catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


Sinking down

I don't intend to write about Kansas City. I just want to live there.

James Ellroy, Los Angeles native and Los Angeles crime writer, on taking up residence in Kansas City.

Why did he say "there?"  Why not "here?"  Why didn't Ellroy say, "I just want to live here?" It's probably simple. He probably just wasn't in Kansas City when he said "Kansas City," so he said it like it was someplace else. But it still seems wrong, seems off. The distance between "here" and "there" could be a mental sense of placement and maybe he used the word as a way to displace himself. Which was, in fact, the point of the move from Los Angeles to Kansas City. In L.A., Ellroy could feel the place, sense its crimes, know its murders, and it haunted him. In Kansas City, there was none of that. He didn't have to write about Kansas City, because he didn't have nightmares about it when he closed his eyes, because he could think of it as "there."

There: Peace.

Here: Place.

We say it like it's a religious thing—"sense of place." Like a "sense of place" comes with a sense of God, a reeling divine revelation and a harkening to the holy. "Sense of place" is the goal of agrarianism's farmer poets, new urbanism's city planners, environmentalism's dreamers and of tactile mystics everywhere. And everywhere it's supposed to be the solution to the malaise, the feeling of ennui and the lostness of the lost children of the modern world. We've lost and need to recapture, the idea goes, the way of living in a sense of "here." Here: not just buoyed along the concrete arteries, one way in the morning and the other in the evening, not just smothered over the top like a piece of tape stuck on skin, not just living there, but being in a place like a stain. We're supposed to soak in, so that the only form to be found is the form of the place. We're supposed to seep down.

But maybe that sense isn't always cause for a chorus of angels. Maybe it is, but that sense could also be the call of corpses, the psychosis of cops and crime writers.

Even if the sense is a good thing—recovering the grounding we've lost—it doesn't necessarily follow that it comes from good things. Maybe what we're missing, in our placeless places, isn't city planning, isn't quaint little shops, pedestrian paths, walkable neighborhoods and conservative communities. Maybe it's darker. Maybe it's memories of bad news. Maybe the sense of place comes along with a sense of where the blood has soaked in, comes along with the unforgettable sound of crying. Maybe the place-problem happened when we saved ourselves by displacing ourselves from those traumatic horrors, happened when our worlds were saran-wrapped, sanitized, soundproofed and made safe.

I've lived a lot of places. I've moved around a lot. That's the way it is in America, that's our uprooted heritage, especially in the West, and I'm as emblematic of that as anyone. So I've lived a lot of places, each for a little while.  Some of them I've lived in long enough to learn my way around, to know the histories feeding into the current situations, to know the way the community broke down and the way the sky breaks when it rains. I've lived some places long enough to know the way the economics shifted, over time, and the way the rivers shift, over seasons. But I've never lived anywhere like here. I've lived in a lot of places that looked like here, but I've never lived in a place like I've lived here. Not so I feel myself seeping down, soaking into the ground and getting from that abstract "place" to the concrete "here." I can see the map of this place, when I close my eyes, but more than that, there's also another map, a second map with red Xs marking murders.

I can see the homicide history map when I close my eyes: More than 60 murders since I've been here. More that I've mapped from looked-up history. More murders coming soon.

I live in this county as a crime writer. I work for the local paper, reporting on the cops and courts beat, following crime everywhere it breaks through the surface, everywhere it leaves a body, leaves blood, nightmares and tears. I came as the county reached a low low, and I wrote about it. Watching the way a stranger watches, with self-separation and a sense of imperviousness, I stood here while they carried the bodies out. I stood here while the bullet holes were counted and the shell casings were collected, categorized, and I came back, later, to measure and observe. I came to funerals and vigils like a professional mourner. I stood a little ways off, always the stranger.

I took notes. People cried. People prayed. I took notes. Mothers mourned for babies. Babies held memorial candles for mothers. I wrote about it.

I moved in easily, like a mercenary, like the casualties don't matter to me. I'll leave easily, too, walking away while the citizens and county officials and community organizations work to pull things together again. The place will improve. Housing prices will rise and fear will leave people's eyes, crime rates will stabilize and then decrease. Communities collapse. Communities revive. Crime writers move in.  Crime writers leave again.    

Professionally, there's a distance there. The notebook separates me from the scene, and the title of "crime writer" gives me a safe sheen of cynicism. It's as if I don't have to live in the place because I write about it.

It doesn't work that way though. Ask Ellroy why he left L.A. I'll leave, like I've left a lot of places, but unlike those other places, the sense of this place won't leave me. Whatever separation I have, whatever professional cynicism I maintain, all of it ends as I type and type and can't look away. Because I write about this place, the mental distance that could make "here" into "there," disappears. As I write, I'm sinking down. Now I sense this place, know its crimes, feel its murders, and am haunted by it. I dream of this place, and focus on it until I wake up, remembering fragments of a scene set here. Because I write about its crying and dyings, its unravelings, armed robberies, child rapes and homicides, I live here with a certain intensity that I've never had before. It places me.

I didn't have this sense when I was down in Philadelphia, or up at college in southern Michigan. I didn't have this when I was learning religion and work in Texas, or when I was rambling around the playgrounds and ball fields of California. I think the closest I've ever been to sensing a place before was this sort of vague…well. It was like trying to pick out fog's shape, or trying to see through melancholy to name what's wrong. I've had a sense of "home" before, but I've never had a firm sense of place. Here though, where safety has been stripped away, I have the sense so strong.

This knowledge, like all knowledge, comes with the revelation that this is what everyone was talking about and what I never understood. This knowledge, also, comes, as always, followed by the questions—is it better to know? Would I rather have not known?

We who praise "sense of place" talk about it being lost without acknowledging the fact that it wasn't lost entirely accidentally. It wasn't lost in bad faith, but we want to find it without wondering if it's good to have. If it is good to have, is it good enough to be worth the sacrifice? The dark and desperate dreams? The intimate acquaintance with funerals and images of death? Would we really want to be saved from our modern displacement, if it meant having to be placed within the call of corpses? Are we willing to sense our places, if they are human places, dark places?

It's a personal choice, depending, I suppose, on our capacity for hope born out of despair, our concepts of darkness and prayer. We can't fault those who prefer their places vague, who will keep their suburban cul-de-sacs, the safety of their private schools, and the distance of their neighbors. For me, though, I will keep this sense of place. I wouldn't want to disown these names of the murdered, wouldn't want to forget this sound of crying, wouldn't want to lose these nightmares.

I chose this place, with its very human depravity. I intend to write about it. I intend to live here.

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