Cities new to us are always full of promise. Unlike promises we make to each other, the promise of the city can never be broken. But like the promise we hold for each other, neither can be fulfilled.
Victory Burginsky, Artificial Hells
Some people, maybe men especially, compare cities to women, and that is already boring. (A translator told me to use 'already' only as a last resort.) More interestingly, a poet, a woman, looking in the mirror, wrote, "You a city of a woman."
Someone else wrote (mentioning who would merely place its tenor): "A man can no longer say to a woman, 'I love you madly,' because he knows that she knows (and she knows that he knows that she knows) that Judith Krantz has already written the line, 'I love you madly.' There is one alternative. He can say, 'As Judith Krantz would put it, I love you madly.'" (And right now a reader somewhere is sulking: 'I know who the author of that quote is. Isn't that boring.' I say, good for you. There is a difference between being a know-it-all, and feeling something, trying to communicate without being smarmy.)
There is money running in underground waterways. Just floating by. Like the New York City aqueduct. A subterranean Wall Street funnel. A Mississippi River search and rescue diver, swimming down in icy, turbulent currents. They say the old New York waterways might collapse; they can never be shut off. The men who spend their days down there are seers. They run huge drills, risking their lives. They can tell the horror stories of great explorers. You can't help but think of The Matrix series. Salvation underground. Zion. Another Jewish Hollywood fantasyland of revenge. For writing about Israeli companies in New York, Amiri Baraka's case is tied up in court, or was. His was a poem. There is no bill of rights for the arts apart from what financial security backs them.
I'm not sure what exile is. Forgetting the text's origin, having only a sense of history, having a bad memory, searching for words to describe something, speaking badly in foreign tongues, scrambling around in the remnants of factories, now multinationals with teams of graphic designers. Maybe getting drunk and walking around in a strange town. Failed relationships with women, imaginary romances under brilliant, illuminated bridges, reflecting on late-night muddy rivers. The lights are like cinema. Projections of us. Approximations of translucent ghosts.
Nature is also cinematic, something like where I'm staying now. A simulation. A walking tour of a park system. Up famous mountains, renamed so many times. Renamed by conquerors, now turning back to the original name, part of another discourse. Denali is a lie. A check box on a long list of peaks rich tourist alpinists go through. Embrace the name; pretend you've communed with nature. Or you can go to some archive with funding from some other damn organization, or from your family's trust, and look at the original maps of scientists, cartographers from the 1840s their photographs to learn the truth. This year we celebrate great expeditions with great gala events with great speakers within the massive marble walls of great institutions. Death in the mountains or on the plains is also hackneyed. The pain has been felt before. Masculinity, bragging, ensures it.
I know what nature is. I found it the other day. Nature is a cubist sculpture on the side of a little cliff band here in the Rocky Mountain Front Range in Colorado. (Five names.) A man glued it together ten years ago with fifteen pounds of PC-7. He glued it together so he could participate in his own little corner of the legacy of Westward imperialism. So he could climb in a dark cave. He epoxied 150 feet of climbing in a shallow runoff that he dug out. He did it all in the dark by lantern to ensure his safety from purveyors of "ethics" and so that he would be the first. He made the same journey the explorers did two hundred years ago. Someone I can't get a hold of thinks the sculptor now lives in his car in Longmont. He suffers from schizophrenia. Can we make reference to the secret knowledge that delusions bring, another contingent metaphor? Unlike John Muir's romance on the precipice, this true nature is five feet off the ground. A fall is protected by H.M.O. medical insurance, if you can afford it. Otherwise there's Walgreens, if it'll come to your neighborhood.
What keeps us on the ground, the transparent ground, the stuff of broken sidewalks and mannequin storefronts? Someone, whose legend now outlines the shapes of buildings in San Francisco, started a poetry reading once with, "Sometimes I'm walking around, and I can see right through the ground." We could make references to other important people who said things like this, about detachment. The allusions would be redundant.
Someone else, in an essay called, "The Writer as Alaskan," said that as Americans we are constantly living off the surfaces of people and places. For example, it would be easy to talk about the ruins of St. Louis, and think that was a metaphor for the destruction of history and place. To talk about the policies that led to that destruction and talk about the destruction of democracy and community, what went wrong in the thread of history. But I don't believe in that anymore. I hope democracy gets tied up in the courts endlessly, along the lines of the principles of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He saw firsthand what the ideas that led to the Civil War produced. Who the fuck can put a name or a face on racism and freedom anymore? Stop everything. No justice. No nature (another reference, a lie).
The only communication I get from St. Louis these days comes from the campaign to halt the plans to demolish the Century Building downtown, which has been a futile exercise in trying not to give up hope, in ourselves, our representatives, the landscape itself. The building was already a copy of its nineteenth century ancestor a simulacrum, a plan for a new nightclub, cube farms, places for the homeless to camp out. Networks of capital drawing the outlines of the building as dirt encrusted its windows and façade. Like Serra's Twain, the event of its demise is less about the essential qualities of history, memory, or aesthetics. It is, instead, a little drama about what we hope from one another, the discussions we have about that ridiculous hope. Serra and the demolition contractor know something the organizers of the campaign do not. Take a look at the razing, isn't it beautiful?
Another man from this mountain-fantasyland community, a street performer, a tightrope- walker-turned-activist, was ranting in a presentation the other day. He wants rapid, complete democracy, fast. Propositions and referendums for complete and total participation. Populism. Fast like what? Like drive-thrus? Like new fighter jets? Like charred bodies and bombed-out targets?
I want justice to move like geology. Get rid of the space program. Start a massive campaign to dig underground, run away. Find the mantle. Look for the roots of mountains, rename them with a perfect name, an original name. If you look around, you'll see. The space trope has been replaced by the underground. Just as St. Louisians have been doing for three quarters of a century, most other Americans have spent the last three years looking below the foundation of two skyscrapers. There's a new website that shows dozens of time-elapse sequences views of them. Stare at it on your screen. There're plenty of CGs to guide you on the tour. NASA is dead. Star Wars is dead. We'll start boring down into the earth. I can feel the rumbling now.
Sometimes you can feel the "prying of the shell." You can feel it. It is part of your corpus. A physical disciplining. It doesn't matter where you are. The shredding of personality, the separation of something you once were, literally ripping it away from your person psychology and muscle. This is like the razing of buildings, but your own, an anonymous building you never lived in. That is American. That is inhabiting history like a rented apartment. A mobile home in which we can drive around and camp. I want to run around America with the explosives of suicide bombers strapped to my back. No history. Ruins.
There was a girl in that city of ruins, let's call it, who worked in a cement building, designed by someone famous, built by money from other famous people, a tradition, a legacy or so everyone in the city of ruins likes to believe. History is comforting. It explains. They're having fun building parking lots and famous buildings in Grand Center, too, aren't they? Tearing down, and blowing shit up. There was a cruddy old shopping mall here in Boulder. The architecture was rectangular, brown. The wrecking balls came the other day. I didn't see it. I took pictures. But there's a really great, newer, postmodern walking mall downtown, so it's okay. The same walking mall where the tightrope walker perched himself and was arrested when the cops started cracking down. Language is a parameter. (That line is so pretentious. It's not my place to say, so I'll step aside. Fuck it.) I suppose I too would have wanted insta-democracy. But the place from which I speak permits shortsighted racism, dancing with supporting what we've got in place now.
I thought I was in love with her, but it's my new concept of love. What I've learned. The training I've received. (Language is a virus from outer space. Language is a prison.) It's a love that you deal with as a representative of an organization. I got a letter from her the other day. On her organization's letterhead, with form letter text. On the bottom was a little note. It acknowledged that, yes, I had moved again. We'll keep you on the mailing list, it said. The last time we talked I had a one-way argument with her. She said nothing. I realized that I wasn't arguing with her, but with the organization she represented. She couldn't step out of line because she hadn't yet punched out. She was cold like old money. Secure in it. Embedded in the landscape that it fed. But already the allusion has taken root, and I'm back to the redundancy of comparing the landscape to a woman, which we've decided is boring. Morbid, and final, like the bunker she goes to work in everyday.
George Steiner (After Babel)? Derrida ("Des Tours de Babel")? Who the fuck are they? I already forgot. I didn't care to begin with. Derrida is dead anyway. Rabin is dead. Avedon is dead. Reagan is dead. JFK is dead. Arafat is dead. We've got Halloween costumes and alcohol. Write me off. Assassinate me. Shove me into a little corner at the edge of obscurity. I don't care anymore. Risking death is, of course, wrapped up in discourse. What the fuck do you think this is? You think you know what is real, what needs to get done? You don't know shit.
What about my friends? My future? You stopped caring a long time ago. You have a million intersecting images stored books, women, friendships, mistresses, little sighs of your imaginary reputation, professional colleagues with whom you are collegial. That is your version of justice. Freedom. Democracy. Like drinking wine, getting lost in a foreign city. Making infinite references that I'm not going to recognize. The innocent adventure of it. Like filling up blank spaces on the map, achieving the summit of mountains in politically unstable territories. First ascents that you can name. Risking death in this paltry enterprise. Forming royal companies to generate wealth. The necessary knowledge that preceded conquest. The reason for going in the first place. Because it's there.
Alcohol is a savior. The closest a white, middle-class American, born and raised here, can get to exile, the beautiful romantic notion of it, a future nostalgia about it, as close to the nostalgia as an inebriation can bring. It speaks nothing of the exile that changes register when it becomes displacement, an unimaginable terror that we have only in the phrase someone coined to describe the quintessential experience of 20-something America: terror sex.
It's the kind of exile that offers an easy escape, a middle class getting out of the country when you get pissed, or get under the thumb of a governmental force that elsewhere would have already killed you, or forced you from your home. Already we're joking ten days after the election. We're going to Canada. To Mexico. On my way home at night, alone, I get the distinct feeling that I am already elsewhere. (What is our concept of home? Better, I live in houses, temporary places.) I am going home, a temporary home, a place I live, but it's not my city. I mean, I know the way. I might have passed the roads on the way to my house more than a hundred times. But I get the distinct feeling that I am coming unglued from the sidewalk or road. The place is completely other to me. I am nowhere. I am walking through my imagination, a painting, a piece of writing I am doing for an upcoming exhibit entitled "Crying Presidents." They are paintings of Truman, Reagan and Nancy, George Jr. and Sr., Madison, Johnson. They are like Francis Bacon's triptychs, mangled portraits in bright colors. Political ads by the opposition in bloody Technicolor.
Unlike those who risk their lives or die crossing borders, we could give a fuck where we go and live. Exile tourism. We'd just as soon take a vacation as die for a piece of homeland.
We could be anywhere, and are. And it reminds me of something I read and translated a few years ago. I wanted to be elsewhere so badly, and tried. (At the time, I was living in Los Angeles.) Tried to emulate the voices and speech of someplace else. An inebriated dream. A plastic computer graphic of a place I wanted to have a romantic notion about. In an elegy to the emptied-out city after the Mexican raid on Tlatelolco in the summer of 1972, the novelist (whose name I'll mention this time) Elena Poniatowska writes:
But, the fact is the city escapes, friends desert you, time has become suddenly empty, as if September would never come and the days of November and April had never existed, erased by the cruel brilliance of the summer in which there is no respite nor relief nor the chance of a lie or compromise between the will to live and the recognition of failure. And everything: time, the year, paintings, friends, books, lost hallucinations that for nine months lit up the city with a spirit so intense that they seemed to break out of their limits and light up the world. It all remains distant and locked up in a bell jar, uselessly remembered and lying dead in the pages of the newspapers, on the white walls of the galleries, and in the memory of those who still haven't resolved to abandon this false Alexandria, and they still sit every night at the patio of bars with the skeptical pride of defeated survivors.
The city and her hinterlands are caught up in this horrifying dream. It is the doldrums of a windless, exhausting landscape, made easier with air conditioning and iced tea and billboards with astronauts or Jesus on them. Never sure where we are, we're caught in a landscape contingent upon the fragile narratives we've built up with whom and what we identify. There is no hope for positivism, for logical argument. The only possibility is seizure, stark and immediate, a great and noble and moral expedition we might take underground. Underneath Pruitt-Igoe and her sister buildings in New York. Underneath the Tadao Andos and the Minoru Yamasakis. Underneath McKinley and Trango. Maybe, just maybe, if we are lucky, we can edify new monuments beneath that convince as completely as a master magician, an immense American mirage orchestrated by a David Copperfield. This will be a complete, holy, and original inebriation and exile. Only then will there be hope for salvation. Drunkenness, escape.
Aaron Wilcher lives and works in Boulder, Colorado. He earned a master's in American Studies from Saint Louis University in May of 2004. He is originally from San Jose, California.