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FIVE HUNDRED AND SIX

“Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale,” by Dan Albergotti (via Matthew Ogle’s incredible newsletter, Pome). Somehow exactly right for this particular moment.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

FIVE HUNDRED AND FIVE

From Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu.

The folding city was divided into three spaces. One side of the earth was First Space, population five million. Their allotted time lasted from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock the next morning. Then the space went to sleep, and the earth flipped.

The other side was shared by Second Space and Third Space. Twenty–five million people lived in Second Space, and their allotted time lasted from six o’clock on that second day to ten o’clock at night. Fifty million people lived in Third Space, allotted the time from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning, at which point First Space returned. Time had been carefully divided and parceled out to separate the populations: Five million enjoyed the use of twenty–four hours, and seventy–five million enjoyed the next twenty–four hours.

The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight. To remedy the imbalance, the earth was made thicker in First Space, and extra ballast buried in the soil to make up for the missing people and buildings. The residents of First Space considered the extra soil a natural emblem of their possession of a richer, deeper heritage.

Lao Dao had lived in Third Space since birth. He understood very well the reality of his situation, even without Peng Li pointing it out. He was a waste worker; he had processed trash for twenty–eight years, and would do so for the foreseeable future. He had not found the meaning of his existence or the ultimate refuge of cynicism; instead, he continued to hold onto the humble place assigned to him in life.

Lao Dao had been born in Beijing. His father was also a waste worker. His father told him that when Lao Dao was born, his father had just gotten his job, and the family had celebrated for three whole days. His father had been a construction worker, one of millions of other construction workers who had come to Beijing from all over China in search of work. His father and others like him had built this folding city. District by district, they had transformed the old city. Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they had chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand new world. They had swung their hammers and wielded their adzes, keeping their heads down; brick by brick, they had walled themselves off until they could no longer see the sky. Dust had obscured their views, and they had not known the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the completed building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror, as though they had given birth to a monster. But after they calmed down, they realized what an honor it would be to live in such a city in the future, and so they had continued to toil diligently and docilely, to meekly seek out any opportunity to remain in the city. It was said that when the folding city was completed, more than eighty million construction workers had wanted to stay. Ultimately, no more than twenty million were allowed to settle.

….

Twenty million waste workers lived in Third Space; they were the masters of the night. The other thirty million made a living by selling clothes, food, fuel, or insurance, but most people understood that the waste workers were the backbone of Third Space’s prosperity. Each time he strolled through the neon–bedecked night streets, Lao Dao thought he was walking under rainbows made of food scraps. He couldn’t talk about this feeling with others. The younger generation looked down on the profession of the waste worker. They tried to show off on the dance floors of nightclubs, hoping to find jobs as DJs or dancers. Even working at a clothing store seemed a better choice: their fingers would be touching thin fabric instead of scrabbling through rotting garbage for plastic or metal. The young were no longer so terrified about survival; they cared far more about appearances.

Lao Dao didn’t despise his work. But when he had gone to Second Space, he had been terrified of being despised.

FIVE HUNDRED AND FOUR

From “My Failed Attempts to Hoard Anything at All” by David Sedaris in the New Yorker.

I remembered him during the oil crisis of 1973, heading to the Shell station with empty cans and getting in line at 4 a.m. All our cars had full tanks, but he needed the next guy’s ration, as well. I didn’t even drive, but, still, he taught me how to siphon. I remember the shock of a mouthful of gasoline, spitting it onto the street and thinking, Someone could have used that.

FIVE HUNDRED AND THREE

From Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, which I read this week and loved.

“For my friend Fong,” he says, and begins singing John Denver. If you didn’t know it already, now you do: old dudes from rural Taiwan are comfortable with their karaoke and when they do karaoke for some reason they love no one like they love John Denver. Maybe it’s the dream of the open highway. The romantic myth of the West. A reminder that these funny little Orientals have actually been Americans longer than you have. Know something about this country that you haven’t yet figured out. If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.

FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY NINE

From Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.

The demand is simple: no one gets to speak the name of my city without first knowing it as I have. The interior of the land is always layered. Yes, sometimes with blood, but sometimes with bodies marching, with bodies moving, with bodies flooded into the streets chanting or dancing at the roller rink.

[…..]

The great mission of any art that revolves around place is the mission of honesty. So many of us lean into romantics when we write of whatever place we crawled out of, perhaps because we feel like we owe it something, even when it has taken more from us than we’ve taken from it. The mission of honesty becomes a bit cloudy when we decide to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own.