Recent Work By Thomas Wood

I’ve always felt it was too easy for a person to be labeled a “porn star.”

The criteria seem to be that you have had sex, on camera, for the purpose of distribution, and that many people have seen it. But such criteria say nothing about one’s history, accomplishment or following. The real problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a linguistic distinction between the entry-level and the career-minded varieties of porn star.

Consider that, to be a movie star, you probably have to have at least one major motion picture out, maybe two, and you have to have been invited to appear, for that movie, on at least one talk show. To get that far, chances are good that you paid your dues: maybe a Lifetime special, definitely a rapist or victim on Law & Order: SVU. And that’s just by modern standards, where buzz is generated much more quickly, and the masses catch all their star news virally. When it comes to the classic star hierarchy, we’re talking about the A and B listers, and even then we’re dealing with maybe eighty people in the whole industry (two of which are Tom Cruise).

Becoming a rock star is a bit easier. One song on the radio will do, and really, if you get up on any stage, belt out a few notes, swagger around a bit and generally act sweaty, most people will give it to you as a kind of honorarium, as something you’ve earned by way of presence. “He’s such a rock star,” in the common vernacular, has come to indicate an attitude more than it does any kind of real success in the music business.

The label “porn star,” however, has the unique properties of being both literal and inclusive. That is, you must have been in a porn to be a porn star.  Cut and dry.  But once you’ve hopped that first gentle bar, you’re in for life, right at the top.  Even if the act was years ago, the distinction then becomes “ex-porn-star.”

The labeling issue is further confused when you consider the relative ease of getting a great many people to watch you in a porn.  Get a small part in an edgy indie movie, and a few thousand might see it. Write a song and some of your friends will be kind enough to listen. Take your pants off on camera and the world will click twice to see what’s going on down there.

Clearly, the title/suffix “star” has been too widely granted. We don’t yet have a good word for an “amateur porn star.” In fact, we stare the absurdity right in the face, because the proper terminology would be just that: “amateur porn star.”

Film critics offer a grim solution to this problem. Whenever the moniker “movie star” isn’t enough, they call an actor a “superstar,” or, ever more often, a “mega-star.

Porn-Mega-Star” has all the charm of an end villain in a Transformers spinoff, but at least it differentiates.

My solution?  Simplify things. We need to establish a base term for, um, entry level porn actors. Instead of “porn star,” we could call someone a “porner” (I also considered “smactor”). A “porner” is anyone who has been in a porn.

With a little effort and some skill in marketing, a porner could eventually work his way up to official porn stardom.  And so on. Such labels might even have the effect of legitimizing a career ladder which has long been dubious at best.

Now, if only we could figure out summer internships.


“TheNervousBreakdown.com is like a writer’s collective, but a writer’s collective on crack!” – Thomas Wood (to no one in particular)

Few linguistic formulas have enjoyed such success as the “…on crack” metaphor.Type “on crack” into any blog search and you’ll find millions of entries of people comparing myriad subjects to their potential in an intoxicated state.I wanted to look into this curious figure of speech, see how it works, examine some of its examples, and take a look at the cost of doing drugs, linguistically speaking.

Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.

bathroom left, poop box rightOne of my cats has started following me into the bathroom.

Most of the day, he sleeps under the bed, while I am on the couch.  At night, we switch.  As I see it, I respect his territory and he respects mine, with only minimal crossover for such necessary exchanges as food-in-bowl and pet-on-head (he is, after all, a “good kitty”).  But now, oddly, he insists on watching me poop.

“I thought we had an understanding,” I say, knees pressed together in reflexive embarrassment.  “You know…you do your thing and I do mine.  What’s with this?” I make a little noise like a toy-gun to spook him off. It doesn’t.

“Mrrow,” he says, and saunters over, finding my huddled knees as good a place as ever before to sidle up against.

“Cat, this is very unlike you. You never like me. And it’s not like I…”  And it dawns on me.  I watch him poop.

One of them has been pooping on the carpet.  I haven’t been able to figure out which one.  All I know is at night the carpet is clean and sometime in the night, with all the mystery and silence of Santa Clause, a little present is left for me.  What’s amazing is, it’s always left in the same place: three infuriating feet to the left of the damn litter box. Never two feet, never four. That’s poop left, litter-box right: it’s like when your GPS is out of sync and a casual drive down the coast shows you a hundred feet west, driving in the water.

Now I stalk the poopers.  I stay up late at night, later and later. I’m on their time now, waiting for the sound of kitty paws on artificial gravel.  When one of the cats walks down the hall, I wait and listen.  I creep around the corner, shielding my eyes from the ambient light to keen my senses.

Tonight, it’s the fat one in the box.  Good ol’ fat one. (This is the same cat who, after first moving in, would find his way into my girlfriend’s underwear drawer. There he would lie for hours, a true predator. Eight a.m. would bring a scream, and I’d rise just in time to see gravity defied by fur, his paws outstretched, no doubt intending a kill. I was endeared to him then.)

I watch him poop, making sure it wasn’t a trick. I watch for twitches. I watch for silence. He sees me and is unmoved.  I nod, acknowledging him. He is not the carpet pooper. He sits there, proudly, little head upright, the dignity of a prince, and pierces me with his repose like a general standing tall in surrender.

And now he follows me into the bathroom to watch, and I can’t blame him. I would close the door, but it seems a little sad since nobody else is around but the cats. And even that is a little sad. I never wanted to be a cat person: they’re the ones you hear stories about. I’ve seen James Bond, and the most evil of villains, the most twisted, always has a cat curled up in his lap. They are as one.

But that’s not me and the fat one. We respect each other’s territory. Maybe being a cat person just means respecting where the other one poops.

He really is a good kitty.*










*Someone, please help. Spot, “The Fat One,” has had me cornered for two days writing flattering cat stories. Even now, as I type this, he has a paw to my throat. His English is poor but his meowing is clear. I don’t have much time. Send dogs.

Waiting to wait at the DMV

One of the first things you might notice about people at the DMV—besides the most obvious, superficial aspects of race, class, and station—are the bottoms. It’s not that you’re into people’s rear ends – though maybe you are – but that there’s a kind of taboo to looking. At first, you tell yourself, it’s just a glance, but then you glance at another. You know, just for idle comparison, right? Pretty soon the bottom becomes the DMV’s version of a window into the soul, a starting place to see a person’s humanity, in their natural clothes, in their natural stance, in their natural attitude. I was at the San Francisco DMV when this happened to me.

There was this woman way ahead of me at the counter who was shaped exactly like the Penguin from Batman Returns–if the Penguin were inclined to wear a purple jumpsuit. Her bottom encompassed nearly the entire backside of her body, one shallow curve beginning around the high hamstring area before tapering off just below the neck. She moved her arms wildly like a conductor when she spoke, but as she turned her head I saw that she was all smiles. She struck me as a lady in control of her day, a rare sight at the DMV, and I liked her immediately.

Another woman, whom I overheard complaining about a registration fee, was roughly the inverse shape-wise: short and generally petite, but an imposing creature with undulating curves. Her bottom, having roughly the same volume as the first woman’s though on a much smaller frame, was the kind of bottom that men tend to whistle at, or sculpt, and indeed I found myself drawn to it.

It must have been her hips. The term “birthing hips” comes to mind, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Her stature was like a tangerine with a pencil running through it from top to bottom. It was that dramatic.

Adding to the effect was the opulent design of her jeans, the back pockets of which were adorned with strips of fabric and fasteners, all cinched horizontally from one cheek to the other, giving her bottom an efficient, packaged look that seemed more inclined to be addressed and mailed than admired from afar.

As I watched her I could see that most of her time at the counter was spent looking off into the distance with a stern, pinched expression. She didn’t want to be there. She had somewhere else to be.

Unlike the first woman, she hardly moved at all, just stood there anxiously, and I began to imagine her surrounded by trees, a doe in the wild, standing perfectly still, trying to avoid the sights of nearby hunters. I felt like the hunter, and sheepishly looked away, only half-catching sight of her passing by silently, no doubt heading to some nearby brook or stream. She must get looked at all the time, not just at the DMV, and I wondered if her face would relax that pinched expression once there was nobody around to look at her.

I was feeling a bit awkward then, trying not to look at anyone or at least not anyone in particular. Then there was a young Japanese girl. She passed me a few times as I stood in line and caught my attention. She was wearing a loose, oversized dress over mostly hidden jeans, a shapeless outfit about as revealing as a duvet. Later, when I finally sat down, waiting for my number to be called, I noticed her sitting across from me: Large, old-fashioned glasses, the kind your grandmother keeps at her bedside table, and wisps of long, brown hair hanging down, covering most of her face. She was a bookish girl, quiet looking, but intense in her gaze like an owl. She was watching people too, and I watched her steal glances at a dwarfish man who was standing across the way.

He looked like Santa Claus in the off-season, with the big beard and the red suspenders holding up a pair of hardy, brown pants, giving me the uncertain impression that he either had no bottom at all or was, in fact, all bottom. (The type of pants, I began to imagine, that would be appropriate for working in a toy factory.) His face was tired and steady like an old clock, until it lit up with pleasure, his eyebrows high and kindly, as he finally reached the front of his line. I kid you not, but his cheeks actually became rosy when he approached the woman behind the counter. The Japanese girl covered her mouth briefly. Maybe a cough, though she might have been smiling.

Eventually, my number was called. Even if you’ve been watching people the whole time, you forget to be self-conscious when it’s your turn. What am I wearing? How am I standing? What’s my attitude look like? You never wonder if people are watching you. You’re distracted by the call to stage.

I stepped to the window and leaned hard against the counter, feeling as though the further I leaned, the faster the matter would be handled. At the DMV, everyone leans like this, shamelessly, believing it helps. The myth persists because once you’re at the counter you are processed with surprising efficiency. It must be working. You lean-in harder.

I thanked the woman at the counter, leaned back, and turned to make my exit, along the way passing the young Japanese girl, her eyes now settled in front of her, apparently focused on nobody in particular. Then, as I reached the exit, I paused for a moment to turn around and take a photo, thinking it might be nice to have one on-hand in case I wanted to write about it later. As I did this, I noticed the Japanese girl, her neck now oriented to the right, eyes comfortably settled where my bottom had been moments before.

I used to tell people the simple truth:  that I just don’t like mint.  The ensuing conversation was never simple.

“What?  Wait—you mean, like, mint, like the leaf?”


“How can you not like mint?”

“I don’t know.  I just don’t like it in food.  It always tastes wrong.”

“Now, wait a minute here.  You’re saying that…”

Inevitably, they would work their way to toothpaste, and they’d have me there.  Of course I like mint in toothpaste.  I’m not a caveman.  But toothpaste is not food.  I’m not arguing with the flavor.  It’s very refreshing.  I wouldn’t have my gum/Altoids/menthols/toothpaste any other way.  I just don’t want it mixed in with my chicken.  Chicken shouldn’t ever refresh me.

Conversations like this usually spring from the classic Thursday-night-let’s-get-dinner-out discussion, where Thai food is apparently now a must for consideration in any cosmopolitan setting.  I say, “No thanks. I don’t really like it,” to blank, confused faces. I explain it is mostly because of the mint. They are baffled and actually upset with me.  They want to spend ten minutes trying to unearth some tragic memory locked deep in my psyche, some wretched beginning to my hatred of their fair leaf.  Was it an accident in the mint factory, Tommy?  Did you have an uncle with especially fresh breath?

I imagine it’s the same way I react when I learn someone doesn’t like avocado.  It’s like they just told me they don’t much care for pillows.  It’s not that it’s bad or that I feel sorry for them.  It just isn’t possible.  If Human, then love of pillows and avocado…ergo….”What the shit is your problem?”

Saying I’m allergic to something implies everything that isn’t true, but should be, with regards to things I don’t particularly like.  First off, it might kill me.  So right off the bat, it gets rid of the whole “Well, maybe you just haven’t had it done right…because I know this perfect little place on 16th…”  Sorry buddy: death.  Nobody can say a thing.  It’s unarguable.  Allergic says, “Fuck you, I’m handicapped, and I’ll thank you never to bring it up again.”

Which brings up the second thing it does: it disallows curiosity. A person can’t ask too many questions about an allergy; it’s not polite.  All they can do is lower their eyes, shift on their feet, and smile the biggest smile of definitely-not-pitying-you they can muster while thinking, Poor bastard.  Part of his body just doesn’t work. You might be thinking that pity is harder to ingest than mint but, believe me, I’ve tried both, and I take pity every time.

Besides pity, there is an air of strength in having an alleged allergy.  “Look how brave he is, Barbara,” is just the sort of conversation I imagine my friends having after I tell them about my allergy (assuming anyone I know in this day and age is named Barbara).  It says: I’ve overcome my burdens.  I am surviving, despite my sad, sheltered, Thai-less existence.

Then the days come when I just don’t mind and I give up on all the protesting, on the whole allergy farce.  I concede the mint. I just go for it, because: why should I always get my way?  It’s important to try things again, even things you know you really don’t like, if for no other reason than to practice tolerance. We sit happily in the restaurant, my friends and I, and it really is a pleasure seeing how excited they are for the food.  The last course arrives, and I’m really proud of myself for letting down my guard.  The meal is actually quite lovely.  Then I see it:

“Wait a second.  Is this fucking fruit in my salad?”

Marty couldn’t hear my father. Historically, all the men in my family seem to have a difficult time relating to some children. Nobody has ever quite figured it out, either. Some say it’s the baritone voice, others say it’s because we tend to talk to children like adults, rarely raising the pitch of our voice, and never dumbing things down. Marty, the younger brother of my best friend, Reed, was just such a child; it’s like he didn’t even know my father was in the room. We were on this dual family trip at our desert lake-house on Lake Mead, Reed’s family and my own, and one morning, before we all loaded up and headed out on the lake, my father tried to get Marty’s attention. It became the biggest inside joke of our two families, that everyone heard my father except for Marty.

I don’t know if it’s entirely relevant, but I can’t describe the scene without wanting to explain that Marty was something of a different child. Don’t get me wrong, he was not at all retarded, not even autistic, just different. I’ll try to sum him up with a few images: As a toddler, though, oddly, only as a toddler, Marty spoke fluent Spanish, having spent, we presumed, a good deal of time more with the Mexican nanny than the rest of his family. In kindergarten, his parents were often called in for teacher conferences because he kept trying to take his clothes off, usually succeeding. He was prone to tantrums, and we, the older kids, exploited this, as mean little kids do, by taunting him as often as possible. Finally, I feel it is, if not important, at least colorful to note that, as a teenager, years after this episode at the lake-house, Marty was in the habit of creating and maintaining a prolific collection of potions and their accompanying bottles. His room was full of of blue vials. He was a special kid, and even that weekend, at just six years old, we all knew it.

Marty, Marty’s parents, my friend, Reed, and I were all in the living room, the parents reading, Reed and I playing Monopoly and Marty playing on his own, in the middle of the floor with some cowboy and Indian toys. My father came in wearing his usual boating gear of corduroy short-shorts, old tennis shoes and safari hat, and Reed and I looked up, eager for news that the boat was ready to go. “Reed, Thomas, do you two want to ride in the boat to the Marina?” my father asked us both. It was the coolest way to get there, and we both nodded with big grins. While everyone else would be in the car, the boat in tow, we would get to ride up in the boat, taking turns to control the steering wheel and pretending we were driving it down the highway. We had just turned nine, and riding in the boat on our own was a new testament to how old were were, practically young men it seemed. We were very excited. “Okay then, why don’t you two help me finish loading the coolers up in the boat,” my father said, glancing over at the coolers on the kitchen table.

My father thought Marty was weird – we all did, except for his parents, of course, though I’m not even certain about them – and I think he must have become quite self-conscious about it, as though Marty’s parents might start thinking that he was just as guilty as we two boys in all of our juvenile meanness. So he had taken special effort all weekend to try to get Marty to do things, join a hike, notice a particularly interesting rock, or go snorkeling. We hadn’t noticed it at the time, but Marty just never seemed to pay any attention to my father.

Now, in the living room, my father earnestly tried again. “Marty, do you want to ride with the boys up in the boat?” He couldn’t have been standing more than four feet from Marty, but Marty just sat there, making little gun noises with his tongue against the inside of his cheek, smashing this Indian into that cowboy. Reed and I hadn’t moved, both of us anxious to see if Marty would get to go, and we sat there, ourselves, waiting for Marty to respond. He didn’t.

My father tried again. “Marty? The boys are going to ride up in the boat on their own today. Would you like to go with them?” He stood there, looking down at the little boy. If he were the sort to take off his hat and scratch his head, he would have at this point, but he just stood there. I caught his eye, and couldn’t help but smirk, not quite giggle, but smirk. He almost smiled back, but kept his attention on little Marty, who was now in control of a mighty raid of Indians against one lone cowboy. “You know, we haven’t had enough ice cream for breakfast, have we Marty? I’d better put you in charge of all of the ice cream today.” At this, Marty’s Parent’s looked up from their respective books. They didn’t say anything, they just looked, brows furrowed in fresh confusion over the situation, and it seemed we could all feel the silence in the room as my father stared down attentively, trying to break through whatever magic kept this child from hearing him.

My mother, who had been busy throwing towels and shirts and whatever else into the duffel bags for the boat, came stomping up the hallway with a pair of walkie-talkies and addressed my father. “Fred, do we have batteries for these things, I don’t want them going out like last-” She stopped, apparently sensing the preoccupation in the room, and noticed my father looming over Marty. The Indians, at this point, had surrounded the lone cowboy, and one of them was throwing big marbles into the walls of a domino fortress he had escaped to.

Marty…” my father whispered, this time leaning in, drawing out the name. Nothing… By now, none of us could believe it. Clearly the child was right there, able to hear all of this. He must be able to, right? But none of us spoke. Nobody wanted to break the moment, everyone too entranced by this oddity of physics and child psychology. I started to get up, thinking I ought to get his attention or something, but my father motioned with his hand to wait a moment, and I did. “Marty, maybe today I’ll let you wear my favorite hat.” He leaned over to the hat rack by the door, eyes still fixed on the boy, and pulled off a stiff, white-mesh, safari hat that had a little solar panel on the top of it with wires that ran down to a small, electric fan at the brim. It wasn’t just my father’s favorite hat; it was everyone’s favorite hat. It was the most marvelous of hats, so absurdly practical, so brashly unattractive, that it held a kind of chieftain wonderment, as though the bearer of such a hat must be, ostensibly, the most important person in the room.

The cowboy stuck just the tip of his gun out from behind the massive domino wall and fired a single, deadly shot, killing one of the many Indian raiders. The Indians let out a holler, while the little boy made quiet, persistent, “lu, lu, lu, lu…” noises, both scaring the cowboy back behind his fort’s wall.

My father started waving a little, first a hand, then an arm, then both arms, still holding the marvelous hat. The boy didn’t stir. Then my father marched in place. Nothing. Then he started singing, not loudly like in a parade, but like a kid’s tune with some made up melody. “Marty, Marty, marty, marty, marteeee!”

Reed and I started laughing with our mouthes shut, hands covering our faces, trying, oh, trying so hard, to keep the laughter in. Marty’s parents sat there, wide eyed, looking down at their quiet son, up at my mascaraing father, and at each other, waiting for a cue.

Marty sat, scratched his own head for a moment, and leaned in to the action before him. Two of the Indians made a rush, smashing against the less protected eastern wall of the domino fort. My father, now more cartoon than man, turned with a disciplined about-face, paused, pulled open the sliding glass door, and marched outside onto the stairway. Another about-face, hand upon door, and he pulled the sliding door shut. “Marty!” He seemed to shout, his big voice rattling the door. At this point, both of us boys were actively giggling. My mother couldn’t believe her eyes, and she was laughing too. Marty’s mother, neck craned over to see my father’s antics behind her, she lets out a nose-laugh that sounded like steam from a valve, and Marty’s father just shakes his head, smiling.

Finally, my father stopped. Whatever this was, it was serious, or, at least, it was real. Something kept that boy from hearing him. It couldn’t just be his voice, because everyone heard that, unless there was some specific tone or frequency that this boy’s ears couldn’t receive. And it couldn’t just be that Marty was distracted, because he was never that distracted, and even now his head popped up and he looked around incuriously to see everyone laughing, never once noticing my father moving wildly behind the glass door.

Head a little lower, my father came in, quietly, with no singing, and no marching, and gently shut the sliding door. He put his favorite hat back up on the hat rack. “Okay Marty, well, I’m going to get the boat loaded now.” Held firmly in Marty’s hand, the Cowboy hopped on his horse and started fleeing. The Indians hadn’t counted on him having a horse.

Marty’s father leaned in a bit from his chair. He raised an eyebrow. “Marty,” he cooed, gentle as the breeze. “Fred is talking to you.”

“Who?” Marty’s head popped up, as bright and as eager as a squirrel’s.

Laughter. Oh my goodness the laughter. Laughter from everyone, from Reed and me, so that we both rolled back onto the floor. Laughter from my mother who leaned in against a chair by her side, chest heaving, eyes squinted. Laughter from Marty’s parents who both fell back against their chairs, mouthes open, knees up in the air and feet stomping back down again. Laughter from my father, who gave a satisfied, if not ironic chuckle, as he reached over to support my mother. “Huh?” Marty repeated, his face red with embarrassment but his eyes unsure why. He dropped the fleeing cowboy. The Indians fell silent.

The rest of the day was spent reliving the moment, mostly by the observers. Marty’s parents thought it was a real gag, just the cutest damned phenomenon, and egged on my father to say all kinds of things to their little son, some of which he heard, much, to our enjoyment, that he didn’t. Reed and I kept trying to lower our voices, calling out “Marty, Marty, come to me…” like a mixture of my father and Count Dracula. Marty, in his usual way, would throw a tantrum and storm off. Things went back to their usual routine, and the joke, as jokes do, wore old and nostalgic within hours. In the late afternoon, my father led us boys on hikes, and took us snorkeling, and pointed out particular rocks, and Marty would eventually come out of his huff, and tag along, never quite hearing anything my father had to say.

It certainly wasn’t THE mistake; there were probably a number of those, but the first thing I did wrong was have the cab driver drop me off three blocks from my apartment, instead of right at the front door, especially knowing that neighborhood’s reputation.  I must have felt like walking a bit.  It was five in the morning after a long Sunday night and I was drunk.  Most of the time drunk means you’re stumbling about, a bit stupider than when you began the night but, sometimes, when you’ve been drunk long enough, when you’ve started early in the night and kept it up, somehow teetering on the line between life-of-the-party and asshole-of-the-evening, you manage a kind of comfort with the drunk, a sort of calm-in-the-storm.  It’s hard to imagine but some part of your mind gets used to the world from inside the bottle, maybe the way veterans, having seen too much of the shit, can just nod their heads at the most atrocious things and whisper, ‘FUBAR,’ and just know they must go on.  I prefer to think of it like musical theater, all optimism, the way the drunk character in the play can magically stand up and exhibit textbook choreography, dancing down the pavement, toes tapping on benches, where even the stumbling has style.  So I was when I got out of the cab on the Avenue Gran Via, a notoriously seedy street in Madrid, clad in Tyler Durden’s three-quarter length, red-leather Jacket.  Some girl has kissed me that night, and I was grinning a silly grin.  I’m sure it wasn’t the grin the mugger saw.

  I had been this way many times before.  Most night’s I would walk down this alley, away from my apartment, heading to Gran Via to pick up a cab and start my night.  I usually stopped in a little place that made me ham and cheese sandwiches.  The waitress there was attractive, and would smile at my broken Spanish and pour me extra Sangria without charge.  At this hour there weren’t many people around, just a few homeless, and I whistled a bit, whistling the sort of too-chipper melody, I suppose, only a fancy foreigner might find appropriate in such a dark little alley. 

  A little man approached me, the kind of character who would be best played by a swarthier version of the big-eyed, creepy fellow in Casablanca, who gets shot within the first couple of scenes for trying to smuggle some important German papers.  At the time, he instantly reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor, all bent over, face lined with craving.  He held his hands out, humbly asking for anything I could spare.  His Spanish was worse than mine, and he was probably one of the recent migrants from Northern Africa who filter into Europe through Spain.  Coupled with hand gestures for what I think was ‘sandwich’ or ‘bread,’ and something to do with his mouth, he kept pace with me, pleading a little, saying how hungry he was.

  Now a days, in San Francisco, where any walk through the streets means requests for change, I’m hardened, but at that hour, in that town, I felt a little sorry for him, and handed him some of what I had.  It was hardly anything, just some of the bigger coins I had left-over.  And it’s not as though I felt he needed to be particularly grateful or anything, but the way he seemed to sneer at the coins I gave him, it just didn’t seem to fit the natural order of beggar and giver.  It wasn’t much that I gave him, but it was enough to buy food.  “Sorry, Sorry, really, that’s all I have for giving,” was all I could say in Spanish, and he pleaded further, but slowed his pace, receding back into the scene as I carried on down the alleyway.

  I’ve always been a bit suspicious of people when I’m out in the big world, having grown up in a city whose idea of crime usually involves accountants, but I swear that little guy was keeping up with me.  I knew he was hoping to beg more, well, that’s an awful way to put it.  I knew he wanted more money.  Who knows if he was really hungry, but he was persistent.  He appeared again at my side.  Again, he was hungry.  It wasn’t enough.  He lowered his hand, marking a mark of height in the air, and said something that sounded like ‘daughter.‘  I apologized and apologized.  I knew I had a couple of the smaller coins left in my pockets, smaller ones that weren’t even worth the giving, but I just wanted to be home, and his weathered, sad face, his broken Spanish, the way he sort of hobbled after me, more in show than because of any real physical malady, I just didn’t want to be bothered by him anymore.  The truth is he just wasn’t at all that likeable, not even in a pitiable way.  Maybe pain and suffering are ugly, and maybe I was just uncaring to that, but something in his nature or presentation, it didn’t say ‘poor me,’ it was just sort of pathetic, almost slinking.  He was, I am sorry to say, the way some old furniture is beloved and worth the mending, and some is just that-crappy-old-chair.  Some stains, some dirt, carry memories, and others are just dirt, and you toss the chair, throw it out, with no sentiment, glad to be rid of it.  I apologized, shaking my head, and walked on with purpose.  He stopped, and sunk away, eyes burning a hole in the back of my leather jacket.

  Just a couple of blocks from my apartment, I heard footsteps.  Fucking footsteps.  Even then, without any time for reflection, even as the suspicion turned to fear, my mind jerked in revulsion at the cliché and monstrous irony of hearing menacing footsteps behind me.  The scared, nervous voice in my head, the sensible one muffled by the booze, it was yelling out.  This is the scene where the woman walks through the poorly lit parking garage, or the scene where the reporter in the thriller, having just learned of the CIA’s corruption, quickens his pace.  All of the shots are of feet, fast paced, in rhythm.   First it’s the victim’s, short and quick, then the dark, determined, clip-clopping of the pursuer’s.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing footsteps behind me.  I was terrified.

  I turned, just in time for him to grab me, the little man, his face now twisted in desperation.  His right hand was holding onto my left wrist, tight.  His left hand, his left was holding a knife.  He stuck the knife against my stomach, against the leather of my red jacket, holding the sharp point against the leather.  “Money!” he shouted in Spanish, “Give me! Give me the money!”

  “I don’t have any!  I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I lied, not even realizing it was a lie, pulling my arm back as he gripped tighter, as he poked a little harder into me with the short knife.  I dug around in my pocket with my free right hand, making a gesture, showing him the few meager coins I had left, his head shaking, jerking, disapproving.  In my head, we argued for minutes.  In my memory, my Spanish was fluid and clear, and I conjured sentences, and I struggled, unable to pull away, unable to even realize any specific danger, only to feel that everything was dangerous, the way some pain is everywhere at once.

  I was wearing a money belt.  It had everything in it.  Idiot tourists, on their first trips abroad, they buy these things to keep their money safe, out of sight, out of their backpacks and their wallets.  They tie them against their stomachs where no pickpocket will think to pick.  They feel safe, adapted, prepared.  The danger is handled, they think, their heads all caught up in some small brochure-scenario, never realizing the simple truth that things they don’t carry can’t be stolen.  I was that idiot.  I had everything in there, credit cards, traveler’s checks, passport, student ID and enough cash to feed any need.

  The little man was nervous, was panicking, and was starting to shift his attention from his hand gripping mine to the hand holding the knife.  His left hand came at me, and he pawed at me with it, frustrated, reaching in my jacket, clawing at my shirt pockets, still holding the knife loosely.  He must have known just where to look, because he suddenly took hold of my shirt and wrenched it up, out of my pants.  He was going for the money belt I was wearing.  It wasn’t there. 

  That general suspicion that I had, that naive, close-minded, picket-fence insecurity instilled in me by a safe, wary, conservative town, hadn’t trusted the belt entirely.  A week earlier, seeing all the other students I knew pulling up their shirts every time they went to buy something, I had decided the whole thing was too obvious.  I had started tucking the belt below my waist, fitting it just under the belt-line of my pants, where no-one could see it unless they really had a mind to dig.

  When he jerked up on my shirt, his eyes focused at my waist, surely expecting a prize, I froze, certain, certain of nothing, afraid of everything.  I still had the dozen or so small coins in my right hand.  Without thinking, I threw my left arm out hard, the arm he was still holding onto, throwing his balance off, and simultaneously threw all of the coins at him, half, I suppose, to distract him, half, maybe as a kind of meager, dim-witted assault.  All of the motions, being pulled to the side, the coins at his face, it was just enough, he was off of me, and I turned, running.  I ran, ran those couple of blocks to my apartment in the dark, my feet pounding into the pavement like hooves, my whole body a machine of speed and desperation, an animal in terror.  I never looked back.


  Upstairs, outside the little apartment where I was living for the semester, I made a commotion, voice trembling, shouting, and then trembling again.  My Spanish “father,” answered the door, and seemed not to recognize the obvious fear in my eyes.  He was a daft guy, the head of the “family,” which consisted of he, a middle-aged, unemployed man, his mother, sweet, parrot voiced, and senile, and four cats who had a tendency to stare.  He was a silly man, I thought, overweight and under-experienced.  We had had lots of pointless arguments, and were generally ill suited, but just then, I wanted him to save me.  I tried to explain, but could only muster a few, basic terms, my fluid Spanish now lost.  With a mix of incongruent words, as though painting a scene like a child with all the wrong colors, I tried to tell him I had been mugged.  “Man…knife,” I started out.  “Money.  He wants money.  The man with the knife wants money.”  It was enough.  He understood.

  We sat there for a moment, me still panting, shaking, him considering, I could see, the situation deeply.  “Lo siento, Tomas…lo siento,” he said, “I’m sorry.”  He paused, and looked up.  “Quieres leche?”

  I stopped, as though hearing a piece of glass shatter, my mind cracking from the absurdity.  “Milk?  Do I want milk?  NO!  No quiero leche!  Quiero fucking justice!  Quiero revenge and goddam, oh, goddamit, I don’t know.  Fuck!”  I screamed back at him, venting all the rage, all the simple, plain fright and vulnerability I felt.  A man, a knife, my God, and how I had ran!  Fucking milk!?

  “Lo siento, Tomas,” he said, apologizing again, not for the silly offer of milk, but for my fear.  He was genuinely sorry for me, and concerned, and I saw the sincerity in his face as he got up to go back to bed, leaving me be, and I knew I didn’t need to apologize for being so ungrateful. 

  I spent the rest of the night in my own head, no longer afraid, but helpless, my mind retracing every move, cursing my stupidity, cursing the little-man’s very being in the world.  I reenacted the scene, over and over, inserting new triumphs where I had been afraid, and vengeance where I had ran.  I pictured karate classes, and the weeks ahead where I would turn the tables, where I would repeat the dark-alley walk, again and again, this time perusing him like some vigilante whose thirst for revenge can never be satisfied.  I shuffled about in bed, limbs restless, eventually getting up and pacing about.  My safe, small world was breached.  The simple things were useless.

  Finally, giving up on sleep, I went back into the now quiet kitchen.  I leaned against the wall and watched a bit of the morning’s light creep in through the windows, watched in brighten up the alley below, filling in the dark spaces.  My eyes traced back along that alley, over the stains, over the dirt, my mind grappling at the meaning of Spanish signs in this and that shop window, trying to understand, to make sense of the place.  Exhausted, I settled in a chair, leaning against the window, looking out.  I reached over for a cup, and poured myself a glass of milk.

The story of ‘my most-memorable train ride’ is often elicited, and appropriately renamed, by many differing topics of conversation.  Sometimes it’s somebody talking about how drunk they got one night, or how paranoid.  Occasionally, it’s just a mention of hash, or how hash is more prevalent in Europe than it is in America.  On these occasions I sometimes change the tale to include words like devilish or exotic, giving it a more melodramatic air, and am sure to mention the many strange smells that passed by my nose that night.  My favorite point of entry is when somebody brings up chardonnay, or languages, or anything to do with translation, because it always gives me warrant to start the story early enough to really set up the wonder and horror of the night.

The train was the overnight from Lisbon to Madrid and I was nineteen, maybe two months in on a semester abroad program in Spain.  I was with two other students, Peter and Beth.  Peter was a bit older for college, maybe twenty-three, but it was all in good fun for him, his parents having owned this or that company that secured him a life of ease.  Beth was beautiful, and had the most charming quality in that one could never quite tell if she was utterly daft or simply demure.  I used to take her out for drinks, with the two of us talking for hours, me never taking my eyes off of her pleasant face, and I could just never tell, was she dumb, or just mysterious?  She was the sort of girl that made a man question his own judgment.

We three had spent the weekend in Lisbon collecting memories fit for any adventure in a foreign land.  There was the cab driver when we first arrived who told us to watch out for hash dealers.  (Actually, he told us to watch out for dishonest hash dealers, as they tended to show you a great piece of hash and then sell you a hash look-a-like that was really some kind of compacted chocolate.)  There was the famous pastry shop which sold little half-dozen boxes of something like custard pie and which was so busy, bustling, and baffling as to feel more like a crazy buy-run at a stock exchange than a simple bakery.  On the beach, the morning before we were set to go home, we watched fishermen pull a net onto the shore that had been dragged over a mile out by a tiny, two-man boat.  The fishermen then picked a small amount a fish from a large pile of mostly jellyfish, jellyfish that the men would pick up with their bare hands and toss aside back onto the sand, probably to die.  Later, we found an old book store which housed old, dirty comics from the fifties down in the basement.  I had picked up a little novel there, one of the few choices the shop had in English.  It was a strange, embarrassingly erotic story that a professor of ancient Persia wrote about a young man of maybe fourteen, who suddenly became the sultan, and was basically trapped and confronted by all the mystery and maliciousness of the harem.  I had sat alone by the water with that book for maybe seven hours before we all boarded the train back to Madrid and had decided, once everything was well stashed in my bunk, to join everyone in the dining car, the one place on the train where there was room enough to be sociable.

Wine was still new to me then, and Peter offered me a glass of what he was having first thing upon sitting next to him and Beth in the dining car.  There is nothing quite like the sudden shift a semester abroad in Europe brings for a youth than the ability to eat, drink, and smoke, freely, openly and, more often than not, all at once, with no thought of taboo.  Even two months into the experience, and feeling practically native, I relished it, and set a pack of cigarettes in front of me the way a guy places quarters to reserve the next big game on the pool table.

I think, between my options of a cold ham sandwich and something that might have been chicken, I must have chosen the sandwich, because whatever I ate it was salty and meager, and I recall needing a second glass of whatever this delicious vintage had been, right away.  I asked the server what it was that I had been drinking, what it was called, hoping he was one of the staff who would understand and tolerate my moderately broken Spanish.  “El Blanco,” he said, and gestured towards a series of bottles behind him.

“Ah…si.”  I tried to scrunch up my face and raised my eyebrows thoughtfully, hoping it would look impressed by the details he had provided.  “Yes, the white.  Yes, well…that was very good, thank you.  I think I’ll have another.”  Two glasses, as they tend to do, turned to three.  I had never been much of a drinker, having something of a hereditary curse as a hybrid between my father and mother’s constitutions.  My father’s side of the family could drink, and did.  My mother’s couldn’t.  The result was the ability to drink whatever I wanted quickly and impressively, often finishing my first three before anyone else had done with their one.  This would be followed by a wink, smile, and subsequent vomiting, which in turn would be followed by hallucinations of a mother who, I am sure, had told me so.  But Europe had tempered my own constitution, developed it to enjoy the finer things, and I had been encouraged by a number of fantastic nights with few regrets.  The four of us sat there, laughing over our weekend and over our drinks, trying each to recall which moments had been more amazing.

While Peter was telling a pot story (Peter was nearly always telling a pot story because Peter was a California pothead and had, for the entirety of the two months abroad, being trying to find marijuana in an area of the continent which was essentially without), I absently reached for my pack of cigarettes and leaned in to ask the server for an ashtray.  He handed me one from behind the counter while pointing out towards the end of the table and said something too quickly for me to understand.  I looked where he had pointed and saw an old Portuguese gentleman sitting there, leaning hard against the bar, with the same bottle of the wine I was drinking in front of him.  “Oh, yes, si.  El vino es muy bueno.”  I told the server how much I liked it and thought, since he’d asked, that I had better have another.  I asked him for one and lit my cigarette.

“No, no, no!” The server started yelling, waving his hands back and forth.  He pointed out towards the bottle again.  He said ‘fuera,’ outside. 

Peter noticed and said, “yeah, guy did the same thing to me earlier.  You have to smoke out there, in between the cars.  I guess it’s a non-smoking dining cart.”  I winced, feeling a bit let down by my first real prohibition from the relishing free-for-all, and gestured to the group that we ought to step out for some fresh air.

The smoking area, as it were, was nothing more than a pathetically enclosed section between two cars.  The way a convertible feels when its roof hasn’t quite sealed to the frame, the area was shockingly windy and open feeling and we took our places besides eight smoking men, all of us grappling for something solid to hold on to.  I had brought the ashtray that the server had given me, assuming I was meant to use it out there, and felt damned silly, watching my ashes fly around everywhere but the ashtray, until I noticed that each of the men was holding an ashtray as well.  I smiled at them, lifting up my useless ashtray, and they, in turn, lifted theirs, nodding back as we shared our little inside joke.

The smoking area turned out to be the true social arena of the train.  There was the three of us, the Americans, and then a coupling of four other nationalities: two Spaniards, two Portuguese, two Italian and two, well, we never did figure out where the last two were from.  And with this mix, we shared stories.  The details of the stories, like some great game of telephone where you start with, ‘the boy sat on the chair,’ and end up with some warning about a purple monkey, are all impossible to remember.  In one story, the last two gentlemen, the two from lands unknown, were laughing feverishly.  They agreed on key details and passed them on to the Italians.  The Italians, in turn, would recount most of what they had heard to the Portuguese, who then explained things to the Spanish.  After laughing for some while, the Spanish then told me, and I pieced together enough of what I’d understood, along with whatever extra details were needed to make sense of things, to let my friends in on the joke.  Meanwhile, the other passengers were standing there, waiting expectantly, timing my explanation of the story with how they knew it.   “…and so he tells her, he already had his shots,” I finished,  and the smoking area erupts.  Everyone laughs.

The night goes on like this for an hour or so, with pauses for heated discussions on what word, exactly, one was trying to say.  Peter and I get into an argument with the Italians over who’s the better actor, DeNiro or Pacino.  There’s lots of hand gestures.  Our friend, Beth, the attractive, blonde one who speaks the least Spanish, gets the most attention, and the men gesture extra hard in jumbled conversation with her.  I dropped in and out of the smoking area, sometimes leaving for the bathroom, sometimes for another glass of the white, and would always return to massive confusion, where Peter is pretty sure that someone mentioned hash to him and Beth isn’t sure who touched her ass.

As things went on, Peter seemed to befriend one of the Portuguese fellows.  He was tall and swarthy and looked just the way a seasoned traveler ought to, with long, dark hair, and a satchel at his side.  It might have been the language barrier, and I’m sure part of it was, but he had a way of trying very desperately to explain everything he wanted explained to us.  I watched as he spoke with Peter and Beth, his body language intent, his eyes almost too sincere, and he gave me the sort of wary feeling one has when confronted by a street poet, or homeless man.

Peter was in especially high spirits while talking with the traveler, because he had managed to meet up with a friend in that weekend Lisbon who had just come from California, a friend who had pot, and the traveler was suggesting we roll a joint of his hash mixed in with Peter’s pot.  This seemed like a very agreeable proposition to all of us.

I should pause here to catch up with the shabby job of counting my drinks.  With good conversation, I’m afraid, I’ve always had a weakness for the drink, and given the mighty bout of international conversation, coupled with the sheer strain of desperate translation, I had been thirsty, by this point, for about seven drinks.  I mention this because, as most will attest, it is precisely at seven drinks that many of us start making our best and worst decisions, where judgment seems to flip entirely on its own head, so that good ideas are bad and bad ideas are just the thing.

As drugs go, and without words, the four of us moved in unison out of the smoking area, through the dining car, and into the aisle of one of the quiet, mostly dark sleeper cars.  The traveler had papers, and we watched as he went through the careful motions of rolling a joint, pressing here and there with this thumbs, tamping down the mix of pot and hash with his forefingers, making careful work of the ritual.  Peter, the main supplier, got the first hit, with the traveler going next.  When it came to me I enjoyed it, slowly, free to breathe in deeply with my lungs, already hardened by cigarettes.  As I smoked, the traveler spoke.  Most of it was in Portuguese, as his English was quite bad, and I tried, as I had before, to pick out certain words, anything that sounded like something in Spanish.  He spoke of light, of a road or roads, and often of a girl or girls whom he seemed to know intimately.  I passed the joint on, noting the dry, pasty texture in my mouth, breathing in the air of the sleeper car as if to ready my body for a ride.

As we stood there, the four of us puffing and passing, my joy, my being in the moment, turned to criticism. The traveler, as a person, seemed wholly impractical.  I’ve never been a fan of people who lean on the new age side, and I became very paranoid that this man, that all of his words, his pleadings for something to do with the light, his love of the road or roads, girl or girls, were all just, well, there was no intelligible word for it except ‘nonsense,’ really.  It’s bullshit I thought, all bullshit.  And I resented his suave and his sexy.  He was exactly what you’d expect in that kind of moment, hair masking just one of his eyes, his mouth never quite smiling but always seeming positive or intense.  There were moments in his stories that he’d pull his eyes back from some distant thought and look right at Beth, with Peter and I left out as clearly as if he’d grabbed her by the arm and pulled her aside.  It was jealousy, plain and simple.  I still didn’t have a fix on whether Beth liked me or not.  She never seemed quite eager for me to make a move, but then again, she’d always say yes to going out for a drink, and in the same way, she didn’t seem to reject the attention of this traveler or ask for it either.  I was leaning against the wall of the sleeper car now, my back curled and rolling against the metal surface as I rocked to and fro with the rhythm of the train.

In retrospect, there are many points in any long night when one has the opportunity to call it quits and go to bed.  It must have been the jealousy, because I didn’t take one of them.  Past two or three in the morning, I sat there with Beth and the Traveler, playing some kind of physical defense between the two.  Peter had long since gone to our bunks to pass out, and by this time I was sitting on the floor myself, afraid to leave, but too tired to make any real show of things.  I figured that without me, with so much language barrier, there wasn’t much for them to say.  I figured maybe I could just leave, and they’d be too confused to go on.  But he was a man, and she was a woman, and I also figured that such obstacles had been overcome before, as nature designed them to.  So there I sat, patiently, annoyingly, sipping on my final glass of wine, listening to the traveler, interjecting half-hearted critiques of his tales, and giving up just as quickly as the translation became too difficult.  Finally, the night was called.  Beth and the traveler hugged farewell, and he and I shook hands, giving a measure of due respect for our roles well played.  I had won.  That is, until I stood up.

The rest of my night was a blur in the worst of all ways.  Mostly, people refer to the end of their nights as a ‘blur’ because they only remember bits of them.  For me, I remember everything, but it was as though the recording of the memory was flawed, like watching a home movie a kid might have shot, the lens never quite settling on one image or another.  I remember everything, and all of it is blurry.

The spins had set in first, a deep, internal, swinging of the senses, like a carnival ride you can’t get off.  I had given a polite but urgent goodnight to Beth and made what felt like a quick and nearly dignified run down the corridor of the sleeper car, my hands planting themselves against the walls to steady myself, my footsteps a slow, purposeful count in my head.  Bed.  Bed was the only answer.  And then, swinging myself up to my top bunk, bed was the worst thing ever.  In bed it was dark, dark enough for the spinning to really grab me, to suck me down like a drain.  I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom, certain I was falling off the end of my own mind.

Our train had two unfortunate qualities of design.  First, there was only a bathroom on every third sleeper car, and second, every sleeper car was an exact mirror of the one before it, so that traveling from one car to the next one had the utterly discouraging feeling that you had just come from exactly where you ended up, a kind of twilight zone effect in real life.  I was dashing between the cars now, debilitatingly sick and yet still paranoid and self-conscious enough that I didn’t want to make a mess in the bathroom nearest my bunk.  Somehow, I had decided that this would lead back to me, and the shame of it, of everything that I thought was coming, was enough to keep me moving.  From one car to the next I ran, each car looking just as the one I had left, only reversed, the path now on the right, the rooms now on the left.  It was completely dark outside, so despite there being windows all along the aisle, the lights inside the cars made them all reflect, and the feeling, along with the rumbling below my feet, and the seemingly never-ending maze of cars compounded my nausea and paranoia to an extent usually reserved for villains at the end of their run.

Finally reaching the bathroom, I locked the door, inhaled deeply and threw-up in the sink, not even able to make it to the toilet.  The sink was tiny, built for compact and bare use like a sink in an airplane.  I collapse on the floor and huddled myself against a low towel rack with no towels to comfort me.  The next three hours were utter misery.  I had managed to take my contacts out and put my glasses on in the bunk before trying to get to bed, and squatting there I took them off and put them back on again, over and over, neither my stomach nor senses at ease with a clear world or a blurry one.  The sink, too small for more than the rinsing of hands, was filled over with my vomit, and as the train rocked and rolled along, so did the vomit.  Occasionally, it splashed out, the way water might out of a bathtub in a happier moment.  Except for the sick, shame was the only feeling I had, sitting there in a wrecked bathroom, with bits of my vomit splashing against me along with the motions of the train.  ‘Wretched’ is the word.  I was, and was feeling, wretched.  After those hours in the bathroom, I tried to get up again, tried to make it to my bunk, and did so, thankfully, without waking up Peter or the other passengers in our room.

Morning had come, and as the train began to slow for the station I awoke, and ran off, still sick, but nearly sober, down the corridor with all of my luggage, locking myself in a new bathroom.  I was too embarrassed to go back to the first bathroom, and tried my best to clean myself up, rinsing my mouth, changing my sweater, wiping little dried, pink specs from my glasses.

When the train finally pulled in, I left quickly, and hurried along the platform towards the exit, hoping my friends might find me eventually, but too scared to wait around in case anyone called after me, half expecting some train authority to seal off the station.  I looked back at the car that I had exited from, and counted back two, three, four cars, to the car with the bathroom that I had destroyed.  It was a disgrace.  It was disgraceful.  I pictured some poor bastard who worked there, checking all the rooms after the passengers had left, finding the state of that bathroom.  I pictured some other, poorer bastard, who didn’t even find it, but who was called in to clean it. 

The night had been amazing.  I had learned about, and communicated with people from all over Europe.  We had connected, in some way, and really fought for that communication.  And the night had gone on, and so had the drinks.  I had been a free agent, a man on my own, living my own life, living the memories I had set out to find.  A joint had led to conversation, and conversation led to jealousy over a school-boy crush.  All of it had led to the bathroom, like some great, tragic catharsis of all my travels.

I stood there, at the end of the platform, looking back at that haunting sleeper car.  Some messes don’t deserve to be cleaned up, not by anyone.  Better that they just detach the car, haul it to some great train graveyard, some place where I could go, years later, to laugh about the experience, and lower my voice, and tell my children, “be careful, because amazing nights can lead to disgrace, and no beautiful memory should end with ‘I told you so.’”