There is no center to the universe, only a multitude of active locations from which light and other matter emits and to which some particles owe their allegiance and remain the dust particulates hanging in the magnetic void suspended over a cold and dark blue green sky. Every city operates in a similar manner. From afar it seems it is but one singular entity as in “have you ever been to Jackson?” or “do you go to New York?” but up close these are but a multitude of entities pushed together to appear as whole. To most places and in many cities there are several centers, each one spanning out and often overlapping the other. To Richmond, Virginia, this is no different yet the center is not that of the rail station, close to having been obliterated by the highway system, the interchange of which comes a fuckyou of an inch to the grand edifice that is the rail station, nor the historic center of the old Confederate “White House” that came but a hunts care from being flattened and is encompassed by a hospital complex and parking garages, hotels, and radiation in-patient screening rooms to make the entire experience to say the least, unpleasant. We mistake our own bodies as singular. They are but a collection of beings in unison, they are the city from afar and we build a replication of this body everywhere we go, seeing in it our soul, which we mistake for a unity.
If there is a umbra to Richmond it is like a hundred other rotten and molten centers to a hundred other failed states, decaying cities, it is the University that has sprouted in some corner – as festering of intellectualism that has metastisized – and by dint of the tuition and increased fees students willingly paid by the young, the institution grows over the failed city as a welcome and warm ivy, an elderly man rich enough to finally pay for whatever sex he wants, a growth that has increased in spread like a plague infecting old estates and moving classrooms into the former palaces of the Fathers of the City and towers of the former Rand Corporation. The University is the Castle. It is the ever watching eye, provider of emergency phones, cameras and student swipe cards and meal plans, rape whistles, and an ambulance waiting ever waiting, idling on the corner to haul off some kid who OD’ed on [ADHD prescription so it is a medical condition and he needs further insurance covered treatment for] drugs. A veil of safety for emerging adults or whatever it is these morons are called. No one wants to waste mummy and dadda’s money so they feed one end and wipe the other for the past 17-18 years and then little Cloe/Zoe is struck by a Pizza delivery man on an electronic bike as S/H/e/it crossed the street t class because S/H/e/it didn’t look both ways before crossing as S/H/e/it was taught since pre-K and there was not a cross walk guard, lights and flashing strobes, sounds, and someone to take her by the hand so she can keep texting. We told her, we reinforced it every day by so many family meetings and sessions at the therapist, daddie rails as he waves one fist to the air and dials a lawyer with the other.
This region of the city has well preserved houses of the former ruling class hermetically sealed and outfitted with security features like fire sprinkler systems and cameras and cameras watching the cameras. The university ring had the usual KenTacoHuts of Mallifited Amerika so that little Kenny’s college experience is not too foreign or challenging and he can drunkenly find his Cinabon just like at the food court and as the food court grown men on motorized scooters watch his every move, every bit of the buttery sugary Sinabon(tm) he stuffs into his face and as it fills his mouth and slides down his throat it makes him just gag a bit and spew just a little cinabutter(c) on to his Trogdore Tee Shirt before finishing it off in one final sweaty gulp. Walking about this area it is as if all members of society are called to some strange underground lair in order to be consumed by some savages as Jules Verne imagined. Each block is the same person, the same parade of those emerging adults clutching books, in their sports gear or goth wear, their rape whistles and/or Xtreem energy drink bottles, or whatever free sports drink bottles given out by student loan companies. iDevices and Smartsomethings plugging up their fanny packs and cargo pants. These rhythmic masses of cherubim move with optimism and aplomb to and fro from the university housing in tower blocks that would fit in Gaza or Lebanon or Omsk, to mini institutes and departments each one in a house fit with a name of whatever benefactor had bequeathed enough cash to stabilize the edifice and endow such-n-such as Chair. The streets are not unpredictable nor are the shops, they are scripted according to the needs of the institution. The classes start and finish and the sidewalks swell and fade as the new factory produces nice quiet citizens who if nothing else were taught not to rock the boat least they cannot pay down the $100K they owe.
On the outside of the last safe crosswalk, the Penumbra exists. This is the part of the city that is yet to be owned by the University or fully controlled by the Urban Planners. It is a transitional space that both includes the rich spots, those institutions that survived various urban renewals and economic bubble bursts and the artistic spaces that inhabit a thin veil of civilization just outside of the university’s reach. This is both the kingdom of the swank hotel, in the cast of Richmond it is the Jefferson Hotel, lodging, such as the Linden Row, and the various cafes, art galleries, and strange revolutionary book stores that bring a certain artistic edge to the area. It is here that the art galleries of starving artists come in to contact with those donors still willing to brave the black parts to get to the trendy parts. It is this part of the city that ebbs and moves about the most. Ever expanding, ever collapsing, it is the flux of the city and in Richmond it is but a thin waxy cover – a membrane of someone with wet brain, it ever shifts about and makes no sense. One month Trevor street is trending, raising in rents and gentrifying, the next week it is in decline, and some other alley of import is rising. It is a border-town in the city itself – and this location exists in every city of note, and a few that are forgettable across this Great Land.
The man coming down B- Street seemed about to ask for “spare change” and yet… he seemed too tired for the effort as if a man resigned to drowning just looking balefully back at the living, just mourning his own demise yet welcoming the release from suffering as he sunk ever ever ever out of sight. It was an evil hour and the sun beat down on me as it once had in Moscow about Patriarch’s Pond and the humidity surrounded my voice on all sides, and I wondered if as in Moscow, if this sun, if this indolent summer’s end would turn up an apparition with a swollen leg begging as some Jesus in the cloth and I was to reject him… But he did not say a word. He passed by in the heat as the Ancient Mariner on his way to crash a wedding for greater and higher calling. His eyes were already dim and distant and the rotting and cracked skin had turned a powdery white… He was not alone. In this section of town the forces that protect the University Castle keep our these wanderers, and if they venture too far into the next circle of town, as the burn lawns and lost highways, they too will desiccate and become lost in the listening winds. Wandering amongst the churches and between campus security, is the dead souls of our Ameirka. They are positioned at all towns great and small.
The last circle of the city is that of the antumbra. This is the void of the city. A ring of chunks of cement, the terracotta in the landfill, the resting place of Ozymandias lost out by where all the crisp bags are caught in the wire fence. It is the places that the highways cut off and made dead. The roundabouts encircled to make Wastelandgardens. A place the urban planners killed in their classroom discussions. The neighborhood where riots burned down the last public toilets right to the ground, toilet paper and all. Factories soon or now to be torn down float about here and sometimes crash into one another. The former gentle suburbs that once welcomed the toiling workers from the city are now have become but forts. Chained doors waiting demolition and clusters of development that mean little and provide nothing. Sad hold outs, citizens of the city now become too elderly to start over elsewhere, are now Conestoga settlers in a wild and hostile land. This is the circle of hell but cast outside. The outer ring. In this ring there is little to wander, there is much to be discovered but the ground covered requires some form of private transportation. In this ring hides a few areas that seem to be attempting a re-discovery. The Trolley tracks of old lead to the old houses and on that side of the river some life is here and there. However, for the most part, like most cities, there is brambles and the thorns as if Eden were protected by this voracious branches of rot and final decay, cement boxes housing poverty and strip malls of no intelligent design.
And this last ring indeed protects that which is Eden. The new strip malls with manicured lawns, the perfection of multinational banks with their trimmed bushes, the flyovers and turning lanes for cars of all make protected by cameras, painted lines, and lamps that turn green to yellow to amber. It is to this ring of which I have not traveled as it was too far and so much had settled in the way.
I spent my nights playing in the penumbra of the city, enjoying the rich ruins and the down-to-earth cafes still with a few people of my age, still with a smattering of creatives enough to give me company of sort, even if that was but to view these people from afar… detached. And as I sipped my little drink at the hotel, the marble carvings stared at me, still the same as when first polished. I wondered about the city. The quiet and still downtown streets of Richmond. The loud insects called the end of summer. Just as they had then, in the long gone antebellum past.
Somewhere out there the man with the swollen leg knocked on ivy covered doors that opened only from the inside.