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.