Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 09 2015

Good-bye, IHOP

It seems my dear alma mater, Washington & Lee University, has decided not only to tear down my freshman-year dorm, Gilliam Hall, but also the place where I spent most of my time when I was at W&L, aka the old International House. The IHOP, as we called it, was an old two-story white wooden structure just two doors away from Gilliam. It must have been built very long ago, as it was already old and rickety when I first saw it in the late 1980’s. But it was a godsend for me.

ihopAlong with Chavis House, where I also spent a lot of time, the International House was the most interesting place on campus, a welcome oasis of multicultural influence in a desert of entitled white fratboys in polos and khakis with beers glued to their hands. If it were a fraternity I would have rushed it, but it was more of an anti-fraternity. Anyone was welcome; it was more about embracing than exclusion. And the people I met there were my best friends during those days. I keep in touch with many of them to this day. I honestly think that if it weren’t for them I would have left W&L altogether.

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t get along terribly well with most of the other students at W&L. That included my freshman-year roommate, Todd, which is not intended as any kind of negative reflection on him. He just became good friends, not with me, but instead with my high-school friend Garrick, who also attended W&L. We ended up having some kind of falling out over something that apparently neither of us can recall. It was ugly, but to me the entire fraternity culture was ugly.

The saving grace of W&L was the wonderfully kind and brilliant faculty, most of whom would bend over backwards to help students. But the International House made it home. I moved most of my things there and more-or-less lived there full time in a side room nobody happened to be using. There was one bathroom in the hall under the stairway, and the kitchen, with an oddly slanting floor, was an addition in the rear; the house had apparently been built before indoor plumbing was invented. Victor Cheung, from Hong Kong, lived upstairs in the master bedroom with his girlfriend Junku, from Japan. Members would have parties there, trips to places like Washington, DC, and occasional fights over who ate something out of the pantry that didn’t belong to them (I’m sorry Outi; I just love pop-tarts and I was hungry). Taiwanese cadets from the adjacent Virginia Military Institute would come to the parties as they knew they would be welcome there. There was always something going on, be it a midnight game of strip poker or just someone studying while the TV was on.

Later the building served as the university’s LGBQT Center, I saw to my astonishment when I visited a few years ago. But now it’s gone. Farewell, old friend.

posted by Poagao at 12:29 pm  
Jun 24 2014

Quarter

This anniversary felt different than the one just five years ago. The weather’s different, for one thing; it was grey and moody when I got out of the office around six, cooler and wetter than that hot summer night so long ago. I walked through the park to Chongqing South Road as the sun peeked out from under the clouds, illuminating the traffic on Zhongxiao West Road, before it sank into the hills of Linkou to the west of the city.

I felt time as a cycle, somehow, and that everything had come full circle. “I’ll be arriving by bus from CKS at around 7:30,” I thought to myself as the city darkened, the neon lights springing to life. This, I felt, was the city before my arrival that day, a perfectly normal day. A work day.

I strolled over to where Zhang Cai had had his photography studio, back in the day. He’d still been alive when I arrived. Li Ming-diao as well. So many people…but I couldn’t go down that alley. The city was dark; it started to rain. I walked back to Chongqing, now the site of a massive construction site, to roughly where I’d gotten off the bus. I’d been encumbered with two heavy suitcases. Dr. Hill had led Boogie and me off towards Zhongxiao, up and down the now-absent pedestrian bridges. I followed our original route more or less, and the scenery that I see almost every day was transposed on a thin film bridging the decades. Here, on this corner, we’d stopped for some reason. I’d forgotten that until today. What was it? Boogie was lagging behind, I seem to recall…we waited for him to catch up. It was my first sight of Taiwan, really. The sights, sounds, smells, right on that corner while we waited.

I went to the Y, where we’d stayed, took the elevator up to room 507. The sound of the TV came from inside. Had I arrived yet? I guessed I had. I couldn’t knock, of course. Instead, I put my hand on the doorknob, and then took the elevator back down to the lobby.

The past stayed with me, though I’d meant to leave them at the hotel. It followed me to the Japanese ramen place nearby, to the park, even on the subway, which hadn’t existed back then. Only when I crossed the bridge at Bitan did I retake my place in the present. That bridge has always been powerful, and I needed it tonight.

posted by Poagao at 11:48 pm  
Oct 05 2011

US trip, part 10

Another beautiful day; Keith had to go to work in the morning, so Leslie and I foresook the collection of exhuberantly depressing medical ads that comprises US television programing and went out for lunch at her favorite Mexican place, home of good, genuine food and smexxxy accents. I had flautas with beans and rice, and was immediately taken back to times when we went out for dinner when I was a kid, and I was the only one in the family who didn’t like Mexican food. Well, I like it now, though I still don’t take to spicy stuff.

After lunch we drove to downtown Norman and walked across the railroad tracks along Main Street, stopping by at a hippie-themed store where half of the Taoist symbols were upside-down, with the black yin part on top instead of the white yang part. I mentioned this to the owner, but she just rolled her eyes. They also had the Gayly, a homosexual-themed monthly newsletter that manages to cover the five most homophobic states in the union without the aid of a proper editor.

After stopping at a Sonic for soft drinks roughly the size of the late Herve Villachaize, we went back to Leslie’s place, where the dogs, predictably, had forgotten who I was. Then again, they forgot who I was if I changed shirts or turned around while they weren’t looking. I got my stuff together and we set out for the outskirts of Ardmore, where our parents now live. It was a nice drive; the sun was setting over the big “Ardmore Tigers”-themed water tower as we pulled into the driveway. Leslie stayed for dinner and some chatting on the back porch before she departed for home again.

It’s odd to be in this house, which I have never seen before, yet filled with objects familiar from my childhood. Lamps, furniture, knick-knacks…things I’d forgotten all about, yet hold little shocks of recognition from another life.

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Sep 30 2011

US trip, part 5

I woke up early this morning and proceeded to take pictures of the sunlight creeping through the house. The kids were already up and getting ready for school, and I showed Jack the Dragonball Z Son Goku T-shirt I bought in Kyoto.

Kevin drove me to the airport to see if I could rent a car with my international driver’s license. It turned out I could, so I obtained a silver Honda Civic, got instructions, and set out for Lexington, Virginia.

It was good to be out on the road again, driving long distances alone through interesting scenery. The Civic wasn’t perfect ergonomically, as the side of the dask bit into my leg a bit, but it was generally up to the job of mountain driving via frequent downshifts.

There was quite a bit of roadwork, lanes cut off, and one toll section that you have to pay not only to get into, but to leave as well, $2 each time. Fortunately I had change. I stayed just a bit over the 70mph speed limit, running with traffic, which wasn’t heavy for most of the drive. Almost every radio station was country music, sprinkled with hateful radio hosts saying things like, “These…progressives…are anti-progress. These…people…should be silenced.” At least it kept me awake.

I had lunch at a truck stop; burger and fries accompanied by an incredibly sweet drink that caused me to hack and cough and spit sweet red goo into the landscaping. Nobody seemed to mind; perhaps they’re used to it.

I got into Lexington around 3 or 4pm, amidst a brilliant afternoon, the trees just starting to turn. I parked by the post office, where I dropped in to see my old PO box, and the interior was exactly the same. The whole town seemed exactly the same, I thought as I walked down to Main Street to find a place to stay. The first hotel I came across, the MacAdams Inn, had a room for a benjamin and change, so I got the car, parked it in back, tossed my stuff inside, and walked to my old campus.

My first stop was my freshman dorm, Gilliam Hall, which hasn’t changed at all except for the addition of an ineffective lock on the front door. I went down to the “dungeon” where I failed to get along with my roomie Todd, and found the formerly green walls now ainted pink.

When I rounded the corner of Gilliam, I found the neighboring buildings had been torn down, but the old International House was still there; it is now the Hill House (named after the late Professor Hill?) and houses the Gender Studies and LGBTQ group, which I find astonishing for this community. The door was locked, though, so I proceeded past the sagging rear balcony where George Chang used to park his new Saab, and over to Gaines Hall, which was brand new when I first lived there as a sophomore. All the trees have grown huge now, but it basically looks the same now as it did then, of course with door locks. I was gazing back up at the other side of Gilliam, lost in memories of happening to see one of my particularly attractive fellow students undressing in the window at night, when an Asian student walked up to me and asked if he could help. I couldn’t help but note the resemblance, but decided to keep this creepiness to myself; I thanked him and walked up to the campus proper, the famous colonade, which seems to be under repair, and the old red house where I spent so much time studying Chinese. It is still called the East Asian Language Building, but as far as I know the only East Asian Language taught at W&L today is Japanese. I think the Chinese program died with Dr. Hill.

I then proceeded through the late afternoon light to Reid Hall, aka the Journalism School, which has been completely remodeled. I looked for my old teacher, Professor de Maria, but he’d just left. Fortunately, one of the staff found him for me through his cell phone. “Prof de Maria always gets interesting visitors,” he explained. “You’ve got that vibe about you, so I knew I had to find him for you.”

Professor de Maria was down at the new co-op, or whatever they call it, eating some fruit before his singing class at the church. He seemed happy to see me, and we talked of what we’d both been doing, plans, thoughts on recent sociopolitial trends, etc. He had a lot of interesting observations on the state of things, not all of them entirely hopeful.

After I left Professor de Maria at the church, I walked back to the very nice, expansive university shop to buy some W&L sweatshirts before they closed. I’d been unable to buy them online because the website doesn’t accept foreign orders, which I find ludicrous as many of W&L’s alumni end up overseas. The woman managing the store was very nice and informative, and she told me of a way to use email order things and have them send the stuff by post, but I felt that this information really should be on the website.

The sun had set by this point, the old Doremus Gymnasium silhouetted by its light. I walked down the mall and over to the edge of the Virginia Military Institute’s parade grounds, wondering if I should go look up my old trumpet instructor, (then-)Captain Brodie. He’s probably at least a Colonel by now, if he’s still there. The evening formation was taking place, tiny uniformed figures assembling in front of the massive castle-like barracks in the dying light. I heard the band playing and figured that if Brodie was there, he was probably too busy for visitors. The bugle played, and the cannon boomed, and I thought of my many visits to the Taiwanese cadets there, as well as music lessons and even small musical group practices. Standing on the edge of W&L and VMI always made me feel discombobulated. It still does.

I walked back to Dupont Hall, where the music program was and still is located. Nothing has changed there I climbed the stairs to the attic rehearsal room to find it unchanged. So many rehearsals there under Professor Stewart, and later under Barry Kolman. Kolman’s still around, but he never liked me much.

I walked down past the old ROTC building, now something else, to Woods Creek, where I crossed the bridge, listening to the musical water, and then up past the apartments of the same name, where older students lived and still live; it could have been 1988 again. Climbing the stairs to the athletic field, I took some photos, realizing that W&L really is not conducive to interesting photography; the buildings are pretty but dull (as are the students for the most part). Soccer teams were practicing on Wilson Field as I turned back across the bridge, the new sorority houses lined up under the sliver of new moon in the fading sky.

I saw lights on in the lnternational House, so I went and asked a student who was entering if I could have a look inside. He shook his head. “I’m not supposed to let anyone in,” he said.

“But I was president of the International Club, I actually lived here,” I said.

“Ok, I’ll ask.” He disappeared upstairs, and I could envision him explaining how some strange mean-looking guy wanted inside, but soon enough he came down with a couple of other people, for safety perhaps, and they let me inside to look around.

The place has certainly been cleaned up; nice carpet and paint, the kitchen is an office, and the old living room where we used to hang out watching MTV is a meeting room. Upstairs, Victor Cheung’s old room was hosting a student meeting. I was introduced to the dozen-odd, very earnest-looking group, and felt I should say something: “We used to play strip poker in this very room,” I said helpfully.

Back at Gaines Hall, I could see into my old suite on the first floor, where a girl was playing music that was new in 1988. The same damn music! Some boys walked by, commenting, “That suite has some nice atmosphere.” I managed to find an open door and strolled the hallways again, noting the stairwells retained their rubbery odor even after two decades.

I walked up the alley towards Chavis House, where Boogie lived back then, a walk I used to make quite often, behind the dining hall, and then I visited the dining hall itself, the site of many a donut’s demise at my hands (and mouth). I’d forgotten all the little things like the steps, the stairs, the breezeway through Baker Hall where my friend and high-schoolmate Garrick lived.

I got some dinner in the same co-op Professor de Maria ate. I had a chicken sandwich that was nearly identical to the ones I had at the old co-op, which is now a nice, elegant building. Now they have cereal-in-a-cup, which I think is utter genius.

After dinner I visited the library, which also doesn’t seem to have changed. I’m sure they are all connected, Internet-wise, but the 70’s-era color schemes as well as the actual physical book collection seems exactly the same as the day I left. I jostled noisily by the little compartment where I penned some of my disastrous thesis, thumbed through some old anthropological volumes, and lamented the fact that I hadn’t exhausted the photography section at the time. My old ex-advisor, Dr. Jeans, though retired, was supposed to have a pseudo-office in one of the carrels down there, according to Professor de Maria. But I didn’t see him, though

It was late by this point, so I walked back off campus, though the completely empty town, wondering which of the shops was the old Sandwich Shop where Boogie and I played jazz sets, and back to my hotel room, which seems to be much higher at one end than the other; the building is lop-sided, kind of like that mystery spot outside of San Francisco. But it will do. At least until the drunken fratboys downstairs wake me up. I heard that things have improved on that front, in that the fraternity/sorority membership is only 86% now, as opposed to the 95% of my time here.

It’s odd, but coming back is bringing back not only the memories I thought would return but also reminders that I wasn’t really very happy here. I never belonged here, and I never will. It was the site of a time of my life, and over the years I suppose I have made it more than that in my mind, but sometimes it takes a trip like this to see things not only for what they are, but what they have always been, whether we know it or not.

posted by Poagao at 12:34 pm  
Sep 25 2011

US trip part 1

I got a benz to the airport to the airport this morning. An old car, early 90’s vintage, but it still had enough class to get the job done. It had been a hectic couple of days since I finished reserve training in Danshui, which is another post altogether, and I hadn’t yet caught up on my sleep.

I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight, but the check in staff told me that, as United had switched aircraft in the middle of the night, just to mix things up, they decided to reassign all of the seating, resulting in both of my window seats being turned into middle seats. I told them that was really screwed up, and they said they’d put in a request for window seats.

I proceeded through immigration, enjoying no line in the Taiwan Nationals section and even getting the new sped-up checkout setup they have there that uses biometrics to flash yourself through. Then I retired to the lounge for some breakfast and massage chair therapy.

The flight to Tokyo was pleasant. I’d gotten my window seat and was able to observe out plane’ shadow flitting over the shiny rice fields on the way in, and I felt an urge to just stay there instead of flying on to San Francisco. This urge grew stronger when I’d passed through the strange deplaning inspections and while waiting in the bright departure lounge admiring a certain bear, beheld the aging (though shiny and well-kempt) 747 that was to bear us across the Pacific. The exposed layers of paint on its nose betrayed a long history of many repaintings, and unlike most planes these days, the entertainment system consisted of tiny CRT screens hanging from the ceiling, and no choice of what to watch. In addition to that, I was stuck in the middle seat. It was at least an exit row seat, so I could get up and move around fairly easily, but the air on the plane was some of the driest I’d ever encountered, and my throat began to bother me even though I had convinced the rather surly staff to give me some water. Being in the middle seat meant nowhere to lay my head and sleep, but I think I did pass out a couple of time in the course of the flight.

Morning on the other side of the planet flashed into the windows, and it was the same time that I’d left Taipei, only now I was in San Francisco, setting foot in the US for the first time in over a decade. Some minor changes were immediately apparent, in the form of increased airport security, but I was treated nicely and even got a Taiwanese-American immigration officer who appreciated my situation. I was asked a lot of questions, but it wasn’t unpleasant.

We’d arrived early thanks to a strong tailwind, so my friend Ernie, whom I’ve never actually met IRL before, was there just as I walked out of the door. I’m afraid he didn’t exactly catch me at my best, disheveled and jetlagged and somehow froze-shrunk on the plane. Also, I’d shaved for training and my beard hasn’t really had a chance to grow back.

We drove out onto the freeway, and I was struck by simple sights that I hadn’t seen in a dog’s age, things like white speed limit signs and nervous drivers. While the airport was experiencing lovely sunny weather, we drove into the low, wet clouds hugging the city, through newly developed districts that weren’t here that last time I visited, to downtown, which looks exactly the same. The last time I was in San Francisco was also the last time I was in the US. It was early 2001, and I was visiting my friend Mindcrime, who was then working for e*trade, just before the dot-com bust. I would take the ferry over from his Oakland apartment where he spent a great deal of time playing Everquest, to his game-filled office near the Bay Bridge, and I would walk around. E*trade made noises about hiring me for some kind of Chinese-language content position, but though I was tempted, I’m glad I didn’t make that move. Everything went pieces not long after that. Today, SF is experiencing a new dot-com boom of sorts, and I hope that this one ends better, if it has to end at all. My visit last time inspired me to begin this blog, actually.

My hotel didn’t have checkins until 3pm, so we drove down to the waterfront and walked around the markets there. One of the first things I saw was a jug band on the dock. Called the Bakersfield Dozen, it was a three-piece group consisting of a national guitar/lead singer, a washboard player and a washtub player. He was using a metal tub, wire, and a stick with an armrest. He wore gloves and hit the wire with a stick. I almost squealed like a schoolgirl, and rushed up to chat with them. He let me try out the washtub, and I have to say I really prefer the plastic version for getting notes. Still, nice setup.

Ernie and I walked the docks, sipping fresh Apple-Cucumber juice (interesting combination, but too many seeds), until we ended up at Bubba Gump Shrimp. Ernie covered up his embassassment at being seen at such a touristy location by feigning interest in visiting the bathroom, but I could tell he actually liked the kitchy feel of the place. Vintage streetcars ran along the road, painted in wonderful shades of aqua and yellow, accompanied by tri-wheeled pedicabs similar to the kind that used to be common in Taipei before scooters became popular. I was surprised at how many people sported DSLR cameras hanging around their necks. I had the Rabbit on a sling, but I didn’t take many shots. I was too busy just Being Back to take photos.

We walked back to the car and drove to Ernie’s neighborhood, i.e. The Mission, “where working-class Latinos and techy hipsters largely ignore each other” as the sign says. We walked down the streets, looking at interesting shops like the place affiliated with McSweeneys, where they tutor kids on writing and sell parrot supplies. Wait, sorry, I heard that wrong, Ernie said it’s actually “pirate supplies”, which makes slightly less sense. When I held up my little camera to take a video, the young girl behind the counter protested, pleading that keep my account of the shop strickly non-photographic. The shop next door, a taxidermist/unsettling bookshop that featured odd noises coming from upstairs, as if there were some taxidermy/unsettling writing going on, also forbade photos. I wonder what the reason for this could be; surely they’re not afraid of another taxidermy shop, perhaps a large national taxidermy chain, to set up shop across the street?

Everything felt slightly off to me at this point, like I was in a play. We saw a really cool 50’s/60’s furniture shop (“midmod”, Ernie calls it), an ok mariachi band, and had a donut and juice. Ernie and I stood outside a taqueria waiting for his friend to show up, chatting and watching people walk by, mostly Latinos, some older fellows in big old 70’s Caddies. Lunch was real taco, slightly spicy.

I was feeling drained as we walked back to Ernie’s pad, which is very nice, though a bit smaller than the Water Curtain Cave. But it’s in a vintage wooden building, has high ceilings and lots of light, and is more nicely appointed (he has a real kitchen, something I wouldn’t know how to use even if I had one). His neighbor is having a party tonight and I’m invited, but I suspect I’ll probably just stay at the hotel.

Oh, the hotel. It’s the Hotel North Beach, across from the famous Zoetrope building, and it’s essentially just a really old hotel, just rows and rows of small, simple rooms with bed, sink and TV. Could be out of the 1930’s, a la Barton Fink, though the interiors have been refurbished so recently that I can still smell the new carpet and paint (which is why I have the window open, letting the air and sounds of the city inside). I love it so far, or at least the feel of it. By a strange coincidence, the Folsom Street Fair/Parade or something is tomorrow, which explains why all the rooms in town were booked this weekend. I’m not entirely sure I want to go, but I’ve got no real plans for tomorrow, so I’ll probably just see what happens.

posted by Poagao at 2:37 pm  
Apr 22 2011

TEN YEARS!

Ten years ago today, I sat down in front of my computer in my little room on Xinsheng South Road overlooking the park and wrote the first entry in this blog. I was working at Ogilvy & Mather then, which was still on Minsheng East Road at the time. A visit to San Francisco to see my friend Mindcrime a few months prior had convinced me to start my own blog, which was incidental to my photography website back then.

Ten years!

I won’t say it’s hard to believe, as it definitely seems like an eon ago. I’ve moved several time, had several jobs, and visited many other countries over the last decade. Wrote a book, made some films, bought a place, sold my bike. It’s been an interesting ride. Alas, I’ve been remiss in updating things here, simply because the day-to-day details are so much easier to recount in places like Facebook and Twitter than compiled here.

I will continue to write here, but I need to find a way to update the site. I have too many blogs now, and the design is outdated. It needs simplification, and the latest version of WordPress, which I can’t install because mySQL is too old or something. I have no idea. I’m hesitant to lose the gray-on-black format, as black backgrounds are so much easier on my eyes than white ones, which are like staring full-on at a light all day. I might even implement some kind of photo-of-the-day site here, but to be honest, all of that is way beyond me.

Anyway, more things are afoot. I now have an agent in New York for the army book, I’m looking into publishing a photobook, and who knows, the long-delayed movie might even see some progress for all I know.

In any case, here’s to the next ten years!

posted by Poagao at 4:32 pm  
Dec 07 2010

It’s beginning to feel a bit

I grew up mostly in Texas and Florida, both southern states, so we never had snow, just crisp, bright winter days. At least those are the days I remember. Maybe some small patches of snow if we’d driven one of the huge family Buicks up to Oklahoma to visit relatives.

But now I live in Taiwan, and Christmas is one of the few times I feel nostalgic for the U.S. (That and when I just want to get in a car and drive along a long, straight empty highway for several hundred miles.)

I don’t have a Christmas tree; no place to put it, and if I had one I’d have to put fake presents under it, and as Christmas isn’t a holiday here, I’d have to go to work before I could open them. That would be just as well, as I can’t think of anything more depressing…well, if it were also my birthday or something…

Oh, wait.

I do have a small wreath I put on my shoe rack in the hall outside my apartment door. The gold glitter residue it leaves on my shoes has diminished over the years. I also have blinking Christmas lights for my balcony, the real kind, not the piercing LED perversions that I’m sorry JUST DON’T FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS.

I have some CDs with holiday songs from the late 60s. Our family was a bit behind the times when it came to Christmas music, but then again, I don’t think my parents dealt with the 70’s very well. Most of the decade, I seem to recall, was spent in a state of panicked denial that mystified me at the time. The 60’s Christmas songs, on LPs in dusty yet festive cardboard jackets, are welded in my memories, right next to unwrapping a remote-control van that could only turn left on the puke-green carpet of our living room in El Lago, the bright blue sky outside muffled by white curtains.

It just got cold today. Time to put up the lights.

posted by Poagao at 5:03 pm  
Sep 19 2010

Looking back

I’m just finishing up the last edit of the English-language version of my book detailing my time in the army, so I thought it would be appropriate to go down to the place where I spent the majority of my military career, Da Ping Ding in Miaoli, to take a look around. Chenbl and I set out on a 9 a.m. train; the once-mighty Ziqiang Express seemed old-fashioned and lackadaisical in comparison with the ultra-modern bullet train system, but the bullet train does not stop in Miaoli. A typhoon was on its way, but I was banking that Saturday would be tolerable, weather-wise.

We got off at the station, which seems to be at the edge of town, far off from the little downtown area. Miaoli is comprised basically of two parallel streets. Back in the day, the Miaoli buses heading up the mountain towards Sanyi left frequently, but now only the Hsinchu buses seem to leave with any regularity. We got on one and creaked across town; it was just the two of us until we stopped at the bus station in the real downtown to pick up passengers.

Up the mountain, to Shangnanshi. The base, though long abandoned, was still standing and covered with dense foliage. The last time I was up there civilian guards had been posted at the gates, with motion sensors set up inside, so after getting off the bus we headed for the East Base’s back gate, where I knew of a few places one could sneak in. The holes in the perimeter were still there, but the areas just inside were so overgrown that we had to hack our way through some pretty thick trees and vines to get to the main base road.

Once inside, I was momentarily disoriented at the sight of the shell of a building, all the windows gone and the ceiling tiles hanging down. Then I realized that it was the old Guard Company mess hall, and that I’d even had my picture taken standing in front of it. Just behind it was the cliff from which I’d enjoyed the view over the valley below when I got a break from washing dishes after meals.

I was wary of guards and stray dogs, often stopping to shush Chenbl’s usual incessant commentary; he was convinced nobody was around, but I wasn’t so sure. We walked past familiar buildings and signs to the Guard Company barracks, the quads in between buildings covered in dense, jungle-like overgrowth, the windows gone and the rooms empty. I found the place I’d lived in so long ago and sat on the spot where my old bunk was, remembering what it was like to sleep there, with only ceiling fans to keep cool in the summer heat. We’d spent the onslaught of Typhoon Herb there, and back then I wondered what the base would look like after it had been abandoned. Now I know.

The Guard Company faced the East Base’s parade grounds, which is now waist-high in weeds. We walked over to the Division HQ building that spooked me out on several occasions when I had to stand guard there at night and listen to the ghosts. Chenbl, ever sensitive to such things, said he felt dizzy and insisted on apologizing to any spirits who might be offended at our presence.

After making a round of the entire East Base, I began to suspect that there was actually nobody around. We passed female officers’ quarters, something that I’d never encountered when I was there. Back at the Guard Company, I kept noticing places where various things had happened; I felt like I was in a time travel novel, visiting ancient ruins where I once lived.

We snuck out a hold near the side gate where I’d waited in line so many time to get in and out of the base, and then across the road to the West Base, where we fought through another mass of brambles and thorns to the main armory. Some dogs noticed us and began barking, and though nobody appeared, I walked quickly ahead to the rear part of the base where the Regiment HQ was located. A seemingly flightless white pigeon strutted up and down the leaf-covered road as black clouds began to cover the sky. The silence and emptiness were eerie. Vines and bushes had invaded some of the buildings. Even the motion sensors were gone, though the plastic shells of some could still be seen here and there.

I showed Chenbl the RHQ barracks and the base karaoke that I’d managed. The floor I’d spent so much time mopping was covered with dirt, as is the spider-infested bar where I’d picked laserdiscs of songs for various officers to sing. Rain began to pelt down, and we took refuge in the RHQ rec room while we got our umbrellas out, and then followed the base ring road to the main gate, which felt a little strange in that we usually ran around it going the other way. When I turned around, it seemed much more familiar. There used to be an old guy manning the main gate, but I figured it wouldn’t matter by that time if we got thrown out.

Nobody was there. Chenbl took my picture in front of the rapid response unit barracks as well as at the main gate guard post where I’d stood guard. The old Chiang Kai-shek statue is still there, with the old green man waving his hat and smiling at the empty, unmanned gate in front of the overgrown parade grounds. After I got my fill of pictures and just standing around lost in various reveries, we walked out the gate and down the road to catch the bus to Tongluo, where we had some unimpressive Hakka noodles for lunch. Chenbl asked an old woman if there was anything interesting around, but after I took her picture, she yelled, “I give you directions and then you take unflattering pictures of me? How dare you?” But we were already walking away, past thick green rice fields waving in the wind like a big bedspread. We stopped to walk with a woman hurriedly harvesting a small garden before the storm hit, and then visited an old hospital from the Japanese area, a two-story wooden building with blue trimming. The original doctor’s son lives there now, by himself, and he came out to tell us a bit around the place.

We took the electric train back to Miaoli Station. By that time it was around 5:30 p.m. which was normally about the time I would get there when I had leave and wanted to go up to Taipei, so I experienced a little willing cognitive dissonance, imagining that it was still 1996 and I’d just come down from the base, ready for a weekend on the town. Then I pulled out my iPhone and ruined the atmosphere.

We got back to Taipei around 8 p.m. and proceeded to the Taipei Artists Village, where Thumper was holding his 20th arriversary, i.e. 20 years since he came to Taiwan. We were the first to show up; Jason was setting up the barbeque, and I fashioned a string for the washtub bass from one of the bar decorations. Other people began showing up, and as usual, the more people inhabit a room, the less I feel like talking. I walked between people, taking pictures and munching on the excellent food (except for the undercooked potatoes), until my upstairs neighbor Brent started the evening’s musical entertainment. The bass lasted about two songs before the string broke, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for the bass anyway and declined David’s offer of fiber-optic wire as a replacement (it was too slippery and cut my hand when I tried to tie it). The pocket trumpet called to me, however, although not many of the songs really suited it, though Conor rope me into a 12-bar blues set.

By around 2 or 3 a.m. many people had already gone; only a few of us were left. I shuffled around the edges of the room, playing freestyle licks here and there. Rodney was doing something on the drums, and Lany was playing around with some guitar stuff. Somehow, we all just synced up and Lo! a pretty cool jam ensued. But I was tired, and when Brent said he was leaving, I took him up on his offer of a ride back through the growing storm. It would save me a trip across the galloping Bitan bridge, anyway.

posted by Poagao at 10:19 pm  
Jun 12 2009

20 years

Besides the usual dates that stand out each year, like birthdays and holidays, a few have personal significance for me and hardly anyone else, and on such days I usually just think a bit more about what they mean and let it go without mentioning it to anyone. February 26th, the day I was drafted into the army, is one such date. Another is June 24th, which is the day I stepped off the airplane at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport for the first time, in 1989. 20 years ago.

I wasn’t alone. My friend and classmate Boogie was on the same flight, but he’s back in the States now. Our Chinese professor, Dr. Hill, passed away a few years ago. I’ve lost touch with most of the other students in our class. Returning to the place where I stepped off the airport bus isn’t anything particularly special, as I work a block away and pass by it on a daily basis, though of course things have changed a great deal in the time since (the hot, muggy weather at this time of year, however, is the same). In any case, I’ve been wondering just how I should commemorate this anniversary. Back then, the prospect of spending a whole year in Taiwan seemed incredible; now it’s been 20. Somehow, having dinner somewhere unusual doesn’t really do much for me. I was thinking of going out to the airport and taking the bus back in again, checking into the same YMCA (though it has since been redecorated) where we stayed for the first week before traveling down to Taichung. Maybe I could even bring my suitcase (I still have the same one, incidentally) packed with heavy things to drag across the awful sidewalks…but the sidewalks are much better now, and there’s no obstacle course of slimy pedestrian overpasses over Zhongxiao West Road to traverse any more. I might at least try to get the same room. Something seems a bit desperate about doing all of that, though I don’t have any better ideas at the moment. What do you think?

Last night I went to see my friend Matzka play at the Riverside behind the Red House Theater. I’ve always liked his music, and although the speakers were a bit tinny and harsh at times, it was a great show. The audience seemed to be leftovers from the last show, but it must be hard to get a lot of people out on a rainy weeknight. At one point everyone on stage traded instruments, with Matzka switching with the skinny little drummer. That…well, didn’t really work, but it was funny and reminded me of Band class back in school when we all switched instruments for the benefit of some clueless substitute teacher.

posted by Poagao at 5:50 pm  
May 20 2009

My grandparents’ houses

The Google Streetview cars have been venturing further and further afield recently, making forays even into small-town Oklahoma, so I did a little searching and was able to find the places I visited on holidays as a child after long rides in the back seats of huge Buicks, to houses with old people, cigarette smoke, pecans and dripping-oil china sets.


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First up is the house of my great grandparents, whom I only remember vaguely as being very well-dressed and dapper (as far as I could tell from ankle-height). We visited my great-grandfather Will at the rest home once, but I don’t recall much about him. After they died, we went through their house and retrieved, among other things I’m sure, a very comfortable rocking chair. In the garage out back was a classic vintage 1950’s two-tone Buick.


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Next is my maternal grandparents’ place, the one constant location of my childhood as we moved here and there across the country in the steps of my father’s aerospace career. It was here that my grandfather beheaded a mole with a hoe in front of me, shocking my mother. My parents and my grandparents would argue a lot, which didn’t understand as it involved inheritances and wills (I still don’t understand it, actually). At one point my grandparents had a waterbed that a lot of fun to bounce on, but if you were sleeping in the room that used to be the garage, as I always did, there were no bathrooms to use until the grown-ups got up in the morning, resulting in me waking everyone up by setting off the burglar alarm when I tried to go outside to find a bush to pee in. The garage/guestroom did, however, have a Steinway piano and an organ with all kinds of funky sounds available by pressing down colored tabs labeled “bosanova” and “waltz”. As there were no kids my age to play with, I would borrow a bicycle that was too big for me and ride east, up Main Street, which looks pretty much as sad and empty as it did in the early 1970’s.


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Finally, my paternal grandparent’s house. I never knew my grandfather, as he died when I was very little, so this house was to me, my grandmother’s house. My grandfather had been a carpenter and had built and designed not only the house but much of the furniture. The house itself was an odd, ramshackle thing, mostly garage downstairs with a narrow living room and kitchen, and no actual doors, just curtains hanging in the frames. My grandmother drove a dull gold 60’s Nash Rambler that still bore her husband’s initials on the doors. I remember wondering at the blue flames shooting out of the gas stove and the tepid skim milk served with breakfast. One thing I don’t recall there is arguments, as my grandmother seemed pretty upbeat and happy. The backyard was long and thin as well due to the unusually sized lot. I’m not sure if I ever actually made it to the end, but I do recall vegetable gardens and hanging plants here and there. It seems a sad, rundown place now, though.

posted by Poagao at 4:32 pm  
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