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.
“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.
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.
While the U.S.S.R. eventually won the space race in 1961 by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit, the Americans stole the show again on July 16, 1969, when NASA launched a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida. Four days and nearly 240,000 miles later, the three-man crew of Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong arrived at their destination. Collins piloted the command module Columbia as Aldrin and Armstrong descended toward the moon’s surface inside the lunar module named after the national bird of the United States: the Eagle.
Armstrong’s heart rate jumped from 77 bpm to 156 bpm as Aldrin called out the altitude readings: “750 feet, coming down at 23 degrees . . . 700 feet, 21 down . . . 400 feet, down at 9.” When they finally touched down, Armstrong quietly said, “Houston. Tranquility Base here. Eagle has landed.”
The dusky seaside sparrow was still stuck back down on Earth. In fact, in that same year, one biologist observed that only thirty singing male dusky seaside sparrows remained on Merritt Island. The scientific community had been sounding the alarm about the disappearance of the dusky for years, but there was little concern shown beyond the small circle of ornithologists studying Florida’s Atlantic coast. The average sparrow is about as large as a human heart, though not nearly as important to the survival of actual humans. Perhaps the greatest thing the dusky seaside sparrow had working against it was that it was not as glorious or impressive as other species. It was no bald eagle. It was no heart. It was no moon.