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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FREE USB CHARGER!
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…
FREE HAND MASSAGE!
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.
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.
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.
FREE SILLY PHOTO BOOTH SESSION!
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.
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.