Ten Percent on a Good Day

[Two weeks after moving to the Farm, I received a green wristband signifying my place at the bottom of the Zendik pyramid; I got bopped from above a week later.]

Though Sundays weren’t sabbaths at the Farm, they did start off more slowly than other days. The goat milkers trudged up the hill an hour later, the cooks served brunch instead of breakfast, the bunks in the barn loft stayed full of slumbering bundles an hour longer. On this particular Sunday, in mid-November, the Farm groaned into motion even more slowly than usual. I used the temporal windfall to lie in my bunk and write in my journal, then wander down to the Farmhouse to snag a few of the wild persimmons about to drop in lush vermilion goo-splats onto the driveway. I savored the unaccustomed hours to myself, even as I wondered at the preternatural quite. Was I the only one on the Farm not groggy with a hangover?

The night before – Saturday night – we’d celebrated completion of the Addition (into which the Family and Family Apprentices had recently moved) with an alcohol party. Forbidden as a casual indulgence, alcohol was officially reserved for Farm-wide celebrations. (Unofficially, some Zendiks with the privilege of access to privacy secreted stashes of booze in their studios – but I wouldn’t find that out for another few years.) At this, my first Zendik party, the ration had been two shots of hard liquor each – but apparently other Zendiks more senior, wily, or alcoholic than I had managed to procure more than their share. I neither questioned the allotted amount nor needed more to get drunk (even before moving to the Farm I’d indulged so rarely, and in such extreme moderation, that it didn’t take much). After downing my double shot of tequila, I charged down to the Farmhouse to dance with intoxicated abandon to the metal music thrashing through the cleared-out, strobe-lit office space. I can dance, I thought. I can be part of your revolution.

When I was done dancing I drifted into the kitchen, where I bantered and argued with my fellow Zendik Apprentices and a few visitors till after midnight. With no purple, gray, blue, pink, or even brown wristbands around, and the tequila warming me towards the new guys, I let my guard down, asserting and contradicting as freely as I might have over dinner with my mother and sisters. Once the kitchen had emptied, I even went so far as to scribble a few thoughts on the dry-erase board – blank for the moment – on which the head cook would post the day’s menu, and the day’s Wulf quotation, come morning. I was unaware that when feeling unfettered at Zendik it was best to leave no trace.

Early Sunday afternoon, on a trench-digging crew that had taken hours to creak into action, I laughed along as others recounted the highlights of the party – how Rebel and Loki had pulled a dead-drunk Rocky out of a culvert and hauled him back to the barn, how Riven had thrust her hip through a window in the Farmhouse while dancing – even as I silently congratulated myself for having held my liquor well enough to spare myself the chagrin of waking up and wondering, What have I done? I noted with pride that the pile of dirt alongside my stretch of trench was growing faster than the pile by Rebel’s. I bet he’s totally hungover, I thought. I feel fine.

Then Zylem walked up to the crew, a frown tugging at his eyebrows. A Family member who’d been at the Farm, barring a couple absences, for the past twenty years, Zylem shared billing with Arol as co-editor of the Zendik magazine. He’d written the diatribe against “The Big Lie” that had caught my attention on the Zendik web site before I’d arrived. Though he was not the Farm’s alpha male – though he lacked the ruthlessness, capacity for violence, and blood connection to Arol’s family that qualified another, younger man for that role – the forward thrust of his quarterback’s chest, the hints of gray in his scraggly ponytail, his penchant for advising newer Zendiks, his decades of Zendik history, gave him a penumbra of patriarchal authority.

I didn’t watch much TV as a kid, since we had no set at home. Nonetheless, my fantasy father was Mike Brady, of the ’70s sit-com The Brady Bunch: firm but compassionate, graying but handsome, ever ready to sun each of his six children with gentle reproof, wise counsel, protective affection. I wished, when I transgressed, to be disciplined with such warmth and justice. The rare occurrence of Mike-Brady types in nature didn’t dissuade me from holding an armchair open in my inner living room, in case one turned up, seeking a perch.

Zylem nodded to the other trench-diggers – and walked right up to me. “Helen, can I talk to you for a minute?” He motioned for me to follow him away from the crew, out of their earshot. His purpose was serious, I knew, from the stiff set of his shoulders, the grim clamp of his lips. My own chest tensed with the leaden anticipation that sets in when you know a blast is coming but still hope to calm it to a sputter, given the chance to explain, shift blame, show either that there is no trouble after all, or that you are not the cause.

“This is about what you wrote on the dry-erase board last night,” he said, as I followed him towards the burn pile.

The dry-erase board. Yes, I’d written something. What had I written? Something about feeling, for the first time, one hundred percent conscious. What was wrong with that? How was that transgressive? Of course I understood – even if I hadn’t written – that any leaps in consciousness I might have made would not have been possible without Zendik.

“No one’s one hundred percent conscious,” said Zylem, stopping and turning to face me a few steps uphill from the scorched circle where construction debris turned to smoke and ash. “Not even Wulf when he died. Certainly not you – you just got here. You’re maybe ten percent on a good day.”

I nodded, recasting the previous night’s effusion as hubris. A lump formed in my throat, tears started at the corners of my eyes. Against my will – as if a timer set by someone else had just ticked down to zero – my face crumpled like a building undergoing controlled demolition. It was the same crumpling I’d felt in fourth grade, when I’d fruitlessly contested a rare imperfect grade on a math test, then broken into great hiccuping sobs, only to be chided by Mrs. Grace Daly, in front of the whole class, for not knowing how to lose with grace. She was right: My brittle perfectionism left me vulnerable to even the slightest shock. Also, she had the power to cut me off before I felt fully heard; my body’s response was to rage with tears, to force a hearing for what I felt, once the path of reason through speech had been blocked.

Zylem continued, “Arol said don’t write on the board anymore, unless it’s a Wulf quote.”

So this admonition – this “input,” in Zendik lingo – had come all the way from the top. Learning this both heightened my shame and inspired a perverse burst of pride, at having earned Arol’s attention. In my interpretation, she’d made the effort to correct me, by proxy, because my development, like that of the rose bushes she so meticulously pruned, mattered to her. What escaped me was the inevitability of screwing up, in a situation where the definition of offense was always shifting. What also escaped me – as it does most subjects of psychological research – was an accurate understanding of what was being tested. On the one hand, I’d failed to intuit that effusing on the dry-erase board would affront Arol; on the other hand, in submitting to Zylem’s chiding, I was proving myself capable of accepting censure more severe than Cayta’s demands that I wash more often and figure out why (in her estimation) I hated men. I was honing my ability to confuse cruelty with love. I was letting Zylem fill in further details of the distorted self-portrait I would come to accept as photographic in its accuracy.

Weakness Leaving the Body

[At Zendik, Cayta (not her real name) often played the hanging judge to my cowering victim; we all had our roles. But she could also be kind, and when I think of her now it’s with admiration, and love.]

In fall 2002, Cayta and I sold the Big Spring jam together, in Huntsville, Alabama. Late one morning, biding our time till we could sell under crowd-cover, we roamed over to the booth manned by Marines recruiters. Its main attraction was a pull-up bar on which you could test your strength for prizes. Men had to do twenty pull-ups in a row to win the highest prize; women had to hang from the bar – arms curled under it, chin thrust above it – for sixty seconds. Hoping the challenge would prime me for a power selling day, I stepped up to the bar.

I pulled the ammo from my pockets and gave it to Cayta, along with my backpack. I grabbed the bar.

The first fifteen seconds flew by. The next quarter minute crawled. By the time the Marine with the stopwatch barked me past the thirty-second mark, my triceps were trembling and I was gasping for breath. “You can do it, Hellion!” Cayta yelled. “You’re a warrior! Sing a song!”

I don’t know why Cayta told me to sing. Maybe I’d told her how songs had kept my spirits up during lonesome nights on the highway. Or maybe she’d heard me sing my way through some other hardship I’ve since forgotten. She’d known me for almost three years by then.

In soft, ragged phrases, I started “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The first verse and refrain nearly pulled me through to the end of the minute. When I released the bar, at second fifty-nine, the Marine in charge chose to grant me that last second. With a congratulatory nod, he handed me the highest prize – a black T-shirt bearing, in gray letters, what could have been a defense of input: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Cayta took a turn at the bar too, and hung for sixty seconds. She too won a T-shirt. Knowing I wouldn’t wear an ill-fitting guy’s shirt, I exchanged mine for a CD case (Marines logo, no slogan). Cayta kept her T-shirt. She might sleep in it, she said.

Joe Namath and a Toad

[When I left Zendik in September 2004, I remained a true believer. For more than a year, I executed “Deathculture” fantasies in hopes of preparing myself to return and commit for good. One of those fantasies was running a personal ad.]

“Good-looking, fit SWF, 28, seeks fit SM under 45 for dating and other adventures. Let’s ride the cosmic Ferrari* really fast; you can shift and I’ll steer and work the brakes and gas.”

Thus runs the personal ad I have placed in the Chico News & Review. The man I’m about to meet—the first to respond to said ad—has told me on the phone he looks like Joe Namath—

And he does, if you cross Joe Namath with a toad.

Mike Brady, 37, shows up in the doorway of my trailer at six pm on Saturday, as planned. I am on my hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor—the last task in my weekly bout of housecleaning. I look up; my jaw drops to the linoleum. I have never seen an uglier man in my life.

Stall. Play for time.

“Would you mind waiting outside for a moment, so I can finish?” I croak.

He obliges, and I continue scrubbing, my internal monologue keeping furious time with my washrag:

What have I gotten myself into? This man is ugly as sin. What do I do now? Tell him, look, you’re hideous, please leave? I can’t do that. I guess I…could go into this as an…experiment…to see what kind of man… answers personal ads….

I finish scrubbing, and ask him into the kitchen. He hands me a can of Green Giant spinach. I live and work on an organic vegetable farm. I harvest my breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. I religiously refuse to eat food that’s not organic. Here I am accepting a gift of embalmed greens. Dripping with pesticides. Wonderful. Great. Thank you. I smile, take the can, invite him to sit down. New theory: opposites repel.

He slides onto the bench seat across from me, in my dining nook. He says,

“So, what did you have in mind? We could go to town and get some dinner or [here he leeringly eyes my double bed, which is just down the hall past the bathroom] we could just hang out here. I’m up for anything.”

I say, “Let’s go to town.”

So we get in his white Lexus and drive—not to beautiful downtown Chico, but to a sushi bar in a strip mall on its outskirts. As we drive, I obnoxiously and unequivocally offer every shocking opinion I can think of, on every topic he brings up. He, in turn, attempts to impress me with accounts of the many Club Med vacations he’s managed to take, on his gas-station-manager’s salary.

We arrive at the sushi bar, and take stools next to each other. The waitress drops off our menus, and as I pick mine up to look at it, he very deliberately places his hand on my back, as if to guide me through the choices. I tense, grit my teeth, and say: “Please don’t touch me.”

He, offended, acquiesces. We order, and eat. Midway through the fish, he asks, “So, is there anything else you’d like to tell me about yourself?”

“Well,” I say, “I’m a religious fanatic.” And launch into the spiel I used to give on the street, to people I was trying to sell cult literature to, during my stint (only recently ended) as brainwashed devotee of a power-hungry egomaniac who swore she was saving the world. I continue for a few minutes, checking his face every now and then to see what damage I’ve done. Unfortunately, he does not run screaming from the restaurant.

In the midst of my rant, I look up, across the bar, and spot the attractive young male tattoo artist who is responsible for the single piece of permanent artwork on my body. He is perched at the bar with a beautiful blonde. I briefly fantasize switching places with the blonde, and hope he hasn’t seen me.

Finally, we go. It is only eight, and on a midsummer night in Chico it doesn’t really get dark till ten. Tomorrow—Sunday—is my day off. There is no practical reason why I could not stay out partying alongside the frat kids till three in the morning. But I have to get away from this man. I have no choice; I lie:

“Yeah, it really sucks being a field hand. I actually have to get up at 4:30 in the morning tomorrow—the cucumbers will rot on the ground if I don’t harvest them before sun-up. Yeah, I know, it’s a real bitch but hey, nature waits for no man. So yeah, I better get home and get to bed. It’s a tough life, being a farmer.”

He drives me home, drops me off. We do not kiss good night.

Thus ends what I hope will remain the shittiest date of my life.

[*I lifted the line about the cosmic Ferrari from a t-shirt selling email composed by another Zendik, back when I lived at the Farm. I won’t name her here because I don’t think she’d want me to, but I do offer her acknowledgment and thanks.]

Miami Phish, New Year’s 2003

[In late December 2003, after breaking up with the man I saw as my last best hope for lasting love, I went selling with an all-girl crew to Miami. Surrender, exhaustion, and lack of a boyfriend opened me to a few precious nights in flow.]

Growing up in Brooklyn I knew what to expect every year, two days after Christmas: my favorite dinner of no-frills macaroni and cheese with ketchup; a homemade chocolate cake with the legend “Happy Birthday Helen” looped in purple, green and orange goop over a thick crust of chocolate icing; and a handmade card garnishing whichever cheap metal-plastic aggregate I was currently lusting after—a clock radio, a curling iron, a red-white-and-blue accordion like the one the rabbit-eared urchin in Gummo plays while perching forlorn on a toilet. I sprang awake at dawn on birthday mornings, eager to start my span of being special, and greet my personal new age.

On December 27th, 2003—the day I turn twenty-seven—I bolt out of my sleeping bag for a different reason: to grab a slot on the potty before the other six members of my seven-woman selling crew begin stirring, and needing to pee. Today I am no cosseted birthday girl, but a Zendik revolutionary, preparing for the day’s first unnerving mission: wresting cash from the gritty alterna-tourist crowd passing and patronizing Uncle Sam’s music store, on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. I must get “on,” I must spin my mirage of a beautiful world into money-making spells, in the swampy sunshine and surreal heat.

At this, as of mid-afternoon, I am failing. Few are seduced by the gothic cast of my CDs and magazines—the slogan “Stop Bitching Start a Revolution” blaring from my t-shirts and bumper stickers—my lackluster, panic-tinged pitch. “Hey, have you seen this?” I shrill, as likely targets approach—“It’s underground art.” I am dismissed with a shake of the head, a flick of the wrist—or skipped over entirely, by eyes fixed on the heavy gray-blue horizon. My partner Emily, on the other hand—a boisterous, athletic eighteen-year-old who’s been selling Zendik for one year, to my four—is kicking ass, as always. Why? I wonder. Did she get a head start on proselytizing during her teenage stint as an evangelical Christian? Did she inherit a money-making gene from her dad, who’s made a career of fundraising for the Boy Scouts? Was she learning ease with strangers from her bubbly mother, while I was learning quiet and shyness from mine? Or is she simply more committed to the cause than I am, more closely attuned to that righteous revolutionary vibration? I know I should rejoice in her success, since every sale she makes raises our trip total and helps sustain our farm—but the truth is, each twenty she pockets for a t-shirt makes me quake inside. How will I ever catch up? How will I ever explain? I can never outright blame “the scene” for a low number—since selling is “all energy” and energy is available in equal abundance in every situation—but still: The better she does, the more likely I’ll be to get slammed for poor performance.

As we walk back to the parking lot to rejoin our crew, Emily stops to badger a plump, pierced, shaven, black-clad man. I join in, keening to redeem myself by securing one massive, miraculous donation. He flirts with us for a good ten minutes, then giggles in feigned innocence and exclaims, “Oh, you’re trying to sell your stuff! I don’t carry cash!”

My anger keeps me brittle till we reach the van. Then Emily asks if I’m okay, and the flood escapes: “No I’m not okay I’ve felt horribly competitive all day I don’t know what’s wrong with me I hate the way I feel.” I retreat to the far end of the bench seat and stare down at the worn red carpet, vainly attempting to calm the tremor in my voice, and hide my tears.

Cayta—who’s been selling the longest, of all of us—leans heavily against the sliding door, already weary of this latest take on an oft-repeated scene. Having moved to Zendik fresh out of high school, she hasn’t tried—and isn’t tempted by—other ways of living. I envy her certainty.

“Maybe you should stay here and sell by yourself tonight,” she suggests, her voice raspy with exasperation. “I don’t want you dragging everybody down at the Phish show.”

It’s not a bad idea. Concerts make me nervous—sneaking in, dodging venue security—and if I sell by myself on the beach I won’t have anyone to compete with. I’ll get the chance to play out my fantasy of selling as it was a couple decades ago: each seller alone in her own spot, running her own show.

“Think about it while we’re in the store,” Cayta says.

The girls disappear into Wild Oats, to get jacked on sugar and—perhaps?—buy me a birthday cake. I know chances of this have slimmed since Emily proposed it earlier in the day but still I’m hoping—not because I’m especially keen on eating a slice of white fluff slathered in fake cream, but because I yearn to be recognized; most years I get lumped into the collective December birthday celebration, or I get no celebration at all. Whereas Arol, Fawn, the kids—even Wulf, who’s dead—get their own individual cakes and parties. I tell myself that someday, when I’ve been around long enough—when I’ve proven myself true enough—I too will merit a separate fête. Also I’m prone to bitter dreams, come late December, in which I demand my own homemade carob cake with carob frosting. All I can do now is caution myself to expect nothing, and turn back to the overwhelming question: whether or not to sell solo.

In the old days, I’ve been told, this was how it used to go: In the morning you got dropped off by yourself, in front of a movie theater, a health food store, a book store. You sold alone till sundown, when the van circled back to pick you up and take you to your place to stay. There you cooked and ate dinner with your host and crew—unless you’d chosen to go home with a cute girl or guy you’d met on the street, to get a little Death Kultur loving and maybe do a little Ecolibrium recruiting. Selling had started out as a social gambit—at a time when Zendiks supported the farm largely by appropriating inheritances, drawing welfare checks, shoplifting and busking, some of the more outward-oriented members had wished for a way to interact one-on-one with “Normals,” while retaining their heretical edge. The upshot was the magazine—originally a single mimeographed sheet titled The Cosmic Revolutionist—and the solo foray into the DK to sell it.

I covet the sense of freedom and self-reliance I imagine sellers had, in the years before the industrial selling trip was born—no one watching you, no immediate pressure to make money. One hundred dollars was decent then (as compared to two hundred fifty to three hundred now); if you called home in a funk and Wulf answered he’d tell you to “shoot for forty.” The seventies and eighties seem to me like a simpler time, when money earned selling was more tightly tied to the basics of survival. Now the farm’s finances are a maze of bills and loans and mortgages and credit cards, sequestered in Arol’s and Fawn’s chambers; once we the sellers bear our offering of carefully counted and rubber-banded bills to the Addition kitchen, it disappears. If I make more money I don’t get better stuff. I don’t feel any more righteous about adding new socks, or colored markers, or eyeglasses, or a doctor’s appointment, to the shopping list. If I make less money I get slammed but I don’t starve. Occasionally even “power” sellers, like Cayta and Emily, are ripped apart—for getting “ego-jacked” on the street—when they have brought in substantial wads of cash. No matter how many times I’m reminded, This is how we eat, I do not, in my gut, believe it.

Selling by myself for one night won’t revive this basic correlation, I know, but perhaps it’ll jolt me to the raw truth of hustle-to-survive. Running my own show on Miami Beach I’ll have no one to measure myself against—and also no one to laugh with, no one to lean on.

Then the girls swarm back to the van and Cayta rescinds her offer. It would be an act of excessive cruelty, she says, to leave me to be eaten alive by the blood-red-fingernail girls and slicked-back-pompadour boys who prance the night scene in pairs and packs. “We want you to come with us,” she says, “and just relax and try to have fun.”

“Here,” says Emily, handing me a paper bag. “We got some cookies. For your birthday.”

So I sniffle a little more, but this time with hope, and settle into the back seat with two chewy peanut-butter-chocolate-chip morsels of delight. On the drive to American Airlines Arena I decide to give up on making money—to strip this next episode of pressure, and let it be a grand adventure. Instead of pushing, I’ll open to whatever plump, luscious possibilities are ripe for the plucking.

* * *

My first mark inside the arena hails from Oregon. He’s rolling or stoned or something. He extols the snow on Mount Hood, the idyll of dwelling high in the pine forest in a cozy timber cabin. I leave my magazines in my pocket, and listen. At the close of his soliloquy he hands me fifteen dollars for a sticker and a t-shirt, despite the fact that I’ve said next to nothing about Zendik. Magic! Maybe I’m on the right track….

Just before the intermission I approach a tall, chubby man parked by the hot dog stand. His cheeks and eyes shine with sweat and chemically induced bliss. “Ah, Zendik,” he says. He knows us from Savannah, where he used to work as a bouncer at a nightclub. He’s not hissing, or warding me off with crossed fingers, so I figure he must be a friend of ours, worth chatting with for a while.

Minutes later, the crowds pour out of the concert hall, and my internal alarm goes off. Prime time! It shrills. Ready-set-go-ten-minute-window to hit people up like crazy and make tons of money!

But no. Tonight I will not salivate at the usual stimuli. Tonight I will breathe deeply, and continue my conversational meander…which turns to middle names, and other simple revelations that amuse both of us immensely, in our respective altered states.

“Timothy!” he giggles.

“Madgelma!” I reply.

“Do you know what’s in my wallet?” he asks.

“Something of value?” I guess.

“Maybe….” he says.

He gives me his beer to hold, and pulls out his billfold. Shuffles through it. Extracts a crinkly wad, and starts pressing crumpled bills into my free hand. My exquisitely honed large-denomination detector kicks in instantly—these particular patterns of green mean, This is big. That one scans as a U.S. Grant…that’s an Andrew Jackson…and another Andrew and another…and two Abes plus a few Georges…. I thank my benefactor like he’s just pulled me down from the cross, and give him a magazine, a sticker, a double-X t-shirt, and one of each CD. Then I scurry off to count the money: one hundred twenty-five bucks. More than any one person has ever given me…as far as I know, more than any Zendik seller has ever received from a single individual. O wonder! O joy! O deeply personal hands of truth, dispensing my psychic reward!

And yet, I’m nervous. What if the bouncer sobers up, asks, “What have I done?!”, comes hunting for a refund? Certainly if I see him again I’ll run the other way…. But anxiety rings only a little ding in my delirium: Now I will float through the evening, assured already of doing well enough to avoid censure.

I spend the rest of the night—the rest of the trip—lilting from one leisurely colloquy to the next…steadily accruing cash as I sniff out hints of what I have in common with this collection of civilians.

“Where’d you get that necklace? You made it? You make jewelry? It’s beautiful!”

“You’re from Nashville? What kind of music do you write? I love country songs! I love the stories they tell, and how simple they are.”

“Parks Highway…isn’t that in Alaska? Where in Alaska are you from? I hitch-hiked to Alaska once….”

I follow each Phish-head down a different stream. And when one looks back and asks, “What’s that in your hand?” I say, this is our art. You can check it out if you want to. Often they do. And when they don’t I let the “no’s” flow harmlessly over me—I wasn’t expecting anything anyway.

I notice that my switch to “It’s all good” mode changes whom I choose to hit up. In more desperate times I’ve focused on misshapen middle-aged males, thinking, They have money, they’re susceptible to the charms of a young woman. Now that I’m just hanging out, surfing the social scene, I feel free to approach a heretofore intimidating, hence off-limits, demographic: attractive young men. Who are plentiful at Phish shows, since I’m partial to hippies, and those who sojourn among them. I feel as though I’ve stepped through a tie-dyed curtain into a hard-nosed chamber of heaven—who would have thought I’d be able to make money and fulfill my revolutionary duty by flirting? Maybe I, like Fawn, will learn to use my sex appeal to recruit new Zendiks. As I sell, I daydream: Maybe this one will move to the farm…or this one…. If I were still with Kro I’d be battling these thoughts, I’d be seeking confessors…but that’s over. I urge them all to come visit.

* * *

When my selling crew departed North Carolina for Florida on December 26th, we were planning on a relatively short stint in Miami. We’d sell three out of five Phish shows, and then drive home on December 30th—knowing we’d be back in time for the farm’s New Year’s Eve festivities made it easier to countenance retreating from the general celebratory bustle to do road prep and selling meetings on Christmas Day. Our fourth morning in Florida, though, I sense our contract’s been extended—that’s my interpretation of the deepening commas at the corners of Cayta’s mouth, as she mutters, “Uh huh…uh huh…uh huh…” on the phone with home. Of course she asks the rest of us before committing—but what can we say? Which of us wants to be Judas, choosing her own comfort over the cause? Which of us wants to be accused of “holding back” or being “precious”? “Only in giving is there living,” as Wulf used to say….

My gut sinks, when Cayta relays home’s request. I’ve done well three days in a row, and I’d like to get the hell out of town before I blow it. Also I know it’s useless to resist. And I’m so exhausted—so thoroughly in selling mode—so sorely bereft of a boyfriend at home—that I’m fine with another couple nights on the road. Once I’m a certain degree of fried I begin to crackle—my pupils dilate so wide the tripping hippies I’m selling to swear I’m tripping too—why not stay here? Why not ride the high? Why not live out of a van, follow the Phish-heads, subsist on tuna salad and rice and sell every moment of my life?

The one wrinkle in the new plan is that Karma—a diplomat’s daughter who sells with the grace and charm of an accomplished socialite—has lost her voice to laryngitis. She needs drugs, if she’s to make money. So she and Cayta and the others drive off in search of a pharmacy, while Emily and I repair to the patio of our place to stay, to fold paper towels from a roll into napkins. Carlos, our laid-back Brazilian host, doesn’t mind if we expand our operation to the outdoors; he’s been ceding his living room floor—and kitchen, and bathroom, and so on—to Zendik selling crews since the winter of 2000, when I recruited him at a juice bar in Coconut Grove. He tends to be especially accommodating when said crews are composed, as ours is, entirely of girls.

Folding paper towels is my idea: Keeping a stack of napkins handy on the dashboard will encourage us to clean our stainless steel eating bowls, and I despise a pile-up of dirty bowls. Also, making napkins is kind of fun. It requires soothing, repetitive motion; it doesn’t require us to talk to people, or sell anything. And it helps us feel that we’re not just sitting in limbo, like civilians, while our fellow sellers are off on a mission. We’re doing something; we must always be doing something. After all, as Wulf said, “The Warrior waits for no one.”

* * *

On New Year’s Eve—the night of the final Phish show—Karma scores a pass to the VIP lounge. Which means she’s out on the VIP balcony, tossing complimentary cans of Budweiser down to Emily and me, as the Christian epoch turns two thousand and four years old. We stand at the railing and drink, watching Roman candles explode over the water, beyond the desolate, floodlit parking lot. For the moment, life is good: I haven’t bombed since my birthday, and tomorrow we go home. I feel young, rugged, desirable, committed…blessed to be a Zendik.

The Trailer

[At Zendik Farm, sick people – “sickies” – were quarantined, that is, exiled to the trailer or a date space, supposedly to prevent them from infecting others. Quarantine did not prevent illness from spreading. But it did have side effects.]

Being quarantined in the trailer is hell in some ways, heaven in others. It’s hell because, after years of being around people constantly, you’re all alone. You have no one to talk to, and you can never be sure what people are saying about you. You never know when there might be a knock on the door, heralding a “friend” bearing news of the definitive—and bad—psychic cause of your illness. It could be: “You hate your box,” or, “You’re competitive with Arol,” or, “You never learned how to be friendly.” You also don’t have much to do. You’re pretty much limited to reading (if you’ve brought books from your space, or if you can convince a healthy person to raid the library for you) and writing—mostly about the psychic cause of your sickness. You have to go outside to pee, and trek to the outhouse to poop, no matter how bad you feel. The only usable flush toilets on the farm are in the Log House and the Addition, and those are off-limits. Sure there’s the toilet house—built for the bowels of we the people—but it’s never really worked right, and you wouldn’t want someone seeing you using it, thinking you’re a wimp, blaming you for the septic smell trickling towards the creek. You can’t go in the bath house unless no one else is in there. You can’t get food for yourself. Theoretically, someone will bring you food at mealtimes, but you can’t count on it. If no one remembers it’s up to you to go stand outside the kitchen door and look pathetic, till someone notices you. Or, if you’re feeling really bold, you knock. In which case you may or may not be ignored because anyone who answers your knock knows that he or she will then be responsible for getting your food, or getting someone else to do it, and maybe he or she is busy right now. Then when you do get your food it may be too much or too little, or it may not be seasoned properly, but you can’t do a damn thing about it because you can’t go in the kitchen. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, he or she may or may not come to visit you, depending on whether or not it’s generally believed that the cause of your illness is your relationship.

Mostly, in the trailer, you sleep. You search your dreams for clues as to the cause of your predicament, you dredge the dark soil of your soul. You pray for an answer that will make you whole.

The paradisiacal aspect of being in the trailer is that nobody bugs you. Also, you don’t have to work. No one wants to come near you, much less work with you. You don’t have to go selling. In fact, if you’re on a selling trip and you get sick, the other sellers will get pissed at you because they’re stuck in the van with you and they don’t want to get sick too; they’ll ream you for not anticipating your illness, and staying home.

You have lots of time to yourself, in the trailer. Enough to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, so you’ll be able to imagine Middle Earth at least once for yourself before the whole farm troops off to see The Fellowship of the Ring at a theater in Forest City, homemade popcorn in backpacks and peanut-butter rice cakes in pockets.

So there are benefits to being bed-ridden. But the overwhelming wave of it—when I’m awake anyway—is a subtle but persistent panic. I don’t trust myself alone. I’m certain I’m missing something vital to my evolution. And I’ve learned, in the past two years, that being by myself is bad, that I will inevitably screw up/become hardened if separated from the constant companionship/oversight/input of my fellow Zendiks.

Zendiks vs. Christians in New Orleans

[Mardi Gras was one Zendik’s biggest money-makers. Each year, a passel of us descended on New Orleans and sold ourselves silly. Fanatics of other stripes also saw opportunity. In early 2000, after I’d been at the Farm for a few months and sold a handful of far tamer scenes, I begged a chance at the big time.]

New Orleans doesn’t eat me alive, as Rayel predicted, but it does present me with new forces to be reckoned with. Here we are not the only ones vying for the attention of passersby. The other sellers warn me not to crowd the copper-coated cowboy, or the frozen ghost bride, as they won’t take kindly to my diverting eyes – or dollars – from their enterprises. Same goes for the quick, slight men using spray paint and dinner plates to concoct lurid, streaked cityscapes. But at least these two classes of street hustler are easy to avoid – not so the Christians. They’re almost as pushy, self-righteous, and in-your-face…as we are.

Many of the Christians make their allegiance obvious – groups of them haul huge wooden crosses through Jackson Square, chanting Bible verses and calling on the revelers to repent. They hand out pamphlets dense with earnest comic strips depicting young people ruined by alcohol, marijuana, and fornication. Others, however, prefer the sneak attack. And I – desperate at first to get someone, anyone, to stop and talk to me – am a prime target.

Early Saturday afternoon, on a sunny corner of the square’s main plaza, I’m approached by a sallow young man, in buckteeth and denim. He greets me with a wide, fake grin. “Hey, what do you got there?” he asks.

“It’s an underground art mag. And music. I live on a farm in North Carolina with a bunch of artists and we put this stuff out ourselves.”

He pages through the magazine. “What’s it like on your farm? Do you guys have running water? Do you have power?”

“Of course we do! It’s not like we’re stuck in the Stone Age! How do you think we produce our magazines?”

“How about a higher power?” His grin morphs into a smirk.

I’m beginning to dislike this guy, but I’m grateful at least to be engaged in conversation. So I answer him.

“We don’t believe in a god who’s outside us or above us – some white-bearded guy up in the sky telling us how to live. We think there’s a god-force pervading everything. We call it e-Me, short for ele-Mental energy.”

“What do you think happens after you die? Is there life after death?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been dead. We’re not all that worried about life after death, though, since most people haven’t even learned how to do life on earth yet. But if you’re an extraordinary person who’s starting a revolution then yeah, your influence is going to last long after you die. Like Wulf, who wrote our philosophy. He’s still living through this magazine and music – and the culture he created.”

The buckteeth reappear, as the centerpiece in a sly smirk.

“Don’t you think that to live a great life you need a great example to follow?” He cranes his neck into the space between us and narrows his eyes. “Like Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”

“We think Jesus was a great guy who did a lot of great things but he never meant for people to worship him. He was trying to show people how to be their own saviors.”

Just as I glimpse the plain wooden cross around the Christian’s neck, I notice Rave behind him, making the throat-slitting motion and yelling, “No beads!” Meaning, no Mardi Gras beads – a sure sign that someone’s come to poop the party, not join it. I need to extricate myself, quick. I won’t concede defeat by walking away, and I don’t have any stakes or garlic handy, so I resort to the best weapon I do have: asking for money.

“So you know, we get donations for our magazine. You can buy one if you want.”

“I don’t want to buy anything. I’m here to spread the Good News, that Jesus is Lord – “

“We usually get three to five dollars for a magazine, or if you throw in ten to twenty you get a CD and a bumper sticker. You want one? You want the whole deal?”

I want to know if you’re ready to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior, if you’re willing to let him into that God-shaped void – “

“D’you have a dollar for a sticker?”

No, but he has pink-inked pamphlets showing wayward teenagers getting mangled in car wrecks after indulging in premarital sex. “Trade you?” he says.

“No, thanks,” I say. “We get money for ours.”

He promises to pray for me, then tucks his buckteeth back into his mouth and trudges off in search of God’s more docile children.

Stuffed Station Wagon Man (or, The Trouble with Hitching in the Yukon)

[In the summer of 2002, about halfway through my five years at Zendik, I went on an “out.” Since I had next to no money, I traveled mostly by thumb. My desire to excise my Deathculture fantasies – and return, purified, to the Farm – spurred me to break my neck for The Land of the Midnight Sun.]

Halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, just short of Denali, I stand shivering, with my thumb out, in freezing rain. Fuck this, I mutter, I’m going home. I’m about to cross the road to the southbound side when an overloaded station wagon pulls up in front of me. The driver is a thin, bright-eyed, middle-aged man; his passenger, squeezed into one corner of the back seat, is a very large husky.

The man seems friendly, normal enough. He’s just wrapping up a three-week sight-seeing/picture-taking tour up north, and is heading back to Boulder by way of Fairbanks. I take this as a sign from the Psychic Realm that I’m meant to get the hell out of Alaska. I wait patiently as the man removes various items–an atlas, a flashlight, a cooler, a camera, a dog bowl, a roll of paper towels–from the passenger seat and footwell. Then I climb in, relieved to know that within a few days, if all goes well, I’ll be back at my brother’s house in Idaho–home, for now.

It takes us about five minutes to explore dusty downtown Fairbanks–a cluster of ramshackle frame buildings, half of which house saloons. Then we head south towards Chicken, where we’ll cross the border into Canada. On the way I learn a little more about Stuffed Station Wagon Man. Back home in Boulder, he composes actuarial tables for a living, and flips antique rocking chairs, on the side. “Buy low, sell high!” He used to have a girlfriend, but she dumped him. “She didn’t like how I kept my kitchen,” he says. “She thought I shouldn’t dry my socks on the stove, while I was cooking oatmeal. What’s the problem? Just conserving energy.”

At the border crossing in Chicken, it’s so cold and wet that the guard refuses to leave her booth. She glances quickly at our IDs, determines it would be impossible to search the car if she wanted to, and waves us on through to the Yukon. As Stuffed Station Wagon Man squints at the road ahead, which is vanishing into the gathering fog, he asks me what I think of the state of the world. “I think it’s pretty fucked up,” I say. “I think we need to create a culture where people are honest with each other, where there’s no money and–”

He cuts me off. “Nah, we just need to get rid of the electoral college,” he says. “One person, one vote. Solve everything.”

I scoff. “That’s not gonna do a damn thing! You’ll still have the same corrupt system, the same slimy politicians–”

He interrupts again. “Nope! Everyone’s equal, with one person, one vote. Y’ever hear of the Masons? You know, the pyramid with the evil eye on top, on the one-dollar bill? They got us into this mess…. Well just wait. Twenty-twelve.” He nods, and sucks a little ketchup out of one of the opened packets gracing the dashboard. “Twenty-twelve,” he says.

I desist. In my two and a half years of selling Zendik propaganda on the street, I’ve learned it doesn’t pay to argue with fanatics.

The dog–who seems remarkably well-adjusted, considering her upbringing–keeps trying to jump into my lap. Glancing behind me, I can see why: She is losing seat to an advancing tide. Of Stuff. Tarp, tent, thermarest. Fishing pole, galoshes, gasoline can. Bungee cord, duct tape, binoculars. The number of Necessary Items he has packed into his car is truly insane. There’s every possible thing you could need, to fix or fill or find something on the road. He is, apparently, traveling on a shoestring–and if that shoestring should break, he’s brought a replacement.

I’m no longer so thrilled that Stuffed Station Wagon Man is going all the way to Colorado. The proximity of our destinations means we could potentially be traveling together for days. That is, unless I manage to ditch him.

Early in the second evening of our joint sojourn–when I’ve been with him for about twenty-four hours–he mentions stopping and camping for the night, even though it’s still light out. I say I’d rather keep going. “But where will you sleep?” he asks. “And how will you get another ride, out here in the Yukon?”

I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. “But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Finally, he decides to stop and camp at a gravel pull-out with a stinky dumpster and no toilet. I hoist my backpack to my shoulders, and bid him farewell.

The problem is, as he has pointed out, this is the Yukon. Which means there are no people, just pine trees and more pine trees. A car passes maybe once every five minutes. None stops. I walk–mainly to get away from Stuffed Station Wagon Man–but I know walking won’t do me much good. Not in the Yukon.

Just when I’m getting worried–starting to scope out the sludgy tundra for a possible camping spot, without success–I hear the wonderful diminishing grumble of a car stopping behind me. What a blessing! A ride! I turn around, ready to grace this angel, whoever he is, with my brightest, most grateful smile–only to discover that my knight in rusty Subaru is, you guessed it, none other than Stuffed Station Wagon Man. That’s what you get, for trying to ditch someone in the Yukon.

What can I do? I get in. Or rather, I start to get in, but realize there’s a problem: In my absence, Stuffed Station Wagon Man has rearranged his gear such that some of it is filling the the footwell of the passenger seat. “What do I do with my feet?” I ask.

“You can sit cross-legged,” he says.

So I do. Laughing to myself, and fuming.

The next morning I do manage to ditch him, Yukon be damned. Partly I succeed because I get up very early, well before man or dog is stirring. Partly I succeed because I am now approaching the town of Whitehorse, where most of the Yukon’s population is concentrated. I am eternally grateful to get a ride with a normal young businessman, who’s driving as far as town, and no farther.

Past Whitehorse, it happens again. I get a ride from a snowbird in a camper, who’s going all the way to Arizona. Maybe this one won’t be psycho, I pray as I get in.