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Partying in Baghdad

How two young American T-shirt merchants scammed desk jobs -- and material for a memoir -- in post-invasion Iraq.
 
 
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After witnessing the soul-crushing defeat of their beloved Red Sox to the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS series, two twentysomethings who created a street empire hawking "Yankees suck" T-shirts outside of Fenway Park needed to escape from the East Coast.

But instead of packing their bags and heading off to South America or the Philippines (typical destinations for the two world travelers), Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neumann let their wanderlust lure them to the Middle East -- Baghdad, to be exact. Within 24 hours on the ground, they were hired to run the desk at the Coalition Provisional Authority and spent the next three months taking aid requisitions and partying with a motley crew of journalists and NGOs, all of which they documented in their rollicking memoir Babylon By Bus.

MICHAEL SLENSKE: What was the craziest story that didn't make it into the book?

RAY LEMOINE: We tried to put most of the crazy stories into the book. A lot of people tend to say, "You went to Baghdad just to do drugs." But that doesn't make much sense. Why would you go to the most dangerous place in the world to do drugs when you can get anything you want delivered to your doorstep in New York? One thing we didn't do, though, was point fingers. We weren't the only ones acting this way -- even though drug use was mostly limited to people under 30 -- but we made an effort in the book to protect people from their institutions back home.

SLENSKE: While you were there, you hooked with up a bunch of reporters, including the New Yorker 's Jon Lee Anderson and Salon's Jen Banbury at Adam Davidson's Baghdad chateau. Were you constantly thinking about telling your own story?

JEFF NEUMANN: When we were there, no. When we got back, yes. A few months after we got home Jen and Adam did a Q&A with us and six other CPA workers in GQ. And then Jen interviewed us for "This American Life," and that's when the interest for the book came on. We didn't realize it was a story that anybody would want to read -- it was just day-to-day stuff to us.

LEMOINE: Obviously anybody who reads and has an interest in literature would. But we didn't have any connections to the writing world. I didn't even know what an agent was. We kind of backed into this thing.

SLENSKE: In the book you mention that even the "peaceniks had blogs" over there. Did you use any technology to keep an account of your time in Iraq?

NEUMANN: Not really. We just sent group emails to our friends. Neither of us were really into blogs because we never knew what to say.

LEMOINE: We both kept journals, and I kept detailed notes about what I was doing. But we really had to write the whole book from scratch a year and a half later. I wrote this magazine article for Swindle when I got back, but that was it.

SLENSKE: Did you run into any other interesting NGOs while you were there?

LEMOINE: It was surprising how many young people were there doing crazy stuff -- a lot of peace activists. But you had to leave the Green Zone. The people in there were pretty lame. It's all these young Republicans walking around in khakis.

SLENSKE: What was the most surprising thing you saw when you were in Iraq?

LEMOINE: Once we started living in the palace in the first week of February, the people we were working with [in the CPA] were extremely talented people, putting in 20-hour days, and they were failing -- they were admitting failure. It was then we realized there was very little hope the occupation would succeed. That was the most shocking thing -- that the most powerful nation in the world could go in there and screw things up this bad. It raises a bunch of questions, like could anyone else have done any better? It was really surprising.

SLENSKE: How has this experience changed the way you view the situation in Iraq?

NEUMANN: Everyday I read the paper, and think it can't get any worse, but it does. We got to see where it went wrong. Basically all of [L. Paul] Bremer's orders -- from de-Baathification to disbanding the Iraqi Army -- laid the groundwork for all the chaos you see now. It really soured my view of it.

SLENSKE: Mel Gibson optioned the rights to the book for the USA Network? Any regrets looking back now?

LEMOINE: We get asked that question a lot, and that's the only thing we've not talked about. Obviously, you can't be excited about it, but it doesn't really affect us. I'd rather be dealing with Mel Gibson than Disney. Disney sucks. Besides, we like all the people at Icon, they're really smart.

SLENSKE: Where would you like to go next, and why?

NEUMANN: We're doing a small promotional tour for the book, but I'd like to start traveling as soon as possible -- hit the road and figure it out. I'm definitely interested in the Middle East and North Africa. I like to go to places that are politically charged.

LEMOINE: I would really like to have been in Lebanon these past five weeks to see how crazy things were. I'm interested in going everywhere. I was in Pakistan until the beginning of June, basically the whole year, and this charity I was working close to as an NGO was just tied to the liquid bombing plot by [New York Times reporter] Dexter Filkins. Things move so quickly it's hard to say where I'd want to go. I'm interested in place in change. And as an American, I'm drawn to places that affect America.

Michael Slenske writes the "Back Home" column for SMITH magazine .