It was Christmas Day, 2013, and Gabe and I were driving south on I-19 towards Madera Canyon because we had heard there was snow left over from a storm a few days before. There were very few people on the road - I think it was 2pm - and like it always happens on the 25th of December, I felt an eerie sense of quiet. In my lifetime, I've rarely had this silence drowned out by relatives around a dining table or the sound of my own jaw chewing on ham and figgy pudding, familiar and full. Nor was this Christmas silence ever sacred to me, either by theological weight or the hushed reverence of newly fallen snow. Why was this silence eerie to me rather than peaceful? Why did it feel like I was holding my breath, rather than exhaling?
I was in the passenger seat as Gabe drove south. I looked out the window to my right, and saw the formidable Spectrum Plaza, a massive shopping center easily accessible by the interstate, situated off a major thoroughfare for the city of South Tucson. When I say massive, I mean it. Tucson is not a stranger to large shopping 'plazas,' but I dare say this one takes the cake. In Centrum Plaza there is, for your consuming pleasure, in alphabetical order:
Ross Dress For Less
Salon De Futur
The Home Depot
Apparently there are more stores, but according to google, those are the highlights. There's a movie theater too, a gas station; the possibility for consumption seems endless. I've stopped by Spectrum a few times, especially when I lived for a week in Amado (about 35 minutes down I-19) during my summer fieldwork with cattle ranchers in 2011. Besides the little towns of Green Valley and Sahuarita, Spectrum Plaza is the first beacon of a major city as one makes her way north from Mexico. If you had never been to the United States before, your entry on I-19 would go something like this: First a retirement community, then a casino, then a Spanish Mission, and then this, everything you could ever want.
But as we drove by on Christmas Day, out of my window I saw something rather spectacular: Pure, unadulterated absence. The structures were there, of course, in their big box glory, and the parking lots too. What wasn't there was people. Every store's designated parking lot was empty. There was the occasional camper van or RV parked in the far flung corners of the Home Depot and Ross, there were a few people at the gas station, as it was open for business. But in the several acre Spectrum Plaza campus, driving by at 75 miles per hour, I saw a gaping void. I saw Capitalism on its day off.
After we went to Madera Canyon and frolicked in the snow, I got home, packed up my tripod and camera, and headed back out, southbound to Spectrum Plaza. I stopped by the gas station at the north end of the Plaza and got some Sour Brite Crawlers, pulled into the farthest parking space in the Target lot, and waited until the sun dipped behind the structure so I could photograph the space. At some point a few teenagers, all riding new shiny scooters, flew by me, looking at me oddly, with my camera mounted on its tripod as I sat on the hood of my car eating gummy worms. I could hear the low-hum frequency of the interstate, but I could also hear birds chirping.
I started examining the white lines demarcating parking spaces - there was a jagged pattern to them, almost like a zipper. White teeth and black asphalt. There were oil stains like ink blots on the already dark pavement, greasy fingerprints of human presence when there was none. I tried to calculate how many cars had been in this lot just the day before, how much oil it took to get them there. There was trash strewn across the parking lot, left over from the mad rush the day before; water bottles and empty bags of cheetos. There were also rogue shopping carts parked haphazardly where, on any other day, cars would be. I imagined the people on parking lot clean-up duty, itching to get home the night before, late on Christmas Eve. I imagined that they did a half-ass job, ready for their day off, too. I wondered if they'd get in trouble for leaving carts unattended and trash not picked up, what value cleanliness and orderliness have in the liminal space of a parking lot, where nobody stays for long.
There's something about parking lots in general that generate a sense of disorientation. When people visit from bigger cities, who don't drive and rarely leave their urban centers, they notice with raised eyebrows the very expanse of parking lots, and that they are up front rather than behind the store. The forward-facing parking lot signals to us that a store values convenience over storefront aesthetic, that there is no danger in not being allowed in. It's funny to think about this shopping center being so close to the Mexican border - it's almost like our version of the Statue of Liberty. Almost every day of the year, her torch is lit and her arms are open, welcoming some modern version of the huddled masses. Here, there is a space for every man, woman, and child. The space is demarcated by white lines, and it ushers you towards the automatic doors. Welcome.
But on Christmas day, the torch was not lit. As I walked around the vacant lots of Spectrum Plaza, jumping from one white line to another as the sun set behind the buildings, I began thinking in earnest about my initial reaction to this unpleasant feeling of quiet I couldn't quite figure out. The longer I stayed, the more I recognized that an empty Spectrum Plaza was a physical manifestation of that eerie silence. Here was emptiness. A break.
I began to understand that the eeriness of quiet was Late Capital doing its work. I say 'late' because capitalism has matured, and as it has grown up, those who pull its strings have done remarkably well at figuring us out. Capitalism has reached a stage - another step towards progress to some, a garish height before the fall to others - where it has gotten under our skin. Shuttered storefronts, vacant parking lots, empty highways all signal that there is one day we don't need it - it just so happens to be the day we spend weeks and months getting ourselves in debt to celebrate. Even unavailable, the stores I stood in front of on Christmas Day are needed. Capitalism has not only become a way to spend/earn/owe, it is now sewn into the very fabric of our physical and mental spaces, sewn into the order of things. Emptiness signals absence, which signals loss, which is antithetical to what Capitalism has come to mean - gain. Gain profit, gain efficiency, gain trust, gain. On its day off, I realized that Late Capital was telling us that he was taking a nap. But he's the kind of sleeper that keeps one eye open.
I snapped a few photos, but as it got darker, I noticed that a few cars had started appearing, circling slowly around the perimeter of the lots. They would pass each other, flashing their lights. Occasionally, a car would pull up to another car, close enough that their passengers could reach out to one another, and after a few seconds, they would separate, peel out. I recognized this as a series of drug deals, which I was watching from a distance. I was observing the creep of another kind of capital, taking place in the shadows, an entrepreneurial spirit temporarily occupying the den of the sleeping giant. One driver must have not appreciated my presence - he circled closer and closer to me, slowly. His lurch was menacing, I did not feel welcome. As I got the hint, for the first time since I pulled into the shopping center I did not feel that eerie feeling. The emptiness was being filled by those morally excluded from legitimate commerce, the space had taken on another shape, and it was not arms spread wide, beckoning. Just for the night, in the empty quiet of Christmas, Spectrum Plaza was open, but not to me. If I was previously holding my breath, now, I exhaled.
As I drove home, the first two lines of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty rang in my head. Give me your tired, your poor // Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. My hour spent in an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, 2013 taught me one thing: Late Capital must learn to breathe.
I was looking through some emails today and came across the very first "thick description" I wrote for an anthropology class when I was but a wee undergraduate at the U of A. For those who don't know, what we call thick description in anthropological writing is the act/process of being somewhere and simply taking it all in. So if you're somewhere doing research, it is important to recognize both who and what is around you - from the ground you're walking on, to the seat you're sitting in, to the clothes and shoes on (or off) the people around you, to the noises, and the smells, and the sensual world that envelops you. This anthropologist named Clifford Geertz (and others, too) said that this sort of "thick" description is important, because the social world can be thought of as a web of significance. Even something that seems unimportant may be the thing that makes the whole world tick. The assignment was to go somewhere and observe, with an anthropologist's eye, what was happening around us. I remember being really proud of this little piece of writing, even though this was before I understood that thick description wasn't supposed to include my personal opinions or assumptions. It still makes me happy, because I can remember sitting on the bus to the county jail (where I decided to do the assignment) and thinking, "If this is anthropology, I'm in."
Maybe I should not have done this. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on perfume, or worn this shirt. But I am here, so I might as well write. It’s running late, and a group grows larger around the designated stop for bus 23, destination Laos center. I will not ride this bus to its terminus; instead I will take it to a stop called “Silverlake/County Jail.”
At 11:53, 8 minutes later than scheduled, the bus comes. Getting off are people that look tired, maybe, or distraught. Or maybe they just look like they didn’t want to ride the bus this particular Saturday, and had to. I stand in a line of twenty or so people. Two men motion for me to go ahead of them. Both of these men are wearing Vietnam veteran caps. I nod, and take my place, waiting to board.
I choose to sit in the raised portion of the bus towards the back. These seats are not padded, and face towards each other. The reason escapes me as to why this portion is raised, but for all intents and purposes, it fits my needs. Four seats away from me, as well as directly across from me, two mothers hold infants close to them. The women are dressed in lace tops and tight jeans, and have no carriers or diaper bags. One has a bag full of magazines and soap from Walgreens. The infants are both asleep.
The seats are hard, and grey. As I look down at the lowered portion of the bus, I see another woman holding a Snapple bottle, with her eyes closed. She is wearing pink high heels and large, gold earrings. I imagine her earlobes will be sore later. The two Vietnam vets are gripping the poles of the bus, and when we leave the station and move quickly away from downtown Tucson, one of them holds his head and rocks slightly. Perhaps he is about to trigger. I rehearse my counseling bit in my head. I know I have jumped to conclusions, when rather suddenly, he pulls out a picture from a brown, faded leather wallet and shows it to a stranger. It is too far away to hear what they are saying. The photo is passed around to another man, then the woman with the pink heels and Snapple bottle. I wished I were down in the lowered portion of the bus so I could hear who this photographed child was. At the next stop, a woman and her school aged daughter board. This child runs to the veteran and kisses him, and sits on his lap. I believe it is the child in the picture. They were - the veteran, his daughter and his granddaughter - eventually to get out of bus at the jail. A Saturday family outing.
The scenery changes to a bilingual one. Just less than ten minutes have elapsed from downtown Tucson, and mesquite trees have given way to taquerias and vacant lots. There are mesquite trees here, too, I suppose, but they look different when their branches are intertwined with plastic bags blown up from the wind. A man and his two sons board the bus, talking car-talk. The man sits down in the seat beside me, blocking the view of one of the mothers with the sleeping child. The man points out car after car in the used lots we pass. The son asks what kind they are, and the father responds, listing obscure details of the model, the engine type, and the price of the transmission. How fast it goes, this type of thing. The children are far apart in age, it seems, with the elder son being sometime in high school, and the younger one being no older than 10. They stop talking when one of the infants on the bus begins to cry. Then the man looks over at me and says, “prison two days in a row, I guess its gotta be a bad week for me.” I’m not sure what to say, so I just say, “wow.” We passed a car lot that has signs in Spanish, some of which are translated to English. One of those translations reads ‘Got a Job? Get a Car HERE!’ The older son sees this, and asks his dad, “Dad, could you try and get a car there? Over there, dad?” The father doesn’t here his son’s quiet voice over the din of the bus engine.
I ask the father if the stop is coming up soon. It’s been about twenty minutes. He nods and asks whom I’m visiting. I feel foolish and voyeuristic and I say a friend. He smiles and puts his arm behind my seat, which I noticed earlier was riddled with stale pink gum. “I don’t bite,” he said, and I reassured him I wasn’t thinking that. In fact, I felt it was a gesture of mutual experience, or understanding. Both mothers and infants, along with now about 30 other people, are slowly standing. I follow suit, and when the bus stops, every single person exits. Not one remains. The photographed child holds her mother’s hand while they wait for the veteran grandfather to slowly descend the steps. I climb down to the high curb, and the car-knowledgeable father looks towards me, expecting me to walk with them. “You better hurry, its busy on Saturdays,” he says. I tell him I need to smoke a cigarette before I go in. I am a liar.
I cross the street, and wait for the northbound bus to come. Already, a woman is crying at the bus stop. I sit next to another Vietnam veteran. If public transportation is a microcosm of any given society, I have sorely misread my own. I ask him where he’s headed, and he says back home. He just visited a friend who got busted for violating his parole. We talk about how he got caught under an army tank for two and half days after being shot in the stomach twice in a place called ‘rock city’ in Vietnam. He told me how, when the hospital plane landed in the USA, students threw eggs and lettuce at him and told him to go back to Vietnam, you baby killer. He is in a wheel chair, one leg amputated and the other atrophied from disuse. His chest is barrel shaped and his breathing is heavy. He says the VA treats him well.
I sit in front of the weeping woman on the way home. The seats face in a different direction on this bus, forward, and more secluded. I wonder if Suntran does this on purpose, so people leaving jail would have more privacy. I doubt it. I wonder if the crying woman is thankful she does not have to face anyone during this. A man next to me is carrying a bag full of rolled white socks. I ask him what they are for, and he says they are for his brother. They didn’t let him take them to him, but they let him keep them. That doesn’t always happen, I guess.
This bus ride is more somber. Less crowded. There is much less anticipatory camaraderie. No pictures being passed around this time. The route is exactly the same as it was on the way to the jail. I sit close to the Veteran and I listen to his labored breath. His wheelchair allows him to recline, and he does so and closes his eyes. I wonder what the bus is like at 3 pm, when visitation hours end. The shocks on this bus are better than the first. The engine noise is always the same – loud. Loud enough to block out, for example, someone quietly crying.
When I get off the bus again downtown, a man is standing with his daughter, holding a pink foam crown that says happy birthday. The little girl is wearing a pink dress to match. I wonder if they will let him take the hat in to the visitation room. It seems to be for the little girl, so I hope they do.
-- September, 2007
I was staring at my bookshelf this morning, as I usually do in the early hours before I really open my eyes to the world outside of screens and lamp-lit rooms. This time, I was looking for a book. I had just read Margaret Atwood’s review of David Eggers’s new book The Circle, in which she determined that Eggers was writing about facebook, and this new social media world we live in, as a sort of prison. She situated Eggers’s new book within other literary prisons, of course Orwell’s 1984, but also Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim living in a glass cage always looked upon as an object, as an otherworldly animal by his alien captors. These types of prisons, she wrote, were all shot through with stares and machines, never hidden, maybe exalted, but always inescapable. Reading this, I had an inkling thought.
We anthropologists always talk, and talk and talk and talk, about Foucault’s panopticon, which as we know was actually Bentham’s idea first. You know, self governance by being watched and watching each other, all that jazz. It’s interesting, I thought, that even in a class I took called “Prison Nation Time” - taught by an academic who finds little value in Foucault and instead reads Bentham and Gramsci and Aristotle - even there we never really looked to any other written genre as a viable alternative to finding prisons, those cages in our literary midst.
We defined prison in an interesting way in that class, which I intend to mine for my dissertation - prison not as a “culture” or an “other” or even an actual place. Instead, we talked about prison as, for all intents and purposes, the abject requirement of the nation, the constitutive outside to the moral inside. It is, actually, not even distinguishable as “outside,” because for those who are locked up, getting out is never an option. Inside and outside, as a binary concept, is erased, while the deontology-as-necessary-for-ontology stays in tact. I haven’t yet figured out what neatly takes that analytic place, but I think it has something to do with folding up past and present, there and here, moral and immoral, into some kind of way more complicated thing.
So, OK, I thought. I have a penchant for Vonnegut, so when Atwood referenced him, I pulled down some of his books off the shelf. What about Vonnegut’s cages? He actually writes about this in Breakfast of Champions as well as Slaughterhouse. Vonnegut liked cages. Like this quote, about the bird in the gilded cage:
Then he thought about what Bill himself might want. It was easy to guess. “Bill,” he said, “I like you so much, and I am such a big shot in the Universe, that I will make your three biggest wishes come true.” He opened the door of the cage, something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.
Bill flew over to the windowsill. He put his little shoulder against the glass. there was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors. Although Trough was in the storm window business, he had no storm windows on his own abode.
“Your second wish is about to come true,” said Trout, and he again did something which Bill could never have done. he opened the window. But the opening of the window was such an alarming business to the parakeet that he flew back to his cage and hopped inside.
Trout closed the door of the cage and latched it. “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of,” he told the bird. “You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for—to get out of the cage.”
There’s this trope that just keeps emerging in Vonnegut, the see-through cage, the freedom that seems there (it’s glass and zoo-like, in Slaughterhouse Five) but never actually is. And then there’s the matter of time and space as it relates to being trapped in them. Vonnegut has some stuff to say about that, too. From Slaughterhouse:
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
The serenity prayer’s a nice touch, Vonnegut, especially when we’re talking about prison here. But anyway. I could find a million quotes from Orwell, too, or Atwood, or LeGuin, or Gibson, or TS Eliot, or Borges or….
The prison isn’t new. The prison industrial complex, in fact, isn’t new. Nor is the panopticon actually the way people in prison conceive of their experience (probably because the idea never took off, officials opting instead for entire islands as penal colonies), though of course governmentality is there, it haunts us all. I guess all I’m saying is that I want to look at prison not just as Foucault does, not just as anthropologists or academics do. I want to see it as glass, as gilded, as all-seeing, as past and present and future all rolled up into one. I want to look to fiction, because as Margaret Atwood says in her review,
Social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.
What happens when public becomes solitary, the prison becomes us, and we all become a little more monstrous?