An Open Letter to Drew Brees

2012 December 1
by Dan Lawton


Tough night on Thursday, man.  So tough.

When I woke up in a nightmarish, cold sweat at 6 a.m with the lights on and a half-finished PBR spilled across my bed, I knew something bad had happened.   Then, it came back to me—all of the horror at once—and I doubled over in pain at memories of the thing that had occurred just hours before.

The record is dead, Drew.  I know it was you who set it, but I’ve been living vicariously through you for so long that it’s hard for me to believe that I wasn’t instrumental to the cause. In fact, at the San Diego game, I want you to know that I broke a record of my own in tribute.

47 high fives.  All captured on camera.  Here are a few of my favorite ones.

It was a tough day today, man.  It was rough for me in the morning when I peeled off my Drew Brees MVP T-shirt and wobbled into the shower.  I could barely brush my teeth.  My energy was zapped.  The Falcons.  Those dirty, dirty birds.

Then I left the house and saw the front page of the paper with the headline that said Threw it Away, and I thought I was going to be sick. On the radio, the haters started to hate. Some early morning blowhard on WWL, who couldn’t hit Colston on a skinny post if his life depended on it, said that you should give back some of the $100 million.  Somebody said they should have put Chase Daniel in.

On,  Jeff Duncan said it was your fault, said, “Brees wasn’t part of the reason the New Orleans Saints lost to the Falcons 23-13.  He was THE reason they lost.”

There were 325 comments on that article.  Here’s a particularly vituperative one.

Drew, the thing is that I’ve basically been using the lift I get from watching you slash through NFL defenses with your gilded right arm as emotional sustenance for the last five years.  When some people have a bad day, they take drugs, drink or watch Lost on DVD.  But, for me, whenever I have a rough moment, I look at your statistics, read your Wikipedia bio and watch YouTube highlights—sometimes even of your Purdue days.

I even watched your person-to-person segment on CBS the other morning and got a little choked up when you started crying about the veterans and talking to your grandfather on the beach of Okinawa.  That was raw, man.

That’s why this morning when people were hating on you, I felt like they were hating on me, too.  So much hating. Why?

Drew, I just want you to know that I’m totally not worried about the seven picks that you threw over the last two games.  In fact, I’m kind of happy that it happened, even though it hurt, because I know that it’s just going to give you more of a motivation to crush it in the future.

I remember when your labrum was torn to shreds in your last game at San Diego; the thing was so busted that you couldn’t even bend your arm.  It was a career-ending injury, that’s what they said.  Even after you had surgery people were skeptical.  The Dolphins even opted to sign Dante Culpepper instead of you.  Nice one, Nick Saban.

Yet, you ended up in New Orleans, and you’ve crushed it at such a high level over the last six years that we’ve become spoiled by your excellence.  Now, after a two-game funk, people are turning sour.

Not me, Drew.  Not your bro, Dan.  I’m a lifer—I have no other idols.  I’m a believer.  I know this thing will be straightened out.   I got confidence in you, man.

So, today, if you need a lift, just know that in an apartment only minutes from your Uptown estate, I’ve just purchased another dozen birthmark temporary tattoos and am still desperately trying to pull a blockbuster trade to get you on my fantasy squad.  In fact, I think I even found a solution for the sheets I soiled with spilled beer last night.











Your biggest fan,


Watching the News Bleed: The Radical Mutation of the Times-Picayune

2012 June 30
by Dan Lawton

There was a Monday–I believe it was March 19–when I woke up later than I wanted, feeling depressed about something that I can no longer remember.  I was hungry and seriously considered going to Burger King, but instead forced myself to opt for Smoothie King, assuming it to be the healthier choice.

Unsatisfied in the aftermath of my Muscle Punch, I headed right back across the street for nuggets, but when I hit the corner of Euterpe Street and St. Charles Avenue my vision was obstructed by the contents of a bright blue box, and I was enveloped with elation and shock.

Inside, rested a stack of copies of the Times-Picayune, and I could clearly see a feature article I had recently written sitting above the fold on the front page.  The first handful of words were in a large blue font and the rest of the lead loomed equally as big in bold.

I had been wondering about the fate of this article, a profile of a grizzled, PTSD-battered Vietnam veteran that had formed such a bond with a fellow, dying Marine that he singlehandedly transported the man’s ashes to his final resting place.

I had never expected to see it running above the fold of the front page, and in lieu of ransacking the dollar menu, I emptied all the change out of my apartment and bought a half-dozen copies to savor the moment.

I grew up reading the Times-Picayune.  Then, I drifted away from Louisiana for the better part of a decade, getting degrees in English and journalism out West and spending time walking around strange countries asking strange questions, before I finally returned, dead broke and jobless, to New Orleans.

Through pure chance, I maneuvered my way into the newsroom of the paper two years ago and was able to get a few minutes with a few editors and drop off some clips. Those clips managed to get me a story and that story managed to get me another and I’ve spent the last two years freelancing for the newspaper, a wonderfully carefree part-time gig that has allowed me to rediscover New Orleans with an intimacy that would have otherwise been impossible.

It’s within this context that I’ve watched the turmoil that has ensnared New Orleans and its hometown paper, a Pulitzer-prize winning daily that announced last month that it will end its 175-year daily publication streak by moving to only three print editions per week this fall and focusing more heavily on digital content.

The news, which was broken by New York Times columnist David Carr on May 24, was spectacular at the time, but nothing compared to the tempest of layoffs, protests and punditry that has followed.

Within days of Carrs’s column, a group called Save the Picayune had formed and began gathering signatures on an online petition that has now collected over 8,500 names.  On June 4, the group held a protest in the parking lot of Rock N Bowl, where a few hundred participants– many in resplendent costumes– chanted, danced, drank beer and listened to the likes of Allen Toussaint jam out on stage.

Sidenote: I know this, because I was there, unlike the Atlantic Monthly, which chose to unlawfully upload the above photo from my Twitter stream without permission and with scant attribution.

The Save the Picayune crew, spearheaded by Anne Milling, who sits on the paper’s board, simultaneously unveiled a letter of opposition to the cuts signed by a wide array of New Orleans civic and business leaders.  A week later, on June 11, the group released a second letter, this one from advertisers concerned about moving to three-day a week schedule.

Then on June 12, over 200 employees were laid off from the Times-Picayune including 84 of the 173 members of the newsroom and a number of reporters and photographers with over 20 years of experience at the paper.

Bruce Nolan, the newspaper’s veteran religion columnist, described the undertaking as follows:

“People stood in knots; women hugged themselves defensively; men threw arms over others’ shoulders. There was gallows humor – lots of it – bewilderment, more humor, more bewilderment. People emerged from meetings and drew their fingers across their throats. It was shocking: Him! Her!! What can they be thinking?”

To add insult to injury, that same evening, while Times-Picayune reporters limped over to Wit’s Inn to drown their sorrows, Steve Newhouse, president of Advance.Net, the parent company of the paper, moved quickly to stamp out any rumor that the company might sell the paper–widely assumed to be profitable–to local interests, telling the New York Times: “We have no intention of selling no matter how much noise there is out there.”

Public reaction to the move was  fierce.  Local businesses began circulating wanted posters of Advance Publications president Ricky Matthews–who was spearheading the change–and quickly became the only person in the city whose unpopularity eclipsed that of Roger Goodell.

Meanwhile, the press and the pundits’ reactions to the firings of their brethren were equally merciless and when Amoss went on PBS’s Newshour to defend the move, he got hammered by NYT columnist David Carr, who called the move “a pivot to weakness,” and revealed to the world that the Times-Picayune’s website,, is generally agreed upon as being terrible.

The next morning, readers woke up to a 1,500-word front-page essay from Editor Jim Amoss, the first attempt by the company to use its own paper to fight off the beating it had taken in the press and from the public.  Amoss’s piece, set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, stressed the overwhelming need to move to a more digitally focused presence or “risk a slow, irrelevant death.” It cited 22 quarters of declining national advertising revenue and the breakneck speed of digital news as two of the primary reasons why the move was a necessity.

That Sunday, Advance President Ricky Matthews unleashed his own front page missive, beginning with his surviving the pounding waves of the Storm at his Black Bay home in Mobile and so suffused in New Orleans imagery–from Steve Gleason’s blocked punt to Matthews’s hunting and fishing in the bayous–that I fully expected to see the column end with a picture of him getting a tattoo of a fleur de lis on his bicep.

Unfortunately, it didn’t.

So that was that.  The Times-Picayune had been eviscerated, the paper was cutting back to three days a week, a host of veteran reporters were going to be laid off and, in a best-case scenario, replaced by less experienced reporters, who would usher in the digital age by either:

(A) Creating an armada of high-quality, robust content to leverage across multiple platforms and make the Times-Picayune a journalistic leader in new media, or

(B) Transforming what was once a bedrock of the New Orleans community into a glorified blog, powered primarily by Justin Bieber’s Twitter stream.

I had thought, when I began writing this essay, that by the end I would be able to come to some sort of sensible opinion on this matter, maybe even take a side, say something poignant and righteous, like many others have, but all the obvious angles have been taken and all the contrarian ones just seem too taxing.

However, a few things are in my mind are unequivocal.

(1)  The public relations disaster that the Advance Publications has created is of such epic proportion that an opinion survey on the matter could only be facilitated by a pollster skilled in dodging bottles.

(2)  There is a lot of merit to the idea of moving the Times-Picayune to a digital presence; there is not a lot of merit to leaving half the newsroom behind, as it is nearly impossible to imagine that the Times-Picayune can continue to achieve the same level of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalism (see last month’s series on incarceration in Louisiana as an example) after unloading so many experienced reporters.

(3) Despite the feel-good narrative of New Orleanians loving to read print newspapers ( I do enjoy it myself), newspapers, along with books, appear destined to eventually be discarded as relics of a the print age.  The world is moving fast and furiously to digital. The next generation of New Orleanians won’t drink chicory coffee and read through the newspaper.  They will drink chicory coffee and utilize digital technology of such unfathomable power and convenience that it will make today’s tablets and smartphones look like carrier pigeons.

(4)  This crisis, and the reactions that it has produced, are another example of the passion, spirit, and unrivaled weirdness of New Orleans, never mind the unrepentant rage it directs at anyone or anything interfering with its rituals. It is the energy of this city–from its charm and beauty to its eyesores and other imperfections–that has helped the Times-Picayune become such a captivating read. I am cautiously optimistic that this spirit will aid this transition and that this city will still be home to a vibrant melange of journalism, whether it exists in a print newspaper, on or somewhere out in the ether we haven’t even conceived of as of yet.

A Murder in Copan

2011 January 14

COPAN, Honduras — Copan is a sleepy town in western Honduras full of rolling hills and lush fields of coffee. Its main attraction is its Mayan ruins, which, according to the Copan Chamber of Commerce, are “the Paris of the Maya world.” I rented a room there from a Honduran family who spoke no English; it had peach walls, one plastic table, two beds and a dresser, which was painted in pastels.

During the day, I had little to do, so I walked the cobblestone streets at the leisurely pace of someone who had no objective and was overjoyed because of it. I paused on a corner to chat up a 5-year-old girl with an ice cream cone, exchanging small talk in Spanish, then stared through the slats of the window of the pool hall at the tough-looking men, the machismos, playing eight-ball and cursing when they missed a shot. I watched a pick-up truck sweep by as a fat-faced niño poked out his head to feel the breeze. I drank a beer in an empty bar, where no one paid me any attention at all.

I sauntered for hours, watching the dogs, who were skinny and starving; the children, who were dirty and bathed themselves in the street with a hose; and the Mayans, who wandered the town selling corn-husk dolls and oranges, who were brutally poor, but carried themselves like royalty.

I climbed the hills, which sloped at angles so steep that it was worthy of paying admission to watch a car ascend them, frequented the town square at dusk, where everyone chatted in the shadows, making all conversations appear conspiratorial, and passed the same sculptor every evening painting masks shirtless with a beer in hand.

At night, I would stare at the walls in my room and listen to the children kicking inflatable plastic balls against the houses, shrieking with laughter and pretending to be Ronaldo or Beckham or whoever their favorite soccer player was. I could hear roosters crowing so frenetically that I wondered if they were being mauled, and dogs baying so viciously that I thought they were mauling the roosters, and fireworks, which I first believed to be pistols, crackling with a boom trailed by the giggle of children: a chorus as predictable as lightning following thunder.

Then, one bright, sunny Saturday, the president of Honduras was scheduled to speak at the plaza, so the whole village congregated waiting for him to arrive; I sat there eating an ice cream cone and then wandered down the street to check my email.

As I sat in the cafe, the foot traffic heading away from the plaza began to escalate. Suddenly, there was a buzz, a giant hum of voices, not yelling, but murmuring in unison. I walked toward the plaza, but the crowd had become fragmented and was departing in various directions.

I asked a man with a cowboy hat if the president was speaking and he told me, No, he isn’t speaking, because someone has been shot.

When I arrived at the junction, the lifeless body of Juan de Jesus Madrid, a senator from Copan and member of the ruling nationalist party, had already been whisked into the ambulance. Adolescent-looking soldiers with titanic machine guns circled the perimeter, and the crowd gathered ten deep, with onlookers standing on cars and fences to get a glimpse of the maroon, bullet-riddled SUV in the middle of the street.

Someone said that the man’s daughters had been killed, as well; then another person said that no, the daughters had not been shot, but that the man had stumbled from the car in an effort to deflect the gunfire toward himself. Everyone I asked told me that the man had been shot because he was a narcotrafficker.

No one seemed sad, except for the widow, who cried under the merciless glare of the news T.V. cameras that caught every tear. Three hours later, when I walked by in the dark, the crowd had barely dissipated, though nothing was happening except for the occasional detective muttering and pointing at the ground.

Later, the bartender warned me that they would close early because of the shooting. “It’s out of respect,” he said. “But, I am not sad. No one is. He was a bad man.”

An Evening at the Field of Dreams

2010 July 28

Dyersville, IAI was struck by an overwhelming fear, about 50 miles south of the Iowa-Minnesota border, that I might not make it to the Field of Dreams before the 6 p.m. closing time.

The iphone was continually out of service.  The maps made no sense.  My spirit was crumbling in the dreary mist of the hills of Iowa, where the road opened up into folds of green as far as the eye could see, so I stopped at the next junction and asked for directions.

I was wearing gym shorts—something I rarely do—and they got plenty of strange looks from the cadre of motorcyclists hanging outside of some scummy roadside tavern.

The clerk in the gas station had no idea where Dyersville was, nor had she heard of the phantom Route 358, which was supposed to slash through these hills and into the heart of Iowa farming land.

But when I said I was gunning for the Field of Dreams, a trucker perked up and told me to take the road by the river south; so I did, and I guess that made all the difference.

An hour later, the landscape gave way to rolling fields of corn and the gray drizzle that had been lingering for hours ceased.  The smooth country roads were dotted with little except silos and the occasional bearded Amish farmer in a horse-drawn buggy.

At 4:30, I roared into town.  Dyersville was about as small-town America as it gets, except for the stunning Roman Catholic basilica that shot up like a giant beanstalk next to its main thoroughfare.

A rural hamlet of approximately 4,000, it was known for years as the “Farm Toy Capital of the World.” Of course, that all changed in 1989, when Kevin Costner and a Hollywood movie crew swept into town to film the popular sports movie “Field of Dreams.”

The screenplay, based off the novel “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella, called for a baseball field carved out of a cornfield—in addition to a healthy dose of magical realism.

In the Lansing family farm, the crew found what they were looking for and spent 14 weeks filming the movie over the summer.

Twenty years later, the field that spawned visions of the ghosts of baseball yore still stands, cornfield and all, and according to the Lansings approximately 65,000 visitors come from across the world to visit the site free of charge each year.

What are they looking for?’

Ghosts? God? Baseball?

Or, maybe that sweet, simple urge that Terence Mann, a 60s-era writer played by James Earl Jones, described in the film’s penultimate scene, right before the camera panned out on thousands of headlights heading down the lonely country road that abuts the farm.

A nostalgic urge, a pilgrimage for purity, a need Mann said would drive unsuspecting hordes to Iowa and to Kinsella’s door:

“They will come up your driveway as innocent as children longing for the past. It will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they will have to brush them away from their faces….this field, this game, is a part of our past, it reminds us of all that was once good and could be again.”

When I walked across the foul lines, I couldn’t help but feel infected by the aura, catapulted back to little league.  Those forever-ago summer days, so pure and simple, when the all the world’s troubles and triumphs existed in the spiral of a four-seam fastball or a lazy pop fly.

Half of the field was doused in sunshine and the other half cloaked in ominous grey, with the dividing line somewhere in center field.  I jogged out into the outfield and, just as Kevin Costner had done twenty years ago, parted the leaves and strolled into the cornstalks.

Then back out, to lie on the neatly-manicured grass and listen to the wind rustle the leaves and watch those surrounding me.

A father hurled deep, soaring fly balls to his son, who made leaping catches, occasionally diving into the crops.

A pair of middle-age sisters stood over the bleachers and excitedly pointed out the “Ray loves Annie” carving that remained from the film over twenty years ago.

A youngster, no more than six or seven, furiously chugged around the bases as his parents videotaped him from home plate.

A college-aged couple rolled like lazy dogs across the left field foul line, caressing each other lovingly.

Yet having arrived without a ball or glove, I felt like an ill-equipped stranger in my own reverie.  How could I come to the Field of Dreams and not have a catch myself?

Then, in cinematic fashion, an errant toss dribbled toward my leg.  I went cold. Fate had smiled on me.

I hadn’t thrown a baseball in years, but with a fat grin slung the ball toward the oversized mitt of a ten-year old, where it smacked upon the leather successfully. I felt a surge of the most unadulterated happiness I could imagine.

In the aftermath, I sat paralyzed on the bleachers in the spiting rain, as the wind swept the water sideways and the remaining occupants of the field walked begrudgingly to their cars.  Part of the outfield remained illuminated by the sun, a rogue piece of landscape combating the weather.

There was nothing to do, except reflect on how in an America where few icons remain sacred, the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa feels unremittingly joyous and pure.

At 6 p.m, I left and drove into town, where I ate the All-American special (meatloaf and potatoes) at the only restaurant I could find.  Then, back to Minneapolis to catch a red-eye flight the next day

It was announced a week later that the Lansing’s were putting up the farm and the baseball diamond for sale, at a price of $5.4 million.

While some interested buyers have professed a desire to keep the field intact, others are considering transforming it into commercial real-estate, such as a hotel or a waterpark.

Even in today’s America, I can think of few things more sacrilegious.

“Stella!!” Can You Summon My Inner Brando?

2010 April 6

Brando during Streetcar Named Desire

New Orleans, La.–In order to obtain the role of Stanley Kowalski in  “Streetcar Named Desire,”  Marlon Brando drove to playwright Tennessee Williams’ summer home in Provincetown, Mass. to personally audition.  It’s reasonable to assume that if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have landed the part, therefore depriving the American cinema of one of the most violently sensual performances in its history.  More importantly, if Brando hadn’t made the drive to Provincetown, I wouldn’t be in the midst of this drunken frenzy in Jackson Square, New Orleans, stuffed into a V-neck T-shirt and summoning every ounce of machismo my body holds toward my vocal chords, in the hopes that at my most primal, a panel of strangers think that I resemble a young, gilded Brando.

But what about this dipsomaniac next to me?  Why is he staring so serenely into the clear, blue sky above?  He has a gut, a chest full of wild, thick, black hair, and a mug that shows me he’s probably 40 years old.    Is he channeling his inner Brando?

And what about this mime who just spilled Natural Ice on my jeans?  He’s spray-painted himself gold.  I wish he’d stop standing so close to me while he’s speaking.  Shouldn’t he be refraining from conversation anyway?

And my good friend Tom Burwell–who has inexplicably worn a white V-neck as well–making us appear like two castaways from an S.E. Hinton novel who ran smack-dab into a mob of Stella-yellers while fleeing the Fuzz

Yes, it’s a motley crew, 25 wild-eyed aspiring Brando’s, all of whom have convened  on this sunny April day to participate in the annual Stella-yelling contest, the last event of the week-long Tennessee Williams Festival.

When we signed up there were only a handful of people congregated around the balcony on the south side of Jackson Square, but now, fifteen minutes later, the crowd has engorged to hundreds and atop the balcony perch the video cameras of the local news.

It’s a terrifying feeling.  I have never done any acting before.  At least not that I remember.  I clutch my number, 14, tightly in a fist and watch as participants begin to make their way into the performance ring that has been cleared beneath the balcony.

Stella arrives. Stella doesn’t look like Stella from the movie.  She’s older and saucier, but somehow that feels right.

I begin to think there’s a whole pathos to Brando that’s crucial to nailing a good “Stella.” I ruminate on this insight as the crooning begins.  You can just think of Brando as the alpha-male, super-cool, tough-guy he was in his earlier days, I think.  That won’t give you the right scream.

You have to think about Colonel Kurtz  as well.  You have to think about “The Horror.” You have to think about decay.  About Brando dying at 80 weighing 300 pounds.

It is the mime’s turn.  He doesn’t say anything, just pantomimes a scream.  I hate this mime.

You have to realize that regardless of the fact that it doesn’t get any more iconic than Stanley Kowalski, drunk, desperate and drenched, on his knees, with his shirt torn to shreds, screaming for Stella, that it’s futile to attempt to reproduce that yell.

You’ll always fail.  You’ll be lamer than a silent mime painted gold.

Don’t scream for Stella, I think to myself as I push through the crowd and into the circle, scream for Brando instead.

It’s silent inside with the oval crowd ensconcing me.  I feel like I’m  inside of a whale’s stomach. There is nothing but white noise.  The blood flows through my body in violent cascades.  I hate this mime so much.  I find his black eyes in the crowd submerged in gold.  I stare at those eyes.

I stare at those eyes.  And I yell.

Props to PSF ( and Chico across the way) for the film below.

2010: The Birthing of a Decade; the Butchering of an Iphone

2010 January 3
by Dan Lawton

New Orleans, LA–The strange thing about New Year’s Eve is that it’s the only form of pre-planned fun that succeeds for me.  There are an endless number of holidays that are supposed to be fun, but never live up to the hype, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Cinco De Mayo (which is actually somewhat fun when it spawns ecstatic bouts of Tequila drinking by people who wrongly believe they are celebrating Mexican independence), Easter and Halloween   Then there are personal holidays, such as birthdays, graduations and anniversaries, which are undoubtedly some of the most underwhelming and tragic moments of human existence and no reasonable person should attach any significance to.

But New Year’s Eve, for some freakish reason, sits in a category all by itself.  It seems to be the one night that people really act freely, conducting themselves with the reckless whimsy of sailors with a sole evening in port. It is less of a celebration and more of a ritualistic cleansing, which  may be due to the fact that at least subconsciously one can attribute everything that happens on New Year’s Eve to “last year.”

This, along with a number of other reasons, is probably why I haven’t had one bad New Year’s Eve in the last decade. Rarely, if ever, do I make any sort of elaborate plan for New Year’s and 50% of the time I have no plans at all. On many occasions, the night has started out languidly and I have wondered if the streak would die, but it never has.  Yet this year, my yuletide felicity was threatened by an adversary so grotesquely powerful and omnipresent that it would make even Dick Clark cringe.  It was the only force, outside of the police, which had the clout to isolate me from everyone I know and stuff me into a pocket of self-reflection where I stumbled helplessly throughout the streets like a lost dog.

Of course, I am talking about my Iphone.

The Iphone and the corresponding meteoric rise in “smart phones” is arguably the most influential development of the last decade.  It’s become ubiquitous and ordinary at such a breakneck speed that it’s shocking to think that three years ago you were novel (possibly even cool) for having an Iphone.  In my life, owning the Iphone has changed a number of things, the most important of which are that (a) I can settle any trivial argument instantly and (b) I never have to ask for directions.  It is also an incredible device for looking preoccupied and vaguely important in situations that are socially awkward (mostly election day parties).

But there is a downside to so much technological privilege: dependency.

There are now people in this world who have become incapable of even simple navigational skills without a digital map accompanying them.  Furthermore, there are people who appear to be unable to experience any part of human existence without translating it to the rest of the universe via Twitter.  But, to be honest, most of these people likely had serious life problems before they bought Iphones.

Fundamentally, the Iphone is just an extension of the cell phone and the home phone as it simply makes it so much easier to communicate in and navigate the world and, when it is occasionally unavailable, makes the world seem like an impossibly complicated place.

This is what happened to me on News Year’s Eve in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, when AT&T users (the only company to service the Iphone) congregated in such mass that for two hours nobody with an Iphone had service.  Thousands were stranded and transformed into refugees of the digital world. Lost in transit between groups of friends, I walked down the Riverwalk, slaloming between clots of revelers and facing the fact that I might spend the entire night alone.

I have been alone a lot this year.  I have been alone on three different continents and in a dozen countries and I have not minded at all.  But nobody wants to be alone on New Year’s Eve, when the ball or the baby or some piece of illuminated machinery drops from the heavens and drunken single people under thirty wonder which borderline unattractive person they’ll regret making out with.

Of course, the Riverwalk was flush with interesting things to see.  There were white people and black people and a number of people from Florida and Ohio (teams who played in the Sugar Bowl) and a multitude of tough-looking teenagers wearing wife-beaters and flannel and drinking malt liquor out of water bottles.  There was an excess of cleavage, an excess of knee-high black boots, a scarcity of kazoos that almost caused a fistfight, and an odd number of people who appeared to be suffering the same fate of Iphonelessness as me.

The baby fell, the fireworks exploded, the protracted makeout sessions climaxed and a number of people from Ohio attempted to drive down pedestrian walkways in their mini-vans.  It was 2010, a new year and a new decade.  My phone reception picked up within minutes and I was soon reunited with a pack of friends, many of whom had spent the last two hours floundering in the same state of abject loneliness.

We were filled with a desperate energy–a frenzy incited by isolation and cemented by the compulsion that we had dodged a bullet and needed to make up for lost time. I gestured feverishly, explaining my plight, while a friend answered a build-up of text messages. As he tapped away, he whirled toward me and his phone careened off my fingers, into the air, and then onto the cement with a thud.  The LCD screen was cracked like a glass spider web.

I was strangely jealous of the carnage.  In fact, at my basest I wished I had broken my own phone.  This feeling–the idea of hating the evolution of technology simply because it breeds dependency–is likely something one could only experience in the most recent millennium.  I doubt that in 1920 anyone whined about the nuisance of “having to do everything with the lights on” and forgetting how to work under candlelight.  Although maybe I’m wrong.  I simply know that the idea of living  without a phone that can track my progress toward a 7-11 with a light blue GPS ball feels boring and primitive regardless of how pathetic it is, which is probably why I resisted the temptation to smash mine next to my friend’s.

Instead, we shrugged, picked up the pieces and walked on happily to a party featuring a giant tree house, which I didn’t leave until 7 a.m.   Thus,  my streak of epic New Years continued (three in a row, since I’ve had my Iphone).

Flooded in the Philippines 

2009 November 27
A boy rows a skiff down a flooded street in Rizal Province, Philippines

A boy rows a skiff down a flooded street in Rizal Province, Philippines

I was sitting in my hotel room in Macau, when a newsflash came across the television about catastrophic flooding in the Philippines.  Provinces outside Manila had been ravaged by another typhoon–the third in the last month–causing a number of low-lying areas to be inundated with water. A waterborne illness called leptospirosis was also ravaging the affected areas.  I wanted to see how people coped in a world overrun by water, so I booked a ticket the next day.

I flew into Manila and reserved a hotel room in Quezon City to situate myself closer to the flooded provinces.  I arrived at dark by bus.  It was a confounding place to be dropped off after a long day of travel.  The streets were teeming with people and bright silver jeeps (called Jeepneys), which were spray-painted with exotic designs and blared music.  This was public transport, I was told.

My hotel was close to the bus station, but to reach it I needed to climb an elevated footbridge that hung over the crowded avenue.  The steps were dark, and at the top I almost slammed into a legless man who was sitting in the middle of the walkway.  His head was hung downward, his eyes facing the ground.  His right arm was outstretched and held a paper cup full of change and I dropped a coin in it–though, when it plinked against the others, he didn’t budge.

A blind man was playing a muddy, yet surprisingly sound version of Eric Clapton’s Layla a few feet down, with a sign hung around his neck describing his plight.  I weaved around him, bypassed a beckoning prostitute and hustled down the stairs of the footbridge and into my adjacent hotel.

The next morning, I met with the OXFAM relief team that was working in the Rizal provinces, where most of the flooding had taken place. The first storm, they informed me, had been Ketsana, and it had caused most of the damage.  The flood refugees numbered in the thousands.  They had been evacuated to a number of shelters, but in the following storms, many of those shelters had been flooded as well.

The cause of the flood wasn’t just nature; but man, too.  Most of the victims were squatters who had settled in areas on the border of various tributaries.  Their refuse had gradually clogged water passages, preventing the flood waters from draining properly.

I went to Rizal Province later that day and saw the flooded neighborhoods with my own eyes.  The streets had become canals, and taxi drivers congregated in a circle offering a number of homemade skiffs for transportation. The main evacuation center was a hub of activity, but had taken on approximately a foot of water, which residents splashed through.

I hired one of the boatmen and proceeded through the neighborhood.  It was mostly deserted–the water neck-deep in some spots–but I did spy one couple napping on top of their home.  They had managed to set up a pair of functioning speakers, and Michael Jackson ballads drifted through the air.  Many of the other residents shared a surprisingly jovial attitude–especially the children, who swam playfully in the disease-ridden water.

One of the converted evacuation centers was a Presbyterian church, run by Korean native Armando Guiraldo. Guiraldo told me the church was housing approximately 50 families.  “We are sad because our homes were destroyed, but we are happy because we have so much community relief,” he said, adding that he still holds church service every Sunday.

Relief workers noted that the neighborhood had extremely strong communal ties and the cohesiveness was partly responsible for the high spirits, but even they expressed surprise at the peaceful and positive attitude of residents.  Inside Guiraldo’s church, children giggled and played soccer, while mother’s hung laundry and prepared food. There was no vibration of panic, none of the wild fear one would expect to accompany the destruction of homes.  People had simply made an adjustment–as radical as it may sound–from living on dry to land to living in a flood zone. Even the stray dogs, who sunned themselves on narrow planks of wood, looked perfectly at home.

For more images of flooded areas in the Philippines, check out the photo gallery.

Macau: The City of Dreams

2009 November 21
The Macau Skyline

The Macau Skyline

Macau–Macau is a special administrative district located 40 miles from the coast of Hong Kong. It’s a former Portuguese colony, currently controlled by the Chinese. Like Hong Kong, it enjoys considerable independence. There is no gambling on the Chinese mainland, but there are 18 casinos in Macau. There is more gambling than any city in the world, including Las Vegas.

I went there to play Texas Hold Em. I’d yet to cash in on the American Dream, so I figured I’d give it a whirl on the other side of the globe. The slogan for Macau, as advertised on countless tourist buses and signs, is The City of Dreams. But what sort of dream is Macau trying to realize?

The peninsula–where most of the population resides–is a schizophrenic place, with two different identities wrestling each other for control. You can experience the contrast most vividly at dawn. My first morning, I woke up freakishly early and took a jaunt to a park above my hotel. A number of newly paved running trails weaved through the woods. There were fountains and park benches alongside congregations of sage-looking Chinese men performing Tai Chi.

As I navigated my way upwards in elevation, I reached Guia lighthouse, formerly used by the Portuguese to defend the city from invaders. From there, I could see the whole peninsula; it looked like two worlds smashed into one. In the foreground sat rows of narrow avenues crowded with dilapidated apartments, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, laundrymats, spice stores and other local businesses. In the distance, towering casinos shot into the air like gilded geysers and brandished huge, illuminated signs beckoning patrons.

A dawn later, as the first rays of sunshine began to illuminate the city, I was inside the gambling maw, seated at the poker table at the Grand Lisboa Casino. I had intended to leave hours earlier, but around three a.m. two Chinese men wearing outlandish sunglasses and designer shirts had plopped down at my table with a 50,000 Hong Kong Dollar marker.

“Those guys are junket,” a British expat said to me.
“What’s the junket?”
“Most Chinese high rollers take out a loan with loan sharks in Macau. If they lose it, guys like that track them down in the mainland and either collect or machete their heads off. “

He added that the Junket were notorious for being extremely aggressive poker players. Sure enough, within five minutes of arriving at the table, they were stacking off with marginal hands and immediately reloading. They bet with the body language of men who use money as power. They didn’t slide their chips into pots; they picked them up in a single column and slammed them on the felt.

The other players at the table became unnerved by their presence. They were either intimidated by their strong bets, or induced into calling with terrible hands by the allure of breaking them for a big pot. Soon, the junket duo was rolling up big stacks. Then, a man sat down at the table, who I will never forget.

Frank White preps for a massive check raise

He was broad-shouldered with sandy, brown hair and a looseness in his movements that signaled a modest, yet intimidating confidence. He was silent and issued no greetings upon arriving, but simply bought in for the maximum. Then, from a plastic bag sitting next to him, he pulled out a pair of sunglasses and a large straw Vietnamese peasant hat. There was a chorus of laughter at the table, but the stranger’s lips didn’t even crack a smile.

Two hours later, I trailed him out of the casino into the brutal heat of the early morning sun. He had broken the junket–taken all their money with shocking ease– and sent them fleeing to the Baccarat table. He had not spoken a word the entire time. He was an enigma–a silent assassin–and as he left, his arms weighed down with chips, I dashed after him, only to watch him tip his hat to me as he peeled away on the back of a silver Kawasaki.

Bad Vibes in Mumbai

2009 November 17
A tortured passenger awaits his fate in Mumbai

A tortured passenger awaits his fate in Mumbai

We were sprawled on benches, chairs and countertops in a restaurant called Celebrations.  There were fifteen of us from a half-dozen countries.  Some had resigned themselves to fate and drifted into slumber, but it was a painful sleep.  Their bodies were twisted and stuffed into agonizing positions to fit onto a bench or a chair.  A few stalwarts, including myself, were drinking at the bar and getting angrier by the minute.  We wanted blood.   We wanted the blood of a man who promised us salvation and then ripped it away.

Our flight from London to Mumbai had been delayed when a passenger suffered a heart attack, forcing us to land in Budapest.  For this reason, we arrived around midnight and missed our connection to Hong Kong. Jet Airways officials showed no sign of concern.  They simply herded us into a restaurant and explained that there were no flights to Hong Kong until midnight tomorrow.  We would have to wait in the airport for twenty-four hours, because Indian immigration would not grant us one-day visas to stay in a hotel.  We would not receive any compensation.  We would not even be allowed in the fancy lounge with the comfortable chairs and wireless Internet

Of course, it didn’t happen exactly like that.  It wasn’t one swoop of bad news, but a long protracted drama in which we were kept in the dark as much as possible, until the gory truth had to be revealed.  At first, we knew nothing. Then, the first rumors of the delay crept in.  After that, we heard about the problems with immigration.  We worked ourselves into frenzy, speculating on our future, until a customer service agent finally descended into the restaurant and delivered the news.

The crowd was rabid.  The agent had the appearance of a human being, but her unflinching robotics made me question if she was perhaps a mirage.  As she stood, reiterating her sentence, I snuck behind her and poked her gently in the fold of her bicep.  Her flesh felt squishy and real, yet she didn’t react to my prodding.

After she departed, they fed us, but we continued to be charged mercilessly for beer.  Then, around 6 a.m., those still awake began to buzz with the unmistakable hum of rumor.  I poked my head into a group and found out there was a flight to Bangkok in two hours. You could go there and fly to Hong Kong, if you wanted.  My cohort and I didn’t care about Hong Kong anymore.  We had no business there.  Bangkok would work fine.

I located the agent just outside of the restaurant, huddled conspiratorially with three or four other passengers.  They weren’t friendly to my intrusion, as seats were limited, but after a bit of finagling I arranged  two tickets.  The agent left and said he would be back in an hour.  We would be spared.

We went to the bar and toasted our good luck. We finished a round and nervously ordered another, followed by one more.  Then, the terror struck.  No one had wanted to comment on what was happening, as if pronouncing the obvious would make it more real, but finally an Englishman crumbled onto the bar, clasped his hands over his face and violently cursed the agent. “That prick; he’s not coming back,” he said.

We couldn’t find him; they wouldn’t let us past security.  We wondered if he had done it just for the sick fun of watching us squirm.  But it didn’t matter.  It all quickly became a blur.

I slumped onto a couch and oscillated back and forth between consciousnesses like a pinball.  The restaurant filled up and the bright lights and clatter of dishes and conversation made it impossible to sleep.  I was kicked out of the VIP lounge twice, maybe three times.  Finally, I broke down and handed over my credit card.  The price didn’t matter; I just wanted one of those black leather recliners.  I would have given my life for it.  I had been debased beyond the point of recognition.

The Jet Airways officials returned to Celebrations restaurant around six p.m. the next day.  They led us, like tranquilized dogs, through a maze of security checks and luggage claims before finally shoving us onto a plane.  They are, by far, the coldest, most brutal individuals, I have ever encountered.  It seems unfortunate that they have chosen the airline business as their base of operations.  It would be much more appropriate if they were employed as enforcers in a Gestapo.  I would prefer to be waterboarded and have my genitals mangled by electric shock than ever fly their airline again.

This is the first of a number of posts I’ll be writing about my travels in Asia.  Check back for more articles or read  my previous posts on West Africa.

Out of Accra; Back on the Rack

2009 November 12
by Dan Lawton

This is my last post about my experiences in West Africa. To read articles from the past, check out the West Africa archive.

Kunati, an Accra art vendor.

Kunati, an Accra art vendor.

My last day in Accra.  I’ve been here for three months.  In twelve hours, I’ll be on a plane to Germany.  I eat wachi for breakfast.  It costs a quarter.  It’s a spicy mixture of spaghetti, beans and rice.  I used to hate it.  Now I eat it everyday. I’ll miss it big time.

I jump in a sweaty tro-tro and head to Osu, where I meet up with my friends in the vacant lot they live in.  It is the  site of a hotel that was previously demolished.  There’s a huge steel foundation and a wall.  The wall is covered in graffiti.  There are  portraits of Bob Marley, Helle Sellaise, Kwame Nkrumah and Barack Obama drawn on it. There are pictures of lions and a map of Burkina Faso and a bunch of writing in different languages and dialects that I can’t understand.  There is only one phrase in English.

Art is a mission,
He reminded his fellow artist,
Not a competition,
Some men use the
Art to cause confusion

To get into the lot, you have to go through a huge steel gate.  When I enter, Daoma, Kunati and Baba are sitting in the corner.  They know it’s my last day.  They give me a Goni (an African guitar), with my name carved in it.  Daoma wears a necklace with a huge Africa medallion and he ties it around my neck.  Kunati gives me a handful of wood carvings.

I give them clothes–all of the clothes I brought, but don’t care about any more. A glorious purge; I give them anything I haven’t worn at least five times in the last month. It’s like Christmas.  They are fighting over a lime-green Hilfiger shirt.  Kunati is strutting  around in a pair of grey slacks.  Baba’s got my socks on. I’m wearing more jewelry than a Hollywood starlet.

What do you do in a vacant lot with your friends on your last afternoon in Africa?

You drink beers, play drums and freestyle rap.

Baba, an Accra street vendor, in front of the lot where he sleeps.

Baba tells me his DJ name is Baba Wisdom.  Kunati says he doesn’t need a DJ name.  “I’m Kunati, that’s who I am,” he thunders.  Kunati raps fast.  He’s a lyrical cyclone.  He raps sitting down on the pavement.  Behind him, the wind blows litter onto a group of mattresses.  One of those mattresses is Kunati’s  He doesn’t rap about that.

Baba provides the rhythm for  Kunati’s rap.  “Bop, Bop, Clack,”  Bop, Bop, Clack.”  Then Baba raps.  He’s sitting in his wheelchair.  It’s slow at first, then picks up speed.  Baba raps in French.  I always thought of French as a feminine language.  Suddenly, it’s not.

Then I rap.  Then the sun sets.

When I wake up it’s 6 a.m. in Frankfurt, Germany and I’m freezing and stumbling drearily across the tarmac into a waiting shuttle bus.  And in the terminal, I chase Carlsbergs with Carlsbergs to try to kill the pressure that blitzkriegs my neck and my shoulders when I see American media pundits gesticulating  on T.V., but I can’t.

“Bop, Bop, Clack.”  Bob Bop CLACK.

For more images of Accra street life, check out the photo gallery.