I don’t know if it’s the alignment of the stars and planets or what, but I’ve been living beneath a dark and humid constellation anyway. I have felt a heaviness pushing me down. And the other night I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I did what I usually do when I need to comfort myself, which is to go on a long walk. I walked from Lake Merritt up Grand Avenue and then cut over to Telegraph and headed in the direction of Koryo Sushi, thinking it would make me feel a little better to sit down there. But on my trek through the dark I felt a sort of sadness all around me that was unshakeable. It seemed like everyone was suffering the same hell as me and it gutted me to realize that. I walked by so many small tragedies that you’ll see on any given night on certain parts of San Pablo and Broadway and Telegraph and Shattuck . . . people living beneath bridges and sleeping in the doorways of empty buildings that were places I remembered going to a long time ago now when they were still something. To bear witness is to absorb the sorrow of it. It put me in a rotten mood. Finally I got to the neon signs outside of Koryo, and I went in and sat down at the table where I always sit by myself, and I felt cheerless and lonely and I wished that anyone at all was sitting across from me. It was difficult to not think about all the nice nights I had spent there during better days. A black streak of terror shot down my spine when I considered that my life had become a series of perfunctory gestures drained of all meaning, and that I existed now out of habit alone. Not wanting to think anymore just then, I finished my tea and got up and went outside where it was cold as hell. I walked to 40th and foolishly turned right, figuring I would walk up MLK to get home so that I could pass Eli’s beneath the overpass and look inside and see if I knew anyone there. And I thought also I would walk by Emma and Daphne’s and see if there was a light on in their window. By the time I got to Eli’s the place was mostly empty and there was no point in going inside. Someone screamed at me from the darkness of the overpass and I kept walking towards the skyscrapers of downtown Oakland until finally I was back on Grand. Somehow the walk had made me feel worse. I tried to think of another time I had felt such a way at the end of a walk but couldn’t remember any. Three blocks away from my apartment I turned to look at the trees by the lake and froze there on the sidewalk. There on the grass stood the albino raccoon. I could hardly believe it. We gazed at each other for a while, and then four of his little brothers scurried out of a bush and stood beside him and watched me too. The albino raccoon sat down and started grooming himself while his family scavenged the tall grass around him and I let them alone and walked home.
A long time ago now, I liked this girl who lived in Austin, Texas. Back then I lived alone in Baltimore and had nothing much to do there, so I would use the money I made doing clinical trials to fly around and see people. I went to a lot of places that summer . . . but every two weeks or so I’d fly to Austin to see her. I would stay for a week and we would hang out every night in her room in this big house she lived in close to downtown. And at the end of one of those trips, just as summer was ending too, I took a midnight bus from Austin to New Orleans, which takes about nine hours. I went to New Orleans to see Leila, whom I had helped move there a few months before. I always think about this though: that during that whole ride there, in the dark nothing between Austin and New Orleans, across the Texas and Louisiana border, she and I texted each other for hours until she finally fell asleep. This was a pre-smartphone world . . . so it’s easy to romanticize it now, how I would sit there and key in letters one at a time with the number pad, and read over what I had written three times to make sure I had got it right. And then I’d stare out the window at the refinery towers in the distance, which blew fire into the night sky and lit the undersides of clouds, and wait for her to respond. Sometimes she’d write back immediately, and other times there would be long lapses since she was painting. It was so exciting. When I think about it now I feel a sadness because I don’t think such a thing is possible anymore in that way. It was a unique period of my life when I was totally free. Pretty much all I thought about was this girl and I missed her like hell when I was away from her. That long bus ride, with the cabin dark and everyone around me asleep, is a sort of emblematic memory to me, like a beacon for that whole era. In my mind it sums up what my life was then, which was exciting and strange in a way that I’ll just never know again.
since i’ve gotten back to oakland, it is clear that the homeless problem here has grown worse by orders of magnitude, almost certainly because of the pandemic. people walk right by abject poverty and needless human suffering every day like it’s totally normal. it is not normal. this is a massive humanitarian crisis right on our doorstep. i don’t blame people for not knowing what to do. people are just trying to live. this is a systemic problem that everyday people have very little power over. i just can’t believe nothing is being done about it is all. there are literally shantytowns and massive encampments of homeless people all along international boulevard, in these weird and forgotten corners of east oakland that the city has effectively given up on. it really does make me sick to think about. what is the end goal here? to just have tens of thousands of people permanently living in squalor on the streets?
we are alive and have to live somewhere. we live in countries. a country is a collection of people with commonalities who are trying to live. so what does it mean when we have an existential crisis collectively? what sort of society do we want to live in? one day we will die. have we decided that the happiness of strangers isn’t important? do we not care that our brothers and sisters are sick and poor? are we comfortable living this way? it sure seems that way!
i always get home and think: “did i do any permanent damage today?”
thomas theodor heine
this has been me for basically the entire last year