Sunday, January 22, 2012


I’m writing this with no shirt on. It’s not that it’s unbearably hot. I guess it’s probably in the low 90s during the day. Now it’s dark so it’s probably only about 85, but I’ve got the oven on and I’ve had the oven on for a while. I need the oven to be on when I’m printing shirts that have different colors of ink. There’s probably an easier process but mine involves the oven, which is making the sweat run down my body in saline rivulets. Given the week I’ve had I know only too well the febrile result of these sweat trails on both my clothes and my general disposition. For this reason, I’ve taken off my shirt, a luxury which I’m afforded by being in my home.
Since last Monday, I’ve been living in an exoskeleton. Sometimes it’s dry and chrysalis like, sometimes it’s damp and amphibian, but it’s persistent. The main reason for this being the long bike ride I have to work. Of course it would be expected that a long bike ride in Buenos Aires summer would result in a sweaty countenance, but the bike ride is only the beginning of my saturated days.
About three months ago, I started work with a theater troupe. It was sheer happenstance that led me to this job, but I’m quite happy with it for the time being, as I can’t remember the last time I had a job to which I really enjoyed going. The memorization can be a bit monotonous and nerve-racking, but after seven years or so studying at various universities, I’m fairly accustomed to the rigor of memorizing things and meeting deadlines. The major benefit to the job is that it will eventually result in a great deal of travel, which I suppose, makes me more content than just about anything else.
The group is known as The Performers. Essentially, the duties of an actor for The Performers are as follows: Learn three plays intended for the edification of English language learning students across South and Central America and Mexico. The plays are written with beginner, intermediate and advanced students in mind. The beginner play is a fairly straight-forward kid’s story, with easy-to-comprehend language, repetition and lots of singing and dancing, think: Barney or Teletubbies. The intermediate level play is a little more complex with more dialogue and a large amount of physical comedy. The advanced level play, in the past, has been an adaptation of any Shakespeare play (in the last few years Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest). This year it’s rumored that the more dramatic plays haven’t gone over as well and the effort to lighten the content has resulted in some sort of medley, although we have yet to see the script.
The beginner level play is called Sea Adventure and the intermediate is called Crazy Jekyll and Hyde, the ‘crazy’ is so you know that it’s an adaptation, I guess. I play Harry the Shark and Thomas, a Bi-Polar lab technician, respectively.
The Sea Adventure and Jekyll have been thoroughly rehearsed and choreographed, but they are both still about three weeks from completion. At the present moment, the workload is heavy. Every morning we go in for choreographing at nine and continue with rehearsals after lunch. As I mentioned before it’s been averaging about 90 a day. The air conditioning in the theater is really weak and often feels as if it’s not on at all. The result of this and continually repeated dance steps is complete saturation, partial drying and re-saturation to the point where one’s clothes become stiff with salt.
If it wasn’t for this job, I very much doubt that I would still be in Buenos Aires. If I was still here I would be searching daily for work elsewhere. The city is too familiar.
Antiquity sets Europe apart from the US while the culture has a number of similarities; I have always found it interesting that people tend to think of Europe as being so culturally different from the US, when, in fact, most of our traditions are derived, at least in part, from European counterparts, the only major difference being that in the US they are all blended together. German tradition mixes with Irish, Italian with Polish, Scandinavian with Spanish, added to this mix are African, Asian and Latin American traditions, but none of these are so very unique in themselves, they all have origins elsewhere. Of course Americans created some traditions of their own, but not so many that should render Europe unrecognizable to them. Still, the long history of Europe is plain even in the newer cities, such as Lisbon.
Africa and Asia are so culturally dissimilar to the US that they bristling with a sense of strangeness to the American visitor. The pious Ramadans and orthodox feast days, the overbearing sense of respect for the guest, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, the crumbling streets, the loquaciousness of complete strangers, the traditional roles of men and women, livestock in the streets, the crowding, the lassitude all these things are so foreign to the American that they take forever to comprehend and are never entirely adjusted to.
Buenos Aires, by comparison, could be on the eastern seaboard of the US. The people would have to speak English, go to bed a little earlier and not spend quite as much time idling, and the bureaucracy and liberalism would have to be cut down a little, but in a country about the same age as America, made up mostly of European immigrants, teeming with McDonalds and Starbucks, there is very little else that sets it apart. Which is not to say that it’s not unique, but I think it’s safe to say that if one doesn’t like large US cities, one probably won’t like Buenos Aires, while it’s entirely possible that one would like, or at least find something very interesting in Rome or Damascus due to their differences from New York or Los Angeles.
So, this job has saved my adventure. I really don’t know where I would’ve contemplated going next, but I almost certainly would’ve had to leave this place, mostly due to the fact that city life doesn’t interest me so much. Unless you were born into it, I think big city life is mostly for people who still feel they are looking for something, an important part of their life they still have yet to discover. I feel like I am content with my station in life as I have never been before, and the result is that I would very much like to retire to a quiet place and spend my evenings and weekends working in a garden, reading and drinking coffee with my girlfriend. But with a job that pays me to travel and act, I feel like I can put off the domesticated life for another year or two; for the time being just knowing that I have reached a point where I would just contemplate getting a full-time job and buying a house is certainly enough. No need to rush into anything.
So, due to the job, I have been losing about a gallon of water a day, most of which is absorbed directly into my clothes. Luckily, we only have one more week of choreographing and then the workload should lesson a little. I will appreciate not having to take the unprecedented number of two showers a day any longer.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A field, a fence

At the end of the day there is a group of kids skating at Faculdad de Medicina, a cross of a piazza and a park, most concrete with a few spare patches of grass. We sit in one of these patches of grass and watch the sun fall beneath the skyline on Cordoba avenue. Minervas and other Greek deities catch the light from their corniced positions and keep it for a while in the folds of their marble gowns, bringing their dimensions out further over the street, their bodies more nubile, their shadows longer and less ungainly. A silk flag flourishes above, like a distant thunder, it can scarcely be heard over the traffic. The skateboards snap and roll. Someone yells to their dog.
We stay on as the twilight deepens, listening and telling stories of our pasts that seem to come, unbidden, from the sounds of the evening. Gina has a difficult time getting anything in because I will not stop talking. The subject now is my last night in Armenia. I recount the details precisely, trying to shape a picture out of a number of random, unconnected details: This bar, this street, this office, this sound we used to hear all the time, the name of a local chain grocery store, the cheap Chinese-made shoes I was wearing. She listens with due patience, knowing that once I’ve begun such a description I won’t stop until it’s finished, no matter how mundane it might be. I continue telling about the July night, waving my hands around, using certain Armenian words like flourishes to complete a thought and then having to double back to explain what they mean. Sometimes, the explanations for the words cost me too much time, I lose the thread of the story after explaining the subtle difference between the Russian “Fcio” and the Armenian “vertch” or “prtsav.” When I say these words, I hear the people saying them from whom I learned them. I see the way they look and smell their cigarettes or perfume. This is why I can’t disregard these details. I’m telling the story to myself as well, just to reaffirm that it did once happen.
My last night in Armenia was in late July, as I tell the story its January in the southern hemisphere, in Argentina it’s about 34 degrees Celsius, probably nearly the same as it would’ve been in Yerevan that night. Perhaps this is why the story has come to mind. It occurs to me as I tell the story, that, as much as I’ve told Gina about Armenia, I don’t know if I’ve ever come to the end of the story before. As I build up the structure of the story, supply the characters and tell about their idiosyncrasies, I realize I’m telling Gina something she’s heard hundreds of times before. She needs no introduction to Yerevan or to Elliot. I don’t need to explain to her what a marshutka is, but I do anyway, just so I can hear the clink of the coins hitting the little carpet where people tossed them to pay on the front consul, so I can hear the Armenchik music and the sound of the shepherds yelling at their sheep outside the windows to get out of the way, just so I can feel the warmth of the other two passengers I’m sitting between. She’s heard all of this many times before, but I don’t know if I ever got to the end. I’m wondering now what the significance of the present telling is. Am I telling her the end, just because the warm evening has reminded me of it? Or the sound of something in the light wind? Or am I telling her because, I’m deciding to bring the epic to a close for a while? I don’t think about it much further. I just continue telling the story because it comes naturally to me, especially on this warm evening.
When I get to Tbilisi, which is, effectively, the end, I stop. For a while neither of us says anything. Although a great deal of interesting things happened to me after I arrived in Tbilisi I don’t try to make any more pronouncements. I don’t hint at them. They are stories that I’ve told before and they are things that are finished, with lingering memories, yes, but still, finished. And I look up at the last bit of light coming over the buildings much further down the avenue. I see Buenos Aires as I imagined it when walking by the escuela Argentina on Baraghmyan street in Yerevan. I see all the dreams I had about this place long before I ever came here and how much of my time spent in the Armenia of my recollections was spent thinking about what it would be like here. I see the circumstances that brought me here and for a moment it seems that I am living a fulfilled wish, only to be sitting where I am at the moment. I see how much I have yet to learn to get to a point where this moment to will take on the greater significance of being a chapter in another story that I will tell from another place.
We continue sitting for a while, until the streetlights come on, eventually we begin to make our way back home. Past the university building where when the students graduate they throw eggs and flour all over them, past the Coco supermarket, which, being a sort of smaller supermarket is actually called a Chino here, mainly because these places are always owned by Chinese people. We pass one of the numerous cafés where they serve liters of beer in Styrofoam wrappings that keep them cooler. As we get to our door, I take out my key which is unlike any other I’ve ever seen, having a crated appearance, we call it the ‘moon’ key. I think to myself how these small details are just the beginning of another story

Saturday, January 7, 2012


It’s hard not to complain, sometimes. I look at certain aspects of culture here in Buenos Aires and see them as corollaries to aspects of culture that annoyed me when I returned to the US form the East. I didn’t comment on them so much then, as when I came back to the US, I had anticipated many of them in advance. I considered the impersonal, and often self-righteous way that people act in the states as being an inevitable consequence of life there since I had grown up around it as such and knew that it wouldn’t have changed over the few years that I had been away. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t also love the country for all the beauty I have seen it demonstrate and even at times, nearly erupt in. That is to say before I returned to the states I already had many things in mind that I both abhorred and adored about life there. In short, I knew what to expect.
I have often written about the map of the US I had on my wall while I was living in the mid-eastern country of Armenia. I have related how I used to spend large amounts of time staring at this wonderful monument to culture and civilization. It appeared to me as such when, living so far away, I could contemplate the memories I had of certain places. The map appeared to me as a loose conglomeration of stories and pictures. Memphis: a near-hypothermic night camping in a closed state park and the look of the cold Mississippi the next morning when I crossed it for the first time. San Francisco: The sun setting west of the Richmond, watching the last copper rays burnish the Muni train tracks that undulated past quiet, pastel homes. Nebraska: corn flower blue skies. Cour d’Alene, Idaho: a rictus of rock and snow that, even when still, had the air of something crashing about it. Philadelphia: Ben Franklin’s grave covered with pennies in the moon light. Missoula, Montana: Pine trees lining wide streets that give way to old freight yards fogged in yellow arc lights. Marquette, Michigan: at once a book and a town that the book gave rise to; stories the town told and the town the stories promised. Grand Central Station, New York: a whited sepulcher with timetables.
When I returned, I was able to cross the country again, and fill in the gaps on the map that I had so expertly studied. Biloxi, Mississippi, a highway overpass that curls out over a man-made beach where seagulls and men drinking malt liquor congregate. Nacogdoches, Texas: a desert-brick town in the heart of well-forested east Texas. West Texas: the most beautiful emptiness I have ever seen and, I think, the only 80 mph speed limit in the country. Tucson, Arizona: a pedestrian overpass that was designed to look like a giant rattle snake. When I looked at the map on my wall in Armenia, I would see these things and imagine the ones I hadn’t yet seen. The feeling of America, though restless and vague, is to be found all the across the country, as it was the first feeling I knew I cannot begrudge it even when it pushes me, belittles me, raises the rent on me, breaks up with me, ignores me or doesn’t give me back the right change.
The same sort of feeling occurs now when I am reminded of Armenia. Yes, when I first arrived there was the typical period of immense disquiet. When Americans admire the East they are often looking only at the mysticism they are only able to superficially admire from afar. Even if they are to visit, they often to do not stay long enough to discover that which would be difficult for them to accept such as that the idea of dressing in what we call casual attire is not considered proper for adults. The people of the east make an effort to look nice all the time, usually they do not wear tennis shoes at all except in the house. The convention of companion animals hardly exists outside the large westernized capital cities. If dogs are kept they are left in deplorable conditions. Women and men occupy their traditional roles in society. Public affection between different sexes is frowned upon. In general conformity is seen as a good thing, many people see conformity as the keeper of the cultural traditions so valued by the people of the west that, conversely, are always expounding on the inborn values of diversity and creativity.
I’m sure other westerners that have spent a significant amount of time in the east could find an example to contest any of these points from their own travels, but for me they are general, not specific truths, behaviors that can be observed in the behavior of people from Syria to Kazakhstan. I too came to understand these behaviors. In a way, I incorporated them into my own world view to a point where I was skeptical to return to an America where they were not normal, and were often hotly contested. But I could not abandon them given the great benefits I had seen them to bestow on the people that lived by them, specifically, how they had very little need for police and how trusting and hospitable they were even with strangers.
But my own country of eucalyptus, ghostly birch, long prairie highways, deer, pelicans, drive-through liquor stores, dinners, gas station coffee, peanut butter, PG & E, recycling centers, ‘zines, Hollywood stars, MP3s, Detroit Greek Coney Islands, bookstores with couches, Mexican restaurants, vinyl, 11 o’ clock news, jazz, Native American names and parking lots was waiting for me. In it I could apply the things I had come to know, and form a more exact picture of the world, its people and their behaviors. When I first came back to the states, I was reticent, catching up and trying not to make an ass of myself by saying too much at once, even to the people I loved for fear that they would not be able to understand me, not having been where I’d been, not having learned what I had learned. Eventually, I did begin to talk, and I began to tell stories, ardent stories of friends, guns, Iranian truck drivers, tufa stone, soviet trains, twilight Caucasian mountains, homemade vodka and all the things I was begged to take by people with very few posessions but still in a position to give great wealth. I told the stories with the love with which they had been created, my fondness for the people that cared for me while I was in their country showing through. I could not moralize or try to make cautionary tales out of what I had learned. I told the lessons of the east as stories, much as they were meant to be told, rather than pedantic grumblings.
Now, I am in America, but in a different part of it. In Argentina there is every where the same decadent way of living and the sense of fear and distrust that arises from it. It does not differ from the US as the East does, although it must differ in its own way. The problem is that the difference is subtle. After living in such a different part of the world, I am unaccustomed to seeing the minutiae that makes western countries different from each other. I get tired and long for two different ideas of home. The eastern that was peaceful in its obvious logic and the America that is beautiful because it is so ad hoc.
I originally meant to write today about the differences in Buenos Aires, but I cannot do that yet, because they are not interesting to me, therefore I can’t make them interesting to read about. But every culture has something valuable to offer; I know that every trip produces something in the traveler, even if the result is nothing but disappointment at least one comes to understand why there was disappointment. I write for myself that I should become more perceptive by recalling the past and what I have seen in all the places of the world that result in such incredible wonder that I must seek out all its different permutations.

Book Circles

Gurdjieff writes of the Yezidi Kurds of the Caucasus and northern Iran.
If a circle is drawn around a Yezidi, he cannot of his own volition escape it. Within the circle he can move freely…but get out of it he cannot. Some strange force, much more powerful than his normal strength keeps him inside. (Meetings with Remarkable Men, 66)
To me this doesn’t seem incredibly phenomenal. I think we are all subject to such pulls, depending on what we raised to believe. Conventions are stored up in the mind and we cannot help but to continually return to the propositions that will fulfill these conventions. Be construct our lives, after a fashion, in a circle, but it is not a circle which is prohibited growth. The more adventurous of us take small steps outside the circle and then try to do what we can to balance the sudden inertia by finding what is familiar in the new, and often, overwhelming environment. I have observed this behavior in myself numerous times, and, it seems that from this way of living is prone to coincidence. That is to say that one sets one’s self up for coincidence. When the coincidence is fulfilled it seems strange, because the steps taken to fulfill the coincidence have been forgotten. Let’s take a recent incident as an example.
I was lying in bed reading when suddenly I gasped and jumped up, running to the cardboard bookshelf that was once a candy display in a nearby store. My girlfriend, as you can imagine, was nonplussed by my sudden frantic behavior, though not as much as most people would be given that I am prone to such odd outbursts. Still, she couldn’t help but to continually call after me, asking what had happened. I could not answer her, because I wasn’t yet sure myself. I was too busy looking for a corollary to the following lines I had just read.
“Five-cent cotton, fo’ty cent meat, how in the world kin a pore man eat.”
I had just read the line in a book entitled Paper Moon. The lines that preceded the song fragment were, “Maybe you remember a song they used to sing back in the thirties? I can’t recall the name of it, but it had a line that went:” What had struck me as odd was that I did remember this particular song lyric, in fact I remembered it very well because I had just read it the other day. Only, I couldn’t remember where. At the bookshelf I was looking for Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, which is based in the thirties and is essentially about pore men not being able to eat. Unfortunately, I had sold In Dubious Battle to buy Paper Moon. Which was, in and of itself, an incredible coincidence.
Paper Moon by Joe David Brown is probably not the most well-known book in the English-speaking world, than again neither is The Girl with the Silver Eyes, yet, somehow, among the scarce and well-picked over selections of used English books in Buenos Aires, my girlfriend has managed to find both of them.
The Girl with the Silver Eyes, was a book I had been hearing about for months. Every so often my girlfriend would make some sort of reference to it as it was one of her favorite childhood books. Although I listened to the stories with some interest, I never made any attempt to look for it even when we were in the states. Then one day, in a used book store in Buenos Aires, we were looking though the meager one-shelf English book selection and there it was. A copy of a young adult novel amidst old crime serials and out-dated computer manuals.
A few weeks later we went down to sell a few books at an exclusively English used book store, after not finding much we decided to try another book store, this one with very few English books, around the corner. There, between a tattered Poe compendium and a book from the WWII era about the Japanese people, was Paper Moon, which is one of my girlfriend’s favorite movies, which I had forgotten had originally been based on a book. She had in fact sent me an e-mail telling me to watch this movie shortly after I had arrived in Argentina a few weeks ahead of her. Naturally we bought it.
So, the book itself was a coincidence, the followed a similar conincidence, and within the book itself, another coincidence occurred. The line: “Five-cent cotton, fo’ty cent meat, how in the world kin a pore man eat ”are also to be found in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which I had bought at the English bookstore about a month before only in Vonnegut’s version the price of cotton is “‘leven-cent.”
I took the book off the shelf and carried it over to my girlfriend so that she could compare the two lyrics from the same song in two such unrelated books. I was obviously more moved by the incident than she was, still, she agreed that it was odd. I got up and paced the room for a little while, trying to puzzle out what the connection could be. It seemed I was being shown a sign. I went back to Vonnegut for the sentences that preceded the lyrics they were: “Billy was emotionally racked again. The experience was definitely associated with those four men and not what they sang.” I’m not adding the italics, they are part of the original text. As I read this passage I knew what it was that the zealously faithful feel when they read the bible for comfort and feel the acute feeling that the words they are reading were meant for them alone. The italics on the page seemed to have jumped out at me, saying the song itself was unimportant, still Vonnegut quotes 10 lines of it. Why would he do that if the song were unimportant. Stranger still, was how oddly Vonnegutian this whole experience was. Especially considering the immensely Vonnegutian experience I had back in 2002 in Chicago when Vonnegut came to the Harold Washington library to speak.
I was living at the time in the south loop and thought it incredible that I should get a free chance to see Vonnegut speak for free, in my own neighborhood nonetheless. When I got there, I found that the library staff had blocked off the top floor where he was to speak as it was already filled to capacity. Narrowly skirting a guard I ran up the wrong way on an escalator, to find myself at the back of an immense crowd, before the crowd about 400 feet in front of me Vonnegut was speaking.
I occasionally tell people that I went to see Vonnegut speak, and I did exactly that; I watched him speak. I couldn’t hear anything in that room. I couldn’t give up my coveted spot though and stayed to the end, listening to the murmurs of the crowd around me all straining to hear a few words.
About a week later, I had nearly forgotten about the incident, when I woke up early one Saturday morning and began my day by flipping through the channels. I didn’t get very far when I hit a local access channel that was airing the talk. So, at one moment in time I watched Vonnegut speak, and at another I listened to the same speech, as if there had been a week-long delay on his words. What was also odd is that I remember the camera’s point of view being almost exactly where I had been standing in the room. So it was almost as if I was inhabiting myself again, only with much better hearing, a week later while sitting on my couch.
So far the coincidence has yielded no great revelation, and I doubt whether it will. I am still quite unconcerned with the prices of cotton or meat, but it seems they are things that I have brought into my circle and that I am continually seeking them out, despite having no conscious intent of doing so. Or maybe this has all just been an incredible coincidence. It’s hot enough today that I am really not very sure and do not intend to think much more about it until something similar should suddenly remind me of it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

One Thousand Nights and a Night ألف ليلة وليلة

All my writing projects are failing, for different reasons and in different ways. I always get overwhelmed after something goes beyond 5 pages or so. I tried to combat this by setting up a narrative that would consist of present events, or stories and remembered ones. Something like the blog I kept while in Armenia, writing mostly about what was happening all around me, while, occasionally, drifting into the past, more, I guess, for myself than for my readers. I tried to condense this formula, by keeping an ongoing journal that frequently delves into the past while being framed in the present. I thought it would also be interesting to even greatly embellish a few elements of it as well. I put the introduction to this project up here a few days ago, but I’m taking it down now because it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I thought after writing my thesis (which you can actually read as the last entry at I was ready for larger writing projects, but without proper structuring they still seem to overwhelm me. I may keep working on it and see what I come up with, but for the time being I’m just going to keep things straight by writing about the present while constantly thinking about the past.
The streets seemed lower down between the canyons formed by the buildings on Cordoba street heading toward the Palermo district. The sky seemed higher and the only traffic we had to contend with was a few sullen taxis lurching along, looking for their absent fares. It was the moment for which I had brought a bike with me to Buenos Aires. It was the moment for which I had bought a bike for my girlfriend. The city had stopped about an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, and we were the only people out, down at the bottom of the avenue’s canyon, drifting through the light wind and the concrete channels that funneled it.
A few hours earlier we had been in our darkened living room. I was reading ghost stories from an antiquated collection I had found for free online. My girlfriend was listening to my voice drop from the stoic, lackluster tone of a narrator and rise to the tone of strongly British accented characters. Out of the three we read only the last was good, a story in which a shadow suddenly appears on a wall after an assumed murder. The shadow never does anything, it doesn’t leave the wall or try to intimate anything, but it remains there, like an stark accusation.
The mood was a little too light to really appreciate such macabre tales. But there was a certain necessity in recounting them, as nearly a year to the day, when she and I met, we had gone for a walk and, uncertain of what else to do, walking through a marsh with a beautiful girl I had just met, I began telling ghost stories.
After work on New Year’s day, I decided to take my book down to the bar and have a drink before returning to my new apartment, one that I shared with three people I hardly knew. At this point my bed was still just a mattress on the floor. My room was otherwise unfurnished, so you can see how I was in no hurry to return to it. Besides, the night before, New Year’s Eve, though I tried to go out and celebrate, I still found myself at home in bed before midnight. My friend Paige, two time zones away in Texas, had called me and upbraided me for being in bed at such an hour, but what defense could I give? I was back in Arcata, California, a town I had left almost three years prior after only living there less than a year between 2007 and 2008. You couldn’t exactly say that I had a lot of friends there.
When I got out of work, I debated on what exactly to do. I knew that I now had only 19 days left before I would start classes at the university again and thus, finally begin working on the thesis that I had been thinking about since I started the program nearly four years ago. The thought unnerved me sufficiently, especially after having been outside of academia for so long. I decided to go down and have a beer with my book.
I knew the atmosphere would be quiet enough in The Alibi so I went there, but it didn’t really matter. The day after New Year’s most people don’t feel like heading back to the bars. I found a place at the bar, ordered a beer and began reading. The Russian novel I was reading about warefoxes should have interested me more, but, after reading a number of books by the same author, I was beginning to see a formula emerge, an interesting formula, but something predictable nonetheless. I read on, despite my inattention, and did a fairly good job getting lost in the story. I was nearly finished with my beer and was thinking about leaving when I looked up from my book long enough to take another drink and to see who had just come in the door. I didn’t have many friends in Arcata at the time, but I was totally friendless, and I would’ve appreciated some company at that moment. I didn’t see anyone, but I noticed a girl sitting to the right of me, where the bar wrapped around, it was an auspicious angle, much easier to talk from than from a parallel position at the bar. The girl was reading a newspaper. I went back to my book, thinking how nice it was that I was no longer the only person in the bar alone and reading, but, I reasoned, someone that beautiful is probably just waiting for someone, and thinking along this premise I went back to my book. Some time must have passed, but I’m not sure exactly how much, before I looked up again to see if anyone had joined the girl. She was still alone. Now years before I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but since I was only recently returned from years of living in a country where it was very rare to meet a fellow English speaker, I was still impressed with the idea of striking up conversations with strangers on the street that were so easy to follow. I thought about it for a moment with my book lowered in front of me, and after a few moments of considering social norms, and what wouldn’t sound like a blatant pickup line I said something.
This is how I met Gina. After more conversation we went out and took a walk around. I’ve always thought she was brave to take a midnight walk with a complete stranger, but she insists that it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to try anything. I guess that’s one of the benefits to being incredibly gregarious; you never stop talking long enough to think how you could hit on someone, so, in comparison to someone dropping line after line, you seem innocuous as hell. Rightly so, I guess, as at the time I wasn’t really thinking about meeting anyone for a relationship, I would’ve been happy to just have a friend, which, in a way, is what I got, a beautiful, butterfly-eyed friend, who washes my clothes, takes care of me when I’m sick, tell me when I’m repeating myself and drinks coffee with me every morning, which, after all, is the best kind of friend.
So to celebrate New Year’s, and our first anniversary, Gina and I told ghost stories and took a ride through the empty streets of Buenos Aires until midnight struck and suddenly the streets were filled with traffic. Up until that moment it was just like being back in Arcata.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Brand New Pair of Rollerskates

I got my girlfriend a bike for Christmas. The whole thing was one hell of an ordeal. When I lived in Armenia, God! I missed the feeling of being on a bike. I got so desperate at times that I remember going up to a crest of a rocky and steep hill and bounding around like a jerk, trying to simulate the feeling of racing down a steep hill in heavy traffic. Now, Armenia wasn’t completely devoid of bikes. There was the odd stand of cheap and somewhat rusty-looking Chinese-made bikes in larger towns, but these were almost ubiquitously children’s bikes. I don’t mean they were just small, I mean they had motorcycle decals and obnoxious plastic fenders all over them, in places were fenders aren’t even necessary. I remember once finding a rather larger example of this type of bike and considering taking off all the plastic crap so that I wouldn’t look like a complete fool riding the thing, but I was deterred by two things. 1: The Peace Corps had, and still probably has, a very strict policy about helmet usage. If one was seen on a bike without a helmet by any of the staff it was grounds for instant dismissal. I guess this was a policy implemented mainly for African and Asian countries where people actually use bikes as a viable means of transportation, places that are featured in National Geographic as reticulate networks of rickshaws, trishaws, bikes, scooters, mopeds and the anonymous people that happen to be riding them. In such places, I guess the PC does well to make the average American don a helmet, since most of them are probably, initially at least, quite overwhelmed. In Armenia, no one rode bikes. Once in a while you’d see a few brave kids in the capital Yerevan banding together and riding precariously down the sidewalks. Apart from this one never really saw adults on bikes except, incongruously, in the Ararat region, where, for some reason, it was ok for adult farmers to ride their bikes out to the fields, something I never saw anyone else elsewhere in the country. That brings me to the second reason I didn’t buy the bike, I already looked quite asinine enough skateboarding around. To most people in Armenia, bikes were considered toys, and it wouldn’t have been considered proper for an adult to be seen on such a contraption. Nearly every time I went skateboarding on one of the two flat surfaces where I used to live I would be mobbed by kids wanting to try the strange toy, and by men, who would watch and then scowl and shake their heads. Several times I tried to win the men over by offering them an attempt on the board to which they always replied that they were fine with the car that they drove, and given the condition of some of those old Ladas I can see how that would be enough risk for one man without having to try a skateboard as well.
When I returned to America, one of the first things I did was take my bike for a spin. I stayed with my parents the first six weeks I was back in the country, gradually adjusting to the impersonal, reticent and busy life of post-industrial America. I did this mainly by biking in and around the environs of my hometown of Jackson, Michigan. Initially, I was happy for the anonymity, but as they tell all returning Peace Corps volunteers, eventually, you start to miss the group that constantly followed you around asking every conceivable question from “ver are you from?” to “arak kuses?” the latter question being asked mainly by pensioners who in the US are afraid to come out of their homes, let alone invite complete strangers in to drink with them. But I was writing about bikes, not drinking, despite the overlapping nature of the genres.
Eventually, I took my bike in the back of a rental car, the largest thing I owned, by far, back out to California. After I returned to Northern California, gradually, the novelty of riding a bike wore off until it became just another means of transportation. I could hardly believe the first time I felt like walking rather than riding. In Armenia, I thought I had walked enough to last me a lifetime, and in a few ways I think I did, given that it seems long walks tire me much more quickly than they seemed to before. So gradually, riding my bike ceased to be such a fantastic activity, especially after getting caught in the rain multiple times, fixing multiple flats, trying unsuccessfully to fix my breaks and riding around using my back foot as a break until I finally paid someone else too much money to fix them correctly.
When I began to plan the move to Argentina, I reasoned that I would need a bike. I knew I couldn’t expect to find a good one here for less than some ridiculous price. I bought one online and brought it down here, an experience that was probably the biggest pain in the ass of my life if you compound all the details. For one, the UPS delivery guy couldn’t find my apartment, so I kept having to wait for him at home and calling the hotline to track his movement so I knew around what time I should start standing in the driveway so I wouldn’t miss him. I finally ended up having to chase him around a parking lot before coaxing him back to my house to reattempt the delivery after about three days of standing in the driveway looking like a lost puppy waiting for the damn thing. After the bike was secured in my apartment it was found that the box was too big. I had to cut it down and move everything inside to fit in a smaller space. I took the box down to Oakland with no problem, only to nearly kill myself and my girlfriend trying to get the thing from Oakland to a motel near SFO airport in San Bruno. Let me just recount that quickly, paraphrasing ever so slightly.
“*Huff, huff, [dry throated swallowing noise], huff, dry gasp* Here, *pant* can you, arrrghh, can you lift that, thanks, *pant*.”
“No that’s, ooaahh, my blood* cough*”
“Look, *pant* my thumb’s turning purple now. Oh, *cough* I think my shoulder’s*weeze* giving out again. Just drop the box. [sound of me falling over into the box] Arrruughh.”
“Here, just let go, see it’s better with[choking sound] just one person carrying it. *gasp* I’ll just*sob* run.”
And I did. I ran like a moron from the BART station in San Bruno, my body aflame with the buildup of lactic acid, not only in my muscles, but even behind my eyes and between my teeth. I shook for about two days after that. When I got to Buenos Aires I just hired a damn cab. Besides, it would’ve just made me sad to act like such a fool all alone. After about a week in the hostel, I finally approached the box, terrified that I had lost some parts or something in the battle to get it from the West Oakland BART to San Bruno to SFO and through Argentine customs and out of Ezezia airport.
There was nothing missing, thankfully, and it was nice showing up in a new country so prepared. I couldn’t help but to feel like I’d learned something from my previous attempts to live abroad. When I went into one bike shop and saw nothing but cheap-looking cruiser bikes and then into another one where all they had were 1,000 dollar Giants, I felt justified being able to make it across town without having to fold myself between two people on a crowded bus, or having to heave myself through the sweltering mildew that befogs subway cars and passengers alike.
I never really had anywhere to go except work, but I enjoyed just riding around aimlessly on the weekends, seeing neighborhoods that probably would’ve taken me a lot longer to get to if I didn’t have such an expedient way to get down to them. After my girlfriend arrived, I began walking a lot more. At first, it wasn’t inconvenient. The busy city traffic wasn’t exactly ideal for a quiet Sunday bike ride and since we rarely had a destination in mind for our peregrinations there was never a reason to rush. After a while, however, I began to get tired of walking everywhere again, and as luck would have it, I had a perfect excuse to buy her a bike since my parents sent me a little money for Christmas and, well, I had to get her some kind of present anyway.
Now we’re back to the beginning of this arduous tale. Most of you, I imagine, have probably just skipped over the bulk of this prattling story to get to this rather lackluster conclusion: I bought a bike. But it wasn’t as easy as all that. I had to chase around a bunch of lazy used-bike merchants, follow a number of Craigslist adds that never panned out only to eventually purchase a bike that should be much more reliable considering how much I had to pay for it. But I expected all of this. That’s why I brought my own bike down here with me, and with a can of pink spray paint the bike no longer looks like a velocipede Frankenstein’s monster, salvaged from a wrecking yard and hammered together with rusty nails and tied together with bailing wire.
We went for our first bike ride last Wednesday night. The warm summer air had not cooled much after the sun went down, but there was enough of a breeze coming from somewhere to counteract the dark plumes of bus exhaust and the braying horns of neurotic taxi drivers. I had planned on going out and getting a beer somewhere to celebrate our first ride together in a new city but, as could have probably been predicted, everywhere we went was already packed and all the empty places we came to just didn’t offer much that we couldn’t get at home. Eventually, I decided that we’d try a little antiquated pizzeria that I’d noticed in Almagro. A place with large plate glass windows with golden filigree around the edges, a bar with a few spare stools and pleasant dim yellow lighting, much like one of the old diners that has managed to retain the zeitgeist of the 1950s amidst the anarchic growth of Los Angeles. It was the perfect place to have a drink on a Wednesday night, but it was too warm inside and suddenly I didn’t feel much like having a beer so we went home instead, which I guess was good, because shortly after we got home, I noticed the tire on the new bike was already flat.