New Jersey: The Hatelands

February 2nd, 2018. Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

You want horror? I’ll give you horror.

New Jersey is a real place, though I don’t know why. No one benefits from it. A Canadian philosopher once told me, “Pennsylvania is just New Jersey but brown and rusty.” I would agree, but with a slight modification: “Pennsylvania is New Jersey but brown, rusty, and not an above-ground sewer that eats the life force of any who wander into it like a rancid, 4th-generation Italian will-o’-the-wisp.”

Do not mistake me. Pennsylvania is incredibly brown and rusty. I’ve lived in this coal crater my entire life, and I didn’t learn about the color “green” until I was a man (which, in the Frozen North, occurs when you bite your first coyote to death, around age 7 or 8). But if you ever enter New Jersey at night – god forbid – you’ll see everything has a faint yellow cast to it. I privately think of it as “piss smog”, though I don’t share that with anyone unfortunate enough to be in the car with me when caught in New Jersey’s event horizon.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu delineates nine types of ground you’ll happen upon in battle and the strategic applications of each. The final, and most severe, is “desperate or deadly ground”, where no tactics can save you. You burn your possessions, you tell your troops to abandon all hope, you put your backs to the wall, and you fight. As interpreted by the enormous herbalist and military advisor Li Ching:

The country is wild, destitute of water and plants; the army is lacking in the necessaries of life, the horses are jaded and the men worn-out, all the resources of strength and skill unavailing, the pass so narrow that a single man defending it can check the onset of ten thousand; all means of offense in the hands of the enemy, all points of vantage already forfeited by ourselves:—in this terrible plight, even though we had the most valiant soldiers and the keenest of weapons, how could they be employed with the slightest effect?”

It’s like Sun Tzu penned their tourism pamphlet.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be a chronicle of tourism. I was in New Jersey once by choice, five years ago. It was because of a redhead, as are all of my lasting life mistakes. I went to the Jersey Shore, not yet realizing that beaches are a waste of time, and I did what I could to ignore the fact it was basically a salty, wet landfill. Here are a couple of action shots featuring my chunky yet funky youthful incarnation making the best of it.

This was shortly after a carnie solicited that I “throw a free dart at the balloons!” I did, and popped two.

“Oh snap,” I said (it was a different time), “What do I win?”

“You have to pop at least three balloons to get a prize,” he said. “$5 to play.”

I decided I didn’t need a bootleg stuffed Garfield that bad and started on my way. The dude came roaring around the side of his booth, flailing his arms like an early Jim Carey and j’accuseing me of “NOT EVEN CARING ABOUT THE SHORE!”

“Correct,” I assured him. He seemed to get more upset, even despite my validation.

I did get a fetal shark there, though. His name is Formaldehoward and he has been the best roommate a dude could ask for.

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he’s gotten wrinklier, but who among us hasn’t?

When I escaped Jersey, I solemnly vowed to never return. I was doing well for half a decade.

I’m newly transplanted to Philadelphia, where I’ve burrowed into a seaside cave to ride out the coldest parts of the winter. Never fear, beautiful readers, I’ll run up the Rocky steps, look at statues of Benny Frank’s fat ass, and lambast the local beer as soon as I can go outside without the mucous membranes around my eyes freezing solid. If it were up to me, I’d hunker down and hibernate until I could bang through a long run without my sweat turning to shards of frost before fully escaping my pores. It’s like being stabbed by hundreds of tiny icicles.

Sadly, it’s not up to me. Enter another redhead, this one with $150 in Bed, Bath, and Beyond gift cards. The nearest Bed, Bath, and Beyond is in Cherry Hill which, for the record, featured neither cherries nor hills. It should be called Garbage Crater.

It takes a while to cross the Ben Franklin Bridge, but you can tell when you hit New Jersey because this potent ennui settles around you like a dark cloud of piss smog. Your phone will also chime, and Google Maps will tell you, “You’ve just entered New Jersey. Jeez.” and then autosuggest Suicide Hotline numbers.

The third surefire way to tell whether you’ve crossed the border is how the people around you are driving.

Are they driving like stupid assholes? Odds are good that you’re still in Philly.

Are they driving like stupid assholes who have a personal vendetta against you, and  their genitals are being mauled by wolverines, and also everyone involved is rabid, and on fire? Got some bad news for you, my friend.

After narrowly surviving some merges that would qualify as American tragedies if they’d happened in a NASCAR arena, we pulled into Bed, Bath, and Beyond in search of, apparently, a multitude of wooden cutting boards, each about an inch bigger than the last.

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i’ve got about a dozen punchlines for this one, but they’re beneath us both

If you want a pictorial summary of the Jerseygrant, it’s right here. Don’t look at it too long or you might think about it.

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We narrowly escaped with our lives (and a George Foreman Lean Mean Grillin’ Machine, which was my prime motivation for braving this outdoor dungeon). On the way back, I stopped for gas and discovered most of the t-shirts advertised Philadelphia. At the time, I wrote it off with “Well, I could understand why”.

Then, back across the Ben Franklin Bridge. Entering New Jersey is free. There are signs all over the bridge that say, “NO TOLL THIS WAY”.

But escaping costs $5.

It was a eureka moment for me, the slow-dawning realization that the only reason this enormous seaside diaper-pile can afford what it so courageously calls its infrastructure is by tithing the dumb suckers from Philly, out to visit the only nearby beach.

I slammed my mouth full of the worst chocolate covered peanuts I’ve ever had (how do you even fuck those up?) and vowed, once again, to never return to these blighted hatelands.

But I didn’t leave empty-handed.

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precioussss

Contrary to what deceitful boxes may tell you, the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Grillin’ Machine does not, in fact, remove 42% of the fat. It’s closer to 0% of the fat. It’s just a sloped panini press. If losing the juices from a burger removed the fat, wouldn’t every burger cooked on an open-grate grill be fat free?

However, it DOES cook hamburgers indoors in the dead of winter, providing me valuable iron so I’m not constantly covered in bruises trying to navigate my giant, stupid body through the trappings of civilization. One could say this trip was my paying the iron price, and one wouldn’t be wrong.

But what a price it was.

reek

Love,

The Bastard

Dresden: So It Goes

December 2, 2017. Dresden, Germany.

FlixBus is a bunch of filthy, mouthbreathing animals. They talk a big game about their bus internet, but once you get onto it, you learn it’s an elaborate German ruse. For some reason, the trap didn’t spring until I got into Germany, but I think FlixBus had been plotting it the entire time I was in Europe, earning my trust by degrees. Toying with me. Then, once I was in for a ten-hour bus ride, the unwashed, skulduggerous, drug addict hyenas that orchestrate these bus routes like some dark and deviant god pulled the plug on the so-called “bus internet”.

Ten hours, I rotted in that cell on wheels! Ten hours I languished in an Amish diesel nightmare, not so much as a scrap of Wi-Fi to be found. I didn’t even have the map downloaded. You want to take a guess how long I tried to download the map?

I’ll find the miserable, hoary, addled son of a bitch who did this to me one day, and I swear before all the saints and angels that I will dance in his blood.

Anyway. Deutschland. Ja, das ist fuckin kalt. It wasn’t nearly as kalt in Budapest, so fool that I was, I thought I’d be fine in just a t-shirt and coat.

I was not.

Fortunately, Dresden is presently devoted wholly to Christmas, and you can’t walk ten meters without hitting a Christmas Market. I’m sure we have these stateside — we do love markets — but never anything like this. It reminded me of the church picnics that would paralyze the townships of my childhood and herd all the adults into parking lots to drink beer and eat pierogies, but pierogies were conspicuously absent.

(I know pierogi is the plural, shut your goddamn mouth)

Instead, there were brats. This would be a running theme throughout the whole of my stay in Germany. No matter where you went or what you did, your only hope for food was some form of wurst. It was usually currywurst, but sometimes, specifically in Christmas Market times, it was bratwurst. And oh, the glühwein! It flowed like… well, like you’d expect.

Tremendous MacBeth cauldrons of the stuff, manned by grinning German men in hokey holiday dress, the whole square stinking of cinnamon and cloves. Glühwein is a Germanic holiday drink, mulled wine everywhere else. You take red wine, you heat it up, you slam-dunk whatever incense your grandma smelled like in there, and then you drink it in the cold. Immediately, you’re warm. It’s a Christmas miracle. Ein Weihnachten Wunder. +30 Frost Resistance, effective immediately.

The other stands sold fried dough covered in sugar, as did every other building everywhere in Europe. They love baked goods so much it’s uncanny. There were also souvenir stands, weird little trinkets with city or religious significance, and a distressing number of puppets.

This is something that isn’t talked about often, but central and eastern Europe are absolutely nuts for marionettes. You can’t get away from them. You’ll want to, believe me. They’re freaky. Freaky and omnipresent and watching you, judging you, with their bulging, painted, sightless eyes. Wooden demon’s eyes.

In typically understated German fashion, there was also Der Goldenerreiter, a dude made of gold riding a horse, also made of gold, in the middle of the town square. His name was Augustus the Subtle.

Strong, sorry. Augustus der Stark.

It was a scenic river overlook of four buildings, churches and municipal dealies with breathtaking architecture that I couldn’t get a picture of because it was dark.

I wound up in a brauhause, hopeful that what I’d heard about German beer was true. Dark news, kids. The weizen is the best you can hope for. See, the Germans, strong traditionalists, have had this grim law in affect since 1516 called the Reinheitsgebot. In English, it’s something along the lines of “The German Beer Purity Law”, and it stated in a tone that brooked no argument that the ONLY ingredients that could be in beer were water, barley, and hops.

Absolutely brutal. Just like that Harry Chapin song about the teacher who won’t let the kid color flowers anything but red.

Don’t worry, they’re not that draconian. They modified the law in 1993(!). From Wikipedia:

“The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany.”

What I’m trying to communicate here, friends and neighbors, is that I’m an American boy, born and bred, and I’m used to exciting shit in my beer like frosting and cranberries and whatever else they had lying around the microbrewery. I like stouts! They’re full of chocolate and espresso and smoke. That’s the trifecta, infinitely better than that hyper-bitter quintuple IPA crap everyone pretends to like.

In Germany, what you get is lager. Sometimes the lager tastes more like wheat, sometimes it tastes a little darker and heavier, but at the end of the day, it’s nationalist PBR and I’m not out here for it. Still, when in Rome, gladiate, and when in Germany, drink beer until it’s not cold anymore.

Unfortunately, it was cold. Forevermore. I tried to do the sightseeing thing the following day, but everything was way too far from everything and I could feel my bone marrow freezing. Less than ideal tourist conditions. I eventually found a restaurant that would let me steal WiFi, and I ordered what appeared to be a giant bowl of cheese.

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The menu assured me it was a traditional Dresden dish. It was sort of like a French onion soup thing, only instead of French, German, and instead of onion, pork. But it was warm, and calorically dense, and you best believe I inhaled it.

I was on the first bus to Berlin the next morning. Dresden was nice, but even the locals I knew warned me that it was not, perhaps, the ideal portrait of Germany. “The most racist city in Germany” was how it was described to me, due to the massive refugee population. The refugees themselves seemed nice; they were piss drunk in the streets, blasting reggae and dancing as though it weren’t 4 degrees out. More power to them.

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Be A Bandit, my hostel insisted on the morning of my departure. Well, I do try.

Love,

The Bastard

Budapest: Flying the Coop

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I’d seen the sights, I’d drank the beer, I’d crawled around in a cave, I’d been disappointed by a number of ruin bars and I had a newly acquired half-gallon of cholesterol blocking out all the major highways and byways of my shriveled, black heart. I’d also gotten my hands on a rather fetching 5 Euro scarf.

It was a gorgeous city, especially at night. The Danube was brutally cold, but so long as you weren’t walking along the bank, even the winter winds weren’t that bad. I made a point of hiking out every night and locating a traditional restaurant then eating whatever had the word “Hungarian” next to it in the menu. My final night I got one of the house specialties, Hungarian Crispy Duck.

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I really don’t know what I expected, but it was just a duck fried like chicken. It tasted like fried chicken, only there was less of it. It was a strategic misstep on my part and I admit this openly. In penance, I drank nothing but Red Juice until 6 PM the following day.

i… suppose that argument can be made, yes

My final excursion was a nocturnal one. Budapest is an exceptional city for sneakin’ around. It seems somehow inappropriate to let your feet slap blithely on the ground. Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge of the subterranean cave systems and how easy it is to break through into them. Legend has it new branches of the caves were discovered when a single grazing goat fell through a sinkhole and dropped the 40 to 60 feet down into them. I could imagine how startled it felt, and maybe, deep down, I wasn’t trying to follow suit.

On the Pest side of the Danube is a Holocaust monument called Shoes on the Danube Bank. It’s a bunch of iron sculptures of shoes lined up facing the river.

It’s the kind of thing to be visited at night. More honest that way. The monument was constructed to honor the people murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in December 1944-January 1945. Hungary had been allied with Germany against the Soviets since 1941, remember, and when ’44 rolled around and the Hungarian government tried to bail out of their alliance, the Nazis blitzed in and occupied them. The militia was local Budapesti who tried on the fashy coats and liked the fit.

They herded 3,500 people out of their homes in the dead of night, 800 of them Jews, and had them take off their shoes and line up along the bank of the Danube, where they were executed. The bodies dropped in and got carried downriver, leaving their shoes behind.

The Swedish Red Cross was set up in Budapest and 400 of them were working round the clock trying to sneak out as much of the Jewish population as they could. They’d rented out the Swedish Embassy building extraterritoriality, along with 32 other buildings throughout the city, declaring them property of Sweden and using them as a shelter for anyone the Nazis had in their sights — which is to say, most.

Now, being as it was an occupied territory, this sounds to me a lot like hanging a ‘NO NAZIS ALLOWED’ sign on the doors, and it turns out it sort of was. On January 8, 1945, the Arrow Cross militiamen busted into one of the sovereign Swedish buildings on Vadasz street and ushered them out along the Danube, as was their idiom. The Swedes, though, weren’t having it. Joining with the less morally bankrupt of the Budapest police force, they rushed the Arrow Cross house at midnight. For militiamen, they sure weren’t accustomed to getting hit back. They were slaughtered like pigs. The Swedes rescued pretty much everyone the fascists had abducted that night. A month later, the Soviets busted in and liberated Budapest.

I hovered around there until I got cold, then got moving. It was about time to set sail anyway.

The issue was with the setting of the sail. My experience in Austria demonstrated that I had some piddling capacity for German, and while I was in this neck of the woods I figured, why not try my hand in earnest? What could possibly go wrong?

German winter.

I can understand how Russian winter got Napoleon, he was just a little dude, and French to boot. Hitler had no excuse. German winter is unspeakable. German winter is where bad people go when they die.

But that’s another country, for another post.

Love,

The Bastard

Bratislava: Enter the Labyrinth

November 26, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

What you must understand about Bratislava is it is a machine powered by ghosts and built by the devil. You know will-o-the-wisps? Those lights that appear in swamps and lead men to their doom? They keep those in the streetlamps.

The city is a 4-dimensional M.C. Escher tesseract clusterfuck. Stairs lead to nowhere, walls barricade nothing, tunnels lead to dead-ends, sidewalks dissolve without warning. Every road is five lanes, there are no traffic lights, and there might be one crosswalk in the city, somewhere. God knows I couldn’t find it.

I got off the bus into a rogue arctic storm and made my way along the side of the highway until there stopped being a sidewalk. A sign with a pedestrian on it was posted on the bridge, but there were no sidewalks, no walkways, and about two feet of space between the active lanes and the 60-foot drop into the ice river.

“That can’t… there’s no way,” I said to the cars that blew past me. “What if there’s someone with children? Or in a wheelchair? Or both?”

I hopped the guardrail and climbed down a steep, grassy hill that would also prove challenging for a wheelchair, then found my way to a bike track that wound around another bus stop and to the strange concrete underwalks of the highway bridge.

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It was passing this bus stop that I froze and yelled “FUCK!”, startling the bejesus out of everybody waiting in line.

My hat. My Wanderhut. I left it in the luggage rack on the FlixBus.

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My skull was cold, but at least I didn’t look like a communist any more. I called up Epictetus’ cup speech. For those who don’t know it by heart:

“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind, or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond, – for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal, – and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.”

Or, more digestibly:

I popped my collar like a Dracula to get some of the wind off my exposed, delicate skin, then tried to navigate my way back onto the bridge again. And that’s about when I noticed the UFO.

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The hell?

I got closer.

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Yeah, no, there’s just a whole H.G. Wells situation up on the bridge.

After careful consideration, I decided to day drink in it.

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It’s called the UFO Tower bar and restaurant for reasons that should be obvious. You cough up 7 Euro and a terrifyingly fast elevator shoots you like in the Jetsons almost 300 feet (85m) into the air, whereupon you have three options:

  1. Go to the roof deck and die in the wind
  2. Go to the slightly overpriced bar that’s still cheaper than anything in Vienna
  3. Go to the “fine dining” restaurant and get like three mouthfuls of burnt exotic cheese or whatever

Two outta three ain’t bad.

They had exactly one beer on tap, so that’s what I got. It was their national beer, as is standard in Europe, but Slovakia broke the mold by having beer that was kind of good. It was like a lager that had been hanging out with a lot of Weißbier.

I took the rocket tube back to the ground and fought my way over the highway and into the endless, horrible maze that was Bratislava. At first, I had grand aspirations about hiking up to the ruins of Devin Castle, about 5 miles outside of town. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday though, and the cold was starting to set in. It wouldn’t be a hike so much as fives miles of attempting to navigate the Hogwarts-ass shifting walkways that line a major highway. I tossed it into the “maybe tomorrow” column and went looking for food.

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the duality of man

Instead, I found a surly Russian girl who was just as baffled by the “infrastructure” as I was. She was reticent, undoubtedly due to the beautiful weather, so it was only begrudgingly that we joined forces and found our way to Bratislava Castle. A mountain she insisted on climbing in boots with 6-inch heels. We all suffer for our art, I suppose.

That, and iterations of that, was my view for around 45 minutes of uphill climbing. I understand completely how Bratislava Castle has been standing for so long. It’s utterly impregnable. Assuming you somehow bread-crumb your way through the disastrous snarl of a city, you have to untangle the snarl of dead-end paths and unnecessary staircases that loop around Castle Hill, which was, mercifully, open.

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called the Vienna Gate. guess why

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The castle itself now serves as a museum, which was closed, but I wouldn’t have gone in anyway. The courtyard was nothing but high white walls and a well. I tried to take a panorama of it but it turns out panoramas don’t work great with perfectly square vistas.

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calm down Dali, nothing is round

I thought about eating at the Hraz Restaurant (hraz means Castle in every language I don’t speak), but a 15 Euro foie gras didn’t even sound appealing. I just wanted some carbohydrates, man. I’d been running all day on a half-boxtle of Munter und Aktiv.

I climbed down the mountain and dropped back into Bratislava Centrum, aka Behind Lucifer’s TV, and tried like hell to find anything. Food. An open store. A beer. My way. Anything. It wasn’t meant to be. I meandered aimlessly for another frozen half-hour before finding the city’s only crosswalk, crossing, backtracking to Old Town and discovering it was not, in fact, a commercial hub like every other Old Town in every other city in the world, but rather, some weird sculptures and a Subway restaurant.

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the hell are you winkin at

I couldn’t find a single restaurant. I found a minimart, but I wasn’t about to eat Pop Keks for Meal. After orienting myself, I charged through this aerial view circuit diagram directly to my hostel.

The girl behind the desk was as tall as me. My fury dissipated like Bratislava’s sidewalks. I’d heard tales of this, but I’d never actually encountered such a thing in the wild. But she wasn’t built like an Amazon, she was reedy and thin. How could this occur? Isn’t this a natural impossibility, like bumblebee flight or whatever?

“And if there’s anything else you need, we are open 24 hours.”

“I need food,” I said. “So badly.”

She scribbled on a map, alternating between Slovak words I had no chance in hell of reading, let alone pronouncing, and misspelled English words. Turns out, hidden in the catacombs of Centrum, there was a traditional Slovak restaurant (that looked like an abandoned factory) and a craft brewery (that was actually built into the basement of a hotel). I thanked her, dumped my backpack, and scurried back into the night.

Traditional Slovak food saved this trip for me. I got a booth to myself. For some reason, they were playing Alien Ant Farm. I ordered sauerkraut soup and something that was described as “chicken leg and vegetables (served in pan)”.

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The soup was incredible. The sauerkraut took a backseat to the barbecue taste, and I was almost through the bowl by the time I realized it tasted like liquid kielbasa. The fact that disks of kielbasa were floating in it only amplified this effect.

Then came the alleged chicken leg.

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All right, first of all, that’s not veggies, that’s cheesy potatoes and bacon. The chicken was in there, but so were huge cubes of ham, and more kielbasa. How you gonna use kielbasa as a seasoning?

I barely finished it all. Nearly weeping, I requested the bill.

6 euros.

In Vienna, 6 euros won’t even buy you air.

I paid, wrote at the hostel for a while, then opted to check out this microbrewery. The stout was too many colors, and tasted too fruity, but the price was right.

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I staggered back to the hostel and slept with only mild interruption from solipsist mouth-breathers turning on the overhead light. I waited until they started rooting around in their little lockers then climbed down and shut the lights off.

It’s 3 AM. There are other people, you prick. Use your bed lamp or phone light like a human being.

I woke at the crack of dawn, stealthed into the hallway bathroom, and spent a half hour skinning my face with a disposable razor. It was an absolute bloodbath. More blood in the sink than water. But hey, I don’t look like Davos Seaworth anymore. Now I look like a teenage knife fighter who isn’t particularly adept at knife fighting.

I saw the rest of Centrum on my way to the bus station. It was like all other tourist traps. The food was price-gouged and for some reason the t-shirts were 15 Euros. Do they know the beer is 3 Euros? Do they know how many beers equal a t-shirt? In America, it’s a 2 or 3 beer to 1 t-shirt equivalency exchange. Ridiculous. I didn’t want to commemorate my half a day that badly. It’d be like spending 90 chicken nuggets on a souvenir for the Deep Freeze in Mario 64.

 

 

deepfreeze

i went to Bratislava and all i got was lost and pneumonia

So long, Slovakia. Thanks for all the cholesterol. Next stop…

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Love,

The Bastard