I live surrounded by retirees in rural Oklahoma. They are spry. They own arsenals of gardening equipment: lawnmower-tractor hybrids that grind through the fibrous local flora with cruel efficiency; they wield wicked contraptions, whirling motorized blades that allow withered men to sculpt hedges into forms of sublime and delectable complexity.
The Grand Hotel.
(photo by A.Fisher)
Before I moved to the diplomatic enclave, I lived in one of Asia’s grand hotels, a Raffles for the Subcontinent, a once-glamorous old thing that had been gutted by a multi-national and outfitted with “hospital grade” redundant air-conditioning and “hardened against bomb-blasts.” Expansions had been undertaken; they pried its dome open and fattened its backside; but the original façade remained intact, a toothsome grill of reassuring colonnades and gentle spires. Luyten’s Delhi, reinterpreted by an Indian in the 1950s. From far off, the detail blurred, and the Hotel looked like an egg; but not an edible egg, one streaked with afterbirth slime and beginning to go bad.
Nestled in the city’s south were other grand hotels, a cluster of them, flaming beacons on Delhi’s drab night sky; each an enclosed city, a Vatican, with its own water supply and telecommunications and police force and food supplies trucked in. Life within the hotels took place elsewhere, away from the seething sunlight and hordes of sickening poor. If the capital at night were untethered from the earth then these incandescent orbs were space stations. If the capital at night were a cavern then these few chips of light were gemstones; a long finger of semi-precious aggregate ending in blazing jewel.
Eelco and the Aggregate.
Eelco was a Dutch diplomat’s son who would grow to manage oil refineries all over the world. Then he was a thuggish blond child. Shorter than I. For thrift’s sake neither of us wanted to spring for a cab. So I followed him up a bridge toward South Delhi. From the ground this seemed benign, a mild ascent over the Yamuna, a line of Y shaped pylons splitting the stream of traffic in two. We walked on the island beneath the lamps. From one orange dumbbell of light to the next. The walk was comfortable at first, moist river air condensing on our cheeks, the traffic howling past a few meters away, but then the pavement petered out, until there was nothing left of the island, just bare asphalt littered with tire scraps, and we scurried from pole to pole, trucks rushing past, roiling the air in their wake. At the apex, Eelco grabbed my cuff. He pointed at the city. Clean nuggets of halogen burned above naps of dingy orange arc-sodium, incandescent veins that sliced through the dark vegetal substrate of the enclaves. He was pointing at Hotels. From where we stood the hotels were aligned, a rhinestone garter that wound through the city.
The bridge dipped we as entered the sector, the traffic forming two long sine-waves, one red, one white. The hotels vanished beneath billboard armatures and matrices of crisscrossing tree limbs. The fecal fug of the riverbanks welled up; the city smoke became increasingly acrid the further we walked in. Gradually the pedestrian route cleaved away from the bridge. Our pathway bent from the road into empty space; and the traffic rushed elsewhere. Suspended, with no support visible, the walkway wobbled beneath our soles. The sky was suddenly filled with sparks that curled around us and soared up into the sky on thermals. My eyes teared; woodsmoke, kerosene, burning plastics filled the air; it became harder to breathe. Pits of garbage burned below us. Gullies of it glowing like flowing magma. A tamer, electronic glow hung before us. We hurried toward it. A purple-tinted flourescent dome lit a series of concrete steps descending down into a mesh cage. We swatted at a swarm of dry little flying bugs inhabiting its airspace.
No- I said. Eelco grabbed my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t dare object. The structure shook with each footfall. Below us, the blunt shapes of impovised dwellings became visible. Faint voices called out from the semi-dark. Peels of amplified music leaked from far away speakers. My body became acutely aware of its volume within space. My skin extra sensitive. The guardrail felt cool in my palm, reassuringly Western, the air was thick and strange. We touched ground. It was soft and sucjed at my shoe.
The stairs led into a slum. The roofs were lower than we were tall. The roofline a plane of crooked slats. Cooking fires glowed from doorways. Cigarettes. Flickers of black and white television. Drains gurgled. Makeshift huts linked with looping wire, all open to the elements. The air was disturbed with minute sounds, massed sighing; around us, lying on mats, beside the road, beside the shacks, feet poked from bedrolls, sleepers. I worried about dogs but said nothing. Pint bottles glinted. Long sticks were tucked beside them. Some snored. Chests rose and fell. Some shifted or farted or scratched. A figure stood from his blankets, and wobbled toward us with stiff steps. He stopped before an open drain and urinated hard. We hurried past. Crescents of light flashed off circular lenses and the arc of his piss.
We climbed from the trench. Up another set of concrete stairs. The slums were in a long gulley; fed from garbage from the hotels, which rose suddenly up from the trees as we climbed out. The Egg towered above us, floodlights illuminating its soft pink shell, which was ruined by ductwork and antennae and ramps I had never seen before: the rear-end. The service entrance. We circled around, and walked in, unremarked upon through the lobby and into the hotel proper. We took a lift. Eelco punched in a floor number. The four walls were mirrored. Even the panel. We stood beside each other, silent, as the lift ticked upwards toward the penthouse floor and our faces reflected into infinity. Eelco took me down a lushly carpeted corridor, past all the rooms. At the end of the corridor was a glass square with a small chrome hammer dangling beside it on a flimsy chain: a fire alarm.
Eelco seized the hammer and yankedt off before I could object. He pushed the door open into a stairwell and we raced down, me a pace behind him, taking two steps at a time. No one followed, so we kept going down, more slowly, down crisp clean stairs the color of eggshell, heading down toward a soft vibration, that grew louder and louder the deeper we went down. The door to the outside was locked tight. We walked up a few floors and pushed our way into a dark space crammed with hulking cubes lined in formation; we had stumbled across a conspiracy, these were war machines. Housekeeping carts–said Eelco, lifting the skirt and removing a handful of miniature shampoo bottles. We poured out some of the white goo onto the floor and then searched the room for more. The most interesting feature was another panel, this on the size of a small door, set against an interior wall. Together, we pulled it open. Inside were thick cables, black rubber the size of a small tree trunk, one had split open, revealing a nest of translucent fiber, sparking. I held my hand against the optics and let beams of information pulse against my translucent skin.
A friend lived on the outskirts of the city. A young Canadian. His property abutted a construction site. A metropolitan development authority. The site was concealed from the public. Corrugated iron fencing set up around it, blocking the view and keeping trespassers from squatting and pilfering supplies. Every hundred meters was an architectural rendering, a ziggurat of modest housing, manufacturing, and fulsome entertainment. Close-ups were inset in each drawing, all of nuclear families, Caucasoid-featured but tinted brown and smiling, clutching shopping bags and briefcases and climbing into sleek but economical cars. The illustrations were dated, drawn in a style reminiscent of science fiction paperbacks of a certain vintage. A faint disco beat broadcast via crosshatched haircut pouf. Beneath were the emblems of a dozen international organizations. The complex was silent. The multinational master plan was abandoned before dredging could be completed. We pried at a seam in the fencing. Eventually it gave. We crawled through the gap, blinking, dazzled by the sudden exposure of the low afternoon sun. Beyond was an ochre landscape, a dried mud crust fractured by dank gullies of clay. An electrical schematic writ in mud and evaporated water. Some channels were deeper than others. We entered the network at knee-level and were soon below the surface. The deeper the channel, the denser and damper the fug hanging over it. In the deepest we found pipes. Hard white veins running through the ruddy clay. We thought we found liquid glinting within, but it was hard and white and tufted, like asbestos, but closer inspection revealed the brittle white clumps were actually fiber optics. The cable was dark. I grabbed a tuft and angled it toward the drying sun and light seeped through the labyrinth.
Insurrection in Produce! Cabbages leap crispers. Tumble from trays. Roll down aisles. Exit into the chill beyond. Climb planters, burrow roots, sprout, fiercely blossom; then whither, rot and shrivel back into tight black fists to still menace the store.
A brown flicker by the lights. A nest gnawed through worn acoustic paneling. One, then two birds alight on twin fluorescent bars suspended far above Food Dimensions’ supermarket floor. Below, swaying, pitching, rolling and yawing, tile gullies gone grey-yellow from grubby footfalls and spills, extend, extend!; between cliff walls of chipped enamel bulge edible geometries of blue, yellow, faun and beige.
The birds curl thread claws over the edge, dip, fall, plunge and propel themselves upward, two dark darts swoop among the cans, seize soft grubs of masticated grain, grip and tug pieces from under suffocating see-through skin; and leave behind feathers and traces of beak.
An underworld undergirds this marketplace, or rather, under grids it, radiating aisles outward. From sufficient altitude, from an avian perspective, one would hardly see much difference. A triangle bisected and striated by lines of black asphalt instead of a brittle white metal that is something close but far cheaper than steel. And closer still the asphalt flows and gleams at intervals with pressed steel shells, egg shells, cradling combusting liquids in a cast-iron crucible. To the automobile and its driver – when in the condition of being a driver – the city is rendered as necropolis, a tomb world of clipped decisions, direction, distances and long-dead Dutchmen who have moldered past the point of matter, and all that remains are names. Onderdonk.
And it goes on and on in this vein…
A compelling takeaway I didn’t include in my post about Richard Nash‘s speech was his emphasis on how writers crave community. This was his lead into a demand-based publishing model, and had a queasy resonance for me. I applied to graduate school for this reason — I wanted to find other writers and gather a group of people together whom I could snipe and gossip about writing with. But this was an error. I don’t think it’s what I nor anyone else needs as an “artist.”
Community is a distraction, one concealing the hierarchies of a dying industry and glomming up the cozy entry-level inefficiencies that once made it possible to make a living as a freelance writer or hack journalist. Community is comfortable, but ultimately inimical to individual achievement. In the nebulous non-being between becoming amateur and professional one is encouraged to wallow in the same ideas as one’s peers, and a close-knit community becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber of status, etc. The only people accelerated and empowered by such an environment are sociopaths — at least at the level I’m at.
The game changes once you’ve built something worth protecting, which is why [visual] artist colonies (grouped studios, shared leases etc.) and arguably the upper-tiers of the art school swindle function so well — they generate income and reduce inefficiencies — but there is no artistic benefit. And, until every individual component of an artistic community is capable of producing income, community is just another parasite drooping off the withering flanks of postpostindustrial cultural production.