The riddle of the day is the officers without guns. Their uniforms don't seem as tight as in the States. I can't make out the meaning of the insignias pasted on their chest and look more at the faces.
Each has its own geometry. Some of them what I imagine to be Chinese and others that seem more Latino. There is a seriousness about it all that is heightened by the constant chants over the loudspeakers with instructions I cannot decipher. Each message thumps a drum in me whose song reminds me I am not in the place I've known as home.
Back there I know the rituals of security and safety and better understand how and when I should be afraid. I am a dislocated limb here. There is concern, maybe even fear, but I don't know what the work of fear is and where to place it. Back home, the chests of the officers bulge more. Here they are skinny and flat. Here some of the shirts are loose. Here there is a ritual about the clothing that fits in with the all too common Chinese love of uniforms. You see workers in uniforms sometimes before a shift, lined up straight. One might take the police to be simply a uniformed individual. They seem attentive yet relaxed. Back home the chest puffed up is the universal symbol of power to be used and even war to be waged, even when it is not there you imagine it bass deep with gruff in the voice. It is the symbol of the threat of force reinforced by the bullet proof vest underneath. It is a way of saying, somebody wants to shoot me, though I am not the one, just a simple citizen trying to get work or find my way home.
While in line with the others, I scan the room and can see the dust and grime on the floor. After we exited the plane we were picked up by two large buses, brand new with neon and advertisements. The airport was massive and we passed what looked like a new terminal and you could see sparks glowing in the night inside the iron girders. It was all beautiful and big, but not too busy. In the background, the roar of giant engines with huge names painted onto the torsos like giant tattoos, played the airports standard soundtrack.
But things seemed different.
Here the officers have no utility built- no taser, no gun, no handcuffs. The heavy waist under the puffed chest is what I expect. As an American citizen I wonder if they can really protect me. I've seen the officer's at home pull their belt up almost habitually, not cuz their pants were sagging like the young black boys whose underwear shows in some strange style I find hard to stomach, but as a nervous habit. It is like a twitch, maybe a nervous return to their body as reminder of the weight of the tools of their job. Where their hands connect to the shoulders you can see the fear in the body, maybe even grief. There's something overstated.
I have the nervous habit of checking my papers continuously. I want to be sure that everything is straight. My passport yes, my visa here-yes, my driver's license who gives a shit? I am entering a different country who doesn't recognize the authority of the State of Maryland.
Here the officer's seem strangely relaxed though their eyes are still made of stone. The signs are all like shallow pools of water I stare into but still cannot see the bottom. I know they are there, but still know nothing. They talk to me, but I don't have the eyes to listen.
I pull my papers out. I am asked no questions. They have let me in.
I am for the first time imagining myself in a city without the gun as a secret society dedicated to violence and its opposition. I haven't seen a weapon in days. The idea is strange for an American. I wonder about crime and whether or not I am safe.
The country I am in is conjured in the American imagination as a great representation of communism and human right's abuses. The trade in tragedy is an American tradition. We get to know our freedom better by knowing how others do not have it. Our great wars have been fought in its defense. Our free press documents human rights abuses all over the world and stresses our belief in democratic ideals. Our borders are guarded by the idea that we have something that others do not.
We seem clear that the Chinese do not have freedom. Among other things lacking is the right to bear arms. For many the right to do so is a question of the ability to be safe and protect oneself.
Today I went to the Yangzi River and watched the boats sail in the brown water. On the other side of the city you could see a sky line that in an old movie might remind you of New York. It's less majestic. There's far less shine in China. There is something old about China, as though the new covers up some secret, though there are constant riddles of the ancient. The language itself an odd, old, script pasted onto everything: the rise of a temple in some distant hill, the beauty of the parks and the majesty of the magnolias, or finding the sound and sight of flowing water nestled in between the horns-bang and clash of the modern city.
The Americans I have met laugh at the way the city quickly changes. They joke about how the new hear so quickly turns to old; and how the cities quickly change the expression on their faces.
Indeed, on a corner just a few blocks from where I stay I stopped one morning to look at a library kiosk in the middle of the town. It reminded me of the tiny libraries in the black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Most libraries I have visited tell me quickly I cannot know all there is to know in the world. They are overwhelming with books stacked in long rows on shelves that rise above my head. Their presence in many colored volumes clearly speak of the limits of the human mind. One cannot know all there is to know in the empire of language. Knowledge is bigger than even the almost infinite range of one lifetime's experience.
But a library kiosk says something different. The face of this one is less than two hundred square feet, and as I stared into the large glass I imagined I could read all of the books there. I thought for a second that knowing is something a human can actually complete. I was tricked by the size. I stared at the strange language on the spines and found myself browsing titles like I was back home in a small bookstore, though I truly had no idea about what was really going on.
A day or two later, I saw a group of men working busily in the morning with large gray cinder blocks five to ten times the size of the ones I am accustomed to at home. The mortar between them was gray too but darker. A small man scraped mortar above his head. His hands high above his head made it look like he was reaching up to grab hold of the edge and climb over. By the middle of the day the small library stood behind the wall.
A day after that, when I walked past, I look through a strange jigsaw puzzled whole in the wall and could see a large abandoned lot I had not noticed before. It was large enough to build a high rise on. A cloud of black smoke rises above the wall and I see the bend of the tentacle of a large caterpillar working.
A tall dark skinned man stands on the edge of the soccer field in finely pressed jeans encouraging my son's high school soccer team on. He doesn't know the game well and in that way strikes me as odd. He looks a good fit for fifty-no belly, and an obvious physical prowess that sometimes sends him out into the field to kick the ball around with the kids.
He never dresses in sweats and does most of his work from the sidelines. I learn to recognize his voice as he calls out to his son Bilal. "Bilal! Come on man. You gotta work harder."
Bilal is awkward at best. Not much of an athlete. In the games he always appears to be one step behind the other kids, always late to the ball. He runs like he needs to run more, like he is still learning.
One day after practice, I talk to him. Mr. Lancaster used to work for MPD-the Metropolitan Police Department. He's retired now but was on the force from 1984-2005. He worked a beat up near Kennedy Street notorious for drug dealing and street crime and violence. One of the killings written on my chalkboard memory stays there like a myth from an old gangster movie. The drug dealer who was shot, died while sitting in the barbershop on Georgia Avenue. I imagine a hand reaching into the door and killing him though that's probably not the case. I was just leaving high school in eighty-eight and the city back then taught me to respect violence and its ways. Most of the men murdered were in my age range. They looked like me, and I imagine them to be like me.
When I find out he is MPD, I find some strange respect rising up out of me. It is as though I know with certainty he is capable of things I am not. I can begin to estimate the violence he has seen and the violence he has committed.
One day he tells me about how a friend of his, who used to work the streets with him, picked up a young man and body slammed him like the folks do on the cheap fake-ass wrestling shows. Only difference, was his back hit the hard concrete of D.C. city streets. I imagine the young man's back was broken. He doesn't say what happens to the young man. He chuckles after telling the story and I am a bit mystified. I really like the dude. I can appreciate what he does for the kids. I like the way he smiles at me.
My wife used to work at the corner of 14th and Florida-twice. Once when we first got married she worked at a small community center run by a group of strange missionary like folks from the midwest who were all white and provided a range of services for people in the neighborhood.
The doorway was encased in plexi-glass and had a smudge on it's exterior that reminds me of some of the buildings here in China. You had to be buzzed in, and the community there was made up of the white missionaries, those to be helped, and a strange silent choir of witnesses like my wife who worked for the missionaries. Across the street, there was a mythic black artist who had a studio and a reportedly legendary drug habit. All the folks on the street knew him. Sometimes the young men who were drifting into the streets would show up in new clothes they would wear for three or four days straight until they no longer looked new. Sometimes the young women would become pregnant so young, we would imagine that the sky itself was full of certainties humans really cannot know.
Those were rough times, and I remember the location well, because the first day I took her to work, we saw someone get shot on the street. Though blurry, I remember the sound of the small gun almost like a firecracker and the silver flash of the metal in the hands of a boy about the age of my youngest son shining through the summer air. He was long and lanky and was close enough for me to touch him and hold him until the police came. He ran past the tiny plot of land on the corner where some of the old people planted tomatoes, corn, and collard greens in an abandoned lot. I rushed my wife to the side and half covered her body. There was instinct in the move that was far from heroic because I never suggested she not go back to work the next day. I simply didn't think about that.
By the second time she worked in that neighborhood almost twenty years later, D.C. had changed into something else. The missionaries had sold their property to a high rise developer and the abandoned lot where they planted crops was transformed into a high-rise. The artist had moved further up town to a studio on D.C.'s Gold Coast(an affluent African American neighborhood known for its intellectuals and second and third generation government workers and negro elite). A few blocks south, in the midst of the Second Iraqi War, an Iraqi American opened a social justice bookstore that markets itself on the narrative of the life of an African American poet. The black owned music store that taught me how to sell CD's in my own operation closed down, but the outline of the sign where they removed the sign is a still a sign for me. Each time I walked or drove past, I remembered the music and the stocky owner who would shout my name like I was a star.
I walk down Fourteenth Street sometimes and am overwhelmed by the sound of clinking glass and the aroma of food spilling out into the street. It is now the land of a thousand bars with enough new real estate to make one imagine just twenty years ago never was. Many people are walking their dogs, or riding their bikes. The city now is much safer than it used to be and many of the dark residents have disappeared. Everybody seems to be making money now.
It is the Nation's Capital-the heart of the country.