Friday, July 17, 2009

Neighbors, Answer Your Phones! Children, Answer Your Mothers! or "Salutations"

I’ve got a huge American map on my kitchen wall now. Patti, my sitemate who’s leaving in a week, gave it to me after cleaning out her apartment. Of course there was probably little question as to who would get the thing since nearly every time I went to her apartment at some point I would approach the tapestry of states, union, south-west, Maine, and travel the roads for awhile in my imagination, imaging routes that I would take when I returned home, Montreal, through Vermont, back to California along the ten, changing to the 8 after Phoenix to finally see San Diego. While everyone else talked in the background about the snow falling outside, or what happened on the marshutka I traveled those roads, revisiting many of them. Dawn in Wyoming, almost five years ago, traveling by van. I wrote a postcard to someone at a gas station about the gas station itself and, as a result committed the scene to memory; Queens from Jamaica Station after a rainy layover at JFK; Memphis looking like something from a 1950s TV show, like Cuba without all the fedoras and white walled tires; Missoula, still hot late at night after a long summer afternoon, smoldering with casino lights; gauzy visions of early April morning in Vancouver, BC; Fox theatre in Detroit at 16, at 23; a bowl of coffee in a service station-cum-café as persuasion to spend the afternoon walking through Denver in February, where snow etches out faded graffiti; the European obelisk in Indianapolis; somnambulism: Portland; driving barefoot through Nebraska, like walking through warm summer fields; and a coyote skulking carefully down a suburban cul-de-sac in the hills above Los Angeles, where the moonlight dissipates into the city’s carmine glow; three-day old coffee spilled in the cup holder, cigarette butts between the seat cushions, CDs loosed from their sleeves and rolling along the dash, halogen rest stops, I’ll love you by Reno, and run out of things to say by Arizona, by mining towns, the water running out on the long stretch between Death Valley and Las Vegas.
And still so much that I haven’t seen between Kansas and Alaska, South Carolina and Florida but I know people that have come from these places and gone back to them since I have been here. I’ve listened to people talk about the places that they’ve come from and why they have to go back to them, people who don’t want to go back, people who have moved. “The last volunteer was from San Francisco, too,” my last host family asked, “why are you so different than her?”
I wonder how much I’ve begun to embellish America over the last year away from it. I’ve always been curious about the various corners, the small to medium-sized towns where, perhaps some new movement is fomenting. What are they doing in Brownsville? Biloxi? Is something about to happen in one of these places? Could I be a part of it if I move in time? I’ve never really understood exactly what it is I’ve expected to find on the edges of America. I’ve looked up pictures of Boise and Las Cruces on the internet, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that will indicate an ideal, but even if I did chance upon a place full of 24-hour taquerias and dive bars with punk rock records on the juke box I know that in the end such things would not hold me to a certain place. I’ve already lived in places that have had such things. In Chicago most taquerias are open all night, but the burritos are better in SF, in Minneapolis there are a number of dive bars where you can listen to Dillinger 4 records, but they’ve got those internet jukeboxes all over the place now where you can listen to anything you want.
In the end you’re left with the people. Surely it’s the people that make a place worth living in. At least I can say that every time I’ve moved the people are missed well above what ever conveniences and incidentals the place itself actually offered. Sometimes I miss walking down Dolores in the afternoon with a cup of coffee by myself, but I miss talking over the cover of my book to my old roommate Mikey a hellovalot more. All the places I uses to go were populated by certain people and, inevitably, my memories of those places are tied to the people that I experienced them with. If I didn’t have the people all my memories would be of ghost towns. But then why move at all? I’m not really the type to suddenly find myself at odds with my friends, especially not to the degree where I’d want to move away. But here again it comes back to the abstract of a place, just a name, just an idea, an abstract on the map. Maybe it’s the mystery behind it all, or maybe it’s still the people, not the great friends that you share your daily life with, but rather a new crowd, that’s into different things and speaks Spanish or something. Of course there’s a recurring note here, namely that one who moves frequently is really only seeking out the same experience over and over again. It’s an approximation but basically the same: friends, favorite places to eat, drink, walk, listen to music, be alone etc. In every place I’ve ever lived I’ve had these things.
I think it’s really just a youthful desire to feel like you’ve looked, so in the end, when you end up somewhere you feel like you got the best deal around. Even though you are vaguely aware that the differences between places are actually quite marginal.
So the slow summer wind pulls up the corners of my new map in the kitchen, the papery flapping sound jumbling all the Midwest, Southeast and Key Wests together.

II. I’m not really sure where to begin with this. So much has happened in the last week or so that I’m just going to have to begin with the most absurd points and work my way into the more serious stuff.
A moment ago I came to the conclusion that internet dating is right for me. Based mostly on the notion that inevitably my ability to relate to a person is what ultimately attracts me to them. That’s not entirely a blanket statement, sure there’s other things about a person that make them attractive, but almost everything else, I mean every other quality fades after a while except the feeling that you can open yourself up to that person, that you can rely on them to listen and, what’s more, to actually understand your garbled thoughts. Certainly, we’ve all realized this before, but, I think, what we haven’t realized, is that internet dating, no matter how vapid and sterile it might seem, is actually a well-spring of like-minded people, who believe in communication, why else would they be on the internet? Also, when you think about it, on the computer, all you can do is communicate, it’s like the greatest foundation for building a relationship on communication because it doesn’t allow for anything else.
Then again, what is communication without personality? So much conversational minutiae is lost between the keys of an online conversation. There’s no sarcasm, no body language, only smiley face icons and ellipsis. One could probably carry on an internet conversation with someone for years and still be surprised when they finally met them by how they really acted and who they really were.
Then again, if internet-based communication bars the emotional basis of face-to-face conversation what does the say about all texts, notes, letters or even literature, certainly there’s something more than 900 pages of chatroom antics to be found in Les Miserables.But I guess I can’t say that one lacks something the other has, based on format when they are of the same format. If we can come to love the Fantines and Remedioses through a few chapters, perhaps the same can be said of real people. In fact maybe life can truly imitate art this way, all the better, life becomes art when people date on the internet.
Yeah, I don’t really buy any of that either. It still seems to awkward to me, and there’s a lot of heroines I’ve liked but I don’t know if I’d really want to meet any of them.
I have also recently discovered what seems to be a near permanent link to the internet which is soaking up my extra time. I really didn’t want to get the internet for this reason. When I’m not doing anything I end up looking at my aforementioned map for about twenty minutes and then going off and looking up mid-sized American towns on Wikipedia, trying to get an idea if I’d like to visit El Paso or some place, perhaps even live there. I don’t really seriously consider the latter, but anything uncertain is open for consideration and so come the thoughts about living in National City, California. It seems Tom Waits lives there and there’s a high enough crime rate to make me think I might be able to afford it. I’m not entirely sure where it is, south, or south-east of San Diego, probably just a scattered suburb in the desert, but in the languor of a hot afternoon I imagine it’s some last bastion of cheap, fun and friendly living in southern coastal California, yet another place with cheap Taqerias and bars where everyone comes up and introduces themselves if you’re sitting alone.
Perhaps I am misusing the internet, maybe it’d be better, more constructive, if I took up internet dating.
The other day my friend Raman died. It was sometime in the late morning when I found out. My friend Ben was visiting from his site in Jermuk. The weather was late-morning-hot, the kind of heat that makes you feel like you’ve already wasted a whole day sitting around even though it’s only ten o’clock. I was expecting two couch surfers to come that day, later on the evening. As Ben arrived via the earliest marshutka he had woken me up at 9:30 or so. I was still sleeping as I had not been able to make myself comfortable enough to sleep the night before amidst these damn sandwich bag pillows that have no yield, and my reasonably decent couch that I kept trying to roll off for some reason.
For some reason I like being woken up by visitors, provided I enjoy their company. It reminds me of college. It nice to just wake up and have your day start off with a friend who wasn’t around when you went to sleep. I can remember a few instances of waking up late, sometime in the afternoon to someone sitting on my bed.
“You’re still sleeping, man? C’mon we gotta’ go! The lake/Oregon/Minnesota/the local diner awaits!”
In fact, I remember sometimes almost intentionally sleeping in to wake up to such an event, of course in the morning it doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep sleeping, but when you feel like you’ve got an incentive, that’s good living.
Feeling pleased and tired I decided to make pancakes. Of course coffee goes great with pancakes so I made a few cups and, while it was boiling some potatoes fried with onions and peppers sounded like it would round everything out well enough so I began making that as well.
The sun shone through the window, Ben and I were talking across the kitchen about graphic novels and the general art of story telling. The pancakes didn’t rise very much but with syrup they were still really good. Fried potatoes are always good.
The dishes were easy enough and we moved back into the living room to finish our conversation. I gazed at the sunlight that drifted through the dust motes above my couch and listened to Ben alternately talk and type on my computer, as he checked listings for apartment rentals back in Austin where he’d be moving when he went back in less than two weeks. I felt happy for him and I felt happy for myself. The first year had fully passed; the volunteers from the year before were returning home. I had completed something, and felt confident enough to do it again, maybe even make it better. Ideas bounced flitted through my mind for the coming year and ways to make more of an impact in the university, and Ben and I talked about the last year in Armenia
When Ben left to go fax some papers I decided to take a turn at the computer. Happily, I noted that I had a message from my friend Mikey. It was brief. “I got your letter. Call me, it’s important.”
“Sure, why not?” I thought to myself. “It’s been a good morning and a phone call to a good friend would only strengthen that impression, enhance the morning.”
I have a thing about making phone calls to the states. I really only like to make them when I’m feeling really good, otherwise I worry that I’ll complain too much or not be able to think of anything to say. I’ve developed this practice through experience. After having moved many times over the past couple of years I find calls to people no longer in my vicinity can leave me feeling very disappointed if I don’t time them right. Sometimes, a call can succeed in making one feel incredibly far away from people if not handled correctly. I can recall a few instances of this from when I was living alone in northern California. Making lonely 2am phone calls back to San Francisco and being greeted with the din and excitement of a familiar bar, something that clashed so desperately with the sound of frogs peeping outside my quiet, mildewy northern Pacific apartment. Even worse, having little or nothing to say can make one feel as though one has grown apart from good friends, that there are no common interests or that one’s life has become so boring that no events are worth describing. I hate that feeling, so I make it a point to call people when I’m feeling good, ebullient enough to chat about nothing for a while and appreciate it.
Usually every time I try to call Mikey he doesn’t answer the phone. Who knows what the hell he’s always doing. His voice mail message only furthers one’s sense of curiosity.
“Hey, this is Mike, I’m doing something that involves me not answering my phone right now, so if you’ll leave your name and number I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.”
In my case “as soon as I can” is whenever I try to call him again, as calling Armenia is pretty expensive from the states.
I called an got the message after a few rings.
A pleasant note of happiness and uncertainty. It wasn’t the message, but the “hey” part sounded exactly the same and fooled me for a second.
“Hey, Mikey, what’s going on, man?” for some reason I always say “what’s going on” when I haven’t talked to somebody in a while. I guess it sounds a little more elaborate and celebratory than “what’s up” to me.
“Nothing, man, how are you, it’s good to hear from you.”
“Good, man I’m good, I’m good. What’s going on?” I say again to further the impression of my jubilation at having made this phone call.
“Well, I’ve got some bad news.” I can’t really remember if he called it bad news or not. What’s important is that I got the impression that Mikey was going to tell me about an author’s death. He always seems to find out about them before me and usually reports it first thing, perhaps so that the conversation that follows will be a fitting discussion of the author’s works. Something of a fitting tribute to the life of anyone who dedicated their life to letters.
“Raman died, Jonny.”
How the hell do you start talking after someone says something like that on the phone?
“How’d it happen?”
That’s probably the most moronic way, but usually the first thing that comes to mind, the first sorta’ feint at real grief the mind comes up with.
“Car accident, somewhere in Nevada, he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.”
At this point one’s verbal skills are reduced to:
Which I continue to say, pretty much after everything else Mikey says for the rest of the conversation. Sometimes varying the tone, drawing it out like a sigh, sometimes sighing before I say it and adding it after like some kind of punctuation mark. Because the only thing you really can’t do with this word is request more information, I mean you can’t say it like a question, it would sound absurd. Because of this I occasionally add “really?" to the end
“Fuck, really?”
It still doesn’t sound very coherent, my end of the conversation lags on like a sputtering tire, gradually losing its air, flapping off the highway and into a rest stop.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
Like a locomotive regularly pumping the wheels back and forth with burst of steam, slowly, between words.
Mikey talks and I puff. I flap.

When the conversation is over and I’ve gotten the basic details, I notice that Ben has come back from faxing. He seems to have understood the gist of the conversation despite only being able to hear my laconic responses.
“You ok, man? Do you want me to go?”
I honestly didn’t know.
“No, it’s ok, man. Hang out, it’s ok.”
I had absolutely nothing to say. I told Ben what had happened, somewhere in Nevada. I tried to keep talking to avoid any kind of awkward silence. Ben, not being able to know anything about my relation to Raman or who he was at all, probably had no idea if I was going to collapse and rent my clothes while screaming and dumping the ashtray on my head or if I’d just shrug and say well, you know, the only guarantee in life. Want some more coffee?
I told Ben a little about Raman, how he and I had been friends through my later years of college. How we never really called each other up to hang out , but were always glad to see each other at all the social events we attended in common. I told him about how Raman was a beautiful kid with positivity and energy to spare. How I couldn’t remember if I had seen him after we met in Phoenix a few years ago. That he lived in a very energetic way that was at least some consolation, that he had gotten a lot out of the short life he had. That he and I used to spend Tuesday afternoons sitting in in front of this used bookstore he worked at and acted as caretaker to. How one of the most romantic encounters I have had with anyone was in the bookstore after the bars closed.
I didn’t tell him about how Raman had been the last person I said goodbye to when I moved away from the city I went to college in and, as a result, passed some of the best years of my life. I didn’t tell him how Raman had me do a mural on the back wall of the bookstore that as far as I know is still there. How he had me design a recycling bin for the bookstore, that I stared at, painted and repainted over an entire July, sweating like crazy in my old basement. I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t remember what Raman’s last name was, despite the fact that I knew he knew mine, as I heard him say it a good number of times. I didn’t mention Beggar’s Banquet, nor Mac’s nor Dagwood’s, the name which just occurred to me after not being able to remember it, attempting to find a hint of it on the internet and only drudging up a bunch of old memories by finding listings for a bunch of other places I had forgotten about, but not Dagwood’s, the name of which occurred to me after finishing the search. All the conversations we shared all over the place, agreeing on all kinds of things, most of the time proposing ridiculous ideas for local change at three o’clock in the morning and drawing up basic plans for their implementation.
When Ben left, I found myself sitting in a local café, not wanting to be there and trying to read Charlotte’s Web, which I had checked out from the library only a few days before, unaware of the pending significance of my selection. I got the feeling that Raman would’ve liked to find his friend reading a child’s paperback classic, with a notepad nearby ready for notes and beginnings to letters that probably wouldn’t be finished. So much of what we had often discussed was based on the mutual enjoyment of this vaguely aesthetic way to whilie away of the hours. I decided to write a letter to Raman, telling him what I was doing after I heard he died, how I thought he’d like it, but after a while I gave up, the café was hot and I felt guilty, given that I had never written him a letter before, it seemed stupid on my part to start now.
The couch surfers from Hungary came a few hours later. There was nothing I could do, I’d been telling them for months that I would be available. When they arrived I tried to excuse myself by hinting that there’d been some bad news from home, but I guess I was too vague, because they only proceeded to ask me what I was doing in Armenia and how I liked it there and what were some things to see around town and whether or not it was hard to learn Armenian.
The next day I had to leave for camp in the evening. I woke up feeling despondent, not so much from the news itself but from the unreality of it. I wanted to talk to someone, I wanted to remind myself that this had really happened, because Armenia was closing in around me. I had work to do for the camp, I had to clean up my apartment, my window broke, actually fell out onto the entrance stairs to the apartment, it could’ve killed someone. Like Raman, Raman died. I had to practice break dancing if I was going to try to use it to teach some English to the campers. Had to get this damn trash outta’ here, this damn trash that’s been piling up for ever, making the hall way look like a damn dump, just take one minute to get this bullshit pile of trash outta' here. then to the university, then maybe lunch.
In the evening I called Colleen. It was early in the morning Michigan time. I had to leave to catch the camp bus in 20 minutes, an escape in case the conversation didn’t go well.
“Uhh, Hello?”
I woke her up.
“Hey what’s up. Sorry if I woke you up. I knew I’d be able to get a hold of you if I called early enough. What time is it there anyway?”
“Hey, uhh, nine thirty.”
“Nine thirty!? Wow you should be up anyway, I don’t feel so bad now.”
“I had to close the bar last night.”
“Oh, you still work there? The place I visited last time I was in town?”
“No that place closed, this is a different bar, but I’ve got a new job, I’m going to start teaching in the Fall.”
Everything changes. Only a week before my friend Jules had had a baby. Now Colleen is going to be a teacher and Raman has died. A great friend and a great kid, a reunion that would never take place, someone I shared things with that I will not be able to reminisce with anyone else about, because no one was around. Someone I created memories with that I’ll always have. Someone who sent me a clipping from an old Sci-Fi magazine, an advertisement for the Peace Corps from circa 1967 that made me feel happy to be here. Here, Armenia, where I got the news that my friend had died just before going to work at a summer camp and tried really hard to reconcile these two things.
I called from camp the next morning. My friend’s voices greeted me talking from and about the list of bars I wrote about above. Everyone sounded good. They were remembering. I hung up the phone and remembered with them for a while, then I went into breakfast.

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