Sunday, February 26, 2012

Map Reference: United States of America

I am in the map room on the top floor of the Seattle Public Library, staring down at a map of the United States. It can be any map, old or new, emphasizing physical details or political details, in color or in black and white.

Staring down at the tangle of rivers and railroads, I try to make sense of what I see. I try to correspond these neatly typed place names and these geometric symbols-- each represents a cleanly categorized type of real entity-- to my own perceptions of where these things lie in relation to one another. To my own memories of these places, to the photos and drawings I've seen, to the stories and descriptions people have told me. When we look at a map, we try to take all of these representations and all this subjective stuff and compress it into the structuralist confines laid down by Rand McNally.

In Asia and Europe, so many names correspond to the histories and myths of a landscape, the names etched out through millennia of recorded history. Village names refer to battles, to the patron saints of local parishes and the miracles these saints performed, to forking rivers, to fields of rice and turmeric, to long-gone castles. This is a landscape of what Marx called the regime of primitive accumulation, those Medieval approaches to the distribution and control of land and wealth.

But in the United States, place names are generated not by the edicts of a count or a priest, nor are they slowly made standard over the centuries by the habitus of local people. They are, by and large, a product of the state and of the commercial institutions. We have countless names cribbed from the Old World. The East Coast is full of towns named for the birthplaces of the colonists. Further west, so many of them seem to have been culled at random-- a Madrid, a Lisbon, a Persia, and a Pekin named by entrepreneurs who likely never set foot there. And between the imported names, we have the names of the heroic figures of the capitalist era: the pioneers and postmasters, generals of the Revolutionary and Civil and Mexican-American Wars, railroad men and their daughters who would marry their fathers' junior executives.

And there are the names inherited from slaughtered Indians, the names of great chiefs, the names that describe the myths of the wendigo and the Happy Hunting Ground. Their meanings are transcribed by local historians and sealed in dusty histories that moulder in county courthouses and small town libraries. So many of the languages that encode these meanings are forgotten by all but a few scholarly linguists and a few ancient Indians on remote reservations. Those elderly last few speakers of Pawnee and Osage have no one left to speak to, and the languages that carried the chants of the Sun Dance and the potlatches are forgotten. Their names for rivers and mountains remain, but they are little more than novelties for history buffs and students.

I live in a city named for a chief who famously told Governor Stevens and his men in Olympia that his people had no concept of land ownership. Governor Stevens looked back at him, shame-faced, and promptly removed Chief Seattle and his men to a patch of land on the other side of the Sound. They named a city for the man and a river now lined with Superfund sites for his tribe, still federally unrecognized. His daughter, Princess Angeline, died a pauper selling Indian baskets to tourists, watching a city grow along the peninsulas she was born in. The city fathers, feeling nostalgic, named a side street for her that cuts jaggedly through the South End.

As America dialectically unfolds into a new information age, the names of our streets have ceased referring to robber-barons and Babbittian developers. They refer to abstract concepts, readily marketable to a consumer society. Vast tracts of suburbia are given pastoral names straight out of Wordsworth. Within the nameless and shapeless swirl of houses, schools and parks are built, likewise named for abstractions. In places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, schools are named Cactus and Bonanza and Liberty, vague images inhabiting an imagined reality without reference points.

Eventually, human memory will dissolve all the input of nomenclature. All these place names will be overwritten with human experience. Kuala Lumpur, a city of gleaming mosques and ornate row houses, means "muddy estuary" in Malay. And the lovely names of Shiloh and the Marne are associated with nothing but war and death. Meaning is not a product of intrinsic nature, it is a product of history and struggle and collapse and redemption played out in space and time. Walking through the tracts of suburbia, I hope, vaguely that some day, the venal world we erect will someday seem as saintly as Chartres.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Dream-City

For years I have been haunted by a city that appears in my dreams. This isn't a recurring dream, but rather a motif that appears in countless dreams. I can't remember when I first began to dream of this city, but somewhere in my adolescence, I became aware enough to recognize this city as such.

Perhaps I am dreaming of one place, perhaps of many. I don't think that distinction applies here. As far as I can tell, it is a boundless urban space, extending as far as I can see, lacking clear divisions or boundaries, infinitely entangled and complex. Yet I can pull out distinct landmarks in this city: an antique rooftop water tower, a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes, a sludge-choked canal, a hotel with long verandas and bougainvilleas wrapped around high trellises. I can't remember how many times I've seen them. All I know is that I have encountered them, and they have permanently embedded themselves within my dream-city. Our waking world shows a remarkable similarity. We may have a memory of a specific house without knowing where it is or the conditions under which we saw it. All we know is that we saw it somewhere.

If we experience our dreams as the conscious mind sorting out all the empirical stuff that we process in our lives, then it stands to reason that this dream-city is composed of elements of the places I've visited and of my visual and auditory memories of those places. Certainly, individual buildings and patterns are borrowed from my everyday life. From an early memory of Kansas City, I recognize a looming pair of candy-striped smokestacks. From Seattle, there is a darkened bar with red candles at every table and a waitress with a tattoo of three black geometric symbols gracing a pale wrist. This city agglomerates my memories, my anxieties, my flawed perceptions, and my logical deductions, recombining them into a seamless nowhere and everywhere.

The dream-city is filled with names and places that correspond to real names and places in the real world. They seemingly lack meaning; they are places I have been, places I've never been, places I've seen in photos, places I've read about, imaginary places in novels and fairy tales, places I only know of as reference points on maps. These names correspond to an entirely mental geography. This city is Nairobi, Oregon, located in the heart of Germany, anchored by the bristling minarets of the Bosphorus and girded by the Danube which empties into the Indian Ocean, which is just outside the city-- you arrive from that seashore via the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, disembarking at the Finland Station.

A high percentage of the qualities and images seem to derive from early childhood. I grew up in a locale going through its growing pains, too small to be considered a city-- an overgrown prairie town, just big enough to have a tiny shopping mall. As the mall attracted business, the old Main Street had languished. What was left were antique stores, biker bars, shoe stores that had whole sections for diabetic footwear. Above the shops, the second floors of the old brick frontages had apartments, offices, and small, secondary retail outlets. As my parents shopped, I would run around the stores and behind the stores, looking at the patterns in floors covered in little hexagonal tiles and ceilings gridded with identical pressed-tin panels. Behind, in the dusty brick alleys, were steaming grates, crushed wooden pallets, and bags of hair from the barbershops and beauty parlors. These forgotten labyrinths still come back to me in daydreams, and in my sleep, they seem to overtake all other reality.

My happiest dreams and my nightmares seem to be embedded within this maze of reconstituted memory. This infinite space is a reservoir of dramas of a magnitude I have never experienced. I've fallen in love with utter strangers, I've thrown myself off a narrow bridge. It is almost like this is a laboratory of experiences and emotions, and I am the white rat, unsure of its purpose.

As I awake, the shape of the city remains for a second, appearing almost as a weakly tinted transparency held between my eyes and the world around me. Its light and its shadows linger around the edges of my eyelids. But I am finally in the unequivocal here and now. The city is sliding from view. By the time I step in the shower, it is a few images and a remnant of whatever emotions I was feeling. By the time I'm on the bus to work, it is a fainter version of that perception. And by the time I'm pouring my second cup of coffee, mid-morning, I can only remember concrete narratives and images that I have chosen to remember, that I have repeated to myself, that I have written down. It is at this point where the conscious mind has seemingly conquered the unconscious, and enforced logical and real patterns onto a remembered unreality. I have a snapshot: an empty hallway, a radio antenna. It is all I have, and I won't have it for long.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Image of the Railroad

I'm riding the bus through the switchyards south of Downtown Seattle, in the industrial zone along the Duwamish River. On one side are the reedy woods on the west slope of Beacon Hill where homeless people camp and on the other is the looming concrete hulk of the Harbor Island Bridge.

Mostly these are intermodal yards. Brightly painted shipping containers stand in stacks, decorated with the names of Chinese and Swedish shipping firms. Where the port and the switchyards meet, the gantry cranes that hang over the harbor move the containers around like Legos.

Off to one side, I can see a few hopper cars sitting on a siding, seemingly stranded, surrounded by freeways and vast empty lots. I glance up from my book. Emblazoned on the sides are names I'd long since forgotten: Cotton Belt, Golden West Service, Wisconsin Central.

My earliest memories are populated by freight trains. Across the street from my childhood home, an old branch line ran towards somewhere north, I never knew where. Minnesota perhaps, maybe all the way to Canada. I imagined that the engine I saw in the morning would soon pass through great pine forests and slow down as it neared yawning open pit mines on the frozen tundra.

The sounds of the railroad were omnipresent: the horn of the engine, the bell at the street crossing, the grinding noise of metal on metal. Lying in bed, I would hear the dull rumble of an approaching train, and the light of the headlamp would cast across the wall of my room, briefly illuminating my books and my Kansas City Royals pennant.

As I got older, I read the history of the railroads. i jotted down the numbers of the battered diesel engines. I wrote down the faded names on the sides of boxcars, names that seemed to encode an old industrial America I would never see: Saint Maries River, Seattle & North Coast, Frisco Line. Buildings were renovated, cars were crushed and recycled. But these boxcars were purely utilitarian and therefore unmodified. They were fragments that seemed as lovely and mysterious as Inca pottery.

During my teenage years, this raw fascination began to turn into a more conscious fantasy. In my room I listened to Simon and Garfunkel and read On the Road. Late at night, I walked around town, down towards the old Chicago Northwestern depot. Standing on what had once been a bustling platform, I watched the cold lights of the chain stores flicker between freight cars. I was surrounded by the logos of contemporary Middle American life: Target, Long John Silver's, KFC, Joann Fabrics. But it seemed as if all I would have to have done was ran, jumped onto the ladder at either end of that boxcar, and I would have been on my way to the Mississippi Delta or the deserts of Chihuahua. The flashing red light at the tail of the train retreated into the night. I almost believed that if I chased it I would arrive in a land of wild mountain streams, of apple harvests in the British Columbian autumn, of illicit kisses with tragically beautiful waitresses whose breath tasted of Lucky Strikes, of visionary sunrises in the High Sierra.

This is all terribly adolescent. As you grow older, the romantic visions of your high school years, whatever those might be, inevitably fade or mature into more adult goals and plans. The world when you're 18 years old could not be more open, and as you age, you come to realize how many potential lives you could have lived that will never come to fruition.

And yet I doubt those teenage hopes will ever truly die. I find them catching up to me at dull moments when I'm walking around the city, chopping onions for soup, waiting in line at the post office.

I cross the Jackson Street Bridge. On the tracks below, the express is ready to disembark for Portland. I can't help but wish I was on board as it puffs creosote smoke into the icy early evening.