Hard Times in the 90’s
Letter to the Editor
The New York Times
October 10, 1999
“It’ll be temporary.” They’re the three most frightening words in the English language. Still, what did I know? My on-again, off-again girlfriend looked at me like she really meant it. So I went along while never believing a single word she said. Which is how I ended up managing the skeeviest hot-sheets motel in America for what turned out to be the longest year of my life.
My alleged friends asserted that my first mistake was cheating on my girlfriend, but they were wrong. Actually, that indiscretion turned out to be tons of high-energy fun. No, the error occurred when I opted to assuage my guilt by confessing to my girlfriend. Then, to make things worse, I decided to do whatever it took to get her back, to perform whatever ludicrous act was necessary, to accede to her every request.
Julie asked me to move back into her parents’ California home with her. I did.
I knew I’d fucked up the second day after we pulled up to the overpriced corner ranch home on Palo Verdes Road in a Ryder truck piled to the ceiling with our belongings. We were snorting down Julie’s mom’s food when her dad got off the phone and entered the kitchen. A real-estate speculator, he owned houses all throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, which he rented out after chopping them up into tiny apartments with incomprehensible layouts.
Julie’s dad had recently purchased a 48-room motel to supplement the rental properties on Interstate 80 in Vallejo, a former state capital and sprawling, ethnically-diverse slum situated near the refineries halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.
He wore a plaintive look that morning – the kind that warns you that you’re about to get screwed. One of the motel’s long-term guests had called to inform him that the live-in manager he’d hired had abandoned her post and split with the week’s receipts, leaving the door to the office wide open. “You don’t have jobs yet,” Julie’s father said, eyeing the two of us. “I need help and you need money. Why don’t the two of you run the motel? Until, of course, you find permanent jobs.” I hadn’t the foggiest where to find a real job on the West Coast. Maybe I can lifeguard or something, I thought.
“I can pay you each $100 a day.”
I perked up. “Off the books?”
“Cash. The same day.”
I looked at Julie. After all, she knew her father. I was in her hands – in fact, I still wasn’t used to the harsh glare of the sun outside.
She shrugged. “It’ll be temporary,” she said.
There’s an incredible variety of motels in the American hospitality industry. The range runs from your Best Westerns and Ramadas on the high end, which offer clean rooms and amenities like room service, to your Holiday Inn Expresses and Knights Inns, which are perfectly suitable for an afternoon roll in the sheets with a coworker, to your basic Motel 6 and Super 8 chain outfits, which offer you shelter, free local calls and a malodorous mixture of sweat, nicotine and Freon for around $35 to $50 a night, single-occupancy. For those who haven’t yet eaten of all of the fruits of free-market capitalism, there are individually-owned motels. Although some are better than others, an absence of regular visits from an outside corporate honcho results in an unfortunate tendency toward quality that matches their low rates. Among these bottom-tier institutions, there are still further distinctions. Julie’s dad’s motel was by any measure the fungus beneath the rotted planks under the bottom of the barrel – a motel whose patrons were evenly divided between welfare recipients and gang members in the northern half, and low-level drug dealers, recently-released felons and street hookers to the south.
The fanciful tropical motif of the Islander Motel was strictly limited to the jaunty Polynesian-rip-off lettering on the sign. The decrepit two-story structure had clearly seen better days – at one point there had been a pool for guests with children (Sea World was about five miles away), but it was entombed in cement to save on insurance payments. It was hard to imagine that the surrounding neighborhood had ever been more than a pothole-ridden jumble of weeds, stripped-down cars on cinder blocks and nocturnal roving thugs. Whenever we called the Vallejo Police (and this was typically twice a day), there would always be a long, heavy sigh after we told the dispatcher our location. “Have some respect,” I snapped at the cops one time. “If it wasn’t for all the crime we generate, you guys would be out of work.”
Julie and I lived and worked four days and three nights a week in the motel’s office, occasionally venturing out into the overly bright sunshine to deal with troublesome guests. Most of the time, though, we were stuck in the airless red-shag-carpeted office, watching television between interruptions. We hired a maid to clean the rooms, so we didn’t usually need to go outside. We worked from the first asshole checked out at 6 am until the last asshole checked in at 3 am – and I didn’t even dare sleep those three hours because I constantly had to chase off people who were trying to break into the office with a metal bat.
You’d think that the little one-bedroom set-up would have been nicely arranged, considering all the time the manager had to spend in there, but this hell-hole was an esthetic atrocity of mid-1970s beige and brass. Julie’s parents would relieve us the fourth day, and we’d emerge like hostages after being blindfolded for months, feeling woozy and wincing from the light. The next three days would be lost to a weird walking daze as our bodies recovered from Burger King and Denny’s. Then, just when we were beginning to feel sane again, we’d trek the hour back across the Dumbarton Bridge, up I-880 through the Maze to I-80’s Benicia Bridge for another four days and three nights of checking in guests, directing incoming calls to the rooms, folding sheets (the local laundry service was exorbitantly expensive, so we washed the motel’s linens ourselves), and switching the pirated porn tapes on the VCR.
A third of the rooms were constantly occupied by “the monthlies,” welfare moms living at county expense on a monthly basis. This left us with roughly 30 rooms to fill each night. We got $33 a night for rooms with leaky faucets held together with duct tape, flea-infested rugs and air-conditioning that sounded like a jet breaking the sound barrier. The reason: We offered an exquisite selection of hardcore porn tapes. They played 24 hours a day and were equally accessible on Channel 6 to unfaithful truck drivers boning hookers in the two $75-a-night hot-tub rooms and the welfare moms’ kids.
Every week I’d use one of my evenings off to hit Tower Video in Mountain View because it possessed one of the nation’s finest collections of recorded sex acts. I’d rent a dozen with high ticket prices (the $89.99 videos tended to offer better acting than the $19.99 ones) and dub them three films to one VHS to create a six-hour-long collection of vice. I watched hundreds of X-rated tapes a month in order to find the most titillating films, which gave me a bizarre expertise among my intellectual friends whenever we discussed what movies we’d recently seen.
I quickly learned that these tapes were absolutely essential to our success. “You still have those movies, right?” some gangly tattooed guy would leer through the bulletproof glass at the counter, using a California prison system parole card as ID. (The Islander was many inmates’ first stop on the outside.) Most of our customers were locals – people with Vallejo addresses – bringing their wives for “a treat,” the same way bourgeois types might spend a weekend snuggling at the Saint Francis – except that we had more intriguing cinematography. Whenever a tape would run out, the switchboard would light up with patrons caught empty-handed in the middle of some unspeakable act.
Although I had always associated myself with liberal politics, working at the Islander was enough to turn Che Guevara himself into a Republican. The spectacle of institutionalized poverty would greet you the second you pulled into the parking lot from the northbound freeway exit. There’d usually be a few miscellanous addicts and alchies passed out under the trash-filled shrubs, and maybe someone trying to steal the engine out of an abandoned car. The welfare moms would loll in their grotesquely tight pants on the second-floor balcony, coming down to the office every so often to offer some excuse for delaying paying for the next night’s room fee. “This guy, he’s gonna come by later and I’m gonna suck him off for $35…I’ll have the $33 then, so can you wait until I’m done?” Naturally I demanded collateral for this sort of credit, and soon collected an impressive array of Swatches, imitation Rolexes, cameras and firearms from people who’d overstay a night and take off, normally after pulling the phone out of the wall and stealing the TV. If we were lucky, there might be feces to clean off the wall or a kitten to send to the animal shelter.
All of these women looked forward to seeing their psychotic criminal boyfriends, who’d come around late at night to beat them up, throw them through windows at great inconvenience to me (I had to replace the glass) and steal whatever money theyÕd scrounged together from selling their food stamps. They’d weep in a clichéed daytime-soap kind of way and pick the shards out of their torsos and get all made up in time for the next evening’s for the next round of abuse. They never looked for work, but I could never determine why they were at the Islander in the first place. The county paid us $600 a month to house them, but you could rent a decent two-bedroom house for far less than that. The truth was, they liked being around their fellow losers.
Check-out time was 11 am. At noon I’d start calling around to rouse the human refuse recovering from the previous night’s whoring. It was like bobbing for dung apples; every noon there would be some horrific surprise. One time this guy refused to open the door when I knocked, but I could hear a woman’s muffled voice inside so I called Vallejo’s Finest. It turned out that the guy had been repeatedly raping a hooker all night in there. She left in an ambulance, barely alive. Another time I used my key to open a reticent guest’s door and he answered the door in his BVDs, holding a pistol.
“I hope you’re satisfied, man,” the guy said with a hollow-eyed, Cobain-like stare. “I had to shoot myself. No choice.”
There was a smaller-than-you’d-think hole in his upper thigh. Blood trickled down his leg. I closed the door.
When the cops brought him out in cuffs – he was wanted for jumping bail – he yelled at me: “Why’d you go and call the cops, man? I was gonna pay for the fucking room!” This lunacy was typical; there was a constant parade of demented souls with incomprehensible demands on the other side of the thick glass.
I became rapidly disenchanted with the job, but it did have its advantages. Many guests would come in for a quick screw and leave after an hour or two, which allowed me to go in quickly when the maid wasn’t around. I’d tidy up the sheets (forget changing them!) and dump the empty whiskey bottles (most people need a drink to get into the mood) so I could rent the sucker back out again so and pocket the extra $33. I turned over some rooms as often as three times in a single day – including the $75 “spa” rooms; this provided me with vital extra income that I was saving for my eventual return back east, as Californians say. People also forgot a lot of things in their rooms after checking out. I sold this stuff, including a twelve-gauge shotgun and shells, vibrators and a rooster which had evidently been used in cockfights. Most of the time, however, they just left garbage.
On one occasion we had to change the locks when one of the monthlies failed to turn over her check. She didn’t come back, so we went into her room. Everything she and her kids owned was in that room, but there wasn’t anything worth selling or keeping. It was all crap – dirty plastic shit, fast-food wrappers, broken toys, nasty thrift-store clothing. Although throwing away a human being’s possessions was weird – I still remember the kids’ homework fluttering out of the dumpster – in a way I felt like I was doing her a favor. After all, she owned nothing worth having.
After a few months, I’d started to settle into the motel routine. So Julie decided to leave for Taiwan, to tutor English and study Chinese. I was stuck in motel hell, running this squalid cesspool all by my lonesome.
It’s not that there weren’t offers of sexual companionship to distract me from the loss of my beloved. The welfare women were constantly trying to lure me into their rooms for a quick bang (in exchange for a free night), but any temptation in that arena was squashed by the knowledge that they were all dating Crips or Bloods – and some were seeing both. And there was the sweet bridesmaid from Nebraska who got stuck at The Islander because every other motel in the area was full.
Her call came in at 4:30 am. “Why don’t you come over and play with me?” the girl with red hair and entirely too much cleavage for someone that short asked an hour after checking in. She was cute, but it was the motel’s 3-to-6 witching hour, and I knew that my customers were circling the parking lot like hyenas, waiting for just such an opportunity. Undoubtedly I would have returned to the office the following morning to find it robbed and trashed.
After spending years working jobs that required me to be polite, there was something amazingly gratifying about treating people like shit for a living.
“What the fuck do you want?” I’d yell at people who’d just asked me for an extra towel or change for a dollar or to put on a better video. I became more irritable after Julie left for the Far East; it wasn’t easy remaining celibate while even inbred trailer-park types were getting laid all around me.
The job also allowed me incredible insight into the psyche of the human animal. Occasionally several guests would call to complain about the porn vids. “There’s not enough – you know,” they’d say.
“Enough what?” I’d ask.
“You know, action. Stuff going on. Fucking.”
“Yes, I see. You mean, you’re unsatisfied with the plot progression? Or do you find the screenplay trite and banal? Perhaps you should await the denouement, Mr. Siskel!” And I’d hang up.
The VCR in the office/apartment was the only way I could watch a video. That meant the whole motel had to view whatever I felt like seeing. The film “Manon of the Spring” nearly caused a riot when it cut into the middle of a Savannah girl-girl scene. A huge employee of a nearby Navy facility appeared at the front desk in a stained white tank-top that didn’t go all the way down to his navel, pounding and screaming. “What the fuck is this shit?”
“It’s fucking culture, you fat bastard!” I barked through the safety of the glass. “It’s fucking sensitive romantic French shit, you fuck!”
I tried compromising between white-trash and white-collar tastes with a series of Russ Meyer films, but to my surprise “Mudhoney” and “Faster, Faster Pussycat…Kill! Kill!” turned out to be even less popular than “Repo Man” and “Total Recall.” “Turn off this old shit,” a woman from room 114 yelped. “We want real sex!”
In my most bizarre cinematic experiment ever, I exposed an entire motel full of horny Marines and crack whores to “The Battle of Algiers,” a critically-acclaimed black-and-white French-language pseudo-documentary depicting resistance to France during the Algerian War. There’s absolutely no sex whatsoever, but Islander customers gave two-thumbs-up to the graphic torture scenes.
The calls came in as the credits ran. “That was really cool,” one guy said. I couldn’t believe they stabbed that thing into that guy’s ass!” Not a single complaint was lodged.
Like the Morgan Freeman character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” I soon became accustomed to life at the Islander – and became more and more like my guests. I didn’t blink twice when the same customer used driver’s licenses with three completely different names to cash a government check (I charged 10 percent of the proceeds), or when a teenager got his hand trapped in the Coke machine while trying to steal its coins. (I threatened to tip it over on him.) I had deadbeats’ cars towed away to force them to cough up the back rent, and started to consider a addled Vietnam vet named Lee (Room 101) one of the more normal people in my life whenever he wasn’t screaming about “the copters, the copters” in the parking lot.
Nearly a year of my life had passed this way before I realized that I had finally saved enough money to return to New York. I said goodbye to Julie’s dad and mom and flew back, leaving them to fend for themselves against the onslaught of scumbags seven days a week. Unfortunately, they never found someone as reliable as I was, and the motel fell further into ruin. They sold it to a guy from Thailand who decided to do away with the porn vids, thus eliminating the motel’s raison d’être. Soon the once-thriving business was mostly empty and within months, the Thai guy defaulted on the Islander’s mortgage and property taxes . He disappeared and abandoned the place to bank receivership, and now the ghosts of welfare moms and pushers and white college boys from New York walk amid graffitied walls and broken glass and shitty furniture that nobody found worth stealing.
(C) 1998 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved
Time for Democrats to Get Mean
“All of us feel it. There is a sickness in the American political system, a withering of the public faith in government that is so essential to our democracy. This has always been a country of rough political rhetoric. But the personal viciousness, the haste, the ideological shrillness are worse now than for many years.”
—Anthony Lewis, New York Times, 1-29-96
Anthony Lewis obviously lives in a different world from the rest of us. Where I live, the main problem with the two-party system is a general absence of personal viciousness. Forget posturing on trivial matters like the budget impasse. On issues that really affect Americans on a day-to-day basis, Democrats and Republicans are in complete agreement.
Both parties agree that at least 6 percent of American workers should be kept systematically unemployed in order to keep inflation down. The parties of Jackson and Lincoln both favor tax cuts for the rich, a less-progressive tax structure and unregulated free trade.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans favor restoring the college direct-grant system. Neither favors improving mass transit. Neither really accepts the existence of global warming, much less feels the need to do anything about it .
This evil spirit of bipartisanship poorly serves citizens who disagree with the Uniparty’s mad rush to an illusive center.
Citizens of European-style parliamentary democracies have dozens of distinct political party platforms to choose from, ranging from extreme left to extreme right. In France or Italy, for example, Socialists don’t do lunch with Christian Democrats. They don’t sleep together either, à la Matlin and Carville. Ideology is serious business there, and voters are better represented.
Accepting for the moment that our wretched nation is limited to two parties, we have the right to at least expect two distinct stances on most issues.
The wimp-owned and -operated Democrats are particularly responsible for the current one-party system. As demonstrated by Clinton’s pathetic groveling for common ground with the Republicans in his State of the Union address, Democrats parrot pro-business Republicans on virtually every issue. Perhaps most unforgivably in a country that worships macho posturists, they never fight back when the GOP slanders them. All of the most outrageous televised attack ads of recent decades have been Republican ones–Nixon comparing McGovern’s national health care plan to socialism and Bush’s overtly racist Willie Horton ad come to mind first.
Even if the Democrats aren’t interested in rescuing themselves from their string of one-term presidencies, they owe the country some seriously aggressive ideological shrillness. In the interest of public service, here’s what I’m talking about:
ATTACK AD 1: “They Hate You” (30 seconds)
Show cameras sweeping across sea of white faces at Republican National Convention, interspersed with Ku Klux Klan rallies, Nazis goose-stepping, blacks being attacked by dogs in the South, cross-burnings, piles of bodies at Auschwitz, and then panning across Republicans in Congress, especially Jesse Helms.
VOICE-OVER: America’s Republican Party. They’ve come a long way since Lincoln, haven’t they?”
TEXT: Anti-welfare. No funding for AIDS research. Anti-affirmative action. Against raising the minimum wage.
VOICE-OVER: “Republicans hate ordinary people. They hate blacks. They hate gays. They hate women. They hate people who work for a living. The odds are, they hate you. And why shouldn’t they? You’re not like them. They’re rich. Powerful. Mean.”
Show George Bush golfing and Bob Dole at a black-tie dinner. Cut to exclusive estates in wealthy suburb.
VOICE-OVER: “If you don’t live like them, don’t vote like them. This message sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.”
ATTACK AD 2: “Domestic Violence” (30 seconds)
Show shots of O.J. Simpson being tried for murder, photos of Nicole Simpson with bruises on her face. Cut to shots of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Then show all four men’s faces together, “Brady Bunch”-style.
VOICE-OVER: “What do these four men have in common? They treat women like crap.”
First, zero in on Reagan.
VOICE-OVER: “Ronald Reagan was accused of showing up drunk at a young starlet’s home back in the 1950s and raping her. Later, when he got married, he abandoned his first wife, Jane Wyman, and let his son Ron, Jr. live on food stamps rather than help him through college.”
Next, show Gingrich.
VOICE-OVER: “Newt Gingrich served his faithful first wife with divorce papers in the hospital while she was recovering from a cancer operation. Why? Because she wasn’t flashy enough for him to be seen with in Washington after he became a big-shot. Then she had to take him to court to force him to pay child support.”
Then show Dole.
VOICE-OVER: “Bob Dole? He dumped his first wife too. So the next time some Republican starts talking about family values, remember what kind of family values he’s talking about. America’s Republicans: Anti-woman. Anti-child. Anti-family. Paid for by Democrats to Re-elect President Clinton.”
Now there’s some ideological shrillness to make American politics exciting again.
(Ted Rall, author of Waking Up In America (St. Martin’s Press, 1992) and All The Rules Have Changed (Rip Off Press, 1995), is a syndicated editorial cartoonist and freelance writer.)
© 1996 Ted Rall All Rights Reserved
My second long-form comic book (and first graphic novel, My War With Brian is my semi-autographical memoir of being bullied, particularly by one student, during junior high school. (Everything happened, just not in the order in the book.) Set in suburban Ohio during the 1970s, “My War with Brian” personalizes the experience of being bullied, as teachers look on and parents are clueless to help – and what happens to your soul if and when you finally fight back.
I drew this book entirely on scratchboard, in black and white, similar to what I was doing with political art at the time.
It was nominated for an Eisner award, but lost. Oh well.
“This morbidly fascinating memoir-in-comics is one of the more frightening recollections of childhood bullying you’re likely ever ever read. Rall grew up in the 1970s in Kettering, Ohio (“suburb of the damned”), a town of stunning homogeneity that concealed an undercurrent of absurd intolerance. An intelligent, “brown-haired, brown-eyed freak” with divorced parents and a French mother, Rall was routinely vilified by his unambitious, intellectual-hating classmates and relentlessly beaten and harassed by Brian, a strange and brutal kid he first encountered in junior high. Brian made Rall’s life miserable for no discernible reason other than Rall’s superficial social difference. Smaller than Brian and fearful of him, Rall was nevertheless equally cruel, devising indirect but gruesomely violent counterattacks. Rall’s mother was powerless to stop these daily clashes, school officials were weirdly indifferent and the strange, primal conflict continued into high school. Puberty miraculously added eight inches and 12 pounds to Rall’s frame, and he finally beat Brian into a bloody, senseless heap in the school hallway. Presented in Rall’s angularly comic b&w drawings, the story alternates between a quirky poignancy and a thoughtful but bleak humor. With irony and introspection, Rall examines the effects of this bizarre experience on his development. He still often dreams of killing Brian but admits that “Brian made me stronger, but he also made me meaner, less trusting, hateful of hypermasculine men…. without him I might never have drawn cartoons, escaped Ohio or gotten laid.” —Publishers Weekly
“Known for his acerbic political cartoons, Rall turns his caustic gaze inward in an autobiographical graphic novel about his misery in junior high in suburban Ohio. He was an alienated nerd, tormented by a loutish, psychotic bully who, for no apparent reason, chose Rall as his personalvictim. Teachers and other adults refused to help Rall, leaving him to deal with Brian through violence that started out defensive but gradually turned sadistically vengeful. The escalating battle forced Rall into an ultimate assault that he then saw as the only way to prevent being marked as a victim for the rest of his life. Two decades later, a more introspective Rall ponders the lasting effect of Brian’s harassment on his personality. To this day, Rall’s behavior remains confrontational and defensive; he wonders whether his superior attitude prompted the bully’s abuse. Rall’s memoir is fueled by the bitterness and anger that inform his editorial cartoons and sports their vaguely cubist figures and distinctive scratchboard technique that makes them look like punk woodcuts.” —Booklist
Mixing long essays and cartoons from the mid-1990s, Revenge is my Generation X manifesto. As Xers entered marriage, parenthood and, God forbid, responsibility, the book made a splash with its anti-Boomer argument that neglect and abuse of Gen X in its youth would create an unusually self-sufficient generational cohort in adulthood. This prediction proved accurate.
Previously titled “Kill Your Parents Before They Kill You” (before buyers for major bookstore chains threatened not to carry it), contains 24 chapters of edgy insight, personal histories, advice and cartoons. It is, in the words of cartoonist Jules Feiffer (who wrote the introduction), “a spicy stew of high-handed judgments, part drawing, part essay, part memoir-confession, part tantrum. The text is the thing. Funny, fractious here and there, nasty now and then, brilliant.” Among the chapters are “College is for Suckers,” “Gen Xploitation,” “Making the Most of Your Parents’ Divorce,” “Relationship Tips for the Sexless,” and in a rallying cry against capitalism during the 1990s boom, “Bring On The Stock Market Crash.” Salon.com reviewed this book and called Ted “one of the best political cartoonists in America.” Also includes Ted’s seminal essays “Work is a Sham” and “College is for Suckers” for Might magazine.
Rall’s work is a wacky Rorschach blot of the American character – or lack of it. —Publishers Weekly
Generation X Manifesto in Essays and Cartoons, 1998
Workman Hardback, 7″x10″, 224 pp., $18.95
Workman Paperback, 7″x10″, 224 pp., $10.95
To order the hardback: Amazon
To order the paperback: Amazon
“Start me up.” – The Rolling Stones, 1981
It all began as an innocent attempt to while away a stormy night during midterms. According to a former classmate who, like most of the sources for this piece, declined to be identified, his friend Brian Kaufman was feeling antsy.
“It happened on March 17, 1994, but I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Kaufman’s former friend recalled recently. “It was St. Patrick’s Day. Brian said he needed to get laid and puke green beer, or maybe it was the other way around. At any rate, I suggested that he check out the Pyramid Bar.” The Pyramid is a dive on the main University of Cincinnati strip where professional women desperate for sex gather on Tuesday nights, nursing two-dollar margaritas and listening to John Cougar’s version of “Twentieth Century Fox” while watching Simpsons reruns with the volume off.
All of the survivors of what ultimately transpired agree on what happened next: Kaufman, an awkward 18-year-old college junior from Riverdale, New York, pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered a lime-green Bud Lite. Sitting next to him was Vickie Fuentes.
“Vickie wasn’t like the other investment-banker sluts who come up here from Fountain Square,” a bartender, who would only give his name as James C. Hallihan, Jr., said. “She was classy, you know the type, real pretty and shit.”
Kaufman and Fuentes, a 22-year-old first-year computer-science grad student who grew up in the same house in the same Texas Panhandle town where doomed crooner Roy Orbison was born, clicked immediately. Both were obsessed with computers – Fuentes came to the Pyramid that night because her beloved Mac 6115 had frozen like a rock – and both were convinced that the then-burgeoning information revolution was the key to acquiring wealth and happiness in an America floating adrift.
The couple stayed up half the night talking about C++, HTML and Java, in that order, according to Vickie’s long-winded confession to the Cincinnati Police. They left together at about 3:15 am, she said, walked to her fourth-floor two-bedroom walk-up near the campus computer lab and had sex twice – the second time in the morning before breakfast at a diner.
“It was like that song. He truly was a lover who didn’t drive me crazy,” Vickie would ultimately say upon her arrest.
The two nerds’ remarkably random coupling brought together two nobodies who would ultimately solve the most pernicious computing problem in history by smoothing the technological transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries. But that discovery would come at an awesome price: 14 lives and billions of dollars. Even worse, the promise of a thrilling new era of innovation would lose its bloom.
A Generation X Love Story
There were some early warning signs that the two lovers were a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but no one close to them correctly interpreted the symptoms at the time. “I was relieved when they both dropped out of UC,” Vickie’s mother Jasmine Fuentes, a divorced bricklayer said during her lunchbreak at the Wendy’s where she now works as a night manager. “The tuition was killing me, and Vickie seemed convinced that there was a lot more money to made outside of college than inside.” Bob Camry, an ex-friend of Brian’s from New York, found Brian “weird and tacky” when he came home that spring to visit and shop for used Foghat LPs in Manhattan’s East Village. “He was always talking about how brilliant Vickie was, and how they were going to use computers to make millions of dollars, that kind of shit. But when I finally met her, the only appeal I could see was physical. I mean, she had big knockers – really, really big knockers, know what I’m saying?
Soon the initial passion between Brian Kaufman and Vickie Fuentes leveled off into a cold-blooded business relationship. In a conscious decision to elevate their level of concentration, Vickie says, they cut back their sex to three times a week.
Stolen Dreams, Dirty Deeds
In early 1995, Vickie became inspired by watching Newt Gingrich’s short-lived co-presidency with Bill Clinton begin to take shape on C-SPAN. “It’s true – two can live as cheaply as one,” she told Brian. She placed an ad for a roommate at Café Imbécile, a trendy cybercafe in Covington, an innocuous rust-belt town just across the Ohio River Bridge in Kentucky that houses the metro area’s Silicon Gorge. Headquarters belonging to high-tech outfits – Microsoft, Apple, countless websites for auto parts manufacturersÑline State Route 14 near the Interstate 275 loop.
Michael Ryan was a low-level shitworker – a permanent freelance AS/400 coder, in industry parlance – who, at 26 years old, was already considered over the hill at the fast-paced design firm where he worked. “Michael was smart – too smart,” his former boss commented. “Everybody knew that he would eventually go on to bigger and better things, so we figured, why not fire him now?”
Hungry and desperate to downscale, Ryan e-mailed a query to the custom domain listed on the online bulletin board at Café Imbécile. Within hours he had paid Vickie $475 for first and last month’s rent and moved his sole possessions into Vickie’s extra bedroom: a year-old IBM clone and a dozen boxes of ZIP discs.
A reclusive 240-pound shut-in, Ryan locked himself into his bedroom for days at a time. “All I could hear was modem connections, plastic keyboard keys and that Meat Loaf album ‘Bat Out of Hell II,'” Vickie recalled. He devoted himself to what he called “my project” 24 hours a day, up to a week at a time, before the noises stopped and he drifted off to sleep at his desk.
Vickie gave little thought to her eccentric roommate until he waddled off to the local market one morning to buy gray-market cigars. The second he was gone, court documents say, Vickie entered his room and booted up Windows NT. Ryan’s secret work downloaded in a flash of whirring hard drive onto Vickie’s spare floppy. She went to the dorm where her boyfriend Brian still lived to show him what she’d stolen. Brian couldn’t believe what he saw on his screen. Here was the coding of the Gods: a work of programming wizardry that could solve a problem that had eluded the giants of the computer world for years, and make them millions in the process.
“There’s no choice,” Vickie says that Brian told her. “We’ve gotta kill the fat fuck.”
“Actually, he’s not that fat,” she pointed out.
“Whatever,” he said.
A week later, Michael Ryan was dead.
The Birth of Cyber2000 Solutions
At first glance the cops had little reason to suspect foul play in the demise of Michael Ryan, found dead in the parking lot of a drive-through chili joint. True, the coroner ruled that four .35-caliber bullets Ryan had taken in the back of his head and left arm had caused his death. And – most damning of all – investigators found a recently-fired .35-caliber revolver in the glove compartment of Vickie’s ’93 Nissan Sentra, wrapped in a Kurt Cobain fanzine. (The gun was registered to Brian Kaufman’s father.) There were also numerous abrasions and bruises on the grotesque genius’ body. But Vickie and Brian’s alibi – that they’d attended a blaxploitation film festival at a local art house that night – seemed plausible. “We quizzed them about the movies they claimed to have seen,” police spokesman Denise MacPherson explained. “We tried to trip them up on Rudy Ray Moore, but they were familiar with both ‘The Human Tornado’ and ‘Avenging Disco Godfather.’ It was impressive. It just didn’t occur to us at the time that she might have rented the films on video.”
Michael Ryan was buried in a potter’s field on August 26, 1995.
The heat was off, but Vickie Fuentes wanted a new start.
A month later, the couple moved into a sprawling studio in the heart of Manhattan’s burgeoning Silicon Alley district. “I couldn’t figure it,” a former friend of Brian’s ex-girlfriend’s bisexual lover mused. “I mean, where did the money come from? Here these two wankers were, hanging out on 22nd Street like they were somebody, and they had views of the actual building across the street—not of the airshaft like the nobodies from Ohio that they were. So, again I ask: where’d the money come from?”
By then Vickie and Brian had formed a Delaware corporation, Cyber 2000 Solutions, Inc., with $12,000 in American Express cash advances, $3,500 in fraudulent student loans and $600 borrowed from their building superintendent. Over the next year, they hired staffers, rented office equipment and flew to Beijing, where they cut a distribution deal with the manager of a slave-labor camp to produce software for 9 cents per unit. They spent months networking both online and offline, quietly spreading the word about their new venture. “The buzz was really something,” says Kelly Hershaw, a former staff writer for geek.com, a site that called Cyber2000 “the start-up of the moment.” “Nobody knew exactly what they were up to, but no one wanted to risk being left out of whatever it was.”
Finally, on January 4, 1997, Cyber2000 called a press conference.
Moving On Up: Evil Goes Public
“In three years, computers all over the world are going to go haywire,” Vickie Fuentes, the immaculately-dressed untitled co-founder and CEO of Cyber2000 told a hushed audience of web reporters from all the big players in the infotech biz: HotWired, Fast Business, Salon, MacWorld, PC World. “Back in the 1980s, programmers rightfully assumed that Ronald Reagan would kill us all before the end of the century. No one could imagine being alive by the year 2000.
br> “Though anything can and probably will happen, it now seems more likely than ever that we’ll see the next millennium. The corporate world is paying a terrible price for relying on 2-digit years in their digitized dating systems. “99” may be fine for “1999,” but “2000” will become “00” – which will really mean “1900.” On New Year’s Day three years from now, credit cards will automatically expire, eliminating the consumer spending that drives two-thirds of the economy. Driver’s licenses will become invalid, making it impossible for people to get to work and earn money to contribute to that same consumer-driven economy. The Pentagon even admits that its automated nuclear ICBMs might launch without cause! Billions have already been squandered on consulting fees to fix the Year 2000 conundrum – billions that could have improved our schools, fixed our roads and hired more police. The Y2K problem is the most pressing problem facing America today. Fortunately, we have that solution.
“Hi everyone,” Brian said, fingering the lapels on his shiny new Banana Republic shirt. “I’m the untitled product development CFO at Cyber2000, and I’m pleased to present the Holy Grail of Y2K: One CD-ROM that you can run on any system – Mac or DOS, PC or mainframe, regardless of size – that rewrites all its code to a four-digit year system. Yearfix Version 2.6 is simple, easy-to-use, and it costs only $29.99.”
Vickie and Brian’s venture became the biggest little success story of 1997. CompUSA couldn’t keep Yearfix in stock. More than 100 million copies were shipped. There were versions in Urdu and Kazakh. The youthful entrepreneurs graced the covers of Smart Money and Rolling Stone, Teen People and The Congressional Quarterly. They appeared on Jim Lehrer and Kurt Loder. Their initial public offering tripled in price during the first day of trading on NASDAQ. To add to their cachet, they turned down an invitation to the White House. Of course, it was inevitable that they begin to feel the strains of their staggering overnight success. Cyber2000 once earned $58 million in a single day. But dogging the sweetness of their net cash flow and positive asset-liability ratio was the mutual knowledge that every dime was composed of blood money, stolen from Vickie’s old roommate at the prime of his life.
Brian and Vickie soon became darlings of the rarefied intersection between the vaporware elite and the mass media cabal. Moreover, they wallowed in the glorious excess that people expected of them. Just six months after opening its doors in a post office box near Penn Station, Cyber2000’s Park Avenue headquarters employed 400 people, 50 of them simply because of the way they looked. “It was an open secret that everybody was expected to sleep around,” an anonymous Cyber2000 staffer admits. “Like, everyone knew that I caught herpes big-time from one of the temps, but it didn’t stop anyone from inviting me over for strip Scrabble. The atmosphere was highly volatile, sort of a cross between Gilligan’s Island and Party of Five with a dash of Sanford & Son.”
For the first time, Brian and Vickie began philandering. One time Vickie catered a ménage-á-trois at her new apartment – Vickie paid $2.8 million cash for a penthouse Upper East Side apartment with a striking view of the LaGuardia Airport flight path – but the couple she’d invited stood her up in order to attend a champagne-and-pretzels orgy at Brian’s loft in Tribeca instead. “You couldn’t really blame them,” one insider confides. “Brian always threw the better parties and everyone knew that. Anyway, Vickie fucking flipped.”
“I couldn’t help myself…I was mad with rage and anger and all that stuff,” Vickie’s confession reads. “Also, the three-fucks-a-week schedule was starting to get on my nerves.” Vickie taxied down to Brian’s den where she found the errant couple copulating while Brian FTPed Quick-Cam files of their ministrations to the Internet. She took a bust of Philip of Macedon from an end table – Brian used his stock options to purchase of thousands of pieces of Greco-Roman art from bankrupt museums in the former Soviet Union – and bashed in both of their skulls. The woman died straight away, but the man started screaming through what was left of his face. In the melee, Vickie claimed, Brian retrieved her .35 pistol from her purse and put down the guy with a shot to the right eye.
The incident temporarily forced Brian and Vickie back together. They disposed of the bodies by flushing them down the toilet in tiny chunks of flesh and gristle – “I wanted to give them a decent burial, but Brian, what did he care about decency?” – but it wasn’t long before tensions cropped up in other areas.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
The meteoric rise of Cyber2000 had not gone unnoticed by the dons of cyberspace, most notably Bill Gates.
The sartorially-challenged compu-billionaire convened his board of directors on the morning of February 3rd to find out exactly how Microsoft had been beaten to the punch on Y2K by a start-up company. Unusual weather patterns attributable to El Ni–o was making everybody nervous, a senior vice president dimly recalls from his copy of the minutes of the meeting.
“Who are these people? How did they engineer their product so quickly with no resources? How come we didn’t know about it in advance?” Gates asked angrily.
“I dunno,” the director of strategic planning allowed.
“Me neither,” said someone else.
“Exactly what I suspected,” Gates snapped. “Now make this problem go away!”
The same morning some 3,400 miles away, federal prosecutors went to ask Attorney General Janet Reno for permission to investigate possible allegations of theoretical wrongdoing at Cyber2000.
“Based on what evidence?” Reno is said to have asked.
“Well, they must have done something,” one said. “Everyone is guilty is something—and that everyone is gonna pay!”
Reno approved the formation of an ad hoc panel to consider the possibility of referring the Cyber2000 investigation to a temporary Congressional oversight committee with the power to recommend a formal inquiry into the preliminary allegations. If anything untoward came to light about America’s favorite Gen X entrepreneurs, a grand jury might hand down indictments at any moment.
Meanwhile, even as the proverbial walls closed in ever more tightly, business was roaring more than ever at Cyber2000. The company celebrated its first anniversary with a $3.7 million New York bash. The entire 59th Street station on the West Side subway line was rented out for the event and converted into a subterranean tropical rain forest, complete with capybaras, long-tailed monkeys and boa constrictors. Has-been retro celebs like Michael Douglas, Cher, Madonna and William F. Buckley hobnobbed with such luminaries-du-jour as Joyce Carol Oates, Monica Lewinsky and Jacques Chirac. Both Vickie and Brian missed the festivities because their flight from China was delayed: The New York Post’s Page Six called it “a night for the ages.” The two arrivistes had finally arrived.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go
The Feds were on the move and competitors were circling, angling for an opportunity to destroy the young couple’s dreams of endless cash and meaningless sex. The web site Salon ran a lead story asking: “Is Cyber2000 Ready for Y3K? What About Y4K?” Investors began selling their shares in the company, causing them to increase in value at a rate less than that of the S&P 500. Moody’s Investor Services downgraded Cyber2000 from a “AAA” rating to a “AAA-” rating, costing bondholders millions in interest payments. Trouble was brewing.
On February 11th Vickie called her mom back in Texas. Transcripts of an FCC wiretap capture the conversation: “Mom,” she says, “it’s all falling apart. Brian’s plotting against me. He canceled my subscription to AOL. He’s trying to make me crazy!” [hysterical sobs heard]
Jasmine tries to comfort her daughter. “I’d love to help, sweetie,” she assures her, “but the TV here is showing back-to-back episodes of King of the Hill.” “Oh, sure, I understand,” Vickie shouts. “What happens to Hank Hill is more important than your own daughter!”
“Can you call back tomorrow?” Jasmine asks. [conversation ends]
Downtown, Brian was becoming paranoid as well. “I think she’s on to me,” he told turncoat mob assassin Antonio “the Fish” Rococo on FBI transcripts of illegal wire taps placed under the bar at @Café on St. Mark’s Place. “She knows. I know that she knows. And you know what to do.”
A few hours later, Vickie called an old childhood boyfriend, who refused to be identified because he’s on the run from the student loan people. “She said Brian had canceled her AOL account,” he says. It was crazy – I mean, these two people loved each other, they had more money than God, and here they were, tearing each other apart for no good reason other than lust and greed. I told her she had to get control of herself, which is why I think she did what she did.”
What Vickie Fuentes Did
No one knows for certain what transpired later that night. Vickie says that she went down to Brian’s place to try to straighten things out: “I wanted to appeal to his sense of decency, to remind him of the passion we used to feel for one another.” Prosecutors believe that she went down there to kill him. In any event, neighbors reported hearing “fighting” and the ominous sound of shattering antiquities eminating from his third-floor loft. Then, they say, the music, a gentle segue of Puff Daddy covers of Benny Goodman songs, switched abruptly to Nick Lowe – at full volume.
Police responding to noise complaints found chaos in unit 3A. “I’ve been working in this precinct for six months,” one veteran of the NYPD said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.” The medical examiner found that Brian had been shot, hung and repeatedly stabbed, in that order. Three more people, including an obscure Albanian war criminal and an HTML writer from 27 Palms, California, were found dead in the bathtub, apparently the victims of forced suicide. Vickie Fuentes was nowhere to be found. A cryptic message had been painted in blood on the south wall of the apartment: “EASY COME, EASY GO. START ME UP.”
The next morning the computer world woke up logged on to screaming online tabloid headlines about the tragedy at Cyber2000. The Drudge Report draped a 6-point black box, complete with shadow, around its position on AOL to commemorate a management team that had come so far so fast yet also had fallen so fast. Vickie Fuentes, on the lam, couldn’t read the memorial because her account had been canceled.
Cyber2000 collapsed in mid-March in light of reports that its sole product, the “Y2K solution,” wasn’t a solution at all, but rather a digital placebo. “The packagaing looked really cool,” one analyst said, “but it didn’t do dick.”
Five executives of Cyber2000 committed joint sepuku in an homage to co-founder Brian Kaufman – tragically, the young Internet addicts didn’t know the difference between Japanese and Greek ritual – and leapt, still bleeding, from their 6th floor Park Avenue offices. Two survived, but four pedestrians were crushed to death.
Vickie Fuentes spent a week playing the Midwest church bingo circuit under the name Foxy Perez, only to get caught when one too many ciders loosened her lips. During a conversation about the worst thing each one of them had ever done at a Baptist church in Fort Collins, Colorado, Vickie confessed her criminal past to her fellow players. One woman turned her in for the reward money advertised on “America’s Most Wanted”; after her arrest she made the dramatic statement that serves as the principal source for this story. Vickie is now awaiting trial on first-degree murder and fraud charges. Despite her continuing to blame her crimes on her murdered former partner and boyfriend, she is certain to be convicted. “She pins it all on Brian, but that’s bullshit,” Assistant DA Mike McFinley says. “If anything, he was an unwilling participant, a patsy, a Bill Pullman to her Linda Fiorentino. We’ve got everything we need to put her away for life.”
Today the psychic wreckage of March ’98 is fading away like the fog on a back car window with the defogger on. Other visionaries are working on the Y2K problem; more initial public offerings are being filed with the SEC. Every day brings more news of startling new developments in the ever-expanding world of cyberspace, many of them discovered by young adults willing to eschew real-world standards of morality to “make things happen virtually.” Far from serving as a postmodern Icarus fable for a generation without reservations, the mention of the tragic death of Brian Kaufman, 22, and the living death of Vickie Fuentes, 26, brings nothing but seconds-long silences in the chat rooms and online bulletin boards populated by the amoral young before the previous topic resumes. Forgotten and now irrelevant, only their pilfered dreams remain.
(C) 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved
A slightly shorter version of the following piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1997:
YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE:
Madness on the Post-Soviet Silk Road
by Ted Rall
The doors of our cabin flew open after eight hellish hours on the death train. It was the Turkmeni Border Patrol, distinguishable from their Uzbek counterparts only by their green (not red, as in Uzbekistan, or blue, as in Kazakhstan) epaulettes. “Amerikanskis! Passports!” they screamed.
A crazy question coursed through my baked brain synapses: How the hell did I get into such a fucked-up situation?
It started out, as every half-baked scheme from Columbus scamming the Pinta from Istanbul to cold fusion has, over free drinks. Last June I was working a P.O.V. party, trying to convince editor Randall Lane to send me somewhere distant and dangerous at the magazine’s expense.
That’s when I remembered an idea I had discussed with Alan Feuer, an up-and-coming writer for The New York Times. Alan and I proposed that P.O.V. send us on the ultimate road trip—to retrace the old Silk Road, Beijing to Istanbul, by car—or, if that was impossible, in a motorcycle-and-sidecar.
The resulting piece would answer that eternal question: What happens when you send two ordinary guys where they have absolutely no business going? As I explained, it was an open-bar party.
We weren’t the only ones hitting the G-and-Ts. A few e-mails later, Randall gave us the OK. There was just one thing: We’d have to go that summer. The first blizzards would hit Central Asia in late September, and we’d have more than 5,000 miles and seven time zones to cover on dubious roads under uncertain political conditions.
We had less than two months to prepare for Silk Road ‘97.
The Silk Road, Marco Polo Version
The Silk Road isn’t a specific road (although in certain places, it is), and it’s soaked with horrific bloodshed as much as it is with exoticism (although historians dwell on the exotic aspect). In a nutshell, the ancient Chinese began selling their silk to traders traveling west towards the Mediterranean at least 2,300 years ago.
This spurred the development of an overland trade route that ran from Xian in northeastern China to Istanbul in Turkey. It runs through the Central Asian republics that used to belong to the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—and continues to Turkey (via either Iran or Azerbaijan).
No single guy ever made the whole trip. Most traders only traveled short distances from market to market because of robbers and lousy weather. The West paid for its silk, spices and porcelain with gold, ivory and wine, each item becoming more expensive the farther it was found from its point of origin.
As it is for contemporary travelers, geography was a huge problem for those who worked the Silk Road. Not only does the Central Asian climate vary wildly—from fierce blizzards to scorching 125-degree deserts—because nothing grows on the arid steppe, nomadic peoples supported themselves by robbing and killing travelers. To make life even more difficult, wave after wave of military conquest—by Huns, Turks, Muslims, Han Chinese and Mongols—has repeatedly looted and razed the region’s cities after massacring their populations.
Like an immense Belgium, Central Asia was a whole lot of nothing on an army’s way between Europe and Asia. After Genghis Khan’s Mongols sacked Bukhara in 1219, things started to go to shit. Nontheless, Marco Polo’s 13th century account of the collision between Oriental and Occidental cultures fascinated Europeans for centuries, and the Silk Road remains synonymous with romance, mystery and intrigue.
Today’s Soviet-built highways and railways follow the old Silk Road through mountain passes, along a string of oasis cities skirting the deserts. The ancient trading route is characterized by the economic ruin and civil wars that followed the Soviet collapse; nowadays it’s not sumptuous silk but cheaply-made Chinese clothing that makes the trip over treacherous border crossings to thousand-year-old bazaars. The new bandits are border guards and mobsters. And trade involves not silk, but American marines, Kazakh rebels and BP oil fields.
The Road to Ruin
“I can’t believe P.O.V. fell for this,” I gloated as we waited for our 24-hour flight to leave Kennedy Airport. Alan and I were close. We hung out all the time; as an added bonus, my wife and his girlfriend were friends independent of us. Now I was about to spend five weeks with my buddy on the ultimate road trip. I had pulled off some superb scams before, but this one deserved a lifetime-achievement award.
“It is pretty amazing,” Alan agreed.
We had wanted to follow the original Silk Road as faithfully as possible, but modern-day realities forced us to modify our plans. We had originally intended to start in Xian, but our ticket consolidator told us that it would cost $1,400 each to fly there (Beijing was $1,100 each). Worst of all, the Beijing-to-Xian plane only flies once a week, and nobody knows which day it goes. We decided to take a train to Xian to avoid getting trapped in Beijing.
We figured that we’d spend a day or two in Xian, hop a train west towards Kashgar, and from there take a bus to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. Once in Bishkek, the British-published Cadogan Guide to Central Asia assured us, “asking prices start at about $100 in local currency for motorbikes, $200 for motorbikes with sidecars and $500 for small cars.”
Then our adventure would begin. We’d cruise across the Kyrgyz steppe into the vast Uzbekistan desert at 120 mph, blasting Steppenwolf and tossing empty bottles of Trotsky Beer out the window at Bactrian camels, sucking up dust all the way to Turkey. Anyway, that was the plan.
In an inspired example of business acumen, all three legs of our Asiana Airlines featured gruesome footage of seared body parts being extracted from a recent Korean Airlines crash in Guam. Then we dropped through a mid-morning smog into a maze of housing projects capped with flapping red flags. Two days after we’d left, we arrived in China.
Money Changes Everything
After reading ominous tales of tourists getting strip-searched by rabid commie cops, we almost disappointed to get waved through Beijing airport customs.
Our friends had advised us to bring a pile of one- and five-dollar bills for spending money. Moreover, recent visitors to other third-world countries like Vietnam had told me that the new hundreds are considered counterfeit, so I brought the old ones.
The Chinese cashier looked at me like I had three eyes when I handed her the $100. She held it up the light. Then she handed it to another clerk, who licked her thumb and ran it across Ben Franklin’s face. She frowned, then held it up and flicked the corner with her index finger. Flick! She listened intently. Flick! After a disrespectful pause she shoved it back under the window at me. “No good!” she spat. “Another one!”
I handed her twenty fives. The examination process was repeated with every bill—stare, rub, flick, flick, flick—every fourth one failed the test. “Look, lady,” I explained, “I’m American. They’re American dollars. I’m from New York. That’s where they make them!” She yelled at me in Chinese. I gathered my “money” and left.
Ultimately I succumbed to the madness—the same thing happened all over town—and got a dollar credit card advance at Bank of China. Armed with crisp new hundreds, we set out to buy train tickets.
“Welcome! You come at very bad time,” said the wife of the proprietor of our hotel’s travel agency. The TV was showing a game show in which the contestants attempt to knock each other off of various farm animals. “Last two weeks of August, no train tickets, impossible! Maybe September, maybe not, you know?”
Huge double-sized beers only cost the yuan equivalent of 12 cents each, and I had been sucking down one an hour since we’d arrived, so I was fine with this.
A bellhop told us that only the government-run CITS agency would sell train tickets to foreigners. At CITS a crisply-dressed grey-haired woman peered at us as we dripped sweat on her desk blotter. “Train tickets very difficult…still, I know someone, maybe he can talk to someone else, maybe arrange for Wednesday or Thursday, but who knows…probably not.” Inexplicably, travelers must buy their tickets for each leg of their journey at the point of origin; there’s no way to book ahead.
“Forget Xian,” I suggested, “let’s go straight to Kashgar.” Kashgar, in extreme western China, is the first important Silk Road city along the way.
“No, no, no, Kashgar train not finished yet until 1996. Take sleeper train to Urumqi,” she said, “then bus to Kashgar. Train is 80 hours. Then bus is 80 hours. So, 160 hours.” China is 20 percent larger than the continental U.S., but it seems even bigger because everything runs slower. She advised us to check back with her Tuesday to see whether her hombre had scored us tickets.
We spent the next four days visiting such tourist spots as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the emperor’s Summer Palace, a cool complex of Buddhist temples straddling a picturesque hill. After a hard day of touristing in dank 90-degree soot, we hung out out at the ludicrously expensive Hard Rock Beijing watching ex-pat corporate lawyers play the angles with stunning Mongolian hookers. The $5 beers were wreaking havoc on our budget, so it was a relief when CITS called us. We had tickets for Tuesday night’s train to Urumqi.
Although everyone has assigned seats, the Chinese rush for trains like embassy staffers catching the last copter out of a war zone. 2,000 people jammed through a single turnstile in a slo-mo riot; we only survived by using our backpacks as bludgeons. Once on board, though, the 20-car train was modern and fully air-conditioned—a vast improvement over the trains I’d ridden in Thailand—and we had clean bunk “soft sleeper” beds in a four-bunk compartment adjacent to the dining car. Surprisingly, it moved at a respectable 50 or 60 mph the whole time.
We passed the next four days watching China go by our window.
We all have gifts—Alan’s is his stunning ability to absorb foreign languages. He only has to hear a word once to know it forever. Whereas most Westerners who study Chinese have trouble making themselves understood by native speakers, Alan carried on amazingly detailed conversations with our cabin mates, a Muslim Uyghur woman and her snotty 15-year-old daughter. I relied on drawings and hand signals. Alan soon became our interpreter—a role that he found increasingly irritating as time passed. “Can’t you ask for it yourself?” he’d grouse after handling my fifth request for a Coke in one morning. I hoped that I’d eventually make myself more useful.
Farms and trees and nuke plants disappeared the first day. Then came the parched dirt and hilly sculptured mud I’d longed to see since I’d first seen photos of Central Asia in National Geographic. It’s the most pristine place on earth, unspoiled because there’s no point building 7-Elevens or strip malls where no one has any money, beautiful the way Nevada’s U.S. Route 50 is, bleak and awesome. “This is what I came for!” I yelped.
“Whatever,” Alan growled, writing in his journal.
On our second afternoon—the unwashed passengers got scuzzier by the minute—there was a tiny commotion as the train breached a gap in the Great Wall. This far west it was only about six feet high, but for thousands of years this thing had delineated the outer limits of the civilized world. Leave the confines of this wall, and neither God nor emperor could save your ass.
We rolled west through the Turpan Depression (China’s version of Death Valley and the second-lowest place on the planet) past countless penal colonies, each full of skeletal inmates watching our train disappear as they leaned over the razor wire. On the third day, even the May 4th farms were gone—only dark-brown dirt stretching out to the Tian Shan mountain range remained.
Finally, on Friday morning, we arrived in Urumqi, the dusty, squalid capital of the predominantly-Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Zone. We raced to the Stalinist-style Hongshan Hotel (you have to get a “floor lady” to open your door) to drop off our stuff, take cold-water showers and plan our next move at the CITS office.
At first I thought that there was a line, but the two dozen people milling around the room all turned out to be CITS employees respecting the Chinese penchant for overemployment. “The bus to Kashgar left thirty minutes ago,” a skinny guy told us, lighting up a butt while he was still working the last one. “How about next week?”
We had seven more countries to hit with a little over four weeks left before Alan had to be back at work; we couldn’t afford to waste any more time in China. The bus from Urumqi to Kashgar would have taken four days, plus another four for the bus to Bishkek in Kyrgystan. Instead we bought “hard sleeper” bus seats for Almaty; the train was out of the question because Kazakh border officials are notorious train robbers.
We had a weekend to kill in Urumqi—a city not unlike Akron, but with worse air and better food.
It doesn’t take long to get a handle on Urumqi and the million losers forced to live there. During the day you visit the mosque and the bazaar in the Uyghur slums, where you buy Mao pins and lamb kebabs. I also picked up a stiletto (with “NATO Military” written on the handle) in case the Kazakh border guards got out of control. At night you follow the Lonely Planet Guide’s advice and check out the Holiday Inn Urumqi’s “great coffee and the wildest disco in Central Asia.” You discover that in fact the coffee tastes like the smell of the diarrhea you’re starting to experience and that the disco contains exactly you and D.J. Marvin’s customized trip-hop mixes. And D.J. Marvin wears a bowtie, as you’d expect. Then you’re done with Urumqi.
Death Bus to Kazakhstan
Our “hard sleeper” to Almaty were broken bus seats made of decomposing foam—cramped for anyone over 5’6” and encrusted with an inch of dust clinging to an layer of primeval sweat. Our dozen fellow travelers were fiftysomething Uyghurs and Kazaks—no cute German backpacking college students out here—all of whom had paid a tenth of our fare for the same miserable 40-hour ride. The back third of the bus was piled floor to ceiling with huge bundles of unlabelled goods.
Our only comfort was that we would only have to spend one night on this beast.
As we inched up the dusty two-lane 312 highway towards the Borohoro Shan mountains, I considered sinking my brand-new stiletto into the driver’s neck. The little weasel would speed up to about 60 mph, then he’d cut the ignition and coast in neutral until we dropped to 20. Then he’d start the engine again and start accelerating. We drove in this obtuse attempt to save fuel for hundreds of miles.
Because the human spirit dares to hope, Alan and I put our confidence in the back-up driver, a stocky Chinese man with the face of a bulldog who slept on the bus’ only bed. Even asleep, his calm, sturdy face commanded authority and respect—and his straw World Cup fedora never budged from his perfectly bald head. “Look at him,” Alan remarked admiringly. “He’s the fucking king!”
We hit the construction zone just before sunset. The road was closed, but no one had bothered to create a detour. Our wanker driver stopped, paralyzed by potholes, boulders and indecision. As if on cue, the King stirred, lit a cigarette and tapped the first driver on the shoulder to dismiss him. Within minutes we were navigating roads worse than anything I had seen in Burma or Belize. The bus dipped and scraped against rocks, squeezing through ridiculously tight spaces between thirty feet above rushing mountain streams on the left and overturned tractor-trailers and passenger cars on the right.
Like a moron I had brought only one pair of shoes—new Nike high-tops—but until the death bus to Kazakhstan the collection of blisters and open sores afflicting my feet had been my only health problem. Explosive diarrhea hit a few hours out of Urumqi. I’d clench my ass cheeks together as hard as possible with each crater, uncertain whether it was feces or butt sweat I was leaking into my BVDs. Chinese diarrhea pills, which normally get your shit together in 15 minutes, had no effect—and our diet wasn’t helping either.
In China proper we’d relied on noodle soup, bean cakes and vegetables (they don’t grow rice in northern China) for sustenance. Western Xinjiang, however, marked the beginning of the dreaded shashlyk zone: From then on, and throughout the CIS (former members of the USSR formed the Commonwealth of Independent States), the only food would be lamb kebabs. Shashlyks aren’t made of FDA-approved meat—they’re served on a metal skewer, from which hang a half-dozen chunks of undercooked lamb gristle, sliding off a slice of bone and doused in spices to disguise incipient rot. From Xinjiang to Turkmenistan, shashlyk means food and food means shashlyk—morning, noon and night. Because they’re prepared in contaminated water, they’re 100 percent certain to give you the intestinal parasite called giardia. I’m still fighting the bastards off.
Maddeningly, Alan’s turds remained, as he said proudly, “as hard as a rock!”
Our bus would enjoy a straight-away for a few hundred feet, then more window-rattling Mad Max madness would ensue. We dodged oncoming trucks on a dirt bypass barely wide enough for the goats that competed with us for space. After a few hours of feats of automotive precision impossible to imagine in the United States, we had promoted our driver to the rank of Emperor.
We made a midnight stop at a surreal roadside restaurant in Manas—featuring videos of rape scenes from banned Hong Kong movies and buzzing neon signs that alternated between Chinese and Uyghur, not to mention the Trainspotting-esque Worst Restroom in Central Asia. Then we hit the top of the pass at Sayram Hu lake around 2 in the morning. After hours of creeping along at 1 or 2 mph, it was difficult to see why this high-altitude frontier between the former Soviet Union and China had been one of the tensest of the Cold War. Neither nation ever needed to worry about getting invaded; no tank would ever have made it through the 312.
Finally traffic came to a dead stop. Everyone ahead of us had given up and gone to sleep along with the goat-herding nomads who lived alongside the lunacy of the Chinese construction zone. The drivers curled up together under a pile of blankets while us passengers, all of us dressed in T-shirts for 110-degree heat, nearly froze to death. There was still snow on the ground in August 12,000 feet up. Numbness eventually turned painful, but all we could do was endure until morning.
I awoke the Emperor at 8 with a few “accidental” kicks in the side as I stretched my long American legs across the aisle. Ultimately we came across the cause of the previous night’s traffic jam: A double oil truck had slid off the work site, twisted and overturned, spilling fuel all over the treacherous side road. Typically, there were no police or emergency workers; the driver of the disabled truck sat smoking with the construction workers a few feet from the spill. The Emperor grimaced while he worked the bus past the oil truck an inch at a time, barely scraping against it to avoid toppling into the stream at our left. The passengers all moved over to the right side of the bus.
I was too sick to care.
The construction lasted 50 more miles and 8 more exhausting hours. Then we emerged into a wholly different, temperate terrain, with trees and fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see—here, it was already early fall. We pulled into the border town of Korgas in late afternoon; this should have put us in Almaty by 11 pm. I raced to the side of the road to release my latest intestinal explosion.
The insanely-fortified border crossing, complete with minefields and several kilometers of no-man’s land, was just ahead when the Emperor pulled off down a side street, parked the bus and ran into a nondescript white building. Two hours later, he emerged carrying a shopping bag full of bundles of Chinese currency, which he and his partner stashed behind loose panels and under a stack of greasy tools.
Despite our fears of anal probes, we crossed the border without getting roughed up. The Chinese Red Guards searched our bags for books. My edition of W. Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage was held up because of the weird German Expressionist painting on its cover. On the Kazakh side we got through the Stalinist passport check fairly quickly, but a chunky female Russian officer spotted me from her watch tower and took me aside. She kept asking me if I was CIA.
“Tourista,” I insisted, marveling at the hammer-and-sickle insignia all over her tightly-packed uniform. Her breasts were like enormous cones, tapering to a perfect point. I tried hard not to stare.
“Ah, tourisma, da—why no Kazakh visa?” Ilsa, She-Wolf of the Kazakh Border Patrol, asked.
I pointed to my Kyrgyz and Uzbek visas, explaining that I only intended to stay 72 hours in Kazakhstan. A visa to any single of the former Soviet republics allows you to spend no more than three days in any CIS state—you say you’re “in transit.”
I started wondering whether I would have to fuck Ilsa to cross the border. It was an simultaneously frightening and titillating possibility.
She smiled and stamped my visa.
Our bus crossed a series of seven internal checkpoints, each a few miles apart. At each stop the Emperor handed a pre-counted stack of Kazakh tengge wrapped in a rubber band to commanding soldier, who waved us through without checking our cargo. At one checkpoint the soldier examined all of the passengers’ documents. He got off the bus, said something to another cop, who came on board and asked to see Alan’s and my documents. These guys had never seen an American passport before.
The first town in Kazakhstan was Zharkent, a pleasant tree-lined burg with European-style houses surrounded by white-picket fences and children playing ball in the streets. At the outskirts of town, we stopped. The Emperor got out, shook hands with three middle-aged hoodlums, handed them the bag of Chinese renminbi and sat down for a smoke as they sat down to count it at the rate of a note a minute. After three hours, I went up to the Emperor, gesturing and dropping in random Russian words to make him understand that we’d better get moving if we were going to make it to Almaty before the hotels closed for the night.
“Oh, nyet,” he said, finally understanding. He shot me a big shit-eating grin. “Nyeto gastinitsa cyevodnya”—no hotel tonight. I looked around at my comrades for support—transportation victims of the world, arise!—but they all wore the same deer-in-the-headlight stares. Decades of living under authoritarian rule—and now the anarchy of mafia thuggery—had broken their spirits. No one out there stands up for himself, much less for someone else. More disturbingly, Alan seemed to have bought into the wimp paradigm. “Whatcha gonna do?” he shrugged.
I went back up to the driver.
“What?” I cocked my head in the universal expression of confusion.
He pointed to the bus, then made the sleepy-head sign with his hands.
“Almaty zavtra (tomorrow)!” he said triumphantly, cracking open a plastic bottle of vodka. Thanks to his shady mafioso smuggling operations, we had been condemned to another night on the bus from hell.
He exchanged three hours of pleasantries with his pals, who handed him ten cases of vodka before we took off at 10. The Emperor pulled off the road at midnight and crashed next to the wimp. I woke up at 3, freezing and past my limit of endurance. I couldn’t take it anymore. I started coughing—a wheezing, phlegm-filled extravaganza of hacking that just wouldn’t stop. It took a half-hour to roust Pussy Man and get him behind the wheel.
A giant statue of Lenin greeted us as we entered the suburbs of the Kazakh capital. Then we turned off the main road, wound through a series of streets and stopped in front of a nondescript house to unload all the crap clogging up the back third of the bus.
We passengers milled about for hours as the home’s occupants, a Russian version of Harvey Keitel and his hung-over twentysomething sons arranged boxes of smuggled goods (Chinese-made clothing, we theorized) in their garage with a forklift. When it became clear that we wouldn’t see the Almaty bus terminal until nightfall, we hailed a “taxi”—in Central Asia everyone who owns a car picks up passengers for extra cash—to take us downtown. Seventy hours after leaving Urumqi, our forty-hour bus ride was over.
You, Me, Sex—No Problem!
Almaty turned out to be shockingly beautiful, a graceful Swiss-style city of ivy-covered apartment houses, chalk-colored Soviet-era government buildings and tree-lined streets sloping gradually up to the Zailiysky Alatau mountains in the south. Because of the elevation autumn occurs in August; half the leaves were on already on the ground. The women of Almaty are stunning—tall, thin, curvy, everything. “It’s the babe basket of Central Asia,” Alan kept marveling as another girl strolled by lugging boxes of detergent. (Almatians are strangely obsessed with laundry. There are boutiques devoted exclusively to detergent all over town; women wear T-shirts with the logos of their favorite brands.) Our guidebooks recommended the budget-priced Hotel Turkistan, conveniently located near the central market.
“Oh, no,” the manager laughed when we asked her for a double. “Hotel closed due to economic collapse.” I looked around nervously at two wild dogs and a posse of young thugs checking us out from their lair in an abandoned cafe in the lobby. “But no problem! We have room.”
Alan wanted to stay in the abandoned hotel, but the absence of hot water clinched the deal for me—I refused to continue abusing my body after our ordeal on the bus. At the $100-a-night Hotel Otrar we treated our slimy carcasses to repeated showers and endless viewings of the new Backstreet Boys video on satellite Indian MTV.
Later that Friday afternoon we explored town, putting out the word to our hotel staff and everyone we ran across that we were in the market for a car or motorcycle. We kept hearing the same story: Everyone who owned a vehicle had had to sell it in order to eat after the economic collapse of the early ‘90s; anyone who still owned their car after that used it as a taxi. Still, we had Sunday’s autoplatz and the used-car market in Bishkek as back-ups.
We spent the evening dodging roving gangs of inept muggers in the city’s pitch-black streets (the government doesn’t operate street lights or traffic signals owing to lack of funds) and trying to avoid the open sewers (someone stole all the manhole covers for scrap metal) in search of nightlife. We returned to the Otrar to find that the jam-packed nightclub in the basement of the hotel’s Mexican restaurant was the hottest night spot in town. The American DJ spun techno while shilling for Marlboro—”This next song is sponsored by Marlboro, the WORLD’S BEST CIGARETTES, that’s right, MARLBORO—THEY TASTE GREAT!”
I fended off the locals, most notably an elegant pianist named Médor who wanted me to marry her and help her raise her six-year-old son after we kidnapped him from his father, a rich asshole lawyer who paid off the judge to get custody. Meanwhile, Alan found himself deluged with rabid hookers. “Sex, you, me no problem!” a Tajik babe of the night kept yelling at him over the Marlboro DJ.
On Saturday we asked everyone we met about buying a car. An unemployed member of the Soviet Special Forces gave us the lowdown on Ladas, Moskvichs and Volga sedans as he drove us cross-town to the Arasan Baths for $4 massages.
First, nothing has been produced since the Soviet era, so all cars are all at least six years old. Ladas run from $500 to $1,000, but their gas tanks are too small for long-distance driving. All the Moskvichs have broken down. For $2,000, you can score a Volga, the preferred choice of former commissars and apparatchiks because they easily digest the low-quality fuel sold there. Since we didn’t have $2,000 and up, we decided to focus on Ladas and motorcycles, which run around $500.
We got up early the next morning to hit the autoplatz’s busy day, but all we found was an empty lot containing one guy selling bolts and carburetor parts on a skanky red blanket. En route back to the hotel, we got stuck in Kazakhstan Independence Day traffic. Still, I wasn’t worried; the car market in Bishkek was supposed to be better.
What If They Gave An Economy And Nobody Came?
We arrived in Bishkek after a relatively pleasant six-hour bus featuring the usual shashlyk-and-liquid-shit stop at the halfway point on the M39 highway.
We hadn’t eaten all day, so after checking into the Soviet-era marble finery of the Hotel Bishkek we headed out for food. Bishkek is Almaty Light—another Russified tree-lined city framed by the snow-capped Kyrgyz Alatau mountains in the distance—but with far fewer attractive women, detergent boutiques or anything else aside from poorly-maintained monuments and government ministries.
At a streetside stand we found the usual cheap beers and lamb souvlaki—a rare, if similar, alternative to shashlyk.
Suddenly Alan blanched. “I don’t feel good,” he said. Then his eyes went blank and he crumbled unconscious into my arms. He wasn’t breathing.
“Great, he’s fucking dead,” my mind raced randomly. I felt disconnected, like I was like watching a film. “His girlfriend’s going to be seriously pissed off.”
I counted off ten seconds. Alan still wasn’t breathing. Remembering the Pulp Fiction OD scene, I gave him a whack on the chest. His eyes flew open. He tried to get up, but collapsed.
A crowd of people gathered around. An old woman massaged Alan’s back and tried to stuff his mouth with berries and prescription medicines—they sell all sorts of pharmaceuticals labeled in Cyrillic on the street—that I kept brushing away. A few young guys lurked around, waiting for an opportunity to steal our wallets.
I asked Alan if he knew what was wrong with him.
“This has happened to me before,” he said. “It happens when I’m under stress, when I haven’t eaten. It’s normal.”
“You might have told me about this before we left,” I snapped.
“Why should I? It’s not your business.” Then he faded back into unconsciousness.
Just then someone nudged Alan’s side with his foot. “Get that piece of shit off the sidewalk!” he barked. Actually, it was in Russian, so I don’t know that he said that at all, but that’s the way I interpreted his attitude.
“You want to be killed, asshole?” I yelled, waving my stiletto. The guy split just as an ambulance load of gold-toothed female paramedics and policemen arrived. “Where’s the dead American? Which one got shot?” the doctor kept asking. We had awoken a very sleepy capital.
Alan refused treatment—he was worried about catching AIDS from a dirty needle—so the ambulance dropped us off at our hotel with strict orders to keep him awake with coffee lest his next snooze become a dirt nap.
It was an incredible turn of events. Alan was 26, eight years younger than me, apparently in perfect physical condition. Wherever we were, he’d work out furiously, jumping rope and doing stomach crunches while I slept or wrote in my notebook. I’d worried that I wouldn’t be able to endure the exhaustion, lousy diet and psychological isolation we’d encounter. Now I’d have to cover Alan as well, never knowing if and when he would keel over from whatever was ailing him. He made me promise not to take him to a hospital, no matter what.
I realized at that moment why we hadn’t seen anyone over 45 years old since we’d entered the CIS.
Trains, Planes, But No Automobiles
Six hours after dying, Alan insisted that we hit the Hotel Dostuk’s outdoor disco. There wasn’t any point arguing; I was beginning to suspect that my traveling companion wasn’t human.
Aside from the fact that the women were all dancing with each other and the huge statue of Soviet soldiers fighting off Nazis across the street, we could have been at any cheesy nightspot in the United States. Cops moonlighted as bouncers and pathetic guys hung out alongside the dance floor, trying in vain to catch the eye of women who were either lesbians or devout Muslims or both.
The next morning was Sunday, autoplatz day. On our way out of our hotel, we spotted a bulbous cream-colored 1966 Gaz sedan—think of an early Checker cab or ‘54 Chevy—parked on the street. We were ogling its perfect detailing when someone yelled at us from a first-floor apartment. “Hey! You like my car? You want buy?”
The owner, a powerful sixtysomething dynamo with a perfect set of gold teeth, fired up his proud product of Soviet industry and took us on a test ride. Everything looked great inside—although getting used to a perpendicular standard transmission changer on the steering wheel would be a significant challenge—but he wanted $2,000. We were prepared to offer $1,500 until we saw four measly cylinders lurking under the hood. We’d never make it across the mountains of Iran or Turkey in that sucker. Also, Gazes are pretty rare in the former USSR now, and parts would be impossible to come by in the middle of the Karakum Desert.
The Bishkek autoplatz is in the northwest part of town where the vegetation allowed by the cooling influence of the mountains ends and the brutal emptiness of the Asian steppe begins. We didn’t even bother to get out of our taxi. No one was there.
“Where is everyone?” I asked our driver.
“Today big celebration—Kyrgyz Independence Day!”
We were already running a few days behind schedule; if we waited another week we’d never make it Istanbul in time to catch our flight back to New York. It sucked, but we had to abandon the idea of traveling by car. There simply weren’t any that could do the job.
Your Money’s No Good Here
With flagging spirits we caught a smoke-clogged 4 pm bus to Samarkand from Bishkek. As much as we had learned to loath the buses, they were the only option since the CIS train system only departs and arrives in the middle of the night, costs three times more and takes three times longer. Because of the confluence of the Talas and Kyrgyz Alatau mountains, the M39 runs mostly through southern Kazakhstan. We arrived in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, at 3 in the morning.
“Maybe we should get off here,” I suggested. “We could get Turkmeni visas here to avoid any trouble at the border and keep going tomorrow.”
“But everyone says Tashkent sucks,” Alan pointed out. “And what if we can’t get train tickets?” A giant earthquake killed more than 300,000 people there in April 1966, and the place has never really recovered. We’d rely on the CIS transit rule to enter Turkmenistan as we had for Kazakhstan. Five hours later, we arrived in the fountain-drenched oasis of Samarkand, the jewel of the Silk Road and the only truly spectacular city we saw the whole time.
After checking into the Intourist-operated $30-a-day Hotel Zerafshon, we each exchanged $50 for Uzbek currency with a shifty loiterer in the lobby at the rate of 140 som to the dollar (the bank only gives you 79) and walked to the Registan, a stunning complex of robin’s-egg-blue mosaics capping onion-domed mosques and perfectly-scaled public plazas. The Islamic warlord Timur had the place built as the town’s commercial center in the late 14th century.
There we discovered that we had just stumbled into the 6th annual Uzbek Independence Day (what are the chances of hitting three independence days in a row?). The streets were filled with women wearing traditional Uzbek silk robes and acrobats performing terrifying tightrope walks on frayed lines. Still, the city’s Siab Market bazaar, ancient mausoleums and mosques justified the continuous diarrhea, atrocious shashlyks and blistering feet that I’d suffered so far. (Alan appeared perfectly healthy, though I expected him to croak any minute.)
The problem with Samarkand is that there’s nothing to do at night. After a nasty meal of chicken-fried beef-pod with gruel at the aptly-named Restaurant Dilshod, we watched obese mafiosos negotiate deals in the Hotel Afrosiab’s disco-restaurant. That was the extent of the city’s after-dark pleasures. No matter how hard I tried—and I was desperate to find souvenirs for my friends back home—there was no way to spend the wad of som clogging my pockets. Even the markets were closed due to the independence festivities, so there was nothing to do other than go back to the hotel. I spent five hours on the bowl, crapping so hard that my ass blood splattered all over the bathroom wall.
I didn’t eat again for more than a week.
Night Train to Turkmenistan
We spent two more nights in beautifully dull, brilliantly-hot Samarkand, drinking countless Cokes to stave off mind-numbing boredom. We never had to piss. Finally we got wind through a helpful clerk at the telephone office that the Transcaspian Railway train makes scheduled stops twice a week at 11 pm en route to Charjou, the first border town in Turkmenistan, and that it eventually continues to Ashghabat, the capital and jumping-off point to Iran. This would mean skipping the carpet-trading mecca of Bukhara, but by then we knew that any notion we’d originally had of skipping from one Silk Road tourist attraction to the next was totally impossible—mainly because the Silk Road is dead. We had to keep moving.
Buying tickets proved unusually difficult, even for a country famous for its bureaucratic intransigence. The regular ticket window clerk referred us to the Interior Ministry’s OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration, another Soviet relic) office on the station’s second floor. Naturally, OVIR remained closed throughout the evening. We kept explaining this to the desk crone, who shooed us away with a maddening wave. Ultimately, Alan attracted the attention of an Uzbek railway policeman by kicking his backpack around the floor and waving locally-acquired obscenities. Since Alan seemed to have the shit-fit situation well under control, I refused to get involved. The cop ordered the agent to sell us two tickets just as the Tashkent-Volgograd Express rumbled in outside.
What followed cannot be adequately explained in words. A thermometer in the kitschy station, a weird mix of Socialist Realist geometry and Uzbek tribal wall hangings, read 50ßC (124ßF). It certainly felt hotter than anything I had previously experienced. We ran for the train, found an unshaved refugee from the hard-sleeper section sleeping in the lower of our matching bunks and split up to stash our bags. We met in the hallway, forced the attendant to extract the vagrant from our bed and waited for the train to begin moving.
It was at least 20 degrees warmer in the train than it was outside—everyone was stripped down to their underwear, drenched in a thick sheen of grimy sweat. “Look! The windows are the kind that don’t open,” I said optimistically. “Obviously, there must be air-conditioning once the train starts moving.” There were A/C ducts all along the aisle and in each of the cabins. Alan’s skin was turning greenish-beige.
We pulled out of the station. No air.
We spent the next few hours out in the hallway along with hundreds of other victims of the socioeconomic breakdown of the Soviet empire, propping ourselves on our forearms so that we could stick our lips through an inch-wide vent running along the top of the sealed windows about six feet off the floor. There we sucked in the cool 120-degree air from the Kyzylkum desert barrens. Every now and then a burning piece of ash would land on my tongue; we were three cars behind the coal-burning engine. I remember that night as a fever dream. It was also the night that finished off our Silk Road dreams.
Prickly sweats gave way to achy sweats and eventually to an incredible heavy sensation—we emptied our pair of two-liter water bottles in 15 minutes—then I started feeling lightheaded. Way beyond mere dehydration, I turned to Alan and gasped, “It’s fucking incredible. The assholes who run this thing ought to be strung up. Why does anybody take this thing? Why do people put up with this shit?” Alan gave me a desperate look, and we both stumbled off to our respective bunks to wait for death or Charjou, whichever came first.
The doors of our cabin flew open after eight hellish hours on the death train. It was the Turkmeni Border Patrol, distinguishable from their Uzbek counterparts only by their green (not red, as in Uzbekistan, or blue, as in Kazakhstan) epaulettes. “Amerikanskis! Passports!” they screamed, and I knew right away that we were exquisitely fucked.
The two border cops quickly flipped through our passports. “Nyeto Turkmeni visa…plakhoy problema,” the shorter one smirked.
“Nyet problema,” I smiled thinlly, pointing at my passport and reminding him of the three-day CIS transit rule. “Kyrgyz visa, da. Uzbek visa, da. Kazakh visa—in transit, da! Nyet problema!” I gave him the thumbs-up sign, trying hard not to release a watery turd into my pants.
He shook his head and pointed at the exit—”bagazh” (bring your baggage). We got off the train at sunrise in the middle of the center of nowhere. An endless expanse of desert stretched west towards the Oxus River, where Charjou’s oil refineries burned Iranian crude a mere mile away and covered the city with a thick haze. As the taller cop held the train, our fellow passengers gathered at the windows to watch the ritual shakedown of the Western tourists.
His partner dragged us into a tiny abandoned building along the tracks. He wrote “$100” on a piece of paper. “Sto dollars—no vidyot.” (Pay me $100, and I didn’t see you.)
“Fuck him,” I told Alan in rapid-fire English. “That’s outrageous! These guys earn $18 a month! $100 is insane!”
“Just pay him whatever he wants,” Alan whispered, adjusting to the air outside the train. I remembered reading somewhere that the sand is 40 degrees hotter than the air in the desert. “I’ve got to get to Charjou.” He did look a lot worse than I felt, and I couldn’t recall ever feeling this badly.
“No way!” I was furious. “If we pay this asshole, he can’t even issue us a visa—what’s the point? We’ll just have to keep paying off every other other shithead cop we encounter on the way to Ashghabat. The worst he can do is put us on a train back to Tashkent.”
“I don’t think I could do another 16 hours on that train,” Alan said softly. I didn’t think I could either, but I thought this asshole could be bargained down to five bucks.
“But he can’t give us a visa—there’s no reason to pay him off!”
“Just pay him,” Alan pleaded. I looked at the border guard, to whom I was about to hand over the equivalent of two thousand American dollars. The guard, sensing that Alan was our weak link, stared at him like a shark and fingered his revolver. What could I do? I contemplated deploying the NATO military switchblade option, but we might die of prison shashlyk poisoning before the Americans—who are in cahoots with all these petty dictatorships—ever got wind of our story. “They were going to gang-rape us,” I could see myself testifying. “I had no choice but to gut the bastard like a muskie.” It sounded no lamer than the O.J. defense.
Alan wanted to pay, the cop wanted to get paid, and then there was me. It was two-to-one. I peeled a crisp, new $100 (unfortunately I had passed off all my grubby “no good” currency by then) and handed it to him. I hated myself.
We had barely gotten back on the dark-green train when the tall cop stopped us outside our berth. “Problema,” he intoned gravely, and pulled us into the conductor’s booth. He carefully wrote both “$50” and “$100” on the back of Alan’s note pad and looked at us quizzically. “Oh, shit,” Alan said. “Don’t tell me he wants another payoff! Fuck him!”
“No, no—I think he wants to know how much we paid his partner,” I said. I bet his partner is trying to stiff him out of his cut.”
Alan and I looked at each other and smirked. Alan crossed out both figures and wrote “$200” on the pad. The cops’ eyes literally bulged. He pointed at the larger figure and cocked his head questioningly. “Bolshoi dyengi,” Alan shouted—that’s big money. The cop shook both our hands with several spasibas (thank yous) and went out to the hallway where his pal was waiting for him. He dragged him off the train and started kicking his confused ass, shouting so loudly that we could still hear him as our train hit the bridge spanning the Uzbek-Turkmeni border.
Our Troubles Begin
I was rip-shit when we got off the train at Charjou—at the cops, for blatantly violating an international visa treaty, at the railway fuckers for running non-air conditioned trains through the hottest territory on earth without the decency to install windows that open, at the Uzbek and Turkmeni citizenry for failing to break those windows and at Alan for failing to grasp that the militsia wasn’t likely to kill us. The shakedown, I felt certain, had been about intimidation, not violence.
While waiting in the train station to buy tickets to Ashghabat, an off-duty cop waiting behind in line us tapped us on the shoulders and demanded to see our passports. We hadn’t been in Charjou five minutes.
“Turkmeni visa—nyet? Problema,” he grinned inanely.
“This is exactly what I was saying before,” I groaned to Alan. “This shit is never going to end.”
Our new tormentor took our passports, led us out to the platform and sat us down. His strategy differed from his comrades’ down the tracks; he was waiting for us to offer him a bribe. Alan and I quickly agreed that we would wait him out, no matter what.
“Tri kilometros—?” the guard asked at one point, stroking his hammer-and-sickle badge, and pointed towards the border. He cocked his head and rubbed his right thumb against his left palm in the local signal for money.
“Oh, nyet!” I replied brightly. I put my thumb up to indicate that the guards at the railroad bridge had been nothing but cooperative. “He said, ‘O.K.!’”
“O.K.?!” he looked at me suspiciously, as if honest border guards risked destroying his nation’s reputation.
Then he grinned at Alan. Alan grinned back like a loon, and cackled loudly right in his face. Then he suddenly shut up and frowned. The guard, taken aback, scooted away a little.
Leaving my bags and Alan as collateral, I went to buy Cokes and cigarettes. Upon my return, Alan lit up a sub-standard Hollywood cigarette (a Central Asian product by the fine folks at Brown & Williamson) and opened one of the Cokes. I had gotten three, so I popped one open and extended the third towards the cop. Brightening up, he reached for it, but before he could get it I flung it towards the track, where it rolled off the platform where our train was sitting. “Problema problema problema!” I laughed wildly, imitating Alan. The cop shook his head, and stared forward nervously as our train pulled out of the station without us. Not to worry—another one would come in two or three days.
We waited there for four hours. Alan smoked, I read Keegan’s Fields of Battle and the cop greeted his colleagues, who passed our passports around in joyful anticipation of the cash they were plotting to extract from our ample American asses.
Eight cops had gathered by the time their boss, a sharply-starched man with four stars on his epaulettes, arrived. His underlings explained the situation. The boss pulled out the press cards in our passports, shouting “journalistas! New York Times! New York Rangers!” while he waved them in each policeman’s face. Then, in impeccable English, he apologized for any inconvenience we might have suffered.
“As you know, you’ve already missed the train,” he said, “but you can still take the bus to Ashghabat. Please follow me to the parking lot.”
He negotiated a discounted fare for us and put us on the bus. “Stay right here. You can pick up your transit visas tomorrow morning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Enjoy your stay in Turkmenistan.”
Relieved and aware that our bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, I purchased a few bottles of 80-cent vodka to pass around the bus. We had almost filled the bus when two of the militsia scum from the train platform poked their head in the bus. Now free of their boss’ civilizing presence, they demanded our passports and gave us the “Nyet Turkmeni visa—bolshoi problema” routine.
“We’ve already been through this,” I said. “Your boss”—I pointed to my shoulders to indicate epaulettes with stars—”said to stay here.” I pointed down.
“Do you have problem with Turkmenistan?” one asked inanely.
“No problem! We love Turkmenistan!” Alan grinned. We had agreed that morning to lose any semblance of Russian vocabulary whenever we encountered the authorities, but Alan was playing good-cop to my bad-cop to their really-bad-cops.
“Alan, Alan, Alan,” the same one said, noting my intransigence. “I am your friend. Come talk to me. Get off the bus.”
“Don’t get off the fucking bus,” I warned. “We can do all this right here in front of these nice people.”
The cops got on the bus with us—though they were obviously accustomed to doing their dirty business in private—and demanded to see our cameras. “You no declare at customs, da?”
“There is no customs here, but then, you know that, since you’re a customs officer,” I said icily. “Good point,” he said, smiling. I wanted to smash his face, but instead I offered to take his picture. He declined.
Then he made us open our packs. “Perhaps you carry narcotics?” he said, trying yet another tack. I presented each item to the whole bus with a flourish and appropriate sound effect; for example, as I held up my diarrhea pills I made a loud farting noise. Everyone on the bus laughed.
Giving up on us, the cops decided to fuck with the bus driver. “Inspection!” they announced, demanding that he open the baggage compartment—usually an uncomfortable request since all buses carry smuggled goods. The driver motioned that they should wait by the side of the bus for the door to open as he pulled the release under the dash. As soon as the cops stepped off the bus, our driver slammed the doors and floored the gas. The militsia ran after us, and we gave them the Central Asian finger out the window (they use the pinkie instead) as he headed off into the desert.
Our Only Friend, The End
We arrived in Ashghabat exhausted and disgusted, the reservoir of adrenaline that had sustained us so long depleted. What our inability to stick to the original plan and the constant battle to get from Point A to Point B hadn’t done to our morale, the eternal vigilance against voracious policemen and thieving citizenry did. The shitty food, miserable weather and shortage of clean clothes (we thought nothing of wearing the same stinking socks and skid-marked underwear for a week at a time) finished us off. To make matters worse, the camel-pocked terrain jacked up Turkmenistan’s desolation quotient even higher than Uzbekistan’s; we had passed from the ends of the earth to beyond the valley of the dead. Alan had held up well physically if not emotionally—probably because I kept insisting that he eat regularly to avoid any more fainting spells—but the long-awaited diarrhea finally struck him as well. My giardia stomach cramps struck me with paralyzing intensity every few minutes for days at a time, reducing me to tears as I tried to sleep.
The first thing we did after checking in to the cold-water (and then, only for two hours a day) Hotel Dayhan was to hit the Iranian embassy; naturally, the Iranian official who had promised us in New York that our visas would be waiting for us in Ashghabat had flaked out. Still, it should only take three or four days for approval to come in from Tehran by fax, the desk clerk said. With so little time to cross the hundreds of miles that remained, we only had two options left: overland through Iran (which would take about four days, or by air to Istanbul.
We killed the next few days bugging the Iranians about our visas—which never came through due to one Islamic holiday or another—and sightseeing around Ashghabat. We trekked out to the sulfurous hot springs inside the Bakharden caves and to the ancient Parthian capital of Nisa, now a pile of vague imprints in a crater of mud. We marveled at Turkmeni President Saparmurad Niyazov’s cult of personality—the whole country is blanketed with his Caecescu-like portraits and six-foot solid bronze depictions of his bad hair and cheap suit.
One evening we were watching TV at the bizarre Florida casino-disco-burger joint-English pub complex when the lead story came on: A civil war over oil had broken out. 2,000 American troops had been deployed to defend a British Petroleum oil field in northwest Kazakhstan from anti-government forces. A camera panned down a street—”Holy shit! That’s our café in Almaty!” I yelled to Alan—and settled on a soldier firing a machine gun from behind an overturned table. Almaty had become a lot more interesting since we’d left a few weeks earlier.
Alan and I were hardly talking. We weren’t angry at each other, really; we just didn’t have the energy to make conversation any more, or, for that matter, to be angry. I had lost two loops on my belt. On the day before our Turkmeni transit visa was due to expire, we went to the Iranian embassy one last time. They told us to come back the next day, but we no longer had enough time to make it to Istanbul by land. We taxied to the Turkmenistan Airways office at the defunct city airport (a new Saparmurad Niyazov International Airport has replaced it), and bought two tickets for Istanbul for $330 each. We handed the clerk my Visa and Alan’s Mastercard. “Mastercard no good!” the woman barked.
I pointed at the big “Mastercard Happily Accepted Here” sign behind her desk. “That was before,” she snapped.
“Before what?” I asked.
“Before-before-before!” she scowled. “Do I call militsia?”
It was the perfect ending to a trip that didn’t turn out the way it should have. We had missed Xian, Kashgar, Lake Issyk-Kul and Bukhara. We’d cruised across the desert in scuzzy buses instead of all-terrain vehicles, eaten rancid lamb rather than sweet oasis fruits and shat our guts out instead of picking up an awesome tan. We escaped vicious Kazakhs and paid off wimpy Turkmen—and in the process, we had seen each other at our worst. Far from pulling off the ultimate vacation scam, we had been consistently ripped off, disrespected and subjected to endless petty abuse. Perhaps we had been wrong about the Silk Road’s demise. The locals had been ripping off travelers there for thousands of years—why should we have been any different?
Now we faced the grim prospect of finishing the voyage by plane, ignominiously defeated by the byzantine bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Put both tickets on my Visa,” I told the airline clerk, smiling sweetly, fantasizing about sex, food that isn’t shashlyk, ‘70s TV, hot showers that run 24 hours a day, and clothes shopping for the new thinner me.
Alan and I haven’t hung out together since.
© 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved
Oral Sex as the Intimacy Alternative
I knew that Shannon liked me. After all, she had given me a whole box of cashews! More importantly, she sent me a Valentine’s Day card through our high school mail, for everyone to see. But I was 16. How could I know how serious she was about a geek like me, my dreamy Marsha Brady clone with the waist-length golden tresses?
About a week later, Shannon drove me home from the Freedom Foods supermarket where we both worked for $2.90 an hour. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot (Fire Away)” was playing. I was about to get out of her ’74 Pinto when she pulled me over toward her. Our eyes locked. Then it happened: my first kiss. I didn’t even mind that my mom was peeking through the Venetian blinds.
More than the tunes have changed since the late ’70s. According to a new study on teen sex by Los Angeles pediatrician Dr. Mark Schuster, oral sex has become the equivalent of a first kiss—a casual gesture that doesn’t imply any commitment beyond simple affection. “Oral sex doesn’t seem like sex,” a 15-year-old girl from Manhattan told The New York Times. “People may see the first time as a rite of passage, but after that, it’s nothing much.”
A 14-year-old boy agreed, saying that “oral sex did not necessarily imply a real relationship.”
Said New York psychologist Dr. Carol Perry: “It is incredible how casual oral sex has become for some adolescents. With older people, it was something that usually came further along in a relationship, when two people had been comfortable with each other and intimate for a while. But many of the adolescents see it as safer than intercourse, and not as intimate.” If a time warp were to transport me back to Shannon’s Pinto, I probably wouldn’t want my mom to witness that first, er, kiss.
Kids certainly didn’t learn this stuff from their elders. In a 1994 study of sexual habits in America, fewer than half of the women over 50 claimed to have ever performed oral sex. Maybe that’s why mainstream reaction to the rise of the BJ-and-a-movie date—to encourage teenagers to use mint-flavored condoms and dental dams during oral sex—is so absurd. Who in their right mind would perform oral sex on latex? No, if we adults are ever to provide useful information to adolescents, we have to accept their weird new sex habits the way they are. As Dr. Cydelle Berlin, founder of the Adolescent AIDS prevention program at Mount Sinai Medical Center said, “For girls, ‘Do you spit or do you swallow?’ is a typical seventh-grade question.”
With that in mind, here’s how to answer questions teens may ask you:
• Is it OK to administer oral sex on the first date?
Certainly. After a nice evening together, there’s absolutely nothing inappropriate about planting one on your date’s privates on the front porch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get married or anything.
• Can I get pregnant from oral sex?
Yes. If your “humors” become amorous, and a black cat crosses your path at the stroke of midnight, look for twins in the morning.
• The fascists who run my high school have banned public displays of affection in the halls and locker areas. Does this include 69ing?
It depends on your state. In Mississippi, for example, you could be donated for vivisection at a cosmetics lab or forced to participate in school prayer. In California, on the other hand, 69ing is completely acceptable, even in class, but only so long as it doesn’t interfere with the learning process.
• A boy I like has asked me to the homecoming dance, but I’ve never had oral sex before. How can I avoid embarrassing myself?
Any number of excellent films on the subject can be found on community-access cable television. Ask your parents to disable their V-chip, or try surfing the World Wide Web, which is chock-full of just the kind of obscenity you’re looking for.
• I’m confused. My girlfriend is pressuring me to “go all the way” with her, but I feel that I’m not ready. She says she’s tired of “oral sex, oral sex, oral sex, always oral sex,” and that if I loved her, I’d do it.
That’s a dilemma, not a question. But you’re too young to know the difference. Anyway, your girlfriend may be ready for a level of commitment that you’re just not comfortable with. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into having real sex. If she wants more than just oral sex, tell her to find it elsewhere.
• On Valentine’s Day, everyone in my school gets oral sex except me.
Don’t worry about it. Because teenagers are shallow, they’re only sexually attracted to people based on their physical appearance. Adults, on the other hand, will also consider how much money you earn. After age 18 you’ll be able to pay for it.
• I wear braces. Is this a problem?
(Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist and freelance writer based in New York City, was a 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist in editorial cartooning.)
© 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved