“I’m just a little person; One person in a sea; of many little people; who are not aware of me.” -Synecdoche, New York
On a recent commute home, the subway train suddenly lurched to a halt with the stink of burning rubber. I’m not quite sure What The Actual happened, but when we eventually limped into Chaoyang Park station, everybody poured out of the vehicle and onto the platform. Obviously this is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon, but in this particular major metropolitan area, it caused a whole bunch of disgruntled Chinese bodies (and one or two laowai) into a fairly narrow passageway, which is a pretty much guaranteed way for me to start losing my shit.
I’m not, as I’m sure you’re aware, a ‘people person’. When it comes down to particular, reasonably well informed individual ‘persons’, sure. When it comes to the potential of the human species as a whole (assuming we can ever advance ourselves beyond the stage of ‘slightly evolved fish with legs’ and fulfill our destiny as a collective unconscious housed in some sort of studious megabrain), definitely. But people as a zombie-carpenter-ant-kinda-collective whole? Not a fucking chance, broheim.
I had spent the day doing what my Chinese employers had asked us to do: trying to design a drama event around the theme of a ‘beautiful encounter’ (whatever the eff that may be). Some of the native speakers had taken this theme to heart, going so far as explaining to the local staff the concept of ‘serendipity’. Others had pretty much given up at the starting line and admitted it was just gonna be another day pretending to be a frog.
Any idiot with a less-than-half-arsed grasp of quantum mechanics or Charlie Kaufman movies knows that there’s a string attached to every decision we make. For every event, an infinite number of variations of that event, each branching off into all sorts of different directions. Basically, everything that can happen, does happen. Just not necessarily in the same universe.
Stepping onto the platform with several dozen other commuters left me with a slightly uneasy feeling. Before this unscheduled stop, I actually thought of stepping off the train. Was this just because I had ambitions to take a deep breath and refresh myself? Or was it something else? Was I possessed with the arcane knowledge that the ride was soon to be over?
Is there a universe where something more serious than burning rubber occurred in that tunnel outside Chaoyang Park? I remember reading an interview with the occultist and documentarian Richard Stanley, who said that returning to his hotel room after a particularly hairy experience covering Afghanistan in the 80s, he couldn’t shake the idea that he had actually died in combat, and that he was now living in some kind of netherworld. Perhaps the fact that I can empathize with this just says that I’ve been spending too much time on the Beijing metro.
Maybe I just wanted to step away from more than the train. It’s been a little tempting recently to check into the city’s nearest and largest jug and grow a Diogenes level beard, or hike into the Chinese mountains and start living like Spider Jerusalem in issue one.
Like I said, I’m not a people person. I’m not even a natural city dweller. There’s a line in Apocalypse Now where the protagonist describes a character from New Orleans as “too tightly wound for Vietnam. Probably too tightly wound for New Orleans”. I’m probably a little tightly wound for anywhere.
There is nothing ‘natural’ or even ‘organic’ about a city. It’s an island of glass and concrete full of way too many bodies living in the sky and travelling under the earth while breathing small particles of each other in and out. But that’s what makes a city so interesting. A city as epic as Beijing even moreso.