Archive for the 'Bay Area' Category

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.

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In Which I Listen to Modest Mouse and Get Nostalgic in a Hanoi Hotel Room

Sitting in my underpants, white sheets and AC, bag of lychee beside me and lychee fingers, sticky on the keyboard.

Pitchfork tweets something about Silver Jews. I click, I scan, I click on something else and I scan on something else.

See the ad in the sidebar. Ignore it, actually, flashing words and image of a sky outside a car window, like I’m in a car on an American highway, looking out of the window, riding. Finally succumb to the ADD-inspiring ad and read the words: “Pitchfork Classic: Lonesome Crowded West.”

“Lonesome Crowded West?! A ‘classic’?!” I scoff through through my mouthful of sweet goo, spit a seed into a plastic bag. “That was… oh shit, that was hella long ago.”

Click, load, let the video start to play. Montage of young boys on tour, wrestling, grinning, sweating under the lights on stage. Familiar sounds come blaring out of the speakers of my laptop; I turn it down, though fuck knows why since everyone else is this hotel is so damn loud. Hear the jangles and screams and distorted echoes of another place, another time, another era.

It hadn’t felt like that long ago.

*

North Oakland, 58th Street, the end of the last millennium. The first house friends of mine got together: ashtrays, 40 bottles, Goodwill couches. It wasn’t a proper punk house since there were only four people living it. Every punk house needs at least 1.5 residents per bedroom and it also needs a name. This house never had one; it was just “The 58th Street House.”

Sav, Jon, Sophie and Ben. Sav was a punk and so was Jon, though it was fading into a general Carhartt-wearing blue-collar tough. Sophie wasn’t a punk. Ben definitely wasn’t a punk.

So it was probably Ben that first brought the album to the house. It was that Northern, woodsy indie shit we generally didn’t like—too soft, too weepy, grow-a-pair-and-start-screaming. But he did scream was the thing, and I guess that’s what got us. Got me.

It was my first year at State and I was staying out there, over the bridge and through the BART tunnel, in that foggy patch of clapboard houses that disappear into the ocean, at the end of the continent. My first year in college, my first year sober, crazy as a motherfuck.

I’d take the train out on the weekends, those kinds of houseparties kids have when they first move out on their own: all-night, wrecked, music and smoke, backporch and basement and bodies on the floor. I didn’t drink—what the fuck did I do? Kick it and pretend. Feel less awkward than at the college parties, cause at least these were my breed. My people. My tribe.

And that album playing, over and over. Polar opposites don’t push away.

Sav and Jon singing along, late into the night.

*

They’re playing clips and flashing pictures, someone’s home movies of the band on tour. “A time when strip malls were coming, the paving of the West.” Do I remember that? Not really. I was in the city, we didn’t feel it as much, didn’t see the land changing under us.

“I guess you could say it was a prophetic album.”

They’re talking about the grunge era, old bands: Candlebox, Karp, Heavens to Betsy. I laugh; I hadn’t heard those names in a long time.

“It was a different time. Pre-internet, pre-youtube. You actually had to go to a store and buy a record.”

Is that not how we do it anymore? I wonder.

Holy shit, that’s not how we do it anymore.

*

There was this weird thing about the 58th St house—it attracted stray animals.

Like a lot. So much it got to be a joke. First it was a couple cats lurking around. Then someone knew someone who needed to offload an iguana. So an iguana cage showed up in the kitchen. Iggy the Iguana would come out and party with us, crawl around people’s backs.

Then there was a rabbit. It just showed up. Hopping down 58th St like it wasn’t a thing, like it was the goddamn Green Gables out there instead of North Oakland. Sophie was on the porch smoking and swooped the rabbit up. It chilled with them for a few weeks, then the owner showed up, some little kid asking.

A couple weeks later, they saw the same rabbit hoping down the street. They ignored it this time.

Then there was Mama cat. She wasn’t Mama cat when she first showed up, a skinny teenager howling at the top of her lungs. “God, go out and get laid already!” Jon yelled. She did. She got knocked up and plopped out four kittens. Sophie videotapped the birth. They’d watch it over and over, having it on during those houseparties, tiny kittens crawling around the floor and people trying not to step on them. “The Lonesome Crowded West” playing over and over. Smoke billowing, bottles clinking.

Soon a chain reaction.

Stray animals to stray souls, I said. Or maybe I just thought it.

*

They start going through each song on the album—the history behind it, explaining the lyrics, who wrote write part first. It’d be tedious if I wasn’t already invested, strung along by a whiff of nostalgia like the aftershave of an old boyfriend.

“They did it the old-fashioned way: you get in a van and you tour. You play shows. There was no Myspace, no Facebook, no youtube.”

I feel a little pang when they say that: “the old-fashioned way.” Is that an era that’s really gone? I still think of Pandora and youtube and iTunes as an accessory to going to shows, accessories to hearing some awesome touring band you’d never heard before, to the hat that would pass for gas money. Sure I’m away from it all now; sure I’m dependent entirely upon music blogs and PirateBay, but that’s just because I’m on the other side of the planet, right? That’s not really how it’s done now?

The laptop screen glows in the dim hotel room. I think of the hearing Le Tigre for the first time at a Santa Cruz co-op; I think of seeing Lost Sounds open at an East Oakland warehouse. I think taking the train out to see Modest Mouse at the Great American, Murder City Devils at Slim’s. I think of the last band I saw before I left the Bay; I’d found out about them on Pandora.

Did it really all change that much, when I wasn’t looking? Or worse, when I was looking but just couldn’t see it?

They keep flashing pictures of the band when the album came out. Their skin burns with youth, that flush of youth. They snap back to the recent interviews and their faces have dulled. Wrinkles and grey hairs in their beards. It feels like the first time I noticed wrinkles in my friends’ faces, the first time I noticed them in my own.

I’m enraptured by the younger shots, by the burning. Did we really ever have it? Did we really lose it?

I’ve said what I’ve said / and you know what I mean

I want to look. I want to check and see. But I can’t—the pictures from then aren’t in my iPhoto. They’re in crackling old albums in some box in a closet of my parents’ house, halfway around the world.

*

Iggy was the first to die. Sophie went out of town and someone didn’t feed him. Or someone left his heat lamp on or didn’t turn it on, I can’t remember. They buried his limp green body in the backyard.

One of the kittens died too. Someone sat on it; it was trapped beneath a couch cushion and they didn’t hear it crying. Another kitten got hit by a car but it survived. It had a wonky tail and it ran crooked, like its equilibrium were permanently off. “Brains,” they called it.

There was a fight in the kitchen one night, at one of the parties. That jack-ass Kevin tried to stab his girlfriend—threw her up against Iggy’s old cage and they had to pry the knife outta his hand.

Well, do you need a lot of what you’ve got to survive?

Whatever happened to Mama cat? She got old, I think, disaffected and uninterested. She wandered off one day. Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. I can’t be sure anymore.

*

I remember being shocked that Modest Mouse made it big.

It was eight years later. I was back living in Oakland—had I ever really left?—waiting tables and had just started dating this new guy. God knows why, we didn’t have much in common. It was a beautiful June day and he wanted to draw the shades and play Guitar Hero. Um, okay.

A song came on; it sounded oddly familiar, the sensibility to the screams. “Who is this?”

“Modest Mouse.”

“What the fuck happened to them?” I remember thinking. It was poppy, slick, overly produced. I hadn’t been listening to the radio, didn’t pay attention to much outside my little DIY bubble. I’d forgotten all about Modest Mouse. My friends had moved out of the 58th St house; North Oakland had gentrified. Ben had broken a heart and left town. Sav had gone up north, lost in doom metal and an abusive relationship. Jon had disappeared. I’d imported “The Lonesome Crowded West” into my iTunes, sold the CD and promptly forgotten about it.

“Are they, like, big?” I asked the dude.

He gave me a look. “You haven’t heard of them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not like this, I haven’t.”

*

“Here / There” signs in North Oakland

It’s not all bad—Ben and Sav moved back. Ben got married, had a baby. Sav got clean, still plays in bands. Sophie became a preschool teacher; she moved to Costa Rica a few months before I moved to Cambodia. I think one of the kittens survived; Meiko adopted it and it might still be alive.

The malls are soon to be ghost towns / Well, so long, farewell, goodbye

Jon never showed back up.

*

I end watching the whole damn thing, all 45 minutes. The heat of the laptop has made me sweat and the lychee stick on my fingers has dried. Miniscule ants scurry around the keyboard, disappear behind the glowing keys.

I click on my iTunes, bring up Modest Mouse. Yup, still there. I go to click on the album, then stop.

All the people you knew were the actors

I’m alone. I’m alone in a cheap hotel room, a long time away, on the other side of the planet. What’s the use?

I get up and brush my teeth instead.

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

The Ghosts of Footsteps

Crisp blue and puffing chest, the glare of sunlight off the smooth flat of the Bay. My first run since a week-long flu, down along the Bay Trail, with its breezes and San Francisco views, pretty despite being directly beside a freeway.

I passed a little woodsy alcove. It’s mostly rocks and open space down there, but every now and then, beside a freeway exit, an overgrown patch of cluttered trees and shrubs is tucked alongside the trail.

I caught a glimpse between the leaves: a little stream, heavy from the rains; a long piece of wood placed over, a makeshift bridge; the dead remains of footsteps, the ghosts of footsteps, a path going in. Something was hiding in there.

I thought about the books I’d read as a kid—-Bridge To Terabithia—how kids in the country or in the suburbs, or in any event, not inside the city, would always have these places to hide. A creek or the woods, some undeveloped patch of something—a place they could escape to, along with their fantasies and maybe a stick to poke things with, to build empires in their minds where they were safe or powerful or in any event not in their own lives, some other place.

And I remembered how terribly jealous I’d be those kids—those kids in books, not real kids—because I lived in the city, and there weren’t any places like that. Or there were—under freeways, or the woods behind parks—but they were already filled up, claimed by junkies and derelicts with cardboard palaces, people retreated to their own fantasies, their own escapes, their own Not Heres.

There was a thin strip of dense trees behind the jungle gym at Children’s Playground, in Golden Gate Park. I’d wanted to go in there, to climb around, explore, find my own something magical. It was shady in there, I couldn’t see in, and I wanted to know what all mysteries lay in the damp earth and shadows.

“Don’t go in there,” my mother’d said.

“Why?”

“People live in there. There’s trash and needles and it smells.”

And I’d known, even then, that you could catch things with needles, things like death. I’d thought of sarcoma spots and sunken eyes, sick beds and the scatter of Chinese food containers, and I hadn’t wanted to go in there anymore, but I’d still wanted to go somewhere.

It was a good run. My shin splints didn’t hurt, although I did get a tightness in my chest, like a squeezing, that made me stop and walk for awhile. I stared into the open and soaked it in, and was ready to run again.

Sink, Alameda, Sink

December 9, 2003

“It’s a special kind of anesthetic. So we won’t be putting you completely under—you’ll still be lucid—but you won’t remember anything.”

Paper gown and stirrups, they injected the needle and you didn’t flinch.

You took it as a challenge: remembering.

You stared out of the window—out of the white walls made antiseptically cheerful, away from the faces and charts and the gleaming tray of tools—looked at a pond outside, gray water against gray sky, the geese sitting and splashing and silently honking—no noise, just their beaks moving in the shape of a scream.

The room went away, and the sides became black, tight, squeezing in, like the end of an old-timey cartoon—tunneling, until the whole world became that pond and those geese, trapped there in a December afternoon and a pinhole of consciousness.

And it’s like you weren’t there. You couldn’t see them working, couldn’t feel them working (working on you). You couldn’t hear them—or at least, you couldn’t remember hearing them, maybe a sound floated in here and there, but it didn’t stick to anything, memory like fly paper or that sticky tape the rats get stuck to and sometimes chew their own legs off trying to escape. So in that way, they were right.

You focused on the pond, out the window, struggled against the squeezing black. You fought for that pond, those geese (which now seemed like plastic geese) and you wondered if it was real or man-made—the pond, that is—whether the office park was built up around a marsh, filled in and cemented and paved clean, and the pond had been left there as a charming relic; or if it was added later, an empty lot dredged, a sliver of pastoral idyll amidst the row of generic 60s architecture.

It was man-made, you decided, because this was Alameda and everything was man-made, an entire island of fabrication: unearthly flat, because it wasn’t earth; flat like the Bay, because it was the Bay. Because the Bay moved under the flimsy layers of landfill, murmuring, like a waterbed.

And they’d always said that if a big enough earthquake hit, the whole goddamn island would sink—crack and crumble and get swallowed into the water, because there was nothing solid underneath, just landfill, which you’d always assumed meant trash, like a trash patty, a whole city built on garbage.

And you imagined a big enough earthquake making the water reach up, tear apart all the little everyday cracks—in sidewalks and in the walls of old buildings—reswallowing the place: the office, the pond, the whole island. And you imagined those plastic geese rising up, flying off in a V shaped like an arrowhead, their beaks moving (open, close) in silent honking, which might have been prayers, or might have been screaming.

Because they didn’t need anything solid to exist, or anything unsolid either, but you did, or at least you thought you did—though whether it was the solid earth or the murmuring black underneath, you weren’t sure.

It was pretty fun, you told your mom later—a pretty good drug, all in all. Not one you’d do recreationally, there wasn’t enough of a high, but not bad at blacking out what needed to be blacked out, and keeping in some strange sliver of what didn’t matter, what meant nothing to nothing: the geese and the gray light of the gray afternoon. Which was, after all, all it was meant for.

Living With Vampires

It’s vampire season in Oakland.

We sit at the bar, piles of cash and cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of wine—another end to another shift. It’s past midnight, and we’re all tired, itching to get home. “Just another ten minutes, I swear!” JL calls from the loft.

We sit there—all four of us—off the clock and waiting. Because we can’t leave someone to walk out alone.

I used to wonder as a little kid which would be worse: to live with werewolves or vampires? Werewolves could pulverize through anything, but you only had to deal with them one night a month. Vampires, on the other hand, were tricky, the color of shadows, and out there every single night. As soon as the sun went down, the streets would become a different thing, sinister, a free-for-all, an anything-goes zone where at any moment a pale, hungry creature could leap out and attack. And you could harbor illusions about fighting them off, but really, what were the chances you could actually drive a stake through their heart? You’d be defenseless, and all they’d see would be your virgin neck and throbbing vein and they’d want a drink—a drink of blood that was now theirs.

I imagined the constant stress, the constant level of awareness, the little ways that living with such creatures would reshape your life (“I left something in my car. Oh well, I’ll have to get it in the morning; not worth risking it.”), and in the end, I’d always decide that vampires were worse.

And it’s a similar feeling in Oakland right now—that when the sun goes down, the shadows come alive, and go on the hunt. There’s been a rash of robberies and violent assaults among the circles I frequent, enough that I can’t discount it as the usual fifth-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country shenanigans. No one can.

I forget how much it’s there, this constant consideration in the back of my head. I won’t take the train into the city if it means I’ll be coming home after dark; I don’t want to risk the walk back to my car from the station. I don’t go jogging at night—or at least, I drive up into Piedmont to do it. I suck it up and pay for parking in order to park right outside the restaurant I work at, so I again don’t have to risk walking farther than I have to.

But it’s gone a step further this year. After two guys I worked with got robbed at gunpoint leaving the restaurant, we stopped walking out even in pairs—we all leave work together now. After a girl from another restaurant got abducted, robbed and tortured, we won’t even let our manager stay late, even if her car is literally 50 feet from the door. She rearranges her schedule so that she comes in early, gets her office work done, and can leave with everyone else.

It’s like being a prisoner in a way. There’s no comfort in the fact that the fear applies equally to men and women, or that it’s not even fear that drive you all, but rather a statistical likelihood. When a third guy you work with got his nose broken last week, the reaction was largely anger—at him. “What the fuck was he doing thinking he could walk three blocks by himself?”

I keep thinking about Tirana, about my first late night at a bar, when everyone I’d come with had left.

“Where can I catch a cab?”

“A cab? You can walk, you know, it’s only 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s late, and I’m alone…”

“Oh, but it’s totally safe.”

“I’d rather not risk it.”

A laugh. “Listen. In five years at the hostel, we’ve never heard of anyone ever having a problem.”

And it felt strange, walking through the two am streets, a foreign girl by herself. I couldn’t stop checking my back, walking briskly, staring down the few strangers I passed.

But eventually, I got used to it. And I almost felt giddy, elated by this strange sense of freedom—a sudden lightness and ease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of something better.

Just after one of the guys at work who got robbed, he posted a really telling Facebook status: “I knew it was bound to happen, living in Oakland caught up with me.” And it kind of broke my heart, because at times I feel the same way—like I’m just waiting for my number to be drawn. That I can be as careful and cautious as I’d like, but eventually, one day, I’ll let my guard down or take a risk, and it’ll be me, my turn, my time to get bitten.

When we finally walk out, it’s after one am. “That,” I sigh, “was not 10 minutes.”

“Nope.”

“But it’s not like we coulda left her there.”

“Nope.”

And we get in our cars and drive own separate homes, where we’ll circle to find the closest spot, walk briskly to the gate and slam it shut, tightly behind us.

If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.


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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