I could be moving to London. Maybe. In theory. I don’t know.
I am currently camped out in yet another kind household’s spare room – this time in Kentish Town – while an estate agent in Glasgow battles a glacial market for me and shows a trickle of viewers round the flat I own and love and currently kind of crave and yet never see. It seems my career – and I am a writer and one would assume this was a tranquil and sedentary trade – requires me to be in semi-perpetual motion with a bias towards London. For twenty years I have dragged all I care for with me in a variety of bags, but London has been a constant and, now that I’m as close as I’ll ever get to being a grown-up, perhaps my constant should be a constant. Perhaps that means I won’t have a heart attack before I’m fifty.
Of course, if I can’t sell my Glasgow flat and then top it up with ten year’s worth of savings, then I can’t buy a London base beyond a Murphy bed and a head square’s worth of floorboards. If I can sell it, then I can move to the far north of the Piccadilly Line and maybe get a bit of garden and another room for the never-endingly breeding heaps of books.
But, for now, I live in spare rooms when I can stand the disturbance of having other people around and in Holiday Inns when I really need to work. Holiday Inns always look the same and constitute what could well be my only true home. I really need to work at the moment, but I can’t afford to keep on staying in Holiday Inns, because I am supposed to be economizing, because I could be moving to London. Maybe. In theory. I don’t know.
And meanwhile Londoners greet the idea that I’m coming south to a hell mouth of homicidal drivers, ten quid coffees, greenish/grey air and drought with the relief people usually reserve for friends who have finally dumped adulterous partners or suddenly recovered from psychotic breaks. They hadn’t liked to tell me, but they never understood how I could bear to live anywhere else. They invite me to dinner and stroke my arm and give me advice about areas in which I could not ever afford to buy anything more than a lock-up garage with a missing roof.
And meanwhile my Scottish friends sigh because such things are inevitable and maybe I’ve held out long enough and everything does roll downhill eventually, but shouldn’t I keep a place in Glasgow for escapes and proper healthcare and civilized behaviour and, if they become independent, won’t I worry that I might not get a passport ? – ha ha. And underneath it all is the sense that my country has moved on since the days of Moira Anderson and kitsch self-loathing, but nevertheless every flight to other climes is in some way a judgement on the failures of a small nation. We’re Scottish, we wait to be judged.
And meanwhile – because I’m Scottish and also phobic about commitment – I entertain every possible doubt about doing anything at all, beyond giving up and letting myself fall back into another couple of decades of compromise and living out of bags and wasting time and effort and always somehow managing to be here when I ought to be there and vice versa. To sell up, to be temporarily homeless with my world in storage and to roam about N22 with cash and a fondness for nice bathrooms … to keep a Scottish flat I like, but won’t use any more than I do now and also have a tiny patch of London that’s mine all mine and slightly cripples my finances … to make any kind of decision. It all seems impossible.
But London has always been impossible and yet possible and has always called me. This isn’t because it’s a big city or even a capital city, or because young Scots in my day were taught that passing for English and heading for the metropolis were the best anybody could hope for. London – parochial, dirty, racist, class-obsessed, self-obsessed London – was the true home of another identity, a nationality that transcended nations and could allow me to be free. This London is, of course, a dream and yet it’s a dream that has shaped my life.
And the dream started early, when I was still at school and first in love with the theatre. Dundee, where I was born, didn’t really have a theatre. The rep had burned down again, but the town was saving up For me, London’s theatres were where I really began to change into someone who could … actually be a writer, make stories, build books, breathe through actors and govern their motions. to build a new one. Our generally high levels of despair and social division meant the saving was taking a while. I kept alert for the touring productions that would visit odd little spaces for one or two nights. I did my own saving to attend whenever I could and poured over my weekly copy of The Stage as if opening it marked my solemn rededication to a holy order. I allowed myself to be consumed by a passion every bit as illuminating and tormenting as the more usual teenage desires. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I wanted it a lot. Looking back, I think that I managed to combine an egocentric desire to be heard and to make things with a desire to escape the smother of small town expectations and cruelties and the effects of a school that hoped to prepare me for marriage to a Tory professional, but which would settle for my choosing a life of classical learning and withered charms in some moderately classy Oxbridge senior common room.
Whatever I wanted for myself, I knew it wasn’t that.
When I watched those touring shows I found a taste of what I did want. Wildcat, Borderline and 7:84 Scotland were regular visitors – all left-leaning, unmistakably Scottish theatre companies which have since been lost. Their work sounded completely different from the anglicized BBC and the faux-middle class STV. They sounded like breaking rules and being at home in your own skin. And they were funny. I was a child of English and unhappy parents who’d moved up from Working to Middle Class and were therefore uneasy in many areas. They passed on their unease. For our household, funny was risky, out loud was risky and nothing could be trusted to be our own. For me, the sound and sight of people simply being themselves, albeit onstage, was exhilarating. I chose to find a kind of truth in the layers of fakery and pretending which make up live drama. For me, a good performance rattled received values and pronunciations and was always partly about being who we are. In Shakespeare, in Chekhov, in David Anderson, in David Hare – it didn’t matter who wrote the words or when, if they were good and treated well, they were a way of being present with something fully alive. They were a way of realising that I could be more alive and more in general. This was something I could want enough to try and reach it.
The plays I saw moved beyond Scotland to address British and international concerns. One evening they might debunk the heathery myths that were all I had ever been told about my country, one night they might offer a satirical musical about the Falklands War, or present a piece by Dario Fo. Like many Scots who grew up before the 1980s, I had a very weak grip on my cultural identity. I had been led to assume that Scotland was a land of (sometimes brave) failures, drunk football thugs and angry people who were sustained by being simply not English. The arts in general and theatre in particular – disreputable, funny, human and never-the-same-twice theatre – were reshaping my preconceptions, but I still accepted that the best of anything would always eventually roll downhill to London.
This meant, I believed, that the top-quality theatre must be impossibly far away south in a foreign country. I knew Scotland had theatres of innovation and significance and I am unashamed to state that I formed a school Theatre-Goers’ Club, simply so that I could afford to indulge my addiction. But London must surely have the real thing. I could stand in my Dundee street at night and wish very hard and believe the West End rocked me a little, tugged at the pavement softly as if it was answering all my need. It couldn’t be that my adoration was unrequited, or that every stage wasn’t constantly raging with brilliance.
I can remember watching The Three Sisters on television – such cultural excursions still happened on terrestrial channels back then – and I ached every time they repeated ‘To Moscow.’ Flirty, classy, cosmopolitan Chekhov – who hadn’t always been that By the end of my time at university I was mostly a writer and definitely Scottish, but still lost. way and knew about small-town blues – had caught that hunger to be elsewhere, to engineer situations within which one could grow to be somebody else, somebody at all, learn to operate at an adequate size and volume, have dignity and fulfilment. London was my Moscow – it had Drury Lane and Covent Garden, what was then the brand new Barbican Centre. It had theatres like the Old Vic, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court where premiers had happened and would again, venues mentioned in the play scripts I read and re-read, trying to be there on nights long gone with casts I couldn’t quite imagine and audiences past recalling. It was all still unreachable, impossible. And yet, schooled to believe myself one of many plucky losers, impossibility seemed my natural habitat.
And then the little local bus company, which would eventually become the controversial behemoth Stagecoach, started to run overnight trips down to London. The student price was, I think, something like £16. I could manage that. My parents had divorced and money was tight for my mother. I hated to worry her with my enthusiasms and I didn’t want to be a cost, but I had to do what I had to do. Within a breath of hearing the coach route existed I had worked out my itinerary – I’d go down over Friday night, see a matinee and an evening performance on the Saturday, get by with a sandwich for the day and blow maybe another tenner on a cab back to the Caledonian Road where I’d climb aboard the coach home just in time for another overnight. I’d get home, sleep away Sunday, school on Monday.
It was a little punishing, but worth it and I rarely saw a bad show. As often as I could, I would step into those plush Victorian foyers, or those charged and yet curiously airless modern auditoria and my skin would race and I would be taller and, once the lights had dipped away, there would be human beings who were – even at their worst – presented as being admirable, lyrical, astounding. This was the reverse of reality television – this was an insight into the true frailty and wonder and potential stature of my species.
And if the stage was the performance space, then sometimes it could seem the audience occupied a rehearsal space. For me, London’s theatres were where I really began to change into someone who could, in a small way, follow Chekhov, actually be a writer, make stories, build books, breathe through actors and govern their motions. I could, eventually, ride the Piccadilly Line into South Kensington and have my first publishing lunch. I could earn a living doing something I loved – letting words and words and words fill me. Only the finest performances ever felt better than that and writing I could do myself at home.
But in my late teens I had no idea that was where I’d end up. I read Theatre Studies and Drama at Warwick University – near enough to Stratford for the odd outing to the RSC – and kept on looking for what I wanted. I performed, directed, puzzled and wrote, adrift in the heart of a foreign country. By the end of my time at university I was mostly a writer and definitely Scottish, but still lost. Part of my consolation was to roll downhill to London, borrow the earliest of those spare rooms and find my nation.
And my nation was there. We were there: a loose association of lost causes and would-be scribblers, heart-broken artists and more- and less-happily out-of-work actors. We were from everywhere else and hadn’t fitted in. We probably still didn’t, but we were at home amongst ourselves. We talked nonsense and made cups of coffee last all afternoon in little cafes on St Martin’s Lane. We blagged free tickets for whatever we could get: exhibitions, concerts, readings, plays. We walked under blue spring skies between the big wedding cake buildings of South Ken, or down by the river, or along the King’s Road where there’d be more elongated coffees in the Farmer’s Market, or the Chelsea Bun, or Picasso’s. A blend of awkwardness and self-harm and self-obsession and a lack of proper jobs meant we were all holding out for what we wanted, whatever impossible beauty that might turn out to be.
In a way I was permanently terrified.
There was never quite enough money, Thatcher seemed intent upon destroying everything that could keep life comfortable or even bearable and I didn’t know if I would make it as a writer. Writing seemed to be what I most needed to do and I had been published, but that didn’t mean I was earning a living, or anything like it. And I worried my next idea would be my last. I worried my next idea would be crazy. I worried I was kidding myself in every way. On the other hand, I had almost nothing and therefore almost nothing to lose. And I was surrounded by other people who were in much the same condition. (Apart from the actors. Anything bad that happens is always much worse when it happens to an actor. They suffered. A lot.) And we got each other through. For every poet who couldn’t find another word, or leading man who was contemplating mini-cabbing, there was someone who was happy being chilled for a bit, or designing their continuing education, or doing something somewhere that we could all come and support. And down by the river, I could stand outside the National Theatre and know it was full of Hare and Brenton and Rudkin and people who were doing something, trying to turn a cold, hard tide. Human beings who were of the opinion that other human beings weren’t worthless were reaching across to the North Bank and Westminster and telling Parliament we didn’t buy the shit we were all being sold as sugar. This wasn’t just about the chattering classes – whoever they are – being smugly indignant. This wasn’t just about artists courting an empty-eyed media, pimping themselves and paying the rent. This was a way of knowing we weren’t alone in trying to love people and keep hopes for them, something to remind us of the qualities of life. This was something genuinely sustaining and an encouragement to reach out for better. I may have been giving things the benefit of my youthful enthusiasm and my need, but back then arts and theatre still seemed to have sufficient dignity to be audible and press towards change.
In a way, it was the happiest time of my life.
And that time will always make me think of London and London will always echo with it – the dreams that we tried to reach, the dreams we only just missed, the dreams we made true.
Having searched and believed and tried so hard, I and the inhabitants of my other country, my London, all found something we wanted. We see one another less and less, because we’re busy now. I used a free university education, cheap public transport and the mercy of strangers to batter together the start of a life I love. I took advantage of possibilities that would be in many ways closed to me if I were starting out now. And so I get to write and travel and write and perform and write and travel. I get to have a high-class problem like wondering whether to have one base or two. Some of my friends from twenty years ago now have degrees, or families, or work as counsellors, or turn up in movies, or in the papers, or in galleries, or make beautiful things that no one much knows about but they are still beautiful things and we know and that’s enough. We survived Thatcher, we survived Blair and now we’ll survive Cameron.
And perhaps, setting many other considerations aside, that is why the ache to be in London is so strong again – and this time for real and as permanently as my peripatetic profession will allow. I live in a time when the real theatre is happening in the streets. The press has declared a new golden age for the West End, but all that’s golden are the performers. The theatres are largely filled with musicals, revivals, format-changing variations on safe themes. As Scotland goes on its way, deciding what it is and what it will be in increasingly numerous and often positive directions it would be wonderful to see England do the same, to decide it is something more than the media’s presentation of the feudally servile, or drunkenly violent, the pitiable list of scared tabloid negatives - Not Foreign, Not Gypsy, Not Dying of Cancer yet. And it would be wonderful to see if London can be one of the places where England remembers how many possibilities there are in Englishness and how much it has survived. It would be magnificent and life-saving if London reminded Britain that we built a welfare state from nothing but faith in a broken country and that it worked very well. And perhaps London can be one of the places where England remembers that its entertainments weathered religious and political censorship, the closing of the playhouses, the forgetting and suppressing of songs and dances and ways of being with each other that made human beings feel they could be better in themselves and with each other. Perhaps London’s theatres will remember the times when they helped push a whole culture forward, change a country and speak truth to power. When I move, I’ll move in hope. If that ever happens, I’d have to see it. I’d have to be there.
The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.
The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.
When college was over, we all moved to New York. Harris’s mother cosigned a lease for a loft apartment in Manhattan, on Chambers Street, and for the next decade, a lot of people we knew lived there for a week or a month or a few years.
The third-floor loft, a photographer’s former studio, was fourteen hundred square feet and had a small bathroom with a door, a tiled area with a refrigerator and a stove, and a smaller area in the opposite corner, about four by six feet, raised eight inches with some plywood.
I bought some cheap red velvet and hand-sewed a curtain to surround those twenty-four square feet and mounted a bar on the two open edges. I hung my clothing on wire hangers begged from the dry cleaner around the corner, borrowed a narrow futon and a plastic crate from Harris, and lived there for two and a half months.
My ten-foot-high window looked south onto the World Trade Center. It was so close I didn’t need to think about it. When I woke up, it was there, filling the window with its mirrors.
My roommates paid more rent than I did and lived in office cubicles separated by drywall. It was more than a year before anyone figured out how to put up a ceiling. As we fell asleep at night, we spoke to each other in the dark like brothers and sisters. Sometimes someone played music in his cubicle so we all could hear it.
After a while we instituted a rule against that, trying to force the illusion of privacy.
Eventually everyone just called the place Chambers Street. We all knew it was No. 119. Keys were given away and lost. Things fell into the floorboard holes. Drugs got stolen. Tenants came and went and their artifacts accumulated—a framed drawing, a piggy bank, a bong. Someone brought home a puppy. Someone put on a nitrous-oxide puppet show. Someone dropped the air-conditioning unit out the back window and through a grocery storefront. Someone published a novel about the place. Someone tried to hang himself in the bathroom.
Every New Year’s Eve was like the last moment of your life—if you stayed late enough, within a few hours you’d see everyone you’d ever met, minus a few relatives.
Wire-reinforced windows opened onto the fire escape at the front of the building. I sang in a choir and practiced my parts out there, in the cacophony of traffic. I never felt anyone watching me or listening to me as I sang Mendelssohn into the air, three floors up.
After he built his ceiling and bought the orchestral score of a Webern opera, Harris invited me into his room. It wasn’t a cubicle anymore. I muddled my way through the soprano line of some song, and he looked at me as if it had been the best thing he’d ever heard.
Harris met the train with his body, offered it his body.
The train drove into his body. It drove against his body.
It sent him from his body.
The conductor went down onto the track and touched the body and lifted and carried the body.
There was no need for a doctor.
The body was removed from the track and rested for two days without its name.
As we pulled into Harris’ driveway on the first night of Passover, having taken a car all the way from the city to his parents’ house on Long Island, Harris said, Be careful—my grandmother will think I got married. We smiled.
We spent all our money on drinks and taxicabs. We knew that others our age had enslaved themselves to mortgages and pregnant wives. Family was a balm for the unimaginative, a consolation for the unremarkable, just another thing to feel superior to.
As if Harris didn’t know any better than to eat a cracker before offering one to his girl, his grandmother pointed to the olive spread and said to him, Make a nice one for Sarah. What we didn’t know, of course, was that the grandmother understood. She just pretended not to. She had seen it all before.
When I was older I understood that I’d been invited into the family and that I’d been too frightened to accept the invitation.
I really wish I could show you my penis, he said, as if it were a painting or a country. God, I just wish I could show it to you.
It was said to be a majestic organ, the greatest that many had seen.
We still lived with three other guys in that raw loft space, and at home I turned my gender most of the way off so that when the guys evaluated women, I could listen and even participate a little, and not just fall to pieces at the irrelevance of my femininity. I listened to the dick jokes and cruel anecdotes and judgments and didn’t feel a thing. Not for years.
A few women had confirmed among themselves the supremacy of Harris’s penis. Eventually we all accepted it into our reality along with another roommate’s hairline, another’s whining. Harris was the one with the ear for music, the folding bike, and the penis.
Aside from a couple of intoxicated kisses, Harris and I never attempted to touch each other, so his penis was always safe from the responsibility of its power. We could talk about it as if it were an amazing restaurant in another town.
For years, we returned, yearningly, to the subject of the transcendent penis. Each time we discussed it, we observed our feelings—would it be possible that I could be shown the beautiful thing? Could either of us recover from it? And if we couldn’t recover, would it be worth it, just to have beheld it for a moment?
If we’d ever been to bed, we could never have talked about his penis as we did.
Now it is among the great mysteries.
I lived in Manhattan for six months and then moved to Brooklyn, near the East River, and awoke after the planes had already hit the buildings. There was no television. The transmitter was in Manhattan in a pile on the ground.
As I got dressed and packed my camera, Harris rang up.
A giant white bank of plume spread east, from Lower Manhattan, across the otherwise blue sky.
We walked to the river. On the other side of it, one building stood where there had been two, and I took two pictures of the fire at the top of it.
People waited quietly along Kent Avenue. Car radios played every couple of blocks, and Harris and I stood in the street, waiting and listening and watching the tower burn.
We didn’t stare at the tower as if it were television. We looked at it, looked away, talked a little. People were jumping out of it like angels.
A woman near me screamed, Oh my God, oh God, oh my God, oh my God, and whole lives passed before I understood that the tower was falling. I watched its hundreds of glass windows shimmer to the ground.
The roof fell neatly downward, erasing floor after floor, like an accordion, but I remember this only because I remember thinking shimmer and accordion.
Of course there are several films of the buildings falling down, and I could go online right now and watch, but as far as I know none was taken from Kent Avenue, where we were standing.
Harris walked me home, his left arm around me. All the subway trains in Manhattan had stopped. Some of the stations were filled with corpses, with fire.
We walked to Greenpoint and rode the G train to Long Island City, and rode the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica and then to New Hyde Park, where Harris’s mother fetched us and drove us to Great Neck.
She cooked steaks and opened a bottle of American wine, and we ate candy and watched Manhattan on television.
The next day Harris and I went to the beach with a couple of friends staying nearby with another set of parents. The waves were enormous. I lost my sunglasses and was thrown ashore. A red bruise swelled on my hip.
The act of war occupied the reported news all day, just that one story, so we swam through the gale. On a different day we’d have noticed the water was too choppy to swim.
And of course the whole memory of that morning has been written over with what has happened since: My friend, who stood with me and helped me, who hugged me as we walked back toward the city from the river shore, is dead.
Engineers who have driven suicide trains, who have looked into the eyes of the people they were forced to kill, aren’t required to disembark to remove the remains from the track. Removing the remains is the conductor’s job.
My lab partner from ninth-grade biology, now an emergency doctor, writes:
I’m not sure that anyone can tell exactly what happens to a body upon impact with a train. It happens very fast, and it’s hard for me to imagine that the person has any awareness of pain because the trauma will likely be so massive and so instant with the amount of force a fast-moving train carries. I don’t think any more specific data exists than that it is essentially a massive and rapid crush injury to all organs, bones, etc.
In photographs of bodies hit by cars and crushed by bus tires, train wheels, and tanks, I can see that all the red and yellow interior parts of the body have been pressed out of the skin. The hard skull is detached. The clothes are shredded. The soft inner parts of the body cover a surprisingly large area on the ground.
If I worked in a morgue, I wouldn’t expose the entire extruded mess. I’d show the identifier a small part of it, whatever still resembled the outside of a body, or what the identifier might remember of the outside of it, if I could.
I think I remember hearing that Harris’s parents identified the body, but then I think the teeth must have been collected, and maybe no one had to look at what was left of Harris’s body after it was crushed into its constituent parts. Thus untethered, the body no longer possessed situation in the world, and there was nothing more to say about it.
I was in my apartment, absolutely alone, when I heard of a famous writer’s fatal jump from the Staten Island Ferry, and I got up and stood in a doorway, holding myself up by the door frame. I remember wondering when I’d arisen and walked to the threshold. With the writer’s drowning I’d advanced one lurid death closer to my own.
I wrote my obituary soon after my college graduation. It seemed as necessary as knowing my Social Security number. I edited it from time to time, adding the names of books and towns. I also wrote the note that would be found with my corpse. For years I saved it in my file so it would be there when I needed it, but I don’t need it anymore. Now I save it to remember how far I have traveled from that place where no help comes.
Last year a colleague of mine, someone I’d been out to drink with more than once, someone I’d talked to about his poems and my own, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Afterward I felt an echo of that old feeling—that the line was moving, that I was now one death closer to the threshold—but it was a faint echo. I’ve felt insulated from my death since I began taking this new medicine. I am no longer moved to write poetry, but I traded poetry for a longer life. I knew I was doing it.
I used to believe that death would come when I was ready to walk through the last door. When I was done with suffering, I’d just open the door and walk through it. I still believe it, but now I believe that someone or something else will open the door.
Harris and I sat in McCarren Park on a sunny afternoon. Maybe we’d bought ice cream. It was very hot, so hot that I was wearing only a dress and rubber sandals. I carried my house key and nothing else, just walked up Bedford to meet my friend on the dusty lawn.
We lay on the grass until it was almost dark and Harris mentioned a dance party in Queens. I couldn’t go because I didn’t have a sweater for the air-conditioned train or proper shoes or my wallet or anything. It was so hot, I wasn’t even wearing underwear.
Harris convinced me to go with him to the party, that he’d take care of my subway fare and anything I needed. Our friend Victor had just died. I felt sad, but most of all I felt safe. Now that Victor was dead I could ride the G train at night without underwear. Now that Victor was dead, I would never die. We were done dying, we who had spoken or written to Victor the week he died. We were twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. Victor had exhausted our tragedy quota. It would be a long time before anyone else would have to die.
Bangkok’s image as a city for sex, knife fights, and cobras is burnished to a shine. A trip home finds some of that, but mostly it’s ghosts—real ones—and they’re not quiet.
To capture the attention of anyone Thai, start telling your best ghost story. The months after the tsunami killed over 8,200 people in the southern beaches, Thai television and newspapers could not satisfy the public’s appetite for hard-hitting phantasmagoric reporting. Taxi drivers in Phuket reported having picked up Westerners who asked to go to the airport and then disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Fisherman claimed to have seen mysterious orbs of light drifting along beaches. Invisible boomboxes blasted party music to the cheer of invisible revelers, so say some locals. The president of Phuket’s tourism association had to publicly ask the press to stop running anymore ghost stories, for fear of their negative impact on the island’s image.
The Prah Khanong neighborhood of Bangkok where I grew up is known for its ghosts. The creek behind my grandmother’s house runs past a mosque and then southward to the diminutive Phra Khanong River a kilometer away. On the river sits Wat Mahabut, the Buddhist temple where, according to the legend, a man named Mak sought refuge from his possessive wife, who was dead, and his baby son, who was also dead (both from childbirth complications while Mak was away fighting a war). The Mae Nak Phra Khanong story is a famous one, an early rite of passage for many Thais. Parents tell the story to their children, who tell it to young relatives or friends, who then transfer the fear to other initiates, ensuring that generations henceforth have intimate, contagious knowledge of the way Mae Nak dispatched neighbors trying to warn her husband that he had returned to a ghostly family. Three movies and an opera have already been made from this unquiet domestic drama.
Bangkok, if you believe it, is a city with as many ghosts as there are people. Go to almost any Bangkok backyard and you’ll find a spirit house, a miniature wood or plaster Thai-style house with a steep roof and a porch. Inside, statuettes representing spirits that live on the land repose on a raised platform. When my grandmother misplaces something, she makes an offering to the house in hopes the spirits will help her find it. Sometimes they even make personal visits. I can point to you the spot just outside our kitchen where my grandmother claimed a land spirit appeared to her one night to complain about the lack of offerings. I can also point to you other places within my grandmother’s house where more ghosts have appeared to other family members, sometimes for no particular reason than to make themselves known. I can show you the once-empty lot nearby where a group of white-shrouded ghosts reputedly hangs out, like dope dealers staking out their corner.
My mother knows many more haunted sites than me. Bangkok hospitals are notorious. Hotels, temples, schools, dormitories, office buildings, and various palaces and historic residences fill out the list. It’s not uncommon for Bangkok citizens to mention a new job or school or vacation spot to friends, only to hear: “They say that place is way haunted.”
What also haunts Bangkok is memory. It’s a city that lives with what it can’t yet put in its past, or afford to change. The haunted curve on a highway becomes a way of saying this was a sloppily engineered road. The relative hauntedness of hospitals signals the quality of care given. Eerie, unearthly skeletons of high-rises stand unfinished as reminders of the currency crisis 10 years ago. People meet familiar, untimely ends because of familiar decisions. Ghosts live out their afterlife as a warning system to the living. You shall not forget.
The stretch of Bangkok I know best looks identical to almost any of the city’s other major thoroughfare, but when I return to Bangkok each year, it’s how I know I’m back. Just over two decades ago, after my family’s return from my father’s post in Saudi Arabia, I enrolled at a British-style school not too far away from my grandmother’s house. Soot-darkened four-story row houses still line both sides of the route to and from this school through Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng roads. The corner restaurant near a masajid school serves up my favorite Hunan-style chicken and rice. Across the street is the shop where I used to rent videos of Hong Kong martial arts serials and nearby are newsstands where I bought translated manga. Go further past the intersection with Pattanakarn road and soon you’ll see a shopping center, simply called the Mall. Close to New Year’s, workers from the Mall decorate the road in front of it—usually a mishmash of giant-sized Christmas ornaments, assorted Japanese cartoon characters, and artificial flora. These made up the greater part of my childhood scenery.
Then and now, if I were to instead make a turn at Pattanakarn, I’d be on Petchburi Road, and for a while, I’d pass through a different Bangkok. You rarely escaped the valleys of row houses, but now taller buildings spring up every few hundred yards—buildings with names on their signage like Cleopatra, Mona Lisa, and Nancy. Giant billboards painted with shapely women hang from their facade; the words Bath-Sauna-Massage appear in that particular order somewhere on the signage. Then you cross another major intersection, and you wouldn’t see any more of these places. Each time I return to Bangkok, I see fewer of them on Petchburi Road, but I have also seen tall buildings with blackened windows rise up elsewhere in compensation.
I recently watched a Nicholas Cage movie called Bangkok Dangerous and read Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. This is the Bangkok I don’t know, full of brothels, knife fights, and cobras; it’s also the Bangkok that comes up the most everywhere else I go. On learning where I’m from, drunk people at parties will sing a line from, “One night in Bangkok.” All I can do is politely laugh, because I can neither confirm nor deny the song’s factuality. This happens more than a few times a year.
For me, what’s dirtiest and most dangerous about Bangkok still largely means my uncomfortable reacquaintance with the heat, the viscous traffic, and airborne carbonate matter that darken blown tissues. In Bangkok, I’m shuffled from relative to relative, from restaurants to shopping centers to temples to more of the same, thoroughly fed and mollycoddled, until I’m back on a flight to New York. Along the way, I often find myself again on that familiar stretch of Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng, and I’ll stop by the Hunan chicken and rice joint, I’ll hear prayers I used to hear sung from the nearby mosque’s minaret. I left a country in childhood—when I return, I’m deposited back in a timeline I left behind. I am 10 again.
But over many returns, I’ve become a collector of glimpses; I see further into the hidden, whirligig movements of a place I used to call home. Some small girl will run up to my father’s car window at a red light and beg for us to buy bootleg CDs, and I’ll shake my head and watch the poor thing dart to another car. Ghosts haunt another one of my dreams, and every few years tanks pay a midday surprise visit to the city streets. Each time in the city, I collect another piece.
The name Bangkok describes wild palms that used to grow in the lowlands that existed before the city. Few Thais ever call the city Bangkok. Its Thai name is Krung Thep, or more in full, Krung Thep Mahanakhon, or, the Great City of Angels. It’s a city defensively positioned, protected on one side by the Chao Phraya River and on the other by a muddy, swampy plain. Bangkok didn’t begin as a capital city. It inherited the honor after the old capital Ayuttaya was ravaged in the Burmese wars in the 1760s and after the next capital Thonburi lost its importance in the aftermath of a king’s execution (detail: he was beaten to death in a velvet sack so no royal blood would touch the ground). Chinese traders arrived and settled. So did the Dutch, Portuguese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Muslims, Christians, and all varieties of people whose purpose could be met by a city that served everyone. A French missionary, the bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix wrote in Description du royaume Thai ou Siam that Bangkok “makes for a very picturesque sight; ships and a multitude of flag-bedecked junks cluster in rows at the edge of two banks; golden spires, cupolas and beautifully constructed lofty pyraminds, embellished with designs of multi-coloured porcelain which soar into the air. The tiered roofs of the pagodas, ornamented with gold and covered with varnished tile, glitter as they reflect the rays of the sun.”
You’ll still find golden pagodas all over, but what rises higher and shines more brightly in sunlight are new office towers and condominiums wrapped by expressways and elevated sky-train rails. You’ll find large, walled-in mansions near tin-roofed slums; fashionable modernist cafes steps from sidewalk stalls where dishes are washed, if they are, by a hose and bucket. According to United Nations Population Division figures, 3.8 million people lived in Bangkok in 1975; by 2007 there were 6.7 million. Since these estimates don’t include unregistered residents, the true number is likely much higher. What used to be rice fields in the outskirts of Bangkok have been made over by developers, so the masses who rush into the city from the countryside, and everyone else who had once clawed or methodically schemed their way out of piss poor beginnings, can have their own piece, too.
But more buildings mean more weight added to already sinking lowlands. More people mean more cars to turn commutes into book-ending, half-day affairs. The streets of present-day Bangkok follow the contours of the old canals that once made the city Asia’s Venice; this city was built with deference to the vortex of water that empties out to the Gulf of Siam. It’s why there are few streets that follow a straight line for very long. In some heavy monsoon seasons—the worst I remember was in 1981—the streets revert back to their previous life. The city is and will be water.
Sometimes I feel most people arrive in Bangkok already knowing their fate. Tourists likely find whatever they’ve come to find. Some have come to snap cameras in front of golden temples and ride on tuk-tuks and pay 10 dollars for a two-hour massage. Others come to forestall other fates in their home world and trade comforts for jobs teaching remedial English in sweltering classrooms for a year or two. Some tourists come wanting more sensual escape. Some become voids themselves. Drugs will be dropped into drinks, wallets and passports will be taken, biological souvenirs will be exchanged in hotel rooms. The unluckiest fall in love.
Whether they know it or not, farangs—what a Thai calls Western foreigners—are just joining the swirl of Bangkok’s ongoing social choreography. The wealthy and middle class have their patterns of rise and fall. The poor come to be richer, and there are only so many ways of getting there. For the most part, Bangkok welcomes those with entrepreneurial will. They’re the ones who set up noodlestands or hair salons or auto repair shops in the first floor of row houses. Some are willing to trade far greater. The teenage girls arriving from the countryside don’t often stray from well-trampled paths. Rookie traffic cops begin their climb up the ranks by shaking down motorcyclists at checkpoints underneath expressways. Social welfare join hands with institutionalized gambling, and the blind and crippled roll out grass mats on the sidewalk to hawk lottery tickets to anyone hoping to redeem their luck.
So says Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar: “As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but the sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.”
I know this because I read the Bangkok tabloid dailies in the summers I returned from the U.S. My grandmother would lie down on the nice, cool wood floor to read them, and I picked up the sections she finished. Every few months, some heartbroken farang leapt from a condo balcony. National holidays came and went, leaving a confetti of wreckage tracked by daily highway death counts in bold, 40-point headline fonts. The same stories appeared again and again. Somebody in a circle of laborers drinking Mekong whiskey looked at another person way too long in the eye. A drunk woman got in the wrong taxi late at night. A man flashed too many gold-wrapped Buddha amulets worn for holy protection.
In Bangkok, you simply enjoy a much shorter waiting time between cause and effect, desire and satisfaction—between certitude and its expectable unraveling. All of the universe’s jokes can play out immediately at any given time. The logic of so many Bangkok phenomena just takes a bit of time to figure out, and if you can’t figure it out, then you leave it to the supernatural.
Let’s talk again about ghosts. What most of Bangkok’s ghosts seem to want is alms. It’s traditionally believed their ghostly anatomies are hungry or they need to save up on merits in order to move beyond where they’re stuck in the afterlife. The racketeering meets cross-existential Western Union scheme works this way: First you’re unfortunate enough to come across desperate ghosts. They make themselves known to you in your waking hours or dreams, and then you go to a temple to pray and make offerings of merit that will hopefully prevent future scares. With nods to Buddhist, Hindu, and other animist traditions, this belief implies a huge karmic operation in which the living and the dead carry out transactions that are duly processed and fulfilled. Debts and excesses of transgressions and merits are accounted for, and every soul continually make adjustments to a spiritual balance sheet that can affect future incarnations, not only of themselves, but others, as well.
For many Bangkok citizens, especially those who have not been so fortunate with their circumstances, this arrangement can offer a satisfactory explanation of their condition. In his book Poor People, William T. Vollmann asks a woman in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum why she thought some people are poor and other rich. “She grasped at the air and said: we believe in the Buddhist way. Some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life. What they gave gets returned in this life.”
In Bangkok, some people consider themselves ghosts, and some ghosts are as good as people. Either way, they are stuck in a place that has moved past them.
The Bangkok along Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng roads, to which I go back and find things as they were, is slowly fading into a city less recognizable to me. Each time I visit, the old neighborhood strays. Some of the old shops have closed, replaced by new players of the entrepreneurial game, now with air-conditioning. Several street names have changed for reasons unknown. Even my family has become at once familiar and alien. My parents, younger cousins, aunts and uncles: they grow older and become different people. Because I can only visit them once or twice a year, I see them in punctuated intervals, as if I’m looking at them through a life-sized zoetrope cylinder in which they age through strobes of time. Bangkok is not the same city I knew from childhood, and it’s not as entirely lascivious and corrupt as what has become its depiction in popular entertainment. What I’ve collected of Bangkok are just fragments; my knowledge of the city remains incomplete. Most likely I’ve been too Westernized to see beyond the privileged view I’ve enjoyed as a foreigner native. Bangkok is a city that I can only know by intimate inference, and so I proceed with the going-ons that are expected of me, the momentarily returned son. I accept the boundaries of what’s there for me to see.
The unknowable city, though, has a way of letting me know it’s there, shifting behind the veil. One sunny day during a holiday visit a few years ago, my mother and I went to buy groceries for my grandmother at a supermarket a few kilometers from her house. It usually took us an hour to get there, because of traffic, but that day there were hardly any cars on the road. We arrived in half an hour. It felt like one of those holiday weekends when Bangkok empties into the countryside and deflates back to its proper capacity. “Traffic’s fantastic today,” my mother said to one of the employees helping us load groceries from the cart. “Is there some special event going on?” The boy, no more than 16, kept on lifting up bags of groceries. “Just a rumor there’s going to be a coup,” he muttered.
Sometimes my mother calls me from Bangkok to tell me that animals have been released in my name. Every year around my birthday she does this, and around New Year’s, when I go back to Bangkok for the holidays, she takes me to do it in person. We go to one of the open-air markets and find a fishmonger. Out of the plastic tubs filled with gaping eels, catfish, and frogs, we select a propitious number of them to be scooped into a rubber-band-sealed plastic bag, the same way you buy guppies for an aquarium.
We drive out to the city’s periphery; my mother worries that too close to the city, the water is too dirty for our pardoned captives. We find a temple by a canal. I open the bags and let the contents leap into the water. Some years, we also go buy coffins. There’s an organization called Ruamkatanyu that collects bodies from accidents and crime scenes. If nobody claims the bodies, they’re put into our donated coffins and given proper funerals. For my mother and many Thais, all this animal liberation and gifts of final dignity can help build merits and affect the invisible algorithm that figures out your karmic credit score. It’s a way of warding off a Bangkok they don’t know.
After we’re done, we go listen to saffron-robed monks pray. We pick up a silver bottle from a side table in the temple. From the bottle, we pour water over an outstretched finger into a collecting bowl. As the water trickles down, we are supposed to wish that our newly earned merits be passed on to the spirits—of dead relatives and of the land, and spirits of those we’ve harmed, to whom we owe incalculable debts, and poor spirits, wandering and hungry, and spirits who protect us, should they think we are good people. And so we feed the grand contraption. When we are done, my mother tells me to take the filled bowl outside, beyond the shade of the building, as tradition dictates. Preferably near the root of a large auspicious tree, I am to pour the water to the ground.
I always had a sense that I would fall in love with Tokyo. In retrospect I guess it’s not that surprising. I was of the generation that had grown up in the ’80s when Japan was ascendant (born aloft by a bubble whose burst crippled its economy for decades), and I’d fed on a steady diet of anime and samurai films. Tokyo for all sorts of reasons spoke to me. By the time I was ready to start having fantasies about any city other than New York, Tokyo was already “the default setting of the future”—Blade Runner city!—and whether because of my childhood poverty or personal inclination, the future was where I longed to be.
It took a while—I wasn’t the kind of kid who could afford to just up and go wherever he liked—but I did finally make it to Tokyo. My best friend, a Japanese-American who’d relocated back to the home country after college, was hosting me. It was a strange time, really. My friend was scheduled to have open-heart surgery the following month, which was part of the reason I had flown over when I did. You know: just in case. He had pretty much decided that no matter what the doctors said about the risks, he was going to be fine, and all that really mattered at the moment was showing me as much of Tokyo as possible. His way of dealing with it. So that’s basically what we did for the next three weeks. Saw Tokyo. Lived it. And predictably I fell in love.
With what? The typical stuff. All the bells and whistles of its modernity. The strangeness of it, the impossible overwhelming scale. With the ramen shop behind my friend’s apartment that served the greatest gyoza I’d ever eaten. With his hip neighborhood, Shimo-Kitazawa. With the last trains back from Shibuya, everybody smashed. With the curry shops that were a revelation to me. With the ginkgo trees and the parks that, despite Tokyo’s insane urbanism, were everywhere. With the castles and the temples and the costume tribes that gathered in Ueno Park on the weekends. With the fact that you couldn’t walk five feet in Tokyo without being tempted by some new deliciousness. With the eyeglass-washing stations. With the crows and the wooden crutches propping up ailing trees. With the glimpse of Mount Fuji from the top of the Metropolitan Government building. With the salsa clubs in Roppongi. With my little train book that I carried with me everywhere.
I could go on. We all can when we talk about the cities we love. Tokyo just did it for me the way London or Rome or Paris or Barcelona does it for other people. My childhood self with all his longings resonated with Tokyo’s futurism. My immigrant self grooved on the familiarity of being an utter stranger, of being gaijin No. 1; it was not so long before that America had been as incomprehensible to me as Japan. My apocalyptic self (highly developed after an ’80s childhood) froze at the scars of Tokyo’s many traumas.
It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable. What you love really are pieces of it. You are like Dr. Aadam Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight’s Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed, but with cities that never happens. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love: our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who we were at that time we fell in love. For me, my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend, who did, in the end, survive his surgery.
Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. No city in the world makes that vulnerability more explicit than Tokyo. In the last century alone Tokyo was destroyed two times. Once by the Great Kanto Earthquake and again by the bombings of World War II.
Each time Tokyo has risen anew.
Today, as radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station drifts toward Tokyo, I am again thinking about the vulnerability of cities and of our love for them. Perhaps cities provoke so much love because they know that in that love lies their own endurance. After all, isn’t it true that for all their vulnerability, as long as a city is loved by someone it will never truly disappear? Isn’t that what it really means to love a city the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, of its rebirth?