Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Loose Confederations

I never expected to be scared, but I am. I have to admit to myself that the feeling that rises up from the back of my neck into the base of my skull, from time to time, is fear. It’s a multifaceted fear, not just the substantial fight or flight kind of fear, although I do feel that element in it frequently. It’s a fear that springs from many sources. In Armenia and elsewhere, I felt freed from any kind of responsibility that would ultimately hold me accountable for mistakes. I was an outsider, and although I certainly did things that were incorrect I never really had to worry about facing stiff penalties for these actions. As a foreigner, it expected that I would commit all kinds of cultural blunders before my two years were through. No one expected me to be perfect. Armenia was understanding of my ineptitude. When I made a mistake I merely held up my hands in a gesture of supplication and otherness. “Sorry, but, after all, I’m a stranger here. Really? I can’t do that? Well, ok, I’ll try and remember that in the future.” And, in the end, the goofy foreigner is offered a coffee or a shot of vodka and everyone feels at ease again.
Of course there were times when this was maddening. When I was trying to accomplish something it could be infuriating to be patronized. I remember one particular occasion at a café, when I had been in the country about four months. I had tried to order but the server had failed to understand me. I tried again, speaking slower and articulating the phrases that were, by that time, already very familiar to me. “I would like two coffees and a beer.” I don’t remember what I was ordering. The server again looked as if I had just wiggled my hands in my ears at her. When my site mate repeated the order she suddenly understood. “We said the exact same thing!” I pleaded later. “What the hell was the difference?”
I never figured out what had happened with this woman. For the next 24 months I lived in Armenia I never had anyone fail to understand a drink order from me again. And as far as I can tell, I changed nothing in my pronunciation. Sometimes, things just happened like that. There was an air of uncertainty that pounced on one immediately upon leaving the house. Going into the outside world one never knew what to expect. Sometimes everything flowed easily, sometimes it all got jammed up in abstruse cultural mores.
Here, I know what to expect and yet I feel afraid. I grew up in this society and though I have not lost touch with it there are now aspects of this society I refuse to take for granted as normal.
There is a man who comes over to the boarding house in Eureka. He has malice in his eyes. I tried to loosen the effect of his intense gaze by saying something, half-jokingly, to him a few days ago. His response was to narrow his eyes further and give me a “I can’t believe you have to audacity to talk to me” look. I go out into the neighborhood beyond my door and there are police everywhere, alarms in every building and people living on the fringes that feel like they have been let down by something, that feel angry. When they talk I can hear the smothered rage in their voices until the liquor or the meth. obscures it for a while.
As an American, heretofore, I hardly paid much attention to what was going on around me. I learned that it is always best not to involve yourself in the affairs of others. I was not easy to disgust. I was immune, modern, impossible to appall.
I am lying on a couch in Arcata when I hear them come in. Their conversation is careening drunk down side streets and thoroughfares of conversation. Mostly, they just banter and make fun of each other. I have the blanket over my head and lie still. I have nothing to add to what I am hearing, no reason to talk with these people. I can hear the posturing behind all of this. I think of all the empty conversations I have contributed to and know that I have no right to judge. I am only happy to think that when my friends and I go out to the bars we don’t feel the need to constantly insult each other. I can tell from one guy’s tone that he’s trying to pick a fight with a more passive-sounding kid. There’s something about the passive-sounding kid’s voice that strikes me as inherently cloying. He sounds like he’s whining and doesn’t try very hard to defend himself. Again, that feeling of fear begins to bristle in my neck.
The conversation turns to the passive kid’s mom. A few cheap shots are made, but the kid doesn’t seem to mind at all, in fact, after a few more insults he blurts out, ‘Hey, let’s call her.’
Nobody seems to be paying attention and they continue to talk amongst themselves. But I am listening to the absence of the passive kid’s voice, listening to what sounds like a drunken attempt to find the buttons on the phone.
“Hello, ma?”
‘Oh, no, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ I think to myself.
“Hey, I’m hanging out with the guys…” He goes on babbling, meanwhile, the others, not sure if he’s really got his mother on the phone, begin to belt out all kinds of insults against him. The passive-sounding kid repeats himself and slurs every other word. His mom must be able to tell that he’s drunk. But he goes on yammering away, like Holden Caulfield calling Sally, asking to come over and help trim the tree for Christmas.
After a while the phone is passed around to all the guys, there’s laughter in between. Although they all commend the kid’s mother they continue to disrespect the kid himself, and after I listened to him call his mother while absolutely shit-faced at 4 in the morning and have all his drunken friends talk to her, I don’t know whether he’s really deserving of any respect. In fact I was quite literally disgusted by what I heard, disgusted and afraid. It was no a fear of physical harm but rather just a desperate feeling that seems to work its way up through one after spending too much time in various venues of desperation.
I went home the next morning, after hardly sleeping. When I got back to my mildew-tinged room, I listened to the arguments clatter through the rest of the house. I began to feel a heavy anxiety. I wanted to get away from all the strife and apathy, to leave behind the people who cannot listen to each other but talk constantly and the places filled with the malice of years past and the portentousness of years to come.
I remember being filled once by a similar dread. It was about three months before I went into the Peace Corps when I had what cannot entirely be called a premonition or a vision, but was still particularly vivid. I had ridden my bike out beyond Arcata and had sat in an empty, dark green field. I thought about my impending journey and the years that would come. I thought about being that far from home, in a place where no one knew me. A cold wind rose up and I remember seeing myself lying prone on the street, having probably been hit by a car. There were people around but none of them took an interest in my problem. They didn’t even bother to stare, a man dying in the street was too commonplace. As the vision faded I began to feel a tremendous fear of dying alone in a strange place and a fear of the indifferent, passive-aggressive world. I know now that I had this fear because I grew up here where this fear is natural, where this fear has been created out of necessity. I know that in Armenia this fear does not exist. Having known that is sometimes greatly confuses my perspective today and makes me wonder where it is I really belong.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Carol of an Argument

A horse carriage passes, out for the holiday season. A little girl sits inside dancing around to the music that’s echoing through the streets, sort of twisting and turning to the beat and kind of waving she passes.
I woke up to the music blasting in my house. It was still dark out but somehow I knew that it was early in the morning. My housemates have been pretty considerate thus far and the music didn’t bother me.
I avoid the house during the day because it’s dark and gloomy in there. Out on my bike I’ve found some familiar parts of the area. I don’t really have anyone to hang out with, but, I’m not really making much of an effort anyway. It’s probably for the best, given that I spend all my time talking to people that I’m usually at a loss as to how to communicate with, for instance, job interviewers, campus staff, bus drivers and my housemates.
One thing that I’ve learned about aging drug addicts and alcoholics is that they have a hard time listening. A lot of people that come over to my house love to talk but are completely inept at processing anything anyone else is saying. It is an interesting thing to hear a conversation through the wall at 3 AM in which two people seem to talking to themselves. It begins like the familiar situation in which one and one’s interlocutor begin speaking at once. Each have a pressing point to make and sort of drive their opinion through that of the other. Most people will realize they have reached an impasse within a second or two and stop talking. Not so those who frequent my house, both parties will speak as if they were respiring through their words, staying alive through them. Often there seems to be little coherent message in what they are saying. It seems to be an issue of quantity over quality.
Lizabeta (I’m using a fake name here) barges in demands an audience with Rodney, is told she’s not allowed in, pleads that she has alcohol. Everyone stops and considers this. She is let in and immediately begins to babble, always beginning with some kind of reason for why she is coming in:
“I stepped in cat shit. I stepped in something…cat shit. M’fukin, shitheads, they told me! Mmmm. Hey, you’re nice,” she says to me, “I like you.Hmmm. Rodney!”
Don’t misinterpret the “you’re nice” talk. It is entirely without content. Filler. Something to address me with because I’m unfamiliar and might be nonplussed by the whole thing, the, “you’re nice” is an attempt to pacify me, the same way one tends to interact with a stranger who responds to “how are you?” with “awful”. If you’ve only just met this person it’s impossible to empathize when they tell you that they are ‘awful’ and you’re both aware of this. You mutter convention, phatic speech and there is no real meaning. Lizabeta sounds like this every time she says something to me. As if I had just strolled up to her and told her the most depressing thing, apropos of nothing and she must respond.

What We Talk about When We Talk about How I’m in the Wrong Line.
On my way home the other night I stopped by the health food store to see if they had those little soy ice cream pies to go with the coffee I had left in my thermos.
I got into line. The wrong line it turns out. Something was wrong with the register and the attendant had put the closed sign up to deter customers from waiting in a line that probably wasn’t going to move for a while. The register wasn’t actually closed, it was just a sort of hazard sign, ‘long wait ahead!’
I didn’t know this, however. I only saw two lines, one long and one short and got into the short line. I stood there for a while with my single purchase, sort of swinging the ice cream pie back and forth. At some point I noticed the ‘closed’ sign. The attendant hadn’t said anything to me about being closed so I asked her if I could wait, as I only had one thing. She said that it was no problem.
Someone had watched this whole thing play out, in fact he had even been scrutinizing every detail, waiting for me to make all the necessary realizations so he could yell from across the checkout lanes,
“Hey, Buddy why don’t you wait in line like everyone else!” As with any other speech that begins with ‘hey, Buddy’ his tone was enraged, nearly strangled by its own emotional impetus.
“Uhh, I…” I meekly held up my single purchase.
“Yeah, hey,” he volleyed, “I’ve only got one thing too!” And he held up a small brown bag, looking like it might have contained a single bread roll.
“I didn’t see the sign,” I tried, “She said it was OK. I don’t want to start an argument. I was just already here…,” I trailed off. He didn’t add anything, just turned away.
I swear, the next time this sort of thing happens I’m just going to walk to the nearest exit and motion toward the door in a sort of ‘after you’ motion. I had forgotten how abrasive people can be in this country. How they think they understand everything.
The Smell of Decay.
Today was the first day that I actually stayed around the house most of the day rather than just using it as a place to eat dinner and sleep, that is to say, I attempted to live there. The experience is not something I’d like to repeat. When I woke up, there was already a gang of young kids hanging out in the living room. My new roommate, who is a really nice guy, albeit slightly incoherent, pulled me aside to tell me that someone had been threatening people, but he didn’t seem too sure if the guy was still around. I scanned the room, wondering who among all these tweaked out kids was the loose cannon. It seemed to me they all had the potential to be threatening, given that they cannot seem to stay still for more than a few seconds, and I’m sure all that energy probably bursts out through some weird channels sometimes. I considered the story my roommate had told me about waking up to his last roommate pummeling him in the face, completely unprovoked. Shit. What is less provocative than sleeping?
I walked gingerly through the living room. Bodies rustled under blankets, the few awake eyed me suspiciously as they always do, because, to them, I am just someone else hanging out in there, probably tweaking just as hard as they are. Maybe I want their stash, maybe I’m just waiting until they go back to sleep to take it. The look is fairly disconcerting and I try to avoid being trapped under its heavy gaze, so after my shower I went right back into my room and just sorta’ sat on my bed, abject before the day really began. It wasn’t long before I decided I needed a walk.
When I came back I was feeling much better but the sour atmosphere of the house stole over me like a fog of dreams deferred and I immediately went back to hide in my room.
Every time I came out of my room I couldn’t help but to notice that no one who actually lived in the house was out in the living room/kitchen area. They were all looked in their rooms, apparently hiding from these interlopers. I considered asking them to leave and reconsidered after one of them gave me a particularly intense grimace of revulsion and excess, drug-induced, energy.
I spent the afternoon out by our laundry shack, reading Dostoevsky. The backyard of the place is really just a pile of old motors, rags, chains, mud, cat pee and trucks that aren’t going to move until they are towed out, nonetheless, they are all for sale, I was informed by one of the less truculent tweakers. In addition to all this crap there is a little facility set up for resident laundry. It’s a horribly depressing conglomeration of garbage and barely functioning washing machines, imagine an outhouse equipped with two secondhand, coin-operated washers and you have the place where I spent my afternoon reading about how the privation of man is causing his downfall.
Ortachala, Ortachalita.
I hear the word Ortachala in a café and wonder where I’ve heard it before. I take a drink of my luke warm coffee and stare out the window at the flat, white sky for a moment.
Ortachala, Ortachala, where have I heard that? How could I have forgotten such a euphonious word?” I think to myself.
Then I remember. Ortachala is a bus station in Tbilisi, the capital of the republic of Georgia. It’s the bus station I used to take to get back to Yerevan before I discovered that there was transport back to the Armenian capital from the central station as well, which was much more convenient.
Still, all the routes out of Yerevan stopped there. Ortachala was far outside the city. It was a long walk and an expensive cab ride from any point of interest. There was probably a marshutka that went out that way but I never figured out which one.
I kissed a girl last February at the Ortachala station. I returned to the Caucasus from the Balkans through Ortachala, leaving the decadence of Turkey, all the locum and halva and sesame seeded everything behind. I spoke with Armenian marshutka drivers there in a little kiosk which they used as a lounge and a ticket counter. We smoked over a little wire-coil stove together, drinking sweet coffee from plastic cups, while the snow-rain sloshed around in the streets outside.
When I came out of Armenia the last time I took a marshutka to Ortachala. I had a massive backpack that I had to sit down on the ground to put on. I had to stagger for a while even after it was situated on my back. With this awkward bag, teetering through the dirt lot of unmarked taxis, empty plastic cups used for chacha or vodka drinking and still smoldering cigarette butts, I was hailed by every driver. They waived me over yelling “Tbilisi, Tbilisi, center, center!”
I was a regular at Ortachala. I was a tourist. I took a cab into the city from Ortachala with a Yezidi Kurd who spoke Armenian and at least three other languages.
After considering these details, I realize that whatever was said next to me a moment ago in this American café was certainly not Ortachala.
They Stole The Fucking Quilt, Brother.
An argument in the living room:
“Chuck get rid of this fucking bitch right now!”
“Wrong words of choice!”[sic]
Chuck, by the way, is sweating out DTs in his room. He’s not in any condition to kick anyone out of here. Neither is the guy telling this girl to leave. No one here has any designs on changing the world around them no matter how malicious it becomes. Perhaps this is because they are already far too accustomed to a malicious world, maybe they expect it. In fact, sometimes it seems this sort of thing is necessary.
My roommate woke up on Sunday, immediately complaining that his ring had been stolen. Later that day, it became clear who had stolen the ring. The thieving party claimed that he actually had to buy back the ring from the true offender. For this reason, 20 dollars was owed for what was probably just a ransom for the ring. It was later pronounced that the person everyone assumed was responsible would not be allowed in the house again. Today, I came home and found the young man on the couch, chatting with everyone as if nothing had ever happened, really nothing had happened. There is no sense of permanence in this place. Anything that is done is lost a day, or perhaps an hour, later to a nebulous black out.
Still, the house maintains an oddly strong memory. While the residents all carry heavily selective memories they are still quiet adept at remembering other things, especially that from the past. Everybody here holds a lengthy compendium of interesting life stories. I live with bank robbers, guys who were intimately involved in the 1980s LA punk scene and guys who have eaten nothing but pancakes for weeks in Oregon. Unfortunately, their stories tend flow in loops, which makes them hard to follow, certain details are repeated ad nauseum.
Imprecations ebb and flow out in the living room, and still nothing changes. No one leaves, despite the castigations slung at them, and no one tries to make anyone leave. Everyone is in their own world, they have built up the dura mater around their brains to an opaque thickness that allows nothing in but bemusement and nothing out but apathy, no matter how grandiose the statements or actions around here, no matter how threatening, nothing really matters. A person who is crying one minute is laughing hysterically the next, taking in the novelty of everything and letting out the appropriately modified apathetic response. The laughter rings hollow, the tears swell with absurdity and everyone is talking over everyone else’s story.
In the last two days I have had an apartment in Arcata and lost it only to find another. I got two jobs making coffee. At one place, I went to work on Monday and was let go on Tuesday. “You did a great job,” the owner told me, “but one of our employees requested more hours.” I start the other place on Thursday and hope that I will not be laid off on another pretense on Friday.
I rode my bike over to the Mad River bridge on Monday. The street that leads over to this old railroad-cum-pedestrian bridge weaves through a number of pastures that initially impressed the hell out of me when I first moved here. Being near entire fields of cattle was a new experience to me back then, and I never failed to marvel at the sentience behind the enormously aqueous and beautiful eyes of the Holsteins and Jerseys.
Since I have last visited the pastures, I noticed one very conspicuous change. Near the bridge there used to be an area that seemed set aside to rear veal calves. Up near the road there used to be a small roped off section where calves were confined to very small areas. I remember some of them even being held in the notorious veal crates. I used to bike past this place feeling the appropriate surge of pity and remorse, however, I have since had to admit to myself that I also enjoyed the site of these beautiful animals all penned in together, no matter how much dolor I felt at the sight I still enjoyed the presence of the animals, at seeing all the innocence and curiosity of their expressions turned to me at once as I rode by on my bike.
On this last visit I noticed that the supposed veal calves are gone. The area is vacant now. Since my guard was down and I was doing little more than vacant musing, my first thought at seeing the area empty was sadness. Of course this was immediately followed by happiness that the cruel practice had seemingly been abandoned. Still, I cannot deny my initial reaction, which affirms my own incredible selfishness to me.
Perhaps, I too am lacking in my catalog of appropriate responses.

Friday, December 3, 2010

That's My Sentence.

Someone just brought a baby in here; I can hear it out in the kitchen. The baby itself hasn’t made much noise but the two women who brought the thing in have fussed over it enough to alert the whole house to its existence. In here, where all the undersides of the spoons are blackened, where all soft surfaces have been burned, where no one seems to eat, ever. There’s a baby in here and I know that he/she is probably going to grow up to have a difficult life. A life of being dragged through a warren of such houses, places right downtown, still somehow falling off into the peripheral, places with notes on the door pleading with ‘visitors’ to please leave after a certain time, places with ladders resting against the eaves, ten years after the reconstruction effort, places where people stay in their rooms all day and night long, places with recycling bins overflowing with gallon liquor bottles. Then one day the baby may make his/her own way through such places, reliving the past and trying to understand it.
The baby is remarkably quiet, maybe he/she is contemplating his/her fate in a rudiment kind of way. The baby is sitting at that burnt-spoon, syringe-grey table in the kitchen while my housemate is in his room making a bizarre humming/moaning noise, like a small, ineffective vacuum cleaner. It’s possible that the baby can understand something of this environment, can differentiate it from, say, the WIC office, or the shelter, it’s possible that the baby can already see the difference between these places and the places he/she sees on TV.
Last night I woke off coughing, a dry hacking cough that went on for what seemed like half an hour. I had no water in the room, only a stale container of limeade. I drank the dregs hoping to alleviate the dryness, but found it instead in my lungs, where I could not get into it. The air around me suddenly seemed more mephitic, I began to smell old vomit wafting up from the carpet and the black mildew that lattices my wet windows. I remembered the last time I was sick, in Tashkent, in an equally filthy place, luckily then it was summer and I was able to keep the windows open wide, letting the higher breeze above the city twist out some of the miasma. In these places, at these times, one starts to feel an odd sense of belonging, of membership.
The baby’s name is Jimmy. I have heard them call his name in their intoxicated drawls, each slightly different, slightly more or less incoherent. To Jimmy these are the voices of adults, of the world outside of babyhood.
The music is on now.
“’Cause you’re amazing, just the way you are.”
I think of that night in Tashkent, feeling wounded and crouching in defense in a squalid room, hiding my vulnerability away from the world, like a dog I remember seeing once who had been hit by a car, crouching in a small stairwell, eyes wet with the euphoria of intense pain, blood smeared all over the stairs. I tried to give him something to eat. It was all I could think to do. Again, it was in an unfamiliar country. There was no vet I could go to, nothing I could do to help. In Tashkent, shaking from fever on my stained bed, in a place where I couldn’t communicate with anyone I remember thinking about my life, not that I had a near-death episode, but I remember thinking about the people I had met and the places I had been. Even then, when even the warm summer lights humming in the sweltering night without felt cold on my febrile skin, I remember feeling a sense of joy that I had done the things I had done. That I had gone out to see the world regardless of the consequences, that, if nothing else I knew what Samarkand looked like in the early morning, when the rising sun swarmed the lapis lazuli tiles. I knew that in one of the most impressive Islamic cities no call to prayer ever swung through the morning skies, and that no one cared. Somehow even this piece of information comforted me. I could have read about the religious apathy of the Central Asian peoples, but I had experienced it and had been able to compare it with other places such as Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and somehow that was enough to justify possibly expiring on a brothel mattress in a place where a lot of Americans wouldn’t even be able to locate on a map.
That’s one of the things I struggle with since I have come back to America. I have all these experiences that don’t seem to have any bearing on the things that people care about here. I don’t mind discussing smoking bans and fashion choices, but I don’t think I would be comfortable on that mattress that night if those things had formed the bulk of my memories. I think I would’ve felt even more like that dog, a feeling I can only guess at as robbed.
I wonder if that baby, if Jimmy, will be able to find such experiences. I wonder if when that night comes for Jimmy if he will be able to survey the immediate area, note how disgusting it is, and realize that these things are all incidental, because he’s living his own adventure, because he’s seen enough things firsthand to justify a few nights in a wet garage, the back seat of an abandoned car or a meth. lab, just to add depth to his experiences, or, if perhaps, he will only see these things as inevitable, as the continuation of his childhood, as inescapable.