Relive the magic all over again as our intrepid hero plunges right on into the Apache Death Cave in the Arizona desert.
Gets better every time.
Relive the magic all over again as our intrepid hero plunges right on into the Apache Death Cave in the Arizona desert.
Gets better every time.
Monday, July 1st, 2019. Denver, Colorado.
We abandoned the pernicious hostel and wandered the early morning city with all our worldly possessions on our backs, like a pair of gorgeous Depression Era hobos.
I had all my worldly possessions in my pack, anyway. I spent my college years jumping from apartment to dorm like a hirsute Irish frogger and the experience had taught me the less you lug with you, the hastier your getaway. Marie Kondo has since repackaged it into an adorable little “joy-sparking” system of totemic ritual, and when that particular fever swept the nation, I had nothing to part with but some novelty t-shirts and a coyote skull.
It’s important to have a bug-out bag good to go, and much more efficient if it fits everything you own.
An adjoining window enthusiastically advertised “As featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives!”
I’m a patriot first and foremost, and I was not about to let my country down. Neither was I going to disappoint Guy Fieri. We settled into a huge booth to determine the logistics of our last day in this unspoiled netherworld.
Our waitress looked like Katie from Letterkenny, but smaller. She brought me a truly gargantuan breakfast burrito full of buffalo. My heart sang and my power tripled.
“We’ve got to do Red Rocks,” Ladygirl said.
“It’s only fair,” I said. “Every Uber driver so far has recommended it.”
“Everybody back home, too,” she said. “One of my co-workers is from Denver, it was the first thing he said.”
I ate my three pounds of cheesed bison, then felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I looked out the window and saw cop cars.
“Too much buffalo,” I told Ladygirl, apropos of nothing. “They think I’m poaching.”
“We gotta go.”
We fled to the safe house and drank a brisk morning beer. It’s called carb-cycling.
Energized by a well-balanced breakfast, we caught a ride up to the much-vaunted Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Let me preface this by saying these pictures don’t do justice to the sheer size of the rocks. Where I’m from, there’s a bunch of rocks. I’ve seen a rock or two in my day, but never like this. They were so incomprehensibly massive that it made me uncomfortable. They were the bones of mountains and it was easy to visualize one shifting, just minorly, and annihilating everyone in the vicinity. A bloody smear and erasure from history.
We got into the amphitheater proper and it was gorgeous.
“The website said they’re playing Top Gun tonight,” I said. “It’s a shame we’re going back.”
“It really is.”
“Welp, let’s hit the trail. Soak up some of this natural splendor.”
There are those who question the practicality of putting off your hike until the one day, during the entire trip, that you have to carry all your gear. Don’t listen to these cowards.
Along the trail, we discovered a monument to John Denver, in memorium of the moment he befriended a bald eagle and founded Denver.
We completed the loop and took shelter in the gift shop. I considered buying a $20 plastic piece of junk to commemorate the time I took a hike near some real big rocks, but ultimately decided against it.
“All right,” Ladygirl said, after she had finished studying the trading post’s John Denver record altar room. “We’ve got to catch the uber down in the D lot, which is like a ten minute walk. It’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
Thunder exploded outside. It had been cloudless a second ago. Ladygirl looked out and frowned.
“Maybe we should wait to order it?”
“Naw,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
The sky opened up and let loose a biblical monsoon.
Once, long ago, I was driving listlessly around the Frozen North when a hurricane hit. I pulled off into the grocery store where my brother worked and bought a bag of fried chicken. He took his break and we sat under the awning on the big stone benches, watching the rain flood the parking lot and tear down tree branches as we ate.
What happened at Red Rocks wasn’t a hurricane, but it was close.
My phone camera doesn’t do justice to the a wall of water. Ladygirl and I sheltered under the picnic pavilion and watched the sky fall.
We were shoulder to shoulder with a battalion of likewise trapper hikers, who took up the chorus of “It’s hail now! It’s rain now!” for the entire half hour storm.
When it broke, we called the uber and waited fifteen minutes in an empty parking lot while the car climbed the mountain.
A few hours until takeoff, so we wound up in a neighborhood called RiNo, which I just found out means River North. It was industrial chic, that slow-substantiating hip you see in bohemian parts of cities that used to produce something other than craft beer and vegan confectionary.
I don’t remember the brewery we went to, but I remember the bartender was friendly and they were playing the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 sound track exclusively. We asked where to go for food and she told us to go to the Blue Moon Brewing company.
“Absolutely not,” I told Ladygirl, shouting to be heard over Goldfinger’s Superman. “Bar food isn’t. We can find a real restaurant.”
“You don’t want to check out the Blue Moon place?” she asked.
“I don’t like Blue Moon.”
“I’ve seen you drink it!”
“Yeah, if I’m backed into a corner. If my options are Blue Moon, Rolling Rock, or seltzer water, I’ll take one for the team. But there’s no team here. Let’s find a real restaurant.”
In college, I single-handedly ran a hole in the wall called Mo’s Grill, right off Gay Street in West Chester. The owner was a lanky white cokehead from Reading named Kevin who battered his illegal immigrant girlfriend and tried to rip off all his employees. There was no Mo.
When the register got over $50, he would send me down to the block to New Haven pizza to buy a sixer of Blue Moon. He would drink it in the basement, dragging along whichever employee was there. I always turned him down. I didn’t care for Blue Moon then, and that experience certainly didn’t endear me to it.
“You’re an information junkie,” he once told me. “I can tell. I can read people. You like to learn, but your problem is you don’t use it for anything.”
“That must be my problem,” I said. “Thanks.”
I could have deflected by saying something disarming like, “Where I come from, we just shorten that to ‘nerd'”, but I didn’t want to deflect or disarm. I needed the money to avoid getting kicked out of my first apartment (spoilers: it didn’t work), but I also hated him with a passion, and always hoped it would escalate to violence between us. Not only for the satisfaction of smashing his shining egg-shaped skull off the deli counter, but for the inevitable lawsuit opportunity that would be presented thereafter.
He was paying me under the table, of course, and promised a raise from $6 to $8. In retrospect, times really were tough. When he didn’t deliver on the timeline, I confronted him on it Friday as the rush began. He shouted in my face that I didn’t get the promotion because, “You’re not worth it!” I wished him luck finding someone who was and quit on the spot.
“You’re gonna do this to me?” he roared into the rapidly filling restauraunt foyer. “To ME!?”
“Sure seems that way,” I told him. I paused at the door. He had bragged about throwing a knife at one of his former employees so many times after he came stumbling drunkenly up from the basement, I thought it was only fair to give him the chance.
“Fine!” he said. “Go! Get the fuck out of here!”
I did. Brief epilogue, the girlfriend did eventually leave him and immigrate legally. She’s still living in the area and going to school for social work. The restaurant went under a month or two after I quit. Kevin disappeared back to Reading to live like a leech on his elderly mom. Last I heard, he stacked up a few more DUIs.
I didn’t tell Ladygirl any of that. We were having a nice time. Instead, we went to a barbecue place called Smok where I just kept eating piles of meat.
It was phenomenal. Ladygirl was queasy and tapped out quick, so I was forced to eat both her and my orders of meat. I washed it down with brisket, for the road.
The exit was guarded by a vengeful wooden elephant.
Our time in Denver had drawn to an end. I’m bored of places after four days, tops. The only exceptions to this rule so far had been Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul, and Denver. Next year, I think I’ll go back to school, lock down the PhD. I haven’t decided where yet, but I know it’ll be in Colorado.
The ride back to the airport was melancholy. There was no longing for home, no excitement for the trip to be over, to get back to the reliable clockwork hum of the every day routine. I kept thinking about all the crackheads, the endless heat wave, and how the Philly airport always smelled like piss.
Outside the Denver airport, there’s a massive statue of a blue horse. Legend has it during the construction, its head fell off and killed the artist. They finished the sculpture, and it stands sentinel over the city, watching who comes and who goes with glowing red eyes.
Good night, sweet Blucifer. I’ll see you soon.
July 13, 2018. Philadelphia, PA.
Let me set the scene for you. It is another beautiful, hatefully sunny day in Fishtown. Our hero, me, just finished ab day and a half hour of bagwork at the gym. The tank was empty. I needed and deserved a half pound of chicken.
I hobble outside and peel off my shirt, as only complete douchebags remove their shirt inside the gym, then drag my sweaty carcass onto my faithful steed Rocinante, an old Cannondale racing bike that I will discuss in greater detail in a lengthy and vitriolic upcoming critique of cycling conditions in Philadelphia.
I glide homeward, silent as death, blistering in the merciless light of the Daystar. I’m a few blocks out when I see some commotion, veritably a kerfuffle, occurring in a little park called Konrad Square. Never one to miss a kerfuffle, I pull my bike over to watch.
A crowd of ugly teens gathered around a pair of kids, one in his early twenties, the other looking to be about seventeen. Both were wearing boxing gloves, actively engaged in squaring up. They were still circling. A large girl was recording them on her phone, waiting for her moment to yell Worldstar.
“Get out of the road,” somebody murmured gently as their car passed me. I was in a parking spot, but a lot of people take personal offense to bicycles existing, so I pulled up onto the sidewalk. I didn’t have the spare emotional energy to react. It’s not every day you see an outdoor boxing match, especially one on concrete, despite the presence of grass everywhere in the park — in fact, the only trait qualifying it as a park.
Contact! The twentysomething advanced on the teenager and they threw blind flurries of the worst punches I’ve ever seen.
This continued for three seconds, then they clinched. The rest of the teens had that coiled, tense look, like a herd of deer waiting for the cue to bolt.
Enter a short, pear-shaped man in his mid-forties, stage left. He separates the kids for some reason. He is yelling.
“HOW OLD IS HE!” he demands to the twentysomething, of the teenager. “HOW OLD ARE YOU!”
The twentysomething peels off his shirt without removing his boxing gloves. It is exactly as funny as it sounds. My curiosity has turned to unrestrained delight. I am grinning on the fringes of the scene like the literal, Biblical devil.
“WHAT U GONNA DO?!” the twentysomething bellows, adding an expletive which is not “fella”, but could be substituted as such if you find yourself singing along with rap song while white. “WHAT THE FUCK U GONNA DO?”
The middle-aged man, being a middle-aged man, has no apparent interest in doing anything. The twentysomething remembers his boxing gloves and tears them off, hurling them to the ground. His blood is up. They are staring one another down.
Removal of the t-shirt was a terrible idea, if his goal was intimidation. The twentysomething is flabby, sloppy looking. 170 lbs, at a glance, 40 or 50 being fat. The pear-shaped man is about 150, and shorter. Though it would not be a clash of titans, the man understands that the odds are not on his side. They are still glaring. The twentysomething shoves the middle-aged guy, who stumbles, and they separate, bellowing shittalk across the park.
The teens have taken notice of me. Some eye me warily. I am half a foot taller and forty pounds heavier than the scariest participant in this ordeal, and they may have been discomfited by my evident glee.
“WHAT THE FUCK U GONNA DO?” he asks again, pounding at his chest, sending his stomach into a hypnotic flutter. The middle aged man has recovered his brass. He Nordic-Walks across the park and stands eye to eye with the twentysomething. They are inaudible at this distance. They are close enough to kiss.
I can’t take the sexual tension any longer.
“Gentlemen!” I yell. “There are gloves everywhere! This doesn’t have to get uglier!”
Unbelievably, no one laughs.
I think, in the deepest reaches of my soul, I wanted that belittling to provoke them into action. I’m sure I had some vague philanthropic duty to interject myself into the situation and make sure no one got hurt, but it really didn’t matter if someone did. If either had the gall to swing, they would have at first flush.
Being summarily dismissed during such a melodramatic situation would make them feel ridiculous, which would prompt one of three reactions:
I didn’t anticipate the third. I saw the kind of punches that kid was throwing. In my heart of hearts, I was hoping for 1.
The fires well and fully guttered, the spell breaks. They separate, presumably calling each other pussies. The twentysomething returns to his flock of teens, where he clasps hands with the fifteen-year-old he failed to defeat in unarmed combat. The handshake looks complex. At some point, they snap their fingers in it.
“Yeah, he’s just over there watching,” I hear one of the teenagers say. The twentysomething looks at me. He holds my gaze for as long as he thought it would take for me to look away. I smile at him sunnily. He turns, strutting like he has won something, somewhere. Stretches his shoulders as he walks through the grass. He oversees his kingdom.
After a moment of hesitation, one of the kids calls to me, “… Okay, you can leave now.”
I look at the old buck walking across the park, at the sloppy twentysomething, back to the teen.
“Are you sure?”
He glances back at his buddy, who continues to pointedly ignore me in his lackadaisical non-victory lap.
“… Yeah,” he says.
“All right. Catch y’all next time!”
I give them the finger guns, kick Rocinante into gear, and scoot home.
I hope I didn’t lie. I hope there is a next time, some pangenerational Fishtown grudge match for supreme dominion of that 100 square feet of lawn. Sometimes, hope is all we have.
December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.
In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.
Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.
Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.
Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.
When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.
None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.
All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.
Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.
The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.
“Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”
He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shrugged. “Metal?”
“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”
I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.
“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.
The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.
“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”
“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”
I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.
“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”
“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”
He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it.
We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.
“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”
I did not.
“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”
“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”
“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.
One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.
Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.
Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”
It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.
“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”
I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.
“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.
“That’s not what worried me.”
“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”
“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”
I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.
“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.
“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”
He grinned. “More or less.”
We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.
“So! Any guesses?”
I squinted at it, then nodded.
“Is it a doorknob?”
“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”
“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”
“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”
I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.
Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.
(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)
Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.
I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.
November 14, 2017. Athens, Greece.
I wheeled through the Syntagma side of town and found my way into a local-recommended madhouse called Estrella. It was humming with humans. The waitresses were sweating through their blouses. They stuck me in a corner and gave me a menu and, for some reason, a Raphael place mat.
Let’s unpack this a little bit. We have Raphael, there, apropos of nothing, right in the middle. He’s in some kind of old-timey town, I don’t know where. Says Athens on the top, kind of. Doesn’t look like Athens. There’s a coach, but no cars that I can see. Maybe this is from Turtles in Time, and he’s somewhere between 1800 and 1920. What’s that thing the homeless guy is leaning against? A bus stop? A phone booth?
And then, at the bottom: “You got the spirit don’t lose the feeling”, which sounds a line from the dubbed English theme song of some anime about ranching slimes.
I picked my way through the menu, most of which consisted of “64 degree Celsius eggs”, which is 141 in real degrees, or almost hot enough to kill foodborne bacteria. I opted to try a breakfast pizza with a Greek name.
Listen, man. You can’t just call something a pizza because there’s round bread at the bottom. A pizza has a layered, homogeneous distribution of toppings, and those are never seeds. What you committed here… was a breakfast pile. Eggs, gruyere cheese, avocado sludge, and sri racha. Too rich for me, but I definitely needed the calories. I dipped and wandered, in search of a mandolin.
I don’t play mandolin, and I don’t actually want one, but I am curious as to how much they are in Greece. If they’re like 20 Euros, I’ll find a way to bring it with me on the planes. It doesn’t look good. I’ll report back when I find one.
I stumbled on a rage room, which sounds like something I’d be into at first. Sadly, I can’t get behind it. The pricing is outrageous! 10 Euros to break 20 bottles? Where I’m from there’s a place we can break bottles for free, and it’s called “behind the Wawa.” And they wrap you in all this ridiculous safety gear, looking like a hockey goalie moonlighting as a welder.
If you’re not ready to maybe lose an eye in venting your anger, what you’re experiencing is not “rage”.
When I was a filthy teenage hood rat, we had our own version of the rage room. It was called “the junkyard”. You gotta stick the sledgehammer through a belt loop so you can jump the fence, but then you’re golden. You drink Old Crow out of the Spencer’s rhinestone PIMP flask and then you cycle through your weapons; a good crowd would have the option of hammer, railroad spike, and baseball bat. You find a likely looking car — be it a model you used to own, or a fancier model that reminds you of class war, or really anything that still has windows, and you Steve Harrington that sonofabitch.
Although, the rage room was probably a little easier to factor on time. Ours was generally over when you heard dogs.
Making my way back to the hostel, I was delighted to run across this little bit of home:
I haven’t seen that written in a bathroom for like three weeks! I was worried people had decided that perhaps not Fuck Trump.
In the U.S., we have a very limited understanding of how Europe things of us. They don’t hate hate us. France might, I don’t know, I haven’t been there. Most people I’ve met have seemed to admire us for our bullshit omnipresent pop culture and begrudgingly acknowledge us as sort of de facto boss of the Western world (Europeans make reference to the president as “Leader of the Free World” way more often than any of us do, especially in light of recent events).
And while some will ask me, “So how did Trump… happen?” or “Are there really nazis there?”or “Do you really not use the metros?”, there is one thing they’re guaranteed to ask about as soon as they find out I’m American.
“So why don’t you eat real food?”
Listen. We’re not consulted on it, all right? This is just what they give us. Ya’ll have McDonaldses too, we just have them everywhere, and while you have healthful traditional foods to fall back on, we have, what, hamburgers? Apple pie? Fried chicken? We were damned from the get-go and it’s a miracle I’m not 300 lbs.
“Are you all like, really fat in America?”
“What’re you tryna say?”
“No, not like, you! But like, other Americans?”
“Yes. In America, literally every single person looks like this. I did too, before I lost 10 kilos in Spain, living off tapas.”
And they’ll nod in pity and turn around and eat a foot-long sandwich with fries on top of a chicken breast that’d been sitting in grease all day. Go figure.
November 5, 2017. Rome, Italy.
I tried the slowing down thing, and the results were predictably disastrous. It’s probably something you get better at with practice, like literally every other thing in life.
My first stop was the coliseum. I was chomping at the bit to get up there, considering my nigh-Aspergarian fixation on ancient Rome. It runs so deep, I’ve even watched a whole battery of awful Netflix originals about gladiatin’.
It’s swarming with people, of course, like noisy little cockroaches with selfie-sticks. Not a dealbreaker. I loosened the ol’ vertebrae and swayed through ’em, but not quick enough.
A horrible little man in a vest covered in stickers approached me and proceeded to shout, over and over again, that he worked for the Coliseum for free information. If this was intended to put me at ease, his shtick needs work. He kept advocating that I “skip the line”, and I kept saying I didn’t want a tour, to which he would tell me, “I show you the line. I show you the line for single entry, and then you decide.” Like I was some sort of stupid child.
I saw the line. It didn’t look that bad. I’d waited in longer lines for stupider things; the Hogwarts Express at Universal Studios comes to mind.
It’s literally just a fake train car with a TV screen where the window should be. THREE HOURS I lost in that line. I don’t even like Harry Potter. Wizards ruin whatever they’re a part of, you gotta stab ’em as soon as possible. Best wizard is a stabbed wizard.
I digress. The horrible man paused his insulting my intelligence and extended a special offer to me that will allow me to skip a line, right now! A mere $40 for the cheapest ticket $80 for the deluxe round-the-world squeaky clean underground tour with happy ending!
“Jesus Christ,” I said, which I imagine translated fairly cleanly into Italian, or Moroccan, or whatever his mother tongue was.
“Is very cheap price,” he explained.
“This is the cheap price, huh?”
“Or you can wait in the entry line,” he said. “Up to you.”
“See, the third option is, I’m gonna come back later,” I said. “Ciao.”
“You can skip line right now!” he called after me, and that was probably true, but I was far too salty to find out.
I made my way through the tourists taking existence-validation selfies, deciding instead to see if I could get up to the Roman forum. Halfway up the hill, a man clasped my hand for way too long and started asking a lot of questions about where I was from. I answered him quickly with a hand on my wallet, because he seemed to be occupying a whole lot of my attention/field of vision and, in another life, that’s definitely the hustle I would use when having my co-conspirator pick pockets. Then he started repeating, “A gift, from me to you” and shoving quarter-store jewelry onto my wrists, little cheap-o leather friendship wristbands and hideous aluminum wrap-around bracelets “for your wife”, which I told him I didn’t have. I didn’t want him tying up my hands at all, so I took the first bracelet from him and put it on myself, then he started slam-dunking more of them into my hands while I tried to walk away.
“This is way too much,” I said, taking them off and trying to hand them back. “I can’t accept this. I don’t even have a place for these. Thank you, but I can’t.”
“Is a gift,” he chanted.
“I know, and I appreciate it, but it’s too much,” I said, still watching over my shoulder.
“Can I just get something for my daughter?” he said. “My daughter, back in *unintelligible*, she very sick, my daughter and mother, can I just get something for them, 2 euro?”
“That’s not a gift,” I said, successfully removing all the bracelets and putting them back in his hands, “What you’re describing is a transaction. I didn’t agree to one of those. Here.”
“Is a gift, just something for my daughter, please.”
“No. Thanks. Good luck.”
I slipped away from him, pulled my wallet into my front pocket, and made it maybe fifteen paces before a much larger, thicker man, obviously from the same point of origin as the previous man and his sick family, emerged from the crowd and clasped me by the hand, screaming, “HEYYYY NEW YORK!”
“Hey. Scranton, actually. No thanks.”
“I have bracelets!” he said. “For unity! Black or white, it doesn’t matter!”
“Agreed,” I said, “But I’m really not interested in bracelets.”
I tried to pull away, but he was actually holding me there by my hand, physically preventing my withdrawal. He had a grip on him, that one.
“Where you from?” he asked again.
I wrapped my left hand around his thumb and twisted his hand off, repeating, “No. Thanks.” He yelled something after me but I can’t imagine it was important.
I can’t stand grifters, man. That’s one of my berserk buttons. It’s bad enough that they’re trying to get their little grabby hands on things that belong to you, but when they add an insult to your intelligence into the mix, I get a little feral.
Even the internet in Rome got in on it; my one attempt to connect to the city Wi-Fi was met with a splash page that said, “We’ll need your credit card number for a one-time activation charge of $0.75! It is literally our law. After that, your credit card will be stored by the city and never, ever used again, ever, we promise.”
On the way up the slope to the Roman Forum, a pioneering young Italian with a teeth that looked like a rockslide slithered up to me and asked, “Are you against hard drugs?”
“I guess that depends,” I said.
“I have a petition here. Oh, no, don’t be mad, sir. I have a petition here, against hard drugs. Just I am looking for signatures.”
“Yeah, all right. I’m conceptually against hard drugs. This is just a petition?”
“Yes, just a petition.”
I took the clipboard from him and started signing fake information. The final box was “Donations”, and all of them were 20 euros.
“We ask a small donation,” he said, “Most people give about 20 euros.”
“A donation. To your petition. Against hard drugs.”
“It is for the children, sir,” he said.
I wrote a big ol’ 0 in the fraudulent box and handed it back to him.
“Thanks so much for this,” he said. “It is important to me, because I am actually a recovering drug addict myself.”
“Are you, now.”
“Yes, I was addicted to cocaine.”
“Are you sure? That’s not physically addictive.”
“I am recovered now.”
“Oh, well, good for you.”
I stuffed the petition into his hand and decided to come back to the coliseum when there were fewer vultures. My blood was boiling, and although I appreciated the irony that would be inherent in my getting arrested for decapitating Romans right outside the coliseum, I didn’t want my bastard travels to end on such a down note.
To be continued later today. I need to get as much sightseeing in as I can if I’m going to make it to Florence and back before my flight to Athens.