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.

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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