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Homies: What Happened to Everyone I Went to Middle School With?

‘It’s your fault,’ Tim says.
‘Ha! … What?’ I say.
‘The weed. You made me smoke weed, that’s how it all started.’
I’m smiling too hard. ‘OK, but if that’s the logic, then it’s really my brother’s fault, because he got me smoking weed.’
‘That’ll work,’ Tim says.

I’m in Bangkok on an extended stopover on the way from Denmark to Sydney. I booked the tickets six months ago and just found out Tim lives here last week. I’ve been sleeping on his couch for three days.

Tim Park and I were friends for the last year of middle school and the first two years of high school. Most of the time we spent together was in groups, competing for the title of The Funny One.

I haven’t seen Tim for nearly five years, and not regularly for ten. I remember him as low-maintenance, outgoing, engaged, and I’m pleased to discover he still is.

He even talks like he used to. Though he’s ethnically Korean and culturally American, he’s linguistically Ebonic, and he speaks with the gold-mouthed drawl of a rapper.

Tim on Bangkok: ‘It’s hella garbagey and shit, guy.’
Tim on work: ‘Shit, my boss be workin’ us like chattel.’
Tim on Las Vegas: ‘You knew them shits was legit when the Italians gave it to Celine Dion and a bunch of magicians.’

With anyone else, it would seem like shtick, but with Tim you get the feeling that his inner monologue sounds like this too.

Tim left Seattle after college. Being fluent in Korean and English made it easy to find a job in Seoul. After two years he got headhunted by a European consumer-products company and installed in their Asian headquarters in Bangkok. He lives in a right-angled, wood-trimmed condo in a tower block, and sells high-end auto parts to retailers all over Asia. He had to get extra pages for his passport because of all the business travel.

In the years since we stopped hanging out, I haven’t actually thought about Tim that much. Though we spent a significant amount of time together in eighth and ninth grade, we didn’t go to the same high school, and we’ve ended up in non-intersecting social orbits. He moved to Asia, I moved to Europe. He spent college partying in fraternity houses, I spent it gradually coming out of the closet. He talks about his high school experience like it’s D-Day. I talk about mine like it’s Stalingrad.

Tim helped me stay awake through my jetlag after I landed in Bangkok. Even without an audience, we joust rather than converse, and over banana pratas we debated Thailand vs. Denmark, noodles vs. pastries, Asian girls vs. European boys. By the time we finish our tea, most of my sentences end with ‘bro’ and my adjectives have been replaced with swear words. Talking like this, describing my life in teenager voice, makes it feel like I’m talking about the future.

For the next two days, I wandered around Bangkok during the day and met Tim when he got off work. Tonight we drank beer at a cocktail bar on top of a hotel tower.

‘Let’s get some cigars,’ Tim said.
‘Aren’t we leaving?’
‘To go, son,’ he said.

Tim’s condo has a sort of courtyard with a kiddie-pool and a half-submerged jungle gym. We’re sitting on the side, dangling our feet. It’s still 85 degrees, though it’s been dark for hours. Tim lights the cigars. I figure this is as good a time as any.

‘Hey Tim: What happened to Adrian?’

Adrian Maeda was a squat, round-faced classmate of Tim’s. Every time I try to picture him, I think of the kid from ‘Up’. He used to walk with his legs far apart, and the last time I saw him I stood there with my hand out as he sort of swayed toward me. I remember that he was both a small-time drug dealer and a genuinely nice guy.

I knew Adrian had died, but only in the ‘I heard’ sense. I wasn’t in contact with anyone who was close to him, and I didn’t know anything about the circumstances. Tim was a pallbearer at Adrian’s funeral.

‘Overdose,’ Tim says.

Adrian grew up in Medina, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle. His father was some sort of businessman, and Tim tells me that years where he earned less than $1 million were considered weak (‘You know how them Japanese is’). Adrian started selling pot in high school, just small amounts, just to other kids at Grant.

Tim keeps talking. Adrian was pure business. He used to wait outside of pawn shops for junkies coming in to sell DVDs. ‘Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll pay more,’ Adrian told them, and by the time he was in college he had a whole supply chain of dudes sprinting out of Target with shopping carts full of movies, calling Adrian for a few bucks a pop. Adrian sold them on to friends and acquaintances at a markup, but still below retail.

‘That motherfucker had everything,’ Tim says. ‘No, everything. He for real had stacks of like, The Golden Girls Collection in his basement.’

The dealing evolved from weed to cocaine to prescription drugs. Tim saw packages of OxyContin and Vicodin at Adrian’s place ‘straight out the ambulance, bro’. Adrian’s father apparently knew that his son was dealing, but told him simply ‘be careful’ and didn’t ask specifics.

As I’m taking this all in, I keep asking how Adrian managed to keep increasing the selection and amounts of drugs he sold (‘diversify’, if you want to get businessey about it) without getting caught or even coming close. He apparently had a few handguns, but they were just for show. He hated guns, and wouldn’t even shoot them at the firing range. He did a brief stint in jail, but that was for getting pulled over with weed in his car. Bad luck more than a close call. Adrian, who according to Tim was earning $20,000-$30,000 per month, was completely under the radar.

I brace myself for the beginning of where I know this story is going to end. For Adrian, it’s the day he discovered OxyContin. ‘Never get high on your own supply’ is a drug-dealer rule so widely known that even I know about it, but Adrian had been sampling his retail selection of marijuana since he had first started dealing at 15. No biggie. OxyContin, however, was something totally different.

I have to ask Tim what OxyContin even is. I’ve heard of it, I guess, but in the same way you hear about ketamine or crystal meth. The local news, or a coworker, or maybe Oprah tells you about the powder pillaging some arid elsewhere and you go ‘damn I’m glad I don’t know anybody who’s into whatever the fuck that is.’

Turns out OxyContin is an opium derivative. It has roughly the same effects as heroin—on your body, and on your social life.

‘You start taking it only on the weekends,’ Tim says. ‘And pretty soon you’re thinking “Yeah, Thursday’s part of the weekend…”’

‘So Adrian was a using a lot?’ I ask.
‘We all were,’ Tim says.

I’m a little surprised by the ‘we’. In spite of Tim’s verbal swagger, I’ve never seen him show any aptitude for actual, real-world mischief. When we were 14, he was always the first one to back out whenever we devised an egging or toilet-papering campaign. The light banditry we were involved in at that age—shoplifting, minor vandalism—were always spectator sports for Tim, something we told him about afterward.

‘So the thing you said about the weekend…’
‘That’s me talkin’, yeah.’ Tim says.

He and Adrian, often accompanied by a supporting cast of Grant alumni and University of Washington students, started taking OxyContin every weekend. My head fills with visions of strippers, joyrides, trips to Vegas.

‘Naw dude, it wasn’t like that. All we ever did was watch TV at Adrian’s place,’ Tim says. He describes the least decadent bender imaginable: A group of fratboys in a basement, awake for 48 hours, eating pizza and watching entire seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.

‘That sounds fucking gay,bro,’ I say.
‘The weird thing is, that was the year I finally started to get good grades,’ he says. ‘I could work all week, thinking I wanted to get all the stress done before the weekend.’

Tim finished his senior year with a 3.8 GPA, but he could see the expanding-weekend problem beginning to appear. Adrian, too, was using more and dealing (i.e. earning money) less.

‘That’s why I moved to Seoul,’ Tim says.

Every time Tim visited from Seoul, Adrian was worse. He started using cocaine, then crack. On a visit for Christmas, Tim found Adrian half his former size.

‘He was kind of a scrawny fucker. I never realized how short he was before that, because he was so wide. But when I saw him, I was tipping him over, like “You on Atkins, guy?”’

Two months later, back in Korea, Tim got a call from Adrian’s dad, telling him the family was staging an intervention—‘like on TV and shit’. Tim dialed in from Seoul, telling Adrian from a speakerphone on the living room table that he had to quit it all, everything. Adrian went to rehab and got clean.

A lot of addicts apparently die from overdoses not in the midst of their addiction but after a recovery. The problem is a mismatch between your mind and your body. Your mind remembers how much you needed to get a buzz, but your body doesn’t have the tolerance anymore. It’s like a runner, after 10 years on the couch, getting up and trying to run a marathon.

That’s what happened to Adrian. Two weeks after he came back from rehab, Adrian’s father found his body in the basement.

‘Adrian was realizing that everyone he knew went to college and he didn’t. He was at home, at his parents’ house, being a fucking drug dealer. He was like, I can’t do anything,’ Tim says. ‘The only thing he was good at was selling dope and running schemes and shit.’

‘You think that triggered the relapse?’ I ask.
‘Fuck if I know.’

I ask Tim if he blames anyone. I’m sitting here, knee-deep in a kiddie pool in Bangkok, trying to find some systemic explanation, some loose bolt in the system that should be tightened. Did the rehab institution fail Adrian? Did the education system? Law enforcement? My mind is looking for an ‘if only’ that will turn Adrian, and this whole stupid, routine story, into an example of something larger. If only he was given a job once he was clean. If only he had been prescribed methadone. If only he had been given support to leave Seattle.

‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, man,’ Tim says. ‘It’s just Adrian.’

One of the main reasons Tim and I stopped hanging out was the culture clash between his friends and mine. Grant was nominally public, but was situated in a six-figure neighborhood of detached homes with yards out front and those little sprinklers that pop up out of the ground to keep them green. From up north, we regarded it as prep school, training ground for the future defenders of the status quo, and we mocked them for taking the whole jock-cheerleader thing seriously.

My high school, Lincoln, was like the store-brand version of Grant. We had cliques too, but with more overlaps and lighter penalties for failing to line up single-file underneath a social category. It was segregated by class, like all American high schools, but it wasn’t rare to see a football player doing a Friday-night kegstand with a radio nerd and a pink-haired goth holding his legs.

Tim keeps naming mutual acquaintances, and they keep having the same dire fates. There’s Pete Stanton, who in seventh grade had a mustache and was the biggest 13-year-old on the planet. When he was a sophomore at Grant, Pete stabbed a homeless guy under a bridge in a Seattle park, and is serving a life sentence.

‘I guess he said in court that the homeless guy owed him money,’ Tim says. ‘Even at 15, we were like, damn, this fool needs to rethink his business plan.’

Then there’s Chaewon. I don’t know his last name and I don’t even know if that’s the right way to spell his first name. He had a face that looked like he was being hung from the ceiling by his hair, and he was always smiling a gummy smile, even when he was slamming his chest up against yours or calling you a faggot. He was always surrounded by five or six other kids our age who looked so similar to each other they can only be called henchmen.

Chaewon’s in jail now too. After they both went to Grant, he and Tim were actually pretty good friends for awhile there, and I suspect Tim’s thug-life method acting comes at least partly from his prolonged exposure to Chaewon.

When I ask why Chaewon’s in jail now, Tim says, as if it’s obvious, ‘He was a gangster. Like, an actual gangster.’

I swear I remember him wearing only blue, but I can’t remember if that was real or just me projecting white-boy stereotypes onto someone who terrified the shit out of me.

‘Let me repeat myself: He was in a fucking gang,’ Tim says. ‘They used to rob houses at lunchtime. He was coming to fourth period with, like, pearl necklaces around his wrist, talkin’ bout “sorry I’m late, I had to run an errand.”’

Tim was there when Chaewon went to a party with a crescent wrench at the end of a twisted plastic bag and started hitting people over some high school beef. Tim was there the time cops showed up at Chaewon’s condo and found a duffel bag full of weed under the coffee table. They took Tim and another Grant student into the hallway and told them ‘You don’t belong here. Get your asses back to college.’

Tim was Chaewon’s only friend who ever met his mom. ‘I think he was tired of all that gangster shit sometimes,’ Tim says. ‘He said he couldn’t let other fools meet his moms because he never knew what might go down later.’

I don’t even know what that means, but I gasp knowingly.

Chaewon’s doing ‘like seven years or some shit’ somewhere in Washington state. Possession with intent, Tim thinks. ‘We’re not exactly in touch anymore, dude. Chaewon’s not the kind of guy to be like updating his Facebook, all checking in from prison and shit. Feed my fish!’

As grotesque as it is to say, Adrian, Peter and Chaewon were predictable. We’ve all been told a million times that drugs and gangs lead to death and prison. Theirs are the fates I would have predicted for them as the judgmental 14-year-old I was when I first met them. I’m not expecting, however, this tour through the ruins of our middle school graduating class to suddenly involve Daniel Browning.

‘Oh shit, you didn’t hear about Daniel?’ Tim says.

We hung out with Daniel Browning off and on during the three years me and Tim were friends. Daniel was kind of a social orphan. He was too freckled and shy to fit in with the cool kids, but he didn’t have the offbeat interests or book smarts to make it as one of the nerds. That, somehow, left him with us. I remember him as a shy, polite guy who mostly wanted to play ‘Tekken 3’ and be left alone until adulthood.

Daniel’s currently living in a halfway house in Seattle. He derailed late and hard. He was fine through high school: a little weed, a little drinking, nothing serious. He went to college at the University of Idaho and majored in business. He looked for work in Chicago but couldn’t make anything stick. He moved back to Seattle and ended up parking cars. And, eventually, taking OxyContin.

‘Dude, this was fucking after Adrian died. I have no idea how that shit happened,’ Tim says.

Here’s where it gets predictable. Daniel gets hooked and spends months locked in his room at his parents’ house. He doesn’t have Adrian’s money (or hookups, and therefore discounts), and pretty soon he maxes out his credit cards buying PlayStations and selling them on Craigslist for cash. Intervention, rehab, halfway house.

Of all of Tim’s friends, Daniel was probably the most similar to me. We were both classified as awkward not because we were actually antisocial but because we didn’t hang on any particular rung of the high school social ladder.

‘Jesus Christ, if Daniel hadn’t gone to Grant, he might not have gotten into all that shit,’ I say. I’m doing it again, searching these stories for some sort of theme that’s going to make them all about the same thing.

‘That’s bullshit,’ Tim says. ‘Daniel, Adrian, they didn’t get fucked up because they went to some preppy high school. It’s the drugs, man, it all started with weed. And you’re the one that got us doing that shit.’

Tim’s right. I smoked him out in my basement when we were 13 years old. We loaded my brother’s asthma inhaler with tin foil, then weed, then smoked, then played ‘Street Fighter II’ until we fell asleep. I was playing the expert—‘Naw guy, you gotta poke smaller holes in the foil’—but it was only my second time smoking. One week earlier, my brother had given me a green pea-sized nugget of weed in exchange for doing his paper route.

Tim and I smoked weed regularly through our eighth grade year and, yes, smoked out Daniel Browning for the first time. For me, the novelty wore off quickly. I spent that year almost catatonically depressed, and realized as I started high school that the depression and the weed had started at the same time. I quit, the clouds lifted, I never smoked again.

Tim smoked a few times a week for another ten years. He taught Adrian how to smoke like I taught him. He only quit when he started using OxyContin: ‘Weed just didn’t occur to me anymore.’

‘So it’s the weed?’ I ask.

‘Weed fucking is a gateway drug,’ Tim says.

Tim’s full of shit, obviously. If I hadn’t smoked him out in my basement on that particular Saturday, it would have been someone else smoking him out, in another basement, on another Saturday.

As I’m about to say this, I realize that my own explanation is just as full of shit. There was no dark magic in the halls of Grant that made its students take drugs or stab homeless people or wait outside Target for junkies and their DVDs. Like Tim, I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable by telling myself something I already know.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘About Adrian, I mean.’

‘It’s all good,’ Tim says.

My cigar is a nub, and my fingers are getting burnt. We get up from the table almost in unison.

‘Hey, did I ever tell you about Mikhael?’ Tim says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Russian exchange student at Grant, I don’t think you ever met him. Anyway, he got yelled at one day by our teacher—total flamer, no offense—in front of the whole class for getting an answer wrong. The next day, he steals a Buick from one of the houses next to the football field, drives it into the faculty parking lot and rams the teacher’s car. He didn’t even run away. He straight up got out of the car, closed the door all gentle and went to his next class. I saw the whole thing with Adrian and he goes, “That’s hella how they solve problems in Russia.”’

Tim holds the door open for me as we walk into the building. I’m laughing so hard it fills up the lobby.

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Filed under America, Essays, Personal

How to Become a Gay Prostitute in Denmark

Originally posted at The Billfold

Henrik was in debt.

Not crushing or ruinous or inescapable debt, the kind that makes you ignore letters in your mailbox and private incomings on your mobile. Just irritating debt. In June he had taken a five-week trip to New York, where he had spent money like a 33-year-old gay man who hadn’t bought new clothes in two years—which he was. He left his home in Copenhagen with one suitcase and came back with two.

‘I needed an auxiliary,’ he told his friends, ‘just for the shoes.’

A month before the trip, he had remodelled his kitchen. This decision was about as prudent as a suitcase full of shoes, but whatever. At least he could finally cook properly.

Six weeks after returning from New York, he took a look at his spreadsheets. He has one for his band rehearsals, one for his freelance piano-playing gigs, one for his internet hook-ups, one for his photo collection. Those are just the ones he’s told me about.

He fills each spreadsheet not only with quantitative whats and wheres, but expository whys and hows. That’s how he can tell you not only the time and location of a wedding he played in 2004, but that he played ‘The Greatest Love of All’, got paid 1,500 kroner ($260) and cycled home in the rain.

On the night when he first began his transition from IT administrator to freelance prostitute, Henrik opened the Excel file called ‘personal economy’. He had taken out a loan of 50,000 kroner ($8,500) to pay for the kitchen remodel, and had overdrafted his credit cards in New York. He was paying them off, but not fast enough. He was still 40,000 kroner ($7,000) in debt.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Henrik had lived through self-imposed lean times before, scheduling extra wedding gigs, quitting alcohol, spending weekends in sweatpants and Blockbuster. But this time he couldn’t inch his way back into solvency. He was going to be a father in six months.

He and his ex-wife had been trying to have a baby for two years. The divorce had been literally as amicable as humanly possible, and they still slept over at each other’s apartments once or twice a month. They had divorced when they were both 25 and now, eight years later, she was a partnered lesbian and he was a single gay man.

‘What, did you guys just look at each other one day, say “let’s have a baby” and high-five?’ I asked him when he told me they were pregnant.

‘Basically,’ he said.

Henrik didn’t want to be in debt when the baby was born. ‘The way I figured it, I had six months to get into the black,’ he says.

Prostitution only occurred to him after he pursued other options. Bartending, nightclub work, baristing, these are not only poorly paid, but require regular shifts, which his day job wouldn’t accommodate. He looked into freelance work—translations, proofreading, various musical transcription stuff I don’t really understand—but those come from contacts and networking, something he didn’t have time for.

‘I needed work that was part-time, well paid, required little preparation and no professional skills,’ he says. ‘What else is there?’

Over the next six months, Henrik earned more than $4,000 having sex with men for money. He reported all of this to the tax authorities, and even deducted expenses for things like his SIM card and classified ads. In total he had 32 clients, some of whom now, between daycare pickups and vaccine appointments, he still meets, fucks and charges.

Because Henrik is Henrik, he entered every transaction into an Excel spreadsheet. Even before that, when he first started to seriously consider prostitution, he sat down and wrote a to-do list. The following is what he wrote, and what he did.

 

1. Call Tax Authorities

The first thing on Henrik’s list was to make sure he wasn’t breaking the law.

Denmark has a complicated relationship with taxes. According to the OECD, it is the world’s 4th most taxed country. The top tax rate, which applies to whatever you earn above 389,900 kroner ($70,000), is 56.1 percent. The word for taxes (‘skat’) is also the word for ‘honey,’ as in ‘honey, I’m a socialist.’

In Denmark, you can call up the tax authorities, tell them your problem and they’ll give you on-the-spot advice to help you solve it. The concept of paying a private company to do your taxes is as foreign to Danes as students getting a salary to attend college is to Americans.

So in keeping with his nationality, Henrik called up Skat and told them he was going to be earning a ‘B-income’ giving piano lessons, and what did he need to do, paperwork-wise, to make sure he was following the law?

No problem, Skat told him, just keep track of all your income and your expenditures. At the end of the year, let us know both numbers, we’ll calculate your tax and send you a bill.

‘That’s it?’ I said when he told me this. ‘They told you to track everything? It’s like telling a dog it’s legally obligated to chase a tennis ball.’

‘I know right!’ Henrik said.

Henrik needn’t have been coy on the phone. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. You just have to report your income, stay under 50,000 kroner ($8,500) per year and only sell your own body (selling other people’s is technically pimping, and prohibited). As far as the authorities are concerned, you might as well be having a bake sale.

2. Get New Bank Account and Mobile Phone

‘I need to stress how not that major of a transition this was for me,’ Henrik says. ‘The only real difference between prostitution and what I was already doing was the logistics.’

Henrik’s only slightly exaggerating. Even before he was a prostitute, he had been conducting semi-anonymous hookups for years. He had profiles on all the major, and some of the minor, promiscu-net apps and websites. Grindr, Gaydar, GayRomeo, Adam4Adam, ManHunt: Henrik had a bouquet of identities and marketing pitches tailored to each one.

‘I took a long time having sex—I was 26 or 27,’ Henrik says. ‘But since then I went straight into a sort of belated teenage thing, making up for all the sex I’d missed.’

Somewhere around 30, Henrik realized that one of the most efficient ways to hook up a few times a month was to deliberately seek out business travellers who were only in Copenhagen for a night or two.

‘One, it’s an untapped market,’ he says. ‘All the Danes are pecking each others’ eyes out over the same, like, 200 eligible gay men. Two, travellers are uncomplicated. The sex is honest. You both know it’s not leading to anything. And you get to have hotel breakfast the next day.’

I met Henrik in 2008, when he was doing these hotel-room one night stands once or twice a month, and I was always amazed at how he talked about them like miniature friendships rather than anonymous transactions. He never dove right into bed with these guys. He insisted on chitchat before the sex and cuddles—‘which is what these guys really want anyway’—afterward, marvelling at the things they told him.

‘It actually made me feel really good,’ he says about them now. ‘I liked that bubble of instant intimacy with these guys. It felt unique every time. Anyway, I had a good time and I like to think they did too.’

These encounters were basically an invoice away from prostitution anyway, and were the primary reason Henrik knew not only that he could be a prostitute, but that he’d be good at it.

Still, he wanted to make sure his new hobby wouldn’t bleed into his old. He opened a new bank account and got a new mobile number he would only give to potential clients.

He also didn’t want his clients to know his real name. This is easy when you’re visiting hotel rooms, but in Denmark, apartment buildings list the name of every resident on the door. Visitors don’t buzz your apartment number, they buzz your full name, in black and white.

‘This was going to be an issue,’ Henrik says. ‘I came up with this system where I put a piece of red tape over my name on the door.  I told them I had just moved in, and hadn’t put the nameplate up yet. My apartment’s so messy, no one ever questioned it.’

He then, obviously, began a new spreadsheet.

 

3. Place Advertisement

You’re not officially a gay prostitute until you let the rest of the world know. In Denmark, the primary gay dating website, boyfriend.dk, doesn’t allow escort ads. GayRomeo, the most popular site in the rest of Europe, allows escorts, but it’s barely used in Denmark.

Henrik used to volunteer for an AIDS charity, and he remembered a master’s dissertation about gay prostitution in Denmark that had made the NGO rounds a few years previous. He pulled it out of the hard-drive equivalent of his sock drawer and read it cover to cover. Buried in the methodology was the name of the website where the researcher had gathered her contacts: Homospot.dk.

‘It’s just the absolute shittiest website on the planet,’ he says. ‘But for some reason, that’s the only place where you can feasibly sell gay sex in Copenhagen.’

Even by the standards of gay hookup websites, Homospot.dk is pretty dire. There are no private profiles or direct communication between users. All of the interaction is simply spit out into a common chatroom. If Match.com is a 747 and Grindr is an F-16, Homospot.dk is strapping feathers to your arms and flapping.

‘The worst thing about this whole experiment wasn’t the lonely old men, or the people who didn’t answer their buzzer after I biked to their place in the rain,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s that goddamn chatroom. It only shows 25 lines of text and then it disappears forever. You have to sit there and watch it like it’s a pet.’

Henrik had a friend take some pictures of him in various stages of undress and engorgement (‘Always with a big, empty room behind me. Nobody wants to commission a prostitute who looks like he needs to be doing this’), and chose a username that gave a fair representation of who he was: SellingCopenhagen33.

‘I wasn’t going to pretend I was some 18-year-old gymnast, or hung like the Empire State Building,’ he says. ‘I wanted to lower tricks’ expectations of me before we met, not raise them.’

4. Decide a Price

By scanning the profiles of both buyers and sellers on Homospot, Henrik found that there were essentially two tiers of gay prostitutes: Young and expensive (up to 5000 kroner, or $850, per hookup), and old and cheap (around 600 kroner, or $105, per hookup). For buyers, it’s like being given the option of a Honda Civic, a Bentley, or nothing.

By the standards of gay Danish prostitutes, Henrik was firmly a Honda. He’s good-looking, but more like a cool math teacher than a stalking sex god. He stays in shape (‘swimmer’s build’ is how a few of his customers would later describe him), but more like a floppy, flustered Hugh Grant than a dense, strutting Tom Hardy.

‘The first time I started talking price with guys online, I was amazed at how much haggling goes on,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to fucking haggle, it’s infuriating. Some dudes were asking if they could get, like, a 10-blowjob clipcard.’

Henrik decided to charge his first client 700 kroner ($120). They exchanged pictures in the chatroom, then negotiated price and activities by mobile. An hour and 20 minutes later, a 49-year-old man from Malmo, Sweden, arrived at Henrik’s apartment. Then they had sex, then he gave Henrik a fresh-from-the-ATM stack of 100 kroner notes and then he left.

‘It was really mundane,’ Henrik says. ‘It was sex with an old guy. It only felt different afterwards. I think I tried to kiss him, and he said, “I don’t think that’s so hot after sex.” He just wanted to get the hell out.’

So how is sex different when the two people having it aren’t lovers, partners, friends or even strangers, but customer and merchant?

‘I actually thought about this a lot before I started,’ Henrik says. ‘No matter how much I was fucking around, I always had this little motto that I reserve the right to be lousy in bed. That’s kind of problematic when they pay you money.’

I assumed that Henrik’s clients would take a kind of ‘customer is always right’ approach, acting entitled to get exactly what they wanted and complain if they didn’t.

‘If anything, it was the opposite,’ Henrik says. ‘You both sort of forget about the money as soon as you start fooling around. It’s more common for them to confuse it with real intimacy than to confuse it with, like, a haircut.’

Henrik’s spreadsheet lists what he did and what he earned for each of his clients. In six months of freelance prostitution, Henrik charged an average of 624 kroner, or $110, per encounter, with a maximum of 1,066 kroner, or $185 (‘I slept over at his hotel and he paid in euros’), and a minimum of 400 kroner, or $70 (‘this fucking guy and his fucking clipcard’).

Some of them he slept with more than once, but most were one-timers. In all, he earned just over 24,000 kroner, or $4,150.

Henrik only paid 6,300 kroner ($1,090) in taxes, or 24.2 percent, because he was able to deduct 11,000 kroner ($1,900) for expenses, including his Macbook. He had sex with a client in Croatia when he was there on vacation, and when he returned, he called the tax authorities to ask if he could deduct the cost of the holiday. Flights yes, came the answer, hotel no.

I asked Henrik why his spreadsheet listed the distance he cycled to each client.

‘Bike rides,’ he says, ‘are reimbursed half a kroner per kilometer.’

5. Make Policy Regarding Customers

In his to-do list, Henrik wrote ‘Is there anyone I wouldn’t sleep with? Do I need to validate their identity? What information should I get from them beforehand?

And, right at the end:  ‘… Viagra?

‘Already back then I felt pretty sure that the world of paid-for sex isn’t filled with weirdos,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s filled with overweight old guys. And pretty much, that’s what happened.’

Henrik kept notes on each client in his spreadsheet. It reads like some kind of gay Xanadu as imagined by an Alabama talk radio host: ‘Porn playing on TV in bedroom…. Blindfolded, wanted dirty talk… Ends in doggy … Loves nipples … Chat while he sits on a buttplug … Wasn’t expecting second prostitute… Way too old, impotent … Met in the park…’

‘But what were they like?I keep asking whenever I see him now.

‘Honestly? The only thing they have in common is that they’re unattractive,’ Henrik says. ‘There’s a guy I still see once a month, he’s like 100-kilo plus. He works at PWC. There’s nothing wrong with him on the inside, just nobody wants to fuck a fat guy.

‘The funniest thing is that the sex is phenomenal. There’s this great big fat guy and I feel like I’m the only one who knows he’s great in bed.’

On a few occasions, Henrik texted his client’s address to a friend before they met, in case something went wrong. In the end, he never had to turn anyone down. He never used Viagra.

‘I did fake a lot of the orgasms though,’ he says.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ I say.

‘Seriously. Nobody ever notices unless it’s a facial situation.’

Like any other professional experience, though, Henrik remembers the people more than the tasks.

‘It’s really obvious that they just want conversation,’ he says. ‘They want a whiff of romance.’

It became a kind of competitive advantage. When potential clients asked Henrik what was included in the price, he said ‘we’ll have enough time’ to signal that some spooning, some conversation, some channel-surfing wasn’t out of the question. One guy invited him to a family gathering as his date, clock running the whole time. Another, a married guy in Norway, recommended Henrik to a friend.

Between the prostitution, his day job and extra piano gigs, Henrik got himself out of debt just before his son was born. He still sees some of his old clients, but doesn’t log on to Homospot anymore. He’s told only a handful of friends. Henrik, obviously, isn’t his real name.

‘My reason for paying taxes wasn’t because I’m a socialist, or a philanthropist,’ he says. ‘When someone confronts me with this, I want to be able to say, in so many words, “It was work, nothing else. I worked, I paid taxes. What do you care?”’

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Filed under Denmark, Essays, Personal

How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

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Filed under Essays, Pictures, Serious, Travel

The 10 Times I Met My Landlord

Originally posted on The Billfold

1

He has an unsqueezing handshake, that’s the first thing I notice about him. He just puts his hand out, and I shake it like a juice.

“Erik,” he says, standing at the door in a bathrobe, a tanktop and untied combat boots. He’s thin, a series of parallel lines and divots up to a starburst of blond hair.

“Michael,” I say. He lets me into the foyer. I look around and realize his appearance isn’t an affectation, but genuine neglect.

The living room bows under the weight of all his belongings. A half-­dozen shelves piled with sci-fi books, stacked in trilogies. Two printers, one in each corner, both shaded by a drift of wires. A balled up blanket under the window, hard angles hinting at something wrapped up and forgotten. Not to mention the souvenirs from Central Asia and the Middle East, making outlines in the dust.

We talk logistics. Sublet, one year. Fully furnished, go ahead and use the neighbors’ Internet connection. Please don’t sit in the rocking chair, it was his grandmother’s.

Everything in the kitchen is old, but the pans are scrubbed and the knives have been sharpened to a suicidal sheen. An espresso machine takes up roughly half the counter space. There are no glasses, only coffee cups.

I tell him this will be my longest period in one apartment. I’m in Copenhagen on a short-term contract that keeps getting extended, and I’ve been living in sublets for two years now. The place I’m living in now has no shower, just a literal water closet, so every morning I walk down the stairs and across the courtyard to a bank of showers in the basement. It costs one kroner for each minute of hot water. Most mornings I gamble, shoving three kroner in the machine and soaping like someone trying to shake a bee out of their clothes. Sometimes on Sundays I spend five.

“OK,” he says.

He seems to have already decided I’m a suitable subletter based on his conversation with Thomas, our mutual friend, and he speaks in whens, not ifs. He walks me through the apartment like a tour guide giving the last circuit of the day. The shelves rattle metallically as we walk.

He shows me a gas mask he got in Bosnia, a sweater from Chinese army surplus, flavored vodka from Ukraine. After a few minutes, he’s not lifting them up, just pointing to piles: “That’s where I keep my barbells.’

We’re back in the foyer. “So!” he says.

It’s too big, too far and too full of the bread crumbs of someone else’s exploration. But the rent is reasonable and I don’t have any other options.

“I’ll take it.”

2

I visit the apartment again to sign the paperwork. I marvel for the second time how a neighborhood with so many apartment buildings can have so few shops or cafes. I bike past a nursing home, then an institution for mentally retarded adults. Most of the cars on the street are minibuses.

It’s the day before he leaves, and some of the detritus has disappeared. The espresso machine is gone, and for a second I suspect he’s taking it with him. The small talk is more like nano-talk. All of my questions come back as logistics.

“So where are you being posted?”

“Afghanistan. So you must forward the mail to my sister in Give. She’ll send it to me.”

“How long have you been in the Army?”

“Since I was 18. I have equipment here, so I may come by every once in while to pick things up.”

When I ask what he’s doing in Afghanistan, he says “the same old thing,” like we’ve known each other for years.

I tell him I’m looking forward to living on my own. Since I moved to Copenhagen I’ve lived with a Norwegian woman who told me I could have friends over as long as they weren’t foreigners, then an old woman whose dog shit on my bed and whose boyfriend told me I should bulk up by eating a bowl of raw hamburger and egg yolks every morning.

He’s looking around the apartment as I speak. He picks up a vintage coffee grinder up from the floor.

“Have you seen this?” he says. “You must grind manually. The electric grinders, they make dust. You should squeeze the beans, not eradicate them.”

3

He stops by the apartment. He e-mailed to tell me that he would do this, but never specified a time. I hear a key in the lock at 7 pm on a Wednesday, and get up from the rocking chair and put it back in the corner. Now I’m standing in the middle of the living room with a book in my hand, like I’m rehearsing a monologue.

He’s training in Aarhus before he ships out in two weeks. There he is in the foyer, taking off his boots and squeezing his hair to get the rainwater out. He’s angry about an incident on the train on the way here. Children talking too loud or something. He only says the word “undisciplined’ once, but that’s the only thing I remember of this conversation later.

He’s picking up his uniform. I’m in the kitchen cleaning up the evidence of my first three days here. He takes a cell phone call, switches to Danish, and tells the story of the train again. He waves as he backs out the door, still talking.

4

I come home from work the next day and he’s sitting in the rocking chair with a takeaway coffee cup.

“Are you picking something up?” I ask.

“It’s impossible to get good coffee in Denmark,” he says, swirling the cup. “All these amazing machines, and it is a 16-­year-­old who is using them.”

“Look, Erik…”

“I know, I’m sorry I came by unannounced,” he says. “I’m leaving in a week, and I just wanted to relax one night before I go.”

“It’s OK,” I say, putting my gloves back on.

As I leave, I ask him whether he’ll be able to find good coffee in Afghanistan. But he’s got his laptop out, and all I get is a grunt.

5

He’s there when I get home at three in the morning, sentried by two pizza boxes and an ice cream tub. Where’s he getting this food? I’ve been shopping near work and taking groceries home on my bike.

He e-­mailed to ask if he could crash at the apartment tonight, since he’s flying out of Copenhagen early tomorrow morning. The apartment is too big for me anyway, and I told him he could stay in the spare room. I can see a duffel bag in there, huge and unzipped like an autopsy. The only thing I see poking out are trinkets he’s taken from the shelves. I wonder if he’s taking any clothes.

It’s November outside, but inside the heat is turned up to an August swelter. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a tank top, and the delta of veins on his arms make him look like an engineering schematic. For all the weightlifting equipment in the apartment, I’m surprised at how wiry he is. The rocking chair could fit another two of him.

He’s watching a movie on his laptop. I can see he’s irritated that he has to pause it while I perform my “how are things?” due diligence.

“Great. Lots of training,” he says with his finger poised to click play. His face asks permission.

“Well, I’m beat. Hope you have a good tour,” I say as the sound comes back on.

6

I thought Danish people, as a rule, spent a few days with their families for Christmas. Yet there’s a text from him at 11 in the morning on Boxing Day: “I’ll be over in 15 minutes.”

He doesn’t have any visible purpose this time. He comes in, baggageless and still jacketed, and goes straight for the rocking chair. He doesn’t sigh out loud, but his body sort of does. He’s lost weight, if that’s even possible, and I wonder if he’s one of those Danish people who won’t eat anything abroad if he can’t find the food he’s used to. Once he settles, he bobs his head and looks around.

“You haven’t done anything with the place,” he says, looking at the bare walls. “You’re not that kind of guy, huh?”

This is the closest thing he’s ever expressed to an interest in my tastes or personality.

“Yeah, me neither,” he goes on. “I like to keep it simple.”

Recalling the two months I have spent systematically banishing his possessions into drawers, under tables and on top of cupboards, I audibly snort.

“How’s your Danish coming along?” he asks.

I tell him I’m taking classes, but it’s difficult to stay motivated with a full-time job.

“Well,” he says, shrugging with his eyebrows. “Either you want to learn it or you don’t.”

7

I’ve been hoping that he won’t make a habit of staging these little drop-­ins, and he doesn’t. The e-mails, however, are as regular as the rain all winter. Was there a letter from an old colleague that I forgot to forward? Is the heater working alright? Have the window cleaners called to schedule?

The medical problems make their first appearance in an e-­mail in February.

“My stomach is acting up again,” he says. “There’s not much food here that agrees with me, so I’ve lost some weight.”

I remember how he kept his coat on the whole time he was here last time, and try to imagine him even skinnier. I stretch his cheekbones out, push his eyes in, thin the hair exclaiming from his head.

Other than the hair, my mental sketch turns out to be pretty accurate.

He’s back in Denmark now, he tells me from the doorway. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, or a considerable-­looking amount anyway. His neck sticks out of his coat collar like a tree growing in a crater, his head gingerly balanced on top. Maybe I recoil when I see him; he apologizes for how he looks.

He’s on his way to Give to stay with his family, and he’s picking up some photographs on the way. His Afghanistan posting has been cancelled.

“Stomach problems,” he says, as if that makes his malady any more specific. He’s angry at the Army bureaucracy, and he answers my questions about his departure from his post with “this bullshit’ or “bunch of idiots,” nothing that yields any real information.

My lease has five months left. I’ve lost three kilos from the long bike commute each morning. I’ve found a grocery store, and a kebab place that serves Turkish coffee and opens early on Saturdays. I haven’t added any of my character to the walls, but I’ve removed some of his.

“I’m not trying to move back in, don’t worry,” he says. “As soon as this is over, I’ll be back in Afghanistan. We might even renew the sublet for another year.”

8

The next time I come home to find him in the apartment, he’s lost even more weight. His eyes have pulled back, peering out from two cavities that reach from his forehead to his jaw. The apartment is so warm that for a second I think he lit a fire somehow.

He’s telling me something about the apartment, something I’ve forgotten to do, but I’m following the vein in his neck past his clavicle, across his shoulder and down his arm. I don’t know if he’s still talking when I say, “Are you … OK?”

He’s losing weight, he says, and no one can figure out why.

“I eat and I shit,” he says. “I never gave it any more thought than that.”

I imagine all the conversations he must have had with doctors in the month since I’ve seen him last.

“They think I’m anorexic,” he says later that night. “What am I, jogging after dinner every night?” He knows his body renders this a rhetorical question.

He’s sleeping here, apparently. He has an appointment at a clinic in Copenhagen tomorrow morning. He tells me this like I already know. I’ve invited friends over for dinner, but I tell them we’ll meet at a restaurant instead. I sleep at my boyfriend’s, and when I come home the next day, the only sign of him is the clanking radiator.

9

“It used to be the girls telling me ‘I can’t figure you out,’” he says. “Now it’s the doctors.”

He’s smiling from the middle of a pillow his gaunt face makes huge. Framed like this, grey skin against the black pillow, he looks like a panel from a comic strip.

I’m at the hospital to drop off his mail. He called yesterday to whisper a request. Was there a letter from the health service? Could I bring it to him? It was important. I could use his bike if I needed to.

I don’t know what to say to him. I was afraid he would look like a stick figure under his covers, but with his legs together and his hands interlocked, he’s more like a mummy. I try not to gawk, but my breathing catches when I see him try to turn over. Shaking his hand is out of the question, so I sort of caress him under the covers in greeting.

“They feed me with a tube, but I’m still losing weight. I show them I’m not anorexic, no?” he says with a thin smile. “They won’t let me drink coffee. No calories.”

I put the letter on the bedside table, under one of the empty milkshakes. His parents are coming soon, and he has to rest before they arrive.

“Thanks,” he says.

“I work nearby,” I lie. “It’s no problem to drop off your letters.”

“It’s good to have friends visit.’

Is that, I think as I reciprocate out loud, what we are?

10

Erik stands at the door, a tortoise in a ski jacket and wool cap, neck all strings in between.

“I gained three kilos last week,” he pants. “Hard to haul all that up the stairs, huh?” I say.

My duffel bags wait, packed, in the foyer. A taxi is waiting for me downstairs. For some reason I’ve put the keys in an envelope and written his name on it.

He leans in and looks through the door. I spent four hours last night cleaning, and the apartment gleams with effort. Behind me the books are 90 degrees in three different dimensions. The souvenirs stand at attention. I even sharpened the knives.

The e-­mails continue after I move out. At first it’s all admin: the deposit, the forgotten socks, the oven needs to be cleaned. Then it’s information: He’s gaining weight, he’s got a new job, he’s thinking of expanding the bathroom.

“Why is it that all atheists claim they are humanists?” he writes in an e-­mail to which an electricity bill is attached. “It just means they will be among those praying the loudest when the boat is going under.”

To the requests, I answer in bullet-­pointed lists of yesses: I made the transfers, I took care of the bills, I’m sorry about the oven. As the admin diminishes, it takes me longer and longer to reply.

“Please come and have a cup of tea,” he writes in the last e-mail I ever receive from him, nearly a year after I’ve moved out. “I don’t get out too often, so knock on the door if you are nearby. If you are hungry, there is food—no gluten, but food anyway.”

I write that I will, and never do.

Here, in the foyer, none of this has happened yet. I lift my duffel bags and Erik and I trade places, him inside, me outside.

He offers to help me down to the taxi. I remember how his leg, sharp under three blankets, didn’t move when I touched it. I tell him over my shoulder it’s no problem, I’ve got it.

“See you around!” I call as I start down the stairs. Through the open door I can hear him take the coffee down from the shelf, and put the water on to boil.

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Filed under Denmark, Essays, Gay, Personal

I Was A Teenage Narc

If the past is a foreign country, the person you were when you lived there is a stranger.

It’s been more than 10 years since I was a teenager, and the older I get, the more incomprehensible I find my younger self. I look back on the period between puberty and legal drinking age not nostalgic or remorseful, but baffled. Who is this guy? What the fuck is he doing?

The most arcane episode in my teenage years is the two off-and-on years I spent as a ‘liquor operative’ for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Starting at 16, I was employed to go into convenience stores and try to buy cigarettes or booze. If I was successful, I handed the contraband over to a cop, who would re-enter the convenience store and issue a fine.

Basically, I was a narc.

If you were writing this up as fiction, you’d devise some sort of backstory for why I took this job. Maybe my dad was an alcoholic, or I had an uncle who died in a drunk-driving accident. Maybe I was driven by a religious or moral crusade, a Mormon or something. Or maybe I was simply a pedantic teetotaler, eager to inflict abstinence on teenagers I suspected were poisoning themselves.

No, no and no. My mom and dad were a preacher and a dentist, respectively, and their alcohol consumption consisted of a biannual glass of wine. At 16 I was a militant atheist (which might as well be a synonym for ‘preacher’s kid’), avid shoplifter (soon to be arrested—twice!) and former pothead (I loved being stoned, but got a weeklong hangover afterward) who disliked authority all the way from parental to municipal.

Perhaps more relevantly, I was sharing Kool-Aid made with $7 gin instead of water with my friends a few weekends a month. I was the only one among us who had the moral vacuousness to stand outside liquor stores, asking college students and young couples if they would buy us booze. We called this ‘bootlegging’, which made us feel rustic and badass, neither of which we were.

Which is why now, almost 15 years later, the following events make no sense to me:

  1. Shortly after my 16th birthday, I participate in a conversation (or possibly overhear one) in which I’m informed by fellow students that the cops use teenagers to bust stores selling to the underage.
  2. The next day, I call the Seattle Police Department to ask if this is true.
  3. A few please holds later, I tell the director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board the following things:
    • I am a teenager (true),
    • I look older than I am (true), and
    • I have a dedication to preventing underage drinking (lie)
  4. I am invited to an interview. I arrive wearing a button-up shirt, Dockers and dress shoes borrowed from the Sunday end of my dad’s closet.
  5. I am hired on the spot, and told to come back a week later for my first shift.

If you edited these memories into a movie and showed it to me, I would walk out. Where is this character’s motivation? What actions foreshadow this phone call to the police? What gain does he see in this illicit, possibly socially ruinous employment?

Yet there I was. My first day at the WSLCB I met Kelly, the agent with whom I would work the most over the next two years. Other than the receptionist, she was the only woman in the office and my arrival rendered her the second youngest, second shortest and second newest.

Kelly always wore a suit jacket, usually with jeans and a flannel shirt, her long, frizzy hair pulled reluctantly into a ponytail. Before she was an enforcement officer, she was a teacher at a public middle school. She quit, she said, because she couldn’t handle the kids.

‘I just wasn’t strong enough’, she later told me.

Now Kelly was in charge of tobacco enforcement for the entire city of Seattle. Across the street from the WSLCB’s squat, stucco office, she bought me a coffee and told me how this would work.

First, we pick a neighbourhood. Then, starting at one end and working our way to the other, we ‘inspect’ every convenience store that sells cigarettes. This means Kelly parks in a Chevy Caprice 100 yards away and sends me into the store to ask for a pack of cigarettes.

‘Does it matter which brand?’ I asked.
‘No, just act like you’ve done this before,’ she said.

If asked for my ID, I should say these exact words: ‘I don’t have it with me.’

‘Don’t tell them you’re 18, or say anything like ‘C’mon, just this once’ or ‘Give me a break’ in there,’ Kelly told me. ‘Then they can claim entrapment if the case goes to court.’

If I was turned down, we logged the inspection as ‘compliant’.

If the buy was successful, I should come back to the Caprice, give Kelly the pack, the receipt and a description of the clerk, then wait while she went inside and issued a $500 fine to the clerk, plus another $500 to the owner of the store.

Like all jobs I’ve had since, I was bad at it when I started. The first time a clerk asked ‘hard or soft pack?’ I didn’t know what those were. My first successful buy, I couldn’t give Kelly a description of the clerk beyond ‘the guy behind the counter’.

Eventually, though, Kelly and I developed a sweet science. At each store, I made a confident entrance, walked straight to the counter and requested a Marlboro soft pack. I said my stock phrase and exited immediately if turned down. When successful, I thanked the clerk, went back to the Caprice and said ‘got one’ as I handed Kelly the pack and the receipt.

I often waited over an hour for Kelly to return. I like to think her teacherly instincts made her stay with the clerks until she could form some kind of connection. Sometimes she came back flustered: ‘Boy, that guy was animated,’ she’d say, or ‘He started crying as soon as I showed my badge.’

In one day we could check more than 50 stores, and I think our record was 75. We started early, usually around 7am. We spent eight hours driving, then another four filling out paperwork.

‘Why don’t we just do this tomorrow?’ I asked Kelly at 10pm once, filling in bubbles on an inspection form.
‘If we do this now, we get overtime,’ she said.

I may not have any idea why I started the job, but once I started, I know why I stayed. The pay was $8.50 an hour, with time and a half for any shifts past eight hours. I was being paid more than my lifeguarding and baristing friends to essentially sit in a car all day. After my first summer working with Kelly, I bought new speakers for my Civic and, among other things, the Chemical Brothers CD that would blow them out two years later.

The job changed when I turned 17. I couldn’t do cigarette inspections anymore because I was too close to legal age, so I shifted to alcohol checks.

Liquor inspections were the same procedure as cigarette inspections: Enter store, buy age-restricted substance, fill out paperwork. The only change in the actual job was the higher compliance rate. Buying cigarettes, I had successful buys about 40 percent of the time, but with liquor it was more like 10 to 20 percent, depending on the bourgieness of the neighborhood.

The other difference was that I would be working with all the WSLCB agents, not just Kelly.

Most of the agents were in their 40s, and had worked in various other departments before landing in liquor. Robert, for example, used to be a sniper, and spoke guiltlessly and frequently about the four people he had killed.

Steve used to work in vice, and considered it his duty to teach me how to identify prostitutes. ‘Her!’ … ‘Her!’ … he would say as we drove up Stone Way. ‘You gotta watch the bus stops, they’re always at the bus stops.’

Tom was such an embodiment cop clichés (brown suit, moustache, two packs a day) that he was practically in black and white. The first day we worked together, both windows down in March, he gave me his card.

‘If you ever get pulled over for anything. Speeding, DUI, doesn’t matter. You show him that card, and tell him you know me. I guarantee you’ll get off with a warning.’

I kept that card in my wallet until I was 23.

The liquor agent I worked with the most was Raj. I don’t know what Raj did before the WSLCB, but he worked liquor enforcement with a reluctance bordering on neglect. Agents were obligated to work 160 hours per month, but were allowed to distribute those hours however they wanted. Raj worked his full 160 in the first 15 days of the month, then flew to India for three weeks, then came back and worked the next month’s 160, all year round.

Raj disliked me immediately. I don’t know if it was my suggestion of overtime-reducing productivity enhancements (‘Why don’t I start filling out the paperwork while we drive?’) or my lack of enthusiasm for the cacophonous, humid Indian restaurants Raj chose for lunch. Small talk tapered off after the first hour of each 16-hour shift, and between inspections I sat in the back seat and read graphic novels or did homework.

One night, 12 hours into one of our endless workdays, we checked a Safeway. Inspecting big stores was the same as inspecting little stores: I walked in, got a beer, carried it to the counter and tried to buy it. The only difference was that supermarkets had more than one checkout lane, so it was up to me to decide which clerk I would inspect.

In supermarkets I usually went to the clerk who looked the least likely to sell. Someone older, better at gauging my age, more likely to expel me for not having an ID. Compliant checks meant less paperwork and, on Raj days, the potential of getting home before midnight.

I chose the line of a woman in her mid-30s, plump and tired-looking. She seemed like the kind of working-her-way-up-to-manager type who wouldn’t sell to me.

But she did. She barely looked at me, just rung up the beer and turned to the next customer. I almost said ‘Are you sure?’ when she gave me the receipt.

I walked to the far end of the parking lot and handed the beer and receipt to Raj. I told him her name and what she looked like. He got out of the Caprice with a long breath. It was our first noncompliant check in hours.

He came back more than 45 minutes later.

‘Oh man, you really fucked up in there,’ Raj said. ‘That woman had kids.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Her manager fired her on the spot. She said without this job, she can’t take care of them. It’s going to be impossible for her to find another job with this on her record.’

I didn’t know what to say.

‘She said she doesn’t have the money to pay this fine,’ Raj said.
I was still silent.
‘If the state takes away her kids, that’s your fault.’

I looked at him, expecting this to be the part where he said ‘just kidding’.

‘What do you mean, if the state takes away her kids?’ I finally said.
‘If she can’t pay the fine, she could go to jail, and those kids will be up for adoption. Will you step up and take care of her kids if that happens? Will you take responsibility for that?’

In the 18 months I had been doing this job, I hadn’t told any of my friends about it. They knew I had a job at the WSLCB, but I told them I was answering the phone, making coffee, doing intern stuff. The best thing about having a secret is that you never have to defend it.

The next day I finally told my friends about my job, starting with the Safeway incident. They said all the things I wish I’d said to Raj.

‘If it’s such a fucking tragedy, why did he give her the fine instead of a warning?’
‘Why is it suddenly your responsibility to look after her kids?’
‘He just feels guilty, and he’s putting that on you.’
‘What a dick.’

After that, I started applying prosecutorial discretion. If a clerk looked friendly, well-meaning, or in any way maternal, I just walked back to the Caprice and told the agent ‘compliant’.

A few times, a clerk was nice enough that, mid-purchase, I asked for my money back. ‘Oops, wrong brand,’ I said, grabbed my $10 bill and left.

Only a bubble-wrapped suburban teenager could come up with an approach this morally incoherent. I was still performing a task that was costing people their jobs, but now I was only applying it to clerks who ‘deserved it’ because they hadn’t smiled at me or asked me how my day was going.

The day of the death threat was my last time working with Kelly. She didn’t do much alcohol enforcement, so it was like a reunion from our cigarette days.

The convenience store was on a suburban street in West Seattle. Kelly parked in the front, in view of the counter, instead of around the corner like she usually did. I went inside, where a clerk who didn’t look much older than I was sold me a Bud Light. I walked back to the car, gave it to Kelly and waited in the car for her to return.

I could see her through the window, showing the clerk her badge. As they spoke, a man in his mid-40s came out of the store’s back room, walked past Kelly and came, furious, toward the car.

I checked to make sure the windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. He clawed at the door handle.

‘Get out of the car!’ he shouted.
I froze.
‘I said, get the fuck out of the car!’ He kicked the window. I scrambled for the driver’s seat.

‘If I ever see you again I’ll fucking kill you!’ he shouted, finally loud enough for Kelly to hear. ‘You better never come here again!’

I don’t remember exactly what happened next, whether Kelly radioed for backup or if the guy just calmed down and walked away. I remember that he owned the convenience store, and was pissed that the clerk, his son, would have the fine on his record.

Kelly and I drove back downtown. I was still shaking.

‘My briefcase is in the back seat, with my gun in it,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I should have told you that before.’
‘You think I should have shot that guy?’ I said.
‘Well, you could have waved it in his face.’

In the end, it wasn’t the moral qualms or the attempted assault that pushed me out of the job. I was literally made redundant. Just after I turned 18, the WSLCB found some kid named Tiger. He was black and only 15 years old.

‘That means no one sells to this kid,’ Tom told me. ‘I’m never gonna do paperwork again.’

Two years after my shifts dried up and I moved to Bellingham for college, I got a subpoena. One of the clerks I busted had appealed his fine, and I had to appear in court to testify against him. I was hoping it would be one of the busts I made with Kelly, so we could catch up, but it was Robert, the former sniper. He told me Kelly had left the agency just after I had.

‘She filed a sexual harassment suit. Apparently we called her ‘baby’ too much’, he said. ‘She transferred down to Olympia.’

The courtroom wasn’t anything like on TV. There was no wood panelling, no jury, no robes. It looked like a high school debate.

Testifying, however, was pure theatre:

‘So you were 17 at the time you purchased alcohol from the defendant, is that correct?’
‘Yes.’
‘Just one more question: Do you, sir, possess the ability to travel forward in time, become 21, then travel back in time in order to purchase this alcohol?’
‘No I do not.’
‘No further questions, your honor.’

The prosecutor gave me a sort of ‘booya!’ face, like he had really twisted the knife in the defendant. The judge called the defendant’s lawyer for cross-examination. He stayed seated, like this was a job interview.

‘How long were you a liquor operative?’
‘Two years.’
‘’Were you performing this role to gain any kind of immunity from prosecution or as part of a plea agreement?
‘No.’
‘So you weren’t in any way being forced or coerced into performing this role, is that correct?’
‘Yes.’

He looked down at his papers.

‘… So why were you doing it?’

I don’t even remember what I answered.

Looking back now, I see a stranger leaving the stand. He looks a little like me, this college student walking out of the courtroom, getting in his car, driving north. If he could look forward like I’m looking back, I’d be as foreign to him as he is to me. Neither of us, however, recognize the teenager sitting in the Caprice.

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