Saturday, April 5, 2014

Third-Person-Ivan Discovers Forgotten America

a picture of Cincinnati, taken from one of her forgotten hills. 

Excerpt from a online conversation (names have been altered):

Me:  Poverty of ambition was never my vice. More of a poverty of work ethic or -to be more specific- the poverty of metamorphosis that would turn my abstract thoughts and internal calculations into actions that effect my outside existence.

Phineas:: You just need someone kicking your ass, like a nagging mother or girlfriend. Someone you can't under-deliver to without jeopardizing your pride. Pride is a fantastic motivator, allowing ambition to conduct into action.

Me: Ivan needs a woman but I'd prefer a special lady lover/friend to moms.

Phineas: Don't even start on 3rd person Ivan. It's just an excuse to punt on taking ownership of the issue. With great talent comes great responsibility. Put your pride on the line and giddy up.



Today marked the end of the two worst days I had on my job so far.

Yesterday, I wrestled with hefty questions of mortality and property damage as the break indicator light up on the dashboard of my work car. As far as the hierarchy of dashboard indicators is concerned, the break indicator could be called the "Big Kahuna"- not easily dismissed even by an mechanical amateur and a driving provocateur like the author here since, well... this light alerts us to a possibility that one might have issues stopping the car. And the laws of physics suggest that if the car doesn't stop on its own accord, some other heavy object will do the trick.  

As my job involves moving civilians from point A to point B, I thought it might be a good idea to alert the office as the risks involved are to the health and life of our clients, the welfare of their company vehicle and that of their trusty employee. Yet when I phoned in my concern, I was told to turn in the car at the end of the day and continue on my merry way to pick up the next passenger, an innocent fella chatting away amiably about new handheld devices from the back seat, unaware of the nervous glances the driver was shooting toward the manual break. 

As the day went on I had to push harder and harder on the peddle, then providence sweetened the deal by making it rain and sending me to steep hills to bring my clients home.

As a new friendly passenger -in the front seat this time- was telling me about his failed boxing career and struggles with bipolar disorder, the lady in the back started sinning, "Go away, rain! Go away ay ay ayyyy!" 

Her voice was decent, she was a free spirit but her output did make the moment surreal and existentially heavy. 

Often my life resembles some indie flick, the scenes where the alienated hero has awkward encounters that highlight his offbeat nature, walks around alone with sad music playing in the background or laughs to himself at some inside joke only he and the audience knows about or has ridiculous arguments with his mother. Usually this is a prelude to having sex with some photogenic hipster girl who works at a dry cleaners or something along those lines. My film is all prelude thus far. Reels of footage building up to an unrealized peak of action. 

Finally the peddle would need to be pressed all the way to the end for the desired effect. The climax of the full stop was elusive, obtained only with great effort and skill. A few times I started to swirl a little to the side of the road so as to change my trajectory from hitting the car in front of me. But my driving skill proved sufficient to avoid any really close calls.

At the end of my shift I found myself in heavy traffic pondering the Buddha's Middle Path approach. The Buddha believed that indulging the body and trying to starve and punish it will both steer the person away from obtaining enlightenment; instead one must use the body as a vessel but not the end in on of itself.

In my case, I wanted to find the middle path of keeping sufficient distance between the car in front of me without creating so much space as to invite an adventurous driver to cut in front of my deficient vehicle and thus undermine the whole enterprise by putting me in a perilous position where I would not have enough space to actually stop the car before it went for a kiss with his bumper.

I guess I did find this path because I got to the company office in one piece; the boss greeted my brief report on the car malfunction with a common Russian curse word.

As Boris came to pick me up I was left in a nervous exhausted state of a person who drove hours in a car that might not have stopped when he wanted it to.

Today as my original vehicle was being repaired I was given a minivan to drive. I first got my driver's licence less than two years ago and only drove a minivan once in my life for about two days when I was emptying my storage unit in Seattle. The Dodge I drove now was not some insurmountable challenge for me but I did struggle to navigate the narrow residential streets of old Cincinnati with its heft and once was led by my GPS device to the wrong house on a hill where I backed into a narrow dead-end driveway and it took me ten minutes to back out of it and another ten to find the right house where I picked up an annoyed client who made passive-aggressive remarks on my driving such as a rhetorical inquiry about where I got my license when I happened to run a red light. I was tired, running behind schedule and surrounded by grey skies that would periodically emit cascades of all-consuming rain.

A new world opened up to me in those two days, a hidden city hiding beneath the neat suburban shell of Cincinnati. 

Like most cities, this one started out on or around hills. Then white flight seeped all the money out of these hills and into the former farm land that now grew rows of cookie cutter houses and subdivisions with pretty names that described nothing.

When I first moved to America, I was close to the old city, we lived on campus of the University of Cincinnati and I went to a junior high where white, native-born Americans were the rarest of minorities, found mostly among the staff. After year and a half, my mother found a job and we moved to an edge of the city and then she bought a house outside of it. My mother's climb on the social ladder took us further and further away from the core of the city until it remained a distant memory.

It is a unique facet of American life that when most middle-class white people say, "I live in city X," the common reality of this arrangement is that they really live on X's suburban periphery, rarely visit X itself and have large parts of city X as a complete no-go area. Thus their life in city X is in a way mythical and symbolic, they claim the place but it remains a distant foreign land to them. An x on the map that points to the center of a gravitational pull that almost never pulls them to its core, instead they circle their hometown like lifeless planets rotating around a dead star.

The city represents the messiness of life: slow-moving buses, abandoned factories, failed lives, billboards for Social Security Disability law firms, crime (petty and otherwise), old houses with garbage bags for curtains, teenagers hanging around street corners when they should be learning algebraic equations in their dingy public schools.

The suburbs represent -in political ads and in the human hearts these ads try to target- an American success story. A piece of your own land, two kids and a friendly retriever, the good old stereotype of a neat lawn serving as a metaphor for a neat, well-ordered protestant life. Suburbs give their residents freedom through isolation. No bus lines connect these clean dwellings to the grim urban reality. These outposts exist in another dimension, a dimension of straight lines in a world defined by curves. One moved from an air conditioned house to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned shopping mall like an astronaut shielded from the life-taking cosmos outside.

As I have noted before on this blog, I have left Cincinnati when I was 18 after spending my first five maladroit years on American soil there. I came back here before and live here now not on account of any special nostalgia but rather because I have now twice failed as an independent adult and have to return to home base before taking another stab at conquering the world beyond.

This relationship means that I never really committed myself to knowing this place nor have I ever proclaimed myself as any sort of a Cincinnati insider. I was an outsider who hardly ever thought about Cincinnati in on of itself at all.

Then again, I was never in a position where for over eight hours a day I would drive around this city as a means of livelihood. And if you ever find yourself in a similar job it is impossible not to think about the town you are crisscrossing for hours. As collapsed as I am in my internal exile, there are times when my vision leaves the inside of my head and glances at its surroundings.

And my surroundings amazed me. Obviously I knew that there are poor neighborhoods and "ghettos" that define the American inner city (especially in Northeast and Midwest), but having an abstract awareness of those places is totally different from looking at them for hours from the window of your car.

Because those places are marginal in the minds of most middle class people who live outside of their borders, it is easy for the mind to equate this marginal status with relatively small size. A few blocks here and there that surface for a few moments on local news in the aftermath of another drive by shooting. They assume a greater size when we think about places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore but that's because those are (or were) huge cities.

For a white college-educated resident of America, I always fancied myself as being more aware and even familiar with that part of America than most people in my social strata. After all, I did go to a black majority school when I first moved to America and when I left home at 18 and moved to Columbus in a midst of my adolescent rebellion (that was completely underwritten by my mother), I did finish the last months of high school in a Columbus public school where I was the only white person in every single one of my classes and the school and don't remember seeing any Caucasians in the halls either.

A Google user writing a review of the school characterized my Alma Mater thusly,
As a former student I must say this was the worst 4 years of my life! As a white minority I would compare this school to a prison. The violence, drugs and racism are the main memories I recall. Everyday was just another day of survival. The teachers have no control or respect from the students and the curriculum is a joke. I graduated from this cesspool having missed 72 days in a year. That should be enough proof that this school is a joke.
Unlike this fella, I've only been there for four months and the only confrontation I had there happened when a skinny kid shorter than I launched a failed and uninspired attempt to have me hand over my money to him when I was standing at a bus stop.

There were plenty of students there who could easily take me but this kid wasn't one of them. Even this attempted robbery had a transnational feel, he came over and said blandly, "empty all your pockets and hand me all your money." This command sounded no more menacing than an answering machine message at an accountant's home. I said that I had no money and he calmly walked away, more of a beggar than a menacing threat.

Again, I don't claim to have any street cred only some basic familiarity with this America. But while in the past I might have been in her schools or lived on the border of her neighborhoods, or glanced at her buildings while riding the bus, now in my new job I confronted the enormity of this forgotten space.

Perhaps I was too self-preoccupied or naive and thought of her in terms of neighborhoods before, huge neighborhoods in huge cities, yes, but still a relatively confined area - as the word "ghetto" seems to imply.

Now my idea of its scope changed and I saw this land in terms of a whole other world, her own universe whose idea of what America means is totally different -if not diametrically opposed- to that of the suburbs.

I never thought of Cincinnati as a conglomerate of steep hills, because the middle classes have left these hills. But now I was driving up and down hills with horrible roads. In some places the roads were literally falling apart on some lanes and pretty much everyone abandoned these lanes because driving on them meant hearing a symphony of pavement pieces being thrown about by your spinning tires.

I saw abandoned industrial spaces that would not look amiss in Detroit. Old ethnic neighborhoods left behind by the descendants of their founding fathers, streets with German names and pretty houses now standing in a state of neglect and irrelevance. Compared with the cookie-cutter suburban streets, this Cincinnati was gushing history and melancholy soulfulness. These old houses never appeared as pixels on the monitor of an enterprising developer, they were built brick by brick by locals who would often see more than one generation of their people live and pass with their confines.

This writer is more suited to describing states of mind and twisted concepts than physical surroundings, so I now stare at my laptop knowing full well that no words of mine will do justice to what I saw. Though this spectacle was sometimes tragic, I didn't see it as some sort of a nightmare. In fact, a part of me wanted to live there. It reminded me of old buildings and struggling villages I saw in passing when I traveled on Russian trains as a child from Moscow to my father's kin in the Ural mountains.

The suburbs were a rejection of this world, a clean antithesis to its old truths. America is a country whose spirit and motto defy fatalism. But this old Cincinnati was all about fatalism and confinement. To many of the elderly people and poor young mothers I ferried to their doctor's appointments places like Seattle or New York were as distant and unattainable as Brussels and Toronto. My passengers were as tied to their surroundings as the grandmothers I saw hanging their laundry to dry outside of their rustic Russian huts.


The thing about third-person-Ivan is that he is always a social voyeur. When a tourist goes to a foreign place all of their social interactions are calculated and unnatural, they don't speak the language or understand the culture, they are out of their element. Through a combination of being an immigrant and my own intrinsic disposition, I always end up playing that foreigner although I know both the language and the culture. In fact, I know two languages and two cultures -those of Russia and America- but by accident of my life, I am a perfect fit to neither one.

Although a superficial glance might make me seem indistinguishable from any other college educated white liberal who watches the Daily Show, the reality is that I almost never watch the Daily Show and feel mildly alienated in the midst of those who do. I was as much of a foreigner in this forgotten America as I was in her upwardly mobile cousin. If you feel at ease in the water, you swim naturally and without thought. But as I don't feel totally at home in any social waters or really with any one person (save the one Seattle girl who hardly talks to me) I am always an observing anthropologist, analyzing and classifying people around me like dead butterflies in a display case.

The Moldovan driver whose passenger I was on my two day job training, regarded his (and now our) clients with dispassionate condescension. "We serve the throwaways of society," he informed me as we pulled into a trailer park to pick up a friendly blind man and his wife.

For him and as -I imagine- for most drivers, their passengers are cargo to be picked up and dropped off. Unlike me, they are not burdened by an abstract festival of empathy, curiosity and sociology that takes place in my head.

But I did feel that these driving duties gave me a new appreciation of America.

While passing through one of the old hilly neighborhoods, I saw a person dressed as a statue of liberty advertising tax services that probably do the same things for a fee that could be accomplished in five minutes for free online-filing taxes.

In the environment of poverty, closed factories and abandoned storefronts this patriotically costumed person almost seemed like a polemical art performance thought up by an abstract artist with a leftist agenda.

I don't bring this up to indite America in any way. Listen reader, life is unfair. And American life is less unfair than that in most of the human world, in comparison to many countries - radically so.

The interesting part about America and her poor, is that -unlike much of the outside world- America doesn't have an ethnic core. A poor Russian and a rich Russian are still united by their "Russianess" they live in a radically different environments but speak in a similar way, often have the same religion, and -not infrequently- share an outlook on the world and their country. Ethnicity is the tie that binds. This explains why many ethnic Russians shed tiers of joy when Crimea was invaded and annexed by Putin. The Kremlin threw a lasso on a Russian island and most Russians there rejoiced at being in its tight grip.

The tie that binds America is not ethnic but ideological. America is the land of the free, home of the brave. The social ladder is supposed to be extended to all the willing to climb to its prosperous peak. Freedom is the credo of this faith, social mobility is the sacred rite.

But those parts of country and the residents of the "forgotten" America don't fit neatly into this ideal. Forget about the road to prosperity, even the road to the store is filled with potholes so large that you could bury a bear cub in them. The store fronts are closed, the houses sometimes look like something out of war-torn Yugoslavia and the jobs are few and often involve a frying pan with a Burger King logo.

There are no sitcoms or movies that star this America. You can glance at it on the news about Detroit or gang wars in Chicago, or see it on some critically acclaimed cable drama, -most frequently- you see it in patronizing liberal documentaries about the evils of Wall Street or the failing public school system.

Democrats scare us with this America when the show closed factories in 30 second ads as a testimony to the failure of Republican economics. Mitt Romney called the people here the 47% who always vote for more government because they are too lazy to work and join his enterprising America.

But for the most part, this land becomes forgotten, peripheral. The middle class has mostly left, and with it departed the attention span of the country.

Even terms like "ghetto" or "inner city" presume a kind of a marginal, alternative universe. A societal black hole -a crack in the pavement- that people know exists but is too dangerous and depressing to explore.

All my prescription for change here are nothing more than banal liberalism- better schools, more money etc. and I will spare you that litany until I run for office.

What can I say?

Seeing this enormous, beautiful and forlorn country surrounded by success, I felt what I often feel- the old ache that makes me want go home to a woman I can love and feel that I have my own warm home in this doomed universe, my own intelligent and loving mammal with whom I could cuddle and fuck that ache away.

Nothing much.

Just third-person Ivan driving around in an old Dodge minivan, looking out the window, seeing things, thinking big, thinking small, waiting for the rain to stop. 


  1. "makes me want go home to a woman I can love and feel that I have my own warm home in this doomed universe, my own intelligent and loving mammal with whom I could cuddle"

    What are you doing to move towards that goal? I urge you not to get so caught up in the drama of the world around you that you forget about your own personal drama.

    Adult independence: 3rd time is a charm. Imagine what you could be capable of changing in the world once you have a handle on yourself! Focus.

  2. Sounds about right. Though it is impossible for me not to get caught up in the drama of the world since I lack the healthy mental instinct of censoring it's unpleasant realities out of my mind stream. Will do my best to have checks and balances though, because the drama in the world creates more drama in the head and my head is already big. Here's to the 3rd time being a charm!