The most difficult thing to do in life is not to have something to do at all, indeed.  It was my day-off yesterday, and I could not think of anything to do.  I already did Spring cleaning, reading, writing, watching TV, listening to Carla Bruni's husky voice, and arguing with my dad on the phone about the Philippine economy.  I had my all afternoon ready to be given up to boredom again.  

Since I like to challenge myself very much, I decided to explore an inner city in Southern California by bus with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture booming on my headset.  I wanted to find out if a beautiful art could help me not see the ugliness and sadness of reality.  I failed or I was failed.

I stopped my ipod, pulled the string to warn the driver, and got off the bus.  I saw beggars and prostitutes that I could not dismiss as just part of the passing crowds in the streets.  I sat by the bus stop and observed.  They surrounded me, and their noises were mostly about  their  woes.  The beggars talked about some spare change, and the prostitutes, about their quick tricks and haggling clients.

One hungry beggar, a homeless woman leaning on a bulky garbage bag, asked me if I could give her a dollar for her  already late lunch. I went to the Burger King nearby and bought her a fish sandwich, the most healthy I could find in the menu. I gave it to her, and our conversation began.  She told me I was the "child of the sky."  

She also told me that she grew up in Europe.  I did not press further as it seemed she did not want to talk about her family and childhood.  Her hallucinations and incoherence, maybe from hunger, were very beautiful to my ears.  They all connected and ended up a very interesting story. If I were a surrealist writer, I would use her plot and characters.

After filling her stomach, the beggar left with the bulky black trash bag she carried like her baby. There was already an arch on her back from ageing. I felt bad because I could not  force myself  to hug her.  Her smell, a  combination of urine and rotten egg, was only tolerable from a certain distance.  She also did not want to shake my hand; she had an infected wound on her thumb. She just waved and walked away into the crowd.  

I also said my goodbye and went back to the bus stop ready to head home.  I had to wait for another thirty minutes.  While waiting, I played my ipod again without thinking I would be mugged for the gadget. Nobody dared and Tchaikovsky still failed to mask the ugly and the sad realities I saw.

When the head of the bus emerged from afar, one prostitute ran towards me to also catch it.  She was a prostitute; her very short mini-skirt scandalous in daylight said so.  She also  flirted her way to the bus stop with her half-running and half-sashaying gait.  Her high-heels were very high, and so were her red eyes.  She was a blondie. 

I let her get in first, and I sat across from her.  She started talking to herself as soon as the bus zoomed. Even the percussions of the overture could not prevent me from reading the moving lips of the tired, skimpily-clad woman who talked and cussed. I took my headset off  and listened.  I believe people who cuss are worth-listening. They are those who cannot articulate their suffering well.

Her cussing was funny sometimes but mostly vulgar.  She was always the victim in her stories.  She condemned everyone including the passengers and the driver.  It seemed our noticeable nonchalance and indifference towards her made her twice a victim.  Yes, she made sense.  Nobody comforted her.  I was scared to even sit beside her.   

She talked about her cheap clients, her unforgiving pimp who loaned her money, CIA, NASA, the church, the government, welfare checks, food stamps, etc.  Her hallucinations, in my understanding, could be expressed into two words: social justice.  She even blamed the government for the gloomy weather- she thought it would rain, and her street trade was ruined.

I took my notebook out and started writing about hallucinations.  The moving bus did not affect my scribbling.  There were hints of persistence in my hand and fingers and resignation in my rests and stops.  I  wished I was young and adventurous as I used to be. Maybe doing an ethnography on hallucinations could be a dream project, where literature and anthropology could merge and both the observer and the observed could be authors.

I wondered if Asian beggars would have different stories minimalized by their shy personalities and restrictive cultures and peppered with their culture-specific notions of karma, suffering, and life.  I also wondered if black prostitutes could tell me about their childhood ended too soon by domestic violence, incestuous rape, and pimping perpetrated  by their own relatives.

By the time I reached home, I  could only write these: "Are there hidden realities behind hallucinations expressed by the marginalized?" and a poem...

Children of the Sky

We exist 
among beggars and whores,
clairvoyants of the past
and historians of the future.
We follow 
their traces of stench and lavender,
their shadows hovered by pity
and stalked by lusts.
We hear
their woes and words 
muted by coins and begging cans
and shouts and slaps from pimps.
We see
what their eyes deprive them:
the crowd in the streets 
and the leafless trees.
We watch
how they sit on the concrete bench
and eat the leftovers in their bags
or how they probe the dusk.
We exist
to count and catch their tears,
to turn them into pearls
and the saddest ones into rain.

 

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Comment by Keith Hart on May 3, 2012 at 8:55am

I welcome Justin's take on this piece which certainly escalates the stakes beyond the sort of mild mutual congratulation that is more normal in this medium. Yet I can't help feeling that an honest and quirky exercise in poetic journalism has been overinterpreted as a model for anthropological research. I agree that use of the word "hallucinations" could be a red rag to some, especially if judged by the canons of "ethnography". So perhaps M invited such a critique by choosing this title.

I saw this exercise as an extension of the series produced by Heesun. These were explicitly not pretending to be ethnographic research, but rather explored a sense of feeling alienated in London. The kind of encounters and reflections she reports there have an affinity with fieldwork, but they are much more personal and less systematic than what we read about in most publications. This is the freedom of the medium we have here and it takes courage not to hide behind academic conventions, while expressing attitudes that might be considered to be at best superficial and at worst racist. Yet those of us who have experienced fieldwork for academic purposes can recognize common ground that usually gets edited out in the end. I am speaking of a terrible loneliness that we all know, but prefer to disguise under a bogus claim of having achieved a degree of identity with the people we study.

So what do we have in M's account? First, she is bored and decides on a tourist excursion to the slums. Her companion is Tchaikowsky and not Swan Lake but the 1812 overture, canons and all! As in much of her OAC writing, she risks seeming to be opinionated and here investigates a thesis concerning art and reality in the lives of the marginal poor. As in Heesun's London journal, I get a keen appreciation of tentativeness in approaching people, a sort of human kindness fighting with alienation. The expedition is too fleeting to be about getting to know people. It says more about the investigator herself.

I defy anyone to read this essay without ambivalence, an ambivalence that the writer shares. And this makes the poem at the end surprising, since it has a grace that the narrative lacked. Plenty to think about there. Maybe "ethnography" and "hallucinations" overstate the claims this piece could legitimately make and I don't blame anyone for being slightly or even substantially repelled by its contents. It is a short evocative account of an afternoon trip that I enjoyed and would like to see more of here, with or without the pretension to being a form of anthropological research and writing.

Comment by Justin on May 2, 2012 at 12:34am

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and poetry. I think there's a lot of potential in the combination of art and ethnographic research. There are certainly a lot of things that aren't best conveyed in the standard prose of a journal article.

If I can offer some ideas, I think there are a few things worth considering, if you decide to continue working in this area. To begin, I think presenting these individuals' points of view as "hallucinations" is somewhat troubling, to the extent that it dismisses their ability to decide what is real to them. It's also something I don't imagine they would appreciate. Spending more time with the people you're talking to, seeing where their analyses are coming from, what kinds of experiences inform how they see the world should help to situate what they share with you.

Second, the scene with the description of the individual running to catch the bus conveys a great deal about the author's assumptions and preferences of speech and skirt-length, but takes much less seriously the person them self. We find out, through her diatribe to the bus audience, that she does sex work, but other things she mentions aren't as thoroughly-described. Even if some of the people which you might interact with are sex workers, they also do other things (take the bus, run errands, make dinner, listen to Tchaikovsky, etc) and I think it would be important to explore the context in which sex work forms a part of their lives.

The section about asian beggars and black prostitutes is also something worth unpacking. In addition to being borderline racist (or at least heavily-stereotyped), leading with these kinds of assumptions is sure to influence if not severely-limit what you're able to come up with in any kind of project.

Overall, the idea of "exploring inner-cities" is reminiscent of a lot of the problematic, travel accounts through which Europeans described savages in their native habitats. Going beyond such descriptions, to a critical engagement with the context in which your interactions takes place, looking at your own position and limitations as an outsider, also the impact of your work, are some of the things which you can do to go beyond these kinds of accounts. Many people who do sex work or other kinds of work on the street have been exploited before. I think anthropology can help towards sharing understanding of what to us is unfamiliar and how we can change our relationship to suffering. However: please, please listen to them, ask them how you can help, ask them if they want you're help, before you risk being a part of that exploitation.

Comment by Jenny Hasenau on April 26, 2012 at 3:56pm

Wonderful poem and even more meaningful in context. This is an intriguing concept, the cultural context influencing dreams has been studied minimally, but maybe there's an open door there also for the anthropology of hallucinations. It would be somewhat cheap fieldwork and, you've already got your first interview! I would be an interested reader if this were studied in depth. Thanks for sharing!

Comment by John McCreery on April 19, 2012 at 7:08am

Oddly enough, I was recently scanning my bookshelves looking for something to read and stumbled across Vladimir Nabokov's Speak Memory. M, is there any chance that you've read it? It is, like much of Nabokov, a very peculiar business. The opening chapters are about his childhood in a family of Russian aristocrats just before the Bolshevik revolution and include reminiscences about his tendency, possibly an inherited family trait, toward auditory and other small hallucinations. I suspect you would find it intriguing. 

Comment by M Izabel on April 15, 2012 at 7:56am

Thanks, Keith and John, for reading.  I realized even an art has to make sense to a specific environment for it to  work effectively.   Basquiat's graffiti images will fit well in a skid row in Los Angeles than the surrealist works of Miro.  Maybe Tchaikovsky's music is too high an art for a place that finds relevance and meaning in rap or hiphop.  

Comment by John McCreery on April 11, 2012 at 2:01pm
Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo!
What Keith said.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 11, 2012 at 12:50pm

Terrific, M. You and Heesun are setting a new standard for the rest of us to emulate. And I didn't expect the poem to be a real poem, after the narrative. But it is. Surely, art is our only answer to a world of pain, even if you have done a better job than Tchaikovsky's bombastic music.

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