Waist-high grass, on the hill behind Tosh’s Garage, beside the lake. Still, and utterly quiet. Full moon low in a black starry cloudless summer night sky, shattered stretched reflection arrowing out across the water. Me, teenaged, on my back on the gentle slope in a hidden nest of tramped down grass stalks, quivering, with my shorts around my knees, and two young women sitting beside me. It’s my first real sexual experience. Read More
It was back in September, and the Korean doctor was running the ultrasound wand back and forth across my lubed-up abdomen, shaking his head and looking stern. “Patty Ribber” he repeated, three or four times, pointing at the monitor, on which I saw nothing but the usual indecipherable patterns of amorphous grey blobs. I nodded like I knew what he was saying, which is my usual strategy. After nearly 15 years since I came to Korea, I’m still not that great at parsing things out when I’m in an unfamiliar situation.
The doc sat back down behind his desk while his disconcertingly attractive nurse wiped the lube off my stomach, and started talking at my wife, in the arrogant tones that Korean doctors favour. I was catching one word in three, as usual, but when she grabbed a piece of paper from a stack on the shelf beside her and handed it to me at his behest, and I saw the picture, “patty ribber” suddenly resolved in my brain to “fatty liver” and my blood ran cold.
Here’s a new post-series that I’ve just decided I’m going to do, you know, until I lose interest: the greatest wonderchicken drinking songs. Ever. Because I’m on the beer again, and I’m all lovificated, and by god I want to share the joy. Yes, the joy.
So, without further ado, here’s number one in a series of several thousand. I hope it makes you wiggle your butt. Mojo Nixon — Positively Bodies Parking Lot ([Update: mp3 taken down after a couple days. Thanks for playing!])
The Syndicate of Soul is playing
At the Free Frank Frenzy
Me and Mitch are
Drinking ourselves into gin oblivion
Hold onto this, hold onto that
Man I know just where we’re at
Cause it’s Positively Bodies Parking Lot
I’m going back there,
I can’t stop
Got a bottle of beer out of the back out my car
Underage girls going in the back door
Yeah we’re outside the world famous The All-Dive Bar
Crazed couples are pumping away behind the Dipsy Dumpster of Love
Lorna Doone queen of the ladies room got herself a new bridegroom
He’s buying a rubber there in the bathroom
With a thousand tiny pleasure spikes
His buddy’s puking in the sink for the third time that night
Gopher killing, bullethead, taking pictures with the infrared
The regulars are glued to their barstools
And Jose Sinatra, he’s starting to drool
But his feet are getting mighty small, and I’m standing there in the hall
Tomcats singing wild and true, blasting out the super blues
It’s a Friday night in the summertime, I’m going out my mind
Harvey’s teeth are scaring me, go down to the ditch to take a pee
Crickets are singing a Beat Farmers song
I can smell Alberto’s mighty strong
Jack and his wife just backed over the fire hydrant
The water’s shooting high in the sky
And the Silver Eagle motorcycles are drowning there, don’t you know
Country Dick and the Snugglebunnies got me in an airplane spin
I’m thinking about gin, sin, and these three ex-girlfriends
They done showed up to squoosh my head, but I was saved by this guy they call
Well they call him Mojo’s dad cause he’s a screaming lunatic
Librarian from El Cajone checking out my love bone
Redhead says that she wants me to dance
Rock Jet’s got everybody in a trance
Peak expectations causin’ intoxications
I can smell the mating dance of fornication
Be young, be foolish
Blasting out of the jukebox
Two a.m., lights are on, nobody can stop, nobody’s going home
Can’t leave, can’t go anywhere, cause you know you’re already there
It’s positively Bodies parking lot
Positively Bodies parking lot
Positively Bodies parking lot
It’s positively Bodies parking lot
Yes it’s positively Bodies parking lot
So, I was at the bar on Friday night. This is a sentence that, in my dotage, is far less likely to pass my lips and fingertips than it once was, back when I was positively dripping with vim and vigour and fluids of a more bachelorly nature. But nonetheless, there I was, gazing somewhat blearily at myself in the mirror through the bottles, propping up the fake-mahogany with my buddy J. There was an impressively long line of empty bottles neatly lined up in front of us. I think the Korean guys like the empties left in front of them as a display of their alco-power, but that conspicuous consumption display tends to backfire when me and my equally thirsty drinking buddy, the livers who walk like men, come onto the scene. Shrug.
The gaggle of young women behind the bar are paid as much to be decorative as to actually sling piss, and station themselves right in front of you, whether you want them there or not. Orders. I tend to ignore them, after an initial smile to show I’m not entirely ogrish. It’s pretty clear, at least when it comes to old bastards like us, that getting pole position in front of the foreigners is pulling the short straw. The ladies do tend to make a valiant attempt to be hostessy with their few phrases of English, but the time is long, long past when I much enjoyed talking pidgin with bargirls, no matter how attractive they might be. Not to say that I wasn’t young and foolish, once. Thousands of young men around the world would be pouring over my seminal textbook, ‘Bargirl Bricolage and Soju Semiotics: The Ineluctable Modality of The Boozehound’ if I’d ever written the damn thing.
So we were tanking up, smoking, talking sh-t, enjoying the once-a-month concession to our younger selves our wives allow us. At the outer edge of my OB Lager-induced tunnelvision, I noticed a group of 4 guys sit down beside us at the bar, but J and I were deep in discussion about how cool it would be to be first on the ground when the Kimchi Wall comes down, as writers or otherwise, and I didn’t notice much other than that the guy beside me was Korean. He didn’t say anything to me, so I assumed, as one does, that he didn’t speak English, and ignored him after giving a terse nod.
Not long after, though, J announced that it was time to break the seal — I, as usual, had been peeing like a racehorse since the first friendly whissht! of escaping beer vapour — and wandered off to the toilets. Turning to me, the Korean guy said ‘How’s it goin’?’
In those few syllables, I knew not only that he spoke English, but that he fluent, and that he’d lived overseas for a time, or was maybe even a returnee. My English Radar is strong. Well, that and the fact that the three other guys sitting with him were all foreigners, and pretty clearly not the English teacher type.
So we started in to talking — and having a conversation in idiomatic, natural English with someone new is such a rarity for me that I was almost giddy with the strangeness of it (nutty expat syndrome ahoy!) — and I learned that he was the language liaison for the other three, who were Americans, a couple of soldiers and a contractor, and here at the deep water port in Sunshine City to expedite the transhipment of tons of US military equipment from Korea to Kuwait.
That may have been classified information, but we were all pretty drunk.
I was right, both about his English and his history. He’d lived in America and gone to both high school and university there. I asked him how he’d liked it, and he told me this : he went to high school in Illinois, university in Los Angeles, and he hated America. Those were the words he used. I suspect saying so wouldn’t have gone over too well with the guys he was with, but they were busy clumsily and loudly hitting on the waitresses, who, in the Way of The Korean Bargirl, tittered fetchingly while failing to hide the look of abject panic in their eyes.
I asked him why he would say such a thing, and he told me that while he was going to university, he worked to make extra money, in a relative’s liquor store. And that he’d been shot during the regular hold-ups. Twice.
This boggled my mind.
When he was in hospital, he said, he’d decided that he was leaving America as soon as he finished school, and not coming back. Not surprisingly. Now, I’ve been around the world a few times in the last 15 years. Been in war zones, been in all the worst places in dangerous cities all over the map. Even LA, one mad weekend on my way down to Mexico, when I heard gun shots in my friends’ Hollywood neighbourhood as we stumbled around, indestructible Canuck style, at 4 am. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who’s been shot. And this guy, this mild-mannered Korean whose parents sent him over to America to get out of having to do his military service, he’d taken a couple of bullets for the home team.
And now he was back home, getting paid to translate the crude pickup lines of his military colleagues to the girls behind the bar.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, a twisty-cruel just-so story, I imagine. I leave it to you to tease it out, if you’re so inclined.
Here’s a story of The Young Wonderchicken for you. 1989, I think it was, my first year in Europe.
We’d hated Italy, the Bearman and I, and there was no real reason we could point to and say “That’s why this place sucks, damn it!” The previous month or two of wandering southward from Edinburgh — where I’d been drinking Bulgarian wine, taking long windswept nighttime walks on the Portobello promenade and getting romantically involved with underaged Scotswomen for the past four months or so — without agenda or schedule or much in mind beyond cherchez les femmes and cherchez le booze, had been glorious and, if not precisely successful in the femmes department, had at least been steeped in liquor and spontaneous goofiness.
Italy had been a bust, for some reason. I remember writing about the ‘little bastard pasta-pounders’ in a letter to our amigo Rick, a level of (comedic-) vituperation that back in my more peaceable days was unusual, unless I was three-sheets a’ranting. Torino, Pisa, Roma. We just couldn’t seem to find any pleasant people. Or get into the rhythm of it, somehow. The highlight had probably been our unexpected discovery of a bottle of Seagram’s VO in a dusty little booze shop in Rome, after a long day of Vatican-seeing and footsore street-wandering and clumsy pre-pubescent pickpocket away-shooing. It remains one of my clearest memories of that time, seeing that ridiculously underpriced bottle sitting there, a beam of sunlight cutting through the dustmotes like the finger of god and illuminating the golden elixir within as the bleedin’ choir invisibule of liquor descended and sang tinny little hosannas in our ears. Perhaps a holiness hangover from Pope City, which, though impressive in a crenellated, gilded, retro-poofy kind of way, left me with a feeling more Disney than Dante. We took that bottle back to the slighty hostile hostel, and drained it in the basement lounge in the company of a batsh-t insane Tasmanian who had attached himself to us when he saw we had some of the good stuff.
So we’d just given up on it, and caught the train straight to Brindisi, where an overnight ferry would take us to Greece. I was hoping that Greece would be The Place. Paris had lived up to my romantically-elevated expectations, and even surpassed them. It had been a surprise, actually, steeped as I was in far, far too much of Miller and his Nin, and Hemingway and his gin, and all the other Americans that wrote filthy hymns to the city. Not to mention the gaggle of gloomy Frenchman that every 23 year-old of a certain disposition takes much too seriously. Our weeks in Paris had been a time of great joy, and our week of detox in Aix-Les-Bains afterwards, down at the western foot of the Alps, had been just the counterbalance we’d needed. But Italy? Well, not so much. And so I had high hopes for Greece. I was all Colossus of Maroussi‘d up, I think I claimed at the time.
We’d been on the boat from Brindisi to Patras a few hours, I guess, when we began to feel a need for some liquid refreshment. Happily, beer was sold, and though back in these days our tipple of choice was good Canadian rye whiskey, our flexibility was much improved by our recent wanderings, and we purchased as many cans as we were able to carry. That turned out to be quite a few more than was strictly advisable, but that’s the way of these things when you’re young, dumb and full of…well, joi de vivre, I guess.
The way of these things also is that our hilarity (and no doubt our beer) smoothed introductions with some of our nearby fellow-seafarers, two guys who turned out to be wandering Eurodrunks themselves, another Canadian and an Irishman. The Canadian was a good ol’ beef-fed Alberta boy, profane and pussy-struck, making us feel rather weedy with his many Tales of Concupiscent Conquest. His main goal in life seemed to be the procuring of prostitutes in as many nations as possible, and he was keen to share his accumulated wisdom on this arcane topic. The Dublin-based Irishman was a skinny, hyperkinetic, weaselly fellow, short and self-conscious, and for a member of the backpacker crowd, where your story-telling is your one universally-exchangeable currency, unusually reticent to share any personal details. Still, after some initial missteps — the Irishman responded to our fanboy-queries about U2 with ‘that Bono’s fookin’ sh-te!’ — we were soon rollicking on the high seas. Our two new buddies purchased and packed over to our corner of the deck a staggering number of cold cans, and, concerned that the small concession that sold the beer might close, the Bearman and I also replenished our slightly diminished reserves as well, just in case.
We played some dominos, and told tales of our travels. The Canuck, an oil worker, had many, mostly involving ‘the ladies’, predictably, the Irishman few. They seemed boon companions, though, thanks in part to the beer, and the odd sense of relief we felt at getting out of Italy. The Bearman and I, newbies at the game, had only a few tales to tell, but made up for lack of quantity with quality — shamanistic firelit Tale Of The Hunt dances and gutteral shouts to indicate, for example, our dismay at the advanced age of the ladies of the evening inside the dimly lit, heavily draped precincts of that brothel in Pigalle, for example. Stories were swapped with increasing animation and jocularity, until about the third or fourth time that a steward showed up to tell us that the ‘Captain is very upset and wishes you please to be silent’. We were pleased that the Captain would take personal notice of us, and asked our long-suffering friend to invite him down for beer. I don’t recall him accepting, sadly.
It all gets a bit hazy at that point, but I do know that we didn’t get off at Corfu, where I’d hoped to stop on the way, enchanted as I’d been by Lawrence Durrell’s Miller-influenced Black Book (and remembering his brother Gerald’s luminous juvenilia from high school, where we’d had to read them for English class). When I woke up it was early afternoon, and I was draped across a couple of hard plastic seats with a rivulet of drool running down into my right ear. The usual, in other words. We were approaching Patras.
The hangover started to lift as we finished going through customs, and the four of us decided, as you do, that we might as well travel together for a bit, at least as far as Athens. We decided too that the wisest course of action was to grab a room and find the nearest bar, in that order.
We found a room with three beds, and I offered to take the floor and pay a little less. More money for beer, I thought, pleased with myself for demonstrating fiscal responsibility. Couldn’t be more uncomfortable than the plastic ferry seats had been, and the place looked relatively free of vermin. We dumped our gear, and as the sun started going down over the sea again, found a taverna. It was bright and crowded with friendly, happy drinkers. There were beautiful women, mugs of icy beer set down in front of us if we so much as raised an eyebrow, and what the Bearman would describe in later years as ‘the best damn chips I ever ate’. I remember turning to him at one point, happy, and saying ‘We’re home!’ And it felt like we were.
Many hours later, I was swimming up out of my alco-coma to sounds that I’d grow used to in Greece over the next 10 months — bells and chickens. It wasn’t unusual for me to wake up, in those wandering days, not knowing with any certainty where I was, or even who I was, sometimes. I quite enjoyed that blank slate feeling, sometimes, to be honest, and this morning I was feeling pretty damn groggy. I’d been having a magnificently erotic dream, involving several of the women who’d been at the bar the night before. The odd thing, though, was that as I started to cross that line from not knowing if I was awake or not, and not caring, particularly, into being quite certain that I actually was awake, the sexy sensations weren’t diminishing. All this only took perhaps 5 seconds, as the gears in my mind caught, slipped, then caught again.
I realized that there was a hand in my underwear. A rather busy hand. ‘Rrrr?’ said my brain. I didn’t remember any particular success with any of the women in the bar last night. There was also a face buried in my armpit. ‘Rrrr!’ said my brain, ‘That’s not right!’ I opened my eyes, and there was the Irishman, one hand down my boxers, sniffing the living daylights out of my left armpit. I was suddenly wide awake.
I smacked him one in the head, and he looked up at me as if I’d hurt his feelings. Although I wasn’t so much angry as I was discombobulated and disoriented and dehydrated, I pointed to his bed with some authority, and tried to say with my eyes ‘get back there or I’m gonna get mad. You wouldn’t like me when I’m mad!’ He slowly clambered back into his bed, and as he silently watched, I moved my blanket over to the patch of floor between the Bearman and the oil-worker, who were still snoring away in blissful ignorance of the absurd little drama, and pointed vigorously at his bed to indicate that I would prefer that he stay there. Then I went back to sleep.
We all woke up a few hours later, ate a greasy, glorious breakfast, and left for Athens. Nothing more was said of armpits or underpants.
So there’s a little story. I wrote it for you because I have nothing really to say about all this gay-marriage brouhaha in America other than it’s criminally stupid that it should even be something that people are upset about, and because the Bearman is going back to Greece in a couple of months with his Cypriot-Canadian wife and I wish I could go, and I woke up the other morning thinking about Greece. I hold no resentment to the Irishman who woke me up by fondling my junk — it seemed a funny way, even at the time, to wake up on my first morning in Greece. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a female backpacker that didn’t have a tale, at least in those days, of unwelcome fondling by some creepy guy in a hostel somewhere.
I’ve never been one to be angry at individuals for their folly and their weakness, beyond an occasional rant or two. En masse, maybe, yeah. I just love to stir up the sh-t, and I’ve done some of that in recent times, sure, but that’s only because it was fun. I’m all about the love, honest. And I loved Greece. It turned out to be one of the greatest places I’ve ever been, and I miss it sometimes.
It has a special place in my heart, if not my underwear.
No, really. I have a few friends, virtual and otherwise, over there, and they are quick to jump up the ass of anyone who’s drunk the kool-aid and open their umbrellas. You know the type of travel-fanboys I mean, and my friends love to hate – men, mostly, who go to or end up in Japan to find something that they’re missing for some reason, something they can’t find wherever they are. These guys tend to fall in love – with the mythos, with a woman, with the culture, with the history, ex post facto or otherwise – and either sooner or later begin to buy into the casual Japanese certitude that the Japanese are just better than you. Better, stronger, faster, with tentacle and dismemberment porn that makes the next best tentacle and dimemberment porn offerings look like Curious George Goes To The Hospital. These fellows tend, in time, to become those annoyingly smug expats-in-Asia who are determined to overlook anything unpleasant in their adopted home, to blame the outsider, to spout platitudes that regardless of their high-minded elegance come down to ‘it’s not better or worse, it’s merely different.’ You know – the kinds of guys you want to bust in the f–king chops half the time, if only because they speak the language better than you do.
So, anyway, these friends of mine who’ve been in Japan for many years, they tend to have little patience for the kind of rah! rah! Japanophilia that I’m about to display, and for that I am profoundly sorry. All I can say is that I only spent somewhat more than 12 hours there, and the bulk of that was while I was slightly inebriated, so how much of the bad stuff could I reasonably have seen? I haven’t drunk the kool-aid, but I did drink the beer.
After getting rectally roto-rootered by my last employer and not finding another reasonable job before the contract term expired, I had to make a visa run and come back on a tourist visa, and the cheapest flight I could get was to Fukuoka. Sitting at the superb, gleaming new Incheon international airport, I noticed a flyer from Onse Telecom that said that wireless broadband was available in many of the departure gates, and if you didn’t have a laptop to take advantage of it, you could just come over to the desk and they’d give you one, for free.
This I promptly did, handing over my passport and getting a snazzy Samsung laptop in return. Good deal. I went back downstairs to the Burger King beside Gate 30, bought my first greaseburger in a few months, fired up the computer, and went surfing. I tried searching a bit for some hotels,but quickly got bored and just figured it would be groovier to do my usual trick from back in my backpacker days : show up with no pre-planning whatsoever, and see where the fates and random quantum flux took me. Instead of being prudent, I spent the next while posting snarky comments at Metafilter, until boarding time. It was about 4:30 pm, and my return flight was for 9 am the following morning.
A bumpy 90 minutes or so later, through red-lit thunderheads and millefeuille nimbostratus, across gut-levitating canyons of air – my favorite part of flying, those landscapes of cloud – we were glidepathing down into clean, green Fukuoka. It was overcast there, too, and more than 30 degrees, but I was pleased as I stepped out of the plane to find the air free of that horrendous fug to which one grudgingly becomes accustomed in Seoul.
I made my way through customs – the guy finding it odd that I only had an overnight bag, and amused when he found my two cup ramyeon packages inside – and straight to the hotel booking desk. Everyone on the various fora I’d checked before I’d left had said that the women who staffed that desk spoke excellent English, and were invariably helpful.
The girl there spoke English alright, but, in that annoyingly reticent way in which the Japanese break bad news, informed me that there wasn’t a single goddamn room left in the whole city.
She gave me a list to try and call myself, and after a few unsuccessful attempts punctuated by those pregnant silences that I was already starting to figure out were the Japanese equivalent of ‘sorry, buddy, you’re screwed,’ I figured I’d just have to wing it.
The shuttle bus to the domestic terminal, the subway two stops to Hakata, the centre of the action in Fukuoka.
By this time I was feeling a bit gritty-eye tired, sweaty, grumpy and increasingly sure that I was going to end up sleeping in a seat at the airport and looking like a rumpled rummy when I tried to get back into Korea the next morning. I’d done worse, years back when I had the youthful energy for travel hijinks of that sort, but these days I’m more into the Good Sleep than the Amusing Anecdote.
So I started walking around Hakata Station. The first five hotels I dragged my ass into knew what I was going to ask before I asked, and were already shaking their heads, politely, by the time I’d gotten to the desk and asked it. The two guys behind the desk at the sixth actually chuckled a bit at my stupidity – by this time I was drenched, both in sweat and by the steady rain that had started to fall, red-faced and getting extremely grumpy indeed – and I was about ready to give up and try the 5-Star (and probably more expensive than my plane ticket) Hotel Nikko.
I went into the 7-11 on the corner, bought a pack of cigarettes, and had my first sober smoke in more than three years. That helped.
As I did so, I noticed that the place across the sidestreet from me was a lobby of some sort – Hotel Cabinas Fukuoka, it said! ‘Cabinas? Capsule hotel? Yes! I’ve been wanting to stay in one of those since I first heard about them!’ thought I. I looked around for about 5 minutes trying to find somewhere to get rid of the cigarette butt – the streets were clean, and I was damned if I was going to mess them up by doing anything worse than dripping sweat on them – and then shuffled, chafing and praying, into the lobby.
One of the girls at the desk took one look as I stumbled into the lobby and – politely, mind you – said ‘Shoes…shoes please!’
Great. My first faux pas already. You were supposed to take your shoes off at the front door, before you even got into the lobby! That would have made more sense in Korea, where horking up throat oysters on the street is an Olympic-level sport, and wearing your mucous-encrusted shoes inside would definitely be unhygienic…but fair enough. I backed up to the door, quickly, mumbling ‘sorry, sorry’ while the couple of Japanese guys in pajamas in the lobby eyed me suspiciously for a moment or two, then went back to their newspapers.
I took off my shoes, came back to the desk. “Do you have any…umm…spaces?”
I almost kissed her when she said “Of course!” and pulled out a laminated menu showing two kinds of capsules – one in a little room of its own, and one set into a locker-like bank of them, 2 high. Even the ‘deluxe’ was well under the price I had expected to pay for lodging, and I immediately and gratefully pointed to the bigger one. It was 4300 yen – about $50 for the night, Canadian. Woohoo! There’s some beer money, right there, thought I.
She took my details and my cash, showed me the locker room off to the side of the check-in desk where I could put my shoes, gave me a plastic wristband with a key attached, told me about the sauna and showers on the 11th floor and the restaurant on the 10th, and wished me a pleasant stay, all in accented but excellent English. She was prettier than heck, too. Things were looking up.
This place, I neglected to mention, was nicer than most $200 a night places I’ve seen in Korea. Brightly lit, impeccably, spotlessly, surgically, clean, brand new. I’m a sucker for luxury – even faux luxury, to be honest – and although this was to all intents and purposes budget accommodation, cheaper than anywhere else I’d heard of in that city, it was nice. Really, really nice.
I took the elevator to the 6th floor, and through a set of glass doors was a set of corridors lined with capsule-rooms. Each one was a tiny hotel room, basically, with a folding, accordian door panel. Inside were a desk, built into a closet unit, and a capsule unit either in the top or the bottom. Mine was set into the top.
The capsule itself was a single piece, injection-molded plastic coffin, with a video screen, alarm clock and radio, aircon control, speakers behind either ear, and amidst a profusion of knobs and switches, a large red button labelled in Japanese only, that I thought of as the ‘ejection button,’ and was sorely tempted to press, later that evening.
I pulled shut the accordion door, doffed my sweat-soaked business shirt and tie – I always fly with a tie, and find it helps to smooth my way through immigration – pulled on my old friend’s band (‘MARY’) t-shirt, and went on the hunt for beer. Nobody even looked at me. No stares, no ‘Oh my god – it’s a foreign devil’ in the local lingo, no double takes or furtive muttering and pointing. None of the stuff, in other words, that I live with every time I leave the house in Korea.
I walked around for a bit, and marvelled at the cleanliness and order of the area. This was beside the biggest station in the city, bus and subway, the sort of area you’d expect to be heavy with The Scuzz, but it was downright pretty, by night at least. I imagined living there, and somehow managed to do so, as I often do, without concurrently entertaining any discouraging notions of work or budgetary constraints or anything of the kind. In my ‘let’s imagine that I live here’ games that I unfailingly engage in whenever I happen onto somewhere nice, reality rarely intrudes.
Back to the station I wandered, after that short look around, and although none of the 7-11ish convenience stores had had any beer to sell, to my transient chagrin, and there were none of the vending machines I’d heard so much about, there was a little hole-in-wall place that had a cooler full of beer, that I somehow navigated to flawlessly once I’d booted up the beer-radar, as if I’d been following the map to the Pirate Treasure. Big black gothic-font beery ‘X’.
I am inordinately fond of Japanese beer, especially Asahi. I’d been all a-drool all day thinking about it, after endless months of choking down the Korean swill that passes for lager there. I bought Eight Very Large Cans, just to be sure. Better to have too much than too little is my thinking when it comes to such things. The girl behind the counter didn’t even bat an eye. I was beginning to love Japan by this point, with a love deep and true.
As I left the station, there was a band busking outside the entrance. It is possible that my recent successes in securing lodging and sweet sweet beverages was rosying up my outlook a bit, but i swear they were the best band I’d heard in years. This judgement may also have been due in no small part to the fact that they were also the first band I’d heard in years. (There are no buskers in Korea, good, bad or otherwise. Beggars, yeah, who somehow can afford mobile freaking karaoke machines into which they wail their maudlin songs, lying prone on the ground, wrapped in black rubber, presumably entreating passers-by to give them some money so they’ll shut the f–k up. Never mind, I’m getting sidetracked…) A friend was passing out flyers, and they were called Chaba, and their website is here. After a couple of songs, a couple of cops came up and good-naturedly shut them down, and though I was tempted to follow them and listen some more, I had a whole bunch of cold beer gently sweating in a plastic bag, and I was thirstier than hell, and had to be on an airplane in approximately 13 hours. Part Two, in which I wear pajamas, drink beer and listen to Prime Time Poetry in a language I don’t speak, and love it, is here.
As I was walking home through the clouds of industrial smoke this evening, I was reminded for some reason of one particularly wild evening in Quintana Roo, Mexico, a few years back.
We’d been hired, Greg and I, to do the sound and lights for a party, a big one, that was being held in ‘a barn’ in Tulum, a couple of hours south of Cancun. Tulum the town, which is a nondescript collection of buildings on a crossroads on the highway, not Tulum the gorgeous Mayan ruins nearby, which are, you know, gorgeous. And ruined.
We took the 3 ton cube van down, loaded with gear, made it through the army checkpoints (we always sweated a bit with them, carrying pyrotechnics as we usually were) and found the place in the early afternoon. It was a concrete shell, barn-sized all right, and it didn’t have a roof. Great. But we took it in our stride, in true make-the-best-of-it Mexican style, and had a beer while we figured out how we were going to set up. Manuel, the young Mexican guy who worked with us (and spent a great deal of his time shaking his head in bemusement at the antics of the crazy longhaired gringos) came back with some bad news : the building was connected to the grid, but that was it. No internal wiring at all.
Greg, who was the guy who actually knew how to do sh-t, after conferring with the promoters, told him to wire us up to the main circuit box. Manuel looked a bit doubtful, but after being reassured that everything was fine, he wandered off to start juryrigging sh-t together. It was the usual modus operandi – improvise, make do, and make it work.
We started setting up the triangle truss sections, the Par64 fixtures and their gels (sprinkled with sand from the last beach party a couple of days ago) and the amp racks and speaker enclosures, and 6 or 8 beers later, as if by magic, the sun was beginning to go down, and we had everything set up. There were a few more people hanging around, smoking dope, drinking, watching lazily as we tested the audio and lights. This was always my favorite part of a gig – finished the hard work for the moment, and relaxing before the party geared up. Leaving all the decisions and troubleshooting to Greg meant that I could enjoy as many beverages as I felt appropriate. The one exception had been when we’d done the indoor fireworks for New Year’s Eve at Senor Frog’s back in Cancun, but considering that we had blown off several thousand dollars worth of pyro inside a bar with sawdust on the floors, that had probably been wise.
Just as the last of the light was fading, it began to rain. The music had started, though, and people were arriving in droves, and they didn’t seem to mind. It was a flash crowd, and soon our roofless concrete barn was packed with wet bodies, dancing under sheets of hard rain and the intermittent flashes of lightning. We put up some tarps over the audio equipment and the dj, and let it go. The rain didn’t let up, but no one seemed to care. There was a weird earth-magicky kind of vibe happening, and the harder people danced, the harder it seemed to rain. Huge, warm drops grown fat in the wet air out over the Caribbean, hammering down like a waterfall.
The hippies and tourists just danced harder.
Manuel sidled over to us about half an hour after the rain really started coming down, looking terrified. Greg followed him outside, and came back a few minutes later, looking disturbed, which for him was a bit unusual. I arched my eyebrows in inquiry; he shrugged and handed me a beer.
Later that evening, things started to get bad crazy. Greg’s girlfriend arrived, and Manuel found himself a peasant-skirted girlfriend from Bolivia, who lived here in Tulum, and she had a large quantity of acid. Driven by the strange, powerful feelings I was getting from the storm and the crowd, I danced like a maniac in the warm rain, and swallowed everything anyone handed to me. The promoter was thrilled at the crowds, and kept us in drinks and smoke.
Dreamlike tropical hours passed.
I don’t remember the party winding up, or loading the gear back into the truck. I do remember Greg — who despite being gloriously stoned was as usual the one experiencing the fewest visual anomalies and general impairment — driving us at a snail’s pace down the narrow jungle road to the sea side cabanas where we were apparently staying.
The rain was still pounding down, there were no lights on the road, and the truck’s lights weren’t working. We couldn’t see a damn thing out the windshield. I made Greg stop, got out of the truck, climbed up on the bumper and leaned back against the cab window, facing forward, arms spread out as if I’d been crucified, like a huge hairy moth that had been splattered on the windshield, and alternately pointed left or right as he drove. He drove totally blind, guided only by my frantic pointing as he edged toward one ditch or another, while Manuel and his new Bolivian girlfriend made out on the passenger side of the bench seat.
It worked pretty well, except when we hit speedbumps.
We made it to the place we were staying, eventually, wired tight, but couldn’t handle it indoors in our thatched huts, and spent the rest of the night on the beach, watching the waves and the sparkle of phosphorescence as the raindrops struck the sea. All except Manuel and his girl, whose enthusiastic grunts and squeals we could hear in the distance, over the rain and surf.
The next day Greg told me that Manuel had “wired us straight into the mains. No breaker, no ground, no nothing.” I didn’t see how that had been such a bad thing, but then I made the connection to the fact that the dancers out on the concrete floor, myself included, had been frolicking in water that by midnight was about ankle deep, sliding on their bellies like seals, doing rain dances, inches from the wiring that was feeding power to the audio and lights. Greg had wanted to shut it down, but the promoter was adamant, and in the way of connected men in Mexico, was not a man that one could say no to, and stay in the area for long. We got lucky, as usual.
The Bolivian girl disappeared before Manuel woke up. Through some strange coincidence, his wallet had disappeared as well. The drive back to Cancun was a quiet one.
A few times during your life, you may have run up against situations that tell you what kind of person you really are, what your response to disaster might be, what your mettle is. Some people have these experiences and it breaks them. For others, it’s just an anecdote.
Greg and I had just gotten back from Isla Mujeres, off the Yucatan coast near Cancun. The sun was going down, and we were well lit up. We’d been on the island all afternoon, fixing up the light and sound systems, and as per the usual arrangement when we moonlighted, we’d been paid in food and booze. Given the quantity of beer we generally drank just to maintain our equilibrium and air of pleasant mañanaland befuddlement, it might have been cheaper for them to pay us cash, but this way it was off the books, and everyone was happy. We were looking forward to an evening at Dady Rock, on the strip, where we were customarily given open bar courtesy in return for helping out with sound mix and lighting there as well.
Greg and his Mexican girlfriend Bianca had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. She was the very embodiment of the cliche of the fiery latina, and living with them as I did, I caught her wrath almost as often as Greg. She could be terrifying, and almost totally irrational when she lost her temper.
Bianca met us at the dock, and we wandered over to the main road into the Old City, intending, I think, to go find Greg’s dealer. I wandered over into the bushes to have a pee while Greg and Bianca waited at the roadside to flag down a taxi. Life was astonishingly good at that moment – drunk, living in Paradise, I rolled my head back as I peed to look up at the wisps of clouds that were painted a rich red by the sunset, and breathed deeply of the clean ocean air to clear my head.
Then I heard the yelling.
“Ah, sh-t,” thought I to myself, “they’re at it again.” I immediatedly started reworking my plans for the evening to be a solo flight. But as I wandered over (slowly, unkeen to put myself between the two combatants – I’d learned how ill-advised this could be before), I saw Greg on his back in some low bushes, and Bianca astride him, pummelling him, or at least attempting to. I stopped on the sidewalk about 10 metres up from them, and waited. No way I was getting involved once she started getting violent. I’d taken a heavy silver belt-buckle in the head last time I’d tried that.
A few seconds later, a police car pulled up, and the policia switched on their rollers. The cops got out, pulled Bianca off of Greg, and cuffed her. This wasn’t good. As I walked up to the police car, they were putting the screeching and struggling Bianca in the back seat cage, and Greg was telling them in Spanish that he was her husband and he needed to come along. He looked at me as he got in to the backseat and shrugged. In Spanish, I asked the shotgun cop where they were taking my friends, and their answer was incomprehensible. I asked if I could come with them, as I had very little money on me and no idea where they were going.
This was my first mistake.
They took us to the police station on the main street of Old Cancun. Bianca was beside herself, still cuffed, doing everything but foaming at the mouth. Greg had entered into negotiations for the requisite bribes, trying to negotiate his way down. Everything seemed under control, so I asked what seemed to be the guy in charge, behind the desk, if I could go and get a pack of cigarettes. He replied in the positive, and I wandered off, confident that all was well. I bought a pack of Montana lights, and a can of Dos Equis, and wandered back to the cop shop, getting impatient to get back to the Strip. This was my second mistake.
As I walked in the door, it became clear that something significant had happened. Two cops were restraining Greg, three restraining Bianca, who if anything had cranked it up a notch into complete non compos mentis wildness, and one cop was sitting on the bench, looking green.
“What the f–k?” I asked Greg.
“She kicked one of the cops in the nuts!” said he.
I offered some of the cops cigarettes, which they took. Then, after a couple minutes, the boss said something to the others, and they took the whole pack. And my wallet and passport, and my belt, and they led me back to a holding area. I was now, somehow, one of the detainees. f–k.
Bianca was still screaming, kicking, trying to bite anyone who came within range. Cuffed as she was, it took what appeared to be a great effort on the part of the two cops still restraining her to keep her in place. Greg had been put back in the holding area with me, and was now pleading for our release for any price, rather than just trying to negotiate the bribe down.
I was starting to sober up. And the cops had taken my smokes.
Some time later, Bianca was brought back from wherever she had been taken, and she looked bad. Blank eyes, slack mouth, bleach-blond mane hanging in front of her face. I don’t know what they had done to her, but Greg bristled, and I started to get a little scared. I’d heard stories about the cops here, and how they dealt with gringos who weren’t tourists. Greg had a temper of his own, and two black belts, and I could see things getting out of control very quickly.
The cops led us out to a patrol car, with a bigger, sturdier cage in the back, and refused to answer our questions about where we were being taken. The three of us were pushed roughly into the backseat, Bianca in the middle, and the doors slammed.
It was dark by now, but it was clear that we were being taken west, out of the city. In the couple of years I’d lived in Mexico, I had heard enough first-hand stories to know that it wasn’t just in the movies that the cops in Mexico take people out into the back of beyond and beat them, or worse. And Bianca having kicked one of the senior cops square in the nuts did not bode well for our future. I started to get really scared, and when Bianca came out of her fugue state and started screaming curses and kicking at the cage between us and the two cops in the front seat, I started to, well, dissociate. Greg kept asking them in Spanish where they were taking us, forcing a calm tone on top of the growing panic in his voice.
No answer from the front seat, and we were leaving the last of the lights of Old Cancun behind. Greg murmured to me “When they open the doors, you go left, I’ll go right. Run.”
I didn’t acknowledge what he’d said. Bianca did, and fell silent. The sheer terror and helplessness washed over me, and I was frozen. I wasn’t sure that if the cops did stop and open the doors in the middle of nowhere, that I’d be able to move, let alone run. Like I said, sheer terror.
A few minutes later, there were lights beside the highway again, and we pulled into the parking lot of the federal prison. It looked like we weren’t going to be dealt with extra-judicially after all. The overwhelming joy and relief I felt at the realization that I was going to be put in jail is a very vivid memory.
That happiness dissipated rather quickly. Mexican jails aren’t very pleasant. But I wasn’t there long, and that’s a tale for another day, perhaps.