January 30, 2004

January 2004 Truckin' (Vol. 3, Issue 1)

A new year, a new issue, and a new writer! Richard Bulkeley, a fellow poker blogger from New Zealand joins the staff this month with a nice air travel piece. Henry Wasserman returns with the second installment of his novel The Escape Artist. And our favorite Norwegian blogger, Sigge, recants the time he was mugged in Cuba. And I wrote three stories for this issue, one about Miami, one about traveling in 2003 and the last one is a short story that I hope you like. So sit back, relax, and enjoy! Thanks for your support, McG!

1. Miami Stories: Before We Begin... by Tenzin McGrupp
With everyone’s attention span as short as Britney Spear’s first marriage, I’ll have to bring the stories hard and fast and perhaps you’ll catch a whiff of the ocean, or feel the warm sun smiling on you, or hear some of the melodious sounds of funky Phish, and maybe you’ll start to understand why Miami was one of the greatest trips that I have ever taken... More

2. I Got Mugged… Twice! Another Cuba Story by Sigge S. Amdal
Drunk and pretty stupid, I agreed and followed them around the corner. That's when I felt a strong arm around my neck, and this younger guy, probably in his late teens, went through my pockets.... More

3. 25 by Tenzin McGrupp
I walked the streets of twenty-five cities in the last year. Some were dirty. Others were clean. Some were crowded. Others were silent. But the people were the same... More

4. The Escape Artist: Novel Excerpt #2 by Henry Wasserman
He felt a tinge of fear when he heard the surprise in her voice. He remembered the first time he’d gotten hurt, seeing the eyes of his high school trainer after he’d heard something in his knee pop. But John felt confident in his self diagnosis - he hadn’t been wrong in years... More

5. Mile High Fate by Richard Bulkeley
I have spent a wonderfully depressing length of my life in airplanes. It is wonderful, because I am usually going somewhere exciting. It is depressing because, well because it is air travel... More

6. Never Trust a Naked Guy Juggling Three Cantaloupes by Tenzin McGrupp
With her lanky fingers drenched in top shelf vodka, she unsympathetically popped both olives deep into her gaping mouth. She sensuously and slowly licked both fingers, and almost fell off her bar stool when she caught me staring at her... More

Miami Stories: Before We Begin...

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2004

Miami was too big to talk about in one short story. I began writing one for this issue and two weeks later, I have a half a novel. I went to Miami to seriously party hard with Phish, celebrate my found voice (after penning three novels in 2003) something I had been searching for, for seven long, desperate years, see old friends from Atlanta and Japan, and play as much poker as I could. There was no pressure on me at all to write two hours a day or to act a certain way. I had no sales quotas to meet and no mentally challenged bosses on power trips to fuck with me. I had no poker tournaments to win and played for sheer enjoyment, and I did not have dozens of sets of cynical eyes judging my every move. (When did your friends start acting like temperamental family members and your family members start acting like enemies?) Alas, I had no one to impress: no Hollywood agents to peddle my blood work to, no innocuous job interviewers to kiss up to, no sultry girls who begrudgingly fell under the lukewarm gaze of my affection to relentlessly court. I had no obligations. I had no dead weight or baggage to carry around. I was in Miami as free as I had ever been.

I promised myself that I would do only one thing the entire trip: be myself. I was and I can’t recall a time when I smiled more. An eerie blanket of calm settled over me and for the first time in years, I felt like I could run faster than ever. For years I had found myself stuck in a huge hole; about twenty feet deep, and the more I struggled to get out, the deeper below surface level I found myself. Miami was the rope or the ladder or the strength (insert your own metaphor) that pulled me out of that vile darkness and I picked myself up, smelled the ocean, stared at the beaming sun, and really began to enjoy the person I had been hiding for a long time. A revitalization of my spirit took over everything and everything felt so simple. I could breathe with two lungs instead of one. Wandering around without the bulky weight of three or four layers of clothes, bundled up in insulated mittens and old scarves and cheap wool hats was a blessing. I darted through the crowds in shorts and a t-shirt marveling at the fact it was the last days of December. Yes, there was too much going on internally and externally that I could not pen the highlights in just one story. At one point the other day and I looked at some of the notes I scribbled down in Miami. On the back of a Wendy’s napkin, I had written:

Miami, the city of lights, a city at night... Drugs, sex, and rock & roll...

Like I said, there was too much happening for one story. Instead of skipping out on many of the sordid details, I have decided to have a running column this year, much like my Subway Stories. You are now reading the beginning of a new series: Miami Stories.

Rest assured, the dirty juicy nuggets are going to be saved for the novel. But I will write about the major highlights. I will tell you all about my poker playing at two diverse and odd places. I played with Cuban exiles at the Miccosukee Casino in the middle of the Everglades with Jerry and Sarah. I even trucked up to Hollywood and played at the infamous Hollywood Greyhound Track. I lost more money putting money on the dogs than in the card room, but the characters I met were worth their own short story.

I will tell you about the Days Inn Downtown, that was taken over by hundreds of Phisheads from all over America. It resembled the party-like atmosphere of the coolest dorm on campus (except there was a pool!) and I wandered into random rooms making new friends and spreading the good word about my many web sites.

I will write up my accounts of wandering through Shakedown, the infamous vending area that pops up in the parking lots of every Phish show.

I will comment on the music! Phish played four concerts in the middle of my week of partying, one night included George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and the funkmaster himself brought down the house in one of the best Phish shows I have ever seen. Yeah, the boys are finally back and they are hitting the highest peak of Phishness that I had not seen in almost five years.

And of course, I’ll comment on the random riff raff that populate Miami, and I’ll tell you about the drug dealers I met, and I’ll weave a story about the cool Japhans who I hung out with through Zobo. Yes, there is plenty to write about but so little time and space to do that, and with everyone’s attention span as short as Britney Spear’s first marriage, I’ll have to bring the stories hard and fast and perhaps you’ll catch a whiff of the ocean, or feel the warm sun smiling on you, or hear some of the melodious sounds of funky Phish, and maybe you’ll start to understand why Miami was one of the greatest trips that I have ever taken.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

Miami Stories: Before We Begin...

By Sigge S. Amdal © 2004

I spent the evening in the city with a very good friend, and we had a blast at the best place in Havana: The Jazz Cafe close to Malecon. It wasn't that much fun, however, when we were almost picked up by the police (which in Cuba can be very rude) because of a fuck-up with our bill. Good live music, though!

After we walked around town for a while, we decided to part - she to her apartment and me to La Villa. I stopped by Habana Libre, a great hotel in the middle of the city, to take a piss. I didn't have any money, except 3 dollars worth of pesos and 5 dollars which was intended for the cab home, so I decided to give the WC (water closet) cleaner guy a couple of cigarettes. Dang! They weren't there. Oh, well. Pickpockets were O.K., as long as they only stole cigarettes.

While waiting for a cab to come for almost an hour - they were pretty delayed by the re-routing and all the people because of the great Carnival, which happened to end while we strolled along the Malecon - these two guys told me about a friend of theirs who had a Nissan, who'd gladly take me home for a couple of dollars. Drunk and pretty stupid, I agreed and followed them around the corner. That's when I felt a strong arm around my neck, and this younger guy, probably in his late teens, went through my pockets.

"Where is the dollars? Where is the credit card?" he asked me, because it wasn't in my wallet.

I tried to smile, while being choked, because I was pretty broke and they'd picked the last person on earth to fuck with. Now, those guys seemed harmless and I still think they were. They only wanted my money - which I didn't have - and they let me go after I'd promised not to shout for the police or anything. I was pretty amused, however, to find out that they hadn’t found my 5 dollar note, and that I actually could get home again!

The reason why I didn't choke was a combination of those guys being young - thereby not willing to kill me, I guess - and me having trained Tae Kwon-Do for several years (blue belt). Anyway, I got my chin between his arm and my throat, so that I could breathe. That helped me to calm down.

Then I begun worrying for my stuff. They took everything out of my pockets, man! Even my Spanish-Norwegian pocket-dictionary which I hardly can think they would've done anything useful with (except for smoking weed... rolling papers are worth my weight in gold over there, because of the American blocade). The youngest, smallest one of them asked me where my credit card was and where my money was. I said that they were back at the hotel, and that was why I was going home; tired and broke. (Damn was I lucky to've left behind the credit card!) So I took my wallet from him, told him that my library card was worthless and took that too out of his hands. He'd emptied the compartment where the notes were, not knowing that's where I only keep my cuban pesos (not the dollar notes)! I opened the coin-compartement, stuck my fingers in and felt that there was a bill there, but no coins, and since they didn't see it - I closed it up. At that time, I knew that I had money for the ride home, if I survived the whole thing.

So, I stood there with my wallet, which had $5 US hidden in it and a library card (worth $3 US). I then grabbed my tobacco pouch out of this other guys hand, he wasn't holding me any longer, but I didn't run away because I wanted all my stuff back! (This is quite funny, actually, since I didn't give a damn about the money - heck, if they only had asked I would have given it to them, but they were not going to get my stuff. The danger of materialism, I suppose.) I told him that my father had made that pouch and that it was going to be useless in Cuba and that they weren't going to get anyone to buy it, something they - under pressure from me and the situation - agreed to. In addition, I quickly showed them the Norwegian part of the pocket-dictionary, making them understand that they wouldn't get to sell this either because it was in a totally different language than Spanish.

Having done that I said that I was going to get the hell out of there, and one of them shouted: "Yeah! you better!" in Spanish after me, and then I ran away - laughing, because I still had the 5 dollars.

I didn't know where I was and I was slightly intoxicated and try finding your way through the streets and backstreets of Havana in the middle of the night, with only the occasional streetlight. There were a couple of older men sitting by a nice motorbike from the 1950's on a corner, and they showed me the way towards the University, and knowing that I could find my own way to the nearest cab. I ran the whole way and I didn't stop breathing until I was way out en el campio (way out of town).

I was lucky enough to get one of the unavailable cabs (there were no others!) to drive me home, making a couple too late for an airplane, I'm afraid, but at that moment I really gave a good goddamn about it. I was alive, I had my tobacco and the $5 US, and these young robbers had really messed it up for themselves thanks to my instinct telling me to stay calm. It wasn't until the next day that I realized that they could've taken my glasses, all my clothes, and if they wanted - my life.

Luckily to me, these robbers were young and pretty untalented. All they got from me were Cuban pesos worth about 3 dollars. They didn’t even get my pouch of tobacco, since I grabbed it back before I ran away. Scared the shit out of me when I think about it now. Oh, well. Another experience that money can’t buy - even in Cuba.

Sigge S. Amdal is a word wanker from Oslo, Norway.


By Tenzin McGrupp © 2004

I walked the streets of twenty-five cities in the last year. Some were dirty. Others were clean. Some were crowded. Others were silent. But the people were the same. Sad faces, unsure gestures, and wild eyes greeted me with every small step. I heard whispers of uncertainty. I ducked angry shouts of disbelief. I swam upwards against the flow of deranged pedestrians. I side-stepped sticky piles of chewed-up and spit-out gum. I ignored the aggressive panhandlers in foggy San Francisco. I chucked pennies at homeless men in Brooklyn. I chatted with strung out street kids from Portland. I drank Jagermiester with surly frat boys from Chicago in a bar one block from Wrigley Field. I danced in the moonlight with hippie girls from Wisconsin. I stole a candy bar at a gas station in New Mexico during a wind storm. I cursed out a cab driver at the Las Vegas airport for being rude. I told horrible racist jokes to surgically enhanced models at a party in the Hollywood Hills. I sat next to a verbose, drunk Canuck on a Greyhound bound for Foxwoods. I smiled at a group of dying children who ate ice cream in Central Park. I cried on the shoulder of a friend I had not seen in years. I emptied my pockets when I was searched by security guards in Boston. I recanted tragic stories of 9.11 with a neurotic hooker from Amsterdam. I drank pints of beer before noon at an old man's bar in Philladelphia. I bluffed a cowboy from Colorado while we played poker in Las Vegas. I followed The Dead in upstate New York with Japanese hippies. I got drunk at a bar near the airport in Detroit with soiled mechanics and hagged-out Air Canada stewardesses. I smoked potent ganja with a old junkie from Cleveland in a dark alleyway in Albany. I bought Valium off a girl with butterfly wings in Maine who said her name was "Earth". I stood on the sandy beach in Miami and winked at the massive ocean. I ran down a snowy street in the Bronx like a four-year old and my feet got wet. I gave away most of my artwork to a blind woman from Iowa. I found a crinkly $20 bill on the ground in Indiana in front of a 7-11. And with globs of tears in my eyes, I finally said good-bye to the girl with the sunflowers. I walked the streets of twenty-five cities in the last year.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

he Escape Artist: Novel Excerpt #2

By Henry Wasserman © 2004

“Nice game last night,” boomed a voice from behind the lockers as John pushed the double doors open.

“Thanks Ced. You too,” said John, falling into the normal Sunday conversation with Cedric Jones, the only other player who consistently showed up on Sunday to get therapy. “Big Ced” was a monster of a man, a star defensive lineman who the pro scouts lost interest in after he blew out his knee his senior year in college.

“How’s the knee?” asked John, marveling at the breadth of Ced’s shoulders as the big man reached for his knee brace. “Sore as usual, but it felt good last night.”

“Yeah, you were killin’ em,” mumbled John, jealous of the big man’s natural ability: “4 sacks would feel pretty good to me too.”

“Yeah, well, you know I hate this game. Just tryin’ to make a living. If I had your education my black ass would be on Wall Street. See ya in there,” Ced said, knees cracking as he walked toward the trainer’s office. Ced grew up in the projects in Bridgeport, and the only real education he ever received was on the football field. He hated running, hated the way the coaches treated him. Most of all he hated God for delivering the knee injury that took away the million dollar contract promised him by the scouts. John avoided blocking him in practice at all times, as Big Ced took out his hatred on anyone who got in his way. John saved his body for gameday—he’d be long gone if he went full steam every practice. He wondered if Ced was right, if football was a kid’s game, and felt a tinge of guilt for his Ivy league education.

He left his wondering in the locker room, and padded in socked feet to the trainer’s room, wearing only a towel and the team issued too-tight shorts. The new trainer was female, and had insisted that the players wear shorts at all times. It was mildly annoying to get out of the whirlpool with wet shorts, but her rule had held up after she refused to treat anyone who came in without wearing them. She was young and pretty, and in her first week, mysterious groin injuries had stricken half the team. But she knew how to control them, and when the players realized she wasn’t amused, their injuries healed as quickly as they’d been created. Earning respect from that bunch of clowns wasn’t easy, and John admired her toughness.

“Nice game last night John,” Deborah drawled as she hooked the electrodes up to Ced’s knee.

“Thanks Debbie. I couldn’t have done it without ya.”

“I told you that Debbie isn’t allowed. That’s a name for girls with big hair and husbands.”

“Sorry Deb. I’ll take the usual, and if you got time to check out my neck, that would be nice.”

“No problem.”

John unfolded the paper and scanned through the headlines on the front page. Priests abusing children, Feds to cut taxes… the bold print blended together and screamed “BAD NEWS”. He hated the news, as it trivialized his life and always made him wonder if the world was as bad a place as the front page said it was. He made one last search for a piece of good news, and on Page 2 a headline caught his eye: “Earthquake kills 10,000 in India.” He closed the paper and opened it again, not believing his eyes. 10,000! And it didn’t even make the front page!

“10,000 people die and India and it doesn’t even make the front page.”

“We ain’t in India John. This is the US of A” Ced smiled. John snapped his eyes to Ced, and decided that the big man was just egging him on.

“I hear ya Big Ced.”

The two men stared at the wall, and John felt slightly comforted by Ced’s smiling acknowledgement of the strangeness of the world.

“Ok big guy, let’s check out your neck first and then I’ll ultrasound you.” John marveled at the efficiency of her hands as the trainer pulled his head forward with her right hand, and immediately found the source of the pain with her left.
“Did you do this last night?”

He felt a tinge of fear when he heard the surprise in her voice. He remembered the first time he’d gotten hurt, seeing the eyes of his high school trainer after he’d heard something in his knee pop. But John felt confident in his self diagnosis—he hadn’t been wrong in years.

“Yeah I guess so. I don’t remember anything serious, but I’ve got shooting pains this morning.”

She pushed and pulled his neck, her fingers prodding around the root of the pain. John thought he might have enjoyed her touch if she hadn’t brought worry into the picture. He recognized the tune Ced hummed quietly while the electrodes buzzed his knee. Deborah told John to hang on a second, and picked up the phone in her office.

“I got the bourgeois blues” John sang quietly, and Ced’s humming stopped.

“You know Ledbelly, John?” Ced boomed, happily surprised. “That’s the man right there.”

“Yeah I know Ledbelly. I know the bourgeois blues.”

“You don’t know nothin about no bourgeois blues. I remember this time in college…”

Deborah came out of her office, with rapid strides and eyes on the floor. She cut Ced off:

“Uhh, we’re gonna send you to get an MRI just to make sure it’s nothing serious.”

Alarm bells went off in John’s head. The fear jolted him awake. “Make sure? Make sure of what?”

Henry Wasserman is a writer from Los Angeles, CA. The Escape Artist is his first novel.

Mile High Fate

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

I have spent a wonderfully depressing length of my life in airplanes. It is wonderful, because I am usually going somewhere exciting. It is depressing because, well because it is air travel. Getting there is definitely not half the fun. At least not when you are an air-sickness prone seven year old in a gloomy pressurised tin can with a fifty or more chain-smoking Belgians, several crying babies, and a drunk South African rugby team. Several unpleasant incidents over the last twenty years, like the time I thought I was going to get arrested in Charles de Gaulle airport for throwing up, or the time I was flagged at US customs as a potential drug courier, have only served to reinforce this impression. Air travel is something I endure.

It has some upsides of course. Nothing, except for raw tomato, and one particular ex-girlfriend of mine, is entirely evil. The redeeming features of air travel are the fantastic views – I stare for hours out over the mountainous landscapes of clouds. Even more exciting for me is when a plane flies above real mountains. I always love the feeling of insignificance and belonging that I get in the mountains, and flying above the, reinforces their elemental power.

There’s also the potential for interesting chance meetings. Plane people are not usually as friendly as longhaul-bus passengers, I think because there’s more to do, but it’s still a unique opportunity to meet someone truly random. Admittedly, a lot of the time it’s a slightly over-weight ruddy faced businessman suffering from expense cutbacks and halitosis, but often it is my neighbour who makes a journey pleasant.

But every time, no matter how interesting the person beside me, there’s a small part of me that whispers “why couldn’t they be a beautiful woman?” It’s not that I harbour fantasies of joining the mile high club (well no more than any red-blooded air traveller). There’s just something inherently pleasing about being close to an attractive member of the opposite sex (assuming that they are not a total psychopath).

But it never happens. Not once in over 100,000 kilometers, about 50 international flights, has fate smiled upon me and given me a seat-mate who could be mistaken for Cameron Diaz, even in profile with the lights dimmed. Except once. My most recent plane trip was certainly a memorable one.

It all started off normally enough, I blagged my way into a bulkhead row seat. Blagging is what a half Irish half English mongrel like me does in a tricky situation. It can be compared to pure Blarney, but with more dogged mind-numbing politeness. If the check in clerk won’t believe that “I may only be six two, but I have the legs of a man six inches taller” or that my old knee injury is quite as bad as I claim when I say “sure it’s a miracle I can walk some mornings”, then I simply wear them down with a bombardment of “excuse me”, “please”, “thank you”, “if it’s not too much trouble”, and all the other social niceties that won World War Two for us according to my grandfather, who would never stoop to blagging anything.

I stowed my regulation sized carryon bag in the overhead compartment, and my first two paperbacks in the seat pocket in front of me. Then, like I had a dozen times before, I waited for the gathering in the aisle to disperse and reveal who I would be sharing jokes with about the safety routine, and fighting for the armrest – I’m willing to yield the front, and even about half of the back, but that’s where I draw the line. That far and no further, or I break out the jostling skills that made me so effective through 5 years of high-school rugby mauls.

By this stage in my flying career, I had all but given up the dreams of sitting next to anyone attractive. So it amazed me when a good-looking woman motioned that she needed to squeeze past me to the window seat.

Now if this was Playboy, instead of a “literary blogzine”, this would be the point I described her long golden blonde hair, luscious mammaries, pouting lips, and the way that her skirt rode up her toned legs, before recounting an acrobatic sexual adventure that stretched the bounds of physical possibility, let alone the probable turn of events in a crowded airplane.

But it isn’t, and in real life, the woman was a petite brunette who was more cute than gorgeous. The distinction is important to marginally above average looking guys like me. If we’re interesting and funny, we actually have a chance with cuties. She smiled at me as she sat down in the window seat, and her face reminded me just why an honest smile is a thousand times more attractive than a gorgeous smirk or pout.

“Hi, I’m Jenny Cole” she said and offered me her hand. That’s another gesture I like, it shows openness, and strength. I managed to introduce myself without doing anything stupid like kissing (or drooling over) her hand. Since it had taken me the first three years of my adult life to work out that only guys named something like Pierre or Dario can get away with it. The rest of us just look like geeks.

Just as we finished exchanging hometowns and destinations, the stewardess interrupted us, ruining my joke about being on the wrong plane.

“Ms. Cole? Since you’re a frequent flyer, we’ve decided to upgrade you to Business Class.”

So this potential girl of my dreams walked out of my life about three minutes after she squeezed in. Two loud, self-absorbed, and ignorant retirees from Buffalo, New York quickly replaced her in the best of the cheap seats.

Sometimes fate just kicks you right square in the teeth, but that’s just one of the joys of air travel.

Richard Bulkeley is gentleman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

Never Trust a Naked Guy Juggling Three Cantaloupes

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2004

"Oh shit! I can't go to my therapist drunk!"

Cordelia had just stumbled back from the bathroom where she had snarfed up no less than two Bobbie-pin sized lines of coke. I added three more olives into her vodka martini, and she quickly fished them around with her fingers. Like a six-year old on Ritalin scooping out four-day old, dead goldfish from her massive aquarium tank, she splashed and splashed as tiny puddles of vodka collected on the stained mahogany bar, until she finally got a firm grasp and then yanked the helpless soused olives out with the brazen authority of a veteran dentist. With her lanky fingers drenched in top shelf vodka, she unsympathetically popped both olives deep into her gaping mouth. She sensuously and slowly licked both fingers, and almost fell off her bar stool when she caught me staring at her.

"What am I going to do? I'm drunk!" she insisted as if 'drunk' was a form of terminal cancer. Cordelia and I played this game twice a week. She'd come in and get drunk and I'd have to convince her that curing her mental health (or at least attempting the illusion of correcting her woes) was far more important that trying to see if I could draw the entire map of the United States on the back of a cocktail napkin, from memory, in less than five minutes for $50. Her therapist had an office one block from the dive bar where I leisurely worked the afternoon shift. I spent most of my time watching Dawson's Creek and Sportscenter and pouring draft beers for the regulars, that was until Cordelia came in and took over the remote.

"Seriously," she continued her slurred rambling thoughts, "I can't go see Dr. Phil while I'm all fucked up like this. And what am I going to do? Show up to my therapist's office, shitfaced and with a quarter-pound of weed in my new Kate Spade bag?"

"You could always trade him for a couple of prescriptions. Valium. I'd prefer 200mgs," I suggested. Doctors were as crooked as lawyers. They just got more respect on the streets because you have to be smarter to go to medical school than go to law school. Anyway, I never should have sold Cordelia the rest of my stash, but I needed the cash for rent. She finally gave up and tossed the remote control back to me. She sauntered out of the bar, reminiscent of a run-down cowboy who just got laid in a West Texas whorehouse, and wandered outside.

"What does she do for a living?" one of my regulars wondered.

"Cordelia?" as I strained out the front window to see her blindly crossing the street, almost getting hit by a speeding taxi.

"Yeah, what's Blondie’s job?" another guy piped up after downing his beer.

"She calls her Daddy."

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

What A Long Strange Trip Its Been...

From the Editor's Laptop:

The year started off with a great start. Poker bloggers are really writers at heart and I was fortunate to have stories from two serious players. Henry's novel excerpt was a pleasure to read and publish. And I'm happy to add the Poker Penguin to the staff! I'm glad that I could include Sigge's Cuba stories to the mix. And I hope that my idea of a running Miami Stories saga takes off. Thanks to all the writers for sharing their bloodwork.

Please feel free to e-mail this link to your friends, families, co-workers, cellmates, lifemates, etc. Help spread the good word about this site and the writers!

Be Sweet,

"If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." - Fyodor Dostoevsky