Monday, October 13, 2014

On Google Street View

One of those dull afternoons where you're stuck in a Wikipedia loop. Not out of interest, desire, or any kind of pointed effort, but just as one of those places you arrive at when a torrent of sheer information-- whether it's Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, whatever-- seems to be the only thing keeping you going.

Itt was thus that I arrived at the entry for “mobile home.” History of. Geography of. Inclement weather and. And suddenly, I see a picture of my hometown.

It was one of those photos-- the kind you see almost daily in the press in the Midwestern states-- of a mobile home struck by disaster, in this case, a flood. I remember this part of town, and even this vista quite well. The meandering path of the Skunk River through riparian woods, a mobile home park, where, in a sad attempt at a bucolic mode, the developer named the streets after songbirds, kids in t-shirts with Stone Cold and Mankind on them darting about on bikes, women in neon tank tops leaning into screen doors with lit menthols.

But was that my memory? Or was that me superimposing a stereotype onto my memory?

And so, perversely, I went to Google Street View, to cycle through the part of town down along the floodplain of the Skunk River, to wide streets and chain restaurants with big plastic signs, tiny, rundown houses on flat lawns, an enormous sky.

And I realized not only that this was how ugly my town really was, but how people who don't grow up there conceive of the image and shape and light of the American Midwest.

I noted every forgotten detail-- the fan eternally spinning in an attic window, a gingerbread porch, the steel oblong structure behind the power plant that I called “the sarcophagus,” because that's what they called something that looked similar at Chernobyl on TV.

And rather than a warm nostalgia, they evoked a stark disgust, that these details, so associated with an ice cream and a sweaty brow on a summer afternoon, with a drunk teenage walk home through the snow, so often intimate and even cherished, were in a setting this bleak and flat and wide.

Our memories of early life are of course eternally veiled in golden gauze, even if they're sad. This is not only because of the temporal and spatial distances we have between ourselves and our childhoods, but because of the intrinsic nature of childhood perception, which is intuitive, holistic, immediate, impressionistic, and unsystematic, lack any of the exterior reference points that we have acquired and cultivated in the meantime.

And so when we see the images of our childhood rendered in the stark relief of analytic adult perception, especially through a computer screen, there is a disconnect. We can't reconcile who we are with who we were, and for those of us who have wandered a bit, where we choose and where we're from.

We try to justify the disconnect through countless techniques: the aforementioned nostalgia, ironic distance, lyricism, contempt. Some of us go into therapy. Some politicians try to impose their nostalgia into an idiotic politics of regression. Some musicians make shitty revival records.

Thomas Wolfe once assured a 16 year old me that you can't go home again. I loved his elegant descriptions, paired with the sense of loss and alienation of a North Carolina mountain kid adrift in New York, frantically scribbling on top of his fridge, unsure how to express his pining, and so going into radical modernist stream of consciousness-- something I admired immensely as an adolescent looking forward to clutching onto some modernist alienation myself.

And it took Joan Didion a lifetime to realize that California was a late-capitalist nightmare not only in her middle years, but from its earliest inception.

We try to organize the narrative arc. Reality eventually slashes it to bits.

And all the lies we tell ourselves eventually come to a head, at times like this when you're staring at your laptop, at a picture of an asphalt street with a willow tree on it, 3000 miles away.