Friday, June 24, 2011
I was on the 38, the orange bus that always takes me to the same place. Every morning, five days a week. My regular job. The one I do because I have to. The one I should be proud of but I'm not.
I like to take some time before I spend those eight hours sitting inside a box. I like to take my time before I get there to take a little flight into unexplored territory, to make a switch in dimensions... you know what I mean?
It's something similar to those digital abstract graphics. You know the ones I mean. You see these digital colorful patterns repeating over and over across a sheet of paper. There is nothing defined in them, no clear distinct shape you can recognize. However, if you stare long enough, if you concentrate on readjusting your eyes, all of a sudden, your eyes discover something three dimensional floating inside the picture, something that wasn't there before. Something that was there but you couldn't see it. Not before you readjusted, your eyes, your basic way of looking. A landscape or an object or a group of bodies, all floating in space. Invisible one moment, visible the next.
I play a similar game when I am sitting every morning in the back of the 38 Geary bus. The one that always takes me to the same place. At least it seems to be the same.
This morning I had the intention of playing, just as I usually would. I love playing. I always have. I love to sit and watch, looking out at the world through a transparent bubble of open presence, carefully readjusting the basic elements of my attention. I keep on doing that until I make the switch, until the switch happens. That's what I call it. The switch.
This particular morning, even though the intention was there, I felt as if my body was lacking the necessary energy to accomplish it. My mind was too busy, my attention jumped from one place to the other. This concern here, this memory there, an old conversation, a coming confrontation. I couldn’t pin it down, my mind that is. Flying around like that, I couldn't use it to make the switch. I couldn't be still and quiet long enough.
'There must be something I can do’ I thought. ‘All I need is energy, but how can I generate energy now? Where can I find it? How can I make new energy flow through me? What can I do sitting here in the back of this bus?'
I looked around, trying to see if there was something inside the bus I could use for my own purposes. I noticed how almost everyone inside the bus had their eyes fixed on their cell phones or their books. Hardly anyone was observing what was happening around them.
I then noticed the light dancing inside the bus as it rushed down the street. The light entered through the subtly curving windows, it reflected off the smooth surfaces, creating elusive shining shapes and shadows. It created quite a spectacle. A spectacle without an audience, other than myself. All of it was coming from the very bright sun outside.
'That’s it,' I thought. 'I could use the solar energy. This energy is available at all times. It has always been available. I just have to use it...I have to figure out a way to use it!'
This realization made me remember something I had seen in the news. A powerful political movement that wants to use solar energy as a way of generating electricity. I thought that maybe that there was some kind of relationship between my current thoughts and the things I had just read. A source of energy so evident and so all encompassing that we would tend to forget that it's there, always there.
I looked down at my own body, seated as I was next to the window of the moving bus. My body is a machine like any other. Made of different materials obviously. But still a machine.
I began to concentrate on extracting this energy. I pictured it flowing up my spine, spreading through my muscles, my nervous system. I felt it surging into my heart. I could feel it inside of me. Even if it was my imagination to begin with, the results of my concentration were not imaginary at all.
The machine was moving now. I could feel the motor running inside of me, roaring like a small counterpart to the big motor of the bus on which I was riding. That big orange metal machine came to a stop. It was time for me to get off.
'But now that I have my motor on, why not take a quick dimensional flight as I walk from here to the office?' I thought.
Using the same energy I had newly acquired, I propelled into a new adventure. I allowed myself to fly among the thick coats and hands grasping plastic cups of Starbucks coffee. Following the movement with my eyes, I let myself be blown away by the spectacle. So available and yet so easy to miss.
I remained conscious of the place where I ultimately needed to land….'right there on Montgomery street, that’s my destination.'
I flew freely and gracefully, from Bush to Sutter, from Sutter to Post. I started to slow down as I approached my goal until I finally made a full landing in front of the building that I knew so well.
Just as I landed, I noticed something at the on top of the gateway that beckoned me: a sign, a big star with the words "solar energy" written underneath.
'Ah!' I thought, 'In case I forget here is another way to remember!'
I made a full landing and made my way towards the elevator. I was a little disappointed that I had so much fuel, but couldn’t really take any real journeys inside this building. It's not too safe to take flight inside buildings such as this one. Too many eyes, too many ears, too many rules, too little sky. So I forced my self to land, to put down those invisible arms which were my landing gear and allow me to come back into the world of simple phrases spoken in a reasonable voice.
I did keep my motor running, just in case. It's so difficult for it to turn on and so easy for it to fall away and be forgotten.
I stepped out of the elevator and slowly walked trough the hall that leads to the entrance to the office, my office in a manner of speaking (although I certainly don't own it, it is more precise to say that it owns me.) As I approached the predictable day, with the predictable grounded people who had apparently forgotten all about flight, my body felt heavier and heavier. With each step the weight grew on the sides of my head, the place where sometimes wings could sprout. The motor started to fade, the energy I had just recently managed to accumulate was already going away.
'How do I keep it going?' I asked myself. …'It's as if the gum I had been chewing started to loose its flavor. Why keep chewing it if there isn’t any flavor left?'
But maybe there was some flavor left, maybe I could still find it. Maybe the sun hadn’t stop providing that dazzling juice which I had called energy, maybe it was still coming down all around me, an orgy of generosity so overwhelming that it could only be ignored.
'Maybe if I try once again?'
I entered the office and was greeted unintentionally by a bunch of tightly knit eyes and serious faces. The entire office had gathered in the reception area. There was a large meeting going on. One of those monthly meetings where they discussed revenue, premiums and profit and other stuff I still didn’t understand or care about. I couldn't bring myself to understand or care about these things, even if I was supposed to care, even if was supposed to understand. I couldn't find the handle that would make these things appetizing.
The others gave me a quick glance, then quickly returned their eyes and attention to the standing man who was talking. He was giving them, (or us I should say, as much as it is difficult for me to conceive of myself as part of this particular structure) the news of how much money we were generating by our dally confinement to a desk chair.
'Well, it's all the same, it's all about energy. How much we make, how much we use, how much we generate and get in return.'
Since I didn’t care much about the results or performance of this particular machinery (even if I probably should have, even if I was supposed to), I returned my attention to my own energy. My own machine.
It was quite difficult to do this. The larger machine that engulfed me kept insisting on using my will as its fuel. It was a role I couldn't fully accept and yet I couldn't reject it either under threat of starvation and other unwholesome consequences.
The meeting finally ended (as all things end eventually, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time.) I walked towards my cubicle, and grabbed my coffee mug, as I usually do. I didn’t know if I needed coffee. (If I doubted it, I probably didn't.) But I did know that I had the habit of getting coffee every morning to start the day.
Before I sat for 8 hours straight in that chair, I liked to take a quick detour to the downstairs cafeteria. I would meet the Mexican ladies that worked there, serving drinks and food to the many creatures like me who were serving an indefinite sentence in this luxurious prison. I liked to chat with them every day. I liked to be reminded of my origins, the rhythms of my early thoughts, the melodies of my most basic language.
I liked to speak freely in Spanish with them. There was something so comfortable, so honest, so naked, and so delicious about it.
Inside the office I felt as if my origin had to remain hidden. I had to wear a particular uniform (the uniform of executives and executive assistants, which only pretended to be free but had very distinct rules in its practical application.) I had to speak a foreign language and I had to speak it in a particular way, modulating my voice to be comfortable but not too casual, firm but not too harsh. I was always adjusting my appearance to maintain a particular illusion for the sake of the others. (I didn't have a name for this illusion, but I had learned to recognize it, I had learned to create it. I could taste it, I could sense it all around me like a palpitating mouth made of metal and electricity.)
All this work on maintaining appearances could get very tiresome. Downstairs with the Mexican girls that inhabited the cafeteria I could briefly drop the disguise and breathe calmly, even if it was only for a few minutes.
There was also another distinct flavor to our conversations, something that set them aside from all other conversations I could have within this building. Sometimes we remembered our childhood, our lives back in the lands of brown dust and bananas.
We all came from underdeveloped countries, places where people are very poor, not too well educated, where people struggled to survive from day to day. These were places where life was quite difficult, where life is still very difficult to this day, much more difficult than anything experienced by the executives that surrounded us.
We shared these memories with each other. While talking to them, I would remember that I was in the distant United States, the pearl of the North which beckoned to all of us from the distance like an emerald city in the horizon. I would remember "Estados Unidos" with all the implications those words carried, the good and the bad, the seductive and the fearsome.
I would remember that I now lived surrounded by gringos, gringos obsessed with “making money,” gringos obsessed with "looking good," gringos obsessed with "getting ahead of the pack," with "being on top." They all had it so easy! They grew up without any real obstacles, certainly not the kind of daily obstacles we knew! They had time to get a regular education, they had the luxury of being picky with their food, they could indulge their days in cuddling their overdeveloped self esteem.
We, the Latins, we came from poor backgrounds where people struggled to survive. By remembering how different our lives had been, we remembered how strange this place was. By invoking our Latin sisterhood, we also invoked the foreign, we made it come out into high relief. The foreign was all around us, the foreigner with a different language, the foreigner with a different understanding of life, the foreigner with different ways of seeing.
I was now part of that foreign world. I worked among them. In many ways I was one of them. But down here in the cafeteria I could see them once again as the Mexican girls saw them, as I once saw them before I got too close.
As I mentioned already, I liked to switch dimensions. Talking to the Mexican girls allowed me to do so. Ultimately, by talking in our own language, we invoked the sun of our tropical countries. The damp heat of a day outside in the open air, surrounded by palm trees and mangles and wild vegetation growing freely around us. Our feet remembered a ground of raw dirt, instead of ceramic tiles, where we used to wear sandals every day instead of high heel shoes.
I left the girls and the cafeteria. I could only have a brief moment there and the moment had passed. I walked back to the elevator, coffee in hand. As I was approaching it, I noticed a girl I knew. She was a Salvadorean like me, another Salvadorean who worked undercover in these regions of quiet greed and silky hardships.
I had learned from the Mexican girls that she was from El Salvador. I had talked to her before, thinking we would connect at some level. At the very least, we would be able to relate to each other based on our common nationality, our related memories. On top of that, given that we worked in this same building our jobs were probably very similar. We had come here from almost the same place, to do almost the same thing.
It was as if she was a mirror of me, a reflection that had sprung from me a long time ago and I was now finally coming to find her (or was I the reflection and she was the original? was she the one finding me?)
Based on all these various similarities, I figured our contact would come smoothly and easily. But, in practice, it was not so easy. In fact, it was awkward and easily broken. There was no clear reason for the difficulty that I could see.
The few times I talked to her, I found that she was making a strong effort to avoid talking in Spanish, an effort to maintain her ‘office-English speaking-persona'. She would hardly ever speak Spanish, or say much about herself to me. Maybe because those few times I saw her we had been surrounded by other people in the elevator, maybe the presence of those alien eyes forced her to hide her true face.
But this time, we were all alone in the elevator. It was only me and her. I felt very free to invoke my Salvadorian nature to her. I was already vibrant with its tropical syncopated rhythms after talking to the Mexican girls in the cafeteria.
I asked her how she was doing, how was her baby, how was everything. I asked it all in a very Salvadorian way, emphasizing certain syllables, dropping certain vocals, shifting certain consonants. I wanted her to come out and speak to me in Spanish, in our language, the language that drags memories back out of that place where we have left them, our home, the turbulent chaos where we grew up, where we played, where we cried and suffered, where we had our first living taste of reality.
She answered all my questions in Spanish. We exchanged questions back and forth for a few moments. I could feel she was getting comfortable talking to me and that made me happy. In the middle of the conversation I realized that I had never asked her specifically what she did, what kind of job she performed within the building.
The elevator kept going higher and higher, my stop was coming soon. So I rushed and blurted out the question that had taken up space in my forebrain:
“Y en que es que trabajas?” (What do you do for work? )
She replied almost immediately.
“Yo trabajo en…” ( I work in…) “….en, …en” (in...in...)
I realized she was making an effort to say it in Spanish. I had forced her to switch to this dimension with me and now she was having a hard time remembering how to describe what she did in the language of this other dimension. It was as if I was forcing her to change her currency from dollars to colones and she was having some difficulty doing the calculations.
“Trabajo en….” ( I work on…)
She made another effort, but the word didn’t convert easily enough. She still had to work on it a bit more. Her face showed the amount of effort she was going through.
Suddenly, the elevator stopped. The doors opened. I said to her:
“Me lo podes decir otro dia.” ( You can tell me another day).
But just as I stepped outside, she yelled at me in a voice full of sincere triumph:
"ENERGIA SOLAR!!" ( SOLAR ENERGY).
She said it just in time, right before the doors of the elevator closed, sending us both back to the foreign dimension that was our daily residence.
My mirror reflection had just confirmed my thoughts of the morning, in a manner too oblique to explain, too complex to repeat. I had inadvertently switched dimensions once again. You know what I mean?
As I walked to my cubicle, I looked at the thick windows, at the bright sunlight that managed to make its way through them, at the living energy that was so easy to miss unless you shifted your way of seeing, so invisible unless you flipped the switch.