The Passenger Seat of a Stranger’s Car

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NEW YEARS FIREWORKS OVER LAS VEGAS STRIPThe fireworks have just ended and I’m standing by the side of the road with my hand out. It’s only fifteen minutes into the new year and already I feel hopeless. Cabs zip past me without stopping, people slumped over drunk in their back seats. I’m on the Vegas Strip with literally thousands of other people, all of us trying to flee for our homes. Apparently as soon as the clock struck midnight the Strip stopped being the place to be, and everybody just wanted to go to bed.

A black truck pulls up in front of me. The window rolls down and the dude driving it sticks his head out.

“Where you going, man?”

“Twain and Arville.”

“Twain and Arville?” he repeats, as though he’s asking himself if he wants to drive there. “Okay, I’ll take you there. Forty dollars.”

nye2012-07I look around the place. There are so many people and the streets are mostly empty, only a few cabs around. My phone (Samsung G4, a total piece of shit) is dead and it wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t, because the guy at the Uber tent (yes, there’s an Uber tent, with a bar and loud dance music and a bunch of Uber drivers parked outside) told me that T-Mobile (my carrier, totally shitty) isn’t connecting to Uber for some reason. And since they won’t drive you if you don’t request on the app, I’m out of luck. But I do have exactly forty-two dollars in my wallet, which means I can afford a ride from this random stranger.

“Forty bucks?” I say to him. “Let’s do it.”

He motions towards the passenger seat and I get in. We make a quick u-turn and almost immediately get stuck in traffic.

“Fucking New Year,” the guy says. “Everything is gonna be like this. Let’s see if we get around it.”

He drives the truck into the lane next to us – you know, the one for oncoming traffic – and bypasses about fifty cars stuck at a red light. We reach the light and he butts his way in, cuts off the car in front, and now we’re leading the pack. After a minute or two, we get stuck again.

“Forty bucks,” he says. “I should charge you two hundred.”

We start to talk. His name is Isaac and he’s from Eritrea, a small country located in Northern Africa. His hair is black and puffy; he looks middle-eastern, wears glasses and has stubble all over his face. He tells me that he’s lived in Vegas for almost twenty years. Has a wife and a three-year-old kid. He constantly mentions how English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it well, even though I think he sounds perfectly fluent.

“What about you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

Oh, where to begin. I tell him I’ve lived in Asia the last six years. First South Korea, then in China. I tell him that I’ve just moved to Vegas to start a new life. It sounds corny, and I worry that he might see this as an opportunity – I’m new and I don’t know anybody and he could easily kill me without anyone figuring it out for at least a few days. But that doesn’t seem to occur to him. He asks me why I came back to the States.

“I don’t know, man,” I tell him. “Just felt like it was time to come back.”

web1_photoeditor-1483288501023-1-_7700234Isaac drives like a madman. He weaves in and out of traffic, cuts down back alleys, honks his horn at any cars in his way. It’s a lot like being back in China, actually. It takes a half-an-hour to get onto the highway, and from there we’re set. The drive from the Strip to my place is actually only ten minutes or so, but most of the roads are closed for the holiday, which means we have to circle around. And so Isaac and I end up taking a little tour of Vegas, talking about language and culture and what it’s like to live in a country that isn’t your own.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Eritrea?” I ask him.

“No, no, no,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”

He drops me off at the apartment complex where I’ve been living the past three months. I open my wallet and give him the forty-two bucks. We shake hands. It’s after one in the morning and my apartment complex is dark and quiet. Isaac turns the truck around, gets onto the road and takes off. Maybe he goes home, maybe he goes back to the Strip to make more money. I just walk through the buildings until I reach mine, and after I get inside, I go out onto the balcony and smoke a cigarette.

It turned out okay. This is what I tell myself. I’m home and I’m safe, and it’s 2017 and everything is going to be fine. I realize that a lot has worked out so far, a lot has gone right, and that’s why I’m standing here on this balcony in Vegas. Looking at the bright lights in the distance, ready to start the brand new year.

I can see the Palms Casino, the neon glow of its colorful sign. I wonder if the lights ever go out there? Something tells me they never do.

Apartments, Cockroaches, and Appreciating the Old Year

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There are a few things in life that consistently make me happy: getting kissed by a pretty girl, hearing anything by Billy Ocean in public, and being able to open a jar of pasta sauce without struggling would be a few examples.  Having a clean apartment is another thing that puts a smile on my face.  It doesn’t even have to be that clean.  Sure, the dust on the bookshelf is thicker than most of the books and the microwave looks like 8 pounds of meatloaf exploded inside of it, but those are things I can easily ignore.  As long as the place is in moderately good shape, I’m pleased.  Today, just being able to go into the cupboard and see the clean dishes inside made me want to break down in the joy of accomplishment the way Halle Berry did when she won the Oscar.

Of course I was aware that it’s the New Year and I’m starting it out rather well, with the apartment looking nice and clean.  In having this thought at this time of year – the first days of January – I suddenly became reflective.  Basking in the glory of my non-disastrous living quarters, I found myself thinking about the empty apartment I lived in two and a half years ago.

Back in August of 2009, my wife and I agreed to separate.  I moved out of our house and got my own place.  I was 31 years old and would be living alone for the first time in my life.  This was a major time of change, causing me to re-evaluate what I wanted.  In doing so, I set two goals.  I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to live overseas.  Thus, when I got my apartment, I was determined to eliminate distractions and, also, avoid making the place too much of a home.  The apartment was stark and empty, white and austere, when I moved in, and I decided to just keep it like that.

I had no furniture.  There was no bed.  I slept on the floor.  My laptop couldn’t access the Internet.  I bought a ten dollar television set from Goodwill to watch movies on (in collaboration with my VCR); I didn’t get cable and its antenna didn’t pull in any stations.  There was an AM radio so I could listen to the baseball games and I took a wooden chair from the dumpster at the apartment complex to sit in.

I inherited that chair, and I was also lucky enough to inherit a nifty cockroach problem.  “Cockroach,” I firmly believe, is the ugliest word in the English language.  There’s not a single part of that word I like.  Personally, I would prefer not having any cocks or roaches in my general vicinity.  The word should be changed, somehow, to make it a bit more appealing.  If my friend has “cockroaches,” I’m not going near the place; if he has “boobie beetles,” maybe I’ll swing by.

But I digress.  When you’re sleeping on the floor, having cockroaches really sucks.  I’d wake up with a big brown sucker scurrying around close to the tip of my nose.  My solution was to take my 5 pound dumbbell and pound the little bastards into oblivion.  And I pounded a lot – my neighbors probably thought I was building the Ark in there.  There was one cockroach, though, that would gain my affection.  I called him “Night Roach.”  We met on a weeknight.  I woke up around three in the morning, having to use the bathroom.  Right when I flipped on the light and started to relieve myself, I saw him paused under the backend of the toilet.  I tensed up.

“Chill,” I told myself.  “It’s just a boobie beetle.  Don’t make a move and maybe it won’t make one.”  The two of us were engaged in a standoff, a blinking contest if you will.  I finished doing my business, left, and went back to sleep.  The bug was cool, so I decided to leave it alone.

In the morning, the cockroach was gone; the next night, there it was again.  We went through the same procedure.  Neither of us moved, both perhaps frozen with fear.  This turned into a routine – every night I’d have to use the bathroom, there he was, hanging out by one of the big rusty screws that held the toilet to the floor.  The mood was changing though, getting lighter in tone, and I was starting to look forward to our run-ins.  I started calling him “Night Roach,” and I even made a little song for him.

“Nighhht Roachhhh,” I’d sing to the tune of Love Boat.  “He’s exciting and cool/Nighhht Roacchhhh/I’m expecting you!”  Then I got to talking to him.  “What’s up Night Roach?  You doing okay?”  He was like my pet.  Sort of.

Finally the night came when catastrophe struck.  In my half-asleep daze, I went to the bathroom.  Of course, Night Roach was there, chilling like always.  But this time, he didn’t stick to our routine.  No, Night Roach came running up to me like a happy puppy.  I’m not sure what he expected.  Did he want me to pet him between the antennas and call him a good boy?  Well, unfortunately for him, I reacted by screaming and stomping him to smithereens.  Afterwards, I felt horrible.  Poor Night Roach.  One night he was being serenaded, and the next night he was being murdered.

Love is such a fickle thing.

No matter how bad my apartment in Korea gets, I haven’t gotten any bugs or cockroaches.  Today was January second, and while most people thought about fresh starts, the New Year, I found myself thinking about the past.  I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, nor do I plan to.  There’s a certain notion that says brand new beginnings signal chance, opportunity.  The dawning of something different – a fresh start.  But the real convenience of the New Year is that its newness is figurative; I think when a person really has to start everything over again, that person suddenly begins to value how nice it is to have everything stay the same.  I would kind of dig an ‘Old Year’s’ party, maybe sometime around the middle of August.  A year is old then – the things only live to be 12.

Way back when I moved into that empty apartment, I had a new beginning staring me stark in the face and, looking back on it, I didn’t know what the heck to do with it.  For this New Years, I’ve decided to basically stay as I am.  Imperfect but fairly happy, just as my apartment is dusty but fairly clean.

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Desecrated…For Educational Purposes

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“I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic. It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimens from within and literally allow you to grasp it.”  – Gunther von Hagens

What if our bodies didn’t decompose after death?  Our world would be completely different; picture storage facilities instead of graveyards.  Imagine walking into a skyscraper, taking the elevator to one of the top floors, getting off and being ushered into a room where all of your family was kept.  How would they be situated?  Would they lie in beds or would they be posed, your father reading the daily paper and your mother putting on her lipstick?  If our bodies didn’t change after death, perhaps the urge to make them seem alive would be too much.  It’s a creepy thought.  They’re something unnerving about taking Grandma and manipulating her arms like a mannequin, stretching them out so that she can eternally offer her great-grandkids a hug.

In plastination, bodies are forever stuck in time.  Decomposition is stopped dead in its tracks.  When a body is “plastinated,” the bacteria that are needed for decomposition to run its course can’t survive – the water in the body has been replaced by liquid polymers.  The body is first soaked in acetone and later placed in a vacuum, where the acetone is sucked out and replaced by those polymers that keep it from decomposing.  On the BodyWorlds website, it says that it takes a few weeks to plastinate a full human body.  The inventor of plastination is a man named Gunther von Hagens, who has been exhibiting these bodies around the world since 1995.  His BodyWorlds exhibition is bizarre and confounding, controversial yet popular, condemned by the Catholic Church and still intriguing enough to have been visited by over 26 million people.

On Tuesday of last week, I’m happy to say that my friend Paula and I became two of those 26 million.

It’s hard to put into words what exactly motivates one to go to the BodyWorlds exhibit.  Part of it is morbid curiosity.  If the skinless corpses on display were just standing there to be viewed, I honestly don’t think I would’ve gone.  I was drawn to BodyWorlds largely because of von Hagens’ playfulness with the whole thing.  I’d seen pictures of it on the Internet, of a plastinated corpse kicking a soccer ball and another one fencing.  I first learned about plastination accidentally, stumbling upon it while researching preservation techniques used in communist countries (who tend to preserve the bodies of their iconic leaders).  Von Hagens’ BodyWorlds has fascinated me since, and probably not for the right reasons.  For an exhibit that advertises its purpose as being educational, I’m not sure that I was drawn to it because I thought I’d learn something.

And I’m thankful for that, because I don’t really think that I did learn anything.

The presentation I saw – called “The Cycle of Life” – begins with disfigured fetuses and ends with a room that contains two plastinated bodies having sex on a stool.  So the bookends are pretty colorful.  The basic idea is that our bodies age and change over time and that our choices and our attitudes largely affect how those changes will go.  There’s a lot of encouragement not to smoke, including one plastinated corpse where the back is removed to show the blackened lungs.  Exercise and healthy eating are also advocated, and the majority of the bodies are posed doing something athletic (like jumping over a beam or running with a football).  In truth, “The Cycle of Life” is much more of a public service announcement than it is a scientifically enlightening experience.  Don’t smoke, exercise, eat healthy, enjoy the spiritual connection of sex so you won’t be disappointed when you’re old and undressing before copulation consists of stripping off your Depends and hearing aids.  Things like that.  It isn’t at all morbid, and if anything displays a sunny attitude towards life.  Live it to the fullest.

It makes a strong case.  The plastinated corpses seem to be having so much fun!  One body plays a saxophone, its back bent like Stan Getz at the Blue Note.  Another display has a male and female posed like Leo and Kate in Titanic; he’s standing behind her while she spreads her arms out and feels the mighty ocean breeze against her face.  Maybe it was supposed to be Jack and Rose post-iceberg.  The final room is the strangest, where the plastinated bodies actually have hardcore plastinated sex.  I would’ve liked them to have used protection, but then again, they’re dead.

The ethics are easy to question, but the bodies have been donated by people from all over the world (there was once a controversy that some of the bodies von Hagens used belonged to missing Chinese workers – von Hagens denied this and even went so far as to destroy the bodies in question should there be any doubt).  The BodyWorlds website even has a form where you – yes you – can donate your own body to be plastinated.  So it isn’t like the actual owner’s of the bodies had a problem with what they’d be turned into.  I suppose running with a football forever is a nicer sounding option than cremation.

Perhaps the most important questions BodyWorlds poses is an essential one for the time we live in – are our bodies really THAT sacred after death?  Today’s world is one of science and logic, of information and of reading.  We’re constantly being taught.   It’s far different from the older, traditional thinking, where religion and observation formed perception.  In his essay Theology of the Body, President of the Catholic University of America, John Garvey, states that the body is sacred because it represents the otherness inherent in our society.  Bodies represent the people we meet, the forms that are not ourselves.  He says, “It is a mark of all human societies that we treat the bodies of the dead with care, and how we regard them says much about our feeling for the living–our sense of the value we give those we meet and interact with.”  Given that, have we reached a point where death is just death?  Where a body is just full of silence and cells, signifying nothing?  The question about BodyWorlds shouldn’t be whether or not it desecrates the dead – of course it does.  The question should be if that matters anymore.

For Gunther von Hagens, his perception of death might’ve formed when he was six years old.  As a child, he had a rare bleeding disorder and almost died.  The six year old von Hagens spent a lot of time in the hospital, where his thoughts were more than likely consumed with death.  I think BodyWorlds is the end result of that.  Von Hagens plays with the dead like a child might.  I can imagine him in that hospital, his own body small and weak, wishing that somehow he could stay on this Earth forever.

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