texts by Brian Kerstetter

 

Brian Kerstetter is a freelance writer that has published articles on drawings and movies in magazines such as Opium, Anthem, and November. He is the author of a collection of biographical texts based on our travels. He has written extensively in the hotel lobby. From 1999-2013 he worked as a writer for WNET, the PBStelevision station in New York City. He studied literature in the United States and Lausanne, Switzerland.

 

DR. BOXMOVER

 

 

According to the Center for Disease Control, travelers to the West African country of Ghana should be vaccinated.  And re-vaccinated.  And vaccinated again.  To gain legal entry into the country, visitors are required to present a medical certificate as proof of vaccination for yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, and tetanus.  You’ll also require a two month supply of malaria tablets, whose side effects include violent nightmares.  O. and I were planning a trip to Ghana for a week to film scenes in the capital Accra – in the marketplace, on the beach, in the streets, and on a mound of smoking trash with an assortment of homeless kids.

 

A month before our departure, O. organized our vaccinations by googling “Ghana vaccines NYC” and randomly made an appointment with a Dr. X on Broadway.  In route to the doctor’s office I asked O. why he’d selected this particular physician.  “I liked the Web site,” he responded.  “It had a cartoon of a green dog convincing a pink cat not to snack between meals.”  I thought about this for a moment and it seemed to make sense.  O. had an impressive track record of making decisions, both great and small, based on his reaction to a Web site.  He’d once led his wife, Makiko, half-way around the world to an island resort off the coast of Australia simply because he’d noticed an Illy espresso machine in the background photo of the resort’s homepage.

 

When O. and I arrived Dr. X’s office, of course it no longer existed at that address.  It was now a Dunkin Donuts.  We ordered two Boston Crème doughnuts and two coffees, while O. called the doctor for the new address. Dr. X’s new office was in an old warehouse with a rusty fire escape zigzagging along the front of the building, like New York buildings in Martin Scorsese movies from the 1970s.  We rang the buzzer next to Dr. X’s name and a voice said “fourth floor” and the door buzzed open.

 

The building seemed to be deserted, as we climbed the four flights of stairs.  Above the second floor landing, a plump black fly was buzzing around an exposed light bulb.  “Dumb fat fly,” O. said, climbing the steps two at a time.   On the fourth floor we met a sweating workman unloading boxes.  He was tall and wore blue jeans and a t-shirt.  “Hello,” he said, seemingly surprised to see someone in the building.  “We just moved.  Go right in.”

 

The waiting room looked like a children’s nursery – toys, dolls, race cars, trains, puzzles, and candy covered the floor.  The room was empty, except for a pale woman with her hair in a bun and a young boy with dried blood on his lip, sitting on the floor pushing a red sports car back and forth, generating a revving sound with his puffy lips.  Suddenly the woman stood up, took the boy by the arm, and quickly pulled him out of the office and down the stairs.  The child looked back at us, touching his lower lip.

At the receptionist’s window, O.  picked up a business card.  “Dr. X, MD, Pediatrics.”  “Can I help you?” a voice from behind the glass asked.

“Dr. X is only for kids?” O. asked the receptionist.

 

“Most of Dr. X’s patients are children,” she replied, handing us each a clipboard of papers to fill out.

“So the needles will be smaller?” O. asked, smiling.  The receptionist looked up at him, blinked and slid the glass window closed.

O. and I sat alone in the waiting room, filling out our forms.  A box of half-eaten Gummy Bears kept O. company on the seat next to him.  The final page on our clipboard read FOR PARENTS.  O. slowly walked back to the receptionist.

“Do I need my parents’ signature for my vaccines?” he asked through the glass pane.

“How old are you?” she asked matter-of-factly, not getting O.’s attempt at humor.

“Thirty-six” he replied.

“No,” she replied, pinching the word out with both lips and returning to her keyboard.

 

We sat in the waiting room in silence looking at the toys.  I picked up a worn copy of The Sesame Street Alphabet Book for Toddlers and read through the alphabet, quietly moving my lips.  On the page for the letter -B-  there appeared to be two drops of fresh blood smeared on the page.  Was -B- for bunny or blood?  Meanwhile across the room, O. had discovered the puppet of a monkey and a hippo and started a conversation between the two animals, employing a different voice for each.  It unfolded something like this:

“Why are you so goddamn fat, Mr. Hippo?” asked the monkey in a high voice.

“Because I eat too many stupid fucking monkeys,” the hippo replied in a low voice.

 

The intellectual animal conversation continued like that for fifteen minutes, until the nurse called our names and led us down a dark hallway into a sterilized white office that contained a doctor’s table, a chair, a telescope and a large poster of a cartoon giraffe taking its own temperature.  A moment later the workman who had been unloading boxes at the entrance came into the office wearing a white lab coat and carrying our clipboards.  “Hi again,” he said.  “I’m Dr. X.”

 

O. and I looked at each other.  Noticing O.’s confusion, Dr. X replied, “Oh, you mean the boxes…” and didn’t say anything else.  The nurse from the front desk knocked and entered with a tray carrying two rows of six miniature vials filled with clear liquid, twelve enormous syringes with orange plastic tips, and a mound of cotton balls.

 Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Bavaria, 1849

 

I am a natural talent when it comes to acting—or so says the international press. “The poor man’s Borat” (the Guardian), “a global jackass … you just want to slap” (the New Yorker), “the wannabe Fatty Arbuckle of the twenty-first century” (Der Spiegel).

 

I do not believe a word of it. Not because it is not true—simply because I do not believe in acting as a profession. Like most things in life, you either have it or you don’t. And I have it. My diction resembles the crisp snapping of a spring carrot; my carriage flows like honey dripping from a eucalyptus leaf. But even God’s most harmonious gifts can house a hairline fracture, an invisible patch of black ice that sends “the chosen one” sliding tragically under the bus. Mine is white wine.

 

The pale grape, you see, runs like a malediction through my family, and has done so for centuries. It first took hold of flesh and bone in the form of my great-great-great-grandmother, Clementine Augustus Pullman, in Bavaria. After a jar of Gewürztraminer, she marched into her husband’s study, chopped him into pieces, and, using her Napoleon-era meat slicer, minced him into Bratwurst. Sounds terrible, even improbable, but an article in the Suddeutsche Zeitung from October 12, 1849, documents the fait divers. “The wife, surnamed Pullman, with chicken knife, enraged and smelling of the sour grape, sent her husband into the next life, bit by bit, not

of a piece.” The article goes on to cite University of Tübingen

Professor Werner Kirkenheim, who first labeled the affliction Crapula Inhonestus, or the White Wine Uglies.

 

Initially, I thought I had escaped the disease, but on my sixteenth birthday, the curse latched on to my soul, never to surrender. Today, a few droplets of Asti and I am like Mount Vesuvius erupting over the doomed city of Pompeii. O. can testify that a splash of the stuff transforms me into a raging bull rushing through a Ghanaian market, drives me into battle with the mud-men of Papua New Guinea, and compels me to head-butt defenseless llamas in Machu Picchu.

 

My doctor conducted a battery of tests in my adolescence, confiding to my father, “Your son must never, and I mean never, consume le blanc. It is his curse, a curse he shall carry to the grave.” So I heeded his advice through my twenties and well into my thirties—until I met O.

 

“I wanna see, I wanna see!” O. shouted, clapping his hands like a kid on Christmas morning when I mentioned the curse in passing. Little did I know how he would “put to use” this black stain on my soul …

 

Last summer we filmed a turbulent scene on a farm in Appenzell, Switzerland, with two actors dressed in the local paysan tradition—yellow pants, red vest, and white socks. O. poured me a shot of Rhine white and stepped back, as though lighting a stick of dynamite.

“Show me the Devil! Show me the Devil!” He screamed, pressing the record button.

 

No sooner had a bead of the sweet nectar trickled past my tonsils than I spread my fingers wide open on a wooden milk crate and began ramming the blade of a Swiss Army knife down between them, Russian roulette style.

 

O. filmed as the blood welled up from my middle finger. He captured

the horror on the actors’ faces. I had plunged the knife clean through until it was sticking in the wood crate below. The blood flowed down the crate and onto a block of Gruyère cheese, filling the holes, one by one, with pools of warm blood. O. snapped a photo of this—the yellow cheese dotted with craters of red demon’s blood (and several months later Nils Stærk, his Copenhagen gallerist, sold the photo to an eccentric Latvian physician turned artisanal cheesemonger for $95,000, the highest price ever paid for an O. photograph). As I went into shock, O. removed his left sock and fashioned a tourniquet to stem the bleeding. I did not feel a thing, only the evil effects of the Crapula Inhonestus racing through my veins.

 

At the hospital, I greeted the doctor with my raised “f… you” finger wrapped in O.’s smelly sock. His mouth fell open when he removed the sock, muttering in German.

“Says it looks like a bloated albino walrus,” O. translated.

“Is that the medical term?” I asked cheerfully.

“Your finger’s dying,” the doctor added. “No blood. Who tied this … is this a sock?”

I pointed at O.. Shocked by the amount of blood, O. had tied off my middle finger like he was closing off a ruptured aorta.

“You have two options,” the doctor continued, holding my finger like a soggy phallus. “I stitch it, needle through fingernail, excruciating pain, or …”

He hesitated, looked at O., and said something in German.

“Or he’ll chop it off,” O. translated matter-of-factly.

“Lop it off,” I said, the White Wine Uglies still pummeling my brain. “I’m serious, Doc. Amputate. Off with it. Chop-Chop!”

 

Not amused, the doctor removed his gloves and stepped out to the hall with O.. Eventually a burly nurse with tinted hair came to sterilize the wound and wrap it in gauze. Before waddling away, she gave the bandages a painful tug, compliments of the doctor.

 

To this day, when I catch sight of my disfigured middle finger, I think, “What a shame this appendage isn’t more beautiful,” as it is key to the gesture I reserve especially for O. when he pours me a drink and makes me do stupid things, so many stupid things, and calls it art.

 

A STORY ABOUT PLANETS & ASSES

 

 

On the Vacation Request Form at work, in the box marked Purpose of Trip, I was obliged to write what I had no desire to put into writing.  That is, the truth. Glue Planets on Girl in L.A.  I left out the nudity, the Gorilla Gluesticks, and the horse named Rusty.  Still, when the form reached my boss’s desk, I was summoned to her office.

“What’s this?” she said, dangling the form away from her, like a used Kleenex.

“What’s what?” I said.

She put on her bifocals and read, “Glue Planets on Girl in L.A.,” then removed her glasses and squinted at me, to make certain the request was genuine.

I nodded respectfully.

“What does this mean?” she asked, gesturing down at the form.

“Just helping a friend.”

“How’s that?”

In the past, I would have gone to pieces at this point and begun a campaign of generic disinformation.  This time, wishing to set off with a clear conscience, I persisted in the light of the naked truth.

“Holding the horse,” I said, not making eye contact.

Her facial features scrunched up and formed a point in the middle of her face, like she was suppressing a sneeze.

“Horse?”

“I’m holding the horse,” I said.  “For the photo.”

“What photo?”

“The girl with the planets glued to her, she’s sitting on a horse, for the photo.”

In the setting of my boss’s office, surrounded by bookshelves proudly displaying Emmy Awards and photographs taken with Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, the word “horse” echoed with all the charm of an accidental fart.  Envisioning the scene – girls, planets, horses – she made the split-second decision to cut bait, scribbling on the form, and waving it urgently in the air for me to remove from her vicinity.

“Bring you a souvenir,” I said and closed the door behind me.

 

O. and I sputtered out of the Los Angeles Airport in what felt like a North Korean rental car, an hour later lurching into the parking lot of the Malibu Dude Ranch in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.  There, yawning against a rusty Dodge pickup, wearing cowboy boots, cut-offs and a tank top, over which her blonde extensions tumbled, was our model, Cindy, as she called herself.  She was accompanied by her skinny teenage son, Manny, who eyed us like two guys that had turned up his mother on the Internet and taken a cross-country flight specifically to prop her on a horse and glue paper planets to her rear.  After shaking hands with Manny, who turned out to be Cindy’s thirty-two year old boyfriend, our fingers smelled like aftershave and bacon.

 

The moment the owner of the ranch got wind of O.’s intention for the horse, he winked and said, “Rusty…Rusty’s your horse.”  The wink made me feel sordid, like we were production assistants renting a horse for Larry Flynt’s latest video.  I envisioned the owner giving the same wink to Rusty and saying, “Show’em how we treat perverts in these parts.”  I came away from the transaction wondering who the joke was on, us or Rusty.

Rusty steered us along a footpath behind the ranch for much of an hour until, without warning, he came to a standstill and wouldn’t budge.  O. extracted a medley of lunch items from his backpack, in the hopes of getting Rusty to push on.  A bag of Tangy Ranch-flavored Doritos only made him sneeze.  O.’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich struck him as so unappetizing that he turned away, preferring to snap at a passing fly instead.  O. dangled a sweaty, half-eaten Snickers bar a few paces in front of him, while making clicking sounds with his tongue, which produced no effect on Rusty but induced Manny to lick his lips and step forward.

 

O. suggested I take a leveraged position behind Rusty and try knocking him forward with my shoulder, the way cops break down doors in the movies.  I dug in with both feet just behind Rusty’s tail, lowered my left shoulder, and heaved my weight against the beast’s hind quarters.  For a full minute Rusty and I didn’t budge from that position.  We appeared to be posing for a portrait, such was our motionless stalemate, until I began to seethe and gurgle and redden under the exertion.  Rusty just stood there, occasionally peering behind him with disinterest.  Sensing that a full head of steam would dislodge the obstinate creature, I retreated ten paces and torpedoed myself against Rusty’s muscled posterior, bouncing backwards and collapsing into a heap beneath Rusty’s tail.  The maneuver must have irritated Rusty – he jerked his tail upwards and, with a whooshing sound, swatted me squarely across the face.  Like a parent watching his below average child shove marbles up his nose, O. shook his head and said, “Neanderthal, I was joking.”

 

We had no option but to shoot the photo right there, on the trail, so I used Rusty’s hind quarters to swivel him to face the sun.  Before O. could lodge a professional request to do so, Cindy hopped out of her clothes and bounced up on Rusty’s back.  O. withdrew a Ziploc bag of pre-cut planets, comets, and moons he’d snipped from a National Geographic map of the solar system and, wielding a couple of Gorilla Gluesticks, we set about reconstituting the solar system across Cindy’s curvaceous milky way.

“Saturn,” Cindy said, lazing forward, as I glued an orange planet to her skin.

“Venus,” she said, watching O. affix a yellow disk with purple rings.

“Mercury.”

“Jupiter.”

“Neptune.”

She named each planet, one by one, as though she were an Honor Student taking an oral exam in Science class.

“Pluto,” she said affectionately.  “Pluto’s my favorite.  But it’s not a planet.  Ya know that, right?”

Turns out, Cindy had been an Applied Science major at UC-Santa Barbara, with a minor in Astronomy.  She’d written a paper contesting the International Astronomical Union’s decision to reclassify Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet.  Of all the stars we tacked to Cindy’s ass, she furnished the correct name and spectral class for twenty-five of them, only wavering on the asteroids from the lesser known Kuiper Belt.

“Not bad,” O. said, awestruck that someone could name planets other than the Earth, the Moon and the Sun.

“MY VERY EDUCATED MOTHER JUST SERVED US NACHOS,” Cindy said.

Eager to reciprocate his knowledge of nursery rhymes, O. said, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.  All the King’s…”

“No, no,” Cindy corrected.  “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos … Mercury, Venus, Earth,Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune!” Cindy exclaimed, her voice building to a crescendo.  “It’s a memory trick from school, get it?”

Without missing a beat, O. said, “No Idiot Needs…um…Egghead Or Froglegs Or …or…Underwear Ravioli!”

Cindy mouthed the words, struggling to piece together exactly what O. wanted to remember by this phrase.

“N-I-N-E something?” she said, suspecting it would be another science trick from school.

“Oh, sometimes I can’t remember what wine to order on Fridays.”

“…and Froglegs and Ravioi Underwear… that helps you remember?”

“Not really,” O. said, pressing a cut-out of the Moon against Cindy’s butt.

With a miniature constellation shimmering on Cindy’s rear, O. mounted his Hasselblad and measured the light.  As he was about to release the shutter, a gust of wind uprooted the cut-outs of Saturn and Neptune from Cindy’s rear and sent them hurtling into a nearby eucalyptus bush.  Without a backup stash of planets, O. chucked himself to the dirt and began crabbing around the perimeter of the eucalyptus on all fours, like a wrestler.  As more planets detached and spiralled skyward, Cindy called out their names, one by one, like a kid calling out state license plates during a cross-country car ride.

“Neptune!”

“Mars!”

“There goes Saturn!”

“The Moon!”

“The Sun, oh!”

“Not Pluto!” Cindy cried, snatching at what looked like a Daisy petal twinkling in the breeze.  “Get Pluto!”

“Goddamn it, Cindy!  I see it!  I see it!” O. hollered, and lunged headlong into a Desert Milkweed in pursuit of Neptune.

When the wind subsided, only four paper disks teetered from Cindy’s haunch.  O. and I had managed to track down most of the breakaway planets and we set about reattaching them when, out of the blue, Rusty erupted onto his hind legs, as though a hornet had flown up his ass, and charged back toward the ranch with Cindy bucking up and down like a stripper at a rodeo.  The last thing I glimpsed, as they rounded the bend and headed for home, were two pairs of flopping butt cheeks, Rusty’s and Cindy’s, retreating into a flurry of dust, as Cindy wailed, “Russssss- teeeeeee!”

We caught up with them in the parking lot, Rusty’s head lowered, slurping from a mud puddle beside a Chrysler minivan.  Convinced Rusty was about to make another break for it, Cindy remained velcroed to his back.  Manny required ten minutes to finally coax Cindy off the horse, while O. needed twice that, and a healthy stream of twenty dollar bills, to get her to re-perch her buttocks on his back to finally shoot the photo.

In the parking lot, beside a yellow school bus, I hastily laminated Cindy’s ass with a fine layer of Gorilla Glue and slapped a handful of planets into formation.  O. wasted no time firing off five large format plate photographs, during which I overheard Cindy warn Manny, “You hold this fucking donkey, ya hear?”  With the final click of the camera, Cindy dropped to the ground, threw on her clothes and hightailed it to her pickup, barely leaving Manny the time to dive into the passenger seat as she sped off.

O. stood watching the dust cloud behind Cindy’s truck as it filtered up the gravel road and disappeared over a ridge.  Then, hands in his pockets, he strolled over to Rusty.

“So, this is what you do?”  O. said, withdrawing an apple from his pocket and buffing it on his T-shirt, right in front of Rusty.  “A naked girl hops on your back … and this is what you do.”

“He’s just a horse,” I said.

“And I’m just a human,” O. said tartly, annoyed that I would take Rusty’s side.

Seeing O. preoccupied in conversation, Rusty snapped at the apple.

“Think I was born yesterday, Horse?” O. said.

 

The moment Rusty heard himself addressed as Horse, he lunged forward, this time taking the loudest bite of apple I’ve ever heard, while depositing a shiny coat of saliva over the back of O.’s hand.  Then Rusty cast his eyes up at us, with a look that said, “Think I was born yesterday, assholes?”

 

Chasing llamas at Machu Picchu

 

The illustrious Inca Empire, say the history books, encompassed a population with charcoal hair and caramel skin, measuring five feet tall. I, for my part, stand six feet and five inches, with red hair, green eyes, and pasty skin. So it was logical, O. thought, to make a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu to dress me up as a modern-day Inca for his movie HOME.

 

Machu Picchu has the most tourist shops per square foot in all South America, making it a piece of cake for O. to outfit me as an Inca, or at least his warped vision of one: rubber sandals, Chinese socks, a scratchy loincloth, mustard tunic (with matching belt), gold earrings, some plastic brooches, and a hollow wooden bull’s head. I modeled the ensemble in the souvenir shop. All the vendors agreed: I was the “very incarnation of a twenty-first century Inca.”

 

The following morning, we took the first tourist bus up the mountain to the grassy summit of Machu Picchu, where llamas and alpacas grazed amid the ruins.

“Culture tourists,” O. grumbled, already in a bad mood, having spotted a European couple posing for pictures beside a relic.

“Do they realize that stone, the one she’s holding, was probably

the toilet where the Incas took a dump every morning?” He muttered, adjusting his camera.

 

Behind an obelisk, I slipped into my Inca outfit. O. wanted to film the scene before the landscape turned into a museum for tourists and boy scouts. As I adjusted my loincloth, two bored llamas trundled over. Clearly they had never set eyes on a true Inca before.

I let them ogle me, figuring these pathetic creatures must be fed up with the constant stream of bearded backpackers from Bavaria. These two glorified goats did not budge. Instead they chewed their cud and stared while I adjusted my bull’s head. They could not get enough of my Inca-ness.

 

“Action!” O. called out.

I started chasing these two beasts counter clockwise around a crumbling sundial, which really confused them—and me, for that matter. O. scampered behind in his Birkenstocks, filming and barking orders.

“Over this wall! Under that arch!”

I pursued the llamas this way and that: over walls, under arches, up and down steps.

“Talk to ‘em,” O. shouted. “We need dialogue! Chemistry! We need chemistry!”

“Chemistry?” I shouted back, still chasing the llamas this way and that. “What do you mean chemistry? They’re llamas!”

I galloped up beside one of them and, lacking inspiration, inquired about his family, about recent weather trends, and where to find a lush patch of grass.

“Bo-ring! Bo-ring!” O. bellowed from behind the camera.

 

Suddenly I recalled the dialogue from the Brazilian tele-novella I had watched in the hotel the previous night. I shouted a few depraved questions about their sex life. You know, preferred positions, French maid outfits, handcuffs, websites etc. Just as I screamed “handcuffs,” we ran head first into a sea of Peruvian school kids, mouths ajar, blinking. They were joined by a BBC film crew who happened to be on site producing a documentary on the effects of eco-tourism entitled Are Humans The Problem?

O. had not noticed the crowd from behind the camera and continued calling out orders. “Threesomes! Ask ‘em about threesomes!”

I threw myself on all fours like a bull and galloped after the llamas, hoping to nudge the slower one in the butt cheeks. But this was not to be. My knee crashed down on a protruding relic, leaving me curled in the fetal position and sucking my thumb in agony. I spewed a string of expletives that, to this day, due to the kids, I regret.

 

Unable to believe his luck, the BBC filmmaker frantically recorded the scene, narrating, “In the crown jewel of the Inca Empire, this represents a new low, this appalling display of … of … eco-hooliganism!”

But O. was not finished.

“Charge the kids!” He called out. “Ha ha, they love it! Charge the kids!”

Holding my knee with one hand, I hopped into the mass of kids with my bull’s head on. Groups of boys mimicked the bull and matador routine with their sweaters, hooting and hollering, generating a circus atmosphere.

“You getting this, Nigel? You getting this!” Exclaimed the BBC director, nearly wetting himself.

 

It took over an hour for the pandemonium to finally die down. I limped over to the llama whose rear end I had head-butted. I lowered my face in front of his until I could smell his grassy breath.

 “You’re gonna be a movie star,” I told him. “A movie star.”

“Inca freaks!” A voice suddenly cried out from a group of tourists, dismayed by what they had witnessed. “Inca freaks! Go home!”

O. just shook his head and gently patted the llama, cupping his hands around its hairy llama ear.

“See,” he whispered, “see how humans treat each other in the name of C-U-L-T-U-R-E?”

DINNER ON EASTER ISLAND

 

When we decided to go to Easter Island and photograph the moai statues, O. wrote a few emails detailing his project to a number of travel agents on the island about how to get the necessary legal permits for the project.  Since the statues and the island are strictly protected by international cultural organizations, none of the agents was helpful.  In fact, most were downright offended by the idea of using the ancient, spiritual moai in a contemporary art piece.  History and culture, it appeared, is chiseled in stone and not to be trifled with.

 

One of the nicer responses from a travel agent politely informed us that our plan to put rabbit ears and big red clown mouths on the venerable statues was inappropriate and bordering on disrespectful.  Another response stood out by its intensity and brevity.  A German woman who owned an agency on the island and who clearly thought much of History and Culture simply wrote: DON’T COME TO EASTER ISLAND!

 

After 24 hours of travel, we arrived on Easter Island with armfuls of homemade rabbit ears and big red mouths falling out of our baggage.  On the evening of our departure from New York we had our traditional glass and a half of red wine at the Savoy.  The Savoy is a corner restaurant with a wall of glass windows that in the Summer are flung open to the SoHo street life.  We are on familiar terms with the bartenders and every Friday you can find us propped up at the horseshoe bar, like a couple of old men, clinking glasses of red wine.  On the night we left for Easter Island, Chuck the tattooed bartender told us a story about going to Hawaii to visit his fiancée’s family and how the mother was a bitch to him and how he almost drowned while canoeing in the Pacific.

 

It took three planes to get to Easter Island.  When we disembarked from the plane it was night.  A handful of Polynesian natives were on the tarmac in jeans and t-shirts with wreaths of fresh flowers they put around our necks.  The flowers were so bright and soft – orange, yellow, red – that they seemed to be made of cool rubber and glow in the dark with little electric light bulbs inside them.  At the hotel reception they served us fresh mango juice.  With flowers around his neck and mango juice in his hand, O. said, “Maybe someone can come paint us red, so everyone on the island knows we are the fresh batch of stupid fucking tourists with our cameras all ready to have our exotic cultural vacation.”

 

The first day on the island the daylight was yellow and purple, so we decided to take the photograph immediately.  The set-up of the photo consisted of humiliating a row of seven 500-year-old moai by strategically positioning rabbit ears and a big red mouths in front of them with a handmade iron and string construction, which gave the illusion of the statues having bunny ears and red mouths.  We didn’t actually physically touch the statues to complete the photo, so we had no reason to feel guilty.

 

While we set up the photo a Spanish couple on their honeymoon and their guide came over and looked through the camera at the silly statues with ears and mouths and laughed.  O. said that seeing statues with rabbit ears on their honeymoon was good luck and that they would have lots of “beautiful childs.”  The guide looked through the camera lens too, looked harshly at us and walked back to the Jeep.  When they had left, I took the opportunity to tell O. that we are bad people.

 

After the shoot we went into the only village on the island to have dinner at one of the local restaurants that specializes in fresh tuna and Chilean red wine.  We were seated next to a German lady and her Chilean husband.  O. and the lady started a conversation, while the husband and I politely buttered our bread. Here is their conversation as I remember it:

O.: Why are there so many German tourists on Easter Island?

Lady: Well I’m a travel agent, I book a lot of flights for Germans.  Germany helped restore some of the statues, you know?  Germans care about culture!

O.: What’s the name of your travel agency?  I wrote to several agencies about my trip.  I’m a contemporary artist.

Lady: Contemporary artist?  You’re not… you’re not the one from New York with the rabbit ears?  Oh my God!

O. (smiling): Yea, I wrote you explaining my project, about the rabbit ears and red mouths.  You see, I DID COME TO EASTER ISLAND!

Lady: But those are sacred statues, they are the work of ancient peoples representing their tribal leaders and God.  How would you like…

O. (drinking a glass of wine): I remember your email with the big letters DON”T COME TO EASTER ISLAND!!!  But here I am!  Here I am on Easter Island!

Lady:  I mean … how would you like someone to put rabbit ears and a red mouth on Jesus?

O. (taking a bite of tuna): Yes, I would like!

 

At that point the husband laughed unexpectedly but stopped when he looked at his wife.  The lady asked for the check and, because she is a civilized European, did not forget to say a serious ‘goodbye’ when she left.

I have found that whenever you meet someone you take a real dislike to, you inevitably run into them more frequently.  Before the night was out, we ran into the German travel agent again at an ‘authentic’ Easter Island bar where there were only natives and us sitting at long tables drinking bottled beer and waiting for the band to start.  She was seated at the bar doing her best to ignore us, happily engulfed in the scratchy salsa coming out of the speakers.

 

I have found that whenever you meet someone you take a real dislike to, you inevitably run into them more frequently.  Before the night was out, we ran into the German travel agent again at an ‘authentic’ Easter Island bar where there were only natives and us sitting at long tables drinking bottled beer and waiting for the band to start.  She was seated at the bar doing her best to ignore us, happily engulfed in the scratchy salsa coming out of the speakers.

 

 

 

Drug-Sniffing Kangaroo

 

Last summer O. and I spent a week filming bearded women in villages along the Sepik River in Papau New Guinea.  When we could no longer take the sight of another beard that didn’t belong to a man, we filmed a crocodile that, we were told, had eaten the top half of a man the week before.  Primarily we turned the camera on the famous Mudmen tribe – the reason for our trip – O. managed to capture an impromptu fight scene between myself and the Mudmen, in which I dance around in leather sandals and poke their chief with a long stick.  In the evening, during an argument with O. about Paul McCartney, I tore the contact lens in my left eye and spent the rest of the trip looking like a pirate with an eye patch.  I told the other tourists in our group I’d been stung by a malaria mosquito in my eyeball and they spent the rest of the tour applying insect repellent to their eyelids.

 

After a week of this, mentally and physically broken, O. and I took a return flight back to Tokyo but, due to a typhoon in Japan, we were diverted to Brisbane, Australia.  Leaving the plane in Brisbane, the Australian Customs officers lined us up in a hallway, with our bags at our feet.  A round female officer with yellow hair, accompanied by her drug-sniffing dog Charlie, announced, “Now, Charlie’s going to have a sniff of your bags before you pass through Customs.”

“Charlie?” O. said, consulting his fake Rolex.

 

Charlie zigzagged in and out of the bags, flaring his nostrils and running his moist nose over the line of carry-on luggage.  He hesitated over a businessman’s briefcase and the man looked at the other passengers with a nervous smile.  Then Charlie hovered over an old woman’s purse long enough for her mouth to drop open.  When Charlie arrived at O.’s feet, he completely disregarded his backpack, instead fixating on his Addidas tennis shoes.  We’d just spent a week trekking in the jungle, so Charlie was like a glutton at a 10-course meal.  His nose wiggled, twitched, expanded, finally producing a noise somewhere between a sneeze and a bark.  He licked O.’s shoelaces and moved on, leaving a distinct, shiny trail of saliva over O.’s shoes.

 

Charlie continued down the line of passengers, hesitating over a few more bags, just long enough to destabilize their owners.  The more agitated the passengers became, the more O. was amused by the whole process – human beings standing nervously in a row being sniffed by a dog named Charlie.

“After the dog finishes,” O. said louder than necessary.  “They should bring in a giraffe to smell our bags, then a lion, a kangaroo, a monkey, one stupid animal after the other!”

 

I had the image of businessmen, tourists and someone’s grandmother standing in a line being sniffed for drugs by a selection of wild animals.  As I passed through Customs, I had tears in my eyes, straining so hard not to laugh as the Customs Officer wished me a good day.

 

To this day, I can’t disembark from an international flight without hoping that a customs officer is waiting for me with a camel or a zebra to sniff me for drugs.

E.T IN AMISH COUNTRY

 

 

“He is afraid. He is totally alone. He is 3 million light years from home.”  This tagline from the 1982 movieE.T. characterizes my sentiments, one afternoon in the winter of 2003, when O. loaded a ragtag collection of friends into a borrowed diesel station wagon and transported us across state lines to the land of the European Free-Church Family of Mennonites, Brethren Quakers and other denominations.  Otherwise known as the Amish.

 

Our objective was to film a scene in which we would outfit ourselves as urban hooligans and chase O.’s assistant, Kevin, attired in Amish costume, over the cropland of an Amish farmstead, strip him wholly naked, pull a synthetic E.T. mask over his head, and continue to hound him wielding golf clubs in the air.  But I’m putting the cart before the horse, and that doesn’t do anyone any good in Amish country.

 

Looking back, I’ve never grasped why O. wished to impose a naked version of the 1980s iconic Hollywood character on our Amish brethren.  They are, after all, a harmless people called to God via a simple life of faith, discipline, and humility, inclined to disregard the “English” and their dissolute ways and are generally afforded the same disregard in return.  Were O. questioned as to why he imported E.T. to the Amish, I’d be willing to bet he would shrug his shoulders, as though pondering it for the first time, and say, “No idea.  I like E.T.  I like the Amish.”

 

Being Swiss German, O. felt instantly at ease in the Amish counties.  Settled in the passenger seat as I steered our motley assortment of friends through the rural landscape, his head buried in a 1974 map entitled The Amish in America, O. proclaimed that we were now in the land of a subgroup of the Old Order Amish, known as the Swiss Amish, who speak the Swiss German dialect, like himself.

“Did you know, the Swiss Amish only use open top buggies,” he stated proudly, reading from the What You Should Know about the Amish portion of the map.  “And we are more traditional than most other Amish.”

“We?” I asked, not aware that O. intended to associate himself with his Swiss Amish kinsfolk.

“We’re all from the same family,” he asserted, matter-of-factly. And gesturing to a passing carriage harboring an Amish family.  “I’m probably related to them, I mean, way back.”

“Do the Swiss Amish practice yodeling too?” I inquired, hoping to blister this unforeseen genealogical fervor.

“We’ll see,” O. replied, folding the map and closing his eyes.  “We’ll see.”

I navigated the ramshackle station wagon randomly through Amish pastures sowed with corn, wheat, tobacco, soybeans, and barley in search of a homestead that resembled a tourist’s idyllic vision of Amish country.  On the outskirts of a township called Intercourse, we rounded a corner and there before us, perched on a hillside, framed by black shutters and a serpentine driveway, sat a whitewashed farmhouse and a field of harvested crops, just like a post card.  I cut the engine and we piled out to admire the pastoral vista.

 

The incidental horse and buggy clip-clopped past us, accommodating Amish families comprised of husbands in dark straight-cut suits and coats without collars, chunky boots and voluminous beards, accompanied by wives in powder blue frocks constructed of mid-weight gauze, their children in bonnets and wide-brimmed hats installed behind them. At the rear of each carriage was affixed a bright orange triangle with the word SLOW, as a warning to “English” roadsters.

 

Hauling our gang member outfits from the back of the car, we transformed ourselves into urban hooligans in track suits, baseball caps, and heavy combat boots – resembling an indigent mob of Ali G’s.  Felix, a bulging black fellow from Queens, knotted a yellow bandana around his head, bringing to mind the rapper Biggie Smalls.  Ron and Noa, both with shaved heads and body-builder biceps, resembled a pair of menacing Ben Kingsleys.  O. dislodged a bag of rusting golf clubs from the trunk and allocated a club to each of us.  Displeased with my designated club, the putter, I bemoaned the lack of verisimilitude of a supposed gang member trotting about flailing a putter overhead.

“Really,” I complained. “The putter?”

O. pondered for a moment.

“You’re right,” he said, and snatched the putter from my hands, held it up to his mouth, spit-shined the metallic head until it gleamed as new, and handed it back to me.

“Now you can definitely see it’s a putter,” he said, and threw the E.T. mask in my direction to conceal in my pocket.

Meanwhile, Kevin slipped into his Amish costume – white shirt, suspenders, handkerchief, boots, and a straw hat with a black sash – the spitting likeness of Hollywood’s matinee image of a young Amish leading man, replete with rosy cheeks and square jaw.

Emerging from around the corner, as if on cue, an Amish farmer, with his young son seated next to him, steered his horse and buggy in our direction.  This prodded Kevin to begin wending his way along the road, playing the part of a typical Amish strolling homeward.  O. pressed the record button on his camera and ditched behind the station wagon.  As the horse and carriage trotted past, our gang surged from behind the car and started pursuing Kevin like he was a Rockefeller with a gold pocket watch.

Kevin took flight, galloping off into the farmlands, looking fearfully back as he swerved back and forth, in the exaggerated style of a silent movie actor, toward the clapboard house on the horizon.  We tailed him, howling like a pack of unhinged inmates, flailing our golf clubs overhead, tackled him, tore off his Amish clothes, and while the others restrained him, I pulled the big floppy E.T. mask over his head.  Wriggling from our grasp, Kevin bolted, zigzagging left and right, naked except for one black sock and the E.T. mask on his head.  We tracked him like blood-thirsty urchins closing in on a redheaded stepchild, while O. scurried behind filming the chase.

 

The Amish father hastened his buggy off the road when he caught sight of the proceedings and both he and his son craned their necks out of the carriage, eyes bulging, to ogle the scene.  The son clamored over the father to get a better view.  Far from being aggrieved, the father showed every sign of being enchanted by the events, as though a spectator at a live theater production.  He winked and elbowed his son, poking his chin toward the episode unfolding in the field.  Waves of amusement shook his torso up and down, causing the springs of the buggy seat to squeak and their heads to bob up and down.  The son’s eyes sparkled, as though watching his first Sci-Fi and porn movie all in one, as he eyeballed the naked E.T. with one sock hurdling across the horizon.

Witnessing the farmer’s reaction to the events, it occurred to me, I’ll be honest, that he might be mentally unbalanced.  The Amish, like the “English,” must have their percentage of lunatics, mustn’t they?  Only days later, safely back home, did my research uncover a plausible explanation for the man’s unbridled glee: Rumspringa.

 

Rumspringa, or “running around”, marks the period during adolescence, when the Amish youth are encouraged to experiment and explore what “English” life has to offer – dating, partying, drinking, sex, and in exceptional cases, wearing denim.

 

To this day, though not irrefutable, I surmise that the Amish farmer mistook the naked E.T. proceedings to be a joyful, ingenious, rebellious exhibition in a local Amish boy’s Rumspringa.  A bawdy insurgency, if not to be commended, to be conceded good-naturedly.  The boy had gumption, after all, constituting a crew of “English” to stage the production, surely in the hopes that his family, or better yet, a church bishop and his wife, would stumble upon the events.  Not to mention, the E.T. mask struck a chord with the farmer, transporting him back to his own Rumspringa, in which he would sneak off to town with a bottle of Coca-Cola to watch Clint Eastwood movies at the local theater.

 

The scene wrapped, we collected Kevin’s Amish clothing dispersed over the landscape, while O. strolled over and chatted with the man and his son.  O. patted the horse’s hind quarters and displayed the video camera to the son.  O. gestured toward the field, mapping out the scene’s narrative with his hands.  The conversation appeared to intensify, culminating in the man lifting his arms to the Heavens, pointing to the house on the horizon, and then at the boy next to him.  O. recoiled just in time to stave off being lashed by the buggy whip, as the farmer sent it crashing down on the horse’s back, provoking the buggy to lurch forward and careen off down the road.

 

“Not fans of E.T.?” I asked, my arms loaded with fictitious Amish vestments.

“They thought Kevin was Amish,” O. said, befuddled.  “A real Amish.”

“You mean he’s not?” I queried.

O. glared at me, not amused, bewildered by what had just transpired with the farmer.

“Are we Amish too, you and me?” I asked, zipping up my Adidas track suit and handing him my putter.

“He said ‘Devil work, go home, English!’” O. said, recalling the man’s curses.

“You know what happened, don’t you?” I asked plainly.  “You’ve been shunned.

”Huh?  I’ve been what?” O. grunted, raising an eyebrow, clearly unfamiliar with the Amish tradition ofmeidung, or shunning, in which the Amish community forever turns its back on one who offends their teaching.

“Shunned,” I repeated, matter-of-factly.

Then, to bring the others up to speed, I called out as they crowded back into the car, “O.’s been shunned!  O’s been shunned by the Amish!”

 

I started the car and we set off back to New York.  In the passenger seat, O. gazed out the window, brooding the magnitude of being blackballed by the Amish, his progeny.  After a few moments, he leaned toward me, so the others in back couldn’t hear.

“You really think I’ve been shunned?” he asked.

I leaned toward him, looked him in the eyes, and whispered, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

Then I reached over, placed my hand on his shoulder, and said, “Just a reminder, you’re not Amish.”

As we drove, O. placed the video camera on his lap, rewound the day’s footage and watched the scene unfold from start to finish on the camera’s screen, a faint smile materializing along his upper lip.  Turning off the camera, he placed it on the floor between his legs, reached behind him, took the E.T. mask off the back seat and secured it over his head.  In the distance I saw the buggy carrying the man and his son.  As we reached them, I slowed down, drew alongside their carriage and drove next to them.  O. rolled down his window and sat motionless looking straight ahead, wearing the E.T. mask.  We coasted next to the Amish farmer and his son for a while, O. dangling his arm out the window like a fractured chicken wing, until we gently gained speed and, in the rear-view mirror, the horse and buggy disappeared into a puff of diesel fumes.□

 

FAT FLOYD AND THE BULL

 

After deciding not to open the helicopter door and jump into the mouth of the Grand Canyon, we arrived at a “real” Dude Ranch on the lip of the canyon.  It was essentially a retreat in the middle of nowhere for recovering drug addicts and drunks, where they could play cowboy for visiting tourists from Las Vegas.

The boss of the ranch was Floyd, a Jack Daniels-drinking Marlboro-smoking egg-shaped cowboy with a bushy mustache.  If Floyd were to get on all fours you would have difficulty differentiating him from a porker with a hairy face.  The ranch had a dozen horses and two bulls fenced into a coral near the helicopter landing.  By the time we starting filming, Floyd had already nipped off a half bottle of Jack Daniels.  When he saw the red light of the ‘record’ button on our movie camera light up, his eyes blazed and his tobacco stained mustache twitched.  “Wanna see me fuck with the bull?”  he asked us.  We just smiled.  Because of Floyd’s cowboy accent, O. thought Floyd had said, “Wanna see me fuck the bull?”

 

Before I had time to explain the question, Floyd climbed inside the coral with the bull.  The bull watched Floyd pull his fat stomach over the fence.  Judging by the bull’s reaction, you could tell this wasn’t the first time old Floyd had pulled this trick for a couple of city slickers.  We stood back and started filming.   Suddenly, I had the vision of Floyd, like an overstuffed doll, being stuck like a pin cushion by the bull’s crooked horns.  I saw a glint in the eye of the bull, as though the bull, too, had been drinking that day.  “Wanna fuck with me today, Floyd?” thought the bull.  “Wanna fuck with me and show off in front of the tourists, you drunken whale?  Okay, let’s have some fun today, Floyd.”

 

Fat Floyd slowly walked right up to the bull.  The bull stood erect, staring at Floyd.  They both stood there staring at each other for what seemed like five minutes.  I didn’t know whether they were going to shake hands or charge one another.  Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the dust from the incoming helicopter, but for a moment I couldn’t tell which one was the bull and which one was fat Floyd.  Then, suddenly, Floyd ran toward the bull to spook him.  The bull ran to the left and started running around the coral, hitting the fence, snorting, and kicking up chunks of earth with his hind legs.

By this point everyone on the ranch was watching drunken Floyd fuck with the bull.  A helicopter was landing and little dust tornados were circling above the ranch and the noise was deafening.  All of a sudden the bull crashed over the top of the fence and started running through the ranch.  All the tourists scrambled.  Mothers dragged their children into the barn.  On the porch, an English woman from Manchester put down her hot dog and stood to watch what looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now.

 

About five cowboys ran to their horses with their lassos in pursuit of the bull, one screaming, “Goddammit, Floyd, goddammit!”  Floyd ran out of the broken coral and hopped on his horse and cried, “Yeee!  Whoaa!”  The next thing you know Floyd is in pursuit of the bull and just when it looked like Floyd had the bull cornered, he fell straight back off his horse and into the dust, as though an invisible hand had given him a push.  I confess that I have never quite heard a sound like the one fat Floyd made when he hit the earth, a mix between a ‘thud’ and the sound a water balloon makes when it hits the ground and doesn’t break.

 

A tumble like that would have knocked sense into most drunken cowboys, but not Floyd.  He was up running behind his horse, which was in turn running behind the bull.  It was quite a sight, three animals running after one another.  By the amused look on the arriving tourists’ faces, they thought this spectacle was today’s dude ranch performance because a few of them started clapping and cheering Floyd as he ran behind his horse.  When I look back at the film footage of this event, what strikes me is the synchronicity and intricate collaboration of all the characters.  A gifted choreographer could not have organized and timed the chasing cowboys, the runaway bull, the arriving tourists, the fleeing tourists, and Floyd’s dramatic finale any better.

When the commotion started and to avoid danger, we ran onto a little hill overlooking the ranch.  The film footage of the event has a landscape proportion.  It all looks perfectly controlled, as if a movie director were about to shout, “Okay, cut!” and the whole scene would immediately stop.  But in fact the spectacle was complete chaos.

 

All stories must have heroes and this one has an unlikely hero, a Japanese cowboy.  This regular Japanese guy from Tokyo had won a Western reality TV series in Japan and the prize was the opportunity to live the life of a real American cowboy on a ranch for a year.

Our hero looked like a Japanese version of the Marlboro Man.   He was weather-beaten, dark, silent (he didn’t speak English) and looked good in cowboy boots.  On this occasion, he took it upon himself to save the day for our drunken American cowboys.  When Floyd hit the ground, there was a general mobilization of the cowboys – I think they realized the danger a wild, pissed off bull could pose to a group of tourists who thought the whole thing was a pre-arranged cowboy stunt for their benefit.  Our Japanese cowboy hopped on a stallion, spurred his horse to charge and swung his lasso in the air, I swear, just like in the movies.

 

The ranch was lost in a cloud of twirling dust and sunshine.  Now and then the bull would come charging out into the light followed by two or three cowboys trying to position themselves in a way that would convince the bull to retreat back into the coral.  Then Floyd would come crashing into the scene, scare the bull into charging one of the cowboys and the whole scene would start over again in another part of the ranch, as the cowboys continued to holler, “Goddamn it, Floyd!  Goddamnit!”  When the mayhem finally seemed to reach a ridiculous peak, like the finale of a circus performance where all the entertainers are on stage at once, the Japanese cowboy lassoed the beast and escorted him back into the coral to the applause of the tourists.  The large English woman with the hot dog cried, “Good show!”

 

When the excitement died down, we all had a lemonade with the cowboys and showed them part of the film.  Everyone except Floyd.  Fat Floyd was sitting on the steps shaking his head, muttering, “By Gawd, he never done that before.  By Gawd.”  One cowboy with a guitar started to write a song for us about our experience at the ranch.  He looked at my white eyes and called me a strange boy.  Then he wrote his enduring masterpiece, “Culture Hopper,” that would eventually become the soundtrack to the scene I’ve just described.  “Cuz he’s a culturehopper, he goes from place to place…”

 

After all this the day wasn’t finished.  I needed to learn how to die, cowboy style, for a scene in O.’s movie.  One of the scenes in the film required me to be shot to death, brutally and unjustly, in a Western-style shoot-out.  I needed to learn how to get shot and die, in convincing fashion.  “Shoot me,” said the cowboy.  “Shoot me three times in the chest.”  So I took my gun out of my holster, pointed it, and shot.  The cowboy twisted, grabbed at his chest, turned and collapsed motionless in the dirt.  “Now you try,” he said.  So he took out his gun, fired, and I did my part by twisting, jerking, and tumbling into a heap in the dust.  Apparently I looked like a collection of arms and legs dying.  I’m a natural when it comes to acting.  It’s just something I was born with.  My cowboy instructor didn’t say anything about my performance but cowboys, when they are happy and satisfied, never say anything.

FATFACE

 

Why are we always attracted to people who don’t give a shit about us?  This predicament is not unique to human beings either.  Dogs feel it, too.  One dog in particular, Fatface.

 

O. is not a dog lover. I’ve never seen someone’s mood change as quickly as when he sees a dog.   In the elevator of his building he goes out of his way to bully the dogs being taken out to relieve themselves.  O. lives on the 34th floor, so this gives him plenty of time to piss a dog off by staring at it, tapping it with his foot, and pulling its leash while the owner is looking up at the numbers of the floors changing.  He also likes to say mean things to the dog-owners, “What kind of dog is it, a mix between a rat and a goat?”

 

But, as Nature would have it, dogs love him, especially when we are traveling.  In a good mood, he ignores them; in a bad mood he insults them in his Swiss English, calling them “a dumb stupid looser animal.”   But the dogs always come back for more.  For my part, because I am such a good person, I pet the dogs and speak kindly to them, and as a result they don’t give a sh_t about me.  In California a Rotweiller tried to lift its leg on me.  I suppose I should take that as a compliment, most dogs simply ignore me and lay at O.’s feet.

 

Then there was Fatface.  During our trip to Easter Island we stayed in couple of bungalows on the ocean.  Behind our rooms was an overgrown field where a handful of chestnut horses stood around.  At night I slept with the sliding door of my room open, so I could hear the ocean and smell the salt in the air.  In the morning I woke up to find what looked like a dirty, brownish-tan dog with a chubby, swollen face that made it look Asian or Icelandic.  Imagine Bjork magically transformed into a dog, voila!

 

Though he looked sleepy and disinterested, Fatface was a pleasure-seeking Epicurean.  One evening we took a bottle of wine onto the back patio to watch the horses and two German backpackers camping up on the hill.  O. turned his back on Fatface because he liked to turn his back on Fatface and photograph the clouds that were purple with yellow holes in them.  One cloud, I remember, looked like a big old fluffy Krispy Kreme doughnut.  Fatface tried to eat our cheese and stick his tongue in our wine glasses, just to get our attention.  I gave Fatface a chunk of my cheese and poured a little pool of wine onto the cement.  He ate and drank what I gave him, looked up at me with his chubby dog-face and went to lay at our feet.

 

During our stay on the island, we took nine photographs of Fatface – two from profile, six from straight ahead, and one (my favorite) from directly on top of his head.  Even though O. doesn’t like dogs, he does like FREAKS and I think he liked the fact that Fatface looked like an overweight Chinaman.  Most Chinese are small and thin, so O. liked his strange fatty face.  In the eight photos we took of Fatface, he looked 1)bored  2)hungry  3)confused  4)sad  5)thirsty  6) drunk from the wine  7)happy from the wine  8) blinded by the camera flash. When I look back, one thing saddens me – we didn’t get to say goodbye to Fatface.  The morning we were supposed to leave O. charged into my room.  “What is that smell?” he asked.  “Fatface slept with me last night,” I replied.  “Forget that poor dog,” O. said in a hurry, “the retard at the desk gave us the wrong flight time, put the pedal to the metal, we’re going to miss our plane!”  Of course there was a misunderstanding between O. and the guy at the front desk, and we arrived at the airport two hours early.  In our hurry to catch our plane … well, you know the rest.  We never saw Fatface again.

Fatty Arbuckle & The Rainbow Fish

 

 

Introduction

I recently read in the newspaper that, six million years ago in Africa, apes that had always walked on four legs stood up and walked on two.  The first chimp to do this, her name was Lucy.  Theories circulate as to why Lucy stood up on two legs – was it to see over the tall grass or to pick fruits off the low branches the way chimpanzees do today?  Whatever the reason, when I wake up in the morning, lean over the sink and look in the mirror, I sometimes see Lucy, my ape ancestor, who millions of years ago, lived her ape life in Africa.

 

But evolution doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion.  There are bumps in the road, obstacles that can throw the car unexpectedly in reverse, if only for a moment. You won’t come across an article of man retrogressing to his original ape state in the journal Nature, but it happens.  And here are three stories to prove it.

 

 

Fatty Arbuckle

I have a friend, O., who’s keen on making movies using his friends as actors.  One winter, he scrounged a station wagon and transported a load of us from New York City to a random farmstead in the heart of Amish country, where he presented each of us with a golf club and told us to chase his assistant across a corn field, tackle him, strip him completely naked, pull an E.T. mask over his head, and continue to pursue him like hound dogs as he zigzagged into the sunset, while O. filmed the episode.

 

A few years later, I journeyed from New York to a village in Switzerland, via plane, train, a tram and two regional buses, just so O. could squeeze me into a full monkey suit for a scene that resembled a 1920s Fatty Arbuckle silent movie set.  The monkey suit was fabricated of rubber and layered with matted synthetic hair.  O.’s female assistant from the local art school was tasked with coating my hips with baby oil just to get me inside the thing.  Once inside, I thought I would suffocate.

 

On this occasion, my role as an ape was to seduce the blond heroine, one of O.’s longtime friends, by stroking her nape, while intermittently beating her bovine stepmother with a broom when she intervened.  The scene demanded vigorous exertion and before long I was swishing around inside the monkey suit in my own oily sweat.  Without ventilation, my perspiration had pooled in the fingers and toes of the ape uniform.  To this day, if you watch the scene closely, you can pick up a squishing noise just prior to the dull thud of my broom striking the stepmother’s backside.

 

If the monkey suit seemed air tight, the fingers were not.  As I caressed the heroine, little did I know my sweaty excretions were seeping out of my hairy fingertips and trickling down her neck.  After the shoot, a cast dinner was anticipated, but the actress, so repulsed by my slimy advances, caught an express train back to Zurich, only to correspond with O. by email for the next six months.

 

The Sepik Rainbow Fish

Several months after transforming myself into an ape in Switzerland, I embarked on a 22-hour flight to Papua New Guinea, via Japan and Australia, so O. could pull the same monkey mask over my head and film a scene in which I “toured” remote villages and “socialized” with the locals.

 

To get the ape mask to Papua New Guinea from New York, O. smuggled it in his hand luggage through airport security in Zurich, Tokyo, and Sydney.  At Narita International, in Tokyo, a mustached security officer zeroed in on the mask when he caught a glimpse of it passing through his x-ray machine.  His eyes bulged, his mouth flopped open, he reversed the conveyor belt to zoom in on the monkey head.  He hailed his coworkers and they congregated around the x-ray monitor, gaping at the black and white outline of a monkey head.  The mustached guard manipulated the controls of the x-ray machine, as though he were playing a video game, causing the monkey head to go backwards then reappear on the screen.  The line of passengers behind us spilled out into the ticketing hall.  Each time the monkey head reappeared, the guards would shriek with delight.  A female security officer pulled on the mustached guard’s arm, pleading to see the monkey one last time.  I don’t speak Japanese but I could make out one expression the officers repeated: “King Kong! King Kong!”

 

 

During these proceedings, O. somehow managed to snap a photo of the guards crowding around the monitor with the monkey head displayed on screen.  To this day, O. isn’t shy about pulling out this photo as the definitive counter-argument to his Swiss compatriots’ claim that Swiss culture is superior to that of Japan.

 

On the third morning of our journey through Papua New Guinea, sputtering up the Sepik River in our 1970s houseboat, we came ashore at one of the most distant, inaccessible jungle villages, where the inhabitants had only ever encountered a handful of outsiders.  Blue smoke and ash was swelling from a patch of ground next to a mud path leading into the village.  When the locals caught sight of our craft, they flocked around us.

 

“Perfect,” O. said, grabbing his movie camera.  “Put on the mask, run through the smoke and the people.”  I pulled the ape mask over my head, hopped off the boat and galloped in circles through the smoke and around the villagers.  The people recoiled, mouth breathing, eyes inflating into saucers.  One boy held his wee-wee with his right hand, his mother with the left.  I’d worked myself into a lather inside the stuffy mask and before long, I’d taken to chasing the kids through the village, in and out of the huts, while the parents ran behind me, their arms flailing in the air.  Eventually I plopped down on a fallen log, and the kids approached to stare at my red hair and poke their fingers in the monkey’s eye sockets.

 

Boarding the boat, I considered jumping in the river to cool down, only to discover a crocodile had eaten half of a man the week before.  O. inquired as to which half, the top or the bottom, but our guide didn’t find that funny. Nor did our fellow travelers.

 

That evening, as our boat idled up the river, we ate roasted Sepik Rainbowfish (Glossolepis Multisquamatus) and drank a sour Australia wine from the boat’s hull, for which we paid dearly the following morning.

 

 

Broadway and Bleecker

Halloween this year consisted of O. hosting a spaghetti dinner in his apartment for some friends visiting from Miami and Italy before continuing on to a costume party in a foreclosed warehouse.  Prior to leaving, I called O. to see about my costume.  “Don’t worry,” he assured me.  “We’ll find you something.”   In a cheery mood, satisfied I wouldn’t pass the evening dressed as a forlorn transvestite, my annual Halloween costume over the years, I stopped off for a tub of caramel ice cream, two bars of dark chocolate and a basket of blackberries for dessert.

 

Following dinner O. distributed intricately carved wooden masks with kaleidoscopic feathers for the party.  I loitered beside the kitchen table with a square of chocolate melting between my fingers, my hand raised in the air like a schoolboy, wishing to draw attention to my lack of costume.  Everyone filed out of the apartment, shouting goodbyes to Whale and Elephant, O.’s two cats, and praising one another on their primitive appearance. Suddenly, without warning, I experienced a hairy rubber slap to the side of my face.

 

“You’re all set,” O. said, adjusting his mask, pointing to my feet.

I looked down at the floor and, peering back up at me, was the very same monkey mask I’d worn in Switzerland and Papua New Guinea.

 

“What’s this?” I asked, feigning stupidity.

“Your old friend, remember?” O. said.

I collected the mask, held it up to the light.

“Never seen this before in my…” I started to say.

”Bye, Whalie!” O. called to his cat, making his way to the door.  For him, the matter was settled.

“I sweated my ass off in this thing,” I shouted, flourishing the mask in the air, tracking him to the door.  “My head still hasn’t returned to its normal size!”

 O. stopped, took the mask, and combed the monkey’s long facial hair with his fingers, as though he were consoling a close friend whose sentiments I’d offended.

Feeling guilty, I accepted the mask and stretched it over my head.

“That wasn’t so hard?” O. said, more as a statement of fact than a question.

 

From within my rubber prison, to myself, I cursed him.  I cursed them both – O. and the monkey.  Without warning, the girls charged in acting the part of wild natives, tossed a rope around my neck and dragged me out of the room like their wild pet.

 

I’m not someone obsessed with my own self worth, you see.  In fact I’ve got very little opinion of myself one way or another.  But passing the night in a hairy rubber prison with a rope encircling my neck, a rope that any passing drunkard would yank and scream Koko! or that my friends would tug when they required a drink, somehow wobbled my amour propre.

 

I perched in the back of the taxi wearing the monkey mask with a rope around my neck, breathing in my stale two-year-old sweat, as we inched our way uptown to the Halloween party. From inside the mask I could see the driver eyeing me in the rear-view mirror.  He couldn’t see out the back window because of my oversized monkey head.   It was raining and I imagined having an accident because the driver’s vision had been impaired by my hairy bulbous crown.  I wondered where an ape might fall in order of importance on Halloween night, if medical staff had to choose between saving the life of Elvis, the Pope or a monkey with a leash around its neck.

 

I leaned toward the cabby.  “Want me to take off my monkey head so you can see?”

“No, no,” he said with an Indian accent.  “I don’t need to see.  I’m looking at you.  I love Halloween!”

 

I sat back and scanned the neighborhoods as they came and went in the drizzle.  At the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker, two sexy nuns and a French maid were hailing a gypsy cab, while a midget with an afro and a basketball was lighting Sarah Palin’s cigarette.

 

At the party we pushed through drunken cops and sweaty pirates to the second floor. I wandered off to the bathroom, locked the door, and gazed at myself in the mirror.  A confused monkey, a leash around its neck, stared back.  I thought of Lucy, my six million-year-old monkey ancestor, how she was lying cold and dead somewhere in a dark museum. The bass from the sound system shook the bathroom door.  I could hear Marilyn Monroe and King Henry VIII laughing and screaming outside.  I tightened the rope around my neck, saluted the monkey in the mirror, and marched off to the dance floor, where I met the softest, sexist lime green tennis ball in a pair of four-inch stilettos, who pushed me against a crumbling pillar, and made me feel like I was Roger Federer.

HAMBURGER, QUARTER POUNDER, BIC MAC

 

Last Friday, O. and I met for a drink at The Bowery Hotel, beneath the taxidermied snout of a wild boar (Sus Scrofa Scrofa).  O. showed up, as he has for a decade, in his “evening wear”: jeans, gray Varvatos T-shirt, paws sneakered by Adidas, and a Rolex Submariner catching the light just so.  He plopped himself at the bar and, positioning the tray of nuts at arm’s length, immediately started squeezing the tip of his nose, as though testing the ripeness of a plum.

“Got this monster-thing growing in there,” he said by way of greeting.  “Could go at any time.”

“Aw, that’s nice,” I replied.

 

Sometimes I find myself talking to O. as though he might be mildly retarded.  I ordered two Hendrick’s & Tonics from Walter, our bartender.  The tumblers hadn’t hit the bar when O. plunged three fingers into one and fished out the wedge of lime.  He squeezed it dramatically over his drink, like the host in a cooking show, shooting a stream across my left ear.

 

“Thank you,” I said, swabbing my ear canal with my shirttail.

“Do I look fat?” he asked, grabbing hold of the inner tube of flesh around his middle.

I closed my eyes and took a moment to savor the gin’s juniper berries before allowing my vision to settle on his gut.

“Yes, yes you do,” I replied.

“Whatever’s in there—kinda feels like a blueberry,” he said, recommitting his attention to his proboscis, which he poked from various angles.  “Or a button mushroom.”  In a hushed voice, he added “Can you tell I’m wearing make-up?”

I glanced at his cheeks.

“You mean, like, blush?” I said.

“What the Hell – keep your voice down.  Why would I wear blush ON MY NOSE?”  he said, indignantly.

 

If blush was out of the question, his wife’s Clé De Peau Teint Naturel Fluide Cream Foundation was not – O. had smeared a layer laterally across both nostrils and over the tip in the hopes of disguising the protuberance.  Say CHEEESE, he said, pulling out his iPhone and mimicking the ear-to-ear smile of a televangelist.  I neatened my hair and displayed two rows of pearly horse teeth for the camera, only the flash had already gone off.

 

O. fills his down time, especially in my company, fiddling with photo apps.  Like last month he ran me through You Fat Teenage F*ck ($1.99), from which I emerged looking like a Krispy Kreme doughnut, riddled with zits and draped in rolls of oily dough.  This time, when he handed me the phone, a grizzled flap of skin returned my gaze.  I had the crispiness of one of those Speedo-wearing geezers who’s spent half a century baking himself into a potato chip on Miami Beach.  “You Old Fart!  Ha, ha, ha!  You Old Fart!” he chimed, bobbing up and down like Koko the chimp.  “Walter,” he called, flailing his arm.  “Over here!”

 

Walter held the phone away from his face, as though it were yesterday’s turd.  “Ouch,” he said, with a mixture of pity and revulsion.  He offered me a shot of Patrón, on the house.

“Walter, I don’t want–,” I began.  “They EX-AGG-ER-ATE to make money!”

“Not really,” O. said.  “This one’s free.”  He grabbed the phone and back swiped in rapid succession.  “Look, here’s Makiko.”

 

O. had first tested the app on his wife, who is 30, only to have her come out looking, well, 30.  So he upgraded to the Premium Edition, You Old Fart Turbo, hoping to get a preview of what he’d be married to in 50 years.  But that only made her look like Yoko Ono, in 1964, when she was 31.   “Poor Steve Jobs,” O. muttered. “Against Japanese genes he can nothing do.”

 

 

In the taxi to the Wolfgang Plaf Gallery, O. told me the story of how he’d bribed the infamous Chinese mobster, Mr. Dong, to secure a coveted space in one of his Lower East Side parking garages.  “I slipped him an envelope,” he whispered, looking left and right like Peter Lorre in Casablanca.  Seeing the dumb look on my face, he added, “An envelope full of Benjamins, Numbnuts.”

“How much?”

“How much, your ass,” he said testily, as though I’d asked him for a foot massage.

“More than a thousand?”

“What!  Are you–” O. seemed genuinely outraged by the sum.  A few moments later, he shrunk his neck down into his shoulders, like a tortoise, and asked, “Is that too much?”

 

From watching Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, I knew that pay-offs by envelope occurred in hundred dollar bills, so by determining the thickness of the envelope, the thinking went, I could gage the amount.

“Just tell me this,” I said, cupping my hand around three ever-larger, imaginary burgers.  “Was the envelope the size of a hamburger, a Quarter Pounder or a Big Mac?”

 

O. studied the options, like a witness going through a police lineup.  He chewed his lower lip, finally cupping his fingers around a fictional Big Mac, one with a healthy portion of shredded lettuce.

 

 

The past few months have seen a modification in our Friday night ritual.  Instead of ducking in for a Chinatown massage on our way to Pulino’s for dinner, we now pay a visit to the Wolfgang Plaf Gallery.  That’s right, an art gallery.  Anyone who’s done more than shake hands with O. knows he’d rather lop off his own foot than set one in a gallery.  “Pablos,” he calls them, as in Picasso, referring to anyone who has ever produced, purchased, commented on, gazed upon, or brushed up against an object purporting to be A-R-T.  By his own admission, his daily interaction with “culture” occurs when he sits on the toilet and flips through the Celebrities Without Makeup issue of Star Magazine.

 

After briefly “collaborating” with the gallery, O. discovered, by chance, that the key to his Tribeca walk-up and the front door of the gallery were one and the same.  Now we stop by, “after hours,” on our way to dinner.  We’ve taken to publicizing our newfound patronage of the arts, too.  Instead of slithering out of the bar unnoticed, O. slaps me on the back and announces, “To the gallery, fellow art lover?” to which I reply, “And why not, Sir.  The Wolfgang Plaf awaits us!”

 

To those who sing art’s transformative powers, I stand behind them full-throatedly.  Walter, and his fellow barmen, has come to treat us differently since our conversion from rubdowns to Rothko’s – they raise their eyebrows when we arrive and raise them even higher when we leave.  As an old acquaintance put it, on hearing of our sudden about-face, “O., in a gallery?  And I painted the Sistine Chapel!”

“You don’t know me,” O. responds with a shrug.  “I love a good gallery.”  Adding, when he is out of earshot, “When it’s closed, ha, ha, ha!”

 

We don’t “break into” the gallery after hours to sketch handlebar mustaches on the portraits and urinate in the ficus plants.  (Granted, O. once returned from the bathroom somewhat lighter on his feet to announce “Just left the Pablos a few chunks of abstract realism.”)  No, we simply drop by to leave a few words of encouragement, always the same, for the artist in the Guest Registry: “Quality hues!”  O. signs his name Percival C. Butt III.

 

The moment we arrived, on this particular night, I knew O. would go ballistic.  The gallery was brightly lit and overrun with 30-somethings in beards and Blahniks.  Inside, the space was stripped entirely bare except for a cedar chair upon which rested a solitary goose egg.

 

“An egg?  You’re kidding, right?” O. said, smacking his forehead repeatedly. “Why do they do it, why, why, why?”   He synchronized his forehead slapping with the whys.

 

When it comes to complaining, O. trains like an Olympian.  Pound for pound he may be the fittest complainer in all New York City, a town renowned for world-class belly-achers.  He routinely out-complains whingers twice his size.  It is safe to say that no athlete in the tri-state area has done more to attract attention to his sport in recent years than O.  In a display of incredible grit, I once saw him complain himself hoarse when a waiter wouldn’t take back a bottle of suspect Saint-Émilion.    Unlike Americans, who lack discipline and grouse whenever they damn well please, O. has instituted the European idea of complaining – five or six days a week, multiple times a day.  “We need to be more like them,” a friend from Poughkeepsie opined.  “They’re breaking it down, videotaping and analyzing every single complaint–”  I cut him off.  Analyze all you want, I told him, O.’s superhuman ability to complain for no good reason stems from a one-in-a-million quirk of nature at birth, a chromosomal prank, one with no basis in science.

 

 “Ah, the timeless egg,” I said, stroking my chin, gazing into the gallery.  “Doesn’t it possess a powerful sedimentary thickness?”

“Cut the B.S.  I’ll make omelet out of it, chop-chop,” he mumbled, pressing his forehead against the glass. “Anyway, they just want to get laid.”

“Who?  The egg?  Of course it wants to get—”

“Huh?  Listen, those hair-dos dance around an egg, an egg for Chrissake, probably free-range!, cuz they want…”  Here he gyrated his hips back and forth while thrusting his arms from front to back, like rowing a boat.

I contemplated the household egg in the service of getting laid.  Was this something I could do?  I bounced the idea off O.

“Do you have a beard?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you wear Japanese denim?”

“No.”

“There’s your answer.  Twice.”

Here’s the thing about O.—mostly he avoids offending people.  Even though he loves the feel of something vaguely offensive on his tongue.

 

Then he did a peculiar thing.  Digging into his pocket, he flashed his hand over the door and scuttled across the street.  I found him catnapping against a lemon-colored Vespa with two flat tires, his phone propped on the seat filming the gallery entrance.  Turns out he’d used his matching key to lock the door, from the outside.

“What’s going on?” I said, poking him.

“Deine Mutter schwitzt–!” he blurted, jerking awake with a pair of heavy snorts.

“You filming?”

 “They want art…” he grumbled, his face holding the imprint of the Vespa logo.  “I make some right now—a little movie called I’m So Goddamn Boring I Think an Egg is A-R-T.”

 

A passerby with a cereal-box-shaped head and Edwardian unicycles on his T-shirt paused to watch the filming.  After a few seconds, he closed his eyes, generated a snoring sound and strode off.

“No shit, Sherlock,” O. called after him.  “It’s art!”  And eyeing me with an almost Victorian melancholy, he sighed “He thinks I’m here for my jollies?  It gets old, it really does.”

 

A spark plug of a woman with blue eyes and curly dark hair appeared on-screen.  She blew a kiss behind her and, after a few lady-like tugs, anchored her right foot behind her, Tug-of-War style, and executed a full-body jerk on the door.  A crowd encircled her, as she wedged her Fendi clutch under her arm and torpedoed herself against the glass in a series of staccato thrusts that echoed across the street.

 

Overcome by a feeling of stupid happy, O. sprang to his feet and doubled back along the sidewalk in front of the gallery, his phone still filming from his breast pocket.  He stared in at the crowd, innocent bystander style.

 

“’Scuse me,” he said through the glass, raising his eyebrows with the sincerity of a Mormon.  “Is it hard-boiled?”  Not one but a chorus of mouth-breathers returned his gaze.  The owner, an exquisite Lord Foppington with a Francois I hairstyle, peeked back at the egg, then swished his hand through the air, as though shooing a common housefly (musca domestica).  With no answer forthcoming, O. folded his hands behind his back, like a professor, and applied the tip of his swollen nose to the glass and slid it East to West, depositing what looked like a streak of Hershey’s chocolate across the pane.

 

Had he squatted and pinched off a loaf right there on East 2nd Street, the mortification could not have been greater.  Long story short, the owner went mental.  He interrogated the Heavens, blew out his cheeks once, twice, and butted his forehead against the glass like a Billy goat (Capra aegagrus hircus).  Sweat collected in the wrinkles beneath his eyes, as he shoved one key after the other into the lock, desperate to get at O’s throat.

 

Satisfied with this ending, O. reached into his breast pocket and turned off the video.  Consulting his watch, he muttered something about cured meats, scrounged the key from his pants and calmly unlocked the door.

 

To this day, I can’t vouch for what took place in the quarter of an hour that followed.  We made it onto two barstools at Pulino’s, suffice to say, sweaty and short of breath, where our loyal bartender, Lorenzo, laid out two prosciutto pizzas and a bottle of Primitivo as we settled in to watch our “art film.”  Turns out, O. hadn’t pressed the Record button.  He pressed it, that is, but only at the end.  The result being a two minute video of the inside of his pocket, accompanied by a soundtrack of my muffled curses.  Nevermind, I told him as we clinked glasses, fifty years from now, a movie this mind-numbingly boring can only assume the ranks of a cult classic.

JAPAN 1,2,3,4

 

A few years back, O. and I found ourselves in Japan for work on a short movie, accompanied by O.’s wife Makiko.  I’d always wanted to visit Japan since witnessing Makiko and her friend, Taki, systematically liquidate two ears of corn at my parents’ cabin in Ohio.  They ran their mouths back and forth over the ears like miniature John Deere threshers, until the cobs stood as naked and pristine as the day they were born.  No trace of a kernel remained.  I stared at the mutilated cob on my plate in comparison – it looked like Ben, the family dog, had dragged it up and down the street.  I told Makiko that if all Japanese people eat corn like her, Japan must be a strange and mystical land.

“My parents said I go blind if I don’t finish all,” Makiko said, looking down at her plate.  “Especially rice.”

I told her I understood.  “In Catholic school I was told if I went swimming alone with girls they would get pregnant.  Then I would go blind.”

 

1.

At the entrance to our Tokyo hotel, O., Makiko, and I watched as guests attending a wedding reception spun through the revolving doors and into the lobby.  The newlyweds, in tuxedo and gown, greeted the arrivals beside a white table accommodating gifts.  Out of the blue the revolving doors produced a violent, suctioning snort, and who spilled into the lobby but O., clutching a manila envelope.  Makiko fell backwards and produced a croak, like a baby frog.  She looked on, as O. handed the couple the envelope and, in flip-flops and gray t-shirt, executed a flawless 15-degree bow.  The couple bowed politely in return.

But that wasn’t it.  For some reason, O. followed up his textbook bow with an encore – a neo-Baroque genuflection inspired by the Japanese sport of sumo.  He lowered himself into a crouch, knees poking outwards, slapped his right thigh, then his left, hoisted his left leg, then his right, and sprang skyward like a grasshopper, sweeping each leg into a roundhouse kick before spinning around and sticking the landing, nose wedged between his knees, arms jutting up behind him.  He held the maneuver, for effect.

All commerce in that teeming lobby collapsed, as though a gigantic fist had punched it in the gut.  A child dropped his lollipop, mouth open like a guppy.  When O. finally peeked up with one eye, an Italian businessman checking into his room dropped his briefcase and applauded, calling out “Bravo!  Bellissimo!” as though he’d just caught Pavarotti at La Scala.

The groom, a karaoke enthusiast and amateur Michael Jackson aficionado, repositioned his bride off to the side.  The fellow took a deep breath and proceeded to moondance across the lobby.  He hopped on the tips of his toes, bit his bottom lip, looked left and right, and threw himself onto his knees, leaning forward until his forehead kissed the carpet.  He, too, held the maneuver for effect, only to be met with an awkward silence – the Italian was already up in his room lounging in his complimentary robe.

“Where’s Makiko?”  O. said, hobbling across the lobby, rubbing his knees.

“Who?”

“My wife.  Makiko Aoki.”

“With you?” I suggested, peering behind him.

O. closed his eyes, the perfect martyr, and took a deep breath.

O. peered inside a potted plant for his spouse, thinking she might be napping.  I opened the fridge in the kitchen, thinking she might be hungry.  O. clambered in and out of nine taxis, thinking she might want to leave him.  In the tenth, he crossed his legs Indian-style, head in hands, and concluded, “I’ve lost my wife.”  Hearing this, the driver, an Edo period romantic, drove East and West, then North and South in search of O.’s wife, until O. discovered that his bumpy arm rest was in fact Makiko’s head.  She’d wanted to leave him, in fact, but had drifted to sleep before giving the driver directions.

“Shibuya!” O. called to the driver.

Makiko sat up, yawned like a housecat, and recollecting O.’s sumo tribute in the lobby, inserted a sharp elbow into his ribs.

“Please don’t do that,” she said.  “In Japan, bowing is serious tradition.”

“And sumo?” O. muttered rubbing his rib cage.  “And sumo!”

Out the window into the rushing air, I poked my head, and the letters –u- and –o- in the word sumo, made the world seem a beautiful, baffling place.

 

2.

Shibuya is anchored at its navel by a vast traffic intersection, a sort of urban frying pan where every three minutes thousands of Tokyo’s diligent citizens scramble themselves into a human omelette.  The cabby dropped us at the edge of the intersection and I slammed the door shut.  Makiko winced.  The driver winced.

“Please don’t do that,” Makiko said.  “Very rude.  Taxi doors close automatic–”

O. slammed his door on the other side and hopped out with his video camera.

“Action!” O. hollered, tossing a plastic yellow mask in my direction.  “No, wait…”  He fumbled with the camera, unable to locate the Record button.  It was too late – I’d snapped on the mask and plunged into the intersection, where I was pummeled left and right by a battalion of miniature elbows.  The holes in my mask didn’t match up with my eyes and, once through the intersection, I wandered blindly into a 7-Eleven, out the back of the 7-Eleven, and onto a barstool in a ramen shop, where I ordered a broth and bamboo shoots.

“The goose for me.  I mean, the duck!” O. called out, having trailed me in and out of the 7-Eleven and into the ramen shop.  He snapped apart his chopsticks and grated them between his hands to remove the splinters, using his palms as pin cushions.  “Ouch!  Oh!  Daddy!” he cried, extracting the needles one by one.  When that didn’t draw enough attention, he sawed the chopsticks back and forth, like an American Indian starting fire.  Then he reached over and pinched my egg roll.  I speared the butt of the appetizer just in time and catapulted it over my shoulder and onto the plate behind me, where Makiko took a bite and savored it, looking up to the sky.  Then she gently placed one chopstick on the bar and shoved the other into O.’s elbow joint.

“Please don’t do that,” she said.  “Fighting with chopsticks, rude.”

“What about him?” O. said, holding his elbow and pointing at me.

Makiko glanced at her chopsticks, then at my elbow, then back at her chopsticks.

 

3.

The following day we boarded the shinkansen for the weeping willows and sugar cherries of Kyoto Prefecture.  At Shinagawa station we bought three Bento Boxes for the trip, mine with a pink boiled egg carved into the shape of a strip of bacon.  O. forked out $150 dollars for a Limited Edition Bento consisting entirely of Wagyu, Kobe and Omi beef.  Even the “vegetables” were carved from chunks of black Kobe.  The box depicted an etching of a farmer massaging a cow with a bottle of sake, which O. raised to his face and took a self portrait.

In our seats, I polished off my bento and fell asleep, my greasy forehead basting the window pane like a clump of butter.  Makiko nodded off too.  O. broke the seal on his bento and placed a slice of Wagyu beef on his tongue, mumbling something about the taste of alfalfa.  Then he bit into a “mushroom” and, instead of returning it to his bento, reached over and balanced the remainder on my thigh.  When I didn’t budge, he did the same with a “sweet potato,” followed by the partially-eaten chunks of carrot, celery, radish, pickle, ginger, egg, and salmon, until the length of my thigh, down to the knee, resembled a tasting at a butcher’s counter.  When he’d finished, he wiped his fingers on his pants and placed the empty bento box beneath his seat and settled in to read his newspaper.

As the leftovers along my leg grew, so did the crowd amassing in the aisle.  A businessman monitored the progress from behind his newspaper.  Students texted their schoolmates, who rushed in from other carriages.  A girl with Cupid doll eyes and pink hair took a photo and emailed it to her boyfriend in California.  By this point I was really sawing logs, jaw drooping, collecting saliva.  Out of left field I produced a sequence of staccato sleep twitches to the delight of the crowd, who politely covered their mouths as they snickered.

The conductor pushed his way through the pack and requested our tickets.  O. could’ve handed him three squares of toilet paper, preoccupied as he was by the open-air buffet.  The poor fellow nearly punched a hole in his left pinkie, convinced he was witnessing, or about to witness, something momentous.

O. expended equal energy reading his newspaper as he did ignoring the Japan Railways employee.  Finally the conductor leaned over and placed his face six inches from O.’s.

“Sir?” he said.

“Sir?” O. repeated, holding his ground.

“Mister?” said the conductor, leaning forward until his nose nearly touched O.’s.

“Mister?” O. repeated.

The conductor looked in my direction, then back at O.

“Pickles,” O. said.

“Pickles?” said the conductor.

“That’s correct,” O. said, and returned to reading his newspaper.

The conductor shot a nervous glance up and down the aisle, thrust his cellphone into O.’s hand, and leaned over me, making the thumbs-up signal, and O. snapped his photo.

“For my kids,” the conductor whispered, shaking O.’s hand, and quickly back-pedaling out of the compartment, bowing as he went.

Makiko awoke and, spotting the crowd, rubbed her eyes.  When she caught sight of me napping, covered in meat, and O. holed up behind his newspaper, she made favorable use of his kidney by vigorously inserting a pointy elbow into it.  This sent the crowd fleeing up and down the aisle.

“Please don’t do that,” Makiko said.  “Playing with…”

“Harry Potter!” I blurted, jerking awake, unsure of where I was.  I ordered a cup of tea and a red bean bun from the passing food cart.

“Don’t do what?” I asked Makiko.

“Don’t worry about it,” O. said, rubbing his kidney.  Then added, “Bun-eater.”

 

4.

In Kyoto, we rented three single-speed bicycles with wicker baskets and pedaled up to Fushimi Inari Shrine in the foothills overlooking the city.  For two hours we strolled along a path lined with thousands of red torii gates, until we came upon a gingerbread-looking shrine.  Makiko dipped a bamboo ladle into the Purification Trough and touched it to her lips, lowering her eyes in prayer.  O. submerged his palm in the hallowed water and baptized one festering armpit after the other, topping off his ablutions by running his index finger back and forth over his fermenting teeth like a toothbrush.

Inside the Hall of Offerings, a lone Japanese couple fanned Cherry Blossom incense over their son’s arm, which was in a cast.  The smoke contains healing powers, Makiko explained.  Hearing this, O. pulled off his Adidas sneakers, revealing a grizzled toe, the size of a turnip, protruding from a hole in his sock.  The toenail was smoky gray in color, which would have been rather attractive, had it been an eye color, not that of a toenail.  The sight of this unnatural appendage sucked the air, along with my brittle serenity, from the hall.

Makiko tossed five yen in the fountain, lit a bundle of incense and clapped twice to attract the deity and purify the spirit.  She turned her back to us, hoping to buttress her tranquility.

“Turning your backside to the deity?” O. said.

Makiko inhaled deeply and edged further away.

“I only have foreign money,” he said, turning over some coins in his palm.  “Will that work?  I mean, will Buddha accept that?”

“Let me ask you,” I interjected, taking an Australian coin from his palm and elevating it before his face.  “Would you pay with this in a Japanese restaurant?”

“Yes,” O. responded, squinting at me as though it were one of my dumber questions.

He flung the fistful of coins into the sacred bath, muttering, “One of these should work,” lit a clump of incense and lifted the decaying toe into the smoke, waggling it around, hopping up and down to keep from falling over.

“Over here, Makiko,” O. called out, gesturing for her to approach, and he positioned his wife so he could hold the top of her head to keep his balance.

 

“What?” O. said, catching me staring at his toe.

“That,” I specified, pointing at the discolored protuberance.

“Toenail fungus,” he said.  “Onychomycosis, actually.”

“Onychom-?”

“He has big toe fungus,” Makiko said, eyes closed.  “The nail turns brown in fall.  And green in spring.”

“Like the leaves,” I said.

“Except leaves die and go away.  This Godzilla fungus won’t do either.”

“You know, incense doesn’t work on fungus,” I informed him.  “Know what does, especially on the big toe?”

Makiko blinked.  O. blinked.  They leaned forward with anticipation.

“A gong,” I said.

“A gong?” said Makiko.

“A gong?” said O.

I steered them into a dimly-lit antechamber where a centuries-old gong hung next to a wooden mallet.  Before I could instruct O. on the specific gong technique to cure big toe fungus, he grabbed the mallet and inflicted a Roger Federer backhand on the defenseless instrument.  boing, boing…B-O-O-O-O-O-O-ON-G!  Then he lifted the mossy toenail in the air and pressed it against the rumbling gong, and like a child seeking his Mother’s approval, spun around with both hands in the air, and cried, “Look, Makiko, no hands!”

 

KEANU REEVES IN A MONKEY SUIT

 

Most of my friends, one day in their middle age, look at me over a drink and say something like, “You know, I may have wasted my youth going to parties, drinking, and chasing girls.”  I always try to reassure them that they haven’t, pointing out their achievements and sensitivities, even though in half their cases I think they have in fact wasted their lives.  To reinforce their fear, they’ll bring up the drunken graduation party where they lopped off the tip of their finger or the 21st birthday party where they ended up in someone’s sister’s bed.

 

Other friends – those with large brains and no imagination –managed to maneuver past these pitfalls by opting for books, sports, or the family television set, only to unexpectedly bump up against them in middle age and spend the next decade making up for lost time.

 

O. and I spent a few days in the small village of Schaffhaussen on the Rhine River in Switzerland where O. grew up.  We planned to shoot an old-fashioned 1920s buster keaton scene, in black and white, for his filmHome 2, that would involve a beautiful blond girl, a Hollywood actor, a round old woman, and someone in a life-size monkey costume.  I flew from New York to Switzerland specifically for the scene, only to discover on arriving that I, not Keanu Reeves, would be wearing the life-size monkey suit.  (Oddly, Keanu backed out at the last moment.)

 

After I checked into my hotel room, I whined for a good twenty minutes to O. about the pity of wasting my acting skills inside a monkey suit, when all of a sudden he shoved a plump, red strawberry in my mouth and said “Aw, shut up!”  I’d never experienced a strawberry burst with such sweet strawberry flavor, overwhelming all of my senses above my neck.  That strawberry, handgrown on a nearby Swiss farm using real Swiss cow manure, nearly changed my life.  As a result, I shut up for the next 4 days and wore a monkey suit without saying boo to a ghost, not imagining that anyone could be unhappy in a place with such strawberries.  Even in a monkey suit.

 

My role as a large monkey was to sweep the kitchen floor, argue with and physically threaten the old woman, seduce the beautiful girl, throw her ugly sister to the floor (and call her ugly), and finally attack O. behind the camera with a bread knife.

 

That evening, after filming, we went to a bar where O. had gone as a teenager in the center of Schaffhausen.  We sat outside and watched groups of boys arrive on skateboards from the outlying villages, drink beer and ignore the girls.  “See that?” O. said, pointing at the group of boys speaking seriously at a table.  “That was me,” he said.  “Huh?  Drinking beer?” I asked. O. was known for never having tasted beer in his life, so this came as a surprise.  “No,” he said.  “Speaking!  Speaking all the time, sitting around, talking, arguing, debating, SPEAKING!”

 

This reminded me of an old passport photo I’d seen of O. in his early 20s – short hair, dark round philosophical glasses, no smile – the very portrait of serious.  “Back then, when I went out with Yves,” he said.  “It wasn’t a good night unless we had a blowout argument about a serious topic.  We were ARTISTS!”  In fact he and Yves, his best friend, had once stopped speaking for two months due to O.’s claim that Michael Jackson’s song Billie Jean was the greatest artwork of the past fifty years.

 

O. pointed to the parking lot across from the bar.  “In fact I remember once over there, in that parking lot,” he said, “late at night, an older woman stopped me and asked me if I wanted a ride home.  We spoke, she was sexy, maybe a bit drunk,” he recalled.  “I was so serious, I told her no thanks, I had to go, and rode my skateboard back to my village.”

 

He thought about it. “Sometimes I think I wasted my youth just speaking, yea, speaking all the time, never doing anything wrong.”  I imagined O. during his teenage years, arguing about Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoperat this very table twenty years ago.  I felt bad that O. concluded he was simply a boring intellectual loser, who got good grades and didn’t give his parents neither worry nor grief.  I took a sip of wine and tried to console him.  “ “Well, since I’ve known you, you do more stupid things than anyone I know.  Seriously.”  O. seemed to feel a little better after hearing this.  He could see in my eyes I really meant it.  And I did.  We ordered a couple more drinks and talked about how great it would have been to fly Keanu Reeves to Switzerland and put him in a monkey suit.

 

What are friends for, if not to tell them how stupid they are, when they’re afraid they haven’t been stupid enough.

 

LAKE TITICACA

 

Unlike most people, I don’t mind my half-yearly trip to the dentist.  In fact, I relish it.  For decades Dr. Rudolph has chiseled, bladed and buffed the pearly whites of Shakespearean actors and transvestites alike in his Greenwich Village offices.  Regal, with a year-round tan and a lustrous graying mane, his eyes sparkle as he recounts his bygone junkets around the globe with glossy women.  I listen, mouth crammed with scalers, mirrors, and hoses, grunting my approbation.  I once asked about a washed out postcard from Spain, postmarked 1967.  He sat back and beamed: “Ran with the bulls that year.  Rosetta, didn’t speak to me the whole way back to Madrid.”  Adding with a wink, “She was Italian.”

 

Last week my appointment was an impromptu affair, the result of a drunken crunch on an unshelled pistachio.  As Dr. Rudolph anesthetized my gums with what looked like a crochet needle, I tapped him on his rubber glove and informed him that I, for a change, had a parable of my own to tell.  A tale of expedition, adventure and, he was enchanted to learn, women.  Dr. Rudolph lowered his mask, crossed one leg over the other, and motioned to his assistant for a cup of coffee, as I transported him to 13,000 feet, high atop the Andes Mountains, between Peru and Bolivia, to the crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca…

For once, O. and I had made arrangements in advance, booking two seats on Imperial Bus Lines, specializing in First Class-only travel, from Arequipa to the Andean town of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  There are islands of note on this lake, constructed wholly of totora reeds, where boats with colossal animal heads that protrude from the bow ply the waters.  O.’s goal was to photograph these floating animals.   I, on the other hand, harbored dreams of encountering the legendary Uros tribe, the first pre-Incan people to domesticate the potato.

 

We boarded the bus in Arequipa and were at once welcomed in the grand style of Peruvian First Class – twenty-nine cotton farmers, their wives and children, a handful of cousins, four billy goats, a coop of Andalusian hens clucking, and twelve German Shepherds, not of the barkless breed.   From the rear window I could see a crusty fellow and his burro running after the bus until the driver braked specifically to deny him entrance.  “See,” O. chirped, in response to my doubts.  “Told you this was First Class.”

 

The bus had barely trundled through the outskirts of town when O. and I dug into our fried chicken and bottles of Pisco, hoping to gorge ourselves into unconsciousness and come to twelve-hours later at our destination.  When I eventually passed out, the side of my head banged against the clammy window curtain and I awoke certain that O. had lodged a rind of aged Camembert up my nostrils or my face had become lodged in my neighbor’s armpit.   For the next eight hours, I inhaled through my mouth and occupied my time by wishing I was dead, finally serving O. with an ultimatum – turn up more alcohol or choke me to death with the chicken bones scattered at our feet.  At the ten hour mark, I could see O.’s mouth twitching in the shadows – he was chanting in the cross-legged posture of a Buddhist monk, beseeching a higher power to send the godforsaken lot of us hurdling over the precipice outside our window.

In Puno, we sojourned at La Hacienda Hotel, recuperating by sipping mint tea and picking at buttered toast.  On the third day, we managed to keep down a Kalamata olive pizza and hire Manuel, a Physics student and part-time motorboat captain, to pilot us out to the floating Uros Islands.

 

As we puttered out to the main island, I read aloud from our Lonely Planet guide:

“The history of the noble Uros tribe, now numbering in the hundreds, is a sad one, tortured by the Incans, imprisoned by the Spanish, to this day they are used as target practice by the land-locked Bolivian Navy.  They subsist primarily from handicrafts and tourism…”

“So I’ll buy a finger puppet,” O. said, huffing onto his camera lens and wiping it with the front of his t-shirt.  “Of a giraffe.”

“We… in Peru we don’t have giraffes,” Manuel said politely.  “Only panthers, tigers, and pumas.”

“What’s a puma?” O. said.

“Tiger, just imagine a tiger,” I told him.

“Then just call it a tiger,” O. said shaking his head, annoyed by humanity’s stupidity.

“Can I ask the Uros about the potato?” I asked Manuel.

“What about it?”

“They were the first to actually cook…”

“Beets,” O. said.

“Beets, what?” Manuel said.

“They were the first to use the…” I continued.

“Walnut,” O. said.

I left it at that, hoping to revisit the subject privately with the Uros.

As we docked alongside the island, the inhabitants descended on us like we were made of gold.  Direct descendants of the Incans, none of them rose above five feet tall.    We hopped onto the reed surface and it was like landing on an oversized sponge cake.  We wobbled, extending our arms like surfers riding a wave to get our balance.  “Look!” O. said, and bounced up and down, raising his hands in the air like a kid on a trampoline attempting to get airborne.

“Please don’t do that,” Manuel said, as a crowd of Uros looked on, blinking in the sunlight.

 

Manuel led us past a row of dark, egg-shaped women displaying pottery, patchwork, and wooden sculptures of the Virgin Mary, when O. caught wind of a roasting trout and made a sharp left turn to follow his nose.  He hadn’t managed five steps, when his right foot descended on a rotting patch of reeds, and plunged through the floor of the island.  The hollow crunching, punctuated by a moist suctioning finale, echoed across the island, drawing a crowd of Uros to witness Lake Titicaca’s watery entrails gurgle up around his foot.

 

I’ve knocked around the globe with O. for the better part of a decade, visiting the shrines, grottos and ruins of civilizations long gone, bearing witness to the repercussions.  Which is why the moment I got an earful of the splintering reeds, I knew nothing good could come of it.  I slipped behind a hut and slithered back to the boat.  My final glimpse of the proceedings featured the northern hemisphere of Manuel’s butt crack as he bent over to tug at O.’s leg, testing a variety of angles, like a waiter struggling to dislodge a stubborn cork from a bottle of wine.  I stowed away in the cabin until Manuel put the finishing touches on a financial settlement with the tribal elders, which took the form of a $20 dollar bill and three Snickers candy bars.

 

O. eventually hobbled back to the boat on one bare foot, a mucky sock drooping from two fingers.  He greeted me by asking how much cash I had on me.

“Where’s your shoe?” I said.

He inserted a finger into his left nostril.  And stood there.

“I’m broke,” I lied.

“Really!” he said.  “Hear that, Manuel?  The guy’s broke!  Ain’t got a dime!”

O. shuffled over and, employing the very same finger that probed the recesses of his muzzle, he plucked a wad of cash from inside my sock.

“That’s three days worth,” I informed him.

 

He mumbled something rude about my lilac socks, pocketed the money, and disappeared back on the island to settle his debt.

We withdrew from the island in the most unostentatious manner manageable – by wooden oar – navigating to an island where a clump of brightly outfitted matrons huddled around a gurgling cauldron.  These sweet-natured homemakers proceeded to serve us the most succulent fish stew I’d ever savored and I conveyed my compliments to the chefs, asking which of the local fish were featured and if I might request the recipe.  Adding: “And what, if anything, do you know about the first potato on these islands?”

This question provoked some snickering, then a fair amount of hilarity.  At first I thought it must be my Spanish – I learned eight year’s worth at school but forgot every word of it two days after graduating, and have felt much better ever since.  The women shoved each other back and forth, slapping their thighs, calling out “pescado!” “pescado!” nearly injuring themselves with violent laughing as the tears rolled down their cheeks.  Turns out, they couldn’t make heads or tails of my potato inquiry.  But my admiration for their fish stew, that was another matter.  Manuel sheepishly informed me that, though the island was indeed renowned for its soup of killifish, catfish, trout, and a large frog (Telmatobius), they were presently out of fish, opting to substitute a local migratory bird stew in its place.

Hearing the news, O.’s jaws downshifted in what I regarded as an overly theatrical manner, leaving his mouth in a disjointed limbo between simple mouth-breathing and Holy Shit!  He was clearly debating whether to swallow or evacuate the contents whence they’d come.  I shot him an eye that, in light of his recent foot-through-the-island maneuver, indicated he couldn’t afford the luxury.

“Out of fish?” O. said, peering out at the blue expanse surrounding us.

I asked Manuel what birds he thought might crop up in such a goulash.

“Dunno,” he said, looking up into the birdless skies.  “Maybe shore birds – herons, geese, gulls, pigeons, finches.”

“All of ‘em?” O. said, staring into his bowl.

 

He didn’t wait for a reply, placing the bowl at his feet and ducking out to speak with the Mayor of Bird Stew Island (O.’s name for the island) about lining up some animal-headed boats for his photo.  Manuel and I sipped bottles of urine-colored Inca Cola and dangled our feet in the sacred waters of Lake Titicaca, surveying the tranquility of the most hallowed body of water in the Incan Empire.  I laid back and daydreamed about the mysterious record of the potato on these forgotten islands.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, O. rounded the corner of a thatched teepee at full throttle with a squat woman in a stovetop hat, flailing a spatula, on his heels.  He appeared to be shaking a leg as he darted past, hurling himself head first over the side of the boat like a soldier diving into a foxhole for cover.

 

The butterball rolled up to Manuel, spatula still smoldering, and danced about and caterwauled at the top of her lungs, and roared herself red in the face, and cursed everything she knows, gesturing back at her hut, and clutching the spatula below her waist and pointing it into the water.  Turns out, fancying himself alone with his shadow, O. saw fit to relieve himself into the porcelain waters behind the very hut where the woman, her sister, and dear mother were chattering over a pot of black lentils.  When the woman caught sight of O. in the glorious posture – head back, eyes closed, wringing every ounce of luxury from the maneuver – she exploded from the hut on abbreviated legs, spatula flourishing toward the Heavens.  With barely the time to tuck it away, O. found himself kicking his heels in the air in an effort to remain one step ahead of the incensed Incan.

 

Manuel’s diplomatic skills, along with a portion of O.’s wallet, managed to disentangle the events just as a fleet of animal-headed boats – panthers, cheetahs, dragons, lions, pumas – rounded the corner and converged on the island.  O. enlisted a mob of kids with long reeds to infiltrate the crafts and tie them in a row for the photo.  After an hour of tugging, pulling and cursing, the boats were corralled into perfect alignment, and O. released the shutter on ten large format, plate photographs.

 

Before heading back to the mainland, O. compensated the boat owners, and anyone loitering in the vicinity, with a handshake and a few dollars, our last.  I suggested we reward the children with the sweets and chewing gum littering our backpacks, so Manuel pulled the boat out into the open waters and accelerated past the island at full throttle, as O. and I hurled fistfuls of kaleidoscopic candies and gumdrops high into the air above the island, like an exploding rainbow, hoping the delirious kids would one day grow up and tell the story of the day it “rained candy” on the Uros Islands.

In hindsight, we might have reconsidered the “raining candy” idea.  The reed islands are also known as Las Islas Flotantes, the “floating islands,” and no sooner had we raced past, than our churning wake sent the island buffeting violently from side to side, such that our last vision of the noble Uros was a chaotic scene of swarming kids and the elderly being sideswiped over the edge into the frothy cobalt waters.

As our vessel chugged peacefully back to Puno, O. waved his cap in the air, while I read aloud from a section of the guidebook I’d hitherto neglected:

The Uros often demand “tips” for having their photographs taken – they now realize that instead of working and creating handicrafts they…(I paused)… can make more money by asking tourists to pay for their pictures. DO NOT DO THIS.  It will only serve to undermine the longevity of the ancient Uros culture until it ultimately dies out.

 

Neither O. nor Manuel uttered a peep, so preoccupied were they by the uniformity of the surrounding landscape.  I continued nonetheless:

The Uros have no dentists and no access to dental care.  Tourists often make the VERY SERIOUS mistake of… (I paused again)…giving the Uros children candies and gumdrops from their home country.  DO NOT DO THIS.  Without fluoride and dental care, the children’s teeth will rot and ultimately fall out, one by one…

At this point, I was forced to abandon my tale, as the effects of the Lidocaine had suddenly retreated, the pain piercing through my jaw like an army of blistering needles.  I implored Dr. Rudolph to re-numb the tooth, and his assistant handed him a syringe.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, in a voice I didn’t recognize, methodically replacing the mask over his mouth, snapping the latex gloves around his long, veiny fingers, and planting his feet squarely on the ground, in the posture of someone about to engage in vigorous manual labor.

“Open,” he intoned.  “Open wide.”

“It’s killing me, Doc,” I blubbered, thinking if I acted like a whimpering child, he’d take pity.  “Can’t you give me something?  Anything!”

“Oh, I’ll give you something,” he said.

 

Then he performed the gesture that has evolved into the staple of my nightmares.  He clutched the drill with both hands, elevated it into the searing dental light, and plunged it toward my face, eyes blazing like an unhinged lunatic – humming, unmistakably, the tune to the Mr. Potato Head song – as I spiraled into the throes of unimaginable torment.

LONG ISLAND CASTLE

 

A few miles from LaGuardia Airport and the immigrants of Queens in New York City is a 126 room French chateau.  Michael Jackson doesn’t own it and Prince Charles doesn’t play polo there.  It is the second largest private residence ever built in America.  In 1921, the New York Times called it “the finest country estate in America.”  Last August, O. called me at work and said, “In the mood to spend the night in a castle next weekend, you know we have to write a text for my catalogue.  Maybe it will inspire us to write something that won’t put people to sleep (like most art-freak texts).”   “No,” I said, “I don’t want to.”  Then, before hanging up, I changed my mind and said, “If you insist, okay then.”

 

When we arrived at Oheka Castle, Mr. Eyebrows, our concierge with white hair and woolly caterpillar eyebrows, found us a room on the third floor with a fake fireplace and a view overlooking a golf course and Long Island Sound.  In the morning we took our coffees in the back garden overlooking the 14th tee of the Huntington Golf and Country Club, where we witnessed an amusing turn of events…

 

Four brave fellows – all typical country club types with paunchy stomachs under checkered golf shirts and long shorts and saddle shoes – prepared to tee off.  They had a caddie with them, what looked like a local boy, a miniature version of them, ugly clothes, good haircut and red cheeks.  A stiff older fellow was the first to tee off and he drove his ball straight into the fairway and for that he received the praise of the others before ambling back to the cart like a peacock that has just spread its feathers.  Three Mexican grounds men riding on lawnmowers along the fairway stopped and lowered their engines when the next guy, a very round one with a colorful golf outfit, teed the ball up and whacked a sailing slice over the trees and into the adjoining fairway.  “Shit!” came floating up like an indigestive burp to disturb our peace in the castle garden.  Then came, “Goddamn it!” to punctuate the first exclamation.

 

It was such an unexpectedly bad shot that even the Mexicans, who have probably never held a golf club nor teed up a ball, looked at each other with big white smiles and bounced up and down on the leather seats of their John Deere lawnmowers.

 

Without asking his companions if he could hit another tee shoot, he teed up another new shiny ball.  This time he swayed back and forth and swung so hard he almost lost his balance and fell backwards.  This time the ball decided to chart an opposite course to the first one and hooked so violently to the left that one of the other golfers jumped behind his cart, as the ball flew into a clump of oak trees and a dull, woody KNOCK! echoed from the woods.  There was a moment of silence when no one moved, then suddenly the ball came bouncing out of the treetops and onto the cart path and back toward the golfers on the tee.  It felt like the ball bounced and rolled on that cart path back towards its original location for well over a minute before it came to a humiliating stop about five yards in front of the guy.  I could see the guy’s red face from the castle.  He walked over to the ball picked it up, and drove the cart away.   I have never seen O. so happy since being upgraded to Business Class on a flight from New York to Lima.   He took a sip of coffee and said, “Nice shot, idiot.”

 

For dinner we had a picnic behind the castle, next to an elegant headless stone statue of a woman in a flowing gown.  We spread two bright red Peruvian blankets on the grass beyond the manicured gardens and the fountain along the west wing of the chateau.  We bought a new picnic basket for the occasion and filled it with Chilean wine, Asian shrimp, Greek olives, New York ham, a pot of sweet mustard, bread, wild rice, potatoes, pasta salad, and a shiny, plastic corkscrew.

 

After dinner as it was getting dark, I walked to the edge of the grounds and looked down between the trees where I could see a bright blue house with a strangely illuminated swimming pool.  There, next to the pool, was a man standing in the liquidy shadows in a white t-shirt and sandals looking down at the water.  His face was in the shadows while the rest of his body was glowing from the swimming pool lights.  He had his hands in his pockets and just stood there.  The scene looked like a David Hockney painting, surreal and faraway.  The screen door to the house was partially ajar.  I called O. to show him the scene.  When he saw the man by the pool, he immediately asked, “Who did he kill?” and walked back to his glass of wine.  The longer I looked at the scene, the more I expected to see a dark mass come floating to the surface of the swimming pool.  Did he hate his wife and finally stick a knife in her?  Or did he want it to look like an accident, surprising her in the pool and holding her under?  He stood there, thinking he was alone, wondering how long a drowned body remains under water before it softly floats to the surface.

 

When I went back to the scene before we returned to the castle the man was gone.  The pool was still bright and pale, magical and out of place.  I strained my eyes to see the man until I found myself watching the watery shadows high up in the trees.

After our picnic we retired to the library, an immense room with a cathedral ceiling and walls and walls of turn-of-the-century volumes of New York State land ordinances. We settled into a couple of red-felt Prussian chairs, opened another bottle of wine, and when Mr. Eyebrows arrived, ordered two coffees.  That was when we realized that old Mr. Eyebrows was, in fact, Otto Herman Kahn’s grandson.

 

You see, he was the spitting image of the 1928 portrait of Mr. Kahn, the man who had built the castle in the 1920’s.  The painting hung in a gilded frame above the extinct fireplace but upon closer examination, the portrait turned out to be a photograph that was carefully ‘weathered’ to look like a 1920’s painting.  The creative genius of PhotoShop had strategically place a pinkish hue on the cheekbones of the old boy, his lips were the pink of a fading rose.

 

At first we were disappointed by the castle’s lack of authenticity, then we thought it was great that everything was fake – photographs were PhotoShopped, china vases were made of plastic and the wood walls were actually painted cement.  Then, because we were drunk, we had a stupid conversation about whether it mattered that the castle and everything within, was fake.  Because I am of a delicate philosophic disposition, I related a parable in the form of a question:

 

A pilgrim climbed the highest mountain in search of wisdom and found an old wise man and asked him the meaning of life.  The wise man said, “Live simply and be happy.”  So the pilgrim returned to civilization and lived simply and was happy, according to the words of the wise man.

Another pilgrim climbed the highest mountain and found an old wise man to ask him the meaning of life.  The wise man was actually a fraud, a drunk who had let his beard grow and sat doing nothing all day.  The drunkard said to the pilgrim, “Live simply and be happy.”  So the pilgrim returned to civilization and lived simply and was happy, according to the words of the drunkard.

 

O. took a drink of wine, and said, “That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.  Really, the dumbest f_cking story I ever heard in my life!”

After a brief argument, we concluded that Mr. Eyebrows was Otto Kahn’s grandson.  When Mr. Eyebrows served us coffee, with the portrait in the background, we saw the same white hair, the same furry dark eyebrows.  We pointed the likeness out to Mr. Eyebrows and he smiled but wouldn’t confirm or deny the lineage.  I think he liked the idea of being the heir to the second largest castle in the United States.

Such a fine, fine plastic castle.

MADONNA AND THE MAIDENS

 

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Highway 101 there’s a curious place to spend the night called The Madonna Inn.  One of California’s most famous landmarks, it is neither a shrine to the Virgin Mary nor a roadside homage to the pop star Madonna.  In fact, the Madonna Inn is the life’s work of a cowboy developer named Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis.  One of the world’s most eccentric hotels, it is a Pepto-Bismol pink color with an 8-foot tall waterfall urinal in the men’s room.

 

Honeymooners and retirees celebrating their 50th anniversary have made the 108-room Madonna Hotel their Graceland.  Elvis would have loved this monument to kitsch with its Swiss country and gingerbread fairy motif and its oddball suites.  The suites are done in pinks, reds, greens and blues.  People come from around the world for the thrill of luxuriating in its luscious pinkness.  The Old Mill Room contains a 3-foot mill wheel with dancing Bavarian figurines. One room features a replica of a moonshiner’s still.  Another, the Caveman Room, is done up mostly in natural rock and features a waterfall shower.

Old ladies smelling like grandmothers with big pink hair come to the Inn’s Copper Café & Pastry Shop for Sunday breakfast.  The men that accompany them wear tight jeans and cowboy boots, just like Alex Madonna in one of the photographs on the walls of him posing with the actors John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.  At one time, Mr. Madonna was a ranching partner with the actor John Wayne.  There are a few young couples who must have been advised by their grandparents on where to go for a romantic weekend getaway.  They always have a look of disbelief in their eyes.  Occasionally there are the curious Europeans who check in with their mouths wide open, you can’t see anything like this in Europe.  The taste of the entire place is way too questionable.

It is no coincidence that we felt at home in the Madonna Inn.  Alex Madonna’s grandparents on both sides married in Switzerland then traveled to join the first Swiss immigrants farming the central coast area of California.  In this tradition, we arrived to film a few scenes in two of the wacky Madonna Inn suites – one night in the Pony Room “equipped with two king size beds and a real live wooden pony” and four nights in the Traveler’s Suite “fit for kings and queens,” with a wall-length stone fireplace and a single, long-burning, easy-lighting, smell-and-smoke-free “log”.  We quickly closed the curtains in the Pony Room, afraid the others guests would think we were using the pony to shoot a porno movie.  It would be difficult to make a porno with this pony, it was made of wood and never reacted to anything.  I kicked the horse in the arse, strangled it a while, and heaped insults on him, but he never so much as swished his tail.  It would be a very boring dirty movie, the girl would have to work really hard and for very little result.  A lot like my acting, for example.

 

Mr. Madonna died in April 2004 at the age of 85.  We liked the guy, he had a laugh a minute and seemed like a pleasant old fellow.  We saw him every morning in the Copper Café doing the accounts and drinking coffee in the corner.  He acknowledged us with a nod when we entered.  We must have been a sight he didn’t see much in his hotel – two straight guys hanging out in Mr. Madonna’s bubble gum and cotton candy hotel for 5 days.  We liked to watch him greet the diners and chat with the townspeople who made weekly pilgrimages from San Luis Obispo.

 

After a few days we noticed something odd about the cafe: all the waitresses looked same.  Mr. Madonna clearly knew what he was looking for when hiring a waitress.  They were all blond and young with pink, fresh faces, like they had just come down from a morning of milking the cows up in the chilled air of the Swiss Alps. They exuded health, full girls that you might not notice on the street but whose presence you couldn’t deny in a café full of senior citizens.  Mr. Madonna had them dressed in identical outfits that were a cross between a mountain maiden and pioneering settler.  The mixture of youth, innocence and old-fashion dress made these otherwise non-descript girls into curiously enticing maidens.

 

Each morning we saw Madonna in his special “Gold Booth” at the inn’s restaurant, where he joked with ‘his girls.’  He talked to the girls sweetly, like a grandfather, and made them smile.  Perhaps it was the setting of the Copper Café that helped make these healthy California girls so exotic.  Senior citizens from the community sat around doing crossword puzzles in red leather seats near wood carvings and hand-painted walls.  The orange juice glasses were made of thick colored glass, like something you would find in your grandmother’s living room credenza in the 1970’s.

 

We watched Mr. Madonna every morning with his identical waitresses.  They made him happy, you could see, and he would watch them come and go from the kitchen with plates of eggs and pancakes balanced along their forearms.  This made us wonder what we would do if we owned a restaurant like the Copper Café…

 

Our restaurant would be staffed entirely with midgets and giants.  The midgets would be very classy, well-mannered waiters in miniature black tuxedos.  The midgets’ demeanor would be noble, aloof, worthy.  The giants would serve as busboys, they would clean the tables, do the dishes and take commands from the midgets.  The giants’ trousers would be too short and their finger nails would be chewed and dirty.  The midgets would be very mean to the giants when they made a mistake, especially in front of the guests.  They would kick them in the shin or step on their foot and the diners would giggle and snicker and pour more wine.  The food in our restaurant would be impeccable.  The dishes would be planned with the most delicate ingredients from around the world.  No wine would be younger than 1967.  The restaurant would be thedestination for famous actors, foreign dignitaries, and Fortune 100 CEOs.  The restaurant would also be impossibly expensive.  An appetizer would be the price of an ipod.  A main course would cost the same as an A-Class Mercedes…

 

When we stopped dreaming about our restaurant and asked for the check, we concluded that Mr. Madonna was right to have an identical band of Swiss Misses pouring coffee and serving pastries.  It isn’t complicated – it is pleasant to receive a pretty, kind smile when asking for a side of bacon.

MAKING DIAMONDS

 

O. and I have some pleasant routines when we travel.  We’ll drink cold Coke on a Tokyo train platform in the summer.  Or we’ll make four or five trips to the breakfast buffet in Ghana and stretch out our legs until we’ve finished two cappuccinos.  In the evenings O. will debate with the waiter who knows nothing about wine about which wine to select before choosing one he finds unsatisfactory.  These pleasant diversions are in the majority when we travel.    But it would be misleading to say that our harmless habits weren’t offset by by the odd bad one.  This particular weakness, like any bad habit worth its salt, manifests itself while drinking.

 

When we go out to dinner, whether half way across the world or at home in New York, we take our digital cameras.  O. hangs his Leica around his neck like a tourist. I place my Sony on the table next to the salt and pepper shakers.  By the end of dinner, we’ll generally have consumed a cocktail, a bottle of wine and several carafes of water, which causes us to make frequent trips to the bathroom.  Somehow, years back, one of us (O.) started taking his camera to the bathroom and photographing the pee as it streamed into the toilet.  I suppose the size of his brain and the wine combined to convince him this was funny.  He discovered that, if you use the flash and get the right angle, you can capture the urine in mid air so it looks like a string of individual, resplendent, perfectly shaped diamonds.  Back at the table he showed me the results and, sadly, I was most impressed.

 

Over the years, due to varying levels of dehydration, we’ve photographed not only diamonds but rare stones of exotic hues and shapes all over the world – in Peru, O. came up with an impressive opal necklace, on Lake Titicaca I managed a string of rubies that would rival any museum piece, and once, after a long night of drinking in Kyoto, O. miraculously produced such a vivid shade of topaz stones that I thought he might need to be hospitalized. Our fascination with photographing our own urine wasn’t due to drinking – even sober, when we would look at the photos the next day, we were amazed at how much our own pee looked like priceless jewels.

 

Whether we’re in a traditional tatami restaurant in Kyoto or a dive bar in South America, O. takes his camera to the bathroom, makes diamonds, and returns to the table in time to order an espresso and finish complaining about the wine.  We have hundreds of pictures like this – on a normal trip, we take 500 to 600 pictures, which is why over the years I have hundreds of “jewelry” photos.  When friends and family ask to see pictures of my trip I hesitate because of what happened after our first trip to Peru.  I took a disk of photos back to Ohio to show my family and after showing them the ruins of Macchu Picchu, the medieval town of Cuzco, and a 16thcentury monastery, a photo of O. creating a pearl necklace in the bathroom of a pizza restaurant filled the computer screen.

Of all our pleasant routines while traveling, you’ll forgive me for going into such detail about the regrettable one.  Neither O. nor I are proud of these photos.   It’s only to show that, even amid a collection of civilized routines that revolve around the pleasures of food, wine, and exotic destinations, there is the odd bad habit that just seems to tag along.

 

MY FAVORITE BUTTER KNIFE

 

 

Yesterday was the hottest summer day in brooklyn

I put on a pair of white shorts

And took my racquets to the courts

For a set of tennis.

My outfit is modeled after bjorn borg’s

At the wimbledon final of 1977

I’ve never seen anything closer to perfection.

Wearing a white headband, knee socks

and old tennis shoes

I look just like borg, maybe better.

Then I lay in the grass

with a cold glass of lemonade

And let Godfrie the local bulldog lick the sweat

Off my wrist.

His sandpaper tongue took me back to …

…a girl I once knew in paris.

You won’t believe this

But I swear it happened.

On November 9, 1997

in the cafe where she worked

she was drinking and singing and

waiting tables in red high heel shoes.

After serving a plate of steak-frites to the next table

she climbed on the table

where I was sitting with her friend

and poured the lower half of a bottle

of that year’s beaujolais nouveau over my head,

she chased me out of the café and around the Pantheon with a butter knife.

Her eyes were on fire and

To this day she swears she would have killed me

If you’d caught up with me.

But I still think she was faking.

All I remember from that night was

the way the knife looked in the spotlights illuminating the Pantheon

and laughing so hard I had an asthma attack.

I told this story to O. in the back of a taxi last year,

“Shut up,” he said. “girls aren’t like that.”

and continued cleaning his camera lens with his t-shirt.

 

O. MAKES STUFF

 

O. gets bored easily.

So you give him a pencil and paper

and tell him to take a big boat to england

and draw something funny on the high seas.

Because he’s a show-off, he flies back first-class

and marches into the big white gallery, climbs up a ladder,

and like a googling 21st century caveman,

scribbles his H-U-G-E stick-figure drawings on the walls,

     … a figure thinking ME … ME … ME

in his empty watermelon head,

     … a man saying BLAH  BLAH  BLAH

around the clock.

Then he climbs down the ladder, scratches his thumb cuticle,

and thinks about 3 things:

MONEY.  SEX.  EATING AN APPLE.

Such dirty drawings, you slap his face,

take the pencil, and send him outside with a camera.

He marches back with yellow paint on his knuckles

and nails his photos to the black walls in a black room.

     …two girls painted black, shot with yellow, blue, red

green PAINT BALLS – strange psychedelic leopards.

     …a naked girl painted black lying on her side

with lines of colored paint dripping across her body –

a human rainbow zebra.

     …a black angel smearing her yellow, green,

blue, and red powdered wings against the black wall behind her.

     …four blackened faces, eyes closed,

with red, yellow and green paint circles around the mouth

and eyes – confused human traffic lights at night.

Such messy photos, you slap his face,

take the camera, and send him into the forest

with a hammer and a nail.

He trundles back, his arms full of branches,

and builds stick structures of pointless roller coasters

and a black question mark dangling from a hangman’s noose.

There’s a line of miniature wooden animals marching off a cliff, too.

You throw up your hands

and give up.

The last thing you see before you slap him

and leave smiling…

a large wall drawing of a man

with the word YES balanced on his erection.

O’S REVENGE

 

Last year O. gave me one of his photos as a christmas present.  It’s a photo that has always made me laugh because it’s simple, amusing and a little retarded, like O. himself.  Now it hangs on the wall of my apartment, just above my grandmother’s 1920’s pink couch.

 

The photo is a winter landscape with about 100 small photoshopped creatures scattered on top.  Each creature is half naked human (porn actors from the internet) and half animal.  When I first saw these silly human-animals (manimals) he created, I asked O. what it was like to live with such a small brain.  In revenge, he made me a large print of the photo and hung it in my living room for all to see.

 

My apartment in brooklyn happens to be on the route of the new york city marathon, so every year I host a marathon breakfast party.  This year, an old friend from ohio was visiting new york with his wife and three kids, so I invited them to the party.

 

When the guests arrived, the kids – two girls and a little boy named Jake – threw their coats on my bed and walked directly to O’s photo.  The two sisters pointed at the photo, whispering to each other.  Jake looked up at it with his mouth open, blinking.

 

Then he took off his shoes and climbed on the couch to get a closer look.  He touched the half-human, half-animal images, one by one, saying the name of each animal “horsey,” “monkey,” “elephant,” “kangaroo.”  He then ran his finger over the women’s naked breasts, one at a time, in silence – he must have thought they were funny-looking, like a big toe or a bushy mustache.

 

The two sisters also climbed on the couch to examine the “manimals.”  The older one liked a fat black man with the body of an ostrich; the younger girl preferred a skinny redhead with the body of an elephant.  Suddenly Jake turned to his mother, pointed at the photo, and screamed across the room, “Look, mommy, a naked lady with the animals!”

 

The party went quiet.  Both parents came over to Jake, they saw O’s photo for the first time.  The husband looked at the photo with a serious face, like an art collector, but I knew he was looking at the beautiful breasts of the half-woman, half-zebra.  His wife looked at him, then at me.  “What is this?” she asked.

Before I could respond, Jake shouted, “LadySnake!” then pointed at a big breasted blonde with the body of a hog, “LadyPig!”  Inspired by her brother, the youngest daughter pointed to a half-man, half-donkey, and shouted “ManHorse!”  Little Jake was jumping up and down on the couch, screaming,”LadyPig!  ManHorse!  LadyPig!  ManHorse! – BOOBIES!”

 

That is how my 2006 new york city marathon party ended, with the word “boobies.”  The mother quickly bundled the kids in their jackets and escorted them outside to watch the race.  The other guests left behind them.

 

From my window I saw my friend and his kids, a nice family from ohio, cheering the runners as they passed.  And I distinctly heard little Jake scream at a couple of Italian runners “LadyPig!  ManHorse!”

OHIO

 

The Bathing Suit.

Each summer, O. and I rent a car with some friends and drive from New York City to the small town in Ohio where I grew up.  We play tennis, nap in the hammock and swim off my parents’ pontoon boat in Lake Mohawk.  In the evenings the girls drink lemonade and plunge their fingers into mounds of cool ground beef, sculpting chubby hamburgers for the grill.   When it rains, we pile into my Dad’s pickup and bide our time at the local Salvation Army, where my friends ridicule the size of Midwestern clothes.

 

This particular Salvation Army, in a shed behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, oozes the mushroomy aroma of my parents’ cellar.  Far from pooh-poohing hand-me-downs, I actually prefer them.  Anything belonging to Grandpa, mine or someone else’s, I covet.  The more a corduroy holds the bouquet of old Uncle Albert, the more I’ll fork over for it.  Leaving town for college, in 1985, I laid out a small fortune for an anthology of mothy tweeds and velvet blazers I knew belonged to my pal Dougy Atkins’s freshly-fossilized Grandad.  Call me a hearse chaser, but I’ve been know to scan the Obits, set to pounce on the still-warm togs of old Wilbur Yoder or Bobby Oyster the moment they button their tailored waistcoats for the last time.

 

On this occasion, as we pulled into the parking lot, a woman in a pink nightgown was smoking a cigarette on a donated couch.

“How much?” I asked.

She looked down at her nightie and said two bucks.

“The couch, I mean.”

“Two bucks,” she said before I’d finished speaking.

“And the nightgown?” O. said.

The woman scrunched her unibrow, flicked her cigarette in the weeds, and disappeared inside.

“Kiko, yoo-hoo,” O. called from the Plus Size racks.

Makiko paid no attention, consumed by a pair of $2 dollar Lucite heels.

“Looks like Chaa-nel,” he added, summoning the magic C-word, and Makiko dropped everything and marched over in a trance.

“Eyes,” he said, waiting for her to close her eyes.

 

O. stepped back and flung a raggedy parachute high over head.  We all raised our eyes to watch it unfurl, catch the florescent light, and cascade over Makiko, engulfing her body like a colossal used Kleenex.  After adjusting the fit, O. led her by the shoulders to the mirror.

Makiko blinked.  And blinked again.  She squinted, thinking she might recognize the figure standing before her.  Then it clicked.  The full horror of her predicament registered with blinding clarity.  There she stood, draped in a pair of graying Fruit of the Loom Men’s underwear, size XXXL.  The overhead light flickered and a monstrous calm descended.  Her head turned full circle, like in the movie The Exorcist.  I thought she’d devil an egg on the spot.  Or bend a spoon, like Uri Geller, with her psychokinetic fury.  Then she gave birth, boosting off through the ends of her hair, the sheer force whipping O.’s hair into an impromptu Elvis impersonation.  Her mouth turned rubbery, like a skydiver’s, and produced a hollow … croak.

“Wasn’t so bad,” O. said.  And snapped her picture.  The camera’s flash – and I’ll never forget this – illuminated the convulsing tonsils at the back of her throat like raw meat quivering in a butcher’s window.

 

Having forgotten his bathing suit in New York, O. had hopes of procuring a second-hand substitute.  He slipped into the changing room with a rainbow number from the 1980’s.

 

“I’m fat, Makiko,” he announced, flinging open the curtains, half-naked, and peering down at the hairy bowl of Jell-O lounging above his bathing suit.

Again, a more ardent advocate of used togs you will not find.  But underwear, socks and, oh, bathing suits, there I draw the line.  And I said as much.  But he wouldn’t step away from the garment.  Then it dawned on me, the situation could be more dire than imagined.

“Your underwear, Bub?” I said, suddenly unsure whether he’d kept his Superman briefs on under that suit.

“Not bad, eh?” O. concluded, examining himself in the mirror.  Then grabbing a fistful of spare tire, muttered, “Fat Motherfucker.”

Suspecting the worst, we all stepped back, as though the suit were dipped in urine.  O. gave the drawstrings a fresh tie.

“Underwear,” I repeated with greater urgency, moving toward him.  “YOU, SIR, ARE WEARING GODDAMN UNDERWEAR OR I…”

No sooner had I launched my threat than I caught sight of the Superman logo in a limp pile of clothes behind him.  That’s when O. put his shirt back on, stuffed his underwear in his pocket and announced, “I’ll take it!” and sashayed through the racks to the cashier.

 

The Meal.

Professor Splash is renowned for diving head first into shallow pools from great heights.  On his website he sports an Einstein hairstyle, his chest puffed out, in a 1920’s one-piece bathing suit.  His homepage features a flashing crawl: “Book the Professor for your next corporate event!”  A 2008 YouTube video shows him diving into a 12-inch bucket of water.  The Scottsdale Tribune ran the headline: “Pain lasts a minute. Glory, a lifetime.“  I googled him only to find his popularity waned the following year, when he leapt from the Valley Presbyterian Charter School into a Fred Flintstone kiddy pool, before a class of horrified preschoolers.

 

I only bring him up because he flashed to mind in the aftermath of O.’s burst of caveman bravado at the Alliance Country Club swimming pool.  In a bid to amuse his young wife, he leapt out of his deck chair, kicked his flip-flops in the air and dove head-first into the shallow end of the pool.

He resurfaced, after floating awhile, pie-eyed and muttering gobbledy-gook about the Third Reich.  A bump that size, I told him, would mean a change in hat size.  Makiko said it looked like a bird was ruffling its feathers under his scalp.   Lonergan, an Irishman normally face down in a crossword or a pint of ale, referenced an episode of Wile E. Coyote.  Never seen that before, I mean in real life, he said..

That left O. with only one free hand for the remainder of the weekend, employing one to apply ice to his brain.  That evening, at the restaurant, I felt pity watching him try to butter a dinner roll.  He pushed it around the table like a dry turd, until I thought the waiter would confiscate our bread basket.

When everyone had ordered cocktails and appetizers, I asked for an espresso.

“Sir?” the waiter said, expecting my drink order.

“Espresso,” I repeated.  “And that crumble thingy.”

O.’s left eyebrow twitched.

 

You see, for years, O. and I had dreamed of taking a seat at our habitual restaurant and ordering our dinner backwards.  This meant starting with espresso and dessert, right down the line, concluding with a cocktail and a run-through of that evening’s specials.  O. was convinced our waitress’s Mother Board would fry and smoke would billow from her ears.  Human beings are robots, he’d say.  When they’re not being complete idiots.  To cheer him up, I thought we’d have that back-to-front dinner now.

“Espresso, me too!” O. called out with such buoyancy I thought he’d soil his trousers.  “A double!  And the mousse!”

I unhinged a queasy smile in the direction of my parents.  Then, like Al Capone unloading a semi-automatic into an unsuspecting victim, O. rat-a-tat-tatted his order.

“Espresso.  Double!  Apple crumble!  No, mouse!  What?  Pork!  Yes.  No!  Medium.  I mean, Rare!  Salad?  No, Caprese!  Vinaigrette.  Balsamic!  Bread.   Butter.  Breadsticks!  And, Miss, gin.  And, tonic!”

The restaurant fell silent.  My Mother and Father leaned into their menus, as though finishing a Stephen King novel.  Makiko hid behind hers.

“Take a breath, fella,” I said.

I told Makiko the clunk on the noggin had scrambled his wires, temporarily, of course.  And smiled sympathetically.  Then I turned to my Father, “Chrissake, he’s miles away.  And by miles, I mean miles.”

So O. and I threw our meals in reverse, putting away the courses, one by one, backwards to forwards.   Retreating through dinner seemed to calm the lunatic’s nerves.  That is, until the check arrived.  O. grabbed it like a parking ticket and jumped to his feet.

“Majorie, what’s this?” he barked.

“Take a seat,” I declared, prepared to confront him.

“I won’t, Madame!” And pointing a finger at his half-finished appetizer, announced, “I may got a lump on the brain, people, but even I knows the check comes after dessert!”

The Horse.

“I’d rather have a goddam horse.  A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.”

 

The Catcher in the Rye.

When in Ohio, we always pay a visit to my Mother’s faithful horse, Chaparelle.  My friends, city slickers all, feed her lumps of sugar and go for “rides.”  Back in New York, to hear them talk, you’d think they commandeered a bucking bronco through the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, over glade and gorge, jumping fences and ditches and generally traversing many obstacles.  In fact, each ride consists of my Mother walking them once round the paddock, at 3 miles-an-hour, while Chappy casts a glum eye left and right.

 

“Here, Chappy.  Here ya go,” O. said dangling a carrot through the metal fence.

The full weight of the beast’s tongue lulled over O.’s hand, compressing it against the electric fence.  Yellow sparks danced from O.’s fingernails, and he waved them in the air like sparklers on the Fourth of July.  A curlicue of smoke drifted from the animal’s left nostril. Chappy whinnied and reared.  O. whinnied and reared.  The carrot snapped and flipped through the air like Chinese stir fry.

Wild-eyed, O. proclaimed his desire to take the old girl for a spin.  I opposed the idea.  We argued.  Insults changed hands, most referencing the other’s physical shape.

“Out of the ring, Pea,” I said.

“Up yours, Horseface,” O. responded, which I found particularly insensitive, being within earshot of Chappy, and all.

“Stand down, Missy,” I shot back.  “Or is it your medicine you want?”

Sadly, O. produced a gesture, neither suitable for his wife nor my Mother.

I couldn’t abide this and bounded over the fence to add a companion bump to his skull when, out of the blue, O. launched himself onto Chappy.  “Vamooshe!” he called, and off they went.   As a group, we hollered at him.  Individually, some mocked him.  Lonergan called out, “You’ll fill your pants, Amigo!”  Chappy ripped and cavorted, jerking her passenger this way and that until, at one point, O.’s heels flopped above his head and the whole crowd of us hooted and waved our caps, laughing till our eyes shone with tears.

That’s when Chappy broke fence.  You could hear the piss and vinegar awash in both man and mule, galloping full blazes round and round the paddock until, I kid you not, O. ricocheted into an upright position and began saluting the crowd, like Mussolini at a May Day rally, shedding maneuvers so thick and heavy they clogged the air.  That’s when he further congested the good air with a Haiku:

            “There once was a fellow McSweeny

            Who spilled some gin on his ween…”

“That’s a Limerick, Dumbass,” someone called out.

Embittered, he polluted the open air with yet another Haiku:

            “There once was a fellow O’Doole

            Who found little red spots on his tool…”

Postscript

Back in New York, several weeks later, O. and I were flipping through the Ohio photos – pastoral images of O. swimming, O. barbecuing, O. horseback riding – all with one arm.

“Not half bad,” I complimented.  “Just one arm and all.  But makes you think…”

“What?”

“Just, you know…”

“No.”

“Well, you make life look so easy with one arm.  You’d think with two arms … I mean… with two arms you should be wildly successful.”

“Should I?  Really?” O. replied, miffed by the insinuation.

Then, in a moment of rare profundity, one of those unrehearsed instants for which I shall always be grateful, when God acquiesces to toss a few crumbs, a few glorious crumbs of unblemished enlightenment on the human tongue, O. snorted:

“Blah and blah.  If my Auntie had balls, she’d be my Uncle.”

 

Onion Soup with Marlene

 

O. and I travelled by red choo-choo train to the Swiss village of Appenzell, a remote locale notable for not allowing women to vote until 1991. A tireless promoter of women’s rights, O. hoped to further their cause by engaging three Romanian strippers to film a scene for his new movie Home 2. An equally ardent booster of Swiss culture, he outfitted them in the traditional yellow and red costumes of the Appenzell peasantry for their performance.

 

O. found the strippers on a Swiss website called Apples on Wheels, run by someone calling herself Marlene. The site’s headline read “Probably the sweetest apples in Switzerland,” and featured a woman’s mouth devouring a line of apples, Pac-Man-style, accompanied by the same wonka wonka sound track.

 

To avoid suspicion in the hotel where we planned to film, Marlene suggested meeting in the Café Conditorei on the main square. The café resembled a publicity shoot for the Swiss tourist authority—

a picture postcard of fathers in starched overalls, mothers in frocks, blond kids drinking hot chocolate and nibbling gingerbread. But the postcard was about to be torn to shreds.

 

O. and I waited for Marlene and her “girls” at a long communal table next to a family of six. We experienced Marlene before we actually saw her—the father at our table raised his eyes and his mouth dropped open like a farmer seeing his first skyscraper. There she stood—an agglomeration of lipstick, blush, and eyeliner, roughly six feet and four inches above the ground. Marlene cast a shadow not only over O. but over three of the four children at our table.

 

Squeezed into an Yves Saint Laurent evening gown on a Sunday in the mountains, Marlene resembled a displaced Hollywood starlet—or a Merguez sausage about to burst from its casing. Her feet, against all odds, were stuffed into four inch Louboutins, causing her to wobble against the table, sloshing the kids’ hot chocolates around in their mugs. Spotting O., Marlene blew him a kiss so sensual it made his hair, and probably something else, point to the Matterhorn. A blonde girl at our table looked at Marlene like Marilyn Monroe had materialized before her eyes.

 

Marlene installed herself at the head of the table, crossing her legs to display their full length. I recalled what was written in fractured English on her website:

 

“You fancy Frankfurt’s probably longest legs? Then let ensnare you by it. I am a lady 35 years of age who has been living her femininity for two years only. But this with passion and to the fullest.”

 

No amount of nipping and tucking could have returned her to 35-years-old. But her legs, I concede, could have been the longest in Frankfurt.

 

O. was visibly shaken. He had planned to have a quick drink, pay Marlene, and get the hell up to the room to film the scene. Marlene, bless her, had other ideas. She requested a menu and consulted it with the meticulousness of a restaurant critic for the Times. She would be settling in for a leisurely Sunday lunch of onion soup, foie gras with Melba toast, and a glass of Chablis. Seeing O.’s exasperation, I warmed to Marlene immediately.

 

Mid-way through her soup, Marlene’s cell phone rang. She answered

with the gravity of a Fortune 500 CEO, articulated the café’s address, and hung up. A few minutes later, more ringing came from below the table. Marlene removed five cell phones from her purse and lined them up before her. Each phone had its own ring tone and each was a different color—red, pink, green, gold, and one encrusted with fake diamonds. She finally answered the pink one.

“On the terrace … yes … in front of the hotel,” she said, closing her eyes, martyr-style. “They’re killing me,” she said to O.. “I love my girls, but they’re killing me.”

O. sat mesmerized before the multicolored phone exhibit, as did the adjoining family. “Mommy, why …” a boy started to ask but was immediately hushed by a raised finger.

“As an entrepreneur—an international entrepreneur,” Marlene corrected herself, “my business requires … dis-cre-tion.”

O. hung on her every word as she explained her system of color-

coded phones.

“Red is for German clients, pink is France, green is …”

“All with the same number?” O. blurted out naively, like an intern trying to figure out the Xerox machine.

“Dah-ling, no,” Marlene responded condescendingly. “Green covers Austria, and gold, ha ha, gold is for my Zurich clientele!”

Seeing O.’s confusion, she added, “Gold bars—you know, the gold in the banks in Zurich!”

“Oh, and that one?” O. pointed to the phone covered in diamonds.

Marlene blushed. “My clients, dah-ling. My babies.”

O. swallowed heavily, clearly indulging himself in a few scenarios from his sordid imagination.

 

The moment came to compensate Marlene for her services. O. extracted a wad of cash that would have made Al Capone proud. Just as Marlene’s three protégés arrived looking a lot like, well, prostitutes, O. peeled off a series of 100 Swiss franc notes. In an attempt to conceal the transaction from the other diners, he had formed a protective ledge with his menu and counted the money on his lap. This, of course, only attracted more attention.

 

O. hid the cash inside the menu and slid it to Marlene, James Bond-style. She winked, flipped open the menu, and unfurled the cash at eye-level, fanning it out like Monopoly money. As she counted the cash, she snapped each bill between her thumb and forefinger until there was not a patron on the terrace, including the four kids, who could not have quoted the going rate for three strippers on a Sunday afternoon. O. stared into his coffee cup, wincing with each crisp snap of his national currency. If I initially liked Marlene, I now revered her. Finally satisfied with the transaction, Marlene deposited the money in her purse and piled the candy-colored phones on top.

“Shall we?” She said, extending her arm to O..

 

When we reached the hotel lobby, O. attempted to avoid detection from the desk clerk by walking in unison on the opposite side of Marlene. I acted equally cowardly, sprinting up the staircase and leaving the girls alone at the elevator. In the end, O. crossed the lobby looking like what he was: a sweaty artist on the arm of an East German transsexual followed by a pack of strippers.

 

You may wonder how the Appenzell stripper scene turned out? As they say in Hollywood: go see the film. What I can say is it concludes frustratingly—me sitting half-naked on a hotel bed, Swiss cowbell around my neck, TV remote in hand, annoyed that three naked girls are blocking my view of the CNN evening news.

 

OUR SCARY CABBIE

 

Last summer O and I were invited to brisbane, australia to show a homemade movie and then speak intelligently about it at a reception.  in new york we sat at the bar of savoy and considered the invitation.  O didn’t mind traveling around the world to show his movie but he was sure he had nothing intelligent to say about it.  I told him I couldn’t agree more, especially regarding his second point.  I asked him why he never spoke intelligently at receptions.  He thought a moment and said, “i never learned to eat appetizers and speak without food flying out of my mouth and bouncing off the other person.”

 

A month later we landed in queensland.  since we were in Australia,  we thought we’d spend a few days in sydney.  on our first day O bought a tweed train conductors cap from a brazilian girl in a boutique; she recommended we experience the panoramic view of the city from the bar atop the hotel Shangri-La.  that night we rode a glass elevator to the top of this cheesy hotel and drank three martinis, ate a bowl of edamame, and stared at the glowing city below.

 

After three martinis and a few japanese seeds, I don’t remember much, except O pointing his greasy finger against the window and saying, “I really don’t like that Opera thing down there.”

 

We went to chinatown for a platter of moo goo guy pan and, leaving the restaurant, (cars drive on the wrong side over there) O nearly walked in front of a speeding taxicab – he was momentarily distracted by his own complaining.  I remember this made my heart jump, then I thought it was funny, so I tried to push him in front of the next car.

 

The following day we flew back to Brisbane, where we met someone that would haunt my nights for weeks, someone I will probably never forget.  At the airport we hopped in a taxi to take us to our studio in the city center.

 

Like usual, O chatted with our driver.  I sat behind the driver’s seat and never actually saw the fellow’s face, but I heard him.   oh, I heard that voice, or should I say, those voices, for I will take them to my grave.  the fact that I never saw his face made my dreams all the more disturbing.  Seated behind him, I only saw his fleshy neck and his dark eyes in the rear view mirror.

 

O and he spoke about the drought in queensland, international rugby, australian automobiles, and immigration patterns of brisbane.  I could tell our chauffeur was a lumbering fellow by his puffy eyes and deep voice.  From the back he looked like Hardy from old Laurel and Hardy movies.

 

Then it happened.  O had just finished a cell phone conversation with makiko when he asked, “and you, are you from australia?”  the guy looked in the rear view mirror at me and in a perfect woman’s voice said, “who, me?  no, I’m from Serbia, you know old Yugoslavia.”

 

I froze.  I searched his eyes in the mirror for the joke but they were dark and flat.  O leaned forward to look at the man’s face.  “and how long have you been in Brisbane?”  O continued.  A hand with five little sausages slowly ran down the back of his hair, he looked in the mirror and said, in a precise feminine articulation, “let’s see, I am thirty-nine.  That makes thirty years, dear.”   Suddenly I saw him driving us back to his apartment, watching him put on a wig and a floral dress and then chopping us matter-of-factly into pieces and placing us in the freezer.

 

I grabbed O’s arm but he seemed to be enjoying this performance and, like a kid with a new toy, started asking our driver a volley of questions to discover who would answer.  Sometimes our driver would answer as a man, sometimes as a woman.  Sometimes a deep husky voice would speak about football; next a lady’s precise elocution would respond about his wife and son.  At a traffic light a driver next to us rolled down his window to ask for directions and our driver seemed to clear his voice as a woman and indicate the correct route as a man.

 

It was starting to get dark.  We were lost in a generic subdivided landscape with a bilingual monster.  my eyelids were perspiring.  I considered hopping out at the next light and leaving O with the madman but I knew he would find me and slice me into filets while speaking like Margaret Thatcher.  I closed my eyes, I breathed, I put my right hand out the window, and i listened to their three-way conversation for what seemed to be an hour.

 

Before the taxi had stopped at our studio I jumped out and ran up to our room, locked the door, turned on all the lights and locked myself in the bathroom and took a lengthy, steaming bath.  surely I’d been imagining things, I was just fatigued from our travels.

 

When i finally left the bathroom in my robe, O was banging on the front door.  I turned the handle and who was standing there but O and the taxi driver.  “mind if I use your bathroom?” the driver asked in a normal Australian man’s voice.

SHOOTING SUPER-8 MOVIES

 

At school I read an article about Methuselah, the oldest known living organism – a 4,700 year old pine tree in California.  I thought I’d like to see that before I die, so my friend, the plaffy, agreed to accompany me in a green chevy from ohio to california.

 

first, O. went to buy a second-hand Nikon FM2 camera to document the trip, saying “i can drop this camera on my toe, step on it by accident and it will still take a masterpiece of my swollen toe.”

 

When we arrived in fort wayne, indiana, to prove his point, O. accidentally dropped the camera on a gas station attendant’s foot and then took a striking shot of the guy’s filthy foot held in the air.  As it turns out, fourteen years later, famous in photography circles, O. would sell this photo to the nephew of a New York senator for twenty-five thousand dollars.

 

At the Illinois border I politely asked “O. the complainer” to throw himself out the window or kindly stick a sock in it.  Instead, he climbed out of the window and onto the roof of the car.  From there, he announced “i’m going to photograph one girl in each state from this angle.”  He managed to do so and when we arrived at the pacific ocean two months later we dangled our feet in the water and looked at twenty-two pictures of curious girls looking up.

In south dakota, i bought a super 8 movie camera and a bag of old black & white film at a garage sale. “I bought this camera in Tokyo in 1967,” the guy said.  “I remember, cuz I bought it to film my new Japanese girlfriend.”  O. took the wheel and I hung my head out the passenger window and filmed as we coasted through farms, towns, and off the road, once, when O. fell asleep outside salt lake city.

 

When we crossed the California border in late summer we couldn’t recall why we were there, so we found an abandoned airfield with a grass runway in a town called Paradiso, left the car in the parking lot and asked a fellow in jeans and a John Deere cap to fly us as far east as his Cessna would take us.  We landed at MacArthur Airport on Long Island four days later.  O. puked twice from air sickness, once over Mount Rushmore and a second time near the Football Hall of Fame in Ohio.

 

Back home, with friends, we watched the home movies I took of our trip.  Nobody liked them, even while drinking, and we stopped after four hours.  They couldn’t figure out why every day had been cloudy & bleak for an entire month.  One friend said it looked like Finland, where he’d visited last winter.  I told them it was the black & white film, but they said it was depressing as hell and they no longer wanted to go out for dinner afterwards.  The only scene of my movie they liked was when I forgot to turn off the camera and filmed O. pulling up his trousers as he walked into a diner for pancakes.

 

On the other hand, everyone loved O.’s colorful portraits of skinny girls in shorts and flip flops looking up.  They shook his hand and said he would be famous one day.  They congratulated him.  Then they told me to have a family, that I was a nice boy and that was enough for me.

 

But I wanted to show my movie to one more person.  So I looked up my ex-girlfriend, sat her on a milk crate, and had her watch eleven hours of bumpy, black and white footage.  At the end she twisted her head around and said, “my, it’s lovely.”  so I took her hand, decided my friends were right, and love being what it is, knocked her up before All Saints Day.

SWIMMING ON EASTER ISLAND

 

“DO NOT COME TO EASTER ISLAND!  I REPEAT, DO NOT COME TO EASTER ISLAND!”  This was the email O. received from a German travel agent, specializing in tourism to the UNESCO World Heritage site, when he asked about shooting a photograph involving the monolithic moai statues that have inhabited the island for centuries.

 

Interpreting this as an invitation, O. booked us on LAN Airlines Flight 1521, from New York to Easter Island, via Santiago, Chile, touching down on the night of May 5, 2004, exactly nine days after receiving the travel agent’s email.

 

As the residence of some 887 sacrosanct statues, carved from hardened volcanic ash between the 10th and 16thcenturies, Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, is considered the most remote inhabited settlement on the Earth, a prehistoric pinprick adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

 

O. and I journeyed to Easter Island neither as amateur anthropologists, nor as eco-tourists, though we did carry a sizable camera.  Our goal was simply to take a single photograph.  That is, O. wished to have a little fun with a celebrated row of seven statues, known as Ahu Akivi, by transforming them into absurdly grinning rabbits.  This would be accomplished with the aid of cardboard cut-outs of mouths and rabbit ears affixed to a handmade iron–and–string apparatus positioned a few feet in front of the camera and employing simple depth-of-perception photography.  A part of O. had never graduated Kindergarten, and it was this part, the schoolyard cutup, that latched on to these antediluvian treasures as ripe targets for a 21st century makeover.

 

Our second day on the island, with the aid of scissors, glue and Magic Markers, O. and I recast the sixteen feet tall, eighteen ton statues from glum patricians into hee-hawing hares.  No sooner had O. released the shutter on his Hasselblad, than a local boy with jet black hair galloped over the horizon and halted before us on a chestnut colt.  In broken English, he asked our business.

 

“Just taking pictures of these rabbits,” O. said, eyeballing the preliminary Polaroid’s.

The youth removed his floppy sombrero and scanned the horizon, paying no attention to the moai carvings.  He glanced searchingly at me and I flicked my head in the direction of the camera and tripod.  The boy replaced his hat, maneuvered his horse behind the camera, and warily peered into the viewfinder. The instant his eyes focused, a tomato-red smile erupted across his face.  He must have gazed into the camera for thirty seconds, not believing the venerable statues of his youth were now a band of snickering bunnies.  Shaking his head, he tipped his cap in our direction and bolted off, laughing and bumping up and down in the saddle.

 

The following day, O. and I set about exploring the island.  We wandered into Hanga Roa, the island’s solitary town, with the intention of renting a couple of horses.  The young man from the previous day, galloping into the horizon like a Harlequin Romance book cover, had compelled us toward the horse as the most suitable conveyance for touring the island.  Our selection had nothing to do with how we’d look postured atop statuesque geldings in the snapshots we’d show our friends back home.

 

At the stables, a plump fellow with a mustache resembling a cord of fraying kindling welcomed us and, attending to our request, escorted two miserable beasts before us, one more diminutive than the other.  The rest of the world would have called these animals donkeys.  The larger of the two reached the top of my thigh.  To head off any fondness O. might foster for these bantam burros, I cleared my throat unnaturally and shot him a glance that clearly stated: “ABORT MISSION.  I REPEAT.  ABORT MISSION.”

 

“Hop on,” O. said, administering a crisp pat to the animal’s rump.

I envisioned being dragged the length and breadth of the island by this decrepit mule.  I held my ground, imagining the balls of my feet stapled to the wood floor.

“Hup!  Ride ‘em cowboy,” O. exclaimed, clapping his hands.  “Look, he likes you!”

Upon hearing the clapping, the mule reared its dopey eyes in my direction. The animal looked as enamored with me as I was with him.

“Giddy-up,” I muttered, pinching a smile in the direction of the farmer.

I fantasized about how I would make O. pay for this, but my reveries were diverted by the farmer’s mustache, which had taken to twitching like a tasered squirrel in the hopes of a transaction.

 

To say I mounted the animal would be hyperbole.  I approached the mule, lifted my left leg in the air and replaced it to the ground on the other side of him, like getting on a three-speed bicycle.  I jostled the reins and the horse trudged forward, dragging my long, stringy legs along the floor next to him.  The soles of my sneakers produced a demeaning squeal as they trailed along the floorboards.  The contemptuous beast turned its head to see what was causing the resistance.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the stable window – I appeared to be riding a goat.

“Yep,” O. concluded, holding his fist to his mouth, his eyes glistening.  “That’s the one.”

The farmer took hold of the reins and urged the sleepy runt back in the opposite direction.  O. wanted to observe the animal drag my legs back the way we’d come.  And for this, I can scarcely forgive him: he reached into his breast pocket, withdrew his digital camera, and snapped a photo of me and my pendulous legs atop the pint-sized mule.

 

“Definitely the one,” O. said, reviewing the image, his voice quivering.

We’d have chartered the two animals had the farmer not informed us, once in the saddle, that O. and I resembled our horses.

“Like happy family on holiday,” the man exclaimed, intending this as a parting compliment.  “I take picture!”

Compliment or not, neither O. nor I could face returning home with hundreds of photos in which our facial expressions exhibited doubt as to whether or not we took after our horses.  Bounding off the animals, we thanked the mustache, shoved a few pesos in his hand, and rushed back to town, where we hired a pair of equally ramshackle 1970s Hondas, complete with World War II-era helmets and Red Baron-style aviation goggles.

Accelerating out of the parking lot, I spotted O. in my rear view mirror, still propped on his machine, the kick stand down, peering back at me from behind his oversized kamikaze goggles.  O. had never ridden a motorcycle, it turns out, and imagined riding one to be akin to handling the moped he owned as a teenager in Switzerland.  My reservations about the horse were now supplanted by an even greater skepticism of the motorcycle.  O. reassured me, categorizing himself as a quick study, and proceeded to peer down at his feet in search of the pedals.

We walked the motorcycles out of town in search of a vacant lot, where O. could learn to ride without harming himself or, more crucially, others.  Along the way, a pick-up truck pulled over to ask if we needed gas.  “Thanks, but we have gas,” I replied.  And pointing at O., I added, “He doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle.”  With that, the pick-up sped off amid hoots of braying laughter and exhaust fumes.  In the lingering climate of the horse photo, I now felt we were square.

 

Adjacent to a rusting tractor, O. got the hang of the motorcycle.  That is, he accelerated, stalled and generally misappropriated the defenseless machine for the better part of an hour.  I learned in the process that O. wasn’t pleased with the gear configuration – first gear downwards, gears two through five upwards.

“Why not all five gears up?” he questioned, after devoting five minutes in search of neutral.

“They’re all like that,” I informed him, reclining against a tree. “Is that relevant now?”

I hadn’t completed my question, when he popped the clutch and wrenched forward, stalling the engine.

“That was second gear,” I muttered.

He kicked the gears and heaped abuse on the rental machine in both English and Swiss German.

“You’ll get used to it,” I called, trying to be supportive, and closed my eyes.

I reopened them, almost immediately, in time to witness the motorcycle, lacking a rider, barrel past into a row of shrubs.  Checking my watch, I suggested we put the finishing touches on his apprenticeship on the road.  It was noon before we embarked on the looping artery that would conduct us around the island.  By this point O. had settled into a mutually contentious relationship with the machine, such that between his carping and the engine’s whining, the atmosphere was that of a feuding couple.  I periodically checked my rear view mirror to monitor O.’s status.  There he was, bless him, hanging on for dear life, puttering forth at a few miles per hour, hunched over the handlebars in the white knuckle posture of a speed racer crossing the finish line.

An hour into our excursion we motored past the volcanic crater known as Rano Raraku, a graveyard of fragmentary stone cadavers, inexplicably abandoned sometime in the 17th century.  Dark clouds peppered the horizon, as we veered onto a path that wound through reeds and pine forest, opening unexpectedly onto an alcove of pristine sand.

 

We had stumbled on Anakena Beach, one of only two sand beaches on an island otherwise enrobed by volcanic coastline.  The beach resembled a Polynesian postcard, but for the inky sky, gurgling thunder, and the six gloomy moai statues lording over the beach from their centuries-old perch.  We leaned the motorcycles against a palm tree.  An aura of abandoned fossil hung over the beach like archaic gauze.  The converging storm pulsed in the background, illuminating the statues’ sinister faces.  Thunder pounded the cliffs, reverberating over the roiling tides.

O. flung his gray t-shirt in the air and, imitating a caveman, beat his chest with his fists, and dashed into what looked like a cauldron of frothy iced tea, piercing the waves head first and disappearing.  I followed suit, bounding after him, making whooping sounds, only to collapse in an excruciating heap in the shallow foam, having tread on a jagged mollusk.

 

Behind us, the tempest whipped our clothes off our handlebars, slingshotting them into the reeds.  All the while the implacable eyes of the looming statues looked on from above.

O. crouched in the water, observing the immemorial surroundings.

“Strange, isn’t it?”

“It’s them,” I said, eyeing the carvings.

Suddenly, O. thrust his finger toward the beach, his eyes ballooning, his jaw collapsing.

“D-D-Dinosaur!”

When I failed to turn around, O. amplified his performance by stumbling backwards and punching at the waves, like a B-movie actor confronting Godzilla.

“Jurassic Park!”

“Good one,” I mumbled, and engaged in some circular dogpaddling to keep warm.

We bobbed up and down in the surf, like debris from a shipwreck, picturing the beach millions of years ago, inhabited by Tyrannosaurus rex, the skies filled with cawing Pteranodons.  The beach’s sepia light recalled the dinosaur books I’d read as a kid during endless vacation car rides.

O. practiced the backstroke, but the tumbling waves and retreating undertow combined to spin him in circles like a log at a lumberjack competition.  He contented himself with wafting on the surface and squirting sea water from his mouth, creating miniature collisions with the falling raindrops.

“Think they’d save us?”  O. wondered, peering up the statues.

“When?”

“If we drown.”

“Why not find out,” I proposed.

No sooner had I suggested it than O. vanished beneath the waves, arms flailing in the air as though he were drowning.

I considered holding his head underwater, but he resurfaced too quickly.

“Stupid statues!” O. bellowed, erupting from the water.

I don’t expect you to believe what happened next.  I will recount the facts, as surely as they came to pass that afternoon on Ankena Beach.  What’s more, after leaving Easter Island, O. and I never, not once, made reference to the events that transpired in those fifteen minutes.

The storm had churned the tides into milky peaks that crested high above our heads.  The undertow was sweeping a salad of seaweed, plants, ferns and algae against our limbs, out to sea, weaving a slimy web around our legs. Like quicksand, the more we struggled, the deeper our entanglement became, until a coil of gyrating vegetation had manacled our legs.  O. plunged underwater in a last ditch effort to unfetter himself.  Little did we know, all the while, we were being hauled out to sea by the receding tides.

The next thing we knew, the beach was engulfed by a deep-seated gurgling, like that manufactured by a colossal hungry belly, which yielded what can only be characterized as a cosmic-sized burp.   This monumental discharge – there was no denying it – spawned laughter.  A percolating titter, at first, burgeoned into an all-consuming eruption of hilarity from the vicinity of the statues, like a monstrously overzealous laugh track dumped onto a cheap sitcom.  In a matter of seconds, the beach was shuddering beneath a volatile confection of unruly howling and tear-producing guffaws, punctuated by intermittent gravelly snorts.

In this atmosphere of convivial merry-making, O. and I were being gently escorted out to sea.  That’s when we recognized, roosting atop the cliffs in place of the venerable statues, our buck-toothed rabbits from O.’s photo, doubled over with laughter, pointing in our direction.  These ludicrous hares had come to life to exact revenge on us, their tormentors, indulging in a celebratory curtain call at our final hour.  And all signs indicated they planned to make a party of it.

Who knows what flashes across a human brain in the final moments before death?  A soft-focus, Oprah-esque pastiche of life’s Hallmark Greeting Card moments, or an absurdist collage of Three Stooges assaults, representing a definitive, turd-scented middle finger raised defiantly, as a parting farewell, to a couldn’t-care-less world?  In the course of being carted out to sea, O.’s preposterous hares mocking us as we went, we were afforded a preview of which epilogue to look forward to.

 

Then, with the sea’s slimy fingers contracting around us, as irrefutably as the nose on my face, a towering appendage sliced across the heavens, plunging into the waters before us.  The form resembled a prehistoric whisker.  Without delay, we latched on to the great fibrous follicle and felt ourselves corralled toward the beach where, in the shallow waters, we managed to disentangle our limbs and crawl ashore.  When we turned toward the jubilant rabbits for enlightenment, only the original moai statues, with perfect indifference, returned our gaze.

That evening, at dinner, O. and I ordered two steaks and drank more than usual.  O.’s bearing was ruminative, eschewing his ritualistic banter with the waiter, clearly preoccupied by what had occurred that afternoon at Ankena Beach.  When he accepted the wine without multiple tastings and his trademarked, “well, it needs to open up,” I realized his temperament was forthrightly philosophic.  O. loitered over his steak and this, too, made me ill at ease.  He could routinely make a meal that took ten minutes to order, disappear in under five, as though eating were an Olympic sport and he was training for gold.

“700 years is a long time,” he said, more for his own benefit than mine.

“Oh?”

I took a drink, awaiting more detail.  None was forthcoming, and I conceded that 700 years was indeed a long time.

“I mean, how would you like it?” he asked.  “Having the same l-o-n-g face for 700 years?”

“The statues …?”

O. took a drink of wine and made a face like he’d dipped his tongue in a glass of sauerkraut.

“Headache wine,” he mumbled.

I took a swig and swished it around, like mouthwash.

“Black cherry… leather… with a lovely hint of …”

“Shut up,” O. muttered, distracted by the scenarios playing out in his head to rationalize the day’s events.

O. leaned back, his forefinger manically chafing the cuticle on his thumb, like a housefly rubbing its legs together.

“Maybe we did them a favor,” he said.

I was certain I hadn’t done anyone a favor in quite some time.  Nonetheless, I engaged my jaws around a chunk of meat and masticated earnestly, peering into the air.

“In the photo … don’t you see,” O. continued.  “We made those boring statues happy … for one day … with red lips and big smiles and …”

“And rabbit ears,” I added, through a mouthful.

“Okay, and rabbit ears…”  O. conceded.  “The point is…”

O. sat up in his chair and, looking around suspiciously, lowered his voice. “The point is…those cardboard smiles and rabbit ears saved us.  S-a-v-e-d our lives.”

My left eyebrow flinched and, like a spy about to divulge his final tip-off, O. whispered, “They weren’t there to laugh at us…they wanted to help us.  You think this is a joke, but don’t you see, they wanted to thank us for one pathetic day of happiness in 700 years!”

To buy time, or to fete the glorious, unanticipated poetry of O.’s conclusion, I raised the empty wine bottle in the air and gestured to the waiter for another.  I reclined in my chair and considered the day’s events from O.s perspective.

His account, on target or not, seemed as passable as any.  And if, one day, back on the mainland, I should find myself face to face with an agnostic, I intended to make damn certain my facts were watertight.  To this end, I ventured a closing summation.

“Let me get this straight.  You’re saying some statues saved our lives because we dressed them like Bugs Bunny and…”

In mid recap, O. threw both his hands in the air, like a cop stopping traffic at a busy intersection.  He was through with me.

As I got up to go to the bathroom, I heard O. mumble under his breath.

“What’s wrong with him, it’s not so f*cking complicated.”

 

SWIMMING WITH KOFI IN AFRICA

 

In a previous trip to Accra, the capital of Ghana, O. had discovered a mountain of trash, literally a “mountain” composed of the city’s garbage, that slogged through the city like a migrating black iceberg.  Homeless kids lived on this moving mountain and scavenged for food.  Being a hopeless romantic, O. wanted to return to Ghana to film a scene for Home 2 on this black mountain.

 

We flew from New York to Accra and took a taxi to the Labadi Beach Hotel, a 5-star resort on the beach that caters to businessmen, politicians, and United Nations officials.  The hotel was protected by guards at the front entrance and a sentry at the back.  Next to the outdoor lounge and restaurant sparkled the most luxurious swimming pool on two levels, connected by a cascading waterfall.  A fountain in the center of the pool jetted glistening cobalt beads high into the air.  Each evening, after filming, O. and I would dive in, float on our backs, and gaze up at the African sky.

 

On our third day we returned to the hotel sunburned and in a prickly mood after a sweltering afternoon in the dusty markets.  O. dumped the film equipment on the floor of our room and, noticing the blinking red light on the battery pack, asked me the size of my brain because I’d forgotten to turn off my microphone and drained the battery.  I walked over, picked up the battery, looked at it, and replied that the microphone may be dead but it would still fit up his ass.

We changed into our bathing suits and walked through the lobby to the pool.  We noticed groups of African women in red and yellow dresses and men in dark suits assembled in the lounge.  The outside bar was also buzzing with VIPs and sweaty dignitaries in sunglasses who didn’t seem to be guests of the hotel.

“What’s this?”  O. asked the porter.

 

“Kofi’s coming!  Kofi’s coming!” the porter whispered, referring to the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Having spent the day juggling tomatoes, running through markets with a branch of bananas swung over my shoulder, and being mauled by a pack of homeless kids in the African sun, my only interest in the Secretary General was if he were smiling at me in his bathing suit from the pool.  O. tossed his towel over a lounge chair, climbed onto the boulders that created the waterfall and dove into the deep end, just above the NO DIVING sign.  I walked to the edge of the water, leaned forward, and like a cadaver, let my body collapse into the cool ripples.

 

The party developed an increasing air of exclusivity. VIPs nibbled appetizers at the edge of the pool while security guards observed from the perimeter.  O. and I were the only ones in the pool; we swam discreetly, almost in a serious manner, for fear they would exile us to our room when Kofi arrived.

 

The underwater lights flooded the pool in phosphorescence, giving the impression we were swimming in the heart of the party.  Weary from doing laps, O. felt we should play a more active role in the evening’s entertainment.  This meant an improvised routine of synchronized swimming.  We paddled into the deep end.  O. flipped onto his back, kicked up his legs and spun his arms in the air.  I did the same next to him.  He dove under water, thrust his legs and feet into the air, kicking them back and forth like a ballerina dancer.  I followed suit.  O. came to the surface and transitioned into circular dog paddling.  I dog paddled in a circle next to him.  As a finale, we swam back and forth on our backs, spitting water out of our mouths like miniature fountains.  Only at the conclusion did we realize that our synchronized maneuvers had been sloshing water onto the crowd, sending those closest to the pool retreating to the buffet.

THE DRIVING TEST

 

Having banked fifty sick days over the years at my television job, I figured I could toss one away to accompany O. upstate to take his driver’s test.  He’d driven for years, in Switzerland, but was out of practice and needed moral support.  Not owning a car, O. rented one from Hertz and before picking it up, we met for breakfast at Balthazar, where he’s been a fixture for over a decade.  I arrived first and, mentioning his name, received a pleasant smile and a scenic corner table.  O. arrived shortly after, took a seat, and regarded me askew.

 

     “Problem?” I asked.

    “You’re in my spot,” he announced, right off, jutting his chin in my direction.

By anyone’s definition, O. is a serial complainer, a walking encyclopedia of real and perceived woes.  He’ll file through a litany of grievances before you’ve had time to stir your coffee.  And no one, I mean no one, has been on the receiving end more frequently than I.  Yet, I found myself glancing at my watch to see if I could hop in the subway and still make it to work on time.

 

    “That so?” I responded, folding my hands like I’d once seen the Dalai Lama do.  “In your spot, am I?”

O. nodded, unsure if I was questioning or confirming the fact.  “Sit there each morning,” he added to bolster his case.

“And I see why,” I remarked, admiring the view.

 

“Thanks…” he mumbled, and got to his feet to change seats.

I felt my buttocks tighten into a vice grip on my chair.  Like two chimpanzees, we eyed each other.  I swallowed my saliva.  O. blinked, grated his cuticle, blinked again.  We stuck it out like that for, I don’t know, 30-seconds, until O.’s $8 dollar grapefruit arrived and he slithered back to his seat facing the wall.

    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _

 

An hour later, as we pulled out of Hertz, O. handed me a box containing a Nokia GPS navigator, purchased specifically for the trip.  I input “Peekskill, New York” and a woman’s voice began caressing us through Manhattan’s 200-year-old grid.

“Don’t like her,” O. announced bluntly, peering straight ahead.

I scanned the horizon.  “Who?  Don’t like who?”

He made a face in the direction of the GPS attached to the front windshield.  “Her.  That accent.  Quack, quack, quack.”

     Again, I looked at my watch.  We were a few blocks from my office, he could just drop me off and there’d be no hard feelings.  “Oh, like my accent, you mean…American.”

O. reached behind his seat for the GPS instruction book.  “Must be a way to make her British?  No, German.  I need someone smart… for the test.”

I closed my eyes, martyr-style, steadied my breathing, searched out my happy place.  Or I could just respond naturally and tell him I didn’t give a rat’s ass.

“I got enough to think about…can’t worry about that too,” he continued, his right hand jockeying around the dashboard looking for the windshield wipers.

“Remind me what you’re worried about,” I sighed.

He shook his head at the stupidity of the question.  “Getting lost, of course, during the test.  I don’t know Peekskill from…from a pig’s ear.”

“Let me get this straight, you — pig’s ear? — you plan on using the GPS during your —”

“Scheiße!” O. blurted, slamming on the breaks, snapping us forward like crash test dummies.  He’d activated the cruise control on 59th Street.

By the time I’d found a German-accented English speaker in the GPS menu, every hair on my scalp ached to the point of turning gray.  And we were going in circles in Spanish Harlem.

    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _

In downtown Peekskill, we had cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes for lunch at the Cheyenne Diner on Main St.  Leaving through the double doors, we nearly collided with two 300-pound black women, upholstered in matching track suits, hustling to the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $9.99.  O.’s mouth fell open wider than a golf ball.  He clutched the railing, partially in awe, but mainly for his own safety.  “Twins!” he whispered, bubbling over with glee.  “Big black twins!”

Being white in Switzerland, I guess, means you’re all related.  With black people, I broke it to him, that isn’t always the case.  But he wouldn’t hear of it.  He was certain they were sisters.  I told him they weren’t.  In retrospect, arguing about it in the parking lot for the next half hour would’ve been better spent practicing his parallel parking.

We did manage a few practice loops through a drab allotment coated in 1970s aluminum siding.  This served to consolidate O.’s Stop Sign technique.  He’d barrel to ten feet of the intersection, jump on the brakes and propel me toward the dashboard.  I don’t condemn him for this.  But I’m not an adventurer. Some people are born to take one physical risk after another. They thrive on the adrenaline rush. I’m not one of those people. When my body feels adrenaline, it means that I just did something extraordinarily stupid. For twenty-minutes, O. tenderized my abdominals with my seat belt, until I slapped him on the thigh and declared him fit for locomotion in the state of New York.

We idled in a line of other cars, all awaiting the DMV instructor, while O.’s armpits secreted a spicy cocktail of cardamom and Worcestershire sauce.  Despite the rain, I cracked my window.

“That’s right, I’m freaking out!” he erupted, wiping his forehead in the rear-view mirror.  “God’s sake, I’m a grown man and…and…look at this!” He spread his arms like chicken wings.

 

“Sheezus H. Christ!”  I blurted, confronted with two super-sized eggplants decorating the armpit region of his T-shirt.

Alarmed by my response, O. stuck his nose inside his T-shirt.  “Truffles?”

“Take a Ron,” I suggested, referring to the Lorazepam proscribed for stress relief by our friend, a shrink, named Ron.

“Isn’t that illegal?  I mean, like drinking and driving?”

     “You’re not driving, exactly,” I pointed out.  “I mean, you’ll be supervised…think of it like drinking alcohol with your parents as a kid.”

“And my reflexes?  Don’t wanna turn into a potato, like you…”

O. never misses an opportunity to call up the last time I took a Ron.  It was in Papua New Guinea, to get through an internal flight in a rusting tin can with a propeller strapped to it.  I popped a 4mg tablet and used my saliva to swallow it.  When we landed, I babbled gibberish to a tribe of indigenous Mudmen, my lips like rubber bands in a gust of wind.  Ever since, no matter the peril, O. has forbade me the solace of a Ron.

“It’s a driving test,” I reminded him.  “Not Formula One.  Your reflexes’ll be fine.”

“Well, at least I won’t get lost,” he mumbled, resetting the GPS for our current location.  Again he caught sight of the mossy patch under his arm.  “You can’t tell, or…?” he asked, flapping his shirt for ventilation.

“Tell what?” I said, staring at the dark continents covering his pits.

“I’m sweating like a pig.”

“What?  That?  No, Hell, no,” I reassured him.

Out of nowhere our potbellied examiner appeared and registered our license plate.  Not overburdened with personableness, the civil servant went about his paperwork like a prison guard registering a couple of inmates.

 

“Hullo!” O. called out, running the back of his hand across his glistening forehead.

“Afternoon, Sir!” I chimed in, extending my hand.

The civil servant was in no mood to play ball.  He grunted at me to vacate the vehicle and plopped himself in the passenger seat like a walrus.  From outside, I watched the two of them staring straight ahead.  O. clutched the wheel with both hands, like a lifeline.  Then, out of the blue, he reached across the examiner and activated the GPS suctioned to the windshield.  Only then did the instructor turn and take the full measure of his student.

 

    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _

“Come get me,” a voice growled into the phone.  “I failed.”

“W-who is this?” I answered, having just watched O. activate his head lights and merge into traffic.

“Goddammit, just come get me!” the voice bellowed, causing my phone to shimmy.

I found O. marching back and forth next to the car, ranting like a mental patient.  “That fat mother*cker … that fat mother*cker failed me!”  he fumed, eyes bulging like cherry tomatoes.

“You just left four and a half min-…” I said, consulting my watch.

“Said I hit the curb, the goddamn curb, you believe that!”  And throwing open his arms like a fisherman lying about his catch, “Said I went over the curb that far!”

I glanced at the car.  Then at the state of his T-shirt — now a fetid pool of misery.  I imagined the worst.  “You had an accident.  You hit someone.  You ran over an old lady.”

“Goddammit, I didn’t hit an old lady!  That motherf*cker —”

I’ve known O. for the better part of fifteen years and not once has he uttered the word “motherf*cker.”  But it must’ve felt good, for he was churning them out as if he were making foie gras.  “So you…bumped…the curb?” I ventured.

“How the Hell should I know, Motherrrr-Fuckerrrr!”

“Well, did you feel the wheels hit something?”

Based on his account, I informed him that he had, indeed, overrun the curb.  Hearing this, the veins in his neck jiggled around like night crawlers on hot pavement.  “Sherlock, don’t you think I — Motherf*cker? — I’d havefelt the curb if I ran over it?  No, I can’t take this…”  And off he marched into the Peekskill gloom.

What followed, I witnessed from a BP gas station across the street.  O. found the examiner in the passenger seat of an idling Mazda Miata belonging to one Jimmy Stieglitz, aged 16.  He stuck his head in the window and downloaded on the instructor with such ferocity that the windows fogged up.  Then he threw himself to the ground, on all fours, and pounded the curb to dramatize his claims.  Both the instructor and Jimmy Stieglitz craned their necks out of the window to take in the performance.  Stomping back to our car, O. abruptly spun around having recalled one final outrage, fired his hand in the air, and punctuated the exchange with the Italian Vaffanculo! (vah-fahn-KOO-loh).

    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _

When I say the drive back to Manhattan was the longest two-hours of my life, I’m exaggerating, of course.  But not by much.  O. settled into a low burn in the passenger seat.   “My life is in limbo!  My life is in limbo! That fat motherf*cker.  That fat motherf*cker,” he muttered, as though reciting a Mother Goose rhyme.  On the Taconic Parkway, he concluded I was partly to blame for his collapse, having debated him about 300 pound black women when he could’ve been polishing his curb-side parking.

Crossing into the Bronx, O. turned to his “only remaining friend in the world,” as he put it: his iPhone. He googled “Driving Test ASAP” and found The Carducci Driving Academy, on Staten Island, a company large-hearted enough to accept $399 dollars in fees and rush charges, in advance, over the phone, in return for rescheduling his test in 1-4 weeks.  Not since a storefront in Chinatown trimmed his bank account by $199 to customize his iPhone in yellows and greens have I seen him so giddy.  He rolled down his window and let the wind whip his hair, as he hollered his American Express card number and expiration date into the phone.

Back in Manhattan, we returned the car to Hertz and walked to Union Square, where I catch the subway home to Brooklyn.  I asked O. if I could keep the instructor’s evaluation of his road test, as a memento of our day upstate.  Fishing in his pockets, he realized he’d lost his temporary New York State driver’s license.  Last I saw of him was through a hotdog cart, zigzagging through the crowds back to Hertz, putting the wraps on a day in which he managed to unburden himself of not one but two driver’s licenses.

 

TWO UNFORTUNATE CONVERSATIONS

 

In his best-selling book “Stumbling on Happiness,” the Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert catalogues the way people misjudge their own satisfactions.  People think they’ll be happier with more variety.  But the research shows, they get more pleasure from being offered the same thing over and over again.  This was a revelation to me, but it confirmed what I’d already suspected:  O. and I are the happiest characters I know.  At least one night a week.

 

Each Friday evening, for nearly a decade, O. and I meet to do the same thing over and over again.  That is, despite New York City being home to 20,000 bars and restaurants, with 1,000 new ones sprouting every year, we gather more or less at the same bar, at the same time – 8pm, not 8:15 – followed by dinner at the same restaurant.  The routine actually gets under way that afternoon, when we phone each other to firm up plans.  It’s an absurd ritual, this call, for there is nothing to firm up.  After umpteen years, this phone conversation resembles vocal Morse Code, a series of monosyllabic clucks produced by two grunting aborigines: “Hey. All good?  Bowery?  Yep. Eight?  ‘kay.  Bye.”  But we place the call nonetheless.  Not because we fear a last minute change of course, but because it’s the routine.  And because, according to Professor Gilbert, our happiness depends on it.

 

O. and I bumble into the restaurant for dinner – never before 10pm – and wedge ourselves in at the bar.  We don’t eat in the dining room, you see, but always docked in front of the taps.  To gastronomes, this penchant for the bar stool exhibits all the delicacy of eating with your fingers or drinking boxed wine.  But a noodle tastes the same at the bar as it does at a table.  To prove this, O. conducted a blind tasting in the spring of 2007 to evaluate the impact of location on the appetence of food.  Blind-folded, he shovelled a forkful of Mac and Cheese in his mouth at the bar, cleansed his palate, and did the same in the dining hall, promptly declaring the macaroni to be equally overcooked in both locations.  These conclusive results were never well-regarded by connoisseurs – they ridiculed the very premise of conducting a tasting with Mac and Cheese, claiming the dish belonged in a Midwestern family room, not in a restaurant.  Nevertheless, O. won’t hesitate to reference this “study” whenever we’re treated as degenerates by the Michelin set.

 

We eat dinner, elbows propped on the bar, for another reason: we’d sooner eat looking straight ahead than at one another.  It’s nothing personal.  The evening just doesn’t feel like a date that way.  Our friends, women especially, will often refer to our Friday nights with backhanded comments like, “Give my regards to your better half” or “I’d invite you to my birthday party but I know it’s date night.”  O. and I don’t care for this terminology, but we don’t let on, so the digs don’t spill over to our male friends.  Petty grievances aside, we’re ultimately drawn to the bar for its offhand camaraderie and its surplus of oddballs, striking up impromptu conversations that ignite like bursts of flame and inevitably die out at last call.

 

Some time ago, our wallets more amply padded than now, O. and I introduced a half-hour massage into the Friday routine, in the lull between Bombay Martinis at Savoy and Shrimp Moilee at our preferred Indian restaurant Tamarind.  We became regulars at a basement massage parlor in Chinatown, called Hui Wo Peng, that eventually went out of business, word has it, due to a preponderance of happy endings.  During our visits, many years over, we never, not once, perceived any hint of such activity.  To this day, O. and I are relieved, and slightly miffed, that we were never at least appraised for that sort of therapy.

Yet, on one occasion, with all the massage tables engaged in the main room, the prettiest of the masseuses escorted me to the VIP room, which turned out to be the broom closet with a collapsible table.  The Asian beauty proceeded to handle me like a day-old piece of sushi, with such a deficit of enthusiasm that, afterwards, when O. asked how it went with raised eyebrow, I clumsily prodded his forearm between my knuckles until he yanked it away in disgust.  Not a month later, the NYPD bolted their doors for good, and that very cellar became O.’s studio space, where he shot a photograph – a personal favorite of mine – depicting a portly man in boxer shorts, lying on his back, balancing delicate stemware on his forehead, fingers and toes.

 

These days, we’re welcome patrons of Qi Gong Tui-Na, a den beneath Bleecker Street, where squat Chinese women with lumberjack hands knead us from drunkenness back into sobriety just in time for our weekly dinner of roasted Goffle Road chicken and seared Brussels sprouts at Freemans.  The peculiarity of these masseuses, hailing from Shanxi Province near Inner Mongolia, are their extraordinary tensile feet, which they use to great effect, wending their way along our backs while clutching the corroded pre-war pipes that run the length of the ceiling for balance, like a troupe of tightrope walkers in an underground circus.

 

Last Friday, as is customary, O. and I began the evening with two Plymouth martinis at a hotel bar on the Bowery.  Sequestered between one of the last Bowery Mission Shelters and the old music venue CBGB’s, the anterior bar resembles a cross between a hunter’s alpine lodge, replete with taxidermy of antelopes and pre-Civil War oil portraits, and my grandmother’s boudoir in Cincinnati.  And I’m not the only one to think so.  As we rehashed the week’s events, a leggy brunette guardedly approached O. and said,   “Scott?”

O. improved his posture and replied, “Sure, yes, Scott.”

The lady in question, Sammie, turned out to be an escort that favored the hotel lounge for her encounters.  It didn’t take long for her to catch on that we were nothing but a couple of random Barneys bogged down at the bar.  Scott never showed and Sammie, charitably I thought, informed O. that for $300, plus hotel, her services were now his for the taking.  O. didn’t waste any time adopting the overblown gestures of Buster Keaton and shoved his fist into his pocket and flung its contents on the bar – a ten, a five and a laundromat-sized ball of lint.  With that, Sammie buttoned her coat and, gesturing in my direction, said to O., “Looks like you’re spending the night with Red.”

By the time our second Plymouth arrived, O. had made it clear by his glazed look and mistimed nodding that he wasn’t hanging on my every word, but on those of the couple behind me.  As he eavesdropped, I got a whiff of the apples ripening in the woman’s Green Apple Martini and overheard the likes of “honeymoon this” and “Machu Picchu that.”

 

“Wasn’t it the most…I don’t know… mystical place ever?” the wife sighed.  “So…so … tran-scen-den-tal.”  The woman got her money’s worth from that last word, juicing it as only someone who’s freshly expanded her vocabulary can.  I could practically feel the humid spirituality of the word dripping down the back of my neck.

O. had been methodically working himself into a lather snooping on the couple’s conversation, such that, no sooner had the individual syllables of the word “tran-scen-den-tal” wafted over my shoulder, O. thrust his paw past my face and tapped the lady on the shoulder.

“’Scuse me, did I hear you say “Tran-syl-van-ia”?

I won’t lie to you.  I winced.  I felt my buttocks contract on the barstool.  My fight-or-flight response kicked in, and I opted to flee.  As I pushed off, O. deposited a firm mitt on my shoulder, indicating this wasn’t to be.  Thinking back, I can hardly jump all over him for what was to come.  After enduring nearly a decade of my unvarying opinions, homogenous complaints, perpetual interrogations, uniform observations, and unending string of perceived injustices, week after week, year after year, I somehow felt he was entitled to a few moments of fresh antagonism.

 

“Tr-Transylvania?” the woman stammered, placing her hand on her husband’s leg.

“Sorry, my English,” O. said.  “You said ‘it’s a mystical place…Tran-syl-van-ia.’”

Catching a whiff of O.’s Swiss German vowels, the woman adjusted her voice setting to “FOREIGNER,” which meant the remainder of the conversation would be conducted syllable-by-syllable, at near screaming decibel levels.

“No, no, I said tran-scen-dent-tal.  Not Tran-syl-van-ia.”

The wife’s mouth manufactured these words with such application that her painted lips resembled a red rubber band being stretched around a gnarly summer squash.

“Transcendental?  Where’s that?” O. asked.

“No, I didn’t say…  Transcendental isn’t a…  I said Machu Picchu is tran-scen-den…”

O. nodded his head with comprehension.

“Tran-scen-den-tal…I know…  That’s Spanish for…?”

The wife turned to her husband and, more as a question than a statement, said, “Honey, Transylvania isn’t a realplace.”

“Dracula lives there,” O. clarified, taking long sips through his straw, as though he were draining the chocolate syrup from the bottom of a milkshake.  “That, I’m sure about.”

The wife shifted on the barstool and, raising her glass to her lips, shaved off a quarter inch from her cocktail.

“We went to Maa-chu Pii-cchu,” she said, working her way around the Dracula comment.  “For our honey…”

“They threw us out,” O. said flatly, poking two fingers in his martini and fishing out the lime twist.

The husband didn’t waste any time placing his left hand on his wife’s shoulder, reassuringly running his thumb north and south over her shoulder blade.

“Th-thrown out,” the wife said, one eye on the soggy lime dripping from O.’s fingers.  “Thrown out of what?”

“Machu Pee…you know, those ruins up there.  They dragged him out…so I left too,” O. said, throwing his chin in my direction.

The woman eyeballed me for the first time and didn’t waste any excess energy in generating her own opinion.

“Tore a hole right in his Incan poncho,” O. added, shaking his head.

“Incan pon…?”  The husband tried to catch himself, but it was too late.

“Oh, he was dressed like a big Incan…with tassels, feathers, earrings, bracelets, sandals, and a headdress made of hum-ming-bird feathers.”  O. leaned toward the woman and added, “Took four guards to carry him out.  See how big he is?”

The woman’s eyes darted down at my legs, as she wondered aloud.

“Hummingbirds … aren’t they protected?”

“Bet you think they got him for dressin’ like an Incan,” O. suggested.  “Nope.  For chasin’ llaaa-mas.”

O. beefed up the first syllable of llamas, unsure whether the woman, like himself, actually knew what a llama was.

“Chasing what?” the wife asked, confirming O.’s suspicion.

“Llaaa-mas,” O. repeated.  “He chased ‘em over a wall, through the ruins and into the BBC…you know, from England… they were filming…”

Out of nowhere, the wife threw her hand in the air, as though hailing a cab in a rainstorm, and scribbled in the air for the bill.  Sensing the fish wriggling free, O. jerked the line one final time to reset the hook.

“Planet Green, you know it?  It’s this BBC show about how terrible tourists are for the ruu-ins and all.”

The woman quickly signed the check, prompting O. to cut the line.

“Anyway, he chased those goddamn llaaa-mas over a wall … into the temple where they sacrificed virgins and…”

O. wasn’t permitted to punctuate this last sentence.  No sooner had the woman visualized llamas tumbling over walls than she activated the swivel mechanism on her barstool, leaving O. with the hairdresser’s view of her blow-dried coiffure.  The husband, eyes closed, was now vigorously massaging his wife’s neck and shoulders.  I suddenly envisioned him throwing her to the floor and, like the Chinese women beneath Bleecker Street, strolling up and down her back to iron out the knots.

 

O., on the other hand, exhibited the serenity of a laborer after an honest day’s work.  He tossed back the balance of his martini, including the slice of lime and, after a bit of maneuvering with his tongue, produced a mossy green smile with the lime covering his teeth.  Then, in what he must have fancied an upper crust BBC accent, he poked me in the chest and said, “Ain’t that right?  That’s what happened with them llaa-mas, or…?”

The Armpit Contest

 

After filming for a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, O. and I spent a night in the capital, Port Moresby, before flying back to New York. Our hotel overlooked the sea. We planned to go out for dinner and then to a nightclub. The hotel staff, however, warned us that, as white tourists, we would be robbed, cut to pieces, and dumped in the ocean. So we ate spaghetti bolognaise in the hotel and then slithered down the stairs, the cowards that we are, to the hotel nightclub in the basement.

 

The instant O. and I set foot in the Coconut Club, we were met by a cloud of the ripest, most pungent case of smelly armpit imaginable—a roiling cauldron of festering underarms whose fumes melted the paint off the walls and incinerated the hairs in your nostrils. My eyes watered and burned as though faced with an entire basement of freshly cut onions. Fearing I would lose consciousness, I took O.’s arm. My gag reflex kicked in. I felt the spaghetti bolognaise knocking at the door, about to make an encore appearance. In a last ditch effort to secure oxygen, I plunged my nose into my front shirt pocket and left it there.

 

I expected to see O. dashing to the beach, gladly preferring to be robbed and cut to pieces than endure another moment of this unbearable pestilence. Instead, he eyed me like I was a lunatic.

He did not smell a thing.

 

You see, O. is not one of today’s males who are overly preoccupied with personal hygiene. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find it on his daily to-do list. And if you do, you will find it languishing somewhere just above brushing his teeth and just below changing his underwear. When he is traveling, hygiene falls off the list entirely. His motto: “If any body part comes in contact with running water, including my hands, I’ve fulfilled my duty to society.”

 

In 2003, during the Iraq War, we were in Las Vegas. He wore the same jeans and ”No War” T-shirt for 10 days straight—in the desert! To be fair, each morning he would pick them up and smell them first. The problem was, he would always put them back on.

 

The other problem: deodorant. That is, O. cannot be bothered to wear it. I have crossed countless continents with him and his two stinky underarm associates. It is like travelling in a pack of four: O., myself, and two unwanted friends. Over the years, I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, telling myself, “Since they’re his armpits, maybe he can’t smell them?”

 

Once, before a trip to Easter Island, I went through our packing list, specifically mentioning such oddities as soap, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, floss, and deodorant. It was to no avail: he packed two pieces of underwear and a toothbrush. And that was for a two-week trip.

 

So after a decade of crisscrossing the globe with O. and his two henchmen, I mistakenly thought I had developed reasonable armpit stamina. But no amount of training could have prepared me for the tangy tsunami of armpits inundating the Coconut Club.

 

We made our way to the bar, jostled all the way by smoky pits raised to the heavens, rejoicing in the music of Bob Marley. O. continued his charade of normalcy. He ordered drinks and made polite conversation. Was it possible he was immune to the noxious fumes? He wanted to humiliate me, bring me to my knees, and watch me beg for air. But I resolved to outlast him. I was determined to demonstrate my armpit stamina.

 

The club pulsed with sweaty Papuans wearing shorts, tank tops, and sandals. I skipped to the dance floor. By now my throat burned like I had swallowed a habanero pepper. O. leaned against the bar, mingling his tangy personal aromas with the thousands around him. He tapped his foot, drummed his fingers, and ordered another vodka tonic. But two could play at that game.

 

Back at the bar, I casually remarked on the number of tank tops people were wearing. O. complimented the music, adding suspiciously, “Check out the terrace?”

“Why?” I asked, practically gagging from a raised armpit calling for a drink.

“Not hot in here?” He persisted. “Don’t you want some fresh air?”

The terrace smelled like spilled beer—and yesterday’s armpit.

“That’s better!” O. said, taking a deep breath and looking at

me sideways.

“Refreshing,” I croaked, fixing O. with bloodshot eyes.

“Let’s go down to the beach,” O. declared abruptly.

 

Despite the hotel warning of certain death and dismemberment, we tucked our vodkas under our shirts and headed to the beach.

A warm breeze blew from the sea, smelling of salt and sweet palms. Desperate to expel the poisonous fumes of the Coconut Club, I inhaled so deeply I felt my toes expand. But inside, I was jumping up and down, clicking my heels with joy. “I won! I won! I won The Ultimate Armpit Battle with O.!”

 

At least, I think I won. On second thought, he probably never smelled anything to begin with.