Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Trolley tracks at the Santee Mall, Santee Town centre (San Diego).

Back in the city, back in the cold . . .

Spent the holidays in sunny San Diego, which is sort of an anti-New York, though a city of strangers in its own right.

I’d never been out to California before, though I’m familiar with the urban model from growing up in western Canada. But for a few blocks downtown, San Diego is built almost entirely around the car. This isn’t news of course, but since I don’t drive, and have managed to live in cities where a car isn’t a necessity since my late teens, it’s always a bit of a culture shock to go back to the car world . . .

Big box malls abound. They are so numerous, so uniform, that one night we got lost getting back to the suburb where we were staying and literally had no idea where we were, since every mall was identical – same Target, Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, Bed, Bath and Beyond (and so on). Even the houses seem built around the car – self-enclosed (often gated – they love their gated communities in San D.) The only neighboring stores or, God forbid, bars, in a strip mall built on a feeder road to a main highway. The sky, the colours are amazing – I saw colours I’d never seen before – and this entirely created, functional environment seemed an odd counterpart to the fantastic landscape. As I do whenever I go back to Western Canada, I thought that this was how space colonies will look like – functional adjuncts to the landscape around them.

Yet I got used to it. Even if you have to get into a car to get to them, the country, the beaches, are spectacular. Perhaps this sis a key to Western cities – they aren’t so much a suburb to a downtown, as suburbs to the land around them. Even the malls have a certain prosaic easiness. My local Starbucks – a half-hour bike ride down a busy semi-highway – was a quiet and cordial place to have coffee and write in the morning. Same people every morning, carving out their little bit of community. Hardly an cell phones – a lot more pleasant than the average ‘independent’ cafe in Brooklyn for example . . .

One afternoon when I caught the trolley right down to Tijuana. The trolley runs from the northern edge of the city to the border, curving through the highways, the valleys, skirting the ocean into downtown and beyond. Just off the pleasant colonial buildings, the twin streets lined with generic sports bars and ‘Irish’ pubs, comes streets of ragged, homeless men, white, black, Hispanic hanging out in front of vacant lots and boarded up storefronts. One guy stood up in full view of the trolley, pulling up his pants after crapping in a doorway.

Then beyond city centre, the navy base with lines of docked aircraft carriers, as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper, serviced by even taller cranes, lit up in the brilliant San Diego sunset by even more brilliant floodlights.

Then a bridge, curving up fifty, sixty stories, like a bridge into space.

Homeless encampment under bridge at Santee, just outside San Diego.

On past an ocean of trailer parks, non-descript main streets of motels, fast-food joints, auto-body shops, until the city of Tijuana appears, sprawling across a hillside and from a distance looking like any American city. A ferris wheel rises from a spot near the bottom of the packed-in buildings. A bridge extends over what I realized after a moment is a river seperating the two. Hundreds of Mexicans, looking reasonably well-dressed in jeans, embroidered work shirts or more generic ball caps and runners, streamed over the bridge, giving what seemed like a festive mood and at the bottom of the streetcar tracks is customs and immigration, the door yawning open as if changing countries was as easy as walking into a mall. American immigration officers on a break strolled back and forth, relaxed, joking with each other.

Odd to think then that 80 murders had taken place in Tijuana in December as rival drug gangs battle over turf, part of a narco-war engulfing and corrupting the entire country, giving Mexico, a local bartender told me later, a higher murder rate than Afghanistan.

Next post: Return to New York . . .

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Riding the G train, the cross-Brooklyn local, on a Saturday afternoon . . .

A big guy was sitting by the door with a little kid. The kid was maybe five or six, of indeterminate sex, except for a set of pink rubber boots. Probably a girl. The guy had a big head and thick, almost coke-bottle glasses with thick rims. He looked almost exactly like a friend of mine, a painter who lives off the G in Williamsburg, except that his neck and wrists and even his hands were covered in tattoos, fiery metalhead tattoos, with letters tattooed across the knuckles of each hand, which at first I thought read GODS W111. Yet he looked far too mild-mannered to be a hardcore metalhead and from the way he sat with the little girl he appeared to be her father.

Tehy had a book, a trade paperback with a black cover and big yellow letters on the front. The little girl spelled out the title: “O, W, O . . .”

“That’s an ‘I’,” the guy corrected her a little sternly. Then: “Do you want to read it?”

“No!” The little girl giggled. “Its boring!”

“Boring! Maybe if I read it to you . . . ”

“Okay!” The little girl wriggled close to him, starting in the middle of the book, and reading over her shoulder so she could see the page. He read in a soft, flat voice and I could barely hear him over the clattering of the train. “The theoretical . . . backlash of the administrative mindset . . . multiplicity of identities . . . ”

From what little I heard it sounded like a combination of Derrida, a political pamphlet, and an office memo. He read slowly, deliberately, turning the page while the little girl squirmed in her seat, laughing at first then looking confused then laughing again and I couldn’t tell if the guy was being ironic and this was a recurring game with them, or if he was serious and she was laughing at him because he did that kind of thing all the time . . .

When I got off the train, I realized his knuckles read ‘God’s Will’. When I got home I googled the phrase, wondering if it was a band. But no band came out and I wondered if he hadn’t been some sort of Christian metalhead, like those Christian hardcore kids I’d read about somewhere, out thrashing for Jesus . . .

Christ-core band Norma Jean

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