” Their celebratory uproar reached a volume that made it difficult for one reporter on the scene to be heard. The surreal spectacle looked like the tail end of a debauched 4th of July barbecue.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

Writing should speak for itself. Good writing does. But with this piece, I feel a brief primer is in order.

I recently undertook the Sisyphean task of typing up a collection of journal entries that encompasses the nearly ten months I lived and traveled in southern Africa. This is a task made difficult not only by the sheer volume of words (close to 200,000, I suspect), but by the at-times illegible, roughly-hewn writing, which as often as not was written on the road, in a chemically-altered state, or some combination of the two.

Jack Kerouac wrote by the principle “first thought, best thought,” although even the master of the road manuscript learned that he was not above editing. In putting together this piece, I sought to retain the raw, visceral reflections that poured out of me while encountering such a spectacular and challenging part of the world.At the same time, I was fully cognizant of the fact that in its original form, much of what I wrote made sense only to me (and sometimes, not even to me). In order to form a more cohesive narrative, I moved individual passages around, inserted punctuation, and changed the odd word for the sake of clarity. But otherwise, what you read is straight from the heart, the gut, the ass, or whatever part of me it is that demands the words be written.

February 13, 2009

All of life is a waiting game—a preparation for the grand tomorrow on which day all demons shall be banished…

…There are many tomorrows on a trans-continental flight, but scarcely any todays.This pilgrimage at 32,000 feet is indicative of the human condition: the cramped and bored masses, wishing the moment away.And what awaits but uncertainty, unknown joys and terrors…every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices…

…At 32,000 feet all conversations feel a bit forced.Why am I going to South Africa?Where to begin…

…Every man at some point looks upon his life with the eyes of a distant stranger.What could be: the twisted half life of what is, always shimmering on the horizon, briefly igniting a spark to throw it all away and embark on some damn fool’s errand.It is a rebuke of the sensibilities we harness each day, those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives…

…For all of the wisdom of our fathers they never once said to us, “You will build a life and afterwards always wonder what could have been.”…

…How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?What words will I string together to describe all the passion that’s been put aside, the yearnings that have been marginalized, a mental tickle that says things should be different?Instead I use language he can understand: I tell him I fell in love, which is true, only not the whole truth.In loving her I have merely recaptured the ability to love—and a man in love believes all things are possible—he is a glutton, eating everything before him but never full—he belches; defecates and rolls in it.To be in love is to have boundless energy.I love her madly, but not only her—I want to make love to the world, lay back with a sigh, satisfied, but thinking always of more, more, more…

…What awaits as I step off this plane and walk into her arms?Is it love I feel or love I seek?Infidelity already lurks in my heart, for it is Africa that I truly lust for… a place where beasts and chaos reign supreme…

… Oh Africa!How I long for you!Oh Africa!I lust for thee!Oh Africa!Give me a reprieve! …

…Let me hear the sounds of lions at night and roam among the sun-bleached bones of those fate did not favor in the morning…

…..I want to be surrounded by the possibility of death, because living in a cage of logic is already dying…

…I seek mayhem…upheaval…bring on earthquakes and hurricanes…sweep my old life away into the sea…leave me naked on the ruins of what I’ve built…

…It’s not often that one can see a new chapter of their life unfolding, but that is precisely the view before me as the plane makes its descent into Johannesburg. The African continent comes into view, conjuring up a wealth of imagery as varied and twisted as the mind that tries to make sense of it.Of all the places to start over, Africa seems to be the best …

… The Africa of my mind is a picture of an old, faded map with an unfolding line marking my travels.I will make it to Kilimanjaro, stand atop the roof of Africa, stare out across the continent and have a view similar to what God must have had when his work was at last done and he could rest…

…Starting over…what is it like?At 10,000 feet and descending, I know not, but I know the pure adrenaline in my gut is enough. If this ecstatic doubt is an indicator, then I’ve been living my whole life asleep.To start over, in Africa, in love…

…Love and Africa.Now, this is all I know.The plane touches down.I pass through the required checkpoints and collect my bags.I step into a lobby, baggage in tow.She rises to greet me.I am in her arms again.Love and Africa.Now, this is all I need…

…I am better than fate.I am stronger than the universe.I am a man.

February 14, 2009

I have scarcely a night to dream big African dreams before we are on the road. Up by 4:00, casting a shadow on the still-cool tarmac by 6:00…

…nothing is set or decided, but for now we set a rough course down to Cape Town and from there up to Namibia, where we shall be swept up and away into The Heart of Africa…

…She holds my hand as she drives and I love her. We are together, our lives condensed down to a small white Toyota…

…driving through the Cradle of Humankind we pass a lone hitchhiker, his dark features reflecting under the bright sun—in his single, outstretched thumb I see the history of humanity laid bare—starting here, wending its way northward to new lands—the growth of many races from one—he still in the birthplace of man and I, returning in an automobile—here, in the plains of Southern Africa, history has formed a strange circle…

…We stop to refuel in the kinds of small towns that make ghosts out of men. A worker finishes pumping dinosaur bones into the tank and I tell him to have a nice day, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry.I don’t know how things came to be like this either.”…

…We drive all day and make the town of Nieu Bethesda just as dusk is beginning to break.To get there we follow a long, winding dirt road that picks its way through the rocky, crumbling remains of mountains…

…The first day of the journey calls for a bottle of wine and we share it in the common room of the hostel with a Canadian woman who says she has come to Africa to save the lions, but who I suspect has really come to save herself.No 35 year old insurance salesman from Calgary sits up in the dead of night knowing her mission in life is to protect a creature 10,000 miles away.Lions are a symbol of her discontent, of a longing for something more out of life than cold-calling strangers and trying to get them to buy a new policy…

February 16, 2009

The sun is nearly down when we reach the town of Uniondale.We find the name of a youth hostel and head there.She is scorched and exhausted, wants to go to bed.I, in a similar state, oblige.But as I lay there, the desert night calls to me.Restless, I rise to sit alone outside….

…The proprietor, a man of about 60, sits on the stoop, smoking slowly, each long inhale seeming to encompass a universe of silent rumination. He at first seems aloof and rude but turns out to be the type of man who finds no value in senseless chatter.He offers me a cigarette.I don’t smoke but I accept.We puff away in silence; the sound of the paper burning is clearly audible among the cricket chirps and nighttime rustling of unseen creatures….

…He is a counterpoint to my youthful restlessness; where I flounder he is fixed; where nothing ahead is known for me he lives in this familiar world…

…He rises wordlessly and enters the house, reappearing with a fiddle.The case opens with a click that resounds in the darkness.The instrument is old but the strings look fresh and strong.He raises it to his shoulder and draws back the bow.I lay back, smoking, propped up on one elbow in the cool grass.I imagine he plays for me, but this is not the truth.He plays for himself.I am merely a witness to his strange blues. He stops occasionally to take a drag off of the cigarette that lies smoldering at his side.Several of them burn down to the filter…

… He finishes, packs the fiddle away, rises and enters the house.I remain, in silence, but I can still hear the music, telling me everything I need to know, filing the spaces between my thoughts with a wordless chorus…

…He has killed me softly with his strange blues.His song speaks to the road ahead.

February 17, 2009

We drive downtown to the main church.The Boer Farmers who migrated north from the Cape to escape the rule of the English built their newly-founded towns around these places of worship, the detailed craftsmanship of this building reflecting their ambitions for a good life, a beautiful life, a peaceful life…

…I walk around it, snapping pictures.I’ve not had any use for God since I refused to return to Sunday school at the age of nine, but churches always instill in me the sense that without myth, the world would be a very ugly place…

…I look at the small white car, the steed that carries me and Emily through the wasteland—we are together against the world, but also separate; horribly alone in our own quests…

… Everybody needs their own church, squat, solid and beautiful, built in the center of the vast, perilous wilderness of their own mind….

…I gaze through the fence at the well-kept grass and handsome stone work.A woman approaches from behind and says something in Afrikaans. She is the cleaning lady, old and toothless, her hair in a handkerchief.I beg her pardon that I only speak English.

“Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

“Yes, very much so,” I say….

…She unlocks a back door and I climb a set of stairs up past the bell to the very height of the church.From there it is a tentative walk up a ladder that is leaned against a shuddered window.I push it open and step down onto a circular terrace that surrounds the tower…

… A church is built to make people feel humble.The towering roof, the detailed craftwork, the stern-faced biblical figures, all are bent towards reminding people of a higher power in whose presence we are hopelessly small. To that end, I say let the people of Uniondale congregate up here on Sundays, rather than suffer under the heaviness of stone and wood…

… Let them be accompanied up the rickety staircase by the cleaning lady who has spent decades inside this hallowed building and has nothing to show for it but stubborn pride and arthritic fingers…

… Let them climb the wobbling stairs past the cobwebbed gears and levers of a massive bell, the booming metallic voice of god, which summons them to worship each Sunday….

…Let them stand on this terrace where with one glance they can size up their entire sleepy town, where they live and will die, where the great expanse of the Karoo is overtaken by mountains to the south and where beyond that, mountains fall into the sea.The view from here can make one feel smaller than any preacher’s words…

…Let the people see pigeons perched on stone crosses, roosting in the eaves of the highest point of the holiest building, defecating wherever they please, years of shit accumulated upon the House of God.Then, they will be humbled, truly.

They say the captain always goes down with the ship. But what about the crew…are all those on board bound to this same fate?

From Friday to Sunday a group of us had been holding an extended birthday celebration for a friend in Clarens, a small mountain town in the Free State, South Africa. Sunday morning found me and Pieter sitting at a picnic table outside of the hostel drinking coffee, writing poetry and surveying the wanton destruction of the previous night’s party in which anything flammable and not bolted down had found its way into the bonfire. I reflected upon how the word party may be the most inclusive verb in the English language. It can be used to denote anything from the most benign revelry to something like an orgy with Latvian immigrants all wearing Viking hats.

I had indeed partied last night. Suffice it to say that my overindulgence led to a drunken bellicosity that left me with few allies by morning. Luckily, Pieter had himself consumed heroically, raised his own hell, and passed out early enough to miss my tirades, making him my companion of choice by default. Our friends in this life are not as often those we seek out as those we find ourselves backed into a corner with.

He was one of those South Africans who don’t often speak English. This is not to say such people are lacking in ability, but rather their Afrikaans heritage monopolizes their cultural identity. He worked for Radio Pretoria, a bastion of Apartheid politics. Read: completely racist. I’d found in South Africa that racism was the elephant in the room like booze is for a recovering alcoholic. I often felt while talking to certain people that they were one transition away from a racial tirade. Pieter was one such person. While nothing racist had yet come out of his mouth I felt certain he was one in the way that at home I’m positive the guy buying Busch Light beer has at least two vehicles in his driveway that don’t run.

A rule of thumb while traveling abroad is to stay out of local politics. Of course, this is not to say that one doesn’t notice certain things. De jure South Africa is 15 years removed from Apartheid. De facto South Africa is one where a black government has failed to deliver the promises of an equal society to all but a few, where one in three people live on $2 a day, where whites drive around in cars and live behind gated properties while blacks live in cramped shantytowns without electricity and beg for work on the side of the road, where a large number of blacks, while not locked up during curfew, are desperate enough to kill you in cold blood for a few bucks and a cell phone. In accordance with that traveler’s dictum I steered clear of any polemic on racism. Yet I couldn’t deny that in modern South Africa, equality is still a dream of the future.

At about ten a.m. the rest of the group turned their bleary eyes on the outside world. Their base pleasantries to Pieter and me may have been due to hangovers but I could sense hesitation to approach our poetry jam. By now we’d moved past coffee and onto beer, which seemed the only logical conclusion in response to the past three days. We would keep this train rolling at the risk of abrupt sobriety derailing us. Pieter and I had singled ourselves out as an odd couple united by disgrace and a love of poetry. At least, I assumed he was producing flowing verse on the beauty of nature. After all he was writing in Afrikaans and very well could have been commenting on the Negro’s inferior cranial capacity.

The morning slogged on in a fashion typical of post-revelry. We all went for lunch as a final token of celebration. Over greasy fare and several more beers it was decided that I would catch a ride back to Pretoria with Pieter, who lived close to where I was staying. After eating we returned to our quarters to gather our things before departing. From somewhere on the property somebody played a song entitled, “Kaptein, Span die Seile” (Captain, span the sails) which in South African vernacular would be described as “zeph.” (think white trash). The song is at best a ballad, at worst an assault on music as we know it, but goddamn if it isn’t catchy. I parroted the chorus several times and it stuck. It was an appropriate verse to sing while loading my things into the back of Pieter’s white Mercedes. I serenaded him with it as he made the final preparations, which seemed to please him. He was my Captain, and his stout build and roomy, powerful German auto offered a degree of security.

While saying goodbye to the others they expressed concern over his level of intoxication. I had a brief thought as myself as Ishmael, a wanderer lured in by the mad Ahab promising adventure and reward while really only pursuing his own monomaniacal goals. However, those fears were overshadowed by my rule of thumb that people who drink heavily and drive superior machines are trustworthy. “Kaptein, span die seile!” I announced as a vote of confidence. The eight cylinders roared to life and we were off.

The road out of Clarens was one of expansive views of sky, plains and mountains. Upon rounding a corner and seeing a particularly fine view we pulled over to write poetry. Even though we’d spent most of the morning together we hadn’t spoken much to each other. It wasn’t awkward because I knew he was shy about his English and I also felt a silent camaraderie with him which came from a common purpose. We were two men in adoration of nature and poetry. While we were stopped he pulled a bottle of whisky out of the trunk.

“Help yourself,” he invited.

Well,” I figured, “better to be drunk with him than to sit here sober.” This became especially true as he revealed a propensity for driving at high speeds. All at once he gunned the car up to 200 km/hr and passed several cars like they were standing still.

“Fuck I love this vehicle,” he proclaimed. “I hope you like a bit of speed.” It was not a question but an ultimatum. I assured him we were on the same page.

“Yes Kaptein!” I said. “Fuck yes! Span die seile!”

He chortled, but there was a hint of madness in his voice.

The needle passed 200 km/hr, 210, 220. He steered with one hand while the other passed the whisky bottle to his mouth. The cars in the oncoming lane flashed their lights. 230, 240. He veered back to the left, cutting off a truck and the approaching line of cars whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

“So, do they have guys like me in America?” he asked.

What, drunken, racist madmen?” I thought. “Yes, lots of them,” I replied. He seemed disappointed.

“And what about this kind of scenery?” he said.

“Sure, out West,” I said, “but not in the Northeast, where I’m from.” The whisky had loosened our tongues and we conversed amiably to a backdrop of stunning scenery.

We stopped again for a poem and a piss. In one massive chug he finished the whisky and threw the bottle into the bushes with a grunt. He then produced another from the trunk. I was all for a little booze to pass the tedium of a long drive, but this was bordering on excessive. As we pulled away he ran through the gears and reached 250 km/hr in about ten seconds, nearly running into the back of a car before swerving around it and then back in front. I gripped the edges of my seat and again thought of Ahab. I recalled the last scene of Moby Dick where he is caught by his own harpoon and pulled down into icy depths by the whale. Only now, a member of the crew was entangled with him. I realized with horror that the White Whale was the Mercedes. We were being dragged inevitably to our deaths on the back of the powerful beast. I thought perhaps I should demand he slow down and gain some control, but I didn’t want to provoke him. I wondered what my role was in the story. Was I Ishmael, the thoughtful, reflective but non-confrontational survivor or Starbuck, the one who sternly objects to the Captain’s madness but ends up perishing?

The smaller country highway gave way to the N1, the main vein which runs the length of South Africa from Cape Town in the south to Messina on the Zimbabwean border. The White Whale held the road expertly despite Ahab’s loose grip. This automobile was meant for top speed on an open road, which was one of the few points of consolation. As we merged onto the N1 there was a police road block pulling people over at random.

“Oh shit,” said Pieter. “I can’t afford to be pulled over. This vehicle isn’t registered.”

Never mind the fact that you’re totally shitfaced,” I thought. I was, in my own way, unregistered as well. My tourist visa had long ago expired. I wondered what the penalty was for being an illegal alien accomplice to a drunken man with an unregistered vehicle. Perhaps if I turned on the Captain they’d show leniency. Yes…mutiny was my only option…

We made it through the blockade and both of us sighed with relief. To celebrate, Pieter took a long swig off of the bottle.

“Your car really isn’t registered?” I asked, probing for an explanation.

“No. I took the case to court last year and won. I don’t support the government. It’s my right not to give my money to them,” he said.

I took “don’t support the government” to mean “hate the blacks.”

I pressed ahead tentatively. “So, what political party do you support?” I asked

“Ach!” he exclaimed with disgust. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Majority rule. It’s a pity. The blacks have fucked this country up.” As he said this he grew agitated and the White Whale drifted a bit into the next lane.

“A fucking pity,” he said and punched the dashboard lightly, further drifting into the adjacent lane.

Here it comes,” I thought. “Change the subject. Obviously he can’t drive and focus on his hate for the black man at the same time.”

I switched the conversation to chauvinistic small talk. The thought of degrading women seemed to ease his mind….for now. Still, the specter of a racist outburst and a total descent into madness hung about the car. The White Whale had yet to submerge and take us to our deaths, but I didn’t know how long we could stay above the surface.

The White Whale barreled down the center lane, the Mercedes emblem looking like a periscope to guide the way. Up ahead in the road was a flash of something yellow.

“I’m fucked now!” said Pieter.

In a moment the grim reality dawned on me as well. The yellow was the vest of a traffic cop. We were being pulled over. Surely this was the end of the line. There was no way the driver of this speeding, unregistered vehicle didn’t reek of booze. I clumsily shoved the empty bottles under the seat and tried to look casual. The cop approached the window and said something in Afrikaans. I could make out “180” which I knew must be our speed. The limit was 120. I made eye contact with the officer, trying my best to not look like an illegal American. The men carried on in Afrikaans and I imagined it sounded something like this:

Officer: License and registration, please

Pieter: Well, actually, this vehicle is unregistered.

Officer: Oh, so you mean to tell me that in addition to smelling like a distillery and driving well over the speed limit this vehicle is illegally on the road?

Pieter: Come on, give me a break, just this once, please, I beg you.

Officer: When you’re blatantly breaking three laws? Are you serious?

Pieter: Yes, well, it’s my right because you goddamn blacks ruined this country.

Officer: Well, you deserve it because you treated us like dogs for so many years. You’re in my country now, honky.

Pieter: (begins to write down something) What’s your name? I’m going to report you to your owner. Mdelgaba…is that with one clicks or two?

Officer: Smart guy, huh? We’ll see how clever you are when I haul your ass into the station and hand this car over to my friends for scrap.

Pieter: You black son of a bitch.

Officer: Cheers, whitey. Have a nice day.

Did that really just happen? Are we really just driving away scot-free?

“Did you see what I’ve just done there?” Pieter said, laughing.

“What the hell did you say to him?” I asked in disbelief.

“I told him I’m a freelance reporter and that I’m going to write a favorable story about him and his department in the newspaper. Did you see me take his details down? He actually believed me!”

This man is a legend,” I thought. “He’s some sort of mad, twisted, drunken, smooth-talking genius.”  I congratulated him and acknowledged that the incident was too close for comfort. I was tempted to heap praise upon him before realizing it was his fault for getting us into the mess in the first place. Or was it? I was beginning to lose the ability to make sense of things. I felt a strong allegiance to this man for some reason. Perhaps I’d been locked inside the car for too long, or, was his madness rubbing off on me? Was I becoming no more than Ahab’s protégé? Laughing, I took a gulp off of the bottle and encouraged the Kaptein to give her some gas.

It was nearly 6:00 which meant darkness was firmly established on the mid-June evening. I hoped the cover of darkness would provide safe passage but also realized it could bring out the worst in a man. We were less than an hour from home and things had settled down considerably after we’d avoided the grips of law enforcement. The White Whale moved at a steady 150 while Ahab quietly took sips from the bottle. Perhaps the close call had put some sense into him.

Along the side of the road bushfires burned. When I asked Pieter about them he answered, “The bloody blacks. They want to destroy everything the white man has built.” I couldn’t connect the dots between burning grass and his racial explanation. But it was clear I’d reignited the Captain’s madness.

“My friend, I tell you, this country was fuck all before the white man came here. There were no roads, no hospitals, no government, nothing. We turned this into a proper civilized country. Before us it was a country of savages and they want it to be that way again. I tell you, Apartheid worked. A lot of people didn’t like it but at least there was progress. This country was growing. Now, it’s turning into nothing again. I tell you, these bloody blacks are savages, the way they burn things down, kill people for fuck all.”

If there was somebody to tell, “I told you so,” then would have been the time to say it. The racial tirade that I’d sensed simmering all afternoon had been unleashed.

“Have you ever been the victim of such things?” I asked him

“Yes. I’ve had a knife held to my throat. I’ve been jumped and beaten. People I knew were brutally murdered on farms. I tell you, it’s horrible. They’re butchers. Trust me. This isn’t your country, you don’t understand. Peace is not possible with these people. They’re animals.”

What could I say in response? Surely there was no changing this man’s mind. We drove along in silence, the fires burning brightly in the night.

Somewhere on the edges of Johannesburg we exited the N1 and turned onto another highway which led northeast to Pretoria. As we did a “whump whump: sound began. It was the unmistakable sound of a flat tire. We pulled over to check and confirmed that the back left tire was totally deflated. Cars whizzed by on the highway dangerously close. Pieter got the jack out and we set to lifting up the car. This proved difficult because where we had stopped was on an awkward pitch. Each time I got the car up the jack slipped out. Pieter put the car into neutral and tried to ease back to a flatter spot but the entire section of road was uneven. We’d been at it for over thirty minutes and our tempers were growing short. Just then a taxi van pulled up behind us and a man with a big smile jumped out.

“Is this a hijacking?” asked Pieter, raising his arms.

The man laughed. “No my friend. I’m here to help you,” he said. He pulled a beefy hydraulic jack from the back of the van and helped us raise the car. It held steady and we were able to swap the flat for the spare. We both thanked him profusely.

“My friend,” said Pieter, “I’m in your debt. This is a symbol of a new South Africa, white and black working together.”

The taxi driver smiled and said, “Of course. How could I not? We must help each other.”  We shook his hand and he pulled away with a friendly toot of the horn.

Back inside the car I felt certain the uncanny timing of a black man stopping to help two white guys right after the driver had insulted the entire African race was beyond mentionable irony. However, I felt as if I had to say something. “You know, despite all of the terrible things you hear about white on black crime in South Africa I haven’t had anything even close to dangerous happen to me since I’ve been here. If anything, I’ve found the guys to be really friendly and helpful. Like that taxi driver. No white people stopped to help us and they’re the majority of people on the road.” I waited for a change of heart, an admission of overreaction. Instead, all I got was:

“One in a thousand of the kaffirs are actually fucking human. I tell you, in almost every break in, every home murder, it’s the maid, the gardener, somebody you trust, who’s helped you raise your family or business, they’re the ones that fuck you over. They may not kill you or rob you themselves, but they’ll let the criminals in.”

I thought again of Pieter as Ahab, of the mad captain’s pursuit of the White Whale and what it actually stood for. The captain of the Pequod was driven by rage and revenge. His tale was a warning against the madness and destruction inherent to believing in something too much. Melville wrote:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

I understood the symbolism properly now. The Mercedes was not the White Whale. Pieter’s White Whale was the black man. In that race of people he’d found a singular object to direct his rage. To him, they were the cause of all of life’s ills. Only the restoration of Apartheid or an equally oppressive system would allow him to feel at peace.

The Mercedes pulled up outside of my gate. As I said goodbye to Pieter I realized that he was a hero of the Shakespearian mold: bold and charismatic yet possessing the tragic flaw of hatred. I was very fond of the man and could even understand his racism. It was the essence of the banality of evil. Who’s to say I wouldn’t feel the same if I or my family or friends had been the target of violent crime? Had I never made a racist joke or reflected upon the vast dissimilarities between people of different skin color and culture? I had many times. Did that make me a racist too? The difference perhaps between being a racist and not isn’t the preference of one race over another. Cultural misunderstandings are natural and should be expected. The truth lies in the acknowledgement that, despite differences, equality and unity are possible. A racist is a totalitarian. Their world is bipolar, hateful and cruel. An Ahabian view on race, or anything for that matter, leads to tragedy, destruction and death.

The conclusion of our saga was like an alternate ending to Melville’s classic in which Ahab survives the fate of his own mad hatred and is given another chance to pursue reason. And, like the original Moby Dick, there was another survivor. As my feet touched down on solid ground I at last knew my role in the tale. Call me Ishmael.

 


This book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

I lean over the railing, watching shrieking seabirds swoop overhead, feeling a swift sea breeze rearrange my hair from purposefully tousled to straight up disheveled. Fishing vessels chug out into deeper waters and boats span their sails to catch a  westerly. Lighthouses peak out from rocky coves. Towering homes with waterfront views stake the claim of unseen wealthy residents. Taken as a whole, the scenery panning outward from the deck of the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry is a Norman Rockwell-esque interpretation of New England summertime utopia.

After the ferry docks I stroll through the port town of Vineyard Haven. Stonewalls frame the perfectly manicured lawns of cedar-shingled homes with fresh white trim paint and Nantucket-blue doors. Restaurants proudly boast on hand-painted signs that they sell organic, island-grown food. Bikers zoom up and down the streets, navigating between shiny imports in that annoying, spandex-soldier manner of cycling enthusiasts

I proceed to the rendezvous point and await my friend’s arrival. While I’m standing there a cop approaches.

“Hi, excuse me, sir. I don’t want any trouble or anything, but would you mind not waiting here? This is the taxi pick up zone. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s for safety reasons.”

I stare at him, perplexed. I’ve never had a cop speak to me like this. I’m used to brutes with sausage arms addressing me with the humanity of RoboCop. This guy is like a boy scout. He’s talking to me in the defensive way I normally speak to an officer.

“Hey pal, move it along,” I tell him. “Go on, beat it, get out. I don’t want to see you around here anymore, understand?”

Okay, I don’t say that. But I’m certain I could get away with it.

My friend pulls up in the taxi zone. I heave my rucksack into the bed of his truck, slide into the passenger seat, and we’re off. The cop gives a friendly wave in parting.

“So what do you think?” says my friend.

“It’s really fucking white here,” I say.

This single, offhand comment serves as the entry point for a goal I loosely set for myself over the course of the month I am to spend in Martha’s Vineyard. The mission: to discern the essence of Whiteness.

Touching down on this island, I feel the way I imagine Darwin did when he arrived on the Galapagos. Although he may not have immediately known the place would give birth to the theory of evolution, surely he must have felt a sense that the creatures there were a portal to some greater truth.

While arguably scientific, my research is nonetheless painstaking. I linger long after my meal is finished at restaurants and listen in on conversations. I lie on the beach, my eyes hidden behind dark aviators, observing the behavior of the vacationing fauna. At supermarkets I keenly observe what people are buying. While a guest in peoples’ homes I make mental inventories of their possessions. I am, in short, a total creep.

Not long into my project I identify three major varieties of American Caucasian. The first demonstrates an inclination to enjoy such things as copious amounts of horsepower, blowing the fuck out of quadrupeds, and speaking derisively of France. They tend to overestimate their physical prowess while underestimating the importance of family planning. These whites are very rare on the island.

The second major type of Caucasian is abundant during the summer months on the Vineyard, tending to winter in other parts of their eastern range, including New York, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Virginia. When not driving their high performance four wheel drive vehicles on dry, flat pavement and subtly endorsing eugenics, they generally keep busy by making sure themselves and their family are spared from inhaling the plebian stench of the first type of white person.

By far the largest gathering of Whites on the island occurs within a third group, and it is this variety of Caucasian that ultimately became the subject of my research. With each passing day the master list of ideas, pastimes and objects that define this group grew into a collective snapshot of their essence. Darwin would be proud. In fact, if he was still alive, he would probably be considered among this group.

Things were going great until somebody forwarded me a link to a website entitled Stuff White People Like, which became so popular it earned the author a book deal with Random House.

I had been foiled by my fellow white man; relegated to mere Alfred Russell Wallace status.

Despite my disappointment, there a good number of differences between our lists, enough so that I feel justified sharing a portion of mine. Besides, I’m not going to let weeks of investigation go to waste. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that distinguishing yourself ever so slightly from your peers is, dare I say, the white thing to do.

Thinking they can speak Spanish

When you ask a white person if they speak Spanish, their answer is typically “a little bit” or “some” or “I know a few words.” This is a lie. It is invariably true that all white people can speak a little Spanish. But when pressed, their knowledge rarely extends beyond what one can learn from hanging out at a Taco Bell trying to get laid by the cute little Latina who works the counter. White people somehow think that America’s proximity to Mexico has resulted in lingual osmosis. As impressive as it is that they we as a nation can say tortilla, tequila, hola and adios, this nonetheless does not qualify as speaking Spanish.

Starting a blog

At some point, most white people consider starting or actually start a blog. White people deem their ideas to be highly valuable, as they spend many hours of their life reading, watching documentaries, amassing degrees, and otherwise learning things that will in no way make them more employable. But one-upping others via pseudo-intellectualism is far more valuable to white people than money. A blog offers the perfect forum for them to repackage their unoriginal thoughts and receive undying praise from a handful of family and friends.

Granite countertops

White people revere granite for its strength, durability, breadth of colors and the fact that it appears in the kitchens of other white people. Although granite is considered top of the line, quartz, marble, slate, limestone and soapstone are also acceptable. Faux granite, if it successfully passes as authentic, could earn a white person praise for their clever taste and value consciousness. If it is easily spotted as a knock-off, however, the impostor’s true hard-stone-owning peers might wonder what’s coming next. Engineered wood flooring? An above ground pool? A Daewoo?

Ideally, granite should be matched with stainless steel appliances and illuminated by recessed lighting. Extra whiteness points are awarded to those who do the work themselves, buy environmentally friendly, re-quarried granite, and extend the use of granite into the bathroom. Nothing says white like browsing The Economist on an e-reader while dropping an organically-generated deuce and appreciating the millions of years of geological activity required to form the vanity top.

Yard sales

White people are fond of shunning materialism, and often speak of “decluttering” or “simplifying” their life. Doing so serves as a material cleanse that leaves them feeling morally superior to their hoarding friends and family. Selling possessions at a yard sale, garage sale, rummage sale, flea market, or any other event geared around the purging of old possessions is a good way to achieve this. For the white buyer at a yard sale, they can feel good about not creating more waste and pollution through the manufacture of new products. It’s a whitey win-win.

Salmon clothing

From a young age we are taught that pink is a color appropriate for girls, not boys. But somewhere around high school white guys substitute the word pink for salmon and begin to occasionally wear clothing of this hue. For the white male, wearing pink is a way to demonstrate he doesn’t care what people think and is an individual who eschews established trends. Both of these qualities are extremely important to white people. Salmon haberdashery is also a hit with white people because it is considered more European, and white people generally consider anything from Europe to be more sophisticated.

Knowing the weather forecast

Due to their connection to nature and need to spend as much time as possible outdoors, it is important for white people to know the weather forecast. More advanced white people can even tell you sunrise and sunset times, when high and low tide occurs, and the current lunar phase. Some white people are so gifted that they can explain the difference between scattered and isolated showers as well as partly sunny and mostly cloudy skies.

Having a good vocabulary

Having a good vocabulary is essential for a white person. It is a way to demonstrate that they are well read and intellectual. Among mixed company, a white person may employ big words as a probe to find other white people. However, they must be careful when taking this approach, as it could be perceived as hostile by those whose vocabulary is not so expansive. When this happens, a white person needs to be able to quickly disguise their words to match the prevailing vernacular. For example, if a white guy uses a word like canard or vicissitude, and subsequently draws dirty looks and/or furrowed brows from other males, he needs to quickly be able to find common ground by talking about the local sporting team and/or degrading women.

It is important to note that one white person will never admit they don’t know the meaning of a word used by another white person. If stumped, they will smile and nod in understanding, then use their 3G equipped mobile device to perform an internet search for the word meaning.

Another interesting case occurs when one white person encounters another of equal lingual talents and a subtle vocabulary standoff ensues. When this happens, the winner can usually be decided by determining who has a greater understanding of word etymology, or who has a better vocabulary in a foreign language, as most white people speak or claim to speak at least 2 or 3.

Historical reenactments

Mock Civil War and Revolutionary War battles. The sites of historical battlefields. Living villages where workers dress in colonial garb and present themselves as blacksmiths, candle makers and grocers. Those places where you can watch knights joust while a serving wench brings you a side of beef and a giant glass of ale. If it involves history being reenacted or otherwise kept in the present, then white people are on board. When considered alongside their predisposition for antiquing, it follows logically that white people have an affinity for anything from the past (which they might refer to as rustic, classic, or traditional). Think of the hours of joy an older white man can experience watching the History Channel, or the fact that most white women would give a fallopian tube to live in a Victorian-era home. This also explains, in part, why white people love Europe. Just by going there and walking among the historic buildings, they consider themselves to be more civilized. Focusing on the past also suits white people because they like to bemoan the soullessness of modern life and offer rural, agrarian lives as a utopia.

Having a shitty job when they are young

Young white people are expected to work at least one degrading job when they are young, such as slinging burgers, working on a construction crew, or being sodomized by a priest. Although the work does not have to be physically demanding, it should be low-paying and foster a sense of hopelessness towards a capitalist economy and consumer culture, two institutions that white people will continue to speak derisively about for the rest of their lives.

Having a shitty job is the closest thing white people have to a coming-of-age ritual. Once a white person graduates from university and takes a stable, well-paying, benefited position, they have entered “the real world,” as they like to call it, and are officially an adult. As such, they gain the authority to talk to younger white people about the importance of temporarily scooping ice cream, mopping floors, stocking shelves, etc. They can explain to the youth that in order to become a know-it-all in regards to the shortcomings of Western culture, it is necessary to first gain firsthand experience in one of its more base aspects.

This period is also a vital opportunity for white people to learn tolerance, another principle that they laud. By working alongside and getting to know foreign and uneducated people, white people learn that members of these other groups, despite holding outdated views on health, politics, religion, and aesthetics, are nonetheless decent. This stance is well summarized by a favorite white expression: “They’re not bad people…they’re just ignorant.”

British Accents

If you have a British accent, white people automatically take you to be more attractive, well-spoken and charming. People from England have the purest form of this tongue, although those from other parts of the UK, as well as residents of New Zealand and South Africa, are also acceptable. Australian accents are tolerable as a last resort.

White people perceive a British accent as an oratory superpower that turns a speaker’s every word into mellifluous diction. When George W. Bush and Tony Blair presided over their respective nations, white people found Blair utterly charming, whereas Bush was seen as a pariah, despite the fact that both men lured their country into an unjustified war using bogus information. When watching Blair spew lies and propaganda, white people responded by wondering why they couldn’t have a thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken leader. But when witnessing similar behavior from Dubya, white people tended to watch Zeitgeist, talk about how America was become Fascist, and reference Orwell’s 1984 ad nauseam.

All white people dream of dating somebody with a British accent. Being seen with even an average-looking man or woman with a British accent instantly raises the credibility of a white person. When asked to explain the appeal, however, white people generally can only offer up unconvincing comparatives such as, “it just sounds more sophisticated/classy/distinguished.” White people also come up empty when attempting to explain why a British inflection virtually disappears when words are sung.

Thinking they are part Native American

White people are, naturally, of European descent. This fact, however, does not keep a great number of them from insisting that they are part Native American. White people who claim to be of Native descent typically follow the same pattern. They begin by offering a fractional amount of their heritage, such as ¼, 1/8, 1/16, etc. and end by referencing a shadowy family legend about the Native American in question. A comment may also be made about just missing the cutoff that allows people of Native ancestry free admission to Dartmouth. They may go on to attribute their dubitable genetics to a great number of things, including athleticism, woodcraft skills, and the inability to hold their liquor.

White people consider all things Native American, like those from Europe, to be wiser and more desirable. While they have no idea how to live off the land and in harmony with nature, white people still pay lip service to the value of such a lifestyle. It is also en vogue for white people to speak out against the genocide of Native Americans and shun the barbarism of Manifest Destiny. But the fact remains that white people have a much better chance of being related to somebody who killed a Native American in the name of Caucasian dominance than actually having a Native American relative.

As the U.S. soccer team desperately played for an equalizer in the waning moments of extra time against Ghana, I thought that the outcome of the game and my reaction to it might make for an interesting essay. In fact, I was already quite certain of the general tone and themes that would be presented in a piece about either a win or a loss. They went something like this.

Scenario #1: Victory

In this version of the essay, Team U.S.A. ties the score and goes on to win in a penalty kick shootout. I describe the victory with cheesy, predictable platitudes such as: you have to keep on believing in yourself despite seemingly insurmountable odds and success ultimately trumps any hardships one must endure.

The essay then diverts into a deep, introspective tangent, in which I have the epiphany that life trudges forward with predictable monotony no matter how joyous a single accomplishment is. I go on to describe how unadorned moments comprise the essence of existence, not the occasional supernova of the ego. I end this section by stating a maxim, for example: After the flames of temporary glory have turned to ash, one must resume the search for contentedness in the small, poorly-lit corners of life.

This version of the essay concludes with me witnessing something outdoors, for instance, a bird landing on the feeder and pecking at the suet. I smile and bask in the enlightened perspective that no great achievement can replace such a moment of simple beauty and connectivity with the universe. And then winning a soccer match doesn’t seem so impressive anymore.

Scenario #2: Defeat

In this version of the essay, team U.S.A. loses. I am crestfallen, which prompts a comparison between following a sports team and being in a relationship. I talk about how, with both, there is a strong tendency to root your emotional well-being in an externality. Then, I equate winning with being in love and losing with heartbreak by writing something to the tune of: When times are good, you feast with the gods. In bad times, all the world casts long shadows. I complete the metaphor with a witty one-liner, such as: But with love and sport, even when you direct a string of obscenities at your beloved, throw the remote control at them and storm out of the room, vowing that this time you’re tuning out for good, you sheepishly return and give things another shot.

After a weak transitional paragraph, the piece assumes an angry tone and I lash out against the profit-driven, mainstream-media-controlled consumer culture. I construct a pointed argument about how the sporting industry is just bread and circuses and Team U.S.A. is a bunch of gladiators used to distract people from the issues that really matter.

I can barely contain my rage; I seethe and flecks of spittle fly from my mouth as I write about America being currently engaged in the longest war in its history, the thousands of lives that have been ruined by pedophilic priests, and the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, among other topics.

In the following section, the tone shifts from angry to somber. I realize that, in a way, this loss is an awakening. I declare that I now understand the proper function of sport is to deflect reality and will never again buy into the corporate-hype advertising machine. The essay ends with me characterizing the masses as bovine for continuing to be duped by the sporting world’s high-production stagecraft.

Scenario #3: What actually happened

Team U.S.A. loses. My friend shuts the TV off quickly, before we are forced to see the other side’s victory celebration. We sit in tense, awkward silence for a few moments and I break it by saying, “Fuck it. Good thing I bet on Ghana.”

On the ride home I can tell I’m a little tipsy because whenever I drive drunk the car’s hood appears superimposed on the road. When I operate the vehicle in this state I’m not really driving, but rather guiding the hood in the appropriate direction.

I arrive home tired from drinking midday beers so I take a nap. When I awake the sting of defeat lingers. To deflect it, I go for a bike ride, channeling my frustration into climbing the biggest hill in the area. It is a 15 minute uphill charge of pain and sweat and grimacing.

Upon cresting the hill I turn right around and fly down at breakneck speed. I yell out, “Fuck you motherfuckers.” But I don’t really know who the motherfuckers are or why I’m mad at them.

As I’m riding I wish I had a pen and paper because I have a wonderful idea for an essay. I want to write about the absurdity of predicting how you’re going to feel about something before it happens.

 

I was sitting on the front steps reading, within ear but not eyeshot of the driveway, when I heard my mother talking to a woman with a slightly-crude voice. I thought it might be the woman who lives next door. I’ve never met her, but I know her husband, Al. He regularly drinks Natural Light beer with his shirt off in the middle of the day, so it’s fair to assume he’s married to a woman with a slightly-crude voice.

The woman asked if she was at 85 Joalco Road.My mother confirmed this, and then the woman explained she was here to administer an interview on behalf of the United States Public Health Service, that my brother, whom she referred to as “the 21 year old male,” had been randomly selected for the study and stood to earn $30 should he participate. She wanted to know when the 21-year old male would be home, because she had quotas to meet with regard to particular demographics.

“Too bad you couldn’t pick my other son. He’s a 28 year old male and he’s home right now,” said my mother.

When she said this, I decided not to stand up and have a look at the woman with the slightly crude voice, even though I very much wanted to. It occurred to me that the interviewer and I could help each other out, seeing as she has quotas to meet and I’m broke, unemployed and living with my parents.

But being broke and unemployed at your parents’ house isn’t all that bad. You get to do things like walkaround in a bathrobe outside at 10 a.m. bird watching and drinking coffee.

That is what I’m doing when a navy blue Jeep Cherokee pulls into the driveway. A woman gets out, smiles, and says, “You must be the 21 year old male.I spoke with your mom the other day.”

She doesn’t look the way I imagined her to, which was short, older and graying. Rather, she is tallish, oldish, dyed too-auburn.

“Yeah, she told me about you. You’re in luck. You caught me on my day off,” I say, opening the gate to let her in. “What a morning.”

It’s about 70 degrees. The birds are giving their morning recital. Early daylight spills over the top of early-spring-green leaves. Bands of clouds drift lazily overhead on the slightest of breezes.

We decide to work outside at the picnic table. I quickly go inside and pour myself a fresh cup of coffee then take a seat across from the stranger.

“Where do you live?” I ask her.

“Middleton,” she answers.

“I’m not sure where that is exactly. Near Concord?”

“Not really. It’s next to Farmington.”

Farmington is a very sleazy town, so Middleton is probably at least a little bit sleazy by association. I wouldn’t say this woman is sleazy, but there is a hint of sleaze. The voice…the dye job…the pack of Virginia Slims menthol extra long 120s…

“Do you work for the census department?” I ask.

“No, I work for a company subcontracted by the government,” she says and hands me a brochure.

The cover says: National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Answering your important questions. I open it up and read the first page:

What is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the Federal Government’s primary source of national data on the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances. The survey also contains questions on health, illegal behaviors, and other topics associated with substance use. The study was initiated in 1971 and currently is conducted on an annual basis. This year approximately 70,000 individuals, 12 years and older, will be randomly selected and asked to voluntarily participate.

The woman finishes setting up a computer and some papers and explains that the interview will take about an hour, the bulk of which will be completed anonymously on a laptop and afterwards, she’ll ask me a few questions.

She then asks me my date of birth.I take a long sip of coffee, hurrying to calculate the year my brother was born.

“You stated your birthday as October 3, 1987, making you a 22 year old male.Is this correct?”

She has to say this according to protocol, but obviously it’s not correct because I am a 21 year old male.I fix my mistake, hastily adding the excuse that I suffer from dyslexia.

“I’m just awful with numbers.” I say.

She gives a half-laugh, half-sympathetic sigh and at this point I highly suspect she knows that I don’t have dyslexia…that I am not, in fact, a 21 year old male, but rather, the 28 year old male my mother mentioned.

“OK,” she says. “Ready to begin?”

And so, on a perfect Wednesday morning, outside at the picnic table, in the presence of a complete stranger, using a slate grey laptop, I anonymously reveal my entire history of personal drug use.

I thought I’d tried most things.I was wrong.There’s a book I have to look through and answer things like list all of the drugs from Box A you have tried in:

A.the last 3 months

B.the last 6 months

C.The last year

D.At any point

The boxes are divided by drug category, such as opiates, hallucinogens, amphetamines, sedatives, etc, all with an accompanying photo and ID number.Every drug imaginable is listed.There are a lot that I’ve done.But also many I’ve not done…or even heard of.

I take mental notes of the drugs I’d like to try.It’s like the feature on iTunes when you’re searching for a band and they show you what Other Listeners Bought.Well, I love amphetamines, so I’ll probably like lisdexamfetamine as well…and all the other drugs in Box C for that matter.

It all reminds me of the D.A.R.E . (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which most Americans over the age of 27 probably were forced to take part in.Like D.A.R.E., this survey is opening my eyes to all sorts of wonderful substances.

I recall the first day of D.A.R.E. distinctly.The entire 5th grade gathered in the library and a police officer came in with a display board containing illustrations of all these different drugs and explained how they had horrible side-effects and we should never even consider trying them.The cop told the story of a man who, in a PCP rage, took 18 rounds from police officers before going down.

As a 5th grade boy, I figured if I could get my hands on this PCP stuff…well, I could rule the neighborhood.Nobody would fuck with me.

The D.A.R.E. curriculum consisted largely of role-playing where, in a typical scenario, one student played the drug dealer and another an abstaining youth who employed the proper version of “Just Say No” to reject the dealer’s advances.

Not once in my adult life has a drug dealer materialized out of thin air and tried to push their goods on me like in D.A.R.E.There were plenty of times I wish they would have, but to no avail.The closest I’ve gotten is in tourist hot spots where drug dealers whisper, “marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy” as you pass by.As an 18 year old in London, I tried to buy weed from one of these guys and ended up with oregano.Since then, I’ve learned you don’t buy shit from drug dealers on the street in an unfamiliar area.You go to a university area and ask around at bars.

Back in the 5th grade, I even starred in the D.A.R.E. play, which was the culmination of the ten week program. I can’t recall much about the production, except that I had a lead role.The character I played, due to some unholy cocktail of substances, collapsed.My line was “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” (That’s right-Steve Urkel style.)

Between then and now I’ve done a lot of drugs and never once have I fallen and been unable to get up. Quite the opposite: When I get up, I don’t want to fall down.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education was started by members of the Los Angeles Police in 1983.Today, 36 million children around the world and 26 million in the U.S. participate.

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the efficacy of D.A.R.E.Some particularly interesting findings include a 1992 Indiana University study that found students who completed D.A.R.E. used hallucinogenic drugs at a higher rate than students who didn’t enroll in the program.In 1998, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reported D.A.R.E. graduates were more likely than non-graduates to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.Also in 1998, Psychologist Dr. William Colson claimed that exposing young students to drugs encouraged and nurtured drug use.He wrote: “…as they get a little older, students become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”

In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States placed D.A.R.E. in the category: “Does Not Work.”The Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) put D.A.R.E. on a list of treatments that can potentially harm clients in 2007.

D.A.R.E. reflects the U.S. drug control policy of zero-tolerance.It was adopted as part of the control strategy of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.Last year, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated the Obama administration would not use the term “War on Drugs,” claiming it to be counter-productive.

After 40 years, $1 trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it seems the War on Drugs is counter-productive not only in name.Comments by Mr. Kerlikowske suggest as much.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful” he told the Associated Press recently.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This month, President Obama made a pledge to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” through a revamped policy that treats drug use as a public health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment.Despite his promise, the president has increased spending on drug prohibition through law enforcement, which accounts for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget, a record in total dollars and as a percentage of the drug-control budget.Obama’s drug-fighting budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon’s was (including inflation adjustment) after he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1971, which effectively began the War on Drugs.

The Associated Press has tracked how taxpayer money has been spent to combat drug use over the past 40 years.Here’s what we’ve been billed for:

  • $20 billion to combat drug gangs in countries like Columbia and Mexico.Annually, 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S.Almost all of it is imported from Mexico.
  • $33 billion to promote prohibition-style “Just Say No” messages and prevention programs (like D.A.R.E.)to young Americans.Reports indicate that high school students today use drugs at the same rates they did in 1970.
  • $49 billion for enforcement measures along America’s borders to halt the flow of illegal drugs.This year alone, 25 million Americans will use illicit drugs, around 10 million more than in 1970.Almost all of it comes in across the borders.
  • $121 billion to arrest over 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, roughly 10 million of them for possession of marijuana.Studies reveal being locked up has a positive correlation with drug abuse.
  • $ 450 billion to lock up these nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons alone.Half of all federal prisoners last year in the U.S. were incarcerated for drug offenses.
  • $215 billion per year, estimated by the Justice Department, for “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity and environmental destruction.”

And I thought I’d spent a lot of money on drugs and had nothing to show for it.

When I’m done with the computer the interviewer asks me a few questions about my employment, insurance, household income, etc., and then we’re done.I sign an interview payment receipt and the woman counts out 3 crisp 10s and lays them in my hand.My time as a 21 year old male is officially over.

I walk the interviewer to the gate and wish her well.

“What an interesting job you have…traveling to people’s homes, setting your own hours.” I say.

“Yes, I enjoy it.” she says.“I get to meet many interesting people.The only thing is that if I ever run into somebody in town or at the grocery store or something, I don’t know their name.”

“Well, if I ever see you, just call me 21 year old male.” I say

It’s now around 11 o’clock, giving me five hours before my mother comes home.I should probably go fill out some job applications.But it’s an awfully nice day.And I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Had I taken D.A.R.E. more seriously and never used drugs, would I be a broke, unemployed 28 year old male living at home?

If the War on Drugs has failed, then who is the victor?Drugs?Drug dealers? Drug users?

What, precisely, is implicit in the reality that America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 50% of its illegal drugs…and has 25% of its prisoners?

Is Middleton a sleazy town?

Such matters deserve a deeper consideration.

But I’m all out of weed.I have no car.And unlike in D.A.R.E., drug dealers don’t just materialize while you’re walking down the street.Especially not on Joalco Road in Strafford, New Hampshire.

Besides, while drug use rates haven’t changed much after 40 years and $1 trillion spent, the prices have.I’ll be lucky to get a few joints from $30 of today’s hydroponic shit.As a generation of D.A.R.E. – mockers know: Drugs Are Really Expensive.

But there are other options.

I hear Al whistling from his porch.His shirt is off.There’s a koozy on the railing.

“Yo Al, I’m comin’ over buddy.You owe me from last time.”