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Banana Nation

All roads lead to crypto

When my best friend, Evan, and I took the 3 train to a friend’s thirtieth birthday party last October, work sucked, life blew, and the world was ending. Reality felt relentless, and I was ready for a break.

A few weeks earlier, an editor at a prestigious magazine had killed a big piece I was writing and paid me out in pennies. Soon after, my dad came down with a bad case of Lyme disease that brought on a form of facial paralysis called Bell’s palsy. Then my girlfriend of seven years left me. Evan’s uncle had recently died, his dad was depressed, and his advertising job was soul-sucking. As we rode the train that night, he grumbled about an impending assignment to buff up Condoleezza Rice’s reputation.

Lucia, the birthday girl, was new to the city, here to study climate adaptation at Columbia on scholarship. Though I’d once shared her admirable optimism for the future, I found myself feeling increasingly hopeless and hedonistic. Afghanistan was in ruins, Alabama was flooding, and California was on fire. A few months earlier, smoke from those western blazes had traveled thousands of miles east, to Brooklyn, and entered my lungs. That day, I donated to the Sunrise Movement and purchased my first pack of cigarettes since college.

Lucia’s party occurred on an unseasonably warm Saturday just as Covid was again starting to surge, but it seemed to promise a reprieve. Here was a rare pandemic-era opportunity to celebrate life, plus a helpful reminder that time moves on. Once we arrived, Evan and I staked out a spot in the kitchen, where we drank beer, ate candy, and hit a weed pen. Then two men arrived who would upend our lives.

One was Teja Aluru, a towering twenty-something clutching a custom-made Thor hammer. The other was his best friend, Rob Giometti, who wore a black onyx necklace and had the beginnings of a wizard’s beard. After exchanging pleasantries, the pair told us they were start-up founders who’d spent the day ideating in a WeWork. I cynically responded that most start-ups seem to be solving problems that don’t exist. “Is that what you’re doing?” I asked.

“No,” they assured me. Then they launched into a business concept that qualified as “yes.”

It’s called the “Sapien Nation,” and it’s a crypto-fueled metaverse pitched as a utopian alternative to Meta, Mark Zuckerberg’s data-sucking hellscape. Rob said the nation was “deconstructing religion and resurrecting all these tribal, ancestral pantheons of god,” part of broader plans to build a “unifying mythology for all humanity.”

He and Teja oscillated manically between politically astute commentary and pure silliness. In one moment, they cogently diagnosed issues with American monetary policy. In another, they argued that their namesake—the primordial Homo sapien—created the first and most perfect form of currency: bananas. “It’s all self-aware satire,” Rob said at one point, his tongue stained blue from a Ring Pop on his pointer finger.

The Sapiens were out there, on the level, and eager to upend nettlesome American principles like rugged individualism, self-seriousness, and capitalism—or so they claimed.

Like most start-up guys, Rob and Teja were persuasively articulate, sometimes spellbinding. They lacked the swollen egos that afflict many in Silicon Valley but seemed well-connected with tech’s biggest power brokers. They claimed one potential Sapien Nation investor was close to Kanye West. Another, they said, was involved with the United Nations, which would soon fly the Sapien flag high over its East River headquarters.

As the Sapiens spoke, Evan and I fell into a sense of overwhelming awe, probably attributable to the THC. Through our squinty, bloodshot eyes, we saw in the Sapiens shades of Ken Kesey’s merry pranksters. They were out there, on the level, and eager to upend nettlesome American principles like rugged individualism, self-seriousness, and capitalism—or so they claimed. Mostly, we were jealous of their carefree lives. Days earlier, Teja had dropped out of graduate school and dedicated himself full-time to the Sapien cause. Millions of others were then seeking this freedom as part of what economists had deemed “the great resignation.”

The Sapiens had recently road-tripped to the East Coast in a bouncy school bus they’d plastered with “Blue Lives Matter” stickers to avoid police suspicion. On the trip, they’d made it their mission to enlist the first ten thousand citizens of their digital nation. It didn’t take much to recruit Evan and me into this promised land.

“What are you guys doing right now? What are you doing with your lives?” Teja asked as part of his pitch.

“Wasting away,” Evan responded. I nodded in agreement. Then we signed up for digital passports.

Once that was out of the way, the Sapiens sought our assistance in a forthcoming act of mischief. They said their bus held a life-sized statue of the company mascot, Harambe the gorilla, which they soon planned to place in front of Wall Street’s Charging Bull, that famous monument to market optimism. The Sapiens said they’d also purchased ten thousand bananas and needed helpers to dump them on the scene. This stunt, they explained, would symbolize how “bananas” America’s financial system had become.

The prospect of exiting reality, if only for a moment, was enticing. Still, the stunt seemed too risky, too ambitious, too fantastical. Evan and I wished them luck but declined their offer. We went home that night feeling silly and pleasantly distracted, grateful to have met an eccentric duo we never suspected to see again.

A few days later, the Sapiens pulled off their Wall Street prank, which went viral on Reddit and was covered by CNN. Soon after, Teja got in touch. “Yo—Jasper and Evan,” he texted, “how interested would you guys be in $5,000 [each] and the opportunity to mint yourselves into meme history?”

Crypto Kerouac

Teja’s offer was simple enough, but nonetheless daunting. He wanted me and Evan to drop everything and haul Harambe from New York to Menlo Park, California, over four very long days. There, the Sapiens would pull off a similar stunt in front of Facebook’s headquarters.

Though enticed by the offer, Evan and I remained trepidatious. We had deadlines to meet and dates to keep, including, for Evan, an uncle’s funeral. We also remained deeply skeptical of crypto, which seemed to be yet another one of Silicon Valley’s shiny and totally unnecessary products, sold with the language of equality and decentralization. Coiners, to their credit, have largely identified the right enemies: bankers, brokers, and money barons. When I spoke with the Sapiens, I genuinely felt they shared my grievances. Yet crypto’s slick pitch, progressive pretensions, and mystifying jargon mirror old-money smokescreens. I struggle, for instance, to see the difference between Wells Fargo’s rainbow Pride debit card and the “LGBTQ token.” And just as I can’t explain APR financing, I don’t understand the Genesis Block. At the end of the day, money is money—stratifying, exploitative, transactional.

So when Teja offered to pay us in Ethereum, we said we’d only take the job in exchange for cold, hard cash. He agreed. Following a few questions, some logistical planning, and a blessing from Evan’s family to skip the funeral, we decided to send ourselves across America. In that moment we viewed the trip as a carefree, Kerouacian romp. We’d escape reality, or at least augment it. We’d drive 3,068 miles away from our problems.

We met Rob and Teja the next morning at the Swallow Cafe on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Over cold brew and avocado toast, we were handed half the money and given our marching orders. To make the trip feasible, we needed to drive at least five hundred miles that day, to Cleveland. Up until our arrival at a ratty Penske lot under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Evan and I assumed we’d be hauling Harambe in the back of a glorified cargo van. Instead, we were assigned the largest truck in Penske’s fleet, a twenty-six-foot-long monster replete with confusing buttons, terrible sight lines, and an impossible turn radius. Evan and I pleaded for a smaller vehicle but were told that Harambe could be damaged if driven on his side. We acquiesced because we were drunk on money and tight on time. By then it was after 2 p.m., and we still hadn’t picked up Harambe from his Red Hook storage locker.

To my great relief, Evan volunteered to take the first shift, in the city, though not before forcing me to acknowledge his superior driving skills. He started the engine, tapped the gas, and flicked the left-turn signal. As Evan commenced his first turn, we both heard the deeply unsettling sound of steel crunching against steel. Because of our poor sight lines, we saw nothing but imagined everything. Even so, I anxiously reasoned that the crunch came from “somewhere else” and ordered Evan to keep on trucking. Plus, Rob and another Sapien were rolling around in the back, and they hadn’t felt or heard anything.

In Red Hook, we lifted Harambe into the truck and ratcheted him down. By then it was nearly 3 p.m., and reaching Cleveland that day was out of the cards. This was bad, but at least we were ready to leave, or so we thought. As the truck neared the Verrazano Bridge—and the open road beyond it—I double-checked for my phone, jangled my keys, looked in my wallet, and discovered a problem. “Evan,” I announced sheepishly, “I don’t have my driver’s license.” At the next red light, Evan conducted his own assessment. “I don’t have mine either,” he responded.

We quickly realized that the Penske attendant hadn’t returned our IDs after photocopying them for record-keeping purposes. The invocation of the word records rocked us into anxiety over the potential hit-and-run we’d committed. Without further catastrophe, Evan reoriented us toward Penske. Once we arrived, I retrieved our IDs, and Evan visited the scene of his bad left turn, where he found a badly scratched car. Evan left an apology note on the window with Teja’s phone number, then scampered back to the truck. We hustled to the highway just in time to hit terrible rush-hour traffic.

It wasn’t until after 6 p.m. that we reached an uncongested stretch of highway. As Evan picked up speed, the physical manifestations of our pains, debts, and obligations receded into the rear view. But their spirits still haunted our minds and popped up on our phones. I realized then that the off-the-grid world inhabited by Kesey and Kerouac had disappeared. There remained a beauty to the open road, sure, but there was no longer freedom in it.

Kerouac once wrote that it is “better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.” I’d challenge him to maintain that statement after resting at the Best Western in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Despite the hotel’s Covid-inspired “deep-cleaning” policies, I found two used earplugs and a slice of old pepperoni at the foot of my bed. The bathroom was nice, but the mattresses were hard. We slept fitfully our first night, feeling bound to the road, anxious we’d oversleep and fall further behind schedule.

White Line Fever

Over the course of our ninety-six-hour journey, we rarely deviated from Interstate 80, one of the busiest trucking routes in the world. We occupied a strange place on the road, serving seemingly contradictory roles as cogs in the supply chain and disruptor agents of the blockchain. While it initially felt weird to be hauling a crypto totem across corn country, it quickly became clear that systems billing themselves as disruptive and unprecedented are almost always built atop old ones.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that a prank meant to indict the evils of social media relied on existing tech platforms to make it go viral, all in support of a new platform of digitally mediated existence.

The logistical network that truckers sustain was largely invisible before the pandemic, even though it has long been critical to American consumerism. Trucks move 72 percent of domestic freight, but a growing dearth of drivers is creating disruptions. While the job has long had a nearly 100 percent turnover rate, as of October 2021, the industry was suffering from an unprecedented shortage of eighty thousand drivers. The work’s stresses were exacerbated during Covid, but the job had already deteriorated over the last half-century, thanks to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the decline of Teamster power, and industry deregulation, most notably the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which repealed the government’s ability to set shipping rates. This lowered the price of goods but also slashed trucker pay. Since 1980, their average salary has plummeted more than 60 percent, from an inflation-adjusted $110,000 to $40,0000: a pittance for grueling workweeks that often exceed sixty hours. Worse, the norm has become to classify them as “independent contractors,” forcing them to shoulder nearly all the costs associated with driving. A recent USA Today investigation uncovered rampant labor abuses inside port trucking companies, including exploitative leasing arrangements drivers have likened to slavery.

Evan and I had initially romanticized the trucker’s way of life. We purchased brown hats reading “Ford” and “Chevy,” respectively, and satirized famous songs to fit our adopted identities (including CeeLo Green’s “Truck You” and Frank Sinatra’s “Truck Be a Lady”). But it wasn’t long before the cruel realities of the road set in. At that point, we tuned in to true trucking music, mournful ballads of loneliness, alcoholism, and infidelity.

On the road, we were starved of social interaction, exercise, and nutrition. As it turns out, the worst of the fast-food chains—Burger King—has secured a virtual monopoly on I-80’s truck stops. Before long, the company’s smoky, spongy beef had done a real number on my insides. And as our stomachs churned, our bodies barely budged. The only calories we burned came from pushing the pedal, which, in turn, formed a dull but constant pain we called “trucker’s knee.” Fifty percent of trucker injuries experienced on the job are strains and sprains, according to OSHA. They are also ten times more likely to be killed on the job than the average American worker, in large part due to exhaustion. (Many truckers rely on amphetamines and other drugs to stay awake.) Over the course of our journey, Evan and I saw a slew of billboards featuring porky lawyers specializing in commercial trucking accidents. We also both repeatedly fell into highway hypnosis, a dangerous form of spacing out also known as “white line fever.”

Thousands of truckers experience these ailments and many others. And for what? I don’t deny that humans need certain goods and won’t stop wanting others. But so much of the pain in this work feels like the result of impossible and unnecessary delivery deadlines meant to replicate the immediate gratification of in-store purchases. It seems to me that the world is too fast already. Wouldn’t we all benefit from slowing things down? Instead, techno-capitalists have responded to the plight of truckers by developing “fatigue management” technologies to monitor drivers. Companies like Tesla are also working on autonomous trucks, and while Elon Musk claims that computers drive better than humans, available evidence suggests the opposite. Even if robot trucks improve, they’ll still pollute, they’ll still support an unnecessarily exploitative supply chain, and they’ll still crash. This self-driving future became all the more worrying in Wyoming, when Evan and I passed an exceedingly careful trucker hauling a radioactive load.

Unlike most truckers, however, Evan and I had each other. The majority of long-haulers live in solitude, comforted only by dirty jokes and other chatter buzzing over their CB radios. Some who gravitate toward trucking see seclusion as a perk. Others, like me and Evan, are running from something. It’s no mistake, I’d argue, that battle-drained military veterans make up a disproportionate number of drivers. (In April, President Biden convened a task force to push even more former service members into this punishing industry.) Those who don’t take to the life can get depressed, divorced, or conspiratorial.

Bread and Circuses

Evan and I didn’t feel like we truly earned our trucking stripes until day three. By that point, we were physically exhausted, mentally bonkers, and driving toward trouble—we’d been made aware of a brewing and possibly historic bomb cyclone set to mix with an atmospheric river. Together, they were projected to drop forty-two inches of snow over the Sierra Nevada mountains, our gateway to Silicon Valley. Rather than brave these frozen peaks, we decided to drive around them, even if it meant significantly more time on the road. Our new route had us crossing three time zones over twenty-one hours, with Las Vegas as an endpoint.

He urged me to invest and promised I wouldn’t regret it. “I’m living my dreams,” he said.

We began the morning gliding past gorgeous gold foliage in Nebraska and ashen black hills in Wyoming. We’d been told that Utah was the most scenic state on the drive, but we crossed into it just as the sun set. Night accelerated our unraveling. When I got behind the wheel around 9 p.m., in Beaver, Utah, for our last six-hour shift, my brain felt like a busted engine.

It wasn’t until after 2 a.m. that Evan and I spotted the warm, pulsing glow of Sin City. As we drove closer, a swarm of six hundred drones shot into the air, then, in perfect harmony, shuffled themselves into the shapes of owls and gods. This spectacle was part of the Electric Daisy Carnival, an EDM festival that was then celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. One of the event’s major sponsors that year was Coinbase, the leading cryptocurrency exchange platform.

Vegas was built up from arid desert in the wake of the Great Depression as a monumental effort to make suffering Americans forget their woes. Nearly a century later, citizens still hit the Strip to numb the pain. Las Vegas is, in some sense, the original metaverse: an artificial oasis of bright colors, fake opportunities, and endless speculation. It offers a warm retreat into fantasy, a cozy place to live a lie. Perhaps that’s why it became the first major city to be replicated brick-by-brick in virtual reality. Casinos are already betting big on crypto, as are Las Vegas’s wheelers, dealers, and scammers, who’ve perpetrated some of the biggest crypto frauds in the market’s short life.

Still, the city’s gauzy fiction can only cover up so much. This was especially true for me and Evan, who couldn’t afford to stay at one of the resorts that creates a convincing mirage. We crashed instead at Circus Circus, a dilapidated joint and the only hotel on the Strip that offered parking for big rigs.

The once mobbed-up resort projects itself as a family-friendly dreamscape, but it feels like a bizarre scene out of a nightmare, complete with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper featuring images of juggling clowns. The place is rumored to be haunted and has seen a series of disturbing deaths in recent decades. When Hunter S. Thompson arrives at Circus Circus in Fear & Loathing, he spots an old man being loaded into an ambulance. When Evan hit this same lobby, he saw a seemingly lifeless person slumped over in a wheelchair.

This was all difficult to take in sober, so after we checked in, Evan and I bought tall cans of Miller Lite and got high. Then we walked around the casino and out onto the Strip. It was late, and the city’s sheen had worn off. We saw Electric Daisy revelers falling into k-holes, a dancing pimp, and a homeless guy who’d recently had both his phone and dog stolen. I offered him a few smokes and some cash, perfectly aware that currency couldn’t cure his problems, or mine.

Before we hit the hay, I ate yet another burger, this time from a better chain, McDonald’s. Then I gambled for the first time in my life. It was only $5, but I lost it immediately. Our room smelled like smoke. Evan and I slept on top of our sheets that night, fully clothed.

Truckin’ to Zuck

We drove the final nine-hour stretch to Palo Alto the next day. On the way, we passed wind farms and almond farms, as well as apocalyptic signs from farmers pleading with the state to release more water for irrigation. Their prayers were answered in the form of the bomb cyclone, which brought black clouds and hard rain.

Miraculously, we arrived in Silicon Valley early, so I decided to fill up on gas. In the process, I accidentally backed into a concrete pillar which then got lodged under our truck, trapping us. In a moment of perfect symmetry, the same crunching sound we’d heard on our first mile greeted us in our last. It took hours before a tow truck set us free. I was shaken, so Evan drove the last mile to the drop-off point. We then took an Uber to a nice hotel, collapsed on our beds, and enjoyed peaceful sleep for the first time in four days.

We had hoped to spend the next forty-eight hours decompressing by San Francisco Bay. But the Sapiens, charming as ever, enlisted us to help with the Harambe drop on the promise of a crypto payout that still hasn’t materialized. On the morning of the stunt, we ventured to the San Francisco Banana Company, where laborers filled the two vans we’d brought with ten thousand bananas, which we then transported, alongside Harambe, to 1 Hacker Way.

This was the culminating moment of a grueling journey, one fueled by rich people’s money and our own naivete. It felt strange to be at the global headquarters of a company that had snatched up so much of my time and monetized my memories. I picked up a stray banana, unpeeled and ate it, and became suddenly angry with Zuckerberg and his lieutenants. Social media had stricken me with professional and personal anxieties, FOMO, and an abject need to be liked. What I’d gained in return was unclear. The Sapiens’ stunt felt like a righteous if reductive protest against this system. And yet the irony wasn’t lost on me that a prank meant to indict the evils of social media relied on existing tech platforms to make it go viral, all in support of a new platform of digitally mediated existence. The Sapiens are upstarts with a vision, and, critically, they’ve pledged not to monetize data in their metaverse. But they’re still angling to digitize the world, distract its inhabitants, and get wealthy in the process.

Before we flew home, Evan and I dropped the thousands of bananas at a local food shelter, a tangible act of charity that felt nice following days of abstract existence. I deleted Instagram on the plane, then redownloaded it. A few days later, the billboard where we’d dropped Harambe and the bananas was replaced by one featuring the infinity symbol and Facebook’s new name: Meta. I felt totally turned off by Zuck’s immersive concept—but quietly worried I’d get sucked in anyway.

Gorillas of Wall Street

A week or so later, the Sapiens reached out once more. They’d had Harambe hauled back to New York and invited us to a swanky party they were throwing at Cipriani, an ostentatiously fancy Wall Street restaurant featuring Greek revival architecture and seventy-foot ceilings. The gorilla was inside the venue, the Charging Bull just outside it.

The Sapiens are upstarts with a vision—but they’re still angling to digitize the world, distract its inhabitants, and get wealthy in the process.

The party was overflowing with good food and top-shelf liquor. Paid dancers swirled around me, and a slew of old men enjoyed themselves with their much younger dates. The soiree’s chosen location seemed to be a shot across the bow to the city’s established financial interests, new money flipping off old. Still, while crypto enthusiasts defiantly claim to be outside of existing economic structures, many of the evening’s attendees seemed to be entrenched insiders capitalizing on a new trend. (As I’d later learn, Goldman Sachs and many other investment banks are getting in on it.) The Sapiens themselves remained weird and wild, but they but were clearly attracting more powerful players. It wouldn’t be long before they announced a chief operating officer who’d served senior roles at Microsoft and eBay.

I met one everyman at the party, a Brooklyn native who, like me, was wearing a red beanie. He’d grown up poor, taken a risk on crypto five years ago, and made more than $100,000. He urged me to invest and promised I wouldn’t regret it. “I’m living my dreams,” he said.

After our conversation, I left Cipriani and approached the bull. There I stared transfixed at his bronze ballsack, pondering life, the economy, and my own meager savings. I considered whether to bet on the bull market, invest in Sapien coin, or finally start a 401(k). I’d recently watched friends make big money speculating on Dogecoin and the GameStop short squeeze. I figured that I could engineer a similar windfall with my $5,000 if I played my cards right. But I could also lose everything in a snap. If I know anything, it’s that the house always wins. A big part of me believed I should spend all my money in the moment, to enjoy our beautiful, bountiful world before it’s gone.

I turned from the Charging Bull to the nearby statue of the Fearless Girl. She was standing on principle, I thought, a fierce force outside the system. Then I walked closer and saw a plaque at her feet announcing she’d been built by State Street Global Advisors, a Boston-based investment firm. A statue that seemed to be challenging financial corruption was, in fact, on the take. I felt in that moment that pernicious economic forces were inescapable and worried about the true motives of the Harambe statue I’d kept in my care. When stripped down, crypto, web3, and the blockchain looked just as compromised as the Fearless Girl. The new economy doesn’t seem fundamentally different than the one that most of us are currently suffering under.

I left the party with a couple of bananas and a scrambled mind. A few days later, I set up an IRA and built a Coinbase account, but I haven’t invested in either. Instead, I used my cash on another road trip, this time across the American Southwest, a region of sparse cell service and expansive, natural nothingness—save for the overlapping snapping sounds made by tourists’ iPhone cameras.

Evan and I, along with another pal, paddled the Colorado River, hiked the Grand Canyon, and traversed the red rock monuments of the Navajo Nation. Our guide, a stout Navajo man named Duffy, spoke about his people’s spiritual connection to the natural world, a history recorded in ancient petroglyphs and maintained in dome-shaped mud and log prayer cabins called hogans. At the foot of Eagle’s Eye monument, he whipped out a flute and played us a Navajo prayer song.

Then, back in the SUV, Duffy shifted the conversation to social media. He told us of the girlfriends he’d found on Facebook and the funny videos he watches on Instagram. “Have you seen the one where the construction workers staple their balls together?” he asked. We hadn’t. Later, when we pulled up to the most sweeping view on the tour, Duffy handled our camera phones with the same dexterity he’d shown with his flute. He swiped to a good filter and framed us just right to capture the holy mesas and buttes beyond. The resulting photo got 114 likes.