Emily Arent meets a massage-happy burnout, strep-throats her way through a stay, and follows a rules-averse Israeli through Tel Aviv.
Zander from Burning Man

I can’t remember where Zander was from. I’m not sure Zander could either, and I’m not sure his real name was actually Zander. He referred to himself by a variety of other nicknames, all of them mystical and vaguely Indian sounding. He’d been road tripping around the country for a few months, living out of his car and couchsurfing. He was a floppy haired boy with a wide, toothy grin who greeted me on the landing of my Boulder apartment with the tightest bear hug I’ve ever received.

He told me he’d just gotten out of jail in Nevada as I turned the key in my front door. But only for possession of illegal substances, he qualified. He found them in the desert at a music festival that changed his life which probably explained why he seemed so blissfully calm about the whole jail ordeal. Jail seems less consequential after the desert changes you.

Jail seems less consequential after the desert changes you.

Zander spent his first day in Boulder crying loudly on my couch and arguing with his mother on the phone. He was sad that his trip was coming to an end and sad that she seemed less blissfully calm about his stint in jail. The extent of his emotional despair made me uncomfortable, and the speed at which his moods were shifting from “stable” to “destroyed” made me nervous.

I wasn’t sure what to do with him. We took a walk through campus and I tried to distract him with a tour and a trip to grocery store to buy supplies for dinner, but he remained borderline weepy all afternoon. After my roommate left for the evening, he suggested we watch a movie. His sniffles had subsided considerably, and he pulled a CD case full of movies from his backpack. I agreed to watch one with him.

I was 19 and there was a hilarious vastness to my naivety. I didn’t know anything about peyote or Burning Man or the vague “massage” parties he kept referring to. He turned off all the lights in the living room, popped in a movie called Shortbus, and asked me if I wanted a massage. The movie turned out to be mostly porn and I watched it with my mouth half open as he massaged my hand.

He was doing a great job until he started kissing my fingers which was around the time I needed to get to bed. Looking back on it, the kid was lonely and harmless and withdrawing from a cocktail of party drugs and desert massage parties. But at the time, he skeeved me out and I asked him to leave the next day. I like to think he found another couch in Boulder and other, more willing fingers to kiss.

Paul from Vienna

Paul was a bass player who lived in the sickest apartment I’ve ever seen a 24-year-old musician living in. My friend Rachel and I rolled into town after a couple weeks of schlepping around Europe on Eurail passes. We were fresh from our latest misadventure, a result of the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. We thought wandering Europe would be romantic and simple, and were a little cranky that the majority of our trip had been spent learning from mistakes that now seem painfully obvious. Paul found us skulking in the park across the street from his apartment eating Happy Meals.

I had strep throat and a fever that I was trying to heal by sheer force of will. Paul spent the morning calling the very few doctors open over the Easter holiday and rented two city bikes. He pedaled through town a few yards ahead of me and I followed him on autopilot, doing some of the only Viennese sightseeing I’d be able to do during my three days in the city. He sat with me in the waiting room, and when they called my name he said, “Do you want me to come in with you, or stay here and wait for you?” I wanted to squeeze him with gratitude until he popped.

I burrowed into his fold-out couch like a gopher for the remainder of our stay, while Rachel explored art museums and Paul wandered in and out of the glorious April sunshine to check in. “Emily broke the record of time spent on the couch,” he later reported in my couchsurfing review. He showed up on my doorstep in Boulder a year later, and I was happy not only to be able to return the favor, but to take him out for a hard night of drinking and dancing in a quest to prove that I wasn’t a full time couch gopher. And he was happy to report that I redeemed myself.

Chaim from Israel

Chaim was a neurotic journalist who responded to a message I left on the couchsurfing forum. He was curious and political, and latched on to the details of my former job to learn that I had an interest in immigration and asylum seekers. He offered to take me on a walk through the immigrant neighborhoods around Tel Aviv’s old, abandoned bus station.

He talked fast and walked fast and I had to skip to keep up with him as he made last minute decisions to cross intersections diagonally. He taught me about the large number of illegal immigrants and African asylum seekers that are growing in number, and pushed to the fringes of Israeli society. We walked through the open-air children’s library that was created by sympathetic Israelis in Lewinsky Park, with books in Hebrew and a variety of languages from the children’s home countries.

I reminded him that he just tried to walk into a drug den, and he laughed.

He tried to walk into a run-down building that used be a drug den. He said he had interviewed someone there once. He was asked to leave and ushered away briskly. It was still a drug den, with different, less friendly owners. He kept walking full speed ahead, unfazed, and started in on a new argument, the argument that all Americans are crazy. He cited 9/11 conspiracy theories, rates of morbid obesity, and prescriptions for mood stabilizers. I reminded him that he just tried to walk into a drug den, and he laughed.

Our tour ended at the top of the massive Shalom Towers. He told me that he used to come here for “sport” and he ran up and down the stairs to get his exercise instead of buying a gym membership. “But then the security noticed,” he lamented. He tried to argue that it was a public building, which helped him get away with it for a few more days. But they got him eventually, with claims that the building’s insurance didn’t cover its stairwells being used for “sport.” Now he has to go to the gym.

I asked him if he thought any of the things he did were crazy. “Absolutely not,” he said, grinning as he looked out over the white city and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. He sends me emails every once in a while with youtube videos of ridiculous American reality shows, political radicals pontificating about conspiracy theories, or morbidly obese people dancing in front of their webcams.

The subject line always reads, “I love America.” And I know he secretly does.

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