Sunday, September 30, 2007

durham fair

The Durham Fair is the biggest in the area. A massive draw for bored teenagers, the fair is a mish-mash of "country" and "hip hop" symbolism, with both cowboy hats and baggy pants visible in the teeming open spaces.

All fairs seem to provide random re-circuitings of things in the larger society. For example, when S and I walked in, we saw that 38 Special was playing that night. 38 Special was a group that had a couple of hits in the '80s. Who would have thought that 20 years later I would hear them play at the Durham Fair? At the distance we were sitting, their age was not too obvious. Though the lead singer's address of the crowd: "yerr a good lookin' crowd!" was more revealing.

Later, as S and I perused the hundreds of snapshots and professional images of the photography exhibition, I paused at a photo of an Arab man in red and white checkered kuffiyah (head scarf). Amidst all the kittens and gleeful babies, it was odd. I glanced at the name, "Janice Karpinski," and a tiny circuit clicked in my brain. The name was familiar. Surely the former commander of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (during the torture scandal) had not spent her time since returning submitting photos to contests in country fairs! Further down the wall there was another with her name, of an Iraqi woman looking dully and passively at the camera. When I returned home that night I googled the name, and indeed, it was the same name.

Compared to the Big E, this fair was more compact and more intense. Booth on booth of games batter the consciousness, with ceilings laden with massive dogs and clown fish and pink panthers; whirling machines blinked their Las Vegas lights against the dark sky, strewing the screams of kids encased within across the crowd. With only three days to run rather than the Big E's 2 weeks, one does not sense the unbreakable ennui of the vendors at the Big E, mechanically spooning chili on hot dogs or sitting like statues, eyes glazed over at the swarm of humanity.

The Durham Fair is also on a hillside, making the exploration seem more adventuresome. Durham makes an effort to create activities that go beyond spending money and watching paid performers. Near 38 Special's stage was a hay free-for-all, where anyone could go in and wage war with armfuls of hay. It was more fun to watch than Washington Square Park's dog run at 8 am, with tykes and pre-teens alike spitting out bits of hay. There was one intrepid mother in there as well. Near the cow barn was an oval dirt race track for. . .souped up lawn mowers. It was not just funny, the riders hunched on the tiny machines, it was also fun: watching them bounce around the track one couldn't help imagine doing it. The mowers even had the blade guards still on. After a victory, the winner would take the checkered flag and do noisy donuts inside the hay bale circle in the middle. The "drivers" wore helmets and had painted absurd names on their machines like "streak of fire." Down near the horse pull was a climbing wall, and a trampoline for kids. They sat in a harness with big elastic cords that lifted them high into the air, so the lightest touch of the foot on the trampoline would project them skyward.

There was also the melancholy of the detritus of a culture: those rides and games used beyond their prime, sitting silently under blinking lights. There was a water gun game with rows of grotesque clown faces, mouths wide open. The heads were antique, of wood, and hand painted. They were battered by use, and neglected by the passing crowds. A little knot of kids in black with streaks of dye in their hair leaned against the counter, talking and joking and kissing. Or there were the cars that run in an endless circle. I had not thought of the ride for over 3 decades, but the second I saw the glittery, rubberized surface of the cars, the blinking tail lights, and the steering wheels that spin uselessly, I remembered. And of course there is the sense of vast loneliness one gets in looking at the proprietors of unpopular games, sitting faces fallen, the ones who are no longer even calling out to you. There was a game made cheaply, a ball-tossing game, constructed out of the recycled pieces of an earlier kiddy game, so the back boards were mismatched scenes of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. A sign proclaimed a "ladies special, winner every time," and appropriately horsey and pony prizes.

There was a "Pharaoh's Fury" ship, and an archaic but oddly popular "Kentucky Derby" game with mechanical horses driven onward by successful sinkings of balls in little holes. With every stride the horses made, their tails would lift, making an oddly squirrel-like movement.

There was a whole building for "youth exhibits," which were also hugely entertaining: pumpkins painted as witches or lobsters, "my little pony" collections, cakes plastered into resemblances of Sponge Bob, robots made of kitchen utinsels (beaters for eyes). If the "local" means that which is not industrially produced or professionally performed, the Durham Fair was rich in that: the human touch not ironed out of a perfect surface. Spectators are invited by human scale productions to imagine themselves taking part. One sees the ordinary snapshots, or the missed throws of the baseballs, or the scrawny or overweight bodies lugging at the weighted sled (there was a rowdy "person pull"), and is not reduced into passive observance the way one is in watching professional performances. One is not kept at a distance -- a distance from which desire springs.

A young girl of 12 or 13 cradled the head of one of her sheep in the crook of her arm, casually, as people perused the animals, telling us they were "Shropshires," raised for meat, sheared to show off the meaty shanks. Her other hand gestured, patting the flanks or scratching the sheep's nose. The sheep's eyes were glazed in complacent restfulness, a scene so touching I was too ashamed to blaspheme it with my camera.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

linguistic mobilization

Every day linguistic mobilizations are taking place, pulling us in some small way toward war with Iran. Whether it is the authoritative use of the word "terrorist" to describe their government by American senators or news show hosts, or the mundane use of the word "Islamofascist" by conservative men on the discussion boards of political websites, all in some small way contribute, like guns large and small being dragged into position for the bombardment that is sincerely hoped for.

A common mobilization is the use of the word "elite" to describe the Iranian army's Revolutionary Guard corps. I remember this word being used to describe Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard corps in two different wars. Both times they crumbled like the rest of his undernourished army before the hellish winds of American might. I would not be surprised if the word were used to hype up some pitiful unit of Noriega's army in Panama and the "army" of Grenada before those two countries were invaded so heroically by our boys.

My question is simple: why does the media insist on repeating these words that are manifestly not true? Why do they parrot the words of a government that cannot be trusted? And finally, this: is the superior section of a poor army really "elite"? Our media is complicit in these mobilizations, even after the lessons of Iraq became clear. What is clearer is that the propaganda apparatus hums along undiminished, along with the cowardice of the American media in not resisting the effort to terrify the American people with lies. Tell me what is "elite" about these troops. Do they have one tenth the armaments and training of American troops? I think not.

Tell me in what way Ahmedinejad is "Hitler." That government cannot even exercise full sovereignty over its own territory, for god's sake! Tell me, oh "conservative" lovers of war, what nation this devil is poised to conquer with his omniscient stratagems and all powerful weaponry!

Perhaps they are equipped with advanced popguns able to dent American tanks. Perhaps they possess the terrifying balsa wood planes with which Saddam was able to make the people of the United States quake in their shoes.

"Elite" my ass!! The only military elite in the world is American. By editing out this truth, the media is able to keep a straight face about the horrific "dangers" posed us by third world countries. How many times will a fool fall for the same trick? Answer: as many times as he wants (yes, he: the howlers for war in this nation are mostly male).

You can bet your bottom dollar that within a year or two Hugo Chavez's pitiful army will also be found, magically, to possess an "elite" corps. I suppose Evo Morales will be painted in the same way; I predict an elite llama brigade will be identified by our heroes in Washington.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

man crooning

I sat in Union Square park in lower Manhattan the other day. Behind the buzz of conversation on the benches and the shuffle of feet passing by there was a voice singing. The voice sang in Spanish without amplification. It wove itself into the aural plate of spaghetti gently, subtly.

Turning my head I saw him standing near the picnic benches. The man dressed poorly, with a black hat on his head, and he was rather old. In his arms he hugged a CD player. He sang on and on to the slow Latin rhythms, resting occasionally.

His voice was rich, low, and pulsing with vibrato. It was an old voice, and the vibrato made me think of the wear of time, of a fragility insinuating itself into strength. Remember Katherine Hepburne's voice in "On Golden Pond"?

His singing infiltrated the air, infiltrated me, draining my tension. It is not the first time a musician has changed the space of the city for me.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

the golden age of cities

Last night I watched "The Set-Up," a movie from 1949 about a boxer set up by his manager to lose a fight, in a deal with a mafia boss. Robert Wise directed it, and my younger brother R, a film afficianado (who worked at Film Forum in NY for a while) suggested it to my mom who rented it.

I have often heard that Hollywood's "golden age" came before the appearance of TV -- from the teens to the early fifties -- but I never paid it much mind. Like most people, I have grown up with the cultural cliches of those few oldies everyone has seen -- Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, etc. But only rarely do unknown flicks puncture my blase attitude: like good books, they have to be actively sought out, and since my drug of choice is the news, I am lazy about seeking out either films or books. (I lay back in the jacuzzi of the internet, an endless flow of info-bubbles pushing around me.)

So, last night "The Set-Up" blew open my preconceptions of staid, cliched old films, yet again (my brother's last recommendation, "The Palm Beach Story," was hilarious and pretty sexy). I won't go into the plot or the story itself. What really amazed me was its documentary quality, entirely set in the environment of a single urban intersection: on one side the smoky arena, on the other side the cheap hotels, cigar shops, penny arcades, and dance halls of the city. Rather than just being a background, the camera lingers on each group of people and lets viewers read the signs: one actually can see several of the games in the penny arcade; one can hear a man hawking "revolutionary" ball point pens for 15 dollars; one sees a group of motorcycle youths talking tough.

The late 40s was not just part of Hollywood's golden age, but a golden age of American cities: after the privations of the war and depression, and before the city's lifeblood (tax dollars and rich people) were sucked out to the suburbs, eviscerated by the knife of the highways. This was the age before public entertainment and consumer culture were entirely privatized: films in theatres turning to TVs in the home, parks turning to yards, street cars turning to automobiles. . .the loneliness of private property overcoming the noisy, bustling, spirit of the city.

How can one not be amazed to see old film of real cities like Detroit, with people pouring along the sidewalks, and compare these scenes to the same cities now? True, select cities have been selected by the rich for a return -- NY, SF, etc -- but in the golden age of the cities, even smaller cities (like the film's "Paradise City") were thriving, their light and noise drawing small town dwellers on the weekends and holidays.

The deadly dullness of suburbs has convinced enough people that there is a moderate return of interest in cities, but the suburbs are established as the template for American life. At its barest, the suburb is a class amputation of the wealthy from the poor, an abandonment of public space to the poor and the criminal, and a retreat of the wealthy to private paradises. Watch "The Set-Up" for a little taste of what American cities were before highways and TVs, in their golden age.

See "Disaster Capitalism" by Naomi Klein in October's Harper's, and "A Consumer's Republic" by . . ..I can't remember her name.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I, ghost

March 21, 1994: 2 pm. Goodbye Gunung Ijen and cruel younger brother, Raung [names of mountains in East Java]. Goodbye Java. Clouds hide the mountaintops. Just below the cloud line I can see the cleft between two ridges, otherwise from this far off the slope is smooth and unbroken and flat. But I know better, I know better than maps, as long as my feet remember the mud and my eyes remember the glimpses of golden green ridges slanting up parallel on both sides of me. Somehow I need to carry my happiness in scrambling to Madura. I must not fall for the myth of retreat and defeat, or even static truce, watching time crumble slowly down from the roof tiles every morning and noon until I rise at 2 pm to muster some small enthusiasm for class. Every morning I can walk ten kilometers! Every day I can go to new places! Massa’ [the very idea] I haven’t even been across the road to the southeast of campus! I don’t need to stay the night in a village to hang out in it.

At the ferry pier watching I had already entered Madura, the air was bright and hot as Madura, some indefinable remoteness, quietness lay in most of the people, crouching with their families in humility. I met a little girl who, most rare for a child here, enjoys distorting her face, grinning wide and lowering her eyebrows, hyper – like me. We communicated that way a little while, mirroring each other’s grimaces.

Back to the homeland most fertile for Kyais [local Muslim teacher-leaders]; my ambivalences I carry with me. Back to Perancak and the bright blue bird, to Ikhsan’s valley, to Pasean and its chaotically jumbled houses where at Marghrib time [the fourth prayer, late afternoon] I steal away from people and float, in love in air, ghost that I am.

Note: I wrote this after finishing my three weeks of walking across parts of East Java and was on the ferry returning to Madura to teach.

the high wind of gentleness

On a December night. The roosters crowed. Night itself quiet. Quietly searching books. Imagine history on a rooftop. Vague Diponegoros and Suhartos. Did villagers believe in the Queen of the Southern Sea? Mountainous clouds wait. If I’m healthy I’m happy. Observe the shapes of the roofs. No hurry for sex. It’s a natural thing. . . when I do have it, it’ll feel like I’ve been doing it forever. Change my shirt in the bathroom. Becaks [bicycle pedicabs] dampen social unrest. The commies would debate hard about them. A new spot on my shirt. My white shirt. Its one thing I am not relaxed about. On a train, my clothes dry. There are stately roofs. They’re made of tin. You feel infinite attractions. The undefinedness wells like an unfocused itch. Age is nothing. How is her spirit? Her ears? Her legs? Her laugh? The continuum of appetites is spherical. Not mind-body. There is a singing. Its in me when I eye her. And only partly in my groin. Usually just a symptom of the spiritual/erotic leap. I think of China. Vagueness snagging on branches of fact or anecdote. Will TimTim [East Timor] ever be free? He pauses. Yes. The most fearful regimes are indeed: full of fear. Insecurities harden; then brittle. Falling is easy then. But wow, the sky last night! Openness cannot smother. Girls smile. A little of me runs with them. And evaporates. Klaten, Klaten, Klaten [hotbed of Communist organizing in the 60s, viciously suppressed]. How could you have won, and freed the people’s voices? Workers hold out hats. Their hooting reaches through the windows. Some throw money, West of Cirebon. Seeing is not experiencing. What if I begged? See the similarities and the differences. Her beautiful hands. Muddy water in the fields. And too her feet. Farmers on the road. She’s not been long a mother. Everyone who turns that windy corner laughs. Clothing is whipped. See weather coming. On a ship. December and the high wind of gentleness book: December 3, 1993.

This was the opening page of my journal; I think I wrote it on train and ferry rides.

Monday, September 10, 2007

happy in east java

December 14, 1993: Air -- is whipping through me. I am on the bus. My life in a moment flies heedless of looking into the future – there is only the immediate future of air, and the scents of it. That heedlessness of method means I have just left Jember laughing; the strength of goal, intent means I know exactly what I need, and what I need is the friends I have. My hair, long, affects my thinking. The window must be open.

So when I came out of the WC and saw the bus speed out of the terminal, envisioning the loss of my bag gave me some horror. But it was vague. The imagery of my possessions which flitted before me, like one’s life, perhaps, at the moment of death, was vague; the things were like leaves in the wind. Good leaves to be sure. And enough to get me to Sumatra, but not irreplaceable.

But Dila (an Arab-Indonesian friend), whom I have proclaimed Bupati (a county-level executive) by strength of his own imagination, had been watching my bag. Where was he? Puzzled, I walked out of the terminal. And – seeing him sauntering toward me, lugging my pack, big grin on his scrappy face – filled me with delight. We laughed together, giving me a feeling of great freedom and strength, and I hopped on the next bus.

Life’s very good. Am I repeating myself? I’ll continue it if I can. My excitement for women is at a strong edge, making me hope none sit next to me as the effect would be hard to contain. My eyes, swift vicaries, are voracious for them at the windows.

Saturday I left Kalianget, in Madura, my island of residence. Marghrib (late afternoon prayer time) I arrived at Karangharjo Village in East Java, Muquiet’s house. I was persuaded, easily, to stay Sunday night too. Monday morning I went to Polly’s house in Jember. It was a lazy day and fun night with Yayuk, Dila, Polly, and Mary eating roti baker (toasted bread with chocolate sprinkles and bananas, a snack). (Salvation! Two women hesitate at my seat and pass by). This morning I chatted with Polly (a fellow volunteer), came to Dila’s, and he rode me to the terminal, where we talked expansively of principles and plans.

The “tembok mandi” (bathing wall, a play on bathing room) at Muquiet’s place epitomized the freshness and coolness I felt in being there. I walked into it, for all appearances like a spacious, well-equipped bathroom. But it was so light. I looked up and there was no roof! The sprinkling, half-cloudy sky was above me, as were bamboo and palm. The sun was illuminating the edges of clouds as it went down. I took off my clothes and felt the drops on my skin, scattering over the surface; the laughing and horseplay of girls bathing came over the walls and scattered on my surface. I stood naked and did not bathe a while in anything but air because I was happy.

The way too the Kaeh (or kyai, an indigenous Muslim leader), Muquiet’s dad, was accessible as a leader for all people struck me; its lack is a big disintegrative factor in American society. At no level of society is there an institution by which at any time of day can anyone come and be assured of a cup of coffee, smokes, and talk. I imagine women come to the Nyais (the wives of kyais, they teach women).

I will never forget when Mo the blind man came at night, lacking cigarettes. In entire patience and even affection Muquiet and his dad sat in the dim room into the night and conversed and laughed with the man who prefers to sleep alone by the river, teasing him for his encounters with women (many of whom, and even men, it appears, find in him a sexual out of bounds place where they are free to “play”), giving him more coffee. I hung on his throaty words, trying to catch the funny incidents he related (the women’s thighs “smooth as banana trees”), watching him feel the flame with his fingers to the cigarettes’ tip, admiring how a part of the community he was even in his difference, even in an economically distressed community. And when he left, Muquiet and dad standing together in front of the house as he walked into the darkness shouting “Kiri! . . Kanan! Ya, lurus!” (Left! Right! Yeah, straight!) until he disappeared.

It was a good stay with good people.

I met a kid on the ferry back to Madura with seven nangkas (jackfruit), who lives on Jalan Sampah (Garbage Street) in Banyuwangi. Maybe Dila will join me on my long walk through East Java which even more urgently I anticipate.

tribeca park

If you could quit me
(leave me be will you?)
If I were any shrewder
(be shrewder)
If there were a way
to sit here on a bench
at the center of the world
and believe all you voices
squirreled into me year on year
were not in vain
(how could they not be?)

If you were not in me
(I am)
If you were not of me
(I will be)
If you were not squirming
for renewed life through me
would I not sit here in this epicenter
(tell me you’re not)
wind bright blue against my cheek
wine glass cradled against my cheek
prosperous, easeful, waning
(you’re not?)

If I were not riddled with you
(I am)
If I were stronger
(I’m not)
I’d’ve shut you all out long ago
and had nothing to whisper
into my wine
and slept in peace
(I will, I will).
May 2007

two winters back

What we were went away
without a whisper of protest

(as if protest could whisper).
The phone line was all that held
us in the end until that too
was still, stilled.

For three days after that
I myself was a whisper,
in the noiseless trace of my
breathing aboard the bus

uncaught by sage; by grass
unasked in Wyoming. No one
witnessed my drift back to California
in the barren days of the early year.

Neither touch nor speech could be the arms of belief
for two people always apart.
What one whisper was not able to join
a whisper could easily part.

January 11, 1994 (revised 9/07)

good roommate

I never knew it was so good to lounge here on Mark’s bed in perfect contentment, he typing occasionally on the computer, and both of us marveling at Prince’s extreme breathiness and range and wholehearted cheesiness – “You say you want my hips up in the air? I don’t know, and I don’t care.” But when I say contentment I mean the specific conditions that make me stretch luxuriously in the warmth of a friend’s room and the free, sporadic exchange of conversation moving anywhere but with little explicit continuity. It does not bother me to be his audience at all, because I know that when something arises in me naturally, he has no qualms to being my audience. We play off each other. I ask questions about his night with Britt; I talk about how psyched I’d be to have Topham’s car, or how cool it’ll be to have Jen and the boys out here for graduation. He types awhile, I talk on the phone. . . we are contained but so softly that either one of us can initiate interaction without disturbing the other. He reads quotes from Richard III.

April 27, 1992 Note: during this time I did not have a fixed place to live, so often spent time at friends’ places (or even in the foothills near campus).

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

pizza hut's long tentacles

I saw a man, a lean man, stuffing fliers in people’s mail slots, in the crevices in door jambs, anywhere a flier would wedge and not fly away. It was 10 am and in the nineties, in a winding lane wending through a Hsinchu neighborhood of blocky cement houses. His T-shirt was brown and stained from the top down with sweat. He wore jeans, in this heat?! On his head was perched a baseball cap of fabric. He wore running shoes and a cheap green shoulder bag cut across his body. It was where his hands restlessly tugged, fumbling for glossy Pizza Hut fliers of their own volition. He too was a zombie, zombie for a wage, his eyes did not see me in the quiet lane, he was the very tip of one of Pizza Hut Corporation’s multitudinous tentacles reaching even into this modest neighborhood.

On the flier were balloons, the corporate logo (with the green dot of the “i” in “pizza” cleverly turned into a stroke in the characters “must-triumph-guest,” which now make up the trademarked Chinese name), a juicy pizza of ham and pineapple, a bottle of pepsi, and the message of a free pizza for every one ordered for take out, to celebrate the earth-quivering opening of a new store. The flier is replete with limitations and qualifications, a legalistic black-typed asterisk to the fat puffy characters shouting out the generous revelry.

He was a lean man, a wraith ever-moving.

woman and dog

On the new road which accommodates the old market, a dog walked restlessly behind a woman. She herself was behind a stroller. In the stroller was a conical straw hat for warding off the sun. She walked bareheaded, one leg pulling along stiffly, dressed simply, her bare calves thin, her brown feet dragging along flip flops. Her chin jutted out. She looked off, marginalized, weak. But the white dog saw her as a god, not just following her but pacing back and forth in her wake, an obsessive devotion showing imbalance, maybe transmitted from master to dog.

old folks' clothes

Before where I sat eating breakfast in the market an oldening man had set up his stand selling old folk’s clothes. They were boxer shorts and whispery white shirts for men and loose flowery blouses for women. He sat on a plastic stool on the platform he had made. The base was low plastic stools, overlaid with plywood, rimmed with rubberized racks to hold the goods in. He moved about the platform in bare feet, gingerly placing them in between the stacks of crinkling plastic packaged undershirt tank tops and underwear. As women pulled open folded shirts and held them up, scrutinizing, rubbing the material between thumb and forefinger, the seller was refolding ones that had already fallen in a heap. The whole time there were questions, and answers. “He’s 70, 80 kilos he oughtta wear a size 46,” said the man. He switched between Chinese and Taiwanese. Women lingered a long time there, holding clothes up to their bodies, tentatively imagining their husband or their son in this or that, probing with questions, never satisfied.

the sweet taste of suffering

The tremendous vitality of Taiwan’s consumer culture – a verve that can be tasted right away in any downtown city street or small town night market – is based on the endless suffering of numberless small producers in competition with one another. When one bites into that luscious shewarma or scallion pancake, one might as well be tasting the grogginess in the heads of the lean people bent over the hot grill. One might as well be biting into their flesh, a bite they allow for a price.

The baked potatoes that appeared a couple of years back at the Jiangong Lu night market have disappeared, as have the “snow bubble” drinks S and I used to crave (especially black plum). Sushi has filtered down from high end restaurants to night market stands, and in the small town night market of Yuanli I saw an Indian man and his Taiwanese wife selling samosas. S and I speculate on producing Mexican tacos, highlighting the guacamole. There is a never ending struggle to introduce tiny new advantages into the game of minute accumulation. It is a ceaseless pecking at the dust for coins. The products are indeed delicious. But that fact does not make the system “good.” It is eating up the earth in cement and noxious gases, and it eats up the bodies of the wraiths frying turnip cake for scooter-commuters early every morning. Every bite offers a bit of escape. But every escape involves a nasty return: and repeat!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

i'm married -- again!

Yes, I am married again. To the same woman I married the first time. It is a long story I will not bore you with. Suffice to say that I traveled to Taiwan at the end of July, married my honey of seven years, and came back. It was a court wedding -- we have no money. Our honeymoon was a honey afternoon, by scooter into the mountains near Hsinchu. I was accompanied on this trip by my intrepid younger brother, who offered his moral support (not least of which was talking to me as the plane taxied down the runway for take off). My honey bun will join me in the US as soon as her papers go through.

the loneliness of yards

How lonely are the yards I pass in this town. Loneliest of all are yards featuring some instrument of gaiety and pleasure, a trampoline or swimming pool, say -- which stand slack and silent.

The dream of consumer America since World War Two has been this: to imagine some public or mass facility (swimming pools, playgrounds, parks, ice cream machines, movie theatres) as owned by oneself and one's family. I remember as a kid when my parents bought a deep fryer. Wow -- we can make fried dough and donuts just like at the fair! Except that they are all for us. This titillating dream of possession is one of the chief engines of consumer spending. No matter how much nostalgia hangs in the air over public facilities that went kaput (passenger rail, movie theatres, parks, video arcades, ice cream counters), the mainstream of our society is eagerly seeking after yet more insulation from the public. "Home theatres" are now in vogue.

That little thrill of exclusive access dies quickly. Proof of this statement may be observed easily by cycling the streets of any suburb in the summer: count the empty, silent swimming pools, trampolines, swing sets, basketball hoops, yards.

And yet hope springs eternal that the next home-this-or-that will really be the one, the one thing that finally makes suburban life exciting. But suburbs are the physical contours of a philosophical and emotional prudery that simply cannot be exciting. Suburbs are anti-culture, if we take culture to be the creative mixing by which humans collectively produce. Suburbs are destined to be deadening because they are designed to separate, to withdraw away from the road and toward the woods.

And yet ironically, this cowardly, greedy withdrawal (dreams of exclusive pleasure) inward is at the same time a rapacious expansion of the sizes of human settlement. The more Americans dream of retreat from society, the more nature pays the price. Not to mention culture, left behind in the cities to its diminished fan base.

How lonely stand the yards, how silent the pools. They are the stillborn descendants of lively city parks and pools. And yet how suburbanites dream that these facilities will enliven their days!

Port Authority Station, 4:30 am

I was dragged back down toward sleep in time to be thrown roughly into New York. The Lincoln Tunnel’s antiseptic light surrounded us, deceptively, for a few minutes, before the warm, brutal streets of the city emerged around us. Into the labyrinthine Port Authority we roared. I was amazed to see people propped and drooped in tired posture outside the metal and glass doors which usually keeps passengers away from the rumbling of the buses. It was 4am. They had spilled out by pressure from the inside, and I could see hundreds of people waiting in lines snaking about the interior of the terminal, in weary resignation.

Moving inside, weaving through and around tableau of conflict or fatigue, annoyance or belly-shaking laughter, I worked my way up to the information booth where a young white man berated a young black man for all the ills of his trip so far. “You don’t run things?” he said, “”Well then, who is your supervisor? How can you not know if the second bus is coming??” Scott and I found the line which, indistinct as it was, merging with other lines, was a paragon of order compared to St. Louis.

I made a run for the street in order to find a particularly cheap phone card. As I darted through one passageway to the other side, I was pulled up short by the bodies of sleeping men. One old man, hatted, slumbered chin to his chest against a pay phone. He sat on a milk crate, and leaned back against it. His hands drooped over his thighs. A younger man lay on his side next to him, oriented toward the wall, his belly spilling out white. I felt like I had slipped into a passageway back through the Great Depression. But instead, the machine of the economy was churning forcefully ahead. This sort of scene was normal for the poor. Every morning Port Authority looks like this.

When I went up a floor I found all the normal ways in and out barricaded off, except for one staircase. It looked like an emergency, but no one hurried or looked alarmed. People slept on the floor. I ascended to street level and was suddenly in a world of hoods and thugs, police and menacing taxi drivers. I went outside and crossed 42nd street to the 24 hour pharmacy. A keen stench hit me right in the middle of the street. It was dark, and the lights of the movie theatres and sports bars still sparkled brightly. In the store an older woman was berating a young man. “Tell me you didn’t know that!” she was shouting. “Tell me you had no idea! How many times did I remind you?” his face was only inches from hers. Who was menacing whom? Who were they and how had they become entangled, one old and white, one young and black, and silent, here at 4:15am in the blank light of the pharmacy, right next to a clerk and customer completing a normal, indifferent, transaction. Finding no phone cards I ran back across the street.

As I navigated through the police and thick necked station staff toward the stair case I was surprised at how ad-hoc and half-assed the “security” seemed. A quick “Got a ticket?” the men would ask, challengingly, while selectively waving others through. How similar to the figures of trouble are the guardians of order; how helter skelter and willy nilly these “procedures,” these “regulations,” these “mechanisms.” It is all seat of the pants tyranny. Iraq must feel like this and far worse, with the thugs equally represented in the police and the militias. Every morning is like this, I marveled, and yet here and now it feels totally fresh, unreckoned, unready, absurd. I wormed back down through the bodies bent in their postures of torment and the others, awake and wondering how they had stumbled into this. Before getting back into line I bought a sandwich from the snack bar. The man in front of me was buying a hot dog, or trying to. He laboriously counted out his change, and then scattered it, and pinched up each coin yet again. The cashier pursed her lips, trying not to look at him. She too was wondering how she had come to be here, with drugged up demons and smelly old men. I felt how close I was to him, wondering that I could see the acne on his neck and his oily hair, and yet be so far removed from his world!

Back in line with Scott, at gate 82, I saw the same man, still fumbling with his money. Everything was far from him, even his pockets. The bills played tricks on him, squirreling out from pockets and under the hang of his shirt. “Hey! You’re losin’ your money!” called out the black women from the line, and each call would twist him around again, to bend all the way to the floor to pluck up the errant bill. We hooted, we couldn’t believe it. He was made of plastic, twirling and tottering about in an endless effort. The money tormented him, sneaking out even after his efforts to stuff it back in. His shoulder bag got tangled up with a rope, which pulled over the pole, clanging it loudly on the floor. He righted it but could not free his bag, like a newspaper on a fence.

There were tensions in the line. “She is tryin’ to cut in!” came voices. We boarded, and waited long past the scheduled time. A large contingent was on its way to Foxwoods casino. “I wanna say Bingo!!” one woman chanted several times. Then the bus started, and all the tension flooded right out of us puppets, and we fell asleep, heads swaying like heavy flowers on turns.

New Jersey glide

From 2am Philadelphia into New Jersey I was in that smooth sleepless comfort that is bound to pick me up at least a few times on every Greyhound run. The bus had lost all friction, and so had I. I saw Independence Hall and Liberty Bell Hall slide by. There was only a mild hiss of air around the glass casing of the bus and the muffled bump along of irregular asphalt somewhere deep below us as we crossed the Delaware into Camden and Cherry Hill. I was every bit as lucid as New Jersey’s post industrial landscape, as pale corporate buildings and retro diners gleaming with an excess of chrome and deep red neon, as pre-owned auto lots and rows of toll booths marked with red ‘X’s and green arrows. How beautiful it was, so quiet and empty, and how beautifully soft and blank I felt bumping swiftly through it.

Greyhound's late night DJs


It was as if the tall driver knew precisely what burned us, and how to soothe what burned. Taking the voice of an amiable tour guide, he went through the rules, giving us glimpses of humor. “There is not much to hold onto in the bathroom,” he said as we moved through the dark city, “so you are lucky to come out of there dry. Please accompany small children. We are now passing near the famous arch, which you can see on the right. Saint Louis was named for France’s Louis the Ninth, whose buccaneers sailed up the river in 1674 and claimed the land for France. Louis the Ninth was known for such wisdom and goodness that he was called Saint Louis. There are other versions of the story, though. I hear there was also a Mr. Louis who had settled here, and was generous to all travelers. He ran a brothel house; church going folks say it was a “waffle house” to their kids. Some people say the city was named after him. . .So beer drinkin’ folk have their St. Louis, and church-goin’ folk have their St. Louis.”

Guy was a Greyhound Garrison Keilor, slyly slipping tales of mythical figures into straight sounding introductions of places. He commented on Effingham (where a Mister Effingham’s hotel had brought primitive flush toilets to the frontier, for which the phrase was coined, “If its yellow, let it mellow; if its brown, flush it down.”), and Terre Haute (after blind old Terry, whose horse got into other people’s gardens). I was only dimly conscious when he signed off the air at Indianapolis, mildly reminding people not to leave behind their children, boyfriends, girlfriends, dogs, cats, pigs, and cows.

Curve Ball

Heading out of Indianapolis, our heads already bobbing, we were hit by another late night DJ. Like Guy, he started straight and then curved hard. This man was black, while Guy spoke like a white professor. This driver played all with vocal style. He told no wry stories nor embroidered anything, adding no new content. All he did was stretch out the tail of each announcement until it was hardly recognizable and we were all shaking with chuckles and hoots. The one I remember best was like this: “There will be no cell phones or other electronic devices without proper headphones. In addition, please keep the volume to a level that only yoooo-ouuuuu can ee-eeee-e-e-e-njo-ooooooooy.”

In this way he turned mundane prohibitions into sly numbers, like mandolin strings loosened until they emit an absurdly long, looping yawp. “I have to ask you to keep hold of seat backs while moving to and from the bathroom, so as to ensure the saa-a-a-afe-ty-yyyy of yo-oooo-ou and yourr chi-ii-iiiii-ldre-e-e-e-en.” The absurd riffs he strummed on the rules poked us out of our sleepiness. My belly quaked, unable to hide my delight inside my exhaustion.

The Dog

The third driver to tickle us I cannot remember when she drove or where. The third and last night, long rolling Pennsylvania night? As usual I was awoken in the midst of her spiel. A black woman of about 50, she was vigorous, sharp, jolting. “Cuz you’re not flying the friendly skies. You ain’t riding Amtrak,” she concluded, “you are riding THE DOG. That’s right, this is THE DAWG you’re on, and please do not forget it.”

Several times through the night she exhorted us in a church like fervor: “There is just one thing I want y’all to do. Turn to your neighbor, say hello, and get to know each other. Cuz if you don’t and God forbid you don’t – for all the ice cream, cole slaw, fried chicken, chocolate fudge sauce, pepperoni pizza (I’m makin’ myself hungry) – if you don’t, the day is surely gonna come, y’all, when you’re gonna be asked the question: have you ever slept with someone you don’t know their name? And I do not want you to have to answer ‘yes’!” When she pulled us into Philadelphia or wherever it was she thanked us again for takin’ THE DAWG, leaving us with her pungent, potent voice ringing in our groggy, scalp itchy, fluorescent-lit, bumbling, floating existence.

Saint Louis Station

The station had once been a grand bank. But the intricately painted ceiling panels and Doric columns did little for the people lining up at gate four at 3 in the morning. The line of bags and suitcases was interrupted, after a mere 10 yards, by a row of seats. There was a small gap in the middle of the row through which one person could squeeze, to the bathrooms or to the “Target: Terror” video games lining the walls. This small opening made me think the line ought to go through it and curve around along the wall and the arcade games. The statuesque woman with the small child with the Spider Man backpack got behind me, and the 3 Amish men and one woman formed a small covey behind her.

But all was not settled. An Indian man I recognized from our last bus soon walked up, asked, “Are you waiting for gate 4?” and plopped his bags down near mine, where I was sitting. I should have told him right then, nipped it in the bud, him and the jolly Mexican man he hung with, told him that the line was back there behind the Amish folk. If I had said something, then maybe the small Mexican woman with her children might not have showed up with their fleet of bags and sowed further confusion by indignantly refusing to budge.

But I said nothing. And of course Greyhound did nothing. I can imagine a Sidney Milgram of sadistic inclinations reaping new data every night from the chaos and bad tempers brewing around gate 4. More and more people drifted into the orbit of the “line,” accreting to it in some available niche until its course was a matter of some debate – at least from those, mainly between the benches and the arcade games, who felt the interlopers were stealing ahead of them.

My incipient disquiet deepened, and suddenly came out into the open. The hard faced Indian guy, grinning, said, “I was here a long time ago, with this woman. And this guy [meaning me] is right behind me.”

“I was in front of you,” I said, and his grin disappeared. My brother Scott was lying down on the edge of the marble floor. Seeing the crowd tighten its muscles for a struggle, I picked my way through its byzantine structure of bodies in order to alert him about boarding before things got to crazy to allow me to break away. He lay on his back in his baseball cap, utterly asleep, deaf to the seething movements of the “line” on one side and the snack bar on the other. He squeezed behind me, eyes floating in some other place.

Already I noticed several people planted ahead of us who had not been there before. Though I was indignant at the immediate injustice done to me, my protests failed to have any effect because I did not whip up the anger of the other people behind me. the Indian man, suddenly, was directly in front of me. “Why are you in front of me?” I said.

“Everybody’s pushing up,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said, but he did not budge. “I was here when you lined up!” He stood there saying nothing more, and my anger flared. “Are you in front of me?” I asked of a black woman to my left. Finally she relented, striking a deal that “let” me go ahead of her, while not having to give up her ill-gotten gains over everyone else.

“No one’s gettin’ in front of me,” said the young mother behind me, but to no effect.

When a young woman in the screwed over section by the arcade games began calling out that the line ran back there, I piped up again. This time I singled out the plump woman and her family who had crowded in behind the Indian man. “This is not the line,” I said, “it is back there.” As usual in these deep in the night debates, logic mattered less than fierce tenacity. She fought back in words at first, mentioning this or that person she had come in with – nothing to any logical connection to the matter of the line. And when I persisted, arguing firsts and laters, she simply clammed up like the Indian man and refused to move.

Then came an announcement came over the PA system, murky but just legible enough, that all holders of reboard pass 341 should proceed immediately to gate two. I knew this was for the Chicago bus, but I said nothing when the Indian, his Mexican buddy, and even the Desert Storm vet I liked, got all lathered up and scrambled over to gate two (we all held the same pass). I watched them go gleefully. I had got them out of line without openly attacking them. When they straggled back a minute later, my backpack was in the face of the Indian man – a trivial victory that left the larger state of affairs intact except that I was in front of him, a gratifying win. The war vet and the New York Mexican with the Che shirt simply hung about at the front of the line. And then it began to move.

The Indian and the black woman and the Mexican matron gave way before me, but they gave nothing to the wronged folk – including my brother – behind me. As we nudged forward and out the door, the cemented fault lines of rage finally broke, and people tumbled forward in a mad bid to hold their position against everyone else. each time I looked back for Scott he was further back, just ahead of the bewildered bearded faces of the Amish men in their straw hats. When I finally reached the tall fatherly bus driver (whose name tag read Guy) I blurted out, “Those four Amish people got pushed back by all those people, you ought to let them on first.”

I was surprised that he responded. “Where?” he asked, looking up, and I pointed them out and his finger followed mine, picking out their Hobbiton faces and drawing them helter skelter through the detritus of the crowd. “Thank you,” he said to me, and I found two seats for me and Scott. The tiny Amish woman in black bonnet and dress pressed up the aisle long before he made it, face flushed with frustration. Plumping down in the seat I had saved he vented his rage, quietly but with plenty of amazed “What the fuck??”s.

Think of conditions of civil war: it is not a moment when ancient hatreds resurface, but when people kill out of a sense of pervasive insecurity. The state breaks down, captured by one group, which suddenly threatens all others, and to push another out is only to protect oneself. Civil wars do not merely happen in the Old World, where hatreds flourish in the soil like hardy grape vines. They can happen here. The grievances that give rise to civil wars are as old as that three-second flame of rage at being cut off on the highway, or in the ticket line. Generalize these flames to entire sections of society.