My writing has appeared in a number of magazines, journals, and newspapers. I have worked as a travel
writer for Rough Guides, and recently...read more completed a book about adventure sports titled Play: Voices of
Adventure. I currently live in San Francisco, and more of my work is available online at
I. “MY JOB WAS TO TAKE THE ESCALADE OUT AND BUY CHAMPAGNE,” says one former employee. “Well, not every day, but that was memorable.”
He had been working as an executive assistant to the CEO of Bechtel, one of the world’s largest engineering companies. Bechtel built the Hoover Dam, the Alaska Pipeline, the Hong Kong International Airport, the mass transit systems of several cities, and the first commercial nuclear power reactor in America. It is responsible for one of the world’s largest copper mines in New Guinea and was named by the United Nations as a supplier of weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein. It has, also, been targeted for war profiteering and environmental degradation. The Bechtel office building lies in the dark heart of San Francisco’s financial district at the corner of Mission and Beale. The building: brown and unadorned, and everything about the place anonymous. In front of it, every weekday morning, the woman running in tall black boots with tall black heels will be running late to work, this just past the person handing out Examiner newspapers and the homeless man standing with his back to a brick wall selling Street Sheet for $1. “Have an absolutely magnificent day,” the homeless man will be saying.
“There’s always some Bechtel protestor wandering around wondering where to stand,” or so they say.
“I worked there for a year,” according to the former employee. “I left when I decided I had enough of being completely miserable every single day of my life… I didn’t do anything interesting. I was there to like pat him on the back and stroke his ego.”
“I used to work on a farm, and one day I was birthing a calf and suddenly thought, ‘This is disgusting,’” someone else says of the day he decided to seek out alternate employment.
Or the job might be sent to countries whose citizens are willing to work for a bowl of rice a day, where airports dance to the hum of mechanical ceiling fans. The inner workings of the place are sometimes erratic – communications breakdowns, system failures – a fractured existence limping along in last place, a cascade of desperation, inconsistency, and lies. Dealings are in tragedies and poor timing, remoteness and misinformation. The common language is gibberish. A dusty yellow haze settles over all things, and wild boars walk the unpaved streets. There is nobody rational at the wheel.
“I hope you enjoyed your stay,” management says upon dismissing an employee from the crumbling empire. “If you didn’t have a good time, well you could have had a good time but you chose to focus on the negative things instead of on the positive things.”
...read more (2/6)II. OVER 40 YEARS AGO, A STUDY WAS CONDUCTED in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. Called the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was to last two weeks but ended after six days following a series of emotional breakdowns and a general state of things rapidly and irreversibly becoming deeply disturbing.
The experiment began with a classified ad: Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks. Pseudo-prisoner subjects were arrested, fingerprinted, blindfolded, searched, deloused, and dressed in numbered uniforms. Guards were armed with clubs and told to create an environment of powerlessness. Why did things go the way they went? Why didn’t everyone just sit around staring at the wall? This is how things went: It’s hard to say exactly when the prisoners started to revolt. Someone has it written down. But they did indeed, and retaliation was swift. Where once were lilting melodies bouncing brightly through the air-conditioning vents was now the sound of chainsaws and thick-soled shoes echoing across concrete plains. Prisoners were stripped naked, their beds removed, and the leader of the rebellion placed in solitary confinement – a janitor’s closet. But not a janitor’s closet – a windowless cell rather where the most insolent of offenders would be locked away for days and relieved only by the occasional sliver of light and by scraps of food tossed inside at random intervals.
In order to maintain the illusion of incarceration, guards placed bags over the heads of prisoners during transfers throughout the prison. Punishment was administered in the form of press-ups and sleep interruption. The International Committee of the Red Cross calls it “prolonged stress standing.” In these cases, the victim might be handcuffed and shackled to the ceiling, and bolted to the floor.
One prisoner developed a psychosomatic body rash. Professor Philip Zimbardo, orchestrator of the experiment, walked the halls with his hands clasped behind his back and a scowl on his face, no longer a student of the meandering mind but rather a middle-class monarch monitoring the master laboratory for negative reinforcement. Over the course of many days, the walls, it seemed, grew to an industrial thickness. All sounds were blocked from the outside world. The prisoners became pale and wasted, the guards deranged. Nothing stirred save for the inner workings of many a disintegrating mind.
People sometimes find it hard to believe that someone can become a different person, as it were, that moment of stepping off the front doorstep, boarding a train or a bus, and becoming whatever title the world has assigned to them. Can good people commit acts of evil, and were they not perhaps evil all along? Zimbardo calls it the Lucifer Effect: The social norms associated with the role become all-consuming regardless of who that person was yesterday or what they might have been if only. Independent thought is compromised. When you’re in it, you can’t see it. Something like that. The power of the situation to transform human behavior – that had been the focus of the study. And specifically how a person adapts to a situation in which everything they know to be familiar is taken away.
“I wish,” someone might say, “that I had more power. But that is by the way.” This person will lack defined ankles and shuffle about as though atrophied in the art of walking. They will gaze upon the world through grey eyes which lack both depth and humanity.
There were private jets once. “We had a private jet once,” someone else might recall wistfully, as if remembering a time when Santa Claus was real. These are, in their heart of hearts, an ancient and warlike people, of irritable nature, demanding respect. Distant and mythical, like wizards, talk is always of winning and wanting and things reminiscent of world domination – all things of the earth in numerical order, cross-referenced from the beginning until the end of time. ...read more (3/6)III.
“BEFORE THE LAW,” WROTE KAFKA, “STANDS A DOORKEEPER.” Franz Kafka worked as a lawyer for much of his life. He worked, specifically, as an analyst of industrial accidents for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague.
The word Prague means, in the Czech language, threshold. The city has stood at the crossroads of history, its very existence a constant cause of inquiry. Someone quite old but alive at the beginning of the 21st century, having lived in that city their entire life, has seen its ownership change hands something along the lines of nine times. WWII, it is said, ended there in 1989, when the country was finally freed from the Soviet Union. A statue of Stalin was built on a hillside park by 600 men and women – the largest monument in the world of its kind at 50 meters high and 17,000 tones, a single button half a mile wide. Unveiled on May 1, 1955, one day after its creator committed suicide, the statue was blown apart with 800 kilograms of explosives and 1,650 detonators seven years later. The head, they say, rolled into the river. The remains were driven around town in a truck and the driver of that truck died in an accident less than a year later.
Down a quiet street at the edge of town, an unmarked door at basement level opens. Someone enters. Another exits. There is movement inside, a light faraway, and the door closes. Things are neither here nor there nor fully understood. Later on, for one slow minute, an elevator stalls and its single light goes dark in the socket. The sun ceases to rise, the trees to lose their leaves. Nothing grows old. Nothing grows at all in fact.
Before the law stands a doorkeeper. Before an escalator stands a guard. Before the guard, an entrance hall, and before the entrance hall, the world. Every now and again, something surfaces – a dusty bottle, an anchor chain. The San Francisco financial district once lay underwater. Between 1867 and 1869, a seawall was built. The remains of ships abandoned in the hasty departure of gold prospectors lie beneath the streets. Below what would later be condominiums was unearthed a 125-foot long wooden sailing ship and a three-masted whaler. In 1849, an estimated 80,000 arrived in California, half by land and half by sea, around Cape Horn or across Panama. The new settlement was built in great haste with bottles and matchsticks and cheap pieces of wood. Within a span of 18 months, the city burned to the ground six times.
One afternoon, midweek or thereabouts, someone wearing a long canvas cape and leather boots, a cotton vest and a three-sided wide-brim woolen hat walks briskly towards the sea past men in suits and women with heels eating Thai takeout. The look is piratical and yet benevolent. He does not, however, appear out of place, or at least no one takes notice. It seems there is business to be done, and yet it also seems that the coat has been through more dark and questionable establishments than most, the warmth it provides the result of layers of grime and salt water. His ship was perhaps burned to the bilge in the Great Fire of 1851, back when a house was a large piece of canvas stretched across four tall wooden posts.
Before the waterfront, the bay, where half a dozen sails turn beneath a heavy sun diffused by a growing breeze. And at the edge of the bay, the bridge. Past the Golden Gate Bridge, chop turns to swell and flows south with the California Current where, at the edge of America, gringos, licor, y playa give way to a long, narrow stretch of absolutely nothing. The monthly wage decreases with distance, and the time per transaction – in places where slow and lackluster represent the height of excellence – increases exponentially. But the breezes are warm, the orchids hardy, and the cabanas on stilts. ...read more (4/6)IV. FOR MONTHS, AN AUSTRALIAN HAS BEEN LIVING ON AN ISLAND THE SIZE OF A TRACK, sleeping sometimes in a hammock. He keeps a journal on unlined paper and writes at a rate approaching 1,000 lines per page per hour in very small script. Sometimes there are drawings. At a very long table inside a makeshift building without windows where every morning, noon, and night rice and fish are served, he writes. Sometimes he writes in between times, as the case may be.
“I want to buy a house here,” he says. “Can I buy a house here?”
“Only if you marry a Kuna,” Robinson responds. Robinson’s Island the place is called. It is one of approximately 400, all of them lying within the territory of the Kuna Yala natives off the north coast of Panama between Columbia and the city of Colón, part of Panama, yes, but also its own semiautonomous lost world. This is where, if a person is looking for a pile of sand and a single palm tree, they will ultimately arrive, where someone starts conversations with: “If you were a serial killer, it would be so easy to come here and kill all of us and no one would ever know.”
“In America, there are like 15 serial killers at any given time.”
“What would the serial killer look like?”
“I think he’d be all scruffy and disheveled, with dead eyes. The killer is always the one you least expect.”
“What if he walked in right now – someone we’d never seen before – and just sat right down with us?”
“I would just play dead.”
“Yeah, well, then he’d come and shoot you just to make sure you were dead.”
“And then someone goes to dial 911 and he’s intercepted all the phone lines, and you’re like, ‘Hello, police officer. There’s a serial killer.’ And he’s like, ‘Why, hello.’”
“What if he killed everyone and we woke up and everyone was hanging from the rafters?”
“Everyone except you and me.”
The Australian carries a machete and lops off coconut heads like a Maori chief. He wears his hair long and dreadlocked and is, of late, walking around in a pair of pink swim trunks. (“At first I was like, ‘Why do I own pink swim trunks?’ But what the fuck do I care? I wore them to a party in Sydney.”)
“You missed the festival in town the other night,” someone else says. Town is half a mile away by motor-powered wooden canoe. The streets there are paved with sand, the homes piles of weather-beaten planks, the general store a long shelf.
“They were so drunk,” she says. “It was so horrifying, I wanted to throw myself off the pier.” People screamed in the night as though they had just discovered fire.
“I spent a few weeks in Panama City,” the Australian says. “The girl I was staying with wanted to go to Calle Uruguay and stay up all night. Talking, she just wanted to talk. I want to be dropped off on one of these islands and left there for a few days, by myself.”
Besides Panama, one of the best places in the world to be dislocated with a large stack of first world dollars might be the ghettos of Montevideo, a smallish coastal city in Uruguay and the country’s capital. An accountant once owned a house somewhere, Arizona it might have been. Perhaps he owned a dog. He quit his job in any event, divorced, sold the house, shot the dog, and moved to the roughest neighborhood in Montevideo. “Someone was killed in the middle of the street,” he says. Reports were of high-ranking public officials being mugged between the car and the front gate, and of people killing each other for an ill-fitting jacket. He didn’t shoot the dog actually.
Someone might arrive like this, to Buenos Aires or Rio or Montevideo, and return two years later to New York City to open a maté bar and wear unbuttoned white linen shirts. Maté – a drink tasting something like very bitter green tea – stands alongside large slabs of steak, red wine, and tango as an obsession in certain very southern parts of South America, tango danced, that is, at 3a.m. in dark mahogany-lined halls where the smoke is thick enough to cut with a knife.
“Hello. How are you? Can I see your passport? Hello. How are you? Can I see your passport?” In the hotels, that is what they say all day. ...read more (5/6)V. AN OVERLY-SYMMETRICAL EXISTENCE MIGHT GROW TEDIOUS, as tortuous as sleep interrupted. Against it, all struggle in vain. The world is eaten up by it, and so are all those who contribute to it.
Late Wednesday morning, across from the Bechtel Building, an office employee steps out for a coffee perhaps, an errand at the bank. Few know this man, don’t remember ever seeing him in fact. That is to say, they know him as well as most do. He steps off the curb into the lane of traffic, is hit by one bus then pinned to it by a second and crushed beneath the first.
At that moment of realization, he would have lost his appetite. It is a delirium of sorts, albeit short-lived. Maybe it all appears like a cave, as cavernous as time itself: the pipes – bows and arrows drawn with berries and charcoal on a steel canvas. There would be the sound of metal on metal, a staggering, a splitting in two like a pack of ice cracking and popping before disappearing below the surface.
“I feel,” he would have said in that instant, “that my mind is in a weakened state. I may not return.” He has not long to live now. His eyes fail. His hair grays. Time is not good to him. The experiences of many years gather together in his head at a single point. “Maybe I will be one of those near death experience cases interviewed on television under large lights of equal color temperature.” Someone who others would say, “He was gone for an hour at least,” then back in his body and vomiting all over the place. “A major turning point in my life,” he would later say, and seemed forever after to have uncanny abilities at the Ouija Board.
“Every person I have ever met came to greet me in single file…” He experiences, in that instance, perfect memory: the gas station attendant who first washed his windows, the waitress who also worked part-time at a nail parlor, the man with the metal briefcase at the public internet terminal and what the weather was like.
There once was an English teacher who stood outside the classroom door reciting parts of well-known Shakespearean verses. Entry was granted to those who finished the phrase. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” “Eye of newt and toe of frog…” “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…” And in response: “I summon up remembrances of things past. I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”
He can feel no pain although the injuries are grave. Like walking through a heavy fog, the moment swallows him whole and even his hand disappears before his face. What’s done is done and cannot be overdone or un. He should be buried there – the sidewalk broken up, a pile of rocks placed in the middle of the street and a cross built of two street signs. His office should remain like a time capsule – record poised for play on the gramophone, icebox dripping, stacks of papers, a cup of coffee half empty, pencil stubs. For several hours, the transit lines are disrupted in the outbound direction. Firefighters use a hydraulic lift and wooden planks to extract the body.
A passerby might ask, “Is he asleep?” For he might be mistaken for someone who has nodded off of an afternoon at a computer terminal.
“The worst way to go,” someone once said… “Eaten by ants.”
There exists a street performer who, as a profession, lays himself down across a bed of broken glass many times throughout the day. “La vida,” he says, “pasa por los calles.” Life takes place on the streets. He does not juggle live chainsaws, but rather walks barefoot across shattered bottles in a daily triumph of life over injury. “Lo que camina por los calles,” he says, “sabe la vida.” And those who walk the streets know what life is. That sort of thing....read more (6/6)