There I am, munching greasy General Tso’s chicken outside the Laundromat, when a little girl bikes close and makes me an offer I can refuse.
“Mister, mister,” she says, dropping her pink two-wheeler to the ground.
I look up, perplexed. At 30, I’m still shocked to be addressed “mister” or “sir.” After all, my nose hair remains confined to my nostrils. Mostly.
“Are you thirsty?” She displays a sweating, dented bottle of frozen water and unleashes Cute Grin©: milk teeth and deep dimples. I’m accustomed to kids selling peanut M&Ms to fund fictitious basketball squads, but label-less bottled water is a whole new beast.
“No thanks, sweetheart,” I reply in my best dirty-old-man voice.
“It’s for charity,” she says crossly, dropping her sugar-and-spice act like a werewolf revealing its fanged, hirsute secret.
“No,” I repeat sternly. If my prophylactics ever failed, I’d be a fantastic father.
“Well, I don’t want you to have the water,” she replies. She blows raspberries and pedals off to peddle water to thirstier, more benevolent Brooklynites. Screw her: Though I’ll buy candy from kids, I will not buy bottled water. Lord, I hate the waste.
Americans buy more than 28 billion waters annually, of which 80 percent ends up in landfills. I glug tap, often imbibed from my refillable Nalgene bottle. I tote my carafe everywhere, like Linus’ blanket. I’m comforted by ready access to hydration. Call it quirk. Call it mania. Call it logical, given how I almost died of dehydration.
The year was 2000. I was 22 with a fresh journalism degree. My reward was road-tripping to Nevada’s arid, dusty Burning Man fest, which began last week. A synopsis: Folks construct a twisted, temporary city populated by artists, outsiders, fire fiends and shirt-cockers—that is, fully dressed men minus undergarments. It’s a floppy, searing sight I’d pay to un-see.
My crew was clueless. Whereas other Burners built elaborate shade structures, we had a couple tents and a tarp stretched over our station wagon’s trunk.
“Well, this is certainly…fun,” said my painter pal Bari. We huddled close while windstorms whipped dust and rocks into orifices where dust didn’t belong.
“Pass me the whiskey,” I said. They would become my four favorite words. Then as now, whiskey allayed fears, soothed nerves and erased inhibitions. Thus emboldened, I clambered across a replica Mad Max Thunderdome. I jousted. I let a mask-clad dominatrix whip my rump in return for free booze.
“If you hit me again, can I have another shot of Goldschläger?” I asked, bending over and grabbing the sawhorse. My question was answered by the whip’s crack.
Nighttime revelries relented to morning woozies. A double espresso cleared my head and hastened my downfall. Burning Man’s most vital decree is that attendees must drink water. A gallon daily is recommended. I drank a gallon, though I needed double to combat the dual diuretic drain.
“I’m so, so cold,” I told my friend Andrew, on the fest’s fifth morning. I was shivering inside my parka. The thermometer crested 80. I was dizzy, nauseous and cramped. Women, I felt your pain.
“Are you hungover?” Andrew asked.
It was an honest question, one I answered with a twitch. “Helppppppp meeeeee,” I moaned. Andrew dragged me to the first-aid tent. I was diagnosed with dehydration and placed on a cot. Saline—stat! A nurse alcohol-swabbed my arm’s crook. “You have such nice, plump veins,” she said, prepping a needle. My eyes became dinner plates as I recalled my traumatic childhood immunizations, which required multiple nurses restraining my flailing limbs.
“Shoot, your vein just collapsed,” the nurse said after the insertion failed. Hardly reassuring words, but expected: Under duress, veins sometimes swell and become temporarily blocked. The nurse’s second and third attempts proved equally futile.
“Don’t let me die, don’t let me die,” I wailed. The nurse backed off like I was radioactive and summoned a second nurse—a burly guy with callused hands.
“Noooooooooooooooo!” I screamed. Collapsed vein four. Oh wait, five. Blood trickled down my arms like tears.
“We need Felix,” the nurse said, calling for a butch Native American woman with long, braided locks.
“What’s the problem?” Felix asked. She smiled like Buddha.
“I’m too young to die,” I whimpered, near hysterics.
“We just need some saline to fix you,” Felix said, cleaning my red-streaked right arm. She sought a vein. Bloody failure. By now I’d been poked six times, a veritable needle gangbang. I was a shriveled, pathetic pincushion.
Wordlessly, Felix guided my left hand between her thighs and viced shut, enveloping me with warmth. It was the closest I’d been to a woman all week. “Whaaa…?” I mumbled, marveling at my hand lost between her smooth brown legs.
“Done and done,” Felix said, taping the needle to my arm, sending saline circulating through my parched system. “Now make sure you drink enough water.” She gently removed my hand from her thighs and patted me on that hard spot where my brains should’ve been.
Every time I board a plane and belt in my jiggly belly, I’m convinced I’ll be killed.
Perhaps, I think, as the plane hastens down a runway, I’ll be charbroiled in a fiery explosion. Maybe I’ll be blown to ground-beef bits in a mid-air collision. Or the metal bird will crash into an ocean. My lungs will fill with water as I thrash spastically, deathly aware that I could’ve survived if only I listened to that stewardess’s safety speech.
I’m fatally resigned to my potential fatality. When turbulence bucks the plane like a rodeo bull, I don’t wail like a slasher-flick scream queen; instead, I grab my barf bag and thank heavens I cleared my porn cache off my home computer, preventing my parents from discovering a bookmark for Teenybopperclub.com.
Last week, I flew to San Francisco to visit several friends who’ve exchanged breakneck New York for bong-hitting California. Upon surviving takeoff, I reclined my seat and eagerly awaited Delta’s snack service. Seriously. The airline recently unveiled edibles like hummus and chicken salads devised by chef Todd English, formerly of Midtown’s lamentably named—and rapidly shuttered—English Is Italian.
It was 9 a.m. My belly grumbled for English’s croissant stuffed with turkey bacon, cheddar and apple slices ($6) or maybe a chicken parm on a ciabatta roll ($8).
“What do you have?” I asked a flight attendant. Her wide-load rump smacked my elbow whenever she shuffled past.
“We’re sold out.”
“But I’m hungry.” I pointed to my tummy. It was ready to revolt like some breakaway Baltic state.
“Well,” she said, rifling through her wheeled feeding trough, “we have Clif Mojo bars for $2.”
I resigned myself to chewing this stale rectangle of honey-roasted peanuts, pretzels, crunchy soy crisps and peanut butter. It was filling, but so is cardboard. Beside me, a Taiwanese businessman wearing wire-rim glasses also ordered the Mojo.
“Is this food?” he asked.
He bit. His brow wrinkled. “I need a drink,” he said, extending an index finger at the stewardess.
If he craved cocktails, he was riding the right plane: Cindy Crawford humper Rande Gerber created Delta’s new in-flight drinks, including cosmos, pomegranate martinis and the “mile-high” mojito. They’re priced to pound at an insanely reasonable $5 apiece. You know these are strange times when it’s cheaper to purchase a round-trip ticket and party in the friendly skies than hit a NYC nightclub.
My neighbor preferred Miller Lite.
“It makes me relaxed,” he explained.
“I hear you, my brother,” I said. I curtailed further conversation by withdrawing my laptop and stuffing my ears with headphones. I fingered away, filling the screen with pretentious adjectives like superlative, when my neighbor caressed my left elbow.
“You have very nice fingers,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, examining my bitten-bloody nails and gnarled knuckles of a retired football player.
“I like watching you type,” he added, sipping his Miller Lite. He smiled.
“Thank…you,” I said, squirming like an earthworm. Was this a compliment? A come-on? A sexual kink? Would he slink to the bathroom, tipsy at 10 a.m., and enter the self-gratified mile-high club while envisioning my fluttering fingers? “I like typing,” I added, as flummoxed as a teenage girl receiving her first compliment from an older man.
He nodded and smiled, revealing incisors like yellow Chiclets, then he tilted his melon backward and drained his burp water in one great, greedy gulp. He ordered a second, which was also sucked down with a thirst contradicting the early hour. Perhaps my neighbor’s internal clock was calibrated to some far-off happy hour—a pleasant time of day to drink multiple beers and angle for a piece of ass.
My neighbor tapped my arm again. I tensed up, like when someone hugs me or says, “I love you.”
“I’m so sleepy,” he said, shutting his eyes and leaning forward. He passed out. The time was 10:34 a.m.
What remained of the flight passed in peanut-eating, magazine-thumbing silence, only broken by my neighbor’s infrequent snores. Finally, after five-plus hours airborne, the plane swooped into foggy San Francisco, smacking the runway with a heart-in-my-throat thud. I gathered my bags and sidestepped my still-dreaming neighbor, shuffling away to eat fried-pork tacos, guacamole-loaded burritos and other calorific West Coast wonders that will likely snuff me long before an airplane becomes my coffin.