Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Take My Waking Slow

I wake up, have coffee with my girlfriend and walk down a flight of stairs out to the cacophonous street below, Sarmiento, a street that crosses a great deal of the city, spanning office buildings, a music shop district, a jewelry district, a large section of the once neighborhood, that is written in Spanish the way that once is written in English, a neighborhood tenanted by immense crowds looking for wholesale cheap shoes, the homeless picking up cardboard boxes in great heaping bags, a few synagogues, Peruvian-looking ladies selling rice and boiled chicken on the street in plastic containers and buses moodily cutting through traffic both auto and pedestrian as if the drivers were conditioned to believe that the streets of the city were built specifically for buses, the way a racetrack is built specifically for formula-one cars. After flashing through this neighborhood that wakes up every morning to its own avalanche, Sarmiento pulls out into a quieter district just up from the Abasto shopping center, somewhere before hitting centennial park there is an intersection with a flower shop on every corner. You can smell it about a block away.
I didn’t stay on Sarmiento for very long before crossing a few streets to go over into the fabric district to look for screen or some kind of gauze to put over the window that would keep the mosquitos out at night but let the sunlight in as the day dawned. I made the decision to buy this fabric after waking up for nearly a week straight around 10:30. I hate waking up that late, especially after going to bed around midnight, but with the blinds closed and the dreams of my girlfriend and I literally steeping and growing in potency in the shuttered morning light, I often find it difficult to regain consciousness. I will lie there almost waking, like a man almost breathing who still finds himself underwater after a long struggle toward the surface. I take a breath of what I think to be the air of my apartment, wood grains, stale refrigerator gasps, unwashed coffee cups, bike tire rubber and the flat coca cola smell of unlit incense, only to find a miasma of dreams coalescing and bubbling like mid-western storm clouds right above my head. I take a breath and a score of mysteries and the effluvia of waking considerations flood my mind. The light goes purplish grey again and I’m asleep trying to scrape laminate of a floor in a hospital for some reason.
Somewhere on Lavalle I solved my phantasmal morning problems by buying a large swatch of gossamer-looking fabric. I haven’t actually tried it out yet, but the way it drifts and curtsies in the light wind is comforting and seems to promise a more timely end to my night’s repose and the ridiculous dreams that parade through it.
Yesterday, we did a photo shoot for the acting company I work for. I somehow managed to wake up and make it to the neighborhood of Vicente Lopez by nine am to stand around in a solid white room having my picture taken wearing a Shakespearian outfit. If I hadn’t had too much coffee, I think the unreality of the whole experience would have been skipping through my dreams for months. While I dressed and waited for directions someone put on a compilation of modeling music. I really don’t know what else to call it. I’m sure that genre of incessant and innocuous dance music has a name, but since all I could hear in it were the staccato sounds of high heels on a runway and the frou frou of cold silk I can think of nothing else to call it.
The music began to make me feel disembodied, mainly because I no longer had my beard for ballast. I felt as if I had a small air conditioner strapped to my chin. My cheeks felt exposed and my eyes felt watery, ready to spill all over my rubbery face. The music pitched around the room and I pulled up my pantaloons around someone else’s white socks for the shoot. I had another cup of coffee.
The directions came thick and fast. Move that arm. Take a step back. Look more, uh, stern. No, not stern, playful, but aloof. All the while the camera snapped off beat to the music that was now continually climbing up to the ceiling and then tumbling back down again. Between photos, I didn’t seem to know what to say to anyone. I adjusted someone else’s socks and flipped through the Italian fashion magazines on the table. Everyone told jokes. At some point I stepped out for a smoke with another actor I just met who told me how the scars on his face were the remnants of beating he took one night walking through Palermo. I hate hearing stories like that, especially at photoshoots.
The time went by quickly enough and eventually I found myself back in my own socks, walking back the direction I had come and contemplating getting on a bus. My face felt even more naked in the glare of the afternoon sun, but oddly enough it only felt hot in certain areas, while other still felt like the concrete of a wall that never faces the sun. I began to feel as though I must’ve looked like a shaved leopard with hat and cold blotches on my face.
The pneumatic breaks of the bus gave me a slight headache. They screech so sharply and at such a high pitch, I don’t know everyone can stand them, especially as every time you hear them it either means you’re going to be pitched forward or backward. The physical motion of the bus seemed to ape the situation in the book I’m reading, the second disappointing one I’ve read in the past couple of weeks. I usually enjoy Steinbeck, but the garrulous goons of In Dubious Battle are like the chaff that was separated from the wheat of his better stories of proletariat California.
Later on that evening my girlfriend and I took our regular evening walk. All the streets are beginning to look the same, even the faces of the crowd are just like those on stamps and money, just static, unblinking faces. We didn’t say much to each other, probably through fear that we would say something that the other would find depressing, as we had already erred in that direction a number of times on similar walks.
It was on the way that we noticed the crescent moon, pointing its diadems to the left, like the Islamic motif. Upon seeing this I could almost hear the call to prayer tintinambulating through the cloistered streets and I began to tell the story, for the third time this year, about the week I spent sleeping on a balcony in Baku, waking to the melodious incantations of dawn, lying awake and listening to them, until I fell back asleep and slept through the morning once again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Triple Exile

I came to Argentina partially because of the Armenian community. People ask me why I chose to live in Argentina and I tend to leave this reason out, mainly because it raises too many questions that I usually don’t feel like answering, questions I usually end up answering anyway. Armenia is still such a large part of my life that anyone who meets me more than once will probably end up hearing something about it. And whether or not I’m asked any questions; I’ll end up answering the standard ones regardless.
When I lived in Armenia, I used to think a lot about moving back to a country that used a Latinate language. Years ago, I lived briefly in Italy, after going through a bout of Italophilia, which I think is common to most Americans of Italian descent whom, in no way, look Italian. I had studied the language as an undergraduate for a few years prior to my arrival there, but as it was my first attempt at speaking another language, I was rather inept. In fact, I was so determined to fit in that I decided, after a few clumsy attempts, that it was better not to speak at all, than to betray any lack of Italian-ness. Now, not only did I not look Italian, I didn’t sound it either. Besides, once in a while when a fellow foreigner would ask me directions in broken Italian I didn’t want to give away that fact that I was as unsophisticated as he. In these situations, I found it best to break things off, with due European flair, of simply ignoring the poor bastard, while he stumbled off into the hinterlands of some place he probably shouldn’t have been like Monte Testacio.
Despite the fact that I didn’t speak much in Italy, I tried to ingest all the Italian language I could. I knew what kind of an opportunity I had, and I didn’t want to squander it hanging around the Coliseum eating gelato. I bought Italian newspapers and tried to read them. I watched the abysmal programming of Italian television. I listened to Italian pop music because the words were easy to understand and, of course I walked around with a dictionary, trying to decipher the graffiti, most of which turned out to be really disappointing once I learned that AS Roma was just a soccer team. Although, I may have not have amassed a very good active vocabulary, that it one you can actually use when talking, I did store up a number of words that I had chanced upon in my dictionary and decided to be the very essence of euphony. Zenzer: ginger; Fuochid’artificio: fireworks or cianfrusaglie: bits and pieces, where some of my favorite words. I began to repeat them to myself like a mantra. After a while I realized that just knowing a few obscure words like these was often enough to convince other poor speakers of a language that you spoke it immensely well. I recall how it seemed like opportunities were always arising for me to put my linguistic prowess on display, for example, I’d be in a grocery store with an American friend and she’d ask just openly ask, how do you say fennel and, somehow I’d be ready with an answer. After a few trips to the grocery store my American friends would often think I had the language mastered without ever hearing me speak to an actual Italian.
When I returned to the states, my Italian was a little more exercised and I could speak at a basic level, which was much better then where I’d started before I’d moved there and for a while I continued speaking, or trying to speak the language. I moved to San Francisco and got a job in North Beach (San Fran’s Little Italy) working in a café where one heard more Pietmontese than English. For a while I considered going to grad. school for comparative literature in Italian and even took entrance exams at SFSU, until one day when I dropped the whole thing and decided to go to grad. school up north in Humboldt County and study something a little more practical. It didn’t take long before I began to forget the most important parts of the language, most of them verb conjugations, but, somehow I never forgot those odd words that sounded like music to me and impressed my friends so much.
My program combined courses with a stint in the Peace Corps, which was most of the reason I had blown off the comparative literature thing. I had decided that it would be better to learn about some other cultures rather than focus on one that I could never convince people had a relevant place in my life. So I soon found myself going to a place from which I had no genealogical link, unless you believe the Armenians when they say that everyone is probably a little Armenian since they’ve been around for so long.
One of the Peace Corps volunteers’ favorite anecdotes describes the day they receive their letter of invitation that lists a country where they’re to spend the next two years. When volunteers are telling you about the day they got the letter they invariably tell you the next thing they had to do was to look at a map to see where the hell the place was. I can’t really relate to this anecdote, but I do remember asking my mom, who had received the letter instead of me, if she was sure it didn’t say Albania. I don’t mean to say that I’m some kind of worldly guy, but rather that I have a common condition known as mapgazing, the sole symptom of which is the inability to turn away from any map of any part of the world without examining it to the point where you note the confluence of unimportant rivers, the names of the villages along them and then proceed to wonder what those villages look like on a partially cloudy November evening. I’ve met a few other people that suffer from this malady, but I’ve never met anyone whose had it as bad as me. For this reason, I already knew where Armenia was on the map, but I have to admit, other than the image of lowing cattle, a tired shepherd and a rising pale moon above the mountains, I didn’t know much about it.
After three months in Armenia I knew a lot about it. After nine months I knew nothing about it. After a year and a half I began to grasp its meaning and after 26 months it had become a permanent part of my life. The last three months or so that I was there, I remember feeling afraid to leave, well, to be honest extremely excited but still afraid. I had gotten so accustomed to the way that things worked there that when I began to consider the possibility that I was no longer going to be very comfortable in America when I returned to it. The most common thing that returned Peace Corps volunteers talk about when they discuss readapting to life in the states is the discourteous nature of the people. In their host countries that had gotten used to meeting someone they didn’t know on the street, talking with them for 20 minutes and eventually going back home with them for a meal, no matter how meager, that was shared with selflessness and warmth. Although I knew I was going to struggle with the sudden absence of such friendliness and hospitality I knew that above all I was going to have to bust my ass to get back to the speed of life in America. In Armenia, I had gotten accustomed to the idea that people, rather than time, were the most important part of life. Sure, there are people who would profess the same thing in the states, but none of them really mean it. It’s not their fault, they’re not bad people, they’re just so inundated with entertainment options that people, unless they are marvelous orators or comedians, cannot hold their attention for more than ten minutes at a time. In Armenia, and in the rest of the developing world, other people are still the most interesting things around and so one tends to spend the majority of one’s time in the company of other people, rarely ever in a hurry to be anywhere else, for anywhere where your with, well, anyone, is the most exciting place to be. After about 500 nights sitting in my unheated apartment, watching the stars hang silent in the sky and listening to the hum of my soviet refrigerator, I had come not just to accept their creed, but to believe, indubitably, in its truth.
While I was in Armenia, I also began, as mapgazers do, to contemplate the ways of life in other parts of the world. I planned trips and went off to places as far away as Sarajevo, Aleppo and Tashkent, but through all of my journeys through Tartary, I had begun to think of something a little closer to home, not so much in terms of distance, but in terms of culture. The seeds planted in my mind by the assonance of phrases such as siettecolleor alleundiecibegan to germinate, rising forth unbidden in such a foreign place. I wanted to hear the cognates to words like appellation and sagacity in a romantic language. Romanian interested me, but, I couldn’t help but to think that knowing once incredibly esoteric language like Armenian was enough, so, despite the immense beauty of Lisbon, that notion eventually ruled out Portuguese as well, after Italian, which I still remembered well enough, leaving only one option.
When I returned to the states to complete my Master’s thesis, I found that my time in Armenia had increased my aptitude for language. It was not so much that I’d become more adept at learning languages, but rather that I didn’t worry at all about making mistakes. Living in a village in a country where very few people spoke English helps to make one much more resourceful, besides it’s hard to worry about looking cool when everyone already knows you’re a foreigner just by looking at you. Armenia had taught me that language wasn’t verb conjugations and vocabulary lists, but people. You learn language from interacting with people, from listening to their stories and trying to tell your own. When I enrolled in an introductory Spanish course at the university, I didn’t waste too much time trying to memorize anything, I just went every day and tried to talk as much as possible.
I didn’t really have a destination picked out, but I knew, from the day that I got back to America, that I was going to leave again, and within a year. For a while I thought about everything south of the boarder, once even applying to a one-year Peace Corps program in Mexico. I spent a lot of time looking into language schools in Ecuador and Peru, but in the end it was Buenos Aires that attracted the most of my attention, not so much because it has always been a sort of expat hub, or because its beginnings and therefore culture is so similar to America’s but because it looked good in my imagination on a partially cloudy November evening, it also did not escape my notice that there was a large Armenian community down there as well.
So, at the time of writing, I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for about six months. The big city way of life and the excessive western tendencies have made it harder, rather than easier for me to adapt to it. I came here seeking to tie up all the connections to the other places I have known and loved. I came to a city built by Italian immigration, looking for something to rival the Roman Forum. I came here looking for an Armenian community that would show me the hospitality that their relatives so graciously welcomed me with in a country so far from here that it might as well be on a different planet, and I came here looking to maintain a few of the conveniences of the country of my birth, such as the occasional concert or dinner at a nice restaurant. In a way all of these things are here, but they are all to be found in Argentine forms, making them all different than expected. I would have been a total fool to expect the situation to have been otherwise, but, when I walk through the Armenian neighborhood, I miss the spectacle of old men playing nardion a rickety table, the slap of the pieces on the board and the shouts of their wives upbraiding them for spending so much time away. When I pass restaurants that have Italian names I except to smell the dusty, sour smell of vino a tavolathat has not been completely washed away from where it spilled. When I go to a bar that looks like a dive, I am annoyed to find myself spending much more than I would in the states on a beer that’s every bit as cheap as PBR, and somehow it annoys me even more when the bartender tells me my total in English as if numbers in Spanish were too difficult to grasp.
All these things combine to make Argentina what it is. There is much more to be found, I know that from experience, but with the ghosts of so many other countries following me around, there are times when I feel the emptiness and longing of the exile, not once, or twice, but three times over. The sights, sounds, smells and textures of my past are all here, they are beautiful, but when they are manifold they can be just as painful as a memory of a loved one who has passed on, or of a place that has since been bulldozed and made into food court. Because any day, depending on what I encounter, I can feel like an exile three times over, it is important for me to remember that life is just a montage of different experiences and what is important is not time and place, but people. I know that after I meet more of them here, perhaps one day I will find myself looking at a piece of Argentina in Calcutta and remembering it fondly.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Forgetting Where

A good litmus for mediocrity seems to be cigarettes. I’m not saying that as a general bromide; I’ve just found it to be somewhat personally true. When I’m feeling mediocre, I tend to smoke a lot. It’s almost like it relieves the burden of non-exceptionalism. I encounter this urge most often on the days when I have very little to do. I try to occupy myself with incidental things but, somehow, the feeling of being incapable seems to pervade all aspects of my life and I even feel as if I am sweeping the floor in a rather half-assed way. So I smoke a cigarette and stand by the window a while, trying to focus on past accomplishments. Only, it doesn’t rejuvenate me, but rather further hinders me. When I return to the floor sweeping the task often seems more hopeless than ever.
Sometimes, I’ll venture out into the city. Usually, to ride my bike or go skateboarding, as the pure physical exertion sometimes encourages confidence. When it doesn’t, I find myself, standing at the flat-bottom of the half-pipe on Plaza Italia smoking cigarettes and contemplating returning home to read the book I left on the bed-side table, next to the ashtray.
It’s mostly the business of acting that’s got me feeling this way. Acting requires a lot of focus and stamina that I often feel a dearth of these days. When I first brought in my monologue, I felt enough nervous energy to bring me through the lines, even if they kept getting jumbled in my head, and later when I had to come with a song, I didn’t even worry about the possibility of mediocrity; it’s hard to worry about breaking even when you know that you’re just plain bad at something. Somehow, perhaps between the two attempts, I managed to get an acting job that promises to take me around Latin America, and perhaps even more of the world that I haven’t seen, but there is the matter of rehearsals first, which, are becoming repetitive. When I show up for my two hours of work a day, I’m always trying to push myself into more spontaneous acting, knowing that I only have a few chances a week to work on my part, but as the lines become so rote it’s hard to keep them fresh. Perhaps, it’s just something to which I’ve got to get more accustomed. There are still two other plays in the troupe’s schedule.
I know that it’s not just my job, however. Eventually, we will need to do a lot more work per day, and I’m hoping to pick up a few more English tutoring jobs on the side so I’ll have more to do in the afternoons. I’m not worried about eventually having enough to do. After living in other countries, I know that it takes at least six months before one really finds a place, or anything like a schedule in the world that seems to be functioning around you so much quicker because you have more time to observe it. I know that there’s more happening right now that feels unremarkable because its sheen is starting to wear off. When one moves to a new country the first few months are always exciting enough, even when they feel mundane, and after everything has become second nature things become easier and automatized so that they don’t accumulate to such a stressful degree. Between these stages of acculturation, however, is the adventurer’s winter, a period when all previous desires seem sated or dormant, before the language becomes an automatic response, but longer feels like it should be as bewildering as it still is a times, when everything starts to sound like noise and everything starts to look dulled, voices sound mocking and when the wind blows too strongly or the rain falls too abruptly it has done so solely to castigate you.
It took me months to overcome this feeling in Armenia. Before I did, I took refuge in mediocrity and plenty of cigarettes.
The woman who lives downstairs is talking on the phone and her voice is carrying perfectly from her patio below to my window. Just on the other side of the wall that divides this patio from a communal garden area, which unfortunately we can’t access, rats scurry back and forth, as they do every evening, often much to our diversion. The construction on the building next door has stopped for the day and the high walls around this place, its courtyards and its structures, dampen most of the sound from the traffic outside.
I’m writing tonight simply because I haven’t in a long time. I’m out of practice and I don’t have anything very interesting to relate. I’ve been reading a lot lately (finally getting to Atlas Shrugged, a book I’ve put off reading for almost a decade, much to the annoyance and chagrin to my well-read friends). I’ve also been taking a lot of rambling walks through the city, riding my bike a fair amount and watching downloaded episodes of The X-Files in the evening because it’s the only show I’m willing to commit myself to, given that its run has long since passed—all I really want is a good episode with some one-shot monster or persona non grata anyway.
On the weekends we go to the park and read, walking one, or both ways, and talking about whatever comes to mind. We make elaborate meals, often with a dessert course included to appease my insatiable desire for sugary carbohydrates. Over the weekdays, we drink a lot of coffee and wait for the one or two engagements we might have during the day, a Spanish lesson, an English tutoring class or an hour or two at the theater in my case.
I haven’t met many expats, but I know they’re here, I see evidence of them in California-style burrito franchises (which, by the way, I refuse to patronize, for having items that look exclusively as if they came out of a can, besides, here where avocados are plentiful, and there are a few places around that sell good tortillas, why would you need to spend 7 $ US on a plastic-looking burrito, unless you were a totally inept cook?)I also hear stentorian American voices, rising above the current of rushing Spanish vowels every so often and there are rumors of things happening in San Telmo every few days that sound like they are the brainchildren of foreigners. In Armenia, outside of the capital one almost never saw foreigners. When I heard another language, I often stared hard right alongside all the Armenians. Even in the capital, foreigners were rare, a few rich America-hay drinking and taking in a few bars along with the Peace Corps volunteers and the Marines, but that was really only in the summer.
The thing is I can’t really say much about Argentina yet, it’s too similar, at least superficially, to the US. Many people here would try to argue that, but compared to the oriental, much of the occidental world looks the same, especially in the big cities. It’s funny, people often ask me what I notice about Argentine culture first, that is, what’s different. They ask the question with an eagerness that betrays their desire to be seen as different, which to me is already a sign of western conceit. I feel embarrassed to explain that I haven’t seen much to strikes me as being incredibly different, because I know that for most people this simply means that I haven’t been looking very hard, what’s often not understood is that these differences aren’t to be found in some exotic, out-of-the-way place but in the most mundane activities. I think about the post offices, the schools and the stores in Armenia, how all these things reflected the differences in culture. In Argentina, all these places almost look the same to me as they did in the US, there are no chaotic groups of people, there is no closet where the charwomen are sitting around a little table making their 8th cup of coffee of the day together, there is no maintenance man who flicks his neck with his finger to invite me to have a 10 am shot of vodka with him, there are no curious old women who bless you over and over for the sake of conversation, there are no little kids who stare at you in rapt attention. There are people playing with stray cats, sitting on the ground and young people making out with each other, three things that would cause anyone from the oriental world to gasp in astonishment, but are totally commonplace to both the people here and those from the US.
I don’t mean to imply that everything is the same, or course some things are bound to be different. And it might be unfair that I compare Buenos Aires to the villages of a country that most people in the US can’t find on a map, but I have to compare it to something. Most likely because there’s a small tsavd tanem¬-sized section of my heart missing and I’ve got to fill it with something. So, I’m still looking for the differences, of I guess I should say trying to become receptive to them, but it’s hard when I go down to Retiro station and see the proprietors of the market stalls spraying water out of old plastic bottles to keep the dust down, or when I see sheet metal used to patch crumbling walls and all I can think of is the east, or when I see McDonald’s or a Ford drive by and all I can think of is the west. My world is polarized, but not by north and south.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I’m lying in bed. Outside the door I keep hearing Lily, the woman who does the cleaning, say Lunes, puede ser en medio dia. I think “Oh, god. Not that long.”
De Lunes would make it four days. That would be four mornings and four nights that, in some terribly perverse way, we shared each other’s company. That is Rafael and I would have been on the roof together, only Rafael would have been dead.
I’ve been at the hostel here now for almost a month. I came on the morning of August 19th. I remember it was a cold and grey day. I was tired from the long flight from San Francisco, but not exhausted. Initially, no one answered the door. It was nothing that looked like a hostel. Just a door on what looked like an unimportant street in an unremarkable city. Just a gloss black painted door, taller and less wide than most American doors. The sidewalk was made, piecemeal, of different types of flagstones, some in discernible patterns, others just collection of bricks and pieces of slate pounded together in bed of sand. Some of them where broken, some were loose. The pattern, when there was one, changed over 10 feet or so. All the stones that were once white had that typically urban black and smeary patina on them, which reminds me of homelessness, as exposed skin too long in the city looks and smells much the same. There have been a few occasions when my ankles have taken on the same marbled and dirty tone.
It didn’t occur to me to keep knocking and ringing the bell when no one answered the door. I just resigned myself to waiting until someone came back, with all my stuff on the sidewalk. Luckily, the taxi driver was a little more resilient, because he would’ve felt bad leaving someone who was such an obvious foreigner in such a place with, what looked like his whole life on the sidewalk. He continued to bang on the door long after I had given up hope. I watched with detachment, already cultivating the external apathy necessary to get by as a foreigner in a large city. I’m sure I lit a cigarette, but I can’t remember exactly. At some point Diego, the proprietor, came to the door, looking bedraggled. It wasn’t too early, but it wasn’t too late either, especially for such a cold and grey day, when, I’m sure, most hostel owners aspire to be in bed covered with a few blankets.
Luckily Diego was the forgiving and amicable type. He welcomed me to the courtyard where I took a flimsy plastic chair, leaned back and, here I can be sure, lit up a cigarette. He told me about the rules of the hostel in good English, which I insisted on frequently interrupting in horrible Spanish with questions and clarifications. It was my attempt to ingratiate myself, luckily for me Diego was enough of a nice guy to put up with my clumsy attempts.
After I had a bad cup of coffee (the first of many here), I smoked another of my precious American cigarettes, alas long gone by now, and went to lie down on my rented top bunk in a dormitory with two Brazilians, one sullen and the other loquacious as hell. Initially, I could understand neither of them and we communicate with vigorous nods mostly. After a day or two, however, the one who appeared sullen began to warm up to me a little and reveled that he had lived in Ireland for a while and spoke Fluent English. To this day we both stubbornly continue speaking Spanish to each other, except when absolutely necessary to clarify something, but like most conversation, between two people living in a hostel, we usually don’t have much other than incidental things to discuss, all of which can be easily conveyed in a language that neither of us know very well.
Later that day I met some other people around the hostel and I began to notice that the place had a more communal feeling than any other hostel I had ever been to, precisely because it was not a hostel, but more of a temporary residence, since I’ve been here I’ve only known one person that stayed here less than a week: a Peruvian who came solely for work and seemed to spend almost all of his six days here in bed, day or night. Everyone else lives in this place, more or less, and the people that were here when I arrived are almost all still here. There have been a few events, organized by different people in the hostel. Once we got together for a movie, food and drinks in the large foyer next to the entry courtyard, another time some of us went to a festival way out on the west side of the city. There have been other events, and, like anywhere else, different groups have formed, and, I’m sure, they go out to do quite a few things that I’m unaware of.
I guess I’ve been here most of the time, considering that I sleep here, but I’ve also spent a lot of time out in the city. When I first arrived, before I had any work, I spent a lot of time out looking for it and going to see a few places I was curious to see, La Boca, the Recoleta Cemetary, the Armenian neighborhood in Palermo. I’ve also spent a lot of time just wandering around, much after the fashion that I have adapted anywhere I have ever lived. When I would come back from these perambulations I would usually be quite hungry, since I never really eat out anymore and always neglect to bring any food with me. Due to the different eating habits of the Argentines I never had to contend with too many other people in the kitchen, once or twice there would be someone else in there heating up some water for mate or frying some eggs, but I didn’t usually have fight my way onto an open burner or a clear space for my cutting board.
As the days and weeks passed, I was introduced to more people at the hostel. Eventually, I reached the point of knowing everyone here, if not by name at least by face. I’d say that was about two weeks after arriving here. I’d come in the front door and say hola to those gathered around the TV and computer in the lobby-like area by the front door and repeat the salutation to those in my room and in the kitchen. It was about this two week mark when one of the residents here told me about the roof.
Form the kitchen I had noticed a stairway going up another flight, but I had never taken it, as I assumed it was just more rooms, and therefore nothing of interest to me, besides, I wouldn’t want to incur suspicion by prowling around rooms that weren’t mine. I think it was Saturday. I remember it was sunny and I didn’t have anything to do, so now, in my slightly over-worked state I can’t help but to think it must’ve been Saturday. I was hanging around on the ground floor patio, probably reading, when someone came out and asked me why I was always out in this particular area. I replied that I liked the sun and probably pointed up for emphasis. This kind person told me that there was a lot more sun up on the roof. Right away, I think I guessed that the entrance to the roof was the only set of stairs I had not yet attempted in the hostel. (It’s not a big place, there are only two sets of stairs.)
Like any rooftop in a big city this one pervaded something of a sanctuary. After I first discovered it I have been returning a few times every day, most frequently in the morning, when I occasionally am able to watch the glow of the rising sun gradually replace the lengthy shadows of the city’s semi-obscured night, and also at night, when the glow of the apartment windows and parking lot lights frequently fades into beautiful visions of the many other places I have watched the sun go down repeatedly: 27th street in Arcata, the slight mountainous ridge that separated Yeghegnadzor from Getap in Armenia and any number of apartment windows. I never do anything up on this roof. In the morning I drink coffee and stare off into space, in the evening I drink beer and stare off into space. All this staring is a skill I can say I’m quite proud of having developed. When I was younger, I felt that I always had to be doing something and I actually looked forward to the days when I would just be able to relax. I was also very afraid of this when I was in my early twenties. The idea of sitting on a roof and doing nothing would have seemed too much like some kind of abandonment, but now I know that it’s preferable to stare into the sky than to try to stay inside and struggle to create your own sky, if that makes any sense.
So, there are some rooms up on the roof. All the singles, to be precise, the rooms with just a single double bed and little room for much else, of course I recognized everyone that lived in these rooms as well, even if I didn’t know what all their names were. What I remember most about Rafael was that he frequently had his door open and loud, bad metal music playing, which always comforted me because most people I know love bad metal and it was something I never got to hear in Armenia, hearing it here made me feel a little closer to home. Once, I remember seeing Rafael in the morning playing his guitar with a little amp hanging from the strap, his black leather jacket on and a cigarette between his lips while he wailed away on that thing. At 10 am on a Sunday it was pretty comical looking.
When I came home from my classes today there were a few people standing around the door of the hostel, I passed them by on my way to buy some bread. When I returned there were a number of police with them. Diego was outside. I asked him what happened and he just kind of politely waved me inside. In the lobby-like area a large number of the hostel’s residents were sitting around, mostly just looking down and quietly talking to each other. I could tell something bad had happened. I asked. They all kind of looked at each other, as if trying to collective decide how to explain it to me, each of them vainly searching for the one kid who lives here who speaks both Spanish and English. I decided that I’d find out eventually anyway and just told them that I was assuming it was something bad and that, for the present that was enough information for me. The drama of the room was annoying me and I was hungry. I walked in my room and began to take my food out to take to the kitchen when Lily came in and asked me if we could cancel our English class for the day.
I just smoked one of those tasteless cigarettes that one is forced to smoke when the sinuses are blocked with snot. I feel at once despondent and full of life. After Lily told me that Rafael hanged himself in the room up on the roof next to where I smoke, drink coffee and contemplate the day I went back out into the streets of Buenos Aires and found the pace of life strangely unaffected by the suicide of a 24 year-old kid. Maybe I just feel closer to him, knowing that he and I shared the same space for a while, both while he was alive and after he died. They said Lunes and its Thursday today. That’s three mornings and three nights that we held a strange communion, unknown to either of us, up there in the silence of the ignorant and uncaring city, separated by a thin wooden door that’s now sealed with police tape.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sleeping Sickness

Early in the morning there are the sounds of an unattended car alarm: a lost and recalcitrant ambulance circling the block. No one is going to turn it off anytime soon. Even at 9 am, most of the city is still asleep. The alarm plays to a deaf audience. I, who still don’t have my selective hearing back to major metropolitan standards, am forced to listen the shrieking morning alurum amidst the sound of my still sleeping roommates.
I woke up a little over an hour ago and went up to the Coto supermarket near the Abasto shopping center. I wanted to buy another 500 gram bag of these horrible cookies they have their, some of the only cookies I’ve found in this country that don’t have the dreaded grasa vacuna in them. Almost none of the prepackaged cookies here have milk or eggs in them, but almost all of them have beef fat, which, in a red meat country like Argentina, I guess makes sense.
I’m not sure when the Coto opens. In fact, given that it is Sunday, even though they are by far the biggest grocery store I’ve seen here, I expected that they may not open until 10, and I only knew they’d be open by then because I went there last week, almost gravitated you could say, as on Sunday morning I knew a massive supermarket would have the best chance of being open. I decided to repeat the ritual this Sunday because those awful cookies go well with awful coffee and I have absolutely nothing else to do on Sunday morning.
The morning is slightly cold. There are a few people out, newspaper vendors and a few anomalous people that could either be leftovers from some crazy foray well into the abysmal hours of Saturday night, that somehow left them wandering around dazed and possibly lost on this dawning Sunday morning, or just people who have not quite woken up yet, either way, most people have a disheveled and glossed-over look to them, including myself. The block I live on of Sarmiento is dappled in sunlight and cold marble shadows. Later on in the morning one side of the street will catch most of the sun, warming even the cold exteriors of the buildings, but now it’s too early and the sun too low for there to really be any substantial difference from the temperature last night.
I’ve taken my coffee with me on the walk. I have no lidded cups of any kind so I walk around the city with an open mug; sometimes, I wish I had a good bathrobe to couple this, especially on Sunday mornings when the neighborhood is still desolate enough to feel like it could be my backyard, albeit a backyard of broken flagstones, dog shit and car alarms.
The supermarket open at 8:30, earlier than expected, but I’m still 15 minutes too early. There’s an old lady waiting outside, looking through the circulars that are posted by the doors, contemplating the various items on sale this week. Near her is an old man, a liter beer bottle in each hand. I contemplate waiting with them. I still feel kind of tired and I know that no matter where I go at this hour everything is bound to be shuttered and still. But waiting in front of the supermarket is too depressing, especially when one is only buying a bag of cheap cookies. I take a 15-minute walk through the neighborhood eventually stumbling on the legacy of Argentine nightlife.
Thus far I have probably been out no later than 11 pm. I don’t really have much desire to go to a bar alone, when I would be just as happy sitting on the roof of the hostel with a cheap beer, contemplating the moon and the coruscating window lights in the upper reaches of the apartment blocks to the north along Corrientes. I have been out once or twice, but it seems that nothing really begins here until around 2 am, and I really have desire to stay up that late just to see what it’s like. So, thus far, I have seen nothing the revered nightlife here, until this morning.
Coming around the block from my waiting-out-the-supermarket walk, I noticed a few people standing in front of a building. The sickly sweet smell of spilled cocktails and various stale body sprays was hanging in the air, light at first, but then growing heaver as I approached. I suddenly became aware of music, a muffled bass, coming from somewhere inside. The people I walked by didn’t glance up, but it was clear what they were: the sons and daughters of Bacchus, the revelers of Dionysian rite. Surprisingly they looked very awake and, well, sober. Each had a can of a Red Bull-like drink they have everywhere here called Speed, maybe the same stuff that was forced to change its name in the states, or was that an energy drink named Cocaine?
It was almost 8:30. I had gone to bed the following evening around 11:30 and still waking up, stumbling around the neighborhood, trying not to contemplate the sounds of endless car alarms. I had a mug of coffee in my hand, when I passed this group of the indulgent. It was like a rip in the fabric of time had somehow taken us both out of our rightful time and placed us together here in an uncertain limbo, where neither of us really belonged. I didn’t directly contemplate them, nor they me, but I’m sure in some small disquieting place, we were both totally aware of each other and the impossibility to have anything two different ways.
The encounter lasted only a minute, and I was in the supermarket, walking back home from the supermarket, my hand deep in a bag of cheap cookies, a vague bassline to an unknown song echoing vaguely in my head.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Winter Lights

Due to the nature of the bottle I assumed there was no alcohol in this Fernet con cola. The price 4,25 pesos or about 1.00 $ also had me convinced that it was a soft drink version of the popular café and bar beverage, usually served in glasses that tintinambulate on marble counters in the dusk of south America, green liquor and yellow lights all refracted, magnified by the brass rails and amber beers. Where one would drink Fernet and Coke there would usually be a short of plashing feminine laughter and loud but dis-unctuous male voices, that is, those unencumbered by a in hefty Germanic or Slavic tongue.
The sounds heard from the cafes here are distinct from those in Aleppo or Sofia where the languages are forever crashing into one’s consciousness, plowing into peripheral thoughts like oil tankers on quiescent seas. Here there’s a swoon in the language, it doesn’t seem to fight against the calm of the evening, but rather it goes along with it, lapping around the stones of the great buildings rather than trying to tear them down.
So, my Fernet con cola did have booze in it. I bought the cheapest thing in the store because I was thirsty and ended up with a giant cocktail in a one-liter plastic bottle. I drank it on the walk home. It was somewhat necessary as I had just left my bike, the one that I had hauled, boxed up for the flight, from West Oakland to the BART station, from the San Bruno BART station to one of the shittiest motels I’ve ever stayed in, worse even than the brothel of Tashkent. Then back to the San Bruno BART, and then across all kinds of SFO travellers’ traffic. The box stood there, on a courtesy cart, while she cried, and later I wheeled it over to the international departures where I cried. As the bike, or at least the box, was stained with my sweat and tears, probably blood in there too, somewhere, I wouldn’t want to have it stolen. The bike shop waved me away when I asked for a receipt.
I walked back down toward Corrientes without really knowing exactly where I was. Luckily, Buenos Aires seems, so far, like a difficult city to get lost in. I have wondered all over the place, but thanks to a few crucially placed and familiar west-to-east thoroughfares, I’ve been able to reorientate myself even when I stop paying attention and just walk toward what looks interesting, as I am prone to do on long walks, especially in big cities.
Corrientes was frenetic with rush-hour traffic, which is supposed to be cataclysmic here, but it doesn’t seem any worse to me than in most other developing countries where everyone walks like they’ve got nowhere to be and drives like they’ve got a woman in labor and a fiending junkie in the car with them.
In the Republic of Georgia they drove the worst; I guess it was some kind of contest, a test of masculinity. The Nivas and the Ladas with the gas tanks under the back seats, ripping through sheets of rain, passing on blind corners around semis from Iran going about 35 miles an hour and belching out tufts of black smoke. The first time I went to Batumi, with Davor and Paige, I think the bottle of vodka was all that kept us going as the marshutka went up on three wheels over and over again, just barely skirting head-on collisions. I wouldn’t ride a bike in Georgia, at least not on the road, but here, contrary to what everyone says, it doesn’t seem so bad.
Heedless of the traffic, I continued down Corrientes. I’ve walked it enough now that it already feels familiar. I walked down it to find the Armenian neighborhood, just off Cordoba; I walked it to go out to the botanical garden where they have some beautiful, explosive specimens of Washingtonia Robusto. And since, I’ve walked it every day to get just about anywhere, to last Sunday when I had to walk about 10 blocks to find a plastic cup of coffee, to yesterday when I walked it to get to a job interview in Micro Centro that was a partial bust, like everything else, offering me mercurial part-time work.
So far, Buenos Aires has been just this, Avenida Corrientes: a busy avenue in the twilight, the smell of baking pastries and cigarette smoke, motorino buzzing, the metronome-like sound of stiletto heels pacing off the blocks between here and home and a plastic bottle of Fernet con cola, that was actually pretty good, even though it was warm.
The streets are going dark, the street light pools, unlike a liquid, where things rise and crest rather than where they run shallow. The bumps and whirls in the blacktop stand up like illuminated jetsam on a dark and turgid river. The river is open, still and expectant for eight lanes, waiting for some ill-fated craft to attempt to ford it. The tar is poured so think on Corrientes it looks like a current, in some places draining into the gutters, rising up over the concrete sidewalks, the painted white lines take on an aspect of movement, something coming from the horizon directly to your feet in a second. The paint and the street are all the same material, the same composition. In this sense, when you stand on it you are standing on all off it on the part that is where you need to be and the part where you are, only you are separated from the former by gloaming city blocks, rising up, to vertiginous heights in the dark, so that you don’t even follow them with your eyes. At the base of buildings in a big city the height is often assumed. You are walking along at the roots of things, believing yourself to be at the top.
There is a pneumatic shriek, very subtle, but the sound of one ton of city bus moving by without slowing. The buses with the flat grills and windows that seemed to have designed to displace the air around them, leaving vacuums, or whirlpools where they once were, and the echo of that haunting sound, the auditory equivalent of a cold breeze in the middle of a warm evening, a chill that comes on very suddenly. After the bus taxis troll along, like drunks staggering down an alley. They pull over and stop for a while, leaning against a lamppost, singing idly, door opens door closes, the taxi staggers away again. In a haze of confusion and a purpose unlike everything else on the road, the taxi isn’t trying to arrive anywhere. It is a bottomfeeder, scouring the sidewalks for those left behind by the buses and cars, a bright anglerfish with its libre sign aglow on the roof, luring riders into its fetid interior.
The scooters and the motorcycles are parasites, clinging to the backs of buses and vans on a straightaway, and then cutting out from behind and moving through the veins of blocked traffic, their analgesic loosed in the blood stream. Their riders, the darkest of all in that their human form is discernable but it is covered in the plastic and glass of the auto, behind the visors and padded jumpsuits these people look as if they are becoming their environment, gradually changing into jumbled wire, oil and rubber themselves.
The traffic is light where you begin, with a bike to find your way home. Down side streets on Friday the traffic is lined up in gleaming rows on the shoulder, not moving. Down on Santa Fe it comes alive again: a frenetic blur of light and sound. The only thing that can really be done is to ignore it, mostly. To listen and watch too closely you would be paralyzed, a deer in headlights, a bird struck by the eyes of a snake. You put your head down and begin to pilot your raft down, down where the roots of building curl, where the taxis drunkenly wag their doors and trunks, where the buses hurl themselves over the rip currents of oil-darkness on light, where motorcycles clog the arterioles left between the larger vehicles. Luckily for anyone riding a bike down this blacktop river, the gift of the Lethe is the absence of memory.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pro Vita Sua

I have not been writing because I had begun to associate it too closely with academic grunt work. After years of leisure writing in Armenia, the last semester of numerous writing projects and papers was something of a shock. Of course, it’s what I had expected, but I found, about a month into classes, that I was devoting most of my time to writing in my room on gray afternoons. As a result, I stopped writing down the idiosyncratic appurtenances that I had previously felt a need to share with anyone who might want to read them. Furthermore, there was the issue of audience. In Armenia, it was easy to feel as if I was writing letters home through every entry. On nights when the stars would spin quietly beyond my window and the few lights of Yeghegnadzor would burn down, I began to think of the people and places that I found myself at such a far remove from. Invariably, some old article of nostalgia would make its way into my mind, and with no one to communicate it to, I would feel the need to dredge it up in the form of an article. If this was not the case, no doubt something I had done during the day would resonate with me in a diasporic way. I would feel, at once, like a citizen of a country my America knew nothing of, as well as an exile seeking a way to reconcile himself with his past.
When I came back to America, I felt a similar longing to express myself to the Armenia I had left behind. It took a while for the experiences of my readjustment period to coalesce. Initially, I was too taken up with the task of observing all the behaviors that I had missed and those I felt better prepared to abhor. I also traveled back across the country and felt the need to write a good many letters to those that I would be leaving behind, so soon after I had met them again in Michigan. So, it wasn’t until I reached California and moved into a boarding house in Eureka that I began to feel solitary enough to write at length. I enjoyed doing this for a while. I spent my days looking for work and trying to remember what I had once done in this place that I had never really known and never really missed after I left it. With no classes and few friends, it was easy to lose myself in memories of my travels. Being back in northern California provided me with a catalyst to truly review the experiences of my time abroad. As I looked back that them through the gauzy light of memory in a smoke-besodden room that I shared with an aging alcoholic who slept with cigarettes between his fingers and a 24-pack of Natural Ice at his side, I was able to see the differences between the cultures and places I had known in brighter, more joyous light. I tried to write for a while, but most of what I came up with seemed to lack the vital impetus of my writings in Armenia. I felt like I was writing for an audience that was no longer concerned with my stories, and that all I had to say was merely reiteration on topics I had previously considered.
When classes began I found myself overwhelmed with the task of writing a thesis and keeping up with my course work. A few times I tried to write some kind of marginalia to things I had already written, but I would always stop before I got too engrossed in the task. The ecstatic nature of personal writing eluded me, mostly because I was no longer sure who I was writing for. There didn’t seem to be any reason to talk into the void with a very real and beautiful person to return my conversation at my side.
After I met Gina I only wanted to write for her. This happens to everyone at some point, and I hope you’ll forgive me for leaning heavily on the cliché to say that it happened to me as well. I lost all desire to write publically. When she was gone I would write her letters and try to find some kind of artistic outlet that allowed me proper tribute of everything I appreciated about her. To some degree, I think I always wrote with some kind of ideal in mind. I would think about some composite person, some pastiche character of fiction and memories, a childhood friend I had lost contact with and the beautiful girl seen so fleetingly under the marque lights of a windy April cinema awning. When I was alone I would write with this ideal half in mind, writing all the things I wanted to say to her. When this person became real for me I realized that it would be better if we spoke solely to each other for a while. After all the years that had passed I felt I had a lot to tell her.
My friends, however, never left my thoughts. I frequently thought of all the people I have been privileged enough to meet all over the world. How could I forget these people who had gotten me to where I am today, and, indeed, helped to define my character with their opinions and thoughts and through the stories that we have shared? I wanted to write something to these people but everything came out too gaudy (it would seem I’m not very good at subduing the language that results from ardor). Of course I wrote some individual letters, but occasionally, I would still be reminded about this blog and its lack of new content.
So today, I’m finally adding something here. In part because I want to share something regardless of how mundane, it’s hard to communicate it properly as happiness is a heady thing, and the happiness I know is a spectral thing, haunting my bright afternoons and evening bike rides with the sad sound of rustling grass and clouds that scrape across the moon. I also want to make a note that I’m going to buy a ticket to Argentina soon. Once again throwing everything into the kind of turmoil that demands some kind of written response, regardless of the size or concern of the void it is addressed to. When I consider all that has changed since I last wrote anything here, I am comforted by the idea that writing will always be a familiar process for me, something that I can return to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hetic Flush

Last night I fell asleep reading some of my old blog entries from when I first got to Armenia. This morning I woke up with blood in my mouth, and though I was fairly unconcerned, it happens every so often, I wanted to juxtapose this image with that of a return to the memories I cultivated in Armenia. I want to show in the opening lines of this entry how those memories are painful in a way, but also quite passively received, much, I’d imagine, like the process that causes me to wake up with blood in my mouth. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s still there, the evidence of something that is causing me harm that I’m oblivious to until I wake up.
In reading those old posts I think about all the life that I’ve had that I can’t communicate with many people. Back in America, I meet new people, usually mention having been in the Peace Corps in passing so that it doesn’t look like I’m bragging about it, but when I personally revisit the experience of being in Yeghegnadzor, sometimes I still can’t believe it’s over, while at the same time I can’t believe it ever really happened. I find myself sitting on my porch late at night asking myself, “Did I really used to walk up that hill that led down into Getap and watch the sunset almost every day? Did I talk to that old man who poured me shots of homemade vodka (they said arak in Yeghegnadzor) while cutting up a few of the apples he had piled on a table? Did I drink all that coffee in all those different homes, smoking proffered slim cigarettes?”
What I have for a coherent thought on the subject is turning into a collage in my mind. As time passes, and I move farther and farther away from the experience it attains mythic proportions, becomes detached and separates itself into moments and scenes: A concrete roof with pipes on it, sitting on a towel with a cup of afternoon coffee. The grass is long and almost fluffed-looking in the late spring warmth and dryness, like linens fresh from the laundry. A bird sings and laughter can be heard. Inside I can hear the echoes of the kitchen as though I were in it.
Of course, I have a million scenes like this and writing them all out would really serve no purpose than to make them slightly less tangible by embellishing them and putting them on the page where they are no longer what they were. To do this would only further distance me from the experience, I would take the stories from the realm of myth to the realm of the everyday. Instead of being edifying descriptions on how the world (my personal world) was made, I would be left with a bunch of hammered-out newspaper copy.
Instead of writing anything I take a chair and go back out to the porch. I smoke a cigarette and look up at the sky. I think of all the times I have moved in my life and left a part of myself behind, only to find it again, years later, buried in the Styrofoam packaging of the present, a little cleaned off, and looking like something that wants to be sold rather than just considered, but still an aspect of my past.
Outside, watching the clouds blur the edge of the Redwoods in the misty green lights that coruscate from the tennis courts to the east, everything is damp and nebulous, water spurts from the drainage pipe down a forged path that is outlined in dark green mold. The traffic on the 101 coughs and brays, out below me somewhere. Everything is gurgling in the basin of this rain. I walk inside and hear it lash against the windows. The memories are already fading. They become hypotonic in the rain. But I go to sleep with them somewhere inside, enough remains to bloody my mouth over the course of the night.
I wake up at 6:30 and begin writing. I write what I was thinking about last night. The radio is musing about the possibilities in Bahrain in a static-y sotto voce. There is condensation on the inside of my windows from the rain that wept through the lose molding in the night. I stare up at the lamp on my desk fulminating through the cold-wet aura around my windows where a soft blue light is beginning to rise.
It’s Wednesday and Friday morning I am going up to Portland with some friends. I think, briefly about their arrival the following day. I realize if something needed to be done for this now would not be the time to think about it. I think about Portland for a while instead, of the incongruent Appleby’s somewhere in NE, the clock tower on the train station and the shivering metal bridges. I think about going there three years ago, stopping in Ashland on the way. Feeling feverish, drinking a beer with my hat on inside so as not to get colder. Lying down on a skating rink later that night. Taking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type photos of everyone lying on the ice.
I come back for a moment. The light outside has brightened, cerulean clouds can be made out on the southern horizon. There’s a valentine hanging up in my closet, opposite the colors of those clouds outside: a warm red and newsprint that I first saw through the window as a silhouette, a chunky inverted triangle that I assumed was meant to surprise someone else rather than my jaunty self at 9:30 in the morning, just back from Spanish Class for the Uninterested Freshman. Coffee and red valentine, like a picture I’d take with me, walking at night with headphones on in any of the places where I’ve been alone Chicago, Rome, Arcata, Solak, Galway. The places with tunnels that cover four empty lanes of street, with lichen growing out of the old stone walls and everything closed at nine PM. The places where I’ve walked around for hours on end with no real questions to ask myself. In such places, usually while cold, I’ve imagined the look of lipstick on paper and the murk of a burnt cup of coffee at once.
Now the radio is fulminating and the light outside is ruminating. The signal has been lost and it hisses uncertainty. I take another sip of coffee. It’s gone cold, which seems to bring back the taste of blood from earlier this morning.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dog Star

I woke up and read a Chekhov story, lying on my new futon and listened to a song I used to listen to in Armenia before going to work; a song I used to try to play on guitar, back when I lived in my own self-contained apartment. In Armenia, I lived in a studio of sorts. There was a living room with a pullout couch, a small kitchen with two large and cracked windows, one with a rain-soiled bed sheet hanging over it. I spent all my non-working, non-wandering hours between the walls of this Brezhnev block apartment, looking out over the cemetery and the stone carver’s and the dogs that lived up there, playing in the day and howling in the night every time someone walked by. One of them a dog I never named, but loved nonetheless, who just disappeared over the course of a summer. A huge sheep dog that was terrifying to behold, white, ragged and bear-wooly as he would come up the first hill of the cemetery, appearing, flashing for a moment against the starry sky and the grey stones to come bolting down to the street.
We would play in the street, in the dark. Sometimes we would take walks, up to the Genocide memorial Khatchkar where water could be heard running into the nearby dump and sheep would bleat from tumbledown barns. Once, I remember walking to the futbal stadium and lying down in the middle of the unkempt grass, like the grass in any other field, only recently mown. The dog lay to the left of my feet, quiet. He did not get up or whine though I must’ve stayed there at least 20 minutes, smelling the lilac smell that drifted from a cluster that grew nearly four blocks away.
The dog and I had such excursions nearly every evening in the Spring and Summer of that year. Sometimes, I would go over to the garezmanots (cemetery) and call for him, sometimes I would see him downtown scrounging for food with a few other strays, but like all the other dogs he wouldn’t come into the company of people until the sun was setting and the kids and their rock-throwing proclivities had gone in for dinner. When I would see him anywhere other than the cemetery, where it seems he was used to me calling for him, he would come to me as if trying to cover the most tremulous excitement with obsequiousness. As large as a wolf, covered with lacerations, mostly on the neck, ears docked, tail half-docked, dried blood bristling in his hair, he would come, nearly wedged against the store fronts, with his tail tucked between his legs, waggling his backside uncontrollably, as if he thought the tail would be presumptuous but could not help but to wag something.
We would meet and go tumbling through the dark streets, if there was a store still open I would stop in and buy some basturma for him, sitting on the curb while he ate it. When I went home, I would usually bring any leftovers I had out to him. Such behavior eventually brought him out of the garezmanots at night to the area beneath my window, though I lived four stories up in the building. A few times I remember talking on the phone, pacing back and forth through my kitchen and living room with the windows open, I would hear a whine from the street below: a response to my own lonely voice.
Perhaps the association with me, with a person, was bad for a dog in a place where most people are afraid of dogs. The dogs in rural Armenia are either huge shepherd dogs who have been trained to heartily discourage anything that is not their master or a cow from getting anywhere near wherever they happen to find themselves in the fields that roll up to meet the mountains, dogs that would come bounding out of nowhere like some forgotten, and therefore much more minatory, militsia guard left to watch the empty fields after the Collapse, a sinecure.
Other dogs were kept chained up to little boxes, slapdash hammered together, or just chained to a post. Some of them barked constantly some of them lay in the dust quietly, lifting an eyelid, and nothing more, to watch someone pass by.
Outside the capital no one had pet dogs that they walked around town with. The large city centers of the former USSR that had been first to declare themselves bastions of the proletariat were the first to return to bourgeois afflictions after the first confusing years of independence. In Yerevan, all kinds of stupidity was to be seen. Ads for AKC Pit bulls, Huskies and all kinds of lap dogs. The countryside was overrun with stray dogs. In Gyumri, I was told, people had been paid to shoot them. I had heard, early in the morning, gun fire, yelping. People in the capital thought of dogs no differently than those in the countryside did: as accessories. In the provinces, one found a puppy, locked it to a three-foot width of chain and fed it scraps. In the capital, one locked a puppy to a gilt collar, a golden chain and to one’s outfit for the day.
In western society the people have come to think of dogs as animals worthy of their emotions, perhaps even emotions that they feel uncomfortable displaying to people. In America, people leave their entire estates to their dogs. Loners move out into the wilds of Alaska alone but for their dogs. Couples take in dogs when they begin to feel desirous of children. Shut-ins talk to their dogs incessantly throughout the day and feel awkward when they have to go out and talk to the bag boy at the grocery store. Here dogs have spas. Walt Whitman wanted to “live amongst the animals.” There are bumper stickers that proclaim “only my dog understands me.”
In Armenia such things would be ridiculous outside the capital because people still depend on each other. The people there live constant emotional flux and they dress themselves in these emotions, they call them from street corners, they pour them into each other’s coffee, they roll them into dolma. Human emotions are a human experience. Those who live amongst sheep see the sheep for what they are, they don’t idealize them, float them on idylls, they heard them and return to their family at night, happy to have someone to which to relate their thoughts of the day. Much emotion is not invested in dogs because it must be invested in people. It follows from the way of life.
This is why I came back from work in a summer camp to find the dog gone. He couldn’t have been of any interest to the people who lived in my town. As long as he stayed up in the cemetery hills he was peripheral and he could exist on the fringes of society. The moment he began coming to my apartment building he began to intrude. There were children, babies who played in the packed-dust alley during the day. Old ladies cleaned vegetables and washed sheets out there when the weather was nice and the men played nardi out there in the cool of the evening and in the heat of the day. No one had any use for a dog with half a tail and a bloody neck.
The American in me reels at the idea of killing an animal that has not done anything, just because it has been seen out of its proper place. But after living in rural Armenia I can understand it. To the people there the dog serves no purpose, it is nothing more than a nuisance and potentially threatening to their worlds, that it to say their children.
I don’t know exactly what happened to the dog. Every time we had met he sported fresh wounds, some of them fairly deep. It is possible that he finally met his match in a larger, younger dog. He may have been hit by a car or, the possibility I like most to entertain, he simply decided to move on, there was a dump about 6 km outside of town that I think he would’ve been happy in. But, most likely, he was seen too often hanging around the apartment buildings and was shot.
I’ll never know what happened. After being gone about three weeks in the summer I came back and he was gone. I called for him nearly every night when I heard the sound of paws scuffling along in the dust outside, awaiting the sound of his plaintive whine in response. It never came, but I continued to call. Even into the next Spring, almost a year later, I would still pass the cemetery at night and call to him, just to be sure he wasn’t up there again, eyes sparkling in the dark, docked tail waggling between his legs in a fit of excitement.
I have been back in America for about 4 months now, yet I still think of this dog and the landscapes that we crossed together, places that became so familiar to me. It has become a period of my life that is being fast buried under new impressions and experiences. I am amazed that I am still able to be so impressed by life here in America, though I have lived in it for decades already. Perhaps it is only now that I am able to combine what I learned about life in Armenia and apply it to life here that I am able to see American life in a truer light.
The sun is out now, it is late in the morning. It is Friday and my classes start on Monday, the last semester of a four-year program. There is so much on my mind but no decisions to make, just things to consider and pass by, it is the view of cluttered landscape from a fast moving train and, the barely discernable whine of a friend I never gave a name to in the background.