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E20. Lou Reed's Nephew on Travel
“Who knew life could make so much sense?”
“I once took the train all the way to Reno,” Lou Reed’s Nephew divulged, completely unprompted.
“What inspired that? Nostalgia? The glory of our nation’s westward expansion passing before your very eyes.”
“Rehab,” he said. “There were concerns my liver would explode at altitude.”
“But it was delightful. And not just because of the sedation. Putting people in small spaces creates tremendous pressure.”
“What kind of pressure?”
“Narrative pressure,” he said. “Their life stories gurgle up and explode, like bottles of Diet Coke rolling across the floor of a minivan. If you happen to be nearby, they get all over you. These stories.”
“Stories have to go somewhere, I guess. They are what make us human.”
“I have my doubts about that, but I’m sure they’re what make us tolerable. Nothing irks me more than someone who shows up to a conversation without a story. It’s like seeing a comedian with no material. On the train, there was a kid who boarded in Moline in the middle of the night. He was unbelievably drunk. I was jealous he was so drunk. I was pumped up like a Christmas turkey with Antabuse. He was tall. He lurched into the smoking car, stumbling and stiff-legged, like a bear dropped from a hot air balloon. He poured himself into one of the molded plastic chairs and growled himself to sleep. I went back to my seat for the night. When I returned in the morning, he seemed humbled. He had one leg swung over the other, like an urbane talk show guest. The wolfman returned to human form.
“He was in the middle of his story, but when he got to the end, he started all over, so I heard the whole thing.
“‘Headed to Reno?’ I asked, hoping to make a friend before I arrived at rehab. Whenever I’m going somewhere, a party or a foreign country, my mind strains to identify people who might be going my way. Whatever I’m doing is the natural thing to do, my mind says, so others must be doing it, too. He had no idea what I was talking about.
“‘Boulder,’ he said.
“‘What do you do there?’
“‘For a living?’
“‘No,’ he laughed. ‘I work at Blockbuster for a living. But I live to snowboard.’
“He looked uncomfortable in his clothes. A wrinkled oxford and a pair of dress pants he had outgrown. He didn’t know how exactly to comb his blonde hair, which fell past his collar. He wore boots and a Patagonia jacket, like a teenager at church. I could imagine him on the slopes, free.”
“‘You were pretty drunk last night,’ I said. ‘People were scared.’
“‘So I’ve heard,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know I’d get that drunk. But then I didn’t know what I’d do. I’d never been to my father’s funeral before.’
“He didn’t say this with a desire to impress. It was just a fact. He had taken the train from Denver to Moline for his father’s funeral and now he was going back to lead a marginal existence dedicated to snowboarding, subsidized by a doomed model of media consumption. He seemed happy.
“When we got to Denver it was the middle of the night, a giant neon cowboy looming over the station. I told him to take it easy and he said—I’ll never forget it—‘If it comes easy, I’ll take it twice.’”
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“Did you make it to rehab?”
“I arrived at Camel Toe the next morning.”
“That was the name of the facility.”
“Was it officially …”
“It was officially called Came to Believe, but someone had scratched the ‘l’ and the ‘e’ deeply into the carved wooden sign out front—meant to give it a wholesome feel—so it was hard to call it anything else.”
“How did you enjoy it?”
“Fine. Happy to be away from home. Like camp.”
“You were young?”
“Hardly. This was just last year. Plus, there was a whole wing of 11-year-olds kicking isopropofol.”
“The Michael Jackson thing?”
“With modifications. Isopropofol puts you out, like propofol, but you remain active, unlike Mike. You are unconscious, but you go about your business. The kids were totally into it. I guess they still are. Stuck under their parents’ noses all the time, they’ve got no place to go. No mall. No downtown. With isopropofol they check out undetected, down a pharmaceutical trellis and into the night.”
“I’ve never heard of this,” I said, grateful that Renata and I hadn’t had children. I remembered how I had gotten out from under my parents’ noses, hanging around in diners, smoking cigarettes, and taking the train into the city. For a second, I worried we were raising a generation that wouldn’t need a database of things to do.
“These girls at Camel Toe used digital cameras to capture their lives—hidden in their stuffed animals or their iPod Touches—then pored over them at night when their parents were asleep. It gave them a sense of independence from their parents’ obsessive concern for their well-being. But if you forget to check in, and that’s what happens with isopropofol, things get weird. You veer off course. These girls, and they were all girls, ended up at Camel Toe because they had veered off course.”
“Like clocks slowly losing time,” I said.
“Precisely,” he said. “I tried it. It was easy to get. The kid from Moline mentioned it. It was popular with the extreme sports crowd. Turning off non-essential systems helped achieved greater ‘airness,’ he said, plus it made a shift at Blockbuster tolerable. That was the second most important thing I learned at Camel Toe: that the mind is not as useless as the appendix, but it is less important than, say, the spleen. The brain can handle most things without it. This is disappointing at first, the realization that all this extra cogitation—so much of what we call life—is unnecessary. But it’s useful, too, realizing the mind is more trouble than it’s worth, imagining what will happen next and always getting it wrong.
I understood what he meant, about always getting it wrong.
“Is it hard to kick?” I asked.
“The hardest,” he said. “Once you’re used to living in a permanent highlight reel, life is disappointing. Grayish. The colors are dull, the pace doddering. The letdown is profound, tinged with the fear that life will never again seem worthwhile. You feel like a ghost. That’s what the girls at Camel Toe seemed like. We could see them sleep walking across the grounds—joyless wraiths who looked like they might never giggle again. One of them, who was actually named Emily—they may have all been named Emily—befriended me. She explained how it worked. She was a thin wastrel with dark, curly hair and a dry sense of humor. She missed her phone and the midnight playbacks, but she was relieved to be away from her parents. All her dull experience could be hers, not just the pieces she was able to tuck away and pick through at night.
“This is where I gained insight into children and their parents—the third most important thing I learned at Camel Toe—about how desperate all those Andreas are to be told their Emilys are doing fine and how desperate the Emilys are to get the Andreas off their backs.
“It’s gotten worse, from what I’ve heard. Cameras embedded in glasses and hairbands. Time-shifters, recording constantly, experiencing selectively. Life as one long superedit. And you know what they call it in the forums now? Isopropofol? You won’t believe it.”
“Weird. Because of the initials? IP?”
“And because of the forehead cams.”
“They look like the cards …”
“That look like the feathers.”
“Who knew life could make so much sense?”
“My thoughts exactly,” he said. “In any case, the bed next to me was empty, but after two months they gave me a roommate. I recognized him immediately. It was the kid from Moline. Their first male IP case, the intake counselor explained. They didn’t know where else to put him, so they put him with me. I had no idea if he was even live yet.
“‘You jump or pump?’” I asked him. Emily taught me the lingo. She was a gifted teacher for an 11-year-old. ‘Live’ meant you were conscious. ‘Jumpers’ injected doses of isopropofol that lasted a few days. ‘Pumpers’ had modified insulin pumps to keep themselves out around the clock, except for an hour or two per day—usually in the dead of night—when they could review their cams in peace.
“Moline pulled his shirt up on the left side to show me the shunt where his pump had been.
“‘When’d they take it?’ I asked.
“‘Just now,’ he said.
“He was calm. His brain was there but his mind was still off. It would snap back on in the night and he wouldn’t be happy about it. It was no use talking now.
“He did wake up in the middle of the night. He stood in the center of the room and looked at me defensively.
“‘Where am I?’ he demanded.
“‘Camel Toe,’ I said.
“‘What’s Camel Toe?’
“‘This place,’ I said, indicating the cinderblock room we shared. ‘It’s called ‘Came To,’ but we all call it Camel Toe. Don’t say it to the counselors. They don’t think it’s funny.’”
“He surveyed the room.
“‘There a TV here?’ he asked.
“‘Nope. How long you been out?’
“‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to playback.’
“‘There probably isn’t anything to playback,’ I said. ‘You probably went cold—and they took your cam anyway, right? You don’t need a TV.’
“His eyes filled with worry.
“‘How will I know what happened?’
“‘You won’t,’ I said.
“‘Let’s figure out how long you’ve been gone. Where were you last night? What’s the last thing you remember?’
“He squinted and thought about it for a few seconds.
“‘At the store.’
“‘Did you playback that day?’
“He squinted again.
“‘Yes,’ he said suddenly. ‘That’s what I was doing. I was in the store watching the playback on the big screens. That’s the best thing about the job. The screens. That must have been last night.’
“‘Maybe not,’ I said.
“He didn’t get it. Yes, he may have gone for a while checking his cams daily, but if he was here, he’d stopped. He’d gotten off track. The brain is good, but it’s not that good. It can go for a long time with little reflection, but it can’t go long with none at all. Even just an hour a day is enough for the brain to calibrate, to check its sense of where it thinks it is to where it actually is and adjust. Without it, errors add to errors, idiosyncrasies mount on one another until you wake up at a place like Camel Toe.
“‘It will seem like yesterday, whenever it was, but that doesn’t mean it was,’” I said.
“‘Do you remember anything about that playback?’
“‘Let’s see,’ he said. ‘I zoomed it hard, at—like 128, maybe even 256 times normal speed. I don’t remember much.’ Users rarely watch their playbacks at normal speed. What’s the point? They speed through them, looking for highlights.
“‘What was the weather like?’ I asked.
“‘It was sunny. Warm, I think. People were wearing shorts off the mountain.’
“I got up from the bed and pulled the curtains back. The sun glowed on his face, and the leaves on the trees burned orange and red. It had been late summer when we’d met on the train. Now it was fall.
“‘You’ve been out for a while,’ I said.
“‘Where did the time go?’ he asked.
“‘You killed it,’ I said.
“He cried and screamed at night and in the mornings. He shook with fear and pounded the walls with his fists, tortured by his lost time. He was shattered by this absence, these missing months. His imagination ran wild. I told him that he had probably just gone about his business—snowboarding, working at Blockbuster—but he couldn’t let it go. He imagined that he might have killed someone with his car or gone on a crime spree. There was a serial killer loose in Colorado Springs and he couldn’t read the news without imagining that it might have been him. I told him he could worry about that later. Then, one morning, he was gone. The counsellors told me he had signed himself out during the night.”
“What was the most important thing you learned at Camel Toe?” I asked after a respectful pause.
“The secret,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said.
“Not a secret,” he said. “The secret.”
“The Oprah thing?”
“The opposite. This secret isn’t about attracting what you want. This secret is the thing that finds you no matter how hard you try to avoid it.”
“Can you tell me what it is?
“It doesn’t matter what it is. It only matters that it is,” he said. “Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have the feeling of carrying a secret inside ourselves. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there, that it’s a secret, and that it should stay that way. People in places like Camel Toe wind up there either because they have been sent there, like the Indian Poker girls, or because they are overwhelmed by the feeling that they have told their secret.
“I thought I was alone with this feeling until Camel Toe. We shivered whenever someone described it in group: this secret we didn’t know we had that we had accidentally shared without letting ourselves in on it. That’s why I turned out to be so good at Indian Poker, I think. The secret is like your card, which everyone sees but you. When we let our guard down, we are terrified, certain that we have revealed what was always there. What everyone else already knows. We were under the impression that we could distract people from it, that we could beat the game—cover a club, maybe, or turn a two into an Ace.
“People did things like that at the tournament. Hid their cards or covered clubs with the straps of the regulation presentation trays. They pawned these off as jokes—Indian Poker is so silly, like you said—but there are no such things as jokes. Not really. There is only the secret that everybody knows but us, and the terrifying moment when we realize all our attempts to hide it have failed.”