Saturday, October 17, 2009

We Arrive in England


The last time I was in England, I had made my way in through Gatwick airport—a large enough beast in its own right. This time, however, I found myself in Heathrow. In fact, none of us had been through Heathrow airport, save the Traveler. So, when we exited the plane, made our way through the confusingly long departure gate, onto a train leading to Customs, and then finally into the Customs area, only to see a queue made up of what seemed to be four hundred people, we each had our own negative reactions.
The Student: “What is this, Kafka?”
The Drunkard: “Glad I got some whisky on the plane.” He then took a one-ounce bottle out from his pocket and took a swig.
The Stalker: [Incoherent muttering]
The Writer: “I can tell you another story, if you want.” The Drunkard answered this question for us all, “When I have a bout of insomnia, then I’ll come to you.”
Myself: “Vey iz mir.”
The Traveler simply took out a paperback copy of a book called Last Chance to See and started reading.
It would be an understatement to say that I was disappointed by the ensuing half an hour. It would be even more of an understatement to say that I was displeased by the fact that it took an additional twenty minutes, on top of the half hour that found us only halfway through the queue, to get to the front of the line. Everyone in the queue was just as unhappy with their circumstances, and registered their impatience in at least fifteen different languages. I wish that there were some interesting event—a man in the queue going insane from boredom and bumrushing the Customs agents, for example—that I could tell you about, but aside from one man who was coughing and sweating a superb amount, there was nothing of interest.
We passed through Customs fairly quickly—it is amazing how little hassle one gets when one has a visa—and found ourselves past the bizarre no-man’s land of an international airport, safely inside the British borders. That is, most of us were safely inside. I looked around and noticed that one of our party were missing. I turned to the Traveler and said, “Where is The Stalker?”
That ever-watchful individual replied: “He was detained by a very strong-looking man in camouflage.”
Certainly this was a bad thing. If the Drunkard, who had consumed eight ounces of Jack Daniel’s whilst in the queue wasn’t detained solely on account of his reeking of alcohol, then surely The Stalker must have done something atrocious that showed up on his record. “Um.”
The Drunkard blinked. “Hey, Quiet Kid’s gone.”
“Just as well,” said The Writer, “he is a thoroughly frightening individual.”
The Drunkard responded with what could have been mistaken as an impression of Beaker from The Muppets. “Listen, putz,” he said, walking up to The Writer. Now, we were all roughly the same height—five-nine to five-eleven—and so seeing a man roughly the same height as another man, walking up to the second man and attempting to tower over the second man in a drunken haze is a sight worth seeing. But, as it turns out, The Drunkard had learned some tactics of intimidation from wherever it was that he had been, and managed to cow The Writer. “One of our guys,” continued The Drunkard, “falls behind in battle, we don’t fuckin say ‘oh leave him behind.’ You get me? We’re a platoon.” He jabbed The Writer in the chest. “We’re a fuckin squad. The Three Musketeers.”
“Five Musketeers,” I put in.
“Right,” he said, “Five Musketeers. All for one and one for all. You get me, son?”
“I’m the same age as you,” The Writer said.
The Drunkard slapped The Writer, the sound reverberating across the Customs Hall and briefly calling attention to us. “Pull yourself together!” shouted The Drunkard.
Now a man in a police uniform approached us. “Help you, gentlemen?”
The Traveler put on his most winning smile. “Everything’s fine here, officer. Just having a little reenactment of Abbot and Costello.”
The officer, who at that moment seemed like he was half a foot taller than the rest of us, studied us with the look of cold British justice in his eyes. He leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I always loved ‘Who’s On First.’ Can never understand bloody baseball, but it’s a brilliant bit.” He straightened up and tipped his hat to The Traveler. “Right, carry on.”
After the officer walked off, The Traveler turned to The Drunkard and said, “Friend, I know that you have strong emotions when it comes to putting The Writer in his place, and God knows that sometimes he can be downright infuriating and I’d like to bash his head in—”
“Hey—” said The Writer.
The Traveler smacked him over his head with his book. “Sh. But you have to keep it down sometimes. However,” he said, clearing his throat, “I agree. All for one, and one for all.” As we had arranged ourselves in a rough circle, he put his hand in the middle.
I followed suit, as did The Drunkard, and The Student.
The Writer hesitated a moment, said, “Fucking hated that book,” and put his hand in the center.
At that moment, The Stalker walked up to us, blew some hair away from his eyes, and said, “What?”
“We’ve just made a pact,” said The Student. “All for one, and one for all.”
The Stalker studied us for a moment. Dear Lord, I thought, his eyes are actually black. Then he reached into his right eye, pulled out a contact, revealing brown eyes for just a moment, rubbed his eye, and put the contact back in. Ah, I thought again, there we go. “Whatever,” he said with a shrug, walking towards the baggage claim.

I would later find out that, over the course of a hundred years, the time it took to travel from London to Canterbury remained the same. Initially, I was shocked—this slowly moved to confusion, then to anger, then to acceptance. All I knew upon leaving Heathrow (aside from the initial awe at the sheer size of the airport) was that it would take five hours to get to Canterbury from London. As I was planning on avoiding jet-lag as much as possible, I set about trying to find a decent cup of coffee to keep me awake. As it turned out, finding coffee was actually quite easy. The trick of the matter was that getting a good cup of coffee was incredibly difficult.
We had an hour and a half layover in London Victoria coach station. When we arrived, I asked my companions if they would like a cup of coffee. The Drunkard responded with “only if it’s Irish,” laughed, and took a drink from an ounce bottle of vodka pulled from his coat, so he was out. The Writer said something about not drinking coffee without having his notepad around, and refused. The Traveler grinned and shook his head, “oh, you na├»ve fool.” So I assumed he was against it. Only The Student said he would go, so we left our bags with our friends and wandered out of the coach station.
The coach station is never a place of excitement or interest, much less at ten o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. The only people out on the streets had a very dejected look about them, as if the gray sky had made its way into their very souls and become a part of their being. (A British friend of mine would later tell me that Londoners are actually friendly people; they just really, really hate their jobs.) For a second, the thought that I should run around posing as a psychiatrist and passing out prescriptions for Prozac flitted through my mind with wings made of concern for my fellow man. The moment passed, though, as a pain shot through my head. I had gone without coffee for far too long.
We walked down the street, not really making note of the historical buildings all around us—quite disturbingly really, considering I had spent most of my life wanting to see even a square foot of this metropolis. We passed two teenagers wearing track suits, holding gold cans marked Carlsberg Special, arguing about who owed who a fiver. I made momentary eye contact with one of them—the taller of the two—and he looked back at me, said, “Oi mate, you startin’ or sumfin? Wanna ‘ave a go?”
I was not fully aware of my surroundings. Usually, when I run across another person acting hostilely towards me, I feel abject terror, curl into a ball on the street, and wait for the danger to pass. However, right now, I blinked at the man. Some part of me, some subconscious instinct which knew that a good Brooklyn accent is a universal sign of don’t-fuck-with-me-as-I-have-killed-a-man, and said, puffing out my chest, and cracking my knuckles. “What the fuck you sayin, kid? You wanna fuck with this? You don’t wanna fuck with this, I’ll bust your fuckin head in right on this Godamm street so fast that your fuckin girlfriend here will piss her pants. Ever seen what happens in a lynching? Son I will wreck your shit harder than an L.A. cop on Rodney Fuckin King.” Then I surprised myself by pushing the tall man—he had a good six inches on me—into the street.
His friend, the shorter one, turned and ran faster than anyone I have seen outside of a track meet. The taller of the two, who had burst into tears by this point, ran inside of a pub. I saw him cower in the window, cracked my neck, and continued down the street.
The Student, who had spent the whole of the encounter watching me with amazement, stood still for a moment, finally recovered himself, and then ran to catch up, “Holy Hell,” he said, “what was that?”
The events of the situation played themselves back in my mind’s eye and, a bit shocked myself, I said, “I have no idea.”

We walked on for a few moments, discussing whether or not such a feat could be replicated witht the same results, when we managed to find a chain coffee store. It was similar to Starbucks, but the color scheme was different and, for me, this was enough to mean quality. We walked in, ordered two Americanos to go, paid, walked out, sipped the drinks, and spat them out in unison. Slapstick comedians the world over would have been overcome with jealousy due to the flawless execution in our coffee spit take.
The Student, who was a much more pampered coffee drinker than I, turned a shade of green I had only seen in comic books. “Good God,” he said, “what is this?”
I sniffed the coffee. It smelled normal, even quite good. “I don’t know, but I think that we are going to have to set up a trade route with the States in order to get some decent coffee.” I tossed the cup into a rubbish bin and walked back to the coach station. The Student followed suit—eventually.
I sat down next to The Traveler, who asked, “So how was the coffee?”
“We managed to perform a perfectly synchronized spit-take. Abbot and Costello are rolling in their graves in envy, I believe.”
The Traveler nodded. “Yeah, they don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee over here. Something to do with the Empire, I think.” He shrugged. “I think there’s actually a good shop in Canterbury, though. I’ll show you it some time.”
The bus pulled up shortly, we boarded, and I promptly fell asleep

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Epilogue to The Writer's Tale


I have to admit, after The Writer said that Chopin could eat an asshole for the second time, there was a safety valve of sorts that shut off in my mind. The Writer kept talking, babbling on about despair, angst, and how The Arcade Fire was terrible. Myself, I was so bored I started stealing glances at our companions.
The Traveler fought off sleep. His head drooped, jerked back up, he cleared his throat, did it all again.
The Stalker, to his sparse credit, kept on listening to The Writer babble on. His face turned redder by the minute, and, I think, if you had noticed his hands, you would have seen them clinching and unclinching at roughly the rate at which his heart beat.
The Student, that respectable academic, gave up even the pretense of paying attention, sat back down in his seat and began reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling.
The Drunkard attempted to refrain from bursting into laughter every few seconds. While he succeeded—for the most part—a rare chuckle escaped his mouth from time to time.
And, his audience’s attention wavering more than a wheat field in a high wind, The Writer continued on.
I could not tell you how long he went on, but it was a while. He was so interested in his story, in the nuances of how to tell it (I had never seen anyone pause for about twenty seconds to really drive home what would be blank space on a piece of paper), that he completely forgot about his audience. In essence, he was talking to himself. He was telling a story to hear his own voice. You might say that he was telling the story as an exercise in storytelling theory rather than with the intent of telling a decent story.
He went on, and I realized what The Drunkard had realized. This was a man for whom Art was more important than Creativity. While I did not particularly agree with the way The Drunkard registered his dislike of The Writer (for I have long been a believer in the wonders of civility), I now understood exactly why it was that he felt how he did. I started daydreaming. The center of my ruminations was how I could come upon the funds to commission the construction of an X-Wing—for you see, it had been a dream of mine since childhood.
At some point, The Writer stopped talking. He finally looked around him and made note that everyone except for me had dropped off to sleep. Now, being busy trying to formulate a fool-proof scheme to buy an X-Wing (I’m afraid it can’t be done), I didn’t notice when they all fell asleep, but thought about how lucky they were, for they probably wouldn’t be jetlagged.
“Well,” said The Writer, “I guess they don’t know what they’re missing.” I assume that he was praising his own story. “But never mind my review,” ah, I was right, “what did you think?”
I’d never been able to come up with blatant lies on demand. Most of my family are able to, and they, generally, are much more accepted among society than I am. “Ah,” I remarked. “It was…” I searched. Luckily, The Writer appeared to assume that I was made speechless, and, judging from the grin spreading around his face, that was a better lie than I would have been able to tell.
“So glad you appreciate it. So few people really get what I’m trying to say, you know? Take the Neanderthals on the literary magazine where I went to undergrad. The fools. The morons. The imbeciles.”
“The shmendricks?” I offered.
The Writer wrinkled his nose. “I never like using Yiddish when I speak. Don’t agree at all with Israel, and that’s what they speak there.”
This was quite possibly the dumbest thing I had heard the man say, but I had the impression that The Writer would defend anything he said to the death. So, that in mind, I let it slide.
“Anyway,” he continued, “so glad you enjoyed the story. I need to come up with a title, though.”
“How about ‘Sheol?’”
He stroked his goatee. “Yes. Yes, I think that will work. It brings to mind the absence of any good that we usually stumble upon in a given day. Relationships are Sheol.”
I had suggested it because listening to the story was the aural equivalent of rolling around in a trash heap—and ‘Sheol’ originally referred to a trash dump outside of Jerusalem during the Kingdom days.

The Writer's Tale


We drove. That was about all we had in common any more, we both liked to drive at night. But now, even now, we weren’t at peace. The fabric of our carefully constructed universe was ripped. It was revealed as tissue-thin paper, held together by lies we told each other. That we loved each other. That we would never think about any other person in the way we thought about each other. The lies everyone tells each other without admitting they’re lies. Without realizing that every relationship is doomed from the start. That love is a lie bandied about by flower salesmen and chocolatiers. We believed that lie, not so long ago. We loved that lie more than we loved each other.
The windshield wipers were the only sound. Squeak. Squeak. Whoosh. Squeak. I turned on the radio, seeking some solace in the corporate-backed world of meaningless noise. Brandy certainly didn’t bother explaining herself. A couple days ago, I would have done anything for her, and now I realized that there was nothing she had that no other woman had. She was stock. Cold heart. Check. Inability to understand another human being. Check. Check, check, checkmate.
Frank Sinatra sang about love on the radio. He was dead. What did he know?
I turned off the radio, stole a glance at her. I thought I heard a sniffle, some sign that she had regret for what she did. No, that couldn’t be true. She was stock. Stock model from a factory, churned out by society, built by convention.

---

We met at a bar in Houston. It was called The Eternal Circle. Filled with the class of people who want to be counter-culture, but end up creating a niche in society so prevalent that they start defining the overall culture. I never liked the hipsters. Even before you saw them infesting Goodwill stores, I knew there was something detestable about what they stood for.
She wasn’t a hipster. I knew that from the second I laid eyes on her. She was something different. Something enrapturing, amazing. I turned to one of my friends— I have to have her.
What?
I nod to Brandy. Her. Add her to my collection. What are our acquaintances but a collection of figurines we only play with when we need? Yes, some of them are more important than others, but figures on a shelf, nonetheless.
Walk over. Introduce yourself, make a joke.
She smiles. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe she’s not a figurine on a shelf. Maybe you have found a person. (Of course you haven’t. They’re all figurines.)
What do you do?
No kidding? I love to read philosophy. David Hume had a brilliant mind. Scientific, but poetic.
Spend the whole party chatting. It dies down, so you go back to her place. Your place is a sty. A mess. Not somewhere you want to go with a pretty girl.
You mention you have your mp3 player, it turns out she has a stereo that plays mp3s. You put on some Al Green.
Fun happens.

Sit alone at home. Listen to Radiohead. Only they reflect the despair I’m feeling. The despair we all feel in the same position. We’re all nothing but stock, after all. Some less than others. Some more than others.
Radiohead. Nocturnes can suck a nut. Chopin can eat an asshole.

At the party. The incident. The Incident, more like it. It starts well enough. We walk in holding the six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, presenting it like a sacrifice to the hipster god of parties. The host laughs. We laugh. Oh my, isn’t everyone so happy?
Walk through the house. Small talk with all of our friends from our jobs. We both work in bookstores. Record stores weren’t hiring at the time. Jokes about selling bound-up wastes of trees. What was Crichton ever thinking? Too bad he’s dead. Sarcastic laughter.
I hold Brandy tighter. Her warmth makes me excited. Stiff. Brandy, you’re really doing it for me. That goes in her ear. She squeezes my ass.
We move on. Phil corners us, starts talking about The Arcade Fire. We hate The Arcade Fire. Sort of like a joke, how bad they are.
That’s when it happens. She winks at Phil.
She fucking winks at Phil.
Maybe you don’t understand. She fucking winks at Phil.
Phil the fanboy. The guy who insists that they know what they’re doing in the studio. That they have some notion of what makes for pleasing music.
What the hell are you doing?
She acts innocent, confused. What?
You know Goddamn well what I mean. What the fuck was that winking shit?
She laughs. I must be joking.
No, I am not fucking joking. Do I look like I am?
The party is quiet now.
Am I joking? Tell me. Tell me if I am joking. I slam a bottle on the tiles. It shatters.

Sit alone at home. Listen to Radiohead. Only they reflect the despair I’m feeling. The despair we all feel in the same position. We’re all nothing but stock, after all. Some less than others. Some more than others.
Radiohead. Nocturnes can suck a nut. Chopin can eat an asshole.