gall and gumption

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Through the Train Window

Note: I wrote some of this on the train and then I wrote some of it afterwards. I suppose I could press on and find out what the point of it is, but it has taken long enough for me to get it this far, and if I keep working at it it will lose whatever relevance freshness it had to begin with.

What you gain in comfort and speed you certainly lose in atmosphere. There is no Chinese man barking at us, no homeless guy, not much of anything.

No, for atmosphere I have to look out the window or read. Which is fine, because everything about the train is fine.

What I love about riding trains is they go along the back side of everywhere. Freeways travel through a sort of noplace, I believe “corridor” is the correct word. And one freeway corridor pretty much looks like another one, if you ask me. The same grey noise walls, the same plants—or if they aren’t the same plants they somehow achieve the same look). You don’t feel you’ve arrived wherever you go by freeway till you can’t see or hear the freeway.

Yes, I’m waxing lyrical. Bite me.

But the train always feels like an interesting place to be because it goes through interesting places. It skirts the back yards on the wrong side of the tracks (both sides look like the wrong side, from the train) and I love the sight of these ancient row houses and the backyards that—you don’t know what’s going to be in those backyards. Such odd private initiatives seem to have been implemented there. Odd awnings, pavement, old cars crowded into small spaces, mad lawn ornament menageries, doghouses, rubble. It’s always a bit of a pang to me to see the rubble. It represents a sort of failure; the power to even try is not there any more. Of course, a rubble-filled backyard can also represent “really don’t give a shit,” which, honestly, I can respect. (I wonder if people in the planes that fly over my back yard can see The Monument?) But the varieties of rubble are impressive.

An old warehouse or factory, rusting, decaying brick, with the old letters painted along the side reminds me that I’m in the Rust Belt, the Blight Belt, the Cheese Steak Belt, the Arterial Plaque Belt. These neighborhoods were never anything special, they were just working class and they must have stretched on for miles, block after block of row houses. But you could have lived in them, perhaps for a long time, and thought you were in the middle class. Even on those post-Apocalyptic Baltimore streets, I suppose. Now I see one of these blocks, or perhaps half of a block, standing crazily by itself with nothing but neatly graded dirt all around it, it’s like a mouth with one tooth in it.

I know this will seem really naïve, that I’m sitting in the train marveling at these things. I look at it and what I’d like to do is prowl around these neighborhoods with my camera taking pictures of all the little contrivances people came up with to make their places expressive of their individual tastes, or perhaps of the force of their really weird personalities. Something new.

I find myself recalling bits of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s one of those books that when you read it, half-understood passages sort of come back to give you a nudge. Like you needed to observe something, or to experience something, in order for the thought that you read to make sense. In the passage that came back to me, Arendt is discussing how each individual represents a new beginning, brings something new into the world. You see, it sounds so trivial when you paraphrase it, doesn’t it? And it seemed trivial when I read it. I didn’t call it to consciousness; it just wandered in among my feelings at the sight of these old neighborhoods.

Each detail, each oddity, all of it, even the rubble, is a little piece of the working out of some private destiny. It’s the invisible made just a tiny bit visible. Why do people go and look out at the sea? (Robert Frost asked that question in a poem) They’re looking at space. Well, that’s what I look at when I look at the sea, certainly. And I like things like the changes of the water’s color as the cloud shadows chase each other across its surface. Space in that larger light. From the train shooting by these old places I’m not so much looking at space as I’m looking at time doing what time does.

This luscious and impeccable fruit of life
Falls, it appears, of its own weight to earth.
When you were Eve, its acrid juice was sweet,
Untasted, in its heavenly, orchard air.
An apple serves as well as any skull
To be the book in which to read a round,
And is as excellent, in that it is composed
Of what, like skulls, comes rotting back to ground.

So why shouldn’t all this ruination “serve as well as any skull”? How long has that lovely old brick church been abandoned and unused there? Not Grand Canyon time but the lifespan of small human hopes. What the peak of those hopes may have been, how far they carried any individual life, I can’t know from looking out the train window. But out the train window I do see how those hopes were all along in contention with that which makes Vanity of all Human Wishes.

And yet, some of these old buildings, these factories and warehouses, are more beautiful even in their decline than the new buildings, hurriedly and speculatively thrown up along the main drag in my part of Virginia, will ever be in their brief lifetimes. There’s the old appeal of ruins, but lots of the buildings are not ruins; they’re being allowed to decay, no one is apparently interested in saving them.

What makes these areas so unvalued now? The buildings are old, but not that much older than in other gentrified neighborhoods. Maybe they’re not near enough to transit. Baltimore’s Rubble Belt looks like the aftermath of a war. It’s beyond depressed; it’s despondent and suicidal. Clearly, nobody wants to invest in these neighborhoods. It’s all one vast tear-down, like the Tick Ranch. Any investment would be attended with displacement and extensive demolition. I concluded that this must be where poor black people live. Any money to be spent here will not provide those people nice places to live in their neighborhoods. The investment will be for somebody else to come live there when the “there” that is there now will have disappeared under the bulldozers.

My neighbor at the Germantown apartment that I lived in before moving to the Tick Ranch was an Indian immigrant. At one point last year I was thinking about moving to a house in Southeast DC, in a nice part of Anacostia. I told my neighbor about it and he said words to the effect that he himself would never set foot there. It was as though by merely being in Anacostia you’d be mugged not only of your wallet but of your respectability, too. I mean, it was something beyond any actual danger. Now, I don’t know what has happened to me, but somehow I don’t have that vague fear. Maybe I haven’t been anywhere scary enough. But when I was at J-school my beat was the South Bronx, and I would have to travel up there at all hours. I got lost once at around 11 o’clock. one winter night, and just thought, “this probably is not a good place to stop and ask directions, so get un-lost.” So, very alert, I found my way to where I needed to be. Another time I went, alone, into a city-owned apartment building that was haunted by crack dealers, every mailbox smashed and hanging open, water and smoke stains on the walls, and a man stoned into semi-consciousness sprawled on the stairs. Somehow these little class identity apprehensions had given way, and in doing so had greatly reduced the fear, which then was not as large as the curiosity. In St. Kitts and Nevis I think I learned that curiosity can carry you a little too far; if you don’t have your own space to retreat into, you’ll wear yourself out. I did actually figure that out while I was there, and that’s when I began to want time alone. Having adventures is all very well, but you have to live with yourself sometimes. And this has pretty much been the job.

Well, sometimes I wonder if whether I’m carrying the solitude thing a bit far now. I think of the past winter when I had just moved out to the Tick Ranch, alone out here in this strange neighborhood, walking the dogs along the lighted streets of the Potemkin Village over the way, feeling like some sort of interloper or impostor – if they knew I came up here from the Tick Ranch to walk my dogs would they run me off? Apparently other people dread the hood, while I dread middle-class suburbia. Or possibly I’m just getting used to seeing myself as an outsider.

I’m sort of feeling my way into this so you’ll have to forgive me if it’s a little muddled along the way. I think the view out the train window is a view also of the monetization of people. I mean, you only need to push your imagination a little bit to reach the point where you understand that everything can be a commodity; everything is convertible to cash. The people who gentrify a neighborhood represent a sort of commodity. You can leverage their presence, or their imminent arrival, into money. You can’t do that with the poor people of the Rubble Belt. It’s almost stupidly simple with me. I have a sort of revulsion against that in principle; I don’t want to agree with it, I don’t want to consent to it, I don’t want to play in it. I may have to, out of necessity, but I don’t want to carry that in my head. I’m sure that if I had kids who needed to be in good schools, that would be the kind of necessity to which I would submit. But I’d consider it a defeat if it started to affect my morals.

And this is because when I look at the places where the poor live, I don’t feel fear. I don't feel fear of being poor because well, frankly, I am, I suppose, relatively poor. I feel friendly curiosity which is really the fruit of my adventures and of the time that I’ve spent living in the places where poor people live. Oakland was the last Bay Area city to have the insane run-up in prices that made the housing bubble. The presence of a large, entrenched black population had something to do with it; housing prices stayed low in the neighborhoods that were black, even though these were close to the BART stations and the easiest commute to San Francisco from the East Bay. After J-school I moved to Oakland, to Fruitvale, which is sort of the border where East Oakland begins; my relatives who lived in the suburbs of Hayward and Castro Valley all assured me that I would be murdered. I wasn’t even close to murdered. I walked around at all hours with my dog (the late lamented Linus), made acquaintances in the very mixed working-class neighborhood –Black people, Mexicans, Central Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese people, Yemenis, the Finn who worked at the gas station, the old white lady who was recently back from the Peace Corps--that I lived in. I actually managed to get out and paint once in a while right there on those streets, I loved it there, the streets and the houses that didn’t all match, and the gardens that people had. I had a big, cheap apartment, half the top floor of one of the last old farmhouses that dated back to when Fruitvale was a village and not a part of Oakland at all, and it was full of light all day. One morning about a week after I moved in, I was at the bus stop on my way to work and saw a near-miss car accident on the busy street that ran down to the BART station. A man with two kids backed his van into the traffic, and so narrowly missed being hit by a Ford Taurus station wagon that the drivers of both vehicles stopped, just to recover from the fright. Mr. Van had not looked before he backed out into the road; he was completely at fault and he knew it. Mr. Taurus stopped his car right in front of me. Mr. Van was safely in his driveway again, he and his children looking, popeyed, out the windows. Was someone going to start shooting? Mr. Taurus cast at Mr. Van a look – a long silent look so rich with scorn, pity, and contempt that I cringed too. Mr. Saturn did not shoot; Mr. Saturn spoke. “You best wake up and smell the motherfuckin’ coffee, nigga.” I started to fall in love with Oakland that instant.


At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's lovely, Kia. Do you remember Williams' story "Comedy Entombed"? I remember the phrase "patina of use" and how excited Williams would get by the way people manage without trying to put their stamp on their surroundings. Sorry if I'm incoherent.--Max

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Kia said...

I do remember the story, now that you mention it. I love that story, it's the one with the mother having the baby and the funny looking little boy. I don't think I have a copy here, mine was falling apart the last time I saw it. Yeah, he belongs in this piece. I love that phrase, "patina of use". Thanks for reminding me of it.

At 12:35 AM, Blogger Britta Gustafson said...

i like looking out train windows at that variety too. i think i've learned a lot by seeing what kinds of businesses and places grow in the stretch right next to noisy trains.

you might be interested in "how buildings learn" by stewart brand - it's a book that's sort of about how people adapt their housing situations to fit them.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger Britta Gustafson said...

also, this guy takes lovely photos of buildings in baltimore:

(hi! i don't know you. i'm just a current ccs lit student who was just wandering around google.)

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Kia said...


I remember when that book came out and being curious about it, but also wanting to wait till the faddiness and novelty wore off. I like the "patina of use" in books too. But now it should be about right. And thanks for the flickr link. There are quite a few ex-CCS bloggers. My favorite is Judging Crimes, on the blogroll.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Britta Gustafson said...

ah, i understand that. i don't remember the book coming out - i was too young at the time to notice such things. i know i should read this recent book about stewart brand etc., "from counterculture to cyberculture" by fred turner, but i'll do it when i feel like it.

i am happy to have stumbled upon this informal ex-ccs network! i enjoy reading tales of ccs lit history and mudrick - they help me understand this college as it is now.

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