Backing Track

Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more no more no more…

The muffled voice of the busker filtered through my memory-foam headphones. Like filtered tap water, it was free of additives, coming through as a mechanical recitation of fake enthusiasm. Unlike filtered tap water, the experience was not improved by this process. If anything, the incongruity between the subdued voice and the enthusiastic hip swinging of the busker left me feeling a bit guilty, as though I just refused to buy the program notes to a classical concert, thereby refusing to fully appreciate what the performer had to offer.

 

Notice I didn’t use the term beggar. Beggar implies that the person has nothing to offer you. Most people asking for money on the street nowadays do have something to offer.

 

Indeed, sometimes these people can tell you more about a city than any guidebook. In the Netherlands street ‘beggars’ come up to you directly and ask for money. This seems unlikely in any other country. In Berlin, some just sit in on the street-side with a cardboard sign proclaiming ‘MONEY FOR BEER AND WEED’. In both cases, they’re offering something that is in scarcity— honesty.

 

This busker was no different. Despite his knee length dreadlocks flailing around his head like a shipman’s whip, the expression on his face was unmistakably defiant. Here was a man who was proud of what he was doing— namely, playing the first few bars of the trumpet introduction, singing the refrain from Hit the Road Jack, and rocking his hips like he was trying to draw an invisible perfect circle. By not calling him a beggar, one acknowledges that his misfortune was not because of him per se, but because we didn’t have the capacity to give what he had to offer due appreciation.

 

I was faced with two problems at that moment. First was whether to pay him at all. A friend of mine— she’s the kind of person who would raise questions about scientific grounding when you mentioned the 5 second rule – once told me that ‘beggars’ sometimes operated in gangs, and if they see you’re willing to give money, they would target you for a robbery. But before I could worry about that, I had to decide whether or not to take off my headphones. If I did, the reality of his performance would hit me and I’d probably feel guilty enough to pay him, and I only had a 50 euro bill on me.

 

The way I saw it, I had three options, none of them appealing.

 

Option 1: Hey, love your work—do you have change for a 50? Say… 48?

Option 2: Hey, love your work—sorry man I don’t have change

Option 3: Leave the headphones on and ignore him when he comes to me with his plastic cup

 

Some would say that I could take the headphones off, enjoy the music, and wave him away when he comes over. These people obviously don’t know me.

 

As a self-professed audiophile (albeit a poor one), I belong to a generation who has their own backing track to reality. Of course, I don’t listen to music when I’m with other people. But when I’m alone, which I usually am, you can be sure that there will be something playing in my ears.

 

Sometimes this can be for dramatic effect. The break-up I witness feels all the more intense with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A playing— the scalding words coming out of their mouths become inaudible, the scene fades into a polaroid black and white, the grainy surging strings joins the tentative piano introduction, and I sit back for the show.

 

Other times it makes a serious situation comical. A man who was obviously high as a kite provokes two policemen and gets shoved to the floor. His silent screams were dubbed over by an all time classic— where were you when we were getting high…

 

With the click of a button, I can create my own backing track, or block out whatever I don’t want to hear. It’s a habit of mine to put on headphones even when nothing is playing. If people are saying bad things about me I won’t have to hear them; if I’m bored and want to people-watch, I can put words in their mouths.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to my own version of reality that taking my headphones off is like when I go back to Hong Kong after spending a long time abroad and have spicy street food for the first time. I can no longer handle the unadulterated version, and end up becoming a sweaty blob.

 

The train was nearing a stop, and the busker stopped playing to do his rounds with the passengers. Some people looked away, others smiled and gave him some change. As he approached me, my iPod decided to cue Hans Zimmer’s Dream is Collapsing from Inception. Each step he took was accentuated by a tuba blast.

 

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

 

He glanced at me, and in a panic I smiled and took my headphones off.

 

There was a frozen moment— the kind of silence you get when two people start talking at the same time and stop, both hesitant to be the one to start again.

 

There was a large hiss from the train stopping, and the busker was singing again, his voice fading away as he moved down the carriage.

 

Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this a-way
Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day

Still feeling slightly guilty, I put my headphones back on. The memory foam creates a perfect seal; one moment the roar of the train starting, the next the dull throbs of muffled sounds. The setting sun paints everything a rosé pink, and everyone sways to the rhythm of the train. I put on Joseph Arthur’s In the Sun, and the strumming guitar hits my earbuds like a heroin shot.

 

May God’s love be with you… always…

 

All traces of guilt vanish, and I sit back for the show.

 

 

postmark

‘1 euro very cheap!’
the dreadlocked male
in the

knocked down stall
points
at a bundle of

old letters
‘you collect stamps?’
a blind date

question-
I hate those
No

they’re for my mother
I picked two
DDR era letters

they were written
by the same person
looks like a girl’s

writing light
green on the paper its
edges

exhausted brown
from its fight
with reality

luckily
I don’t speak
German so it could be

anything–
a love letter
that outlasted love

ich liebe dich
(in faded pink)
sounds familiar

maybe it was
the last one
maybe somewhere

was it’s not
you it’s me
maybe I’m just

reading myself
into it maybe
they were just friends

maybe one was
a spy
which would be ironic

either way
they’d never had known
that their story

would be sold to
an idiot
for a euro

My Guardian Angel

55… 56… 57… 58… 59… 60… Change.

 

I was staring at the time displayed in my train from Amsterdam to the Hague, trying to prove that what I was experiencing was not just sense-perceptions fed to me by my own brain, and that I wasn’t slumped in a coffeehouse somewhere. As you might have guessed, I was high as a cloud.

 

It started with an impulse trip to Amsterdam on the last day of a conference. Having wandered around the Hague with some friends, I decided on a whim to buy a return ticket to Amsterdam, thinking, I’d regret it if I came to the Netherlands without visiting Amsterdam.

 

As it were, Amsterdam was a buzz of strange smells and people with even stranger outfits. A man dressed up as a cannabis plant with a loosely rolled joint waltzed down the street reminiscent of the somber scene in Waltz with Bashir, as though there was a loop of Chopin’s Waltz playing inside him. But instead of dodging bullets, this gentleman was dodging a combination of people, inanimate objects and mostly his own feet. As he lumbered past a police vehicle he gave the people inside a deft wave. They waved back.

 

One thing led to another, and after bumping into another group of friends who happened to be there as well, we ended up a coffeehouse. This was not before a short walk through the cobbled streets, each of us stealing quick glances at the various sex toys displayed in all their multi-coloured glory, thinking ‘What on earth can that be used for?’. It was as if a porn director took over a Lego store and insisted on doing the window dressing.

 

At the coffeehouse, pleasantries were traded with the staff and one of them started to prepare our vaporizer. For a person who’s never had more than the occasional puffs from a friend’s joint, this was probably not a wise choice. Before long we were all staring wistfully into the distance.

I’m not sure why but I still had enough sense to check the time. 10 pm.

 

Shit. If I don’t go now I’ll miss the last tram to the hostel back at the Hague.

 

So I said my goodbyes and made my way to the train station. The moment I stood up I realized how much trouble I was in.

I need to catch a train like this. This means getting on the right platform.

 

I started walking towards the train station.

 

Am I really walking though? That sign seems to never get closer. It feels like I’m walking. Focus on that sign. OK, it’s getting closer. Kind of. Oh God I’m in the station.

 

Thankfully there was another group of friends at the station and one of them guided me to my platform. But the worst was yet to come. Once I was on the train, the THC really hit, and the Cartesian demon came in the form of Lord Baelish a la Game of Thrones dressed as Postman Pat.

 

In soothing tones he asked whether or not I was really just slumped in the coffeehouse unconscious. Every single philosophical skeptical argument floated into the horizon at once.

 

Imagine a powerful demon. He can conjure up sense-perceptions in your brain, make you think that you’re experiencing things, while in reality you’re just a thinking thing, floating around in god-knows-what.

 

As it turns out, the full force of the Cartesian skeptical argument can only be appreciated when high. They should put that into the philosophy program.

 

Panic set in. Desperate for proof that I was indeed on a train, I started to look for signs that we take as evidence for reality.

 

Like time. 60 seconds. You can do this. 1… 2…

 

And so I began counting, starting when the numbers changed on the screen. To the others in the train I must have looked possessed. Muttering the seconds under my breath and eyes fixed on the screen.

 

…60

 

The numbers changed. Relief.

 

But the demon would have wanted you to sense that.

 

Fuck you Demon. Your moustache looks ridiculous.

 

Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And that was uncalled for.

 Apologies.

The gravity of the situation dawned on me. Every single thing that anchored me to reality had been turned against me, in virtue of its familiarity. They were exactly what the postman-demon would want me to perceive.

 

We’ve got it all wrong. Reality isn’t grounded in the familiar. It’s the unfamiliar that makes existence real. I should write that down later. I need something that is so outrageous, so ridiculous that I can’t have possibly come up with it myself.

                                                                                                

Unfortunately I’ve just been to Amsterdam, and saw a lifetime’s worth of things that were ‘outrageous and ridiculous’. The waltzing cannabis plant flashed into vision.

 

 

The train stopped suddenly. A group of rowdy teenagers boarded. Scuffles. Shouts. Sounded like someone was starting a fight. I sank deep into my chair.

 

If only I could be a chameleon. I’d have bigger eyes. How cool would that be.

 

A jerk snapped me back to my predicament.

 

I need proof.                                                

 

With trembling hands I fished out my pen and started scribbling furiously onto my palm.

 

  1. GOD.
  2. COGITO.
  3. ???????

 

What about God? I think Descartes said something about him guaranteeing our… Oh no that argument doesn’t work. At least I know I exist right? The cogito. Oh no Kant rejected that. Hume said something about our mode of being forces us to trust our sense perceptions. But right now my mode of being makes me doubt them. WHY DIDN”T I PAY ATTENTION DURING LECTURES

 

The train stopped again. More scuffling. Stern voices. The lights dimmed.

 

DEMENTORS. THIS CAN’T BE REAL.

 

As it were, it was couple of policemen who came to break up the fight.

 

This is too dramatic. I must be making this up. Too many coincidences. How could I have bumped into a friend randomly in the station?

 

I need proof. Something that cannot be conjured up by my brain.

 

This continued for a good ten minutes, until a group of men boarded the train. One of them was topless, wore pink tights and a pair of blood-red angel wings. I stared at his reflection in my window, transfixed at his bulging beer belly.

Hope.

 

As if to answer my prayers, he projectile vomited.

 

Thankfully one of his friends had to good sense to catch it in a plastic bag. But that didn’t stop the stench that wafted over to my seat. It smelled like cheap beer and regret.

No way I could have imagined that. Thank you my guardian angel.

 

I fought the urge to embrace him, to thank him for bringing me back to reality. The train stopped. My stop. I stumbled out onto the platform and made my way to the tram station.

As I stood there, the world zoomed in and out of focus. Ears ringing, I leaned against a lamppost. Descartes and every skeptic before and after him flashed across my mind. It was further away than it’s ever been, but I’ve never felt more secure. I smiled, the smell of fresh vomit lingering like a first love’s perfume.

 

On a more serious note, thanks to everyone who helped me get back to my hostel safely. Sincerely.