Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Yup, it’s back. Click here to buy the tee that tells a million stories… (only available for sale until 23/7/14)

(‘The Hey’ T-shirt, worn here with black satin tuxedo pants, YSL sandals and a recoverable heart.)

Dear Friends of Boxie,

It’s been a while since we’ve been in touch. We’ve been on an epic journey since we last spoke, in fact, we’re still on it and have many wild stories to tell you about the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been. We’ll get to that later…

But judging by the amount of requests we’ve been getting to start selling ‘The Hey’ tee again, your love stories are reaching even wilder heights.

Click here if you want to purchase this  tee or, if not, we have some stories to tell and would love an audience.

The tales are about a trip we’ve been taking across America, where we meet strangers and turn their stories onto a line on a tee. We’ve been in LA (of course), Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, New Orleans, Mississippi, Nebraska, Chicago and have made over two hundred T-shirts for people from all different parts of life.

I want to tell you, though, about a story, that I just can’t shake.

It happened yesterday in Death Valley in a small town of twenty people called Tecopa.

At sunset, we found a blue couch in the middle of nowhere with a woman sitting on it with two kittens. She told us her name was Theresa and that she also had a puppy, who’d run off that morning into the desert. She was now terrified the coyotes would get him.

She explained that she was in Tecopa selling her mother’s motorhomes. Her mother had had a serious illness for six years, during which Theresa had cared for her permanently. Then in April, Theresa had taken her to the hospital, where the doctors informed that her mother had less than twelve hours to live.

She didn’t tell her mother that she was going to die, but put her in the car and said they were going on a drive to see friends. Theresa held her hand and drove. Six hours later, she finally stopped at the coroner’s.

Despite the physical evidence of a grave, and the terrible weight of grief that has physically rendered itself on Theresa, she just knows her mother is still on this journey with her…

The next day after we met, she ran out of gas and it looked, for a moment, like she might not get out of Death Valley. But the sheriff kindly fuelled up her RV.

And then, the puppy came back.

Death Is Not The End Of The Road is a T-shirt for Theresa.

More stories are to come…Stay tuned and keep having those love affairs.

ps never work with T-shirts and water.

LOS ANGELES

A few nights ago, I came back to Los Angeles. Ever since I was twenty-one, I have been coming back to this city.

It is not my home.

Nor do I have family here.

There is no history that connects. I am not descended from a people who centuries ago dwelled in this area, passing down a genetic compass point stuck on west.

I’m not even an American.

Neither is there the permanent glue of a green card in my passport and instead the inky spattering of tens of temporary visas, which, resemble more those ambiguous, smudged drawings that are used in psychiatric tests.

‘And what word comes to mind when you see this?’

‘Um, unsettled…’

I have no vacation home here – usually depending on the goodwill of local boyfriends – the length of which hopefully times in perfectly with a three-month visa, though not always.

And, I haven’t yet tapped into a past life that existed here and draws me back – which, if I really was a Los Angeleno, I would have at least several of.

Los Angeles is more the place I come to at that moment, which I can only compare to that dark day most of us endure in our twenties (at least several times) when the dream shot hasn’t worked out and you return to your parent’s house, asking for a few months’ shelter, while muttering a reluctant prayer to your newly adopted religion of a ‘proper job.’ Though with a crucial difference…

LA, for me, is where I go to admit that that path – the conventional life – didn’t work out. Again.

I have admitted this on more occasions than I can remember. These days, each attempt no longer concludes with frustration, but just a sigh of ‘ah yeah, that’s right.’

Though this is the longest time I have been away from Los Angeles.

See, last year, the city of dreams turned into the scene of a breakup – unfolding in a Mexican restaurant, which until then had sweetly hosted so many nights of margarita stupors and wild conversation, that usually skirted crazy business ideas and not, ‘it’s over,’ a far more outlandish truth, served up as easily as the basket of tortilla chips.

The evening ended in a moment, which had I watched happen to anyone else would have been quite fantastic. I was standing on Sunset Boulevard, in a red dress, drunk crying, swerving from one hysteria to another, when a transvestite came up to me…

‘Honey, are you gonna let a man do this to you? Are you really gonna let that happen? Look at you in your red dress! Are you gonna let him to do that to you?’

‘Yes,’ I whispered, completely without shame back to her.

I fled to Lafayette a week later to the kindness of strangers and, if I’m honest to an LA that with two extra syllables – ‘fay’ and ‘ette’ – might possibly not be over yet.

By the time, I got to New Orleans a few days later to the greatest of friends, I knew it was. But as I drove into the city, which floats on pools of water, like tear ducts about to swell up and brim over at any moment, I was thankful for a town which showed more compassion than LA, where the weather had been unsympathetically awesome.

‘God damn, I love a woman in a red dress!’ A stranger said to me on my last night there and instantly, I professed a new allegiance to a place that was kind to women wearing such garments.

I came home to my friend’s and made a T-shirt, taking the nickname of New Orleans – NOLA – to mean something far more prophetic to me at that moment.

I returned, just for a day, to get my things. Sunset Boulevard was drizzling with rain – a grey mood I didn’t regard as a newly found tact, but that the city, in this instance, was relieved to discard its sunny wig and take a break from playing the dream-maker.

I couldn’t let it do that, not just yet, so as I drove along, I whispered a trick I know…

‘Let me see some magic…’

You can try this too – it’s worked for me a million times, not just in L.A., all over, and is a means of summoning the local gods to bring fairy dust to sad or banal days.

‘Let me see some magic…’

Now, quite possibly, you might see something very ordinary next, but because you’ve asked for the other, it will still seem pretty amazing.

‘Oh my god! There’s a bus!’

‘Let me some magic,’ I implored. ‘Let me see… ‘

Now at that exact moment – and I mean exact – my eyes landed on the one person out of the two hundred tees I’d made on my journey that summer, who’d been the first person I’d ever wanted to make a tee for, but who’d so far escaped me.

His name is Kevin Lee Light, though anybody who trawls Sunset Boulevard also knows him as Jesus. I’d tried to meet him all summer but had badly conveyed my T-shirt making intentions. My heart soared…

Of all the plastic tables! In all the Coffee Beans and Tealeaf stores!

I approached his table and everything that had ever happened dissolved to a pure start.

I made him a tee…

Then we had a three-hour epic conversation. I’ll tell you his story another time, but on both sides, it was a grand relief to meet someone who was living how we do.

‘Why do you do this?’ he asked me.

‘I like telling people’s stories.’

‘But why do you do it like this? You go around from one stranger to the next, hearing stories, making tees then you move onto another – why?’

It suddenly seemed like the most obvious question and yet, he was the first person who’d asked it.

And here I admitted something I hadn’t ever to anybody, though didn’t bother to say aloud, because maybe it was just the outfit, but it seemed like he was a telepathic sort of soul…

That this time in LA, an adventure I had billed as my greatest freedom run ever with the masterful support acts of quitting my job, abandoning my apartment and leaving my technical home country, to travel America on a T-shirt making journey…

That actually, actually…

I’d had another dream on the backburner. A night job dream to the day job dream…

See, even though I was bouncing around T-shirt land, I was pretty sure that none of the strangers knew that after goodbye, I’d return to an apartment with beige walls, which on this occasion I didn’t mind at all, because right in the middle of them, there was a guy I liked a lot and the possibility of another journey.

Until now strictly prohibited in my Los Angeles.

In between T-shirt making, I’d go grocery shopping, attempt to clean, badly, make dinner and do laundry – performing an inept mimicry of what I imagined a predecessor had done before me, though with as much panache as a badly trained circus seal.

This wasn’t how we’d started – that had been an adventure.

Though now, I became a perverse hybrid of Jack Kerouac and Martha Stewart. Or in Los Angeleno speak, ‘severely unaligned.’

Back in the Coffee Bean & The Tea Leaf, I gave Kevin/Jesus the only answer I could find…

“This is a moment…’ I told him, ‘you and me right now, are we agreed, that this is a moment?’

‘Yes! It’s a moment.’

‘And that’s what you do. You walk around, and anyone who encounters you has a moment – they might just see you, honk their horn, talk to you, laugh, cry, tell you something they’ve never told anyone, shout ‘hey Jesus!’ – always take a picture – even snigger, but no matter what, when they come home that night, they’ll say, ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me today…’ And you gave them that. You gave them something out of ordinary. You gave them a moment. ‘

‘Thank you.’

‘Well, I’m in the same business – the moment business – no way as good as you.  But I can walk up to anyone, hear their story, understand them entirely within that conversation  – which is a moment – and then leave behind a T shirt which marks that particular moment. I am amazing at moments. I can only say that because I am terrible at hours, I am appalling at months and don’t even get me started on years.

‘And I suppose why I do this is because I’m hoping people will only remember those moments – that a collection of moments can make a life and no one will ever know about the stuff in between – the relationships I can’t make work, the day to day chaos, my inadequacy at playing normal, because I’m no good at that stuff. I don’t know how to do it. And sometimes that’s the only thing I really want to do.’

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’re talking to the choir here.’

We both burst into tears, declared a firm friendship and said goodbye.

As he left, I forgot to tell him not to wash the tee. Recently, I’d been having severe doubts over the permanence of the markers I’d been using and worried profoundly that all the moments I had made this summer wouldn’t in fact survive a hot wash.

I was too frightened to even test it myself in case I witnessed a snappy one liner returning from the laundry, a lobotomized blank.

I got on a plane back to England the next day, a decision made out on a country road in Lafayette, as a full tank of gas, humming with the only Fleetwood Mac song you can listen to in this situation, made for an exhilarating feeling…

Yes! I have no boyfriend.

I have no apartment.

I have no city.

I have no job.

I am free! Free! Free!

Oh fuck. Bit too free.

I returned to my mother’s house, muttering that the proper job/conventional life masquerading as the non-proper/unconventional job life, hadn’t quite worked out, leaving us both entirely confused as to what I should do next.

I woke up that first Monday morning with a vague memory of a former life, and just how Jason Bourne can’t recall who he is and only that he can stab someone with a biro, so I remembered that I could rather less impressively, write a few lines with the same implement. I stumbled my way back to an advertising agency…

‘Hey, would you work on a pitch for margarine with me.’ My old boss said, in a way that sounded as upbeat and enticing as, ‘hey, do you want to take a boat out to the Caribbean and go fishing?’

‘You know what,’ I said, ‘I think I really would.’

I embraced the self-christened ‘yellow fats’ world with more passion than it had ever known – a stodgy, sensible rebound from my fleeting T-shirt summer.

Now, in advertising, you’ll spend months, sometimes years, honing one tiny message, but really, most of them just come down to an offering of some kind of permanence.

Eat this margarine with less saturated fats and live a little longer.

Use these newly designed teas bags and savor the flavor even more.

Sign up to this dating website and find love that can last forever.

The news we bring to you each time is that our product now does something stronger, longer, and quite suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to lend a touch of permanence to all those tees and moments that had happened that summer.

I remembered the conversation I’d had with Kevin/Jesus…

‘All these things that happen to you,’ I asked him, ‘are you writing them down or filming them?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I like the idea that you have to be part of it to see it.’

‘But this is a great story and you need to tell it.’

‘Yeah, but if the philosopher is cleaning his house, who is doing the philosophizing?’

In London, last October, for the first time in my life, I was hit with an unusual inclination to clean my house, although the next word is vital.

Metaphorically.

I spent the year that followed, writing down exactly what had happened on my T-shirt adventure. I began with the tale of my dad – it’s more complicated than the explanation up on your left, and at the same time, sadly, more simple.

Then I wrote down all the T-shirt tales I’d heard that summer and before and the life and the dreams that went on in between – an alchemy that turned the vapor of a memory into a sheet of whisper thin paper, but still something that you could touch.

I remembered something that had happened right at the beginning of the journey…

I’d rocked up at the house of a magic man/shaman living east of Hollywood, in Eagle Rock, confessing only to him that I was unable to start my journey – stalling, like I told you, in between Jack and Martha and sometimes veering off into Betty Ford.

‘Maybe I don’t want to do this journey.’

‘You have to,’ he said.

‘But what direction should I go in?’ I asked him.

‘Just do what you always do.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Keep going in circles. Take loops out of LA, but always, always come back to LA.’

I was privately delighted. Here, now, finally, a system of travel that most had regarded as entirely inept was validated and encouraged, though in London, that winter, I realized that if all this really was just a circle…

Then, as inevitable as my arrival that summer had been my eventual departure.

And that maybe, after such a staggering fail of the biggest Hollywood dream – happily ever after – and the most blissful notion of permanence, I wasn’t meant to go back. I was done, cashed out of LA reincarnations and now exiled to a celestial outer ring that existed of memories only. ‘Back in LA’ all my stories would begin, and eventually people would stop being polite and go ‘you told us this one!’

As I consigned my old dreams to paperwork only, I gave life to another stack…

Now, all my administration has always been conducted under a name I never use – a birth name – Alexandra Markova. My bank account, my passport, my driving license is all registered to this name, which sometimes is competent enough to contribute to a pension scheme. As identities go, it is utterly straight-laced, because it exists on paper only – though this time, I took it out for a real world test drive.

I got a fancy apartment in town under this name. ‘You’ll be very happy here, Alexandra!’ said the realtor. I went to dynamic Pilates three times a week. ‘Mean gets lean, Alexandra!’ said the trainer. And I went shopping. ‘Alexandra, I will not let you leave this store without that dress! It is the dress that belongs to a woman!’

This identity was successful, low key and sober. And by recent accounts, me.

Then, one Sunday at the beginning of this summer, I called up the phone company.

‘Wow…’ said the man at the help desk, ‘are you really Alexandra Markova?

‘Um…yes’

‘Oh. My. God.’

‘Listen, I swear I’m going to set up a monthly direct debit this time so I can…’

‘No, no, no, forget that. Are you familiar with the game Death Con Magnitude Part IV?’ Because there’s this character in it – Alexandra Markova – and I’m telling you, oh my god, you’re the coolest.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, you’re the best fighter.’

I put down my Sunday morning gluten-muffin, a spate of which had recently been purchased by Alexandra Markova, a recent convert to a wheat-free way.

‘I am?’

‘Oh yeah, I mean I’ve fought you loads of times and every time I have huge respect for you – not like the other characters. Seriously, when I just saw your name on my screen, I almost fell off my seat. Oh my god! I am worshipping you from afar.’

‘You are?’

‘Yes! In the game we’re sworn enemies, but let me tell you, I have nothing but respect for you.’

‘Thank you so much.’

‘You’re awesome.’

‘I’m overwhelmed.’

‘You’re a superhero.’

‘That’s so nice of you.’

‘And when I clock off work and tell my son that I have met Alexandra Markova from Death Con Magnitude Part IV – he won’t believe it.’

‘Well, you tell him that I said hello?’

‘He will be thrilled!’

It was shortly after that phone call, that I wondered whether this Alexandra Markova was in fact ballsy enough to go back to Los Angeles.

For now, I bought a wheat sandwich.

Then a few nights after that, a friend came over to my apartment.

He saw a black and white photo on my table of me when I was 23 that I’d found. It’s exactly the kind of picture you want taken of you at that age – before you have to rewrite the story of your youth, into a responsible-looking resume. I was smoking a great cigarette and standing on the balcony of my hotel room at the Tropicana in Vegas.

My friend asked the story behind it…

I told him that I’d been driving across America. We’d just spend a few nights in New Orleans, when a guy I’d fallen in love with back in California called. He’d told me he was heading to Vegas for a party, and that it would be awesome if we met him there.

I convinced my two friends in the car that driving twenty-four hours straight to Vegas to meet a group of guys was a great idea. A third friend needed no convincing.

Then, suddenly, on the way of out of Louisiana, on a four-lane freeway, doing eighty, the tire blew. The car span out of control, doing pirouettes across each lane – a prima donna ballerina, eager to take the whole stage. Somehow we skidded off the road and dipped into a small ditch.

We stumbled out of a cloud of dust…

‘Oh my god!’ a couple screamed as they ran out of their car towards us, waving a video camera, ‘we thought the car was going to flip! We thought you were all going to die!’ Then they paused and put the cap back on their camera, a little disappointed.

‘Who was driving this car?’ said the kindest truck driver who’d stopped to help us. ‘I was,’ I whispered from the roadside, pretty sure that I had almost just killed my friends and that this guy was about to give me an epic telling off.

He punched my arm.

‘Good job. Ok ladies, I gotta get four hundred tons of beef jerky to Albuquerque. I’ll get your tire fixed then I can lead you some of the way. Where you heading?

‘Dallas,’ said one of the half of the car.

‘Vegas,’ said the other.

‘What!? We almost died,’ said Team Dallas, ‘We can’t drive anymore.’

‘But that that’s exactly why we’re going,’ said me and the friend who still needed no convincing, ‘we are alive, alive! Don’t you see? We have to head west and have one of the great nights of our lives.’

I bought a twenty-five dollar red dress on the way, which matched the color of the sunset as we hit the strip twenty-four hours later, where the gods threw us a night and we took it.

In the morning, I walked back to the Tropicana and lay down on a sun lounger, in my red dress. I basked in all the possibilities of the future, which, it seemed, had started right then in that happy moment.

‘What happened to that guy?’ my friend asked back in the apartment.

‘What?’

‘Well did you go out with him for long or…’

‘No, no, don’t you get it?’ I said, though until I told him the story, I don’t think I ever had.

‘It wasn’t the guy. It was the direction.’

I booked a ticket the next day.

The night before I left, I had a drink with a friend from work. There was no reason for him to be the last person I saw  – we haven’t had a drink in years. My excuse was that he was leaving his job and I wouldn’t see him when I got back. But I can admit to you now, that I had an ulterior motive.

See, this guy’s last name was West. And I thought just in case I needed some pep, I’d make him a tee that would apply mostly to him quitting his job, but a little to me.

I didn’t need any encouragement.

As soon as I landed, I ran past the clusters of hugs and kisses, to embrace the city. I stood on the curb, breathing in the worst airport fumes ever with an ‘ahhhh’ as if I was in a field of roses. I wanted to see it all – even the city’s bad habits.

‘Traffic! Give me some fucking traffic. God I want to be stuck for two, three, four hours!’ Leaf blowers! I love you! Let me hear a chorus of ten thousand right now!’

I rode a different road in this time, past Hollywood – my usual ground – to Pasadena, where I took a sunset walk, with the city, my companion. As we strolled along, I remembered LA, like one of those people in your life, that only when you see, do you realize that you’ve never quite gotten over them. Its smell, its sound, the hills…

I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt and it struck me that you only see people wearing tees about places they’ve been – colleges, vacations – or places they want to go. T-shirts are either nostalgic or dreamy. They are never about the places we’re in.

But this guy was exactly where he was meant to be.

I stopped for a fish taco.

The moment really didn’t need it, but I said it for old time’s sake.

‘Let me see some magic…’

Twenty seconds later, an old man with white hair wandered up to me and asked if he could draw my picture. I told him I had no cash on me.

‘No, no it’s free.’

‘Well, can I buy you dinner?’

‘The gift of your company is enough. What’s your name?’

‘Alexandra’ I told him for the hell of it, though, really for the last time.

‘That’s weird,’ he said, ‘I’ve just been hanging with my friend Alexander the mechanic.

‘What’s your name?’ I’d delivered mine pretty dramatically and really didn’t expect him to come up with the same goods.

‘Ulysses.’

He told me that he was born in Columbia and had become a national championship winning prize-fighter. He’d come to America to fight.

‘Have you ever been married?’ I asked him.

He held up every finger on his right hand and winced, as if remembering an old injury, when I checked, ‘five times?’

‘How many kids do you have?’

‘I don’t know, Alexandra, and I don’t want to know.’

After he’d retired from fighting, he made a later career as a sign painter…

Though during a prison stint, he’d had a great idea for a T-shirt company. Then, there was always the lottery. He asked me to kiss his ticket – I did and placed a magic blessing on it, that we got excited about, even though I had no idea how to do magic blessings.

‘What will you do when you win?’ I asked him.

‘I’ll paint everybody’s signs in the city for free,’ he said.

Then I thought about the T-shirts and how that’s the same kind of deal.

A few days before I’d left for LA, I’d started to write to my old friends and T-shirt buddies out here – voices I’d had to shut off for a year – so much easier to imagine a LA as a mythical childhood home, that had now turned to dust, along with some of my favorite characters.

‘I was just wearing your T-shirt’ a couple of them wrote back.

‘You mean it didn’t wash off?’ I asked. ‘It actually stayed?’

Ulysses finished the picture and gave it to me.

‘You’ve just done the nicest thing for me,’ I said to him. ‘I asked the city for a sign that I was meant to be here and you – a sign painter – just made me one.

‘You’re a winner, lady’ he said.

‘What’s your idea of a winner?’

‘Someone who’s nice to strangers.’

As I walked back home, I had a different feeling in the city. Now usually my line of communication with it – and by that, I mean the point in any city that you direct the plea, ‘give me a break’ to – goes from me up to whatever is on top of those hills, who then either offer me something out of my reach, or glower down disappointed.

Though, tonight, as the sun dipped, it held me, at a sleepy, honest eye level.

‘You’re not supposed to go grocery shopping in LA,’ it said. ‘You are a wandering T-shirt maker and if you pull that shit again, you’ll get dumped in an even better dress.’

The next day I went to see my shaman/magic man in Eagle Rock.

‘You know, this year has been hard,’ I told him, ‘but I’m cool now and I get it.  You gave me this great piece of advice last year about going in circles, and I’m fine with it – I don’t need to change who I am, I’m just going to get really good at doing the circle and telling the story.’

‘You can go on a different circle.’

‘I can?’

‘Sure! I didn’t mean just keep going on the same one.’

‘You didn’t?’

‘I just meant you always come back to the same place. LA. But you can go a different way. You don’t have to keep doing the same thing. Oh no!  Is that what you thought I meant?’

Ah.

I made him a tee and headed back to Hollywood, via a completely different circle through Arizona.

The story of the greatest T-shirt journey that the world almost never knew about will be here later this week.

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.

LOS ANGELES

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.

The dream.

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 Berger.

__

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.

LAS VEGAS

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?’

‘Yes!’

‘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?

‘It’s great!’

‘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.