Bells and Chickens, Armpits and Underpants

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.

We’re on a Mexican, whoah-oh, radio

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.
“Oh, sh-t.”
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.