Monthly Archives: January 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.

Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.

Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.

So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?

So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?

When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.

A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).

But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.

Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?

Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.

I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.

But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.

But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!

All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.

So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.

I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.

My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Food, London, Personal, United Kingdom

White People Suck, 1866 Edition

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So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.

It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.

You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.

Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.

Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.

Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.

According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?

The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:

By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]

The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.

Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.

According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.

What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.

As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.

The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.

[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.

I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.

Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.

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Filed under America, Books, Serious

An Open Letter to the Girl I Pretended To Have a Crush On in Eighth Grade

Dear Tracy Dolan,

Every gay teenager has a different strategy for surviving adolescence. Some join the choir, some write or paint, some play sports, some try to make themselves invisible. And some, like me, make themselves as visible as possible.

You were the first girl I pretended to have a crush on so no one would know I was gay. I didn’t intend for it to happen, for it to be you, for it to be so easy. But it did, and it was.

I want to tell you how it happened. In another world we could have been friends. In this one, you’re the girl who told me, on the last day of school, to go fuck myself. And I’m the guy that deserved it.

She had red cheeks, a cheerleader’s skirt and a big triangle smile. Her arms and legs were spread out like she was making a letter in the air, though she wasn’t moving. She had three spindly fingers on each hand, no toes, no shoes and a weak, crooked neck.

‘What are you drawing?’ Trevor Schmidt said from behind me. I had my notebook open to the inside cover. I had given her a sun-blonde ponytail, and was drawing wavy yellow lines around it.

We were sitting in staggered rows, in those cagelike middle school desks. Trevor often made comments like this, what are you writing, what page are you on, etc., because this arrangement gave him a perfect diagonal view of my desk and because he was an asshole.

We were three years into middle school, two months into our eighth grade year, and 30 seconds until Mr. Farina started his lecture.

‘Huh? Nothing,’ I said. My forearm wasn’t big enough to cover up the entire sketch, so I moved it over her skirt.

Trevor leaned forward over his desk to get a better look. His hair, long and parted down the middle like the boys on ‘Home Improvement’, hung in his face. This was Seattle in 1995, so he was probably wearing a flannel shirt, maybe a No Fear T-shirt underneath, and saggy Kris Kross jeans.

But I had never really noticed what Trevor wore. Mostly what I noticed about him was that sometimes, when standing, he would lift his shirt a little and rub the tuft of hair just above his belt buckle. I found this utterly captivating, and for nearly two years told myself I was jealous of his flat, soccer-toned stomach. Between seventh and eighth grade, I realized that I was jealous of the hand rubbing it.

‘Is that Tracy Dolan?’ he said, craning. I remember a silver cross dangling from his neck, but I may have edited that into this memory, to give him some external totem of the bully he was inside. Two years earlier, he tripped me—actually fucking tripped me!—as I was running to class. I got a bloody nose and became a school-wide comedy event for the rest of the week. I never forgot that, and I’m certain he did instantly.

‘It’s just a doodle,’ I lied. I had spent hours on it, cross-legged, colored pencils in a pile next to me. Not that I was good at drawing, or even enjoyed it, but hunching over your notebook is a trick introverts have passed down through the generations for disappearing when you’re supposed to be socializing.

Mr. Farina held up his spread left hand and started counting the fingers down, his way of telling us he was about to start talking.

‘Why are you drawing Tracy Dolan on your notebook?’ Trevor said.

Who the hell, I thought as Mr. Farina started talking, is Tracy Dolan?

You were from Montana, that much I knew, and you had the blondest hair I had ever seen. You wore it the same every day, long bangs and a ponytail, and from the back it practically threw off sparks.

I don’t actually remember meeting you, sorry about that. As boys had slowly, then suddenly, rearranged themselves under the stage lights of my attention, girls had receded into the backdrop. You were just there one day, and it only occurred to me later that you hadn’t been before.

At the time I only knew your hair and your smile. Well, not the smile really, more its limits. You never smiled to be polite, or to be liked, or because you didn’t know what to say. You smiled when you meant it, and stopped immediately when you didn’t.

But the most amazing thing about you wasn’t your hair or your smile. It was your twin brother Mark, who was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

I noticed him for the first time in history, on the first day of class. The teacher had arranged the desks in a U, facing inward. ‘It’s a Socratic seminar’, she told us as she Sharpied her name on the overhead. I had taken a seat at the front.

At the back, in the bend of the U, was your brother, who I had never seen before. He was as blonde as you, but skinnier, more restless. He reminded me of the poplars we had in our backyard, which lost their leaves in November and rattled in the wind until March. Every time I looked at him he was moving: bouncing his leg, spinning his pencil, flicking his eyes between ceiling tiles. Later I would learn that this this was a symptom of being a born athlete, one of those people who instantly, effortlessly masters every sport they’ve ever tried.

He was sitting as far from the front of the class as possible. This meant that staring at him—which I wanted to do for the entire class period, followed by the rest of my life—meant I had to face away from the teacher.

‘The 20th century,’ Ms. Dalton was telling 29 faces and the back of my head, ‘has seen a growing recognition of freedom and liberty all over the … Yes?’

He had his hand up.

‘What’s your name?’ Ms. Dalton asked.

‘Mark,’ he said. It’s perfect! I thought meaninglessly. ‘What do you mean “liberty”?’

‘That’s an interesting question, Mark,’ Ms. Dalton said. She had written ‘Miss D’ on the overhead. We called her ‘Misty’ all semester, and were seldom corrected. ‘What does it mean to you?’

Mark looked confused. ‘No,’ he said, bouncing his pencil eraser on his desk like a drumroll. ‘Like, what does the actual word mean?’

‘Oh,’ Ms. Dalton said, visibly deflating as a philosophical question was rendered a logistical one. ‘It means freedom, basically.’

‘Thanks!’ Mark said.

‘Yeah, it’s a technical term meaning “fucking retard”,’ my friend Tom murmured next to me.

‘Shhh, he seems nice!’ I said, lost somewhere in that trembling sparkle of blond hair.

I could have taken the sketch off my notebook, but I didn’t. A week later in Mr. Farina’s class, I deliberately left it open to the cover page, and was slightly disappointed that Trevor, tired or possibly hung over under a baseball cap, failed to notice it.

I had known I was gay for at least a year. There were signs before middle school—I’m standing contraposto in every family photo from 1988 onwards—but I didn’t admit it to myself until I read Jean M. Auel’s ‘Plain of Passage’ in the summer between sixth and seventh grade.

I started reading Auel’s ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series when I was 11, and still not ready to admit the blatant fact of my homosexuality. Yes, I had been transfixed by the German men’s swim team in the 1992 Olympics. Yes, I had asked for a Barbie Dream House for Christmas for the last three years—and had locked myself in the bathroom a la Diana Ross upon not receiving it.

But these were just quirks, I told myself. Hadn’t I also purchased the (mostly female) Marvel Comics swimsuit edition? Hadn’t I traced the swimsuited bodies of Jean Grey and Psylocke with a pencil and put them on my wall? No gay kid would do that.

Jondalar first appears in the second book of the ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series. He is Early Man, loincloth and everything, and he takes the heroine, Ayla, as his mate.

‘Plains of Passage’ is book three. I had started it when I was 12. I remember lying on my stomach, reading a scene in which Jondalar cuts wood for the evening fire. His ropy arms lifting the axe, his hips putting power into his swing, the sweat dripping from his brow.

Why do I have a boner? I thought.

And then, in that actual instant, I knew I was gay. I don’t know why that did it, but it did. Whenever I recall it, I hear an actual ding! In the room, like the microwave telling me my Hot Pocket is ready. Ding! You’re gay!

… Now what?

In the week since Trevor noticed the sketch, I had discovered that you and I had two classes together.

‘Tracy Dolan?’ Tom said. ‘She’s the girl who always has her hand up in the back of Mr. Fisher’s class.’

‘Oh her?’ I said.

‘She’s from Montana. Her brother is that halfwit Mark kid in Misty’s class.’

Jondalar! I tried not to noticeably react.

‘Who? … Oh right, the twitchy dude.’ With hair like the sun, was how I wanted to finish the sentence, but I stopped.

‘They’re twins,’ Tom said.

Being openly gay at Nathan Eckstein Middle School in 1995 was not an option. The closest thing we ever had to a homosexual was Gaylord Crestbotham, and he wasn’t even gay, just unfortunately named. He tried to go by William, his middle name, when he came to Eckstein in sixth grade, but barely a month went by before someone saw his real name on a permission slip and started telling everyone.

They bullied him so severe he snapped one day in the lunch line. Someone cut in front of him with a shove and a ‘move, faggot’, and he took his tennis racquet out of his gym bag, wailed on the guy for a few minutes and got expelled.

I had seen this from my lunch table, eating by myself. A month later I asked Ms. Stone, the only teacher I had seen in the lunchroom that day, if she knew what had happened to him. ‘What, to Gaylord?’ she said.

‘William,’ I said. ‘Did he go to a private school or something?’

‘There’s no private school where it’s OK to assault someone for no reason,’ she said.

I was going to need a survival strategy.

‘So what’s the deal with you and Mark Dolan?’ Tom asked me as we played Super Mario World at my house.

It was two Fridays since the sketch incident and, like every Friday, Tom was staying over.

Also like every Friday, we had bought $20 worth of weed from my brother (representing a street value of about $3.50), smoked it out of an apple in my garage and settled 18 inches in front of the TV in my basement until sunrise.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

In the two months since the first day of school, Mark had gone from ‘new kid’ to ‘cool kid’ in record time, and my increasingly elaborate attempts to bump into him were thwarted by a growing throng of admirers.

‘You’re always talking to him after class,’ Tom said. ‘And you keep inviting him to stuff, and he never comes. Why are you so obsessed with him?’

Tom was my only friend. I had spent 6th grade bullied (long hair, sweatpants, headgear), 7th grade invisible (introvert, straight A’s, Steven King novels at lunch) and 8th grade, so far, with Tom.

I met him through our neighborhood soccer team over the summer, and when school started in the fall, I suddenly had a companion for period breaks, lunches and bus rides home. Tom was the difference between staring at my shoes when I walked to class and seeing where I was going.

‘Mark just moved here, I just thought he might want to make some friends,’ I said.

‘New friends? Dude, he’s at Sarah Tanaka’s party in Laurelhurst right now,’ Tom said.

We were taking turns on Super Mario World, and I looked at Tom as he played. He had bony hands and a kind of clench in his face, concentrating on the screen. After we saw ‘Desperado’, he had decided to grow his hair long like Antonio Banderas, but he was only about halfway there.

Nine years later, when I told Tom I was gay and had kept this from him for nearly a decade, he didn’t say anything, he just gave me a hug. He’s still the only straight guy who ever did that.

But then was not now. Then was 1995, and we were 14, and our school was a great big battleship ferrying 1,400 souls to maturity, a journey our principal would later tell us, in our miniature graduation gowns, was ‘the hardest three years of your life.’ Hugs, understanding, save that shit for after the storm. Right now, you need to keep from capsizing.

‘So what’s the deal, dude?’ Tom asked, looking at me now.

‘I’m really into his sister,’ I said.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Ms. Hughes, our math teacher, stood at the front of the class and read out our seating assignments. The class huddled by the door.

‘Table 3,’ she was saying. ‘Frank Robbins and Diane Gregg.’

A week after my conversation with Tom, a girl in biology class saw me looking out the window. ‘Are you looking for Tracy Dolan out there?’ she giggled. The rest of her table leaned in for backstory. Tom had told people, and people had told people.

It was working. I tried to look mortified.

A week after that, Trevor Schmidt slapped my shoulder from behind. ‘I fucking knew it!’

I pretended not to know what he was talking about, knowing that each ‘nuh uh!’ just kindled more accusations.

‘I’m with you, dude,’ Trevor said. ‘You don’t see her because she’s all quiet and shit. But get her out from under all that polarfleece, and she’s got a body like Sharon Stone.’

I had never been more proud of myself. I decided to notice you so no one would notice me, and now I was not only assumed straight, but assumed worthy of conversation. I just had to keep broadcasting straightness loud enough to drown out the gay humming underneath.

Despite having two classes together, I had still barely met you. Ms. Hughes’s class was divided into fifteen tables, each with two students. She had already changed the seating arrangement twice. We couldn’t tell if this was a deliberate strategy on her part—obedience through churn—or if she just couldn’t decide how she’d like us arranged. Each time, you and I had ended up at different ends of the class.

‘Table six,’ she was saying as we waited near the door, ‘Michael Hobbes and Tracy Dolan.’

The class, as one, made a kind of awwwww sound, like the studio audience on ‘Full House’.

Fuck. I looked down at the floor.

‘Quiet!’ Ms. Hughes said as we walked to our desk. Even she probably knew about my fake crush on you by then.

We sat down. Ms. Hughes was assigning the rest of the desks. My cheeks were as red as yours were in the sketches I had made of you. I kept my notebook closed and my hand on top of it.

‘You’re Mike, right?’ you said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I’m a monster.
‘You’re a TA for jazz band, right?’
‘…’
‘Were you at the concert at Roosevelt last week? It was amazing,’ you said.

I looked at you and you were holding out a pack of M&Ms. Was it possible no one had told you?

‘Want some?’
‘Sure, thanks’. I took one.
‘Are you from here?’
‘Yeah, born and raised.’
‘I’m from Montana, we don’t have M&Ms there.’
‘Really?’
‘No, idiot.’ You smiled, and I smiled back.

‘So,’ Mark Dolan said. ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’

It was spring outside, not that we could tell from Mark’s basement. He was holding a ping-pong paddle, swaying back and forth, looking at me, the room, the table, his shoes, the table again. Sometimes between points he balanced the paddle on this finger like a sword. Other times he rubbed his stomach and I could see a little of it. After long rallies, he lifted it to wipe his brow. We played ping-pong a lot.

Pretending to like girls—specific girls—specific girls I had classes with—had been more successful than I had expected. From who’s that guy? I had risen in rank to the guy who has a crush on Tracy Dolan and onward to the guy who has a crush on everyone. 

Talking about girls, it turns out, is a great way to make friends with guys. It’s an opening line, a time-killer, a narrative, a joke factory. Like all great conversation topics, it’s a way of talking about yourself while pretending not to. I started watching mafia movies on weekends for research.

‘Damn, Sara Kreshki looks good cleaned up’ I would tell Tom Monday morning.

‘Her and Teresa Singer are at the top of my list,’ Trevor Schmidt would say as Farina counted down. ‘The filling-out list.’

As the drawings on my notebook went from stick figure to realistic, from Dr. Seuss to Maxim, I found myself with less time alone between classes to draw them.

‘One more game,’ I told Mark.

The social epicenter of Nathan Eckstein Middle School was the foyer just inside the main entrance. During classes, silent, it was a blank crescent of tiles with curved stairways on each side, lit by Seattle’s meager daylight.

Before and after school, though, it was a ballroom, heaving with the din of students forming and unforming in clusters, backpacks in piles, snippets of music playing from unseen speakers.

Before the sketch, before you, I moved through the foyer mornings and afternoons like a virus without a host, following the wall, reaching for the exit. I arrived in an empty classroom, opened my textbook, wrote my name and the date at the top of a sheet of paper, put down my pencil and waited for class to begin. Why did we need 30 minutes between the buses arriving and classes starting?

Time goes by faster as a participant than a spectator, and since the sketch, since you, 30 minutes wasn’t enough. Now my walk to class zigzagged, clustered and unclustered, paused to test and tweak observations I had rehearsed.

Suddenly, one day Mark was there. I was telling Trevor and two other guys about ‘The Last Seduction’, which I had seen over the weekend and had decided would provide me with conversation material through at least Wednesday.

‘That sounds awesome,’ Mark said.

‘I was gonna see it again this weekend,’ I said. ‘We should go.’

I meant me and Mark, but Trevor thought I meant us. ‘Yeah we should,’ he said.

Over the next three months, my school persona began to colonize my evenings and weekends. The clusters that formed in the foyer now formed over coffee, strip-mall teriyaki, Saturday matinees, Sunday capture-the-flag.

‘I live pretty close,’ Mark said after school one day in March. ‘We should go to my house.’

All winter I had watched Mark, looking for any sign that he carried a secret like mine. I watched him listen, I watched him talk, I watched him watch me and watch others. So far my four-month investigation had turned up no evidence whatsoever.

But now he was inviting me over. Just me! You had joined jazz band, so you weren’t home, and your parents worked til at least six.

I made my face appear to deliberate. ‘What, today?’ I said.

‘Yeah, let’s go,’ Mark said.

Like Ayla gathering her stone tools into her oxskin tunic, I shoved my textbooks into my backpack, slammed my locker and set out with Mark down the hill from Eckstein, across 35th St. and up the hill to his house.

That was March, now it was May, and Mark and I did this two or three times a week, sometimes with Trevor, sometimes with other clustermates. Once I brought Tom, who went through the afternoon like a tourist participating in a bizarre indigenous ceremony.

Every afternoon, the routine was the same as the first time. We walked up the hill to Mark’s house and let ourselves in the back door. I turned on MTV and threw the remote on the couch, then stood across the kitchen island as Mark got food out of the cupboards.

My parents had allergies and read health magazines, so Mark’s house was the only place I was allowed to eat frozen pizza. Mark took them out of the box and put them onto little silver trays for the microwave. While they rotated, he took out the blender, a quart of ice cream, a gallon of milk and whichever bottle in his parents’ liquor cabinet was fullest.

Like Ayla and Jondalar, we took whatever we could forage. Some days it was strawberry ice cream and Kahlua, others cookie dough and scotch. They were all equally terrible, but to us, they tasted like adulthood, rebellion. We drank them out of martini glasses.

Then, feeling full and disinfected, we drifted downstairs to play ping-pong until Mark’s parents came home, when I left, breathing downwards.

On that day in May, we had found a zip-lock bag of Oreos and three-quarters of a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Mark aimed the cork at me and popped it, but the bottle must have been at least a week old, and the cork fell flaccidly to the floor.

‘Don’t worry, Mark, it happens to everyone,’ I said, a premature-ejaculation joke I had heard on a sitcom that neither Mark nor I understood. He smiled anyway, poured half the bottle of champagne and the Oreos into the blender. He scraped a huge chunk of mocha chip, your favorite, on top.

I had daydreamed that on one of these tipsy afternoons Mark would make the milkshake a little too strong, look at me over the ping-pong table, lean forward a little.

‘Mike?’ he would say.

‘Mark,’ I would reply, putting down my paddle, knowing where this was going.

‘Do you ever feel… different?’ His eyes would be moist now, pleading.

I wouldn’t say anything, just walk to the other side of the table and embrace him. He would tell me everything, the desires inside him he couldn’t control, how he had tied them up, chained them down, vaulted them in, how they were too strong, he couldn’t control them anymore. In my arms he would finally be still.

Today was the nineteenth or twentieth time this hadn’t happened, and I was beginning to lose hope. As far as I could tell, the only desires animating Mark were winning at ping-pong, shouting Chris Farley quotes at me from across the table and speculating about which girls liked him.

‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘Lara Farquhar is going to some high school kegger,’ Mark said. Lara rode my bus, and Mark had been bugging me to talk to her about him. I was, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so.

‘She has tits like the balloons over the Datsun dealership on Aurora,’ I said, timing the joke right as I hit the ball to his backhand. He laughed and hit the ball too hard, and it ricocheted off the ceiling.

‘That’s game, bitch,’ I said, glad for the opportunity to end this conversation before it began. I put the paddle down. ‘Your folks are gonna be home in like five minutes ago’—a joke I had stolen from MadTV—‘I’d better bounce.’

‘You gotta admit, she’s hot, man,’ he said as we walked up the concrete steps. He ducked to avoid the low ceiling. I didn’t have to.

‘You haven’t seen her on the bus, dude,’ I said. ‘When she sits at the back it takes two of the Vietnamese kids just to hold her tits down.’ Jesus Christ, this was me in action.

As we rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I could see that the TV had been switched to CNN. You were sitting on the couch, eating the rest of the Oreos, the bag on your lap.

It had been eight months since I came out as a crush-on-you haver. Mark must have known, but he never asked me about it and I never said anything. Sometimes I dreamed that his lack of interest was premeditated, deliberate. He wasn’t like me, sure, but maybe he knew my secret, could hear the hum of what I was underneath the megaphone of what I wanted to be. ‘He understands me,’ I told myself, ‘we’re connected.’

Either that or he just didn’t want to hear one of his buddies talk about nailing his sister.

From the living room, you looked over toward the noise. Your eyes didn’t meet mine, didn’t even see me. I was used to this.

‘Oh, hey Tracy!’ Your brother said from behind me.

‘Did you and this asshole eat all the mocha chip?’ you said.

We sat together from Thanksgiving until winter break. We shared homework and M&Ms, the two highest grades in the class right next to each other. We were both the kind of good at math that didn’t have to work very hard. Hughes told us the concept, we got it, we filled in the worksheets. Neither of us understood why the other students had so many questions, or why it took a whole period to explain imaginary numbers or negative square roots. We were done with our worksheets by the time everyone else started.

Sometimes you read your novel under the table as everyone else worked, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz, a different one each week. You wanted to be a doctor, and you were already ranking medical schools on their proximity to mountains so you could keep skiing on weekends. For undergrad you would go to an all-girls school, you had decided, probably Vassar.

‘How come?’ I asked.
‘I want to work,’ you said. ‘Not deal with boy-nonsense all day.’
‘Good thing there’s no such thing as girl-nonsense,’ I said.
You smiled. ‘Whatever, just because you think everyone should go to public school.’

One period later, in Mr. Farina’s class, I told Trevor, ‘You know what Tracy told me today dude?’
‘What?’ he said, not looking up.
‘She’s trying to go to an all-girls school.’
‘For high school?’ His head was up now, I could see his eyes under his baseball hat.
‘Yeah, high school,’ I lied. Clarification on the particulars would only be a distraction. ‘She said she liked the way the uniforms fit.’
‘She did not say that,’ Trevor said.
‘Yes she did, she just told me in Hughes’s class,’ I said.
‘She is a slut, guy,’ Trevor said.

And that was how it was. You and I killed time in Ms. Hughes’s class with books and music, hobbies and plans for the future. Then, between second and third period, I retroactively trolled our conversations for material I could refine and distort, bulletins for my new friends. I even told them we went to see ‘While You Were Sleeping’ together.

‘She asked me to go, I was powerless to resist.’ Telling lies was as easy as math worksheets, just learn the rule, find the blanks and fill them in.

And then it was over. The first day back from winter break, huddled by the door in Ms. Hughes’s class again, I wished you a happy new year.

‘OK,’ you said, cold as Yellowstone, and moved to the other side of the huddle.

She knows.

I was assigned to sit with Ben Neill, one of my morning and afternoon clustermates.

‘Not next to Tracy anymore, huh?’ he asked. ‘I bet that would hurt if you weren’t such a homo.’

‘You’re just saying that because your mom likes it from the back,’ I said reflexively. Someone told her, I thought, But who, and how much?

That was January. Before your brother invited me over, before I made up crushes on Nicole Grant and Gina Lasky, before a late-spring faux fixation on Laura Gilchrist was, mortifyingly, reciprocated and I had to fake mono to get out of it.

The day after we saw you in your living room, I asked your brother why you hated me so much.

‘She thinks you’re a pervert,’ Mark said, balancing the ping-pong paddle on his finger. ‘Everyone kind of thinks that.’

At the time, appallingly, I considered this a triumph. Perverts are not gaylords. I was safe.

‘What did I ever do to her though?’ I asked.

‘Apparently you said you wanted her to wrap her thighs around you like a python. Because she has big thighs from skiing, I guess? I don’t really get it.’

Had I said that? Shit, it sounded like me.

‘Who told her?’

‘Trevor,’ he said. ‘He thinks it’s hilarious how she won’t talk to you anymore.’

This should not have surprised me. Trevor had revealed himself to be as much of a bully as a friend than as an enemy. Two years ago he had tormented me to impress eighth graders, and now he tormented sixth graders to impress me.

Once, in the cafeteria, Trevor pulled down Alec Pentieff’s pants while he was carrying his lunch tray, and he had to shuffle 20 feet with his pants at his ankles before he could pull them up again. I made a show of laughing—Christ, did we high-five?—but I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the day.

Everywhere I looked, the consequences of my survival strategy were piling up. After I canceled our smoke-and-Super Mario Fridays three times in a row, Tom stopped assuming them, and now we walked past each other like strangers. Girls I had liked—actually liked, like, as people—stopped talking to me because I had publicly appreciated their breasts, their asses or, in one case, their ‘haunches’. Alec Pentioff, who rode my bus and whose parents knew mine from church, never looked at me again.

Every time, it came as a surprise. Don’t you know this isn’t really me? I wanted to shout. Just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean I’m the kind of person who does.

I wish I could tell you, ‘I learned my lesson, the very next day I came out of the closet, I never lied again.’ But I didn’t. I kept it up this façade all through high school.

When I finally came out, on the night of high school graduation, in the Denny’s on Lake City Way, my friends told me ‘I never would have guessed’ and I received it as a compliment. Only later did I realize that there’s no such thing as hiding who you are, there’s only becoming someone else.

I remember you because you were the fork in the road. I could have sat next to you, just sat, just listened and spoken, just kept our conversations in that little rectangle where they began. I could have thrown away that sketch.

But I didn’t. The last time I saw you was the final day of eighth grade, an afternoon so bright it steamed the rain on the pavement. We ran into each other between the cluster of portables and the school building. I was heading in, you were coming out.

‘Hey Tracy,’ I said. You nodded and kept walking.

‘Hey,’ I said again. ‘Tracy? Hey, Tracy!’

‘What, Mike?’ You stopped. ‘What is it?’

It was the first time I had seen you without an audience since December. Even then, I wanted to tell you that I was sorry, that it wasn’t me who said that about you but someone else, someone mean.

I wanted to tell you that you had beaten me on Ms. Hughes’s final by one point and I was proud of you. That your brother turned out to be a nice guy, maybe even a friend. That the University of Colorado has a great medical school. That every time I saw you hunched over your notebook during breaks, I wanted to come over to see what you were writing. That I had read two Tom Clancy books this year and they both sucked.

I could have said something decent, kind, something to make you remember who I was and forget what I’d become, could have asked you what you were doing this summer, if you were reading anything good lately.

But I didn’t. Instead, what I said was, ‘You look great in those shorts’.

Your brother and I were friends until junior year of high school, when we simultaneously decided to stop calling each other. I had discovered other boys, girls had discovered him, our nows replaced our thens.

Last month, he added me on Facebook. He sells high-end SUVs at a dealership in Kansas City. In nearly all of his pictures he’s somewhere sunny, and smiling. His girlfriend appears in at least three-quarters of them, one arm around him, smiling just as wide. And in some of them there’s you.

That’s how I found out that you went to Swarthmore, that you live in New York City, that you’re a veterinarian with a daughter and a husband and a Subaru Outback and a Netflix subscription. You’re grown up, lived in, but it’s definitely you. Your daughter has a ponytail, blonde as the sun.

On that afternoon on the last day of school, you turned away from me and walked across the concrete. You didn’t even look back, you just said, almost to yourself, ‘go fuck yourself’ as I stood there at the door.

I didn’t realize it then, and I wouldn’t for a long time, but I already had.

Hope you’re still smiling, and hope you still mean it,

Mike

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Filed under America, Essays, Gay, Personal

‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Filed under America, Books, Journalism

The Only Thing You Need to Read About Guns in America

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is Erik Larson’s ‘The Story of a Gun‘, from 1993.

He traces one small-scale school shooting (ew what a yucky phrase) back to the shooter, retailer, manufacturer and, ultimately,  culture that created it.

What’s most fascinating about the article is how it tracks the constituents we don’t often hear about. The company that manufactured the gun. The store that sold it.  The background check that asks would-be gun buyers ‘are you mentally ill?’ with a tick-box. The understaffed and overstretched regulators.

I’m sure—I hope!—a lot of  the specifics are out of date (Does the ATF have more than 400 inspectors by now?), but it’s a chilling demonstration of how gun manufacturers and sellers have gotten off the hook for America’s violence problem.

To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network.

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem.

Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.

If you were trying to reduce car-accident fatalities to zero, you’d definitely make driver’s license requirements stronger, obligate people to take more driving lessons, prove their eyesight, etc. But you’d also make sure every single car had airbags, you’d require manufacturers to prevent ignition unless seat belts were fastened, you’d make dealerships confirm that every car buyer knows how to drive. You’d also change the way you build roads, and how you patrol them.

I know gun manufacturers and retailers aren’t free from restrictions, aren’t entirely ignored in the debate over gun control. But reducing gun crime doesn’t mean you take the guns away from everybody who owns one. It means you prevent guns from being made, and from being sold, in the first place.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities

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Here’s another excerpt from Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘:

Next day I walked in the old port of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed—a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.

And here a generality concerning the growth of American cities, seemingly true of all of them I know. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide laws and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy.

The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

How did he do all this on a typewriter?!

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Filed under America, Books

Six Days in Mauritius

Day 1

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I arrive in Mauritius at noon, still drowsy from the 12-hour flight and the two diazepams I took to help me sleep through it.

Just outside the arrivals, about a dozen Taxi drivers are gathered holding placards with European-sounding names on them. Mr. Schmidt,  Dr. van Veen, Mrs. Cielé. Behind them are about three dozen more, no placards, just shouting ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ I walk through the scrum, looking determined so they won’t come after me, then realize I do need a taxi and turn around.

I have a feeling, based on no evidence, that the older the taxi driver, the less likely he is to scam me. I find one who looks in his 50s and tell him ‘yes, taxi’. He tells me its 40 euros, I say 30, and so on until we agree on 36.

Now that that’s done, he can be my friend. As he drives, he asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here. That takes about 15 minutes, then we’re both silent for the rest of the 2-hour drive.

I look out the window at the sugarcane fields going by. The mountains on the horizon look like a seismograph.

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Mauritius is a tiny dot of an island in the Indian Ocean, 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar. It was discovered uninhabited in the early 1500s, then settled by the Dutch in 1638. They discovered huge crops of ebony on the island, and started importing African slaves to harvest them.

They could never make the island economically viable, and abandoned it in 1710. The French, like a new manager taking over an existing business, took their turn in 1715. They switched from ebony to sugarcane, imported more slaves, and made the economy profitable.

Eventually the British came, defeated the French (think of it as a hostile takeover) and imported their own labourers, mostly from India. Mauritius declared independence in 1968, and now Africans, Indians and whites live in (relative) harmony.

Most people on Mauritius still speak Creole. Creole traditionally had no written language, so it’s basically a phonetic version of French. my taxi driver tells me, by way of example, that in Creole ‘moi’ is spelled ‘mwa’. I love this.

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We arrive in Grand Bay, where I’m staying. It’s at the northwest shoulder of Mauritius, a beach-rimmed inlet the size of a few football fields. The water is full of boats and swimmers, the land around it full of tourists and the shops, restaurants and guides catering to them.

My hotel is three stories of peach stucco, right on the beach. It’s cheap and simple, and has wifi and airconditioning, the only two things I actually care about on vacation. I drop off my luggage and walk up and down the beach until it gets dark, then eat octopus curry at a beachside café, fork in my left hand, scrolling through an Instapaper article with my right.

After dinner, it’s been dark for two hours but it’s still 30 degrees C.  I go back to my room and sit on my balcony, reading and Instapapering until 10.00, when I can’t stay awake anymore.

Day 2

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I wake up to my alarm at 6.30am, take a shower and go down to breakfast. My waiter is a male-to-female transsexual who wears lots of makeup and wants to know where I’m from and what I think of Mauritius so far.

‘It’s beautiful,’ I say. I always say this to locals, no matter what country I’m in, and I usually mean it. She brings me an omelette, bacon and beans, and is utterly baffled when I tell her I don’t want bread.

‘I’m allergic,’ I say.

‘You don’t like bread?’ she says. English is the official language of Mauritius, it’s on all the signs, but it’s not widely spoken.

‘Allergic. I cannot eat.’

‘OK,’ she says. She takes the bread away but leaves me the plate of butter and jam. I put some on my omelette.

First things first: Bicycle. The tour company next to my hotel rents them, serious-looking Treks with Shimano derailers and front shocks. I say I want one for the whole six days I’m here, and the guy behind the counter, who can’t be any more than 16, brings a bike around from the back.

‘Last one,’ he says.
‘Anything else?’ I say.
‘We give you lock.’

He makes a phone call, and two minutes later another teenager arrives on a scooter. He takes the money the first teenager gives him and drives away.

‘Five minutes,’ he says.

Thirty minutes later, the guy on the scooter returns with a lock. He’s just bought it from the hypermarket up the street, it still has the packaging on it. He gives it to me and I take the cardboard off.

‘You good to go,’ he says.

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The pedals rattle and only three of the gears work, but the brakes are fine. It makes creaking noises as I set off through Grand Bay. Pedestrians hear me coming and step aside.

The capital of Mauritius is Port Louis, about 25 km south. I decide to bike there the long way, along the coast, and it takes me all morning. I end up stopping every few hundred meters to take pictures. They all look the same: Emerald water, sharp rocks, a cloud of coral under the water about 50 meters out.

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I pass through a few small towns on the way They consist primarily of fruit stands, pharmacies and warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts. I notice that most of the people I bike past are wearing these polos.

I arrive in Port Louis around 1 pm. It’s a small city, just 135,000 people, but it has the traffic and bustle of a city ten times that size. The streets are narrow with street vendors selling clothes, shoes, household items like shampoo and hardware. None of the prices are marked, and I can see customers, their hands full, haggling with the shopkeepers in creole.

I turn around and park my bike on the fringes of the crowd, and walk through the markets. It’s heaving with buyers and sellers, a cacophony of offers and refusals, and it takes me an hour to walk a kilometer.

The freeway goes through the middle of Port Louis, and to get to the waterfront I have to walk through a tunnel underneath it. I leave the din of the market, go underground, and emerge into the tourist area. Seafood restaurants, a multiplex, a few Starbuckses and, I guess inevitably, warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts.

I walk around for a few minutes, sort of missing the crowds back at the market. I sit at an outdoor café and eat an octopus salad and read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ which describes a Norway, a winter, that are the opposite of where I’m sitting.

I feel like I should do more in Port Louis, see a museum or something, but it’s beautiful and warm outside, and I don’t want to miss it. I walk back to my bike, buying some cute polo shirts on the way, and point myself northwards. I bike for a bit and realize that this isn’t the road I took into Port Louis. I can tell from the sun that I’m going north(ish), though, so I figure I’ll end up where I need to be eventually.

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I’m on a two-lane road, barely wide enough for cars to pass each other, and it’s choked with traffic. Passenger cars, delivery trucks, buses, I’m obviously on the main spine of the island. I weave in and out of traffic—now on the shoulder, now in the oncoming lane, now dinging pedestrians out of my way—and feel bad for enjoying it so much.

After about an hour, I’m ready to find out where I am. I stop to ask a shopkeeper, dripping sweat on his countertop.

‘I’m trying to get to Grand Bay,’ I say.

‘That easy,’ he says. He’s wearing a polo shirt identical to the one I just bought. ‘Just take the freeway, you go straight there.’

‘The freeway?’ I say. ‘Is that safe?’

‘Safe all safe. You get fast. Direct.’

He shows me on the map and, sure enough, the freeway is the directest route back. I’ve got about two hours of sunlight left. Fuck it.

The freeway turns out to be less harrowing than I expected. It’s two lanes wide in each direction, with a generous shoulder. The cars are traveling 110 km per hour, or at least that’s the speed limit. My bike, which I’ve named Rickets, tops out at a groaning 20 km per hour. Even with the wide shoulder I can feel a punch of air every time a car passes. They don’t honk, don’t pass uncomfortably close and I never feel unsafe.

About five minutes after I get on the freeway, it starts raining. First a caress, then an assault. I look out to the sky and its thick, dark clouds all the way to the horizon. This isn’t going to let up. Meanwhile, the sun is starting to go down.

There’s no cover on the roadway, and after 10 minutes I’m as soaked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool. The water is grey on my arms where it mixes with my sunscreen, and I have a sour, hollow taste as it washes down my face and into my mouth.

Once you’re that wet, you can’t get any wetter, and a kind of calm comes over me. Ah well, it’s just water. My camera is wrapped in waterproof case, in a waterproof backpack. It, and I, will survive.

When I get back to my hotel an hour later, my shoes slosh as I walk up the stairs. I shower (To get the water off? I don’t really know why.), then sit on my balcony wearing nothing but a towel for the rest of the night, working on a freelance editing assignment and listening to the rain drop through the palm trees.

Day 3

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It’s Christmas day, and I wake up early to Skype with my parents and brother. My parents live in New Zealand and my brother and his wife are visiting for the first time. My dad paints watercolors, my mom writes books and my brother makes techno albums. We talk for an hour about inspiration, how we hate slash love social media, how to improve the quality of our work. I tell them I’m reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ and am considering writing a similarly uneventful travelogue, just to see I can make it interesting.

‘That sounds like a terrible idea,’ my brother says.

I’m outside at the breakfast café at my hotel, shouting over the trucks rattling past. When the call’s done it’s only 9 am, but it’s already sweltering.

I check a few gyms, but it seems none of them are open. I’m on my third try when I realize that it’s Christmas, of course they’re closed. I get an espresso at a café and ask the waiter if he knows somewhere I can go for a long swim. He suggests Cannonniere, a thin finger of land pointing northwest from the island, about 20 minutes’ bike ride away.

Yesterday I read online that all the beaches in Mauritius are, by law, open to the public. Cannnoniere has a public park with a beach, right next to a five-star hotel. I park my bike next to the road and walk along the beach onto the hotel grounds. A security guard stops me and I tell him, ‘I’m not staying here, but I’d like to use the beach. Is that alright?’ and he says ‘Of course sir.’

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I drop my backpack and change into my swimming suit under a towel wrapped around my waist. I ask the security guard how far out I can swim.

‘You see bobby?’ he says. I guess he means the buoy, bright red, about 500 meters offshore.
‘Sure,’ I say.
‘That is limit.’
‘So I should swim out to the buoy…’
‘Not swim to buoy,’ he says. ‘Bouy is limit. ‘Farther, is currents. Boats with vroom.’ He makes an engine noise.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I put on my goggles and wade into the water.

For the first 200 meters, it’s only 18 inches deep. I swim breast stroke, and occasionally push myself along the bottom, using my arms like a Venetian gondola. Then, suddenly, it’s three meters deep. I switch to crawl stroke. I can see some coral along the bottom. It looks worn out, droopy, like it’s been left in the microwave too long.

Finally I make it to the buoy. It’s bigger than it seemed from the shore. And, indeed, the swells are getting bigger out here. I touch the buoy, just to make it official, and swim back to shore, crawl stroke until my fingers touch the bottom.

Now I’m all energized from the swim, so I do handstands in the grass for five or ten minutes, getting used to the slope. There’s a cute tourist on a beachbed nearby. I think about saying hi, but we’re both only wearing speedos, and I’m afraid it will be irredeemably awkward.

I thank the security guard, get my backpack and bike back to my hotel in my speedo. I write the rest of my family Merry Christmas e-mails, eat grocery-story yogurt for dinner and I’m in bed by 11 pm.

Day 4

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The next morning, after breakfast I meet my nextdoor neighbour on the balcony. I never get his name. He’s German, in his late 30s, here on holiday for three weeks to escape the German winter, just like me. He has plans every single day: Scuba diving, rum distillery tour, catamaran trip. He can’t decide if skydiving is really worth 200 euros. I tell him I don’t know anyone who has gone and regretted it.

We chat for awhile, then I go back to my laptop. He sits on his balcony, hands folded in his lap. No book, no newspaper, not even a cup of coffee to occupy his hands. I marvel at this, stimulus-free sitting. After an hour, he gets up, says goodbye and heads out for his catamaran tour.

Yesterday I biked around the island counterclockwise. Today, it’s clockwise. I put on as much sunscreen as my skin can soak up and set off.

After an hour, I’m in Grand Gaube, on the northeast corner of Mauritius. I order eggplant and fish curry to go from a roadside restaurant, and bike, the meal dangling in a plastic bag from my handlebars, to the beach. I sit crosslegged on the grass, stabbing the food out of Styrofoam containers.

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A man walks up to me and says something in Creole. He looks like he’s asking for money. I tell him I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. He sits on a bench near me and every once in awhile says something in Creole, whether to me or just out loud, I don’t know. I ignore him, finish eating and say ‘au revoir’ as I leave. I wonder how they spell that in Creole.

I keep biking along the coast, going south now. It’s the hottest part of the day, and sweat drips off my nose. The route is repetitive after awhile: Park, shops, beach, park, shops.

The only thing that changes is the ethnic makeup of the towns I pass through. Some appear to be mainly Indian, the signs in English and Hindi. Others seem to be primarily populated by Africans, signs in French and shops advertising ‘poulet frais’. I’ve been told there’s a significant Chinese minority on the island. I never see any majority-Chinese towns, but every town I pass through has exactly one Chinese restaurant, right on the main street.

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After about 30 kilometers along the coast, I turn inland to complete my loop. I rise through endless fields of sugarcane, then descend toward Grand Bay. There are fewer towns now, but every half an hour or so I pass by a complex of newly built apartments. They have names like Sweet Paradise, and each one gets its own exit from the highway.

I arrive in Grand Bay just as it’s getting dark. I order a plate of shrimp up to my room and eat it on the balcony. The German guy tells me about his catamaran tour, still lubricated from his stop at the run distillery.

Day 5

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I finally find a gym nearby. It’s at a five-star hotel called Hotel Mauricia, right on the beach. They charge me 15 euros just to use the gym, so I decide to stay there all day to get the most for my money.

Most of the guests appear to be European families. Mom and Dad look tanned and patrician, and their sons and daughters look like they came straight from lacrosse camp. The French-speaking ones have the best hair, the Dutch speakers the nicest bodies.

I stay there swimming and reading almost until dark. My ear is still plugged with water from swimming on Christmas. I bash it with the heel of my hand to get the water out every few minutes, but it stays plugged. Shaking my head like a dog doesn’t work either.

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When I get back to my hotel, inexplicably exhausted after a day of barely existing, I meet my other neighbour. He’s in his 80s, from South Africa, and has been coming to Mauritius every year since 1984. I ask him why he travels from one warm country to another one every summer.

‘Well, as you know, South Africa has problems,’ he says. I brace myself. ‘We had a white government before—Apartheid—and it wasn’t perfect, but things worked pretty well. Now we’ve got a black one. They’re still learning the ropes, you see.’

I want to just get up without saying anything, just go inside and close my door, a kind of personal boycott of the statement he’s just made. But it’s warm, with a nice breeze out here, and I’m planning on having some more Skype calls. I don’t want to go inside for the rest of the night.

Instead, I resolve to simply ignore him. I go back to my laptop and resume typing and scrolling like he isn’t there.

He keeps talking. Maybe my symbolic gesture was too subtle. In the next 10 minutes he tells me how much he loves Mauritius, how all the races living together should be an inspiration to the world. He says racism among white Mauritians is a real problem, then adds that it’s the Muslim population’s fault for being incapable of living non-violently.

He keeps talking like this, defaming a demographic group, then lamenting the racism against them. It’s like he’s trying to set some sort of discrimination speed record. I’m completely ignoring him now, typing an e-mail to my aunt and uncle and hoping for him to stop talking. It takes him seven more minutes—I’m watching the clock in the corner of my screen, aghast—before he says ‘well, it looks like you’re busy. Good night.’ I don’t say anything in return.

Day 6

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Today’s my last day here, I’m flying out at 10pm. Yesterday the woman at the front desk, in French-accented English so lovely I want her to read books to me before I fall asleep every night, said I could stay in the room as long as I want today, since no one has booked it after me.

My ear is still plugged. I google around during breakfast, and it seems I have swimmer’s ear, meaning there’s a bit of water trapped behind my eardrum that’s attracted bacteria and now my ear canal is slightly inflamed. I remember getting this when I was a kid. Your ear is plugged, like it’s about to pop, then clears with a satisfying whoosh a few days later.

I don’t want to do anything ambitious today because I have to leave for the airport at 7pm, and I’m paranoid that a flat tire or a bus breakdown in some faroff city will cost me my flight home. I go for a jog, read by the pool at the fancy hotel, then bike to the brand-new mall on the outskirts of town and wander around the shops, enjoying the airconditioning. All day I’m popping and unpopping my ears, waiting for the whoosh.

I go back to my hotel around 4.30 to shower and pack. I’m hoping the pressure change on the flight will clear out my ear a bit. I Google “swimmer’s ear airplane”. The first link is a message board full of people describing the pressure change as absolute torture: ‘It was the worst travel experience of my life’ … ‘I wanted to literally shoot myself on decent’ … ‘I had permanent ear damage to my right ear’ …

I’m slightly nervous now. But it’s just random people on a message board. The second link is from eHow, and says ‘refrain from flying on an airplane until you have cleared up the infection, because flying makes swimmer’s ear pain much worse’.

That’s a little more credible. I check WebMD and find the same thing: Flying with swimmer’s ear can cause the water in the ear canal to swell, pushing against the eardrum and potentially bursting it.

Shit.

I have less than three hours before I have to leave for my flight. I dash down to the reception and ask the lovely desk-lady if she knows the number of a doctor who will be working on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s. She gets a health clinic on the phone.

‘I have an ear infection,’ I tell the French-accented voice on the other end of the line. ‘Can I fly?’
‘We would have to examine you before we could say,’ the voice says.
‘Where are you?’ I ask. I don’t know why, but I add ‘I have a bike!’

The voice gives me the address and I bike there like I’m being chased by a bear. I arrive covered in sweat, my heart racing from the bike ride and the anxiety—What if I have to cancel my flight and wait a few days? How much will it cost? Will I have to wait to start work again?

The clinic receptionist hands me a form to fill out. As soon as I hand it back, the doctor comes and gets me. She’s my age and polite, but doesn’t share my sense of urgency. She walks me, slowly, down the hall to her office.

I tell her my problem and she puts on a rubber glove, tightening it so every finger fits. She pulls out a little hammer-looking instrument, fits it with a backwards-victrola tip and looks inside my ear.

‘It’s wax,’ she says, snapping the glove off. ‘You can fly.’

She stands up and leaves the room without another word. I get my bag, still sweating, and walk back down the empty hallway to the front desk. They have my paperwork out and an invoice ready. It’s 30 euros for the five-second consultation, but I’m so happy I don’t care.

It’s raining when I get back on my bike, but I feel waterproof. I arrive back to the hotel soaked. I shower and finish packing. When I come down the stairs, the taxi is already waiting.

‘Where are you going sir?’ the driver asks.
‘The airport,’ I say. ‘And then home.’

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John Steinbeck, Ted Kaczynski and the Appeal of Nostalgia

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I disagree with basically everything in this essay, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’ve recently been reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. [...]

Here are the four premises with which he begins the book:

1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society

Kaczynski’s prose is sparse, and his arguments logical and unsentimental, as you might expect from a former mathematics professor with a degree from Harvard. I have a tendency toward sentimentality around these issues, so I appreciate his discipline. I’m about a third of the way through the book at the moment, and the way that the four arguments are being filled out is worryingly convincing.

Kingsnorth’s (and Kaczynski’s) argument is basically that the human species is destroying the planet, and that we as individuals may be powerless to stop it, but we’re obligated not to participate in it.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. [...]

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since.

I have such a kneejerk rejection of these kinds of arguments it’s practically an allergy. I happened to read Kingsnorth’s essay the same week I was read John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘, his road-trip diary from 1962, and this passage suddenly got relevant.

It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands.[...]

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, that that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance.

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.

The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

I see Steinbeck as an example that even in the ‘Golden Era’ our current technophobes harken back to, critics at the time were harkening back even further. I want to snark that 10,000 years ago there was probably a middle-aged nomad complaining that things were better 10,030 years ago.

But Kingsnorth and his essay are smarter than that.

A scythe is an old tool, but it has changed through its millennia of existence, changed and adapted as surely as have the humans who wield it and the grasses it is designed to mow. Like a microchip or a combustion engine, it is a technology that has allowed us to manipulate and control our environment, and to accelerate the rate of that manipulation and control. A scythe, too, is a progress trap. But it is limited enough in its speed and application to allow that control to be exercised in a way that is understandable by, and accountable to, individual human beings. It is a compromise we can control, as much as we can ever control anything; a stage on the journey we can still understand.

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Kingsnorth uses these observations as an excuse to withdraw, live off the soil, mow the grass with a scythe, unplug. For him, that’s living at a human scale.

But for other people, maybe living at human scale is spending more time plugged in. Maybe it’s making music and sharing it with your friends, maybe it’s using social media to organize events to meet your neighbors, maybe it’s (ahem) writing essays in magazines about the stuff you read and the stuff you think.

I’m not calling Kingsnorth a hypocrite. If he wants to go off-grid, escape the progress trap, if that makes him happy, he should. But I don’t think his premises, or even his doomsday ‘the planet is dying!’ prediction means we all should. This is the world we’ve got. Whether we got here through progress or a ‘progress trap’, here we are.

Steinbeck’s diary describes getting lost over and over again, and how most locals are terrible at giving directions. After awhile, he says, he doesn’t even ask how he should get where he’s going, he just asks them to tell him where he is.

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My Year in Money

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

1.

This year, I took my first fundraising job. Asking for money is like dating: You hope you never do it enough to get good at it. Then suddenly you’re walking into a room full of strangers and telling them why you are more entitled to their money than they are, and you realize that that you have done this umpteen times, this is literally your umpteenth time, and you don’t even sweat a little bit the first time you say a number out loud.

This year I learned that chasing money in this way is both more and less unseemly than you’d think. More unseemly because you and your coworkers sit around and speculate on which people, governments and corporations are swimming in Scrooge McDuck coin-vaults, and you call them greedy when they don’t invite you to join them in the deep end.

Less unseemly because you hella do need their money more than they do, dammit, your organization is genuinely trying, and occasionally achieving, a slight uptick in non-shittiness for people who deserve to learn how to read and drink unfilthy water and not get diseases, or at least they deserve it more than the strangers in the room deserve another trip to the Maldives.

Sometimes I remember that, and sometimes I forget it, and I don’t know which one makes me worse at my job.

 

2.

My contract on this fundraising adventure expires in May, and I’ve been doing some preliminary LinkedInery to scope my options before I decide whether to renew. I’m genuinely surprised at how large a role money is playing in my decision-making so far.

I don’t have a husband or kids, I don’t eat fancy cheese or drink alcohol (OK I do eat fancy cheese), I don’t drive a car, I don’t need lots of living space. I like to think of myself as the kind of person for whom money isn’t a major concern. I work at an NGO, I wanna save the world and shit, I should be looking at these job ads for impact, responsibility, command over armies of interns, instead I’m skimming straight to the end for the numerics.

Maybe this means I’m anxious about my financial future. Maybe this means I’m becoming old and greedy. Maybe it means my passion has become a job. Maybe it means all three. The only thing I’m sure of is that somewhere in my late 20s, changing the world became a priority in competition with an ongoing supply of cheese, and I fear it won’t win forever.

 

3.

The best money decision I made this year was hiring someone to clean my apartment. I know this sounds imperial and one-percentish, but I genuinely loathe cleaning, and every time I have to, I do it sloppily as a kind of self-directed spite: “See, I told you it was pointless.”

The going rate for a cleaner in Berlin is about €10 ($13) an hour, but I pay €15 ($19) out of sheer oligarchical guilt. Two months ago, I calculated that, after taxes, I only make €13.60 ($17.50) an hour myself. This helps.

My cleaner is from Lithuania and, like everyone in Berlin, is biding time working until she happens in her real profession, which is sculpture. This fall, my apartment fell into a campsite state of disrepair because she was exhibiting in Milan for eight weeks.

Which brings me to the best money advice I got this year, from my friend Brandon, who works at a bank and votes for Ron Paul and has a sneering tattoo of Ayn Rand across his torso (OK only the first one is true, but still): He told me, “You pay $40 a month to never stress out about cleaning your apartment. She gets a living wage, you get a clean apartment. This is how the economy works. So shut the fuck up already.”

 

4.

Every single year, I lobby my family to stop giving each other Christmas presents, and every single year I am denied. This year, instead of spending 15 minutes picking out perfunctory DVDs on Amazon, I got everyone $100 gift certificates to their respective cities’ best restaurants, or at least the ones topping the “Best of 2012″ lists in their local newspapers.

I did this in the hope that these gifts would be so thoughtful and delightful that next year I can do the equivalent of a mic-drop and announce that they will be the last.

Not only did I get all the restaurants wrong (“It costs at least $200 to eat there. You just gave me the gift of spending $100″), but some of my relatives couldn’t figure out the gift certificate websites, and won’t bother redeeming them. My brother, in condolence, wrote, “Looking forward to next year’s DVD, sucker.”

 

5.

I’ve spent basically my whole adulthood moving from small apartment to small apartment, and I’ve gotten good at not filling them up with tangibles. I give away all my books, I’m immune to home appliances, I wear clothes til they’re fishnets.

This doesn’t mean I’m good with money, just that I end up spending it on frivolous experiences rather than frivolous things. And this year I discovered the frivolousest money-hole imaginable: Brunch.

I stole the idea from a friend who, like me, had just moved to Berlin and didn’t know very many people.

“Write to all your Facebook friends in Berlin,” he said. “Invite them all to your house for brunch, and tell them to invite two or three people they know.”

“It gives the impression of intimacy because they’ve seen you in your living space,” he said, sounding like one of those top-hatted dating gurus from The Game. “And these people are sure to reciprocate the invitation, since they feel they owe you for all the free food.”

Three weeks later, I spent $150 on ingredients (OK mostly cheese), spent a day cooking, and ended up feeding 10 friends and 20 strangers in my living room. We started at noon, and the last didn’t leave ’til 8 p.m.

It may have been a calculated idea and a lot of prep work, but in execution, it was a relaxed and enjoyable way to spend a Sunday, and I met a lot of people I still know now. It was also a way for me, a career introvert, to meet a lot of new people in a slow, comfortable trickle rather than a networking-event deluge.

It might not have been my most prudent financial decision this year, but it’s the investment I’m the happiest I made. Now if only I could stop feeling bad about paying someone to help me clean up after it.

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