My friends You have always been there like a friend While we are walking hand in hand I will depend on you, my friend
The Hawaiians led us in song every night during our tent-porch ceremonies. With ukulele in hand, they could sing us well into the night … nighttime came like a noncommittal mist, rolling in several hours past midnight, evaporating into a new day after a damp swab of twilight.
The tent-porch I shared with Salmon Billy, we shared with the entire community of seasonal workers. Fashioned out of cinder blocks, pine cones, and tree branches, the ghetto-porch was crowned by a railing sculpted out of empty Key Stone beer cans; a legacy of hard earned tips pooled together at the tail end of toilet scrubbing and seafood dishes spritzed with diarrhea butter.
The richness of our community, a rag-tag assortment of tenty-somethings, drawn together like a jazz ensemble hell bent on improvising their lives away in an underground sanctuary, made the tent-porch feel more luxurious than any of the hackneyed cabins up on the hill, siphoning the hard earned greens out of naive tourists on a misguided attempt to commune with nature.
There was always room for extra players on our stage. When Ashley, Lacey and Hector appeared from the shadows of the drunken spruce trees, we wasted no time in handing them instruments and giving them a spotlight to solo in.
Ashley said she grew up in Vietnam, even though she looked like she grew up at a Grateful Dead concert. She was our new prep cook, hours new, after having lost the third prep cook of the season earlier that day. Her friendliness was just as remarkable as the amazingly wonderful tales that slipped past her lips. Stories of being kidnapped by a rogue FBI agent and having been a cook for Barbara Streisand were fine, but unnecessary in a land where pushing the limits of recognizable reality became an every day practice. The prep cook two-before her, for instance, was fired for showing up to his first day of work so high on methamphetamine that he spent his whole shift staring at himself in a mirror and drooling.
Later we discovered he was originally intended to be the fourth tenant of the RD & Salmon Billy tent, who had apparently, at some point unknown to any of us, entered the tent, placed a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a hammock on his designated wooden cot, and never returned to sleep in the tent or retrieve the items. When Salmon Billy decided we should inherit his left over belongings, and put that hammock to good use, a closer inspection of his “flashlight” revealed it to have been fashioned into a clandestine meth pipe, black sticky tar lining the bowl.
We lost the third prep-cook during breakfast, and Ashley was picked off the streets to fill a void that seemed to be sucking the soul out of anyone willing to take it.
“I found him passed out in his tent. He was so dead, I literally thought he was dead! For a second, I seriously thought we were going be carrying a body out of this place.”
Ernest was one of our shuttle drivers. He was a mid-western American with a semi-sweet, semi-sweaty big-boy build, and a calming smile that made you want to hug him. Early that morning, however, there was nothing but worry running through the creases of his scrunched up brow.
“If it happened anywhere else, I’d be shocked. But it happened here. So I’m not. Get inside, let’s go for a ride. I’ll tell you all about it.” Foregoing the day’s breakfast, I hopped into Ernest’s shuttle, and braced myself for anything.
“So I got up at 5 this morning, and took the shuttle down to the train station where I picked up an entire train car full of Japanese tourists. They were coming here for a specially arranged breakfast. You know, we don’t open before lunch. This was a big deal, they must have paid a lot for it.”
“I had to make multiple trips to the train station to get everyone. And every time I came back, I noticed that everyone was just standing in front of the restaurant looking confused. So I got out of the van to see what was going on, and Mando shows up, and he’s laughing that laugh, you know (and he tries to imitate that evil sound), and he’s like ‘Ernest, where’s Matthew?’ I’m like, ‘who’s Matthew?’ and he’s like, ‘he’s the new hire, he was supposed to be here an hour ago to get this breakfast started. Go find him.’”
“So I went to the campground, found his tent and started calling his name. I’m like, ‘Matt, Matt, wake up, come on dude, they want you in the kitchen,’ and nothing. So I go into his tent and I start shaking him, and nothing. I mean I waited to hear his breath just to make sure he was still alive. He was stone cold, just gone.”
By now the sweat was streaming down Ernest’s forehead. “Three times!” His exaggerated voice followed the contours of his emotions. “Three times Mando sent me to the tent to wake him up. Each time, I came back empty handed. The last time he said, ‘Tell him he’s got five minutes to either get into this kitchen, or get off our property.’”
“I did, but it didn’t do any good. Next thing I know, Mando comes charging down the road to the employee campground. He finds Matt’s tent, draggs him out of his tent by his ankles. Yes, by his ankles! Then he goes into the tent, gets his sleeping bag and clothes, goes to the end of the driveway, and throws all his stuff onto the highway … oh look, it’s still there.” as we pass by a smattering of woefully discarded clothes and a dirty sleeping bag strewn across the highway.
“Oh look, and there’s Matt too, picking through his stuff. Let’s go see what the hell happened.”
A pale look of shame, shock and hangover graced the face of ousted Matthew. “I went to The Sack last night,” he confessed upon seeing us.
Well that was a mistake. Any bar that is open until breakfast that has a reputation for ruining the lives of every single one of its patrons, is not the place to go before preparing a breakfast for one hundred Japanese tourists.
“I don’t remember anything after meeting some biker chick. I sure as hell don’t remember Mando dragging me out of my tent by my ankles, but I hear that’s how I got here.” Then he turned his head and puked his guts out.
“Like I said, RD,” Earnest took the opportunity to leave all our hours-new memories of Matthew in the dust, “If it happened anywhere else…”
And that’s how we met Ashley.
Lacey and Hector made for a unique exception in our group. They were Native Alaskans, not drop-ins from the Lower 48 like the rest of us. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, and it was Lacey, not Hector, who was now employed by the Crows as a server. Even just having Hector in our midst was a violation of the strict “NO GUESTS” policy the Crows placed on our employee playground. Allowing him to stay and sleep in Ashley and Lacey’s tent was above and beyond violation, but who were we to enforce the rules of the cowardly Crows? Anything we could do to skirt their rules was game for us. Hector was therefore granted an honorary place to play his wicked horn.
The angels may take me some day But I’ll have just one thing to say Dear Lord, I pray That you will send An angel to watch my friend
“Is there somebody there? Who is that?”
“It’s me, Ashley. I had to come here, I didn’t know where else to go. They were fighting all night.”
“Hector and Lacey.”
I was used to being woken up by the sounds of foxes eating left over sandwiches or squirrels throwing beer cans outside the tent, but not by a whimpering, moaning lump of person emanating from one corner of our tent at five in the morning.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes to vaguely make out the image of Ashley, huddled in the corner; hair a mess, eyes watery, puffy, and red, body clearly in some sort of state of shock.
She burst into tears and unraveled the story, “They were fighting all night. They were both completely wasted, and just ripping each other apart, non-stop. I was trapped in that tent with them, and they were yelling at each other like, ‘you’re a goddamned whore,’ and ‘I hate your fucking guts’. It was horrible, I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I couldn’t take it any more, so I bolted out of there and came here. I had to push past them to get out because they were blocking the tent door. It was ridiculous. Can I stay with you guys?”
“Holy shit what the fuck is going on?” Sam jolted awake amidst the weeping, setting off a domino effect which quickly spread to Billy,
“What is that?”
“It’s me, Salmon Billy, Ashley. I came here because Lacey and Hector were fighting all night long in our tent. Can I stay with you guys?”
“What a surprise, they seemed like such an easy going couple.” Naively trusting of people’s self-presentations, any signal that the two were about to combust, flew completely over my head.
“Oh no, I saw it coming.” Billy proved himself as a maestro of feeling people out, “Did you notice how he was pouring a fifth of Jack into his Key Stone all night long? Yeah, and he wasn’t offering any around, even though we were smoking him out and we gave him that Key Stone. Yeah, and did you notice how they had their arms around each other all friggen night? I mean, they were like cemented together. It was creepy. I love my girlfriend, and I love to hold her, but sometimes your arm gets tired, you know? Jesus!”
“Welcome to our nightmare, Ashley. How long have you been here? Eight hours? It’s like this all the time.” A special sweetness in Sam’s upbeat stoner voice implied a kindness directed towards our new guest. “You can sleep on the abandoned cot, but I threw all of my dirty clothes on it.”
“It’s alright,” she said, pawing at the clothes like a sleepy cat, “I can use them like blankets and pillows,” and she proceeded to burrow herself into Sam’s laundry. “Your dirty clothes smell nice, Sam.” Kindness and sweetness echoed across the tent.
The new day broke without a sign of Hector or Lacey, or the dramas of the previous day. Perhaps a calm was rolling into the valley. The housekeeping shift started with relatively light load. For a few moments, there were no sticks in the spokes.
“Front desk to maintenance.” The buzz of the walkie talkies zapped through us like a bolt from the blue.
“Maintenance. Go ahead.”
“Can you go to the employee campground? There is a strange man in Ashley’s tent, he refuses to leave and he urinated on her sleeping bag. We need you to remove him, and the bag.”
“Maintenance? Come in please.”
The housekeepers quickly jumped in. “What the fuck twisted bull shit world are we living in here? What the fuck is going on?” Mittens opted for the Courtney Love Meltdown routine. “How is this fucking happening? A strange man? Peed on Ashley’s sleeping bag and won’t leave? What?”
“Yeah. Ummm. WHAT?”
The front desk had thrown their hands up in defeat long ago. “I don’t know Sailorboy, just go down there and see what’s happening. Take the day off while you’re down there if you want.”
“YOU ARE NOT PUTTING THAT SLEEPING BAG INTO THE WASHING MACHINE. THAT MASHINE IS FOR CABIN LINNENS ONLY!” Salsa gave her two cents on the situation. We would not be taking any part in allowing Ashley to rid her bag of another man’s urine.
That happened. And then the sun vanished.
The sun had been in the sky nearly twenty four hours a day since we arrived, it was our constant companion. Without warning, it vanished. A thick brown smoke streamed into the valley, choking us off from the sun, the mountains, and even the trees across the street. The sky turned orange, and the people turned to rust. It came in fast and thick, and showed no sign of letting up.
In an effort to relieve the effects of claustrophobia, panic, and delirium, the Korean Boy and I began singing songs together while making beds and replacing bath-towels.
The Korean Boy was something of a summer-worker whore, he was just in it for the money. He didn’t belong to any one community in the valley, but surfed among a few different local lodges. At one lodge he worked as baker, so he would typically show up to his shift with us holding a box of newly baked muffins. Free, fresh baked muffins in a land that can charge five bucks for a week old bagel. This was our reward, and he had a special place in our hearts because of it. He could not say “muffin,” however. He would say “muppin.” So we called him The Muppin Man.
In fact, he could barely pronounce any English word in any recognizable manner. He could, however, sing Radiohead songs with dead-on perfect mimicry.
But I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doin here? I don’t belong here.
[and straight into the hardest part of the song]
[and into the falsetto voice]
She’s running again-i-an-i-an And she’s ruuunning
[transitioning from the falsetto into the screaming voice]
She Runs Runs RUNS
[and into the song’s climactic yelp]
Our song was paused by the flickering of a ghost out in the deep orange, beyond the cabins.
“Do you see that?”
We pressed our noses to the cabin window,trying to make out what kind of creature was stirring in the haze.
“Is that a moose? I’m gonna go out there and see.”
Stepping out of the cabin and into the orange cloud, I called out to the shadow in the distance.
A dark figure hobbled close to me. It was Lacey. She must have gotten within five feet of me before I could see it was her. It wasn’t a pretty sight. She could barely walk. Cuts, bruises, blood, dirt, leaves and twigs covered her body. She could barely talk, and just mumbled, “My ankle, I think it’s broken.”
I wrapped her arm around my shoulder, and we three-legged it down to the front desk where Mando was waiting, shaking his head and smirking.
“Where’d you find this piece of work,” punctuated by his hideous laugh.
“She just appeared out of know where. She thinks her ankle’s busted, and well, she doesn’t look too good.”
“Look too good? Are you fucking kidding me?” Mando leaned back, sizing her up, his arms crossed over that lard-tub torso of his. “I’ve been listening to her and that fucking boyfriend tearing each other up all day in the woods. All fuckin’ day. You know what we’re gonna do? I’m gonna get my truck, we’re gonna put all of your belongings into it, I’m going to drive you to the highway, and you’re going to hitchhike to Fairbanks where you can get that ankle looked at, okay? And if that fucking asshole boyfriend is still here when we’re done, I’m calling the state troopers.”
That’s what we’re doing then. Okay. Should we eat a couple babies while we’re at it?
For the second time in two days, someone’s belongings were tossed onto the side of the Alaskan Highway.
But for now Let’s make the most of the simple things While we are walking hand in hand I will depend on you, my friend
Valeri started collecting the new State’s Quarters, and nearly completed the set in a few weeks.
“Oh look, this is a quarter from the state of Ar-KAN-sass.”
Valeri lights up our days with his earnest drive to want to sound like an American, which constantly sets him up for walking right into an endearing string of mispronunciations. “No Val, that’s Ar-can-SAW.”
“Oh. I see. Ar-kan-SAW. He must be cousin to Kan-SAW .”
That’s all it takes the pierce this thick orange bubble that has invaded our home, a bubble that has parked itself in our valley, and doesn’t seem to be moving.
Somewhere in the back of my mind is tucked away the idea that I can successfully hitchhike to Fairbanks and back with enough time to run a race that starts at midnight in the light of the arctic sunshine on the longest day of the year, and still clock into work by the start of my 8AM Housekeeping shift that same morning, without penalty or wrath by drunken manager for tardiness. There’s no negotiating days off with the higher ups, and I’d surely face termination if I just fail to show up.
Interestingly enough, running a race is not really something that’s part of my oeuvre. Until today, I’ve never woken up and thought, “I know, I’ll run a race.” But something about the convergence of the summer solstice, the northern latitudes, celebrations that start at midnight, and the audacity of risking employment to go through with it suggests to me, why not?
A Paul Newman Look-A-Like keeps flashing his face in front of me. Paul, like our community Leprechaun, is a shuttle driver for the Lodge. He is as All American as dimpled cheeks and cleft chins, and as All American Athlete as high school varsity team and sports scholarship. He wants to go run the race. He’s been talking about this race for weeks. He’s aching to run this race. He can’t go home to his friends in the Lower 48 without being able to say he ran this race. But he’s also too All American Conservative to just leave the nest on a solo journey with no one to witness his mighty win, or toast it in at the after-party.
So he’s using all his fraternal charm to butter me up and ensure that I confirm my participation with him in the race, by stealing moments away from tourist-shuttling to fetch me extra towels and carry trash out to the dumpster, coyly asking at each opportunity, “so, you’re coming to Fairbanks tonight, right?”
“I don’t know, I don’t have the day off tomorrow. What if I can’t make it back in time?”
“I’m sure you’ll find a ride, dude. We’ll make signs and hang out where people are leaving at the end of the race, I’m sure someone will be coming back in this direction. Don’t sweat it. What’s the worst that could happen?”
He stands outside the cabin door, eager, pumped. He’s doing jump-kicks off the staircase that leads up to the cabin, and landing in the soft tundra. Inside, I fling around used bed sheets and gather yesterday hairballs.
“You deserve to get out of here man, have a little break, release some of this craziness. Look how beautiful it is out there, and we’ve been stuck here. Let’s go. Break loose.” It’s hard not to notice the vastness of the landscape that stretches out forever behind him. That’s what we came here for. Why stop now?
It’s also hard to not notice and be excited for the extra attention Paul is laying on me today. And to make sure we both notice what kinds of tactics he’s using, he strips off his shirt and starts doing push ups in the doorway. Okay, I’m coming, you can stop begging.
Pulling up a chair to be closer to the show, I glance down at the trashcan. Folded neatly on top: today’s paper. Headline in block letters: RACE TONIGHT IN FAIRBANKS.
“Well, look at this,” I pick it up like it’s a sign, even thought I’m already decided upon going whereever Paul’s sweaty chest wants me to go. “It’s about the,” and then my attention is even further distracted, “ … holy shit, no fucking way…” from under the folded paper is revealed an entire tray of unopened freshly baked store bought fudge brownies. “Check this out. We’re celebrating, right now.”
Walkie-talkie announcement to the Housekeeping Crew, “Housekeepers to cabin 400 right now … I found a box of fresh brownies. And I’m going to Fairbanks!”
“No way,” Sam of Sam & Billy calls back on the radio, “I just found a full six-pack of beer in the cabin I’m in right now. I’ll bring it.” The sweetness of his perpetually stoned voice comes through even over the walkie-talkies. “Brownies and beer. And it’s only 11 am!” Five weeks ago, I would have taken pause at the fact that these items were fished out of trash cans, abandoned by guests who were surely hundreds of miles away by now. Yes, perhaps once, but no longer. Salute.
Twelve hours later, Fairbanks.
It’s approaching midnight, it’s 80 degrees out, the sun is blasting, and characters from Tony the Tiger to Military Men In Diapers dot the starting line. I didn’t know it was possible to run in platform shoes, or in drag. There are live bands playing. People are truly celebrating.
I’ve never run this far in my life. This is a real race. I have a bib number, there’s nearly 4,000 of us. I’m wondering how I got into this, and what it is I’m actually doing. The gun shoots, and we’re off.
As the miles pass under my feet, and the runners disperse into comfortable pacing distances, unrelated but interconnected thoughts begin racing around my head.
This place, this work, these people, this whole last month… how do we get to these moments in our lives? A word comes to mind: endurance. It is equal parts answer and question. Will I endure another two months here? Will I endure another mile in this race?
At some point, my legs decide they don’t want to push me so fast, and I walk a couple times. Even so, I manage to be the 69th person to cross the finish line. I’ve never done anything quite like this before: Alaska, midnight, 80 degrees, the adrenaline of completing a race. Paul is shoveling orange slices into his mouth.
5 am, dorm room floor.
The return ride to the Crow farm never materialized. A random stranger staying at the University of Alaska dorms offered us to sleep on his floor for the night. I’m laying there, calculating the time I’ll need to get back to home-base once I find a ride, and attempting to factor in a statistically safe amount of time for procuring said ride with thumb power.
If I’m to survive another day as a summer worker, I have to leave now. Paul is staying because he has the day off, and is still sound asleep on the floor next to me. I have to leave now.
A truck pulls up next to me in response to my thumb on the highway. He wants to know where I’m going and how much I can give him. I tell him I can fill up his tank. He tells me he wants his tank filled, and some extra just for being a nice guy. I’m desperate. At this hour, if we leave right now, I may still be able to sneak back in without anyone realizing I ever left. It’s now or never.
The driver doesn’t radiate “friendly”. The way he looks at me, I feel like he’s pricing cuts of meat right off the bone. He tells me to get in, and we head to the gas station. “So you’ll fill it up, then give me enough cash to fill it up again when I drop you off. And I’m not really going that way, so I have to come all the way back. I think my time is worth at least another twenty bucks… in each direction.”
In my fluster of irritation and desperation, eighty of my dollars ends up in his hands, the last eighty dollars I will have until we get paid in a week. I’m tired and delirious, and hopefully this is the last step towards being able to clock-in on-time.
But the driver begins dashing those hopes immediately.
“I’ve got to go see my friend real quick. He’s got a spare tire for me. Can’t take you anywhere without a spare tire. This will only take a minute.”
He gets on his cell phone, and starts driving in the opposite direction I need to go. The scene of rural trailers passing by quickly changes from rustic to trashy, with tacky lawn ornaments giving way to kiddie pools overrun with algae, and broken windows replaced with wood panels.
As the truck ventures off into mud-road territory, the friend with the spare tire is no where to be found.
The cell phone calls become frantic, “Where the fuck is that fucking fucker?” Every call he makes sets off a cycle of sweaty anticipation followed by eruptions of the Fuck word. I start to wonder how I’ll manage to get out of this situation. I imagine just opening up the door and making a run for it. A run for it where though? Between this truck cab and the bombed out trailers in front of us, the truck is a safer bet.
A guy on a bicycle rides by.
“Yeah, I know where that fucking fucker is. I’ll take you to him.”
Random bike guy hops onto the bed of the truck. This is turning into a redneck cavalry.
He leads us to an empty intersection where we are instructed to wait. Random biker hops out of the truck and vanishes. A tinted-window SUV pulls up to us. The windows in our respective vehicles lower. Without a word, all my cash, all that cash I ripped from a fee sucking gas station ATM, all that money I had strategically banked as to not have to eat meals prepared with diarrhea-butter for the next week, all of that cash extends out the window, to be exchanged by an anonymous hand for a small palm-full of crack rocks.
Mystery truck disappears into the woods, and we remain in the intersection, idling. I watch his shaky hands light the crack pipe dangling off of his sweaty face. As soon as the first hit enters his body, his whole biology changes. He stops shaking. He stops sweating. He stops swearing. Now he’s focused. Now we’re ready to go. “Oh, you want some?”
It’s alright. I’m cool.
Not even twenty miles down the road, his paranoia begins to emerge. “Is that a Trooper behind us? I think it’s a Trooper. Let me pull over. When the Trooper comes, you’re driving, okay? Do you drive? Do you have a license? I don’t.”
He’s constantly looking in the rear-view mirror, and everything looks like a Trooper to him. A bit of his crack stash falls into the door handle, and he can’t get it out. “I gotta get this out of here, just in case. I mean, I can’t have this shit in the door handle if we get pulled over by a Trooper. I mean, you bought it anyway.” We pull over, he gets out, and he begins to snort the crack out of the handle of the door.
It’s alright. I’m cool.
After hours of white knuckling down the highway, and with only thirty miles left in our journey, Crack Man slams on the breaks. “This is as far as I go. I’m not going into the valley. It’s loaded with Troopers down there. You can get out now.”
With the home stretch in sight, I find myself stranded on the side of the road again. When I didn’t think it could get any weirder, a local white-water rafting guide named Coke pulls his tourist shuttle over and says he’ll take me into the valley. At this point exhaustion has pushed out of my body any ability to show excitement or relief.
Official: I clock in an hour and a half late. I can live with the pay cut, but I have a sinking feeling I’m going to hear about it from the managers and the owners. I spent $80 to desperately return to a place that in all likely hood is out to use me as a whipping post. I’m beginning to not feel so great about the series of choices that have lead to this moment.
Salsa, manager to Housekeeping staff, is drunk. It’s barely ten in the morning, and if she’s not at least half in the bag by now, she’s all the way in it. And as it so happens, today’s her day to unleash her wrath on the Housekeeping Crew.
“Salsa’s been on me all morning,” Mitten’s sad face breaks momentarily for a smile upon my return, then plunges right back into sadness, “we’re making mistakes, we’re too slow, we’re getting complaints. When you didn’t show up, she literally threatened to fire all of us, and start picking Russians off the street to replace us. Where have you been?”
“I was buying someone crack. I almost died. But it’s alright. I’m cool.”
“Since we’re getting out of work early, RD, want to go to the post office before they close?”
Luck was on our side today.
Clocking out of work early was a rare treat. In a miraculous feat of housekeeping efficiency, everybody showed up to work today, managed to change the sheets and trashcans of every cabin in the lot, fold all the toilet paper rolls into perfect “v” formation tips, sneak away with a few leftover pieces of pizza and discarded beers from departed guests, with still an hour left in our shift and an hour until Post Office closing time.
Our lone access to the outside world, the P.O. was a tin shack on wooden pegs, about a half hour’s walk away. It housed our PO Boxes, which delivered proof to us that the Lower 48 still existed, through streams of postcards from loved ones and care packages full of trail mix and peanut butter. Our campy souvenir eagle-moose-caribou-grizzly montage t-shirts had been piling up in our tents, unable to send them out to our ironic hipster friends back home due to the post office’s discriminatingly scant hours. The post shack also included laundry facilities and a fresh ice cream stand. A ticket to the post office was a ticket to five-star luxury Alaska style.
“Sounds good, Mittens. I need to do some laundry, so I’ll bring that too.”
Hearing the time-clock punching our cards any time other than 8am and 5pm was a mixed blessing. It meant having a bit of unexpected free time, but it also meant time forfeiting our small and desperately needed pay. Embedded in the forfeiture was a blackmailed promise to later make up the hours in a bid to avoid losing eligibility in an end-season bonus, which turned out to be equivalent to the price of a train ticket back to Anchorage.
We set off for the woods, the sun shining high up on our heads, a hint of a spring in our gait.
“Where are you two smilies going off to so early?” Fozzie, the restaurant’s bartender, was always kind and mindful when girls were around. Mittens was an appropriate counter to his productivity.
“We clocked out early, and we’re going to the Post Office!”
Fozzie smiled, a big fuzzy grin. “I got the keys to the van. We can DRIVE there.”
Things just turned up to eleven.
A ride would be unthinkably exciting. Except for my hitch hiking excursion to Fairbanks, we haven’t been on anything with wheels or a motor since getting off the train from civilization about a million years ago. “The Van” in question was owned by the inbred brother manager. He made it a point to keep the keys very close to his side, and told us several times that we would never be offered a ride in his van anywhere, nor could we ever ask for one, and any idea of borrowing the van was absolutely never going to materialize. However Fozzie ended up with the keys wasn’t worth asking about. It was only worth getting into it and taking it the hell away from there.
“We’ve got 45 minutes before they close. Should we smoke a bowl before we go to the Post Office?” Fozzie had a tendency to smooth talk like Bill Clinton when he wanted you to say yes to something. He made for a good bartender.
We sat around Fozzie’s wall tent porch ceremoniously passing around a bowl with our post cards and laundry strewn about in front of us, secure in the fact that even though our one hour window was ticking away, having a ride meant we’d get to the post office in five minutes. How nice it would be to spend the rest of my afternoon in this euphoric peace, watching the alpenglow while getting chores done, indulging in the sweet deliciousness of fresh ice cream, and maybe receiving a box full of cookies from home.
“Can you drive, Mittens? I’ve had two beers since lunch already, I probably shouldn’t drive. And this guy,” pointing to me, the kid who could barely see out of his squinty eyes, tearing up from giggling at nothing for twenty minutes, “well,” he pointed at me, “you, you just enjoy yourself. Can you drive, Mittens?”
“You probably should have told me that before we smoked all this weed. But okay. I’ll try,” she said, through an audibly pasty case of cotton mouth.
When we got to the van, Mittens cracked under the pressure. Fozzie and I stood at the passenger’s side, waiting to be let in. All we heard was giggling.
“Mittens, what’s so funny?”
“I can’t seem to put the key in the door.”
Any pretense of composure was left to wayside, as we let the scene dissolve into a puddle of laughter and confusion, circled around the follies of trying to get into the van, followed by trying to make the van actually go somewhere. The keys were tossed around, over, and even under then van; different types of jiggles and pressures were applied to nearly every keyhole on and in the van; once we got inside, the ignition fell out of the steering wheel with the key still attached to it, the driver’s seat fell out of the van with Mittens still attached to it; we set off the emergency alarm, twice, and twice Mittens pulled the lock for the hood instead of releasing the emergency break.
When we finally got the vehicle in gear and out of the parking lot, nearly instantly, we came within inches of being decapitated by a forklift charging up the hill around a corner. Mittens swerved out of the way to miss the forks darting towards our necks, and nearly ran over a group of elderly Japanese tourists in the process.
Without skipping a beat, we figured out the emergency break release, and high tailed it to the main road like a video game character with a clear route to capture the flag after defeating a litany of bosses, with all but a thin buffer of the allotted time having slipped through the hour glass.
There’s only one road in this place. It’s really hard to get lost. We know where the Post Office is. It’s one of the few landmarks in this area. It’s right up there with the train station, our campground, and the port-a-potty.
“Mittens, that’s the turn off for the Post Office.”
… passing the turn off …
… a few seconds later …
“What are you doing? That’s the only turn we needed to make for this whole trip, and you flew right by it like we haven’t been trapped here for the last month.” Fozzie’s Bill Clinton charm seemed to morph into squirmy George Bush Jr when pressed to reprimand someone.
“Oh, that was the turn?” Mitten’s batty eyelashes seemed to get her out of any situation. “It looks so different from the van than when we’re walking on the side of the road trying not to get squished by motor homes, like how I almost killed all those Japanese tourists.”
Under the gauze of our mutual weed haze, the thought of getting lost in a town with one road while going out for a post office run and nearly being decapitated by a forklift while mowing down a flock of tourists sounded like the plot line of a comedy starring Jack Black or Billy Crystal. We thanked and congratulated whoever took the time to think this stuff up by responding with wails of side-splitting laughter, fighting through the tears and the choking to maintain attention to the road.
“Well, you’re going to have to find a spot to turn around.”
Right when Fozzie said that, the roads seemed to spaghettify, turning into long narrow stretches, locking us into its curvature without so much as a shoulder’s room for error.
Having been within visual distance of the Post Office, and with only minutes remaining in our once lofty hour of extra peace on this day of lucky celebrations, it appeared our time of grace was doomed to be parlayed into the aether of fantasy by a Tetris game of mountain roads and motor homes.
Unwilling to let failure be an option, Mittens seized upon a clear moment, and with both hands, spun the van around to get us back onto the right track. Adrenaline pumped, we sped down the highway, screeched across our turn, and 4x4’ed it down the dirt path to the sheet-metal shack we had come all this way for.
Like having heaved the sword out of the stone, we arrived heroically, demoralizing closing time by walking in right under its nose. Our only fanfare was the sight of an ambivalent Post Office clerk who’d seen enough stoned seasonal employees to not care, and barely mustered the effort to roll his eyes.
A slight look of panic overcame Mittens as her eyes glossed over the sea of PO Boxes in front of her. She fumbled in her pockets and pulled out her keys, “There’s no numbers on our keys. I thought our PO Box number would be on the key. There’s no numbers on our keys. Oh no.”
She faced loss to the final boss due to a glitch in the game, and nearly fainted trying to recall a number she looked at once, while reciting it to her mother from a payphone outside the restaurant two weeks ago.
“256? 652? I think 6 was in it.”
“They’re four digit numbers.”
“Oh, 1967? 1982. Was it my birthday? No, I remember, it was at the beginning of the boxes, in this area, I remember I came to look at it after I paid for it.” She started browsing the boxes, “1024, 1025, 1026…” putting her key into each one.
“Mittens, we can fix this.” Fozzie appealed to the clerk, “Whaddaya say we help speed along Miss Mittens over here, can you find her box number?”
The clerk frumped off to retrieve Mitten’s box number. He unenthusiastically shipped off our ugly caribou tees. He hastily fetched packages of CDs, granola, and Nutella for us. He stayed until 5:10 to make it all happen.
With a sack of dirty laundry hitched over my shoulder and a stack of postcards in my hands, I headed over to the laundry facilities to engage part two of my evening, which included a stop in the ice cream shop. They only advertise as selling single and double scoops, but when I asked for a scoop of mint, the woman with the scooper took one look at my squinty eyes and kindly asked, “Do you want THREE scoops? In a WAFFLE CONE?”
My face-sized grin answered her with a resounding “Uh-huh.”
Chester Copperpot. Don’t you see? Don’t you realize? He was a pro! He never made it this far. Look how far we’ve come. We’ve got a chance. Goonies never say “die”!
During the afternoon lunch rush today, the cook brought me over to her side. Her gaze was locked on Wifey Crow, eating her lunch at a table overlooking the Alaskan Wilderness. “Look at her sitting there with that shit-eating grin slapped on her face,” her voice was both surprised and resigned. Our discontent with the owners has been growing exponentially every day. “She told me today how much she loves the flavor of our ‘special butter,’ so I made sure to give her burger a few extra squirts, like the ones she’ll be having on the toilet later on.” And for that, I gave her a hug.
In an effort to curb my own intake of the diarrhea-butter, I took to the streets this weekend, and thumbed it to Fairbanks where five bucks can score a whole bag of bagels, rather than just one, the current market price here at the gas station just down the street. Indeed, this is the closest I’ve ever been to what can be called roughin’ it. There’s only one road here. And the people traversing it are either going north or south. Anyone traveling the desolate roads alone would be hard pressed to pass up the opportunity to have a companion hop along for the ride. Be it lumberjack, wilderness explorer, crazed isolationist or summer worker up from the Lower 48, anyone makes a good candidate for what could turn out to be either a silent five hour carpool, or a festive mobile party with a stranger turned fast friend. Likewise, from the hitchhiker’s point of view, anyone willing to pull over at the site of an exposed thumb on the highway in the middle of nowhere can already count themselves as a “lifesaver.”
My hitchhiking team consisted of a US sailor and tall lanky Russian.
Sailorboy was the first of the seasonal workers to arrive. A real jack-of-all-trades, his job was in repairs. He was up here a week before any of us, trying to make this place habitable for the hordes of tourists about to descend, and if time permitted, maybe run a pipe out to the hillside to make the employees a shower. Opening a seasonal cabin retreat in a sub arctic wilderness quickly thawing under the spring sun, indeed involved a lot of repairs; more repairs than a week’s lead-in time allowed, even for a Sargent-disciplined man of the US Navy. By the time we arrived onto the Crow’s property, Sailorboy knew their ship was sinking steadily into the soggy permafrost that once supported it. With brave face, he kept his nose to the grind, propping up tilting stairwells, leveling sagging cabins, and liberating congested sewer pipes, in a mix of thunderstorms and endless days. As opening day approached, he pined sorely for a day off, and upon hearing I was breaking for Fairbanks, insisted he come along. Who was I to turn down the advances of a Sailor?
The Russians invaded our little valley en masse. In an effort to bridge the gaps between East and West, Russians were routinely shipped across Siberia to their former Arctic enclave to relish in what would surely be a summer enriching their skills speaking the English language, and engaging in American culture. Their numbers easily exceeded 70% of those of us there to work at the various lodges scattered across the valley. As they naturally migrated towards each other, cliques and gangs began to form, sections of the valley claimed by “Little Belarus” and “Little Georgia.”
Two such young men who arrived together were placed on my housekeeping team. Asterisks and Obelisk appeared on site looking like lifelong best friends on an adventure-quest. They claimed to have only met each other on the train ride out from Anchorage, but their comfortable and familiar use of body language between the two suggested they used their time on the train to craft stories about how the tall skinny blonde one came from the urban ghettos of Moscow, while the fat and idiotic one came from an island off the north coast of Japan. Once Asterisks produced a 10 inch knife from his boot, and Obelisk pulled out a bottle of Vodka from his backpack, I learned to stop asking questions and open my arms to my new comrades.
“Hey Obelisk,” I thought I’d try to invite him to come hitchhiking with me. Having a guy on your team who isn’t afraid to pull out a knife might be a good thing. “You have a day off on Friday, right?”
“Friday payday. Friday, vacation,” he said while plugging in a vacuum cleaner. We were cleaning a recently checked out cabin, whose occupants left us a rare two-dollar tip. “Can you believe this tip? This is bull shit.”
“You want to hitchhike with me to Fairbanks? I’m going to get cheap food and supplies. Sailorboy is coming.”
“Okay. Let’s go to Fairbanks. I’m going to make some noise now.” And he switched on the vacuum cleaner.
I was worried they would back out, but on game day, they were serious about making it happen. When Obelisk put his thumb to the street, his jacket sleeve rolled up half way up his forearm, one eye squinting from the sun light glaring into his eyes, his gold chain resting on a starch white t-shirt, tight blue jeans pulled up to his navel, I imagined that in Moscow this exact guy would be found on the attack side of a gang riot or knife fight. When the first car failed to stop for him, he waived them off, yelling his favorite phrase, “this is bull shit.”
We only had to wait for one more car to come by before we struck pay dirt. A beautiful bright blue convertible Oldsmobile, right out of a 1950’s American Diner postcard pulled over and invited us to get on board, all the way to our destination – the most northern Wal-Mart on the face of the planet.
With the wind blasting through our hair, cute cottonball clouds passing by on a canvas of deep sky blue, classic rock and roll blaring through the speakers, we spent the next several hours taking in the vastness of the Alaska’s great interior. Away from the scalding looks of the Crows, Alaska’s wilderness opens up, inviting the daring to come and take a taste of its earth, teasing the soul with the lure of virgin territory. However lofty the endless sea of spruce trees and tundra may have appeared, our real delight was in procuring items badly needed back at camp, like affordable batteries and toothpaste – anything to distract us from the suffocating grip of the Crow’s claws.
Once we filled up on packages of instant oatmeal and granola bars (stuffed into what were supposed to be “bear proof” containers we were now stuck with hauling across the tundra footpaths), the daunting task of returning to the home base wore on our spirits more than we expected.
“Ardi,” Sailorboy was the only person I ever let pervert my name away from its pronunciation of capital R, capital D, “Ardi, what the fuck, man. We’ve been out here for hours now. No one is stopping for us. Do ya think it’s these giant containers of food that we’re hauling around out here like idiots that makes people not want to stop for us? Do ya?”
The mood was starting to wane.
“Or maybe it’s that fucking Rooski rapped up in black berka? Ya think people wanna stop for that?”
Obelisk peeked out from the layers of black jacket wrapped around his head and fired back, “The sun melts my face. The mosquitoes eat my body.”
I tried to dance around their dispositions, and find a silver lining, “I don’t think it’ll be too long, someone will stop for us, I mean, look how quickly we got here.” And right at that moment, the same convertible Oldsmobile that stopped for us on the way up, zoomed right by us like a lightning bolt.
“Oh that’s it!” Sailorboy yelled. He pouted like a frustrated cadet, throwing down his container of food, spilling packages of instant oatmeal all across the highway. “You and that rag-head motherfucker, get out of here! Go on ahead, I’m gonna stay here. It’ll be better if we split up.”
Powerless to combat a force willing to expend our entire day’s booty all over the Alaskan Highway, I agreed to walk with Obelisk away from the fuming mad military might. I couldn’t help but feel a little heartbroken. Our prowess as three unconventional buddies working together to help forage a few extra smiles for our brothers back home had unceremoniously ended amidst an avalanche of camping food. We were able to save most everything from the spillage, and carried on trying in vain to head back to a place we’d rather not return to.
Miles later Obelisk and I located a burger bar off the side of the road, and satisfied an incredible hunger, while using the cold of draft beers to sooth our burning skin, saturated in sun and mosquitoes. Slightly revived, but unenthusiastic to head back to the road, we overheard a couple gal-pals in the bar casually mentioning Anchorage, and a pick up truck. I tend to shy away from interrupting conversations, but, “Um, are you going south, and how how much room is there in your pick up?”
“There’s no seats available, but there’s room in the back. Just lay flat and don’t lift your heads up.” The offer was good enough to take without hesitation. “Just don’t let any troopers see you,” they said with cheery faces.
We left Fairbanks just as we arrived, wind in our hair, gazing up at the puffy white clouds, floating in the sky.
My first day off at the lodge also happened to coincide with the first pay day of the season. There had been some whispering in the camp before we left that some people might get fired after our first pay day. The managers maintained a constant threat, that any misstep was grounds for “termination.” Anything from using the wrong stamps to not folding the toilet paper ends into triangles would be met with extreme scrutiny. Their attitudes suggested they weren’t above using a seasonal employee as an example. Payday, it was figured, would be a convenient day to do such a thing. As the days neared, the question loomed, who would be kicked off the island?
Swept up amongst the mosquito clouds of a lost summer working at a tourist lodge in the center of Alaska, lies the primordial stew of future odyssey, an unceremonious mud birth of characters in search of a play.
There was a leprechaun, a navy man, an army of Russians, and a pirate who lived in a tree. There were Hawaiians with ukuleles, rednecks with confederate flags, and a baby eater or two.
It was the cook who first alerted us to the filter of artificial fat that all of our experiences would be processed through. “See this stuff here?” she said, sassy, throwing down a yellow gallon-sized jug onto the counter in front of her, “this is artificial butter.” Displaying the gauzy yellow sludge, like evidence in front of an unsuspecting jury, she gave her opening statement, “The one thing that all the food in this kitchen has in common, is this stuff. Everything that comes out of this kitchen, will have this stuff in it. Everything.”
This was a warning.
“The stuff they use to make this artificial butter,” she said it like it tasted bad on her tongue, “can also be found in your mosquito repellant. It has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, rare lung infections, and most importantly, it will give you the runs.”
Her authority evoked the integrity of the American Diner Institution itself, a product of hard work and reliability. Maybe they knew what they were serving up wasn’t the best for health and longevity, but in so far as wanting to instill patronage and trust in a consumer, at least there existed a code of conduct honored by relentless years of dedication to flapjacks served with a smile.
“I’ve never worked in a restaurant that allows the use of this stuff. I don’t even think you can buy this stuff in the lower 48 any more. But it’s ingredient number one in everything that comes out of this kitchen.” Her eyes rolled while she scorned the thought of ever calling it her kitchen.
We’d only been here 24 hours, and a slight taste of disdain was already starting to creep in.
The feeling had been vague, and perhaps overwhelmed by the newness of being transplanted to a place forgotten by time, society, and The Constitution of the United States of America – the dead center of Alaska.
Spruce trees. The occasional moose. Monster trucks and male pony-tails.
I thought it was going to be a little more granola than this. I was picturing crunchy hippies and fresh fruit the size of my head. But that’s what everybody thinks when they hear “exotic summer jobs,” so they abandon the concept of normalcy for a season in order to experience the authenticity of life in America’s back country. And when they get here, they find themselves (deliriously) far from home, twenty-something and single (or whatever), penniless, and trapped in a dizzying array of conditions that offer the slim promise of surviving long enough to escape on the last train back to civilization before the summer ends and the sun sets… forever.
18 weeks of scrubbing toilets while fighting off rednecks and mosquitoes? Where do I sign up?
The translucent yellow slime reality of the situation was now on the table, and none of us would leave without “diarrhea butter” irreversibly staining our experience. This was a mark separating the “us” from the “them.”
The line was physically visible outside. Up on the hillside, in a mansion with a gun on the shelf, was the “Them,” the family Crow. They were the “them” who hired “us,” the summer employees to work their Crow’s Foot restaurant and lodge, a regional haven of “Salmon Burgers” and famed “Log Cabins,” hundreds of miles away from anything (sane or descent), deep inside Alaska’s interior.
“You see this road?” Master Crow told us emphatically on our first day’s orientation, “You never go up this road. Never, ever. We live up this road, and that is our private residence. You do not want me to catch you up there, ever. Period.” A full head of silver hair flowing into a thick silver beard, his big silver watch glinting in the arctic sunshine, a polo shirt detailing his macho daddy physique and a tuft of silver chest hair popping out the top – I was only surprised to not see the words “SILVER BACK” written in diamonds across his grill, he was already beating his chest and howling over the entirety of our new lives as housekeeper, or front desk worker, or bar tender. “Now the sheriff is here, and he’s gonna tell you what he’ll do to you if he has to come all the way out here from Fairbanks because you were being an asshole.”
The brotherhood of the diarrhea-butter had been established, our only objective, to resist the crushing force of the Crow Feet as they hovered above us from high up on the hill, and to enjoy our summer in spite of it.
Our perseverance was governed by the audacity of the trap set before us, a trap embodied in the greasy yellow nasty that threatened our bowels. The cook took it personally, and rallied up her troops behind her, “Maybe if I was serving you guys the same food that I’ll be making the restaurant guests, then it might almost be worth suffering through the diarrhea-butter for the summer. But it turns out Salmon Burgers and Lobster Pasta is not on the menu for employees. Our menu includes eggs that come from plastic bottles, fruit that comes from cans, and fish sticks that come from Asia… all of it bathed in chemicals that kill mosquitoes. For this twice a day privilege, we’re paying the Crow’s fifty bucks a week. Free refills at the soda fountain while you’re on duty though.”
Our payment into a “meal plan” effectively allowed the Crows to pay us less than minimum wage. It was only valid on work days, and dinner was always whatever we could scrounge, like left-over pizza salvaged from a cabin’s trash, or earning enough in tips to buy the cheapest beer down at the gas station.
“I’m really sorry you guys,” she verged on tears, “I really wanted this to be the summer of having my own kitchen up here, you know,” trying to hold back the choking sounds, “I wanted to create something magical, something you guys would never forget. But … diarrhea butter. I guess that’s kind of unforgettable.” The wall of tears was about to breach the dam.
But suddenly, uncontrollably, she found herself wildly overtaken by an involuntary twitch I would eventually come to understand as part of life in the summer tundra; all her facial muscles tensed up and she smacked her own forehead with a squishy THWACK. It happened so fast, you didn’t see it as much as you recalled it, and it rolled back in slow motion. In the balance hung the guts of a dead mosquito and a splatter of her freshly drawn blood. Over and over, all summer long, non-stop this happened. Eventually, the red welts and insect parts would morph into honor badges; dried up splotches covering our jeans, shirts, arms, necks, and faces. The skirmish momentarily distracted her from crying, then instantly gave her a new reason to start back up again.
From day one, the sight of people breaking down into tears remained a constant. As the trains arrived into the valley after a day-long ride in from Anchorage, new loads of summer workers commenced on the land and got their first glimpses of what their summer would be like. Our introduction was simple… here’s the restaurant, there’s the cabins, and down the road, that’s where your tents are.
“When do we get our keys?” New York Girl was serious business. She was front desk material and she was working the “lobby” (a muddy field), in one of the seven pairs of smart but dashing shoes that she brought with her as a sign of her commitment to fashion and front deskitude. She was probably flipping her hair back at the same time when she said it, “When do we get our keys?”
“Your keys? What keys?” Mando was our orientation guide. Son of Crow, he was one of two inbred siblings keeping watch on us seasonals, and he was somehow general manager of the restaurant. He was a plumpy kind of fat, bulbous and round, ready to pop like a water balloon. His huge round lips could barely cover his teeth.
“You know, our keys to the cabins?”
“Hu hu.” He started to laugh. “Hu. Hu hu.” He had a big loud punching laugh that echoed through the whole canyon. It kept getting louder and faster. “Hu hu hu… keys. She thinks you guys get keys!” His tiny eyes, barely visible through the rolls of fat, pierced through our fragile lost existence.
“Follow me,” And off he waddled, down the road, away from the cabins. His hysterical laughter bounced around the valley walls, rubbing our faces in it for every moose and marmot dotting the landscape to get a good look at – newbies.
At the end of a mud road, a smattering of white canvass tents, propped up with 2x4’s signaled our home village for the next three months. “I don’t think keys are going to do you any good over here.”
Shock and disbelief raced over New York Girl, “What about the… the …” She strained to find the cabins off in the distance, “The cabins, I thought, I mean, we’re not, this isn’t…”
She was expecting “rustic cabin in the woods,” timber from the most pristine of forest, hand hewn by the craftiest of lumberjacks. Instead, she was looking at what amounted to dirty t-shirts draped over twigs.
“The cabins?” Mando spoke like a rabid dog. Words foamed out of his mouth, and burst like saliva bubbles, dribbling down the ever increasing rolls of his chin, “Heh, the cabins? That’s where the tourists stay. Heh! The cabins? You thought you were stayin in the cabins? No way, you’re stayin here, at the Employee Campground! The cabins? Hu hu hu. No. Enjoy your wooden cot! Hu hu hu….” And his enormous laugh spun around us, tightly engulfing us and eventually spiraling out into a hurricane.
She shattered. Her head nearly wailed off, the sounds of her shrieks and cries soared off into the layers of laughter making its way down the canyon.
Looking for shelter from the storm, I headed back to the kitchen, and found the cook still there, her eyes still puffy and red. She could see the naiveté fleeing my body.
“What is it, baby?” She was so motherly, in her big apron and chef’s hat.
“Did you hear all that crying? New York Girl just found Tent City. It didn’t go too well.”
“Is she the one that brought seven pairs of shoes?”
“Her,” I nodded.
“Well, come here, honey, I’ve got something you can take back there with you,” and she opened her apron to reveal a small caché of dinner rolls. “Bring these to the others.”
“Woah, how did you get these?”
“I made flirty eyes with the baker. He was here a couple hours ago delivering a whole bunch of stuff. Somewhere between the sob story about the kitchen and smiling at him for long stretches of time while I let him talk about himself, he lost track of how many buns he had.”
I lit up, thinking that I should meet this delivery man. “Golly, what do you have to do get a good meal around here?”
“Look, I just left my husband, and we’re getting a divorce, I came here with clean slate. I’m determined to enjoy myself one way or another, and it’s not going to be frying fish sticks. Now, not a word to anybody,” she put her finger on my lips. “and get these over there!”
Both embarrassed and encouraged by her sudden candor and honesty, I skirted off, smuggling contraband across the exposed mud flats to home base, Tent City.
New York Girl hadn’t moved by the time I returned. Frozen at the foot of the camp, tears drying on her face, completely alone.
“Well I guess we’re staying in tents then.” She threw her hands down at her side, trying hard to swallow the pill of re-orienting her self. “This is my tent. I guess. Where’s yours?” Her face said ‘tell me something else shocking.’
I pointed to the one next to hers, positioned a little higher on the hill side. Ours both had ad-hoc porches on them, and not everybody’s did. They looked okay for hanging out on, if not for the slightly noticeable feature of being held up by stacks of pine cones and rocks. “I’ve got some dinner rolls. Want some?”
“You know what? Yeah, yeah, I do. I’d like some dinner rolls. You want to eat dinner rolls on the porch of my tent with me?”
Our first picnic in Alaska. On the porch of her tent, eating dinner rolls, which were smuggled from the restaurant. A slight sense of calm began to emerge.
“How did I end up making the decisions that led me to this moment in my life?”
She pondered out loud. “Haven’t you been wondering that the whole time since you’ve been here?
I mean, how did we just converge onto this moment in time in this particular place?
This dinner roll is the highlight of my day. I’ve never been so delighted in my life to be pecking at a dinner roll as I am right now, here with you, on a porch of a tent in Alaska. Today, a dinner roll is literally the highlight of my day.
Who does this?
Pigeons do this. Pigeons, that’s who.
Pigeons lose their shit over dinner rolls. Pigeons, and us.
And that laugh? Did you hear that guy laugh? What’s up with that guy and that laugh?
Who laughs like that?
You know who laughs like that? Baby eaters laugh like that. That’s who, baby eaters.
A story from the Placebo/She Wants Revenge show at the Warfield in San Francisco, October 24, 2006
In terms of my music snobbery, the band Placebo was a band with many marks against them. They’ve sold their songs to commercials; they haven’t changed their sound or approach to music writing for their entire ten year career; most of their songs are a formula of simple arena-rock riffs paired with cheap lyrics about sex and drugs with predictably obnoxious rhyming schemes (“Day’s dawning, skin’s crawling,” from “Pure Morning”).
When I found out that Placebo was playing at the Warfield in San Francisco, the internal music snob yielded long enough for me to find myself a ticket. I had latched on to their early efforts, and wanted to see what it was that allowed them to keep doing the same basic thing for ten years. There was something in them that suggested they were still approaching their style with the excitement and freshness of ten years ago, but with the patience and professionalism that comes with a decade honing one’s craft.
It was their mid-90’s appearance on MTV that initially got me to pay attention … quasi-gay, seductive gender bending image, with enjoyable and relatable tunes.
My hesitation, however, came with not hearing something that could teleport every fiber of my being into the world of their music. Something that could suggest a declaration of their vision beyond cheap rhymes and image fuckery; a map of unimaginable yet intuitively accessible landscapes.
That kind of creative moxie is what I heard in a band like Radiohead when they released their second album The Bends. The striking sounds of the album’s first song, “Planet Telex,” declared with no uncertainty, “we will not be remembered as that band that did ‘Creep’,” an already fading MTV summer hit that threatened to be the apex of their career.
By the time I heard the Placebo song “Black Eyed,” which boasts of being schizophrenic and “biting on your nuts,” I decided that I had heard enough of their witty, sexy, provocative numbers to realize, “Well, I do actually like all these songs,” and I picked up their 2000 effort, Black Market Music. I found a pleasantly moody semi-industrial rock record that had some pretty cool things going on in it. From the maybe Pink Floyd sample in “Taste In Men” (see “Let There Be More Light” from A Saucerful of Secrets), to lyrics about the sometimes horse tranquilizer/sometimes rave drug, Special K, Black Market Music consistently skirted the edge of greatness, but never quite got beyond the clever lyric and tongue-in-cheek riff to really dive in.
Most bands occupying this sphere of my mental space wouldn’t get much of a second look if I found out they were touring in my area. But something compelled me to think twice when I saw the name PLACEBO printed in the paper.
When the lovechild of David Bowie and Trent Reznor took the stage, singer Brian Molko and his band showed that everything that I had thought about them didn’t matter. This was their show, and they loved what they’re doing. They’d been following their own bliss for ten years, making the kind of music they wanted to make, and too bad if you have a problem with that, because tonight we’re in their house, and there’s no intention of stopping.
Their talents as professional live musicians were obvious, and they never relied on their early radio hits to keep the crowd interested.
Friend to many chubby 15 year old goth girls, and geeky guys with lisps getting over their D&D phase, Molko hugged each one of them with his feigned guitar-hero prowess, connecting all of us in the venue with the love and respect that music offers.
That aside, sometimes I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was stuck inside a Hollywood movie version of a rock club; the perfectly lit stage contrasted with strobing white lights, the band members all cutely dressed in thrift shop boutique black leather, each one of them striking all the right rock poses, the obligatory arena rock feedback jam to close out their biggest hit. Drummer Steve Hewitt had perfect 1987-era Bono/Michael Hutchence hair (long, dark and slightly curly) and ended the night with a drum stick toss. Even their back up band members looked like they could have easily been the back up band for Duran Duran, and probably had their own synth pop duo on the side called Invertigo that once played at a Paris Hilton CD release party.
The guitar tech looked like a rock version of the character Maxine from the movie Being John Malkovich. She took her job seriously. She took her job very seriously. Constantly jittering about the stage, shuffling papers, straightening cables, tuning and re-tuning each guitar, standing directly behind Molko at the conclusion of each song with a new guitar ready to strap on him, she boldly held her own on stage with a look that said “see how my hair is in a ponytail, but it still keeps draping in front of my face? Yeah, this job is ha-ard, but I’m in control. CONTROL! That’s my mantra. And yeah, I know this camisole is kind of girly, but it’s all black, and check out these guns man, I’m gonna get a tattoo right here…after the tour…” and, swoosh, she’d swipe her hand in front of her face trying in vein to tuck her bangs behind her ears before triple checking the batteries in the e-bow.
Bassist Stefan Olsdal’s stage poses were like something out of an L.A. Fashion Magazine in a way that suggested “I am a sex god, and I know you worship me. See how I hold my bass guitar a foot in front of me while I play an open E for three minutes? Yeah baby, I’m on fire.” Even though his exposed chest and searing gaze were somewhat titillating, in watching him perform an interpretive dance for the first half of the song “Taste In Men,” I couldn’t help but feel that I would instantly turn bright red and become unable to stop giggling if anyone did anything remotely close to that in front of me to initiate a sexual tryst. What was great about it though, was that Olsdal was completely in charge of his on-stage persona. He struck his poses unapologetically, and even if he couldn’t win over the most jaded minds in the audience, he acted as if didn’t need them to keep rocking. The fact that his pelvis extended closer to the audience than his bass guitar at times, and that his chest bore only a leather vest and a glittering diamond necklace only served to elevate room’s sexual tension.
It should come as no surprise that a room full of hot sweaty bodies all crunched together and pulsating to the beat of incredibly loud music is my idea of a good time.
So here I am watching a 6’5”, half-naked bassist do pelvic gyrations in front of me while the singer to his right pants the word “MEN” into the microphone over and over.
Oh yeah. Heaven on the dance floor.
The scene around me sends my hormones hormoaning. All of the beautiful bodies surrounding me chant Molko’s declaration of “MEN” right back at him.
Front and center in the audience is Molko’s biggest fan. He is jumping up and down waving his arms high in the air. He looks like a corn-bred-mid-western frat boy who had either been on the bad end of a “lets do a whole bunch of speed and go to the Placebo concert” dare or was a “now that I’m in California I can finally come out of the closet” case having his first indoctrination into something called Pride.
(The idea that it might have been a speed-dare made sense, as earlier when he had been pushing his way to the front through the already sardined crowd, he didn’t seem to care how many small girls he trampled on, or how many elbows ended up in his side, or how many hands were grabbing his ass. That last part wasn’t my fault. Where did he expect my hands to be? There was no room for them to be anywhere else! And if you’re gonna trample small girls to get close to a hunky man singing about men, you’re asking for it really.)
The thing about rock shows is, when you get the chemistry just right, the music, the attitude, the crowd, and the flow - people’s barriers start to dissolve, everybody starts to become a little more liberated.
Standing very close to me are two tall and gorgeous straight boys clutching onto their girlfriends, singing along to Molko’s every word. The juxtaposition stops time: overtly masculine bodies singing sexually charged lyrics from an unapologetically feminine perspective, all the while sharing the moment with their girlfriends, who seem to be less like protection in this crowd, and more like extensions of their own desire for union.
Dancing behind them is a short and cute gay boy who is enamored with the beauties bestowed in front of him. He probably cares less that he can’t see the stage over them, and is just content that his nose is at about armpit level to these guys. Half way through the show, his delight seizes the moment and he taps one of these guys on the shoulder, exclaiming about how great the show is. They turn towards each other, exchange a couple words and smiles, then start singing in unison with the band “You come on just like Special K.”
These are moments we’re not really allowed to have in regular life. There aren’t normal places where I can turn to a straight man and declare, “the pheromones wafting off of your body are getting me high,” and expect a high-five in return. Not in the grocery store, not on the way to work. But I’m glad to know they exist somewhere, and that we’re capable of enjoying them when they happen.
Similarly, pot is a really great way to bring people together. Seeing someone smoking pot at a rock show is a license to go talk to them. A pot smoker is going to be a little more laid back, open to the idea of sharing, and having a really great time. These are the slogans I must have been flashing as I lit up during the band that followed Placebo, She Wants Revenge.
I’M COOL TALK TO ME
By the time She Wants Revenge came on stage, I had already used up all my rock cliché excuses for the evening, and just couldn’t find the mental space to want to understand where this band was coming from. I’d already gotten what I came for, and really just wanted to get stoned before heading back to my Berkeley home on the San Francisco subway.
I’M LAID BACK LET’S DANCE
In a slightly roomier part of the club, I was climbing my stairway to heaven when I noticed a hot little number dancing in front of me. My stoned smile said “I’m smitten,” and my glazed eyes couldn’t peel themselves off of him. Why not take the chance to turn a typically missed connection into a real one? I was about to leave, I was really high, I was smitten with a beautiful boy dancing his heart out in front of me. What was there to lose by letting him know his mere presence in front of me made my day? I didn’t care that he wasn’t glancing up to catch my gaze, or that he kept disappearing into his little group of girlfriends, who were girls in the mega-girl sense: the perfectly highlighted hair, the make-up, the boobs, the boots, the tight concert dress. I didn’t care about that at that moment, I just wanted to give him a little thanks and get back home.
Right at the moment my brain sent the signal to my feet to move themselves over to where the boy wonder was, I realized his hand was on my shoulder.
“Can one of my girlfriends have a hit from your pipe?”
“Of course! Were you doing that on purpose by the way? Dancing like that in front of me? Like you’re the hottest little number?”
And that’s the last thing I remember happening before I ended up back on the subway bound for Berkeley. Having that little interaction was enough of a brain orgasm, and I must have just floated out of club.
Some span of time was missing between the moments of me saying “hottest little number” and hearing “Next stop, Montgomery.”
When the endorphins settled, I could begin to paste the images that kept flashing in my head back into a timeline. Despite my valor, I somehow managed to wuss out on the invitation to hang with Hot Boy and The Girl Squad. The pretty lady smoking out of my pipe had asked me to come dance and hang with them, and when I opened my mouth to say “sounds like fun,” all I managed to squeak out was “I have to go home!” and then I bolted out of there like a bat out of hell.
But that’s okay. I really did need to get home, and it’s not like anything would have come of it that hadn’t already happened. My move wasn’t a pick up, I was just an acknowledgment. It was an acknowledgment that the distance between me and him wasn’t any further than the distance between arm-pit sweat and the music it dances to, erasing centuries of phobia and misunderstood intentions; no further than Brian Molko’s declaration of “MEN” and the fist pumping crowd that echoed it right back at him.
And in a puff of clichéd concert smoke, all of the genies go back into their bottles. These mental relationships, they are the placebos. When they happen they appear like validations of everything we ever wanted. They make us feel good about ourselves for a little while. But ultimately, it’s us that’s doing the work, internally. When we get too attached to the images that come from outside of us, we eventually come to find them disappointing and unfulfilling, like a once great band that keeps putting out duds. But when we start to recognize our own thumbprint in the patterns of chaos that drive our lives, a world of smiles, connections, flirtations and satisfactions come sharply into focus.
Every day is like a missed connection. Every moment presents an infinite possibility of choices, and we give up everything to choose just one. It’s pretty amazing that we confine ourselves to these odd existences when all we truly long for is to be stoned and naked, rolling around in the grass while the sun sets - enjoying life for all its worth.
This the kind of transcendental talk that gets David Lynch to make movies like Mulholland Drive, where multiple characters might all be the same character, and a symbolic blue box may provide the answer. But my brain has no more room to draw similarities to all of his Bettys, Dianes and Ritas in my little locked box. It’s the last subway train of the night, and there are a pair of hot bicycle nerds with thick rimmed glasses sitting across from me. I have some staring to get in before we reach Berkeley.
I somehow knew it was meant to be. As if by instinct or some kind ofgenetic pre-disposition, I could feel my most basic animal logic kicking in; I was 15 and ready to get stoned. Somewhere in my gut I knew, even as a kid, that this green leafy substance and I would have a long and giggly relationship.
When we were exposed to those “anti-drug” films in 5th-8th grade, the guys with the big afros and glassy eyes always caught my attention. Usually wearing a colorful muumuu, and speaking of love and peace slowly and melodically, it was hard to believe that whatever these guys were on could actually be harmful.
On the other hand, the interviews with nose-bleeding trust fund kids and tweaked out street hustlers showed us that things like coke and speed weren’t really that fun. But they could never say anything bad about pot. How could you when your stock footage included not much more than dancing girls and guys saying “Groovy, man.” One film tried to scare us from pot by saying our acne would get worse from eating too much junk food, and that we might get laid a lot. Yeah, it really sucks when you’re a closeted 15 year old homosexual, to have the problem of getting laid too much.
The stage was set; I was already a Pink Floyd fan, my hair was down to my shoulders, and my maroon ten-eye Dr. Marten’s screamed “teenage-counter-culture.” I was also perfectly playing the part of the spacey intellectual; a smart honors student, but completely in my own giggly world. My appearance and personality type were there, I just needed the actual weed to fill in the gap and complete the picture. My friends patiently waited to see when I would finally take the plunge. I think my football-jock-buddy, Zach, gave himself a pat on the back when he realized he would be my first supplier.
I’ll never forget conjuring up the nerve to approach him about it. I practiced all night the night before to make sure I could get the words out of my mouth, and that I wouldn’t chicken out and say I meant to ask for “a pot” instead. “Yeah, my mom’s pots broke. All of them. And I need one. Andyou’re the only person I could think of to ask. I swear this is not a thinly veiled attempt at something else.”
Despite his football jock status, and my nature to be immediately intimidated by such people, Zach was a very approachable, caring and gentle soul, who I knew I could trust. When the time came to ask him about it, he smiled a big smile just as I started in on “I was wondering if you might be able to get me…” Knowing what was coming next, he saved me the embarrassment of having to say the words, gave me a big hug and said, “No worries kid, I’ve got you covered.”
But my naiveté tripped me up at the first question, “how much do you want?” Uh, do I measure by putting my hand up and showing you a space between my thumb and index finger? Do I measure in joints? Is a pound enough? Clearly perplexed, he said “We’ll start you off with a nickel bag.” Cool, my first foray into pot lingo, “a nickel bag.”
Back then, my $5 nickel bag was enough to last me at least nine months, if not more. I recall looking at my first bag of pot in complete amazement, like the Christmas present I’d been waiting for all my life. But having never actually been near pot before, the bag was also kind of baffling. Where were the big seven pointed leaves everyone draws? What do you mean don’t smoke the seeds; there are seeds in this? How much do I smoke? Is this one joint’s worth? “Just smoke it until you get high dude, that’s all there is to it. Your mouth might dry up, and you might get hungry. And since it’s your first time, you may not feel anything, but don’t worry, it happens. Just relax and enjoy!”
My mom was leaving town for a week, and my dad is an early-to-bed heavy sleeper type, so I saw a perfect window of opportunity to introduce myself to this new world. My dad had been given some kind of antique Russian pipe from a co-worker as a souvenir, which I happened to know he kept in the dresser drawer right by his bed. He had never used it, probably didn’t even remember he had it, and would never notice if it went missing, or suddenly smelled like his 15 year old son had stolen it to smoke pot with.
Armed with an antique Russian pipe shaped like Lenin, a cordless phone to call my best friend Jamie (so she could harass me while stoned), a lighter and my precious nickel bag, I walked outside to take the first dip into what was about to become my all-time favorite activity.
The calm and warm evening provided the perfect blanket for my inaugural pot experience. The stars shine bright in east county San Diego, so I felt the magic of the heavens cupping me and keeping me safe. By this time in my life I had smoked a cigarette or two, and vaguely knew what kind of feeling to expect when the smoke hit my lungs. First hit. Ready to be blasted with a choking sensation followed by nausea, I was relieved to feel the smoke wasn’t harsh at all, it almost felt alive in my body, like it was going down in some hippy bus saying “Yay, we’re getting high!”
Second hit. Was I feeling it yet? I didn’t think so. I kept thinking about what Zach had told me, that I may not feel anything the first time. I thought, maybe food will help it kick in. I walked back into the house where some cold pizza was hanging out in the fridge. I started macking on it when I realized I had the worst cotton mouth ever. I had a mouthful of partially chewed pizza, and zero saliva to swallow it down with. My attempt at swallowing ended with the thought “Oh my god, I have a bullet train stuck in my throat,” so I reached for cranberry juice which did a fine job at getting the pizza down.
Still, I wasn’t convinced that anything was happening, so I grabbed the rest of my pizza slice and went back outside. A couple hits later and I was wondering if I was going to be one of those first time casualties, and not get it on my first attempt. I could see the headlights of a car coming up the road, and as it neared my house I instantly got paranoid thinking I had been busted, and crouched down to hide behind a bush. As soon as I crouched down, my entire world turned upside-down, and I stood back up into a whole other universe entirely.
My whole body felt a foreign to me, which at first was a little scary, but it quickly turned into “Oh my god, my fingers are so cool. Wow, I’ve never really felt my legs before, I mean really FELT my legs. Whoa, look at all this hair I have, it’s so long! Isn’t hair great?” Somehow I managed to remember to call my friend Jamie so she could make me laugh or some shit like that and I realized two things, I had no idea how a phone worked, and I had forgotten how to speak. But that’s cool, no need to panic, because everything is rather, well, groovy. I knew if I made the green light on the phone come on, that I could use my fingers to do stuff on the lit up green buttons and Jamie would end up on the other end. Cool. But in the mean time, all these other buttons were causing the phone to beep and blink, and they were infinitely more cool than whatever else I was planning on doing.
At some point after staring and laughing at the phone, I remembered what I was doing and actually called Jamie. Somehow though I managed to press a certain combination of buttons at the right time, and I ended playing Jamie’s messages off her answering machine. Of course I figured that it was the cops playing a trick on me, and they were tracing my call and were going to come and bust me, because, you know, 15 year olds smoking pot in their homes is the highest concern above everything that could be happening on the streets of East County San Diego. Tossing the phone into the bushes was clearly the best way to get around that. Sadly though, with the phone I tossed my beloved piece of pizza. I knelt down to try and find it, but just kept bringing up leaves and pine cones… is this a piece of pizza? No, it’s a dog turd.
Fleeing from the cops that were no doubt hot on my tail, I dashed inside the house and turned on the TV. Superman was on, and good thing too, because I was Superman, only no one knew it because I didn’t have my cape on. With a crochet blanket draped over my back, I flew across the living room a couple dozen times, saving a dust bunny from leaping to its death off of the ottoman, assisting the citizens of Fort Couch after Dr. Vacuum took out their tallest building, and stopping Love Seat from staging a coup against Lazy Boy.
After a job well done I retired to my bedroom, and in a move that can only be described as fulfilling karmic destiny, I reached for my tape collection and grabbed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Oh, if there is a stoner utopia, I found it. I laid in my bed with the lights out while the faint heartbeat opening of the album began to fill the room. As the heartbeats crescendo’edinto the blissful slide guitars and Hammond organs of “Breathe,” my body became one large rubber band that stretched and contracted in response to every sound the band was making. My legs stretched out to infinity in front of me. Every turn of the head lasted minutes, and echoed all around me.
“Breathe in the air,” they sang.
“Okay.” And I took what felt to be the first breath of my life. I could feel the molecules of oxygen binding to my blood cells and keeping me alive. I became the wave forms pulsating through out “On The Run,” and “Time” was like arriving at the steps of the building of your life, and realizing it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
I fell asleep somewhere around “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and woke up at 5am, craving a Pepsi.
I didn’t really put it all together, the events of the evening, until I saw the sofa cushions all heaped together in the corner of the living room, the cordless phone in the bushes, and that piece of pizza, which was actually in my hoodie pocket the whole time. While cleaning up, the realization struck that I had touched a very beautiful part of humanity, and wished the whole world could have been a part of that with me.
Zach scoped me out the next morning at school. Perhaps my grin was just a smidgen wider than normal, because he saw me and knew exactly where I had been the night before. With a big hug, we celebrated knowing we now shared a connection to this little private piece of utopia.