Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan

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Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: A Stroll Down Michigan


Most stories I’ve told have points or directions. I decided to ramble for four pages, and this was the result. This is my pointless story.

In Indiana Minimum wage is roughly under eight dollars. I believe it stands at 7.75$ an hour. Working at a cafeteria downtown I earn around minimum wage for each hour I spend manning the register. The folks I work with are polite and for the most part older than I am. The place has a pleasant energy. One fellow looks a lot like my boss, which has caused me occasional confusion when trying to ask the right question to the right person.

The clientele of this urban kitchen are middle aged marketers and members of that business class that goes to work semi-formal. I find the culture a bit of the workplace a bit strange. My employers did not seem to mind me missing two weeks of work due to miscommunication nearly as much as they minded my unkempt hair and clothes that strayed slightly from uniform standard. At this point I am happy to have the job. My Midwestern homestead is bloated with young college students searching for scraps of paper.

I work five miles from my house, but still I like to get a ride to and from work. I clocked out of work at about 2:30 PM and strode out of my steel tower. The One America building, they call it. One of Indianapolis’s humble skyscrapers. It was made for business though, and unless you have business in it, you may as well keep outside of it. I pulled my phone out of my black jeans and found it dead. I pressed the power button, holding on to some shred of hope. It blinked on just long enough to tell me it did not have any power left in it. How useful. I stared at the hot sun and let my phone sit in my palm.

I felt the temptation to throw it. My father and I both had a way of exhausting ourselves with rage towards the smallest of roadbumps. We are both devout Buddhists. I never knew with him, but the irony of being an angry Buddhist proved too much for me. I bit down and chewed on the anger for a moment before swallowing it.

I got past the unfortunate fact that I forgot to charge my phone that night, and walked towards home. I decided to make some use of the occasion, and stopped off at the library. Downtown Indianapolis underwent some beautification recently. It always had some beauty. I cannot remember a year this city did yearn for something to be proud of. I am proud of our central library. At 6 stories it is no hulk of a building, but it sits a pulse away from the heart of downtown as a mesh of old and new. An expansion to the building gave it a bright new futuristic glass edifice attached to the Greek styled columns of the old building. The organization of the books was a bit haphazard, but I managed to find the Hemingway books I was looking for. I picked up a Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut book too. We are all proud of Kurt Vonnegut here. Granted, we aren’t so proud of his odd respect for suicide bombers. We aren’t the kind of city that produces such bold opinions. Our prominent politician was a quiet family man, who won respect by being good with numbers.

Vonnegut’s books were surprisingly hard to find in our library. At this point, I thought we’d have a small shrine dedicated to him. I am sure we did when he died. I left the library with a back of books heavy in my right hand. The afternoon was pleasant. The sun blazed, and in my black clothes I felt the heaviness of the heat. People were smiling though, and the city seemed in an amiable mood. Our city runs on a grid. I started to wander home, because I knew that if I continued to feel like it, I could wander all the way back.

I walked past one of the cleaner looking homeless people by the mall. He had a little dog with him as well. I glanced at them. The dog looked well groomed and the man not too unkempt. I generally ignore homeless people, but I have a tendency to engage more than most of my friends. This city is not filled with twenty somethings trying to scrape their way into a grand destiny. This city does not have metros for homeless people to sleep in. This city is filled with family. We won’t shoo away a straggler, our hospitality is wholly Midwestern, but we won’t carve a place out for them beneath our eyes.

I walked lazily through downtown with my bag of books swinging at the end of my right arm. The bag of books periodically rammed me in the back of the leg. I would readjust the bag’s flight path after each time it hit me, but I would ease my right arm eventually and let the bag hit me again.

My leg got tired of taking hits and so I decided to find Michigan Road and take it back to my house. The road was a straight shot to home, but it wasn’t scenic. If I wanted scenic, I would have gone down Mass Ave. Mass Ave is the self-proclaimed arts district downtown. The art on the street is the modern kind you learn to forget quickly. We had some notable artist put in a display of that cookie-cutter woman used on signs swaying back and forth lethargically. She lacked a face. She simply swayed and swayed and swayed through the humid air. I always wondered who we were impressing with that display. The orange, pixelated woman moved lazily and rhythmically, unchanging every single day. As far as I saw, she was the most lifeless thing in the entire city. I much preferred the giant mural of Kurt Vonnegut or that giant black and gold obelisk we devoted to the memory of America’s wars.

The best part of Mass Ave aesthetically had to be the sidewalk. At some point, my fair city decided to expand the sidewalk, rebuilt it in a dark red brick patterned with some cement blocks. The crosswalks were colored green or blue and stretched wide. Purple signs indicated that this was the “Cultural Trail” of Indianapolis. It frustrates me that people don’t like to put things into context. Mass Ave is a nice place full of great stores, but decades ago, it was not anything special. Decades ago, it did not matter much more than the rest of the run-down east side of the city. What culture does that trail run you through, if you are visiting?

The construction of all the fancy things in Mass Ave blocked off the roads long enough to kill a few businesses too. That little video store I applied at once went out. Now I think a gardener’s moved in. Luckily, most business that went out were replaced. Mass Ave is the gay area of town. Statistics show that making your area of the city a little gayer will make it a bit more profitable too. I can’t say I know why one man’s choice to suck another man’s dick helps my city, but it does.

I did not go down Mass Ave though. I went down Michigan. Michigan’s got plenty of cars, but little else. I walked across the streets of the old city, before renovations and cultural trails. There wasn’t much shade from the sun, and my black clothes started to stick on me like they were good company. I started to read Hemingway on my way home. The book bobbed a bit as I walked, and the sun glared heavy on the words. I found it hard to focus, so I got through one of Hemingway’s many short stories about war before I left the book dangling in my left hand. I lagged on past the part of Michigan that intercepted Massachusetts and appreciated that old German theatre, bar and eating establishment on the way. I started in on the part of Michigan where I could still spot the interesting theatres and establishments of Mass Ave. I crossed ways with a man who seemed half interested to talk to me. He was in a hurry to find Ohio, and the best I could tell him of the street was that it was somewhere downtown, in the direction he was headed. I could have led to him to Pennsylvania or New York, even Vermont or Delaware, but not Ohio. He walked on in a hurry.

I kept on my way and found the tavern and store of spirits that seemed perpetual. I had seen that tavern since I was a kid, and I wondered what in the somewhat shabby place kept it from floating topside. Not too far from there was the entrance ramp to I-65, my little conduit to the north of the city. I-65 connected me to my old school and to my old friends too. Most of them lived up north in suburbs lined with houses that stooped at the same low height. Indianapolis stretched out for miles. The blood of the Hoosier city flowed out seamlessly into smaller suburbopolises in all directions. I never liked the name of any of the suburbs. Beach grove never seemed so scenic. Carmel is not a sweet as it sounds. I have never heard of any fast times in Speedway. I’ve never found Zionsville to be a haven. They all have their character, but I never liked the way they masked it behind those names. Every single one sounded more appealing than Indianapolis, more meaningful than Michigan, but I could not think of anything I ever found in those places, beyond a friend’s house.

They were all safer than the stretch I walked. I might have just hated driving to them enough to dislike the places a bit by proxy. Maybe I just never got the hang of their flavor. Perhaps the silence of it never sat well on my tongue. I felt safe serenaded by sirens. I felt energetic, engaged by unfamiliars. I think I just got sick of kids stranded in suburbs insulting my city like they ever knew it. Perhaps that was the snobbery I would bear, being raised in Indianapolis proper.

I walked underneath the overpass and past the entrance ramp that provided my portal to far off lands. The train tracks that came up a bit past the entrance ramp I remembered well. More than a few times, a train derailed my efforts to get somewhere on time. Unless you spotted the long queue of cars and anticipated the train, you could not turn quick enough to find a detour. Even if you did find a detour, the tracks spread for so long that half the time it wasn’t worth the effort. I glanced down the train tracks. They led for so long down such a flat path. I passed an old man with a bushy grey beard and weathered skin. He asked me for the time. I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I lost myself crossing my old tracks. I told him my phone was dead, and I did not know the time myself.

Home wasn’t too far off. I realized that I had held my book open at the spot I left off at. I put the book back in my bag and stretched out the fingers on my left hand. They were sore and stiff from maintaining the same position for so long. It felt good to breathe some fire into each digit. I spotted Arsenal Tech to my left. A lot of kids in the neighborhood chose to go there, though I never heard much good about it. I loved the scenic way it looked behind the black iron rods that fenced the campus in. I saw the trees fan the green grass with their shade. I felt a strong urge to clasp those black rods and pull myself over that fence. Each rod used to have a black spade shaped on the top of it, but rust saw the end to that. I figured I would not risk too much if I climbed the fence and scaled a tree. But I figured that trespassing on a campus I never properly walked on probably wasn’t the best idea and trudged on through the sunlit sidewalk.

Cities always put in pockets of nature that I loved to languish in, whether it was a park or a simple patch of trees next to a road. I picked up tree climbing in my own neighborhood flush with foliage. Scaling a fence then clasping a high branch with your hands and hoisting yourself up into a leafy embrace always felt victorious. I never found anything quite like scaling a massive tree in the middle of an immense city. Once I reached the top and saw the stretch of steel and concrete and splotches of waving green grass, I really felt as though I were in a jungle.

Once I passed Arsenal tech I approached my neighborhood. Woodruff Place was founded as a suburb in the 1800’s for upper class Hoosiers. Now the city enveloped it fully. Woodruff Place was not more than five miles from the heart of the city, and even less of a distance from Mass Ave. Woodruff Place consisted of three drives (West, Middle and East). Each drive had a road that ran a wide oval through it. In the middle of that oval were medians full of tall and old trees. Old and grand two story houses decked each of Woodruff place’s drives. These days Woodruff place was a middle class enclave in the poorer part of the city, just a block away from the predominantly black and predominantly Latin American parts of town. I had to pass west and middle drive before I reached east drive.

I looked back down Michigan. The five miles I walked felt long to me. I wondered how many people walked down those streets and saw some life in these old streets worth remembering. Maybe it just was an old road in the middle of a fairly young city in a region full of aging individuals. Maybe I would go back to DC and realize I made more of it than was ever there to begin with. All I knew was that the thinking made the heat feel less bitter.

~Austin R Ryan