When I Leave San Francisco

By Elizabeth C. Creely

When I leave the city of San Francisco, the sounds and the noise do not come with me. Sometimes this feels like a minor miracle. On a BART train, bound for West Oakland the other day, I looked back at the city backlit by fog and considered the rectangular buildings and the silly triangle of TransAmerica building and thought of all the tumult in it. It’s hard to believe I live in anything that has so many people talking and so many dogs barking and MUNI trains rumbling and babies crying all at the same time.

My neighborhood in the Mission is a noisy place: By day, it’s a teeming habitat of police sirens, car tires squealing, people talking on cell phones all day and all night.

A woman walked by my apartment the other day, talking into her cell phone. A whole string of dialogue had unspooled before I heard a word, but the pitch of her voice preceded her. I finally heard her say, “I’m still struggling.” The word “still” hung behind her, fixed in the aether as a high singing note of stress and uncertainty as she walked on down the street, still talking.

At night, the monologues and dialogues of my 3 am dream will sometimes get overtaken by my neighbor’s love of electronic dance music. From across the street, the music pulses and I come to consciousness, snatched out of sleep, my dreaming mind taken from me. A great stationary force settles down in the street between her apartment and mine as I lay pinned to my bed by the driving beat of the bass, almost felt more than heard.

The difference between sound and noise is movement, I sometimes think. A siren wailing down 22nd street in the middle of the night moves one place to another in great haste. The sound of the siren, a sound that filled me with tense dread when I was a kid–That wailing sound! Unearthly!–goes away.

Noise entraps, takes prisoners: My mother, who has an almost autistic sensitivity to loud discordant noise, was once almost driven to tears by a VW Bug that pulled alongside us at a red light on Jamboree Road in Newport Beach.  A group of teenagers were inside the car. They were blasting Led Zepplin at top volume from their car stereo.

My mother’s whole face changed; she winced and her lips pulled away from her teeth. She quickly rolled up the window. She was in some sort of pain, and so was I: The noise was sudden, and its impact was profound. It was like being assaulted. The blankness on the faces of the beautiful blond teenagers in the next car frightened me too. They appeared to feel nothing, letting the music speak (or shriek) for them. The noise created defensive space, the way that an angry dog does. But what were they defending? Or were they on the hunt?

My mother’s reaction frightened me; it confirmed what I thought was happening was happening. We had both been speaking and listening, at the same time, to the same assemblage of sounds:  screeching seagulls, confirming the approach to the sea and our own voices conspiratorial and hushed speaking about our errands, what we were out in the world to do that day, and why. And then the music of the birds and our voices were blanked out with a terrifying force: Noise stormed in and overtook the diversity of the aural environment. Robert Plant’s screams filled the air, and I couldn’t hear anything else, couldn’t remember the sound of the birds or the words of the conversation I’d been having with my mother moments before.

(Seven year later I was on a school bus when I heard that the drummer for Led Zepplin had died.

“John Bonham died,” called out a boy in the back of the bus.

“Good,” I snapped.  “I hate Led Zepplin.”)

Sound often involves other sound: It exists because of and with other sounds. Acorn woodpeckers, known for their high level of social and communal interaction, call to other acorn woodpeckers throughout their busy day. They sound like this: Waka waka waka. Bang, bang, bang. This is how they sound greeting each other and storing their nuts. When they need to alert each other to important happenings–a squirrel advancing on their store of nuts–the call goes out. Waka! Waka! Waka! The calls and the tapping of woodpeckers in a richly diverse aural landscape can be heard for miles. But bring in one thing–a chainsaw, an iPod, anything mechanized that disturbs and redistributes the sound molecules in the medium of air–and suddenly everything changes. Nothing can compete with mechanized noise.  Not the woodpeckers, certainly. They cannot hear each other, cannot communicate.

Noise is a monoculture. It colonizes, overtakes, dominates, and invades. Sound is communicative and thus, if not reciprocal, then at least mutual. Noise is resolutely neither of those things.

In the city, I have often seen several red tail hawks circling in the sky. These are probably adults teaching their young to fly. They are calling to each other, I know, and if I were anywhere but 22nd Street I would hear them.  I usually don’t.

On the train that day I left the city, I thought about how the week had been. My neighborhood had mostly been quieter than usual. Most sounds had been transient, and had passed easily through my consciousness. But this will change. Sound and noise: aural phenomena that create a sort of intangible commons where people and their preferences bump and jostle against each other. Our own sound-scapes–the noises and sounds we make and prefer to hear–are being challenged as the city continues to take more people in.

I watched the sweep of the South Bay open up and then vanish in the distance while the sound of BART–metal wheels that scream and gnash against the rails–silenced everyone on the train.  It didn’t bother me. I’d knew I’d leave the train and the noise would stop. And when I returned to the city of San Francisco, the sound and the noise would greet me, enveloping me in its large body, and usher me home.

Elizabeth C. Creely is a staff contributor for Paper Tape. She received an MFA from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has been published in The New Hibernia Review, the Dogwood Journal, and The Mississippi Review. Her essays have also appeared in three anthologies: Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography, New California Writing 2013, and Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from the New Hibernia Review. She blogs at Dinnshenchas and lives in San Francisco with her husband.

This Word Is Earth

By Harmony Button

Begin with a definition: we know where to go.

We become thoughtfully troubled that despite being called “The Dictionary,” there is not only one, but in fact, many, many different dictionaries.  Like a child discovers that the authority of one parent does not always completely coincide with the authority of the other, so we find that The Dictionary offers a deceiving sense of unity.

We compare our parents.  Merriam’s spine is cracked and tired, and her pages drag.  We find the uncles online — Oxford & Cambridge — but they aren’t as popular as good ol’ daddy D-dot-com.

I introduce a source the students soon name “Ed” because the O is silent, like in Oedipus!

No, says another, his name is Owen.  Maybe there’s another Owen in his class, so he just goes by Owie D.

I am secretly delighted.  I make a note to self: in my free time, I should create a fake profile on some social media network under the name of Owie D, and only post smart and snarky etymological comments.

In my free time, I should drink less coffee, take more trail runs, sleep at least eight hours every night.  In my free time, I should read books and write poems and make my own veggie soup bouillon.  This is the myth of adulthood: there’s such a thing as time you get for free.  There is always a price, always a something you are not doing, instead.

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Behold the Egg: Tarin Towers and the Making of Ritual

By Elizabeth C. Creely

On Saint Patrick’s Day, the sun came out, but just barely. After three months of below average rainfall for San Francisco and California, the rain came, finally and all at once, in short staccato bursts. A secluded meadow in Golden Gate Park, affectionately called Magic Meadow by local pagans, was wet. A series of puddles dotted the meadow, pools of water that reflected the sky like silvery mirrors. Water—the elemental quality of the West, beloved by pagans and witches for its radical powers of transformation—inundated the turf and the surrounding areas of the park.  A red-tailed hawk sailed through the air and settled on a tree branch, cocking his head and surveying the clearing with his mad eyes. No one noticed it. They were waiting for Tarin Towers to arrive. “She’s on Pagan Standard Time,” someone said.

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Working Stiff

By Nancy Hathaway

1

Begin with the body, immortal, flawed.

Or begin with the mother, who conceived him out of spite, not because her mate had been unfaithful but because he had given birth to a daughter, who sprang from his brow like a thought.

Hera paid him back in kind, or such was her intention. She rubbed her hands against the pebbly earth and caressed the veined, watery skin of a lettuce: cool celadon, bitter herb of impotence, deathbed of Adonis.

In this cheerless way, without a swan or a snake, a flame or a cascade of gold, she gave birth to Hephaestus, eternity’s smith.

Yet satisfaction was denied her. For unlike Athena, Zeus’s splendid daughter, Hephaestus was imperfect, with a foot so alarmingly twisted that Hera, mortified, stood on the frosty summit of Mount Olympus and tossed him into the sea.

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Michael Chabon Tricked Me

By Vicki Boykis

In an essay that no longer exists on the Googlable internet, Michael Chabon convinced me that Prague was my destiny. He had been in Prague with his wife, researching for the book that would later become his bestseller, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The city, according to Chabon, was a breathy dream, starting with its Czech name, Praha, like an exhale. The streets were cobblestoned. Prague Castle loomed above everything with Gothic spires that harkened back to a more genteel time. 

Chabon walked through the Jewish cemetery and felt the wisps of his ancestors in the gravestones, the quiet of the early morning fog, and the romantic desolation of a vanished empire. 

I found his essay when I was in college in Central Pennsylvania and desperate to leave.  The writing gripped me.  I started yearning for Prague. I wanted that same kind of melancholy and artistic experience. I wanted to walk through the fog, hands intertwined with my boyfriend. I wanted to think serious thoughts about how thousands of years of history went into sculpting the city of Prague. 

Finally, we were out of college, working our first jobs, making our first money. The world was ours to see, together. There were hints of engagement.   ”Where do you want to go on vacation?” my boyfriend asked me. I thought about where it was most romantic to be proposed to.  

“France,” I said breathlessly. We checked prices for hotels in Paris. “Prague,” I amended, quickly. We were employed, but not Paris-rich. Besides, Prague was super-close to Paris. And if it was good enough for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, it was good for Penn State graduate Vicki Boykis.

We arrived in the Vaclav Havel Airport on a bright May morning full of promise. I was hoping to see mist over the Castle and the Vlatva, twinkling, winding its way through the heart of the sleeping city. But the cab driver heard that we were former USSR oppressors (Russian-speakers) and intentionally took the long way to the hotel, winding his way through semi-industrialized regions of the city. “Look,” I whispered, “The street litter and graffitti here is the same as in New York!”  

We arrived at our hotel. “We’re in Prague,” I said, looking around the mall attached to the Clarion for signs of Dracula and Eastern European mysteriousness. A frowning man wearing a gold chain and matching tooth tried to sell us a cell phone.  We ate dinner at a place where the waiter asked if we wanted fries with our goulash. We went to bed watching CNN International, broadcast from Atlanta. 

The next day, in the Old City, we walked through throngs of British tourists who were talking loudly and throwing Starbucks cups on the road. A sign pointed alluringly 50 meters to TGIFriday’s.  A man standing outside a pub tried to sell us a Budweiser.  

I continued to hope for the Jewish quarter.  It had to be as Chabon had described it: a small, left-alone place with just a couple hundred Israelis and New Yorkers coming every year to walk among the graves. 

It turned out that the Jewish spirit of Prague had sold out big time. There are three really old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter.  All three of them were making brisk business of the Holocaust.  We found ourselves in a long line of tourists regulated by very methodical Czechs taking our money and letting us in one by one, like a theme park ride.

Inside the synagogue, we saw all the names of all the dead written on the synagogue walls, not in a deferential way, but in one that was trying profit from our survivors’ guilt.  

Here was bimah where the Jewish rabbis suffered. Here was the name of Rachel Hayyah Liebowitz, who died in Auschwitz, and here was Moshe Zalman whose family was killed by Gestapo officers fighting in the Czech resistance movement, and here were 80,000 other names, written out to show the maximum impact of the suffering. 

Here were the walls. They were peeling. Coincidentally, the synagogue need money to repair them. Here, at the bimah, was a clear acrylic box full of the dollar bills of other American Jews who had been here and felt really, really bad. 

If visitors missed the opportunity to give money here, they could go through the cemetery, where, instead of misty graves, there were dozens of other people, going through a waiting line not unlike the one for Disney World rides, being shoved through the plots, one by one. Look, the signs said, the cemetery is dilapidated too, so don’t  forget to leave some spare change on the way out. 

Next was the synagogue gift shop, where you could get a map of the ghetto. For a couple korunas, guides eagerly pointed out some other Jewish sites you could go to, either by yourself, or with a tour guide, also for a couple korunas.  There were hundreds of  tchotchkes that have pictures of the Star of David on them, or mezuzot, or dreidls, sold by hawkers who shouted above the quiet of the quarter that no longer had any Jews in it. 

The image of Prague I’d had in my mind was shattered.   Michael Chabon had tricked me. The City of a Hundred Spires was as crass and commercial as the rest of Europe. There was nothing sacred. We had been in Prague for five days and everything sucked.  And people were selling Jewish Quarter keychains  near the cemetery. 

Every day was like the previous. There were hordes of tourists everywhere in the city, eating American food, talking loudly and distilling the essence of what Chabon had written about, silencing out the echoes of the past that made Prague Prague. 

But then, on the day before our flight back, my boyfriend woke me up early. “Let’s go,” he said, eagerly, quietly.  “Where,” I asked.  “Back to the Jewish Quarter, before the crowds come back,” he said.  

Curious, I followed him. The light was soft and golden, and only older European women wearing headscarves and heels clicked their way across the cobblestones. The breeze blew softly and the trees whispered. There were no people, and, for the first time, I could hear Prague. 

He led me into the Spanish Synagogue, the last of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter that we hadn’t been to. There was no entrance fee. The sunlight reflected quietly off the stained glass windows as we walked to the front, the bimah where the Torah sat. My boyfriend became quieter and quieter, and all of a sudden, he was down on one knee and he was saying words I couldn’t process and can’t remember anymore. In the synagogue, there were no tourists, no cameras, no recordings, only us, and if He was awake, God. 

Yes, I said, in the same building where the Germans stored property taken from Jews, the same building that had seen the fall of Prague and the rise again. Yes, I said, trembling, holding back tears. Yes, I said, again, as he got up.  I no longer had a boyfriend, but a fiance. The spirits and the mists converged around us and shadows whispered, and the city was still ancient, but my life was new and Michael Chabon was right after all. 

Vicki Boykis was born Jewish in Russia and raised guilty in America. She works in Big Data, is doing her MBA, and in the other three spare minutes is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband in Philadelphia-ish. She blogs at blog.vickiboykis.com and is on twitter @vboykis.

Culture Shock

By Hannah Jones

Mumbai airport has the strange effect of making you feel like a superstar as soon as you set foot in International Arrivals. You’ve been traveling for 48 hours, your hair is now standing up without the assistance of any product, and your clothing emanates the stale scent particular to a cabin after an overnight flight. All of this being as it is and yet the meticulous cosmopolitan atmosphere of the empty terminal makes you feel as if it is the deep breath before the storm of photographers awaiting your arrival in the blinding white of the sandstone courtyard. You have approximately thirty minutes to savor this illusion of glamour before you are through customs, have collected your bags, your driver has collected you, and you ascend the ramp to the Mumbai highway. Five more minutes and you are now driving through the outskirts of the world’s largest slum. The way your stomach drops when the little girl with no hand knocks on your window in deadlock traffic and asks for change is unprecedented, but it is not yet a symptom of culture shock.

You have been in India for nearly a week and are visiting a leprosy colony. Here, a man whose fifteen-year-old son recently died of polio invites you and your companions into the front room of his two room home with great sincerity. His wife prepares chai, she is smiling, always smiling and you cannot find the sadness in her eyes because she is so glad that you have come to visit, but you know it will be there once you have gone. Neither of them speak any English, but they listen with rapt attention as you find some paltry words of sympathy for their loss and equally limp words of thanks for their hospitality. You are secretly glad that they do not speak your language and try to give them greater honesty with your eyes as you slip on your sandals and depart. A hand on your shoulder, the translator explains that the father wants the young woman from the West to encourage his thirteen year old daughter to stay in school. Her parents will never be accepted- touched by a disease that has long since left them, they will never be contagious again, and yet their isolation is complete. They cannot read their own language. They want more for this pretty girl than the life that often waits for a pretty girl in the third world. She is still a child, not so good at hiding the sadness in her eyes- her brother was supposed to carry the hopes of this family on his shoulders. She does not feel ready. She does not feel she will ever be ready. The exhaustion that sets in after you have departed is as visceral, if less violent, than the horror of your first day driving through the slum, but this bone-tired feeling is culture shock.

You have been in India for three weeks and your students are so bright, there is so much in them – they are still young enough that their only asset is love. They bully and make peace and tumble and stand up again and again. They learn so quickly, they grasp what many children back home do not – education is a game, an ever-present and thrilling state of play. Many of them eat their only meal of the day in the school. They serve each other. No one eats until someone else has begun to be made full. In watching them at this routine, you are made full. During the day, the bruises and cigarette burns, the half-attendance, are a part of the day. Underneath the Indian sun, the days have no pale hours, no shadows complete enough for imagination to escape into. But in going back to the apartment, where you dream on their smiles and tears with equal weight, you wake up in the middle of the night and are the emptiest you have ever been. You are angry and guilty and sorry, so sorry. This too is culture shock.

You have been in India in month and just now has it begun to be a part of you, instead of apart from you. Up until now, the dogs warring outside your window, the complete sonic confusion at all hours, the scents and sights have driven you to swim against the current. It is contrary, all contrary, to what you know, but now you have begun to know. You pick up a word here and there. The colors are as bright as the nights are dark. The heat does not so willfully invade because you have begun to notice the breeze. You do not come home from the school with the sneaking sensation that you cannot bear it, you cannot bear the current of sadness, the completeness of the poverty. You have begun to realize it is just life and that it hurts and elates in its own time and that it unfolds to reveal that it is much the same at its core, no matter where you are. You sleep through entire nights. This is adjustment.

 

Hannah Jones is a certified Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) instructor currently working to improve English literacy among slum children in a community in India. People can follow her adventures and mishaps on her travel blog at: http://bookingpassage.wordpress.com

Homesick for Transience

by Hannah Jones

The first night I spent in Spain, I noticed that the sky was broad. Unbroken by indigo brushstrokes of tree-line or mountain range, you couldn’t quite wrap your arms around the magnitude of the thing. The skies in New Hampshire, home, were deep, inverted wells with stars floating on the surface, viewed from pockets of ground where we had broken up the forest with our lives. In that moment of comparison, I was suddenly struck by the thought that this paradox should come accompanied by my first wave of real homesickness. People in stories, the very ones that had set me to wandering years before I physically committed to the act of travel, were always looking to the sky for confirmation that the moon was the same as it had always been before the quest. There was no moon that first night in Spain. I looked inward for the sense of wrongness that people feel when they have been uprooted, but instead encountered a profound sense of belonging. The strangeness of my surroundings was comforting, the too-short bed beneath me, my toes pressed up against the cool white bars, more suited to me than the one I had left 3400 miles away. It struck me that I had never felt more at home than I did in a place where I had not even slept a single night of my life away.

I would encounter this feeling again in London, where I rode the metro by myself, shamelessly copying the casual ankle-crossing of trendy urbanites, and walked in the West End as the night shows let out, just to feel the surge of giddy crowds. There, the sky was rose against gray, fall and winter pushing palettes across late November’s canvas, pre-stained by coffee rings of brown-tinged light pollution. Again, the energy of new experience was upon me. I folded it mentally and recycled it on long bus rides until the luster had gone.
   
There were doses of “reality”, though—as my mother had insisted there must be. For example, airports gave me some sense that there were dependable things in this world and that they were only really ever necessary when they served in getting you from one mystery to another. Still, I loved watching distracted travelers, all apparently removed from a fondness for long-windowed terminals- always the same from continent to continent. Their detachment is understandable; airports are vacant places, filled up with elements that never stick. But I looked for the ones that got it, the ones with halfway smiles, looking out over the runway, hands stilled in rummaging for laptop chargers. The sky over large airports is like the sky over a city, perpetually threatening a change in the weather, hazy. If you were looking for it, there would be a metaphor for living in that.
   
When I came home, happily, reluctantly, everything was new and different, myself especially. Traveling had given what was familiar greater character, lent things a fresh texture. The first night was all clear skies, and the second and third as well. Routine had been given perspective and, in the process, had ceased to be routine. For a moment, for an evening, for a week, I thought that maybe steadiness and security could be pursuits for my lifetime. But last night, with nearly three months gone since my return, I stopped in coming up the walk and looked skyward. And there it was, waiting for me to give it a name, the black hole pull that results from falling in and out love. Homesickness.

Hannah Jones is an almost college student from small-town New England who hopped a plane to Spain right after high school and fell in love with the Great Wide World. Her interests include places she has never been, languages she has never heard, and books she has never read. Her nasty case of chronic wanderlust keeps her busy with just about as many adventures as she can handle (though she’ll always tell you she’s ready for one more). She can be found online @hanzesque.