In Saigon, I live with my in laws in Phú Lâm, the same neighborhood I was in at 8 and 9-years-old, when my mother had a pharmacy here. It was named Linh. Then my parents got divorced. Sometimes in life, you end up exactly where you started.
Twice a day, I’d take my nephew for a walk, with the first usually at 6AM, and the second around 5PM. I’ve done this for over a year. Though his real name is Thiên Ân [God’s Gift], he’s called Suki, for nearly all Vietnamese babies have a nickname, usually something cute sounding, like Bim or Bon. In this neighborhood, there are toddlers nicknamed Coca, Pepsi and Khoai Tây [French Potato].
Suki has just turned two. Like me, he loves to be on the streets. Delighted by what he sees, he sometimes laughs out loud, and once startled a boy badminton player in mid swing. Suki particularly likes to observe men working. Everywhere we go, we see new houses being built, four, five stories high, so we would stop to watch men and women fill then push carts loaded with sand or bricks. Mesmerized by cement mixers, Suki has sort of learnt how to pronounce it, “máy măng,” leaving out the “xi.” Many of these construction crews have gotten used to seeing Suki showing up early in the morning to watch them work. Smiling, they’d banter with him.
As we watched a cement mixer growlingly turn, a woman in a nearby house noticed mosquito bites on Suki’s legs, so she went home and got some medicinal oil to rub on my nephew, and this she did with the greatest concern. We didn’t even know her.
“Say thank you to granny, Suki!” I urged.
Wending through alleys, Suki becomes acculturated, learns how to be Vietnamese, and what he sees isn’t always charming. At Phú Định Market, a regular stop, he watched as a man snipped off a frog’s mouth, hands and feet, then cut straight down its back, so that he could peel its entire skin, coatlike, off the still living animal. Eyes blinking, twitching or crawling around, the now purple frog could now join dozens of his similarly undressed relatives.
Seeing Mr. Hiếu at an alley cafe, Suki and I sat down at his table. Across the way was a hideous Buddhist temple that, over time, I’ve found less ugly, and once or twice, from a certain angle and in the right light, I even thought beautiful.
To say that I’ve known Mr. Hiếu for 20 years would be misleading, for there’s not much to know. The man hardly talks. Sixty-seven-years-old, he was a car and truck mechanic, but hasn’t worked in a long time, as his strength ebbed. He lived in the house he was born until last year, when it had to be sold. Now dwelling half a mile away, he comes back to his old neighborhood each day, out of habit and sadness. Yesterday, I caught him walking by his old home just to look at it. Mr. Hiếu was married for just a year, before his wife left him. He’s been nowhere, done nothing exciting and doesn’t touch alcohol. He does smoke Jet, at 86 cents a pack, and drink iced coffee.
What Mr. Hiếu does have, though, is an abundant sense of belonging, so maybe he should feel sorry for you?
As I walked alone, a scrawny boy of about four suddenly grabbed my hand and meekly pleaded, “Uncle, take me to my mommy.”
“Your mommy?! Where is your mommy?”
“But I don’t know your mommy. Where do you live?”
“Why don’t you just stay home, and wait until your mommy comes back?”
“I’m home alone.”
Turning to a nearby woman, I asked, “Do you know this boy?”
“No,” she smiled, “but he can stay with me until his mom shows up.” She yanked over a low plastic stool for the boy to sit on. Becalmed, he perched.
“I’ll leave him with you, sister.” Satisfied with this arrangement, I continued my rambling.
In the US, I also walked tirelessly, for during my 30 years as an adult there, I owned a car for just one year. Though certainly not the most efficient way to get around, walking is the most intimate and social, for that’s how you can measure your environment with your body, one foot at a time. Wandering, you can feel the friendly, off-putting, desolate or menacing vibes of each neighborhood.
I logged many miles in San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland, St Paul, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, New Orleans, Charleston, Atlanta and Orlando, etc. Mostly, I walked all over Philadelphia, for that’s how I got to know my city. Not too wisely, I repeatedly strayed into its least congenial sections. When I lingered at the corner where my friend Jerome Robinson had been killed, an angry, scowling teenager marched over to tell me to get the fuck away. Jerome was shot by such a kid.
Much of this walking, I did without any maps. When I got lost in Washington’s Anacostia, one of its few remaining black ghettos, I asked a woman to point me to the nearest Metro Station. In the sweetest, most maternal voice, she said, “It’s this way, baby!”
In Philadelphia’s Logan, a woman who appeared to be half black, half yellow asked me as I passed her on the sidewalk, “Are you partly black?”
Half amused, half apologetic, I had to answer this lovely lady, “No, no!”
Working up a sweat, I would reward myself by barging into any bar that looked cheap enough, and the reception I got was nearly always convivial. In 2012, I dropped into Chicago’s Logan Square’s Western Tap, a joint I had been in just once, in 2009, yet the bartender, Pancho, still remembered me. Granted, no other Vietnamese had likely sat in this long-time Polish bar, then frequented mostly by Puerto Ricans.
Another guy, Manuel, was perched on the same stool as three years earlier, and he too remembered me . As we chattered, Enter The Dragon came on TV, so we talked about Bruce and Brandon Lee, and I told him about my recent travel. Manuel had only been to New York once, for two months, and had returned to his native Puerto Rico a handful of times, and that’s it for his traveling. Too busy working, he had never even been to nearby Milwaukee, St Louis or Detroit. Manuel had toiled in all types of factories, and even in a Chinese restaurant. “There was so much work back then. You could always find work, not like today.” Manuel labored so hard, he never got around to getting married.
On the Western Tap’s sign, there wasn’t even its name, just “HEILEMAN’S OLD STYLE” framed heraldically. Like the beer, the bar is gone. Like diners, dive bars are disappearing.
There are many reasons for this. Its function as a public living room, as in England, has been diminished relentlessly, as people would rather sit home, alone in the dark, to be indoctrinated by a screen, and you can’t readily masturbate in a bar.
Modern city planning, with its zoning laws, is also culpable. In The Road to Wiggan Pier (1937), Orwell points out, “A whole section of the town is condemned en bloc; presently the houses are pulled down and the people are transferred to some housing estate miles away. In this way all the small shopkeepers of the quarter have their whole clientele taken away from them at a single swoop and receive not a penny of compensation. They cannot transfer their business to the estate, because even if they can afford the move and the much higher rents, they would probably be refused a licence. As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance–it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life.”
In the US, the same dynamics occurred with the mass exodus to the suburbs, a process accelerated by the race riots of the 60’s. Millions of whites simply gave up their turf to blacks. Sick of strip malls, many are now moving back into cities, but each ghetto encroachment is being met by resentful blacks, for that’s how it is and has always been, a battle for lebensraum between competing groups. A different mode of living demands its own space. As intended, multiculturalism increases and intensifies these battles.
It’s no big deal to talk to strangers, really, as long as you’re willing to listen, but first, you must walk towards them.
Many, though, prefer to head the other way, and this antisocial walking is perhaps best exemplified by Thoreau, “I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape.” Following his lead, Americans trek into their magnificent landscape, so much of which remains open even today.
As for city walking, it’s not a very popular pastime, I don’t think, and one deterrent is crime. A friend, Wendy, just emailed me from Cleveland, “I think I told you then about my black friend who’d been killed in the ghetto, shot three times in the back, and nobody knew why. Every black person I talked to about it just shrugged and said, ‘Probably just another random shooting.’ In the past year there’ve been two black-on-black shooting deaths in my neighborhood that I know of. One was at the gas station/convenience store just down the street. It’s since installed bullet-proof plexiglas to protect the clerks and keep a security guard on duty. Well, three deaths, because when I saw the police all over the place, I went to the drug store across the street to ask what happened. There was a black woman there who said, ‘They killed my boy last week too.’
“The other one was at the watering hole I used to frequent, T’s, just up the street. T’s used to be a place where people in their 50s-60s hung at during happy hour, whites, blacks, Russian immigrants who live in the low-income housing; carpenters, schoolteachers, retired folk, etc. Every once in a while we’d get a little buzzed, put some money in the juke box, and dance around. The bartender was a middle-aged lady who told great jokes. As with many of the bars around here, after happy hour the place would ‘change’– dive bar parlance for turning entirely black. Since the murder there, the owner has given management over to some black pimps; the barmaids are ‘dancers.’ The great thing about the sort of black people who frequent these places is they get plastered on the high-shelf stuff before tearing the place up and getting out their guns, and usually they miss. When people start moving out because of the violence, it’ll be chalked up to racism.”
So now Wendy can’t even drag her creaky, middle aged ass to the local dive to palaver away her sorrows.
Maybe Wendy can drive half an hour or so to the nearest shopping mall, and after finding a parking space, go inside to march around with other mall walkers. Among the benefits of this new American pastime is the presence of “mall security staff and presence of other walkers and shoppers [which helps] to alleviate a fear of crime that may be prevalent in other neighborhood areas,” as explained by a University of Washington brochure. Chain stores will be her world.
During my two months in Marfa, Texas, I would daily walk around this handsome town of 1,800, but the front porches were mostly empty, thanks to the air conditioners. Neighborly bonding did occur at the Lost Horse Saloon and, especially, at high school football games, where enchiladas were sold and everyone chattered quite cheerfully through another spirited loss. The Shorthorns simply suck year after year. Among the cheerleaders was a sprightly queer, so he too had his place.
Every community is woven together by the stories of its inhabitants, so if you don’t know your neighbors’ stories, you’re homeless.
This week, I reread Chekhov’s Little Trilogy. In “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love,” a character narrates a longish tale to two listeners, and this is no fictional device, but perfectly realistic, for before the advent of electronic media, people routinely told each other stories. I had many such evenings as a child, in the 70’s. More than entertainment, it was a social necessity.
Now, billions are enraptured to dumb skits, porn and real or fake catastrophes cynically or sinisterly beamed from thousands of miles away. Hardly knowing where they are at any moment, they have become emotional, social and political castrati.
The literature of walking is endless, and immediately, Basho’s Backroads to Far Town or Neruda’s “Walking Around” will spring to mind, but to me, the most astonishing writing on walking is Robert Walser’s “The Walk,” for it captures perfectly the multifaceted elation that walking’s intercourse with life often yields.
Walser, as translated by Christopher Middleton, “A walk is always filled with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel. A pleasant walk most often teems with imageries and living poems, with enchantments and natural beauties, be they ever so small. The lore of nature and the lore of the country are revealed, charming and graceful, to the sense and eyes of the observant walker, who must of course walk not with downcast but with open and unclouded eyes, if the lovely significance and the gay, noble idea of the walk are to dawn on him.”
Walking’s main usurper and enemy is the automobile. Walser, “To people sitting in a blustering dust-churning automobile I always present my austere and angry face, and they do not deserve a better one. Then they believe that I am a spy, a plainclothes policeman, delegated by high officials and authorities to spy on the traffic, to note down the numbers of vehicles, and later to report them. I always then look darkly at the wheels, at the car as a whole, but never at its occupants, whom I despise, and this in no way personally, but purely on principle; for I do not understand, and I never shall understand, how it can be a pleasure to hurtle past all the images and objects which our beautiful earth displays, as if one had gone mad and had to accelerate for fear of misery and despair. In fact, I love repose and all that reposes. I love thrift and moderation and am in my inmost self, in God’s name, unfriendly toward any agitation and haste. More than what is true I need not say. And because of these words the driving of automobiles will certainly not be discontinued, nor its evil air-polluting smell, which nobody for sure particularly loves or esteems. It would be unnatural if someone’s nostrils were to love and inhale with relish that which for all correct nostrils, at times, depending perhaps on the mood one is in, outrages and evokes revulsion. Enough, and no harm meant. And now walk on. Oh, it is heavenly and good and in simplicity most ancient to walk on foot, provided of course one’s shoes or boots are in order.”
Fearing life, Chekhov’s man in a case erected every barrier against it, and was only at peace in the coffin, where “his expression was mild, agreeable, even cheerful, as though he were glad that he had at last been put in a case which he would never leave again.”
Similarly, contemporary man has encased himself against life. Strapped to agitation and haste, he unhappily hurls himself past everything that makes this existence meaningful.