American Plain Views


I currently live and work in Minneapolis as an educator in an Americorps program and freelance writer. Sometimes it is peculiarly pretty here. It is pretty in a way that’s as much a sensation as a view. These little snippets will hopefully let you in on some of those American plain views.

View Heading Down Penn from Olson:

Olson Memorial Highway pushes out in both directions like big tar rivers and the grey-black backs of big straight serpents swimming into and out of center city. If the light allows, you can ford it all at once and if it doesn’t you are in an island in the middle watching the rust and the shine of cars sprint like metallic fish up and down stream. It is dirt, mud clot, and trash spotted right by Olson but further on past is the Harrison neighborhood where things get cleaner, greener, squarer and on with lawns and their houses. A little black girl cast in bronze statue welcomes you. Here the hills rise and sink slowly as the gentle undulation of a half-urban half-suburban dragon. The way the road stretches, the way there are no trees to block the skies or the hills as they rise, you can see right down Penn as it weaves up and down and up until it is too high to see past; just from seeing how the sky goes and goes and the earth goes and goes you’d guess there wasn’t any end to it. But then, eventually, you’d hit the highways and the interstates.

View From the Back of the 19:

Metro Transit buses have big windows to soothe you that bit they delayed you when they came late. Metro Transit buses are blood capillaries that pump in and out of the downtown heart where folks are moving but not wanting to be seen. Uptown, Northeast, by lakes and by campuses and by dive bars on rise is where people tell me you want to be seen. Metro Transit buses have big windows where these thoughts float out of sight and mind like clouds in the wide sky.

On the good days it feels like a Venice high in the sky. Your four wheeled gondola shared with a smattering of other people goes sailing down the light blue sky; your four wheeled gondola gliding on heaven to get you to the next earthly mess. The 19 – my four wheeled gondola – goes under the dark arches that connect concrete block buildings stretching out over two streets, making Hennepin Medical Center. Sunlight peaks out from the Hospital’s shadow until the 19 plunges fully into the bright light. It weaves up to the long and grassy green lawn in front of the Government Center. That building splits into two dark pillars wrapped together by a glass midsection and pulled tight by heavy black cross-lines so it looks like the corseted back of a boxy, cartoon-ish dominatrix.

After that the 19 comes through downtown where things look new and glassy and the construction turns everything to congestion and tightness. When it pops out into Hennepin it looks like one of those true downtown stretches full of bars and avante-garde buildings twisted up into modernist shapes. When breezes by the stadium, passes the brown and flat Transit Center, and leaks into Olson, it is just apartments and peaks down long and short residential roads.

On the bus a woman – White or Latina – sits and babbles brightly to her child. Another mom – Black – comes on and her toddler rushes up to the other kid and they seem to just stare before the parents direct them away, smiling and managing awkwardly. People come and people go. The driver lets a man know where to get off. The child leaves and the toddler cries for bit. Another mother and her kid – elementary age – comes on and picks up the transparent green binky the toddler dropped. The two mothers talk about the wide blue sky and the hot sun and the children all wrapped up in it; they talk on and past when my stop comes and I go.

~Austin R Ryan

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The Top Screamer


I am the Top Screamer and I scream so loud that the volume can be felt and makes the boundaries of all things porous and thin. All the men and the women and the children shriek furiously for me to stop but I can’t hear them over how loud and victorious I am all the time. I have screamed so loud before. Really, you just won’t even believe how loud I have screamed before.

~Austin R Ryan

The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Pee-Paw’s Tater Brain


Heydee-hoo there neighbo! Droppin’ a peep in ta letcha knah you better get yer kickin boots on. Yer Pee-paw’s back at the saloon hooting and hollering at all the hollies and hanks how he seen the legendary outlaws Gosh Darnold and Josh Dammit! Third time this week he’s been tall tale-ing the day away – I think. I ain’t peachy pleased to speak it but his tater brains is really mashin’ up the townsfolk ya know.

~Austin R Ryan

Continue reading “Pee-Paw’s Tater Brain”

Malka


Malka is Hebrew for queen – some people know that. What most don’t know is that Malka is the best name for fat tabby cats. This is not just because most fat tabby cats look like they have fine black crowns on the top of their heads. In the mind of a fat tabby cat, she is and has always been a great grey queen with a domain of human subjects grateful to witness her royal mouse hunts; so that fat tabby cat is as much a queen as Elizabeth, Victoria, and Golda (Meir, of course).

This is the story of two fat tabby queens and the kitty kingdoms they had. Malka the first, Malka 1, just plain Malka did not accept many of the subjects that came and went through her country. The original empress, she ruled over a small domain – an apartment in Chicago not far from the lake – with just two old folks named Carol and Sheldon as true subjects. During many Hanukkahs and many Passovers all sorts of other big, furless cats would come and go but she did not know or trust them. They would get no dead mice and no affectionate purrs from her. Many of them truly did not deserve it; young and greedy, they grabbed at her with hungry palms that pulled and tugged; she – a proper Malka – deserved nothing less than the best and softest pets and she would come claim them at her own leisure!

Though Malka I was not always a kind queen, she sometimes showed a softer side. Yes, she scratched and she bit and all the vagabonds and trespassers knew to fear her claws; yes, she hissed and howled at clumsy but friendly hands too; but when a child cried on her couches and bedsides she would retract her razors and paw them condolences. Malka I was a strong and mean ruler but she was soft and kind especially to her closest subjects. When she went she was mourned deeply and she left her subjects with a fat tabby cat shaped hole in their hearts.

However a proper queen always has a lineage. Not so long later, another tabby cat – young and without a kingdom – was busy stepping across a dark road. Many other nights she had darted across street and field, deftly dodging coyotes and cars, hawks and Hondas, but this night was different. Small and agile, a natural hunter, she leaped and bounded across that dark road again, but got struck by a passing car and dropped one life of nine. Left along on the road she mewed and cried until some strange set of hands carried her off to a vet before the other eight could slip away. The vet labored on this tabby – hardly even a cat yet – until by the end of the night it was stitched up and saved. However, it was still homeless. The fine folk that saved her could not keep her and instead of a kingdom she found a cage.

Shaved and small, set in a kennel full of bigger cats, she was a queen with no kingdom, an empress in exile. Little did she know, Malka I had come as a spirit to find another tabby cat to grow fat and continue her line. Malka I found the little tabby and told her to keep her shaved side hidden against the kennel wall and mew sweetly for the next old lady that came in. Sure enough, the next visitor to her cage was an old woman named Carol, who had a fat tabby cat shaped hole in her heart.

When the handlers took the kitten to Carol, the kitten she was skeptical at first. Who was this human? Could she be trusted? She shied away but Carol, even seeing her shaved side with all its scars, knew another Malka when she saw one. Carol sat for a while and talked with the little tabby.

“You look so pretty!” She said to give the queen compliment.

“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” She said, and kept her distance to give the queen respect.

“We’ll feed you and you’ll have a great big place where you can chase birds and mice.” She said to give the queen a true kingdom.

This little tabby kitten decided to step over and let Carol carefully lift her up and cradle her in palanquin arms. At that moment they both knew she was not just a Malka, but Malka II, Malka the second, Malka two. Carol brought the cat back to Sheldon, who smiled and said,
“Gee well, couldn’t you have got a healthy one?”

All the same they came to love the new Malka. Her fur grew in again, just as lush and beautiful as before she was hurt and before long she was a cat with a kingdom of wetlands out in the country, complete with birdbaths to stalk and gardens to weave through. Malka II had surpassed her predecessor; she had more not just in land, but in kind subjects too. By now the once young subjects had grown and learned how to keep their fingers from tugging and their palms from pulling so Malka II was generous with her affection and let many who came into her kingdom pet her. Perhaps Malka II became kind through being grateful. Her fortunes had turned sharply as she went overnight from losing a life to gaining a kingdom. Whatever the cause was, Malka II became even more beloved and bequeathed than her namesake and in no time at all she had filled fat tabby cat shaped holes in hearts that didn’t even know they had one.

~Austin R Ryan

So Fashion!


Let me tell you I was gonna post up my usual kind of god damned high art imitation BS blog post about the black mold in my home and some of the hard times I’ve been having here in China but that’s not the piping hot helping I want in my bowl right now. No sir, I’ll tell you what I really wanna talk about is fashion! I don’t wanna talk about American fashion and you can run and tell that to every single young adult male wearing salmon tone boating shorts. When it comes to fashion, the cargo shorts, the slacks, even the best bought band shirts of the USA have nothing on the glee that Chinese style brings to me. To say that Chinese fashion is off the rails doesn’t even do it justice because there are no rails in Chinese fashion at all and everyone indulges recklessly in free-form fashion every day with not a single fashion task force out to get them.

For example, once I found a man wearing a baby blue sports coat over a baby blue plaid pattern shirt over baby blue khakis just sitting in a chair in the middle of the wide sidewalk outside of a large commercial center. It was like a color of the rainbow came down to Earth. Before I came to China, I didn’t know that I wanted to see men douse their bodies in clothes of one single primary color and now not only do I know that I want that but that I’ll probably get it. Sometimes I don’t even look and when I pull on my red jacket while I have my red slacks on I’ve found I’ve become the red guy. I am happy to be the red guy; I embrace this role; I embrace representing this primary color at the clothes congress. Where in America this man may receive verbal beating from abusive fashionistas, here he is safe to shine in beautiful baby blue glory.

American fashion is boring, cowed cowardice compared to Chinese fashion. In America a woman likely fears leaving the home looking like a witch. In China many women leave home looking like terrible witches with faces as pale as the moon and long, flowing coats and dusters as black as the awful magic they use to reap vengeance on those that dare jock their soup. It is a wonderful thing to me to see a young woman enter the KFC with a black massively brimmed hat that’s round and cutting as lumber mill buzz-saws over a long flowing black coat that flicks in the wind behind her. Her dark-as-night boots and pants round out a sci-fi FBI agent image she punches into the world like a typewriter punches ink onto a page. This woman has no fear of her look both because it is semi-regular (there are many witches here) and because few others have judgment of it.

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When I go to America no doubt hair dyes and beards and flannels and everything else will feel like a warm blanket of a much missed home. Yet if you asked me would I miss the witches, I would almost indignantly tell you that of course I would miss the witches; I would miss them maybe more than I would be happy to see face piercings again. If you asked me if I would like for everyone to be witches I would say – definitely indignantly – that no, I do not want that; that clearly goes too far. But 50% witches is agreeable to me, though I would say 30% is ideal as I have a healthy fear of the dark arts.

Furthermore, the witches are just one great and terrible dark cavern on the strange fantasy-scape that is Chinese fashion. The women just one accessory away from wearing an actual princess outfit must be admired too for all their frills. There is nothing ironic about literal frills in China. So many blouses have frills like you wouldn’t believe – flagrant frills layered on pinkest of pink patterns . I have a coworker who regularly comes in with what I speculate are literal Lisa Frank patterns printed (and often bedazzled) on giant pink and purple shirts that reach to her knees. I have seen her wear unicorns, I have seen her wear bedazzled pink sports jerseys, but I have never seen anyone bat an eye. If you think that sounds anything less than victorious than my friend you just have to shatter that American judgment calling you to plain protestant styles.

Besides, the plain and sleek styles have their representatives too. Most people go for subtle and regular patterns of button-up shirts and jeans (though khakis and slacks are much more common). Some people have simple dresses and once I even saw a woman in a pants suit come out of a Pizza Hut (this was a vividly joyous moment for me). Muted earth tones do exist here and people do wear them. However, many normal ensembles incorporate an item of clothing – shirts, jackets, the seat of the pants, the legs of the pants, the entire pants – that say something that is absolutely absurd English or just pure alphabet soup gibberish. My personal favorite is a jacket that says, “This ain’t no real bustard” on it. I have seen these “this ain’t no real bustard” jackets several times and I have so many questions. Did they mean to write bustard – which is a type of bird – at all? Were they going for bastard or for mustard? In either case why is the authenticity of the bastard/mustard on display? I am bad with multiple negatives, so I also NEED someone to tell me if this is or isn’t the real bustard. And is this is a meme? Is this what memes look like in China? Do people wear memes here? I don’t know about how all celestial forces feel, but I am 80% sure the Abrahamic God considers wearing memes a sin and will flood-genocide (drownicide) us again if we start to wear memes en masse, so I hope it’s not a meme.

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There are of course many other ridiculous things written on shirts but sometimes the message is not so much ridiculous as surprising. I have a bag – where I store my many soup cans – that says, “seven days away, I think I thought I heard you say.” The odd quote is indicative of an outright genre of clothes and accessories that say something correct but still kind of baffling. Clothing in the US tends to carry a pretty light message and words on clothes often just share some easy laugh factory material. Chinese t-shirts aren’t usually chuckle buckets, opting to spread weirdly serious messages instead. I once waited in line for soup behind a little boy in a jean jacket that read “ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE WHO ELSE BUT ME.” On the topic of children, every trend here applies to them because their parents dress them like tiny adults. This is as absolutely adorable, strange, and fantastic as you are imagining it to be.

Anyways, I have started to accumulate shirts with wonky words, but some are oddly expensive. I had my eye on a shirt that just said “sample text” but it cost over 100 RMB (15-ish USD), which can pay for 3-5 meals out and much soup. I have managed to find some cheap items such as a shirt with the beloved Nintendo character Yoshi over a plain red background with a word bubble that says “Happy!” underneath giant black letters that say “I love family,” a shirt with a picture of a hat just above a random paragraph attempting to describe the idea of fashion, and a hat that says “If.”

People here also borrow from other countries – particularly Korea. Many people wear Korean hats with a lot of extra space at the top where one could hide a trinket or a can of soup. It is not often but occasionally I see pretty boys wearing long jackets with weird words or patterns, some sweet ass kicks, a colorful hairdo that must have taken a lot of hair spray to maintain, and impossibly tight jeans that must take a lot of work to squeeze into.

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On pants, nothing makes me think quite as deeply as the difference between the pants of American and Chinese men. In China men rarely wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and on it easily looks much better than the frequent style young American men adopt, where the pants are wide enough around the legs to contain a terrible and endlessly discontent void. Yet, there is a drawback as many Chinese men must have a man bag to make these tight jeans work practically, or even to make well fitting pants look good. Tight pants effectively have no storage and well-fitting pants look as chunky as a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag when their pockets hold a wallet, a phone, spare change, an mp3 player, and a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag. Many man bags look pretty good but some don’t quite hit the mark, which makes man bag selection another clothing piece to pour soup worry into. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that in the US the assault on masculinity the murse can resemble might cause a frothy broth of rage to boil up in more traditional men and also men who believe your soup belongs in a sandwich bag in your pocket. Indeed, it took me a while to come to terms with the man bag and accept that, yes all men are still carrying soup even if I cannot see the vague shape of the sweet nutrient juice bulging against the edges of jean pockets.

With this topic I could go on endlessly, but ultimately what I love of Chinese fashion is simply the lack of concern it has for a single standard. With so much influx of global products and styles, fashion here is a saloon in the Wild West where there are no rules and you wear what you want so long as you can shoot from the hip and store a steaming can of chunky dinner-cereal emptied into a sandwich bag somewhere on your person. You can do literally anything and there are literally no rules about clothes in China! [Correction: After the time of publication I was informed by my editor that there are in fact “laws” about “clothes” and “public indecency” in China and I was apparently “lucky” not to be “arrested” when I went to the store in the buff.] Here in China even the word fashion is as free flowing and unrestrained as soup and often used as an adjective. “It’s so fashion,” is in my mind not so much Chinglish as it is a modification our language needs. When I leave China I’ll miss the bold and wild fashion it has; I will miss the colors; I will miss the witches; I will miss the serious and confusing gibberish; I will miss inhaling the rich stew of intermingling global trends.

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~Austin R Ryan

Travel Anxiety


I wake up slightly before my alarm because my body is tingling with tired energy. Everything feels porous because inside I have enough energy to be flooding but outside I don’t have enough to reel it in through my pores. It pours out over the side of my bed and for just a minute I’d fiddle with my phone and turn off the alarm. Assuming I am not fully up would be silly given the experience I have of myself. My Dad is in the bathroom. I can hear him but not how long he will take. How long will he take? I don’t need much time but he could still take too much of it. How long will he take? Probably not long, right? How long does he usually take?

Everything’s ready and lined up but surely I am forgetting something. I won’t think about whatever it is because it isn’t super significant. I have what I need. I don’t need breakfast and there is not much of it that’s quick. My Dad offers to make bacon and toast. What’s the time? 6:15 it reads. 6:15 and we should leave at 6:30. How quickly can it be made? I must have asked that. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay and it’s fine to give up a bit of that time for breakfast. Especially because my parents make it. It is the last meal from my father I’ll have in a while. There’s only Canadian bacon in China and I’d like a last taste of real bacon. It would not be worth it if it made me miss the plane, but it couldn’t. It surely couldn’t because my plane is 9:30 and that’s so many minutes away. I have counted them so many times. Three sets of sixties from when I set out. 2 and one half set when I get to the airport and it should take just 1 set of sixty to wind up at the gate. That leaves one and a half set just to in case of disasters. I have never had more than one disaster at an aiport but it cost two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars is a quarter of my paycheck. This time a disaster would be the whole of my paycheck. I can afford a disaster but it would be half of what I’ve saved over months of work. But there won’t be a disaster and if there was I’d be ready.

It’s 7 and I am saying goodbye. It is just 7:30 and I am at the gate. There was a longer line than I expected but at the Indianapolis airport this is still next to nothing. You know I was only home for two weeks? Why was I driving to leave so early? If I stayed an extra hour to talk with my parents I’d have been fine. We’d not have much to say but the company’s appreciated on each end. Should I have rushed off? I am bowing again to fearful impulses. At the same time, my Dad couldn’t have seen me off if I left later. Was it a bad decision? It would have been definitively a good one if there was a disaster.

Get this: my layover at O’Hare is only 50 minutes. 50 minutes and O’Hare is very big. If they land me at the wrong terminal I should still be able to get to my right gate in time. Knowing O’Hare there could be a technical difficulty and that could just screw me but truly there’s nothing I could do about that. I’d might as well put it out of my mind because it’s out of my hands. It is absolutely out of my hands. If I had to recheck my bag that’d very likely doom me but I asked the woman at the check in station and she said I didn’t. It is possible she’s wrong because one point in the process has been wrong about the next one before. When I went to Beijing I nearly missed a flight because of rechecking bags. Another time I was actually fortunate because one person said I’d have to recheck bags and the other prevented me having to do this. I am not sure how my luck would be here and maybe I would only know if I saw my bags at that final claim.

Remember when I said the layover was 50 minutes? Kidding, it is 7 hours and 50 minutes. Mechanical delay notifications buzz over the speakers and you should hear the Chinese chatter all around me. Wudian wudian wudian delayed delayed delayed. Rosetta stone just taught me what that meant. I tell my parents and my Mom already knows that I won’t want to visit Chicago relatives for fear of having to return to O’Hare from the outside. I’ve been burned by O’Hare’s abysmal systems before and really I’d have hardly any time with my relatives. But if I’d hopped on the opportunity as soon as the delay came in I could have had maybe 3 hours. Is that so little time to not be worth it? What worries me more than all these missed connections is that now I get into Shanghai at 10 PM. It takes around 2 hours to get in from the airport to the central railway station and get tickets, and by this time the train station will certainly be closed. I’ll have to spend a night won’t I? Will they pay for me? Do I select my own hotel in that case or just a voucher for something near? In the case that I do get my own hotel or just have to find one I really need to have a name an address on hand. Since I often don’t get wifi in China I’ll need to do this now and screencap the results on my phone so I could give them to a cab driver. Actually, if I can’t find an outlet – which at O’Hare is entirely likely – than I really ought to turn on my Chinese phone and take a photo of my American phone’s screencaps because my American phone powers down faster once I am in China and it may not last long enough. If that eventuality happens than I’ll need to ask about a hotel and they’ll point me somewhere expensive and if I pay 500 RMB for a night that is 1/10th of my monthly salary because of a poor phone battery! Heaven and a half, I am really tired.

I could nap here at O’Hare. Thing is, I should nap right before the plane because this would allay my jetlag the best. Though, if the delay shortens and no one wakes me up at the gate I could miss the plane. It might be better to just sleep at the very beginning of the flight, though this would not be as good for my jetlag. I could sort that out when I land but I’d like to have energy for getting to the train station. The thoughts don’t actually matter because I get caught up watching Lynch’s Elephant Man, which is really very beautiful. The movie is long though. It is thirty minutes from over but maybe I should stop it and return to the gate. It is an hour til’ departure but they may have bumped it up. The cafeteria I am in never plays announcements. I wonder why this is, but it is because it is O’Hare. O’Hare is a model of a mini modern hell. I have seven hours and fifty minutes to waste with you, O’Hare. Do your worst. Actually, don’t. Don’t bump up my flight and not tell me and make me miss it, please. Please don’t do that because I am so curious what happens to the elephant man. I really want to know about the movie but I also want to know what happens with my plane. Has anything happened? It is only fifteen minutes until the show ends. Okay, I can wait for the show to end. They wouldn’t bump it up on me. This fear is not so big. Okay, 14 minutes. Alright I’ll pack up everything around me so I can zip out at the end of the movie. First I’ve got the power cord pulled out of the defunct outlet and in my bag. 13 minutes. Then I have my phone and my mouse and my keyboard all back in my bag. 12 minutes. It is me the movie and the laptop. 11. 10. 9. 8. The plane should still be there. 7. 6. 5. It should really still be there. 4. 3. I really hope it’s still there. 2. 1. Why wouldn’t it be there, though? Okay, done! I’ll check. I’ll check on my plane right now. I go through a crowd of teenagers on some trip together with their school. It’s all been managed. Their smiles have no weights on either end. There are still lots of Chinese people here so my flight should be around, but what if it just left them too? It didn’t, it is there.

I buy some books and food before the flight. Is it funny I got Kafka’s short stories for the flight? I adore him as much as every English teacher I had told me I would. Damn you, you insightful souls! Am I really that predictable?…

On the plane there’s really nothing at all I can do so you know I am almost relaxed. I don’t quite sleep properly but the plane’s got loads of caffeine and I am fine. What would I do if I turned into a big roach? I think I’d handle it better than this guy in the Kafka story. He never tried to write a message in his sticky cockroach juice. Damn skippy, I’d write my family a fine I ❤ U in my sticky cockroach juice. I’d like to think my Dad would know to exhibit me sideshow style too so I could at least cover my cockroach costs. Can’t blame poor Gregor for too much though, he’s got a calmer handle than I’d have. Although, his mind is too much on things past his control.

 

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 2: Airport People


In the Chicago airport I got very lucky. The pit stop in Chicago was unplanned to the point were we all had to recheck our bags. I was supposed to go straight to LaGuardia where I’d spend ten hours – basically the night – on layover before I got home. I had gone to the gate and mostly accepted my fate when I let my parents know I was in Chicago. We had lots of family and plenty of options to get home from here so I thought I’d see if they wanted to manage something else. My Dad urged me to take it up with American Airlines, since the unexpected stop put me so much closer to home.

I am not sure what American Airlines looks like or how I’d describe it. In my head it is probably some fusion of cramped seats and crowded check in lines with those pleasantly dim fluorescent lights hanging over the counters. It is kind of a distant thing – not really a stark image at all. But when I am there at the counter American Airlines is the man standing behind it, speaking with a slight Eastern European accent. That accent is an O’Hare familiarity I enjoy after coming back from China. The man is only half into my conflict, which is only fair because I am just two thirds there myself. He has a kind of neat and slightly too tight image like everything else in the airport. In conversation it comes undone some and he calls me “buddy.”

When he directs me back to the counter of my own flight I am despairing slightly because the line in front of it is full of patiently waiting people trying to nudge into any empty spaces the flight has. Like me they stand tight by their bags, fidgeting slightly. At that moment maybe AA looked like anyone in uniform so I clambered over my own baggage toward an unoccupied attendant standing at a kind of podium with an odd, antiquated looking computer in it. She clicked and clacked at it with some inquiring looks, like she wasn’t urgent about it or was even figuring it out herself. She was a middle aged woman a few inches smaller than me despite curly hair that rose up two or three inches. I explained my situation quickly and without expecting much because I was so last minute that my flight to LaGuardia would board in twenty minutes.

She calculated for a second in a quiet kind of concentration, but it did not actually take her long to decide to reroute me. “It makes no sense to go to New York when you are this close.” I agreed but felt pleasantly surprised to hear her completely take my side. It did not seem her hands were tied up in anything and she quickly began to bounce between a computer in the desk and the one at the podium. The time ticked down and with each minute I was worried my luck would run short and I’d go to LaGuardia. I’d half expected it even though she had told me straight that her work at the computers was to switch my ticket around and print me a new boarding pass. I’d expected some little administrative thing to trip it all up.

To be fair, it ran right down to the wire. The attendant next to the one helping me started to announce the boarding just before my passes to another flight printed. I thanked the attendant heftily and she deflected them mostly, saying it made sense and it was no problem. In truth it looked like a bit of a task for her, tabbing between two computers for a solid fifteen minutes right up to the start of the boarding process. It was hard to tell because of how steady she was and the quiet tone that she spoke in. She had just a small flicker in a voice as slight and resolute as the airport lighting. For a second I stood at the gate as though I still had something left to do there or like I’d left something behind.

Only two hours away from home I was smiling like the bright Midwestern sun while I sat by a wall charger to give my phone enough life to make contact with my parents. All the folks around passed with rhythmic steps and some looked down to better understand my squatting. I smiled at a few and the last hour felt filled with slight motions of politeness as efficient and measured as the low light flood of white airport light that felt pure to the point of sterility. But you know there are often moments – completely random and very small – that always break like a ray of real sun through the slick veneer of things. When that happens I never know how to react and sometimes I slide right back into the slickness of the veneer.

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan