Thursday, February 1, 2018

Mellow Gold

The parental advisory label, once affixed to cds and tapes with explicit lyrics, has become so ubiquitous as to not mean anything, a sort of logo making things looks ‘tough,’ ‘grimy’ or even ‘tuff.’ Outside this objective, it serves no purpose. In fact, it almost seems absurd that there was ever a time when the label was taken seriously, but indeed it once was, deadly serious, back when kids still had to buy media printed on paper, lasered on a disk or magnetized to a cassette tape. Back in this time, the purveyors of media felt, perhaps, because it was a tangible thing, themselves to be guards of morality and they readily kept anything marked ‘explicit’ away from children. I’m sure some of them did this out of a desire to keep their jobs, but, many more, I believe, simply reveled in the joys of being able to deny kids the entertainment they were after, even when the kids’ intentions were only to seek out preferable melodies, as they often were.

As far as I know, the PMRC, which launched the ‘parental advisory’ label, never had set criteria for evaluating music. Some albums escaped being labeled ‘explicit’ despite multiple dropping of ‘F’ bombs. A lot seemed to depend on how audible it was. I can recall hearing Pearl Jam’s Jeremy on the radio many time without the edit in the following:

Clearly I remember, picking on the boy/ seemed a harmless little fuck

Something in the way Eddie Vedder dropped his tone when he sang the word ‘fuck; made it acceptable enough to be played on the radio. Suffice to say, Pearl Jam’s Ten had no parental advisory label. Green Day’s Dookie was another album that used the word, multiple times in some songs, but, somehow escaped the cut, I think, due to the way it was sung.

Content too could not be judged objectively. Even after all the Walmart hype over force-editing Nirvana’s tune Rape Me. The album on which the song appeared In Utero carried no parental advisory label. Apparently such things required no need for parental consent, even some metal albums, with unspeakable topics somehow made it to shelves free from the unfortunate sticker. Probably because no one could understand the lyrics.

So while films had quantifiable ratings systems in place, a similar system was never established for music. Likewise, there was never any consensus for the sale of these albums marked ‘explicit.’ Some record stores didn’t care and sold anything to anyone—but even in the rare instance of such a place, it seemed some clerks were more conscientious than others and a place where a kid had been able to buy Ice Cube’s The Predator one day, may refuse to sell Enter the 36 Chambers the next. With such arbitrariness, I couldn’t help but to wonder if the clerks who didn’t want to sell were just being jerks. After all, was there any real punishment for sale of an ‘explicit’ album to a minor? Was there a law against it or was it just a record store policy to avoid problems with parents? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Especially as the more ‘family friendly’ music outlets (ie. the chain store in the malls) were much less inclined to sell ‘explicit’ records to minors. (It should be said here that ‘minor’ in this sense was often—bizarrely—defined as anyone under 16. Why ‘explicit’ records should be available two years earlier than ‘explicit’ films, again seemed completely arbitrary, but it was something everyone seemed to agree on).

As a kid with a dad who swore colorfully, I always thought the attempt to keep kids from listening to ‘explicit’ music hypocritical, especially if the efforts were limited to expletives rather than content (as was made, more or less, clear in the case of the Rape Me controversy). As far as my mom was concerned, the ‘parental advisory’ label meant the music was harmful to children and she was never going to be an accessory to that. But, on a nightly basis, I could hear the very words judged ‘harmful’ articulated in my home, presumably the safest environment for a child. I also thought it ridiculous that I could read these words all I wanted to. At ten years old, there was nothing in place to stop me from buying a copy of Naked Lunch—available at any bookstore, and reading it over and over.

The easiest way to thwart the ‘advisories’ was to go to K-Mart, which considered itself too morally upstanding to even stock explicit albums and they only sold clean or edited versions. If I was really desperate, which I was several times, I could go to K-Mart and get . I did this with Domino’s self-titled album and, yes with 36 Chambers of death, kid. I bought the neutered versions and, to this day, I still don’t know some of the lyrics. There’s an embarrassing gap in singalongs, especially when, without knowing it, I learned different radio-edit lyrics. Believe me, it raises eyebrows to this day when I sing:

Rolling down the street smoking, smoking/ sippin’ on gin and juice

If you remember, there was no ‘endo’ on the radio edit.

But K-mart had a limited selection. There were some albums, I was content to have dubbed on cassette but, back then, it was different owning the actual cd with the jewel case and the lyric book. It was how you demonstrated true appreciation for an artist’s product. One particular album was Beck’s Mellow Gold, which despite its irreverent and even goofy lyrics, still got slapped with a parental advisory because it had two songs with ‘fuck’ in the title—although not used in an explicit manner ie. not describing sex, not even remotely.

In 1994, the song Loser was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I loved everything about it. The rap-like delivery of the lyrics, the folksy guitar loop with a solid beat behind it, the seriousness for the absurd, the psychedelic, sitar-like lift of the chorus, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I watched MTV, with my finger on the volume of the remote so I could turn it up if it came on. I checked the record stores as often as possible. Frustrated with the abundance of someone named Jeff Beck and the total lack of a Beck (I know this is hard to imagine now as Beck has a pretty big catalog). The first thing to appear was a cassette single of Loser which I duly handed over 1.99 for and listened to over and over. When the full-length, Mellow Gold appeared in stores, it drove me crazy. I coveted it, like nothing I’d ever coveted. The cover artwork was crazy, neon storm clouds and a skull with glowing eyes, robotic apparatus, the back showing Beck himself wearing goggles and looking beyond cool, just standing there next to songtitles like ‘Motherfuker’ [sic] and ‘Beercan’ [also, sic]. Damn I waned that cd, but, tragedy of tragedies (at least for a ten year-old), it had a ‘parental advisory’ label. I tried to buy it right there at Record Town in the mall and was roundly refused. If only it had been a few years later when the internet and downloads were perpetuating the downfall of tangible music and, it purveyor, the music store; I doubt very seriously that record stores bothered to screen anyone for sales when their place in the retail market was becoming more and more precarious, but this was 1994 and record stores were still the only way to get music. The end was right around the corner, but no one had any idea and the smug clerks laughed me out of the store when I tired to buy Mellow Gold, certain of their job security.

And, now, after this lengthy preamble, our story begins. After Record Town refused to sell Mellow Gold to me, I went immediately to Warehouse Records, which was my go-to for ‘parental advisory’ records. Most of the staff at Warehouse were younger and actually listened to a lot of the music they sold, unlike their mall counterparts who probably just went to the mall, stopped into any interesting store and filled out the application. The people at Record Town couldn’t answer any question without using their database computers. The employees of Warehouse never needed their computers. They knew exactly what was on the floor and what you’d need to order. So, I went into Warehouse, sure that they knew Mellow Gold wasn’t really a bad record—nothing like 2 Live Crew or Cannibal Corpse that might distort my tender notions of sexuality and/or violence. No, Beck just liked to toss out the f-word every so often, no different from the way people talked, really. But, to my dismay, the employee at Warehouse records didn’t see the situation as I did. The bastard even got out the little tool that freed the cd from its plastic security device and was worked on unlocking the greatest purchase I was ever going to make when he seemed to see that damn ‘parental advisory’ sticker for the first time. He stopped, looked down the counter at me, paused and snapped the cd back into its security device, shaking his head. “I can’t sell you this,” he declared, sounding slightly apologetic, “it’s got a parental advisory.” I put up a weak argument, but I knew he’d made up his mind, so my heart wasn’t in it and a moment later, I lurched out of the store, head down and walked down the alley to Kroger to meet my mom who’d gone grocery shopping. I remember it raining a gray and almost syrupy rain. It was March, but there were still dirty chunks of parking lot snow pushed up all over the place, covered with oily pebbles and the smashed parts of shopping carts the plowmen hadn’t bothered to move. It smelled like the pizza and sub place next to Warehouse had burned something.

I went back home and listened to my cassette single of Loser on repeat, wondering why my access to Beck’s creative genius had to be limited to one song. There was one more record store in town and it was a wildcard.

While the Mall boasted the national chain Record Town, the Crossing (the other mall) had Disc Jockey, which I’d never seen anywhere else. The vibe in Disc Jockey was weird. Record Town was corporate, with a vibe comparable to today’s Hard Rock Café, black carpet with the bright flecks music stores used to look glamourous back then, customized signage, neon lights sort of spangled around the place. Warehouse Records, by contrast, was a local chain that employed its products for decoration. Those huge concert posters they used to make were hung up all over the back wall with numbers so the employees could find it. The wall to the right was covered with t-shirt, many of them official concert shirts with tour dates and venues on the back. The shelves, or whatever you’d call ‘em, for cds were made out of particle board and had stickers for bands and record labels slapped all over them. Warehouse was an enthusiasts’ record store. Disc Jockey, for comparison, was way the hell out in left field. One woman who always seemed to be there had this permed hair, piled up ridiculously high. She gave the impression of someone who’d gotten a job and then, accordingly, changed her look to suit that job. Unfortunately, here we were, 1994, the height of grunge and she looked like Madonna from the Like a Prayer tour. In addition to this lady’s anachronistic hair, the place had this single wobbly line of pink neon running around the ceiling. The décor in Disc Jockey looked more like something you would’ve seen in a salon, ten years earlier, than a record store. The stuff they had pulled out on the end-caps was also baffling, a bunch of random artists displayed together like you were supposed to discern the vague connection between them. Onyx stood next to Michael Jackson’s Bad and the display was crowned with that Dwight Yoakam album with the clocks all over it. The name of the store, Disc Jockey, was also appallingly stupid. It was like calling a bookstore ‘librarian.’

The selection was alright, but what kept me from ever buying anything at Disc Jockey was the price. They must’ve had a hell of an overhead because their cds were always a good two dollars more expensive than anyone else’s and this is back when the standard price for a cd was 17.99. Damn. You had to save for weeks to get one of those things and you couldn’t even preview it. You just took the risk based on the one song you’d heard on the radio. That’s why it was so wonderful when you found a band whose entire album could be enjoyed. It was a sort of security, you knew the next album wouldn’t be so much of a gamble.

I wasn’t worried about blowing my money on Mellow Gold, I knew it was going to be great. I was so sure of it, I was even willing to throw away the two extra dollars at Disc Jockey to get it. Now, because it was so overpriced, I’d never even tried to buy a ‘parental advisory’ record at Disc Jockey. I had no idea what to expect, but I figured it’d be worth a shot, so the next weekend, when my mom needed to go to Phar-Mor in the Crossing, I went along with 22 bucks in my PacMan wallet.

My mom was always late meeting me in the mall, so I told her I’d just come back to Phar-Mor and find her when I was done. Strangely, setting out for Disc Jockey, I began to realize I was nervous, this was, ostensibly, my last chance to get this record and I knew that if I was denied sale again, I’d start to lose my nerve. If you wanted to buy something you weren’t supposed to, you had to be able to walk up to the counter carrying the item without the slightest trace of hesitancy. If you acted even remotely like you weren’t supposed to be doing something, adults picked up on it right away. If I couldn’t get the cd at Disc Jockey, I wasn’t ever going to get it.

The store was empty except for one other customer when I came in. The lady with the perm was at the counter. I tried to look casual and wandered around the store a little, flipping through the poster rack in the back and glancing at the ‘Rap’ section before heading over to the ‘B’s in ‘Pop/Rock’. They had a few copies of Mellow Gold (the album was quickly becoming popular, appearing in top ten lists all over the country, much to my continued agony). I started to pull the cd up from the entanglement of the plastic security devices, but, my eyes snagged on the ‘parental advisory.’ I looked at it and lost my nerve. They were never going to sell this to me. The label was just too bold. Then it occurred to me, ‘what if it was covered up?’ The price sticker, which was larger than the ‘advisory’ label, was, on some of the cds, partially obscuring the ‘advisory.’ I tested the price sticker, it started to peel off. I could just move it right over the ‘advisory,’ but as I peeled, the paper began to separate from the sticker. I tried the other side, but it was the same thing, the sticker wouldn’t lift clean off and that’s went it occurred to me, the ‘advisory’ label was, after all, just a sticker, I could just peel it off, like I’d done with the price tag. But, upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to find that, unlike the price sticker, the ‘advisory’ was under the plastic wrap. I considered for a few minutes and, undaunted, began to peel the cellophane off the cd.

This was one of those ideas, that starts simply and snowballs into something so unwieldy, it can’t even be recognized for its connection to the original plan. I had gone into Disc Jockey, planning to just take the cd to the counter and try my luck buying the thing and, now, here I was, slinking around the store, digging at the cellophane with my fingernail, trying to look interested in the classical section which was the farthest from the counter. Luckily, no one seemed to be paying attention. Each time I glanced around, the permed lady was busy putting the plastic security devices on a pile of cds. She didn’t even seem to notice I was in the store.

After what felt like half an hour of digging, the cellophane finally snagged and broke against the instance of my fingernail. Like pulling a tablecloth out from under a fully set table, I quickly jerked the wrapping off  and shoved it in with all the Stravinsky cds, then I set to work picking at the ‘advisory.’ Like the price sticker, it wouldn’t peel clean off, but I scraped off the fuzzy paper backing as best as I could and, as a coup de grace, I pulled the price sticker off the discarded cellophane and stuck it on the naked cover of the cd. It only half stuck, part of the price sticker torn, dirty and sticking up. I apprised the result of my labor: not bad, maybe it would be obvious that the cellophane was missing, but what the hell would the perm lady care? As long as I was buying the cd, I couldn’t see why she’d care about something so trivial as a missing cd cellophane.

I turned to the counter like I’d suddenly made up my mind to buy the cd I’d been carrying all over the store. I wasn’t nervous. Really, I was quite proud of the way I’d figured to circumnavigate the situation, so I was totally taken off-guard when I set the cd down and the perm immediately began to accuse me of removing the cellophane. I started to protest that it was like that and that I’d buy it anyway no probl—

“I saw you take this off! You pulled of the advisory label! That’s why you’ve been walking all around the store. That’s what you were doing!”

So all the while, she was furtively observing me. I hate when people do that sort of thing. Why can’t people just yell, ‘hey, kid, what are you up to over there by those Stravinsky cds?’ It would obviate so many lousy situations. She let me pull the cellophane off so she could yell at me, so she could have something interesting to do. As to how quickly she deduced my purpose, I have no idea. She certainly didn’t look that smart.

“Whatever.” I had no argument for the perm. I turned and walked out of the store and, in a fit a pique, I grabbed one of the circulars sitting at the entrance and held up the Beck ad on the cover. “There’s no ‘parental advisory’ for it here!” I yelled waving the ad, but I knew it was no good. She’d made up her mind. I turned and walked out.

I walked through the Crossing to Phar-Mor where there was a small CD selection. I checked for Mellow Gold, but they only had those discounted cds and tapes they sell at gas stations with the ‘nice price’ stickers on them.

I found my mom over by the Band-Aids, comparing two different boxes.

“Why don’t you get the ones with cartoon characters?” I asked her, feigning indifference. At heart, I was bummed. My last attempt for the cd had failed. “How much longer are you goin—”

“Ma’am, could I speak with you?” A man had suddenly appeared from behind my mom, interrupting me. I could tell from his actions (and address of ‘ma’am’) that he didn’t know her. Did he work for Phar-Mor? I had no idea who this guy was but I’d learned from experience whenever someone addressed my mom as ‘ma’am’ something bad was about to happen. The man took a few brisk steps away from me and talked to my mom, sotto voce. ‘What the hell was going on?’ I wondered.

At the end of their brief conference, the man turned and walked away and my mom turned to me. “That man told me you just tried to open a cd at the cd store and you pulled some sticker off from it. Is that true?”

Son-of-a-bitch followed me across the damn mall just to rat me out!

To this day, when I’m back in Jackson, I walk by the empty space at the Crossing where Disc Jockey used to be and smile. It’s been closed for close to two decades now, and I still smile. Phar-Mor’s gone, too, but I bare them no ill-will. Really, it’s all gone. The whole world that made that situation possible. There are no more music stores, no more ‘advisory’ labels, outside the one printed on shirts on facetiously over the mouths of stand-up comics on posters. The Crossing is still there, but the corridor that ran to Phar-Mor from Disc Jockey is gone. Warehouse is gone. Record Town is gone. Just the parking lots with their dirty piles of icy parking lot snow linger on through March, melting out the slag of landscaping stones, broken rearview mirrors and motor oil.

I did eventually pay Brendan 19 dollars for a copy of Mellow Gold that belonged to his neighbor a guy we called ‘Cd Kid’ for years after, although I don’t remember ever buying anything else he had.

Around the same time, I got a Discman for my birthday and I never went anywhere without taking Mellow Gold with me to listen to. All I had been through to get the damn cd made it sound so much better than I ever could’ve dreamed. To this day, when Loser comes on the radio, I turn it up, smile and wonder whatever happened to that lady with the perm and her rat of a counterpart.  

I have written this down because, as near as I can discern, this sort of shit doesn’t even happen to kids anymore.

Who knows if they’re better off.
Image result for mellow gold

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Field Trip

I was a lousy student; the kind who is constantly trying to usurp the attention of the class. I never did my homework, came in late and had a smart-ass comment for everything the teacher said. Still, some teachers handled this better than others. Mrs. G., my ninth grade history teacher, took my interruptions personal and, a few weeks into class, it was obvious to me that she hated me with a passion. Initially, I shrugged it off, but inevitably, I began to reciprocate and my comments in her class grew mordant.

For a semester, Mrs. G. and I battled in the particular way of students and teachers. I’d made a comment, she’d kick me out of class. I’d come back from seeing the principal defiant, head raised like I was happy just to get out of class. She’d give me detention and I’d ostentatiously look out the window while she lectured.

I had Mrs. G. in ninth grade. I don’t know how I managed to pass her class, but I did and entering tenth grade, I never saw her again. I don’t know if she left the school, or just hid in her classroom. By the time I graduated, I hardly remembered her, yet one detail, one small facet of her personality, I have never forgotten. Mrs. G. was from Latvia.

Well, not originally. It must’ve been her grandparents. She had no accent and seemed way too interested in the place of her forbearers to be a first generation immigrant. Mrs. G. took pains to evoke Latvia in class. This wasn’t an easy task, given the country’s relative obscurity, especially in America’s public school History curriculum which, if I remember right, consisted solely of lessons on ancient Egypt and World War II and the latter, not in great detail. 

Latvia was Mrs. G.’s blindspot. She had such an incredible affection for the country, when she’d start talking about it, she’d get carried away and ramble off the country’s GDP, the population, time zone and anything else that came into her head to an entirely disinterested classroom. She talked about Latvia so much, she came to embody the country for me. Before Mrs. G.’s class. I’d never even heard of Latvia. This was 1997. The Soviet Union had only recently collapsed and left the three little Baltic countries free to look about themselves and realize their European identities, but for me, it was not the USSR or the EU that cast a shadow over Latvia, but the face of Mrs. G. In the decades to follow, any mention of the place, would immediately invoke her frustrated, porcine face. I imagined Latvia as an entire country of vindictive, miserable history teachers.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t a place I was enthusiastic to visit, but when you’re in Lithuania, and heading north to Estonia, it would be foolish not to stop off in Riga on the way. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltic region and boasts some impressive churches and one of the world’s largest libraries. Reluctantly, I booked a ticket, but to underscore my lingering bias against the country, I limited my stay to slightly less than 48 hours.

In Lithuania, Gina and I had travelled around the country quite a bit, going nearly all the way out to the coast, seeing the hill of crosses and a cat museum before returning to Vilnius and rambling through the old town, its former ghettos and Christmas markets.  I liked Lithuania. The sights were interesting, the people were friendly, the food was good, but I was excited to be moving on. Despite my bias, I expected to be happy to land in Riga and be in a new country with a new language and different traditions. After all, it would’ve been absurd to think one high school History teacher could ruin a country for someone.  Landing at the airport, we managed to find the bus into town easily enough and it wasn’t expensive; Latvia was off to a good start. It was late in the evening when we got downtown, but I figured we’d go out and find something to eat before calling it a night.

But getting off the bus and seeing a TGI Friday’s, crowded by a mob of tourists, I felt my irritation with the place rising. In a short time, I was surprised to find myself openly criticizing Riga. Either I was more tired out than I thought or, even two decades later, I still hadn’t forgiven the place for its relation with my History teacher.

 “See,” I told Gina, gesturing to a Starbucks. “In Vilnius, they didn’t have all these chain places. I liked that. Vilnius was an interesting place. Now you take this place, this Riga. Look. It’s a mall! It’s an airport with churches!” Gina had no time to remind me we’d only just walked into town when a three guys, yelling, arm-in-arm, and acting in that annoying chummy way guys act when they’ve have a few drinks together walked past and bumped into me. Recovering my balance and watching them go, I started in again. “This place is too touristy. Look at those morons. They probably just stumbled out of that that TGI Friday’s. Tomorrow morning, they’ll be nursing their hangovers at that Starbucks over there. Cities like these encourage this kind of loutish behavior. This is a place for consumerist neanderthals!”

Gina just rolled her eyes. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever told her about my bias against Latvia, but she knows when to let me rant. She feigned interest in my harangue, while keeping an eye out for the first mulled wine stand. We hadn’t even been in the capital for an hour and I had already deemed the entire country unworthy of a visit.

We continued walking down Riga’s version of Bourbon Street toward our hostel. Music pumped from the bars. Girls laughed, the guys leered at them and swore at each other. Everyone seemed to be speaking in English. “Uggh. What kind of crap is this?” I bemoaned shaking my head. “Where am I? Wrigleyville, for shit’s sake? I don’t know if I should be consoled or demoralized to find that people all over the world like this kind of crap.” We walked past a place called ‘Shooters’ where I distinctly heard someone yell ‘shots!’ “God. Tell me those people aren’t singing along to Cheryl Crow!” By this point, even Gina was shaking her head a little.

Our hostel shared an entrance with a bar. When I opened the door to the smell of spilled beer, urinal cake and half-eaten baskets of ‘wings,’ was so heavy I could’ve puked. The revelers were straining to make their obnoxious laughter heard over more Cheryl Crow. 

We climbed the stairs and checked in to our hostel just behind a squad of dudes positively reeking of Axe body spray. The brims of their backward hats clucking at me like aggressive roosters while I waited behind them. By the time they’d finished checking in, I was light-headed from all the ‘Axe.’ The guy at the desk was nice. He circled a few places he thought we’d be interested on the map. He handed over our keys and we headed up to the room.

The smell in the stairs seemed to ferment the further up we climbed until it was like a sewer pipe had ruptured. Someone, what looked like years ago, had left a damp towel draped over a fire extinguisher box and every surface was tacky like the floor of a movie theater. Leaving the staircase, I found, strangely, the ghastly cloacal smell seemed to be issuing from the showers which were separate from the toilets. I made the mistake of opening the door on one, hoping to locate the source of the smell and was almost knocked over by a smell so bad it seemed to induce synesthesia. Inside the shower stall, a reedy buzz floated up the drain along with the smell which, I was pretty sure, I was imagining, as a result of the strain the smell was putting on my senses. It was shocking the thing didn’t have it’s own color too. The carpet in the hallways was worn and stained. The common area consisted of a sink and an electric kettle. I opened the door to our room and found a bed, thinly made up, a window that faced a wall and cold to rival the temperature outside.

“Ugh,” I pronounced and we went out into the never-ending happy hour of the Riga night to find some food.

We ate some lousy falafel, had a look around and headed back to the  room. On the corner of our hostel, we passed a drunken Italian yelling ‘dio cane’ into a cellphone and staggering around the street. Going back into our hostel, I noticed a large spill on the floor that had obviously been there for years. It was furred with dust, lint and a few coins that looked like they’d been tossed into it in hopes of paying it to go away. We climbed the stairs, passed the gray fire extinguisher towel and the septic showers, climbed into our chilly bed and turned out the lights. Not five minutes had passed before I heard the same irate ‘dio cane’ I’d heard in the street coming down the hall. Our door handle rattled violently. Either the guy who so drunk he couldn’t find his room or he was going around checking to see if there were any empty rooms.

“Oh great!” I muttered into the freezing darkness. ”Those morons can’t even find their own room.” If Gina was still awake, she didn’t say anything and after listening to someone banging in and out of the bathroom and more Italian swearing (‘che cazzo!’), I eventually fell asleep.

I counted myself lucky when I awoke, realizing I’d slept through the night despite what I assumed had been a night of innumerable Italian curses, further doorhandle fumblings and all of this in the rarified atmosphere of the septic air hissing up from the shower drains. Gina was up and we talked a little about how profoundly we’d slept and exchanged dream details before I offered to go out into the common area to make some coffee. The shared bathroom was just to the left of our door and the first thing I noticed when I came out, was one of the Italian guys sitting on the toilet, head in his hands, pants and underwear around his ankles. The door was wide open.

“Ugggrrrrrhhhhhh!” He moaned.

“Hey!” I yelled, indignant at having this be the first thing I saw in the morning, “How about closing the door, huh?”

“Urrrrmmmmmm!” He didn’t budge. I considered yelling at him in Italian, but I figured even if he didn’t know a word of English, it should’ve been obvious I was trying to get him to close the damn door. When I finished making the coffee, he was still sitting there with the door wide open like he was in his own house. I couldn’t stand it. I went over the closed the door for him. The sewage smell and the slight of this guy on the toilet together was too much for 7am. I went back to the room with the coffee. Mercifully, when we finished our coffee and left the room, the door was still closed.

We spent the day ranging over the city. Riga, despite for first impressions and stereotypes furnished by Mrs. G. had some interesting things to offer. We went to a market, checked out the old houses on the other side of the river, went out to an old warehouse district that had been parceled out to artists for the apparent purpose of establishing expensive restaurants. We ate, drank the balsam Riga’s famous for and ate a bunch of local candy at various places before heading back to the room. It had been a pretty good day but back in the freezing, filthy hostel, I was worried about more late-night assaults on the senses. It was Saturday and I knew the revelers would be out in full force. I could only hope that the ‘dio cane’ guy and the toilet guy had checked out.

We were back relatively early and I was hoping to get to sleep before the hordes returned after last call. At 10 pm, the place was strangely silent. After the long day of walking around, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep.

Around 2, I woke up to a long drawn-out groan. It sounded like a plaintive call of misery rolled down the hallway, in the direction of our room, like a bowling ball. The cry crumpled and moistened into a retch.


I waited for a splash, or at least a wet plop, but nothing followed the retch and the hallway was quiet until a man, presumably the same who had moaned and retched, began to make a sing-song sound, two notes, warbling and broken, easing in and out of each other, like someone spinning the dial on a stereo recording of a donkey braying.

“Eeee-ooooo, eeeee-ooooo, eeeee-ooooo.”

“What the hell?” I asked the darkness, not sure if Gina was awake.

“It sounds like a mentally ill guy.” Gina answered, not moving. We listened in the darkness for a while. The sing-song sound continued, interspersed with retching.

“Eeee-oooo, eeee-ooooo, URAAAAAAF!, eeee-oooo, eeee-oooo.”

“Seriously, what the hell is that?” I asked sitting up. “I mean if that’s just someone who’s drunk, they’ve definitely got alcohol poisoning to be making a sound like that. Maybe I should make sure they’re alright?”

“Yeah, but what if it isn’t someone who’s drunk? I have no idea what to make of that.” Gina whispered. “I haven’t heard a single intelligible thing since those sounds started.”

We listened for a while, trying to get some sense of what we were listening to. A sudden rush of water cut through the dual-tone moan.

“Eeee-ooo, foooooosshhh, eeee-oooo, eeee-oooo, BAAARF!, eeee-ooooo, foooosshh.”

“If there’s a symphony in hell, it must sound like that,” I said, now straining to speak over the faucet, the singing and the retching. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to see what the hell was going on out there. I pulled my pants on, pulled my shirt over my head and jerked open the door, having no idea what was going to be on the other side. As I opened the door, the sudden light blinded me. I shielded my eyes.

“What the hell is going on out here?” I grumbled. Hoping maybe someone would offer some logical explanation while I waited for my sight to return. The singing/braying had stopped and the common area was filed with the pathetic echo of my question. Through the lucent haze, I noticed a figure seated next to the sink. The figure gradually asserted itself as a kid in a green shirt whose head was hanging low enough to almost be in his lap, one hand rested on the faucet of the sink. By way of answering my question, he lifted his head, turned to the sink and retched again. 


“The fuck, man? Can’t you even make it to the bathroom?” I was too annoyed with this stupid behavior to be civil. This guy had woken me up with his half-assed puking. But, as I’d expected, he didn’t seem particularly penitent. It wasn’t until I saw that the kid’s fly was wide open that I realized I was talking to the same kid who’d been marooned on the toilet that morning. I shook my head.

“Man, you know, you really shouldn’t drink.” I told him. “You’re really bad at it.” I was beginning to feel almost sorry for the kid. He was really a mess. Both times I’d encountered him, he’d had no recourse to the power of speech (other than groans) and his crotch was uncovered. I began to wonder if maybe the kid did have some mental disability.

“Hey man, just try to keep it down out here, huh?” I told him by way of a good night and turned back into the room. I closed the door and told Gina it was the same kid. ‘Damn,’ was all she could say. It was quiet out in the common area for a while and then the kid started with the braying again. It sounded a little sadder than before, like even he wasn’t sure what he was doing it for. In a few minutes, I was asleep.

When I woke up in the morning, the common area was empty, and aside from one cup knocked to the floor and another in the sink, there was no evidence that a drunk pretending to be a donkey had even troubled our sleep.

While checking out, I considered telling the guy at the desk of what we’d put up with over the course of our two-night stay, but it was obvious from the towel on the fire extinguisher and the dusty stain at the bottom of the stairs that no one cared about the place, least of all the guy getting paid minimum wage to hand guests their keys and show them where they could leave their bags. In a place like this, it was a wonder we even had clean sheets. Even if I had decided to tell him, it wouldn’t have mattered, when we went to check out there was no one at the desk. We waited around a few minutes, yelled ‘hello?’ and finally put our key where it would be seen and left. 

Walking toward the bus shelter to take us back to the airport, we passed the TGI Friday’s but it was closed. The streets were empty and a bitter wind blew the napkins and plastic bags of last night’s debauche down the street. A few tourists were out, wandering around, as if uncertain how they’d gotten there and what they were expected to do now that they’d arrived. One woman, however, was all bundled up for the weather and snapping photos like mad. She seemed to be the only person listening to a guide tell an amusing anecdote of the Blackhead’s building and when it was over, she laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. The tour guide directed her attention to someone else and they walked off, leaving us alone at the bus stop. It must’ve been Mrs. G.. There’s just no one else who could’ve been that interested in Latvia.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A House without Walls


The airport was larger than I remembered. I tried to take a picture of a ‘Welcome to Armenia’ sign, but was stopped by a cop who smiled and told me it was forbidden. I laughed. Of course, it was forbidden. The old Soviet-era paranoia over photos of buildings of any kind, especially anything having to do with transportation, bridges, dams, airports, metro stations. Shame because they made them so beautiful, tempering the brutalist architecture with folk motifs and artistic renderings of national themes. The airport, redesigned after the Soviets, has no such beauty, but still, no pictures.

Outside, a hassle of taxi drivers crowded the door. I never should’ve said anything in Armenian to them. My first experience with the language, in face-to-face conversation in seven years and I’m using it to deflect taxi offers. We find the shuttle, 1,000 dram cheaper than a taxi, according to the sign, but there’s no one there. It’s Sunday. The shuttle could be parked, waiting for Monday to start working again. The windows are smeared with the oily cold of late autumn. We wait, while the taxi drivers crowd around, lighting pencil-thin cigarettes, scowling with bravado. I go inside to ask someone about the shuttle. On the way out, I pass through the taxi drivers. Haggling with them, I can’t help but to think how much I used to hate these kind of interactions because I had no cultural precedent for them. Now, I relax and enjoy the banter, trying to keep up. One verbose driver asks me if I’m a Christian. I remember this dodge: ‘You and me, we’re Christians; we need to help each other.’ I tell him America has no state religion and I think we both feel a little cheated by this answer.

The shuttle driver arrives and we chat with him, waiting for departure time. A drunk lurches from some place and sings to us. He doesn’t even attempt to speak to us in Russian, as he would’ve ten years ago, but trots out from blurry phrases in English. Our driver gives him a few kopeks and a cigarette. The air is cold and damp and gray exactly as I remember. I have a terrible craving for a cigarette and a little chalky cup of coffee. The driver starts the engine and makes us sit in the front of the 10-seat van. I warn Gina not to give offense by putting on her seatbelt, despite her automatic response. Two other tourists arrive and get in the back, balancing out the front-heavy load.

The most familiar thing is the smell: wet stone, the smell of slow, weather-induced erosion, sheep paths, trampled grasses, mud. The indoor smells waft out, carried bundled in jackets and pouring from doorways: fire and smoke, worn fabric, dried walnut husks, old slippers with the heels scuffed down. The window is up, but I can smell these things drifting up from the Hrazdan River valley and all of Armenia beyond it. The driver tells me his kids are studying English in school and asks if I can give him my email in case they have any questions. I tell him I’d love that. I try to imagine the shape of the email—which I know will never come, his kids being too technologically advanced to need to email a stranger to translate anything.

We drive past the cognac factory at the entrance of town. The shelf breaks in my closet of memories and the past comes knocking down around my ears, the old board games opening as they fall and all the little pieces scattering all over the carpet, landing at my feet, the parts of the past I’d forgotten that induce a slow building wave of nostalgia, one so intense, I can’t help but to bend down, pick up the game piece and say—to no one in particular--”I remember this!”


Republic Square is as I left it and as I’ve since seen it 100 times since on TV and in magazines, the epicenter of Armenia is unshakable, only the cars that spin through its washing-machine arc change. They are newer and there are fewer boxy Ladas in flat, primary colors. The men stepping from the cars, regardless of make or model are, however, the same. Dressed predominately in black, slapping each other on the back and speaking in that fraternal language that always seems to be raising in inflection while maintaining the same low pitch, invariably capped with ‘tsav’d tanem’ (I take your pain) as if conversation were simply the act of passing one’s pain around, collecting that of others.

We walk to the Metro. It’s now a warm autumn afternoon, still overcast but clearing up. I talk incessantly trying to clear out the thoughts before they start to pile up. The sense of nostalgia is palpable. I look for my past self on the sidewalks, in the small cafes, but I also try to avoid his lanky 25 year-old form for fear there would be a cataclysmic reaction if we were to meet. I can hear him, a few blocks over, laughing, complaining. He is so close I can hear the change jingling in his pockets, the flap of his unglued shoe. I walk with the cartoony feeling of a bandage that has been covering my eyes being slowly unwound. The operation has been a success, I only need to hold up the mirror…

“My God. Who is that?”

The Metro station is down inside a ziggurat. Beside a subterranean fountain, under pitted tufa blocks stacked like sugar cubes. I buy two orange plastic tokens like mouth-worn lozenges, and take the elevator down into a fug of celluloid and rhythmic clattering. No music is playing. There are no speakers or TVs. The few people waiting are almost silent. Holding their shopping bags, staring across the tracks. There are no ads, nothing vies for my attention. My thoughts drift in and out of the tiled pylons and I feel my individuality reasserting itself in the stillness of the moment. I feel unique, not merely part of an audience waiting for a train.

The train arrives, the doors clatter open, less like they have been automated and more like a human has wrenched a cord which is attached to them. The doors bang shut so hard they bounce open and shut again. The train bores back into the earth. The man seated across from me can’t help but to stare. Gina remarks on this when we get off two stops later.

“I know why you were so sensitive to the people here staring at you,” she says. “It’s the eyes. They have such large eyes and intense expressions.”

It’s true, but the staring doesn’t bother me now. I’ve expected it. Let me be different. Let them look at how I’ve changed since the last time I was here.

We pass through the underground gallery beneath the train station. Men stand smoking, women talk with each other or stare ahead. It is cold and damp. The air is oily from the piroshki stalls and the stone steps have been ground down into a fine dust hanging in the air. I take a deep breath and the cold I bring into my lungs, seems colder than the air around me. It’s like taking a breath at the top of a mountain. The air is cold and oxygen deprived, but aromatic, tasting of spent coffee grounds, dill and tarragon which are sold in bunches by a woman wrapped in several scarfs, looking pleased with herself.

We wandered around Yerevan for a day and a half, revisiting the familiar sights and getting over the novelty of seeing and hearing Armenian words. We ate piroshki, climbed the Cascade Monument and watched the sun set behind Ararat. I took Gina to Reza’s old house and gasped upon seeing it had become some kind of office space. North Street had seen a lot of development and the cranes stretching over the city were moving again. Entire neighborhoods had popped up and filled with tapas bars and places behind chalkboard menus, scribbled with the day’s specials in English. Young Armenians were sitting at little iron tables with baby carriages parked next to them, husband and wife both unable to keep from poking their heads in to see the baby and make funny sounds. Their wine and tapas on the table untouched, tertiary, part of the setting.

We walked up past the Argentine/Armenian school, Escuela Argentina—a place I’d told Gina about when we lived in Buenos Aires, standing on Calle Armenia. The school had achieved almost mythical proportions, inspiring the move to Argentina which had already happened so long ago. I stood in front of it, trying to feel awed, but, as always happens when visiting the past, I only felt the familiarity of it. Now that I was in Yerevan again, the time between the last visit felt like nothing at all and here I was, seven years later, but the differences fell away and standing there, I was the same person who had never been to Argentina, the memories I had of living there were anachronisms of the future.    


In the afternoon the next day, we went up to catch the marshutka to Charentsavan. I got to the top of the street and found nothing waiting in the usual place. I went over to where some other marshutkas were parked and their drivers standing around. The man I asked told me that I wanted a green-colored bus that would come around on the other side of the street. I thanked him and joined a group of people waiting in the area he had indicated. To be sure, I asked one—after a year in Thailand, barely speaking Thai, it still strikes me as a glorious privilege to be able to ask questions so easily and perhaps I’m over-inclined to talk to people now.

I approached a man who shrugged at my question and another, who looked Russian, but spoke Armenian, told me I needed to go around the corner, to the bottom of the next street. As I was clarifying these directions, predictably, a taxi driver overheard me and came running. He offered his services in every way possible, but I told him I wanted to take the bus as there would be some nostalgia in it for me. The driver couldn’t appreciate this and continually offered his taxi as the only means of getting to Charentsavan. The man who looked Russian also took up the cause of convincing me a taxi would be the best way to go. I managed to fend them off without too much offense and, clarify the directions. We found the bus about twenty minutes later. A large sticker on the side proclaimed the bus was a gift from ‘China Aid.’ I grumbled that they didn’t used to have such buses, but it was roomy and seats for everyone, even after stopping to pick up extra passengers on the way out of town, into the rolling countryside.


Yerevan, unlike most capital cities, ends quickly. It is crowned with a swelling landscape which rises up, threatening to engulf the city with snow-capped hills and scrapped Soviet-era buildings. After a few agglutinated suburban towns, the road heaves over a hill and comes down in a thicket of rusted metal and walnut trees. It becomes a place of leisurely adventure. And looking from the window, I can easily imagine walking toward the horizon, stopping in the ruins of factories and at the edges of apple orchards fragrant with autumn and returning the wave of distant cowherds. Angular Soviet monuments like building blocks stand against the horizon: towers of babel no one had to knock down. In the shadows of the mountains, their impotence is obvious. The bus coasts down a hill into a roundabout, which marks the beginning of Charetsavan, at the center of which is a dry fountain. The sculpture in the middle of the fountain looks like large splash of iron water. It resembles an absurdly ambitious five-year plan goal. “If the land is dry we shall build water! Forge it from the very mountains!” The area around the fountain is empty, shivering and dusty. A Lada 4X4 caroms around the circle and drops down a road leading to the villages, throwing up dust which gradually falls away, like a curtain from the  abandoned train station, three stories tall, mostly glass, an aquarium of dank yellow light. I look into the high windows, expecting to see something prehistoric swimming through the air. A single train engine, yellow and red, rolls down the tracks like something lost. It makes no noise.

The House of Culture is still there. I stand in front of it for a picture, but there are too many memories to put together and I opt to think of nothing but the cold. I take a few more pictures. The marshutka to Solak arrives, we put our bags inside and sit on the tufa steps in front of the House of Culture. A group of middle-aged woman inside the buildings are looking out the window together, I look back at them but they aren’t looking anywhere in particular. They seem to be doing it more out of habit than in order to see anything. More people arrive; the marshutka begins to fill up. We take our seats and in a few minutes, it heaves to life. The first row of seats is turned around in an amiable fashion, like in an old train carriage. A small elderly man asks where we are going. I tell him we are going to visit Zhora Mrkrtchyan. He begins asking the whole marshutka if anyone knows where Zhora Mrkrtchyan lives. I tell him I remember where he lives, but he persists. He won’t be satisfied until someone tells him I should get off at the bridge. He repeats this to me and, his duty done, he takes to handing around a  bent up card for a local politician. When one woman holds the card too long, as though actually reading the information written on it, the old man makes an anxious gesture for her to continue passing it along. He watches the card move along the passengers wearily, as if in fear of someone defacing it, or not treating it with the proper respect.  

Outside Charentsavan, the road is about a lane and a half in width and is like an oil slick floating on a rolling ocean of brown-green countryside. A column of wispy trees approaches the road. Even in the distance, there are no villages until Solak, which we approach tentatively, going uphill and moving slowly. We could get off at the top of the village, but I stay on the marshutka, unable to rouse myself, taking in the town from the bleary windows. We get off just before our stop when a group of women boarding with large bags threaten to hem us in. The near collision of our large packs and their bags in the doorway of the marshutka is almost chaotic, but we manage to sort what belong to whom. They board on the marshutka continues on to Hrazdan, leaving us in the light rain. We stand there, absorbing the silence of the village. A cow lows from someone’s yard and then there is nothing. We walk down from the bridge, along the train tracks to the back of the house. I feel no particular excitement or worry. I am only returning to a time and a place which, being part of me, is impossible to feel removed from.

I open the back gate and close it quickly behind me so the chickens don’t get out. We wade through the squawking chickens and come up behind the house. We haven’t told anyone we were coming and Gina is concerned that perhaps no one will be home. I tell her that there is always someone home here and that they seldom have reason to go anywhere else. Still, with her American mindset, it’s hard for her to understand how someone could always be home.

“Maybe this will be the one day they’ve gone into Yerevan.” She says. I laugh and knock on the door. “Even if they’d gone to Yerevan, someone would still be home. I don’t even know if the door can be locked here.” But no one answers. I knock again. The door is partially open. I have to knock lightly to not push it completely open. The grandmother and grandfather are most certainly around, but they don’t hear so well. I don’t want to yell, so I show Gina where we can take our packs while we wait. I figure everyone is out somewhere, probably working in the garden. It’s a mild autumn afternoon, the rain is very light and I know there are plenty of apple trees around here that need to be picked.

We drop our stuff off at the bench where I used to sit in the evenings, years ago and watch the incredible deepening of the twilight and the clarifying of the stars, strewn over the village sky as they are over a wilderness, neither pierced or distorted by any residual light. I am about to sit on the bench when I notice the neighbor, an elderly woman, almost doubled over, digging in the garden. Thinking she might know where everyone is, I go over and ask. I don’t remember her name, but she remembers mine and practically yells it out as I’m muddling through an introduction. While I’m greeting her another face pops up from the tall green of the garden: my host grandfather, Xachik, a man who is always outside either taking the sheep to pasture, doing some kind of odd errand or just enjoying the fresh air. He comes up, gives me a kiss and heartily pumps my hand exclaiming ‘Jon jan!’ in his beautiful creaky grandfather voice. I’m reeling from all the excitement, when they tell me it’s a sad time for them, my host dad has gone to the hospital in Yerevan, my host mom with him.

The rest of the visit is tinged with melancholy. The children have all grown up, they are all either in Yerevan or in the army. Only Ani has stayed behind. She has a baby boy, Mikhail, who is very smiley and likes to jump, but even he cannot entirely alleviate the somber air in the house. My host grandmother hasn’t been able to walk for six years and when I go in to see her she starts to cry. I take her hand in lean in toward her, but I’m afraid of hurting her and I end up bowing before her and her pain like I’m awaiting some kind of benediction. The dried fruit I brought from Thailand and the halva from Dubai, are opened and eaten, but without the joy and conversation I’d been hoping for. We have coffee and they tell me about the woes that have befallen their family. Neighbors come over and affirm these things. Only my host grandfather maintains his smile. As he ages, he seems to be moving back in history. He’s got an old patchwork vest on and a rounded felt cap not dissimilar to a fez. Despite the mournful air of the room, I can’t help grinning at him. He grins back.

Ani, even with the baby, makes my favorite dish and is continually offering coffee. After our third cup, I take Gina outside to show her the village that, for a summer, was the limits of the known universe for me. I take her to the rock where I read and waited and watched the scenes of pastoral life. We go to the edge of the valley where I found the trail for the monastery at the top of the low mountain range. I’d like to walk the tracks to Charetsavan or the road to Hrazdan as I did so often that summer, but there’s  still rain in the wind and it’s getting dark. We go back to the house, eat some more and go to sleep early under a mound of comforters.

I wake up early in the morning, buried under the blankets from which it is very difficult to extract myself and enter the freezing room. Eventually, I force myself out and go downstairs for breakfast. Gina and I ramble around the village a little more and I show her a few more important places. There: the school where I had my daily Armenian class. Here: The house where the crippled man lived who could be seen roaming the streets and always invited me in for coffee. This store: where I used to stop to buy candy to bring to my host family. This house: another volunteer named Danny who left after three months for grad school and his boyfriend. The House of Culture:  An artist lived in the upper galleries, his paintings strewn all over. Together we examine the summer preserved in amber when I first arrived in Armenia.

We go back to the house, get our things together and have one last cup of coffee. I say my goodbyes, shaking hands and awkwardly bowing before each of these people who has done so much for me just by keeping me in their memory and welcoming me back to their home after a seven-year absence.

I get on the wrong marshutka out of town. I’m too preoccupied thinking about those seven years. All the places I’ve been, all the languages I’ve heard, the things I’ve done, when, all along, this village was here, arching over those intermittent years, from past to future to present. Who knows who I’ll be when I make it back again, I think to myself and the marshutka bumps down the road in the direction of Hrazdan which is the wrong way, but still a destination.


Back in Yerevan, I begin to make my way out to the suburban town of Avan where my host dad Zhora is in the hospital. I cross the street in front of the train station and ask the first friendly-looking guy I see if he knows how to get to Avan. The man I ask is just past middle-age and wears a typical old man hat and jacket to keep the chill off. He happily tells me that he is also going to Avan and that we should go together. We stand together waiting for the bus. I rock back and forth on my feet, partially out of impatience, partially for something to do. My companion tells me that he used to work as a minero in Nicaragua. It takes me a few minutes to find the Spanish in my mind to ask him a few questions. He seems to understand, but answers in Armenian, utterly confusing me and making Spanish impossible and I switch back to Armenian. If I had stood across the street and glanced up at this anonymous group of people waiting for the bus in Yerevan, I never would’ve guessed that, among them, there was a minero who had worked in Central America.

I look out the window, as the bus climbs out of Yerevan again, into the suburban areas that surround it, which look almost the same as the city with clean tufa lines and raised even sidewalks. There are no shepherds and no ambling cows; the mountains that rise above the buildings are empty, dotted with plastic bags here and there.

The crowded bus empties all at once and my companion makes for the door. I jump up after him and tap him on the shoulder, asking ‘should I get off here?’ Instead of a reply, he holds up a steady finger. Signaling me to wait. Someone else is asking him directions. He must have one of those faces people instinctively trust. I wonder how that worked for him as a minero in Nicaragua. Does such a face benefit a man in an unknown place? Back in Solak, I had felt honored when a car pulled over and the driver asked “ayc gughits es?” ‘Are you from this village?’ If I remembered the place a little better, I would’ve told him yes. Maybe I, too have such a face.

The bus is nearly empty and my trustworthy companion signals me to get off with him. He pays my fare, but I didn’t catch what he said as I passed the driver and I paid again. When I get off the bus, he scowls. “Why did you pay again?” I’ve soured his act of hospitality. I apologize that I didn’t hear. He scowls for a minute as we cross the street together, but he’s not the type to hold a grudge and by the time we’ve reached the opposite sidewalk, he’s back to talking to me, asking me which hospital I’m going to again. I tell him. He stops a guy on the sidewalk who doesn’t know and then he goes inside and asks a shopkeeper. I wait on the sidewalk. When he comes back out, he tells me I should just walk down the road, stay to the left and it’ll be the red building. I thank him and walk down the street which, like most Armenian streets at the edge of town, gradually starts climbing into the mountains. At the first intersection I come to, I’m tempted to continue to follow the road, but I stop at a tire repair shop and ask a man washing a car about the hospital, he points out the building, the red building, he says and points out what is, to me, a brown building, slightly reddish at best.
The street is empty save for a few large homes being rapidly built. In front of one construction site, a man in track pants in bent over double heaving tufa blocks. As he is alone, he looks more like someone who came down to heave blocks around than someone doing any work. There is no equipment or tools to be seen. At the edge off the construction, just before the hospital, there is a bit of empty field, making the hospital feel a bit like some kind of feudal castle, set above and apart from the rest of the rabble. The place has no clear entrance. I enter the courtyard and find a bunch of service doors. Directly behind many of these doors there are piles of dusty chairs and desks. It is obvious these doors haven’t been opened in a long time. I see someone exit one door and I go in. There is a stone foyer and a large staircase which separates into wings. I go up the stairs and find the scene repeated on the second floor but with a hallway on either side. There are no signs and the white paint on the walls is flaking off and sticking to the spiderwebs crossing it here and there. A few of these paint-chip and spiderweb mobiles hang before the windows and turn idly, catching dusty rays of the sun. I can hear footsteps, but it’s impossible to tell where they are coming from. I return the way I came in, back to the courtyard and call Zhora on the phone. I try to explain where I am, but there’s no clear landmark. I see a gazebo, a spindly thing so common of the Soviet Era. One of these things that only has a Russian name, so odd in that when there’s a group of kids playing on one or some old guys slapping nardi pieces down they seem so full of life, but when they’re empty, they seem so utterly abandoned. I tell Zhora, I’m next to the gazebo. He repeats the word a few times to himself, as if trying to remember what it means. I hear him ask his wife where the gazebo is. Finally, he tells me he’ll find me. I hang up and wait but the empty gazebo overgrown with dead grapevines. A few minutes go by, I look up and see Zhora waving to me from a window in a tubular building that houses a staircase. I run to the bottom of it, but it’s another exit blocked by dusty chairs and I can’t figure out how I could possible access it. I come back around and Zhora is waiving me toward a sort of bridge connection the stairwell to the rest of the building. It’s like trying to communicate with someone across that MC Esher drawing with all the stairs. I climb the same stairs I went up earlier and pass a woman who’s muttering directions to herself, vainly trying to recall where she’s supposed to go. Zhora rounds the corner and the woman and I are standing next to each other, he subdues his expression to not frighten the woman, waits until she passes and then grabs me up in an embrace, with a kiss on the cheek. After Argentina and Paraguay, I keep trying to kiss everyone on the opposite cheek, but I always find myself kissing air as the person backs up to get a look at me. Their first look being strangely of a kid kissing the air. Zhora takes me to his room.

The room and the hallway it’s in are much more encouraging. There are no paintflaked spiderwebs here and the door frames are all made of new white plastic. Inside, I’m not surprised to find they’ve brought a portable coffeemaker and there are dishes of candy set out in expectation of guests. I’m not in the hospital room five minutes before I’ve got a cup of coffee in hand with a saucer full of candy and walnuts. We talk for a few minutes and a man enters the room, greets everyone and invites us over to his hospital room for lunch. The family politely refuses, but as a guest, I’m entreated to go and I find myself sitting with a group of people, telling them what I’m doing in Armenia while cramming lavash and cucumbers into my mouth. The hospital functions like the country in miniature and I’m half-expecting someone to ask me if I’ve visited some beautiful place in the hospital yet and offer to drive me.

When I return from the neighbors’ hospitality, I’m happy to see that Anahit, my host family’s youngest daughter has come to join us. Despite the nurse coming in and out of the room, filling the iv and asking questions, we have a nice time talking. Zhora doesn’t seem to be in too much discomfort, although I occasionally catch him grimacing which he immediately pulls into a smile. We talk about the old times and everyone laughs when I tell the story of how Naira, my host mom, used to bring me a huge glass of milk every morning, thinking that I would like it and how I used to drink it, thinking she would like it. Both of us doing this absurd thing to please each other.

In the late afternoon, the nurse is coming in more frequently and asking more questions, which I take as a sign that perhaps I should leave. The family thanks me for coming and Naira walks me to an elevator, which is wrapped with stairs and set in another tower of the hospital where the floor is dusty and littered with cigarette butts. Hospitable to the end, she reaches in the elevator and presses the ground floor button for me. I barely manage to say ‘thank you’ before the doors slam shut and I’m lowered to the ground level. I step out of the elevator, through a propped open door and I’m back outside. The sun is setting behind the empty mountains surrounding the city and the cadence of construction work continues from the building sites. I walk back down the empty street, toward the unfinished buildings into the gray evening. I stand at the bus stop waiting, a potential minero from Nicaragua waits next to me and together we board the quiet evening bus.     


We went down to Karabakh and, after an afternoon walking around the capital of Stepanakert, we took a bus up the mountain to the old Caucasus capital of Shushi (or Shusha, depending on who you ask) in the late afternoon. With the light fading, we went down to the lower part of town which was comprised mainly of blackberry brambles and crumbling mosques. The glazed bricks were littered all over the yard and the gate in the fence was frozen wide open with yellow tufts of grass. The niche in the brick wall led up a tiny curving staircase, like something from a doll house, almost too small to be practical. In places, the 100 year-old stairs gave crumbled under your feet and you had to hold onto the walls to keep from sliding back into the dusty darkness below. At every full revolution of the stairs, a small aperture let in just enough light to illuminate my hands reaching out for the next handhold before I pulled myself into the next stage of darkness. After seven or eight revolutions a weak, tea-colored light fell down the stairs, lighting the tops, then the vertical faces and finally even the recesses in the brick walls. The minaret opened, the railing and top were missing and the stairs opened like a trap door on a flat platform surmounted by a round brick spire which should’ve held the roof. The mosque’s other, complete minaret was just down the mountain from our view and beneath that thickets of blackberry and rosehip, small mountain pines, broken tiles and dust so thick it lay piled like smoke around the base of the building. The moon was rising, the color of a begrimed pumpkin seed, white streaked with dull orange, from the valley. Going down was harder, we slid in the dust and gripped at it hard enough to get it in under our fingernails. We came out at the base chalked, looking like tragic figures emerging from a kiln. We stood under the minaret, slapped the dust from each other and admired the brambles growing through the building, the cracked slabs of the marble floor. It was getting too dark to see well. We climbed back up through the cold fog in the muddy lanes. Children called ‘hello’ to us in a friendly way and we joined the quiet procession of evening walkers shuffling bags up the hill, back into town where a few old Ladas slid between the buildings without their engines on, crumpling the pebbles under their tires. Exhibitions of windows, hanging in small and large wooden frames, reflecting the moon, the leaf fires and the ruins or the lower town were cast among the scene the like little doors to be opened on a nativity calendar.

We came down a lane between walls of packed mud to a large, balconied house with tin-snipped motifs blazing from its eaves like still flames. The museum was closed, but a woman working in the adjoining garden opened a door and produced a jailer’s set of keys and let us in to hear the cackle the broken pots, to tread on the creaky wooden floor in respectful silence, to see the duduks and the pictures of choral children standing in front of a school in the old Armenian quarter and, as an overture, a warm room of blood-red rugs, a sewing machine and a picture of sadly smiling woman and her Romanian diploma. The gardening woman followed as a curator. She had seemed annoyed until I asked if I could turn on a light. Perhaps the warmth of the light on the wall carpets induced her to be more personable. I asked about the Romanian woman and the sewing machine.  Apparently, she’d donated it and others like it for the production of Karabakh fabrics. The woman offered comments about each piece we stopped in front of. She said the well-carpeted room was indicative of how the rich had lived in Shushi. I asked if there were still people who lived this way in Shushi and she spat out an indicative ‘of course’ to which she added ‘we’ve got all types here, but there are lots of rich people.’ I thanked her and she went back down to the garden, bringing a few plastic bags to her husband who was still in the garden digging at something. By this time, it was nearly dark and the only light going back down the mud lane seemed to come from the reflection of the moon in the small panes of glass, repeating across the house fronts like an animation sequence showing the same picture over and over with the slightest difference in the height of the moon. 

We took the last bus back down the mountain to the capital. In the evening, it was one of those valleys of light when seen from above which we drowsily made our way down into. Despite how full the bus was, the passengers were all silent, as if awed by the spectacle of light. We arrived at the bus station and walked down to the ‘We Are Our Mountains’ Monument depicting the faces of an old Armenian couple in angular tufa stone. The faces, surrounded by darkness as they were, recalled the etchings on Armenian tombstones where the faces of elderly women, dressed in black, hooded with headbands of dangling coins, regard passersby from dark marble slabs. The land beyond the monument and the road that led up to and away from it was scavenged like the fallow land surrounding an airport, blocks of intentional emptiness laced together with a single, dimly illuminated sidewalk. Cars roared by in the darkness and music sounded faintly from a distant outdoor party.

We spent the morning in Stepanakert and in the afternoon we returned to Shushi and checked into an empty hotel just behind the cathedral. We put our things down in the massive room and went off to find the start of the Janapar—the Armenian word for road or way they use to designate the hiking trail that wends through the lower half of Karabakh.

We walked back through the lower part of town, through the ruins tangled in brush piles and thorns, but during the day, it gave the impression of a village grazing ground. Cowbells tinkled among the broken stones and the sound of grass being ripped and thoroughly chewed almost rhythmically was constant. A man stopped us, waving his hand in a gesture signifying ‘where are you going?’ We asked for directions. ‘the walking path to the next village’ wasn’t explicit enough, so I had to recall the specific village we were walking toward, some with ‘kar’. We finally reached an understanding and he waved us down a muddy path to the coarse fanfare of several chained sheepdogs. After a large house and a crumbled wall, a few gnarled apple trees marked the end of the town. Their bark was wet; their yellow leaves had fallen at the trunk like spilled paint, but their upper branches were still weighed down with unspoiled fruit. As we walked, we kicked up the soft, brown, vinegary apples that had fallen from their beds of wet leaves. The path led us around an outcropping of rock, where a sheep had been sheared recently and curls of damp wool had been trampled into the mud. The field rolled out from under our feet, precipitating into a rocky river valley which was covered with yellow and red leaves.

We made our way down the valley, past the ruins of a village that was abandoned in Soviet times as no road could be built to reach it. We stepped sideways down a switchbacked path and stopped to poke our heads into a home, grass-covered roof still intact, halfway buried in the mountain. The last house, also partially buried, was sunk into the spongy black earth on the banks of the Karkar River. A bridge spanned the river, entirely covered in soil and weeds, looking so much like a natural formation it was impossible not to take it for granted and cross the river as though nature had decreed it.

The path snagged on the banks of the river and, alternately, careened up the valley childishly, rushing up and tumbling back down for no reason beyond variation. The valley bubbled and broke open in a mossy cave that resembled an old pumpkin stove in by inept jack o’ lantern carvings. Gray limestone steps clustered around the mouth of the cave each of them cupping a small, clear pool of water. An Armenian couple passed us, carefully walking along the river, eschewing the slippery path for the stepping stones of large river rocks, the man, helping the woman along with a serious look on his face, stopping occasionally to arrange the path to his liking, moving a stone or kicking one out of the way.  Water dripped over the mouth of the cave, but inside, I thought it might be dry and ran through the beaded curtain of dripping moss. Inside, the cave was stalactited with mineral villi dribbling water like a broken shower head. It was an odd sensation to be so thoroughly inside something and still feel a cold rain continuously falling. I moved into the back of the cave, seeking a drier place, but it was raining everywhere.

We walked the length of the valley before turning around in the late afternoon. When we came up from the river a particular, Goblin-Market, countryside dusk was rising up from the dim rushing waters to the tinkling pastures at the top of the valley. Past the gnarled apple trees, the town abruptly began again with splashes and small puddles of animal blood. The first puddle was collected, intentionally, at the bottom of a rusted metal sheet, slightly curled at one end and, further up, the blood had pooled on the packed black earth, very little had soaked into the ground and even in the faint light it was possible to discern an opaque blood, like nail polish, and a reddish, clear fluid at the edges of the puddles like the albumin around a yoke.

“Something was just killed here,” Gina said. I nodded. She shook her head and jogged up the path, away from the blood “don’t let me smell it!” she called to the air as she ran off. I stopped to watch the blood, slowly descending the path, threading red between the stones and then ran to catch up with Gina who had already gained the main street leading up to the center of town where the lights in the shops and homes gleamed like candles guttering before an icon. 


We spent a night in Goris, walking up to the caves surrounding the town and sitting on shepherd’s promontories. The market had changed quite a bit and new hotels had popped up all over town, many of them with a boutique look uncommon even in Yerevan. In the evening, coming down from the caves, we were stopped by a group of boys playing soccer in the street. They asked us to play with them, so we did, admittedly very badly. Gina mostly stood around and laughed and I lunged after the ball any time it came within 20 feet of me, not ashamed to use my superior length to my advantage. Fouls were constantly called and the opposing team got numerous penalty kicks. We were beaten 9-1 and after slipping on the loose gravel, I ended the game with blood dripping down my hand. Which the boys found very interesting.

After the game, we were seen back to our room by two of the more well-behaved boys. The sun was setting, but it had been a warm day and the weather was still nice. The boys asked questions as we walked. Mostly, they seemed to be interested in knowing when we would come back, but we talked a little about America and other countries. When one boy’s questions were exhausted, he said good bye and turned home, leaving us with one companion who didn’t seem in a hurry to be anywhere, although the day was ending and the shadows lengthening in the street. We walked back behind an apartment building where a murmuring funeral wake was being held. It was awkward walking through the groups huddled in black around a coffin lid propped against the doorjamb. I was still sweating from the exertions of the game and the autumn weather was so beautiful, it was hard not to smile. I bowed my head and feigned a neutral expression. We weren’t saying anything, but our accompanying little boy, continually looked back and made a ‘shush’ gesture to us, holding a stern finger over his lips and indicating the mourners. Soon after we passed the mourners, our companion met another boy, maybe a year or two older and called out excitedly when he saw him. He barely had time to yell ‘bye’ in our direction before running off with his friend. We reached our room by the market a few minutes later, but decided we weren’t ready to turn in after all the excitement of the game. I went in, cleaned off my hand and we went back out, to walk around in the dark.

The next morning, we went out to the bus stop around nine and were told there were no marshutkas heading toward Yerevan until 4 pm. After a lengthy haggling with a group of taxi drivers that must’ve been 40 strong, I found a man, already on his way to Yerevan who agreed to take us for a reasonable price. We got in the car and I tried to make small talk, but every question was buffeted by a single-word answer or a shrug of the shoulders. I took the hint and sat back in my seat. 

The men in the front talked among themselves a lot, I couldn’t catch most of what they said, but I gathered they were going to Yerevan to try to meet with a lot of different people, Both of their phones were constantly ringing. I watched the green hills and the gray-roofed villages scroll past the windows. When we had come just a few days prior, the Vorotan Pass had been completely white with snow, already most of it had melted and it had receded to the tops of the highest peaks. Fields stretched out from the road in either direction, gradually piling into mountains. Distant villages clustered under the shadow of these mountains, surrounded by yellow grasses and lumpy mattress clouds. Shepherds walked parallel to the road, canes raised, following errant cattle and yelling ‘Huush!’ We passed the village of Saravan which is positioned like a fortress in the chicken-scratched snows near the top of the pass. A group of tatiks sat talking near the road and watched our marshutka pass, searching the windows for good news. We came down into Vyots Dzor Marz, like a rock kicked loose from a mountain bouncing down to the river. On the switchbacking road, a truck and a small car were parked on either side of the road, making it necessary to drive between them and reducing the road to a single lane. The wheelwells of the truck were sprayed with broken taillight glass and the car had a spiderwebbed windshield brushed with heavy streaks of blood like it had been painted on. The autumn colors deepened as we descended toward Vayk and the familiar towns of the valley. The speakers played Russian chanson music with patriotic Armenian themes. I remember one song rhymed ‘геноцид’ with ‘федаины.’ (‘genocide’ and ‘[Karabakh] freedom fighter’)

We crested the last hill and pulled up to the Yeghegnadzor marshutka stop on the highway. We thanked our drivers and, shaking hands, I noticed the rising sun tattoo on the back of our driver’s hand, a Russian prison motif, each ray on the sun indicating a conviction and sentence. Despite the driver’s previous taciturnity, he wished us a good trip and pumped my hand warmly when we said goodbye.

We walked back into the town, past my old apartment to the crest behind the cemetery where I thought I’d never return: a place I used to go for refuge, where I’d watch the sunset and think of life beyond the mountains. Since 2010, I’ve often thought of this place, above the town of Yeghegnadzor. In all the times I went to this field overhanging the valley below, I never met another person. If I had a personal piece of Armenia, it was here. This small bit of pasture land came to symbolize the entire country after I left. When I thought Armenia in the abstract, I thought about this place. So, although we’d been in the country for a week and had seen many symbolic things, for me, we hadn’t been anywhere until we’d visited the field behind the Yeghegnadzor cemetery which hangs over the mountains like a green rug drying on a rock, overlooking the village of Getap. We climbed up the steep road of dried and deeply rutted mud and I felt elated. Finally, after all the wandering, I had made it back to this beautiful place I once called home—which at times, seemed to have been fabricated or at least heartily embellished. We climbed up over the crest, looked down into the valley below, and I knew I hadn’t made a single thing up, it really had been sublimely beautiful, even with the husks of old Lada cars pushed down into the ravine and a sluice of trash which seemed to pour out of the town and down the hill. It was my place, rock strewn, yellow grass tangled, dew-damp and it was still early summer, the time when, after two years of living in Armenia, I was finally able to love it. When I walked down the goat paths, sighing at the quiet of the small streams cut deep into the mountains; when I sat on the benches in the middle of the town, greeting everyone who came by, when I spent my days between the homes of friends and the intervening mountains. In short, the time when I belonged to something, when I ceased to merely be passing through, or taking a vacation. It took two years, but eventually it happened and now, standing at the top of Yeghegnadzor, I’d come back to this idealized place to find that time and distance had done nothing to exaggerate the memory. It was just as beautiful and primary as I’d remembered it. I raised my hand up to the horizon and said to Gina ‘this is it; this is Armenia to me’ and we went down to walk among the yellow grasses and strangely faceted rocks to examine the place where everything seemed to start over.

Prologue: Yeghegnadzor

Lusine, my old Armenian language tutor, wasn’t at home, so we walked back down Momik street, past the empty university to Hayarpi’s apartment. We kicked off our muddy shoes in the small foyer, crowed with boxes overflowing with apples—“we trade them, kilo for kilo, for potatoes,” she told me. The small apartment was also full of apples and smelled like an autumn afternoon when the cold north wind brings the sweet smell of apples and dry leaves out of the valleys and into your clothes and air. On such a day, when a visitor comes into the house, you rush up to embrace them and smell the world in their clothes and hair. We rushed in to embrace the familiar apartment and sat among the crates of apples, leaves and twigs as though we were still outside.

Together, we made spaghetti. I’d forgotten how here the noodles are sautéed first to toughen them up, but, although we skipped this vital step, things turned out alright and we each had a great dish of pasta with homemade peach juice and lavash bread to mop up any remaining sauce. After we’d eaten our fill and talked about all kinds of things, my phone rang. I said ‘hello’ and the voice at the other end asked if I knew who was speaking. I admitted I didn’t. “This is Sose.” The last time I’d talked to Sose Sargisyan, he’d been seven or eight years old, so I couldn’t be expected to know his voice as he was now sixteen and it was completely different. When I knew Sose, he was a pale, dark eyed, small toothed kid I used to play with after meeting him and his sisters in an empty lot at the foot of the mountains where scrapped buses were stored. Sose was a kind kid who smiled easily and accepted my linguistic limitations as completely natural in the way some kids do. I didn’t meet him until my second year in Armenia and though I went quite a few times to visit him and his family, I didn’t expect them to remember me, but when I’d gone to their home a few days earlier, arms opened, faces lit up and everyone seemed genuinely glad to see me. Sose hadn’t been at home, but I left my number so he could call.

Still on the phone, I told Sose we be leaving soon and that I’d meet him at the top of the stairs, beneath the World War II monument. We could walk back across town together. We thanked Hayarpi and offered to do the dishes although we knew she’d refuse. We stepped out of the apple-smelling autumn apartment into a rainy night. I called Sose and told him to go home. I didn’t want him to get wet walking in the rain. Like most teenage boys, I knew he didn’t carry an umbrella with him, despite how threatening the skies might look. He refused, told me he’d be fine and while I was still on the phone with him, I came to the top of the stairs and saw someone in the dark, rainy distance, talking on a phone. I hung up and said to the figure “I’m already here.” He hung up and came across the street in the dark. Until I reached out to him, I had no idea what to expect from this teenager I had known as a little boy. We stood there embracing on the street, in the rain and even after we moved apart, I couldn’t take my hand from his shoulder and we walked, like ordinary Armenian friends, arm-in-arm, down the street talking of the most unimportant things as you tend to do in such incredible situations. When we came to a fork in the road, I urged him to go back home, remembering how he was often sick as a kid. We embraced again and he walked off, leaving me with an intense joy I didn’t know what to do with. “Ok,” I thought. “Now I can go.” When I lived in Armenia, I often lamented that I had no close male friends. I hadn’t realized that I had made one, but that he just hadn’t grown up yet.

I stood in the street for a moment and watched Sose go. The rain came down harder through the unlit night and we stumbled back to our room over the uneven roads and under the spindly mulberry trees as though the last seven years had never happened.