Uncle Chris Portrait

My niece’s most recent, stunning portrayal of me (on top)…this time in the bold medium of pencil and paper. Two and a half years ago, we commissioned the same artist in the same task (on bottom). At that time, the artist, who simply goes by the name of “Catherine”, made the provocative decision of using crayon, resulting in a piece that garnered £950,000 ($1.35 million) in auction. One clearly must reflect on the issue of “hands” in both pieces. In the earlier piece, the subject appears to have no hands. In the more recent, the artist introduces the theme of speculation as the viewer is left to wonder, “Does Uncle Chris not have hands or are they simply ‘off canvas’?” Another critical speculation facing the viewer as they travel from the older piece to the new: “Has Uncle Chris employed some form of hair loss treatment in the past two years?”



Trip to the Philippines and Japan – Part 2

Part 1

The following day I rented a bicycle and rode south along the Kamo River and then over to the Fushimi Inari Temple with its small mountain covered in forests and shrines. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to hit Kyoto during some epic, city-wide costume party but this was the second day I saw at least 100 people (especially young adults) dressed in beautiful traditional garb. Of course, each person in said outfit was contrasted nicely by a smart phone in hand. Or in the case of a young lady, her contrasting outfit combined a stunning, perfectly worn kimono with a pair of Chuck Taylors on her feet.

26Traditional Couple

It was like a Wednesday or something during the day and people are in Halloween outfits.

I then road north to the temple of Kiyomizu-dera and then, more importantly, road further north to Musashi Sushi where I encountered my first sushi train. You sit down at a counter and simply grab whatever small sushi dish looks to be a winner as it moves by on a conveyor belt. Once you’re done, a waitress counts your plates and bills you accordingly. This allows you to have a great sushi meal very quickly and cheaply.



More Kiyomizu-dera

More Kiyomizu-dera

Another Kiyomizu-dera shot...I'm assuming they used this building as their discotheque and casino.

Another Kiyomizu-dera shot…I’m assuming they used this building as their discotheque and casino.

Sushi train, y'all.

Sushi train, y’all.

The next day I took a 45-minute bullet train ride west to Himeji Castle. The castle dates back to the 1400’s although its current form was not achieved until the early 1600’s. While much of the area just outside the castle was devastated by bombing in World War II, the castle miraculously survived which is even more amazing when you realize it was considered a military site during the war and was actually bombed in the main tower (incredibly, the bomb did not go off).



Himeji...impervious to bird droppings.

Himeji…impervious to bird droppings.

One of the castles most important historical figures was a samurai by the name of Kuroda Kanbei. He was also a very good political strategist and Christian convert. Becoming a samurai, involving yourself in political intrigue, living in an awe-inspiring castle…if ever there was a Christian that followed the “What would Jesus do?” creed better than this, I have yet to hear about it.

Progressive interracial tree romance.

Progressive interracial tree romance.

Here is a good place to discuss some observations I have made of Japan:

1) Lots of Japanese have a quick, short stride that involves foot-dragging, sort of like the way a lady in slippers might run for a ringing phone. I assume shoes are not free here so this walking style must get pricey.

2) Even outside, you’re only allowed to smoke in designated areas that have the feel and often the look of a penalty box.

3) Japan often looks like an ER with so many of its citizens wearing face masks. At first, this was supposedly done to keep your illness from spreading. Now it often has more to do with people trying to prevent acquiring an illness. There’s also a fair amount of people that wear masks so no one will bother them since others see your mask and think that you’re sick, making them less likely to talk to you. Wearing these masks also makes it far more difficult for others to read your facial expressions.

4) There is a s#*t-ton of old people here. Unless each one of these older dears is a Benjamin Button, Japan may want to look into this.

5) There is a s#*t-ton of beautiful, stunning women here and the feeling I get from every single one of them is that they don’t have the slightest desire to go to the prom with me. But it’s all good; I got me a Filipina lady that not only wants to go to the prom with me but likes to wear my varsity letter jacket to sleep every night.

6) Trust seems vital to the Japanese. To demonstrate this, I took a picture of a jobsite closed down for the day on Saturday at 5:30PM. Pay close attention to the expensive power tools simply chilling in plain view. Never in a million years would an American contractor (including myself) leave his or her tools out in the open after leaving a site. I also love how clean and orderly everything is.

In the US, these unwatched tools would be promptly stolen (the outhouse too).

In the US, these unwatched tools would be promptly stolen (the outhouse too).

7) Here is the strangest, hands down, Christmas decoration I have ever seen that is hanging on the wall of my hotel.



8) You’ll be walking down a normal city street and without warning; it will turn into a mall.

Not a hat I was expecting to see being sold in Japan.

Not a hat I was expecting to see being sold in Japan.

Yah bro.

Yah bro.

Today I rode a bicycle six miles west to Togetsu-kyo Bridge. After crossing over the bridge, I went south into a park area where I stumbled upon what appeared to be a kite-flying contest. I’ve always felt that a fantastic indicator of an evolved society is its ability to conduct a successful kite-flying contest. While each contestant ran out with their kite, a guy would dramatically beat a drum. Under self-induced pressure to top this cultural gift, I decided to hike 20 minutes up a hill to the Arashiyama Monkey Park where monkeys are allowed to run free.

All of this just for kites.

All of this just for kites.

Chillin' with monkeys.

Chillin’ with monkeys.


Ride in Kyoto's Bamboo Forest (I'm pretty sure that kid in the chariot thing is a brat).

Ride in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest (I’m pretty sure that kid in the chariot thing is a brat).


Most people like to take pictures of the cherry blossoms while I prefer to take pictures of the people that take pictures of the cherry blossoms.

Most people like to take pictures of the cherry blossoms while I prefer to take pictures of the people that take pictures of the cherry blossoms.

And then gurl was like, "F*#k it...I'm gonna use a teddy bear head for a purse."

And then gurl was like, “F*#k it…I’m gonna use a teddy bear head for a purse.”

For dinner, things got very special. Someone had told me about an odd unique place by the name of Okariba. Walking by it, nothing would alert you to its presence. It occupies a small space on the first floor of what appears to be a boring-five story concrete apartment building. When you step inside, you feel like you’re inside a hunting lodge. Everything is wood and hanging on the walls are all sorts of hunting paraphernalia and other random things. In fact, when I took my seat in the back corner in what was the last available seat shared with restaurant supplies, I leaned back into a hanging belt of what I prayed was an inactive Remington shotgun shell belt. I looked around and saw what seemed to be mainly locals huddled into this small space. The air was being dominated by the smoke of some type of cooking meat. The owner returned and in a rough but comparatively good English, asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Sure”, I said. He nodded, walked away, never gave me a menu, and returned 15 minutes later with a heaping pile of delicious wild boar.

While I was disciplining my meal, a Japanese couple in their 60’s sat to the right of me in a space that, up until now, was occupied by one of the owner’s hunting buddies whose picture was on the wall near my head. The couple lived nearby and appeared to be good friends of the owner. The woman’s name was Shigeno and she trained people how to use kimonos and hakamas.

As the night progressed, things only got better. As the place thinned out, the owner and his employee spent more and more time with us and kept bringing out food for me to try, the most exotic including locusts and bee larvae. Soon he was pouring me sake and eventually went to the refrigerator in efforts to furnish me with some of his high-grade sake. He told me where he hunted and that all the food was captured by him. He then held up a pretend rifle and said, “All food here is organic!”

Shigeno even shared some of her food with me and was kind enough to supply me with two bookmarks made with fine Japanese cloth. She pointed at both and said, “one for your girlfriend”. So the lesson of love learned here is that if I ever find myself single, I will still tell everyone I have a girlfriend so people give me two of everything.

Inside Okariba.

Inside Okariba.

A bowl of fried locusts that, for some reason, I ate.

A bowl of fried locusts that, for some reason, I ate.

The owner of Okariba and I.

The owner of Okariba and I.

The next morning I took a train or two down to the nearby city of Nara to view the Todai-ji temple which is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue.



Don’t get me wrong, this is intense and superb but there’s a chance I was more awed by the fact that not just in the massive park grounds around the temple but even into the city are wild deer walking around! It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. These deer chill among us like domesticated robots. My experiences with deer at home are fleeting at best; once a deer detects me, it runs away from like a vegetarian runs away from a pile of steaks. In Nara, the deer will actually approach you like a confident, weathered prostitute. You also have the option of buying some crackers for $1.50 and feeding them, thereby increasing the probability of a filthy deer advance.



But, there were signs warning people to be careful around the deer. The following sign displays the four favorite wrestling moves deer like to perform on unsuspecting tourists.

I've tried to pick a favorite drawing in this sign and failed every time.

I’ve tried to pick a favorite drawing in this sign and failed every time.

The next day I boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) and travelled east to Odawara and then on to the resort town of Hakone, known for its many “onsen” or hot baths. When I checked in, the man at the reception desk informed me of all the splendors of the hotel and that I was expected to wear my yukata (traditional robe) to breakfast.

Fuji as seen from the Shinkansen.

Fuji as seen from the Shinkansen.

If I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine, I would be the luckiest person in the galaxy to have the room I was in. But since I am not a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine and am on dry land, I am left only to define myself as a guy staying in a converted janitor’s closet. The whopping 140 square feet affair is well-equipped but suffers from the fact it’s only 140 square feet and has one window measuring one square foot in size. Ultimately, I feel like I stabbed an inmate and was put in the hole for 30 days.

After exiting my rabbit hole, I headed over to the nude-bathing onsen where I got to hang out with a lot of old Japanese junk. In line again with the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, I had to follow a strict set of rules before and during my bathing experience. One of the rules was thoroughly scrubbing yourself down at a seated shower station beforehand (and you had to remain seated). Another rule dictated I could not bring a bathing suit or towel into the onsen. And what’s more, you’re not allowed to enter the baths if you have any tattoos! This is clearly an attempt to keep American rock stars and confused college ladies out of the onsen.

When I awoke the next morning, I proudly put on my yukata with the help of an instruction sheet in my room. Due to the limited range of leg movement while wearing my robe, I shuffled my way to the restaurant wearing slippers on my feet, looking like I was trying to build up an electric shock in my body that I would childishly shock someone with. When I entered the large dining area, filled with over 100 Japanese folk, I soon realized I was perhaps one of eight people wearing a yukata to breakfast, making me look like one of those Caucasian putzs who was ineffectively trying to assimilate to Japanese culture. It got worse when I got on the elevator and two Japanese ladies looked at me with slight surprise and one said to me as if trying to be nice and supportive to a five-year old that tied his shoes for the first time in his life, “Ohhh, it looks good! Very comfortable!”

Sorry Tom Cruise, looks like you weren't the last Samurai after all. I've got my Samurai papers to prove it (in my right hand).

Sorry Tom Cruise, looks like you weren’t the last Samurai after all. I’ve got my Samurai papers to prove it (in my right hand).

After touring around the Hakone area in a train, a funicular, a bus, a cable car, and a boat, I decided to hike over a small mountain and back down towards my hotel. I saw a wild boar at one point but he/she darted away before I got a good look. Later on in the hike, I paused for a moment, standing perfectly still in a heavily wooded valley. Soon after, a family of boar started walking above me, towards where I came from. Although they did not see me, the leader, who I believe was the mother, stopped and began to take the air in with her enormous nose in brief, powerful inhalations. The family members behind her stopped and awaited her cue. As she was close to my current position and where I had just been, I assumed she smelled my appetizing presence. She continued to analyze my aroma until finally she turned and hastily ran in the direction she came with the family following suit. I felt embarrassed and insulted. I didn’t think I smelled that bad. I guess next time I’ll wear some Drakkar Noir before initiating a hike.

After Hakone, I took a train north to Tokyo. Once there I felt like I was in the most intricate Lego set of all time. I marveled how, with even the volume of all things imaginable, Tokyo managed to remain orderly and clean for the most part. During my 48 hours, I did the following:

1) Check into my hotel next to Nippori Station, a modest hotel that probably looked great 20 years ago but now was tired and smelled like the polyester shirt of a dead chain smoker.

2) Visit the “Skytree” tower upon my hotel’s recommendation but promptly requested the structure to “eat it” when it asked me for $20 to visit the observation deck.

Eat it, Skytree.

Eat it, Skytree.

3) Visit the Shibamata neighborhood, known for its old preserved street that was from the Showa Era, and due to my fatigue, lounged on a park bench with the authority of a welfare legend.

4) Ate dinner at what soon became an annoyingly chipper, cheery sushi restaurant by the name of Shushizanami in the Ueno neighborhood, a neighborhood packed with little shops and restaurants, bright lights, and more importantly, offers to have filthy things done to your body.

5) Return to Ueno to visit Ueno Park and saw its beehive-like shopping district sans scandal.

6) Walk around the overly stimulating “Electric Town” in the Akihabra district where ladies dressed as provocative young maids coaxed you into their cafes and then walked through eight floors of department and electronics madness in the Yodabashi Camera store (and was gifted with Journey being played on their stereo demo station). I should also add that Japan is weirdly infatuated with massage chairs, witnessed by an amazing diverse display of them on the same floor as the stereos or what I now refer to as the “Journey Floor”.

7) Walk around half of the three-mile moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace.

8) Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where I was able to visit the Observation Deck on the 45th floor for free! (Eat that and preferably develop an intestinal malady Sky Tree!)

Tokyo on the house.

Tokyo on the house.

9) Discover a great little neighborhood in Nippori on the other side of the train station that gave me a great friendly dining experience at the family-run Ariya and a very fortuitous encounter at a very underground jazz bar.

The last item was the perfect way to end the Japan leg of my trip. I walked by an open door leading upstairs and could hear only the good kind of jazz descending down to me. I ascended up to its source and was confronted with a tiny bar with stacks of vinyl records on the walls and four older gents loving life at the bar. The sound system projecting the all-vinyl sounds was old but its sound was perfect. The patrons were all Japanese and took turns talking to me. One refused to give me his real name and when I did ask, he said his name was “Mystery”. When Mystery and I completed our talk, a slightly older man by the name of Shinichiro walked over and introduced himself. Shinichiro grew up in the Nippori area but has spent the past 35 years in Okinawa doing underwater research. He was back in Tokyo on a visit and said I was very lucky to have stumbled upon this tiny little place that offered a rare jazz experience in Tokyo. This space has been opened for more than 50 years. But due to tight or nonexistent profit margins (which explains my $9 beer), was only open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The man behind the bar was actually a dentist and had a more charitable, hobby-like yet passionate approach to his role as bar keep. As I looked around, I laughed to myself and realized how glad my lady back home probably was that I liked jazz. Any risk of an illicit affair or casual STD-contraction was a distance away from me that could not be measured.

Jazz bar or "place to avoid ladies".

Jazz bar or “place to avoid ladies”.

This is what a man named "Mystery" looks like (this could actually be said about either one of us).

This is what a man named “Mystery” looks like (this could actually be said about either one of us).

As I left Tokyo, I soaked in the last bits of neatness and order offered me. The air was that of a pleasant spring day. When I came out of the airport in Manila, the glorious disarray and heat hit me like an impersonal bully. When some sort of taxi dispatcher guy came up to me, I told him my hotel was less than 2 miles away. He told me the fare would be P1000, the same rate I paid to travel 30 miles to the airport, two weeks previously. I told him I would walk. Other cab drivers came over and offered lower fares but it was too late; my stubbornness had set in.

My walk led me through a museum known as “A Place That Could Not Be More Opposite of Japan”. Just outside of the airport, the sun was setting and I saw little fires, in a public or abandoned grassy area and heard the voices of families around them. Sloppy engines roared by me and I could feel the filthy air on my tongue and in my eyeballs. I took a left down Airport Road and the surroundings condensed into a throbbing neighborhood that had the personality of a 13-year old whose parents left him alone for the weekend. Out of one bar, I could hear two or three men doing a horrible rendition of Steve Perry’s Foolish Heart. Feral cats thinner than supermodels scavenged for anything they could find. More little fires glowed in alleys. A very used woman sitting in a chair on the narrow sidewalk offered me a fortune consultation. Motorized tricycles and trucks and cars beeped and aggressively gobbled up any free space they could find on the road. Outside of a small convenience store, I (and hundreds of other passerby’s) had to literally step over a shirtless man that was sleeping, unconscious or dead. The entire scene was ripe and reminiscent of one from a Mad Max movie. But oddly, not once did I fear for my safety. No one looked at me or motioned toward me in a menacing way.

I fell asleep in my hotel a couple hours later and woke up at 4AM the next morning to go back to the airport. I caught a 6AM flight on one of those Indiana Jones propeller planes to Batanes where I would be for eight days. Part of the Philippines, Batanes are a small collection of islands located about 100 miles north of the main island Luzon, Philippines and 120 miles south of Taiwan. The airport in the capital town of Basco looked like a small state highway rest stop but it’s enough to handle the one or two small passenger flights a day.

Basco Airport.

Basco Airport.

The island reminded me of a warmer Ireland. The greenness mixed with a rocky/hilly topography made one think of Western Ireland or Scotland. The weather was similar in one way: very unpredictable. When I walked the 100 meters to my guest house, it was sunny although misting. Par for the Philippines, there were various little construction projects everywhere that were being worked on so slowly or so sporadically, they looked abandoned. In fact, next to my guest house was a building that looked like it suffered the wrong end of a bomb. But at the same time, rough scaffolding constructed of random lumber and tree limbs had been assembled throughout the structure.

When I walked by the open, half-built or half-destroyed (I couldn’t tell) structure, I saw a simple table set up on the dirt floor with clothes hanging everywhere. Inside, four or five amiable and seated chaps greeted me. They were either workers living or citizens squatting in this humble living space (again, I couldn’t tell). Either way, my hopes were that these gentlemen were Basco’s version of “Mack and the boys” that live in the Palace Flophouse in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (the friendly homeless guys that live in a semi-abandoned warehouse in Monterrey).

Speaking of characters of Cannery Row, I met another man that easily could have been in this brilliant novel. When I say “met”, I should really say “observed” since this man of an indistinguishable age was lying on his back in the middle of the street. At first I thought he was dead but then I noticed his stomach was moving. His eyes were wide open but perceived nothing. I asked a woman standing over him if we should call the nearby hospital and she said, “No. He’s just drunk.”

Boulder Beach

Boulder Beach

Santo Domingo Cathedral

Santo Domingo Cathedral


Here I am in a lighthouse. If it was the duty of the lighthouse keeper to look for ladies instead of ships, I would be a lighthouse keeper.

Here I am in a lighthouse. If it was the duty of the lighthouse keeper to look for ladies instead of ships, I would be a lighthouse keeper.

The day I arrived and the next two days I toured the main island and another nearby named Sabtang with BISUMI Tours. The landscape was inspiring. On the second day, when our boat landed at Sabtang , we waited to register with some officials in an area between a church and a school. Our timing could not have been better; all the students were on the front lawn singing and shortly after, performing dance routines. This took place every morning before classes started. These poor little creatures had to do this routine in front of a pile of gawking tourists with cameras a few times a week. It was enough to make a child run away.

Shortly after, a woman I sat next to on the plane the day before rushed over and greeted me enthusiastically. She then told her older lady friends how she sat next to me on the plane and soon I found myself in a picture-taking ceremony with a large group of 60-something Filipina ladies I did not know. When I wrapped up with my new ladies, I was then asked to be in some more pictures with the local police officers (one of which was a police lady…yum). I kid you not when I tell you that they tried to set me up with the single police lady. It’s great when fantasies land in your lap but it sucks when you can’t do anything about them.

I reflected on this extra attention I received and as much as I wanted to attribute it to nice looks, nice hair, and even nicer breath, it was not so. It was probably due to the fact that of the 150 or more tourists, I was one of two white people.



Good luck figuring this one out.

Good luck figuring this one out.

The following morning at breakfast, I chatted with Emil, the husband of Evelyn the maid. It turned out he served as a chef on an oil tanker for 22 years. I asked him if he liked it and he returned, “Not really. I only did it for my kids. I had to pay for their education.” Emil told me he would be out at sea for anywhere between four to six months.  His typical rotation would be six months on and three months off (although once he was on board for 11 months since they could not find a replacement for him). And just when Emil seemed like the greatest gent of our times, he outdid himself by letting me use one of his motorbikes for the remainder of my trip.

At one stop on our tour, we visited an old church in Mahatao. Next to the church was a room that was filled with hundreds of blank books that allowed people to come in and either read past entries or write their own. As luck would have it, I pick up a book, start thumbing through it, and find an entry from Bermuda's most famous performer, Barry Tattle! And according to the date, he was there on the same day! This is a picture of his entry.

At one stop on our tour, we visited an old church in Mahatao. Next to the church was a room that was filled with hundreds of blank books that allowed people to come in and either read entries of past visitors or write their own. As luck would have it, I pick up a book, start thumbing through it, and find an entry from Bermuda’s most famous performer, Barry Tattle! And according to the date, he was there on the same day! This is a picture of his entry.

Trying to outdo this natural drama is a fool's errand.

Trying to outdo this natural drama is a fool’s errand.

After the tour ended that day, I walked towards my dinner destination, Octagon Restarant. I spotted a tricycle parked on the side of the road so I went over to a group of fellas chilling outside nearby. One man stood up and tried to fetch the tricycle driver but his lady appeared and informed us he could not drive me since he had been drinking. Then the first man I spoke to offered to give me a ride himself on his motorbike. When we arrived, I thanked him and offered him some money but he refused. I told him my name, shook his hand and asked his. He replied, “The Principal of Uganda.”

As I took my seat, I spotted three ladies from my tour: Charmaine, Marian, and Gina. We decided it best for the world that we eat together. As I ate with them, I started to realize that most if not all Filipina ladies are extremely humble. My Filipina lady is extremely (perhaps dangerously) educated and quite accomplished in her career experiences but you wouldn’t know it when you speak with her. My lady dining companions were also quite understated about their achievements. The other thing that was reinforced is that any time you get some Filipina ladies together, please expect abundant and equal measures of chatting, smiling, and laughing.

The ladies I dined with. Funny thing about this picture is that is was actually taken a day or two before I met these dear ladies. I happened to be eating at the same restaurant when they asked their waitress to take this picture. But the funniest thing about this picture is that just after it, I moved my chair slight back, causing one of the chair legs to slide off the edge of the concrete floor which caused the chair and I to fall over (which the ladies kindly remembered when I met them).

The ladies I dined with. Funny thing about this picture is that is was actually taken a day or two before I met these dear ladies. I happened to be eating next to them at the same restaurant when they asked their waitress to take this picture, thereby catching my visual energy in the background. But the funniest thing about this picture is that just after it, I moved my chair slightly back, causing one of the chair legs to slide off the edge of the concrete floor which caused the chair and I to fall over (which the ladies kindly remembered when I met them).

The following day I drove the motorbike to the small fishing village of Diura. After parking my bike, I walked a little under a mile down a rough dirt road that went along the sea. I eventually ended up at what the locals refer to as “The Fountain of Youth”. Locals channeled a small stream into a manmade pool out in the middle of nowhere. The pool sat on the edge of a beach with no one in site. I took a dive into its healing waters, hoping to at least grow a few hairs back on my head.

Fountain of Youth

Fountain of Youth

As I drove around, people would often stop what they were doing and watch me pass by. It was a somewhat rare thing to see a whitey on their island but seeing one drive by on a Mountain Dew-colored motorbike was more bizarre than seeing an Eskimo parasailing in Iowa. Everywhere I went I was looked at and smiled at. As I entered a little canteen, I passed by some young boys and said “Hello gentlemen!”. They giggled and ran off. After I finished my meal, I took a quick dip in a small lagoon. When I went back to my bike, there were three goats trying to steal my bike. Punks.

Goats caught in the act of trying to steal my wheels.

Goats caught in the act of trying to steal my wheels.

For dinner, I was invited to dine with three other Filipina ladies at their exquisite guest house called Fundacion Pacita which was perched high on green hills right at the water’s edge. There was Susan, a gracious lady in her 70’s who ran an accomplished ballet studio and her two sensationally pleasant nieces, Trixie and Mia. As it turned out, Susan was the mother of one of the Philippines most famous ballet dancers, Lisa Macuja, who became the first Filipina prima ballerina and first foreign soloist to ever join the Kirov Ballet in Russia. Lisa is now in her early 50’s and still dances occasionally.

Susan took a liking to me partially because I’m dating one of her country-ladies and mostly because my manners are noteworthy. And…Susan-In-Her-Seventies promised to Facebook me! (Further proof that gurl still got it.)

The next day I hired a guide to hike up the top of nearby Mount Iraya. Once an active volcano, Iraya stands just over 1000 meters. Ferand, my guide, met me at 6AM and we proceeded to our start point. The hike was a tad brutal, due in large part to the fact that the trail went straight up with no hint of a switchback path. The further up you went, the less maintained the trail was. We were battling through dense vegetation making us feel like we were making our way through a 1970’s NBA All-Star afro.

Mt. Iraya

Mt. Iraya

Ferand did this nasty, wet, muddy hike in a worn pair of Air Jordans. When I asked him if he had another pair of shoes to change into afterwards, he answered no. But this is how it is in the Philippines and even more so in Batanes. People here are like cartoon characters in the sense they seem to do all their activities in the same outfit. Workers doing heavy construction work will look like they just walked off a basketball court (and will often be wearing flip flops).

Due to the grueling nature of the hike, we talked little. However we did manage to have short conversations whenever we took short breaks. I learned that Ferand was 22 and leaving Batanes for the first time in his life the following week. He was headed for Manila with some sort of Christian group. I really do wish I could have been there to watch his face as he flew in a plane and walked through a major, polluted, noisy city for the very first time in his life.

View from high up Iraya (airport is off to the right).

View from high up Iraya (airport is off to the right).

Later on I toured a little on the motorbike and decided to stop by the lighthouse just north of town. Once again, the locals looked at me in wonder. When I parked my bike near the lighthouse, a group of people were getting into a pickup truck and onto their motorbikes. A woman around 60 asked me if I had a companion with me. I told her no and that I was a lone wolf on this journey. She pointed at her younger lady friend and said, “How about her? She’s single!” I was simply falling in love with the fact that Batanes was trying to set me up with their single sisters.

And guess what? It happened again the next day! I ran into some nice folks at the Honesty Coffee Shop which is a completely unstaffed shop where you go in, take what you want and pay for it by simply putting your money into a wooden box. The daughter of the lady that started the shop 20 years ago mentioned herself as a potential candidate as the target of my affections. She then offered her visiting friend from Manila as another option. This island was like one big dating game show.

Hot jeepney.

Hot jeepney.

As fantastic as this was, it may have been surpassed by an experience I had later that day. Every day around 3:30PM, the town opens up the airport runway to the public so they can do whatever their heart desires (except skinny-dipping). I decided to light the strip up with my 100cc motorbike. Please soak in the video of my stunt.

View from the end of the runway.

Looking out my bedroom window, I mean, view from the end of the runway.

My last full day in the Philippines ended up being an unexpected gift. I spent the day with Pam’s sister Nikki and her family. I got picked up by their driver Jun in the Mystery Machine and was driven to their home in Quezon City in Manila. When I entered their home, I was greeted instantly by the lovely and little Siri. She said “’to ‘tiss” and then proceeded to hug my leg for a length of time that would have been awkward if she had been an adult.

After lunch, Nikki, Diego, Bea, Kiara, and I engaged in an activity I was not expecting: ice skating. The mall culture in the Philippines is a potent one. In their enormous malls will be everything one could dream up, in this case, an ice skating rink on the fifth floor overlooking Manila. The rental skates were duller than a spoon and the ice was less smooth than the face of a 90-year old sea captain but we managed to have a great time. I took a devilish pride in simultaneously scaring and impressing Bea and Kiara as I built up a lot of speed and then sprayed them with snow as I executed a long dramatic hockey stop right next to them. Kiara took her revenge by forcing me to skate backwards while holding her hands for over an hour so she could have something to steady herself on.

Someone had to be the token white guy skating in shorts on the 5th floor of a mall in Manila. (L to R: Diego, me, Kiara, Bea)

Someone had to be the token white guy skating in shorts on the 5th floor of a mall in Manila. (L to R: Diego, me, Kiara, Bea)

Gurl enacts her revenge.

Gurl enacts her revenge.

The only logical thing to do after that was to experience my first ever acupuncture session by the hands of master healer and Asian-Warrior-Haircut-Fella Jake (Nikki’s husband). It was fantastic although I did not realize the after effects of “cupping”. Cupping is when the practitioner creates a powerful suction with, in this case, glass cups on the skin in efforts to bring about the benefits of a massage but in reverse (and to remove any lingering skank in your body). When I looked at my back later that night, it looked like a massive octopus had given me hickies all over my back. Would I “cup” again given the chance? Damn right I would.

This was followed by yet another logical choice of activities: Qigong (chi kung). Qigong is an activity designed to make you look like a Caucasian left wing radical that sweats incense and gathers with others in the more hidden parts of a large city park with the purpose of chanting and moving their body in ways that make Republicans nervous. That said, I did enjoy this more mellow form of Tai Chi and coupled with the acupuncture, I observed elevated levels of energy.

We all then ate with Jake’s family nearby which was glorious…the perfect last supper in my five-week pursuit of pleasure and profound culture. We discussed the family’s impressive pig breeding business, politics, my scandalous career as a comedian, and so many other things that stimulate the intellect.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Manila’s increasing heat and humidity and spent several hours flying back to Boston where I was forced to explain to my lady why I had large circular hickies all over my back.

Trip to the Philippines and Japan – Part 1

One moment I find myself waiting for a train in the dark with snow falling and only 18 degrees to keep me company and another moment, I find myself with a surplus of sun and 87 degrees, waking up from a nap to the sounds of 25 five-year olds singing songs in Tagalog while a man accompanies on guitar.

I’m in a bedroom above a nursery school and the children are in a small covered courtyard of a Montessori pre-school that serves 100 children. The school is owned by Pam’s (my Filipina lady) mother. We’re in Los Baños which is a town located about an hour southeast of Manila in the Philippines. The school and residence are down a small street off a busy street that, in Southeast Asian fashion, is more densely saturated with shops than the busiest of malls. You will literally miss one of these shops if you blink as you walk by, even at a sad man’s pace.

Down Pam’s street, the one she moved to when she was 16, the utility wires above look like an angry pile of black spaghetti running from pole to pole, with a stray noodle hanging down to the ground here and there. Everywhere you look, there are people who are busy merely existing. I look at many of these ambling citizens and have no idea what they do and it thrills me. America is full of people that love to put on a coat of purpose before they leave their house but not here. Folks here have clearly mastered the art of chilling. But like agents of The Matrix that morph into a random person from out of nowhere to complete a task, a random person that appears to be part of the generic field of citizenry will come to life as if taken control by an invisible agent, grab a wheel barrow, shovel some earthly matter into it and carry it away to a place that hopefully has use for it.

So this is what I love about travel in the modern age, quickly being transported from one environment to a very different one.

But this does not stop me from detesting the whole travel process…

The babies. A human very early in its development seated nine rows away cries for 10 of the 17 hours on the plane bound for Hong Kong (but crying that is spread out over the entire journey so the little turd may have as well cried inside my brain for the rest of my life).

The jetlag. Ironically, I was watching the new James Bond film Spectre and was reminded of the most ludicrous element of spy films. No one ever gets jetlag. I adore the way a character will be in a chase in St. Petersburg, crash into a cop car, climb out of a flaming auto wreck, lay out a couple local police chumps with some karate chops, sneak onto an airplane through the landing gear as it’s taking off, manage to get a seat in first class, fly to Hawaii, and then trot off the plane like they spent a weekend in the most exclusive European spa.

The airplane farts. Even if you or anyone in the three-seat radius of you did not have any of their own (unlikely), you always end up smelling like a barrel of airplane farts by the journey’s end.

This trip was unique due to having a “lady in tow” or more accurately expressed, “a special lady in tow”. Either way, it was great to do my yearly long sojourn with Pam, to share in her excitement as we headed to the Philippines for two weeks so we could spend time with her mother and sister (and eventually her extended family at a reunion). At the end of the two weeks, Pam would return to Boston and I would carry onto Japan for 11 days and then back to the Philippines for nine more days where I would visit a remote group of islands called Batanes.

For now I was slowly acclimating myself to my new sultry surroundings and time zone which was all greatly glorified by the casual but effective hospitality of Pam’s mother and housekeeper, Susan, whose cooking awoke parts of me I knew not existed.

On the second day, Pam and I took an odd-looking vehicle called a “jeepney” that looked like a bus to the base of the nearby modest mountain named Mount Makiling. Makiling is located on the campus of University of Philippines Los Baños, Pam’s alma mater just a 15-minute walk from her house.

Mount Makiling's Mud Spring never knew it would play a part in the most vicious picture ever taken...

Mount Makiling’s Mud Spring never knew it would play a part in the most vicious picture ever taken…

...or most tender.

…or most tender.

These jeepneys I mentioned are everywhere. They look like American jeeps but are extended with bench seating and are boarded in the rear. They are often shiny and colorful with entertaining lights and designs. The sides are open, allowing passengers to inhale generous amounts of diesel fumes and other pollution lingering about. When you take your seat, you pass your money down the line until it reaches the driver who sits in a cockpit riddled with more blind spots than an advanced Glaucoma patient. He (that’s right, I only saw male drivers – ladies are too smart to do this job) then counts your change and hands it back to you while driving.

The grill on this jeepney is precious.

The grill on this jeepney is precious.

That afternoon, Pam’s mother drove us to a hot spring called Laguna Springs. The spring itself was at one corner of a large pool surrounded by a covered eating area and hotel. One great feature of the spring and pool was that it was filled with small tilapia that, if you remained still, would come up to you and nibble at your legs and feet. I believe they were feeding on dead skin cells which makes me want to never eat tilapia again unless it was guaranteed that the tilapias were feeding on legs as sexy as mine (unlikely).

3Laguna Hot Spring

The other bold component of Laguna Springs was that at the other end, where the spring water exited into a massive lake, there was an area where two contradictory things happened: 1) you could receive a massage and body wash, and 2) children swam. Now, when I agreed to a massage, I thought it would be performed by a lady in a room and not involving a wash but instead, I got placed on a ledge next to the water, seven feet from playing and swimming children. Looking for my masseuse, I turned my attention to the lifeguard chair where a young man was exiting his station and walking over to me. Good Lord. He came over and proceeded to not only massage me in front of children but wash me as if I were an impudent toddler.

Things got real hectic when he laid me down on my stomach, pulled my shorts down to the point that I looked like a veteran plumber and washed my upper ass. What kind of lifeguard is this?! He was supposed to guarding my life and up until now, he only brought danger into my life. And what were these poor Filipino children thinking…“Damn white people, stop coming to our country and showing us your butts!”

Hungry, naughty tilapia feasting on my legs.

Hungry, naughty tilapia feasting on my legs (circled in yellow).

The next day, Pam, her mother, and I were driven to Caliraya by Pam’s mother’s driver/employee, Marlon. The first order of business was eating an epic meal at a restaurant named Halo Halo. We all sampled their signature dessert drink which combined coconut, ice cream, beans, and various fruits that were previously fried in sugar. It was complex but memorable.

A weird clock I saw in Caliraya. I've never seen a clock used to promote one show.

A weird clock I saw in Caliraya. I’ve never seen a clock created with the purpose of promoting one show.

From there we drove up a small mountain to a man-made lake and hired a boat with a driver for an hour. At the other end of the lake was an odd, gaudy, decaying compound that could have been a beauty but instead came off as the grounds of a drug lord with mediocre taste that was imprisoned four years ago and lost all of his friends and family. I was told the property was private and owned by an old general. That said, it came as a neat surprise when we were allowed to land our boat on their dock and walk around since the general was elsewhere.

Please take note of the tasteful, plastic, naked ladies.

Please take note of the tasteful, plastic, naked ladies.

The REAL tasteful ladies (not made of plastic either).

The REAL tasteful ladies (not made of plastic either).

On our way back, Pam and I were dropped off at a railroad crossing for a rail line that was narrow and so decrepit looking I assumed it was abandoned. Apparently, trains still ran a couple times a day here. While the trains were not running, young men pushed very simple trolleys that were essentially a wooden bench on wheels along the tracks with a few passengers on them for small money. Pam and I boarded one and were pushed along for about a mile.

Boarding the train trolley bound for Tender Town.

Boarding the train trolley bound for Tender Town.

As we glided along, we were flanked by tiny hovels populated by happy squatters that would smile and wave at us. When a trolley came the other way, the trolley with fewer passengers would stop and the driver would lift the trolley off the tracks so the other could pass. At one point, the trolley paused over a very narrow bridge that took us over a 30-foot deep gorge giving us a wonderful Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom mine cart sensation.

I still couldn’t get over the fact a real train traveled on this line and sincerely hoped our trolley driver had mastered the current train schedule as we would have fared poorly in a collision. I was also amazed by the proximity of the smiling squatters.

A quick aside, being in the Philippines reminded me of a phenomenon that seems to exist in the world. The more “worlds” your country has, the more barking dogs it seems to have.  So a Third World country has more dogs than a First World country. I’m not sure how many worlds the Philippines has but if you were to base its world status on barking dogs alone, it would have to be classified as a Sixth World country. If the Philippines is truly a Second World country, then perhaps we are witnessing a potent anomaly.

Correction: it should read "hundreds of thousands" in the parentheses.

Correction: it should read “hundreds of thousands” in the parentheses.

That night, Pam’s sister Nikki came to the house with her three daughters Bea, Kiara, and Siri. Also in their group was their driver Jun and nanny Belle. The next morning we all boarded Nikki’s small box truck that had been divinely converted into a sort of camper/travel van and headed to a family reunion. We first made a stop at the recent burial site of Pam’s father. He passed away shortly after the first date Pam and I had. Pam spent three weeks with her father towards and after the end. Although we had only one date, Pam continued to text me during that time, searching for some comical, witty banter that would help take her mind off her sorrows. There was a second date after she returned so my banter must have been useful.

Nikki's ride or the "Filipino Mystery Machine".

Nikki’s ride or the “Filipino Mystery Machine”.

The remainder of the trip made me understand why so many people in the Philippines hired drivers. The traffic we drove through was not only thicker than Burt Reynold’s mustache, it was wilder than Friedrich Nietzsche’s mustache. Every vehicle you can imagine that has wheels was dodging in and out with prehistoric disorganization. Driving here requires nerves of steel-coated diamonds, a stern rejection of fatigue, and the patience of an inner city mother.

Burt Reynold's mustache.

Burt Reynold’s beauty.

Friedrich Nietzsche's wild glory.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s wild glory.

Once we were at the reunion, we ate like spoiled conquerors and I met a myriad of uncles, aunts, and cousins. When the eating finished, the ladies literally did a Zumba class (please savor the video proof).

That night we drove back in our Autobot leisure vehicle to Nikki’s house. Again we tasted legendary traffic. It was so bad, my bladder near burst in response to all the water and beer I consumed earlier. Nikki actually gave me their emergency plastic pee bottle “For Men” but when I looked around and saw Pam, Nikki, Nikki’s daughters, I just couldn’t pull the proverbial pee trigger. We eventually pulled into a gas station and I soon experienced a euphoria that is better than eating dark chocolate while receiving a promotion.

With the manners of a groomed British gentleman and the haircut of an Asian warrior, Nikki’s husband Jake made his introduction to me to me at his home. Nikki, Jake, the three little ladies, and their 15-year old son Diego lived in a recently built cozy affair located above their acupuncture office. A couple hours later, I was sharing a snug bedroom with Diego, Pam’s mother, and Pam. Because life is often perfect, I found myself falling asleep to the sounds of Diego practicing his card tricks four feet away and late into the night.

In the morning, we boarded the Mystery Machine and were dropped at the airport. An hour later, we touched down in the island of Palawan. A short van ride brought us to our hotel for the next three nights: Acacia Tree. In search of a beach, Pam, Diego, and I took the first of many “tricycle” rides to “Pristine Beach”. Tricycles are flimsy, often rusting metal carriages attached to the side of a motorcycle. They’re tiny, uncomfortable and full of an undeniable and inexpensive Third World flavor. And by the way, Pristine Beach, was a name void of accuracy. The beach offered little more than smoking, Speedo-clad European filth.

The back of a racy tricycle. And yes, I'm unbelievably white.

The back of a racy tricycle. And yes, I’m unbelievably white.

That evening, all of us toured through some mangrove forest in small paddle boats to view fireflies. Due to the surroundings, breezes, darkness, and horny insects, Pam and I did our very best to sneak in a few cuddles. Not even our smart-ass tour guide picked up on our hidden arts of G-rated affection.

The next morning we started in on a three-island tour that involved snorkeling, swimming, and diving off those really fun, high, bouncy diving boards that seem to not exist anymore in the US due to our country’s desire to suck the life out of life. As great as the fish watching was, I was more awed by the solitary, tall, pickled, smoking, slightly over-sunned, drastically over-partied white guy in a Speedo that was often seen moving through each island with a subtle lack of purpose and decency. If yesterday’s “Pristine Beach” ever decided to print up its own marketing literature, this beast would have been on every page. Usually such creatures travel in groups since at some point, one of them will need to bum a light off the other. You can imagine my excitement when I spotted this lone wolf.

In your mind, try to envision that nasty Speedo guy stumbling around the palm trees.

In your mind, try to envision that nasty Speedo guy stumbling around the palm trees.

The other highlight of the trip was little 2 ½ year-old Siri’s fondness of me. She was told to call me “Tito Chris” (Uncle Chris) but all she could get out was “‘to ‘tiss”. Every time I came within a 20-foot radius of this splendid little squirrel, all I would here is “’to ‘ tiss!! ‘to ‘tiss!!”

“What can I tell you?” Jake said. “Siri likes white boys. She has a real colonial mentality.”

Little Siri...complete with Neil Diamond's early 80's hairstyle.

Little Siri…complete with Neil Diamond’s early 80’s hairdo.

The next day’s tour brought us to an underground river that was full of darkness and dropping bat shit. The other activity we enjoyed was zip lining off a high point in the jungle over a stunning bay. It ended with an absolutely unwarned, abrupt, spine-crushing stop.

A fraction of a moment before spine damage.

A fraction of a moment before spine damage.

Entrance to the Underwater River.

Entrance to the Underwater River.

After everyone went to sleep, Jake and I enjoyed a beer in the open-aired lobby/bar area. Thirty minutes later, a tall, thinner, kind of handsome, more arrogant version of Thor arrived with two ladies in a tricycle. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the driver it was okay to pay in Taiwanese currency, he asked us for change in a demanding tone. We turned Thor down, forcing him to collect the fare from his drunken broads. To save face, he picked up the black feral hotel cat and cuddled and kissed it while he smoked a cigarette under a leftover Valentine’s Day decoration that simply said “LOVE” in giant letters. After squeezing out every last drop of love from kitty and probably contracting gonorrhea of the face, he walked over to the pool, removed all of his clothes and skinny-dipped like a 70’s tennis club pro.

Sadly I don't have a picture of Thor but hopefully this shot of Palawan locals riding on top of a bus will ease your pain.

Sadly I don’t have a picture of Thor but hopefully this shot of Palawan locals riding on top of a bus will ease your pain.

A couple days later, back in Los Baños, Pam and I decided to climb Mount Makiling with her cousin Chris. The 1100-meter peak stood watch over the town and was as much a part of the local scenery as the traffic. We met our guide Henry who was to lead us on our eight-kilometer campaign of pleasure to the peak.  The initial part of our ascent was on road that was slowly being redone. It was interesting to note the techniques being employed by the workers since they had far less money and resources than a comparable American construction crew. For example, the tar that was used to seal the concrete joints was heated over a small wood fire and then gently poured by hand from a bucket into the joints that were cleaned with a small broom made from some sort of plant stalks.  In the US, I’m sure there’s some machine that cleans the surface and then accurately applies hot tar that was heated within the machine itself, all in a ¼ of the time.

A little further on, we came upon some extremely rudimentary shops and a village. Henry told me that the children here had to wake up at 2AM so they could make the long walk to school in time. Incredible.

Henry was one of seven rangers that watched over Makiling and its protected lands. One of their duties was to report illegal logging which, at first, I thought this would be petty, disorganized crime. Then I thought of the countless roadside furniture dealers selling impressive wooden pieces and realized this activity may be larger in scale. I listened as Henry described how the loggers, armed with guns, would have someone on lookout further down the mountain while they cut down trees.

What really chilled me was the story he shared of his close forest ranger friend who was about to testify against some illegal loggers but was shot to death before he had the opportunity. It was sad and strange when Henry even knew the caliber gun (a .45) that killed his friend. This illegal logging was something that clearly involved powerful people.

We made it to the top in three hours and 45 minutes but not before dodging poisonous, rash-inducing plants and skanky leeches. I removed three or four from my shoes but the guide found at least 15 on his body. As Henry went first on the trail, he inadvertently gathered the lion’s share of these little bastards on himself. For this fact alone he earned his pay.

Hiking Makiling...

Hiking Makiling…

...more Makiling...

…more Makiling…

...I swear this is the last one.

…I swear this is the last one.

Oh boy.

Oh boy.

The next day Pam’s sister Nikki arrived in Los Baños. Nikki, Pam, cousin Chris, and I drove an hour to the town of Pagsanjan with the desire of “shooting the rapids”. This involved being paddled up the Pagsanjan River in two boats that were each manned by two guides. The guides paddled, dragged, and pushed the boat up river which often turned into mild rapids and finished at a laguna where a large waterfall thundered into the water. Here we boarded a bamboo raft that was slowly guided through the falls where we were pounded like Rocky in his first fight with Clubber Lang.

Shooting those darn rapids.

Shooting those darn rapids.

On the way up and down, the guides would swing a leg out of the boat to the right or left and somehow push off an irregularly-shaped rock that passed by with admirable timing and athleticism. The other performance they gave was one in acting. I was warned beforehand that they might put on a show of fatigue and desperation in hopes of earning more tips. Sure enough, the guide in the back moaned like an unsuccessful whore which is ironic since at one point he exclaimed, in Tagalog and to no one in particular, “Your mother is a whore!”

To the left of my head (which is not nearly as bald as it looks in this damn picture) is the waterfall we got pounded under.

To the left of my head (which is not nearly as bald as it looks in this damn picture) is the waterfall we got pounded under.

For lunch, we stopped at the same restaurant from last week, Halo-Halo. Eating here reminded me of how this trip contained a constant effort of trying to find a way of offsetting the unbelievable amounts of not just meat but fatty, fried meats. So whenever a group of us ordered multiple plates to share, I became the one who, in efforts to bring balance to the food force, ordered a vegetable dish. In the US, if you order a dish under the heading of “Vegetable”, you can expect to have vegetables and only vegetables in that dish. However, no matter what vegetable dish you order in the Philippines, they love to sneak in pork. The Philippines loves pork. They love it so much they will eat every part of it. I have eaten a pig’s intestines, feet, and face in the past week alone. And they will not tell you that there is pork in the “vegetable” dish; it’s up to you to assume its presence. The only place I have not found pork here is inside coconuts but I’m sure the nearby agricultural institute is working hard to resolve this alarming trend.

And oh, during the drive home, we stopped to pose for pictures with wooden sculptures of Iron Man and Thor (the real Thor…not the crappy, feral cat-kissing Thor from Palawan).

20Thor and Iron Man

And we also rode the Los Baños Express again!

Another truth of this wonderful country that finally became clear to me was the Philippines is one of the best countries in the world for English-speaking Westerners to visit. It has all the vibrance that strikes a westerner as a continuous bombardment of oddities on the senses but it also has a population that speak better English than any other non-English-speaking country I have ever been to. The US and the Philippines also have two religions in common: that of Catholicism and that of basketball. Basketball is all over the television. It has more time on TV than repeat episodes of Friends. I found myself in the remotest of villages and still I would find a basketball court.

That night, Marlon drove Pam, Pam’s mother, cousin Chris, and I to Aunt Odette’s home in the posh neighborhood of West Grove. Once again, I was surrounded by Pam’s extended family. At one point, Pam’s aunt Angela challenged me to eat the mind-blowing delicacy known as “balut”. Balut is simply a duck embryo you eat in a style of your choosing. Some like to suck the yolk out and then eat the duck embryo afterwards but either way, I was going to stand firm on my balut refusal. Still, Angela held a balut in her hand and taunted me, “If you love Pam, you’ll eat the balut!” The entire gang roared in excitement and laughter at this challenge but still I carried on with my balut strike.

Irony is often impatient and wishes to party promptly.

I’ve never played poker in my life. When all of Pam’s extended family decided to play, I chose to watch the game. After 90 minutes of watching them play, they asked me if I wanted to join. I warned them I would need to play with a cheat sheet and they were happy to accommodate my novice ways. As I began playing, I quickly realized that half of poker was understanding the psychology of your opponents. After carefully watching these players (many of whom were very experienced), I had a decent measure of each person’s personality and how they might behave under certain circumstances.

So now I was swimming in a shark tank full of carnivorous Filipino poker veterans. At some point shortly after midnight, I miraculously managed to win the entire game. I was the surprise victor of a whopping 1100 Filipino pesos or $21. As luck would have it, this was the exact amount needed to pay for Pam’s delayed Valentine’s Day gift, a Zumba instructor for her Zumba party. And I would be lying if I said that part of these earnings did not also help to secure beer and laxatives.

The other thing perhaps better than winning the money was watching the faces of these experienced poker players as they were beaten by a guy using a poker cheat sheet. And like that, I was avenged for my previous balut grilling.

Poker Dominator surrounded by his lovely opponents, his earnings, and of course, his lady.

Poker Dominator surrounded by his lovely opponents, his earnings, and of course, his lady.

A couple days later, Pam and I made our way to Tagatay where we viewed the large lake from the very high point that was President Marcos’ unfinished mansion. Marcos was a dictator that decided to hold onto his elected office for 20 years. He instituted martial law but possibly worse is the fact that his wife owned 3000 pairs of shoes. The greatest opponent of Marcos was Ninoy Aquino who upon returning from exile was shot to death. Through peaceful protests, Marcos was eventually removed and the wife of Aquino, who was a housewife up until this point, was encouraged and ultimately elected as the next president. Today, Aquino’s son is the President of the Philippines and to top it off, Manila’s international airport is named after Ninoy Aquino which sounds cool until you melt with frustration in your car as you drive one mile in one hour to get from one terminal to the next in Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Our driver then took us 20 minutes to Jake’s family’s pig breeding farm in Alfonso. When we entered the gate, our vehicle was greeted by a car wash to control incoming contaminants (I think) and a man with a shotgun that smiled a lot. Once inside, I reconnected with Diego, Bea, Kiara, and Siri (the little magical lady that referred to me as “’to ‘tiss”). Naturally, my next move was to ride a small horse. This was followed by an informal but informative tour of the grounds by Diego. I was amazed by the lack of odor. Diego told me that all of the pig’s aftermarket products were stored in an enclosed area that created biogas which powered parts of the farm. As we walked through all of the pens, I could hear soft rock playing over a stereo system which was to soothe the pigs. Pig farms…where all soft rock goes to die.

Gurl getting rowdy on her horse.

Gurl getting rowdy on her horse.


This horse looks like Tina Turner.

This horse looks like Tina Turner.

The day Pam and I left, it hit me. Susan would no longer be there to cook incredible meals and provide a clothes washing service better than the finest overpriced European washing machines (she scrubbed them by hand). I felt doomed and sad. Part of me wished to move to the Philippines since most home service staff was priced so low, it was easy to feel like a Victorian business tycoon.

Our driver Orlando dropped Pam at her terminal first where we offered each other a goodbye that was equals parts tender and genuine. I got back in the car and became quickly ecstatic that my flight didn’t leave for another four and half hours as the mile we had to travel to my terminal took us about 35 minutes.

I'm so psyched I'm not a utility worker in the Philippines.

I’m so psyched I’m not a utility worker in the Philippines.

Later that evening, my plane landed in Osaka, Japan. From there I took a train up to Kyoto and a cab to my hotel for the next seven nights, Eco and Tek Hotel. On this and all other train rides I experienced, every single conductor was dressed with the regality and precision of a naval Admiral and when they left a train car, they would turn to face the passengers and respectfully bow.

My room was small but very clean and comfortable and tucked away in a charming residential neighborhood. In line with most others in Japan, my toilet was more advanced than a PET scan machine. There were all kinds of buttons with Japanese instructions that did God knows what. I do know that my toilet seat was unnaturally warm and if I was feeling frisky, I could press a button that would pressure-wash that which offends most.

The next day I spent seven hours simply walking around the city, visiting Chion-in Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Shijo dori Street, the old downtown area including Nishiki Market and Ponto-cho. Nishiki Market is a 500-meter barrage of vendors assaulting you with incredible, fresh, and sometimes bold answers to hunger. One of the boldest options was tiny octopi whose heads were stuffed with a quail egg. I nearly boarded a plane home when I saw this but later, when I saw a television program about the overweight cats of overweight sumo wrestlers, I decided Japan was for me.

From a restaurant in Kyoto: the oddest product description I have seen on a towelette wrapper.

From a restaurant in Kyoto: the oddest product description I have seen on a towelette wrapper.

In the entrance of the long, narrow neighborhood of Ponto-cho, a sign in English discussed its unique past. According to the sign, in the 1700’s, it became a “gay community”. Believe it or not, some person or persons tried to rub off the word “gay”! I haven’t consulted MIT or NASA on this but I’m fairly certain gayness is here to stay, even if we try to rub the word off signs. Or maybe I’m interpreting this wrong; maybe so many people have lovingly touched the word “gay” over the years that it has started to wear off.

The other thing that struck me was just how different Japan was from the Philippines. In the Philippines, the pollution of every kind (noise, air, litter) was not able to be ignored. Every time a jeepney lurched forward, an inefficient belch roared from the engine and a blast of dark smoke fled from the tailpipe. Trash seems to be found more often on the ground than in the trash cans. Stray barking dogs seem moments away from performing a violent, successful coup of human society but in the meantime seem content with crapping everywhere. The driving styles are erratic at best and just ten seconds behind the wheel would give a westerner an ulcer. Many of the homes are thrown together with whatever used materials are lying about, giving it the feel of the movie set of Mad Max. People walk out into traffic, illegally, trying to cross through a steady stream of unpredictable drivers but who can blame these vigilante pedestrians when they receive virtually no respect from drivers when legally trying to pass through a crosswalk.

A construction site in the Philippines is typically a haphazard and sloppy affair that may be worked on one day but abandoned for a week. The air in the Philippines seems to be constantly filled with the sounds of shouting people, dogs, chickens, loud engines, and too many other things to name. The toilets in the Philippines are often, in a word, grim. A respectable house or business will be fine in this regard but the instant you find yourself relying on the public domain for the servicing of your movements, I will weep for you.

In Japan, all is clean, when a car drives, it is barely heard and no visual effects are detected. Litter is scarce and the urban waterways seem to be sourced from God’s water fountain. As of yet, I’ve seen only two dogs and they were both the size of large cats, on leashes, silent as monks, and wearing perfectly fitting T-shirts. The driving is logical and organized and there appears to be a purveying air of respect on the road. All structures seem well-constructed and immaculately maintained like the set of Truman Show or the picture of a completed structure on a Lego box. Most everyone strictly observes the pedestrian signals (including the drivers!). The construction sites here have the look and feel of an expensive manicure; it’s contained and flanked with flaggers holding lit rods and wearing vests with blinking lights. There is an economy of noise in the air. No one shouts. It is a great place to sleep. And as I mentioned before, the toilet experience here is filled with so much wonder and dimension, they deserve their own cable TV station to properly represent and explore this profound facet of Japanese culture (and that goes for the public toilets which are never in short supply).

But if you were to ask me which place I like better, I would not know how to respond. Japan’s culture is something that rightfully demands your admiration. It is like a perfectly engineered clock that never falters. The citizens are well-mannered, respectful, and polite. The pursuit of perfection is seen everywhere and once being here, it is plain as day why they are a powerful nation given their limited resources.

With the Filipinos, everything is easy. As cousin Chris’ American fiancée noted, if the original plan fails, Filipinos rarely get upset. They quickly and nonchalantly change gears and do something else. Part of this, I believe, is due to their realization that as long as they are engaged in some activity that involves a group of people that they like being around, the actual activity itself is a peripheral concern. Filipinos are incredibly family-oriented and I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a society that is so genuinely at ease among their other family members (or friends).

The Filipinos handle adversity very well. With all the bad driving and traffic conditions similar to a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve, I saw almost no road rage. In America, if someone turns onto a road, causing another driver to brake for a fraction of a second, that other driver will have a toddler’s tantrum.

Filipinos are infinitely happier with infinitely less. Filipinos smile. Even the police smile!

If there was a party to be had, I would want the Japanese to organize it but I would want to party with the Filipinos.

Part 2 

95 America Street, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Sometimes the incredible happens; the special, the unbelievable, the downright absurd, the very thing that makes you feel like you’re living in a cartoon.  But most of the time, it’s not the actual event that happens that makes it these things but rather the people involved.  This is how it was at 95 America Street which was really 95 Forest Hills Street but that will be explained later.  If you walked into that old Victorian house in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, you would find things that would frighten you or bring record-breaking amounts of delight to you.  Which one would depend on you.  That’s the other thing about the incredible, special, unbelievable, downright absurd, very thing that makes you feel like you’re living in a cartoon: sometimes that which makes it these things has no connection to the thing that happened or the people involved.  Sometimes it’s our perception.  There were some people that walked into 95 America Street and were immediately uncomfortable.  Things were very different here.  Even many of the “open minded” residents that one would find in the proudly liberal and diverse neighborhood of Jamaica Plain would find much to gasp about at this address.  Others would be able to see past the calamities and the extreme personalities and encounter some sort of Zen.

How you reacted to 95 America Street and its residents was not a product of your political affiliation or whether you smoked pot in college (or still did).  Your reaction could not be predicted by your age or whether you like your pants to have pleats or a flat front (often a great indicator of things).  No one could find the Trader Joes spinach and kale and Greek yogurt dip in your refrigerator and the Earth Wind and Fire box set in your music collection and know for sure how you might process these lovable maniacs (although they would know you have fine taste in food and music).

For me, by the end, the house reminded me of a case of my favorite Matchbox cars.  Simply opening up the case and looking at them was joy in itself.  On their own, each car was fine enough but together with the others, the collection was undeniable.

95 America Street

95 America Street

I can only explain the miraculous coming together of everyone as an act of God.  Sure, I put in biblical amounts of effort in order to keep this team together.  Even our infallible supercomputer, “The Geek” would not have predicted success with this bunch but it was not the contents of their files or resumes that made my decision, it was their underlying sense of positive purpose.  With some of them, that purpose was buried a little deeper but with all of them, I could sense that they would ultimately do the right thing, no matter how crazy they seemed.

They also magically balanced out and complimented each other in ways I could have never foreseen.  Stever helped Future Queer hone his message.  Danny taught Barry the value of being aggressive when the situation called for it.  Ripps…well he helped get my bench press to 250 which is impressive given my long, thin arms.

Why were we all living together in this monstrous old house?  Simply put, it was a well-funded act of good will.  By the spiritual and financial grace of an old man, we were given the chance to help our community in a very real and, often times, cartoonish way.  I was given the charge of putting a team together that would help however we could.  Our benefactor referred to us as “Just Ambassadors of Good Will” so I made the “Just Ambassadors” into “Jambassadors”.  On the surface, as far as the media and local government were concerned, we were a charity composed of do-gooders that simply wanted to make the world a better place by volunteering and helping our common citizen in a diverse collection of legal ways.

Beneath the surface, we were sometimes vigilantes.  We tried to avoid violence as much as possible.  I continuously instructed everyone to keep the lowest profile possible when engaged in borderline illegal activities.  Fortunately, I was friends with certain police officers and officials who, through the years, became more powerful and protected us as much as possible.  Most of the police and certain officials quietly loved what we did because we answered to no one and could address a lot of annoying things better off handled with our very direct methods.  Most of the incidents we dealt with were smaller and non-lethal in nature so it was a little easier to keep things under the radar.  Also, none of us carried guns.  That was part of the understanding with my contacts in the Boston Police Department.  Once bullets started flying, the BPD’s ability and desire to protect us from scrutiny vanished.

My “career” has been a varied one.  I never knew quite what I wanted to do which reflected itself clearly in my peculiar job history that I had achieved by the age of 40.  Enjoy:

Customer service rep for an investment company
Sales and account management for a cable company
Mortgage broker
Granite countertop installer

Painting and “handymaning”, as I call it, was something I started doing during summer breaks in college.  I continued to do it off and on until I was about 31 or so.  It actually started as painting and slowly evolved into handymanning over the years.  It sounds wonderful; knowing how to do and fix different things but you must keep John Steinbeck’s brilliant and true line from East Of Eden in mind: “Alf was a jack-of-all-trades, carpenter, tinsmith, blacksmith, electrician, plasterer, scissors grinder, and cobbler. Alf could do anything, and as result was a financial failure although he worked all the time.”  Okay, so there are a few things on Steinbeck’s list I haven’t done but the idea is valid.

Ironically, if you look at a) working on people’s houses and b) being a charitable vigilante, my approach to both was accidentally but logically similar.  I approached the first type of work as a handyman which allowed me to address smaller but nonetheless important tasks that needed to be done quickly but were too small for a contractor.  I was often called to fix something with a moment’s notice.  I had my truck.  I had my tools.  It was just me.  I was very nimble and could react to jobs very quickly.  I had stumbled into a sort of niche and was able to mine out an existence.  The second type of work was met with a parallel approach.  We would happen upon so many pesky problems that were not really designed for the police although they were assigned to deal with them.  The neighbor that constantly has parties late into the night is a good example.  You call the police, they show up, they tell your neighbor to be quiet, and the next night the neighbor is breaking your heart again with loudness.  That’s where we come in.  The police can only do so much.  We can only do so much more.  And this “much more” more often than not, spills no blood.

Oh, and allow me to warn you right now, one of our team members is a time traveler.

*    *    *

I can’t remember who first got me in touch with Thomas Aloysius Pemberton, or TAP as his friends would call him.  I once heard that if your initials spell a word, you will be successful in life.  This was certainly the case for Mr. Pemberton, as I called him.  The other bit of name-driven irony is found in his middle name.  I’m not sure if Mr. Pemberton realized it (he probably did) but his middle name has Germanic origins and means “fame and war”.  One could make the argument that his “fame” originated from fighting Germans in WWII.  Once I got to know him better, I joked with Mr. Pemberton that his middle name sounds like a sneeze.  He laughed an old laugh and added, “But it’s great – all I have to do is introduce myself and people bless me.”

He was from Kansas.  I don’t know the exact place but I do know that his family farm fell victim to eminent domain when Interstate 70 was built.  The farm carried on for some time after the highway came through but they lost about 10% of their land and gained an ugly scar that severed their once pristine plot.  And the cattle now had to learn to sleep with the alien sounds of high speed vehicles.  Seeing those first few cars drive through what his family still called “our property” instantly put things in perspective for Mr. Pemberton.  “Nothing in life is a given, nothing is forever save God, maybe.  Be thankful for what you have and know it’s all subject to immediate and unwanted change.”

He used to say that phrase every once in a while, “…save God, maybe.”  I got the feeling that the “maybe” didn’t appear until later in his life.  The “maybe” showed the cracks in his faith that, over the years and just like the cracks in his house, grew in number.  Mr. Pemberton called upon me to fix the cracks in his house but I, unknowingly and inadvertently, help fix the cracks in his faith although we never directly addressed it.

Mr. Pemberton wanted to get his house ready to sell.  He didn’t have a set date to put it on the market but he thought he should start with some painting.  I remember the first time I saw this house whose nickname was “The Castle”.  It was March of 2005.  “The Castle” was very imposing.  I almost ran away when I saw it.  This may seem silly until you take into consideration the possibility of painting this ornate, pain-breathing dragon.  The nickname came from the four and a half-story, octagonal-shaped turret that stood guard on the front of the house and rose above the rest of it.  Add that height to the small hill the house rested on and you had an awe-inspiring thing that looked like a Victorian space shuttle launch pad.

As I looked up, I could see Mr. Pemberton in the very top room.  There were four large windows that allowed one to enjoy a 360-degree view of the surrounding area.  Mr. Pemberton seemed to be looking into the wilderness of Franklin Park across the street.  He looked down at me and waved and opened up the window.

“I hope you don’t have plans for the next week, that’s how long it’s going to take me to get to the front door!”

I responded with some awkward remark that was mildly funny and bland but something that would not offend.  This is how you have to be when you meet a potential customer.  There’s that walking on eggshells period that lasts until the customer makes some symbolic gesture that signals the end of it, that he or she trusts you.  With Mr. Pemberton, I could feel there would be no eggshell period.

When Mr. Pemberton opened one of the double doors, I noticed that there were actually two sets of identical doors.  I guess one set of those doors was meant to be a storm door but unlike today’s anorexic storm doors, these were just as heavy and thick as the pair behind it.  He came outside on the front porch and smiled genuinely as he shook my hand with surprising firmness.

Mr. Pemberton was 83.  He stood about six feet and was missing most of the hair on top of his head and the hair he did have was white.  His voice was easy to listen to: the volume was right, it rarely faltered and it was clear.  I could instantly tell he was either well-educated or well-read or both.

Someone once told me that one of Bill Clinton’s greatest talents was to make you feel like you were the only person in the world when he spoke to you, even if you just met him.  He could listen to you and take great interest in what you said.  This is what Mr. Pemberton had.  I don’t know if Bill Clinton’s talent was some political mind trick he mastered in Jedi camp but Mr. Pemberton was authentic in his expression of this special skill.  It made me understand how he became so successful.  Everyone thinks you have to be some oratory hero that can sell hunger to the hungry in order to rule the world but the power to really listen and make someone feel special is one of the most undervalued skills.

I know it sounds strange but his eyes were a perfect combination of a predator and humble saint.  He was thin and unless you asked him to climb a tree or run a 100 meter dash, you might think his body belonged to a younger man.  His clothes were not overly new but they were nice.  You know how a respectable grandfather dresses at Thanksgiving?  That’s how Mr. Pemberton dressed all the time.  There were a lot of casual blazers, a lot of earth tones.

Mr. Pemberton

Mr. Pemberton

And the jazz!  There was always good jazz playing which was great because that meant I didn’t have to bring my radio when I worked there.  No matter where I was working in the house, he would turn up the music loud enough for me to hear.  Even if I was working outside, he would put one of the speakers in an open window if possible.

When I walked in that first day, Dave Brubeck was playing (on vinyl, of course).  He could tell I was enjoying the elaborate piano of Mr. Brubeck and spoke.

“Brubeck was on the cover of Time magazine in 1954.  He was on tour with Duke Ellington when the issue came out.  Ellington was about 55 at the time and had never been on the cover of Time himself.  Brubeck was 34 at the time, I believe, he was on the cover of Time.  In fact, Ellington was the one who happily brought the copy to Brubeck’s hotel room with a smile on his face.  Brubeck felt guilty, supposedly.  He thought Ellington was the one who should have been on that cover.  There will always be some reason to not accept great honor that you deserve but you must accept it nonetheless.  Ellington realized this and so should you.”

That was the first of many lessons that Mr. Pemberton armed me with.  He really was like the better part of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes or even an Anglicized version of the Tao.  He constantly provided that warm intangible thing that made you feel full of purpose and inspiration and peace; that thing we constantly try to achieve through formal, measurable methods or technology.  The more we try for such a thing through unnatural methods, the further it becomes from us.  He was not the type (and not just because of his age) to post some beautiful thought on the internet and then walk away.  Mr. Pemberton was the type to deliver the beauty at the perfect moment; when you were ready, when you were listening, when you were not distracted.  He had such subtle, wonderful skills I didn’t even know existed until I met him.

The Castle was built around 1870.  It was an old lady but it still turned heads.  I looked around the front hallway we were standing in.  It was grand.  Although tired and a bit worn with a few cracks and stains, the white Carrera marble on the floor still demanded admiration.  The molding around the doors seemed one of a kind.  I started to spot some, what I assumed to be, original walnut doorknobs.  I stopped and looked into it because that’s what these doorknobs allow you to do.   Each one is unique and looks like an infinite galaxy of melted chocolate and caramel.  The doorknobs were a fine reflection of the entire house: one of a kind.

We eventually made it into the dining room.  The detail in the wood floor was a thing of the past as much of the house was and of course, the owner.  Most of it appeared to be light oak but there was an interesting ten-inch border that was a few inches from the wall that wrapped around the outer edges of the floor.  The border was made of some darker wood with interesting patterns in it.  As with a couple windows in the front of the house, the dining room had one or two odd windows that were as big and tall as a door, going all the way to the floor.  I’m not sure of the purpose of these windows.  You couldn’t use them as doors even though at first glance, they looked like doors.  If I had been drinking and heard the ice cream truck outside, I might have gotten excited and ran right through the window, thinking it was a door.  I guess there were no ice cream trucks in 1870.

I excused myself to the bathroom nearby and upon entering; I noticed another peculiar thing on the left hand wall.  Someone had very neatly cut a rectangular hole in the wall and covered it with glass.  It appeared as if someone had intended to showcase this hole in the wall.

“I never knew the inside of a wall could be so interesting,” I remarked after leaving the bathroom.

“Yes, why waste money on paintings when all you have to do is put a hole in the wall?  Someone before me did that in efforts to dazzle future generations with the intricacies of Victorian wall construction.  It’s amazing how even the dullest, most mundane thing can become mildly interesting if enough time passes.  It’s just a matter of time before this trend catches on and we start seeing wall museums popping up everywhere.”

He had definitely used those lines before but I didn’t care.  I still found them funny.

For the next 30 minutes, Mr. Pemberton showed me the various projects he had in mind and then left me alone to go back through the various areas one more time.  In one room I found a lot of World War II memorabilia.  From what I could tell, Mr. Pemberton was a Lieutenant in the Army during that time.  In a central position among the memorabilia was a black dagger in a black metal sheath.  I stepped closer and noticed a Nazi symbol on the sheath.  Although it sent something worse than chills down my spine, I was tempted to hold the weapon and inspect it further.  Fearing my body and soul might download some horrific curse, I decided not to touch this grim artifact.  Why was it here?  What was Mr. Pemberton’s connection to its original owner?  It seemed so out of place with everything else not just in that room but in Mr. Pemberton’s life.

Grim Artifact

I came down the back stairway cringing at a few missing balusters I knew I would have to somehow replace.  I had never replaced balusters before.  I guess I would have to figure it out and hope it didn’t take too long.  After my tiny, internal freak out had run its course, I entered the kitchen and found Mr. Pemberton making some tea.  He didn’t ask me if I wanted any.  He simply handed me a cup.  He must have figured if I made it this far, I was somebody that liked to drink tea.  He was right.

The dagger was still on my mind.

“What’s wrong?  You look like you saw a ghost.  We do have a few lingering around; can’t get the bastards to pay any rent.” He handed me a tea that already had honey in it.  Damn, this old guy was reading me like a book on all fronts.

“Oh nothing…I guess it’s just those missing balusters in your stair rails.  You didn’t mention them but I know at some point I’ll be asked to fix them.  I’ve never…”

“You’ll figure it out.”  He said this with the smallest of smiles.   I was sure he knew what really gave me the ghost-look.  “So what do you think of my modern kitchen.”

My preoccupied mind had not yet taken it in but now that he brought my attention to it, I was glad my stomach was empty.  It’s not that it was dirty but so many other things: the ghastly-patterned linoleum floor that was curling up at the edges; the Formica countertops with a nightmarish light blue, orange-pink faux marble pattern that climbed the back walls to meet the next offender; the dark brown cabinets that also did not escape the treacherous curse of Formica, for their particle board core were completely suffocating in a faux…I don’t know what the hell kind of wood was being mimicked here; the brown, metal appliances that were masterfully coordinated with the cabinets (except the refrigerator – that looked like it had entered this hell 15 years ago).

“I, uh…” I struggled to be nice and simply gave up. “Well this kitchen must be the ghost you were talking about.  You know, I hear they’re filming a lot of movies in Boston.  I’m sure there’s some director out there looking for an authentic 70’s kitchen to film in.”

He bent over slightly and a few drops of tea came out of his mug as he laughed, “HA!!!  Wonderful!  I’m going to use those lines, if you don’t mind!”

“Of course not,” I said. “Believe me, I tried to find something nice to say.  You know, you do have a lot of natural light in here, especially in the afternoon and there is a lot of warm brick and a lot of open space.  I have a good friend I work with that does granite countertops, we could find a good cabinet guy, I know a fair plumber and a good electrician.  You could keep the layout the same, keep things basic to keep the costs down.  You could turn this kitchen disco into a modern wonder.”

“Kitchen disco!  I’m taking that one too!”  He recovered from his laughter and pondered what I said.  As he looked around, he seemed to be quickly seeing moments from the past that were tied to this kitchen.  He was clearly not ready to let this old lady go.  ”I think there’s still a shred of glory left in this fine galley.”  Then he looked right at me and said, “Perhaps the next person that lives here can deal with it.”

Kitchen Disco

Kitchen Disco

As we walked to the front door, I went through the work in my head.  Most of it was painting but there was also a fair amount of wallpaper removal.  The fact I accepted the job is a testament to how much I admired this man.  When I see that much wallpaper removal, I do everything I can to squirm my way out of the job.  I’ve even taken a vacation for the hell of it so I had an excuse for not being able to do a wallpaper removal job.  If you’re ever doing research on what it feels like to be so depressed, death is the doorway you look to walk through, I say to you: remove lots of wallpaper.  It feels like some form of punishment that is so wicked that even the Russians turned it down and decided to send people to labor camps in Siberia instead.   But something that day told me Mr. Pemberton would make a good customer and even a better friend, worth the pains of wallpaper removal.

As we stepped outside, he inhaled the unusually warm March air as if he were about to hold his breath under water.  He exhaled and held his arms out as if he were an Italian restaurant owner about to hug his favorite customer.  “God I love the first warm day of the year.  No matter how old I get or rickety I feel, it makes me feel like I’m ten years old.  New Englanders love to complain about the winter but to me, this moment is the payoff.  It makes it all worth it.”

I told Mr. Pemberton I would be in touch about the work and left him standing on his porch, enjoying the very moment he was in.  What a rare thing.

Chapter 2








95 America Street, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

May 5, 2012

Terrence Barnett stood in front of an enormous computer.  The reddish brown hair on Terrence’s head is in the midst of some serious recession and thinning but when I look at him, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.  He’s tall and incredibly slim and looks like a combination of Bruce Dern and James Rebhorn.  Everything about his look is fastidious.  His pants are always crisp and partnered with shoes that are nice but not of this era.  He often has a lab coat although none of us are sure why; there’s never a threat of any organic substance being cast onto his clothing.  Terrence is British and stiff.  He’s not stiff because he’s British (or vice versa).  His stiffness is due to what seems to be a severe, on-going, and self-imposed harsh self-assessment.

The computer in front of him appeared to be outdated but was not.  It looked like a slightly less silly version of the TroubAlert computer found in the Hall of Justice in the Super Friends or Teletraan 1 from the Transformers.  Terrence is easily the smartest person on our team but his greatest enemy is most certainly himself.  He tends to over-analyze things and perceive them in terms that are less human and more machine-like.  This is no surprise since Terrence is a computer warlock.

I know little of computers but I knew I needed someone that was not only an unsurpassable IT resource but someone who took it to the next level.  I needed someone who had an artistic approach to computers.  I needed someone to innovate.  Terrence did just that.  With instruction from me that was little more than, “I want Teletraan 1”, he made something that will someday be celebrated in Boston’s Museum of Science.  If you don’t know what Teletraan 1 was, it was the master computer found in the Autobot’s headquarters in the cartoon Transformers.  It was such a wonderful computer that you have to put the word “super” in front of it, making it a supercomputer capable of monitoring all types of vital information all over Earth.  This information was used to help the Autobots with current missions they were on or to alert them to new ones.

Being an avid Transformer’s fan, Terrence needed little instruction after that.  The only part he felt uncomfortable doing with a computer this big was making an attractive housing for the screen and components. I told him I would take care of that.  To the best of my abilities, I built a custom wood cabinet around his handy work.

Terrence was rightfully proud of this computer.  It was custom fit for our needs and we could all stand around it and enjoy it as its proud captain navigated it through an ocean of information.  And it spoke!  That’s right, this computer spoke.  The voice was Terrence’s but it still spoke.  Most of the time the speaking was a pre-recorded message but sometimes it would put individually pre-recorded words together into messages for us.  This really wasn’t necessary but I could tell Terrence really wanted to make something that was as close to Teletraan 1 as possible.

You can imagine that after all of the love, sweat, time, and knowledge that he poured into this computer, he was very annoyed when we all started calling the computer “The Geek”.  Ripps was actually the one that came up with the nickname and who kept taping a poorly written sign on top of the computer that said “The Geek”.  Terrence would always let out a professional sigh whenever he saw and eventually take it down (with the help of a step ladder) but magically, the morning after, the sign would reappear.

Terrence and The Geek

Terrence and The Geek

The author of the sign, Ripps McCoxen, walked into the kitchen and then over to the large dining room where The Geek was located.  His hair is a very light brown and I believe he is 31.  Ripps stands about 5’11” and carries around a slightly larger-than-average muscular build.   If a shirt he’s wearing has sleeves (short or long), it is a very rare thing.  It’s peculiar to admit but I don’t know what Ripps’ real name is.  Maybe that is his real name although I hope not.  All I know is that he signs all official documents as “Ripps”.  Although my last name was somewhat rare and existed in the last name of Ripps, we had no relation.  Ripps was from Revere.  When things get intense, he likes to say “It’s time to start Rippin’ it Revere style!”  I never asked him if he capitalizes the “r” in “Rippin’” but I think it’s safe to assume he does.

Ripps is literally the muscle of our team.  If our team were instruments, Ripps would certainly be the hammer, or some similar blunt instrument.  You wouldn’t want to use him for surgery or defusing a bomb but he would be irreplaceable for demolition.  Everyone needs a hammer at some point.  For this reason, I asked him to join our squad.

Ripps was basically a poor shy kid that wanted to be muscular so because he couldn’t afford weights and was too shy to lift at the school gym, he lifted anything he could get his hands on.  While the other guys were lifting weights in gyms, Ripps was lifting things like air conditioners and radiators.  Even during the second half of high school when he had overcome his shyness and had a job that would afford him a gym membership or a decent set of weights, he chose to stick with his odd yet effective routine.  One thing that did bother him about his system was that it was hard to quantify and therefore compare his strength to his lifting peers.  He remedied this by going into a gym once or twice a year to see how much he could truly lift.  Although he wasn’t a very big guy, it turned out he was quite strong.  His borderline absurd regimen gave him very good core strength since he was never isolating some ridiculous muscle whose only purpose was to look good.

Once you got to know Ripps, you would like him.  There was a bit of a meathead veneer to get through but once you did, you found a man with a big heart that was fiercely loyal.  His upbringing was not the best.  His abusive father furnished him with an abundant amount of psychological landmines but thankfully his loving mother was able to barely keep his soul in the light.  His ability to defend himself was a product of necessity.  If he wasn’t busy fending off lunatic toughs in his neighborhood, he found himself in prerequisite sparring sessions with his father at home.  As they so often do, these experiences developed not just the right amount of attitude and skills to survive for Ripps but an overabundance that led to ridiculing people that were innocent of any wrongdoing.  Ripps was unusually threatened by smart people, “geeks” as he liked to call them.  He took this perception of a threat to an extreme I found a little strange until I discovered that his father was a very intelligent man whose greatest abuse on Ripps was done not with his fists but with his mind.



Terrence looked over as Ripps entered. “Good morning, Ripps.”

“What’s up?!  You need to get off The Geek so I can check my email.”

“This is not a geek, Ripps!  This is a supercomputer capable of life-changing complex functions.”

Ripps pointed to the sign above the computer. “I could put the same sign over you. I know a geek when I see one.  They’re always sticky and they smell like math.”

“Quiet Ripps!  I’m trying to analyze data so I can brief you all on today’s mission.”

Ripps strolled back into the kitchen.  He took out his blender and assembled the necessary components for his protein shake.  With almost comical care, he measured and dumped each ingredient into the blender.  Absorbed in this process, he failed to see Stever Paté who was sleeping on the top of the upper kitchen cabinets.

Stever is a motivational speaker with a medium height and build in his late 40’s.  His hair is at that point where I am unsure if one would call it by its original color: dark brown, or it’s more recent color: gray.  In a couple years, it will unanimously be called gray.  Stever likes the grays.  He feels they give him authority.  They remind him of the passage of time and how important it is to achieve as the “Achievement Clock” is slowly winding down.  Stever is almost always in a red turtleneck or “scarlet” as he would say.

Stever comes across as quite a ham and in many ways he is.  But many make the mistake of misjudging him and writing him off as some out-of-touch boob.  He is much more humble and in control than most people realize and I’m of the thinking that many of his apparent foibles are in place so no one sees his magic.  This may seem deceptive but his magic is used for good.  He uses his magic to help people and from what I’ve experienced, many people don’t want to know they’re being helped so it all seems to work out for the best.  Besides, most of us subconsciously put up some sort of personality smokescreen that allows the real us to achieve our goals.

Stever’s negotiation and PR skills are second to none.  He’s wonderful with people.  He knows how to implant a wonderful spirit in almost anyone.  I usually detest motivational speakers but there is something absolutely genuine about him and his methods.  Thankfully, we encounter many problems that can be repaired with is soft touch.

Like Ripps, Stever has had his share of adversity but his came later in life.  His upbringing was a happy one that included good grades, friends, playing keyboard in a band, a cool dad, a caring mother, a brother he got along with, and a sister he got along with.  After graduating from a meaningful college experience that did not put him in debt, he entered the corporate world and eventually became a corporate trainer.  His specialties were in sales and marketing.  It sometimes bothered him that certain aspects of sales and marketing could be a tad sleazy at times (as could the entire corporate experience) but he remained a loyal soldier.

When he was 34, the glass of milk that is life turned abruptly sour.  His marriage had been already heading for an unwanted showdown.  For the previous year, Stever had been increasing his pressure on his wife to have children.  She had always told Stever that she wanted to have children with him but now that the time came, she balked.

On his 34th birthday, he found out that he was being laid off since his company decided to outsource all of their training needs.  On his way out to the car that day, he carried a box filled with his impersonal effects.  As he went for his car keys with his right hand, he dropped the box and everything scattered all about him.  He continued to search for his keys and looked underneath his car where he saw something that looked like his keys so he lied on the ground and reached for them.  He finally reached the object that turned out not to be his keys and as he tried to back out, realized he had become wedged underneath the car.  He struggled for a bit but it only made things worse.  He stopped, closed his eyes, and pondered his predicament.  That’s when tears flowed out of his eyes like the lava from an erupting volcano.  His frustration got the better of him so he started kicking his legs and screaming.  The first coworker that saw him took one look at the entire scene but did nothing to help him as she could not overcome a feeling that was a mix of awkwardness and fear.  Her name was Susan, a person Stever often worked alongside with.  Finally, a face appeared on the opposite side of the car, next to the front right tire.  It was James, the maintenance man.  Stever had never spoken a word to him.

James got the jack from his truck and gently lifted Stever’s car up so he could get out.  He helped Stever to his feet.  A pain shot through his chest.  James thought Stever may have broken a rib so he brought him to the emergency room.  Stever thanked James and told him to leave since his wife could collect him.  X-rays showed a rib was cracked.  They showed much more too.  They showed he had some sort of rare lung infection.  In layman’s terms he had what was essentially herpes of the lungs.  It was killing him and he had no idea.  Follow up tests the next day concluded that he had about two months to live.  The infection had spread too far too fast.

His wife never showed at the hospital.  After the taxi dropped him at his house, he went inside to find his wife and several of her things missing.  She left.

Stever lived about a mile or so away from a cranberry bog.  He thought that would be a good place to kill himself.  He wandered into the bog like a zombie, drunker than he’d ever been, drunk enough, he hoped, that he could drown himself without too much effort.  He sat down.  He looked at all the cranberries that seemed to run away from him.  He allowed himself to fall face forward into the acidic water.  In his drunken state he had a hard time realizing he was drowning.  The horrible taste and feeling of the water rushing into his lungs seemed to be part of a horrible dream.  Without warning, two strong arms pulled him out of the water and dragged him onto dry land.  It was Maxwell Lassidorf, the owner of the bog and a motivational speaker.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, a miracle had happened that day.  His lung infection was gone within a week.  From what doctors could tell, it seemed to be linked to his near drowning in the bog but they were unsure as to exactly why.  Some doctors thought it had something to do with the high acid levels of the bog water that filled his lungs while others thought the cranberries, which are high in antioxidants are to be credited in positively affecting the water he ingested.

Once Stever fully recovered, he took Maxwell out to dinner to thank him (and to apologize for almost killing himself in his nice bog).  The two quickly became good friends and Maxwell helped start Stever on his new path as a motivational speaker.

A cranberry bog.  It had been so good to Stever.  It gave him his life back, it gave him a best friend, and it gave him a new purpose in life.



At the very moment the blender came to life, Stever’s head popped up.  Sensing movement above him, Ripps quickly looked up and saw Stever.  Just as suddenly as Ripps was scared by this unexpected and odd-placed presence, he became upset with himself for allowing himself to get scared.

“Bro!  Why?!”

“Good morning, Ripps!  What time is it?”

“Seven forty.  Why the hell are you sleeping up there?!”

“Seven forty?” He exhaled and put his head back down. “Darn it.  I overslept by five hours.  I’m sleeping up here because I like to sleep in precarious places.”

“Well find somewhere else to catch your geeky z’s.”

“No worries, Ripps.  I never sleep in the same place twice so it’s a non-issue.”

As Stever awkwardly got down from the cabinets, Danny Morsel came in from the back stairway, behind Ripps.  Although Ripps didn’t see Danny, he knew he was coming.  The back stairs were strong but they creaked even if a ghost floated over them.

Stever made it down to the floor and saw Danny. “Hi there Danny!”


“How did you sleep?”

“I was asleep so I don’t really remember how it was.” Danny did not mean that as a joke but Stever laughed generously.

“Ha haaa!  That is beautiful, Danny!  I’m going to use that one, with your permission.”

Danny’s expression did not change. “Sure.”

Stever started to make his usual breakfast: green tea, half of an organic grapefruit, and gluten-free muesli with blueberries, chia seeds and plain Greek yogurt (or “Geek yogurt” as Ripps calls it) mixed in.  If it was the weekend, Stever might even mix in a little honey to his muesli mix.  From the moment he awoke, Stever was unbelievably chipper.  He wanted to talk to everyone.  He wanted everyone to share in his happiness.  Danny awoke on the opposite end of the morning spectrum.  His early-morning disposition was that of a Clint Eastwood western character that woke up in a jail with a hangover and a small, non-lethal knife wound in the leg.  He was best left alone.

Stever took his breakfast over to the kitchen table, near the window.  He started to whistle.  Each note stung Danny like a wasp.  With his back turned, Danny’s head dropped, he stopped spreading butter on his toast, and held up the butter knife to his side so Stever could see it.  In a beseeching and mildly menacing tone, Danny said one word: “Please.”

Stever stopped whistling.  Or more accurately, he stopped whistling out loud and whistled in his mind which was made clear with his music conductor-like head movements.

Danny took small bites from his toast and drank black coffee as he waited for his two eggs and Canadian bacon to come to fruition.  Even when the remainder of his meal completed itself, he would still stand at the counter as he ate it.  If he was in a hurry, he would stand over the sink and eat so all the crumbs would fall into the sink, voiding the need of plates or cleanup.  This move so impressed Stever that he included it in his seminars in his section on efficiency.

Danny was also the muscle of the group although his was of a different variety from Ripps.  I met him in the popular and expansive tree-rich Arboretum nearby.  The sun had just set and I was running alongside the train tracks on a well-worn path on the back side of Peter’s Hill.  The Arboretum is safe but like any city park, it’s a good idea to avoid it after dark.  When I reached the top of a bluff, I stopped.  Down below and on the other side of large, natural bowl-shaped valley was a peculiar scene.

Three punkish young men were approaching a man dressed in a red tank top and black pants who looked to be practicing some sort of martial arts.  What made it more bizarre was that his movements were in time with music playing from a humble boom box.  Next to the boom box was what looked to be a ventriloquist doll that, from what I could tell from this distance, was dressed exactly like its owner.  This martial art was a combination of dancing and fighting, making it similar to capoeira.  However, the dance moves were quite different; they seemed to be on a family tree whose ancestors included Michael Jackson, Mikhail Baryshnikov and John Travolta.

Although I could not make out their exact words, the approaching men were undoubtedly taunting the man that was dancing/fighting.  One of them started to sloppily mimic him.  At that exact moment, another charged from behind.  The man moved to the side but kept his leg in the same spot.  As the aggressor tripped over his leg, the dance fighter took his leg back and jumped on the tripping man’s back, riding him to the ground.  I started to run down slowly.  The aggressor stayed on the ground with the wind knocked out of him while the dance fighter quickly rolled over to the boom box, turned up the volume, and grabbed the doll by his feet.  As a second man charged, his faced was immediately introduced to the hard, unforgiving head of this doll.  He moved away.  Struggling to stay on his feet and overcome his brand new dizzying pain, he eventually stumbled to the ground.  Right behind him was the third man charging.  Slightly bent over and with his body facing sideways, the dance fighter found himself in a less than desirable position.  With few options, he simply thrust his left hip into the final attacker’s thigh.  With the dance fighter’s assistance, the attacker flipped over and landed on his back.  All three men staggered to their feet and rapidly limped away.  All of this happened before I made it within 40 feet from this mysterious man.  And all of it happened as if it were some rehearsed dance.

I approached this spectacle of a man.  He had very dark brown hair that looked like an anchorman’s after an hour of racquetball.  On his face, the neighbor below was a rough n’ tumble mustache that was bred with the same hostility found in his apology-free shoulder hairs.  His eyes were wild but focused, like that of a cat that just killed a squirrel.  I judged him to be in his mid-30’s at the time.  As he spoke, his voice stationed itself at a slightly lower register.  It was a voice that would excite risk-taking women and scare children.

“Are you okay?  Should I call the cops?” I asked.

“I’m fine.  Thank you.  No cops are needed.  I have successfully instilled fear into the weak minds of my attackers.  I doubt they will again have enough bravery to even attack a comatose farm animal.”

“That was quite an introduction you gave those guys.”

“Yeah, I got a funny way of shaking hands.”

I continued to encounter Danny Morsel in the same spot.  I don’t know if you could call us drinking buddies but we did become something like friends from our passing conversations.  I eventually found out that his martial art was a thing he dubbed “Combat Dancing”.  He created the art quite by accident.  Danny was always a good dancer.  He won a few amateur contests.  He was also into martial arts.  He tried several different forms but none of them intrigued him.  Then one night in a dance club in Miami, someone picked a fight with him on the floor during one of Danny’s favorite songs, Give It To Me by Rick James.  “Even though I was in a fight, I couldn’t stop dancing!  It was my favorite song.”  Danny instead decided to have his cake and kick someone’s ass too.  He carried on with his dancing and worked in some of his favorite martial arts moves.  The result was explosively entertaining and violently effective.

As most are, Danny was a self-appointed vigilante.  He travelled from city to city, looking for thugs to tame.  He would spend anywhere from six months to two years before moving on.  His income was the interesting part.  After he “crumpled a criminal like a piece of junk mail”, he would take their money or any valuables they had on him.  He thought it was only fair.  He rendered a valuable service to the community and believed that he should be paid for his efforts.  And what better way to be compensated than by the criminal themselves!  Beyond this, I know little of Danny’s past.

His little friend was lovingly referred to as the “War Doll”.  The War Doll was a weapon of the strangest style I had ever seen.  Danny told me it was a good baffling technique.  He would often wear it on his chest and hide it under a jacket.  When the moment was right and he confronted an enemy, he would rip off his jacket and display the War Doll.  The shock and confusion that would follow was something Danny always found to his advantage.

Underneath a thin fabric “skin” was a much thicker layer of wool that was an exact replica of the kind used in the 1700’s for the British soldier’s redcoat.  When asked why he used this wool, Danny would illustrate the wool’s legendary resilience and toughness with a brief tale.  After fighting the British in Lexington, a Dover militiaman by the name of Jabez Baker got his hands on a British redcoat and used it to dress a scarecrow in his field.  The coat persisted out in the field for 90 gnarly New England winters, springs, summers, and falls.  Beneath the wool, running through the entire body, were small Kevlar plates woven together.  The head itself was indeed a magnificently sculpted and painted piece of Kevlar.  The War Doll: a bullet proof vest, a weapon, a dear friend.

I believe we’re clear on why I asked Danny to join us.

Danny Morsel and The War Doll

Danny Morsel and The War Doll

Someone was coming down the stairs.  The sound of the creaking stairs was accompanied by scatting.  The two sounds were not only close in volume, they were in sync.  The resulting sound was nothing short of jazz.  The creaking stairs had now become a sort of percussion.  The descending musician had quickly figured out what creaks happened where and masterfully adjusted his scatting to create an odd but respectable sound.  With the smoothness of melting chocolate, Barry Tattle spun around the corner and into the kitchen.  Barry’s age is a closely guarded secret.  When asked his age, Barry responds, “Worry not about my age for my figure is eternal.”  He always has a well-groomed mustache for the world to enjoy and his eyes are almost always partying behind some light amber-colored lenses.  His receding hair is usually fashioned in one of two ways: almost whiffle-short or like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining.  During the day, Barry is dressed nice but something you could moped in.  At night, his dress and manner become more sensual.  His favorite nocturnal uniform is a burgundy silk suit that was custom made in Bangkok while travelling through.  Since the tailor in Bangkok still has his measurements and his “figure” has remained steady, he has since ordered more suits in different colors and patterns for extremely friendly prices.

Barry’s purpose was similar to Stever’s but if Stever was the day, Barry was the night.  Stever had a soft touch but sometimes a touch so soft was needed that the recipient did not even realized they were being touched.  Barry is a great spy without realizing it or attempting it or wanting it.  People, ladies especially, open up to him.  He’s warm and charming and absolutely free of any unsavory elements brewing beneath the surface.  Barry is truly jazzy.  It’s not an act.  People enjoy his presence because they feel like they’re on vacation.  And when you’re on vacation, you tend to let your hair down – and Barry knows just what to do when your hair is down.

Barry is from Bermuda.  It’s funny because before I met Barry, I had never actually met someone from Bermuda or “Bermy” as he often calls it.  His father was from France and his mother was from Ireland.  They met in Ireland and moved to Bermuda and began a business building the type of sailboats known as “Bermuda sloops”.  Barry never took to boat-building but he did take to the jazz that his father always had playing in his shop.  Barry loved to emulate Louis Armstrong’s scatting and ultimately developed his own bossa nova scat style.  For a laugh one night at a party, he started singing and scatting while a jazz band lightly played in the background.  The bystanders’ reactions were the same as that to seeing someone throw a baseball 90 mph for their very first pitch of their life.  Fast forward a few years, Barry was making a decent living performing at parties and clubs in Bermuda.

Barry carved out a most envious lifestyle in Bermuda.  He partied often, entertained and fell in love with ladies.  Even after a romance had expired, the love between Barry and his “lady guest” would continue.  A woman might get sad when it ended (as would Barry) but somehow she realized that Barry was meant to be shared with the world.  His positive impact was not meant for just one person; it had to be felt by many.  Barry was not a slut – he loved every single woman he interacted with.  Barry had an understanding and appreciation for women that was unparalleled (think Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman but more pure).

Eventually he scored some gigs in the states and found himself with a faithful following in Boston.  I used to see him perform at various spots: Johnny D’s in Somerville, The Good Life downtown (before they wrecked the place), Lucky’s and even the occasional jazz brunch at the Beehive.  I became a big fan and was happy when he would invite me to drink afterwards.  As I would sit down and watch him in his post-show habitat, I started to realize it was nearly a better performance than his normal show.  He worked a room without effort.  What amazed me most was when he interacted with a group of folks he had never met.  It was like he was some kind of can opener that could open even the most difficult of containers. He would then sit down next to me and proceeded to share with me an indescribable volume of personal information on his new close friends.  Barry only shared these juicy tidbits with me after he got to know and trust me.

One of his skills, I noticed was that he could drink a lot.  While his fellow revelers started to dissolve, Barry remained intact.  He loved chardonnay but I’ve never seen it get the better of him.  He loves it so much that he even designed a moped in his father’s shop that runs on it.  That reminds me, Barry is an enormous fan of mopeds and endeavors to use them for all his transportation needs (he even designed one with a sidecar and more powerful engine so he can transport two ladies should the need and desire arise).

Barry Tattle

Barry Tattle

Barry dumped some cereal into a bowl.  Danny’s attention was brought over to Barry when he heard the sound of a bottle being uncorked.  Danny watched in disbelief as Barry added a few ounces of chardonnay to his cereal.  Barry caught his eye, smiled, held up the bottle and said, “Even in the morning, this is a flavor that my body must savor!”  Danny’s eyes followed Barry as he walked out of the kitchen, scatting and carrying his bowl of chardonnay-soaked cereal into the dining room area.

I walked into the dining room to the find the cast members of this odd, great play we were in.  In a few moments they would meet our final actor.  With the exception of Terrence who was at the keyboard, they stood in an arc around The Geek.  I had my back to the screen as I spoke, “Good morning folks.  Terrence, has The Geek assembled our first mission?”

“I wish you would stop calling it that but yes, it has.”

“Excellent.  Gentlemen, we’ve been together for a week now.  You’ve all been chosen because each of you brings a unique skill set that, I believe, will make help make an incredible team.  Barry, I chose you because of your charm and tenderness.  That plus the fact that you know your way around a bottle of chardonnay make you the perfect spy.  We can’t rely on The Geek for all of our data collection needs.  Some will require a more seductive and deceptive approach.”

Barry took a hearty gulp from his cereal bowl.  “I’ll drink to that, hombre!  And please don’t call me a spy.  I prefer the term ‘hush man’.”

I smiled.  If it was later in the day, I would have laughed.  Danny and I must have had a similar ancestor for I too struggled with mornings.  “Stever, you will be our first line of offense.  You will be the first one to resolve any missions through negotiation and diplomacy.  Your years as a motivational speaker make you perfect for achieving our goals through peaceful means.”

“I’ll make sure everyone I deal with comes down with a ‘Stever Fever ‘! Ha!” Stever laughed confidently but upon looking around at predominantly unchanged faces, added, “…that means I’ll do well.”

Barry interjected, “I’m not sure it makes any difference but I’m from Bermuda.”

“Thanks Barry.  Now, our missions won’t all be peaceful.  Some will be downright dangerous which is why I made sure we had muscle.  Ripps, we’ve all heard tales of your strength.  I hope it’s there when we need it most.”

With a small but entertaining puff of the chest, Ripps assured us all, “The god of hugeness didn’t give me these guns so I could knit sweaters.”

“Damn it, I love sweaters.  I like to wear them.” Barry said genuinely with no intention of being a wise ass.

“Our other muscle comes in the form of Danny Morsel.  He’s the world leader when it comes to Combat Dancing…which I’m sure you all have seen before.  Right guys?”

With arms folded, Ripps gave an incredulous exhalation.  “You kidding me?”

Stever politely tried to pretend to search his mind for a response but then shook his head.  “I’d be lying if I said yes.”

Feeling it was his turn, Barry looked straight ahead and delivered a negative response in his special style, “This moment belongs to ‘No’.”

Danny was mildly disgusted.  “Well that’s fine because most people haven’t experienced death either before it happens yet they learn fast when it does.”

Stever tried to wrap his head around that thought.  “So Combat Dancing is just as important as death?

With the cool yet dangerous authority of Clint Eastwood (sorry but I’ll be making Clint comparisons to Danny a lot – their voices are different but their brooding energy is almost identical), Danny answered his temporary student, “Being a motivational speaker, Stever, you should know that only Combat Dancing and death are needed to motivate someone.”

“There’s one other Jambassador you haven’t met.  Now I’ve tried to prepare you for this.  I know you’re sick of me saying it but what you’re about to witness may scare you but please understand that this power is friendly in nature.  Terrence, does The Geek have a fix on Future Queer yet?”

Ripps looked nervous.  “Future what?!”

Terrence kept alternating between typing and reading data on the screen.  “The COMPUTER is locating him now…a few moments more…there he is and he should be here in 3…2…1…”

Coming from what sounded like the upstairs, a loud sizzling noise, as if something was being fried by electricity, joined with distinct pops and snaps was heard.  They could not see it but a source of bright light started to form in the highest room in the house, the only room on the fourth floor, the top of the tower.  Powerful bursts of light and non-lethal bolts of electricity charged out of the four windows going north, south, east, and west.  Even in the bright morning, one could still detect this other-worldly light.  The tower now looked like an odd lighthouse with four lights set in opposite directions that and instead of just shining light, were emitting a futuristic blast of energy.  But this blast of energy was not destructive.  Yes, you could feel something pass through you if you were close to it but it did no more harm than a strong wind.

The Arrival of Future Queer

The Arrival of Future Queer

The sound stopped.  There was silence for a few seconds which was followed by footsteps coming down the ladder from the top room of the tower.  Everyone knew that all members of the household were standing in that one room.  The stairs from the third floor now came to life.  It was interesting to look at the faces of everyone to see how they handled this rare moment.  Even though they searched for an explanation, all of them knew they were about to encounter something that would change the way they saw the world from this point on.  Ripps was masking a bit of fear with an exaggerated version of a bouncer’s stance.  Stever seemed to sink into some well-rehearsed, meditative technique designed to control a sudden rush of nerves.  The top of the final staircase was now speaking out.  Barry stroked his mustache, almost smiled and gave off the air that he knew what was coming.  Danny had a poker face that would put Doc Holliday to shame – his thoughts were unreadable to me.

As the old floorboards sounded out, we all stared at the doorway leading into the kitchen.  There was a black curtain there that was about to inadvertently become part of a dramatic stage entrance.  A hand from the other side of the curtain pushed it aside and the recent cause of speculation presented itself.

With a bold, almost authoritative voice sharing qualities of one found in a 1950’s educational film, he spoke. “My name is Future Queer!  I am from the future!”

There before us was something that took most if not all of your breath away.  This “Future Queer” was a man of average height and build but after that, nothing was average in his appearance.  His outfit was somewhat athletic (except his footwear which resembled black dress shoes).  His black pants were like running pants and his top was a lightweight, polyester-looking red vest that was either by itself or partnered with a long sleeve shirt, depending on the weather.  So minus his shoes, it kind of looked like Future Queer ran here from the future.

And Future Queer’s head?  Unmistakable.  His hair was some sort of thick, silver rubber wig that looked a kin to the hairstyle of an Oompa-Loompa.   It was as if that people in the future reverted to the 1700’s practice of wearing wigs during important events.  He also had a mustache which looked fake but I could not be sure – its shape was like that of a Victorian-era bartender and its color was gray.

Future Queer is from the year 2912.  According to him, “the future is gay”.  I always find this statement astonishingly broad but it is frequently the first thing out of his mouth when he lands in a certain time and place.  Weirdly enough, that is one of Future Queer’s purposes: to inform the past that the future is gay.  I thought such sharing of the future would be illegal as it would compromise the future in some way but Future Queer has told me that Lord Fabergé, the ruler of their time, has invested fantastic sums of money researching into this matter and their studies conclude that the sharing of certain data of the future is not only harmless but beneficial.  The thing that makes such decisions and that is directly linked to Future Queer’s Thought-Controlled Time Travel Component (TCTTC) is a super computer of epic powers and proportions.  Time travel is dicey business.  Jump into the wrong coordinates, like inside a tree, you’ll be dead.  Future Queer simply thinks of where and when he wishes to jump, the computer analyzes it and responds with a confirmation or a better, safer alternative.  This super computer’s name is Juan.  It’s not an acronym or anything.  They simply named the computer Juan.

Future Queer could have jumped into the room we were standing in but he didn’t for two reasons: 1) he didn’t want to scare the Ripps, Danny, Stever and Barry with a blinding light show and 2) Future Queer prefers not to jump into spaces with lots of people that may be moving around.  Once he’s in an action-packed space and can see the lay of the land, than he is more comfortable with jumping around.  We both agreed it was best for him to jump into the top room of the tower since I knew no one would be there.  If the neighbors ever ask about all the light, we will tell them Terrence, our scientist, was conducting harmless light/electricity experiments.

Juan has incalculable amounts of data pertaining to the safety status of equally incalculable places and times but it is far from infallible.  This is why time travelers must go through years of rigorous training in an extremely elite university simply known as Time Travel University.  A well-trained traveler with acute senses and sharp instincts and a lucid mind working in concert with Juan is capable of amazing things while simultaneously posing no risk to the past, present or future.

I really shouldn’t call him Future Queer.  That’s not his real name.  He calls himself that when he’s travelling through the past since he feels that it makes more sense and immediately introduces the fact that he is a time traveler.  He does realize the word “queer” can be offensive to some but in his time, the word queer is synonymous with “glorious” and he wishes to show that there is no need to “fear the queer” as he would say.  His real name is Fred.  “Calling myself ‘Future Queer’ in the year 2912 would be like someone from your time calling themselves ‘Person That Wears Denim Slacks’”, Fred says often.

Fred tells me that almost everyone in the future is gay.  After the winning the Gay Wars of 2876, an almost perfect gay utopia resulted.  Interestingly enough, from how he describes it, this gay utopia sounds like a conservative straight society.  It’s not like the wild partying or artistically stimulating or on-the-fringe scene one might expect.  There are banks and offices and schools and people mowing lawns.  But perhaps that is to be expected.  When one group becomes the majority and maintains power, it seems to become boring.  Those at the top quickly realize that stability and predictability are the cornerstones to the preservation of a society.

Fred was fine with the way things are in his time until he started travelling to other eras.  He soon saw that something was lost.  Gays had so long been oppressed that once they saw a chance to dominate, they did so.  They thought it would cure their oppression.  Perhaps it did for a time but now the soul of it all was gone.  Fred tells me there is a growing movement to somehow create a society with more balance.  He realizes that so many of the people that claim to be gay are not.  He dreams of a time where you can be what you truly wish to be and suffer no dire consequences.  Fred regrets the Gay Armies destroying the Straight Armies to the point that the tiny surviving faction became the “Straight Resistance” and was forced to shamefully live underground like rats.  From what Fred can tell, most gay people are secretly unhappy with this utopia and feel more enslaved now than they did before the wars.  Fred’s hope is that by being the “best gay I can be!” during his travels to the past, he will perhaps help people change how they view sexual orientation and avoid the bitter Gay Wars of 2876.

Fred answered a craigslist ad I posted in efforts to find members for the Jambassadors.  It’s ironic that the only member that the craigslist ad was able to bring in was not even from our time.  I had to keep the ad somewhat vague.  I made it sound like it was a simple charity we were starting.  My hope was that I could get in a few decent people that could interview heavily.  Fred was drawn to my cause as he thought he could learn a lot from our society since he would be coming in to contact with very intriguing situations.  I’m not going to lie, I not only thought he was nuts when I met him but I was scared shitless when he started demonstrating his time travelling powers.  Once I became acclimated with Fred and his one of a kind talent, I decided he would make a wonderful addition.

Future Queer

Future Queer

Stever, Ripps, and Danny were far from using words.  Barry was curiously smiling and was clearly trying to figure something out.  I could see they were becoming skeptical so I spoke.

“Future Queer comes from the year 2912 and he’s a time traveler.  Oh, his real name is Fred so call him that.  He’s agreed to use his time travelling abilities to help us.  I can already tell you don’t believe he is what he says he is so we’ve designed a little demo.   Yesterday, I showed you a page of the Boston Herald newspaper dated July 19th, 1884 that I found in one of the walls in The Castle with an article about Theodore Roosevelt defending Henry Cabot Lodge’s support of Republican candidate James Blaine. I even put a few distinctive marks on the paper with pen.  In front of you, I destroyed that article.  Now you will see why.  Show them, Fred.”

Fred disappeared in a flash of light that confused, irritated and surprised everyone.  A moment later, the light show returned along with Fred.  In his hand was the very page I destroyed yesterday.  Even though I knew what was coming, I couldn’t help share in everyone else’s awe.  It was like being in a Matrix-like computer software program where a genius programmer was doing some real-time editing with the most potent computer graphics program available.

I had planned to go right into our mission but I changed my mind and let them talk to Fred for a couple hours or so.  You don’t throw a time traveler at somebody and expect to carry on with your day.  I had to make sure they were okay with the idea.  All of them were except Ripps.  Ripps was cold and kept his distance.  He was struggling with the homosexual angle of Fred.  I warned Fred of this and he handled it marvelously.

As it turned out, Barry met Fred in Bermuda years ago at a beach party.  It was a costume party and everyone was pretty drunk so when a strangely dressed person claimed to be a time-travelling gay man from the future, no one gave it any thought.  Fred was actually awarded with a “Best Costume” prize during the party.

The Dunes of Bermuda

The Dunes of Bermuda

Once I felt everyone’s nerves and minds had settled, I asked Terrence to give us our first mission.  Instead of telling us, he looked at the computer and ordered, “Computer…speak!”  And indeed, the computer spoke but in a voice that sounded much like Terrence’s:

This is the computer speaking…so listen up! I need you to do something for me. The Franklin Holmes Community Center nearby has been vandalized every day for the past three weeks and no one can seem to find out how or why. Police have placed an officer on watch at night but have come up with nothing. Your task will be to investigate this and put an end to these disrespectful acts. You must do this by Friday since the children of the center plan to put on a play. If the vandals have not been stopped by then, the play will be cancelled! Oh, one other thing, stop calling me The Geek. It hurts my feelings.

Danny looked at Terrence, “The Geek’s voice has a gross resemblance to yours.”

Terrence tried to appear oblivious, “I don’t know you’re talking about but your observation sounds like rubbish to me.”

Ripps shook his head, “You hired us to make sure kid’s plays don’t get cancelled?  I thought we were going to kick ass and solve huge problems.”

I addressed the entire group, “Gentlemen, remember why we are here: Ad majorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem…For the greater glory of God and the salvation of man.  This is the Jesuit motto.  Perfectly expressed by Professor Harro Höpfl, ‘it is a summary of the idea that any work that is not evil, even one that would normally be considered inconsequential to the spiritual life, can be spiritually meritorious if it is performed in order to give glory to God’.  I don’t know if you all believe in God or not.  That’s your business.  But whether you do or you don’t, the idea of living for the purpose of something greater than yourself is a sound one.  Bring joy, light, wisdom, and justice to your every turn, gentlemen, and you will be not just fulfilling your job requirements but you will become enlightened.”

They were all silent.  I didn’t mean to get that deep.  It just happened.  I get that from my father.  Absorbed in my speech, I didn’t notice until now that Terrence had videotaped me using the security cameras in the room.  When I took notice of my image in a small window on the The Geek’s screen, he sheepishly stopped the taping.  I clapped my hands to break the positive and reflective tension.  I ended up clapping them much louder than I intended to.  “Sorry about that…Ripps, Stever, and I will head down to the center to see what we can dig up.”

Ripps grabbed his 2X4.  That’s right, Ripps had a 2X4 he sometimes carried around.  But what was really amazing was the fact that he named this piece of lumber “Linda” (he actually wrote “Linda” on it).  Ripps really researched this lumber business.  He didn’t just enlist some average piece of pine for the important role of his lumber sidearm.  Ripps discovered that the strongest lumber was bamboo.  It turns out bamboo has a stronger tensile strength than steel.  To construct bamboo lumber, strips of bamboo are compressed together with incredible force.  The resulting product is immensely strong.  Ripps was a little bummed out when he learned bamboo lumber is the strongest.  He was hoping it was something like oak or ash.  He feels that bamboo is too touchy feely and too European.  Not surprisingly, when asked what type of wood Linda is, he’ll often lie and say it’s ash.  Linda has been with Ripps for several years.  To best explain their relationship, I would have to liken it to the human-wood relationship that existed between Roy Hobbs and his bat “Wonderboy” in the movie The Natural.

Although his shirt was sufficiently tucked in, Stever tucked it in again and then as if to say “Let’s do this!”, he energetically pumped his fists near his hips which I think is an odd place to pump your fists but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

I looked around at the group and smiled.  This was the first time they actually looked like a team.  They were all very much their own entity but they were all somehow on the same page, oddly.  Before I left, I placed a call to one of my friends in City Hall and told them of our intent to help the center.  I was told that was fine and that they would call ahead to the director, Lily, to let her know we were coming by.  Ripps, Stever, and I left the room and walked out the front door.

Chapter 3

95 America Street, Chapter 3

Chapter 3

April, 2005

I started work on Mr. Pemberton’s house a couple weeks later.  An annoying realtor by the name of Diane Spencer was also there.  She showed up in her obligatory Range Rover with her company’s name “Spencer Associates” stenciled on the side.  And of course, out of sheer necessity, she took up two spots in the driveway, forcing me to park farther from the front door and lug my tools a greater distance.


I had never met Diane Spencer but I had heard about her and seen her face plastered over real estate signs in the nicer parts of Boston.  I heard she was an aggressive, kind-of-hot-for-her-age, back-stabbing bitch that was the most successful realtor in town.  I was disappointed Mr. Pemberton hired this dragon but unfortunately, it was probably going to take someone like this to sell such a large, oddball property for the amount it was worth in the part of town it resided.

She was talking to Mr. Pemberton in the next room when I entered.  She was wearing a very high quality, stylish, khaki-colored suit with dark brown high heels that brought her to the make-believe height of 5’9”.  The light-colored suit help highlight a deep tan that actually looked real and probably recently originated in Miami or some Caribbean island.  Her well-placed bangs hid unwanted wrinkles and made her appear a tad more girlish without compromising her mature, commanding presence.  Her hair was a product of such constant Newbury Street salon attention, it was hard to tell if it was her actual hair or a really nice wig.  Her Maker gave her an attractive slim figure that she chose to look after.  She smelled nice.

Diane walked over to me as if she was the Queen of “The Castle”.  She felt it was her duty and her right to tell me not just what to work on but how and in what order.

“I think you should start with the trim first and I know how you painters love to use semi-gloss on the trim but I think satin finish would be more appropriate.  After that, I would deal with the ceilings.  Please don’t use regular ceiling white.  It’s too bright.  I think a linen white would be best.”

I put my five-gallon bucket of tools down.

“Hi, I’m Chris.  The trim will be done after I take care of removing the wallpaper.  Or maybe I’ll do the ceilings after I strip the wallpaper.  I don’t know.  I haven’t decided yet.  Unless something drastic has happened, Mr. Pemberton is paying the bill which means he’s the one I take orders from.”

I picked up my bucket and walked upstairs.  I didn’t look back at her as I went.  I didn’t need to.  I knew she now disliked me as much as I disliked her.  I started to work.  Twenty minutes later, I could hear Diane leaving.  Mr. Pemberton walked up to me shortly thereafter.

He was smiling. “I am sorry about that.  Mrs. Spencer is supposedly the best realtor in Boston but she seems to lack some of the more elementary social graces.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I was too zesty.  The thought of all this wall paper removal has me in a crusty mood.”

“You’re too young to be crusty!”

“Wallpaper removal ages you prematurely.  Scientists haven’t proven it yet but I have.  I’m only 13 years old.”

He laughed and held his hands up near his face with his palms facing towards me. “Ah!  Don’t tell me that!  I want to be able to claim ignorance when I get arrested for violating child labor laws!”

You can really learn a lot about someone when they laugh.  The beauty of laughter is that your guard is supposed to be down and you surrender control.  It should be an unveiled glance into a person in their raw form.  Some people try to mask this and choose not to relinquish control while they laugh.  When I saw Mr. Pemberton laugh, I could see him as a young man.  This is the great thing about laughter with no restraint as you get older, you become as you were many years ago.  Mr. Pemberton took this to another level.  I could see him as a younger man almost all of the time.  He somehow avoided all the artificial restraints we put on ourselves as we age that hide what we are or what we once were.

I remember reading some old book of wisdom that was either Chinese or Japanese in origin.  One thing from it that stuck with me was that it compared a person to a white robe.  When a white robe is new, it is pure and free from blemish but as time goes by, it becomes stained, dirty, and tattered.  The book claimed this was the way for every robe, every person.  For his age, Mr. Pemberton was the whitest robe I’d ever seen.  A brand new white robe does not impress me.  A robe that has been through a long human life of any sort that still appears close to its original glory is something that deeply impresses me.

A wonderful line from “Red” portrayed by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind.  To escape from Shawshank Prison, Andy Dufresne is forced to make his way through a 500-yard-long sewage pipe which prompts Red to say, “Andy Dufresne – who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.”  Life is often like this sewage pipe but no one seems to make it through clean except Andy Dufresne and Thomas Aloysius Pemberton.

“Don’t worry about the feisty Mrs. Spencer.  I’ll put this house on the market when I am ready to,” he assured me.

“Any thoughts as to where you’ll go after you sell this place?” I asked him.

“Well if I’m not dead, I guess I’ll move south but not Florida like everyone else my age.  I’m thinking something like Charleston or Asheville, maybe.  If I am dead, then my hope is to make it to Heaven which I hear is the best retirement community that money can’t buy.”

“Something tells me you won’t be dead.  Asheville?  Where is that?  In the Carolina’s somewhere?”

“North Carolina.”

“What made you consider Asheville?”

“I’ve been through there a few times and it always seemed like a charming place, big enough where there’s interesting things to do but small enough to be relaxed.  And it’s earned some impressive superlatives recently from a bunch of magazines.” He laughed and continued, “AARP Magazine said it was one of the ‘Best Places to Reinvent Your Life’.” He laughed a little harder, “Rolling Stone said it’s the ‘New Freak Capital of the U.S.!’” Now he could hardly talk, “And Self Magazine rated it ‘The Happiest City for Women’ and God knows I love being around happy women!”

“Wonderful!  So you can be a reinvented freak that’s chasing after happy women!  Damn, I may be moving with you.”


He walked away, still laughing, with his hands in his pockets.  That was another great thing about Mr. Pemberton.  No matter what kind of mood he was in or what the situation was, he so often had his hands in his pockets.  Some people look unconfident when they do it but with Mr. Pemberton, it gave him a regal, gentlemanly air.

I labored on with the wallpaper removal, spraying on stripper and scraping it off, cursing the slimy mess I became part of.  It didn’t help that I am a very neat person that enjoys organization.  Purposely making a mess that sticks to me goes against my very nature.  It was a struggle to not look at how much more I had to do as I went.  I tried but always failed to not constantly observe my slow pace and calculate how much time remained.

A few hours later I went downstairs to eat my lunch.  It was sunny and in the high 40’s which was warm enough for me to take my lunch outside.  I sat on the front steps that faced south and into a welcoming sun.  Mr. Pemberton came out with a cup of tea for me.  He left the front door open so we could hear the jazz he just put on. It Never Entered My Mind by Miles Davis was playing.

“It Never Entered My Mind by Miles Davis.  This is a song that deserves to be called pretty.  Miles recorded it in ’56 but the song is originally from a musical called ‘Higher and Higher’.  This is my favorite Miles Davis recording.  I remember hearing this song for the first time as I drove into Boston for the first time.  I only meant to visit here but my visit has lasted almost 50 years.”

“Where are you from originally?” I asked.


“What made you come to Boston?”

“After Interstate 70 eminently marched through my family’s farm, my parent’s decided to sell the land off in chunks.  They actually made a decent profit doing it that way.  Although we hated it at the time, they put an exit right next to our farm which created an artificial modern little hub of commercial activity.  We weren’t that far from Topeka to begin with but now with the new highway, the time was cut in half which made our area even more desirable.  Over time, hotels, gas stations, car dealerships and housing developers were willing to pay decent money for land in that area.  So my parents sold off the cows and farming equipment and patiently, slowly sold off the land over the next 10 years.  When they were done, they took their new found wealth to Florida and retired in ample comfort.  I decided to leave right when they made the decision to start selling the land and the cows.  The life I knew there was dying and I couldn’t stand to be an audience to its slow, agonizing demise.  I called up a friend from the war that lived in Boston and he invited me to stay with him for a while so I packed a few things into an old pickup truck and headed this way.  I drove back roads as much as possible.  I didn’t want to use or benefit from the very thing that had ruined my family’s way of life.  But as it turned out, this very thing brought my parents more money than if they had kept farming.  A fine example of making sweet delicious lemonade out of some sour highway lemons.”

Chapter 4

95 America Street, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

May 5, 2012

Franklin Holmes Community Center was a unique plot in its immediate area for one major reason: the building itself covered a footprint that was much smaller than the remaining property that surrounded it which was mainly a paved lot.  It used to be a lumber/hardware store which would account for all the space around the building and the ample parking.  The store went out of business at some point in the mid-90’s, the reasons being that: a) the original owner handed the business off to an incompetent son and b) Home Depots started pulling business away from it.  The owner’s son sold the property to the city who in turn tried their less than best to convert the space into a community center.  It was a tad awkward inside but the center was well-loved by its patrons.

The front door was a thing of the past and clearly a leftover from the store (in fact, the whole outside looked original, save some paint).  It was one of those automatic opening doors that simply swung open and into a metal railing when you stepped on a black mat that was between two railings in front of the door.  I don’t know which surprised me more: the fact that a community center would have allowed what could be a dangerous device or the fact that the door still worked.  The front room was large with a receptionist window that looked into a small office.  No one was in the window but that was probably due to the recently smashed glass that left sharp pieces all over the receptionist’s desk.  There were also three areas of spray-painted graffiti on the walls.  Eventually a door opened and a woman in her mid-forties approached us.

“How can I help you?”

“Hi, you must be Lily, the director. I’m Chris and this is Stever and Ripps.  I just spoke with someone at City Hall about coming down here to help you folks out.  They said they were going to call you.”

“Oh…yes.  Thanks for coming down.”

“Our pleasure.  Someone really did a number on this place.”

Lily definitely seemed a bit distracted.  I wasn’t sure if that was due to being at the head of a community center that was under attack or because there was a sleeveless gentleman in front of her holding a 2X4.  As she spoke, her speech started in a very neutral position but slowly grew to the point where tears were nearby, “We’ve had to hire a handyman to fix all the damage but he can barely keep up with the vandals and it’s costing us so much and members are starting to leave and it won’t be long before we have to close the…I’m sorry.”  She closed her eyes as if to hold back tears.  The tears did not come but she erratically wiped her fingers under her eyes as if they were there.

I tried to comfort her. “Don’t be silly, Lily…I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to rhyme like that.  Anyways, don’t apologize for your emotion.  We’ll find out who’s doing this and put an end to it.  Why don’t you show me what’s happened here.”  I looked at Ripps and Stever.  “You two guys can split up and have a look around.”

Lily took me into a kitchen area.  Broken dishes and glasses had been hastily swept aside on the floor.  There was more graffiti on the walls but this graffiti was done with a magic marker.  The graffiti was very bizarre:


“When u drink MILK, u r drinking cow PISSSSSSSS”

“The recipe for ice: put some water in a freezer, you idiot.”


I held back my laughter. “At least the vandal’s graffiti themes are in line with this particular room.  It looks like you have some security cameras around here. Could you take me to wherever you keep the recording device?”

Lily walked me down a corridor, took out a key, and unlocked an unmarked door.  Inside was a closet that served as the CCTV system hub and a janitor’s closet.  The CCTV rack was roughly three feet from a sink used to wash out mops and paint brushes and many other grim objects.  I was amazed the CCTV components were still working as they had been clearly splattered with all kinds of detestable liquids over the years as evidenced by countless dried up drip marks that left behind questionable residue.  The system was old and therefore the recording was done with a VCR.

“Would you mind if I looked at some of the tapes?” I asked her.

“I’d love to but the vandals have stolen the recent tapes.  My guess is that they were trying to cover their tracks.”

Lilly locked the door.  I noticed there was no forced entry into the closet so my guess is that the vandals somehow found a key or picked the lock to gain access.


Ripps walked into a small weight room and found three oddly matched souls.  The three appeared to be doing weightlifting motions but with no weights.  There was a Hispanic boy of about 12.  He was doing a curling motion.  The second was an overweight white man that may have been homeless.  He was lying on a bench and bench pressing nothing.  The third was a fit black woman in her early 70’s with a hairdo that could only be described as immaculate that was wearing a large t-shirt that said “OY VEY!” in green letters that appeared to be brushed on.  She was doing lunges.  Ripps found this all to be disturbing.

“You heretics!  How dare you do aerobics in a weight room.”

The boy spoke, “We’re not doing aerobics.”

In a garbled voice, the white man followed, “Someone stole our weights!”

And the older lady finished, “So all we have left to lift is our imagination.”

“That ain’t right.”  That was all Ripps could say.  He stood there watching them.  He was mildly upset about a community center being vandalized but now it really angered him.  Ripps looked at the boy and remembered a time when he too had no weights to lift and was forced to use his imagination.



I found Ripps coming out of the weight room.  “Did you find anything?”

“Someone stole the weights!” he said with genuine concern.  “But don’t worry.  I gave them some other stuff to lift.”

I opened the door to check on Ripps’ handiwork and was amazed.  The boy had been given two identical pails that had the same amount of water in each.  This was great since he could now adjust the weight and the fact that it was filled with water forced him to have proper, steady form so the water would not splash everywhere.  The woman was now lunging with a brick in each hand.  Behind her, organized in twos were various objects that one could hold that appeared to be various weights but roughly the same as its partner.  The man on the bench made me a little nervous.  He was bench pressing an old television.  Behind the bench on the floor were a several moving blankets whose purpose I assume was to act as a safe place to dump the TV when the man got tired.  It was a strange scene but all three had some variety of smiles on their faces.


“Good job, Ripps. That’s what I’m talking about.  That’s exactly where your head needs to be at as a Jambassador.”  I then leaned in closer to him, handed him a piece of paper, and spoke quietly, “I want you to, pardon me, you and Linda to reposition all the cameras as I’ve indicated on that piece of paper.”

“Sure thing, bro.  Hey Chris bro, what’s up with the gay dude, Future Queer?”

“Call him Fred because that’s his real name.”

“Whatever…why do we have to have a gay bro?  I don’t want people thinking the Jambassadors are into uhh, you know, faggotry.”

“Ripps, only you could make a word that doesn’t exist, offensive.  Listen, give him a chance, get to know him.  He’s a nice guy and I’m sure it won’t be long before you see how invaluable he is to our team.”

“If he’s so awesome and can travel through time, why doesn’t he just fix everything?”

“Well Ripps, if we don’t know what’s causing the problem, it’s hard to know where to send him.  Time travel is extremely dangerous so we can’t send him anywhere until we have a complete picture of where we’re sending him to.  And, any jump that Fred makes has to be very important since his superiors will aggressively hold him accountable for each jump.  Fred has to give an extremely detailed report for all of his time movements.”

“Whatever.  He’s more of a lady than Linda.”

Judging from his demeanor, it looked like my words did have some impact but it was hard to tell how much.  Hopefully Ripps’ pride would dissolve enough to the point he could see that Fred presented no threat to him.


Stever walked into a large room that served as a gym or a function room or in the current case, a theater.  At the opposite end was a stage with some curtains, lighting and sound set up, the likes of which were all rudimentary.  A woman in her mid-twenties by the name of Amanda Pimmsley was standing in front of the stage and was in the middle of speaking to a group of children that were sitting on the floor in front of her.  She was discussing the cutest of details about their upcoming play.  Given the recent trouble, the prevailing mood of the children was one of apprehension.  Stever stood by and watched with a big smile.  When Miss Pimmsley, as the kids called her, stopped, Stever cut in.  “Hi, Stever Paté, international man of MOTIVATION!  I’m here with a group that’s going to help save your center.  Miss Pimmsley, would you mind if I have a quick word with these winners?”

Amanda Pimmsley had gotten word earlier in the day about our arrival.  Otherwise, she hopefully would have sent this peculiar stranger packing.  She nodded and made a “the stage is yours” motion.  Stever was used to what he had in front of him, an audience that was a slightly confused and timid.  The tiniest err in content or delivery and he would lose them.  Stever loved this challenge for he knew that if he could win someone over that was dubious in the beginning, he would have them for life.  In fact, he liked to go one step further and literally lose the audience and then win them back.  Such a move was “signature Stever” as his motivational speaker peers would say.

“Folks, I know some scary stuff has been going down and you’re not sure if you should do this play on Friday.  You’re all feeling fear…and that’s good.  I feel fear when I swim in the jelly fish-infested waters of Nova Scotia.  I feel fear when I wrestle strong monkeys in South America.  Why do I put myself in the house of fear?  Because fear puts you on the edge…and that’s where I live, darn it.  I’m serious; try mailing something to Stever Paté, The Edge and it will get to me.  If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

A child timidly rose his hand.  Stever asked him to speak and the small boy did so, “I feel fear right now.”  This was it.  This was the place Stever wanted to be: the first moment of losing his audience.  Now it was time to bring them back by building them up.

“Good!”  Stever said in a burst.  “Then I officially welcome you to the edge, my friend!  I want you all to repeat after me, ‘I feel fear’.”  The children all looked at each other but said nothing.  Stever smiled comfortably which caused them to feel a sliver of trust.  “It’s okay folks.  You can do it.  Repeat after me, ‘I feel fear.’”

A little more than half responded, “I feel fear.”

“I’m on the edge!” Stever directed.

The ones that did not speak before now spoke and those that spoke before did so now with more passion. “I’m on the edge!”

“I’m a winner!!”

Now in a complete, energetic unison they returned, “I’m a winner!!”

“I’m going to buy a copy of Stever Paté’s entire motivational program on laser disc!”

With smiles and a few laughs, they launched into this line, “I’m going to buy a copy of…”

Stever interjected, “Ha!  I got you guys.  And hey, I’m going to get you all a Stever Starter Kit.  You can pick one up here tomorrow.  I’m outta here…with no more fear!  Thank you Miss Pimmsley.  They’re ready.  It’s going to be the best theatrical production Boston has ever seen!”

Amanda Pimmsley was amazed and pleased and in the middle of a good laugh.  Once the laughter subsided, she thanked Stever.  Stever jogged to the door but when he was close to the exit, he spun around on one foot and shouted, “I’m a winner!”

They volleyed back with no thought of delay.  “I’m a winner!!!”



Ripps arrived at the last security camera, next to the bathroom.  He could hear some sort of construction work being done nearby so he repositioned the camera with the help of Linda as quickly as possible.  Like the space oddity he is, Ripps spoke to a piece of wood.  “Those protein shakes are hitting me.  I gotta take a leak so you wait here.  I’d take you with me but the bro’s room ain’t no place for a broad.”  Ripps set Linda down just outside the men’s room door.

Immediately after Ripps entered the bathroom, Carl the handyman came out of a nearby door.  He was probably about 50 but because this man clearly did not take care of himself, his age was hard to determine.  He had scruffy dirty blond hair that you could almost call curly but technically had to classify as wavy.  The only grey hair to be found on this man was in a very trim, George Lucas beard that seemed to exist in hopes of adding some definition to a jaw line that was practically buried in a surplus of neck flesh.  His red flannel shirt was rolled up at the sleeves exposing some beefy, sawdust-covered forearms.  This poor shirt did all it could to keep an industrial-strength gut at bay.  Below this gut, in the order of their appearance, was a tool belt, faded jeans and dark-colored work boots.

He walked over to a water fountain next to the men’s room door and inhaled water in an effort to replace the water lost in a glorious sweat mark that covered half of his back.  The disgusting way he slurped and allowed his beefy mouth to touch the nozzle was the very reason I avoid water fountains altogether.  To make matters worse, he began putting his hair and face into the stream of water which caused his germ-stacked hair to slide over the nozzle like the long strips of a felt curtain sliding over a car in a car wash.  He brought his head upright and shook it around like a dog exiting a pond, spraying water everywhere.  As he made his way back, he noticed Linda leaning against the wall.  He picked her up, examined her with great curiosity and brought this unique piece of lumber into his workspace.  Needing some small sturdy blocks, he placed Linda in the tray area of his compound miter saw and began to mercilessly cut Linda into pieces.  The saw seemed to struggle a little as it went.  The sound it made was one of sorrow.



I paced in the front hall, writing some notes while I waited for Ripps and Stever to return.  Stever was the first to make it back. “You find anything?” I asked him.

With the glow of a newlywed, he told me, “Just a bunch of young humans that have embraced their fears.”

“Ha.  That’s great.  Where did you see…” Before I could finish, Ripps flew into the foyer area in a panic.  I had not known Ripps for that long but I felt this was a state he was rarely in.  I would never had told him this but there was something almost geekish about his panic.


“No Ripps, I thought she was with you.  Try to relax.  Where did you last see her?”  I couldn’t believe I was talking about a piece of wood this way but he was very distressed.   It was as if the loss of this inanimate object brought back some childhood terror.

As I later found out, Ripps had a toy robot when he was a child that he named Linda.  One Sunday afternoon, as his father was watching the New England Patriots lose, he was putting the finishing touches on a 12-pack of some pathetic brand of beer.  Ripps was in the corner of the family room playing with his robot.  His father heard him call his toy “Linda” which sent him into a rage.  “Boys don’t call their toys, Linda!  What’s wrong with you?!”  Ripps’ father ripped the toy out of his son’s hands and whipped it against the fireplace, causing the toy to shatter into an uncountable number of pieces.  Ripps’ sight was rendered useless with the thick warm layer of tears that coated his eyeballs.  His father gruffly walked out of the room and left Ripps to pick up all the pieces of his robot.  Flustered and emotional, he at first didn’t feel the burning heat of the fire as he went to rescue the pieces of Linda that fell into the fireplace.  He had to go to the emergency room to treat the burns he received from getting too close to the flames and from the pieces of melting plastic he touched with his hand.  There was a part of Ripps that burned himself on purpose – that was his way of punishing his father.  Ripps would watch his father’s face with a dark joy the few times he uncomfortably lied to a couple friends or family about how Ripps received his burns.

“I put her down near the last camera we fixed…I went to take a leak…gone, she was gone.” Ripps finished and there was a silence that lasted a few moments.

Stever stared at him and truly believed he could heal Ripps but it was clear he did not yet understand what this seemingly unimportant piece of wood meant to Ripps. “Ripps, you’re experiencing loss and loss is a challenge.  This is a good thing.  I once lost my favorite pair of motivational slacks.  I dared not enter a stage to motivate unless it was in these slacks.  But what I…”

It was easy to see that Stever’s empathizing was doing more harm than good so I cut in, “Whoa Stever, let’s chat about your slacks another time.  Ripps, one way or another I’m going to get my hands on the security camera footage and when I do, we’ll find out what happened to Linda.”

Chapter 5