BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there was and there was not…
There was nothing but sand here. Now, a picture-perfect 21st century metropolis stands tall with pride. Highrises of steel and glass, cemented with the sweat and blood of foreign workers, stab the clouds to reach the gods. They pierce and punch the Maker, challenging her dominion over mankind and its destiny.
Where there were dunes of sand long before humanoids traversed this shallow, now reclaimed seabed, there are now swaths of hyper-development and buildings on illegal steroids. All those commutes in solitary gas-guzzlers out west is how these towers were built, how these cities were birthed.
This isn’t Manhattan; it would never strive for that type of mediocrity or excellence. New York is too real, too historic, too known, too worn and too weak to compete with these new economic dynamics. Here is an Elysian vision, one perhaps only a Hollywood miniature set builder would dare create, a reality only a visionary like Steven Spielberg would bring to life and only in a utopian film like “Minority Report.”
Somewhere east of the east, halfway up neon-clad, modern-day pyramids scraping the sky, sits idle a state-of-the-art gymnasium that seldom sees anyone sweat. And this is where you find him, fully clothed, reclined in the dry sauna with the heaters off, sleeping with the door of the small wooden box wide open.
You get on a high-tech treadmill and start your semi-virtual walk. You swipe your smart phone to listen to the latest smart NPR podcast and stare out at the architectural marvels of glass and steel, the New World.
Merely a minute or two into your semi-virtual walk, even before the long list of various sponsorships and NPR funders are pronounced, you jump off the treadmill and decide your role at this moment should be that of a biblical good Samaritan.
Sir, are you okay, you ask.
He is bald, perhaps a shaved head, wearing lycra workout clothing. His feet are bare, and his head is propped up on a rolled towel.
Sir, are you alright, you ask again, in fear the man may have passed out. He comes to and says he is just resting, that he has been training for a triathlon. He thanks you and leaves the sauna and the gym.
Days passed as the drivers from Kerala zip you in and out of congested roadways with drivers who speak no one common tongue of driving technique.
Houthis advance to take more real estate in Yemen, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters battle Syrian rebels to enter the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Iraqi government forces battle insurgents to take Tikrit, a white cop in the U.S. shoots an unarmed black man in the back and a Kamikaze copilot with a history of depression pulverizes his passengers and his plane in the French Alps.
A week passes as you pass through buildings whose architectural foot and fingerprints no other civilization has previously afforded to construct and no civilization before or hereafter would or could keep lit. Tens of thousands pass through this desert, to earn a living, wire money back to their villages and towns, to their needy home countries, laboring for months and striving for what others in the world often have without effort.
In these marvels of geometry, design and physics, where only a guard or housekeepers enter and exit, the owners leave the lights on for the world to see and as a beacon for them to come to the new center of the new world.
You decide you need to work out the weight and sheer madness of the world on weight machines. And there you find the sleeping man again, again in the sauna, door open, heaters off, and he is asleep.
Is he a guest at your hotel? Is he a security guard? Is he an employee sleeping on the job?
You’re curious, and you’re bored, so you strike up another conversation. You have to know the context of his situation.
Where’s your patch, you say, echoing the bullying tone used by expats from Britain, who still psychologically reside in their colonial, supremacist past. Your tone doesn’t sound right. You sound like the Brits barking at the Aussies, at the Indians, at the Nepalese. Barking, berating.
He looks at you like a deer in headlights, as if he’s about to be punched.
Los Angeles, he says, but Armenia originally, he mumbles, trying to separate himself from the U.S. of A, that scarlet A-word, the West.
Armenia, you repeat. You would’ve never pegged him for one from your tribe. He’s nordic, slender, not the stereotype, has blue eyes and no trace of a beard.
Really, you say. You tell him you are Armenian as well.
We left after the earthquake, he says.
What brings you to this part of the world, you ask.
He tells his story of teaming up with other visionaries in architecture to conspire against mother nature, to bring snow and a ski slope to shopping centers in the deserts of Arabia, to build navigable canals for gondolas inside great malls of commerce, to design fountains whose reach overshadow the architectural marvels of the old world, Freedom Tower, the West.
You’re an architect, you say.
He had drawn lines, matching adjacent surfaces and connecting parallel planes, and it had all been fueled by the trauma of 1988. He had been in one of those collapsible, poorly constructed Soviet apartment buildings in Gyumri.
The walls had toppled down on his mother and him.
She’d kept him home because he had a cold, and there he was, sitting at the kitchen table, drawing buildings, his mother cooking, and the earth roared and tried to swallow them. His mother and he had walked right out their front door and to a park nearby.
Tens of thousands didn’t get out, and their world had collapsed.
He later moved to Southern California, studied, began building, climbing up the ladder, married then divorced. He needed more money than ever before, so he signed up for greater career challenges and risks.
Now, his wife spent her time teaching Flamenco dance in the Valley, and his college-sons didn’t have time to entertain their dear ol’ dad on Skype or the phone. They just needed money.
His world has collapsed again.
* * *
The headlights must’ve come suddenly; the kitty didn’t know what hit her in a concrete canyon between 100-story residential towers near the biggest mall in the world.
Her eyelids swell instantly, and she can’t see. The pain in her body is so intense, her muscles begin to spasm.
She begins to regurgitate. Blood pours out of her mouth. Chunks of red meat — perhaps food she had eaten, perhaps parts of her intestines — color the crossing lane red.
She screams in pain, vocalizing her stunned and shocking situation. She screams at the injustice.
What was happening? Make the pain stop, she seems to be saying.
Her paws are buckled inwards, perhaps cramping, curled in against their usual curve. She stumbles sideways, backwards, makes a circle, doughy, lumpy, limping.
You run toward her, ask your friend Shafiq, what can we do?
The car that hit her has long gone, and there stand two helpless men and a cat, all in utter disorientation.
You run to the door of the highrise nearby, demand the security guards of iDiplomat bring you something to scoop up the kitty with. Bring water, you say. Call for help.
The guards bring an empty box (a coffin?), and you use it to scoop up the kitty, so she won’t remain in the middle of the street and be hit again.
You find him asleep in the sauna three days later at one in the morning.
You’ve finished a marathon shift and want to run a bit, but he’s there, the constant presence in the gym, asleep, making your life awkward. But this isn’t about you, you remind yourself.
You don’t have a place to stay, do you, you say.
You’re going with your gut feeling. This man is homeless.
He tries to deny it but realizes your question may be out of compassion and not malice.
Yes, he says, he had come for a lucrative contract. His bosses had not been forthcoming. He had started drinking again. He had been fired. Creative differences, he says.
He owed money now. He couldn’t get an exit visa. He couldn’t work for anyone else per his business visa. He had lost his car. He had lost his apartment. He had nowhere to go. He was a citizen of nowhere, a man in purgatory, an architect in a box, a sauna.
He had survived life in shipping containers in Gyumri. His family had called the metal boxes home for several years, and he was perhaps seeking the same safety he felt in them by hiding out in a wooden box, the sauna at the gym.
He says he strolls through the hotel lobby as if he were a guest, and no one would dare question the white man with blue eyes. The gym is never locked, he says, and when there are people using it, he walks aimlessly for hours through the malls, looking at a United Nations of races spending dollars like it was Monopoly money.
He can’t understand the human condition, he says. He finds life doesn’t fit any mathematical or geometric algorithms or patterns. The contradictions are too much: the abstractions, man’s material needs, the drive to build, the want to destroy, to confine, to enslave, to box people up, limit one another, to conquer, to spend, stand out, to make a name for oneself, be somebody…
Genocide, social media, wars, the Age of Narcissism, killer quakes, nuclear disasters, empires built, dismantled, oligarchs, Ebola, pollution, space alien abductions, global warming. He doesn’t get it, he says.
His grandfather had lost his entire family during the Meds Yeghern. He had been brought to Alexandropol, the “orphan city,” where he would be killed seven decades later, in an old age home, by an earthquake.
And then we all end up in a box, he says pointing to the sauna. He knows the irony of him being the architect in this box, starting out in a boxed crib and eventually ending up in another box, a wooden coffin in the ground.
Is all this the only vision we can have for the human condition in the new future, he asks? Is this how we want mankind to flourish and evolve?
He remembers a verse from Ecclesiastes: have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. Life, for him, was like chasing after the wind.
What was the whole point of this non-stop drive for men to be gods on earth, to taunt God with his sparkling edifices, reclaiming the sea, conquering the stars, and not caring for the well-being of the billions of others in their own humankind?
You don’t know, you say.
The day melt into the nights, and the 120 degrees outside melt everything from asphalt to minds. You get on the treadmill like a dumbbell of dead weight and start walking with nowhere to go.
You swipe your iPhone to listen to your podcast and stare out to a city under construction, in a world that’s only two sentences and three steps away from a modern Babylon, a dystopian paradise.
It’s been a week since you’ve been to the gym, because what’s the point? You step outside, and you sweat. You step inside and signs, vision, facts, agendas and media content overwhelm you. It’s all banal. But you’re curious about the sleeping man, and he’s not here tonight.
He’s not there the following week or the following month. You wonder, is he ok?
You Google search him. You’d been a good reporter weeks ago and asked leading questioned. You had looked up his former employer’s site and even found his published architectural schematics. This time around, you find his name in the local crime blotter. It says a man with his surname, 52, was arrested for disturbing the peace and grand theft.
You’re drenched in a cold sweat. You’re the kitty in the street. We’re all kitties on the street. We’re all Hrant Dink. We’re all the architect. Struck, paralyzed. Incensed. Silenced. Wanting the Kardashian world, but shot in the back. We are powerless among the wheelers and dealers. We are starving at the buffets set for the visionaries, the rulers of men. We’re all boxed up, arrested, handcuffed, jailed.
You Google search for the verses the nordic architect had quoted from the Bible: Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
And three apples fall from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.