23 January 2006


Wandering through the back streets of Darlinghurst and East Sydney tonight, I thought of Ann Arbor.

That may seem like a strange association. Sydney is a major metropolis of 4 million, Ann Arbor a university town with about 100,000. Sydney exudes sunshine and hedonism and endless days at the beach; Ann Arbor spends half the year shivering and most of its all too brief summer sweltering. There are places to go swimming if you're willing to drive quite a way out of town, but it would be a rather extreme stretch of the imagination to call it a beach town. It's barely even a river town, as the muddy old Huron that wends its way through and around town serves mainly as a mosquito breeding ground and drainage ditch.

But I spent a few happy summers in Ann Arbor (for some reason, all the disastrous things that happened to me in that town, and there were quite a few, seemed to take place in autumn or winter), mostly doing not much of anything but walking around or riding my bike up and down the deserted streets, quiet but for the hum of air conditioners and the lethargic swish of lawn sprinklers and the occasional sturm and drang of somebody's too-loud television program spilling out onto the pavement.

I never quite understood what I found so appealing about those aimless summer nights. There was something intoxicating about them, yes, but at the same time, they drove me, through sheer stultifying boredom, to devoutly wish for intoxication. Of course in those days, the late 60s and early 70s, intoxication was generally the order of the day (and night). Most often, though, it was drugs, not alcohol, coursing through my system, and I was still in thrall to the hippie ethos, which held that drugs enhanced rather than demolished consciousness.

I'd hate to think that it was only the marijuana or LSD (or mescaline or psilocybin, etc., etc.) that made Ann Arbor seem like such a magical place, and I don't think it was, because I haven't taken a drug in years and yet I can still walk those same streets (and did, as recently as last July) and feel positively entranced. Similar towns, even Berkeley, don't do that for me, and I wonder whether it's because of the architecture (a hodgepodge of 19th century Victorian gothic that someone once told me evoked such strong feelings because it reminded me of childhood fairy tales) or because so many dramatic events in my youth occurred there (if you don't want to be bored silly, don't ever go for a walk in Ann Arbor with me, because I'll have a story or two for every house we pass that I used to live in, and there's one of those on pretty much every block).

There was something in the midsummer air, the way it hung close around you, enfolded you, so thick and warm that it felt like you were swimming through it. One time in 1972 there was a ridiculous hot spell. The daytime temps were nothing remarkable, 98F/37C, but by night it never went below 90F/32C, and it was impossible to sleep or even stay indoors. So, wearing nothing but Levi cutoffs, I spent the whole night coasting around on my bike. That was the thing: most of Ann Arbor is so flat that you can give a couple kicks on the pedals and coast for half a mile. And because the night was so thick with humidity, it felt like I didn't even have to make that much effort; the air seemed to hold me up all by itself, and I just floated effortlessly back and forth across the town.

I think what I'm trying to put my finger on - and what the warm, humid Sydney air evoked for me tonight - was the sense of timelessness, the way that summer slows everything down to the point where it seems both inevitable and obvious that it's going to stay this way forever. And no matter how hard your logical mind argues that, no, autumn's on its way, you'd better get ready because soon you'll be freezing your ass off and another year of your life will be shuttling off to the graveyard, your senses tell you never mind, forget all that, live for the moment and the moment is eternal.

In a way, it's even easier to slip into that state of mind in Sydney, because winter, such as it is, is such a mild affair that it would pass for summer by San Francisco or London standards. But it's a little harder to slip into that state of mind when you've seen summer and winter come and go as many times as I have, and when you know that regardless of what the weather or the seasons do, you'll be on a plane out of here not so terribly far in the future. I haven't even passed the halfway point of my time here in Sydney, but already Australia Day is coming up this week, marking the end of the semi-official summer holiday season (it stretches from Christmas to A-Day, the fourth Thursday in January). Kids are going back to school next week, the new TV season is starting, the beaches and parks will be emptier, the days getting shorter as the sun starts its journey back toward the north.

Melancholy? A bit, but tonight, strolling along that dark street thickly overhung with trees, their leaves hissing and whispering ever so slighly in the barely perceptible wind, I was back there in the never-ending Ann Arbor summer of my youth, and it felt just as magic, just as pregnant with promise and possibility as ever. So what did I do with that priceless moment? Sidled into the nearest internet cafe to write about it before it got away. In the internet-less Ann Arbor of old, I would have probably gone to Tommy's Holiday Camp to play pinball for 7 or 8 hours. Progress? Or not? I leave you to decide.

No comments: