An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom
But cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible. […] Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.
Years ago, on a road trip across America that maybe I’ll write about at some point, my friend Eli and I pulled into San Francisco in our oversized 1985 Ford van (complete with a bedframe built into the back – it was the classic, Kerouac-inspired trip). It was my first time visiting the city, and the first few hours were spent viewing it from the passenger side window as we drove around and around in ever-widening circles, looking for a place to park.
In the end we found a streetside space in the dilapidated slums south of Market. (For those with some knowledge of the city, I believe it was on 6th Street, and well below Mission.) It did not look like the best of neighborhoods, and my unease was only increased when, stepping out of the van, a man idling against a nearby building suggested we give him five (or was it ten?) dollars to “watch our car.”
Walking north in (what we hoped was) the direction of Union Square, we passed through what I can only describe as a gauntlet of street people. Time paints our memory in exaggerated strokes (and perhaps what I think of as truth is only a nightmare of history) but what I remember is rows and rows of entreating faces and endless hands – hands thrusting, demanding, pleading; hands shaking in anger or like they were strung out on drugs or in remission; hands grasping at shirts and coat pockets. This sounds unbelievable, and it was: a scene more surreal (precisely because it was real) than any Dali painting.
Finally a few twists and turns (and occasional missteps and retracings) brought us out above Market, and it was indeed like two different worlds, like Market was the river Styx circumscribing the boundary between the underworld (or the underclass) and the world above, or, more accurately, like the river Lethe, river of forgetfulness which, according to certain old maps, lay close by Elysium and separated those paradisal fields from Asphodel or Tartarus.
Because Union Square was like some strange consumer paradise, with Macy’s (the flagship store) a sort of anchoring cathedral luring the world’s high-class shoppers to the alter of consumption. Stepping inside (I think Eli needed a pair of shoes), the contrast from what we’d experienced “below Market” could not have been more extreme. A giant, glowing atrium soared above us, intersected by concentric rings of rising floors from which enlightened shoppers looked down on those who’d not yet risen, and music wafted down from a string quartet or a jazz band playing (live) on some higher floor. It felt (and looked) like the Guggenheim museum, and what with the music and the bustle and the chattering crowds I half felt as if I’d stumbled into a private party or the opening gala for a new exhibition. I kept waiting for a waiter to pop round with a tray full of crudités.
And along with the murmuring mantra of “buy, buy, buy” floated a whisper, faint as a will-o’-wisp or a lullaby, of “forget, forget, forget”: Forget the grit and the grime of the outer city, which if you’re lucky you whisked by with only a glimpse from a taxi window, but even if you walked this was only a trial you must pass, all is forgotten, that world is behind you now, like a bad dream, here you are safe, surrounded by smiling faces, faces asking for nothing save to help you find the perfect dress, in the perfect size, or a coordinated accessory, perhaps a belt, a pair of shoes, some Estée Lauder?
And I said to Eli, this feels like science fiction! The only step left is to create a system of hovercrafts or heliopads from which to whisk the consumer class from one playground to another above the clamor of the unwashed masses, to make these two worlds (already splitting) divide definitively, into an aerial fairyland and an “invisible” under-city.
I even thought of writing some sort of story about it. But reading this article on “The Dark Side of Dubai” (this whole post is just a long-winded reading recommendation and a link), I realized what I’d thought of as fodder for my fiction is (horrifyingly) a vision of reality.