The subject matter of surrounding myself with adorable men and getting stoned is a muse that just never tires. This muse plays his beautiful harp in my ear every time I walk down the street, accenting my day with songs in the key of THC & Testosterone. His delicious musical treats tickle my insides and make me smile and laugh. They are so rich I can almost feel them on my fingers, smell them as the wind passes, taste them while I lick my lips… and my eyes, directed right to the source where they fight to shift attention to anything else.
THE OTHER SIDE is the name of an American diner in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a favorite hang-out spot of mine when I was living there in my early 20’s, attracting a large alternative crowd of tattooed and pierced latte and PBR drinkers. A stoner haven, it hosted Boston’s finest skater dudes representing the avant-garde of the graffiti street art scene, and hipster heart-throbs high on endorphins from having spent a week’s wages down the street at the Newbury Comics, the local picking spot for music nerds bent on impressing their friends with some obliquely amazing misprint of a deleted 45 by a band Chevy Chase used to be in.
Get a balcony seat for the best view of 7”s and sagger-asscrack, but be careful not to drop that milkshake off the railing’s edge. If they have to send the scrunched-faced, tramp-stamped, bitter-because-her-man-is-spending-all-his-time-watching-baseball Southie waitress to clean it up, she’ll make sure you wish you were never born.
Nothing against women of course.
Actually, rather than anything about the gender, it’s the concepts of- and cultural display of feminine sexuality that amount to considerable confusion, distrust, and perhaps a little jealousy.
THE OTHER SIDE is also a coffee shop in Amsterdam, the only openly gay-pot-smoking establishment in the city. It’s not gay in the way a gay-bar is gay, like you walk in and Madonna descends from a disco-ball while the coat check gives you a blow job. It’s gay in that there is a rainbow flag outside, the bartender has visible shoulder muscles, and the tables are usually occupied by single men in their late 40s. The absence of Tom of Finland art covering the walls keeps the straight crowd from being too intimidated to waltz in when they didn’t know any better, and helps provide a non-exclusive atmosphere to place.
It felt like a hurricane had blasted through the delicate glass doors of The Other Side when a group of girls from Spain descended on it. Walking together in a tight cluster, high heels, leather bags, lots and lots of hair, arms swaying everywhere – on the hips, up to the sunglasses, down into the bag, grabbing the cell phone, tossing hair, pointing at something, about to faint – it looked like an exotic octopus with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored scarf tentacles darting through the coffee shop.
I think all the men looked up from their joints shaking their heads, “what is THAT?”
Every once and a while, a singular girl would become visible, appearing sensual and seductive. But the homo-eye quickly recognizes this trick, the amorphous camouflage and cunning hunter instincts of the octopus. While the unsuspecting victim is distracted by the one piece, the whole entity is preparing to devour.
They are beautiful women, there is no doubt about it. Every single one of them could be a model, and they kind of know it/flaunt it. The men in Spain are equally beautiful, and if any cultural archetype is up to the challenge of penetrating the hurricane that just blew into the coffee shop, it would be the virulent Spanish male bull, the Don Juans of the world.
Being able to smoke pot in a public place has the advantage of allowing that part of your brain that is reserved for paranoia to relax a bit. Where as Americans, most public pot-smoking is concerned with “Oh my god is that a cop?”, in Amsterdam, no one ever choked on their toke because they had to hide it. The hazy relationship with THC is allowed to flow. Our normally relentless hold on thoughts diminish as well, they flow from mountain to seabed and back again with humor and equanimity . You don’t have to worry, “I think they’re looking at me like I’m stoned” because you know they know you are, and that you know they are too. So you smile at the dude next to you, and either you share in conversation or enjoy your own little corner of the world and relax into it. Somewhere, Bob Marley starts playing and “don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be alright” tickles you to the core. The sun is shining, and boys are out to play and they’re dancing.
The hot waiter at the Italian restaurant across the street must know The Other Side is for fags. Wearing a shirt that says “these guns were made for pumpin” - a shirt clinging tightly to his muscle sculpted gun pumping body - he distracted himself by putting on, adjusting, taking off and re-applying his apron. Perhaps the actual action wasn’t that incredible, but imagine being able to drink Michelangelo’s wine while David stands in the light trying to decide on a pose.
From the comfort of a glass bubble positioned in front of a gorgeous stallion taking care of himself, the smells tastes and sensations of cannabis conspired with the senses to open up the chain of interconnected space, slowing down time, bringing such intimate focus to his presence that our movements entered an orbit of synchronicity. At times it appeared my desires lead his movements, like he could feel my strings pulling at his fingers, directing them to his chest, and those nipples, pointed my way.
When he looked up and noticed a coffee-shop full of googly eyes staring at him, he did a little cute and not-too-self-conscious dance, smiled, and lifted up his shirt just enough to keep the crowd on baited breath for his next smoke break.
Like a nymph tumbling through a field flowering buds of stoned young men, I made my way through the city, bedazzled by every last shining male creature, stuffed inside his tiny European clothes, happy and radiating testosterone. The gravity of my attraction pulling our paths together, our bodies falling ever closer, crowning it off with the moment of a small dance, even if just with the lips in the form of a smile.
As the summer storms roll through without warning, what better way to wait out the rain, than to find shelter in the nearest canal-side coffee shop and watch the weather pass by with a spliff in hand. All the guys wearing track pants will want to come in from the rain too when they’ve completely soaked their pants for your gazing wonder. So have rolling papers ready.
Soaked and seeking shelter from the lightning, Baba’s in the Red Light District invited with open doors and paintings of the elephant-faced Hindu deity Ganesha on the exterior. As if on queue, I entered and my eyes seized upon the waiter: petite frame, solid muscle, tattooed biceps bulging with every movement, a thuggish and mean look, but smiling like an angel. Huge smile, with dimples. My eyes were busy on undress mode, and they were celebrating.
Oh baby, now that I’ve entered, we’re both going to be exhausted by the time I leave.
His co-worker too, tall, beefy, dark stubble all over his head down to his chin, sweet, sweet, sweet smile that begged to be stared at, and soft glossy eyes that said “I work at an Amsterdam coffee-shop and I am mellow. I love you.” Perfect place to wait out the storm.
Baba’s was having quite the opposite problem that The Other Side was having… it wasn’t a hurricane of girls descending, this storm washed up a treasure trove of wet stoned males… wet, stoned, and male.
I looked around and realized every single person in that room could qualify for top spot on my “Things to do before you die” list… except one… and she was behind the bar. Without exception, everyone else, and they were all getting stoned.
Miracles do happen, and I was standing in the middle of one. At the bar next to me was a line of men, water dripping off their faces and onto their pecs, soaking their shirts, making their nipples stand out, waiting at the bar for hot tea and coffee, those stoned eyes wondering “where can I get a blow job right now?”
Blowing pot smoke into their faces was both a subtle flirtation, and just practical design of the small and cramped Amsterdam coffee-shops. There’s no where else for me to do it when we’re all pressed up against each other, with the joints serving their intended phallic symbolism. The white dragon smoke expelled from my lips and turned into clouds around their faces, drawing influence inside their bodies, connecting our chemistry.
A darling boy with innocent eyes walked passed the line at the bar to take a stool right between me and another stool occupied by a sleeping cat. He nodded and smiled as he shuffled by me, and used the bar space to roll himself a few joints.
That’s all it takes, a smile and a nod, and I’m hooked. I’m your puppy if you want it. Maybe not quite slave, but adoring fan and yes-man, for sure. Or if you will, voyeur and peeping tom, as all of this takes place from the stage of desires and fantasies, rather than mutual agreement and engagement.
We interact by noticing the pussy on the stool and sharing smiles. We stroke it together, the cat’s too stoned to notice, and if you’ve ever seen the pornos where they get straight guys to demo a “blow up doll” together, as the doll deflates and the guys inch closer and closer together, it kind of looks like they’re having sex with each other by the end of it - the cat was just a vessel for us to be holding hands, petting each other.
Again with the dancing, he busted out a quick move as if life’s soundtrack possessed him momentarily and commanded a celebration of the exchange via Michael Jackson lightning bolts coming out the toes. Then he kicked up the fantasy level a couple notches - the tall waiter with the dark stubble came over and gave him a hug. They were friends, and the waiter would be spending a lot of time in our corner hanging out, smiling.
Petite Thug Waiter was still within smoke-cloud-lasso distance. He was also concerning himself with making my palms itch by taking a snack break to eat a banana. With fingers pressed to lips, I inhaled a joint trying not to salivate all over it while we exchanged glances and laughs. There was a wink as he downed the last chunk of it like champ.
My entire field of vision, from periphery to periphery was completely engorged by male beauty. Everything I looked at was somehow an expression of sexuality and the best things in life. It couldn’t have been a more euphoric moment short of being the center of a gang-bang with everyone in the room (well, with the exception of the two pussies, of course), but this seemed a lot more discreet and less invasive, but just as powerful and meditative. The sex in the room was evident, and you didn’t have to take your clothes off to feel it.
Listening in on the waiter and my blow-up doll companion, I realized I could understand a little bit of what they were saying. They were speaking Spanish… in fact, they were Spanish. Of course, I was head over heels about them and instantly picked up on their dripping sexuality because they were from Spain.
When I listened to the general sounds of conversations happening across the room, everyone inside the place was speaking Spanish. This whole time I have been flipping my lid, about to vaporize into pheromones, in a room stuffed with wet stoned Spanish men.
A tear came to my eye.
Can we get together like this every day? I think we should start a Men’s group and call it “Let me fetishize everything about you. Viva España.” We can declare independence and establish the new peace-pot-rebel-hunk movement.
Their peacock feathers hypnotize me. Their eyes draw me ever closer until we are accidentally/purposefully touching. It’s so little and almost non-existent, maybe a touch on a shoulder to ask for a light, or gyrating bodies while trying to get by, yet its energy is so primitive and effervescent, it is difficult to find a human motivation that doesn’t somehow come back to sex and protection.
It’s not a realistic approach to think we can escape chasing our own tails. And when we get tired of that, there’s always pot to sit back with and think, “well, some of that bull shit is kind of cool.” Every once and while, a hurricane of Spaniards will show up to make sure you enjoy every minute of it. If two show up on the same day, then it would be wise to pay attention.
Time for siesta.
The subject matter of surrounding myself with adorable men and getting stoned is a muse that just never tires. This muse plays his beautiful harp in my ear every time I walk down the street, accenting my day with songs in the key of THC & Testosterone. His delicious musical treats tickle my insides and make me smile and laugh. They are so rich I can almost feel them on my fingers, smell them as the wind passes, taste them while I lick my lips… and my eyes, directed right to the source where they fight to shift attention to anything else.
With every click of the mouse, I was certain it wasn’t going to work.
Every part of my rational brain was thinking, “this can not be real.”
When it turned out to be real, I thought, “this certainly can’t last.”
Two weeks later, the headlines read “Feds Say They’ve Arrested ‘Dread Pirate Roberts,’ Shut Down His Black Market ‘The Silk Road.’”
I realized there would come a day when we’d say, “Remember when we could buy drugs on the Silk Road?” I didn’t realize, however, that day would come within two weeks of having stood humbly at its trail-head.
It was probably news about BitCoin that first alerted me to the presence of an internet black market. In the day of people beginning to question the validity of blind cash grabs and endlessly increasing market shares, BitCoin appeared as an interesting tool for generating and using currency outside of the Federal Reserve. Being open sourced and not locked behind proprietary rights of a corporation, the peer-to-peer digital currency arrived in 2009 as an early experiment in the imagining of a world post-fiat. If not an answer, it’s a meaningful first draft for anyone daring to ask, “what will we do when the world bankrupts itself?” Being that BitCoin’s creator has since vanished without anyone knowing their real identity, the “crypto-currency” has become ripe for mystery and intrigue.
Inevitably when discussing BitCoin, nearly every article mentions (either in passing or as its entire justification), “…connections to shady internet black markets…” which leads the more astute journalist to mention “…sites like The Silk Road, the Amazon.com or Ebay of illegal drugs.”
Wait a second, the Amazon.com or Ebay of illegal drugs? Were all those words seriously just strung together? There’s no way such a thing could exist. Hah, the internet is such an amazing source of modern folklore. But if the article itself didn’t say how exactly, at least one smartypants commenter would usually spell it out for the curious reader, “…available only over the TOR network.”
TOR. I knew what that was. I had downloaded it several months ago, but never installed or browsed the internet with it. “The Onion Router” (TOR) is what is used to navigate “the dark web,” web sites that aren’t tracked by search engines or reachable through your regular internet browser, and whose encrypted flow of data gives users a level of anonymity. I had only known it as an avenue for pedophiles to trade pictures that any government-abiding internet service provider would gladly have their users arrested for downloading (just ask Pete Townshend).
But I had downloaded the TOR installation package recognizing there must be other interesting uses for it out there in the dark net. The Silk Road, it turns out, was that interesting use.
Still convinced, “this has to be a hoax,” I installed the TOR package, and my first search was “How to find the Silk Road.” I needn’t have bothered with the search, the web address is posted on the site’s Wikipedia page – a fact that caused much controversy for Wikipedians and Silk Road users alike. Seconds later, I was loading my first ever “.onion” address.
Arriving at the equivalent of a black steel door with only a tiny peephole in the center, I knocked the secret knock and my spine tingled with a mixture of fear and excitement. The peep hole slid open, I was asked to decipher a captcha code, and I was in.
What I saw upon entering was so completely different than anything I could imagine existing in real life, my head spun with vertigo. For several minutes the sensation that I was literally falling down a rabbit hole left me unable to comprehend the enormity of what I was looking at.
Mountains of cocaine, on sale! Heroine, direct from Afghanistan, fresh supply! Research chemicals I was only vaguely familiar with from Ann and Alexander Shulgin’s PiHKAL and TiHKAL books, sorted alphabetically. Shamanic treatments like Ayahuasca and Iboga from deep within the jungles of consciousness, delivered by air mail.
Still unable to feel the ground beneath my feet, my mind alternated between believing I was dreaming and thinking The Feds were going to bust down my door any second.
This feeling would accompany me through many of my interactions on the Road.
“I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs.”
The year and a half preceding my arrival on The Road had been particularly challenging for my personality; waves of events pulled my brain into an emotional rip current, from which my body was exhausted from fighting against. Fed up with of the constant injections of frustration, my head revolted with a violent migraine in August for which I went to the emergency room.
Having tried to suck it up and go along with the flow, the migraine took me down in ways that were personally disappointing. I wanted to get up and shake it off, let the events roll off me, be the reed that bends, look on the bright side of things. But the wells of anger and frustration had overflowed, and the taps had blown their gaskets.
Living in a foreign (to me) country, my reaction to life’s events was to basically reject the native language and everyone who spoke it. This put me into a state of self imposed agoraphobia. Most every interaction with the world outside my doorstep was fuel for anger’s triggers. It was uncontrollable, and literally sickening. I was becoming increasingly desperate for relief.
One option was to seek psychotherapy. So I did, in the way that you do if you’re agoraphobic, by looking on-line. My efforts to reach out to doctors who might be able to help resulted in more frustration – doctors that I envisioned to be empathetic would only write back a simple “that is not possible at this time” letter, with no other resources offered. These rejections made me indignant; “Really? You look at a sick person who is asking you for help, and respond with, ‘can’t help you,’ and shut the door? Well, if it’s not too much trouble, can you take your degree and shove it up your ass?”
I was also quite aware of the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms. In fact, since arriving in my new host country, I had become more experienced with LSD than ever before; my previous experiences having been limited to high school experimentation. I could always sense its therapeutic potential, but the situations I was in never afforded me the clearest path towards self discovery.
My in-person source for the LSD was also a questionable character. My inability to trust him was a barrier in wanting to give myself over to the experience completely. He was a good-hearted person, and he clearly believed everything he said – except that everything he said was buried under a mixture of wrong words, confused syntax, and flat out misinformation. Many times I knew he wasn’t lying, but that he was just dead wrong in his assumptions, and couldn’t be corrected, because he was misinterpreting the thing he was incorrect about.
How could I be sure his tabs were LSD when I had always heard the phrase, “if it’s bitter, it’s a spitter,” - referring to the alphabet soup of research chemicals being sold as LSD over the last ten years - and his tabs were definitely bitter, and not typical “tasteless LSD.” One time he told me, “these always make me throw up, but after that, the trip is amazing.” I have never, ever, heard of people throwing up from LSD. But he was convinced that everything was normal with his tabs, and couldn’t be questioned otherwise.
His unreliability was also a factor. When I finally decided that a trans-personal journey with psychedelics might help me get past this wall of blinding anger, he was MIA. Upon further investigation, people were convinced there was no LSD in the land or on the horizon.
So when I found myself one mouse-click away from being able to order an inter-dimensional bicycle ride on the internet, I thought I was having a psychedelic experience right there on the spot.
“This is the cleanest LSD we’ve come across in years,” the vendor page said. “Don’t take our word for it, read the trip reports in the forums.”
This is where the Silk Road changed from being a monumentally crazy idea, to a life-altering personal revolution.
Of all the wacky things I saw on the Silk Road, not only the much touted drugs, but also forged documents, counterfeit money, doctored YouTube hits, and passwords to porno sites, a forum where people could get together and talk about all these items was the last thing I expected to see. Surely, I thought, if you get all these people together and chatting, there will be obvious leaks to real life people, and ultimately honeypots for the authorities looking to curb such activities.
And while that may have turned out to be true in some cases, the first thing I noticed was the maturity with which people were using the site to make informed decisions about what they were putting into their bodies. Trip reports, lab tests, vendor verifications, and harm reduction techniques were all topics written about extensively on the site.
Having gotten used to the comments section of any news site on the “regular” internet, I just took it for granted that the entire internet was saturated with idiots who don’t know how to spell, and can only regurgitate nonsense that they heard from other similarly idiotic people.
But the Silk Road forums reminded me of the internet circa 1995; an experimental design-scape populated by enthusiastic adopters. Of course, there were flame wars, scammers, and personality clashes, but they were far outweighed by the exploratory nature of self directed humans who wanted to inform themselves and each other about experiences that carry the threat of social ostracization in real life.
Queue the image of Nancy Reagan in a battering ram, tearing down a “crack house” in the name of “Just Say No.”
Silk Road and its forums were evaporating the stereotypes that declared what drugs and drug users were supposed to be. Having to go to the “seedy” parts of town and make connections with nefarious characters – no more. Acquiring drugs of unknown purity and legitimacy – no longer a problem. The “pusher” that never existed? Still doesn’t exist. Rather, a community of people helping one another with empathy, compassion, and a common sovereignty – the right to curate and explore one’s own consciousness… a rite of passage as old as religion and spirituality itself.
Never in my life have I heard anyone say anything positive about crystal meth. As an avid lover of the psychedelics category, and a huge fan of natural green weed, the idea that anyone would ingest anything that comes out of an exploding garage was absolutely preposterous, and down right evil to me. But in reading user reviews that said things like, “I have finally found crystal that doesn’t taste like battery acid, and this euphoria has lasted for days. Thank you for my medicine!” I saw people being empowered with information that could potentially limit a user’s exposure to zombifying substances, while delivering the effects that allured them so strongly in the first place.
I saw people who found an appreciation for coke that they hadn’t had in over thirty years, “I stopped doing coke not because it was dangerous or addictive, I stopped because the quality turned to shit. But this stuff brought me back to Studio 54.”
And mature professionals who long to rediscover the psycho-therapeutic nature of MDMA within the confines of their marriage, but can’t be bothered with turning up at raves to ingest something cut with medicine used to de-worm animals, finding life-reaffirming experiences with their spouses, “Every couple needs to have the freedom to experience this together. If you’re having troubles in the relationship, you’ll be able to clear the air, and even if everything’s good, the calmness will be extended deeply. The only thing criminal here is that the governments are keeping it away from us.”
Then I found the LSD reviews. For the first time in my life, I was able to see lab results of the dosage on individual LSD tabs as measured in micrograms. You could quickly find out who was selling doses as advertised, and accurately measure how strong of trip you wanted to engage in. Reagent color tests showed if what was advertised as LSD was in fact Albert Hoffman’s lysergic acid diethylamide. People’s trip reports helped clarify the purity of different tabs making the rounds, “no speedy come-down, I was able to sleep after eight hours,” “half a tab was enough for strong euphoria and tranquil hallucinations without crazy looping thoughts or anxiety.” I felt like a fancy wine connoisseur trying to find the perfect companion for my picnic in outer space.
I found the tabs I wanted. I calculated how many I would need for my trajectory. I found a person selling them with a sanctimonious vendor rating. Even just knowing that this person would be personally handling my LSD made me feel like good karma was rubbing off on the tabs.
Now I just had to acquire the BitCoins. On the Silk Road, there is no other accepted currency. Again, an unshaken skepticism knocked at my brain. “There’s no way this is legit. This has to fail.”
The steps between having real life money, and money in a Silk Road account requires several hops, and leaps of faith. At each click, I was certain, “I’m about to lose all this money, this has to be a con.” But I would hit the submit button, and within hours or a day, the funds would show up in the correct place. Every step I took in engineering the BitCoins towards the Silk Road felt incredibly raw and bizarre. “Clearly, I’m only doing this to buy drugs on the internet. This must be incredibly obvious to someone somewhere, and I can’t believe I’m really doing this right now.”
But eventually, the funds wound up where they were supposed to, a near equal amount to what I would have paid on the street. Once my Silk Road account had credit, the next step would be the last before leaving it in the hands of whoever was on the other side of the vendor’s listing.
“This is too far out. As soon as I hit ‘submit’ someone’s going to come knocking on the door. It’s just too unbelievable that this could actually work.”
A few times in my life, my inner-voice has yelled out to me in no uncertain terms, alerting me that I was prepared to do something I had never done before, and the time to act was afoot. One childhood memory of my father involved him attempting to take the training wheels off of my bicycle. I remember the thought of him doing that terrified me. I wanted to impress the guy, but we both knew I wasn’t ready. Surprisingly, he was okay with that. He said, “If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. When you’re ready, you’ll know, and we can try again.” A few months later, an alarm went off in my brain, and like a man possessed, I declared, “I’m ready!” He took the training wheels off, and I started flying around the yard. He thought he was going to have to hang onto me and guide me through the whole process, but I was out of his hands before he could say, “Are you ready?” Of course I was. And I knew it.
Despite everything modern society tells us about drugs, despite the criminal attitude we are forced to engage when regarding this subject, despite the idea I might be “self-medicating” or just “going to to get high,” something in me was declaring that the time was now. The training wheels were coming off, and the flight was about to take off. Do this. Now.
“It’s going to error out, or something. Something has to go wrong. It can’t be this easy.”
Within a few hours my order status had been updated to say “In Transit.” Could it really be? Could actual LSD as I had been reading about on the internet really be “in transit” to my door? No. It can’t. I won’t even think about it any more. If I think about it too much, I’ll just get overly anxious about it and jinx the whole deal. I need to walk away from the computer, and just forget about it. If something turns up in the mail, it’ll be a nice surprise. As far as I knew, I was only beta testing the inner-workings of an imaginary internet market with pretend money for items that clearly can not exist in real life.
But the part of me that instinctively trusted the whole affair was psychically connected to the mail box. Not even 48 hours later, I could feel the postman arriving at the mailbox, opening the slot, and leaving the piece of mail I was supposed to forget about. I tiptoed out behind him, opened the mail box, and saw it, clear as day, the envelope of my destiny. I knew it right when I saw it, but if I wasn’t expecting it, I’d probably have thrown it away, suspecting it to be junk mail.
Perversely turned on by its concealment, my head shook with disbelief as I made my way through the packaging. Upon reaching the final layer of protection, I could barely believe my eyes. There they were. Glorious, beautiful tabs of LSD, purchased on the internet, delivered to my mail box.
“Could it really be? Are you really real? Has this all really happened? What’s going to happen now?” I gazed at it like the rarest rose.
After spending the afternoon readying the house for my journey and completing my chores for the day, I was poised to find out.
As expected, the tabs were tasteless. Rather than just wait and wonder if I was feeling anything, I decided to take a small walk around the neighborhood, a little meditative stroll to engage my motivations for knocking at the door of my consciousness. I composed a frame of reference with questions like “What am I supposed to do with all this anger?” and “Why am I so frustrated so much of the time?” Even then, there was still a slight wonder, “What if it doesn’t work? What if it was all just bunk after all?”
The church bells rang 8pm. I felt the them ringing through my soul, alerting the deities that we were ready for our meeting. “Oh.” That was something. “OH! I better get home!”
Upon returning home, a glorious euphoria ignited my body. My first thought was, “Everybody needs to feel this,” and I wrote the word “EMPATHY” in block letters on a blank piece of paper near my desk. This was just the first of several words and phrases I scrawled down, a series of breadcrumb trails from the various worlds I journeyed to that night.
I don’t know if I was trying to be ironic, but I started watching an academic lecture on the LSD molecule. Even though I didn’t understand a thing the professor said, I felt like I was following along completely. I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, however, that his slides were constantly melting and bleeding off the screen, and eventually out of the computer screen?
The journey’s foothills were alive with color and distortion. Smiling and laughing, I took it’s hand, and allowed it to lead.
Swept up amongst the mosquito clouds of a lost summer working at a tourist lodge in the center of Alaska, 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.
This is so sad, I might as well laugh.
THE ALASKA LOGS:
1. Laughing Out Loud
2. Goonies Never Say Die
3. Should We Smoke A Bowl Before We Go To The Post Office?
4. I Was Late To Work Because I Had To Buy Someone Crack
5. If It Happened Anywhere Else, I’d Be Shocked
6. What If We See A Care Bear?
7. Yes, We Have No Muffins For You
8. To Find Just the Right Ganja Treats
9. The End of Days
“Everything said in this tent, must stay inside this tent. If we are to complete our mission, we must act with secrecy and discretion. Are you with us, RD?”
The flicker of candlelight illuminated our faces; three traitors huddled together under the blackness of plastic tarps in a canvass tent, planning their final act of treason. New York Girl, Mittens, and I stared into each others eyes, knowing that the explosive stone of happiness we were sitting on could erupt into fits of smiles and laughter, blowing our cover.
“I’m in.” I didn’t care any more. I wanted to bite down on the flesh of those who lured us to this trap, tear it off and spit it back in their faces.
“RD, when does your sweetheart arrive?” Everyone knew that my Sweetheart was on his way for a visit. In the muddy monotony of everything horrible, any ray of sunshine poking through the clouds got the attention of the whole valley. Some dude’s gay lover was coming for a visit? Cool! Maybe some rainbows will appear.
“August 28. I’ve been counting down the days since June.” Some folks in the camp were so excited about his arrival, they were counting down with me. People I didn’t even know on a first name basis were cheering me on, “Only ten more days, RD!” “Nine more days, can you stand it?”
New York Girl was the only one among us whose employment contract ended at the end of August. Everyone else was in it until the middle of September. The only thing that kept most of us from quitting long ago was the fact that a good portion of our pay was being held as ransom, an insurance to keep us from jumping ship. Anyone who completed their contract would be rewarded with the rest of their season pay, which would effectively buy them a train ticket and air fare to get back to their normal lives.
“My last day is August 30. On that day, I will hitchhike up to Fairbanks, and rent a car. When I return, I’ll pick up you, your sweetheart, and Mittens, and we’ll get the fuck out of here.”
Lack of transportation, funds, and consecutive days off left most of us stuck in this tiny valley in an otherwise enormous state. Having been invited by the grandeur of Alaska’s endlessness, most of us had only seen the other side of the street over the last three months. Even then, sometimes wildfire smoke would blot out that scenery.
I was determined to see it all. I would not let this opportunity pass me by. If it required biting the hand that fed me, so be it. The earth is our home, and no amount of money could ever obscure the benefits of engaging it. If deceit, lies and thuggish brutality were all they had to hang onto us, I was already out the door.
“We’ll go camping on the beach, we’ll go see the glaciers, we’ll be with the best friends we’ve made all season, you’ll be re-united with your sweetheart. We’ll be far, far, far away from here. This is epic.” Mittens eyes were wide open, but focused deeply on her soul – allowing the fear of defecting to be overshadowed by the joy of living.
“But this is also for real.” New York Girl knew the seriousness of what we were planning. “You two are deliberately giving up your earned pay. If anyone finds out before I return with the rental car, you guys will probably be thrown out of here immediately. You’ll be turning your backs on everyone else who has to stay.”
True, but the rest only have to stay for another two weeks once we’re gone. If forfeiting my pay is something I can deal with, maybe others will find their inner strength to not let money be the cause of their lives. And if losing the top three employees the Crows have had this summer in one swift walk-out causes them any discomfort, perhaps it will equal an insignificant fraction of the psychic pain I’ve seen endured by the employees through these last sixteen weeks.
“It’s settled then. By August 31, we’ll be home free.” And with that, we blew out the candle, and left the tent with a sigh of relief for the end.
Our giddy smiles blew our cover the second we left the tent.
“What are you three so happy about?”
“What were you guys talking about so quietly and secretly in there?”
“You’re planning to walk, aren’t you?”
“You’re leaving when your sweetheart comes, aren’t you?”
“New York Girl is coming back to pick you guys up with a car when her contract ends, isn’t she?”
“Oh you lucky sons of bitches. Congratulations for figuring out a way.”
There was no point in hiding it from the crew; the employees and ex-employees populating our humble campground of wooden crates and discarded beer bottles. There were no more secrets between any of us, and news of rogue members spread like wildfire. For technical reasons, however, we had to maintain the face of loyalty in front of our oppressors, even though we knew their ears were only a walkie-talkie away from our lips.
Hiding behind her thirsty-two ounce mug of “illicit” iced tea, Manager Salsa decided to confront me.
“I heard it through the rumor mill that you’re planning on leaving us on the 31st. Is that true?” By this time, my fear of her had been worn down to an odd combination of apathy and pity. I didn’t care that I had to lie (and poorly) directly to her face, but I was also a bit saddened to see the culmination of a life less lived hiding behind a cup of fermented sauce, her constant companion.
I wasn’t going to let anything stand in between me and my great escape. That’s what I envisioned anyway. Alaska, however, like a carnival fun-house, will spit you out however it wants to, despite your most careful steps down the stairs of uncertainty.
My smile was contagiously loud on the day of The Sweetheart’s arrival. The shuttle drivers knew which train he’d arrive on, and planned a clandestine operation to pick him up without ire from the managers. The cooks managed to steal a chocolate cake from the restaurant so we could celebrate his arrival with decadence. Navy Boy was filling me up with high-fives, his last chance to allow me to openly flirt with him. My tent mates even cleaned their corners of the tent, and pushed wooden crates together to make a larger bed space for the reunited lovers.
Sweeping me up off my feet, he arrived with the Superman insignia plastered on his chest, and an emotional embrace. As soon as we ducked into my tent, I discovered that the lengths of his Superman cosplay extended down to his skivvies – blue, tight, and full of symbolism.
Awkwardly coupling each other on wooden crates and strewn-about sleeping bags, gazing endlessly into each other’s eyes, everything felt in place for the first time all summer. The end was in sight, everyone’s spirits were filled with excitement, the wrath of the higher-ups was no longer a penetrating force, and the protective shield of love was resting quietly at my side.
My employment was effectively over by this point. When I put down my toilet brush on the 28th, I knew I would never be picking it up again. The 29th and 30th were already scheduled as my days off, and “nobody knew” (or at least, everyone was okay with pretending they didn’t know) that on the 31st, I would conveniently just not clock in, and take off with Mittens, New York Girl, and The Sweetheart in a rented vehicle, for destination anywhere else but here, for good.
With my days off scheduled, The Sweetheart and I decided to go for a much needed camping trip in the glacial tundra wilderness that surrounded us. Wilderness camping is something the Park Service takes very seriously. Before you’re allowed access, you have to register with the park, and take a small course on wilderness safety – everything from bear-proofing your food, to having the smallest possible impact on the pristine environment. Among the many responsibilities the potential camper has, telling the service how long you intend to camp, and in exactly what area, was a requirement. Any deviation from the plan might involve a helicopter being dispatched looking for bear attack victims.
Once you sign on the official government documents, you’re allowed to venture into places more remote than sites on Mars. You’re taken on an official bus down the only road that exists for hundreds of miles, to the mile marker you’ve specified, and tell the driver, “We’ll be here at our assigned pick-up time, or send the search party.”
Naïve and full of smiles, we waved to the bus driver as he pulled away, and instantly freaked out when the brush in front of us began to shake.
“Oh my god, do you think it’s a grizzly?” We had already forgotten everything we’d learned. “Are we supposed to be quiet, or scare it away? Do we crouch down, or make ourselves look really big? What if we’re attacked five feet from the road with the bus still in sight?”
A large caribou sprinted away from behind the bush as we wrestled with our camping backpacks, deciding if we should try to locate the bear spray and whistles. Our fears were instantly switched to awe and wonder. “Wow, and we’ve only just begun,” as we looked onwards at the glacial riverbed that was to be our trail for the next five to ten miles.
With each of us carrying forty or so pounds of survival gear on our backs, the jaggedly sharp boulders lining the glacial valley did not make for easy frolicking. The glacier responsible for this canyon of rock shrapnel was still hidden deep within the wilderness, feeding a small but fast paced and violently cold river, meandering itself down a maze of ruthless nature.
“What if we set up camp here?” We scouted out a small hill side with patches of soft tundra and blueberry bushes after about five miles of hiking. It was all the things our Hollywood imaginations taught us to expect – majestic, isolated, humbling. Still relatively new to our relationship, and still high and giddy from our end-of-summer reunion, the act of setting up camp brought with it a vaguely predictive feeling of what our lives might be like; two guys in the middle of the unknown, leading each other with cooperation and with care. Capped within the wild vulnerability of nature, we were learning to be vulnerable around each other.
There aren’t many instances in my life where I brood over the “should haves.” But in the case of my final moments in Alaska, I should have gotten my feet wet.
“You know what my favorite smell in the whole world is?”
My tent-mate Billy was an excitable creature with a Cheshire cat-like smile who worked as the lodge-dishwasher. We were sharing a moldy wall tent together with his childhood best friend, Sam, a housekeeper like myself. Having the largest tent in the employee campground, we were also host to a roster of former employees, castaways and fugitives who crashed on the vacated wooden crate of a former cook, who left a hammock and flashlight fashioned into a meth pipe upon his exit early in the season.
“The smell of hot butter colliding with ganja!” he said, lifting a bright green Rice-Krispy treat half the size of his face, up to his mouth.
With the amount of pot we had already smoked that day, it seemed strange that one could possibly get any more stoned.
“I have to have one. Where did you get that?”
The smell alone was too intoxicating to pass up.
“There’s a girl over there in a hippy dress with long flowy hair,” he said, pointing towards a a make-shift city of rundown RV’s and flamboyantly muscled pick up trucks a few dozen yards away. Confederate flags could be seen waving through the dust cloud that marked the territory. “But you have to go into Hell to get them.”
We had nearly made it to the end of the summer. The annual Talkeetna Blue-Grass Festival marked the arrival of a starry sky and the start of a rapid transformation from summer into winter. For those of us who had been working all summer, it was a celebration for making it to the home stretch, our final few weeks as beer thieving housekeeper, shuttle driver on the lamb, or diarrhea-butter spritzing cook.
Billy and I were standing in a field of camping tents, the designated area for campers in town for the festival. The town of Talkeetna was a 2 hour drive from where we were stationed, and every seasonal employee in the valley had hitchhiked their way to the celebration, tents on back. The locals, however, showed up ready for a non-stop tailgate party, and brought the whole trailer park.
The size of a full city block, “Hell” was the lot between the tent campers and the main festivals site – a temporary hill-billy anarchy zone, a post-apocalypse Burning Man.
And so began our long journey into Hell to find just the right ganja treats.
At the end of August in Alaska, the sun still cooks with high intensity at most hours of the day. Mid-afternoon, and Billy’s ganja treat had nearly melted in his hand, the neon green butter oozing down his arm, lapped up by his eager tongue.
In Hell, the temperatures soared. The people had been drinking since the drive over, and were now loading up on amphetamines, weed, mushrooms, LSD, and ecstasy for the festival. They’ve been swarming outside their RV’s dancing to the same Phish song for the last eight hours.
The stale rustic smell became thick and overwhelming until we got used to it, our brains having given up in exhaustion from trying to process sweaty, sardine-packed, euphorized-zombie dank. There were so many rednecks and hippies in one concentrated spot, it had its own gravitational pull that anyone would be lucky to escape – innocent concert goers stuck in a bubbling current of dancing hippies and moshing hair metal casualties, being bounced off of beer bellies like a pinball, sucked into a whirlpool of fire-spinners.
The level of lawlessness extended to open drug vending, firework explosions, and firearm brandishing. Worming through the crowd required a degree of fearlessness, and a buddy to watch your back in case of kidnapping by separatist guerrillas.
It wasn’t all bad. The overtly testosterone-pumped male rednecks who made their livings digging ditches and chopping lumber had lost their shirts long ago. Being forced to pass by them at skin-on-skin distance, with private areas wiggling by each other, and noses smooshed up to sweaty armpits was a gay stoner’s wet dream.
One doesn’t want to get caught staring too long, but when there’s a pair of pistols tattooed on the v-lines of a man’s pelvis, barrels pointed towards a crotch that’s barely contained by a worn out piece of denim, one must take pause to appreciate the situation.
And when that guy is shaking his hips at me because he’s on ecstasy and feeling very empathetic, and this is the only way I can get past him to find the ganja treats … what am I to do?
After doing that for about an hour, Billy finally landed eyes on her – long flowy hair, a hippy dress, twirling in happy circles, and a basket filled with ripe green ganja treats clutched in her arms.
“My friend saw how good your ganja treats were, so we came to get more!”
She was delighted. She had also been eating her own treats. “Awesome. They’re real good. They’re real strong. They’re three dollars for one, two dollars each for two, or … one dollar each for three?” She was stumped by her own stoner math, but it didn’t matter. These things took two hands to hold. I only needed one.
Marijuana edibles typically come with a heavy word of warning. They’re very easy to over-do because, compared to smoking, edible weed takes a long time for the body to absorb. Many first timers make the mistake of not waiting long enough to feel the effects of the first dose, and finish the whole batch of cookies before they realize they’re fucked. So to be safe, I only ate half the treat.
One warning I’d never heard offered however, was, once the THC bomb hits, don’t take refuge in your tent on a hot day. Under the blazing sun, the inside of my tent had heat like a greenhouse. By crawling into my tent to lay my spinning head down for a moment, I had effectively condemned myself to confinement inside a searing sauna.
Sticky, hot, dense air weighted down my body while the ganja goo flowed through me like molasses. My brain wandered in and out of a vaguely conscious sleep-like haze for what felt like a week, trapped under several layers of molten humidity. I couldn’t move against it, not even to leave the tent. “Is this what it’s like on Jupiter?” I wondered.
Eventually my dry stagnant mouth craved another sugar influx. The only thing in arms’ reach was the other half of the ganja treat. Knowing that I owed my current state to the first half of the treat was one thing. Knowing that it was the only thing within reach that didn’t require the organizing of all of my bodily capacities to move against the opposition of gravity was another. I ate the rest of the treat.
Through the half-sleep coma, I could hear the Navy Boy’s voice echoing through the campground.
“Where’s Ardie? Is Ardie around?”
Navy Boy was the only person I ever let call me “Ardie.” As “RD” are initials, I’m mostly concerned that people conceptually digest that my name is two letters, not “Ardie” or “Arty” or some other such nonsense.
Navy Boy, however, was a strong “alpha male” type who always seemed to go out of his way to be kind towards me, enjoyed watching lust shoot out of my eyes when talking to him, gave me hugs even though it wasn’t a manly thing to do, and one night, after a way too much pot smoking, gave me the belt buckle from his Naval uniform – a buckle that had seen him through war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He could call me anything he wanted to.
“Is Ardie in there? Ardie, are you in there?”
I opened my eyes to see the zipper of my tent being pulled at, and Navy Boy muscling his way inside.
“Ardie! Let’s go hear some music Ardie. Billy’s already at the concert. Let’s go see it. You ready?”
At the command of his voice, I was ready. He pulled me out of the tent, and watched me attempt to put myself together. “How were those ganja treats? Billy said you guys got ganja treats.”
“Holy shit.” was all I could say.
“Holy shit, Ardie. You look like holy shit. Come on, let’s go hear some music.”
He grabbed me by the hand, and lead me towards towards the concert stage.
For the first time all summer, it was getting dark. The sun finally sank below the horizon, and the stars were starting to pop out. Even as Navy Boy pulled me through Hell City to get to the concert stage, there was a special joy in seeing a real night-time creep over the land. It was almost as if we could watch the earth rolling around in its orbit.
Under the extreme pressure of all that green goo and the remnants of however stoned I had been for the days leading up to the festival already, the journey through Hell felt like one eternal ring after another. At some point I thought, “I swear we’ve tried to get around this same hackey sack circle eight times already.”
But the rippling sounds of live music started to swell as we made our way closer to the concert area. Breaking free of the grips of Hell, we bounded towards the stage. A celestial music that was definitely not “bluegrass” filled the air, and transported us to a world light years away from monster trucks and mullets. A stoner-rock band had taken the stage, bathing the audience with spacey sound effects and obtuse compositions. Their light show was provided by mother nature.
“Ardie,” I loved it when Navy Boy’s voice was dead serious.
“Ardie, LOOK UP.”
His neck was arched up and his gaze was possessed by the sky.
“What?” Like a naïve doe, I casually looked up, and was instantly struck – the sky was glowing with aurora. Green and gold sheets of lit-up magnetic particles were dancing to the choral music pumping out of the band’s vintage synths – nature having its own rave. We’d have fainted, but it was too good to miss.
Out of the masses, transcending-out to the psychodelia of the moment, Billy’s giant Cheshire grin appeared. “Did you guys see the aurora?” His eyebrows were pinned up to his forehead, in typical excited stoner fashion, eyes just a narrow slit.
We all shared in a hug. This was the unsaid confirmation – this is what we had come for. This was the rich stuff. The courteous Navy Boy. The grinning tent-mate. The ganja goo blood stream. Celestial soundtrack, and the Heavens waving at us – a bunch of idiots in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere near the top of the earth. We’ve climbed through Hell’s ladders to get here, but we were still standing, even if just barely. The final weeks were still ahead of us, but that seemed to matter less now. Everything could end right right here, and we’d all walk away a little wiser for the journey.
“You know what would be amazing right now?”
Engaging in Fantasy-Land is what housekeepers did to keep themselves from going stir-crazy in the tundra of Alaska during the tourist season. Mittens had been snacking on TGIFriday’s Potato Skins out of the vending machine all summer.
“Mudslides from TGIFriday’s.”
“I’d been thinking the exact same thing.”
In the tradition of greasy American diners, the “Friday’s” franchise was the steroid-addled beast of comfort food restaurants – no plate smaller than an infant, each one piled high with abominations of the food-chain: baskets of potatoes and chickens that were never part of anything living, burgers and sandwiches bathed in sauces designed to inject salt directly into your tongue. Their Mudslides were a signature dessert item which was basically a bottle of vodka poured into a chocolate milk shake.
I forget which one of us concocted the thought, as by this point in the summer all the seasonal employees were reduced to living in the trenches of delirium. We were so far removed from the feeling of normalcy that concocting any kind of idea like having sex with a stranger just to sleep on their mattress, or consuming an entire four-dose bag of psilocybin mushrooms all by yourself in one night, seemed within the range of possible thoughts one might have.
“There’s a Friday’s in Anchorage.”
By car, it would take roughly five hours to reach Anchorage. None of us seasonal employees arrived by car. We all took the train, the ticket for which easily cost one week’s wages. And that was just a one way ticket. The private shuttle-vans could easily cost a week’s tips, and hitchhiking was free except for the fact that the likely hood of meeting a fate many times worse than a train-or-shuttle-catastrophe increased exponentially when putting thumb to pavement.
Cool, delicious, sweet, chocolaty, creamy, alcoholic Mudslides.
They’re only five hours away. Five hours. Anyone on the road going south from here is almost certainly going to Anchorage. If we took the risk to hitch down there, maybe we’d be able to reserve a shuttle-van to bring us back – cut out the stress of hitchhiking twice, and the risk of not making back in time to clock in for our next shifts. If we missed a shift, we’d might as well not come back at all.
All that for Mudslides? It’s just a cock-tease to force yourself to leave this valley of plugged up moose hair and red necks, especially to treat yourself to something as decadent as a Mudslide. You get to taste ecstasy for a little while, but you know you have to come right back. You know that the managers have been thinking up ways to erase any shred of enjoyment you thought you could bring back with you. You know however grand and majestic it is out there, back here, it is worse, plus interest.
If our two months in this valley has taught us anything, it’s that any well meaning trip to anywhere away from here has been met with unadulterated disaster. We’d be fooling ourselves to believe we could actually pull such a thing off.
“RD, there is no idea that’s too far out for us.” While Mittens shoved pillows into their new cases, and I double tucked the clean sheets under the mattress, Mittens let inspiration lead us. “Do you realize where we’ve been since we got here? I decided to experiment with my sexuality by making out with a chick in a biker gang. You almost got kidnapped by a guy on crack. We can do anything.” She did. And I was. And we could.
We arranged to have our days off together, and dreamed of nothing but Mudslides all week.
Bus full of Japanese tourists just unloaded in our parking lot with no reservation and we have to ready thirty rooms in an hour? No problem. Mudslides.
Someone drank too much and left the evidence all over the bed? We’re on it. Mudslides.
On hitchhiking day, all of our planning and scheming skills were put to the test. The management was only mildly alarmed when they realized their two top housekeepers were taking the same days off together. Normally they’d have put a stop to such shenanigans, but our Russian cosmonaut Valerie had been showing the strength of a lion and eagerness of a puppy dog while on duty lately, so they shrugged us off and warned us not to be late returning.
We then pretended to be employees of a different lodge down the road so we could covertly steal their internet access and crudely draw a map to the Friday’s on lodge stationary, figure out how to get there from anywhere we might get dropped off, map out a hostel or a camp ground to stay at, and pay for two seats on a shuttle-van back to this crappy place.
Everything was tightly choreographed, and our first step was the biggest wild card of all… putting our thumbs out on the road and hoping someone moderately tolerable pulled over.
Our winning ticket showed up in a station wagon – female, with large dog. The dog had reign of the back seat, which our hostess spent many moments re-organizing, and throwing random items like toy trumpets, pictures in frames, and Chips Ahoy wrappers into the wagon part of the station wagon. All this so Mittens could sit next to the unwieldy dog and pretend like she enjoyed sitting in hair and slobber, “Oh no, really, it’s okay. I love dogs.”
In the front seat, I negotiated my way around several boxes of snacks and drinks, all designed to keep her journey going quickly and without much need for convenience outside of the car. Plastic baggies of deli-sliced turkey and crackers were at her disposal, as well as large bags of peanut butter M&Ms and a lot of drinks… drinks with caffeine.
It was always the folks with the most amount of obstructions in their cars that pulled over. Perhaps they think to themselves, “well, I’m already carrying an elephant, what’s a couple more people?”
The first part of the introduction is usually spent watching them frantically move kaleidoscopic bits of their lives around. Varying formations of pill bottles, cigarette boxes, magazines, fast food wrappers form tide pools of junk, with waves of more junk spilling over them.
Perhaps there’s a clue in there about spending a lot of time in a car in a landscape that stretches forever. Unending solitude, and then suddenly there is an opportunity to invite a stranger into their world. “Hello, this is my bubble, you can get inside for a little bit if you like. Let me make some room for you.”
The hitchhiker’s role becomes extremely valuable at this point. In this particular case, Mittens and I act as a conduit for the person inside their bubble. By inviting us in, they momentarily phase away from solitude, and interact with the outside world. In exchange for treating this interaction with grace and humility, the conduit gets to where it wants to go.
“I’m actually going to see my therapist.”
Oh dear. Five minutes into our five hours, and we’ve been poised to see the full breadth of our ride’s bubble.
“Do you know what EMDR treatment is? I’m going to get EMDR treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, and I just can’t wait to get my life back.” I knew about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In one of my previous lives before leaving everything behind in the lower-forty-eight, I was a college student studying Abnormal Psychology. EMDR is an experimental approach to gaining control over ones maladaptive thought process following trauma. But this wasn’t my place to share my knowledge as a snotty university student. I was there to listen.
Bless that woman. For five hours, she divulged personal griefs and tragedies to total strangers. She opened up and just gave and gave, until we wanted to tear our hearts out from sadness. It didn’t matter much that, in our limited and sheltered twenty-something lives, we could barely relate to anything she had endured. The only thing that seemed to matter to her was that her words were vibrating outside her bubble, making connections and creating understanding. We acted as a sort of pre-therapy as she cast down a long road of self-discovery. And now a little bit of her lives with us.
When we pulled up to some random corner in Anchorage, our driver said she felt a lot calmer having had us ride with her we mutually wished each other well on our journeys. She pointed us in the direction that would bring us to our target, and as she pulled away, it began to rain. We strapped our humongous back packs, loaded with camping gear in case we became stranded for lodging, and thought of Mudslides.
By the time we became officially wet, the faint red and white striped Friday’s facade came into view, and we knew sweet muddy victory would be ours. Salivating and almost running towards the goal line, the streets cruelly seemed to stretch out as we made our approach. The unmistakable smell of everything-fried-food wafted around us, teasing us with mirage-like hope. The sidewalk vanished, and we were reduced to running down the side of the road, close enough to the cars so that we took the brunt of their rain splash as they drove by. Too pumped full of adrenaline to care, we arrived at the “Please wait to be seated” sign, drenched and panting.
We were not waiting. We marched right up the bar, and got the bartender to start on two Mudslides immediately.
“You want chicken fingers with those Mudslides?”
The binge probably lasted all of five minutes and probably induced a few brain-freezes and stomach cramps. But we had just hitchhiked five hours on nothing but faith and a dream, and now we were living it.
The influx of sugar, alcohol and chickeny grease inspired Mittens’ neurons to light up a memory stashed away in her brain, “I know where we can stay tonight. You know who’s here now? Mike from Maine!”
During our management’s firing spree of the previous weeks, a lumberjack of a man called Mike from Maine was ushered in to take the place of Navy Boy, the lodge’s maintenance slave. Mike from Maine lasted about a week before getting the shit-can. Before being threatened off the property by shotgun, he made sure to give Mittens his cell phone number and said, “I found work at a B&B in Anchorage. If you ever come to Anchorage, look me up!”
At this stage in the game, it felt impossible that our luck could continue. The lodge was literally a curse that smeared all over us, a stank oil slick that suffocated our dreams of communing with pristine nature in the northern latitudes of the earth. We had been squeezed until a five hour hitchhiking ride for the sake of downing Mudslides at a grease factory became a rational use of our time. We were crazy to think this could just work. Certainly, we’d end up trying to camp illegally in a rain storm or something.
But Mittens returned from the payphone with a huge grin on her face.
“Mike can’t wait to see us. We’re only five miles away from the B&B he’s working at. He says one of the rooms there is being renovated and not being rented out, but the beds are made and he can sneak us in there tonight. Real beds, and a shower, free.”
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine beamed through the stained glass windows on Friday’s front doors.
High-fiving our good luck, we paid for our Mudslides, then threw the rest of our money at a taxi cab for the five mile ride to Mike from Maine, and his palace of sweet dreams.
When Mike saw the taxi pull up, his grin stretched out until his rosy cheeks popped out, and his arms opened wide for an embrace. His bigness enveloped both me and Mittens with our enormous backpacks on, in one big hug. “I can’t believe you’re here. I thought I’d never see you guys again. Hey, I have a joint, wanna smoke a joint?”
I don’t think we moved from the spot where the taxi dropped us off. We just plopped our bags down, sat on them like benches, and lit up the ritual peace maker without bothering to change scenery.
“You guys seriously came all the way down here just to have Mudslides?” he asked, bursting out a huge belly laugh at the end of it. Of course we did, and having only spent a week at the lodge, he knew exactly what kinds of triggers lead to this.
And in terms of the hitchhiking corridor, he knew exactly the kinds of citizens we were getting into a pool with when we started our Mudslide adventure.
“Oh yeah, I had a funny ride getting here.” Mike headed straight for Anchorage when he was terminated from duty. He had managed to line up a B&B gig in short order, and was out on the road thumbing it before most of us even knew he was gone.
“Crowfuck had just come at me with a shotgun, so I was out on the road, all of my belongings, like you guys now but more. I was out there for hours, literally hours, and nothing, no one was picking up. Then a storm came, I was getting drenched, and still nothing. I was flipping off cars as they’d zoom by, ‘yeah, fuck you, you fuckin cocksuckers, go fuck yourselves,’ when finally some nasty old beat up pick up truck pulls over. I threw all my shit in the back and got in. I’m wiping the water off my face, trying to orient myself, and stop cussing at my fuckin luck. It took me a few moments, but I finally looked over at this guy…
“…and swear to god, I look at this guy’s face, and he’s got one eye. One eye, no patch. Just some weird stitched over scar-like thing that obviously has some kind of story behind it. Then I look down, I’m not fuckin kidding you, one arm. One arm.” He motioned up and down to his left arm, and I tried to imagine no arm being there.
“But that’s not all … one fucking leg, kid you not. One leg. I’m lookin at the guy and I’m thinkin ‘Jeezus’ and he can see I’m like trying to process all of this, and he looks at me, and says, with a cigarette danglin out of his mouth, swear to fuckin god, ‘They call me the One-der.’ I was just like, I’m dead.”
We’d fallen off of our backpack-benches, teary and red faced, laughing. Two months ago we’d have never believed such a story. But now these scenarios felt obligatory.
“But wait, there’s more. We start talking, and I tell him I was just fired from the Crow’s lodge. And he says, ‘Those assholes? You’re safer with me!’”
The revelation that the Crows had a reputation should have come as no surprise, but if we hadn’t been on the ground already, we’d have fallen over with disbelief and laughter.
“The guy was a good dude, it was a good ride. He said he drives that route like fifty times a month, and he could do it like a pro. He said he lost the eye, arm, and leg in a logging accident, but the dude’s a tough sunnovabitch. Weird fuckin shit man.”
“Oh Mike, we miss you so much!” Mittens curled up next to him like we were sitting around a campfire, our bodies reflecting the campfire hue of the exaggerated summer twilight.
Mike showed us the way to our beds for the night and told us not to worry that the owners didn’t know we were there. They weren’t the Crows, and would let us live if caught. After an incredibly delicious hot shower, I engaged the irreplaceable comfort of a mattress and linens, and drifted off into a blissful sleep until I woke up the next morning, smiling.
August signals the closing of summer. While the season of night threatens to overtake the levee, the sun has already disappeared completely. Locked behind a thick wall of wildfire smoke, the masked sunlight reveals a technicolor orange fog saturating the entire canyon. The majesty of the surrounding Alaskan landscape is gone. The other side of the street is gone. Retaining any sense of bearing or sanity has proved to be a full time job for all of us in the valley, some having abandoned hope weeks ago.
In our isolated bubble of smoke and orange, a level of disbelief suspension is required in order to allow for proper brain function.
The rain, colored either by the orange light or the smoke or both, washes down the roadside like a river of blood.
Errant talismans, like an evil-banishing moose-tooth, are handed over by enigmatic figures that emerge from the hazy woods.
Possessed squirrels bark and stare from outside our tents, threatening to unleash Satan’s wrath with exaggerated fangs and outstretched claws. I think we’ve all taken the moose-tooth with us at least once.
While trying to stop a pirate from cutting down our prison-yard hammock, he yelled out in defense, “I sleep in a tree. I sleep in a tree.”
The emergence of Russian gangs at the employee barracks of The Corporate Lodge down the road has lead to a wave of asylum seekers crossing the street to independence in hopes of finding new employment on our side, and a more rustic, moldy tent to sleep in.
Drunken managers regularly lose their temper in front of staff and customers with magnificently entertaining melt downs, at least one of which included the mantra “You fucking little asshole,” repeated a couple dozen times.
But they’re nothing compared to the pair of Hawaiians who regularly drink themselves into such oblivion, they can’t make it up the road back to the employee campground, and end up “sleeping it off” in a ditch by the road, pants soaked with pee. No matter, they’ll be the first to bring the beers and ukuleles to the night’s porch party.
It’s like we’re in hiding, trying to find safe passage away from the Fratellis, the evil mobsters from the movie The Goonies. Like the film’s protagonists, a rag-tag team of coming-of-agers, we’re trying to justify our own adventure while they treat us like the chained-up beast-child they keep locked up in the basement. Except that this version of The Goonies was directed by David Lynch, so concepts like the arrow of time and separation of dimensionality have little relevance here. This must have been achieved by replacing all the characters in the movie with characters from The Muppets. Is that a guy throwing boomerang fish over there? Of course it is.
I take a hike up Mount Sugarloaf, daddy to the foothill that nestles our campground, with only my sleeping bag, a caribou-antler pipe full of weed, and a thermos full of hot cocoa. The haze gets thinner as I climb. The noise of the down-below recedes. The snake trail of the Nenana River is visible, but the town itself, obscured. Finally, heaven. The sky is my ceiling. Tomorrow we leave for Valdez.
Through whatever graces, Bar Tender Fozzie managed to gather enough resources to hitchhike to Fairbanks and return with a rental car. The few of us who were clever enough to figure out how to get our two-days off per week to align into a four-day weekend were rewarded with a trip in the Bar Tender’s car to points heading south. Hopping into the sedan and speeding away to freedom was an adrenaline rush and pressure release that rocketed us out of the canyon towards Valdez screaming and panting with joy.
Within minutes, we were climbing and jungle-gyming all over the Alaskan Pipeline, and interrupting exclamations of “Oh wow, look on the right at that mountain range that goes on forever,” with shouts of “Holy shit, look on the left at the glacier that’s tearing that mountain if half!” with the occasional, “Stop, that’s a momma duck taking its baby chicks across the street in front of us.”
This is what we were promised. This is why we came. Spend a summer in Alaska, commune with nature. Yeah right. This is what we came for, yet we’ve spent the last two and a half months dealing with questions like, “How do you tell a woman who has just been beaten up by her boyfriend that she’s fired and has five minutes to get off the property?” In the mean time, all of this has been here. And now we never want to leave.
“Can you believe it? We’ve traded this in for being yelled at by Salsa. What the fuck were we thinking?” Paula, who worked the front desk, was in the back seat with me. She was having an existential moment.
“It’s like we got into a hot air balloon, and just floated away. At any point, we could have floated away, but we stayed. We just got into a basket today, and floated across the sky.
“How do you get that point in your life? How do you get to the point where you think to yourself that you can put a balloon on a basket, and say, come into my basket, and we’ll float across the sky? I want to know because it took us so long to figure it out, but it’s all been right here. And now we’re here.”
Wispy veil-like waterfalls lined the scenic road through Valdez, and we eventually found a campground encompassed by their towering cliffs and gentle mists. By night time, the mist had thickened up into a white cloud that surrounded us. A cleansing relief to our rusty yesterday, we sat back and watched the dynamic whiteness shift against the background of night.
“You can kind of make out shapes in fog. It’s strange, because it’s like your mind fills in what you can’t see. Like, I definitely see an octopus swimming by.” Young Paul Newman was also on our trip. By this point he was probably the only sober one among us.
“Oh no, this would be a perfect time for a creepy guy in clown suit to walk by.” Bar Tender Fozzie liked to man-it-up a bit with his offerings. “That’d be fuckin sick, dude.”
“Like that character in IT!” Young Paul flexed his dude power as counter-offer.
“Or those girls in The Shining!” Fozzie rebuffed.
So I stepped in with my antidote. “You know who lives in clouds? The Care Bears! Care Bears live in clouds!”
“Yeah, what if we see a Care Bear?” Paula, my fag hag, had my back.
“Yeah, what if we see a Care Bear?” Young Paul, straddling both sides.
Again without tents, millimeters away from the sky, Care Bears in our midst, we collapsed into our sleeping bags, and let the hissing waterfalls take us away.
The thought of returning to The Valley of Never haunted us as the days ticked away. Eventually we had no choice, the rental car had to be turned around and brought back to The Land of Rust-Air and Disaster. Though the thought of letting the car drive off a glacier or something like that crossed our minds millions of times as the miles conspired to bring us closer to base-camp, we knew the rest of the ‘Nesters were eagerly awaiting our return. The cohesion of the group depended on there being a group to begin with.
As we approached, the scene turned ugly. From a distance, we could see the valley socked in by thunder clouds towering up to heaven, lighting up the sky with flashes of electricity – an ominous warning for anyone daring to continue down this road, a road that can only lead to catastrophe.
Upon our arrival, the scene was even more grim.
Expecting a hero’s return, the Nester’s greeted us with the oppressive heaviness of irreversible frowns. They were relieved somewhat that we even bothered to return, but suggested we should have been more selfish with our choices.
“Navy Boy’s been shit canned.”
“Leprechaun’s been shit canned.”
“There’s been three different prep cooks here since you left.”
“Salsa is constantly threatening all of us.”
“We’ve been on the edge of mutiny.”
It was heart breaking to hear any of this. The thought that we had lost both Navy Boy and Leprechaun in one fell swoop made the possibility of walking out a little easier to contemplate.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I was quickly assured. “We’ll never get rid of Navy Boy or Leprechaun.” They were spoken of like they were fleas … which, actually wasn’t terribly far from the truth some times. “They’re hiding out in your tent!”
And I as I looked ahead to the XL tent I shared with Sam & Billy (or collectively, Salmon Billy), out popped Navy Boy and Leprechaun. “Here we are, RD!” And they ran up to jump on me, like excited dogs humping their master’s leg.
“So, what happened? How did Salsa nab you?”
She had been after them the entire summer, so it always felt like it was just a matter of time before she could find something to blast them for.
Leprechaun’s dismissal was a particularly revealing tale of Salsa’s considerable lack of class. “So all summer, it’s just been me & Earnest, right, the two of us, completely more than adequate to take care of all of their driving needs. Mid summer with the Japanese rush, right, Paul Newman is added. You guys go to Valdez, the rush ends, it’s back to me and Earnest for the weekend, and Salsa says Paul can switch to wait staff when he gets back. Fine, so I’m driving guests around, and I see posted on all the telephone polls around town, ‘Driver’s Wanted.’ And I look at the flier, and it’s got a picture of our van on it.
“It was kind of weird seeing it, because no one had said anything about hiring another driver, and I had seen the list of incoming reservations, and we knew our load was decreasing until we close. Okay, meantime,”
His little Irish body flailed wildly while he re-enacted the story, out of breath, his white face turned bright red. You had to step back to not get hit with the force of his words.
"…Salsa has one of the waitresses from the restaurant filling in for Paula at the Front Desk. So this waitress is sending me pick up orders that aren’t on my schedule, and I’m like, are you sure about this, I don’t have any knowledge of these pick ups being ordered, and on and on, and she’s all confused and doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing, but she says that the orders are coming directly from Salsa. So I go to pick up these people and no one’s there. I’m driving all around the god-damned valley chasing ghosts basically. Finally, I see New York Girl and Mittens on the side of the road near the Gas Station, so I let them in the van and bring them back to the lodge with me.
“Salsa’s there when we return, and she’s screaming at me for giving employees a ride, and accuses me of stealing the van to do it, and how I’ve been telling employees to call in fake pick up requests so I can take the van out.
“So I’m like, fuck this, and I go see Wife Crow, and I ask her about all the signs posted around town. She hands me a piece of paper with the times that I was gone with the van on these phantom orders, and tells me I have to sign it to acknowledge that I took the van without authorization at those times and that I would have to pay for the gas costs out of my pay check. I told her ‘fuck no,’ and as soon as I said that, Salsa stormed in and told me I had five minutes to get off the property.
“The funny thing was, right behind me, some asshole holding the ‘Drivers Wanted’ flier walked in. They fucking hired him on the spot, and you’ll see him driving around, but he lives down in the Corporate Barracks. So I don’t fucking care. Whatever. I’m not leaving.
“And good ol’ Navy Boy quit in solidarity, yeah?”
Both of them looked exhausted and on the road to “traumatized.” Like something in Salsa’s incessant yelling permanently destroyed a synapse or two.
“Yeah, I was like ‘fuck you guys, Leprechaun goes, I go!’ Naw, I just got fed up and decided to not wake up one morning. Salsa had been down on me all fucking week, same exact thing, made up bullshit, and I just said, forget it. They found some guy from Maine to replace me. But he’s cool, he hangs out, and already hates these guys. He’s actually able to keep this place from falling down, and there’s nowhere else to fucking go.”
So it’s come down to this. Hits below the belt. Hellfire and damnation.
Despite such desperate times above, down below love was blooming. Or at least, pent-up lust raging between desert-island-stranded twenty-somethings was exploding in every direction.
While Navy Boy took the abandoned wooden cot left by the Meth-addict prep-cook, Leprechaun curled up tightly on Salmon Billy’s dirty laundry piled up on the plywood flooring, and now, laying next to Sam in his sleeping bag was Ashley. It appears Ashley’s night of trauma, the one ending with a mad dash for shelter into our tent, sparked a special connection that still exists right here under our moldy big top.
As I later learned, every tent in our tent city had some form of “inside the sleeping bag” fun going on. I was greeted one morning by our head Ms Cook with a congratulatory declaration, “I’ve got to hand it to you gay boys. I mean, that’s a real job to handle all that butt sex. I tried some of that butt sex last night, and it hurt so much! I can’t imagine what you gay boys put up with. Wow!”
I gave her a sailor’s salute, and tried not to think about her having butt sex while I ate my cereal.
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]
[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?
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.
You eat a baby? You laugh like that.
What a fucking laugh. What a fucking laugh.”
“Did you hear about the diarrhea butter?”
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 of genetic 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. And you’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’ed into 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.