The Road Revisited

Follow Me Around The United States!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Brandon is a Breath of Fresh Air.

Saturday evening Lala, Megan and I went out clubbing. It was a big deal. I got as balls to the wall pretty as I could considering I haven't even had a haircut in 11 months and we all went out to dinner beforehand. I gorged myself, knowing full well these girls could and would drink me under the table and I'd better be prepared. I had put all my lonely and pissed off aside, storing it in the backseat of the Civic under the dirty socks and Rollerblades, and went out unhindered by the likes of sadness. It was a wonderful feeling, almost new. Between the idiocy of Josh and the drama with my diseased relationship, it had been weeks since I'd looked at the world through unclouded, shining eyes.

Lala looked sexy and beautiful as usual in a black halter top and heels, so Megan and I had the honor of being the "Hi, who's your friend" girls. We like it like that. We split spinach dip and watched people watch us while we ate, over-dressed for midnight at 8 PM. Still, I wasn't wearing eye shadow or eyeliner -- that's a thing of the past for me. I like it like that.

After dinner we went to Hammerjack's, where I had first had the good fortune of meeting the girls, and I somehow traversed a laybrinth trying to find an ATM. "It's just through that door and go left," the lithe bartender in the cowboy hat said in Russian accent. I went out the door and to the left and into a hallway with more angles than a geometry textbook. I checked around the corner for Willy Wonka. Doorways decorated the walls, some with knobs and some without, but I headed for the one straight ahead. "I'm not that drunk, am I?" I wondered, noticing that the floor was getting closer to the ceiling and the doorway ahead was taller on one side than the other. But that is just the common side effect of buildings settling after a century of serving the public.

Through the door was -- what else? -- a casino. A woman sat feeding bills into an electronic slot machine, her face drooping and yellow, lit by golden, 16-bit graphic cherries and bells. Her backside looked molded to the vinyl stool she occupied. The machine gobbled the money with a mechanical slurp, the ends of bills flapping like a single strand of pasta being sucked through lips. "Feed the beast, honey," I thought. There was more animation in the twirling fruit on her screen than her eyes may have ever held. And I'll never know.
I couldn't see the ATM for the jaundiced light of slot machines, even though it was right in front of my face. The one boring, stoic machine, gray, unenhanced, like a CPA at a disco. Yet it gets more action than all the other playthings combined. It's the pantry where the beasts' food is stored.

Safely back on my barstool, after a trip back through a series of doors and crevices that would have made Sacagawea proud, we were joined by Rosie, a full-blooded Native girl with black hair stretching down her back and a smooth caramel complexion. She spoke with the rounded speech heard on the reservation and I loved it. I could have listened to her talk all night. "How do you deal with the stereotypes?" I asked her. Natives, especially Native girls, have a terrible reputation in Missoula for being stupid and quick to pick a fight. Granted, the fighting part they've earned, but I wonder if it's because of the former. I'd be scrappy too if everyone assumed I was stupid.
"I try not to associate too much with anyone who starts trouble, Native or not. I hang out with Lala and Megan a lot so people know me as someone who gets along with people real well. I don't just hit up the bars in Missoula when there's a pow-wow and then stir up some shit."
"Does it hurt your feelings to know how Natives are treated around here? Or the conditions on the reservation?"
We were interrupted when a guy -- a non-Native guy -- tried to hit on Lala a little too hard and we had to intervene.

Being white and asking a Native person about stereotypes and reservations is a little like asking a black person if they're pissed about slavery. You know it was hundreds of years ago and it wasn't you personally that enslaved anyone, but you still feel a little bad. I know I shouldn't, but I do. White Guilt is valueless as an emotion, but some things you can't help. So when Rosie and I were interrupted, I didn't push the issue. We were here to have a good time and any more questions would have fallen into the trifecta of taboo bar subjects -- religion, politics and admitting to owning a Flock of Seagulls cassette tape.

The barbacks cleared the dance floor but we were moving on, back to The Boardroom, where Lala and Megan had gotten me drunk my first night in town. That night it had been just the three of us and the bartender, and a lone Spanish man staring at the wall. But this night it was chock full of all-nighters, benders, frat boys, chiquitas and one bachelorette party. The bride wore Mardi Gras beads strung with penises and I, well on my way to a healthy buzz, sucked on one in the bathroom, waiting for a free stall. The maid of honor got a picture and we all had a good laugh. It was a good night.

The foremost thing on my mind was ecstaticism and surprise over how well I had pushed both Josh and the problems with my relationship to the back of my mind, if only for an evening. I twirled and popped and shimmied my way across the dance floor that night. "Dance like no one's looking," the proverb says, and that's exactly what I did. But for the first time in a long time, I knew I was sexy. That was another first, bestowed upon me by the forces of The Road. Fearlessness. And confidence. At some points it was only myself and Lala on the floor, while everyone else watched, men wanting us and girls wanting to be us. As awful as it sounds, it's a good feeling I indulge in about once a year. I may not be the hottest girl out there, but show me the hottest girl and I'll dance her under the table.

So as Lala and I were out there, by ourselves, shaking it like salt-shakers, a wonderful thing happened. A man with an obvious disability came out on the floor to join us. Given that his movements were awkward, palsied and a little slower, he had very good rhythm and my heart swelled with an odd pride for this stranger. Neither Lala or I danced exclusively or closely with him at that time, because the song stopped and we both were parched, but I was still blown away by him all the same.

I will say it here and I'll say it again to anyone who asks, I greatly admire anyone with a disability who, knowing that 99f the shallow girls on the floor in a club are there to see and be seen and not be seen with a gimp, would still get out there and dance.

I watched this man as he went back to his table of friends. He hopped up on a stool and drank beer and laughed. Looking at him sitting down, it was very hard to tell that he was even handicapped. Another song I like started, I asked Megan and Rosie to watch my beer and made my way back to the dance floor. So did he. I danced with Lala, and again we were the only two on the floor. The man bopped and snapped his fingers on the edge of the wood floor, swaying back and forth to the beat. Eventually, he ventured out. I gave Lala the "I'll be right back, are you okay dancing by yourself?" look that girls give each other sometimes and made my way closer to the edge of the floor where the man was dancing, shifting his weight rhythmically on a-symetrical knees. I held out my arm, curling my finger to say, "Come here," and he did. He smiled with a bit of disbelief that I shooed away, grabbing his hand and leading him out further on the dance floor. We held opposite hands like a handshake and danced in a style that, considering the beat of the song, could have been called "plodding", but it gave me a chance to talk to him.

"What's your name?!" I shouted over the bass.
"Brandon! And you?!"
"Nice to meet you!"
He wore glasses and a white T-shirt tucked into khaki pants. He was about a foot shorter than me, and had a fanstastic, wide smile. Lucky for me, he was well on his way to being drunk as well. He made several bold exclamations to me as we paraded slowly around the dance floor, which by this time had filled to the brim with wannabe-strippers and men who wanted to take them home. "Missoula is the new City of Sin!" he cried over the music.
"Yeah! What happens in Missoula stays in Missoula!"
"I see."
"It can get pretty crazy!"
"I noticed!" I was, after all, the girl who had fellated a string of Mardi Gras in a public restroom.

The song ended and we parted ways for the time being. Walking back to where Megan and Rosie held court over our table, I was chatted up by a strapping, blonde frat guy, only to be whisked away by a middle- aged Chinese man in a tight black wifebeater. For having come of age in New York City, I haven't been to that many clubs, but I'm always amazed by the gamut that is run by the guys in one. Lucky for me that night in Missoula, the quintessential Puerto Rican New York City Club Rat was nowhere to be found, the scary kind that, in his short-sleeve polyester button-up, likes to push girls up against any flat, vertical surface and proceed to not only gyrate on them, but also sweat on, kiss and whole-tongue lick them from nape to scalp as well. I have fallen victim to this traumatizing type twice, and both times resulted in longer-than-average dry spells for me.

For someone who so agonizes over White Guilt when it comes to Native Americans and blacks, I have no problem narc'ing out the club rats. Perhaps this is because no war-painted brave has ever thrown me up against a wall and lathered me in foreign saliva. Should the day come, I would surely have no problem lamenting it.

The Chinese man and I danced for a few songs. As a woman, I made sure not to get too close, to imply the wrong intention, while making sure not too pull too far away, so as not to imply the wrong intention. As a woman, this can be a delicate matter. We must adhere to a certain, unspoken code, not unlike The Guy Code of "Don't Use the Urinal Right Next to the One I'm Using" and "Don't Sleep With Your Friend's Ex". This code, The "I-Like-You-But..." Code, exists in three stages:

1. "I Really Like You Tonight" -- This level of code is reserved for Guys You Would Take Home But Only For Tonight. In this level, you may dance closely with The Guy, which includes wrapping one or both arms around his neck, holding him close, and making sure his right leg is strategically placed between both your left and right legs as you grind on him. Further acceptable movements include pulling back and touching his bottom lip very softly as you bite your own and also scratching the back of his neck. Meant solely to ensure a booty call. Not recommended for partners you encounter after 6 beers or shots of any hard liquor.

2. "I Think You Are Nice And All For The Next Three Minutes But Please Don't Offer To Buy Me A Drink" -- This section of code is used in those crucial moments when you are asked to dance by someone you could never see yourself engaging in any affectionate act with, but don't want to hurt their feelings either, because it's obvious that they come here every week on the same night, dressed in the same outfit with the same haircut and wearing the same cologne and go home to the same basement apartment that they've occupied for the last seven years and god forbid you send them home crying. This is the guy you would like to pull aside and offer some friendly "girl advice" to, as to their general level of dress, odor, coiffe, career, etc., but alas, you are a stranger and you don't know this person well enough to do so. To attempt to befriend any man on this level would be social suicide, because you met in a club and therefore you are not "friend material", you are automatically escalated to, "This Hot Bitch I Met In A Club". You can never escape THBIMIAC status. This man, despite your best efforts to secure a platonic friendship, will consistently elevate you to a level beyond that of your comfort any time you are around him. However, when dancing with This Guy you may feign to enjoy yourself, while making sure to create and maintain an amount of space between your bodies greater than that of "I Really Like You Tonight" Guy.

3. "Sweet Jesus No" -- This level of code is critically set aside for those men your mother warned you about. However, you will blatantly ignore this warning and go balls-out for exactly the person your mother warned you about, and rather set aside this code for Men Your Mother Would Approve Of, which means any man in the club who happens to have a decent job, reliable four-door sedan, and respect for women, making him virtually invisible but for the crowd of Level 1's and 2's crawling all over the damn place.

On this night, I opted for Level 2 of the code with my Asian partner. In a conversation shouted over the woofer, he told me he had been born in China, moved to the U.S. at 17, and worked in his parents Mandarin restaurant in the mall food court now. "You come by, we have good food, yes?"
"I'll try!"
Eventually I ended up back with Brandon. I tried to find a semi-quiet corner so I could pick his brain without drawing attention to the fact that I wanted to pick his brain.

As is the case with Natives and black people, it's possible to feel pretty bizarre talking to a disabled person about their disability. You want to bring it up, but don't want to offend them by pointing out that you can walk fine. It's a fine line. Lucky for me, Brandon was The Most Upfront, Down-To-Earth Person Ever. "So what brings you to Missoula?" he asked.
"I'm a travel writer. Well, more of a traveler who writes."
"That's awesome!"
"What do you do?""Well, I'm pretty much in between jobs at the moment. I just finished an assignment with AmeriCorps. It's like the Peace Corps but stateside."
"Wow! That is so cool! What did you do for them?"
"I worked with teens in a dating violence prevention program. But now I think I'll go to grad school."
"Sweet. Where?"
"Well, not the University, that's for damn sure."
"Why not?"
"Too many problems. It's terribly mis-managed. Did you hear about our athletic woes?"
I hadn't.
"Well, our athletic director came over from Florida State. And he tried to make our team just like Florida State. What he didn't realize is, we're not Florida State. We aren't even Division 1, we're D-1-AA. We can't court the big players and we don't have the budget that Florida has. Most of the school's budget comes from taxes but only 900,000 people live in Montana. Compare that to 15 million in Florida. See the pitfall? But he didn't care. So when the end of the year came, there was a one-million-dollar shortfall in the athletic budget. Basically he was forced to resign in disgrace, but that didn't solve the money issue. So who ended up paying for it? You guessed it -- the students, and taxpayers."
"Dude, that's awful."
"Yeah. And also the president of the school doesn't care about students with disabilities. He basically said he's going to build his way out of the ADA.""What's the ADA?"
"The Americans With Disabilities Act. And he said he's going to build his way out of it, by registering the buildings as historical landmarks so he doesn't have to refurbish them or add special facilities like wheelchair elevators and things like that. He says it will be cheaper to build new buildings than refurbish the old ones. Again, who pays?"
"Man. That sounds terrible."
"Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous."

"So are you from around here?" I asked.
"Yeah, but I'm looking for a change. Missoula is cutting it anymore."
"Where would you go?"
"I don't know. Someplace with a good grad school where I could actually use my education degree. I like to check out new places."
"Have you ever thought about New York?" I like telling people to move to New York, I think it does a body and mind good to try. Everyone should live there for at least a year.
"Well, I've been there, which is more than I can say for a lot of people from Montana. I like visiting, but it's not for me. I'm too used to open space. New York is just all crowded and concrete jungle-like. I couldn't live there. My friend and I are thinking of moving to LA and starting a porn company."
"Hahaha, gotcha! But no, seriously, you don't think that would be a good idea? My last name is Viall so it sounds just like "vile". "Viall Entertainment", a porn studio! No? Come on, America thrives on small business!"
"Actually, you could probably make millions. Give me a cut and I'll be your marketing girl."
"Awesome. Will you do porn?"
"No. I'm marketing, not talent."
"Fine, be that way."

"I've actually done a lot of traveling myself," he told me. "I like to go to places that people wouldn't ordinarily go. You've been to Chicago, right? What part of Chicago did you go to?"
"Mostly the north side, but I liked the south side better," I said. "It's not as pretentious."
"Did you go to Cabrini Green?"
"Where's that?"
"It's the part of Chicago where even the cops don't go. Basically, if you get shot in Cabrini Green, you better have someone to carry you to the edge of town so the ambulance can pick you up."
"Some parts of the Bronx are like that."
"Yeah, exactly. So I went around the Cabrini Green area because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to see if it was as bad as people say, and just to talk to people. I wanted to hear their thoughts, and tell them that not everyone who isn't from there looks down on them. And actually, people seemed to respect that and they were more open to chatting with me."
"Did you feel scared at any point? Because I took the train into the South Bronx once, to do the same thing, and I was fine except for the people saying things under their breath as I walked by, stuff like that. Some little boys called me a honky bitch, you know. The usual."
"Yeah, I got a bit of that, but that's typical. And it wasn't about to scare me away."
"That's awesome." I really had to hand it to him, the guy had balls.

I thought about interviewing him, as in officially, before I left Missoula, but I enjoyed our casual banter. I didn't want it to become "an interview", since people sometimes change their words or demeanor when they know they're on the record. I mentioned this to Brandon. This is what he said:

"You can do what you choose, but just know -- I'm one of the most blunt people you'll ever meet. I tell it like it is, even if people don't like it. So if you do choose to interview me, rest assured you'll get the real thing. No holds barred. Being born with a disability, I learned pretty early that being honest was the best way to get around what may be considered rude questions by people, about the disability. You see, it's not that they know they're being rude, they just don't know how to ask the question, "What's wrong with you?" in any other way than how they're asking it, which is usually, "Why do you walk weird?" I even gotten, "Why do walk so fucked up?" My point is, in all of this, I learned to be blunt early in life and my shell got pretty thick. I don't much care what people think of my these days. That's not to say I don't care at all, I mean, I'm human. I started out with a thick skin but I was still shy. I opened up in college. But basically, if you were going to interview me, I wouldn't act like a different person." He laughed. "That was kind of a long answer, huh?"
"No, it was perfect."

We ended up back on the floor eventually and parted ways again. I went to find Lala, who was at the bar with about six shots of whiskey under her belt courtesy of a friend she had met up with, and Brandon went to find his friends. Megan was trying to corral Lala away from any source of Crown Royal and back to the table and she had it quite under control, so I went to dance with Rosie. We were just bopping around when this tall, dark-haired guy tapped my shoulder. I recognized him as one of Brandon's friends. "Hey, can I talk to you for a sec?" he shouted over the music.
"Yeah, what's up?"
"I just wanted to thank you for dancing with my boy. That was really... just... awesome. Thank you so much. You're like a hero."
I couldn't believe he was saying that. "Me? I'm not a hero, honey, don't call me that. I just danced with him."
"Yeah, I know, I know. But you know what I mean -- he usually gets ignored or even made fun of sometimes but you didn't. You know? That means a lot to me. That's why I say 'hero'."
"If anyone's the hero, it's him. He's a brave mother-fucker, that one."
"Yeah! Yeah! Totally! He's... he's the best. Anyway, thank you so much."
"You're welcome. Thank you."

When the lights came on and the bouncers started collecting bottles, I scribbled my email address on the back of a Taco Bell receipt from my purse and shook Brandon's hand, pushing it between his fingers. "It was so nice meeting you. Keep in touch, okay?"
"You bet. We'll meet back up in LA and become porn moguls!"
"Um, yeah. That."


At 2:49 PM, Blogger fhqwhgads said...

I can relate to Brandon in a way... whenever I dance, women just assume that I have a handicap. I wouldn't mind as much if it would get me the kind of attention that it seemed to get him...

Funkless in Annapolis


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