The class droned on and on. The heat pulled at my face like heavy fingers, making my cheeks and eyes sag like a basset-hound’s. I fought off the urge to pass out by writing the lecture down. I scribbled a few key points but was distracted by a loud noise outside. It sounded like a crack-spun monkey trapped in a kitchen full of pots and pans. I tried to ignore it and concentrate on the lecture. The banging blew through my skin and shook my bones. I came tumbling out of my head and down into my shoes. My face turned red and I climbed back up into my head. I got up from my seat and looked out the window. In the UC Berkeley quad I saw a strange man. He was seated on the rim of a concrete tree pot in the lotus position. He had dread locks like melting bonsai branches. His face was needlepoint thin and very tan. He was dressed in crumply gold clothing that sparkled in the sunlight. In his skinny hands were two outsized cymbals.
I watched him for a good three minutes. He had an odd rhythm to what he was doing. At first he’d just sit there in silence, holding the cymbals out in front of him. Then as if possessed by the wind or the gnarled branches above him, he’d spring to life and start banging his cymbals at the clouds and the plants and the buildings and the streets. It was an immense racket. Even Mr. Marionette, who had Teflon nerves from years of teaching, started to get annoyed. He told me to come away from the window and not encourage the guy. I did what he asked and sat back down. The dickface outside continued banging away on his cymbals. The air conditioner inside continued not working. The heat and the noise continued to eat my attention away from Mr. M’s lecture. It’s a wonder I ever passed that class and got my TEFL Cert.
As I was driving home from my “graduation ceremony” – lunch at a crummy Pakistani restaurant on the students’ dime – I got a call. I didn’t recognize the number, but decided to answer anyways.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hans, that you?”
“Hey, it’s your Uncle Paco. How the fuck are ya?”
I punched the air and voiced the words, Shit! Shit! Shit!
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Hey look, the dogs and I haven’t seen you in a while. Wanna come by today for dinner?”
“How’s 6:00 pm sound?”
I hung up the phone. I contemplated calling back and canceling. I thought of my Uncle Paco all alone up there on the hill with his dogs. I decided to be a good nephew and show.
I dicked around in Berkeley till 5:30. I drove across the bridge and arrived at my uncle’s at 6:00 pm on the dot. I walked up to his black metal gate and banged on it. His voice resonated through the hall of ferns inside.
“That you, Hans?” he said.
“Hey, I hate to be an ass but Howard (his beagle) just shat himself everywhere and Hank (his rot wilder) took to playing in it and tracking it around the house. Now, I’m in here cleaning up piles of turds and shitty paw prints. Can we make the dinner at 7:00?”
“Sorry, man. I’d come out there and greet ya, but the smell on my clothes would kill ya.”
“S’OK, I’ll wait.”
“Thanks, man. I promise to make it up to you with a nice dinner.”
I walked down his driveway and got in my car. As I drove off I imagined my Uncle Paco rolling my enchiladas with shit-caked fingers and whistling to himself. I nearly threw up my mutton curry. I drove the queasiness off and came back to his place at 7:00. I parked my car and walked up to his black gate. This time it was open. I walked in through his hall of ferns and up to his front door. I rang the bell and waited. The dogs barked their fucking heads off and the door flew open.
“Haaaaans, man!” Paco said.
He stood there with open arms and a horrendously big grin on his face. It looked like he’d just sliced away his lips from his teeth with a razorblade. I schlepped up to him slowly and put an arm around him. He enveloped me with his orangutan limbs and squeezed me tight. My neck and back cracked simultaneously. My eyes almost popped from their sockets. I could smell the caves of Paco’s armpits. They reeked of seawater and beans.
“It’s fuckin’ good to see you, buddy!” he said, pushing me outwards by the shoulders so he could have a look at me.
“It’s great to see you too, Paco,” I said.
“Anyways, come in, come in. The dogs have missed you.”
I followed him into the common area. As I did, the dogs jumped up around me and sniffed my testicles.
“So whaddaya think, man?” Pace said, fanning his arms out. “I just redecorated the place.”
I looked around. The walls and shelves were riddled with ancient and frightening artifacts from all over the world. There were black African masks with ghastly horns and tongues, samurai swords of impossible sharpness and fetal deformations in jars of cloudy liquid. There were rare stamp collections and photos of smiling dictators in their youth. There were glass bottles of every shape, size and color that looked like groves of crystal mushrooms growing up from their shelves. There were hollowed out gourd instruments that reminded me of shriveled cocks, and teakwood shrines that housed daintily contorted Gods making little circles with their thumbs and forefingers. There were paintings of ghostly steamships pushing off into the blue American horizon. There were rows upon rows of antique coins, sucked tight in shiny plastic. Tucked below everything was a single shitty paw print, radiating stink. I glanced at it and snickered.
“Pretty neat,” I said.
“Pretty neat, he says. HA! My place is fuckin’ groovy! Well, minus the shit smell. Do you notice it at all? I’ve been breathing it for the past hour so I don’t fuckin’ know.”
I squinted my eyes and swallowed the puke juices swelling around my tongue.
“Can’t smell a thing,” I said.
“Great, let’s eat.”
Paco put on his mitts and went to the kitchen. He opened the oven and pulled out a streaming pan of red enchiladas. The smell of cheese and onions and chilies filled the room. I almost forgot about the kaka. We loaded our plates up and got to it. The enchiladas were fantastic and the arugula salad to go with was just as good. We washed everything down on the back patio with a few beers. When our bellies were full and the sun was setting behind the hills, Paco asked me what was new.
“Well, I just got my TEFL Cert,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Where’d you get that done?”
“In Berkeley, haha.”
“Why do you laugh?”
“Well, it’s just full’a weirdoes. Like the other day there was this guy with dreads and gold threads in the quad, banging away on his cymbals while we were having our lecture. It was so fucking annoying. Berkeley is filled with these sorts.”
He snorted and swigged his beer.
“You missed his message, man,” he said.
“What? What message?”
“That was a bodhisattva. And you missed his message.”
“What the hell is a bloody-shit-butt?”
“In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing this so he can take compassion on suffering beings. I met a bunch of those guys while artifact-hunting in Northern India and they tried to give me messages like that too. Some I got, some I may not’a. You clearly missed this guy’s though, haha.”
I was inclined to tell Paco to piss off. And had he been anyone else trying to school me on cultural oddities, I’d have done so. But Paco’s unique in our family in that pound for pound and hair for hair the fucker’s been to more weird places and gotten into more weird shit than I have by a pretty green mile. I’m not at liberty to recount all his wicked tales. Let’ s just say the worst of them involves a bag of magic mushrooms, a dead body and a headline in the Caracas Times that reads “Hippie Assassin,” with a photo of my long-haired, eighteen-year-old uncle underneath flipping the bird at the Venezuelan police through the bars of his single-seat paddy wagon.
When Paco finished chuckling at me, I didn’t know what else to say. I sucked down the last of my beer and pitched it in the trash. As I made for the door, he held up a long finger.
“Hang on,” he said. “I got something for you.”
He ran into his bedroom and closed the door. I could hear him shuffling around in there, dropping boxes and flipping chairs. He spat the words “fuck” and “shit” a few times. Then he ran back out.
“This is for you,” he said, holding his hand out.
In his palm was a laminated coin. On one side of it was a faded print of Queen Victoria and on the other, some writing in Sanskrit. I eyed it up and down.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s an old silver rupee,” he said. “Keep it for luck. And hey, it might save you from selling your ass out there on the streets one day. Writing don’t pay much, ya know?”
I laughed and thanked him for the gift. I went in for a hug and he squeezed me again till my bones buckled. The dogs jumped up around us and barked and farted. We said goodbye and I was off.
I left for Prague the following month. I had interviews at two schools and a few flat viewings lined up but that was it. The first of my interviews panned out. By day three, I had a job but still no flat. All the flats I looked at were shit. Either they were cram-packed with smelly students or haunted by one old hag with a platinum hair-bun, shuffling the halls aimlessly. By day five, I was desperate. I searched the net for flat listings but only found one within my price range. I met the proprietor at a pub in Žižkov. He was tall and tan with spiky red hair and green eyes. He wore a Polo shirt with three buttons open and khaki shorts curled at the cuffs around his knees. He reeked of cheap cologne and had a grin on his face that matched his scent. He introduced himself as “Jarda.” He seemed nice enough so I asked him to show me the room. He took me to a graffiti-racked building up the street. We went inside and up the creaky elevator that I swore would give out under our feet. His flat was on the top floor. We went inside and he took me to the room. It was spacious and well lit. The furniture was a bit lacking and the bed looked like it had seen a menstruating stripper or two, but overall the place was decent. I got to chatting with Jarda and, like me, he had a great interest in the Roma (Gypsies). I quizzed him on a few things concerning their language, origins and culture and he nailed all the questions flat. This impressed me a lot. I had a few beers in me, so I decided what the fuck?
I moved all my stuff in the next day. It was balmy out so I had my window open as I unpacked. I put some trance music on to keep my mind occupied. All of a sudden, I heard a rash of barking outside. I looked out the window and saw a dog tied to a post in front of the Billa Supermarket across the street. Pretty soon another person tied their dog up there and it too started barking. Now there were two dogs going at it. The street below was a flooded with barks. Soon another smaller dog joined in. It was a veritable canine “a capella” and it dwarfed the trance music I had blaring from my speakers.
When I’d finally had my fill, I went over and knocked on Jarda’s door. He opened up in his boxer shorts with a toothbrush poking out of his mouth.
“What’s with all the dogs barking?” I asked.
He pulled the toothbrush from his mouth.
“Yeaaaah, dey do dis sometime. I try tell owner I vill release dog if she let him der again, but fucking bitches no listen.”
“Well, is it like this every day?”
“What do you mean, ‘of course’? I mean, who in God’s name brings their dog to the supermarket?”
“To supermarket?!” he said. “Dis nufing! You no see dem fucking everyvere?!”
With all my flat-hunting and interview prep, I hadn’t noticed. I decided to keep my eyes open from then on. The next day, I took the tram to the center to run some errands. Sure enough, no fewer than six people got on with their fucking dogs. I got off downtown, hoping it was a fluke. I went in a pizza place and ordered a slice. As I waited I felt something brush against my calf. I looked down and saw two schnauzers looking up at me and panting. I grabbed my slice angrily and marched off to the post office to mail some letters. To my dismay, a one-eyed bulldog was outside the building, scratching his balls. I mailed my letters and went straight to a pub. I figured that at least an establishment where people eat and drink would forbid dogs. I went inside, and My God! For every dingy dickhead with a beer there was a dog of equal dinginess, biting fleas from its asshole under a table. I shirked the beer and went to buy some clothes. I went on the main sales drag, thinking surly, SURLY, these people don’t take their miserable mutts clothes shopping. When I got there, I was yet again flabbergasted. It seemed like every minute, a long-legged beauty in pumps would tock by with a scruffy little dog face poking out the front of her designer purse. I skipped the clothes and took the tram back to Žižkov. When I got off, I noticed that the entire neighborhood was peppered with dog turds. To top it off, most of the dogs doing the shitting were dressed in cutesy little outfits. I had half a mind to punt one of the little fuckers, mid-shit and send it yipping in front of an oncoming tram.
As I hop scotched back to my place, I thought about everything I’d just witnessed. It occurred to me – as my heel squished a yellow turd - that never in my life had I seen such a disgusting display of canine love. Even my uncle Paco, whose dogs are his surrogate children, didn’t treat the things with such saccharine kindness. I mean, these people were gushing over their dogs; dressing them up in crummy little hats and sweaters and parading them on their spindly legs through the city and into every kind of establishment and not only were others tolerating this, they were downright fucking LOVING it! Don’t get me wrong, as an American I naturally love dogs, but what I saw in Prague that day (and every day after) makes The US look like Yulin, China where they actually have a dog-slaughtering festival during which dog after smiling dog is clubbed over the head, skinned, disemboweled, sliced up and fried into scores and scores of dishes that the townsfolk devour over drinks, dance and general good cheer!
Besides the Czech Republic, the only place I’d ever been to that had showed a single animal species so much love was India, where the cow is worshiped at an almost godly level. My first time in Delhi, I remember thinking, after having witnessed freeway traffic screech to a halt for a crossing cow but then nearly run over the pedestrians that followed it, that if reincarnation was a real phenomenon then cows in India were without question former Hindu holy men or Buddhist monks who had reached the pinnacle of carnal existence and had only to enjoy the fruits of their last earthy shell before slipping into the grey bliss of infinity. But after seeing the way dogs are treated in Prague, it became apparent to me how quickly Buddhist monks must forget their potty training once they reside under the manicured fur of a pink-collared, Czech Chihuahua.
I went back to my flat, hoping the gruesome carnival of dogs had all just been a slimy nightmare. But when the barking continued and intensified and blared from across the street that day and for four solid years afterwards, I decided, despite loving my room and the location of the flat, to leave it, the dogs and my fuck-head charlatan flat mate forever and search for greener pastures.
In September of 2014 I finally found a flat. It was a harrowing affair that left my nerves frayed and sparking like cables in a raided basement. To add to that, I was nearly broke. And since it was the beginning of the school year when classes are light, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing a decent paycheck for at least another two months. My only salvation was that my new place was a bit cheaper than my first. Plus, the guy I’d be living with was chill as a snow pea and split on the weekends to see his chick and as there were no supermarkets across the street, and, as homeboy assured me, no loud dogs in the building, I figured life would be pretty sweet …
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.