Wednesday, August 17, 2011

tale from the in-between times

The past few weeks I have been living in something of an in-between time - when the normal rhythms of daily life have been utterly suspended. Upon returning to the US from Russia (with quick dip back into the English woods on the way) just over a month ago now, I essentially entered the state of Moving. And although I've been at rest in my final destination for a week, I don't think I will truly exit this state until my furniture catches up with me, and I can finally be at rest on something other than the air mattress or the single chair I brought with me in the car (brought along for the cello, of course, for what good would it be to be in an empty apartment with a cello and no chair...?)

Pictures: (left) cello with houseplant in my empty old apartment (good acoustics!) (right) "Musician's chair" at "Duet," an exhibition of woodworking and musical instruments in Mendocino, CA (July 2011).
But the funny thing about this state of Moving was the sheer length of time it consumed -- there was at least a good week in the middle there pretty much entirely devoted to it (and that's not even counting the earlier house-hunting mission). And for this time I was very actively -- physically and mentally (the boxes even entered my dreams) -- engaged in the whole palaver -- yet all this daily effort had little worth in itself and yielded little meaningful creation in the world... I wasn't really Doing (and definitely not Relaxing, either) - just Moving. It all felt a bit like being on a very, very long plane ride...not just moving, but moving life on. It was all for the sake of what was to come at the Moved To destination.

So maybe there wouldn't be much to tell about the Moving -- a prolonged banality full of details which were of little interest to anyone outside the immediate context of attaining the state of Moved, all a bit of a non-activity that comes between the real tellable incidents at either end. But there's a particular delight in finding stories in the banal in-between times, in elevating the mundane to the tellable. And in this whole process, I think one incident, or non-incident, captured this for me above all:

I needed to procure a No Parking permit from the City of Berkeley in order to clear a space next to my house for the movers' truck to park -- or so the moving company informed me. Having spent at least the first half of my seven years in Berkeley feeling more like a transient student than an actual resident of the city, I quite relished the feeling of citizenry involved in making an appointment and showing up at the Permit Service Center in Downtown Berkeley. I dutifully drew my dubiously scaled diagram of the street, the house and the required kerb space on the orange form and waited my turn. In the waiting area I found a large-print edition of the Reader's Digest magazine to flick through. The Reader's Digest! This had been a staple of my childhood -- the true-life death-defying stories, the "It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power" vocab quizzes, and the humorous anecdotes sent in by readers -- all of these were consumed by me as a young, impressionable reader. The improbable anecdotes and gaffes, sent in by people from strangely named places like Coward, South Carolina or Carthage, Missouri were, in retrospect, one of my earliest encounters with America -- although I think all those names, places and comic incidents existed for me only in some haze of the obscure reality of the world of the Reader's Digest and its twelve little curlicues on the spine, shaded in, one more at a time, on each month's edition.

In the middle of reading a true-life story about a college student who rescues her boyfriend who's plummeted down a rocky ravine, my name is called. The clerk is quite stern, and I am scolded for not knowing the exact length of my movers' truck. I am sent away to make a phone call, and when I return (having rejoined the queue, but barely for long enough to even resume my place in the ravine rescue story) we conclude that I need four 20 foot parking spaces. The clerk retrieves four No Parking signs (considerably larger at close quarters than when you see them in situ at the side of the road) and begins to fill in the details on them in marker pen. I had seen something about buckets of concrete on the instructions for how to erect the signs, and was a little nervous about the prospect of concrete mixing fitting into my weekend plans... There was, however, I learned, an alternative. Having established that there was a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the kerb, the clerk sternly and soberly issued detailed instructions: I was to go to a garden center, buy some bamboo canes, cover the No Parking signs with Saran wrap (BritEng: cling film; for years, until I saw it written down (in Zadie Smith's On Beauty where maybe her own British ear was revelling in the local knowledge) I thought the AmEng was "surround wrap" -- seemed perfectly logical...), thread the canes through the sign, tape them onto the back, and bang them into the ground -- but making sure to water the ground first because it will be too hard. I nod, pay, thank her, and leave with my armful of signs, slightly anxious about the meter that would've expired at my parking spot while I was being schooled in the art of bamboo sign assembly. How absurd would that be, eh - to get a parking ticket while you were out obtaining parking permits...

I went to the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, bought bamboo canes (not before inspecting the bamboo plant in our backyard and concluding that its stems didn't quite offer me what I needed) and devoted Sunday afternoon to a rather haphazard arts and craft project with the signs. (As a friend pointed out, perhaps I could have fashioned them into an entry for the Berkeley Kite festival that was taking place that weekend at the Marina). But the clerk was right, and I did indeed need to water the ground before being able to bang the canes in...I felt like I was consecrating the earth, sprinkling it with holy water.

My signs stood firmly by the roadside, duly offering their three days warning about the parking restriction. The designated No Parking day approached...A small white car occupied one of the spaces, and it had never moved the whole time...what if the owners where away? When it was still there the night before, I started to get worried -- my god, what if I actually had to have somebody towed away?! I wasn't banking on that! There was I feeling all nice and citizenly as I went down to the City of Berkeley offices -- not thinking that I would end up a tow-truck menace! Maybe the movers' truck will be smaller, I thought, hopefully. Which, of course, it was. You could have parked three of them in 80ft. So, in the end, the truck parked in a space behind the white car, behind all my carefully signposted spaces -- in a space that was empty anyway....

But I guess what really tickled and awed me about all this -- about the unflinching sobriety of the clerk, the specificity of the instructions and the established existence of the whole process was was just that -- its established-ness. That at any given time there were people in Berkeley who were in the extra-ordinary in-between time of moving (or doing construction work or whatever else means you ned to stake out the territory in front of your property) and who were piddling about with Saran wrap and bamboo canes and watering cans, or, pity the (BritEng) verge-less, mixing concrete and buying buckets.

1 comment:

Junsui said...

This is hilarious--from Reader's Digest (it was also a staple of my childhood, so I can relate to your fascination) to Saran Wrap/surround wrap/cling film. Never noticed the detail in On Beauty, though (must be my American ear). :)

By the way, I owe you an email. Am finishing Zhivov today, so hopefully I will have time to write it tomorrow evening-ish. I did, however, put something in the mail for you, so keep an eye out!

The apartment looks lovely; so full of light!!!