The Icelandic Skin-disease Mushroom Fashion Fiasco
I have never heard of Iceland fashion week, but it's not really important. What is important is that Iceland is supposed to have endless fields of P. Semilanceata, the legendary liberty cap mushroom.
I was starting to get dreads, which I couldn’t remove even with a vigorous combing, so I decided it was time to cut off my hair. After leaving the barber I found mysterious circular red rashes on my neck. It’s strange to think they’d probably been on my body for months totally unnoticed—from the look of them, I’m almost certain it’s psoriasis. I try to ignore this disgusting realization as I go to meet Peter Sutherland at JFK Airport. We are being sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to Iceland to cover their fashion week. I have never heard of Iceland fashion week, I don’t think anybody has, but it’s not really important. What is important is that Iceland is supposed to have endless fields of P. Semilanceata—the legendary liberty cap mushroom—and, according to one friend, “the best hotdogs on earth,” which contain lamb and specially cooked onions or something? I can’t remember.
When we check in, the clerk sees that I’m holding a guide to psilocybin-mushroom identification. He shoots me a sidelong glance and says, “The shit is in the shit.” I nod to show my understanding, but he feels compelled to keep repeating himself eerily. When we arrive at the gate, the same clerk is scanning boarding passes; he gives me another look and says, “Are you tripping yet?” I say, “What?” and he replies, “Pick one for me.” I smile but it’s chilling, and seems like an omen that my plane is going to explode.
We take a red-eye flight, which arrives in Iceland at eight in the morning, effectively merging yesterday and today into the longest day of my life. The sky is a dyspeptic early-morning gray that can only be appreciated after not having slept for a night. The landscape outside the airport is unimaginably bleak, an endless expanse of despair-inducing gray rock and variations on the same houses made from the same materials with the same-size windows, their only distinguishing feature being which (muted) color the corrugated-aluminum roof has been painted. Before leaving New York, someone told me that Iceland has the world’s highest suicide rate, which, as it turns out, is not true but might as well be. Unexpectedly we are not staying at a hotel but rather an abandoned NATO base with the friendly name Barrack 747. My room is outfitted with a box of traditional Icelandic chocolates and a traditional Icelandic-troll refrigerator magnet. The troll’s nose is broken.
I was given a contact for a fisherman named Geri who is going to be my mushroom-hunting guide. Peter and I drive over to his apartment and he debriefs us on the Icelandic drug scene, or lack thereof. Geri is without question a direct Viking descendent; he has flowing blond hair and a giant square head and looks generally warriorlike. He tells me that mushrooms do grow in Iceland, but we have arrived too early to pick them. I conceal my extreme disappointment as he hammers the point home by saying there is a 99.9 percent chance that we will not find mushrooms. When leaving his apartment, we drive past a corrugated-aluminum Quiznos, undoubtedly the saddest Quiznos on earth.
The press events start with a tour of a bottled-water factory, which we miss, but I arrive just in time for a model casting that takes place in the food court of a shopping mall, next to a Panda Express. Seeing the teeming hoard of aspiring models is exciting, initially, but on closer examination they are all strange and slightly scary. They wear layers of lumpy foundation and their faces look pinched and nervous. Their nervousness is contagious. Although I have been awake for close to 30 hours, I begin to chew Valium tablets that I inherited after the recent death of my beloved French bulldog, Jackpot Jr. (he suffered from chronic insomnia). As the anxiolytics sweep over me, I feel a mixture of gratitude and guilt.
The models wear numbered tags around their necks and walk around in endless circles. Number 47 has orange skin. Number 22 swings her arms a lot. Number 36 is a male model with anus-like lips and an asymmetrical haircut. I also begin to realize the girls are all about 13 years old. Designers furiously note numbers and snap pictures, while whispering in one another’s ears.
One of the designers sitting next to me asks if I am Hamilton Morris. She tells me she loves my columns, to which I can only respond, “Oh wow, that’s crazy.” Her name is Jules. There is something about all this that makes me feel like I’m in seventh grade at a school dance. Jules works with a designer named Agi. They’re both from London. I could describe all the other designers in detail, but for the sake of brevity, Jules and Agi seem to be the only people in attendance who are not completely fucking awful. By the end of the casting, both Peter and I have been asked to model for different lines. I eat a suspiciously white salmon cutlet that smells like Chinatown.
We leave the casting with spirits high and go to the first fashion show. The runway, which is actually a pile of boxes, is in the showroom of a car dealership. At this point it’s 2 PM in my infinite day and I begin to drink flutes of white wine, eat hors d’oeuvres, and mingle with what the promotional pamphlet describes as a “select group of designers, key members of the press, and luminaries of the Icelandic community.” The alcohol and dog Valium help me tremendously. Suddenly, fiery technorchestral beats begin to play. Heads turn, the crowd’s murmurs are drawn to a reverent hush, and what is instantly recognizable as the score to The Matrix Revolutions fills the showroom. Models march down the runway, their faces encrusted in small mirrored tiles; all of them wearing elastic Lexus-brand bathing suits and fur antlers. Photographers snap pictures furiously amid a chorus of recorded operatic screams. The male models hump their Lexus-bedazzled bodies across the showroom, stopping momentarily to drag a finger down the side-view mirror of a silver sedan like it’s an erect cock. The score to King Arthur plays next. It is now patently clear that I traveled 2,662 miles from Brooklyn to watch the world’s most awkward Lexus commercial. Meek applause follows.
We leave the showroom and go buy half an ounce of piney Icelandic weed. I can’t get it into my lungs fast enough and roll a sloppy joint that’s more like a weed dumpling. I begin to realize that the gray of the sky never changes, making any sense of time melt away. It makes me feel vaguely nauseated. We go to dinner, where I get obscenely drunk and gorge myself on pastry-wrapped lamb. I stumble down a flight of stairs looking for the bathroom. In the restaurant’s lower level, I find a giant unguarded cellar with hundreds of bottles of wine. I run toward the bottles and slam my entire body into a large glass window polished to the point of invisibility. Undignified. Peter and I pass out in the lobby of the restaurant.
In order to further make me feel like I’m in seventh grade, we are treated to a whale watch that begins at eight in the morning. In New England, all the whales are friendly; they nestle against the boat like a lamb to a ewe. I would imagine the whales in Iceland are a little more wary of being shot with a mechanical spear gun, but we are assured that we will catch at least a glimpse. I get on the boat and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is blasting from shitty speakers at cochlea-bursting volume. At 10 AM I decide it’s “time to relax” and begin drinking. The beer is the only warm thing for miles. The water is an incredibly cold-looking turquoise color, and it seems that if I were to bestonedly fall overboard I would have about 45 seconds to thrash around before dying of acute hypothermia and having my corpse swallowed by a whale.
The boat is wallpapered with hundreds of photos of people holding up fish they caught and smiling. They look like stock photos that come inside a new picture frame and it overwhelms me with a sense of unreality. I wonder, will I ever be in a photo like that? I smoke a joint and find myself giving a detailed explanation of how to synthesize methcathinone to a reporter from the Travel Channel, a halting explanation filled with “Ummm… using an oxidizing agent like potassium permanganate?” fully aware that she cannot understand anything I say. Her cameraman falls down a flight of stairs, spilling food all over his chest, and says, “I’m not drunk.”
Suddenly, models climb out of the bilge and stage a small fashion show. They try to maintain their balance staggering across the boat’s cabin through rows of folding chairs. They wear Gortex raincoats and shapeless cotton pants. I wonder, is this a real fashion show? It all looks suspiciously like normal clothing from L.L.Bean.
I smoke another joint and decide to ask the captain if he’ll allow me to steer for a while. He obliges, handing me the wheel and a tin of snuff. He advises I do the snuff “just like coke.” The boat stops so we can fish, and I blow lumps of what appear to be coffee grounds from my sinuses. A model wearing a silver windbreaker catches a fish and kisses its eyeball. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” starts blasting again, and it now occurs to me that it’s about ten steps too tragic of a monster ballad for fishing. Everyone is taking digital photos of themselves holding their catch and somehow, just as I had anticipated, I am left out of the ritual. Jules and I crowd around a heat chimney at the top of the boat to avoid freezing to death. At some point I pass out and wake up to find the boat totally empty with the exception of Peter. Nobody saw a whale.
This changes when we drive to a meal organized for the designers and press, consisting of whale sashimi and puffin tartar—both of which, suspiciously, are the exact same shade of crimson. The meat is oleaginous and fills me with guilt. The waiter takes my uneaten food and throws it in the trash. At night I get extremely drunk once again in a building with a reproduction of a tenth-century Viking ship. The walls have photos of politicians delighting in the boat’s craftsmanship. Bill Clinton, particularly, seems to have enjoyed it. There is an air of hostility on the streets at night. Around the bars, normals travel in packs and slam my shoulder repeatedly. It’s an endless procession of shoulder checkers, which is possibly the most annoying social ritual in existence. There is nothing that can be done; by the time it’s happened the checker is already walking away, but even if they stopped, what would I say? I drink continuously and everything fades out into a vaguely European Bacardi Dragon Berry commercial, which, thankfully, is erased from my memory.
Although, once again, I do remember a distinct lack of dignity.
Inexplicably, I wake up with my clothing on backward. I go to eat my continental breakfast and the Travel Channel cameraman is flying a remote-controlled helicopter around the restaurant. Some people ignore him, others take pictures. Today Jules and Agi are showing their line with the rest of the fashion-week designers. We drive to the runway and find that it’s actually made of bottled water on stacked pallets, in a parking lot behind a hamburger restaurant adjacent to a large carnival. There is a ride called the Turbo Drop just a few yards off that is hoisting children up a tower, dropping them, and then repeating the cycle. The children scream with metronomic regularity.
Without warning, the gray sky begins to gush rain, and from there everything unravels. “Fashion week” has been extremely weird thus far. All of the other shows I went to were unremarkable except for the fact that they were held in parking lots or abandoned concrete docks or dining rooms. Now it is official: This is not just the world’s worst fashion week—this is a scam! Six designers leave, pack up their clothing, and catch cabs to the airport. The organizer screams at the designers, “Clearly you have never seen Milan fashion week, it’s just like this!” Then she calls the police to have the designers arrested for leaving the show. I am told she then tried to steal all their clothing, but I didn’t see it happen. A police officer arrives and looks totally nonplussed as two designers from Miami tell him that he knows “absolutely nothing about fashion!” I look over at the Turbo Drop and see a shoe fall off a child’s foot. Apparently the effect is contagious because shortly after the first shoe falls, all the children begin dropping their shoes. It’s raining shoes. The children waiting in the line for the Turbo Drop run to pick the fallen shoes and hurl them, with all their might.
I begin to formulate a conspiracy theory involving the water company that sponsors all the events. Iceland is the only place I have ever been where you cannot buy bottled water. If you ask for water in a supermarket they look at you like you’re asking to buy an oxygen tank—and who would be more interested in changing this than the evil proprietors of the glacial-water company? I reach into the runway and pull out a bottle, which I drink warily, but it tastes electrically good—like licking the perineum of a 10,000-year-old iceberg. I try to figure out whether this is really a scam or just an incredibly bad fashion week held in a bankrupt country. Ultimately, they are the same. I scratch my neck.
The designers stage a coup d’état and hold an independent fashion show at Iceland’s second-biggest nightclub. They call the show “Rebel.” There isn’t enough dog Valium in the world to make this tolerable. I sit backstage watching makeup artists airbrush faces and designers hysterically scream demands at their models. The air is heavy with Aqua Net. Peter and I are suited in Agi’s clothing, which could be described as hippie heroin hobo chic. To complete the look, I am drunk and unwashed. My runway debut is a smashing success. Peter and I and all the other models agree that the runway experience “sends chills down your spine.” Everyone packs up their clothing and gets extremely drunk in a mixture of celebration, confusion, and thinly masked disappointment. I smoke a joint rolled in what are supposed to be chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-flavored papers, but it tastes (suspiciously) like fruit punch.
Geri decides to take us mushroom hunting, It’s still raining lightly, and the moisture has caused the mushrooms to begin fruiting early this season. Geri is astonished that in New York people grow their own mushrooms instead of picking them from the fertile earth. In Iceland, liberty caps grow with great abundance in both the spring and the fall. I have never picked mushrooms, nor have I tasted liberty caps, and the prospect of doing both fills me with glee. Geri takes us to his secret spot, a graveyard on the side of the road. He tells me that I must look into the clumps of coarse, darkly colored grass, and within moments I’m recognizing small villages of slimy, conical mushrooms with spindly stalks. He advises me to pinch off the stems so as not to damage the mycelium from which they grow. His gentlemanly behavior and fungal etiquette compensate for the endless fashion-related misery I have been subjected to over the past days.
There is something tremendously satisfying about picking psychedelic mushrooms. I fill my jacket pockets, crouching among the tombstones, straining my eyes and combing the grass with amphetaminergic concentration. I place a fresh mushroom in my mouth and it tastes similar to its American brethren, though chemically the liberty cap is a distinct fungal entity. One of the key factors when identifying psilocybin mushrooms is the blue bruises that form when they are handled. Liberty caps produce no such bruise because they are completely devoid of psilocin. Instead, liberty caps have a more stable, oxidation-resistant psilocybin, as well as a mammoth concentration of the mysterious alkaloid baeocystin.
Baeocystin has always fascinated me. It’s the subject of endless debate among mycologists and druggies. Even though it’s one of the most common components of psychedelic mushrooms, nobody knows what, if anything, it does. Some say it’s responsible for the darkness of the mushrooms—the sickness and the fear; some say that it produces effects identical to psilocybin; others say that it has absolutely no effect at all. How could one of the most common mushroom alkaloids remain uncharacterized? I have no idea, but liberty caps have more baeocystin than almost any other known species. Additionally, there is something odd about mushrooms that grow in the shadow of gravestones. The soil is made of hundreds of human cadavers at varying levels of decomposition. Perhaps the tryptamine-based neurotransmitters from their brains and bodily tissue have been feeding the mushroom mycelium, altering the chemical composition of the mushrooms. It hardly seems out of the question.
We leave with bags of psychedelic mushroom and drive Geri home. Geri’s apartment is filled with samurai swords, venomous snakes, and a large collection of rats in a fish tank. Hundreds and hundreds of liberty caps are spread out drying on newspapers detailing the Icelandic financial collapse. His roommates, who have just taken Adderall for the first time, crowd around a computer, watching videos of riots at the parliament building. One of them groans, “Oh man, tear gas, that was awful,” and then I notice that Geri’s snake has a bulge in its belly where it has swallowed a rat. I ask him about it and he tells me that it’s actually a bundle of malignant tumors.
I go back to Barrack 747, knock on Jules and Agi’s door, and convince them to come with us to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon. We drive to the lagoon and begin to eat mushrooms. I fill my mouth, chewing them and swishing them against my cheeks. As the car pulls into the parking lot through the digital-photo-taking Asian tourists, I catch my first glimpse of the lagoon’s majestic blue waters. Like the Dead Sea or the vortices of Sedona, the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon attract diseased people from around the world. The unique minerals and algae of the water give it powerful therapeutic effects against virtually every skin disease. Within moments I see hordes of people with flesh-eating bacterial infections, werewolfism, and leprosy crowding into the water. But there is one skin disease above all others in which the lagoon specializes. Psoriasis. The blue lagoon is an international psoriasis mecca. I don’t need to be ashamed of the red circles on my neck anymore.
As we check into the locker room, I have already started to trip. I can’t figure out how to close my locker and ask for help. Suddenly, I’m flanked on all sides by nude psoriatic men shouting instructions on how to operate the electronic key while their genitals brush against me.
I step into the shower and let the warm water egg yolk over my head. I used to swim at the MIT pool twice a day in the summer when I was ten, and it was equally strange being subjected to so much decaying flesh. Maybe the public shower is a rite of passage—mole-covered scrota, balding balls, etiolated penises. Skin like the surface of an everything bagel. I yawn into infinity. Geri told me that some people come to the lagoon with the express purpose of dying. He said the lagoon is connected directly to the earth’s mantle. Occasionally a vein of magma bursts under a bather, instantaneously boiling them alive. The charred remains of bodies are found blue-tinged and washed up on the rocks.
I step inside the sizzling-hot paradisiacal water. I dunk my head under and swim, letting the minerals burn my open eyes and pour into my mouth. Diatoms flitter around me. I’m trying to make sense of all this. What just happened? Was it a scam? In any case, I wasn’t scammed. I’m only a scam witness, so was it just another week? It’s like Hansel and Gretel, only without Hansel or Gretel. I move toward a cage containing drums of white silica paste. A cyclops spreads the goo across his T-zone. A mirthless security guard stands over the drums with a walkie-talkie making sure nobody abuses the goo. I grab a handful and throw it at Jules and Peter. The goo guard glowers.
Everyone’s face is covered with white geo-thermal jelly. It’s Iceland’s biggest goo party. Peter’s goo melts into a slightly scary Venetian mask. His nose drips into his beard. “Hey, you’ve got a boog,” he says. I pull ropes of snot from my nose like silk scarves from a magician’s sleeve. There is no end to it, there is no cure. The heartbreak of psoriasis. Helical ropes of white steam spurt out of a fiberglass geyser and rain down on me like children’s shoes.
I pull up a handful of glop from the ground, a handful of troll semen. It collects in the corners of the lagoon. It’s plentiful. I spread it out across my hand and examine the contents. It’s all decay, it’s like an owl pellet. Sapropel, pubes, silt, strings of organic green material that I can’t identify. There is such a wealth of goo. And I place a glob in my mouth. The taste is complicated, but it fills me with gratitude.
See the visual actualization of this article on VBS.TV in February.