Thursday, August 30, 2012

Song of the South

It’s cloudy again. In Buenos Aires, August is a rainy month. It hasn’t rained for almost a week now, but it’s been cloudy. The apartment doesn’t get much light. When it’s cloudy it doesn’t get any. It’s like waking up in a cave: cold and dim. There’s even a dampness. I don’t know where it comes from, but I can tell by the way the cold seems to cling that it’s a damp cold. The construction equipment is running, which means it’s after 8 o’clock. When they finish the building in one area they start it in another. Every morning the air is rent with the sounds of steel being separated from steel. You can smell the ozone and oil in the air. The men yell to each other. Sleeping past 8, you risk being woken up into a bad mood. I look out the window to see where the sun is. Sometimes, even when the light coming through our windows is all old iron and dried bone, I look up between the buildings to find that the sky is blue. Today, it is cloudy. It’s nice because it’s cold. The clouds make you feel a little warmed when it’s cold. I get out of bed and make some coffee. When it’s percolating, I take it off the burner and pour it into two cups, both pastels, yellow and blue. Gina gets the yellow one. I place it on the bedside table for her and then I go out into the living room. There’s nothing in the living room so it feels cold and every sound is louder. My shoes clap on the parquet floor and I flop down on the polyester loveseat that’s always cold. I take my first drink of coffee and look around the room a little. Trying not to think in case part of a dream should come back to me or I should remember something in the unexpected way that you do in the morning. I think about work for a while, but dismiss it as a viable topic because I’ve been thinking about it too much lately and it’s an exhausted subject. A bar of Zippidy Do Da hums in the spaces between my thoughts, growing each time until it’s got words and even a video of a cartoon bird to go with it. In a short time, I find myself wondering about the part in the song where the bluebird leaves. I think about where he would’ve gone. It’s hard to stop thinking about stupid things like this sometimes. When Gina comes in, still half asleep and cradling her coffee mug like a talisman, I break from my reverie. We talk a little about our dreams. Both of us trying to remember and listen at once. The metal is being torn apart outside. We don’t try to talk over it, but pause as if it were a party of our conversation. I want more coffee before the cup is even empty. I want the warmth more than the caffeine, or even just the feeling of having a full cup of coffee; the feeling of the beginning of the morning when everything is still new and delicate. I think about going to the embassy, about going out into the cold and crushed streets. McDonald’s has been giving away free coffee all week. We can stop and get a cup on the way. That will bring back the new and delicate feeling, but it will only last an instant. We won’t have time to sit and rattle newspapers and drink our coffee in the beige McDonald’s dining area. We’ll have to drink it walking to the embassy. It’s never as good that way. At least the first few sips will be nice, before the cold gets in. We leave our apartment and walk down the echoing stairs. There is not enough room for us to walk abreast in the hallway so we walk single file. The echoing hallway and the smooth tile walls and walking in a line reminds me of being in elementary school. Outside, the air is almost always warmer. It’s the clouds and the lack of the cold building materials. The pneumatic breaks of the buses wheeze and whistle as they coast by. On the sidewalk, people in front walk at a slower pace and the people behind at a faster pace. The tendency is to walk in the gutter; it’s less circuitous and there’s not as much dog shit. Next door, the vegetable stand is displaying wooden boxes of produce from other parts of the country. It makes me think of the grapefruits I found by the side of the road when I went up north and how I sat in a field eating them. There is such a disconnect from the quiet places where these fruits and vegetables come from to the city street where they end up, the prices per kilo changing almost daily with inflation and crop quality. I wonder if we should walk a block over where the McDonald’s is. I can’t remember which block it’s on and I know there’s another further down past the intersection with Puereydonstreet. We decide to walk over to get our second cup of coffee earlier. As we walk, the coffee sloshes against the lid of the cup. When it sloshes up to where the small opening is it jettisons out and lashes the back of your hand and the edge of your sleeve. You lick the coffee from you hand or wipe it on your pant leg. The old cloth smell of it will build up in your sleeve and will constantly remind you of cold coffee and make you feel dirty throughout the day. At the end of the cup, when I have become thirsty enough to drink anything and I drink the cold, thick coffee grounds at the bottom and make myself even more thirsty. The Bolivian embassy is in one of the major commuter train stations. The area around it is ragged. There is a conglomeration of stalls around it that sell many things, but mostly cheap-looking underwear. People in Buenos Aires say that anyplace where cheap underwear is being sold is dangerous. So they deem this place. I have never seen anything happen here. Once, a few blocks away, I saw a kid handcuffed and sitting on the sidewalk, while two cops stood by, neither interested nor disinterested in him. Since I have been here, I have seen this scene repeated all over the city. It doesn’t make the city look dangerous, but rather like it has a conspicuous lack of police cars to take young offenders away. We have to thread our way through the stalls selling cheap underwear. Because I don’t know what the embassy will expect, I am in no hurry. I pass the stalls looking at the likenesses of Bart Simpson on nearly every pair, on the waistband is sewn “New Kids.” The combination of the two anachronisms bothers me. I get sick of walking through all the people. I begin to feel like I am pulling Gina along so I let her go and walk quickly alone, hoping that she will understand that it is too crowded and that there are too many pairs of generic Bart Simpson underwear for us to keep walking together. Walking alone makes me want to go faster and I begin taking larger strides trying to dodge between the others passing through or standing at the stalls. We reach the stairs of the embassy and I take Gina’s hand again, feeling pitiful for acting so badly under a modicum of discomfort. For a moment I’m happy; we are at the embassy and I feel a sense of accomplishment just to find it open. At the top of the stairs we confront a 60 or 70 person-long line which I am determined not to stand in. Usually, the tourist visa department is in a different section of the embassy far removed from the troubles of immigrants or people trying to get a copy of their birth certificate in another country. I pass the line. Gina and I are the only two non-Bolivians in the building. We are taller than everyone. Children run between the lines with their mothers running after them. It is difficult to see them coming because the mothers are usually shorter than the men waiting in line. Every room has some kind of heading, there’s a caja, an emigracionroom but nothing that mentions visas. I find the only window with no line in front of it and ask where we should go for visas. We find the room and go in. There are only a few people in this room, which leads me to think we are in the right place. A woman asks me what we are there for and I tell her we need tourist visas. She tells us we’ll have to wait about twenty minutes. I tell her OK and that we’ll be back. Outside, we find a bare space of sidewalk behind one of the vendor’s stalls and I smoke. The cigarette tastes terrible because I’m smoking it out of frustration. The frustration itself is frustrating because very little has happened, but already the crowds have started to irritate me. I want to go back home but I don’t want to be back in our dim apartment where it’s colder than being outside and the cold had that damp feeling. I feel frustrated because I know that I am lucky to even have an apartment and a day off in the middle of the week to do things like get Bolivian visas for a vacation. These thoughts only irritate me and we decide to go to another McDonald’s nearby and get another coffee where Gina can use the bathroom. We wait in line. It’s not quite 11 when we get to the front, but the girl in her brown McDonald’s uniform won’t give me a free coffee. Gina can’t use the bathroom because there was water all over the floor and a perplexed-looking in a lap coat appraising the situation. Back at the embassy, past the lines again, we are told that we need to go downtown to a bank there to pay the 130 US fee for the visa. We also need travel ticket copies, hotel reservations, credit card copies (to prove we aren’t solvent and looking to leech off Bolivia)passport copies, copies of our yellow fever vaccination cards, two passport-sized photos and completed visa application forms (of which he gives us one and tells us to make a copy). The man who gives us these things is brisk. We have an hour and a half to bring them back. Of course, we could just bring everything back another day, but we already have our money, passports, credit cards and yellow fever vaccination documents. I feel it a sort of challenge to see if I can possibly do all the things required before the embassy closes at 1. The train is packed, the bank is packed, the streets downtown are packed, there’s a line at the photocopy store. I print off copies of our flight information and make up a fake hostel confirmation. I have gone through this sort of thing before in the former Soviet Union where I know the authorities to be much stricter than Bolivia’s. If I can get away with making up a hostel reservation there, I can certainly do it for Bolivia. I get upset when Gina circles YES for the question Have You Ever Applied for a Visa Before on the visa application. I tell her that there bureaucrats will throw away anything that isn’t expertly completed. As I tell her this I don’t really believe it myself. But having spent the whole morning weaving in and out of crowds and waiting in lines and drinking coffee and not being able to appreciate what I have, I feel very tense. I immediately feel bad for getting upset, after all, I’m making her fill out the form on the subway, supplying my back as a writing surface. She tells me she’s surprised that this is getting to me so much. She says she would’ve thought I’d be very comfortable with this process after getting visas before for countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that are much more xenophobic. She’s right; I should be and I don’t know what to say. I used to be calmer. I used to be able to do things. I don’t know what happened. When we return to the embassy the clerk who gave us our brisk instructions seems happy to see us, he can’t believe we’ve managed to do everything so quickly. “We don’t have much time,” I tell him. And after I have finished, I can’t figure out why I have said this, possibly because my Spanish doesn’t permit me to say much, possibly because there is really no excuse for my maniacal rushing. I wanted to say, “I just wanted to get it done,” but I know that such vague desires are often difficult to translate. He asks us for each item separately until he has a lengthy dossier on both Gina and I on his desk. He staples these together, glues our pictures to two separate pieces of paper and tells us to have a seat. When he comes back he’s got two stamps that he’s holding with our passports; they look like visas. Outside the office we hug. It was an incredible task to have been able to get everything together for the Bolivian visa in one morning but my celebratory feelings are dulled by the nagging feeling that it was also completely unnecessary when we’ve still got more than a month before we leave. Back at the apartment, It’s still cloudy and cold and I’ve got nothing to do. We try to make a nice breakfast, but the tense feeling makes me want to control everything that’s happening in the kitchen. The food turns out Ok, not great. After we eat I try to do a few different things that don’t need to be done and finally, I relent and take a nap. Although I’m cold, and there’s a blanket right beside me, I don’t even bother to pull it over me and eventually, all curled up, I fall asleep. Outside, the construction team is still ripping steel from steel.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gas Sation Coffee

Mikey and I walked down the street with a paper grocery bag of beer. There was no sidewalk and we walked only slightly on the side of the road. The traffic sounded far away on Alliance street, only two block back. The light had begun to fade and the sky took on the look of a burnished jasper. It was only different around the tree that Gina and I used to call the autumn tree. There, behind the dry branches, was a streetlight that threw out a baleful glow. It was low but also beautiful. From the low-income housing behind us kids could be heard crying and laughing. The sound of evening television floated in the air with a chirping sound. The gravel was not especially smooth and the rubber of our tennis shoes dragged very slightly over it. From over by where I lived, there was a fire burning. The figures of light reverie made their way around the fire, to the house and back out again. I was very thirsty and upon reaching the house went inside for water. I did not bother to pour the water cold, but turned up the tap so that it would be warmer and easier to drink. There were a few people that had arrived since I had left. I said hello to them and took a beer from the many that Mikey had placed in the refrigerator. Back outside, the fire was burning in the pit that Gina had dug about two months earlier. She had ringed the pit with stones so that it was clear that it was an intentional pit with a purpose and not just an unfilled hole in the ground. After she and I had begun burning wooden scraps in the pit, the rocks were no longer needed. Still, they served a decorative purpose and reminded one of camping trips and starry skies. The fire was now being fed by Gina’s brother Jackson who had taken over the job in my absence as he always did. There was a pile of wooden scraps by the fire that had already greatly diminished since I had gone to the store. Jackson and his roommate Nick sat by the fire, sipping their beers and talking very little. I sat down with them and opened my own beer. It had no taste but cold, which was good by the hot fire. I lit a cigarette. I don’t like the way cigarettes taste when there is wood smoke in the air, but I always smoke them anyway. Cigarettes balance my thoughts and resulting conversation. I joined Jackson and Nick’s combined taciturnity and listened to the popping of the knots in the wood scraps which were burning and the conversation coming from inside. I finished my beer quickly and went inside to get another one, stopping to eat a cookie from one of the many dishes on the countertop, arranged potluck style: desserts, main dishes and snacks of different kinds all heaped together with plastic cups and unfinished drinks. I wasn’t sure who it could be when I heard the gravel crunching outside and walked outside without excusing myself properly. Jackson and Nick, still sitting by the fire looked over to the car, but did not get up from the up turned logs they were sitting on. I walked over and waited for someone to turn off the headlights so I could see who had come. Away from the fire, the night seemed damper and the crunch of the gravel under my feet made me think of going to work early in the morning on my bike. Armen and his girlfriend got out of the car with a few Armenian dishes they had brought. One I had never heard of and had never seen in Armenia was very good and was eaten right away before anything was brought out to be roasted on the fire. I had not seen Armen for a while and asked him to sit down next to me by the fire. We spoke in eastern Armenian and this made us more excited to discuss mundane things. I noticed as we spoke that Nick seemed to be regarding us. I wondered if perhaps it was possible for him to understand any of our conversation. The others mocked us in a joking way and I remembered how once, when speaking to a girl in Italian on the phone, I had asked Mikey if the sound of the language had been annoying to overhear. He told me that it was, but without him telling me so, I knew this was only because we were in the same small apartment and that it wasn’t the sound that was annoying, but that it was forced on him. I went back inside to get some more beer. The light seemed harsh to my eyes. In the absence of the fire I could smell the smoke, now very strong on my clothes. Everyone had gone outside to sit on the upturned logs around the fire. All the plates and casserole dishes on the countertop were nearly empty; the floor was dirty as hell and I frowned slightly to see it, though I was really too drunk to care about it very much. Back outside I found Armen trying to explain the word in eastern Armenian for eggplant to Gina. He did this by saying ‘brother’ in English and ‘jan’. He pronounced it ‘baderjan.’Gina laughed at this and pretended not to understand saying Azerbaijan when she was prompted to repeat the word. I noticed that over by the fire they were roasting the eggplants whole without taking off the leafy green top or cutting them in half. The garlic and peppers had already been roasted and the smell was delicious, although I was not hungry. When I sat back down, Nick leaned over to me and asked me what language Armen and I has been speaking. I told him about Armenia and how I had come to live there; I would’ve started to get slightly sentimental since I was talking to someone younger than myself about an experience that had made an impact on me, but Armen came back over and he and I began to speak again. We spoke mostly in English now and when we used an Armenian word, I would stop to explain to Nick what it meant. We were using them for no reason at all other than to hear their sound and this made us use words in Russian, too, although Armen knew very few of them and I began to feel alone in my language. Mikey went to bed early because he had to drive us to Oakland the next day. Lyndsey was one of the last to leave and I offered to walk her back home. The entire walk she kept telling me that I didn’t need to walk her the whole way. At about the half-way point, I said goodbye to her. I walked back to the house with the lightness of the beer in my head. I began to feel disappointed that I was not going to leave the country the next day and that I still had to say more goodbyes and hang around Oakland for a few days. It had been a definitive kind of party. It made me feel like I should leave quickly and begin something else in another place. When I got back to the house, Jackson and Nick were still by the fire, only now they were in sleeping bags, lying next to it. I walked past them into the house to get a last beer. Inside, Gina was asleep on the bed under a pile of blankets; Mikey was on the futon. I couldn’t hear his quiet breathing so it was difficult to tell if he was actually asleep. The small house smelled of wet grass and wood smoke. I closed the door gently, opened my beer and took a long drink. I tilted back my head so I could look at the stars that I had looked upon for so many nights. I thought about all the jokes I had made about those stars that now seemed so serious to me. I sat back down by the fire and Nick sat up in his sleeping bag. He told me that he wanted to leave Humboldt county and travel. I told him that he needed to leave right away.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flying into O'Hare

It’s best to write in a place where fiction and reality slightly overlap, otherwise, it’s like trying to teach something I hardly understand myself. I flew into O’Hare sometime in the afternoon. There was no one there to meet me. There hadn’t been anyone at the last four airports I’d landed at. I imagine that when everyone else came back they had friends and family waiting for them. I’ve never been any good at telling people what flight I’m on because I don’t like to think about them waiting for me. I don’t want to have that cruel existential moment of airport recognition. It’s better just to go home and look them up on your own time. Go and see them where you know they should be and where you’re comfortable with them being. That way nothing seems to change. O’Hare is a fine airport. No one really bothers you. I guess most American airports are like that, but being in Chicago is probably the best place to feel it. Europe and Asia are different. There are lots of tourists in Europe and Asia, therefore, there are lots of obnoxious, garrulous people. Not the tourists themselves, but the people that ply their trade to them. In O’Hare the tourists take care of themselves. It was a new America to me because I hadn’t seen it in over two years. There had been times, not many but they had occurred, when I didn’t know if I’d make it back. I wasn’t in a war, and I was never in any really dangerous situations, but, still, sometimes I wondered. But I was there, and it wasn’t even anticlimactic. No one greeted me. The customs officer didn’t even say anything about my two passports; one with a visa written in a different alphabet on nearly every page and the other with a few paltry E.U stamps. He just let me in. That’s what it felt like to be back home, and it wasn’t anticlimactic. To be so easily admitted into country, even my own, was surprising. Everything felt much more relaxed. I changed my remaining Euros at a horrible rate and found the El station back into the city. Somewhere, a taxi driver stopped to talk to me. We spoke English to each other and that, too, was surprising. I declined his ride offer and he hardly seemed to care. He knew I could take the train and he knew that I knew it. There was no reason for his cab for me. When I stepped outside I stopped, put my back down and kneeled down on the ground. I put my forehead on the sidewalk for a moment and then got up. I did this because I had told myself that I was going to. It was a good thing to do, because I had to do something to come back; with no one in the airport and no discerning customs officer, I had to do something. The weather was warm, and I could smell fresh cut grass. I’ve always loved that smell especially combined with cigarette smoke. So I lit a cigarette and found that I could hardly remember anything about where I’d been. It was already being relegated to memory, to the past. It was all already something I had once done that was now finished. It was colder downtown. I went to the greyhound station first to buy a ticket back home. There used to be a midnight bus from Chicago to Detroit that I liked to take. Since it didn’t exist anymore I had to buy a ticket for a bus that left around 10 am the next day. I thought about leaving my bag in a locker at the bus station, but they were too expensive. I didn’t call anyone, but went over to my friend Matt’s apartment. I hadn’t seen him in years. I hadn’t seen anyone in years. I walked with my hiking bag across two or three neighborhoods before I get there in the evening. I knocked and no one answered so I yelled, “Matt!” because the windows of the place were open on the second floor. It was not difficult to see him there. It is not difficult to see anyone from Michigan in Chicago. It’s always been our city anyway. I guess people from Iowa think about it in much the same way. There all upstairs playing video games. God, video games for years now. Ten years ago, I moved to Chicago and went back to Jackson to find them all playing video games. I have never understood the desire to play video games and I will never accept that my talented friends should spent any of their time this way. I am also the person who had spent almost entire evening staring out the window while living abroad. I also spend a lot of time preparing food that I eat alone. To me these things are still better than video games, but to others they would be the same, or worse. I understand that. Matt and I go to eat at a taqueria. I have missed this food terribly. I am almost sad to be in this place finally eating such beautiful food, drinking such an incredible tamarind agua fresca. Matt talks to his girlfriend on the phone. They were supposed to meet; I came and surprised Matt, now no one seems to know what the hell to do. He gets up and walks out with the phone while I am starting my burrito. There is so much memory in front of me, on my plate, in my mouth. I wish for others to be with me and I wish to be alone. I try but find I cannot eat slowly. When I am finished, Matt comes back. He tells me that his girlfriend seems upset. She told him that she wanted him and me to have a chance to catch up. I tell him I would like to meet his girlfriend and would be happy if she would come and join us. He told her this already. She insisted. Now he doesn’t know if she’s mad. She won’t answer the phone, he says, and when he finishes saying this, the phone rings. It’s her. I order another burrito and eat it for the taste. It’s as good as the first one. Matt comes back in and can’t believe I’m eating another one. I tell him that I’ve waited a long time. The cigarette outside tastes delicious. There is a little bit of activity outside the taqueria, but not much. There are a few other places to eat and their smells and some dry cleaning shops which in Chicago all have the same neon window displays of different colored hangers. We don’t walk while we smoke. It’s unclear if Matt has the same habit that I do, or if he remembers that I don’t like to do both at once. I’ve seen my friend Mikey ride a bike and smoke, eat and smoke, chew gum and smoke and I’ve never known what to make of it. The only thing I can do is drink coffee or beer and smoke. Matt’s roommates are still playing videogames, but now there’s beer. I drink whatever it is and it’s good and light after the burritos. We play some records and talk about who made them and when. This goes on for a while, as it always does. The discussion as to where we will go to drink beer somewhere else becomes more prominent and eventually we are going downstairs to find bikes for all of us. There’s one that someone left behind, a clunky mountain bike that suits me fine. We pass cans of beer around in the streets and stop to figure out where we are in relation to the bar. We don’t really stop but ride around in a circle at an intersection that’s not busy over and over again, laughing. I have to remind myself not to drink too many beers because tomorrow I will take the bus back to Michigan and I will see my mother whom I have not seen in over two years. But there are so many new and remembered things around me and the beer is still also new and remembered that it cannot bother me. The bar is dark and a few people are dancing to 1960s records that the DJ is playing. They are like the 1960s records in San Francisco, old songs that are better because you have never heard them, but also because they are familiar. Only in San Francisco, at that bar with the Scottish name, I remember there were always a lot more people dancing. I never danced and was happy just to be there holding a beer. Matt’s girlfriend comes to the bar and I get to meet her. She doesn’t say much too me, though, because she seems to have a lot to say to Matt. I go back in and order another beer and watch the people dancing, tapping my foot until someone comes to tell me that everyone is leaving. I wake up the next morning, before anyone else is up and take the blue line train back downtown to the Greyhound station. While I am waiting to get on the bus a Juggalo comes up and bums a cigarette from me. I am happy to see him, because he is such an American thing. He asks me where I am coming from and where I am going. I tell him I am going back home to Michigan and that I am coming from Asia, albeit in a roundabout way. He has a good way of seeming very interested in my story and this makes me feel like I have done something greater than I had previously thought and makes me like him even more. I cannot read and look out the window the entire bus ride. I get off at my home town and wait at the bus station for the city bus that goes by my parents’ house. When I get there no one is home. I go around to look in the garage and there’s a banner hanging up in there that reads “Welcome Home, Jonathan.” Around this message are multicolored clipart balloons and confetti strands. I turn away from the garage window and walk out toward the pond that’s up by the road, noting, along the way, that nothing has changed.