Dante, Part 3

You’ve all been heroically patient, so now I will tell you how it ends.

When I got back to California, I put off calling Austin (that being the name of Dante’s son) for a long time. I didn’t know what to say, or who I would be saying it to. Dante had specifically instructed me to talk to Austin, and not Austin’s mother. God had apparently not forgiven the woman yet.

Finally I did call. And who picks up the phone? Austin’s mother. Of course, Dante left his family behind when Austin was only four years old. There was no way Austin had his own phone back then. So I told her who I was, and why I was calling. I described Dante, and told her exactly how he was doing. She was sad, but not surprised. She’d seen him a few years before, after his time in Mexico, and the man she saw then was very similar to the one I was describing, but nothing at all like the man she’d married.

He’d been cleanshaven once (He was, after all, a hairdresser by trade). Now he sported the kind of beard only prophets can get away with. And something that had once been in his eyes was gone. When they met, he had been joyful. By the time he left, he was confiscating Austin’s underoos and mutilating them with scissors because the cartoon characters on them constituted idol worship. She told me she respected his faith, but she also pitied him, was afraid for him and of him.

I told her I wanted to speak to Austin. She put him on the phone, though she was doubtful that he’d want to talk to me.

“What do you want.” said a sullen teenaged voice.
“I’m calling because your dad wanted me to call you.”
“Okay.”
“He wanted me to tell you how he’s doing.”
“Okay.”
“How are you doing?”
“Look, I don’t want to talk to you, okay? He left.”
And that was the end of the conversation.

His mom got back on the phone. She said Austin was still pretty mad at Dante, which I could have guessed. But she also suggested we have lunch some time, her and me and Austin, to talk a little more. I agreed.

Three months later, my spiritual journey across Spain finally culminated at a Chili’s in Orange County. I had discovered Taoism during my pilgrimage (a little ironic, since it’s ostensibly a Catholic pilgrimage) and I had a nice hardcover copy of the Tao Te Ching that I wanted to give to Austin. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find it before leaving for Orange County, so I came bearing nothing.

I arrived at the Chili’s a few minutes early, and sat in the parking lot, reading the first few chapters of A Farewell to Arms (which, if you haven’t read it, is a beautiful little book about the absurdities of war.) Soon the two of them arrived, and we went in together. Austin didn’t talk much, and his Mom mainly asked me questions about my life – what I’d been doing (traveling), what I planned to do (go to grad school for writing). We talked a little about Dante, but nobody learned anything they hadn’t known before. Finally I asked Austin what his future plans were.

“I’m planning to join the Army,” he said.
“Oh?” I said, “Why?”
He shrugged. “It’s something to do.”

The conversation went on, but I was only half listening. It occurred to me that perhaps I hadn’t been able to find the Tao Te Ching for a reason, that perhaps there was a reason for every part of this meeting – Dante in Spain, this Chili’s, the things I just happened to bring with me…

We finished eating, and Austin’s mother paid for all of us. As we prepared to leave, I turned to Austin.

“Hey,” I said, “Your dad told me to get in touch with you, but I’m not here because of him. I’m here to meet you, because I feel like I was supposed to meet you. And I wanted to give you something, from me.” I handed him my copy of A Farewell to Arms. “I think you should read this. It’s a really good book about war.”

He nodded his thanks. We said our goodbyes, and I left. To this day, I still haven’t finished A Farewell to Arms. I haven’t heard from Austin or his mother, either. I don’t know how the story ends. But I was part of the middle, and isn’t that where all the interesting stuff happens?

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Dante, Part 2

Yes yes I know, the Satyricon is unfinished yet. But in my benevolence I could not bear to keep you in suspense about Dante. So let’s see … where was I?

Dante was a deeply strange person. What I mean is, Dante was a deeply religious person, but his religion was something he had custom made. I suppose everyone is an adherent to their own custom made religion, to a greater or lesser degree, but in my experience most people’s religions do not prevent them from eating in the morning until god personally assures them it’s okay. Sometimes he would fast for days. And there were other things.

His religion seemed to be a mix of all the harshest regulations from the old and new testaments. “Soy Judeochristiano,” he would say to our Spanish companions in his exaggerated Californian accent. His religion prohibited the eating of pretty much everything we put in front of him – fish, salad, pork obviously … the only things I ever saw him eat were bread, beans, and honey. He would not walk the Camino on the Sabbath day, much to the chagrin of the innkeepers, who insisted pilgrims only stay at their hostels for one night. The bulk of his luggage was taken up by a bulky harp he’d acquired in Mexico, which he played improvisationally because of a deep feeling of kinship with some biblical prophet.

When I first called out his name, he stopped dead in front of my bunk. He didn’t move from that spot for the next twenty minutes, as I asked him questions about himself and he answered. Most of the people on the Camino de Santiago are doing the pilgrimage as a kind of vacation, walking for a month or two before going back to their real lives and their real jobs. But Dante was a pilgrim for life. He’d been on a pilgrimage for ten years, by his reckoning, and he fished a battered datebook out of his backpack to show me his route.

On the little world map that sometimes comes printed inside the front cover of those sorts of books, he’d traced a serpentine route in red pen. From California to Mexico, and around Mexico for many years, living with what he called his “Spiritual family.” Then across the United States, where he performed miracles of healing. From there he went to Israel, and from Israel to London, where he fell in with a band of travelers calling themselves the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He escaped their group when he discovered that they were not truly the Twelve Tribes, and by then he was in Spain.

Dante had always been a Christian, but his religion had not always been so strict. Over dinner he explained how he had been brought up in a reprehensibly lax sect, whose adherents danced and drank and flirted with each other. He’d fathered a child with one of the other members by accident. And he’d stuck around to raise that child for six years, though, as he explained, his wife was using their son to manipulate him.

But God came to Dante’s rescue. He spoke to Dante, and told him to leave his wife and child. And what kind of person ignores the voice of god? Dante left, seeking work as an itinerant hairdresser (which was how he learned to sharpen knives), and fell into a deep depression. One night, in his shabby apartment, he cried out to God for aid, and God came.

“I remember looking at the moon,” he told me, “And then God spoke to me in a clear quiet voice. He said, ‘Go to your bible.’ And I was filled with energy, so much that I didn’t need to blink. So I went to my bible and opened it. And the bible opened to a description of a prophet having the exact experience I was having at that moment. So I read, and kept reading, and every passage I read I understood in a way I never had before. I fell sleep, and dreamed. No, I didn’t dream. It had a different quality to it. It was a vision. I simply woke up – in the vision – in a bed in a room I’d never seen before. Over the bed was a painting of a rose. I got up and went to the window. Then I woke up. Two weeks later a friend of mine offered me a room in her house. She showed me inside, and over the bed was that exact painting of that exact rose. I fell to my knees and wept.”

A few months later, God instructed Dante to sell off all his possessions and become a pilgrim. A pilgrim, according to Dante, was someone who was simply walking in order to pass the time til judgement day. So he walked. And walked. He’d walked so long that his body was failing.

He told me he admired my youth and my simplicity, how little I managed to carry with me. And he did what he could to help me. He gave me money when I had none and found me shoes when mine wore out. The last night I spent with him was Christmas eve. We ate dinner together, sort of, and he prayed for fifteen solid minutes, saying over and over again
“God, you are so … good” With as much passion as if he were getting a blowjob from Jesus Christ himself.

I left him in the morning, while he argued with the innkeeper about the Sabbath. But before I left, he wrote down a phone number in my little notebook. It was the phone number of Austin, the child he’d left behind in California ten years ago.

“When you get back home,” he said, “Call my son. Tell him I’m okay.”

And I did. But what happened then is a story for another time.

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Dante, Part 1

Hey guys,

I’m boycotting google this week for no good reason, which means I’m boycotting youtube and basically the entire rest of the internet, so no Satyricon today. Instead, let me tell you about a thing that happened one time:

One time, I walked across Spain.

This is a thing that a lot of people do. There is a trail across Spain called the Camino de Santiago. Actually it is several trails and they run through all of Europe and not just Spain, and much of the trail is taken up by either tourist traps or long stretches of highway that you have to walk on the shoulders of. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s say there’s this trail across Spain, and one winter I walked on it.

Before I spent my months in Europe, I didn’t really think about having an American accent. I knew abstractly that American accents existed, but in my head they were generally just classified as “anything that wasn’t a British accent.” After several months spent forcibly deprived of American English – and oftentimes, English altogether – I began to understand what I was missing. It was like having spent my entire youth in a closet full of my own farts, and then being cast unceremoniously out into a field of wildflowers in the midst of spring. I missed my own farts.

Which is why, after two weeks on the Camino, my ears perked up at news of a fellow Californian on the trail. His name was Dante. People told me he was a religious fanatic, that he argued with inkeepers and made his living by sharpening knives. But, more importantly, he was from California. He spoke with not only an American accent, but a Californian accent. I had to meet him.

Every time I stopped for the night, I asked the innkeepers if they’d seen Dante. They all had, and they were all a bit worried about the fact that I was looking for him. And worse, Dante always seemed to be two days ahead of me. In my desperation for a familiar accent, I embarked on a two-day force march up mountains and through driving rain in an attempt to close the gap.

It was the second day of my death-slog, and I was halfway to where I wanted to be by the end of the day. The rain was so merciless it felt like God had his divine firehose of a dick aimed directly at me. I passed a dry-looking little hostel nestled in the hills and said,

“Fuck it.”

The hostel was not only dry, but warm as well, and all my friends from the trail so far were there. Still, though, it sucked that I was never going to meet Dante.

I was in the sleeping quarters, catching up with a German friend of mine. He had just told me about how he’d had his dick grabbed while sick with stomach flu on the streets of Leon, and I was explaining to him my dilemma with Dante. My story was interrupted by the innkeeper showing a new guest into the room. The innkeeper spoke English with just the slightest trace of a Spanish accent, and I heard him say,

“You’re probably used to better than this, being from California.”

I trailed off mid-sentence and sat up. In walked a dangerously thin, impossibly tall man with very small, very round, very blue eyes, his jaw squared off by six inches of dense grey beard. He looked at me.

“Dante?” I said.

“Yes?” He replied.

“I’ve been looking for you.” I said.

He smiled beatifically and cast his eyes towards the ceiling.

“God knows.” He said.

That was by no means the end of my dealings with Dante, but I don’t want to bore you, so I’ll leave the rest of the story for another time.

To be continued…

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How I Met Cuba

Hey so it’s Saturday, and Saturday is the day I go visit my friend Cuba in his house in the park. You may remember Cuba as the dude whose house I was at when the police showed up for unrelated reasons. I’ve been paying weekly visits to Cuba for about five months now, and today is the day I tell you how that all started.

So as I may have told you before, I went to art school. I went for a Master’s degree in writing, which meant two things:

1) Upon graduation, no one would be allowed to correct my grammar EVER AGAIN

2) Before graduation, I had to submit a thesis.

But, this being art school, my thesis could be whatever the hell I wanted. It could be a paper airplane, or a pile of dead leaves, or – in my case – a pair of gloves that allowed the wearer to type by pressing the fingers to the palms in combination, similar to chording a guitar. As part of my project, I attached the gloves and a webcam to a beat up old laptop, wrote a program to superimpose any text I typed over the webcam video, and went walking around my neighborhood. After twelve hours of this, I ended up with about an hour of useful footage and a pile of molten slag where the laptop used to be. Luckily, it wasn’t my laptop.

camera-head

This is what I looked like.

Most of the usable footage wasn’t any good , but I did find something interesting in the course of my journey. When I sat down to rest on a bench in the park, I looked out across the pond and saw what appeared to be a little grey shack.

It was built on a tiny peninsula that stuck out into the pond, and it would have been hidden by a weeping willow if the trees had had any leaves. As I came closer, filming all the time, I saw that the shack was made of what appeared to be grey carpet samples, tied together at the edges with the plastic twine sometimes used to tie up newspapers. I stood in front of the shack, typing to myself, when I heard a sudden movement inside.

“Oh shit,” I typed, and ran. I didn’t know who was inside the shack, but I figured they wouldn’t respond well to a twitchy cyborg hovering outside their door. Then I chased a goose for a while, and more or less forgot about the shack.

But every time I walked through that park (and I walked through it a lot, to get to the restaurant where I worked) I would find myself peering over my shoulder at the mysterious shack. Month after month, it stayed standing. Occasionally I would see a dumpy white woman in a red sweatshirt standing outside, smoking. One day she came into my restaurant to use the bathroom. I didn’t think to ask her about her shack until she was already gone.

I worked at that restaurant all summer, and the whole time I worked there I never had the courage to approach the shack. As the weather warmed up, I started seeing more and more people gathered around the place. I assumed the woman in red was the primary occupant, but maybe I was wrong. Finally, on the day I put in notice at the restaurant (because fuck restaurants) I mustered up the gumption to go say hi.

There was a muddy path worn into the grass where it passed through the willow tree. I emerged, still in my all-black server clothes, in front of two people squatting on milk crates. One was the woman in red, her eyes cloudy and her jaw drooping malevolently. The other was a straight-backed man with a bushy white beard, a grey t-shirt and a castro cap.

“Who the fuck are you?” said the woman.

“I’m … I’m [Publius Ovidius Naso], and I just see you guys over here all the time and I wanted to know what was going on.”

“Why the fuck is it any of your business?” she spat.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll go away if you want me to. I was just curious.”

“Come here asking all these questions,” she said, “You’re a cop, huh?”

“Nope,” I said, “Not a cop.”

“Ey, papi!” said the man with the beard. “Come on, sit down.”

“Are you crazy, Cuba?” said the woman, “He could be a cop!”

“Ee not a cop, papi, come on. Sit down right here, papi. You no listen to her. This my house.” He patted a broken milk crate next to him, and I sat.

“Fuckin’ stupid,” said the woman, “He could be a cop and you let him sit right here.”

“Shaddap!” yelled Cuba, waving her away like a cloud of flies, “Shaddap! Ee not a cop! This my house!”

The woman left us alone, grumbling the whole time, and Cuba turned to me.

“Dey call me Cuba,” he said, “Because I from Cuba. Whatchoo name, papi?”

And then we were friends. I sat on that milk crate for two hours, listening to the story of Cuba’s life. He’d come from his home country on an inflatable raft twenty years before, and worked his way from Florida to Chicago, where a forklift accident damaged his spinal cord and paralyzed him. After submitting to an experimental surgery that left a scar on his back the whole length of his spine, he could walk again, but he couldn’t work. He’d never been much of a drinker before, but now he drank a 40 a day to keep the pain at bay.

As for heroin, the drug of choice in that park, he’d never touched it. That, and the fact that he was the only person with a house in the park, made him a sort of father figure to all the junkies in the area, black and white alike. His little clearing was and is probably the least segregated area of Chicago. The junkies brought him change to buy cigarillos and 40s, and he kept a few ampules of Narcan in a repurposed baby-wipe box in his hut, in case any of them overdosed. My first day there, I watched one of them hide in his house to shoot up. Cuba waited until the guy was done, then kicked him in the leg until he sat up and gave Cuba back his headlamp.

The animals in the park saw Cuba the same way as the junkies did. The rats and squirrels showed up daily for scraps, choosing to converge when most of the other humans were gone. Cuba had raised two of the squirrels himself after their mother was killed by a hawk the previous winter. And there was the rooster.

Garfield – named for the park where he lived – was the king of the camp. Everybody who came by brought him an offering. He pecked at everything he was given, until a little before sunset when he retired to the branches above Cuba’s shack. Cuba had found him abandoned in the park when he was just a baby (there are a lot of wannabe urban farmers in the neighborhood) and the two had been fast friends ever since. From my perch on the milk crate, I watched Cuba lovingly stroke Garfield’s comb. I couldn’t believe any of this shit.

By the time I left, he had decided that I was his honorary son. He had a few of those, but I was the only one who wasn’t on dope. He told me to come back any time, and to tell anybody who gave me trouble that Cuba was my father.

When I came back the next week, I didn’t see Cuba anywhere. But there was a skinny black guy with white powder smeared across his face, and eyes rolled back in his head. He smiled when he saw me, and shook my hand.

“Hey man!” he said, “Good to see you! Where’s that ten bucks you owe me?”

“I don’t owe any money,” I said, “I’m here to see Cuba.”

“Nah man, you remember. We went in on a bag together. You still owe me ten bucks.”

“No,” I said, “I really don’t.”

“You a good swimmer?” He asked me, smiling.

“I’m alright,” I said.

Without warning, he grabbed me by the shoulders and made to toss me in the pond. But as soon as he laid hands on me, Cuba was on him, tackling him into the pond. He spent the next ten minutes chasing the poor guy from bank to bank, waving a kitchen knife. No one ever fucked with me after that.

I could go on and on about Cuba, and the relationship we’ve developed over the last few months. But let me just say this: I’ve always believed that the money I give any beggar on the street is worth it if I’m repayed with a story. But I learned from Cuba that the relationship doesn’t have to be transactional. He told me today that me and Garfield are the only friends he has here. He doesn’t have family. And I’ve spent enough time begging for rides to know how lonely you can get when everyone knows you need something from them. So I guess my point is, every once in a while when you see someone on the street, try giving them a couple words, even if you don’t have a dollar to trade for a story. A lot of homeless people are assholes, for sure, and I’ve met most of them, but there are guys like Cuba, too, begging downtown with his rooster in tow. And if you don’t start a conversation, how are you gonna know who’s who?

Well, I mean, I guess you could look for the rooster…

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Best Birthday (Part 2!)

Yeah I know it’s Sunday and not Saturday. I spent Saturday getting laid, so y’all can just forgive me or whatever.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, gypsies.

So already my birthday was off to a good start. I had half a bottle of coke, a map, and a hat. And it was daytime, so I suspected it might be easier to find a ride to Dover with one of the truckers at the stop. The gypsies all cheerfully wished me luck, and I went over to the parking lot to ask around.

It turned out that gypsy luck is actually total bullshit, though, because once again none of the trucks in the lot were going my way. Still, I had the whole day to find a ride, so I went over to the edge of the lot to wait. There was another guy standing there already, wearing a backpack. I assumed he was another hitch-hiker in the same situation, and figured we could at least pass the time commiserating.

Except, this guy didn’t speak much English. For being in England, I seemed to be running into an awful lot of people who didn’t speak much English. After we established our various language proficiencies, I finally asked,

“You hitch-hiker?”

“No!” he said, “I truck-driver!”

“Where’s your truck?” I asked.

He looked around the sparsely populated lot. “Oh, is coming.” he said confidently.

Not a reassuring answer, but I pressed on. “Are you going to Dover?”

“Yes!”

“Can I ride with you?”

“Yes!”

“Well … okay then!”

And with that, we settled down to wait for my new friend’s truck to arrive. Between awkward attempts at conversation, I juggled and watched as one of the girls from the gypsy camp went from truck driver to truck driver, the same way I had. Finally, she came up to us. She gave me a slight nod, and then turned to my companion, producing a gold ring from her sleeve.

“Ten euro,” she said.

My new friend responded in the only sensible way, which was to produce an identical gold ring from his pocket, and raise the bidding.

“Twelve euro,” he said.

“Where are you from?” asked the gypsy.

“I American!” he said, winking at me.

“Nineteen euro,” said the gypsy.

“Five,” said my friend. I couldn’t decide whether he was attempting to sell his ring or buy hers. This continued for a minute or two, until the gypsy girl finally upped the ante. She reached into her sleeve and produced a gold medallion on a gold chain.

“Thirty euro,” she said triumphantly.

At which point my truck-driver friend reached into his pocket and produced AN IDENTICAL GOLD MEDALLION.

“Fifty euro,” he said.

“You Polish?”  said the gypsy.

“No,” he said, “Croatian.”

She nodded at that, put away her wares, and returned to her camp. I turned to the truck-driver, bewildered, and asked him where he’d come by a full set of gypsy gold, and – more importantly – what the fuck had just happened. To his credit, he really did try to explain, but the most I understood was that the story involved a woman. Then the truck arrived.

It was a barely functional, right-hand-drive cement truck, which my friend had apparently been contracted to drive to Turkey. It had been driven to us by a weathered old cockney who stayed in the drivers’ seat as the two of us piled in. He didn’t seem to mind the extra passenger. As the truck shambled down the motorway towards Dover, I asked the Croatian whether he could drop me off in Amsterdam.

“Amsterdam, sure!” he said, “But why go to Amsterdam? Come to Croatia! Is beautiful! Have family in Croatia, you can stay with!”

“You would take me to Croatia?” I asked.

“Sure!” he said, “I drive to Turkey!”

“And … and you can find me a place to stay?”

“I call and ask,” he said. He called, and asked. “He say sure!” he said.

“Well …” I said, visions of hookers and weed dancing in my head. “Okay.”

“Okay!” he cried, “Yes! We take you to Croatia!”

In Dover, my new friend switched into the driver’s seat, and smuggled me onto a ferry without buying me a fare. He bought me dinner in the trucker’s lounge, and nightfall found us in Belgium, where he bought me a plastic package of Belgian waffles, and a bag of caramel candies named after Napoleon, if memory serves. We drove through the night, speaking pidgin English through a cloud of tobacco smoke. That night ended the best birthday of my life, and began the longest ride I ever hitched.

whereiwent

To this day, I have never been to Amsterdam. I can’t say I really regret that. Everybody’s got Amsterdam stories, but I’m the only one with a cement-truck-to-Croatia story. Conventional wisdom tells us that man plans while God laughs. That makes God out to be a real dickhead, though. I think man plans, and God racks his brain to come up with a counteroffer. Sometimes the counteroffer makes about as much sense as a duplicate gold medallion in a Croatian’s breast pocket. But just because an offer doesn’t make sense, doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering. In fact, those are usually the best ones.

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The Best Birthday (Part 1)

So like most of you, I have birthdays. Generally about one per year. Most of these birthdays have been pleasant, but fairly unremarkable. A couple of them have been truly special. One of them had pirates. But amongst the numerous anniversaries of my nativity, there is one that I fear will never be topped. It involved a cement truck.

I was at a truck stop in southern Britain, trying to hitch-hike to Dover, and from Dover to Amsterdam, because, like, where else do you go in Europe as an 18-year-old boy? How I got to the truck stop is a whole other story, a story that is the rough British equivalent of “The Hills Have Eyes.” Let’s focus on one thing at a time, though. I know you are a product of the internet generation, but calm the fuck down.

So it was night time, and this truck stop was dead. Nobody was going the way I wanted to go, and hardly anybody was there at all. I was exhausted, and a little demoralized. Tomorrow was my birthday, and I was going to spend it miles from anybody who gave a shit if I lived or died. But at least I was on an adventure. Anyway, there was no time to mope. It was starting to rain, and I needed a place to sleep. There was a hotel, but I was being willfully poor and so didn’t have money for a room. What I did have was a tent. As rain began to fall, I searched for a plot of grass to pitch my tent on.

I found the perfect place – an out-of-the-way little plot under some trees. But apparently someone else had had the same idea as me. As I approached, I saw six tents already pitched on the grass, and a couple of men standing amongst them, smoking. I approached them to see what was up. When they saw me, they smiled.

“Romani?” said one, hopefully.

I shook my head, confused.

“Parlez vous Frances?” he said.

I shook my head.

“Italiano?”

“No,” I said.

He sighed, “English?”

“English,” I agreed.

He nodded gamely and rubbed his head, trying to get his English thoughts in order.

“We … gypsies,” he said.

“Gypsies?” I said, “Actual gypsies?”

“Gypsies! Yes! Gypsies! From Romania! You?”

“American”

“Ha HA! American! Why you here?”

“Uhh … Hitch-hiking.”

“Ehh…?”

“Auto-stop. To Dover. Can I pitch my tent here?”

“Ha HA! Autostop!” He motioned to the others in the camp, and a whole family began to gather around me.

“Can I … can I camp? With you?” I tried again.

“Yes! Yes! Camp here with us! Where in America you live?”

“California,” I said.

“California!” he said, “They let you camp in California? In a car?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe. Probably.”

“How much the food?” he said.

“About like here,” I said.

“Lemme see you passport,” he said. I was now surrounded by ten or twelve gypsies, all following the conversation as best they could. The oldest of them was probably in his seventies. The youngest couldn’t have been older than five or six.

“My passport?” I said, suddenly suspicious.

“Passport! Yes! We trade. I show you Romania passport, you show me America passport.”

This seemed like a reasonable deal, so I dug out my passport and exchanged it for his. I immediately realized I’d gotten the short end of the stick. Picture an American driver’s license, but printed on cheap cardstock using a terminally ill printer and then laminated by a half-blind chimpanzee. Meanwhile, the gypsy family was oohing and awing over my embarassingly ostentatious passport, with its amber waves of grain and its purple mountain majesties and its inspirational quotes from American culture heroes. Each page they turned sent them into fits of laughter. Finally, they arrived at the page with my name and picture on it.

“Hey!” said the leader, “Hey! Hey! Your birthday tomorrow!”

“Yeah,” I said, handing back his passport. He gave me mine.

“Happy birthday!” he said. “You want wine? food?”

I wasn’t sure he would understand “Hell yes,” so I just nodded super hard.

What followed was a god-damn feast. Chicken cooked on a grill in the back of one of their piled-high sedans, a soup that was approximately 50% rosemary, bread to soak it up, and as much wine as I could drink. I juggled for the amusement of the children, and when I finally set up my tent, the oldest member of the caravan tried to trade me a gold ring for it. I respectfully declined.

It rained like a shower of dead birds all night, and in the morning I awoke to the leader slapping the side of my tent.

“Hey, hey, get up!” he yelled.

I crawled out of my tent and was greeted by the beaming leader, holding out a glass bottle of Coca Cola.

“Here! Happy birthday!” he said. I took it and drank, to much rejoicing all around.

“Here,” he said, giving me a battered map of the United Kingdom. “Here,” he said, giving me a woolen cap with ear-flaps. “Happy birthday! Happy birthday!”

Breakfast was the same as dinner: chicken, soup, and bread. The children ran circles around me, all smiles, while the adults packed their belongings tetris-style into their cars. The leader wished me good luck, and I marched across the truck stop to the parking lot, to see what Gypsy luck really was.

The Coke was half empty when they gave it to me. The map was practically confetti, and I was on my way to the Netherlands. The hat served me well, but itched terribly and vanished overnight a month later under mysterious circumstances. It was, after all, a gypsy hat. But I had spent the night with a family that was willing to adopt me for a few hours – to show me that, even though I was alone on the road, there were other people alone with me. My dad used to say that whether you celebrate your birthday doesn’t matter. What matters is that you pay attention to what you do on your birthday, and use that as a representative sample of what your life is like at that point. Judging by my 19th birthday, my life was a fucking fairytale.

Oh, what’s that you say? I never mentioned any cement truck? Well I suppose you’ll have to come back next week to hear about that bit, as well as the strangest transaction I’ve ever witnessed.

Safe travels.

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It Is Very Important To Me That I Not Have To Wear Shoes

So for a while I was in graduate school. I’m not anymore,  and thank gods for that. If I’d stayed in any longer, I might have become an Artist. We’re talking about a school where you can show up to your writing workshop with a bunch of yarn glued to a sheet of printer paper and have a 2-hour discussion about what it says about gender politics. Which is why I was so shocked by the email I received towards the end of my first month at the school:

[Ovid],

A few security reports have come to my attention here in the Student Affairs office regarding to fact that you often walk in and around the 116 S Michigan Building without shoes.  This email is to request that you come meet with me and [Cruella De Ville], Associate Director Environmental Health and Safety, to discuss this.

I see that this Wednesday you have class in the afternoons so are you available to meet with us in the morning before class?  We are free to meet at 10:00 am or 11:00 am but can certainly arrange it if you need to meet earlier.

Looking forward to hearing from you shortly.
Thank you,
[Baroness von No-Fun]

Yeah, I don’t wear shoes except in winter. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it on this stupid website. Yell at me all you want in the comments, I’m used to it. But the POINT is, what the hell were the administrative staff at this ART SCHOOL doing confronting me about my shoelessness? Didn’t they have some misused animal carcass to dispose of, or some student to reprimand for drinking a pitcher of his own urine during his critique? (True story.) I wasn’t going to let these people shoe me with their rules. I had to act, and act decisively.

This was somewhat complicated by the fact that I was under a vow of silence at the time, thanks to the professor of my Lucid Dreaming class. (ART. SCHOOL.) So I essentially had three options.

OPTION ONE: Ignore the email completely and go about my barefoot business.

OPTION TWO: Take the meeting, but postpone it to next week, when I would no longer be under the vow of silence.

OPTION THREE: Fuck it, let’s do Wednesday.

GUESS WHICH ONE I PICKED

So now I had two days to figure out a way to communicate in the meeting without using my voice. Luckily, I could still use my words. I sat down in the graduate computer lab, and composed a letter.

Two days later, I showed up at the office of Student Affairs, barefoot, grinning, and completely speechless. I sat down between the head of Student Affairs and the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety, shook their hands, and then produced a letter from my satchel. The head of Student Affairs made a photocopy, and the two women read together in silence.

This is what the letter said:

To Whom it May Concern,

I am grateful that the school cares enough about my well-being to arrange this meeting. The reports are true, as you can see – I do not wear shoes. In consideration of your concern, I feel I owe you an explanation as to why. I do not wear shoes because wearing shoes is against my religion.

I belong to an esoteric Buddhist sect known as Paryayana Buddhism. My religion forbids the eating of meat, the wearing of shoes, and being the first owner of any thing. I am the last living practitioner of this religion, my teacher having passed away four years ago. While I appreciate that the school has certain policies, to begin wearing shoes now would be a disgrace to my teacher’s memory.

Paryayana teaches us that we must adhere to our beliefs, but be reasonable in their application. Thus, I do not intend to remain barefoot when the temperature drops below thirty degrees. I have been walking barefoot for many years, and am prepared to provide a signed note from a podiatrist attesting to its health benefits. I am also more than willing to sign any form of legal release that you require. Only allow me to continue practicing my faith.

Go in peace,

[Ovid]

The two administrators read the letter, then read it again. They looked at each other, then looked at me.

“We’re going to need to take some time to have our legal team look at this,” they said. “But we’re not telling you you have to wear shoes. Just to be clear, that’s not what we’re doing. Just … can we meet again next week?”

I nodded.

Exactly one week later, I was once again sitting in their office, fully able to speak, signing the liability release their legal team had drafted for them. The release granted me permission to be barefoot anywhere on campus, except in the wood and metal shops and in the general vicinity of the laser cutter, all of which seemed, you know, pretty reasonable. After that, I had to show the form to one or two security guards, but most of them knew me already. I got away with so much shit thanks to those security guards.

You see, the school’s administration had fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slight less well-known is this: Never match wits with a writing major, when pride is on the line.

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Train Problems

So one time I was in Italy. I did not have a lot of money when I was in Italy, but I was very excited to be there and I wanted to see as much of it as possible. What I would do is I would ride the trains without buying a ticket. This is ridiculously easy to do in Italy. One thing I would do is I would buy a one-way ticket someplace (say, Florence), ride the train to my destination, spend a day there, and ride back without buying another ticket. When the ticket-taker came through, I would give him my expired one-way ticket. He would squint at the ticket, then ask me,

“Where are you going?”

“To Florence,” I would confidently reply.

“This train is headed for Montevarchi,” the ticket taker would say.

“Oh SHIT” I would cry, snatching the ticket from his hand and running for the doors. “I need to turn around. Thank you so much!”

Then I would get off the train at the next stop and get back on a car that the ticket-taker had already checked.

While I was doing this, I was also running another scam. A group of elementary school children in Arrezzo were enchanted by my juggling, and so I made sure to spend some time with them in the park every day. They would attempt to teach me Italian, and in exchange I would amaze them with my tricks and scare off the older kids who liked to set off fireworks in the park. Then, at night, I would position myself on the city’s main commercial drag, juggling with my collection dish out, and one by one the children would bring their parents by. I have never made so much money juggling as I did in the tiny town of Arrezzo (except for one time in New York City, but that’s a whole other story).

But gradually the children grew bored of me, and my earnings dwindled. Plus I’d been juggling so hard for so many days, my wrists hurt. One night, I finally decided that as soon as I made enough money for a train ticket back to the town where I was staying, I would go.

Not more than two minutes later, two coins dropped into my bowl. One was a euro – the exact amount I was short for a train ticket – and the other was a coin from Denmark, which was totally useless to me. I packed up and headed for the train station.

Of course, I didn’t actually buy a train ticket. Buying train tickets was for other people. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy another train ticket until I ended up in Portugal, where underemployment means that every train has two ticket-takers per car. One time, I pulled my get-off-get-on trick with a ticket-taker near the French border, and when she came through the train a second time and found me there, she just shook her head and let me stay. Yes, I was a terrible person in Italy. It does that to you.

But back to the night in question. I had just found my seat, when I noticed a man enter the cabin. I immediately recognized him as the one who had given me my last two coins. He was a short, balding man who wore every one of his fifty or sixty years on his face, plus some uneven gray stubble. We made eye contact, and I waved. He smiled, and took a seat across the aisle from me.

I thanked him for the money, and he thanked me for juggling. He gave me another euro, and I thanked him for that as well. The train was loud and my Italian was terrible, so he moved to the seat across from me. As we spoke he kept putting his hand on my knee, which made me uncomfortable but was obviously just a friendly Italian thing. Obviously.

There was a lull in the conversation while I tried to find Italian words for what I wanted to say. Finally, I settled for,

“I’m scared.”

He straightened up.

“What? Why?”

“Because I don’t have a ticket for this train.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t have any money.”

“Do you need money?”

I laughed.

“I always need money.”

Sexo?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Sexo?” he said.

“What?” I said, leaning forward in an attempt to hear better.

He leaned in until his mouth was almost touching my ear.

“Sexo?” he said.

“No!” I said, smiling weakly and throwing myself into my seat-back with all my strength. “No, no, grazie, grazie, no, grazie, no, no, no! Grazie!”

He smiled back, his tongue darting out to lick his lips. “Okay,” he said, “You said you needed money.”

“Haha, yes!” I said, “But no! No, grazie.”

“My apartment is in San Giovanni,” he said, putting his hand on my leg again.

“Haha!” I said, “Great! Superb!”

The conductor announced Montevarchi, my stop.

“Hey, that’s me!” I said, “Goodbye!”

“Ciao, bello,” he said, leering.

The conductor had announced my stop, but it was still fifteen minutes away. Fifteen very, extremely long minutes. I stared at the train doors with terrified intensity while my traveling companion eyed me like I was a pork carcass dangling from the metal handrail. Finally the doors opened and I left. I looked over my shoulder to see the man standing at the window, waving at me. I entered an underpass leading out of the station. As soon as I broke line of site with the man, I ran. I ran until I couldn’t anymore.

And even this did not persuade me to start paying for my own train rides.

Maybe the craziest thing about this story is that this is the only time something like this has ever happened to me. If I was a woman, it wouldn’t be unusual if I had a whole gang of stories like this. They wouldn’t seem nearly as unusual. In fact, if I was a woman and I started telling this story, chances are I’d be asked, “Why the fuck were you traveling alone in the first place? Didn’t you know something like this was going to happen?” I hate that. I don’t have anything super insightful to say about it. I just hate it, and wish it would stop. But how do I make it stop if I can’t even afford a train ticket, eh?

Maybe you have some ideas, though. There are more of you than me, and you like my website so you’re probably pretty smart. So work with me here — what can we do to make this story weird for everyone?

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Cops, Junkies, and a Rooster

Thank you all for being so damn cool. I feel like this site attracts a good crowd. You wanna hear about a place that doesn’t attract a good crowd, though? I’m going to interpret your silence as a yes.

There is a park a block from my house. This park is beautiful. It is filled with geese and a pond you can actually fish in. It is bordered on one side by a fieldhouse. I don’t know what a fieldhouse even is, except that this one has a golden dome and looks sweet as hell. This park is also a notorious heroin spot.

FOR EXAMPLE (this isn’t even the real story yet) one Sunday afternoon I was walking across the park on my way home from work. A couple of guys were sitting on folding chairs in the grass. One of them beckoned me over.

“Hey man, come here, lemme talk to you for a second,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“No, no, no,” he said, “squat down here next to me, so I can talk to you for a second.”
I did.
“Would you like to buy some heroin?” he said, “Because we sell heroin here. This is where we sell heroin.”
“No thank you,” I said.
“Okay man,” he said, “That’s cool. If you know anybody, let them know we’re selling heroin over here.”
“Will do,” I said.

That’s what this park is like.

So anyway I know a guy who lives in this park. Everybody calls him Cuba, because that’s where he’s from. He’s probably sixty, he doesn’t do any drugs, and he’s been living in a little lean-to in the park for three years. Also he has a rooster.

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I’ll tell you about how I met Cuba some other time. What’s important to know right now is that I go over to Cuba’s house once or twice a week, and there are a lot of junkies who go over there more often than that.

So on this particular day, I’ve come to Cuba’s to bring him a box of candles. One of the disadvantages of living in a cardboard hut built around an enormous dead tree in the middle of a park is that electricity is scarce, which means Cuba uses a lot of candles. I was also going out of town the next day, and wanted to wish him a Merry Christmas. There was one other person there when I arrived – a woman who was working her way through nursing school and also maybe doing a lot of heroin. She was waiting for her boyfriend to come back with some.

I talked to Cuba for a while about my work and his rooster and the worker’s comp settlement he’s been waiting on all these years. Then the boyfriend came back, apologizing rapidly about something I didn’t take the time to listen to, and I used his arrival as an excuse to leave.

I stepped out of the shack and immediately had a gun pointed at me. The gun belonged to the stocky plain-clothes police officer who was creeping down the dirt path towards the shack. He motioned for me not to speak, then asked,

“How many people are in there?”

I knew it didn’t matter if I told him, but I still didn’t want to tell him anything, so I pretended to be too shocked by the gun to speak. This was not a hard thing to pretend. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent hours imagining all the badass things you might say to someone who had a gun pointed at you. What those imaginary scenarios fail to acknowledge is that someone is going to have a fucking GUN pointed at you. There is something uniquely paralyzing about the knowledge that someone has decided that you may need to die in a minute, and has taken the steps necessary to make that a possibility. The gun he had was tiny, barely as big as his hand. But it was the Finger of Death as far as I was concerned, and I was scared, un-manned, and slightly insulted by it.

He told me to put down my backpack, then poked his gun into the shack.
“Get out here,” he yelled, “Police! Get the fuck out here!”

The nursing student and her boyfriend crawled outside. By now the cop’s partner had arrived. He was tall, skinny, and barely older than me. He looked like he would have been right at home among the junkies. The first cop poked his head back inside.

“You too,” he said.

A minute later, Cuba struggled out of the shack. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and smiled.

“Jesus,” said the younger cop, “How many people do you have in there?”
“Just us,” said the boyfriend, “We don’t got anywhere else to go.”
The younger cop peeked into the shack to verify the statement.
“Jesus Christ!” he said, “They’ve got a fucking rooster in there!”
“Whose rooster is that?” barked the older cop. All eyes went to Cuba.
“Is mine,” said Cuba.
“Where the fuck did you get a rooster?” said the cop.
“I, ah …” said Cuba, attempting to form a large egg in the air with his hands, “I … find him. As a bebe.”

Silence, except for the younger cop chuckling.

“How do you guys all know each other?” said the younger cop.
We all started talking at once.
“We have nowhere else to go,” said the boyfriend,
“We’re broke and homeless,” said the nurse,
“I come here to bring candles and soup,” I said
“I live here,” said Cuba.
“Okay, okay,” said the older cop, “Which one of you bought heroin, though.”
“I don’t have anything,” said the boyfriend.
“Don’t lie,” said the older cop, “we followed you back here. Don’t make me search you.”
“Man,” said the boyfriend, “I don’t have anything. I was just walking around the park for thirty minutes trying to meet up with my guy to pick up some dope but I couldn’t find my guy and I couldn’t get any dope! If I had some dope, I’d be fucking high by now! I was just apologizing to my girl about it!”

The cop looked at the four of us. He lifted the flap and looked inside the shack, where Cuba’s rooster scratched at a sleeping bag, looking for crumbs. He looked back at us.

“You know what?” he said, “I don’t even fucking care anymore. Have a good day. Stay out of trouble.”

The cops turned to leave, and Cuba turned to me, beaming. He shook my hand and pulled me into a hug.

“Merry Christmas, Papi,” he said.

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