Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Eagle over the Alaska Highway


She comes into the Starbucks every morning between 9 and 10. Never dressed for a job at an office or a restaurant or a store. (Today: a maroon denim miniskirt, a tattoo-print T-shirt although her skin is bare of ink, four-year-old Skechers sandals.) Not harried and checking the time on her cell phone like the other people on their way into work and dreading the traffic. Orders the same frozen blended coffee drink ("Same as always?" the cashier or barista says; "Yes, please"). Picks up the topmost copy of The New York Times from the newspaper rack. (Always the liberal mainstay The New York Times, never the more conservative and business-oriented Wall Street Journal, never even the hometown Washington Post, and definitely never the lowest-common-denominator and color-graphic-happy USA Today.)

Sits at a table alone and reads the paper somewhat systematically, all of the front page, first the local weather blurb in the upper-right corner, then the main photo and its caption, then the stories, left to right, top to bottom. Sometimes unfolds and pages ahead to the to-be-continued break on an inconvenient inner page, realizing this gesture propels her from the category of more casual news-skimmer to more serious news-processor. Skims the front of the Arts section for stray book reviews not being held for the more prestigious book-review newsprint magazine in the Sunday edition. Occasionally taps mini notes to herself on an iPod Touch encased in a protective red-jelly shell.

She is obviously unemployed, or at best under-employed. Walks in with a thick library book -- telltale plastic wrapping around its hard cover -- that she usually sets down to stake her claim on a table if the line is long (if not a table by one of the leather armchairs in an alcove full of windows, then the one way at the back near the restrooms; if not comfort, then privacy). Never pays for the paper -- always puts it back when she's done, taking care not to unduly crease it as she's reading -- but savors it slow, furrowed brow, takes an hour or so to digest it, reviews it with a lingering glance across the front page when she's done.

She gets up and puts on a canvas hat with a brim and aviator-style sunglasses, because she's walked a mile or so over here in the sun or the rain or whatever weather that the blurb in the upper-right corner of the newspaper either has or hasn't gotten right; no rush, reading her big book as she goes. She reads on her way home, not caring that the cars stopped at the crosswalk can see her lips moving, because she likes to whisper the words aloud, likes to hear them as well as see them. (Is she a crazy lady already? Does that happen to a person so gradually that it escapes her notice, as she acclimates to what just feels like a new kind of normal?)

On the iPod Touch are reminders of the things she has learned from the paper today, that she might not have learned were she fully employed:

-There is a garbageman in New York City who has made a museum out of treasures he has rescued from the trash.
-At the University of Virginia there is something called the Rare Book School that basically houses pornography for librarians and librarian aspirants, of which she knows several and is in a relationship with one.
-Out of Serbia there recently came a movie about a homosexual veterinarian and his former-paramilitary friend traveling across the former Yugoslavia in a pink Mini to enlist war veterans as security guards for a gay parade.
-The Alaska Highway, which runs from British Columbia through the Yukon Territory and up to Fairbanks, built in haste under orders from FDR during World War II to keep the Japanese from encroaching, is crumbling because the so-called permafrost underneath is melting.

She wants to drive the length of the Alaska Highway, to leave this East Coast suburb behind and go toward the jagged mountains and the pine trees, into the effacing space. She wants to go to the Burnt Toast Cafe in the Yukon, and see a lone bison grazing by the side of the road and an eagle flying in a sky empty of the past, or empty of her past at least.

This is partly why she has not planted roots here: home, job, family. Part of her still wants to follow that eagle forever.

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