Suburban Oblivion: Last Call at Wink & Nod Pub

WINK & NOD PUBLIC HOUSE

LONGWOOD, Fla

28.7° N, 81.3° W

The end is nigh; it’s right there outback beyond the dumpsters where every month the sinkhole creeps an inch closer to the Wink & Nod Public House. A decade ago, the breezeless palmetto thicket was no more dangerous than the rattlers and wild pig roaming its sandy terrain. Then the bottom fell out; the earth gave way straight to hell, or the Florida aquifer, whichever comes first. Now existential crisis nibbles at the back door of the ramshackle pub. Out the front door, the breezelessness is replaced by automotive gusts off the sunburnt limestone highway. The stunted patio is humble and lonely, even lonelier during this spring’s quarantine. When Florida reopened in early June, this lonely stretch of front porch was crowded with reunion and revelry and unseen contagion. Then the bottom fell out; sickness spread like wildflowers along an unkempt roadway. Now existential crisis coughs at the front door of the ramshackle pub. On Friday, all Florida bars had their liquor licenses revoked due to the spike in coronavirus cases. The end was more than nigh, it came sometime around midnight.

Althea Fraank has seen enough. She inherited the bar from a favored aunt and has spent her forties keeping the lean-to cottage upright. A second coronavirus shutdown is too much for her to bear. “I’m heading for the hills motherfuckers” she said in an online post, speaking figuratively rather than specifically to those of a certain sexual persuasion. Her plan was to bleed out the kegs and most of her liquor to her favorite patrons and once the bar dried-up, excepting her special reserve stock, she was going to drive to Canada in her Winnebago she re-christened “The Yukon Ho”.

Scene from the Swansong Saturday of the Wink & Nod

The swansong party for the Wink & Nod is this last weekend of June, the hottest weekend June has seen in a century. The Saharan sand cloud, named “Godzilla” for its sheer size, blown-in on a transatlantic gust, is not helping. The sky, the sun within it, has been dulled into a mellow blue, but the air is thick with hot grit. “Look around, mein herr…” Goshawks mumbles behind his coronavirus mask. “These are end times. What better way for biblical plagues to swoop in on central Florida than hitching a ride on an African sandstorm, right? Any minute now, expect to see a locust swoop in and Bernie Madoff your hamburger. I just wonder where the Four Horsemen are going to drink if all the bars are closed. Oh fuck me! Did we miss the Rapture? Did Jesus second come already? Did Jesus rapture his faithful, but no one noticed because there are only four virgins left in Florida, anyway? All I am saying, mon frère, is these be end of times.”

Althea Fraank, having overheard Goshawks’ rants, disagreed. “Ain’t end of times just cos your mom’s kicking you out of the house, Gwayne” Althea said, her voice as gravelly as the scraping of the empty keg she dragged out the back door.

There is little reason for us to be on the back porch, out of the air-conditioning, where little shade is offered beneath sunburnt palm fronds. The only source cool was the heady draft beers we sipped beneath our coronavirus facemasks. But on the patio, the crowd was sparse, unlike inside the Wink & Nod Pub. At least this weekend, when the daily Covid-19 count for Florida is nearing the highest anywhere anytime, the patrons are mostly masked, much more precautious of a crowd than it was a few weeks ago when I was the only one wearing a facemask. I had been called a “sheep” at least three times, though the second time might have actually been “creep” when I walked into an unlocked bathroom to discover Althea Fraank in a state of bareness far exceeding what one would have thought necessary to perform basic bodily functions. I profusely apologized for my gaffe, but my blushing regret only earned me delighted cackles from the bar-owner every time she passed by.

Rodney Rando, sitting in the limited shade beneath a banana tree, is still quietly chuckling at my reluctant carnal knowledge. Rod’s holding an unlit cigarette in one hand and in the other he holds an olive jar half-filled with chilled vodka and vermouth. Why dirty a martini glass when you can bring the party to the olives? He’s at peace with this heat, leaning his long frame back in a cast iron chair, legs casually crossed, footed in un-socked sneakers, his face burdened with a Pittsburgher mustache as he contemplates the searing meats on the nearby charcoal grill. “Keep your eye on your beer, dude.” Rod warns me. It is hard to judge his wry grin behind his sunglasses and Buccaneers branded facemask, but the very fact the quiet man spoke was enough evidence he was entertained. “Watch your beer or Althea will slip you a mickey and Shanghai you along to Canada.”

The Watchman, Rodney Rando

Rodney “Rando” Radonovic is a onetime county councilman (campaign slogan, circa 2007: “Rodney Rando – he gives a damn when it counts”), a sometime mortgage broker, a volunteer for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Dive Team and the reluctant czar of the nearby Hawk Haven Neighborhood Watch. He never desired to be in the community espionage business (“I don’t want to be in my neighbor’s business any more than I want him in mine”), but after Gary Zimmerman’s 2012 execution of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, a mere 15 minutes north of here, Rodney created a “Neighborhood Watch-Watch”. Rodney Rando is not a proponent of “Stand Your Ground”, the Florida law which allows for trigger-horny home-owners to unload pistols at any sort of intrusion. “If we’re handing out guns to any knucklehead with $20 who can sign an ‘X’ at the line, we need to not deputize them to shoot at every bump in the night”, Rod has said. Thus began the Neighborhood Watch-Watch of Hawk Haven Country Club. Rodney Rando policed the local Neighborhood Watch, a nervous group he characterized as a squadron of side-armed Chicken Littles, chewing amphetamine and/or OxyContin, with licenses to conceal and nightmares of middle school wedgies. And those were the sheriff deputies assigned to work with the Neighbor Watch; the citizens in the other half of the Neighborhood Watch were even worse.

After a sigh, Rodney Rando responds to my incessant questions about guarding the community during a pandemic. He lights his cigarette first; it burns like an hourglass and once it is extinguished, he’s got other places to be. “I play peace-keeper mostly. People haven’t adjusted well. They’re all a little nuts. They run out of toilet paper and sneak around next door while the neighbors are out, rummaging about, drinking out of the milk carton, renting movies on the TV and falling asleep in the hot-tub only to wake when the neighbors return. I get a call and show-up to help calm them down. I’ve seen screaming matches between neighbors over sharing the sidewalk. Then you have the flesh-starved horn-dogs who can’t get their Wednesday night lap dance because Mitch’s TT-Bang Gentlemen’s Parlor has been shut down; or their favorite glory hole is unavailable because the interstate rest areas are closed; they get desperate and listless, walking the sidewalks at midnight, spooking the coyotes, looking for any piece of ass they can find. Only thing I can do is sell them some weed and tell them to go home and take a cold shower. It’s the least I could do. When spouses start breaking the good china or experimenting with arson, I hand out business cards to divorce lawyers who will kick-back a little extra cash my way for referrals. It’s financed the retiling of my master bathroom.”

Hawk Haven

Speaking of sex-starved suburbanites, I ask about the abandoned golf course at the heart of Hawk Haven. There has been a lot of police presence out there; Goshawks thought it was to break-up sex parties occurring beyond the bunkers.

Rodney Rando laughs a cloud of smoke, “Man, most of the times it’s the cops playing wife-swap on the old fairways. Yeah, no shit. When I see local constabularies driving out onto the golf course, I call the county sheriff to break it up. If I see county squad cars driving out there, I ask the city to intervene. The worst, though, are the damn state troopers. They are into some weird shit, dude. It’s all those hours spent on the turnpike. It’s too much time for a man to think. If a sober man thinks too much, only evil can come from it. They get up to some kink.” Kink? “Yeah, breath-play, furry, BDSM, CBT, Quasi-Necro, Ahegao, Step-Mom, butt-stuff…”

I ask about the anarcho-primitivists who were camped out on the golf course earlier this year. “Yeah, we had to run them off.” Rodney says. “They were eating all the neighborhood pets. At first we thought the missing housecats were from coyotes, but then we visited the anarchist hippie camp and saw they were tanning feline pelts. I’m not sure what for. Socks?” Rodney took a drag off a cigarette. “Couple days later, a few deputies and I went to flush them out. Goshawks let us know where to avoid booby-traps and twig-catapults set to launch bleach at intruders. We got to the camp and the hippie anarchists were half-starved, three-quarters naked and completely stoned; they didn’t put up a fight. I think they wanted an excuse to leave the wilderness. We took them to 7-11 for Gatorade and beef jerky; then dropped them off at Otter Cove Country Club. Let those assholes deal with them.”

Has there been any protest activity amongst Black Lives Matter, I ask, telling Rodney Rando I would assume the white-flight suburban crowd would be anxious over possible looting.

“Nope.” Rodney shakes his head, picking grit out of his teeth. “I’ve got Sahara sand in my martini.” After a pause he continues, “Look, I’d welcome any protesters. I’ll sign any petition for police reform or gun control. What I don’t welcome, but fear, is the semi-closeted confederate numbskulls who live in every other house in Hawk Haven and have been stock piling ammo for their AR-15s just waiting for a protest to march down these streets. Heck, someone stole an Andrew Jackson statue off of a front yard and the whole community is up in arms about it. My phone is ringing off the hook about people claiming Antifa has infiltrated the Hawk Haven Homeowners Association.”

I laugh.

“Is it funny?” Rodney asks. “They’re asking me to do the math. The HOA has four Goldwater republicans, old white dudes if you couldn’t guess, a fifth white guy who is a staunch Trumpian police detective and the sixth member of the HOA is a Chicago liberal born in Mexican bandit country. Can you guess which might be the Antifa radical in our midst?”

Is he suggesting Josefina Jesús-María is Antifa?

“I’m just saying there are two people who know which water hazard on the golf course Andrew Jackson was tossed into: me and your girlfriend.”

I decide to change the subject and circle back to the emaciated anarcho-primitivists Rodney Rando kicked out of Hawk Haven. They paint a grim picture of what the rest of humanity might resort to should the supply chains break down in this pandemic or the next calamity. Is he concerned with the general panic which might rise with societal collapse?

“Nope.” He says bluntly. “My role is a facilitator within society. If society goes to shit, I’m not going to stick around to sweep up the broken teeth.”

Cannibalism is not something the Neighborhood Watch would consider “within scope” of their mission?

“If society collapses, it isn’t my problem.” Rodney says simply. “If we have to resort to cannibalism, pass me a rib. But you can keep all the head meat. I’ve heard it is eating brains which make head-hunters go nutso.”

Otherwise, head-hunters are well-adjusted?

“To each their own.” Rodney Rando stamps out his cigarette and puts a wad of cash under his empty olive jar. He lifts his bandana back over his face. It is time for him to get back to Hawk Haven. I ask if he has any parting wisdom for these apocalyptic times. Rodney checks the watch on his wrist, “There is so much bullshit out there right now. I’d say if you’re going to give a damn, make it count. Give a damn about something you can feel with your own hands. Give a damn about the people around you. Give a damn about your community. Don’t waste your damns on petty gossip or bullshit you read online.”

Yeah, the internet is all a Russian misinformation operation anyway.

“And don’t be an asshole.” Rodney Rando points a finger at me. “I know it is hard, but we should all strive to not be an asshole. The world would be a lot better off for it.”

Kino Eye

There are eras that occur only once in a lifetime. These are times before your kids and marriages brought you shape and meaning at small expense to your personal brand. This was when YOU were still on the line. Not your legal byproducts. The hard bought you.

These times will never be recreated and it would be almost a disservice to try. A period of absolute enthusiasm with so much punctuation that the absence of its recollection is an insult even though the recollection itself always comes up lacking. It was an advent and explosion—I’ve never even tried to write about it. And won’t now. Just here mentioning a bar was involved. That took on a life of its own.

INTERIOR 4 BLOG DONG IL
It remains my favorite bar of all time. There are common rooms and then there are rooms that become uncommon. The steps up to the second floor university district bar in a busy area of Kyungsung Dae, Busan, had a certain aroma that smelt both repulsive and like recently sanitized lemon polish. “Ossosasayo!” The barkeep would holler from above as we ascended those last holy steps and entered, “ossoasayo!” Or “welcome!” He would usually be wearing his navy blue cub scouts shirt. Patches and all. Lord only knows where he got that thing.

The bartender’s name was Gyu-Ho and he was the purest, smartest, hippest, nerd-bath-beautiful-human-soul I’ve ever encountered. “Uh. Matthew–Hyung…”, he’d begin (always respectful, referring to me as “older brother”) before asking something much more informal like, could I clarify some profane English phrase someone was trying to teach him or if I was available for a hike in the mountains that weekend.

I can’t recall ever scheduling a time to meet anyone at Kino Eye. You just showed up and someone was there. Someone you really wanted to talk to. There would be the NorEaster (tropical storm Kevin) and Sippy at the far end of the bar. Always planning and organizing and charismatic and convinced they were much more than right. Wearing their white collared dress shirts rolled up to the elbow and black ties. Like expat blues brothers. Forces of Nature.

What happened at Kino Eye, like in Korea generally, was a kind of transformation. We went from caterpillar to butterfly. Sometimes in the course of a single night. In the space of one year that bar taught me more lessons than I’ve learned before or since. Immutable. Irreversible. I lost part of my soul that can’t be returned. It was dipped in paint thinner and fed to animals. If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, my life has been a footnote to Kino Eye.

A unique aspect of existing in a place with very little new culture, is you become the culture. There were ten of us: Tall Guy, Sippy, Shuffling Snackman, Pip, PettyJohn, VanNorEaster, The Governor, Myself, Streets and Gyu-Ho. Towards the End came the Danimal: he was the end of the beginning and a supernova into the next constellation that spawned a whole new galaxy that has only recently turned back into middle aged stardust.

Inspiration exists, but it must find you working. So we worked. Because, at our day jobs we didn’t. The dirty little secret that isn’t really a secret is that teaching English isn’t a job so much as a distraction between activities. The creative work was the activity and the nerve center was the bar.

Group 4 BLOG
People came to Korea to escape something, someone or the lack of something or someone. No one was in Busan because it was Plan A. This wasn’t even B or C. This was not calculated (aside from Tall Guy, because he’s never not calculated) we all broke like waves on the shore. Shipwrecked. Lucky for us, Busan had the best beaches in the country. And lucky for me I hit a high water mark of the ESL movement. Koreans were English crazed at the time and English skills were more important than admission to elite universities. The mark of a reputable student depended on their English skills and English skills depended on the teachers that helped students hone these skills and honing these skills depended on the image of the schools and the image of the school depended on how many white people were purported to be teaching there.

The problem was, no white people wanted to. So the private language institutes, where most ESL teachers taught, started to recognize what would draw native speakers to their relatively unknown island = money. Korea can’t compete with the more exotic locales like Vietnam or Thailand and wasn’t  considered as sophisticated as Japan, but Korea leapfrogged them all by offering the green westerner more green. They offered a free flight, free housing, free health care, a generous bonus system and essentially tax free salary at a rate better than most young people clear at a mid-level professional gig back home. The work was fantastically easy. Essentially making small talk, asking between 5-8 classes a day what they had for breakfast, and then correcting them when they mispronounced something. “English Conversation” it was called. Which isn’t to say that teachers didn’t care about their students or didn’t try to do a good job. Everyone did. At least for a while. But there is a particular game that is being played in the ESL system in which foreign teachers are both a pawn and a bitch, and once you realize this, you kinda step out of it.

Kinship’s formed fast in Busan because friends were your family. You spent days with them, weekends with them, evenings with them, vacations with them, holidays with them. There were no real alternatives. Video calling and social media was in its infancy at the time and I didn’t even have a laptop. So when it came to forming connections, friends were the only show in town.

In many Asian cities, their public art doesn’t happen in daylight, it comes alive at night.
During the day the buildings drone in monotonous grey, but at night the concrete explodes and the skylines become a modern canopy of densely packed neon outcroppings. These glowing streets were our playgrounds.

I often wondered what it was like to have lived with the lost generation in Paris or with the Beats in Tangiers. The creative communing that occurs uniquely through the chosen isolation in an unknown land during formative years. Kino Eye was our Mermaid Tavern, our Rainbow Room, our WhiteHorse or Bird & Baby. There was no music in the city. So we started bands. There were no DJs so we became DJs. There were no movies, so we wrote our own. There were no parties, so we threw them (at Kino Eye, of course). There was no beer, so we started a brewery. (Out a window. Down the street. And called it Street Beer.) Dudes loved motorcycles, a week later we had a motorcycle gang.

GROUP - EATING DINNER 4 BLOG

There is a formula for what happens with proximity + time + creative energy and a shared focus. For many, that formula expresses itself most-fully  in college. That’s why we are friends with the people we met there forever. In University everyone is in the same space with the same struggles with the same free time and collectively stoned on the same haughty high-cloud of learning.

But while we are eager in college we haven’t yet suffered.

By the time Kino Eye came around we had been blessed with the stomps of misfortune and so had some of the spare parts needed to start the reclamation process. Failed marriages, failed professions, failed families and failed gods were what brought us to the steps of gibraltar with an ax to grind and no sharpener. We’d smelt some life, had burrowed out from the sadducees thumb and carried shrapnel in our torso. We could recite Byron and fix a toilet. What I stumbled upon in Busan was a generation of people uncertain with the world, more or less adrift, and trying to find a way out by hopefully making something that connected. You could try and fail and be foolish and not worry about the consequences. No one was breathing down your neck. Everyday life felt like an exploration into an unknown land. Because it was.

Outside
There is no story here, because there are so many. An homage to a time when living was all that mattered. The pauses in conversation were actually spent thinking, not on reacting or worrying or checking your phone. People listened. We listened. To each other. There wasn’t a lot of choice. No one else existed that much. And police didn’t have guns. In fact, the police were afraid of you. Which, more importantly, meant you weren’t afraid of the police. Partying was the national pastime and girls loved you because you were different. But unlike college-days, you weren’t broke. You had all of your necessities taken care of and your job was a joke. (I will say, in the defense of the many still over there fighting the good fight, insisting with stiffened regularity that the teaching racket is a “profession”, that most instructors evolved. After all, no human could maintain the velocity attained in their first years. Your body would reject itself. Eventually, it gets difficult for even the most hardened expat to look at themselves in the mirror after some of those nights that bend space-time. Those that could, got bent themselves and are now recognizable by their hobble.)

Ten years after Kino Eye I was starting a job at a shiny new office and had to write a bio for the website. For the non-megalomaniacs of the crowd, of whom I consider myself lumped, self promotion is an awkward business. Thankfully, someone much smarter than me helped craft the thing. It went through like 17 drafts. As we scuttled versions back and forth I kept realizing one difference of opinion was my constant removal of “Taught English in Korea” in my “Professional Experience” section. I repeatedly deleted it and the editor kept reinserting it. Eventually I queried her on the discrepancy, as the experience didn’t seem relevant to my current work. “It’s the most interesting thing about you,” she eventually replied, more delicately than that.  This might not be saying much, but as I reflected on this zinger, I realized she might be right.

I’ve always felt the only problem with Korea is that it isn’t real. It’s too easy. Too easy to be class president. Too easy to be front-man. Too easy to get laid. Too many options. Too many opportunities to explore. Too little competition. Too many abilities to aggrandize yourself. Too many ways for the uncool to become cool. It’s not always a good thing. Too always be the big fish. It messes with one’s head. Maybe there is some utility to bullies. Once Revenge of the Nerds becomes mainstream, you gotta watch your back.

SHOTS 4 BLOG

Now as I’m forced to slow down. As the perfume turns into tinnitus.  As loss becomes the “new norm”. As the suicides pile up and the misfortune once needed to ripen us has now rotted out too much of the core. I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t too easy. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for the ease.

But oh how I remember the days when guilt was gone. I remember the whips of foosball. I remember the 4 tequilas for $10. How brothers called each other’s names with a winsome zeal they’d reserved previously only for romance. And then spilled on each other with a recognition that giggled. I remember Bradbury yelling, “Lets hit the streets!”, and then kicking me in the nuts soccer style as we both wondered why I asked him to do this. I remember the street food. The buoyancy. The beach beer. The roman candle fights. The Sunday afternoon film screenings. The burning of Seoul. Wednesday night dart group. The dancing! The pension parties. The white-gloved cabbies. The shellfish. The makgeolli caves. The girlfriend battles. The culture wars. The thigh covenants. The Yule Logs. The Family Mart night caps. The go-stop slaps. The batting cages. The side conversations. The book exchanges.  The Proud Three learning Korean, and then blabbering on late-night-cab-rides home. Doooooooriiiiiiiiii IMNIDA!!!!!!!! The water dumped on heads when peeing in alleys. The cinder blocks thrown at heads when peeing in alleys. The brunches. The soju face. The hot pizza with corn. The dixie cups in DVD Bongs. The Gwangalli bridge illuminating our weekends like a portable lantern. Sing-alongs on the pier. Eating duck on top of mountains. The lack of open container laws. The time when every night was Kino Eye and every weekend was a thrill. And how often they were the same thing.

I remember when none of us had any violence.

What happened at Kino Eye did not stay at Kino Eye. It went into everything.

A summation of a life. Of my life.

A supposedly fun thing I would definitely do again.

Kino eye, baby.

Kino eye.

 

Where:  Busan, South Korea, Kyungsung Dae District.
What to Drink: 4 tequila/jagger for 10,000 won. (aprox. $2.50 a piece).
When to go: Anytime it is open. 5pm – ? (bars close when patrons leave in Korea).
What to do: Kino Eye is an independent film themed bar, so tasty flicks are always playing. Best music selection in town. Plus darts & foosball & potentially a boisterous go-stop game in the far corner.

 

Off the Rails in Vang Vieng – A search for the culinary delights of the depraved

It’s technically a restaurant, but unless you consider lines of ketamine a form of sustenance, its best known dish was a serving of entrapment. 

One can never tell from the travel blogs what is actually happening on the ground at a given time when traveling in the developing world. Places change incredibly quick. From year to year a town or island can go from undiscovered panacea to being overrun with touts, taxis and tour packages. Vang Vieng was a place like this. In flux. When I was there it was rounding a corner on its third iteration of the last 20  years. It initially became famous for: a) unmatched natural beauty, b) playing Friends reruns in all its establishments, and c)  being a party town without rival in SE Asia.

The death tolls and the trash heaps the  ‘the wild west of the far east’ started having deposited on its doorstep eventually showed up in the Lonely Planets’ and culminated in finger-wagging articles from the international press that forced the city off the grid for a while. During the interim,  it became a deserted stop-over destination for travelers on the way to either the historic Luang Prabang or the airport in Vientiane. As of this writing it had cleaned up and was rebranding as an outdoorsy destination emphasizing its proximity to great hiking, hidden falls and aquamarine swimming holes. The once popular and formerly deadly inter-tubing rides down the Nam Song river had transformed into leisurely spills that were no longer cluttered with thumping limbo competitions, 50 foot swan dives and uproarious beer pong.

 

zipline 4 blog

Not your grandma’s tubn’. The death rate from the idiots abroad shut down the party on the river.


China was funding much of the change and Korea was providing much of the commerce. A popular Korean variety show had recently filmed on location at one of the well-known swimming oasis’ and motivated thousands of Koreans to collect in Vang Vieng in the way only Koreans can collect. Half the restaurants had marquees now written in Hangul and along the thoroughfares one could spy the unmistakable groupings of cutesy Korean girls snapping selfies and giggly college boys hauling buckets of soju to their upscale guest house swimming pools.

By nosing around I’d gathered there were still a few historical remnants of the high octane party past when most every bar in town had a second “special menu” consisting of narcotics. But they were no longer easily located. I had to sail deep into the dark canals of the comment section of many failed writers to figure out where the cadavers of extreme illicit opulence still writhed about. 

ME 4 Blog

My research was about to pay off, as, with a bit of trepidation, I walked into the empty (Not Your) Friends Bar & Grille* as the late morning sun baked down already damn-near 105 degrees.

Appreciating the absence of Ross and Rachel story-lines I leaned up against the bar and, as casually as possible, ordered the national drink, beer Lao, along with a *cough cough* “happy menu”. The young fresh-faced bartender gave me a skeptical up and down and then looked towards the entrance. I took the opportunity to raise my hand up to my face allowing my disguise to partially block the CCTV. The barkeep, after apparently seeing whatever it was he needed to see completely changed his demeanor and flashed 1000 watt smile, and just as I was about to hightail it out of there and zig zag back to the hotel like Jaguar Paw running from Mayan sacrificial spears, he pulled a small laminated card from his pocket that looked to have predated the french occupation and unfolded it. He placed it atop the normal menu which was only in marginally better shape.

There’s a well traipsed ruse in certain parts of the world where bars have agreements with police to “openly” sell some of the sweet treats. There are all kinds of variables and addendum’s on these agreements and it pays to be aware of them. Some bars are legit while others are rumored to have a relationship but don’t actually have a formal agreement and so it is very much a buyer-beware situation. Some haven’t paid their dues so operate at a deficit that’s back-filled by forcible direct foreign-investment. Some have almost an inverse understanding with the authorities, their agreement is to sell and then immediately bust the dolts when they leave, sharing the spoils of the synergy. These agreements can vary further depending on the time of day and mood of both police and proprietor. Needless to say, these transactions are recommended by exactly no travel writer on the planet. If one ignores these ninnies, and proceeds with a purchase, it is highly advisable for all happy menu items to be consumed on-site. This might seem backwards to the uninitiated, but it is indeed actually safer to imbibe on the premises rather than risk a ‘stop and frisk’. Naturally, if one has decided on hallucinogens as the drug du jour, this can make for an afternoon plastered to the wall with paranoia. It’s the price you pay to avoid being slung like pork loin in the local clinker awaiting a money-wire from papa.

 

Street 4 blog

Nestled at the foot of limestone cliffs the small town feels spiritual, and just a slight bit dangerous.

I studied the menu offerings:

Marijuana cigarette
Marijuana blunt
Hash
Happy shake
Happy pizza
Happy burger
Just Happiness
LSD
Opium
Ketamine
Yaba

“Bummer, no talk-chalk, eh?” I joked, putting one finger up to my nostril. “We have yaba!” He corrected me. “Same same….” “……but  quite different.” I finished. “That bath tub speed will have you grinding your teeth like Roger Stone in a tampering deposition.” He didn’t laugh. Impressed with their list and not wanting to loiter or misfire on more jokes I made a followup inquiry. The bartender responded by barking over to a woman I hadn’t seen before who was sitting under a painting of Colonel Sanders. Next to her laid an old man watching muy-thai on a grainy Panasonic television.

She nodded back at the youngster as if her neck were afraid of the weight of her head. The bartender spoke to her in staccato sing-song Lao which I immediately translated as “this drunk foreigner wants to bribe a cop”.

She grunted and walked over with the cheer of a farmer who just chipped their axe into an unexploded ordnance. She read my order and disapproved. “You wan cris met? Veddddy poplar. Wheel stong……..” I understood her Lao better than her English so asked her to please repeat. She dropped a cleavered forearm onto the scribbles at the bottom of the happy menu. “Ah! Crystal meth! Hmmmmm.” I rubbed my chin in feigned interest. Apparently crystal meth was a BRAND new addition that didn’t make the last menu printing. I inquired about the price so as to maintain decorum. She moved a finger across the menu. How could I have missed it?! The most expensive by a metric mile.”Sounds great!” I said. “Buuuuut I think I’m okay.”  “Okay? You want?” She was suddenly filled with the energy of a sea gypsy at dawn. She whirled around and before I could correct her began an elaborate process below the view of the bar. “Uhm, no, I’m okay, I’m good.” I said, now up on my tiptoes and rigid as a board.“Yes, veddy good.” She repeated and started wrapping and unwrapping and then had a lighter out and was burning something.

I immediately cursed my choice of words. How one speaks English to a non-native speaker is an underappreciated art. It’s one of the best ways to figure out if someone’s traveled. How quickly they can assess the level of their current conversant and then adapt, while taking local understanding into account with their pronunciation, syntax, and choice of words. Here I’d failed, using “okay” and “great” to signify a negative. I was now sweating profusely. I wiped my forehead with my disguise as she continued crinkling paper and mixing substances.

It would only take one group of foreigners coming in and my goose would be cooked. You can’t trust anyone in towns like this. And Isy always travels solo. Nobody watching my “6”. My disguise, a plus-size american flag draped over my shoulders and covering part of my face, was only making me warmer.

Eventually I was able to pantomime to the young bartender that I did not actually want any meth. “Save that for Trump” I said. With some more terribly timed humor about the ongoing rumor of Trumps stimulant usage. “Ah yeah, Trump good! Fuck the chineeze!“ The bartender replied and pointed to a picture on the wall behind the pool table of Trump stuck next to pictures of the Pope, Ho Chi Minh, Obama, and Stalin. I smiled back, impressed by their obvious appreciation of diversity in governance. (The Lao were growing wary of  the outsized Chinese influence in the region and so appreciated some of Trumps posturing.)

Skyline 4 blog

In need of some air, or perhaps a defibrillator, I decided to take a stroll through the place.  Beyond the unique menu offerings it did have a nice vibe. And view to match. The establishment sat near the northernmost commercial tip of the downtown area with a private entrance pulled back from the street. It was perched right above a creek with a lovely view of the Nam Song river. As I looked further I could see tubers now concluding their afternoon floats some 200 meters out from us. After moving past the front bar there were about ten different seating areas identifiable by the cluster of pillows that surrounded knee high tables where shoes were prohibited and lounging encouraged. This style of seating was not designed just to be conducive to happy menu options, but was a rather common scenario in Laos where no one rushed. Everything inside was bamboo and lined with christmas lights that flickered at dusk. It felt a bit like being on the deck of Bob Marley’s pirate ship. The back of the bar had no exterior wall and opened up to the vast expanse of neon green rice paddies and jutting limestone karsts arcing up and down as far as the eye could see. As I continued toward the rear of the bar it felt like I had opened a favorite fairytale book and was slowly stepping into it. This magical view was enhanced even more at sunset when multiple hot air balloons filled the top of the skyline with their hovering rainbow bounce. I’d read it was the cheapest place in the world to go up.

But I was here for a different kind of ride.

And despite the success I had found during my research into the culinary delights of the depraved, I was not in fact here for drugs. I was on a mission. To meet a British guesthouse owner who had a proposition for me.

“You don’t want?” The old bartender finally asked, her hard-boiled eyes turning pillowy as she saw her biggest sale of the day slip through her now chemically enhanced fingers. “No. no. No chris, met. Sorry, I’m sure it’s wonderful. If it’s anything like the yaba it has to be great for the nerve endings.” She didn’t say another word, put a package in her bra and walked back to the TV.

There was a crack behind me as a cue ball dropped in a yellow seven.

“A lucky number”, I blurted out, spotting this and hoping to distract  whoever struck it from becoming interested in the remaining vapors my american flag was wafting from the owner’s cook.

“One way to describe my life.”
He replied.

I recognized the voice immediately. It was Supermao. In the flesh.

Target acquired. **


Where: Vang Vieng, Laos.
What to order: Big beer Lao, with ice. As for the extra curriculars, most popular are the “Happy” options. Shakes tends to be safest, advisable not to mix. Pizza’s are rumored to pack quite the punch.
When to go: Sunset. Great place to watch the balloons. Note, since it’s a “restaurant” it closes earlier than many establishments in the area.

* Names were changed to protect the innocent.
** Part 1 of 2.

 

Thank Heaven: Quarantined at the Neighborhood 7-11

HAWK HAVEN, Florida

28.6° N, 81.3° W

The apocalypse was never meant to be so dull. Governor Hamfist DeSantis declared the state will reopen this week (coronavirus be damned), but there is little dancing in the streets. Residents remain at home, huddled with their Wi-Fi and 9-millimeter, suffering cabin-fever and other claustrophobic strains of condo-cholera, duplex-dementia or falling-asleep-in-the-bathtub melancholia. There have been those who have strayed from their bunker during these last weeks of quarantine, seeking any variance to the rote routines of the forsaken, finding nowhere to go. Blinking at the sun as troglodytes emerging from the darkness, these desperate souls with pasty faces & patchy beards, mangy versions of their former-selves, scampered through the high grass, scurried through the ditches, running limbs-akimbo downhill until crashing into retention ponds of glorious meaninglessness, playing in the mud like a lunatic with shit. Rational thought may be cornerstone to humanity, but it’s as fragile as the wet paper sack carrying your marbles. And there is nothing more human than to lose your marbles.

Even during times as these, there is always somewhere to go.

Hawk Haven’s 7-11 is a gasless gas-station, existing simply as a sundry and lotto purveyor. It is at a residential crossroads; there is no through-traffic here, all business is local. Patrons are neighbors… with the exception of the rag-and-bone man in the parking lot strapping down the garbage-day finds in the bed of his pickup truck (someone’s abandoned rusty fridge, a gimpy barstool, old nudie magazines lightly-charred from spousal attempted-arson). Before coronavirus, in the pre-apocalypse, neighbors would synchronize ventures to this 7-11 in unison to purchase tobacco, scratch-offs and coffee in Styrofoam cups, communing together, discussing recent gossip: whose kid is in rehab again, whose realtor is shtupping whose husband, whose yard has not been adequately maintained. In this coronavirus apocalypse, however, crowds of a different sort gather. The bygone mid-morning café of suburbanites has been repurposed into a 24-hour grog-shop, a watering hole for listless barflies or, if otherwise, dregs nonetheless. When no one else is there for you, 7-11 is waiting. And as long as Jaqueline is at the counter, you can stay as long as you like… as long as we’re doing business.

Her corporate name-tag reads “Jaqueline”, but she is known locally as “Bootstrap Jaq”. She’ll brown bag your 40-ounce malt liquor, or your sixer of hard-seltzer, and – with a wink and an under-the-table uncorking fee – she’ll happily pry the beverages open on-premises. At the going market price, Jaq will sell you contraband cartons of Chinese cigarettes and rolls of toilet paper. If you’re out of work and cannot afford the $5 gallon bottle of Mississippi Merlot, Jaq will offer credit, but you’d better pay the vig or her cousins from Tampa will sell your shinbones online as “rare Elephant tusk paperweight”. During the quarantine, Jaq has facilitated correspondence between police & their informants, drug suppliers & their demand, extramarital lovers & their transgressions, all of whom would otherwise be unable to communicate under the shelter-in-place restrictions. Bootstrap Jaq is, above all else, a capitalist… thus the nickname.

When she isn’t minding the cash register, Bootstrap Jaq is in her journals, writing fictions for a book, “711 Ways to Die in a 7-11”. She is only up to death #32, but her 32nd story is a beauty: sci-fi prose about Covid-29, which inflicts in its sickened a zombie-like hunger for consuming bat appendages. In her story, the 7-11 corporate executives of 2029 take advantage of the symptom and begin selling undercooked bat-wings on the spit (next to latter-century un-kosher hotdogs) which helps spread Covid-29 to new customers.

“It’s an interesting premise, but…” I grimace through my critique. We’re on the front stoop of the store. Jaq’s leaning against the brick & mortar, her facemask beneath her chin as she smokes a cigarette. I tell her, “Coronavirus doesn’t spread directly to humans from bats.”

“How do you know? Have you eaten bat?” Bootstrap Jaq counters. “If people start eating sick bats, they are going to catch something.”

“Something.” I allow. I have no reason to be disagreeable. Especially with this very agreeable morning beer buzz, courtesy of a light breakfast and the tallboy of Manigan’s Ale the Earl of Feck Hall bought me. Earl is as nearby as social-distancing allows, burping-up his finished can of Manigan’s into the bandana strapped across his face. There are four of us altogether, loitering in an odd shuffle-footed slow-dance as we each maintain the recommended distance.

“Welp” the Earl of Feck Hall prefaces his question as he reaches for something to steady himself. “If the Chinese didn’t get Covid’d by eating chopped-bat suey, how’d they get us all sick in the first place?” His eyes are bouncing like a pinball between his cell phone, his empty can of beer and Jaq’s bosom.

Bootstrap Jaq explains it to Earl, “What the man is saying is bats ain’t like mosquitos. They can’t get us sick with just any old virus. Maybe the rabies, but with coronavirus, mmm, it needs a middleman, like a pig, to get the virus mutated into something which could infect people.”

“Right.” I confirm. “If a bat roosting near a pig farm pisses in the trough, it may infect a few pigs…”

“And then the butcher buggers the sick pig on his lunch break.” John Chardonnay, the retired sailor with dual-citizenship in Britain and Australia, has decided to join our conversation. He continues the domino-effect storyline, “So Pig-buggering butcher then coughs bat-flu residue into Sally’s salad. Now Sally gots it. Sally boards a flight for LaGuardia. She dances burlesque in the Bronx. The tassels on her jubblies will smack the grin off your face, lad.” He says, deathly serious, to his mate, Earl. “Now all of New York gots the cough.” John is sipping tea in a 7-11 branded disposable cup he’s spiked with home-brought whiskey (rather than pay for Bootstrap Jaq’s bootlegged Schnapps). John continues, “Same thing happened with AIDs, but in that case it was some bloke who buggered a monkey.”

“You telling lies, Mister John.” Bootstrap Jaq, mildly amused, shakes her head. “AIDs ain’t from some dude having relations with a monkey. They say HIV passed from ape to human at least a dozen times in last hundred years.”

“Same bloke, dozen monkeys.” John Chardonnay stands by his initial premise as he holds up twelve fingers and cites his worldly knowledge. “It was a Dutch bloke, they told me in Antwerp. Of course, in Amsterdam, they say the buggerer’s Flemish.”

“Or it was one monkey.” the Earl of Feck Hall suggests, holding up his index finger. “One monkey and a clown-car full of Shiners looking to gang-bang.”

Bootstrap Jaq scoffs. Her head is shaking again; I can hear the jangle of her earrings. Jaq says, “Ain’t nobody laying down with a janky-ass monkey. You ever been to the zoo, Earrrrrlllll? Mister John? The monkeys sit there flinging their own mess. You have to be something kinky to be into that. No. More likely, hunter kills a sick ape. Or some dude got the virus from a monkey scratch.”

“A monkey scratch?” John Chardonnay laughs, smug on his spiked tea. “Love, we had a saying, before heading into port, ‘Don’t scratch the monkey’. No matter how badly they ask for it.” John reaches his fingers to tap his shaved skull, “They like it right here behind the ear.”

“What are you going to do, Jaq?” the Earl of Feck Hall asks. His face is furrowed with feigned worry, his dense eyebrows twitching like caterpillars at a pie-eating contest. “When all the madness is over? Go back to only selling Slurpees?”

Bootstrap Jaq tilts her head down and with the charm of a schoolmarm, looks up at Earl. She says his name as if it held five times the consonants, “Earrrrrlllll, there ain’t any end to this madness. Governor can open the economy all he wants, but that don’t mean the pork men in East Dakota are going to stop dying which means fewer pork chops sent to F-L-A. When you go to the grocery store and see they are out of baby-back, you’re going to know the only place to get a rib is going to be down at the 7-11 if you ask Miss Jaq nicely. I’ll be just fine; don’t you worry about me, Earrrrrlllll.”

My cell phone vibrates in my pocket. It is a message from my bunker-partner, Josefina. “Have you found your mother?” Damn. I scan the nearby horizon. I text back, “NOPE.” Then “still lookin might check 711”. I am not a regular at the Hawk Haven 7-11, mind. Mother Neverman went missing this morning and the most logical place she would seek – on foot – would be the convenience store where she could get a bottle of kombucha and the local paper. Perhaps it is time I returned to my search. I thank the Earl of Feck Hall for the beer and Bootstrap Jaq for the hospitality. I get back on my bicycle and, after a wobbly start, renew my search for Mom.

A “Must-see in Manila” – The Booze & Body Blows of Burgos Street

To everyone’s disappointment there were no superheroes at the door. Photographs online had depicted little people in skin-tight leotards manning the front, so it was with a level of some sadness we were greeted by a full-sized gentleman built like a lampshade. He had remote eyes and opened the door with a smile that barely hung from his teeth.

Burgos

The drunk Aussies who brought us here said it was to watch “midget mud wrestling” and that this was a “must-see” in Manila.

Nothing makes me cover my nuts and grab my wallet like “drunk Aussie” and “must see attraction”. As a result, my travel companion, Professor Roy and I agreed earlier in the evening that we would avoid this obvious trap on Burgos street. But dammit if the poolside San Miguel’s didn’t get their foothold in us and as the clock struck midnight something akin to a mob mentality erupted in the common area of our guesthouse, sweeping us all into taxis.

The first thing you notice as you nod your way past the doorman, is, well, the boxing ring — the second is the strippers. Quite a one-two punch. You instinctively look for shelter. No one wants to be discovered by mom in the marketing material of a third rate mud wrestling venue in the Far East. But the layout allows no protection from the chaotic cry’s of the emcee, the gratuitous grabs from the bar girls, or the accidental forearm shiver from the Canadian sexpat you’re sharing a table with. You feel like the liver of Prometheus.

girls in ring - photo 1-1

“It isn’t considered prostitution like in the West …..for girls to go home with a guy.” The Canadian sexpat explained, to no one in particular. Our whole guesthouse had collected at a long chest-high table in the back accompanied by a few bar-stools. This had the unfortunate side-effect of forcing interaction with the tables’ lone inhabitant, who was eager for an audience and oblivious to conversational cues. “Many of them just come for a night or two before their regular paycheck arrives. Helps make ends meet, eh? In Thailand, you can actually pay almost any girl you meet. Trust me on this one. Even once proposed to a gorgeous sales girl at a Prada bag shop in Bangkok. It just takes learning a few phrases and a loose grasp on your Thai bot. Slip the cash under your pillow before you fall asleep. When you wake up the morning, they’ll both be gone!” He snapped his fingers for effect. “The anti-tooth fairy, eh?!” He exclaimed, as if he’d just stumbled upon something wondrous. “Another strange tradition we share with the Americans!” He whooped and elbowed the Professor whose remaining good eye was looking ringward.

“Fairies?” Perked up one of the Aussies, raising his head with considerable effort. “I stick to the lady boys these days as well. At least you can reason with them, hay.”

Chuck Pahlianiuk says a great anecdote isn’t one that leave people speechless, it leaves them competing to a tell a better version of the same thing….. Slightly worried about where this conversational jenga game would take the table, I tried to change the subject by inquiring as to what in the actual living fuck was going on in the boxing ring. “Ah you’re curious about the ring are you?!” Replied the alpha-aussie, accompanied by a cheshire smile and a glance at his friends.

A few shitty cocktails later, there I was. In the ring. The Aussies were at fault, no surprise there. But the blame-game would do me no good now with the Rocky theme pumping from the speakers and a bouncing little dude across from me scowling with ill intent. I took stock of the joint looking for fire escapes or a friendly face.

There was a double row of tables closest to the front where I could see the Aussies celebrating their prank and the Professor guzzling some of the grimy mixed drinks that were the best option on the menu. I motioned him to corner me and just as he obliged the bell rang thrice. Oh shit. What to do? No time to think. In an instant my opponent was firing away from behind the ref like a thick little woodpecker, I stretched out with one arm and lowered my chin, parrying the blows while also hoping the demonstrated reach advantage might stutter the flurry. It worked. Turning slowly, my shirtless and sinewy opponent walked right into my jab with an upright neck like a celery stalk. He was wobbled. He studied me carefully. “Too bad to meet here,” I shouted. “We could be sitting down smoking a cigarette in one of these charming chairs.” At which point he charged.

action shot in ring

The front-row chairs of the Ringside were shaped like gargoyles with wads of jade-green cushions carved into them. The bar consisted of only one room, with the ring taking up 1/3 of it, and it contained an assortment of odors, dominated now by the smell of ether coming from the referees gloved hand he was chasing my opponent with. I took the opportunity to hit him with a straight cross that bolted the fella to the floor. He dropped down in a soft messy thump. “Protect yourself at all times.” I whispered, justifying the shot. He popped right back up and angrily bobbed under the bright disco lights. Boxing someone half my size reminded me of Adam Lavines sleeve tattoos. More cute than intimidating. He slipped around my guard and just as I was feeling confident with my footwork ……..A BELL RANG……A Light….. a closed door……. silence. I reached out for a stool but there was none…… it wasn’t the end of the round….a white light shot hard …… and I was forced to take a knee. The little man had decked me in the dick. I waved for my cornerman to help and mouthed, “Whiskey.”

With enough money and tips, anything can be organized at the Ringside. This went for the guy getting the blow job in the booth by the door and for the match following mine where a Brit backpacker fought three little people with one arm tied behind his back.

For a different kind of blow, head to the bathroom. Prior to the “shot heard ‘round my ball-bag” we met a pair of Belgium ladies who claimed to be in the import/export business. One of the Belgians returned from the bathroom shimmering and asked if I wanted to join her on a return visit. Without waiting for an answer she grabbed my hand and led me past the missed elbow-drop off the bottom rope and down a long corridor that went to the bathroom. We banked a hard right at a barely perceptible doorless entrance and down a blind hallway that was black as satans gooch and equally narrow. The errand culminated with her depositing me in a barber chair. Immediately a half-dozen hands were in my hair accompanied by squeals, hair-spray and a blow dryer. I returned back to my table foggier than after my dance in the ring. “Cool hair” the Professor remarked, casting me a side glance as he winced down a fourth jack and coke. Apparently the famed lady-boy bar next door shares the same toilet region as our establishment. Hence the hair salon.

The boxing match ended as expected. Before I could draw a long breath and let it out, I missed the count. The ref waved it off. I must say it was a quick count. But hey, I was on their turf and saw good cheer in no longer being the spectacle.

and the winner!

So should one venture to this most bacchanalian of backwater bars, I don’t recommend engaging in the pugilism. But if you want some crazy action in Manila, go to the Makati district, and if you want some crazy action in the Makati District, go to Burgos street, and if you want to get crazy on Burgos, well, then by all means, go to Ringside.

Just remember to watch your nuts.

Where: The Ringside Bar, Manila, Philippines.
When to go: From 8pm-4am ten bouts are staged. They range from the pantomime to the petrified. None of which are PC.
What to order: Mixed drinks. No time for beer here. And too dangerous for shots. You need to be tipsy. But not “lose room key, get robbed” drunk. When you enter, the bar is to your left. Do not pass “Go”.

A Swig of Darkness: Midnight in Iceland

Fosshotel Nupar

Iceland, South of Vatnajökull

63.78° N, 18.06° W

“It’s cold enough to freeze the nips off a brass monkey.” Josefina Jesús-María says. She is muffled and barely recognizable; a geological enigma layered in nylon, wool, faux fur, pleather and probably polypropylene. “I mean, this ain’t the chinga tu madre cold I grew up with in Chicago, but it is still fucking cold.”

Josefina in Iceland

She’s gravitas; this one. Even impersonating a fashionable Eskimo seal huntress, heads turn at her entrance, watching her waddle as if she were some fallen angelic cloud with red shoe-laced boots. The lobby she enters is full. The hotel restaurant is fuller. The hotel bar fullest. She unwraps her scarves, demystifying the mummy, and in doing so, here in this bar middled in nowhere, Josefina has found an audience of the curious.

Outside, there is nothing but gravel rock and the desolation of Route 1 at the foot of the glacier Vatnajökull. The closest villages are Vík í Mýrdal (pop. 318) 95 km to the southwest and Hof (pop. 20) 60 km to the east. Those who flock here are drawn to nothing. Visitors in droves arrive in search of darkness. We initiates to the divine seek unobstructed heaven and where better to do so than a hotel middled in nowhere. Nothing here could obscure our views of the aurora borealis… nothing except clouds.

Edda is behind bar serving overpriced drinks. Her blue eyes fail to find my flailing phalanges waving her down. She moves at glacial speed; when she arrives into my geochronological epoch, I order a beer at the cost of a 1st born son or 2nd born daughter (“whichever comes first” says the fine print). Bottle in hand, I turn in search of Josefina. The hotel restaurant is run amok with anxious nocturnal-tourists watching weather reports on their phones, gloves and cameras at the ready, pleading & praying for a break in the cloud cover. I find Josefina at table with a pair of giddy Lotharios with wind-burnt cheeks and Nordic jaws. The two mountaineers are surprised when I claim the fourth seat at their table. He’s with me, Jo says to the Norse. Hmpf, they snort and nod, mildly accepting, slightly-less giddy.  

Vic outside prior Bed & Breakfast in Iceland

These dudes climb giant ice cubes, Josefina says, introducing the long-haired and strong-jawed Vikings at our table. And… she adds, more importantly, they have smuggled a bottle of Brennivín under their coats. Oh? There is a single waiter waiting the tables: the peevish and pinch-faced Dagmar. When Dagmar turns his back, my tablemates, Nic & Siggi, take a slug of the schnapps. Fair enough; Jo and I take our own swigs timed with Dagmar’s back.

After the 1st Shot of Brennivín

“Black Death” they call it. An aquavit flavored with caraway seeds, Brennivín tastes like a ham sandwich on rye if the ham were cured in battery acid. It’s enough to curse a mother. Josefina curses mine and I Siggi’s. Nic is the only one laughing and he’s watching cosplay elf-porn on his phone.

After cleansing her palate with a slug of Arctic Pale Ale, Josefina Jesús-María beckons to the many Christmas season illustrations decorating the walls of the restaurant, asking what’s the deal with the coked-out chiflado leprechauns? Siggi giggles, these are the Yule Lads. Sons of child-eating troll woman, Siggis tells us, the Lads are a part of Christmas tradition. They are wintry boogeymen described by Amma to convince grandchildren to clean their plate. Siggi begins naming off the various thieves, like Askasleikir the bowl-licker and Bjúgnakrækir the sausage-swiper and Gluggagægir the window-peeper. Josefina laughs, mentioning the Lads remind her of men she knew of in Tampa. Not to be forgotten, Siggi insists, is Giljagaur, the gully-gark, who hides in the shadows of young mothers waiting to thieve milk from the lactating breast. Knew him too, Josefina recalls, we called him St. Pete Pete.

After the 2nd Shot of Brennivín

“Black Death” is a lil’ bit less deathy on second sip, opines Jo.

Josefina middled in nowhere, Iceland

We learn Nic is from New Zealand and has come to Iceland for work because commercial glacier guiding back home has literally melted away. We learn Siggi is nervous of hiking off-trail lest he step on an invisible elvish village. I mention the tales I’ve heard in the souks of Old Fez about a kingdom of dwarves living in the Atlas Mountains. Nic tells Josefina seal-hunters use the scent of menstruating women to catch seals. Jo says this might have been the worst pick-up line in the history of Homo sapiens. Nic belches and returns to his elf porn.

After the 3rd Shot of Brennivín

Evil whales and their curses could be protected against by witches, Siggi sez. But after the Brennuöldin witch-burnings of the 17th Century, there weren’t any witches left. Now the illhveli are unfettered.

“If you were crushed by a glacier, know you were one of the loves in my life.” Josefina says, sleepily, to me or someone looming above me as she lies on the floor.

Restaurant at Fosshotel

After the 4th Shot of Brennivín

I’m beginning to like this Brennivín. Perhaps not so much for Josefina Jesús-María who says she feels like she’s been ear-fucked by a stick of licorice.

Sigmund Simunderson continues his dissertation on Icelandic fishwife lore, explaining how cross-eyed babies were the fault of the birthing mother staring straight into the aurora borealis while giving birth. And, adds Josefina, if you jag-off while looking at the northern lights an angel loses its wings. Siggi, offended by this foreign algebra, strongly suggests “no” as the lights blink…

It is closing time. It is midnight and the restaurant is closing. We’re being ushered into the already crowded lobby full of hotel guests, most of which are Japanese speaking hurriedly and excitedly. We find a corner to ourselves, near the computer kiosk, where Nic sets up his backpack of booze for us to continue our descent from purgatory. I’m warm and tingly and shoeless and sliding around the floor in my socks and mostly happy, yet paranoid about these Viking mountaineers who are waiting for me to nod-off before they kidnap Jo…

I begin to sleep against the wall when Josefina shakes me awake.

After the 5th Shot of Brennivín

Pinched-nose and peeved-face Dagmar finds us, sniffing at the caraway scent on our collective breath. His shift is through and he’s a bone to pick with us. He’s been listening to our bullshit and wonders whether we’ve given any consideration to the illhveli menace. Siggi mutters and leaves for the lavatory. Dagmar tells us the story of Rauðkembingur, the red-crested evil whale…

Rauðkembingur, courtesy of abookofcreatures.com
Rauðkembingur

The illhveli whale curse has destroyed many Icelandic families. When any man attempts to harpoon the mythological red-crested whale, whether successful or not, the entire family is doomed. The Rauðkembingur will destroy the harpooner’s ship and then will draw each member of the harpooner’s family into the sea until each has drowned. So many families have been eliminated by the Rauðkembingur that the evil whales, these illhveli, have had to set their eyes on foreigners to further their vendetta against man. The illhveli use the northern lights to mesmerize tourists. A visitor from Taipei, for example, could be mesmerized by a Rauðkembingur through the aurora borealis and return home to Taiwan to drown in the East China Sea and pass the curse of the illhveli to the next of kin.

A Break in the Clouds

The bottle is empty. Dagmar has left for the night. A woman runs into the hotel screaming bloody murder, or so it seems as we do not speak Japanese, but a kind soul translates, “there is a break in the clouds!” The northern lights have shown themselves! I look at Jo and Jo at me and me at the red-crested whale haunting my imagination and we agree we’re all ready for bed. Heaven can wait.

The Papaya Principle: Surviving Medellín, “Safest City in the World”

Ay Guey! Restaurant

Medellín, Colombia

6° N, 75° W

Oscar Vélez has been kissed by four decades worth of high-speed soccer balls: his face is busted; nose broken in three directions. His thinning hair is as slick as my empanada-greased fingers. He has the confident, indulgent, satisfied smile of a car salesman who peddles dirt-lot lemons as a hobby, out of love for the game. He wears a luxury brand golf shirt tucked into slacks tied together with a brown belt which matches his Italian shoes. Accessories include a golden necklace he keeps under his collar and a wrist watch with a face large enough to be confused for a Pre-Columbian sundial. Oscar is an absolutist when it comes to morality in Colombia. You play it crooked or you play it straight, says Oscar, you do not play it both ways. Not in Colombia. And he believes Medellín is the safest city in the world, absolutamente, but with conditions. “No dar papaya…”

How’s that?

“One does not simply give papaya…” Captain Dick interprets, providing a wizened head-nod as if Oscar’s survival principle made any more sense in English. Isy Badger looks up from editing his scribbled poetry on napkins; he’s been paying more attention than he’s letting on behind cheap sunglasses. “What if I’ve no papaya to give, eh?” asks Is.

Above Medellin: Isy, Vic and the Captain

“Papaya.” Oscar responds pointing at Isy’s face. Oscar’s index finger moves to me, “papaya.” Oscar hooks a thumb at the captain sitting at his shoulder and issues a third, “papaya. You are dressed like Yankee prostitutes. You give papaya. ‘Look at me, look at me…’” Oscar does a little dance in his seat, speaking in a feminine squeal, cupping imagined breasts. “‘Look at all my papaya. Please come fuck me and rob me; take my money please’.”

“Oh, that papaya!” Isy Badger realizes and returns to composing poetry to at least one of the women we met back in Bogotá.

“I think what Oscar is trying to say…” Captain Dick scratches his beard stubble, “Is we are too damn pretty, even the Colombian men want to lay with us.”

“No!” Oscar denies. “No dar papaya, do not bring attention! You one, two, three bring attention.”

Oscar Vélez’s scolding lecture is briefly interrupted by a waitress bringing another round of beer. This restaurant is in the heart of Parque Lleras, a very popular plaza in Medellín frequented by tourists, especially those trying to give up papaya. Ay Guey! is the equivalent of the American “breastaurant”, but unlike the Hooter’s Girls of North America, the Colombian waitresses wear skirts instead of shorts, have silicone implants in their posteriors and many of the adult waitresses have smiles equipped with orthodontics. I haven’t been attracted to a woman in braces since my awkward formative years and when this Colombiana smiles her metallic grin towards me, I regress back into pubescent shame and promptly begin hiccupping like a tree frog after a spring rain.

Isy Badger foraging in the woods outside Pablo Escobar’s notorious Catedral Prison

Oscar Vélez orders another round of empanadas, sending the waitress off before returning to his argument Medellín is the safest city in the world. Medellín, once murder capital of the world… Medellín, home of Pablo and Gisela, the notorious latter-century drug lords whose graves Oscar took us to… Medellín, where in Parque Lleras, yards away from us, there is a recent memorial to the victims of a car bomb… this is the safest city in the world? How do we accept this when hours earlier, Oscar snuck us into an unauthorized tour of Pablo Escobar’s cathedral prison in the mountains? Because, Oscar explains, you must follow my rules to make it true.

Vic Neverman sneaking about the customized prison Pablo Escobar once inhabited.

Oscar’s Rules for Surviving Medellín:

  • Do not look at Colombian women. They are the most beautiful women in the world, yes, but they are not for you.
    • If you must look at a Colombian woman, do not speak to her. If she says hola, you say adios. If she is drowning and says ayuadame, you say vaya con dios.
    •  If you must speak to a Colombian woman, do not make friends.
      • If you must make friends, stay in public and do not be alone and do not accept drinks.
      • If you must make friends, do not accept invitation to go home with Colombian woman. Especially if she is from Cali.
      • If you must make friends, do not invite a Colombian woman to your hotel room. Especially if she is from Cali.
        • If you must invite a Colombian woman to your hotel room, she must wait in lobby as you put money and documents in safe.
        • If you must invite a Colombian woman to your hotel room, absolutamente do not have sex. 

“If you must have sex…” Captain Dick interrupts Oscar, “wear a condom or The Hague will hunt your ass down and make you take a paternity test.” The captain shrugs, confiding, “It’s in the Geneva Convention. Trust me, guys, I studied international law.”

  • Never travel anywhere alone.
  • Do not dress like a tourist.
  • Do not get drunk.
  • Do not leave hotel after dark.

“But in the game of Hearts…” Captain Dick explains, “You can ‘shoot the moon’. If you fail at every rule, you actually win.”

“And if you eat after midnight you turn into a Gremlin.” Isy says with mild perturbance. “Come on, Oscar, you’re being too Old Testament, Testamente Viejo, eh? It’s like sending a scout troop into the woods and telling them not to experiment giving themselves sleeping-bag hand-jobs with melted-marshmallow. Hog nog roggin’ roy, man! We might as well go home!”

“Or Cartagena…” Captain Dick posits with a wide-faced grin.

Guns, Nerds & Steel: A Night out at the New Star

It was a place of forgotten love. Where poets are quoted whose names are now lost. No one went there to win anything. Only to arrange a more perfect defeat. We always drank the big pitchers made from hard plastic. We spent Popeye’s 24th birthday there, and one night, after we accidentally started a melee down the street, learned the disturbance continued into the bars parking lot where someone was shot.

Such was the long dark vibe we enjoyed at the sports bar that had no TVs and changed names every six months. During its most triumphant era, the period we haunted the place, it was known as New Star. Though complex men at the time, we chose the bar for simple reason. The enormous pitchers. And its proximity. It was the closest bar to the Bankers house. The Banker threw the best parties in town, just up a gravel road and a quick pitch from this squat unremarkable outer east Portland bar. (an area now referred to as “the numbers” by transplants)

The stools were green and the walls were a wooden veneer of the type used in collapsing room dividers in church basements. There was a dart board and a grainy early version of big buck hunter no one played. The bartender was 6’6 and the spitting image of Kim Thayil. Given the decorum and demeanor of the attendees, it wasn’t a great pickup joint. However, on the evening in question, there happened to be a few daisy’s dancing around, sending fiery looks of circled smoke in our direction. I inhaled them winsomely, then coughed. Realizing that smoke wasn’t from the farer sex, I’d choked on Roy’s cigarette plume.

Thayil

The New Stars Spoonman

Roy divested himself of his cigarette in the clay planter and unfurled his 6’3 frame from our booth, “These girls deserve to know how beautiful they are.” He declared, and ventured over to where the two girls were dancing to Springsteen. These are the thoughts of the Dying and the Drunk. The girls probably didn’t really need to know how they appeared to some mildly smashed minder sitting with his buddies in a corner booth. Then again, it was so uncommon to find such tinder in this match-book of men. One did feel a kind of cosmic responsibility to strike.

Working in Roy’s favor was the fact that the girls weren’t especially sober either. One of their “dance moves” consisted of an apparent attempt to tame an uncooperative palomino. The other just twirled around and flapped her arms like Daffy Duck.

There is a juke box at the now nameless bar on 112th and Halsey, but it isn’t worth losing the quarters. The songs all speak of forbidden love and the wallowing of squires prior to delivering messages to kings of failure in battle. Best to hum your own tune. As Roy was doing loudly while spilling his pbr down the front shirt of the failed bronco bucker. His dancing was even worse than the girls, more of an out of sync shuffle, but as sometimes happens when one is willing to pursue Big Failure in the fishbowl of an empty dance floor—- girls reward the floundering. Now Roy had become the bronco being bucked by the ladies.

An old man came in with a wide hat and a mysterious slicker who looked like he taught Kung fu to young actors moonlighting as stunt doubles. He had with him a white bucket of magic, from which he silently withdrew a rose offered for pennies on the dollar. Roy quickly purchased one and handed it to a cow girl who took it and held it up to her beer-stained blouse.

It was then Roy’s fish dancing was to meet the mariners club. In fact, these girls were spoken for. There had been no hints. There so often aren’t. But in the great darkness that made New Star so alluring, a dork mob of local toughs had been hidden from view. There were at least four of them. Hard to tell. They were obviously east portland phillistines, their ill fitting attire a dead giveaway. One looked like Ralph Reed with hair braids and another like an offensive piece of rhubarb. They were now insisting the girls come back and sit with them. Which they did, leaving Roy shadowboxing an actual shadow on the dance floor with beer running down his right pant leg.

But he had struck first blood. The cowgirl returned to the phillistines still clutching the virginal rose to her heart.

During Roy’s dalliance on the floor our popeye forearmed friend had retired early and been replaced with the Banker, known in white collar criminal circles as JiffyJeff. This substitution of brawn for criminal cunning will become important immediately, for no longer had The Banker diverted my attention from Roy to belabor a new moderately legal house flipping scheme that Roy neared an altercation with the phillistines who’d stolen his girls. Roy was now a teetering building with distorted thoughts of check hooks and head kicks. Eventually the Banker and I talked him down and we ushered him back to our corner, where we settled up and shortly thereafter departed.

Unfortunately, Fate once again shook its fist at us, for at the EXACT moment we were blindly feeling along the wall for the door handle, the gaggle of instigators were groping as well.

As often occurs with parking lot barroom brawls, the precise sequencing of events is blurry. The police report probably tells it best, which was relayed to them like this: As the Banker and I were opening the door to his tastelessly lowered race car with personalized licence plates, we looked back to the entryway to see Roy wading into the entire phillistine army. I ran back to pull him out, but before I could grab his collar, started taking enemy fire from a tornado of pulsating anger. There was no recourse but to hit back with everything I had. Between getting punched in the ear and kneeing someone in the head I cursed our sour luck for having lost Popeye to the Banker at this unfortunate hour. Outnumbered, Popeye could have given us a chance. And then out of nowhere a flash-bang sparked to my right. It took a moment to register that this was in fact the spindly-married-with-children-Banker cracking one of the fools with his handful of class rings. Apparently, upon viewing the racket in his rearview, The Banker had carefully folded his glasses on the dashboard, closed and locked his car, and then delivered the wallop heard round the rotunda.

As the dust eventually settled I was left hopping around with one shoe as Roy retreated in a rage that was now focused solely on having lost his favorite hat. “Where’s my hat!” He roared at the phillistines. We eventually scanned behind us to see my shoe, which had apparently flung over my head during a failed drop-kick, and landed in a perfect plié atop the missing hat. Roy dusted off the hat, suddenly quite pleased, and casually walked to the car. This was apparently the que that we were done. We retreated to the car as our adversaries swore and spit and rubbed their extremities. As I checked the behind us to make sure no one was giving chase, I caught site of one of the sinister little creeps with his cellphone attached to his ear.

It was only later we learned what he was up to. For no, this Night At the New Star was not done with us yet. No longer had the Banker dropped his fugitive friends off that he was pulled over by some of Portlands Finest. They’d been staking out his place awaiting his return. The little runt from the bar had a friend on the force. Apparently local police weren’t opposed to going vigilante in the service of a comrade in crises.

POlice

The thin blue line thickens when a friend needs a favor.

Pushed up against his four car garage door, they started questioning the Banker on his evenings activities—even proposing a longer talk back at the station. The Banker would have melted a breathalyzer at this hour, but due to his criminal composure and a stiff October breeze, he talked his way out of any serious charges. Turns out, they were preoccupied with a search for the catalyst, not their chauffeur. But even that fact they’d bungled. They listed my shirt color as the one they were targeting, not Roy’s.

We returned to New Star a few more times over the years. Only after it changed names and always in deep disguise. Many of these nights we discussed the lesson learned there: that of the many downsides of personalized license plates, the ease with which the authorities can have your information relayed to arresting officers is certainly tops.

And the inevitable joke: every rose does have its thorn.

Where: The Bar on 112th & Halsey – Name was changing as of Publication
What to drink: Domestic. In pitchers.
When to go: Late, but not too late.
What to avoid: Eye contact.

Portland Gigolo, Inc.: The Hood River Affair

Morrison Hotel

PORTLAND, Oregon

45.5° N, 122.6° W

On the northern cusp of SE Portland, just east of where the Morrison Street Bridge crosses the Willamette, is Morrison Hotel. The dive is named after an album by The Doors, though the interior of the bar, if it has a theme, is Boston diaspora. Morrison Hotel, affectionately called “MoHo”, is an alcove for the lost tribes of Red Sox Nation and if you heard the dialect of English being spoken you’d swear you were in Portland, Maine, not something as Pacific as Oregon. While I lack any ties to New England, the MoHo has become my spiritual refuge. It is here where I am recognized and, if not trusted or respected, I am allowed my skullduggeries in a place of discretion.  

The Interior of Morrison Hotel

Sir Wally Raleigh is behind bar under his baseball cap, the blonde facial hair of a musketeer and broken teeth after a night of drunken pushups with a blood alcohol level of 2. He says “hey” when I enter the bar, giving me a side-eye glance away from his pulp romance paperback novel. I order two beers; a pair of local IPAs brewed with Cascadian hops and maybe some grass clippings and pine sap. Here you go, says Sir Wally Raleigh as he delivers the pints, go suck some tree dick.  

Doctor Sfakianakis has found a table in the other room and he seems content with the darkness, or in the least he is as content as a man in distress can be. He thanks me for the beer but does not drink it. I had been willing to arrange this meeting closer to his home in Hood River, the picturesque mountain town an hour east of here, but Doctor Sfakianakis preferred meet in a metropolitan setting where it was less likely he would be recognized conducting business with a couple deviants.

San Diego Johnny arrives late, as expected and budgeted into my schedule. No one really remembers the name San Diego Johnny first introduced himself as, but when the locals began calling him “San Diego Johnny”, he acquiesced. His moniker would become corrupted to Johnny Sands and Diego Danger with time and his reputation would precede him as legend circulated orally and online about the handsome Californian, Johnny Sands, who was after the pearls around your mama’s neck and whatever was in her medicine cabinet. He isn’t particularly well liked, this San Diego Johnny, especially in a blue-collar dive like the MoHo. It is Tuesday afternoon, however, and business is slow. When San Diego Johnny walks inside the dive, he receives no more notice than one of Sir Wally Raleigh’s sideward glances.

On the approach of the San Diegan, it is clear Doctor Sfakianakis is impressed. San Diego Johnny looks like something off the set of a daytime soap opera with his dirty-blonde, feathered, hair, white shorts and unbuttoned pastel dress shirt. He even has a story about growing up in the Southland, being a child actor as every child’s parent there aspires to, until “the Industry” blackballed him for actions entirely his fault. In the 1990s, he had been cast as a guest star on Beverly Hills 90210, Johnny San Diego will tell anyone listening, to play a “big bad” who steals all of Dylan McKay’s cocaine. During filming, San Diego Johnny open-hand slapped Ian Zerling, insisting to the producers it was in his script, but confiding to us it was improvisational and he had come to the set after spending the past two days drinking through five bottles of cough suppressant, not because he was sick, but because he loved the chemical orange flavor. Verboten in Hollywood, San Diego Johnny would eventually be exiled out of California completely, away from his family’s prestigious goings-on, and has since parked his pristine-white Jeep in Portland where he attends one of the liberal arts colleges to study calligraphy by day and chases the cougars of the Pearl District by night, all while burning through his monthly trust-fund payouts.

Johnny Sands atop his pristine-white Jeep with red leather interior.

That fucker is a 2nd rate douchebag and I hope he chokes on his chode.

Ginga Chuck, speaking of San Diego Johnny

You must be the medicine man, San Diego Johnny says to Doctor Sfakianakis, shaking hands before spinning a chair around backwards for him to straddle and lean forward against the frame. He grabs my pint of beer and takes a refreshing gulp; I tell him he can keep it, I do not trust the alcohol of the IPA to decontaminate whichever diseases swim through his backwash. He laughs and claps me on the back, asking if I’ve ordered food as he could go for a grip of fries con queso about now. What is unsaid is that San Diego Johnny hasn’t ordered his own food or beer because dude is broke.

San Diego Johnny shifts his focus on the client, giving a proud chin lift before admitting his old man was a doctor and pro’ly still is. Matter of fact, his father performed nasal reconstruction surgery on none-other than William Jefferson Clinton, the President, San Diego Johnny says. President Clinton, according to San Diego Johnny, had rotted out his nasal cavity with daily cocaine use through the 80s and the 90s. Totally makes sense, for sure, how else is any man to work 22 hours a day as the leader of the free world. Am I right? After the surgery, Slick Willy couldn’t play the sax for 6 months, but that didn’t keep him from getting his flute blown! So Doc, San Diego Johnny asks Doctor Sfakianakis, what sort of bonesawing do you do?

Doctor Sfakianakis is itchy with nerves, sweaty with anticipation. He rubs his hands as if making a fire, but his palms are moist. He is not one for the niceties of small talk; at least not in these confines. He is urging the conversation ahead, asking San Diego Johnny if he has been “briefed on the situation.” For sure, San Diego Johnny says, yeah, man, I am stoked. Johnny Sands leans forward into his seat back and says, you have an unwanted guest, a possum in your attic and you want to clean house. Doctor Sfakianakis shakes his head at this. He believes it is paramount he is absolutely clear, Doctor Sfakianakis tells us, he has a wife who is returning after a year-long estrangement and he has a mistress who refuses to discontinue their temporary sexual arrangement. San Diego Johnny gets it, says, your old lady’s coming home, but the sheets are dirty. You need a launderer. My mistress, Doctor Sfakianakis says, threatens to tell my wife everything. This cannot happen. San Diego Johnny says, yeah, brah, you got a sidepiece you need silenced.

“She is a human being!” Doctor Sfakianakis shouts louder than he wanted. His voice quietens, “She is a human being. I do not want her silenced. I want her to voluntarily vacate my personal life.”

I add to the explanation the aforementioned mistress is a nurse who works with Doctor Sfakianakis. San Diego Johnny hollers as a surfer spotting the next set of waves. He is joyous as he says the doctor has dipped his pen in the company ink… Look man, San Diego Johnny says, what you need is for this chick to get disinterested; am I right, you need your Hood River sidepiece to be distracted with something shiny and I got just the Hood ornament for her. I speak next, taking inspiration from The Doors, suggesting Doctor Sfakianakis needs a backdoor man for his backdoor woman. He needs San Diego Johnny.

Doctor Sfakianakis reluctantly shares a picture of his mistress. San Diego Johnny is delighted by her image. He offers to wave his condom disposal fee. Doctor Sfakianakis reacts poorly to this comment. He doesn’t want his mistress seduced and fucked by this man… San Diego Johnny interrupts him, asking if the doctor wants his marriage and eat it too. Pick your marriage or pick your booty-call, man, then let’s party. Like Miagi says, middle of road, squash like grape. Doctor Sfakianakis does not like anything he hears.

What if… I posit, what if San Diego Johnny meets the mistress in Hood River, uses his bag of tricks to get her on a date at a predetermined location, and you, Doctor Sfakianakis arrive to discover the couple, you confess to your mistress your heart is broken and you can never take her back. She realizes her mistake and moves on. Everyone moves on.

“I like the way you think, brah.” San Diego Johnny lifts my own beer glass as a salute.

What bag of tricks, Doctor Sfakianakis wants to know. How does this happen, he is curious. San Diego Johnny explains he would normally stalk the chick for a couple weeks, build a profile, birdwatch from afar, learn her migratory patterns, her quirks and fetishes, learn what she lusts for to make herself whole and then he will present to her that very ideal. If she wants a daddy, San Diego Johnny says, I’m her daddy. If she wants a fuzzy unicorn, I become a fuzzy fucking unicorn. This is smash & grab heart thievery, brah. I track her down at her favorite juice bar or yoga studio and then your huntress becomes the hunted. All I have to do, San Diego Johnny says to us, is walk up to her and say “I was looking in this direction and then you, like, totally stepped into my line of sight…” and that is it, bedazzled with spectacle, she’ll forget about her Mr. Perfect.

“Doctor Perfect”, Doctor Sfakianakis insists with the slightest mirth. He asks about the timeline. 4 weeks. Doctor Sfakianakis asks about an escalated timeline of 4 days. San Diego Johnny, smiling as always, says it can be done – for a price – and mentions he is glad he brought his overnight bag. This, I can say, is a crock of shit. San Diego Johnny has spent the last week on my roommate’s couch, much to Ginga Chuck’s chagrin. San Diego Johnny’s only bag is his overnight bag.

Yeah, San Diego Johnny says to Doctor Sfakianakis, I’ve been to Hood River before. Radical shit, for sure. Went to one of those lookouts over the Columbia River Gorge, he says, with this chick from Lake Oswego, a Portland State pole vaulter, I knew her mother but that didn’t end well, and I had an axe to grind and this chick was up to the challenge, and she ground my axe and buried my hatchet, for sure, but we’re there, it’s hella dark, wilderness, and we’re fucking, I mean, like animals, in my Jeep on this overlook, she’s holding onto the crossbar like an orangutan when, in Hood River below, this ambulance goes by and the coyotes start howling from every fucking mountain around us and me and this chick are howling back and…

“Someone fired a shotgun in the air, silencing the dogs.” Doctor Sfakianakis guessed. San Diego Johnny, stunned, says, yeah, how’d you know. Doctor Sfakianakis replies, “We do not negotiate with wolves.”

San Diego Johnny smiles, shrugs, somewhat aloof. Doctor Sfakianakis puts down a $20 to compensate me for the beers and says he will be in touch. At the doctor’s departure, San Diego Johnny turns to me and asks, so you’re not going to order any chow, man?

It was the last I would ever hear or see Doctor Sfakianakis or San Diego Johnny. We can only assume the obvious: the two decided to conduct business while cutting out the middleman – me, your narrator – and whatever went down in Hood River, Mrs. Sfakianakis is probably missing a string of pearls.

Achilles Last Stand: the Pre-Apocalypse of Hurricane Dorian

Achilles Last Stand Tavern

TITUSVILLE, Florida

28.6° N, 80.8° W

“NASA just went into HURCON-III.” Rolf Underhill speaks to no one in particular as he puts his flip-phone back into the pocket of his jean overalls. “Not long now…”

Rolf may speak to no one in particular, but everyone – all 4 of us, give or take a couple semi-conscious souls, in this driftwood dive – is paying attention. This is Titusville, Rocket City; Achilles Last Stand Tavern is near enough to see Kennedy Space Station looming in the east if you parked in the side lot, stand on the hood of your car and lean south far enough to see around the sable palm. It’s a bar supplied with large ice-chests of sub-domestic beers and a wall of bottom-shelf shine. There’s a confederate flag on the ceiling in the back, nude centerfolds in the men’s room and Christian scripture in the ladies’. If this were a normal Saturday – tourist season or not – Achilles Last Stand Tavern would be packed; but this is Labor Day Weekend, 2019, and the tide is slack because this is the calm before the apocalypse.

Hurricane Dorian is on the approach; everyone within the bar is nervy with fatalistic anxiety. The old Florida crackers had a way of knowing, Rolf Underhill says as he clutches his Bud Light, miss-sipped dollops of beer absorbed by his scrub-brush beard. Rolf explains, but everyone listens: the old Florida crackers had a way of knowing when a storm was brewing before they even seen it, could feel it in their bones, feel it in their bowels, these crackers, and you feel it too, Rolf says, you just don’t know it, think you got the squirts, but the old Florida crackers could feel the barometric pressure going bananas and they would know hurricane is coming. Reckonin’ is coming, Rolf says, them crackers knew they’s coming to Jesus.

Titusville is an odd stretch of sunburnt concrete betwixt waters. Within close range of Cape Canaveral’s NASA and Space X launch pads, Titusville is a forgotten beach town framed within a futuristic landscape. To the east, past the Indian River, is the space center on the Atlantic coast. To the west are the Florida Backwaters, the tangled marshlands of the St John’s River, a wild frontier where roughnecks hunt wild pig atop airboats. Titusville is a crossroads for wayward bikers and journeyman truckers and on any given night you could find either belly-up at the bar aside 5th generation fishermen & hog-men and 3rd generation surfers & rocket scientists.

Titusville Pier overlooking Space Center

“No stores have bottled water. All the non-natives have gone nutso; think it’s the ‘End Times’.” Ruth McAllen shakes her head, waiting for her candied whiskey to be poured. “Gas stations have run out of gas. Yesterday, I seen a man filling up buckets of fuel. Buckets! Storm-fever makes fools of men.” Ruth grabs her whiskey glass and toasts those at the bar, “Whiskies up, gentlemen, and hunker down.” She finishes her shot and breathes fire into her fist. “Alright, y’all keep slidin’.”

Image courtesy of Ruth’s phone. Buckets!

“Keep slidin’.” Rolf bids the woman farewell. It is slough-skimmer talk; airboat lingo. On the drive east to Titusville through the Backwaters, the Central Florida motorist needs to keep an eye out for airboats sliding across the road as if living through a Burt Reynolds epic car chase. “Keep sliding” is the simple encouragement between Backwater folk to keep doing whatever the fuck they want to keep doing. Every time I hear it, Paul Simon starts singing in my head, slip-sliding away… slip-sliding away…

But there is no Paul Simon on the juke. No Led Zeppelin either, despite the bar’s name. The etymology of the tavern is from the legend of an old hog-dog, perished in 1975, an honorable death Rolf explains, Achilles deceased in battle against a 426-lb boar with 5 inch tusks. “Keep slidin’, Achilles” Rolf raises his Bud Light in another toast. After a sorrowful sigh, his yellowed-eyebrows perch on another idea. Rolf begins describing how the Chinese are to blame for this looming apocalypse. You see, says Rolf, after the 2004 hurricane blitz on Florida and 2005’s Katrina, G.W. Bush signed a secret peace accord with the Chinese to get them to quit using their weather manipulation satellites. President Trump, though, is a bull in a literal China shop, you see, says Rolf, and the Chinese are pissed-off which is why this Hurricane Dorian has circled around Puerto Rico – one of Trump’s arch-nemeses – and set its sights on Palm Beach – Trump’s holy land at Mar-a-Lago. Rolf sees my reaction and is pleased with himself. I ask the bar to put his next BL on my tab.

We’re close enough to the ocean to smell salt. The Atlantic’s proximity combined with the weather report illustrating the leviathan which has been awakened has given me the itch to head west, past the Backwaters, to higher ground. Days ago, this storm was thought nothing more than Labor Day rainfall, expected to break apart against the mountains of Santo Domingo, but Hurricane Dorian had more chutzpa than that, slip-sliding out of the way of the Caribbean islands into open ocean, leaning into the Bermuda High, finding a path towards Florida. Weatherman says it is going to hit hard and it’s going to keep hitting through Labor Day, dragging as much Florida with it on its path north. People are already evacuating Titusville and, as Rolf said, NASA has announced HURCON-III. We are within 48 hours of a possible direct hit. It is time to get the fuck away from the beach, but not everyone is leaving.

When there ain’t no other way out, you just got to go further in.

Backwater Creed

Rolf Underhill will be here at the Achilles Last Stand until they stop serving and then it’s to his apartment on US-1 where he’ll play solitaire by candlelight (once the electrical grid goes down) with a bottle of Jack Daniels until Hurricane Dorian passes. And then? He’s on cleanup crew. He’s a part of NASA’s “Damage Assessment & Recovery Team” and will be combing the beach and Indian River for storm flotsam and jetsam. It is a very sensitive work, he says with a wink, collecting space junk.

I ask the man behind bar what he will be doing. “Riding it out…” Dillinger says cavalierly. He’s barely thirty years old, if that, and has only a few years in Florida, but he’s already seen his share of hurricanes and the novelty has worn off, leaving only disdain, annoyance and stubbornness in the face of a storm surge which could carry Achilles Last Stand into the St John’s River. “Achilles is the safest place for me, so I will be setting up my sleeping bag and riding it out.”

“He’ll be riding out the storm with his girlfriend, Trixi.” Rolf adds, pointing to a young woman setting sandbags outside the front door. “And his sexy, little, cousin Ginny Mae…” Rolf looks around, but cannot find Dillinger’s kinfolk. Rolf leans towards me and begins whispering as if we were two longtime conspirators. His whispers are indecipherable through his beard, but they sound scandalously delightful and I nod my appreciative non-understanding. Rolf looks towards Dillinger, whose back is turned towards us as he cashes me out, and Rolf speaks loud enough to get the barman’s attention, “You watch yourself, Dill! Watch yourself after the hurricane knocks out the power. When there’s no light, you need remember if it’s Trixi laying on your left or on your right. Or is it Ginny Mae? You be real careful where your hands get crab-grabby in the dark.”

Dillinger is smirking as he returns to the bar with my credit card receipt. He jokes with Rolf, “‘Sponsibility ain’t on me, man. In the dark, Ginny Mae is the only one who’d know something wrong. It’s on her to up and tell me if I grab the wrong tit.”

Rolf laughs so uproariously he chokes on his beard when requiring more air. Once he catches his breath, Rolf Underhill denied Dillinger, “Christ, Dill, you know she ain’t gonna.”

Dillinger shrugs at the implication with the cavalier indifference of a doomed man. Storm-fever makes fools of men, Ruth McAllen always says. It’s going to be a hell of a Labor Day.

Outside, the clouds seem heavy, burdened with an ominous secret only the old crackers could interpret, but the sky appears to the uninitiated as any late August day in Florida. This certainly doesn’t feel like HURCON-III.

You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away…

Paul Simon