It was OK, I guess.
It was OK, I guess.
On June 23, near the end of TPAC 2010, Simon Smithson and Zara Potts made their way to Dallas to meet fellow TNBers Slade Ham and Richard Cox. Like most of their other visits, the friends from Down Under had never met their hosts in person before, and they were eager to see how reality matched up with the online presence of their two friends. What follows are selected excerpts from a transcript each of the four wrote about their experience.
And there might just be a bit of a surprise when you get to the end. We’ll get to that in a bit though.
For now, enjoy.
* * *
Slade Ham: I have four rules for kids. Don’t get them wet, keep them out of sunlight, never feed them after midnight, and keep them out of planes. So when I got on the plane to Dallas and I saw a two-year-old sitting and staring at me, I knew, man. I knew there was a chance for trouble.
And this kid knew it, too. He had that look that kids get when they can see through your eyes and right into the back of your skull. He was like, “If my apple juice doesn’t get here right on time…”
So I telepathically sent this kid a message and made him a deal. I focused my thoughts and beamed a transmission across the plane cabin to him. “If you’re good,” I said, “I’m going to get my friends the Wiggles to play a concert at your house.” The kid’s mouth, which had been so ready to fall open, locked shut, and stayed that way for the rest of the flight. And when we got off the plane, I sent him another message.
“Lesson One, kid. Don’t trust adults who send you telepathic messages on plane flights. I’m not friends with the Wiggles.” I walked out of the plane, and behind me, I heard the crying start.
That’s what you get for bringing a baby on a plane.
Richard Cox: It was already past noon when I finally left Tulsa for Dallas.
Still, I figured I’d be there in plenty of time to meet ZaraPotts and Simon Smithson, who were coming from Baton Rouge and probably dead tired and running late. Even the road construction and traffic didn’t concern me, at least not until Zara called and told me, in her impenetrable accent, they were already entering Dallas.
“What a load of horseshit,” I thought, since I was till two hours away.
“Where are you, Richrob?” ZaraPotts asked. She’s been calling me “Richrob” ever since she mistakenly addressed me as ‘Rob’ in a comment on The Nervous Breakdown. Apparently she had been thinking about Rob Lowe at the time, but I’m not sure I believe that. I mean, has Rob Lowe been relevant since 1989?
Simon Smithson: I found his work in Thank You For Smoking to be excellent, thank you, Richard.
Richard: Put a sock in it, Simon.
Zara Rose Potts: Shut up both of you! It’s my turn.
Simon and Richard: Fine.
Zara: Dallas appears suddenly on the horizon, like a shimmering mirage. It is a gleaming skyline of sunlight on glass buildings but I do not care.
I am tired and the traveling has almost defeated me. Not just me. Us. Simon and I both are exhausted from the miles of concrete road we have traversed.
Fortunately for him, he is only required to lie comfortably in the passenger seat and ponder why the rear-vision mirrors don’t work the same way here that they do at home.
Our hotel is blue and yellow. There is only one bed in our room, but we are not concerned. We are just happy to be at rest.
It is only five in the afternoon, but already I want to fall asleep in that single, simple bed. Simon receives a text. Richrob and Slade are just now leaving the airport.
Simon: As this was our first foray into the Lone Star State, Zara and I expected to share the highway with cowboys on horseback. Or at the very least oil barons driving vintage convertible Cadillacs with the tops down. Instead we found more of the same-semi trucks, pickup trucks, and SUVs. Finally we made it to Dallas, and after a few phone conversations with Mr. Cox, who arranged the accommodations, we reached our downtown hotel. Slade’s flight from Houston was scheduled to coincide with our own arrival, but as luck would have it, the plane was running late. As was Richard, who was driving in from Tulsa. We had time to kill, it seemed.
Slade: Richard was waiting by the flight desk, hitting on one of the stewardesses. I heard him as I was walking up.
”And the sexy thing about particles,” he was saying, ‘is that it doesn’t take much for them to bond. Just a little flicker of… electricity.”
Richard: I didn’t try to pick up a girl talking about physics.
Slade: Well, that’s the show going on in MY head. You write your own version.
Zara: Was it Amy, Richrob?
Slade: Why didn’t you dance for her?
Richard: We haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet and you guys are already embellishing it.
Slade: Because it’s hilarious! Anyway, as I was saying, this girl was levitating out of her chair. There was a clear two inches of space between her feet and the floor. Her eyes were locked onto his lips like there was a secret tractor beam in his mouth. That’s when I slapped my boy on the shoulder.
“Yo, Richard Cox!” I said. “Slade Ham!”
Slade: Richard is like the male equivalent of the chick from Weird Science, if she were a dude. He’s tall, and tanned, and good-looking and one charming motherfucker. And he’s so pleasant he’d make Mr. Rogers look like Freddy Krueger.
“Hey, Slade!” he said. “Nice to meet you, man. Simon and Zara are already at the hotel; they must have driven three hundred miles an hour to get here so fast.”
“Screw those bitches,” I said. “Let’s go get drunk. Nah, I’m kidding. Let’s go meet them. I hope they don’t suck.”
Richard: You didn’t actually say that.
Slade: Still my version, Rich. Plus, I was thinking it.
Richard: Eventually, I made it to Dallas and called ahead to let Slade know I was close by. He’d flown in from Houston and was at the airport waiting for me, but as soon as I got off the phone, traffic came to a complete stop and it took me forty minutes to travel five miles.
There wasn’t time for introductions or pleasantries because we were already running late. But it didn’t seem to matter, because for some reason I already felt like Slade and I were best buds. Finally we reached the hotel. I figured Slade and I would have time to put our luggage away and change clothes before we met our overseas friends, but as soon as we entered the lobby, we were spotted by Simon and ZaraPotts, who were already enjoying many glasses of champagne.
Zara: Shit. Maybe I did drink more than I thought I did.
Richard: You did.
Slade: Total lush, actually.
Zara: But not as much as you did Slade. Or you Richrob. Want me to tell them about Peaches?
Richard: You’re going to, anyway. I’ve already read this post.
Simon: Let’s get on with this, shall we?
You never know what to expect when you meet online friends. When our Texas visitors finally arrived, they strode into the hotel lobby talking like old friends. I honestly thought they were, and then we learned they had only met twenty minutes before at Love Field (which, before you get any strange ideas, is a nearby airport.) Slade and Richard were both taller than I had imagined, but more than that they carried a certain presence that made them seem even larger.
Zara and I walked over to greet them, and it was if we all had known each other for years, like we were old friends seeing each other after a long time apart. It’s difficult to explain, really, why we would feel that way. Of course many of us have conversed on TNB, or exchanged emails…but still, when you’ve never met someone in person you expect a certain awkward moment of moving a relationship from the online world to the real one. But with Slade and Richard it wasn’t like that at all.
Zara: I decide on a glass of champagne. It bubbles and pops golden in the glass as I upload pictures from the last leg of our trip.
An hour passes, then two. I am certain that I will never like them enough to make up for having to wait this long.
The doors to the hotel slide open and they walk in. Simon notices them first. They are giants. In a Texas way. A good way.
It’s strange how quickly they run over to us, and we to them. We hug in the lobby, happy to see each other again, or for the first time. Already the line is blurry.
Slade: OK, so Simon and Zara. I like these guys.
Because as soon as we met, it was like we’d all known each other for twenty years. Simon said the same thing about me and Richard – he figured me and Rich were old pals, because we already had that easy kind of rapport. Same thing with Simon and Zara, except they talk weird.
So we went over to the counter to check in, and the desk clerk looked at us, looked at the ledger, looked back at us, and said “Sure. Sixth floor. The room with just one bed.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Just one bed?”
Richard just glared at me. “I swear I didn’t know,” he said.
Richard: I didn’t.
Slade: Now, I don’t know if Rich knew or not…
Richard: Really, I didn’t.
Slade: …but Zara didn’t understand what the problem was. “Why can’t you just share a bed?” she asked.
Simon got it. “Two guys,” he said, and he exhaled, real slow. “Two guys can’t share a bed. What if, in the middle of the night, one of them… slips?”
Richard: Have you ever had that feeling when you meet someone, that you feel like you’ve known them forever? That’s how it felt meeting Simon and Zara. It felt like we were greeting old friends who we hadn’t seen for years. I noticed details about everyone, matching them with the images I already had of them in my mind.
Slade was funny and generous with both his laughter and conversation.
Slade: And really good looking.
Richard: Simon was as tall as I thought he would be, though he seemed to have more physical presence than I had imagined.
Simon: It’s probably because I’m so handsome.
Slade: Thief. I just said that about myself.
Zara: He did say it first. Both you are being insufferable.
Richard: Zara was beautiful the way I knew she would be. And she smiled and smiled.
We sat down to talk, and as the conversation progressed I noticed the ease Simon and Zara felt with each other. They seemed like sister and brother in the way they interacted with both themselves and us.
Simon: Once the two of them had put away their luggage and changed clothes, we sat for a time in the lobby talking. About our trip, about theirs, about TNB and Dallas and how goddamn hot it was. We kept pointing out that we should go find something to eat, since we were all hungry, but no one seemed ready to make a move. Finally we left on foot and went to find a restaurant, no particular destination in mind, and finally Richard suggested Mexican food.
We ended up on the roof of the Iron Cactus. The restaurant commanded a spectacular view, and the live music was a solo guitarist who played everything from 60s rock to Radiohead. Richard wouldn’t stop raving about him. I don’t know if it was the music or the margaritas that put the smile on his face. Either way, the setting for our TNB dinner would have been perfect if not for the oppressive heat.
We ordered our various dishes and immediately Slade began to hit on the waitress.
Slade: Just because I have flirty eyes doesn’t mean I was hitting on her…
Simon: You were totally hitting on her. I don’t remember her name, but Slade certainly did…
Zara: Are you sure about that?
Slade: Yeah. It was Jillian.
Simon: …and he used it liberally as he queried her about possible local bars to visit after dinner. She suggested both the City Tavern and the One-Eyed Penguin, and when Slade asked her to join us, she told him she might just do that.
“I get off at eleven,” said the waitress, and Slade just smiled. I imagined him thinking, “We’ll see about that.”
Zara: Upstairs on the rooftop, I order a mojito and dip crispy chips into a bowl of fresh red salsa. The mingling tastes of cilantro and mint and salt make me smile.
Slade: That would be you drinking again, Z.
Zara: An acoustic guitar strums a few tables away from us and Richrob recognizes every song played. Our conversation dances effortlessly from writing to food and back to the music.
The heat and humidity would be unbearable were it not for the drinks. Perspiration builds on the sides of our glasses and leaks onto the table, the trickling rivulets running suicidal towards the edge.
Slade finally takes off his sunglasses as the sun dips below the skyline.
He’s also managed to catch the attention of our waitress. Her name is Erin, or something else young and waitress-y…
Slade: Jillian, goddammit.
Zara: …and their eyes flirt as she returns with another tray full of drinks. I slip downstairs for a quick cigarette, and when I return Slade has already talked Erin…
Slade: Fucking Jillian!
Zara: …out of the names of a few of her favorite bars.
Slade: I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun just with dinner and hanging out. We ate Texas Mexican at a rooftop restaurant and the waitress, JILLIAN, came over and started talking to us about sleep cycles and The Nervous Breakdown. She recommended a bar called The One-Eyed Penguin for us to go to afterwards.
“They got this one-eyed penguin suit,” she said. “Sometimes people wear it.”
We all turned and looked at Zara.
Zara: I have no idea what you are talking about.
Slade: Lucky for you. You were two mojitos away from looking like an extra in Happy Feet.
Simon: When dinner was over we headed downstairs and into the street. By then we were all a bit drunk and no longer concerned with the heavy heat. Zara convinced Richard and Slade to swear into the camera as she shot video of us. “Motherfucker” seemed to be the American word of choice. I took random pictures of the nearby buildings and smiled. Slade and I fell into an easy conversation, like brothers, and Richard escorted Zara, gentlemanly positioning himself between her and the street.
Zara: The night air is no cooler than the day here. It is as thick as seawater, but our laughter cuts through it like a ringing bell.
Simon and Slade share a story behind us while Richrob moves to my other side – the Southern gentleman thing to do – so that I do not have to walk closest to the street.
I am impressed. How could I not be?
Slade and Simon could be brothers. We all could be for that matter.
This is how things are supposed to be.
Slade: We’re really sucking up to each other in this post.
Zara: It’s because we’re all amazing.
Richard: It was now time to unleash the Kraken, a black spiced rum that I had discovered quite by chance a few weeks earlier. I was determined that our visitors would taste the awesome power of this terrible drink, but the bar we went to didn’t know what I was talking about. Absurd.
Slade: I agreed to a shot of this rum begrudgingly. I had done a wonderful job of keeping to my strictly whiskey diet.
Simon: Hey, has anyone else noticed our interjections sound like director’s commentary on a DVD?
Zara: Has anyone else noticed Richrob’s absurd use of the word absurd?
Slade: Has anyone else noticed that we’re about to get totally hammered?
Simon: So we stopped first at the City Tavern, which was a tavern in every sense of the word…lots of dark wood and comfortable booths and a long bar populated by regulars. By now Zara was only sipping on her drinks, but Slade and Richard and I were kicking into another gear. We began to imitate each other’s accents. Richard picked up the Australian lilt fairly well, but Slade struggled to divest himself of the English accent he spoke so well. We took some great photos there, including this one in which a stray bartender decided to liven things a bit with his outstretched arms.
Richard: And there was the hot, young blonde talking to some old fat dude that we thought must have been a blind date or something even worse. Instead he turned out to be her husband.
Zara: God. What is it with men and their constant checking out of women?
Slade: I know. What a mismatch, right? Anyway, we left the City Tavern in search of the Kraken. If you’ve never had it, you’ve never had a spiced rum named after a sea monster, and you’re probably better off for it. It turns out you can get it at the One-Eyed Penguin. Be careful though, because it also turns out the One-Eyed Penguin is a karaoke bar, which Jillian the waitress had neglected to mention. Here are my rules for karaoke:
1. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you had better not look like Peaches.
2. If you’re going to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, you had better know the words. Seriously, how does anyone in the world not know the words to Bohemian fucking Rhapsody? Kim Jong-Il knows the words to that fucking song.
3. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you can’t sing Vanilla Ice later. You just can’t. We’ve suffered enough.
And the One-Eyed Penguin broke all of my rules. But at least we got whisky.
Richard: We walked up the wooden stairs and then we saw it: At the entrance to the One-Eyed Penguin was a poster advertising the Kraken.
I asked a girl to take our picture up against the metallic Kraken poster. I thought she was cute, blonde hair and blue eyes, or maybe that was just the alcohol talking. Her name was Amy.
Even though this was supposed to be a night for the four of us, I decided to ask Amy to come sit with us. As long as my new friends didn’t care.
“Amy? That took our picture?” Slade asked. “She should definitely come and sit with us. I’m sleeping on the floor anyway, right?”
As Slade, Zara, and Simon sang Bohemian Rhapsody,off-key even, I went and found Amy and brought her back to sit with us. She was a hairstylist, she said. She seemed interested in science, so I explained a particular theory to her.
After a while, Amy went back to the bar. For some reason I followed her, Finally, I realized I was being selfish, standing…
Zara: STANDING?? I don’t think so, Richrob…
Richard: …STANDING at the bar while my friends waited for me in the back by the pool table. I traded phone numbers with Amy and rejoined Slade at the pool table.
Slade is seriously good at pool. He wiped the floor with us.
Slade: I did. But enough about me. Back to your “standing”, or whatever lie you’re telling…
Simon: At the One-Eyed Penguin there was a human-sized penguin suit that bar patrons could climb into for photo ops, but despite our best efforts, Zara wasn’t willing to humour us.
Zara: I still have no idea what you are talking about.
Slade: Stop changing the subject! I want to talk about Richard dancing!
Simon: The rest of the evening was a blur of billiards (Slade as a team of one defeated Richard and me), terrible karaoke, and Richard approaching a cute blonde girl at the bar named Amy. He even brought the fair maiden to meet us, which must have been strange for her, meeting a couple of people from down under and a comedian from Houston…all of whom had met each other for the first time this same evening. To her credit, Amy was a good sport, and after Richard exchanged phone numbers with her, we drifted into the street again.
Slade: Look, I’m thrilled to talk about my pool skills, but RICHARD WAS DANCING!
Zara: Ok, I’ll get to it.
The thing I remember best about the One-Eyed Penguin is the karaoke.
Someone butchers Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and Freddy Mercury resurrects himself from the dead just so he can kill himself.
And there is Richrob, at the bar, moving to the music. Simon, Slade and I sit and watch.
Dance, Richrob, dance.
Richard: I have no idea what you are talking about.
Zara: Richrob started dancing.
“If I can just dance enough…” Simon says, and Slade falls out of his chair.
A large woman waddles rhinoceros-like to the stage. Her skin tries to hold all of her inside, a task that seems impossible.
She gyrates and slobbers into the microphone.
“Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me, callin’ me.”
Her friends clap as we watch Richard from across the room. Never stop dancing, Richrob. Ever.
“Suckin’ on my titties.” She flicks her tongue like a fat frog as she repeats the words.
I will never scrub this image from the surface of my mind.
Richard: The bar was closing and while we were all fairly drunk by now, we were also aware that Simon and Zara were leaving the next morning. We walked back to the hotel. On the way there, Zara pulled out her camera and requested that we curse for her.
She tried to tell us that she hasn’t been drinking but this was bullshit. She’d had four mojitos in an hour but had conveniently forgotten that part of the evening. I started to curse and somehow ended up showing the camera lens my teeth.
“Focus on my teeth, motherfucker,” I said.
“That was amazingly aggressive,” said Slade.
Slade: I did say that. It was quite aggressive. He really wanted us to look at his teeth.
Zara: We enter the hotel loud and happy. We will meet for breakfast in the morning. We all embrace. It takes months to get to know people this well.
Dallas must be made of magic.
Simon: I felt like I had just spent the night with three of my best friends, and I didn’t want it to end. But, alas, the hour was late. Zara and I had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we all retired to bed. I imagined Richard and Slade sharing a bed together and laughed myself to sleep.
Zara: It is coffee instead of champagne that sits in front of me this morning, though the table is the same. The elevator doors chime and open, and the two of them come out to meet Simon and me.
“So who ended up on the floor?” I ask.
“We were too tired to care,” Richrob says. “We shared the bed.”
“But neither one of us slipped,” Slade says quickly.
His admission is shocking to me. “Neither one of you slept?”
“Slipped,” he says. “Neither one of us SLIPPED. You need to learn to pronounce your vowels, Zara. It changes the conversation dramatically.”
Richard: I think she was doing it on purpose.
Slade: I’m pleased to be able to report that the next morning, Simon had his first ever breakfast burrito, even if we did spend twenty minutes walking around Dallas in the morning sun to find a place that could serve him one. And no one was hungover, which meant that no one got to experience the magic powers of a good breakfast burrito, but that’s okay.
Simon: The next morning we all met downstairs for coffee. Everyone looked fresher than I imagined they might. Once again we ventured into the streets on foot, and eventually located a breakfast restaurant that served wraps filled with eggs and sausage and bacon (Richard insisted upon calling them breakfast burritos). We watched a bit of the World Cup, cheering for the Kiwis, and reminisced about our perfect night.
Finally, Zara and I bid our Texas hosts goodbye, hopped into the car, and headed west. But we didn’t even make it out of the city before we were on the phone, texting them, already reliving the amazing hours we had spent together, wishing we could go back and do it all over again.
I have never wanted so badly to live in America as I did on that morning.
Slade: How did I spend a full day with you guys and I still don’t know what “Brew” means?
Richard: We decided to go for breakfast before we all hit the road again. We walked for blocks, and eventually found a café that served breakfast burritos. Simon and Zara had never seen these and took their time ordering.
When we said goodbye, it felt entirely too soon. One night in Dallas was not enough. Simon and ZaraPotts bid us farewell and started their long drive back to L.A and Slade and I began the drive to Oklahoma City.
We spent the drive practicing our Australian/New Zealand accents. We had them down perfectly by the time we hit Oklahoma.
Zara: Ha Ha Ha. Sure, you did. Almost as perfect as your dancing.
We eat breakfast and watch the World Cup in a little café down the street. Slade and Richard are leaving for Oklahoma in the morning so Slade can perform, and Simon and I are continuing our journey West.
We linger in the restaurant and then again at the hotel. We should already be gone, but I do not want to go.
We make plans.
Plans to return to America and plans for them to visit us at home.
We exchange phone numbers and decide that one day we will build a compound and hire a bartender and take over the world.
But not today.
Today we must leave.
“We miss you guys,” the text message says, and I show Simon.
We haven’t even reached the Dallas city limits yet.
* * *
Now, if you’ve read this far, it’s only fair that we make it worth your while. I mentioned a bit of a surprise earlier. The truth is that we didn’t write what it looks like we wrote. Each one of us chose another member of the group and wrote as them. Your job now is to determine who is responsible for who (Or whom. I always screw that up.)
So yes. A bit of a game. We hope we did as well as we think we did at writing as one another.
To make it worthwhile, the four of us have agreed to throw in a bit of prize: a foldable “Fuck You” t-shirt from Slade, one of Richard’s books, a bit of Australiana from Simon, and something inherently Kiwi courtesy of Zara.
Certainly there are, buried within our attempts at impersonating each other, errors that will tip you off as to who is responsible for what. Best of luck with your guesses. It was a fun adventure.
We wish more of you had been there.
Drum roll please… Starring, in order of appearance:
Simon Smithson as the Comedian, Slade Ham
Zara Rose Potts as the Dancer, Richard Cox
Richard Cox as the Australian, Simon Smithson
Slade Ham as the Kiwi, Zara Potts
Winners will be posted in the comments below.
SLADE HAM. Stand-up comedian, Texan, TNB Arts & Culture associate editor.
Drinker of whiskey and coffee (although not necessarily at the same time).
Admirer of Garfield Logan, flag virtuoso.
And, in the end, a useless individual.
My love for world music is not a secret.While my default setting will always remain rock and roll, tribal rhythms and drum beats never cease to move me.I am inspired by the naturalness of it all, not always adhering to the Western verse/chorus/verse approach, and not always in a language I understand.It is pure energy captured by instruments and vocal chords.
I wish sometimes that I were capable of producing sounds like that, but I possess zero musical talent myself.None.At all.I own three guitars and can’t play any of them.I can play G, C, and D, and I fake the C because it’s too hard to play the right way.My friend Kevin once brought me on stage to play the tambourine, and we have since struck an unspoken agreement that we should probably never, ever do that again.I apparently have the rhythm of a broken metronome.It’s for the best I suppose, as I’d hate to find out that I possessed a talent for such an instrument.
I would feel obligated to pursue a gift like that.
I don’t know a lot of things.
I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window. I think of things, and they happen. I’ve seen a lot of crazy people.
Twenty. That’s at least how many families have been paraded through my bedroom over the weekend. I’ve lived in this house for a year and a half; my roommate has been here much longer than that. The landlord has just filed bankruptcy, however, which puts my living situation in jeopardy. A trustee takes over the property and hires a real estate agent, who then proceeds to book appointments at her leisure, unconcerned by the fact that at least one person actually works out of this house.
And that’s unfortunate for her. I wouldn’t even give the real estate agent in question a name if I didn’t plan on including dialogue. It’s hard to write a conversation without a character having a name though, so I’ll settle for saying it rhymes with Janet Webster.
See, I am not in any way the beneficiary of a quick sale of this house. I like it here and, unless the new owners are simply buying it as a rental, I will have to leave once the transaction is complete. I’ve never tried to sell property – I’ve never tried to sell anything really – but I would imagine that like most sales people, realtors are heartless sacks of no-soul that are pretty much just after their six percent as quickly as they can get to it.
This one is anyway.
* * *
I came home on Friday to find the front door unlocked, the curtains over my bed slung haphazardly to the side, my shower door open, and my sandals kicked under my bed. Apparently the house was shown to a family of drunken ogres. I kind of wish I’d been there to see it. Instead, I got to come home and clean up after them. I called Janet to express my unease at having people go through my things and to see if we could somehow work out a showing schedule that allowed me to be there when strangers were wandering through my house.
“I do not have to ask your permission to do anything,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied. “I live here.”
“For now. I’m in charge of selling the house though, and you can’t stop me from showing it.”
“I’m not trying to stop you. I’m trying to work out a better arrangement.”
“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I can show the house anytime I want to until eight o’clock at night and you’re going to have to deal with it. And when it sells? You and your roommate are going to have to move, most likely on very, very short notice.”
“Ma’am, I wasn’t starting a fight. What if I slow it down for you? I just… don’t want people… here… unless I am.”
“I am not going to be talked to like a child –“
“Then stop acting like one.”
“- and I will not be dictated to by some, some, arrogant tenant who–“
“You’re acting like a child again, Janet.”
“I am showing that house whether you’re there or not.”
“Well, now I don’t think you understand. I live here. I can be here all day if I need to be, and now it looks like I need to be. I was trying to work this out, but I can be a difficult motherfucker to try to show a house around if I’m not in the mood to play nice. So here’s what I suggest. I suggest you take your wittle bitty sign and you wittle wock box wit the key in it, and stop acting like an uppity bitch.”
“I am not going to be talked to like that!”
“Yes you will. Look, see? I’m doing it right now.”
Then I immediately dialed her boss.
“I have never been so insulted in all of my life,” I said. “She told me that I couldn’t stop her, and if I tried to call someone and complain she would say that I said all kinds of horrible things. I’m not like that! This really, really hurt my feelings.”
“I’m sorry sir. She can be brash sometimes, but that is totally unacceptable. I apologize on behalf of our company for her –“
“It’s not your fault. I look forward to an apology from her. Thank you so much for your time.”
* * *
The doorbell started ringing at noon yesterday, as I expected it would. I ignored it. If they’re going to come in anyway, I might as well not do anymore than I have to. I sat with my feet up on my desk, a cup of coffee in front of me, and Rage Against the Machine cranked as loud as my stereo could manage. My bedroom was going to be an uncomfortable place to hang out.
From over my shoulder I heard a voice yell. “Can we see this room!?!?”
I glanced backward to see an Asian couple and what must have been two or three of their friends following the real estate agent. I immediately changed songs as I waved them in. As they crossed my room to the bathroom, Blue Oyster Cult erupted from the speakers.
Oh no, there goes Tokyo!
The agent snapped her head at me and I took another swig of coffee.
The pattern continued through the afternoon, the doorbell ringing and me causing what havoc I could. One couple was cautioned not to open the pantry door because I didn’t want the rat to get out before I could set a trap. Why couldn’t I turn down the music? Because I was making an old school mix tape, that’s why. Later in the day a middle aged woman walked in with another agent. “Is that the hooker?’ I asked. “You know I don’t like them that old. Take her to the back though, I suppose. I’ll get to her in a minute.”
A half hour later my phone rang. “What do you think you’re doing?” Janet yelled through the phone.
“Exactly what I said I would do.”
“You don’t have the right –“
“I do have the right. Until it sells I maintain all the rights that my lease provides me, including the right to the ‘quiet enjoyment’ of my property, and just so you’re aware Janet, I’m enjoying this very much.”
“Can we talk about this?”
“Nope. We could have talked about this yesterday, but someone didn’t want to have a conversation. Remember? So I am going to spend my day the way I want to, and that way doesn’t include a bathroom full of Japanese people.”
* * *
There are more appointments today and I’m not feeling too thrilled about it. My days are meant to be spent with caffeine and music in perfect solitude. These are my days. And while I inevitably can’t do much to stop the sale if it happens, I can take whatever lemons life gives me and throw them at this Realtor’s car.
I think I just heard the doorbell…
The Gulf Coast of the United States is a self-contained biosphere. The selection of things you can do to entertain yourself is as unique as the culture, and boats piloted by Cajun sea captains are as abundant as the restaurants selling etouffee and crawfish. Frequently trips leave the Louisiana shores on expeditions out into deep water where adventurers hunt for yellowfin tuna hiding below the waves.
A few years ago I left on one such voyage out of Venice, Louisiana. Unknown until the recent BP oil spill, Venice is a bit removed from the regular, beaten path. If you’re unfamiliar with its exact location, it is seven hours east of Houston and two hours south of New Orleans. From there, you drive to the end of the world, go through a frozen sea, past the dead floating bodies of pirates that have lost their way, and over a giant waterfall.
Venice is eleven miles past that.
My grandfather was an avid fisherman his entire life and instilled the love of the sport in me. From the day I could walk, I can remember standing on jetty rocks and throwing my line into the deep. A cooler full of redfish and speckled trout would accompany me and my grandfather home, where my grandmother would fry them up. My childhood is a collection of Saturday afternoons filled with the smell of hot oil in the air and a pan full of freshly cooked, cornmeal covered fish on the table.
I cannot begin to count the nights that I’ve spent on one beach or another, stoking a fire to burn away the dark’s chill and waiting for the first fingers of sun to reach over the horizon. Mornings spent waist-deep in the ocean with a fishing rod in my hand have always been the most peaceful, even if not necessarily safe. When you’re in the water, it is seldom efficient to walk back to shore with every fish caught. A stringer tied to a belt loop will often suffice, with each fish added to the string until you hit your limit. I vividly recall having had that string hit by a massive force and jerked out towards deeper water before the pressure released. Pulling it in, the half of a fish dangling off the end is all that is needed to remind you that sharks are quite present. They’re usually black-tips though, and I have shared the water with them my entire life.
As teenagers, we used to fish specifically for them, swimming out to the second or third sand bar with a fishing pole and a piece of bloody meat attached to a large hook, casting from the shallower water, and then swimming back with the pole to wait for an indication of a hit. Swimming with blood-drenched chunks of flesh through the murky gulf probably doesn’t rank high on my Brilliant Things I’ve Done list, but it is exhilarating.
And though I’ve spent a lot of my life on the water, I had never been offshore to fish. I knew only of the tales of snapper and tuna that my friends brought back with them when they went out. Venice would change that.
My brother Jeremy called me to meet him at the last minute. We needed a break, he said. He and his friend Scott had chartered a boat and the other two people going with them had suddenly backed out. Our cousin Marshall and I had been called in as replacements. I, though, was the only rookie on the tour. Offshore fishing was a regular pastime for Jeremy, Scott was a lawyer that owned his own boat and went frequently out on the Gulf down in South Texas, and Marshall had worked as a hand on a vessel for most of his life. It was the perfect crew, as long as I could manage to hold myself together.
“You’re gonna get sick,” Marshall said. “It’s okay though. Everyone does their first few times. Just make sure you throw up over the side.”
“And you may want to take it easy on the alcohol tonight,” my brother added. We were sitting on the deck of the house boat at the fish camp and I had just poured another massive glass of Jack Daniels, sans mixer. I’ve always found it disrespectful to the whiskey gods to add anything to it but ice. The three of them had been there for a day already and were well rested. I had just driven in from Texas.
“I’ll be fine,” I said confidently. They chuckled together at my ignorance, then Scott began to brief me on what to expect aside from the inevitable sea sickness. The weather had been bad he said, but a hole was opening up in the morning and that was when we were going. It was January so it was going to be cold, but worth it. On top of it all, he’d found the perfect captain and the perfect boat. Money can’t buy a better trip, he swore, and then he was interrupted by the skipper himself.
Though Scott was a bloodthirsty demon of a fisherman himself, he had gone to great lengths to find a captain that was even sicker than he was. Captain Al was the kind of guy that went spearfishing for mako sharks in his down time; just him, a pointy stick, and five-hundred pounds of muscle and teeth in the water at the same time. I had always considered myself somewhat brave for swimming with the black-tips, but this man chose to virtually French kiss the fastest fish in the ocean for fun. He was a young version of Captain Quint.
“I don’t want anyone in this goddamn boat that doesn’t want to kill stuff!” he began. “You got that? This isn’t a goddamn pleasure cruise! We’re coming back with fish, and if we can’t catch ‘em and reel ‘em in, then I’ll stick raw meat in my pockets, jump in, and bite them to death myself. I’m serious here, people. We’re going to war!
I know where they are, and if they’re not there, I know where they’re hiding. We will hunt these fish down and we will kill them. We’ll kill their families. We’ll kill every one of their goddamned fish friends. We’ll even kill other fish that might owe them money. Nothing is safe out there! I swear to God, if I have to put hooks in my face and swim down there and wake ‘em up, we’re coming back with fish. Now get some sleep. We leave at 6:00 am.”
With that, he slammed a double shot of Jack and went to bed.
Following his lead, the four of us retired as well. Final advice was given to me as we drifted off in our bunk beds. Scott’s multiple offshore trips a month qualified him to brag and explain his strategy for soaking up the sure-to-come excitement of the next day.
“No cameras. That’s the first rule,” he said. “There are a lot of things that not everybody gets to experience and this here’s one of ‘em. I don’t carry a regular camera and I don’t carry a video camera and I don’t carry any of them other kinds of cameras. You gettin’ what I’m sayin’ here?” He was drunk, and his Texas accent was getting thicker.
“I don’t neeeeeeed a camera ‘cause I keep all the pictures right here in my head. Right here.” It was pitch black, but I assumed he was pointing at his head. He continued. “You can’t print it, because it’s all in my head. There’s a lot of stuff up there that no one will ever get to see. Places I’ve been. Fish I’ve caught. Memories that will never go away.”
There was a long pause.
“A lot of fat girls in there, too,” he finished.
We drifted off to sleep with perfectly justified high expectations for the next day, and then somewhere through the night, Murphy’s Law stepped in.
We awoke the next morning to find Captain Al storming up and down the dock and screaming into a cell phone. As we made our way out of the house boat he finished his call and informed us that our plans had changed.
“Someone stole my goddamned gear in the middle of the night! I don’t know who it was yet but I when find that sick sonofabitch I’m gonna cut him the fuck up, eat some of him , and feed what’s left of his ass to the goddamned pelicans! But don’t worry. I got everything under control.”
Not only had all of his equipment been stolen, but the weather was deteriorating as well. Still, Al had arranged a replacement boat and a new captain to take us out in his stead. It was up to us to decide whether we were going to attempt to salvage the trip or not, and like any group of testosterone driven, still slightly drunk males, we did.
The four of us climbed into the new boat and headed fifty miles out to the Midnight Lump, a salt dome in the Gulf of Mexico that is legendary among deep sea anglers. The three of them laughed a bit more at me, satisfied that I was going to lose what little food I had eaten somewhere on the ride out. I wasn’t very confident myself. I had never been this far out on a boat before. I had driven seven hours, slept very little, and eaten even less.
It was forty degrees outside before the spray hit, and when that happened it dropped to absolute zero. The water temperature would not have been an issue had it been avoidable, but the seas were anything but calm, as if Poseidon had been up drinking the night before as well, perhaps playing quarters with Davy Jones. The 2-4 foot waves we had been expecting quickly turned to fifteen foot swells which we were hitting at 140 miles per hour. That may be a bit of writer’s embellishment on my part, but still, 4-6 foot waves in a fast boat sucks.
If you haven’t done it, do this instead. Crawl into a rock tumbler, put that in a clothes dryer, get someone to push the whole thing off a mountain, land on a trampoline, and bounce into the side of a moving train.
While you have to pee.
Charter services usually provide bean bag chairs so the passengers can flop down on the ride out to deep water. They do it because the bags absorb a lot of the impact as the bottom of the boat smacks the surface between swells. That, and who doesn’t love bean bags? I rolled over in mine to see my brother’s face buried in his rain slicker. He looked slightly green. Weird, I thought. I feel fine.
I pulled myself up to the center console to watch the waves as we hit them. As I did so, I noticed my cousin attempting to hang his head over the rail. Every time he tried to throw up, he was launched backward and away from the side. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I will be. Gimme a bit,” he replied, groaning.
“So when does it get bad?” I asked. “Because this is awesome so far!”
He rolled his eyes upward at me from the deck. “You. Shut. Up.”
Scott was in a similar position on the other side of the boat, retching violently into an even more violent sea. The grey rain ran in ice cold rivulets down his brow as he turned to me. “How the fuck… are you… not throwing up?” he managed to ask, and then his head flopped forward again.
I didn’t have an answer for him. It was a bit disturbing to find that my body didn’t consider any of that abnormal enough to react. Then again, where was the difference between being out on that water and any of the other things I’ve forced my body through over the last two decades? Years of riding rivers, climbing rocks, jumping out of planes, combat landings and sideways helicopters and a million other things probably made my body feel like it was on vacation bouncing around in those waves.
I held onto whatever I could find, savoring every moment of it. The butterfly feeling hit my stomach and left again, only to return as we launched off another wave. I let go of the rail for as long as I could, only to be tossed haphazardly back onto my beanbag, and then I clawed my way back up to do it again. “Wooooohoo!” I yelled as the spray washed over my face.
If there was a letdown at all, it was finding out that you can’t catch big fish without a boat full of people working together. With the sport of it over, I was left to soak up the rollercoaster ride by myself as we headed back in.
“We’ll have to do this again when the weather is better,” my brother said as another plume of icy water broke over us. “It’s way more fun.”
“I don’t know how it could be,” I said. “This was amazing.”
I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.
I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.
I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.
Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.
“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”
“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.
A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.
“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.
“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.
Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.
She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.
“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.
“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.
We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.
“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”
“Thrilling,” I replied.
I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.
“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.
“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”
“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.
“It’s cool. Just wait.”
* * *
The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get in one amazing show at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerrilla show in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.
I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.
So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.
You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.
* * *
Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers next to you in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.
As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.
* * *
We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.
Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.
There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.
We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.
This was not one of those.
The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.
* * *
Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.
“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.
“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.
“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.
“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.
“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”
“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.
Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”
As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.
“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.
“You’re welcome!” I yelled.
We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.
At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.
I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.
* * *
We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”
“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.
“That means it hit you.”
Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.
Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.
Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.
I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.
A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.
There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.
I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.
Last week at TNB, Joel Fishman called out the New York Times Book Review.Its methodology of selecting which books to bless (or damn) with a review, he suggested, has become whimsical to the point of irrelevance.
For the last few months, everything obscure that has popped into my mind has found its way into reality.A conversation about an old neighbor from twenty five years ago led to an unsolicited email in my Inbox from that neighbor’s son a few days later.When I couldn’t remember my third grade teacher’s name, I asked my Mom, who promptly ran into her in a mall parking lot a week after our conversation.I think of things, and they happen.
Before I got on the plane for the Middle East this past week, Joe Daly sent me a playlist for my iPod – a playlist that included Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules (my absolute favorite track from the Dio-era Sabbath).In the spirit of the song I started a Facebook conversation taking pot shots at the singer on another friend’s page.I’ve never disliked Dio, but it is hard to deny that he is easy to make fun of.And so we did.As a few of us took turns skewing his lyrics, I had to listen to more and more of his music for research, and as I did so, I found myself singing it in my head.Holy Diver, Man on the Silver Mountain, Rainbow in the Dark… it was the soundtrack as I trekked through the desert all week.
I was sitting outside at my favorite coffee shop; one of the last times I would do so before I moved away from the sleepy streets of Beaumont for good. The man sat across the patio from me at a cluttered table in a puddle of sunlight and his own eccentricity. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am a divining rod for insanity. I can spot it in a crowd, and in some instances I am even magnetic. It doesn’t wait for me to find it, but instead fights its way to the front. I’ve seen a lot of crazy people.
This guys though, this guy was a rare gem. A trucker’s cap covered his balding head, which on its own would not have been unusual. He was also wearing a fanny pack and a tube top, however, and had eight mountaineering clips attached to his belt with nothing on them.
And he was carrying a record player.
It wasn’t my first encounter with this man either. He was the non-athletic type, and I somehow imagined that he lived as a stowaway in his mother’s basement, occasionally trying on her clothes when she went to work and exploring the inner workings of his turntable. The first time we met, he cornered me on that very same patio and proceeded to discuss with me the different types of solder. It was more of a monologue on his part than an actual conversation.
“We used to use lead based solder back when I was on the inside. Lead. Lead is good. Now everything’s lead-free and useless. It’s better they say, but it’s not the same thing. It all depends on what you want to join. Sometimes I just put things together to see if they’ll stick. Did you know you can’t solder something to a mouse? Won’t work. Not even with 18 gauge rosin flux. It just runs. The mouse I mean, not the solder. Ask me anything about solder, and I can tell you.”
I’ve learned since then to simply keep my earphones jammed deep in my ears whether I’m listening to music or not. It buys me the freedom to observe without participating. That day I watched, intrigued, as the man alternated between tasks, sometimes rolling cigarettes, sometimes strategically arranging the napkins on his table, and sometimes taking a moment to run his tongue along a lighter shaped like a deer’s head.
The latter was deeply disturbing.
Years ago I used to make a habit of randomly picking up homeless people and taking them for fast food. I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories. I’m a collector, and the vagrant population has more than most. You won’t get an earful of inner-office drivel from them. You’re not in danger of having to listen to them prattle on about their misbehaving children or how the neighbor’s dog won’t stop tearing up the flower beds. Their stories are never that mundane.
It was never unselfish. I in no way ever felt like I was doing some great service to these men. At best – even if they were in fact starving to death – I was only buying them one more day, and it was unlikely that they were going to figure things out in those twenty-four hours. Still, a Sonic burger in exchange for the chronicles of another human being always seemed like an acceptable trade to me.
More than anything, I grew curious as to whether or not these people were truly unstable and wild or if some of it was just an act. One I remember particularly clearly was named Big Chief. Over tater tots he regaled me with tales of having removed himself from the grid on purpose. Crow’s feet and thick lines cut their way through his face as he talked, making him look like a living Fredrick Remington sculpture and his Native American roots came through audibly as well, his voice possessing the broken, yet soothing, cadence of his people.
“They are watching,” he said. He glanced repeatedly in the sideview mirror as he talked. “If they knew where I was I would be dead, and you too most likely. If I can be on a different car every night, they cannot catch me.”
“You hop trains?” I asked.
“It is better that way. In 2002 the world will end, and only the ones of us with places to hide in the jungles will be safe. I have gold buried across the country, so when the economy falls, I will be ready.”
“Gold?” I was a bit incredulous.
“And jewels.” He pointed to his pocket, where I saw the metal spiral of a small pad of paper sticking out. “It is all in here. When I worked for the Secret Service I saved every check they gave me. I was there when they shot Reagan. Every dollar I made went to buying precious stones and metals and only I know where it is all hidden.”
The world didn’t end in 2002, however, and I never saw Big Chief again. I imagine him sometimes though, hiding in the forest on the outskirts of some sleepy town as night falls, burying nuggets of gold and marking their locations in his tattered notebook.
When I was eighteen I worked at a grocery store. A homeless man named Redbeard frequently hovered outside one of the entrances, begging quarters from soccer moms as they wheeled carts full of food to their SUV’s. It was a brilliant ploy, accosting these people with assertions of hunger when they couldn’t possibly argue that they had nothing to give. I never understood why these customers were so quick to go to their purses rather than hand the man a bag of chips or some lunchmeat from their carts.
We called him Redbeard not just because of his matted red beard, but also because of the invisible parrot that sat on his shoulder and gave him advice. There was a pizza place next door to the store and one day I invited Redbeard to join me on my break. Over lunch the imaginary bird miraculously disappeared and a much saner man emerged.
I grabbed another slice of pizza. “You don’t really believe there’s a parrot on your shoulder, do you?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “But I do kinda look like a pirate, don’t I?” It was true. He did.
“Honestly?” he continued. “They won’t give you anything if they think you can help yourself.”
There was some obvious logic to his argument considering that he was sucking down slices of pepperoni on my dime. That encounter though has forced me to take a longer look at the crazy people I come across, which is what I found myself doing on that coffee shop patio with the man I knew only as The Record Player.
Like the vagrants in my past before him, he somehow ended up with a name like a Batman villain. They should have had their own line of action figures. Legitimately crazy or not, I could envision a metropolis filled with them; a world where Redbeard and Big Chief knocked off banks while The Record Player scrawled cryptic riddles on construction paper and left them behind to confuse the cops, as they all idled away into the night in the back of a boxcar. If they were ever captured, their insanity pleas would be airtight.
My own past is not exactly devoid of crazy moments, and I can’t help but wonder if I, too, have been labeled the same way by much saner people somewhere in the past. Crazy is such a relative term anyway. What right did I really have to sit there and judge this man? Maybe he continued to cross my path for a reason.
Perhaps it was even Life’s way of keeping me humble. “Don’t get cocky, Slade. Regardless of what you think about yourself, you’re still two tables away from a guy licking a lighter.”
If you happen to find yourself in New York on Wednesday, May 19, do stop by the upstairs lounge at Pianos at 7pm for an evening of fun & games, music & mayhem, dungeons & dragons, and books & booze.
The lineup of literary luminaries includes TNB regulars Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies) and Robin Antalek (The Summer We Fell Apart), as well as Allison Amend and Zoe Zolbrod, who, in addition to having great books coming out (Stations West and Currency, respectively), also have perfectly complementary initials.
Kimberly M. Wetherell will atttend — that we know — but rumors that Slade Ham will pop out of Allison’s birthday cake are, as of this writing, unsubstantiated.
Hope to see you there!
We piled into two vehicles, loaded down with supplies and towing a trailer full of canoes. Six of us were headed across the state of Texas to spend a week paddling through Boquillas Canyon, hopping across rocks, and sleeping under the stars.
It was an eclectic group. I was traveling with two former Boy Scouts, a pothead, his girlfriend, and a hippie type named Allison. Allison was a friend of a friend. Formerly a waitress, she had just recently returned from a three month stint living in a forest. “Oh cool,” I said. “You stayed with a friend who has a house in the woods?”
“No. I actually lived in a forest,” she replied.
“Like a squirrel?”
“No. Like a person, just without a house.”
“So, like a squirrel.” I was very confused.
I was then given the canned anarchist speech about the shackles of societal life and the evils of government in general. I started to comment on the concept of social contract, but was met with the glazed-over eyes of someone that clearly had no interest in a real conversation. “All I know is that I don’t want to work anymore,” she said. “I just want to go back and live in Florida with the rest of the Rainbow Family.”
To be more specific, she meant The Rainbow Family of Living Light. It’s basically nothing more than a large group of homeless gypsies; think Burning Man without the burning man. In their own egalitarian way, they have removed any sense of lower, upper, and middle class, and instead all just choose to live in poverty. They build tent cities in the middle of our national forests, filled with beggars and runaways and, amazingly enough, families with children.
“Children?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And some of the children were so bad. It was unbelievable. One time a six year old called me a ‘fucking idiot’. At six!”
“Well, he was dragged into the woods to live with crazy people. I can see how he might have seen you that way. You’re a grown woman that lives in a forest.”
* * *
After ten hours on the road and a few hours of uncomfortable napping, we finally pushed the canoes into the current of the Rio Grande. Emery was the trip’s leader. He had been a Boy Scout for as long as they will let you be a Boy Scout and had brought another formerly dedicated Scout friend with him. Though I have grown to love the outdoors in my adult life, I never did any of that type of thing in my youth. I was a baseball and soccer player. I couldn’t build a fire with a flamethrower.
In Scouts they teach you a few core ideals. In addition to things like doing your best and being prepared, Scouts are taught to leave no trace when exploring our nation’s wilderness. This was a tradition that was briefly mentioned to me and one I agreed to casually.
“It’s a Leave No Trace trip,” Emery said to me over drinks a few days before we left. “You cool with that?”
“Sure,” I replied, and then took another shot of Jameson. I only admit to agreeing now because he told me that I did. Still, “no trace” sounded somewhat simple to me. We won’t leave any trash. Yay, look. No trace.
What I did not grasp was the fact that they intended to leave nothing whatsoever. Trash could not be burned; it had to be packed out. If you had to pee, you had to walk 200 feet away from the river and find a spot devoid of plant life. Fires had to be contained, and the ashes brought with us when we left. I couldn’t imagine being in possession of a sack of ashes. “What’s in the bag?” someone might ask.
“A phoenix,” I would be forced to reply.
There could be no leftover food either. If it was prepared, it must be eaten. I was having difficulty by the first night. “I’m not eating your stupid fucking pudding, Emery!”
“You have to. We all have to do our part. Those are the rules.”
“Those are your rules. I’m going to dump it in the river, Emery. I am. Watch me.”
“Dude, that’s not cool.”
“No. What’s not cool is making ten cups of vanilla pudding for six people that don’t like fucking pudding. This is gay.”
“Give it to me then,” Allison chimed in. “I’ll eat some of it.”
“Of course you will,” I fired back. “You’ve been homeless for the last three months.” We were not off to a good start, and there were still four days ahead of us.
* * *
Boquillas Canyon cuts its way through Big Bend National Park, winding some twenty miles as it separates Texas from Mexico. As you approach the canyon, its walls tower ahead of you. The rocky ledges are home to mules and semi-wild horses, as well as what the guidebook refers to as “both friendly and not-so-friendly Mexicans”. That is a direct quote.
The friendlier ones made our trip amazing. As our canoes drifted along the lazy river current, all sorts of characters surfaced. It was a very convincing recreation of Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but with less drinking pirates and more drunk Mexicans. Instead of “yo ho ho” a man wrapped in a poncho sang “ay ay ay,” and then peeled off the next few verses of Cielito Lindo. The sun hovered unthreateningly in a brilliant blue sky and for a moment I forgot that I wanted to drown the hippie girl.
The most wonderful part about camping for me has always been the sky at night. My fascination with the massive expanse of outer space is always amplified when I am removed from the constant glow of city lights. In the back country, the sky begins to resemble a ceiling. You don’t feel like you’re outside at all, but instead lying underneath some richly gilded canopy. The longer you stare at the sky, the more stars appear, and before long you almost become hypnotized.
After eating an entire gallon of lasagna against my will, I would pull my bag out of my tent and find a secluded spot away from everyone in which to gaze out into infinity. Sometimes at dusk bats would flit through the dimming sky, capturing the orange of the firelight on their wings and lighting up just briefly before fading away again. The water trickled and rushed off to one side of me and lured me to sleep in the perfect night air.
Each morning found us breaking down our campsite and piling everything back into the canoes. I was sharing paddling duties on mine with another of the former Boy Scouts named Walt. Walt proved to be an exceptional canoe mate and eventually my co-pilot on our trip back home, but he also was in possession of a lot of useless knowledge. He created crossword puzzles in his spare time and had thus come into contact with several facts that he was more than happy to share with anyone that had ears.
When Allison turned down seconds after a meal one night, she said, “I’m not used to eating this much. I usually eat like a bird.”
Walt saw an opening. “You know, technically a bird can eat more than half its body weight in a single day, which is due to its high rate of metabolism and the amount of energy it takes to fly. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that you ate the weight of a bird instead of like a bird. Some birds –”
“Walt?” I said.
“Shut up, Walt.”
* * *
We carried on like this the entire week. Emery would prepare insane portions of food for the six of us, and then continue to dump it onto our plates until it was gone. Walt could explain the food’s origins. Allison thought it would be better if we grew it organically like they did in the forest. “Well, we grew the mushrooms and the pot,” she said. “We would beg or dumpster dive for the rest.”
The other tagalong on our journey was Von, and Von brought his girlfriend Ashley. Von was, unknown to me at the time, bringing a plastic container full of hash on the trip. His little foil pipe and Tupperware box made their appearance around the fire every night, unnoticed by me because I was busy fighting with his girlfriend, who stood in solidarity with Allison in their hatred for all things civilized. “Stupid fucking drug laws,” she said. “We live in a country that is set up to keep us down. Pot is not dangerous at all but the government hasn’t found a way to make money off of it yet so they keep it illegal. It’s all run by corporations and I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”
“What about things like schools and roads? You drive, right?” I asked.
“Only because I have to. There should be no laws at all, but the government should still have to take care of our basic needs.”
“Are you actually listening to your own words?” I tried.
“Whatever. I would happily live in the forest with you, Allison.”
“You know there are some trees right over there,” I said, pointing a mile off into the distance. “You two could go practice.”
“You’re such an asshole,” Ashley said.
“I know. But you’re a Communist.”
Their desire to take more than they gave weaved its way into our daily regimen. They were both conveniently absent when it came time to break down our camp in the morning, or to set up at night. They both sat in the front of their respective canoes and pretended to paddle, somehow still finding a way to point out that they thought my canoe was lighter than theirs.
“He’s not working as hard as us!” they yelled.
“What? How can I work less than zero?” I yelled back. “It’s impossible. I can’t negative paddle. Even if I were paddling backwards, I would still be doing more work.”
Had Von not been high, he might have felt the need to defend her. As it stood though, I just fell into synch with Walt’s paddling, and we drifted out ahead and away from them. Walt’s voice appeared behind me, “You know that in the Bushi region of the Congo women aren’t even allowed to speak at all in public and for that matter –“
“Shut up, Walt.”
Despite my career standing in front of massive groups of people, I am not a social creature. I prefer isolation and time alone. I happily contribute my share to any group effort, but all in all, I am not a fan of communal living. I took every chance I could to scramble off amongst the boulders and cliffs along the way, losing myself in the sand and shadow along the river’s edge. It was cathartic and freeing, regardless of the tension between me and the girls on the trip. Night after night, a glimmering strip of sky hung between the canyon walls, daring me to reach up and run my fingers through the starlight. It was remarkable.
* * *
We packed up the trucks after the last day in the back country. Loaded down with equipment and canoes, we began the long trek home. We had left the river in immaculate condition, in some places even cleaner than when we had arrived. We were good little Scouts, all of us. No trace at all. Emery offered to drive first, and with Allison and Walt in the other vehicle, Tom and Ashley climbed in behind me. “I really have to pee,” I heard Ashley say as I drifted to sleep in the passenger seat.
“Too late now,” Emery told her. “You’ll have to wait until we stop.”
Sometime later, I heard a voice I didn’t quite recognize. How long had I been asleep? I cracked an eye open to see the fuzzy outline of a militant looking Border Patrol agent standing at the driver’s side window. I pulled myself up straight in my chair.
If Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglourious Basterds had a Latin cousin, I’d found him. Nothing was out of place on this man’s uniform. It was spotless and polished, and he carried one leather glove that he rhythmically slapped against his open hand. His accent was thick and cocky, but he still looked like a cartoon Mexican Nazi.
“I need zee four of you to step out of zee vehicle,” he said. We all complied, and then watched as Walt and Allison drove past us and on down the interstate. Certainly Walt was telling her all about the history of the United States border with Mexico, while she inquired about the right to live in the deserts on the other side of the Rio Grande.
“Zee reason I have detained you is because our dog has detected, how you say, zee smell of drugs in your vehicle. Now, vee can do this zee easy vay, or I can have my people take your entire car apart and go through all of zee contents until vee find vat vee are looking for.”
Ashley was doubled over as he spoke. “Sir, I really have to go to the bathroom.”
“I’m so sorry. You vill have to vait until vee have sorted this out.” He smacked his gloved and paced in front of us, trying to determine who was responsible. His apathy to her predicament was obvious.
So Ashley peed on herself.
The puddle widened at her feet while she stood as stoically as she could. “Vat exactly are you doing?” the Agent asked.
“I told you I had to go,” she said.
“But zat is crazy, to just, how you say, go on your pants like zat?” As he spoke, I sat down on the ground. I was laughing uncontrollably. He smacked his glove again as he walked over to me. “Is it you? Are you on zee drugs? Is zat vie you are laughing like zat?”
I was dying. I gasped for air as I tried to find words. “She… I mean, I. No… you. Pee. Everywhere. Stop. I can’t… breathe.” I cackled like a maniac as I rolled over onto my back.
“It’s mine,” Von said suddenly, possibly because his girlfriend was soaking wet. “They didn’t know anything about it.” It was a respectable move, and the truth was that no one did know he had carried his stash with him this whole time. I assumed he had finished it long ago, and even if he hadn’t that he would have ditched it before we got to a border check station.
“Vell,” said the Agent, “Vee vill have to put you in, how you say, zee holding cell until vee get zee sheriff on zee phone. Zee rest of you, come vith me.”
We were escorted into the station and held while they went through the car. Von sat in a cell in another room while Ashley, now in a fresh pair of clothes, continued to complain. “This is the problem, man. Stupid fucking laws like this. That’s why I don’t want to live here anymore. See?”
“I totally agree with you,” I said. “This is a stupid law. You know what else is stupid? Bringing drugs through a Border Patrol station. And guess what? The minute they let us go, I’m leaving him here.”
“It was pretty dumb,” Emery said, cutting his eyes at her. “And you peed on yourself. Don’t forget about that. That was awesome.”
We sat there for five hours until Von was taken to jail by the Sheriff and we were released. With no cell phone service, we pulled into the city of Marathon, Texas, proud population of 600. There was only one business open and it was a bar. Walt and Allison were sitting inside as we walked in. Apparently they had befriended the bar owner who had offered them dinner and arranged for them to stay at the bed and breakfast across the street.
“I think I might just stay here for good,” said Allison. “They have an organic garden in town where I can grow things and there is a hostel where I can live.”
“You’re just going to move here after five hours?” I asked.
“I think so. Where’s Von?”
Emery answered her. “We can’t get him out until morning, so I guess we’re just going to stay here until then.”
I, however, was not. “I’m driving, Walt. Give me the keys.”
“Shouldn’t we –“
“I know. I’ll shut up.”
It was almost midnight when I pulled the trailer full of canoes away from the curb. Walt was asleep in the passenger seat, drunk and snoring, and as the lone light in Marathon faded behind us, I couldn’t help but smile a little bit. It really was like we were never there.
Emery made it back with Ashley and Von a day later, and aside from dropping off a gypsy girl to live in West Texas, we left no trace that we had even passed through the area at all.
If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Woody Allen said it originally, but it’s my dad’s voice I hear when it echoes in my head. It was December of 2007, five days before Christmas. My father was going in for heart surgery the next morning and I was headed to our nation’s capital to tape a special for XM Radio. I called him from the balcony of my Los Angeles apartment. I shivered in the cold and smoked a cigarette as we talked.
“I have the flights all booked,” I said proudly. “I go to DC for the shows this weekend and then I’ll be in Texas on Sunday in plenty of time for Christmas.” My itinerary was perfect. “No,” I told him. “I can’t stay for New Year’s. I’m meeting Titus in Oakland and then we’re driving back to L.A. from there. I have it all figured out.”
“If you ever want to make God laugh…” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, laughing. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ll call you when I get to DC and see how the surgery went.”
“I love you, son,” he said.
* * *
My father and I had our ups and downs through most of my life. Some of my earliest memories were the sounds of my parents fighting loudly as I tried to sleep. When I was almost nine they divorced, and I can still remember sitting in my dad’s little blue truck when he told me. The black, plastic, fake leather seats were cracked and smelled like cigarette smoke. The engine idled as we sat in the parking lot that evening after soccer practice. I was too young to know what he meant when he said that he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore.
I went from eight to thirty quickly, and our relationship swung drastically throughout those 22 years. Some memories are stronger than others, but most are just flashes of moments, captured in still life like Polaroids.
I’m nine. I’m walking the top row of the bleachers like a high wire artist. My dad is at the bottom talking to the woman that would eventually become my step mom. I’m eleven. Willie Nelson and Ray Charles sing Seven Spanish Angels in the living room as my dad adjusts the knobs on his new stereo and I lay on the floor. I’m thirteen. I tell him that I’m not going with him when he comes to pick up me and my brothers for the weekend. “I hate your stupid church,” was the excuse I gave before running back inside. I grew up a lot after that.
There are pictures in my mind with no dates on them. I could have been twelve, or twenty. He had dogs, one after the other. Fritchie, Beignet, Max. There was a kitchen table with a bench on one side. I ripped my finger open on the lid from a can of Pringles at that table. You can still see the scar. The ceiling of the game room upstairs was covered in models I had made, painstakingly painting them and straightening the decals. Airplanes of every sort hung like icicles over the pool table.
When I was twenty-one, my grandmother went into the hospital. My dad paced the halls there waiting on the inevitable bad news from the doctors. I couldn’t imagine how he was strong enough to face the death of a parent.
* * *
I landed in DC and made my way to the hotel. My phone rang as I unlocked the door to my room. “Dad’s in a coma,” my brother told me. “He never came around after surgery.”
“I have a flight in the morning,” I told him, then hung up the phone in silence. I slid down the wall onto the floor of the hallway, staring blankly in front of me. I had a show in two hours.
The club was packed with people when I walked in, and I hated every single one of them. I had spent my entire life mocking the general population, with their real jobs and their fluorescent lighting and their boring offices. That night I wanted desperately to hide in a cubicle, to peck away at some keyboard with no one staring at me. This was the trade off, I learned. Now, not only did I have to pretend to be happy myself, I had to make other people happy on top of it.
My grandmother, long before I ever started doing comedy, used to say how amazing it was that Jack Benny was able to perform while his son was dying. I understand it now. I stayed on stage for an hour and a half, somehow removed from, but still aware of, my sadness and fear. To this day the stage remains the one place that I still feel completely in my element, regardless of what is going on around me. Jack Benny must have gotten that.
I walked off stage that night and back into the dark reality that was now my life. I started canceling my 2008 dates before I even got on the plane the next day. I was going to stay in Houston indefinitely.
* * *
It was Christmas Eve, three days later. I had sent my brother home to spend the evening with his wife and daughter. I sat huddled in the lobby between visitation periods, aimlessly surfing the web on my laptop and waiting for the next opportunity to stare down at my father and hope for a response. I walked into the cafeteria late, hoping for something to eat.
“How are you today?” the lady behind the counter asked.
My question was a simple one, and the words fell out of my exhausted lips like leaves from a dying tree. “How late are you open?”
She repeated herself. “HOW are YOU today?”
“How LATE are you open?” I tried again.
“I asked how you were today.”
“I am in the hospital on Christmas motherfucking Eve,” I said, bouncing my tray loudly on the metal rails. “How late… are you… fucking open?”
“Sir, you don’t have to use –“
“Maybe you should just slosh some mashed potatoes on the plate next to my chicken fried steak, pick up your minimum wage based check, and take your soulless body away from people that could not care less how fucking chipper you pretend to be around the holidays.”
My phone rang as I walk away. It was her. “Merry Christmas,” she said, and I thought to myself how much my dad would have liked her.
* * *
Days rolled by, and I spent every one in that very same lobby. It was a waiting game. Just wait. There are no other options. You can wait, or you can wait. For twenty minutes at a time, five times a day, seven days a week. Nothing you can do can change the situation. Friends call. “I’m sorry,” they say, but they don’t know.
My youngest brother was still in Hawaii. He had moved there on a whim, with one bag and nowhere to stay. He had gotten off a plane in Honolulu two months before and carved out a niche for himself there somehow. He wanted to come back now to be involved but he didn’t have a plan. My car was still at my apartment in Los Angeles, and the goal became to find a way to get him there so he could drive it back for me.
Coordinating a trip for that particular brother has always been like playing Plinko. No matter how much planning you try to do, that little plastic disc is just going to end up wherever the hell it wants to go. We sorted out his flight and I arranged to have him picked up in L.A. I had everything arranged actually – a place to stay, my car keys, and enough cash to get him back to Texas. All he had to do was get on the plane. Whether he got distracted by a shiny object or simply got lost I don’t know, but he missed his flight. To his credit he did try to come up with an alternative plan. “I can catch a flight into San Francisco instead,” he said.
“Of course,” I told him. “Go right ahead. It’s only seven hours from L.A. Great job, Magellan.” Eventually he did make it back, though I’ve never managed to find out exactly how. I was actually worried more about my vehicle than I was him. Not that I didn’t love him, but I had two other brothers; that was my only car.
* * *
Days turned into weeks, and the diagnosis grew more and more grim. There had been a series of strokes and brain activity was virtually nonexistent. On January 17, the decision was made. Family was gathered in the small, now private room. Goodbyes were said, tears were shed, and the breathing machine removed. He was gone. The tension hung like humidity in the air, thick and suffocating. My brother and I turned to each other and embraced, heads buried in each other’s shoulders.
I felt something move as we stood there – a vibration – down my upper leg. It was awkward as we both held each other.
“Tell me that was your phone,” he said.
“God, I hope so,” I replied, and in the most unlikely of places, we laughed hysterically.
* * *
I was getting dressed on the morning of the funeral. How am I supposed to get through this? I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to be an example. I don’t want to do this, I told myself over and over again. My phone rang. Who would possibly call me on a day like this? Moments later my voicemail beeped. My friend Kevin’s voice came through the speaker as I checked the message. His father had passed away a few years before. “You are the strongest son,” I heard him say. “You’re going to be okay.”
I smiled. I hope you’re right, I thought. I’m going to have to be today.
* * *
It’s been over two years now, and some things have faded. Sometimes I get disappointed in myself when I realize that I’ve let more than a day or two pass without thinking of him. How could I forget? Then, out of the blue, a day or so later, I’ll pick up the phone to call him. I’ll stop myself as I scroll down to the D’s. “Damn. He really would have gotten a kick out of that story,” I’ll tell myself.
Or maybe he will flash into my head over a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I use to eat it at his house on Saturday nights after everyone had gone to bed. Just me, sitting on his living room floor watching Star Trek: The Next Generation… God, I was such a nerd.
The comfort is there now though. I don’t have to carry it every day. The memory has disappeared and resurfaced enough times now that I know it will never go away for good. It seems like an eternity since I stood on that balcony with my big plans for the future. I was going to take over the world, and he was going to have his heart fixed. I’ve had to readjust my plans now though, to compensate.
And somewhere, I’m sure, there is laughter.
I used to have a tree house. Not as a child, mind you, but as an adult. Let me explain. I had an apartment for a while in a complex owned and managed by an ancient woman that hardly knew who lived in her building, much less what those tenants were up to. There weren’t exactly a ton of restrictions on what you could or could not do in the complex, and even if there had been there was no one to enforce them.
I became good friends with several other residents there. I was living with my girlfriend Brittany at the time and was constantly looking for a reason not to be in the apartment with her. The less I was there, the less chance of setting off an emotional explosion, so I spent a good bit of time hopping around and getting to know a quite diverse group of neighbors.
Dan was your typical Southeast Texas redneck. About six foot four, he drank cheap beer by the case, drove a pickup truck, and ate weird things if you dared him. I personally watched him consume a raw shrimp and three wrinkled dollar bills one night simply because someone said, “I bet you won’t.” Dan lived across the street from Chuck, a gun collecting Texan with a bit more intelligence. Dan was the kind of guy that would beat his chest and tell you what he was going to do. Chuck would just do it.
And Chuck happened to live next door to Henry. Henry was a stout and stocky black guy. Always high, he was the kind of person you couldn’t help but like. He was Ice Cube in Friday.
Over one particular summer, a group of teens happened to choose our neighborhood as a target for a string of car burglaries. My car was hit twice, along with eleven other incidents over the course of a few weeks. Despite our attempts to keep watch individually, we were unable to catch anyone in the act. For that matter, the only information we really had been able to get at all was the occasional neighbor’s half remembered account of an older, brownish colored car with a bunch of suspicious looking teens.
The obvious solution, we decided, was to band together. Strength in numbers made sense to us, and we fell in love with the idea of standing in unison against a common enemy. Not only would this be productive, this could be fun.
We recruited whoever else we could from the neighborhood and met at Henry’s house. Six adults in all, dressed in black and carrying whatever makeshift weapons we could find. An old forgotten Louisville Slugger from under Chuck’s bed, Dan’s slingshot, a chipped and slightly bent samurai sword with a blue rope wrapped handle. We were completely unprepared, yet one hundred percent willing, to go to war with a gang of street savvy thugs.
Over the next hour we discussed our plans. Who would cover which shift each night? What would we do if we actually caught someone? I had read enough Spider-man comics to be elected leader, therefore I was the one forced to veto the most extreme game plans as they were presented.
“So if one of us can catch ‘em in action and chase ‘em towards the others, we could hog tie ‘em, gag ‘em, and leave ‘em laying in the field over night,” Dan suggested. “The fire ants and them bat sized skeeters oughta finish ‘em off.”
“No, Dan,” I said. “Let’s try to come up with something… maybe a bit more legal.” Talking to him was a bit like trying to explain to a retarded child why he couldn’t have a balloon. And it wasn’t just Dan; no one was really helping.
“So I guess pumping them full of arrows and hanging them from a tree like little ghetto-porcupine-piñatas is out of the question?” Chuck chimed in.
“You a damn fool, Chuck. You know that?” Henry laughed. “A damn fool.”
“Completely out of the question,” I replied.
When the meeting – if you could call it that – adjourned, the only decision we had come to was that we definitely needed a place to mount our defense. We needed a secure location. We needed a fortress. I volunteered the tree next to my apartment, suggesting that we might be able to put some sort of platform halfway up. Everyone agreed and construction started the next day.
What began as a 3×3 perch soon became much larger. Dan started bringing home truckloads of grocery store pallets and landscaping timbers. We added each one to the rest and before long had erected a two story, two-hundred-plus square foot citadel. Over the next few months I forgot all about the ring of thieves and concentrated my efforts on increasing the size of the tree house. Two old couches were acquired and hauled up into the branches. Electricity was run from my back porch via extension cords. Chuck had an old TV we could drag up there when it wasn’t raining.
I fabricated a roof above the first level, leaving the second floor open to the sky, a perfect place to lie at night and watch the stars scroll by. I was twelve years old again, and oblivious to the fact that I had absolutely zero construction skills. I used twenty screws where one would have sufficed. My lack of building knowledge aside, this thing was never coming down. We built on into the summer.
* * *
With our attentions focused on the newly erected wooden castle, the dark brown Oldsmobile that came creeping down the street late one night almost went unnoticed. I got a call from Henry, who just happened to be out late adjusting the tension on the makeshift zip line we had installed a few days before.
“These fools are behind the building, man. You in?”
“I’ll meet you outside. Give me two minutes.”
The building directly across the street was empty, and had been since Hurricane Rita ravaged the area a year before. I knew there was no reason for anyone to be back there at all. It could only mean trouble. Despite Chuck and Dan’s insistence that we attack, cooler heads prevailed. I made the case for calling the police and twenty minutes later a squad car came cruising down the road. It pulled behind the building and we circled around the other side to watch the action, certain that we were about to witness justice occurring live and in real time.
Two officers ran up to the car across the dark parking lot. Their flashlights bounced along the rusted body and then one of the doors creaked open. Smoke poured from the inside of the vehicle, the flashlight beams becoming solid yellow rods as they shot through the billowing clouds. My first thought was that something was actually on fire, and then the realization hit me that the occupants of that car were just really, really high. It looked like the Cheech and Chong van.
What minutes earlier had seemed to be an open and shut case was about to turn shockingly sideways. The five teenagers were taken from the car, searched, and then handed back their keys with instructions to leave and not return. As the beat up Cutlass rattled away, the police car followed them. Seconds later, both were gone.
“Are you motherfucking kidding me?” asked Henry.
And it wasn’t just Henry. We all stood there completely slack jawed. Clearly the cops weren’t in the mood to write up a report. Though we had no solid evidence, we were convinced that this was the same group of kids that had lifted our car stereos and CD collections. As we stared at each other in silent disbelief an even more shocking thing happened; the car came back.
It cruised down the street through the darkness like a battle worn shark, pulling in the drive headed back behind the building.
Henry didn’t waste a second. He picked up Chuck’s bat and started out across the street. “Man, fuck a bunch of these motherfuckers, yo.”
The entire group of us was now ready for war. As we turned the corner behind the building, we could see one of the kids clearly retrieving something from the grass next to the car; most likely something tossed when the police had shown up earlier. The teen sprinted back to the car when he saw us. “Go, go, go!” he yelled, and the car started to back up as he dove inside.
There was a wicked crack as Henry’s bat connected with the windshield. The driver couldn’t seem to get the car in gear, and Henry connected with two more shots, shattering the passenger window and caving in the hood. “Damn, man! This is my Mama’s car!” a voice from inside cried. “Then your Mama better have insurance!” Henry yelled back as he smashed a brake light. There were a few more glancing blows before the terrified kid managed to shift, and then finally the car sped off, leaving us standing amongst the wreckage.
“Umm, maybe we should finish this inside,” I said, figuring the police were certain to return soon now that a somewhat violent crime had been committed.
We didn’t even make it back across the street before the red and blue flashing lights rounded the corner. Chuck and Dan sprinted for home and Henry tossed the bat into the bushes. The car rolled to a stop in front of the two of us.
“I don’t suppose one of you fellas want to tell us what happened here, do you?” the officer asked as he stepped out of the car.
“Actually, we just walked out ourselves,” I replied quickly. “Sounded like some glass broke or something. Is everything okay?”
The officer looked at me dubiously, but I wasn’t breaking. Henry wasn’t so calm however. “That car came back, man. Why didn’t you arrest those fools the first time?”
“What Henry means is -” I started to say.
“What I mean is, if y’all ain’t gonna stop these motherfuckers from coming over here, then we will.”
The cop replied, “Sir, you can’t say the word the word ‘motherfucker’.”
So I said, “No, Henry. Apparently he is the only one that can say it.”
“Are you trying to get smart with me, son?”
And it really just slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Smart? God no,” I said. “I’m not trying to confuse you.”
“That’s it. Turn around, son, and put your hands behind your back,” he said, pulling out his handcuffs. I was laughing as he clicked them shut around my wrists. Not only was I amused by the sudden turn of events, but I was also incredibly curious how talking to my neighbor was being considered a threat or a crime. “What exactly did I do?”
“You were inciting a potential riot,” was his reply. “Watch your head.” I ducked as I was placed in the backseat of the car. If that was a riot, I would have hated to see how he handled a group of Irish soccer fans. The officer sent Henry on his way and then got into the car. His partner turned to me as we pulled off.
“I suggest you keep it down back there,” he said. “We’d hate to have to tack any more charges on.”
And that was probably where things went south. I knew that technically I was going to get a Disorderly Conduct charge, and I figured that if I was going to get one, I might as well earn it. My tongue took on a life of its own, and I emptied both barrels.
“Oh really? Because legally I don’t think I have to be quite at all. If you don’t like it, let me out. Or why don’t you just turn up the radio, Captain America? I bet your wife is really proud of you… bringing down the scum of society! How scary it must be! Ooooh, does it feel good Kojak? You solved the crime! Yippee ki yay, motherfucker! Oh wait, I can’t say that, can I?
“You know, the last time you guys were out here, we pointed out a kid that had driven up in a stolen car and tried to break into my neighbor’s truck. Then he ran from you guys and when you caught him he had a fourteen-inch screwdriver in his pocket. And what did you do? You let him go. I’ve seen the detectives on Court TV put a guy away for life based on a piece of lip DNA they pulled off of a half-eaten apple core they found in a dumpster two counties away from the crime scene, and you couldn’t piece that mystery together? Yeah, you’re on fire, Commando Rabbit.
“Why doesn’t FOX TV ever follow you guys around for COPS, huh? Maybe it’s because you fucking suck. You ever think of that? Maybe it’s because dragging a guy to jail for standing in his own neighborhood is just shitty TV. What a hero. You’re the worst policeman ever. I hope your little radar gun really does give you ball cancer. Are we there yet? I’ve gotta pee. Come on, man! Speed! We already know you’re a hypocrite, what’s it gonna hurt?”
I kept my face as close to the partition as possible, throwing each sentence directly at his ear as he drove. I was determined to earn every minute of my stay in a holding cell. When we arrived at the jail the two officers couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The ride had put me in a heightened state of amusement. Already resigned to my fate, and the misdemeanor charge, I committed myself to making the most of the experience. No one was going to be safe.
They asked a million questions when they booked me in, all for what I could only assume was my “permanent record”. Once I realized that no one was there to determine the veracity of my answers however, I began to lie. Even the simplest question was an invitation to mislead.
The woman in charge sat in front of her keyboard. “Height?” she asked.
“Six eleven,” I answered with a straight face.
“No you’re not,” she said.
“If you already know then why are you asking me?”
She growled a bit and then continued, “Do you wear corrective lenses?”
“What color are your eyes?”
“Do you mean with or without the contacts?”
“You just said -”
“I was kidding. Next?”
In all honesty, I wanted to answer her correctly. The thought of having “comedian” next to my name in a file somewhere kind of made me happy. The Bullshit Train had left the station however. I couldn’t stop. I contemplated my answer as she repeated the question. “Sir? Occupation?”
And with the most serious expression possible I replied.
I arched my eyebrow mysteriously as I said it, as if that would somehow add authenticity to my claim.
“What?” she asked.
“Dragons. Large reptilian creatures. Did you not have a childhood, lady?”
She cocked her head sideways, baffled. “And where do you do this?”
“Caves, meadows, wherever the need arises,” I shot back.
She still didn’t know how to process what I was giving her. She had a blank to fill in on a form and the words coming out of my face confused her. “And… people give you money for this?” she tried.
“Sometimes money, sometimes a virgin or a goat. Whatever the village can afford. I have a calling, lady, and I won’t stop until all of the dragons are dead.”
Exasperated, she stormed out on our interview. Eventually, especially once I knew my friends had arrived with my bail money, I cooperated. I managed to keep a maniacal little smile the entire time though, which did a phenomenal job of keeping the other people in the holding cell convinced that I was at least a little bit insane.
“What are you in for?”
“Killing lizards. You might want to back up a little bit.”
* * *
The tree fort lasted longer than I thought it would. One day a letter arrived at my door from the landlord. Apparently a makeshift platform of thirty-eight pallets suspended 15-20 feet in the air was an “insurance risk”, and news of the tiki torch someone had drunkenly dropped on one of the couches had made its way back to her as well. It must come down the letter said.
Getting it up had not been a problem. Getting it out of the tree was a different story entirely. I pulled on the beams, I hit things with a hammer, and I jumped up and down. Nothing phased it. “Damn, I’m good,” I thought to myself, then I tied a rope around one of the support struts and pulled some more. I even went so far as to ask myself “What Would Jesus Do?” Then I remembered that Jesus was a carpenter. He could probably dismantle the entire thing in an afternoon.
Eventually I gave up. It stood stoically in that empty lot for another two years after I moved out. Even after my relationship ended, I still snuck back to visit it, hoping against hope that my ex wouldn’t be home when I did. Ultimately, I heard that time took its toll on the untreated lumber. Pieces fell one by one over the following months until, exhausted at last, the final section surrendered itself to the elements.