The Rules of the Game: Ray Walker, Hong Kong, and the World of Wine

One can be forgiven for missing the rise of Ray Walker in all its glory. At the end of 2010, his company, Maison Ilan, had an internet presence that was nothing more than a small blog, a couple of comments on wine forums, and a throwaway aside in the San Marin County Probations Office newsletter.[1] By the end of July 2011, there was a feature on Walker in The New York Times. The buzz around this American winemaker with his devotion to monk-invented ways of making Burgundy was seeping out of wine circles and into the mainstream. He didn’t overheat the wines or use fancy electronic machines. Instead, he did as much by hand as possible and let the soil the grapes grew in speak. As he would explain to prospective clients, “I treat my wine like I treat my tea: at a lower temperature for longer.” It was a blast to the past, each $150 bottle transporting the drinker across time and space until they landed in pre-Enlightenment Beaune. And why wouldn’t there be buzz? A beautiful interracial man with a strong jaw and chiseled abs, married to a lovely wife to whom he was utterly devoted, he sold a myth that liberal American wine buyers would love: the idea that systematic injustice can be overcome through passion, hard work, and a willingness to move to France. He seemed to follow the rules of the game they created, never complaining about the structural issues that might hold him back. It was around this time that my father Chuck first reached out to Ray, and the two became close through constant commerce. Ray’s fame outside of wine circles peaked the same week his book did: in the week of August 18, 2013, when his book, The Road to Burgundy, was 15th on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Demand massively outstripped his supply. A few buyers were allowed a couple of cases—there are 12 bottles in a case—each year. Everyone else was out of luck. Two years later, Ray’s wife left him as rumors swirled about the timeliness of his shipping. A year after that, I spent three weeks working for him. And now, just four years after climbing to the pinnacle of the wine world, what remains of his wine is awaiting its court-ordered destruction. Wine buyers from Atlanta to Hong Kong are poised to lose vast sums ranging from $20,000 to $2.5 million.

*****

Though we had talked before, I first met Ray in person at Hong Kong International Airport in June 2016. We were both staying in a Best Western in Causeway Bay; I had booked my room at 3 a.m. from the Dubai airport as I shook off the lasting lethargy of two sleeping pills that hadn’t fully worked. Once I had, I boarded my next flight, praying that the confirmation email wasn’t a hallucination. Ray was going to teach me about the wine industry. The original plan was for me to live with him in rural France, spending the mornings helping him ship out his backlog of wines and the evenings writing. He had also hinted that he wanted me to help him film an Anthony Bourdain-style TV pilot he wanted to pitch. A week before I was to arrive in Burgundy, I’d called him to see if he had found a place for me stay. We’d both been surprised to learn that he was flying to Hong Kong on the day of my planned arrival. This was odd, considering that both Chuck and I had told him my arrival date several times. And so, after 36 hours circumnavigating the globe, flying from Atlanta to Madrid to Dubai to Hong Kong, Ray and I were now riding the train into downtown Hong Kong together. Boisterous and unabashed, he explained that a recent misunderstanding involving Viagra—after his divorce, he took it every day to “be ready”—had reshaped his body, the boost in testosterone replacing sinew with muscle, an accident he relished at every moment. He finally had a body that reflected how he saw himself, I discovered, swollen muscles becoming a manifestation of his ego.

This train ride into town, where we were to meet a client turned friend—Marv—was the only time I ever saw Ray take public transportation. Ray’s hulking frame didn’t fit into the tiny seats on the train, so he stuck his jean-clad right leg into the middle of the aisle. The rest of the trip, he took taxis, having deemed public transportation “crowded and dirty.”

While the train moved effortlessly between the lit points on the wall-mounted map, Ray worked to get to know me. The questions varied from general to purposefully personal, filled with seemingly innocuous quips that were portents of the weeks to come.

“What music do you like?”

“Is there food you don’t eat?”

“Seriously, you have to eat the seafood here. It’s different.”

“Even fresh-caught seafood?”

“You’ve got to try it. I’m going to force you, bro.”

One moment in particular should have been a warning. After asking if I was ready to party with him, he commented that Asian women were the main reason he had stayed in Hong Kong for so long after his divorce, and he asked me how I felt about them. I responded that I had no special feelings one way or the other.

“You like Asian women! Everyone does! They’re so beautiful, and they’ll do anything for Americans. They flock to you.”

He seemed uninterested in the power dynamics within the statement, and I was uninterested in explaining them to my boss of one hour. Instead I grimaced and shrugged my shoulders. Weeks later, as I struggled to explain to him why his catcalling was inappropriate, I would come to regret this decision.

According to Ray, he had wanted his second book to be about him learning to cook and make liquor in locations across the world. When he pitched it to his agent, the man responded that it sounded like a TV show. Ray took this not as the gentle rejection it almost certainly was, but as a suggestion—if he could find someone willing to film him for free, his natural charisma would ostensibly entice the networks.[3] I was the answer, a one-man director, cameraman, boom operator, and jousting partner. Ray, admittedly unused to the rigors of filming, saw it differently. I was to copy the aesthetic he saw on Instagram, and nothing more. At one point, as I protested a shot of green tea ice cream, he became particularly heated.

“It’s my show, and I’m the director. Not you!”

My response was just as asinine. “And it’s my camera, and my name listed as Director of Photography.”

This usurpation angered him even more. “There are thousands of people with a camera willing to do this just for the exposure.”

“I don’t fucking care about exposure if I’m ashamed of the shit people are seeing.”

But those fights would come later. For now, it seemed as if I was just to be his partner in crime, drinking wine and tearing up Honk Kong. Eventually, we arrived at the station, where Marv was waiting in his Tesla. From there, he drove us across Central and Causeway Bay to our hotel.

The lobby of the Best Western, located in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, was midway up the 40-story building, while the concierge sat just outside the elevator on the third floor, across from a large garage door that opened onto a neon-lit side street. From a distance, this part of Hong Kong was beautiful, skyscrapers sidling up to Victoria Peak, creating elaborate patterns interspersed with neon, each one attempting to dominate the one next to it. Up close, you were permanently in the shadows of the buildings above, those who built them, and those silently moving money within. The high-rises asserted their primacy over the sun; the neon tubes were strangled with dust. It was the type of atmosphere that perpetually overwhelms you, a million little details asking to be remembered, forcing you to create your own understanding. The average rent in the district is the highest in the world, surpassing $3,000 per square foot. Unlike much of Hong Kong, it has little history from before the British arrival in 1841. As the name Causeway Bay suggests, much of the district was originally a silted bay with a small fishing village on its banks. Shortly after they gained control of Hong Kong, the British government sold 57,000 square feet of the neighborhood to Jardine, Matheson, & Company—a company with current revenues of $42 billion—for 565 pounds, which is equivalent to 55,000 pounds in today’s currency. After this steal of a real estate transaction, the company began to fill in the watery mud, literally changing the shape of the island as they did so. By the 1880’s, the district had a sugar refinery, an ice factory, and possibly a distillery. In the early 1920’s, an opium trader named Lee Hysan bought much of the neighborhood, turning it into an amusement park-cum-circus. Hysan was born in Hawaii to a father also in the opium trade, and grew up in San Francisco. He originally bought the land for an opium refinery, until a global backlash against the drug convinced him to diversify. This backlash culminated in Hysan’s assassination in 1928, when he was shot on a street in Central. It was his family who filled in the land for Victoria Park, in the east of the neighborhood, and began building the high-rises that now block the sky and the roads that seal off the sea. After Hysan’s assassination, his opium empire transformed into a real estate conglomerate—Hysan Development Company—whose current revenues equal more than $300 million dollars and have real estate holdings across Hong Kong. Hysan and his heirs let Hong Kong clean his money, each parcel of bought land combining with time and interest to scrub away the stench of narcotics.

I grew restless as we sat in the traffic of Causeway Bay. My attention turned across the water, to Kowloon. Now the densest part of Hong Kong, Kowloon started life as a British tiger hunting reserve. The British began developing it in the 1950’s, though until recently it was mostly slums. The result is that it was seen as the poorest and most crime-ridden part of the city; if one wanted prostitutes or drugs, this was the area. To this day, despite the presence of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and several high-end shopping malls in the district, the wealthy and white of Hong Kong tend to avoid the district. In my head, the lasting image of Kowloon is watching a homeless woman’s dog wander into the middle of the street, forcing the taxis pulling out of the Ritz-Carlton to swerve out of the way. It was also Ray’s favorite district, for reasons I could never figure out. We stayed in Kowloon the second night of our trip—a brief interlude between stints at two separate Causeway Bay hotels. Even once we settled on a hotel, however, we still only booked the room for one night at time. The result was that, though Ray was supposed to pay for my hotel rooms, he stayed out too late each morning to rebook our room, forcing me to give the concierge my card to pay. She was a local woman with limited English skills. The lack of English struck me. It was the Lengua Franca of the rich in Hong Kong; in fact, it was the only language in the upscale wine stores, private clubs, and restaurant backrooms where the powerful hung out. Even the Portuguese Club hummed with what Aldous Huxley called that “beautifully compounded mixture of French and Saxon,” the mongrel language of Brits and Americans. Yet on the street, in cabs, in cheap hotels, this was not the case. Everyone on the street level spoke Cantonese, the other official language, and most had no understanding of English. The Chinese rulers of Hong Kong do not talk in the language of the populace, instead luxuriating in English, the language of the colonizer.

 

By the time we arrived at our first hotel, the Best Western in Causeway Bay, the afternoon rain had stopped, but the remaining humidity filled the air, leaving it thick and still. Ray had booked a room several floors below mine, in order to have a better view. His room faced Hong Kong Harbor. My window, on the other hand, opened up directly onto another high-rise, where I could examine the chipped cement and other symbols of decrepitude not visible from the gilding of the street view.

P1000483.JPG

*****

 

A business owner never tires of telling his origin story. Those around him, however, do tire of hearing it. To feign interest, they start to look for the minute variations from telling to telling, how the owner’s diction changes as the prospective clients do. With Ray, these variations were myriad; he never told the same story twice. His story was modular, each part a block that could be included or not, the details themselves shifting and changing, middle-class becoming poor then rich, the role of his wife growing and shrinking, the story mutating itself to the moment. Even so, however, his start has been covered extensively, from wine blogs to The New York Times to an Anthony Bourdain episode to Ray’s own book. To briefly rehash: Ray grew up in California, bouncing around various cities in the Bay Area, mostly within the East Bay. His parents owned a real estate company caught in a constant boom or bust cycle, and he never drank wine. In fact, until the trip to Italy where he proposed to his wife—whom he met shortly before he dropped out of San Francisco State—he hated the drink. But then in Florence he fell head over heels for wine, coming back to the U.S. and becoming obsessed with Burgundy. Shortly before the Great Recession of 2008, he took a job at Merrill Lynch, only to realize that he hated it and quit. Instead, he interned at a vineyard in Sonoma. He then dropped everything and moved to France, where he charmed the locals, who in turn offered him grand cru grapes that had gone unbought due to the economic downturn. Suddenly, he was the first American to ever produce Chambertin wine.[4][5] At least, this was the tale found in The New York Times and his book. But the details constantly shifted. Sometimes he studied film at SFSU, sometimes it was business, sometimes English. Sometimes he left the Bay for college, moving to New Orleans. But one thing was certain: for a period of time, Ray was wildly successful, at least for a negociant.[6] People who were not on his selling list—which was permanently at capacity—asked their friends to buy for them. Other wine-makers looked jealously at this savant, the American with no experience somehow competing with Burgonians who had spent their life learning the trade.

The first grumblings of discontent began in a May 2014 thread from the Wine Berserkers forum. It started innocuously enough, with someone from Shanghai asking if Europeans had received their wine yet. A few had, as had some in America. Many had not, but there was no worry; shipping wine is a finicky business, dependent on the weather and middlemen. There were nearly 5,000 posts on the thread; few went beyond mild concern. It is not out of the ordinary for winemakers to not ship during the summer, waiting until the temperature has fallen and the wines won’t roast. A few took badly to the delays; a “buyer beware” thread on the Cellar Tracker forum in January 2015 made the rounds through the community. Most comments on it were rueful; many wished Ray well even as they admitted that he had lied and deceived about his shipping practices—who was doing the shipping, when it would ship, the cost, and more. Wherever we went, people mentioned the thread; Ray often brought it up himself to warn clients in advance. He would froth with anger as he explained it. He had clarified everything with the creator of the thread, offering a full refund and extra wine, yet the man had still refused to take it down. To Ray the reason was simple: wine buyers expected a level of punctuality from Americans that they would never impose on a French Burgundy maker, and also the original poster wanted him to fail.

****

 

 

After we made a brief stop at the hotel to shower and change, Marv drove us to a private club on the water. A successful architect, Marv was native Chinese, even staying in Hong Kong to attend college—though his son attended UC Irvine before returning to the city. Constantly upbeat, he was Ray’s number one client and best friend. The two got along like peas in a pod, each encouraging the other’s boisterous attitudes like teenage boys peer-pressuring each other into poor decisions. He was wealthy, but not obscenely so, like some of the others we would meet on the trip. Our tables sat on the edge of the land, separated from the main building and restaurant by a perfectly manicured lawn. The only skyscrapers in view were miles to our left, almost on the other side of the bay. The lights from skyscrapers stretched themselves out as they reflected off the water, each lit window becoming a blurry sun strung out along the dark bay. As we drank a bottle of Ray’s wine—a 2011 that cost around $100 a bottle—and a buttery white, Marv described Hong Kong and his business to me and told Ray with whom he had set up meetings in the coming days. It was never quite clear what we were doing in Hong Kong—one day we would meet with members of the wine community, and then do nothing for the next two, then film all day the next day. Even the business meetings felt like an excuse to drink at lunch more than an attempt to increase sales. Mostly, it seemed we were there because Ray liked the city and because the wine buyers and women treated him like a king.

Next to us at a neighboring table sat another man, the platonic ideal of a French colonialist. He had ears that stuck out a deviation past the norm, plus a strong jaw that emphasized his widow’s peak and intense eyes. His light blue dress shirt was opened to the third button, allowing the breeze to flutter his collar, and a half-smoked cigarette was perpetually burning in his right hand. He was at the table with his wife, the two splitting a bottle of Bordeaux. It was to become a theme of the trip: in every enclave of power and prestige, in every wealth-filled nook and cranny, European ex-pats hovered. In day to day life I never saw them, but they were a constant presence at power lunches and dinners, silently observing the city, their Geist wordlessly sending a message to locals. In French, Ray struck up a conversation with the ex-pats before us, explaining that he was a winemaker before pouring them a glass of his wine. It was one of his more glorious bottles. The pinot noir was so light that the brownish red of Burgundy became a rusted velvet; bouquets of fruit jumped onto your tongue, mingling with the minerals the vines had absorbed from the rocky French soil. Unlike some of his older wines, which followed such intense fronts with backs that fell flat, this one remained full throughout, allowing you to continue to savor each sip as the alcohol filtered into your system.

Eventually, the bottle was empty, the plates were gone, and the Frenchman had returned to Vietnam circa 1952. Ray, Marv, and I stood and began walking across the lawn. The subject of New Orleans came up.

“I went to college there!” boasted Ray. I was surprised; I thought he had spent his entire life in California and France.

“Tulane?” I asked.

“No. Not all of us went to Ivies,” he said, his tone one of pure bitterness, though he was ostensibly being sarcastic. Again and again over the course of the trip, Ray would boast about his intelligence, that he was a true polyglot.

We were walking toward the club’s whiskey cellar. The interior of it was light brown brick, covered in memorabilia celebrating those who had drunk there and what they had drunk. One of the tables in the room was taken up by a group of Brits, men and women stammering and stumbling, yelling about soccer and life in Hong Kong. The statements were aggressive, often bordering on offensive without ever crossing the line. Marv ordered us whiskey and more wine, and we drank until the liquids became jet-lag, each sip driving us further into an exhaustion that consumed our bodies, each scotch adding a pound of dead weight to be carried. At some point, I returned to the hotel. Ray didn’t; he was going to Kowloon in search of late night noodles and a massage. I was never able to confirm if the best massage parlors were in Kowloon, or if there was something weirder and darker going on. Ray said he never paid for sex, insisting without accusation or provocation, bringing it up whenever he said he was going out.

*****

 

 

I learned about wine and Ray as a way to stop daydreaming about death. A melodramatic summary, though not wholly inaccurate. It was the summer of 2015, and I was interning at a small investment bank in Atlanta. I was miserable, sitting in a windowless room for nine hours a day, designing PowerPoints, crafting spreadsheets, or most often, doing nothing. So each Sunday I met with the owner of a local wine store to learn about French wine. She would assign me a region, and I would spend the week reading up on it. Now, instead of watching grown men make six figures because they knew arithmetic, I would read about soil types and altitude’s effects on grapes. I began to wonder if winemaking was the path for me. The cyclical work schedule and propinquity to nature enticed me. The prospect of not having to hear co-workers brag about the expected size of their bonuses, multiplying their wildest fantasies in their heads until all bearing to reality was lost, did as well.

By this point, Ray and Chuck had become close. A penchant for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young means that Chuck leaves his hair—as thick as it ever was but now fully grey, long and shaggy—held above his forehead with a soft caress of pomade. He started collecting wine in college, eventually settling on Burgundy, a region where the property lines within most vineyards are best described as patchwork—making it the most complicated region in France—as what he wanted to focus on. Like his father Mark, Chuck is in commercial real estate, a business where connections are vital while you’re simultaneously rarely at the mercy of another. Chuck focused his portfolios on shopping centers in working-class neighborhoods, both urban and rural, buying up the land in which Atlanta’s old money had little interest. Beyond purchasing from Ray, he also introduced Maison Ilan to the rest of the wine community in Atlanta, where he lives, oftentimes ordering cases for friends and family who were not on Ray’s selling list. Just like Marv and Ray, Chuck harbors a desire to be the most interesting man at the dinner party, though to blame him is not completely fair. When he was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Chuck’s father Mark sensed the changing attitudes that were allowing Jews to assimilate, somewhat, into the Atlanta elite. After every dinner party, he would call Chuck into his office and ask him leading questions about what he had done right and wrong, which jokes had worked and which hadn’t, forcing him to answer until Chuck was critiquing himself. In doing so, he would criticize Chuck without ever saying a harsh word, making his son feel guilty and ashamed without berating him. To Mark, to be accepted was to be perfect, whether that meant being the best shot when he took up hunting or having the best child at wine and cheese events. Chuck’s back-slapping and chuckling is a manifestation of the anxiety this instilled, that haunting thought that his position can always be revoked.

Chuck was still waiting on most of his wines to ship from Ray, and as a result, the two talked often, navigating byzantine email threads between the four different people involved in the shipping of the wine. Chuck and Ray would spend hours on the phone with each other, where Ray’s charm was strongest, and the delays brought the two closer. When Chuck brought up my interest in wine, Ray invited me to work with him the following summer, to learn the business and to spend some time in France. I enthusiastically agreed, and we made plans to talk in detail over the winter.

*****

Though we spent the second night of the trip in Kowloon, we were originally supposed to stay in the Central district to the west of Causeway Bay. The hotel in Central was on the seventh floor of a building; a governmental notice on the first floor warned that the bed and breakfast was operating illegally. Ray shrugged when I pointed it out while we were waiting for the elevator, only becoming concerned when I noticed the translation of the note next to it, printed in tiny font.

“The water is not safe to consume or bathe in.”

As the elevator screeched to a stop, we decided against entering and instead walked out of the claustrophobic lobby and into a crowded street. We were both staring at our phones, searching websites for affordable hotels anywhere in Hong Kong. To our right were upscale Western clothing stores—Ted Baker, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade. Directly across the street sat four police vans; a swarm of officers stood next to them. After a moment, Ray yelled “found one!” and hailed a taxi to Kowloon.

The new hotel had a single open room. As Ray unpacked, I stared out of the window; in the alley directly across from us, people had built tin shanties to protect themselves from the elements. The corrugated metal no longer gleamed on any of them. Many had collapsed, and dogs and children were visible in the open areas. Some of the temporary roofs had been spray-painted, though most were left as is. On either side sat high-rises.

The next morning, we returned to Causeway Bay, settling in a hotel farther east, near Victoria Park. Having finally found a place to stay, various lunches and dinners with Marv became how we differentiated our days. I was sucked into Ray’s world where linear time didn’t exist, where events ordered themselves in whatever way was easiest to remember. The fourth day was not the fourth day, nor was it a Sunday, but instead it was the day Marv took us to the Hong Kong Yacht Club. Like boats on a mooring, the events connected to and surrounding these concrete moments floated and revolved, refusing placement in any temporal schema, instead wandering toward the next stable event, only to hit the end of their ropes and change directions. It was 4:45 a.m., and a drunken Ray, a German college student still on his arm, was yelling at me for not doing the tracking shot he wanted, and it was simultaneously an afternoon where he sweet-talked his way into letting us film in a restaurant during their dinner rush. Our purpose in Hong Kong was nebulous; we would go days without shooting, only to then film nonstop for 12 hours, with no rhyme or reason beyond Ray’s whims. We had to be in Hong Kong right at this moment, but for no reason beyond it being the time that Ray had decided he would be in Hong Kong. That I was along to film was an added bonus.

For one of these meals that came to structure the trip, Marv took us to a prestigious wine club. It was located in a low-slung building, with the dinner and tasting room in the basement, surrounded by the members’ cellars. A flight of 19 of Ray’s wines sat in front of a wallpaper map of the burgundy region of France. Across from it sat a painting of a Chinese man wearing traditional garb, with the stereotypical facial expression of the blissful opium smoker. In his hand was a cigar. The membership of the group was split; half native Chinese, half ex-pats. The entire waitstaff were locals. The owner of the club was a British man in his late 40’s, who I’ll call Ewan. His black hair was swept across his head in a comb-over, and he wore a pink button-down under a loose navy blazer. He spoke with the accent of the British elite; it was so thick that his voice sat separate from the noise of the rest of the room. After some polite mingling, everyone entered the dining room and stood behind their chairs. The owner explained that this building was one of the last British holdouts in the fight against the Japanese in World War II, and before each dinner they stood for a moment of silence followed by a song serenading English bravery. Though British and Canadian forces made up about a third of the total forces in Hong Kong at the time, there was no mention of the Chinese and Indian soldiers killed in the Battle of Hong Kong, or the estimated 10,000 civilians executed during Japan’s three and a half year occupation. As the singing finished, the staff moved around the table; six numbered glasses sat at each plate, and they had to match the covered bottles (also numbered) to their partner for a blind taste test.

My notes and photos dry up during the dinner. An unspoken rule was that I was not to document dinner conversations or tasting notes. Despite this dearth of evidence and the dozens of bottles of wine we drank that night, several moments still resonate.

One of the first appetizers served was a steak tartare. As the plates were being cleared, Marv’s son, Jack,[7] noticed mine was mostly full. We had become fast friends, bonding over a shared love of golf and the fact that we considered ourselves babysitters to Ray and Marv, making sure the two didn’t egg each other on too far. Jack was in his early twenties, with long earlobes and a wry smile. His mostly black hair was interspersed with brown strands and parted from the left. Jack worked as a researcher for the Hong Kong branch of Daiwa Capital Markets, itself a subsidiary of the second largest brokerage firm in the world, Daiwa Securities Group. As he reached over to my plate, pointing at the bloody beef, he asked, “mind if I Jew that?” The tone he said it in was neither purposefully malicious nor ironic; it was the same tone my friend would use when he’d say “Kyke” in middle school, or when he and others organized “Jew Fights.” Like those middle schoolers, Jack had no intention to insult me, unaware of the history within the terms. Noticing my surprise, Jack asked, “you’re not Jewish, right?”

I started to respond, “Half, I mean yeah, but that really didn’t bother—”

“No way? You’re Jewish?”

His shock did not contain anger or shame. It consisted solely of amazement that he had befriended a Jew, who in Hong Kong exist mostly in the cultural imaginary that the British handed down. To this day, I find it difficult to denounce Jack as a purposeful anti-semite. In fact, I still consider him a friend. At this point, Ray noticed.

“I’m Jewish too!” he said. “My grandmother on my mom’s side was Jewish. That makes me more Jewish than Miles!”[8] He then returned to his previous conversation. At various other moments in the trip, this same grandmother was Irish or a Southern Protestant or whatever else included him in the conversation.

A few hours later, the plates had been cleared, and Ray’s wine had been drunk; the night was winding down. Jack, along with most of the non-expats, had gone home; he had work in the morning. Marv, Ray, Ewan, and a few others remained. They broke out personal bottles, each trying to find one more rare than the last. The owner lit a cigarette, and several others lit cigars. Indoor smoking is prohibited in Hong Kong, but the club had decided that in the unlikely scenario that they were caught, the individual members would take responsibility, and the club would claim that it did not know. That way, the punishment would be no more than a fine.

Ewan opened the next bottle of wine. As Ray tried to explain how strong the tannins, someone at the table came up with an analogy.

“How tough is it, based on how long ago a pussy was last shaved.”

Ewan and Ray loved it; they started comparing, getting increasingly precise. Six hours, three weeks but somewhat trimmed, on and on. There was one woman left at the table, and she participated at the beginning, but she fell silent as the night wore on and the group continued with the yardstick.

As they did so, I learned about Ewan over a pack of Camel cigarettes. He was progressive, at least more progressive than I expected, and I think he was relieved to find someone to the left of him. As he explained how he had married a local woman, how long he’d been there, and all those other little things you learn after too many bottles of wine, the pack emptied. He asked a waiter for his, but they were Marlboro and unacceptable, so he sent the man out to buy more. It was 1:30, and the staff seemed tired, standing around waiting for us to finish. When I commented on this, Ewan laughed and responded, “we stay until 4:00 sometimes.”

The new pack arrived, and Ewan started smoking again. I noticed none of the waitstaff smoked inside. “I’m more of a Hong Kong native than my wife,” he said.

I was unsure what to say, eventually settling on “How so?”

“I want Hong Kong’s independence,” he said. “She doesn’t care. I was the one who insisted our kids go to school here and not in Britain. I believe in Hong Kong much more than her.” It was the rhetoric of independence put in service of ideology, in the Marxist sense of the word. The paternal colonialism of a long-dead empire permeated his vague ideals, a séance with Ewan as the medium, his ancestor’s insistence that the Chinese could not rule themselves recombubulating in the personal sphere. But this was a séance with no end, at least none in sight. Like the other ex-pats at the table, when his mouth moved, it was the ghost of history who spoke. Perhaps his children will be different, but they’ll be outliers, their Chinese blood marking them as less important to the ex-pats, while their English heritage separates them from the Chinese..

*****

 

 

Throughout our travels, things were happening in the background, though my only access to them was filtered through Ray’s indomitable spin. He was so good at it because he did not believe he was lying, instead telling the form of truth that was best for everybody, that it would all be justified in the end. In this way, he tricked himself into believing his obfuscations. Even before I met him, he was lying. After the initial contact in July 2015, Ray and I emailed intermittently for the next 10 months. I was curious if I could stay with him. He always avoided the question. It was only in April, two months before I was to begin work, when he explained that he was moving from AirBnB to AirBnB, since his wife had the house. As a result, I was left to figure out my living situation up until he told me to meet him in Hong Kong. The reality, according to interviews Bill Nanson at Burgundy report did with the family that was renting to Ray, was that Ray’s wife did not have the house; the owners had changed the locks due to Ray’s failure to pay rent. It was around this time that Ray fired his operations manager, Zach Velchoff. Velchoff allegedly told Ray that Maison Ilan’s investor was his boss, not Ray. That investor eventually pressured Ray into rehiring Velchoff—perhaps proving his point—only for Ray to fire him again because he thought he was a spy. This dysfunction helped contribute to his already obsessive disorganization.

The issues only compounded once we started traveling. At one point in the middle of the trip, Ray fielded a call. He hung up and looked at me, ready to simultaneously vent and work damage control. He alleged that a group of growers who didn’t like him were petitioning his banker to lock Ray out from his wine, which would cause the grapes to rot before he could make them into wine. He was not concerned, however, since the person in charge of holding the wine was a friend, and wouldn’t do it.

The truth is somewhat more distressing. According to the interviews Nanson did, it was not bankers but the tax authorities who were seizing the wine; this was also likely the reason that Ray did not step foot in France while I was with him or for weeks after I quit. Nanson’s sources thought that the investigation had to do with the fact that Ray was making wine at a residential address. In reality, he had improperly filled out the receivership forms for his 2013, 2014, and 2015 wines. In Burgundy, this is a grave mistake. The forms are how French authorities limit the production of grand cru Burgundy, maintaining quality and increasing scarcity (and prices). The lack of accurate forms meant that there was a chance that illegal grand cru existed on the market, threatening the legitimacy of the entire region. Nonetheless, Ray was confident that he would get access to his juice; a few days later, he sold Henry Tang—among the most powerful men in Hong Kong before his political career was derailed by scandal[10]—more than 18,000 euros worth of 2014 vintages. None of the wine Ray sold Henry Tang—which totaled over 100,000 euros—was ever shipped.

Another day during this time, Ray received an email from his investor, detailing demands that he was making of Ray. The very act of making demands incensed Ray—if he was paying the man back, what right did he have to interfere in the business?—and some were a little absurd. Namely, the investor, who will here remain nameless, insisted Ray attempt to work something out with his wife, ostensibly since Ray had sold his business as a family affair in his best-selling book and elsewhere. Most were less personal. Ray was to accept the installation of a new CEO, and Ray had to work out a personal budget and have all additional expenses approved by the investor. Finally, the investor had a right to restructure his loan as equity in two years, turning his $2.5 million investment into 50% equity. I had never seen Ray so angry. He was paying the investor back, had always made it clear he wanted full ownership, and was sure this was a ploy to screw him.

“Fucking Silicon Valley billionaires,” he said.

I tried to comfort him, saying, “I told you to never trust tech billionaires.”

“I’m going to fucking sue him. This is illegal, right?”

Later conversations with the investor revealed that Ray had in fact never paid back any of the loan, or any of the interest, as he claimed.

 

The next of the dinners through which I remember the trip was with Marv and his family at a Mediterranean restaurant on the water. We were meeting a couple of potential buyers there, including an Italian ex-pat that I’ll call Leonardo. Sharply dressed in a navy blazer and French Cuff shirt, with jet-black hair and tan skin, you could tell his nationality just from looking. Originally from Venice, he now lived in Hong Kong. As Ray told the server I was vegetarian (a lie he’d concocted after realizing most waiters didn’t understand that I ate some meat but not others), Jack began questioning me on my Judaism again. Unlike the night before, there was a hint of concern laced with shame in his voice. Again, Ray broke in.

“Miles isn’t Jewish. He liked the bagel at the place next to our hotel.”

“What?”

“The only good bagels are in New York. If you were really Jewish, you wouldn’t eat a bagel here.” His tone was ostensibly satirical, though his eyes were anything but. He had to assert his primacy, his claim to all identities, to being the most unique at the table. The ex-pat laughed, turned to me, and started asking about my interests. We talked film for a while, tolerating interjections by Ray—he claimed he’d studied film for two years at San Francisco State[11] and constantly and inaccurately corrected us—before switching to art. The ex-pat was impressed by my grasp of Italian towns. I apologetically explained that it was entirely due to an interest in Italian soccer, not any real knowledge of the country. He laughed.

“What team do you support?”

“Napoli,” I said with a wry smile, expecting him to ask why.

“Of course. I knew it. Napoli is boundless with boundaries; it is art; it is beauty for its own sake, at the cost of winning. That’s why we get along.” He laughed. “Me, I am a Juventus fan.” Juventus has won six straight titles since 2011, but through its history it’s been dogged by accusations that it pays referees and values winning over entertainment. Located in Turin, the heart of Italian manufacturing, and owned by the family that founded Fiat, Juventus is by far the wealthiest team in Italy. Their Neapolitan cousins to the south, whose fans are subjected to genocidal chants, cannot play defensive football without being labeled small-minded and provincial. But when the rich and powerful do it, it’s pragmatic.

*****

 

 

 

The last time I heard from Ray was in July 2017, a year after I quit working for him. Our relationship, already fraught in Hong Kong, quickly deteriorated once we left. In Dublin, we passive-aggressively sniped at each other and stayed on opposite sides of the city. From there, I flew to San Francisco for some advance shooting on our hopeful pilot, with Ray planning to arrive several days later. He assured me a place to stay in the Bay, only to tell me when I landed that he couldn’t reach my host. He told me to find a hotel—all of which were booked up—and then did not contact me for three days. It was only after I had flown down to Los Angeles to stay with my sister that he reached out to me, telling me he had finally arrived at SFO. I chose not to respond. Chuck was becoming overwhelmed with the hotel and airfare bills; although Ray had promised to pay for both, he was subsidizing neither, and in fact we were paying for his hotel stays. He called Ray and told him that I was to return home; were Ray to come to me in Atlanta, I would help him. Despite setting a date to visit Atlanta, Ray never arrived, instead recruiting a food photographer to act as his cameraman in New York.

Now, almost exactly a year after I quit, I was visiting a friend in Pacifica, California, outside of San Francisco. I had heard Ray was living in the Bay Area, so I texted him. He confirmed he was living in Oakland. When I asked if he wanted to meet up, he turned read receipts on—to make sure I knew he had seen my text, I assumed—and did not respond. A few weeks later, I googled Maison Ilan; it was apparently permanently closed.[12] I went to reach out to Ray. His Facebook account was deleted. Over the phone, he claimed to Chuck that the Facebook account was unrelated, but that he had recently lost all his wine, not just the cases with improper paperwork. Ray then insisted that his investor said he would get him a lawyer for the preliminary hearing, only to do no such thing, forcing Ray to represent himself. Ray claimed that this was a purposeful attempt to screw him over one final time. The truth was that the investor had hired Ray an attorney. But he and the attorney had a falling out, and Ray had fired him. He would rather let his wine be destroyed than cede control. Unless Ray finds a new lawyer and money, everyone with unfilled orders—so nearly everyone—will lose all of their wines, not just the 2014s and beyond. After several tries, Chuck was able to get in contact with Ray’s investor, who explained that he had no choice but to cut ties with Ray, writing off the $2.5 million loan and thousands more dollars in legal fees and ordered wine as a loss. He also explained that even if he was still willing to hire a lawyer, there is an issue: no one in Burgundy would represent Ray. As of publication, Ray is currently working full-time as a ride-share driver as he prepares for his appeal. The man who demanded to be ferried is now doing the ferrying.

*****

 

 

We spent my last night in Hong Kong at Marv’s house, where we ate dinner with his family. As I filmed Ray cooking in the kitchen, the 20-year-old German girl he was sleeping with texted me. She was curious if I would be joining her and Ray at a “super cool real Hong Kong event” at the Happy Valley Racecourse, which is part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.[13] Nearby, Marv was opening a bottle of sparkling wine. He explained, “It’s not champagne. It’s from England. It’s what was served at the royal wedding.”

It was a fine bottle, no better or worse than a similarly priced bottle from Champagne, if slightly different in taste. Even here, in the choice of wine, history was inescapable. What mattered were not the grapes that went in but who else consumed it; the promise of buying Chapel Down is that then they’ll let you into the club. The Queen, of course, drinks only true champagne.

*****

 

 

By his own omission, Ray learns not through instruction or participation, but as a passive observer. It’s no surprise he always dreamed of being a writer, imagining himself as some kind of pure spectator. He learned French through watching Godard films, learned to make wine through watching California makers, learned the rules of the game by watching. He saw how illegal fortunes eventually gain a cloak of respectability, how what is said is different from what is done, how paperwork miscues can get swept under the rug, how the world of the elite works. But the problem was that, as an outsider, Ray didn’t see the double standard visible only from the inside. In his arrogant misunderstanding, he tricked the power brokers. They assumed he knew what they knew: that People of Color and women and Jews and the ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong and all the rest are conditional members of the elite, that they have to obey the same rules as the rest of us, that only those who are more from Hong Kong than the locals can smoke indoors. They know that what they say and do can differ, that their power protects them from the fallout of broken promises and purposeful deceit. They took Ray at his word, not realizing it was in fact their word reflected back.

[1] It was where his wife worked.

[2] Not his real name.

[3] The irony, of course, is that none of Ray’s undeniable charm comes across on screen, where he appears stiff as a board.

[4] At times, he would claim he was the only American making Burgundy, a brazen lie.

[5] For those unversed in wine, Chambertin is among the rarest and most expensive Burgundies—the eponymous village only produces Grand Cru grapes.

[6] Those who buy grapes but do not own vineyards.

[7] Not his real name.

[8] Though Judaism traditionally traces lineage through the maternal side, it is my father who is Jewish. My sister and I were both converted to Judaism as newborns.

[9] Essentially the sandpaper quality that certain very young and old wines have.

[10] In particular, Tang had illegally built a large basement in his house and, when caught, blamed his wife for the idea.

[11] In his book, Ray claimed he was studying business there before dropping out, though he wanted to study liberal arts.

[12] According to Maison Ilan’s investor, the company has filed and gone through bankruptcy, a claim that Ray disputes.

[13] The club didn’t accept Chinese members until the 20th century, and still is mostly old British money.

Havana Libre: Smartphones, Socialism, Futurism.

The reason 50’s futurism fizzled out, the story goes, is because we chose to pursue communicative technology instead of transportation tech. We have IPhones instead of teleporters, exploding Samsungs instead of Fords falling out of the sky. It’s true—though when visiting Cuba, with its somewhat maintained 50’s architecture, one realizes this is not the entire story. There is an aspect of utopia in all mid-century futurism. But this hopeful element is a disavowal of itself. The architecture promises a post-scarcity world, yet it is inseparable from the system that built it, a capitalism that demands artificial shortages and discrimination. The style provokes—overwhelming nostalgia, indescribable anger, uncontrollable laughter. In this emotion, there is a danger to the dominant economic order, however miniscule. Better to abandon the whole charade, replace it with something more manageable—technologies whose utopian promise comes not from its form but from the insistence of its corporate creators. This isn’t to suggest some grand conspiracy, that a cabal consciously switched our path—just that capital mutates itself and society to insure its survival. Modern technology refuses to express the alienation it has accelerated.

img_4031
Flying Saucer or Water Tower?

The Habana Libre Hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton, is a particularly enjoyable piece of 50’s futurism, with a grand foyer that includes a Flintstones-looking interior pond surrounded by plastic plants lit via strategically placed light orbs. Though seemingly ceiling-less like a post-modernist Portman monstrosity, it has none of the invocations of late capital, none of the overwhelming feeling that money is moving somewhere above, though god knows where or how. The attached restaurant looks like something you’d see out on Route 66—the lack of turquoise mini-skirts is the only thing saving it from kitsch. The Cuban government has restored but not renovated the interior, freezing the building in its non-existent future. The reason for this stay of construction is not the U.S. embargo, as most Americans believe, but a Castro-era law that bans eviction and demolitions within cities. What are melancholic remnants in the United States still dominate the Havana landscape, ghostly utopian figures built by exploitative mobsters. A mile west from the Habana Libre and a couple blocks closer to the coast sits the Riviera. Meyer Lansky built it in 1957, right around the time Bautista sold the country to the mob. Indeed, it was part and parcel of that fire sale. The mobsters are gone and the fountains in front no longer work, but the building’s revolutionary power is stronger than ever. Though not in the condition of the Habana Libre, it’s been mostly maintained, simultaneously a reminder of colonial exploitation and a stepping-stone on the revolutionary path to utopia. The buildings are the aesthetic promise of free education, an admonishment to prioritize universal healthcare over nationwide 4G. Back in the lobby of the Habana Libre, twenty-three floors below Fidel’s first office, locals and tourists alike stare at Samsungs, whispering prayers that they connect to the spotty wi-fi.

 

havana-hilton-exterior

The similarity between the Cuban countryside, with its warm greens and soft browns, and its North Carolina counterpart is startling. Sure, there are differences—sand is more prevalent in the land of the pines, diversifying the hues of brown and darkening the overall landscape; Cubans prefer corrugated tin shanties to the trailers of the same material and cost found in Oriental. But the prevalence of the tobacco fields dotted with out of place deciduous firs, the three house towns, the obsidian-colored remnants of controlled fires, the unshakeable feeling, no matter how inland you go, that you’re on the coast—all of these things outweigh the aesthetic difference between cotton and sugar-cane.[1]

There is one overwhelming difference, however: mountains. The portion of the Appalachians running through inland North Carolina is wide and broad and filled with valleys, fully dominating the landscape. When nearby, one recognizes that they’re in the highlands. Contrast this with the Sierra Maestra, a range rising out of the plains, thin enough at points as to appear a single row deep, the spine of a sleeping giant ready to awaken at any moment. It lends the landscape a sci-fi air; the traveler feels like an explorer, their chartered bus a landing shuttle, driving through a virgin world where Marxism has remained dominant. Teenagers on horses leave their pink stucco homes, riding past propagandistic graffiti—“if we arrive, we win”—and spray-painted portraits of Ché. Not even the tour guide’s IPhone had reception in the area.

countryside

The classic cars that dot Havana are protected—the government views them as vital to the city’s fabric. The ban is a result of the boom in European tourism in the early 2000’s; visiting Germans would fall in love with 1950’s Firebirds held together with duck tape and ingenuity and end up trading their lightly used BMW’s for them. Around the same time, a taxi industry using the doddering Dodges became popular among tourists, turning the owners of the cars into members of an upper class—itself newly formed because of a quirk of the two-currency system. The currency for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso (or CUC), is twenty-five times stronger than the local peso. A tip from a traveler, given in USD or CUC’s, is much greater than even what a surgeon earns in a day. Further, in an effort to maintain separation between tourists and locals, places like museums, orchestras, theatres, even ice creams shops across the nation have two lines—a longer one for local currencies, and an express line for people paying in CUC’s. Cubans with access to CUC’s can choose either line, paying more for shorter waits and better seats, an explicit signifier of class difference where none previously existed. As the cabbies ferry tourists around Havana, they remain glued to their IPhones, drifting between lanes and ignoring the architecture around them.

The last night in Havana, our group took some of these classic taxis to the restaurant where we were celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, hoping to simultaneously transport us across space and her back in time. As the driver shut the passenger side door, we began to roll backwards, slipping toward the Riviera, sliding down the hill we were halfway up. The driver, playing on his Samsung, didn’t notice the movement.

 

[1] This, of course, neglecting the similarities of the two with regard to their historical position as cash crops with all that entails, i.e. that for centuries the economies of the two places were tied to Europeans’ desire for sweetener and/or lightweight, breathable fabrics in a way that actively harmed the lives of those producing the products.

Mists and Myths: Fragments from Baden-Baden and Zurich

Vertov’s premise was that film’s power came from the ability to interpolate seemingly disparate images to create an ideal world in a way that the masses could comprehend— the truth of the ideal world would be conveyed through montage.

Kluge built on this, or perhaps contracted upon it. He thought it was necessary for the viewer to reconcile the relationship between the film on the screen and the film in their head. To him, the smallest unit of montage was not a single frame, but the empty space between frames. Truth came out not from creating understanding through montage, but through the co-mingling of the interpolation with the viewer’s knowledge of history and society. This was especially true when the images were irreconcilable with each other and/or the viewer’s knowledge. The most striking example of this is at the beginning of The Artist Under the Big Top: Perplexed, where film from the Nazi’s day of German Art is overlaid with an Italian rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Applied to writing, it would mean that the base unit is not the letter itself, but the space between letters (and paragraphs and sentences, of course).

******

I couldn’t figure out how to turn my headlights off. The confluence of them, the thick fog, and a steamed windshield meant I could only see about 25 feet in front of me. Switchbacks were particularly empty. For a few seconds, I’d become convinced that the road just disappeared into nothingness, my rented Infiniti entering the infinite. Then I’d realize I needed to hit the breaks and turn before I flew over the guardrail.

******

darker tree in the mist

“What seems to work best for you is the distraction technique—whenever you feel panic setting in, open up twitter or boot up FIFA and try to stop thinking about time.”

-My therapist

******

“Country Girl I think you’re pretty/ Got to make you understand/ Have no lovers in the city/ Let me be your country man”

-Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

******

“Baudrillard also talks about virtual realities and deceptive images, but his point isn’t that they have clouded our perception of the reality beyond. The present system of social images is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s produced a total reality for itself; it only lies when it has us thinking that there’s something else behind the façade. Baudrillard, always something of an overgrown child, loved to refer to Disneyland: As he pointed out, it’s in no way a fake—when you leave its gates, you return to an America that’s just one giant Disneyland, a copy without an original, from coast to coast. ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.’”

-Sam Kriss

******

Though I had never visited the Black Forest before, it felt familiar. I couldn’t see it as it was—only through memories of Colorado winters. The tall firs, shaded a green that at times bordered on black and speckled with brown needles, blended with the dense Vail forest I sped through on skis; the languid walking paths were just the off-season version of the catwalks I knew so well.

******

really pretty stump

Ethnologists are quick to point out that cause-effect relationships and a desire for clear demarcations between good and evil are not as inherently human as those in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe. For example, in Basque folklore, there is the Basa-Juana, an almost sasquatchian wild man who lives deep in the forest with his wife. In one story, the Basa-Juana is chasing a group of men to eat them. When one man trips and falls, the Basa-Juana teaches him how to grow wheat and other food staples. No explanation for the change of heart is given.

******

centered city in focus.jpg

“Zurich wants to be Brooklyn.” That’s how Guille put it to me as we walked by expensive furniture stores built into the side of a viaduct. He scowled at a shop window that revealed a simple wooden kitchen chair, pre-worn at its base. The €500 price tag swung softly in the air conditioning.

“Or maybe Berlin,” I responded, glancing at a nightclub with a canopy of brightly lit umbrellas. The area smelled of weed.

“Zurich doesn’t mind anything, as long as it doesn’t affect them. It’s the same way with money,” Guille explained. They don’t care how dirty it is, as long as it doesn’t soil their hands when they take it.

******

“We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”

-Kyle Chayka

******

The tallest building in Zurich, Prime Tower, was completed in 2011—though with its smooth green glass and façade-like flatness, it seems like something from the John Portman hits of 70’s collection. We visited it the night I arrived in Zurich, stopping in for drinks at the bar on the top floor. It was darkly lit, with all the elements of a posh watering hole in 2016—a bar with a literal brass bar and oversized jug of Hendricks’s gin (so you know they aren’t using Bombay or, gasp, Tanqueray), ornately illustrated bathroom doors, and fries that came in a mini-fryer lined with fake newspaper. The only identifier that I was in Zurich was my locally made craft beer, a bargain at eight euros. The bar was dressed down, except for the prices.

******

 

tram ways.jpg

“Getting caught up in the coked-up propulsion of New York, or the foibles of the rich and powerful, is a losing proposition. It gets you high for about a day, you feel like you have a stake in power even though that’s an illusion, you feel a part of an exciting modern movement, and then you have to replenish your ammo in two, three days…The theater of urban power brokers is hackwork. Sure, they’re corrupt. Sure, they’re statistical outliers and therefore novel. But that’s too easy. It’s too easy to think exclusively about novel people. It’s too clean a victory. It’s robbing a liquor store with a shotgun when a laser pointer in a jacket pocket would suffice. Self-righteousness in the face of powerful people is a foolproof position to assume and it makes you look good, but it’s an affected antagonism.”

-Kaleb Horton

******

My last day in Zurich, I went for an early morning walk. At the plaza where I watched the sunrise, a tourist in yoga gear asked a trash collector to take her photo. He obliged, and as he prepared the camera on her iPhone, she assumed the lotus position in front of the rapidly rising sun. Nearby, there was an empty sleeping bag, a rare intrusion of Zurich’s invisible but existent homeless population. I walked back to the city proper. I arrived on a major thoroughfare at the same time as the tram. The disembarking men and women streamed past me, hoping to get to the bank before their boss. Each wore the same black or navy suit, using a single accessory to attempt to individualize their uniform—colorful socks or a small pocket square, dress boots or a monogrammed belt. In my tweed jacket and Blunderstone boots, I felt superior. In a café down the street, I sat next to a man with my glasses and shoes. I ate the seven-euro cheesecake; he ate the six-euro muffin. We both drank cappuccinos and wrote.

******

In the 1970’s, Bowie started experimenting with cutting up his lyrics. In essence, he’d write the lyrics to a song, cut them up, and rearrange it. Doing so changed the meaning, opening up interpretations and understandings that were previously unavailable. The risk was that the song’s original meaning would be lost to all, even Bowie, without a suitable replacement.

******

P1010528.jpg

Zurich’s opera house is rather tame, by the standards of opera houses. Or maybe gilded letters and ornate stonework stick out less in Zurich, the city that is the epitome of wealth. The golden seals of the town’s guilds are embedded in the granite planks of its courtyard. If you look closely at certain homes along the waterfront, you’ll see the same emblems, marking their owners as an elite within the city of the elites. The seals on the house are all the differentiation they allow themselves, however, usually preferring to attempt to blend in with the city at large.

******

p1010632

In Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog uses every tool at his disposal as a filmmaker, including montage and narrative, to craft a theory on ecstatic beauty, madness, music, and nature. What is seen as the madness of the titular character is, in reality, the lasting effect of experiencing pure ecstasy.[1] Though the beauty of music provides this particular ecstasy, it can also be found in nature. Because of this, the listener who becomes enraptured in music returns to a state usually only found in indigenous tribes who still interact with nature’s violent beauty. This is why Fitzcarraldo is a laughingstock of modern civilization, yet is in some way respected by those in the jungle. Furthermore, art is the only semi-justification for the destruction of nature, for the possibility of ecstasy is not gone, as it is when nature is corrupted in the name of capitalism, but simply repositioned.

******

blue chairlift tree center

There was a ski lift at the bottom of the path into the Black Forest national park. The chairs, left hanging even in the offseason, danced in the thick fog. It reminded me of an abandoned industrial space, or a Scooby-Doo episode about the Abominable Snowman. Or perhaps both. There were a few more scattered across the mountain, the only sign that the forest has changed since the days of the brothers Grimm. For the most part, they were a stark and unwelcome intrusion of the material world, reminding the hiker that in the winter, much of the now-pristine landscape is crushed by skiers—only to be reborn again in the spring.

******

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

-David Foster Wallace

******

Most agree that the Grimm Brothers didn’t create the folktales they documented. If I remember correctly, several of the tales may have come from their neighbor, an old French woman, who in turn read them in Charles Perrault’s collection stories.[2] This is fascinating because the tales are so linked to the Black Forest. Think of Little Red Riding Hood skipping down a path, or Hansel and Gretel running from the witch, or the house of the seven dwarves. Whether because of the tales themselves, or Disney, or something else, I’d guess that you imagined the scenes not in French farmland, but German forest, with the architecture to match.

Upon visiting the Black Forest, the first thing I noticed was how different than landscape was from how I had imagined it. It was much hillier and foggier. It didn’t help that, since I was visiting in late fall, only 50% of the trees had leaves. It was stunning nonetheless. At one point, I found a path—it was lined with pine straw, pockmarked with red mushrooms, and had a creek running nearby. As I stumbled down it, I had to restrain myself from leaping in the air. I had discovered a path reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. I entered the world of folktales, a place with innocence and witches, with no intentions on leaving.

******

mushrooms best

“Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but I do not mean this in the Gallic, po-mo sense that all experience is relative and there is no such thing as truth. I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising. Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth.”

-Tom Bissell

******

 

immovable force meets istobbable object

One of the striking things, when listening to the music of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is the obsession with settling down. It was part of the idealism—they were going to change the world, and then go back to the countryside and live in an egalitarian relationship with their lover. In the decades since, such a concept has fallen out of fashion, and fallen hard. Nowadays, the majority of love songs have an implicit phobia of the contentedness that CSNY, The Beach Boys, and even Bowie craved. This has been one of the great, if accidental, victories of the moral majority. The media made now that celebrates settling down is almost entirely regressive: Nancy Meyers Rom-Coms and the tattered remnants of a country genre that is now closer to rock. Gone is the celebration of two people living together as loving equals, such as in “Kooks” or “Our House.” Now, the only examples of long-term relationships retain gender roles more fitting of 1950 than 2016.[3] Obviously, this benefits the faction of the USA that would like to return to that time. But it also hurts the rest of us in another way—it makes it taboo to want long-term contentedness. Admitting that you want to find a partner for life before the age of 30 is seen as tantamount to announcing that you believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen and that trickle-down economics is valid. This is absurd, of course. There’s no real correlation between wanting a permanent relationship and regressive views. Approaching every relationship before the age of 28 or so as inevitably temporary isn’t healthy. It leads to skepticism at every potential relationship; being worried to enter one, no matter how much you like the other person, because you are convinced it must end.

******

I started up down the path into the Black Forest, filled with excitement. I’ve dreamed of visiting the region for as long as I can remember, wanting to walk through the thick trees and past the bubbling creeks. I stopped after three steps. Was that sign saying it was all closed, or just one path?

Just to be safe, I hiked back out and drove down to the national park information center. The teenager working the front desk confirmed that, yes, despite the heavy fog and rain, the park was open. I thanked him and walked outside. I started walking up the path. Wait, how did I know this was the way? I returned to the heated building to confirm that, yes, that was the path. I went on my way again. As I left the open field to enter a tree-lined path, I felt panic set in. Are there bears in the Black Forest? I saw one on a brochure. When do they hibernate? I tried to Google it—the Internet wasn’t working. Once again I returned to the park center. No, don’t worry about bears, they aren’t around. Finally, I could go on my way, free of fear. What about wolves? Or if I got lost? The fog was thick. Maybe I should just stay inside. Eventually, I had to remind myself I had driven nine hours to do this, and I shouldn’t waste the opportunity to fulfill a dream. Cautiously, I continued down the path.

******

“That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money in power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy…In a nation that which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.”

-Joan Didion

******

 

Even when he’s portrayed as evil, I always have sympathy for the Basa-Juana. He just wants to live in the mountains and protect his trees while his wife Mari rules over nature. As human settlement expands, he’s pushed farther into the green morass, constantly having to relocate his castle to an ever-darkening enclave. A group of men, searching desperately for food, encroach on his solitude. He decides to teach them how to farm. They run away and call him a monster. Another man cuts down the Basa-Juana’s trees. The Basa-Juana asks the man to come with him to be punished. The man tricks him, pinning him to the tree he wanted to protect. One day he wakes up, and his lover is no longer a benevolent goddess known as Mari but simultaneously the mother of a man named Jesus and the head of a cult of witches. And then they’re gone, pushed into non-existent myth as we map the last of the forest. He is super-human yet wants to live a simple, human life. But it is because he is super-human that he never can.

******

“There is silence; but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly harps on the fact of its own deep perfection.”

-Aldous Huxley

******

impressionistic

The most important part of the trip to Baden-Baden, more important than the solitude, was the freedom—though I guess the two are inextricable. The car emphasized both. I not only didn’t need to meet up with anyone, but I didn’t even have to be anywhere at a certain time to catch a bus or tram. I could just drive, alone except the music coming from the stereo, winding my way through mountain passes and tight village streets. The few times this freedom was limited, I was livid. I took it as a personal affront when my AirBnB host kept calling to ask when I’d arrive; I would get there when I got there, and besides, it wasn’t my fault traffic was bad.

When I walked through the forest, the silence confirmed both my solitude and freedom. There were no crowds to avoid, no beautiful works of art to see, just trees and creeks and the occasional lake. Huxley said his father’s idea of church was a walk through the mountains.[4] I empathize. The silent fog was almost mystical—I understood why the idea of supernatural beings living deep in the trees is so seductive. Every intervention modern man makes into nature destroys some of its silent beauty. To borrow from quantum mechanics, we change it just through observing. So fairies and werewolves and Basa-Juanas act as our proxies. We insert them into the natural world, and act as if they continue to exist there even when we leave, a last-ditch effort to reclaim our place within a perfect order from which we have been expelled. Leaves crunched under my boot. I came to a stop, closed my eyes, and listened to the silence breathe softly. I imagined where in the forest I was. Just over the hill, fairies nibbled on mushrooms while the Basa-Juana slept.

Footnotes:

[1] There are many types and definitions of ecstasy, of course, but the ecstasy most common in Herzog is the emotion one feels when one comes close to understanding capital-t Truth.

[2] Or more accurately, was told stories that came from Perrault’s collection, since it was written a century before and aimed at the upper class. Eventually, the tales filtered down into the lower class they allegedly originated in, such as the French neighbor.

[3] Yes, I know the female characters in Nancy Meyers films have high-powered jobs. But they never find happiness until they find a man and give up their individuality.

[4] Of course, Leonard Huxley was a rung below the aristocracy, with the free time and means to disappear into the mountains whenever he wished. And I could only take this trip because of my family’s economic well-being and my father’s support. Someone working for minimum wage can’t afford to go off the grid in the way in search of the solitude so necessary for self-realization. Missing a call about an overtime opportunity could mean not eating for a week. And perhaps this, not the fifty-dollar fondues and bevy of Bentleys, is what is so obscene about Zurich: they have the means to search for truth yet don’t. They are all Baudrillard, deluding themselves into thinking the insular little world they have built is the entirety of reality, that because there is no truth in it, there is no truth anywhere—that their cultural creations are so imprinted on us that even in the most virgin areas all we see is that which has already been made. Perhaps they’re right, and any attempt to find truth is delusional. But the ecstasy I experienced in the Baden-Baden, and Herzog experienced in the Jungle, and Huxley experienced in nature’s peculiar silence—the ecstasy that man tries to recapture through folktales and fairies—suggests otherwise.

A Few Things to do During Your first Week in Hong Kong.

Update: Hong Kong has grown on me somewhat since I wrote this piece.

Don’t sleep on the flight. Land in Hong Kong. Wait in the airport. Buy a SIM card. Wait some more. Get on a train. Fit your luggage onto the comically small luggage rack. Find a seat. Squeeze into said seat. Watch the dots between stations on the map disappear. Get off the train. Take in the smell. Look for your ride. Look some more. Gape at the amount of neon. Miss someone you shouldn’t. Look at the decrepit high rises. Gaze at the brand new ones next door. Feel the city’s claustrophobia. Try to sleep. Wonder if Hong Kong is on a fault line. Debate whether it’s better to Google and risk lots of anxiety, or not know and have a constant hum of worry. Wake up at 5:00. Scroll through twitter. Read. Feel bad. Try to explore. Get stuck. Take a taxi. Pass a tent village, then immediately after a Ritz-Carlton. Notice a dog in the street. Force your taxi to change lanes. Hope the other cars do to. See the dog’s owner trying to fix her blanket house. Get to a new hotel. Stand by the window. See aluminum lean-to’s in the alley across the street. Get stuck in a glass box. Eat noodles. Walk by a flipped taxi. Gawk. Hail a different one. Fasten your seatbelt. Send a text you’ll regret. Throw up. Try to sleep. Fail. Read. Take Ambien. Wake up at 6:00. Feel sick. Go for a walk. Get rained on. Realize you forgot a raincoat. Compulsively check for a read receipt. Put in earphones. Can’t escape the city noise. Try to explain the city’s simultaneous over- and under-saturation. Walk through an empty museum. Breathe. Drink coffee. Fall into a half-sleep. Hail taxi. Overpay. Try to film. Realize it won’t work. Walk through mall. Worry you left part of camera. Don’t go back. Worry more. Let the worry consume your body. Get in a taxi. Get out of the taxi. Get into a new taxi. Open up twitter. See election news. Close twitter. Agree to wingman. Pontificate. Leave bar at first opportunity. Stare at passing Maserati. Smile at homeless man next to you. Take in the neon. Get into a taxi. Try to tell the cabbie your address. Sigh. Get out of taxi. Hail another taxi. Try again. Pay and get out a block early. Stumble into your room. Watch Road to El Dorado. Hear sirens outside. Complain. Yell. Fall mostly asleep. Wake up. Try to go back to sleep. Get up. Drink coffee. Walk to a park. Trip over someone’s heel. Fall into the street. Get berated. Shudder at the number of people in the park. Realize it’s a workday. Walk to the garden. Put in earphones; still no silence. Look around; see ugly high-rises on all sides. Get claustrophobic. Be overwhelmed by the stickiness of the air. Don’t stop scratching yourself. Refuse to use the front of your hands because they touched the street. Think there are spiders on your legs. Check. Get rained on. Stare at yourself in a window. Stare more. Loathe everything. Wish you could throw up again. Check your read receipts. Debate going to a museum. Move to a new hotel. Sit in the new hotel’s lounge. Smile at the sun nearly shining through the clouds. See a group of six police officers approach a fruit stand. Furrow your brow. Observe a long discussion between the police and the three women running the stand. Remember the staggering number of police vans on a single street in the commercial district. Wonder why the police travel in large packs here. Get nervous. Think about why you are nervous. Think some more. Believe the superstition your travel buddy made up is widely believed. Consider if you’re racist. Consider more. Get out of a taxi. Get into a taxi. Close your eyes as it nearly hits a bus. Pray. Think of ways to convey the overwhelming nature of the city. Worry you’re abandoning your few strengths. Order an Uber. Debate whether using Uber makes you a bad person. Settle on yes. Get into the Uber. Call your sister. Talk about the disparity here. Turn down the AC. Watch shirtless construction worker outside shake his water bottle. Fall half-asleep. Dream about checking your read receipts. Try to run from the noise. Try to pull the sticky air off your skin. Wish you could throw up. Pass a homeless man. Learn your hotel has an espresso machine free to use.

Caviar of Ghosts: The 1% Take Cuba

Note: Names and some identifying features have been changed.

2015-10-03 18.02.48

José Martí airport in Havana is, like much of the city, pleasantly antiquated—at least to the privileged traveler. To the rest, it’s probably just antiquated. When passengers disembark onto the tarmac, they find themselves surrounded by ravishing rainforest, engulfed in a silencing humidity. The customs area smells like an old bowling alley; In lieu of welcome mats, travelers wipe their feet on cardboard Havana Club Rum boxes. After grabbing their luggage from an airy baggage claim with green and orange walls, they sit in a bar and order beers while they wait for an air-conditioned bus to arrive. Members of the Exeter Center for Entrepreneurs followed this pattern to a T when they arrived in Havana in early October.[1] The Center, which is founded and run by Val Exeter, acts as a multi-faceted advising tool for high growth entrepreneurs. They hold CEO roundtables—seminars led by Val in which executives discuss common problems they face—act as an investment bank to the companies, and organize educational retreats such as the one that brought thirty some-odd innovators to Cuba. They had left their hotel in Miami a little before five o’clock in the morning for a nine AM flight, mostly because of an unrealized fear of bureaucratic red tape delaying them.

“Where you were when the west was won?”

The first stop in Havana for the sleep-deprived group was the headquarters of On Cuba magazine, the first American publication to have a full-time office in the country. Run by Hugo Cancio, a charismatic Cuban-American from Miami, On Cuba has grown from a single in-flight magazine to a budding dynasty that includes periodicals on art and real estate. With his square jaw and broad shoulders—accentuated by a sharply cut blazer—Hugo seems built to be the gravitational center of a room. After a short speech that explained the magazine and how he thought Cuba would progress over the next decade, he took questions from the entrepreneurs. The first was whether the government had ever censored him. He explained that they hadn’t; though the magazine had published articles that the Cuban leadership wasn’t happy with, nothing more than a cordial lunch meeting ever came of it. The second question was from someone the group eventually took to calling Military Man Stan. He had wispy white hair and a Marlboro permanently attached to his cracked lower lip. Wearing a red polo under a tan fishing vest—a variation of the uniform he would rock every day of the trip—he stood up and stated that when the Internet arrives in Cuba, the country will collapse because everyone will leave. Slightly flustered at the lack of a question to respond to, Hugo pointed out that when the group arrived all the people around the office were on Facebook. Though slow, Cuba has Internet. Stan refused to accept this response, insisting that since Adam Smith said everyone acts in his or her own self-interest, everyone will abandon Cuba. He compared Internet in Cuba to “getting in on the ground floor of Apple in 1995.” Apple’s market cap in 1995 was a shade under five billion dollars.

DSCN0101.JPG

The View from On Cuba’s Headquarters (Photo Courtesy of Kaete Erskine)

“To the victor go the spoils”

The Hotel Nacional is a grand building; it was built by Robber Barons trying to imitate aristocracy. Opened in 1930, the firm that designed it also built the old Penn Station and The American Academy in Rome. The entrance sat perpendicular to a long hallway that made up the lobby. To the left, a stylized drawing of Castro rallying the rebels stared at a gift shop. The concierge and elevators were on the right. Dead ahead were two glass doors that opened up to a massive courtyard. Most of the entrepreneurs spent their late nights there, ordering drinks from one of the two bars, lounging on the sofas near the entrance or talking around tables that overlook the ocean and smoking cigars. A ten-foot cliff marks the end of the property. Below this sat the Malecón, a four-lane road that contoured to the smiling shape of the seaside. On Friday and Saturday nights, thousands of Cubans gather along the wall to listen to music, talk, laugh, and drink.

On the second night of the trip, a few of the drunker entrepreneurs left the comfy confines of the courtyard to join the locals. Upon arrival, they began to take photos in front of the seemingly limitless ocean. A local approached Leila, a nineteen year-old country music singer from rural Tennessee, and asked, “Podemos tener un poco de su ron?” The entrepreneurs stared, confused. He repeated the question. Leila began to stammer out, “no hablo ingles.” Val’s son Nate and I both understood Spanish, and interrupted her to translate. “He’s asking if they can have some of your rum.” She shook her head and responded, “no no no.” Still flustered and slightly fearful, she pulled out a solitary cigarette and held it out to him; nodding as if to say, “have this instead.” He accepted it with a “gracias” and returned to his group. As she watched him, she commented, “I didn’t want them to think Americans are selfish.” Several times during the trip, she mentioned she was not opposed to voting for Donald Trump.

As the scene unraveled, a few of the entrepreneurs got restless. To their right, the sidewalk was empty for thirty yards—a constant spray of seawater from the waves breaking on the wall kept the sane away. Chris, the founder of a personal finance company that focuses on investing with integrity, decided to walk down the drenched patch of concrete to see if any water would land on him. Swigging añejo rum straight from the bottle, he insisted that it wouldn’t, that it’d be “a reverse Jesus” situation. He walked through and back unscathed. As the other entrepreneurs laughed in amazement, he explained that though there was constantly water splashing, the probability that it did so at the exact point and time he was walking through was low. A form of statistical logic backed his drunken bravado.

The night before, people hit the hay early. They had been up since 4:00 in the morning, and most snuck off to their rooms to clandestinely check email before collapsing. Only a few members lounged around the courtyard, sampling the mixed drinks and exchanging stories in two distinct groups. As the numbers dwindled, the two cliques merged, six people sitting on a few couches as waiters swept the floors and the live band packed up their guitars. Among the group was Dana, the granddaughter of an entrepreneur who founded a major fried chicken fast food chain and then opened the first health food restaurant in Atlanta. With long black hair and oversized sunglasses, she drew comparisons from members of the coterie to Jackie Onassis Kennedy. Soon, she began telling the group about her humanitarian trips to Haiti, how she “spread the good word of the gospel” for only $1500 a trip. Her main job there was making connections. She insisted that all Haitian men loved her and all Haitian women were frigid. She felt she made a difference convincing young women and girls forced into prostitution to run away from their pimps, though she always saw them back on the street when she returned months later. The girls really inspired her; when she got back, she “swore to give up [her] five dollar lattes, but [she] always found herself back at Neiman Marcus four weeks later.” She used the trips to work on her Creole, “you know, bonjour, rapido, rapido.” (Rapido is not creole.) When asked about voodoo, her eyes widened. “No, no. They’d take my eyes. They like our eyes,” she explained when asked if she had seen a ceremony. “The houses they use for it are painted.” They don’t try to convert those houses. Her fate was sealed. For the rest of the trip, a subset of the group referred to her as “White Savior Girl.”

DSCN0870

The Hotel Nacional Courtyard (Photo Courtesy of Kaete Erskine)

“Desperate Times Call for Desperate Slogans”

A meeting with an economics professor from the University of Havana the second day went much like the conversation with Hugo, down to Military Man Stan raising the specter of Adam Smith. At lunch afterwards, an orthodontist named Dede stood up to give a toast. She’d just sold a portion of her practice and was in a relationship with Val. As the waiters scrolled through Facebook on their phones and the entrepreneurs pondered the veracity of the professor’s insistence that he’d been able to teach classic economics—“[Milton] Friedman, [Friedrich] Hayek, and Adam Smith”—since the ‘70’s with no reprimands, she loudly announced “how inspiring it’s been to see all these incredibly oppressed people struggle vainly but bravely.” As she pontificated, Nate rolled his eyes and melodramatically downed the remainder of his Cristal, a Cuban light beer. She’s the apotheosis of everything he, and supposedly his father, hates. She dresses like a pre-adolescent who’s just discovered floral prints at Forever 21; she’s rabidly right wing and (more damningly to Nate) never fails to announce as much. She’s entrepreneur in name only; most orthodontists start their own practice at some point. As he did this, she stared him down with a botoxed frown; he was well used it by now. Having sucked down the last drop of the tawny, translucent beer, Nate returned the can to the table, where a small ring had developed on the tablecloth.

“Then Says Cain, ‘I did it once brother, and I’d do it again. Look Out’”

Tucked away in the back corner of the Hotel Nacional courtyard, nearly hidden from view, sat a small museum dedicated to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The main room was a bunker constructed after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Underneath the tourists’ feet, trenches and underground passages created a labyrinthine structure that held various artifacts from the two weeks the world spent on the brink of nuclear winter. The posters in the main bunker gave a quick overview of the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in Spanish, English, French, and Russian. In Spanish, the Americans were described as “imperialist Yankee Americans.” In English, they were just Americans. Sitting in the corner of the main bunker was an eighty-four year old retiree. He had worked at the Nacional for several decades, and during the Missile Crisis was stationed as a volunteer in the dugout where he now sat. Over the course of the weekend, individual members of the group wandered into the bunker and accepted the man’s offer of a tour. On the third day, four of the members who had gathered in the courtyard for a morning beer discussed their impressions.

Military Man Stan was not impressed. He was annoyed because the man was shorter than him, which meant, when combined with the stoop of age, that he easily slipped under hanging edges that Stan nearly busted his head upon. Besides, he felt claustrophobic in the small tunnels. He barely had room to swing his backpack around without it hitting a rock wall. Dana, on the other hand, had no such issues. She was enamored with the volunteer who gave the tour. He was “just the sweetest thing. And it’s his birthday today! He’s 84!” She barely noticed the history lesson on the wall, and dismissed the vast differences in wording between the translations, “As something that happens in languages, ya know?” Expressing her dismay that the man probably receives very little pension-wise from the government, she said she wished she could help him more. I asked if she tipped him for the tour. A look of utter confusion gripped her face as she stared at me. No, why would she do that?

Chris had spent the longest on the tour. Though he spoke no Spanish and the guide spoke little English, he felt that there wasn’t a real language barrier. Standing in front a piece of the downed U2 plane, somewhere between the industrious waves of the Atlantic and the soft lounge chairs of the courtyard, he seemed to have an understanding with the man. Chris learned the reason the man volunteered is because he wanted to make sure no one ever forgets how close we were to nuclear annihilation; he emphasized that the U.S. and Cuba weren’t too different, yet were willing to end it all nonetheless. At one point, the two approached the uniform worn by members of the militia who volunteered to protect Cuba during the crisis. The old man smiled and pointed. “moй.” “‘Mine’ in Russian” Chris explained to us after. Chris had spent over a year in the former Soviet Union, and realized that the two could probably hold a conversation in Russian. As they continued walking, passing a periscope on their left, the old man switched back to Spanish. When Chris had a question, he asked in English.

2015-10-03 12.09.08

“Oh Abel, Cleaning all the crumbs from the family table”

At dinner that evening, Val handed out awards to the group. They ranged from serious (fastest growing entrepreneur) to aspirational (top entrepreneurial student) to sarcastic (The Lindsay Lohan award for Biggest Hot Mess). In between two of the awards, Military Man Stan stood up to give a speech. While the members drank wine, snuck sips from the rum they had brought in, and laughed merrily, Stan told the story of how he met Val and explained why his wife had to cancel accompanying him at the last-minute. She had developed breast cancer and though it looked like she would be okay, she couldn’t risk leaving the United States at the moment. As he told the story, the room quieted. He finished, and as Val patted him on the back, he walked outside for a smoke. I followed him out, ready to extend my sympathies. He graciously accepted them, then shook his head and bemoaned the fact that Cuba will certainly collapse when the Internet arrives. He was confident that doctors and other highly educated members of society (which is nearly everyone in Cuba), would abandon the island upon the Internet’s arrival, and he wouldn’t have any protestations that the Internet already existed there. At this point, I was stuck, unable to return to the party inside. His ire then turned to Obamacare. Dinner arrived at the tables indoors. I suggested that the bevy of doctors on the trip seem to support the legislation. He shook his head; “Doctors hate it. It’s ruining them. And it’ll ruin America.” Inside, an ear, nose, and throat doctor lit up a $25 cigar.

“Dinner is getting cold.” I pointed out, attempting to extricate myself.

“I don’t give a damn.” He stamped out his cig. “Let me ask you a question.”

“Shoot.” I eyed inside for help.

“Have you read a man named Adam Smith? The Wealth of Nations. Read it. He said—” the recipient of the Lohan Award had made her way outside.

“Talk inside, so you can eat.” She said, shepherding us in and giving me a knowing wink.

“Gotta sneak something or you’re bound to get bored”

On the bus ride back to the hotel, the joke awards continued. “The Hemingway award, for best young, drunk writer… Here’s a fedora in commemoration.” As the group laughed, Stan once again grabbed the microphone, causing moans to reverberate through the tail end of the bus. He told a story about his son, who as a child adored the all you could eat caviar at the hotel they would stay at in Seaside, Florida. While working for Enterprise car rental, the son was hit by a trucker and killed. Almost exactly a year later, Stan was in a hotel eating breakfast when a bowl of caviar he had not ordered arrived at his table. He took it as a sign that his son was happy in heaven. As he told the story, concentrated laughter emanated from the rear. There was a bottle of booze being passed around the back of the bus, leaving Stan to stew alone.

“Then says Cain: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper or just a vagabond again?’”

The final morning, the bus was quiet. Later, while sitting in the airport, several joked about catching a cab back to the hotel, bemoaning a return to the ceaseless grind of 24/7 connectedness. Eventually, the boarding call for the flight to Miami was announced. The group got up and trudged forward—past the green and orange walls and over the soggy Havana Club Boxes that slid across the linoleum. Each heavy step brought them ever closer to the land of perpetual texts and unceasing email. Behind them, the barkeep scrolled through Facebook.

 

 

 

[1] Not even the fact that it was only a tick past ten could prevent a mass migration to the bar as they waited for the bus.