Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Street

I open my eyes.

I am standing on a street. It stretches into the distance, straight as an answer and as narrow as prejudiced thinking. The tarmac is the black of prehistoric death-traps, and in the sun directly overhead, creates a heat shimmer in the air. There are buildings on either side, huddled close together in the linear perspective, looming overhead like skyscrapers. The heat shimmer distorts the view of some, but others I can see clearly.

There is a house. It lies in the far distance, at the beginning of the street, which is somehow also the end of the street. The architecture is mixed; a cobbled hybrid of governmental apartment housing and a modern condominium. As a result, the structure appears to be trying to look tall and short at the same time. I can just make out two figures, silhouetted in the doorway: an old woman and an older man. Their hands are moving; beckoning, calling for me to return. The gestures have layered meanings: they offer protection, they promise sustenance, but they also threaten constriction; a stifling of life; of existing, not living. By all accounts there is supposed to be love here, but it is lost in translation, rarefied by the gap of generations, kept in place by slivers of duty and whatever shred of filial piety that remains.

There is a school. Its exterior is sleek and shiny, all modern metal and glass, polished to an exuberant sheen. It proclaims innovation, it sells excellence, it advertises perfection; and it would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for the pair of chimneys rising in the background, belching acrid clouds into the upper atmosphere. The smoke is either a result of the burnt midnight oil, or a byproduct of the bullshit being thrown into the essays manufactured inside. Conveyor belts lead out of the open windows, churning out marketable diplomas, framed and laminated, like clockwork. They fall into large cargo trucks, which turn off a side street, in the direction of the airport, where scholarship-funded aeroplanes will take them to London, New York, New Jersey, Boston. Upon closer inspection of the diplomas, one would find the ink sometimes smudged, the wood often hollow, the stand occasionally bent like cheap cardboard. But that is not to say that the workers inside are not doing their job; no, perhaps they can only do their best with the raw materials they have on hand.

There is a pyramid. It is made out of stone, a dreary gunmetal grey. It is not a mere pile of rock, like leftovers from an avalanche, but carefully constructed. Yet neither creativity nor innovation was a part of its design; only pure, unadulterated practicality. It is squat, for a pyramid; each block is carried by the blocks below it, such that all have to carry the capstone, which carries nothing but the lofty ideas that brought it there. Ivy creeps up its sides, making it look like a moss-covered, unrolling brick. The pyramid's foundations run about fifty years deep, but truth be told, if you keep digging, you will find that it's stone all the way down. The building is a permanent fixture of the landscape. It stands perpendicular to the street, blocking what was before from what comes after, and there is no way past it but to go through it. Its entrance boasts a sleek, sliding door, but one can see that the electrical wires strung from the poles do not descend into that structure. The hiss and gurgle of steam engines can be heard, technology from a yester-age, slowly grinding onward.

There is a church. It is not a preening megachurch, proclaiming its faith unto the heavens; it is a small affair, quiet and thoughtful - it knows where it is and that is enough. Here and there are places were bricks have been smashed, somewhat purposefully, but the holes have been filled with Bibles, slotting neatly into the hollows, and its recent facade remains calm and undamaged. The stained glass windows tell a second-hand story that I fell in love with, but although the double doors out front are unlocked, they are closed, and there is a small ticket gantry. To purchase a ticket one must pay the price of belief, of which I am bankrupt. Though I could not enter the grounds, I sat in the shade and serenity of the steeple until I was was asked, politely but firmly, to leave the premises, for I had no ticket.

There is a theatre. It is tall, and while it looks clumsily knocked together, it still exudes a sense of grace and charm. Dazzling lights twinkle around the billboard, advertising for many different experiences, posters of exotic lands and exciting adventures. The interior is furnished soft and plush, and the double doors are swung open in a warm, inviting gesture. Dialogue is heard; the show is a comedy of errors, a playful romp dancing through life without taking it too seriously. Music pours out into the street, a lighthearted tune that skips and bounces across my soul, tugging at my heartstrings. But with my feet firmly on the ground, I know that the best seat in the house has already been taken, and I would be resigned to hovering around the fringes, which the cast know exist but the company doesn't play to.

This is the street, stretching into the distance, the five buildings islands of clarity in a sea of hazy memory.

This is where I came from.

There is a university. It is directly to my left; a sprawling campus of thousands of people. The architecture is Greco-Roman, the pedagogy similarly inspired. Snow lines the rooftops and clumps in white hedges along the sidewalks. While it seems close by, by some optical illusion it also appears distant, and detached from where I am standing.

There is another university. It is immediately on my right, not as sprawling but towering above me on walls of ivory. It is built of Lego pieces, sometimes from different boxes, but the blocks click together, linking each piece to every other piece. It looks new, freshly purchased and built, such that there are gaps where a whole new module can be slotted into place; but the building also has the plastic stubbornness that promises stand the test of time. It stands in the far distance, but by some trick of the light, it also appears closer to me than I could have ever imagined.

I look down. I am wearing a pair of battered orange sneakers and faded blue jeans. I empty my pockets. There is a small crucifix on a chain, with a crack running through the centre but still relatively intact. There is a crumpled ticket stub, a hole punched through the middle to signify that it cannot be used again. There is a thin book, whose cover is faded and pages are blank except for one word on the first page which says in large capital letters, "THINK". There is a small homemade pouch, which jangles with small change and a handwritten note which instructs me to always look both ways before crossing the street. There is a playing card; it is the joker.

This is where I am.

I turn around.

The street I am standing on continues into the distance, straight as an answer and narrow as prejudiced thinking. But there are thousands, millions, a myriad of other roads, branching off from this one, crossing it, intersecting it left, right, across, perpendicular, downwards into dark tunnels and upwards onto arched highways. Buildings line the roads, clustering together almost on top of one another in strict defiance of any kind of urban planning or laws of physics. At some point, the surface of the ground seems to curve up towards me, such that if I looked up, I would see buildings hanging from the roof of the sky, criss-crossed by a kaleidoscopic labyrinth of asphalt. It is an Escherian nightmare. Frost's directions are no use here, for the path less travelled is the path never walked on.

This is where I am going.

I take a step.