Now, however; it seems fuckin’ ludicrous as to why we had to rush from Scotland to Paris in order to catch a train to Milan. We should’ve just said, “Fuck Milan!” which, as it turned out, should have been exactly what we should have done in the first place. Make sense? Fuck it. Here we go
Off the top though, Edinburgh, Scotland is simply magical. In its history, its strong cultural pride, the prices, the countryside, the women, everything! Fuckin’ immaculate. Truly a different world, hell, a different planet compared to where I grew up. But good Lord to get there and back from London is just a major bitch, and you only have two real choices if you’re a back packer. Number one is the train, which, as it turns out, is the way to go, but it’s expensive. It does, however, take less than four hours and that’s the good part of it.
The second choice is the bus. Great deal for about $40 round trip fare, but it’s an 8-9 hour ride. Bad enough, but when the coach is full, and you have a drunken Scotsman in the back row cracking crates of beer, the trek is a fuckin’ nightmare. Sure, you look forward to boozing it up with the lads at the pubs in town, but goddamn you gotta get there first. You’re just not in the right mindset on a 400-mile bus trip. All right, fuck it, that’s getting there. Like I said, Edinburgh itself is just cool
We had spent a week in Amsterdam, ten days in Paris, a couple in London, and we still wanted to catch Milan and Munich, but in order to do that, hit five countries in four weeks, we had to plan judiciously, even though we were on the run.
We set out of Edinburgh-with pangs of longing in my heart at what? 9am? Could’ve been the 8 o’clock coach. No, wait, it was at eight. We had booked the nine o’clock the day before, but at the station that morning a bus driver called us over and said he had two extra seats, want them? Get to London an hour earlier now wouldn’t ja?
We hop on, and even though this driver was more cordial than the guy we had coming up-that fucker refused to turn off the lights even though it was an overnighter-this ride here was still an endless, monotonous ordeal, sorta like this sentence.
The road coming up at youthe drone of the enginethe occasional thump of the bus running over a rabbit and hearing the driver chuckling to himself and shouting, “Hey, Rabbit Stew!” but it sounded more like, “Wabbit Stuuuuuuuuuuuuu!”
Joey and I passed his Walkman back and forth and The Who’s “Quadrophenia” became our savior across a misty English countryside
He got to sit across the aisle from two hot Italian teenage girls and I got to sit next to a 14 year old fat broad who, by the end of the trip, was asleep on my shoulder (her doing, although I did think about), and when the bus finally came to its final stop in London I don’t know what time, she woke up, pushed me away, and couldn’t get out fast enough. London now. Victoria Station. Terminal is packed. Dozens of policemen walking about, hundreds of backpackers of every race, color, breed, sitting, resting, sleeping, and waiting for their coach to be called. To use the WC you have to pay 40p, and even though the place reeks of fresh vomit and rotting corpses there are guys using the showers anyway. F-u-c-k that. I remember back in Amsterdam some dude at Centraal Station, whacked out of his mind on something wicked, staggering around by one of the tracks, crying and laughing at the same time because he crapped diarrhea in his pants and it was spilling out of his pants leg and people were running away from him
We must get another bus/coach-whatever the fuck you want to call it-to Dover on the coast because from there we have to catch a ferry to cross the English Channel. So we get the tickets for the bus to Dover, $11 I think, and we have to chill out for yet another hour. Since World Cup is going on over in Paris, and the hooligans have been maiming and killing in the south of France in Toulouse and Marseilles, the French government, in cahoots with the British, have banned all known rabid English fans from entering France. An actual list had been made. Passports had to be triple checked, planes and trains double-checked, and border stops for the lads were like anal inspections. It’s a regular ol’ fashioned round up. No hooligans allowed!
So, I’m on the floor resting while Joey is God knows where (whenever a stressful situation comes up, like this particularly nasty travel day and it’s only going to get worse), he doesn’t talk, and is distinctly unpleasant to be around. From where I’m at I see some lads with their packs waiting for their coaches.
Coppers come by, not looking for suspicious, hung-over Americans like us, but for their own. They’re asking for papers, asking for lads to open up their bags, and the cops sweep the whole terminal and end up in front of me, staring down yet another innocuous-looking dude from London.
The officer announces in a thoroughly dull voice, “Ok, now, lad. Let’s see the passport.”
“What is this! What is this!” the young man is immediately incensed.
“Come along then, lad! Let’s not be a cunt about all this.”
Another cop happens by, quickly grabs the man’s bag and starts to go through it. “Hey now, you can’t be doing that! That’s fucked! That’s fucked!”
“Calm down you!”
Another copper comes by, grabs the kid’s jacket, goes through his pockets. Then another puts the lad spread-eagle on a wall and searches him. Yet another comes by and makes the kid take off his shirt. Then another copper comes from behind him, bends the lad’s arm back, and starts to haul him out. His things are all over the floor, and the lad is screaming, “Piss on all of you! Piss on all of you!” and the entire entourage exits a side door. The whole thing takes maybe two minutes
Joey comes back eating from a bag of jellybeans: “Anything going on?”
“I think our bus is gettin’ ready to roll.”
And the ride out to the coast of Dover is another three hours, but I don’t remember much because as soon as I sat I conked out. Joey the same. Necks and heads twisted, mouths agape, snoring unabashedly, a little drool here and there, hugging our daypacks like teddy bears, faces contorted into nightmaresnext thing you know we’re at the White Cliffs of Dover. Gotta get a ticket for the boat now, so we have to find the terminal. We find the one we want and pay six pounds? No, eleven, and we have to wait still yet another hour. For what? For the boat to warm up I guess
So, ok, now we’re waiting, sitting across from this old guy, I don’t know, sixty maybe? And he’s with this younger lady, well, younger than him; 40ish, and they’re with this boy and they’re quietly chit-chatting and Joey says to me, “Hey, man, what’s that?” And behind our bench is a large suitcase. Huge motherfucker. No other baggage around. No people nearby either.
And that immediately freaks me out because no matter where we went, Paris especially because of the Cup, but also everywhere else, you would see signs or hear announcements seemingly from nowhere in regards to “unattended baggage”. We were constantly bombarded and warned to be weary of left-alone bags, and it wasn’t as a safety precaution against theft either. No, fuck no. The threat of terrorism is alive and well on the continent. Hell, I found myself in the Tower of London once standing over a plaque-in the armory of all places-that commemorates the memory of tourists killed in a bomb blast perpetuated by the IRA back in ’75. A chill shivered down my back as I read that, but I took a picture of it anyway then continued on my journey, never giving it a second thought. But this. Shit, man. Like a subliminal hum it was: to report to the police immediately! Not to hesitate because it COULD COST YOU YOUR LIFE!
So I say, “Whose is it?” Joey shrugs his shoulders and there’s that worried, harried look on his face but only worse. I get up and say, “Fuck this. Let’s get outta here.”
“What? Are you crazy?” Joey says dramatically. As for me, I learned to duck whenever the drug-dealing-gangsters would shoot it out in my neighborhood and not say shit about it lest you wanted your house to be the next target; yes, the thought process of a true Mexican.
“We have to report something like that. You want that going off and killing kids and shit?” Yes, spoken like a true white man. Joey then marches over to the bag and of course there’s an obscenely large tag that reads: Belfast, Northern Ireland. Oh Christ give me a break. Just fucking great! We find one fuckin’ bag, one!
And dread streamed out of me, like piss down the leg of my pants; heavy, paralyzing dread. I thought I heard Joey saying, “Who should we tell?” but he’s not asking me, he’s scanning the room until he spots a security booth in the corner and we dutifully march over.
A plain looking lady in a meter maid costume faintly smiles and raises an eyebrow. “We want to report a suspicious piece of baggage,” Joey says.
And the woman smirks, looks totally disinterested. “Where?” she mumbles.
Joey points, but before he can say exactly where, like, in the corner behind the sofa near that family of three, she curtly dismisses us with a, “Fine, fine.”
Jesus, lady, try to do a favor, perform a duty as citizens of the world and we’re looked upon as assholes. What the fuck? Then, I imagined a bomb going off. Would I hear it? Would I be alive long enough to see the glare of the blast? Hear the screams? Would I know I’m dying? Would Joey disappear? That dread from earlier consumes my stomach then my chest, my throat, then I feel a heavy thud in my head and pounding, pounding, pounding, and my eyes water, I want to vomit but I haven’t eaten anything all day so there’s nothing to throw up but all that goddamn booze we’ve been swallowing thus far.
We drank so much. Every goddamn night in Paris, the trip to the local liquor store, so much so that they knew us by name and what we drank and had them on the counter top even before we walked through the door: “Merci, merci, merci, merci, merci”
Is it really a good thing when a bartender knows your name?
So then maybe 30 seconds goes by, we’re standing off to the side-me bracing for that explosion, like waiting for the aftershock of another nasty Southern California earthquake-and two policeman saunter up to the bag. In half a second it seems they’re chuckling, holding their bellies, a real-fuckin’-knee slapper, you know? Another blink of the eye and that old man with his family there jumps out of his seat, walks around the seating area, and goes up to them. Next thing you know all three of them are hee-hawing and guffawing and slapping each other on the back.
If it’s your bag then why isn’t it next to you instead of scaring the shit out of the dumbfucks who come across it you sonofabitch?!
But then our boat’s called. We go through passport check for the thousandth time, hop on, and in fifteen minutes this tub, a cruise-ship-size ferry, is pushing away from the Port of Dover.
Minutes of blessed silence tick off as I stare in awe of the fog-shrouded cliffs. Joey’s done this crossing before, but this is my first time. The White Cliffs of Dover. Isn’t that where that kid drove his Vespa off in “Quadrophenia”? God, what a great film to see when you’re in high school. Yeah, those cliffs. Towering. A stronghold on time. Of course I had to snap my tourist pictures, tear some dude away from his family so he could get a shot of me and Joey with the cliffs in the background, and goddamn it was cold. We weren’t even out on open sea but Jesus it must have been close to zero. Middle of summer and I’m freezing my balls off.
I zip my leather jacket, put the collar up, and then Joey needs to explore on his own. Fine. Meet in the duty-free store in half an hour to buy booze for the train from Calais into Paris.
The stern of the ship, a flat observance deck, as wide as a football field, rocks left to right overdramatically, and I mean waaaaaaaaaaaay over to the left, and waaaaaaaaay over to the right. I put my arms out to balance as I shuffle across the deck; the melancholic bluster striking me across the face, practically peeling my skin off, and I make it to a bench to sit and observe. But it’s just too fucking cold. I can barely keep my eyes open it’s so windy. My ears are going numb. Fuck this. Head indoors.
Immediately like a vacuum pack, I’m sucked in and sealed into the inner layers of the ship. An impressive but expensive bar. A casino? A cafeteria. And, of course, the duty- free shop. If there was ever an alcoholic’s heaven, this has gotta be it.
Thousands of bottles. Thousands of every conceivable mish mash of grain and yeast and aging. And crates of cigarettes. Boxes of chocolates. Tons of useless, cheap trinket tourist crap. And more booze.
A steady shiver you can hear, like the low rumbling of an earthquake echoing. An uneasy breathing, the rattlings of the bottles like death around the corner, waiting for its moment. And the whole time you’re in the store you can hear that rattling, that uneasiness, like that cagey knock and hum of the office AC unit when the office gets completely silent for those few seconds every day; after all the mechanical “Good mornings” and “How was your weekends”
I immediately head for the cheap stuff. 20 francs for some red shit. I hate red wine, but who cares? Big bottles. Medium. Small. I grab a medium-sized one, fits nicely in the daypack. Its partner, the larger pack with the waist straps was whisked away the second we checked in. One minute you and your bag are in England, and the next thing you know it’s already half way to France before you are, and, hopefully, waiting for you at the docks in Calais.
I see Joey picking through his own discount bin in the corner.
“Hey, man.” rattlerattlerattle.
“Whatya think? This one or that?” rattle.
“Take ’em both. I have one here already.” rattlerattlerattlerattlerattle.
“You hear that shit?” rattle.
“Yeah, wonder if that’s what the people on the Titanic heard when they hit the iceberg.” rattlerattle.
“Fuck it, man. Let’s get some chocolate or something, and” rattle.
“Beers are in the corner,” rattlerattle.
I come across a gaggle of college guys in the their university sweatshirts, khaki shorts, and flip-flopsandals. Five dudes in all, each carrying a case of Fosters. One guy says to me with a gleam in his eye, “Man, these are cheap here!”
“Yeah, they are,” I smile, wave my bottle at them, and root around for a few pints to top off the wine.
“I’m gonna go grab a nap up front somewhere after this, wake me when we start pulling in,” Joey mumbles, and looks horrid with exhaustion.
“Yeah, I’m headed for that cafeteria, get me some fries or something,” I say back, horrid with hunger. We pay, split up, and the cafeteria is full but quiet. People here are too goddamn tired to fuck around. Just taking a leisurely cruise across the water way that separates England and France can take a lot out of people. Even though packing across the continent is cool it is still so fuckin’ exhaustive. Doesn’t even matter what shape you’re in. Sure it would help if you dropped a few pounds and rode a bike a couple times a week for a month before heading over, but all in all, from the most athletic to the fattest, sloppiest drunk, both look equally done for
I get some chips, grab a Heineken the size of a small car, and I fall into a booth by a window overlooking the crash of waves against the hull of our ship. Grey, cloudy out there, dreary, typically British, which is the type of weather I totally dig. And goddamn you can already see the coast of France. Shit, man, maybe 20 more minutes, if that. Damn
An announcement over a speaker reminds us to set our watches two hours ahead; I think he said that. I do but still don’t notice what time it is but I do know we’ve been on the road all fucking day: nine hours from Edinburgh to London, an hour’s wait, then three hours to the coast, then another hour’s stand by, then I guess another two hours out here. Was it two hours? It didn’t seem that long, nothing like the length of this piece that’s for goddamn sure.
Losing track of time, must beI wolf down my fries, gulp my beer, take a lousy picture through the window that turns out even lousier because you can’t make out what the fuck it is, and I see Joey up the hallway, leading out of the dining room and into a front observation lounge
He’s just settling in, adjusting his long legs into a cramped sofa he’s and then another announcement tells us that in 15 minutes we’ll be docking. His body goes limp with frustration
People around me start grabbing bags, double checking wallets, running back to the counter for that last beer, and I flop back, let my eyes rest, let my legs rest; at least I don’t have to soak my feet every night like I did back in Paris like some old dumb fuck who can’t get it up anymore
My body has grown used to the punishment. The simple joy of fumbling across the lands here shields the pain, but sometimes, like now, the body just has to let it out, let you know you’re not 18 anymore, that you don’t have those carved stomach muscles protruding, and that you ain’t ever gonna have that wild sex crazed one-night-stand unless she’s absolutely ripped and thinks you’re somebody else. But you bite the proverbial bullet, stretch, scratch your balls, hook up your bag, and march on over to Joey to get the ball rolling again.
I suffered mental exhaustion before when the old man got cancer, came home to die, and then we had to bury him, and that was the easy part, but I was never so physically tired as I was now.
We disembark. We get from the top deck to the dock by water’s edge in seconds, and there, on a gigantic luggage cart, are the bags. Like ants we scurry, crawl over them, push each other out of the way to get our own, and then we’re walking fast. I’m following Joey: “I think they have a free shuttle, like a tram, that’ll take us into town and the train station,” Joey says over his shoulder.
And sure enough, the whine of an overworked motor catches my ear, and a tram comes to a skidding halt. We jump on, and I can’t even remember what the town looked like. I do remember it was crowded though. Calais, France is the major shipping and “crossing” port here, and the next thing I see is the train station.
Is that a clock tower out front? Don’t know. Have to cross a busy street against the light. Must get to the ticket office. And right next door to the ticket office is a really nice bar. Few people. Lots of light. Big screen TV has a match going. “Hey, man,” I shout over the din of traffic at Joey. “If we have time”
“Sounds good,” he nods.
We’re in line. Backpackers of all shapes and sizes. People bitching at the ticket counter. We check the boards. Train to Paris leaves in 90 minutes. Although we have a Europass and don’t need to buy separate fares all over the place, a reservation for a couple extra bucks is a good idea.
We get squared away (me protecting the bags and jackets), Joey haggling at the counter. “Good to go, let’s get a drink,” Joey announces after a few mindless minutes. We have at least an hour for a sandwich, a beer, and time to watch some of the match. Mexico vs. Germany. The station is attached to the café next door, so in a minute’s time we could be downstairs and hitting the platform if we had to.
Mexico is playing Germany tough. Much more than expected. So of course we’re cheering that on. The sandwiches are overpriced. A few old men gawk at us. Some people don’t like the feeling of being observed, but I dig it when you’re the only American around, the only outsider. The local crowd isn’t as mean as they appear in the movies. Basically, you feel every eye on you, but nobody says a word. Generally, a man’s in a bar/pub/café to drink or watch a match; very rarely are they there to fuck with somebody else because it just takes too much goddamn energy. If you keep quiet, you’re forgotten, then ignored, and soon, like they, become part of the joint’s woodwork.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
The beers are but a tease, a case would’ve been better. The food, as all French baguettes con jamon y queso, are stale and at the same time satisfying. And, unlike our own pathetic display against the Germans last week, Mexico has at least scored one goal to make it a 1-1 tie so far
It’s another three hours from Calais into Paris. Then, go by metro from that train station on to the Gare de Nord Station in the north of Paris. That’s maybe another half hour. Then, once there, try to find the train to Milan, the 10:30pm, then seven hours overnight, over the Alps, and into Italy. Nice. Real fucking nice…
Next thing you know we’re on the train here, excited, anticipating, headed back to Paris. We had spent two glorious weeks tearing up the town earlier for World Cup activities, and now, as seasoned vets of the rails. We return triumphed. In one piece.
How many times have we crisscrossed? How many trains? Hours, days, on the road between countries? Twilight Zones, every one of them. Run-ins with drunks. The police. Thieves. Whores. Freaks. The booze. The drugs. My God, did I really set off the alarm at the Louvre the first time around? The whole beautiful and seamy side of it. I can’t believe the guys who’ve been solo for the past, what, nine or eighteen months? That’s madness
And for some damn reason the train here isn’t moving. Christ, what now? Immediately a voice pops over the intercom, the voice with the messages in a half dozen languages so you have to wait until your turn to find out if the train is on fire or if it’s being taken over by terrorists. Everybody else speaks the French, the German, the Dutch, and English is always last. “Delay in engine maintenance” Whatever, whatever, some bullshit, it’s always some bullshit. Nothing you can do. You buy the ticket, take the ride. I pull out my wine
“Wouldn’t mind, but, dude, I think we should be sober when we pull into town. Gonna be a lot of running around and confusion now that we’re delayed an hour,” Joey says.
“Remember in Paris, before, when we got split up? I had the only key, and you had to pass out on the doorsteps of the hotel while I was almost killed walking across the city at 4am? Stoned, drunk, bleeding, out of my fuckin’ mind, and you almost getting rolled, and when you finally collapsed onto your bed and I onto mine you mumbled, ‘Can it get any worse?’ and I said, ‘Yes’.”
“I vaguely remember that.”
“Well, then, the answer is, yes, I ‘think’.”
“All right then just the beers”
And we sat for almost an hour and a half. Over a fuckin’ hour. The shit was going to be tight…
Then, boom, we’re rolling. Green. Everything green. French countryside is green–as compared to the Scottish and English where everything outside the city limits is a bluish-grey. Your first trains across the continent are awesome. Can’t believe you’re there. Feet up on your pack in the seat across from you, a Carlsberg in hand, a feeling you can’t shake. But after a while, like now, you don’t even bother to look anymore. A Walkman helps. Sometimes static fits of sleep. You can look away, write, try to read your pocket edition of The Great Shark Hunt and don’t even notice that world wars were raged across the very land you trek.
Mostly it’s quiet, contemplative. Once in a while a gaggle of younger packers are bragging about how long they danced at some club or another, but it isn’t really, oh look, this is where the nuns and soldiers are partying. Fuck that bullshit. Trains are the way to go to rest, sometimes the only sleep you’ll get for days if you’re on the run. Driving’s an option too, but come on, fuck that, you do enough driving back in the States.
And before you know it, the trains familiar hum and coma-inducing whoosh are coming to a halt. Sudden bursts of civilization pop up. Lots of cars, houses. Children running through the streets. Then it gets a little grimier and you know a city is nearby. Paris is unmistakable. Although I wouldn’t mind spending a year writing and teaching there, pulling into the station reminds you a bit of climbing over the rungs of Dante’s next to last circle
“You ready, man?” Joey sounds nervous as we hook up.
“Lead the way.”
Before the train comes to a complete stop we’re on the concrete platform fast-walking the last fifty yards into the station.
“Metro,” he mumbles. We need to catch the metro to the Nord station for the Milan train.
We push past couples and kids (don’t see too many kids in train stations thank god), and the elderly. Keep moving. Like sharks we are. Don’t stop. And Joey’s legs are twice as long as mine so for every one of my steps he seemingly takes three. Hard to keep up. Through one tunnel, down some stairs, make a right. Don’t need to buy tickets up top, still have some bilets from first time through town
“Over here!” Joey shouts over his shoulder.
Starting to get hot now. I have the full pack on my back. My daypack hooked up in front of me, on my chest. My way-too-fuckin-heavy-for-travel-but-very-cool-black-leather-jacket I have stuffed through the straps somewhere and its sleeves are slapping me in the face with each harried step.
Another left, and there! People are milling about on the metro platform. Hundreds. Must be rush hour. They looked pissed. Staring at their watches, mouths open. Announcements are being made over hidden, scratchy speakers.
“What the fuck are they saying?!” I squawk.
“Dude, I don’t know.”
Somebody to the right curses in German and mumbles, “Strike!”
“OH FUCK!” Joey blurts.
“Strike?! Metro’s on strike again?”
Paris, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the planet’s true wonders. Especially for a Latino man because he’s treated on such a respected and equal plane there just about everywhere he goes, unlike the Nazi state of California back home. White people don’t know this. Will never know or feel this. Haven’t the slightest clue how these differences are, but it’s the truth. One bad thing though is that no matter what color you are the French have certain ways to piss everybody off. They do this with strikes. The Louvre closes down at will. The Eiffel Tower. The opera house whatever the fuck name it is. But, most importantly, the entire fuckin’ metro system takes a day off because the workers feel unappreciated. So they show their worth by essentially grinding the city to a halt. Tourists don’t hear of this. This isn’t in the tour package literature. And the metro workers will do this whenever the fuck they please for however long they fuckin’ please
“Fuck, we have less than an hour to get over there!”
“RER!” we say in unison. The RER is a maddening above-ground rail system twice the cost of a metro, less routes, more complicated to figure out, but the only game in town. We race back up the stairs, scamper across a lobby and head for the RER platforms.
“Tickets!” I yell.
“Fuck ’em!” He tosses his bags over the turnstile and hops over. But his bags he was carrying. He doesn’t have a jacket to haul either. I’m all strapped up. I have to unhook, throw my bags over, toss my jacket, then jump the turnstile myself but my foot gets caught up on one of the turnstile forks and I crumble over instead of landing gracefully. “Fuckin’ hurry up!” Joey barks and he’s already off and running.
“Wait up fucker!”
I have to re-hook my shit on the run and we’re both running now along numerous platforms not knowing where the fuck we’re going.
“Map! We need a route map!” Joey points and we slam up against a faded, glass-encased map with a flickering light above it. “Hereto herefuckwhere?Ok, good, we’re all right. But the line we want is upstairs…….this way!” And he’s off again and I’m huffing and puffing behind him.
He’s taking escalator steps three at a time. I’m fighting to keep up.
Topside we look, spin in a circle. “Where’s the line? Where’s the line?” he shouts. I’m breathing hard. Sweating. “Where’s the line, man?”
A French man comes up to us: “You looking for what line?” he says in rumpled English.
“Nord!” Joey yells in the guy’s face. “Nord!”
“Come,” the man beckons and he’s off with Joey at his heels. I’m bringing up the rear. The French man doesn’t say a thing. Just motions us with a finger, a hand. We follow blindly. Upstairs. Downstairs. Turn a corner. Bumping into people. Does the guy even know where’s he’s going? Our first day in town another man did a similar thing, leading us around, hopelessly lost, and now this dude. The French are helpful, that’s bullshit that they’re not. But sometimes they want to be helpful when they know they can’t be
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Senor, senor, donde es linea?” I ask. Some French speak a little Spanish believe it or not. Again, something the white man from the states doesn’t know.
“Aqui,” he says. “Here.” He points I don’t know where. There’s nobody around. Then he stops, look about himself, then mumbles, “No, over here” and fuck you if this drunk knows where he’s at
“Dude,” Joey says to me, waves with his head and we quickly dart away from the French man and we scamper over to another route map. “Here,” he’s tracing lines with a finger. “This way, then this wayasshole was taking us in the wrong direction.” and we’re off again.
Within a minute we’re hopping an RER, a double-decker type train. They’re dirtier, hardly anybody on ’em despite the strike. We take seats opposite each other. My breathing slowing but I’m already drenched in sweat. I’m wearing the jacket now. Makes it easier to carry but it’s a hundred fucking degrees with all this bullshit going on. And we don’t look at each other. I’m always the one to crack a joke or make some kind of classic-Jim-wise-ass remark to ease the tension, but not Joey. He’s more Irish than he wants to take credit for. Serious to a fault when the shit’s going down, but the mind clear and crystal in its intent
Wordless, heated minutes tick away, the city going by unviewed, uncared for, and a voice in French announces “Gare Du Nord!” as our last stop approaches. Joey’s at the door and hits the floor running. “Gotta find the track number! Gotta find the track number! Find a board”
I barely notice the hundreds of other travelers we trample over. And it’s a suck feeling because, Man, what a fucked way to go. I promised myself never, ever would I run like this for another train as long as I live. It’s fuckin’ stupid. But here we are. And there’s been other trips where I’ve been casually strolling through a station and inevitably you can spot some other dudes doing what we’re doing now.
You see the boys, always in pairs, madness in their eyes, desperation secreting from every pore, rude, shoving, cursing at each other. You never feel for another human being as you do at that point in time. In the grand scheme of things though is catching a train that goddamn important? Of course not. There are dozens of other events and moments that are far more precious to cherish, to endure, to grapple with in life, but in this station now, nearly killing small children, there just doesn’t seem to be anything else in the world more relevant than this very rip in time
And it is precisely that commodity that we are rapidly running out of “Where the fuck is it?” Joey shouts. “Look! Look!”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” I don’t remember seeing a board but suddenly we’re looking for Track 29, or whatever number, doesn’t matter because we still can’t find it, and then we’re galloping, yeah, galloping down this walkway full of people and they’re looking at us and pointing and fuck why am I so goddamn fat? I can’t breathe anymore. I can’t carry this shit. It’s too heavy. I’m too fat. Christ why haven’t I lost weight? Why do I drink so much? Drink? Fuck that, why the fuck have I been smoking like a train this whole trip? Asshole!
And Joey’s so far ahead. So far. He ‘s not even waiting anymore. My heart’s pounding. I’m going to die. I’m going to collapse right here and croak it. Sweat soaking my jacket through. I need to crap. I have a load of diarrhea to drop. I need to piss. I’ve never pushed myself like this before. Never, never, never! I can’t do this
“Up stairs!” Joey screeches and before I get to the first step he’s bounding topside already. I need the railing to haul myself up. Looking at the steps, at my feet, oily sweat stinging my eyes, can’t look at anything else, must concentrate to stay upright. Seriously, I was in bad shape, in more ways than one.
The place is a whirlwind. I’ve been in so many stations since. I can remember most, each can be distinctive, but this one here I couldn’t pick out of a line up. “Dude!” I turn to Joey as he’s rounding a corner. I hit people with my bag, ungraceful as all hell. A big, loping, bloated tub of shit careening through one of the world’s greatest train stations with all the grace of a drunkard’s gutter ball on league night
Then finally a whoosh as stale air hits me hard, breaking the overheated coffin I had become, and we’re on an actual platform, a place to catch a train, and our 10:10pm overnighter to Milan, Italy, the one we spent the past 20 hours busing, boating, training, and running to get to..is quietly pulling away. We can see the brake lights on the fucker as it leaves. We must’ve missed it by twenty seconds.
Then, quite simply, I collapse.
Just crash to the floor in utter defeat and exhaustion; choking, gagging, vomiting up phlegm on the floor between my spread out legs. A higher level of “fucked-feeling” enters the mind.
I unbuckle my pack. It falls, almost in slow motion as I watch Joey slamming his own pack on the ground and cursing the heavens. Never seen him so pissed before. I can’t even talk. I’m too busy choking. Gasping and gulping down air like it was a free blowjob from the best whore in town. My heart still pounding. I am shaking. I keep wiping back the hair from my forehead slick with vile sweat. My body had finally given up. I am going to rattle a few more minutes in place here then fall back dead. I know it. It’s coming. The worse hangovers in a Tijuana motel weren’t even close. My girlfriend breaking up with me over the phone, the old man dropping dead in front of me. Absolutely nothing could compare to this ruptured weight of both physical and emotional paingoddamn, what assholes.
“Wewefuck!” Joey belches. “We need to see if there’s anothertrain. Maybe a midnighter”
“Fuckin’ look!” Joey stomps off.
Let me die. I lay over my pack. Throat dry. Tongue swollen. Death imminent. Death come sweetly, claim me now, be rid of the expectations. And I’m startled out of my funk though by Joey screeching behind me: “BUT WE JUST MISSED THAT ONE!” He’s at a bank of check-in windows waving his reservation slip in the face of an uncaring clerk. I close my eyes again, can actually picture my heart slamming up inside my chest cavity, then open them to see Joey scowling over me: “Fuckers say there’s an 8:30 in the morning but that’s it. We’re fucked!”
“We need a room then.” I say, breathing and coughing fits reigning themselves in.
“Or maybe we can sleep in the station here,” and as soon as he says that banks of lights began to wink off all over the station.
“Oh fuck, you gotta be kidding,” he snorts.
“Does this really surprise you?”
“You still got that list of hostels?”
“Somewhere, yeah, I’ll have to dig around. But we need francs.”
“I’ll go find an ATM, you start making calls”Joey hands me his calling card and darts off.
Almost eleven at night, at the height of the World Cup craze. What are the chances you find a vacant room? Much less a bed?
I find the ripped out pages from my “Let’s Go Europe” guide and start dialing. Sixth one I called has beds, two of them, but we must share a room with two others. 100 francs. Fine, we’ll take it, we’ll take it. “You must be here in 20 minutes though or I give beds to others.”
“Oh come on, man! Give us at least 45 minutes!”
“You have 30 minutes.”
Bastard-fucks! But at least it’s a room. Even though the lights are going off you can just make out the crack-dealers and thieves crawling out from under their dung piles, just like fuckin’ roaches. Don’t see this happy snapshot in any of the tour books either.
“What’s up?” Joey’s back, somewhat calmer now.
“Got us a room. Got 30 minutes to get there. 100 francs.”
“But it’s on Avenue Gambetta.” Bad, bad part of town, even during the day. Near the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, where Jim Morrison’s planted. I was there earlier so I know it’s a good two-metro ride.
“There on strike though, remember?”
“Try it, who knows?”
We do, and, just like the French, they’re up and running again. Perfect.
Two surprisingly quick trains later we’re in absolute darkness, huffing and puffing our way down the middle of a garbage-strewn street. Rancid graffiti covering every inch of cement. No cars. No visible signs of life save for the shadowy figures that literally lurk in the shadows as we pass. But Joey and I are quite a formidable pair. Both well over 200 pounds. Pissed. Hung over. And in a hurry. Nobody’s fucked with us yet, no use starting now.
In silence we march, checking corners. Stay Frosty, I always tell Joey. Stay fuckin’ frosty.
“Dude,” Joey breaks the tense silence. “How many blocks from the exit?”
“The fucker said two- to-three streets, but it’s been five so far, I still don’t”
“There!” Joey points.
“Oh thank Christ.”
The place, as expected, is a dump. Dark. Chipped plaster everywhere. Figures milling about a cramped lobby. Don’t remember faces, genders.
“You the two guys who called?” A thin desk clerk bellows.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say. There’s two other white dudes already at the counter. “A hundred, right?” I confirm.
“Yes, yes, come, let’s see money.”
We whip out the bills. “You will have to share room with these two,” and he motions to the two guys already there. T-shirts. Torn jeans. Boots.
“What? Fine, who cares?” I say.
“Yea, yea, who bloody cares,” one of the boys says. They’re English.
We each hold up our hundred franc notes, in a line, and the clerk snaps them out of our hands one by one.
“To the left. Last room. Shower in the hall. No guests, no noise, or you sleep in the streets. I don’t care.”
“Always at the last minute, eh boys?” One of the lads says as we march in file, like school children being sent to our rooms without porridge.
And they are lads. Real lads. This whole trip we’d been joking about running into Hooligans, the hooligans, over from England to start the shit. To make it “go off”.
Well, Mr-Man-of-the-World, you’re about to bunk with two of them.
Oh Christ, now what? What time is it?
The room is a long shoebox. Four beds, lined up one after the other. A window. The door. Joey and I take the two beds further in. We kick off our boots in silence. Very quiet. Not sure how to handle this.
“You boys from The States?”
“Yeah,” I say too quickly, trying too hard to be cool and relaxed. asshole.
“Come from England then?”
“London, yeah. Great fuckin’ city!”
“Goddamn right,” the other one says. They’re both laying on their beds. No bags. No coats. They giggle. Mid-twenties. Both over six feet tall. Over 200 pounds each of them. All muscle. They look hard. Faces taunt, muscles bulging through their t-shirts. Joey remains to himself.
“They wouldn’t let the likes of us in, you now?” one of the lads offers, obviously wanting to tell his story.
“Really, why?” I say stupidly.
“Oh come on, you know what we’re here for, don’t ‘ja?”
“We’re headed down south tomorrow.”
“Gonna make it go off?” I say, and Joey eyes me and shakes his head.
“Us now? Some of the lads cause a bit of the trouble and fuck it up for the rest of the fans, you know? The real fans.”
“Just a little trouble though,” I try to back him up.
“Yea, yea!” he cheers.
“Assholes!” I then say, trying to empathize.
“Yea, yea, absolutely! Then me and me mate have to sneak into France, can you believe that one?”
“Oh really?” I kinda didn’t want to hear that. Yes, it was that bad. People were killed in the south. The riots involved thousands I read. But since then I’ve been told total yellow journalism. Who knows, but it was a part of the country I didn’t want to be in. Besides, I also heard the German thugs started the shit too, but we were younger then, more concerned about getting drunk and getting whores than understanding the full history of the shit and how it carried on. But here were two more boys who were gleefully going to throw themselves into the mix
“We got our hands on some geezers’ passports and just pasted our mugs over theirs. And then”
And then his mate cuts him off with, “And then we did a few other things to complete the process. Easy. No worries.” They look at each other and break into hysterics.
Joey chimes in with, “I’m gonna shower,” and pads out of the room.
Then one of the lads strips off his t-shirt. Good God: FUCK YOU! was tattooed across his chest. Faded scars of knife wounds sang of past victories. Sewn up bullet holes. Bullet holes? I thought they didn’t allow guns. Poorly stitched together patches of skin, cuts, scrapes, and burns highlighted the rest of his torso. A man’s life literally on his back. How many fights? How many times was he close to death caused by his drunken stupidity? And then the other lad strips and the Unionjack is waving across his own back. Rippling over stretched scar tissue and tendons. Fierce. Proud.
“We’re gonna shower up first,” I announce as I take out a towel and a fresh t-shirt. “That way you guys have the showers all to yourselves in the morning.”
“Showers?” One of the lads barks. “I got me toothbrush in me left boot and that’s all the cleaning I’m gonna to need!” and cackled. His friend had already turned over on his stomach and was snoring.
“We’ll try to keep it down,” I assured.
“No worries, mate.”
These boys were huge. And travelling on the cheap. Heard and read so many stories of these types, with no conscience, of stealing your packs and cutting your throats in the middle of the night on yet another daring attempt to keep fueling their drunken goal of barely getting to the next match and trying to make it go off.
“All yours,” Joey startles me and plops down at the foot of his bed and takes out his electric and does a quick shave. One lad’s snoring, the other is flipping through a magazine he found. Ok, harmless enough.
I float out of the room to a stall set up just outside the door. Shaving kit out, I lather up, and hear Joey’s muffled laughter from back in the room. Good, I think, at least it’s not Joey’s muffled screams
I shower, head back, the lights are out already. What time is it? So fucking tired. Must be past three. We have to be up at 7am. No later. Need time to get back to the station and hop that puppy at 8:30.
The lads are out cold. Joey, as usual, is restless. “Dude,” he whispers as I blind-man my way to the last bed.
“Watch the chair,” he says.
“What?” and my right knee crashes into the hard wood of a tipped-over chair laying on top off our packs. “What the fuck’s this?” I whisper back.
“In case they make a move for the goods.”
“Oh, like that’s going to stop them?”
“Give us a fighting chance.”
“Yeah, if and when they decide to go for our gear it’ll only be after they slit our fucking throats and watch the blood shoot up to the ceiling. Wouldn’t matter, pal. Wouldn’t matter.”
I finally crawl under warm covers and just as my head is hitting the pillow, I hear the distinct crack of a door lock snapping into place. Motherfucker locked us in. Motherfucker! Now what?
Aww, screw it.
You got four hours to rejuvenate. Gotta make that train. Can’t oversleep. Can’t oversleep. Must be up by 7am. Must be up by
And those were the last coherent thoughts of that day.
My dream state flooded with the twisted neo-German-house-techno-pot-hazed-delirium of an Amsterdam café that accompanies any good nightmare session. Images of running and screaming and falling and vomiting and of my uncle’s funeral two week ago, my dad’s a year before that, and my aunt’s eight months before thatI heard myself moaning, felt my legs kicking, but nobody made a move to shut me up
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Wake up! Wake up!” It was my Aunt Mary, the one who died in a house fire earlier last year before the old man went. “Jimmy, time to get up!” It was her voice through and through. She might as well have been standing over the bed. “JIMMY!”
I opened my eyes.
Curtained-off light filtered into a stuffy room. Snoring. The stench of booze, pot, cigarettes. Vomit. I pulled my hand out from under the covers, looked at my watch: 7am. Sonofabitch.
I turn my head: “Joey! Joey!” The lads are sleeping like babies. Everybody’s virtue still intact. Joey is on his side, facing me. “Dude!” I hush again.
His eyes pop open: “Is it time?”
“It’s time,” I say,