T SHIRT MAKING IN THE MIDWEST…STORIES SOON.
A PIT STOP
Before we go any further, there are a few things I need to tell you about my system of travel, which for reasons that will become outstandingly obvious soon, I call ‘a shamble’
I use no map. I have no plan that on X date I need to be in X place. Instead, the people I make T-shirts for always give me the name of a person I should meet next. That’s my compass. Along the way, I follow signs – not your usual non-negotiable road kind – but intuition, coincidence, conversations with strangers and other things I’m superstitious about.
The sign doesn’t necessarily say ‘go here’ but feels more like a nod that I’m where I’m meant to be.
Especially, when it concerns the following.
When my father disappeared, I was just over two years old. A few months after, I went on vacation with my grandparents to France. One night while my grandmother was looking after me, she told me a letter had arrived for me. ‘It’s from a wolf,’ she said – one that shared remarkably similar handwriting to her own.
She told me that his name was Pijacques and that he’d seen me that day in the village and wanted to say hello. The tone of the letter was the kind you’d expect in a welcome note from a neighbor, when you’d just moved somewhere new.
And if he hadn’t been a wolf, he probably would have invited me round for muffins.
I came back to England and began to spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place – an old smuggler’s inn set back from the coast in ancient woodland.
Centuries ago, smugglers would land their boats at night, creep through the woods and if they saw a light on in the inn – a symbol of safety – they’d rest there with their contraband.
One night, another letter arrived. ‘It’s from the wolf again,’ my grandmother told me, and then the news that he’d followed me here to these woods. ‘You can’t see him,’ she said, ‘because a lot of people in the world don’t feel like we do about wolves, so he eats nettles which make him invisible. But wherever you go, the wolf is always with you. Understand? Pijaques, he has your back.’
Sometimes, in my childhood, I’d swear I could almost feel the bristle of his fur against my leg – a sensation, which faded over the years, and then to nothing in adolescence, when my friends marched ten paces in front of their parents down the street out of embarrassment, and I too left the wolf behind.
Then a couple of years ago I started to remember Pijaques.
I told my grandmother how pleased I was that I’d come from a family who hadn’t sent me to a shrink to deal with a tragedy, but, instead, like those smugglers years before, had taken something so brutal and exotic in everyday life – the sudden disappearance of a father – and like elephant ivory or crocodile’s skin, remolded it into something tame and moderately civilized – the arrival of a letter-writing wolf.
‘Hmmm…’ said my grandmother, in a way that didn’t ever admit that the wolf might not ever exist. ‘Why do you think Pijaques started writing to you?’ Because something happened, I told her, that threw even nature off guard, so it needed to restore the balance with the friendship of a savage animal and a little girl.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ she said.
Last year, in a moment of heartbreak, my grandmother telephoned me. Grandparents never call. They telephone.
‘Darling what do you want for your birthday?’ she said. ‘I think I need another letter from that wolf,’ I told her, ‘if you see him, can you tell him.’ A few days later, in a now doddery scrawl, a letter arrived from Pijaques, now, I feared as blind as my grandmother.
The winter, the letter said, had been tough for him too. He’d got so hungry he’d decided to steal a couple of pork chops from the local butcher’s. The trouble was, the moths had also been peckish, and had eaten holes through his invisible suit. The butcher had seen him commit the crime, and now the whole village was after him.
‘Could I possibly come and stay with you?’ he wrote. I sent word back of ‘yes.’ But like most characters you suspect are fictional, the wolf failed to materialize. So this June, a friend got me a ticket howling with real life wolves.
‘Now on the count of three’ said the wolf wrangler, ‘ I want you to all howl up at the sky – and if you’re lucky the wolves will howl back.’ And I looked at the wild animals, scattered around the countryside and then back at the twenty people huddled together, as straight as the commuters on my train – and had that fear, where you’re sure the conversation is about to dry up.
Then this howl came. Not from them. Us. So loud, I could see people looking down their noses at their mouths, thinking ‘is this noise coming from me?’ In that howl all manner of honest subjects felt like they were covered…I’m too fat… I need to pay my phone bill… Then we all fell quiet and waited.
And we heard it. A howl from the wolves at the bottom of the hill, rolling up the slope, gathering orchestral force, until it reached two wolves in front of us, who looked at us and threw their heads back, and howled.
Right then, I understood something – in life, love and especially creativity you have to put your howl out into the universe and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear a howl back who recognizes you.
The next week, I go to New York to work on my day job in advertising. Suddenly, I become aware that my howl at the moment is ending on a slightly warped note…
Awwww… Buy one get one free.
Awwww… Super sale on Sunday.
Then, in a thought, that comes, as wildly, but as naturally, as a flash in a wolf’s eye – I decide to go off on a T-shirt making journey – one last howl – that hopefully my dad will hear, but if not, maybe just one person who’ll understand all this stuff.
So this is a really long way of explaining that I follow anything to do with wolves. Anything. And the wolf, as you’ll see along this shamble, tends to follow me.
A couple of nights after I arrive in Los Angeles in July, I see a guy walking down Sunset Boulevard with a wolf – now before you go ‘wow,’ I should tell you that there are a lot of people walking around LA with wolves.
A few days later I tell Steve about the guy and he says ‘you need to make a T-shirt for him’. Five minutes later, I walk out the door and the guy is walking right past there and then with his wolf. He stops and stares at me weirdly, though his version, I’m sure, is that there was a woman staring very weirdly at him. See, even though the animal is on his leash, it’s here that I realize that I’m meant to be in LA, because once again, the wolf is with me.
I’m With The Wolf is a T-shirt for me.
The real beginning of this story isn’t Vegas but LA. It’s also a chunk of the middle and probably the end, because if you’re a dreamer, this is where you go to get refueled.
It’s not that dreams are more likely to happen here, but more that enough sprinklers and believers have created the perfect climate to think that anything is possible. No skyscrapers loom over LA streets, just low buildings, which squat down as far as they can go, to guarantee a clear sky and room for infinite dream space.
Tell somebody in another city, that you’re turning strangers’ stories into T-shirts and looking for something called ‘Boxie,’ and the set response would be, ‘um, okay.’
In LA, it’s ‘Oh my god, fucking awesome! Good for you!’
This is what worries me.
That, out here, the line between the dream and madness is paper thin – with both enthused over, in case a crazy idea turns out to be an epic dream.
Go anywhere else and somebody in a waiter’s uniform telling you that ‘no, no’ they are in fact, ‘a movie director,’ while explaining the chicken palliard special would be a reason to call a doctor, but in LA, where a whole city lies in waiting to be something else, this is the most regular conversation you can ever have.
Neither do you cringe while listening – because, here, even the audience plays along. Go to a favorite bar and see that your usual bartender is missing, and your heart leaps with ‘They got a show!’ and not the most rational explanation…
a) They’re not working tonight.
b) They’re in the bathroom.
Because just for that glimmer, if their dream can happen so can yours.
See, more than any gas, LA runs on the intoxicating fumes of grand fantasy, self-belief and unremitting passion – conditions that could equally be written on a psychiatrist’s pad. And while you need a certain dose of those to believe that your dream will make it, hopefully the godly hand of success will pluck you from the brink and install you safely up in the hills, before the same plummets you into madness.
Even then, it’s hard to tell the difference. A lost man mumbling around Sunset with wild hair could easily be a movie star going through his big beard/’who am I’ phase. And though there is an epic difference between a supermarket trolley and a mansion – buried away in each, you’ll find the thing they both came here with.
I arrive in LA with mine in July. This isn’t the first time I’ve come here with hopes of Boxie and though I know I got close five years ago, any hint of repetition worries me.
For a few days, I enjoy the opposite – I eat three meals a day and do outstanding parallel parking with the zest of someone who is in fact here to participate in a national competition on conventional behavior.
In this city that makes you an outsider. And also pretty bored. I give in and call the first person I always call when I’m in LA and when you need to start a dream.
Albert’s son Henry dreams of working in the movies. He has a past that makes any worry I have over mine, look tame.
When I was Young I was Crazy is a T-shirt for Henry.
Albert is a movie producer. When he was twenty, he bought a cinema in his hometown, Chicago. It played obscure foreign movies and attracted a combination of art house geeks and criminals who took advantage of the lack of witnesses to do business.
Soon, it went bankrupt.
We met on a movie set in Romania years later. Then on another in New York. Since then, we’ve had lunch. A lot. I have lunch with Albert more than with any other friend. Even when we don’t live in the same country, somehow, we have lunch.
‘Wasn’t that a fluke,’ I say to him the other day about meeting in Romania and then New York. ‘Yup,’ Albert says. But even though, this could easily be put down to coincidence, the stories we tell over lunch, feel like they have a magic to them, which others might not see.
‘It’s definitely getting harder,’ he says about the movie business. His latest film – Ruby Sparks has just opened and Henry, his son, has devised an ingenious method of pretending to be a ticket-buying customer online, so he can check into the auditorium plan and count how many seats are taken.
‘The box office rules it all,’ says Albert, ‘the best way you can succeed is to cast a movie star.’
I hold back from telling him my news – that a friend has returned flushed from the latest Hollywood exercise trend – transcendental spin class in the dark – and told me that Jonah Hill, a fellow member, somehow with the lights off, saw her wearing ‘the coolest girl you’ll ever meet’ tee and told her he loved it and wanted one.
Suddenly, I’m obsessed with getting a tee to Jonah Hill – though confused. Does he want ‘the coolest girl you’ll ever meet,’ which now feels like it could be skirting Mrs. Doubtfire territory. Or do I need to remake it as ‘the coolest guy you’ll ever meet’ which will involve a complete reworking of the central character of the T-shirt.
Maybe worth it, if millions see him in the tee. Because in a town where even thirteen year old Henry is aware of how vital that is, the alternative feels like obscurity.
‘What’s a great story that nobody knows?’ I ask Albert and he tells me about a movie he’s been trying to make for years, around a group of white kids in Chicago in the sixties. Some were rich, others poor, all were obsessed with blues music. So much so, that they went to neighborhoods racially off their map, to find Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Williams and other heroes, and begged them to teach them.
Most of those kids went onto become musicians more famous than their mentors – who they now introduced to the world. ‘That’s the dark side of the story,’ says Albert, ‘that it took white kids to make black music more attractive to a wider audience.’
‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘maybe it’s too much of a dream for it to ever get made.’
And here, I realize why it is that I like those lunches so much. Because as long as you tell the story to just one person, it means it’s alive.
You Might Be The Only Person Who Sees This is a T-shirt for Albert.
‘You know who you have to meet now,’ says Albert. ‘Barry Goldberg – he was one of those white kids in Chicago and he’s got some great stories. Look. His email address is ‘farout.’’
I don’t need any further encouragement. I call Barry the next day.
I see three rainbows on the outskirts of Vegas. The plan is to stick around for the Magic trade show then drive via Flagstaff to Santa Fe to meet a friend of the Goldberg’s called Rainbow Man. The rainbows feel like a sign that I’m heading in the right direction.
Twice a year in Vegas, the Magic show is put on.
I’m here because that name feels like a place where something special happens and to help out on Steve’s booth.
‘I told you it was like this,’ he says, when I begin to see, after minutes, that actually, I’m in the heart of something that’s heavy on the mass market sell and light on the fairy dust. The girl across from us who’s selling bags made out of bicycle tyres, asks me to watch her booth while she smokes a cigarette. While she’s gone, somebody asks me for a pamphlet and I get way too over-excited.
Immediately, I realize I need my own booth and search out the show’s organizers, where I meet Nicole.
I tell her that I turn people’s stories into tees and that I’d like to do it here. ‘I love that ,’ says Nicole. ‘You know what I’d like on my T-shirt? ‘I Love My Dogs More Than My Husband.’ No, actually, don’t put that.’
Then she radios for someone to help me. ‘I’m not exactly sure who can deal with this matter. Let’s try Deborah.’
The man sitting next to me introduces himself. ‘Mike. I’m waiting for Deborah too. Say, I like your idea. Do you have a distributor? ‘It’s not really about that.’ I say. ‘Well, maybe we could have a meeting about it over dinner?’ He hands me his business card and I see that his company name is ‘Schlong.’ I graciously decline.
In the meantime, Nicole tells me about her dogs. With so many people losing their homes in Vegas to mortgages that now seem wilder than any jackpot a casino could offer, an extra sadness has started to happen. When a home gets foreclosed on, the former owners will often leave their dog behind in the empty house.
‘Sometimes it’s even worse,’ says Nicole. ‘They drive the animals all the way out to the desert and just dump them there. How can they do that to an innocent?’
I tell her about all the empty homes I saw on my way into the city, like a starved vanguard to a city of riches, putting up a last pretend front.
‘Oh yeah,’ says Nicole, ‘there’s a whole middle class that’s been dispossessed out here. If they’re not living on the streets yet, they’re only a couple of stops away from it.’ Then she tells me another strange thing. Sometimes when people leave their homes they rip up everything inside – the walls, the electrics, the floors. ‘They destroy every last piece of it,’ says Nicole. ‘If they can’t have it nobody else will.’
And it seems, that in these cases, the dog isn’t seen as a living thing, but as a feature of a once coveted middle class dream home.
If they’re lucky, the former pets get discovered by the rescue squad.
But if they’re really lucky, in a city that still prays to that god, they’ll meet kind Nicole, who’s already rescued two of them.
Dog House For Sale. Dog Included is a T-shirt for Nicole.
Deborah, one of Magic’s organizers turns up.
‘So what are you doing here?’ she asks, ‘Well, I’m doing a project where people tell me stories and I turn them into tees and I see you have some empty booths at Magic and I’d love to hear people’s stories here. It could be a bit of magic at Magic.’
‘You’ll sell the T–shirts?’ says Deborah.
‘No, I’ll give them away for free.’
‘So it’s a sponsorship?’
‘No, just for free.’
‘And that’s PR for what?’
‘Nothing. It’s just for free.’
And then Deborah takes the biggest sigh, weighed down with the unfathomable.
‘Well, I really have no idea what to do with this. For free? I mean what the… I have never heard of anything quite like this. Um…’
‘Well maybe you could just give me a booth.’
‘A booth for free?’
‘Well, that will cost you $5700.’
There Is No Magic At Magic is a T-shirt for me.
I have one last shot at getting something off the ground today. I decide to go see the American Apparel booth at Magic – maybe they’ll help me out seeing as I’ve been printing on American Apparel tees. I explain how I’m telling the stories of Americans on their tees – surely there’s no better fitting expression of their brand than this idea?
‘Thank you. Can I have some free T-shirts?’
‘Yes, we can give you, uh, let’s see here, um, one.’
‘One T-shirt? But I can see five hundred.’
‘Ah, yeah, but there’s protocol, and inventory and stock and other words.’
I take the one tee and return to Steve’s booth. ‘I didn’t make it happen,’ I say. He points in the direction of a guy called Mac who I might get a great story from. That guy points in the direction of another guy, who says ‘what the fuck is up with your hair?’
With the exception of Nicole, it’s been a rough day.
That night we head to a strip mall off Sahara at the recommendation of Josiah Hamilton – my oldest friend. Earlier that day, we bumped into him and his wife, Justine. She’s here for the trade show with Sam from Santa Barbara and by total coincidence will be at every place I eat for the next two days. Josiah is here for a good time and feels pretty shabby after last night – ‘I need a glass of water and a hand gun,’ he says, then he tells us we have to check out the Lotus of Siam.
That’s what we’re looking for here.
All strip malls are weird, but this one is the weirdest. It’s built around a car park that forms a melting pot for the people pouring out of the other spots on the strip, like characters from different cult TV shows. There’s a Korean only Karaoke, two Transvestite bars, a dentist who we discover later doesn’t like to make appointments – and other places that you can’t see into and are a tiny bit grateful for that.
All of this, though, might just be a seedy camouflage for the Lotus of Siam, known by its customers to be the greatest Thai restaurant in the country.
As soon as we walk in, a guy comes up to me. ‘My god,’ he says, ‘I love your hair. Can I take a picture of it? I want to cut my friend’s hair just like it.’
And, suddenly it feels like the universe is turning this into a good day.
We sit down at a table and within a few seconds, I become aware of an old man with an amazing beard sitting next door.
He recommends some choices on the menu that he and his daughter and son in law have enjoyed, though within just a second or two, we swan dive into a conversation on the universal consciousness. The man is called Bob Snodgrass and in Japan, his daughter Virginia tells me, they call him ‘God of Bong.’
Bob is here for the counter culture tradeshow – Champs. I tell him that I’ve been at the Magic tradeshow, where there’s no Magic. ‘Oh no,’ says Bob, ‘you’re at the wrong trade show. You need to come to ours – that’s where the true magic is. You know in some ways,’ he says, ‘I feel like I brought all those people together.’
Bob is a master glass blower. In the seventies, he discovered that it was possible to weave silver and gold metals into glass pipes, which would continue to oxidize as you smoked through them. This – and a lot of things Bob did – pioneered the way for modern glass pipe blowing and in fact, for the existence of a tradeshow.
‘You know things happen when we’re all together,’ says Bob, ‘but when we’re not, our souls are still mingling.’
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, ‘Australia?’ ‘No,’ I say. Then he asks my name and something odd happens. Usually, I always give people my nickname, ‘Moxie’ – but just this once I want to tell Bob the name I was born with – ‘Sasha.’
The Snodgrass family laughs. ‘Well, that’s weird – we got a friend called Sasha and she just moved to Australia. Now you definitely have to come to the show.’
KING BONG is a T-shirt for Bob Snodgrass.
‘This guy’s going to look after you’ says Bob, about Joe, the waiter. With the tees, I always have an instinct if I want to make one for somebody – and instantly I get that with Joe.
Joe’s from Thailand, but he’s travelled a lot. He moved to London for a while and loved it there, but not as much as home, so he and his wife went back to see if they could get set up. Times were tough, though, and his wife couldn’t get a job.
Then she heard of a great opportunity in Vegas as a card dealer. Jo said ‘let’s go’ because his wife had come to London with him, and they agreed to stay out here for two years. ‘It’s been ten years,’ says Joe, ‘ten years! And I’m in exactly the same spot.’ He tells me he hates living in Vegas and is still trying to get home. The trouble is, his wife loves it. ‘Well, why don’t you move?’ I say.’ ‘Oh no,’ says Joe.
Happy Wife, Happy Life is T-shirt for Joe.
The next day, I start looking for a new T-shirt supplier instead of American Apparel. The softest and best tees are the kind the US soldiers used to wear from WWII to Vietnam, and there’s a myth in T-shirt circles that these tees are still in existence. I head to an Army Surplus store. I know I’m not going to find them – I never do.
But I do find Mac who runs the place.
‘Lady, what are you rich?’ he says. ‘You leave your headlights running while you’re in here? You got that kind of cash to blow? Where you from LA? I love LA. I’m moving back there. I can’t stand it here.’
And now I start to wonder whether anyone in Vegas actually likes living here.
Mac tells me that he came out here when his father died twenty years ago. His brothers stayed in LA and he left for Vegas. ‘Guess who made the right choice? Not me.’ he says, ‘I got trapped.’ I tell him he has own business – that must give him a degree of freedom. ‘Don’t be fooled. This store is a jail cell. I’m hemmed in on either side with responsibilities. But wait until I get back to LA…Ah. The beach.’ I tell him freedom sounds good. ‘Yup, but don’t ever forget you need cash.’
As if to forestall that future moment of peril, Mac gives me a big discount on the tees and tells me where I can buy them even cheaper.
‘Hey Mac,’ I say on the way out, ‘I’m not rich.’ ‘What? What? You got your health and a beautiful smile, don’t you? Then you’re the richest woman in the world.’
Get Me Out Of Here is a T-shirt for Mac printed on one of his T-shirts.
I head back to the show with my T-shirts, a fresh set of marker pens and the decision to print wherever I want. I remember a black table down one of the aisles.
On the way over, I think about the two tees I need to make. One will be for Sam, who told me that thirteen was her lucky number. And the other, I’ll print on the solo tee, which the American Apparel booth gave me yesterday.
It will say ‘this is the last T-shirt I’ll ever print on American Apparel’ and I’ll send it to Dov Charney, the president of the company.
I get to the black table – which is perfect, but now a group of guys are gathered around it. I walk past, deciding to look for another spot, when I see that they’re eating a pizza.
On the front of the box it says ‘Lucky No 13.’
This, is very definitely, where I need to print these T-shirts.
I squeeze a little room at the end of the table and make Sam’s tee. Then I make Dov Charney’s tee, but halfway through I get interrupted.
‘Hey, what are doing, says Per, the Swedish owner, of d-Brand, a clothing line. He says that it’s his birthday, ‘then I’ll definitely make you a T-shirt,’ I say. ‘I love color,’ he tells me. ‘That’s why I’m in fashion. I’ll wear anything in color. I mean, for me, the world just needs more color.’
This Would Look So Much Better In Color is a T-shirt for Per.
Soon, a small crowd starts to form around the black table. There’s a lady from Reno. A twenty one year old from Salt Lake City called Nash – ‘I’m here to learn,’ he says.
Then, I meet Deepak and Ramesh, manufacturers from Hong Kong. Ramesh watches as I make the tees. ‘I’m trying to get into your head,’ he says, ‘so I can see what you’re going to write next.’ Meanwhile, he and Deepak keep talking about how many free tees they might be able to give me, but it’s in a low whisper, so really I’m in exactly the same situation as Ramesh.
I’m Trying To Read Your Mind is a T-shirt for Ramesh.
‘Look,’ says Deepak, ‘you need to come and see us in Hong Kong, then you need to go to China – that’s where we can really help you. Until then, we’ll meet you at the next Magic and bring you a dozen white T-shirts to print on.’
And, suddenly, a dozen really doesn’t seem like a lot.
Come To China I’ll Give You A Billion Of These is a T-shirt for Deepak.
‘What are you doing there?’ An urgent little voice whispers behind me and we all jump.
It’s Dov Charney, the president of American Apparel. ‘Hey,’ I say to him and tell him that his booth wouldn’t give me any tees yesterday and that I was in fact halfway through printing a T-shirt that said ‘this is the last T-shirt I’ll ever print on American Apparel.’ Look…
‘Well, that’s false advertising,’ says Dov, ‘Here’s my personal number and you call me and get whatever T-shirts you want.’
‘Read my number back to me,’ he shouts as he disappears.
Just then the teamsters come along and have to move my black table into a booth because the show’s closing soon. ‘Moxie, you finally got your booth,’ says Ramesh.
And I did. For free.
That night, I meet Justine and Sam for a drink and to give Sam her tee. I tell her that I borrowed her lucky number – thirteen – today and that some magic happened.
We met through Justine a couple of weeks ago in Santa Barbara, but it feels right to give her the tee away from home, because Sam’s always been a big traveler.
She craved a way of turning those experiences into something precious so she wouldn’t forget, and started making jewelry. A bead would come from Italy, some leather from Africa, a diamond from Morocco, then she’d weave a necklace that would tell the story of that moment in her life and where she’d been.
Over the years, she went to a million places and soon had hordes of stuff at home in California – a little scared that to throw away even a piece of such a luxuriously beaded past, would mean that, actually, those stories were irrelevant.
And she’d have to look at where she was now.
That wasn’t a bad place. But it wasn’t great – just a present tense that hummed along Monday through Sunday, on an average speed. She’d got married when she was young and even though she loved him, she wasn’t in love, so nothing could ever feel enough.
They had a young daughter who, for six years, represented life unabashedly lived – which almost compensated for anything.
Then Sam got seriously ill – the kind of illness that ravages your body, and leaves you feeling like a beaten tourist, who’s been given a temporary extended visa in a world where they don’t fully belong, so to want the things that make us feel most alive – love and creative freedom – felt like trespassing into a land that wasn’t hers.
This, she decided, was just her life. And to want to anything else came with guilt that wasn’t even worth considering.
Then one day, after her daughter’s sixth birthday party, there was no row or tears, but just that thing, where something shifts inside and you know you have to get out.
Sam asked her husband for a divorce.
Since then, it’s been the biggest journey yet – although one that hasn’t been about going to far flung places, but just being in the present, wherever that happens. And in the last few months Sam has started to throw everything out, without any guilt.
‘I look at those old pieces of jewelry,’ she says, ‘and they’re just not about me anymore. I want to make things about now – beautiful objects not about the past, but the present – things that women see and know right now, right here it’s something about them.’
She’s just opened her first shop. And fallen in love.
And generally looks like someone who’s just arrived.
Not Guilty is a T-shirt for Sam.
‘I’m going to make you a T-shirt,’ says Justine. Which is a strange thing to hear, because that’s usually my line. And, suddenly I’m terrified and very dubious that someone can reduce everything I’m doing right now into one line on a T-shirt.
A Cool Mess is a T-shirt for me by Justine.
A guy stops by our table. ‘I liked watching that T-shirt get made,’ he says, ‘it looked like fun. You know there’s a guy at work who’s always saying, ‘this is a hot mess.’ Maybe I should get a T-shirt for him.’
I tell him that he can have one as long as he gives me a story. Does he have a business card? ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I have the coolest business card in the world ever.’
He comes back five minutes later and tosses me a casino chip.
On the back of it, is printed his details. We see that he’s the President of Dunhill.
I rather excitedly ran back with the chip back to another bar where the two Steves are.
‘You know,’ says Steve Ford on the left, ‘it might be worth something.’
‘Well, then let’s cash it in.’
As we walk through the casino, we become absolutely convinced that the business card chip is actually an apprentice-style test of our initiative. The cashier will hand us a figure, that we’re positive is $250,000. Then we’ll get a phone call from the President of Dunhill congratulating us on our business acumen and offering us jobs.
‘No,’ says the cashier. ‘It’s just a really cool business card.’
On the way back up the elevator, which feels like the slow come down off a ride where we’ve won money, lost money, and now, finally, reached a zen, where we’re okay with the financial trauma we’ve been through, I ask Steve Ford what he thinks Boxie means.
‘Boxie?’ He says. ‘It’s the first story.’
The next day, I go see the Snodgrass family at the Champs Tradeshow. We walk for miles through a deserted convention center, and are pretty sure we’re lost until we bump into a random guy.
‘Oh my god! How the hell did you make the elevator work?’’ he says.
‘We pushed the button,’ we say.
‘But how did you do that?’
This is a good sign that you’re close to a counter culture trade show.
When I get there, Bob is giving a glass blowing display.
I go see his daughter, Virginia and her husband Jon at the family stand. Ginny explains how every member of the family makes different glass and how they all work together. ‘This is my glass, this is my dad’s, this is Jon’s’ and then she shows us sweet little padded cushion cases. These, she explains, are made by her sister to protect the pipes.
‘You should take a look around,’ the Snodgrasses say.
And, after Magic, it seems like a welcome opposite – no competition or cynicism and just a place that leaves you with the feeling of ‘how do I get a job in this world?’ I make a tee based on something Bob said that first night when I met them.
When We’re Together Things Happen is a T-shirt for Ginny.
And I leave the tee, ‘King Bong,’ for Bob, which he sends me a picture of from his home in Oregon.
I meet Glen outside Champs. ‘I’d like a T-shirt’ he says. ‘I know exactly what I want it to say.’ In cases like these, the usual reply is ‘no’ because everybody always thinks they can write a good T-shirt line.
‘Trust me, this one fits the story perfectly,’ says Glen.
He explains how he had a beautiful weed crop growing at his ranch this year. Then disaster struck with a rampant plague of Spider Mite. ‘I can’t even talk about it,’ says Glen, who this year is taking brilliantly resourceful measures. Spider Mite, he’s discovered, is from the same family as dog fleas, so he’s hung flea collars all over his crop. ‘You know every farmer always clings to the same hope,’ says Glen…
Next Year is a T-shirt for Glen.
‘Listen,’ says Glen, ‘you want to hear a story about Jesus Christ, Led Zeppelin and the original Stairway To Heaven?’
The only answer is yes.
‘Ok. But we’re going to go back three thousand years…’
As he starts telling Steve the story, a Chinese girl comes over and takes a look at Glen’s tee. Her name is Laura.
‘Las Vegas is a lot more modern than Shanghai,’ she tells me. This is Laura’s first time in America and she likes how fleeting Vegas seems – the firefly of cities, which, for most, only ever lasts a few days. I tell her how new Shanghai seems. ‘Only on the surface,’ she says, ‘there’s too much history.’
She tells me that she’s in love with a man and if it just came down to the way they felt about each other, she’d be with him in a heartbeat. The problem is, he’s divorced and has a daughter from his first marriage – a monument from a previous world that no amount of skyscraper building in Shanghai can change. Her parents disapprove, as do her friends. In fact, she’s told everyone that she’s broken up with him but they’re still secretly seeing each other. ‘He’s got too much baggage,’ says Laura. ‘They want me to meet someone with no past.’
‘Maybe you should move out here with him?’ I say.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asks. And, probably, because she can only understand every other word, I decide to tell her the truth.
‘I’m on the run from history,’ I tell her, ‘thirty-four years ago, a man went missing – a T-shirt maker – my father. It’s a weird story and I’m tired of telling it. I want to completely escape my past. I want to be free.’
And suddenly I get why Laura feels so romantic about Vegas and why I haven’t been all that keen to leave it either. Despite a reply to my email from the Goldbergs whose advice I’ve followed religiously so far, asking for direction in Vegas. ‘Yes, leave!’ they write back.
Because this is the town where there are no clocks on the walls, and the extra oxygen pumped into rooms makes anything old wither, while bus loads of tourists pile in with lucky quarters, lured and the stung by the promise that everything you’ve been until now can be made irrelevant with a throw of a dice.
In Las Vegas, I tell her, a love like yours could survive.
If Only There Was No History is a T-shirt for Laura.
‘What T-shirt are you making,’ says Glen? And I dread showing him. Because while Laura and I have been chatting, random key words have been rising out of his chat with Steve – ‘Mayans,’ ‘Tudors,’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Blarney Stone,’ Nazis’ and the realization hits that I’ve made the one tee that Glen will hate – one that if true, would have annihilated his favorite subject for the last hour.
‘No, no!’ Says Glen. ‘We need history.’ Then Laura tells him her story. ‘Listen. You know what charisma is right?’ he says, ‘Well, history gives us character. It makes us who we are – you love that guy because of who he is, well history made him that way. History is why you love him.’ ‘But my parents don’t approve,’ says Laura, ‘I think I might have to break up with him.’ ‘No you don’t!’ Says Glen.
And I wait for a solution that carries the same optimism as Glen’s Next Year tee – a future hope that even someone as crazy about history as Glen knows is necessary.
‘Look,’ says Glen, ‘tell your parents to fly out to California and come and stay with me. We’ll go horse riding and visit the hot springs – you know what hot springs are right? Well, we’ll sit in them all day. Then, I’ll explain the situation to them and we’ll figure the whole thing out.’
And though the pattern of history predicts that Laura’s parents will never do that – the beautiful randomness of a weed farmer and a Chinese plastics manufacturer talking about love, makes it seem possible in a Vegas way, which is only ever for a minute.
It’s time to head to Flagstaff. And despite a last minute far fetched idea that the Lotus of Siam is reason enough to stay in this town, I say goodbye to Vegas, with a sentimentality that doesn’t belong here.