Hard Math

I’ve been staying off the roads in Atlanta since the beginning of this here month of “JOOO-lye,” (as we say in the deep south), and for a very good reason. A new law went into effect July 1, a law that bans drivers from holding their cellphones while they are driving. 

Which isn’t a bad idea in theory, considering that most drivers conspicuously wield telephones the size of IMAX screens in front of their faces the entire time they are behind the wheel, causing near misses, dents, and wrecks throughout the metro area. What had me a bit nervous about being on the road when the new rule went into effect was the subconscious panic it would create on a good portion of the motorists who, now that they had nothing to stare at but the boring old road with boring old cars around them, would have a collective spasm. I imagined vehicular anarchy, a wild, city-wide freakout that would force drivers to careen into medians and ditches, down the opposite lanes of traffic, up the sides of buildings, into rivers, or launch themselves off half-built overpasses like the Dukes of Hazzard boys. They would behave like cats during a thunderstorm—clawing, climbing, scraping and screeching in an effort to get anywhere to feel safe. Without the reassuring glow of their all-knowing “Trancer” (my own term for any computerized rectangle that effectively cuts people off from organic communication), they may simply go back to blood, and head for the horizon. 

It seems that the initial hysteria has died down, and yet I’m still spending more time at home. Atlanta traffic sucks no matter what people have in front of them. In fact it’s no longer traffic, per se, but a big sludgy parking lot that tends to slowly drift, like continents, in certain directions. 

So I’m taking some time to clear out the scrub along the perimeter of my backyard, which has left me with a bunch of tree limbs and branches to get rid of. Ever diligent, I consulted my county’s website for the rules of proper disposal. To wit: “Branches themselves can be no longer than four feet and must be trimmed of leaves.” 

Check!

“And no branch may weigh over 50 lbs, and must be stacked neatly.” 

Check! 

I set out a tidy pile for pickup, happy to be in full compliance and well within the limits all around. So it was with some puzzlement when, on pick-up morning, I watched the garbage truck stop for a moment to scrutinize my pile, then drive away without collecting a single branch. 

Stumped, (pardon the pun), I went back to the website to make sure I had all the right parameters. I even looked for some hidden minutiae, as in, “If you sense that the trash collector is having a bad day, or is hungover, or is having a male menstrual moment in which he unexpectedly bursts into tears, you may have to gently encourage him to follow through.” 

Nothing. So I placed a call to Our Lady of the Red Tape to inquire as to what the problem might be. Not that I minded the trucks whizzing by as they ignored my piles of refuse, because when they fly by they create a nice breeze, and it is the summertime in Atlanta, after all, and we need all the breeze we can get. She told me directly that my pile was the problem. While the branches themselves were the right size, the pile itself was six-feet long, and they would only accept a maximum pile five feet in length.” 

“That’s where you are mistaken ma’am,” I said. “I don’t have one six-foot pile. I have two three-foot piles stacked side by side.” 

There was silence on the other end of the line, and I knew I was in trouble. If there is one thing that a bureaucrat hates, it’s an overly polite wiseass. 

“Actually, Ms. County Administrator, now that I think about it, I specifically created three two-foot piles, placed in consideration right next to each other to lessen the burden for our hard-working Debris Ambassadors. No wait, it’s all coming back to me. There are, in fact, six separate one-foot piles, placed in a precisely linear sequence so as not to tax our already overburdened Detritus Managers.”  

I could feel the waves of hatred coming through the phone as she took my information, saying she would get back in touch with me, which was county-speak for never hearing from anyone ever again.

“Dear, sweet, Ms. Administrator,” I said gently, “might I respectfully challenge you to a game of Nim?” 

“Oh it’s on, mother-f**ker,” she whispered, so as not to be picked up by the recording monitors for quality control. 

Nim, for the newcomers, is a mathematical strategy game in which various piles of sticks are laid out and removed by two opponents, and the person who retrieves the last stick is the loser. There are rules concerning how many can be removed and from what pile, and the idea is to force the challenger to clear one pile while guarding another. Over the next two weeks the garbage truck would screech to a stop in front of my stack of branches, idle thoughtfully next to it, pick an advantageous collection, and zoom away.  Then I would go out and remove a certain number, and on we played. I went out this past Monday to find one stick remaining, with a xeroxed piece of paper next to it bearing the image of an extended middle finger. I had lost. I hung the offending message on my fridge. Then I went out and picked up the last stick and threw it onto my neighbor’s lawn. 

Game Over. 

More Alembics… 

Freaknik II, Electric Boogaloo

For the record every sequel should have the phrase “Electric Boogaloo” in the title. Thus I am following my own rule. 

Anyway…

I was checking the news outlets last week for some nugget of inspiration when I happened on an announcement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Freaknik” was back, would be held in the city on Labor Day weekend, was returning for a whole new generation of black collegians. After reading the headline I made it a point to pick up a newspaper the next day to make sure the city fathers hadn’t declared a preemptive state of emergency. No word in the urban dictionary strikes more fear in the hearts of the Atlanta political establishment than “Freaknik.”

I could try to explain Freaknik, but the best and most succinct description of Freaknik can be found in the powerful poetry of the Hypnotize Camp Posse and their insightfully metered composition known as, “Azz and Tittiez.”

The song basically goes, “Azz and Tittiez…Azz and Tittiez…Azz and Tittiez…and big booty bitches.” (repeat).

That about sums it up. Not only does it sum up Freaknik, it sums up every fetishistic and Bacchanalian skin festival from ancient Greece to modern day Mardi Gras. Pan with his flute, Bacchus with his amphora, and Apollo with his lyre were the original party promoters. The pursuits of the flesh have always maintained a striking similarity over the millennia. It’s a pretty big common denominator, and although the aphrodisiacs may vary, and the music may be better or worse depending on whom you ask, and the legality of certain couplings may be more or less questionable, it all boils down to the same transaction.   

Whether it is a butt, a booty, a ba-donk-a-donk, a callipygean haunch or steatopygian wall of gluteal paradise, a person’s rear end can make or break a party. In Burgo Partridge’s A History of Orgies, (A real book, here is a picture…)

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Mr. Partridge describes the libertine clubs of the eighteenth century, in which women were invited to showcase their rumps to a roomful of tongue-wagging gentry. One woman, who went by the name Oyster Moll, had a reputation for being particularly insatiable. “Her crinigerous clift was ready to run the gantlope through a regiment of footguards.” I’m not sure what the hell that means, but I can venture a guess. That was two hundred years ago. Yesterday’s “clift” is today’s apple bottom. Whatever. 

My own memories of the original Freaknik date back to 1994. I was a freshman in college. My friend Tim and I had stumbled upon it by accident. It all started when we decided to drive off campus for a slice of pizza. Tim and I, by the way, are both as white as the underside of an albino. It was about four in the afternoon on a springtime Friday. About a mile up the road we hit a wall of traffic. There was no going anywhere. There might as well have been a huge glacier fifty miles long right through the middle of town. Bemused, Tim and I parked and decided to walk to the pizza parlor. We hiked past the endless line of cars, all stuck in place in what was the most fantastic scene of gridlock I had ever witnessed. We trudged along, figuring that around the next corner we would happen upon some major traffic accident. We weren’t a hundred feet up before a woman leaned out of a car and flashed us, flashed everybody in our direction. Four guys were immediately around her with video cameras. Mind you these weren’t camera phones. These were the big clunky recorders that could tear a rotator cuff from hoisting it around all day. VHS cassette tape sold separately. And the bass from the music shook the entire street. Revelers were perched on the roofs of their cars watching as girls were grinding and dancing on each other in the middle of the road. We took note that all the partiers were black.

“They are somewhat festive for a major car pileup,” my friend pointed out, rather philosophically.

“These Atlantans really know how to make the best of a traffic snarl,” I said. “I think we are going to like it here.” 

There was no horrible auto collision. It was Freaknik–a massive, somewhat extemporaneous city-wide party during the spring break for all the African-American colleges. Tim and I arrived at the pizza place and still the line of cars extended into infinity beyond, with no sign of letting up. Luckily our journey on foot was helped out by some students from Morehouse College who gave us a couple of beers as we walked by their car. They also explained what was going on.

“It’s Freaknik. We are getting our freak on.”

Tim and I sat on the patio of the pizza place and watched the festivities. Nobody could believe it, much less the partiers themselves. It was the type of random, wild, magical out-of-control party that happens once or twice in a lifetime. These types of things usually fall short, but sometimes like a riptide or flash flood, all the elements line up in exactly the right ratio, and the barometer drops and the phlogiston kicks in and something inexplicable happens and if you are lucky enough to be there you take part. 

“You can’t hoard fun. It has no shelf life.”

–Hunter S. Thompson.

Yes indeed, Dr. Thompson. I agree. In fact I had to look up a passage from my own novel, a weird little night-life satire called Wet Brain, in which the anti-hero assesses the same mostly fruitless search for a good time.

To wit, “We were all looking for the greatest night of our lives every time we stepped out of the house, even if we didn’t realize it. A location could be located, plans could be planned, but the magic itself was entirely unreliable. Sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t. It could occur anywhere and at anytime. The trick was to be prepared so at those odd, unexpected moments when it whipped up the pursuer’s only responsibility was to move with it, to ride it like a pack of wild horses. Sometimes you got trampled. Sometimes you made it to the sunrise.” 

Which brings us to the reason the city of Atlanta’s formal attitude toward Freaknik was one of shock and horror. It brought the whole city to a standstill for an entire weekend. Brides couldn’t get to the church for the weddings they had paid big money for, ambulances couldn’t get to hospitals, fire trucks sat helplessly while buildings burned to the ground. The politicians that didn’t get bounced out of office immediately set about putting into law draconian “no cruising zones” where kids could get busted just for driving past a street corner more than once.

And that was that. Freaknik fizzled. The other rule about sequels is they almost always suck. The book is better than the movie, the movie is better than its sequel, and if big success was a mathematical absolute than everybody would do it.

Post script. I read the other day that the party dubbed “Freaknik” was cancelled. Part of me is disappointed. The other part knows it would’ve been a letdown anyway. Bacchus, Pan, and Apollo are always planning though. They will make it happen somewhere, sometime. I hope I’m on the guest list.

More Alembics to come.