Phillip here, after a long silence caused by being in one place, I’m about to head out again, and hope to pester you more in the months to come. Thought I’d send a little goodbye/hello before I left.
My grandfather fought in Germany. Not as a boxer, but as a soldier. After the war, he decided not to return home, and instead traveled central and eastern Europe, founding rodeos and learning languages and basically being the kind of 20-year-old man we would all like to think we could be or could have been, fearless, curious, and the master of his own life.
When he talks about it, and he rarely talks about it, he talks about the trip to Europe. He traveled by boat, and he talks about being able to see the curve of the Earth. Imagine you are 18 and a Montana cowboy, and are being sailed away to kill and die in places you’ve barely heard of, and on the boat you realize, you can see for yourself, that the world is really actually round. This is what he talks about when he talks about war.
When I went to Europe I was much older than he’d been, and I flew, and I’d seen photographs of the spinning world taken from space. I saw Paris in the the nighttime, the City of Lights alight, and I landed in Athens.
I didn’t found any rodeos while I was in Europe. I was not the kind of man that anyone would ever want to be. I taught during the daytime and I couldn’t sleep at night. The 3:00 AM sunrise of Poland, the screaming muezzin in Istanbul, the crashing waves, the crashing waves. Instead of sleeping, instead of learning languages, instead of murdering scourges of Nazis, what I did was walk and walk.
In Europe I lost 60 pounds, and in part it was that I could not eat the food, and in part it was that I had sex almost every day for long stretches of time, but mostly it was that I walked, every night, and often for hours on end.
If I cannot be a good man, like my grandfather is and was, if I am not curious, if I am not the master of my life and I am not a good man, it can at least never be said that I was not fearless. Never brave, but always fearless.
I walked, one night, along the traintracks of the Orient Express, where it passed out through Bakirkoy where I lived back toward the heart of the city, under bridges under which sat the men who sell hashish there, to the station where very young boys would carry the massive sacks of discarded flesh from butcher shops to leave on the ground there for no reason I could determine, though on my walks I often walked alongside the very young girls and boys who pulled massive canvas bags in wheeled frames along the streets, collecting the discarded wealth of the city.
In New York trash piles up on the city streets and disappears somehow, during the night.
In Poland I taught myself graffiti one night, walking along the highway that runs out to Warsaw and which was being expanded then for the Euro Cup of 2012. The sound-deflection walls were covered with every possible form and quality of graffiti, slanderous and artistic and obviously bought, the street-level version of the purple-green-red madness that adorned all the rectilinear Soviet buildings of the city. I remembered the fall of the Berlin wall, and how it had to be explained to me then, because I was a child, that the side covered with the scrawls and etchings of eighteen hundred thousand hands was the side of freedom, and the immaculate concrete on the other side was the immaculate concrete of the interior of prison walls.
In New York someone is writing my name all over the place, and I don’t know why. Me and Lou Reed and Jim Joe.
In Greece I had a roommate, and I would sleep with headphones in because I can’t sleep in silence, and I remember the shrine over his bed and cigarettes smoked to the hilt with the ashes intact and lingering. I remember sneaking out, then, tiptoeing past him if he wasn’t sleeping over with the woman who’d become his wife, the crashing waves.
In Athens you turn a corner and are confronted suddenly with the history of western culture, and it looms over you and you think of Michelangelo as an incredibly tall man, whether he was or not, but in Vrahati, where I lived before I was itenerant, there are only very deep gutters and flowers growing through the fences of small multi-story houses, a cemetary covered in flowers, and the stones that line the beach, absorb the crashing waves.
I was fearless then and some nights I’d strip and swim out into the sea until I couldn’t swim anymore, and then try to swim back to the shore.
I can’t ask my grandpa if he thinks of Germany as the Kingdom of Death, because, really, what the hell kind of question is that. And I can’t ask anyone if they think Alfred Jarry predicted my death, because Bolaño is dead too, he’s always been dead. And if I never go to Bolivia, will I never die?
Instead I go out nights and I walk. From Paul’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant you can see the Empire State building and try to guess what blue and white represents, and from the Williamsburg Bridge you can see the new World Trade Center with its crown of cranes, alight in the night.
Because my grandpa’s war story is about standing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, watching the world become round, and when he talks about the war he talks about Polish peasants binding scraps of rubber to the wheels of bikes to ride from one town to the next. Because there isn’t going to be the explosion you want. I can remember walking back and forth across the Galata Bridge, waiting for an explosion, walking back and forth across the Galata Bridge hoping to arrive somewhere else on the other side, walking back and forth, waiting for an explosion, waiting for a sudden change, back and forth waiting for the movie magic to descend and make this a new place and me a new person, walking back and forth on the Galata Bridge and hoping to be unloved, and to be elsewhere, waiting for an explosion of change, for a violent and explosive revolution. Instead there is a man fishing there, then, throughout the night, with a bucket of old fish still alive and thrashing in a crowded bucket, with a very long fishing line descending into the Golden Horn, a man as old as my grandpa who has never sailed to America. And he’s there every night. Because blind and unwavering undiscipline at all times constitutes the real strength of all free men. At all times. That’s the kicker.
And so we’re leaving. Something there is in us that’s defined by motion still lives on, demands walking all night, demands a new place, a new country, something new. An entirely new nighttime sky, the stars that live below the Earth.
So talk to you soon, kids, next time from the home of our death, that Bolivia.