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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

economics of play

More than eighty feet underground on metro line 11, I’m heading east to a party on Rue des Rigoles – no jokes – and appropriately, I feel festive. Festive even if I have no reason to. The ground beneath my feet, just under the rails, is a morass, economic, geopolitical, blah-blah-blah. "The US alone is losing 30,000 jobs a day", Le Monde affirmed in italics this morning.

But now – a new Casio on my wrist and the Doobie Brothers in my ears – I laugh at these jobs, every one of them – so many per hour – because these are not jobs I want. Lui will not move to Detroit to handle car-parts and drink coffee out of a thermos... will not move to Florida to sell real-estate to old ladies with white sneakers... will not move to Arizona to mow lawns that shouldn't be there...

...the quartz on my wrist reads 23-hundred. I feel sharp when I hit the hour on the head like that, right when the bleep bleeps.

Still eighty feet underground, I think of other stints more to my taste, and in keeping with my sense of things and place in this universe, a zillion-zillion feet wide, as many high and deep, and as unknown as the territories of the human mind.

SO NOW – in no special order and off the bat, eighty feet down, near station Goncourt – I WOULD:
  • dismantle oil tankers with marauding monks from the East: Bangladeshi, Thai and the like.
  • clean up debris from satellites and other space-contraptions – a lonely but adventurous task... with perks: Russian cappuccinos on space station Mir.
  • cook Balkan for the infirm but ultra-rich, bringing Croatian cuisine to Tokyo.
  • pick berries in Jutland with types like Eve - sprightly and elfish - the Czech girl I met on the bus the other day (but I would pick any number of produce with her, zucchinis, leek, rhubarb, you name it, any type)...

Still eighty feet underground, station Belleville at hand, a dark-skinned man with an accordion and a set of uneven teeth sings a song about a lost land south of the Carpathians where women are aplenty, laughs are aplenty, the sun is bountiful and where – I deduce from his smile and the riddle of notes spiralling up from his instrument – there is no downturn, no boom-and-bust, only and ever the economics of play.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

de la merde

I met my friend from Zagreb a few days ago – fifteen years in the offing – and he didn’t hold back one second. He asked me a thousand questions off the bat – hardly let me speak – one after the other, a floodgate unto himself – Lui this, Lui that, remember bleeh, remember blah – and he laughed with his arms and feet like he used. I had to rein in my friend and remind him that I had questions too, like why he had a scar down the side of his face, why his hands looked like worn gloves, and why the glint in his eye I used to count on to lift me up was now replaced by the gloss of melancholy.

We sat in a cafe on Rienößlgasse in the fourth. The air was smoky. He motioned to a woman in the corner and said she looked like my mother on a good day – a staple joke of ours – and I punched him in the arm. Then we drank from our coffees, smoked and finally, briefly, we were both quiet.

My friend survived the war in Bosnia. By a hair. He fought for a year and lived in a cellar on his own another two. Pointing at his face – not his scar – he said he left something behind over there… in the ground. Something – pointing at the floor between his feet – he will never retrieve. And then the gloss in his eye shimmered and his voice broke.

The more I looked at him, the more I thought of Brendan doing push-ups and benches presses insistently and continually back in Amsterdam – I don’t know why, maybe I just couldn’t fathom what my friend was talking about. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought of me and where I was going at this strange and irregular speed, on this strange course, as if strapped to the back of a wild animal…

… take now: It’s 9 PM. I’m on a train to Paris. A night train. The beds are up. Across from me there’s a woman – a school teacher – grading papers. A moment ago I saw her scrawl de la merde on one of them and then erase it with the rubber on the back of her pencil. She saw I saw and turned red on the spot, pursing her lips in a way only the French know how. I gave her my bunk – the bottom bunk – which was better than hers and I smiled to let her know that it’s OK – a 100% OK – that some things are truly shit and there’s no need to apologize for that. But she didn’t get it. I wanted to pen it with my finger across the misted window – DE LA MERDE – in big fat block letters – DE LA GROSSE MERDE – then I imagined these letters carved into the nose of the Great Sphinx, etched into the Coliseum, drilled across Fifth Avenue. C’EST DE LA MERDE, a city-wide exclamation! Unavoidable and unapologetic. And when I had everyone’s attention – heads of state, congressmen, mayors, chief magistrates – and all people below them – clerks, orderlies, “underlies” – I would laid it out straight and hard: Give my friend back what he lost! NOW! Or these are the only words you will ever read until the end of time.

Then I thought of my friend laughing with his hands and feet, and I smiled from my top bunk and patted the wild animal beneath me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

the siege

Funny how things creep up. I thought I’d stopped thinking about her; for weeks she hadn’t even occurred to me.

And then, there she was. First she knocked quietly on my mind’s door; she threw some pebbles and called my name. But the next day she began in earnest: she made demands, pitched a tent, and – without provocation, besides the natural workings of my brain – she laid a siege.

Two days later I broke down. I called.

In my mind I was hopeful; at least, I felt worthy enough of the attention – I was the one besieged, after all – but in reality I was shunned like the plague. What a treacherous little machine we carry around.

Goni spoke to me in monotones,

This isn’t a good time, Lui.
Well, when is a good time then, tell me?
I have company.
Gon, when is a good time?
I have to go, Lui. Goodbye.


Under the yellow light of a payphone, a dial tone in my ear, I heard a hundred teenagers gather outside Discothek Danube behind me. I watched them, a lubricant mass, oily, gleeful, smitten with one another, candy-humans with cell phones, and I felt something… disgust maybe… who knows.

On the other side, in the distance, a huge catamaran filled with day-trippers from Bratislava steered across the river. A big white whale on the Danube. And I stood there with my dial tone...

… and that’s when it happened.


The me-of-me. The lover of Frankfurters and trapdoors. Over the sound of candy-human-chatter and ringtones, he showed up. The kid out-of-nowhere. The me-of-me. You must remember him. You must. Not a friendly grin this time, though, but a hard stare. And as he stabbed his finger in the air toward my chest and moved his chapped lips –

He was gone.

Just like that. But he said something, I know he said something – I swear to God – I just can’t remember what. It’s like waking up feeling something strange on your stomach only to discover it’s your own hand.

The dial tone. The whale. Everything was in place. Nothing had changed except that now the siege was lifted. Suddenly. Fully. The tents swept up. The ground cleared. Goni gone. And now the candy-humans made me laugh again and their ringtones dance on my feet.

If you saw a guy strolling down Hundertwasser Promenade with a woolly and a big grin – a huge grin – that was me. And if you were thinking about talking to him, if you thought of saying, hey what’s going on, what are you smiling about? you should have, he would have bought you a strudel and a wiener melange and told you all about it, and he would have liked it – Lui Labas – he would have loved it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

on a train to Dresden

On a train to Dresden I met a man from Budapest. He told me his mother was ill and he was rushing home as fast as he could. He would have flown, he said, but couldn't afford to now. Then he offered me a piece of meat from a long, dry sausage, like a beef-jerky, and said he was glad we were sitting together. His name was Nando. He was fat with gray stubble on his cheeks and he often got up to smoke a cigarette (in the toilets, I suppose). Earlier that same day I received a phone call from a friend I hadn't spoken to in fifteen years - fifteen years - an estranged friend and - at the time in Zagreb - my closest friend. He called me to apologize for something he had done, something I could scarcely remember. Between each word seconds elapsed; I could tell it weighed heavily on his heart. Now he lives in Vienna and I am on my way to see him. The day he called me, earlier that morning, I'd been sucked out of this universe through a wormhole or some such thing somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin, some aperture I knew not of that landed me neither here nor there, in a place both palatial and squalid like Caucescu's Bucarest. This is where I was when that phone call jerked me like a rope across space and hurdled me back. I think I felt my feet scramble to cover ground that wasn't there and my body adjust itself to a distance so enormous, so disproportionate...

I got your number from your mother, my friend said. I hope you don't mind.

A few hours later I was sitting next to Nando eating beef-jerky with a smile on my face as big as the distance I traveled. He told me about his work - he's a trumpet maker - and he showed me his hands and the results of working brass for so many years. But the yellow stains, I knew, were from the cigarettes, and the bitten-down nails from his mother ill in bed.

Sitting still, going hundred-ten, hundred-twenty miles an hours, with Nando playing a bit of trumpet for me with his lips, I thought briefly of the past, my lost love Goni, my dear friend Brendan, my comrade Fer, my illusion Anna, and also that wet and narrow city of Amsterdam. But only briefly, and then, the rope still firmly in my hands, I thought of everything else... of everything yet to come.