Electric Sugar

And over in the burnt yellow tent

by the frozen tractor

the music was like electric sugar 

…and I wish I had some whiskey and a gun, my dear

I wish I had some whiskey and a gun.

– Tom Waits

 

– NEVADA –

HEAT

I’m walking the midway of a small county fair, far out in the desert, past the edges of Las Vegas. 

It’s late, Saturday night, inching toward closing time. Most of the families are long gone, back in their suburban stucco houses, exhausted and depleted of both energy and money. 

What’s left on the midway now is a sea of college kids and teenagers, their hormones bouncing off so strong, you can almost see the air change colour above them. 

Territorial and competitive, they’re like cats in the worst of heat, driven by pure instinct. It’s a disconcerting thing to witness when you’re no longer driven quite like that. It’s jarringly primal to be near; the discomfort makes me walk away, walking in any direction where I can find less heat.

I walk, and I wander into the shadows. The quietness of the grass fields is welcoming. The sounds of the heat grow dimmer. I don’t know why I’m here, or what I’m looking for. But I keep walking anyway.

****** 

Eventually I come to a row of trucks and trailers, the modern-day caravans that have brought this show here tonight. Back here, there are no flashing lights, no blaring music, no teens with their hormones bouncing off.

Back here in the shadows, there’s only stillness, there’s only the stuff no one’s interested in. The mundane stuff of life – damp clothes put out to dry, garbage piling up, flies buzzing around. Over here, there’s no fantasy. There’s no show.

And because there’s no show, my mind quiets down and I start looking at the caravans more closely, wondering why anyone would do this, why anyone would choose this kind of life. I wonder why any of us would want to be doing this.

Going from place to place, gig after gig, home being wherever you lay your head. Going around and around in circles, like the carousel itself, sparkling and endless. And for what? The thrill? The rush? All this for a show? A show that has to be torn down, just to be set up again, round and round it goes.

I hear the faint sounds of accordion music drifting in the dry, dusty air. Over there on the Midway, the show is on. But it won’t be here tomorrow. It’ll be gone as soon as it arrived. And that’s me, I think, as I walk in the shadows, next to the caravans. That’s me.

“I feel like you could just be gone at any time.” someone once said to me in a roadside motel room. It wasn’t an insult, but it wasn’t a compliment either. It also wasn’t exactly true.

But it also wasn’t not true.

 

FLASH

It’s alarming, honestly

how charming she can be

fooling everyone

telling them she’s having fun.

– Lana del Rey

Back on the swirling streets of Las Vegas, I had a nightly front-row ticket to a different kind of carnival, a different kind of show. One I’ll call MISTAKELAND.

Every night, everywhere I looked, I saw one mistake after another, to the point I started grouping them into categories. There were the recurring ones, the silly ones, the strange ones and the tragic ones. But my personal favourites were the dressed-up ones. These were the ones that wanted you to think they weren’t mistakes at all.

Like the happy couples getting married at contrived chapels all over town, not really happy at all but SMILE! FLASH! The camera’s on! She beams at the lens in her vanilla white dress, while he stands, says, and does what he’s told, because that’s his job, to do what’ll make her happy. At least temporarily. We all know how this’ll end, including them, but for now FLASH! SMILE! The camera’s on.  And really, isn’t that all that matters? After all, we’re in Mistakeland.

*****

I had plenty of these dressed-up mistakes too of course.

The first time I saw him, he was standing in a casino under some fake pink trees. He was wearing a white shirt, but the phony lights of the trees made it look like he was wearing pink, something I knew he’d never do, even though I didn’t know him at all. 

I remember how I was smiling as I walked toward him. The kind of smile you put on when you decide you’re going to get what you want. Oh, how I smiled. 

See, the thing about Mistakeland is that we love to say: Oh, I didn’t know! If only I had known! Then I never would have done that, said that, spent that, fucked that. I just didn’t know! 

Yeah. Sure.

I knew one-hundred percent. Not ninety. Not ninety-nine. I knew one-hundred percent as I walked toward those pink trees that I was walking toward my downfall. I walked toward them anyway, and I smiled as I did it.

I knew exactly what I was doing, and so does most everyone here in Mistakeland – though good luck getting them to admit it. But all these mistakes, well, we like calling them that. And they run this show, they’re prime currency, the cost of entry, so step right up. And – FLASH! – don’t forget to SMILE! The camera’s on. 

RUN

She says, you don’t want to be like me

you don’t want to see all the things I’ve seen, it’s tiring

she says, you don’t want to get this way

singer by night and a star by day, it’s tiring

and I’m dying

– Lana 

The traveling carnival, to this day, has always been a haven for people on the run. Not necessarily from the law, although we have that too. But if you’re here with the show, chances are you’re on the run from something, and sometimes that something is simply ordinary life. 

Some of us can do the extra-ordinary really well. It’s the ordinary that’s the struggle. It’s the ordinary that we can’t seem to make our peace with, even when we try, again and again. We try and we hope and sometimes we even beg to be changed into something else, something easier, something more suited to the ways of the world. But the answer is always the same, and so the show always rolls on.

It’s nothing new. There have always been certain people, who for one reason or another, can only shine in the shadows, can only be still while in motion.

And see, the show serves us both – Us and Them. Every night, we show them what they otherwise wouldn’t see, what they otherwise wouldn’t experience. We show them the things they want don’t want to admit they wanna see, make them feel what they don’t want to admit they wanna feel.

Every night, for a few hours, we show them what exists outside their world, give them a tiny glimpse into something beyond the ordinary. And they eat it up. For a little while. But just for a little while, for a little is all they can handle.

And we know a little is all they can handle, that’s why we tear it all down, to put it back up, and move on to a different place…a place that always looks the same, but just different enough to keep us wondering if this one will be any different.

It never really is, but that’s not the point. The whole point is the MAYBE. The point is the never-knowing. The point is that Unpredictability is the ultimate drug, and we’re alive with its lust – addictive, electric, the ultimate sugar.

You always think that somehow, the next one will be different. That maybe the next thing, next place, next person will be better. That maybe – just maybe – something will be around the corner and maybe it’ll change everything. It’s the MAYBE that keeps you on the wheel.

Because no matter how many times it doesn’t happen, no matter how many times you roll into the same place and meet the same people and get the same result, you still have that tiny sliver of chance – that next time will be different. That tiny glimmer of hope that the next one, somehow, is the one that’s gonna turn it around.

So even when the gamble starts gnawing at you, even when today becomes tomorrow and tomorrow becomes the next day and the next – it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not gambling forever, you’re just gambling one more time. You’re not buying delusion for the rest of your life – you’re buying delusion for just one more day.

And that right there is the problem.

Because most anyone can keep something going for one more day. And so that’s exactly what you do. You let yourself keep believing it.

Just for one more day.

 

CHOOSE

There’s no use in talking to people who have a home.

They have no idea what it’s like, to seek safety in other people

For home to be wherever you lie your head

– Lana 

Like money, freedom is a currency. And like money, freedom is a divider.

There’s a reason certain social classes tend to flock together. It’s hard to make friends with those who sense you have something they don’t.

What they don’t realize is they wouldn’t want it anyway. To be truly free is not the natural human state. Most people aren’t designed to live with that kind of uncertainty, that kind of self-regulation. Nature simply doesn’t breed them for it. And so, true freedom is the rarest of experiences. Most will never know what it actually feels like.  

I would do that too, if I could.” they say.

Except I can tell you, no, they wouldn’t. 

They’ll deny this, they’ll give you all the go-to reasons, the usual suspects of confinement: money, jobs, bills, houses, family, kids…but there’s another one you won’t hear them mention, because this is the actual one, the big one. And that’s FEAR. Of the ultimate enemy. The Unknown.

There are few things human beings fear more than the Unknown. This is why you’ll find most clinging to the familiar at all costs. Even if the familiar isn’t that great. Even if the familiar is getting them nowhere. EVEN if the familiar is all-out fucking them over. Doesn’t matter. The familiar is known. It’s safe, and it’s trusted. They’re gonna stick with the familiar.

If you’re free, you’re unusual, and if you’re unusual, you’re unknown. You intrigue someone, you pique their curiosity, you make them mysteriously uncomfortable – they’ll never forget you. But they won’t choose you either.

They’ll remember you, sure. But they won’t choose you. And you’ll be on your way to the next place, next gig, next person, next thing, again and again, around and around. Because that’s just the way it rolls and that’s just the way it goes.

They’ll remember you, sure. But they won’t choose you.

 

WILD

I’m walking near the tilt-a-whirl when I see a small group of people gathering around up ahead, pointing and gawking. I pick up my pace, and as I get closer, my heart sinks in my body. It’s a caged panther on display.

The panther paces back and forth, in a cage just big enough for it to turn around and pace a few steps more, before it has to turn around again.

Its anger burns with each step; I can feel its rage so heavily that everything goes still. Everything goes silent, and suddenly there’s no more music coming from the carousel, no more squeals and shouts from the rides, no more carnies hawking their games. Everything goes still.

I watch the panther behind the metal bars; its eyes are glassed, it’s likely been drugged with sedatives. But there is no sedating the wildness and fury radiating from this cage. Every pace, back and forth, is a violent scream.

In the backdrop of silence, I don’t know what to feel first – horror, helplessness, shame, fear. I know what I’m seeing, but I don’t know what to do, except stand here frozen in place.

I glance at the others around me, for some kind of help, some kind of understanding at the shared devastation of what we’re seeing. But they’re smiling. They’re pointing and taking pictures and lifting their children up in the air to get a better look.

They don’t see anything wrong. In fact they’re happy, because for a few minutes their kids are entertained and SNAP SNAP SNAP go the phones and there’ll be memories to look back on and pics to post and everyone’s happy and getting their money’s worth, so what’s the problem?

None of them see the fury of this panther. None of them see that its captivity is its torture, its slow death is our entertainment. None of them even notice. SNAP SNAP SNAP go the phones. None of them see anything at all.

*******

I’m walking in the forest one day when a beautiful red fox darts out from the trees. It startles me, and I tense up as I watch it run into the pines. So light on its feet, yet purposed and determined, like it knows exactly where it’s going.

The next day I see another one, and this time, it pauses briefly to look at me. It stares me right in the eye, just for a second, before taking off into the dusk.

The thing about wild animals is you’re never gonna see them in the same place, doing the same thing twice. Always on the move, their lives a complete mystery, they roam and appear at whim.

The rare times that you do cross paths with a wild creature, there’s always the elements of surprise and awe. But there’s also usually fear.

Because they’re wild, and in that wildness is the unpredictable.They can be beautiful, mysterious, delicate even. But you still never know quite what they’re going to do.

And unlike the creatures you’ve domesticated, confined and conquered, these wild ones you have no power over, for they don’t live in your world.

So you have to keep your distance, just like they know they have to keep their distance from you. The fox looks at you, looking at her. And while you may not be a threat to her, she also knows you are not one of her.

Even if she stops to look at you, decides to share a brief moment with you, she is not one of you, and she’s gone as soon as she appears.

I walk among the pines and peer into the trees. I don’t know if I’ll catch a glimpse of the fox again. I hope I do, but there’s something in the not-knowing that seems enough.

And even if I do see her again, I’ll never know when, or where, or for how long. She’s free; she roams and leaves and returns, all on her own whims, all in her own time. As she’s meant to.