The Zen of Steve Jobs

Hey all. I recognize that there aren’t too many of you left. I’ve done an abysmal job of dusting off this website with any sort of regularity. I blame the fact that I am now a full-time reporter with Forbes magazine. So I do most of my blogging there. Last summer, I also wrote a book — a graphic novel, in fact — called The Zen of Steve JobsIt was published in early January and has since been translated into nine other languages (Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese and Turkish). Working with Forbes managing editor Bruce Upbin and the illustrative geniuses at JESS3 was a powerful and collaborative way to spend the seven months it took to turn this into a reality. Learning how to cook a muffin in an orange peel over an open fire in the Boy Scouts notwithstanding, this book is my proudest accomplishment. So check it out. And let me know if you have any questions!

A smattering of reviews for the book:

  • “… it is unexpectedly rich in its graphic simplicity. The Zen of Steve Jobs might just be the most refreshing thing since the graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman.” – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
  • “The Zen of Steve Jobs is one of the most brilliantly imaginative graphic novels in recent memory.” –
  • “… Both a visual and textual delight …” — Andrew Keen, TechCrunch
  •  “[…] An amazing success…” — iFanboy

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Welcome to Diepsloot

Mo’ inflation, mo’ problems

“Sena! I am welcoming him!” Eddie says, as he fills my glass full once more from a forty of Hansa.

“He is here to work!” Sena replies, “He must not cloud his brain with beer.”

Eddie spits back in a flurried combination of Zulu, Afrikaans, and Tswana.

Joe, the owner of this house in Diepsloot Extension 4, apologizes for the use of non-English languages, as it is abundantly clear that I don’t understand.

“We don’t mean to exclude you,” he says, “but sometimes we are going to slip.”

Joe and Eddie and Frankie, “homeboys from Kimberly,” as Joe puts it, are all here with their wives and children, enjoying tea (for women, beer for men) as the sun sets on Diepsloot, an informal settlement on the Northwest edge of Johannesburg, now home to over 150,000 people. Sena, a short, wiry woman who is alternatively a mother, an aunt or a grandmother to almost all in attendance, is my host.

I’m here to determine whether or not Diepsloot’s national residents will again violently turn on their neighbors from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Mozambique, Somalia and Pakistan — as they did three years ago.

Some background: South Africa has an unemployment rate that constantly flutters around 25 percent. In Diepsloot, that figure is closer to 50 percent. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Fourways and Sandton, which are, for all intensive purposes, not unlike Chicago’s Gold Coast or New York’s Upper East Side — and are therefore popular destinations for domestics and gardeners, many of whom live in Diepsloot. But these workers don’t have their own cars, and travel instead by taxi, which, in South Africa, is a vehicle that can fit 10 or 15 people, all of whom are traveling to disparate destinations. Taking a taxi from Diepsloot to the suburbs normally takes about three hours, Sena says.

High rates of unemployment create high rates of poverty, which, coupled with living in a shack with no water, electricity or toilets, makes life downright shitty. This is the case in many informal settlements throughout South Africa — in Ramaphosa, Zandspruit and isolated areas in Soweto as well as the infamous settlements at Cape Flats and Khayelitsha near Cape Town. Both the dominant African National Congress party and their primary opponents, the Democratic Alliance, have somehow managed to construct outdoor toilets in some of these settlements without bothering to build shelter around them. Remember that scene from A Single Man where Colin Firth finds himself waving to his neighbor while he’s on the shitter? It would be like that everyday, but like, with no walls.

Those patriots among you — true believers in the human capacity to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps — will indeed wonder why these people don’t just get jobs and build their own damn houses and toilets. But the American fantasy of the 90s, with a 5-6 percent unemployment rate, does not exist here. So government has taken on a mandate to provide for people, because the avenues do not exist for them to provide for themselves. And also, have a heart, for chrissakes.

Diepsloot Extension 1, near the mall and the highway, is especially packed, with most people living in shacks roughly 8 feet by 12 feet, regardless of family size. One reason Extension 1 is so crowded is that the government moved hundreds of families from Alexandra to Diepsloot a few years back — these families were living along a river, which flooded often, washing away shacks and drowning their inhabitants. In Extension 1, shacks are built so close you can literally knock on your tin wall to gain the attention of your neighbor. So if you want to listen to music, relieve yourself, yell at your kids or have sex with your wife, everyone will hear you. When it rains, your roof leaks, and worse yet, so do some of the toilets, and the shit water will fill the rut-like paths between the shacks, and if you’re unlucky, even soak into your floor. Your shack is made of scrap. When it’s hot out, its even hotter in your shack, and when it’s cold, you have no insulation. You can light some paraffin if you like, but the stuff is known for burning down shacks and killing entire families. And if this happens, you are so unduly fucked, because you live on a narrow street with no name, and it’s going to take an ambulance a good two hours to get there.

If you’re lucky, you have a job working for a well-to-do Afrikaner or Brit, who lives in a walled compound protected by electric fencing, a reminder of the privacy you lack. You take care of their kids while you leave yours to fend for themselves. You trim their bushes while the fly-spotted trash heap next to your shack hasn’t been collected in months. You’re a guard employed by a private security company, with the duty of protecting this idyllic neighborhood from people like yourself. These are jobs you are happy to have, because without them, you wouldn’t have any job at all.

But the job doesn’t pay enough to buy a house — it doesn’t pay enough to get the fuck out.

Now enter the Zimbabwean next door, whose life, can you believe it, was even worse in Zimbabwe than yours is here, and he’s willing to do your job for more hours of the day, for less money. Ho’ boy.


Everybody in Extension 1 knows Rasta, a robust Zimbabwean man who runs a vegetable stand near the taxi rank. In May 2008, Rasta was one of the Zimbabweans targeted by the South African residents of Diepsloot as xenophobic riots spread throughout the country, killing 62 people and displacing at least 30,000 more. In Diepsloot, like everywhere else, these riots were fueled by shebeens, informal taverns that sell forties of 6 percent ABV Black Label on the cheap. Drunk teens ran around busting into shacks — looting some, burning others and sometimes beating their inhabitants. The goal was to root out foreigners, so the elbow test was invented.

“What is this?” a raider asks, pointing to his elbow.

Answer in Zulu, indololwane, or you are very likely fucked. Never mind that many South Africans do not speak Zulu.

As kwerekwere (foreigner) raids increased in frequency, Rasta and his fellow Zimbabweans organized a meeting. The police had done little to protect them. They were, for the time, on their own.

Rasta organized a march from the eastern-most entry of Diepsloot, north of the mall, along the paved Gateside Avenue that leads past the Extension 1 taxi rank, where his shop is now. He remembers his head buzzing: with fear and with a far-flung hope that all this kak could very well be over soon.  Marchers carried rocks, wood planks, bats and tools– and for a time, these foreigners shared a common cause.

Word spread quickly throughout the settlement and a group of Zulu raiders began to form farther down Gateside to meet the foreigners. As the toyi-toying masses collided,  the raiders couldn’t help but notice that they lacked the overwhelming support from South Africans that the foreigners had from their own people. They were outnumbered. A few brief skirmishes later, the raiders dispersed.

This conflict caught police attention, and they showed up in massive Casspir anti-riot vehicles, built to withstand mine explosions — hand-me-downs from the Apartheid-era army.


Thabani had been in Diepsloot for about a year when the riots started.

“Nobody knew what was going to happen,” the Zimbabwean says, sitting on a couch in Sena’s new shack in Extension 12. “You cannot just walk away from this. I could not just walk back to Zim. There was so much violence.”

He lived in crowded Extension 1, next to Sena, a South African. Sena understood the popular argument against Zimbabweans. They undercut South Africans in the job market. Many were here illegally and did not officially exist, meaning they could rob and loot with virtual impunity — some did. But other than Thabani’s taste for beer — a drink that Sena abhors — she knew that he and his three brothers were good people. She sheltered the four of them, and occasionally Thabani’s girlfriend, for upward of three weeks. Sena did not allow Thabani and his brothers to leave her tiny shack.

“If they found out, they were going to kill us,” Sena says as she prepares tea on a propane camping stove early on a Sunday morning. “They are not going to play around. They will not wait to hear what is going on.”

During that time, Sena became a mother figure to Thabani and his brothers, as she is for almost all she encounters.

“Even if I return to Zim, she will still be my mother,” Thabani says.

Sena and Thabani moved from Extension 1 to Extension 12 together. 12 is more organized, with vehicle-sized roads, yards, and outhouses for each shack. But it has no electricity, and Sena walks a block to fill up her water bucket. She has been on the government housing list for nine years, but was told last week that her name no longer appears on the list. Her spot was probably bought out — most likely by a friend of someone in Housing, and now she has to start the process all over again — from the back of the line.


A family friend and taxi-driver who heard through the grapevine that I was arriving in Diepsloot explains to me that he thought I was an American tourist. He took off work with the expectation of driving me to Fourways and Sandton for bar-nights when I wasn’t working. I explain to him that I’m in Diepsloot to be in Diepsloot, and have no intention of going elsewhere. He tries to argue that the miscommunication is somehow my fault and while I don’t know how it could be, I give him what cash I have, the equivalent of about 10 dollars. I was warned about crime in Diepsloot, but  wasn’t expecting a robbery to go down like that.

Sena lives alone, but tonight, two of her grand daughters, fascinated by the presence of a “whitie” — not to mention an American “whitie” — sleep over. Sena is a domestic worker with an understanding employer, and she does alright for herself. Her shack’s yard is covered in grass, and three rose bushes grow along her fence. This is both absurd and beautiful. Her toilet is immaculate and she may be the only resident in Diepsloot with throw-pillows on her couch. It’s 8:30 when we retire. May is late fall in South Africa, and it has been dark for two hours now — our breath begins to form small clouds in from of our faces in the oil-lamp light — and there isn’t a whole lot you can do in the cold and dark. Sena is an angel, and gives me about eight blankets.

“You mustn’t be cold, It isn’t fair,” says the woman who lives in a shack despite working six days a week.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m warm.


Thabani feels safe knowing that Sena will keep him in the loop, but that doesn’t mean he feels welcome in Diepsloot.

“When you are walking, you feel people view you as ‘something,’ not ‘someone’ — as if you have done something wrong, even when you have not.”

He’s not making it up.

Sena’s relatives, over tea, tell me that Zimbabweans continue to be a problem. They recount a night when they  were held at gunpoint by two men who told them to hand over their cellphones.

“They even said to us ‘we are Zimbabwean, we know you like to blame us,'” Joe tells me, but I see no reason why South Africans couldn’t identify as such to deflect blame.

Xenophobia in South Africa is not blind. Just like the American kind, it is riddled with double standards. As Americans make no bones about Canadian immigrants, so too do South Africans seem to shrug off incoming Malawians — “they have money, and they are good people,” Joe says. Of the 62 killed in 2008, none were white — and my presence is too much of a novelty for me to feel threatened in any way. After all, I’m not competing for the same jobs, and the idea of me robbing anyone in Diepsloot is laughable. Amazingly, one man does gesture to me, circling his elbow with his finger. Good eyes, I think, as I feign ignorance with a “Howzit?”

I wake up to cold dew dripping from the roof onto my face from the tin roof. I dip my cup into the water bucket, have a drink, and step out into Sena’s yard.It’s 6:45 on a Sunday and already people are moving around, and I can’t imagine what a view I must be, in that yard, be-frumpled, groggy-eyed and very white.

“Do you live here?” one man asks, stunned that any white person could, or would.

I am reminded of a man named David who I met in Zandspruit.

“Is this a nice place? Would you like to live in this place?” David asked, sitting a few yards from a sewer cap leaking gray water.

I shook my head. “No, of course not. I’d be lying if I said I did.”

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Essay: Overwhelm/Thaw

In the winter, traveling is a chore. Its so cold that you’ve convinced yourself death will follow long exposure — so you remain indoors. And people tend to drink more (maybe to keep warm) but this lends itself to puking and encounters with fat or otherwise regrettable looking people. The sun remains elusive, and when it does come out, it always seems to be on those bitterly cold windy days that hunch you over. So really, you only notice the sun when it blinds you as you look up to cross a street.

Winter, by no fault of its own, also happens to come around that same time in the academic calendar when the novelty of higher education wears off and you become numbed to all the fancy buildings that you were once so taken with. The “honeymoon phase” with roommates comes to a close as responsibilities are shirked and dishes pile up and the cans and bottles and cups fill the living room and sometimes someone takes the time to shape these into a diamond or triangle but rarely does anyone take it upon themselves to take out the trash because this would involve going outside which, even on the sunny days is a cold and unpleasant chore (made more miserable by the mutt that the neighbors keep in their backyard who lashes at you when you get near the fence which is where the trash bins are). You promised yourself you wouldn’t be that guy who asks who was the last one to use the pizza cutter or the third (and last) skillet without washing it, but here you are, being called “mother-hen” and feeling like it while your roommate is playing video games in a pile of Chinese take-out and beer cans and is talking about anal sex with your neighbor over XBox chat. Said roommate has the audacity to snap at you as you pass between him and the T.V. screen on the way to the kitchen (which houses the floor that he has promised to clean for nearly a week but he gets too high too early to mop it and instead makes “cheesy pasta” in a pot which he also won’t clean). Never mind that you yourself aren’t so perfect and occasionally (among other, more egregious offenses) throw silverware into the sink, knowing that your roommate has filthied so many (because you are keeping track, because it is winter, and you have nothing better to do) that there is no way he is ever, ever going to know it’s yours when it comes time to clean them – you feel put-upon by the mere fact that it is winter and have convinced yourself that you are a saint simply awaiting canonization and everyone else should feel fucking blessed to even be in your presence. It is now that you realize that your roommates aren’t friends at all but are rather family members sans blood relation, which you (St. McCleanly The Put-upon) must take into consideration when you try to rationalize why you  are dealing with all of this to begin with. You wonder how you ended up with these kids who can’t make Mac n’ Cheese and whose mothers still pack their clothes for family trips because you most certainly grew up knowing how to take care of your shit and now the nice juice tumblers your brother got you for Christmas are paying the price and are literally breaking under the weight of your roommates’ sloth, filth, incompetence and dirty dishes and CHRIST who’s hair is that mixed in the mess of cheese and butter caked onto the stove? Your bachelor pad is not sexy or freeing. It his home but smaller, filthier and tuna-ier. All this comes to your attention in the winter, when you can’t escape to the outdoors, because if you are exposed for too long, you might die, you figure. Also keep in mind that this all really important to you because your sense of perspective is totally out of whack.

One of your roommates believes that winter is cursed. He doesn’t drink to keep himself warm, he’s looking for the sun or good fortune or something at the bottom of his cup. He has had two romances go terribly awry during the season so he has become wary and doubly self-deprecatory (and only sometimes in a funny way) as this winter has progressed and you want to tell him to please clean the fucking dishes but you also see that he either needs a sun lamp or a hug or he might jump into Lake Michigan but you don’t have a sun lamp and he has this uber-hetero thing going on that keeps him from receiving and/or offering hugs, so you opt not to mention it this time and you go into your room instead (because remember you can’t go outside – there’s a good chance you could die) and count the number of juice tumblers that have survived since Christmas because you now hide them in your closet where you hope they might be safe.

School, like the weather, doesn’t seem to let up so you have this dual pressure on you at all times, the one that says you can’t go outside and the one that says you are never done with work so what in Sam Hill do you think you’re doing going to a party when you have an entire book to read by Tuesday? So you start to question whether or not you should be in college at all because if you were a car mechanic at least when the clock strikes five you know you are done and there is some peace of mind until the next morning. But you are choosing to spend most of this period of sexual potency and (relative to the past) good looks sitting in your room reading about average total cost and below-the-line marketing and the scarcity paradox while looking out your window into the brick wall three feet away and being frustrated by the amount of clutter you have managed to collect over the course of six months. You’re thinking that maybe you can cook yourself something nice for dinner (the first and last bit of green you’d see all day) but then you remember what the kitchen looks and smells like and you opt for some tortilla chips and a can of refried beans instead. Now, as far as you can tell, your roommates are actually a detriment to your health and they’d be a detriment to your wallet too if walking to a restaurant in this weather weren’t such a quest of goddamned epic proportions.

This is your life and now you are living it from week to week because the only bit of solace comes on weekends when you get to sleep with the alarm off. You remember when you were younger and how ten minutes used to feel like forever but now you can spend ten minutes listlessly scratching yourself on the couch, which relativity makes feel like thirty seconds. All your friends still make fun of you for that time freshman year (winter, of course) when you drunkenly proclaimed “all the days are the same,” but with each passing day you are more and more convinced that you probably have not said anything more profound your entire life – because all the days are the same in winter. Not that the days have always been the same — they’ve become increasingly redundant as you’ve grown older because the actual quantifiable amount of new stuff in them decreases as you continue to learn and continue to live in the same place. Not to mention you have chosen (remember: chosen) to surround yourself with people who measure human worth in terms of how much trivia you can spew concerning things like movies, music and art so you have a vested interest in acting like you know about the things you don’t actually know about which forces you to act jaded even on days that have some new stuff in them.

Then there is a sunny day that is also mercifully warm (and not the same) and you find yourself walking the long way to the train to go downtown (because the cold isn’t there to force you to  think in terms of hypotenuses and semaphore wait-times) to do some research and there’s so much space outside and you don’t remember the tops of these buildings because you couldn’t see them from under the awning/hood of your winter jacket. For a while you are filled with the same sort of wonder that makes ten minutes feel like ten minutes and you don’t buy that “time flies when you are having fun” because you’re on Cloud fucking 9 right now and time has never passed more slowly. There is something human and primal that makes you want to rub your face in the piles of yard work on the lawns you pass and you are suddenly predisposed to smiling at passing dog-walkers and picking up little gifts for people that you’ve never quite considered getting gifts for before. You arrive at an adult special education class in a downtown ethnic community center and you can’t focus on the interview you are supposed to be conducting because you are having a conversation with an elderly woman who is speaking Nepalese which you don’t understand at all but you can tell that the weather seems to have affected her in the same way it’s affected you. She’s very handy and you can’t help but be a bit flattered and you could almost jump up and do the exercises that George Forman is currently leading on the fading TV screen because all clichés aside or included, spring is coming and now you can’t seem to remember why the dishes ever got to you in the first place.

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Gustavo wasn’t trying to kill you

My Hairy Friend enjoys a drink in Casino

The Man’s Man was not a fan of my sunglasses. He never said so explicitly, but anytime My Hairy Friend and I were preparing to leave Casa de Corazon, he would offer me one of the two pairs of aviators he kept handy.

The sunglasses I wore were not my own. I had borrowed them to play dress up for a party and had never returned them. They were tacky things – massive faux bamboo frames and rose-tinted. I had been told by multiple, independent parties that they made me look like Elton John.

I am a fan of loud fashion pieces, but I wore these sunglasses because they made me feel good. Not sexy, or well-dressed, just good. As it turns out, there is something to that old song – looking at the world through rose colored glasses just makes everything look better. In a rose-tinted world, the sun is always setting.

The Man’s Man gave me his pitch once more as My Hairy Friend and I prepared for another afternoon of exploring. We were leaving a little after noon, the hottest part of the day in San Miguel. This was partially the product of our sleeping late and partially the product of our passionate desire to return from Mexico with a tan.

We perused the market, an art gallery and returned to El Jardin at the center of the city – our favorite people-watching spot. There, people bought balloons and roasted corn slathered in butter. We opted to sit in the sun, in silent agreement that our tans still needed work.

Later that night, we would return to a seedy bar we had discovered while shopping a few days back. If it had a name, we were unaware, but above its entrance was an old sign that simply said “Casino.”

When we had first wandered into Casino it was three in the afternoon. I made small talk with the bartender – it seemed only polite seeing as we were the only ones there. I asked him why no one else was around. He said with a disapproving frown that it was too early to be drinking. I found this refreshing, seeing as everyone else we encountered had been unduly friendly, normally in situations where they could score either a tip or a drink. I told My Hairy Friend what the bartender said. He shrugged and suggested that we get another round of sangrias. I gave the bartender a tip for honesty.

We returned to Casino for the cheap drinks. Anywhere else in San Miguel, a margarita would cost you 60, 70, 80 pesos or more. At Casino, you could get two for 40 during the weekdays. I thought this was a fair deal – 20 pesos for a drink, dim lighting, a too-high counter, a judgmental bartender and a dubbed documentary about Bon Jovi playing in the background.

There were three people in Casino that night. Two were Mexican Jan Terri look-alikes and the third was a wiry, shifty guy who sat at the counter talking boxing with the bartender. My Hairy Friend and I ordered a couple margaritas and planned our night. When he thought we were moving too slow, he ordered eight more and said we would split them – my total for the night was three, his was seven.

The man down the counter caught part of our conversation and jumped in. His transition from Spanish to English was smooth. His name, he said, was Gustavo. I began to reply in Spanish and was interrupted.

“I speak English thank you very well,” Gustavo said, sounding a little offended.

I just wanted to practice my Spanish.

The bartender made eyes at me that said “You really don’t want to get involved.” But I was too far gone to care, and My Hairy Friend’s interest was clearly piqued.

“You want to know how my English hears so good? I crossed the border all the times when I was younger. I was selling coke in Texas. You know coke?”

My Hairy Friend said yes. I rested my head on the counter and felt my chest for the rose-tinted glasses, but I had left them at Casa de Corazon.

“Yeah, man. That’s some good shit, yeah?”

My Hairy Friend nodded. Gustavo went on:

“Yeah. If you do coke all alone, you’re an addict, man. But if you do it when you’re drinking, it’s okay because you’re just do it to be awake so you can drink longer. I do coke when I want to wake up, to even you out man.”

My inebriated friend concurred:

“Right. You can’t be an addict if you do coke while you’re drinking.”

Gustavo continued:

“Yeah.  I was in jail for some years. I was caught when a girl overdosed.”

I looked up and locked bleary eyes with My Hairy Friend, doing my best to send him warning signals through telekinesis.

It was then that Gustavo decided to reenact the scene of this girl’s death. Emphatically gesturing at the empty seat next to him. He seemed to forget where he was.

“It’s like, chill down man, chill down, you didn’t have to snort the whole thing at once, I wasn’t trying to kill you, I was just trying to make some money, you don’t got to snort the whole thing like that.”

His act brought the attention of the fat women to the counter and My Hairy Friend’s jaw dropped. The bartender stared.

With a shiver, Gustavo looked up sheepishly and smiled.

“You like the salt?” he asked, pointing to My Hairy Friend’s margarita, “the salt is the best part. It’s not sweet.”

My Hairy Friend and I both said we liked the salt.

“Yeah man. Man is this the best. We should stay here and drink all the night.”

We left shortly thereafter. I gave the bartender a tip for taking care of Gustavo.

That night, I fell asleep with the rose-colored glasses on.


Filed under San Miguel

Montel to Wilson: Part II: Not Montel

The man on the platform is not Montel Williams. Of that much I am sure. Reason one: Montel Williams is a southsider, and I can’t conceive of any possible business he might have in the near north suburbs. Reason two: I doubt he rides public transit, and if he did, I’m sure he would know where Wilson is. Reason three: Montel Williams has a powerful-looking jaw-line, but this man’s jaw-line is much softer.

I’m not terribly quick on my feet. Were I, I’d play along. I could be Ira Glass or Nicholas Cage. Tim Curry?

“I’m Caleb,” I say.

“Caleb. Nice to meet you. You seem like a nice guy.”

“Thanks, Mr. Williams.”

Maybe he doesn’t think he’s Montel, maybe he is coincidentally named Montel and looks like Montel.

“So what are you up to these days, Mr. Williams?”

“Well, you know, ever since they stopped airing my show – travelling. Been to California. Boston. Canada.”

Nope. He thinks he’s Montel. Or he thinks that I could possibly think that he’s Montel. I don’t get it. He doesn’t have the air of a crazy person about him. He’s clean, he’s well spoken, and he hasn’t asked for change yet. We get on the El.

“Can I borrow your cell phone?”

There we go.

I hand him my phone.

“Don’t worry, it’s a local call,” he says as he dials.

Montel Williams borrowed my phone. Well, Faux Montel Williams borrowed my phone. Reason four.

“HEY PAUL!” Faux Montel yells into the phone, “YEAH. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH. I’M ON THE…” he looks at me.

“Purple line.”


Montel is making quite the scene. There’s no reason to be yelling, the car is quiet, and those few other passengers in the car begin to look at us. Yes. Us. Because I am now associated with Faux Montel, who, by the looks of things, has never used a cell phone before.


The car watches as Faux Montel passes my phone back to me, thanking me and further implicating me in the ruckus that he’s causing. But he’s off the phone now, and he’s quieter.

“Man, that’s a nice phone. What kind of phone is that?”

I examine the phone. I tell him it’s a Samsung, because that’s all I know about it. It’s one of those free flip-phones that comes with a contract. Or deal. Or whatever.

My worthless reply reminds me of when I was growing up. I collected Hot Wheels cars. My Hot Wheels car collection is about the extent of all manly endeavors I have participated in to date – save the few times I have fished, grilled, or grilled fish.

My collection started early. Early enough so I couldn’t read the packaging to determine what the name of the car was. When I grew curious, I would take new cars to my father, who would examine their black plastic undersides.

“This one’s a Malaysia,” he would say.

An orange van. “It’s a Malaysia.” With complete authority.

A moon buggy. “Oh yea, it’s a Malaysia.”

I can’t say for sure, but I think this went on for years.

I now administer all accountability for my total lack of knowledge concerning automobiles to The Old Man.  My understanding of Asian geography is also a bit wonky.

Faux Montel tells me that his phone service, through Cricket, is riddled with hidden fees, so he’s stopped using it. I nod in understanding, and take out Kerouac’s On the Road, which is an awful book, but I figure it will send the proper message to Faux Montel – “I am done talking to you.”

He’s silent for a while, and out of the corner of my eye, I watch him look up the car, out the window, and then to the book in my hand. He leans forward, opens his mouth. I bring the book closer to my face and he begins his circular appraisal of the car again.

I feel bad. A little. But the car is quiet now.

We arrive at Howard. I stuff my book in my bag, and get up. Faux Montel gets up too.

“Hey Caleb,” he says. I’m impressed. I normally fail to remember the names of people who introduce themselves to me. The only reason this one stuck was because the name was Montel.

“You’re a real nice guy. I saw you and I thought you were a real nice guy. And you were. You are.”

I thank him, and say the same of him, but I don’t mean it, because he embarrassed me. And I feel like a total asshole.

He makes his way towards one waiting Red Line car and I make a B-line towards another, when, with a sudden change of heart, I shout:

“Mr. Williams!”

He stops and looks.

“Can I have your autograph?”

Heads turn, and Faux Montel smiles. He strides over and takes the Sharpie from his tee-shirt collar. I offer him my copy of On the Road. He signs with complete confidence. When he’s done, I still make sure to get in a different car than he does.

I am content in knowing that the people around me are thinking I know something they don’t.

I try to read Kerouac again.

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Filed under Chicago, Evanston

Montel to Wilson: Part I: Reunion with The King

I want to go downtown. To Maxwell Street. Well. The Maxwell Street Market. Which is now on Des Plaines Street. But that’s really beside the point. The point is I need another dollar to get down there.

I’m up at nine, and briefly consider waking The Nice Guy to ask him for the dollar. But I have been asking The Nice Guy for money ever since I got back to the city – for frozen pizza, PBR, and rent among other things. The Nice Guy is also not an early riser. I figure troubling him for another dollar at nine in the morning could mean curtains for our nearly-functioning relationship.

“Cut the shit, Melby,” he’d say, imitating a tough-love professor from the journalism school.

It’s Sunday, which means the banks aren’t open. I do have a credit card with $78 on it though. I walk south to Dempster and order the cheapest possible thing from Starbucks, a tall green tea, and ask if it’s possible to pay more in credit and get some cash in return.

“Sorry sir, we don’t offer that here.”

Drat! Foiled! I begin to understand how easy it could have been for Frodo and Sam to give up on their quest – to return home and munch on tortilla chips all day, trying to play the ukulele, and taking a nap whenever the itch struck them.

I wander around aimlessly for a while, scouring the nearby streets for quarters and dimes. I find none. I make my way back to the apartment, defeated.

But I can’t go in.

Everyone in the building knows I planned on making this trip today. If I don’t go, I will appear as The Nice Guy does – shiftless – and with only one desire in the world – to watch TV shows on Hulu. All day.

I look at my watch. It’s nine-thirty now. I think. Hard. I have a credit card with around $75 dollars on it. I’m a bit slow on the uptake. But I think. Hard. If I can take money out of my checking and savings accounts from an ATM, might I take it out of my credit account as well? I make my way to the closest ATM provided by my bank ,which sits just north of my old stomping grounds – Shepard Residential College.

On the way there, a panhandler asks me if I could spare a dollar. I contemplate making a counter offer, but settle on telling him “sorry, no, I don’t.”

Sure enough, I can take money out of my credit account. It’s almost too good to be true. I have been without cash for over a week, and I cradle the single twenty-dollar bill in my hand. But it can’t all go on a transit card, I need to break it.

What was close? What was open? What had cheap fare? The answer to all these questions was the same. Burger King.

I had promised myself I wouldn’t eat at Burger King this year. The Burger King and I have an unhealthy relationship. There is an uneven amount of give and take. That is, The Burger King is always giving, and I’m always taking. By the end of last year, I was eating anywhere from four to nine Spicy Chicken Crisps a week. But this year is going to be different. I’m living far away from the BK, with a fridge stocked full of delicious, healthy snacks.

“But you don’t have any food on you now. And it’s so close. And, you need the change,” The Burger King whispers, “You can just get a coffee, or some breakfast potatoes.”

The Burger King is sneaky. He knows I don’t like coffee or breakfast potatoes. He knows I’m liable to get something else as soon as I step foot in the fast-food joint.

I don’t fail him. Two Spicy Chicken Crisps “and could I get a honey mustard and a ranch with that please? Thanks.”

Before I had left Mankato, I took The Righteous One to dinner. In what she perceived as a joke, I drove through the take-out line at the local BK. Little did she know that I was about to break my summer’s long streak and pick myself up a Spicy Chicken Crisp. “Just an appetizer,” The Burger King said, “you know how small the portions are at The Neighbors. It’ll help fill you up.” Realizing that the tangy, zesty miracle had the potential to ruin the night in more ways than one, I pulled out of the line at the last minute – affecting an air of a refined practical jokester.

It takes me all of three minutes to engulf the two sandwiches.

“Didja like that?” The Burger King asks. I did.

And with $17.80 in cash, I make my way to the Davis stop.

Standing on the platform, a man asks me if this train will take him to Wilson. He is a bald black man, with a goatee and an earring. He would look dignified were it not for his baggy jeans and for the Sharpie marker clipped to his collar. He looks familiar.

“Sure. This train goes to Howard. Howard, you get on the Red Line. Red Line takes you to Wilson.”

“Thanks,” he says, “I’m Montel, by the way. Montel Williams. And you are?”


Filed under Chicago, Evanston


I went running the other night. Well, jogging, I went jogging. I wish I could say this is something I make a habit of, but I normally don’t. I’ve kept a regular schedule for as long as two weeks at a time, only to find some excuse to stop – homework, the weather, general debauchery, etc.

When I went running the other night, it was because I had a bad day. I don’t normally deal with problems in such a constructive fashion – but we were out of PBR.

My bad day went like this. For the third day in a row, The Nice Guy and I tried to scrounge up the remains of the rent that we were supposed to pay on the day we moved in over half a week ago. We failed. This was largely my fault, which made things worse. Part of the problem is I don’t like to be a nuisance. The bigger part of the problem is that I much prefer to complain about how others are annoying me.

On top of this, my new bike got a flat tire, I was riding a throbbing hangover without any ibuprofen (I was too lazy to go get any, and is that what she said?), and it was cloudy. While I’m sure the weather wasn’t choosing to be sub-par as a personal affront to me, it was the sort of day where I felt like it might have been.

So I go for a jog. North. Toward campus. It is on this jog that I realize I haven’t seen Lake Michigan once since returning to Evanston. I live about three and a half blocks from the lake, and have been in town for nearly four days. I resolve to make it to the Lake Fill before the night is over.

The Lake Fill is this: an arching piece of land built into Lake Michigan on the Northwestern campus. Between it and the mainland is a pool of water that I have been told is used for some purposes of heating and/or cooling. But my source wasn’t too reliable, so don’t quote me on that. Regardless, this pool has a fountain in it, and several massive, disgusting carp. The carp tend to congregate by a footbridge that I used to walk past on my way to a class called Intro to Energy, which was a much better class than it sounds. If these carp were people, they would be balding, hairy-chested old men in yellowing wife-beaters with cigars dangling from their mouths. The Lake Fill itself is populated with trees, benches, and a fire pit. Much like a Twinkie, it’s a beautiful thing if you don’t think too hard about how it got there.

Campus is deserted, which is eerie. I make my way past Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and look for the Pick Mallard. He is an audacious duck that likes to hang around the front entrance on occasion when a show is going on. I once invited him inside, but he preferred to continue to waddle around by the doors, drawing uneasy glances from incoming patrons. He is nowhere to be found.

Next I hop up onto the concrete block supporting a piece of modern art on a rotating skewer. I adjust it to my favorite position – an especially loud angle that I find delectably vulgar. Well, that’s how I would describe it if I was a tool-y artist type, anyway.

A luke-warm, humid haze has been sitting over the city ever since I arrived, but it disappears as I cross the bridge to the Lake Fill. I make it halfway around the peninsula, at which point I determine the buzz in the back of my hands and the itch in my calves are reason enough for a break. I don’t know how far I’ve run, but I do know that if I did know it wouldn’t be anything to brag about.

I stretch for a bit then sit down on a bench overlooking the lake. The moon is big and orange, and casts light onto the rocks that surround the fill. They’ve been painted on with marriage proposals, inside jokes, and promises of friendship forever.

As I sit there, I indulge in one of my favorite fantasies. The one where I die young. There is no cause for alarm; I have found that numerous people of (near) perfect mental health have also had such fantasies. Maybe you are such a person.

In the fantasy, people crowd into my wake and sob on each others’ shoulders, recounting my exploits and quoting me like a Revolutionary War hero. A professor promises to get a collection of my work (predominantly high school English papers) published – “Not since the death of John Kennedy Toole has the world of English Literature had reason for such immense sorrow,” he or she will proclaim.

Beautiful girls that I pined after during my high school years will drop love notes in my open casket – “I was too afraid of what people would think, but I loved you Caleb, I’ve always loved you,” the letters read. Old rivals come and whisper in my ear that it should have been them, and not me. “You were always the better one,” they say.

All the while, I watch from heaven, munching a frozen pizza. Because, in my version of heaven, there is an abundance of frozen pizza.

I’m startled out of my fantasy by a tap on my shoulder.

“You hear the birds?”

I turn around, it’s woman in her late forties or early fifties. She’s wearing a strange hodgepodge of things, polka-dotted flip-flops, a zebra-print dress with a sunny yellow Aeropostale sweatshirt pulled over it. She’s carrying a duffel-bag and a garbage bag with her. She speaks with an accent. I’m terrible with accents. I eliminate Scottish, Indian, and Spanish. I settle for French. She smells like clean laundry.

“Excuse me?”

“You hear the birds? They fly and ‘DROOT!’”

At that moment a bird flies low over the bike path, making a noise that sounds a little like “droot.”

I laugh.

“Yes, yes I do. It’s a beautiful night,” I add.

“Yes. Beautiful,” She nods.

There is an awkward silence, and I stand up.

“I’m going to keep running,” I say, “nice to meet you.”

I begin loping away.

“I’m Joy,” She calls from behind.

I stop, turn around, and stride back to offer my hand.

“I’m Caleb,” I say.

“I’m Sofia,” she says, shaking my hand.

I think I stop myself from looking confused, but I can’t say for sure.

“I’m Joy.” She says again. But it’s not “I’m Joy” and it wasn’t “I’m Joy” before either. She says “Enjoy.” As in “Enjoy your run.”

I catch it this time.

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Filed under Chicago, Evanston