Interview at High Noon

I opened the car door and stepped into the menacing shadow of City Hall, head high with confidence. I was adorned in my poshest attire — the 8-year-old charcoal suit and scuffed black oxfords, an outfit reserved exclusively for life’s most dreaded occasions — funerals and job interviews. Today I would be subjecting myself to such an event, interviewing for the Technician 1 position in the City Planning department.

In the decade since earning my masters degree in city planning, I swung and missed on far more planning interviews than I’d like to admit. A mediocre bullshitter by nature, I consistently failed to sell myself as the most qualified candidate. In the meantime, I had settled into my role as a GIS Specialist, commonly known to the layperson as a mapmaker. And although this line of work has its place in contemporary society (near the bottom rung), it lacks the prestige it once possessed in a bygone era when maps were integral to the success of such celebrated figures as Columbus, Magellan, and Genghis Khan. Today, however, mapmaking is more of a leisure activity like graphic design or crocheting, meaning its impact on our world is negligible, which is another way of saying the pay really sucks.

Having grown tired of sucky pay, I made up my mind that this planning interview would find me victorious. But first I’d need my suit jacket. I wrestled it off the hanger in the backseat, and like an overzealous virgin jamming his way into the wrong crease, I failed several times in maneuvering my left arm into the jacket. Frustrated, I considered ditching it right then and there. Was my success truly dependent on this off-the-rack Banana Republic garment? Perhaps it was, which is why I was relieved when it finally slipped on. My groove was back, and I skipped off to the concrete slab of a building, or whatever bland ingredients were baked into its walls. It was the kind of place the straight-laced sucker shackled deep in my bowels had always aspired to work. “Which snazzy cubicle awaits us inside?”, he pondered aloud as my intestines gurgled with unbridled anticipation.

I breezed past the Gun Free Zone decorations lining the entryway and strutted into the lobby, careful to exude the pretenses of a local power broker. Perhaps I was here to meet with the mayor about a big development opportunity out south, or to inform the city manager the deal was off and he could go fuck himself. As I approached the receptionist, I employed a proven alpha male body language technique I’d read about online, throwing my hands on my hips to increase my physical presence. She appeared to initially fall for the act, but my delusions of grandeur quickly vanished, along with her smile, when I informed her of my interview for the Technician 1 position, a job title that seemed a bit too entry-level to correspond with the tired eyes staring back at her. Any job title with a ‘1’ appended to the end of it, can’t be good, she surely thought, before she shooed me away down a corridor to Human Resources.

Upon arriving at HR, a woman handed me a printout of the job description, while declaring that my HR contact, Grace, would be with me shortly. It soon became obvious why she thought I might need a refresher on a job I was already here to interview for. While skimming the page, my heart sank, as I realized something was amiss. The sheet indicated this Technician 1 fell within the engineering department, not the city planning department. This variant of Technician 1, I was not suited for!

Was I to blame for this mix-up? I had to retrace my steps to actually recall applying for this job. It was about a month prior, beers at my side, when I applied for jobs in bulk in a frenzied attempt to secure the hourly wage I desperately deserved. Any old job would do, including this engineering job, as long as it brought a pay increase. It was a fuck it moment, if you will. If I was good enough to be a mapmaker, then goddammit I was good enough to be an engineer!, I must’ve thought before sobering up.

By the time I received the phone call from HR a few weeks later to schedule an interview, I had completely forgotten that I had even applied for this job, and just assumed this so-called Technician 1 resided in the city planning department. And although you may assume the differences between city planning and engineering are trivial, they are in fact pronounced, much like the differences between K-Y Jelly and Icy Hot. Catastrophic consequences await the clueless nitwit who assumes these similarly textured products yield similar benefits when applied to the genitals. Anyone else who has made this error in judgement will agree.

While engineering fields tend to attract those who are safely on the autism spectrum, the planning field, for better or worse, pulls from a broader pool of humanity. We have our share of brainiacs and insecure do-gooders, but we’re known more for our daydreamers and covert slackers. Think of planners as architects by nature, but with an eye for the macro. Why limit your tyranny to the occupants of a single building when you can wield it over an entire city? As juveniles hopped up on sugar and short-term gratification, we carelessly plunged helpless SimCity residents into municipal bankruptcy via exuberant infrastructure projects Why shouldn’t your city of 150,000 people be home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, first-rate sports venues, and a subway system rivaling the London Tube? Easy capital investment decisions for any 14-year-old.

But while our SimCity failures taught us many hard lessons to be applied in the real world, we grew up to find that city planners have been stripped of nearly all their power. There’s little we can do to stop the insolvent racket known as suburban sprawl from continuing unimpeded, perpetuated by private developers and city planning commissions who typically view planners and their sage advice as mere pests to be squashed, like the seldom triumphant angel on your shoulder. Why listen to the voice of reason in the room calling for increased density and fewer infrastructure liabilities when there are housing bubbles to maintain and American dreams to finance?

Admittedly, nobody in this world seems to have a high opinion of planners, not even planners themselves. After all, the profession’s highest certification — A.I.C.P. — is openly mocked within our circle. The acronym supposedly means American Institute of Certified Planners, but the truth of the matter is Any Idiot Can Plan. This is actually the first fun fact they teach you in planning school, lest you forget your place in the bottom third of America’s dominance hierarchy.

In the midst of reflecting on the bad hand I’d been dealt, the TV in the HR waiting room caught my attention. It was news coverage of yet another school shooting, this time in Texas. The dire predicament these kids were facing put my situation in perspective. Sure, I might totally botch this engineering interview and make a fool of myself, but what did I really have to lose today? Certainly not my life, like these poor kids. Perhaps my dignity, but not my life!

Not long after, my elusive HR contact, Grace, lumbered in and motioned me over with a snap of her fingers. I detected malevolence in her eyes, probably the result of my interview elbowing in on her lunch hour. I rose to my feet and followed in her wake as she led me down the hall toward the elevator, which we found to be undergoing maintenance. Upon seeing the “Out of Order” sign posted on the doors, she became irate, as rage and sorrow poured from her soul. During our slow ascent on foot to the second floor, she huffed and puffed about something related to the layout of the office, where the best vending machines could be found, and how in twelve years she had “never once been forced to climb these fucking stairs!”

Reaching the summit of the staircase, we turned a corner, and she kicked open the door to conference room 2B, where we found NINE FUCKING PEOPLE seated around a long table. I gasped, thinking we had interrupted an important board meeting. “Ope! Sorry about that!”, I blurted out, as I excused myself. Surely this was the wrong room, but Grace shoved me back in and told me to take a seat. I could tell she wanted to get this over with — tummies were growling, after all.

I ignored the open chair at the head of the table and instead angled toward a seat along the side in an attempt to keep a low profile, but they insisted I take the head chair. Perfect. Now all of these strangers would enjoy optimal sight-lines of my potential breakdown. Who were they anyway? Was this some sort of sting operation? An intervention? In what universe did my presence require the scrutiny of eighteen eyeballs? — twenty, counting the now breathless Grace who was still recovering from the stairs. She paced herself while introducing me to the owners of these eyeballs, but it was all a formality. I didn’t have the poise to remember nine names, let alone one, as I doled out a round of sweaty handshakes and dry-mouthed nice to meet yous.

But it wasn’t nice to meet any of these “people”. Their mannerisms, speech, and the fact I never once saw them blink, made it readily apparent these weren’t the faux engineers you sometimes encounter in the mapmaking field. These were the real thing — NASA/JPL material. Even the female among them was infected by this heinous virus, displaying symptoms consistent with the onset of acute Asperger Syndrome. But I had to admit, it was refreshing to be in the company of these droids, as I reveled in the fact that for the first time in my life, I was the one with personality and charisma in the room.

The head engineer, Gary, kicked off the interview by describing the Technician 1 position, unsurprisingly, in intricate detail. He fired off a 75 bullet point list of the day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year minutiae I might encounter if lucky enough to be selected for the job. I nodded along, pretending to comprehend the mundane technical jargon as I fought off drowsiness. Reading a science journal bibliography might’ve been more enthralling.

After his snooze of a presentation, it was now time for the interrogation. They took turns with the questions, but of course they didn’t broach the topics I had spent hours preparing for. I was anticipating more open-ended questions like — What are your hobbies? — Do you have kids? — and What are your favorite teams in the four major professional sports leagues in North America? And explain why.

They even neglected my favorite interview question of all — Which superhuman power would you possess if you could choose one? At first glance, this inquiry seems innocent enough, but its sole purpose is to weed out the perverts and thieves. If you respond by saying you’d like to have the power of invisibility, then you’re immediately disqualified from further consideration, as they can conclude with a high degree of confidence that you’re either a peeping Tom or a kleptomaniac, and thus a huge liability. Honestly, you have to be wary of any misfit who would pursue fleeting pleasures as a phantom in the ladies locker room instead of soaring like a bird or a plane, a power in itself that would have the choicest women longing for your company — and one that would make that whole locker room idea seem like a huge waste of time.

So no softball questions for me. Instead, these knuckleballers confronted me with brain teasers like — “Tell us about your use of MicroStation 3-D modeling software suite 10.325 and how you have utilized it throughout the duration of stormwater design projects and how you plan to use your experience with this software to meet the expectations of our department?”

Software suite what? The only suites I had experience with are found in hotels and candy aisles. Clearly, as a non-engineer, I had never designed a stormwater system, nor anything else made of concrete.

It continued — “What unique talents would you add to our organization that we may be lacking?”

It was evident these Trekkies could use a decent athlete for their corporate challenge contests, and I felt I would be a prized asset. You need a point guard, middle infielder, or sprinter? I’m eager to add value where I can!

“Tell us where you see yourself in five years.”

I was forced to pretend I actually had a five year plan, so I tossed out a knee-jerk response. “I see myself working as a planner in a city planning department.”

My response left them bristling, as they surely wondered why I had applied for an engineering job if I had no desire to be an engineer. I would’ve explained the beers and the resentment over my salary, but didn’t feel like getting into it.

After a handful of questions, it became apparent to everyone in the room that I had no shot at this job. So Gary intervened, flipping to the last question, as he realized this was a waste of everyone’s lunch hour, particularly Grace’s.

“Why are you the best candidate for this job?”, he asked.

Finally, my time to really shine. I considered highlighting the benefits of my superb doodling skills and abstract thinking. Or maybe I would impress these left-brainers with my ability to reel off every NCAA men’s basketball champion in chronological order since 1961.

But I went the safe route. “I feel with my work experience and education, I’m a great fit for this position. And I look forward to working hard and doing the best work possible. But honestly, since I don’t know who else you’re interviewing, I can’t say with any certainty that I’m the best candidate.”

This had always been my go-to answer for this idiotic question. Only a narcissist would claim he’s the best candidate for the job without knowing his competition. Perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson was slotted for a 2 p.m. interview. Or maybe another candidate was taller or prettier or had a better rack. Was there a casting couch I had yet to see? With all of these potential variables, who was I to judge my brightness among the stars?

I could tell they weren’t prepared for my candid response. But everyone involved in this meet-and-greet knew I wasn’t cut out for this. I did get a C- in my only engineering course in grad school, but I wasn’t going to yank that skeleton out of my closet. I already had enough bones piling up in my way.

After about twelve minutes, Gary concluded the interview by asking if I had any questions for them. I of course had some very pressing concerns I needed addressed.

“Yes, I have a question about benefits.”

“I’m not sure that’s relevant at this point, but proceed.”

“Is there a probationary period before I’m eligible for certain benefits?”, I asked.

“Not typically. But what benefits did you have in mind?”

“Specifically, the benefit of rounding my timesheet up to 40 hours from 35. Will I need to wait a few months before that perk kicks in?”

Moments later I was bouncing down the stairs into the lobby, past the Gun Free Zone decorations and out the door onto the boiling asphalt. I looked up, locking eyes with the sun at its midday peak. A renewed sense of gratitude warmed my shoulders as I tore off my jacket, leaving it there to wither in the summer heat. I didn’t need it anyway. I already had all the blessings I needed in life — family, friends, and a beautiful wife and daughter who loved me for the mapmaker I had always been. I didn’t need to wear that cheap suit jacket or the mask of Technician 1, regardless of which department it was in? I was victorious without any of that stuff.

Besides, any idiot can plan.

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Interview at High Noon

¡Viva Birtherz!: A tale from saner times in America

Zooming through the Kansas Flint Hills on a May 2003 morning, my cousin Carlos and I were on a Wichita-bound journey when we raced past a sign announcing the Knute Rockne Memorial, which could be found nestled among the grasslands near the I-35 turnpike. Knute, a legendary Notre Dame football coach, had an unfortunate encounter with these scenic hills in 1931 after a wing on the airplane in which he was seated accidentally fell off. Needless to say, a million Hail Marys from the Fighting Irish faithful wouldn’t have saved poor Knute that day. I doubt he even took time to admire the picturesque landscape rushing toward his nose, but who could blame him? He was likely distracted by other concerns, but so was I. As I sped on, my mind drifted to another celebrity who bid farewell to the world in similar fashion — Richard Steven Valenzuela.

Ritchie Valens holds a special place in the hearts of Mexican-Americans like myself. No film is more beloved within our culture than La Bamba, the 1987 biopic which traces Ritchie’s rapid rise up the music pop charts all the way to his sudden fall into an Iowa cornfield. Moments before his demise on that cold February night in 1959, Ritchie crammed himself into a Beechcraft Bonanza with two other rock stars — Buddy Holly and JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. And away they went for the ultimate adrenaline dump. But among Mexicans, the tragic fate of the two white Texans always took a backseat to Ritchie. We placed him on a pedestal, not because of his talent (Would anyone deny the superiority of Los Lobos’ rendition of La Bamba?), but because he was one of us. Our shared ethnicity is what sanctifies him forever in our hearts, even if Buddy had the more memorable hits.

In a meritocracy like America, where the chronically stressed workaholic prevails, sometimes the only way to set yourself apart from the other slackers is to lean on your ethnicity, which is why as a half white/half Mexican mutt, I wore my Mexican heritage as a badge of honor. There’s a reason a Mexican flag adorned my living room wall in college, even though my roommates were Euromutts. Their ancestral roots had become diluted over the years, a result of too many ingredients in the mixing bowl, a process our melting pot nation tends to facilitate. My own mother was a byproduct of this system, as her veins carry a blend of German, Irish, and Scottish blood. That’s how I came to be named Ian, which I’m told is the Scottish equivalent of John, whatever the fuck that means. But other than my first name — and my fondness for the Dave Matthews Band, my whiteness had little cultural influence on me. On my Tex-Mex plate, it was the bland garnish playing second fiddle to the enchiladas, tamales, and frijoles.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not exactly the default image registered in the mind when one thinks of a Mexican. If not for my last name — Ramirez, most people I encounter might assume I’m just another white man with nothing to offer society besides insincere apologies for the supposed sins of my forefathers. But thankfully that’s not a cross I have to bear, as I’ve been blessed with what I like to call the Al Pacino Mask, or the ability to play the role of a Sicilian, a Greek, a Jew, or a Cuban assassin. Okay, so maybe I’m not quite the bad-ass he portrayed on screen, but you get the picture. My eyes and hair are dark enough, my skin fair enough, and my nose big enough to hopscotch between various non-Anglo ethnicities when the occasion warrants it. I’m a man of many hats, if you will. One Halloween party in college found me dawning a sombrero and mustache while hollering out gritos. For another party, I wore a kippah while clutching gold-foiled chocolate coins. By the end of the night, the melting chocolates turned my hand brown, transforming me into a true oddity — a Jewish plumber. And then there was my favorite guise, which required a fedora and the cognizance to adjust my groin at seven-second intervals while occasionally demanding that party-goers “fuggedaboutit!”

But enough gloating over my costume options. I should get back to the point of this story and clarify why Carlos and I, 23 and 21 respectively at the time, were prepared to waste a perfectly good weekend in a place like Wichita. Our motivation was the Wichita Chicano Classic, a Mexican basketball tournament for your typical Aztec weekend warrior. It was one of many such tournaments in the Midwest held exclusively for Mexican participants — or for people who could pass for Mexican when not subjected to a critical eye. This of course included certain varieties of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Inuits, Nicaraguans, Portuguese, Spaniards, Guatemalans, Panamanians, Salvadorans, Eskimos, Hondurans, Belizeans, Chileans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Venezuelans, Indians (the casino kind, not the convenience store kind), and then your overly-bronzed Italians and run-of-the-mill Samoans, Polynesians, Tongans, and Filipinos like Manny Pacquiao, who I falsely pegged as Mexican until moments before his final bout with Mayweather in 2015. Much to my dismay, there he was shadow boxing in the locker room while the Philippines national anthem blared from the TV. What an appalling turn of events! I wasted $90 on the pay-per-view, not to mention the money I spent on a cooler full of Coronas as I prepared to celebrate the triumphant Mexican. Let’s just say I might have smashed a Corona or two against the wall as that impostor ducked into the ring for his eventual beat-down.

Our basketball team, based out of Lawrence, Kansas, where Carlos and I both lived, was coached by a 73-year-old named Jules, perhaps the only Mexican in world history christened with this eccentric name. Each tournament he paid the entry fees, supplied jerseys, and acted as the grandfatherly voice of reason on the bench. But with Wichita a good 140 miles beyond his 20-mile travel radius, Jules decided to stay put in his La-Z-Boy while Carlos and I set off in pursuit of a trophy. But there was an unforeseen hiccup; just days before the event, Jules informed us that the rest of our Mexican teammates wouldn’t be joining us, as they opted instead to play in a softball tournament that weekend — their decision based solely  on the keg of beer they were authorized to keep in the dugout. 

But Jules didn’t seem at all rattled by this unexpected development, and why would he? If the dagger tattooed on his forearm was any indication, he had surely conquered far graver predicaments during his seven decades on planet Earth. Over the phone, he was rather nonchalant about his stated goal to raid a few students from nearby Haskell Indian Nations University. But after a day of scouting pick-up basketball games on Haskell’s playground (and looking like an old perv in the process), Jules was only able to convince one Indian to join our team, a kid he habitually referred to as the little chief. Obviously, that still left us two players short of a respectable roster, but I left it to Jules to salvage this sinking vessel. Besides, I was just along for the ride, so I wasn’t responsible for cleaning up this mess.

Word had it that the little chief originated in the sleepy outpost of Gallup, New Mexico, a town you would never mistake for anyone’s target landing spot in life. This held true for the little chief, whose modest ambitions lured him to Haskell University. While my alma mater, the University of Kansas, dominates the higher education scene in Lawrence, the much smaller Haskell University stands tall as a scholarly mecca in its own right. Indians from far and wide flock to the tuition-free institution thirsting for knowledge and opportunity. But their motivations aren’t always so virtuous, as a substantial number of the able-bodied straight cisgender heteronormative male students thirst for something, well, more thirst-quenching — something found in large quantities in a variety of flavors in every college town. Yes, I’m of course referring to the bounty of lovely coeds, specifically the sorority girls. You would think Haskell’s recruitment strategy would focus exclusively on highlighting the ocular pleasures provided by the University of Kansas girls who saunter about town, vistas unheard of on the reservation. It would seem to be a more effective recruitment method than the status quo of ensuring passing marks for any kid whose grand-daddy happened to be a full-blooded Yaqui Indian.

We arrived at the Wichita Marriott Hotel at 8 a.m., where Jules had arranged our rendezvous with the so-called little chief. After reaching him on his cell phone, he cordially invited us up to the 9th floor to share a peace pipe. Before hanging up, he disclosed that an extra surprise awaited us upstairs, which made me a little uncomfortable at the time, considering I’d never met this kid. Who knew what sort of perverted revelations he had in store for us? Was he an adherent to the Furry lifestyle, finding sexual arousal by dressing as a cuddly animal? We were about to find out. So I prepared myself for the worst possible scenario, being ambushed by a giant sex-crazed bunny, which is why I made a mental note to enter the room last, a strategy that would aid my quick escape if the little chief had any kinky tricks up his sleeve.

Departing the elevator on the 9th floor, we were funneled to our destination by the rap music exploding from room 915. After pounding on the door, we were acknowledged by a thick cloud of marijuana smoke that billowed into our faces. Apparently this peace pipe he hyped over the phone couldn’t wait a measly five minutes for his esteemed guests. When the smoke finally dissipated, there stood before us a snaggletoothed Cherokee from the Sooner State. This wasn’t the little chief we anticipated; this one was tall and imposing, but his name was a total disappointment. I was expecting Brown Bear or Soaring Eagle or at least a name befitting a first-born male, but what we got instead was Trevor. Trevor shoved us into the room for our expected surprise, but luckily there were no deviant Furries lying in wait. The extra surprise, it turned out, were the four guys in the room, which was a relief because it meant we would be fielding a roster of six.

Inside, we found the little chief seated criss-cross applesauce on the floor with a fifth of Johnnie Walker strangled between his thighs. A couple physical characteristics immediately stood out — his jaundiced skin and peculiar eyes; they were invariably squinty, as if the sun had challenged him to a staring contest. This combination of symptoms, particularly his yellow tinge, could’ve been the byproduct of numerous ailments, including early stage liver failure. But he seemed a tad young for that, so I concluded his appearance must have resulted from a completely different set of circumstances. My suspicion was that his mother had somehow been coerced into copulating with an Oriental tourist who was passing through Gallup in the early 1980’s. This chance encounter would lead to the little chief’s uncanny features, first observed when he spilled out onto the bathroom tile nine months later. The shame of the unplanned birth would lead her to deposit the bastard on the doorstep of the local Bureau of Indian Affairs before departing for Phoenix’s west valley, where she would forge a new life (sans cranky infant of course) as a real estate agent in the booming metropolis. But this is pure speculation on my part and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Besides, one must consider the odds of a visitor from the People’s Republic of China ending up in a down-and-out dump like Gallup. So in hindsight, the little chief probably just had a rotten liver.

Putting my concerns for his cirrhosis on hold, I moved on to meet the last of our teammates — two brothers. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it wasn’t a stretch to say these brothers could’ve passed for recent prison escapees from up the road in Leavenworth. They were sprawled on the beds, buried in baggy clothes and Timberland boots. After a couple overly-complicated handshakes, they began boasting about their “world famous” hometown. The Big Apple? Paris, France? Greater Tokyo? Not exactly. It so happened they hailed from “the most dangerous muthafuckin’ spot north of the Rio Grande”, as they so eloquently explained. They were of course referring to East St. Louis, Illinois, which in 2003 still held the charming title as The Biggest Little Shithole in the World.

If memory serves correct, I recall reading an investigative report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the city’s troubles. The piece detailed the municipality’s shortcomings in trying to construct a city gateway, a welcome sign which would mirror Reno, Nevada’s famous neon-lit archway. The East St. Louis slogan would be spelled out in a dazzling array of lights, warning disoriented tourists that they were on the wrong side of the Mississippi River, and they should turn back before it was too late. The 20-foot tall archway wouldn’t be as breathtaking as the 630-foot tall Gateway Arch on the western horizon, but it would span the width of Martin Luther King Drive, where traffic engineering consultants recorded a daily average of twenty-seven illegal U-turns performed by cars with out of state tags. Sadly, plans for the archway were scrapped when city leaders deemed a roundabout at that location to be a more pragmatic use of funds. The MLK Drive Improvement Project, as the proposed roundabout would come to be known, would be bankrolled with $100k from a city slush fund, along with a matching grant of $100k in unmarked cash from a local philanthropist, known on the streets as King Mookie. As you might have guessed, the roundabout never materialized, as the outgoing mayor shifted the funds toward a fleet of Cadillacs to be used in parades and other rare civic pride events. And as a result, disoriented tourists can still be found performing roughly twenty-seven illegal U-turns on MLK Drive each and every day.

By now, any American with a sufficient enough IQ to have never been herded onto the short bus can infer that these brothers lounging before me were not, in fact, Mexican or anything resembling a Mexican. The elder brother was 31 and named Maurice, but said everyone called him Smokey, which made sense given that 90% of the marijuana smoke filling the room appeared to have originated in his lungs. The younger brother, the more boisterous of the two, was 28 and introduced himself as Donnie, “but everyone knows me as Glock 45 — or Glock for short”. He bragged that “nobody is better with a pistol than me” — as if this bit of info was supposed to make us feel at ease. I doubted his outlandish claim regarding his marksmanship, but wasn’t about to get into a debate with someone nicknamed Glock 45, especially after noticing the actual Glock 45 peeking out of his jean shorts.

I’ve never been one to assume the worst in others, but I had no choice but to conclude that both brothers were criminals, at least in a general sense of the word. My opinion was bolstered with the revelation that the trunk of their pimped-out ‘88 Cutlass Calais was stocked full of stolen apparel, most of it from legendary fashion icons like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Karl Kani, and Russell Simmons. Later in the day they would try to pawn off this merchandise with yet more outlandish claims that the clothes were “purchased legitly from a J.C. Penney wholesaler”. I admit, I did eventually cave to their sales pitch, forking over $20 for a shirt they touted as one of the more highly-coveted garments in their collection. I hastily agreed to the transaction after Glock brandished his gun and waved it near my face. He maintained he was simply using it to shoo away the “bitch-ass flies” buzzing around outside, but I have my doubts. In the end I came away with a severe bout of buyer’s remorse. Truthfully, it was the baby blue FUBU jersey I was lusting after, but since I’d always been woke and avoided cultural appropriation, I instead settled for an orange Rocawear shirt. The brothers were correct, however, as it did prove to be a highly-coveted garment, but only to the dust bunnies who ravaged it for the next year on the floor of my closet.

Obviously, an audit of Smokey and Glock’s internal GPS systems wasn’t necessary to determine they obeyed one too many detour signs on their meandering tour of life. In no way am I a condescending prick, but when you’re over a decade removed from 12th grade and find yourself 450 miles from home while getting stoned to prep for an amateur athletic event for which you aren’t even technically eligible, then you might need to reassess your priorities in life. But before I went too far down this road of condemnation, I realized a more sensitive perspective may be in order. After all, the brothers were each a P.O.C., which for the better part of forever was an acronym widely known to mean one of two things: Point of Contact or Piece of Crap, depending on the context of the situation (the stars aligned if your Point of Contact was a real Piece of Crap). But it has earned a new interpretation in recent years, now meaning Person of Color, not to be confused with the much maligned Colored Person, which we can all agree is a highly offensive arrangement of words.

Just like the brothers, I too was a card-carrying P.O.C., which meant we were marginalized entities, or those who are said to live on the margins of society in a sort of imaginary slum. But not every P.O.C. is created equal, meaning some have more color than others, and thus are more marginalized than others. The brothers, with their concentrated melanin and poverty-stricken upbringing, were so marginalized that they were barred from joining me in the margins of society’s metaphorical notebook, where I kept company with raunchy doodles and other mindless fare, far from where America’s upper crust read Shakespearean sonnets down the middle of the page while walled off from the filthy margins.

The brothers, along with pockets of the post-industrial Rust Belt from which they sprouted, had been erased from the margins by a Knowledge Economy which had no use for them. Considering these circumstances, it’s a wonder anyone in their situation could transform themselves into non-marginalized entities. The obstacles are many, including single-mother households, out-of-wedlock childbirth, the idiotic War on Drugs, gang-banging (a direct result of the War on Drugs), NAFTA, deindustrialization, skyrocketing healthcare costs, insufficient public transit, crumbling infrastructure, urban sprawl, the advertising industry, a lack of financial literacy, poor food choices, victim mentality, and just good old fashioned laziness. Not even a 1-on-1 consultation with Tony Robbins could rescue Smokey and Glock from these conditions.

Although heartbreaking, I found solace in their one saving grace. If my eyes weren’t deceiving me, I could conclude with a high degree of certainty that neither Smokey, nor Glock, identified as gender nonconforming. If they had, it would have meant dire prospects for the already prospectless brothers, plunging them from zero prospects into negative prospect territory. Why such severe consequences, you may wonder? Because according to gender studies wonks, no cohort is more marginalized than the Gender Nonconformists of America. But make no mistake, these aren’t your daddy’s nonconformists. These neo-nonconformists aren’t ditching class to smoke, cuss, and line their crush’s neck with hickeys. No sir, they’re trading in those juvenile pursuits for what some view as a quest for the ages. They’re giving the proverbial middle finger to biology herself and her outdated two-gender nonsense. And their crisis of identity shouldn’t be misconstrued as a fleeting moment of curiosity, much like little Junior playing dress-up after discovering his mother’s lingerie drawer. Rather, the fearless devotees of this movement are in it for the long haul.

This federation of nonconformists is comprised of a number of closely-aligned factions, including the AgendersAndrogynesDemigendersFemmes, Gender FluidsGender Neutrals (good luck getting them to pick between Chinese and Mexican for dinner!), Gender VaguesGender Voids (prohibited in Alaska and Hawaii), Hijras (India’s answer to the Thai Ladyboy), Nonbinaries (the physics enthusiasts who invented Quantum Gender Theory and hold membership in the Particles for Justice society), PolygendersPangenders (girlish boys who refuse to grow up), TransfemininesTransgendersTransJenners (former macho-men who trade in their cross-trainers for a stunning pair of stilettos), Transsexuals (found in large numbers on PornHub), Transvestites (a once robust group that’s been absorbed into the Transgenders, the more politically powerful bloc), and last but certainly not least, the X-Genders, who have an appreciation for flannel shirts, Doc Martens, and Grunge music. These are merely off the top of my head and don’t come close to encompassing all 116 sub-categories within the gender nonconforming community, but it’s a good primer if you’re interested in further exploring the topic.

Society often puzzles over the origins of this gender confusion. Was it the hormones in the dairy, or perhaps the pesticides spawned by the Green Revolution? It was possible these chemical compounds, after taking up residence in our bloodstreams, unintentionally flipped the switch on a mischievous gender nonconforming gene — or genie, which had been lying dormant in our species for — oh, I don’t know, a quarter of a million years? But then the pesticide theory wouldn’t explain the movement’s early adopters, such as Billy the Kid, whose exploits as a transvestite prostitute never quite eclipsed his reputation as a bank-robbing gunslinger — or famed Kansas aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose masculine essence aligned with her maniacal obsession to traverse the globe by air (I expect to get lots of push-back here from the lobotomized losers at the Flat Earth Society). These two gender nonconforming trailblazers’ diets were free of GMOs and other harmful additives. So what gives? The culprit, it appears, is reincarnation, as our modern day nonconformists are simply tapping into their past lives as the opposite sex. That’s the most likely explanation when considering the 00.6% of the population who claims to be afflicted with this dysphoria. However, some psychologists have posited that a substantial share of these self-described gender nonconformists are just narcissistic attention whores, but that’s a very problematic stance to take and one I vehemently condemn.

* * *

I’d like to refocus your attention once again on room 915 at the Marriott Hotel, where our first order of business was underway — the sharing of the peace pipe, or more accurately, a Swisher Sweet cigar that had been stripped of its tobacco and replaced with marijuana. In urban parlance, this modified smoking device is known as a blunt. But while everyone else savored their turn with the blunt, I was awash in dread, hoping someone would flush it down the toilet, a scenario as likely to occur as finding out the hyper-marginalized brothers graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. In other words, this blunt wasn’t going anywhere.

My eagerness for its annihilation may sound bizarre, but I wasn’t particularly thrilled about smoking marijuana, given that our game was tipping off in less than an hour. I’d smoked at least a handful of times prior to this point, but every one of these occasions found me firmly molded to a couch cushion while coated in puppy chow dust. Being held hostage by incessant laughter while stuffing my face with treats didn’t require any athleticism or hand-eye coordination. It didn’t even require the use of my lower extremities. Our impending basketball game, however, would demand all of these faculties, a thought which nearly sent me into a panic attack.

As the blunt worked its way toward me, I made a point of not disclosing my anxiety — nor my B-average university credentials — to our new teammates, for fear that my tough guy persona would be exposed as totally fraudulent, which it was. So when Carlos passed me the blunt, I played it cool and sucked down a huge toke, keeping it buried in my lungs for a good ten seconds while pretending this was an intrinsic part of my morning routine. BAD FUCKING IDEA. This highly potent strain of weed was straight out of a 1950’s anti-marijuana propaganda film. Less than a minute later I was fully incapacitated, and the timing couldn’t have been worse, as everyone was now ready to head to the rec center for our game. Luckily, Carlos was kind enough to ferry me down the hallway and into the elevator where I finally regained the use of my legs.

On the ride down, these crooks came clean about how they ended up on our team. As I suspected, the little chief was to blame. He had promised Jules he would find a couple Mexican look-alikes from Haskell, but for reasons unknown, he decided to go rogue, inviting his deadbeat friend from Oklahoma — that would be Trevor. Trevor then extended an invite to Smokey and Glock, who were either unaware this was a Mexican tournament or simply dismissed the notion that their presence (and racial impurities) might not be appreciated by the event’s organizers. I of course didn’t mind them participating, since I’ve never been the type who sees color, but not everyone is as open-minded and progressive as me. You may be wondering, just like me, how an Indian from Oklahoma knew a couple brothers from East St. Louis in the first place. It’s a question I never asked, although an educated guess placed all three as low-level associates in the same narcotics distribution ring.

Back in my car and nearly comatose, I miraculously transported Carlos and the little chief across town to the rec center where our rag-tag team was set to tip off against perennial doormat, Oklahoma City Select. Contrary to what their name suggested, it was evident there was no selective criteria applied in assembling their roster, as they appeared high and shamefully out of shape. Three minutes before the game, half their team was devouring a fresh batch of breakfast burritos in the rec center kitchen while the others missed badly on a round of half court hook shots. Their teal-colored uniforms were perhaps the only justification for their presence in this tournament, but it was their matching Air Jordan 11 sneakers which dazzled onlookers as they strutted onto the court for the opening tip, still wheezing from their pregame activities in the kitchen.

Needless to say, these selectable ones were no more intimidating than a platter of greasy sopapillas, yet I still campaigned for my rightful place as the sixth man in our rotation. It wasn’t a calculated strategy, but a simple recognition of my struggle to keep my 5’10” frame perpendicular to the floor. I decided I would sleep off my intoxication on the bench, while praying the starting five had Lance Armstrong-caliber stamina. Surely by the second half I could string together a few dribbles — maybe even bank in a three. But my grand plans were dashed a mere two minutes into the game when Trevor angrily demanded a breather. He was heaving and very red-faced — well, more so than usual anyway. As I ignored his cries for mercy, Carlos attempted to drag me onto the court, assuring me I still belonged out there, regardless of whether I was stoned off my ass. He became nostalgic, reminding me of the time a local newspaper hyped me up as “the best three-point shooter in Kansas” before my senior season in high school, which was a blatant lie when it was published and only made my season-long shooting slump that much more humiliating. It was true enough, however, that I was one of the premier free-throw shooters in the region and would have garnered Division 1 interest had I come of age when slow white boys still dominated the game — say, sometime during the Truman administration.

In the end I decided to shuffle into the game, mainly to assist with retrieving Trevor from midcourt where he was experiencing violent convulsions while vomiting up the three screwdrivers he had for breakfast. After dragging him to the bench, I quickly found my presence on the court to be irrelevant. It turned out that Smokey and Glock, although unable to pass for Mexicans, had no problem passing for AND1 Streetballers. Their 360 dunks, NBA-range threes, and fluency in American shit-talking made quick work of Oklahoma City Select. Final score: 97–9. That afternoon’s next two games brought similar success, which meant we wrapped up a spot in Sunday’s title game. The brothers’ pregame blunts and above-the-rim acrobatics finally gave substance to our team name  — the High Flyers. Adopting their brashness and flair was hard to resist. Even my average point total for the day, a paltry 2.3 per game, didn’t hinder the confident bounce in my step, as I felt I could lift into the clouds at any moment.

* * *

No longer having use for my hand-eye coordination, I was eager to partake in the joint Carlos had packed in his lunch cooler, which also contained Capri Suns and an additional couple grams of weed just in case we needed it. As we sparked the joint in the rec center parking lot, OKC Select’s most fashionable player was skipping by when his flared nostrils detected the aroma. He promptly beelined it for our joint like a bloodhound prancing toward a headless cartel victim in the Sonoran desert. With glee in his eyes, he informed us that he too was a fan of “the good”, which I assumed to be a slang term for marijuana. After Carlos offered him a hit, he proceeded to slobber all over it while distracting us with flattery.

“Awesome game, carnal!…

Y’all both had forty points, right?!…

Your Nike Air Force Ones are sooooooo fly!…

You guys remind me of Ricky Martin. Qué guapo!…

I bet the ladies love your pimp juice!…

You’re not gay, right? Or are you? Not that I care, I’m just curious…

Are you curious about me at all? No homo! Haha, just kiddin’!”

I found his homophobic slurs to be quite distasteful, to say the least. He obviously didn’t know I was an ally of the LGBTQ community and that I had a dear friend who was partial to the lifestyle, particularly after she ingested several shots of tequila. On the rare occasion that she refrained from indulging her lesbian impulses, it was only due to her irrational fear that her deceased grandmother might be eavesdropping on her — at a noisy nightclub at 1 a.m., no less! A truly enlightened grandmother, if she were still up at that ungodly hour, would be proud that her granddaughter was discarding patriarchal expectations while taking ownership of her sexual agency. What could be more rewarding than looking down from Heaven to watch her granddaughter pursue the life that she herself merely flirted with ages and ages ago, back in the good old days of 1946 when she was an unblemished debutante playing a game of under-the-table footsie with the sultry divorcée at her Friday evening supper club?

Anyway, while exploiting our vanity, this joker siphoned half the joint through his bronchial tubes. It was only after his homophobic remarks that we awoke to his tactics and snagged the joint from his dainty hands. We bolted from the scene, but he would prove hard to shake, as he made a second surprise appearance at a nearby filling station. I was pumping gas when he crept up behind me and whispered his admiration for our “fine-ass weed”. He then shifted to discussing his plans for the night, which centered around a visit to Old Town, Wichita’s best attempt at a nightlife scene. Apparently every Mexican in this tournament would be converging on the bar district, hoping against all odds that it would accommodate the competing agendas we had planned for our genitalia. Were there enough White Trash Tammy Lynns to fulfill our needs? In a proud, working class town like Wichita, no doubt there was. But would they all venture out from their mobile home estates to provide each of us with companionship? Highly unlikely. So in preparation for the limited options, I decided I would hang close to the Smokey and Glock, if only to subconsciously convey to the ladies that I too was well-endowed like the brothers. Not that I had solid proof that they carried big bats to the plate, but I figured it was a sound assumption.

Unfortunately I had to postpone my blueprints for getting laid, as I’d grown weary of Mr. OKC Select’s conniving small talk. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he wondered aloud where we might find a male-only go-go dancing bar in metro Wichita. He didn’t even give me time to respond before demanding to see the joint I was hiding in my shorts. No wonder he had been so handsy on defense during the game; obviously he was frisking me for weed. So I began plotting my escape. When Carlos returned with Twizzlers and Swisher Sweet cigars, I waited until all his limbs were inside the vehicle before exclaiming, “Holy fucking shit!”, while pointing off in the distance at a phantom Boeing 747 nose-diving into a nearby Catholic church, which happened to be packed to the gills for a First Holy Communion Mass in celebration of 60+ joyful second-graders. The boy took the bait, demonstrating his most fabulous Brian Boitana impersonation by twirling around and scanning the horizon for the bogus happenings. With his back turned, I lunged into the car and sped away. Luckily the few Twizzlers sucked from Carlos’s hand out the sunroof appeared to be the only casualties from the sudden change in g-forces.

I blew through at least three red lights and didn’t stop until we arrived safe and sound at the Howard Johnson hotel, where our reservation awaited. The room would provide the basic necessities for the night — a couple semen-stained beds, a bar of gently used soap, and a scattering of dust-covered bush clippings behind the toilet which had found the maid’s blind spot for several months. The claim to fame for this particular HoJo was its absurd proximity to the airport runway, situated as close as FAA regulations would permit. But for $24.95/night, it was a steal, even when accounting for the 3.2 magnitude earthquakes spawned by the airliners thundering overhead. In fact, we welcomed the tremors, which were an unheard of phenomena in this part of the country. Like a grouchy old spouse, the tornado was old hat around here (just ask the residents of Andover), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the earthquake was the real object of our desire — the one that made our hearts flutter and our palms sweat. You could bet any native Kansan who denied wanting to experience a significant seismic event at least once in their life, was a liar and not to be trusted. But as fate would have it, our collective yearning for this forbidden fruit was fulfilled in the mid-aughts when the fracking industry set up shop in the region. For better or worse, its destructive externalities turned the once rare earthquake into a weekly nuisance along the state’s southern border. So the moral of the story, kids, is be careful which natural disasters you wish for — they might just come true!

After arriving at the HoJo, I was relieved I no longer had to contend with that thieving parasite from Oklahoma City, but as I exited the car I discovered our getaway wasn’t so clean. No, his severed arms weren’t dangling from the rear bumper. Instead, I found the gas nozzle had somehow hitched a ride with us without either of us noticing. Being the environmental steward that I am, I took it upon myself to dispose of the nozzle in the most responsible manner possible. So I marched toward the algae-plagued hotel swimming pool, figuring it was the optimal hiding place for the evidence. Unfortunately, we came upon a half dozen mulatto children splashing around in the stagnant waters while their expectant mother sunbathed topless nearby. She didn’t appear the least bit concerned with their antics, nor the high likelihood that lethal brain-eating amoebas could be swimming up their nasal passages. She was busy alternating her thin lips between a Newport cigarette and Coors Light tallboy while her breasts simmered under the sun’s relentless gaze. As someone who despises body-shaming, especially when it comes to the female body, I of course had no complaints with her flat chest and the small baby bump poking skyward. I’m more of a leg man anyway, which appeared to be her most compelling assets from afar. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before she was using them to communicate her interest, rubbing baby oil from hip to toe, before sliding her hand between her glistening thighs. But being the antithesis of a creep, I ignored her desperate pleas for attention and reared back to toss the gas nozzle into the deep end of the pool, which of course was devoid of children. Thankfully, Carlos, who still had his wits about him, grabbed my arm and urged me to pursue a less confrontational option. So we made our way to the rear of the hotel, where I flung the nozzle over a fence onto airport property. As it crashed onto the pavement, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. Bygones are bygones, I reminded myself as I stumbled back into the hotel, so let them be.

* * *

Our beloved fireball crept below the horizon as we oscillated down the freeway toward the Marriott Hotel, where room 915 would reveal her final surprise. While I battled the steering wheel for control of our fate, Carlos twisted the dial on the stereo, amplifying Pimps, a 1993 ballad by Memphis rap duo Eightball & MJG. The journey across town allowed our tummies to recover from the extra large blunt we smoked and the even larger dogshit pizza we regrettably inhaled as a result. Getting it delivered to our room had proven to be a tall order, considering my vegetative state. Carlos showered, leaving me to thumb through the phone book in search of pizza. But grappling with paranoia and an inability to focus, it took me at least three minutes to determine whether the letter ‘P’ did in fact follow ‘O’ in the alphabet, a fact not evident even to the soberest of minds. After phoning a local pizzeria, the hardest part came when they challenged me to choose my toppings. My current state of mind wasn’t suited for the barrage of possibilities, so I kept it simple — pepperoni. I wasn’t in the mood to fulfill Carlos’s complex request for extra cheese, sausage, pineapple, or whatever the fuck he hollered out from the shower. So he would just have to eat the goddamned pepperoni and deal with whatever discontent ensued, including diarrhea — a consequence of shoving the slices of undercooked dough down our throats before realizing they were slices of undercooked dough.

With our digestive tracts on the mend, we floated into room 915 at the Marriott, where we were greeted by an extra face. There was something oddly familiar about her seductive grin, slender legs, and baby bump, but it was her signature Coors Light tallboy in hand that confirmed her identity as the HoJo girl who had been leering at us. I thought I must be hallucinating, but if not, then where were her kids? Presumably still festering in that giant Petri dish. The ease with which she mingled made it clear from the jump that she too was a member of this team of drug mules with whom we were consorting, which meant the DEA would surely be kicking down the door at any moment. I figured we better get a move on to Old Town if we planned on eluding the Feds, but nobody seemed in a hurry. In fact, Smokey was serving up Hennessy as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Lodi Dodi set the mood from the boombox. The sharing of the cocktails seemed like the perfect time to congratulate my teammates on the day’s hard-fought victories, so I raised my cup and proposed a toast to “team basketball”, which for some reason garnered a round of gut-busting laughs, even from Miss HoJo. Embarrassed, I attempted to hide my face at the bottom of my cup. But that only added insult to injury, as their liqueur of choice did no favors for my stomach — although chugging it probably wasn’t a smart decision in hindsight.

It wasn’t long before the alcohol lowered my inhibitions for the first time that day, allowing me to strike up a conversation with Miss HoJo, who disclosed that she was 27 — before adding that 27 was the new 17. She mentioned she was in town from Dallas, which I assumed meant she was the southern leg of the drug-running relay team. She perked up after I feigned concern for her children and asked about their whereabouts, but she assured me they were plenty old enough to babysit themselves and that she‘d trust them until they gave her a reason not to. I guess she was one of those free-range parents, which was refreshing to hear. I told her as much, lauding her for her radical approach to motherhood and for not falling into the trap of helicopter parenting like all the other middle class stiffs out there. She giggled and thanked me for the kind words, briefly touching my knee in a manner that one might interpret as a sign of sexual interest. She playfully asked if I was looking for a date, but I told her upfront I didn’t have much time for dating since I was so consumed with my undergraduate studies. She asked what undergraduate meant, and I explained it was just a fancy word for college.

I grew tired of the small talk, so I figured I’d cut to the chase and ask her name. Turns out, Donna was her name. She certainly looked like a Donna, with her sandy hair, blue eyes, and mousy features. Judging by her flirtatious nature and the fact she’d been knocked up six times by now, I assumed at least one of us was getting laid tonight — maybe two if she was ovulating. So leveraging my boyish charm, I inquired about where she stood in her menstrual cycle. To my shock, she responded by slapping me in the face and insisting that “pregnant women don’t get their period, you fucking dumb-ass!” Then she stormed off into Glock’s waiting arms, sobbing into his wife-beater while he rolled his eyes over her shoulder, his way of reassuring me this wasn’t the first time she had become hysterical over an innocent question. Through her tears, she muttered something into his chest about how she was “tired of you guys using me to make money!”, whatever that meant. Maybe she had grown weary of driving from Dallas with a trunk full of cocaine — especially with a bunch of noisy kids in the backseat. I’d be totally annoyed too!

I watched longingly as Donna and Glock’s warm embrace gave way to a steamy make-out session, culminating with Glock grabbing her by the vagina — a shocking development considering our presence in the room. It was the last thing I remembered until waking up in the bathtub in a cold sweat. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been there — it could’ve been hours. I immediately ran my hand over my abdomen and lower back, making sure I hadn’t been robbed of my most vital organs. Everything checked out, but I still felt like a puddle of vomit and realized the ship had sailed on going to Old Town, along with it my chances at getting laid. It was a sobering realization, to be honest.

But my pity party was short-lived, interrupted by the sweet vocals of none other than R. Kelly. I thought it odd to hear his voice, as the brothers had been blasting nothing but gangster rap all day. Perhaps they were looking to wind down the evening with a more tenderhearted selection of music. Their song of choice was Ignition (Remix), the hit single from the R&B singer’s recently released album Chocolate Factory. It occurred to me that the song had been on repeat for several iterations, not surprising given its catchy nature — perhaps the catchiest tune I’d heard all year. As it transitioned to the second verse, it was accompanied by a chorus of moans, but these weren’t Mr. Kelly’s sensual grunts; it was something entirely different —  something bordering on obscene.

I staggered from the tub, crawling on my hands and knees to investigate. Cracking open the bathroom door, the first thing I saw were Glock’s Timberland boots rocking back and forth near the foot of the bed. To be completely transparent, I’d been consumed with envy every time I laid eyes on the boots. There was something aesthetically pleasing about the sharp contrast between the beige boot and Glock’s dark skin, something I knew wouldn’t translate so well to my own leg. But with a crisp pair of dark-washed denim shorts — and after a decent summer tan, I might just be able to pull off the look.

From the boots, my eyes ran up his legs to behold what might’ve been the most disturbing sight of the weekend. Glock was naked (other than the boots), sweating profusely, and thrusting away on Donna’s pasty derriere. All the while, a naked Smokey was sitting on the bed in front of her, having vaginal intercourse with her as she straddled him — all three organizing themselves into a hedonistic seesaw with Donna as the fulcrum. I’m not sure they could’ve picked a more suitable soundtrack for this spellbinding occasion, as Donna resembled a helpless pastry being double-stuffed with mousse on a chocolate factory assembly line. When I finally picked my jaw off the floor, I quietly retreated to the bathroom where I played dead for the remainder of the night. Moments after re-establishing myself in the tub, I heard the brothers howl out in unison, “Oh Donna! — Ohh Donna! — Ohhh Donna! — Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh Donna!” And then silence.

Over the next few minutes, all three came and went to relieve themselves inches from my face, but the occasional urine bubble bouncing from the toilet onto my cheek couldn’t distract me from my anxious thoughts. You see, I was worried Donna had been caught up in what we would now define as a #MeToo moment. I didn’t relinquish this theory until a decade later when I viewed Lars von Trier’s film noir masterpiece, Nymphomaniac. With the help of this film, I finally understood that Donna wasn’t a passive victim, but an eager participant in a ménage à trois — à la Charlotte Gainsbourg in her electrifying role as the film’s insatiable protagonist. Donna’s night in room 915 drew comparisons to one scene in particular, when Charlotte’s character, Joe, enacts a nearly identical threesome with two men who possessed an uncanny resemblance to Smokey and Glock. Nymphomaniac (the director’s cut) is a must-see for art house film snobs and sexually frustrated soccer moms alike, but if you’re on the fence about it due to a lack of A-list star power, worry not. You’ll be pleased to know the picture is buttressed by the always hilarious Christian Slater, best known for his Oscar-worthy performance as pirate radio disc jockey Happy Harry Hard-On in 1990’s cult classic Pump Up the Volume. Not to be outdone, Shia LaBeouf brings his unrivaled acting chops to the film, pushing his artistic boundaries by portraying a white man, curiously enough, named Jerome. That Nymphomaniac didn’t even garner a best picture nomination is a real travesty, reminiscent of the Academy’s egregious snubbing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

So it seems nothing could prevent Donna from unleashing her passion, not even the bundle of joy blossoming in her womb. I still think of that poor fetus to this day, wondering if being vacuumed from its mother’s uterus directly into a trash bin might’ve been preferable to the punishment it withstood that night, as it was poked, prodded, and jostled about with Donna in a sweaty sex sandwich book-ended by the long-cocked brothers. Visualize bologna and mayo squished between soggy slices of pumpernickel bread, and I bet you’ll never eat that again!

* * *

I made it back to the Howard Johnson around dawn, where I found Carlos fast asleep. He would later provide a recap of his Old Town adventures where he and the Indians spent their night mingling with not one, but seven Tammy Lynns, who showed their Wichita hospitality by paying for their drinks all night. Just great, I thought, just fucking great. How very blessed they were to have been met with such fortuitous circumstances. I really was happy for them, but I didn’t want to hear anymore of these goddamned details, because I’d made a concerted effort at that precise moment to stop living in the past and start focusing on future goals, particularly our main goal for the weekend — winning the 2003 Wichita Chicano Classic, which as previously stated, championed a policy of diversity and inclusion — what many would consider admirable objectives. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, a lesson we were about to learn firsthand.

It should be noted that these tournaments left 99% of the disciplinary decisions in the hands of the lone referee on duty, who was usually more interested in the complimentary post-game burritos than calling a flawless game. But there was one responsibility, what I refer to as the Racial Eye Test, which was handled solely by the tournament’s chairman. He was the racial gatekeeper, so to speak, who had full authority to disqualify any player on the spot if a player fell into both of the following categories:

  1. A player who was really good.
  2. A player who couldn’t at least pass for a quarter Mexican.

Under these guidelines, you could theoretically hail from the highlands of Kenya, but if all you brought to the table was your superior VO2 max value and a 2:23:18 marathon time, then we adopted you as an honorary Mexican for the weekend. Similar standards applied to full blown Caucasians, whose limited arsenal of chest passes and defensive floor slaps were welcomed with open arms. But if you were pouring in double-figures and it was obvious you didn’t have a drop of Mexican blood running through your veins, then you stood a good chance of being booted from the tournament in disgraceful fashion. You might be allowed to skate by for a couple games, but eventually you would pay the piper. Your salvation hinged on whether you could produce a birth certificate with proof of your Mexican heritage, or more commonly, if your driver’s license showed a ‘z’ dangling from the end of your surname. Needless to say, things didn’t look promising for Smokey and Glock.

It was a surreal stroll into the rec center that afternoon as a standing-room-only crowd was on hand to witness the spectacle. We would be facing off against perennial powerhouse, the Chi-Town Toros, whose willingness to drive 700 miles was indicative of both their confidence and questionable mental health. These guys did nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe basketball, an unhealthy compulsion that resulted in their five year dominance of the Midwestern Mexican basketball circuit. Under normal conditions, nobody would give us a shot in hell of beating this team, but then again, nobody had seen anything like Smokey and Glock, who quickly became the targets of the crowd’s ire. As we took the court for pregame warm-ups, a couple spectators demanded that the brothers show their birth certificates, as if Barack Obama had waltzed into a M.A.G.A. rally. Let it be known that these Mexican vanguards embraced a mild form of birtherism long before a pumpkin-hued trust fund baby shot it with steroids and fed it to his most gullible minions.

The good-natured ribbing from the fans took a sour turn, however, when a man demanded that someone “Get those mayates off the court! Ándale!” Luckily Smokey and Glock were shielded from the insult because they didn’t know what a mayate was. If you simply must know, it’s the Spanish word for dung beetle, which is known for burrowing its way into large piles of animal shit, before excavating the excrement back out onto land where it rolls the crap into a perfect sphere. Then it will have sex nearby with a female dung beetle, who subsequently lays her eggs inside the dung ball so the larvae have a warm place to thrive. Why they go through the trouble of creating a new dung ball when they could’ve just fucked by the original pile of shit and laid the eggs there, I’m not sure, but I suppose a fulfilling life is often about the journey, not the destination — even for the lowly dung beetle. Anyway, for reasons unbeknownst to me, all throughout Latin America these tiny creatures have become synonymous with people of African descent. On its face, it’s an absurd comparison, although given Glock’s exploits with Donna’s anus the previous night, I couldn’t deny the synchronicity of it all. Speaking of Donna, I had just realized she wasn’t in attendance. She must have loaded up her six kids and headed back to Dallas, but not before allegedly slipping Smokey and Glock two kilos of crack-cocaine to be distributed to the fine people of St. Louis.

Over at the scorer’s table a heated discussion was underway between the Toros coach and the tournament chairman. The coach was bringing forth an official protest, claiming our team had an unfair advantage due to Smokey and Glock’s extra calf muscles. I was floored when I heard the accusation. Did any blowhard in this gymnasium really have a clue how many calf muscles the human male came equipped with? It could’ve been twenty for all I knew, which unfortunately left me in no position to refute his bizarre thesis. But why would he single out the brothers? Was he simply jealous of the defined musculature in their smooth legs? Or maybe he did in fact detect something suspicious in their flexed calves. Maybe he was an orthopedic surgeon back in Chicago and had a keen eye for such things. I suppose it was possible, although judging by the nude Aztec princess on his t-shirt and the beer belly flopping over his stained sweatpants, if he was waddling into a surgeon’s office everyday I can only assume it was to empty out the wastebasket.

With everyone in the gym calling for the brothers to be disqualified — or worse yet, sent back to Africa — the chairman was beginning to crack under the pressure. But the old man’s number one priority was avoiding a physical altercation with either side. He even politely asked if I thought the “mayate gentlemen” on my team might want to voluntarily sit this one out. I nearly choked on my gum; it was likely the first and last time either brother had been referred to as a gentleman. And of course they wouldn’t forfeit their spot on the team, not the same guys who barked at me to “pass the rock” every time I touched the ball. They didn’t drive all this way to act like gentleman, nor to watch a boring set-shooter like myself replace both of them in the starting lineup.

When the Toros coach saw we had no interest in accommodating the chairman’s request, he took matters into his own hands, calling his players off the court and threatening to organize a boycott of all future tournaments if Smokey and Glock couldn’t produce birth certificates “pronto!”. All the while, the brothers began to grow tired of the onslaught of racial slurs being hurled their way. “Dis some boolshit!”, Smokey would declare more than once as he limped back and forth behind the bench. Indeed, it was some boolshit. As a bleeding-heart Liberal, I was disgusted by the Mexicans’ abhorrent behavior. Arleen Lorrance (not Gandhi, you lazy dolts!) stated in the early 1970’s that you must be the change you wish to see happen, and so I would. I rose to my feet, emboldened to right this injustice. I encouraged Trevor and the little chief to borrow from their indigenous roots to invent their own unique dance on the spot to counter the raucous Mexicans. Using their sneakers, they kept a rhythmic beat against the court, as they chanted in unison — “Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!” It was hypnotic, and I was caught up in a trance as I sang along. I hoped our hymn would find its way to America’s aboriginal spirits, who might be able to bring winds of change.

But our pleas were short-lived and ultimately ineffective against the throng of Mexicans. So we were left with just one option — surrender, but only after they threatened to call local authorities and have the brothers escorted from the premises in a paddy wagon. Catching word of the threat, Smokey and Glock bolted for the door, but paused long enough to insult the entire crowd, instructing everyone in the gym to suck their cocks, before informing us all that we were “dirty-ass Mexicans”. Then they sprinted to their Cutlass and peeled out of the parking lot, leaving a trail of smoke in their wake, which for the first time that weekend didn’t carry with it the scent of Cannabis. In their mad dash out of the rec center, they abandoned the little chief, who had been counting on a ride back to Lawrence. But more importantly, Glock left behind his gym bag, the contents of which included the prized baby blue FUBU jersey and his Timberland boots.

My excitement for the loot was tempered by my shock at the brothers’ parting shot. Just who in the hell were they calling dirty, anyway? By my rough count, I was on a first-name basis with at least 200 Mexicans, none of whom I’d accuse of belonging in the soiled laundry pile. Did many of them have what might be considered an unconventional sense of humor? Sure. Were some of them open to novel experiences? I guess so. Were a handful willing to raw-dog the village whore during an alcohol-fueled lapse in judgement? I don’t know, maybe — yeah. But was even one of them dirty enough to participate in a gang-bang with their blood-brother like these East St. Louis hypocrites? I highly doubt it.

Carlos and I never again crossed paths with the infamous Smokey and Glock, but to be honest, I felt it was a blessing in disguise, as I’d grown weary of the foul stench of their toxic masculinity and misogyny. Or perhaps I had just been picking up the lingering scent of Donna’s bodily secretions still residing on their unwashed loins. But it didn’t matter; it was nauseating, and I’d had enough. Besides, that was all in the past, and it was now time to get serious and play some hoops.

* * *

Gliding once again through the Flint Hills, my baby blue FUBU jersey delivered on its promise of elevated confidence and swagger. And my Timberland boots were a snug fit as they weighed on the pedal, pushing the speedometer to a brisk 90 mph. An hour earlier, Carlos had ascended the highest echelons of Mexican basketball glory, going 15 for 15 from beyond the arc on his way to pouring in 59 points in a winning effort over the Chi-Town Toros, who we outdueled while playing a man short. Resting between Carlos’s Nike Air Force One sneakers, the Wichita Chicano Classic trophy extended beyond the sunroof, where the golden Mexican figurine shot a jumper toward the sky. But unlike the Twizzlers, the stout hardware would ultimately make it home in one piece to take center stage in Jules’s trophy case.

A local news bulletin found its way through the thick static emanating from the radio. A young man was in stable condition at a Wichita hospital, the muffled voice stated, the victim of a freak accident at a filling station — something about a laceration to the neck when he was clotheslined by an unruly gas pump hose. I shut it off. There was enough awful news in the world these days with the wars in the Middle East, and I had recently decided to fill my life with only positive vibes. I no longer had time for the bloat of negativity in my life, especially trivial news headlines that had nothing to do with me.

As we breezed past the Knute Rockne memorial, I pondered whether America would someday face a similar fate to the old coaching legend. Would our nation soon begin a slow-motion tumble headlong into the dirt? Perhaps it had already begun, but the signs were so subtle we hadn’t noticed. Maybe in those infant years of the 21st Century when the sweet crude still bubbled from the ground — perhaps our civilization was in fact on the precipice of decline, powerless to a multitude of encroaching forces aiming to rip us apart at the seams, forces more powerful than a gym full of prejudiced Mexicans.

But did our impending demise even matter? I couldn’t help but consider the asphalt trail upon which we rode, how it so effortlessly cleared a path through these emerald hills. Someday this man-made wonder would itself be paved over with something made by nature — a mountain range, or even better, our very own saltwater sea, just as it had been 90 million years ago when prehistoric Kansas bumpkins, had they existed, could’ve built sandcastles on their very own beach, just like the movie stars in Malibu. Speaking of stars, ours will one day bend us over its knee and give every last man, woman, and child on Earth the hyper-marginalized treatment when it slides our collective rump roast into the oven and bakes us into oblivion — here in about 1.2 billion years, give or take. A man named Knute, the fading dream of a 17-year-old rock ‘n’ roller from Pacoima, California, a couple down-on-their-luck drug mules from East St. Louis — all will be long forgotten by then, victims of our never-ending clock. So as long as our imperfect and somewhat insane species is tethered to this meandering stone as it sails through an infinite void, perhaps we should — as the great civil rights leader Rodney King infamously implored us to do — try to get along.

And then a fucking deer darted out in front of me, shaking me from my philosophical musings. But I was famished and in dire need of a nutritious meal.

“Hey little chief, you hungry? I thought I’d hit up the rest stop and grab a hot dog and licorice.” 

I caught a furious gaze in the rear-view mirror. I must have ruffled his feathers, as he looked like he could kill me.

“You have insulted me for the last time,” he began. “All weekend you have shown no respect for the proper name the tribal elders bestowed upon me. In light of your bigotry and ignorance, I demand an apology!”

Maybe he was right. Maybe the natives had it all figured out. If we could return to their indigenous way of life, before the white man brought smallpox and suburbia, perhaps we would be a better nation, one where racism and the worst of what ails us would be eradicated once and for all. Maybe, just maybe, our world would be a far better place while we’re still around to enjoy it.

“I apologize, my friend. What did the tribal elders name you, so that going forward I can address you as such?”

He folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and raised his chin to the heavens as he exuded an aura of confidence for the first time that weekend.

“Orphaned Panda”, he declared proudly. “They named me Orphaned Panda.”

I felt at ease as I flipped the radio back on, just in time for Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk, a soothing melody as we watched the last slice of sunlight slip away from the American prairie, making space for the reflectant moon to reign overhead. With the darkness came a mystical peace, filling the space between the three of us. Maybe it was the spirit of a loved one along for the ride. Maybe it was Ritchie’s ghost. Either way, we were heading home to Lawrence, where a bounty of lovely coeds and a cooler full of Coronas awaited the return of the triumphant Mexicans.

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¡Viva Birtherz!: A tale from saner times in America