February 5, 2001
South Island, New Zealand
Our trip was on a roll now. Literally, since I no longer feared indecipherable traffic signs or my own Campervan driving, and figuratively, since we were now in love with the South Island, the sparseness of people and problems (and roads!), and the surreal wonders and weather that awaited us at every turn.
When we left the little town on our way to the beach, I hoped we were trading in four aces for a straight flush. It was hard to leave, after all, and we’d had only time to stroll the downtown stretch, swill one local beer in a funky bar, pick up some groceries, and enjoy a marvelous dinner and bottle of wine while Mazzy Star’s druggy hit “Fade Into You” floated above our heads.
My head was spinning, and it wasn’t the alcohol. I remember thinking…Destiny has taken over the playlist now. Best just to bob my head in rhythm, try to dance like the Kiwis. We are mere passengers in the bar car of a runaway train that keeps taking us to the water. It’s exciting, but also rather dangerous for those of us that live by the motto that when faced with water, you must dive in.
Soon enough, we were oceanside. The simple but spacious campground offered countless sites with a full sea view. It looked as if humans simply hadn’t yet discovered this treasure. But so went the South Island: So much nirvana, so few souls. We parked, grabbed a beer, and went for a long sundown walk by the water’s edge. The boy found shells and threw rocks.
As darkness set in, I mentioned that the one-and-only little bar we had passed near the camp looked inviting—and that I could use some release after a few long days of driving. With so sound a plea, who could object? So I was off, solo. Mere beer, big trouble, or exciting adventure? I knew not what was in that bar, but the bright moon and dreamy setting suggested it would be extraordinary.
From the moment I opened the door, extraordinary it was. The bar was full, gruff, and rowdy. Mostly men (of course) were pounding beer with ease. The bartenders (all women, go figure) slung beer like sleight of hand. There were Russians there—often Russians, it seems, by the water—maybe they know how to fish? Or could it be Russian Mafia drug trade? The imagination runs wild.
With only a few empty stools at the bar, I rolled my own Russian roulette and took the more remote seat. A few more languages surrounded me—and then the dude next door, whom I soon learned was named Brian O’Brien. A monster of a man, he towered above me as he stood up and introduced himself enthusiastically with his boat-sized hand.
What a name. I had to tell him: He’s the third Brian O’Brien I’ve known! The first, across the street, was a boyhood best buddy for years. We played Hot Wheels, cards, and make-believe war, watched the Brady Bunch on Fridays, and eventually worked our way into backyard sports that led to broken arms and things.
The second Brian O’Brien in my life was also a big, strappin’ scalawag. Our paths have been crossing for decades in the oddest of places. Like, World Series game seven—he has single malt scotch and great seats (forged press passes)—and the Twins win! Then there was the time in a large van (not his) that he had commandeered and was using to bounce off of parked cars as he worked his way up an icy hill, a dozen male passengers screaming approval. That’s intense, but making it moreso was the fact that we were on my college campus, and he was just passing through.
But I digress.
Brian O’Brien III reminded me of both of them. It was beyond uncanny, and into creepy. Are there people with the same name, and virtually same personalities, all over the world? Or have I just made a great discovery? All three are burly, athletic guys. Smart, slow, and happy all at once. Grinners. Trickers. Jovial souls from similar ancestors.
Speaking of ancestors…“OI’M OI-REESH!” my new friend would yell to me and everyone and no one in between our intermittent chats. He toasted himself. As the night wore on, many patrons took to drinking straight from their mini-pitchers—brown beers with foamy heads swilled like Little Leaguers root beer after a hot game. In Brian’s mammoth hands, a pitcher looked like a mug.
“OI ENJOY LOIF!” Brian’s pitcher slammed my glass. “I’ll drink to that!” was my reply. He introduced me to the bartender and a few others, some of whom cared and some who didn’t, and the beer disappeared around us. “OI ENJOY LOIF” became his new mantra; he couldn’t shout it enough.
John Lennon, or at least a guy who looked just like him (in his skinniest, surliest, most distant days) had been lurking for a while. Compared to Brian, he was a loner. A chain smoker. Despite his tiny form, he curled most creatively over and under the bar in pretzel positions I’ve not seen since watching students in the cafes of Paris. John would wander in and out of the pub and the conversation.
His voice was raspy, while his eyes were always scanning elsewhere. Unfortunately, his particular dialect made it difficult to understand anything he said. Anything. It didn’t seem to matter. I just bobbed and put on my “ya don’t say!?!” smirk. That seems to work in most any language or dialect. Especially in crowded, noisy bars.
With very little warning, the bar ladies upped the lights, quit serving beer, and started moving people out like a rancher steers cattle. As if church were suddenly over, folks pounded their last suds and began making their way to the lively parking lot. On my way out, a beer sign inspired me to buy two six-packs of some organic, green-bottled brew I’d never heard of—for parking lot party possibilities (like happen in the better towns of Iowa, Wisconsin, and South Dakota) and the campervan mini-fridge.
Once out of the smoke and into the fresh air, Brian O’Brien tore a beer from the package and barked, “Wott the fock ees thees? Organic beer? My fock-in ars!” With no opener in sight, the bottlecap simply disappeared into his huge hands. I can’t do that. As if he knew that, he grabbed another and yanked off the top—shoving it at me like a quarterback hands off the football. His bottle find mine for another crushing, compulsory toast (that should have shattered both bottles) and he barked “Oi loav eet!” to the full moon.
We wandered through the parking lot, yelling good-byes to a few rusty jalopies as they ripped out onto the oceanside road. Soon, we were at a beat-up, black, oversized station wagon. Brian came to me, leaned his tree-branch arm on my shoulder and whispered, “Git in the cah…Let’s go for a ride.”
I recall in the movie “Blue Velvet,” Kyle MacLachlan should NOT have gotten in the car when Dennis Hopper told him to. So naturally, I protest. ”Gotta get back.” ”Wife and kid are waiting.” “Long way to drive tomorrow”…“GI’ IN THE CAH,” he repeats, louder, closer.” John Lennon appears. They surround me, open “my” door, and suck impatiently on cigs and green beer.
Hmmm, what would Jesus do?
It’s like my water ritual. When I travel to some water’s edge, I’ve got to get in. A guy doesn’t travel thousands of miles to get to the ocean and then pass on going for a swim! I get in the car.
Although my danger-radar are wiggling, they’re not wavering. I didn’t come to Who-the-hell-knows-where, South Island, New Zealand to lead the life of a prude or be the pooper of the party. Or so I tell myself. Once inside, there are no seat belts. Barely seats. We’re not in Minnesota any more.
We drive slowly down the highway, way too far. But eventually, a familiar sight shows: We’re near the seaview motel I’d passed earlier—that he has said he owns—and that I’d noticed mentioned in a for-sale real-estate ad earlier. We turn up a gnarly road and bounce down a crude driveway till the truck stops. We’re beside some rundown building—a garage?—that glows in the moonlight. Tall weeds, rusting machinery, and a general mess are everywhere. Not pretty. There’s no path.
“Follow me,” Brian growls. So we hack our way through weeds, and I think of an elementary teacher I had who always preached, “When in doubt, follow directions.”
“Watch out for the rut!” he slurs. Too late. My bad left foot falls into it. That dreadful moment of “I’M FALLING AGAIN” panic hits me. (A few years before, I’d fallen off a roof and ended up in broken, in so many ways.) Now I’m muddy, but lucky. There’s pain but no injury. Better be careful when we come out, I note. IF we come out? Stop thinking this way. It’s too late to turn back now, that’s for sure.
After kicking open a stuck door, Brian hits a light switch, and one bright light that hangs high and alone flickers on.
Whatever this building is, there’s not one window. Crap is stacked everywhere: boxes, mattresses, busted stuff, junk. I choose a corner mattress to sit on, and Brian turns on a boombox that sits high atop some pile, and then roars, “ROAR-REE GALLAGHER! MOI FELLA OI-REESH-MUNN!” Each syllable takes about three seconds at this point. Fresh beers appear sans bottlecaps, like sleight of hand. I grab and nod as our glasses automatically smash-toast each other. Why aren’t they breaking?
Rory Gallagher. This is not a good omen. Is he real Irish or fake (Irish-American)? I never knew for sure. Even saw the man once. When I worked for a concert promoter, I’d hang out backstage with rock stars, or at least a few. I passed on Rory and stayed upstairs, “in the house.” Rory’s crowd was a bit, shall we say, intimidating. Bikers, drunks, addicts. Look carefully, and you might see tracks on arms, catheters, and scarred leatherfolk in wheelchairs. I’ll try anything (musical) once, yet this crowd scared me off—especially when the first ceiling-shredding, eardrum-shattering notes hit the air (along with a deafening ovation). When my work was done, I ditched—leaving Rory’s fans to have their fun without me.
There were no such choices this time. The same deafening stuff plays, but through Brian’s cracked speakers instead. It’s all distortion. No notes. No discernable words. Brian bounces like Beevis and Butthead, while John just sucks his cigarette and stares through minuscule, round glasses. At me. His beady eyes keep getting smaller; his pretzel positions increasingly abnormal. It’s like he’s in pain or drug withdrawal or something. If he didn’t look so dang much like John Lennon, whom I love, he’d frighten me for sure.
But I digress.
At some point, as we hang out in the garage of stacked mattresses, it suddenly becomes obvious to me that the funky smell in the air is not ocean air, mildew,
or vegetation. The stuffing in their hand-rolled smokes is no longer tobacco. And the countless white garbage sacks are not filled with garbage: They’re filled with pot. Or as they say in NZ, “cannabis.” There’s enough pot in this garage to get half the South Island stoned. (That’s probably the idea…)
But before I have time to contemplate this reality, my new friends spring into more action than they’ve been able to muster all night.
Their banter has been getting louder since we got in the garage, and they’ve turned full dialect back on so I understand only part of what’s going on. That’s a good thing, maybe, I’m thinking until…Little John Lennon suddenly lurches up and over and is in monster Brian O’Brien’s face just spewing rage like a prize-fighter before the main event. Brian takes the abuse, but looks increasingly pissed off.
Am I scared now? You betcha. Yet the Jimmy Carter in me stands up and goes toward them to calmly say, “Whoa, guys, cool it…What’s this about?”
Silence. Then they turn to me, having probably forgotten I was there at all, and say in unison, “Opium.” (But of course.) “Opium’s my thing,” John shrugs. “And I fockin’ need some before I ship out for my 12-hour shift on the fishing boat at 4 this morning!” He’s quivering, especially his face.
“Oh.” I reply. As if I should have known, though I knew something was certainly up (or down) with John. Opium. Ohhhhh-pium. Muscle relaxer. Brain-frying grease. Friend of Poe. And in this case, plot thickener.
My two friends forget about me again, and engage in more yelling until…What could the Gods possibly insert into this scene to add to the absurdity?
A beautiful woman. Dazzling.
Yes, we’re saved by a stunning blonde who kicks open the door and comes in at full speed. Like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an angel in human clothes inexplicably appears on the scene to save the day. Or so I hope.
She’s in not much of a nightie, and Lord have mercy, is she something to behold. But she is also furious, and runs straight up to Brian and starts giving him the business in a thick Kiwi accent: “Whot the fock is the matter with you!…I’ve had four complaints from guests!…One said he was gonna call the frickin’ cops!…Moight do it myself and end this focking nonsense once and for all, you piece of sheet.”
No no no, we all plead like school boys who were just threatened to have their candy taken away. Anything, really! But please don’t call the cops. Not with this tonnage of cannabis and a hard-core opium drug jones apparently in progress. Brian even turns off Rory Gallagher. Dead silence makes everyone shifty.
For a short-lived moment, things get uncomfortably calm. But then, the mad Angel finds me in her vector and marches to within an inch of my face. “And who the fock are you? Talk, pretty boy! Tell me! Who the fock are you!” Long, tan fingers jab at my chest; wet blue eyes stare with wrath.
“Oh, me?” I try to chuckle, “Well, I’m just a tourist, passing through, I guess…” She cuts me off and goes straight back to Brian who, by now, one can only assume is her partner in life and hotelry.
“You and your focking American holiday boys. Get the fock out of here or I WILL call the cops!” she screams at a not-so-stunned Brian. “See if I care if you go to focking’ jail for the rest of your life, you SHEET!” On her way out, she comes back to me and stabs at me again, “I better not see you around here again, you American piece of SHEET!”
I smile and nod my head, though it’s unclear whether the right way to agree is to nod or wag. For sure, it would be best to agree under the circumstances.
As she exits, she gives us one last glare, and then slams the door.
My heart pounds out my eyes and ears. Not so for John Lennon, who is calm as a flower, and offers a most peculiar (yet not untrue) response: “Oh, Brian. You’re wife is so focking hot! Oh my God, she was almost nude. Wow. So focking hot, Brian.”
Drug deal? What drug deal? A sexy woman just passed our midst.
John is swooning, swaying. But not poor Brian. He has abruptly aged a few decades, is loving neither life nor wife, and perhaps wishes some buyer would emerge and give him sacks full of cash for his crop. And his hotel. “Let’s go,” he murmurs, and I hear a whole choir of angels as relief washes over me and my heart begins to retreat to my chest.
But first…”Here, you focking beetch,” Brian sighs to John Lennon, as he throws a plastic container across the room. John catches and hugs it like the Gollum hugs the ring, pops something in his mouth, and immediately becomes all puppy dog. “Oh, thank you thank you. I owe you, Brian, I won’t forget this, Brian. Can you drive me to the boat, Brian.”
“Ya sure. We’ll take the American home too.”
Music to my ears. I’m safe. Could that be a grin that begins to grow on my face?
Without words, we get in the car. Brian rolls down all the windows and lights a cigarette. As if charm-school manners return with night air, he leans over to me in the back seat, hands me the last beer, and gently asks, “Do you like Pink Floyd?”
YES! I love Pink Floyd. Have my whole life. Saw them in concert in about 1976 at Soldier Field in Chicago…I shut up.
The mellotron strains that kick off “Wish You Were Here” emerge from the (not blown) speakers. Brian drives in first gear without lights on—his legs hanging out the window, a thick joint dangling from his lips while his cig is mostly lost in his steering hand. The ocean stretches to our left, while moonlight floods the beach in a surreal glow.
Maybe fifteen minutes crawl by, and we pull off the road to drop me at the campground. My stop. Safe at home! Suddenly smug, I lean forward and make sort of a group-grope, “Gees, guys, that was great. Thanks so much for the evening. Maybe we’ll meet again someday?”
Brian turns his head to gaze at me, forces a small sneer, and exhales words in smoke, “No, we’ll never focking see you again.” A sad smile grows when his eyes find mine. Those big hands engulf mine for a 70-style handshake.
John finds me as best he can over the tiny glasses, as if a film of opium covers his eyes. Both tiny hands clutch mine. He won’t let go. If I’ve ever seen anybody so stoned, I don’t remember it. And now he faces the grueling labor of a net-fishing boat for 12 hours? Godspeed, my friend.
Leaning on the car, I concur. “Allright. So I won’t see you guys again. But thanks, anyway. Wow.” I laugh out loud. This startles them.
Knocking twice on his roof, my body turns and starts to hike toward the water. Pink Floyd fades into crickets and waves as they disappear down the road, lights still off, feet still out the window. Brian O’Brien III and John Lennon have left the scene and, fortunately, left me in peace—and in one piece.
Full moon indeed. The stars fight for any attention. Nearly 4 a.m.
The moon guides me to the campervan, one of few, gleaming at the water’s edge. Before going in, I take time to absorb the scene, give thanks, and still my beating heart.
Once in bed, I hear only seagulls, gentle waves, and an eerily familiar voice that keeps saying, “I enjoy life…I enjoy life…” as I drift away for a few hours of sleep.