April 16, 2014

Mad people across the water, part 4

“We’ll get that sorted f’ya, luv,” the neck-tattooed hotel receptionist tells me as he hands me a city map that dates back to 2001, and it hits me that I haven’t been on this island in seven years. Before Birmingham for conference, there had been Edinburgh for graduation, and Bristol for business, and London for pleasure.


It takes all I have not to say,


“Have you ever read Redburn by Herman Melville? A young American sailor explores Liverpool using his father’s old guidebook from fifty years earlier in that novel. Or the documentary series Great Continental Railway Journeys, where the 1913 Continental Railway Guide is used to retrace what is left of the Edwardian perception of Europe a hundred years later?”


I shut up and ponder this apparent Anglo-Saxon fascination with belated maps on my own. Portillo and Melville are not even remotely similar, after all, and The Cube and The Mailbox would find me later through unmapped routes anyway. The receptionist would not have that sorted for me, luv, but my room would be cleaned despite my saying no housekeeping please. Some nations can afford not to be up to speed with the world, I guess.


Blessed Britain, where, thanks to a rampant regal Y-chromosome from five hundred years ago, women can today be ordained as priests.


Where a conference colleague can talk about his husband with the exact same pride I have when I brag that “my boy reads Pynchon.”


Where club managers look like Del Boy and the drunks are waited on by ambulances scattered on Broad Street Gomorrah like watchful birds, without even being summoned. I tried to imagine what that cost in comparison to this and this. But hey, at least the drunks came in all shapes and sizes. “Birmingham is very diverse,” my Pakistani cab driver would tell me on the 4-a.m. ride to the airport.


Victoria was elusive that night. She was supposed to be a beacon towards a far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, but she kept disappearing up and down Broad Street, as if somehow weightless in her stony majesty, and I would see The Floozie in the Jacuzzi* sooner than Victoria. When we finally found her, she did not care. I thought about how magnanimity comes from leisure, and freedom from oppression, where your dirty work is done for you and you have the luxury of drop-kicking your shameful to the other side of the globe. Blessed Britain.


I found shelter in the far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, after leaving the cliques and neuroses of fellow humanities’ freaks at the hotel along with my heels. I encountered a vernacular soul who had read “that terrible book” Moby-Dick twice, and made me laugh more than any of the two hundred fellow neurotics earlier. I was told that my favorite Edinburgh pub, The Blind Poet, was still standing, and I could feel it pulling at my heartstrings from seven years ago and five hours up north. I remembered that you hail a bus in the UK and say “Thank you” to the driver, I remembered how you tip over there, I remembered to look right then left, and how much I dislike ‘circuses.’ I found the Cube, the Mailbox, and the geese in the canals. I found rowdy Jamaicans in the Peace Garden, and cathedral spires craning their necks like sunflowers growing from glass and steel.


“God bless you, my sweetheart,” my cab driver would say as I left. We will have talked about qawwali and Sufism and Nusrat, and curry and cab drivers’ working hours, and the children that Britain had taken possession of and misplaced over the centuries, that were now identifying the mother ship by her wake and claiming her back.


I found my breath in displacement once more.


I realized, once again, how much I feed off my dissociation.


It had been too long.


I returned to a freshly painted apartment with no doors, to a country which has a constitutional ban on gay marriage yet has just approved two people to officially change the gender in their documents without undergoing a sex change operation. I returned to a plastic recycling plant aflame half a mile from where I live and a toxic cloud of DeLilloesque proportions. Mine is a wicked and cruel lot sometimes, and more often than not I wish a cosmic flood could wash them clean again.


I returned to find my bird on its last legs. I genuinely thought I would lose him in a matter of hours. He’s never going to recover, but he has picked himself up since I came back. My fantastic veterinarian sister reminded me that parakeets are sensitive buggers who sometimes pluck all their feathers out in protest if their owners go AWOL. Flattering as it is to think he might have just gone sicker missing me, and there’s precious few things I value more in this world than animal loyalty, my bird is a loner and I love him for it. He might be dying but he will bite your finger off if you touch him. In the face of human desperation for someone to just keep us safe and warm and hold our hand as we leave this world, I am stunned by the dignity of animals who prefer to die alone, dissociated enough to return to the very same nature that bore them.
My other "Mad people across the water" writing can be found here:
* I am told that Dubliners' own Floozie, or Biddy in the Bidet, or the Whore of the Sewer, predates Birmingham's: Anna Livia Plurabelle.


  1. I've been missing you. Missing everything. Reading your writing makes me miss mine all the more. Words and meaning aside, the cadence reminds me of soul. Dissociation has been the only place I've traveled for months. Picking my own feathers. Telling those who'd have loved me forever to forget about me. Go live his life. The seizures I've had for weeks, for unknown reasons, have finally stopped on the right medication, but they have stolen more from me than I will ever get back. I cannot write. I cannot think. I can only remember the feeling of first meeting Queequeg that one time so long ago, the strangeness of becoming buried in the dignity of whaling when I had the neurons to hold it. Now, I fear words. I fear the stutter in my speech. I'd be terrified to wander far enough to weigh the Pakistani driver's countenance and know from the look in his eye whether he is shia or sunni, whether he's hiding it for fear, whether he trusts that anything labeled halal is truly so, or whether he'd never risk it. I suppose I could try to let my feathers grow back. I suppose I could crack the cover of a Siddhartha for the 40th time and put myself back together. Maybe I should go back to Dr. Seuss and lay under the giving tree and wait for the self inside myself to reboot. Being stupid is a scary place to be. Reading you reminds me that the world is so big. And my mind is so small. And he would have loved me anyway. But I just couldn't let him. Away with me.

    1. The driver was a born-and-bred Birminghamer, i.e. well-equipped for negotiating identities as it suited him - a rare privilege of the Other nested in the matrix of the beast. He was a good soul, his eyes told me in the rear-view mirror.

      I only learned of the giving tree over riesling in Heidelberg a year ago, and tipsy though I was, decided it was bullshit. The big world taunts me with how small and traversable and communicable it is, yet out of reach. It is insulting how little I need to breathe sometimes, how little it takes to find my authentic voice, and how impossible it is to find it where I am, guilt-trip included. This one had to be spewed out as soon as I got back lest it should be forgotten. Have you read "Billy Budd?" Stuttering and murder and capital punishment, its popular prostitution lately notwithstanding, the psychology of it is brutal. Fucking cruel.

      I keep telling myself, something's got to give. Something's got to give. It simply has to.

      This might be the softest, most lyrical that I've ever read you. I have been worried, and thinking about you. Even if it's just nuggets like these, you know where to find me.


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