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15 Days: Hauntings

On August 11, I received an email from La Colombe announcing, “pumpkin spice draft latte is back!” At the time, I was sweltering in my 90-degree apartment. My air conditioner had been broken for two months. With two fans pointed at me at all times, and a constant refill of ice cubes and cold drinks, and my windows open, all I could think about was staying cool and hydrated (and the beeping trucks and pounding noises at the construction site directly outside those open windows). The beginning of pumpkin spice latte season was a welcome sign. I imagined autumn sweaters and crisp walks under changing leaves. It was comforting to think that even if the repair delays from my landlord, the HVAC contractors and the air conditioning manufacturer continued, temperatures would eventually drop. Perhaps that is how I somehow managed to write a post about the truth found in poetry that day.

I just finished reading Amy Shearn’s Unseen City. We learn early on that the novel is set during pumpkin spice latte season. Our hero Meg is a Brooklyn librarian. She is secretly tempted by PSL, but maintains her steadfast dedication to her black coffee order. I haven’t been to a coffeeshop since February. I have no idea if my favorite baristas are still employed at my favorite café, but I identify with Meg’s desire to maintain the identity she presents to the near-strangers behind the counter by resisting that sweet seasonal temptation.

I have much more than coffee in common with Meg: a bike is her preferred way to get around the city; she geeks out on maps and urban history; takes pride in knowing how her neighborhood came to be; and she is haunted. Unseen City is a ghost story.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. When I walk streets I know well, stories tied to buildings and houses and shops come alive: memories of past relationships, stories family and friends tell, and scenes from histories and memoirs I’ve read. Most of these stories do not concern dead people, but the moments, feelings, associations are only alive, can only be re-lived through memory. And these memories are strongest when triggered by the physical spaces where they occurred.

Meg is haunted by the ghost of her sister Kate, and for the most part, this haunting is the kind I identify with. Landmarks and mental associations bring Kate to life. Kate comes back to her as well when Meg is alone in her apartment. But the city is changing. The restaurants and shops Kate knew are changing. Meg learns she must move out of the apartment Kate knew. Will the forces of real estate untether Meg and Kate’s connection?

Another ghost is more substantial in Shearn’s narrative. Iris is a nineteenth century Black orphan in Manhattan who is adopted by a family in the free Black enclave of Weeksville. The book takes us back and forth in Brooklyn’s history to show us how the past remains present in the street grid, in buildings, and perhaps in spirits who are just as upset as Meg about having the physical evidence of their lives and memories erased by the forces of urban change.

Meg and Iris’s stories come together when a handsome library patron shows up to search for information about a haunted house his family owns. He is haunted by his own ghosts, as we all are. Sharing these hauntings becomes a way for the two to trust each other.

Unseen City draws parallels between the present and the past, the time of the old ghosts and newer ones. Civil War-era draft riots in which Irish immigrants lynched free Blacks and burned their homes are paralleled by Brooklyn’s racial tensions of the recent past and present-day. New ghosts created to cohabit the city with the ghosts of the past. A 150-year timeline is condensed and layered into a single present-day.

• • •

Wandering and haunting are tied together. Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, an essay on her wandering mind as she meanders the streets of London comes to mind:

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure

When I visit Minneapolis or Philadelphia, it is tempting to drive or walk past all the places that conjure my favorite ghosts — ghosts of old relationships or of friends I rarely hear from. These are living people I could invite out for coffee (and sometimes do). But neither I, nor they are the person who haunts these places. We’ve changed far more than the buildings and streetscape have, so it makes sense that these physical places conjure the ghosts of memory. Much of my writing over the past few years has been inspired by these kinds of memories bound to geography (this is how I wound up owning the URL ). Chapters from my fiction are now as likely to haunt me at certain street corners as events I’ve lived through.

Even here in D.C., hauntings surround me. I’ve written about some of these in this series. U Street, where I now live and write from, contains ghosts of the joy of Obama’s victory in 2008, parades and music festivals, the 1968 uprising, and more. A bus shelter in Mount Pleasant is haunted by Trump’s win. I had walked late into the night contemplating Trump’s win. A friend’s text as I came to that bus shelter finally broke the spell, “what is going to happen? Is it going to be O.K.” she asked? The next morning, I walked to an art residency north of Georgetown. There were frustratingly few signs in the cityscape that helped make sense of the news. The sky refused to stay gloomy. The city went on. But now, that walking route and the hardware store I stopped at along the way are haunted by Trump’s win. What other hauntings will stay with me from the Trump years? Scott Circle filled with signs from the Women’s March. Boarded-up buildings and slow chanting and singing Black Lives Matter marches on my empty and quarantined street night after night.

What ghosts of memories will I carry from November 3? From the next two weeks? This weekend I made some fresh memories, bicycling and walking and talking of a possible small socially distanced backyard Halloween party. Will that backyard’s Halloween ghosts come to me as ghosts of memory in the future?

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68 Days: Exodus

Today I began reading True Grit as the next book in the #APStogether quarantine reading series hosted by A Public Space. At the opening of Charles Portis’ 1968 classic (the basis for Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 film), the narrator’s father has been murdered by a scoundrel and she must tend to the mundane tasks of the next of kin: sign papers and bring them to town, talk to the sheriff and the undertaker, arrange for the body’s return, convince the toughest U.S. Marshal she can find to bring the scoundrel to justice. Her ability to carry out these tasks is slowed because her father had the misfortune to be murdered the day before a triple-hanging at the courthouse. Tourists from three states have flooded the city, and everyone she needs to talk to is at the hanging.

A pattern has appeared this summer reminiscent of that nineteenth century tradition of making a day trip to see and take part in state-sanctioned violence. White men with time on their hands, enough disposable income to fill their basements with high end gas masks, emergency rations, and assault rifles have been grabbing that equipment and driving to neighborhoods like mine hoping they can witness, take part in, accelerate destruction.
A man who fits that description ambushed a Federal security officer in Oakland during the wave of protests following George Floyd’s murder in late May.  
A man who fits that description calmly broke a plate glass window with a hammer while holding an umbrella in the other hand to avoid security cameras (though he was surrounded by phone cameras) during early moments of the uprising in Minneapolis. The building was the first to burn.   
A seventeen-year-old child who fits that description walked around the edges of the Kenosha, Wisconsin uprising two days ago with an assault rifle. Police accepted this as normal and helpful. Soon the child killed two people. The police did not pursue him with deadly force as they did Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot seven times in the back as he left the scene of a domestic dispute on Saturday in Kenosha, as they have with countless Black teenagers and men. The child who killed two adults was apprehended at his comfortable Illinois home the next day. He will be tried for homicide (as an adult) in Wisconsin. No charges have been filed against the police who shot Blake.
These are three examples. There are plenty of others, and an exponentially higher number of followers of these ideas lurk in the dark corners of the internet.

I am wondering if I have let these sad, dangerous men become bigger than life gangs of villains in my mind, or if there are more than I think traveling to big cities in moments of pain to inflame tensions. Umbrella man haunted me for weeks thanks to all my Minnesota friends and a good many others around the country sharing the footage of him. But he is one person. It’s come out that he is part of a white supremacist Hell’s Angels group (another tie to my reading about Hunter S. Thompson’s late 1960s reporting). Each of these men has ties to different militias and white supremacist groups.
I cannot identify with such hatred, with a desire to burn everything down. Surely the number of people who have given up on the project of working together for a common purpose is tiny. A light should be shined on them. We should keep an eye on these extremists, but we should also keep in mind that they are outnumbered.

In the past few days, I have seen posts from a surprising number of my favorite New Yorkers describing the new lives they are embarking on in rural elsewhere. “New York is over,” is a topic being discussed with seriousness. I can’t help but think of the late 1970s era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”  when NYC was bankrupt. This was also the era of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, of the birth of Hip-Hop, of low rent and punk rock and the freedom to experiment. The New York that also included “a paradoxical combination of elitism in aesthetics and an egalitarianism bordering on socialism and utopianism in politics,” according to Edmund White
And here in D.C. too, a dear friend — an impulsive traveler before the pandemic — is leaving town. Three months is her initial plan. But there was an air of permanence to the announcement. I know these are small samples from a few already transient and privileged voices. Heavy social media sharers each, their declarations of self-exile seem much larger for the volume of New York posts that promise to be replaced with rural dispatches. They do not represent the majority any more than umbrella man and his kind do. The metropolis is always changing. The tourists who come to witness its demise will be disappointed by our loyalty to common purpose.