Three Days of Frankenstorm

Sunday

The store is running out of things like bread and water. People stand in line holding cases of beer and itching at a dulled panic. Our instincts tell us to be prepared. Our arrogance tells us not worry. This is New York; nothing happens here, nothing happens to us. But on the news they’re saying that it could. My friend — who is working on a show about global warming and has been in daily talks with the hurricane control center — assures me that it will.

“Make sure you’re ready,” she says. “Buy food.”

Bloomberg’s waited to announce the severity of the storm, letting the weekend pass with its Halloween festivities, allowing us to get drunk and dance and dress up like bloodied homecoming queens and spandexed superheroes, unworried about impending doom. Now, with a day left to go, everyone is scrambling.

I’ve stocked up on a whole mess of useless, perishable things, incapable of imagining the worst case scenarios: stuck in my apartment, surrounded by water for weeks, with only wilted kale and room temperature hummus to sustain myself. Dutifully, I buy my cans of beans, a couple boxed soups. What a depressing series of meals that would be.

Today, everyone just prepares and waits. The clouds that have been hanging over the city for the past four days are still there, gray and omnipresent. The wind has started to pick up. It doesn’t rain. At 7 p.m. they close the subways.

Monday

Cops are patrolling the neighborhoods closest to the river, telling people they need to evacuate right away. I am on the border of Zone A and Zone B. When I try to walk towards the pier to get a look at the city before we are all extinguished, a cop flashes his lights and tells me to “move it along.”

I sneak down the next street where the police cars driving past are not so militant. The East River is already rising, well over three feet higher than normal and just beneath the pier. It’s noon and the hurricane hasn’t even made landfall. The wind is blowing hard. I go home for fear of falling trees and things that generally kill stupid people who never listened to their mothers.

The day progresses and sometimes it rains but mostly it’s the wind. It finds its way through the tiny spaces between the wall and the windowpanes and whistles through my apartment. Outside, it howls like an army of screaming men, strong and bellowing. Green leaves are wrenched off of boughs and sent floating through the air – not simply down, but around – yanked across the sky sideways.

With each unrelenting gust, the trees outside twist painfully, seemingly as pliable as strings of rubber – one bough goes this way and another goes that.

Before the power shuts off, I make dinner and take a shower, not wanting to do either by candlelight. The lights have been flickering for the past hour. Around 8 p.m., against my better judgment, I put on clothes and go down to the water, walking down the middle of the street with all the other storm chasers so that we’re not so exposed to the trees hanging over the sidewalk.

The air is sticky and warm, wet with mist. Red lights from a parked ambulance glow on black pavement. There are a surprising number of people here to see what’s going on — boys and girls in rain slickers and boots, hoods over their heads. The cops aren’t telling us to go away anymore because what idiot would go further; the East River has already breached the edge and made it up a whole block. To the left, where the road slopes ever so slightly, cars are half-submerged in water. We stand at the edge, the river making an impromptu shore of the asphalt, and wonder how much worse it is going to get.

Gusts of wind come harder, pushing at the back of my legs. The corrugated metal fence wrapped around an empty lot bangs angrily against itself, the wind peeling it back at an opening like the lid of a tuna can. You can hear heavy things being blow around and slamming into walls. The sound of sirens screaming somewhere distant.

It’s going to hit us soon.

I run home and Jared calls with an update from South Williamsburg. He and Lisa have been watching green lights flashing over the boroughs. “Looks like laser beams!” Lisa yells in the background.

We’re talking about Halloween parties and rave music and people being too messed up for after parties when the sky outside my bedroom windows flashes lime green, flaring up to the skies above.

“Whoa!”

Jared saw it, too.

That was a big one.

When I call Serena three minutes later, she is walking through the East Village in a panic. “ We just saw the ConEd building, like, blow up. I gotta go.” After she hangs up, the lower part of Manhattan loses power and cell reception. I won’t hear from her again until late the next day.

By this time, the Internet has gone out. I have no idea what’s going on in the real world, or how far the river has moved up my block. All I’m left with are slow-loading Instagram photos and Facebook posts, mostly from people updating in other cities. From what I can tell it looks bad. Lief sends me a picture of his part of Brooklyn, where the street grids between low-lying industrial buildings are flooded with about three or so feet of water. Cars are covered, trash bags float. They’ve run out of booze. Things are looking grim.

I fall asleep with four more hours of the storm to go, the power still running, the wind still wailing.

Tuesday

The sky is gray but the wind has mellowed. I miss the noise, the frenzied rustle. I pull on sneakers and a coat and head outside to see the damage. There are a few fallen trees, the sidewalks covered in a thick carpet of wet leaves and twigs. The water has receded, taking back with it garbage and leaving the remainder scattered in the middle of the streets. All of the wooden fences are down, separated and strewn about.

All of lower Manhattan is without power and cell phone reception. The subways are flooded, the bridges are closed. The only way in and out of the city are through two tunnels that the mayor doesn’t want anyone using.

The Internet is back on and I can see the damage: the waterfalls of seawater pouring into the World Trade Center, the surging tide surrounding the carousel along the Brooklyn waterfront, the security cam photo from the inside of a flooded PATH station. Manhattan is a disaster.

But it’s business as usually in Brooklyn. I walk around with friends, work from home with my electricity that works, eat from a fridge that’s still running. I meet my friend for dinner and then head home, passing lit-up Halloween decorations and glowing patios.

Before I go back inside, I walk towards the waterfront to see the blackout from a distance.

Manhattan sits there, hulking and useless, half of it just a series of boxy shadows. It is bizarrely silent, save a solitary honk from a semi truck. The restlessness we are known for – the go go go go that never stops, never sleeps – has grinded to a halt, reluctantly.

A tranquilized giant.

Sparse strings of headlights and taillights pass along the mostly empty FDR. Cop cars dot the highway, evident by their blinking blue and red.

This reminds me of what the Titanic must have looked like right before it sank – eerily still and massive, all of the lights off, silent and agreeable, bound to its fate. It is such a strange thing standing here, seeing New York City like this.

I walk along the darkened pier, listening to the lapping of water, the rustling of plastic bags trapped in the metal fence. Trash clings to it: empty bottles, cardboard containers for Bud Light, dead sea grass. The unfinished parts of the pier have been upended and scattered.

Standing here, you get the real sense that we are just going to extinguish ourselves off of the face of this earth. We will be gone but our buildings will stand, and the wilderness will overtake it because the wilderness is paramount. But until that time comes, no one will do anything. We will just keep building our buildings and flying our planes, making money off of ransacking this planet, scooping out nonrenewable resources as though it were an all-you-can-eat buffet for which we will not have to pay.

I look out at a black Manhattan and turn to leave just as the old Polish men come out with their fishing poles and battery-powered lanterns, hooking bait and coughing loudly.

Business as usual.

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Field Trip!

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Get your last taste of Flip Collective ’til 2013. Check out my piece on Hamburg, the world’s shittiest city. Click through the image above.

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I get in from my trip to Table Mountain just as I’m supposed to be on a van headed to a work event for an evening spent with booze and light snacks in one of Cape Town’s most “breathtaking settings.” I need a break. No more wine. No more canapés. No more breathtaking sunsets. I need to sit and do nothing. I want to eat hummus out of a jar with a spoon and watch really awful movies that were never released in the United States. I want to talk to no one but the wall in front of me.

Leah, the Guest Services Director, however, does not see it that way. I see her on my way in. Fuckity fuck. Now what.

“Leah,” I start, thinking that I am somehow going to wrestle my way out of this evening on account of my running late, “I’m supposed to be leaving for Summerton Ridge right now but I haven’t had time to change.”

Leah scans her thick packet of various itineraries. She’s having to deal with two hundred guests going to about six different places, all via different vans and buses. We are like pieces of luggage getting sorted at Heathrow International. She is on the verge of hating everyone.

“Yes,” she says, not quite picking up on where I am going with this (or, maybe, totally picking up on where I am going with this).

“Do I have time to go up to my room and change?”

“You look fine, dear!”

I glance down for an aerial perspective of my outfit: distressed jeans, tattered Brooklyn boots, my black coat, a bag with a giant bottle of water in it slung across my body. I look as though I’ve just come back from some thrifting expedition in Hipster Town.

Leah grabs me by the shoulders and turns me round, sending me through the revolving doors towards a van with “Summerton Ridge” clearly printed on a sign. I climb aboard, reluctantly.

On the van already are people who have taken the time to shower and change. These are proper grown ups with groomed hair and freshly applied lipstick. God, I’m such a child. Modeling has instilled in me a careless whatever-ness that does not make me well suited for the real world. I’m like Anne Hathaway’s character in Rachel Getting Married, here to destroy everything with my inappropriate crop-top and an alcohol problem. I do my best to make up for this with biggish words and an intellectual cadence. Don’t look at me, it says. Listen to my $200k education!

The van takes the long way, getting lost a winding, beautiful road until it deposits us in front of an estate that looks as though it’s undergone one too many renovations. The bones are old, but the surface is suspiciously contemporary. Kind of like the building equivalent of that “Catwoman” beast of botched plastic surgery, Jocelyn Wildenstein.

Someone leads us through a hallway lined with artwork until we are on a patio looking out onto a bay. The sun sets over Cape Town, the lights from expensive condos twinkling into significance as the purple and pink give way to navy, a bluish bruise blackening in time.

We dutifully take pictures.

Tables are set up in a room, covered in full bottles and empty glasses. Two young men play contemporary music on classical instruments. Servers have started to walk around with a whole host of uncomplimentary – and fairly disgusting — snacks: Japanese sushi, Indian samosas, Greek spanokopita. Something for everyone and no one at the same time. In desperation, I start eating fistfuls of almonds and biltong, swiped from little white bowls.

Without my boss to trail around, I am left to fend for myself. I travel from brand new acquaintance to brand new acquaintance with the dutiful peckishness of a hungry little mouse. What did you today? Where are you from? How many hours did it take for you to get here? And you? And you? And you? Right now I am craving — more than anything in the world – a sit-down meal and a meaty conversation.

Just as I suspected, I look like a stowaway who snuck into the event for some free booze. I am the youngest person here by at least ten to fifteen years. There are women in kitten heels and silk blouses.

I find one of my newer friends, a gentleman that reminds me of Stellan Skarsgård, who I met the evening previous. I make some comment about my attire.

“It’s been noted,” he says.

I’m pretty sure he’s kidding. I really hope he’s kidding.

I take another handful of almonds and biltong. The two gentlemen playing in the corner have begun their rendition of “Call Me Maybe,” with no hint of irony. I take this as my cue to leave.

“If anyone asks about me, tell them I’ve gotten food poisoning,” I tell New Friend, and then I escape up a set of stairs, past people drinking wine in weird living rooms, and towards the road, as though I’ve just been freed from an abduction.

Eating Standing Up

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2 Illegit 2 Quit: Part II

The show is happening, apparently. I get an email from my booker confirming a fitting on Friday and a show on Saturday. Based off past experiences, I ask how much the rate is, prepared to drop out if it’s paying $20, per my expectations.

It’s not horrible.

I confirm.

Through a maze of absolutely appalling bridal gowns, I find the stage where the show will be. One hundred dresses, eighteen designers — some of whom are threatening to back out because there were only supposed to be ten. Now the show is oversaturated, complicated, and, as everyone is quickly starting to find out, run by an insane person.

“They don’t care,” I hear one complain, “they got the money already, didn’t they?”

I don’t like the feeling that I am a part of some sort of fashion scam, taking the hard-earned cash of small designers who probably can’t afford the expense to begin with. My second thought is that they’ll sue afterward, and I won’t be getting my money. Oh, well. One day out of my reasonably short life. Worse things have happened. Like that time I had to stand in a window on Rodeo Drive and model dresses for twelve hours while Japanese tourists took pictures and shopped for the holidays. The owner of the store wanted to wire Christmas lights through my hair (and plug them in). I declined.

Mr. Lunatic Producer is here, running around like a person who doesn’t know what he’s doing. His voice rasps when he calls out the names of all the models.

“How many girls we gawt?” he says, his mouth filled with giant chunks of teeth, hair swinging in front of his face. He looks like part of the road crew for Led Zeppelin.

I check myself into hair and makeup. Two women curl my hair from behind, talking and chatting and making jokes. They’re new.

Next is makeup, where I sit down in front of a woman who alternates between dragging her finger against the smudged surface of her Samsung Smartphone to check Facebook and dragging it against my closed eyelid. I want to express my general concern for my health and well being – maybe even mention how I don’t care so much for pink eye – but I say nothing, even as she double dips her mascara wand into its tube, collecting black gunk and the bacteria from a thousand eyeballs and jamming it next to my own. I’m shocked I haven’t gone blind yet.

“CAMMAN GIRLS!”

Mr. Lunatic rounds the corner, exasperated that half of us are in hair and makeup and half of us are waiting to rehearse. He’s got some “diamond shape” thing he needs to work out – meaning, it’s not working but he’s going to have us rehearse it for a whole hour we don’t have.

Twenty-five of us stand in a disorganized row, our hair and makeup in various stages of completion.

“HEY! HEY! YOU!”

Mr. Lunatic is looking in our direction. He could be screaming at one of three of us.

“Whattareyoulookingat?”

“Me?”

The girl in front of me points to her chest.

“YEAH, YOU. I’M RIGHT HERE. WHY ARE YOU LOOKING IN THE CORNER? YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK IN THE CORNER. LOOK IN FRONT OF YOU.”

Out of rubbernecking curiosity, I look in the corner myself. There’s nothing going on there; interns are organizing shoes.

As of this moment, we have not been instructed as to what the hell is going on; we’ve just been told to get near the entrance of the runway. For most of us, this directive has never been accompanied by the assumption that we are only to look in front of us, at the back of some girl’s head, military style.

Fascist.

“I got my eye on you, Mimi,” he says, a creepy smiling twisting into life on his face and then walking away.

“I’m not Mimi,” the girl whispers to us.

“Yeah, I know. I’m Mimi,” says another, annoyed she’s been sucked into this bullshit.

He returns, and for a long, confusing stretch of time he opens and closes his mouth and words come out.

“The first girl goes there and the second girl goes there and then the third and you only go when the fourth one comes out and then she moves to the left and you to the right and then you come back over on this side and exit and then she moves to the center and you stand there for three seconds. It’s like baseball. You girls every heard of baseball?”

My brain can’t handle this.

We run rehearsal for an hour. Nobody is getting it. He’s angry and yelling. A lot.

“GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! LISTEN TO THE MUSIC! LISTEN TO THE MUSIC!”

Yeah, buddy. I’m listening to it, and it fucking sucks. He goes on to tell us that this isn’t your normal bridal show; it’s a kick ass, rock-and-roll fashion show, as indicated by the use of Lady Gaga’s 2009 hit, “Paparazzi.”

I look around the line at the rest of the models. I’m sorry, I meant “models.” Out of 25, there are probably 5 that should actually be working. The rest of the girls have butts, boobs, and big arms – three fashion no-nos. Their bodies are soft like puddy, marred by an unprofessional doughiness. At least three of them look like cast members from Glee or Real Housewives.

The girl in front of me, an avian thing with bleached blonde hair and a prominent nose (one of the six who looks like a model), goes off on her theory about how there is no work for the in between girl. “You either size two or size ten, zat’s it,” she says. “If you a four, forget about it.”

That theory does not apply here. This show is like the United Nations of cup sizes and cellulite.

If I sound like a bitch, it’s because I’ve been subjected to the critical appraisal of others for the better part of ten years. Oh, Jenny! Did you eat cookies this weekend? Jenny, I hate to ask you this, but did you put on weight? Don’t worry; we’ll put this on someone smaller. In turn, I’ve become as harshly judgmental as the people who hire me. It’s a ruthless way of looking at the world, one measured by the surface and nothing else.

These standards do not apply to normal people; these standards only apply to models, who are paid to be abnormal. Abnormally beautiful, abnormally tall, abnormally thin. A bunch of Avatar-looking freaks.

“HEY! YOU!”

Lunatic Producer is back to model-specific screaming, having singled out the avian girl.

“LOOK AT ME. WHY ARE YOU LOOKING DOWN? DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”

I’m pretty sure this all qualifies as harassment. Then again, we’re just a bunch of non-unionized idiots.

“Yes, I speak English, sir. And I’m not looking at you because there is a big light behind you and it burns my eyes when I look up.”

Score 1: Team Tall People.

I duck out of rehearsal to finish my makeup with Sticky Fingers. She works a brush filled with thick foundation over my face, filling in the skin like spackle. With a smaller one, I feel her painting between the inner corners of my eyes and down the side of my nose.

“So how long have you been modeling?”

Ugh. This conversation again.

“Ten years.”

“Do you love it?”

She mixes a lethal combination of pink and coral on the side of her hand and mashes it into my lips. I can do nothing more than making an unenthusiastic creaking noise with my mouth, something amounting to a combination of “Errrrrr” and “Meeehhhhh.” I can feel my impatience for modeling becoming a dangerous liability.

“Alright, you’re all set,” she says. I feel like I’m wearing one of those Nixon Halloween masks with the cutout eyes and a slit for a mouth. My pores aren’t breathing. I look the mirror. She’s contoured my face into a bronze bust of some Greek dude.

The rest of the evening goes by about as horribly as I would imagine. The show is by and large a total disaster. They’ve changed their minds so many times that no one knows what’s going on. Girls keep shouting “straight down” or “diamond” and half the time we end up on the runway looking like brainless, bug-eyed morons. It goes on for a whole hour. By the end of it, the room is cooking with high-powered lights and too many bodies.

The music ends and the people clap, tired and eager to get out of the room. I rush towards my heap of real-girl clothes, throwing on pants and shoes and running away, quick as I can, past more bad bridal gowns – a nightmare of cheap beads and bad satin.

Story of my life.

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BUY ME! (please?)

Okay, the way I see it, all of you are EVENTUALLY going to have to pay to read my work (dear f’ing god, please). And when you do, it’ll be like $14.99 and it will be a book. For now, I offer you this chance to pay a little bit of money to read a little bit of my work. We just released CARTEL, Flip Collective’s e-magazine. Please support us (and me). Flip Collective has made me an infinitely better writer, which I hope has benefited you as a reader. Anyway, check out the excerpt from my piece by clicking through the image above and, if you like it, go to Amazon and purchase it for $2.99. It’s cheaper than an US Weekly Magazine and you won’t go to hell because of it.

Buy it here on Amazon.

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2 Illegit 2 Quit

The email for the casting says specifically “do not be late.” I imagine my booker sitting on the other side of the computer writing this, wagging her finger and squinting her eyes menacingly. Must be important, I think.

I wake up at 7 and wait til 9:30 to get ready for the casting at 11, which I’ll have to leave my apartment for at 10. I spend the morning incapable of getting anything done. That’s how it goes; when I’m modeling, everything else falls to the wayside, as though my brain has to prepare itself for not being used, has to start the slow process of stifling the frequencies. Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing.

From about 8 til 9, I watch Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” about twelve times and crawl around the floor of my bedroom, wondering if the neighbors beneath me have any idea what I do with my spare time.

When I arrive, there are already three girls ahead of me on the list. The client isn’t here yet. So much for that previously mentioned urgency.

I stand in the hallway.

I wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I squat against a wall, talking to a girl who has obviously been modeling for a handful of months not yet amounting to a year. She still has that dumb, fruitful excitement that I recognize in myself as being three or four years dead. She’s babbling about some test shoot she has that afternoon, about modeling in Miami, about getting into a row with her mother agency and redoing her book. God, I hate these conversations.

Music from the late nineties is playing overhead. Soul For Real “Candy Rain.” Mariah Carey “Fantasy.” I’d say something to the tune of “This song reminds me of 3rd grade!” but I’d be dating myself. Most of the girls in here were still crawling when all these songs came out. They have no vivid memories of Mariah Carey rollerblading on a boardwalk wearing denim cut-offs and wrist protectors, singing into the camera with lips painted brown, her eyebrows tweezed into insignificance, cheeks covered in matte, shine resistant powder.

Shoo do do do do do do do yeah…

The client arrives. Twenty minutes late. By now, there are thirty of us flanking the walls, waiting patiently because that’s part of our job. Waiting. Waiting and looking pretty and being thin. That’s about it.

The first girl goes. Ten minutes later, the next one follows. It’s 11:40 and we’re only on the third model. I look around the corner to see what’s going on. The client, a man, is talking with a model wearing gray jeans. I can tell immediately, without even hearing him, that he is insane. He’s talking too close and too much. No one talks with a model this much at a casting. In fact, you are hardly spoken to at all. She stands there nodding her head, not having the foggiest idea as to what is going on.

“I think this guy is a lunatic,” I say to Betina, the model sitting next to me. “Just look.” Betina crawls over my legs, stretching her long pale neck to catch a glimpse.

Eleven minutes of straight talking later, the victim emerges, bewildered.

I walk in and place my book down on the table, trying to convey a sense of urgency because I’ve decided to wear heels all day and I don’t feel like standing here for fifteen minutes.

“Tell me who you are?” he says.

“Jenny Bahn.”

He scrolls down a list on his smart phone, telling me he needs to see who he has written down and who he doesn’t.

“I’m assuming you know about this job,” he starts, “which is to say, you know nothing.”

I resist the urge to tell him that’s pretty much how it always is. Show up now, find out later. I don’t give a shit about what I’m doing; I just care about the money. You could have me dancing around with three hundred monkeys in a trailer park wearing fur and carrying an assault rifle and you wouldn’t have to tell me what I was doing ahead of time. If you pay me, I’ll do it. This is where the line between modeling and prostitution becomes a gray area.

“So the show is on Saturday. We’ll have a rehearsal on Friday from 6:30 to 9. It’s 100 dresses,” he continues. “Have you ever done runway?”

“Yes,” I say.

“For who?”

I list off a handful of designers.

“Okay, you don’t have to say anything else,” he responds, my answers somehow validating my career. “So ordinarily, there are only 30, 40 dresses in a show,” he continues. “And we’re going to have, like I said, 100. To keep people from getting bored…”

He starts drawing out the staging formations he has planned for the show with a bejeweled pen, moving his hand over the table like he’s making up football plays. Part I is this. Part II is this. Part III is this. He says something about a hair change.

By now, I am highly disturbed, because everything that’s happened over the last four minutes indicates that this person is not professional and has never casted anything in his life. And yet here he is, standing in my agency, meeting models, taking their names, shaking their hands. There should be background checks before we go on these things, some sort of security procedure to keep us away from psychopaths and pedophiles.

But there’s not.

He explains to me that he’s a press photographer during fashion week. Indeed, a laminated press pass hangs around his neck. But it’s not fashion week anymore, and I find this highly strange.

I look at his hands to see if there is any evidence of his possibly being homeless. He’s a rumpled thing, this man, and anything’s possible. He reminds me of this other photographer who stands outside the Starbucks on Prince and Spring, waiting for pretty girls to walk past so he can say, “Hey, you’re a model. Can I take your picture?” No matter how many times you’ve seen him, he never remembers you, only asks the same question and hands you a business card that takes you to a bizarre beta site with unedited thumbnails of countless strangers.

While he’s talking, I assess him further. His hair is unnaturally brown, given his age, and hangs around his face in bluntly chopped streams, everything contained by a white baseball cap. He reminds me of Iggy Pop dressed up like Anthony Kiedis for Halloween, wearing clothes two sizes too big and a brown wig. Each of his teeth is hugged by the blackened lines of inattentive hygiene. And his eyes, indeed, are those of a crazy person.

He’s still talking, telling me that they have money in place for the show, that the agency will invoice him on Monday and everyone will get their money right away. “I’m a freelancer, too,” he says, “I know how it goes.”

Each sentence that comes out of his mouth further diminishes the legitimacy of this job. In fact, I’m fairly sure there isn’t a job at all. All this time, my book has been sitting on the table, completely ignored. He hasn’t stood back from me at a distance to assess my body type, looked at my measurements, judged me in any useful way. Real casting directors exact with the ruthless precision of a newly sharpened scythe. This guy cuts through the task like a dull and rusty butter knife.

He’s wrapped up his spiel. “So,” he starts. “Do you want to do it?”

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Alone at the Edge of the World


“My name is Desmond. What is your name?”

My South African cab driver is looking in the rearview mirror towards me in the backseat.

“I’m Jenny.”

“Jenny,” he starts, “can I tell you something? You will come back to Cape Town. It doesn’t matter if it takes years; you will come back. There something magnetic about this place, and you will come back.”

Desmond hands me his card before dropping me off in front of Table Mountain and tells me to call him if I need to be picked up when I’m done. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t have a cell phone or that calling him will be an impossible task. “Thanks for the ride,” I say.

It’s funny, really. I had been so nervous getting a cab by myself in Cape Town, having heard so many stories and warnings. Don’t travel alone as a girl. Don’t wander off by yourself. But there are no alternatives; I’m solo in South Africa. But here’s Desmond, my new friend.

I purchase a roundtrip ticket up the mountain and wait in line wearing overly ambitious layers: jeans, boots, sweater, coat. It’s been horrible and gray the last four days; I expected more of the same up here. Instead, I cook under the sun, holding my black jacket in between two crossed arms while I listen to the painful couple behind me talk in the type of German that makes people hate Germans. The man’s got a chinstrap beard and an eyebrow piercing. The woman’s got whatever the female equivalent to that would be. She looks like an aggressive volleyball player and heavy consumer of cheap beer.

“Ma’am, is it just you?”

Some Table Mountain employee is standing in front of me in a Table Mountain shirt.

“Oh, yeah,” I say.

“Just stand against the green,” he says, “for a photograph.”

First offense: Being called ma’am. Second offense: Being forced to stand alone and get a picture taken by myself while the horrible German couple behind me watches on.

I move towards a green wall and stand on green carpet. “Big smile!” he says. I would cringe at the whole ordeal if I actually gave a shit.

We inch towards the entrance and eventually board one of two cable cars bearing the word VISA nestled amongst painted flora and fauna. Seventeen people pile inside. I stand near the edge, facing outward, sandwiched between an elderly couple and a Plexiglas window.

Slowly, the car pulls back and the interior begins to rotate, giving everyone inside a chance to see the views of sprawling Cape Town as we ascend. It moves quickly and suddenly and the man in front of me holds onto the stationary railing until I begin to push into him dangerously. “Let go!” I want to scream, but he’s old and foreign and people don’t yell at grandpas. Still, I imagine a duck pile of tourists and the unfortunate ones spilling out of the open windows.

We quicken our pace, speedily racing up the cliff, defying gravity and our collective weight. The steep fractured walls of Table Mountain come into view and quickly change, the car casting shadows on the felt below.

Within minutes, we’ve already reached the top. I’m the first one out the gates. I don’t have to organize or wait for anyone; that’s the beauty and the tragedy of traveling alone.

My boots clack against the ancient stone and I turn around to see the view.

From above, Cape Town is a basin filled with gray skyscrapers and the terracotta roofs of private residences. A charcoal marine layer lays in wait on the horizon line. Water sluggishly pools in the bay areas, frothing against the shoreline like freshly poured beer. Here I am, standing at the edge of the world, by myself.

I lean against a wall of sorts, something that prevents you from spilling out and over the edge. The surface of the protruding rocks is warm and smoother than I thought it would be, imbued with a slight callousness, like holding the hand of a very old man. You feel the solidity of this place, an ancient density.

To the left, light bounces off of roofs along Camps Bay. That is where the rich people live, huddled in between green mountains. The poor people are sprawled out en masse elsewhere, in shacks that look like the crumpled contents of a recycling bin.

Next to me, a group of young Kiwi boys argue, each of them wearing some variation of the same short shorts.

“It was clear hyperbole, Dave. Concede,” one demands.

These short, simple sentences make me question the entirety of the American education system. All I ever hear on the New York subways during the post-school rush hour is “Damn girl” and shrill, unnecessary “What the fucks?”

“No concession,” Dave rebuts. “There is not anything for which one can concede.”

I feel like I’m in an episode of Flight of the Concords.

There are other kids here, too – many, in fact. Herds of them cluster together, both boys and girls in tidy white and black pullovers with button-up shirts and black tennis shoes.

When I’ve tired of wandering around by myself, as one tends to do, I stand in line to go down, behind a mother and daughter, both of whom spend the better part of thirty minutes loudly slurping on their respective ice cream cones, talking only every five minutes or so, mostly about negotiating how to get every last bit out of the bottom of the cone. It’s funny that we spend all this time meeting people, and talking to people, and dating people, and marrying people, just to end up standing next to someone, not saying anything at all.

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South African Lemons

It’s my last day. Erin asks me what I want to do before my flight and lists off some sights. “Frankschhoek,” I say. “I could see Franschhoek.” The weather outside is gray and miserable, and between the two of us, we’ve seen enough wineries and tasted enough swill to hold us over until Armageddon. Still, I don’t want to stay in the hotel. Anything but staying in one place for the whole day before I stay in place for the whole flight back to the USA, caged like a circus animal.

Erin looks just as pained at the response as I do at my request. “We can do that, yeah,” she says, the epitome of an agreeable host. I’m sure the both of us would rather sit in the corner rocking back and forth like two silent lunatics. It’s been a long week.

We meet at 10:30 on a sidewalk in Stellenbosch until the car comes round. Erin just has to drop of laundry at a friend’s house. Apparently the washing service at the hotel didn’t so much wash her clothes as fluff and fold them, sans soap and water. “It all still smelled like campfire smoke,” Erin tells me. Fanny said she could borrow her washing machine.

Fanny’s house is on the collegiate part of town, near the university. Stellenbosch reminds me very much of Santa Barbara in that way, only a few hundred years older. On one side, it’s bleachy white and green and lush, a wine drinker’s utopia. On the other, it’s boozing, sexing, and partying. All under one beautiful roof.

Erin points at the lot opposite of Fanny’s house. It’s empty and weed-ridden. The only clues that there might have been anything there are the walkways that snake into the grass, leading nowhere. Erin tells me that the government bulldozed the houses because they had been empty and abandoned and then some Nigerians started squatting there.

Three dogs greet us at a yellow gate: one small, one medium, one large. As it turns out, the puppy, which Fanny and her boyfriend adopted two weeks ago, was saved from a truck transporting stolen dogs from Cape Town to a country north of here. They steal the puppies from South Africa for dogfights, using them to bait the older, bigger dogs. They throw them into the ring before the fights and the real fighter dogs rip them to pieces, at which point they’re amped and blood thirsty for the real thing.

I watch him run away down the side of the house, light as a leaf on a breeze.

Africa is a feral, wicked place. A whole history of mistrust and bad blood sits just beneath the surface, waiting for the precise moment of vindication, as though the entire continent just needs one excuse to completely incinerate. It is a feeling I get walking through the aisles of the local supermarket in Stellenbosch. The people are jittery and watchful, even when purchasing their shrink-wrapped meats, their boxes of biscuits.

Still, I could be wrong. But I very much want to go back and read Heart of Darkness to validate my suspicions, my instinctual weariness of this place.

Erin walks towards the back of the house and Fanny lets us in through a screen door, leading us through a washroom filled with drying clothing and into a damp living room with very high ceilings and walls covered in art: a series of sketched pistols, a few real pistols, geometric butterflies.

Fanny gets us tea. Rooibos.

Tom comes in. That’s Fanny’s boyfriend. He’s an artist and a musician and he’s got graying hair and a ruddy complexion. Fanny comes back with four mugs tea and a side of milk. Tom starts a fire. Erin makes a comment in Afrikaans about the fire being worthless, as it smolders without burning.

So far, I like South Africans. They’re strange people, comedic realists. If life hands you lemons, you bite down hard on the rind and let your tongue steep in its bitterness, then you make a joke about it. This is perhaps what happens when your ancestors decide to leave the western comforts of Europe and make the trek all the way down to the edge of civilization, realizing that this is the end of the road and you’d be mad to turn back. You exist for hundreds of years in what is essentially a massive island, separated from the world, accountable to no one.

We drink our tea, wash Erin’s clothes, have a good laugh and listen to music. When it’s time to leave, Fanny walks us around the side, petting the top of the medium sized dog’s head as we walk. This one, she says, had been stabbed in the head not too long ago during what South Africans call a “home invasion.” I think they use the phrase “home invasion” because it takes into account a greater life threatening danger than just your run-of-the-mill robbery. In a robbery, your TV is getting stolen, your pearls get snagged. In a “home invasion,” you might get raped.

Luckily for Fanny, she wasn’t home when it happened, but her neighbors called her that day. “Hey, Fanny. Sorry, but your dog is wandering around the street with a knife in its head.” Erin tells me they usually just toss the dogs poisoned sausages.

“To kill or to sedate,” I ask, imagining that comedic scene in Something About Mary with the mutt and the giant tabs of Oxycontin.

“Oh, to kill,” she says, with a frankness that everyone here seems obligated to possess, a survival tactic for acceptance of the status quo.

 

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Sixteen Hours to Africa

7:00 a.m. – I eat breakfast, brush my teeth, throw out the trash. My bags are packed, I’ve got my passport, my snacks are accounted for. South Africa, here I come!

9:02 a.m. – After an hour-long train ride to the airport, I take the elevator to the ticketing counters. I’m in a new, unfamiliar terminal. I look a screen displaying arrivals and departures: Flight SA203 11:15 a.m. DELAYED 9:50 p.m. Ohhhhh, really. That’s, like, awesome.

9:25 a.m. – The woman behind the counter passes me a sheet of paper that says something like, “Blah blah blah, flight last night from Johannesburg blah blah medical emergency blah blah blah deepest apologies blah blah blah.” She hands two (rather generous) vouchers for lunch and a snack, $25 and $15, respectively. I tell her I think I’m just going to go home. She tells me to hold onto my receipts. Free cab rides? Yes, please!

10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – I sit on my couch, get some work done. Per my mother’s suggestion, I go for a run. That’s only after she spoils my good time by telling me just how long it will take for me to get to South Africa, since I hadn’t bothered to look. She Googles the flight while on the phone with me. “Here it is,” she says. “Ten Worst Flights in the World.” We laugh now, but I’ll be crying later.

5:31 p.m. – My cab driver arrives (second one of the day!) and I feel quite posh and luxurious.

6:15 p.m. – Because my cab driver is a badass, we make it to the airport in record time: 45 minutes during rush hour. Red lights were run, side streets were taken.

7:10 p.m. – Though I feel like I’m taking advantage, I use my lunch voucher for a dinner snack: a water, crudités sampling platter, and cut up fruit all for the bargain price of $14.99. God, I love spending other people’s money.

9:45 p.m. – There appears to be no sign of our plane, nor any announcements regarding when it will magically appear.

10:10 p.m. – More of the same. The people across from me start bitching about South African Airways, sharing horror stories about lost luggage and extreme flight delays. I am unfortunately dragged into a conversation about how one woman got on a plane after the previous riders had disembarked and, apparently, the turbulence had been so bad for them, she could see head marks or blood or something on the ceiling. Thanks, lady. That’s, like, just what I want to hear before I get on a 15 hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean and across the massive continent of Africa.

10:25 p.m. – Our missing plane arrives and the poor bastards on it get off, not soon enough, it seems. Me and my annoyed comrades have pieced together the story in our hours together: at some point during this plane’s initial journey from Johannesburg to New York yesterday, someone had to go and have a real bad time of it (medical emergency) and they turned back, only to have to wait some hours after for the crew to rest. Then they had to get back on and start all over again. No f’ing thank you.

11:15 p.m. – I’m seated somewhere far far in the back of this massive plane, next to a young boy who later tells me he’s heading to Africa to help poor people. He seems to like me in the beginning, until about hour 8 when I start getting up to pee a lot.

11:18 p.m. – The pilot comes on and makes one of about twenty-two lengthy, ingratiating announcements about how they’re terribly sorry about the flight being delayed half a day, how we’re all in this together, how he hopes we focus on the next 15 hours of “hos-pee-tal-ah-teeeee” we’re about to receive. He sounds like my mom’s friend, John Spass from Durban, circa 1989.

12:10 a.m. – The plane is up and away and the flight attendants are walking around starting the “midnight dinner service” our pilot has joked about. “Excuse me, you ordered a special dinner, yes?” She places in front of me what must be the worst decision I have ever made, ranking up there with about five of the assholes I dated in 2011. I am nearly brought to tears. There, on my plastic tray table in the downward position, is a platter of vegetables: an entrée portion of cut up vegetables, a side portion of the same cut up vegetables, a salad with lettuce and three slices of tomato, and a saltine cracker.

12:12 a.m. – I beg the flight attendant for the chicken.

12:23 a.m. – After making sure everyone has their first, second, or third choice, my flight attendant (who is none too happy about this) hands me a tin full of hot chicken and rice with greasy potatoes. Oh, sweet sustenance, fortify me for this journey.

12:41 a.m. – I fall asleep watching Snow White and the Huntsman for the second time. All I’ve garnered from both viewings is that Charlize Theron plays a massive bitch that takes whole milk baths, white and thick as Elmer’s glue.

12:42 a.m. onward – Time becomes a slippery, irrelevant thing. I will eventually wake up some eight hours later with an unfortunate amount of time left, something to the tune of seven hours. I alternate between feeling extremely uncomfortable and extremely claustrophobic. Outside, it’s daylight, but everyone keeps their shades drawn, choosing instead to ride out the duration of this journey in a darkened tube. My feet swell, my mouth rids itself of any bothersome moisture, my lips chap. When it’s about 10 a.m. my body time, my head begins to throb with the dulled ache of a caffeine addict. It doesn’t get any worse, I swear to God.

 

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