Travel Mates

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lock Picks are Lovely

To get by on the streets, you always have to act cooler and tougher than you really are, so I had a lot of practice putting on an act. Plus, it was just fun to be wearing clean, new clothes that actually fit. I wouldn’t have cared if I’d met Paul and the other woman (who’d remained mum about her name) in my old stuff, but since the Company seemed to want me to be more respectable-looking, I figured I could act the part.

I pretended to be interested in Paul, who seemed a bit full of himself but not a bad fellow, and at least he talked. The other woman just stood and glowered at me, until she suddenly tried opening the door she was leaning against. It opened to a dimly lit, dank corridor, though the smell didn’t bother me since I was used to much worse. Like total idiots, Paul and I followed the woman in without leaving someone to hold the door open behind us, and I mentally cursed when I heard it lock with a quiet click. Still, true to my new persona as a cool, collected person, I didn’t let my exasperation show as I shared this observation with the others.

Paul looked like he was going to be ill and made some inane comment about chewing gum. The woman let out a long, colorful string of curse words, then shut her mouth, perhaps realizing that swearing wasn’t going to get us out of there. I didn’t say anything, but walked up to the door that she’d been unsuccessfully trying to open at the other end of the corridor. It was fairly securely locked, but nothing I couldn’t handle. If I was going to pick a lock, I may as well pick the one that led somewhere besides that sterile waiting room.

Without telling them what I was going to do, I reached down into my shoe for my lock picks, pretending to fix a shoelace. I thanked God and my lucky stars that I’d remembered to take them into the bathroom with me at the hotel; otherwise, they’d have disappeared with my old clothes. Still, I didn’t want them to know what I was doing, so I had to come up with a diversion.

“You, what’s your name—“

“Suzie,” she replied sullenly.

“Suzie, you and Paul try to get that other lock open. Maybe it’s not as secure as this one. I’ll try my luck at this end.”

Suzie looked mutinous, but Paul seemed to be glad of something he could do to pretend to be useful. He nodded, grabbed Suzie’s hand, and yanked her down to the other end of the hallway, Suzie muttering under her breath as she went.

I gave a mental shrug. She didn’t have to like me, I just needed the two of them out of the way for a minute so I could get at the lock without them seeing. I quickly pulled the lock picks from my sweater sleeve, where I’d stashed them after removing them from my shoe. The door surprisingly wasn’t deadbolted, so it only took me about a minute to get it open.

“Hey, I got this one to open,” I called to Paul and Suzie, who were still struggling with the other door. I slid the lock picks into my waistband before they could turn around.

They quickly joined me by the door, which I’d opened only a crack—I wasn’t taking any more chances with this place.

“Shall we?” remarked Paul, trying to sound gallant and brave but failing.

I rolled my eyes and opened the door, which showed us another hallway, but more brightly-lit, and with doors that looked like offices on either side. Suddenly, one of the doors opened, and a well-dressed man stepped out and walked up to us.

“I see that you are already a resourceful team,” he remarked. “Welcome to the Company.”

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Open, Damn Sesame

When I assess people, I directly associate them with geographical sites. It's the tour-guide's syndrome.

Paul struck me as a Mount Rushmore, due to his natural self-importance and some charismatic magnitude. Plus, his sense of cultured intelligence seemed to hit an abyss between us. If there was ever a finalists' contest, he's sure to win, hands down.

But the woman who climbed the stairs in twos, gracefully avoiding the deceased palm and faces us, hand on hip, is the living St. Helens.

Paul runs his mandatory introduction agenda again, trying to break the silence of rain drumming on papered window panes. I dig lower into my cargo's pockets, and sulk.

"So, you're a winner?" he asks. Oh, natürlich! Check out those classy jeans and polo, dammit.

"Are you?" she asks, eying him with blatant mistrust.

"Every one is a winner," he shoots her a winning smile.

Oh my God, they killed Kenny. I thought I groaned mutely, circa my abdomen, but apparently it is audible.

He grins at me and wonders aloud if we ladies have any clue as to what our prize could be.

"Whatever it is," says St. Helens, "It's bound to be divided by three. I hope there are judges who will determine justly the ratios." What ratios? This is a win-win, woman. If you want more than your share, bite the hand that feeds you, whatever the hell the dog biscuit is.

She performs the impossible, and manages to plonk with poise on the butt-misshaping bench, crossing her awesome legs at the ankles. I see Paul quickly averting his eyes.

Oh great, now I'm beat to the alpha-female jealousy disorder.

"If it would be divided, you're welcome to my share, as long as we can spend it together over a drink or two," Paul machos on gallantly. She grins, I frown, and he pops another Juicy Fruit in his mouth, offering a second round.

Instead of accepting what is non-mint and therefore inedible, I return to my original quest - the door.

I press the handle. It clicks open. Alas, the door does not creak.

The corridor revealed is dank and smells of stale coffee. A single 60 watts bulb at its end, shedding darkness on a second door. I inch along, followed by the stratovolcano and Paul.

Open, Sesame.

I lunge onto the handle. Nada. I wrench it a few times more, disappointed, and turn around reluctantly.
"You can't wreck the unbreakable," sages Paul.

But the woman expresses a more profound notion. "Someone just locked us in from the outside."
And suddenly, we're hit with a collective wave of claustrophobia, as burnt coffee beans never reeked so dreadfully, not even in some godforsaken Bolivian plantation.

"Juicy Fruits, anyone?" whispers Paul.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Like Pulling Teeth

May fifteenth dawned with a torrential downpour, which quickly slackened into a nasty drizzle. Paul dressed for success in his cleanest pair of jeans and a t-shirt without a rock icon or alcoholic beverage pictured on its front. True to rites, a Honda Accord was waiting on the curb at 9:00 sharp. Tossing on a windbreaker, Paul was out the door.

The driver wasn't much for conversation. After a couple of false starts, Paul got the hint and watched the low-class housing blur by until the Accord swung onto the Atlas Causeway which cut directly into the City's business district. The silence in the car was broken only by the intermittent squeak of new wipers cutting across watery glass.

The car pulled up in front of a five-story, pre-war walkup sandwiched between two giant modern scrapers. Double height scaffolding was set up in front of the building, indicating a construction job. The driver got out of the car, umbrella in hand, and opened the door for Paul. He walked Paul to the building entrance and opened it. "If you just take that staircase up two flights sir, you will come to an open plan office. Have a seat and someone will be here soon to answer all of your questions." Well, Paul thought, at least the guy wasn't mute.

Paul entered the drab gray lobby and took ancient stairs up two long flights. He noticed a set of quickly drying footprints on the stairs and smiled. Paul was an observer. It was the writer in him. He prided himself on not missing things.

He reached the second floor landing and looked around. There was an office on each end of the hallway, but only one of them had a sign in front with fancy lettering that read "Travel Club".

He entered into a stark room decorated with only a bench, two chairs and a partially deceased miniature palm tree. A woman sat on the bench and stared at him. "Hi," Paul said. No response. He was beginning to think it was him.

The woman was young, maybe twenty-three or so, with a pretty face and dark, rain matted hair. But it was her eyes that drew Paul. They were a muted greenish-brown, but they held both a heaping spoonful of world-weariness that went far beyond the owner's age as well as an equal measure of watchfulness.

"You work here?" he asked.

She gave an amused smile, like he'd just asked the world's dumbest question. "No."

"Contest winner?"

"Yep." He assumed she had more eloquence with her writing than with the spoken word.

"Me too. I'm Paul. You got a handle?"


"Good to meet you Suzie." A good half-minute of awkward silence passed. He was glad he wasn't close enough to offer his hand because he was sure she wouldn't have taken it. Suzie remained on the bench, staring at Paul with her hawk's eyes. Paul suddenly hoped that each contest winner was getting their own separate adventure of a lifetime.

"So, uh, what do you do Suzie?"

"I'm a tour guide." She said it as though challenging him to deny it was true. Her eyes never seemed to leave him for very long. At least they blinked or Paul would have been unnerved.

"Cool. I'm a writer," he volunteered because he assumed she wouldn't ask.

"You write anything I'd have read?" she asked.

"Only if you broke into my house and turned on my computer." He smiled at his own joke. She didn't. "You still got it Paul," he thought.

He took one of the two chairs and sat. For the first time, he noticed a door in the far corner of the room. "Anyone home?" he asked Suzie.

She shrugged. "Dunno, just got here myself. I knocked over the tree," she added and smiled. He smiled back.

"You want gum?" he asked, reaching for his trusty Juicy Fruit. Juicy Fruit was the perfect icebreaker in any situation.

She cocked her head to one side. "I thought we weren't supposed to bring anything?"

"I live to break rules." He tossed her a piece. She caught it and smiled again. He liked her smile. It warmed her face and tempered the hardness in her eyes. "Here's a girl with history," he thought.

They sat in silence, chewing gum. She suddenly got up, making her way across the room. "I'm checking out that door," she said.

"Weren't we told to just wait till someone comes?"

"I live to break rules too," she replied.

Before she made it, footfalls on antediluvian steps echoed from the hallway. They both turned to the door, waiting on their host.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Needed Detour

When I submitted the essay on Bolivia months ago, I was stuck with an interesting dilemma: I had no return address to write. At that point, I was living on the streets, surviving by begging and the occasional lucrative pickpocketing of an unsuspecting tourist. I saw the flier for the contest at a local library I occasionally haunted for its climate-controlled conditions (warm in winter, cool in summer), and I decided to type up some nonsense to send in there and then. Why the heck not? On the off chance I won, at least I wouldn't have to worry about where to sleep for the duration of the "travel experience of a lifetime". I decided to write about Bolivia, the sole reason being that the name of it reminds me of my best friend from grade school, whose name was Olivia. Still, I didn't have an address to include, so I simply wrote down the library's address, figuring that the chances of winning were so slim that it wouldn't matter anyway.

Hence, imagine how surprised I was to be awoken one Thursday morning (or was it afternoon?) by an impeccably- but plainly-dressed messenger bearing an envelope addressed to me. How the guy found my cardboard shelter on Highview Boulevard would remain a mystery, for as soon as I showed signs of consciousness, he handed the envelope to me and disappeared.

I don't think I've ever touched anything as fancy as that letter. God knows, I don't think I ever even got any sort of letter after Party-Invitation Age passed, which was about a decade ago, give or take a few years. But there it was, with my name written in large fancy letters on the outside--"Kira Alzes", plain as can be--and the paper inside, written in the same hand, was just as rich. I'd have thought someone was putting me on, except that no one I know could afford to spend so much on a trick. My friends were all bums and whores; they wouldn't even know where to buy expensive crap like this. Besides, no one knew I entered the contest at all, not even the librarian. I didn't save it on the library computer--not allowed, they'd run out of space on the hard drive in a week--so I just made two copies, one for me and one to send in.

Even if it was a joke, it was worth checking out. I figured I'd wait around for the car; no use wasting shoe leather or bus fare if someone was gonna come chauffeur me around. "Bring nothing"? That was easy, I didn't have anything worth bringing anyway. Even most of my clothes were filthy rags, but I supposed I'd just have to pick out the ones that were least filthy and raggedy to wear to meet these folks.

That Saturday was fairly nasty, weather-wise. I woke up around dawn from the rain leaking through my cardboard-and-duct tape roof, well before the car arrived. It was fairly unassuming when it showed up, just a plain black Honda with slightly tinted windows. The driver wrinkled his nose as I got into the car (it had been a while since I'd last showered, I guess) but didn't say anything. In fact, the driver did not say a word the entire ride across the city, though I peppered him with questions, which creeped me out a bit.

The car stopped in front of a hotel, which surprised me. Wasn't I supposed to be going to an office? Then I peeked at the street sign--as I'd thought, we were at a different address than the one given in the letter. Before I could say a word, though, the driver spoke, startling me. I'd grown accustomed to his silence.

"Go upstairs to room 407. Shower and change your clothing there. You cannot meet the Company in the state you're in now." He dropped a key in my hand, being careful not to touch me; I suppose he thought he'd catch something from a filthy street rat like me. He then checked the clock in the car and said, "Please be downstairs in forty-five minutes, no later."

I nodded and scrambled out of the car. I wasn't going to mess with this guy, even if he was a snob. I ran into the hotel and made for the elevator bank without stopping at the front desk.

A security guard stopped me before I could get there. "Where d'you think you're goin', kid?" he asked, gruffly.

"I have a key! I have a room! See, I have it right here!" I pulled it out and showed him. "I'm to go to room 407, shower and change."

"Oh, a Company room. Fine, then." He reluctantly let me go, and I ran for the elevator before he could change his mind. Five minutes wasted.

I wish I'd had more time to appreciate the room I stepped into. It was the nicest place I'd seen the inside of in years. But no time, the clock was ticking. I jumped into the shower, scrubbed myself clean for the first time in a couple of months, and toweled myself dry. The clothes laid out on the bed--in my size, even, as if I'd been expected--were plain, but new. A pair of black jeans, a white short-sleeved polo, and a pale blue sweater, along with socks, shoes, and appropriate underthings. Somehow, my old clothes had already disappeared.

I went downstairs clean and neatened up and the driver was still waiting outside. I got back in the car, and we drove away again. Shortly, we pulled up in front of a building that was halfway through a construction job, which was good, because it meant there was a sidewalk bridge to shield pedestrians from the rain. At that point, the driver parked at the curb, jumped out, and opened the door for me. This threw me a bit off-balance, because no one ever opens doors for you when you're homeless. As I got out of the car, I looked around to get my bearings, and he pointed toward the entrace.

"Go up two flights. You'll see an open-plan office. Go in, and have a seat. Someone will be with you shortly." He then got back in the car and drove away, leaving me standing there full of questions that no one would answer.

I turned away from the street and faced the entrance. I felt a thrill of excitement, and just a touch of nervousness. I steeled myself for what awaited within, and began to climb the stairs.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Alternative

I never open my mail. Not even flip through it.

Given the following reasons:
# 1. Pizza fliers instigate nausea.
# 2. I receive pizza fliers exclusively.

This is the era of electronic mail, mass-takeaway and uninsured sound devices from the East. So when the postman knocks on my door earlier this evening, I quickly dis-exist and ignore all pizza propaganda. I do have some political standing on the matter.

He keeps knocking, eventually reverting to the bell which I must short-circuit.
I rub my eyes until they gain that special Texas Chainsaw Massacre glow and proceed to the door. What do you know? A small citizen, hardly an official figure, with a medieval letter. Furthermore, my you-just-lugged-me-outta-precious-sleep glare has no effect on the guy; he hardly bothers to look up.

Go to hell.

The letter looks like a scam which somebody put much thought into. That sounds like an oxymoron; if you want to swindle people, you should remember to evaluate your potential profits against your initial debit and someone here clearly got his formula wrong. Unless they know what they're talking about.

But this person cannot possibly know. How could they nominate, elect and prize my old essay, half-fabricated due to chemical intake at the time? I do not need to rummage though my computer to verify what I've sent them all those months ago; a sprawling piece about Bolivia, so laden with culturally-confused mythology that no one would ever consider it non-fiction.

Maybe the judges were hit by a culture shock.

I call my agency, informing them that I cannot work on the 15th due to Climate Change Day; it brings about early psychosomatic rheumatism. In any case, the Japanese Tourist prefers the South during late spring, and I currently have a very shallow tour-guiding agenda. Then, I calculate debit/profit according to my scheme and figure that it won't hurt to check this scam out. Obviously, I go alone, very alone; I do not wait for the company car to pick me up. Why would they provide directions in the first place?

The building is being renovated at one corner, hence I miss the entrance. Upon discovery, I wind up having that guide's conscience riot, which generally hits me when I take the wrong exit on a highway or miss my aisle in the supermarket. Not to mention that I've wrenched my umbrella in the process.
My shoes squeak up the stairs, leaving precise footprints. They could be following me. There could be CCTV circulating, monitoring my steps with their glossy little eyeballs.

There are none. There is nothing of a menacing aura about this place, despite the terrible weather. It's just that I am a little – lost?

I hear a car revving downstairs, followed by a man's voice instructing somebody to go up two flights, enter an open-plan office, and take a seat. I race another set of stairs up, nearly fly over a miniature dead palm, and collapse on a bench.

I leap up, plant the umbrella next to the palm, compose a swift mental eulogy for both objects, and return to the bench.