Letter from Lancaster

By Erik Anderson

Much later that morning, as he moves southeast down Fairview, Subject remembers the opening of a video installation inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment, a book about surveillance told in long run-on sentences, one per chapter, sentences from which the reader can’t escape, that’s the point, and which had a glancing relationship to the network of cameras recording viewers as they passed through a series of rooms, their captured images cleverly remixed and projected throughout. The installation, Subject thought at the time, was like an elaborate hall of mirrors. The images might have been unflattering — in one he appeared to be picking his nose — but they were mostly mundane, alternately startling or amusing. The footage accumulated one megabyte after another, but the only narrative was the one that, as viewer and subject, he provided. Yet for days he considered walking through a second time as a kind of inverse Hester Prynne, placard around his neck: what if I have nothing to hide?

This is in part, he thinks, his privilege speaking — he is a straight, white man in his thirties — the same privilege that allows him, at 10:41 a.m., while heading south on College Avenue, to stop at the corner of James Street and photograph the camera mounted to the streetlight, and then, a few minutes later, at 10:45, to repeat the procedure at the corner of College and West Lemon, then again, at 10:47, at College and West Walnut. Subject muses mostly on privacy at first, but as the morning wears on he becomes interested in the illusion of it: how, in his short lifetime, privacy has degraded into a catchword. But then the city traffics in such illusions, none of which to his mind is more prominent, and more friable, than the appearance of order, that delicate balance between private desires and public concerns. The grid may impose this illusion on the chaos that accompanies and to some degree drives development — and the imposition may essentially take, most of the time — but what is surprising to him is that he should mourn the loss of something he never truly possessed, whether it’s privacy or order or the uneasy relations, made plain in public, between them.

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Figure 1: Socity.

Subject is sweating a little by the time he returns to view at 10:59, heading south at the corner of First and Crystal. He passes an overweight woman smoking a menthol and shouting obscenities at a neighbor on a nearby porch as the neighbor’s young daughter, no more than five or six, clings to her mother’s side. Subject pauses, confused both by the exchange and by the shifting angles of the streets, for while King and Queen run more or less according to the cardinal points, forming the x and y axes of the city, they break off at various angles, and in the asymmetrical gaps these divergences create, whole neighborhoods have sprung up over the course of the city’s history that obey their own internal sense of direction. He remembers well enough leaving the sprawling County Park on Strawberry Street one afternoon, for example, and taking a right onto Chesapeake, not knowing that where it curves in response to the Conestoga River it becomes Broad, the very street he was looking for. He reached Duke and, thinking it runs north and south, turned onto it, little knowing that on this stretch it runs northwest and southeast. And because Subject was already confused, he turned right instead of left, heading, without realizing it yet, in precisely the wrong direction.

Two minutes later, Subject is at the intersection of Third Street and Crystal, at the southeast corner of Rodney Park. The place has recently been remodeled, and as he moves west along Third he notices the bundle of curved steel bars at the opposite corner. He wonders whether each of Lancaster’s parks will be outfitted with these symbolic gateways, whether the city feels the need to underscore its spaces of exception, where the lives observed beyond their boundaries may be set aside, if only figuratively. But what if the exception itself is the problem, he thinks, or a manifestation of it, since we so often wear its necessity visibly — like a secret we’re dying to tell — as outward distress.

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Figure 2: Threshold.

Subject is now passing through a neighborhood called Cabbage Hill, so named for the German immigrants who settled there in the 19th century. The streets are densely packed with row houses and tiny treeless yards that give him the impression of an English mill town. Shirtless children ride their bikes through potholed alleys. Old women walk to or from errands as young men tinker with cars. Sunny patches alternate with shady ones, flat streets with sharp hills, industrious sorts with lumpens. Now and then the streets widen a little, or an empty lot opens out of nowhere. Suddenly Subject sees where he is in relation to, say, the Marriott that towers over downtown. Or else a long, descending street gives him a glimpse of the city as another place: San Francisco, he wants to say, but Baltimore is more accurate. Subject sees his share of posted notices warning of structures unfit for human habitation, and in some cases the justifications are visible from outside: porches falling apart at all angles, garbage strewn about the yards, grime and mold fogging the windows.

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Figure 3: Condemnation.

Some twenty-five minutes will pass before Subject reemerges into view, but he is spotted, at 11:11 a.m., by an officer entering his cruiser at the corner of St. Joseph and Fairview. Subject is doing nothing illegal, and yet he cannot but feel, in this neighborhood in particular, observed by the officer, as though by the city itself. His posture stiffens, and as he quickly moves on he remembers hearing it said that the East German secret police, the Stasi, were effective because people policed themselves. They believed they were being watched, and that’s all it took to rouse their self-censors. But as much as he may want, in response to his own inner watcher, to raise the lid on the self, to bridge the internalized divide between public and private, he has a low view of the kind of self-exposure, itself a form of indiscretion, perhaps, that appears to be all the rage. The show Girls, for example: there’s empowerment in it, he can see that, but he is sometimes bothered that the characters have nothing to do but fuck, not so much each other as the men who fail, again and again, to understand them. Subject does not like the idea that we are just our genitals, walking sex machines whose brains function mostly as crutches to carnal ends. But then maybe he doesn’t like the idea, he thinks, because he knows it’s true.

Subject then remembers a young woman in matching pearls troubled by the vulgarity (her word) of a book he’d assigned. Did she mean the sex? Subject asked. Yes, she blushed, the sex. The perceived depravity, he said, is as much figurative as actual. In her descriptions is another kind of laying bare, a separate state of undress, and when, as a writer, she submits her desire to our scrutiny, the power of its effect comes from the fact that she is wholly unabashed. Her fantasies are public, they are brash. And he admired that, he said. Some days later, the class was discussing a book by a second writer, a friend of his who also writes about her sex life but at a remove. Some of the encounters were regrettable, she admits, but instead of giving the details she flirts with her readers a little, performing the textual version of leaning over so you can see the tiny bow in the middle of her bra, as she describes doing in the book. She’s courting a man who will treat her like shit, not because of the way she courts him, but because of the man he is, selfish and incapable, also charming and cosmopolitan. The young woman who objected to the first book particularly liked the second, and though it might make him a hypocrite, given what he thinks of Girls, something prudish, if unsurprising, stood out in her privileging of palatable desires over more explicit ones. She preferred, he thought, the art of concealment, of modesty, of half-measures, even if such an art, in his opinion, holds too much back, is limited by its own decency, which has the effect of limiting readers as well.

We — but does it matter who we are? — pick him up again at the corner of New Dorwart and Fremont, heading northwest. It is now 11:27 a.m. and, though not particularly hot, the air is muggy, and Subject, wearing dark jeans and a T-shirt, is now sweating considerably. He continues to think of Lena Dunham, the star of Girls, as though the question of self-exposure were a civic one. He admires her willingness to abase herself, which is also her desire that we should see ourselves, as viewers, abased. But Subject suspects this is the wrong word. Dunham has another edge to her. It isn’t just exhibitionism, though there’s that too: it’s the wrinkles, hairs, and dimples that would otherwise be airbrushed out – in Sex and the City, say, which Girls both imitates and undermines. It’s not exactly that he admires her willingness to humiliate herself, but rather how she embraces the suppressed body, how she embraces, even if it’s a ploy, her humility. Because everywhere Subject turns there he is, or as Rilke wrote, “There is no place / that does not see you.” And then: “you must change your life.”

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Figure 4: No place.

He wants to find something out, it seems, to learn whether in foregoing safety and disavowing all secrets all things become possible. To dis-close, he thinks, staring up at the sixth camera he’s seen that morning, may be to enter the condition of being not-hidden, and if that requires unburdening oneself of one’s secrets, so be it. To be human is to be embarrassed. Or so he thinks, still safely cocooned in his privilege, as he crosses St. Joseph for the second time that morning, at 11:29 a.m. Four minutes later, however, when he crosses Manor Street and begins heading north on Old Dorwart, he remembers how, wanting to avoid the real or figurative pillory, he asked his class to write down a secret then to sit on it for an hour. In an alternate reality, he might have asked them to write their fantasies, sexual or otherwise, but in this one he couldn’t or didn’t want to. He remembers the mere presence of the secrets made them sheepish. They spoke less, more guardedly, and when the time came to write about their secrets, near the end of the class, many covered their pages with their hands. He asked for volunteers to read, and as there were none, he thought for a second, having also completed the exercise, that if he were to read his piece aloud students might open up and read theirs. But there was no way for him to do this, he realized. He was a coward, worried about reprimands from deans or even getting fired.

He remembers writing that day about the time at nine or ten when he was naked in his room and his brother stormed in, looking for something of his: how he slammed his door on his brother’s hand, how his brother shouted, how their mother came quickly up the stairs. Subject could hear her whispering outside his door, it’s totally normal, and it was, or might have been, but Subject understood normal was meant in a private sort of way. What did he feel then, he wonders, if not embarrassed, embarrassed that he had a body, that he was curious about that body, but that to be a body was somehow indelicate, uncivil, and even though Subject would like to say he outgrew this embarrassment, he suspects it merely changed forms, morphed into the posture he adopts when someone he doesn’t know or doesn’t like comes too close, seizing up then backing away, the same embarrassment he still sometimes feels in stepping up to a urinal, ashamed to stand there in plain view. But it is more than that, really — ashamed of having to urinate in the first place, ashamed of being a body, of being seen as a body.

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Figure 5: Graphology as metaphor.

Soon Subject finds himself in the small, crumbling cemetery downtown where one of Lancaster’s native sons, Thaddeus Stevens — memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — is buried. Stevens was a Republican of a sort they don’t make much anymore, a fiery opponent of slavery and discrimination and an outspoken advocate for free public education. In nearly every portrait the corners of his mouth appear as though etched downward at sharp angles. He does not look like a guy you would want to tangle with verbally or otherwise, and by all accounts he was a fearsome opponent. That a period follows his name, Subject thinks, is probably a graphological quirk of the time, but it also somehow reflects the man’s mouth. End of discussion, it seems to say. Or, perhaps: you must change your life.

This is the scene in the film, Subject thinks in front of Stevens’ grave, where he stands at an abyss, taking in the physical scale of the steep rock faces, the depth of the chasm. The music is somehow both triumphant and melancholy; one quality even seems to derive from the other, though standing there in the cemetery he can’t quite parse out which is which. But no, he then thinks, I’m not in the scene at all, or rather so briefly that I might as well not be. What remains is the view of my absence, and what story, public or private, does it tell? The hours upon hours of empty frames, the watchers secluded in their (that is, in our) cubicles: we are mirrors awaiting reflections, he thinks, narratives awaiting expression.

It is August 22, 2014, a Friday under mostly cloudy skies, and exiting the grounds on West Chestnut, Subject’s walk takes the shape in his mind, as seen from above, of an upside-down question mark. It does not surprise him in the least, this sudden apprehension, and yet how acutely he feels it then, like an insoluble equation: the desire to be seen, the need to run and hide.

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Erik Anderson is the author of a book of lyric essays, The Poetics of Trespass (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). Recent work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Seneca Review, Something on Paper, West Branch, and others. He teaches nonfiction writing at Franklin & Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival.