Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fragments from a 21st Century Travelogue

Binghamton, New York

My grandparent's home. They are dead; the upper floors lay vacant; a few belongings are piled in the center of the living room on the odd chance someone wants them. My mother has already removed paperwork, documents, photographs. Among them the stamped passbook that brought my great-grandfather through the checkpoints of the British Army in occupied Germany after the first world war.

In the basement is another mass of detritus: the tattered remains of board games that entertained me, my sister and my cousins when we were children, ancient appliances in various states of disrepair (probably awaiting some promised fix when my grandfather's stroke hit), black rotary Bell Telephone telephones in classic semi-gloss bakelite. My Grandfather, a plumber, had hoarded great masses of pluming fixtures, nuts and bolts, pipe hangers, valves. My mother, aunt, and I sort them carefully and haul them to the local scrap dealer. We make 300 dollars on two hundred pounds of copper and brass. We wait behind a long line of thin, leathery men in pickup trucks at the scrap dealer unloading pipes, refrigerators. One is knocking the wood and foam out of an aluminum boat with a sledgehammer. My part of America is mining its cities for raw materials, selling itself off by parts. I think of electrical lines being run to ultra-luxury hotels in Dubai, of data centers going up on south Pacific islands with no natural resources remaining but their lack of anything resembling coherent structures of legal jurisdiction.

Enfield, New York

My mother's fiance has four years of firewood stacked in front of the post and beam home he designed himself and built with the help of friends in the early 70s. The house is small inside, but comfortable and surprisingly well lit. He brags that he made it through the winter last year without even expending a full year's worth of firewood, all while showing me the massive pile of new wood he will add to his stock this year. I ask about the apparent oversupply of fuel and he shrugs and says, "its poor man's capital, i guess," and compares it to the scrap cars a friend keeps on their lawn, or my grandfather's pipe fittings.

Lock Haven, Pennsylvania

This is the last morning my girlfriend and I will spent in this central Pennsylvania town, with its views of the Appalachians looming low and green over the Susquehanna. I look up from the air mattress on the floor of her empty apartment and see swallows cutting through the pale yellow morning light. Will there be swallows in the Southern City we are moving her to, I wonder? I suspect not. The swallow, I believe, is a natural cliff-dweller and nests among the habitations of humanity only when they are old and quiet enough to mimic their ancestral environs. The low slung brick and concrete and stone buildings of this old river town are swallow heaven. How long until we tear them down, for copper conduit, for steel rebar?

In a 21 foot Truck, West Virginia

If you are a novice truck driver and decide to attempt to maneuver a 21-foot Penske moving van containing all of your beloved's worldly possessions along the narrow and winding roadway that is US 70 in West Virginia, here is what the experience will be like: the world dissolves into one long moment. Your human ability to reflect on the past and plan for the future goes away, except insofar as "the past" refers to the last bend in the road and "the future" refers to the next one. Your conscious mind will grab hold of some tiny piece of thought. Perhaps even this very notion, that "this is one long moment." It will repeat this thought over and over (this is one long moment this is one long moment this is one long moment this is one long moment) a sort of cartesian checksum, a way for it to verify for itself that the truck has not slid from the highway and with it your being into nothingness. This slim thread of ego is all that remains, the rest of you is devoted to the needs of the body, to holding the bouncing truck on its narrow and twisting course, to fighting off the dull ache growing ever sharper between your shoulders. (Some smarty pants may have noticed that I have mixed my philosophical systems in a manner that may not be completely internally consistent. Fuck you! I survived the truck-rodeo! I am among the living! I will appropriate dead men's philosophy as I see fit.)

Unnamed Southern City, North Carolina Piedmont

The girlfriend is a private person. I'll call the city she has moved to "Unnamed Southern City" out of respect for her not to be exposed to the stark gaze of the massed denizens of the global networks. Unnamed Southern City is a riot of growth, both botanical and artificial. Dense green hedgerows are interspersed with sprawling strip malls, apartment complexes, gated communities. The original ecology meets capital's emulation of its supposed darwinian imperatives.

There are no swallows here. The old brick factory shells that harbor them back home never existed in this place. Instead the sprawl sports small, vertical clumps of concrete and glass office towers, new workplaces for a new economy in the new south. Note to the ghost of Bill Faulkner: today the it is the North that is old and vanquished, the South has become young and victorious.

Unnamed Southern City, a small jet aircraft, Regan airport, another small jet aircraft, Syracuse, New York

The aircraft from Unnamed Southern City to Regan is so small I cannot fit my backpack in the overhead bin, and completely full. I have lucked out and drawn a bulkhead seat. I watch the frazzled flight attendant escort a hopeful standby passenger onboard, only to discover that someone was in the toilet for the headcount and there is no seat for her. She escorts her back off the plane. Her bag must be withdrawn from the plane by the crew. There is a delay. My fellow travelers groan. The plane spends less than an hour in the air. The truck and I spent 5 hours making this distance a few days ago. We pass Richmond on our way to Washington. A ten minute flight, a century and a half ago, the distance between two warring Americas.

Regan sits so close to the city you can almost touch it from the tarmac. There is a forest of cranes along the Potomac, between us and the silhouette of the Capitol dome. New construction for the security state. The war, it seems, is still hiring. I spend two hours in the airport, watching the constant motion of arrivals and departures, the thousands of pieces of aluminum kept always moving by the energy of our dwindling petroleum supply. Amazing that it works at all, flinging people through the stratosphere on a daily basis. More amazing when it is gone.

The plane to Syracuse is both larger and less crowded than my previous flight. It seems unlikely this could be a profitable venture for those operating the airline. Again we are less than an hour in the air. I touch down in Syracuse, my mother picks me up from the airport. A few minutes later I am standing at the sandwich counter of my childhood grocery store, remembering looking at the Washington monument a few hours before. A strange juxtaposition of the familiar and novel.

I step outside. It is cool here, and quiet. Swallows are swooping from the old brick office building standing beside the Owasco outlet. A yellow Faye drugstore ad fades and peels from its side. There is no traffic, except for a single dumptruck belching thick black diesel smoke. In its bed are appliances, copper pipe, aluminum conduit...


dr alex said...

these are my favorite posts of yours. beautiful.

kelly said...

Huh. I almost miss NY. Almost. But as a now content southern transplant, I doubt I'll ever miss it that much.

Thing for you to mull over: I have a couple of friends who just bought a house and who are trying desperately to find a vintage fridge and vintage kitchen cupboard handles and a vintage dining room table. I don't tell you this because I think you could help in anyway, but isn't it interesting that the south, which is now made up of millions of rows of identical modern neighborhoods, is breeding a younger populace that yearns for vintage 50s household trappings?

Wyatt said...