“These unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times. Speed is essential in securing these pictures, but very often it is impossible to be quick enough. Young animals cannot hold a pose any better than human babies, and the situation is complicated when they are called on to be precocious in situations naturally foreign to them.”
-Harry Whittier Frees, in the preface to Animal Land on the Air
Silly cat pictures. It didn’t take long after the internet really exploded onto the world scene for silly pictures of cats to come along and infect the entire thing, like a highly malicious, mind-controlling virus. Toxoplasmosis, perhaps. The primary culprits were “lolcats,” which were born somewhere in the bowels of the 4chan forums, one ominous Saturday, or “Caturday,” morning circa 2005, best anyone can tell.
But did you know that extremely silly cat pictures have been around for a very long time? The infamous lolcat memes, with their patented, silly, anthropomorphised pictures of cats aren’t nearly as new as you think. The man who really first nailed the nauseatingly cutesy formula as we now know it was a photographer named Harry Whittier Frees, an American photographer who lived from 1879-1953.
Frees dealt primarily in postcards and children’s books, wherein he dressed cats and other animals in human clothes, posed them in human situations with props, and captioned the photos with old timey versions of things that passed for hilarious back then. Although he dealt with various species, for Frees, it all began and ended with cats.
He was sitting around the dinner table with his family in Audobon, Pennsylvania, back in 1906, when one of the family members passed a paper hat around the table. Each family member took turns wearing the hat, until the hat reached the family cat, at which point Frees rapturously cried “Eureka!”, assembled his old timey camera, and it was thus that silly cat photos were born, for the masses.
And it was Good.
Frees worked hard at his newfound calling in life, and ended up making quite a good living off of his silly animals dressed as people photos. He borrowed his four legged subjects from friends and neighbors, and actually found them quite difficult to work with: for instance, flies were terribly distracting to cats, making for especially difficult photo shoots, and so he had to make sure there were no flies in his studio when doing his old timey shoots. He worked only 3 months out of the year. The rest of the year, he actually spent recuperating from his epic cutesy animal shoots, and meticulously planning the details for his next shoots. As you can see, some of them were, apparently, extraordinarily involved, to the point that they likely did require 9 months of post-shoot recuperation.
How long did it take to get that spot-on school teacher expression re: kitty on the left? Frees, you magnificent bastard.
His exposures were taken at 1/5th of a second, and two-thirds of the negatives had to be discarded. Over the course of his career, Frees became quite the expert in anthropomorphised animal photography. Noting that:
“Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable ot taking many “human” parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”
Two kittens on the left are clearly repulsed by the rabbit. One on the right wants a piece of that casserole. Bad.
“ The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion,” he once said.
(Note that the above caption is Frees’, not mine. Apparently, pigs really are extraordinarily difficult to work with, when it comes to playing dress up. A hard, cold fact that Frees, along with all my ex girlfriends, certainly came to find out.)
Yes, back in the olden days, a photo such as this one–
–-most likely had people laughing out loud, since back then all it took to elicit uproarious laughter from children and simple-minded adults was a picture of a cat dressed as a human asking an amusing question. These days, of course, humor has taken on a much more sophisticated nature and-
–-OK, actually, disregard that last part. Some things never change, it seems, and while Frees is commonly known as the first one to do the nauseating cutesy Lolcat thing in his own, very artistic…
–way, there was one man who was doing something very similar even before Frees. And in a much more profound, epically batshit insane manner. The Cat Master. The Godfather of Cutesy Cat Pictures…
Louis Wain- The Cat Guy
If Louis Wain were around today, he would probably be an internet meme superstar. Born in 1860, Wain was far ahead of his time in realizing one thing: people like absurd pictures of cats. At the age of 23, after dabbling in landscape and various animal-themed paintings, Wain kicked off his career in cats by marrying a cougar, Emily Richardson, a woman ten years his senior.
The two lived together in a cozy little home in Hampsted, north London. Sadly, Emily soon began to suffer from cancer, dying just three years after they had tied the knot. It was during this period that Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat, Peter. Wain taught him tricks such as wearing spectacles and pretending to read in order to amuse Emily. He began to draw extensive sketches of the large black and white cat. He later wrote of Peter:
“To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.” (Many of Wain’s early cat paintings are, in fact, portraits of Peter.)
By that point, it was all over. Wain had zeroed in on his forte, and that was it: he painted nothing but cats for the rest of his life, descending into a monomaniacal feline obsession.
Yes, Wain went on to paint cats, all kinds of cats: asshole bourgeois cats-
-everyman soldier-in-the-trenches-of-war cats-
-cats going Paginini on a violin-
-cats going Tiny Tim on a banjo-
cats smoking blunts-
Yes, it was just cats on top of cats for lil’ Wain, and his cat pictures were all the rage in Victorian England, often being used in prints, greeting cards and satirical illustrations.
Wain was a prolific with an easel and a cat, producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He illustrated about one hundred children’s books, his pussies appearing in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work was also regularly reproduced on picture postcards which are highly sought after by collectors today.
In 1898 and 1911 he was chairman, not surprisingly, of the National Cat Club, and was also an active member of the Society For The Protection Of Cats. Towards the end of his life, he claimed that he had “helped to wipe out the contempt in which the cat has been held” in England. Indeed, Wain was quite the cat crusader, walking around England with kitty-tinted glasses. As Wain himself put it:
“I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible. This gives me doubly nature, and these studies I think to be my best humorous work.”
Having obtained his doubly (emphasis his, not mine: yes, he was losing it) nature, as well as having established cat studies as an official humor category well over a century before lolcats was even an annoying twinkle in some asshole’s eye, Wain somehow managed to descend even further into cat-based insanity, by actually going insane himself and being admitted to a squalid mental institute in London. (Mental illness ran in his family; his sister had been admitted when Wain was 30).
Luckily for Wain, he had developed quite a high powered fanbase by that point, one which included H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister of England– he had developed Cat Powers that came with kitty strings– strings that no less than H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister of England pulled to bail him out of there (no, I’m not making this up .)
Wain’s high profile benefactors had him transferred to a much more pleasant crazy house, the Napsbury Hospital, just north of London, which came replete with -–you guessed it-– a colony of cats. It was there that Wain lived out the rest of his life, presumably in bliss, because really, what more can one ask for than a mental institute to call home, a paint brush and easel, and a colony of cats. Today, his paintings are actually used in psychology classes to illustrate an artist’s descent into schizophrenia.
Many modern day medical experts speculate that Wain’s schizophrenia may have been brought on by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection often carried and transmitted by warm blooded animals, but most often by…must I even say it? (Cats.)
See his descent into madness, captured, oil on canvas, below…
“During the onset of his disease at 57, Wain continued to paint, draw and sketch cats, but the focus changed from fanciful situations, to focus on the cats themselves.”
Hearing voices at this point.
OK, who gave the cat acid?
“Characteristic changes in the art began to occur, changes common to schizophrenic artists. Jagged lines of bright color began emanating from his feline subjects. The outlines of the cats became sever and spiky, and their outlines persisted well throughout the sketches, as if they were throwing off energy.”
“Soon the cats became abstracted, seeming now to be made up of hundreds of small repetitive shapes, coming together in a clashing jangles of color that transform the cat into something resembling an Eastern diety.”
“The abstraction continued, the cats now being seen as made up by small repeating patterns, almost fractal in nature. Until finally they ceased to resemble cats at all, and became the ultimate abstraction, an indistinct form made up by near symmetrical repeating patterns.”
And finally, all together now, this is the official progression that many psychologists use in classes to illustrate an artist’s descent into schizophrenia:
And that, my friends, concludes this field trip.
Get an old timey cat shirt with a funny caption here. I’m the first to think of combining Frees’ photos with funny captions on shirts, can you believe it!? Well be among the first to rock this new genre of cat meme shirts here.
Quickly: the setup. Our CW professor told the class to write a couple pages entailing a fictional character professing their love for something, and diving deeply into why they love it so much. Ideally: “I love it when it rains at night without warning. Something about the gentle reminder that outside of ourselves…” Something like that. I wrote this. We all ended up passing our stories around to everyone else. One by one, just about every member of the class ended up laughing so hard, a few tipped over in their chairs. And every time, it was when they had my story in their hands:
WHY CHOO CHOOS ARE THE BEST AND HOW I CAME TO KNOW IT
My first experience with choo choos came at an early age. Back then my family and I lived in a suburb of Chicago. One afternoon my mother and father wanted to take my brother and me to the city to a festival with food and music that was very good.
“Say gang, let’s all motor downtown,” my father said.
“Oh shove it along, Daddy,” my mother said. “You know we’ll end up tight, and then motoring won’t be safe. We should take the train. And Jason has never been on the choo choo before. Why, isnt’t that right, Jason?”
Mother and Father
It was true, I had never been on the choo choo. And so we took the choo choo. I remember the man on the choo choo who punched the tickets, the conductor, was very nice to me. It has been many years since that day, but I still remember him. He was a very tall and handsome man with a blue hat and a good smile. I remember he gave me a small model version of a choo choo. I was very happy and I still have it today. My first thought on the choo choo was, “This thing is not moving, this is dull,” but then my father said “Here we go!” and the trees and the telephone poles began moving past the window. My mother said “Chooo, chooo!” and then we were going very fast. I laughed and put my face to the window to watch everything going so fast, and I was not scared at all. I was happy and did not want the choo choo ride to ever end. In fact, I remember that I was sad when we got downtown because I wanted the choo choo to keep going somewhere, far past the city, so that I could stay on the choo choo for many days.
Ever since then I have loved choo choos. The reasons that I have continued to love choo choos have changed over the years, but the one thing that does not change is that I love them. They are called “trains” by most adults but I still call them choo choos. At first I was stubborn in calling them “choo choos” only because I thought it sounded good, much better than “train,” since “train” is not at all the sound that they make. Recently I was calling them “choo choos” because it made my college friends laugh. But now as I write this sentence I think that I call them “choo choos” because it is what my heart tells me is true.
There are many reasons why choo choos are still the best, even today, so long after that afternoon. You do not have to be a child to think choo choos are the best, or have a good experience in the past that makes you think they are so.
First, choo choos are better for the world. Studies show that automobiles are bad for the air and that we cannot keep using them without the land becoming one where we live only to pillage and hunt one another. I have seen places in Asia and Europe where choo choos are used more often. Sometimes they go faster than America’s choo choos. I think America is a good country, but when riding a high-speed choo choo from Madrid to Barcelona it is not hard to think that other countries are better.
Second, choo choos are safer than automobiles and jogging, because when you motor there is a good chance that you will be killed by another automobile, and when you jog to get from one place to another, there is a good chance that you will be hit by one or many automobiles, but on a choo choo there is no danger of being killed by any automobiles at all. A choo choo will defeat an automobile every time, and a person jogging on account of a choo choo is always going to be jogging very fast either from it, so as to survive, or toward it, so as to jump on it and hide inside of it.
This is why choo choos are the best and how I came to know it.
The occasional humorous (or serious) commentary beneath photos,italicized and in bold, isme, Jasontalking.Hi. MyTwitter. We both follow back.
Now let it begin.
It was only supposed to be five questions, and a few pics…
Seven Weeks Earlier
Thanks so much for this. You’re my first interviewee on this blog (I’ve been blogging for a decade. Humor’s me love) because I stumbled upon your blog, Toki Doki (Nomad), which is just mindblowing. It’s kind of a big deal, actually. It’s won at least two awards: #17 (update: she just reached #15 for 2023) out of the Top 50 Best Graffiti Blogs on the Planet, and #53 out of the Top 100 Travel Photography Blogs on the Planet (that’s what those two awards up there in the title read).
2014. Kobe, Japan. “Mirror in the Abandoned Maya Hotel.” Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).(Jason: This is how Japanese horror films start. Please tell me you didn’t sleep here.)
1. Jason: Have you really been, as it seems by merely looking at your site, to nearly every country in the world? And Emily Dickinson, poet who needs no introduction, was famously reclusive, rarely leaving her room. If there were a highly skilled photographer who rarely traveled farther than the edge of her city block, do you think such a hermit blog could be as expansive as Toki Doki, and just as beautiful?
1. Jackie: Hi Jason, thanks so much for your interest in my blog. LOL, no. I haven’t been to EVERY country, but definitely to many. I’m not living to ‘tick boxes,’ just for the adventure of it. I often get asked: “What’s your favorite country?” Always my reply: “It’s wherever I am at the moment.”
Back in 2013, I saw my first City Kitty piece in Long Island City. Instant fan. In 2018, at Art Basel, I was wearing a City Kitty T-shirt and took a mirror selfie. City Kitty took that selfie, made this piece and put it on St. Marks. I ended up collabing with the artist himself!”-Jackie Hadel.
Jackie (continued): One of my social media taglines is “traveling the world taking photos of beautiful things. And it’s ALL beautiful.” So, yes, I believe just as much importance and beauty can be found through the lens of someone who lives on a city block and doesn’t travel much further than that. Every day is a new day in a neighborhood. The faces of familiar people are expressing different emotions, the cats are lying in a different position on the sidewalk—
April 12, 2023. Tallinn, Estonia. “Wow,” by Multistab. Or,”Cat Lying in a Different Position.” Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
—and it’s always fun to make a Top 10 favorite food list by experiencing it 10 different times at 10 different restaurants – the best kind of adventure! LOL.
December 19, 2o14. Kobe, Japan. “My favorite food— sushi—from my favorite, cheap sushi spot: Gontaro.”-Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
September 13, 2017. Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Todi Doki (Nomad).”So Many Questions.” Jason: And I pray the police were asking a lot of them. This looks like the calling card of a serial killer. I hope this area was searched well.
2. Jason: Living here in Medellin, Colombia, I’ve met quite a few “tick the box” travelers. What were you doing before nomading and photography? What drew you to street art originally? And how do you fund this nonstop traveling? I did do some digging, and know you’re a CELTA trainer (a CELTA is the Mercedes Benz of Teaching English as a Foreign Language certifications).
2. Jackie: I left the USA for Japan and never looked back. I was born in Maryland and grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida. Happy childhood, lots of sunshine and riding bikes with friends.
September 2, 2014. Kobe, Japan. “I saw this man all by himself, just staring out of the train window, smiling. Inner peace is a wonderful thing to behold,” by Jackie Hadel, via Toki Doki (Nomad).
I first became interested in graffiti and street art when I was living in Bogotá, Colombia in 2012. And since it was already dangerous there just to be walking alone with a camera, I never really considered the alternative— that there were actually “safer environs.” LOL. I think I started this passion with a healthy dose of vigilance.
And yes, as a global CELTA teacher trainer, I am fortunate in the sense that mostprojects cover my flights and accommodation, so I am able to just keep moving from project to project.
I live in gratitude and humility and never take anything for granted. I thank the universe for all of it.
October 7, 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. “Good Girl Gone Tramp,” by Lesivo. “Notice the little girl intent on getting an education, in line with her parents’ dream (in the lightbulb), but who clearly fears the all-too-common sex worker destiny of Colombianas .” -Jackie Hadel. Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 7, 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. “Love Tattoo,” by TOXICOMANO, DjLU, and LESIVO. Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 7, 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. “Disillusioned Girl, Probably a Drug Addict,” by Toxicomano. Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 7, 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. “Black Man Screaming for Justice While White Man Remains Silent,” by Toxicomano and Lesivo. Toki Doki (Nomad).Jason: I’ve often asked Colombians, playing naive: “Is there racism here?” and they’ve often replied—in front of rooms full of strangers(yet fellow non-Afro-Colombians)— “No, not at all. We’re not like YOUR country, with racist police always killing blacks on TV. But personally, I hate black people. They’re all lazy, violent thieves.”They simply CANNOT seetheironyof such self-refuting statements, coming from otherwise intelligent people. The ensuing arguments were always unbearably frustrating.And they’ll say this to me knowing full well I’M half black.
October 7, 2012. Bogotá, Colombia. “Man Covers his Mouth in the Face of Injustice,”by Lesivo. Toki Doki (Nomad).
3. Jason: Yet again, someone who started in Colombia in some way and fell in love with it! Despite its share of problems, like any country, everyone should visit Colombia at least once in their lives. Whatever you do, just stay away from the drugs. Haha. Sigh. So, it seems that the rest of your blog is generally split into two main categories: graffiti art, and architecture. (So many breathtaking church photos among your many pages!) Is that right?
3. Jackie: Well, to me, EVERYTHING IS ART: architecture, food, life, events, like, a couple Lady Gaga concerts— one actually in Bogotá. I do love architecture because it’s a combination of art and history. I will stand in front of a structure built in the 1800s and just try to imagine what it was like living at that time, how the building was used, etc.
September 10, 2016. Lille, France. From the “Take me to Church” collection by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
When I visit an old cathedral in Europe, I can’t help thinking about Tom the Builder from “The Pillars of the Earth” trilogy. It’s fascinating.
August 31, 2016. Cologne Cathedral. Cologne, Germany. Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).Jason:Finished in 1248AD.Holy shit, look—really look—at how massive this fucking church is. Note the people standing at the base.And finished in 1248? I call Ancient Aliens.
Fall, 2o12. Bogota, Colombia. “Lady Gaga in Concert.”Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
February, 2011. Madison Square Garden, NYC. “Lady Gaga in Concert.” Click to enlarge, unless you’re just being a perv about it. Well actually, it’s OK if you are, as long as you don’t drain all your “energy” here and stop reading the rest, if you catch my drift. Photos by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Jackie: Like this photo. Not street art-related, but it’s one of my favorites. It was early morning in Islamabad, Pakistan, and I was walking around alone, and saw this man through an open wall in an outdoor kitchen, preparing breakfast. I never went any closer, I just observed from afar.
Circa 2015. Detroit, USA. “One of my favorite Detroit photos.” -Jackie Hadel. Toki Doki (Nomad).
4. Jason: So, to my shock, along with Detroit and some rough-looking areas of Bogota, I saw you’ve also done the infamously dangerous Venezuela. What are some of the riskiest things you’ve done to get photos, and where were they?
4. Jackie: Caracas did have a few dangerous moments, because at the time it was notorious for having an above average weekly unsolved murder rate, and the country was in turmoil with inflation as Chavez was in Cuba getting surgery. Not a stable time, and I had been told not to be outside after 7 p.m. There was a dark, narrow alleyway with no exit, but with some murals on the walls that I just had to get, and there were four guys in there hanging out—eyes glazed, dead—talking and looking at me, and I just kept my eyes on the walls, overemphasizing my camera’s aim to be on the murals and not them, and just backed out as soon as I could.
January, 2013. Caracas, Venezuela.“A woman praying and lighting candles in front of a mural of Chavez. It was something to see that day as Chavez was in Cuba getting cancer treatment.” Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
January, 2013. Caracas, Venezuela. Mural by Artist Unknown, via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Risky— definitely my first Beirut trip.Unbeknownst to me, I wandered into a Hezbollah neighborhood. As I was walking, I noticed it becoming quieter and quieter. I looked around, then up, and saw men just staring down at me from their balconies. A woman approached me, asked what I was doing, and then explained that a Western woman walking through their neighborhood with a camera doesn’t bode well with its inhabitants. I was like “Of course, of course, I understand, and thank you for coming out to tell me. I will leave now.”
I found out it was Hezbollah the following week. I had to essentially remind myself “Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore, so don’t be stupid. This is real world shit.”
“This is that moment– right when I realized I wasn’t in Lebanon, Kansas.” Beirut, Lebanon. Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Lebanon. “Worn-out apartment building in a Beirut suburb. Soldiers had to grant me permission to take this photo. This is a Hezbollah area (I took a wrong turn). ” Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Jackie: I guess, looking back, there were a couple times that I “took a wrong turn.”
Beirut, Lebanon. “Graffiti writer. This is what it’s all about. Must have been a sensitive area because this is the day I was questioned by soldiers and sent packing.” —Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Lahore, Pakistan was another one. One Sunday, I was stopped by soldiers with BIG GUNS, demanding my papers. I really shouldn’t have been in that area at that time, walking alone in search of murals, but that’s why I do what I do: to get the pieces no one else can. It’s such places that usually have graffiti in their language, expressing local injustices—which I feel I should share—said injustices being, of course, exactly what officials don’t want me to share. My only hope is that authorities believe I’m just seeking out pretty pictures, with no politicial angle. I play dumb as best I can.
Chicago also had some tense moments, with a tinted-out Rolls Royce stalking me at dawn (I like to get up early to start getting photos).And of course, getting out of these entanglements makes for great “survival stories.” There IS a strategy, though. I walk like I own the streets, because if you look like you don’t belong somewhere, you’re inviting trouble.
June 8, 2015. Chicago, USA. “Hat’s Off!” by Ador & Semor. Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
5. Jason: Ha. I LOVE how Chicago, my hometown, made the list with Venezuela, Pakistan, and Beirut. Chiraq it is.
Maybe I should have started with this: it was hard even to contact you! No email on your blog, or anywhere, really. First: care to go into how you nailed a closer connection to Banksy than the vast majority of the world will ever hope to, and what the experience was like? Second: am I right in feeling that you’re similarly low-key, even a bit guarded about your personal life, like Banksy?
2013. Ramallah, Palestine. Separation Wall. Iconic “Flying Balloon Girl,” by Banky. Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
2013. Ramallah, Palestine. Separation Wall. “Cut it Out,” by Banky. Via Jackie Hadel, (Toki Doki Nomad).
5. Jackie: First, BANKSY. I’ve never met him/them (theories abound that it’s Robin Gunningham from Bristol, UK, to Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, to a global art collective). My book ,”My Month with Banksy,” documents Banksy’s 2013 project “Better Outside Than In,” which took place in the five boroughs of NYC, with the goal of putting out a new piece of street art every day for the 31 days of October. I was one of the fans chasing the pieces. It was chaotic and exciting: we were all in a race to find the piece he posted on his Instagram every morning because there were just as many haters who were trying to destroy the artwork. We all wanted to get it before anything happened.
October, 2013. “This is My New York Accent,” by Banksy. Classic Banksy humor. He’s now in NYC, and it’s on. Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
My ‘connection’ to Banksy was through his management team “Pest Control.” On the 7th of October in Brooklyn, I snapped a shot of an NYPD police officer “fanboying” on the band-aided heart balloon piece. He was taking a pic of it and I caught him, as well as the Banksy image on his phone. Just good timing. It was a big deal to Pest Control because the New York papers were chock-full of headlines about how Mayor Bloomberg was on the hunt to catch Banksy. So, to have a police officer doing that was funny. Pest Control emailed me requesting to use my photo on their official “Better Outside Than In” website and asked how best to credit me.
October 7, 2013.Red Hook, Brooklyn. NYC. NYPD caught fanboying by Jackie on a pieceby Banksy,“Bandaged Heart Balloon,” via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki Nomad.
October 18, 2013. NYC, USA. “Geisha Silhouttes,” by Banky. Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 20, 2013. Upper West Side, NYC. “Hammering it Home,” by Banksy, via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 24, 2013. Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. Crowds gather around a just-announced Bansky piece outside of Larry Flynt’s famed Hustler Club.
“Hopeless Romantic,” by Banksy. This was the piece that drew a crowd, placed brilliantly outside of the Hustler Club, above— for all those who naively buy the illusion that sex workers sell.Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
October 9, 2013. Another Banksy-drawn crowd, earlier in the “Better Outside Than In” street art chase. Lower East Side, NYC. Via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Jackie (continued): That’s the addiction to photography for me, I think. Always on a quest for that perfect shot. I got it that time, and it was Banksy, so yeah, it was pretty special. My DMs lit up after that from people all over the world who wrongly assumed I had to be on the Banksy team for him to use my photo. He rarely does that. And the number of people writing to ask if I would tell Banksy about a wall they knew of for one of his pieces…my inbox became unmanageable.
The piecethat drew crowds, above. Banksy’s “Night Vision War Horses,” perhaps the most ambitious piece of his NYC residency. Instead of a wall, he cleverly painted thisonan abandoned truck and car, which provided striking depth. It included a 1-800 number for viewers to call, which played a 39-minute WikiLeaks recording of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike. Photo by Jackie Hadel.
About my low-key nature: I just believe the art should be the focus of my social media, not me.
“Sometime in Paris,” Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).The flat earth-minded will definitely look at this and see Jackie shooting JFK.
6. Jason: Do you ever have dark, depressed moments as a nomad? Recovering from opioid addiction as I am, completely alone in Colombia, I know I get dragged and drowned by terror tsunamis almost every day, as I remember— often in bed, ripped from sleep by the morning wakeup call of cart-pushing street vendors shouting in Spanish— just how far from home I really am. Ever consider just settling down somewhere? If so, what are some places in which you would choose to settle down?
6. Jackie:Yes, sure there’s a healthy, sometimes unhealthy, dose of existential dread as a nomad, but I push those thoughts out of my head because the benefits of this lifestyle far outweigh the negatives.
Vancouver. “Immediately after my Israel/Palestine experience.” -Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
2019. Costa Rica. Logically, I know this thing is a bird. But I just feel it’s a floating demon-thing. I’ve been having trouble sleeping since I first saw this. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
IF I were ever to do the USA thing full-time, I’d love to have a 9-month appointment in an ESL department at a university in a city or town with massive creative vibes, and still have the three months for global adventures.
7. Jason: Austin just popped in my head, for what it’s worth. Did you have any formal training as a photographer?
7. Jackie:I’m not a trained photographer in any sense of the word. I see what I see, how I see it, and I shoot it. End of story. The device doesn’t matter. I mean, was your pot roast delicious because of the oven it was roasted in, or because you knew how to season it just right and prepare it in the perfect way? When the camera is at my eye I just have a compulsion to communicate through the images I capture. Want to know who I am and what I’m about? Look at my photographs.
8. When and how did your blog, Toki Doki, start? (And what does Toki Doki mean?) Was it after you started traveling the world?
8. Jackie: It sounds sappy, but I started my blog in order to share the world with whomever, for whatever reason they may not be able to experience it themselves. I had been traveling already for almost a decade before my 2012 trip to Cuba, but since Cuba was still an almost impossible trip for most Americans, I started my blog solely to show people what it looked like on the inside. And keep in mind, at that time I was living in Colombia and already immersed in Bogota’s street art, so the true impetus for the blog was my upcoming Cuba trip.
2012. Havana, Cuba. Daily Cubano life. Again, this is a photo from 2012. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough. God I could have gone to Cuba but I had to stick to Puerto-fucking-Rico because my super-ghetto Chicago best friend is scared to leave the country/order a passport. It’s like time traveling, look at this shit. Fuck fuck fuck. Ok roll the goddamn interview. Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
*TOKIDOKI (all one word) is just one of my favorite Japanese words and one of the first that I could read in hiragana. 🙂 It means ‘sometimes’ in Japanese. Which, I know, doesn’t really fit, as I am much more than sometimes a nomad—I’m just about always one— but the Japanese word for ‘always’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. So I went with TOKIDOKI NOMAD. Instead of taking the meaning of ‘tokidoki’ literally, I see it as an homage to Japan, land of my humble nomadic beginnings.
June 16, 2016. Tokyo, Japan. Around the Imperial Palace. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
9. Don’t you sometimes hate just the…generally uncomfortable and chaotic nature of airline travel, or long bus or train trips (although train sleeper compartments are fucking amazing). That’s one huge reason I could never be a true nomad.
Airport in Osaka.
9. Jackie: Exactly right! It takes energy for sure. I prefer train travel WHENEVER I can get it (I LOVE trains). As for the other aspects of travel, I just grin and bear it, knowing that there’s a cool destination at the end of it. 🙂
“Anywhere and everywhere all at once.” -Jackie Hadel. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
“Why Choo Choos are the Best and How I Came to Know It.” From a stuffy grad school writing exercise, gleefullyclowned on by Jason. February, 2013.Via awkward transitional blog.
June 17, 2015. On train, Chicago to Detroit. Ah, look at that relaxed, shoes off, choo choo chillin’ vibe. God, choo choos really are the best. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
Jackie snapping photos out of the train window.
10. Name some street artists on your all-time greats list—artists you think are absolutely brilliant, but of whom not enough people have heard.
Circa 2o15. Brussels, Belgium. “Peace,” by HMI CNN, via Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).Note the dope hip-hop shirt and the boombox.I learned Jackie loves conscious hip-hop, among many other genres. For younger readers, I’ll break it down: a ‘boombox’ was that thing in the above photo.
10. It’s BANKSY, actually. His work is my favorite.
Others: Findac, Conor Harrington, Kashink, Anthony Lister…
Berlin, Germany street art. “Cat Lady,” by Fin DAC. Photo by Jackie Hadel.
OK, which one of us was supposed to issue the jump scare warning at the top of this section?(No, I love sphynxes.)
Belfast, Northern Ireland Street Art: “The Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight,” by Conor Harrington (no relation), photo by Jackie Hadel.
December 7, 2o13. Wynwood, Miami Beach. Florida. “Lister Adjust,” by Anthony Lister. Via Jackie Hadel.
11. So would it be safe to assert, as the kids say these days, that you fangirl hardon Banksy? Perhaps even that you fell for his work?
See what I did there?
11. Jackie:You got me.
London. January 18, 2015. “Woman Falling with Shopping Cart.” by Banksy. Via Jackie Hadel. It is, of course, well known how street artists manage to paint in the center of walls, and at such high altitudes: they can fly. As well as hover for extended periods of time. Trust me, I’m like, really good at knowing things.
January 17, 2015. London. “Hoodie Guy Haring Dog,” by Banksy. Via Jackie Hadel.
January 16, 2015. London.“I Love Londonrobbo,” by Banksy. Via Jackie Hadel.
12. Jason: What other languages can you speak?
September 16, 2015.Weston Super Mare, UK. “Your Dreams Are My Nightmares,” part of Banksy’s “Dismaland” exhibition, described by Banksy as a “family theme park unsuitable for children.” Via Jackie Hadel.
12. Jackie: I practice Spanish, Japanese, German, and French every day, so a bit above basic in those four. Basic conversational level of many others languages. I strongly believe in learning your host country’s language. It’s a huge sign of respect.
September 8, 2016. Lille, France. Sticker on a…huge. Sign. Of respect. I said GOTdamn, did it again. Photo by Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
13. Jason: When was the last time you went, I guess, home? How often do you stop back “home,” if you do?
Sykesville, Maryland. “My childhood home. Actually, my maternal grandmother’s home, but she essentially raised me and I lived a majority of my young life in this house. My soul is in that house. My grandmother’s soul is in that house. Unfortunately, it is no longer in the family, but it will forever be in my heart.” –Jackie Hadel. Photo by stepmother, edited by Jackie. Toki Doki (Nomad).
13. Jackie: I’m the traveler of the family. Last time in the States most recently, was two years ago before I accepted the language fellowship and came to Estonia.
“Me getting lost in a gargantuan Os Gemeos Mural, in Boston. I don’t think it’s there anymore.” -Jackie Hadel, Toki Doki (Nomad).
14. Jason: What was one of your most memorable meet-ups with a street artist?
March 26, 2023. Telliskivi-Tallinn, Estonia. BOLD, artist from Paris. “One of my most recent meet-ups with an artist.” -Jackie Hadel, via Toi Doki (Nomad).
14. French artist, Kashink! She contacted me when she saw in my IG that I was in Paris again, and I met her at a wall, and got to watch her paint (without permission from the city.) I am fortunate, because if an area artist happens to catch wind of the street art and graffiti pics I’m taking of their hometown on my IG or blog, they will reach out.
This is like watching a WAY cooler version of Bob Ross.
Paris, France. Street Art. “Let’s Bounce” by Kashink! From beginning to end, full session with Jackie on ride-along. Photo from Toki Doki (Nomad) by Jackie Hadel.
15. Jason: So you have five books on Amazon, including “LA Street Art,” “Japan Street Art” and of course, “My Month with Banksy.” How has self-publishing been treating you?
“My Month with Banksy,” by Jacqueline Hadel. Available on Amazon.I bought a copy.All around fun and of course, visually stunning experience.I truly recommend.
15. Jackie: With “Bogota Street Art,” being my first, self-publishing has been fine, I was just trying it out as the quickest way to get published— the Banksy book sells most because it serves as a ‘small souvenir’ of that special project and of course, Banksy has fans all over the world, so I think their friends and families buy it for them. I hope to expand in the future with an actual publisher, but not sure of angle yet or anything.
January 18, 2015. London.“If Graffiti Changed Anything,” by Banksy. Via Jackie Hadel.
Jason: Well, hopefully a publisher will read this and you’ll get the major book deal you deserve. Well, I’m fresh out of questions, so let’s call this a wrap. Thanks Jackie.
Phew!Without DOUBT the most work I’ve ever put into a single blog post.Check out Jackie’s Amazon author page for her other, Non-Banksy-In-NYC books, with many more beautiful photos, from myriad artists, in myriad cities.
Follow this blog if you dig what you see. (And Jackie JUST inspired me to take my adorable/embarrassing first Insta baby steps.)
Told through a son’s eyes. Please, if you like this, and or think this site has some interesting/quality reads on it, please share. I’m going to just drop this whole professional/portfolio writer-looking-for-work thing soon and begin telling the truth, ugly though it may be. “Soon to be veteran career strategist!” my ass. I doubt I’d make it through certification, so I’ll delete that soon.
One thing is that I may not have long to live, due to a tragic series of events that currently has me stuck in Colombia. I’m not ready to share all of that yet. But here is one thing: my name is Jason Edward Harrington.You can search my Wikipedia page for more back story. I got a beautiful book deal with a major publisher in 2014, and I abandoned it when I realized I couldn’t write an autobiography at that age of 38. It’s a very, very long story, one that is currently put down into a new autobiography that now sits at 280 pages or so– the story of how I failed to write a conctractually obligated story. That’s why my name is HowiAbandoned: the name of my first and likely final book is “How I Abandoned a Book Deal, Ran to South America, Partied Away the Advance. And How You Can Do it Too!”
I’ve essentially been a man on the run for eight years now. I’m not ready to share the full, tragic, downward spiral that has been my life, just yet. But here is a very personal story that similarly reaches down into the depths of sadness and despair that the man behind this blog is truly experiencing every morning, day, and night. I only wanted to be a writer when I grew up, when I was a bright eyed, curly haired little brown boy. I hope you’ll help me reach readers, after all my failures.
JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
JASON EDWARD HARRINGTON
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it had always passed, I must confess, with little awareness on my part. I was aware of an abundance of pink ribbons—taped to front doors, printed on bumper stickers, tied around bike handlebars, pinned to people’s lapels. When, from my back porch, I would notice in the distant Chicago skyline the top of the John Hancock building bathed in pink light, I would think to myself, “It must be Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” with little perspective on the matter; with little sense of cause, or effect: the grass is green, the sky is blue, the top of the John Hancock building is pink. There was very little difference amongst these things for me, until the sky came falling down.
“I have breast cancer.”
My mother’s voice quavers before the end of the sentence, and I’m sure she’s been repeating the words to herself like a mantra for at least one full hour before dialing my number; steeling herself to make that sentence— to do it without betraying any fear in her voice— but she gets to that last word, and her voice goes tremolo. She gets to that last word, and I hold the phone away from me— I don’t drop it, it’s not quite like the movies. I just hold it away from me, and stare at it hard, sitting on the bus, at some stop— maybe mine, maybe not— glaring at the phone and thinking: I am going to destroy this black magical device currently recreating my mother’s distant, frightened voice— “Hello? Hello? Jason?”—I am going to send this harbinger of bad news into oblivion, maybe launch it, launch it into the…I look out the bus window: the grass is green, the top of the John Hancock building is pink, the sky is— I see the sky is blue, has the nerve to be blue, and finally I bring the phone to my ear.
“This is terrible” are the three words that I manage to gather. And I’m dimly aware of one thing, the first in a series: that I’ve just succeeded in stating the painfully obvious. Indeed, in the weeks since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve become keenly aware of a few things.
I’ve become aware that full grown adults can become reduced to children when finding their loved ones caught in the path of cancer. Right after hanging up with Mom, I called my sister.
“Mom has cancer,” I told her, walking punch-drunk laps around my local liquor store’s aisles.
“Does not,” my 25 year old sister wittily retorts.
“Yes, she does,” I counter.
“No, she doesn’t,” she replies, in a voice at first only vaguely familiar, but then very familiar for a very obvious reason: it’s the voice of my sister, age 8, with that same soft tone of shyness, that same timidity of a little girl refuting, from beneath bed covers, the truth behind a bedtime ghost story.
“Heather. Bilateral mastectomy in one week. Chemo after that, then radiation. She has cancer, Heather.”
“Fine,” she surrenders, old enough to rent a car again.
“I’m going to deal with this, and you’re going to deal with this, too. You are not going to tear yourself down. And you are not going to drink your way through this.”
At that moment, somehow, it became real thing, acknowledged and confirmed by a second party, my sister, the person to whom I’d always been the closest. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas was playing over the store’s speakers at the moment when my mother‘s cancer became real, and I thought to myself, “just in time for Christmas.”
I’ve become aware that alcohol is a very unwise crutch to lean upon when dealing with a thing as serious as…well, this. This was a momentous realization to come to for a habitual alcohol and drug user. The first thing I did after winning the third grade debate with my sister was to settle on a cheap bottle of vodka and head for the liquor store’s counter. I had more than a few that night, more than usual, and I had more than a few the next few nights after that. Historically, whenever I’ve come up against something truly daunting in my life, I’ve drowned it in glass and aluminum containers. After the abrupt end of a five year relationship with an ex-girlfriend of mine, I drank no less than a twelve pack of beer a night, every night, for 2 years straight. Rows of beer cans lined up like refrigerated mortar rounds, the only way I’d ever known how to wage war against pain. The night before my mother’s bilateral mastectomy, just one week after the initial diagnosis, I came to the decision that I was going to face my mother’s cancer sober. There was no trip to see the man behind the liquor store counter that night, no anxiety meds, no sleeping pills, none of that: just me, a dreary mid- November day, and the terrifying, inescapable reality of what my mother and I were up against.
I sunk in my bed as soon as the sun went down, still hung over from the night before, feeling that suffocation which comes with problems that reach much deeper than an inconvenience; those problems that cannot be solved with a mere rearrangement of the trivial pieces of one of life’s day-to-day puzzles. Cancer is not a bill that you can pay. It is not a coworker you can ignore. It is not a stain that can be dry cleaned, or a garment that can be discarded. You close your eyes and wish you could free yourself from your Self; escape what it is you’re up against; like a child, squeeze your eyes shut and take the whole world with them— blink reality out, put everything on pause. Like all such things in life, there is often a moment in the morning when you first wake up, and for an instant, are free of some recently-installed black fact of your reality; the rude monster still lodged in the night before—out of sight, out of mind— but then, just as fast, the monster awakens, catches up to you, and you remember, with a sinking stomach, that it’s still there.
Lying there in bed, hung over and pining for a drink, I felt as though my head were being uncorked; as though something inside of me was being unthawed. Not the reality, but the implications of the reality, hit me that night— without alcohol as anesthesia, the pain of the implications was infinitely more profound. I could, sooner than later, find myself without a mother. Lying there in bed, I struggled not to let any of the hundreds of beautiful moments I’d shared with my mother be tainted by slow motion replay and a sappy movie score.
Lying there in bed, for the first time in a long time, I really cried.
I have become aware how painful, on many levels, it is for a woman to lose her breasts. My mother is a sweet woman of 65 years, mother of four, her eyes bad and her knees long ago gone out, even before the operation she was a woman who more than once had become mired in a sofa, or a recliner, and having done so, would ask for a hand only as a last resort.
“I’m getting old. Falling apart,” she would explain, apologetically, a little ashamed.
Walking into her hospital room for the first time, I saw what I knew I would see, what I’d dreaded to see: my mother, no longer just falling apart, but now ripped apart, lying in a bed that, to a son, might as well have been a butcher’s table. She’d been optimistic before the operation, as usual, even if only in appearance: always the doting mother, not wanting to be a bother, or a worry.
“I don’t need these things anymore, anyway,” she’d joked before the operation.
Now she was bleary-eyed, pale, shrouded in bandages. The optimism was gone. Now there was just a placid confusion in her eyes, drug-induced, most of it. Her voice barely there, trying to fight the morphine in order not to fall asleep, she mostly listened while I talked. I talked about going home, about having a drink when this was all over, about how it would be over, soon— we would beat cancer. I didn’t fully believe those words. I couldn’t believe them, seeing her like that. But I said them anyway. And it was only when she noticed my gaze sink furtively down to her chest, to the two bandaged pouches of purple and red flesh, that she seemed to awaken from her stupor.
“They’re gone,” was all she said.
She cupped her hand over her mouth then, and it seemed to me that she was, curiously, trying to stifle the pronouncement already made. But then, for the first time in a long time, it was my mother who was crying, sobbing, behind the cup of her hand.
“They served you well, Mom,” was all I could think to say, idiotically, as though I were a general addressing the mother of two fallen war heroes.
“They fed all four of us,” I continued, desperately scrambling to provide both solace as well as, I suppose, an impassioned case for a Purple Heart.
“Just you,” she corrected me, wiping at her eyes. Until then, I’d never known that I was the only one of my three brothers and sisters who had been breastfed. It seemed fitting right then, perhaps on some Freudian level, that I was the kid who seemed to be taking this all the hardest.
I have become aware that hospitals only do so much, and doctors only know so much. When my mother found the nickel-sized lump on her breast, she thought it was nothing; it felt like a marshmallow, soft, not hard like she’d always assumed a tumor would feel. But given the history of cancer in our family, she went to her doctor, who referred her to another doctor, who referred her to a general surgeon, who assured her that there was a 99 percent chance that the lump was just a “step off” from the breast tissue to the chest wall. “Just a ridge,” as the general surgeon called it, “nothing at all.” Looking at my mother lying in her hospital bed, two breasts and 14 lymph nodes gone (lymph nodes to which three the cancer had already spread) it seemed to me that a 1 percent chance had gone a long way. My mother, my sister and I were waiting for the nurse who had promised to bring a wheelchair right away— 45 minutes before. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of waiting and false assurances when it comes to hospitals— or at least the one my mother was in. Being that my mother is of the passive temperament, and I the same, we were lucky to have my sister on our side, all five foot eight fiery inches of her. Not much more than 24 hours after her surgery, the hospital was trying to send my mother home. My mother wasn’t ready to go home; she hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet, and the nurses at the hospital had done little in the way of providing assistance.
“She ain’t going nowhere until you people start doing your jobs,” my sister coolly informed the staff.
After that, they were a little more attentive. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of my sister’s scowl when she finally hunted down that wheelchair herself.
There are the delicate inquiries of my younger nieces, calling to ask how Grandma is doing, and then shyly moving on to The Question- the fear in their voices thinly veiled— asking about the results of the genetic testing. “Are we all fated for cancer?” is the underlying question the family quietly asks, not wanting to appear selfish for asking it, but asking it nonetheless.
There is the reality of the inevitable parent-child role reversal having finally arrived, like a change of drivers in a speeding car. One of the first nights home with my mother, she noted that it was about dinner time. We sat there for a few awkward moments, like two actors in a play who had forgotten their lines. But then, I remembered my new role.
“Hope you don’t mind chicken and macaroni and cheese,” I said, heading bravely for the kitchen, “because it’s about the only thing I know how to cook.” Another night, I realized that she was fighting her much-needed sleep to stay up late to talk to me. “Time to get your butt to bed,” I told her, half in jest, echoing the same call-to-bedtime she had used on me when I was little.
Being that we live 60 miles apart— myself in Chicago, and she in rural Illinois, where cell phone service is spotty— my mother, for the first time, began teaching herself to text message in the days following her delivery of the bad news. She learned fast and adorably. It seemed as though the texts appearing on my cell phone’s screen were coming from a teenage girl, instead of from a 65 year old woman. I began receiving “lol”s and “ttyl”s, “omg”s and “gtg”s. And, though I knew there was likely great pain behind them, there even appeared the occasional:
I’ve become aware that before cancer I had not been as close to my mother as I should have been. Sitting with her while she recovered from surgery, I opened up and talked to my mother— really talked to her—for the first time in a while, not so much like mother and son, but more like two friends. I talked to her about girls, about nights out with the boys, about the things that I feared most. Timidly, I asked her if she was afraid of death, mostly to see where she was, psychologically, but also secretly—and selfishly—to mentally file for myself an example; a point of reference for when the day came that I, too, found myself staring into the swirling inevitability. She’d been through so much up to that point, she told me, that the possibility of her own death stirred within her little fear. She answered so coolly, so matter-of-fact— as though I’d only asked what kind of dressing she preferred on her salad—that I knew she meant it, at least right then. In the face of it all, she stood courageous, and at that moment I was prouder of her than I’d ever been before.
The most miraculous thing I’ve become aware of is this: there is actually some good that can come from cancer. Lying in my bed the night before her surgery, after the tears had dried, a calmness settled over me, and I realized, in one of those beautiful epiphanies, that I didn’t have to be scared. If given the chance, the mind finds ways to cope with misfortune; its ability to find meaning amidst chaos is uncanny. The answer came to me that night, and I immediately texted Mom:
“Guess what I just realized? We’re going to be fine. We’re going to be closer than ever now, as close as we always should have been. We’re okay now, and we’ll always be okay. Nothing can change that, no matter what happens. If anyone is guaranteed to be healthy through this, paradoxically, it’s us. And I’m not scared anymore.”
Military satire written during the second Iraq War. Formatting went off a little, but not too bad.
Yi-Pei the Sniper
By Jason Harrington
From the memoirs of Staff Sgt. Phineas “The Director” Bailey.
March 26, 2007:
My boys call me The Director, and yeah, I’ve shot an ass or two. I spent the first 20 years of my career crouching in Bel-Air bushes just to bring that semi-nude photo of Carnie Wilson to your grocery store’s checkout line. For a long time I thought I’d scraped the dregs of meaningless humiliation. Then I joined the U.S. war in Iraq. In all my years in Hollywood I’d seen my share of far-fetched war movies up on the silver screen, but none of them came close to capturing the absurd reality of the job me and my boys have taken on as snipers in Baghdad’s Dora district. I’ve worked with a lot of sharpshooters since signing on to this war three years ago, but I never worked with anyone quite like Yi-Pei. But before we get to the star of this show, let me rewind the footage, go over the supporting cast, the location, put out a press kit, so to speak: a little back story on me, my boys, our mission, and the setting.
Numero uno: I hate conflict. That’s probably the first thing that made me a logical choice for this war. I began as a Paparazzo, staking out celebrities for days at a time, an Olympus OM-1 hanging around my neck like a dog tag. That front-page spread of Carnie Wilson pool-side wearing nothing but a thong after her first fat relapse back in ’91? You’re welcome. Everyone knows me by the Carnie spread, and not to brag, but I have to agree it’s my best work; big-time stuff. Carnie-goddamned-Wilson in all the flesh, liposuction scars still not yet healed and already back up to 250 pounds. I holed up in her bushes for damn near 48 hours to get that one. When she caught sight of me in her hedges and charged like a rhino, did I stand my ground to get an assault spread on top of the weight-gain spread? Hell no. I broke fast for the perimeter wall, snapping photos over my shoulder. Starting with the Carnie spread, I made a name for myself in the paparazzi world: stealthy, patient, and sharp-eyed. Turned out my knack for unwanted invasions of privacy caught the eyes of some military brass back in ‘03. At first I thought they had the wrong man: the only military experience I’d ever had was a stint with the National Guard. But from my very first day on the job, I knew I was just as qualified as anyone else.
There’s a neighborhood in Dora District that, on any given day, plays host to more suspected terrorists wanted by the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. All day and all night, they come and they go. It is this neighborhood that we monitor, from the fourth floor above what used to be the Pizzeria Napoli. I use the past tense because the Pizzeria Napoli is now nothing more than a charred husk, having been car bombed by insurgents when its owner was suspected of passing out free breadsticks to U.S. troops in ‘04. The good thing about half the building being reduced to shattered glass and powdered brick, however, is two-fold: 1. Our headquarters is now out of the enemy’s cross-hairs, and 2. The owner- Mr. Asad Ru’Shimi- is now on our payroll and back in business as our personal cook and creator of delicious Italian foodstuffs from the first floor kitchen. “Nothing satisfies when you’re in the Red Zone, like a Pizzeria NapoliCalzone” ™
Before Yi-Pei came on board, I had three men under my command: two snipers, Owl and Bug, along with a promising young grunt, Calzone. Owl was a Desert Storm vet, a Southern boy who had learned to shoot hunting wild pigs in the backwoods, an old dog in this show, around my age: mid 30s. In the morning, he was a fine sniper: focused and alert. But after 1200 hours- his lunchtime– his morale went low. Where before lunch he would be a proper sniper– one eye winked closed and the other opened wide against the rubber-lined scope of his M-40– after lunch both of his eyes would be lolling without focus somewhere above his scope and out on the cracked streets, meditating on the Red-Crossed blurs streaking back and forth. From his afternoon low he would gradually regain life until the end of his lookout, and then come the next morning he would be back to his alert self. Usually, deliberative calculation would be a desirable characteristics in a sniper, but the thing was, somehow, after 1200 hours Owl became too relaxed, too tranquil, too clear-headed– fact is, he began questioning things. But I have to say, before 1200 hours Owl was a hell of a sniper. So, on a slow day, a Friday (youm al-jum`a, mosque day) I dropped him the hint that he was undoubtedly sharp before lunch, but that afterwards, it would probably be best for him to catch some R&R and let Bug and I run the show.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” he drawled.
“Cut the jargon, kid. Pitch me.”
“Okay, so there’s this old boy. A sniper. In the morning he’s sharp like an eagle. Nothin’ escapes his sites, every thing is in his sites,” he forked his middle and forefinger in front of his eyes to demonstrate acuity.
“But see, in the afternoon, and on towards evening, this old boy gets to philosophizin’. In the afternoon he’s like an owl. And in the afternoon, he wonders why the things are in his sites,” now he held both fingers up as if to shrug; a peace sign for a shrug held out in front of a slanted grin.
Owl’s knees cracked when he took his first steps after shut eye. I found I could always bring myself to wield my authority over the younger soldiers, but not over a man whose bones cracked like mine in the morning.
“We’re just painting, Owl. When the orders start coming down again to squeeze, then I understand. But for now… it’s just painting. Stay on mission.”
My second man, Bug, was a skinny Mexican kid, 23 years old, a serrated scar above his lip like an elongated beauty mark- born and raised in the barrios of East L.A. For Bug the war was just a logical continuation of the life he’d been living in L.A. before he’d enlisted. He wore a khaki suit better than any of us: every morning he made a point of pressing two perfect columnar creases down the middle of his khaki pant legs using a wrench heated on our stove, and he wore them sagged down below his ass like he’d never left El Sereno. That’s one thing about Bug, though; he wore the war cleanly and with style. Owl’s state of cleanliness, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired, and he didn’t seem to mind. When he pissed in our latrine, you could smell crotch all through the air long after he zipped up, and the brim of the musty fisherman’s hat he had permanently installed on his head rarely revealed both eyes at once.
Morale seemed to be on alternating shifts with my boys. Where it visited Owl on high in the mornings, and low in the afternoons, it was exactly the opposite for Bug. In the afternoons, when Owl went Socrates, Bug was on point, every ounce of his street-made alertness magnified through eight telescopic lenses. But come morning, Bug would start bugging out. It seemed as though in the morning he went to war with himself and every goddamned conceivable thing outside of the enemy. He battled the sweat trickling into his eyes with the backs of his hands and cursed the Mesopotamian sun in Spanish. He clashed with the Spartan furnishings of our quarters and kicked over chairs. He entered into epic struggles with his rifle, disassembling and reassembling, claiming he had to get it just right before he could scope anything, although he never got it right. The war itself became the enemy every morning for Bug, but the aspect that took the brunt of it was definitely the MRE rations.
“Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, all the live long day! Hooah bars spinning in my nightmares, Salisbury steaks bobbing in my shit! It’s a freeze-dried takeover, Dog! Chingalo, I’m gonna’ die fighting the fuckin’ menu!”
The only way to calm Bug down at times like that was to send Calzone down to the kitchen on a Calzone run.
Calzone was the third member of our team: black sheep son of Senator Joseph McKedzie, guilty only of being acquiescent and turning 18 during Primaries. To accusations that he was a War Hawk who wouldn’t be willing to send any of his three sons to war, the good senator’s witty retort was to send Calzone to war. Calzone had dropped out of high school just before being volunteered, but it wasn’t for lack of intelligence: no, he was extremely intelligent– it just didn’t show in any way. His brilliance was inert; his genius was in the negative; his smartness was in knowing that it wasn’t his place to get smart, so when he ambled from corner to corner of our small apartment wearing headphones unattached to any type of music player, he did it so that he could hear us over the non-music when we ordered him to sneak down to the kitchen to ask Mr. Ru’Shimi to whip up some calzones.
I should have given this treatment before. The way we ran our lookout was this: four walls, four windows, four directions of observation. I covered East, Owl covered South, Bug covered North, Calzone covered stomach. We needed a West man, so one morning I put in a request to Central Command. Yi-Pei arrived at sunset that very same day, in the only safe way for a U.S. soldier to travel unnoticed through Baghdad: hands bound, black hood tied over his head, with a pair of AK-47-touting Iraqi escorts– friendlies– who winked, shoved a heavy duffel bag in my arms and then disappeared like specters.
I also should have mentioned the nature of our day to day ops. In most wars, the activities associated with snipers usually involve sniping people. But this was a new kind of war we were fighting, dictated by a different kind of logic, and so keeping in theme, we were in the business of not sniping people. We considered ourselves conspiring painters– I ran the show like art class. Leaning over Bug’s shoulder on a typical morning, it wasn’t just the barrel of an M-42 sniper rifle that he was looking down as he sat on an overturned bucket three feet back from the window, but an M-42 with an infrared attachment.
“Do you have a shot?” I asked him, laying a hand on his shoulder and bringing my cheek against his ear.
Two triggers on the rifle: trigger one for bullet, and a button on the side of the rifle, for beam. Through his scope he sees a minivan pull up to the curb, from the sliding doors a group of men emerge. Through the liquid snakes of the heat waves he singles out a man he knows is number 7 on the laminated list of suspected terrorist head shots we all had memorized. He gets him in his sites and depresses the button which sends the beam from point one, which invisibly paints point two on Mr. 7’s chest, which makes it possible for the U.S. satellite careening just outside the earth’s atmosphere to become point three, thereby completing a lovely triangle which puts a flashing red dot on the computer screens of military intelligence from Hamburg to Honolulu, designating the precise location of Mr. 7, down to within a half an inch.
“Man, get up out my face,” Bug said, shrugging me off with his shoulder. “Yeah, I got a shot.”
“Good. Now don’t take it.”
Strolling over to Owl and leaning over his shoulder I found out he had a number 12 man in his sites.
“Beautiful. Now drop him.”
Owl could make Number 12 literally dead with the squeeze of the trigger, or potentially dead with a push of the button. But literally dead this week means the Pentagon will have nothing to brag about next week when the Times runs an article on the President’s plunging approval ratings and the dwindling support for the war. Wars these days are fought on front lines and on front pages, and that’s why I’m here– I’m sympathetic to media strategy.
Sometimes, I would sit in my chair in the corner, listening to my room full of sharpshooters not shooting. I would web my fingers behind my neck and lean way back, just taking it all in.
“You hear that?” I would ask my men.
“Exactly. Savor it, boys. That’s the sound of nothing. One day, when they ask us what this war was about, we’ll remember that sound.”
The heavy black duffel bag that the hired Iraqi escorts shoved into my arms contained a disassembled rifle. Yi Pei was unusually tall for a man of Asian descent, I thought; so tall that even sitting cross-legged on the floor he still came up to Calzone’s chest. Without a word before or many after he assembled in 12 seconds what turned out to be a death-black, .50 cal M-82. Bug was in awe.
“Damn, dog. I heard you could punch a hole clean through a tank with them motherfuckers.”
It was this same rifle that Yi-Pei held as I slid up behind him and leaned over his shoulder.
“Got him?” I asked.
“I’m taking it.”
Owl turned around and swept his fisherman’s hat off his head. Bug stopped rifle assembling mid-assembly. Reeling, I asked the room in general:
“Did I miss a kill directive here, or…?”
“No,” Yi-Pei cut in, “but I’m taking it.”
Looking through my binoculars I saw what he saw: two men sitting at table at an outdoor café. One of them had a monstrous cleft lip. No doubt about it, Number 16. I spoke without taking my eyes away from the binoculars.
“Okay, kid, you got number 16 in your sites there, good work, but I think I forgot to fill you in on terminology. When we mark them, it’s not called ‘taking’ it. What you’re doing right now is ‘painting’ him, the button on your infrared attachment there, giving headquarters exact coordinates on the enemy combatant, and then standing down until if, and when…”
The shot deafened us in the room, and, 600 yards away, the spray of Number 16’s blood blinded his friend. He dropped his steak knife on the table and tumbled out of his chair, wiping at his eyes. The last thing I saw before I hit the deck was him reaching behind his back and looking around wildly. Yi-Pei slunk deftly from view of the window. Owl and Bug remained stunned and visible from the windows– 3 feet back from the windows– but still visible.
“Down!” I hissed, lying on my side. Calzone was still standing, and near me, so I yanked him down by the dangling cord of his headphones.
And then we all just watched each other from the floor for a while, motionless and without a word, until the wailing of sirens began to fill the silence– along with the sound of hollow metal skittering across the wooden floor– as Yi-Pei kicked his spent, red-hot shell towards him with the tip of his boot, gingerly enfolding it in his hand, using his sleeve as a mitt.
None of us had ever actually taken a shot at the enemy before, so for a few days we laid low, unsure of what to expect. When nothing happened, we were all a little surprised, and I ascribed Yi-Pei’s indiscretion to a greenhorn’s overzealousness. Nothing a little briefing couldn’t fix, so one evening buckets and chairs were circled in the center of the room and a meeting was held. I stood stage-center. Everyone’s eyes were on me besides Yi-Pei’s; his attention was on the floor and to the left.
“Listen up,” I began, “recently, there have been some misunderstandings. And in all fairness, I may have failed to run through the script as thoroughly as I should have. HQ wants visual confirmations and pinpoint locations. They want us to get their targets in our sites in order to give them options. I know it may seem that a dead enemy is a good enemy, but, for reasons above us, that’s not always the case. Remember: ‘A dead terrorist is worth 0 points; an undead terrorist is worth at least twice as much.’ So, when we get a target in our sites, we hold him there, and…”
“We take him,” Yi-Pei said without looking up. Calzone didn’t stop giggling until my eyes met his. Yi-Pei avoided my hard gaze.
“We’re taking him? ‘We’re taking him,’ Yi-Pei says. Easy as that. What do you think about that, Owl?”
“Speakin’ freely, sir…he’s insubordinate,” he said, adding beneath his breath, “although, a snipin’ sniper would make for a harmonious marriage between form and function…”
“What about you, Bug?”
“We got a mission, and we gotta’ stick to it, we’re not shooters, we’re snipers. He’s gonna’ get us killed, shootin’ at the enemy! Let’s take him out right now!”
“And you, Calzone?”
Calzone suddenly came to, having been lost somewhere between his headphones.
“Maybe a calzone would balance him out, sir?”
“Did you catch all that, Yi-Pei? Sounds as though it’s not as easy as just ‘taking it,’ doesn’t it?”
He never gave an answer- his narrow eyes remained fastened on the floor, and so we continued our operation as usual that afternoon; Owl debating with himself over the justness of Yi-Pei’s action, Bug showing Yi-Pei by example how to disassemble his rifle and leave it that way, for the good of the mission.
A week went by without further incident. A lot of wanted men in our sites, and of course, no orders to fire. Yi-Pei’s recent actions caused me to monitor his behavior a little more closely. He sat on his overturned bucket, facing toward the window, leg crossed over his knee, elbow rested on arm, rifle steady for hours on end, seemingly without moving so much as an inch. He was a fixture at his West window. The rest of us slept on 3 hour shifts; Yi-Pei never slept, and if he did, it was behind his rifle, eye pressed against scope. He never touched our reserve of MRE rations. The only time he ever ate was after Calzone returned from his runs to the downstairs kitchen, when he would place a calzone at Yi-Pei’s feet and quickly bow away. I was conflicted over the actions of Yi-Pei. On the one hand, he was being insubordinate by not shooting. On the other, he was firing on confirmed enemy combatants. How could I blame a man at war for fighting the enemy? Eventually, I self-reasoned the burden of fault onto my own shoulders, convincing myself that Yi-Pei’s little outbursts were nothing that a little on-the-job training couldn’t fix. It was raining that day and so across the street Number 9, a middle-aged man with preposterously large gold-rimmed spectacles, stood out of the rain in the doorway of a small shop, smoking a cigarette and chatting with another unidentified man. Adjusting my scope, I jerkily zoomed in through the diagonally slanting sheets of rain, then further in, too far, all the way in to the cracked beige surface of the shop’s clay bricks, then back out too far, where a blurry local boy with rain-slicked hair was kicking a soccer ball against the trunk of a palm tree, and then finally in to Number 9 himself, putting his chest in my cross hairs, using the designer insignia on his American-made dress shirt as a target.
“Observe, Yi-Pei,” I said in between a measured breath, “Number 9, locked. Now I could take him right now, but do I? No.”
I reached my index finger up to the side of the rifle and depressed the infrared button. Through my sites a red dot lit up in the center of the crosshairs.
“Now the boys and girls at command see everything I see. Any second now, an order will come in over-“
“Command to Stryker 6, hold combatant in sites, stand down until further instructions. Repeat…” a nasal voice crackled through my headpiece.
“And the beauty of it is, the further instructions never come, Yi-Pei. We’re not in the business of shooting,” I said, dipping my crosshairs a little to follow Number 9 as he stepped forward to flick his cigarette in the street. Behind me, Owl’s voice hesitantly rose.
“Hey, uh, sir?”
“Not now, Owl. I’m showing Yi-Pei how to not shoot.”
“Understood, sir. But on that subject, I’m not so sure he’s…”
“Quiet, Owl. That’s an order. We’re training here.”
There was the whoosh of the toilet flushing and the sound of the bathroom door opening, and then it was Bug:
“Oh, hell no. Motherfucker’s ‘taking it’ again, ain’t he? Endangering our mission…fuck this shit! Take him out, Owl!”
“In the grand scheme of things, what difference would that make?” Owl said placidly.
Just as soon as it occurred to me that behind me Yi-Pei may have been following Number 9 with more than a trainee’s interest, he made it known to all of us, in resounding and concise fashion, that he was, indeed, taking it.
One day not long after that, two big things went down. While scoping a building 1,000 yards off, I found myself looking straight into an insurgent’s binoculars. Luckily, his attention was focused on the building next to us, but just as I slid away from the window, the growing sound of footsteps came clicking down the hallway outside our door. Things like that usually come in threes, so I was sure the hat trick would be made by a close quarter fire fight. All of us went low. All of our rifles were leveled at the door. I slipped Calzone my side arm and even he took aim. I hated and loved Yi-Pei right then: hated him for putting us in that situation, loved him for being armed and on our side. As a series of knocks rapped the door I wondered whether the mother of the man I was about to kill would be proud to know that her son had knocked before he entered. I reached into the side pocket of my fatigues to make sure the last option- the cyanide pills- were still there. We called the last option “Chapter 7”- too much debt, too few assets, time for self-liquidation. On the second series of knocks I considered firing at the approximate place on the door where his head would be– average height, Middle eastern male, 5’8– when a muffled, quavering voice sounded out: “Delivery, Napoli Pizza.”
Wearing bags beneath his eyes and his signature scowl, Mr. Ru’Shimi told us what I already knew: the enemy was closing in on us. Hajji was scoping for us now. I ordered everyone away from all windows for a day while I decided on a course of action. Yi-Pei disregarded the order and stayed right at his post, but I didn’t bother arguing. In fact, I wanted him there. At that point, I didn’t like the idea of not having him on guard.
“We’re changing locations. Our boys are sweeping the neighborhood tomorrow, and in the middle of it we’re changing position. You can’t stay here, Yi-Pei. This building is no longer a base of operations.”
Yi-Pei stood before me, his eyes dull and unfocused.
“I’m taking it.”
”You’re taking it? You’re taking what? The building? You’ll be killed here before the week is out. Hajji is closing in on this location. We’re moving a mile East. It’s not quite in the middle of the action like we are here, but it’s safer. You give us your word you’ll stop taking targets, you can come with us. You’re a brilliant sniper, kid. But really, you can’t stay here.”
“I can, and I’m taking it.”
Somehow, he was looking at me and through me at the same time. His eyes seemed cloudy.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I demanded.
“Nothing. I see everything. Feel like sniper God.”
“Well, you’re not. You’re trigger happy. The next time you get a target in your sites…”
“You’re not!” I rarely smoked, but I had a pack of reserves in my breast pocket and I lit one up now.
I had a pistol holstered at my side. I reached for my wallet instead.
“This is fifty American. I could shoot you right now for insubordination but-“
“You couldn’t. I could take you.”
“But,” I continued, “I’m going to give you this money and wish you luck. I wouldn’t advise staying here. You would probably do best to hop straight into a cab and haul ass for the Green Zone. At any rate, if you try to come back with us, I will personally shoot you.”
“And then I’ll shoot him again,” Owl piped up from the other side of the room, “Son of a bitch can’t even stick to a simple mission. Orders are God: we serve the orders. That’s our only duty. Don’t they teach that in basic training anymore?” It was morning; Owl was pro-mission.
“Freedom, mission, duty, God, put ‘em all in a pot and mix ‘em up, still won’t have shit to do with this war. To shoot, not to shoot, fuck it, don’t fuck it, it’s all fucked up anyway,” Bug said, disassembling his rifle.
“Luckily, my opinion remains constant– you’re a threat to this mission. The best of luck.”
I extended the money; he didn’t move. Finally I laid it on the floor at his feet. The next morning brought the sound of U.S. tanks, Humvees and shouts rumbling through the streets below us. Closing the door behind us, only Yi-Pei and the untouched 50 dollars were left behind as evidence that U.S. soldiers had ever been there.
Our new operating base was another fourth floor apartment, in another building owned by Mr. Ru’Shimi. The views of the hot spot weren’t as good, but the quarters were much better: the place was furnished, and we even had an old T.V. with a DVD player. The hardest thing was that we no longer had the Pizzeria Napoli below us- Calzone had no more errands to run, although Mr. Ru’Shimi occasionally dropped in with a bag full of calzones. If any of us deserved a medal for valor it was definitely Mr. Ru’Shimi. With Yi-Pei gone, we returned to the tranquility that comes with not shooting. But even though he was no longer with us, the unmistakable crack of that M-82 continued ringing out a mile away. Through our scopes we could see Yi-Pei’s handiwork– men lying dead in the streets and crowds gathering around them. I still covered the East window and so, since we’d moved West, I had a view of the old building’s West window. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of him as he inched a little too far out of the shadows and too close to the window. As Yi-Pei’s shots continued to ring out– breaking afternoon silence, shattering morning stillness– it seemed as though nothing would be able to stop them. Then one day Mr. Ru’Shimi stopped by again, more solemn than usual. He wanted to talk privately, away from Bug and Calzone, so we held our conversation in the john.
“The one you have left in my building– the one who shoots all day and all night– I have asked him to leave, yet he does not go,” he said as I closed the bathroom door behind us. “Dangerous men are becoming suspicious. If he does not stop shooting, if you cannot make him stop shooting, you must understand…I will have to go to them before they come to me.”
“That’s Yi-Pei. Always taking it. Stubborn on that point. That’s why he’s no longer associated with us, Mr. Ru’Shimi. If radical elements start asking you questions, I advise you to play stupid. You don’t know us, we don’t know him, he’s a rogue U.S. soldier squatting in your building, that’s all you know and that’s all they need to know-“
“Excuse me, sir.” He held his index finger in front of him, as if to symbolize “I.
”I, am Shia. They…”
Now he pointed his finger toward the bathroom window.
”Are Sunni. That is all they need to know to kill me quickly. Any excuse they find above that…is reason to kill me slowly.”
His words hung darkly in the air. Unsure of how to deal with them, I picked up on the other thing that hung in the air.
“I smell something yummy. What’s that in the bag? Fess up, Ru’Shimi. You don’t expect me to believe you didn’t bring any calzones?”
He reached into the bag he was holding and pulled out a warm mass of tinfoil. Somehow I understood they would be the last calzones until circumstances changed, one way or the other.
“We’re taking him.”
I made the announcement quietly, staring out of the East window, leaning back in my chair. Bug was dancing in the middle of the room- Crip Walking to the call to evening prayer. Owl sat watching him, gnawing on a toothpick.
“Yes, sir! We’re takin’ him. Gonna’ Crip Walk straight to Mecca in this bitch, kill that insubordinate motherfucker on the way. We takin’ him, we takin’ him,” Bug sang, pivoting and shuffling his feet to an imagined hip-hop syncopation.
“Quit that hip-hoppin’ bullshit,” Owl grumbled. “Disrespectful little son ‘bitch. Somebody should take you. Hey Cal, pass me the last calzone.”
“I’m taking it,” Calzone proudly announced, his shining moment having finally arrived at his post guarding the plate of calzones. I jumped up from my chair.
“Since when are we all ‘taking’ things now? Nobody’s taking anybody, besides us to Yi-Pei. He’s given us no choice. This is the last time anything or anyone is going to be taken.”
The biggest challenge was going to be catching Yi-Pei at one of the moments when he wandered too close to the West window of the old apartment. Also, in the morning, Bug questioned the morality of killing a fellow U.S. soldier and refused to take part in the operation, and in the afternoon, Owl did the same. Seeing that it was mostly up to me to take the East window, I did what I had to do: posted Calzone there with a pair of binoculars and the order to inform me when Yi-Pei was visible. About a day into the operation, Calzone’s voice shakily broke the room’s silence:
“I see him. I see him, sir. And…he looks very serious. I’m not so good at reading lips but…I think he’s telling me that…he’s baking me…”
We all stared at Calzone for a moment, lost. And then, at the same moment, it hit us.
“-The son ‘bitch is taking you, Cal!-”
“-Hit the floor, kid!”
And not a moment too soon. The bullet burst in through the window and grazed the TV 10 feet behind where Calzone’s head had been, spreading a spider-web pattern of cracks symmetrically across the screen.
And so for days, the sorry state of things was this: we were a team of snipers in the business of not shooting, rendered unable to not shoot from our East window– the one window from which it was most likely (though more unlikely than not) that an order to not not shoot would have to be carried out– by a fellow member of the U.S. Marines, who was holding us virtually hostage and endangering our war effort by shooting the enemy. Surprisingly, we took it all sitting down. Owl began work on a manifesto, Bug broke the known-record for the fastest disassembly and assembly of an M-42, Calzone caught up on his non-music, and I took to sneaking surveillance from the East window, trying to catch Yi-Pei off guard. Meanwhile, the crack of that death-black M-82 continued to sound out, bringing us all together in glances and in speculation, until the day when the sound of Yi-Pei’s rifle went quiet, and stayed that way. When Mr. Ru’Shimi arrived with a DVD and a solemn face in lieu of calzones many days later, we gathered around the cracked T.V., and our silence became black. Without meeting my words or my eyes, Mr. Ru’Shimi handed me the DVD and left.
I lit a cigarette as the image of Yi-Pei sprang to life on the screen, seated in a chair in our old headquarters, looking at something off-screen.
“Sons of bitches got him. Woulda’ been lucky to have been taken by us instead,” Owl said.
“I can’t watch this shit. Animals,” Bug said, walking away.
Only Calzone and I were left to watch and listen as the shadow of a man fell over Yi-Pei.
“What is your name?” a tinny voice asked in heavily-accented English.
Yi-Pei’s gaze remained locked somewhere behind and away from the camera. His uniform was disheveled, his face bore bruises and somehow he looked gaunter than he did in person. There was a brief salvo of whispers behind the camera, and then the voice of the off-screen interrogator came again:
“Your name and your rank.”
Yi-Pei blinked. It was the first discernible movement he had made so far on the tape. He blinked and looked above and around the camera but not into it. The whispers behind the camera began again.
“You will denounce America and its allies…look into the camera!”
The camera trembled and Yi-Pei fell slightly out of focus, and then Yi-Pei looked into the camera, sending a chill careening down my spine. It was the first time I’d looked directly into his eyes in the 4 weeks I had known him– they were reptilian eyes, cold, black and gleaming. In a second movement, he wiped his hand down his face, from his nose to his goatee. He locked his eyes on the camera for a moment longer and then looked away again, his jaw muscles now tensed visibly, as though he was on the verge of a verbal outburst. But it never came. His jaw just kept working, silently.
“You will denounce the American war effort or you will die.”
“Why doesn’t he do it?” Calzone asked at my side.
“They’re going to kill him regardless,” I said.
Again the interrogator’s voice came, furious this time.
“Do you understand?”
Yi-Pei looked into the camera again, but now his eyes were different. Glazed over, eyelids sagging, he then did a strange thing– he began nodding slowly, almost rhythmically, as though listening to some distant music. His eyes weren’t closing, so much as absolutely relaxing. I began nodding my head with him as I caught on. Chapter 7. There were shouts in Arabic. The camera zoomed all the way in on Yi-Pei’s face, and then went out of focus.
“He took it,” I said, rising from the couch and walking toward the TV. Just before I turned it off, Yi-Pei was back in focus, head on the floor with a knife at this throat. The shouts rose to a fierce Arabic crescendo, and it seemed as though they were trying to wake him up to die. But his body was limp, his eyes remained closed, and when I turned the TV off, only the spider-web cracks remained on the screen. After a while, we all took up our positions again, in silence, again, three feet back from the windows.
In the days that followed I did some digging around and got half a scoop on Yi-Pei’s history. He was first generation Vietnamese-American, from a poor family. He had invested everything in his military career. He’d been somewhat of a star at Fort Benning, known around the academy for being inhumanly accurate behind a rifle, but not very well-liked by either his peers or superiors. He had learned to shoot from his father, a war vet himself: Nam. The other side. A V.C. sniper with a legendary American headcount. It all made sense the more I thought about it. Some people have a thing, a genuine thing, and the only burden that comes with it is that they have to do that thing, irrespective of the circumstances. That thing is their function, and the only way it’s wrong is when it’s not being performed. Yi-Pei was a killer, but insofar as that, he was authentic: one of the few things in this war that actually made any sense.
Right now I live in Medellin. the home of Pablo Escobar. Not only do I live in the same city as El Padrino did, I live in the same neighborhood he lived in most of his life: Castilla. I live in the ghetto. Even the majority of people from this city refuse to come to my house, due to the reputation of my neighborhood. But I’m a very friendly guy who loves to make people laugh any way I can, so the people of this hood have taken me in as one of their own. I am the only English speaker within a 20 mile radius, mas o menos.
I haven’t seen much of the legendary violence of this neighborhood, save for one shooting I witnessed literally directly in front of my building in which a young man was hit in the chest five times by a man with a revolver. Drive-by. The victim lay there, blood pooling on his chest, as the police took their sweet time taping off the crime scene. And another time I heard what must have been a shotgun go off just a few blocks away, followed by dozens of cops. I’m not going into many details about the utter insanity that has been the past decade or so of my life: to start, you can read my Wikipedia page to get an idea. The two-part autobiography I’m working on tells the rest. But I figured I should make this clear, because in the future I might make some references– like tomorrow’s post, for instance– that will take place in Colombia, and I wanted to make it clear. Also, there will be some pictures coming of my neighborhood, soon.
So with this, we needed to get this short informative article in at a tight 150 words or less. The writer first handed in 500 to give you an idea, and it didn’t feel bloated at all. The client wanted these articles very short. I ended up just cutting this way down and rewriting it to get it to the exact word count.
TURNING UP THE HEAT IN RUSSIA
In Russia, a system called “district heating” is used to heat both the radiators and water in homes. With this system, every neighborhood has its own power plant. A system of underground pipes brings heat to neighborhoods. This system has a couple good things about it. For one, there is no chance people will lose heat in the winter due to reasons such as failing to pay their bills. Second, it is cheap for residents. However, there is one big disadvantage. The systems are old, and some have not been updated often. In some plants nearly half of the energy produced is wasted, experts say. Also, a two-week repair job is needed every year. During this period, in summer, no hot water is available in any of the homes being serviced. This means cold showers for all. Now, however, the government is thinking about starting new programs to help reconstruction.
So. The Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches (PARWCC) is just now offering a certification to help military vets in their quest to get public employment. Is this certificate worth 870 dollars?
Be Among the First
It’s a new certification, targeting an underserved group. As of this writing, a few lesser organizations have followed PARWCC’S lead and are putting out Certified Veteran Career Strategist Certification of their own, with one shamelessly charging 2400 dollars. An underserved niche in the career coaching world, it could be priceless to get in now, before this becomes oversaturated like the general resume writing industry (every writer, including yours truly, has resume writing services advertised). There are something like 3 million vets in the country, on top of their family members who would quickly be referred to you if you did a good job for the vet, totaling out to somewhere around a 7 million count client pool. That’s a healthy number of clients. And you’d be pitching in that crowd mostly alone, few other pesky writers in sight! You may get in early with a name and reputation as the best veteran career strategist!
Vets tend to stick together in groups online. You see vet forums, vet groups, vet meetups. This is priceless: you can target those groups for guerilla advertising, as opposed to relying on Google to find your demographics scatttered all over the place and target them one by one. Honestly, this and the above pro are about equal in potential ROI. The fact that there are two pros this huge is about enough to call this a “yes, it’s worth it” (oops, spoiler warning).
It Might be the Kind of Job You Actually Enjoy
First of all, Certified Veteran Career Strategist requires all the skills and duties of a career coach: making those conference and phone calls, going over paperwork with the client, searching for job matches as posted, rewriting resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and at times, playing a little unofficial therapist. Then on top of that, these are vets: there is a notorious trust barrier between vets and the rest that you’d have to become adept at breaking down. Those unofficial therapy sessions? Well, depending how you look at it, either much more exciting to listen to, or much more traumatic. And, you’d be giving back to your country; serving those who have served you. With all this, you may have yourself a recipe for actually having some fun while earning that title as the best veteran career specialist out there!
There’s a Reason This Certification is Just Now Emerging
It’s often said that there is a wall of mistrust between vets and civilians, and it’s true. I just experienced it myself while talking to the people behind the Career Veteran Strategist program (long story). Vets will often attribute the worst, least charitable intentions to you. You’re going to have to break this barrier down before even getting them to talk to you, which won’t be easy.
Brand New, No Track Record
While it’s a plus that this is brand new territory with little competition, it’s also a minus. Will getting this certification really be worth your money and time? And speaking of which…
You’re Not Just Paying For This Certification
First, you have to become a member of PARWCC, which will set you back 127 dollars. Then, as far as I know right now, you at least have to get either a resume writing certification at 300 dollars, or a career coach certification at over a thousand, before you can plunk down 715 dollars for your veteran career coach cert. That’s, at minimum, 1200 dollars with tax, and two certification courses to complete. Not a small investment
I’m thinking about it. If it weren’t for the required PARWCC membership and the prerequisite course (s), I’d be signed up now. It could be a great opportunity, but it won’t come cheap.
Inspiration often comes from strange places, and for the Mexican artist Pedro Linares, that place was his near-death bed, in 1936. Dying at age 30, he found himself trapped in a scary dream world full of mountains populated by demons. They were mostly red demons, with horn-cropped heads. Others looked different— so scary Pedro could not even describe them upon waking. Luckily, he survived both the illness and the nightmares, and began a mission to share his visions with the world.
Pedro had been making art since childhood, mostly crafting judas monsters for the world-famous painter Diego Rivera, husband of yet another world-famous Mexican artist: Frida Kahlo. The judas monsters were red carton demons that people burned during Holy Week in Mexico. All of the art that Pedro made was made of “papier mache,” a cardboard-like material made of paper strips, held together by a mixture of water and starch. So, when Pedro set out to bring the red demons from dream to reality, it was natural for him to use papier mache. They gained the name alebrijes. At first, they weren’t popular, as people considered them too scary.
Then, Pedro began making the alebrijes more colorful, which caught customers’, as well as the art world’s, eye. Soon, Pedro gained the reputation as the best artisan in Mexico, and thousands of other artists began imitating him. Diego Rivera himself bragged that no one could make alebrijes like his student, Pedro. By the end of his life, Pedro received the National Arts and Science award in the Popular and Traditional Arts category, the highest award for artisans given by the Mexican Government.
Pedro’s death in 1992 didn’t bring an end to his colorful, nightmare vision. Instead, it made the alebrije style even more popular. Over his life, he had personally taught his method and style to many aspiring artists, and people who had never even met Pedro adopted and made variations of the style. One such artist is Susan Buyo, who makes alebrijes with more human-like features, making them less scary. Another group of artists making alebrijes today stick a little more closely to the classic design: Pedro’s own children.
So. While working for the U.S. Transportation Security Adninistration I secretly ran a whisteblower blog. It’s a long story. You can read my Wikipedia entry for more. Anyway, this post was re-published in a book along with well known writers, called “Airplane Reading.” So here is the article free– the only place it can still be found for free online.
The Things They Ran Through the X-Ray
Jason Edward Harrington
The Transportation Security Administration often likes to give you a weekly photo-laden rundown of things that passengers have accidentally left in their carry-ons, mostly intended to give the impression that they are successfully combating some sort of existential threat to our way of life, as their 8 billion dollar budget purports to be doing.
Much more interesting, however, are the dirty little day-to-day occurrences that don’t fit into boring, anodyne governmental accounts of life. These are some of the things they ran through the x-ray.
In talking to officers around the country, it became clear to me in my time at TSA that at most large airports there is an inevitable account of a TSA officer who has run him or herself through the x-ray and subsequently been fired for it. It seems this is usually done out of sheer boredom. Some of these stories are substantiated by termination documents (a FOIA request could probably bring them to light for anyone so inclined).
I have been told by several people that a TSA screener looks much like you would expect it to on a TSA x-ray screen: an enormous orange blob with a black blotch where his or her badge is. So always remember that at some point, at least a few of those solemn-faced TSA officers confiscating your peanut butter have appeared as large orange blobs running through the x-ray.
Cats look like orange turkeys on the x-ray screen. How many cats and dogs I’ve seen run through the x-ray I cannot tell you. Cats far outnumber dogs. For some reason people just think it’s alright to run a cat on through the x-ray. Possibly because cats are less vocal about things than dogs.
Babies also occasionally end up on the x-ray belt. I’ve heard occasional rumblings of babies going all the way through the x-ray machine, ending up as a little orange blob on some x-ray operator’s screen, and I’ll tell you, I would not bet against it having happened. But personally, I’ve only seen and heard, first hand, about close calls. These occasional close-call placement of babies on the x-ray belt usually result from highly confused international travelers so thoroughly perplexed and flustered by the neurotic, collectively 9/11-traumatized, pathological nature of American airport security— all the fussing about shoes and commands to get inside full body scanners and esoteric liquid rules that make very little sense throws them off— and so they are understandably unsure of what it is they are supposed to do with their baby. Do they take the baby out of the stroller? Submit it to make sure it’s carrying less than 3.4 ounces of liquids? Submit the baby for a radiation check? Hand the immigration and customs paper work over for the baby? Taste the baby to prove that it’s not poisonous?— American airport security can be pretty baffling for anyone, so imagine what it looks like to someone from rural India. So it’s actually understandable that the occasional baby has been placed on the x-ray belt.
Pilots and flight attendants are exempt from the liquids rule, and let me tell you, dear passengers: the amount of alcohol that airline crews drink is staggering. Bottle after bottle of hard liquor and wine and champagne is revealed on our x-ray screens when flight crew comes through. Most of us have, at one point or another, asked the flight crew, “having some fun tonight, huh?” laughing nervously, and then adding, with a hopeful tone, “afteryou land the plane and are in the hotel room, right?”
Finally, I was intrigued by the irrepressible sexual hunger that compels the passengers of this great nation to bring vibrators, dildos and other assorted sex toys aboard the plane with their carry-on luggage. I know that the people of this great nation are strong and have within themselves the capacity to overcome irrationality. I know that they are capable of not being menaced by “an endless series of political hobgoblins,” as Mencken once said—the hobgoblins that the TSA assures them are the cause of their peanut butter confiscation and privacy compromises—due to the fortitude displayed in their bravely pressing on; exposing themselves to the risk of having me rummage through their bag and pull out a large sex toy.
I recall one time I did a bag check on a man from Detroit, once the auto-making capital of the world. Having been informed by the x-ray operator that there was a bottle of water in the bag, I pulled it out and quickly sensed that something was slightly off. Then, I realized what it was: there was an enormous dildo rubber-banded to it. I then had an epiphany, spreading over me like a sunrise, beautiful and exhilarating: he wanted me to have to deal with the dildo. He did it on purpose. In rubber-banding that dildo to the water bottle he knew we would target, he seemed to say:
“Yes, I have a dildo, federal officer. Even after the horrors of 9/11, I am still alive; full of vitality, love, sex and, later tonight, that large dildo rubber-banded to the water you are about to confiscate from me. That bottle of water, bought with hard-earned American dollars to relinquish my bodily fluids, so as to make me strong and keep the wheels of commerce of this great nation turning. In taking my water, I want you, federal officer, to know that the terrorists have won, and that you are complicit. I want you to see my dildo. To hold it in your hand; to know that I, as well as my fellow passengers and countrymen, are strong and resilient.
That we, the people of this great nation, can, and will, snap back, like that rubber band.”