Translation – Man vs. Machine
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Hi, Ambulantes. At the end of this episode, after the credits, you will find something very special. Wait for it.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before we begin with today’s story, a warning: I’m a parent and let’s say I wouldn’t listen to this episode with my kids, because it contains explicit sexual content.
So: Dennis Maxwell arrived in San Francisco, California in 1993. He was young and wanted to try his luck in a new country. His old man was already living in the city.
And, well, San Francisco surprised him. It was a city with a certain air of freedom. And Dennis, well, he was from Chile. From Santiago, a grey city that was coming out of a very dark past, a conservative city.
San Francisco: the complete opposite.
[Dennis Maxwell]: In one of my first walks down Market street, a naked old man passed by me.
Well, let’s say he was wearing shoes and a sock to cover his…
[Daniel]: You know… A la Red Hot Chile Peppers. And well, that old naked man is representative of an open, libertine, party city.
What Dennis would encounter in the next few years would be a cultural shock.
This is a version of the story that Dennis presented in our live show in New York and Washington in September of this year, 2018.
[Dennis]: I must admit that at first, that kind of thing shocked me. But then I realized that in San Francisco, you could be whatever you wanted to be. If you wanted to walk around with a snake curled around your head, no one would notice. If you wanted to get some tattoos, or wear earrings, or have long hair, perfect. Things that, if you did them in Santiago at that time, well, people looked at you funny.
At first I worked with my old man. I helped him do the construction and painting jobs that came his way. Then I did everything: I re-did roofs, I printed shirts for cyclists, I even sold sandwiches on the streets of the Latino neighborhood, The Mission. And people even knew me as “the sandwich guy”. Buy my dream was always to make movies. So after working all those jobs, one day I was like no, enough was enough, it was time to try to make that dream come true.
I got an internship to learn how to edit videos and the next year I found a job at an online portal aimed at Latinos called Star Media. It was the first dot-com boom and there was work for everyone in San Francisco.
People came from all over the world looking for opportunities. And all the restaurants and bars that were opening were aimed at a richer clientele. And I was a part of that bubble too.
My job was simple, and to me it felt like a privilege. I would get at the time these videos —in VHS— of who-knows-what, Fito Páez, Soda Stereo or Mexican bands, all that Latin American music.
(SOUNDBITE “AL LADO DEL CAMINO” BY FITO PÁEZ)
[Dennis]: My job was to select them, compress them and put them up on the web for people to access. It seemed like there was a lot of money in the company. If we wanted a camera, they bought it. If we wanted better editing equipment, they bought it. Until one day it stopped.
I suppose we always knew the bubble was going to burst. I also knew that I didn’t want to go back to painting houses. So I waited. And it wasn’t easy to get another job like the one I’d lost. A year went by. And by then I was starting to get desperate. Until I got a call from my friend Ricardo.
Do you remember when… when you called me and told me about the job?
[Ricardo]: I remember you were in the same position as me, that times were rough, you know, you needed a job and… Was it more than shooting videos ? Or editing, was it more than editing?
[Dennis]: Well, I do remember. It was a job editing videos. Perfect, I thought. Then, he clarified: it was editing porn.
We’ve already said how conservative my country was, but maybe it’s worth mentioning it again: Chile is maybe the most conservative country in Latin America. It was one of the last countries on the continent to legalize divorce, in 2004, and when Iron Maiden was to tour there in ‘92, there was a controversy because the church and many churchgoers considered it satanic music.
[Journalist]: Various sectors of the Church are pressuring the government to prevent the entry of this band to the country.
[Priest]: Satan, the devil, is a reality, and the devil uses many things to introduce evil into the world. Among them, these groups that in the end, right?, from what I’ve heard from very good sources all of their gatherings end in big orgies, right? In drugs, in alcoholism, in sexual debauchery.
[Dennis]: Iron Maiden was not able to perform and the band responded by saying that Chile was a medieval country. And me —despite being an atheist and very, very cool— well, at that time, I have to admit that I was “a little” conservative, too. So when Ricardo offered me this job, I didn’t know what to do. I went around in circles thinking if I should take it or not.
So, I did what I’m sure all of you would do when confronted with the decision of whether or not to take a job editing porn: I called my mom.
Do you remember what you told me?
[María]: Yes, more or less, even though it’s been years, I remember I said: “Well, Dennis, think about it and if you think it won’t affect you emotionally, do it.”
[Dennis]: I remember it being a little blunter than that. She said something along the lines of: “Look, son, if you don’t think this is going to fuck with your head, do it.” And I thought: Could it really be that simple?
And since you came from such a Catholic family, why do you think you responded like that?
[María]: Eh, because, well, I was already a woman who had been through a lot and my views in this area had changed quite a bit. And I had already had the opportunity to watch, on one occasion, a porn film. I was a little more open minded with that sort of thing, you know? And… but still that didn’t stop me from… from worrying.
[Dennis]: I was worried too. But what can you do? I took the plunge.
Since Ricardo had recommended me, I didn’t even have a formal interview. I got there and the owner greeted me. He introduced himself. He was a really nervous British guy. What surprised the most was that he was always walking barefoot around the office.
And he told me: Look, this is Cowgirl. She’s going to explain what you’ll be doing here. I turned around to say hi to Cowgirl and I see a platinum blonde woman, like Marilyn Monroe, wearing a pretty tight-fitting dress, very sexy. And she says…
[Cowgirl]: Follow me…
[Dennis]: We go to a room with a bunch of monitors and video machines.
[Cowgirl]: Sit down, relax…
[Dennis]: She told me: “I’m just going to show you the kind of movies we make here, so you can become familiar with them.” I didn’t know what to think. She sat there with me and put in a tape.
I saw the first image pop on screen and froze. Instead of explaining it myself, I’m going to let my mom do it.
[María]: One day you sent me a link to Fucking Machines and I quickly got on the computer to see what it was. And I was really shocked when I saw what it was about. And I said: “How far can the imagination go for people to achieve pleasure?” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was really shocking for me and my… my apprehension grew as to how this could affect you mentally.
[Dennis]:And what… do you remember specifically what you saw?
[María]: There were women having sex with machines.
[Dennis]: Sex with machines. That was the website I would have to edit.
[Machine]: Fucking Machines by Kink.com is machines relentlessly fucking pornstars until their pussies squirt everywhere!
[Dennis]: That was what Cowgirl showed me that first day. It was so shocking that it took me a minute to realize that the girl in the video was Cowgirl herself.
Like any other office, there were desks, phones, computers. Hard-working people, others who were lazy, and, mind you, there was a lot of gossip. But people, were, generally, nice. I got along with “almost” everyone. Except Tony, my direct supervisor, who was in charge of the website. I butted heads with him from the first day. He was tyrant. And I, being Chilean, was sick of tyrants.
The apparent normality of it all stood out to me, how the people accepted everything around us with absolute calm. Especially in those first few weeks, it was hard to understand how almost none of my colleagues seemed to realize how strange our environment was. Well, except Ricardo…
[Ricardo]: It reeked of sex a lot of the time, but sex… Not good sex… (Laughter).
And…. and… and I would go to the back and open the door and hear: “Aaah, aaah, aaaah, and chocon, chocon, chocon.” And I’d be like: “Hey, are you using the Monster?
[Dennis]: I’ll never forget those sounds, mostly because my desk was in the back and right next to me there was a door, and on the other side of the door were the “sets.” The studios where they shot the movies.
In other words, on the other side of the door from my desk, where I would edit, there was an operating room. Yeah, a room with… with an operating table and surgical instruments. And then there was another studio which was like a dorm room, you’re average dorm with two beds and nightstands… and after that there was a gym.
And of course, once you crossed through that door next to my desk, you were transported directly to that world: the world of porn. And there, the main characters, even more so than the girls, were actually the machines.
[Ricardo]: The machines. If you see the machines and work with them and see what they do… I mean, if you aren’t scared of them at first, they’ll probably make you laugh.
[Dennis]: Essentially the machines were like vibrators but all different sizes and with different mechanisms. The one that sticks out in my memory the most —probably because of how ridiculous the name is— is the… Drilldo.
[Ricardo]: The Drilldo, was a drill. And more than a dildo it would…
[Dennis]: I don’t think it needs more explaining. It’s called a Drill-do for Christ’s sake. There were other machines like this one. Of course, some were more sophisticated, but they all had the same idea. Nothing too ingenious. And that was what I saw every day on my monitor. Women versus machines.
I never found it all that sexy. I always saw it a pretty bizarre show. But little by little I got used to the job. Not without unexpected things happening now and then. Like when Cowgirl came off set completely naked and sat down at her desk, which was next to mine. And I was staring at her like an idiot until she knocked me out of my stupor and said:
[Cowgirl]: Dennis, why are you surprised if you see my naked on screen every day.
[Daniel]: We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: Before the break Dennis was getting used to his job as an editor of porn movies. But something wasn’t right. He could feel that at some point, that job was going to hurt him.
[Dennis]: One day I got in a taxi in San Francisco and the driver was listening to the radio. It was an interview with an important porn producer and director. And right there the guys starts talking about how working in that industry had affected him. Basically, what he was saying was he hadn’t been able to have sex with his partner or anyone else for a long time because he had been affected to the point that he couldn’t get an erection anymore.
And well, you should know I’ve always been a hypochondriac. If you tell me about an illness and its symptoms, I immediately start feeling them. So, when I heard that, it started going through my head: “No, that’s going to happen to me! What am I going to do?”
Not long after, I went to Chile for a short vacation. And after a few days in Chile, I met a girl who I liked a lot. We went out a few times and, well, soon the moment arrived.
I remember we were in her room, and she had just taken her clothes off and I wasn’t thinking about how beautiful her body was. No, I was thinking about that radio show and what that guy was talking about. I got so nervous, and I mean so nervous, that of course, what I was afraid was going to happen happened. Or rather, didn’t happen.
Take two was even worse since I was psyched out from my first failed attempt. And on the third try… My hands were sweating and I had heart palpitations, a kind of panic attack.
I remember in that moment I diagnosed myself with erectile dysfunction. And I felt ridiculous trying to explain to the girl what my job was. The machines, the Drilldo, Cowgirl, and the story I heard in the taxi, so she would understand, so she would know it wasn’t her fault, or mine either. I felt ridiculous, trying to rationalize something that was so embarrassing for me.
But it didn’t work. ç. Of course, she started to lose interest in me. And well, I had to go back to California. On my flight back I thought about the girl and about erectile dysfunction, thinking I should quit that job. Otherwise I was going to be cursed for a long time to live with this problem.
Remember I told you I got along with “almost” everyone at that job but that I couldn’t stand my direct supervisor, Tony?
As luck would have it, I figured out a solution. While I was on vacation, I read a Herman Melville book called Bartleby the Scrivener. In the book the main character starts to rebel against his boss and starts disobeying his orders. And every time his boss asked him to do something, Bartleby would answer: “I would prefer not to.”
It seemed like a great idea. So I started doing just that. Every time Tony gave me an order, I would answer: “I would prefer not to.” The first time I said it he was caught totally off guard. He didn’t know what to say or do. The second time, he threw a tantrum but he couldn’t convince me to follow his orders. And the third time he side-eyed me for a few seconds, dropped his head and left.
Just like in the book I transformed into this bothersome figure for my boss. He didn’t know what to do with me. I was waiting for him to fire me in a matter of days, but months went by. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I quit.
I felt this huge relief. I remember the feeling of going out into the street and realizing that even the air I was breathing was lighter, cleaner. But there was still one big problem. That big problem I still hadn’t overcome And that that was still really affecting me emotionally.
At the time I started going out with a girl. She was pretty patient with me. But I was very, very frustrated. So I picked up the phone again and called my mom.
Do you remember more or less what the conversation was like and what you told me then?
[María]: Yes, I remember you called me and told me you were having nightmares, your palms were sweating and you were having heart palpitations when you were facing a romantic relationship. That confession was hard for me. My fears were becoming a reality.
[Dennis]: But in that conversation you said something that was key for me. Do you… do you remember more or less what you said to me then?
[María]: Yes, I remember I told you something like…. that penetration isn’t the only thing that can please a woman, there are lot of methods that are more satis… so satisfying that can be done tenderly, lovingly, in a romantic encounter that it isn’t necessary —sometimes— to get to penetration. I remember that’s what… I told you.
[Dennis]: Deep down what my mom was describing was the exact opposite to the kind of sex I was seeing every day at the job I had just quit. Maybe seeing it all the time, I felt like I had to compete against those machines. That in order to satisfy my partner I had to be a kind of machine. That’s why hearing my mom say that grounded me.
And that’s how I started healing. Little by little I was freeing myself from that heavy load. And in the freedom I realized I had learned a lot more about sex from talking to my mom than in two years working in the porn industry.
[Daniel]: Dennis Maxwell is a producer and journalist living in Oakland, California. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Thank you to Fernanda Echávarri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Our editorial interns are Lisette Arévalo, Victoria Estrada and Andrea López Cruzado. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Before we end, we want to share with you something we prepared this week. I mentioned it at the start of the show. You might remember that our previous episode was about Venezuelan migration to Peru. Well, generally when we talk about migration we focus on the stories of those who leave. But, in this case, we thought it was important to listen to the Venezuelans who, despite the crisis, have to decided to stay in their country. Listen: these are their testimonies.
[Shaylin Castro]: My name is Shaylin Castro.
[María Eugenia Revilla]: María Eugenia Revilla.
[Karla Santibañez]: Karla Santibañez.
[José González Vargas]: José González Vargas.
[Jean Lucas bello]: Jean Lucas Bello.
[Javier Castillo]: Javier Castillo.
[Pedro Romero]: I’m Pedro Romero.
[José]: I can easily say that 90 percent of my friends have left.
[Shaylin]: Last year it happened that I wanted to do a gathering for my birthday. And when I made the list I realized that most had left. It was like falling into a depression and saying: “Oh, OK, I won’t do anything.”
[Pedro]: Well, the loneliness that… that exists in the country is amazing. And it’s a huge sadness that they get married and you can’t go to their weddings, or that they have a baby and you can’t se them.
[Javier]: The Venezuelans that are still here, we’re liked orphaned from those friends. Or rather, like trapped in this country, unable to go see them.
[Karla]: I have a small daughter. If I go to another country, where would I go? I have no support to go to another country.
[Jean Lucas]: As much good spirit as you have, the country is kicking you out. Even if you don’t want to go.
[Karla]: I wanted to travel, more than anything because I have my family out there, dammit, I would like to visit them. But all those things are like on stand-by.
[Javier]: I have several projects I haven’t been able to accomplish, but the main one is that I only have one child. I haven’t been able to give him a brother or sister because I’m terrified that I won’t be able to afford the vitamins that my wife would require and the gynecologist appointments. Brining a child into the world in this situation is terrifying.
[Shaylin]: I had that thought when I was 18, I would already be independent. But it is very difficult when everything is so absurdly expensive.
[José]: The most simple activities such as working, studying, buying food, paying for medicines, become constant battles.
[Karla]: My mom takes blood pressure medicine, medicine for depression, and me, ransacking: I go from pharmacy to pharmacy, looking.
[Jean Lucas]: You receive bolivars and really you have to spend them right away because tomorrow everything will be two times, three times more expensive.
[Javier]: And even though we are all skinnier, lonelier, with more problems, there are always people who bring out the positive in life…
[María Eugenia]: I, paradoxically, I like it here. I like that when Venezuelans are cool, they are the most cool, nobody beats them.
[Pedro]: There are people who earn 5 dollars a month, who go to their jobs every day, work their hours, who strive every day to get ahead.
[Karla]: There’s always a friendly hand; there’s always a hand that will help.
[María Eugenia]: I think that those of us who stayed, are maybe those who make less noise, but we’re the ones who have kept this standing.
[Pedro]: I know movements like Primeros Auxilios Luz [Light First Aid], which via donations carry out comprehensive medicine campaigns.
[Jean Lucas]: At least the young people in the universities, have like that obligation that, well, they have to do something to help. To see the effort of people dedicated to helping the other, a neighbor, it’s something… it’s one of the positive things.
[Karla]: I love my country, that’s why I’m still here. You make a bet. As far as I can go.
[María Eugenia]: The truth is that there are still a lot of beautiful things left: the people go to the beach, people fall in love, people are trying to eat their hallacas at Christmas. And, well…. I love this country so much.
[Daniel]: Thank you to everyone who sent us their messages. This collage was produced by Miranda Mazariegos, our Innovation fellow. It was edited by Luis Fernando Vargas and Jorge Caraballo. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.