A reporter friend of mine and I had this exchange a couple of days ago at a little burrito joint in downtown Juarez just after I'd walked over from El Paso:
Me: I turned 30 last week.
Robert: I heard. With all the hand-wringing that brings?
Me: I realized that if my thirties are like my twenties, my forties are going to suck.
Robert: I'm living it.
Existential bellyaching is luxury in a war zone such as Juarez. I don't pretend to understand it, having visited for only a couple of hours, especially on a day when the headlines on the local paper announced that four federales had been assassinated in the previous 48 hours. All's I know is what my friend told me, that the city, tired of the murders and arson in the bars and clubs downtown, was paying owners to abandon the buildings, which were then razed. The vibrant tourism area was being hollowed out murder by murder, demolition by demolition. But there's almost nothing but turnstiles stopping an American citizen from paying 50 cents to walk across the bridge to ol' Mexico, to see the bar stoop where a dead body had lain (and been photographed by the local paper) the day before -- and to get a beer there, as the bar's open. Taxi drivers clamor for business in pristine English. A very friendly fellow approached and offered to escort me to a massage parlor -- "beautiful girls!" -- which I'm sure would do wonders for this roadtrip crick in my neck. (When solicited for prostitution, or its near-equivalents, I often wonder whether these nets are cast indiscriminately or whether I radiate affluence, deviance or both. In this case, given my current sporting of what is clearly a sex-tourist mustache, I'm going to speculate that it's the latter.) In Mexico, trucks full of masked and armed military police zip through the streets -- but no one even checks your passport as you wander into the country. Of course, the walk back across the river by a Mexican citizen is a sonofabitch, and some people spend their whole lives wishing they could visit El Paso, a pisshole by almost any American standards. What can you do to help Mexico? Starve the beast: Smoke only locally grown pot and stop snorting coke. (That shit'll fry your dopamine receptors anyhow.) Boycott violence. Or just legalize/regulate dope already.
If you've never made the drive from Austin to Marfa, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's mountains, hills, mesas, orchards, scrublands, pastures, cattle, "showgoats," copious roadkill. You can't drive as fast as you want, exactly, but the speed limit tops out at 80 ... which means 88 is pretty much de rigeur ... and if you're daydreaming to TV on the Radio or to the Radiolab podcast in your CD player, you might glance down and see the world whirring past at 95 mph. This video is from some speed south of that, but you get the idea.
Texas is a sumbitch to drive. If the heat don't get you in the summer, the ragweed'll eat your ass in the wintertime. This week triple digits is just a down payment on the sort of August hot that's sapping your pores. Those aren't tears of pain, pilgrim, them's just your eyeballs sweating.
No stunner that when I rolled into Austin last night for dinner with a couple of ex-pat Arkansans I ordered a beer. Picked it off a menu, sight unseen. I knew only its place of origin (Austin) and its name: Freestyle Wheat Beer.
The bottle arrived, and I felt I'd entered the Twilight Zone. At top left is the brew's logo, depicting a dark-haired dude in red trunks launching himself into a swimming hole while a couple of sunbathing beauties watch from afar.
Coincidentally I'd spent the afternoon trying to snap the perfect self-photo of a dark-haired dude in swimtrunks launching himself into a concrete pond. No diving board, no sunbathing dames and no scraggly hair ... but otherwise, well, you be the judge. I'm not living a beer commercial, exactly, but a beer label? Just maybe.
The winters are like a preview of the center of hell. The newspapers are in straits. The average person on the street is just 85 percent as attractive as the average New Yorker. It's a sprawling spill of a grid, with nothing resembling a hill or mountain to keep it from tumbling out, out, ever outward. But oh, Chicago is still one bumpin' little cow town, and without peer as a summer city. And the folks I know here are some solid sonsabitches.
I've never spent more than a couple of days at a spell in Austin, which might be why I've never found time to hate the place. It is, as much to its detriment as its credit, almost exactly the sort of town I'd dream up to live in, except that it's crawling with Texans and positively blighted by burnt orange. We all make sacrifices, I suppose. This bathroom wall I shot in a bar called the Longbranch Inn, an east Austin joint festooned with taxidermy painted various shades of psychedelia, stuffed bobcats with flowers behind their ears, that sort of thing. As I was idling on the street, preparing to leave, I saw a pick-up truck make a surprise U-turn directly into a man crossing the street. It was dark, and so were his clothes and skin; it's likely the driver was tired or tipsy and simply too lazy to look where she was going. He stuck his arms out to keep from getting walloped and caught the bumper. Out of my earshot, he and the driver exchanged words. He walked to the bar. "Did you see that?" he asked me. I said I did. "She hit me! She ran into me!" I said he might consider himself a lucky fellow: Hit by a truck, and here he was walking around just fine. Even people who do wrong by us enrich us, by my silly logic, so long as they don't go so far as to actually harm us.
Once in a while we're all lucky enough to recognize something beautiful at its point of origin, before it has been run through the groupthink, both overt and subtle, that will shade our opinions later. Watching "Pulp Fiction" for the first time at age 14, I could feel my mind wrapping around it thisissofuckingawesome with lusty tenacity, like finding candied dynamite. I remember seeing Jeremy Shockey catch a pass during his senior season at the University of Miami and bull his way around and through defenders on the way to a touchdown, and thinking, "That guy's going to be in the NFL."
You can feel that same awe when you read the New York Times original review of "On the Road." I listened to it last year during a multistate road trip, which is a little like mirrors on the ceiling, I reckon. You can't 10 lines of that full-bore coyote call to wanderlust without wanting to stomp the accelerator through a floorboard, peel the roof off your ride and fly like some hell-sent black bird burning across the hills, slinging asphalt in your wake and gulp in the tarry air until it glues your squirming tongue to your molars. Here's a bit from that original review:
"On the Road" is the second novel by Jack Kerouac, and its publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).
This book requires exegesis and a detailing of background. It is possible that it will be condescended to by, or make uneasy, the neo-academicians and the "official" avant-garde critics, and that it will be dealt with superficially elsewhere as merely "absorbing" or "intriguing" or "picaresque" or any of a dozen convenient banalities, not excluding "off beat." But the fact is that "On the Road" is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as "beat," and whose principal avatar he is.
Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, "the Sun Also Rises" came to be regarded as the testament of the "Lost Generation," so it seems certain that "On the Road" will come to be known as that of the "Beat Generation." There is, otherwise, no similarity between the two: technically and philosophically, Hemingway and Kerouac are, at the very least, a depression and a world war apart. ...
This search for affirmation takes Sal on the road to Denver and San Francisco; Los Angeles and Texas and Mexico; sometimes with Dean, sometimes without; sometimes in the company of other beat individuals whose tics vary, but whose search is very much the same (not infrequently ending in death or derangement; the search for belief is very likely the most violent known to man).
There are sections of "On the Road" in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There is a description of a cross-country automobile ride fully the equal, for example, of the train ride told by Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River." There are details of a trip to Mexico (and an interlude in a Mexican bordello) that are by turns, awesome, tender and funny. And, finally, there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity. "On the Road" is a major novel.
I got an aftershock of that same prescient frisson when the inestimable Jonathan M. Katz dredged up an old Google Talk chat of ours, which I'll here paste in its relevant entirety:
Jonathan: Have you read the new WaPo piece about leaving children in hot cars?
Jonathan: Do. It's spectacular.
me: Weingarten's solid. Their heavy hitter.
Jonathan: I started and was like, "The hell is this." Then I got to page two and was like, this is fucking painful, I can't read this. And then on page four I realized I was reading it to the end. And that it was awesome. If they let you win two Pulitzers in a row, he's got it in the bag.
me: Thanks for the tip. I'll definitely check it out.
Jonathan: don't mention it
Well, I'm mentioning, in part because he did again today when the Pulitzers were announced. If you haven't read Weingarten's story, take Katz' advice: Do. It's one of the most ethical ambiguous stories you're likely to run across in a newspaper anywhere. It's proof that while many journalism awards contests are ego-fueled pony shows, the cream still rises. No pat storytelling formulas here; "Fatal Distraction" is that rare newspaper piece that will forever alter your thinking about a topic (inadvertently leaving children in cars) powerfully as his previous Pulitzer-winner, about a violin virtuoso decamped in a Metro station at rush hour, ignored by the punchclock masses.
We move too fast these days. Unless we're driving across the country. Then, everyone best getthefuckouttatheway. But do stop in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas, if you need not-quite-the-coldest beer in the state:
Finally I got around to replacing the public-domain letterage at the top of this site with a few stray fonts from the deep catalog of photos I've accumulated over the years.
The S is from the inside of a boxcar-turned-barn in my grandmother's pasture; Pine Bluff, Ark. I found it when I went to shovel dried horseshit into a bucket to serve as fertilizer for fruit trees my dad and I were planting in her yard.
The A is from the neon front of the Billy Goat Tavern; Chicago. Think of me next time you walk by the iconic "Tap & Grill" sign.
The M is on the walls outside the restrooms at Vino's; Little Rock, Ark. Fine spot for calzones and microbrew.
The E is from a movie theater exit at the Rave in West Little Rock. Can't remember what I had gone to see when I snapped that picture ... but, oh, wait. The file is stamped 11/1/09, and amid the (fairly comprehensive) pile of movie tickets I keep around is one for the 7:30 showing of "A Serious Man," a review of which I wrote for the Arkansas Times. See it before Oscar season; it'll damn sure draw nominations for something. The Coen brothers tend to be good for that sort of thing.
The I is from a huge "PARKING" sign on the top floor of a deck overlooking downtown Hot Springs, Ark.
The F lives atop a shuttered grocery in Gurdon, Ark., a hamlet in the timberlands of the southwest of the state. It wasn't far outside Gurdon that I saw this magnificent mailbox you see at top.
The L is from a taptap in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Check August posts for a fuller discussion.
The second I is a Washington Monument profile I snapped when I was in D.C. a couple of years ago to cover the Bassmaster Classic winner's victory visit to the Oval Office when it was W.'s playpen.
The N is from a children's book-themed mural near the downtown Little Rock library. I walk past it each day to work; this is from the "Where the Wild Things Are" pane.
The G is from a (badass) clothier in downtown Texarkana, Ark., called "G.Q. Style." The open-air pigeonarium at right is next door.
The dot is a 16-pound bowling ball taking a rest at Ozark Lanes in Fayetteville, Ark.
The C is part of a signature on a mural at Bonnaroo two years ago. Damn -- almost three, now.
The O is a logo painted inside Little Rock ad agency Stone Ward. The colors and symmetry struck me on a visit there one night.
The M is from a cigar sign in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: "Hecho a Manos," or hand-made.
And not that it has anything to do with any of these, but as I was rummaging through seemingly every file folder on my scattershot desktop tonight, I found this photo I snapped of Barry Obama in Cedar Rapids on the eve of his win in the Iowa primaries two years ago. Even then it was clear this guy was endowed with charisma squared. I've seen the past three presidents speak as they campaigned, along with several -- John Kerry, John Edwards ('04 and '08), Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, John Richardson, Joe Biden -- who fizzled.
For shots of a decidedly less august lot, check out this photo essay I donated to Deadspin, of the duck gumbo cookoff that every November turns the sleepy rice town of Stuttgart, Ark., into a boozy riot of ass-slapping. I hope it's not the last time a major blog meta-tags a piece of mine with "#sadwhimsy," which come to think of it describes a lot of this little state. Still, why more people don't drop by Arkansas to tour the sad and whimsical now and then is beyond me.
If you’re looking for villains – and in these times of Congressional peanut galleries, Café Press shirts and bloviating mountebanks, we all are – may I suggest you adopt a nemesis in the style of one Aaron Jackson: worms.
There’s little to like about common intestinal worms. They’re pernicious, they drink blood from your digestive system and they literally reproduce in shit. Maybe you have a soul, maybe your dog has a soul. I'm no theologian, but I am willing to entertain those possibilities. Worms, however, are soulless sucking machines that benefit humans only insofar as they remind us what a cruel bitch Nature really is, when she gets her way.
Thomas C. Cheng’s 1973 textbook “General Parasitology” enumerates the harm in the dry, disinterested prose that so often makes academic writing unexpectedly resonant:
Until recently, the human hookworm disease was numbered among the most prevalent and important of the parasitic diseases of man. Unlike malaria, amoebiasis, or schistosomiasis, hookworm disease is not spectacular. Hookworm affects populations by gradually sapping its victims of their strength, vitality and health. As exemplified in certain parts of the Middle East and the Far East, and not too many years ago in most of the southern states in the United States, the victims become lazy, shiftless and nonproductive. The resultant economic loss is beyond computation.
For obvious reasons, people in the developing world – and, speaking of the American South, you could make the case that pre-Depression Mississippi belonged in that heap – can’t abide a scourge that saps “strength, vitality and health.” Nutrition in food, already scarce, turns to supporting a worm farm in a person’s guts rather than building muscle, bone, tissue. The World Health Organization estimates that worms may pirate 20 percent of a person’s nutritional intake. For children, especially, the results can be the difference between health and malnutrition, and between malnutrition and starvation.
I’m working on a story that will try to gauge just how effective a national program would be in Haiti, where Aaron runs a handful of orphanages and coordinates distribution of a deworming agent called Albendazole to anyone who might suffer from worms. I was with Aaron and his friends Brayan Jackson (no relation) and Johnny Dieubon the day the St. Pete Times’ Latin America correspondent, the fairly gallant David Adams, and a Times photog, the intrepid John Pendygraft, also crashed at one of the orphanages Aaron and Johnny run in Port-au-Prince. It was warm and humid in the little block building, and when the sun went down, dark. We sipped Haitian beers that David managed to buy from atop a ladder behind the house, through a gap in a wall of cinder blocks. As we sat at the kitchen table and talked by candlelight (night falls early in Haiti right now; the country is on the equivalent of Central Time right now, despite having the same longitude as the Hamptons) some of the children sang in the living room. Here’s the audio:
The orphans' song
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It’s hard to explain how flattering and enchanting it is when young children, some of them painfully undersized for their age, introduce themselves with hands extended to shake, asking, in quiet but confident Creole-accented English, “Hi, what is your name?” Before they retired for the night, Aaron opened and distributed two bags of Skittles I bought from the airport in Santo Domingo a few hours earlier.
That night we Americans slept on five foam mats: four aligned shoulder-to-shoulder, with one across the feet of the others left for the last man to bed, which happened to be me. In a pile of dead mosquitoes (thanks, DEET!) I awoke at some bleary hour (dawn, as you’d guess, comes early, as well) to the some clanging din that I later ascribed to a man across the stony road who I later observed sawing through rebar amid a collection of stray metal objects. We piled into an old donated ambulance and drove to the rural outskirts of Port-au-Prince to pass out pills to people living in homes made, in some cases, of mud and sticks. Here’s David Adams’ account (follow the link for John Pendygraft's photos):
Jackson and Dieubon walked up a stony, rubbish-strewn track going from one rickety adobe-built shack to another, looking for malnourished kids.
"See how orange the hair is?" Jackson said, pointing to a barefoot child covered in dirt, the ends of her hair tinged a rusty color, a sign of vitamin deficiency. Jackson bent over and squeezed the child's swollen belly. "See how hard it is? The worms are eating it up, man."
The symptoms are so obvious, and the cure so simple, that you don't have to be a doctor to make a diagnosis. Side effects are considered minimal. It can be given as a preventative to any child who might have worms but not yet show symptoms.
Swollen bellies are so common, many poor Haitians have no idea their children are sick. With no electricity or treated water services, they also have little means to prevent infection.
"Here it's seen as normal," said Jackson. "It's hard to prevent when it's from bad water. It's all they've got."
One thing I’ll say for Aaron: He has no compunction about lifting up a kid’s shirt – any kid anywhere, it seemed – and thumping on the kid’s swollen belly as though he were evaluating a melon. The dude hasn’t met a stranger in his life. Here’s some video from our subsequent stop at a village set back from the main road, a place he and Johnny call “Little Africa.” There, in a scratched-out patch of clay and rows of skeletal homes, we found children outside a church sitting around a water pump, playing a game with homemade playing cards. Once the Planting Peace guys arrived and started handing out pills – well, it was an event. Five white guys, a couple of them toting camera equipment, distributing mystery pills as Johnny tried to explain to kids and parents alike what they were for, why they were important, why infants couldn’t take them. One woman approached us as we were leaving and explained that while she had a baby with her (too young) she also had an older child back home who needed a dose. Brayan worried that the kids who kept holding their hands out for more pills didn't understand that it was medicine, not a tiny snack.
I’m going to ballpark it and say the Planting Peace guys handed out a hundred pills to kids that day. That’s a hundred kids who were great candidates to have parasites, and several of whom were displaying the outward signs of malnutrition: distended bellies, hair tinged the color of rust. Total cost of the pills: less than $2. One of the great things about hating worms is they’re cheap to kill. If you’re the sort who gets off on exterminating your enemies, it’s a real bargain. Aaron tells me that he’s about to be interviewed (again) by Anderson Cooper, who Aaron tells me once remarked to him, off-camera, that for the cost of a pack of cigs, you could deworm a whole school. Aaron has more information at his site, plantingpeace.org.
If you'd suspected, as perhaps nearly everyone in the country had, that the appetite for Michael Jackson news was at least in part manufactured by the sloven newsgathering sensibilities of news networks, well, that may be true. But let me vouch: People love them some MJ.
Originally Lee's tribute to Jackson was slated for somewhere in Fort Greene, but somebody did the math and realized tens of thousands of people would be better accommodated on a large lawn in Prospect Park. As my friend Jena and I approached from the rather stunning north end of the park we joined a trickle of pedestrians that grew as we neared a thudding bass rolling through the damp woods. "I'm going there now," a man behind us said into his cell phone. "I'm just following the peoples. The little white peoples." But it wasn't just little white peoples: It was hipsters and black mothers with children and dudes on bikes and elegant girls in tight dresses and just about anyone you'd expect to see rocking out to Michael Jackson. And when we arrived on the green, there was a full-blown party breaking out.
Remixes of old-school MJ were blaring from speakers at the front of the green while people dance-swayed. The good Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on stage and reminded us that Jackson rose from a lower-class family in world-class shithole Gary, Ind. to become one of the great entertainment forces of the 20th century -- a tale that resonated with the overwhelmingly black crowd. As the DJ spun the likes of "Rock With You" and "Thriller" while kids in dinosaur-emblazoned raincoats bounced, and grandmothers popped-and-locked, and some dude tried to sell me burned copies of all eight of Jackson's albums for $25 (I came thisclose), the best moments were a spontaneous group dance among a maaaaaassive swath of the crowd during "Billie Jean" and a Tracy Morgan-led karaoke rendition of "The Way You Make Me Feel". Check out the audio below. (And click that Tracy Morgan link, if you know what's hilarious for you.)
The Way You Make Me Feel
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Park Slope sings "The Way You Make Me Feel" (Download)
The road from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic is one of those drives that reminds you: No matter how nowhere you think you are, you can always be somewhere more nowhere.
We sped east through the manic traffic at day’s end, passing first through the urban ruins of this sprawling metropolis, which gave way to the grass and sparse cinderblock shacks, which then gave way to adobe huts and fields. Those gave way to cacti and scrub brush. We saw men straining the scree they mine from denuded hillsides here (see the photo above) and a woman sifting through a smoldering dirt pile, looking for charcoal – the fate of a scary number of the trees here. Then we passed a lake that has been rising so fast the roads are disappearing. In this country, humans and nature are locked in a constant landscape-wrecking contest.
The border itself was like a post-apocalyptic disaster movie: storm clouds threatening, a landscape of mud and swamped cinder-block buildings, and sketchy taxi drivers haggling with poor schlubs like us, who arrived too late for the last bus to Santo Domingo. We agreed to pay $140 apiece for the six-hour drive. When it was settled, the owner of the car opened his trunk, pulled out a Dominican license plate, screwed it between the brake lights of his Accord, and then asked us for gas money upfront. A few minutes in, a motorcyclist pulled up beside our driver and flagged him over: a friend of his. Suddenly we were four in the car. And within a couple of miles, we were waved over by the first of a dozen military checkpoints who wanted to know who we were, where we were going and what was in our bags. No, we weren’t Haitian. No, we weren’t smuggling dope. Yes, we were journalists. So hand back the passports and piss off already.
As the road unspooled and blackened, with our driver’s weepy Mexican music seemingly on repeat the whole way, we began to see real towns, something I haven’t yet seen in Haiti: shops with standalone signs, tree-lined plazas, dedicated parking spots. As we went from third world to first world (or Santo Domingo’s passable impression of the same) the military stops got less frequent, less strict. The road went from craterous moon surface to sedan-friendly blacktop. We stopped for freezing-cold Presidentes which we drank wrapped in brown bags and stashed under the seat during checkpoints. We drove through jungles where grapefruit-sized toads and tarantulas like walking hands came into view with the headlights.
Our driver hit a four-lane stretch of burnished ebony – a velvety black carpet of highway that we knew would take us straight to the capital. After a couple of miles, he realized he was driving eastbound in the right-hand lane of the westbound lanes. He cut through a gap in the median and cussed himself. His co-pilot reassured him in Spanish, “People make mistakes.” We stopped for fried chicken and a pit stop in one of the truly skuzzy restrooms of the world: no seat, no light, standing water on the floor, stripped shower-knob fixtures jutting out of the wall, an odor like a wet yak breaking wind. Then it was back onto the road with fried chicken and plantains and Jonathan describing the actual worst restroom in the world: a bottomless, seatless shithouse built over the edge of a chasm in the Andes, where bus tourists were expected to risk their lives just to move their bowels. Not surprisingly, the interior was coated with evidence that even Peruvians draw the line somewhere.
The checkpoints became more spare and more chill: the eleventh, in fact, consisted of little more than a quick glance at our passports, a few words from the cabbie and from Jonathan (fluent as he is in Dominican Spanish) and then a large brown hand sleeved in camouflage reaching in to give us dap. Then we arrived in Santo Domingo to find that our esteemed cabbie is allergic to city driving. He parked (again facing oncoming traffic) and left us to stew while he found a Santo Domingo cab that would take us the final few miles to the flat where we were staying. There we found splendid Spaniards, a gregarious Guadeloupean and a 2,000-or-so square foot rooftop patio with an open-air shower. I partook. The next day, as a storm moved in, I got this snapshot. Then, my camera crashed. Subsequent Hispaniola tales may be illustrated lightly.