I spent a lot of time today in tunnels. I have always loved tunnels. When I was very small, my extended family lived in Detroit, while my nuclear family lived in Buffalo, and we took the shortcut through Ontario to get from our house to my grandparents' east-side bungalow. We often left Buffalo in the evening, after my father came home from work, which meant we arrived on Cadieux Road right about the time the 11 o'clock news wrapped up and my grandparents started thinking about bedtime. As we drove westward through Ontario, I did a lot of sleeping. But I always woke up for the Windsor Tunnel, with its yellowy ceramic tiles. I don't remember much about the tunnel besides those tiles. I do remember that the first time I went through the Lincoln Tunnel, it plucked up my vague recollections of my first tunnel.
For the record, I am not a Freudian; I side with Nabokov on how to think about a child's love of tunnels and enclosed spaces. Because I'm away from my library, here at my parents' house with the family dog (asleep with her head on my foot, dreaming and stretching and sighing), I can't quote from Speak, Memory for you. (If it were possible to upload a handful of books to one's mind and thus be able to rattle them off effortlessly, I might choose Nabokov's revisited autobiography as one of mine. God knows it's already done its share of shaping the way my mind works.) But the scene I'm remembering, in case you want to remember it too, is the one where the young Vladimir (with a relative's help) creates a tunnel between the family's sofa and the wall and feels, when he crawls into it, as though he's crawled back to some primitive place in the human heart. Then he takes a potshot at the way Freud and his disciples (with their belief in "crankish embryos"--that, I think I remember correctly) would interpret this experience. Unfortunately--or perhaps fortuitously--I can't remember what it is that he does decide it means.
Though I hadn't planned it, writing about Nabokov's tunnel carries me along to another of my early tunnels, formed by a long series of four-person tables in the childcare area at Transit Lanes, the bowling alley where my mother league-bowled when I was young. While she played--and it knocks me down to think about how she was just about my age, now, when all this was happening--I hung out with the other three- or four-year-olds in this long room at the back of the alley, with a woman who, in my memory, wears a blue blouse and a small black bouffant, and whom I love. And one thing we did, sometimes, though I can't remember whether we were supposed to do it, was crawl under these long tables--think Joel Barish under the kitchen table in his memory--an undertaking made fascinating by the harlequin coat of chewed gum that covered the tables' undersides. I have a vague memory that we were allowed to race around under the tables on our hands and knees (though maybe only for a limited amount of time each day) but were strictly forbidden to play with the gum. I almost certainly wanted to spend all morning fingering those palpably bright colors.
Indeed, it's the juxtaposition of darkness and color, the quick switch from dim to bright, that makes me love tunnels. I suppose they let me pursue my love affair with speed and light in a particularly powerful way. (I believe I've illuminated that love of light here.) So you can imagine how much I loved today. For one thing, I got to leave the Academic Mayhem, thereby officially ending my fall semester, but also remembering what I figure out every year, which is that what looks as though it will stretch on long enough so that I can see everyone I know and have a cocktail (or two) with them, or eat lovely Thai noodles that take me back to Ithaca, or do the things for which I miss living in a city, or spend an adequate amount of time prowling through the stacks of new books that publishers have brought to the convention--well, this time that seems so long vanishes just as suddenly as it slams upon us. In fact, being at the Academic Mayhem is not at all unlike hurtling through a tunnel: you slam from your regular life into this startingly bounded and directed period of time, a time and place of close demarcation and relentless forward movement, and then suddenly you slam back into the light of the rest of the world for another year. The fact that the Mayhem ends on December 30 always leaves me feeling the old year kissing the new year hello, wearily, gratefully, a little wistfully.
But first there's always the last-day flurry: the last-minute breakfasts, coffees, lunches, embraces, confidences, promises, purchases, resolutions. And today's last-day flurry saw me scurrying off down the subway line with a badass friend, off for gastronomic delight in a bookshop cafe of note, before scurrying back for a lunchy confab (or, for me, a second experience with Cuban coffee) with a crazy goddess friend. And then scurrying back underground for the subway trip back to the airport. As the best of them do, this subway route shot us into a mid-afternoon sunlit river crossing, before we pushed back underground (yet again, for me) for the last few stations.
(The first time I visited my dear Brooklynite friend at her home, back in 2002, she told me to take the Q; there's still little I like more, as subway trips go, than the climb up into the light, after Canal Street, to the Manhattan Bridge. Even the T's red line as it crosses the Charles before plunging headlong into Kendall Square doesn't get me the way the Q does.)
Today's crossing was of an entirely serene variety. Sometime, perhaps I'll write up my thoughts on vertical and horizontal cities. Today I was leaving a horizontal city, the bridges low to the slow lapping river, the landmarks mostly holding fast to the line between land and sky. The most vertical experiences I had during the Mayhem, in fact, involved the titanic escalators that chug subway passengers in and out of stations, down to darkness and back up to light. Next time you think about Orpheus and Eurydice, particularly if you think Orpheus was a weak sap for having had to look back and make sure she was still there, imagine yourself leading a loved one onto those slow-soaring, high-scraping escalators in Porter Square, or King's Cross, or Dupont Circle (which is apparently the third-longest escalator in the world). And now imagine not being able to double-check that your loved one made it on with you and is hanging on to the railing and hasn't stumbled and will be with you when you reach the light. Just imagine it. You'd have lost her too.
The last tunnels I went echoing through today were jetways. On final approach, after the sun had gone down, we flew through snow (though on the ground it turned out to be rain) that came thick and fast and parallel to the plane. It streamed back the way I remember imagining my hair would during take-off, the time I flew to Detroit with my father when I was four. "Watch," I said to him (so excited, too, that I was getting to play hooky from nursery school). "When we go fast, my hair'll go fwooosh!" Picture my dramatic hand gestures, for full effect. My hair then was no longer than it is now, which is to say that it was short. And obviously I didn't grasp the vagaries of velocity. But I know what it was I wanted to be feeling, even if I couldn't have explained it then: that rush of air and light, that force and hurtle, that rocketing out of my regular world's rounds.
And now, home, the fatigue. I don't ever want it, but tonight it feels sweet, some darkness after the garish rush of the week. May the dog be my sleep muse.
sources for today's images: 1) ironically, CelebrateBoston.com; 2) publicity materials for The Lauren, a Condominium; 3) moi (please note, if you haven't already, that it's the same photo as on day one, just reversed).