Yet another entry over at Travels With Greg, my memoir of a six-week documentary shoot through darkest Europe (including darkest Belgium) in the fall of 2004. I was so young and handsome back then. Today's entry is day 2: flying over London. Everybody likes flying over London - it's cooler than hula hoops! - so I thought I'd write an installment about it.
For those of you who like dynamic storytelling and are yourselves dynamic people, people who appreciate a certain dynamism in their lives, people who maybe work with dynamite, I've added another entry in the ongoing Travels With Greg series. In today's entry, I sit on a plane and eat at a crappy restaurant. If you think that's glamour gold, wait for the entry where I talk about eating pizza in Cannes with Mormons. That'll thresh your grain.
There was a time when I was known for my awesome traveling prowess. I spent a couple of years flying around the globe for work, going to places both beautiful beyond compare (south of France) and hideous to behold (Rapid City). Like everyone else who used to travel, I've become one of those people who kill conversations at the bar with statements like, "Hey, that reminds me of the time I saw a majestic snow hawk take flight from a eucalyptus branch and keep pace with us as we navigated down the muddy Adelaide River" and stuff like that. So I'm well-disposed towards questions such as these:
1. How much money does a backpacker need to get to and around eastern Europe, primarily Russia, for the summer?
2. What would be the best job for a recently-fired professional and returning college student? Barista? Retail sales? Reading books and getting unemployment? Best could be characterized by a balance of pay vs. the pain-in-the-ass factor.
Whooh-hoo! You see that sign-off? Margaret loves me! And she can't take it back because she said it with the internet.
Margaret, is this a veiled invitation on a budget trip to romantic Russia (and are you greaving/ over Goldengrove unleaving)? Because I'm married, and there's no way I could go on a trip without alerting my wife. After a few days she wouldn't buy my story about being waylaid by JW's on my way to Shopper's Drug Mart. She's a sharp one, she is. Go vote for her RIGHT NOW at the 2006 Weblog Awards. 'Milkmoney or Not, Here I Come' is up for Best Canadian Blog of 2006. And it is the best Canadian blog. Show the world the truth of that statement by voting for her.
As my cultural studies prof used to say, let's
make up a bunch of bollocks and hit on grad students unpack these questions a little bit. First off, we can be sure that Margaret is not from Eastern Europe - otherwise she wouldn't asking about getting there. Second, she's probably not from anywhere in continental Europe - no self-respecting European says 'backpacking'. They call it Frischairspotbilligenrucksackfüssfahrengehen and they live off roots and local beer (Ja, das hat so viel Spass gemacht dass ich noch Durchfall habe). Which reminds me: the EU recently adopted a crabbed, half-remembered German as its official language. I am the principal proponent of this language (Arschlochdeutsch) and its most fluent native speaker. Ach na, das stimmt.
Margaret's also not Australian, because there's no indication that she's fending off platypuses in Cairns, running from eucalyptus fires in Gyppsland, or enjoying the sophisticated and energetic nightlife on offer in the King's Cross area of Sydney. And she's not from New Zealand either, because everyone knows that New Zealand is now completely overrun with orcs.
Truly it is a time of heroes.
I'm going to assume that Margaret is like me: a North American child of privilege, embedded by at least one generation in middle-class society, with a decent post-secondary degree and a
kink for stuffies never mind. For folks like us, backpacking is another aspect of our education, a brief atavistic period in which we learn bedrock values like 'self-reliance' and 'casual sex'. From these experiences we grow as people and better learn how to behave ourselves in the office corridors and PTA meetings of our adult lives.
So what it does it cost to fuel our middle-class upbringing? According to the USDA, the cost of raising an American child born in 1999 to the age of eighteen will total $160,140 USD. Other calculators will return results of up to $300,000, depending on income range and regional distribution. Throw in college savings funds and the numbers keep ticking upward.
Whatever the actual figure may be, it’s certain that hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone in to your milk-strong bones and keratin hair, the lipids in your skin and the gas in your car. By the time you hit eighteen, you’re the incarnation of money. Given such advantages going in, do you really need to know the cheapest plane fare or the most reputable hostels?
For the children of privilege, I propose an alternative to backpacking, which I call bodypacking. This is not a euphemism for being a drug mule – although that’s an acceptable activity under my scheme. Your body is source and signal of your exalted place in the world, the vehicle of your will, and the most basic unit of currency. The use and destruction of countless bodies have been factored in to the shelter and succor of your own. Bodypacking is your chance to give something back.
Here’s how it goes. Instead of planning for off-season hostel-hopping, get up from your computer right now and walk outside. You may take only what you are wearing at this instant. If you have your wallet on you, then you’re in luck – a supply of funds and identification makes bodypacking much easier (at least in the initial stages). If you’re unfortunate enough to be underdressed, then you’ll have to acquire clothes right away. Your best option is theft. You can also assume other people’s identities if you’re savvy enough. Make your way to a port city and stow away aboard a freighter bound for St. Petersburg or Vladivostock.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to Russia. With any luck, you’ve picked up some of the language or made some friends along the way. If you’re really smart, by now you have a gun. A bodypacking purist will go without such a blunt instrument, but I recommend it for the really rough spots.
From your port of arrival you must make your way through Russia and the former Soviets. Stay off the main roads. Travel by night. Rely on the kindness of strangers, and when their kindness seems in short supply, use force. Learn the pleasures of fleeting images and sensations: the moon passing slowly across the space of an empty window; steam from a rope of hog intestines; the calls of armed men tramping through fields as they look for your trail. Become a folk legend: an English-speaking cannibal spirit haunting the barns and back roads of eastern Europe.
I also recommend a small digital camera to document your trip. Make sure it’s small enough to fit comfortably in a body cavity. Once you return, you’ll have some remarkable stories to tell. Your friends will be amazed by your new can-do attitude and your ability to assemble a Kalashnikov and cook a rabbit in your sleep.
As for your second question, I suggest that you try out: adventure tour guide, mercenary, advice columnist, MBA impersonator.
Everybody needs fine advice for troubled times. Askpalinode @ gmail . com.
The next few working days in the Philippines set a pattern: wake up early, meet Dindo and the entourage in the hotel lobby, spend the day shooting and doing interviews in and around Manila. Dindo taught me how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in Tagalog. His protegé Anthony, a guy with wavy feathered hair and an air of 1970s-era insouciance, gave me some phrases for picking up girls in the Philippines. It did not faze him one bit when I told him that I was married. "So?" he said. "Man is for woman, and woman is for man!" Then he would point at the nearest young woman. "Look! When she walks past us, you say, 'Heeey, magandan babai'!" I thought that Anthony was twenty-five holding on to eighteen. I found out later that he was forty, and unsurprisingly, still single.
On the third day we shifted from Manila to the Taal area in Batangas. Dindo could be a little exhausting, especially in combination with the constant humidity and heat, but so far he had been everything that other guides had not: reliable, punctual, and helpful. When the foreign office had no idea who we were, Dindo smooth-talked them into issuing us press passes (I still have mine). When the police pulled our van over in a routine play to shake some money from us, Dindo told them that we were foreign journalists working at the behest of the government. And so on.
The lunch in our honour was being held in someone's backyard. As we pulled up, Dindo explained that there were many prominent people in attendance, and they were all expecting me. Greg and I began to feel a bit underdressed for the occasion, I in my jeans and light shirt, he in shorts and T-shirt, but Dindo waved away my anxieties. No problem, he said, this is a traditional Easter brunch, it's not formal. And anyway, he continued, some people there will not know who you are.
It turned out that no people there knew who we were. The brunchers were wearing what I suspected was their Sunday best: the men in pressed dark slacks and starched white barongs, the women in floral summer dresses and hair set in loose but rigidly held curls. Dindo went from table to table, assiduously introducing us to the the mayor and his family, to various council members, and to anyone he deemed important enough to deserve an introduction. Without exception, they greeted me with polite blank smiles and gentle nods, welcoming me to the Philippines and the town of Taal. They were friendly, gracious people who had clearly had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. No one invited us to sit down.
We sat down anyway, at the only unoccupied table. It was set off in a corner apart from the rest of the tables, under the shelter of a dead tree with curious brick-red bark. As soon as we took our seats I could see why no one else had chosen it. The chair seats and tabletop were covered in a layer of sticky damp dirt, with a few ants and other insects crawling on the surface. I brushed off my seat discreetly and sat down. Dindo and Anthony did the same. Greg gave me a glance that I had come to know as his "What the hell are we doing here?" look.
The lunch itself was a buffet-style meal. The most readily identifiable items were pieces of sushi, but I had no idea how long they'd been sitting out. I took two pieces that did not appear to contain raw fish and began to pick at random from the rest of the table. I couldn't tell what I was putting on my plate, but the entire buffet seemed to made of casseroles.
I tried a piece of sushi. Despite the overwhelming moisture that crept into every single thing in the country, the rice was chokingly dry. I swallowed one piece and moved the other to the side of the plate. Anthony and Dindo had not eaten their sushi either, but they were tucking into the casseroles readily enough. I tried something that seemed to be raw pink meat with a crust of corn flakes.
No good. My tongue couldn't figure out what I had just put in my mouth. My jaw refused to move. I had to reach into a core of calm, a near-Zen state of tranquility, just to unclench my teeth and bite down again. I couldn't even interpret the taste; all I could register was the raw texture, the overripe softness of whatever it was I had agreed to eat. I wanted to ask Dindo what it was, but he was ignoring me. He had picked up on my unease and had chosen not to talk me through it. I swallowed the food and readied myself for the next bite.
That's when I spotted the dog. It was making a thin yipping noise, somewhere between a bark and a whine, constant enough that I had effectively ceased to hear it a few minutes after arriving, but a sharp peak or break in its cry had punctuated its presence. I turned in my seat and realized that the dog was under the tree only a few feet from me, a tiny starved mutt in a wire cage so small that there was no room for the dog to move. It had twisted its body around to bite at its own hip, which had gone bald and raw. The thing was staring at me from its cage, eyes nearly rolling back in its head, baring its teeth at me before remembering to bite at its hip again. Its body was covered in little sores.
I looked at Dindo and Anthony to see if they had noticed the dog as well, but they had gone to get another plate of food. I leaned over to Greg, who was carefully moving pieces of his food back and forth around his plate. He hadn't taken a bite.
"Do you see the dog?" I whispered.
"I hate this place," Greg replied.
Dindo and Anthony came back. "You're not having more?" Dindo asked. "Go on and have some more". I explained that the traveling had killed our appetites, but in the interests of politeness I put a bite of something else in my mouth. Raw fish? I honestly couldn't tell. By this point I was starting to look forward to the breakfast at our hotel, which I had been told was a local specialty: pork gristle covered in chocolate. At least there was coffee and pineapple.
Then something stung me.
It felt like a little drop of something like boiling water on my foot. I looked down and saw a bright red mark, a rapidly rising little welt of fire. And then another. I took a closer look and realized that the ground was busy with red ants. These were probably the source of all the little spots on the poor dog. I stamped absently on a few ants. Then I felt one bite my wrist, and then another on my upper arm, and then on the back of my neck. Shit, I thought. The ants have crawled up the chair or the table leg. And then, sweet lord, I saw one land.
The ants were dropping on me from above.
I looked up at the overhanging branch and saw, to my complete horror, that the tree did not have the red bark that I'd thought. It was coated in a living, crawling crust of red ants.
Somehow I didn't scream "HOLY LIVING FUCK!" and bolt. I had reached into that same calm center that had allowed me to eat the raw-meat-and-cornflake casserole, and I'd decided to have a rational conversation about it.
"Mr. Dindo," I said, "I think we've got some ants at this table". As indeed we did; enough ants had dropped from the tree by this time that they were clearly visible, scurrying over the table and hunting down scraps of food.
"No we don't," Dindo said with a dismissive wave of his fork.
"No, Mr. Dindo," I said, "we do have ants at this table. We have ants, and they are biting me".
"No, they're not," he said, and went back to his food.
When I saw him slapping at an ant that had bitten his arm, I realized that my good relations with Dindo had reached an impasse. We had a week to go.
A few weeks ago Salon.com published "Bad Taste", (requires Flash ad or membership to read*) a six-part piece on the worst meals that the various contributors had ever experienced. There are tales of foetal ducks and oven-baked steak in a washcloth (which somehow seems worse than the foetal duck), but the stories have as much to do with the horrendous circumstances surrounding the meal as they do with the quality of the food itself. Take Michael Ruhlman's tale of a meal at a restaurant run by Rocco DiSpirito, in which the chef's attempt to impress with off-the-menu cuisine goes seriously awry. Ruhlman manages to catch the quality of what makes a particular meal bad:
Seven years later, the memory of that meal remains sharp in my mind not so much because the food itself was a travesty -- everybody but a brain surgeon is allowed to have a bad day. But really our worst meals are ultimately about sadness...Or in my case, ridiculousness.
My worst meal was served to me - or rather, I served it to myself at a buffet-style lunch in a sweltering courtyard - in the Philippines in late summer 2004. I was a field producer at the time for the show Disasters of the Century, a formulaic but popular program on floods, volcanoes and the most crushtastic engineering failures that the world has to offer. During the selection for the international component of season five, one of the researchers found information about the Taal Volcano.
Taal holds the distinction of being one of the world's smallest and nastiest volcanoes. It had killed hundreds of people in the twentieth century, periodically spewing cannonades of magma and boiling mud on the people who shared an island with the thing. Ever hot on the trail of old stories about the long-dead, my company sent me in to investigate.
In the course of the show's run, Disasters of the Century covered around eighty stories, of which about twenty-five were international (ie, non-Canadian). Often we would pick stories based on the amount of 'disaster infrastructure' that had been built around the event - are there museums? Historians and experts? Records that will lead us to survivors and descendants? Web sites? And in countries with significant cultural or linguistic differences, are there guides (or as I came to think of them, showboating fixers)?
If you intend to conduct interviews in countries where the populace speaks little to no English, a good interpreter can make the difference between an enjoyable time in a foreign place and an endless nightmare of stomach-clenching anxiety and rage. My production company refused to spend money on a professional interpreter, so we usually ended hiring someone who had been recommended by one of our contacts. These people were invariably useless, unemployable freaks who seemed to take pleasure in working against us. There was the one who smelled of old sweat and didn't show up for most of the interviews, the one who showed late for each interview and took offense when I mentioned it, the one who antagonized the interviewees, the one who dressed exclusively in leopard print, the one who kept bursting into tears every time someone brought up the topic of head injuries.
And then there was Dindo Montenegro.
Dindo was our tour guide and cultural interpreter, a flamboyant fixer who seemed to do a little bit of everything. He met us at the airport with a van and a driver, which I had expected. He was also accompanied by two smiling young men (I wish I could remember their names) whom we had apparently hired as well. I checked the call sheet - these two weren't scheduled to show up until the next day. I was immediately on my guard; my company had held so closely to the bottom line for this trip that any unexpected expenses would tip the budget into the red. I did not want to end up broke and phoning home from some Pacific Rim country.
Not to worry, Mr. Eye-den, explained Dindo with much waving of arms, this is part of the package, it is all worked out with your office, you and your companion (the cameraman) are guests here. The two smiling men took the luggage and equipment from us, in some instances prising the cases from our surprised hands. I discovered that Dindo's main talent was rapid smooth talk, effusive explanation and a semi-clandestine whispering that gave mundane details an inexplicable edge of excitement. As we threaded the streets of Manila at rush hour, Dindo informed us that we were to be guests of honour at a luncheon three days hence.
Part two tomorrow. Sorry to break up the story like this, but I blame NaBloPoMo. I also blame NaBloPoMo for global warming and the decline in quality of moving picture entertainments.
*Salon will make you watch a brief ad to get a "Site Pass," which gives you twenty-four hours of trouble-free reading. In Internet Explorer, though, Salon can be still difficult to navigate - try navigating back if you don't believe me - so my free advice is to get Firefox, install the Greasemonkey extension, then grab the Salon Premium Pass script from userscripts.org. It makes for some trouble-free times. However, if you like Salon enough, you'll want a Premium membership.
Okay. Not so sick now. Feeling better. Picking up all the sentences now, all the ones I'd stacked against the wall in the spare room, some from foreign countries, a little pile of odds and ends from the broken bits of the last few weeks. Tried to line them up but. All those pieces. Here they are.
Flew here, flew there, stopped, slept, laid over, stumbled along the corridors of the Houston International Airport, ate at Pappeadeaux's Slopbucket (If you want to eat at Pappadeaux's, you must have extremely clear arteries. Your arteries must be spacious, a vault of clear light and verdant pathways to amuse the weary traveller. Because you're about to shove a shitload of grease into every cubic centimetre of your body when you eat at that place). Six hour layover. Even in an airport the size of George Bush International, you can pretty much visit all the stores and loiter around all the departure lounges in the space of six hours. At some point it occurred to me that we were all wandering around in the body of a horribly bloated and slug-like George Bush, rapacious and massive, so overgrown that eventually he was able to lease out his form to the local airport authority.
By the time we landed in San Jose we'd all reached that semi-hallucinogenic state that comes from dislocation and airplane air, so that the humidity and heat, the lineups, the champion soccer team that flew with us and the and the cheering crowds around the airport all seemed part of our due as travellers, as if we were making up the whole thing as we went along. Because we didn't quite believe in the crowds we managed to thread through them easily, find our host and secure a taxi. We left the airport and found ourselves in the midst of an impromptu parade, vans stuffed with people honking their horns, waving hand-flags out their windows. A van pulled up beside us and a clutch of children pressed their faces to the window. One of them pointed at me. I smiled back. They started cheering and hooting in the belief that I'm as big a soccer fan as they are. Either that or I was the butt of some Costa Rican joke.
The parade gradually thinned out into traffic after ten minutes or so. Dark palm blades sawed back and forth across the beams of streetlights as we drove along the frewway into the city. We passed a Best Western, then a Denny's, and I had to remind myself that the world I thought I'd left behind has outposts everywhere. Then we turned right onto an unlit road and dipped into a spaghetti-like tangle of dark roads, with high walls and banks of trees pressing in. I could feel the plant life out there in the dark, smell it in the warm dark air that came pouring in over the lip of the window. It reminds me of my childhood summers in Bermuda, walking down lanes sandwiched between hedges of hibiscus and sugar cane. Finally we were on our way to something different.
i´m in costa rica. it´s waaaarm. The birds scream at us wherever we go. And at breakfast I learned some useful Spanish: agua caliente. It was in a carafe right next to the jugo and the leche.
I have no time to tell you more. I hope you few and faithful holiday readers are having a good time.
On Friday I went to the zoo. For some people this is no great accomplishment - one quick drive and ten bucks later, they're staring at a tamarind in a branch or scanning a pile of rocks and wondering where the hell the African Porcupine is supposed to be. But the closest zoo to me lies over two hundred fifty kilometres away, so I have to take a plane to see the African porcupines. Don't believe me? I'll show you.
These people didn't get to come to the zoo with me. They looked a bit uptight.
I discovered that the zoogoers were even more uptight than the passengers on the plane. By the time they showed up at the entrance to the African Savannah enclosure (a bit oxymoronic, but it's an unavoidable aspect of zoos) they were clearly lost and dazed. These two had clearly wandered out of a 1980 Sears catalogue.
I snapped a picture of this man just as he stepped into a beam of bright sun. His wife was looking straight at me. I still can't quite figure out her expression.
My ostensible purpose there was to train a new field producer for upcoming shoots, but I'd really flown 800 km to hang out with the meerkats.
Apparently they shared an enclosure with the African porcupines, but I couldn't see them anywhere.
Just across the street from the Speers Funeral Chapel, another funeral chapel is going up. Is Speers quaking in its morto-boots? Do they fear the encroachment of another corpse sanctifier? Maybe they're worried - and rightfully so - that the new chapel will steal their embalming fluid. Or perhaps they're sharing. I'm sure morticians can be quite civilized.
I've spent the last couple of February weeks driving around New Brunswick, which means that at least 20% of that time I was looking at this:
Exciting, no? There were definitely exceptions - the hilly and charming Moncton downtown, the poorly named but picturesque village of Doaktown, the span of Centennial Bridge over the Miramichi River. And out on the frost-heaved route 117 to Escuminac Point, New Brunswick definitely came through for me.
I particularly liked this boarded-up house sitting at the side of the road.
What surprises me most are the visible patches of green. I don't remember seeing any green in New Brunswick, but it's clearly in the photos. How much green did I miss? Not to mention: what else did I miss? Or even: how much am I missing every day? What gulf of perception does that patch of still-green grass signify?
Instead of pondering what-all my eyes elide, I'm going to show you this defunct grocery store.
This store (the Ep Uy Grocerie? I'm betting that "Ep-" is the start of "Epicerie," but I'm stymied by the "-uy") is located about 15 miles or so down the road from the boarded-up house in the town of Baie Ste Anne, a Francophone town on route 117 that produces tragedy, fishermen and oil pipeline workers. Its harbour allows passage onto the nasty Northumberland Strait, which is liberally specked with shoals, sandbars, rocks and difficult currents.
Baie Ste Anne also produced Canadian and British Empire boxing champion Yvon Durelle, who had his heyday in the 1950s. He now lives about a mile or so from this abandoned grocery store, playing the VLT machines at the Super Decker Cafe next to his house.
The Super Decker has some good fried clams.
Nobody has quite come out and said so, but my recent photo essay on my trip to Montreal could be termed creative non-fiction, insofar as nothing beside a trip to Montreal and an encounter with shrivelled balloons actually happened. The truth is that I had an extremely good time in Montreal, which is about as satisfying a city as you're likely to come across. My good time there I attribute to my lawyer-in-training friend Helvetica, who isn't nearly as Swiss as her nickname would suggest. This photo is taken in her apartment only days after the tragic accident that took her chin (hence the scarf).
Actually, I took two trips to Montreal, one in mid-December and the other in early January. I would say that I was spanning the millennium with my Belle Province visits if the millennium weren't where it already was, but that's something for another post. During the first visit Helvetica found herself a bit busy writing papers and studying for exams, so we lazed around in teahouses (sans opium) and brasseries over a couple of nights. At some point during the visit I promised to advance my writing career, or the next time I visited I would have to walk up and down Rue Ste Catherine in my polka-dotted boxers with a sandwich board over my shoulders bearing the phrase Ask me about my squandered talent. She in turn promised to treat me to a proper Montreal experience on my next visit.
And no one out there can say that she didn't deliver on her promise. Because that phrase is physically impossible for the mouth to produce without some serious surgery. Anyway. On my January visit we hung around in the lobby of the Musée de Beaux Arts, ate flaky things in a patisserie, saw The Merchant of Venice, spent an evening on the top floor of Club Cleopatre and watched the oldest running drag show in the city, ate poutine, drank chocolate, went to a party full of law students, and finally ended up strolling around by myself through downtown at 2 a.m., feeling good about being among the crowds of barhoppers and bouncers and strip club callers. It made the corners of my eyes crinkle in satisfaction. But January nights in Montreal can be windy and cold when you're wearing nothing but socks, boxers and a sandwichboard sign.
One day, while I was taking a quick break from threatening the neighbours, I decided to live out my childhood dream and finally locate the shrivelled balloons of Montreal, or as they call them there, les ballons ratatinés. Most of the literature of my youth contained references to them - "hanging from barren trees in autumnal clusters like perverse wrinkly fruit" was one such memorable description (A.G. Morgan, The Skraeling Time) - but I had been of the mind that these were nothing but myths used to frighten children.
No more. I took a plane to Montreal.
Two hours into the flight I grew fascinated with the engine depending from the wing.
When the attendants explained that I could not open the emergency exit to stand on the wing and snap a few 'pix,' I lost interest in not screaming at them until they fed me free gin-and-tonics.
We landed in the afternoon. The streets of Montreal blended together into a seamless nightmare of monotony, a grey smokey quilt of claustrophobic winter hell. Hatchback after hatchback threw up the same plume of granular brown slush. I thought I was going to die.
Buildings, once vibrant centres of business and recreation, had been overtaken by a fibrous grey lichen.
Shadowy figures inspected me from grimy windows with a weary hostility venting into the cold vacuum of apathy.
Somewhere along the way I got confused and started to to do my job. I set up a few lights in someone's house.
Finally, with only twenty-four hours to go before my flight back home, I spotted les ballons ratatinés in a parking lot off Rue Moreau, looking exactly as they had in all those steel-point engravings.
I reminded myself that the many imprecations against approaching them were no more than bedside stories my father had told me, so I walked over to get a better look.
Man, they were all shrivelled.
What benighted creature? What capricious creator?
I mean, I've taken international flights to look at shrivelled things before, but this made me feel sad and unpleasant.
I flew home the next afternoon and fed my pig, who had grown hungry in my absence. He was as young as the day we had left him, but we had grown tired and old.
Once, on the last leg of a three week trip through Australia and the Philippines, I sat in the departure lounge of the San Fransisco Airport and watched them dismantle a gift shop. It was actually a dual event: as shoppers lined up to take advantage of the markdown on knicknacks and coffee table books (even in the midst of leaving for different cities, people were leaping for bargains), men in dark blue shirts stacked stock on trolley carts. Shoppers queuing from the right, movers milling on the left, both groups sucking out the merchandise in good orderly time.
After three days of long flights and layovers I was too exhausted to weave my way around the people and investigate the nearly empty shelves for snowglobes and t-shirts, but as I watched I let my mind spin out a fantasy. I imagined that People were dismantling things behind me as I travelled, that, as in a discarded subplot of Ubik, everything was being put away until my next visit: the shanties of Manila tipped over into the river and its half-constructed shopping complexes all taken down again, then the whole country squeezed together and pushed under the waves. And then Australia rolled up like a giant carpet and tucked under the Antarctic ice sheet. Finally all this tidiness in the guise of dissolution had caught up to us at the San Fransisco Airport. I didn't know it, but the Golden Gate Bridge had been collapsed hours before and all its stays used to tie up the entire Bay Area in a neat package. Any moment now, the men in the dark blue shirts would finish up with the gift shop and start on the magazine store (a store that hid the Rolling Stone issues with Michael Moore on the cover up on a high shelf and turned upside down, which made me realize that a) America was a weird place and b) I could recognize Michael Moore by his feet and legs, which meant my brain was a place as weird as America), then move on to the cafeteria, the payphones and crappy internet terminals, the wall-mounted defibrillators and fire extinguishers, the rows of chairs in their inoffensive colours. I even imagined a small squad of those shirted men on the plane, strategically dismantling the craft piece by piece as we flew.
It occurred to me later that my fantasy was a bit like Stephen King's story The Langoliers, in which a group of passengers on an airplane get stranded in the immediate past and must escape it before they're consumed by the voracious recycler-predators of the story's title. I prefer my fantasy to King's story - in my imaginings there's no urgency or need to escape anything, since I'm synchronized so precisely with the men in the dark blue shirts that they will never quite catch up with me. They appear to be minutely faster, but it's an asymptoptic approach. Perhaps I hand them the complimentary flight magazine as I deplane. For reasons I can't quite explain, the whole notion of the world being taken down behind me as I go gives me a quiet sense of ease and safety. And in case I haven't mentioned it before, the San Fransisco departure area has the crappiest duty-free in the world. And no gift shop anymore either.
Some people want copper plumbing, some want uncritical acceptance of their exotic pet. Others want humorous anecdotes. That I can supply, unless I already told you about the time I got locked in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant in the south of France.
Oh, I did? Never mind. I hate to repeat myself, especially about the French-speaking Chinese guy who shouted at me through the bathroom door to slip the key underneath the door so he could let me out, but I was too claustrophobic and he was too impatient, so we just shouted back and forth in a few different languages until I figured out what he wanted, and when he let me out the entire restaurant was staring, since they're everyone's curious to see some guy who's stupid enough to get himself locked inside a bathroom. My cameraman wouldn't speak to me for the rest of the meal.
Maybe I could join a circus sideshow as P. Node the Bathroom Dweller. Crowds would gather to watch me through the plexiglass wall as I washed my hands repeatedly, banged on the door, twisted the key and called for help through the keyhole. "My Ma Po Tofu is getting cold!" I would scream, causing sensitive ladies in the audience to collapse backward into the throng. Then a gigantic Asian man in a thong would come out in a thong, bellowing "Donnez-moi le clef, cochon Canadien!"