The Art of Travel 12/31/2021
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June 23rd, 2020 at 8:46pm
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It's not clever
And then we came to the bullshit part of the interview.
"Tell me the most interesting thing that's ever happened to you."
I needed the job, so I didn't roll my eyes—but I'm pretty sure the recruiter did. He had informed us this would be his final placement interview ever, because he was retiring that afternoon. He had hunted his last head and was absolutely done giving a shit.
This meeting served as his sole obligation on the calendar before his About Schmidt moment, where, sitting in his office, surrounded by banker's boxes, he would stare at the clock until 5pm.
I was hopelessly disoriented for about a minute.
After asking his question, the interviewer leaned back in his chair with a look that said, Let's see what you do with that. I was either going to regale him with tales of allure and wonderment, or I would bore him and he'd have a reason not to hire me.
In the three or four seconds before one might consider the silence uncomfortable, I laughed to myself.
I remembered that after returning from an incredible year in Europe, I went golfing with my uncle. At one point, he asked, "What was the craziest thing you saw over there?"
That was easy. I had seen too many beautiful or fascinating things to choose just one, but crazy? One day, in Amsterdam, I walked past a sex shop with a bestiality video in the window. My jaw dropped at the sight of a pale ugly dude holding a hen on his erection.
This meeting served as his lone obligation on the calendar before his About Schmidt moment.
Sadly, I never forgot it. The dreadful experience was cached in memory, ready to be served, and serve it I did. I answered my uncle without skipping a beat.
"A guy fucking a chicken."
He laughed so unexpectedly hard and fast that he had to wipe off his mustache.
While the lesson in that case was, Be careful what you ask, I realized I shouldn't be smug. My uncle had asked for crazy—and I could tell him anything—but my answer in the interview couldn't be really, truly interesting. It had to be a certain kind of interesting:
- Pseudo-artisanal beef jerky from a Walgreen's interesting
- Quirky facial expressions on a romantic comedy poster interesting
- Celebrities' attempts at oil painting interesting
We suited up mostly against other universities, but—I have no idea how this came about—we also managed to play a French prison team.
In other words, I had it backwards. The reality of the situation was, Be careful what you're asked. It was an interview—what did I expect?
A Moment of Inspiration
And then a light came on.
When I lived in France in 1995, I played soccer for a traveling team. We suited up mostly against other universities, but—I have no idea how this came about—we also managed to play a prison team. (As a point of reference, playing a Parisian prison team in soccer is like playing the L.A. County prison team in basketball.)
We carpooled from a cafe in Paris in the springtime—just imagine color, light, rebirth, and joy, mixed with notes of alcohol and sundresses—to the Fleury-Mérogis prison where Dérapages, known in English as Inhuman Resources on Netflix, was filmed.
Do I even need to describe the shift when we arrived at the concrete and asphalt institution? May I skip inventive descriptions which amount to "depressing" and "gray," and omit the scenes of broken families shuffling through the exit into the weedy parking lot?
Since I was a foreigner, officials pulled me aside to evaluate my paperwork. They decided this would best be done in a jail cell. With an eye on the door—which, to my relief, they left open—I vous-ed and monsieur-ed the shit out of them. Once the interview ended, they complimented my French.
It was time to go change clothes. Guards with automatic weapons cut a path through the general population milling about the main yard. I noticed furtive glances in our direction from the hunched clumps of prisoners.
My friend Rémy had...decided to dye his hair pink. Because of this, I learned the word for drag queen.
We dressed in the weight room, which felt like the health spa of a cheap hotel from the early 80s.
Staff then escorted us to the field, which was surrounded by cell blocks four or five stories high. The groans, insults, and occasional catcalls rained down upon us. My friend Rémy had gone through a painful breakup the week before and had decided to dye his hair pink. Because of this, I learned the French word for drag queen.
It's "une dragqueen."
From the cell blocks, the prisoners watched us warm up for about ten minutes. Then the betting started. The call and response to place and confirm a bet had a distinct melody. If someone hit a nice shot or fluffed a pass during warmups, we heard that cadence a lot.
It was the cleanest game I ever played.
The opening whistle blew. Our hosts let us score first, but we eventually lost 10-3 or 10-4. Whichever it was, that's not a soccer score—but it was the cleanest game I ever played.
Corner kicks are an accurate gauge of a match's fair play. The attacking side is so close to scoring—accidental goals are not unheard of—that the defending side will do almost anything to prevent a goal. I loved corner kicks as a player, and they are exciting and nerve-wracking to me as a fan.
As anyone who has played will tell you, though, they can get ugly. I've had my feet stomped during corners. I've been smacked in the balls, taken elbows to the face and head, and been tripped and then stepped on, kneed in the back, or run over.
Once, right before the kick, I had a guy stick his finger up my ass—with my shorts as a prophylactic, thankfully. (It worked—I was hopelessly disoriented for about a minute.) None of that went on in the prison game.
I lined up as a defender that day. I marked a guy who would later tell me:
- He played briefly in the French second division. (Think of this as the equivalent of AAA baseball.) I believe it. He torched me for two goals; one was humiliating and the spectators heaped well-deserved scorn upon me from the cells above.
- He was awaiting trial for forty-seven armed robberies. A lawyer assured him he would skate on most of the charges, "but for three of them," he told me, "I'm fucked."
The first thing the captain said at the reception afterward was, "Gentlemen, thank you for playing today. When are you coming back?" After we chatted, ate cookies and crackers, and drank soda, we helped them sneak every plastic bottle and piece of food we could into shoes, hoodies, and rolled up towels.
The dreadful experience was cached in memory, ready to be served, and serve it I did.
There were no hugs. There were no promises to write or hang out "on the outside." It was dude nods and handshakes and "good luck."
And that was it.
The interviewer looked at me and gave a slow, three-beat WASP chuckle. The recruiter consulted his watch.
PS: I got the job.
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