Monday, May 28, 2007

No Romance in Transit Centers

Modern train stations are not made with any sense of romance—that is a shame. I have been stranded a few times, for an hour’s time, at the Millbrae Caltrain/Bart station, which, in terms of the Bay area, is in the middle of nowhere.

“Please do not ride your bicycle while on Bart,” says a gritty speaker, somewhere.

Two years ago, maybe more, I was here at night, a reasonably temperatured night, and I was very hungry. I may have had a small dinner, but it had been at least four hours earlier. Knowing I had almost two hours before the next train would come because the late weekend trains are more infrequent, I wandered out into the urban neverness, seeking any kind of quick snack. There was a diner on the corner but I didn’t want to sit—it felt necessary to retrieve something for consumption at the station. Outside the diner and across the street, I saw a gas station with a convenience store, and went to it. The street was wide; it seemed like a dozen lanes in the night, like one of those giant black tracks through the unnatural land that acts as a slow urban artery—not the main vein, not an important one, but a thick one. I crossed it and went into the store and bought a candy bar with a bottled coffee drink. I used their restroom too—that was another motivator which I’ve just now recalled. And I came back to the train station with my candy and drink and unwrapped it, and ate it, quickly and lustfully. That word is a hair from what I mean to say, but in terms of candy and hunger, you understand fine. It was not very satisfying.

The station is all concrete and metal. I suppose all are. A French train station, like Gare du Nord or d’Orsay, which started out as a station, is also concrete and metal, but done right. Of course those kinds of stations are plentiful in America as well, I think, but not here; this is for business and those are for fun. Modern stations, or, transit centers, are made to work—and that is all.

That night at the station was as a little sad and a little lonely. The electric light is unfriendly, and the dead hum of the rails is foreboding. It had been a good day with a good friend in the city, and there was a nice kind of love between us, like we had been childhood companions, but weren’t. The day was over and the sun was down and I was alone eating candy in the cold of the train station with irritable strangers.

It is better today at the station, perhaps because I began the day alone and nothing was lost, and it was still good; the sun is not down and is kind with warmth—not the bad heat the can sometimes come in California, but the gentle sort of warmth of later afternoons. The station is still ugly and dead like a skeleton but I was smart enough, this time, to bring paper and pen for the empty minutes.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Personal History of Epic Failings and One Success

“It is youth's felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” - FSF

I think back to my views of school and college and life, and all that lay ahead, when I was a sixteen year old high school student, sending applications to a few universities with some sort of epic grandeur in mind. I enjoyed the constant flow of brightly colored solicitations in my parent’s mailbox from schools wanting my attendance, or my money, or, from a more egotistical standpoint, my mind. Princeton had an orange coat of arms on their informational packet, like a tiger-skin shield; I liked that, but did not think I had the kind of academic and far-reaching background to be qualified for such a place. Financially—who could know? Middle Americans afforded tuition somehow. My parents reminded me, when choosing schools, that my father might be laid off soon; I ignored that, preferring debts and dreams to grounded realism. But I was bound for a UC school, anyway. It was somehow implicit.

Stanford sent me a postcard. It had a picture of archways and flowers. That’s all I’d seen of the campus—some arches and some flowers. I remember a sort of dimly lit scene that I now think might have been imagined—a scene of a stone balustrade over roses the color of dried blood, foliage deep green like moss on the shore of a freshwater lake. There was a soft mist, and a soft mold growing on the arched pillars; it was sort of Celtic. It must have been imagined because all photos of Stanford are full of sun and sandstone, and, not particularly Celtic. I didn’t really perceive the strange old mission/art nouveau style of architecture that covers the campus until I visited in the spring of ‘03.

I replied to the postcard, and got an application. It had only recently learned that Stanford was in California—in the MTV film ‘Orange County’, Jack Black drives from southern California to the Stanford campus in a matter of hours, and burns down the admission office. I forget why; Tom Hanks’ son is trying to get admitted, and trying to become a writer. And so I learned that Stanford was only a few hours up the Pacific coast. It was only somewhat misleading.

I applied, nearly furtively. I don’t think my parents knew until I asked them for the $75 application fee. There is something embarrassing about ambition when failure is so readily expected.

The mailman incorrectly delivered my admission packet, giving it to a neighbor with big hair. She brought it over and said congratulations. I wonder if the mailman did that intentionally, based on a nearly forgotten but deep-set resentment from thirty years passed.

That’s the short of it. I had no particular academic ambitions. I thought I’d study something with computers, something with animation and design, the neat things that fascinated me. I don’t know why those ideas did not pan out—computers become a pain when you get into real work. But then, most work is a pain. A few years later I had a degree in English. With a creative writing focus! I did that, truthfully, because it was the easiest thing to do. When something is easy, you probably have some talent in the area. Unfortunately I had never written a story, and wrote some pathetic stuff to get decent grades; you really only have to show up to a creative writing class to get a B. Academic papers were the same.

At the end of high school, on the AP English test, I wrote an essay on Pride and Prejudice and got full marks; I’d only read a third of the book. A couple years ago I wrote an essay on The Sound and the Fury, the Benji part, and did well; I’d only read a third of that book. I found, later, that the remaining two thirds were really good; I never finished P&P. These are two victorious moments in my history of minimal effort. (Rather, my effort is put into unquantifiable things that satisfy and interest me, like this writing). More recently I wrote a paper on Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and received the only A+ I would ever get in college. I have no idea what that book is about; something with fireworks and India. When no one understands a particular subject, anyone with confidence can be an authority.

That is my one success—I have a degree in English. As far as the epic failings, well, I have a degree in English, but that is all. What else would there be? Some kind of enlightenment? I really don’t know.

There still exists a scene, on a campus that doesn’t exist, in the shadows of a low fog along the rose bushes and the balustrade, where something cinematic happens. Something like a parting kiss between two lovers in the forties, off to war and death within months. It’s a sort of appreciation for what is and what has been, in knowing the present is as solid as a haze of soon gone cigarette smoke, up and out in bluish wisps, and in knowing the future is only its imagined shadows. It’s some sort of epic grandeur that exists once you acknowledge your failings and reach for something just beyond reason. That's the ticket: something just beyond reason.

The wind-sounds and the coffee make me sentimental, you see.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On the Curve of the Coast

just a single scene:

“Let’s go on one of those walks—one of those walks around the town led by a village boy.”
“I don’t want to walk around.”
“It’s—it’ll be delightful. Like a real tour.”
“I could walk at home. Too many hills around here. Too hilly.”
“You don’t walk at home. You sit.”

The two sat in the open air dining plaza of the hotel, set far up on the hilled land, and looked out to the curve of the coast and the white-lipped waves scrapping onto the beaches, and at the small houses covered in pastel Mediterranean plaster, houses built with the hill and with each other in organic construction.

“It’s my favorite hobby. Sitting. Let’s just relax for a while.”
“Garçon!” she called. A young man in a clean white linen shirt came to the table.
“Jus d'orange, si vou plait. Garçon,” she added, as he stepped away, “promenade avec moi?” She walked her fingers across the table like little legs and smiled. The waiter looked to her husband and laughed, and stepped away.

“That’s nice,” the husband said.
“He was wearing the same shirt as you. Did you notice? You’re dressed like the help.”
“It’s a good shirt.”
“It’s very white, don’t you think?”
“Let’s not talk for a while. Let’s enjoy the breeze.”
The waiter came with cold orange juice in a thin, tall glass.
“Whiskey, si vou plait,” said the husband, “with a little water and a little ice.”
“This early,” she said with no question mark.
“Let’s enjoy the breeze.”

The large umbrella overhead leaned back, and forth, slowly teetering like a thin palm, and back.
“I was thinking, when we get back, we should hire a gardener.”
“You don’t like doing the gardening yourself?” the wife asked.
“Not really. We can afford it.”
“But I thought you like to do it by yourself. With the electric tools.”
“It’s very hot in the summer months,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s a new development.”
The waiter brought his drink.
“Merci. Some would say it’s annual, the heat. It’s very tiring, you know. I want to hire someone.”

She took a long drink of the orange juice. “Fine. But would the gardening people use your tools or bring their own?”
“They’d probably bring their own.”
“What would you do with the mower and the other stuff?”
He took a drink. “Just keep them, I guess.”
She tipped the glass of juice up fully, to empty it and get at the bottom pulp, her head back and her neck long and exposed, and her eyes closed to the high sun.
“You should give the tools to Arthur,” she said in a soft, reserved way, knowing he would be displeased.
“I’m not going to give away my possessions.”
“Would you sell them?”
“I don’t know. I’d rather not. I’d rather keep them.” He finished his drink and took a long breath, and felt his chest and lungs full and open.
“You don’t need them if you hire someone.”
“I might.”
“For emergency weeds?”
“For whatever. Maybe you’re right about the walk. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Let’s for a swim.”
He placed money on the table from his pocket and sat the empty glass on top.
“All right.”
“All right!”


the end of something.