Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sharpened and Sharpened and Sharpened

Wound up in another window seat across the Pacific.  It is nice to be able to occupy wall space, where I can keep things out of direct leg room, without it affecting anyone else.  And the window is holds magical views which I can now control, for a while.  The bright sunlight is a pleasure to read by what I was reading was remarkable.  We’ll get to that, but first I will state the obvious:  I’d trade all this storage and thirty thousand foot views, for the convenience of the aisle.  I managed a strategic bathroom run when the dude on the outside slid off after lunch.  Darkness has been imposed and so as to not interrupt with the movie viewing of others, my window is now drawn down. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me” is a medicine ball to the belly.  My step mother had recommended it.  I recalled that a friend had mentioned it, as well.  It was already there in my "saved for later" bin on Amazon and I bought it impulsively.  It was there, amidst my book pile I’d had sent to SF.  The book is one hundred and fifty pages in length and I imagined finishing it quickly on the plane and after the ‘chicken with rice’ was served, I falteringly began and quickly decided this would be read straight, until it was done.

Written to a son, who is the same age as my daughter, the 'just us” quality of the correspondence  made for an unsettlingly intimate device.  He must have been the age of many, many students whom I’d taught in Brownsville, Brooklyn.  The reference points, cultural sign posts all reminding me.  This perhaps a conversation with what might have happened if one of my students had sharpened and sharpened and sharpened their written voice through their work, until it was burnished into something sharp and prescient. 

Part of why Mr. Coates explanation is so powerful, is that he is conveying to his son something all other readers assume they already know.  But he is able to do this is way that feels new, cutting and useful.  It is appropriate to ritually wrestle with the questions that were never adequately answered.   Coates does not buttress his case as a Christian, Muslim, a Marxist, nor as a playah, but rather as a father.  This proves shattering.  Freshened and utterly humbled as a I return to this, my own written effort.

I suspect I might be able to convince my older daughter to read this book.  I wonder if she’ll think of us, when Coates goes with his wife and son to Paris and talks about what he wanted for his boy, playing in a Parisian playground.  United is forcing me to watch a movie for ‘people who believe they’re white” setting up and massaging one racist paradigm after another.  I can’t hear a thing.  But it feels caustic, like some kind of public pornography.  

Not Yet

Jet lag cramps the style whether you loose an hour or a day.  I’m reasonably acclimated to the thirteen-hour pivot from one side of the world to the other.  But those three little hours from the US east coast, to the west can be brutal.  The second morning in a row since being here I popped up after a late night to the dark, groggy compromise of four in the morning.   Returning from the bathroom, you already know:  you won’t be going back to sleep.  Your body thinks its seven fifteen in the morning. 

The house is quiet, your mind is fragile and you notice that people have written, wanting to chat.  Not yet.  When you wake up on the east, everyone back home is sitting down to dinner.  You have a few hours to play with.  But by that time on the west coast, everyone’s in bed.  You ought to take advantage of this open slot.  Not yet. 

Trump.  I’ll read about Trump.  He continues to win.  This can only mean a tremendous defeat for the Republicans this fall.  They won’t unite around him, they will appear more divisive than ever and may even loose the House and the Senate.  Whether it’s Obama’s appointment or Hillary’s the Supreme Court will now swing left.  Another article informs me that people who are critical of Trump are now regularly set upon by a cloud of Trump Twitter locust to belittle people who question Don's abilities.  Imagine such a person as President. 

There is no interesting China news to note in the New York Times.  No news is just fine for China.  I’ve opened all the emails from both accounts.  Lots of little to-do’s.  Nothing gripping.  My eyes are trained on the New York Times tab up top.  I should go back and read an editorial or two.  Reaching for my phone I begin to reply to all the wechat messages:  “Sorry I missed you last night.  You free now?” 

Me and My Luggage

I didn’t rent a car.  I stayed with a friend in San Francisco.  But the next night I planned to stay with a friend in Oakland.  Between here and there I’d be traveling with my luggage. A number of texts from overnight.  “Can we meet at the Milbrae Bart?”  Oh dear.  Where is Milbrae again?  I rifle through ways I might avoid this schlepp.  But by the time I’m done with my shower I confirm. 

Uber wanted a 2.7x fare hike.  It was 8:45AM. Right.  Rush hour.  My host graciously chauffeured me down to the BART, after dropping his son off at day care.  Magical really, to be with a child who has yet to turn two, who has just latched on to language.  I had my younger daughter in that same apartment to visit him ten years ago.  She looked just like that at that back then and this made me mark the time.

Me and my luggage: a rather well stuffed backpack shouldered and a small but bloated suitcase on wheels, were going to have a big day.   I had my winter trench coat over a short sleeve shirt to accommodate the unpredictable San Francisco weather. It is forgiving to consider that there is no known record of how I looked and I set out across the U.N. Plaza. 

The escalator down to the BART station was out of service.  I lifted my luggage in my left hand and grabbed the banister with my right.  The smell of last night’s urine was overwhelming, captured as it was by the rising brick walls around me.  How many people contributed to this outrageous stench?  Is this what it’s like when ten people urinate here during a night, or fifty or three hundred and eighty? 

The same lady’s voice still announces the cars heading towards Daly City: “Nine car Daly City train, now approaching.”  The same guy still announces train’s going the other way.  A friend wants to talk using wechat, which I try to do over the din of the screeching car.  I’m distracted listening to him and don’t notice till I look up and see the Balboa Park Station where I used get off when I was a middle school teacher. 

At Milbrae there was no up escalator.  I carried the bag.  And, the down escalator to the parking lot was also not available.  Stoic.  Steady.  ‘It’s good for you.’  Back at Powel Station, a few hours later.  Lots of urine and ammonia in the underground passageway here as well.  Up, out and south for a long walk to end of 4th St., deeper and deeper into SoMa.  Two meetings and another BART ride later, I consider another walk up from Civic Center to Laguna St.  Just me and my luggage, rolling, mounting stpes, traipsing round the city, taking up extra space, wherever we stop.  I am ready to be home. 

Not a Whimsical Disregard

I couldn’t get enough of the PATH train yesterday, so I took it all the way out to Newark this morning.  I realize there are certainly more direct ways to get to the Newark Airport, from Brooklyn, but I was interested to give it try.  F Train, to the A Train, to the Path Train, till the last stop: Newark. The whole trip was less than forty minutes and then I’d get an Uber to the airport, itself.

Post-industrial, pre reclamation northern New Jersey is sobering.  A cloudy day sharpens the sobriety.   Large iron bridges, all seemingly overbuilt, ill cared for transport my train through a broken landscape. You want there to be more than the cliché of northern New Jersey: the rump of Gotham.  Yet every rusting bridge, dilapidated store front and swamp-like vista merely reinforces what you thought you knew.   To paraphrase Portifio Diaz:  “Poor northern New Jersey; so far from God, so close to Manhattan.”

“Newark Station, last stop.”  I’ve never been in this city before.  My plan is to grab an Uber, but I see a sign for an airport train.  I follow it till there are no more signs and I must make a choice.  The shopkeeper has no idea where to go. “Ask information.”  The large transit cop with the big smile and the big machine gun is very friendly and shows me the board that suggests the next train will come in twenty minutes.  “Where’s the taxis?”  “Right over there.” 

A good old fashioned taxi, which like its host city has seen better days.  Deep bucket seats with lots of duct tape. The cabbie immediately gets in a verbal altercation with a Hispanic kid trying to cross the street.  I can’t help but ask and soon we’re discussing Kumasi, where my driver hails from.  “I’ve been here twenty years now man.”  “I hear you.  Sounds like me in China.”

Checking in I dropped my bag on the counter and could not find my passport.  I gave the United lady at check-in my driver’s license, which you can do, flying domestically and then began to look in earnest for the magic blue book.  Among my many imperfections is not a whimsical disregard for my passport.  I always know where it is.  Where the fuck is it?   The young man puts my bag on the conveyor belt.  It wouldn’t be in there. 

Four phone calls, a nervous flight over the United States and a skittish dash to the baggage claim, noting en route the emails that said “Hey, we couldn’t find it here”, considering the process of not only getting a new passport but also a new China visa, I opened my bag and saw the passport right up top, in the zip pocket.  Now I can return to all the other things I was worrying about.  Flying I’d told myself I’d just finish my novel, to keep my mind off having to explain to my wife that I wasn’t going to be home for three weeks.  “A Brief History of Seven Killings” served this purpose well, as the landscape turned from hills, to snowy plains to rough moon scape and then mountains and more mountains until things got green again and we were dropping down above the bay.

The 'P' Train

Take the PATH train.  I’m on the western bank of the Hudson River, sipping espresso, watching the rain fall.  I need to go over to Manhattan soon.  Half a century on the planet with a life never too far off pivot from New York, but I have never taken a PATH train.  Unless you live in New Jersey, what reason would you ever have to take the PATH train?  You know they exist, shooting off, westward ho’, but they always seemed like someone else’s mass transit.  

“Where’s the PATH train?”  “Right there at Exchange Place.” She points to a building immediately adjacent to ours.   Seems easy enough.  I settle my bill, grab my luggage and head out into some ferocious wind.   My “Metro Card” is down to nickels and dimes so I stand in line to charge it up and consider all the traffic heading down the escalator. 

It’s a long way down.  But we are abutting and about to head underneath a fjord.  The train rolls and it feels in every way like a New York subway.  Why these lines were not just fully incorporated into the greater metropolitan system, with names like “the P Train” is beyond me.  If it were simple we’d have an express train that connected the three metro airports by now, as well. 

The jaunt over is quick and soon I’m heading up a new, London Tube-like escalator that brings me up into what must be a new, and nearly completed World Trade Center station.  I schlepp my luggage along, looking for signs to the subway.   Surely there must be a way to connect directly to the city subways from here?  There is not.  I pass under the great maw of a grey entrance, beneath a huge “PATH” sign and out into the rain and the Wall St. rush hour. 

Chambers St. Station isn’t far.  To the side is what must be the 911 Memorial.  It evokes both the twisted remains of the towers and the bleached bones of tremendous whale.  I look back in the rain, and there is the Freedom Tower.  I have never liked this building.  I have never liked the name.  The early designs were published and looked remarkable.  These were scrapped and we were left with this dime-a-dozen design, that should be some other aspirational city’s version of a tall tower, with the uninspired circular crest, looking for all the world like it still isn’t finished.   It feels like an intruder here in a city that will accept almost anyone.  Looking up, doesn’t feel anywhere near as tall as the Twin Towers once did, when you stared up at them.  Perhaps I was just younger then.   I know, I know.  People once hated those buildings too.