Brand New Second Hand

Policing global vanities since 1982

The Rise and Fall of Cluck Norris: Cockfighting in the Philippines

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It’s not unusual in the Philippines for men to carry roosters onto busses—dead or alive. Most often, the birds are kept in canvas sacks or weaved palm baskets. Sometimes they are only lightly bound and cradled in the bend of their arm like feathered bowling balls. Through rough and rocky rides, the birds remain remarkably well-behaved. On one of my first bus rides in the country, a man flipped his rooster on its side, lifted its tail and showed the entire jeepney its anus. This was not a devious act to humiliate the bird, but quite the opposite. This was a prized gamecock to be sold or touted, and as it was explained to me, “The anus is the best indicator of health.”

Cockfighting, or sabong, as it’s called, has a heavy foothold in Filipino culture. Every town has its own arena, often seating more than the churches in all surrounding barangays combined. It is considerably more than a passing sport; it has served as the most popular form of gambling for hundreds of years. Sundays are the big derby days, but there is arena activity several days each week. There is even a 24-hour cock fighting TV channel, reporting on national results and broadcasting live action. It’s a running joke (rather dark humor) that if a Filipino man’s home catches fire, he will first save his treasured cock, then if there’s time, he will go back for his wife and children.

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On the island of Mindoro, some friends and I attended a series of matches. The venue sat on the northern coast and afforded lovely vistas of a blue bay. The rusted rebar and concrete embankments at the entrance, however, reminded the visitor that this was a tenement of assisted suicide, not a serene beachside café.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and a particularly slow day at the arena. Upon entering, we were approached by an old timer with sun-faded eyes. This was Benny, a local man with a lot of stories and fewer teeth. He quickly asked us if we wished to purchase a bird and enter it into the contest. The undeniable answer was, Yes.

There were a dozen or more gamecocks on sale, representing a wide price range, but all appearing exactly equal to an ignorant buyer. Considering some cocks are sold for thousands of dollars, the 37-dollar contender we selected was a true bargain bird. In retrospect, he was probably worth no more than his meat market weight.

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Despite being one of the cheaper buys, our chicken had a nice posture. He was older, at 18 months, but we figured aging warriors fight like they have nothing to lose. He wore a thick, burly coat of classic burnt orange and metallic green. Somewhere under his dimming plumage, he was probably hiding a few scars and skin conditions. He was a little light on the scale, but we dismissed that too, assuming he was just missing the non-essential organs.

Benny had told us to look for a bird with big, healthy feet. Apparently we overlooked this suggestion, because our guy had arthritic, curled claws like a clump of yellowed twigs, as deformed and hideous as a Dali raven.

As was the practice, we reluctantly flipped our bird upside down and took a gander at his rectum. Nobody was jumping to put a finger on the pulse. We all agreed it wasn’t Gisele’s navel, but for a chicken’s asshole it looked pretty standard.

It was announced that our cock was a heavy underdog. His opponent was to be Blackie M16, a rather intimidating moniker for a small bird. In rebuttal, we blessed our challenger with the noble name of Cluck Norris, in tribute to a lifetime underdog and champion. The likeness to Chuck, the legend, was not obvious, but similarities could be imagined. For one, both were no young guns in the fight game any longer.

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Each fighting cock in the Philippines is equipped with a three-inch crescent blade on the left leg, replacing a removed natural spur. The leaping ability of gamecocks allows for the wickedly sharp gaff to slice and stab until one contender is dead or immobile. As brutal as it sounds, this is less barbaric than cockfights I’ve seen elsewhere. In some poorer countries in Latin America, a metal talon is not attached, and the birds use other methods to secure victory. I watched two chickens in Bolivia peck each other’s eyes out for 20 minutes before I had my fill. When I asked why they didn’t use blades, a spectator smiled and said, “It lasts longer this way!” Derbies are on Sundays after all, and there is a lot of time to kill.

Norris was strapped and ready. He was carried into the arena by his handler and given a pat on the pecker. I liked to think he was aware of his great moment. The crowd was small but the acoustics of the arena made a raucous welcome for the winged gladiators. This was a gloomy, ramshackle structure, but probably better kept than some government offices—priorities held vices over order in these parts. In the center of the concrete bleachers was an enclosed glass octagon with a blood-stained dirt floor. The tin roof trapped the island sun, creating a visible rotisserie heat.

Bookies and players grew louder and threw complex hand signals around half the venue. One bookie can keep dozens of bets, all in memory. The community is wise to elect knowledgeable and honest men in these positions, or they wouldn’t be alive long.

There were men of retired age in attendance, but the crowd was mostly younger, working-age men spending their Wednesday afternoon gambling. There were a few GI gringos (the Joes), and more than a few underfunded addicts betting their children’s book money on a five-chicken parlay—those who can’t afford to lose, and always do.

This was largely a men’s club, and only a couple haggard ladies, a decade past make-up, muddied about. More female vendors sat outside. The food was hardly food, only several brightly colored renditions of sausage. Tapsilog, hotsilog, longanisa. After seeing this food prepared and consumed two meters from a pile of losers’ carcasses, I’m now certain where disease is born. The sausage didn’t interest me, but beer was essential in softening the blows of the slasher contest at hand.

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The moment he was unsheathed and dropped for action, it was clear why Norris spent the last 18 months as an alternate to the other alternates. He was a squawking malady, and badly showing his age. I’m not sure is he was attempting some clever “feigning injury” tactic, but Norris suddenly had a severe limp. He hobbled around the ring like my old classmate with scoliosis. While his opponent seemed hyped on steroids, Norris looked sedated. His vertical leap measured no more than four inches, giving a new definition to “flightless.”

Miraculously, probably as an agitated accident, Cluck Norris drew first blood with a short jab to Blackie. His feathers flapped loudly, reaching deep for strength and glory. Those playing long-shot wagers cried aloft, and the thrilling soundtrack of blood sport echoed loudly in the bleachers.

We stood in delight, only to watch Norris pause for an instant and lose momentum. He was so excited about his lucky blow that he looked to the crowd for confirmation. Moments later, Blackie leapt high and came plunging down. He cut poor Norris with a swift spine laceration that clipped his feathers and spilled a half pint of blood on the octagon floor. The scuffle lasted 10 seconds at best.

The referee moved in and picked Norris from the floor. He dropped him once. One flutter of the flappers, then another, more like a final jerk. The ref dropped him again. His eyes went stiffly side to side, then spiraled into a familiar tug of death. From proud father to poultry, Cluck Norris was declared dead on site.

I would have said that Cluck Norris was a victim of poor training, but there isn’t much you can teach a rooster. If they were impressionable, trainers would focus on vocal control long before the fight game. Gamecocks simply have a natural aggression directed at the mere sight of another male. You don’t have to poke them, run them, administer guilt or call their hen a whore. You just arm a couple of birds with knives and see who comes out alive.

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Outside in the sun, Blackie M16 was being stitched up for the next round by the resident cut man. I saw our handler sitting nearby. He had Norris in a plastic shopping bag and was eating a hot dog. He nodded and smiled mildly in embarrassment with a mouthful of pink meat. We had all toasted to Cluck Norris, feeling like accomplices in his demise. For the other patrons it was another day at the office—another bird slain for the joys of human wager. I thought it was a far cry from praying over your food.

All settled we lost about 100 dollars on the defeat. Our friend Benny walked us out saying, “Sometimes an expensive experience is an important one.” I think the old gamer was reminding us where we were (at the Kong Hoy Entertainment Center), and that we had just played the Local game by Local rules. We knew from the outset we had been swindled, and they would never let the Joes walk away with winnings. What we did not realize, however unjust, is that the victor also goes home with the losing bird, to be plucked, cleaned, and carried like a trophy onto the evening bus.

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***More thanks to Adam Bove for this collection of photos. There are many more of this trip and others at his Web site at coreshotmedia.com.

 

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Freedoms and Fears: Kayaking on Prince William Sound

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“Kayak” is an Inuit word meaning “man’s boat,” and there is no better description of our vessels by the end of the journey. Our decks were covered in fish blood (a messy indication of success), and our hatches were filled with empty whiskey bottles and spent shotgun shells. Our “man fleet” was coated with heavy barnacles of sea stink no sweet cedar breeze could mask. It was verified upon reentry to the town of Whittier that we carried a noble stench, even by Alaskan fishermen standards.

Considering the kayak was first imagined and floated in the waters of Alaska, it is an appropriate place to paddle. Our team’s plastic crafts were far different than early native models, but some of our intentions remained the same—explore swaths of Prince William Sound, admire the monotony of natural beauty, fish the stockpiles of salmon.

I landed in Anchorage on July 3rd for the nine-day paddle with old friends. The flight north is an experience in itself. At thirty-thousand feet, the shrouded, northern grip of Alaska reveals little but white and blue, mountains and water. The brawny Wrangell-St. Elias peaks breach the foggy inside passage and salute every oiler, angler and continental fugitive on board. Tucked below the granite and snow-dusted crown lies a wilderness miracle itching to be unfurled. Everything appears more serene, however, than reality dictates. Welcome to Alaska: the summer’s host, and winter’s hostage.

At the airport I waded through the thick of camouflage and flannel. Sportsmen arrive here with duffel bags of ammunition and tackle, and depart with trophies and game.

After collecting my baggage and fellow paddlers, we hopped in my friend’s truck and drove straight through the city. Despite holding half of Alaska’s population, Anchorage still feels like a trading post en route to a further destination. There are plenty of liquor stores and gun shops available to enjoy your layover. One storefront had a notice on the door: “We don’t know when more ammo will arrive. No, Obama did not steal your ammo.”

Once you clear the city, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the frontier landscape. The scale is enormous. All natural features are magnified by vertical relief and open distance. Clear days allow for epic vistas. We drove east, between the tidal giant of the Cook Islet mud flats and the Chugach mountains. The road was littered with signage from the Department of Transportation’s “Scenic byway” labeling campaign. To designate any one spot a “viewing area” in a land so impressive is comical.

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Through a rough, single-lane tunnel lies Prince William Sound. The large seaway is home to a dozen quiet towns, but none like Whittier, a deep-water fishing hamlet with a terribly wet microclimate. Surrounding communities like to say, “It’s always shittier in Whittier.” This clever snub is not limited to the weather. In addition to the fishing game, it serves as a seasonal spilling-ground for tourists. Cruise line flotillas empty their holds in Whittier, and those willing to leave the leeside vodka bar take shore leave, leaving trodden trails of broken English and international currencies. Albeit, with the best clam chowder on the planet, a few watering holes, and locals selling musk ox slippers, Whittier has something for everyone.

This was the departure point for our group. With a curt orientation and final instructions on where to avoid “bug and bear infested hell,” we were quickly outfitted and ferried two hours from port to the aptly named Icy Bay. Between diminishing icebergs and restless humpbacks, 200 miles from a hamburger, we took stock of our environment.

The plan was to travel 120 miles over nine days. None of us had spent much time in a sea kayak, but our inexperience was not considered a hindrance. It was curiously assumed that if we read the tidal charts correctly, we would be carried from camp to camp with manageable shoulder and back strain. Of course, within a few hours of paddling I quietly began scheduling trips to a chiropractor and a rotator cuff specialist. It was a great blessing that our first aid kit included aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen, Aleve, Vicodin—everything short of morphine, which is no longer considered a performance-enhancing drug.

The remainder of our medical supplies were decimated by our friend Adam, who lost a few pints of blood, and a good portion of his left thumb, dicing onions with a 15-inch hunting knife.

It rained lightly in Whittier, and the further we motored out of radio contact, it fell progressively heavier. We were exposed in the northern reaches of the largest temperate rainforest on Earth. Foul weather was likely to test our gear and preparedness. And it did. Two days and six inches of rain into the trip, everything was wet, and the temperature was falling.

The first degree of saturation was a thick film of perspiration generated soon after paddling. This was intensified by waterproof clothing, and the sweats trickled like a leaky cistern. Once the base layers were damp, and the rain came pounding down, our good fortune vanished. It was no relief to be surrounded by ice water, puddles forming on every collection point. Jackets became laughably drenched, woeful protests turned silent, and morale morphed into a regretful oblivion. We sulked about camp, and our whiskey stash was quickly rationed in good maritime fashion.

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At first glance, Alaska is a suitable habitat exclusively for marine mammals. Ancestors of the area were forced to fashion their clothes from these animals to survive. A sea lion slicker may be overkill in the summer, but with our raincoats defeated, all options were on the table.

A break in the clouds reminded us why we endured the dark limbo. Sunshine is always the difference between a summer celebration and a cold slog through a non-refundable holiday. Even so, a bluebird day on Prince William Sound is a lot to ask for. Alaska’s harsh weather is the reason this great state is so sparsely developed. The bare, white wind has about the same hard attraction as a Russian lover, though slightly more intimidating.

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Our route took us through opened fjords and beached us on the edge of wind-blown hemlock and spruce forest. The elements have stunted many of the trees to bonsai stature, but the bush remains deceivingly thick. Though we nixed an early plan to portage our boats from one bay to another, we were able to explore the inner headlands. Behind the overgrown skunk cabbage and devil’s club was a Disney-inspired mossy lair—dripping curtains of green lichen furnished the canopy like balls of cotton candy. Every fallen tree and stump was a softened throne of moss for resident porcupines and the occasional brooding bear.

My fear of bears was hardly quelled with another trip to Alaska. The bears in the region were not the kind that dance and ride bicycles, domesticated by communist carnies. They were our fishing competitors, and with all the salmon we had been handling, we might as well have been wearing sashimi outerwear. Thankfully, we were armed with a pump-action shotgun. With the Grizzly Persuader locked and cocked, the old adage “If it’s brown, lay down, if it’s black, fight back” no longer applied.

From the beginning, the nuisance of bears was eclipsed by a punishing typhoon of bugs. Mosquitoes greeted us a hundred yards from shore, making it clear we would be spending the night together. Bug repellent, to an Alaskan sand fly, must be an inviting fragrance akin to a jelly donut. Donning haloes of insects, we defended ourselves with beards, bandanas and headnets—the nets like thin black veils with us grieving the loss of a bugless state. In the evenings, I stood close enough to campfires to incinerate all pests and melt half of my wardrobe.

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Alaska is a strong, blended daiquiri of misery and beauty. It is a challenge to simply visit, and I cannot imagine enduring this spectacular suffering full-time. The organizer of our trip, Gregor, is an old friend who now lives just outside of Anchorage. He is a glass half-full (of liquor) kind of man, who focuses on being protected geographically and not trapped meteorologically. When I suggested only a southern sadist would move up here, Gregor replied, “It’s better than living in Ohio.” It’s difficult to refute that statement in any context.

Gregor moved to the area years ago and works a tree service, sawing himself into a seasonal frenzy. A raised chainsaw scar on his neck was a good indication of his resolve to show us a wild time, and hopefully avoid decapitation. He was a tremendous local guide, fraught with practical knowledge. His ability to start a fire in monsoon conditions was close to sorcery. With a Japanese handsaw on his hip, he sliced through layers of dripping foliage, collected suitable wood, and seemingly conjured fire from water.

Alaskan transplants like Gregor have become a hardy hybrid of North American. They shuffle along with a Canadian pace and sensibility while showcasing rugged American independence. No other countrymen embrace the wild spirit of the nation like Alaskans. It was the second to last state invited to the party, and it remains the last bastion of primitive America.

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A short stay in the Alaskan bush is not going to reverse a lifetime of coddling, but the wilderness took us to the brink. A famous naturalist once said to beware of anything that requires new clothes. My rubber boots were a perfect example of what Thoreau meant. We were pleased to purge our city smog, but packed a few comfort items for good measure. We enjoyed chocolate pudding, bottles of kimchi, and a Chinese wok, among other absurdities. We probably would have packed exotic concubines had our kayaks afforded such luxury.

The rest of our inventory was even more questionable. It was a mistake to leave our meal itinerary to our friend enchanted with Indian food. It did not occur to JC that hot links and curry may upset a fragile intestinal balance, at sea no less. There were several occasions of making haste for a shoreline latrine.

Nonetheless, after a few tough days any food was good food. I would have settled for a handful of anti-inflammatories and a warm cocoon. I was so worn each night, I slept deep as if swaddled by a local Goddess. They say that which feeds you will one day swallow back.

Before the trip, everybody told me to exercise caution. When people tell you to “be careful,” they are suggesting you are ill-prepared, or moving beyond your capabilities. We were not out to prove anything, it just requires a close encounter with a foreign place to understand it. This trip had its risks. A prolonged dip in 40 degree water produces rapid hypothermia. Being out of radio contact meant there was no room for error.

We had no trouble in the end, though we paddled through unusual conditions. To view the mighty Chenega glacier, we were funneled into a swirling bay, choked up with icebergs, flipping without warning. Glacial winds pounded the water, daring us to approach. We struggled to chunk our way through the labyrinth toward the white wall. Our yellow kayaks, bashing through ice packs, were like taxi cabs plowing through an East coast snowstorm. Each time the glacier calved it sent massive daggers into the bay, releasing a sizeable wake to paddle through. The water breathed with each frozen avalanche. The ice wall groaned, lamenting the constant splintering of its mass. Rain clouds and fog pressed down with cold gravity and we navigated the changing dynamics of the bay—the ice circled counterclockwise in an unpredictable origami. Curious harbor seals, spilling from their ice rafts, followed us toward the glowing blue of the monolith. A thousand feet high and two miles long, the glacier commands caution.

By the time we turned back and reached camp, we found the beach littered with huge blocks of ice. We chipped some ice and enjoyed evening cocktails while the ice melted into sculptures and swans. There is no substitute for a seven year old Kentucky bourbon chilled with 5,000 year old ice.

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There was plenty of time each day to locate a camp and relax. The arctic summer hosts an abundance of light, and I found myself wearing shades and applying sunscreen late into the evening. The sun sets then rises, almost simultaneously, like a shallow pink pendulum behind the mountain horizon. The oscillating shades of midnight light do not encourage an early bedtime.

In the mornings we utilized tidal locomotion to the best of our faculty. We discovered the channels of flat water above deep trenches provided the biggest push. Following blooms of moon jellyfish and their chewed-up cousins was the easiest way to set a course. Our worthy tide man, JC, incessantly studied the charts while smoking an inordinate amount of cigarettes. He wore a khaki vest, a stitched collection of pockets and zippers. When he wasn’t smoking or measuring high tide, he was searching all fifty pockets for something he lost, like a strip of squid jerky or packet of chili sauce. JC was also my tentmate, and in addition to waking me to flurries of lung troubles, he battled a series of animated night terrors. He burst forth one night, shaking and screaming, “Get off the god-damned train!”

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Fair weather and easy paddling allowed us to troll fishing lines for heaps of salmon, preparing for their fated suicide river run. The bays were stocked with chinooks, chums, sockeyes and pinks. Thousands leapt gracelessly from the water, taunting the bald eagles parading above with their pubescent squawk. Sea bass, halibut and rockfish hid below, blanketing the seafloor like manna from heaven. Some halibut are so large, it requires a bullet through the head before dragging them aboard. Alaska personifies the height of sportfishing.

We caught enough fish for lunch, and were gifted a couple dinners by passing fishing boats. It’s a local superstition for commercial fishermen to sacrifice some of the morning catch for a more bountiful haul. For a big catch and safe passage, you need good karma in these territories. After experiencing terrifying conditions, seamen will adopt any religion that will appease the angry white shape-shifter. Despite obvious obstacles, the aquatic gold rush in Alaska continues unabated.

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Aside from a few residual black puddles, the Sound has recovered well from the 11 million gallons of Exxon crude added to the ecosystem 24 years ago. The fish populations have recovered, along with eagles, cormorants, loons and oystercatchers. Seals and sea otters are everywhere, wearing the petroleum sheen quite well.

Our final days on the water were full of sunshine and cooperating tides. Being dependent on luck is not ideal, but we savored the ride. Often times the more uneventful, the more enjoyable the excursion. With less time spent making improbable requests from God, I could focus on the meditative nature of kayaking. The rhythmic swings and flow made it easy to lose time watching the water turn from blue to green with stolen light from stony beaches. After a week in the saddle I felt stronger, but still occasionally dreamed of an outboard motor.

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After nine days we landed back in Whittier.  Wearing a film of filth that we earned, we toasted a safe trip, and went straight for the chowder den. You haven’t visited a place until you’ve dined on their finest food. Hours later, we found ourselves back in the isolated snare of Anchorage. A short stay in that city can debunk specific stereotypes, and strengthen all others. There are Natives hawking exotic jerkies, pelts, and other obscene wares. There are reindeer, foxes and wolves in residential enclosures. However, the only thing that resemble igloos are the bulbous prisons, housing the drunkest of the drunk. And the hard faceplant of alcoholism may also be exaggerated, but the image of a drunken fur trapper is not a distant fiction.

We drove to the airport with nothing pleasant to show for our trip, only constellations of bug welts on our faces and hands. My neighbor on the plane wondered if I skipped my smallpox vaccination. Settling down in my window seat, it was clear to me I would need a post-holiday vacation.

We sputtered off the runway with the evening sun still laughing through wispy, high cirrus clouds. The wind was picking up a souring forecast. I looked around the cabin at an impressive group of anglers and boozers. Every person, either wearing a spotted complexion or a feathered headdress, looked fulfilled. Beyond the Scenic Byways, we all saw a vast, intrinsically pure state. Such experiences are all too rare in our hometowns, stripped of the beauty we now fly great distances to rediscover. I closed my eyes and drifted peacefully to the hum of the engines, the preferred modern lullaby to a mosquito drone. A departure always feels different when I know I will return. I’ll be back next summer, or maybe every summer, to catch my limit of fish and a midnight sunset. I’ll be back to face the enormous fears and freedoms, glowing in the great state of Alaska.

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***Big thanks to Adam Bove for all the photos he shot on the trip, despite losing some thumb. You can see more of his work at coreshotmedia.com. 

 

 

The Age of Consent, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slums

On Christmas Eve, in the streets of a small frontier town, my pockets (all four, impressively) were picked and emptied. I knew the thief, but it was Christmas after all, and I considered my loss a gift. Feliz Navidad. In lands of subjective justice, anyway, trouble is only worsened by accusations. Police are to be avoided, if possible. And also, feeling victimized would have only sullied my holiday cheer, not to mention my Toña beer buzz, delightfully heightened by the fresh altitude in the City of Mist.

We are talking small dope here; I lost 300 Córdobas (12 dollars), and my notebook, which contained trails of scribble, and a long, mystic, run-on letter addressed to the Humanists and Explorers among us. Freud said nothing is ever forgotten, only repressed. So, here’s a recreation of what’s already been lost, but can surely be found…

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EAT, FUCK, KILL. So read the graffiti written at the entrance of a schoolyard in Maldita. I took careful comfort that the word sequence wasn’t reversed. Just beside the dripping BLOCK letters were two grimacing monkeys blotting out the cruel vision of the sun: A fatalist’s warm welcome. What do they say, We are free to care, we just never do?

It’s getting dim out here, and after dark it’s a jungle. No, it’s a not a jungle; these are not animals boxing nobly for survival. This is a landfill of soul thievery. Everyone in the Maldita barrios have caged themselves in their trenches and foxholes, hiding from their cannibal neighbors. Barred windows, barbed wire, deadbolts, spikes and glass shards stand between home and the cemetery, encroaching seamlessly into view, a perfect blend. This is the Age of Homogeny, is it not?

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It was Sunday morning in Maldita. This was the day when the Kia, which looked more like a space pod than an automobile, was to be raffled off. Two men in the park grumbled about the contest and asked me if I knew the winner. I said, No, do you? Sure, they said, we know, but for us the odds are astronomical. So, I asked somewhat confused, Who won the car? They laughed again, Somebody who doesn’t need it!

After the drawing, women and children shuffled into church pews. The men, across the street, sat on bleachers drinking beer and betting on cockfights. I was remembering a French writer who remarked, Only an animal does useful things. Give into being human! This is the Age of Distractions, huh? The moaning and groaning of organ chops echoed into the streets, and from under the grandstands I could hear the roosters’ final sighs as they were stabbed to death, one by one, with beak and blade. After the sermon and all the chicken carcasses were sold, everyone filed into saloons and crooned ranchero songs, always a ballad about transient love, long broken and frayed.

At roughly 11pm, the rugged saloons closed and prissy discotecas opened. The music went from loud and obnoxious to intolerable and infantile. The most popular song in the country is about men driving around in a taxi and looking at women, eventually getting aroused. And then the ELECTRONIC MUZAK. The sirens grew louder, stomping on subtlety, hammering three-note melodies into a shrill grave. The thundering CHICK-BOO-CHICK-BOO came without musical instruments, unless you count medical devices. I heard the sputtering of an EKG clogging the interstates, the growling of an MRI piercing the atmosphere. It was ANTI-MUSIC.

Outside, food carts were selling hot dogs, each log the color of a mannequin’s legs. The alternatives were killers in its own right, all sugar-coated or honey-dipped. But there’s nothing more apocalyptic than a cylinder of pig entrails and pulverized bones.

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Any sign of life, Mayor? The Doomsday machine ripped through Maldita some time ago. It has rained anvils, curses and catastrophe for decades, so long that everybody lost count. Oral histories have faded. The scribes all said you can get used to anything, even localized dementia. All the statues and murals, the forced recollection of jaguars and missionaries, warriors and anarchists, are unrecognizable. If the Romans were correct about the city without memory being the saddest city of all, tears are cascading past these crumbling monuments. The old bookstore is a pharmacy and the music shop is selling rifles. The people are seeking solace in pills, staring 40 billion miles into the sun, and settled secure in rocking chairs holding automatic weaponry.

There are alert men on the corners wearing fatigues. The uniform, in the very least, commands respect. This was a heavy battleground for the Sandinistas. There are still markings of the ruling party, black and red like the devil’s crest, painted on rocks, trees, and concrete embankments. Ominous colors, red for the sacrifice, black for shadows of uncertainty. I wondered if some of the men were hoping for more power struggle. It is understood that paths of victory are lined with horror, but conflict is always more lucrative than peaceful squalor.

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If New York City is a living organism, Maldita is a pile of bones. On a good day it’s raw, typically rough. On bad days, in the shadow of volcano row, it’s a savage scene. On the sidewalk, beggars queue up behind the ATM lines. Stray dogs do battle with a circus of horror attacking their genitals. Sun-faded bums are wrapped in drab canvass, their hair is matted by diesel exhaust, and coated in a coal miner’s makeup. Rubbish bins have been picked through by these men, and after by the midnight rats and roaches. The capital city children, fashioned in America’s charitable throwaways, have their face in a bag of glue, a dried film around their chin, eyes fumbling for focus, brains blown into orbit—a street kid supernova.

Dickens would smile, Dante and Eliot would nod in validation. Litter and debris have become part of the landscape, as much as the palmettos on the boulevard. Spent motor oil, chicken bones and firecrackers, sulfured and shredded. The gutters are a brothel of plastics: every unnatural color under the gathering skies. The central park is a grassless dustbin with rusting swing sets made from sewage pipes. The monkey bars could be mistaken for torture devices. The iron park benches have been plundered for scrap, and replaced with splintered wood slats and wire, painted a different shade of green.

There is a blind man who lives on one bench. He calls himself the consummate sinner and says his sight was taken by God rather than by happenstance, which is positively more regretful. If you don’t blame something for your destitution, he says, you’ll never forgive. He has fewer cares than you might imagine. He certainly isn’t sitting around thinking about Nukes or Christmas gifts. The Germans say you reach a certain plateau of contentment after you have suffered greatly.

For those living the vagabond life, the sun is a brute. Dusty winds follow as an insult, whipping from the north, a Honduran export with a similar tragic aroma. Dark clouds climb the mountains and open like a vault. The Chinese proverbs say it’s easy to see the light when your city is full of darkness. The opium essays and their feng shui variations go on and on, but that’s all Confucian babble, Eastern hocus-pocus. This is Southern brutality.

Heavy rains approach like birds of prey, trampling the gravel like the president’s cavalry. The elements have unhinged the charm of Malditas’s neo-colonial Spanish architecture. Orange tiled roofs have been replaced by aluminum, or even yellow palm fronds. The pastel paint has been blackened by battered mud and ozone. The cobblestone streets are an undulating adventure with low collections like small putrid ponds. White-striped tiger mosquitoes follow, breed and deliver dengue and other hitchhiking disease.

In the dry season, water is scarce, and there are no showers and no flushing the commode. This is the Age of Science, and our robots, Curiosity and Opportunity, are driving on the surface of Mars, 140 million miles away. They are looking for water because today this town doesn’t have any. With this technology, we sit waterless and yoked at home.

It’s old sci-fi conjecture that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth countless times, but recently have taken their holidays to more civilized destinations. Of the 500 million other inhabitable planets in the Milky Way, Earth is no longer in the interstellar Top Ten. They have stranded us here, though we try to deny it. When will these other planets have us? Can we pack our azaleas and nuptials and set off tomorrow? And what else are we bringing, honey? Well, I don’t know, but we aren’t lugging that fucking armoire across the galaxy! Bring your creams, ointments, salves, gels, aerosols, blues, reds, testosterone, straights and narrows, malarials, prophylactics, antifungals, antipsychotics and antimatter. Bring all the beauty the barrios have to offer: the vibraphones, blue butterflies and yellow songbirds, the cumbia beats and dancing, heavy on the mid-section, and bring those girls worth fighting for, the gold standard for every man’s life craft, so full of passion their flaming feet are burning up the street.

How can you keep moving unless you migrate too? We’ve always been explorers, hunters and gatherers, scavengers in a crude sense, so let’s get back to our roots. There may be protests, for this is the Age of Division. I see a lot of folks with the sports dailies, but not many telescopes. There will always be those afraid of science, of our fate as Spacemen, or the fate our planet, spinning slowly into the arms of the budding Red Giant, our darling sun. Fate is believing in the future—a fresh start, thank you. The universe is expanding, and there are more options each day. How lucky we are! But look, the nearest rest area is 72 trillion miles away, so we better get moving before rush hour. Gravity be damned!

Or we can just stay. Yeah? Something must thrive in this wasteland. The stats say something like one percent—rodents and landowners, corpulent and smug. Wake up and smell your master’s coffee, stop and smell your boss’ roses, the scent of his wife and forty mistresses. Who says cannibals don’t exist, or only crawl around the canopies of the Congo or New Guinea?

Things are not looking good, and they say you can’t polish a turd, but can’t we try? According to Chaos Theory, amazing things do happen. New brilliant stars are born each day from swirling clouds of gas. Can we simulate such a transformation? Can we brighten our cerebral glow, long dulled by a desperate smog? Or do we need a rocket to reach her, sitting light years away? She is pristine, a crystal-blue clean slate, an Eden in full bloom. Her hair is black as space dust, and the whites of her eyes encompass all the Opportunity in the universe. Point your lens at the night sky and you can see Curiosity, winking and waiting.

Maldita, Nicaragua

Blues For Breakfast

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Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Marco and I’d like to help you. I’ll accept what credence you grant me, and work from there. I can, at least, entertain you on this bus ride. It’s three hours to Matagalpa, these vinyl seats are dreadful, and there’s not much scenery. Look out there, nothing but guava farms and snake pits.

Please stop before you think, Enough already with the Bible talk. I know there’s not a lot of good “news” in that collection. And it’s certainly thin on good laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jesus; he’s a pretty dope cat. But I’ve got something for when he’s busy taking a bubble bath or whatever he does on Friday nights.

Besides, Jesus can’t mend everything, he can simply offer you an out. You can trade one problem for another, cash in your sins for your Sunday mornings. Salvation begins at 8am and shouldn’t go past 9am. Afterward, you may get invited to the cafeteria for donuts, but they’re always out of the bear claws. Believe me, an hour talking to Julio about his new retaining wall is not worth a glazed donut.

Sunday’s a good place to start, but then you have the rest of the week. KNOCK KNOCK. Hi, is Jesus home? No, I’m sorry, he left for the Catskills. You know when he’ll be back? No, sorry. Of course he conveniently forgot to leave a note, again.

Yet you still have your problems: You’ve lost your faith and you are lonely. Your ex-wife is a relentless Badgerwoman. And your son is turning into an asshole, which isn’t a new thing, but it’s reached a critical juncture with these criminal charges pending.

Some of you are thinking, This guy doesn’t know dookie about my problems. Look at him, all shiny and sharp from head to loafer. Listen, it’s really all a ruse. I’m not wearing an ounce of real leather or reliability. My watch doesn’t even run, I’m just told looking punctual is next best to acting on it. As my friend put it, It’s all symbolic ornamentation, signifying nothing. Real quality has been rendered obsolete by market forces, so why pay top dollar? That’s the modern design: polished turds. My slacks shimmy and shake for a month, then fade and unravel like your flimsy devotion to the Church.

I understand your struggle. I quit Bible Study long ago because one fat guy always arrived early and gobbled up all the bear claws. I thought, why even go if people are going to be like that? I don’t enjoy feeling hungry and spiteful in public.

That’s how I learned that even when you’re lying on his front lawn, Jesus can’t do everything. If chubby people upset you, that’s pretty much your own goat to roast. Jesus won’t save you any pastries. You can quote me on that.

I can offer you the HELP I mentioned before. I call it a Supplement to your embedded Superstitions. Lucky for you all, I have a running promotion on the Blues. Each capsule filled with tiny spheres of Happiness and Phenobarbital. It’s the best gift you’ll find this holiday season. Believe me, you’ll grow old and broken waiting for Jesus to dish out any sweet deals. Consider this: No Christmas bonus for his Choir of Fanatics this year. Or any year. That’s after record profits. But, that’s cool, he has shareholders to appease, a mortgage and a lifestyle to finance.

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That Church group used to ask me, What happened to the cheerful Old Marco? Look at you staring feverishly into your coffee. Just pray, Marco. Ask for forgiveness. Repent and reinvent. Where’s your lust for life? What happened to that daring, youthful Marco, your flash bulbs bursting with bright lights, somersaults and sex? The Marco that leapt from bridges just for a goof? Where’s your faith gone?

I said, Easy, fellas. Jesus and I are cool. He’s just held up in Nashville or Fukushima. No beef there. It’s my wife, the soulless Badgerlady whom I’ve lost faith in. She slept with some big-city banker. You know the type: duffels full of cash, Jacuzzis and laughter, a pocketful of promises—all empty, of course. Not a crumb of dignity, that coward. I’ll put a contract out on him. And what to do with my loose and barbaric woman?

Plenty of broads can inspire leaving—even going into hiding, or taking Holy Orders. A Nobel Prize winner said that, so I gave it some thought. But I don’t know. If there is one thing the Church is short on, it’s practical dating advice. In my neighborhood, celibacy is not recommended. I wouldn’t want a pastor’s “mechanical” solutions either. An exorcism is a strong tonic, and reciting a rosary never left me the least bit aroused.

Are you stubborn like me, not entirely forgiving, and just want to forget life’s betrayals? I’ve got you covered. The Blues for breakfast works for me. Capsulized espresso with a strong memory-shaving, cheek turning agent. They helped me make things right with the lady with a night of brutal, passionate sex. The kind of tussle that left me sore and exhausted, but in that satisfying way. It was a painful, prideful buzz, like I just climbed the tallest Volcano, but my knees were mashed and swollen. Did I regret the climb? The beautiful vistas, the arduous push, dragging my spirit to the edge? Well, yeah, with two twisted knees, and a deceitful wife in my bed, I’d say regretful was my precise condition.

The next morning I thought, I’ve got bigger turds to flush than that cheating, tactless Badger of a woman. I don’t even have a job, and I think there’s room for a lousy wife? Oh, but love will conquer all, they say. That’s hilarious! What they really mean is, Well-heeled bankers will conquer my burrowing, badgering tramp of a wife! Hey, pal, take her off my trembling hands already!

Sorry, I’m triggering old battle hymns. Before the Supplements I was no gentleman to hardship. I was off in the ether for ages. I sat home on Saturday nights, lonely and badgerless. I called and called, but Jesus was holed up with parasites in Chinandega. I checked his blog, but he’d been offline for days, his connectivity growing fuzzier by the hour. I just wanted to swim again in velvet joy, caressed and swaddled in the electric opium of a lover’s wings. A new low is what I found instead. Flatlined. Catatonic with the booze. I can’t recall that entire year. It was my finest achievement, a 12-month Blackout.

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I feel better these days. When I feel that bad blood boil in my boots, I say two Hail Mary’s and eat two Blues with waffles. They work so well, I even thought about slipping a Blue in my son’s cereal the other day.

He’s a colossal, walking itch, that kid. I believe it when my brother-in-law says the “terrible twos” drag into the late teenage years. At some point I have to stop making excuses for his failures; stop blaming the Internet for being rife with wormholes. He’s not a bad kid, just scared and stupid, a dangerous combo—good heart, lousy brains, no balls. I’d say a man needs two of three for a passing grade.

It’s no secret I’m running thin on love. I sit next to my kid in Church, so near (in proximity), practically touching him, but he’s miles from my expectations. What’s he got going for him? He’s a miserable, awkward athlete, fat and sulking, not even remotely respectable on the soccer pitch. A spectacle, really, almost comically inept. Sometimes he lumbers past the bleachers and the phrase “better than nothing” comes to mind. But that’s a little misleading, and shortsighted.

At this point, I would accept mediocrity. I can hardly look him in the eye with that ludicrous Stardust hairdo. I thought there would be a couple girls at Church that might keep his interest. Or some club at school that didn’t encourage criminal behavior. I do admire his cunning nature, but pursuing mischief is not sustainable. I just wag my head and repeat, It’s a shame, shame, shame.

Honestly, why is my son throwing rocks at passerby’s? Is he a complete imbecile, or a daemonic animal? Some lady is pressing charges for an incident last month and my son won’t talk. He’s just plugged into his monitor all day. The only thing he said to me all week was a fishing comment about his absent mother. Well, I said, Your mother, that streetwalking Badgerlady, didn’t take her medication. She took a vacation with a handsome banker, and never returned.

Well, looks like we are drawing near on the city. I think we just blew past Jesus coming up slow in his horse and carriage—he’s got quite the archaic, indifferent little chariot. With that sorry steed he’s hooked to, it’ll be an eternity before he hits the Tavern.

You wait for him if you want, friends, but I’m moving on. I urge you to join me. With volcanoes on your doorstep, active and angry, there’s no time to wait for His arrival. Pop a Blue and let’s boogie.

One last thought before we end our journey: There’s a homeless man in Matagalpa. They call him San Pedro. He sits on the stairs of the central church, wearing women’s shoes, red heels, in fact—ruby slippers withered and weathered. He has no home, no family, and is reduced to wearing busted heels. He begs for terminal illness, and exposes himself to the clergy. How’s that for a dying gesture?!

When you think your grind is bad, think of San Pedro. When you think you can’t cope, take a Blue with your bacon and eggs, and settle into the thick, contemplative fog.

Thank you for your time today, friends. Here’s a final offer: take a fresh approach. Get yours while you can, because eruptions are scheduled. Any day now, your volcano will blow. Mountains will be moved, valleys blanketed, and fault lines opened, disrupting all you’ve ever known. But remember, with Jesus coming around the mountain, and some Blues for breakfast, all is calm, and all is bright.

Merry Christmas

 

 

 

Hang On To Your Ego

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Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world

The Beach Boys didn’t have a clue. If they did, they would have been singing, Catch a wave and you’ll be sitting in a fucking wheelchair and eating pudding for a month. Or how about, Rent a plank and humiliate yourself. Risk a spinal, a drowning, coral infections, man-o-wars and ray barbs. Lose your legs to a bull shark that mistook you for a jelly donut. You won’t be “sittin” anywhere. You will be laying limp and lifeless on the bottom of the sea, or if luck carries you to safety, in a gurney collecting bed sores.

The Beach Boys’ sunny portrayal of surfing misled an entire nation on the realities of the sport. Not one song mentions what it’s like to choke on seawater. There were zero songs on the Billboard charts about sun poisoning.

In the 1960’s, thousands of teenagers dropped out of school, moved to California and sold their grandfather’s Swiss pocket watch for a surfboard. Since there were no songs about the hypothermic water of the Pacific, most kids spent a week in the water, a week at St. Joe’s Infirmary, and the next four months collecting bus fare back from whence they came. The Beach Boys took no responsibility, and paid no medical bills or child support.

Brian Wilson, the group’s primary writer, knew better; he rarely even left his house, afraid of everything—fame, recognition, and especially the perils of the sea. His brother, and the drummer in the group, Dennis, was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, and ironically, didn’t write any early songs. When he wasn’t surfing, Denny was busy drinking and hobnobbing with Charles Manson. “Charlie is a talented artist, and a hell of a guy.” How’s that for sound judgment? Catch a wave and you’re eggs deep in a murderous cult.

During his really bad years, strung on out vodka and pills, Denny admitted to the press that The Beach Boys, with their immense influence, did recommend some dubious behavior. Let’s not forget, they suggested amateur drag racing was Fun, Fun, Fun and never answered media criticism for a sharp increase in vehicular homicides.

Meanwhile, the nation’s dropouts were still parading into southern California with promises of water-born adrenaline and blonde women.  One of the band’s more irresponsible singles in 1964 told every loser in the nation that “the girls on the beach are all within reach.” Many listeners missed the next line, a disclaimer written in fine print. Your success with these girls with “tans of golden brown” depended on recognized and practiced skills of seduction. Yes, these honeys can be gotten, the band sang, “if you know what to do.” Aha! It was a colorfully bright and hopeful tune, though rather vague, and in the end, like most romantic commentary, completely useless advice.

Denny was the most popular Beach Boy with the ladies, which made him, statistically, one of the greatest worldwide womanizers in the early 1960s. His shaggy hair and dimples stood supreme in a group of otherwise average-looking stiffs in tight white pants; the trousers were woefully short on defined manhood.

Denny was a drummer after all, and fell in line with a drummer’s wild fate—a quick and efficient, well-timed self-immolation, in the grip of addicting substances and toxic women. It was rumored that Denny collected every item tossed on stage (a variety of erotic female sacrifices). He framed and hung these exotic trophies next to his gold records. The coincidence that the bras and panties matched the pastel walls of his enormous living space in Malibu overshadowed the fact that most of this itty-bitty-teeny-weeny contraband belonged to girls as young as fourteen (14!).

Denny’s expansive (expensive) persona paralleled his reputation as a surfer. As a musician and a sportsman he was all at once passionate and careless, reckless and calculating. He thrilled the West coast with a multi-dimensional allure. This emasculated surfing fanatics who assumed his collection of women was the result of a lone-star-beach-bum status. How could you not account for heaps of cash and an endless string of Top Ten hits?

Denny personified the gorge of truth between the band’s bubblegum PR copy and their rock-razzled Hollywood private lives. He blamed himself and management (his father) for any damage done, but wasn’t feeling all too guilty. He said he typically buried any old (or new) regrets with a big bad bender. He did, however, admit it was foolish to forever validate the already burgeoning vanity of native-born “California Girls.”

I honestly can’t even talk to the bitches in LA anymore, he said in a 1966 interview at his third summer home in Tahoe. He sat in a robe, smoking a joint and sipping his morning banana daiquiri. I’ll tell you what I really think: East coast girls were always overdressed and overrated. Cunts, really. Midwest girls were underdressed and underwhelming. Jesus, I mean, read the dailies, girls, razors are readily available. Since we are off the record, he said (not understanding his syndicated agreement), I’ll be straight with you: I’m more into working girls these days, just easier and cleaner, despite what Lou Reed recently reported. You’d know more but Brian has continually left my Orange County Confessions on the studio floor.

The beat went on. Brian was the only member in favor of tinkering with the early formula. He only convinced the others to abandon their sinking ship and climb aboard Pet Sounds with the help of a fresh batch of Wild Honey LSD.

For a few years, Brian remained in his litter box with a piano and a respectable beard. The others plowed ahead with the touring circuit. Right on schedule, Dennis spun himself into a series of addictions. Following his English idols and counterparts, Keith Moon and John Bonham, Denny drowned drunk in the Pacific Ocean, not far from the waves that put himself and his brothers on top of the world.

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Although the band has fifty-five (55!) years of collective songwriting at its disposal, their early surf songs remain their draw, their royalties, and their legacy. As a result, three generations of teenagers in various nations have been swindled by their catchy propaganda, sent into the sea with dreams of waves and babes, and sent home with broken ribs and lacerated scrotums. They never did release any summer hits that addressed what an afternoon of board wax could do to a pair of virgin nipples. Ravaged, red and twisted—that’s what mine looked like at the end of the day. Chewed cherries.

I spent last month trying to surf in southern Nicaragua. Among other absent practicalities, Brian’s sunny hymns failed to warn me that once I paddled and battled an onslaught of rolling cement for twenty minutes, I would be too exhausted to stand up, much less carve a triple-finned paragraph into the foaming tide. Denny never said anything about controlling my fear with forty million gallons of lunar-powered water shoving me 1,000 mph toward sand, rocks and reef.

Hold your breath, kid! Pray to your aquatic Gods! To Venus, to Ariel! I knew that much.

When I surfaced, decades later, the fizzing white water carried me to the beach. I noticed a handful of small pebbles in my pocket before I realized I was limping. I had broken my foot, again. Whoops!

A sandy voice called out to me, Eh, Bro, you alright? I saw you got tumbled pretty hard. I turned and looked at a surfer, smiling, graying and tattooed neck to navel. A pair of scaly dragons on each arm, accompanied by spikes, thorns and other merciless objects. On his chest, two red dragons were roasting a busty mermaid with flaming sputum. He was an illustrated man-child humming a familiar burning mantra: I’ll never grow old! His shorts were slack, inviting a peek at the cleavage of his bronzed backside—the pinnacle misjudgment in modern beach fashion. In typical lopsided surfer physique, he was built like a bison, stacked shoulders, arms and back, with a puny lower half. His feet were teams of callouses, scars and fungus, sun-faded to a dark cowhide.

I haven’t gone over the falls like that in years, Dragon Boy continued. But you’ve got to appreciate the heavy elements at play. He smiled again, and paused to show me a massive bruise on his leg, colored like a mahi mahi, blue-green, violet and yellow. Often seen as territorial and insufferably exclusive, I’ve always known surfers to possess an enviable, unmatched positivity, often related to, or mistaken for a drug problem. I remembered what a local said a week prior: surfers come here all the time and break their face. They seem to have a great time, though.

Dragon Boy pointed a wavering finger at the horizon and talked abstractly about swells, breaks, curls, sets, and flops. Occasionally, in a song or a smile, a surfer can explain what it means to surf. It seemed he was reminding himself as much as lecturing me. He said it was only natural to be humbled by the forces of your playground. The challenge was to simultaneously respect and manipulate the water.

Take a look out there, Bro, he said. It was another sunny day, nice enough to ignore forthcoming swelling and pain. A hundred meters out, a dozen man-children sat patiently on their boards. Floating like pelicans on the undulating sea, they spat low laughs, easy enough to entertain an endless string of quips and pranks. You got this, Bro. Let’s go.

Only Love Can Break Your Foot

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When I moved to Shanghai, a friend suggested I learn to enjoy the fight. He did not mean bar brawls, but the consistent day-to-day battles in a dense megacity—like jockeying for position on the subway, upstreaming people for cabs, and arm-barring graceless grandmothers cutting in queue. I took this advice seriously, and practiced the art of obstruction and physical advantage. It was essential to create personal space by all means. I also got my chance, however, with the more traditional variety of fighting. One night, a cab driver attacked me with a tire iron, and there was no choice but to kill him. Or at least consider death an option.

He had tried to fleece me with a roundabout fare, and I was too stubborn to back down. I was full of ego, out late on a first date with a hairdresser who gifted herself with the English name of Coco—I never had the steel to tell her it was a name better suited for a show dog or a hooker in Oakland. After arriving back at her apartment, she claimed the fare was largely inflated. It was a small sum of money, maybe five dollars difference, but the idea that a foreigner could unravel his scheme enraged the cabbie, shooting him into a violent frenzy—not an easy task in Shanghai, where theatrical verbal disputes can last hours, but rarely dissolve into fisticuffs.

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Street arguments in China, often the result of a minor bicycle collision, draw impressive neighborhood crowds.  Old men gather patiently with their hands crossed behind their backs, contemplating justice and social ire, bubbling to the city surface in odd shapes. They will discuss among themselves, as a powerless jury, what fair compensation might be for the supposed victims. Onlookers don’t often get involved, they let the shouting continue until one party either loses his voice or the other realizes he is late for work. The Chinese men from the countryside boast of more manly conflict resolution for no better reason than saving time. They insist the Shanghainese are a soft breed, pushovers in the hierarchy of bicycle battles. It was true that I saw more fights end in smiling embraces than true hostility.

But the rules of confrontation change with foreigners, especially when coupled with underpaid, overdressed taxi drivers. With my remedial Mandarin, a classic verbal sparring was impossible. My date (whom I could never introduce to my friends as “Coco”) looked tired and merely annoyed. She thought a Kung Fu scuffle in the dim neon night was unlikely, and did little to ease the tension.

The driver stepped from the cab in a shabby black suit, heavily blanketed with smeared cigarette ash and soup stains. He opened his trunk and grabbed for a steel tire iron, still wearing his white driving gloves. The cheap, shapeless gloves, always some degree of soiled, are a common accessory to the Chinese taxi uniform. With weapon in hand, they could have given another man a menacing, capable air,  but the gloves made this driver look like Mickey Mouse on some feeble heist.

His black tie, long ago loosened, swayed in time as he took his first steps toward me. The cuffs of his pants hovered high above his cracking black loafers, revealing five inches of sagging white gym sock. Short in stature, badly postured and slumped forward, his eyes leveled with my nipples. It occurred to me that he might be bluffing, hoping I would cave with the threat of a street fight. Curiously, I was not frightened by his advance; I had some booze in me and besides, this was not my first physical altercation with a fun-sized Asian chauffer. One night in Korea, I had faced off with a taxi driver, also complementing a ten-dollar suit with an unshaven scowl.

I stood ready. I heard Coco gasp—a huffed, sexy little squeal. She scurried, a rapid tippy-toe dance, toward the safety of the sidewalk. It was all up to me. I had to enter into this contest on our first date and stand heroic. I thought to myself, In the shadow and glow of dubious massage parlors and crawfish eateries, this is how foreign love is born.

In slow, exaggerated form, the cabbie wound up and swung the bar overhand. He missed wildly, awkwardly, and fell toward me. In no impressive athletic fashion, I secured a headlock, taking the tire iron out of play. An amateur wrestling match ensued with body blows and curses exchanged. With control of his head, I got a closer look at my match. A few lucky whiskers, intentionally uncut, hung from his upper lip. He reeked of cigs, motor oil and garlic, the typical aroma in a Chinese taxi, his person as pungent and microbial as his vehicle’s sticky vinyl seats. The shoulders of his coat were dusted evenly with large specs of dandruff, the thin flakes floating a ring around his matted hair like a powdered halo.

I knew it was absurd to risk a clubbing over five dollars, and had I been intimidated in any way, I might have acted sensibly. I was handling this man, however, like a teenager tormenting his little brother. Effortlessly, with youthful delight. He still gripped his tool, and since I couldn’t reason with the man, I dragged him to a roadside fence and rammed his head three times into a wooden placard advertising a new development.

Short on air and shaken, the driver finally dropped the iron and stumbled backward. He caught himself before falling, and hobbled quickly back to his cab. Howling something indecipherable, I reached for the iron. It was incredibly light, like a tin can, I thought. I whipped it sidearm toward the taxi, bouncing it off the pavement and hitting the back bumper with little dramatic effect.

At last, the driver pulled away noiselessly and left me in the street with a galloping pulse. Coco stood horrified on the sidelines, shivering, her hands clasped between her legs in the folds of her summer skirt. I took her hand and addressed her as if the last few minutes never occurred.

I had a great time tonight, I said, Let’s do it again. I thought for a moment that I might be invited in for a drink or bubble bath; the girl would be either terribly frightened of me, or impressed with my resolve and apparent physical prowess. In the very least, I proved myself superior to a rampaging, badly-tailored dwarf. She nodded, wide-eyed and speechless, slipped into the gates of her apartment, and forever into the pathless smog of the city.

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Sometime during the bout, I bashed my foot against the curb and broke a small bone. Even heroes take bullets to the chest! I almost lied to my doctor about the incurred trauma and said that I stepped in a hole on the sidewalk—not unlikely in Shanghai where pedestrians must also navigate around piles of poodle shit, uncovered manholes and motorcyclists who commandeer city footpaths. When I told the doctor the truth, he stared at me quietly for a moment. You know that’s a difficult task, he said, To engage the Shanghainese in violence. Congratulations for that. Fortunately it’s only your foot. Here’s a boot and metal crutches to protect you against future assailants, he said. See you in six weeks.

March, 2011

Shanghai, China

Are You Ready for the Country?

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Stay away from the yellow ones, and the big black hairy ones, too, she said. I was rocking in a chair closely inspecting a nasty, fresh spider bite on my ankle. Elena, sitting cross-legged and slumped on her sofa, curly clumps of black hair hiding her face and her smartphone, cautioned me on the unforgiving side of the Carazo countryside. The open structure of her house invited all creepers and monsters, bees and wasps and hornets, striped and screaming. Red ants and scorpions shared the walls with orange geckos.

It was a large stucco home, flesh colored with white trim, and a red aluminum roof that amplified heavy rain, creating a high-decibel, Tommy gun drone. Elena didn’t think the rain was romantic, but it did give her an excuse to stay inside. She could stay in for weeks, watching American fashion programs on her widescreen television and collecting friends online. She is particularly lazy, and for the last two weeks we embraced this shared sloth, then slipped naturally back to former regrets and preoccupations.

I met Elena at a bar on Halloween. She was dressed as a genie or a gypsy-for-hire, I couldn’t say which, but her mini-skirt waddle took me just the same. She is a short girl, mixed with Italian and Nicaraguan blood, with large, dark eyes with gleaming, long teased hair too big for her slim frame. She accompanied a man all night, which I incorrectly assumed was her boyfriend. He was a scrawny little pirate with a red sash and blouse and buckles. He didn’t say much, only grabbed Elena’s arm each time she made a joke, and closed the one twinkling eye that wasn’t hidden behind a black patch.

A week later Elena invited me to her farmhouse. Bring massage oils and rum, she said. Oh, and mosquito repellant. They don’t much like cheles here.

Upon entering the gates, I saw Elena’s hungry black pit bull, Cooper, pulling on his chain, locked to a large cabana. The closest thing to food Cooper saw was an old muddy pair of sneakers laying in the yard. Elena opened the fridge and handed me a two-pound bag of raw beef. I tossed the meat to the dog and watched him swallow the hunk in two bites.

For more privacy, Elena told her housekeepers to take time off; the house was a disaster. Empty bottles of Flor de Caña and Coca-Cola lined the sofa. Cereal bowls were stacked on chairs. A bottle of red nail polish was smashed on the floor of the parlor, dark, scarlet globs and tissue paper laying strewn on the white marble like an amateur crime scene. Her other dog, Luchi, the inside terrier, had shit in the kitchen and the turds, unhealthy dried bastards, were pushed aside near the trash can.

Elena called me into the lounge where she was dexterously changing channels with her big toe. A giant television was blaring an episode of the Kardashians’ latest. You know this show? she asked, not looking for an answer, consumed by two girls in fur hats conversing about homosexuals in Hollywood. Before I could even try to answer, I stepped on two small pieces of glass from a shattered coffee table, swept carelessly under the rug. Be careful, she said, smiling. My brother fell on the table. We had a party last night, she said, still focused on the show, watching intently for fashionable clues and thin wafers of drama.

As far as I could tell, the Kardashian girls were deviously setting their gay friend up on a blind date. You understand that these reality shows are scripted? It was the only thing I could think to say. It’s not actually reality, I said, getting the attention of Elena. She looked at me with shocked, even disappointed, big wide eyes. She was wearing her fourth outfit of the day—tight pants with a floral design, a lacey white shirt letting her dark mahogany skin shine through, and large loop earrings that made her face look too small. She looked pensive. I love this show, she said, as if ending the debate.

I found a clean spot on the sofa next to Elena and she briskly handed off the latest copy of Cosmopolitan. You know this magazine, Mateo? she asked. That’s the primary reason I got these damn things. Elena held her shirt up with her chin and cupped her statuesque breasts, moving them gently up and down then side to side.

The other reason is a father who feels guilty for living in Miami. He will do anything to help his little princess, and has tried to compensate with her augmentation, and also her beautiful country home, complete with a fountain and cement lawn ornaments.

It is rare in any country for a 21-year-old girl to live alone on a rural plot of land. In Nicaragua, Elena must be one in a million. Her invitation sounded so unlikely that I almost declined in fear of losing my kidneys and other spare parts to a rusted machete. She explained that her family is well-connected in Ortega’s Sandinista party, acting as delegates, deputies and ambassadors to various nations. They have money, and its best to empty the political coffers before all that cash can be counted.

She read my mind after the second consecutive episode of The Kardashians Infect the Masses. I’m not just a stupid little rich girl, Mateo. I’m a girl with character. I have to be. It’s always been difficult to be a woman, but now I’m expected to be both feminine and industrious. That’s madness.

Again she lifted her shirt and pointed to a diamond navel pendant next to a tattoo of a dolphin, which appeared to be smiling. My mother is a crazy religious fanatic and could not approve of this, but I did it anyway. I can’t imagine how they will talk about you in the village. She’s going to ask me what I’m doing all day with this chele in the house, she continued.

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I spent mornings feeding the neglected animals, including Luchi, Cooper and a pig, who shocked Elena by eating rotten fruit and soggy cereal. I cleaned the house, stepping all the while on hidden shards of glass, and watched the Kardashians in the afternoons. The idea that the show could be scripted made it even more appealing to her. We also discovered a Mexican dating show where girls dressed like lizards and were matched astrologically to men dressed as superheroes. Elena noted she could never marry me because I’m Aquarian and a propensity toward water disqualified me. She ignored my suggestion that it’s never too late to learn how to swim, but a footnote about the buoys on her chest got a laugh.

On the scale from one to ten, what would you rate me? Elena was constantly testing me, making me earn my stay with affirmations of her beauty. She said her therapist could only do so much. A fine girl, but not without flaws, she wore some mild acne scarring and perpetually puffy eyes that wouldn’t arouse any photographer. I told her she was off the charts at an eleven. She scoffed and said more like a “Two.” Before I could tell her I didn’t seek affairs with Twos, she said she knew the attractive sometimes fall prey to the unattractive. She said that these are the wishes of nature, keeping an equilibrium. She soon had a tape measure around her waist, monitoring the effects of our rum and banana bread diet. Ninety-sixty-eighty, that’s what you want to be, she said, referring to the metric dimensions of a perfect bust-waist-ass ratio, dictated by some impossible fashion standard.

Elena understood why I hate fashion television, and also why I hid her tape measure, some of her mirrors, and also her menthol cigarettes. She thought it was cute how it all upset me. Come on, Señor Party Pooper, can’t you just enjoy yourself and not be so serious? You ought to put your books down and have a drink, and maybe put some Coke in your Rum-n-Cokes this time. She paused for thought, Hey, you aren’t going to write about me in your diary, are you?

After a week together, the drinks weren’t enough to hide our differences. We were both confused as to what my role was supposed to be. I wavered somewhere between a farmhand, a lover, an anti-coagulant, and an honored guest. I spent more of my time reading outside on the terrace while she danced to blaring music videos in the parlor.

To make things more difficult, Elena needed to assign blame for everything that went wrong. She blamed herself for giving me faulty directions to her house, turning the hour journey into three, but blamed me for speaking atrocious Spanish and not figuring it out. She blamed herself for eating cookies in bed and waking to dozens of crawling ants, but blamed me for butchering dinner and having to eat cookies in the first place. She admitted it was strange to log onto Facebook five seconds after sex, but, Can you afford to be offended by addiction, Señor Perfecto? When I insisted on visiting a hospital for an ailing foot, Elena said it was my fault for being crazy enough to surf, risking injury so I couldn’t dance, or even walk right: Did I expect a girl like her to continue dating somebody who can’t even walk right?

Elena said she didn’t visit doctors unless they were psychologists or plastic surgeons. She did, however, know a decent hospital in La Paz from when Cooper tore a few holes in a prior boyfriend. The hospital was clean and quick, and my X-rays cost twenty four dollars. That included a consultation with a spikey-haired 25-year-old radiologist wearing a slick pair of Vans. While the doctor examined the film, Elena flirted with him, and joked about how ugly my foot was. She gave the radiologist her phone number, winked at me and said you never know when you need to be photographed.

That evening, Elena organized a party at her house. It was a birthday party for a friend, but she insisted on displaying the X-rays of my fractured foot, telling people with a high giggle it was a party for the chele’s ugly feet.

Elena looked stunning for the party in towering heels and a glimmering shirt, running circles around the boys, nimbly avoiding fresh dog shit on the floor, courtesy of Luchi. She was a great host, enthusiastic DJ, and the best dancer to Puerto Rican reggaeton as well as local fare. I overheard her tell somebody that she thought she might be a lesbian, or in the very least, half. I limped around and fielded odd questions about the sexual habits of Charlie Sheen and honey farms in California. Everyone attending outdrank me and made sure to mention it.

At the end of the party, the two of us were left on her balcony with the full moon illuminating the young orchard of bananas, oranges, mangoes and coconut. Elena, twirling the diamonds dangling from her navel, talked about simplicity and the tranquility of living in the country. She said if I bought the adjacent plot for seven grand she would give me Cooper, and maybe the pig.

She lives alongside Miskito-speaking natives with sharp faces chiseled from dark clay, but Elena is not exactly a primitive girl. She knows too much to worship the archaic, but she’s not exactly sure what beautification and fashion promise. She is an owner of a tropical ranch with pigs and roosters, big screen televisions, big city shrinks, stuffed animals on the bed, and a gun in the closet. She is weaving a complex web, a double helix of natural contentment and modern infections, giving consideration to all available attractions.

We stood looking at the night, a perfect palm reached solo into moonlight silhouette. A pervasive, sweet smelling brush fire burned somewhere near. She put a hand in my hair, pulled me close and asked if my nose was natural. I mean, is it real or a new one? She said she only asked because it was handsome, long and straight with the angle of a volcanic ridge. I understood just then that she wanted a new nose, and after that it would be a few, or a dozen more improvements. I just want to be beautiful, Mateo, can you blame me for that?

La Paz, Nicaragua

Fireflies

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San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

There’s a narrow footbridge at the edge of San Juan that separates the barrios from the rest of town. The wood slats are shaken loose and the twisted rigging is badly frayed. The bridge crosses a small river carrying rainwater and untreated waste into the harbor, turning the silver-blue bay a rusty brown after heavy downpours. Plastic bags and irreparable household appliances swim out to sea, fooling hungry pelicans and irritating local surfers. Blonde, sunparched gringas, who once read this was a Gorgeous! beach are fearful of even kicking the surf with their pink toenails, never mind taking a plunge—some look disappointed, angered, almost cheated on their far-flung holiday. They say, Oh my God, with a pouty pose and lockjaw face, like bleached crows with their beaks splayed open.

                The river serves as a boundary between the “safety” of south San Juan and the unpredictable poverty that lies beyond. It’s an arbitrary checkpoint, but better safe than sullied. Last week, my friend crossed the bridge and saw a group of young men circled around a lifeless body lying on the river bank. When he brazenly asked what happened, the muscle of the gang broadened his chest, lifted his chin and pointed with silent authority at himself. He quickly moved on, and told the first police officer he saw that there was a problem. The officer, adjusting his dismembered sunglasses, nodded his head and said, I know, I know.

                There is something unsettling about a disheveled police officer. They walk the sunny streets and beaches in pairs, every bit as weary as the stray dogs that follow. Wrinkled trousers and an unpressed, faded blue shirt are good indications of lawful indifference. They seem to say, I have no reputation to uphold so I will save a few cordobas on laundry. No two officers in San Juan wear the same uniform. There appears to be a semblance of dress code that encourages pants, shoes, and a young, shapeless mustache. Some don’t even have belts; nothing resembling order or discipline. They might easily be mistaken for attendants of a parking garage or a hotel elevator. Earning around 50 dollars a week, they could almost be called volunteers. The veterans of the outfit are known to supplement their incomes by shaking down tourists caught drunkenly urinating on the beach. They will ask for a hundred dollars in a serious tone, but will settle for four with a smile.

                The police are not the only scruffs in town. Nobody is mindful of, or can afford, the swirling tides of fashion. Shirts with sleeves are considered formal wear. Collars are for dogs, ties are for opposition parties.

Halloween, on the other hand, is for everyone, and a costume competition brought new life to San Juan. First prize at the open-air club, Arribas, was $200, equivalent to an average monthly wage. That buys 200 tallboys of Victoria, 100 kilos of fresh dorado, or 10 evenings with Delina, the pot-bellied, raven-eyed pro from Grenada.

                There were good witches and bad witches, angels and demons, pirates and gypsies. Those without capital or seamstress mothers just painted themselves in various shades of kinky and horror. Aside from the odd trannie in drag (naturally a good fright!), glittering ladies ruled the roost. Men arrived, dressed as themselves or their vacationing alter-egos, reduced every Halloween to “creatures of habit, admirers of female indulgence, open to fantastic happenstance.”

                 Arribas was full, mostly with locals and a few busloads from Managua. All weekends and holidays draw a boisterous crowd, not afraid to finish the whole bottle, not afraid to remove their clothes and swim, and not afraid to be the next to drown, at least not until the warm, lapping darkness pulls its final frothy prank. Some people know how to have a good time.

                There were no children dressed in costume or collecting candy in San Juan. They are vaguely aware of the tradition, but nobody has money to buy sweets, or anything else, for their neighbors. Even at the big market, there are only vanilla taffies and hard candies available—either of which we would have scoffed at and tossed on the browning October lawns as 10-year-olds. Cheap, old Mister Stafford, we would say. Ungrateful little pricks! he barked.

Young locals, no less, enjoyed a festive night, focused more on the destructive end of fun. They cried with delight, igniting quick-wick firecrackers with bummed cigarettes. Their carelessness and sulfuric haloes created a timely sense of dread, a scary premonition of another young generation in decline. They pretended the stray dogs were blood-thirsty werewolves and tossed explosives in their path.

The regular late-night characters heightened the new-moon spookiness of Halloween. Mobile coke dealers whipped through on bicycles far too small for them. Unlicensed taxi drivers shouted out fares and colorfully racy insults from the hood of their cars, all beat and rusted from wet seasons and gravel tracks. Prostitutes lounged and laughed on the curb, one of whom was visibly pregnant. The police collected the name and hometown of each streetwalker, and directed the entire congregation to a lampless corner. For reasons that are not obvious, the corner beside the Eskimo ice cream shop was deemed more hooker-friendly than the corner by the Good Time taco truck.

Inside the bar, a Flor de Caña promotion made rum cheaper than beer. A blue avatar danced on a table, and a jaundiced girl puked over the railing. Dennis, the weed dealer, was doing good business on fright night. He came as a Caribbean cliché, still wearing his sunglasses, transfixed by the club’s flashing lights bouncing from his bottle of 7-Up. He mingled about curiously like a giant child, barefoot, carrying the sparkling green soda with both hands, the red straw never leaving his side of his mouth.

As the MC encouraged, the final two costumed contestants tore away their clothes on the bar.  The loud reggaeton chorus thumped between Que que que color! and the suggestively redundant Bendova, bendova, bendova, bendova!

The good witch stripped away Lycra and any remaining dignity, and a red devilish vixen who had nothing more to peel away but stubborn red glitter and mascara, shook her hips in epileptic rhythm until an approaching storm cut the power. The lights and music crashed, and girls shrieked in haunted delight.  

Arribas closed but nobody wanted to go home. The power was still out and sleep without a functioning fan would be impossible. To kill time, a group of locals suggested we walk to the footbridge. There is nothing appealing about this bridge, other than the fact that it stands as one of two landmarks in San Juan. There is also the yellow stucco church, but that certainly wasn’t a loitering option. When we arrived at the bridge, a police officer, who is planted there to discourage visitors from crossing, was snoozing in a plastic chair, snoring above the murky flow of fresh rain.

The river was a screen of reliable blackness, illuminated solely by thick constellations of fireflies. I was impressed, and the locals assumed I’d never before seen these synchronized blinkers. I did a jerky vertigo dance on the unsteady bridge, trying to avoid the stealthy scrum of mosquitoes. I mentioned my fears of dengue, but my new friends balked. A shorter kid in a flat-brimmed LA Dodgers hat said, You don’t need to have fear, friend. These are the magic animals, the ones with the light.

I started to clarify my concern, but he stopped me. You see the ugly ones, he said, But you don’t see the good ones. You cheles, come to relax but always fear. You come find fear, and always go back home.

He was not scolding me, maybe just reminding me of local resistance. But his friends noticed, and were amused by his defiant tone. Another kid, costumed in Contra camo and curly Bozo black hair spoke up, smiling in plain English. Yes, friend, he said, You cheles cannot live it out here. Los Gringos se fueron. All you come and go. But we stay. We Nicas, he laughed with pride, We live it out.

 

               

               

               

                

Better Must Come

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San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

To drink all day, you have to start in the morning. Just imagine it’s really late, and not really early. That’s my neighbor Oscar. He would drink all day, but he’s on a daily budget of four dollars. San Juan is spotted with Americans like Oscar, at the end of their wick. They have succumbed to tropical habits, and are more than pleased to share their stories. Many stink of rum and loneliness. Some are ill and bitter, others boast they have no regrets.

Oscar just wants to talk, then talk some more. A constant ribbon of madness, as if the moment he stops talking he will lose control—releasing mountains of fears and a diary of doubts. His monologues are exhausting, but admirably candid. Within ten minutes of talking, he told me he has been here one year and has twelve dollars to his name. I’ve seen a lot of weird times lately, he says, But I still claw at hope.

For twenty years he ran drugs from Mexico to California. He tried the opium game in India but found it too good to be true. The cops over yonder are no deterrent to crimes big or small. They don’t exist, then one day they emerge big and bad. The police chief here in San Juan was replaced after his brother was caught organizing roadside robberies. But they were only robberies, no death, and they only took what drivers could afford. These are irregular tolls paid to men with machetes and homemade shotguns, assembled from dismantled plumbing. They don’t want your drugs, or your troubles, unless there’s money underneath them. But for safety’s sake, you better carry some money, because nothing upsets criminals like empty billfolds.

Oscar played bongos for the big wigs in Jalisco in the ’80’s. He did a lot of “bad energy drugs” because that’s what the scene required. Networking gets hairy in Jalisco, but he was rewarded with enough cash to last 15 years swimming and laughing at the taxman. He never had reason to believe anybody was looking for him. Never on the run, but always moving. When he quit the hookers for good in Jaco, he married a Nicaraguan girl. Love was good and strong, but Jesus, that was a heavy mistake, he says.

Oscar is usually the most positive 60-year old man you will meet with only 12 dollars in his piggy bank. He doesn’t know how Social Security works if you never contributed, and he doesn’t expect much. For survival, he funnels incoming tourists into a guesthouse. He receives 70 cents a head. As long as he finds two customers a day, he can buy a liter of Victoria beer and sit on the beach and watch the most consistent, dazzling sunset in the world. He says he still wants to go other places, but if fate pegs him here, and if his brother continues to fuck him on his inheritance, he will play it out here. If I focus on today, he tells me, I’m golden, I’m working, I’m fed and I live on the beach. If I think about tomorrow, it’s scary.

All Oscars friends in the logistics business went to jail. They made one too many trips back to Mexico. The last time he saw his friend Barry, he stashed his silver flute and two leather jackets in his barn. As far as he recalls, those are his last remaining ties to American soil. But Barry went to jail and never heard from him again. Maybe I should do the Internet thing, he wonders. Then I could find people. But what the hell would I do with a leather jacket? I cut the sleeves off all my shirts a long time ago. Hey man, he wonders, Would a silver flute rust?

Two years ago he sold everything, at least what was left. His beautiful Nicaraguan wife, his only love and friend, cleaned him out, a swift financial colonic. At the time he considered walking into the surf without fighting the force or foam. He still struggles to trust most locals, and carries a number of feuds around town. Last week the owner of a liquor store hit him in the leg with an entire mackerel after Oscar told him he had “bad energy.”

Oscar also supplements his income with an old trick. He sells dime bags to tourists. That’s only if he can beat Dennis to the punch. Dennis is a weed dealer from the Corn Islands. He is tall, fit man with seven gold teeth and no shirt. Dennis is a transplant in town and has to carefully tread upon local competition. He is likable though, and doesn’t invite trouble. He shares Oscar’s optimism and probably has double the savings. Twenty-five bucks might get him back to his home island, he says, but it’s a long ride on school buses, ferries, and cyclos. The mosquitoes get fierce anywhere east of San Carlos, and dengue is not good for business. Dennis has two sisters he would love to see, but the work is here.  Tourists are afraid of the Bluefields mosquitoes, and prefer weed to malaria meds. Not many travelers go to Bluefields, and he’s not sure why they would anyway. Aren’t there enough singing birds in San Juan?

Oscar is an honest salesman, but Dennis is more convincing. He believes in his product. It’s green, and green is what we all need, he says. He’s a cool, strong, walking testimonial.  I met him last week at the market fingering the fruits, looking less confident about picking a good papaya than I would have imagined. He saw me looking at him and nodded. It’s not unusual for the only black man in town to be noticed. He picked up a dirty potato and asked me in choppy creole English, Which tasty fruit is this? Jajaja!

He’s a funny guy. Nicas can be worn by heat and worse, but still have good humor. This is, after all, one of the richest towns in the country. That means there are concrete structures and a cash machine. Running water and power are no daily guarantees, even in San Juan. But it’s the comfortable, lazy kind of place you can walk down the middle of the street at any hour of the day. You may have to yield to the fruit lady or the horse-drawn trailer, carrying ten-gallon vats of unpasteurized milk.

Yesterday, I sat reading in a stilted beach bar, sweating through Melville. Dennis walked up and sat on the floor behind me, ignoring open chairs beside me and smiling at nothing in particular. A couple unclaimed, skinny dogs lied beside him and he put a hand on each one. His gold teeth shined like Isis in the sun, his blackness a colorful contrast. He drank a 7-Up in a green bottle that looked like it has survived the revolution. He sucked on the straw and began rolling a spliff. He worked slowly so I would notice. No tobacco, pues, he said, Only this green green.

I’ve never seen Dennis without his dark black sunglasses, and not sure he’s ever looked at me. He was facing the sea and probably considering President Ortega’s enormous white mansion out on the bluffs in the crescent bay. He jumped from the floor boards to the sand and lit up. The hungrier dog followed. Dennis is happy to smoke an entire joint, but would prefer to share.

You cannot pass up these opportunities, he said in deliberate Caribbean style. Sunshine, it is here, pues. It was true, another beautiful day in San Juan. Heavy rains left the canopy lush with green parrots and passion fruit. Squawking birds were keeping the bugs at bay. The bay was shining blue and teenagers were skipping class to play baseball at the end of the beach. They made do with cracked wooden bats and gloves repaired with fishing line.

Dennis pinched his joint, the smoke fragrant and spinning around his hand. This is a gift for you and me, he said. It make you see everything better. He glanced up toward the President’s white, unjust palace, quietly mocking. He took a few more puffs and carried on with more enthusiasm. It make you see things funny, you know? I think it make you see the book better. See the music. Make you know good things.

Dennis stretched his arms, planting his hands on his hips, a tall black shadow on the light sand. He looked at the boats bobbing on the horizon, then back at me. I am happy! You know? Jaja! We should get happy, pues. Stay happy, today.