Ship of the Damned: View from the Observation Deck of the RMS Queen Mary

Observation Bar

LONG BEACH, California

33° N, 118° W

I measure a dive on the spectrum of depravity… Oft times, there is nothing more depraved than the restless spirits you encounter at the hotel bar.

A.F. Rumph

The Observation Bar is stylized in equal parts nautical, art deco and cosmic dread; nautical because this is a bar on a ship; art deco because this is an old fucking ship; cosmic dread because this is the RMS Queen Mary and terror tremors through her steel. The Queen Mary was once a regal transatlantic ocean liner and the best passage between Europe and the Americas before the rise of commercial airlines and their roasted nuts. The Queen Mary would be recommissioned during World War II, acting as a troop transport nicknamed “the Grey Ghost”; she was so elusive Hitler offered the Iron Cross to any U-Boat captain who could sink her. The Queen Mary survived World War II and, like many Nazi survivors, would retire in the Americas. In 1967, the Queen Mary became permanently moored in Long Beach; eternally damned to Southern California.

The Observation Bar on the Promenade Deck

As far as the dread… wait until after midnight and dial zero from one of the ship’s phones. What you will hear once the phone connects is the operator, pausing to take a breath, preparing himself for the worst, before speaking, “Hello, front desk”.

After dusk, after the museum has closed, after the restaurant dessert cart has made its last stroll, after the tourists and historians have left, only the hotel bar – the former 1st Class Lounge retrofitted into a contemporary drinking establishment, the Observation Bar – is active with life. There is a pervasive dread and it is apparent on the face of all: the lingering tourist, with her camera out to snap at the slightest suggestion of paranormal activity; the staff, trying to make it another night without another encounter with the beyond; the overnight guests, trying to drink enough liquid courage to give them the strength to return to the darkness of their room; the maniacal laughter in the painted faces of the dancers in the jubilee painting looming over the bar. The Queen Mary is a high class destination, but the ship itself is sinking in Long Beach port sludge. The Observation Bar may not be a dive, but the visitor cannot help the feeling of hopeless descent.

St Vitus’s dance of demonic possession

“I don’t know if the wine helps…” a woman says aloud from the barstool beside mine. She’s an eastern seaboard executive in a corporate pantsuit with after-hour sneakers in lieu of heels; her high-priced color dye-job is betrayed by graying temples and her breath is tinged with martini olives, cheap coffee and… yes, I believe Maalox. I’ve noticed in the mirrored reflection behind the bar her face twitches whenever she looks away from her email account. She begs attention, “Or could the wine hurt? …I mean, with sleep?”  I’m not here to sleep, I grumble nearly incoherently, sliding my drink closer to me, responding to the woman with less than a sideways glance. A bartender plays savior to the forsaken, swooping in as if to anoint Jesus’s feet with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, refilling the corporate exec’s glass and insisting, “When it comes to alcohol, I find it helps with just about everything.” The corporate exec reaches her hand out to clamp onto the woman serving her wine to implore, “Yes, but have you seen… things?”

I excuse myself to the lavatory. I suppose this is technically still a ship, even if she doesn’t float, so it is to the head ahead I head to. It is a nice reprieve, but the silence buzzes in the bathroom. The ship vibrates and in the quietest quarters you can hear the hum; 3 different pitches of subtle rattling. The metallic song within the lavatory reminds me of the desolation waiting in my hotel room. Have I seen things? No. Well… The first night, my toiletries were emptied into my sink. Maybe the ship rolled in stormy seas, I thought, covering my head with a pillow. Except, I realized in the morning, the Queen Mary is a fixture; she is not under the influence of currents, tides, waves or fluidic influence of any kind. Perhaps San Andreas quaked a little plate tectonic fart, enough to expunge my toothbrush and aftershave; but no… no seismic activity of note. During my stay aboard the damned Queen, I learned to zip up my toiletries. And I learned to unplug the television to ensure it doesn’t power-on at 3 am. And I learned to not make sense of the motley darkness moving as vapor at the foot of my bed when the lights were out. And I have learned to drink a few whiskeys, cover my head with blankets and sleep until daylight before relieving my bladder.

the RMS Queen Mary permanently moored in the Port of Long Beach

At last Sunday’s brunch buffet, a self-confessed medium and dabbler of all things occult told me as she scooped scalloped potatoes onto a plate beside a bran muffin and a lava flow of cheesy grit, “This boat is like a floating Gettysburg. The psychical energy is insane! It is like reading three novels at once.” Except we’re not afloat, I told her. We are on a boat, but it might as well be a waterfront Holiday Inn. “Tomato, tomato…” she shrugged as she licked syrup from her fingertips.

I return from the head to the bar with the intent of ordering another Brown Derby; when in California, drink California whiskey cocktails, I always sez. Before I turn the corner, I already hear the voice of the dip-shitted, turtle-necked, faux-captain. This actor who dresses up as a Victorian-era ship captain to greet guests at the front desk has a tendency to have a couple after-work drinks at the Observation Bar before his gig emceeing “trivia night” at karaoke bars on shore. Last Tuesday, as a Midwestern husband was busy on his phone, the corresponding Midwestern wife was advanced upon by the yappy faux-captain, who refused to break character. I listened, sipping the house specialty gin gimlet, as “Captain Chester Fox” told the Midwestern wife about the infamously abandoned 1st Class swimming pool 2 levels down, which has been empty for decades and yet wet footprints can be seen leading away from the pool to the locker rooms. The distracted wife was enthralled and hesitated only briefly before accepting Captain Chester Fox’s invitation to the R Deck for a private tour as the husband toiled on his phone.  

Captain turtle-neck Dipshit

A couple nights later, Captain Chester Fox is at it again, charming the Maalox-breathed eastern seaboard exec with dramatic talk about atmospheric pressure and wind out of the northeast as if he could manage to pilot anything more than a canoe across a Jacuzzi. He goes on to mention it is his job to be able to recognize proper buoyancy and guess what? Captain Chester Fox doesn’t wait for an answer before nodding at the corporate exec’s blouse, “You’ve got buoyancy.” She coughs up an olive and happily insists, he the “captain”, is just downright awful. Captain Chester Fox, having lured her out into the open, descends for the kill, “I am sure there are gentlemen sailors out there” he tells her, “but if you like your seamen a little salty, I am your captain!”

I searched my pocket for a ballpoint pen – anything pointy – to stick into the fucker’s eye.

Captain Chester Fox looks up from his bar-rail prey to smile at the newcomer, only to recognize me. His smile fades. On Monday, he greeted me in the lobby with an outstretched hand, “Hey, what’s crackin’, Kraken?” and on Wednesday afterhours at the Observation Bar, he nudged me at the bar, “You know the problem with feminists… they still insist being first off a sinking boat!” Every attempt of his to connect with me was met with stoic indifference. I provided the dude nothing but my best Gallic ennui: half-raised eye lids, stagnant scowl, sniff of disapproval.

At the sound of the unsightly Captain Chester Fox, I should turn back. I can’t. The only thing between me and returning to my disturbing-as-fuck hotel room was another Brown Derby. The vitamin C of the grapefruit splash would do me good, I figure… what with scurvy, etcetera.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said a first rate intelligence includes the ability to function with opposing ideas in your head. I took this to mean I had 2nd rate intelligence, at best, as I cannot simultaneously chew gum and walk without choking and then tripping or tripping and then choking. Living aboard the Queen Mary has posed a new quandary for me: how can I be skeptical of the afterlife and still find myself with an absolute dread for the anomalous creepy-shit I continuously encounter on this ship? Do I believe the ship is haunting me or recreating painful memories of its past with me? Fuck no! And absolutely maybe. For now, I would rather be tortured by the presence of the faux-captain than return to brave whatever lurks in the pipes, in the air vents, in the electrical currents, in the shadows and under the mattress of my hotel room on this ship of the damned without a good & proper whiskey drunk.

“One more Brown Derby!” I tell the barkeep as I sit as far away from the captain as I can.

Toasting the Old Gods in the Highlands of Lower Mexico

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico

16.7° N, 92.6° W

La Taberna del Cuarto Bacab

If I seem jumpy, distracted…, flatulent, please mind we are in rebel territory. Revolution may not be in the air, but it is certainly in the dirt, in the surrounding forest and infused with the spirits being consumed in the Tavern of the 4th Bacab. I might have a misguided sense of relative safety here within the confines of San Cristobal de las Casas, but this sense of security, false or otherwise, evaporates with the dew on the mountain roads once I tread anywhere out of the old colonial town where the federal government flexes little influence. While I am in favor of self-governance for the people of Chiapas, or at least proper representation, I’d also like passage into the hinterlands without worrying about a local paramilitary unit plucking me off a bus, forcing me to live in the trunk of a car, dressing me up as Little Orphan Annie on karaoke night, ransoming me off for trillions of pesos and cans of evaporated milk, only to ultimately sacrifice me in the name of their favorite local demigod, some pre-Maya eternal who has influence over rain and volcanoes. Yeah, when considering travel options in the Highlands of lower Mexico, it’s hard not to favor some federal oversight.

San Cristobal de las Casas

The interior of the tavern is dimly lit by wall lanterns; it is the minimal amount of light required for the patrons to recede into their own shadows, hiding the whites of their eyes beneath their hat brims. These revolutionary plotters and poets speak hushed tones in a language more ancient than Spanish. To them, this is not Mexico. This is somewhere entirely else. Earlier in the day, I walked through a church in San Juan de Chamula, where Christian saints were reimagined as ancient gods dressed in European threads. Offerings were sacrificed: everything from the spilling of national brand cola to the killing of poultry atop the pine needle floors. I saw a rooster slain before St John the Baptist; I alone blinked. This is gods’ country, just no gods I immediately recognize.

La Taberna del Cuarto Bacab is named after the fourth brother in a quadripartite Mayan god of destruction. For such a haughty title, this dive is an unassuming apartment above a garage, located down an alleyway from the cobbled streets of the historical town center. The night outside is wet and cold. We are as far south as you can get in Mexico without tripping over Guatemala, but altitude overrides latitude and the Central Highland mountain chill has given me a shiver only strong drink or a hot shower could shake. I opt for the former. The tavern serves bottled national beers, varying agave liquors and a Mayan brandy called “pox”, which is the indigenous Tzotzil word for medicine. Si hombre, I tell the excellently mustachioed man behind bar, give me the pox. The specialty drink is served in a plastic margarita glass and is mixed with jungle roots which give it a vibrant violet glow and a chewy, silty, consistency. I find a stool to rest half my ass, keeping one leg poised in something of a sprinter’s stance in case I need to vacate muy pronto.

A woman steps across the threshold into the tavern and half a dozen shadows shift their heads at her arrival. She announces herself with elaborate performance art; it is akin to watching a ballet set to silence as this woman moves to and fro, shaking out her umbrella, throwing back the hood of her coat and tossing her resplendent mane to the tobacco-smoke atmosphere around her. Satisfied, she descends deep into the tavern and the half-dozen shadows twist their necks with her progression. Even in the darkness, her dynamic presence is disruptive. I can guess their minds; they must wonder if this is a Telemundo weather girl weekending in the jungle. She moves with the carefully-measured-yet-natural gait of a preying jaguar. In spite of the weak light, the absoluteness of her beauty is unanimously agreed upon through the gestures of the tavern patrons: rubbing of the face, removing of the hat, an extended draw of the cigarette, belching from sudden indigestion, etcetera. Her graceful movements are accompanied by the swooshing of rain gear fabric as she navigates the room. I avoid eye-contact, but it doesn’t save me from her bumping into me as she passes; my elbow tilts and purple drink spills on my white linen pantalones.

Muevete gringo!, she says to me as if I were in her way. She is without smile, but her eyes are feisty even in their stillness as they dagger past my gooseflesh skin, enflaming my loins, cooking me like a microwave burrito from the inside out. She lingers, watching me, wondering if I am brash enough to advance the rook beyond my front line of pawns. I find myself suddenly without drink, I say, before inquiring of her, quieres un cóctel? Yeah, she quieres. She then discloses in flawless Queen’s English if she does not approve of whichever cocktail I procure, she’s liable to spill it upon my jacket lapels. A beer then, I suggest, thinking of the dry-cleaning bill. I leave for the barman and return moments later with dos cervezas to find she has commandeered my stool with full ass commitment (none of the half-assed-ness I had previously assigned the seat). I provide her a bottle of beer as she coquettishly bats her eyes and says I look familiar to her. Am I a celebrity or an infamous criminal, she wants to know. I provide a backstory, telling her I am a very important pornographic film director in Florida. She finds this amusing as she is a very important pornographic film actress in Florida. Perhaps we’ve worked together. She assumes we have and adds I have an uncanny semblance to her boyfriend. This boyfriend must be very handsome, I say, adding in Spanish with gusto, muy guapo! No, she denies, taking a meandering look around the confines of the tavern, as if looking for someone more interesting to talk to. After a pause, she describes her boyfriend as thus, “imagine a brown bear… now imagine you’ve shaven the bear’s forehead and the top of its snout and dressed it as if the bear was the dictator of a banana republic…” She says this as her eyes hold contempt for my linen suit. It is a familiar contempt; one which she holds for most of my wardrobe. She saw me pack when we were back in the United States, yet when I put on my linen suit this morning she inquired why I was wearing an oversized fancy napkin. Because, I told her then, it breathes well in the jungle. Hours later, after comparing me to a semi-shaved bear, Josephina asks how the linen is breathing, unable to help smirking as she knows damn well the linen has been drowned in the mountain rain.

Josefina Jesús-María is not a pornographic film actress; at least not of films for public consumption. She’s a realtor from Florida, and what’s more, is here in Mexico as the cultural attaché for the Metro-Orlando Mesoamerican Chamber of Commerce. I am her companion in an unofficial capacity. Our destination is the ruins of Palenque, a daunting day-trip into the mountains from San Cristobal de las Casas, into the heart of rebel territory. What great optics for her social media account! Privately, though, Josefina is fascinated by the indigenous guerrillas patrolling these roads. Since the early 1990s, the Zapatistas, a.k.a. the EZLN, has been the omnipresent authority of these highlands. Since the early 1990s, Jo has shown solidarity from afar for her Mexican heroes, wearing black jumpsuits as if she were a paramilitary protégé and even cultivating a Frida Kahlo-brow. She had never been closer to the Zapatistas and tonight we were set to meet a representative of the rebels in order to bribe our safe travels to and from the Mayan ruins of Palenque.

Josefina has had as many sips of beer as I’ve had bottles. We’ve been at La Taberna del Cuatro Bacab long enough the locals have given up their watchful glares and have returned to the drunken whispers of conspirators in their cups. At midnight, Guillermo, Josefina’s rebel representative, arrives. His revolutionary days are behind him, or so it seems as he hobbles our way, but while Guillermo, “Llámame Memo!”, may be an elder amongst the rebels, his spirit is as solid as the amber they pull out of these hills and his eyes are just as fiery.

After quick introductions, Memo mentions he has a thirst and Josefina sends me off for refreshments. I return with three plastic margarita glasses full of the house cocktail. Watching I do not spill further on my linen suit, I return, interrupting a conversation of assumed significance evidenced by Memo’s furrowed brow and Josefina’s forehead vein. “Cócteles!” I say jovially to ease the tension. Memo feigns joy, but Jo remains somewhere distant. I raise my glass in a meager effort at a joke, “a pox on both your casas! …Get it? Mercutio? …San Cristobal de las Casas…” and pointing at the cocktail liquor, “…pox?” It’s evident we’re lacking appreciation for Shakespeare. I toast again, an effort at appeasing the local miscellaneous gods, “Salud a los dioses!” Memo humors me and clinks plastic.

Social Media Friendly Subcomadante Marcos: Gen X Che Guevera (on his Blonde Ambition Tour)

Discussions begin and I sit back as Jo and Memo relish each other’s company. Guillermo is the guerrilla father she’s always wanted and Josefina is the American daughter he never knew. My knowledge of the language lacks enough I can only observe and imagine what’s going through her mind: which of her childhood heroes from Zapatista Junior Magazine could this possibly be before her… is it the infamous spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, or some other anonymous rebel, perhaps Minor-Corporal Manny or Rear Admiral Raul. I am lost in my own thoughts when Josefina claps her hands in my face to get my attention. She is sending me into exile. Memo wants to discuss something in private; away from el güero. Oh, and Vic, Jo says at my reluctant departure, no more mescal. Stick to beer, she says.

At the bar, I order a beer with a shot of mescal on the side. Not just any mescal, mind, but the mescal from some one horse village in the Oaxacan valley of lobos, you know the one, the mescal they feed to los cuervos and wait for the crows to fall out of the sky before they know the distillation process is complete, the mescal which comes in an unmarked bottle save the red “X” scratched in goat’s blood on the cork. Yes, that mescal. Within minutes, I am speaking alternative archaeological theory at an obnoxiously-high volume to a confused mustachioed bartender about how Palenque pre-dates the Maya and was a hub of global commerce, trading amber for Phoenician ink and Chinese silk, but this Pre-Columbian history had been covered up by the Vatican and the National Geographic Society and maybe a Bilderberger or two…

I am unsure of the passage of time or when Josefina Jesús-María asks of me, “What the flying fuck, Vic? Mescal? Really?” Memo is gone and most of the tavern has filed out by now. Jo is hot, not over-boiling but simmering. All, however, is not lost. She says she’ll still go home with me if we leave now.

La cuenta, por favor!

Vic Neverman upon Josefina’s invitation

Josefina guides the way out of the tavern, but before we embrace the crisp air of the first hours of a mountain morning, she turns and looks over her shoulder at me. First bus into the jungle leaves at 4 a.m., which doesn’t leave much time to pack. I sigh hard and question my devotion to the local gods. They could have done with a few less drinks in their honor. I certainly could have…

Vic and Josefina journey to Palenque

Bad decisions and balloon wielding Buddhists in Vientiane, Laos

“We should find a bar and become regulars.” Declared my companion, the aptly named Deliliah, as we hopped off our wheezing Fanta orange motor-bike just as a dust storm started gathering across the Mekong. Despite the exposed nature of the riverfront bar, which allowed the dust pellets swirling in from Thailand to start bruising our orbital bones, this was the first good idea she’d had all day.

Deliliah, an Austrian medical student doing a rotation in Vientiane, had decided earlier in the day she would rent the worst 100cc motorbike in town. A bike she informed me she could not ride. She told me this as I was wolfing down the best meal I’d had in months at the local village chiefs compound. Could I, like, maybe, leave lunch early and drive her to the Nam Ngum lake 70 kilometers away to meet her friend? Bad ideas abide. I informed her it was the final day of the Lao new year celebration. “You realize what this means: we will spend the entire trip as target practice.”

Pi Mai, the Lao new year, is a four-day drunken wet t-shirt contest. The citizenry visit temples by morning and by afternoon don Hawaiin shirts, drink til they can’t feel their face, and drench every human they encounter with a battery of weaponized water devices. I spent much of the week holed up like Edward Snowden in Moscow as I peered out my drapes at the Mad Max scene playing out below. One can immediately see how maneuvering motor bikes into this onslaught was a bad mix to order. Main thoroughfares are especially popular targets for the makeshift parties that organize every ten meters along the roadside. Inflatable pools, trash cans, buckets, baking pots – anything handy really — suffices as a device to hurl water on passing vehicles or humans. Being in public during Pi Mai was like having lunch with Harvey Weinstein, the assumption was you were asking for it. I once spent ten minutes huddled under a shrub outside a bank as eager revelers fastballed dozens of water balloons at me making a mockery of my futile atm attempts. Meanwhile, the resistance force to the Sidewalkers came in the way of roaming mobs armed to the teeth with super soaker backpack cannons. They were often flanked by open truck beds filled with teens. The trucks carried their own munitions in heavy duty trash cans nearly toppled with water.

But again, the girls name was Deliliah for Christ sake. I hailed the first tuk-tuk back into town.

Soaking wet I coasted the sputtering steed that had broken down twice to the curb of our new bar that evening. After parking, I rang out my socks and checked my body for wounds or infections. Foreigners were especially fun targets for Sidewalkers, or so we had discovered. We’d been hit countless times by walls of water, which when traveling at a good clip, feels similar to being slapped with wet bats. The government had been trying to clamp down to limit festival injuries in recent years, especially those caused by frozen water balloons and balloons with chemicals mixed into them that were popular with a certain segment of the population I hoped to not meet. You never knew what you were getting hit with. Best case scenario it was just local untreated water that annually sent untold numbers to the hospital with infections. Having now arrived at the Laodi bar, the dust blast arriving from Nong Khai was a welcome reprieve.

“Ryu i my name!” Talk-roared the owner. “Like street fighter! Ryu!” He hadoukened a flaming ball at my chest. The Japanese owner had obviously taken to Lao customs. He was lit up like a Christmas tree.

In the coming weeks, I took Delilah’s advice and became something of a regular. Which was good. Because this little gem just down the road from Vientiane center was full of surprises. It took me four visits to realize it was a converted container ship. (“We have these everywhere.” bragged a nearby Warsaw native). Five visits to discover an upstairs existed with superior views (assuming you could navigate the slender-man spiral staircase). Six visits to realize it was a rum bar. “You’re ordering beer at a rum bar!” Yelled a brit who I unfortunately met previously. And finally discovered the bathroom my last night in town. It was down the street in a padlocked closet. The locals never used it, they just walked across the street and pee’d off the sidewalk onto the river bank.

The Laodi Bar housed the best supply of rum in the country, much of which they distill themselves. The main container flap of the ship opened up to the river, under which four big barrels sat that served as table seating for an equal mix of local and foreign patrons. The design appropriated the view well, low-key lights slung above the seats and wrapped the colonnades. The roof was covered, but there was no refuge from the dust pellets that were now mixing with the tears of Poseidon to form a crunchy addition to the mint flakes in my mojito. I weighed whether I should risk ten years in prison and spark up the joint one of the village chiefs handed me at lunch when the real rain hit. It came in sideways. At this point what did it matter. We were far beyond saturated. Staff battened the hatches as the brit finally found his way to us. He’d been leering at Delilah since we arrived. He motioned at staff who were actively leering at him that this round was on him. “It isn’t hard to meet people. This is all you do!” He said, slapping glasses of rum down in front of us. He had a point.

Over the next hour it was never clear if the Mekong monsoon or the company were worse additions to our day. The Brit had played with Jimmy Page and David Bowie, and also happened to be an expert in the small town my Austrian friend was from. His game was obvious, the well-traveled name-dropping expert who’d seen it all. If he really wanted to bag-and-tag this girl, he probably should have left the part out about the crack habit he couldn’t kick.

It should be mentioned, Laodi Bar serves complimentary roasted peanuts. This is a nice alternative to the common Lao bar fare of nothing. I offered him some. “I’m only honest about four things,” he stammered, ignoring my peanuts. “Food, women, music, and the purity of drugs.”

Officially nearing hypothermic and having conjured a workable back-story for the many pre-existing conditions that plagued our bike the rental agency would attempt to pin on us, I rose to leave.

“Why don’t you two come play pool at Samlo?” Samlo was the most depraved bar in town filled mostly with lady boys, working girls, sexpats, and people like the Brit. Whatever he was. “You have the beard for pool.” He informed me. He waived his hand for another round of shots as Ryu missed the order while hadouking a hefty fireball at my chest. “I’d offer you to come to my place, but you’re not quite hot enough…..” He said to Delilah. “……and you’re weird.” He said, finishing his sentence slur in my direction. Delilah was rightfully offended. I shrugged. “So Samlo it is.”

I guess he was right about the limits of his honesty.

Thankfully the Austrian gal realized she’d already made enough bad decisions for the day and we all headed to our final destination of the evening alone.

What: Laodi Bar; Vientiane, just south of downtown on the river.
When to go: Early evening for the sunset and the breeze.
What to order: Beer, just to confuse everyone. Then bucket of rum. It comes with four straws, tell them your friends are on their way.
Why: How often can sit in a bar in one country and watch another one? Feels very Gatsby. Except the green flicker across the water is a red-light district.

Devil Gone & Done Left Texas

The Dirty Sixth

AUSTIN, Texas 30° N, 97° W

We aren’t tourists, we are the guides…

Hank Williams Jr

The asphalt of Sixth Street is sticky with a confluence of spilled fluids. Texas heat licks at my face like the dry tongues of the thousands of bats which finished feeding hours ago. The street lights are on, albeit unnecessarily; the overhead illumination is moot given there are enough neon beer signs to light-up all of Hill Country.

Jimi con Carne

“I was here when the last bluesman keeled-over and they rolled him out in a wheelbarrow, replacing him with a damn disc-jockey.” says the raspy-voiced Jimi con Carne, an off-duty tour-guide, as he stands next to an Austin P.D. roadblock; the spinning police lights give his white hair a patriotic shine. Jimi claps me on the back, his hand heavy with rings, “I know what you’ve got churning under your skull-cap, hombre!” Jimi speaks a butcher-floor Tex-Mex Spanglish, saying hombre with a hard-H (“home-bray”) instead of the Spanish silent-H while keeping the E silent in his surname (“kahrn” instead of “kar-nay”). “You’re thinking Jimi con Carne must be older than Moses’s dick and you’d be right, studs. But I tell you, son, the day the last bluesman went tits-up is the day Austin, true Austin, went tits-up.” He takes a sip of his plastic cup of draft beer to remedy his dry mouth before continuing, “Speaking of Moses’s staff, did you know he – Moses – dipped his toes into serpent-worship while down in Egypt-land? True fact, studs. Yeah, Moses brought that shit back to the tribes of Israel. The Jews didn’t invent circumcision, for example, they learned it from the serpent-worshiping pharaohs. It is a metaphor for shedding snakeskin, if you can dig it… That little bit of knowledge is on the house. Tip your waiter…”

We’re outside the Plucky Gopher, “a sudsy-jugs & fuddy-duds joint”, as Jimi calls it, where we were recently tossed out by security over a simple miscalculation on my part. My bad math involved a local girl and the unknown variable of boyfriend: a slack-jawed flat-earther who wanted to peel the ears off my round head. It was Jimi con Carne, a stranger sipping tequila & soda across the bar, who mediated and eventually exacerbated the dispute until Jimi & I were both tossed-out by handsy bouncers. Jimi dusted off his leathers and handed me his business card as he provided his first lesson of the night, by way of pop-quiz, “Okay, studs, riddle me this: why do you think that beautiful piece of Texas scenery sat her blue-jean bottom on the stool next to you and asked you to buy her a drink? I will give you multiple answers to choose from: was it because a) she knows a sucker when she sees one, b) she wanted a free drink, c) she wanted to piss-off her boyfriend who was sitting in the corner, d) she knows her boyfriend is a feistier fuck after a bar brawl when his adrenaline jump-starts his steroid-limp dick, or e) all of the above?” I guess correctly. “Gold star, hombre. You’ve got a chance at sucker redemption, yet.”

Out of appreciation for his saving my face further brunt-force battery, I offer to buy Jimi con Carne a drink. His trembling spit-shake suggests he is ready. Jimi waves me west along Sixth Street, across a murderer’s row of dime beer saloons with cheaper candied-liquor shots catering to collegiate coeds and out-of-town stag parties. It is not my first time to Austin and I too remember when these streets were full of live blues as if it were the Texan Beale Street. At some point during the Obama Administration, as Austin became a Silicon Valley hub, the city changed. Jimi con Carne explains between hand-rolled cigarettes, “Devil gone and done left Texas. Or maybe he was evicted by the bankers who wanted to turn 6th Street into an industrialized keg party. Another lesson on the house, hombre: the Dirty Sixth is no filthier now than back when, but the corporate suits decided to quantity over quality… quantity of the intoxicated over quality of the scoundrels. They replaced live music stages with beer pong tables. Devil figured ’nuff is enough and got the hell out.”

The path west is easy as the police have quarantined the Dirty Sixth: no vehicles are allowed on 6th Street at this hour, only the drunks and/or the lechers and/or the mounted police and/or the curious onlookers. We could have hopped a pedi-cab to expedite our journey, but Jimi con Carne is intent on his meandering oral history, pointing out individual bars and specific persons who used to go by other names under better times.

Sixth Street heading East away from the Driskill

We find a taco stand whose owner discretely adds tequila to two bottles of Topo Chico before offering them to Jimi con Carne. He drinks as a “Man out of Lubbock”, handing me one of his Ranch Waters, insisting I stay hydrated. “Keep your head on a swivel, studs. Listen up, you can be a sucker for beautiful women all you want… just not in Texas. And keep your eyes out for a mestizo succubus, the most beautiful creature this side of Dallas… she’s a witch who’s after unassuming gringos, like you, studs. Her name in Comanche means, ‘Radioactive Wolf Maiden’, but she goes by ‘Jennifer’.” He whistles at me through his bottom lip and top teeth, “Keep up, studs, time to get. Depending on who’s at the door, we might be permitted into Shakespeare’s.”

“Speaking of Billy Shakes, I got some Brit history for you, studs.” Before Jack was ripping in England, the infamously anonymous serial killer was here in Austin, according to Jimi con Carne. Known locally as “the Servant-Girl Annihilator”, this pre-Jack ripper stopped his Texas killing spree and hopped a ship for merry-old Mother England. Jimi personally believes a Malaysian cook who worked the galleys of merchant vessels in the late 19th Century was the man responsible for the murders here and later in Whitechapel. “It’s primeval evil here. Austin has more bats than Transylvania, hombre. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mephistopheles introduced Robert Johnson to downtown Austin.

Jimi con Carne rattles off names of long-dead guitar players while counting them on bejewelled fingers, “I saw them play in places which are now disc-jockeyed or have beer-funnel tournaments. Listen here, hombre, as a kid I saw the Texas Storm: Lightnin’ Hopkins. Those were the days of the devil music, but the Devil gone and went! The bankers have come in with their commercialization and their greed and they have replaced our Devil with Moloch, a refashioned Old Testament rival god who eats sacrificial children and vapes e-cigs and whose owl-face can be seen in the Frost Bank Tower.” Jimi con Carne, growing more hysterical with his spittle and drivel, points in a general upward direction, past balconies of topless brides-to-be and vomiting groomsmen towards what locals refer to as “Owl Tower”. Jimi went on, “Austin has been whitewashed and re-branded, replacing the dark roots of the city with rosy-cheeked frat boys and speed-eating sorority girls… intoxicated youth, who are ritually sacrificed to Moloch right here on Sixth Street… 2-for-1 tacos on Tuesday night!”

Moloch and the owl-face of Frost Bank Tower loom over Dirty Sixth

We’ve run out of road. Brazos marks the westernmost end of the Dirty Sixth, yet, Jimi con Carne and I are not quite to Congress Avenue, which divides us from the more sophisticated West Austin. It is from this Brazos Street vantage point I understand where Jimi con Carne wants to cash-in his drink credit: the Driskill Hotel. We step inside the historical landmark, engulfed – immediately – by the air-conditioning, which had been lacking in our urban trek, even when stepping within the shady confines of daiquiri dens, tequila hovels and cheap beer troughs along the Dirty Sixth. By the time we’ve made it to the hotel bar, security have set upon Jimi con Carne, who’s become hostile in attempting to liberate a longhorn head from the wall. Once the tuxedoed security has him, Jimi doesn’t put up much of a fight. Occupied with the cocktail list, I do not follow the exodus of my old-as-Moses tour-guide, opting instead for the Lady Bird tequila & grapefruit cocktail. The bitter-sweetness of my drink is an apropos cap to the evening. I sip it reluctantly and admire the mirrors lining the extravagant hotel walls. Somewhere here is a mirror featuring the bust of Empress Carlota. It was a wedding gift to her from her husband, the ill-fated Maximillian who was the Emperor of Mexico, well… until he was executed by Mexico.

The Driskill Hotel Bar

“Do you like what you see?” comes a voice both feminine and serpentine. My eyes find her reflected gaze in the mirror (or did my reflective gaze first find her eyes?) and we trade mirrored smiles: hers suggestive and mine agreeable. She is sultry and preternaturally Texan from a time before Texas was Texas. She asks if I would buy her a drink. My peripherals study the mirrored room for lurking boyfriends and other potential for bushwhackery, finding none. She asks for something off-menu called the Pitchfork, which involves bourbon, cinnamon bark, blood of a virgin, topped with three Scotch-soaked cherries. She is standing behind me, still speaking to me through the mirror. She mentions her name is Jennifer.

Maybe the Devil hasn’t left Texas… Maybe he turned right around.

Mr. Li’s Cure to Meaninglessness

CHINATOWN, NYC (40° N, 73° W)

Midnight is near; coming or going, I don’t know which. My phone is an inoperable dark mass good for no more than reflecting the brake lights of taxi cabs and the neon signs of Chinatown. The streets are vibrant with commerce as vendors hawk to passersby whose gaits vary on the frenzied spectrum between frenetic and frantic. Mr. Li’s shop waits lurking in this jungle with its mouth agape. Under the rolled shutter doors and past the threshold into the store dim bulbs cast shadows of uncanny darkness. Walls are lined with jars filled with sands of distant earth. Tables hold cabbage, exotic fruits & roots and displays of cheap knives. Beyond the tangible sundries and produce, I am told intangibles are for sale. Mr. Li, they say, sells answers and often they come in the liquid form.

ctown (3)
Mr. Li

Past the stacked dishware and hanging lanterns, there is a wooden bar with egg-crate stools. On one seat sits George who came west of the Lower East Side in search of a cure to meaninglessness. On another seat is Raul who descended from Lower Manhattan in search of an increased libido. Raul is in slacks and a dress-shirt with rolled-sleeves while meaningless George is in a track suit with a stiff baseball cap. Intent on their private redemptions, both George and Raul ignore my arrival.

I am approached by the titular Li; his hands are dusty with ground ginger even after he wipes them on his carpenter’s apron.  Mr. Li studies my face and notices the pulsating vein in my neck before suggesting I might be thirsty. I am shruggish; thirsty maybe; I am in a rush. Ah ah, Mr. Li laughs backwardly. You are thirsty because you ignore thirst, Mr. Li sez. He points at my face, red, he points at my tongue, red, he points at my liver, fire. You are thirsty, Mr. Li reiterates. Just trust the man, George insists, directing me to an egg-crate beside him. Within the minute, Mr. Li is concocting a remedy for my “upflaming liver fire” by mixing mugwort, leftover fruit rind and a miscellaneous fibrous husk into a mug full of sorghum moonshine. If I am to be cured of rush, Mr. Li’s cocktail will be more my speed, Raul insists.

ctown (2)
Sorghum Liquor

George, as if curious about a new prison mate, asks what I am in for. I confide I am looking for a woman. Both Raul and George gesture towards a nearby cost-controlled apartment of ill-repute. It’s a two-bedroom/one-bath brothel of some notoriety, but they don’t do butt-stuff, George sez as Raul fishes a coupon out of his wallet. I have to interrupt their squabble over the quickest route to the Five Points, insisting to them I am not looking for any woman. I am searching for one in particular. Raul laughs his way into his joke, asking if I thought I would find her here at Mr. Li’s. What’s she lookin’ to do, Raul asks, buy a Gremlin starter-kit? George laughs too, saying “Magui”.

magui
1984’s “Gremlins”

I watch Mr. Li add wormwood bitters and more sorghum before topping the mug with a cocktail umbrella. I drink the ice-less baiju cocktail. 1st sip tastes like I tried to slow down a car by leaning out and forcefully licking the road. The second sip is better as I taste nothing except hints of blood, asphalt and aged-penny. By the third sip, my taste buds have returned under an alias and we’re pleased. I exhale slowly… and giggle my way into an impromptu belch. I feel like Dick Nixon in ’72, stumbling drunk around Beijing as he opened up the East to the global market. Fuckin’ crook, I say to the startle of my new friends. My gums are sore from the sorghum-liquor, but my smile is wide.

Suddenly we’re all boys. We’re cheersing: salud, Gānbēi, slainte, etcetera, et al, until our cups run dry. George’s fog of meaninglessness is gone and Raul says he could fuck a horse he’s so horny. Even Mr. Li is giggly. Raul calls out to Mr. Li, insistent they find my misplaced woman. George asks what she’s like. She’s a lady, I sez. Ain’t they all, scoffs Raul. No, I mean she’s nobility: a titled Lady of Scotland. The fuck she doing with a chump, George asks, emboldened by a sudden lack of meaninglessness. Mr. Li listens patiently as Raul inquires where I’d last seen the Lady. I shrug and turn around towards the front of the store; I left her in one of the noodle shops of Chinatown. I do not know which one. The overall consensus is a lot of shit gets lost in Chinatown. How many Scotch chicks can there be, Raul ponders. She isn’t Scottish, I clarify. Lady Josephina Jesús-María Firth is Mexican by birth, American citizen by naturalization and Scottish nobility thanks to her husband granting her titled land. Earlier in the day, Josephina and I had flown from Keflavik, Iceland to JFK and soon after sought Chinatown to feed on anything other than fermented shark and salted cod. The problem, I explain to my new friends, was the noodle shop only accepts American cash. I left Josephina in search of an automated teller machine and by the time I turned around, I couldn’t tell one noodle shop from the next. And my phone hasn’t held a charge since we were over Greenland. I had lost Jo to Chinatown.

Mr. Li picks up a landline phone and begins speaking New York-accented Mandarin. After he waits a pause, he hangs up the phone. He tells us he knows where the Mexican Lady of Scotland is currently washing dishes in a noodle shop right off of Canal Street. How the fuck did he do that, George wonders. It’s the fucking International Chinese Waiter Union, Raul explains, they’re the biggest spy-ring in the world.

I pay Mr. Li handsomely in my recently-withdrawn cash and step off the curb dangerously unwarily, nearly falling into the street. I wait an extra pause for the sorghum curtain to settle, wondering how furious Jo might be and if it was worth actually finding her if it is going to cost me my life. I look left; I look right; I look down at the cocktail napkin of walking directions; I turn left and depart.

Chinatown_yes

Sex, Death and Sweet-Tea Shandys in Purgatory, Florida

SHOVELHEAD PUB
THE VILLAGES, Fla
28° N, 82° W

“They’ll be back for the bingo.” So sez sunburnt Schmidt, the bartender in the visor and neon salmon golf-shirt, as most of his clientele leave their barstools for golf carts parked out front. It is fifteen minutes until 4 pm, the busiest time on the streets of The Villages as the elderly citizenry begin queuing at the early-bird buffets. Florida has many communities where the median age is north of seventy, but The Villages is a whole damn town devoted to the nearly dearly-departed. It is quite literally the largest senior-living gated-community in the known universe. The resident turnover here is higher than anywhere else in the country, mostly due to the already expired-by dates. Realtors seeking vacancies cruise through the streets like vultures sniffing for methane. Schmidt, who is stirring a jug of sweet-tea, lemonade and beer, warns me about the life-clinging desperados, “Don’t get between them old-fogies and the prime rib stand at the all-you-can-eat buffet bar. They don’t know which slice of beef might be their last if you know what I am saying.” I do. Schmidt also explains the only thing higher than the median age is the percentage of citizenry with STDs. “They don’t know which lay might be their last if you know what I am saying.” I do; condoms and bibs be damned when eternal slumber awaits. “You don’t want to be a drycleaner in this town” Schmidt sez.

The Villages
Miracle of Modern Pharma: don’t ask Howard how he steers his golf cart.

This part of Sumter County wasn’t always a waiting room for the clock-conscious elderly; this used to be wilderness with a few trailers and hunting shacks and a lonely cemetery where gravediggers would toil and a lonely bar where the gravediggers would find solace in their cups. The bar, the Shovelhead Pub, still stands and the faded image of a shovelhead shark can barely be made out on the roadside marque. The cemetery is no longer on the other side of the highway as it was bulldozed to make way for Shady Palms Assisted Living and Crematorium, but the Shovelhead Pub remains and is haunted with decades of gallows humor and the musk of unearthed soil.

It’s after 4 pm and the bar is quiet. The townsfolk are somewhere else chin-deep in pea soup. The few warm bodies inside this joint are relatives bereaving the recently deceased. There is a guy to my side, Sal, who is trying to sell me individual recipe cards from a box of his mother’s last belongings. “$1 per recipe or the whole fucking lot for twenty bucks” Sal offers. He waves a recipe card before his face like a flirtatious flapper girl. “Chicken pot-pie” he teases the card. “It’s the Queen of Comfort Food, yeah?” Why not the king, I wonder. “Because pot-pie is delicate…” Sal insists, “and flaky… like a lady.” He puts the recipe back in the box before continuing, with a sudden smile, “And under the flakiness it is either molten lava or it’s like slow-drying cement, yeah?” No, I shake my head.

paloma
Paloma: tequila, red wine, juice, whatever else you can find around the kitchen…

I’m nursing a Paloma made with reposado, red wine, grapefruit juice and a spoonful of psyllium husk to promote regularity (it’s a house special). First one today, I lift my drink to toast Sal, even though this is my second and I need to slow down and keep my wits lest the resident Angel of Death reap me by mistake. Even at the slow-pace, the second Paloma has me cooing a mariachi ballad about dying only to return as a reincarnated dove to serenade my unrequited love.

I’ve been waiting to use the loo but a pair of octogenarians had escaped their spouses to have illicit sex in the bathroom where they have since fallen asleep. Schmidt, the barkeep, has to jimmy the lock to open the bathroom door before taking a broom to sweep the young lovers out of the pub.

“Miracle of science;” Schmidt groans, “boner pills keep the fogies boning like they got to reach some quota set in their contract with the devil they signed to finance their new $20,000 golf cart. Meanwhile, everyone has the clap. Don’t sit down on any toilet seat while you’re in town is what I am saying.”

Villages.3
Streets of the Villages

Sal has left, but there is another bereft survivor at the bar: a cross-fit fanatic in gym clothes wearing a watch set to Mountain Time Zone. She is speaking into her phone, telling whoever might be listening she is bawling her eyes out, except she mixes words and admits, “I’m crying my bawls out.”

“Sounds hormonal.” I suggest.

Schmidt nods then shakes his head; he doesn’t have a cure for what ails her. But he’s got something which might help and pours the fit lady a glass of chardonnay on the house.

I settle my tab and tip the man before leaving the Shovelhead Pub with a box of recipe cards.

Virtual Dancing with Simulated Martinis in Bardolando, Florida

GALAXY STAR HOTEL

ORLANDO, Fla

28° N, 81° W

Spartan Conroy looks more like a gin-blossomed, pot-bellied, self-published science-fiction author who works out of a trailer than he looks the part of a salsa instructor; and for good reason: Spartan Conroy’s day job is writing intergalactic space-smut out of his double-wide. Nevertheless, by night the author can be found teaching salsa dancing in the ballroom of the nearly derelict, 99% vacant, decadently decayed Galaxy Star Hotel, a sun-burnt concrete lodge which has stood for decades one wrong turn too many off of International Drive in Central Florida’s theme park district. It is here in the Cypress Lake ballroom dancing novices and misplaced adventurers learn how to salsa dance via Spartan Conroy’s virtual reality software program, FootSpace.

“Where else, my man?” The salesman waves at the ballroom where his product is showcased to individuals donning V.R. gear in walled-off partitions. His hands wave at the confines of the Galaxy Star Hotel, but the here of his where else comment is a reference to this particular piece of Central Florida, the theme park Mecca of Earth where captive orca belly-flop on command minutes away from re-enactments of Christ’s Crucifixion, the region Spartan Conroy refers to “Bardolando” (“bardo” being a Buddhist term for in between realities and “lando” being the last five letters of the closest metropolis). “Where else would I be, but Bardolando? I mean, if Orwell had foreseen Hollywood movie studios creating hyper-reality theme parks in Southern California and Central Florida, he would have included them in 1984 alongside the proles’ daily allotment of gin.”

On the subject of gin, Spartan mixes cocktails for those entering into his cubicles of simulated reality. Tonight, he is serving mojitos, but he has run out of mint and white rum, making his concoctions instead with parsley and dark rum. The product resembles a cup full of ditch water in sight and taste. I have had two by the time I am fitted with the virtual reality headset. My host warns me of possible discombobulation. Once within the virtual world, Spartan Conroy sez, I will not see my body if I look down, only placeholders where my feet and hands are. When I do enter into his salsa laboratory, I understand his warning. Gone is my body; cartoonish mittens are where my hands should be and tissue boxes represent my feet in this virtual world. I can already hear the music: the crooning, the drumming and the trumpets of salsa. Before me is a mirror and at least here I can identify my chosen avatar. The simulated reflection smiling back is a perverse, over-caffeinated, slightly psychotic, caricature of your narrator, Vic Neverman. Nevertheless, I am comforted to find limbs in this virtual world. To conceal my identity, I draw a goatee and alter my voice to include a Midwestern lisp.

Entering through the portal into this room, it is clearly a lavatory complete with complimentary mints and urinal cakes. Other characters are beside me; either computer simulations or other project avatars of “real people” who occupy a cubicle somewhere back in the “meat space” of the hotel ballroom alongside my fleshy vessel. Not all of these characters are brushing their mustache in the mirror as I, most are queued-up to do cocaine off the thigh of a cigarette girl. It is not certain whether the girl selling cigarettes off her tray is a fellow avatar with a human conscious or a simulation. As an impromptu Turing Test, I inquire of the cigarette girl the vintage of the white product lining her thigh. Her faraway gaze looks through me as she says, “Después de un gustazo, un trancazo”. I look for subtitles and finding none, I wash my mitten hands and leave the bathroom.

Outside the lavatory portal back to “meat space”, there are no mirrors reflecting my avatar’s image and I make the mistake of looking down to find myself without a torso. Discombobulation ensues and I spit up one of the mojitos. Even more disconcerting: as I eject the sick, I cannot see it in this virtual world. It is a ghost-puke and my tongue is left haunted my acidic parsley flavors. God speaks to me in the North Florida country-boy accent of Spartan Conroy, “Play through it, my man. You will adjust. Your avatar still looks immaculate.”

I continue through the nausea to find the dance floor of the club, Estrella del Sur. The music overwhelms as salsa pulsates through my skull via V.R. headgear. On the simulated dance floor before me are the gyrating “hosts” who can be hired as dance instructors. There are various shades of gender and flesh and persuasion and each are given a halo of green (available and within my price range) or red (more expensive than my 2,000 credits can afford). The only dancers with green halos I can find are a gaucho with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a donkey back-kicking in tune to the music. Fortunately for me, Spartan Conroy provided me with a cheat code. I find a backdoor out of Estrella del Sur where I could bet on La Charada with street hustlers playing ping-pong in the alley. I gamble my 1,800 credits (after drinking 200 bits worth of simulated martini with my cartoon mitts) and win, returning to the club with nearly 400,000 credits in the bank. Every dancer on the floor now possesses a green halo and each is aware of my fat billfold of credits. Men and women wink and blow kisses, hey Papi, luring me towards them. I select a singular beauty, angelic in the hierarchy of the simulated hosts. I am nervous asking her to dance, but she is smiling at my 400,000 credits and beckons me to the floor. Her name is Pilar and as far as computer generated vixens go, she is irresistible. Her legs are of unquantifiable length, her hips defied physics and she does volunteer work at a dog shelter. They way Pilar danced, you assumed someone was filming a music video. With one hand she held her wavy hair above her shoulders to cool her heated neck. I haven’t desired an animated character this much since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Pilar instructs me on my footwork. Forward left, right, back left. I cannot help but notice the glaring of a suspicious character sipping simulated martinis from the bar. Is it me he’s sweating over or is it Pilar? Back right, left, forward right. Scrutinizing the strange dude, I cannot decipher if he is a simulation or the projection of a human consciousness, but it is clear he is wearing a toupee and is popping antacids to fend off a guilty conscience. Step left, right, enchufla… Perhaps the suspicious dude might be an ICE agent infiltrating this virtual universe in search of undocumented immigrants. Step back right, left, right.

Pilar, mi amor, I warn my dance instructor, there is an immigration agent in the building. Yo se, güero, Pilar responds with cavalier indifference. Concerned for her, I ask if she is a citizen of the United States. She says, no ‘ombre, but she isn’t concerned about the immigration goon sniffing martinis through his ICE-issued mustache. Porque, I ask. Ay güey, porque soy una simulacion de computadora! Fair enough. How is my dancing, I ask. She sez I dance like un borracho blanco, a drunken white boy, at an Indigo Girls concert. She then informs me she requires another 200,000 bits to keep dancing.

Broken-hearted and empty-pocketed, I bid adieu to Pilar and return to the bathroom of Estrella del Sur. I enter the portal and return to meat space where I can finally remove the virtual reality mask to find Spartan Conroy standing there with a few moist toilettes. I clean-up quick; eager to get the hell out of the hyper-reality of Bardolando. Outside the Galaxy Star Hotel, the valet returns my car. I get behind the wheel in search of International Drive and Interstate 4 beyond.

It is minutes before it occurs to me I am steering the wheel with cartoonish mittens and I cannot see my forearms. In the rear-view mirror I see a set of psychotic over-caffeinated cartoon eyes. I pull over onto the side of the road and purge myself of the second mojito.