September 12, 2011
Grass on the Railroad Tracks: Meditations on How the New World Gets Older
by Mara Jebsen
It was a misty grey day, and I walked under a short underpass, and when I came out on the other side-- it was a hot, sunny day. Then it rained again. “Welcome to New York” I said to myself, though I’ve lived in New York nine years. It is a place that won’t resolve itself.
I love the Highline, and when I go there, in my head I always sing “You must take the A train, if you wanna shoo-be-doo way up in Harlem”. I took the A train, but not all the way to Harlem—at 18th street I stayed and smelled the marvelous grassy stuff growing in light-green whorls around and over rusty train tracks. I wondered whether it was worth taking a picture of them. I did, and it wasn’t worth it.
The camera was stupid and I was stupid to use it. There wasn’t a thing in the photo to help me communicate how I like the feeling of peeking. Every once in a while you’ll get a glimpse of the skeleton--the insides of a thing, like a city, for example. I think the Highline is so calming because it bares its bones, its history. It isn’t totally razed over and new. It allows ghost trains to ride over abandoned tracks, but the heathery grass-stuff is so elegant that the image asserts a reconciliation between the hopes of old technologies, old purposes and. . . not necessarily the future, but the now.
These train tracks also remind me of other ones, which were heaped with goats and garbage.
The climate in West Africa is hostile to preservation. A cool gritty wind blows down from the Sahara and warps whatever’s made of wood or paper, then coats it in black and grey and red dust. Whitewash peels off the buildings when the pounding rains land down. Creatures, heat and moisture join forces to gnaw little holes in delicate materials.
Things don’t keep.
All of my childhood mementos are grimy and decrepit—I had brought them with me from Philadelphia when I was twelve and they adapted much worse to the Togolese environment than I did. Within a year, my stuffed animals were so disgusting it was more painful to look at them than to toss them. My teenager bedroom was becoming a mausoleum.
So I tossed things.
Also, I learned, ungracefully, to live without foreign objects—like chocolate, ice cream, apples, hamburgers, cds, cosmetics, books, toys, pre-made clothes. . .
I may have been seventeen before anyone told me that while the climate had always been this way, the country of Togo had been quite different once. Lome, the capital, is a port town, and in the 70’s and 80’s it was where people all over West Africa used to travel to get the stuffs carted in from Europe and America. There had also been a functioning railway system. Lome used to be the place to go to do something wildly exotic, like eat strawberries while listening to jazz in an air-conditioned piano bar.
By the time I got there in the 90’s, what with economic shifts and eroding winds, there was almost no physical trace of that early prosperity. The stuffs carted in from Europe had long since stopped coming, and the products already in the country must have disintegrated. The strawberries got eaten, the pianos warped, the railroad rusted and eventually a dump formed right where there had been a crossroad.
Things don’t keep.
And yet it wasn’t as depressing as it could have been. I can’t speak for everywhere, but in Lome I’d say there is an intense sense of history that is not material. It is oral, conceptual—one can’t count on physical mementos to help preserve one’s memories. That is the job of story and belief. This is also a country in which people don’t mark or celebrate birthdays, and much of the population doesn’t know exactly how old they are. So time passes quite differently, less dictated by a marching narrative of progress and milestones.
Jean Cocteau, instructing us to see the ordinary things before us, incites the poet to defamilarize himself to what is around him. He claims we will never see what is before us if we imagine the world as a “fait accompli.” I say this to myself over and over: the universe is not an accomplished event.
In the 50’s, James Baldwin, from his ex-patriot Parisian vantage point, famously wrote that “Europe has what we do not have yet, a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need: a sense of life's possibilities.”
This is an interesting quote to consider in New York in early September.
I’ve been fixated on trying to hold in my American head, simultaneously, a sense both of life’s limits and its possibilities, and finding it strangely hard. I mean this both in terms of my own life, and in terms of the lives of others all around me.
It won’t be prosperity and razing, improving and developing that will define us in the coming years. We all seem to know this by now—notions of recycling and repurposing are hardly new—but I think its difficult to truly grasp how radically American assumptions and narratives might have to adjust in order to adapt to a new set of limitations. Sometimes I think the culture has not caught up ideologically with the shifts in its material circumstances.
I’m hesitant to speak with the broad confidence that Baldwin does when he characterizes the American or the European personality or attitude toward the passing of time, power, and material objects. Still, sometimes I wonder, what might Africa have to teach us? There are those who would say, because of its scarring and warring—nothing, but that is not my instinct. There are more and less elegant ways of approaching loss.
The universe is not an accomplished event. This is a fact both exhilarating and terrifying.
Posted by Mara Jebsen at 12:28 AM | Permalink