Who You Meet Hitchhiking the USA

Nemo's Encounters Hitching from Toronto to San Francisco

The Adventure Ends: Losing Nemo

The Sun Never Sets on McGill Quidditch

In the weeks since my last post I’ve tried sitting down to write another instalment, but every time I have failed. The stories are still there: naked massages, convertible Mustangs, sleeping in parks. The writer, however, is gone.

I set out on my journey because I followed a thirst for adventure that I strongly felt but poorly understood. I kept the log because I wanted to be rigorous and scientific in my travels, recording encounters with ethnographic detail. And I wrote it all up because I felt the need to report, to share with friends, family, and strangers some of the wonderful things that I had seen.

Writing these out has forced me to reflect on what I’ve experienced, and excitement at seeing my viewership grow has encouraged me to experiment with style and presentation. This process has been enlightening, and I come out a different person – which is why I can no longer write Nemo’s Adventures Hitchhiking the USA.

Simply put, Nemo’s gone: this was one of the many pseudonyms that I adopted in order to break out of the mould that my parents and times had set for me. Little did I know that the greatest freedom lies in accepting oneself, though this once struck me as giving up. I can now be myself: I can now be Radu Pârvulescu, Canadian-Romanian.

Adventure: I sought it, and I found it. What I’ve seen no one can ever take away from me, and what I’ve felt is mine forever. This includes the creeping realization that maybe the greatest curse is experiencing an incredible universe all alone. Among other things my adventures have been an exercise in loneliness; and loneliness is worst when surrounded by other people.

I’m also coming to terms with the fact that my adventuring hasn’t been travel so much as roaming, an aimless affair with neither beginning nor end, intended for a high turn-over of faces. Many glorify this, and I have as well, but now I can’t avoid seeing it for what it is: escapism and fear. When you spend enough time with people you start seeing yourself in them, and if you don’t like what you see it’s easier to change the mirror than to clean it.

When it comes to Hitchhiking the USA, however, I am unequivocal: everybody should do it, it is awesome, I’ve rarely done something more inspiring, educational, and fulfilling. I don’t want this to get lost in the somber mood, so let me repeat it for all, present and future: hitchhiking is fun, safe, and insanely instructive in the lives of people and places, showing you things you never dreamt of for free. You won’t get raped and stabbed, and you’ll see the world, for free. So hitchhike, and hitchhike America.

I will continue writing, and I will link to those scribblings should anyone be interested to see what I’m up to these days. I would also like to take this chance to thank everyone who has ever followed me or ever given me a like: it’s no stretch to say that I wouldn’t have gotten past my sixth post had it not been for you. A special shout-out to my consistent likers, who have fuelled me throughout these months: you’re great, you flatter me, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

In closing I would like to say this: travel is mind-openinig, hitchhiking is one of the best ways to do it, and America is a gem. Roaming, on the other hand, closes you within yourself, and it takes writing about it afterwards to open yourself up to the wonders of your own experiences.

So travel far, hitch wide, and let it all rush in. And if you ever find Nemo, send him my regards: last I heard he’s on the Pacific Coast Highway, heading north.

 

 

 

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Los Angeles, Part 1: Eating Agave Syrup on Bread at Universal Studios, Finding the Pacific Ocean

Smokey Doesn't Like McGill Quidditch, Because They're On Fire

Smokey Doesn’t Like McGill Quidditch, Because They’re On Fire

Day 39-42: Los Angeles; Part 1

Twilight faded into dawn, and the world was waking up around the Ford Fiesta in which I slept. Mikhail Ivanovich had parked our rental-car on a slope facing the Hollywood Sign, which was occasionally obscured by a man-dog combination crapping in two: HOLL–OOD.

This was a good dawn, and my back really didn’t hurt at all, a feat for which the ergonomists at Ford (unsung heroes) should receive praise and a wrist-watch with a leather belt. In the seat next to me, splayed out to avoid the steering wheel, Mikhail Ivanovich slept, periodically letting out the young man’s snore, the type that latter blossoms into buckshot. He had spent the greater part of the night leaned against the Mercedes of a strange and wealthy Russian, discussing whatever it is two Russians discuss when they meet in in the dark. I don’t know of such things, I am a Romanian.

Soon we both awoke and got down to business: brush teeth, drink coffee, go to Universal Studios. This took us via McDonald’s, where the drinks were hot, the homeless were cold, and both had been sitting around for too long. But the free Wifi and the even freer lavatories were no laughing matter, and we gratefully simulated a cosy home with motion-activated soap dispensers. The next challenge (driving through LA is challenging like spreading cold molasses on dry rice) was to locate free parking around Universal Studios. This was found on a tiny residential street with a generic Spanish name, on the slope opposite the freeway, between an overflowing garbage can and the the 2013 Mustang convertible. An unusually thorough tree gave us discretion and leaves.

Behind our car, but in front of that week’s garbage, Mikhail Ivanovich stripped to his underwear, applied deodorant, and put on fresh and well-kept clothes; I had no such scruples. I don’t know of such things, I am a Romanian. I took but the bare minimum: half a “loaf” of Wonderbread, my 2008 Lenovo laptop, a plastic jar of peanut butter, the high school band sweater from our boozy field-trip to Europe, and twelve fluid ounces of agave syrup. These, a plastic spoon, and a transparent, pink plastic box the size of a match-book (containing two earplugs and many more Tramadols and Flexarils) went into an impermeable twenty-litre bag. We were ready for Universal Studios.

Mikhail Ivanovich was ecstatic, and I a bit less: my father had taken me to visit in my pre-teen years, and a leftist university education had taught me to love the working man but hate his pleasures, so I wasn’t too keen. Agreeing to meet at the anti-gravity air-tube next to the giant guitar around sixteen-hundred hours, Mikhail Ivanovich headed for the turn-styles while I waited for Johnny Rockets Restaurant & Sports Lounge to open; Popcornopolis lacked Wifi.

And open it did. I found a corner booth, ordered a beer, smiled at the waitress, then set about academia, exploring the Aviation and Maritime Security Act of the United Kingdom (1990) to the ambient music of Pitbull and housekeeping ladies housekeeping. Very slowly, very carefully I sipped my beer for the next six hours, taking a lunch break to savour PB & Agave Syrup sandwiches outside – at nine dollars a pint I was too bashful to ask for the menu. Like the ostrich, time flew in the face of reason, and I met Mikhail Ivanovich, hungry for both the Pacific Ocean and $5.99 footlongs.

In those days I hadn’t yet learned that Subway’s Veggie Patty falls foul of my vegan ethics, a most-delicious and satisfying ignorance. But all good things must come to an end, and so did California as we approached the beach. Parking was neither free nor convenient, but Santa Monica Pier had appeared in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas so we couldn’t miss it. Gaming habits of beating women with iron rods die hard, however, and the Pier wasn’t as exciting as we’d remembered, so we walked along the beach and into the Pacific Sunset.

Los Angeles Parking Officials, like their cousins in the Police, are not known for their mercy and munificence, and we rushed to move our car. After searching for a place to park for the night, we set up field headquarters in the puddle on the street behind the parking lot next to the rib place. Not yet sleepy, we went to a corner-shop liquor store to trade in our handful of change for beer that tasted like money. Mikhail Ivanovich was unable to finish his; I was too cheap not to.

Eventually we returned to the car, set back the chairs, and bid each other good night. As I was dozing off, I remembered the results of a study I had once read: heart-burn is worse lying down, and less intense standing up.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

Las Vegas to Los Angeles: Sleeping Off Prescription Drugs

Day 38: Las Vegas to Los Angeles (265mi/427km)

The ride from Vegas to LA was very difficult, through no one’s fault but my own. The context was favourable: I was sharing a rental car with Mikhail Ivanovich Burdaev and Bart, blasting top-40 pop songs, and driving through the desert in the late afternoon with the windows open, when the the torrid heat had become gentle warmth. The conversation was stimulating (“so what drugs have you done?”) and the scenery pretty.

Problem was, before leaving Las Vegas I had popped two pills of a prescription drug muscle-relaxant, hoping to turn our basic-model rental-car into a party-bus. Instead, the yellow pills did exactly what they were supposed to: they totally relaxed my body, leading to extreme drowsiness and an aggressive need to nap.

As any cramming student knows, doing battle with sleep is morally frustrating business, constantly begging the question: why are you fighting yourself? Does poor decision-making explain your desperate attempt to prop open your eyelids, and if so, how did it come to this? Have you landed in an inflexible situation to which you must adapt by refusing to sleep? Perhaps you’re just a lazy shit?

So in addition to really, really wanting to sleep, you have to struggle with your own stupidity, impotence, and sloth. And you’re reproaching yourself that you’re so caught up forcing yourself awake that you pay little attention to the Mojave Desert sunset, the reason you’re staving off sleep in the first place.

Bart napping in the back-seat (he needed his strength to drink and fornicate in Long Beach) didn’t help, and the over-large Chipotle black-bean & tofu burrito betrayed me, transforming from delicious food to sleeping pill. The sun too, in a fit of cruel irony, undermined me. Since we were driving west we got a terrific view of the setting star, but the same beams that washed the car in amber hues also warmed it to a toasty and supremely comfortable temperature.

By the time we got to LA I was utterly exhausted, the sun having already set. We dropped Bart off in Long Beach and made our way to Hollywood Boulevard. At this point the excitable Russian could barely contain himself: The Hollywood Boulevard, with stars and everything! So we reached a compromise: I’d sleep in the car while he walked around. Mikhail Ivanovich changed out of his driving pants, put on some cologne, and having parked the car in front of a movie theatre, went to paint the town red.

The next couple of hours are a blur: Mikhail Ivanovich returned from the Boulevard sooner than expected, drove around for forty-five minutes to find a certain picturesque location, then parked on a curb in a slope somewhere around the Hollywood sign. Apparently that night he met a wealthy Russian and they chatted until the sunset, a glorious sight which bathed the arid hills and and dry bush around Los Angeles in every blee of beige, yellow, and gold.

But I wouldn’t know. I was sleeping off the drugs.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

Las Vegas Couchsurfers, Part 3: Mikhail Ivanovich Burdaev, Leaving Vegas

Days 32-37: Las Vegas ; Part 3

Most of my week in Las Vegas was spent indoors, in Miller’s house, working on my undergraduate Honours Thesis, a twenty-page sociological investigation into how exactly the Parliament of the United Kingdom had adopted counter-terrorist legislation over the past eighty years. Concretely I woke up, had breakfast, took notes on two-three obscure articles (from the Australian and New Zealand Maritime Law Journal, for instance), bashed facts into theories (praying for something plausible), had lunch, read some more, acknowledged that trying to do academic work on the road was a horrible idea, rewrote paragraph four for the sixth time, had dinner, hung out with couch-host and surfers, then repeated. Sometimes I left my cave and went into town, but given my poor impression of Las Vegas and the urgency of the Honours Thesis (without which I couldn’t graduate) I spent a fair amount inside.

With the end of my stay approaching, however, I was confronted with the (extremely unappealing) possibility of having to hitchhike through the Mojave Desert. Enter stage left Mikhail Ivanovich Burdaev, a couchsurfer from Russia who parachuted into Miller’s house half-way through my stay. In his early twenties and hailing from Kazan, he studied economics in Berlin, where he worked at McDonald’s to pay his way through university. This salary had also bought the plane ticket to America, and had given him just enough purchasing power to do some sightseeing before his work-travel placement (dishboy at a hotel in Glacier National Park, Montana) started in a couple of weeks.

Mikhail was of medium stature, brown hair, clear eyes, and meticulously policed his presentation: he ironed his polo t-shirts, his tan and baby-blue stripped cotton shorts were immaculate, and he was always freshly shaven, freshly washed. It was also fantastically clear that this man was a Russian: accent aside, he was just so stoked to see America. He had seen it on TV, he’d read about it, his friends had regaled him with tall tales of the USA, and now he, Mikhail Ivanovich Burdaev, was here. The man gripped every second, letting no memory go unrecorded: every one of them was earned, flipping burgers and inhaling oil fumes.

So Mikhail Ivanovich was always in a rush, with little time and much to photograph. Next up was Los Angeles (before returning to Las Vegas to fly out to Billings, Montana), a trip for which he planned to rent a car. With uncharacteristic speed I asked the Russian if I could tag along, warning him that I could contribute neither rent nor gas. He accepted, on the grounds that a) he was nice, and b) it wouldn’t hurt to have a native-speaker tag along. And thus Miller lent us his car and Mikhail and I drove to the airport to rent a vehicle.

The rental process was a drawn-out and stressful affair. The issue was money, which Mikhail Ivanovich barely had and with which he was loth to part. I served as translator, and in the end he decided to just go for it and pay: when would he have this chance again? So he rented the cheapest car available, signed the dotted line, and started walking to the garage. Then halfway through, Mikhail Ivanovich caved: it just too costly.

We went back to the counter where I explained the situation. I will never know if the Russian simply acted with brilliant tactic or if he was honestly torn in two over such a bulky expense. In any case our change of heart resulted in a better deal: quarter off the previous price. I explained this to Mikhail, and now he could no longer resist. The power of the walk-away.

The rest was a blur: drive the cars back to Miller’s house, pack, make sure I don’t forget my agave syrup, say goodbye, and secure beats for the four-hour ride. Minutes before leaving we ran into Bart, Miller’s roommate, who asked for a ride to Long Beach. Close the trunk, put off your Honours Thesis for another day, roll down the windows, roll up your sleeves. I left Las Vegas as I came: sweating. Bart, Mikhail Ivanovich, and I.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

Las Vegas Couchsurfers, Part 2: Michelle & Mauri, Better Way of Cooking Rice

Days 32-37: Las Vegas ; Part 3

My first days in Las Vegas confronted me with a mystery. It was clear that the two couches in the lobby/living room of Surfer’s Paradise (the house in which I crashed) were joined for a purpose, not having been sheeted for nothing. Also clear was that the two German couchsurfers and I were bothering somebody when we talked in the kitchen at night, as the couches were two meters away from the counter, with nothing but shamelessness and air in between.

Only in the final days, however, did I get to meet the inhabitants of those couches, Michelle and Mauri, who had been on a world-tour for the past eight months. She was tall, lithe, and very French, bangs and sharpened features accenting the elbows and knees of a particularly thin late-20s/early-30s. He, on the other hand, was mostly bald,  slightly shorter than her, and of comparable age, but with the well-built and proportioned body of a tanned Italian. In other words, very much from there.

They spoke to each other in French, he accented, she as well – if one consider Parisian an accent. His take on language was to be understood, but hers was a professional requirement: the woman was a journalist, and spoke as other people write, that is, literate. Perhaps then her accent wasn’t Parisian so much as it reminded of the books that came from there.

Michelle was, however, late on writing her next article, one in a series based on her travels. Getting paid to report on your journeys is truly a Gift, and her insertion in the French newspaper world, plus generous unemployment aid from the French state, had given her the chance to turn chômage into voyage. Should over-worked North Americans shake their heads at European indolence, let me just say that there’s no virtue in feeding the flames of 9-to-5 bigotry with the kerosene of envy. Helping people travel is one of the better uses of state money, in addition to health-care, education, and guarding against civil war.

Mauri, on the other hand, was an engineer-turned-cook. He felt no life, no warmth, no human quality in engineering, so he turned to what he’d been doing since childhood, when he’d spend hours helping his mother around the kitchen. Which was fortunate for me, because after tasting some of his white rice I learned the (by far) better way to cook it:

Mauri’s Mom’s Rice
– dice a medium-sized onion and gently fry it at the bottom of a pot until the slices become translucent; approximately five minutes
– add one cup of dry white rice and a heaping teaspoon of salt to the frying onions, stirring the mix for two-three minutes.
– add three cups of water to the mixture and put on the lid
– let it cook until all the water has been absorbed

Simple, right? But a total revolution in taste, and the leap from cheap-ass to delicious is of no small thing for the broke traveller.

We talked some more, they watched The Hangover 2 in French, and Mauri taste-tested my vegan Greek-style scrambled-tofu (too much green olive, should’ve either kept it on the side or sparingly mixed in thin slices). They also told me about another way to travel and make money: get sponsored by a company (say, Marvin’s Matches) then take pictures, record videos, and write articles about you lighting matches all over the world. If a publicity rep reading this wants me to advertise their medicated dandruff cream by rubbing it into people’s heads around the globe, please, please let me know.

I bid Michelle & Mauri goodbye one sweltering Las Vegas afternoon as they set off to explore new and foreign (American) lands. But one thing was certain from out brief encounter: my rice would never be the same again.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

Las Vegas Couchsurfers, Part 1: Joachim & Joachim, Prescription Drugs

Days 32-37: Las Vegas ; Part 2

Joachim & Joachim were Germans, and probably still are. In their early-20s, of average height, with the pink skin of Northern Europeans and a burning desire to see Amerika.  They were both interning in Chicago before university picked up again in Konstanz, Germany, and they had come to crash at Miller’s house (a.k.a Surfer’s Paradise) on the recommendation of Fredi. This Fredi fellow had stayed with Miller previously and each time he was mentioned everybody would smile, shake their heads in wonder, and recount a daring and perhaps dangerous exploit. These combined with the fact that Miller, who had hosted more than one hundred surfers over the years, called him “the craziest guy I’ve ever had here” led me to conclude that Fredi was a miscreant myth in the making, albeit with higher education.

With Joachim & Joachim I explored The Strip, and with them also I played a word-association drinking-game in English which I utterly dominated – you take your victories as they come. Anyway, while they decided to stick to alcohol that night, I figured that I’d use the occasion to experiment with perscription drugs, because why not? I had obtained these from a trusted source with specific instructions on how to use them, and besides, these were deep muscle relaxants (cyclobenzaprine) so what’s the worst that could happen: over-relax?

Anybody with any knowledge of biochemistry will realize how dumb that last sentence actually was. As a friend once said, experimenting with your body’s chemistry is like trying to fine-tune a car engine by throwing a live grenade under the hood. So near midnight I popped a minor overdose and went to the gated-community pool with the two Germans and Miller. The architecture of a tragic ending, but through blind luck one of them turned out to be a life-guard.

Once at the pool Joachim 1 put a white, plastic pool-side chair in the water and took a seat, while Miller and Joachim 2 sat on the edge, cooling off their feet. As for me I was getting chilly, and I figured I’d move around a bit. Next thing I knew fifteen minutes had passed and I was walking circles around the pool for no apparent reason. After that, it’s flashes: one of the Joachim’s helping me walk, a towel draped across me which might or might not have been wet, and me saying something.

Later I was told that that something was in a language nobody could understand; most likely Romanian. I also suspect that my consonants had taken the night off, along with my gross motor skills and my ability to wake up in the morning, because none of them were at their post. Then again when you dismiss a soldier for the night you can’t complain if they fail to sound the alarm.

There are two reasons for which I will advise my children against imitating me, despite being a hypocrite. First, prescription drugs are highly tested and effective substances with well-known side-effects, which means that if you overdose on a deep muscle relaxant you will relax the fuck out, to the point of being unable to do anything else. This includes swimming, or as we call it in layman’s terms, not drowning.

Second, and again because prescription drugs do exactly what they’re supposed to, consuming them is unlikely to lead to a fun trip, because government regulators would be the first to ban something that sends the sick and elderly to the Moon and back. So honestly, don’t bother, because the value-added is minimal, and you have no idea how you’re altering your biochemistry. In this case the risks outweighs the possibility of a (thoroughly) mediocre time.

In sum, this week’s public service announcement is: don’t recreationally consume prescription drugs, because they’re mostly lame and/or dangerous. And if you ever meet Fredi do let me know if he’s as epic as he sounds.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

The Las Vegas Strip: A House of Mirrors

Days 32-37: Las Vegas ; Part 1

Many things can be said about Las Vegas. It’s an environmental insult, rising out of the desert and entirely dependent on the human economy. It’s a massive Temple of Sin, opposed to nearly all forms of ethical conduct. And it’s a shining example of the wild success that a territorial administration can enjoy if it agrees to sell people their weaknesses.

But Las Vegas is also an open-air exhibit on human nature, plainly showing the mirroring aspect of our reality. Most fields of knowledge have some way of talking about this: recursion in computer science, dialectics in philosophy, self-containing sets in logic, mirror neurons in cognitive science, and meta-jokes in humour.

Now mirroring is a scale-free, abstract concept (like “balance”) so if you look hard enough you’ll find it pretty much everywhere. But the shocking thing about Vegas is that you don’t need to look: mirroring is literally built into the physical infrastructure of the place, so you can actually walk through it. Nowhere is this more obvious than The Las Vegas Strip.

For those who are unfamiliar with Las Vegas, it essentially has two centres: Old Vegas organized around Fremont Street, where the casino industry first boomed under mafia tutelage, and The Strip, which is the collection of hotel/casino/shopping-mall mega-resorts developed by Wall Street starting in the late 1980s. The Strip offers 62,000 hotel rooms and lies along a 4.2mi/6.8km stretch of the Las Vegas Boulevard that actually falls outside Las Vegas city limits, in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester (all this from Wikipedia).

The Strip is what most people nowadays associate with Vegas: big, bright lights and huge hotels. On your average night the place is crawling with tourists, various species of street performers, as well as short, thin men wearing oversized t-shirts, whose sole purpose is to smack the photographed calling cards of prostitute-escorts on their palms in an effort to entice the lecherous.

So this is The Las Vegas Strip, and we can thank the ravenous capitalists for its existence. These people employ regiments of actuaries, accountants, marketers, advertisers, financial modellers, and market-research firms, all to maximize every tourist’s consumption ratio: more dollars, less time. And they’ve concluded that this is best done by firing off as many pleasure sensors as humanly possible  – for a price.

The entire physical infrastructure has been built for stimulus maximization: giant flashing lights, huge signs advertising the sale of (mostly female) bodies, and deep-friend fast-food joints at every street corner. Gargantuan shopping malls, statues, absurdly tacky buildings, and light-and-water shows. And of course reams of fine establishments selling alcohol.

So Las Vegas is pretty much what I had always been led to believe: a McDonald’s-porno-shopping mall mash-up dunked in liquor. But what nobody told me is that the people in Las Vegas, and especially the tourists, ARE Las Vegas, ARE the sights, ARE the physical infrastructure. I’m not speaking figuratively.

Absolutely every physical, solid, built-up element of Las Vegas can be found on the bodies of tourists: they wear bracelets, hats, and pendants, full of flashing LEDs. Men and women both dress like prostitutes, exaggerating and exposing their secondary sexual characteristics: butt, breasts, and thighs, chest, back, and biceps. And they are always carrying an item of food, usually greasy.

You can find tourists with several shopping bags on each arm, and for each crazy building there is a busker in full-body costume posing with passer-by’s for pictures (against a nominal fee). For every water fountain or fake pirate-ship dance-show there is a street performer playing an instrument or doing magic tricks, and everybody walks around with alcohol, often in foot-long, swirly plastic glasses, in beer-hats, or in some other kitschy mug available wherever a coin drops.

Equally important is what you don’t see: no austere or impoverished buildings, so no austere or impoverished people. No police, so no one to be policed. Nothing is lacking, so no one lacks. Of course these all exist, they’re just hidden. Legions of back-stage workers, cleaning and taking shit from the party-people, for as little pay as possible. If you try to beg or to cause a (non-lucrative) ruckus you’ll find security guards jumping out of every shadow. And should you attempt to match opulence with restraint, you’ll find yourself standing out ruining everybody’s good time through the silent judgement of your demeanour. And you will feel the dissonance, strongly.

To be fair, many other places exhibit such behaviour: carnivals, festivals, house-parties, night-clubs. Often too the events are dressed to match: lights, sounds, booze, and other necessary accoutrements. But everywhere else the festival ends after a couple of days, the night-club closes at 5AM, and people go back to their normal lives. In Las Vegas, however, it never stops.

And that’s why mirroring is so obvious in Las Vegas, and that’s why it’s so impressive: because the fickle processes of self-reference and reflexivity have been literally cast in the concrete, glass, and plastic that make up The Strip. It was all designed, built, and polished with the tourists in mind, and while they’re in Las Vegas the tourists oblige, building themselves in the image of The Strip.

When I was there it was almost too much to take in. Even though I was raised in the city, so much stimulation nearly flushed me out. And while I was in the middle of it I almost believed the hubris of Las Vegas: the party could last forever, if only I had the stamina and cash to keep up. But then I returned to my couch-host, calmed my senses, and remembered. Remembered that all it takes is one tiny crack in the Hoover Dam, or, what’s more likely, one swish of the legislator’s pen, and this whole Temple of Sensation, this Empire of Greed, this House of Mirrors will come crashing down.

And then Las Vegas will be seen for what it always was: a mistake.

 

Exaggerated People: Bart, But Especially Miller

Day 31, Part 1 – Kingman, AZ to Las Vegas, NV (102mi/164km)

Couchsurfing is a fundamentally exacerbating experience: it exaggerates everything. You wanted to meet this one person? FIFTEEN NEW FRIENDS. You made the acquaintance of an un-interesting fellow? MEDIOCREST. PERSON. EVER. Reading academic articles? PIMP-SLAPPED BY KNOWLEDGE.

I got picked up from the McDonald’s on Tropicana Avenue by Bart, my couch-host’s roommate. In his early twenties, he had graduated from chef school in Las Vegas and was now working full-time, saving up money so he could return to his birth-place, Long Beach (California’s expensive). This plan, however, didn’t seem to be going so well: could I lend him three dollars, he was short for a pack of smokes and a can of Monster (the energy drink)?

Fair enough.

We stopped at the grocery store where I stocked up on vegan victuals and we headed for the gated community where he and the couch-host lived. This was interesting, as I had never entered a gated community before; and indeed, you needed a code to open the gate. But that was where the “security” ended, because the fence was hop-able in dozens of places, the guard-booth was perpetually empty, and the collection of houses in no way formed a community, where each had the other’s back. Still, I must admit that the barriers slightly inconvenienced anyone careless enough to forget the code.

Finally we entered the house and I shook hands with the owner: Miller, couch-host extraordinaire. He mentioned at one point how many surfers he had hosted over the years, and it was somewhere in the triple digits. He even had pictures on the wall of himself and various surfers posing with a pyramid of money, in what looked like a casino. Miller was evidently nailing the Christian commandment to take in the stranger.

And now I’ll let the man’s life speak for itself. Miller came from a family of thirteen children, and when he was sixteen years old he sued for and legally obtained emancipation, in essence meaning that he divorced his parents. He hadn’t talked with or seen his kin in seventeen years.

Following his emancipation he went to high school, while at the same time living on the streets and illegally squatting in abandoned buildings. In his words, it made you tough, and you did what you had to do to survive. This phase of his life culminated one night when one of the guys in his community of street-kids came to their squat and treated him to a hearty, and by no means cheap, meal.

Miller asked his friend where had obtained the money, and his friend answered: a man had offered him cash for fellatio. The street kid accepted. This scared Miller, terribly, for one simple reason: after living on the down-and-out for so long, and after having to scrape so low to make a living, giving head for a hundred bucks made perfect, unobjectionable sense. So the next day Miller left the squatters and enlisted in the army.

He served overseas, he went outside the wire, he saw action. And he got hurt, bad enough for his superior to recommend against spine surgery, because that’s where people lose the use of their legs. Enter stage left an (ongoing) lifetime of chronic pain, explained to me thus: try to remember what it’s like to be really, really horny, when for days on end you’re just crawling on the walls. Recall how at one point the libido has been so strong and has lasted for so long that it’s become a background condition – though no less intense for that. Now imagine that, but with pain.

After the army came a stint with the NSA. But then, with the generous support of Uncle Sam, Miller got bachelor’s and associate degrees, and was now pursuing his third university-level diploma. All told he could count academic knowledge of history, politics, and psychology, in addition to the hands-on experience he had of each.

Nowadays Miller was sure of one thing: he was going to be President of the United States of America. This country needed action, it needed vision, and it needed people to take bold and difficult decisions to bring back America’s glory and pull it from the brink of the destruction. And Miller was just the man for such as job.

All these recounted, of course, while smoking hookah on his crazy-comfortable bed, as Bart played League of Legends in the background. The chef was late on paying his rent, but whatchyou gonna do? Miller and I discussed politics, and he spent a solid hour psychoanalyzing me (they had taught him a thing or two in the armed forces), to the gentle sound of clashing swords and mouse clicks.

I think you’ll agree that Miller is an exaggerated person. I should add that nearly every part of his story was corroborated by a physical object in his house: pain medication with stamps from the US Armed Forces, political science monographs, and the easy attitude of one who has seen much, much worse.

Miller, I told you then and I tell you now: good luck, there’s half a chance that you might actually make it. And if you ever need a hagiographer, let me know. My pen’s for hire.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 31, Part 3

Letter To A Future Daughter: Don’t Marry An Investigative Journalist

My Dearest Butterfly:

I hear that you’ve fallen in love with an investigative journalist, and that you intend to marry him. Right away I want you to know that I understand you – really. Investigative journalists are clever people, with sharp wit and a keen eye, known for their hardened perseverance. They are also bathed in the mythical aura of a modern-day giant-slayer, unmasking corrupt politician and extortionate robber barons that seem to big to fall. It’s worth mentioning as well that the territory  comes with an element of danger, and, as we all know, danger is sexy.

Not only that, but they’re fighting for Justice, with a big “J”. My own job is trite, and so is your mother’s, but this fellow works night and day to eliminate oppression, to rein in greed, and to educate the uninformed; knowledge is power. Don’t think that I’m being sarcastic: I truly believe that at their best investigative journalists accomplish all of these things, and that our society needs more of them.

But I don’t want one for a son-in-law, for a number of reasons which you will no doubt attribute, in a fit of righteous anger, to my middle-aged small-mindedness. I have no doubt been swallowed whole by the comforts of bourgeois life, blinding myself to the plight of the weak, hungry, and persecuted. Of course, you reason, I want to keep you away from him: he’s going to shake the powers that be to their foundation, and I’m too scared that I’ll lose our health insurance. Besides, I just don’t get it.

Still, I ask that you to hear me out.

First of all, being married to an investigative journalist means that you have to operate in his world-view – after all, if you don’t share the same outlook on life your marriage starts out compromised. The problem is that investigative journalists are rarely light-hearted people who give you energy and hope, and this for a very simple reason: their job is to explain shortcomings.

The investigative journalist usually starts looking into something after a complaint or after they sense that something is hidden, false, distorted, or just plain wrong . And there is no small amount of evil worth reporting on. Once they actually start digging, investigative journalists either run into walls (the system trying to cover its tracks) or they find that the rot has set in quite thoroughly. I can’t think of the last time that I read an investigation which discovered that apparently positive happenings were totally great even behind the scenes, and that this goes way deep: the heart of lightness, uplifting all government agencies, in cahoots with the Church.

Admittedly, I’m being facetious, but the fact is that for an investigative journalist to be worth their salt they have to be realistic. Tracing the money back to shady corporate backers means figuring out how the gears turn, and that means being a realist. Reality, however, is ugly and corrupt, full of degeneration and debasement, replete with good people doing bad things because they’re just too weak to act otherwise.

In other words, the investigative journalist’s job is to constantly stare this Fallen world right in the face. Under such conditions most people become “realists” (which is code for “cynics”) while others delude themselves with vague ideas of “progress” – that, and alcohol. Nearly all develop an acerbic sense of gallows humour. Few are those investigative journalists who carry their load with grace and lightness, because few have true Faith. This is understandable, because it’s hard to Believe when you fully appreciate just how messed up the world is.

So the first reason why you shouldn’t marry an investigative journalist: because you’ll probably end up a hardened cynic, like him. Substance abuse is also likely, and you may think that you’re among the few that can handle such a life, but think again. I also thought that I was good enough for Harvard – Harvard thought otherwise. And marriage, unlike a university rejection letter, isn’t something that you can gleefully toss in the shredder, at least not without cutting up your own heart in the process.

Second, the investigative journalist is paranoid. Again, this is probably justified: he knows exactly who listens to what and why, and he has the latest scoop on massive government spy-centres snooping on their own citizens. Moreover, if he happens to have pissed off some important people there’s a good chance that tabs are being kept and that his paranoia is grounded in reality.

Now I don’t know about you, but I like the idea that when I’m talking at night with my wife there’s no one there except for God, who’s privy to all our boring conversations. As the spouse of an investigative journalist however, you won’t be able to hide under the blanket of irrelevance, and you might find your deepest secrets brought to public attention when a media mogul with ruffled feathers begins a character assassination against your husband.

And third, think of the children; if, that is, there will be any. In order for a couple to start a family it has to believe that this world is worthy of another human life – especially a tiny and innocent one. The same goes in case your kid’s an accident: if you can’t get excited for the future then you really shouldn’t be raising it. Do you want the young ones to grow up with the knowledge that current affairs are endlessly corrupt (with little hope of improvement), but that their father is fighting the good fight, in the process draining himself for a job with little thanks and less remuneration? You try lionizing a man who’s too sleep-deprived to play with his children.

Now I’m not saying that every investigative journalist should be a lone wolf, attacking cases with steely perseverance and exposing abuse without having to think of anyone’s well-being besides his own (though many of the best fit that description). But I am saying that the investigative journalist who can separate work and play, who can live at peace with himself and the world around him, and who can teach his kids to wonder at the endless beauty of it all is a rare beast indeed. And even rarer is the spouse that can be a constant anchor and bedrock for such a person.

So in conclusion I ask of you: don’t marry this investigative journalist – at least, not yet. Give it some time (say, half a year), that you may taste the ups and downs of the trade. It might turn out that you’re an unshakable pillar of hope and joy, but odds are that you’ve inherited your mother and I, in that you’re just another person, exposed to the strong winds and crashing waves of life. You, like us, are not a saint (though we hope that you’ll outdo us in that department).

And if all this has failed to convince you, just remember one thing: there’s nothing more annoying than having to hear, over family dinner, exactly why flawed hiring practices in the judiciary lead to overpowered judges ruling against the downtrodden. True, but insufferable. And daughter, I don’t want you to suffer.

Love,
Dad

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I met an investigative journalist today, a fruitful meeting which got me thinking. Will return to the McDonald’s in Las Vegas next post.

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This is my endorsement: Democracy Now!

McDonald’s and Luxury Leather Goods: Gabriele Ruggeri

Day 31, Part 1 – Kingman, AZ to Las Vegas, NV (102mi/164km)

There are many fine establishments in Las Vegas, organized in two strict very hierarchies: cost and quality. Generally speaking these have nothing to do with each other, except, of course, in the case of McDonald’s. One can see that since industrial production of nutriment paste is subject to laboratory controls a McCheeseburger or McFlurry will not differ with location. Compositionally as well, these two “food” items are quite similar; but that’s for another time.

Operationally, the McDonald’s Corporation consists of franchise-, affiliate-, and corporate-owned stores, and each branch manager has immense power to re-imagine the restaurant’s decorative palate, provided it is red, yellow, and white. And so, at one particular McDonald’s in one particular corner of Las Vegas, one particular vassal has woven his lord’s colours in a tried-and-true pattern: nostalgic Americana.

So do not be fooled by the stainless steel surfaces, the plastic vats of soy-bean oil, and the state-of-the-art refrigerated ice crushers that can dispense McShamrock Shakes (TM) in  under six seconds. These are but the fever dreams of over-zealous chemical engineers and small-minded health inspectors. Forget the pabulum, and ponder the walls. One finds framed and inexplicably signed pictures of Marilyn Monroe, posters of Elvis shooting his five-cent smile, and a gaggle of black-and-white male movie stars, hair combed with what seems like engine oil.

Beneath the mounted miniature replicas of Harley Davidsons and clunky red Chevys are booth-style tables, on either side of a lane which ends in a perpendicular corridor leading to the lavatory. This t-intersection offers the single most precious resource in the entire restaurant: electricity. Now, one would expect this above-average franchise to offer its patrons more than a two-socket power outlet. Were this the case, however, I and the gentleman in the booth across the aisle from me would not have spent half an hour shooting dirty looks at the homeless lady with lip-sores simultaneously charging two cellphones. Talk is cheap, but information is money, which buys lip-sore cream, so who am I to judge?

Fortunately the situation lasts slightly less that our laptops’ batteries, and upon the lady’s departure both the fellow and I rush to claim our socket (pick-up artists and feminists, I expect a generous reading). Ensue half an hour of internet silence, but eventually our furtive, evaluatory glances meet and the fellow strikes up a conversation.

First, however, a description. The fellow is in his early 50’s, white-gray hair, white stubble, dressed in simple but well-cut clothes: blue jeans, a stripped dress-shirt of white and pastels, tasteful shoes, a wristwatch just the right size. On the table lies a late-2000s Toshiba laptop, the dangling and gnarled power-cord ruining his otherwise subtly fastidious look. In the booth bench opposite him rests a large shopping bag of medium-thick plastic, the type one finds in middle-brow apparel stores. The bag has a square appearance, as if containing boxes.

While intermittently slurping a small fountain drink the fellow pitches a few opening questions, then introduces himself as Gabriele Ruggeri, the heir of a leatherworking boutique in Catania, Italy. Of course, he has spent most of his life in Rome and Monte Carlo, where it really isn’t that expensive, unless you desire lodgings in the main square. Be prepared then for €20,000/month.

And speaking of gambling, there used to be only three places in Italy where one could gamble: Sanremo, Venezia, and Valle d’Aosta. Board a plane Friday, win and lose, return Monday, but nowadays the casinos in the Croatian Riviera compete quite aggressively. Never mind, Italy has the lottery and electronic parlour games. Gabriele once saw a woman at six in the morning compulsively inserting coins into an electronic slot machine while her infant fixed the air with a hollow expression. The real problem is when these people spend fortunes and their spouses find out after the fact.

Gabriele was actually born in his grandfather’s workshop, and the old man became famous making shoes for Rick Caruso. His mother had designed outfits for Jackie Kennedy and Gabriele himself is in America on business – a common occurrence. Just this morning he had received a call from a man lodging at a nearby casino who was interested in crocodile skin shoes and belts (money was not an issue). By the time Gabriele reached the hotel room the would-be buyer had lost it all and was busy arguing with another fellow.

At this point my curiosity is overwhelming. First of all, I’ve never actually seen real crocodile-skin goods. Second, if this Italian gentleman sipping Cherry Coke at a McD’s on Tropicana Avenue personally delivers luxury accoutrements to high-rollers he probably deals in very fine crocodile-skin goods. So naturally I ask to see his wares.

Gabriele puts the plastic bag (from Macy’s, it turns out) on the table and lifts out two shoe-boxes and six belts. Patiently he explains where and why the leather-glue is applied, how to tell if it’s fake, and what to do if you want more than one type of leather on your shoe. Everything is custom-made in the old way, and it takes forty-five days for the workmen to craft a pair of kicks. Price-wise, a pairs ranges from one to six thousand dollars. The former boss of Ferrari and McLaren used to purchase $12,000 pairs (he insisted on the skin of two crocodiles for each shoe) but the fellow was relieved of his duties after a shady deal importing cigarettes from China, so that line was discontinued.

While I astutely gauge the luxury goods (I remind the reader that at that moment in time I had not bathed for a week) we hear a loud flush from the lavatory, followed by the sound of the hand-drier. Gingerly stepping over our power-cords a man exits the bathroom, and seeing the exhibition he stops to inspect. The fellow is also in his fifties, and his dress reveals little. He picks up a shoe, gives it a twelve-point visual inspection, sniffs it, then declares it to be from China.

Gabriele grins generously, and assures that gentleman that it is not so. Retorting, the bathroom-man demands the price: $1000 a pair. He repeats that the shoes originate from China, shakes his head, and walks out the McDonalds. Curiously, I don’t recall seeing him order any food. Upon the gentleman’s departure, Gabriele informs me that had his grandfather assisted to the scene he would have killed the man, which I don’t doubt for a second. Some men, after all, think that just because God gave them a mouth they ought to use it – such men need correction.

But my couch-surfing host is soon to pick me up, and I start packing my bags. The conversation dies down, and Gabriele puts away the remnants of a once-proud reptilian, mentioning that he’s waiting for someone to pick him up as well. Still, one thing is clear: as far as food goes, McDonald’s has a predictable cost-quality ration. When it comes to high-end leather goods, however, it’s a jungle out there.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 31, Part 2

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