July 28, 2013
This time last week I fell asleep and woke up in an MRI machine asking myself, “Where am I? And how did I get here?”
I was lying inside the industrial-size white doughnut that is an MRI scanner, the machine emitting its hideous churning noise, a noise I can only describe as an intense, encrypted din which reminds me somehow of a choir of the damned, the faraway yet still audible screeches of those condemned to an afterlife in hell. It is a wretched, collective groaning from the deep. The electricity produced by the heat of those wretched souls burning below is converted by the manufacturer General Electric, via some awful space-age technology, into a super-high-tech magnetic resonance field against which we are able to scan for our own imaging.
It’s never a good sign if you wake up inside an MRI, and last weekend was no exception. The mild concussion I had suffered at the hands of the guard dogs of hell”it started to return to me then”had briefly made me oblivious to a turn for the worse my trip to SÃ£o Paulo had taken. As the cyclopean monster that is the MRI changed gears, cranking then churning in another direction, only then did my memory take me back to the situation’s origin”a happy Friday night in Brazil’s capital city SÃ£o Paulo where I joined my colleagues in raising our caipirinhas and toasting the end of a week in which we had, for once, done our duty. Let me set the scene.
I”d arrived in Brazil the previous Monday morning for the Americas Screenwriting festival, a biennial event celebrating the talents who reside in Latin America. It was a Who’s Who in South American creative talent, which included a handful of A-list Brazilian and Argentinian filmmakers, some long-time Mexican writer-directors”old friends of mine”and an intriguing mix of just-discovered talents from north of the Amazon. Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela were all represented.
After dinner, having quickly wearied of the Argentines” hauteur, I went wandering down a thoroughfare of SÃ£o Paulo and walked into a trap. I left my buddies in a club and somehow navigated”by way of an evil taxi driver”to the worst part of town. I would discover the next day that it’s where “no one who lives here goes.” I hoped I was stumbling upon a bar of lore, a Treasure Island wreck of an establishment, perhaps the city’s best-kept secret. I was motioned down some stairs and into the grimmest of low-end strip clubs.
Empty at this hour. Ugly and overweight girls. A miserable bartender. Bizarrely, dry ice and the smell of coconut tanning lotion everywhere. Simply horrible. There was the inevitable cajoling and chirping of “Why don”t you buy us a drink?” I realized this was no place for me and I had unwittingly been parked there, alone in a place where I didn”t want to be and where I had no friends. Nor, I had quickly concluded, would any of my friends be coming to meet me here. This would remain a secret, an accident, an easy enough mistake to make.
Yeah. The place was called Emmanuelle’s; at least technically, I”d discover. That evening it looked like the place was called “manuel” because the lights in the surrounding letters had failed.
I proceeded to leave, at which point I was told my “bill” totaled 500 bucks for sitting in a bar for 20 minutes. I argued. I asked what one drink cost. I paid it: 175″and I continued to leave, a distinct feeling that I”d been suckered descending upon me. 175. A lot for a shot of vodka.
I emerged and hesitated before turning left or right when it appeared the management was not satisfied. The madam, an evil-looking seductress who had probably once been coquettish and had now grown tougher than all the men from whom she made her living”set her two henchmen on me, surrounding me at the top of the stairs outside the bar. There they cornered me and quickly told me to pay up what I “owed” them. Thinking that I had some principle to back up my desire to keep hold of the cash I was carrying, I refused.
We argued. The tempo grew quicker, the tone harsher. I called my friend Luis, who has the respect of many in the law-enforcement community. Unfortunately for me, he was busy. We argued some more. People formed a circle and started to watch. Sensing I better come up with a plan quickly and feeling how little sympathy local people have for gringos outside strip joints, I quickly snapped a couple of photos using my iPhone”photos of the madam and her henchmen. Insurance, I hoped. Final evidence of where I had been if I was to be killed or to vanish. Perhaps DropBox would make one final grab for my personal photos and upload them without permission again.
Then all hell broke loose. They picked me up, kicking and yelling”bystanders gawping”and carried me across the threshold. Two guys held me up by my arms while two other guerillas laid into me, hitting me in the side with kidney jabs. Gut punches and face slaps rained down until I gave up kicking and resisting.
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