December 21, 2010

They Came from the North Pole


There were no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or quivering bowls of figgy pudding in our home.  We simply took the food-based Christmas carols at their word.  Instead, each season my mother would prepare what she called “Cajun Christmas.”  Ham hocks were lowered into giant pots of collards, Dixie beers were chilled, and shrimp heads were pinched off into vats of boiling gumbo.  The downside to living in what was essentially Paul Prudhomme’s kitchen was that I had to lie whenever someone asked “Did you eat enough turkey?”  Rather than trying to explain Cajun Christmas in the checkout line at Kmart, I made up tryptophan antidotes.  
“Oh, sure,” I’d say.  “We all woke up with mashed potatoes in our hair.”

High school provided me with another unique holiday tradition.  I knew a girl named Nicole.  Both friendly and attractive, she stirred the sort of thoughts that earned me a lifetime membership on the naughty list.  No matter how cold it was, each year she’d come to school dressed in this Mrs. Clause getup – or was it Mrs. Clause’s naughty niece?  It might have just been the sleeve off a regular-sized Santa suit.  Anyway, she completed the outfit with an elf hat and a pair of white patent leather high-heeled boots.  In the school yearbook, she was voted most likely to be shown a mistletoe belt buckle. 
            I was walking behind Nicole one day when she was wearing the outfit.  The hallway was packed, and two girls walking next to me were talking about the Nicole. 
“Where does she think we are a strip club,” said the one in flannel.
The other girl said “Looks like Santa’s Little Slut left the North Pole.”  
Considering where we were, I thought the comment was well aimed.  However, the girl that said it didn’t have a whole lot of room to talk.  She was wearing black lipstick, and had a large permanent marker X drawn on her forehead.  Flannel girl was laughing now, but Doom Girl’s face was scrunched up as if Rudolph took a shit in her cornflakes.  It’s funny the things our brain chooses to remember.  I haven’t seen Nicole since high school, and I can no longer quote Shakespeare, but for whatever reason, that girl’s comment has stuck with me ever since.  

 Last year was my first Christmas overseas.  In a spirit similar to Cajun Christmas, my wife and I celebrated Tropical Christmas in Ko Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand.  A political protest had shut down Bangkok’s airport the week before, causing many tourists to cancel their plans.  Locals tried to make Westerners feel at home by decking the bars with red and green tinsel, fake trees, and cardboard Santa faces.  While walking to the beach one morning, we stopped to watch a hotel employee risk his life by climbing a full-grown palm tree to string some colored lights. 

            I woke up early Christmas morning and placed our presents under the tree, a short, potted palm on the communal patio.  A Thai maid stared at the presents as she passed by, and it made me wonder if folks wrapped presents here.  When Takayo woke up, we got dressed – bathing suits and flip-flops – and opened our presents under the tree.  Hers was a cashmere sweater.  Mine was a wool shirt.  
            “This is like a bad joke,” said Takayo.”
            “That Santa has some sense of humor,” I said.  Both presents were from my mother.

            At a suckling pig restaurant in Lamai Beach, our Christmas dinner came out clenching an apple between its jaws.  We walked to an Aussie bar after dinner and took a table overlooking a side street.  The pink neon signs down there read Huggies, Boom Boom, Backdoor something-or-other…  Half of that sign was missing.  There was a lot of scooter and foot traffic.  Three Thai women stood outside Huggies.  They watched the passing traffic, and occasionally cat called “Hello!” or “Yoo-hoo!”  The women all had black hair to their waists, and wore tight red dresses, red high heels and red elf hats with a furry white ball on the end. 
A silver fox with a little round belly pulled his scooter over.  A working elf walked over to him, whispered something into his ear, and then jumped on back.  Her hair waved goodbye as they drove out of sight.  Another elf came out from the bar to replace her.  This one was dressed all in satin from her breasts to her thighs.  Because she was so tall, I pegged her for a ladyboy.  I had to laugh like hell when the next silver fox pulled up. 
“It’s like a feeding frenzy out there,” said Takayo. 
I was taking a sip of beer at the time, so I couldn’t answer.  But what could I have told her?  That I was flooded with Yule-time memories?  That it actually felt like Christmas for the first time since we’d arrived?  Rather than trying to explain some distant teenage infatuation, I leaned toward her and said the first thing that came to mind. 
“Looks like Santa’s Little Sluts have left the North Pole.” 

December 8, 2010

Making Logos

My sister lives in Cairo, Egypt. I spoke to her on the phone recently. She said, amongst other things, that when books and movies are imported into Egypt, someone edits out the pigs. The government actually pays someone to do this. She is a teacher, so they may be especially thorough with nursery rhymes and children's stories.

What does this mean?

Old MacDonald had a farm e i, e i, ooo
and on that farm he had a --- e i, e i, ooo
with a --- --- here and a --- --- there,
here a --- there a --- everywhere a --- ---


In movies such as Charlotte's Web and Babe, she said, the entire movie plays out with the pig pixelated or blurred out. Now, I don't know about you, but it seems like a talking pink blob would somehow be more obscene.

I must admit, my first instinct was "If they blur out the pig, isn't that like saying Allah made a mistake?" I don't necessarily believe that's true, though. People make mistakes all the time. You can add that to my growing collection of Famous Last Words.

My sister went on to tell me they cut out kissing scenes between non-married couples in movies too.

"You think Babe was bad? I tried to watch Love Actually -- didn't understand anything."

Sure, it might disturb the plot a little, but in this respect I understand where they're coming from.

For more Unnecessary Censorship:

Unnecessary Censorship Sesame Street Edition



December 2, 2010

Glen the Butcher

When I was twenty, I made a terrible mistake and wound up working as a butcher’s assistant in Marlton, New Jersey.  It was my firt time abover the Mason-Dixon Line.  My friend Fran arranged something with the manager.  I'd get paid under the table.  The manager introduced me to Glen the Butcher.  From the moment he opened his mouth, I already knew I hated him.



 “So, what ’cha know ‘a, Noah?”  

Glen the Butcher laughed.   He was squat and round like a deer tick.  The manager and I nodded like oh yea, that’s the stuff.   

Glen the Butcher kept on.  Glen the Butcher wheezed.  Glen the Butcher hacked.  Squishy coughs.  He doubled over now, gave it all he got.  He had purple veins on his head. 

The coughing fit ended as quickly as it begun.  He stood up with a lit cigarette dancing below his mustache. 

“Come on then.”  Glen the Butcher was on the move.  A seductive finger of smoke lingered, pointing that ‘a way. 

                I met him at the swinging door.  The walls around us were plywood, had a row of heavy white aprons with orange-pink stains hanging.  “Now, all joking’s aside,” he said in a thick Jersey accent, “you never worked in a meat shop before, right?”  I said I hadn’t.  He stepped closer, still smoking.  “Let me tell you’s something.  People’s get fingers cut off ‘n hands chewed the fuck up in tha meat grinder all the time.  All kinds of stupid shit happens ‘n here.” 

I bowed my head, considering what kind stupid shit would happen to me. 

                “That said,” he continued.  “I don’t want’s no silly shit going on like those fuckhead friends a’ yours over in tha deli.”  I nodded, but he wasn’t quit finished. 

“Now, I don’t know’s why they keep giving me people that don’t know nothing, but that’s what they do.  So, from now on, your name isn’t No-ah.  I’m gonna call you No-Nothin because that’s exactly what you know until I tell you what to know.  You don’t do nothin.  You don‘t know nothin -- Until I tells you.  Got that?” 

With this sparkling introduction out of the way, I slipped into one of the stiff cotton jackets.  A blue insignia on the left breast read:  Frank

                The meat room air was cool, left a metallic taste in the back of my throat.  Glen the Butcher showed me the meat grinder and meat locker.  The meat locker was almost empty.  Meat hooks hung from chains.  They looked like Spanish question marks; sounded like wind chimes.  I imagined Glen hanging from one, his legs kicking like a swimming pig.    

                For my first task, I stood at the business end of a bone saw catching meat in a plastic tub.  The job was menial, and required complete attention.  I kept my meat coat clean.  Glen worked quickly, and to my surprise, quietly.  But then someone rang the assistance bell.  It drowned out the blood-splattered radio in the corner.  It wasn’t so much a ring as a grinding clatter.  The meat room became a Pavlovian experiment.  



The bell did not make Glen the Butcher salivate, however.  It made him curse, curse, curse.  He stabbed his carving knife into the chopping block.  He turned to the window overlooking the grocery store.  An attractive housewife had rung.  Glen stormed over in these black rubber boots and dropkicked the door. 

“Today, a Marlton butcher was arrested after bludgeoned a woman to death with a T-bone steak.  Details at eleven.”

That’s what I thought I would hear.  But stepping onto the sales floor transformed Glen the Butcher.  He greeted the woman, listened and reciprocated.  He even engaged in light banter.  He brought a twin-pack of steaks back into the meat room.  The smile quickly melted.  He was seething again, mumbling.  Bits of his psychotic rant tangled with the music on the radio:

“Gold bricking…”
     DON’T STOP
…maggot princess…”
           BELEIVING
…spoiled little bitch”
               HOLD ON TO THAT FEELING

Glen the Butcher packaged two individual steaks, and brought them to the swinging door.  Glen the Charmer walked onto the sales floor, placed a single steak in the woman‘s cart, and waved good-by. 

After Glen the Butcher’s bi-polar escapade, I slipped on a kidney and dropped a tray of ground beef.  I was scooping it into the pan when Glen the Butcher caught me.  I thought he would unload a case of knives, but he just told me to run it back through the grinder.

I spent New Year’s Eve morning labeling 50 pounds of steak.  But I entered the wrong code into the labeling machine.  Top round sirloin was ringing in the New Year.  It cost as much as pig rectum. 

That afternoon, the real butcher’s assistant -- the person whom I’d replaced -- showed up.  He was Glen the Butcher’s son.   He hadn’t come to work in four days.  He looked like hell.

Glen the Butcher looked at him as if he’d just pushed the bell.  “Where ’da hell have you been?”  
“I had some things to take care of,” said Butcher Jr. in a backwoods Jersey accent.  “Who the hell is he?”   

I’m the guy they pay under the table to pick up your slack.  Surly Glen the Butcher would stick up for me. 

                “Who, this guy?  He’s nobody.  And neither is you.  Now re-price this meat.” 

                Although Glen the Butcher had placed me in the same category as his drug addict son, I decided nobody was a step up from No-Nothin.  I slacked off a bit after Butcher Jr. showed up.  By the end of my shift, Frank’s meat coat was still spotless.  However, before I left, in what felt like a gruesome rite of passage, Glen smeared his bloodied hand across my chest. 

“There ‘ya go.  Get some blood on ya.  Now you’s a real butcher!”  

I walked into the deli to see Fran, trying to pretend like I wasn’t swathed with blood.  He couldn’t stop laughing.  The straight-laced woman waiting for cold cuts looked apprehensive.  Maybe she’d never seen a real butcher before.  



November 25, 2010

Notes on Going to See Mao Zedong

If you haven't checked out my latest story on Matador Network, Notes on Going to See Mao Zedong, you can read it HERE. 

"With a half-mile of folks standing side to side and butt to loin, a woman in a plaid shirtdress filed me back with her cane. It seemed unintentional, and at the time I thought nothing of it. But the folks behind us smelled blood in the water."


Big ups to the sultan of stoke, David Miller, for his fine editing work. 

Noah

November 24, 2010

A Preview from: My Moving Diary


2 January, 2008.  Raleigh, NC:  “I don’t think you can fly into China on a one-way ticket,” the woman at the Delta check-in counter says.  Her vest has these sad plastic wings pinned on. 
            “Are you saying that I can’t get into the country, or that I need to buy a return ticket?” 
            She thinks for a second.  “I don’t know,” she says.  “How long do you plan on staying in China?”

I'm actually moving to China, but two different people told me not to say that.   This is what I say instead:

“I’m just going to roam around the country for a while.”   
“Um, OK, you can figure this out when you get to JFK.  Have a good flight.” 

JFK Airport:  I check into Air China, get my boarding pass, and keep my mouth shut.   



Air China:  I’m the only White person boarding the plane.  Oops – there’s one more.  The plane is a double-decker.  I’m downstairs.  Everyone around me is speaking Mandarin or shouting Mandarin.  I have a window seat.  I sit down and watch people in the aisle shove each other from behind. 

There's an impulsive air onboard.  As we taxi down the runway, a man stands up to rummage through the overhead compartment.  The stewardess storms over and berates him.  I mean she lets him have it.  She points to his seat, and yells at him like a dog.  The man looks away like a dog, too.   
     “No!  Bad!”  I imagine her saying.  “You know what you’ve done.  Now sit!”   

I half expect her to bust out a choke collar.

The man behind me has his knees in the seat, talking to the man behind him.  They’re using ‘outside voices,’ even though they’re close enough to play patty cake.  The captain comes over the speakers and speaks Chinese.  I look out the window to make sure we’re still in America.   

I eat a Xanax.  We are prepared for takeoff. 

Somewhere over the Arctic Circle:  I wake up feeling naked.  The overhead lights are off.  My wedding ring is gone.  I use my iPod as a light and search the floor.  A knot tightens in the pit of my stomach. 

I search my immediate area before hitting the flight attendant CALL button.  I still have a pretty good buzz on; otherwise, I don’t know if I would have done that.

The girl comes over.  “I lost my wedding ring,” I say.   

She shakes her head.  She doesn’t speak English.   

At this point, I don’t know why this surprises me.  I point to my finger, tapping the spot where my ring used to be.  No luck.  I point to the ring of the man beside me.  He’s asleep.  Everyone’s asleep.  She’s trying real hard to understand what I’m saying. 

In a last ditch effort, I point to my ring finger again and say “Poof!” 

Poof is a magical word to this flight attendant.   It gives her clarity.  And not only that, it gives her the power to disturb sleeping passengers without remorse.   

The woman in the aisle seat gets it first.  The flight attendant prods her on the shoulder.  She comes to with a jolt.  I’m standing.  The flight attendant’s standing.  We’re both looking at her.  Before she can figure out what’s happening, the flight attendant launches an interrogation on missing jewelry.  The woman looks around like a chameleon, muttering the Chinese equivalent of “No, no, no.” 

I feel awkward about unleashing this flight attendant, but it’s out of my hands. 

She’s jostling the passengers in the row behind me now.  Their reading lights are turned on for them.  Their faces recoil.  They’re ordered to search the floor.  The man in the window seat is still asleep.  When he comes to, he is very confused.  The passengers beside him have their heads between their knees.  This, coincidentally, looks like the crash landing position.  The man looks to the flight attendant, but she offers no relief.  She is using her outside voice in a dark plane somewhere over the Arctic Circle. 

By this point I am freaking out.  What will I do, I think, wait until the plane lands? 

The nervous man doubles over now.  There is a commotion.  He comes up, pinching my ring between his fingers.




November 17, 2010

Getting Even

So here I am, again, standing across from the mailman.  Actually, it’s a mailwoman.  The woman’s in her fifties, fair skinned with a curly, round head of hair.  She’s not looking at me, but I’m looking at her and thinking This is a broad who’s played life by the rules.  I’d never say that of course.   


Maybe it’s just the uniform rubbing off on me.  It’s one of those sky blue, Government Issue two-pocket oxfords.  What a mouthful, and for what?  The thing’s practically wearing her, and yet, I can’t stop staring.  There are four plastic pens in the left pocket; three blacks, one blue.  The blacks are crammed into a corner, but the blue one, the misfit, is hovering over Nipple Territory. 


The mailwoman lets out a sigh.  It’s for me.  Her colleagues look over, but they know the score.  Beads of sweat are rolling down my back.  After seven minutes, she’s still counting the three-pound-bag of change I tendered as payment.  There was some regular change on top, a few 10 and 20 cent pieces, but now it’s down to the nitty-gritty:  The 1 cent pieces.  Back home we call them pennies.  The European ones are even smaller.  You can’t spend them as fast as they come in unless you’ve got a motive.

I found a motive two hours earlier.  I rode my bike over to pick up the package my mother sent from the States.  She sent it two weeks before my birthday, and now, a month later, I get a memo in the mailbox.  It’s in German.  I don’t know what it says, but something about the layout seems to communicate:  It’s your lucky day.  I left my apartment and cut through the park, taking the cemetery trail to the 704 line.  The Deutsch Post is further up on the right. 

There were only two people in line.  When I reached the counter, I handed over the memo and the woman went back and found my package.  I asked her if she spoke English in German.  She said “yes,” in a way that reminded me of rainbows.  “Great!” I said.   

She asked for my ID.  I told her sorry, I didn’t bring it, and recited my mother’s address instead.  She looks carefully at the package, which she hadn’t handed over yet.  She raised an eyebrow.  It was good enough for her. 

She scanned the package and gave me another test.  I wouldn’t be able to charm my way out of this one.  To take home my package, my birthday present, I would have to pay 33 Euros and 56 cents.  The package, it seemed, contained items the German government wished to profit from.  It was a business tactic based upon the popular model of consumerism:  I desired the package more than the money. 

This tactic was also, coincidentally, based upon the model of ransom.  Ransom is the practice of holding a prisoner or item to extort money to secure their release.  Most cases of ransom involve kidnapped people, but not always. 

I am reminded of an incident where thieves broke into the tomb of Argentine president Juan Perón.  They weren’t looking for gold or jewels.  They wanted the president’s hands.  This was no arbitrary detail, however.  Perón's hands were viewed as a symbol of national power.  The thieves sawed them off.  Newspapers worldwide ran stories on the Hands of Perón, as the incident became known.  As the story unfolded, it was also made public that the thieves removed another type of symbol:  The president’s genitals.  They requested $8 million to return the hands.  It wasn’t made clear whether or not the genitals were included in this deal.  It didn’t matter.  The government refused to pay the ransom, and the items were never recovered. 

My situation was a matter of ransom disguised as customs charges.  Be that as it may, I wasn’t going to react as the Argentine Republic had.  I was willing to pay the Post’s ransom. 

But I was not able.  I had 20 Euros on me.  When I told the mailwoman this, she understood.  I had never incurred customs charges on a package before.  I made it quite clear that this charge was unexpected.  She whisked my present back into the bowels of the Deutsch Post.  I walked out to my bike empty handed, ruing my ill preparedness.  While peddling home, however, those feelings of self-pity turned to anger.  I would, amongst other things, plot revenge on the post office.  

The only question now was "how?"

November 8, 2010

We're Chugging Right Along

I've published another story on the Matador Network called Hitting the Skids on Emerald Isle. 

"A lot clearing business, a man named Brian, and life in a trailer — 
C Noah Pelletier describes growing up in a family of Beach People."

Nick Rowlands, editor of Matador Life, did a great job working behind the scenes with this story.

If you haven't checked it out yet, you can read it here.

And please leave a comment!!

November 7, 2010

Where do I fit in, exactly?


Germans have the damndest ideas of a good time.  Haul in a wiener wagon and a beer truck to any open area and folks will get dressed up in autumn-colored shirts and corduroys and drive their Audi’s or Mercedes station wagons as fast as they can to get there, honking horns and shouting to pedestrians along the way.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, but much like accordions and lederhosen, the novelty wears off rather quickly.

What doesn’t wear off so quickly is the German’s sense of moral resilience.  You might, for example, find yourself standing with others at the crosswalk of a long, deserted street, waiting for the signal to turn green.  Crossing the street may look safe, but the people around you will literally hiss if you cross prematurely.  And folks are hesitant to speak to each other even at the park – that is, unless you toss a Frisbee too close, and then even an old woman will make a fist and curse your ever-loving soul.  Many people leave the house, I’ve decided, just to ensure that things are in order.  When they’ve finished inspecting the outside world, they come home and find still more things to correct.

**

            I moved to Düsseldorf in the summer of 2009.  Shortly after arriving, I met a Kiwi who was kind enough to give me a bike.  The thing was beat up, “Cursed” he called it, and showed me where he broke his wrist.  He wished me better luck with it.

There was a long bicycle rack in the parking garage under my apartment building.  Many of the bikes were sick with flat tires or rusted chains.  I found an open space and wedged my front tire between the brackets.  All was fine until a month later, at which point I found a note stuck to my handlebars.  Actually, note wasn’t a strong enough description.  This was an official document typed in perfect MLA format, folded into thirds, and sealed in an envelope.  No detail was overlooked. 

I couldn’t read German, but the implication was clear:  There were many spaces, but this one was his.  The whole thing was, I felt, a tad ridiculous.  I put the letter back into the envelope and, when I returned from the store, stuck it back onto my handlebars.  There didn’t appear to be assigned spaces on the rack, so I went home, hoping the situation would blow over.  The next afternoon, I found my bike propped up against a cement pillar near the end of the rack, the letter still attached. 

**

This glimpse into my neighbor’s psyche was interesting, but to think that everyone handled matters in such a passive aggressive manner – that was disturbing.  I tried to imagine things from my neighbor’s point of view.  To do that, I gave him legs which were as hairless and thin as sign posts.  His face was bony, but healthy, and it glowed before the pale blue screen of his computer.  I imagined a tall, slick brow that furrowed easily, and a tongue which poked out from the corner of his mouth when he typed.  The voice in his head, which sounded like my own, told his soft, pink fingers to type this:  “Re:  Bike Parking.”  Did he use spell check?  Certainly.  He would save this letter (for future reference) in a folder labeled “COMPLAINTS.”  

**

I brought the envelope upstairs to my own computer and attempted to translate it.  Still, I couldn’t stop wondering what kind of man would go to such lengths.  The more I dwelled upon it, my mind searched for more reasons to dislike him.  What was his private life like?  Was he married?  If so, what was it like to make love to this man?  From his letter, I didn’t get the impression that he was particularly tender.  No, with him it was all about control, so I imagined his wife lying under him like a wounded sparrow, twitching in cold, rhythmic sync with the clock on the nightstand.  That probably wasn’t fair of me, but aside from the letter, I didn’t have a whole lot to go on. 

It’s a funny thing, passive aggression.  I used to think myself above it, but when you have enough free time on your hands, the stuff spreads like the dickens!  For a minute there, it was almost like having a secret admirer, but instead of possible romance, there’s misdirected resentment.  When I went down two days later and saw his shiny new bicycle sitting in my old spot, I almost let the air out of his back tire.  That’s my idea of fun, but it would have been childish, and far too obvious.  Instead, I parked my bike a few spaces down the line.  That was nine months ago.  There haven’t been any new complaints yet, but the suspense is killing me. 

**

October 28, 2010

Crushed Birds and Bricks of Hash



My wife and I touched down in Copenhagen.  We got in late, went to bed without dinner, and awoke starving.  We traveled in relative anomimity.  Not even my parents knew that I was leaving.  Maybe it had something to do with the latitude or the curvature of the earth up in Denmark, but the sky was a brilliant blue.  The other shades somehow seemed obsolete. 



We followed a band of Chinese tourists to City Hall Square.  Electric beer and fast food signs glowed in the distance.  One of the guys wanted to show off for the camera.  He charged toward a flock pigeons, which were eating bread crumbs fed to them by an elderly man.  Hoping to cause a great scatter, the Chinese boy stomped toward the unsuspecting birds with his shiny black shoes.  They didn't understand the rules of his game.  Many birds were stomped unmercifully.  

My wife and I were on a pilgrimage to fine breakfast.  Our search brought us to a nightclub-ish café called Tight.  We walked inside and ordered what we loved:  A bowl of chive-infused scrambled eggs, bacon, and a wide, shallow cup of coffee.  A couple of guys were hunched over a laptop at the table next to us.  One of the men was holding a credit card as if it were something very fragile.  

 “She’s an American,” the guy said to the waiter, “works for some consulting firm in Chicago.”   

They discussed the possibility of her still being in the city, and what should be done with the card.  The man handed the credit card and laptop back to the waiter.  The men then paid their tab and left.  I talked to the waiter, a Frenchman.  Actually, I found out that he was one of the owners when my wife went to the restroom.   “The other two owners are in Nepal.  They’re at base camp now, preparing to climb Everest.”           
I myself had never been to Nepal, or even France for that matter.  Nevertheless, I liked the vibe in this city.  The streets had a wide-open feel similar to Vienna; however, the colorful Rococo apartments reminded me of Amsterdam.  Perhaps too, it the bikers, and their cold, serious faces whizzing by us on the sidewalk.  This hodgepodge of references ended when we reached the Free City of Christiania.  



As Faulkner had mentioned, “all of a sudden, you cross over.”  The gate was an ode to tribal chic:  Two hand-carved totem poles with a curved wooden plank running across the top.  Gold lettering spelled out the word “Christiania.”  

Shortly upon entering this gate, we realized that it promised a meticulousness the commune itself failed to contain.  My initial reaction was like a child in some forsaken candy store. 

Christiania was a military zone originally, its large empty buildings a haven for homeless squatters.  These people couldn't afford homes.  



 Back in 71’, inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood broke down the fence surrounding Christiania, which opened the floodgates, as they say.  That’s how it started, but then…it became a movement.  Not exactly a takeover, but given the lack of affordable housing at the time, utilizing this military ghost town must have seemed like a pretty good idea. 

We veered to the right, walking alongside a tall brick graffiti warehouse lined with sick and dismembered bikes.  There were parts of a playground somewhere in the trees and bushes to our left. Nobody was out there.  This little freak village was still waking up.  The smell of coffee was in the air.  Leashed and unleashed dogs frolicked.  Having grown up in an area with both coastal and military influences, something about the utility buildings and layout made everything feel familiar.  

You can find Christiania on all Copenhagen tourist maps.  In fact, we could hear the garble of commerce through the trees in the distance.  But something about this place didn't strike me as touristy at all.  In my experience, tourist dollars tend to change a place -- cheapen it, oddly enough -- while prices skyrocket.  Usually, I imagine old rich white men getting their rocks off counting stacks of money. 

But I didn’t get that here.   Not in Christiania.



No, it seemed as if the artists and others who lived within this commune preserved the past.  Within these walls, we were in fact not in the EU, the European Union.  We passed an old keelboat sitting like a tombstone at the edge of a yard.  It was just part of the landscape – in a sense, part of the people.  

 Your typical municipality is selective in what they keep, or as is usually the case, in what they throw away.  As my wife and I walked arm-in-arm, I had a sneaking suspicion:  If the city of Copenhagen had their way, they’d bull-doze this whole goddam place.  It was all so quirky.

 

We arrived to Pusher Street, where we had heard the sounds of commerce earlier.  This was where it all went down.  There were rows of ramshackle huts, some draped with camouflage.  These huts sold marijuana, marijuana cigarettes in protective vials, and hash. 

Compared to the coffee shops in Amsterdam, the vibe that I got was this:  “Sketchy, man.”  My expectations, however, were irrelevant.  It was a mellow scene, a place where like minded people could sit and enjoy themselves without fear of judgment.  Many people wore house slippers.  Many enjoyed the sun. 

A sign at the top of the street read “No Photo!”  All of the signs in Christiania were hand painted.  We obeyed this sign, although stealing a photo would have been easy enough. 



In 2004, the police jazzed themselves up with an idea:  They were going to HALT the cannabis trade!  Their brilliant plan was to destroy Pusher Street's marijuana huts.  Their plan worked in the sense that there were no more marijuana huts on Pusher StreetMarijuana, of course, was still as common in people’s homes as espresso.

One such hut is preserved forever in the National Museum of Denmark.  The curators recreated the display best they could.  They replaced bricks of hash with old terracotta tiles.  They must have known that the job fell short.  To remove all doubt, someone came along and stapled a sign to the hut:

“Of course, these are NOT real drugs.” 

As obvious and disappointing as this was, I found a bit of interesting information.  The official currency in Christiania is the Løn.  There is the “Fed” (fat, 1 gram) and the “Klump” (lump).  Both are coins.  Their names/values allude to quantities of hashish.  

Locals are paid in Løns, which, in all sincerity, might explain the dismal clean-up effort within the walls of Christiania. 


We walked past Pusher Street to the Stadsgraven, a lovely unmolested recreational area.  Looking out over the water, it was hard to believe that we were in a major city just moments ago.  I wondered if this was what they were fighting for -- a place to swim in the short Denmark summer.  Perhaps, but like my friend Faulkner said, “There’s something else, something more.”  



Artistry, in many ways, is shaped by battles, both internal and external.  One doesn’t need to pick up a paintbrush to prove that he or she is an artist.  It’s how we live.  With the right instincts, simply being in a place where individuals – truly free individuals – can live together in a way that reflects them is an art unto itself.    



October 25, 2010

Airplane Bottle


 

After speaking with a representative, Noah walks away from the Tax-Free Refund counter at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen.  Voices from a loud speaker echo off the walls in a language he doesn’t understand.  Noah is thirty-years-old, dressed in a pair of gray slacks, camel hair sweater, and a black cashmere jacket he had custom made while living in China.  He stuffs an envelope containing a receipt from ECCO shoe store into his jacket pocket.  Takayo, his wife, walks beside him with her hands in the pockets of her long black coat.  She is wearing a brand new pair of shoes. 

Takayo:  You should have lied to that woman.

Noah:  Yea, I know.  You think I’m losing my touch?

Takayo:  Maybe.  How badly did you want that $25?

Noah:  Not that bad, I guess.  I wonder if they’d consider it tax fraud.

Takayo:  Dunno.  You should try it though.  Let me know how that works out for you.

Noah:  I definitely should have lied to her -- for the principal.

Takayo:  It doesn’t matter if you’re an American.  You live in the EU; you’re not entitled to get the tax back.

Noah:  I know, but it would’ve been nice to blow that money in duty free.  I still like to consume like an American.

A digital sign hangs down from the three-story high ceiling by the gate entrance. 

Takayo:  10 minutes?

Noah:  What?  Is that a long time?

Takayo:  This is a first world country.  It should not take ten minutes to get through security.

Noah:  We still have two hours before our flight.

Takayo:  And we’re going to need it to go shopping in duty free.

TSA agent:  Express lane!  Checks passport and boarding pass.  Right through there, sir.

Noah:  Which one of these lines looks the least incompetent? 

Takayo:  Probably the last one.  Jesus.  I wish people would learn how to travel. 

Noah:  How hard is it?  You put everything in your jacket pockets, take off your jacket, and put it in the damn bin. 

Takayo and Noah begin transferring items from their pant pockets to their jacket pockets.

Takayo:  Look at the woman up there.  She’s filled up two bins.  Dead serious. 

Noah:  You think she’ll get though the metal detector without it going off.

Takayo:  Yea, right. 

Noah reaches into back pocket, retrieve a small bottle of vodka.  He quietly unscrews the cap, takes a swig.

Takayo, turns around, sees the bottle:  What the hell are you doing?

Noah:  I have to get rid of this.  It’ll never get through security.

Takayo:  Are you serious?  That’s so embarrassing. 

Noah:  Flying makes me nervous.  I could say that, right?  Timidly: ‘Flying makes me nervous.’  That sounds believable.  Takes another swig.

Takayo:  No, it sounds low class. 

Noah:  People drink in airports all the time.

Takayo:  Yeah, in the bar.  No one wants to stand next to the guy chugging vodka in the security line. 

Noah:  I’m not chugging.  And nobody’s looking at me.  Besides, I’ll get through the metal detector without it going off.

Takayo:  I hope they detain you.

Noah takes one last swig, walks over to trash can and drops bottle in with a clank, accidentally kicking a baby seat on the floor in the process. 


October 21, 2010

On the Water's Edge


They only came to Emerald Isle in the summertime.  Weekend traffic stretched past the bridge out to Cape Carteret.  No leaving the island those days.  The license plates said NEW YORK, MARYLAND, OHIO -- places I had only heard about on television.  And the people had strange accents, too.  My sister and I practiced mocking them on rides home from the grocery store.  “Yankees,” my mother called them.  The Yankees ate at the restaurants us locals didn’t go to.  And just like their cars, the Yankees lined up outside of that grease trap, Jordan’s, every night for all the deep-fried sea life they could eat.  We could smell the commotion across the street from our porch.  I tried to imagine what went on in there:  “Hey, one of youz deep fry my napkin!” From a knot in the fence, I could see the cooks urgently smoke around a filthy screen door. 
Golden girls and grumpy old men strolled the beach at sunset, their oxford shirttails flapping behind them like Old Glory.  Our family would walk down to the Bogue Inlet Pier to watch the rod ’n’ reelers.  Their catch of the day, garnish really, floated belly up in catch buckets.  My parents would urge me over to each one.  I once saw a flounder as large as my chest.  


 You couldn’t go bare footed on the pier.  There was a red line painted on the wood.  Past that line, the fishermen didn’t give a squat about their hooks.  They balanced their priorities in this order:  Smoking, drinking, and fishing.  There was a sense of camaraderie between the anglers, and it was never more apparent than when somebody hooked up.  “Give ‘em hell!”  They’d shout down the line.  They didn’t give a squat who heard them, neither.  This was their domain.   
And, if the Yankees wanted to come out and watch a man with creature blood jellied upon his waders, well, why not put on a show?  In those moments when the rods curled down toward the sea, locals and tourists could stand side-by-side, forgetting our differences -- if only for a moment -- as we watched man exercise his dominance over Mother Nature.

October 8, 2010

NEW!! Published on Matador

If you haven't checked out the new "Notes on Turning 30" you can check it out here.

Big ups to Matador editor David Miller for another great layout.

Takayo and I will be in Copenhagen on Monday, searching for the vibe and other interesting things to bring to light, and hopefully exploit for monetary gain here on The Knuckle.

We're looking to expand, and we're always on the lookout for new material.  Leave a message after the beep...

October 5, 2010

Birthday Scene from a Dairy Queen

I feel compelled to take you, dear reader, on my journey back to school.  The Art of Creative Non-fiction is the name of this UCLA online course. It's a two year writing program.  By the time I'm finished, I should be right smart good. 

Don't worry, it's won't be boring.  Although I'm taking the school work more serious than in the past, I'm taking myself less serious than ever before.  The Flying Pork Knuckle motto remains the same:  To keep readers from twiddling their thumbs. 

Homework is posted once a week.

Week 1 Exercise:
Write a "snapshot essay," a short piece built entirely on the information you can gather from a single photograph and the memories it evokes.

****
There is no frame on this one, no writing on the back.  My mother and Uncle Rick are standing side-by-side, their hands upon their brother’s right shoulder.  Pictures of ice cream hang on the wall behind them.  “Peanut Buster,” says the poster by Uncle Rick’s head.  Without a shred of doubt, these images are the work of a professional.  Maybe you never thought of ice cream as sexy before, so let me fill you in on a little secret:  In certain circles, the Peanut Buster is on par with pin-up girls.

Uncle Danny sits before a blue rectangular cake with white icing piped around the edges.  It’s his birthday, it seems – he’s smack dab in the middle of the picture, cheeks glistening like king baby.  The birthday boy wears an orange button-up shirt, a goatee, and the silver medallion swimming in his chest hair makes me think of Santorini.  

My father is seated to the right.  He is tanned by winter migrations to Puerto Rico, and his hair is lighter than I’ve ever seen it.  It looks fabulous.  My mother’s hair, draping down behind him, is of a similar shade, but it’s not from the sun.  Hers has been intentionally altered by something called a beauty technician.

To the left, Grandmother Mary has her arm around Uncle Danny.  She’s wearing a new shirt.  It’s lime green, and to tell you the truth, I don’t quite know what to think about it.  She never knew a camera that liked her; always closing her eyes at the last second.  They’re open here, but there’s a daffy little smile on her face.  She’s medicated.  
      “Happy pills,” my wife calls them.   
As I look at my grandmother in this picture, I am a little embarrassed to mention that she reminds me of the Great Florida manatee.  It’s not that she’s large – her BMI is within the healthy range for a woman her age – but darned if she doesn’t look content. 

*

October 1, 2010

Old and Cold

****

When I hear the sound of water running in the bathroom, I know it is time to get up.  Shower alarm, says the voice.  There’s a sheep’s skin under my bare feet.  The voice calls this a “thank you” mat.  My thoughts are organized, as if going through a checklist.  I slip into a blue Brooks Brothers dress shirt.  It’s wrinkled and the collar is sticking up on one side, just the way I like it.  I walk into the kitchen and fill the electric kettle.  By now my morning erection has subsided, so I head into the bathroom to urinate and dump yesterday’s coffee grounds from the French press into the toilet.

My wife is in the shower, but we don’t speak.  A thin plastic curtain stands between us.  She is engaged in her own ritual.  In the kitchen, I rinse out the coffee pot, put toast in the toaster and get the Lavazza coffee, cream cheese, and soy milk out of the fridge.  The water has stopped boiling.  I dump some fresh grounds into the pot, bring it up to my nose and inhale.  As I pour the water in, I’m twirling the pot, making a coffee tornado in the bottom.  There’s an almond-colored layer of foam at the top, and I know it is good.

The toast has popped up.  I take a knife and spread cream cheese onto one slice, and mash the other on top.  Once the sandwich is bagged, I grab a bowl and pour in some oatmeal with a little water.  One minute and ten seconds.  That’s how long I microwave it for.  I stand there with my back against the counter, eating a banana, waiting for my wife to emerge from the bathroom.  She’s fully dressed, with towel-dried hair.

“Happy birthday,” she says. “You’re thirty.  Can you believe it?”

I say yes, I can believe it, but really, I don’t know if I can.  At least not right now.  She checks her email, and I bring over the coffee and her oatmeal.

“You already have 16 happy birthday posts on your facebook wall,” she tells me.
I look on, sitting beside her on the couch.  She reads out names and posts.

“Happy birthday from Iraq,” she says, quoting my college friend Jay.  “’Noah, your uncle Ray wishes you a happy birth day.’  That’s a very direct birthday wish.”

“I think he really meant it,” I say, thinking about my uncle in Blairsville, Georgia.

Takayo finishes her oatmeal and hands me the bowl.  I make oatmeal for myself with that same bowl while she dries her hair.  One minute and ten seconds later, the microwave bell goes ding and I pull out the bowl and let it cool.  I go back into the fridge for her lunch box:  Broiled butterfish, sticky rice, and sautéed carrots.  It was last night’s dinner.  I pack it and the cream cheese sandwich into her purse.

When the hair dryer goes off, Takayo comes out, sits back down to the computer, and drains her cup of coffee.  “I’ve got to go,” she says.  I help straighten her coat collar and hand her the purse.  She puts on her shoes and stands by the door.  “Happy birthday,” she says.  “You’re old.”  I kiss her goodbye, and wait for her to turn around and wave one last time before walking down the stairs.  She turns, waves, and heads down the stairs, just like always.  I close the door.

After breakfast, I skim over my notes from the past two days, looking for an angle.  There are two notebooks containing two different, yet similar, styles of handwriting.  One person, I think, operating in two states of mind. The larger notebook contains my actions and intentions.  I think back to the email I wrote to my wife, saying that I was going to Amsterdam for the night.  The post-wave trio, Future Islands, was the headlining band at De Club Up.  That train was comfortable, and fast – the type of speed you pray for when you’re fleeing the scene of a crime.  For two hours, I read Vonnegut and scribbled away in my notebook:
“I devoured a burger patty, no bun, and zucchini parmesan leftovers.  I have a pretty good idea where ‘Future Islands’ are playing tonight…I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to get the interview…sent Sam, the singer, a message online, but haven’t gotten a reply back yet.  They are young and on tour overseas…who knows, just write the hell out of it and save the details for later…the whole thing’s the story…”
I look up from my notebook to the computer screen.  Fifteen new happy birthday messages are now on my facebook wall.

“Happy birthday from Scotland,” Faulkner writes.
“Happy birthday Flying Pork Knuckle,” says Nirav.

I walk into the bedroom, pull on a pair of jeans, and wrap a cashmere Burberry scarf around my neck because I am cold.  Like an old man.  Old and cold.