@

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.

 

“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

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.