Nine Lines

“Now hold on a second dangit. Before we go to dinner, I wanna talk to you about something. Ok, now listen here, because I’m the expert on this stuff. The best way to go is to just play nine lines, that’ll keep you alive. Anything more than nine lines is a waste. Just play two or three cents a line, so each spin is just eighteen or twenty seven cents. That’ll keep you alive. Now I’m gonna give you kids some fun money.” He pulls out $200.

“Aw thanks grandpa you don’t have to do that.” We go to dinner. Grandpa pulls out the headlamp he keeps tied around his neck and pulls it up onto his forehead. He peers through a magnifying glass at the laminated menu. Marilyn makes fun of him when he forgets to turn it off. My cousin laughs. I laugh. He laughs and we snap a photo. Grandpa says, “Wow, this place sure has changed a lot, I tell ya.” We agree, but we’ve never been there before. The waitress comes over. He says to her, “Wow this place sure has changed a lot, I tell ya. I’ve been hearing people say it’s no good anymore, but this looks purdy good to me.” He loves the shrimp, he won’t stop talking about how good the shrimp is. Seems like he wants to come back to this restaurant soon. “This shrimp is unbelievable I tell ya; I’ve been trying to find some good shrimp near here.” Marilyn seems indifferent. He’s happy, we haven’t seen that before.

The four of us walk out onto the floor. “Ok tomorrow morning at 10:30, Nevada time, we’ll meetcha out here. Marilyn will be sitting here, and I’ll be over at these machines right here. Let me show ya. All ya need is nine lines, two or three cents a line. That’ll keep you alive.” He plays, he wins, he loses most of what he wins. “I don’t mind, it’s their money. Did you see that Jerry Van Dyke died today?” The money slips away, but he is still here. It’s 9 PM and he is still here, sober. We haven’t seen that before. We play a bit, we lose right away. Push a button if you’d like to bleed; we do it slow. We’d rather just keep the money to be honest, but what else are we gonna do. I don’t feel alive. dingdingdingdingdingding spins spins spins. “Like I says, ya only need nine lines. Any more than nine lines is a waste.” Grandpa is up about ten dollars. Marilyn says “take it and run Mike.” Spins spins spins. “Let me just get it down to fifteen bucks.” The bleeding is slow tonight. “I usually just play these in the week before the horses open. See sometimes I put my finger on the ‘cash out’ button like this. The machine can tell that you’re thinkin about leavin.” He walks away eventually. He moves slow, but he moves now. We haven’t seen that before. “Ok tomorrow morning at 10:30, that’s Nevada time. So it’ll be 11:30 our time. Ok?” Yeah Grandpa, you got it.

In the morning we come out, he’s at his machine. Sevens sevens sevens. “What time is it? It’s 10:30 already? Well I’ll be darned.” He’s winning. “Ya gotta play nine lines. Ya wanna try this machine?” Sure I said. I play his rules. Nine lines, two cents per line. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Bleed bleed bleed. Spins. Dingdingdingding. Five bucks back, two bucks down. “One of these machines right here will always hit. It’s better on the weekdays. I been following these four machines around for the last eight years. They always are movin’ em around. But on these ones, all ya need is nine lines.” Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Push the button. It spins. Bleed bleed bleed. Spins. Sevens sevens sevens. Nine bucks back, now I’m four dollars down. Thirty minutes, one button over and over and over. Ten bucks down. Grandpa looks and he says, “See, all ya need is nine lines. That’ll keep ya alive. You been playin for thirty minutes.” “Money well spent," I say. He nods in approval and says, “See Marilyn doesn’t understand. I know I’ll lose it. These machines are designed to take yer money, I know that. Playin these just gives me something to do. What else am I supposed to do? Sit on the couch all day?” Funny that he would mention it. Sitting on the couch all day is exactly what he did for decades. That’s how I always knew him.

When I was young, he drank. That was the only thing he did. Well, he went to play the horses sometimes too. Married with Children reruns, on a loop, on the couch. Whiskey, Ten High. Fifty years of that. Then outta nowhere, he gets a phone call I guess. He puts down the drink for good, just like that. He shaves his beard. He starts going on walks. Going on trips. One morning he’s gone. He’s moved to Arizona, he’s living with a woman. The woman is not my grandma, not his wife of fifty years. I was pretty mad at him for a long time; my grandma’s a saint; he was a real piece of shit. But here I am, looking at him, playing the nine lines. He looks happy now.

Story goes like this. He was engaged when he was 18 years old. Marilyn was 16. Her parents told them they had to break it off. They did. He went to the navy, he came back. That’s what ya did in those days. He met my grandma, life ensued. Married with children. The children had children. (That’d be us). Then he got that phone call. That was all it took. He told me later that he had wasted fifty years of his life on that couch. I see him now, happy. I suppose I can’t really judge. But he’s still just watching it spin. Mike and Marilyn, eh? Isn’t that the most romantic shit you’ve ever heard? I’ll be damned. Fifty years, a young love reunited, an old alcoholic picked up and plopped into a new life, a new wife, a new state, a new chair to sit in all day. So romantic I wanna throw up. So romantic I’d like to tell him that it’s not real nice to waste fifty years of someone else’s life. I suppose I can’t really judge. Nine lines is all ya need I guess, that’ll keep you alive. Just some shred of hope, watching it spin away. Whatever makes it more bearable, whatever machine steals the time away from you the slowest. He writes my grandma letters still, like a damned fool. She doesn’t respond. He probably feels guilty or some such bullshit, but not so guilty that he’ll take a drink. No longer feels any inclination toward it he tells me. Good for him.

They go home. I can’t stay there all night. I leave. One night stand in some shithole Arizona desert town where the only thing people dream of is having dreams. She’s a sad person, we talk about that a little bit, but not too much. I come back at 4 am, lose thirty bucks of "fun money" playing blackjack in about ninety seconds flat. My keycard doesn’t work. I go to the front desk and ask them to fix the keycard. “Sorry it looks like you’ve been locked out. There was an issue with the payment. I have to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” “Ok, the room should have been paid in full already, you should have a card on file, it’s 4:30 am, I’ve had a few drinks. Can I do this in the morning?” “The system is saying that I have to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” “Ok, but my debit card is in the room, my cousin is asleep in the room currently, so obviously we are staying the night there regardless.” “I’m sorry sir, but I’m not supposed to reassign the keycard.” “OK, you can either give me a fucking keycard, or I just have to go wake my cousin up in the middle of the night to let me in the room.” “Ok, one moment, let me see…… the system is saying that I need to collect $130 before I can reassign the keycard.” I walk away. Wake up my cousin. Sleep a few hours.

When I get up in the morning and come out onto the floor, he’s back at it. Sevens sevens sevens. A whole army of senior citizens letting their hard earned pension slowly slip, 27 cents at a time. How did it happen? Spins spins spins. Marilyn says “Mike, let’s go to lunch.” “Ok let me get it down to fifteen.” He turns and looks at me with a knowing grin; he’s a nice old man, but for a second I forget what his name is. He looks smaller than I remember somehow. “See, all ya need is nine lines.”

"Mr. Gamelan"

I had been playing Indonesian music for a few years, not with any great degree of dedication. My interest had been growing since I had moved to CalArts for graduate school. One Saturday, I drove about an hour and a half up to Oak View to play some music with my bandmates from high school. We set up in the drummer’s driveway and played some of our old death metal for a bit, then proceeded to playing stinky stupid funk, then the worst trash we could think of because that’s how it goes and that’s what we like to do when the “real” music is finished. Somewhere in the trash section of the music making, I started trying to play Balinese interlocking patterns with myself on guitar using a loop pedal. Having never done this before, I was struggling to make it happen (struggling through a decently loud amplifier). I’m sure some part of my mind still thought I was quite the cultured, knowledgeable, talented, young man; though this particular exercise undoubtedly sounded horrendous.

This continued until a neighbor from up the hill walked into the driveway and boldly declared, “Man, you guys just get worse and worse. At first, it was ok, but this… this is fucking horrible.” At this point, he gestures toward me and says, “You, tell me what… do you go to CalArts? What are you… Mister Gamelan?” My bandmates begin howling in hysterics, knowing that this gentleman in his sixties has completely hit the nail on the head, calling me out as magnificently as he possibly could have. With this one statement, he makes it perfectly clear that he has seen my type before: the young, white, college-educated man who plays around with “world music.” As he does this, I realize that I have seen this type before too, and I don’t usually enjoy it much either. For many artists, especially in LA, to be told you are the same as someone else is to be told that you are no one at all. So it didn’t feel great. Funny, but not great. This story seemed to amuse quite a few people, and no small number of my friends began to refer to me as “Mr. Gamelan.”

Fast forward three years. I’ve been living in Indonesia now for seven months. I live in Solo. It is not a tourist city and as a white person, you are very much out of the ordinary. As a white person in Indonesia, you are “bule.” This word once referred to people afflicted with albinism, but now is used to refer to anyone with white skin. It used to carry mostly negative connotations, and now carries all sides of the coin (the same coin you carry by just being white). As you walk around in Solo, it is very common that people, especially children, will yell “Hello Mister!”. They will yell it repeatedly regardless of your reaction as it is the only thing they know how to say in English. The word “mister” is essentially considered to be the usual nomenclature for any bule (it is often mistakenly used for women as well). The association of the word “mister” with Western culture is so strong that the leading hamburger chain in the city is called “Mister Burger.” This word is what you use to get a bule’s attention; if you yell “Hello Mister!” at a bule, they will look at you, and you can laugh and laugh and laugh, because… they are white. And that’s funny apparently. Or maybe if they say “hello” back, you can even ask them to take a photo with you.

I go to university playing Javanese music with Javanese students. There are two other bule in my class. Fortunately, the Indonesian students have more or less become accustomed to us and are generally friendly, but a few strong reminders of our whiteness still persist. It is assumed that we will be worse at the material, regardless of our abilities. Professors will make jokes at the expense of the bule-bule, using local Javanese language (as newcomers we can only understand the more mainstream Indonesian language). Sometimes, we do understand when they don’t expect it. I remember a favorite moment when a senior instructor mentioned in Javanese, “Only women and bules need notation to learn this.” If we can occasionally play something better than an Indonesian student (and it does happen), our classmates will make fun of them for it. Though they welcome our presence and are happy to have us in the class, our whiteness, our bule-ness, our mister-ness is apparent. No matter what you do, no matter how far you go, no matter how well you can play this music, it will be perceived through the lens of your whiteness. If you learn the music well enough, you might even get the highest possible compliment of sounding “Javanese.” And if your sound is even passable as such, you are virtually guaranteed some degree of renown and respect.

This brings to light the important fact that one’s status as a bule brings enormous advantages along with it. You are by default considered to be more attractive. People will offer you jobs teaching English, modeling, acting. Interactions with a single member of the opposite sex won’t make it far before your marital status is questioned. The average Indonesian person will treat you better if you are white because they want you to feel welcome in their country, they want you to like Indonesia, and in many cases, they may want to take a photo with you. It is nice for a while, but it does get old. I imagine it is much like being a really low-level celebrity. No one really cares who you are, but they think it’s interesting and strange because you’re from somewhere else, and that’s noteworthy enough for a photo. They want to say, “Hey, check out this photo I took. It’s that one guy from that one episode of Law and Order: SVU.” “Hey check out this photo I took. It’s me with a white person.” Just like that guy from SVU, it is a constant reminder that everyone is seeing you through a veil pre-existing associations. No matter who you are or what you do, the most interesting thing about you is that you are not from Indonesia. So, I used to be seen as a “metalhead.” Then I was just an obnoxious “world-music CalArts guy”. Now, I’m a “bule,” or as I hear every single day from the countless, lawless gangs of bicycle-equipped Indonesian children, I am a “mister.” “Mister” is my name. Right now, gamelan is what I do. So fuck it, I’ve given in. I’m well on my way to really becoming “Mister Gamelan.” For some reason, I’m still a little embarrassed about all of it. I wish I wasn’t.