Thursday, September 30, 2010

Travelogue 360 – September 30
It's Thursday in Feltham

It's Thursday in Feltham. It's noon, and the old men are at it already, a few pints into their day. I'm at Wetherspoon's in Feltham Centre. Wetherspoon's is a blessing and curse to 21st century England, a homegrown chain of pubs that has a tradition of taking over old banks or other large commercial spaces and transforming them into massive, high-ceilinged arcades of kitsch. They provide comfy dining and drinking according to very detailed blueprints and menus. The fare is affordable and bland.

I make it into the restaurant just before noon, just in time to order breakfast. My meal takes some time to find me, so I have plenty of time to look around. The middle tables are occupied by locals and their pints. Locals also stand at the bar, quietly ordering more. No one is playing the slots yet. I take a dark booth along the wall. It happens, as often happens among self-consciously unwieldy franchises, that the d├ęcor features historic photos of the township. The one in my booth depicts the town green in 1908, little more than muddy fields by a pond and rows of wooden houses some fifty meters back. Boys of various ages pose in their caps and coats, soberly, uncertainly. Morbidly, I reflect that only seven years later, some of these boys would be fighting in France.

Fortified with eggs and beans, I explore the town. The centre is now occupied by severely modern shopping and condominiums. Wetherspoon's is not the only chain to have discovered forlorn Feltham, once known for its peas, and later for providing the world with half of the band Queen. Only the older shops along rougher lanes stand in shabby opposition to the incursion of Lord Franchise. Among these is the charmingly dark and greasy 'Tennessee Fried Chicken'.

I discover the green, matured a deal since 1908. The pond is well-contained, the green itself circumscribed by sidewalks, and the whole surrounded by well-trafficked avenues, shopping, churches, and stolid mid-century homes. Moms meander with strollers while Canada geese squawk and waddle toward refuge. Men in suits take up one bench, teens in hoods another. There is a monument to the fallen of two world wars, standing tall and neglected beside the main avenue. There are about 150 names inscribed here, men lost in World War I. I can't help wondering if any of the boys in the restaurant photo are named here.

It's Thursday in Feltham. With only a day between night flights, I've chosen not to stray too far from Heathrow in the far western reaches of Greater London. Feltham is only a few miles south of the airport. Just follow Fagg's Road or Hounslow Road down from Houslow or from the eastern end of the airport, traveling south from the Piccadilly Line. Don't be distracted by the lack of distinguishing features out here, the banal repetition of block after block. There is life

And for today, there is no rain. I'm happy. I return to the mall and take a table at Costa Coffee, another self-conscious chain that covers itself with photos from Italy. I tap into the wireless from some local pub. I talk to Minnesotans before they've woken, tuning out the day's chatter of Feltham housewives.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Travelogue 359 – September 21
The Age of Big, Part Two

The view out my apartment window unfolds like a lesson in American history. Draw a line from my twenty-first-century computer, through the glass of the window, and across the late twentieth-century asphalt of the alley, buckling and cracked, through the links of the 70s chain link and into the parking lot of the Social Security office. This parking lot fills up by nine, and people are lined up outside every business morning, ready to enter. Here, people seem eager enough to participate in socialism, the welfare state, big government.

Before Ike, there was FDR, just as before the Second World War there was the Great Depression. There weren't too many boys marching in France who weren't followed by the gaunt specter of deprivation. Dad as inoffensive ghost is nodding again. He was man of the house at an early age, his father incapacitated by the previous war, made man of an impoverished Colorado household, within a family still tainted by not-so-recent immigration and their continuing status as laborers. Not even twenty, he shipped off for Europe.

And so, first must come Franklin Delano. Even Ike called him boss. In August, 1935, FDR signed into law the Social Security Act,, centerpiece to his New Deal, demon and savior to every American since. The New Deal might rank up there with the Civil War and the Revolution in impact upon the American identity and psyche.

The building is bland enough, brick without the charm of age or ornament. I've never been inside. If a Tea Partisan strayed into this neighborhood, would he or she sneer at this squat, flavorless structure and pronounce everyone inside enemies? Would he or she fantasize about McVeigh moments? Perhaps I exaggerate? I hope.

Glide on by the New Deal, advancing in time again into post-war America. Beyond more chain link, you slide into the trough of the interstate. As I've said, this is Ike's dream manifest, though it wasn't until the 60s that the great paving project reached Minneapolis. The first section of I-94 was laid between Jamestown and Valley City, North Dakota, 13 miles of road completed in 1958.

In the 60s and 70s, the Twin Cities came under siege. Neighborhoods were torn asunder. Swaths of concrete and asphalt were laid over the raw earth, all connected into unbroken miles of communication strung across the continent. The system boasts 46,876 miles, almost twice around the planet if laid in one line. But what fun would that be?

Why are highways on my mind? It's difficult to be man on a bicycle in this neighborhood without spending serious time contemplating the sweeping, unavoidable stretches of bone that slice across the landscape, ruthlessly X-cutting this town into hermetic quadrants. Gazing at downtown from my window means sending my attentions across one raging river of traffic. A few blocks to the west, I-35W feeds into into the mighty 94, only to depart for the north a mile or two to the east. A mile or so to the east, the 55 merges in from the south. Downtown is across the 94; Uptown is across the 35W; the university is across either the 94 or the 55, or across both. Effectively, I live on a narrow promontory, and any of my daily commutes involves a choice of bridges. And one of the grand ganglions of the state is just a mile or two away, a howling no-man's-land miles square.

At night, I listen to the highway. Its hum is almost comforting. Once in a while, a truck emits a scream as it passes, and I wonder if the driver is aware of the signature he leaves behind in city neighborhoods, the cold cry of commerce, the hyena's laugh of history, the dinosaur's love song?

Note: my place is at the bottom of the photo, a little left of center ...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Travelogue 358 – September 20
The Age of Big, Part One

A fog has settled in last night. It's so thick that I can't see downtown from my windows. There's only the indeterminate form of one high-rise, lines of grey windows dissolving in grey. The view from my place usually takes in all of downtown, Nicollet Avenue progressing north to the Mississippi like a narrow tributary among the walls of the valley it has carved, the stone pillars of Minneapolis, its luxury hotels, the IDS tower, the Foshay, Ameriprise and other bastions of finance.

My vantage is removed; I see it but I'm not part of it. My abode sits among the outcasts from downtown, among one of the many stands of brick-clad buildings wrenched from town center by the discerning hand of Eisenhower.

Eisenhower: #34, George Washington reborn as an apple carving, founding father, paterfamilias to DiMaggio, Presley, and Keruouac. Weren't the days of Eisenhower's presidency the best ones? The ghost of my father is nodding. But Dad didn't live to see the Reagan years. I think the 80s would have made him kick his heels. What do you make of Sarah Palin, Dad? Oops, I've lost him. One mustn't push a ghost too far past the logic of his time … though, really, as for that … the logic of Sarah … well, anyway ... the mists encroach.

Fog has wiped the slate clean, a grey silence overtaking time. The screen is black and white again. The post-war waves of real estate giddiness that shaped downtown have never happened. Dad, do you remember Minneapolis in 1954? Do you remember the Foshay, the tapering and tawny erection that defined the 'skyline' for decades in mid-century? He's nodding happily again. But there were no Twins, no Vikings. Did my parents have a little silver-screened box that gave them grainy shots of Joltin' Joe and the Yankees? News from the Kremlin, still reeling from the sudden death of Uncle Joe?

For my Dad's generation, everything proceeds from the war, everything rising smoke from that fire. Cities rose from the ashes. Nations, industries, philosophies, leaders, a generation of babies all were the progeny and reply to the war. What Dwight brought back from the war were vivid memories of his travels across Europe. Dwight was a finicky traveler. He required a large entourage, hundreds of thousands of armed men, to be specific, men in tanks and planes, men with guns and grenades.

Ah, those madcap mid-century years: it was a time defined by mass mobilization, mad for huge numbers of human bodies, whether it was Ford and his assembly lines, parties and movements, or war. These days war is a dozen demented and unshaven fools who hijack airliners. Obama's efforts in Afghanistan seem strained, quaint, messy. We've lost that epic feeling.

The thing about mass efforts, they demand Herculean accomplishments in organization. Ike was the consummate organization man. Logistics over bullets. He was impressed by the German autobahn. His civilization-bending romp across western Europe would have been impossible without the extensive infrastructure realized by mass-menschen hungry for war. Global war in the bag, he turned an analytical eye on our vast North American spaces.

And so it is we inherit the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, begun in the 50s. Any coincidence that the road emerges as a theme in literature and movies in the 50s and 60s? Can we in 2010 imagine this nation without its highways? I can't. I grew up within a few miles of one of the classic routes, Highway 10, California to Florida.

Now I live one block from another one of them, the 94, Michigan to Montana. In the fog, traffic is slow. I can see the tops of the semis creeping along beyond the chain link fence. It's always the westbound traffic that is backed up. We're still manifesting destiny, it would seem, with Daddy Dwight's blessing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Travelogue 357 – September 12

Leeza lived long enough to experience Nine-Eleven. What does that mean? What part of us is made of the things we witness? The small rooms we call our life stories resound from time to time with the roar of passing trains or the shouts of passing mobs. History intrudes in its disturbing way, insisting that time – OUR time, we think – will now be marked in long memories by this capricious turn of events. Our stories have suddenly been hijacked by a dozen jihadists and a nasty Washington cabal of vigilantes. It's done.

Ethiopians don't see their lives as small, isolated rooms, I would dare say. Few of them could identify with a metaphor they haven't experienced: it's a rare man or woman over there who has had a room to him/herself. Life, rather, is the souk, the market, where all stories are wound together inextricably. The story is hijacked every day, they might shrug. Nine-Eleven? Do you think you're special?

In her last years, Leeza witnessed a few things that made her cry: Wellstone's death, Nine-Eleven, and variously cruelties up close and personal. She said she couldn't bring children into this world. Is that why she was exterminated?

Some freakish clergyman announces he's fit to judge the Quran. The press obliges him with a sustained blast of attention. Thousands of Afghanis march to protest the words of a freak. A midsummer night's circle of dancing fools link hands across the globe to perpetrate 'news'. They seek to define our day; they envision headlines becoming chapter subtitles in Kansas history books. Does progress mean that next year cable shows will broadcast a straight-jacketed mental patient shouting that the Chinese race was seeded by aliens? Will thousands of Chinese will take to the streets to condemn the West? Will it will be a fortune teller in Venice Beach declaring that Ahmadinejad is the Antichrist? Will advertisers unite to declare World War III?

Leeza's story is over. Is Leeza's story over? She takes her headlines to the grave. The rest of us carry them in our bags of banners. Nine-Eleven is one of the big ones. We drag it out once a year and scratch our heads over it. We ask, why is this a part of my story? Some of us are suspicious of the intrusion. It would make more sense if we could expand it into evil on a scale that would be worthy of a good shot of adrenaline. This is not the work of a few bizarre bands of over-excited frauds. It's the clash of empires, fighting to the death.

To those of us who need Star Wars to make sense of life, let me say this: you do not understand tragedy. You are afraid to feel it. Tragedy is almost always the result of trivial human stupidity. It makes the losses unbearable. The survivors of tragedy live on, crippled by it, trying to make sense of it. We wonder how the story could be taken so lightly by the gods.