Living with Strangers
by Lorraine Lupo
no one sits next to Lyndon on the subway. It is mid-morning and the car he’s riding is not crowded. An overcast, humid day, blank gray skies, everyone carrying an umbrella. At the next stop two girls get on the car, murmuring to each other in Spanish. School is let out for the summer. They wear tight jeans, tight shirts. Their faces are flushed from the heat of the underground platform. They stand, brace themselves, unthinking, for the car’s jolt of forward movement. The man across from Lyndon is watching them. Professional type, with tasteful shoes, neatly blow-dried hair. He reads a line from his newspaper, then his eyes flicker up to them. One girl reaches to the other, picks a bit of lint from the neck of her shirt.
Lyndon Forrester is seventy years old, tall and lean, with a canted, rangy walk. He smiles easily and often. A lot of city people do, despite the reputation for stoniness, for “street smarts.” A silly phrase. Those with actual street smarts whom Lyndon has observed know where and when to keep their guard up. When the wino on his corner calls out Hey baby, you lookin’ good today, or some variation, it is the tourist from safer environs who will tense, scurry to the opposite side of the street. Lyndon was barely twenty when he moved here. Once, long ago, he lived in a detached house, with a front porch, the lonely mailbox with the red flag at the edge of the road. A back yard—funny to think of it now, that lost luxury. A dappling of green light into his bedroom window from the tree outside, though perhaps that was a different tree, a different time.
He is riding the subway to pick up a rental car to drive to his apartment, where he’ll load up his luggage, some books and papers, his computer, other things he thinks he might need. It would be easier to fly to California, but this is not how Lyndon chooses to travel. He likes to be able to stop, to wander, to accumulate along the way.
The car he’s rented is long, padded, an American sedan with a smooth, loose ride. It has the same stale smell as the motel rooms he will stay in: thousands of cigarettes smoked, disposed of, disinfected, a hint of hairspray, moldering cracker crumbs in the floorboard— little dramas layered over time. There is the flight over city streets, the crowded rushing overpasses and junctures, then the landscape gradually empties, the road rolls out flat. There are crowds of trees beside the freeway now, and the billboards are like oversized sandwich boards: Sparky’s Family Restaurant, The Stop N’ Go Lodge, With Color TV and Air Conditioning.
The motels are self-contained worlds with their own physical laws, their own customs. The ice bucket and the ice machine—Lyndon owns neither at home, but every night he finds himself shuffling down the hall, opening its frosty lid and helping himself. The use and re-use, the parched, chafing motel towels, abused by washing. How a motel blanket pills faster while in the service of a rotation of guests than any he has owned his whole adult life.
Other people have touched these sheets, lain and dreamed in this bed. Other people have stripped this bed, smoothed and made it again. At night, Lyndon lies on his back in the dark, his long feet making a tent under the blankets, and he feels not quite himself. In this complete and womblike motel darkness, he loses all sight and sensation of himself and feels, for a flickering moment, afraid.
Before he retired, Lyndon Forrester was a scholar of urban studies. He taught for thirty-eight years, wrote four books, countless articles. The kind woman behind the motel’s reception desk showed no spark of recognition upon learning his name. Most do not. But among certain circles, there are certain people who have read a book or two, who discuss his work as the fixed and concrete thing that respected ideas become. Two years ago he was contacted by a Raymond Litzee, of Litzee Properties. A real estate developer with massive, fuzzy ambitions and lofty beliefs. They began an email correspondence, Raymond quoting poetry, quoting Lyndon’s own writing back to him (Where have the centers of our places gone, and with them their souls, ours even? Seeing his own words felt to Lyndon like being shown the side of his head at the barber’s: familiar, unfamiliar, shocking to remember his terribly large nose). Raymond sent drawings of his latest project for Lyndon’s review: scrawlings in pencil, tattooed with comments, injunctions, questions.
a meandering path
Grids are helpful
No medians, please
There were the practical questions, but the unanswerable ones preoccupied Raymond most. Yes, the new street must contain a lane for the bicyclist, the new curb radius should measure between five and ten feet. There must be trees planted on every street and houses set close together. The idea of perfection preoccupies him. Memories and dreams. Raymond is conducting a Memory Project: a person takes him somewhere, a place of great personal significance. This can be anywhere, Raymond explained in one e-mail. An old house, a storefront, a park, a stretch of road. They show him what is there or describe what once was. But what, Lyndon wonders, will he do with something so fleeting? What structures or streets can be built from the disintegrating stuff of memory?
Too, Raymond’s evolving plans were to result in a suburban subdivision of single-family homes, Lyndon pointed out. Was he really doing anything new? I can’t move mountains all at once, you know, Raymond replied.
The taste for fast food won’t be replaced at once with the taste for something homegrown and wholesome. It must be a slow process, a gradual excavation of desire. It took decades to kill the trolley. Does anyone remember it now, as they drive alone on congested city streets? Today, over 60 percent of American households have more than two cars. But have you seen the streetcars in New Orleans lately, the cable cars in San Francisco? Overflowing with tourists, just riding. What was once the means is now the destination. I repeat: it will be a slow process, an excavation of desire. Give them their neighborhood of front lawns, places to store their two cars. But show them other things, other modes of living. Undercut the structure, but a little. A little denser, a little more varied. Prepare them for the future.
Lyndon is driving to California now to participate in the design of that future. Raymond Litzee is planning a town center, annexed to the first residential project now in the works, that will contain elements unseen in contemporary suburbia. It is the initial design phase, the phase of gathering investors, gathering ideas. And it is for this that Lyndon drags himself out of retirement, out of habit and stasis. One last hurrah, one last chance to make a mark.
Lyndon tries not to be preoccupied with the why and how much of his own legacy (presumptuous even to call it that). He attempts to ignore such petty impulses at this late age. An impossible thing to gauge, at any rate.
Every day on the road brings a new town. Note the differences, the sameness too. A small town in Kansas or Oklahoma has its brown hulking courthouse, its Main Street and green grass park. Flowering trees this time of year, mud-spattered pick-up trucks. In some downtowns the businesses still thrive, in others they do not. There are the grids of streets: the names of trees running east to west, the numbered streets north to south. As in the pockets of his own huge city, there are the oddities that manage to survive: wig shops, junk stores dusty and smelly, all-you-can-eat affairs with lace curtains and hand-lettered signs.
Lyndon spends the day in one of these towns. There is a courthouse at the center, approachable on all sides and surrounded by a park of sorts. There are benches and a network of pathways and streetlights. In the morning, just beginning to grow hot, Lyndon sits on a park bench and drinks coffee from a styrofoam cup. He is there early enough to watch a man in polyester slacks and a shortsleeve shirt bring out the U.S. flag. He is followed by a younger man who carries the state flag, the neat triangle of it tucked under his arm. Without speaking they do the business of raising the flags, then, hands slung in pockets, go back inside. Along High Street businesses open their doors at ten. This street is the lone success downtown—a short stretch ebbing on either end to a nothingness of unused buildings, weeds, and scrub. But along High Street shoppers park their cars and visit the antique dealers. They walk from one length of the street to the other, crossing over to the courthouse, and beyond that to the concrete bridge overlooking the ravine. It’s not much, but they enjoy the opportunity to get out of their cars, get from one place to another on foot. At lunchtime, Lyndon walks to the café on High Street. Plastic tables and chairs are set up outside. Inside, a woman feeds a muffin to her baby, a group of bureaucrats buy coffee at the counter, laughing. Lyndon orders a turkey sandwich and sits inside, listening to the murmur of conversation, the clatter of activity behind the counter.
He walks down High Street, then further, to the residential part of town. A woman here is loading her toddler into the car, an old man there is watering his lawn. Here, as everywhere, ordinary things are happening. Perhaps nothing of note can be said about what Lyndon has seen, but he has seen it all the same.
He gets back on the freeway. The landscape blurs by his window, simplified to green unending fields, trees, billboards, more trees. The soil changes color, the sky changes dimension. He stops to see the Grand Canyon. He enjoys the desert. He is fast approaching the ocean, a whole other ocean on the other side.
One day before his arrival Lyndon checks into a motel. He plugs in his laptop, dials up. A message from Raymond Litzee is waiting for him: A short, narrow city street, sycamore trees planted in rows on either side. There is a hat shop here, a nail parlor, two restaurants, a shoe store, a dry cleaner. Apartments up above. On warmer days the windows are open and curtains .utter out. At the noon hour crowds form outside as people wait to get seated at one of the restaurants. This is not a prosperous neighborhood. It is downtown, it is difficult to park. It is a strange narrow pocket.
According to the informal rules of their exchange, Lyndon must write whatever comes to his head, whatever shard of memory surfaces. He closes his eyes. He bends over the keyboard. It was a gray muggy day in the summer. The air felt wet with rain, there was no sun and I was waiting on the steps of the library. Place and weather are linked inextricably in my mind. The memory is a wash of gray—the gray pavement, the gray sky. I waited for a long time on the library steps, the building looming behind me, an enormous presence. Once the image is summoned, Lyndon finds himself there again. He remembers the sticky air, the grit of the pavement beneath his feet. He thinks about entering the library behind him, he imagines its musty coolness.
At the library, I remember watching the rush hour crowds while I was waiting. Perhaps this is why I remember that moment, appreciating for the first time the hustle and bustle that would bring me to my life’s work. Or perhaps this was not the first crowd I had watched. There is nothing more beautiful than a crowd. It is like a painting, it contains all the energy of a painting. In the biggest of cities you will find the most beautiful crowds. In Beijing, the crowds on bicycles, in New York, the walking crowds in the mornings and the afternoons. The colors of their clothes sparkle, their movement in unison, a kind of invented life force.
Lyndon is feeling energized and alert again. While he has always been both of the world but outside of it, always watching, there is purpose to that watching again. Not the mere speculation of a man whiling away the late afternoon on a park bench, his observations are data, hard data. There is purpose again, and application.
Lyndon leaves the cursor blinking on the screen. He takes his motel pass key and a handful of change and goes out to find a vending machine, selecting for his dinner a candy bar and a bag of chips. He walks to the balcony outside and eats standing at the railing, looking at the empty overflow parking lot behind the motel. This Raymond Litzee, he thinks, what is he onto, what is he after? He watches the unremarkable sky turn orange. When it is time for bed he climbs beneath another set of used sheets and blankets, breathes the unfamiliar smells. In the morning he remembers a bright courtyard where he stood in his dreams. It stays with him all day.
Lorraine Lupo lives in Berkeley, California. “Living with Strangers” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Her Trio of Prose Poems ("Maria's New Job," "Washing Cars," and "Tuna Helper") appeared in the winter 2000–01 issue of On the Page.