Archive for the 'Lonely Girl Loves' Category

Not Making It, In Manhattan and Hanoi

Manhattan. Blackout. Metaphor.

AC, bedspread, feet stretched out in front of me, laptop on my lap just the way it’s supposed to be. Picture in the box in the screen; I smile and he smiles — “It’s good to see you!” we both say and laugh.

The background is the same: the narrow walls of the apartment, canvases stacked against them, the dimness that gathers in the closet and the entrance to the bathroom. But it’s Angelo that looks different — tired, I think, for lack of a better word. “How’s the new job?” I ask.

“It’s cool,” he says with a shrug.

“Really?” I ask, unconvinced.

He rolls his neck and laughs. “No, it fucking sucks. It’s just like ‘move this here’ and ‘move this there’ and I don’t give a shit about expensive perfume or whatever.”

Since the last time we Skyped, Angelo lost his job at that hot-shit gallery where he spent his first full year out of university working as an art handler — drilling shit and hanging shit and packing shit, pulling late nighters and driving semis around Manhattan to do $500,000 installations in million-dollar apartments. “Living the dream,” he’d called it.

It’d been what he’d wanted, what he’d thought he’d wanted, a step in the rung of the ladder of the art world. He’d worked his ass off for it — years of interning while taking full-time classes and working catering gigs and living in his ridiculously rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. He’d been flown to Art Basel Miami, and Art Basel in fucking Basel. He’d met some of his favorite artists and he’d gone to big-deal parties and he’d make connections with gallerists and dealers from around the world.

But secretly I hadn’t been surprised when Angelo had first written saying he’d been laid off. He’d been getting sick of it. He’d said as much the last time we’d talked, when there’d been an opening and he’d worked the door to the VIP lounge. “So, you know, I get to like stand there and be The Man,” he’d laughed. “I’ve got the power, right, of who gets in, and I gotta know the right people and I gotta schmooze and be mad like that.” He’d laughed again. “But it’s also kinda whack. It’s all these people pushing around, trying to be all big and in with this person or that person, and pretending the art is way better than it is. And I’m not even in the real thick of it. I get to play The Man for a couple hours, but the rest of the time I’m just, you know, the grunt. The blue-collar end of it.”

He’d seemed characteristically positive when he’d first written with the news he’d been laid off. He was gonna be getting unemployment, had a few good job leads, was using the extra time to get this website together. Then came an on-call gig doing display installations at Saks in Midtown.

It’s been a month now and he seems worn thin: he fidgets, picks at food wrapper, pushes up his glasses, gets up to get a glass of water then sits back down.

“You alright?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, whatever. I work til like 3am and then I take a cab home to my rich-boy apartment while all the other chollos haul it an hour and a half on the subway, just to turn around and do it again. And it’s like the only kinda job I’m qualified for, other than catering which is a fake job. Like, I spent all this time in school and all ‘I’m gonna be an artist” and all I know how to do is move shit. I just feel like, you know, what the fuck is it all for?”

He looks down, picks at the empty food wrapper then balls it up and tosses it across the room.

I sigh. “Well isn’t that the question of the hour?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about — the what-is-it-all-for, the fallacy of the idea of “making it.” I’ve been in Hanoi six months now; everyone’s started asking me what I’m doing, how long I’m staying, what the plan is now that the Cambodia-book-project thing fell apart. It doesn’t help that my 30th birthday is looming on the horizon, sitting there like a big fat question mark I can’t see over or around or through.

I want to tell Angelo something now, this thing I’ve been thinking, been feeling churn-churning inside me but don’t have words for yet. “It’s a good thing,” is all I come up with.

He raises his eyebrow. “What?”

“That you got out of that world. That shit wasn’t for you.”

He looks dejected.

“Not like that,” I say, still searching for the words. I sigh in exasperation at myself. “I mean, I know it sucks. I’m no fucking role model — I’ve pretty much given up on writing anything for money. But it’s good, I think, to not get sucked into the scene of it all. To question the whole making-it thing.”

I pause. You’re too smart for that art-world bullshit, I want to say, though I don’t actually know if that’s true.

“Check it out,” I say instead. “I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to write this essay about it but it keeps falling apart. Which might be metaphor, I think,” I add with a laugh. “But I’ll send you the link if I can ever get it together.”

“Sweet, sweet,” Angelo says as he cracks open a soda can. It hisses and he yanks the tab off.

“Now tell me about that Sandy shit,” I say.

**

I got the essay together. Kinda. It’s not terribly uplifting. You can read it here.

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Today I Spent $9 on Muesli

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

A year ago today, I laced up my running shoes and walked down the steep cement slant of my parents’ block for one final run around Lake Merritt.

It was a drizzly cold day, nothing like Indian Summer is supposed to be in the Bay Area, all crisp skies and fogless mornings. It was brisk but in a good way, a way that makes your run better, that invigorates you—that, when you come around the bend to the intersection where you usually cross the street and go back up the hill, you keep going. You go another lap, dodge the geese shit and dinging bells of the bicyclists, pass the cackling dreadlocked dude always posted at the bridge; the patch of trees that smell like maple syrup; the playground you used to go to as a kid; the boathouse you used to drop off time sheets at; the hedge maze they planted when you were a kid that never grew, all the geese eating the seeds so that it’s still just a mossy stump, raising like a ringworm in the ground. Know every step, every inch of gravel, the tree roots to avoid cause they’ll twist your ankle.

Stop back at the intersection, your hands on your knees and breathe. It’s the first time in all your 28 years that you’ve ever ran twice around the lake.

Switch back to the first person: I left my home a year ago today. After that run, I went back to my parents’ house, showered under that gloriously high-pressure nozzle in that green bathroom they remodeled when I was 12 (time capsule letter still nailed to a stud inside the wall somewhere). I said goodbye to the cat (who was so old I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see again, and I was right), and carried my bags to the car.

We went for lunch at a neighborhood sushi joint; I had a seaweed salad; we walked over to Boot & Shoe where I got a cappuccino and a pastry for the plane and said one last goodbye to my co-workers. Hugged my mom. Drove across the bridge with my dad. Looked out the window at the familiar landscape: the skyline of San Francisco, the row of billboards, the bend in the road, the traffic tangling then loosening, roadside giving way to the clapboard suburbs of South San Francisco. Planes arching, Airport Parking and shuttle buses—knowing again every inch, each sign, a route I’d taken a thousand times, it felt like, on a thousand trips but this time I wasn’t coming back.

Hugged my dad on the curb. Walked into the airport, alone.

I was rereading the posts from a year ago, all the commotion and to-do leading up to my leaving. It could have been worse, could have been a lot more dramatic and I think if I’d decided to run off and be an expat any earlier in my life, it would have been. I was struck by the anxiety of those posts—I didn’t remember being that anxious. I’d already edited that out, made my leaving and my last summer in the States into something more bittersweet and stoic than it was actually was. It was hard.

The whole time I knew I was making the right decision, knew that for whatever reason I had to go; I’d grown all I was going to grow in that life there, as good as it was. I felt this kind of bell tolling. I thought the bell was Cambodia, I thought the bell was supporting myself as a freelancer while writing a book on a subject that terrified me. That didn’t turn out to be it at all, but I still believe there was a bell.

I was thinking a lot about what I wanted my one-year post to be about. Nothing is how I’d envisioned it’d be a year ago, when I stood in line at the check-in counter, my three ridiculous bags strapped to my body at various angles. The freelancing dream lasted four months before I had to start teaching. The book project crumbled just about the moment I reached Cambodia. Cambodia, well, that’s another story, one I don’t even know how to tell yet. And now Hanoi—four months and starting to feel like home, starting to get it dialed in to this perfect, almost-cocoon-like existence. A city I hated the first time I visited—who’d have thought?

So I’ve learned a lot. A fuck of a lot. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier working a job that pays my bills and writing for the love. I’ve learned that I’m a shitty freelancer. I’ve learned that I’d rather tell people I meet that I’m a kindergarten teacher than a writer. I’ve learned that you have to deworm every six months, that boiling tap water doesn’t necessarily make it safe it drink, that there’s a kind of humidity that’ll sprout mold on your clothes in two weeks time.

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned in this year is that there’s this placeness, this center at the center of me. Does that make sense? Like, all those posts from a year ago, I was so mad anxious about leaving home for the first time. About not having a base, a place to come back to, my familiar people and places all waiting. Of course I was—I’d never really moved out of Oakland. It was a big leap.

But I’ve learned that there’s a stillness in me. It’s hard to get there and most of the time, I don’t think it shows; I’ll catch myself picking at my nails or digging at the scar of an old wart in a way that I know makes me look nervous, unsettled, like a goddamn lunatic. But there’s this other me, underneath that me, that’s always kinda been there. It’s the me I sink into on long bus rides, staring out the window and thinking about nothing. It’s the me I write from, in the best of times which isn’t very often—when the buzz of that other me dims, turns thin, goes away and my fingers move on the keyboard, almost independent of me, as though one part of me were telling another me a story.

And it’s the me that was sitting in the departure terminal of SFO a year ago, bags checked and pastry greasing up the thin bag, watching a guy in a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass shirt chase his tangle-haired toddler around. There was the surface me, sitting there tweeting some dumb shit, but there was also the center me, ready and waiting to board. A year ago today.

Things To Consider Before Trekking Fancy Pants Mountain

1. It is not actually called Fancy Pants Mountain. If you are unable to stop calling it Fancy Pants, because you cannot either remember or pronounce its real name, take this a sign.

2. Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Indochina (which sounds totally colonialist, but what the hell do you call the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos region: “the region formerly known as Indochina”? RFKAI?) As such, you’ll be trekking up. As in, UP UP. It’s only a 15km trek up and you’ll probably think, “I’m back to jogging 10km a few times a week, I can toooootally handle it.” Kilometers are for suckers anyway.

It may be worthwhile to listen to your own bullshit detector.

3. Everything you read prior to the trek will use grandiose-sounding verbiage such as “conquering Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is an overly zealous translation. You’ll also read that at the trek’s completion, you’ll receive a certificate verifying that you’ve “conquered Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is a product of the Vietnamese affection for paperwork.

But consider this. Really consider this.

Fool’s Journey

4. As the highest peak in RFKAI, Fancy Pants Mountain will be cold. They’ll tell you this: “It’s cold up there.” Remember you haven’t been in anything close to “cold” in a nearly two years. Briefly consider the fruitless time and effort you’ve invested in finding clothing that fits you in this country. Decide not to bother trying to get real hiking boots or weather-resistant clothing. Borrow some long pants from your roommate, and put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

5. Consider the fact that you are not a good trekker. You don’t even really enjoy trekking. Remember La Ciudad Perdida? Yosemite’s Half-Dome? All those Muir Woods day hikes your parents took you on as a kid? You have never for one second liked trekking, or been any good at it.

Despite this, “getting out of the city” will seem like a good idea. Consider briefly of the itinerary: an overnight train; arrival at 6am; trek beginning at 9am; the trek; sleeping in a “longhouse”; trekking back; overnight train back to Hanoi at 7pm.

Consider that this is your weekend.

Or don’t. Buy some bottled water and a granola bar, put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

Comfy on the train

6. Dream about Roberto Bolano on the overnight train. Dream you’re sitting around a table at a youth hostel, freestyling short stories; dream that he is staring at you across the table.

Wake up giddy and in a puddle of your own drool. Consider how many times people must have woken up in puddles of their own drool ON THIS VERY PILLOW, whether or not they were dreaming of Roberto Bolano. Rinse your face; chug from the plastic bottle; swish the water in your mouth and spit it out; look at yourself in the foggy scratched mirror, your reflection foggy and scratched.

Think: “Let’s Do This Shit.”

7. Doing This Shit:

i. The trail will be muddy. Like, mad muddy. Shlup, shloop, gloop, glup, ankle-deep and sliding around, falling-in-the-shrubbery muddy. The porters will hand you a walking stick; this stick will become your best friend, despite the little blisters your own clutching causes.

ii. The trail will be foggy. You won’t be able to see shit, not more than a few meters in front of you or behind you.

iii. The trail will be rocky. It will not really be a trail so much as a series of rocks to climb up. Really, it should be called The Fancy Pants Mountain Rock-Climb, not a trek because you don’t actually get a good stride going very often.

iv. Your feet will get wet and muddy. It’s better to just accept it and slosh through than try and fight it. It’s faster too.

On the mountain with my “waa” face

v. The porters won’t speak English, so it’ll be best to go with a group of people who speak Vietnamese. Though Vietnamese won’t be the native language of the porters; they’ll speak Hmong. The porters will speak Hmong because they’ll be Hmong, and it’ll be the only trek you’ve been on with a female porter.

She will be a bad ass. Like, the definition of a bad ass: big phat tribal earrings the kids in SF would pay $300 for; knee-high rubber rain boots; skirt tied with a sash; sturdy-ass legs from doing this trek a minimum of TEN TIMES A MONTH, your friends will translate. All your food and gear will be stowed in a whisker basket she totes on her back. She’ll smile and have three gold teeth; you’ll think about how you miss gold teeth, seeing just a few as opposed to a whole goddamn grill the kids are sporting these days. Her fingers will be stained, black-rimmed nails, and she’ll never be out of breath.

Consider that she will be the coolest part of the trek.

Girl crush

vii. After seven hours you’ll arrive at the 2800 meter point. Consider you won’t know what this translates to in feet; consider that you won’t care.

You’ll go into the longhouse where you’ll be sleeping and it will no shit be one of the most squalid places you’ve ever seen. Consider that you’ve slept in some squalid situations, both urban and rural; consider that an old boyfriend lived in a West Oakland punk house called Dead Rat Beach. Consider that this longhouse will be worse than that.

Consider: the walls made of aluminum, a material that traps and magnifies the cold; the gaping hole in the door of the aluminum, through which a howling wind straight from the cold chest of China enters; the muddy-ass walkway; the raised wooden sleeping platform, damp from the cold; the trash beneath the sleeping platform; the scurry of the rats beneath the sleeping platform; the thin sleeping bags they’ll give you; the fact that the sleeping bags don’t zip; the fact that this trek has become mega popular with Vietnamese young people and that a group of sixteen with enter the house a couple hours after you do and that they will, in full Vietnamese fashion, talk and point and shout at each other for 6 of the 8 hours you attempt to sleep, and that this will annoy even the Vietnamese people you’ve come with.

In the longhouse with my cold face

Consider that the dinner will be nice, quite tasty really, more Chinese than Vietnamese, and that you’ll gorge yourself by the candlelight and that one of your trekking mates will have brought a bar of Toblerone and that he’ll break you off a chunk and HOLY SHIT that’ll be the best piece of Toblerone you’ve ever tasted.

Consider that you don’t even really like Toblerone. Consider that.

viii. Consider that the toughness-to-reward ratio of the trek will be low enough to inspire you skip the “conquering” bit. You will not get up at 5am will the others in your group and carry on to the top, but cuddle up and clench your eyes against the swimming of the flashlights, clamp your ears against the shouting of the other trekkers, and shiver inside your unzipped sleeping back, inside your roommate’s pants and the leggings you haven’t changed out of.

Your trek-mates who made it

You’ll head down the mountain around 8am with another girl in your group who has also bailed. Only now will you consider that the whole “I did it!” thing has never been a motivation for you. Only now consider that on the treks you’ve done in that past, you’ve never felt the swoon of accomplishment, victory over a physical challenge, but more of a “Now why did I put myself through THAT?”

Consider that you’ve always felt life was hard enough without CLIMBING A FRIGGIN MOUNTAIN on your weekend. Consider that the real “I did it!” for you is and always had been the everyday survival—the existing in the world—not this outdoor mountain shit. Consider that the real victory for you is the fact that you’ve damn near made it to 30 without killing yourself.

Consider that as you slip and slide and crawl on your ass back down the mountain.

Consider that the way down is always harder than the way up. Consider how that’s a metaphor. For all of it.

8. The best part of the trek will be when it’s over. You’ll get back to Sapa, a lovely little town you wish you had the energy to explore, and you’ll feel like you’ve been gone longer than 30-some hours. Since your friend arranged the whole thing through a tour agency, you’ll have access to a hotel room with a shower. It’ll be a dingy little hotel room with the same faded pink paint as your apartment in Phnom Penh, but the water pressure will be strong and the water will be hot and HOLY SHIT it’ll be the best shower you think you’ve ever taken. Consider that you like hot, strong showers, and have taken a lot of them.

Stagger across the road to a touristy cafe and order a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. Consider the last time you indulged in this trifecta; consider that you won’t be able to remember and that you won’t care. Consider that the shake will be a literal interpretation of a shake—milk and chocolate powder that were seemingly stirred together—and that it’ll still taste goddamn amazing.

9. Consider the train ride back. Despite the fact that the AC in your cabin won’t be working, you’ll konk out at 8pm. You will not dream about Roberto Bolano, and you will feel slightly ripped off by that.

You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 5am, all matted hair and lip crust, everyone in your group too tired and sore to give proper goodbyes. You’ll hop on the back of a xe om, whiz through the sleepy pre-dawn streets.

You won’t have conquered Fancy Pants.

You won’t have conquered shit.

But goddammit, you’ll be on your way to conquer your own friggin bed.

You’ll pay the dude, slither down the alley, yank open the gate, crawl up the stairs and HOLY SHIT you will.

*

If you’ve considered all this and still want to do the trek, check out Mien’s much more informative and much less whiny post on the expedition.

Three Year Bloggiversary, Two Weeks Late

Party time. Clearly.

The three-year anniversary of this blog snuck up on me. Which really it didn’t; the “domain expiring” warnings kept appearing at the head of every page until, two days before the whole shebang was to be shut down, I finally renewed.

I debated doing some reflective post about what’s happened to me in the three years since I started this thing, when I was about to leave on a trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, my first sola backpacking trip in a few years. I thought about doing some list of things I’ve learned, clips I’ve garnered, other writers I’ve connected with, favorite posts, most popular posts, blahblahblah. But the laziness got the better of me (you noticed how infrequently I’ve been updating as of late?) and I decided to let the anniversary come and go without any fanfare. Cause who really cares anyway?

Then good old Pam Mandel at Nerd’s Eye View wrote me, asking for a pithy quote about travel blogging to be included in her TBEX workshop on creative travel story telling. I was honored but a bit baffled; the folks over at TBEX are doing good things, but their things seem to be on an entirely different end of the spectrum than my things, with different goals and objectives and measurements of success. I frankly didn’t think I had much of value to say to them.

But I gave it a good think, as I cruised around town sucking exhaust and sunlight and other carcinogens. This is what I came up with—far more than the pithy quote requested, but my unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts of travel blogging, gleaned from my three years in the mix.

It was actually quite nice to sit down and get them out. I debated crafting this, or at least even editing it, into a proper post, but again with the laziness. So, a little cut-and-paste action:

I think I’m kinda a strange person to give advice on travel blogging, since I don’t have a terribly successful travel blog. I mean, my stats are decent (I think, I haven’t ever thought to compare them to anyone else’s), but I’ve never made a dime off my blog or gone any press trips. Or even been offered any press trips. Or offered anything besides link swaps and vague “business transactions” that are probably money laundering scams. Nor have I really tried to get those things, so there you go.

My background is in literary writing and I think that’s really shaped my approach to blogging. I think of my blog as an electronic zine. Does anyone remember zines? Collaged, Xeroxed, DIY affairs? I used to make them in high school, sell them at local book stores and record shops or else just directly out of my backpack. Mmore than anything I made zines in order to get my voice out there, in order to be heard—because there was something in me that could not be still (to paraphrase Sylvia Plath), that compelled me to write and publish, and the only means available to do that for a 15-year-old kid in public school was a zine.

I started my blog almost exactly three years ago; non-fiction was a new genre for me and no one was gonna publish my work. Largely because it wasn’t very good yet. But there were still things I wanted to say, conversations I wanted to start or be a part of, questions and insights I wanted to share, so I went back to my DIY roots and started blogging. It’s really not so different for me, just a more expedient, less messy and time-consuming version of what I did as a teenager.

Maybe that’s not encouraging, but blogging has given me a lot of intangible rewards. One, it keeps me writing regularly, even if it’s just a short, funny thing I whip out in less than an hour. Blogging has also shaped the way I travel and even live. It’s kinda like keeping a daily gratitude list; because I’ve been doing it for so long, there’s a part of my brain that’s always on the lookout for something to blog about. Keeping a blog has provided me with a reason to do things I normally wouldn’t, because they’re expensive or hard or weird; for instance, I was able to justify flying to a random town in Southern Italy for a street art festival, where I had one of the funnest weekends of my life and met someone who’s become one of my closest friends. Blogging has also put me in touch with other writers and helped me build a community of like-minded individuals (again, not so different from zine-making).

Perhaps the most gratifying thing, as I move more and more into publishing, is having the space to write exactly what I want to write. I don’t have to worry about editors or marketability or anything on my blog; I can say totally and 100% what I want to say. Strangely, I think that’s where the “success” of my blog comes from, if you can say there is any. I’m convinced that the most important and precious thing a writer has is his or her own voice. The craft can be learned, and should be learned, must be learned—but the thing that makes great writers great (at least the ones I love) is the strength and conviction of their voice. No one wants to hear the same old stuff, the nicey-nice. Or maybe they do, but there isn’t any longevity in that. When I read, I want to feel something. I don’t even necessarily want to agree with the writer; sometimes it’s better when I don’t. But I want to believe them, if that makes sense.

Of course, it can be a trap, self-publishing. It’s easy to fall into a groove where all you get is “wow, that was great” feedback; where you’re not getting any constructive criticism that pushes you further and deeper; where you become mad self-reflexive and exist inside your own little feel-good world. (“There’s a reason people such as Miss Quinn publish in the zine format,” a Letter to the Editor of my first published piece proclaimed. “They lack the talent to do anything else.”) And I’ve definitely felt myself falling into that at times. It’s a fine line to walk, between utilizing the rejection and criticism of the publishing/literary world to help yourself grow as a writer, and comprising your voice to that world; and similarly between using your blog as a platform for unrestrained self-expression, and using it as a masturbatory oversharing sesh. I think exactly where that line is is different for all of us, but it’s crucial that we each identify that line and stay mindful of that line, traverse it like tight-rope walkers and use that community we’ve built as our safety net.

None of which may be very good travel blogging advice, but is nonetheless what I’ve gleaned from my three years blogging, seventeen years self-publishing and twenty-five years writing.

Now gimme my party hat and my cake.

Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

Thai Beach Resort Pool Deck Flashback

I was sitting in a lounge chair of a cheesy beach resort, sipping a fruity drink with a twisty straw and a flower AND a friggin umbrella, resting my sun-scorched skin and listening to my ipod and generally doing everything one ought to do in a Thai beach town, when I looked across the pool deck and saw this father and daughter. Real pink, real British, having a conversation straight off the Friends and Family ESL book companion CD: “Have you got on your sun cream?” “Yes, I put it on this morning.” “You ought to reapply; ask mum for the bottle.”

And I kinda smiled to myself, staring out and thinking about nothing really, watching this dad rub sun block across his daughter’s shoulders and back, when I had a flash of, “Man, I remember that.” So I wrote this—which is far more introduction than one ought to ever give a poem, let alone one written on an iPhone.

Can you remember the feel
of your father’s hands?—
When you were young,
they’d close around yours,
their massiveness a cave
of callouses and rough patches
that turned dark
when you flew inside.

You could live there,
you’d thought,
blind against that rock
when you crossed the street,
when he’d reach behind the driver’s seat
of that tin-drum car
and click your seatbelt shut;
when he’d rub on the sun block,
all those hardened places
scratching against
your smooth
unblemished
in the summertime,
on the swim deck,
where you’d laid on your belly
with your friends and he’d said,
“These are the happiest days of your life,”

You’d felt something small
and crushing coming.

And it’s not so smooth now, is it?
It’s sun-spotted and speckled
with moles they want to scrap off
and biopsy;
it’s red and wrinkled
like deep drought ditches
in the morning,
in the mirror,
all of the mirrors of the world,
all the cheap hotel rooms
that have become your homeland
and you can’t believe it was ever smooth,
that you were ever young.

You can’t remember the last time
you held your father’s hand
and felt like you could get lost inside—
a bat flapping
its song against the rock.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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