Chicken Goes Down

FeaturedChicken Goes Down

The packing sound of fists against skull cut through the growing chorus of screaming and the angry mob shoved the staggering figure through the entryway. Somewhere between the violence and the noise officers managed to pull the crowd apart.

In the center of the sweltering police station stood a shell of a man with blood pouring from head wounds and shattered teeth. It was “Chicken,” one of former child-soldiers, grown up and addicted to heroin, living in the open graves of Monrovia’s oldest cemetery. They called him Chicken because of how he pecks at his food. As he swayed on his feet, the officers held back the mob and attempted to figure out the cause of the violence. It seemed that Chicken tried to steal a girl’s cellphone in broad daylight and wasn’t quick enough to get away.

The first time I went to Liberia was in 2003, at the end of their last civil war. One night I had been out in downtown Monrovia, and as I got into my car, a man spun me around and tried to grab my camera. I managed to fight him off, and when he fled I gave chase, yelling “Rogue!” the Liberian word for thief. As if on cue, an angry mob formed to chase him down. The last I saw of the thief was him turning down an alley and the mob flowing into the darkness after him. Only when I made it home did someone tell me about the practice of “Dee-bee-dah.” When an angry mob gets their hands on a thief, they stack tires around him, douse him in gasoline, and burn him alive.

Thirteen years later, this time returning as a photojournalist, I thought about the murdered thief and how lucky Chicken was to be alive. An officer shoved him into a corner where he then collapsed. His pants were gone; the mob had tried to strip him. All he had was a single shoe and a stretched and tattered shirt soaking up the blood dripping from his chin. He kept trying and failing to sit up, and what noises that came from him weren’t words but a guttural mish-mash of gulps and gasps. Somewhere behind the broken blood vessels of his detached retina was rapidly-swelling grey matter looking for a way out.

Chicken presented the police with a conundrum: If they charged Chicken with robbery, they’d have to arrest the mob for assault. If Chicken accused them of assault, they’d have to arrest him for theft. The mob didn’t feel like being arrested and the mashed peas of Chicken’s frontal lobe was so brutally concussed that he couldn’t do or say anything. There was no ambulance service to call. No paramedics. The station didn’t even have a first-aid kit. The only thing to do was get rid of him.

After some deliberation, one of the officers came up and grabbed him, pulling him to his feet. I followed them outside as he pushed Chicken and told him to walk. Holding him by one arm and offering false encouragement, the officer dragged Chicken away from the police station, past the playing children and the women washing clothes, just far enough that he wouldn’t be their problem.

 About fifty meters from the police station, the officer turned back, leaving Chicken standing, swaying, and ready to collapse. As his legs started to give out, his twisting body seemed to stand straight, and the hollow gaze of his eyes passed over the lens right as I clicked the shutter.

And with that, Chicken went down.

Waiting for a Single Mom in Africa

FeaturedWaiting for a Single Mom in Africa

Climbing the concrete stairs, ducking under an overturned mattress and making my way up to the third floor revealed the tin-roofed Monrovian slum below. At the top I was introduced to Sarifina, my host and the best-friend of my ex-girlfriend Leanna from 13 years ago. She was sitting on the catwalk with her 18-month-old, talking with a friend, an African man of about 30 who was clearly stoned and they offered me a seat.

Sarifina looked much older than Leanna, though they were the same age. Leanna grew up in Liberia in a family that ran a successful restaurant. With that came creature comforts and rest. Even with her own baby, she had two nanny’s working in shifts that spared her the full exhaustion of motherhood.

Sarifina did not.

All the doors of the house had holes punched in them. All the door handles were missing and looked like they’d been ripped out with crow-bars. None of the doors latched. They just hung. Even in the bathroom you had to move a laundry hamper in front of the door so it wouldn’t swing open. Then you had to pour a bucket of water down the toilet to flush. The apartment was probably raided for scrap before she moved in. On the couch in the living room was a man who had passed out stoned on the couch. It had been arranged for me to stay on the couch, though I’d been upgraded to her son’s room and she said we could probably come to some arrangement for a long-term stay—She’s a single mother after all, and could use the money.

This was supposed to be a friendly favor— to let a friend of a friend stay over to spare him the long drive into the city, not a hotel. Fortunately, I had an alternate arrangement to spend the next night at one of the most heavily guarded compounds in the city with one of my interview subjects, so I was able to perry that offer.

I got settled in my accommodations—a room with a crib, an ironing board, and a mattress in the corner, and then rejoined them on the catwalk to take some pictures while they rolled a joint. She played with her little boy and was teaching him new words. He kept staring at me, so she’d point at me and look to him, saying, “See da white man? WHITE MAN.” This was a new thing for him, and he stared.

As the boy lost interest she took to sprinkling a spliff with her guest. I didn’t fault her for any of this. What the hell is questionable parenting anyways? She asked where I lived and when I told her she said she’d like to come to New York. She’ll come stay with me, she said. “Of course,” I told her, if she doesn’t mind staying with four men in cramped quarters.

That’s no problem.” she said. “They see me and BOOM! They go rock hard.” She laughed and flexed an arm at her waist, imitating a hard cock.

She was tall and thin and pretty, but had a face that was tired, and something about this whole arrangement made me certain I wouldn’t have room when she visited.

I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping with these men. I wanted to say no, but there’s something about the laissez-faire affections in stoner friendships. It’s none of my business, anyways, but I did want to know if someone else would be sleeping in the house with us tonight—they would not, she said.

The last thing I asked her was what time was too late to come back. These places are dead bolted shut and there’s never a guest key. “It is never too late.” She said. “12, 2, 4, 5, it don’ matta. Jus’ call me on ma phone and I come open tha doh.” And then I left.

After an evening spent with the Colonel, he had his driver take me home. It was only three blocks away, but he insisted on sending me in a car. He knows who’s been robbed, killed, or in one case a few months ago, sodomized (he says “sssssodomized!” with exaggerated S). I accepted the offer of a ride, but before I left, I asked him if he had a sleeping pill. I’d left a bunch of things at my last place to pick up later and I didn’t realize how much of a tranquilizer I’d need at Sarifina’s place to get to sleep. He didn’t have anything for sleep, but he offered me an increasingly powerful buffet of painkillers, from Tylenol to Aleve, to OxyContin (you know which one I took).

I made it back at 10:10pm. I climbed the stairs of the catwalk in the dark, doing my best to avoid debris and scattered junk. I scared myself half to death when I reached for a handrail and realized it wasn’t there, with only my wits keeping me from slipping to the floor below. I approached the door when a disembodied voice said something in Liberglish. I made out a figure in the dark.

After 30 seconds of poorly understood Liberglish, I learned that Sarifina wasn’t there. I called but her phone was off, or, more likely, dead. It was explained that Sarifina had gone out. Something about something about something. I couldn’t quite piece it all together. The neighbor said she would call her, and since I’d failed to establish to the neighbor that I was welcome inside without Sarifina, I waited. A few minutes later the neighbor returned, saying she couldn’t reach her. But that she’d try again. She told me to ‘wait small small,’ so I waited, small small.

After another five minutes passed, I went to go inside but I couldn’t. Where there was a splintered wooden door before there was now a steel panel with a few bars at the top, like a prison cell. It was locked and Sarifina had the only key.

Here’s a few hours to think about how good you have it.

I looked out at the slum and practiced taking long exposures in the dark. There were no lights except for the occasional flashlight. I thought about how bad the mosquitoes were at dusk and was grateful I was indoors for those hours. I thought about malaria. Coming back at 10 meant the mosquitoes had already quieted down for the night.

Sarifina arrived at 1am, clearly intoxicated and annoyed with me. The neighbor must have been messaging her along with my previous host whom had introduced us. It was a Saturday night and and even in Liberia, that’s the night to party. Here I was throwing a wrench in those plans. She was apologetic to me, initially, but with the haranguing from her neighbor she was protesting to me and everyone that she had waited until 10 and I didn’t come back. That she had to miss dinner at a friend’s house because of this burden. I felt bad, cramping her Saturday night light this, but I also remember what she’d told me when I asked what time I should be home.

She was only there long enough to let me in and go back out again. I laid down on the mattress in her son’s room. It was hot. The windows were closed because there was no screen on them, and the humidity was such that I was dripping sweat. My clothes stuck to me and I wanted to strip down but I wasn’t certain about how sanitary these conditions were. It was too much in the end and I caved to whatever fate befell me. If there were lice or bedbugs or fleas, no button down shirt or pair of Gucci jeans are going to protect me. I hung my clothes up to dry, stuck the OxyContin under my tongue and waited for the hazing effect of the legalized heroin to allay my concerns. In the dark I could hear phantom mosquitoes and feel them landing on me. The building and the slum outside its walls were making strange noises, thuds and creaks. I told myself to sleep, and I did, dripping sweat with the windows closed, sprawled out spread eagle in my underwear.

I woke up to Sarifina coming in around 4am.

I woke again at 7 when she had to tend to her morning motherly duties, zombified in that no-sleep-no-coffee stumble. She came in to get some of her boy’s clothes and was very apologetic about the night before. Afterwards I could hear her on the phone, sobbing, crying those desperate tears you let go when it’s just too much, then she’d get angry or defensive, yelling at the person on the other end, then crying again. I just laid in bed, imaging I was somewhere else.

It’s gotta be hard, being a single mother. It’s gotta be even harder in Africa, let alone Liberia. The economy is on pins and needles. If it isn’t war, it’s ebola. You get pregnant, and that’s it. There’s no system for child support. I remember that from before. The local workers I would talk to after the war would tease one of them who had gotten a girl pregnant. He wasn’t going to be any part of the child or the mother’s life. That was just how it was. You don’t want to be a father? Then don’t! That’s what Sarifina was dealing with.

Having some man passed out on the couch or blazing up with a friend on the front porch, leaving the kid with mom so you can go get loose wherever the local Monrovian scene is, this could be more than just getting crazy on a Saturday night for her. Having to come home to let this favor of a houseguest in could be keeping her from finding a man, some security for her and her son. She has this two bedroom apartment, even if it does have shattered doors, but it’s clear that money is an issue, and 20 feet away is the next step down: Tin shacks and open windows and bucket-baths in the street, all there to remind her what’s at stake.

How to Burn Down Your House 

FeaturedHow to Burn Down Your House 

Imagine you’re on your couch, just a little stoned and watching TV when the munchies set in, so you head to the kitchen in search of food. Green grapes are the world’s greatest munchie food. Each little orb is an explosion of sweet and sour juices, cold and bite-sized, and even qualifies as “good for you.” But you don’t have any grapes. You travel too much for perishable snacks, so the only things in your pantry are cans of beans and other shelf-stable insta-foods. You grab a cup-noodle and move to pop it into the microwave when an echo of the dignity you once had needles you for something more. You look at the cup-noodle and realize that if you’re going to debase yourself by savaging this sodium bomb, you should at least spare yourself the shame of microwaving it. You’re an adult, and adults boil their water on a stove.

As you turn to the stove and reach for a small pot, you notice your roommate’s tea kettle. Ahah! You think to yourself. Its sexy brushed steel body and classic kettle design should help you recapture almost enough dignity to call yourself a functioning adult. You grab it, admiring its form and modern details. Lifting it towards the sink, the word “mechanical” pops into your mind, free of context and fleeting.

You open the top and begin to fill it under the faucet, careful to fill it with only enough water to fill the styrofoam cup, too much and your precious munchies will have to wait whole seconds longer before they start to cook. At last it comes to the right amount and muscle memory takes over. The switch on the electric stove gets turned to the “HIGH” and you set the kettle down and leave it, turning to take a seat at the kitchen table and tend to your phone while you wait.

Boiling the water doesn’t take long. You forget about it, but the whole point of the kettle is to signal you when it’s ready. You notice steam filling the dining room. More steam than usual, but still you wait for the whistle. A moment later the haze is getting thick and you smell something burning. Oh great. I’ve burned the water. You think to yourself as you get up. You turn to the kitchen while marveling at the inordinate amount of steam. You think of the times you’ve left pasta unattended and it boiled down and burned at the bottom of the pot. This is so weird, you think, I don’t normally burn the water. Wait, how do you burn water?

Then you see the flames crawling out from underneath the kettle and licking the sides and spewing thick black smoke into the air of the kitchen. The kind of smoke you get from plastic garbage. The kettle isn’t a kettle. It’s an electric water boiler, with a (now flaming) plastic base. You scream inside your own head. Fire! One stupid mistake while you’re high and now this! What do you do? Think!

Water. The sink has water.

You’re in hero mode.

You reach through the flames and grab the plastic handle. It’s all so obvious now, you’ve gone and embarrassed yourself something fierce. Better get this fire snuffed out before your roommates notice.

As you spin around to toss it into the kettle into the sink, the centrifugal force of your turn sends flaming plastic napalm in a wide 180º streak, sticking to the walls and door of the kitchen and setting alight everything it touches. No sooner than the flaming kettle lands safely in the pile of dirty dishes does all hell break loose. The burner on the stove erupts, with 18” flames climbing up towards the hood above the range in a bloom. It looks like an upside down rocket engine. Your lizard brain recoils from the danger while the last vestiges of your sober mind crosses its arms and shakes its head at you, pointing to a distant memory of a 3rd grade science lesson:

Fire takes three ingredients: heat, fuel, and oxygen.

Sitting on the stove, only the edges of the plastic base could burn, but when you lifted it up, the oxygen rushed in to meet the melted plastic on the coil and ignited. The flames, now 24” high and licking the hood over the stove are threatening the cabinets. Fear is taking over. You scream: “Shit!” You scream again: “Help!” There’s no hiding this from the roommates, now.

How do you put out a kitchen fire? Well, that’s more of a fourth grade lesson, but the answer is pot lids. That’s what you’ve always been told. When a grease fire lights up in a pan, you can’t spray water on it, you have to smother it, normally with a lid. Are there any lids nearby? You look around. No lids, but there’s a dish towel. Towels work, right? If someone is on fire you smother them with a blanket or a jacket. Same principle! Time to hero up!

You bring the dish towel down hard on the flames like a soldier covering a grenade with his helmet. In a second the flames are gone and a wave of calm begins to wash over you. You’re a hero, even if you’ve rescued nothing but your facade of being a responsible adult. The horror show is over.

But like every horror movie, the monster is never easily slain. The hero must be humbled, his hubris snuffed.

You watch, helpless as a small hole opens up on the towel and its edges begin to glow and burn outward. The stove is still on high.

(Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.)

You pull the towel, now smeared in petro-fuel and alight, off the burner and throw it to the ground. You reach around the column of flame and switch the burner off when Murphy’s law once again kicks you hard in the stomach:

The stove is electric. Your entire apartment building will burn to the ground before it stops glowing red.

Oh my god, you think. All your neighbors. You see the flames, white hot at the base and orange and black as they tickle the hood. The cabinets are next. The adrenaline in your system mixes with the marijuana forming a toxic stew of the worst fears your imagination can conjure up. You quickly chart the course of the flames in your mind. First the hood, then the cabinets, then the walls. This hundred year old building, built with plaster and wooden lathe, is a tinder box. That’s what the owner had joked when you moved in. It’s one of those buildings where the elevator door is just an accordion grate that threatens to take your hand off if you’re not paying attention. Do you call 911 and ring the alarm or do you put the fire out? Is there even a fire escape in this building?
“Help! Help!” you cry out. The hero is dead. You spin around, again looking for a pot lid, knocking things to the ground as you reach for anything that could serve.

At last your roommate Zack arrives, finding the kitchen filled with smoke and heat and dancing light. His first words are simple: “Oh shit!” he exclaims, then he heroes up, yelling, “Salt! Where’s the salt! We need salt!”


Seeds of thought fight against each other in your head for dwindling cognitive resources. Would salt really work? It makes sense. You did a report on solar technology in college. Salt is used as a heat sink for reflective arrays because it doesn’t burn and it doesn’t boil. It’s… “flame retardant.” Don’t you have something like that?

Something red? It’s like a long, red metal cylinder.

“The… the.. the THING!” You cry out, trying to remember its name. A spark of joy cuts through the fear when you realizing what you’re looking for, you can see it in your head. “Where’s the thing?” you shout, shaking your hands in the air to encourage the right word to fall out of your mouth.

Zack is tearing open cupboards, “Where’s the big one?!” He’s still looking for salt.

“No, we have a thing!” You yell, “We have the thing—you know, designed for this exact moment? It’s for fire–” (Ahah!) “FIRE EXTINGUISHER! Where’s the fire extinguisher!?”

You scan for the color red. There, next to the sink. You snatch it and point it at the flames. I hope this works, you think to yourself as you squeeze down on the handle.

Then… nothing.

You squeeze again and still, nothing.

In an emergency, all your incompetencies are instantly converted to fear.

“What the fuck!?” You scream, demoralized.

You see the red plastic pin you forgot to pull while you rushed into things. This has to happen every time a fire extinguisher gets used. Someone presses the handle, nothing happens, they yell out, “God damn it!” pull the pin and then save the day. You think back to your time in the war and wonder how many grenades were thrown at the enemy with the pin still intact.

You pull the pin and Zack stands back as you point and squeeze. Still, nothing. Now the smoke alarm is going off in the hallway. You squeeze again. Nothing. “What the fuck is the matter with this thing!” you yell.

It’s about this time that your roommate Cyrus walks in to find the kitchen a ring of fire, with you and Zack flailing around in the middle, banging a fire extinguisher on the counter, yelling at it and smacking it like the monkeys from that famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cyrus is on the phone and begins describing the scene to whomever is on the line, grinning all the while.

Still struggling with the fire extinguisher, you reach inside yourself and gather your wits for a two-second burst concentration. You squeeze it a heavy pin beneath the handle that depresses ever so slightly but not enough. You realize that you just aren’t squeezing hard enough, so you give it all you got, and cloud of dust erupts from the nozzle up and into the air. You take control of the extinguisher with both hands and bring its aim on target, like a firefighter manning a hose.

Hero mode.

The massive flames disappear in an instant, but you give it half a second to make sure the monster is really dead. It is.

Then you turn to the floor. This whole time the dish rags have been burning on the floor next to the trash can. You give them a good blast. Someone says, “You got one more in the sink.” and you smother the kettle. That steel kettle. You can see the switch on the side of the handle. You remember thinking the word “mechanical” when you first picked it up, before forgetting it.

Cyrus, still on the phone, still smiling, turns back to his room and breaks from his phone call only long enough to say, “The door’s on fire.” before shutting himself inside.

You give one last blast to the napalm stuck to the door and then the kitchen is suddenly quiet. The air is thick with fine particles of god-knows-what-chemical dust. It looks like a small snow drift blew into the kitchen, piling up in the corners and edges. Like those pictures from Chernobyl, where the people just heard a siren and fled with their shirts on their backs, leaving everything in place, and decades of dust have accumulated in silence.

The eerie aftermath.

Zack laughs and asks what happened. That’s when you have to own it. Your stupidity. And as you explain it, the adrenaline fades and strips bare the horror and the shame of the truth: You got high and put an electric kettle on a hot stove. While you were fighting the fire, your whole life flashed before your eyes, but not the one you lived, the one you would have had to live after. You live on the second floor so you would have escaped, but your tinderbox of a building is seven stories of 100-year-old wood. Your flaming apartment is on the bottom, right against the singular wooden stairwell.

Even if nobody got hurt, you’d still be forever famous as the moron who burned down his house by putting a electric kettle on the stove. You’d see yourself getting lampooned by Bill Maher on Real Time, not only for being stupid, but for setting back the legal weed movement ten years. Oh, you want to be a journalist? Good luck. This is what comes up when people google you. Every job interview. Every blind date. You would never escape it.

But it’s not your fault, you’ll say. But why should anyone believe you? When the world thinks of an electric water boiler, they picture those cheap and bulky pieces of plastic crap that you see in every european kitchen, not a round, shiny steel kettle. When someone decided to design a high-end water boiler that was intended to look and feel like the real thing, all but for the little switch on the handle, did they foresee this? Too late to wonder that now.

Every blogger and journo and editor writing about you will include some stock photo of what is unmistakably a kitchen appliance, right next to a picture of Derek Zoolander saying, “The files are IN the computer!” before he smashes it to the ground. No amount of protest will convince them that it wasn’t you.

But it wasn’t you. It was that damned kettle.

The eerie aftermath.


How Adults are Made

FeaturedHow Adults are Made

Going to school in Oregon in the 1990s, helicopter parenting was only just starting to get a name. Parents were unaware of just how much danger lurked in the world. Then an eighth-grade girl got raped in the girl’s bathroom by a stranger with a swastica tattooed on his forehead. The whole town was talking about it. By the time she confessed to making it all up, it was too late. Now everyone had to wear their student ID on them at all times and the side and rear entrances to the school had their outer handles removed so you could only enter by the front office. It made everyone’s walk to school that much longer, but to the school district’s credit, they never again had a case of fake Nazi rape. 

This was back when you could get in a fight and you’d be hauled down to the principle’s office to think about what you did while inhaling second-hand smoke. Then came mandatory sentencing laws. Slam a kid up against his locker now and you were going to juvie until you were 18. Grown men, salaried prosecutors and public defenders would argue in front of a judge about whether young Timothy represented a clear and present danger to society for having thrown a book at Billy during a pubescent tantrum. One charlie-horse and playground shove at a time, the bullies disappeared.

And what happens when you remove the apex predator from an ecosystem? It creates an imbalance. Suddenly the other animals don’t behave the way they used to. They get lazy. The squirrels get fat. They lose their instincts for survival.

Whereas in elementary school kids would taunt each other over whose dad could beat up whose, now you had a school full of kids who watched Law & Order, threatening to sue each other for defamation. The lonely police officer assigned to the school, having successfully cleared the hallways of violent scum, was reduced to taking statements from crying cheerleaders. Becky said that Cindy eats her boogers. Becky better lawyer up.

Everything was fine, for a while. Then a kid in the 7th grade went home one afternoon and laid his head on a table saw. Parents and teachers started to talk medication. During bi-weekly D.A.R.E. classes, kids would learn that if you rely on drugs or alcohol to escape your problems, you’re a junkie. Then there’d be a squawk on the P.A., and a third of the class would be called to the student office for their afternoon dose of Depacote and Dexedrine and Zoloft and Ritalin.

Cindy used to come home after school and cry in her room. Now she comes home and reads quietly at the kitchen table. Clinks of glasses filled with Mommy Merlot can be heard from the living room. 

Then a kid named Kip Kinkle took his dad’s hunting rifle to class and shot a few dozen fellow students. Everyone cried. At least, everyone still able to do so. This was before Columbine and Sandy Hook, back when school shootings were new and exciting. Looking back on it now, the real mystery is why someone would name their child Kip? 

That’s about the time that clear plastic backpacks became fashionable. (Did you know that Kevlar backpacks have been available since 1997?) If the kids had known that in just a few years they would all have to take their shoes off and submit a DNA test just to board a two-hour flight, they’d probably not have complained as much.

Sometime around their 18th birthday, they finish high school. They are congratulated on their mere survival, and then they go to college to explore this thing called “independence” with pristine medulla oblongatas, never once sullied with a drop of adrenaline. 

They go off in search of identity. They throw the pills away, shunning Big Pharma in favor of $5 coffee and paying to have their chakras realigned. 

They stare in bafflement at the world around them. The bullies are back and micro-aggressing them from every angle. It becomes too much to take. When the deadline comes for their final paper during their Senior year of college, to excuse their tardiness, they mail in a printed copy of a meme they saw on Facebook. “15 Things You Should Never Say to a Person with X.” 

When their GPA starts to slip, they reach for the bottle of beta-blockers only to find it’s empty. In a panic, they search every drawer for leftover ginkgo biloba. It’s not fair, they say. The world can’t truly be such a cruel and unforgiving place, can it? Tearing through the cupboards in search of something, in search of anything to help them cope, they at last find relief: a dusty bottle of Mommy Merlot. 

They reach for a glass, and graduate.

An adult is born. 

Doppelgängers of the Dead

FeaturedDoppelgängers of the Dead

On a cold night in New York City, I walked into a McDonald’s for some comfort food and standing next to me was Dave Wimberg. Only it wasn’t Dave. This man was too tall and far too alive. Dave, you see, was killed in Iraq ten years ago.

After the bars are closed I don’t normally make a point of staring down men taller than me (staring up?), but I stared all the same, without any concern for how that may be perceived. Fortunately, he was the shy type and smiled nervously, so I apologized, telling him he had a familiar face.

He gets that a lot, he said.

“You look like a Marine who was killed in Iraq.” I told him. I wasn’t sure if I’d wanted to make this weird, but in the end, I decided I would regret it if I didn’t tell him why this moment was different. “His name was David Wimberg. The History Channel did a small feature on him. He went out like Rambo. You should look him up.”

This was me somehow doing my part to “bridge the civilian/military divide,” as they say.

Being told you look like a dead war hero isn’t typically something one has a canned response for, so he offered the obligatory responses. Did you serve with him? (Yes.) Thank you. (Sure.)

As I walked home, I tried to imagine what was in this kid’s head, now. When I left the McDonald’s, I saw him and his girlfriend huddling over a phone and reading how this man who could have been his twin was 10,000 miles from home and pinned down with his squad in an ambush when he scaled a wall and sprinted through gunfire to cease the attack. He kicked in a door, and as the door flew open, four insurgents turned their rifles to meet his one.

They all pulled their triggers.

Some friends told me that his body was found surrounded by enemy dead, the same way they would inspire us with tales of hero Marine martyrs who died surrounded by dead Japanese or Germans or Viet Cong. But the citation doesn’t say, and maybe it’s better that way.

He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his valor.

When I went home I looked up Dave’s citation and saw his face for the first time in years. My god he was young. We all were. I’m now in my thirties and sprouting a few grey hairs, but when I look at that baby face, he’s still my elder, even though I have aged, and he has not.

The Travel Deviant’s 4 Rules for Finding Adventure Abroad

FeaturedThe Travel Deviant’s 4 Rules for Finding Adventure Abroad

An adventure is very different than a vacation. Where a vacation recharges you, an adventure exhausts you. It can be uncomfortable, raw, and definitely dangerous. That said, it may also be the most rewarding experience of your life. So with that in mind, here are some quick and dirty tips to help you sniff out adventure while traveling abroad.

1) Travel alone.

Baby or boyfriend, it’s all the same. They need to be napped, fed, or have their boo-boos kissed. I spent the last year traveling around the world collecting stories of the crazy and wild adventures I’ve been on, and the only gaping hole in my collection coincides with when I met up with three friends in Thailand. It was a month spent herding cats and completely uneventful, unless you count that time that Stephanie wanted to get double-teamed by a ladyboy. (Bankers, am I right?) The takeaway from this is that if you want spontaneity and all the opportunities that come with it, you need to be on your own schedule, and that means traveling alone. (Another lesson is that ladyboys are total divas. Just remember that when someone wants to bring two of them back to the hotel.)

2) Always book one-way tickets.

You never know what’s going to happen. Let’s say you wake up in a sleepy town in the Yucatan and meet a mysterious man that you are convinced is the real-life Tyler Durden. He even sells soap. Maybe he tells you about a mock execution that took place there a few years ago and you, being naive as fuck, forget which country you’re in and start asking around. Maybe the Lina drug cartel hears about a single male gringo poking around with questions about drugs and violence and decides to send you a message. Maybe you should run for your life. The point is, you never know when you’re going to want to leave, and change fees are expensive.

3) Travel Cheap.

Hotels should be a last resort. If you couch surf (, you’ll have an excellent landing pad with locals who will surprise you with their generosity and the introductions they make. Say you go to Beijing and your host can only offer you a blanket on the floor? That’s kind of rough, but maybe she takes you to a karaoke club where you sing Ariana Grande at a cute German girl, and the next day you and German girl both take a bus to a small town and scale a mountain for three hours. You make love, in the rain, on top of the Great Wall of China. Three days later in Shanghai, she teaches you the words “Ich liebe de.”
Or maybe you pay $150 a night for maid service and a mint on your pillow. If it’s a choice between the two, I suggest the former.


4) Say yes. 

Traveling alone, traveling light, and have an open-ended itinerary, you’re going to start giving off a serious vibe for spontaneity and invitations will start rolling in. It could be as benign as spending Christmas with a British family out in the country, or as harebrained as a Marilyn-Monroe-impersonator-turned-music-executive who offers to fly you to Mexico for a rave on the beach, as long as you are willing to drive the Beamer and translate. Next thing you know,a year after fleeing the country, a photographer is publicly tagging photos of you in Quintana-Roo, smoking cigars and doing blow in Pablo Escobar’s underground swimming pool. The point is, nothing interesting is going to happen if you stick to what you think you “should” do.

Those are the four basic rules. If seems a little too risky for your taste, just remember that you signed up for adventure! So summon whatever testicular or ovarian fortitude you have squirreled away, and go for it.

Good luck.

White Enough to Get Away with Murder

FeaturedWhite Enough to Get Away with Murder

I almost murdered a man once, and I would have gotten away with it. I’m reminded of that as the national argument unfolds over the cop who was recorded brutally arresting that young black girl in class. The cop who reminded us of an angry father shaking a baby. The debate over the the use of force settles its battle lines on the dog-whistle of, “What happened before the tape?”

Best answer on Twitter: “You got 400 years?”

Most of my conservative friends I knew in the Marines are blue collar people. Steel workers, mechanics, farmers. They just don’t see what all this supposed “white privilege” is getting them. They’re just sentimental for a 1950s culture from their childhood coloring books that show the kindly officer helping the little girl get her kitten out of a tree. But then again, they always used “flesh” colored crayons. A lot of them give any police officer the benefit of the doubt and absolute authority, while simultaneously stockpiling ammunition to fight a tyrannical government over their inalienable rights.

Last night as I grappled with my conservative friends in the Facebook comments while walking up Park Avenue to go party with Wall Street bankers, as I walked past two cops with a pocket full of Schedule 1 narcotics and not a care in the world, I decided to take an inventory of just what I’ve gotten away with from the police. As a well dressed white guy, I go through life flouting the law, from drug possession to felony weapons charges, knowing I’ll never get stop-and-frisked. My suit is too well-tailored for that. My shoes too shiny. If I’m ever in front of a judge, I’ll just say, “I need help,” and go to drug counseling without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.

But my finest white-privilege moment was when I almost murdered a man with the full knowledge that, even with witnesses, I’d get away with it.

In 2010 with a gun to my head, the mugger didn’t know that I, this lilly-dressed white-boy with his earbuds in the middle of the night, was an ex-Marine. One who saw the trap and used those precious seconds to hide a deadly folding knife in his palm before he put his hands up. Who, with the gun pressed into his forehead, noticed what might be a plastic seam on the pistol slide. This young man with the imitation pistol was there for a grab and go, but seconds after he tried to run away with his loot he found himself face down in the middle of 119th St. with a knife to his throat.

And this was not your father’s whittling knife. This was a heavy, spring-assisted blade with a chisel “tanto” tip designed to penetrate body armor. Its razor’s edge, never once sullied by opening a box or cutting string, still factory sharp and waiting for this exact moment.

With my left hand pushing his face into the concrete and my right pressing the blade against his throat, I whispered in his ear, “Give me my shit or I’ll fucking kill you.”

He immediately complied and tossed the stolen phone into the street and began trying to wriggle and squirm free.

But I wasn’t finished. I was eager to carve out my pound of flesh. I didn’t even need to worry about witnesses. I knew that even though I had him on the ground and disarmed, I could kill him and get away with it. Not only that, I’d be paraded all over Fox News as the gentle veteran trying to get his education when the scary black man picked a fight with the wrong guy and wound up dead because #Veterans.

With the knife against his throat, I could hear the voice of my father, a lawyer, in my head: This is murder.

The cops knew it, too. After I let him go and went to the precinct, the cops quietly snickered that I should have “stuck him.” They even gave me back the spring-assisted gravity knife, of which possession is a class-C felony in New York.

Folks reading this might list all the ways it would have been legally justified as self-defense. “You were well within your rights!” They’re technically right. But regardless of where the law would stand, I knew it was murder and that I would get away with it because I was white. All I had to say was that I feared for my life.

All those cops dialing their PBA reps while standing over a corpse with bullet holes in the back? They know what I know: When you’re white and they’re black, it’s just so damn easy to get away with murder.

A Fight to the Near Death

FeaturedA Fight to the Near Death

Continued from Drunk Girls and The Holi Party

It’s cold, my clothes are wet and I’ve got vomit on me. This party’s devolved into a putrid mess, and on top of everything, my jet lag is chasing my adrenaline. I’m done and ready to leave.

I come around the side of the farmhouse and see Samantha. She’s unable to walk and being helped along by two men. I don’t know what it is with these girls, but they drink like Japanese businessmen. I sense something is wrong, but I’m so tired that it doesn’t seem anymore wrong than the last vomit-parade. I walk right up to them and take Samantha into my arms before they even realize I’m talking to them. “Thanks guys. I’ll take her from here.”

One of the men bows his head. He has that “busted” look of shame, like he’s been caught re-handed. It’s Grabby Hands from the hot tub. I’m about to say something when the other gets in my face like I’ve stolen his kill. It’s the aggressive guy she’d complained about earlier. The one that was pestering all the girls and violently mashing color into their hair.

Now I understand. They were headed in the direction of the outdoor bathrooms, away from the crowd. A nice quiet place where no one will interrupt you.

I turn the dial straight up to 11 and march him backwards, driving through his personal space. “BACK UP, MOTHERFUCKER! IF YOU TOUCH HER AGAIN I’LL SMASH YOUR FUCKING HEAD IN!”

Really, I don’t have the energy to be a vigilante. I just want to grab her and go, and my sudden intensity has the intended effect, leaving him stunned long enough  for me to turn and pick up Samantha. I curse and keep looking around for Jampa with the keys. If there was ever a time to go, this is it.

With both arms supporting her, I’m left vulnerable, and now the Instigator has composed himself and is back in my face. His renewed confidence has energized Grabby Hands, and some other party-goers have come to have a look.

He won’t let me go. He’s hung up on my calling him a “motherfucker,” which, as a New Yorker, I can’t even begin to tell you how baffling that is. Is that really what we’re fighting about? I look to the crowd for some kind of confirmation, but get nothing. I’m backed into a corner of the lawn with Samantha in my arms and he and Grabby Hands leave me no exit.

I’m angry, I’m tired, and cornered with the instigator barking in my face, I’ve made up my mind: We’re leaving.

I roll a barely conscious Samantha onto the ground as softly as I can, then turn and punch him right in the face.

The problem is, even as a Sergeant in the Marines, I’ve never thrown a good punch. The few times I’ve fought off muggers or assailants, it’s been no more effective than hitting a beehive with a stick. The only upside in this case is that the bees have completely forgotten about Samantha.

The childish look of surprise hangs on his face for only a few seconds, and after the shock wears off, he quickly turns back into a snarling dog, running up to kick me in the balls and take a victory lap. It’s a poor kick and I feel no pain, so I just stand there, looking at him, thinking, Okay, that’s one for one. I tell him to leave. Instead, he runs up and punches me three times in the face, jumping back triumphantly for the growing crowd.

Fortunately, his hits are just as bad as mine, so I remain calm. Four for one. Can we go now?

I look to his friends and tell them to take him away, but when I go to pick up Samantha again, someone comes over to play arbiter. He has an air of authority, but it’s not enough. Even as I’m standing there, trying to explain that we want to leave, the instigator and a friend with a ponytail take turns hitting me in the head.

“He says you hit him.” Says the arbiter, uninterested on the continued attack. This must be what it’s like when the UN debates the definition of a war while it rages on.

I stand there in disbelief, watching his eyes while I take the punches. “Dude!” Thump! “Are you even-” Thump! Thump! “…seeing this!?” Thump!

Some judge he is, but his ruling is that I need to leave, and I’m happy to oblige, I just need to grab Samantha. Someone interjects in Hindi, and then he says, “She says she doesn’t want to leave with you.”

My tone is one of pure contempt. “What?” I walk over to Samantha and there’s this momentary ceasefire while I confer with her, probably only because if I’m ejected, then there’s no one left to tell them to stop. Certainly not from this crowd. I stand her up on her feet and grab her by the shoulders. She’s not even able to look at me.

“Samantha?” I say, and she musters a response.


I speak to her in the calm, instructional voice like a grade-school teacher lecturing a child during a ‘teachable moment’. “Sam, if you stay, these men are going to take you into those bushes, and they’re going to rape you.” I let it sink in. “Do you want that?”

She mumbles a response, head rolling around, “No.”

“Do you want to leave?” I ask her, gently.

“Yes.” She says.

“Do you want to leave with me?” I ask.

“Yeah.” She says, swaying.

I turn to the arbiter with open hands and a look on my face that says, “Satisfied?”

But he’s not satisfied. He’s one of the Instigators friends, and they all swarm at me with shoves and punches.

I’m able to break free of the assailants and charge off cursing towards the pool to look for the host. The extra eyes of the remaining guests keep the violence from following me. I can’t find the host but I see one of his friends. I make sure he remembers me from earlier and tell him about the fight and that he needs to escort us to our vehicle. He agrees and follows me back to the commotion, however confused.

The assailants, five or six at this point, scatter from Samantha and keep a little distance in the face of some recognized authority. I pick up our bags, one on each shoulder and scoop up a barely conscious Samantha into my arms. Mercifully, Jampa appears from around the corner and I give him an unambiguous “We’re leaving!” jerk of the head. He can tell there’s danger and runs ahead to car. I follow him, carrying Samantha while the snarling pack nips at my heels, threatening me and telling me how they’re going to get me once we get outside.

My optimism craters with the realization that the car is parked outside of the gate, beyond the protection of the host. Oh Shit, I think to myself.

Outside, I find the car unlocked and prop Samantha against it to open the door. Jampa helps me push her into the backseat and I get in with her and shut the doors. Now it’s really time to go.

I count the seconds as I wait for Jampa to get in the driver’s seat. Through the fogged up windows I can see shapeless figures pouring out from the gate. The dogs are back.

I check on Samantha. Barely awake, she’s completely unaware of the danger.

Suddenly the door to my left flings open. 

Fuck me. I forgot to lock it.

A man dives in head first and starts swinging. The punches land on my face and the sides of my head, one after another.

I’m on my back and kick at him, trying to catch his fists before they can reach me. Then the other door opens and Samantha screams as someone tries to drag her from the car.

A third assailant begins hitting me from between the front seats.

I’m stretched across the backseat of this Fiat, legs kicking and grappling at anything that moves to stem the assault. Every thud against my head reverberates through my ears like a drum and dazed me with flashes of white. All this as six fists fight for real estate on my face.

My punches and kicks fly on instinct. I swing and get a shot in here or there. Somebody’s head. Somebody’s shoulder. Every time I reach out to grab something, I worry I’ll snap my fingers.

If there are any strikes to my body, I don’t feel them. There is no quitting or time-outs. 

I can’t stop wondering, How I’m still conscious?

After every impact, I run a system check like an old computer.

Ears? (Hearing.)

Eyes? (Still seeing.)

Bones and teeth? (Unbroken.)


(Fuck pain.)

System: OKAY.


This happens over and over.

At one point I see a face near my foot and I heel-kick it as hard as I can, sending its owner reeling into the dirt. Somehow I get the door shut. I ignore the hits from the front seat. Whoever he is he has no footing to make them count. Climbing on top of Samantha I start grappling with the attacker from her side. When I push him back and get the door shut, locking it this time, the one I’d just closed flies open again.

There’s gotta be ten of these assholes! I think as I kick at him. 

I can fight two at a time, maybe three, but they’re pouring into the open doors of the Fiat like a scene straight out of Old Boy. I’m thinking I could really use a hammer right now.

With every hit to the head, I’m wondering how many more I can take. For a moment I see Jampa outside, trying to communicate with the attackers, he’s got his hands up and gets a punch to the face as his reward.

However many there are, here, crammed into the back of a Fiat, they’re funneled down to three at the most, but when I manage to hurt one, he gets tagged out by someone fresh and eager to get a few hits in. As soon as I get one door closed, another opens and me or Samantha get dragged by the head or arms, or just pummeled in place.

Through the chaos, I recognize the instigator crawling over from the front seat and he starts swinging at me. I manage to shield myself with one hand lock the rear doors with the other.

This is turning into a fight to the death, but through all of my fear, all of my terror, he’s the first one of them I’m relieved to see. If someone has to die for this to end, it’s not going to be me, and he’s the leader of this mob.

He keeps swinging and I flatten onto my back and lay the trap. I spread my arms to brace myself against the seat, leaving my face open to attack. He takes the bait and climbs right on top of me.

In my one moment of clarity, my only thought is, I got you now you now you son of a bitch.

I put my foot into his chest and lift him up, pinning him to the ceiling. Suspended in the air, he continues to swing, but his reach is limited.

He doesn’t yet realize what’s happening, and flush with adrenaline I push everything I have into the center of his chest. I i magine what it feels like to have 500 pounds crushing your heart and lungs. I feel his ribs bending and cracking under my heel. I can hear his friends outside, pulling on the door handles and banging on the glass, but I keep pushing. I’m fighting for my life, and I can see the panic in his eyes as he realizes that I’m not going to stop. His withered swings at my head turn to strained clawing at my leg. I want him to fear death.

I do.

There’s no pride left in me. No ego. I’m terrified, and I just want this to end.

The one that was trying to smash the window to rescue him is now trying to get at me from the front seat. It’s Ponytail Guy, here to save his rapist bastard of a friend. He manages to get past the blockage and starts hitting me. These hits are better than the ones before and I lose focus.

I drop the instigator from the ceiling and he collapses onto me like a rag doll. He’s unconscious but alive. With his body covering me, Ponytail Guy is having a difficult time finding a target. I’m dreading the one good hit that ruins me. The instigator is starting to regain consciousness. I can’t keep fighting two at once. I have to finish one of them, and he’s the most likely to cave or die first. And I’m willing. 

I manage to twist him around, getting his neck into the crease of my right elbow, and grabbing my left bicep forming a headlock. He’s awake and pulling at it to get free. With my left hand I reach over the top of his head and press my fingers deep into his eye sockets, worming my fingernails beneath his eyelids. I can feel them moving against my nails.

“Are you finished?” I yell, digging hard into his eyeballs. 

He screams, writhing in my arms and clawing at me to relieve the pressure. I’m trying to get my fingers where I can pop them out if I need to. 

“ARE-YOU-DONE?” I shout, pushing deeper into his eye sockets.

“Yes.” He whimpers, shaking.

I scream into his ear and keep the pressure on. “Yes what? SAY IT!”

“I’m done. I’m finished.” he whimpers, going limp.

I start to release the pressure, but even with his surrender, the blows from Ponytail Guy keep coming, and they’re dangerous hits. I dig my fingers back into his eyes and make him my hostage.


“Stop! Stop!” He cries, and Ponytail Guy backs off and disappears.

I open the door and shove him into the dirt, leaving him to crawl, clutching his eyes. I lock the door and turn to check on Samantha. She’s been beaten, and she’s bleeding from the leg, but she’ll be okay.

Suddenly there’s a thump and a flash. I’m blinded by a hit to the face and my head gets yanked backwards against the seat. Someone came through the rear hatch and was wrestling me into the same chokehold I’d used on the instigator. It’s Ponytail Guy out for revenge, and in terror I feel his fingers hook into my eye sockets.

The pain is incredible, but nothing compared to the terror of knowing what comes next. There will be no opportunity for surrender. It’s fight or die, and once he takes my eyes, it’s all over.  Blinded, I kick at the air and claw at his hands.

Struggling to squirm free, I feel flesh against my lips and I bite down as hard as I can. I put everything I have into ripping a chunk out of his forearm, and his grip loosens over my eyes and manage to get ahold of two of the fingers he’d plunged into my right eye. I wrench them as hard as I can, and feel them snap.

He cries out, recoiling out the back, and my sight returns to me. I waste no time pulling the hatch shut. I have nothing left. The panic of has mixed with the adrenalin and the resulting stew has ruined me.

The remaining attackers are losing steam. Someone gets the door open and yells a threat and walks off. Another jumps in to take a shot or two but it’s all token gestures. Without their leaders, the fight is approaching its end.

Then I see a man at the door brandishing a razor, and turn cold when I see the flicker of light from the blade. I’m afraid, anticipating the wounds on my bare feet and legs. I could run through him. Maybe wrestle the blade from him, stab him, and make it back inside, but if he get a good slash in first, I could bleed to death before we get to a hospital. British police are trained in unarmed defense against knives. You WILL get slashed, but you’re supposed to block with the outside of your arms. I don’t have the guts for it, and I don’t want to bleed to death.

The brandisher just stands there, looking confused. I think he’s someone I was friendly with at the party, when he was called to the fight, he didn’t expect to find me here.

“Please.” I say to him, putting up my hands in surrender and  pushing back against a now-unconscious Samantha. Maybe pity will be enough. We just look at each other, me at him and his blade, him at me, curled up with Samantha and as far away as I can get. We’re frozen in place. Then he turns and runs from the scene and I pull the door shut.

I see Jampa outside. He’s crying in the arms of some onlooker who put a stop to his attackers. Through the fog of the windows I can see others from the crowd inching forward, tempted to intervene, and I realize what it will take to get away.

I start to cry as loud and sad as I can. Big, tactical tears.

“Please! Please stop! Please just let us go! We just want to go home!” If they feel like they won they can leave and brag about how they beat up some tough-talking American pussy. I don’t care, as long as they leave.

I think of Bill Paxton, crying and pissing himself at the top of the dam in True Lies during the mock execution. “I got a little dick,” He whimpers to his kidnappers, “it’s pathetic!”

If I knew Hindi, I’d scream it as loud as I can.

Samantha is starting to come to, and unaware of the new game plan, she starts yelling insults and talking tough. I grab her in a bear hug masquerading as a romantic embrace and tell her to shut up. “You know how to cry?” I say. “Do it!” I growl in her ear, and force her head onto my shoulder.

She complies and the watchers respond to it. Some start interrogating the attackers. Another comes to help by holding the doors shut. When it seems like he might leave, I give him my best Puss-In-Boots impression and beg him not to go.

It might be over. The host is now out front and he’s pissed. Jampa, his face beaten, gets in and starts the car, racing away from the farmhouse and back to towards the center of New Delhi. We’re so drained from the fight that he can barely keep the wheel straight. I’m afraid of a crash, but less so than being followed.

“Porrish!” he sounds at me, mouthing each syllable and he weaves the car in search of a thoroughfair. 

I veto the idea. I don’t need the police. I need a doctor, and I need one right now. Never mind the fact that I may have maimed or killed a man. I’m not sticking around to see how it plays out with an Indian jury.

We speed through South New Delhi looking for a hospital. It takes forever, but we find one. A public hospital, overflowing with sick people and holiday car crash victims. When we finally park in front of the ER, into the protection of the masses and police sentries, it’s the first time we feel safe. Jampa and I put an arm around each other and break down and cry without shame. Then we limp into the ER. 

There is blood everywhere. The place is packed to the gills. Smears on the walls and bloody handprints on the linoleum stretchers. Puddles on the floor. 

Jampa is barefoot, dragging his feet across the floor. He’d given his shoes to Samantha, who’d lost hers in the fight. Her arms and legs were quicy turning bruised, and dried blood crusted over a laceration on her thigh. 

As the only sober one able to speak, I have a hard time with the intake doctor. I can’t tell if I have a concussion or if it’s exhaustion. A combination of no sleep, 12 hours of jet-lag, and an adrenaline dump.

Because it’s related to a crime, they require me to give a statement to the  police office. Though nervous about involving the police, I didn’t come all this way just to get brain damage, so I tell them the story. 


The neurosurgeon looking over my scan disapproves. He tells me I’m going to see that kind of behavior here, and that I should remember I’m a foreigner. It’s too dangerous, he says. “Next time just don’t get involved.”

Continued in India by the Orbitals Part III — Whenever I get down to finishing it. These are the first of the India stories, and there are more to come. Suffice to say, I went to the embassy the next day, but didn’t flee. I just kept my ear to the ground and got my adventure on. And so it continues. 

LSD and Tyler Durden in Mexico

FeaturedLSD and Tyler Durden in Mexico

I walked down the promenade in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, along the ocean, searching for nothing. I’d come down for a friend’s destination wedding and after the ceremony the hotel bills had been stacking up, so I checked out and took a right, figuring the universe would provide.

As I approached a pier, it did just that. A departing water taxi filled with people pulled a u-ey and invited me to get on. It was going to a secluded beach town called Yelapa. I was low on cash, so I bought a round-trip ticket knowing I was going to spend to my last dime there, but at least be able to get home.

30 minutes later I was dumped on a beach in a tiny bay with mountains on three sides. The sun was going down and I had to wade across a small river in order to reach the side of the town where I was told there might be a bed I could afford. I encountered a Canadian woman and said I was looking for a cheap hostel and hadn’t planned ahead. She looked at me like I was an idiot. The kind of idiot who walks into a little town with no vacancy and doesn’t have money for a room even if there was. The kind of idiot who was going to sleep on the beach and end up getting raped by a crab. She said I was screwed, in so many words, and took her leave before I put her on the spot to take pity on me.

With that news, I just sat and drank beer with three Mexicans I’d found sitting outside a little tienda set along a foot path. One was a fall-down-incomprehensible drunk with a 70 year-old body, an 80 year-old face, and a 100 year-old set of teeth. From within his slurs, I discerned an offer to sleep on his floor. I had brought a camping mat and enough Ambien that I could sleep anywhere, and though it would be cool to stay in a homeless wino’s guest room, I was going to need a few drinks first.

One of the other Mexicans, Chaparito, a 60 year-old construction worker with 9 fingers bought me a Modelo, and the younger Mexican, a 24 year-old odd-job-doer named Miguel gave me the Mexican equivalent of Funyuns. Miguel suggested I sleep on the roof of one of the many houses that had that under-permanent-construction look about them. That there was an unfinished roof nearby with a lean-to thatch that might keep any rain off. I’d just have to get out of there before the construction workers showed up in the morning. (This was actually my backup plan.)

Talking with Chaparito, my Ecuadorian accent and his cervesa-addled Mexican accent made for difficult conversation, but in trading life stories, we learned that we were each former military, and I guess we bonded. He was in a militia for 24 years and his brother is an engineer in New York. After feeling me out for a bit, he told me to wait there, and went to arrange a guest room from a neighbor. He came back and traded me a set of keys for 400 pesos. About $28.

We walked up a dirt road between dilapidated never-finished cement homes and he pointed to the one that was his. He said in the morning I should come and yell to wake him up and we’d eat fish together. Next to his house was my room. Sorry, my cell. A door made of bars with a single deadbolt marked the entry. Inside was an 8 by 10 space with a tiny bed in the corner and another even tinier, dirtier mattress laying on the floor. In the middle of the room was a pile of dust and sand half-covering the dried-up husk of a 4″ long spider. The private bath was an alcove with a seat-less toilet and a pipe coming out of the wall. A shower.

He asked if this was sufficient. I said it was. It was perfect.

We went back down to the tienda to continue drinking, talking about life, love, and war, when an American couple I’d met earlier walked by. I gave them a tour of my cell and then we walked the stone paths down to the beach where we mouthed shots of tequila and pet stray cats. Wading through the river at night, the girlfriend stopped me from accidentally stepping on the largest frog I’ve ever seen. Her boyfriend, caught it in his hand and picked it up. We drunkenly tickled it, pretending that the frog liked it (for all we know, its protests could have been giggles). It weighed more than a pound. There are chickens with less meat.

That night I dreamed about sex with strange women with strange bodies, and woke up at 7AM to the sound of roosters and cat meows and crying babies.

I went next door and called out, “Chaparrrrrrrrriiiiiiiitoooooo!” I heard him cough and hack and he came to the door, inviting me in. I gave him some granola. The least I could do for free fish. Turns out the fish was for the cat, and the cat seemed picky about it, ignoring it as it lay on the cement floor.

Chaparito’s house was a kind of garage. Four cement walls. No light. The place is filled with things, but they are so varied that you couldn’t make any assumptions about the function of the room. Not in the same way you would walk into a kitchen and see a kitchen, or into a solar and see chairs. There are two stoves. One in the middle of the room, another by the window. One had a couple pans on it, and the other dirty dishes and a bottle of hangover-curing electrolytes that’s been cut in half to serve as a cup. There’s broken fans and broken electronics and a variety of power and hand tools strewn about. Egg crates stacked behind the door. Along one wall, laundry is hung to dry. A machete lies on the floor, but that’s common in jungle towns. A solitary potted plant sits alone in the one open corner with broken things not stacked in it.

He sits and fiddles with a pipe and valve, turning a wrench and blowing clear the pipe. He lights a blowtorch and mentions something about how “gripé” (the common cold), is everywhere. He takes out some toilet paper into which he hacks out a lung. Toilet paper! I need to get some of that! When he stands, he’s maybe five feet tall, and he wears the third world version of Crocs. In no ways does he live a charmed life, but there’s something charming about him.

I borrow some toilet paper and go to brush my teeth back in my cell. It’s there that I learn how cheap toilets deal with low water pressure. I finish hovering over the seatless bowl and flush, only to see the brown chunks of misery rise and rise as the water filled the bowl with nowhere to go. Now I have to go outside to find a stick to poke at it. This was my morning.

Chaparito leaves for work. I pack up my laptop to go in search of internet so I can plan the next stop on my journey. It’s 8:30 AM now. I walk past the tienda and see Chaparito sitting drinking a beer. “Que rico tu trabajo!” I tell him as I walk on down the road. What a nice job you have!

Walking down the street, I see a white man at a cafe using a laptop: the international sign for “wifi.” I sit down and make a little conversation and he offers to buy me breakfast. I ask him what he does for a living.

He makes soap.

I tell him about my adventures so far.

About stumbling onto the boat that brought me here.

About how a couple days ago my taxi driver ran a red light, got himself pulled over, and with the notoriously corrupt Mexican police approaching the vehicle, I had to decide what to do with the two hits of LSD I had in my pocket. Do I take a 5% chance of going to a Mexican Prison, or a 100% chance of tripping balls? I took the two tabs of acid and had to bribe the cop 200 pesos to spare me anymore scrutiny.

Then we went to a time-share sales presentation.

90 minutes, the driver told me. As long as I stay for 90 minutes, he gets paid, and I get a free bottle of tequila and spa treatment. Tomorrow’s his birthday, so I can’t let him down, but I just took two tabs of acid and am about to go into what anyone who has ever been in one will say is absolute hell.

Time-share sales presentations are populated by the slimiest, mind-rapiest sales techniques on the planet. They use Neuro Linguistic Programing, a kind of real-time hypsnosis. They use “pivots”, switching from one salesman to the next, from one table to the next. They use “push-pull” techniques. They do financial worksheets with you and try to get you to sign it. Not a contract, mind you, but you need to sign it. That’s called a “yes ladder”. By the end of the presentation, you’ve signed your approval on gradually more and more complex fake contracts, until the last one is real. But by then, they’ve not sold you on it. You’ve sold yourself. If you show hesitation, they “neg” you. They make a joke or a comment that could maybe be an insult or hints at a backhanded compliment. They tell you how badass and independent you must be. You’re not like that last guy who had to call his mommy before signing. You’re a big man who makes your own decisions.

Well, now if I say I need to think about it, they’ll know I’m a big pussy who can’t dress himself or ride a bike. I’ll take it!

Once you get it worked out and then say you’re going to pass, they express their condolences. It was a deal that was one-of-a-kind because it’s a foreclosure property. Would have been a great deal for you! That’s how smart people do real estate, they say. They get the foreclosure properties. It’s a sad story if you buy a family’s home in Detroit for 50 cents on the dollar, but here, these are victimless! They are victimless because you are buying a time-share that some other asshole bought on impulse and realized he would rather eat the down-payment on the place than keep making payments. And now it’s your turn. The circle is complete.

They would put the “contract” in front of me. We’d worked out the money issues, they said. $4000 down, $250 a month, and $800 a year in maintenance. I could put it on my Visa and walk out of there a man who owns a condo in Paradise! The only thing left was to get me to commit. They’d give me a minute to look at the paperwork.

I stared at the contract, apologizing for taking so long–This is a big decision, after all! They told me to take as much time as I needed. They could see the gears turning in my head, and they would wait forever if they had to.

But I was wasted on LSD. I wasn’t thinking about the condo. I was thinking about the fact that this contract was alive and breathing in my hands. How letters were doing a choreographed dance routine. The junior salesmen might have missed the signs, but it wasn’t until I got to the boss level that I got called out. The king snake of selling snake oil. The master-pickup-artist-turned-condo-salesman. He’s so charismatic, you’re going to buy a condo just to thank him for gracing you with his presence.

He and I talked for 20 minutes about living around the world as he did his best to brainwash me into wanting to be like him: a global jet-setter who bangs models in his many time-shares. Then he finally looked into my eyes. “Do you wear contacts?” He asked.

My blue eyes had been earning me compliments all week. The Mexican sun would shrink my pupils, making them even brighter and this wasn’t the first time someone asked about contacts. I waited for the flattery (the final Hail Mary pass of seduction). But it wasn’t a compliment. It was an observation about the state of my pupils. One wasn’t quite like the other. They kept changing.

I started to giggle and my eyes watered.

And now he knows.

I wasn’t even the usual couple that comes in on their vacation to sucker the sales people out of their free spas and bottles of tequila. I was worse. I was fucking with him. I didn’t get weeded out before the 90 minutes. I went for extra walking tours. I kept going to the bathroom. I would just stare at the contracts in silence until the condo-pushers got visibly uncomfortable. I dragged it out for a full 4 hours. Hell, on LSD, I was probably safer in here than out beyond the walls of the resort. By the end, he tactfully told me to get the fuck out.

I found myself in the lobby with my spa certificate and my bottle of tequila, me just staring at the marble tiles, watching them melt into each other, each knot in the marble a bubble trapped millions of years ago, now unlocked and flowing freely thanks to the chemicals in my bloodstream. The sudden stop to all the ass-kissery, all the pampering, made the place feel much less comforting, so I headed home.

I walked for miles carrying this heavy bottle of tequila. I don’t even like tequila. I wanted to throw it away, but there were no trash cans. I wanted to leave it on a bridge for some stranger to find, but a child would probably come along and take it. I was incredulous. I can’t even throw away a bottle of good liquor!

Finally, I saw a a tourist couple with a toddler and pushing a carriage with a screaming baby. I approached them and thrust the tequila into the father’s hands. “Here. Take this.”

Here was this white guy with a Mike-Tyson face tattoo, stumbling along in Italian shoes and dragging a bottle of tequila. I didn’t look like a tourist as much as a coked-out banker.

“Really?” He said, nonplussed. They had a screaming baby and a too-heavy-to-carry toddler mashing his hands all over mommy’s face, and here some stranger just walked up and gave them a bottle of liquor for no reason. I told them they need it more than me, and then turned and left.

I walked on the beach and resolved to write a love letter to my shoes. My orange-laced Ferragamos used to be my favorites, but I’d spent the whole of the last year cheating on them with blue-suede Allan Edmonds. I was coming down from the trip, but I felt like a man crawling back to his wife. “I love you! I was such a fool! I’ll never leave you again!” I literally took my now-anthropomorphized shoes for a long walk on the beach because they deserved it. They need to feel like shoes again and we needed to spend quality time together if this was going to work.

Eventually I made it back to the hotel. Back to the safety I found in all my new Canadian friends that seemed to populate the place. It was the next afternoon when I strapped on my bag and took a right and took the boat to Yelapa. To go catch frogs and mouth tequila bottles with strangers. To stumble upon a cafe in the morning and start a conversation with an American who makes soap.

Tyler Durden.

That’s the first thing you think of when someone tells you that they have a soap company.  Tyler Durden, the Anarchist from the movie Fight Club who funds his terrorist operation by selling soap. Special little soaps with nice wrappers and cute names. Artisanal soaps, over which scents middle-aged women will agonize as they try to decide which one to put in their remodeled bathroom.

He told me how he started making soap in his garage over 21 years ago, but wasn’t very good at it, so he started ordering soap from Vermont and repackaging it as authentic and hand-crafted. He told me how he got kicked out of the Saturday market for being a fraud and then went to the Caribbean to sell the same to tourists, fresh off their cruise ships. “I’m the Caribbean Soap Guy,” he’d tell them as he rode his tricycle down the beach with a stack of fake Caribbean soap in the trailer. Back then he had only $50 to his name. Eventually, he mastered the soap-making process and now they truly are authentic. Now he sells 250,000 bars a year. Millions of dollars of soap, shipping all over the world. He was allowed back into the Saturday market.

One day a man came up to his stall in the market. The man told him how he liked the soap, and hoped it was okay that he’d used some of the soap names and company branding in the book. The man told him he should read it. It’s called Fight Club, he said.

He and his wife spend a lot of time here, and he seemed to be respected by the locals that passed by. “If you’re looking for a story, I’ve got a story for you.” He said. He began to tell me the story of how they got rid of the criminal element several years back. Four guys were addicted to crack, causing trouble in the town. It’s a small town that’s inaccessible without wading through water. Where the streets are still thin donkey trails, paved with stone. This was back before the tourism boosted the economy. Before they got power and water. In a place like this four trouble-makers can cause a lot of problems.

Even now, there’s no police presence here, and back then, they had to deal with their problems on their own. When you have a criminal element, what you have do is, you kidnap them. You walk them at gunpoint up the mountain jungle trails for a couple hours. Then you take them a few hundred meters off the beaten bath. You give them shovels and tell them to start digging, the whole time with pistols pointed at their backs. Once the graves are deep enough, you make them get in and lay down. Make them close their eyes. When they finally start talking to God instead of begging for mercy, you whip out your dick and you piss on them. You tell them they got a choice: Clean themselves up or stay here for eternity. Two fled and never came back. The other two chose the former, and today they live normal lives here in town, each with a job and a family. “That’s how they deal with people who cause problems here.” He said with a mix of pride and excitement.

And the man who makes soap? As I write this, I’m watching him pace around on a cell phone in the veranda of the cafe, talking to some manager in the U.S. about an order of lotions and dog shampoo. Perhaps he wasn’t with the town elders in the mock execution. Maybe he’s just a guy who makes soap, but if not… if there’s something more to it, then this much is true: Tyler Durden bought me breakfast in Mexico.

The Bucket

The Bucket

When I was seven, my parents and I took a vacation up to a ranch up in Canada. From Oregon to Vancouver it was eight-hours of driving through rain, but being Oregonians, the rain didn’t bother us. We arrived to the ranch in the afternoon and they sent me to explore while they stayed to unpack at the cabin and do their taxes. Mom and Dad always did their taxes on vacation.

I set off with my raincoat and galoshes and a small yellow plastic bucket, the kind you give a child at the beach to build a sand castle. The ranch was an animal farm that rented cabins to sheltered suburbanites, and there were endless things for me to do: wave at the animals, dig holes, throw sticks at the electric fence. Endless experiments for me to conduct.

Near the cabin was a cow pasture, and from it a little ditch where stinky water flowed into a pipe. The pipe wasn’t very big, maybe as big as my bucket. Wouldn’t that be neat, I thought, if the bucket fit perfectly into the pipe? So I went down to the mouth of the pipe and lowered my bucket into the stream.

The pull of the rushing water made the bucket feel heavy, so heavy that I lost my grip. The bucket spun around under the water until thwump, it was sucked into the pipe. I tried to reach in to grab it, but it was gone.

And then the water started to rise.

As a child, you don’t always understand why something is happening, but you can tell the difference between good and bad, and I could tell this was bad. Very bad.

My parents came out when they heard the panic in my calls for help. I tried to explain what had happened and pointed at the pipe.

First, my father got down in the soggy grass and tried to fish out the bucket but he couldn’t reach it. Then my mother jumped in. She was on her hands and knees, and the water kept rising around her. As she reached into the pipe, the water took her hand, her elbow, then her shoulder. She had to turn her head like a swimmer as the water lapped at her chin. Her face wore the tortured grimace of someone flailing to grasp at something just out of reach. Then it seemed to suck her in.

This was the moment I would remember for the rest of my life. The moment I realized it was all my fault. The moment just before she emerged from the pipe with a small yellow bucket and before the water began to recede.

I remember my father being scolded by the owner of the ranch. I remember hiding under a blanket as my parents re-packed our things so we could leave. We weren’t welcome anymore.

All of this from a plastic bucket and a single foolish thought.

Sometimes a disaster can be traced back to even the most innocent of bad ideas. That’s the lesson I learned from my little bucket.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish: Terrorist Battlecry

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish: Terrorist Battlecry

I boarded the Singapore Airlines A380, delicately balancing my iPad, and backpack, and salad as I settled into my seat. I smiled to the older couple next to me, then started in on the salad. With airline seats getting smaller, bringing your own food is becoming one of the few remaining joys of air travel. I finish and put my fork and napkin into the slimy salad box and dig through my bag until I find my photo prop.

The plan was to send a good selfy or some other type of millenniish “look at me, I’m flying!” picture. So I pull out the sheet of paper I’d prepared for this moment. White printer paper with big black letters, reading, “SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH.”

This is, of course, the wonderful line from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein the Earth is about to be destroyed and humans spend their last living moments trying to decipher a message from Dolphins, only to learn it reads just that: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Nerd jokes. Cute little nerd jokes. Smart girls like cute little nerd jokes, so make them often.

However, the entire point of posting goodby photos, Douglas Adams quote or not, is to post them on your way OUT the door, and suddenly I realize I’m already seated on the plane, about to take off, and I think about how awkward or stupid I’m going to feel asking some seatmate to take a picture of me holding this nonsensical sign. The old lady next to me does not seem the type to appreciate such things, and I have to spend the next 8 hours with these people. So I go about it a little more discretely, placing the sign between my feet on the floor and take a picture of it between my shoes. Good enough.

I fold the paper up and nibble on the last bits of my salad. The little old German lady next to me points at the folded paper and asks in strained English, “What is this?”

Now I’m embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to really notice my “look at me I’m on a plane!” Photo indulgences, but I do like to make conversation with fellow passengers. ”Oh,” I say, “just a joke for my friends.” I blush a little, embarrassed.

“Why?” The little old German lady asks. She’s not smiling. In fact, her question is accusatory, and I realize I’ve stumbled into an interrogation.

Now, I’m a red blooded American. I may be a liberal, but I like my steaks juicy, my tits big, and my cops with a warrant. This old lady was talking to me like I’m up to no good, and for any red-blooded American who likes steaks, tits, and probable cause, that’s a gauntlet that will not stand.

An uncomfortable silence falls on us as I decide just how far I’m going to take this. It’s true what they say, Germans really don’t have a sense of humor.

If she had been less accusatory, I’d not have been bothered, but we’re still taxiing at JFK. You’re in my house. New York Muthafuckin City! I’m not going to sit here and kowtow to every paranoid foreigner with stupid questions.

She had asked me why. So I give her the only answer worth giving when someone is all incredulous and asking you, “Why?”

“Why not?” I say, watching for her reaction.

I do this too often, and my zeal for confrontations over privacy or 4th amendment rights have grown with all the videos of cops running mad with power.

The old German lady isn’t happy with my answer. Now she’s more direct.

“You will show me?” She insists.

I raise my eyebrows, impressed that she’s willing to confront me directly over this. More than just being stubborn about privacy, I’m specifically turned off by paranoia surrounding terrorism. We already have to take off our shoes and belt to get on the airplane, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this Stazi grandma make demands on me because she’s unduly nervous about terrorism. This is the kind of bitch that would call a stewardess over if a Sikh was siting next to her in a Turban.

I take the folded paper, open my salad container, and place it inside, leaving it to marinade in vinaigrette dressing and the slimy leftovers of egg and ham and blue cheese. If she wants it, she can dig it out of the trash with her manicured nails.

I look straight at her as I seal the my small little compost heap with the paper inside. With cool civility, I ask her a very important question: “Do we have a problem?”

She doesn’t miss a beat. “Yes.” She says in her heavy German accent. “It is a problem for me if you…” She doesn’t finish. I give her a look that says, please finish your thought. She knows what she feels: that somehow I’m a danger to her and everyone else. But she can’t seem to vocalize it, because calling someone a potential terrorist is a big deal. So you don’t say it directly. You tell the stewardess something vague. This man is acting “strange” — he’s speaking Arabic. He’s brown (wink wink), or, he took a picture of a piece of paper and then ate his salad. (Well doesn’t that sound dumb?)

I look back at her with her “problem,” and I smile, speaking slowly and clearly just to be sure I’m understood. “Not my problem.”

Just then a stewardess comes over with a trash bag, and I enjoyed the feeling of the old lady’s eyes tracking folded note in the greasy container as I tossed it in the trash, thanking the stewardess with a smile. I’m always kind to flight crew. The old woman’s English was poor, and I didn’t speak German, but she knew what I was saying without me having to say it: Go dig.

Before the stewardess could make off with the trash, the old lady hailed her attention and made her play.

“Hallo!” She said to the stewardess, pointing at me and struggling with her English, “Him… He has…”

The stewardess looked down at me and I put on my best puss-in-boots innocent face and smiled back up at her.

“He has a…” The old woman said, clearly agitated and searching for the words.

The stewardess understood completely. And so she opened the overhead compartment for the seats in front of us and handed me a pillow and blanket, then she left to tend to the rest of the cabin.

Holding my fresh pillow and blanket, I offered a gracious smile to the old German lady who had tried to make me out as some kind of terrorist. My smirk carried with it the implied utterance of every four-letter word I could think of. Then donned my sleep mask, curled up under the blanket and went to sleep.

Be the Wheat

Be the Wheat

A few years ago I was sitting in the office of a friend of mine, a real successful businessman. At the time, I was handing out resumes and applying for jobs. This friend of mine, he’d never been in the military but he thought the fact that I had been was pretty cool. So he tells me I should put “Master’s of Badass Motherfuckery” under my education qualifications. After taking a moment to fantasize about having the balls to do such a thing, I demurred. It’s a fun thought but it’s funnier in the realm of what-if?
“Nonsense.” He said. “You don’t want to work for the kind of people who don’t think that’s funny.” That was the best advice he ever gave me.

Did I actually do that? Yes. But really just to look at. To internalize it. Truth is, I never handed out a resume again (though I think Masters in BAMF Sciences is on my LinkedIn.)
I did, however, start being myself. I got my first major job after pulling out a bottle of scotch in the middle of a job interview. About a year later, when the Chairman asked me how drinks went with a potential investor, I said, “Not well.” When he pressed me for details, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, “He was extremely rude to my date and I punched him in the stomach.” After considering this for a moment, the chairman just said, alright, sounds like you had your reasons. My friend was right, these are the kind of people I want work with. With this company, I got to keep my job, and my friend. And my dignity.

Fast forward a few years.

I was at a grad school admissions meeting over the summer. I showed up straight from Burning Man, still in costume and covered in dust. Once the admissions officers got over the fact that I was caked in dust with rips in my trousers, they were more fascinated by where I’d been. So I told them everything. About tripping on LSD and chasing a sexy Boston pharmacist through the desert. About waking up next to a Japanese lesbian ninja, even describing to them the wrist band that she had worn: “2015 CAMP BEAVERTON STRAP-ON-A-THON” And guess what? They laughed. They’re regular people. A good story is a good story, and to be fair, this is a Journalism school.

So I got in. I start in August, actually.

Running around this way, breaking the rules and quick with the middle finger, it doesn’t fit well with the conventional notion of success. You might not make a lot of money by refusing to “play the game.” I wasn’t able to close the deal with that investor, but I’m still dear friends with Katie, and I’m proud of that.

I don’t know if I can argue that things will always work out if you are unashamedly yourself. Some people may not like the real you and you’ll have to be okay with that. Whatever the cost, it’s up to you to decide if that’s a fair price for staying true to yourself.

Think of it as thinning the herd. Breaking protocol and testing the limits of decorum helps you separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s far too much fucking chaff walking around in the world, pretending to be wheat.

Be the wheat.

How Civilization Ends: A MRSA Explainer

How Civilization Ends: A MRSA Explainer

A few years ago, a rich friend of mine asked me to come over to his palatial UWS apartment to help him organize his “prepper” room. He moved a china cabinet in the middle of foyer to reveal a hidden door, and behind it was enough guns, ammo, and gold to make the post-apocalypse look pretty sweet. (He even showed me how I could fit $100,000 worth of gold bars in my boots if I don’t mind blisters, and because I’m a good friend, I didn’t sprint out the door the second I was laced up.)

He also had an entire milk-crate worth of “Z-Packs”, the standard 5-day antibiotic regimen for fighting most minor infections. He said he uses the Azithromycin packs for just about anything. Got a cold? Z-pack. Stub your toe? Z-pack. Okay, not really, but in any case, I cautioned him that this wasn’t such a great plan, but I couldn’t easily explain how it worked. Yes, if you fail to take the whole dose, the remaining bacteria is weakened, but not killed off, then comes back more resistant. I get that, but how does it spread? You can’t exactly sneeze pneumonia into greater society.

Here’s the answer: It’s not that the specific internal infection that you are treating is going to come back stronger (though it could), it’s that your body’s skin and mucus membranes are little more than perambulating petri dishes, wiping and smearing staphylococcus on every keyboard, subway pole, and carton of soy milk that that lady before you picked up before having a change of heart.

The key thing to know is that Staph is on your body all the time, but your skin protects you from it. However, when you are treating an internal infection with antibiotics on a five-day regimen, after a long day at work you rub the back of your neck on the subway ride home. The staphylococcus from your neck, having survived a three-day trial-by-fire, escapes the antibiotic coups de gras by taking a ride on your fingertips to the warm surface of the subway pole, then someone else comes along on the same pole, scratches their face, and next thing you know, civilization has crumbled, and you’re eating the neighbor’s dog.

So, the take away is that it’s not necessarily irresponsible people failing to follow through with their regimen, it’s that the antibiotics treating the infection on your finger are also winnowing the bacteria everywhere else on your body, not just the infection point. So your finger may be as good as new, but now the staph under your thumbnail is now a hardened killer with a thousand-yard-stare, waiting for the next soft tissue to come alone.

So, yeah. Don’t use antibiotics if you don’t need to, wash your hands with soap, and try not to pick your nose, or you could end up getting carved up like a swiss cheese and bring about the end of the human race.

Norway is Truly the Land of the Free (Stuff)

Norway is Truly the Land of the Free (Stuff)

At Oslo’s main station, I set about getting a SIM card for my iPad. AT&T wants $30 for a laughably-small 120mb of data, and that shit just ain’t gonna fly. While the salesman installs my SIM card, I notice an e-waste recycle box with glass sides so you can see everything stuffed inside. Lots of already-have-too-many-of-them micro- and mini-USB wall plugs. Even a couple shattered iPhones. But down at the bottom was a euro-style USB wall adapter, something I might need, so I’m thinking of the mantra we learned in the 90s, “Reduce, reuse…” I stuff my hand inside, telling the salesman I’m doing it for Mother Earth.

Barely squeezing through the small opening on the top of the box, I guide my hand as I watch through the clear plastic walls like an arcade grabber machine. Like the game, it’s rigged against me, with the prize sliding further down into the pile every time I snap at it. I make one last thrust and finally get a grip on it, but when I try to draw my arm out, the lid of the box comes with me. I’m stuck in it like Pooh Bear in the often under-appreciated honey pot, but refuse to let go of my prize. The salesman sees my predicament and says, “Oh! You need an adapter?” Then walks over to a closet, unlocks it, pulls out a factory sealed USB adapter and hands it to me.

“Really?” I ask, still wearing the box top on my right hand.


Armed with my pocket-internet, I step out into Oslo. My first realization is that low and behold, winter just south of the Arctic Circle is cold(!) so I dart into the nearest shopping mall to stay warm.

As I window shop my way through the mall, a woman running a beauty kiosk asks me what kind of exfoliant I use (Kiehl’s, obviously). She takes my left hand and begins to scrub it down with some kind of crushed horse-lick being repackaged and sold for $50 an ounce. “This salt scrub is all natural and from the Dead Sea with essential oils of blah blah blah.” Whatever lady. Salt is salt is salt. All I know is…


She then puts some cream on my face and some special under-eye goop and uses pretend-knowledge to tell me I’ve got fat under my eyes. She tells me that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore if I’d just buy $200 of kitchen salt mixed with olive oil. I decline and worry she feels used and emotionally vulnerable. (Don’t lead women on, fellas. It’s rude!)

I set out into the cold and climb a long, snow-covered hill to the front of the royal palace where I have my picture taken by Norwegian college students and am interviewed about my opinion of whether Norwegian cops should carry guns. (Come on. This is Norway.) Then it’s back down the snow-covered hill as I think about how my only pair of shoes are paper-thin velvet slippers. Cold feet are acceptable, though, considering you can’t wear winter boots with tuxedo pants. It’s just not something that is done.

Dress for the weather you want, not the weather you have. – Fashions 4:20

At an outdoor market I look at the prices for handmade leather gloves and artisanal candy when suddenly a man walks up to me with a single cup of coffee on a platter. He says something in Norwegian, I accept the coffee, and he turns and walks away, like, “I’m out.” Not, “If you enjoy this, buy more.” Just… Nothing. I stand there, waiting for a catch, but he’s gone, and nobody else seems involved, so I shrug and think,


After I warm my hands on the cup and drink it down I step into a sports store, thinking I might be able to find some cheap long-johns to make up for the heat-drain from my toes. While wandering around, I approach a curious pair of shoes at the same time as a pretty woman about my age. We start talking about the interesting design: burgundy Chuck Taylors but with a furry lining. “Ugg Chucks!” I say. We make 60 seconds of small talk before I tell her she should buy them and continue my search for long undies. I find them and take a pair to the dressing room. They fit so I decide to wear them out. (Not free. I pay for them.)

I pass by the young woman again. Now she’s trying them on, and, after some consideration, I tell her they look good. I think about how I’ve got no plans, and she, browsing for shoes at 1pm on a Wednesday, probably doesn’t either. I suggest we get some coffee. She accepts.

She takes me to this hidden coffee shop down an alley and up a flight of stairs. Real cool place. After ordering, I step off to use the restroom, and when I return, she’s paid for my chai latte and says, “I invite you.”

MORE FREE COFFEE! (Well, tea, but still.)

Turns out she’s not Norwegian, she’s German. She came here to follow her boyfriend, but there aren’t many jobs available for her PhD in microbiology.

After an hour we step out and I thank her for the coffee. She tells me all the places I should go. The National Opera House, the waterfront, the fortress on the hill. I ask her what her plan is. She says she should keep working on job applications or head home. She says her boyfriend is a very jealous person. I put on wide eyes and look over my left shoulder, suspiciously, then my right, then I lean in and say, “I’m not gonna tell him.” She thinks for a moment and decides that, you know what? She can show me around. She’ll just tell him she went for coffee.



And then we’re off! She takes me to see all the sights and sounds of downtown Oslo.


We hike up to the fortress on the hill. We walk through the snow. She teaches me that in German, the way we say “snowflake,” they say “snow-flower.” It’s pronounced “Shnuffenblumen” or something like that.

She takes me to the waterfront where I stand on a large piece of ice that had floated ashore. I declare it the Sovereign Dictatorship of Benistan. She takes me picture. I lose my balance an fall off, deposed and humiliated.

There’s room for two, Leo!

She takes me to the National Opera House where I play an unattended piano until the world’s nicest security guard comes over with a conciliatory smile and politely asks if I would cease. When I compliment his friendly demeanor, he shrugs and says with his perfect Norwegian accent, “No reason to be an asshole about it.”

As the sun is going down, the German woman and I march for a mile through the cold and she gives me a tour of the trendy post-gentrification part of Oslo with the Eplehuset (Apple Store) and corresponding astronomical rents. I tell her I’m hungry and she reaches into her bag gives me a banana!


We walk back to the market where I was initially given coffee in the morning. Now the market glows in the dark with lamps and Christmas lights. It’s getting colder, still. I need more layers.

As we explore the different kiosks, two women schilling some special auto windshield glass offer us thin little caps from their collection of branded kitsch.


The next booth over is promoting Columbia Sportswear. When I tell them that Columbia Sportswear is from my hometown, they get excited and invite us in for a costumed photo shoot. I put on a Columbia jacket and a Viking helmet. She grabs a wig. We touch for the first time.


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The next kiosk over is taking a survey on which flavor of sausage their company should promote.


I return to raid their platter of sausage 4 times over the next 15 minutes.





Now the German woman has to go. Time to go and tell her boyfriend about all the coffee she drank alone. We exchange information and a hug. Maybe we’ll get together tomorrow? Maybe in New York? I contact my friend Adam and arrange to finally meet after 13 years of not finishing a fight.

The last time I saw Adams was at a U.S. Embassy in West Africa and he was trying to smash my head in  with a yellow number 1 billiards ball. For the sake of the story, I’m disappointed he doesn’t punch me when he sees me. Instead, we go to his neighborhood bar and he proceeds to tell the bartender of our adventures. About Sock Man chasing him around the U.S. Embassy, naked, a sword in one hand and a 9″ dildo carved out of ivory in the other. About the standoff on the roof against a 3rd grade class of child soldiers (*cough* BeastsofNoNationisatruestory *cough*). He told the story about the drunk, naked Marine stealing a kid’s bike in front of the embassy and crashing it into a rebel checkpoint. The drunk, naked Marine was held hostage by the rebels until someone from the embassy paid his ransom. (WE MISS YOU JASON!) And wouldn’t you know it, at the end of the night, after dinner and drinks, Adams, (courtesy of all that Norway money he’s making), picks up the check.



On the way home, Adams tells me that society and dating is way different over here. He says that if you accidentally get a girl pregnant, they don’t necessarily want you around. Or child support, for that matter. I take him at his word, because this is in keeping with everything I’ve learned about Norway over the last 12 hours.


What a country!