The Brotherhood of Luigi and Bad CGI Rats

Published in Cipher in November 2017

You have probably heard of the 2007 Pixar hit “Ratatouille.” However, you have probably not heard of its Brazilian rip-off, “Ratatoing.” It features terrifyingly awful CGI, ear-grating voice acting, repeated footage just to eat up time, and the kind of dialogue you’d only expect to hear in a beginning fiction workshop. Being the kind of person I am, I have not only heard of this movie, but I have seen it twice.

I discovered it in early 2015 and was fascinated by its poor quality. I attempted to watch it on my own, but despite its ironic appeal, I couldn’t stand it. I knew this was something that required perseverance, so I tried to pitch viewing parties to various friends over the next few years. They all refused my invitations. Finally, in June, 2017, I roped in my particularly masochistic friend, Mindy. We watched it on a laptop in my mom’s office.

The verdict: “Ratatoing” is the longest 45 minutes you could possibly live through. Afterward, we took deep breaths, drank plenty of fluids, and browsed the Internet for reviews. We found a gem of a review on the website Rate Your Music: “Here’s a confession: I’ve seen this movie around 5-8 separate times,” the reviewer wrote. “Two of my friends are (or were, at least) considering watching it 36 times in a row to fit it into a full 24 hours.” 

I had originally set out to write an article about the horrors of “Ratatoing.” Thinking I could spice the article up with some interviews with fellow enthusiasts, I found myself in long email chains with the author of the review, Will, as well as his friends, Matt and James. After talking to them for some time, I realized that they were far more interesting than this movie we had all seen. The three of them, plus a fourth friend, had all known each other for a long time and had built a remarkable private culture.

Matt Lippman, James Werick, Will Green, and Stephen Valeri have spent years bonding over the worst movies they can find. “There are also many other people we care about and watch bad movies with, but none of them are as committed to hurting themselves,” Will told me.

They never did the 24-hour screening, but they have other stories that are almost as good. Like me, James found “Ratatoing” while browsing the bowels of YouTube. The group has a tradition of giving each other disappointing gifts (1), so he ordered the DVD for $1 on eBay and gave it to Stephen for either his birthday or Christmas (he can’t remember which). They watched the English dub, then watched the original in Portuguese, then immediately watched the English version again.

 

1. Unsurprisingly, most of their disappointing gifts for one another involve bad movies. They have given one another DVDs of Spider’s Web: A Pig’s Tale (a bad CGI rip-off of Charlotte’s Web), Baby Geniuses 2 (a universally hated movie about talking superhero babies), Battlefield Earth (a sci-fi movie based on a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, starring John Travolta), a compilation of all 16 installments of the Little Cars series (a rip-off of Cars by the same people who brought us Ratatoing), and a thrift store film featuring a CGI baby dancing to covers of Beatles songs.

Stephen began bringing the DVD around wherever he went. He began sneaking it onto DVD players during parties and get-togethers, an act that Matt described as “kamikaze.” Later, the group watched “Ratatoing” on two separate devices at the same time—in Portuguese on a DVD player, and in English on a laptop. Matt fled the room within ten minutes, along with Will’s then-girlfriend, who had never understood any of this. Despite this initial resistance, as of October, 2017, everyone in the group has seen “Ratatoing” at least 10 times.

***

The group is from northern Buffalo, NY, which Will calls “a sleepy, quietly grimy suburban neighborhood with lots of drinking and pizza.” Matt and James met in preschool and kindled an immediate artistic partnership that has continued ever since. Matt listed all their endeavors: “VHS films that we made when we were three, plays when we were six, comics when we were nine and 10, a rap group when we were 13, a ‘TV show’ when we were 14, etc.” Matt also sung “All Star” at multiple elementary school talent shows and rapped on top of lunch tables as “Matt Dogg.”

“Both of us always had an obsessive interest with watching and making movies,” said James. “Matt’s childhood favorite was ‘Rat Race.’ You would have to ask him for the exact number, but I believe he watched it over 100 times.” (Matt confirmed that the exact number is 107.) James’s favorite movie was “Daddy Day Care,” he said, adding,“I inexplicably decided it was my favorite movie after seeing it in the theater with Matt. We revisited it in high school and, unsurprisingly, it did not hold up at all.”

Stephen joined the group sometime in elementary school. Will, one year older than all the others, didn’t join until they were all in middle school. “He was on the same bus with us,” said Matt. “We thought it would be funny to pretend we thought his name was Kevin. Probably subconsciously cribbed that from the ‘SpongeBob’ episode ‘I’m Your Biggest Fanatic,’ where SpongeBob is obsessed with the sea cucumber, Kevin.” Matt paused before clarifying, “Will hated us.” By high school, they had become a tight-knit group.

Once they went off to college, they took advantage of the little time they had together to watch as many terrible movies as possible. One winter break, the group watched “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.” This 2012 film was (unsuccessfully) styled after classics like “Barney & Friends” and “Teletubbies.” It was billed as an “interactive film,” encouraging children to sing and dance along to the onscreen music. It currently holds the record for the biggest box office bomb of all time for a movie released in at least 2,000 theaters, earning a mere $206 on its opening weekend. While watching it, the group drank a lot and then forced themselves to obey every song-and-dance command the movie ordered. Will told me: “One of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard is five drunk college students chanting ‘Goofy Toofie, pick up your pants!’”

On another evening, they watched “God’s Not Dead,” a popular Christian film about a brave Christian student who matches wits with a cruel atheist philosophy professor. At the end of the movie, viewers are told to text “God’s Not Dead” to ten people. A drunk Will took this to heart. “When I woke up the next morning, I found that I had texted fifty separate contacts ‘God’s not dead,’ and the list was incredible—it included my former therapist, an ex-girlfriend, 20 to 25 classmates I hadn’t talked to in years, my grandmother’s ex-husband (so, my ex-step-grandpa?), my mom, two former high school teachers, and all my siblings.”

The group has gone so far as to “lightly stalk” cast members of their favorite bad movies. “Alan Bagh of ‘Birdemic’ still wishes me a happy birthday every year,” Matt told me.

***

Along with watching terrible movies, the group is very musically active, aside from Stephen, who is known to utter statements like, “I don’t believe music exists.” Matt makes some of the most serious music; he’s been in several bands and currently records and performs music under the name “Matthew Danger Lippman.” James has worked on a half-serious synthpop project called JNBJ. Most of the group’s other projects are jokes, though, recorded in James’s parents’ computer room. One of their most “successful” endeavors is Naked Luigi, a vile postmodern rap project constructed from a myriad of pop culture references and samples. Many of the lyrics depict a romantic relationship with Luigi (from Mario). Their album “Nake!” samples Luigi’s timeless saying, “Ima back,” well over 100 times. Naked Luigi also name-drops “Ratatoing” characters Marcel Toing and Greg in multiple songs. One song contains the lines “Cute face, chubby waist / Greg Toing in your face.” (Greg is not specified in the movie to have the last name “Toing,” but this did not matter to Naked Luigi). Another notable line is “Gettin’ faded with Marcel Toing in Rio de Janeiro.” 

Despite the fact that it sounds just as bad and obscure as the movies that the group watches, Naked Luigi has received critical attention. The website factmag.com named “Nake!” as one of June 2015’s best free downloads. “You know, each month I really try to reserve an honorary spot for the most baffling, bizarre, and memorably fucked-up release of the month,” wrote the author. “This is the first time I really worried whether I was going too far.” The Needle Drop blog highlighted “Nake!” negatively on their feature “It Came from Bandcamp,” which collects the worst music that Bandcamp has to offer. It simply said, “Luigi was a mistake.”

The group has also released music as Minnyunz, inspired by the popular Minions franchise, a spin-off of “Despicable Me.” The album is a fake commercial, filled with songs with titles like “Nymphominionac,” quickly interrupted by advertisements directing listeners to a Kickstarter campaign. Track 5 explains it all:

“I know what you’re thinking. Why do they need three million dollars? Well, here’s the exciting thing. We’re gonna have guest verses from the one, the only, Pierre Coffin, voice and creator of the Minions [applause from a few people]. The bulk of this three million dollars is going to our surgery. Now, I know you’re thinking, why do the Minnyunz need a surgery to complete their album? Well, we’ve got a state-of-the-art surgery coming up that we have developed with Swedish scientists that is going to change the rap game forever. We are getting our vocal chords replaced with those of an actual minion.” Then they demonstrate what this would sound like, with help from a pitch-shifting effect.

The Kickstarter is a non-active “draft,” which may be for the best. The exclusive offer for “Pledge $500 or more” reads: “Thank you so much for donating to the cause! You will get to fly out to Cancun to work on a song with the Minnyuns.”

I have never been part of a friend group. Over the years, I’ve found my way into the fringes of a few established groups, usually drifting away when I realize I’m never getting any closer to the center. Sometimes I gather my friends up and put on a movie (often a terrible one) to glue us all together, only to quickly realize that my friends don’t particularly like one another. I do have my dear friend Mindy. As I mentioned before, Mindy and I suffered through “Ratatoing” together. We have also watched oddities such as a “Lion King” rip-off called “Leo the Lion” and something called “Dream Come True: a Mule Mom’s Story.” I love Mindy. But she is not a friend group. She’s just one person. 

Part of me wonders if being part of a group is really worth it, if it’s not just a bunch of subtle competition under the pretense of friendship. But there is something tempting about community. Talking to this Buffalo friend group is the closest I have ever gotten to this dream. Everything I’d like to know, these people will tell me. 

Today, Matt lives in Brooklyn, working as a personal assistant for TV and movie productions. “Twelve-plus hour shifts, all freelance, not great pay (around $12 an hour, give or take), but it’s fun to hang around sets and catch celebrities.” Matt’s presence is easily felt through the Internet: his Instagram is filled with photos of himself, flaunting his bleached chin-length hair and porn ‘stache. He often wears a leopard-print button-down and ripped black pants while striking immodest poses. He slinks around the streets of New York with different people in each photo. He seems like the kind of person who everyone uncontrollably likes.

James works at a library in Buffalo and spends his time with personal creative projects, which include Matt’s music video for his song “F*CKIN PINK.” He has eight photos related to 7-11 on his Instagram (22% of his total content), including one of a 7-11 SmartCar. “So excited to announce that I just bought my first car!!” he captioned it. 

For Will, being separated from the group in college was bearable, since his school was only 400 miles away from their hometown. But today he lives 2,200 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, where he took an unexpected job. He works at a high school, teaching European history and Greek classics to teenagers. This is fitting, as he attended St. John’s College, where every student is forced to read “Don Quixote,” the Bible, “Paradise Lost,” and “War and Peace.” Will actually enjoys all these books.

Will wakes up at four a.m. and gets home by six. Then he smokes a lot of weed, reads, and listens to music. “I just have the normal lifestyle of a working white collar employee in America—I even have a salary! It’s fucked, truly fucked. I hate Phoenix.” He misses his friends and five siblings deeply, talking to them as much as possible. He wants to move back to Buffalo as soon as he can. That’s the thing about a friend group, I’m realizing. They become your family, and at some point, you have to leave them. 

Matt tells me that my fascination with their group has rekindled their interest in a 24-hour “Ratatoing” screening. Once they all come back together for winter break, they’ll do it, he promises. They’ll watch “Ratatoing” 36 times to fit into a full 24 hours. It will be beautiful, and it will all be because of me. I am still definitely not in this friend group, but it’s okay. Because of me, multiple people will be staring at that blocky CGI, taking in that nails-on-a-chalkboard voice acting, and they won’t be able to stop for a full day. It will hurt, but they’re used to it. Hurting themselves in this way is exactly what keeps them together.

Hello Kimberly, Goodbye Kimberly

Published in Cipher in November 2016

Lori Kennedy liked tea parties and animals. She was a grown woman who thought Easy Bake Ovens were cool, and she could fly a powered parachute. Blake Ruff was easygoing, tall with a receding hairline, from a wealthy Texan family. The two met at the Northwest Bible Church in Dallas in 2003 and fell in love.

One caveat: Lori refused to divulge any information about her past. She claimed she had a rough childhood, that she had no living family and that she had burned all her old photos. Blake, being the kind of guy he was, accepted this at face value. He asked no additional questions.

“He does not have much of an inner monologue,” Blake’s brother-in-law stated.

Blake’s family was close-knit and had a lot of money; they belonged to country clubs and sent their kids to boarding school. So, naturally, the warm Southern family was skeptical of Lori’s refusal to discuss her past. Blake’s mom, Nancy, wanted to put an announcement in the paper when he and Lori got married. Lori refused. The two eloped, with only the preacher in attendance.

The couple moved to Leonard, Texas, a run-down town with a population of about 2,000. Neighbors said that Lori often walked the perimeter of her 2-acre yard with her head down and never wanted to socialize. Blake recalled that Lori took medication for either ADHD or Tourette’s. 

Lori worked as a mystery shopper, or someone employed by a retailer to pose as a customer in order to evaluate the service. She was also part of a group called Texas Business Women. According to the website, “TBW’s mission is to enhance women’s personal and professional skills through technology, networking and advocacy.”

Lori wanted a child, badly. She miscarried several times, which later led the Ruff family to believe she was older than she claimed. In 2008, Blake and Lori had a baby through in vitro fertilization. That’s when things got worse. Lori refused to let her in-laws hold her daughter, or even be in the same room with her. She complained about the in-laws nonstop, but she still feverishly researched their genealogy and secret family recipes. 

Eventually the tensions grew so strong that Blake filed for divorce and moved back to Longview, Texas with his parents. Blake and Lori met with a pastor for “marriage therapy,” which failed because Lori refused to disclose anything. She began sending threatening emails to the Ruffs and created a “ruckus” at a custody exchange—no further details are available on what kind of scene that was. Lori’s neighbors would later report that she and her daughter were looking unusually thin. One day, Lori tried to steal the Ruff’s house keys, so the family filed a cease and desist order. On December 24 2010, Lori pulled her car into the Ruff’s driveway and shot herself in the head. Blake’s dad found her when he went outside to get the paper.

Miles Darby, Blake’s in-law, busted into Lori’s house, but not before calling the police to join him. “I didn’t know if [the house] was booby trapped,” he said.

The group found dirty dishes and laundry everywhere, and the crib was soiled. No word on whether the daughter was there or not, but she is still alive today. The first thing they went for was a lockbox in the attic labelled “crafts.” Blake had never touched it, as instructed. Miles cracked open the box with a screwdriver. That’s when they found an ID card and birth certificate in the name Becky Sue Turner.

The Ruffs consulted several private detectives who soon revealed that Lori Erica Ruff was not born as Becky Sue Turner. A narrative began to surface: a girl named Becky Sue was born in California in 1969, lived until the age of two, and died in 1971 in a house fire in Fife, WA, along with two sisters. Seventeen years later, Lori learned of the dead girl and decided to take her identity. Lori requested Becky’s birth certificate in Bakersfield, CA in May 1988. In June, Lori obtained an Idaho state ID in Boise. Although she always kept Becky Sue Turner as her birth identity, she later, for reasons unknown, sought a legal name change. In Dallas, sometime during July ‘88, she changed her name from Becky Sue Turner to Lori Erica Kennedy.  

Lori then applied for her first social security card, which was feasible because back then, people received their numbers around the time of their first job, rather than at birth. Lori earned a Texas driver’s license in 1989, a GED in 1990, and then attended Dallas Community College. Someone who knew her around this time said she had worked as an exotic dancer. She graduated from UT Arlington in 1997 with a degree in Business Administration. Her vague resume stated she had worked in graphic design, tech support and marketing. She claimed to know a host of computer programs and languages, including C. I showed her resume to a software developer, who said:

“C requires more skill and knowledge of programming concepts than most of the other languages that are widely used, but given that this person included Powerpoint and Textpad on their resume, I doubt they’re actually any good at it.”

A lot of her resume is probably false, considering how a letter of reference from “Roger Steinbeck” in the lockbox turned out to be totally fabricated. It was written on stationery from a five-star hotel in Thailand. “Lori is an excellent worker, learns quickly, pleasant manners, and very productive...she was also a pleasant tenant very quiet and considerate of other tenants,” the letter reads. Roger’s signature looks similar to the signature on Lori’s drivers license.

Also within the “crafts” box was a piece of paper filled with incoherent scribblings. On it appeared phrases like “402 months,” “N Holloyood police,” “Mountain Bell (3 hours less),” plus the contact information of an attorney named Ben Perkins. Perkins, who had been disbarred from the California bar in 1989, had no recollection of Ruff. In fact, he said he’d never even had a white client.

Lori had two suicide notes with her in the car, one reading “To my wonderful husband,” and another for her daughter, to be opened on her 18th birthday. The Ruffs opened both letters immediately. The letters have not been released to the public, but police agreed that they were the ramblings of someone with a serious mental illness.

More data came up. Lori had a mail drop in Boulder City, Nev., which forwarded her mail to Dallas. She didn’t show up in any fingerprint and facial recognition databases, and Becky Sue Turner’s family didn’t know anything about her. She had breast implants. Joe Velling, a private detective on the case, traced the serial number—fun fact: breast implants have serial numbers—and it led back to “Lori Erica Kennedy.” The trail was dead, but an article was published in The Seattle Times. This made Ruff an online sensation among true-life mystery fanatics. Then the case went cold for about six years.

People had a lot of theories: she was a KGB spy, she was in the mafia, she had escaped from a cult. Some people thought that her use of a gun as a suicide weapon suggested that she was a trained assassin. She loved Cuban food—does this mean she was from Florida? Some even said that her death was faked or that she was born male. People online suggested a canon of missing people that Lori could have been. Some thought she was Cynthia Perry, a girl from North Carolina whose single, ambiguous photo looked similar to Lori. Another possibility was Jennifer Wictor, a girl from Arizona who would have sort of looked like Lori if she had undergone rhinoplasty to shave off at least half her nose.

Lori wasn’t so much of an identity thief as she was a “ghoster.” Rather than regular identity theft, which involves stealing identities to open credit cards or some other criminal end, ghosting involves totally abandoning an old identity and jumping into a new one, long term. This was a feasible practice before technology enabled officials to rapidly cross-check birth and death certificates. The practice was even more feasible before the Social Security System, when people didn’t need documents to register their own existence. Who knows how many people wandered around in the good old days, inventing new identities as they pleased?

Lori definitely knew what she was doing when she changed her name twice. One resource she might have consulted was “The Paper Trip,” a ‘70s booklet detailing a few ways to assume a new identity to avoid “Big Brother.”

“Classic paper tripping involves the use of a birth certificate of a person who died in infancy, or at an age before any ID was obtained in his name. Because birth and death records have never, until just recently in various areas, been cross-referenced, you can see that the birth certificate of such a person could easily provide a ‘clean’ basis for a new ID.” 

The booklet continues: “The best kind of birth certificate for use in the classic paper trip will be that of a person who was born in one state but who died in another. At present, we are not aware of any cross-referencing across state lines...occasionally you will read stories of people who get caught pulling off a ‘paper trip.’ In almost all instances the person was using the birth certificate of a person who had been born and died in the same county.”

The book then goes into extreme detail on how to request someone else’s birth certificate, every place where you can do so, and at what cost.

If you try to steal an identity today, you’ll likely be caught. If you do manage to make the switch, detective work might catch you after the fact. Yet with the Internet in its fullest force, doing a lot of good but also publicly humiliating people on an unprecedented scale, new identities are something people need now more than ever.

That’s the thing about your identity: it holds all your positive attributes, like your loved ones and resume. But it also contains anything you need to run from. And unless you want to break the law, your core legal identity is something you’re stuck with.

Luckily, those in need can use the dark web to find identity brokers peddling their services for around $3000 a pop. For cheaper, you can also find a lot of credit card numbers and PayPal accounts for sale.

There are quite a few cases similar to Lori’s. An unidentified man checked into a Washington hotel under the name Lyle Stevik in 2001 and hung himself in his room. He had presumably borrowed his name from a character in Joyce Carol Oates’ “You Must Remember This,” and nobody knows his real name. An unidentified woman was shot to death in an Arkansas hotel by her lover and alleged pimp; she had previously used and been arrested under the names Cheryl Ann Wick, Shannon Wiley, Kelly Carr and Mercedes. Nobody knows her real name, either. A man named Frédéric Bourdin, alive today, claims to have impersonated over 500 identities. He once impersonated a missing teenager and lived with the family for five months before he was found out. Today, Bourdin has a family and claims to have stopped impersonating.

But there’s one particular case that bears uncanny similarities to Ruff’s. The two probably never knew one another, but both stole the identities of dead children. They both lived regular lives for decades under their fake names and their identity theft was only uncovered after they committed suicide by gunshot. And both were eccentric. The one we have yet to meet called himself Joseph Newton Chandler III.

Chandler worked as an electrical engineer in the Cleveland area and didn’t really talk to people. 

Coworkers described him as unusual. He had supposedly built a device that played white noise so he could work in peace.  Once he drove all the way from Ohio to Maine to go to an LL Bean. There were no spaces in the parking lot, so he turned around and drove home. The drive from Cleveland to Freeport takes about 11 hours. According to Reddit user JamesRenner who conducted his own small investigation, Chandler once showed up at a hospital with penile lacerations from attempting to masturbate with a vacuum cleaner.

With all this on the table, someone could easily armchair diagnose Chandler with schizoid personality disorder. Wikipedia: “Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy.”

Chandler committed suicide by gunshot in July 2002 after a diagnosis of colon cancer. He had already spent $80,000 on treatment, and his bank account contained roughly the same amount of money. For some reason, we know the exact variety of gun he used: a .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver. Some sources say it was purchased in the ‘70s, and others say it was purchased in 2002. Chandler had been dead for about a week when his body was discovered. The executor of the will, a co-worker named Mike Onderisin, hired an investigator to find Chandler’s next of kin. His paperwork listed a sister named “Mary Wilson” in Columbus. Her address led to a vacant lot.

Unlike Lori, Joseph didn’t keep a secret “crafts” box containing his past. His apartment provided no revealing information, except for a computer that the authorities broke by accident. His fingerprints were nowhere to be found, as he either burned or shaved them off regularly. The detective on the case, US Marshal Pete Elliott, discovered that the real Joseph Newton Chandler III died when he was eight, in 1945. His New York family was on a Christmas trip when they got into a car accident in Texas in which everyone died.

Nobody wanted Chandler’s estate, so it went toward solving his mystery. It seemed that he applied for the birth certificate and social security number in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1978, 10 years before Lori became Becky Sue Turner. Unlike Lori, Chandler stuck with the name of the dead child instead of changing it again.

Some believe Chandler could be a fugitive or even a Nazi war criminal, even though he was likely born during World War II. Others think he could be Stephen Craig Campbell, a fugitive with electrical engineering skills. It would make sense, except for the seven-inch height difference. Some think that Chandler resembles a sketch of the Zodiac Killer, but the resemblance is mild.

Consider that authorities and the web assumed Chandler was a fugitive, but assumed that Lori was innocently running from her past. Although these guesses are reasonable, there could be some sexism at play. How do we know Chandler wasn’t running from a cult or abusive relationship? Maybe he was so antisocial that he wanted to cut off his entire family. Personally, I suspect he might have been running from a large debt. Debt-related crime doesn’t involve anything violent or social that contradicts Chandler’s personality. It’s also such a significant crime that it might lead someone to change their identity.

In September 2016, the Seattle Times published an article revealing that Lori Erica Ruff had been identified. Private detective Joe Velling and a forensic genealogist named Colleen Fitzpatrick had teamed up and found her relatives through Ancestry. Lori’s birth name was Kimberly McLean, and she was from Philadelphia. Her old area code, when combined with one of the numbers on the paper of crazed scribblings, turned into the number for a Pennsylvania library.

Lori was born on October 16, 1968, less than a year before Becky Sue Turner. Lori’s mom declined to comment, but her uncle, Tom Cassidy, had a few things to say. Lori had a happy childhood with “rides on fire engines and a magnificent hand-built playhouse in the backyard,” according to the article. A childhood acquaintance said she was quiet and introverted. But when she was in her early teens, her parents divorced. She had to move, and a stepdad entered the picture. Tom claims Lori never adjusted to the divorce.

In 1986, at the age of 18, Lori ran away from home and left a note for her family telling them not to find her. The family didn’t file a missing person’s report because Lori left on her own volition. Her mother missed Lori every day but was not able to locate her again, even with the help of a private detective. Nobody knows what she was doing before she requested Becky Sue’s birth certificate in 1988, and nobody knows exactly why she left home. The uncle probably doesn’t know the whole story—I mean, how much does your uncle know about your personal life? People online were quick to take an “Aha, case closed” attitude. But the way I see it, we’ve learned the basics about Lori’s origins, but none of the stuff we really wanted to know.

Joseph Newton Chandler has not been identified. “There are a lot of questions,” said Eastlake Police Detective Christopher Bowersock, “and there is only one person who can answer all of them. And he is not here.”

True crime is an enormously popular topic of research. It’s, well, true, and it lets you attempt the mystery on your own, even successfully. Take for example Jason Callahan, who was a John Doe for decades. He was known among online communities as the Grateful Doe because he had two Grateful Dead tickets in his pocket at the scene. Thanks to online exposure of his facial reconstruction drawings, he was identified in 2015 as Callahan.

Some people get a little too interested in their favorite cases. For example, Jessica Chambers was murdered by arson in 2014. Her sleepy Mississippi town of 500 was terrorized by constant harassment from obsessed fans all around the country. A suspect has been arrested, but the harassment continues to this day.

Excluding fixated individuals, it’s understandable why true crime is so delicious. So many of these are gripping stories with irresistible details and a lack of a thorough answer fills people with hunger for new information. Lovers of mysteries—both real and fake—feed off the high of curiosity. Joseph and Lori are perfect examples; they’re people in the ether who probably never knew how interesting they were. They’ll probably remain did-you-know oddities forever, enticing us forevermore with their secret lockboxes and white noise machines.

Soul Food

Published in Cipher in December 2016

If you take a stroll into downtown Colorado Springs, you might see a storefront adorned with kooky letters. These letters read “Rasta Pasta.” Yes. A mountain town restaurant has combined the idea of Rastafarianism with the idea of Pasta.

Did someone come up with the name, and only then make a restaurant out of it? Probably. When I first saw it, it reminded me of fake products I made up when I was in middle school. See: Veggie Blast, a healthy alternative to Kool-Aid with flavors like “Outta This World Asparagus,” “Cool to Like Carrots” and “Great Green Beans.” The thing is, I never made Veggie Blast.

Take a look inside and you’ll realize that this store is more Rasta than Pasta. You will see no Tuscan hills, fine aged wine and curling vines. Instead, a crimped tin roof adorns the bar, and a massive mural of Bob Marley’s face stretches across the wall. Rasta colors are anywhere there can be colors, along with Christmas lights and bumper stickers saying things like “one love.”

The tables are covered with plastic flower-print tarps, and the chairs are made of industrial-grade steel frames. If the apocalypse comes, we must all flee to Rasta Pasta to gather the chairs as weapons and fight for resources. Reggae music chugs along from the speakers, but I don’t feel like I’m in a reproduction of Jamaica at all. Instead, I’m at the apex of uncultured America: people claiming to love Bob Marley, but only knowing three of his songs.

The menu offers dish names worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Tortellini Jamaica Mon. Spaghetti Trench Town. Spicy Jammin’. Chocolate Jammin’. Bananas Marley. All in a faux-handwritten font.

Pause. I am an obsessive aesthete who worships the trim stylings of the next-door Wild Goose and the now-dearly departed Mountain Fold Books. So how do I know all this information about the tack-fest known as Rasta Pasta? Did I look at Yelp photos? Did I have Cipher’s undercover agents walk through and take notes?

I did not. 

Actually, I have been to Rasta Pasta. 

Twice.

You see, I have a friend named Chunk. He is no ordinary friend to me. He is beloved. Chunk and I have talked many a chilly night. However, he has a viewpoint that I couldn’t agree with less: Rasta Pasta makes Chunk feel velvety passion behind his breast. It’s his favorite restaurant of all time. He has a comparable love for Soylent, the nutrient drink that you can live on exclusively. But at least Soylent has Silicon Valley guys pouring in billions. Imagine this: guys in short-sleeved button-downs and dreads, pitching Rasta Pasta to a venture capital boardroom. Now gag.

“When did you first go to Rasta Pasta?” I asked beloved Chunk. “And what’s your favorite dish there?”

“Do not accept your brother’s variable perception of himself, for his split mind is yours, and you will not accept your healing without his. For you share the real world as you share heaven, and his healing is yours. To love yourself is to heal yourself, and you cannot perceive part of you as sick and achieve your goal. Brother, we heal together as we live together and love together. Be not deceived in God’s son, for he is one with himself and one with his father. Love him who is beloved of his Father, and you will learn of the Father’s Love for you,” he replied.

The first time Chunk and I dined at Rasta Pasta, we went with his dear friend, Filiberto. We sat in a corner table, ordered from the rasta-colored menu and, in time, food was bestowed upon us. First they served us starter salad topped with a ginger dressing that turned out to be heavenly. The pasta soon arrived in thick ceramic bowls, dressed with blissfully sour white wine vinegar, savory diced onions and exotic jerk spices. Each of us also received a crisp, buttery piece of toast which sent my salivary glands into maximum overdrive.

And so we enfolded ourselves in a spicy, greasy nirvana, taking bite after bite of the fine cuisine known as Rasta Pasta. Then I realized something I cannot conceal without sacrificing my journalistic integrity. Although Rasta Pasta is a temple of tacky décor, the food is godly. A tried-and-true blend of carbs and oil has never failed anyone’s tongue, and so the buttery palate of Rasta Pasta injected my spirit with hits of true euphoria. On that occasion, I stuffed myself until I felt ill, but it was worth it to chow down extra Rasta Pasta. Chunk is 6’8” and needs to eat 3,000 calories a day, so he inhaled it with expert ease. 

It was then that I started to see Rasta Pasta in its true form. I began to feel as if the restaurant was the only thing there was—ever. The red, yellow and green swirled together in a melting pool of light and my soul was suddenly a mirror the size of Louisiana; I could now tell that my aura had been red, yellow and green all along.

“Never deny the rasta pasta,” a deep voice said behind me in a Jamaican accent. I turned around.

“Bob Marley, is that you?”

“It is, mon,” he said. 

As he spoke, I could see each of his paint strokes flying across the wall, all moving together in a carefully organized pattern.

“Wha-wha? What should I do for a living? What is the meaning of life?” I stammered.

“Believe in the pasta…” he said, and then I was overtaken by a burst of flavor as Chunk held the back of my head and spooned Rasta Pasta into my mouth.

We paid our tab, and Chunk, Filiberto and I returned to my dorm room. We watched silly videos such as “Yee,” which features low budget singing dinosaurs (stop reading this right now and watch it). Soon, however, I felt a nauseating pressure overtake my whole torso. After a few less-than-mentionable moments in the lavatory, I returned to my room and said the unthinkable to my beloved brothers.

“You guys might have to leave.”

In the end, that was the right choice. What occurred afterward was only a more unmentionable continuation of the previous regurgitation. Oh, the humanity!

Despite this mishap, I actually went to Rasta Pasta a second time. It was one chilly evening, and Chunk and Filiberto arrived at my doorstep and told me that they wanted to dine. Their male bonding needs were through the roof, however, and it seemed Rasta Pasta resonated with them more than video games or beer. I didn’t want to deny them their manhood, so I acquiesced and gave ol’ Rasta a second chance. After all, I had eaten quite a bit that first time. Maybe I needed to give it another chance and consume in a less gluttonous manner. Only then could I decide if Rasta Pasta and my esophagus were meant to be.

Once there, we ordered our food and chatted like all good friends do. A youth at a nearby table was apparently having a birthday, and a voluptuous waitress belted “Happy Birthday” in an opera style. I put away a much more reasonable portion of Rasta Pasta on that occasion, putting down my fork when I was full. And within due time, I started to see all the red, yellow and green swirling together yet again. 

“It’s time to RuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrR RAASTA PAH-STA!” said Bob Marley in a universal voice that transcended all concept of acoustics. He and the other Jamaican figures painted on the wall began to warp and gyrate wildly, pulsating with sensual neon colors. I felt Tejon Street vanish, I felt Colorado Springs vaporize, I felt the entire world as I knew it crumble and disperse into space. But simultaneously, I experienced the booming soul of Rasta Pasta overtake astral planes more enormous than I could ever perceive before. Rasta Pasta was all there really was in this world, and to love the swirling red, yellow and green in front of me was to love all that there is. I felt all the walls of my mind collapsing into dust, and finally its petty contents blended with the endless celebration before me. I knew then that the multiverse theory was real. There were a million Catherine Sinows, a million Chunks and a million Filibertos, and each and every one of them was at Rasta Pasta.

Soon, like all good things do, my deeply spiritual experience with Rasta Pasta wound down and concluded. By the time I scribbled my signature and put my wallet back in my bag, I could only be in one place at a time. But we knew the lessons we learned out in that Rasta Void would stay with us for at least twelve reincarnations. Afterward, to celebrate the gift of life, we all went to Filiberto’s abode and played a delightful, lengthy board game called the Great Space Race. I went to the bathroom in the middle of the game, worried that I would have another adverse reaction to The Pasta, but I came out unscathed. The following night, however, I was not so lucky. The Rasta Pasta Monster had come back to bite. But I was not in low spirits. I thought of the sacramental Andean brew, Ayahuasca. Those who consume it often have fits of vomiting in which they purge negativity from their body and soul. Likewise with Rasta Pasta, my purging experience signified that I had imbibed true divinity.

At this point, semantic saturation surrounds us. What is “rasta”? What is “pasta”? What is the meaning of life now that these two words could be the answer to every philosophical question?

I firmly believe Rasta Pasta is not a joke, but neither is it a restaurant. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of things, perhaps everything. Since we cannot always be in its presence, we must accept it as something that isn’t always visible, or in fact, knowable. Rasta Pasta is a mystery, both a threat and a glory, something tacky and something beautiful, something undiscoverable, intangible.

Join the movement! Text “Believe in the pasta” to ten people you know!

Today Will Be A Better Day

Published in Cipher in March 2017

The story begins in an endless void of stars. You approach one, and it’s actually a tumbling ball of static. Text appears beneath it:

name: jacob ernholtz

age: 31

method: asphyxiation by hanging

The ball of static swallows you. Then comes the sound of a garish alarm. It’s 3:22 a.m., exactly when you wanted to wake up. The first thing you see is a poster on your ceiling that says, “Today will be a better day.” Below the text is a disturbing hand-sketched face that looks like a demented baby.

I should let you know right now that I’m about to spoil a video game for you. The game is called “The Static Speaks My Name.” It’s free, and it takes 15 minutes to play. If you don’t care about spoilers, continue reading at your own risk.

You wander into the hallway. It’s unclear if you’re in a house or apartment, but your windows are boarded up. By the door is a stack of five TVs, all tuned to pure static. Before making your way to the kitchen, you decide to spend some time in your Painting Room. The walls in this room are covered with dozens of reproductions of the exact same painting: two generic palm trees on a small island. The Painting Room has infrared copies, blown-up copies, black and white copies, even one on the ceiling. Many are annotated with theories about the Biblical significance of leaf positions and the secret codes embedded in the trees’ shadows. On one wall there is a large map of the Bahamas with a sticker next to it that reads, “possible setting of painting.”

In the kitchen, you open the fridge and there’s absolutely nothing in it. So you walk back to your bedroom, where you see your aquarium filled with your pet shrimp. Next to the tank is a large framed photograph of your shrimp captioned, “MY BABIES.” Below: “Printed by Jico’s Professional Photography.” You are hungry. You lift a shrimp out of the tank and lower it into your mouth. You chomp on it and swallow. Then you do it again.

“The Static Speaks My Name” came out in 2015. You play as a 31-year-old man named Jacob Ernholtz, and the objective—if you can call it that—is to do all that I’ve outlined above. There are a few more goals: chat online, clean the microwave, decide what to do about the naked man you imprisoned in a cage in your secret room (he’s the one who paints the palm trees) and finally, hang yourself in the closet. The hanging is accompanied by disturbingly realistic choking sounds.

As you can tell by now, this is not a traditional game. You can’t win or lose. It’s not fun. It requires no puzzle-solving or quick thinking. But a large percentage of people who have written about it attest that it’s acutely disturbing. Why?

The hook lies within the darkness of the house and the boarded-up windows. This probably makes sense to anyone who’s ever been so depressed that they made sure no sunlight entered their room. The game establishes more connection through its odd brand, which walks the line between humor and desperate cries for help. If you don’t connect with the darkness, you’re unlikely to be impacted by the game at all. But if you do, it’s just the right door into the most sensitive parts of your consciousness.

Some of the darkness includes the books in the shelves: they have titles like “The Autoerotica of Benjamin Franklin” and “What’s the Least He Can Eat: A Guide to Raising Thin Children.” On a table, there are instructions for strategically positioning books in your bookshelf so nobody knows the bookshelf is really a door leading to a chamber where you keep your kidnapped guy. Also, you have to love the idea of hiring a pet photographer for shrimp. 

People say that humor is a coping mechanism. This game takes that concept and pushes it as far as it can go.

Part of the game engenders a strange relatability. It’s subtle, though, and metaphorical. The game’s despair, despite being far-flung, brings out a darkness that most people have felt or could imagine themselves feeling. Each absurd element translates to a real-world fear.

Eating the shrimp: could I become so sad that I destroy something I love? 

The palm tree painting: could I become so obsessed with something that it ruins me? 

The man in the cage: could I become so sad that I lose all empathy and do something reprehensible? 

The noose in the closet: could I somehow get so depressed, or could my life become so destroyed, that I end my life?

The symbolic crux of the game is the painting. What about this painting is so unnerving? It could be the generic, vaporwave nature of it all. (Vaporwave is an Internet art movement that uses obsolete technology and pastel colors to make commentary on material culture. It’s complicated. Look it up.) Imagine if the painting represented a well-rendered tropical environment (think “Birth of Venus”). It probably wouldn’t do quite the same thing.

But you know what would? A poorly-made painting of a forest with childishly rendered triangle-trees. Or maybe a watercolor of a bouquet, the type of painting that you might find in a rest home bedroom. It’s the utter cliché that does the trick. That, and the pathetic innocence of it. It’s the same kind of aesthetic that makes me cry a few tears over the cartoon characters on knock-off cereal boxes.

The painting depicts the outdoors. Outdoors: something this game doesn’t feature whatsoever. Jacob yearns for nature, but he worships one of the outdoors’ most hackneyed iterations. He wants paradise, but he’s only able to imagine it in the most pathetic and reductive way. Something about it is heartbreaking.

Is the island paradise, though? Or is it just the miserable “stranded” caricature portrayed in "The Far Side” at least 200 times? A desert island is basically the outdoor version of Jacob’s depressing, boarded-up apartment. Does Jacob even want the island? He seems more interested in the representations of it, judging by all the annotations on the positioning of one of the palm leaves. Or maybe the island means nothing and forces the viewer to try to dig for meaning, just as Jacob does. Something so meaningless and generic simply begs investigation.

Also of note is the turn-of-the-century box PC—another trope found in vaporwave culture. The desktop background is tiled with the palm tree picture. The objective is “chat online with friends.” But you only have three buddies, and none of them are online. A stranger messages you.

Faerie9968: im horny

Faerie9968: :-)

The game gives you two options:

Press ‘G’ to say you’ve embarrassed everyone who believed in you

Press ‘H’ to say you can feel the atoms in your body waking up

No matter which you press, you can only say:

ratherBtravelin: ijust..

ratherBtravelin: nevermind

She continues.

Faerie9968: im touching myself

Faerie9968: do u want to see

Press ‘G’ to say you’re about to do something horrible

Press ‘H’ to admit you saw your reflection be decapitated with a shovel

No matter which you press:

ratherBtravelin: i dont know

ratherBtravelin: maybe, but

She says she’s thinking about how big you are and that she’s getting wet. Then she asks for your credit card number.

This exchange is the ultimate metaphor for social desperation. None of your three friends are online. Instead, you’re faced with one of the most depraved, lonely things in existence: a fraud sex-bot. Sex, something ideally fueled by intimacy, here is funneled and warped through the absolute depravity of scamming.

It’s significant that the computer is archaic, given that the game was made in 2015, when these computers hadn’t been so much as seen for at least a decade. Jacob’s computer is just like him: obsolete and lacking a place in the world. The handle “ratherBtravelin” must have been created a long, long time ago, when Jacob might have still traveled. A time when he didn’t want to board up his windows. Or maybe he never traveled, and it’s just a nod to the palm trees. “Palmtreeluvr” would have been a more obvious choice, in that case. 

And of course, the inability to say what you really mean mirrors the real-world experience of words frozen inside of you. What does it mean to “feel the atoms in your body waking up,” anyway? Something about it strikes me as highly irrational. It reminds me of delusional parasitosis, an erroneous belief that you are infested. Or it could be a small, strangely-worded hint that Jacob is getting ready to commit suicide. The strange wording really fits with someone so isolated. Someone so isolated and detached, it seems, as to sense himself on an atomic level.

For me, the kidnapped man broke the flow of the game. Jacob was understandable and sympathetic until this point. I was relating to this character the whole way through, finding metaphors for my own existence, but I have never, not even in the bottom of my heart, not even in a metaphorical way, wanted to imprison a naked guy in a cage in my closet. I guess I’m just too normal. But I still felt a pang in my heart—sympathy for the man in the cage.

For the record, whether the man in the cage is the artist of the original palm trees painting has been a point of dispute online. I’m pretty sure they’re the same person. There’s an article about a missing local painter named “Jason Malone” hanging on the fridge. If that isn’t enough proof, one of the infrared scans in the Painting Room reveals the signature “J. Malone.”

After hanging yourself, you are transported back to that endless void filled with stars. Other balls of static surround you. If you approach them, you see other names.

name: nadia handford

age: 16

method: self-immolation

name: barbie hedquist

age: 51

method: leap from condo balcony

There are a few more. You can’t enter into any of these balls of static. But it makes you realize that living in the last few minutes of Jacob’s life was just a taste. You have just been inside one of millions of suicides, and this void probably contains every single suicide there’s ever been.

This game crushed me. I played it alone in my dorm room at the wrong time, shortly after I learned that someone very special to me did not want to speak with me ever again. Today, I can play this game and feel nothing. I played it a few more times and became habituated. But when I first played it, it threw me into a more terrifying sadness than I had experienced in a long, long time.

I never enjoyed shrimp in the first place, but I have made a special effort to avoid it since I played the game. I began noticing it everywhere: on billboards, in Red Lobster commercials, in a photo of someone I was Instagram-creeping. Every time, it gave me a startling mini-flashback. At my dad’s birthday dinner, I made everyone at the table promise to not order shrimp. The waiter brought surprise shrimp hors d’oeuvres anyway. 

Acknowledging all this, “The Static Speaks My Name” still elicits a manageable level of darkness. Enough to make its point, but not enough to completely wreck you. There is worse out there, after all. For example, my friend recalled a time where his friends pinned him down and forced him to watch a video of a man being eaten alive by piranhas. I made this friend play “Static,” and it messed him up. “I had to spend the next half hour reading pleasant haikus and talking to people outside,” he said. But it wasn’t as bad as the piranhas.

The creator of "Static," Jesse Barksdale, didn’t seem to stray far from home for his first game. His Tumblr is filled with his grotesque DIY artwork and posts like:

my children’s clothing store ‘the most rotten milk’ is, unfortunately, closing :-(

i could have used your support, guys. a few weeks ago literally nobody came inside for 9 days straight.

I really think that status is fake. I hope it’s fake. Here’s another one:

my memory is bad, so remind me

what % of the day am i in control of my mind?

he says, tearing out his intestines for the cheering crowd

Some of his more depressing statuses from several years ago make me think that “Static” is this guy’s genuine, heartfelt autobiography.

im not against suicide, im really not, but i’ve found a few things to live for and it’s a good feeling even when the things you live for make your life worse

Some of that goes without saying. Obviously nobody who has been relatively happy for their entire lives would make a game like this.

One night, I stumbled upon an interview Jesse did with a tiny YouTube channel called MediaCube. His voice was sort of comforting and nasally—like he could voice a cartoon character. He repeatedly insisted that every artistic choice in the game was very deliberate, yet he refused to answer any questions, wanting the game to stay open to interpretation.

I learned that Jesse has been making games for a long time, but this was the first one he thought was good enough to put out in the world. He originally made “Static” for Ludum Dare, a 48-hour gamejam (a high-speed game-making competition). The game was a puzzle involving an inescapable house. The only way out was to hang yourself so your ghost could walk through the wall. With one hour left in the competition, Jesse decided the house needed more decoration. So he made one image, the palm trees, and duplicated it all over the walls. The game came somewhere in the top two hundred out of a couple thousand.

When making the final game, Jesse decided to exclusively limit the wall art to palm trees. He couldn’t resist the “MY BABIES” poster, however.

“I was thinking really hard: Should I put something else up? I feel like it should only be palm trees. But that was too funny...that someone would take glamor shots of their pet shrimp.”

The final version took four months to create. He hoped a hundred people would play it, and now several hundred thousand have. He doesn’t plan on making a sequel where the other suicide stars are explored, however.

“I think it’s, for me, at least more interesting implying that other stories and experiences exist rather than actually, literally seeing them,” he said.

At the 11th hour, I emailed Jesse Barksdale, the creator of "Static," asking him why he ruined my life. Actually, I asked him why he wanted to create an unlikable protagonist. He replied at the 11th hour and fifty-ninth minute: "Most protagonists of movies, games, and books are likeable people, at least in some way. That's one of the 'rules' of creating a main character, so it seems like an interesting challenge to make a character with few or no redeeming qualities. I'm always interested in experimentation, so I guess it's fun to see if I can make something interesting while going against what is considered 'good advice.' I also even have an issue with the idea of 'goodness.'"

He also elaborated on his inner demons so profoundly that I have no choice but to simply paste his reply here in its entirety.

"I've experienced periods of depression and obsession my whole life and 'static' is for sure a manifestation of that...I think that art, when you're doing it "properly" is almost just magically a manifestation of whoever you are and whatever you're thinking in that moment. It's difficult to exactly describe which parts of 'static' are a reflection of myself in the same way it's difficult to describe your personality besides very surface things like "I like movies and pizza." But yes, since 'static' was made entirely by me, it's very much a reflection of the emotions I was feeling during the time that I made it."

I told him I would mail him a copy of Cipher and that I would not use his address to kidnap him.

Jesse maintains an online store where you can buy “Static” merchandise, such as a poster of the shrimp photo and a “Today will be a better day” mug. He also has a new game out called “Bucket Detective” that has a lot more plot and humor, but is still all kinds of fucked up. I recommend it highly. What other deranged things will this man produce? Only time will tell.

“The Static Speaks My Name.” Consider the title: I mean, how far down the rabbit hole would you have to be to relate to static, anyway? Well…

Static happens when a signal is empty, and there’s nothing to fill the gap. One of the primary causes of static is something called the “cosmic microwave background,” or the thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang. Static is the sound of the invisible universe that we never really think about. That’s what called Jacob. Someday we will all return there, too. Until then, we can play this game, probably feel moved and disgusted, and attempt to return to our lives. 

"I literally go here"

Published in Cipher in December 2017

Hey. It’s me, Catherine Sinow. If you read this magazine, you might recognize my name, as this is my 19th Cipher article (and probably last, since I’m graduating on December 17th). So I figured I have the right to do something that Cipher’s militant editing team would otherwise totally shut down: tell a highly irrelevant personal anecdote about something that happened four years ago.

I need to start by saying that my college counselor pitched college to me as the most utopian place in the known universe. In his vision, every college student is joyful, social, involved, and studious at all times. Oh—and diverse. Don’t forget the diversity. His words: “If you are a black lesbian amputee, you can go hang out with other black lesbian amputees—at the wonderful place known as College!™” 

So I applied and got into Colorado College, packed my bags and went. But by the time I finished my first block, things had pretty much gone to hell. My experiences ranged from dull to terrifying. I was in the middle of a mind-numbing beginning Spanish FYE, during which I went to the Baca campus and got food poisoning and had to listen to my classmates tell rape jokes. Back at campus, a peeping tom snuck into Loomis and took over-the-stall pics of girls showering—in the very bathroom I used regularly. He went to prison. And then this happened:

Friday night of my first block break, I decided to celebrate the completion of my very first block. I had made one decent friend so far: my hallmate Tiffany (fake name), a soft-spoken physics major who lived in a highly organized dorm room with someone else named Tiffany (fake name, but they had the same name). We ate dinner downtown at the Melting Pot, where I learned that mediocrity and luxury can and do coexist. We sat in a tiny couple’s booth and boiled our own meat skewers in the pots glued to the table. We were both paleo at the time (the last I heard, she continues to be paleo), so we skipped the chocolate fondue. The waiter was awkward-cute and had a tattoo sleeve. He snapped our picture before we departed (see below).

DSC_0025 (1).jpg

Tiffany and I were a little afraid of walking home downtown after midnight, but our fears were soothed when we saw how bustling Tejon Street was. It was so bustling that, as I remember it, we strutted down the street in our high heels. But in reality, we were only wearing sneakers.

catherine+map.jpg

Campus was dark and empty when we got back. At this point, things get a little complicated logistically, so please refer to the diagram. We entered campus via the Armstrong parking lot (A), with plans to walk back to our dorm, Loomis (B). All of a sudden, a grey compact SUV pulled up behind us on Cache La Poudre Street (C). Two chubby dudes in their 30s or 40s sat in the front seat, windows rolled down. The driver yelled at us in a sleazy voice:

“Hey ladies! You want a ride somewhere, or you just gonna walk home?” I deduced that this was a standard catcaller, probably typical of Colorado Springs.

“No,” stammered Tiffany, the more timid of the two of us. But I, fresh out of a crazy gap year in which I had to flee from stalkers in Ecuadorian marketplaces, was feeling a little more aggressive.

“Fuck off!” I yelled.

They drove away. On edge, Tiffany and I continued our walk to Loomis. “Don’t worry. I’ve got my pepper spray and mountain safety whistle,” said Tiffany. She was a very prepared individual.

We began to walk along the Armstrong sidewalk (D) toward Loomis (B), nervous but still pretty confident that we would get home alive. Within a minute, though, we spotted a car creeping down Cascade (E), its headlights like two cat eyes.

“Is that…them?” she said.

“No, that would be ridiculous,” I said. But five seconds later, we realized the cold, savage truth: “It’s them.”

Suddenly, the car turned up onto the curb and zoomed down the Armstrong sidewalk (D), straight toward us. Tiffany screamed, “Run to Slocum (F)!” So we ran. It felt slow and surreal, like trying to run through water. I learned what an adrenaline surge felt like in that moment, but after ten seconds I learned that it can only get you so far, since my lungs were getting parched fast. Maybe my body wasn’t fully convinced that this was life-threatening, and it was saving the ultimate adrenaline experience for running into a mountain lion while camping (this has not yet happened, as I hate camping).

As we were running for our lives, Tiffany started blowing on her mountain whistle. This was not your ordinary safety whistle that people get in handouts during student orientation. It was about as loud as a fire alarm. All over Slocum, darkened windows flicked into brightness and we glimpsed confused residents in their underwear.

After 30 seconds of running (it felt way longer), we finally burst into the Slocum anteroom (G). I turned around and saw the two men from the car rush toward the anteroom from outside. And that’s when it became clear. They had little radios on their pockets. Their beige-collared shirts had patches that read “Campus Safety.” The guys chasing us in a car were actually Campus Safety the entire time.

Now here’s the tricky part. Tiffany and I, being new to the school, didn’t know that a Loomis resident couldn’t swipe into Slocum after 10pm. As I was realizing the true identities of the men who had been chasing us, Tiffany, who hadn’t yet turned around to see who they were, was desperately trying and failing to swipe her card against the sensor box. 

One of the guys was short and pudgy with brown stubble. I don’t remember what the other one looked like. Pudgy opened his mouth and said this sentence:

“My name is Richard Newman [fake name], and you don’t tell me to fuck off!”

“Dude,” I said. “We literally thought you were rapists.” Tiffany hid behind me, just now realizing it had been Campus Safety the entire time.

“You don’t belong here!” he spat back. “I knew when you said ‘fuck off’ that you weren’t CC students!”

I took my Gold Card out of my pocket and stuck it in his face. “I literally go here,” I said.

Before she had realized that it was Campus Safety, Tiffany had called 911. I grabbed her wrist and tugged it a bit to encourage her to walk back home with me. She followed me, phone still to her ear. I have no clue where the officers went. I think they probably just hung out in the anteroom and talked about how stupid millennials yell “fuck off” to mighty superiors like Richard Newman.

Tiffany and I walked into the night, past the parked SUV that had just made us run for our lives (I). It was only then I could see the dim, forest green letters printed on the side of the car: “Campus Safety.” I twitched my eyebrows. We went back to Loomis (B) and went to bed in our respective rooms.

The next morning I woke up to a phone call from then-head of Campus Safety, Oliver Holt (fake name), who I later found out had also called my mom. That’s how serious it was. I have no clue how he found out about the incident. Oliver wanted to meet with me ASAP.

He apologized, but it was clear that he was just trying to do damage control. Oliver made excuses for Richard Newman, claiming that he was just trying to be friendly (he did admit that Richard Newman had failed at this endeavor). He also promised that everyone was about to undergo excellent staff training. I suggested that they change the color of the Campus Safety car so that people could actually see that it was the Campus Safety car. They finally did this about three years later.

The next week, I got a follow-up email from Oliver Holt. An excerpt:

“We also called a mandatory meeting with all Safety staff last Thursday morning to discuss a number of issues related to making sure that our focus remains at all times on the welfare of our students, on providing excellent customer service, on the importance of language in our interactions with others, and the importance of making good decisions…although we did not discuss your incident in particular, we spent quite a bit of time talking about what good customer service looks like.”

This didn’t do much to assure me; the damage was done. I only realized how destroyed my relationship with Campus Safety was three years later, at a dorm hall meeting. My RA asked everyone if they had Campus Safety in their phones; I was the only one in the room who didn’t. Whenever people mention “Campus Safety,” I only hear “Campus Danger.”

So yes. This happened. To an innocent freshman, here at the luxurious institution known as Colorado College. Richard Newman got demoted and had to ride a bike. Neither he, nor Oliver Holt, work here anymore.

The thing is, I don’t mean to diss Campus Safety. I’m sure they’ve done a lot of great things for people over the years (although I have no clue what these things are, since I never used Campus Safety’s services due to my aforementioned incident). 

What I’m really saying is: no, college isn’t the diverse, studious, blissful knowledge utopia that my college counselor sold me on. But he was right about one thing: college is eventful. Though I may have not experienced the “hall bowling” he described (I forget what he said it was, but I think it involved using humans as bowling balls), I have experienced a lot of chaotic events. There was the time a friend and I bought “gas and bloating relief tea” at Mountain Mama and snuck packets into the tea box in Rastall throughout an entire semester. There was the time another friend and I broadcasted our SOCC show through a fire drill, not even bothering to plug our ears. And then there was the time that my coworkers hacked into a suspicious email account and tried to frame me for sending weird emails because the account had Google searched the name of my high school. (It’s a long story—you can email me for the whole thing.) And of course, there was that time that Campus Safety made me run for my life. 

I don’t regret any of this. I’ve come to love it. College may not be the wonderland I was promised, but I think chaos is the next best thing. Now, though, I must say goodbye to this strange life. I will soon leave CC and walk into the horizon of adulthood, a sterile purgatory where everyone works at a desk and has to remember to take out their trash in the evening. Or so I’m told.

Coming Soon to A Black Market Near You

Published in Cipher in October 2016

Although marijuana is slowly becoming legal nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has plans to make a different herbal supplement Schedule I, alongside heroin and LSD.

The supplement is called kratom. It’s related to coffee, and it grows on a tree in Southeast Asia. Known for its smooth properties that both elevate and sedate, people use it for everything from chronic pain to insomnia to recreation. It’s been trusted for millennia by traditional medicine practitioners and peasants who spend long workdays under the blistering sun, but it only came to America around 2005.

Kratom comes in pills, powder or shot bottles channeling the likeness of 5-Hour Energy. Vein color and country of origin distinguish the strains, with names such as “Green Malay,” “White Thai,” and “Red Borneo.” Maeng da, which translates to “horseshoe crab” and “pimp” in Thai, supposedly indicates a finer, more potent strain. Anyone with pocket money can buy kratom at head shops, gas stations, sex stores and hundreds of online retailers.

Kratom costs a little under a dollar a cap, coming in packs ranging from 15 to 50 capsules. 

“Any more than a dollar a capsule and you’re getting ripped off,” a friend and kratom user named Ryan (1) told me. At the time of our interview, he had recently switched to powder, paying only twenty-five cents for the equivalent of a capsule. Another friend I interviewed had used powder, too, and she brewed it into a tea. This was a steal compared to her first kratom extract capsule, which she purchased at her smoke shop for $10.

 

1. All names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Ryan first tried kratom after losing his marijuana connections. He didn’t have access to anything illegal to self-medicate his depression and anxiety, but kratom was there at his local smoke shop.

“It seemed more like an anxiety medication than a recreational drug,” he told me. “It didn’t make me feel fucked up at all, just relaxed and somewhat sedated.”

Kratom contains opioids, but the media have compared it to bath salts, heroin and cocaine. One Florida teen, Ian Mautner, committed suicide with kratom in his system. Although he was being treated for depression, his mom blames kratom, and she lobbied extensively to illegalize the drug in Florida.

“Strong opiates have a reputation for making users immobilized and unproductive, sometimes to the point of doing nothing but dosing and laying around all day,” Ryan told me. “But the number one benefit I get from kratom is probably the energy and motivation that it gives me to get my tasks done. In larger doses, it can be sedating but in a much milder, more manageable way. It would take insane amounts to approach a heroin-like state of being ‘on the nod,’ and users would most likely throw up long before they could reach that threshold.”

When he discovered kratom, Ryan was taking Paxil, an antidepressant that made him fatigued 100 percent of the time. He couldn’t get ahold of his psychiatrist, so he decided to quit the drug on his own. The withdrawal symptoms were awful: more fatigue, paralyzing anxiety, and about half the sleep he needed. “I would always be stuck in this half-awake place,” he said. Ryan had kratom, however, and it made his Paxil withdrawal turn from nightmarish to merely irritating. His psychiatrist finally returned his call—after about three months. But Ryan had developed a habit.

“My life was just so much worse without it that I didn’t know how else to get through the day.” By this time, he was taking several doses of four capsules daily.

My pen-pal from Seattle, Cass, first found kratom in a local smoke shop while buying cigarettes. She told me her story in a lengthy email:

“I remember reading a bit about it online, and knowing that it contained opioids, I was immediately interested in buying some. Although kratom is pretty weak in comparison to prescription opioids, I would say that the effects I was experiencing were equivalent to about 25mg of hydrocodone. (2) Granted, I was taking extract, which can be extremely potent.” Soon enough, kratom shipments were arriving at Cass’s apartment every other week.

 

2. If you didn’t already have opioid tolerance, this amount of hydrocodone would get you really high.

Cass, Ryan and myself all pronounce “kratom” differently.

“Kratom made me feel exactly how I wanted to,” she said. “In some regards, it even helped me to be a better person. I was working a bike delivery job at the time, which is inevitably pretty hard on the body—I’m talking 150-200 miles of biking a week. Once I started taking kratom though, I felt a lot less pain, which meant I had more endurance; this allowed me to bike faster, take more deliveries, and subsequently, make more tips. Kratom was literally helping me to make more money. I could feel a habit forming, but I thought to myself: if this habit is paying for itself and more, is there really anything wrong with it?”

The DEA announced their nationwide ban on Aug. 30, 2016, calling kratom an “imminent hazard to public safety.” They plan to make it Schedule I, denoting high potential for abuse and no medical use. The ban was supposed to go into effect on Sept. 30, but on the 29, they decided to delay the scheduling until further notice.

The date’s push-back was probably caused by the immense backlash that came after the announcement. This outcry included coverage from major news outlets like The Guardian and NPR, a petition on the White House’s “We The People” website that gathered over 130,000 signatures and a march on the White House where about 300 people yelled “I am kratom. Kratom saves lives,” and drank kratom. However, the deciding factor was most likely the 51 Congresspeople who asked the DEA to delay the ban.

“[The ban] could be this week, it could be in the future, I just don’t know,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.

In their the original announcement, the DEA did not ask for comment from experts or the general public, which is unusual. However, the agency did suggest they may move kratom to a lower level of prohibition after the initial Schedule I. Their statement mentioned that kratom causes “hepatotoxicity, psychosis, seizure, weight loss, insomnia, tachycardia, vomiting, poor concentration, hallucinations, and death,” but without incidence numbers. Meanwhile, users report that the worst it can do is nausea and vomiting.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Thailand banned kratom in 1943 to encourage demand for opium, which was taxed and very, very profitable. This ban wasn’t really a success, however, since the tree is indigenous to the area. Along the way, kratom also became illegal in Australia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Romania and a handful of U.S. states and counties.

The DEA statement also mentioned kratom’s use as a step-down from severe opioid addiction, which they consider a “misuse” of the substance. This isn’t completely untrue; one New York Times article interviewed Dariya Pankova, a woman who spent $60 or more at kratom bars per day and said her friends did the same. (3) This adds up to almost $22,000 a year spent on kratom. These people stopped when they remembered that heroin is cheaper. On the other hand, some have used kratom as a step-down to great, even life-saving, success.

 

3. These bars definitely existed, but only in Florida. Really.

The DEA reported 15 kratom-related deaths from 2014 to 2016. However, none of these deaths can be attributed to kratom alone. In fatal cases, kratom was taken in addition to benzodiazepines, research chemicals and more powerful opioids. It’s unknown how these drug combinations caused death, but kratom doesn’t cause lung depression. So as far as anyone knows, it’s not possible to die from an overdose. And although there is a propensity for people to develop a slight tolerance to kratom, a study from the Universiti Putra Malaysia showed that morphine creates much less tolerance when mixed with kratom. For these reasons, scientists have hailed kratom as a breakthrough in painkiller research. But when it becomes Schedule I, researchers will have a much harder time obtaining a study license.

Kratom has been involved in 15 deaths in the past few years. By comparison, about 18,000 Americans per year die from prescription opioid overdoses, 10,000 from heroin and 88,000 from alcohol-related incidents.

For more scientific details, I spoke with CC chemistry major, Marco, who also has his own unique way of pronouncing kratom. Marco uses lots of drugs, including a host of research chemicals that I can’t be bothered to remember the names of. But he only uses them irregularly. This includes kratom, which he’s dosed in high amounts at distant intervals.

“Using kratom daily is a very bad idea. It’s playing with fire. There’s no precedent for using opioids to treat anxiety,” he told me.

“Why is it dangerous to habituate to an opioid, even a mild one?” I asked.

“Because it is such a difficult addiction to beat.”

“So why not just stay on it forever?” I asked.

“What if they ban it? Or you run out? Or the mailmen strike? Plus you will begin to prioritize this substance over the other important parts of life. Basically, habituating anything is dangerous.”

Seeking actual medical opinions, I got on the phone with a cardiovascular surgeon I happen to know. I figured that he must have some knowledge on the subject, since he prescribes painkillers. He wished to remain anonymous.

“You’re a journalist. You might twist my words,” he said.

“You can think what you want to think,” I said.

“Well, alright. I’m generally not in favor of those sorts of herbal compounds, especially with something that can cause addiction and heavy withdrawals. Of course, you could argue coffee does the same thing. But I think that herbs being regulated leads to questions of purity, origin and whether or not they do what they say they’ll do. A bunch of drugstores including Target were selling vitamins that did not contain the vitamin they said it contained.” 

While his stance seems pretty unambiguous, he also said: “I’m generally not in favor of making things illegal.”

Dr. Anonymous prescribes a lot of painkillers for surgery recovery, but he doesn’t recommend opioids as a first-line chronic pain treatment due to the risk of patients quickly building up tolerance. This statement seems to go against kratom, but after he cited the overdose epidemic and widespread painkiller theft, it almost seems like a case for it. Still, he’s even firmer on the anxiety stance than the chronic pain stance: “No medical professional will recommend opioids for treating anxiety,” he told me. 

A study of Malaysians who regularly use kratom discovered that more than half had developed a severe dependence. In another study, 80 percent of people who tried to quit couldn’t quit. There are 1,364 people subscribed to a subreddit called /r/quittingkratom.

Cass no longer uses kratom. “Three months into my habit,” she said, “I remember being at home one night trying to focus on some schoolwork, and my entire body was aching. I had a pounding headache, and I was in an absolutely terrible mood. I thought that maybe I was getting sick, but then I started to put the pieces together. I realized that I hadn’t taken any kratom in two days, and I tried to think back to the last time that I had gone that long without it—I couldn’t. I started to realize that I might be withdrawing, so to test this theory, I took a small amount of kratom to see what its effects would be on me. I felt pretty stupid when 20 minutes after dosing, I felt completely normal again.”

After quitting, Cass took up a succession of new drugs, such as illegally-obtained Adderall. Currently, she’s taking a mail-order antidepressant called tianeptine that has reduced her drug usage all around.

“The worst part about kratom withdrawals isn’t the physical aspect, it’s the mental aspect,” she told me. “It’s trying to be the person that the drug made you into without actually using it.”

Ryan has been tapering since May. At first he was trying to save money, and now he doesn’t want to be dependent on a soon-to-be illegal drug. Reducing his use has left him tired, anxious and bored almost all the time. It also decreased his appetite (not good, as he is already severely underweight) and gave him restless leg syndrome… in his arms. But he remained adamant that kratom shouldn’t be banned. 

“If people are addicted to it and supplies are cut off, they’ll experience withdrawals and look for something else to medicate with,” he said. “Since kratom has been legal this long, it will take awhile for an underground market to form, if at all. More dangerous drugs, like heroin, however, already have a well-established black market presence, and may be easier to obtain for the struggling addict in the throes of withdrawal.”

Marco is mostly disappointed because kratom was a good, cheap, legal high. He’s also disappointed because he supports the decriminalization of all drugs and reduction of painkiller scripts.

“The problem isn’t people abusing kratom,” he said. “The problem is the mass overprescription of painkillers.” 

As of the day I’m writing this sentence, nobody knows what’s next for kratom. The DEA might schedule kratom at a lower level, back off completely or continue as planned along their ambiguous trajectory. Like many research chemicals, kratom might be limited-edition. “Kratom is just not good enough to be accessible post-ban,” said Marco. The passionate YouTube videos tell another story, though. Kratom: coming soon to a black market near you.