Monday, March 30, 2009

Awesome civilization

On the chains that bind,

a long way at home

SEATTLE—When I woke from a nap and saw the Cascade Mountains through the window of the plane, I realized I was somewhere a little unfamiliar, and far, far away. This awareness of displacement remained sharp as I sat on the airport shuttle bus while it made it way to the hotel: there was more pine vegetation than I expected to see inside city limits. More shipping containers, freight train lines, and, as we approached downtown, a bustling port: the shipping industry here hasn’t migrated like it has from New York to New Jersey. I noticed more Asian faces, too, in subtly different varieties: This one looks Japanese; is that other one a Pacific Islander of some kind? People seemed a little friendlier as well. Lost on Sixth Avenue, a middle-aged woman walking with her elderly mother volunteered to help orient me on a crowded sidewalk. And people actually wait until they see the WALK signal before they cross the street.

Didn’t take long for the force of the familiar to assert itself, however. I'd guess that the Sheraton lobby could as easily be in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires. But it was in walking toward the Pike Place Market that I knew I was, in fact, at home: The Cheesecake Factory across the street. The AMC cinemas a couple blocks away (I resolved then to see I Love You, Man, which I liked, even as it troubled me in a way I can't put my finger on yet). And, of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks (the bus driver pointed out the corporate headquarters on our way in, which looks like a nineteenth century mill). Needing to find a drug store, I discovered a Walgreen’s near the market, and when I went in, I was able to find the distilled water quickly, because the layout was just like that of the one a mile from my house. The dollar bills I paid with, drawn from an ATM machine, were accepted without question. The cashier and I communicated in colloquial English.

It was in heading back to my room, walking past the panhandler leaning against the office building, past the McDonalds on the corner, past the ACLU activist looking for signatures, in the general direction of the Roman Catholic cathedral not too far in the distance, that I was suddenly hit with a sense of awe at the vast, continental scope of American civilization. Twelve hours earlier, for a little more than a day’s wages, I had arrived at a destination that was once most easily reached by sailing around South America. Even more striking was how entirely unremarkable this was. Nothing particularly notable about the commerce, the language, the currency. Nor the gathering of hundreds of historians who meet each year to discuss their work—a national professional class that uses these meetings, whether in Atlanta, or Chicago, or Boston to socialize, to network, and, more often than not, to chronicle the very real failures, viciousness, and destruction, past and present, made their very gathering possible. For better and worse, an empire is an astonishing thing. There are spirits sitting beside me in the lobby bar who are smiling, some wryly, as I write this.

And they’re smiling, almost exactly the same way, as you read this. Because not even the Internet can entirely conquer time or space. Maybe someday an iteration of this post, or your keyboard, will end up in an archive or museum, like a piece of Roman ceramics that turns up in Britain or Vietnam. Something will be lost in translation, of course, in the unlikely event either survives. But it's nice to think so. At least we understand each other, do we not?