The Wandering Scientist

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All Souls 2014

Written: December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC

About: November 2, 2014, in Tucson, AZ

My mother called me late at night. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her composure, but the unusual raspness of her voice betrayed the grief. We spoke briefly. She made plans to fly back for the funeral. This was not possible for me.

You always hope that this call would come at a time when you are in a comfortable, safe place. It never does. You are at a birthday party, or eating breakfast, or pumping gas. I was at a laundromat. The phone call left me wiped out and numb, but I had to stay in this place until the spin and dry cycles all finished. It seemed absurd and grotesque that instead of profound, this moment was menial and full of strangers. So it goes.

At least it was in the middle of the night, and I could escape into the empty street for some relief.

A heaving loss was lumbering somewhere beneath the surface of my consciousness, but I could not quite figure out what it was that I had lost. My grandmother had drifted into the fog of Alzheimer’s long ago. Even then, she was left behind that brutal watershed, immigration. In my mind, she had become a fable, and her departure only confirmed her mythological status.

Next morning, compelled by childhood memories, I got up early, went into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun peeked over the roofs and found me with a tall stack of bliny, warmed by the gas stove, as it had often found her. The clouds were turning red and gold, a sight to share with my grandmother. I learned to make bliny by watching my grandmother do it thousands of times.

I have previously been considering going back to Tucson for this year’s All Souls Procession. Now this became an essential, vital need.

***

A mass of humanity – thousands of people – has arranged itself on Tucson’s 6th Street as the desert sun rolled away. It had stoked the afternoon heat, but with the soft darkness drawing upon the city, everything and everyone felt unburdened and refreshed. Filling the streets as a vast flood, we have come for death and remembrance. We have come here not in sorrow, but in unity.

Many carried memories of those who passed away in the last year. Anything from a small pocket photo to costumes to large family gatherings carrying altars adorned with lights and icons. The Urn took up its place at the head of the Procession, filled with letters written to the departed.

Shared sadness turned into great joy. People formed a mad, often bizarre tapestry of costumes, masks, and painted faces. A mesh of music coming from stereos and musicians hung over the gathering. Yet friends still found each other in this chaos. Time passed in smiling conversations, punctuated with excited greetings and hugs. Then by some command, more felt than heard, the crowd shook, the drums kicked up, and we began to move. The sidewalks – the banks of this human river – were packed with onlookers, waving and cheering on those walking.

Somewhere in the thick of it, the pipers of the Tucson Highlanders blew their pipes, lofting that perfect sound of steady hearts and hallowed memories. We followed the thin ghost of their distant sound.

As we followed the pipers, the procession pulled into an underpass beneath a railroad. The entrance into narrow concrete tunnel was ringed with people hanging off the guardrails and the top of the bridge. It was a portal made of humans. The pipers drew themselves up, and launched into Amazing Grace as they descended.

The concrete underworld vibrated and bucked with the power of the music and of the people singing, cheering, whooping, dancing, stomping. The walls beat with our hearts and the lights shined brighter. Sorrow burned and evaporated away, leaving behind only the joy of remembering those we love.

The memories of my grandmother welled up in my chest, too compressed and entangled to pick them apart. Rather, I remembered her, and what it was like to be with her. This feeling pushed out against my bones, burst upward, roaring. I lifted my head and I howled. I howled and I howled I howled, with tears in my eyes, with all the sadness and the longing and the love, until it all emptied out of me, until the pipers led us out of the tunnel, back into this world, back into the crisp night, our river flowing steady between the human banks.

I was in a place removed infinitely far from grandmother. In a foreign country, in a strange desert, a small human in a giant ritual that was unabashedly grotesque and alien. Yet then I was as close to her as I have been in the hot summers of my childhood, on the cool riverbanks, in the green orchards heavy with cherries, in her small kitchen, watching her cook an endless feast for a gang of grandchildren.

Later, in the leery midnight hour, feeling fresh from a monsoon that passed through us, we found a street vendor serving up Sonoran hotdogs, in itself a small tradition. In this safe harbor, we stood around making cheery small talk with the woman while she prepared our food. On the other side of the cart, obscured by a shifting cloud of steam, a beautifully painted Katrina stood leaning on an old cab, another haunt, another apparition.

All Souls 01 (edit 800x480)

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The man on the other side of the night

Written: March 23, 2014

About: Charlottesville, VA

It is just past 4am. We are driving back from a late night dance. It has not actually stopped, so somewhere behind us the blues still draws and growls and bumps. Out here, the streets are dark and empty and silent. My girlfriend is asleep in the passenger seat but I am stark awake. Awake and alone.

I have been here countless times. Though this street is not always in Charlottesville, it is not always blues that warms me from a distance, and I am not always driving. Yet time and again I find myself alone with the night’s quiet, in the innumerably late hour. I drift past the inky side alleys, through the hazy spots of street lights, glance at an occasional insomniac neon sign. The street is slick, vast, and perfect.

Why am I here? Why am I here again?

Why push on through exhaustion. Why pour beer and whiskey into the night without a second thought. Why mock and dare the sunrise. Why forget food and sleep. Why measure out mile after mile of these deserted streets. Why peer into the dim, dissolving distance.

What am I looking for?

Driving along the night-time Charlottesville, it suddenly becomes clear. On the streets utterly devoid of people I am looking for a person. I am looking for a better me – the man on the other side of the night.

On the other side of the night, this man walks along with subtle and effortless swagger. He is confident in his plans, assured in situations that are uncharted. He is flawed in all the right and beautiful ways. Though he is not always right, he can find his way without hesitation or panic.

The man on the other side of the night has learned to let go of all the anxieties that I carry with me every day.

That is why I am out here once again. I am driven by the indelible belief that if I cruise through just enough nights, if I subject myself to just enough abandon, if I wade through just enough late-night strangeness I will finally cross the night and make it to the other side.

We pull up to a red light. The engine idles with a gentle purr. Pelican City, barely audible, moody, plays on the stereo. I look left, through the side window, with my ghostly reflection superimposed over a dark storefront. Same glasses, same haircut, it looks calmly from the sidewalk into the car. We sit there a second, the light turns green, and I pull away.

Of course the man on the other side of the night is a fantasy, a fevered dream of myself. The quest is pointless. The streets are as empty as they seem. The other side of the night is the immaculate fix.

But then, it is 4am, my brain is crackling, and the world is as illusory as I want it to be. The other side of the night is just around the corner somewhere.

The drunk and brotherly Berlin Christmas

About: Berlin, December 2005

Written: in Gaithersburg, MD

The beginning of the Christmas evening was picture-book perfect, could have printed it on a postcard. We had gathered in an old apartment in East Berlin, a place belonging to one of my brother’s friends. These old buildings are wonderful – spacious rooms, tall ceilings, delightfully creaky floors. Everyone was prim and polite, nice shirts for the parents.

The company had the following composition. Our mother was there, and the host’s mother. They were the adults. Everyone else was my brother’s age, thereabouts, or younger. Also, most of them were artists and musicians of various stripes, most certainly more comfortable sucking cigarettes and beer at a bar. However, Christmas is a family holiday, so here we were – tables covered with an army of plates and polite conversations about jobs and vacation plans.

The dinner table, however, was just the façade. The kitchen housed a growing array of empty vodka bottles, even though only wine was served at the dinner. The younger people were serving dinner, and almost every trip to the kitchen was accompanied by a round of shots. As the evening wore on, the matrons grew content and sleepy. The youngsters grew their grins.

Eventually the dinner wrapped up, and we were dismissed like so many schoolchildren. The adults went to bed, and we practically ran out into the frosty air. The plan was simple – hit an immigrant bar with a live band and continue drinking on the way. Intoxication was our propellant.

Berlin is dotted with tiny stores that seem to be open at all odd hours. They are stocked with the goods you need at the odd hours – cheap liquor, cigarettes, and junk food. The store owner spoke neither Russian nor English, and I only speak a few broken words of German, yet we somehow got conversational. Seasonal greetings. My brother lives in Berlin and I love him. A bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes. It’s a cross-cultural kind of sentiment that anyone can relate to.

When booze enters the brain, it gets behind the emotional steering wheel and steps on the gas. Whichever way you were pointing before, that’s where you’re going. Alcohol does not decide on euphoria or loathing. It amplifies whatever you’ve got in you. Alcohol is not a steady driver, and if your mood swings, it swings all the way. Drinking a bottle of vodka is like climbing into a cannon and lighting a fuse. You really have no idea where you’ll end up. You could find yourself surveying a glorious and proud morning, or sniveling in tears on the floor of a stranger’s kitchen. The best protection is surrounding yourself with a group of happy people. Of course, artists are exactly the kind of people who are happy with a little swerving in their heads. Here, we hit paydirt.

There is no ban on open containers in Berlin. I chugged from my bottle an then waived it at a police cruiser. The officer did not care. He looked bored, and probably wrote me off as another dumb tourist.

The bar was housed underneath a raised highway. It was crammed with people speaking a slew of languages with a heavy Russian accent. The place seemed more like a subverted house or office than a club. One room was the bar. Another room kept a band playing covers of song from Russian movies – upbeat rock-n-roll and pop. A couple more rooms filled with couches, abandoned coats, and people whose minds have wandered off and gotten lost in the soft shadows.

As soon as we had walked in, my brother disappeared. One of his friends took me under his wing, taking responsibility for the little brother. He pulled me toward the bar for a drink. You stick to whatever is working, so it was vodka shots. There was a two-for-one special, and that was alright with us. The shot glasses were doubles. So four shots each to get us started.

Electric alcohol filled our veins. Food, company, music, brisk winter air – all these staved off the most disorienting stages of intoxication. Time, as is its habits in the protracted infinite midnight hours of revelry and drink, curled up on the soft edges of things. Alcohol compresses and intensifies every experience. Lag may accumulate in your mind, perceptions becoming less precise, yet the sense of connected grows. Eventually, however, everything tips over into a vortex.

The vortex bars perception of time and space. Vertigo may occur with disastrous consequences. Yet even in the vortex it is possible to hold. The swirling reality is a fantastic adventure if you can keep your feet. It is like falling down an infinite tunnel. If you can keep clear of the walls, it is an exhilarating trip and the walls rushing by present a fascinating, if senseless picture. Though should you catch a wall, or encounter a particularly mean-spirited gust of wind, the flight turns into a terrifying and painful tumble.

The vortex found me when I took four consecutive shots of whiskey. I set down the shotglass and felt its instant pull. There was no resisting it. The world began to dissolve, and time became disordered. My memory became a chaotic mesh of images and perceptions steeped in a soup of music and smoke. Everything is anchored at a singular point – my forehead touching the cool tiled wall above a urinal. The rest of the club is a spectacular, spinning flourish.

Miraculously, the vortex deposited everyone gently in street. The feeling of that moment can be described thus – coats carelessly flung open. Everyone carried the heat of the club and the booze. As the large group debated what to do about breakfast, smaller groups separated and went off.  A guy from our group left with a girl who was decided not his girlfriend. The vortex must have tripped him up after all. His actual girlfriend was still with us but too drunk to notice.

This late in the night, there is a point where everyone needs to sit down for a bit, try to slow down and recapture their spinning reality. It’s not just a matter of making the walls stop their dance – the thoughts and emotions are doing the same thing. Yet as everyone who’s been through a trip like this know, there is an opportunity for a moment of spellbinding clarity here.

Soon we settled around someone’s apartment. A dozen people or so arranged themselves into the crooks and nannies of arm chairs and sofas. Conversations turned to arguing about music and movies. Memories of the past few hours formed a tinkling mess, like a heap of Christmas lights, and everyone sunk into the camaraderie afterglow that descends at the far end of an adventure, when you’ve reached the safe harbor.

I was in the kitchen with some bearded hippie. We were making pelmeni (Russian dumplings that are boiled). I was tending the pot while he was wrestling with another frozen package and eyeing me with suspicion – I lived in the States and therefore would not be qualified for this job. I returned his gaze and said my mother is from Siberia and I’ve been making these as long as I remember. He nodded sagely, and all was copacetic again.

Drunks don’t realize they are hungry until they are presented with food, at which point they become positively ravenous. Benders come with deep stomach pits. They devoured everything the hippie and I made. We probably stopped eating when we stopped cooking.

Somewhere in the back of the mind there is an awareness that you must get home. Though you may be in the cozy center of the universe, your own bed has a sweet magnetic raw on you. My brother and I walked out into the light grey morning and headed home.

We were the only ones in the street car, gently rocking along a similarly empty street. There was no more talking. It is the quietest stretch of time of the whole night. We simply shared the silence, the calm scenery quietly drifting by, the soft illumination of a clouded sky. The city was snug under the low cloud covers. My brother and I watched it dream. And that was all there was left. To be carried home by the momentum of the night.

I love you, highways

Written: May 20, 2013

About: driving around the United States

American highways, I love you.

I do not mean this in a cheap, tired, greeting-card way. Not in the way of lust. This is not a childishly romantic story. I want to sit with you and watch the world age. I want your dust, your gravel, your grass, your revolving skies, your sunsets and sunrises, your deep silky nights and the blazing afternoons.

I do not know the moment I fell in love with you. It may be that I have always loved you, even before I met you. I do know the moment I knew. I looked into your eyes – the eyes of a diner waitress at a truckstop somewhere in the California desert, perhaps outside that bastard Barstow – and could not look away. You served me home fries, greasy eggs, and a side of five hundred miles of hot gravel. You were perfect in that moment. You have always been and always will be.

I know you are not some mindlessly naïve teenager. This is not an adventuresome memory vending machine, press a button – get a pretty postcard. There have been rough times. There was that one time a tire exploded on a big rig on I-75 in Florida. The shrapnel sheared the side mirror clean off the car right in front of me, and showered my windshield with hard burning rubber.

Once, on I-84, in the mountains between Portland and Salt Lake City, I got caught in a vicious, slushing snowstorm. The snow stuck to the road in thick layers, whipped up by the eighteen-wheelers into a foam that coated my windshield, leaving me blind as I was approaching a turn. I could not see, but I had to star turning. If I turned too early, I would be mangled under the truck. If I turned too late, I would plunge into the frozen crevasse. But I was graced with a safe journey, and here I am, saying to you, I love you.

For every dark moment – blinding fog on the bridges East of New Orleans – there is a myriad wonderful ones. I know not to take you for granted, I know you cannot be reduced to any one thing, and I know to take the sparks with the storms.

There is the sun rising over downtown Baltimore, and then setting over the Georgia swamps. The Texas prairie, the cliffs of California, the red soil and the brilliant blue lakes of Shasta mountains. The first time I drove West, I saw the sun setting in Texas, somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio, a particularly empty part of nothingness. That was the first time in my life that I had even approached the desert. The view was so stunning, I simply had to, had to stop. I got out, leaned on my car, and watched you slip into darkness. You were flawless.

I love you, highways.

Rocketing along a busy interstate in California, pulling over on the shoulder of a deserted Arizona highway, I feel unconstrained, I feel my own. With the point of origin many miles behind and the destination whole tanks of gas ahead, I feel detached from the minutiae, solidly in the immediate right now. In your vastness I have found the realization that I am both infinitesimally insignificant and brilliantly my own. Out on the road, the sense of self comes into the sharpest relief.

The air is rushing by, I’m chasing clouds, and my lips settle into the slightest upcurl. Lane markings skipping by like blips on an old record. Truck stop coffee and gas station hotdogs, a sense of carefree lightness. Thoughts take on the long shapes. There is a sublime rhythm to this experience, a heartbeat of the tires bumping on the pavement, the long continuous breath of the wind humming on the edges of the car. This is the place. This is the place I want to be, and I always miss.

I love you, highways, and I will never stop.

Fields of greenery and sunsets

Written: July 1, 2012, in Champaign, IL

About: Champaign, IL, June 2012

Champaign-Urbana is a fairly small town. It sits surrounded by vast expanses of green fields – the famed Mid-Western farmlands. I sent a postcard to a friend from here, in which I mentioned that I had thought about walking long enough to be in those fields so I could see a sunset unrestrained by a city landscape. I was fascinated by the idea that I could walk out of the town. I have always lived either in endless suburban sprawl or large metropolises.

As soon as I have inked those words, I realized that I absolutely have to do this. I have thought about it a few times with an abstract degree of detachment. However, putting these thoughts into actual words, giving the nebulous thoughts a concrete manifestation put a bond on me. The very same evening, after getting out of the lab, I put on a comfortable pair of sneakers, grabbed my camera and headed for a two-hour hike past the city limits, into the fields of greenery and sunsets.

One thing that caught my attention early on was the long shadows on the sidewalks. I was heading almost perfectly into the sun, and the tiny pebbles scattered on concrete slabs cast shadows many times their size as the sun neared the horizon. In the absence of mountains, the sun can get very close to the horizon indeed.

I traversed a few miles of dusty streets, through several neighborhoods, each with its character. Champaign is not an especially wealthy city, so I did not pass by many mansions. (Though the more luxuriant neighborhoods have a tendency of arranging themselves in such locations that you would not happen upon them by accident, citizen of mediocre income.) A sign in front of one apartment complex sternly warned me that “distribution of substances” was forbidden. It did not elaborate on the particular type of substances.

This neighborhood was very quickly followed by a school surrounded by a lovely park where young parents were chaperoning their children in carefree running about. This park was an idyllic setting in which “distribution of substances” seemed like an absurd and irrelevant idea, unless the substance was an ice cream that was too sweet, which is absurd in its own right.

Toward the end of my journey, already facing the quickly decaying sun, I realized that the final stretch of the road did not have sidewalks. Which is fine – I am not opposed to trekking off the pavement. However, it also involved a causeway crossing an interstate highway. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t be the first time cops had to pull me out of an emergency lane on a bridge. I have walked too far to turn around and there were no other options to cross the interstate. I could not see the free fields on the other side, but I could feel them. I took to the hot asphalt of the highway bridge, on foot in the emergency lane.

It was fine. No one bothered me.

As I crested the bridge, the endless fields opened up before me. It was as if I had come through a rugged mountain pass and reached the valley of the promised land.

The contrast between the two sides of the bridge could not be more cinematic. The side I had left behind was dominated by a gas station and a complex interchange system between several highways. The side on which I emerged consisted of a single road that slowly wound between giant fields, along a rolling hill. At the top of that hill, silhouetted against the sunset was a large farm house. The sun was getting low, its orange thicker, and its edges sharper.

It was stunningly perfect.

I meandered along the country road for a little while, snapping pictures of the scene that will never equal what it actually looked like. Some time ago, I have actually realized that taking pictures limits your experience. Experiencing the world through the viewfinder roughly abrogates the way I sense what is around me. I like remembering in scenes, not photographs. It is a heavily conflicting realization, since I dearly love photography, and find this art inspiring and deeply moving.

The sun’s last spark finally ceased, leaving behind only a majestic afterglow in the sky. I took this event to mean the curtain on my trip and turned backwards, toward home. My last stop on the way home was Merry Anne’s diner in downtown Champaign. It is a narrow space lined with tables that on one end open directly into the kitchen. Though this opening, the host slings drinks and food. It is open 24/7, and serves exactly the classic diner fare that you desire – things from the fry grill and milkshakes. I have a long-running obsession with diners. Pretty much any city that has a decent late-night diner is alright by me. I’m good with Champaign.

I grabbed a milkshake to go and headed back to the hotel. Lucky, too, that the hotel was exactly one milkshake away from the diner.

Steel City Blues 2012

Written: April 2, 2012, in DC

About: Pittsburgh, March 2012

I have recently taken an extended break from blues dancing. It was not for the lack of love for the dance, or an injury. In months prior, I have found myself drifting along a bland trajectory through the dances, often feeling powerless to change my direction. This experience was even more frustrating because I had been feeling more connected to the art and the music. Yet the dancing itself seemed to be slipping away.

I had also wanted to get to know the people with whom I had been spending all this time. In the midst of a dance party, when the music flows thick and loud until you are too tired to stay on your feet, it is all too easy to just slip from dance to dance. You get to know the beautiful intricacies of someone’s body, but hardly see the elegant folds of their mind.

I dubbed it my blues fast and intentionally went to dance events and did not dance. It was excruciating at first. I did not realize just how ingrained this routine has become. Sitting at home on a Thursday night as the clock ticked past the hours of Backroom Blues felt surreal. Then came the meditative acceptance. I would sip whiskey at the bar and chat with the dancers taking a short break. The last couple weeks were filled with practically childish excitement.

I decide I should come back with an overload, and so I decided to return to blues at the Steel City blues exchange. Two days of practically nothing but dancing, drinking, and friends, all else optional.

And Blues, she took me back without a moment’s thought. The draw was instantaneous. When I got to the first dance, the air was already thick and heavy. The walls were dripping with music and low lighting. I went up to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. The old man on the other side looked around, picked up a wine glass and filled it half-full. She must have missed me, she really did.

I closed my eyes for a dance and the swirling time took me into the late midnight hours. It was all rhythm rhythm sway. It seemed like all it took to get through the evening dance was a single breath and a single pull on that vodka. Then it was off for the blues late night.

The place was pulsing. It was hot and sweaty and alive as hell in there, and no one would stop. Everyone was submerged in the music and the dancing even when they were not on the dance floor. The blues pooled and coiled on the floor, drawing everyone into the deep end. You could sit on a sofa with your feet drawn up, but the blues would snake up the furniture legs, wrap around your waist and shoulders and pull you back in, pull your head under into the sweet dream.

I switched to the whiskey flask in my back pocket. Beads of sweat roll over my eyes and my lips. I lean out the window and timidly kiss the dark beyond. She is cool and coy and lovely. Runs her fingers up my spine and through my hair. Before I can blurt out something about love and immortality, she silences me with a single finger tip on my lips and then slowly, deliberately, pushes me back on the dance floor, pushes me back under the swelling tide of blues.

Blues, that sweet junk, it flows into a familiar vein freely and easily. It never left. All along, I have been right here, in this embrace, on this breath, on this beat.

The heat and fire of the dance floor are hard to bear and I escape into the soft blanket of the deep night to cool off. We sit on the sidewalk and blissfully talk for what seems like hours. Or maybe just a few minutes. It is hard to tell the time. The mind wanders off in the company of someone close. Another dancer comes out of the building and starts playing a harmonica while meandering about place, between cars and people. Everything is framed by flashing marquee lights.

I have rearranged the time.

The trip does not end on the drive home. It does not end on the sweet goodbyes, or the midnight kiss, or the dinosaur Mr. Rogers. The breakfast of Elvis and pancakes is not the finale. Neither are the arresting Catholic cathedrals. These are all at the center of what happened. Warm layers wrapped tightly around the core, where all is good and peaceful and I am not alone.

I rearrange the time so that everything ends with me taking a rest on a shaded lawn on a clear afternoon. The grass is soft and cool and a perfect compliment to the flawless blue sky. A gentle conversation floats over us like a lazy balloon. The sun is enjoying its afternoon stroll through the clouds as much as anyone. We lay and we talk.

And then I am home.

The awkward bard

Written: September 28, 2011, in DC

About: Baltimore, Summer 2011

I have been dreamily obsessed with Jason Webley’s music for several years now. Jason Webley himself is also worth obsessing over, but that’s a different story. He has played in Tucson twice while I had lived there, and I missed both times. One of those times, I found out the day of the concert, and I was in Orlando. Curse you, mocking fate.

Shortly after I moved to DC, I looked up his touring schedule and realized he is set to play in the area. Obviously, everything else had to be set aside so that I could finally leave behind records and YouTube videos and take in the real thing. I got in the car and drove to Baltimore.

Baltimore is a pretty gritty place, and this wasn’t its most glamorous block. Zero glitz in this venue. He played at a community book store. It was the kind of place that decorates its walls with provocative political posters and stocks obscure literature as a matter of principle. There was no stage, just a cleared area presented with a few rows of haphazardly arranged folding chairs. You could get cans of beer and mugs of hot water with tea bags. There was no admission charge, only a tip jar. It was more of a venue than someone’s living room, but not by much.

I rushed in late, and nearly ran past the table where Jason Webley was politely looking over the tip jar. My eyes recognized him instantly, but the brain took a while to accept this fact. Once it did, my heart promptly lodged in my throat. He was neat and quiet as I was tripping over my apologies. For some reason I thought he’d be tall, but he is actually rather short. Words aimlessly tumbled out of my head, so I stuffed some money in the jar and found a chair.

I have been in anticipation of seeing him live for at least two years. I have listened to his records, talked about him, and build myself up for this concert in every way. All too often such intense anticipation never pays off, yet Jason’s presence consumed me whole. I had lost all sense of time until, suddenly, the show was over.

Jason Webley is awkward and humble. In retrospect, that is not that surprising – many of my performer friends are the same way. The brilliant charisma seen on the stage is genuine – it politely steps aside during the more private moments. Give them a stage and a chance to perform with honesty and passion, and theirs is a torrent of the incredible and the magnificent.

Watching him perform was almost like watching two completely different people. He frequently talked between the songs, addressing the crowd or telling stories from his life and from the road. This person seemed wracked with self-doubt and insecurity. He didn’t know what to do with his suddenly giant and conspicuous arms. He was listless and uncomfortable. Then, as he fingered the guitar strings or the accordion keys, in a single breath he would transform into a commanding creature of fierce stature. This tiny man grew many feet and his thunderous, beautiful voice filled every crevice and heart in the place. His movements became precise and confident. It is difficult to imagine that a sole person could handle such an outpouring of energy, yet there it was.

Breakfast in Paris

Written: October 14, 2011, in DC

About: Europe, summer of 2003

This is the dumb moment. The moment I am standing still, staring at the train schedule board, where my train’s departure time is instead replaced with some words in red. I arrived here on a fine-tuned, precisely designed plan, and now this plan slumped on the floor in a useless pile. The English-speaking clerk at the window confirmed the menacing words. The last train from Amsterdam to Berlin has been cancelled and clock is fast advancing on midnight.

The carefully orchestrated plan crawled to a trash can and disposed of itself. I stared at the clerk, who was of no help. I stared at the street outside. Well, I stared at the darkness outside. There was nothing much out there, certainly not a place to sleep. I didn’t have that much money in my pocket anyway.

I repeatedly stared at the board, the street, and the floor. A decision had to be made and soon. Some sort of decision. It didn’t even have to be a good one. In my pocket I had a train voucher which allowed unlimited train travel within a 24-hour window across France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Options in Amsterdam have come to a zero. The number of trains yet to depart tonight did not. A rash new plan was born.

I marched back to the clerk and asked for the next train to Paris. I decided I’d get on the next train to Berlin from there. I am beginning to think that things only get truly interesting when something unexpected goes terribly wrong.

Night trains are an excellent way to spend a night. There is barely anyone on, and the sleeper cars are often open. You can have a room all to yourself if you feel like it. Then arrive in the early morning and have yourself a full day in the new city. As an added bonus, sleep on the train is some of the best sleep possible.

New York grabs you by the collar and drags you into a jet stream of humanity. New Orleans pours you something suspect and laughs hysterically until you do as well. Paris charms you, simply and effortlessly. Gare du Nord greeted me on a cool and quiet morning. The city was fresh and just waking up to a gorgeous sun. I quickly procured coffee and something baguette-related, parked myself on the bench, and took in everything romantic and aromatic that surrounded me. Which, given the circumstances, was a fair bit.

It was the perfect hold on a cool break of a twirling song.

The idyll of the Parisian breakfast did not last as long as I had wished, and again it was time to get on a train. The final leg of the trip was also troubled, though in less charming ways. The train simply broke down. Twice.

One of the unintended train changes was in Cologne. Everything was in German (which I don’t speak). I’m pretty sure I ended up on the right train mostly by accident. In the middle of the chaos, I called my brother in Berlin to update him on my travels and let him know my adjusted arrival time. He asked me where I was, and I realized I didn’t actually know. I was asleep when we got here and someone told me I had to get off the train. I could see outside and recognized the great Cologne Cathedral, so I told him I thought I was in Cologne. This now stands as the greatest feat of my person architectural erudition.

I was now traveling in daytime and no longer had the luxury of empty train cars. The voucher allowed me on the train but did not guarantee a seat – a fine but crucial distinction. The trains were over-crowded, so I had to bounce between diner cars and entry landings. Memorable company included a group of German army cadets (who mostly grinned and smoked) and a group of Asian girls (who mostly chatted and giggled).

That afternoon, I finally made it to Berlin and my brother picked me up at the station. The moment was filled with a sense of decisive victory. So much could and did go wrong and did, and none of it mattered.

When travel plans go awry, sink your teeth into the new reality instead of angrily lamenting your schedule. It’s the only way you’ll go to Paris just to have breakfast.

A house jam

Written: June 19, 2011, in DC

About: Tucson, Spring and Summer 2005

On a cool spring evening, I’m walking half a block to a friend’s house. It’s dark. No good party starts until at least eleven anyway. I’m practically bounding down the street and up the stairs. There is a bottle of Jack in my hand. A cloud of tobacco smoke already occupies the porch. Someone, swimming in the cloud, is talking loudly and drinking cheap beer.

This isn’t a regular college party. Some of the city’s best improvisers are gathering under this roof, along with their fortunate friends. It’s a night for a house jam. A few hours ago the word had gone out over texts, and now we are converging. With all the right people, the right time and energy and place the event runs itself. Somewhere there’s a hat with people’s names. We are supposed to be picking teams and setting the show order. None of it matters – everyone brought booze, and everyone knows what’s supposed to happen. No need for rules. Too many people here are practically anarchists anyway.

There is no subtlety in the night’s acceleration. Cigarettes out front, weed in the back, alcohol everywhere. These are the nights when I would drink close to a bottle of whiskey, and others wouldn’t be far behind. But everyone is riding such a powerful wave of spiritual intoxication that all these psychoactives barely touch anyone.

The crowd is around. People standing at the ready, waiting for the moment when everything starts. Eventually, someone gets things rolling, but it’s hardly that person’s decision. The night simply reaches the right point. Some critical mass is found, and everyone collapses into the large living room. There is a pile of chairs and couches. Everything is quickly lined with bottles and cups. Someone leans in through the doorway to watch, holding the cigarette outside.

Improv is feverish and uncompromising. No one merely says “Yes.” We scream it, fling ourselves into agreement. Few teams manage to stick to a structure. Everything slides into montages and freeform. No one stops or interrupts their indulgences. People bring cups of liquor right into the scenes, sometimes shooting straight from the bottles just off-stage. Energy pours out of us like a wildfire. There is no controlling this storm. There is divine focus and precision in this play of wicked abandon.

The house is a deliriously storming sea. Waves of energy crash from wall to wall. Lines and scenes come effortlessly. All is love and brilliance. It goes until the cups run dry, the scenes hit all the buttons, and there is a post-coital smoke on the porch. The night winks out and we glide home.

This was our Woodstock. This was our Paris of the twenties.

A Santa at Mardi Gras

Written: May 16, 2011, in DC

About: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“Time to pick myself out of this mud,” I thought. Mostly, in a metaphoric sense, but a bit in the direct sense, too. I had to walk through a muddy lawn to get on the highway. Yes. Walk. Highway. At about four in the morning, dressed as a jolly Santa Claus, I am crossing the Mississippi over the Route 90 bridge in the emergency lane on foot. In a few moments, flashing lights of a police cruiser will be upon me. I know I’m far from the weirdest that the NOLA cop has probably seen, but I’d like to think I have registered at least a few clicks.

About twenty-four hours ago I was about as happy and exhilarated as I could be. I had arrived in my new love – New Orleans – to spend the weekend before Mardi Gras with someone who had completely blown my mind. I rode in on a Greyhound bus with a crowd high on dreams of jazz. I was blues-dancing on a balcony on St. Charles. Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be completely crushed as my connection to this person is utterly shattered. In an act that is both unintentional and heavy-handed in its symbolism, I will be wandering around a cemetery.

At the moment, I’m just here, at the point where the strange, the miraculous, and the terrible waves all collide and crest. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve lost most of my money. My credit card blew away into the river and no one is answering my calls. Somehow I have the apartment keys, but can’t afford the cab ride there. The buzz of the party and the alcohol is wearing off. Now it’s just me and this cold, cold bridge.

The simultaneous juxtaposition of the two extremes – complete happiness and complete heartbreak – is bewildering. My mind reels, unable to comprehend the scale of what is happening. At times like these, it’s best to simply focus on walking. Breaking down – in a pour of tears or alcohol or both – threatens to destroy me in a way that would be unrecoverable.

It’s best to just focus on the immediate reality, and the tighter the focus the better. There is nothing to be done about lost loves and money when you are wandering the dangerous streets alone. The cop picks me up and puts me in the back of the cruiser to drop me off on the other side of the bridge. I try to chat him up but barely make any sense. He points me toward Bourbon Street and peels out of the gas station.

Of course – of course – this is where the most interesting part of the evening actually begins. The city is still full of people – as it should be in New Orleans – and even away from Bourbon Street I come across groups of people in the mood to celebrate. In my giant Santa suit I’m the thing to celebrate. People rush up to me, give me hugs and ask for presents. Everyone takes pictures and videos. Lascivious posing with a gay couple. Gang signs with a crowd of street thugs. A group of college students some of whom turn out to speak pretty good Russian. Family people (yes, in New Orleans even family people can be out until five in the morning drinking). I don’t have a single picture from that night, but a myriad of stranger have stacks of them.

Interesting note. When asking for presents, most people asked for world peace. Maybe it’s because when one is bathed in the drunken and cozy glow of New Orleans, it is hard to ask for anything else. Maybe we are not entirely doomed as a species.

In this manner I walked the length of Bourbon Street. Hung around on a corner with three flirtatious black guys in nice suits and then got into a cab and made the final (and affordable) ride to the empty apartment. I opted to walk the last few blocks, greeted by the sun and the neighborhood rooster.

And I just stood for a moment on an empty street corner.

With the rising sun, the sweet afterglow in my heart, and the presence of New Orleans thick and saturated all around me, this moment was simply right. It was joy, terror, exhaustion, hope, dream, soul… Naked, honest, utterly vulnerable. Everything rolled up, pressed together, distilled and purified like the finest spirits and the dirtiest sweats, the moment was flowing into every nerve ending. This is why I had come here, this weird, twisted, right moment.