Friday, July 25, 2008

Travelogue 236, July 25
Mad Heroics, Part One

I’m back in Ethiopia for three days when this urgent matter arises. At the end of a late afternoon meeting, Menna makes the call. I look over her shoulder as she scribbles a name and a number. ‘What?’ She quietly nods confirmation. I can’t believe it. There’s no time to waste. We grab jackets and we’re out the door.

‘This can’t be,’ I’m mumbling. ‘It only opened in London a few days ago.’ I’m warning Menna that it’s got to be a Hong Kong bootleg. She disagrees, saying things have changed in Addis.

We have a half hour to make it across Bole, and we can’t find a taxi. We’re desperately debating whether the regular taxis will get us there on time. I’m in a cold sweat already. We spot a contract taxi going the other way and flag it down. The driver is a young Rasta guy and we urge him to hurry. It’s an emergency.

He swerves down the narrow lanes of a short cut, spraying the rainy season’s mud among pedestrians, and emerging on busy Bole Road; hunching over the wheel and pushing the tiny Lada to its limit, weaving among the tight and fleeting spaces between shuddering blue taxi vans. ‘Onward, onward!’ I shout.

We arrive. Crowds are buying tickets. Crowds emerge from the dark hall. The smells from concessions are right. The correct poster hangs on the wall beside other recent releases. We take our seats amid the usual mayhem, mayhem resisted by one beleaguered employee with a flashlight that seats us in our assigned places. She barks orders for tickets while laughing crowds stream around her. This blithe stream continues on through previews and ten minutes into the show.

The previews are in grainy digital format, and I become very tense. It’s going to be a bootleg, I’m sure. But then the wide screen blossoms in vivid and crisp blue clouds of destruction. It’s the real thing, Bale and Ledger in Nolan-vision, acting out violent morality plays against the backdrop of end-time Gotham: barbarians-at-the-gates, rotten-to-the-core Western Empire ready to fall, the Western Emperor a child governed by overweight and conniving eunuchs, the imperial currency reduced to status of wallpaper in the provinces – certainly in Ethiopia. (Okay, I’m editorializing.) These are times to try a superhero’s virtue. The first thing we see our warped hero do is bare-handedly bend the barrel of a shotgun leveled at an underworld sort by a hero-impostor. Three evils won’t make it straight again.

Now I’ll digress.
6.10 It’s my second night in Gotham. I see a movie. I meet two old friends at a theater on 14th Street in Manhattan, and we see Zohan together: Adam Sandler heroically attempting to juggle dick jokes and a message of world peace. We enjoy it, indulging a taste for ten year-old boy humor that we have preserved and even cultivated for thirty-odd years. Afterward, we eat New York Italian in a suitably intimate grotto. I’m back at Grace’s late.

In the morning there are five isolated, blurry minutes when Grace leaves for work. A couple hours later, my mobile wrenches me from a dream of flying. It’s Lisa calling. Lisa is a New York writer who has visited our schools and wants to author a story about them. We agree on a meeting.

I lie back to doze in the roomy couch bed in Grace’s living room. I’m completely relaxed and content. I try to draw back the dream. My mind lazily wanders to my schedule. Tomorrow will be the highlight of the trip, my visit to the UN. I have a 60s schoolboy crush on that crusty old symbol of postwar hope. How many times, when I lived in New York, did I gaze up at the aquarium green glass above the East River mid-town and feel the lump of sentimental internationalism rise in my throat? My time has come: I meet with UNICEFers in the compound. Not THE UN building, but across the street.

I reach for the notebook in my bag. This is the audit. I have to double-check my schedule and make sure I am free this morning. ... Yep, you guessed it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Travelogue 235 – July 12
Don’t Forget Don’t

6.8 Approaching Prospect Park in Brooklyn, memories awaken. Why are old places like this, like black holes at the edges of the psyche? In their silence, they preserve secrets. And why do we keep secrets from ourselves? Mr. Freud, any comment? Right: he’s retreated into his own gravity well.

Crossing the event horizon, visions unfold. There’s the Brooklyn Museum, in the sober style of Gilded Age monuments, planetarium-like dome on top, stolid building brightened a bit by the new windows in front that offer glimpses of the current exhibit, art that looks like Willie Wonka meets Hello Kitty. Pass the library, leaping ahead a few decades in architecture, (art-deco prepares for Sputnik), and then back in time to Grand Army Plaza, that Napoleonic celebration of Civil War victory, noble arch commanding an unkempt traffic circle.

All this comes back from earlier days in the mysterious way of memory, like dipping one’s head below the surface of water and opening one’s eyes. I enter the park, and I know where I am. I know I’ll discover Park Slope to the right of the park. I explore: in the next few days, I’ll spend a lot of time wandering those brownstone blocks. This was my neighbourhood for a while during my New York years, living with Hillary in two rooms near the F line.

Yesterday we held an event to remember Leeza. It’s been five years. What does that mean? I hold her close to me to keep her in the light. I fight against advancing night, my own and the world’s.

The evening before the event, I’m putting together a power point of photos. I want these photos to reflect the big trajectory of five years, from Leeza to Ethiopia and Somalia, from Leeza to the children. I’m stuck on one image. We’ve discovered a forgotten photo of Leeza from the Tesfa archives.

Not long after someone dies, you have your stock of her images burned into your mind. The image becomes so familiar that returning to the physical version of it becomes like looking in the mirror. But then a forgotten image of her surfaces, and it’s like the silence immediately after an earthquake. There’s a tender leaf tremor to the world. And then it rains.

I’m lost that day, listening to old CDs from the era before I left for Ethiopia and rustling among the loose papers of the mind. I think I’m taking a break when I turn to another task: looking over the texts for classes I’ll teach this fall. It’s been five years since I’ve taught these classes. I expect something fresh, but I’m staring at pages that are familiar in a dusty way. It’s like entering a two-dimensional picture, expecting a fairy-tale unfurling of space, but instead becoming two-dimensional yourself. It’s all right. I know teaching is not about the books but about the moment-to-moment among people. I was just looking for something else.

That evening I find out that someone has died in a motorcycle accident. He’s a character from my east coast days, someone less than a friend, more than an acquaintance, one of those people who pop up in your life from time to time. The last time I’d seen him, he had survived some medical disaster that I can’t quite remember now. I think it was a heart attack. He survived to re-marry. She has survived him, though just barely, serving time in a hospital. The work of memory goes on.

There is this challenge in ageing, a kind of vertigo that comes of being one of the survivors. You become a thing with wings, gliding too high, watching the wind currents below, layers of them, spiralling and gusting, vanishing, rising again, colliding in vapours and agonies. You’re poised in a precarious moment, at the mercy of all that movement.

The next day is the event. People come together. They want to hear about the children. This has become something else, something bigger than me or Leeza, and that’s how it should be, one kind twist among the tireless currents of the air.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Travelogue 234 – July 8
Apple Hard Core

6.7 It’s off to New York, kids. Pack up the tender but unvanquished Shirt, which has a few notches on its silky sleeve now, meetings to showcase its winning charisma. Crank the AC, and let’s make our way to the New Jersey turnpike. Our goal is Exit 13, from which we wend our merry way to the towering Verrazano Bridge that links Staten Island to Brooklyn. But not before that long trek through Jersey, during which I discover that Phillie has the best classic rock station in the east. And not before we indulge in some Popeye’s chicken at a Jersey rest stop. Step out of the car into the furnace blast of east coast summer. Stare with everyone else at one of the TV screens, each one featuring Hillary as she concedes to Barack. (My vote is held in the balance, by the way, by that ‘c’ in his name.)

Thank God we have AC, kids, because we will spend one hour of the journey on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in traffic. But arrive we do, because arriving is what we do. Grace lives in one of the fun neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Crown Heights. Here, Hasids have settled in for the first coming. Bearded men in black suits and broad-brimmed, black felt hats take to the streets with women in long skirts and kerchiefs over their hair, pushing squadrons of strollers. Posters proclaim ‘Welcome’ to the Mossiach, and they don’t mean that silly boy Yeshu. Their speculative pictures show a pudgy man with a grey beard – Santa in a fedora.

And on the streets of New York they mingle with people of all other races. They mingle with the denizens of that other Crown Heights, the one centered a few blocks east, the one that’s slightly darker, on the average, in skin color. I don’t detect much love among these communities. The vigilance of the Hasid community patrols and the presence of cops permanently stationed outside synagogues tell a story of tension. But they live side by side, as they have for decades. That’s the charm of New York, after all, this rancorous peace among tribes.

That’s the charm – that’s the Herculean labor of New Yorkers. There’s a sense in this town of a monumental work being chiselled from rough human matter, and I mean WORK, in all its sweaty visuals. We will live together, they say, with gritted teeth.

The heat wave is cresting, and I take a run up to Prospect Park. I foolishly undertake a full circuit of the park. By the end of my loop, I’m weak and dizzy, drenched in sweat. But it’s such a beautiful and spacious city park, I couldn’t stop. People are everywhere: strong New Yorkers, on bikes or jogging, uber-menschen of a glorious (if earnest) future, gritting their teeth and saying, we will live together.

Riding the subway is a joy, despite – no, BECAUSE – of the dank smell of New York’s tunnels. There’s no other metro system that smells the same. I revert to old habits: I look for mice running among the rails. People are everywhere, brushing against each other, pushing, pushing with their shoulders and their voices, strong citizens of the future, setting their jaws as they say we will live together.

Barack with a ‘c’ made his famous speech about ‘A More Perfect Union’. “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.…It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.” I picture muscular New York standing in Times Square in its multitudes, grimly nodding yes, clenching their fists in time, murmuring we will live together.

And what have I done recently to celebrate this nearly perfect union? I was back in Minnesota for July 4, and I’m happy to say I took advantage of all the noise to sleep soundly. I thoroughly enjoyed the city’s long weekend, as I do every year when the hordes of sun-crazed families hit the highways to crowd the quiet corners of the state.

Lazily coasting on my bike through Dinkytown, the college sub-town in southeast Minneapolis, I’m persecuted and perplexed by one sole mosquito. It never lands. It hovers in one spot, radiating a sinister hum. Yes, I recall, today is the day, isn’t it? Today the wunder-engineers will be rejoining the two banks of the Mississippi, uniting the two strands of the new Highway 35 bridge in the midsummer air over the nearby river. And that growling beast of the air is here to record our moment. The bridge that fell only last year will stand again. We grit our teeth, and we say, we will have it so.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Travelogue 233 – July 5
Oh Say

6.5 Jonathan is messing with me, and I don’t realize it until I’m miles along, steaming on down the hill beside the turbid, rocky stream. He’s at work. He’s been there for hours by the time I stir in the morning. I awaken again as the fifth roommate makes his way into the kitchen above my head. I’m sleeping on the thin mattress of the antique couch-bed that, unfolded, takes up most of this basement room. I regard the bikes that stand around the bed like railings around a crib.

I arrived in Baltimore last night after another harrowing east coast drive, this time through a black night lashed with rain and punctured by blurry ranks of headlights guided by salesmen and teamsters of the undead.

Somehow I found the house and was comforted at the kitchen table by Jonathan’s many roommates and retainers. I’m handed a local beer, and everything is all right. It’s an incredibly charming group of young people, suitable to Charm City.

The morning is bright and free of the night’s rain. I take Jonathan’s suggestion. The best way to see Baltimore is on bike. The house is only a few miles from downtown. So I crack open the basement door that accesses the back yard, and wrestle his bike out past the bed and the basement sink and the other bikes. I’ve got my laptop on my back. I pedal in the direction I know must lead to downtown.

The first part of Jonathan’s joke becomes apparent as I pedal, knees rising above my waist and churning in futility. I don’t know how Jonathan, who’s got four inches on me, makes this thing go. Fortunately, my road is downhill for a while. No, it’s more than a while. And that’s the punch line. Downtown is more than a few miles, but I barely pedal at all. Rather, riding this way is riding the brake, alongside the tumbling creek to one of a million slick estuaries in this town, under monumental iron bridges, through some lost blocks of dust and blank brownstones, and on to brick Charles Street and its glorious New World banks, with the harbour gleaming below.

Baltimore’s harbour is a big playground. It’s a calm expanse of water, surrounded by the city. Of course, it leads out through a series of larger bays until you, in your mighty clipper ship, arrive in the real bay, the vast Chesapeake, and eventually the ocean. This watery prelude is Baltimore’s funland, built up now with boardwalks and bars and museums. Moored underneath the commercial highrises that climb the steep hill of downtown is a relic of the Civil War, the USS Constellation, ready for service. And across the harbour is Federal Hill, green hill that was once a Civil War fort. Not too far away on the peninsula that makes up that side of Baltimore’s harbour is Fort McHenry, from which Baltimoreans rained down defeat on British invaders nearly two hundred years ago. This city was hell for the Brits, as of course we acknowledge at the start of every ballgame.

I’m stranded at sea level on my little cruiser, and I call Jonathan so he can get a laugh. He didn’t think I’d really do it. Thank God for the famous Baltimore light rail system – famous in Minneapolis, anyway, since it served as one model for our new system. An unlikely model, I find: nothing like our sleek and speedy service that’s quite fun to ride. This one is a chain of silver old box cars that sleeps at stations and at every stop light along its one route. But I’m happy to watch the hills melt away while midday turns up the heat.

Hampden is Jonathan’s neighborhood. I’m told it was also John Waters’ back in the day. Citizens seem to have taken that heritage seriously. Down on the Avenue, as they call it, is the Hon Bar and Hon Café, which, by the way, I can highly recommend for breakfast or lunch. And only a week after I’m due to depart, the neighbourhood will host the Hon Fest. Do I need to explain what ‘hon’ is? Hint: the logo for both café and fest is a cartoon lady in a beehive and horn-rimmed glasses.

It’s a pleasant place, and a very relaxing visit. I sit with the gang on the tight and tilting second-floor balcony. We drink beers and count the meth-heads. I learn how to pick them out. Watch for scrawny skinheads with sores on their heads or faces. It’s good sport. I try to exchange greetings with a couple of them one day. They’re sitting on their front step. They stare right through me, chatting in an incomprehensible southern accent.

A few doors down is another salute to whatever it is that Waters stands for: clusters of pink flamingos in the yard and plastic, pink roses in boxes outside every window. The director supposedly lives up the hill from Hampden, above Johns Hopkins, off Roland Avenue. I run through that posh area a few days in a row, taking advantage of the profound humidity to sweat in a truly miserable way.

Note: Baltimore’s Washington Monument is way cooler, and older, than DC’s. The first Thursday of every month, there’s a free concert in the park underneath the monument. This event is to be recommended. It’s a classy neighbourhood, called Mount Vernon, by the way. It boasts, among other items of interest, a Methodist church that, in its Gothic beauty of green, brown and red stone, is worthy of Maryland’s proud Catholic roots.