26 March, 2019

Field Notes, 24 March 2019: Beautifully Savage

[Indianapolis:]

Part of me wanted to miss the bus, or for something to go wrong in Louisville just so I could have one more minute with her. It's always like this. Even when I'm compelled to go, there is such a desire to stay, to damn the consequences. And indeed, there would be consequences. I've seen that before, too.

Some aspects of every trip are the same. Indy and the buzzing lights. Chicago Union Station and the great, depressive and beautiful vacuum of that city. Longing and loneliness. And the obligation to write it all down, to somehow make it all make sense, if only for myself, but maybe -- just maybe -- for some other poor asshole out there who is equally torn apart by a need to Go and to See. Someone else who is tortured by the desire to stay, to leave the road for someone else.

At the 2:45AM ticket check I was again asked about a confirmation number. I'm starting to feel punked.

Buzzing overhead lights
and a four hour layover.
Thoughts of you make me wonder
why it feels so necessary
to be anywhere you're not.

[Near Chicago Union Station]

Of course the ridiculous worries about the "confirmation number" were unfounded. The desk worker in Louisville was clearly mistaken/misinformed/harried. The security guard at the Indy station was probably just being a dick because he picked up on my displeasure about the ticket check. They always state the same legal caveat "I am not biased and will check anyone regardless of what they look like." This gives them the blankt authority to racially and economically profile anyone they want without fear of the guard or the company being sued. And naturally, there are any number of ways to abuse tacit authority at 3AM in a Midwestern bus station.

Power is so predictable.
Give authority to a beaten man
and he will beat anyone down
with savage impunity --
in particular, whoever he blames.


Canal Street Entrance, Chicago Union Station
[In the Great Hall, Union Station, Chicago]

The Great Hall is gorgeous. The lights, the statues, the columns and marble staircases. A mish-mash of Greco-Roman with Digital Age minimalism forced into the crevices. Ornately wrought columns and digital screens. Nothing is so American as our nostalgia for the past that never was -- the carefully and assiduously reconstructed one we write ourselves into as the denouement.

Beautiful as they are
all our grand monuments
harken back to a past
reconstructed from afar
so it necessarily includes
us, whether we belong or not.




[Harmonee Ave/Glenview, IL]

Loaded for bear
more people than seats
our steel horse barrels westward
breaching the ragged edge
in search of soul, Big Sky and light.

[Flooded plains outside Columbus, Wisconsin]

Downed and drought
are the only cycles
anyone can really count on.
Everything else is Faith.

[All that's left is the thaw]

Snow lingers west of the Wisconsin Dells. Dirty, tired looking stuff. Knee high piles along the outside
St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN - Union Depot (MSP)
edges and corners of muddy unplanted cornfields. Tiny blankets wrapped around the base of young sycamores and trimming along creek beds. It's all over but the melting here. 


The sun broke out for setting
just east of La Crosse --
piles of dirty snow like shrugged off clothes
lay around the edges
of soon-to-be plowed fields.

[Black River, WI]

Broken up ice islands
The waters are high.
We're coming upon the Mississippi
to breach the great boundary
into Minnesota.

Every time I travel I'm awe struck by how beautiful and how beautifully savage the landscape is.


[First 'Air Break'/ Flood Fight]

Chatted with a woman name Kristy and a man named Dean, both from Fargo. They were strangers to each other but both going home. When they found out they were both from the same place, they started talking about the 'Flood Fight.' Every year when the snow melts, people volunteer to make sandbags to stave off the inevitable flooding of the North River. Dean is volunteering for the first time in several years. Kristy volunteers every year, but her job allows her to volunteer and get paid for it. Dean said they are calling for 1 million sand bags this year. Kristy said they are expecting floods about 41 feet, worse than 1997.

All I said was that water always runs down river eventually. All I thought about was how much we don't need the water to rise anymore at home. But that's life -- it's all connected and everything runs downstream eventually.

-MKP
~

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22 February, 2019

Reading the Grounds


Mick Parsons, #wellwornboots
Embrace the break in weather where you can. True, there are months when the last time you saw the sun feels like a dream; but when the rain break and there is a clear path, take advantage of it the best you can. [from Field Notes]

Even though I'm not bound to foot travel -- there is the bus, of course, and most recently, Mule -- I still like to walk. True, I could start up Mule and drive to a park and walk around a pre-designated track. I see merit in it, certainly for other people, because it's difficult enough to get exercise in a society that depends on us sitting in front of a computer, or staring at our phones, buying things. True, if you look long enough, nearly every aspect of the constructed reality we experience every day depends on commerce of some kind: whether it's the cappuccino I bought at the coffee shop today or the smiles my wife and I exchanged this morning before she left for work. But when I am not in motion in the world, there are fewer opportunities to see the world as it truly is instead of the filtered commodity that trickles in through my phone or my computer. When I am not in motion in the world, I'm not even certain the world exists.

Living as I do along the Ohio River, a once major artery of commerce of all kinds from coal, to slaves, to settlers, in a city whose very existence depended on commerce and The Falls that created a natural choke point for people to have to slow down and walk their boats through (Once Upon a Time), the metaphor and myth of commerce are a foundation upon which many myths have been  built.

But it's easy to let that take over... which is to say, it's easy to let that constructed reality dictate our
Mick Parsons #rubbertramp
Mule
our entire lives. And if the materialists are correct -- both the Capitalists and the Communists -- and we are simply matter in motion, then really, this constructed reality is nothing more than an increasingly complex maze we spend our days and nights in until one day, we stop moving and the maze moves on without us.

Unless there's something more. And when I walk around my neighborhood, or anywhere, and take in the sounds, the feel of broken cement underfoot, the vibrations of the coolish February air here in the grand divot that is the Ohio River Valley, I end up thinking of commerce as something more than buying and selling, more than money for sweat and blood, more than blood and bone in the name of man's most majestic and dangerous machination -- Contemporary American Society. 

This is why, I think, I am bound to travel whether I think I want it or not. A warm wind kicks up, the currents shift, and nothing is set right until I feel this world moving under foot. Because it's only in motion that this constructed reality shakes loose and the world opens itself wide for eyes willing to see, for ears willing to listen, and for hands willing to embrace it on its own terms. 


As old mystics read tea leaves
I flip my empty cup
open the heart, examining
the dark grounds and find
one more map towards
the river mouth and the sea.

Mick Parsons, #wellwornboots
The past is gone, the future is full.



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15 February, 2019

from Record of a Pair of Well-Worn Traveling Boots: Be Safe Out There [a brief ethnography]


The middle-aged black man was wearing a blue suit coat that was too big for him, worn around the cuffs, and missing a couple of buttons. It was October, and after dark, which meant it was a little chilly. His clothes under the blue coat were rattier than the coat. Tired flipflops left his feet exposed. In his hands, he held an empty baby bottle. He approached me after I finished pumping gas. Debit cards weren't a thing in those days, and neither were card readers on gas pumps. But in that part of the city, near the university and Short Vine -- another area I ended up spending a lot of time -- you walked in and paid before you pumped. And I've always preferred cash transactions, anyway --chalk that up to my small towniness. 

The town where I'm from isn't remote or isolated in a geographic sense, but I learned early there are other kinds of distance, other types of geography that are difficult to cross -- especially when it's crossed under duress. And truthfully, crossing the distance between where I'm from and where I have ended up wasn't so much a problem for me. But it took me a long time to figure out that there's no going back. Not really.

Cincinnati was the first place I escaped to when I got my driver's license. It was the closest city, and the nearest place of any size. And though I didn't mean to end up there, necessarily, I ended up in a part of town that I would, and do, return to: Over the Rhine. In those days, Vine Street was still an open market for pretty much any illicit thing you could want. Not that I tried any of it; I still had a healthy dose of small town naivete that, for good or bad, managed to save me. But I did witness my first drug deal and accidentally walk up on a sex trade transaction. All the parties involved were amused by my small town whiteness -- amused and too busy to punish me for it. Because while Cincinnati was a dangerous place, and while OTR was probably the place furthest from where I lived -- for a whole host of reasons -- it never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger. I explored it with an anthropologist's curiosity -- and detachment -- that has served me well over the years, no matter how deep I dived or how close to the bottom I got.

He started in by telling me he wasn't just panhandling. He was passing through, he said, pointing directionlessly towards the interstate. His car broke down and his wife and baby daughter stayed with the car because it was chilly out. He waved the baby bottle at me as proof that his story was true. In the moment it didn't occur to me that he might just be hustling for drug money; it did occur to me that he sounded too practiced to be in moment. Growing up as I did around a few truly ineffective liars, I had started to pick up an ear for that sort of thing.  But also, in that moment, I didn't care. I don't know if it was the dedication to his story, or the flip flops. But I gave him a few dollars, wished him luck.

- Be safe out there, I said. And then I got in my car and left, traversing the various geographies back to my hometown, where panhandlers were prime time television extras, where the poverty was just as palpable, but somehow different. A place I would not be able to look at in the same way, or ever really be able to stay -- though at the time I wasn't aware that anything in me had shifted.

I think about him often and wonder whatever happened to him. I see him in every face I've met doing outreach. I've revisited that moment hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the years. And while I don't know if that was when it all changed or when it first occured to me that something had, I'm forever grateful that he crossed my path.


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