I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
My own little slice of hell.
It’s the morning business rush; the 9am-ers position themselves along the platform, discreetly eyeing the competition.
The train wheezes into the station, and all order is lost. Herding themselves in front of the door, they commit the cardinal sin of train travel: Never impede passengers trying to exit. Those poor saps barely escape before the herd lumbers on, in search of fulfilling their primal need to sit down. The tense scuffling of feet, exasperated sighs, desperately roving eyes and sudden acrobatic manoeuvres at the sight of an empty seat… I have to admire the organized chaos.
In summertime, add in oafish commoners with ill-fitting cheap sunglasses who lug too much baggage onboard, along with their cross-eyed hyperactive children. Solo travellers scurry on to find an empty pair of seats, plop down, then protectively seat their hardside luggage next to them. I walk by, and they avoid eye contact.
It’s a 15-minute ride. I think I’ll survive if I stand.
I try to read, but I’m distracted by the flutter of conversation around me. Banal conversation, rehashed. Kids, weather, job. I burrow deeper into my book.
Suddenly I catch a whiff that offends my senses, emanating from the miserable latrine. My nostrils are burning. Good God, have these people no shame? Passive-aggressive territoriality at its lowest. How dare they subject the rest of us to the injustice of smelling their beastly morning constitution? Is this what freedom looks like? Forcing others to suffer the indignity of inhaling their ungodly coffee-fueled evacuation…
We approach our destination, and these bovines elbow discreetly toward the door. Self-important squares need to be the first off the train. Underlying message: “I’m more important than everyone else here.”
Indeed, we are at the center of our respective universes. Every morning at 8:24am, there are a hundred supremely-important universes fighting an imaginary battle for a prime position on the livestock transport line.
The herd shuffles forward, hooves clacking in the urgent rush. A self-herding mass, headed straight for the abattoir.
My heart bays: I don’t belong here.
“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
Memories, circa 1995.
I had an “overactive imagination” that fed ravenously on anything mysterious or taboo.
I was morbidly fascinated by the true-crime and conspiracy programs my dad would watch late at night. I’d sneak out of bed and get a peek of the television; wide-eyed, I’d take mental notes about potential warning signs: creepy white guys and alien tracks were at the top of my list. Did you know that a distinctive stone is produced in the spot where an alien falls to the ground?
(I just tried Googling “alien leaves stone on ground where it falls on its butt” to find the original clip on Youtube. No luck.)
I would get a cold thrill when I heard the dramatic music of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh’s composed newscaster-like persona told sinister murder stories with a detached, factual demeanor that totally creeped me out. I was haunted by the composite sketches and mugshots they’d display at the end of every dramatized murder re-enactment.
Immediately thereafter, I’d run to the bay window overlooking our front yard and rip open the heavy curtains to look outside. All I would see was the same orange streetlight glow reflecting off car windshields. Quiet suburbia. A little too quiet, if you asked me.
Thus was born the conspiracy-driven investigative fixation of my childhood.
I was ever-vigilant, on the lookout for crazed murderers in our suburban cul-de-sac. I also set intricate traps in my bedroom to thwart potential extra-terrestrial room invaders. Webs of yarn strung like a spiderweb, marbles on the carpet to make an intruder slip and fall, my toys placed with painstaking precision so I’d spot any slight disturbance or irregularity in their arrangement. The only intruders I ever caught were my poor parents trying to tuck me in.
Fast-forward to adulthood.
I’m a notorious fraidy cat. I don’t enjoy watching horror films, or any media with extreme, graphic violence. However, I’m still fascinated by grisly stories, true-crime cases, and creepy unsolved mysteries.
Hearing a true scary story around a campfire is way creepier than watching fictional dramatized storytelling on a big screen. A mental image is vibrant enough, and even more terrifying than someone’s attempt to visualize a “scary” image. Our imagination fills in the dark cracks with those terribly personal innermost fears, those secret things that take hold of us in our nightmares. Our own intimate fear triggers that make our pulse quicken and give us chills when we’re alone in the dark of night.
As for me, I don’t set alien traps or supervise neighborhood surveillance anymore. But I always lock my doors, keep my eyes open, and take an extra cautionary peek over my shoulder. Just in case.
Winter rains coat the stone walkways in town. Gray above, gray below. A pre-recorded man’s voice ricochets off the stone buildings, and through my head. Advertisements. The pushy scripts are read by a noncommittal man’s voice, just innocuous enough to sound attractive.
50-percent off, get your King Cakes for the Epiphany at This Bakery. That Shop is offering you a limited-time offer on Whatever. Buy 2 Things, get one free at Some Other Store.
I feel morose as I find myself slithering through the wet streets, killing time before work. I’m not above their stupid gimmicks after all. How can I compete with perfectly-orchestrated color schemes designed to attract my eye? I’m disappointed in my brain, as it falls for their slight-of-hand tricks that gussy up the same old products and commodities in flashy fake allure? My brain is no match for those advertising bigwigs that are experts in the art of money extraction.
I feel guilty as my feet take me toward the attractively-colored Makeup Shop. I choose a lipstick color, and stand in the checkout line, feeling defeated. A tight-lipped saleswoman calls out to me in a firm, clipped voice: Other line please, you sheep.
I’m thus herded with the others toward the designated station where I part with several euros of my hard-earned money, all for the sake of vanity. I steal a moment after lunch to smear on my new lipstick. Am I beautiful yet? Is the sellout, commercialized and commodified Lari satisfied?
I look at myself in the mirror, and my heart softens a bit. It actually looks nice. I’ve allowed myself this one indulgence, and I can’t say I regret it. The Me in the mirror gives a loving, yet reproachful smirk: You’ve had your moment of excess. Now wear that lipstick, and continue on your way.
My stomach sinks, then jumps into my throat. I can’t breathe. Braced for impact, eyes are gritted together, and bitter tears start to eke out. Is this my fate, to die with shitty airline food in my stomach? Clutching to F’s sleeve, dampening it with my anxiety and dark imagination. I’ve lived a good life. I hope everyone knows I love them. I hope my mother-in-law doesn’t lose respect for me when she’s forced to go through my dirty laundry and bed-side table… Our plane is rocking side to side as the captain tries to land in a rainstorm. The French couple behind us sound nonplussed as they contemplate their lunch options. Two feet away, I’m having an existential crisis, regretting my shortcomings and life choices.
We finally touch ground, and the passengers give a round of applause. I’m short of breath, wiping away tears. Screw this plane, I want out!
For the second and final leg of the journey, the sun has come out.
Turns out Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson bring the funk hard enough for me to forget how much I hate takeoff. This time, I’m too busy bopping like Carlton to notice the horrible airplane engine revving. The sky is a perfect prism of rainbow, sitting above perfect Bob Ross clouds. Happy little clouds.
I’ve passed through the doom of my turbulence, and I can find humor around me once again.
I have seven hours to kill. I start by watching the people around me and judging them based on their in-flight movie choice. The dadboner to my right is cracking up at The Hangover. Hair parted down the middle, checked button-down, corduroy pants: check, check, and check. He’s taken off his shoes, and his little toesies wiggle in their comfy socks. Sitting in front of him is a nerdy scruffy dude watching Casino Royale. It’s a series of sculpted, eternally sweaty men gazing intensely at each other. So hot.
Me, I’m jamming. Lipsynching to Mariah Carey one minute, then pulling an Elvis lip when nobody’s around and I can get away with it. Hell, if everyone on this plane were asleep, I wouldn’t be against the idea of practicing my Michael Jackson flair leg kick. “Bad” comes on, and suddenly the cabin lights dim. You know I’m bad, dah, jamon! In my mind’s eye, I’m wearing a jaunty fedora. I sling a suspicious gaze at every passerby; the scowl transforms into a knowing smirk. Heh… I eat punks like you for breakfast. Then my profile slides neatly out of view. The song in my ear changes, and in my imagination I AM Lady Gaga’s background singer, wearing a velour onesie, saucily wagging my finger and hollering about my fill-in-the-blank. Yeah, if I wanted to, I could totally sing like that.
It’s a flight that arrives just in time for Christmas, and I appreciate the effort they’ve put into making it feel festive around here. Flight attendants wear earrings with Rudolph and candy canes. Buttons that read “Michief Maker.” Somehow, I doubt that. Garlands (admittedly a bit scraggly) have been hung, crookedly designating the bathrooms. One is awkwardly draped, the shape reminiscent of a middle-schooler’s tentative drawing of the road map of a woman’s reproductive system. No matter. It’s got a certain charm to it.
At the moment, we’re just off the southern coast of Greenland. Traveling back in time. We left Dublin at 3:00pm, and arrive on the East Coast just before 5:00pm. I’m almost home! I’ll be laughing about all this in no time…
It’s that time of the year again, and I’ve been looking forward to it. Silver lights suspended all around town from the beautiful Haussmanian balconies, and neat rows of red and blue cabins erected in the town center. The Christmas Market is the embodiment of the spirit of the season. I love the glow of the lights, the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine, and the glorious explosion of rich colors. The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive.
With this lovely image in mind, I dance out of work, looking forward to strolling about the market on my way home. My spirit is light, and I’m surprised there aren’t twittering doves lifting my coattails on the way out.
I arrive at the market with a bounce in my step.
A young couple is swinging their bags as they stroll, and they’re unceremoniously perfect in converging into my path, cutting me right off. No matter, they must be so lost in their loving reverie that they didn’t see me.
Then my heart starts to sink as I pass by each little cabin.
Vendors are selling snake oil and toe socks, ugly overpriced jewelry and cured saucisson that smell like feet. Waffles and churros are made from boxed mixes and dredged with off-brand imitation Nutella. Sacrilege.
Warped speakers vomit out “Last Christmas,” and the tinny sound of George Michael narrates my walk through town. The song echoes and distorts off the storefronts, intercut with snippets of banal dialogue.
A vendor is displaying huge slabs of chocolate, filled with nuts and dried fruit. There is no plastic barrier, and I imagine passersby inadvertently touching the chocolate with their putrid hands, and germy children sneezing all over it. Merry Christmas, Grandma; here’s a taste of gastroenteritis.
A group of sour-smelling, salty-looking homeless dudes play patty cake while their dogs gnaw at their rope collars. One dog is spreading his own Christmas cheer all over the sidewalk; something tells me he hasn’t been eating enough kibbles.
All the while, George Michael’s buttery voice indulges the word “special,” and it’s following me at every turn. His sensual whispers are giving me douche chills. I try to keep my spirits up as he flirtatiously caresses each word, but it’s starting to wear on my soul.
Just ahead, a fat homeless guy shuffles along, muttering to himself. At once, like a backfiring jalopy, he fires out of both ends. He releases a massive wet fart, then coughs up onto the cobblestone.
A crescendo of wails starts up from the other side; a kid has just evacuated his churro all over the front of his jacket. Mom looks beyond exasperated, and she herself is fighting the urge to gag as she wipes up her kid with cheap disintegrating napkins.
I don’t have time to wish them a Merry Christmas because I’m dancing around the pavement now, swerving and side-stepping the well-trodden doggie piles. Like an unholy mandala, the traces of shit radiate outward from the foul nucleus. Animals.
This is no Christmas market. This is criminal. This is a farce.
On a human level, this is offensive. They’ve taken the spirit of Christmas, dolled it up with rouge and cheap perfume, and sold her off to the highest bidder. They’ve turned her out, and for what? As Seen On TV gimmicks and radio-controlled planes that the vendor insists on dive-bombing in front of you, expecting you to be impressed. Where are the homemade crepes with real fucking Nutella? Where’s the hippie selling handmade hemp bracelets and artisanal soap? This is sordid business.
Tim Curry is laughing diabolically somewhere, as “Time of My Life” starts to ooze out of the speakers. I gotta get outta here, man.
The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive? Humbug.