Becoming American

For a long time most of my American experiences came in airports. Usually the international terminal at LAX, Tom Bradley, not widely considered among the world’s best. From this terminal, while JAL flights boarded for Tokyo and Indian families carried burdens large enough to share, I called grandparents, texted friends, and read magazine covers. These scant hours in America came on the tail end of business trips that had been filled with work and dinners, friends and traffic, but lacking in any sense of connection to the grander America. Perusing the kind of airport shops that in the tri-state area are called Hudson News, I read of television stars I did not know and movie releases I would later buy on Shanghai street corners for a dollar. I bought bubble gum and the Economist, and the people I reached on my soon-to-expire T-Mobile prepaid SIM seemed glad of the brief connections. Those conversations mostly centered on my impending leap, back out of the walls of the US, to a life difficult to recount while being constantly reminded to keep an eye on my luggage by pre-recorded voices.

In the past few years, again a resident of my home country, I have, I usually say, become more American, which is partially true. Some days the gulf has seemed huge, between what America looks like from a distance and what it can be in the day to day, both for better and worse. I have been back more than two years now and still the time away looms large in all recounting, in most introductions. People ask about China and Japan, though my life there, at seven years remove, is far further back than any moment of their own that enters the conversation. Without reason we do not discuss Houston, my home in ‘08 and ‘09. I wear my O’bama tee, sarcastically Irish, and try to recall that sense of possibility and elation, riding my BMX from West University to Midtown to call prospective voters in Missouri, in Virginia.

Until this week I have not felt truly at home here, in San Francisco, in America. I have wandered, watched, and written, I have driven much of this country and flown to far more, and I have made friends in Texas, in Colorado, in California and Oregon, but I have not been here, not fully.

The change is a series of anchors, tying me down, a series of possibilities, urging me on. I now have health care and an automobile, a purchase I forswore at twenty two. I have a loan, for the first time since university, and a commute, for the first time ever. After two years in my own country I have a job, which requires the above and promises to teach me things I do not know, to take me places I have not yet been.

Shaving in the early morning light on Wednesday, the newness of it becoming habit, I smile at the reflection, this person who lives in San Francisco, who works in Petaluma.

After all these years I have finally come home to a place I had never lived.

Still standing

On the corner of Irving and 16th there is an old service station. It stands alone, a tiny garage with car park area in front. At first glance it looks intact, as though the owners have simply stepped out for lunch, having no cars to work on. The fencing that surrounds the lot makes the truth clear. The brick facade is cracking in places, and the pavement is uneven. In one corner the hole for an underground tank is visible, and behind the station there is a stand-alone garage, part of a more recent expansion, likewise fenced off and abandoned. Lubrication, the back building offers, in letters more than a foot high. But this second structure is not the point, it holds no sentimental value, a simple concrete structure. It is the front building, smaller and older, with windows cracked and dirty, that calls to curious passers-by.

Why has it not been refurbished, they wonder, on this street of continual repurposing?

Is it a Super Fund site, home to toxic chemicals leaking from an old underground tank that any new owner would have to first remove?

Is it simply the property of a mechanic in his later years, far too old to crank up a car and have a look beneath, but not yet dead?

There is no way to tell without searching out the deed, without making a study of this small property gone quiet on a busy street.

This is the legacy of America, this tiny garage and others like it, old schools on Long Island and hospitals upstate. These are the history of a country born late and with so much space. In some countries the repurposing is faster, and giant drive-ins do not sit empty for years, their screens slowly rotting in the shifting weather, accompanied by cars no longer used by young couples. America’s history is one of left behind creations, of still standing attempts at greatness, and quickly forgotten industries. In a place so focused on the future and the new, where reclamation is a civic project rather than a necessity, things no longer needed simply stand empty. In the desert outside of Phoenix hundreds of airplanes sit waiting, just in case, their bodies wrapped in plastic against the heat.

This is a result of youth, but also of time. America has no structures built by small towns over centuries, it has no grand cathedrals that bankrupted kings. Instead, like many places, it has the mansions of the very rich who built until they died and left no heir, whose fortresses and castles became museums after long periods of abandonment. Boldt castle on Hart Island in the St. Lawrence lay empty and incomplete for seventy three years before restoration began, with the aim not of completion, but of returning to the moment of abandonment. All across America these monuments stand, tales not of grandeur and history as much as of waste and desire.  They are not unique to this country, but in a land of such sprawling youth I can not but be amazed at what we have built and left behind.

This is America, and our history is short, filled with dreams and old achievements cast aside and forgotten, yet still visible.

Walking by the little service station on the corner of 16th and Irving I remember all those others, likewise waiting for the weather and the graffiti artists.