Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From SR to NYC

To: August 24, 2009
From: May 23, 2009 / Marble Composition Notebook No. ? / NYC

It’s May 23rd and I’m back in NYC. Nine months gone and it’s still home, still very much the same, and yet not so as well. Washington Square Park has been rebuilt and unveiled and it still has as much open space, as much potential as a meeting ground for hundreds, and so I know now that what I’d heard, what I’d feared, has not come to pass, either because the threats of monitoring, of rearrangement of boundaries and parts to keep the people corralled, was untrue or—what I hope, or, more likely—the threat of constraint drove the neighborhood, the New Yorkers, my New Yorkers, to put heads together and throw a fit until they made themselves not just heard, not just known, but a force that promised to be a mule-stubborn and a permanent, itchy thorn. God bless the thorns in sides.

And so now I’m here on this concrete wall, back against the light post, Northeast corner of things, first place I talked enough to Abby Durden to freak her out, listening to this woman in a black dress—Summertime! Summertime!—play guitar, sing her and others’ songs, and the light is through the leaves and I am walking through a dream, woke up in Siem Reap 30-odd hours ago, the world mine and also off, also alien, behind gauze, and I love it here. It is what I know, the drunks on the bench in front of this gal, singing along to Floyd, lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, this everything bagel well-toasted with olive cream cheese, strong iced coffee, just a dash of milk, no sugar, these folks playing chess, the taxis and it’s greener too, artful bike racks around St. Mark’s cube, quieter traffic, or am I just clouded behind that gauze, behind last night’s blunt, jet lag and dregs of airplane sake still in me?

You get in between worlds and you get that new vantage, get clear of the personal plagues that are site-specific, and with that distance see how quickly the fabric is rewoven, always decomposing and re-growing, always torn down, always rebuilt. And of course things aren’t always rebuilt, but here, man, here where I live, where I learned how to live with myself, how to be an adult, this Rome keeps breathing, rebuilding, and I like to think We the People are the red blood cells, the antioxidants, my people, and I miss this all because I see now how it changed without me and, though this is irrational and silly, my feelings are hurt a little.

And I guess that’s how I know I can never fully leave here. A growing, glowing understanding, even with all this gauze in between, that I am of this place, that Asia will be a way of experience, a particular lens or specimen for a set amount of time, but I am very much and forever American, forever a New Yorker and a Southern boy too, and that growing glowing, that is a knowledge of just how lucky that makes me, and all of the responsibility that comes with that, I know it and accept it and love it too because it’s a gift to be chosen by Fate to have the time and the means of gestating this kind of consciousness. We get to carry each other—indeed, Mr. Hewson. And, man, the guitar gal has just started up ‘High and Dry’ and I’ll go back to Brooklyn and hit the pavement with Tony, and this is the United States of America, with all its crippled government and culture of consumption, but so much more too, so much of the twenty different cultures embodied in these strangers collected around me on this Washington Square concrete, listening to this melody beneath these trees, in this lick of breeze, so much fallible potential.

You leave to look back and see. The world of the last generation mutating profoundly, this generation’s lives the axle upon which this Past will turn under to drive up this new and coming Present.

So much in such little time. The gauze will be cut away at some point. What kind of new sight will I be blessed with?

Monday, August 10, 2009

This Old House

The House

2635 Bella Vista Ave.

Lexington, Ohio 44904

Dear House,

Do you remember the fit that my siblings and I threw when we were told that we were going to move out of you?  You would have thought that my parents were torturing us by daring to build a newer, bigger house about five miles away.  I remember sitting in my brother’s room for a miniature protest meeting and resolving together that we simply wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t leave.

But we did, of course, just as I’ve moved away from a whole string of places since—the beige carpets and cozy basement of junior high and high school, my claustrophobic college dorm rooms, that first strange attic apartment that I shared with three other girls, the honey-colored floorboards of the little Chicago studio on the lake, the exposed brick and low ceilings in Jersey City.  Leaving a place behind always fills me with the sad slippery feeling of time getting away from me, but each move, truth be told, has been easier than the last, and when I move out of my current Cambodian abode, it may be the easiest one yet.

I do not mean to imply that it is not a nice house.  It is large (enormous to my eyes that had become calibrated to New York apartment sizes) and far more comfortable than what I had envisioned before I left the U.S.  And yet, there is something weirdly forbidding about the place, something elusively Cambodian.  Maybe it is the small windows or swollen intractable doors or the way the stuffy rooms hold heat.  Maybe it is the glue-sniffing teenagers who occasionally jump our fences and pilfer things out of our windows.  Maybe it is the memories of the time that all the cheap plastic plumbing fixtures broke at once and flooded the place in the middle of the night.  Whatever it is, the house has always seemed to give us more of a polite handshake instead of a warm embrace.

Occasionally, expat friends in Siem Reap will ask us to housesit, and we usually jump at the chance, not because they are nicer, more luxurious houses (though that is certainly the case) but because they feel so much more lived-in than our own house.  During housesitting stints, I go around absentmindedly touching things—children’s toys, expired medications, family snapshots, the worn corners of books.  These are families who have decided to stay in Siem Reap for much longer than I will, and the spaces where they live have a warmth and permanence that I sometimes forget can exist.

Now, our lease almost up, we are looking for a new place of our own, though it is still uncertain if we will be able to find anything better than our current rental.  Cambodian houses, at least the ones that Khmer build to rent out to Westerners, are weird.  They are candy-colored concrete monstrosities with cavernous tiled rooms and no closets and kitchens without stoves.  It is as though one person made a sketchy blueprint of what he thought a Westerner would want and hundreds of Khmer landlords have been blindly following suit ever since.  What’s strange is that most of them wouldn’t think of living in a place like that themselves.  Many of the houses that we looked at had tiny wooden shacks in the back or side yards where the landlord lived with his or her family.  Sometimes we would gaze wistfully out of a back window in some bubble-gum pink rental to these little houses with dogs and cooking fires and laundry drying on the line—they looked so real compared to the buildings we were standing in.

Maybe it is because they were built by and for the people who inhabit them.  There is a photo I think of sometimes (either real or somehow created in my mind from stories my parents told me) of my mother smiling in front of you, a half-finished house, holding Dawn’s hand and carrying Ryan around like a little bundled papoose.  My father, a junior high guidance counselor at the time, did the electrical work and put up drywall in the evenings to save money.  Though none of us could remember them, perhaps it was those evenings that made you feel so much like ours that, seventeen years later, my siblings and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.  It has been years since I have thought much about you, old house, or taken the time to miss you, but now, on an orange tiled porch thousands of miles away, I remember you and remember what it feels like to be home.



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Re: Kentucky Fried Cambodia

Hi Dad,

Thanks for faxing that stuff to Sallie Mae.  That’ll keep them away from the door for a bit.  In getting all the papers in order, the Ts crossed, etc., I called their main number and got caught in the endless automated voices and choices.  So I went for my standard technique, which is to press ‘0’ many, many times very, very rapidly.  But they’re slick.  Whereas that will usually get you a long pause of dull air, followed by a fembot saying, “Please wait, while I transfer you to the next available representative,” Sallie only gives you, “That is not a valid choice.” 

Eventually, after choosing many numbers that transferred me to other numbers to be chosen that transferred me to still other numbers to be chosen, I ended up with an Indian guy who said his name was Max.  Max was on top of it.  He gave me everything I needed to know in about a fifth of the time it took me to get to him in the first place.  One of my intentions in this rigmarole was to consolidate my loans, since interest is now just above 2%.  Sweet.  But Max told me that Sallie Mae doesn’t  consolidate anything anymore.  They just don’t do it, period.  I’ll be at 2% until they decide or are allowed to jack it to 7% or 8% and that will be that.

So this torques me off severely because, in the most immediate sense, it goes against my best interests.  Not that Sallie Mae has any reason to have my best interests at heart; it’s just not what they exist for.  But it speaks to a broader symptom of rot in America that turns my frustration into hatred.  What is the rationale for inserting a private middleman (woman) in between students and the public money the feds provide as school loans?  There’s no benefit to the students, to the feds, or to that larger aim of creating and supporting an educated populace.  Sallie and Freddie and their siblings and cousins exist solely to take a cut of the funds that the populace themselves contributed in the first place.  Sallie and Freddie don’t really do anything, at least not anything of value.

And that brings me to the hatred and, further down the Stream of Consciousness from that port, to Cambodia.  Sallie and her ilk treat us as nothing more than tiny pocketbooks from which to squeeze profit.  They obviously lunch with health insurance companies.  And then I read how Goldman-Sachs' CEO takes in another monstrous bonus and I think, “These people are pigs.”  They use our money to buy influence in order to take more of our money.  There is something inverted in these relationships.  So now, Cambodia:

One of the chapters in the book Shannon and I are working on concerns Cambodia’s changing relationship to its food.  This was inspired by the opening of a KFC in Siem Reap.  KFC is the only foreign fast food company in the country and Shannon thought it’d be cool to investigate Khmer thoughts on this, the attitudes of Yum! Foods (KFC’s owner), and what it’s like to have your Extra Crispy chicken come with soup and rice rather than a biscuit (oh, but for a even a single biscuit!) and potato wedges. 

So we took Savuth to lunch yesterday and asked him his thoughts.  It was all too charming in its picture-perfect way.  Vuth can’t ride on a moto with a woman because he’s a monk, so I dropped Shannon off and picked Vuth up and rode through the morning sunshine and over the river with his orange robe flapping behind us and in my side view mirror.  We bought him the Snack Pack, which included an Original Recipe drumstick, a Spicy wing, a white bread roll, a dollop of mashed potatoes with gravy, and a thimble-sized lump of coleslaw, as well as a Pepsi, though he’s a Coke man himself. 

This was Savuth’s first time in what he called, “a modern restaurant.” The first time was a buffet in a hotel he was staying in while attending an ecumenical conference in Phnom Penh.  That food did a number on his stomach (the nature of which we were left to determine by the way he smiled shyly and looked at the floor), but he liked KFC.  He had actually seen a news broadcast on the restaurant while at that conference and told us that, at the time, he’d imagined himself one day with lots of money, free of the robes, and giving Colonel Harland Sanders’ secret recipe a try.  KFC is expensive by Cambodian standards, though Savuth’s meal cost just shy of three bucks, and young people consider it a sign of status to dine there.  When we asked Savuth what he thought of the restaurant itself, he said it was pretty.  When we asked him in what ways, he said, “I think it is clean.”

After taking him back to the wat so he could host his daily radio show, I though about a Taco Bell across from the Sixth Avenue ball courts in Greenwich Village, how it was permanently shuttered after hidden cameras taped and broadcast video of a battalion of rats crawling over every flat surface night after night.  A week or two after the ignominious closing, someone Sharpie-d “Rats all, folks!,” on the lowered security gate.  And sitting here now I think of the time you said it was a testament to the hardy American constitution that though we all eat out all the time and secretly know that so many of our restaurants are unsanitary, so few of us get sick from them.  (We get heart disease and long-term, debilitating illnesses, but these are from the composition of our food, not from the filth in their preparation.)  

Cambodians are used to their foods prepared without refrigeration, of flies and bugs crawling over their ingredients, of only unclean water used to wash hands.  We interviewed many Khmer diners in KFC and they echoed Savuth’s feeling that the food prepared out of sight in an airy, white-walled, and air conditioned space was the cleanest option available.  Cambodia’s experience of our fast food is the opposite of ours.  What we think of as cheap and rather lowly, they think of as expensive and a sign of affluence.  What we assume is relatively unsanitary, they believe is optimally clean.  And what about physical health, if KFC and the local Pizza Hut knock-off are actually nutritious?  Savuth didn’t understand the question.  Food is food; nutrition extends to simply getting something to eat.

So I think of the perversion of America’s Greed Pigs, how they contribute to making a Democracy of the People an oligarchy with compelling window dressing.  And then I think of the fact that Cambodia is so happy to get food they associate with us and with the pinnacle of lush modern living.  So I should be happy that we have at least the level of control over our government that we do.  And the Khmer should examine very closely the new options open to them.