Not-So-Divine Comedy

Adventures of an editor and freelance writer in NYC


BVI &c.

“There will be tarpon under there,” our captain said as we motored the dingy from the 45-foot catamaran where we’d been living the past two days to the shallow, tide-washed waters off Monkey Point. “They’re huge, and they’ll freak you out at first, but realize they’re just after the minnows.”

I was busy trying to figure out my snorkel, perched on the dingy’s gray-rubber side like a Navy SEAL, if Navy SEALs were lanky white boys in blue swim-trunks whose primary mission, instead of strapping C-4 to enemy hulls, consisted of tooling around the British Virgin Islands for a magazine story.

We stopped at the spot; the dingy tied to a moss-covered rope extending from the white buoy down into the deep. I worked on my breathing, sucked tube, and plunged overboard. Opened my eyes to a cloudy sea swirling with motes of vegetation, and a deep dark seafloor breaking apart into schools of tiny fish, and…


Four foot silvery beasties gliding on long fins over the ragged topography of coil, fast and intent on the hunt, ready to feast and draw blood with their tiny…

…their itty-bitty…


Not shark!

“Tarpon,” I say to my diving companion, and point; but through the snorkel bit it comes out something like, “Mrph-Ughn.” Not that she can hear anyway.

Being out on the boat is something of a relief, after our time on the island went so disastrously wrong. With most trips, you have an itinerary, studiously prepared by some PR agency; but in this case, it had been left to some representative of the BVI who proceeded to, well, not plan a damn thing. And then tell us everything was okay. Leaving my fellow reporter and I, accompanied by a driver, to motor in useless circuits around the island for a day and a half until we could persuade our catamaran captain to cast off for the second part of the trip.

We did, however, have the opportunity to crash the governor’s mansion for some sort of boating party, pulling up to the front in a battered van; those waiting in the receiving line on the front steps seemed slightly nonplussed at us blasting Jay-Z at excessive volume. Both reporters sprawled in the vehicle, decked out in plane-rumpled finery yet eating take-out conch fritters out of cartons.

Never Get Into A Small Plane Piloted By A Celebrity

Seriously, though, Craig Ferguson is a hell of a pilot. And L.A. is a seriously scary part of the country to fly over in a tiny four-seater Cessa 400, what with all the other small planes flying past like TIE fighters at the end of ‘Star Wars.’

28! Aaagh!

Turned 28. No major existential issues. Aside from not publishing a novel, everything went pretty well, all told.


L.A. (again)

If there's one big problem with L.A. (aside from the giant mothership of brown smog hovering over the city, obscuring the mountains in the distance) it's that you need a car to navigate around. Otherwise, you find yourself stuck in a Best Western a scant 50 feet off the 405 exit ramp to Sherman Oaks, watching Craig Ferguson clips on YouTube in prep for the interview tomorrow while slugging AquaFina mixed with fizzy Target-brand 'immunity supplement.' You can't walk anywhere. There's a mythical creature called a bus that, legend has it, makes an appearance at certain intersections if the right words are recited, but that's not exactly an option.

You have high-speed Internet. You compulsively visit the Presidential polling sites, and the numbers for Pennsylvania and Ohio haven't shifted in the last five minutes. You check your email, but nothing's coming in. You watch another YouTube clip, and realize 30 seconds in that you've seen it before. You wonder where the closest In-and-Out Burger is, and if you can reach it on foot.



Southern Mexico, late night, a couple of weeks ago: Sheets of rain blasting from the lightning-ripped heavens, burning tires belching greasy black smoke in the road, half-finished high-rises looming from the Veracruz roadside. And then south, through winding green valleys into the greenest of them all: a lake in the bowl of an extinct volcano, teeming with fishermen, the black soil so rich in nutrients that you can plant a stick in it and – pop – up grows a tree.


The Last Two Months as a 'Blood Meridian' Chapter Heading

Nantucket – Las Vegas, Part Deux – The Dark Knight: The Greatest Cinematic Masterpiece Ever – Friday Night, West Village Bar, Two Exes Within Fifteen Feet: Look Out Shit, Here Comes The Fan – Honduras: Guns, Germs, German Heavy Metal – “I’m going to finish writing this $(@)!* book even if it kills me” – Plotting The Great Escape From Bay Ridge


Why I Need Detox

Next thing I know, we’ve been driven from the five-course meal with gallons of red wine and tons of carbohydrates, in a cab that seems to take pleasure in skirting the very edge of Capri’s massive cliffs, to a club filled with maybe four hundred drunken Italian sailors and a whole bunch of girls who’re probably really Catholic until someone buys them any number of shots from the bar. Our two millionaire hosts may have been nearly 60 years old but apparently have a habit of shutting down bars up and down Italy every night; they tossed a few hundred thousand Euros at the bartender and basically dared him to see if he could push enough drinks across the bar to have everyone babbling in tongues.

All this is how I ended up dancing on a bartop in Capri at four in the morning with a bunch of women while the live band up front sung ribald tales about screwing and the aforementioned sailors sweated and screamed and jumped in unison. The fact that I had to help race a sailboat across the Gulf of Naples the next morning mattered not. The fact that I had spent the entire day interviewing people aboard a futuristic motor-yacht mattered not. The only thought in my mind: I already had everything I needed for the story, so no fucking way was I going to let a pair of 60-something fashion house CEOs drink and/or dance me under the table tonight.

Which they did, of course. Enthusiasm never competes with experience, particularly if the enthusiastic party is a lightweight who ordinarily needs a grand total of four beers before he’s banging his head against the jukebox while howling along with Bruce Springsteen. The place so packed-tight I had to literally crowd-surf towards the door, reeling, ready to forcibly eject maybe eight shots of lemoncello onto the heads of the National Racing Team and their snarling Russian girlfriends. Heading off into twisty Capri streets loud with tourists, two fellow journalists in tow, ears still ringing.
The only problem was, my hotel was not reachable by car – being a tiny hole-in-the-wall 50 yards down a barely-lit path on the back end of Anacapri; a residence with spectacular views of the deep blue sea but lacking in accessibility. Which necessitated, at the end of the night, early birds already chattering in the trees overhead, a climactic sprint through the maze-like twists and turns of footpaths towards a dim light between dark trees. ”No wonder they have so much trouble catching the damn mafia in this country.”

Do not even ask me about the hangover.

Some of the best prose I ever spat out, though, at the end of it all.

Hell-A, Part Deux

Bombing along Sunset Boulevard with the whole crew in tow – photographer, photog assistant, art designer – passing the In-and-Out Burgers and trendy chrome-shiny eateries and the junkies scratching their forearms underneath the palm trees, and someone, with perhaps the dull predictability of young males stuck together in an SUV, brings up the topic of strippers. To wit:

“In Los Angeles, girls in strip clubs can’t actually go topless unless the place doesn’t serve alcohol. But if they serve liquor, they have to stay in a bikini top of whatever.”

“You’re kidding.”


“What about cabaret? Can they go topless?”

“My mom used to sing cabaret, so fuck you, it’s burlesque, but no – even when it’s burlesque, the tops stay on.”

“So where are we going tonight?”

“In this Puritan burg? Best thing’s to grab a burger and go to bed. Turn in here.”

The Celebrity we're here to interview has a toothache. I’m hoping he’s jacked on Tylenol-3 when it comes time to sit down but you never know with these things – he may very well abort, leaving us to execute our pale imitation of ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ on an unsuspecting City of Angels. Either that, or sit in the too-trendy rooms of our boutique hotel with the stuffed sheep in the lobby, and watch music videos on YouTube.

But LA is good. Everything is macrobiotic; the sun is warm on your face; the sheets in that boutique hotel thick and white and cool. And point of fact, I needed to detox again, needed a period out here where I could break some of my worst new habits; The Girl leaving back in April led to a period where I was drinking too much, smoking too many cigars, stunt sex, not-eating, running until my knees threatened to crack like cheap white plates, writing until my knuckles cracked and the tips of my fingers reddened. Never losing control, never bottoming out like some bargain-bin Bukowski, but... there comes a point.


Vegas, baby, Vegas

What happened in Vegas, two and a half weeks ago, stays in Vegas – at least until the next Private Air comes out in a few weeks, Bobby Flay squinting on the cover. Suffice to say, though, I’ve found the Death of Civilization, and it’s called The Strip.

Although, in my role as Hedonist-in-Chief (and primary copy-writer) of The Cigar Report, I had the strange pleasure of stepping into a high-end store in the Venetian and immediately being handed a box of hand-rolled premium smokes gratis. Perfect, the new tradition around the office being that all of us -- photog, assistants, writer, etc. -- light up stogies at the conclusion of a celeb shoot.



Slamming through high seas between St. Maarten and Anguilla in a high-powered speedboat, catching air on the breaking crests of swells before crashing with a bone-jarring thud into the troughs, and the model sitting across from me looks ready to die. Seriously. Her expensive milk-toned skin has gone an even whiter shade of pale; a perfectly formed hand grips the seat as yet another wave crashes into the bow and over our heads.

"It's okay!" I yell to her, but over the sounds of the sea it's probably about as comprehensible as baying wolves.

What do you do when your assignment is to partake in the activities of a tropical island, the vast majority of which are sea-based, just as a tropical storm off Puerto Rico sends gale-force winds powerful enough to keep you land-locked for three days? What do you do when you're stuck on a bluff-top five-bedroom villa with a private pool on the terrace and an open bar in the marble-lined kitchen?

I must be getting old, because the answer to that question rapidly became: Sit on the kitchen counter in the sunlight, like a cat. Answer e-mail. Drink Ting, the curiously addictive Jamaican grapefruit soda. Jog on the beach at nine, swim in the pool at three, sit in the Jacuzzi with a glass of red wine as late-afternoon storms pour cold rain from scuttling clouds. Stop by the golf course and contemplate slipping a fuck-you note into a certain popular author's locker. Sure, there was drinking after a certain point -- no journalistic trip is really complete without a trip to the local road-house, where the locals can give you stink-eye as you sit at the bar listening to live reggae and wondering how many seconds it would take you to reach the door if those drunk Brits over by the bathrooms really decided to start some shit. But then again, I never really tore it up when I was younger, so why start now?

Off to Vegas this week, for a day; staring down the barrels of a 6:45am flight there, a 3:30pm flight back, five hours on the ground. Unhappy at the prospect, to say the least. Time will tell if a combination of lack-of-sleep and inability-to-tolerate-bullshit will result in me slamming a meat-fork through a certain celebrity chef's hand (hopefully we wouldn't be on-camera at the time). And to think, I used to be such a nice guy -- or at least more of a pushover.


Why I Am So Sunburned in Winter

Seven-fifteen in the morning and the fists start hitting the door loud enough to explode me out of dreams, and for two seconds I think that I've already arrived in Cuba and that La Policia are trying to enter the room. This is a raid. In my bleary state I'm out of bed and halfway across the room towards the window when I realize that, through the glass, I can see a cruise ship parked along the near coast, a bit of a church roof -- I'm in Nassau, the flight for Havana doesn't leave for five hours, and it's not the cops but my editor banging like SWAT on my bedroom door:

"Turn down that religion crap!" he yells.

I spin around the room, still getting my bearings. The flatscreen TV is off, the radio silent. I head for the connecting door, still thrumming from the impact of fists -- in time to hear a loud 'thump' on the other side. Then silence.

Turns out, my editor, on top of the alcohol consumed during the massive dinner last night, had popped two sleeping pills. At seven-fifteen, his room's radio alarm had burst to life with some sort of evangelist morning program -- and in his severely drugged state, he thought all the holy hollering had been coming from my side of the wall. Roughly fifteen seconds before he crashed back to sleep.

Not the most auspicious beginning to the trip, I think, as I head for the shower.

Cuba Libre

Cuba -- crumbling beauty, the buildings along the coast road worn by decades of sea-air to the point where they look hit by artillery fire. On Brasil Street, a few blocks from the capitol, kids playing baseball in the dirty street, under the spray of a pipe burst two stories up. On the second day we fled our official government minder, paid a couple of kids six pesos to start up their rusty '59 Chevy and drive us into the oldest part of the city -- the kids having to pile out of their pornography-plastered ride at one point, tools in hand, after the antique motor died. Living off fried pork for days. The radio blaring government pronouncements about Baby Castro finally taking control.

There were no idle men on the street, an odd change from other third world cities. In your wake, people whisper, "Cigars, good price," hoping to sell you the rejects taken from some of the local factories. La Policia in their grey, keeping the citizens away from the tourists with a wave and an impatient tapping of a club against the back of the leg. Sipping espresso in the Old Square where the Spanish once sold slaves, watching an old man sharpen knives on a pedal-driven wheel for the local cooks. Drinking in Hemingway's old bar, Floridita, next to a life-size bronze statue of the man himself, and wondering what he would have thought of his city now -- the despair and the beauty of it. The government minders in their blue suits and open white shirts, smiling but reserved, their eyes watching you as you walk across the lobby of the hotel, where sunburned whoremongers and bleating tourists gather in clusters before being herded onto buses bound for the beaches, or the countryside.

At a state-sponsored dinner, gorgeous girls in purple slinky dresses swarming into the aisles between the tables, each of them bearing a box filled with the newest cigars, H. Upmann, Cohiba, etc. I am working, darting between tables, chatting people up, taking quotes, and all the while smoking or drinking whatever comes in range. Three cups of espresso, four cigars and five glasses of rum later, I stumble into the night along with the photographer, looking for a cab to escort us back to the hotel, our ears ringing from the cast-of-thousands stage-show complete with lounge singers and dancers -- a taste of old Havana, back when it was Gangster Land, before the Revolution came crashing down with its concrete-gray fists.


My article subject sweeps a few crushed Marlboro packs from the passenger seat of his Porsche convertible and bids me enter, hands me a box of cigars signed by him as a token of appreciation for me doing a piece on him, and then guns the motor at 120 mph over the Causeway to Miami Beach, as we follow our long convoy of cars heading from the party at the Havana Club to the after-party at some steakhouse where the girls whisper it'll take us two hours to sit down, even with 10pm reservations. That last bit of intelligence proves to be true, the restaurant being a new hotspot, and we move down the street to Big Pink, where triple-decker portobello sandwiches and pitchers of terrible beer can be had, along with a seat, for the mere asking. Considering that my article subject had started gesturing wildly with both hands removed from the wheel as we barreled over the bridge at a healthy fraction of light speed, I am merely happy to be alive.

Two days after Havana and my body has some sort of delayed reaction, my system pushing everything through like an express train. I slump against the passenger door of yet another car, the next day, as I am driven down Collins Avenue past all the fabulous people whose entire lives consist of tanning, eating at expensive beachside restaurants, and exercising themselves into hardbodies. I think about how 90 miles across the ocean, old men with faces like crushed leather come up to you when Castro's police aren't looking, and hit you up for a mere peso.


Back in that smoggy basin; the Dominican Republic. On the last night there, we went to a party with Santiago's corpulent mayor, and stood around amused as his plainclothes security tried to keep the local citizens from infiltrating an outdoor event. When darkness came we were escorted into open horse-drawn carriages; cops stood at every intersection for a mile down the road, shutting down traffic in all directions as we clopped our way towards the city center, waving like dignitaries to sullen-faced people piling onto their balconies. A band dressed in white stood in a gazebo in the old square and played ancient tunes as the reassembled crowd drank and passed around business cards. My black suit smelled of two weeks' worth of cigarette smoke, its pockets filled with hastily scribbled story notes.


Words do not describe the pleasure I feel, after 16 days on the road, of being able to turn on my kitchen tap and drink whatever comes out of it without fear of some microbe partying through my digestive system as a result.


Remind Me Why I Didn't Major in Economics Again

“We need [big famous celebrity] on the cover next month, or we’re screwed! You hear me? We’re fucking screwed!”

“What, I’m a miracle worker now? You see the words ‘Mother Theresa’ tattooed on my forehead, asshole?”

Relatives sometimes call up and ask how Life in the Big City is going, if I’m having fun, etc. I always tell them, “Everything’s fine.” Yep, everything’s dandy up here in the Big Apple in the New Year: lost 10 pounds on the cheese-free pizza and organic energy-drink diet, ghostwrote for Gawker on top of spewing out 20 articles in January, and seriously considered offering the junkie haunting my subway stop $10 to punch one of my editors in the face, with a whole $5 bonus for a broken nose, and…oh dear me…

I just discovered absinthe.

Because nothing helps a late-night editing session like pouring a hefty dose of the Green Dragon into a tall glass, followed by cold water, followed by the drippings of a flaming sugar cube. Combine that with a Cohiba smoked on your office balcony, and suddenly your underlings are looking at you strangely because you’ve been humming Lily Allen’s ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ off-key at an extraordinarily high volume. “Just the wormwood,” you tell them, opening the CAO humidor on your desk. “Care for one of Castro’s finest?”

Hard Case Time turned down the book, after a solid week of deliberation. Publisher of that little outfit wants to see the next penny dreadful I churn out, so that’s more of a draw than a loss. Non-fiction book and its promise of an advance rolling forward, which is excellent, because the IRS wants a hefty chunk of last year’s freelance revenue.

The Girl’s roommate has been blogging about the ‘creative underclass’ lately. That’s us – underpaid, overeducated twentysomethings working the media trenches – more and more of us pour into the city on a monthly basis, and not enough of us die in comically horrific ways to make an apartment in Manhattan cost anything south of $2000. Except you look at our overlords, twenty years down the road: making bank, true, but with the loft payments and the wife and kids’ educations and mistress and BMW as the 800-pound gorilla on their back – Should we escape to the country? Get a place in Westchester. But…but…I can’t leave NYC! I’d be robbed of all that illicit NYU poon! It’s a trap either way.


First Weeks, New Year

For anyone viewing Fox Sports last Sunday, yes, that was my cover story being waved around by Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long. Given that I would rather subject myself to an enema than watch a horde of overdeveloped men in tights fight over a ball for four hours, I didn’t know about it until my email inbox filled. I guess Terry liked the way I compressed his life into 2,500 words. (At least he didn’t jab a finger at the camera and advocate that the couch potatoes of America rise up and beat the crap out of yours truly for any misrepresentations; my morning commute is annoying enough without the risk of being cold-cocked by overweight Steelers fans.)

The Girl and I and our curiously mutual quirks are getting seriously domestic. Which is a bit of a high-wire feat considering we’re both working roughly a billion hours a week.



“How am I? You’re in Nicaragua and I miss you. That’s how I am.”

Indeed – driving the hilly but surprisingly smooth road between Managua and Esteli in a stick-shift SUV, staining its new-car smell with the pungent, nutty aroma of a Drew Estate cigar; weaving around brightly painted school buses with villages’ worth of cargo strapped to their roofs, the smoke-farting dirt bikes loaded with two or even three people, the rusty trucks loaded with cut logs. Driving across the bridge marking the entrance to the North Country, seeing the lower halves of the telephone poles and trees painted red and marked, in black, with the letters of the local Sandinista faction.

Pulling into Esteli in the late afternoon, veering from the Pan-American Highway onto dirt roads winding through kilometers of shanties and one-story homes whose stucco still bears the bullet-scars of the country’s civil war. Kids and stray dogs and chickens playing outside, men in horseback in white hats trotting past. We were camping for the week at the nicest hotel in the vicinity, which also featured a bar and restaurant. By ‘nicest hotel’ I mean a roof overhead and running water. Leading up to the front door was a truly magnificent stoop made of old rough-hewn stone, the kind of elevated perch where you could sit for hours on a Tuesday night and watch the street action, picking up the occasional pebble to dissuade the dog sniffing in the gutter from getting too close.

There is such a thing, by the by, as eating too much goat. A staple of the local cuisine, better-prepared than in the Dominican Republic, washed down with bottled water. We were there to profile the cigar-makers who had established their factories here, in the center of Nicaragua’s tobacco-farming areas – but what sticks in your head afterwards, as you steer the car back to the epic shantytown of Managua at the end of the week, speeding by flaming tires on the median, are the little details. The American films dubbed in excitable Spanish on the tiny TV in your room. The air-raid siren going off at six in the morning everyday, summoning the whole farming community to work, and then screeching again at noon to announce lunch. Workers lined up in front of the photographer’s Avadon-style white screen, holding their hammers and bunches of brown, fragrant tobacco, ready to have their picture taken. The berserk, rattling cab ride taken one Wednesday afternoon. Children standing by the side of the road, holding out sticks bending under the weight of bright birds sitting quietly as they wait to be sold. Standing in front of the gate of one factory and seeing a group of horsemen charge by like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, their horses’ hooves throwing up bursts of dust.


They Say You Can't Come Back

I turned 27. No major existential dilemmas; it was a pretty decent year, career-wise.

Welcome Home. Ha.

M. informs me that there’s a substantial uptick of suicides around Thanksgiving, and that’s certainly understandable: The family interrogations, the ritual force-feeding, the encroaching cold and darkness as the Earth recoils from the sun, the Bataan Death March of good cheer.

I’m sitting in an Irish bar across from the Uptown and a friend of mine is saying that he went home with a midget during a drunken binge the week before.

“How many times do I have to tell you, it was a dwarf.”

Sorry, dwarf.

“You screwed a dwarf?”

“No, I just took her home.”

Like a pet?

“Shut the hell up.”

It’s nice to know that, no matter how far abroad you travel, you can always return home to find the weirdness in full swing. Comforting, really.


The Rock

The boat rumbled to a stop a half-mile offshore, rocked by the stronger waves washing over the reef. Just ahead was Hell’s Gate, a massive chunk of coral rock jutting from the breakers; centuries of wind and water had carved a hole straight through the center of it. I sat on the bow of the boat, taking in the strong Caribbean sun pounding down out of the clear sky – and then I let myself tumble off the side along with the others.

It was maybe twenty yards of swimming until the sea floor rose enough for me to stand tall, one hand gripping half-buried pieces of submerged coral rock for balance against the waves pouring through the Gate. Another ten yards and we could see the fissure in the rock, a jagged path leading into the narrow opening of a cave. We climbed. Inside, the sandy path and low overhangs – this narrow, rocky throat, whistling – opened onto a two-story grotto, circular as a grain silo and honeycombed from eons of weather. On every tidal surge, white foam boiled up from the pool at our feet, connected by an underwater channel to the sea. We climbed, scrambling up the sharp rock – made the top of the overhang, the arch, with its vista of turquoise water stretching to the far Antigua shoreline.

At my desk in New York a few days later the red marks on my palms from the rocks’ jagged teeth are fading into dull clouds. We’re closing the cigar magazine; my skin is peeling around my forehead and below my eyes, from an overdose of tropical sun – yet I haven’t seen any sun in days.


Another 1,000 Miles East From Yesterday...

Yeah, Antigua. Wind tinkling through wind-chimes hanging above the front door of the villa, whispering through the pines, stirring the surface of the infinity pool that spreads from the entrance-way of the dining room to the beach. Sitting by the aforementioned pool with a notepad, trying to transform notes from the Football Hero into something resembling a story, and not doing too well, because the view of the water and the misty islands beyond keeps distracting me.


North Dallas Forty

I am kneeling on a square of dirt near the Texas/Oklahoma border, petting and scratching an appreciative older bulldog. Through the cell phone pressed to my ear, one of my editors bellows at me from 1,500 miles away; calls everything I am and do into question. I move to scratching the dog under the chin, and it smiles and wags its long and sloppy tongue. A few feet away, an aging Football Hero whispers to his champion horse, easing it around the entrance to the barn.

The editor begins to screech. I say nothing, simply move to rubbing the bulldog's belly. It chuffs softly, rolls over for more. The sun moves like liquid over the Texas Hill Country, making the shadows under the trees sweep and dance. I gaze at the slope leading past the stands of green trees to the far distance. In New York City, the editor launches into his second wind, a true Homeric rant -- and the bulldog chuffs again.

"Huh," I finally grunt into the phone. My first and only word in twenty minutes.

The aging Football Hero has his shirt up, showing off the scars of old Super Bowls. He laughs, heartily. And even though the editor later calls up again, and apologizes, and says none of that was directed at me ("It ain't personal"), the feeling I had looking over those hills stays with me: That I could chuck the open phone casually into the nearest ditch (the device still squalking with righteous indignation even as dust filled the speaker holes), hop the fence, and stride into the sun-dappled grassland; to become one with the beasts and the grasshoppers, to somehow sink roots deep into the Earth, into something eternal and with meaning.


The essential existential conundrum, Dallas, late-night: *What* exactly do you choose to eat from the lobby venting machine -- Cheez-Its, or Fritos? What does this say about you as a person? And why is it that Chicago, DC, NYC and LA seem to be the only cities in America that serve real food after 8pm?

For lunch, we stopped at a gas/BBQ/groceries complex carved from dust and weathered boards somewhere in Oklahoma. Great ribs; soggy fries; names and dates written on the walls in Sharpie, reminding me of Morgan Freeman's bar in Mississippi. A plague of black and somehow antedeluvian crickets had swept through, filling the bathroom, hopping on the warped wood of the porch. Before climbing back into the SUV I wiped the dirt from my boots, patted the pocket of my cargo pants where the digital recorder with the Football Hero's stories about Super Bowls and plane crashes, cheerleaders and finding salvation, sat waiting for transcription; within 24 hours I planned to be on an island far southeast of here; I paused for a moment to breathe in the dry air.


The Jungle

Ah, nothing like striding onto what you assume is a swath of pristine private beach only to be greeted by the absolutely mind-blowing sight of a herd of half-naked, wholly sunburned German tourists lumbering toward you like cows for the trough; but that’s the Dominican Republic, at least in the barbed wire-surrounded resort area of Porto Plata. In the carefully manicured cul-de-sacs outside the elegant five-star refuge where we holed up for a few days before heading south to Santiago, it was truly a post-colonial paradise of garish, all-you-can-drink ‘resorts’ filled with pasty Europeans out to screw and imbibe their way through a broad swath of country.

I was enthused to escape, despite the elegant meals and vigorous massages and six-headed showers and neat little gardens where you could gaze over the mangroves and feed your growing smoke habit. There was something more real, more alive about the grimy streets of Santiago, filled with battered old cars and packs of furtive stray dogs and underage prostitutes in bright tank tops and street vendors hawking pineapple and phone cards on the other side of the car windows. Even then, we never joined the third-world chaos, not completely – always finding ourselves in the comfortable backseat of a Mercedes, or a van. We were there for the new magazine, interviewing el jefes and touring cigar factories where rows of diligent workers busied themselves rolling $30 cigars under the watchful eyes of supervisors; the air filled with blaring radios and the scent of cured tobacco like chocolate.

A cigar seemingly clenched at all times between my teeth; a cup of espresso or rum or wine or beer in my hand. A single perpetually-repeating thought, punctuating the static of chemicals rocketing through my brain: Once I get back, man, it is time for some serious detox. Peeling off brightly colored peso bills for tips, not exactly sure how much you’re spending but expensing it all. The car jostling over unpaved roads, houses on both sides of the road encased in bars and gates, the bee-buzz of motorbikes loaded with people riding pilon, fields of crushed sugar cane blurring by.

Two of the factory-owners took us to dinner our last night there, at a place high in the hills. From our elegant wooden perch we could see the lights of the city spread far beneath in glittering lines, crystal-clear once the evening mist cleared; and we spent hours eating island lamb (re: goat) and smoking thick cigars, protected from afar by guards with pump-action shotguns. On the way back, swooping through the thick blackness in an Audi SUV, there were brown cows in the road, staring at us with seemingly suicidal indifference as we neatly swerved around them. The night was alive, moving to its own voodoo rhythm; from the roadside shacks and gas stations, people watched us pass with wary eyes; dogs’ pupils glimmered as they slinked across the road; roadside churches lit bright, small gated parks dark yet filled with still silhouettes escaping the heat and human sight; the radio crackled with an upbeat tempo.

And then you’re back, dumping the hundreds of cigars you smuggled through customs into the special ‘ghetto humidor’ tucked under your desk – an Igloo cooler with two humidor packs, already filled with boxes of expensive tobacco sticks. Still tingling from the wave of alcohol and caffeine and nicotine that washed through your circulatory system for eight days.



Los Angeles - The next stop on this summer's 'They're Sending Me *Where*?' tour...

9:00 a.m. and I was ascending through the chemical haze into the brown foothills above Los Angeles, the handy GPS clipped to the dashboard feeding me directions every 10-odd miles (“Take the next right”/”Stay to the left”). It was dry and hot and that was precisely why I was here: To spend the day hanging out with the aviators who fly those giant water-spewing supertankers over the forest fires threatening to destroy acres of very expensive Southern California property.

I am not very comfortable with driving. Partially this is because I learned on a snarky stick-shift with a seemingly variable friction point, partially because at 16 I was almost killed while driving by a woman who did a very stupid thing. As with so many things, it left me with unshakeable neuroses, a tendency to sweat while behind the wheel, an urge to stick to driving in the early morning hours when it’s just you and the deer and a few truckers.

Anyway, this is the cure: Strap the neurotic patient into a rental car with a sticky accelerator and then send them bombing down I-15 S from Victorville at 4:45 on a clear afternoon. Join the rest of the herd zooming along at 85-90 mph down steep switchbacks and over suspension-rattling thumps…building enough momentum by the end of that 15-mile stretch so you hit the concrete spaghetti of the LA highway system with the car shimmying on its axles from the speed. “I’m not dead,” I said to myself, half-wonderingly, half-expecting the universe in its infinite sense of humor to send an 18-wheeler crunching into me at that precise moment.

“Take the next exit,” the GPS told me.

“I love you, too,” I told the GPS.

Then we hit traffic. If '24' wanted to be realistic, they could do an episode where Jack Bauer shoots a whole bunch of people in the first two minutes, gets into his car to drive to his next destination...and sits in traffic for the remaining 54:30. Tapping his fingers against the wheel. Cleaning his gun. Practicing shouting "Damnit!" to nobody in particular.



On a horse, riding on a narrow pine-lined trail through the Montana mountains. "Whoa, good horsie! Don't kill me, horsie! Don't gallop down that incredibly steep slope, horsie!" This morning I woke up in Brooklyn. Air travel is a very strange thing.


Blues Traveler

Two things recommend the Deep South: the music and the lovely belles who will coo over your presence as they pour you yet another drink to combat the oppressive heat. Which is where I found myself mid-week: the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi…

The night before had been a three-hour cruise south from Memphis along US-61, a yellow moon glowering overhead and insects spattering clear on the windshield of my SUV like raindrops. Blasting through the Delta at midnight with Robert Johnson crackling over the radio, you feel in your soul the edges of the reservoir from which those legendary ghosts drew the Blues: You want to light a cigarette (preferably hand-rolled), even though you don’t smoke; you want to take a stiff drink, even though you almost never do; you want to ruminate over women done you wrong, even if you don’t realize yet you’ve been dumped.

It was my first time behind the wheel in several months and the directions from Memphis airport to Clarksdale had come in via text message, from a photographer trapped in NYC by a canceled flight and who needed me to pick up the rental vehicle. First I accidentally bombed down I-55 toward Jackson, singing along with heavy metal. Then realized I was going in the wrong direction, and had to drive all the way back to Memphis, play Flying Dutchman of the Federal Highway system, and eventually by one in the morning slingshot myself in the right direction, towards Vicksburg.

I pulled into the concrete lot behind the Ground Zero Blues Club at four in the morning (Clarksdale being a totally run-down, crumbling city amid the cotton fields), crashed out for two hours, woke up and drove back to Memphis to pick the rest of the crew up. Thus began my four days of getting a grand total of ten hours’ sleep…which was okay, because it helped kill the nervous jitters I usually get before celebrity interviews.

Why I Am Slightly Depressed

Well, A., now you’re gone. Abruptly, but not completely. You want to be friends, “hang out,” still be “part of my life,” and all the rest of it.

Which is why, early this afternoon, coming back from Coney Island and the annual hot-dog eating contest (shown live on ESPN), I’m sprawled in the back of the last car of the N train, listening to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Miss You’ over and over again on my iPod, when one of the train conductors walks up.

“Hey, my man,” he says. “How old are you?”

I turn off Mick Jagger wailing about walking in Central Park alone, which right now seems not a half-bad idea, especially if a mugger with a pipe can grant a bit of sweet oblivion. “Um, 26?”

“And how long you been losing your hair?”

“Um, seven years?”

“Yeah, it’s hereditary, then. Same thing happened to my bro. He uses this shampoo, it does wonders, I swear, he’s looking all good on top…” The conductor mentions the name of said miraculous product, then looks at me expectantly, maybe waiting for some sort of hallelujah act on my part, a collapse to the knees in wonderment.

“That’s, um, great,” I say, fixing my ear-buds back in, already wondering if my next song selection should be ‘Innocent When You Dream,’ by Tom Waits. “Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”


Why I Enjoy My Job These Days

When you suffer from an extreme fear of heights, riding in a hot air balloon 500 meters above the rolling Tuscan hillside is akin to having a tryst with that tattooed-and-pierced girl at the end of the bar, the one your friends have been poking you in the ribs all night to approach because they’re too frightened to do it themselves: the build-up is terrifying, the actual event leaves you with a cold sweat and shaking knees – but afterwards (stumbling around in the early morning sunlight) you feel curiously alive.

Our insane pilot yelling in Italian over the lion roar of the balloon burners, a grill-like wash of butane-scented hot air crisping the top of my head as I exert a death-grip on a nearby railing. Floating over the villa and the woods beyond, dipping near the highway and the American cemetery…eventually settling, after an hour, on one step of a terraced field, said pilot having negotiated some sort of compromise with a bemused farmer seconds before actual touchdown. More Italians from the balloon company sprang from nowhere to wrestle our chariot back to earth; an SUV rumbled into the field from the road, its sides heavy with workers clinging to the doors, to pick us up. Our pilot, meanwhile, spread a checkered tablecloth on the overturned basket and popped open a bottle of champagne. Thus begins my first morning in Italy.

This coming after a private plane ride from Frankfurt that, after Florence denied us landing due to a short runway and high headwinds, ended up zipping like a $30 million mosquito over half of Italy, eventually settling at Bologna. ‘Story coming late diverted to different airport stop cannot figure out punctuation button on this borrowed blackberry stop must drive 150 km to firenze stop article will be late stop send wine,’ I wrote on the aforementioned device as we waited for the car to pick us up.

A few days later, we ended up at the vineyard of one of the region’s major chianti producers, who offered us lunch after a tour of the winery. Beef-like meat served along with plates of grain and 30-year-old proschutto and bottles of wine that, thanks to their sulfide content, left me sober despite my usual non-tolerance for things alcoholic. Someone at the table inquired about the animal we were eating; our host informed us that it was a deer he had shot in his vineyard the previous week. “They are pests,” he said. “I hunt them at night.” Apparently Tuscany is overrun with them.

Swung by Florence, four years after I’d arrived there the first time. To my own amusement I still remembered where to go for food.

School’s Out

Four years ago to the day, Dean Boyer handed me my degree, whispered ‘good luck’ into my ear, and then all but planted a shoe in my rear to send me off the graduation stage and into the bright light of a new world. Three days after that I visited Italy for the first time, then ended up in DC working for a couple years as part of the War on Terror’s propaganda machine while freelancing for the City Paper and the Post. Wrote a screenplay, which almost sold. Wrote a book, which might sell. Traveled to Halifax, Turks & Caicos, and Tulsa. Then moved to New York.



Last week, Goddard Space Center. Seventy-foot blast doors open onto a windowless white room big enough to fit King Kong. Buried in the far wall: enormous speakers capable of pulverizing a man to dust with their vibration. “Their frequency mimics that of the launch vehicle on takeoff,” says my guide. “We use this chamber to see if anything will break apart because of the sound waves.” We head out again, weaving past a plastic-draped clean room where workers in static-free bunny suits inject fuel into a satellite, eventually coming to a suspiciously normal-sized door. Beyond: a centrifuge with a hundred-foot diameter, the central node a nest of steel girders capable of spinning a five-ton object at 33 rpm; your tax dollars at jaw-dropping work.

The Line Begins to Blur

June, and here comes The Hard Part, the potential crucible of my annihilation (“Oh God,” Dad said in response that particular phrase, when I briefly swung by the family abode after Goddard. “Child, do not drop your nihilistic bullshit on me.”). Three countries, five different stories whose details need to move at least somewhat in sync if I’m to come out the other end of the month in one piece. I love it, and the fact that I love it depresses me. In some alternate reality I’ve already taken a portion of my ill-gotten gains and moved to Vancouver or some small town in the Carolinas, where I help run a coffee shop while writing novels and short stories on the side. I practice guitar on a porch until my fingers bleed and the dogs howl; spend weeks learning how to craft a perfect latte, or make flapjacks that have the regulars applauding; grow scruff and drive an old jeep and grow my own herbs and tea; watch the night lightning roll over the dark and ancient hills. Freud says such dreams are death wishes; but I have no wish to die. Eventually your bloody race comes to an end, though, one way or the other. Eventually the time comes to speed away from the wonderful chaos, even if your eyes tear up as you glance in the rearview mirror.

Gee, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little!

Shut up. I have a knife.

Tell ‘em what brought on this latest bout of mawkishness, N., aside from stress.

Captain Angry was in town over the weekend. We stopped by this bar at the north end of Chinatown that I frequent when the mood strikes, a dark wooden cube where the beers are cheap and nobody puts on the excessive airs you find in some of those stark-white and ultra-priced establishments downtown. Maybe it was because we were both exhausted (him from driving; me from tending the night previous to an under-the-weather A.), but our dialogue lacked that wiseguy-on-speed energy it had back when we were 22 and doing dirty literary deeds for God and Country. Maybe we just didn’t need to impress one another, or maybe we’ve (gasp) matured. In any case, glancing at my reflection in the ornate mirror behind the bar, I had a moment where my adult life coalesced into definite shape, complete with terminus.