Wild Green Yonder
Monday, April 29, 2002
Just finished re-reading the manuscript.
The good news: it can be salvaged.
The bad news: salvaged is perhaps a less fitting word than "recycled."
A bunch of its parts can be sawed off and stitched back together to make something perhaps half decent. But there's a shitload of work to be done before this monster will get off the slab and stagger around in big boots with its arms outstretched, an absolute shitload.
Okay, I promise this is the last self-indulgent post about how hard it is to write.
Sunday, April 28, 2002
Voyage of the Damned
My new buddy Chris Norwood, a local dive guide, was on board his 28' boat when a 80' shrimper hit him. Instead of being sucked under the screws, or thrown off to drown miles from shore, he survived, merely because the line holding him to his anchor ball (he was out on the reef) snapped instead of dragging his boat with it. That he lived is, by all local accounts, "a fucking miracle."
This is the sixth death or near-death experience I've been one or two degrees away from (not counting my own dust-up) in two months. I'm obviously travelling under a bad star. As soon as I can find a Santa Ria priestess, a chicken's going to have a very bad day.
Crests and Troughs
Had a great couple days of writing leading into the weekend, some of my best ever, in fact: really flying along, whole hours where I lost all track of time and fell completely into the story. Friday afternoon I put it all together for the first time, chapters laid end-to-end, and then that evening read through it. Great leapin' lizards, I thought to myself, here (at least in some lights, looked at from a distance, and with the holes ignored) is the first half of a book. I was elated, truly high on it all, and so when some buddies came by and suggested an assault on the Green Parrot, I was the first out the door.
We had a great night, drinking in the Parrot and the legendary Chart Room, hitting Wax (which was the closest thing to a Seattle hipster bar I've seen on the Island) for some beats and then tearing it up back at the house to finish off the night.
The next morning, a little bleary-eyed and badly in need of brunch, I sat down with the manuscript again. But now everything had changed. It was like a troop of little literary trolls had run through the thing and crapified it completely. I flipped page after page, going all dead and putty-like inside, and then let the thing fall on my desk. It's not a book. It's hardly a freshman composition paper.
I decided to leave it alone today, and will go back in tomorrow. I'm sure it won't be as bad as the first shock, but still, the damn MS has sat there all day, oozing a cold blackness. I may need to slaughter a chicken or something to clear the room.
It's odd how quickly you come to feel at home when you're on the road.
It hit me strongly this morning, this realization. We'd just had breakfast and I was planning out my next moves, when it dawned on me that this whole last week I've been mentally entirely here, and every place else has felt unreal, indistinct. I've only been in Key West two weeks. But already I feel some strong degree of comfort and routine here. This has been happening everywhere on this trip that I stop for more than a couple days, and I remember the feeling from earlier trips as well. How adaptable our minds are...
Friday, April 26, 2002
Scientists have found what is believed to be our earliest ancestor. Eomaia, or "Dawn Mother," was a tiny shrewlike creature that is the earliest known ancestor of mammals -- including humans.
Eomaia "lived 125 million years ago. It had slender, clawed feet that allowed it to scurry up even the thinnest branches, and its teeth showed it apparently preyed on insects very much as modern shrews do..."
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
from The Carrier of Ladders
"what I live for I can seldom believe in
who I love I cannot go to
what I hope is always divided
"but I say to myself you are not a child now
if the night is long remember your unimportance
"then toward morning I dream of the first words
of books of voyages..."
--W.S. Merwin, "Teachers"
Monday, April 22, 2002
Classic Sterlingian Hyperbole
Bruce's speech at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference is done in fine Old High Rant. This first half, where he talks about going to one of the world's most over-tech-accessorized conferences with nothing but a fountain pen, is all fine and good. But if you're pressed for time, skip to the part that begins:
It saddens me that most Americans, Joe Sixpack, Jane Winecooler, they still watch that capitalist slave media. They miss out on the bracing spectacle of European peaceniks sleeping on bulldozed rubble in Jerusalem. The only hacktivist that American TV consumers know is the domesticated, mediatized, corporate sell-out, G-rated version of a hacktivist.
And that would be -- Steven the Dell Dude. "Dude, you're getting a Dell."
That's where it gets juicy. Enjoy!
"Diving Into Your Pool From Mars"
Laurence writes: "Here's one for the blogs: old technology with a somewhat hip new interface. This one is updated every 18 months, but of course the killer app is realtime feeds. With this gizmo you can zoom over Larson B to your heart's content. See crowds of fleeing refugees in Bangladesh, Jerusalem, Pakistan, etc. How long before CNN is cut out of the middleman position altogether?"
Imagine the blogs you'd see if this stuff got cheap, quick and commonly available!
It's really hot. When I'm in the Pacific Northwest, I always complain about how I wish it'd sometimes get really, really hot. Well, it is here, and I find myself not wanting to do anything from noon to three in the afternoon. It's probably made worse by the fact that the street I'm staying on is its own little heat island(thanks, Aysa): asphalt, no trees, lots of reflective tin roofs and thick concrete garden walls. And of course, every house on the street has three air conditioners on full blast, which makes walking down the sidewalk even more pleasant, since it involves bathing in flows of hot air. It's textbook bad design.
On the other hand, I can walk to the beach, so I'm not complaining.
Sunday, April 21, 2002
The Curse of the Crustacean
Took the day off today.
We made breakfast, then drove to the beach at Bahia Honda state park. Beautiful: white sands, saphire clear water, palm trees and hot, hot sun. We snorkleled, which was great fun, except my friends saw rays, sharks, barracuda and tarpin, whereas all I saw was seaweed and a lobster. Yes, a lobster. That's it. Not much of an adreneline hit from a lobster, I'm afraid. I mean, I'm looking at the little guy and thinking, I'd like to stuff you in a pot of boiling water and eat you with butter. This is not the reaction I've had when meeting sharks face to face. I may have taunted the lobster just a bit.
Still, it was truly wonderful to be at swim in the Carribean, and to sit in the sand, read my book (I'm in the middle of Patrick O'Brian's series of historical novels about life on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars -- textual crack), and watch the young Cubano kids next to us barbeque and sing and dance.
Later we went to No Name Key to have pizza at a little place there. That's when it was pointed out that my skin was red. Bright red, despite having slopped on SPF45 all day. I'm convinced I crossed the wrong shellfish there. Never underestimate the Curse of the Crustacean. They're big mojo.
Saturday, April 20, 2002
So, I'm making good headway on writing up the first leg of the trip (averaging about 4-5 good pages a day). I'll start back-posting some of the more interesting stuff over the next week. I'll also do a compilation list of the cool sloths that come have my way. What else would you like to see? Other meta-comments in general?
It should now be possible to post comments. It's a clumsy system, but after figging around with netcomments and dotcomments and finding Blog*Back offline, and then being totally confused by Wiki, it's the best I can do for now.
I knew I liked this guy for a reason:
"If you take people seriously, and ask them to do their best, and suggest that new things and approaches are genuinely possible, it improves their morale. They do things they wouldn't have thought worth doing otherwise. And the world is a better place for it." -- Bruce Sterling
"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities..."
I've been spending too much time writing about our relationship to place, about the possibilities of the future. I've started to dream about this stuff.
I sometimes dream of more-or-less the same thing several nights on end. I reckon it's my murky sub-brain's way of exploring complicated things. For the last few nights, I've dreamt of some imaginary town, on the Northwest coast, to which I've been called for business (in the first dream, it was a funeral; later, that changed to a conference).
The town itself – though of course it changes, blurring and morphing as all the fabric of the dreamworld is like to do – is an impossible place. It's really hot. Broad plazas, of a Venetian feel, step down, one after another, to the sea. In one building's central courtyard, it is always a moonlit night, and people like to go there when the heat gets to be too much outside. Huge redwood trees and palms stand everywhere, but the views are never obstructed: snow-capped mountains can be seen, and water the color of a green turtle. But even stranger are the citizens and their customs.
I once wrote the first half of a novel of anticipatory journalism about a group of newly wealthy eco-hacker activists who take over the city of Bremerton, a declining industrial sea port on the west end of Puget Sound, and make it a giant laboratory for innovation. There's something of that feel here. There's a love of the elegant solution, of beautiful engineering, of things made new and well.
The houses are wild. Tall cliffside buildings with strange doors and windows, one part Anasazi, one part Hundertwasser, which I understand in my dream to be ecologically sound in a way so innovative as to be incomprehensible. (I'm reminded of the words that came to William S. Burroughs in one of his dreams, "They did not fully understand the technique. In a very short time, they nearly destroyed the planet." I get the sense that these people fully understand the technique.) People drive these beanbag-looking cars, which climb a wall in the parking lot and scrunch themselves into a recharger. The trees are all wired. There are little spigots everywhere, with the kind of nozzle at the end that chemistry lab gas hook-ups have (I don't know what they're even called, yet I dreamt about them… odd, no?), and if you want a glass of water, you connect a tube to them and fill up your bottle. I have the impression that any number of things could be had from them. The public art is very biological, very Susan Robb, very Amy Youngs, very Natalie Jeremijenko. It is a wondrous place, and in my dream I'm very aware of how lucky I am to have found it in time to write about it.
The problem is, I don't fit in. In the first dream, I meet the members of a grrrl band (loosely: a younger, more techno Sleater-Kinney) and we hit it off. We hang out and cook spinach pasta, and then we go to a party. They keep telling me how cool I am, and how I should move there. But their social world makes no sense to me: they are all online all the time, messaging each other and checking some sort of ratings system (kind of like Cory's idea of Whuffie, some sort of reputational capital), and what's interesting to them and praiseworthy changes so fast I can't keep up. I seem to know all the wrong things. I have an affair with one of the grrrl banders, but she breaks it off by telling me that "we're just too different."
In another dream, I feel similarly out of place. There's some conference, and I've been invited to speak. But as I sit through the speeches before mine, I realize that the talk I've prepared has nothing to do with the ideas these folks are pursuing. My ideas aren't stupid, in my dream (and I wish I could remember what they were), they're just orthogonal and a bit archaic – like a Soviet scientist presenting on microphage research at a conference announcing the invention of penicillin. When I get up to speak, my colleagues listen with that polite concentrated attention that's even worse than a room full of people chattering and ignoring you, and then they compliment me too much and for the wrong things.
I get the sense that I'm liked and welcome, but completely out of place. I get the sense that I was born twenty years too early, or in the wrong country. I have nothing to offer. Still, I'm sad to wake up.
Put the Lime in the Coconut...
I ate mangos for dinner last night and Captain Crunch for breakfast this morning. I'm going sailing and snorkeling this afternoon. My soap smells like coconuts. That's the kind of scene I've fallen into down here.
Thursday, April 18, 2002
The Madness of Crowds
Just finished Among the Thugs, Bill Buford's incredible account of the years he spent hanging out with British soccer fans. Why had I not read this before? It's fucking brilliant.
I've been in some fights. I've been present at marches, protests, riots and concerts that got out-of-control. I know a little something about the mob. Buford writes it better than I ever could, though.
Take this description of a large group of fans who've just slipped through the police cordon around a soccer match:
"All day long a crowd has been trying to form, and all day long it has been prevented from doing so. It has been cribbed and frustrated and contained. The experience of the day has been one of being boxed in: the pub in the morning, the train at Euston Square, the platform at Fulham Broadway where everyone was frisked, scrutinized, surrounded, and then escorted to the grounds. They were boxed in during the match -- literally a box, its sides made of the heavy steel fences of the enclosed terraces. Throughout, the containment has been absolute. At every moment there have been limits.
"And now there are none.
"The pace picks up. I can feel the pressure to go faster, an implicit imperative, coming from no one in particular... knowing that the faster the group goes, the more coherent it becomes, the more powerful.... The casual stroll becomes a brisk walk, then a job. Everyone is jogging in formation, tightly compressed, silent.
"We're at a sprint now...The buildings around me, though hardly discernable, have a weightiness about them... I want the buildings not to be there. It is as if the street is no longer wide or large enough for me. Something has got to give way, something has got to give.
"And when it does, it's property.
"There is glass breaking: it is a window. I hear it, I don't see it, but the effect is sensational -- literally sensational: it fills the senses, reverberates inside me, as though a blast of voltage has passed through my limbs. ... There is another muted crash, another windshield breaking. And then everywhere glass is breaking. It is property that is being destroyed first, in order to help us across the barrier: property, the symbol of shelter, the fact of the law.
"And then they are gone. They go over the crest. There is the roar, and then everyone flies -- as though beyond gravity -- into violence. They are lawless. Nothing will stop them except the physical force of the police. Or incapacitating injury. ...I felt myself hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail. I realized I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenaline euphoria. Crowd violence is a drug.
"What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness."
Key West is fantastic, in the literal sense of the word. White sunshine bleaching the color from everything; reefs and Carribean blue water; palm trees and tropical flowers; supermodels on their yachts and local boys in their beat-up cadillacs; feral chickens running wild and lizards and stray dogs. 250 bars on an island 2 miles by 4. The ghost of Hemmingway. Stories of drug-runners and drag queen crime bosses. A wild tolerance of every form of insanity and depravity known to man, as long as no one gets hurts and you don't do it public and frighten the tourists.
My old buddy Joe Weatherby has been showing me the island, introducing me around. I'm getting in a nice little groove here, waking up late, writing through the siesta hour, cruising around for a few hours, then going out for dinner or drinks and meeting folks. I like here at the end of the earth.
I don't like Dave Eggers. I mean, don't get me wrong. I read Might. I rushed to the store to buy the first McSweeney's. I may even have made some unfortunate remarks about it being the funniest thing ever published in the English language, but we were all drinking too much back then, and the records are hazy. And though I didn't love Work, I laughed repeatedly and in public while reading it.So it's not really his work I dislike.
It's him. When I was producing public affairs shows for the Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW, we had him on our morning talk show. He was, well, a prick: self-important, demanding, and surly. We'd had on former presidents, rock stars, famous actors, writers of genuine genius, titans of industry. Eggers out-ego-ed them all.
This, combined with the fact that Work went bestseller and the hype machine went into high gear (I'll admit the "I listened to that band before it was popular" effect kicked in) soured me on the guy.
Now he's gone and started 826 Valencia, a writing center for kids. That's pretty damn cool. The disturbing thought occurs to me that he might actually be not only very funny, very smart, very rich and very famous (at least by writing standards), but also a decent person. The fucker.
Tuesday, April 16, 2002
"Tinkertoys for Grownups"
X-Beam is a rod and connector system that lets you design and build a variety of different furnishings for your home. With them, you can build things like bookshelves, tables of plant stands. Kinda pricy, but also really cool.
Saturday, April 13, 2002
Survived a hellish bus ride (24 hours of riding and waiting) down here to Key West. Going to rest up and regroup a bit. Neck's sore, otherwise fine.
Already heard a good joke: "How many conchs [Key West natives] does it take to change a lightbulb? Four: one to change it and three to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was."
Thursday, April 11, 2002
My Shipwreck Comes In
Well, now, that sucked.
In Venice, Florida. You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum, villainy and nasty-ass sprawl than this.
I totalled my car yesterday afternoon. There was a large chunk of flying truck tire involved. I'm fine, but slightly shaken.
Proceeding on by bus to Key West to regroup.
Here's the post I was planning to make:
"The good news is that I managed to make it out of New Orleans, alive and un-indicted. This is more of an accomplishment than it may at first seem. NOLA is, well, seductive. And she and I get along. I don't think I've packed as much fun into six days in years: staggering down Bourbon Street laden with cheap beads; rapping with sustainability folks; taking a harrowing cab ride to the Crawdad Festival with Robert; going on a couple dates with an Italian Fashion-Designer-Turned-Psychic (at one point Sunday night we were planning to travel to Key West together, a plan which retrospectively-gratefully fell through); interviewing the horror writer Poppy Z. Brite, expecting a tour through the cemetaries, and being told instead "want to see something real scary?" and dragged off for a trip through New Orleans' 9th Ward, a.k.a., the hood; eating oyster po-boys and drinking "sour lemonade," which is the traditional beverage spiked behind the deli counter; going to an art opening at the contemporary arts center and talking with this crazy Bayou-bred digital artist; wandering through the garden district in the evening, drinking in the mansions haunted by unsettled spirits and history... It was too good.
"I knew by Monday morning (having already delayed my departure from Friday) that if I didn't leave then, I'd wind up a colorful local figure, so I threw my bags in the beater and went... straight into the maw of automotive travel hell."
Little did I know that that leg of the trip was just one of the outer circles of hell.
More as I can.
Thursday, April 04, 2002
In New Orleans. My bud Robert Smith is here as well. We got loaded in the French Quarter Tuesday night. All the bartenders looked unbelievably bored. Last night we walked around the Garden District, discussing the difference between NO and Vegas. Robert: "They're both debauched cities, but Vegas is debauchery done post-Disney, where New Orleans is the real, organic, old-fashioned style."
It is. The houses around the place I'm staying look like the original residents drank themselves to death with abisinthe, or committed suicide with laudanum after word of a scandal broke. And there's a lot of creepy hoodoo stuff around. Oh, yeah, and the air smells like swamp water and rotting flowers.
I like it here. I like it here a lot.
Check out Serge's Futureproof Eco-design store.
Tuesday, April 02, 2002
Off to New Orleans. I'll be there through the weekend, if you have any great ideas for places to go out or parties to crash, let me know...
Monday, April 01, 2002
Monty slothed me to these cool innovative emergency shelters. You know how much I dig the whole cutting-edge disaster-relief aesthetic.
Wow. What happened? There's been a sudden up-tick in sloth sightings -- which I very much appreciate, but it may take me a few days to sort through and respond to all you guys. Bear with me.
Thanks, and keep 'em coming!
"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty … but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
On the 10 through West Texas: distance. After all these years in the rainy corner of the continent, where trees and mountains and low overcast skies wrap you in a comfortable sense of intimacy, the horizons in West Texas are so broad they're claustrophobic. The only sense of distance is granted through atmospheric perspective, as the far-off mountains darken to a blued tan through miles of thin, warm desert air. That and the hunks of truck tire every mile or so. On, on, 85 m.p.h. No stops, I tell myself.
Miles of scrub roll by. Here I am, in the midst of America, I tell myself. More scrub zips by. Yep, America, and I'm on a great adventure in it. More scrub. I stop talking to myself. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. The truth is, I'm bored: massively, monumentally bored. I start looking forward to road signs: Jesus saves, as I've heard before; propane is available three exits down the freeway; Give Texas a Break (with pictogram of a shoveling highway worker). My neck aches.
I drive seven hours (through dust storms, rain squalls ("White squall!" I yell in a craggy mariner's voice), construction, and a brush with the Texas State Patrol – West Texas throws everything at me, but most of all, boredom – until I reach Roosevelt, where the desert gives way to farms. There I stop at a little store, where the lady behind the counter tells me gas is sold "on the honor system," and warns me to look out for deer.
I soon understand why. Apparently there are a plague of the damn things, and they're growing suicidal: I pass two carcasses in a few miles, and three does bound across the road yards front of me. By the time I hit Austin, five hours later, I'll have seen at least twenty. Give Texas Some Wolves.
It's enemy country, too. Stars and bars decals on the back window of pickup trucks, "family" broadcasts and Christian rock on the radio, Bush-Cheney bumperstickers. I start to get the Coast-dweller's fear of the heartland, and my plans to camp out somewhere seem suddenly not so well-conceived.
I stop again in Harper to ask directions to Austin, at a little store called Waldo's. People fairly crowd the small parking lot, leaning up against their pickups. The old, leathery guy behind the counter (white cowboy hat, boots) and a younger woman working there have a prolonged discussion about whether Interstate 290 is four lanes after Johnson City or not. This goes on for minutes. There's a side conversation about the storm showers (more expected). They present evidence "so and so told me so," "but I thought I read in the paper…," call in witnesses from among the store patrons, but the jury's hung, so I just thank them and drive on.
The moon's a silver smudge behind the clouds. I roll the windows down, and warm air whips in, fresh and fragrant with the rain's kiss. And suddenly, again with the moths. Bugs so big I hear them Doppler by my windows. My windshield starts to look like a mixed-media portrait of the surface of Mars, all lumps and craters.
But it is Friday night. And in Fredrickburg, that still means cruising. I pull over on the main drag, needing to stretch my legs. I've only barely unfolded myself when some high school girls sitting in the bed of a pickup two slots away yell over to me, "Hey!" "Where you from?" one, obviously the lead Heather, asks. I tell her. "Seattle? What'ya doin' down here?" But she's already lost interest before I've finished a sentence, as another truck full of boys eases to a stop on the street.
But one of the girls, obviously middling cute to her peers, with long straight auburn hair and a curious set to her lips, asks me what the book's about. I start to tell her, and she listens, nodding along and asking precise, interesting questions about journalism, urban design and the environment, Her friends jump out of the truck and into the back of the other one. "Come on," they yell. She rolls her eyes, says, "Have a real good trip, okay now?" and asks me what my name is, "so I can buy your book when it comes out." I tell her, but really I'm ESPing to her: "Escape. Run and don't look back." She does look back, and waves a discrete little wave, and then the truck zooms away.
The Trip to Mexico I Didn't Take
El Paso. The hallways of the Gardner Hotel reek of a smell I can't quite place: it's somewhere between popcorn and cat spray, but with a decided hint of tropical decay. The Hotel itself, as you might guess, has seen happier days. A sign gone yellow with age notes the rate for my room at $69.00. I got it for $19.50, plus tax. It reminds me of a historic Texas version of Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions, complete with splatter-patterns on the wall that look like they could be blood. There's a definite cheap whiskey vibe to the place.
But the clientele is decidedly over-educated jet-trash. I meet a middle-aged Swedish carpenter-musician, a young Californian bumming around the country before finishing her degree in media studies and a Japanese architect on a half-year world trip (when I ask him how he likes El Paso, he tells me it's "very authentic.") And then there's the Internet access provided in the burnished-wood-and-brass lobby; or the fact that out of the 14 landmarks on the map I'm handed when I register, four are museums and one's the public library (where I'm told by another guest Net access is free). I had thought it the kind of place an aging drifter might choose to make his last stand. It turns out it's more the kind of place a screenwriter might choose to bang out a treatment about that drifter making his last stand.
That said, the developing world is right around the corner. The border with Juarez, Mexico is less than a mile's walk. The first sign that I'm already culturally in Mexico isn’t that the crowd on the street is 95% Latin: it's that there is a crowd at all. El Paso, at least on this Thursday evening, is all about the street scene, in a way that has nothing to do with any Tech Industry urban revival. This is the old-skool version. This is folks who know the street is a second living room.
Young shave-headed guys in wifebeaters give me the Stare as we pass on the sidewalk, acknowledging my attempt at a friendly but confident nod with an inclination of the head so cool and slight its subtlety would shame a character from Tales of the Genji. A group of middle-aged ladies stand at the corner of a park gossiping in loud, surprised tones. An incredibly beautiful young Latina nurse walks by in her uniform, ignoring with some difficulty the attention of every man on the block. We briefly lock eyes as we pass, and she smiles innocently. It's a killer smile, wicked if contrived and absolutely devastating if genuine. I am tempted to turn around, follow her down the block, try to get her to talk with me. By the time I reach the corner, I've already asked her out in my imagination, and had coffee late into the evening, and stayed over in El Paso, and met her parents, and overcome all barriers of race, class, language and geography, and married her, bought a creekside West Texas farmhouse and had six kids. It was that kind of smile.
I think about veering down Santa Fe boulevard into Juarez, but it's warm, and a full moon, and I'm lonely as a miner. A crazy night is at my heels like a hungry yellow dog. I can feel it. It's the kind of night I'd wake up in a Mexican jail. I haven't learned much, but I've learned to 'ware those yellow-dogs in strange towns, and Mexico will still be there tomorrow, so I ask an old cabbie where I can go to have a quiet beer.
"You want a strip show?" he asks me. I tell him no, just a place to have a beer. "A place with girls?" No, just beer. He looks a little perplexed. "I could drive you to this place across the river – you'll like it, a young man. The girls they are very pretty." No thanks, really, I say, I just want a beer, hopefully at some place I can walk to. He looks at me with mute incomprehension, then finally gives in to my obvious stupidity and recommends the Tap, just down the way. He's shaking his head as I walk away.
It's a great place: wooden paneling, pool table, Spanish ballads on the jukebox and a Mexican biblical drama on the big screen TV. I sit and read and talk to the locals. A few beers and several hours later I walk out into the night and deserted streets.
As I walk back to my hotel, I cross paths with a couple – a burly blonde guy with a moustache and a thin redhead. They're arguing loudly, she calling him a motherfucker. I'm only twenty feet away when out of nowhere he clouts her, openhanded but hard, and sends her spinning to the ground. I stop. He turns on me. He's red-faced and spitting. "What?" he shouts at me. "What are you fuckin' lookin' at?"
For a moment, I think about stepping into the situation. I scan the street. No one. He takes a step towards me. I hold up my hands in the "none of my business" gesture and walk a wide circle around them. She's sitting on the sidewalk, sobbing, and he glares at me, fists clenched. As I walk the last couple blocks to my hotel, I tell myself I probably couldn't have done any good. I tell myself she needs an intervention, not some stranger fighting her boyfriend under a streetlight.
But I don't entirely believe it. I'm not entirely sure I'm not just a coward. It takes me hours to fall asleep watching TV. A tiny brown moth throws itself at the screen, again and again, and I dream of it changing into a man, opening the window, and inviting me to step outside, in a threatening way.
The pain is sudden and nauseating. I've just barely woken, and as I turn my head to look at the clock – bang! – I feel like I've been stabbed in the neck. I sit up, holding my head, and feel the knotted muscles along my spine and through my left shoulder. I can feel a vertebrae out of line, right between my shoulder blades. This is bad. I can barely move without feeling my head is about to snap off.
I stagger to the shower, gingerly slip on a shirt and shorts, and start calling chiropractors. I've never been a huge believer in the bonecracking trade, but this was clearly [up their alley]. Four hours and an adjustment later, I'm in the car, with a spine like kelp and four Advil in my belly, and on my way to Austin, my morning trip to Mexico gone up in chiropractic steam.
(again, this happened last week. I'm just having the chance to put it up now...)
Arcosanti is arguably the most famous architectural experiment of our age. The brainfruit of Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was envisioned as a 6,000-person "arcology," a hyperdense sustainable town meant to serve as a prototype alternative to sprawl. Countless books, documentaries and articles have hyped the revolutionary qualities of the Italian architect's new town. Even the staid old New York Times once called it "A lab for future cities, part commune, part Flash Gordon." At one point, not so long ago, Arcosanti was The Future, in buzzing electric letters.
I drive in over a washboard dirt road, following the signs to the Arcosanti Visitors' Center (nearly 50,000 people a year visit). When I get there, I see a handful of buildings grouped together and, well, a whole 'lotta nuthin', just scrub stretching away towards a distant freeway. I hear a truck downshift in the distance. I wonder where the rest of the town is.
I wander into the visitor's center. There are bells everywhere – bronze bells, clay bells. Soleri is famous as a designer of bells, but this is a bit too much. Then I enter the gallery, where things get entirely out of hand: rows and rows of bells hang from the ceiling. All are for sale. For some reason, there is a low-grade laser-printed photo of Barbara Bush on the wall.
At the information desk, the gallery manager – a less-than-charismatic man, with beady eyes, thick glasses and a nest of long thinning hair – will barely acknowledge my presence. When I explain that I'm a journalist, and ask if there might be anyone who could answer questions for me, he practically recoils from me, and I worry that he may start yelling, "Unclean! Unclean!" He makes a quick phone call, then tells me in a curt tone that "Our PR person is out today. No one here can talk with you."
Now, I'm sure he meant that there was no one trained to answer my questions in the helpful, professional and unbiased manner of PR flacks everywhere (oh, those selfless servants of the Fourth Estate!), but it somehow came out, "I don't like you and I wish you would die quickly and quietly." Apparently, the press is less than loved at Arcosanti. I began to catch a hint of the stink of True Believers on the wind.
Eventually, I am allowed to take the hourly tour, at a cost of eight dollars. Apparently, I am the only tour-ee. My tour guide, Bernadette, is a nice enough woman with a bright print fleece and graying hair, though she holds her body stiffly and looks at me as a polite person might look at a snake. We stroll over to a corner of the gallery, where a large, say fifteen square-foot, balsawood model portrays the City of the Future. I notice there is a heavy layer of dust on the City of the Future.
Arcosanti, Bernadette explains to me in a monotone, was built as an "experimental urban arcology for 6,000 people," arcology being "Paolo's coinage for a place whose architecture and ecology are in balance." This is most comprehensible thing she says for the next ten minutes. I get to hear "Paolo's" story (and everyone in the place refers to Saleri as Paolo, in frankly reverent tones): his birth (in Italy in 1919), his student years with Frank Lloyd Wright, his years in the desert, supporting his mad architectural scribblings through the creation and sale of hand-made bronze bells, the impulse behind his founding of Arcosanti. I'm a big fan of mad genius, and it's an interesting enough story, but it's shot full of insider terminology, and every time I ask a question, I seem to throw Bernadette off, and she has to pause and begin again with the exact same phrasing she had just used. Bernadette could be animatronic, I think.
Finally, we get to the town itself, or at least the model of the town. [In explaining it's raison d'etre, she keeps using the phrase "the urban sprawl," as in "we need a new way of building cities so we don't turn into the giant urban sprawl." It's petty, but I can't help but notice it, like a person with a tic] It's pretty magnificent: huge, arching apartment buildings, a university, a clinic. Five acres of greenhouses on the south slope heat the buildings above in the winter through a system of heat tunnels, while in the summer deciduous trees and grape bowers will leaf out to cover the giant walls of glass. There are systems as well for rainwater collection and graywater use, for composting and recycling, and all traffic within the city is on foot.
"So what's been built so far?" I ask.
"Well, we've had some problems with the funding," she begins. She glances quickly around the room to make sure we're alone, then goes on in a quick, low voice, a total I'm-dishing-the-dirt voice. First they thought they'd be supported by grants from large foundations and government support, she says, but that never quite worked out. Then they tried holding festivals. At the first festival, a grassy field was turned into a parking lot, and "something – we don't know if it was a catalytic converter or a cigarette" caught the grass on fire. "Over one hundred cars blew up," she tells me, nodding. "So we didn't really make any money off that one." At the next festival, the concentrated activities on the banks of the nearby Agua Fria river. Unfortunately, it has rained upstream the night before, and a flashflood came and carried off all the tents, exhibits and kitchens. "As you might imagine, that wasn't much of a profit-maker, either." She smiles a tiny little wry smile as she recounts this story. Bernadette's not so bad.
"So, when you ask what's been completed, keep in mind that we're still in a process of growth," she says, and points to a tiny area on the diorama – say ten inches by six inches – about a dozen model buildings, bordered by a thin black line. It turns out that about 3% of the city has been built in the last 30 years, and about 70 people, not 6,000, live there. "In some ways, we're not very close to what Paolo has envisioned," she admits, and I'm about to ask her in which ways they are close, but she barrels on to describe how they still get almost all their energy from the power company, and their water comes pumped from an ancient aquifer, and how (while they have added a wind generator and so photovoltaic panels in recent years, and created a system for letting some of their waste water be cleaned in algae ponds for later use in watering the landscape) the city's infrastructure is really pretty conventional.
I have more questions, but she suggests we take a walk.
It's a fine early evening in the desert. As we walk, Bernadette points out some kilns, remarks on the cypress and olive trees Soleri has had planted across the site, and leads me into the pottery studio.
The pottery studio – I keep calling it the Pottery Barn, but Bernadette doesn't seem to catch the joke, so I drop it – is cleverly designed. Built in an apse shape (think of a forty-foot tall concrete band shell), it lets winter sunshine flow into the glass-fronted workshops built around the apse's interior, while shading the whole area during the sweltering summer days. A circular trench runs in front of the building, turning the front of the floor into workbenches when needed. Bernadette goes on to describe in great detail the molding process used to make clay bells, but a young potter with an attractive cast to her features and an artisan's intense expression of concentration is sitting next to us, and I find myself distracted.
Arcosanti, she goes on to tell me, is now funded almost entirely through the sale of bells. It is essentially one big crafts guild. Which is a fine thing to be. Indeed, sitting there in the evening light, with birds chirping, and the young potter glancing my way, I can see the appeal: fuck it, let's all throw aside our worries and make bells. It'll be a good life. But it's not the City of the Future.
We continue our walk. We pass a couple apartment buildings. The buildings themselves are a bit weathered and, well, not my architectural preference (very 70's, very blobject, very Planet of the Apes), but they are well-designed (they all employ passive solar, many have "sky theaters" built into the roof for sitting out and viewing the stars at night). The public space is great. There's an amphitheater with a waterfall running down the middle of the seats. Residents run a little store, the "Arc Mart," where you can buy your food and toiletries. There's a small hotel for visitors, with a swimming pool. Construction is underway on a new building which will have more apartments, a movie theater and an infirmary. Sometimes the entire community gathers at night on the roofs of buildings overlooking the canyon, and lights are shone against the cliffs of the other side, and dancers perform in front of them, sending huge shadows writhing on the basalt walls.
Bernadette pauses for a moment. "You know, Paolo imagined cities on the ocean, factories on the sides of dams…" she trails off. Her mind is elsewhere for a moment, and she looks younger than she has. I can tell she's not seeing the cracked concrete slabs and fading paint, but something altogether more beautiful.
She snaps out of it, and leads me to the bronze bell-making area. I feign interest. Bernadette explains, in mind-hammering detail, how molds are made, and bronze ingots melted, and decoration added. Humoring her, I say "It's amazing how much you've been able to accomplish on so little money."
"Well, yes," she says, clearly pleased, "but really, money isn't everything. A lot of the construction is done by the people who come for the workshops (five-week workshops can be attended for a tuition of several hundred dollars, and nearly 5,000 people have taken them, according to the Arcosanti literature), and we all get paid minimum wage. So we can keep going on with the work." In other words, it's a tourism and tokens economy.
Then we're back at the visitor's center. Bernadette makes a pitch for the food in the café, and then leaves me to wander the final exhibit alone.
Arcosanti's half life is long over, and it is headed for it's own tiny heat-death. Sure, it's still growing, but the vision and the reality have too long diverged, and my sense was that the True Believers needed to desperately convince themselves that the dream was still alive. Maybe it is. Who am I, really, to say otherwise? Let them build their utopia in the desert, if they can pull it off.
It's not a bad dream. Nothing there is all that revolutionary now, in this day and age where government buildings employ passive solar, and you can buy photovoltaic hat fans and laptop chargers, but there's no reason why an outworn future can't be chased longingly to completion. And Soleri's critique of sprawl, and manifest belief in the healing powers of compact community and a walking population, still sound just fine to me. I'll not complain if they're actually embodied in place.
It takes training to read space in the abstract, and to imagine the experience of place simply be looking at a plan or a drawing is an artform in itself. To be comprehended by regular people, radically innovative ideas need to be made concrete – you need to be able to walk around them, kick the foundations. You need to test them with your feet. That's why model communities are so important.
But Arcosanti isn't the future anymore. It smells too much of museum dust. It's the embalmed husk of a future, and a future that's older than I am, at that. I get in my car, and drive back down the rutted road, and wonder if I'll find some fresher dream ahead.